Sunday, January 31, 2010

Still Learning Lessons from the Disengagement, Five Years Later

To download a pdf version of this piece click here.

Disengagement? From Gush Katif? When was that – 2005? In our media-driven, twenty-four-seven culture, five years ago seems like ancient history. Do we have to keep talking about it? Can't we move on?
Not where I live.
In Yad Binyamin, the town where I settled with my family, you can't really allow yourself to forget the expulsion from Gush Katif, because the former residents of Gush Katif not only play a central role in the life of the yishuv. They literally live in the center of the yishuv.
While Yad Binyamin has experienced fantastic growth over the last four years, that growth was built around a ring of caravillot – caravan homes – that circle the center of the yishuv. Every day as I leave home for work; every time I jog near my house; every morning as my children ride their bikes to school - we pass by temporary homes, filled with residents waiting for permanent housing. Still. The gentleman with whom I share a row in shul and see every Shabbat just started to build his home last month. Really.
Whatever your position about the expulsion from Gush Katif – and it's safe to say that most people reading this piece were/are against – we must remember that political and government decisions affect real people. Whether abandoning Gaza was a good military and political decision or a bad one, real people lost their homes. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Thousands of children found themselves uprooted, unsure and confused. And whether we intended to harm those people or not, it was incumbent upon us to ask ourselves how the government's decisions would affect them, and then take steps to mitigate that harm to the greatest possible degree.
No less than Moshe Rabbeinu learned this lesson from Yitro is this week's Sedra.
After welcoming his father-in-law with a celebratory banquet and regaling him with tales of the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, Moshe had to get back to work. Imagine his "joy" when Yitro decided to accompany him. (Can you imagine bringing your in-law to work with you?) Yet, when Yitro witnesses Moshe in action, he offers valuable constructive criticism.
וַיֹּאמֶר חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵלָיו: לֹא-טוֹב, הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, עֹשֶׂה. נָבֹל תִּבֹּל--גַּם-אַתָּה, גַּם-הָעָם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עִמָּךְ: כִּי-כָבֵד מִמְּךָ הַדָּבָר, לֹא-תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ.
And Moshe's father-in-law said to him: 'The thing that you're doing is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.
As we all know, Moshe tried to judge the people alone, attending individually to their needs. Yet, Yitro worried not only about Moshe's ability to perform the task, but also how his actions would affect the people. Explaining the words נבל תבול, Chizkuni writes,
This is a language of confusion, as in "and confound their language" (Bereishit 11:7) – meaning that in this matter both you and they will become confused. One person will yell, "Listen to me, my master!", and another will follow suit. You won't know whom to answer, for you won't know what they're saying, and they won't know what you're saying.
Undoubtedly Moshe was trying his best. He figured that as he served as the closest link to God, he would be the best person to guide the people and answer their questions. He was right. He would be the ideal person to speak to. But Yitro realized that you can't always have what's best. You also have to worry about what will work and how the decisions that you make affect not only yourself, but the people that are counting on you.
Writing about the "Disengagement"/"Expulsion" is tricky business. Here in Israel especially, it's a painful, highly charged political topic that has the power to instantly alienate and upset, understandably so.
Yet, whatever our political perspective on the Disengagement, we must take to heart the fact that we did not properly account for the fundamental upheaval that the residents of the Gush would soon undergo – both in the short term, and even now, years later. We must look back now and see the pain that they still feel, not just from the Disengagement, but from the feeling of abandonment both on the part of the government certainly, but even from us – the rest of the Jewish people, who have in a real way "moved on."
We might have "moved on" but they have not – still living in their caravillot, looking for jobs, managing their families. The Disengagement affected real people, causing real pain, struggle and difficulty, that continues to this day.
And that's a lesson that we must take to heart today, almost five years later.

Friday, January 29, 2010

What Did Your Kids Eat for Breakfast? Thoughts on the Mon for Beshalach

Teaching seventh grade Gemara first thing in the morning at the Akiva Hebrew Day School back in Michigan, what was the greatest factor which would determine my success or failure in the classroom? Was it my ability as a teacher? Sure. But along with my ability to teach and control the classroom, it was also clear that the kids would need to be alert, attentive and ready to learn. And often they were not, even first thing in the morning. I would often find my pubescent, pre-teen charges vacillating between hyperactivity and listlessness, overdrive and lethargy. What caused these wild energy swings? Was it their moodiness and the challenging age-level? Partly. But I believe that it also had a lot to do with what they ate for breakfast.
Parshat Beshalach relates the story of the mythical Mon (מן - I never know how to transliterate that word into English), the mystical every-food that rained down on the Children of Israel in the desert. The Midrash relates that among the mystical Mon's magical qualities was its ability to taste like whatever the eater wished. Pizza? Sure. Roast beef? Why not. Roast beef on pizza. Why not - it's all pareve. (Kind of makes you think that the Mon had a lot in common with soy.) Yet, Kli Yakkar adds that the Mon allowed the Jewish people to focus on spiritual growth during their time in the desert, because the Mon alleviated two critical problems that detract from one's ability to grow closer to God.
The first problem with "normal" food is external: you have to work to produce it, whether you produce the food yourself or work to earn money to pay for that food. That time expended working for our "daily bread" detracts from the time we spend in spiritual pursuits. The Mon easily resolved this issue, as the Jews expended no time working to produce the food they needed to live. It arrived almost on their doorstep, neatly wrapped in a protective dew-like wrapping.
But food itself carries Kli Yakkar calls an "internal" aspect that prevent growth.
מבית הוא מצד מאכלים גסים המפסידים זכות וברירות השכל, עד אשר כח שכלו עובר בעמק עכור ואינו זך לעסוק במושכלות...והמן היה אוכל רוחני כל אוכליו ניצולו מן שני המונעים אלו...הן מבפנים כי היה מאכל זך ונקי מכל פסולת
Internally, this due to the fact that heavy foods detract from the clarity and purity of the intellect, until a person's intellectual ability passes through a valley of fog, lacking the [required] purity to engage in intellectual matters...and the Mon was spiritual food, so that those who ate it were saved from these two detractions...including the internal [detraction] for it was a pure food, clean from all impurities.
Kli Yakkar notes that the Mon's miraculousness emanated not only from its origin and its simple presence each and every day. God also created the Mon as the ideal food for spiritual growth. It didn't give you a sugar high, only to have you fall crashing down to exhaustion in the middle of your first-period Gemara class. It wasn't full of fat and refined grains, leaving you feeling bloated and unable to learn.
It was healthy, tasty, filling and lean, leaving you energized and ready for a long period of spiritual growth.
True, we can't give ourselves or our children Mon for breakfast. But if you wonder why you (or they) are so tired in the middle of the morning, ask yourself this: what did they have for breakfast? If the answer is either (a) Nothing (b) Sugar cereal - or most any breakfast cereal for that matter or (c) snack food - very common among kids - stop wondering.
And start eating - and feeding your children - a healthier, and more spiritually encouraging breakfast.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Parshat Beshalach - Mon, Faith and the Choices We Make

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Beshalach - Mon, Faith and the Choices We Make

The description of the mon and the reaction of the people raises critical questions not only about them, but about us. How much faith must we have when we approach the issue of parnassah? And what are we supposed to give our kids for breakfast? Really.

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

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tefillin on Airplanes

If I was Al Queda, I'm pretty sure of how I would next try to attack an American airplane.
I would do it with Tefillin.
If September 11th taught us anything, it taught us that the enemies of freedom would attack America at its point of greatest weakness: its desire for fairness, honesty and openness. Americans still refuse to profile people based on ethnicity and appearance, instead choosing to scan old ladies in wheelchairs with the same intensity and scrutiny as a Middle-Eastern man in his twenties purchasing a ticket for cash with no luggage. (Did the airlines learn nothing at all during the past eight years?)
The brilliance (if you can call it that) of September 11th was the knowledge that during a hijacking, Americans would herd in the back of the plane and hope for the best. That's no longer the case, which is good.
But Americans are still not only good-hearted, but naively so. It's easy for me to imagine that following the recent Tefillin scare, the TSA sent out a bulletin to its thousands of employees about Tefillin, explaining that they are items of a religious nature that pose no threat to fellow passengers.
Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein wrote on his blog,
Mark Weitzman of the New York office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (my employer) had the conversation with an official of Homeland Security three or four years ago. He spoke of the need of a manual about America’s different religious communities, and what they might be bringing on planes at different times of the year. We offered to provide the Jewish content. They were receptive, but there was no follow-up that we are aware of. (On a different occasion, I wrote such a piece for TSA, which has been more than cooperative each year in assuring that frum passengers will not be detonated for carrying their lulavim around Sukkos time.) At this point, Homeland Security will hopefully swing into action, and find a way to share the information with the airlines.
That's just the kind of thing that Al Queda is looking for. Can a TSA employee in Des Moines tell the difference between a Jewish Middle Eastern looking man carrying Tefillin, and a non-Jewish one? You or I could just by looking - but could they? Would they know the difference between a kosher pair of Tefillin filled with klaf, or a fake pair filled with C4?
I doubt it. Only now, with newly issued instructions, American openness, and a desire to avoid another international incident, I fear that the TSA might be all too happy to let the "Tefillin" through without the proper scrutiny.
Which is just what America's enemies are hoping.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Attack on Marriage

Marriage is an anachronism. It is a relic from a time when we needed an arrangement to manage property and reproduction and, crucially, to establish kinships for purposes of defense: safety in numbers. A web of families connected through marriage produced a clan of people who were less likely to kill you than everybody else was. Such was the life style in the Fertile Crescent, and, not coincidentally, the Old Testament is fixated on genealogy. Sexual reproduction within marriage was a way of creating more of God’s chosen people. Originally, Jewish holy men were required to be married.
This quote, taken from a review in the New Yorker of Elizabeth Gilbert's new novel (memoir), "Committed," caught me in the gut. I never knew just how foolish I've been for the past fourteen years, living in self-deluded marital bliss. I never knew how miserable I really was, stuck in my anachronistic ancient family model, unaware that I was chained to an old, irrelevant way of life. Oh, oops - sorry, that's my wife. She's the one that's chained to me, at least according to the New Yorker.
Marriage has been under attack for years now, if not in word, at least in practice. It's what you do when you've had your fun and now want to settle down, raise a family, have children (and live a boring life - that's the unspoken part). It's the irrelevant convention that religion and society have forced upon us without rhyme or reason. And then its no wonder why divorce serves as the logical outcome for most American marriages today.
What we need then, is a renewal of the Jewish ideal of marriage, and a good answer not to the question of "Why get married?" but "Why Stay Married?"
For Orthodox kids, the question of "why get married" usually answers itself. After all, as Orthodoxy forbids sexual activity before marriage, and actively encourages it following marriage, that's a pretty strong incentive. Marriage also seems fun: the presents, the parties, the setting up of a new home, the excitement. Few young people ever ask the question: why get married? I would love to think that young Orthodox kids marry for better, deeper reasons, and I'm sure that many do. But I'm also sure that many don't as well.
Even more important, though, is the question most young people don't ask when they're getting married, and the one many married people do ask sometime later: Why Stay Married? After a certain point, while sexuality always remains a critical element of a healthy relationship, the initial sexual frenzy wanes to a degree. The newness of the home dies down, and life descends into a rhythm; a pattern of the mundane that in good circumstances provides stability and focus, and in bad can seem like an endless loop, lacking meaning and purpose.
The answer to "why stay married" should really be the same as to "why get married". Marriage is a partnership through which each member improves - in personal qualities, in spirituality, in closeness to God - by giving to the other. It's about sacrificing the self for another - for a spouse or a child, or many children - in order to create a greater whole.
But, in today's society, consumed with self-fulfillment, sacrifice seems quaint, silly. It's hard to argue against an underlying value, especially one that's so culturally pervasive.
We need a greater sense of awareness about the subtle but ongoing onslaught against the institution of marriage. Without that awareness - and a willingness to continue to give to our spouses despite the challenges, it's all too easy to find ourselves caught in the title wave of American culture demeaning marriage and belittling those that defend it.
And then we might find ourselves asking the most frightening question of all: Why stay married?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Time to Unplug our Kids

The New York Times recently reported on a shocking study that indicated that kids are spending more hours online using their digital devices than there are hours in the day. How is this possible? Simple: they're using more than one device at a time. And, not surprisingly, it's affecting their grades, social interactions, and quality of life.
While most of the young people in the study got good grades, 47 percent of the heaviest media users — those who consumed at least 16 hours a day — had mostly C’s or lower, compared with 23 percent of those who typically consumed media three hours a day or less. The heaviest media users were also more likely than the lightest users to report that they were bored or sad, or that they got into trouble, did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school.
The question is what to do about it? I don't think taking away a device for overuse is really an answer. After a certain age, a parent loses that type of control. I do though think that kids should pay for their cell and mobile internet usage. Perhaps if they have to pay for the service they'll meter themselves.
What we need to begin to do is educate our children about moderation and self-control. (To do that we also need to model this type of behavior.) It's great to check your email, but not if it's a compulsion to check your messages, Facebook and text your friends minute to minute.
Full disclosure: I'm a bit of an email junkie myself, checking my Gmail more often than I like to admit. I used to have a smartphone with cell service in Michigan, but when the then shul president questioned the expense, I decided to forgo it. It was liberating. I no longer felt the need to check my phone minute by minute. And if someone really needed to reach me, they could always call me. On the phone. With their voice.
Here in Israel I just got a new phone. And as much as I salivate for the cool iPhone apps - GPS, a siddur, a blender (have they designed an app that will bring Moshiach yet?), I just don't want my email on my phone. I'm connected enough.
We need to begin educating our children to disconnect from the "cloud" and start connecting to real life - friends, books, learning. Teaching them this skill, as challenging as it might be, may very well be the greatest skill we can give them: the ability to "consume" what the world offers us in moderation.

And here is the rest of it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Another Place Not to Daven...

Here, the only place you can't daven with or without Tefillin is Har Habayit.

Parshat Bo - The Power of Money

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bo - The Power of Money

Before the Jewish people could leave Egypt, Moshe first asked them to take the Egyptians' money. Why did they need money to go worship God at Har Sinai? What were the costs of that wealth? And how should we navigate that struggle between our desire for money and our fear of it?

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

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Fine Line: Faith and the Tragedy in Haiti

About a week after a major tragedy - often a natural disaster, a rather predictable cycle ensues.
  1. The tragedy occurs
  2. Some theological spokesman makes a questionable pronouncement about Divine wrath and the reason for the tragedy
  3. One or many secular columnists latch on to the pronouncement, pouncing on it with religious fervor, negating any possibility of the connection of the Divine to said events.
This week, we've watched the cycle unfold:

Step 1: Earthquake in Haiti. Terrible Suffering
Step 2: Pat Robertson became the "first responder," saying that after the Haitians made a pact to worship the Devil two hundred years ago, they've suffered terribly ever since. Not such a smart thing to say on national TV. (Or maybe it is. I don't have my own TV network. Pat knows his viewers.)
Step 3: Self-described atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of most recently, "God is Not Great", wrote a scathing, sarcastic, biting piece in Slate magazine essentially describing Pat Robertson as a moron, as well as anyone else who might believe that God has anything to do with earthquakes.
The Earth's thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods "why" such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.
However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations? They want the gods to be blamed.
He writes well - and convincingly.
But then I wonder: what's a believing person to think? Sure, Hitchens can bask in his atheism and proclaim: these things just happen. There's no reason. That's life. It stinks.
But I don't agree with in any of those statements. I believe in an infinite, Almighty, all-compassionate God, who maintains a constant and unending watch over the entire world. I also read the Torah, and believe that its timeless lessons apply no less today than they did when conveyed thousands of years ago.

I find it somewhat striking that this terrible devastation occurred precisely as reading about the terrible plagues that God brought upon the people of Egypt. When reading the Torah, the makkot get pretty harsh. They not only bother, annoy and disturb. They kill, maim and destroy, ultimately resulting in the deaths of thousands of Egyptian first-born, be they elderly adults or newborn infants. In an instant every single one of them was dead.
Sounds familiar.
At some point it starts to feel excessive. It stopped being about letting the Jews go. After all, if the Pharaoh wants to free the slaves, why then would God "harden his heart" only to slam him and his people once again. The Torah clearly spells out the reason for these continued plagues:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ
And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them; (Shemot 10:1)
Commenting on this first verse Ramban explains:
הודיע הקב"ה למשה שהוא הכביד את לבם עתה אחרי שפחדו ממנו בברד והתודו על עונם. ואמר לו הטעם כי עשיתי כן, למען שאשית בקרבם אלה האותות אשר אני חפץ לעשות בהם שידעו מצרים את גבורתי, לא שאעניש אותם יותר מפני הכובד הזה
God informed Moshe that he hardened their hearts now, after they already feared Him from the hail and confessed their sins. [God] said to [Moshe] that the reason that I did this was so that I will place in their midst these signs that I wish to do to them, so that they will know My might, and not so that I punish them any more due to their own stubbornness.
According to Ramban God inflicted the last few plagues - the most difficult, devastating plagues - in order to demonstrate His might not only to the Jewish people, but to the world.

Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch writes (see Orach Chayim 227),
על הזיקים, והוא כמין כוכב (א) היורה כחץ באורך השמים (ב) ממקום למקום ונמשך אורו כשבט; ועל רעדת הארץ; ועל (ג) [א] הברקים; ועל הרעמים; ועל רוחות (ד) שנשבו א בזעף, (ה) על כל א' מאלו, אומר: בא"י אמ"ה עושה מעשה בראשית; (ו) ואם ירצה יאמר: (ז) בא"י אמ"ה <א> שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם.
[If one sees a] constellation - which is a kind of star shooting like an arrow across the breadth of the sky from place to place, and its light stretches like a staff; and on the shaking of the earth; and on lightening; and on thunder; and on winds that blow with great power - on any one of these one should recite [the blessing] "Blessed are you God, our God the King of the world, who performs acts of creation." And if he wishes he should say, "Blessed are you God, our God the King of the world, whose power and might fill the world."
I can just imagine Christopher Hitchens writing in Slate Magazine back in Egypt - except back then they would have called it "". Plagues happen. Hail happens. Firstborn die. God didn't do this. Moses didn't do this.
But imagine that God wanted to make the world aware of His presence through natural means. What could He do? A Hurricane? Did that. Tsunami? Same. Earthquake? Ditto. And each and every time, the world looks on and says: "There is no God. These things just happen. What did the little children do? Why would God want to punish them?" Yet, this attitude always presupposes the notion that we understand how and why God operates and can therefore negate the possibility that He would perpetrate such an act.
I don't make any such claims. Nor do I know the reason why the earthquake took place in Haiti specifically, nor why Haitians bore the brunt of this tragedy.
But I emphatically believe that God did perpetrate this earthquake - as He does so many major and minor events that transpires in the world, from the ones we struggle with, like the earthquakes and illnesses and tragedies; but also the ones that we accept and take for granted: the births and accomplishments; the triumphs and successes. God's "fingerprints" mark every event, whether we look for them or not; whether we can see them or not.
Because claiming that earthquakes just happen and that their victims suffer meaninglessly seems to me to be the cruelest attitude of all.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Israel Media Phobia, and Some "Untruths" About the Gap Year

We all know the Israel-media phobia. When you tell a coworker that you're taking your vacation in Israel, they give you a wide-eyed stare, wondering if you've lost your mind. "You're going there? But it's so violent and dangerous."
There's really nothing to say, because you can't argue with what they've seen on CNN. How do you explain that, thank God, life in Israel is great: calm, serene - secure, sure - but nothing like what it seems like on TV.
Now it seems like the Gap Year in Israel will soon suffer from the same Israel-media phobia.

Poor post high-school year in Israel. It can't seem to catch a break. First a series of articles published by ATID on the nature of the education in many of these schools and the employment challenges faced by those who teach in them. At least those articles rang true, and raised real issues.
But now the Jewish Week has published an expose revealing the terrible truths of life for "many of our youth" during the gap year. Sadly, the article violates so many of the rules of responsible journalism that it's difficult to know where to start.
Jerusalem — It’s 2 a.m. in Israel’s holiest city. Do you know where your children are?
Probably not, if your kids are learning in one of the dozens of yearlong post-high school yeshiva or seminary programs in Israel, an increasingly frequent rite of passage in many Orthodox communities in the diaspora.
While some Israel-based “gap year” programs have strict guidelines about where their students can go during their free time, as well as curfews, others give their 17- to 20-year-old charges free rein to hang out wherever they please, even if it’s in Jerusalem’s bar district way past midnight.
“If my parents knew where I was right now, they wouldn’t have sent me to Israel,” a very drunk 17-year-old yeshiva student confides during a night out with his school buddies at “Crack Square,” a well-known downtown hangout for thousands of young Jerusalemites in search of a good time.
The teen, who says his father is “a very Orthodox” American rabbi, explains that his parents sent him to a mainstream Orthodox yeshiva “to get me back on the derech,” the Hebrew term for path. He spent part of the previous year in the States “drunk and high a lot.”
The rabbi’s son comes to Crack Square — a picturesque plaza on bustling Jaffa Road leading to a warren-like series of alleyways with dozens of bars — “a few nights a week,” where, he says, he throws back “six or seven drinks” a night.
I think we can all agree that this is not a good thing. But by using this element to introduce the piece, the author gives the impression - clearly intentionally, that this phenomenon appears across the spectrum of religious communities. Not true. It's quite clear that many yeshivish children come to Israel - or are deliberately sent here by their parents - to send them away from the house. Maybe they'll turn around in yeshiva. There are a number of chareidi yeshivot dedicated specifically to dealing with these types of children.
But the article then proceeds to discuss not chareidi yeshivot - but Modern Orthodox ones, specifically mentioning Sha'alvim, Hakotel, Kerem B'yavneh and others. How many modern Orthodox yeshivot in Israel are there for students with drug-related problems? I can't think of any.
The article then proceeds to list some of the challenges that young people may face during their gap year.
While only a small percentage of the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 yeshiva and seminary (“Torani”) students spending their gap year before college in Israel frequent places like Crack Square on a regular basis, up to a third of them will face some type of potentially serious problem during their time abroad, according to the experts who counsel them.
First of all, what is that small percentage? Why doesn't the author tell us what it is? Does she know? If not, that's terrible reporting. And if she does know and doesn't tell us, it's because she's trying to make her article seem worse than it really is. Also terrible journalism.
Let's run the numbers. A third of a third of somewhere between two and three thousand - let's say 2,700 (to make the math easy) - which comes out to about three hundred kids. What are they struggling with?
Caryn Green, the director of Crossroads, a Jerusalem organization that assists troubled English-speaking youth, estimates that at any given time a significant percentage of yeshiva and seminary students are dealing with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, overwhelming religiosity (commonly referred to as “flipping out),” a crisis of religious faith or substance abuse.
I'm certainly not flippant about the problems that kids face during their year after high school. I consider eating disorders, depression (clinical) and substance abuse serious problem that require direct and immediate intervention. But what post high school student doesn't experience anxiety - especially when they're at a difficult crossroad in life, aware that the choices they make during this year can greatly influence the rest of their lives? Also, while parents - or the Jewish Week - might consider "overwhelming religiosity" a "problem", the kids who do flip out certainly don't feel that way. And what better place to deal with a crisis of religious faith than in the framework of a yeshiva or seminary dedicated to learning about faith?
First of all, I find the wholesale lumping of these issues - the clinical and the common - terribly unfair. Secondly, how many of these problems stem from the Israel programs, and how many of them existed before Israel? Sure, a good number of young women develop or arrive in Israel with eating disorders. But how many of them stemmed from home, imagery in Western society, or any number of other factors completely unrelated to the year in Israel?
Finally, the most damning aspect of the article is the conclusion: the year in Israel is a dangerous experience that must be reigned in.
“It’s the elephant in the room nobody’s talking about,” Poleyeff said bluntly. “It’s an uncomfortable issue that can involve the police. There have been drug busts.”
Please. Every school administrator at every school talks about and deals with these issues, for simple business reasons. Every school lives year to year. A bad autumn, with a simple incident (that every student knows about) leads instantaneously to a bad reputation that will harm next year's recruiting.
In that atmosphere, there's no better place for young Orthodox students to spend their year after high school. Does anyone seriously think that our kids would be better off skipping their year in Israel and spending the year in an American university? And what about the high schools themselves? Drinking problems? Parties? Pre-prom events? These don't happen at schools in Israel, but they do happen in many of the high schools from which they recruit.
Do I think that there are no problems with the Israel experience, and that there are no yeshiva students struggling with serious issues? Hardly.
But to write a suggestive article implying a danger that's just not there, using examples out of context to paint a pictures that's simply inaccurate hurts the very population the article claims to want to protect: the children who stay home out of fear due to Israel-media phobia, as a result of the puffed up imagery of irresponsible reporting.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Is Kosher Healthier? Perhaps it Really Is

For hundreds if not thousands of years, rabbis have combated the notion that kosher equals healthier. We've all heard the argument that the Torah forbade pork because of trichinosis - just search "trichinosis kosher" on Google and you'll find a number of powerful refutations to the idea.
We don't keep kosher because it's better for our bodies; we do so because God commanded us to refrain from eating certain types of foods. Keeping kosher is a mitzvah - a commandment, irrespective of the health benefits (or detriments).
As an aside, I was once treated by a non-Orthodox rabbi who claimed that Orthodox Jews lead less healthy lives, and we're always eating. He has a point: Friday night - big meal. Shabbat morning - kiddush, then run home for another big meal. And then Seudah Shlishit. (Hey, it's a mitzvah). Not to mention pizza on Motzei Shabbat - for Melave Malka of course.
Yet, the stereotype of kosher being "healthier" remains.
The New York Times recently ran a piece titled, "For Some, ‘Kosher’ Equals Pure" describing the recent volcanic growth in the American Kosher food market.
Only about 15 percent of people who buy kosher do it for religious reasons, according to Mintel, a research group that last year produced a report on the kosher food explosion. The top reasons cited for buying kosher? Quality, followed by general healthfulness.
It's a safe bet that that's not true. After all, as the article states, an Oreo's an Oreo, no matter whether the OU supervised its production or not. And eating it is not a healthy endeavor.
But there might be one area where keeping kosher does increase the odds of eating healthy, and that's specifically in the area of meat.

I recently watched Food Inc., a movie intended to shock, upset and alarm the American consumer about the explosion of Agribusiness, the feed lots, the increase of corn in food, and many other sad realities of modern agricultural business. Not much of it surprised me. But it was clear that animals raised in huge feed lots, eating tons of antibiotic-laced corn feed must be far less healthy than grass fed animals. In some way, the inspection process for kashrut must help weed out the unhealthiest of those animals from the kosher meat chain.
If you've ever been in an American slaughterhouse, you know that immediately following slaughter an animal undergoes a USDA inspection, as well it should. But that same animal undergoes a far more rigorous kashrut inspection, specifically with regard to the lesions on the lungs. It's not uncommon (from what I recall) for a kosher plant to have a 25 percent rejection rate. Anyone want to guess what happens to those twenty-five percent? That's right: they're sold right back into non-kosher production. After all, those animals were already USDA approved.
So, if you're Jewish, keep kosher because God told you to. But, in the age of processed meat and modern production methods, eating kosher might just be more healthy as well.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Letter to MK Orit Zuaretz on Rabbis and Abortion

From: Reuven Spolter
To: Orit Zuaretz
date: Wed, Jan 13, 2010 at 3:52 PM
subject: Your attack on the rabbanut letter about abortion

Shalom Orit,

It says on your website that you speak English, so I'm going to write in English, as that is easiest for me. I'm an Oleh (Chadash) living in Yad Binyamin.

I read about the recent discussion in the ועדה לקידום מעמד האישה, and that you were quoted as saying the following:

לדברי ח"כ אורית זוארץ, "ביטול ועדת ההשפלות יכול לשנות את המצב, הרבנים הראשים לישראל שמקבלים את שכרם של המדינה מנסים באמצעות אמירות והפחדות לכפות על נשים לא לבצע את ההפלות, הרבניים דורשים הקמת ועדה נגד הפלות שאין להם מקום בחברה הדמוקרטית, לא נותנים לנשים להחליט על גופן".
It seems to me that your comments were cheap and unfair.
1. What is the connection between where rabbis get their salaries from and their right to express their opinion? You seem to be feeding into stereotypes that might get people excited, but don't really have much practical meaning.
2. To claim that distributing a pamphlet about the traditional Jewish view on abortion represents כפייה is patently unfair. The rabbanim never claimed that a woman "may not" have an abortion. That's a legal matter. What they did say in their letter is that they should not - it's against Jewish law and the values of יהדות. Isn't it their job to tell us what Judaism teaches us in matters of this nature?
3. I don't know much about the ועדות from which you speak, but an article in the Jerusalem Post seems to imply that the law is that the women must appear before a committee:

In order to have a legal abortion carried out by a recognized practitioner, a woman must seek approval from a three-person review committee, of which at least one of the members must be a woman. Two of the members must be licensed physicians, and the third must be a social worker.

If that's the law, first ask whether the women do feel humiliated, whether the committees meet properly. Why jump to conclusions?

It would be reasonable to say that while you respect the rabbis' position, you feel that in a democratic state a woman should have the right to make her own decision on such a personal and intimate matter without any State intervention. About this we could agree to disagree. But calling a meeting to complain about members of the Rabbanut performing their duty - to disseminate information without coercion - that seems like the height of hypocrisy.

Best wishes,
Reuven Spolter
Yad Binyamin

Parshat Vaera - Seeing the Hand of God

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vaera - Seeing the Hand of God

Seeing the hand of God in the world - whether in big things or in small - is one of the great challenges of religious life. Moshe seems to struggle with this matter, as do we all. In studying the beginning of the parshah, we see Ramban's beautiful explanation of some of the textual challenges of the opening pesukim, as well as his critical message to see yad hashem in all areas of our lives.

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

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yet Another Reason to Live in Israel

I got a call from a reporter writing an article (for Baltimore's WhatWhereWhen magazine about American rabbis making aliyah (seems to be something of a trend - he listed four coming this year), and he asked me to list some of the benefits of making aliyah. I said,
"You mean aside from living a richly Jewish life, where you feel like simply going about your life makes a significant contribution to klal yisrael? Or aside from the fact that you're living in a Jewish country, where you're not trying to swim upstream against a non-Jewish tide?"
Well, I found another reason. It's minchah. On the highway.
This week's B'sheva (see page 2 here) featured a small news item about a new initiative on the side of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. A resident found himself on the road as the sun set often enough, that he started a minyan in the parking lot at Shoresh.
So, if you're on the highway 20 minutes before sunset or less, and you need a minyan, stop at Shoresh. There's a minchah minyan forming in the parking lot. And if you're stuck on the BQE or the LIE and you miss minchah because you were stuck in traffic, just know that this wouldn't have happened to you on Route 1 in Israel.
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Friday, January 8, 2010

Yoatzot Halachah: Good for the Jews?

A few months back, Rabbi Ya’akov Neuberger spoke to the staff of Kol Hamevaser, YU's Jewish studies student journal (see page 12 here). When asked about his feelings on yoatzot halachah, he said:
I think that introducing these programs in our community is unwise. In terms of our community, having yo’atsot hilchatiyyot will serve us poorly in the future because it will create an unnecessary distance between the rav and the women in the community. Having such yo’atsot will eventually communicate that rabbanim do not want to be involved in the concerns of their female congregants and even that they ideally should not be involved in women’s issues and in piskei Halakhah for women.
We have to communicate that rabbanim are and want to be very involved in the full needs of the community, including women’s issues. Obviously, rabbanim have to create venues and formats where if a woman is uncomfortable discussing something directly with the rav, she can find a comfortable way of doing so. But we should not be setting up a system which would create any sense of distance between the rav and his female congregants.
In addition, much of the involvement that a rav has in his congregants’ lives comes through the questions that people raise with him. If a rav will not have access to these women’s she’eilos, he is not going to be aware of any shalom bayis issues in a family or of family pressures, ambitions, and aspirations. Having yo’atsot, then, will create a distance not only between the rav and individual woman, but between the rav and the entire family and its needs.
That is why I believe having yo’atsot is serving us poorly, and if they are successful, it will take us in an undesirable direction.
Clearly, Rav Neuberger makes an important point. Taking an area of halachah out of the hands of the community rabbi,and placing it into the hands of a third party can truly tie a rabbi’s hands. It would be like telling a general practitioner, “You know what, you handle every aspect of your patient’s health, except reproductive issues. (Actually, that’s pretty much what the health industry does. How can you treat someone holistically if you’re excluded from an integral aspect of their overall health?) The same is true for a rabbi. Reproductive and niddah shailot are, for many families, core issues that they struggle with in their lives. It can be almost a monthly struggle – the bedikot, the questions, and the emotional and spiritual tension that these challenges bring. A rabbi aware of these issues and involved with them, not only can give guidance on the specific questions, but can also serve as an anchor for the families in their struggle, offering reassurance and support. And, in the happy cases where the struggles lead to the birth of a child, the rabbi has been a critical element in the process, and can use that joy to springboard the family to even greater spiritual growth.
When you introduce a yoetzet to the community, the rabbi finds himself excluded from this entire halachic branch of family life, making his overall job of ministering to the family’s needs that much more difficult. So a yoetzet – as great as she may be – does raise issues for a community rabbi.
But we also need to look at the facts on the ground. The yoetzet program has been an undeniable success, with yoaztot halachah addressing thousands and thousands of questions in the communities in which they serve. Clearly, women are turning to the yoatzot and not to their rabbi for their reproductive questions. The question is why.
I think this trend has less to do with the yaotzot than it does the changing nature of the Jewish community and the modern rabbinate.
Years ago, the community viewed its rabbis as figureheads: austere, serious and formal - symbols of respect and authority. That posture brings with it obvious benefits. Rav Neuberger is a Talmid Chacham of the first degree; his expertise in the laws of Niddah make his advise and council sought-after across the world. He truly serves as the rav for Rabbanim in this and other areas. But he represents the type of Rav who takes a more formal, distinguished approach. While the rabbinate he describes follows a time-honored rabbinic model, rabbinic roles have shifted fundamentally in recent years.
When I interviewed for my former position at the Young Israel of Oak Park, among the questions my shul asked me during my interview process was whether I would participate in a shul canoe trip and other similar events. I said that I’d be happy to participate in canoe trips and similar events, and indeed I did. I was a fixture at many communal social programs from the canoe trip to the shul barbecues to the motzei Shabbat bowling program. I tried to be – and I think rightfully so – accessible and open, but even more importantly, friendly not only to the men of the shul, but also to the women and children. I wanted them to feel comfortable with me in social situations, and not be distant, aloof or intimidating.
These efforts bore fruit. They brought me into people’s homes, spurred wonderful relationships and critical conversations. But let’s be honest: it’s hard to speak to someone as a friend when you know that last week they checked your underwear to determine if your vaginal emission was bloody or not. You can’t have it both ways: if you want to be the rabbi who every woman feels comfortable sending her bedikot to, then you can’t be the same person who will strike up a conversation during a shul hike. And if that relationship is more important, then it’s not reasonable for a rabbi to wonder why women don’t feel comfortable submitting their bedikah cloths for inspection. Most women don’t have a close personal relationship with their gynecologists; they don’t schmooze with them at kiddush on Shabbat, and they don’t listen to them speak from the pulpit every week.
That’s why yoatzot have been such a strong success in the Modern Orthodox community. In becoming great communal rabbis, we have inadvertently shut those same women off from access to us as advisers in the laws of family purity. Sure, we’re willing to answer any question. We are able to draw a firm line between a bedikah cloth and a ball game and not feel awkward. But is it really reasonable to expect most women to be able to make that same clean break, and not think about her underwear when the rabbi walks up to greet her in the grocery store?
You cannot have it both ways. The austere and distant rav has the benefit of a level of authority and distance sometimes critical to his position, nowhere more than in hilchot Niddah. But the close, intimate congregational rabbi can bring spirituality to his congregants in ways that the rav never could.
It's not a question of which "type" of rabbi is better. Both play necessary, critical roles in Jewish life today. Some congregants don't want the rabbi to be their friend. Some want their rav (I think of the two words, rav and rabbi as representing different archetypes) to give shiurim, pasken shailot, and represent the honor and glory of the Torah. But others would find that rabbi unapproachable, and would shy away from Judaism due to a sense of alienation and distance.
If the price for that closeness to our community is the ability to be involved in every question, that’s a price we must be willing to pay. And we must acknowledge that with the new, casual familiarity so common in the rabbinate, our women need other outlets to answer their halachic questions.
Yoatzot halachah fill that need perfectly.

Faith In the USA

In this now-famous clip, Fox News senior commentator Brit Hume advises Tiger Woods to switch from Buddhism to Christianity. After all, says Brit, if Tiger wants complete repentance and absolution, Buddhism doesn't offer total cleansing. (I'm not an expert on Buddhism, but I'll take him at his word.) "I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger would be turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery, and you can be a great example to the world."
I have no problem with Brit Hume proselytizing on TV. In fact, I'd rather more people profess their faith actively. If people don't like it, they'll stop watching Fox News and Brit will stop doing it. What does bother me is Brit's uniquely American view of religion: the faith of "what's in it for me?"
It would be one thing if Brit said, "Everyone should be Christian because that's what I believe to be the true faith." But that's not what he said. He said that Tiger's looking for forgiveness and redemption. And he can't get what he's looking for in his own religion. So he should abandon that faith for a set of beliefs that will give him what he wants.
Last I checked, religion was something people adhered to because that faith articulates eternal truths that connect us to the Eternal. It would be nice if I liked everything about what my faith teaches me. But some aspects of faith can be uncomfortable, difficult and challenging. I hope that's why Tiger's a Buddhist: because he believes in Buddhism.
But Brit Hume seems to think that you can change religions like you change shirts. If this one isn't working for me, then I can just put on another one that offers me the services and theology that work for my lifestyle right now. Buddhism not offering absolution? Not to worry - just switch! Christianity will work for you.
The way I see it, the faithful religious person slips and sins. Judaism is quite clear about that. Every person sins. And then he must struggle with the guidance his faith gives him in dealing with and repenting for his sin. That guidance might not give him what he wants - instant, total forgiveness - but it will help him struggle through the process of cleansing and redemption.
Switching faiths for convenience doesn't really change matters much. All it means is that you truly believed neither in the faith you abandoned, nor in the one you picked up. It's just what works for you now.
And that's the true religion of the United States.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot - Moshe's Conflicted Identity

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot - Moshe's Conflicted Identity

The description of Moshe's birth paints a picture of conflicted identity. What was he: Hebrew or Egyptian? As we read the story of his upbringing and the miraculous nature of his salvation, we come to appreciate his sacrifice to grow to become the person to save the Jewish nation.

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I stumbled upon the “Morethodoxy” site run by a couple of my good friends, Rabbi Barry Gelman and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, and noticed that a co-writer of theirs, Sarah Hurwitz, had given herself the title “Rabba” – which is some feminization of “Rav” or “Rabbi”.
While I’m not a supporter of Hurvitz’s per se (I’ve written about female rabbis before here), I appreciate her struggle and her desire to find an appropriate way for her to serve as a religious and spiritual leader within the Orthodox community. What I don’t really understand is why she feels the need to start with the issue of a title.
I really don’t care what title she gives herself. (She should probably just go all the way and call herself rabbi. If you wouldn’t respect a Maharat, you won't respect a Rabbah or a female Rabbi either – and if you would, you won’t have much issue with calling a woman rabbi.) What caught my eye was that in the same post, about Yeshivat Maharat, she had already changed her title, which makes me wonder: are they going to change the name of the yeshiva as well? Wasn’t the title carefully chosen? Did she ask Avi Weiss, her mentor, before she made the change? It just seems to be grasping at straws, caring more about the title than the work. (I find the notion of her running a yeshiva kind of awkward as well. She just got her ordination. When have we ever seen an instance of someone who just received ordination becoming a senior faculty member at a rabbinic seminary – other than in Humanistic Judaism? Really.
In the words of Nike, I think that if she truly wants to succeed she should “Just do it.”
That’s what the yoatzot halachah did – and they’ve carved out a new space for themselves within Orthodoxy that will only grow and develop over time. They began the program as a temporary, experimental idea that clearly has filled a need, and now the notion of a yoetzet halachah has firm traction within the Orthodox community.
And that’s exactly what Sarah Hurwitz needs to do. She needs to serve as a compassionate clergy member – leading classes, visiting hospitals, serving the needs of her members – doing all the things that good clergy do, without fanfare or titles. She needs to demonstrate the fact that a female clergy can bring a dimension that a male clergy cannot, to the point where the larger synagogues in major metropolitan areas will start wanting to have their own female clergy member, not to be part of a trend, but to fill a need. And she needs to do it without publicity or speeches about women in the rabbinate, because her success will be her greatest publicity.
What should she call herself? What title should she have? Rabbi Weiss usually just calls himself “Avi”. But if she needs a title, how about bringing back “Reverend”? No one in the Orthodox community could object, because we haven’t used “Reverend” in so long that we’re not sure what it is. She could get parsonage, respect in the outside world, a title – and cause less backlash and friction.
Backlash and friction might get Sarah Hurwitz headlines, but it won’t bring long-term success. If she wants success, she needs to stop worrying about titles. She needs to just do it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Growth Through Adversity - Thoughts for Parshat Shemot

Here in Israel, communities tend to segregate themselves voluntarily. Chareidim like to live with fellow Chareidim, Secular Jews live with other Secular Jews, and Religious Zionists build communities with like-minded RZ's. We don't mix very much. We tell ourselves that we do this for our children. After all, what could be bad about living in a community that meticulously adheres to the Shabbat? Why not choose to live in a place without the enticements of the outside world? What's wrong with insularity?

And yet - the facts don't seem to justify our choices. Speaking anecdotally, it's well-known here in Israel that many of the most religious yishuvim struggle with children who question and abandon their religiosity. So is our desire for uniformity and insularity necessarily a good thing? Or are we somehow doing more harm than good?

Click here to download a pdf version and read the full article.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Making Active Life Choices

Sometimes you read an article about a life choice someone has made, and you think: "Wow, they're nuts." At least I used to think that more often than I do now. Now I find myself more open to the fascinating choices that people make.
Yesterday's NY Times featured an article about a family living in a yurt in Alaska titled, "Broadband Yes. Toilet No," describing the life of a couple who live in the wilderness with almost no amenities at all. No running water. No local groceries. Certainly no pizza stores. They even chose a wood stove (that they've got to constantly feed) over a propane model. They shower once a week in town (an hour's trek away in the snow) and use an outhouse. Sounds pretty crazy. I'm not so sure.
But to them, the sacrifices are worth it. “I’m someone who doesn’t mind giving up some level of convenience for having an interesting experience,” Ms. McKittrick said.
How many of us come to take certain amenities for granted, without ever wondering whether we even really want them? If everyone has two cars, then I need them too. If they've got a flat-screen TV, then I need one as well. We fall into patterns of living and expectations, and fail to ask ourselves whether we've even made a choice at all. More often than not we have not.
I might not agree with the Alaskan family living in a Yurt. I have very little desire to live so far out in the wilderness that my walls move with the wind. But I very much respect the fact that they while they could have settled down in a more conventional life, they instead made a choice.
In recent days, a number of articles about North American aliyah have coursed through the veins of the Internet. Some pareve, some strongly negative, they seem to me to miss a fundamental point about a person who moves to Israel by choice: It's very hard to make a choice to change your lifestyle in a fundamental way - even if that change represents an ideal you firmly believe in. This is something Nefesh B'nefesh realizes. So they market aliyah by trying to minimize the impact of that choice. You can find a job. You can live in a community of olim. You can succeed. I don't want to give an impression that moving to Israel is like deciding to live in a yurt in Alaska. Thankfully, we enjoy all the "wonders of modern technology", from always-on internet to running water! We enjoy many more restaurants than we ever did in Detroit, benefit from wonderful neighbors, tremendous amenities, a great community - it's really a long list.
But it's not going to be the same. Moving to Israel has almost nothing in common with moving from one side of the US to another. You have to choose, actively, to give up convenience for a more meaningful, more enriching, deeply rewarding life. You will struggle with the language, and the culture. You will be an immigrant.
And that's a hard choice to make voluntarily.
But it's also the right one.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Funny Israel Experience

Walking into our local makolet in Yad Binyamin, I was stopped by an Israeli neighbor who needed some help. There was a stranger - clearly American with his teenage son, and he needed help. My Israeli neighbor couldn't figure out what he wanted, so he turned to me.
"I need some breakfast," the man said. I tried to sum up the situation. He was in his mid-fifties, with graying hair. He was wearing a ratty T-shirt - kind of falling apart. I was having a little trouble figuring out what he wanted.
"This is a little uncomfortable, but do you need some money? Can I get you something to eat?" As a pulpit rabbi, I had come across this situation quite a few times. A middle-aged man would walk into shul looking for a few dollars, a meal, sometimes a little company. This seemed like a very similar situation. But what was he doing in Yad Binyamin.
The man gave me a funny look.
"No, I don't need tzedakah," he said. He looked kind of amused. "We're driving down to Eilat, and we got off the 6, and we're looking for a place to stop and eat."
Why the ratty T-shirt? Because he's on vacation. From Long Island.
Only in Israel.

The One Year Programs in Israel

ATID just released two anonymously written articles that address challenges inherent to the current one-year yeshiva and Seminary programs. For someone passionate about Jewish education and Torah learning (and also teaches here in Israel, and taught in the U.S.), I find the issues raised in them compelling and important.
You can find the articles here.