Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Forest and the Trees - Table Talk for Vayakhel 5768

In my various visitations to areas hospitals to see shul members, I have often found a recurring frustration. In today's fractionated medical world, many patients find themselves under the care of numerous doctors for different specialties; they might have a cardiologist, endocrinologist, rheumatologist and internist all visiting them during their hospital stay. Each one makes recommendations, and each one might prescribe tests and medication, but these recommendations often treat one symptom while complicating others. You cannot treat the kidneys without affecting heart function. The kidneys don't live alone; they share the body with the heart, and while alleviating one symptom, a doctor can actually make another different problem worse. In modern vernacular we call this an inability to "see the forest for the trees."
Most important then, especially for older patients, is a comprehensive care specialist who can bring together the various doctors to decide the best course of action for the total patient, instead of treating each specialty individually. I have found it a matter of personal frustration that insurance companies refuse to pay for such a position, when this type of care could actually save these very companies oodles of money in unnecessary tests, drugs, procedures and reactions. Go figure. So the best we can do is ensure that a family member, friend, or even fellow shul member (as has happened) is there to help coordinate the maze of patient care.
This notion of seeing the "forest for the trees" plays a prominent role in the constuction of the mishkan. You may have noticed that Moshe seems to instruct the Jews to construct the mishkan several times over the course of the last five parshiot of Shemot. Ramban (36:8) notes that Moshe gives these instructions no less than five times. Why all this repetition?
Ramban explains that in Parshat Terumah, Moshe first describes in detail the specific attributes of each vessel and piece of the mishkan.
"After this, he mentioned all of them in general terms...The reason for this is that God commanded Moshe to tell Bezalel and Oholiav and all the skilled [craftsmen] the work in its totality, and afterwards they could begin the work. For they could not be prepared for the holy work until they heard all of the task, and they understood it and accepted upon themselves that they knew how to complete it."
In other words, while each individual specialized in a specific area or craft, Bezalel could only begin construction when each person understood how his or her work fit into the broader picture of the entire project. In this way, every artisan and craftsman worked together in the larger project, seeing his piece not as a "tree", but as a part of the larger "forest".
If only Moshe had tackled the health care system!

Judaism and Imagination

If my experience is any indication, Jewish education does not place a very positive emphasis on developing an imagination. Rebbeim generally associate imagination with sexuality and inappropriate sexual thoughts - which is not all that surprising given the fact that they're usually speaking to teenage males. Thus, they encouraged us to stifle our imaginations in the hopes of avoiding violation of obvious issurim.
Moreover, most Jewish education involves the assimilation and spit back of skills and information. We teach our young children simple skills, and have them repeat them back to us. Then as they grow older we teach them more advanced skills which they must apply to more difficult texts and applications. Finally, if they reach a very advanced stage, they study extremely difficult and advanced materials which they then repeat and share with others to demonstrate their advanced knowledge. Halachah and gemara - the staples of yeshiva learning - have reached such a level of intellectual maturity that to all but the most advanced, there's nothing really to add. How many students feel that they have substantial chiddushim to contribute to the world of Jewish study? In truth, in the academically oriented atmosphere of the Beis Medrash, creativity and imagination have been, quite literally, ushered from the room.
And yet, imagination and creativity seem to be not only critical to a healthy psychological and emotional makeup, but to a positive Jewish intellectual life as well.
Parshat Ki Tisa relates the qualities that Bezalel ben Uri ben Chur possessed that made him uniquely qualified to head the mishkan construction project.
ואמלא אותו רוח אלקים בחכמה ובדעת ובכל מלאכה. לחשב מחשבות לעשות בזהב ובכסף ובנחשת
And I filled him with a spirit of God, with wisdom and knowledge of every craft. And to think thoughts - to make with gold, silver and copper. (Shemot 31:3-4)
What does the Torah mean when it tells us that God bestows upon Bezalel the spirit of God לחשב מחשבות -- "to think thoughts"? Rashi explains that this refers to מעשה חשב - work of embroidery, and is simply another skill set Bezalel possessed. Yet, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the verse this way:
למיחשב ברעיוניהון היך למעבד בדהבא ובכספא ובנחשא
To think with their ideas how to create with gold, silver and copper
In essence, a craftsman's greatness lies not in his or her technical ability, but in the ability to translate a picture of the mind into reality. Sure, this requires great tactical skill, but it demands even greater mental ability to imagine in one's mind how that creation will appear when complete.
We think that we know what the mishkan actually looked like. Each year when we study these parshiot that deal with the mishkan's construction, we pull out the pictorial Tabernacle book, and study the pictures to better understand the descriptions in the text. During summer camp we build scale models of the different vessels to learn their various dimensions and attributes. So we know exactly how the mishkan looked. Only we don't.
No book or model can approximate the fantastic craftsmanship, creativity and imagination that the builders of these vessels utilized to create them. Who can picture the true beauty of the hand-woven tapestries that adorned the walls and curtains of the mishkan? What about the engravings, etchings and carvings in the gold throughout the structure. Indeed, while we can approximate the size and shape of the different vessels, we cannot estimate their inherent beauty in a picture of a model. Nor should we try. We should leave that to our imaginations.

And we need our imagination for more than just arts and crafts. We need it for life.
In order to grow beyond ourselves, we need the ability to envision a different kind of life; an experience beyond our familiarity. To create life beyond what we know we must first be able to imagine what's possible. Only when it's real in our minds can we translate that vision into reality. This truism applies not only to life experiences, but to communities, institutions, programs -- basically any human endeavor. Great businessmen are not the people who simply fulfill the needs of others. Rather, they are the people who see a need unfulfilled, and can envision their ability to fill that need. In essence, they see in their minds what others cannot or do not. Similarly, great communal builders see not just the challenges in building their ideas and institutions, but also their finished product in their minds. Only then can they set about bringing their visions to fruition. Without creativity we become stale, stagnant and unable to adapt and grow, limited to the finite borders of our past experiences. With imagination and creativity, we open ourselves to the unlimited expanses of the possible, as long as we can dream it.

In cannot be coincidental that Jewish tradition considers great Jewish leaders and builders dreamers. Yosef's brothers describe him as an איש החלומות -- "a man of dreams". While his inability to conceal those dreams land him in trouble during his youth, that very same imagination and creativity literally save him and the world. Only Yosef can not only properly interpret the dream of Par'oh, but perhaps even more importantly, devise a solution to resolve the problem. His solution brings him to prominence and provides sustenance for the region during the difficult years of famine.

The Midrash Tanchuma writes,
ילמדנו עוד רבינו מה בין חלומות הצדיקים לחלומות הרשעים? חלומות הרשעים לא בשמים ולא בארץ, שנאמר ופרעה חולם והנה עומד על היאור (בראשית מא א). וכך נבוכדנצר כתיב חלם (הוא) [חזית] ודחלנני (דניאל ד ב), שלא היה לא בארץ ולא בשמים, אבל חלומות של צדיקים בשמים ובארץ, שכן אתה מוצא שאמר יוסף לאחיו הנה אנחנו מאלמים אלומים (בראשית לז ז), הרי בארץ, ובשמים מנין, שנאמר הנה השמש והירח ואחד עשר כוכבים משתחוים לי (שם שם /בראשית ל"ז/ ט), וכן באבינו יעקב ויחלום והנה סולם [מוצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה, הרי בשמים ובארץ].
Let our rabbi also teach us, what is the difference between the dreams of the righteous and the dreams of the wicked? The dreams of the wicked are neither in the heavens nor the earth, as it is written, "and Par'oh dreamt and behold he was standing over the Nile," and it is written similarly about Nevuchadnezzar "I saw a dream which made me afraid," for he was neither on the earth or in the heavens. But the dreams of the righteous are both in the heavens and the earth, for we find that Yosef said to his brothers, "behold we were binding sheaves," - so we see the earth. Where do we see the heavens? As it is written, "behold the sun, moon and eleven stars were bowing to me." And furthermore, [regarding] our forefather Ya'akov it is written, "and behold a ladder was standing on the ground and its head reached the heavens" - so we see his dream related to both the heavens and the earth.
A truly righteous dreamer - and his dreams - are rooted not in the heavens or the earth, but in the connection between the two; in binding one's yearnings for the heavens with worldly pursuits. Ya'akov dreamed of bridging the gap between the lofty spirituality of the heavens and the stark reality of the world. And because he dreamed it, he brought it to fruition.

Rav Kook in the fifth chapter of Orot discusses the difference between Jewish imagination in the Land of Israel and Jewish imagination in the Diaspora. He writes,
הדמיון של ארץ ישראל הוא צלול וברור, נקי וטהור ומסגל להופעת האמת האלקית, להלבשת החפץ המרומם ונשגב של המגמה האידיאלית אשר בעליונות הקדש
Imagination in the Land of Israel is clear and transparent, clean and pure and prepared for the true divine appearance, for the clothing of the exalted and lofty desires of the ideal orientation in the uppermost levels of holiness...
To me, even more important than the distinction that Rav Kook draws between imagination inside or outside of Israel, is his emphasis on the significance of imagination in the Jewish religious and spiritual experience. After years - centuries perhaps - of educating our children to suppress their imaginations, perhaps the time has come to reexamine that value and begin to emphasize the positive growth that can come from properly directed creativity, either through study of artistic ability (something now confined to young children and girls), creative writing and poetry or other similar disciplines.
Only when we learn to harness - and stop fearing -- the constructive power of creativity and imagination will we begin to imagine what the Jewish people can truly become.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Wisdom - The More You Have, the More You Get - Table Talk for Ki Tisa 5768

We've all seen that experiment where you first fill a jar with big rocks, and then when you can't put any more in, you put in smaller rocks -- and they miraculously fit into the seemingly full jar. The point is, even when you think something is full -- there's always room for more, when what you add is finer than what's already in the container.
This image is a wonderful metaphor for the assimilation of knowledge.
The Torah tells us that when God chooses people to construct the Mishkan, in addition to selecting Bezalel and Oholiav by name the Torah tells us that, ובלב כל חכם לב נתתי חכמה -- "and in the hearts of every wise person I have placed wisdom." (31:6). Why would God need to place wisdom in the heart of someone who is already wise? The Gemara in Brachos (54a) provides the answer:
Said Rabbi Yochanan: The Holy One Blessed be He only gives wisdom to one who already has wisdom, as it is written, "He who gives wisdom to the wise and understanding to those who have intelligence (Daniel 2:21). Rabbi Tachlifa of the West heard this idea and repeated it before Rabbi Abahu, who said to him: You learn [this rule] from that verse. We learn it from this verse, as it is written, "And in the hearts of every wise person I have placed wisdom."
Yet, this only begs the question: why give wisdom to the wise? Why not spread the wealth? The answer lies in our bottle of rocks. As wisdom and knowledge increases, the information becomes finer and more specific. In every discipline, the greater your understanding of the matter, the finer the information becomes. More importantly, one cannot possibly comprehend the fine, specific information before he acquires the general principles.
This rule especially applies to Torah. To become great in Torah, one first needs to be grounded in the basics. You cannot comprehend the depths of gemara before you learn mishnah, and you can't learn kaballah (hidden mysticism) before you have a deep knowledge of Torah.
But the beauty is, the more you know, the more you realize that there is to learn.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another Rabbinic Candidate For Consideration: But Would He Even Get an Interview? (YIOP Bulletin March 2008)

Here at shul, I sometimes collect the mail in the morning when the secretary is away. If you’ve ever seen my desk, you won’t be surprised to know that the mail can sometimes become buried under an avalanche of papers only to be discovered during the monthly purge. Well, to my chagrin I discovered an additional resume that I quickly forwarded to the YIOP search committee. Because of the unusual circumstances and late date, they asked me to share the details of this candidate with the entire congregation without revealing his name so that the membership can quickly consider this candidate.

Education: Studied under the greatest Torah scholars of the time; extremely knowledgeable in all areas of Torah law, and additionally other secular disciplines. Speaks numerous languages fluently, and also proficient in secular law.

Age: Unclear – but at least in his mid-nineties

Work Experience: has been a leading figure in the Jewish community for decades, with extensive experience both in Israel and abroad.

Other information: Outspoken and passionate, yet can seem overbearing and preachy. Has been known to wander in the streets wailing, crying in mourning and wearing sackcloth and ashes. Seems temperamental and unwilling to demonstrate flexibility in trying situations. Also, he goes by his secular name, and not his given Jewish name.

What are the odds that we would ask this candidate to submit a video, much less invite him for a probo (that’s the Yiddish word for rabbinic try-out) in our shul? First of all, he’s too old. Moreover, who needs an erratic candidate prone to publicity stunts in the community? Oh well, I guess he’s got no shot. There’s only one problem: in rejecting this candidate, we’d be rejecting a man who literally saved the Jewish people from destruction.

You see, this resume belongs to none other than the male protagonist of Megillat Esther, Mordechai the Jew.

Let’s go through his resume one more time:

Education: The Mishnah (Shekalim Chapter 5 Mishnah 1) tells us that “Petachyah was in charge of the bird-related sacrifices [in the Temple, and] Petachyah is [really] Mordechai. Why was he called Petachyah (meaning “opener of God”)? Because he would open with words and explain them, and he knew seventy languages.” The commentators explain that the offering of bird-related sacrifices required the knowledge of ornithology and other sciences. From an educational perspective, Mordechai was what we would call today “the complete package.” Steeped in Torah knowledge in wisdom, he expanded his appreciation for God and His world by studying the sciences, languages and the world around him.

Age: That’s a tough one, but by the time the Purim story rolls around, he must be pretty old. The Megillah tells us that he was exiled from Jerusalem “with the captivity which had been carried away into exile with Yechonya King of Yehuda, who Nevuchadnezzar the king of Bavel had carried away into exile.” (Esther 2:6) That exile takes place in the year 3327 (approximately). The story of Esther takes places between the years 3394 (when Achashveirosh makes his first party) and 3405. Let’s assume that Mordechai -- who served in the Sanhedrin -- is no more than twenty years old during his expulsion. That would make him ninety eight at the end of the Purim story, so if he’s applying to work at YIOP, he’s no spring chicken. But, even at his advanced age he can still ride a mean horse (when led by Haman) and overhear whispered conversations, (see the story of Bigtan and Teresh), and as YIOP does not discriminate on the basis of age, we cannot exclude him on the basis of his age.

Work Experience: With his proficiency in Torah, his experience in the Sanhedrin and his long history of leadership in the Jewish community, clearly this would be a plus.

Other information: Ah, now things get sticky. He can be unpatriotic, unwilling to attend national events (i.e. Achashveirosh’s party for the people of Shushan) for religious reasons, possibly ostracizing the Jewish community in the eyes of the government. He ignores the local laws, refusing to bow down to Haman when every other rabbi and Jewish leader begs him not to make a fuss. He makes public spectacles when he sees fit, crying and wailing in the streets even outside the royal palace. And he uses his secular name – Mordechai, and not his religious name – Petachyah, for reasons we’re not sure about. Finally, for the past number of years he’s been out of the professional rabbinate entirely, working as a magistrate in the local secular courts.

What would we do if our shul received Mordechai’s resume for consideration? Would we give it proper deliberation and deem him a viable candidate, inviting him to meet the shul for Shabbos? Or would we consider him too old, too brash, too unstable and unpredictable, too old-world – to even consider giving him the job?

Sure – he’s all of those things. But it’s those very qualities that would give us cause to reject him as our spiritual leader – which help him and his niece Esther save us all.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The New Head of Detroit's Vaad -- An Email Response

I received the following disturbing, distressing email from a community member in Detroit - first directly, and then later indirectly, and because it's now swirling through the Internet, I feel strongly compelled to respond. Yet, in the interests of avoiding lashon hara, I have decided to remove the names of the senders and other related parties. I have taken the liberty to highlight areas that I will respond to. If you want to read the letter, scroll down to the bottom of this post, as I will respond to the tone first and then the content of the letter before posting the actual email for perusal at the bottom.

Dear Anonymous,

I received your email regarding the appointment of Rabbi Doniel Neustadt as the new Yoshev Rosh of the Council of Othodox Rabbis in Detroit with sadness and dismay.

The Tone
More than any of the substantive concerns in your letter, I find the tone and language of your correspondence abhorrent, disrespectful and tasteless, and your hysterics spoke to me more about the writers than the subject. Let me site some examples:
  • ordinary Orthodox citizenry in the Detroit area like you and me will be trampled on.
  • The situation is dire
  • Perhaps someone will find a way to avoid the impending calamity.
  • All is not lost. Before these gloomy predictions have a chance to take place...
  • Please take these warnings seriously
Trampled on? Dire Situation? Impending calamity? Gloomy predictions and serious warnings? Let's understand: we're talking about the hiring of a rabbi who you feel is too right-wing to properly represent our community. Why then use language that seems more fitting for genocide or impending nuclear attack than for what you fear might prevent you from eating kosher Chinese food? Quite simply, it's hard to take anything seriously when a person considers "chumrah" a calamitous disaster to be avoided at all costs. Please calm down -- and then perhaps we can discuss the issues calmly.

Even more disturbing is the email that you forwarded to me written by your correspondent. I don't know how you speak in private, but it's generally a good rule not to write everything you think, nor to email everything you write, and certainly not to forward tasteless emails that you receive. How dare anyone write that a rabbi in town -- one who has invested literally hundreds of hours of his time -- all in your best interest -- in the local Va'ad, that:
  • he has no stones and tries to walk the middle road always
Is there really any place for that type of vulgar language about anyone, much less a rabbi in town -- much less your rabbi? How does our community benefit from vulgarity about its religious leaders? If you were so concerned about our community's well-being, don't you think you should make the effort to watch your language and speak with a little more care? Last I checked, halachah cares just as much - probably more - about what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it. But the message continues:
  • the rag that Neustadt wrote was more than chumra laiden. It was a source of derision and became a Chilul H'Shem rather than a furtherance of Yiddiskeit
Let me understand: because you don't like his halachic positions, you consider his weekly halachah sheet that I read regularly and quite enjoy to be a "rag." Apparently, it's so divisive that you cannot even abide distributing it in your shul. I find it comical that you complain of Rabbi Neustadt's polarizing and intolerant temperament while you can't even allow a sheet of Jewish law from a respected posek to be distributed in your shul. Who's the polarizing figure -- Rabbi Neustadt -- or the members of the so-called "Modern Orthodox" community so fearful of chumrah that they cannot even read about it? Also, at the top of every sheet of Rabbi Neustadt's "Weekly Halachah Discussion" are the words: "For final rulings, consult your Rav." That seems reasonable advice -but only if you can permit yourself to read his sheet.

I will ignore the political swipe that the email made, and not dignify it with a response. Yet, the end of the email seems beyond belief:
  • This is a man who should be given a Teffilas HaDerech the minute he steps into the city
Really? This is a less-than-veiled threat that you will do your best to drive Rabbi Neustadt our of town from the minute he arrives. I cannot imagine a more "polarizing" and "derisive" comment. Even assuming that your fears have basis, should you not follow your own religious guidelines and give the man the opportunity to prove you wrong? Are you so sure of your conviction that you're unwilling to consider that you might be wrong? I could understand a reticence to hire Rabbi Neustadt or even prevent his arrival - but this makes clear that even should he arrive, you will make every effort to impede his efforts in this city and drive him from Detroit. How is that in the interests of Orthodoxy in our city?

The Content
First and foremost, I take issue with your primary contention that Rabbi Neustadt is a "polarizing" and "divisive" figure.
  • I am told that Rabbi Neustadt’s newsletters were unwelcome in Beechwood and that Rabbi Neustadt is a polarizing figure
Who told you this? You simply repeat lashon hara with the intent of harming a man's reputation and livelihood.
  • We were willing to be dazzled by the brilliance of Rabbi Neustadt’s reply but he stonewalled us
Moreover, the incident you cite doesn't leave me convinced either. While at face value it seems that Rabbi Neustadt should have responded to your email, I know neither the tone nor the content of that message. In addition, he never paskins for anyone, and always encourages people to discuss the contents of the parshah sheet with their rav. Did you do this? Were you expecting him to issue a retraction? Your sarcastic tone that you were waiting him "to dazzle me with his brilliance" gives me an indication as to why Rabbi Neustadt chose not to respond to your message.
I agree with you that Rabbi Neustadt's halachic discussion sheets tend to lean towards stringency. But in my experience, any generally written halachic work must, by definition, lean towards stringency because it cannot account for all circumstances that would trigger a leniency. Moreover, I find that whenever people find a leniency they tend to apply it even in inappropriate situations, so I personally am also careful about which leniencies to publish in a publicly distributed communication. So, while he may be machmir in unspecified situations, that by no means indicates that Rabbi Neustadt would apply those very same chumros in private, personal situations. That's simply how the halachic process works.

Let's now turn to the issue of divisiveness and polarity: it seems to me that while individual rabbis may have concerns, there is great unity among us about the need for a new head of the Va'ad, and excitement about the appointment of Rabbi Neustadt. He is a recognized halachic expert having published respected works, he has experience in the areas of kashrus and administration, and has even contributed constructively to the Beis Din in Cleveland. When was the last time the rabbis of the Va'ad could positively come together about a constructive issue? When we finally stand behind a candidate to lead us, it seems to me like he is a unifying figure - at least to this point, and not a divisive one. You see, unlike you I don't need a rabbi to look like me, dress like me, or even pasken like me -- in order for me to give him my support. I support him because he needs that support to bring order to the Va'ad and unity to our community, two areas sorely lacking to this point.

And what of the issue of chumrah? Let's say that Rabbi Neustadt is indeed - as you suggest -- a machmir. (When did that word become a pejorative insult? Some might consider it a compliment.) In which areas of kashrus would you like him to be lenient? Would you like him to check only half the lettuce at a given affair for bugs? Would you prefer that we import improperly salted meat from questionable plants? Or would you rather that the hashgachah only oversee restaurants part of the time, and not constantly? What area of kashrus should we seek leniency in? Personally, I'm rather happy with a Rosh Va'ad who's meticulous about halachic issues.

You seem to be confusing chumrah in halachah with hashkafah and political issues. The posek of the Va'ad will determine kashrus policy: what events require what level of supervision; what agencies we accept and reject; what type of kashering procedures are acceptable in different situations; how should produce be checked for infestation? These issues come up regularly and require a posek to make a final decision that will be applied city-wide, and not by committee as has been the case since my arrival in Detroit. Moreover, they need a person who will be responsible to ensure that the policies are carried out uniformly throughout the city, and not in different establishments based on grandfather clauses, proprietors, and who the mashgiach happens to be. That's Rabbi Neustadt's primary role, and I have every confidence in his ability to make kashrus in our city a source of pride and unity.

But then there are other, more political issues. Ah, the hangout issue. I must say that in my seven years in this city, I have never once heard the argument -- either inside the Va'ad or by a member of the Va'ad, that we should not allow an establishment to open because it will "be a hangout." Perhaps the argument was made in the past, but can we please move on? Seven years is a long time, and we've seen the opening of a pizza store, a donut shop, a sandwich store in the JCC, and a meat take-out store -- all of which have mixed seating! -- without complaint. Now, it could very well be that the rabbis from Yeshiva Gedolah have instructed their students not to hang out in those establishments, but they have been nothing but encouraging about promoting the creation of more kosher establishments in town. In addition, while the Va'ad is hiring a Yoshev Rosh, we're not disbanding. The rabbinic members of the Va'ad will have a full say in issues that it considers super-halachic and political in nature, and will work together with the Yoshev Rosh to address those issues.
Finally, please spare us from wild speculation about what people will or will not do in response to your worst fears. Your "gloomy predictions" only increase your tone of hysteria, and have no basis in fact. If you truly want unity in our community, you will reassess your position and, at the very least:
1. Apologize to Rabbis Neustadt and Morris for your reprehensible tone
2. Give Rabbi Neustadt a chance to settle in and prove himself
3. Give the Va'ad the support that it needs in our community to truly become a communal institution. Choosing to vilify Rabbi Neustadt or the other rabbanim in town who volunteer their time (with no renumeration - but plenty of aggravation), will not drive out anyone -- but instead further isolate yourself.

I conclude by wondering why you included my name on your list of recipients in the first place. Did you think that because I'm a Modern Orthodox rabbi I would speak out against a perceived injustice? Did you think that because I'm outspoken at times I would have the temerity to speak out? I hope that you were right.

I conclude with one of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Who you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what your saying." It seems that in light of your email, Emerson was indeed correct.

I pray that the Ribbono shel Olam gives our community the wisdom, knowledge and strength to use this new addition to the Va'ad and our city as an opportunity to grow closer to Him, and each-other.

Rabbi Reuven Spolter

If you're interested, here is the text of the email:
I forwarded a copy of my letter to Rabbi Morris to less than a handful of people. Since that time I've spoken to rabbi Morris who has tried to allay my fears. I can't for one moment buy into the notion that Rabbi Neustadt is machmir in his newsletters but otherwise maykil. I told Rabbi Morris that I have every reason to feel that if Rabbi Neustadt occupies the office of Yoshev Rosh Vaad Harabonim of Detroit our ordinary Orthodox citizenry in the Detroit area like you and me will be trampled on.
Rabbi Morris told me, "there's nothing we can do about it because Rabbi Neustadt is hired". There has to be another way. The situation is dire. I no longer feel this discussion should be limited to just a few balebatim. Feel free to forward these ideas. Perhaps someone will find a way to avoid the impending calamity.
In a message dated 2/18/2008 10:53:58 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, Anonymous writes:
Well said. I couldn't agree with you more. This is as important an issue as there is for our shul. It should be brought to the membership for an open discussion. Unfortunately, there is little that our Rav can or will do about it. Let's face it: he has no stones and tries to walk the middle road always. The rag that Neustadt wrote was more than chumra laiden. It was a source of derision and became a Chilul H'Shem rather than a furtherance of Yiddiskeit. This is a Bakst - Torgow appointment and does not bode well for the city. This is a man who should be given a Teffilas HaDerech the minute he steps into the city.

In a message dated 2/17/2008 10:16:28 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, anonymous writes:
To: Rabbi Morris
From: Anonymous
I was dismayed to read that Rabbi Doniel Neustadt has been invited to become the Yoshev Rosh Vaad Harabonim of Detroit. His weekly newsletter on halacha l’meisa formerly distributed in our shul was dubbed the “Chumra of the Week Rag” by some of our Southfield wags. His approach to yiddishkeit is something many in our shul find distasteful.
An example of his cavalier attitude towards criticism is the following:
I attempted to contact Rabbi Neustadt via email regarding his two part series on taking medicine on shabbat. The email was delivered but went unanswered. I had written a letter to point out several items in his newsletter that not only conflict with good medical practice but actually can cause serious harm. A dozen of our physicians and allied medical professionals in our shul signed the letter along with me. In addition there were another dozen who were in agreement with the letter but didn't want to get involved to the extent of signing a letter. We were willing to be dazzled by the brilliance of Rabbi Neustadt’s reply but he stonewalled us. This was not the only issue to which our group took exception.
Rabbi Neustadt is Rav of Young Israel of Cleveland Heights (at the Academy Bldg). I know it well. I was a member there when the distinguished and revered Rav was Rabbi Schubert Spero. I remain in contact with members of Young Israel in the Cleveland area, many of whom have moved to the newer Young Israel in the Beechwood suburb. I am told that Rabbi Neustadt’s newsletters were unwelcome in Beechwood and that Rabbi Neustadt is a polarizing figure.
We in the Detroit area are not well served by leadership that is divisive. You may have known Rabbi Drucker of Young Israel of Oak Park around whom a swirl of machlochet was a constant state of affairs. The shul suffered from this and it wasn’t until he left that the shul was able to get itself together to grow again.
How much more important is it that the Rabbinic chairman of the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of our entire community be someone whose personality is unifying rather than divisive. The last thing we need is a Vaad ha-ir that is known by its chumras and polarity. Already we have one of our major kosher caterers under hashgacha outside of the local Vaad. This caterer receives hashgacha from the star K.
From time to time Rabbis of the Conservative Movement have threatened to establish their own kasthrus authority. The hiring of Rabbi Neustadt portends a situation to which the Conservative Rabbis may no longer be willing to allow the Vaad to have a monopoly on kosher food supervision. This would be their opening and we would all suffer because major community agencies like Federation, the Senior housing agencies that supply meals and major community dinners might also come under haschgacha that we would find unacceptable.
Think also of the potential loss of revenue for the Vaad. Loss of income due to competing hashgacha agencies and reduced support from business interests. Supporters of the Vaad in the past who have Conservative affiliations have been the former Farmer Jack Markets, Paul Borman formerly head of Farmer Jack markets might choose the Conservative Kasthrus agency to support. I don't know Jim Hiller's affiliation but he too may withdraw some or all of his support.
All is not lost. Before these gloomy predictions have a chance to take place it would be wise for the Vaad to find a face saving way of withdrawing their offer ot employment to Rabbi Neustadt. As a member of the presidium of the Vaad you can exert the kind of influence now that will avert calamity. Please take these warnings seriously.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The New York Times' Escape - and the Jewish Way

In an interesting article in this past Friday's "Escapes" section of the New York Times ("All Nothing All the Time"), author Neil Genzlinger attempted to find the remote bed and breakfast that would afford him the greatest ability to unplug and "do nothing." This quest for inactivity forced him to define what exactly he considers to be "doing nothing." In his quest for the ultimate relaxing weekend, he defines "nothing" as:

¶Nothing that involves spending money.

¶Nothing that requires strapping something to your feet.

¶Nothing done with a device that can be purchased at Best Buy.

Reading the article, it dawned on me that instead of driving hundreds of miles searching for an area with little cell phone coverage and spending hundreds of dollars staying at remote locations unplugged from the tensions and distractions of the world, the author could have done something much simpler:

He could have kept Shabbos.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lies, the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and American Society

The United States this week witnessed a spectacle perhaps without precedent in American history. We watched on national television in sworn testimony, a witness commit perjury before a Congressional panel. Two men sat before members of Congress and gave testimony under oath that was diametrically opposite to that of the other. Someone lied before our very eyes. And it’s quite likely that this unthinkable act will go unpunished.

While the Roger Clemens sideshow certainly made for great drama and wonderful news copy, I’m more interested in the societal implications of the deceit pervasive in the story. If Clemens is telling the truth, then his accuser, Brian Mcnamee has not only lied to the commission investigating steroids in baseball, but to a congressional committee and a full congressional panel. If, on the other hand, he’s telling the truth, then Roger Clemens joins the cadre of baseball players who have misled and deceived the American public for many years, and the smaller group of players who continue to falsely protest their innocence.

Most frightening – and interesting, is that if Clemens is lying, we’re not really surprised. We expect our public figures to lie. None other than the President of the United States lied to a grand jury. The city of Detroit recently learned that the Mayor of Detroit lied under oath in court about his personal life. Who believes any of the promises being made by our presidential prospects? Who takes any public figure at his word anymore? When was the last time anyone made a business deal – and invested money – on a handshake? What happened to our trust?

Every time a person lies he not only affects himself, but his surrounding society. We take for granted the inherent wrongness of stating untruths – of lying – whether in the courts or just the course of daily life. But when we see public figures lying to us and fail to react; when we allow others’ untruths to go unnoticed -- that behavior grows in acceptance and slowly infiltrates the public consciousness.

In addition to the many works that the Chafetz Chaim wrote about lashon hara – slander and evil speech, he wrote a work called שפת תמים - (pure lips) about the terrible evils of fakery, deception and lying – and some terrible truth about the nature of many Jews who cheat in business. In chapter six while describing the different levels of liars he writes,

ויש אחרים..שבספוריהם ודבוריהם גם כן נמצא בהם מתערובות הכזב, אך בלי כונה, כי לא ישיתו לבם לחקור בעת שמעם לידע הדברים במכון, ואסור שקר אין חמור בעיניהם כל כך ליזהר אפילו מתערבתו. על כן בבואם לספר אחר כך הדבר יערבו בו מן השקרים כמו שיזדמן להם אז. וגם זו מדה רעה, כי אנשים כאלו מרגלים בשקר בהרחב הזמן, עד שנעשה להם כמו טבע...

and there are others...who in their stories and words are also found an intermingling of falseness, yet this is without intent, for they did not set their hearts to investigate [the words] at the time that they heard them to know the matters precisely. And, the prohibition against falsehood is not so stringent in their eyes that they are careful even from partial falsehood. Therefore, when they subsequently come to mention the matter, they will intermingle the lies as they present themselves. This too is an evil attribute, for people like this become accustomed to falsehood in the expanse of time, until in becomes natural to them.
Our surroundings, culture and society affect us. What then does that say about a culture that no longer cares about the meaning of truth? How soon will that filter down into our daily interactions, until Americans can no longer trust each other in even the most casual of interactions?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Table Talk - Tetzaveh 5768 - The Urim V'Tumim

One of the more mysterious garments worn by the Kohen Gadol (high priest) that's not really an actual garment is the Urim V'Tumim. What is the Urim V'Tumim? Where does the Kohen wear it and what is its function?
The Torah tells us:

וְנָתַתָּ אֶל-חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט, אֶת-הָאוּרִים וְאֶת-הַתֻּמִּים וְהָיוּ עַל-לֵב אַהֲרֹן, בְּבֹאוֹ לִפְנֵי ה

"And you shall place into the breastplate of judgment the Urim and Tumim, and they shall be on the heart of Aharon when he comes before God." (28:30)

Rashi explains that the Urim V'tumim is actually a parchment with the full written name of God that they place in the folds of the Choshen behind the stones. With this parchment, the letters of the tribes engraved in the stones of the Choshen would transmit the word of God to the Jewish people. The Kohen would ask God a question and receive an answer through the letters of the tribes engraved on the breastplate. Without the Urim V'tumim, there was no communication from God. In a sense, the Urim V'Tumim serves as the spiritual batteries of the Choshen.

When the Kohen Gadol asked God a question, how did He send a reply? The Gemara in Yevamos (73a) presents a dispute about this issue. According to Rabbi Yochanan, the letters of the Choshen would protrude in a specific order indicating a message. According to Reish Lakish, the letters would actually move around the breastplate to form a specific text.

Still, either way the Choshen communicated, the rabbis in the gemara noticed a perplexing problem: When you look at all the names of the tribes, the Choshen still lacks two letters from the Hebrew alphabet. Can you figure out what those two letters are?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Table Talk - Terumah 5768 - Money for the Mishkan

I'd like to share with you a textual challenge that we find in the beginning of the parshah that I studied with the ladies' parshah shiurim (Tuesday at 1:30pm at YIOP and Wednesdays at 8:30am at Akiva) this week.

Any community leader will tell you that they find funraising to be one of the greatest challenges in communal leadership. There are simply too many needs, and not enough money to go around. In reality, it's only fair that each person pay his or her fair share. If every member of the community benefits from an institution, shouldn't he be forced to contribute for that benefit? In reality, halachah wholeheartedly agrees, and does compel community members to pay for the needs of the entire kehillah. In America, where we have completely disassociated our secular and religoius needs, no one questions the requirement to pay communal taxes to fund the roads, police and other non-religious functions. But were the community to impose a religious tax on its members (to cover the mikveh, eruv, shuls and the like), what likelihood is there that most community members would actually pay it?

This same question arises when God tells Moshe to instruct the Jewish people to bring donations for the construction of the mishkan. Does the Torah require every Jew to pay for the mishkan by imposing a mishkan tax, or does He make the contributions for the mishkan completely voluntary? The Torah sends us decidedly mixed signals. God tells Moshe (25:2):

דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.

'Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering.'

While the verse at first glance seems straighforward, the language is anything but. First and foremost, while the translation I provided translates the word "terumah" as offering (implying a voluntary gift), in another context in the Torah, Terumah refers to the mandatory gift that each person must give to the Kohen from his produce. That gift is anything but volutary: God considers consumption of produce before the separation of Terumah to be a grave, terrible sin.

In addition, the verb used by the Torah seems contradictory. If a person makes a voluntary donation, we would usually say that he "gave" the gift. It would seem strange to say that he "takes" the gift. But that's precisely what the Torah says: "You shall take for me Terumah." If it's a gift, why doesn't the Torah tell us that we should "give Terumah." Taking implies coersion and obligation -- a tax, and not a gift.

Thus, we're left with an internal contradiction: what does God want from the people? Does He want them to contribute voluntarily, of their own free will, or does He require them to pay a tax to fund the needed construction that would benefit the entire community?

That's a great question to discuss around the Shabbos table.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Gedolim, Privacy and the Truth of History

In the second-to-last session of "The Search for Truth," a conference sponsored in Detroit by the Jewish Forum, Dr. Marc Shapiro spoke about "The Lives of Gedolim and the Truths of History." He gave a fascinating presentation, describing his discovery and procurement of the famous letters exchanged between Rabbi Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg, author of the Seridei Eish, and Dr. Samuel Atlas of the Hebrew Union College. During his talk, I found myself bothered by his basic thesis. He felt that while he understood that some communities might feel that gedolim are elevated only through hagiography, he felt quite the opposite: that when we expose the fact that these great people were normal; that they had faults and yet achieved greatness, this only increases their stature in our eyes.

Yet, none of this really relates to the letters of Rabbi Weinberg. The basic goal of publishing the letters, as I understand them, was to reveal the fact that the Seridei Eish wasn't a one-dimnesional posek in the classic chareidi format, but rather that he was a muti-dimensional, complex individual who valued many different things. In essence, Dr. Shapiro seems have a clear agenda to illustrate that the Seridei Eish was, for lack of a better word, Modern Orthodox.

I don't really know enough to dispute that claim (or agenda), but the whole nature of the discussion bothered me. While Dr. Shapiro's thesis about the Seridei Eish might certainly be true, the letters that he published were truly private. Rabbi Weinberg never published them, but instead sent them to a friend in confidence. After all, aren't private letters supposed to be confidential. In fact, Dr. Atlas saved his letters but never disseminated them publicly, and it was only his widow - who really had no appreciation for the implications of the publication of those letters -- who gave final permission for him to use them.

To me, this raises the complicated issue of rabbinic privacy. Of course the Seridei Eish was a gadol, and his halachic works and other public writings have defined him for posterity. But does that public persona then make his entire life "public property"? Doesn't he also deserve to have a private life?

It seems to me that Dr. Shapiro, working in the hallowed halls of the University, has taken the scholarly stance that history must be studied and revealed for history's sake. Every event belongs to the public record, and may be revealed if it carries enough importance.

During his talk, I challenged Dr. Shapiro on this point of privacy, and he responded by making the following distinction. If a he discovered that "great gadol" had a child out of wedlock, but then took care of the child's needs financially, religously and emotionally, and lived up to his responsibility, then he would not publicize that fact about the gadol's life. If, on the other hand, the gadol ignored that child and swept his existence under the rug, then he would reveal that fact because it demonstrated that he wasn't a gadol after all." In essence, he agreed that not every fact or personal foible needs to be revealed -- and that he would only reveal information that he regarded as historically relevant.

Which to me -- only seems to prove my point. Even Shapiro agrees that historical figures deserve some level of privacy. He himelf would not reveal private, defamatory information that he felt had no "larger" relevance. If so, then we both agree that rabbis -- even great ones -- deserve privacy. The difference between our opinions, it would seem, is that I feel that halachah guarantees an individual -- even a dead figure -- the inherent right to privacy, whereas Dr. Shapiro feels that he has the right to make a subjective decision about what rights each figure deserves and receives.

All of this makes me wonder: if someone knew that living a prominent and important life would open his entire life up to intense scrutiny and examination, and make his most private feelings and behaviors fodder for history to publicize, who would want to become a leader? Who would want to be a gadol? Why would anyone want to be a rabbi?

And yet, in spite of all this, my thoughts turn to a well-known gemara in Brachos (62a)
תניא, אמר רבי עקיבא: פעם אחת נכנסתי אחר רבי יהושע לבית הכסא, ולמדתי ממנו שלשה דברים: למדתי שאין נפנין מזרח ומערב אלא צפון ודרום, ולמדתי שאין נפרעין מעומד אלא מיושב ולמדתי שאין מקנחין בימין אלא בשמאל. אמר ליה בן עזאי: עד כאן העזת פנים ברבך! - אמר ליה: וללמוד אני צריך. תניא, בן עזאי אומר: פעם אחת נכנסתי אחר רבי עקיבא לבית הכסא, ולמדתי ממנו שלשה דברים: למדתי שאין נפנין מזרח ומערב אלא צפון ודרום, ולמדתי שאין נפרעין מעומד אלא מיושב, ולמדתי שאין מקנחין בימין אלא בשמאל. אמר לו רבי יהודה: עד כאן העזת פניך ברבך! - אמר לו: וללמוד אני צריך. רב כהנא על, גנא תותיה פורייה דרב. שמעיה דשח ושחק ועשה צרכיו, אמר ליה: דמי פומיה דאבא כדלא שריף תבשילא! אמר לו: כהנא, הכא את? פוק, דלאו ארח ארעא. אמר לו: תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך

At the end of the day, perhaps Gedolim don't get any privacy -- not even in the bathroom, nor in the bedroom, and maybe not even in their private letters. The price of gadlut might just be that their every action is תורה היא וללמוד אנו צריכין.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Rabbinic Authority - A Symposium and Challenges

This past Motzei Shabbat, I attended the initial session of the Jewish Forum symposium called "The Search for Truth", which featured a symposium staffed by Professor Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University, Rabbi Natan Slifkin (the Zoo Rabbi), and Dr. Marc Shapiro of the University of Scranton. During their Saturday night symposium, titled "Rabbinic Authority vs. Worldly Wisdom", the panel discussed the difficult issue of great rabbis - acknowledged gedolim -- who make statements that seem counter to common sense. In addition, many of the panelists felt that great Torah scholars live in a protected "bubble", isolated from the outside world. They count on their advisers to inform them of important issues and make pronouncements often based on what they're told - and not what they themselves have seen.
The discussion turned to the fact that in reality, many of the statements made by great Torah sages reflect the values of their closed communities, and are not necessarily intended for outside consumption. Thus, when a statement made for "local" consumption reaches the press and the larger Jewish world, while that statement seems incredulous to us, it makes perfect sense to the community for which it was intended.
This discussion got me thinking about a growing problem that rabbis (such as myself) face in the modern world.
It used to be true that rabbis at least enjoyed some level of local autonomy. For lack of a better reason, communication was such that community members counted on their rabbi to resolve local issues without feeling the need to turn to greater poskim out of town to answer their questions. Moreover, when a shailah arose requiring greater expertise, the rabbi himself turned to his mentors and teachers and the greater rabbanim in the larger cities for help, and not the ba'alei batim. Dr. Kellner echoed my sentiments by pointing out that we often refer to the rabbi as the mara d'atra -- the teacher of the place.
To my mind, we have entirely lost any notion of mara d'atra. With international communication, telephones, emails, fax machines and the like, nowadays, the community members themselves turn not to their own rabbi, but immediately to the gedolim. Every important question must be posed to a rabbi in New York -- or if it's really important, in Israel. But even more troubling, every local decision is questioned, analyzed and challenged by community members who take their local issues and pose them to rabbis uninvolved in the local community and often unaware of the delicate balance that exists in that community. It's quite easy to criticize events that seem untoward - either halachically or otherwise -- when you don't have all the facts or don't have to personally juggle the issues, which the local rabbi often must do.
The best example that I can think of to illustrate this point is the complete emasculation of local rabbis and rabbinates with regard to the issue of geirus. One day not long ago, a local rabbi could convene a Beit Din, convert a prospect as he saw fit, and if that rabbi was considered to be operating within the guidelines of halachah, his conversion was accepted without question. After all, that does seem to fit with the normative halachah on the issue.
This no longer holds true. Now, in order to perform a conversion, a rabbi must be approved on a list -- in Israel -- by people who have no knowledge of any of the rabbis on the list, and have no understanding of the local factors which rabbis on the ground deal with day in and day out. Instead, they point to isolated cases of difficult conversions as proof for the need for international oversight from afar.
In today's atmosphere of international communication, websites, blogs and the like, it seems now that if the whole world is one international community, then there can only be one possible mara d'atra - the gadol hador.
And that would ultimately be a tragedy for the Jews who need their own rabbi to deal with their own issues, but cannot because the rest of the world peers over his shoulder.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Review Questions for Gemara 7th Grade

1. Why did Rabbi Yehushua say that Yehuda ger Amoni was permitted to marry a Jew?
2. What are the three cases when Rabban Gamliel afflicted Rabbi Yehushua?
3. What was the parable of the laundry man?
4. What was the argument about the number of benches?
5. What qualities were important to become a Nasi?
6. What does the gemara think that "tefillat ha'erev ein la keva" means at first?
7. Why couldn't this be the correct meaning?
8. According to the end of the gemara, what does "ein la keva" teach us?
9. Why didn't Rabbi Eliezer's wife want him to take the job?
10. What did he answer her?