Thursday, December 31, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayechi - Yosef, His Brothers, Forgiveness and Family Unity

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayechi - Yosef, His Brothers, Forgiveness and Family Unity

The description of the strained relationship between Yosef and his brothers at the conclusion of Bereishit floods many of us with deep feelings. We identify with the brothers' desire for family unity, but also with Yosef's bitterness. Yosef's ambiguous actions also leave the brothers plenty of room to doubt their future relationship with him.

Technical Note: The recorder ran out of memory right when I was about to conclude with a powerful and frightening comment from Rabbeinu Bachya. Sorry about that. (See his comments on the last chapter of the Chumash. Scary stuff.)

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

How Do You Take Your Coffee?

Rena and I have a theory: you can learn a lot about a person by the way that they take their coffee. Take myself for example. (After all, it's my blog)

The coffee: Freshly Ground
I only like ground coffee. I can't stand instant, to the point that if given the choice between instant and nothing, I'll take nothing. I can live without the caffeine for a day. We also brew our coffee in a bodum (I think the technical term is French Press), which makes the brewed coffee richer and creamier.

The Milk: Cooking Cream
Speaking of cream, I also like cream in my coffee. In the US, where they sell half and half, that wasn't hard. But here in Israel, they really don't understand coffee at all. Just to illustrate, the Turkish coffee that many Israelis drink is also known by the beloved moniker בוץ - "mud". In Israel, Starbucks failed. The closest thing to brewed coffee in most places is "kafeh hafuch", which is an espresso with a bunch of cream on top. If you're lucky, you can ask for "cafeh filter" - and they'll bring you a tiny, personal size bodem. But I digress. Here in Israel, you can't get cream for your coffee, so I find myself buying cooking cream and adding it to my coffee. It's not bad, but people have wondered why we use so much cooking cream. At least the lady at the makolet asked me about it once. I live in a small town.

The Sweetener: None
I used to add splenda to my coffee, but then suffered on Pesach. Splenda is kitniyot. (darn that Ashkenazic custom!) After Pesach, I figured that if I could live without the splenda for a week, why not keep going? My body certainly doesn't need the chemicals.

So: I like freshly ground, bodem brewed coffee with no sugar and a healthy amount of cream. What does that say about me? I think it says that I want authentic, rich experiences without added "sweetener", and that I'd rather do nothing that waste my time with an "instant" experience that's not satisfying or fulfilling.

What does your coffee say about you?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Tree or the Ham? A Conversion Question

The NY Times featured this article about converts struggling with the celebration of Christmas. The article certainly addresses an element of truth. Although halachically, halachah considers a convert כקטן שנולד דמי - "like a newborn child," and it was assumed that the convert had completely segregated herself from her previous life, today that just is not the case. People maintain cordial, loving relationships with their families, creating challenging demands, especially around Christmas Time.
“I am fully committed to becoming Jewish, so it’s been hard to know what I am supposed to do,” said Ms. Jett, who is in graduate school, studying to become a nutritionist. “There’s a piece of me that really feels the need to preserve something I had when I grew up.”
I can appreciate her struggle - her desire to balance her yearning for a Christmas tree and her reluctance to alienate her mother, a devout Methodist who supports her conversion. She settles on the blue and white festooned tree pictured. What saddens me so is that while she struggles so valiantly with Christmas, she gives mainstream Judaism not a second thought. The article continues,
Though Ms. Jett usually goes to her mother’s house for Christmas, this year, her mother came to New York instead, and Ms. Jett and Mr. Silver decided to invite several friends — they affectionately called them “Jewish orphans” — over for dinner. They planned a traditional Christmas menu of bourbon-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, roasted broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans and yams, cooked by Mr. Silver, who works for a real estate investment firm and is the designated chef in the relationship.
What did they teach her in her conversion classes? What does it mean to be Jewish? Why is a Christmas tree bad, but bourbon-glazed ham raises not an eyebrow? If she would have asked me (or any other rabbi that I know), I would have told her that if she had to choose, she should keep the tree and dump the ham. The tree is a nice custom with no real connection to Christianity at all. The ham, on the other hand? A Torah prohibition.
That, to me, is the true tragedy: a generation of converts with not only little to no knowledge of Judaism, but with spouses who lack the same, calling themselves and their children Jewish.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Where Will You Be in Ten Years? Thoughts for Vayigash

With the close of the first decade of the 21st century, media outlets are rife with retrospectives of the past decade: the decade in pictures, the decade in news stories, the decade in movies. (Truth be told, when I look at the lists of top movies from the decade, I've never heard of most of them.) But one podcast that I enjoy asked a poignant question: where were you ten years ago? It's a good question, because it also begs the next question: And where will you - and do you want to - be in ten years.
After learning that Yosef was still alive, Ya'akov decides to travel to Egypt to see his long-lost son. On the way down, he stops to offer sacrifices to God, who appears to him in a vision during the night. God tells him,
אל תירא מרדה מצרימה, כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם
Do not fear from descending to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there (46:3)
Rashi (along with most everyone else) notes that clearly Ya'akov feared something. What did he fear? Rashi answers that, "he was upset that he was forced to leave the Holy Land." It's a nice idea, and certainly highlights the value of living in Israel - but it doesn't answer the question: what made him afraid? The Zohar gives a different answer:
Said Rabbi Yeisa: When Israel traveled down to the exile in Egypt, a great fear and dread fell upon him. Said to him the Holy One blessed be He: "Why are you afraid? Do not fear from descending to Egypt." From the fact that it says, "Do not fear," it's clear that he was afraid. [Ya'akov] said to [God], "I fear that my children will be destroyed." He said, "I will make you a great nation there."
In essence, Ya'akov feared not the near future, but the distant future. What would be not next year, but in ten, twenty, a hundred years? Would his children survive the spiritual wasteland of Egypt? Would they suffer debilitating persecution that could destroy them? Or perhaps would they end up assimilating into a warm, welcoming Egyptian land? We can well understand Ya'akov's worry at this point in time, and his fear for the future.

Ten years ago, right about this time, I was actually asked where I would be in ten years. I was the rabbi at Agudas Achim in West Hartford, and it was time to move on. By the time we decided to try out for new shuls, it was really the beginning of the year (and only one shul - the Young Israel of Oak Park) was looking for a rabbi. On Saturday night, during the "Ask the Rabbi" session, someone asked me, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" What they really wanted to know was, "Do you see us as a stepping-stone for your next rabbinic job?" But that's not what they asked. So I answered, "In ten years I see myself living in Israel, together with all of you." Truthfully, at the time I didn't mean it. I had no concrete plans to move to Israel. I thought it was a rather clever dodge of an unfair question.
But when I think of how my life has changed during the past ten years, I find it difficult to think of a way in which it has not changed. We've been blessed with two additional children. I've changed jobs - and cities (actually countries) twice. And yet, none of this happened on its own. I feel that my life has followed a path - with each decision leading to the next, big or small.
All of this makes me wonder: what about the next ten years? I think it's a good, and important question not because we can know the future - nor should we try - but more because the visions we have for our long-term future can focus our behavior. If I want to see myself as a computer programmer in ten years (I don't - it's just an example), at some point during that time I'm going to have to take a class or two in that field. If I want to be living in Israel in ten years, that requires not a little bit of life-tweeking as well.
At the same time, long-term planning does not mean agonizing about the twists and turns of life. Personally, I'm quite good at worrying, specifically about the near future. Aliyah has proven to be an ongoing lesson in patience; doing my part, and waiting to see how things play out; making my hishtadlut, and putting things in the hand of the Almighty.
I guess that's the sense of balance we all need. Ten years is a sizable chunk of time - a significant portion of one's life. So we need to have a vision of where we want to see ourselves in ten years' time, and make the small course corrections that will hopefully steer us towards that goal. But we also must recognize that we are subjects of God, whose plans and infinite wisdom far outstrips our feeble vision. So, armed with our visions of the future, we place ourselves in His hands and pray for the best.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayigash - Is It All Really for the Best?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayigash: Is Is All Really for the Best?

Yosef's reaction to his brothers' sale so many years earlier leaves us literally shocked. He seems not only to absolve them of responsibility, but even tells them that their actions were somehow divinely inspired. Really? How much action comes from us, and how much from God?

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I Don't Have a Facebook Account

Usually, I like being at the front of a tech curve. I like technically oriented magazines, blogs, podcasts, etc. I designed my own website, and do all kinds of things with digital media. Despite all of this, I never opened a Facebook account (nor do I Tweet). I've been thinking about why not for a while, and I can now boil it down to a few reasons:

1. Time Wasting: The NY Times posted this article about kids swearing themselves off of Facebook and watching their grades (and real friendships) improve. I already blow a staggering amount of time on the Interwebs. (see above). I console myself by telling myself that at least some of it carries a redeeming Torah value. At least I hope so. I also spend too much time reading news, checking the weather - you name it. I'm pretty confident that this is not a phenomenon unique to me. But Facebook takes time-wasting to a whole new level. Now it's not just famous people that I'd have to keep up with, but everyone: my friends, their friends, and their friends. And their pictures. And fun videos that they've flagged. And articles they'There's an almost infinite amount of Facebook worthy material for me to peruse, and I don't have time for it.

Then there's Farmville, Mafia Wars and other social network games - which I am intentionally not linking to. These are incredibly addictive, viral, mind-blowingly-time-wasting game that suck people in and then get them to pay real money for online stuff. I actually think that these types of game border on evil. If you want to waste your own time, that's one thing. But creating a game that asks people to waste time along with you to suck them in - that's an ethically questionable practice. End Farmville rant.

2. Silliness, Minutia and Friends: The funny thing about "friends" on Facebook is that they're not really friends. They're more like acquaintances; people that you know casually and keep track of. I don't care what my friend had for lunch or whether his kid has a cold (sure, it's a pain to them, but do I really need to know?), but I would love a forum where I could talk with real friends about real things. Facebook isn't built for that. It's more about quick hits and short status updates - Twitter on steriods, 140 characters at a time. I probably could build a closed Facebook group for my close friends to discuss real things, but then I'd have to deal with issue #1 (see above).

3. Modesty: There's something inherently immodest about the whole idea of Facebook. I don't mean immodesty in the skirt-length way, but rather in a lifestyle kind of way. Facebook is about broadcasting my status - what I'm doing, thinking, eating, which video games I'm playing - for the world to know. It makes everyone a mini-celebrity. We promote ourselves, because my gripes about my kids' homework, or what we had for dinner must obviously be important news. But this very notion of celebrity runs against the principle of modesty. Modesty teaches us to live a proper life without broadcasting details to the world - the very opposite of the Facebook ideal.

We live in a world fascinated with celebrity. Everyone wants to be famous - either for gatecrashing the White House or planting sweet potatoes in their virtual garden. Judaism wants us to do the opposite: to lead real, meaningful lives in which we engage with and study Torah with our real friends, children, and families. And, when we do these real things, we don't tell anyone about them.
God knows. And that's more than enough.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Yosef: The Great Dreamer

Devar Torah for Parshat Miketz
This is a pretty long piece. If you want to print it out, click here for a printable version.

“I have a dream.”
In his fiery and unforgettable speech, Martin Luther King burnt this passage into the American consciousness, altering history. In these four words he couched his hopes, his efforts and his yearning for a brighter future for himself, his children, his people and his country. His rhetoric, passion and ultimately sacrifice transformed his dream largely into reality.
But his “dream” wasn’t really a dream in the classical sense. The dictionary provides seven definitions for the word “dream.” The first three define a “dream” as “a succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind” associated with sleep, and the fourth defines it as, “an involuntary vision occurring to a person when awake.” The common denominator between these definitions is their involuntary nature. You don’t choose your dreams. They come to you.
But then come the fifth and sixth definitions, which categorize a dream as, “a vision voluntarily indulged in while awake; daydream; reverie,” or “an aspiration; goal; aim.” This type of dream has very little in common with the first form. In fact, they’re not really “dreams” at all. They’re goals and aspirations; desires for the future.
Which “dream” did Martin Luther King have? Did his dreams come to him, involuntarily in the night? Were they waking “visions” that appeared to him during those long days in county prisons in the South? Or were they the second kind: not visions that came to him, but visions he brought to himself, to his people, and to his country?
Dreams play a prominent role in the second half of Bereishit. Beginning with Ya’akov’s vision of the ladder ascending to the heavens, we find dreams throughout the ensuing biblical narrative, specifically surrounding Yosef. He dreams about the sun, moon and stars, and the bowing stalks of wheat. He interprets the dreams of the baker and butler. And then he interprets the dreams of the Par’oh, leading himself to prominence and power. But his dreams provide not only vision but also motivation.
When Yosef identifies his brothers, instead of revealing himself and reconciling with them, we read that (Bereishit 42:9),
וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף--אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת, אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם
And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them: 'You are spies!”

Rashi explains that in remembering his dreams he realized that, “they had been fulfilled, for they had bowed down to him.” Ramban however disagrees, arriving at precisely the opposite conclusion. Yosef remembered that in his dream, eleven stars bowed to him, and not ten. “And since he did not see Binyamin with them, he conjured this plan so that they would bring Binyamin as well to him to fulfill his original dream.” Somehow, says Ramban, his dreams not only envisaged his future, but also prompted his behavior to bring them to fruition. In his mind, his dreams carried so much weight that they compelled him to conspire against his brothers, imprison them and cause anguish to his father – just to make his dreams “come true.”
All this makes me wonder: which type of dreams did Joseph have? Were they the first type of dreams: prophetic, involuntary visions which appeared whether asleep or awake? Or, when we describe Yosef as a “dreamer”, do we really mean that he was a “visionary”, whose voluntary visions drove him to greatness later on? What I really want to know is: did Joseph control his dreams, or did they control him?
When Yosef recounts his dreams to his brothers, we find no mention of sleep. The Torah simply tells us, ויחלם יוסף חלום – “and Yosef dreamt a dream.” (37:5) In addition, his brothers hated him for those dreams. After he tells them about the second dream of the constellations, we read that (35:8),
וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ, עַל-חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל-דְּבָרָיו
And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words

While we can readily understand their hatred for “his words” – after all, no one forced him to recount his dreams of domination to his brothers – why did they hate him for his dreams? If dreams are simply involuntary visions that arrive whether awake or asleep, how could the brothers blame Yosef for them? Could it be possible that Yosef’s dreams were not dreams in the classic, subconscious sense, but something more voluntary? Was it possible that he himself conjured his dreams of domination over his brothers?
Par’oh’s dreams clearly come during sleep. After each of his dreams we read, וַיִּיקַץ, פַּרְעֹה, “and Par’oh awoke.” And yet, he finds these dreams so powerful that he cannot simply ignore them. Something inside him prompts him to search not only for an interpretation, but for the “right” one. When he awoke in the morning, ותפעם רוחו – “his spirit was troubled.” Rashi explains that it “rang inside him like a bell.” (פעמון). He knew that his dreams carried a critical message, yet he could not unravel their message. No matter what interpretations his servants suggested, אין פותר אותם – “there was none that could interpret them for him.” (41:8) Rashi notes that of course people tried. Still, “their voice did not enter his ears and he had no ‘peace of spirit’ from them.” He just knew that their interpretations were off the mark. He knew that the answer to the riddles of his dreams was locked somewhere inside him. He simply needed the right person to find the key.
That person was, of course, Yosef. Who better to unravel the complicated meaning of dreams that the “dreamer” himself. Who more than Yosef could appreciate the mysterious and complicated connection between divine vision and personal aspiration; between strange visions and personal interpretations – and maybe even between hopes and aspirations and the desire and willingness to make the effort to translate them into reality?
On the one hand, Yosef tells Par’oh that his dreams bear the stamp of God: “What God is about to do He hath declared unto Par’oh,” (41:25) and, “it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.” (42:32) But then Yosef proceeds to insert himself into “God’s” plan – in order to make his own “dreams” come true. “Now therefore let Par’oh seek out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.” (42:33) Let’s see. Who could Yosef possibly be talking about? So did his dream presage his rise to power, or did it cause it? Did he act in accordance with God’s original plan, or did God’s message motivate him to fulfill that Divine desire? It’s a maddening Catch-22. There’s no way to know.
Even more importantly, even if we entertain the possibility that Joseph’s dream came to him during his waking moments, does that make them any less “real”? What is our imagination, our ability to “dream”; to see the impossible, to year an unlikely and improbable future; to see the world not as it is but as we feel it should be – other than the spark of the Divine?
Yosef’s greatness lay in two critical areas: First and foremost, his personal dreams and hopes mirrored those of the Creator. His vision of rule over his brothers derived not from a selfish desire for power and glory, but for the betterment of his father’s family and the fulfillment of God’s plan. He saw his own greatness in the future because he realized his potential – and his destiny, to use him capabilities to change and ultimately save the world. But he also realized that dreams aren’t simply visions which come true. They must be made true. Had he sat back and waited for his dreams to fulfill themselves, they never would have been realized. Yosef realized that dreams demand action; so he told them to his brothers, bore the brunt of their hatred, and set into motion the unlikely chain of events that transformed his dreams into reality.
Today we no longer have the first type of dream. God doesn’t come to us in visions during the night, sending strange messages to world leaders through images of sheep and wheat. (Can you imagine what would happen if Barack Obama called for a dream-interpreter, to help him make a critical policy decision? Impeachment? Insane asylum?) But we do have an abundance of the second type of dream: aspirations and yearning for fundamental change, whether in our personal or communal or national lives. In moments of peace and tranquility – not unlike Yosef, alone in the fields with his sheep for hours on end – we allow our minds to see the world the way it should be; it could be and perhaps it will be. Do we see in them the spark of the Divine? Do our dreams mirror the will of God? Do we envision in our dreams the redemption of the world, the betterment of life, or perhaps bringing the Jewish people closer to our national goal? (Or do our “dreams” have more to do with large LCD television sets and man-caves with surround sound?) And then, have we done anything to follow in Yosef’s footsteps: not just to have the dream, but to make it happen?
Martin Luther King’s greatness lay not just in his ability to dream a future of racial equality. Rather, he also gave the speech, and organized the protests, and sacrificed his life. And ultimately, translated his dream into the social fabric we take for granted today.

And here is the rest of it.

The Flash Mob is Working

I got a call from a friend the other day. He was thinking about me. Why, all of a sudden? Turns out that he was watching the Flash Mob dance video from Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. (he, along with a seven hundred thousand other people). I had seen it. But I didn’t get it, I told him. What’s the big deal about a bunch of people dancing spontaneously in the middle of Ben Yehuda?
“That’s just it,” he said. “They’re dancing in the streets of Jerusalem. What the heck am I doing here?”
I guess the Flash Mob thing worked. It would have never dawned on me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sex-Ed in Jewish Schools

The New York Times featured this article about Rabbi Haskel Lookstein's ongoing sex-ed class at Ramaz that he calls, "Sex with the Rabbi". (Thanks to Hirhurim for pointing it out.)
While some might like to criticize, I applaud Rabbi Lookstein, although I'm not sure why the class merits a piece in the NYT. I also wonder whether the class would be better taught in a separate setting. Still, this class and others of its kind are a critical component for children growing up today.
During my last year in Detroit, I taught halachah to a small group of tenth grade boys once a week. After a couple of months of Hilchot Shabbat, I decided to study hilchot Issurei Bi'ah (forbidden sexual relationships) of the Rambam, specifically chapter 21, which deals with many of the issues young people struggle with as they grow: sexuality, prohibited behavior, marriage, objectification of women - it's all in there, really. (Needless to say, the change of subject addressed the lagging attendance issues.)
What emerged was clearly a necessary class: these kids have seen everything - or at least they think that they have. What they have not seen is a healthy sexual relationship - and that's because you're not supposed to see one. It's supposed to be private. But what they have seen - and I don't care how frum you are and what school you send your kids to - is the objectification of women, the value of sex as an act, not as a covenant, the expectation that every woman have a certain body size and type. The list goes on and on. And still schools cower from fear that they might "corrupt" the kids. The kids are already corrupted. What they need is a sense of balance that a Torah perspective on sexuality can give them.
So if your school has a class like this, thank your lucky stars. And if it doesn't, it should.

Eight Days of Chanukah, with the US Navy Band

In my last post, I mentioned that during elementary school I sang in the Hebrew Academy (of Greater Washington) choir, under the capable leadership of Mrs. Leah Lipman. Choir was serious. There were try-outs, bi-weekly practice during lunch, and a zillion performances, often not during school. We performed in shuls, at government functions, old-age homes, you name it, we were there.
When I was in second grade (the first grade they'd let you be in the choir) we performed with the United States Navy Band in Constitution Hall. It was a really big deal. The Navy bussed us out to practice with the band as well as the Sea Chanters (they were really unbelievable) several times, and then we performed twice before a couple of thousand people. I had a really big solo for the song, "Eight Days of Chanukah", and my name even made it into the program. I still have very fond memories of those shows: watching the Sea Chanters play poker before the show, singing with the band. It's probably a good thing that we didn't appreciate how large the performance was. If we had, we really would have been nervous.
I'm sharing a clip of Eight Days of Chanukah that I've converted from the tape we got of the performance. If you're an Academy alum and want the rest of the show, email me and I'll try and upload more.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

I also found another clip from the performance here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel...

I don't get the dreidel. It doesn't really have much to do with the holiday of Chanukah. Sure, the four sides have four letters - נס גדול היה שם- "A great miracle happened there" - but what does the spinning of the top have anything to do with the holiday? At least on Purim I know what the grogger is for: to make noise. But dreidel? I just don't get it.
More to the point: I don't like playing dreidel. I really never understood the rules very well. If you get the full pot on a gimmel, and half the pot on a hay, then the math doesn't really add up. Or at least that's how it seems to me. (If you really want to know the "official" rules, you can check them out at
I do have a fond memory of dreidel playing: I remember that my father (who died when I was very young) was great at making the dreidel spin on its head; I thought that was really cool. Still do.
I also find playing dreidel kind of boring. It's probably for the same reason that I don't like playing war - there's no skill involved. After you draw your cards in war, you're just playing out the luck of the draw. You could give them to a computer and have it figure out who won more quickly than if you played the game out yourself.
Funny dreidel story: this year I was going through a pile of old stuff, and found the tape from when I was a member of the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington choir, and we sang with the United States Navy Band in Constitution Hall. Yes, we really did that. It's an amazing memory. (I'm in the process of converting the audio to mp3, and hope to post it for your listening pleasure soon.) Anyway, late in the program we come to the dreidel medley. At which point, a small group of poor choir members who were consigned to the back row were instructed to sneak off the stage. They then proceeded to the back of the hall where they were fitted with giant dreidel costumes. When we got to the part of "Sivivon, sov sov sov", they started twirling down the aisles of the hall. Just thinking about it now makes me smile.
There is one part of the dreidel that I really do like. For years, our dreidels had the four letters - nun, gimmel, hay and shin, which stand for נס גדול היה שם - "a great miracle happened there." Indeed, these represented the four sides of the dreidel for as long as there's been a dreidel. (I actually heard today that the Chatam Sofer played dreidel with his grandchildren, so it has been around for a while.) But now those aren't the right letters for us anymore. Now that we live in the Holy Land, our old dreidels are all wrong. The letters now should be: nun, gimmel, hay and pay - נס גדול היה פה - "a great miracle happened here." And as much as I don't get the game, and see the connection between the dreidel and the rules, I love the fact that I need new dreidels, because now we're no longer talking about the miracle that happened שם - there, but פה - here. And I give thanks to God that I have merited the blessing of raising children with a different dreidel song than the one I grew up with. They don't need to sing the song about "there", because they're living "here."
That's reason enough to play dreidel this Chanukah.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Wacky Video about Chanukah

Little did I know that Senator Orren Hatch of Utah (Mormon) was such a big fan of Chanukah. He apparently has written a Chanukah song that was recorded in New York (sung by a Syrian-American singer). I'll reserve judgment on the song; I just love the idea that the Senator wrote it. Also, check out his necklace on the video.
It's also worthwhile to note Jeffrey Goldberg's comments about Chanukah in the article about the song. He writes,
Hatch said he hoped his song would be understood not only as a gift to the Jewish people but that it would help bring secular Jews to a better understanding of their own holiday. “I know a lot of Jewish people that don’t know what Hanukkah means,” he said. Jewish people, he said, should “take a look at it and realize the miracle that’s being commemorated here. It’s more than a miracle; it’s the solidification of the Jewish people.”
He’s right. Without Judah Maccabee’s militant intervention in 167 BCE, the Syrian program of forced Hellenization might have brought about a premature end to the Jewish story. But, for such a pivotal figure, Judah Maccabee is one of the more misunderstood leaders in Jewish history. He was not, for one thing, a paragon of tolerance. One of contradictions of Hanukkah—an unexplored contradiction in our culture’s anodyne understanding of the holiday—is that the Maccabee brothers were fighting not for the principle of religious freedom but only for their own particular religion’s freedom. Their understanding of liberty did not extend even—or especially—to the Hellenized Jews of Israel’s coastal plains. The Maccabees were rough Jews from the hill country of Judea. They would be amused, if they were capable of amusement, to learn that their revolt would one day be remembered as a struggle for a universal civil right.
On the one hand, it's a tragedy that a Mormon Senator from Utah is teaching Jews about the religious and spiritual nature of Chanukah. But it's also incredible - and truly American phenomenon. I emailed Hatch, thanking him for not the song so much, but his continued support for Israel. (He's a co-sponsor of pending legislation for tougher sanctions on Iran. Very important stuff.) Enjoy the song - or at least what it represents. And then go and teach your children an authentic Chanukah song.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Parshat Vayeishev - The Roots of Sibling Hatred

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeishev: The Roots of Sibling Hatred

The tragedy of the hatred between Yosef and his brothers begins not in Canaan, but with Yaakov's marriage to Rachel and Leah. The rivalry and differences between them set the tone for the hatred that rises between their sons later on in life.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Good Old Days of TV

As a kid, I spent many a half-hour watching this show. It was not only entertaining, had a great mystery feature (bloodhound gang), but because it was educational (and aired on PBS), my mother couldn't find a reason not to let me watch it. Those were the days! I'd love to be able to show old episodes of this show to my kids, but they're really not available online - at least that I could find...

Monday, December 7, 2009

In For a Penny, In For a Pound

Back in September, I wrote this post about how the proposed housing freeze would affect Haredim more than any other constituency in Israel. It seems that I was right. Yesterday's Jerusalem Post contained this article about how the Chareidim living in Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit (a.k.a. Kiryat Sefer) want Barack Obama to exclude them from the freeze. The article, for all its irony, contains some precious gems, like:
"The US is the real boss here, not the Israeli government, so we need to convince America that we're not an ideological settlement," said Mayor Meir Rubinstein..."They pushed us to come here. They gave us no other choice. We didn't necessarily want to settle in a place beyond the Green Line. But we had no other options inside the Green Line...America does not want us either," he said. "They won't give us a green card. We're in a worse situation than Sudanese refugees. They don't want us in Israel, they don't want us in America, where are we supposed to go?"
First some (unsolicited) advice for Mayor Rubinstein from Pirkei Avot (3:17):
רבי עקיבא אומר...סיג לחכמה שתיקה
Said Rabbi Akiva: the "fence" for wisdom in silence.
He's really not helping himself at all here, whether we're talking about the Israeli public that sees his comments as a חילול ה' - ("We're really not one of you!") nor the American Chareidi public that truly is right-wing in its politics. Does he actually mean what it sounds like he means? I really hope not. Does he really mean that given the choice, hundreds of thousands of Chareidim would prefer to live in Lakewood as opposed to Kiryat Sefer? That would make the next quote quite questionable:
We're true Zionists. We came because of our religious faith; we're not ideologically motivated," he said.
I have three responses:
1. Sorry, life doesn't work that way. You wanted the West Bank specifically because the land was cheap and plentiful. Why did you think it was so cheap? You specifically wanted locations within reasonable reach of Yerushalayim that was also reasonably priced. Well, the West Bank prices were just right - for a reason. And now that reason has reared its ugly head.
2. Do we really think that most "settlers" live in the West Bank for purely ideological reasons? Sure, some people are true ideologues, living in far-away places on hilltops, giving the New York Times unlimited photo fodder. But most "settlers" moved the West Bank for the very same reason that the Chareidim did: it offered plentiful housing at an affordable price. The location was sometimes annoying (read here: road closures, rocks, bullets, etc.) and often ideologically appropriate. Still, most people that I know bought (and buy) houses in the Shomron because that's where they can afford to live.
3. Finally, Barack Obama doesn't care what motivated people to live in the West Bank. Nor do the Palestinians. They protest the expansion of Kiryat Sefer just as much as the expansion of Ofrah. It's a line on a map. If you're on the wrong side, you've got a problem that won't go away with a plea from a mayor.
Today Shas started to feel the heat. An Arutz 7 news item quoted Religious Services Minister Yacov Margi of Shas who said that, "the decision to freeze Jewish construction is inhumane and immoral," and that there should be "exceptions" to the freeze - I guess that means for Chareidim, but he couldn't say that. The article ended by noting that,
The Shas party absented themselves from the cabinet vote on the freeze.
Why did they skip the vote? Because they hate getting into ideological fights that might cost them Torah funding for yeshivot. Unfortunately for them, the Chareidim now face a pressing housing crisis that will only get worse. At some point they're going to have to decide which cost crisis will need to take precedence: funding for yeshivot, or the additional costs of a housing shortage. When the pressure from the lack of living space overwhelms the Chareidi political establishment forcing them to exert pressure on the government, we'll see some loosening of the settlement freeze.
Note to the Chareidim: Unlike Ya'akov Avinu, you knew who you were getting in bed with. At least wear the "settler" badge with pride.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

New Order: No Tefillin in Judea and Samaria

I received the following notice in the Yad Binyamin email list. You can click here to download the item yourself or send the link to a friend. It's just a good way to get a feel for the mood in the Religious Zionist community in Israel.

Heading: To the Mayors/Heads of Regional Councils in the Areas of Judea and Samaria

Subject: Orders Regarding Suspension the Procedures of the Donning of Tefillin (Temporary Order)
1. On the date of November 25, 2009 the decision of the National Ministry Committee accepted the decision regarding the suspension of the donning of Tefillin in Judea and Samaria.
2. The decision is anchored with the appropriate command signed by the IDF commander in the region.
3. Attached for your attention in the IDF Force order in its complete form.
4. The fundamental implications of the order are that it is forbidden for the residents that fall under the jurisdiction of these authorities to don Tefillin - beginning from the date of the signature of the order (i.e. November 26, 2009). Tefillin that we written after this date are subject to this order, and one may not take any action of donning with them, including the wrapping of the Tefillin on the arm, nor tightening them to the body.
5. We would like to call to your attention that the point of reference that has been established is that someone who has completed the tightening of the Tefillin of the head can continue with the donning.
6. In order to deal with individual cases - a board will be appointed in the Regional Authority that will examine requests according to the procedures and criterion which will be distributed to you.
7. We understand the implications of the order and the challenge that stands before you as representatives of the community in this complicated situation.
8. As a democratic state and its security arm, it is expected from us to actualize the decisions of the government. It is expected of you that as public representatives you will act lawfully and responsibly.
9. Arabs in the region can continue to don Tefillin as they had before this order.
10. With Blessings of Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Vayishlach - Bridges in Jewish Life

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach: Bridges in Jewish Life
This shiur is dedicated in memory of my father (Harav Simcha ben Yitzchak Kalman).
Ya'akov's battle with the strange "man" serves as a source of both intrigue and inspiration. His actions in grappling with this stranger, and the lessons that we learn from him, lead to some spirited comments about Jewish life and aliyah.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Judaism According to the "Times" 2

Second in a series. (Previous article here.)

Two columns in the Times this week caught my attention. Both relate to the interesting and unusual (and rather sad) perspective on Judaism so prevalent in the Western World. It's a sort of love-hate relationship - a love of Judaism and staunch protectionism, but a rather visceral recoil from any sense of obligation.
Roger Cohen, writing about being Jewish in London, addresses the ongoing court case addressing the question of defining Judaism as a set of beliefs or a genealogical reality. (See my post on the matter here). Cohen writes,
I won’t go into the case here but will say that I found the court’s ruling that the criteria for Jewishness must be “faith, however defined” — rather than family ties — quaint. Nobody I know ever defined a Jew, or persecuted one, on the grounds of whether or not he went to synagogue regularly.
His argument seems two-faced. On the one hand, he rejects the notion that one's Jewishness must be defined by his behavior. He's a Jew - and no court in England has the right to question that fact, whether he attends synagogue, eats bagels on Sundays, or davens thrice daily. (I have no idea what he does or doesn't do. But I have a strong suspicions that the "thrice daily" thing isn't likely.) It's in the blood. But then he concludes:
Openness has grown. Bigotry’s faint refrain has grown fainter still. But I think my old school should throw more light on this episode. And I still believe the greatest strength of America, its core advantage over the old world, is its lack of interest in where you’re from and consuming interest in what you can do.
One second. Several paragraphs before he demanded to be defined as "Jewish" because of his lineage. Behavior didn't matter. Blood did. But now he's lauding America as the place where your lineage matters not at all. All that's important is "what you do."
Is it just me, or Cohen trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be Jewish because he is. But then he wants to say that it doesn't really matter what you are, it matters how you act. Which is it?

Maureen Dowd, writing about Washington Wizards (although to me they'll always be the Bullets) owner Abe Pollen after his passing records Pollen's son's words:
Bob noted: “My mother and he always celebrated Shabbat dinner on Friday night. And they always had lobster.” As strongly as Abe Pollin felt about Judaism, Bob said, it was not the rituals that he considered important so much as “leading a moral life.”
I'll let the Shabbat-lobster issue go. I don't understand, but we all pick and choose. But it's Bob's words that I really don't understand. If Shabbat was really that important, and they always celebrated dinner on Friday night, why would Bob then say that rituals weren't important? Clearly they were very important to Pollen.
Of course "leading a moral life" was important to Abe Pollen. But so was Shabbat. It's a shame he could never communicate that fact to his children.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Yosef's Well and the Lights of Chanukah

To download a printable pdf version of this article (on one page) click here.

We like to think that the story of Chanukah chronicles the good guys against the bad: the righteous Jews against the evil Greeks. While in some ways that's true, it's also s a gross oversimplification. In many ways, the story of Chanukah tells the tragic tale of Jew vs. Jew; secularist against religionist; those who remained faithful to Torah and halachah against a powerful group that had abandoned the traditional Jewish way of life. Examined in this light, Chanukah takes on a greater sense of urgency as we watch the two major camps in Israel – the religious and the secular – grow increasingly farther apart from each other. (Watching the competing protests over the character and nature of Yerushalayim on one hand, and the growing tension over the question of following orders in the army, it's easy to see how history could repeat itself, God forbid.)
While the essence of the miracle of Chanukah focuses on the war against the Greeks and the miracle of the oil in the Beit Hamikdash, Chazal left us clues to remind us about the underlying conflict that precipitated the terrible war.
When we examine the very brief mention of Chanukah found in the Gemara (Shabbat 21b – 22b), we encounter an interesting anomaly. (I've numbered the different subjects to make my point clear.)
אמר רב כהנא, דרש רב נתן בר מניומי משמיה דרבי תנחום נר של חנוכה שהניחה למעלה מעשרים אמה - פסולה, כסוכה וכמבוי. ואמר רב כהנא, דרש רב נתן בר מניומי משמיה דרב תנחום: מאי דכתיב +בראשית לז+ והבור רק אין בו מים. ממשמע שנאמר והבור רק איני יודע שאין בו מים? אלא מה תלמוד לומר אין בו מים - מים אין בו, אבל נחשים ועקרבים יש בו. אמר רבה: נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה בטפח הסמוכה לפתח. והיכא מנח ליה? רב אחא בריה דרבא אמר: מימין, רב שמואל מדפתי אמר: משמאל. והילכתא - משמאל, כדי שתהא נר חנוכה משמאל ומזוזה מימין.
1. Said Rav Kahana: Rav Natan bar Minyomi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: A Chanukah lamp placed above the height of twenty amot is invalid. 2. And said Rav Kahana: Rav Natan bar Minyomi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: What is the meaning of the verse: "And the well was empty, it contained no water"? Since it says "the well was empty" did I not know that it contained no water? Rather, what does "it contained no water" teach? [The well] had no water, but it contained snakes and scorpions. 3. Said Rabbah, it is a mitzvah to place the Chanukah lamp in the tefach adjacent to the doorway. And where should he place it? Rav Acha the son of Ravva said: to the right. Rav Shmuel from Difti said: to the left. And the halachah is to the left, so that the Chanukah lamp is on the left, and the mezuzah on the right.
Sandwiched between two short passages relating to specific halachot of lighting ((1) the height and (3) placement of the Chanukah lamp), the Gemara includes a seemingly unrelated Midrash. Why did Chazal record the familiar Midrash about the well into which the brothers threw Yosef in between two halachot about Chanukah? Also, can we connect this Midrash to the rules about where to place the Chanukah lamp?

When we examine the language Chazal utilize in the Midrash about Yosef's well, we find a subtle but critical Chanukah lesson. In addition to the Midrash about the well in the Gemara, the Midrash records a different, less-known teaching (Midrash Agadah 37) about that well:
והבור רק אין בו מים [אין בו דברי תורה]. ואין מים אלא תורה, שנאמר הוי כל צמא לכו למים (ישעי' נה א), מלמד שמרוב הצרה שכח תלמודו
"And the well was empty, it contained no water" – [it contained no words of Torah]. For "water" can only refer to Torah, as it is written, "Let all who thirst go to the water." (Isaiah 55:1). This teaches us that out of great anguish [Yosef] forgot his [Torah] studies.
Yosef's brothers threw him into two "pits". They first cast him into the actual water-well, empty as it was. But then, by selling him into slavery headed towards Egypt, they cast him into a far larger well: the empty pit of Egypt. Yet, this pit was devoid not of water, but of the Torah and spirituality that Yosef learned from his father at home. The Midrash notes a critical message about the absence of Torah. Lack of Torah is not benign. Rather, that lack of Torah and spirituality itself presented a danger to Yosef. The absence of Torah is not a vacuum, open to both positive and negative opportunities. Rather, the very lack of Torah in the well necessitates the fact that "snakes and scorpions" dwelled in that well instead. A place without Torah is never innocuous. The lack of Torah spells danger for Yosef, and for us, his descendants, as the void is filled not by the positives of Hellenism: the philosophy, science and progress, but by its dangers: hedonism, materialism and self-gratification.
This could help us understand the very next passage in the Gemara: ideally, one should place the menorah not in the window, but in the doorway – on the left-hand side (when entering). In this way, we surround our doorway with mitzvot that represent the Torah: the powerful words of Shema in the mezuzah on the right, and the light of Chanukah representing the spirituality of Judaism on the left.
Where does your family light your Chanukah candles? For the past several hundred years, we lit our candles in the window, not because we wanted to but because we had to. Too many generations were forced to keep the light of Chanukah to ourselves, shut in from the dangers (both literal and spiritual) of the outside world. But today things are different, both here in Israel and across the Diaspora. We no longer fear to light our candles in the public square. Our doors today are open. We should follow the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch and light not in the window, but with open doors.
And when we do, there can be no more powerful message about the way we relate to the outside world. Our doorways represent the portal between the insularity of the Jewish home and the "well" of the Western world. What values do we permit to pass through that portal? Are they informed by the mitzvot of Chanukah and mezuzah? The moments we spend lighting our candles this Chanukah present a perfect opportunity to contemplate these crucial questions.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Food as a Uniter, Food as a Divider; On Halachah. Ethiopian Jewry and Thanksgiving

Food can both pull us together and push us apart at the same time. Thanksgiving is an especially good example of this phenomenon. The meal - the turkey with the trimmings - brings families together like almost no other holiday on the calendar, especially in America. But as soon as the family sits down, or maybe even beforehand what does everyone start doing? Usually fighting, and mostly about the same fights that they had the year before.
This seems to be unique quality of food: its pulls and pushes, almost simultaneously.
I've started doing some programming work for semichah students at the Gruss Kollel in Yerushalayim on behalf of the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University. Part of this programming involves exposing the rabbinical students to different people and issues affecting Israel. This past Tuesday we welcomed Rabbi Michael Cytrin , who started an organization called Or L'Doron in memory of Doron Mahareta, who was tragically murdered in the Yeshivat Mercaz Harav massacre in 2007. (You can read about his organization, which supports Ethiopian kollel fellows here.)
Rabbi Cytrin brought and an Ethiopian Kollel fellow named Uri Elazar who spoke about some of the unique challenges facing Ethiopian Jewry. He described a community that has been maintaining its own unique Jewish identity for over two thousand years, completely removed from the rest of the Jewish world. They had the same written Torah, but no Mishnah, gemara, or developed Shulchan Aruch. They had an oral tradition spanning thousands of years. And it worked for them, allowing them to maintain a dedicated, devoted, insular Jewish community in the face of adversity and persecution in the heart of Africa.
Imagine then arriving in Israel in the early 1990s and learning that the religion you considered authentic and timeless had actually "moved on"; that the religion you had been practicing for centuries was: wrong. How would you react? Would you simply change over and say, "Well, we've been doing it one way, but let's just switch"? Probably not. But then you send your children to educational institutions that, while honoring your traditions, teaches your children the new way. And as they learn the new rules and traditions, they not only forget the ways of their parents, but begin to reject them entirely.
When asked for a concrete example, Uri immediately brought up the issue of food. Eating food has been, and is supposed to be - a medium that unites. We come together around food, whether we do so as friends, as family, or as community. There is nothing as uniting as the ability to break bread together, and nothing as dividing as the inability to do that very same thing. (The rabbis were actually quite cognizant of this fact when they legislated against bishul akkum, pat akkum, stam yeynam - all instituted to create a barrier of separation between Jews and non-Jews.) In the Ethiopian culture (among many, many others), eating at someone's home symbolized respect and friendship. Not eating at their home when asked was a sign of rejection and disrespect.
Consider then the following problem:
According to Jewish law, before a shochet slaughters an animal or bird, he must carefully inspect his knife in a meticulous and prescribed manner immediately before the actually shechittah. Then, immediately following he must again examine the knife to ensure that the knife did not become nicked, rendering the animal treif. If a shochet failed to inspect the knife before the shechitah, Jewish law renders the animal treif. That's a halachic fact, with no wiggle room at all.
Ethiopian custom, on the other hand, does not have this requirement of knife inspection. Instead, according to Ethiopian tradition, the shochet must continually sharpen his knife until immediately before slaughtering the animal, without any pause between sharpening and slaughter. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that according to Jewish law, animals slaughtered according to Ethiopian tradition are effectively treif. (And Ethiopians don't buy meat from a store. To quote Uri quoting his relatives: "Buy meat from a store? In a package? How do you know who slaughtered it? How can you tell that it's kosher?" Good questions, actually.) So you're left with a situation where Ethiopians consider "regular" kosher meat unacceptable, and halachah considers meat slaughtered in the Ethiopian tradition treif as well.
So, when an Ethiopian young man or woman comes home from yeshiva for Shabbat, what should they do? Should they eat the food - which their teachers, who they respect, love and admire - have told them is treif? Should they reject their parents' food, tearing their family apart? (In the words of Uri, it's not uncommon for a father to say, "A son who does not eat in my home is no son of mine.")
I identified strongly with Uri's description of this ongoing problem in the Ethiopian community. It's not uncommon at all for members of a family to not eat in each-others' homes - and we're not talking about treif homes either, which only complicates matters. (One day, I'll write about the balance - or lack thereof - between the value of stringency in kashrut and the value of interpersonal family relationships and the friction caused when kashrut divides instead of uniting. But that's not a blog post. It's an article.)
I guess it doesn't matter whether you're an FFB, an Ethiopian Jew who made aliyah or just a plain American: Food does the same thing to all of us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Parshat Vayetze - Finding God in Times of Strife

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayetze: Finding God in Times of Strife
We imagine Ya'akov's journey to Haran as a pleasant one, interrupted by a beautiful, powerful dream. Yet, analyzing the Midrashim and the comments of Rashi, his trip is anything but pleasant. Ya'akov's behavior - and his call to God for help and protection provides a powerful example we can emulate in times of strife and struggle.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

In Memory of my Grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Hyman H. Friedman

Tonight my family marks the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Hyman (Chaim) Friedman. Or, as we called him, Zayde. I have a special affinity for Zayde in that I followed after him into the professional rabbinate. He served first in Atlanta, Georgia, and then moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts where he served for decades (I don't remember how many). I think that I appreciate his years of service in the rabbinate more now than I did when he died. I certainly learn new things about him all the time. Who knew that he tutored Rav Gifter when he first arrived at YU?
I served at rabbi of a shul in West Hartford, CT, that was probably a lot like his shul in Winthrop - Orthodox shul, not many Orthodox people. It's not an easy life; thankless in many ways, with many frustrations and few successes.
And yet, serve he did for so many years. After he retired, he moved to Silver Spring, MD where he spent the final years of his life studying Torah, attending minyan, becoming a noted and very popular speaker, visiting the sick and becoming a fixture in Kemp Mill. Yet, that's what he did - not what he was.
What was he? First and foremost, a Talmid Chacham. He knew how to learn. He was a masterful speaker - just watch the video - he had mastered the craft over a lifetime. He was loving, caring and gentle. He was perpetually responsible. He was soft-spoken.
And he built a family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren numbering literally in the hundreds, all dedicated to the values of living a Torah lifestyle and devotion to the Jewish people.
That's a legacy that speaks for itself. Which is something Zayde was quite good at.
(If you want to know more about my Zayde, you can click here to listen to a fascinating interview my brother did with him.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Religion According to the "Times"

The New York Times featured an article today about a traveling clerical roadshow called the "Interfaith Amigos", who circle the United States giving presentations on interfaith dialogue. Most troubling to me was the entire tone of the article. Reading it, I got a sense that this article represented what the Times considers the ideal form of religion: one in which religious ideology contains not eternal truths, but as optional path towards God. My favorite section:
The room then grew quiet as each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”
“It is a verse taken out of context,” Sheik Rahman said, pointing out that the previous verse says that God has no love for aggressors. “But we have to acknowledge that ‘kill the unbelievers’ is an awkward verse,’ ” the sheik said as the crowd laughed. “Some verses are literal, some are metaphorical, but the Koran doesn’t say which is which.”
And, at the end of the piece,
Afterward, Mark Wingate, a computer programmer and a Methodist, said: “Talking about the untruths of each tradition is very courageous. It gets it out of the platitude category and into dialogue.”
Mr. Wingate’s wife, Sally, added: “They had to work really hard to get to that point. Most of us are not willing to work that hard.”
First of all, to Sheik Rahman: Really?
"Kill the unbeliever" is taken out of context? It's not meant to be taken literally? I'm very sorry, but I live in a place where a great many of my neighbors take that verse quite literally indeed. Our young people spend their formative years learning and working to ensure that those believers cannot translate their beliefs into reality. Maybe instead of preaching to Methodists in Nashville he should be speaking to Muslims in Rafiach. Only I doubt that they'd really want to hear what he has to say.
But looking at the larger picture, in essence, interfaith dialogue and common ground carry great importance in the world of the NY Times. In this worldview, in the end we really all believe the same thing and want to get to the same place. We just disagree about how to get there.
But we don't agree with one another. And more importantly, the Jewish people are the "chosen people." It's a fundamental tenet of the Jewish faith, established through an eternal covenant with God at Sinai:
וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי--וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:
Now therefore, if you will listen to My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
Did God mean that figuratively? Was He only kidding? Which part of the deal did He not mean literally? The problem becomes acute, because when you start throwing out some truths, you eventually throw out them all. All that you're left with then is a vague sense of religious allegiance; a desire to approach God but no real way to do so, and a religion that speak not in absolutes, but in obscure platitudes.
Which is exactly the type of Judaism (and religion) that the New York Times likes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What Did You Do Last Night?

I regularly listen to a sports talk show on my iPod, which somehow turned into a discussion between the cast members about what they had done the previous evening. Among the four was:
1. Eating dinner and hanging out
2. Watching TV
3. Eating junk food and watching TV
4. Watching a lot of TV
Hearing this rather sad report, I thought to myself: "Wait a minute, what did I do last night?" Thankfully, I spent a nice chunk of time working on a Torah-related piece, so the evening wasn't totally blown. Obviously, family-related activities: putting the kids to sleep, helping them with homework, etc. are clearly worthwhile. But the question seems relevant: what do we do at night? Do we spend our evenings (or at least a part of them) doing something productive, or do we wile away our evenings on some show or another, surfing the web and endlessly updating our Facebook profiles until sleep overcomes us?
This question brought to mind a rather powerful quote from the Rambam about the importance of learning Torah at night. Rambam (Laws of the Study of Torah, 1:8) writes that there's a mitzvah to study Torah every day and every night.
כל איש מישראל, חייב בתלמוד תורה: בין עני בין עשיר, בין שלם בגופו בין בעל ייסורין, בין בחור בין שהיה זקן גדול שתשש כוחו, אפילו עני המחזר על הפתחים, ואפילו בעל אישה ובנים--חייב לקבוע לו זמן לתלמוד תורה ביום ובלילה, שנאמר "והגית בו יומם ולילה"
Every man from Israel is obligated to study Talmud: whether rich or poor, of whole body of one who suffers afflictions, whether a young man or an elders whose energy has waned, even a poor beggar who knocks on doors, and even the husband of a woman with you children - he must dedicate time for the study of Torah during the day and night, as it is written, (Joshua 1:8) "you shalt meditate therein day and night
But then, later on in Chapter 3, (13) Rambam expands on this idea of learning at night rather sharply.
אף על פי שמצוה ללמוד ביום ובלילה, אין אדם למד רוב חכמתו אלא בלילה; לפיכך מי שרצה לזכות בכתר התורה, ייזהר בכל לילותיו, ולא יאבד אפילו אחת מהן בשינה ואכילה ושתייה ושיחה וכיוצא בהן, אלא בתלמוד תורה ודברי חכמה. אמרו חכמים, אין גורנה של תורה אלא לילה, שנאמר "קומי רוני בלילה" (איכה ב,יט). וכל העוסק בתורה בלילה, חוט של חסד נמשך עליו ביום, שנאמר "יומם, יצווה ה' חסדו, ובלילה, שירו עימי--תפילה, לאל חיי" (תהילים מב,ט). וכל בית שאין דברי תורה נשמעין בו בלילה, אש אוכלתו.
Although there is a commandment to study during both the day and night, a person can only study the majority of his wisdom at night; Therefore, anyone who wishes to merit the crown of Torah, should be careful with all of his nights, and not lose even one of them sleeping and eating and drinking and talking and engaged in similar activities, but instead in the study of the words of Torah and wisdom.Said the Sages, the "storehouse of wisdom" is only at night, as it is written, "Arise, cry out in the night". (Lamentations 2,19) And anyone who immerses himself in Torah at night, a thread of grace is extended to him during the day, as it is written, "By day the LORD will command His lovingkindness, and in the night His song shall be with me, even a prayer unto the God of my life" (Psalm 42,9). And any home from which Torah is not heard from it at night - a fire consumes it.
Ouch. While I might feel a little good about what I did last night, it only makes me wonder: what did I do the night before that? And before that?
And how will I spend my evening tonight?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Parshat Toldot - Raising Different Children

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Toldot: Raising Different Children
Looking at the very different children raised by the Avot – how Avraham raised both a Yishmael and a Yitzchak, and Yitzchak raised both an Eisav and a Ya’akov, one question comes to mind: what happened? How can such good people raise such different – and in the eyes of the Midrash, bad – children like Eisava and Yishmael? Where did they go wrong? And what can we do to avoid their mistakes?

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

What's Good for the Goose...

The Jerusalem Post reported this morning about a woman arrested for wearing a tallit. Arrested? For wearing a tallit? Yes, because she wore her tallit at the kotel.
Police were alerted after the women requested to read from the Torah. The decision to arrest the woman was based on a High Court ruling under which public coming to the Western Wall must dress according to the customs of the site, police said.
Apparently, it really is against the law in Israel for a woman to wear a tallit while praying at the Kotel. In fact, there is a dedicated area at the kotel where women and mixed groups can pray in close proximity to the wall, under "Robinson's Arch." This is where most non-Orthdox Bar and Bat Mitzvahs take place. But this woman decided to pray with her tallit in the "main" women's section. Ironically, it's not against Jewish law for a woman to wear a tallit. Halachic authorities have frowned on the practice, especially in recent years, but it's hard to call the performance of a mitzvah "forbidden." It's only against Israeli secular law for a woman to wear a tallit at the Western Wall.
I'm quite sure that this will swell into yet another storm of outrage. The press loves this stuff: it pits poor women just looking for a place to pray against the big bad Orthodox. In fact, the immedaite reaction has been swift and predictable:
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel, said that millions of women in the Jewish world enjoy the right to pray wearing a prayer shawl. He called the arrest "an embarrassment to the police and to the state," especially as it took place in the Jewish state and in the holiest site to Jewry.
First and foremost, is this really "the holiest site to Jewry"? Actually, that would be the Temple Mount - the plateau that sits just above the Western Wall, a place that also carries strict restrictions about Jewish prayer.
In fact, reading the article about a woman praying at the Wall in a tallit immediately made me think of another article about Har Habayit (the Temple Mount). A NY Times article about a recently published book about the Mount noted that,
Some radical (editorial note: anyone who visits Har Habayit is now a "radical") Jewish groups are responding by defying a longstanding rabbinical council prohibition on entering the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. On a recent weekday morning, a small knot of Orthodox Israelis with skullcaps, the fringes of their ritual undergarments hanging from their waists, were exploring the compound, which is open to tourists for a few hours daily. Jews and Israelis are allowed to walk around, but not to pray.
The Jewish group’s leader, who identified himself only as Yosef, fearing a police ban on future visits, said that the rabbinical prohibition was “political,” and that he went to the mount every day because he considered it “our place.” Asked if he prayed there, he would say only that he did what he thought was right, “without getting in anybody’s way.”
That's right. It's illegal for a Jew to pray on Har Habayit. Moreover, while you can think about God if you're up on the Mount, you can't even move your lips. A March 2008 article in Ha'aretz reported that,
A Jew is not allowed to pray in any overt manner whatsoever on the Temple Mount, even if he is just moving his lips in prayer, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter recently wrote MKs Uri Ariel and Aryeh Eldad (National Union-NRP).
All this leads me to wonder: if the "Women of the Wall" are truly committed to freedom of expression and the rights of all people to pray according to their religious passion, shouldn't that rule apply not only to Reform and Conservative Women, but also to Jews who want to pray on Har Habayit?
And if they can accept that a Jew should not pray on the Temple Mount because of the provocation and incitement that would surely ensue, why shouldn't the same rules (er, laws) apply to them? If Rabbi Gilad Kariv wants to know what's truly "an embarrassment to the police and to the state", it's telling Jews that they cannot pray on the real "holiest site in the world." When he gets off his own personal agenda and fights for the rights to pray wherever they please, including the Temple Mount, maybe then I'll begin to take his complaints, and the tactics of the Women in Green a little more seriously.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Cloning Ourselves

I include PR among the many things that I do at Orot. (In Israel, it pays to be a jack of many trades). So, when the film department brought in a film maker named Shoshi Greenfeld to speak to the students about her recently released documentary, I went to take a picture and ended up seeing part of her film and listening to some of her interesting talk. To see a short clip of her film, click here.
In the film, one of her cousins has a baby boy, and she notes an interesting question: why did God create us in such a way that we're born, live a relatively short life and then die? Why did He not just give us each eternal life? The answer she gave was that each of us becomes stuck in our own ways. We tend to find a certain set of values that become entrenched and unchanging. Yet, each new child brings something new to the equation; something different and creative, and it's that newness that moves the world forward.
Shoshi emphasized this point in her discussion of the movie, "The Wayward Son", which is about a young man who struggles over whether to enter the IDF after watching the disengagement from Gaza. She feels strongly that people should follow their inner guide - and not succumb to external pressure to conform to what society expects of us.
Yet, Shoshi's discussion and film raised an interesting question in my mind: on one hand, we do want our children to be unique and different. We want them to excel in their own ways and use their own special talents to make their mark on the world. But do we educate them to that end? Truth be told, we educate (and by "we" I'm talking about "me") our children to be clones of ourselves; we send them to educational institutions that model our personal religious attitudes. We expect them to study both Torah and secular subjects (as we did), and make choices that we would. And when they lean in a direction that makes us uncomfortable, we use our parental powers of persuasion to steer them back on the "right" path. Rare is that parent truly open to his or her children choosing a totally different path in life.
If so, where's the line between conformity and creativity? At what point does a parent stop nudging a child to conform, and allow the child to find his or her own way?
This isn't one of those "easy answer" questions, but rather one that I imagine will continue to gnaw at me as our children grow and develop.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Parshat Chayei Sarah: The Jewish Mother

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chayei Sarah - The Jewish Mother
The search for a wife for Yitzchak - and the qualities the Torah describes in Rivkah - offer a powerful and critical glimpse at the critical roles that Jewish women play in shaping not only their homes, but society at large. By comparing the choice of words found not only in our parshah, but in Vayera as well, we can see what critical qualities Yitzchak saw in his new wife that brought him to love her.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Jew-Hating in Japan

So I'm listening to 60 Minutes on my Ipod, and there's a story about how a member of the Yakuza (that's Japanese Mafia, or so 60 Minutes says) bought a liver transplant at UCLA. The story was originally reported by an American journalist living in Japan named Jake Adelstein. It's an interesting report - nothing that surprising about the fact that people with money find ways to get what they need. But one quote caught my attention.
Adelstein wrote the story for "The Washington Post" and it eventually made its way back to Japan. The news infuriated the Yakuza bosses. For Goto, it was a humiliating blow from which he would never recover.
"I heard from someone very close to him that as he was leaving and getting in his car he said, 'That goddamn American Jew reporter, I wanna kill him,'" Adelstein said.
I wonder: why did the Yakuza boss identify him as a Jew reporter? Has he ever met a Jew, much less seen one in person? I don't know anything about Adelstein, but it seems difficult to imagine that he lives a religious life. Actually, if you read the interview about him on the Amazon page hawking his book it's pretty clear that there's nothing Jewish about him other than his name. Why then does he suddenly become the American Jew Reporter? What do the Japanese mafia have against the Jews?
Just wondering.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Judaism: A Religion or an Nationality?

The New York Times shared a fascinating report on a very public court case in England about whether a Jewish school was required to admit a specific student. Fascinatingly, British public schools are religious in nature - the Jewish school is in fact a public school. (Wouldn't American Jews just love to have that financial burden lifted off their backs?) Additionally, the recognized United Synagogue in Britain falls under Orthodox auspices, under the capable leadership of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. So when a student whose mother is not Jewish applied and was rejected for not technically being Jewish (according to Orthodox standards), the student sued for discrimination. The Times piece continues,
In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”
The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.
While I'd love to agree with the Orthodox position in the case that the decision was a religious one and not ethnic in nature, I can't. To me, the issue boils down to a simple question: Is Judaism a religion, or is it a race - a nationality? First we need to define terms. What's a religion, and what's a nationality? Let's turn to the dictionary:
Religion: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Nationality: the status of belonging to a particular nation, whether by birth or naturalization; Nation: a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own (I highlighted that last part.)
Of course, you'll answer: Judaism is a religion. It demands practices and beliefs. But then, what difference does it make whose mother was what? How can whether a Jew eats a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur have no affect on his or her Judaism? (see the article) In reality, Judaism is both. On one hand, it does have aspects of nationality and ethnicity. Yet, it's also got trappings of religion. The question then becomes, which is it more? What's the defining quality of Judaism - the aspect of theology or the nationality?
To me the answer is clear: First and foremost, Orthodoxy views Judaism is an ethnicity. To be more precise, it's a nationality - one into which Jews are born. It's a fact, a reality completely divorced from behavior or belief. If you accept that according to the Torah one's Judaism stems from the birth mother, I don't really see any way around this. Once you're born into that nationality, Judaism binds you with certain obligations, beliefs and practices. But if you're not born into it, you can practice the religion and adhere to the beliefs until the cows come home - but you're still not Jewish. Perhaps Louis Brandeis said it best,
Let us all recognize that we Jews are a distinctive nationality of which every Jew, whatever his country, his station or shade of belief, is necessarily a member.
I'll give two simple examples from Judaism to illustrate my point:
1. When we call a man up to an aliyah to the Torah, he recites two blessings, one before the Torah reading, and one after. These two blessings reflect the dual nature of Jewish existence. The blessings are:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר בָּחַר-בָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָתַן לָנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה
Blessed are You, LORD our God, king of the universe, who chose us from all the peoples and gave to us His Torah. Blessed are You, LORD, giver of the Torah.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם. אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּוֹרַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עוֹלָם נָטַע בְּתוֹכֵנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְדֹוָד. נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה:
Blessed are You, LORD our God, king of the universe, who gave us the Torah of truth and set everlasting life in our midst. Blessed are You, LORD, giver of the Torah.
In simplest terms, the two blessings address these dual aspects of Jewish existence. On one hand, Judaism is a nationality, a binding of a people. And yet, it also demands behavior and action. But which blessing do we recite first? Which aspect takes the primary role? אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים - that God gave us the Torah as a means to choose us as a nation. First and foremost, we are a nation. Once we establish that principle we can then continue to the next aspect of Judaism which understand the Torah as a means to חיי עולם - eternal life - through adherence to God and His commandments.
2. Whenever you're at an interdenominational event and you want to sing a song that everyone knows, you've got pretty much two choices: hava nagilah - I have no idea how that song got so popular, but they even play a bad version of it at baseball games - and Am Yisrael Chai. Let's leave have nagilah for a moment. What's the meaning of Am Yisrael Chai? The nation of Israel lives. Not the religion, but the nation.
Why isn't this obvious to all of us? The trouble seems to stem from 2000 years in the Diaspora. (2000 years of exile can do that to you.) Without a homeland, a language, a government, an army - all the trappings of a nation, we forgot our true identity. We forgot that Judaism is, first and foremost, a nationality. We forgot that we have a home, a country, and that we will only realize our true purpose in the world through the Jewish nation. Instead, we allowed Judaism to become in our minds a religion of strict practices, firm beliefs, required devotion. All important, but in the end, still just a religion.
We were wrong. We are not adherents of a religion. Judaism is a nationality; an ethnicity. And while that might not help the Jewish School in England, the sooner Jews in the Diaspora come to this realization, the better off the Jewish people - עם ישראל - the Jewish nation - will be.