Thursday, February 27, 2014

Jewish Leader: It's not about you

What does it take to be a Jewish leader? I've recorded different ideas on the topic over the years, including this blog post (Rabbinic Leadership), this one (Rabbi as Leader and Manager) and this one (You can be right and dead at the same time). But in a discussion at a Yehoshua class yesterday, I was reminded of another facet of Jewish leadership.

In the first chapter of Yehoshua (1:2), G-d tells Yehoshua that He is going to give the land of Israel "to them, to the Children of Israel". There is a redundancy here. What is added by saying both, "to them"; and "to the Children of Israel"? Don Isaac Abarbanel explains that G-d is telling Yehoshua that He is giving Israel to the nation, not its leader. Leaders come and leaders go, and the nation is the essential thing.

In the same chapter (1:17), the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Menasheh pledge loyalty to Yehoshua, but they warn him that they will listen, "only as long as G-d is with you, as He was with Moshe." In other words: We will follow you not because of your personality and identity, but because G-d is with you.

G-d supports the leader only for the sake of the nation. The nation supports the leader only for the sake of G-d. Yehoshua, and any Jewish leader, must understand this key point: It's not about you. The task of the Jewish leader is to enable the Divine summons to inspire each individual Jew, and to enable each individual Jew to respond, to rise, and to shine. The leader who accomplishes both of these things - neither of which is simple! - is a success.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ethics of Palliative Sedation

Recently, I was asked about the ethics of palliative sedation (also known as "terminal sedation").

This is separate from palliative care, and the problems of hospice. For the purpose of this question, we are talking about sedating someone to the point of unconsciousness for the duration of their lives, because of great pain. Death is still weeks away, but doctors are not able to alleviate suffering without inducing unconsciousness.

On the one hand, one is fulfilling the mandate of relieving a person's pain; for more on that mandate, see Rabbi J. David Bleich's 2002 Tradition article, Palliation of Pain. 

On the other hand, the idea of putting someone into a permanent unconscious state seems a lot like killing them.

I haven't been able to find much in halachic literature, but I did find an interesting response from Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Halperin, one of the leading authorities in Medical Halachah in Israel. The original Hebrew is here; my translation is below:


I wish to receive counsel and guidance regarding my 91-year old mother, who has fractures all along her spine due to osteoporosis. Recently she fell and was bounced around, and since then she has experienced great pains.

The advice of the doctors is to sedate her, to prevent pain. According to the doctors she will not return to walking, or to moving her lower body. She can move her arms lightly. However, she is still lucid.

The question: May one go along with the doctor's advice and introduce her into sedation to prevent pain? I understand that this sedation would become a permanent state for the rest of her life.

I would appreciate it if you could respond by telephone. Thank you in advance.


The discussion is of a lucid woman. Therefore, this depends exclusively upon her desire, and one should ask her directly.

What do you think? And can you provide supporting sources?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Why the Bar Ilan Responsa Project can be bad for the Jews

In his recent article on the decision by certain rabbis to rule on complex issues rather than consult senior scholars, Rabbi Hershel Schachter condemned those who use searchable databases like Otzar haChochmah and the Bar Ilan Responsa Project in order to research topics and then think themselves experts.

To this some have responded that these searchable databases constitute a democratization of information which elevates more people to the level of being able to decide halachic matters.

The response is flawed by a fundamental error: mistaking learning-via-search for true knowledge handicaps the learning process and produces inferior results both in the particular researched topic and in one's broader Torah learning.

Full disclosure: I believe I was the first person, back in 1995, to create a free Internet-based tool which would enable people to search and find Torah sources they wanted – that was my WebShas (which I still hope to return to, and complete, someday...) I strongly believe it is important to create such tools and raise the general level of Torah learning. However, those who learn with such tools should never delude themselves into thinking that they are accomplishing true scholarship.

The scholarship needed to decide serious halachic matters requires that one find the sources not by searching for keywords (or by reading summaries in publications like the Journal of Halachah and Contemporary Society or Techumin, a practice which presents a related problem), but by learning, analyzing, absorbing and memorizing large amounts of primary text, and then bringing it to bear on these halachic matters as they come up.

Here are just a few reasons why searching Torah databases produces only the illusion of scholarship, and an inferior halachic analysis of any given topic:

Inferior Breadth of Knowledge
You only find what you set out to find. Rav Amital z"l of Gush Etzion is reported to have said that he learned the most from the pages before and after that which he sought when he opened a given text. I can say the same from my own narrow experience. If all you want is to read a responsum that mentions nashim and tefillin within 20 words of each other, then you will not see the preceding responsum - and if it lacks interesting keywords then it will be forever missing from your repertoire.

This is a particular problem when approaching meta-issues in psak. Many of the most pressing halachic issues of today require an understanding of themes like hefsed merubeh (great loss), she'at hadchak and broader klalei hapsak. But the major sources addressing these themes don't necessarily make reference to popular cases with attractive keywords; some of the best sources on hefsed merubeh deal with arcane matters of purity and impurity. And don't tell me you will search for the words hefsed merubeh - someone who is relying on search for his knowledge isn't going to read through the thousands of results he will find. (More on that under "Inferior Drive" below.)

Further: Reliance on searchable databases encourages people to study by topic, and so they rarely learn an entire sefer. Instead, they search for items related to the topics they want, and just study those. The result is a terrible poverty of true knowledge, and an inadequate basis for approaching new subjects.

And one more note in this category: Those who learn by search are at the mercy of the publishers. Of course, all of us are at the mercy of publishers; I am more apt to use a source on a source sheet if I can find it in a cut-and-paste text on And I learn Tosafos before I learn Rosh, because printers put that collection of Tosafos on the page of gemara. But if you rely on search not just for crafting a source sheet, but for your primary research, then all you have is whatever the publisher had on hand.

Inferior Comprehension
When I read a responsum from a writer whose broader work I do not know, I miss out on the meaning invested in the writer's choice of words and selection of sources. I can only compensate for this by learning more of the writer's work, to gain a greater familiarity and therefore a greater understanding. If all I know is the one piece that showed up in my search, then I really don't understand what the writer was getting at, and how it fits into a greater worldview.

Inferior Memory/Retention
Doing a search to find phrases involves less struggle. As scientists have been saying for years, information is retained better if it is processed in multiple ways; without struggle, little processing is needed. And if it's not retained, then you don't have a broad range of information in your head with which to make associations (see "Inferior Depth" below), or catch your own mistakes.

Further: When you find items by database search, you don't need to memorize them, because you can just find them again by searching; it's like GPS vs. directions, or Speed Dial vs. a phone book.

Inferior Drive
In an ideal world, everyone would have sufficient time to research topics in great depth, and to work at the text for however long was necessary in order to gain full understanding. Unfortunately, few of us set aside the time we really need to do things well, for we are greedy in our ambition to forever accomplish "more", and so we give on accomplishing "well". The result is that we take short cuts – and the searchable database is the shortest cut of all, and it is habit-forming. Once people become accustomed to relying on searches, they find it very difficult to do things right, from the ground up.

Inferior Depth
Using database searches means you don't need to analyze and study with depth and creativity in order to find new ideas and make new analogies. You may become an artificial Sinai, but you will lack the depth of understanding to make novel and necessary associations between sources that don't lend themselves to keyword searches.

This is the oker harim phenomenon which I have seen some mis-translate as being about "explaining sources and logic". A true oker harim finds the analogies that help us deal with new issues when they emerge – and this is the mark of a true posek. People whose knowledge of a subject comes from superficial searching will never have it.

There is more to be said, but I'll stop here for now.

Monday, February 17, 2014

YU made me who I am today

The other day, I had a conversation with someone about all of the great Torah options available in Toronto for university students. That person wasn't wrong; our own Beit Midrash offers a very flexible "Chaverim" opportunity for students to fit in learning around their university studies, and other, more structured options are available around Toronto as well. More than a dozen university students spend significant hours in our Beit Midrash each week, and I am regularly impressed by the way they make time and design their schedules around learning.

Nonetheless, no part-time program built around a university schedule can compare with the Torah opportunities at Yeshiva University in New York – and while that sentence won't surprise anyone who went to YU, I want to take a minute to spell it out further, because I don't know that I have ever thought through fully the ways in which YU is responsible for the Torah I learn and teach today.

First, in terms of the educational experience:
  • The Mazer Yeshiva Program required a daily morning seder of study from 9 AM to 12 PM, followed by shiur from 12:45 PM to 2:30 PM. Having this schedule, every day, regardless of midterms and papers, trumps any part-time learning program I can imagine – and that's before the night seder which was voluntary, but which was taken as normal.
  • I studied under true talmidei chachamim every day, so that I had the opportunity to learn their Torah as well as see how they conducted themselves.
  • The Beis Medrash, augmented by the Gottesman Library, has a collection of sefarim superior in scope and depth to most batei medrash.

Second, in terms of the community of learning:
  • There were hundreds upon hundreds of us. People point out that in such a large group of students it's easy to become lost, but it is also true that in such a large group you are apt to find some truly outstanding minds, who can help you learn and who can serve as role models. I was fortunate to find excellent role models.
  • The sheer number of people learning creates an atmosphere which is inspirational, motivating greater diligence.

Third, in terms of the future it gave me:
  • Being in YU, I was able to build connections with rebbeim I would feel comfortable contacting years later when I had questions.
  • I was not a social person, at all; I am hard-pressed to remember more than a dozen or so names from my shiur. And yet, somehow, wherever I go, I meet people who were classmates of mine, or who knew me, and I have an instant YU network.

But perhaps most of all, the advantage I gained at YU was in the expectations that I came to set for myself:
  • Because of the tools: When your rebbeim are top of the line, and your beis medrash is top of the line, and you have all of this time given to you, then you expect yourself to truly accomplish.
  • Because of the community: When you are one of several hundred who are learning for five hours each morning/afternoon, as well as night seder, then your expectations are high, because they are calibrated based on the people around you.

When I was in college, I was not terribly self-aware, so that I didn't consciously set expectations of look for role models. Nonetheless, I somehow found them without knowing it, and long after I left YU they stayed with me, demanding that I do more.

I know well that enrolling at YU doesn't mean that all of these benefits will accrue automatically; you do need to be self-motivated in order to really take advantage of the opportunities that YU offers. And in truth, my experience in Kerem b'Yavneh was at least as strong an influence for me; I was in YU for a year before I went to Kerem b'Yavneh, and there is no comparison between what I did before and what I did after.

But having said that, I still conclude this: I could have gone to another university and made time for Torah when I wasn't in class, and I wouldn't have done half-badly. But there isn't a chance that I would have had the life I've had since then. In a very real sense, YU made me who I am today.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Happy Birthday, Chief Rabbinate!

The 93rd anniversary of the establishment of the modern Israeli Chief Rabbinate is this coming Sunday, the 16th of Adar Rishon.

Long before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish community in then-Palestine was represented before the Ottoman Empire by the Chacham Bashi at first, and then later by the Rishon l'Tzion, Sephardic rabbis. When the British Mandate began, High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel faced complaints by Ashkenazi Jews who wanted each community to have its own leadership and representation. Samuel's response [at the suggestion of Yehuda Leib Maimon, and working with Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook and British Mandate Secretary of Justice Norman Bentwich] was to create a Chief Rabbinate comprised of an Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and a Sephardic Chief Rabbi, who headed a rabbinic council with an adjunct lay council. Further, some communities opted out, because they did not accept the religious leadership of the Chief Rabbinate. That system, with some changes, was grandfathered into the State of Israel under Prime Minister Ben-Gurion.

I think about this history when I hear the complaints voiced regarding Israel's current Chief Rabbinate, over issues from conversion to heter mechirah to certifying Jewishness to customer service to representation of different parts of the religious community. The institution was not created as an ideal government for a nation's religious needs; it was a band-aid barely covering serious community fractures.

It's just a dream, but wouldn't it be wonderful if there could be a re-imagining of the position, to strip away the elements that came from Jew vs. Jew strife and replace them with the elements needed to inspire a nation

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

They stab their rabbis

[I've been blogging, first on another blog and then here, since 2006. Between the two blogs, that's over 1500 posts. I can't remember ever calling out a particular person before. But I'm just too upset to let this one go.]

As we've already discussed here, a couple of Orthodox high schools now permit their female students to wear tefillin at school services. Last week, Rabbi Hershel Schachter published an article which focussed on the fact that the leaders of the school chose to address the relevant halachic questions themselves, rather than consult the halachic authorities they usually ask about weighty matters. Rabbi Schacter wrote sharply about the importance of consulting those who have greater knowledge.

I'd like to discuss the content of the matter eventually, but right now I am taken aback by a Twitter response by an Orthodox synagogue rabbi. He tweeted:

The shorter version of R. Herschel Schacter's missive (it's not a 'teshuvah') is that the greatest sin a Jew can do is disagree with him.

After this blatant mischaracterization of Rabbi Schacter's article, the tweeter did follow up with a post on his blog explaining his disagreement with the content of Rabbi Schachter's piece. But my point isn't to discuss his disagreement. My point is to discuss the way he launched it.

What's eyebrow-raising to me is the cavalier treatment of a leader, whether you agree with him or not. There is no sobriety, no maturity, no sense of respect at all.

I am reminded of a talmudic passage (Gittin 56a)  recording an event from the Roman siege of Jerusalem, leading up to the destruction of the second Beit haMikdash. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai wished to surrender to Rome, and others disagreed powerfully enough that they were willing to burn down Jerusalem's storehouses of food, to compel militant revolt. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai conspired with an insider to have himself transported out of Jerusalem, under the pretense that he was dead:

עביד הכי, נכנס בו רבי אליעזר מצד אחד ורבי יהושע מצד אחר, כי מטו לפיתחא בעו למדקריה, אמר להו: יאמרו רבן דקרו! בעו למדחפיה, אמר להו: יאמרו רבן דחפו! פתחו ליה בבא, נפק.

He did this, and Rabbi Eliezer escorted him on one side, and Rabbi Yehoshua on the other. When they reached the city gate, the zealots wished to stab him [to ensure that he was dead, and not conspiring with the Romans]. The escort said to them, "They will say that the Jews stab their rabbis!" They wished to shove his body. The escort said to them, "They will say that the Jews shove their rabbis!" They opened the gate for him, and he escaped.

The zealots had a murderous hatred for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and all he represented, but the zealots understood something that this tweeter misses. You can disagree with someone, but if thousands of Jews follow him, then he has status, whether you like it or not. And to stab him or shove him says a great deal about how you view not just the leader, but your fellow Jews. That's what the zealots didn't want the Romans to see.

My point is not to say that this rabbinic tweeter should agree with Rabbi Schacter; if he has an opinion and he can cite halachic sources to support it, let him do so. But let him do so in a way that doesn't demonstrate such disrespect toward the Rabbi, and toward the thousands who do agree with him.

It's too bad that this tweeter doesn't get it; his followers now know that he will stab a Jewish leader, just because he disagrees with him.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It's a bird!

Last week I received one of the best birthday presents of my life: My Rebbetzin bought me a bird!

I grew up with a cockatiel; it's still alive after more than 30 years, believe it or not, although not in my family anymore:

Our family also had many tanks of fish, as well as lizards and turtles and guinea pigs and a boa constrictor. But our Thornhill rental doesn't have a lot of space for creatures beyond us six homo sapiens, and I was sure I wasn't going to be able to have another pet. And then, out of nowhere, my Rebbetzin surprised me with this cute yellow budgie. Unbelievable. She knows me so well.

I was going to solicit names here, but then one came to mind: Zimmer, for the brilliant Jewish composer of the music for the Dark Knight trilogy. And, of course, Zimmer-זמר-song, so it all makes sense.

I have a bird!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Rambam Paradox: The Woman's Role

1. I don't like the whole "woman's role" or "women in Judaism" terminology, for reasons that should become clear below. I'm just using it for convenience, because people know what it means.
2. The following is not a true paradox; like "woman's role", "paradox" is just a convenient term.

So here's my "paradox": The Rambam opened the door for the whole idea of a "woman's role", but I think he didn't believe that there was such a thing.

One hand:
The Rambam is famous for promoting the idea of taamei hamitzvos, that we are meant to decipher a Divine Will behind the instructions Gd gave us. True, we won't comprehend everything, and failure to comprehend should not translate into failure to observe [see Hilchos Meilah 8:8], but we are meant to investigate mitzvos and discover Divine intent and philosophy behind them.

So it is that Kashrut may not be a set of disparate dietary laws, but a guide to healthy eating, or a unique diet setting us apart from the nations.

So it is that the laws of male haircuts may not be a set of grooming rules, but a way to distinguish ourselves from Egyptian priests.

And so it is that we look at a woman's exemption/exclusion from various duties, and deduce a greater philosophical picture of "How the Torah views women". It's an extension of the Rambam's approach to divining taamei hamitzvos.

The other hand:
The Talmud (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7) declares that women are exempt from time-bound duties, unless we have an opposing lesson for a particular duty. Most authorities seem to view this as a prescriptive rule; when considering a woman's obligation in particular mitzvah, I can ask, "Is this time-bound?" And if the answer is Yes, then I can assume that women are exempt.

This rule leads to a taamei hamitzvos-style question: Why is the woman exempt from time-bound duties? Is it because the Torah's view of women is that they are dedicated to family and therefore they need their time free? Is it because they don't need the rigorous scheduling and structure that men need? And so we craft ideas of a "woman's role".

But the Rambam discounted the whole idea that this is a prescriptive rule. As he explained in his commentary to this mishnah, there are many exceptions to this "rule", and it is actually not a rule at all, but only a convenient-but-incomplete way to describe a set of duties from which women are exempt. The Rambam rejects the whole idea that we are meant to connect women and time in some philosophical way – undermining the "woman's role" that others have described.

This is probably wishful thinking, but I'd like to believe that when the Rambam dynamited the "time-bound duties" concept, he was really dynamiting the idea of a "woman's role" altogether. I find the concept of "woman's role" to be of the unhealthiest breed of taamei hamitzvos, placing a false face on the Torah's laws based on whatever fad is current, and so demanding that people come up with new roles that fit better with our zeitgeist, regardless of how well or poorly those new roles fit actual Torah, or actual women.

Sometimes a mitzvah is just a mitzvah, an exemption or exclusion is just an exemption or exclusion, and there are no roles involved.

[And speaking of role-busting, I made this three-cheese baked ziti with spinach for the kids the other night, and it was very good. I recommend the recipe.]

Monday, February 3, 2014

Of Daughters and Tefillin

Each week, my Beit Midrash sends out an email advertising upcoming programs, and I generally include a note about something that's on my mind. This past week's note was on the "Women and Tefillin" conversation catalyzed by announcements about Orthodox schools Ramaz and SAR permitting female students to wear tefillin at school.

The gist of my note (full text here) was this: I don't believe women should wear tefillin, but I wonder what I would do if my daughter came to me, as a teenager, and said she intended to put on tefillin. The question is not whether she should wear tefillin, but whether I should try to stop her from wearing tefillin.

I asked the following questions, which relate to the parenting issue in different ways:
  • How much emphasis should religion place upon personal meaning, and how much upon prescribed ritual?
  • How do we preserve the holiness of our sacred objects?
  • Where does this fit into my relationship with my daughter?
  • If spirituality is "that which I find meaningful", is it still spirituality?
  • How important is it that we conform, if the price is religious meaning?
  • Might we gain by letting teenagers try outlying behaviour in a safe environment?
  • If I raise a child who practices halachah but without a personal connection to Torah, have I fulfilled my mission or committed a crime?

I heard from a few parents who said they would prohibit their daughters from wearing tefillin, and I thought this was remarkable.

There are so many areas in which parents of high schoolers say nothing: 
  • Boys on school vacation oversleep and miss minyan as well as zman krias shema [the latest time for Shema], a biblical commandment, and their parents say nothing. 
  • Boys go to movies and see unclothed women, violating a biblical prohibition [ונשמרת מכל דבר רע, per Igros Moshe Even haEzer 1:56], and their parents say nothing. 
  • Boys and girls hang out together and can be seen on their Facebook pages and Instagram accounts in each other's arms, violation of a biblical prohibition as well, and their parents say nothing.

Now a girl wants to put on tefillin, and the parents wake up?

Where do we draw our lines, as parents, in deciding when to speak up regarding our children's conduct? And why?