Thursday, August 27, 2015

Perfection and the Yamim Noraim

Way back when I was in the rabbinate, someone emailed me the description of the perfect rabbi:
The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.
You get the point: there's no such thing as a perfect rabbi, as much as there is a perfect teacher, lawyer, doctor or mother. Yet, ever since the first blast of the Shofar in shul last week, I've been thinking about perfectionism and the delicate balance between the dangers of perfectionism on one hand, and our concurrent need to strive for perfection.

Being a perfectionist can be extremely destructive. A perfectionist by definition is never happy. Because achieving perfection is literally impossible, one's work is never really good enough. Actually, it's never really good at all. And since it's not going to be "good" (i.e. perfect), often the perfectionist won't even bother starting a project or endeavor at all. After all, what's the point of working on something that you know will fail?

And yet, for all the dangers of perfectionism, that seems to be precisely the demand that Judaism places upon us during the Yamim Noraim. Rambam writes,
ומה היא התשובה--הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו, ויסירנו ממחשבתו ויגמור בליבו שלא יעשהו עוד, שנאמר "יעזוב רשע דרכו, ואיש אוון מחשבותיו" (ישעיהו נה,ז).  וכן יתנחם על שעבר, שנאמר "כי אחרי שובי, ניחמתי, ואחרי היוודעי, ספקתי על ירך" (ירמיהו לא,יח); ויעיד עליו יודע תעלומות שלא ישוב לזה החטא לעולם, שנאמר "ולא נאמר עוד אלוהינו, למעשה ידינו--אשר בך, ירוחם יתום" (הושע יד,ד).  וצריך להתוודות בשפתיו, ולומר עניינות אלו שגמר בליבו.  - הלכות תשובה ב', ג
What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again as [Isaiah 55:7] states "May the wicked abandon his ways...." Similarly, he must regret the past as [Jeremiah 31:18] states: "After I returned, I regretted." He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again as [Hoshea 14:4] states: "We will no longer say to the work of our hands: `You are our gods.'" He must verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart.
Each year, as I review these important halachot, I stop on that line from Rambam: He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again. Really? Never again? Can I really testify before God that I'll never revert to my past sins; that I'll never slip up? That I won't fall prey to my evil inclination, and commit a sin from my past?

Is not the obligation to "never return to this sin again" a demand for perfection? Never doesn't mean "try not to" or "promises not to" – it means never. Ever. Perfection.

Like many questions, I'm not sure that there's one good answer to this question. This year, I have come to understand that Rambam's formulation demanding a commitment to perfection represents a core aspect of Yamim Noraim that we, as imperfect beings, must confront at least once a year.

On Yom Kippur, the spiritual high point of the year, we emulate the angels. For one day, we eschew our physical selves; our hunger, sexuality, work and leisure, and spend this one day basking in the glory of God. We are, as much as we can possibly be, spiritual. At the same time, we recognize that this yearning is impossible.

That, in a nutshell, is the human condition: the desire for perfection, combined with the knowledge that it is something we will never achieve. During the rest of the year, we take refuge in our humanity, excusing our mistakes and shortcomings. But for one day, we expect perfection of ourselves, and that expectation propels us to improve, repent, return and transform ourselves into better, more perfect people.

There's a famous custom mentioned by the Rema (Orech Chayyim 583:2):
יש המדקדקים שלא לאכול אגוזים שאגוז בגימטריא חטא
There are those who are meticulous not to eat nuts [on Rosh Hashanah] for the gematria (numerical equivalent) of (the Hebrew word) "egoz" (nut) equals "cheit" (sin).
There's only one problem with this custom – or at least the explanation for it: the math is off. The words are not equal. Egoz (אגוז) is 1+3+6+7=17. Cheit (חטא) is 8+9+1=18. They're not even equal to each other!

Maybe that's precisely the point. Sin represents the definition of imperfection. Through our shortcomings, we demonstrate just how incomplete we truly are. In this simple custom, we refrain from eating nuts, to remind us of this exact point – that we are not perfect, and have much to strive for during the Ten Days leading up to Yom Kippur.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Jews of Prague (Part 1)

We don't get out much - at least from a vacation perspective. The last time Rena and I actually traveled on a vacation away from home for longer than a Shabbat took place on our Aliyah pilot trip, more than seven years ago. So when I turned forty a few years back we decided that we'd go away for a short trip. This spring, we finally made good on that decision and booked a trip to Prague.
Rena had the foresight to book our stay at the only kosher hotel in Prague - the King David (highly recommended). That was a particularly good choice, as the options for kosher food are incredibly limited, and it was great to start the day with a good kosher breakfast. No, it wasn't an Israeli-hotel kosher breakfast, but it was close. It was also great to have a minyan without having to look that far.

Prague is beautiful - clean, interesting, European, and a great place to walk around. Interestingly, there really isn't a Jewish community in Prague to speak of. It's basically gone, and hopefully never coming back. I see no reason to rebuild a destroyed Jewish community. Yet, Jews were everywhere, and our portrayal wasn't particularly flattering.

The Prague Astronomical Clock
Take the clock. There's a very famous clock Astronomical Clock in the Old Square in Prague that's a gathering point for tourists who come to watch the show of the clock striking each hour. It really is a show, and it's also a pretty incredible feat of engineering, as it was first build in 1410. After we settled into our hotel, it was one of the first thing that we saw.

Of the many fascinating aspects of the clock (it tells time in three different ways, including sha'ot zmaniyot!), there are also figures standing at the sides of the clock representing different human traits. Standing at the two sides of the clock are four figures (you can see them here): Vanity, death, the miser and the Turk. Sounds nice. Except the "Miser" isn't known as such. Here's how he's described not on an official tourism website:
The Prague Astronomical Clock is located close to Old Town square and it is one of the city major attractions. The clock has been in the square since 1410 and it is a very special clock since it was used not only to indicate the current time, but also the month and the day of the year (and the name you should give to your kids depending on their birthdate), moon phases, zodiac information and much more. The clock also depicts different figures like vanity, death, a Jew and a Turk. Finally, at every hour, two doors open on the clock to show the 12 apostles and a man dresses as a pageboy plays a horn from the top of the clock tower. Make sure you are nearby the clock in time, the show is very fast!
For hundreds of years, next to the Turk (not a complimentary sculpture) stands a miserly Jew (you can see him standing to the left of the clock in the picture above). The four figures stand as a religious warning about the passage of time, as an admonition to onlookers to use their time well: don't waste your time with silly things like vanity, as death nears ever closer with every tick of clock. The same goes for the Turk (who clearly symbolizes violence and vulgarity). And finally, don't be consumed with money, as is the miserly Jew, who cares for nothing but his bag of gold.

I can't say that I found the stereotype surprising. Bigotry is what it is, and I guess it's no different now that in was six hundred years ago.

Welcome to medieval Prague.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting on Tisha B'av: P'sak Halachah in the Age of the Internet

The Facebook post started with a simple question:
Has anyone ever heard of a pregnant or nursing woman only fasting until Chatzos if Tisha B'av is a nidcheh? I remember someone once telling me this and I'm trying to find a source for it...
The post clearly touched a nerve with the Facebook friends who began to suggest answers to the question.
- There are definitely kulahs with a nidcheh fast. Ask your LOR (Local Orthodox Rabbi). Will probably depend on the specific situation.
- Ask your rabbi...I've heard a few different things.
Then, the poster responded with a semi-joking comment:
I'm trying to send my LOR in the right direction :-)
This was followed by a series of comments and suggestions, including piskei halachah by no less than two rabbis, both of whom offered different opinions. One said, "A choleh should fast until morning. There's nothing special about chatzos for fasting." In other words, she must begin the fast, but can break it by morning. Another wrote that, "On a tisha bav nidche pregnant women who experience even mild discomfort, break their fast . see biur halacha 559:9 s.v. vaino . nursing women are in the same category this means whenever you feel worse than normal fast even a headache alone is enough to eat you eat normally no shiurim." In other words, you must fast normally, until and unless you feel discomfort, at which point you can break your fast.

In the course of the thread, other posters shared the rulings of Rav Avigdor Neventzal (who rules that pregnant or nursing women need not fast at all) and Rav Yaakov Ariel (who ruled that they must begin the fast and can break it if they feel discomfort).

The entire thread and ensuing discussion raises for me the thorny issue of psak halachah in the age of the Internet. What is psak halachah, and can there even be such a thing, when every possible question has already been asked (and answered), and is readily available to anyone who knows how to search for it - and often those answers conflict?

Clearly, this "open information" has already affected the way that we ask our questions. The thread I mentioned above is a case in point: instead of asking her rabbi, the poster asked a "shaila" of the "crowd". Moreover, it's not really a question per se, but a search for a specific answer that she's heard of. If she wanted a "clean" answer, she could have texted her rabbi, "Hi! As you know, we just had a baby. Do I need to fast this year on Tisha B'av?" But that wasn't her question. As she herself admits, she doesn't want a clean answer. She wants the "right" answer: "I'm trying to send my LOR in the right direction."

Then, as I noted above, the post developed into a discussion about actual psak, pitting two sets of rabbis (LORs and Gedolim) against one-another, leaving our harried poster both confused and frustrated. She wanted a clear answer, not a "see how you feel". After all, who doesn't feel hungry and thirsty and in discomfort on a fast day? (She's totally right about that point.) Yet, her desire for a straight, clean answer of yes or no is directly in conflict with her posing of the question originally. Does she really want a "yes or no", or is just a "no, you don't have to fast" the answer that will satisfy her?

I wonder how these types of questions are now affecting rabbis and the pressure they feel to issue more lenient piskei halachah. Imagine that I receive this question from a congregant, and I feel that halachah requires women to fast (unless they feel "discomfort"). Yet, I know that the person asking the question has already looked up this issue on the Internet. And if she hasn't, she will then turn to Facebook to express her frustration that she has to fast on Tisha B'av. I can just see the post now.
Poster: Ugh! I hate fasting on Tisha B'av, especially when I'm nursing!
Friend 1: What? Why are you fasting? My rabbi (who lives in another part of the world) told me that I don't have to fast.
Friend 2: I never fasted for two years after I gave birth. Sefardim rule!
Friend 3: Rabbi Such and Such posted three years ago that if you're thirsty, you can break your fast...
It's not that difficult to imagine. It happens all the time.

The next time this woman has a question, will she turn to her LOR? Or, will she turn to the rabbi across the country, or just to the "hive" to figure out what psak makes the most sense to her. The rabbi knows all of this. He knows both positions. To what degree does this knowledge affect the answer that he gives her?

I find the whole thread fascinating in that it raises important questions about psak and poskim in an Internet age where everything is available on the Internet. How can there be psak when we all have five rabbinic "friends" who give different answers? What does it even mean to ask a question?

The answers to these questions might very well be determined by no less than our relationship to halachah. The answer to all of these questions will ultimately depend on the degree to which we can return to the famous concept in Pirkei Avot called, "Aseh lecha rav" - make for yourself a rabbi. Halachah is uniquely personal. It can be both rigid but also flexible when necessary. But we, as a community, seem to have fallen into such a robotic adherence to ritual, without its attendant deeper meaning, that we're always looking for the easiest way to fulfill our obligation and be done with it. To do that, all you need is information. You don't really need a rabbi. You need a website, and today there are plenty of those. Then its simply a race to the bottom, to find the most lenient "accepted" rabbi, and before you know it, the most lenient position becomes normative.

The job of a rabbi isn't just to be a website. I've never really liked SMS questions (which are all the rage in Israel - still!) because they rid the halachic process of any relationship between the petitioner and the rabbi. The job of the rabbi isn't just to issue black and white rulings. It's to transmit not only the ruling in a manner that's most meaningful and relevant to the person asking the question.

The entire discussion about fasting revolved around purely technical issues - must a nursing woman fast on Tisha B'av or not? Of course there are technical halachic issues at play, but nowhere in the thread did anyone raise the issue of why: Why should she fast? Why should she not? No one "wants" to fast on fast day. Today we wish each other an "easy fast". "Hope it's not too hard!" Does that really make sense? Isn't the idea of fasting supposed to be hard? In essence, wishing someone an easy fast is saying, "I know we're all fasting because we have to; But I hope the day goes by quickly, with as little discomfort as possible." Clearly people don't mean it this way, but that's what it boils down to. If you're going to do it, hopefully the bitter pill goes down easy.

Nowhere in the discussion of whether this woman must or must-not fast was the issue of meaning. Chazal felt that our actions influence our attitudes, nowhere more than on days of mourning, like Tisha B'av. Nowhere in the discussion, did the personal needs of the individual arise. What if, instead of asking Facebook, the person asking the question called her rabbi with the very same question, and got this answer:
R: Well, how do you fast? (That's a really important question in this discussion, which never really came up.)
Cong: Well, I get pretty thirsty - but not really different than most mornings. It's a fast day after all.
R: Do you get bad headaches? Does fasting make it challenging for you to function?
Cong: Not usually, but I'm worried about having to fast and take care of my baby.
R: Can your husband come home and help out, instead of spending all morning in shul? If we can find a way to handle the childcare together, could you fast in a meaningful way?
Thus, the same rabbi might very well give two different answers to two different women, depending on each one's personal situation.

Rabbis would love to answer questions in this way, but they also need to feel secure in knowing that their congregants aren't shailah-shopping. Aseh lecha Rav means asking a rav a question with the confidence that the rav will give me the best answer for me, regardless of what he answered someone else (or what someone else answered on the Internet). It means asking an open, honest question, without a predetermined answer. It doesn't mean that you can't push back - that's definitely part of the conversation. But it does imply the trust that when I ask my rabbi my question, I trust that he will, to the best of his ability, give the answer that he feels best applies to me, in my current situation.

In the end, it's all about trust. And trust in rabbis in general isn't a popular topic nowadays. I guess we all have a lot to fast for this coming Tisha B'av.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

An Israeli Reporter Makes Aliyah with Nefesh B'nefesh, and Why I Can't See an American-Style Rabbinate in Israel for the Foreseeable Future

Yedidya Meir
Nefesh B'nefesh invited popular chardal media personality Yedidya Meir to join the latest Aliyah flight. Meir, who is a gifted writer whose column appears weekly in B'sheva, the free newspaper strewn across Israel, wrote a wonderful piece about his short Shabbat in Manhattan, his views of America, and a bit about aliyah. He posted the piece on his Facebook page, and if you can follow the Hebrew, it's worth reading. If you can't, I'll share a few choice sections:
ובכן, האמריקאים, ואני לא יודע איך לומר זאת אחרת, האמריקאים הם מאוד אמריקאים. אתם מכירים את זה שאתם הולכים במרכז ירושלים, ברחוב בן יהודה, נגיד, ופתאום נשמעת צווחה חדה שמפלחת את האוויר? יש רק שתי אפשרויות במצב הזה: או שמדובר חלילה בניסיון פיגוע וחייבים להזעיק את הימ"מ, או שמדובר בשתי נערות אמריקאיות נרגשות שלא נפגשו מאז אתמול וכעת ראו זו את זו ברחוב.
אז וולקאם טו אמריקה. הכול בגדול, בענק, בחזק. הכול מתוק מדי, צועק מדי, פלסטיקי מדי. נכון שבעולם הדתי אמריקה היא תמיד דימוי למשהו מאוד חומרני? נכון תמיד הדוגמאות של המשגיח בישיבה או של הרב בדרשה יהיו אנטי אמריקאיות, כאילו אמריקה היא יוון של ימינו? אז זהו, שבגדול הם די צודקים. כוס השתייה שבחרתי בקופה כי חשבתי שהיא הגדולה ביותר במלאי, התבררה כהכי קטנה. אחריה היו עוד אחת בינונית (כלומר, ענקית) ועוד אחת גדולה (כלומר, לפילים ומעלה). ואחרי שגמרו למלא לי אותה בקולה הוסיפו כמובן קרח. המון קרח. כמה שיותר. בקוביות גדולות.
And so, Americans - and I don't know any other way to say this - Americans are very American. You know when you walking in the center of Jerusalem on Ben Yehudah Street, say, and suddenly you hear a scream that splits the air? There are only two possibilities in this situation: Either it's an attempted attack God forbid and we need to call emergency services, or we're talking about two American teenage girls who haven't seen each other since yesterday, and just bumped into each other on the street.
So "Welcome to America". Everything is big, giant, strong. Everything is too sweet, too loud, to plasticky. You know how in the religious world "America" is always the image of something very materialistic? You know how the examples of the mashgiach in yeshiva or the rabbi in his drashah would always be anti-American, as if America is a modern-day Greece? Well, yeah - generally they're totally correct. It turns out that the drinking cup I picked at the checkout counter because I thought that it was the largest available was in fact the smallest. There was also a "medium" (i.e. giant) and yet another larger one (i.e., for elephants and larger). And after they finished filling the cup with cola, they of course added ice. A ton of ice. As much as possible. Large ice cubes.
I never noticed that Israelis don't like drinks with ice. I always order a cup of ice with my drink in a restaurant. I'm so American.
What I love about this piece is its honesty.
Meir isn't being nasty or mean, and many of his comments about America ring true. Yet, he doesn't only point out negative aspects of American life. He also writes about a number of positive aspects of Jewish (Orthodox) life in the United States, including very strong community life and the strong sense of devotion and dedication that people have to their shuls.
One paragraph struck me, and highlighted why, at least for now, there won't be any widespread form of a rabbinate, at least in the American sense. He writes,
הדרשה הייתה גם היא זרה ואחרת, ומעוררת מחשבה. הרב שניגש לדרשת שבת שגרתית נתן את נאום חייו. מעניין אם גם בשבת הבאה הוא ייתן את נאום חייו. כנראה שכן. זה היה שואו מהוקצע, כתוב ומוכן מראש, עם התחלה מסקרנת, שיאים רגשיים, רעיונות מקוריים וסיום שכרך את הכול ביחד. שיעור ברטוריקה. זה היה יפה. יפה מדי. בקיצור, אמריקאי.
The drashah was also strange, different - worthy of consideration. The rabbi that rose to speak on a regular Shabbat gave the talk of his life. I wonder if next week he'll also give the talk of his life. Apparently so. It was a professional show: written and prepared in advance, with an engaging introduction, emotional heights, original ideas and a conclusion that wrapped everything together. A lesson in public speaking. It was nice. Too nice. In a word, American.
For whatever reason, Israelis like things the way they're used to them. Many (but not all) Americans like their drashot they way they know them - in the style of the American rabbi: articulate, well-prepared, with a clear beginning and end, and an actual point. But, for whatever reason, to Israelis, that's too good - too sweet, too easy, too American.

I met recently with a young American rabbi considering making Aliyah. While I encouraged him to do it, I quickly disavowed him of any notion that there will be an American style rabbinate in Israel anytime soon. Israelis don't "get" American rabbis (they're just too American - as we see here), and most Anglo shuls pick an Israeli to be their rabbi. At least that's happened in nearly every shul that I know of, from Modiin to Yad Binyamin to Beit Shemesh to Raanana. American rabbis have found shuls, but usually they're for retirees, or they literally started the shul themselves (which is not impossible, but just very challenging). Still, I told him, there's an incredible amount that you can do here - the sky really is the limit - as long as you don't need your rabbinic life to support your family. Even as Israeli shuls are hiring communal rabbis, and Israelis are trying to develop the idea of the community rabbi through training programs, it won't be what Americans are used to. The Israeli rabbinate might borrow some parts of it, but it won't be the same. It will be Israeli, catered to the needs of a different community with vastly different expectations and needs.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Democracy and the Jewish State: Slomiansky v. Gal-On - Who Needs a Constitution when You've Got the Tanach?

Over the past several years, I have become increasingly interested in the fascinating intersection of religion and democracy in the State of Israel, and the numerous issues and challenges this thorny issue raises. Open a newspaper (those that still exist) on any given day in Israel, and the debate between Dat and Medinah jumps out at the reader. The struggle for the soul of the State of Israel began even before the founding of the State, and continues to this very day.
At the Orot Israel College, where I work (I work in admissions and administration, as well as teach a number of courses each year) I give a semester long course called "The Jewish State - the Intersection between Judaism and Democracy" which addresses precisely these thorny issues. I believe that in order to be good teachers (which Orot's students will soon become), these young women must be aware of and grapple with the dilemmas that frame public debate both in Israel, and across the Jewish world.

In an article published in Yisrael Hayom yesterday, MK Nissan Slomiansky was asked about the Bayit Hayehudi's opposition to passing more "Fundamental Laws" - essentially, a Bill of Rights (which the State of Israel famously lacks). He initially answered:
...בעיקרון אנחנו נגד חקיקת חוקי יסוד ונגד חוקה, משום שאנו מאמינים שיש לישראל חוקה והיא התנ"ך
אין שום סיבה שתהיה התנגשות בין החקיקה בכנסת לבין ההלכה היהודית. עד היום אין חקיקה שהכנסת חוקקה והיא סותרת את ההלכה היהודית.
Essentially, we are against the legislation of fundamental laws because we believe that Israel [already] has a [work of fundamental legislation], and it is the Tanach...There is no reason for conflict between Knesset legislation and Jewish halachah. To this day, there is no law passed by the Knesset that contradicts Jewish law.
That's quite a statement. While he went on to say that he was also concerned with the potential future interpretation of those laws by the judicial body (which is famous for its history of judicial activism and legislation), his first comment made a fundamental point: Why should the State of Israel need to legislate its own laws when we already have a God-given canon of ethics, morals and legal values? In other words, Slomiansky actually articulated, in a shockingly honest way: Democracy is fine, but not when it conflicts with the values of the Torah.
His comments predictably drew immediate fire from Israeli left, this time on the Facebook page of Meretz Chairwoman MK Zehava Gal-On. She wrote,

I'm sorry to pop Slomiansky's Medieval Fantasy Bubble [but]: In the legal statutes of the State of Israel there are certainly laws that contradict Jewish law, and this is a good thing. For example, the law that I legislated prohibiting human trafficking is not at all in concert with the laws of the Torah regarding slavery. For example, the fact that homosexuality is not a criminal offense, thanks to the law [passed by] Shulamit Aloni, certainly does not sit well with the prohibition against homosexual relations. There are a number of other examples.
In truth - we shouldn't really be all that upset. It's not that Slomiansky truly wants a government of the Torah according to all of it's halachot in which his wife, as a woman, would not be able to vote in election, and the elections themselves would never take because we would be a Jewish democracy led by a monarchy...Still, Slomiansky needs to understand that the vast majority of Israel's citizens - religious and secular - are interested in a democratic state, operating under the rule of law, that relates to all of her citizens with full equality, and which legislates sensibly with a great deal of thought and planning for the benefit of her citizens both now and in the future, and not out of automatic reliance on the laws of religion - which even if they were written with good intent and a great deal of thought, many of them are more appropriate for the era in which they were written, and less so for the present, and the values that we as citizens of a democratic state prefer to live by.
Gal-On's statement strikes me for a number of reasons: she strikingly formulates the seeming dichotomy between the two values of religion and democracy. Yet, at the same time, despite some effort, she cannot hide her antagonism for Jewish law - at least what she knows of it. Despite her allowance that Jewish law was written "with good intent and a great deal of thought", Slomiansky - and by extension all religious Jews - live in a "Medieval Fantasy Bubble" and adhere to an archaic set of values that, to her mind, do not and cannot relate to the modern era and the ideals of democracy, equality and fairness. And, of course, God is nowhere to be found in her democratic state. We are a nation of people, who legislate for ourselves.

How do we answer her charges? Is she correct that "the vast majority of Israel's citizens - religious and secular - are interested in a democratic state, operating under the rule of law", and would reject a Jewish state that adhered to halachah in full?
What about her more specific points: Do we really want to build a state that:
Would not prohibit human trafficking or slavery
Would appoint a king to rule over us
Would refuse women the right to vote
Would legislate homosexual activity as a criminal act (actually punishable by death)

These aren't simple questions by any means. Ideally, as religious Jews, we yearn for the coming of the Messiah, and the return of the Temple and with it the Sanhedrin. But where does democracy and equality fit in this equation? (If you'd like, Rabbi Chaim Navon offers his retort to Gal-On's comments on his Facebook page

Are we really living in a Medieval Fantasy Bubble? Of course not. Let us not forget that while her rhetoric works well in the United States (note the colors of her profile picture) Gal-On sits firmly in the minority in Israel, and her far-left Meretz party has steadily lost seats in the Knesset and influence over Israeli society over the past decade. Still, her questions deserve more than one-line answers. These are complicated issues, and demand careful consideration, thought and discussion.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Korach - The Ketoret, and the Chosen People

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Korach - The Ketoret, and the Chosen People

The Ketoret appears in a number of different places in Parshat Korach, making it an important theme deserving our attention. Why did Moshe challenge Korach's men specifically with ketoret? Why did he use it to save Aharon? What does it tell us about the Kohanim, and also about the nature of the Jewish people?

Click here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

Click on the player below to play the Shiur or right click here to download)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Addressing One of the Hidden Costs of Religious Life among Teenagers

As people of faith, we invest tremendous energy, effort and resources into educating and raising our children to also choose a religious lifestyle. We invest our time, passion and an incredible amount of money so that our children will hopefully see the power, beauty and meaning in living a life connected to God, devoted to the Torah, and enmeshed within the Jewish people.

And, while religious life brings great benefits, it also has costs, both hidden and explicit. The known costs often involve sacrifice – giving up on things that you want in order to lead a life of greater meaning. This might mean not pursuing a certain career; losing out on relationships. It can even be as simple as losing employment opportunities precluded by a Torah lifestyle.

Dr. Yaniv Efrati of Orot
Yet, leading a fully observant Torah lifestyle has hidden costs that we may not be aware of and therefore fail to address. Sometimes, we also really don't want to know about them as well.
Last night, during a staff symposium at Orot, I heard a very short "TED"-Style talk last night given by Dr. Yaniv Efrati, a lecturer on psychology at Orot Israel College. Dr. Efrati has been studying sexual disorders among Orthodox youth and the particular phenomenon of hypersexual activity disorder. I don't really understand the exact nature of the disorder, but basically it implies an excessive focus on sexuality to the point that it begins to interfere with everyday life.
Here's a definition that I found:
Sexual addiction or hypersexuality is defined as a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy, often in combination with the obsessive pursuit of casual or non-intimate sex; pornography; compulsive masturbation; romantic intensity and objectified partner sex for a period of at least six months.
We're not talking about a couple of YouTube videos, but instead about teenagers focused on sex to the point that they fail to function. This could include a fixation with pornography that's readily available on the Internet, or staying up so late watching illicit videos that a person can't function the next day.
It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that after conducting a study of over 1,500 secular and religious Israeli teenagers, Dr. Efrati found a statistically significantly elevated rate of self-reported hypersexual behavior among Orthodox teens, predominantly males.

At least it didn't surprise me.

After all, kids raised in Torah environments are taught, incessantly, about the spiritual dangers of inappropriate sexuality. And they should be. While Torah Judaism lauds the notion of healthy sexuality, the Torah completely rejects and absolutely prohibits almost any and all forms of sexual activity or pleasure outside the realm of marriage. Think of all the sexual behaviors Orthodoxy precludes: הסתכלות (gazing), נגיעה (any form of physical contact), שיחה בטלה (flirting), to say nothing of any explicit sexual behavior. It's all out.

I particularly remember studying a specific passage in Masechet Sanhedrin:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב מעשה באדם אחד שנתן עיניו באשה אחת והעלה לבו טינא ובאו ושאלו לרופאים ואמרו אין לו תקנה עד שתבעל אמרו חכמים ימות ואל תבעל לו תעמוד לפניו ערומה ימות ואל תעמוד לפניו ערומה תספר עמו מאחורי הגדר ימות ולא תספר עמו מאחורי הגדר פליגי בה ר' יעקב בר אידי ור' שמואל בר נחמני חד אמר אשת איש היתה וחד אמר פנויה היתה בשלמא למאן דאמר אשת איש היתה שפיר אלא למ"ד פנויה היתה מאי כולי האי רב פפא אמר משום פגם משפחה רב אחא בריה דרב איקא אמר כדי שלא יהו בנות ישראל פרוצות בעריות (גמרא בבלי סנהדרין ע"ה עמוד א')
Rab Judah said in Rab's name: A man once conceived a passion for a certain woman,  and his heart was consumed by his burning desire [his life being endangered thereby]. When the doctors were consulted, they said, 'His only cure is that she shall submit.' Thereupon the Sages said: 'Let him die rather than that she should yield.' Then [said the doctors]; 'let her stand nude before him;' [they answered] 'sooner let him die'. 'Then', said the doctors, 'let her converse with him from behind a fence'. 'Let him die,' the Sages replied 'rather than she should converse with him from behind a fence.' (Sanhedrin 75a)
I clearly remember studying this piece of Gemara with Rabbi Cooper in high school. The message was pretty clear: anything sexual is totally out, and if you succumb you're a sinner.

Now take that same young man (or woman), and place him in almost any public place in the world today. The mall. The park. A computer connected to the Internet.

Like it or not, sexuality pervades modern society in every publication, television show, magazine, newspaper, many radio programs – it's basically everywhere. It's literally unavoidable. Now tell a teen who has been taught and accepts the Torah's prohibition against illicit sexuality (you know, the good kids…the best kids) who is surrounded by sexuality, that thoughts about sexuality and submission to temptation, even in the simplest form represent the commission of a terrible sin. What do we expect to happen to that child?

Here's what Dr. Efrati found: Orthodox teens reported not only elevated levels of hypersexual behavior, but also greater levels of stress, anxiety and depression than their secular peers. And, he found a direct, statistical correlation between the hypersexual behavior and these negative feelings, which directly led to a diminished sense of well-being among Orthodox youth.
Again, not that surprising: If you think that you're a sinner you're going to feel guilty about it. Some percentage of that population will tend towards anxiety and depression about their inability to suppress their sexual urges and their submission to sinful behavior.

What's the answer? The Gemara had a very clear solution: Marry off your kids early. Very, very early – at the ages of twelve or thirteen respectively.
כדתניא אל תחלל את בתך להזנותה רבי אליעזר אומר זה המשיא את בתו לזקן ר"ע אומר זה המשהא בתו בוגרת (סנהדרין ע"ו עמוד א')
As it has been taught: Do not profane thy daughter to cause her to be a whore; R. Eliezer said: This refers to marrying one's [young] daughter to an old man. R. Akiba said: This refers to the delay in marrying off a daughter who is already a bogereth. (above the age of twelve and a half). (Sanhedrin 76a)
The Sages' solution offers us little solace. Aside from being illegal in most countries, we simply don't marry off our children at these young ages anymore. Teens today confront adolescence and the heightened sexual feelings that come with maturity without any permissible sexual outlet. That's just the way it is.

And for some of them, it's affecting their personal and psychological well-being.

This isn't, by any means, to suggest that an Orthodox lifestyle is harmful or negative. Far from it. But we must begin to acknowledge the struggle and challenge that Orthodox life presents for our children, so that we can openly and honestly begin to formulate a strategy to help those kids suffering from their struggle lead better, happier Orthodox lives.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shelach - The Failure of the Spies (and our Challenge Today)

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shelach - The Failure of the Spies (and our Challenge Today)

Chazal give a number of explanations for the spies' negative report about the Land of Israel. We discuss a number of them, and then study a piece from Rav Shaul Yisraeli in Siach Shaul, in which he describes where he think they went wrong, and what we must learn from their failure as we build the Jewish State today. You can download the source sheet with the commentary from the Siach Shaul here.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

Click on the player below to play the Shiur or right click here to download)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Rabbinic Life in the Fish Bowl

When we made aliyah seven years ago and I left the pulpit rabbinate, I knew that leaving rabbinic life would prove traumatic. I loved many things about the job and the life: the relationships with congregants; helping people in times of need; the opportunity to teach Torah regularly and speak to the community about important issues on a regular basis. Yet, to me the most challenging, demoralizing and distressing aspects of the rabbinate was the "fishbowl." People were watching us (and yes, I mean "us" - not just me, but my wife and children as well). 
I remember the day that I really understood just how profound the fishbowl effect really is: the day that I went to see Spiderman. 
It was a Sunday night, many weeks after the movie had come out, and my wife agreed to humor me and accompany me to a movie she had no interest in seeing. After dinner, we ended up at a theater nowhere near our home. Yet, as we walked into the theater, I heard someone call out, "Hey - we didn't know that rabbis liked Spiderman!" They didn't mean anything by it. Maybe my presence in the theater made them uncomfortable. Maybe the people just wanted to say hello or be noticed by the rabbi. Truth be told, they weren't even members of my shul. But, then and there I remember realizing that I could never, ever do anything in public (and perhaps even in my own home) and expect it to remain private. I knew then that I could expect that my entire congregation, and probably every member of the Jewish community would know if I did something wrong, questionable, or even notable.
I'm certain that those people in that theater didn't mean any harm. But that comment, and the reality it brought was very painful to me, as it robbed me once and for all, of any sense of personal privacy for as long as I remained a pulpit rabbi.

It should come as no surprise that Moshe Rabbeinu - the greatest pulpit rav ever - faced the same fishbowl life, a challenge highlighted by events recounted at the end of Parshat Beha'alotecha. In truth, so many of the events of the parshah deal with issues of rabbinic leadership; the loneliness, frustration and difficulty inherent in a life of spiritual leadership. Yet, all of these challenges seem to come together in the final episode of the parshah, when Miriam and Aharon discuss Moshe's personal life and his decision to separate from his wife. But that's not the end of the story. When Aharon appeals to Moshe to pray for Miriam's recovery, Moshe accedes, but in an unusual way, crafting perhaps the shortest prayer in history: אל נא רפא נא לה - "God please heal her please." 
One could say, "Nice. Short and sweet. To the point." Yet, it seems a bit strange. It's his sister after all. Couldn't he at least say a Misheberach? Add a bit of flourish. A kapitel tehillim
Rashi asks the same question, and offers a startling answer:
מפני מה לא האריך משה בתפילה? שלא יהיו ישראל אומרים אחותו עומדת בצורה והוא עומד ומרבה בתפילה
Why didn't Moshe pray more extensively? So that [the Children of] Israel would not say, "His sister is in pain, so he stands and prays at length."
Why didn't he daven a little longer for Miriam? He was afraid of what people would say. For his sister! He couldn't pray a few extra moments for his sick sister, because he was afraid of "what people would say." It makes me so sad for him, and angry, and upset. Could they not just give him a moment of peace; a modicum of privacy? Perhaps they could, but they would not.

Over the last week, the Orthodox community once again found itself mired in a scandal surrounding the life of a rabbi, and the questionable choices that he has made. The Internet is literally made for this type of episode, with the ability to share stories in a viral manner around the world. What was once a communal badly kept secret is now international news.
Without commenting on the specifics of the episode itself, this much I will say: what was once a communal fishbowl is now a global fishbowl. Blogs and websites now regularly publicize the actions of rabbis and spiritual leaders (for better or for worse), branding them eternally (via Google) leaving them no ability to defend or protect themselves. What rabbi would want to live under permanent threat of global shaming? Who could defend themselves against a vindictive congregant in a social media environment that shares and condemns first, and asks questions later - if ever? Rabbis are burning out faster than ever. If you've never lived in the fishbowl, you cannot appreciate the toll that it takes emotionally and psychologically. 
Today I watch these episodes play out over the internet and thank God that I no longer live in that fishbowl. It's just too much. And I wonder: how many rabbis leave the pulpit - or never enter it, due to the fishbowl effect? How many sane, talented young people legitimately never enter the pulpit because of episodes like these? The rabbi did sign up for a public life, but he didn't sign up to live in a never-ending reality show for his entire community.

What can you do? I guess the best thing you can do is give your rabbi some space. 
Let him work out at the gym in peace. 
You don't need to make a comment about what groceries are in his cart (really) or what his children are wearing. 
Give him and his family a bit of space. 
Protect his privacy when others talk about him and his family. 
Let him pray for his sister for as long as he needs.
Give him the privacy you yourself would want.
 
The rabbi really does live in a fishbowl. But it doesn't mean that his community has to always be watching.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Beha'alotecha - Rabbis in the Fish Bowl

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Beha'alotecha - Rabbis in the Fish Bowl

Even after suffering insult from his own sister, Moshe Rabbeinu still has to worry about what people will say about him. Through a study of the reaction to Miriam's tzara'at, we discuss the limits of what communities should reveal, and what should remain private. Warning: Many of you will disagree with me.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

Click on the player below to play the Shiur or right click here to download)