Monday, November 29, 2010

Women and Chanukah Lighting

Growing up, everyone in my family lit the Chanukah menorah. Everyone, that is, except my mother. After my father lit, we would go in the order of the children, from oldest to youngest, including my sisters. I imagine that if you grew up in an Ashkenazic home, your family followed a similar practice. There's only one problem: it doesn't really make much sense. If my mother didn't light, then why did my sisters - especially after they became Bat Mitzvah? And if adult women should light, shouldn't mothers light as well?

Click here to download a pdf of the article.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Joke and its Implications

My nephew, studying in Yeshivas Mir, visited (together with his sister) for Shabbat. He told me a joke that's making the rounds.
A woman climbs on a bus (here in Israel) wearing very little clothing, and sits herself down next to an obviously Chareidi man. Clearly uncomfortable with the immodesty sitting right next to him, he stirs in his seat for a while, and then reaches into his bag. Pulling out an apple, he hands it to the woman.
"Here," he tells her, "take a bite."
"Why?" she wonders. What's with the apple?
"Take a bite," he tells her, "because after Chava ate the apple, she realized that she was naked."
The woman thinks for a moment, and pulls an apple out of her bag.
"Here," he tells her, "take a bite."
"Why?" he wonders.
"Because after Adam ate from the apple, he realized that he'd have to work for a living."
Ironically, my niece had heard the joke, but not the last line. Somehow in seminary everything's about tzniut, even when the joke isn't really about tzniut. But I digress.
I share the joke with you not just because it's funny, but because my nephew learning in the Mir told it to me, obviously highlighting a tension present not just in the yeshiva, but in the entire Chareidi world.
Last week, Rabbi Chaim Amsallem, a Knesset member from Shas gave an extremely controversial interview in which he stated that Jewish men should work. Not shocking for a reader of this blog, but in the context of the Knesset debate about stipends for Chareidi kollel families, it's a bombshell. Shas is supposed to be in favor of the stipends and kollel learning in general. For a member of their Knesset delegation to go off the reservation and take an opposing view is tantamount to heresy. Literally.
After he gave the interview Shas party hacks literally called for him to resign. Most surprisingly, he said "no," defying the explicit demands of Rav Ovadia Yosef, which in the world that is Shas really is kefirah. (He claims that the party has been taken hostage by interests that are in bed with the Ashkenazi Chareidi world, and that traditional Sephardic Jewry never subscribed to a lifetime of full-time Torah learning. He's clearly correct, but since when does being right have anything to do with politics, here or anywhere in the world?) While the English-language press has noted the story, in the Hebrew press it's huge - especially in the secular Hebrew press. They love frum-on-frum fighting.
When Rav Amsallem defied Rav Ovadia, the gloves came off. The Israeli press is reporting that in Shas' paper,
במאמר נוסף הושווה הרב אמסלם ל"עמלק אשר נצטווינו בתורה למחות את זכרו". בסיומו של אותו מאמר אף נקבע: "סופו של האיש יהיה כסופם של עוקרי הדת ומסלפי ההלכה, אשר נתרסקו אל תהום הנשייה".
In an additional article, Rav Amsallem was equated to "Amalek, who the Torah commands us to destroy his memory." The article concludes, "The end of this man will be like the end of those who uproot religion and distort halachah, who fell into the depths of hell."
Ouch. Even for politics in Israel, that's a little harsh. OK, very harsh.
I have two reactions. First and foremost, the very fact that someone from the Chareidi establishment would dare utter words against the current kollel system represents yet another crack in a broken system that clearly demands reexamination. Like my nephew's joke, everyone knows the truth. The only question left is when reality will hit and the guy on the bus takes a bite of that apple and starts getting trained for gainful employment.
Secondly, while I might agree with Rav Amsallem's sentiments, I think he should have quit. When you sign on to Shas, you sign on to the party line. You do what Rav Ovadia tells you to, whether you like it or not, and whether you think he's being manipulated or not. That's how the system works.
If you don't like it and want to start spouting truths against the party line, maybe you should have started your own party, or joined one closer to your line of thinking.
Or, better yet, maybe you shouldn't have gotten into politics at all.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?

About a decade ago, a short time after I arrived in Oak Park, I found a new doctor to manage my thyroid condition (which I've had since college). I already knew the drill. He'd come in, examine me carefully, draw blood and then adjust my medicine based on the results. And that's pretty much what happened: examination, blood test - everything was going fine until he said, "Oh, and if you don't lose weight, in ten years you'll have type-2 diabetes."
Whoa. He could have slapped me in the face. Here I was, sitting comfortably in the doctor's office, minding my own business, and he has the gall to tell me true things that I really don't want to hear. But then he adds,
"You Orthodox eat too much," he being a secular Jew. Orthodox? Why's he picking on us? And then I thought about it, and it's probably because he's right.
Think about a typical Shabbat:
Friday night begins with a big meal: appetizer, soups, main course, a ton of bread (challah), dessert. Then you go out for a Shalom Zachar: some beer, a couple pieces of cake. Drag yourself home and conk out.
Shabbat morning: Piece of cake and cup of coffee before davening. (For now I'll ignore the halachic issues of eating before prayer.) After davening, which can often end at noon or later, you head for kiddush, which is now a mainstay at shuls looking to attract and retain members. At the very least, you're looking at a few pieces of Entemann's (which really aren't that good), some chips and soda. At the worst, you've loaded up on cholent, kugel, maybe some herring - without a doubt a full meal on any other day of the week. And then you go home and do what? That's right - eat another meal - and a large one at that, again with a nice slice of bread, maybe some chicken, cold cuts, and dessert. More sleep.
After minchah, of course comes...Seudah Shlishit. (Shalashudes in the American vernacular). At most shuls this is a simple affair, but it's a meal: maybe a roll, some tuna fish, and a piece of now stale cake leftover from kiddush. (I've seen sheet cakes last longer than some Hostess foods. Scary.) Were we hungry for Shaleshudes? Often we were not, but it's a social thing, everyone's eating, and hey - it's a mitzvah!
Motzei Shabbat: (let's assume it's a early Shabbat, around Thanksgiving time) Whether you call it a Melave Malka or not, what's Saturday night without a slice of pizza (or two or three)? A movie, some popcorn too perhaps?
Objectively, this is a ton of food. But it's also a very typical Orthodox Shabbat - and we haven't touched Sunday yet. All of this points to the very obvious question: Is Orthodoxy unhealthy?
Obviously, there's nothing in Orthodoxy that demands overeating and unhealthy living. But, especially in America, Orthodox lifestyle has clearly led Jews into a dangerous cycle of overeating and indulgence. (A rabbi I know once came to a conference having lost a great deal of weight. When I asked him how he did it he said simply, "I decided that at simchas I was only going to eat one meal, either at the shmorg or at the sit-down dinner." Think about how right he was: How many functions do we attend at which we eat more than one meal? How many bar mitzvahs, school dinners, weddings?)
I've been thinking about this issue for two reasons: Yesterday I received the latest OU Jewish Action, which featured an article about the challenges of healthy eating at kiddush. Asked what to eat at a shul kiddush, the author had a hard time coming up with anything.
This article reminded me of a conundrum we had at YIOP. When the Kollel Torah Mitzion would visit for a shabbaton, I wanted to have them give short shiurim after shul. But we couldn't ask people to stay around for a short class without first giving them something to eat. At the same time, money was quite tight. So we came up with the idea of the DunkinKiddush, at which we'd serve only coffee and donuts - cheap and quick. There was only one problem: I and any diabetic, dieter or simply healthy person, had nothing to eat. So we added baby carrots and hummus, so everyone had something to munch.
With the issue at the back of my mind, I opened up an email from a relative, who sent a couple of pictures from a recent wedding. The pictures are of total strangers, who I don't know at all. Yet, looking at them, I was struck by the fact that they're all overweight - and not by a little.
This is something that you notice coming from Israel immediately when you walk into an American shul. Sure, there are people here that are overweight (and I by no means exclude myself from this category. Far from it.) But in general, people there weigh much more than people here.
I remember when we waged the battle to open the kosher Dunkin Donuts in Oak Park (for reasons I still cannot fathom, the parent company was giving the franchisee trouble about going kosher.) After the battle had been won and the kosher store opened, I got a call from a local columnist at the Free Press. When he asked me how I felt about the victory I said, "I'm not sure that we've struck a blow for the waistlines of Orthodox Jews, but it's a great win for our community. I only hope we can bring the same energy to more important issues down the road."
People used to ask me whether we celebrated a traditional Thanksgiving. I've got nothing against a good turkey dinner, but I personally did not, only because I felt that a huge meal on Thursday would negatively impact my Shabbat meal. (and it wasn't my family minhag). But with many Orthodox Americans stuffed with turkey and the latkes of Chanukah on the way, I wonder about a community full devoted to the gastronomic customs of both secular America and traditional Judaism.
I worry about the long-term health of Orthodox Jews, especially in America. I fear an epidemic of heart disease, diabetes, and of course, unnecessary deaths resulting from complications of obesity. Our community rightly protects the value of life. We'll fight for the right to cling to every last second, devoted to the notion that every moment is precious and holy.
And yet, at the very same time, under the banner of frumkeit we've adopted a lifestyle that's literally going to cut years and perhaps decades from our collective lives.
I call on the OU undertake a study of the collective health of Orthodox people, and especially men between the ages of 35 and 65. The OU's done great work helping Torah Jews put more into our mouths. Now it's time for the O.U. to take the lead in helping us put a little less in as well.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeishev - The Circle of Trust

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeishev - The Circle of Trust
How we treat the people around us depends greatly on how close we consider them: the closer we are, the more generously we relate to them. It's obvious that we're going to act differently to our children than to a stranger in the street.
We see precisely this dynamic in play as Yosef's brothers alienate themselves from him, and eventually commit a heinous act towards him. But, before they can bring themselves to do anything, they first must push him, at least in their minds, out of their inner circle.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Handshake Hullabaloo - Follow Up

Follow-up of this post.

Last Friday, I joined the YU Israel Kollel on a terrific tour of Nachlaot with Rav Benji Levine, the grandson of Rav Aryeh Levine. As we toured, he described some of the characters that he knew as he lived with his grandfather in that single-room apartment in Nachlaot. One was Rav Unterman, the second Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, about whom he told the following story.
One day, Rav Unterman was standing outside Heichal Shlomo in the center of Jerusalem, where much of the rabbinic business of the Religious Zionist movement took place, when a secular female tourist was walking by. Somehow, she learned that the Chief Rabbi was standing near her. She walked up to the Chief Rabbi, who was surrounded by a group of rabbis, extended her hand, and introduced herself. Rav Unterman shook her hand, exchanged pleasantries with her, and she continued on her way. After she had left, he said to the somewhat surprised crowd:
לא שאני מקיל בהלכות נגיעה. אלא אני מחמיר בהלכות כבוד הבריות.
It's not that I'm lenient with regard to the laws of touching [a member of the opposite sex]. Rather, I'm stringing regarding the laws of [maintaining] the respect of other human beings.
True story.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bibi, Don't Take the Deal

As we speak, the Cabinet of the Knesset is weighing whether to accept an American proposal for security guarantees to Israel in exchange for a three month moratorium on building in Judea and Samaria. Despite my being rather right-wing and in favor of continued construction and Jewish presence in our Biblically mandated lands, I'm against the deal for a very different reason: We're essentially discussing a bribe, and taking bribes never works in the end, either for the briber, or the bribed.
Essentially, the "security guarantee" is $3billion in advanced fighter planes. Now, I like advanced fighter planes as much as the next guy. They fly over my house practically every day. But what do fighter planes have to do with the security arrangements in the West Bank? What have they got to do with whether we do or don't build in East Jerusalem? Nothing. And that's what bothers me.
In an op-ed article in the Washington Post, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer writes,
This is a very bad idea. And while Washington will almost certainly come to regret bribing Israel, Israel may regret receiving such a bribe even more.
I agree with him, and found some of his points critical. But while I don't agree with his thesis that Israel is "behaving badly", he's right on the money when he calls the deal a bribe, plain and simple. And we shouldn't take it.
The reason I believe we shouldn't take it is because of the attitude of normal Americans. It's difficult to overstate their justified anger at Wall Street, General Motors, and the other fat cats that the American government bailed out and gave money for no reason. Often, the most angry Americans are the ones who offer Israel the greatest support.
And now we've got our own hands out, asking for money to justify a peace process that no one is their right mind thinks will pan out. Does that smell right? If I was a "regular" American, that would make me pretty mad, and wonder whether all that other money the U.S. gives to Israel isn't also some kind of payout - when it fact it really does represent an important strategic investment in the Middle East.
Taking the money now will only reinforce the very worst stereotypes about the Jewish State: that all we want is America's money, whether it's good for the United States or not.
If Bibi thinks that we should refreeze building for another three months, then he should try to push the initiative through without the promise of new planes. And if he doesn't think it's a good idea, then taking planes as an "incentive" to change our minds is a very bad idea, making us look cheap and petty, and willing to sell our souls (and our ideals), as long as it's for the right price.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayishlach - Ya'akov's Foreign Policy

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach: Ya'akov's Foreign Policy
Ya'akov's dealings specifically with Eisav serve as a historical model for how his children dealt with his descendants. Yet, some of his behavior is not only challenging, but difficult to understand and relate to, especially today. We'll discuss some of the problems with Ya'akov's actions, and Ramban's amazing attitude towards the opening episodes of the parshah.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The View from Here

Here at Orot, they recently moved my office. Whereas before I was in a small office on the first floor, now I'm in a roomy, airy office on the third (highest) floor of the building. I at first resisted because, let's face it, we all hate change. But, upon about two seconds of reflection, I love my new office. I love it because it's a little bigger - I used to have to turn sideways to get to my desk). I love it because it's got a ton of natural light. But most of all, I love my office for the view. And what a view it is.

I share this view with you not just to boast, but because, if you look carefully you'll see at the upper left hand side the faint shadow of buildings. On a clear day you can see all the way to Tel Aviv. That's right - from my office, in Elkana, you can clearly see the largest, most densely populated area in Israel. The reason you can see it is because we're pretty darn close. Just look at the map:
As you can see, Elkana's on the right, Tel Aviv on the left, and they can't be much more than 15 miles apart. Moreover, my view is so great because we're on the top of a hill. You can see pretty much the entire Gush-Dan area from here, which gives me my amazing view, and makes the next statement pretty obvious:
Anyone who thinks that we should hand over Elkana to the Palestinians is crazy.
I write this because looking yet again at the map, you'll notice the dotted line running down the map about a quarter of the way from the right. That's the Green Line. (I wonder why the Goog made it grey.) Politically, Elkana's in the "wrong" place, on the wrong side of the map. But strategically, it's an absolutely essential location for Israel's safety and security. You don't need to fire rockets from here to kill innocent Israelis. All you'd need is a mortar. And not a big one at that.
I write these words because sometimes, looking at a map from halfway around the world people seem to know what's best for us over here. As an example I quote Jeffrey Goldberg, whose blog I enjoy, who seems to consider settlements like Elkana an obstacle to peace. He recently wrote,
I would like to see Prime Minister Netanyahu go to Ramallah and address the Palestinians directly, and provide them with a vision -- a generous vision, I hope -- of what the future could look like, and then set Israel on a course to achieve that vision. Part of that vision, of course, includes what he thinks the final borders of the unborn state of Palestine should be.
Why is it always up to us? Why does the Israeli Prime Minister need to travel to Ramallah to provide a vision? Has he ever heard of Hamas? Does he really think that the larger Palestinian goal is two live peacefully, side-by-side? And even if he does, would he bet his life on it, much less mine?
Over there, these are nice theoretical questions to ponder for political punditry. But that's over there. Mr. Goldberg, next time you're in Israel, come visit me in my office. We'll sit, drink coffee, and contemplate the view together. I daresay you might come to some different conclusions when, firsthand, you see the View from Here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why Am I Throwing Out my Dryer? A Letter to the CEO of Whirlpool

Mr. Jeffrey Fettig
Chairman and CEO, Whirlpool Corporation
2000 N. M-63
Benton Harbor, MI 49022-2692

Dear Mr. Fettig,

I write to you today with a sense of frustration about the fact that I'm about to throw away my beautiful, two-year-old Whirlpool dryer (model awz 3477), for a very simple reason: it has stopped drying clothes.
The dryer looks great. It spins nicely, and blows air wonderfully. Sadly, it only blows cold air. You may wonder, why don't you get it fixed? We tried. The technician who came took the machine apart, looking for problems. When everything looked great, he took the electronic board out to bring to an expert for examination, assuming that this was the problem. The technician took one look at the problem and said, "That's a Whirlpool Dryer? The board is fine. It's the core heating element that's the problem and needs to be replaced. It's a known problem." (Funny, I didn't know about the problem. But the people who fix these things do.)
My wife confirmed this by speaking to a parts supplier, who told her that there are sixty of these heating elements on order.
Why then don't we get the part replaced? Simple economics: the machine itself, reasonably priced, cost around 1,200 shekel (we live in Israel). The replacement part costs at least 500 shekel, and including installation that's at least 650 shekel. Would you spend 650 shekel on an old machine that broke after two years? Would you spend 800 shekel (a full 2/3 of the price of the machine) for a service plan? Or would you just cut your losses and decide to get a new machine?
Clearly this is a frustrating waste of my money. But it's also just a frustrating waste - throwing out a beautiful, almost-new dryer. It's a waste to the environment, which I'm not indifferent to, and simply a wasteful act.
Why am I writing you about this? Actually I'm not. I'm posting it on my blog. But I'm doing so in order to complain about the fact that your machines, which are supposed to be of high quality have a known problem and I have no recourse but to throw it away and get a new one, as it's out of the one year warranty period. Whirlpool relies on its brand name to represent a quality product; one which will attract consumers looking to make a long-term investment in a large household appliance. Quality means producing good products. But it also means that when something goes wrong, you stand behind your name and fix the problem.
Because for me, the Whirlpool name simply doesn't mean that much anymore.

Yours truly,
Reuven Spolter
Yad Binyamin, Israel

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Handshake Hullabaloo

Way, way back, during one of my summer stints as an intern at System Automation, a coworker confided in me that she had her doubts about a certain frum member of the staff. (I have no idea why she talked to me. I was in 11th grade. But she did.) What gave her cause for concern? His handshake.
It seems that every time he shook her hand, he gave her a "dead fish", and she felt that he seemed weak, and slightly off. Of course, I knew exactly what was happening. He, coming from a somewhat Chareidi background, and following years of segregated yeshiva study, had been ingrained with an appropriate sensitivity to the separation of the sexes. She, on the other hand, not only had no knowledge of what negiah is, but would have trouble understanding it if someone took the time to explain it to her. So, in a business setting, he would shake her hand, but psychologically he just couldn't give her a firm handshake. His palpable discomfort brought about the "wet fish" handshake that was hurting his reputation in a business environment.
I've been thinking of this story in light of a mild brouhaha regarding the notion of shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex. And a brouhaha it has been.
It started with an article in Yediot Achronot, which publicized a recent psak halachah of Rav Yuval Cherlow's in which he decided that if a woman extended her hand to a man, then he would be allowed to shake her hand and not embarrass her in public. This is really a deeper halachic discussion which demands extended analysis, which Rav Cherlow actually did (on his site here). In the shiur, he examines the nature and prohibition of non-sexual physical contact between members of the opposite sex. Then he attempts to measure the halachic significance of embarrassing someone in public, and to what degree halachah should bend to avoid that embarrassment.
(As an important aside, this is an ongoing debate between the Chareidi world, which feels that halachah should not bend at all for the sensibilities and feelings of others, and the more "modern" world which does take issues of kavod habriyot (personal dignity) into account in its halachic decision-making process.)
Objectively, his psak is not shocking nor that striking. While issuing a lenient ruling, he explicitly recommends that one make an effort to avoid physical contact if at all possible, and forbids extending one's hand to a member of the opposite sex. Still, Rav Cherlow - who's something of a lightening rod for criticism (much of it justified) - for some of his liberal halachic pronouncements, drew fire yet again.
Ma'ariv (
there's nothing the Israeli secular press loves more than an inter-rabbi halachic scuffle) happily published the response from Rav Aviner, a much more right-wing RZ rabbi, who issued the following psak in the weekly newsletter Olam Katan (which is very, very popular among young people. Just this week a young person told me, "If you're in Olam Katan, you're 'in'. If not, you're not.") Rav Aviner answers SMS Halachic questions, so his answers are always brief - 140 characters or less.
(As another aside, the entire SMS psak halachah phenomenon, which is huge here in Israel, requires analysis and attention as well. Simply put, you can't answer questions in 140 characters, and I'm not sure that publishing all of them is a great idea for Judaism. But they're really entertaining to read. End digression.)
Rav Aviner wrote,
אין להעליב את חברו אבל כאן הוא שגורם לעצמו בושה. הגר"ע יוסף לא החזיר יד לראש הממשלה הגברת גולדה מאיר. הגר"מ אליהו לא החזיר יד למלכת אנגליה ובערב שניהם קיבלו התנצלות. אכן יש להתחשב ברגשות של שומרי הלכה
"One may not embarrass his fellow man, but here he causes himself embarrassment. The Gaon Rabbi Ovadia Yosef did not shake the hand of Prime Minister Golda Meir. The Gaon Rav Mordechai Eliyahu did not shake the hand of the Queen of England, and that evening, they both apologized to each other. Rather, one must take into account the feelings of those who guard halachah."
I won't quote the harsher comments from more hard line rabbis. You can read the article yourself.
Of course, the Hareidi websites watched with glee as, in their estimation, Modern Orthodoxy stepped in it yet again demonstrating its willingness to compromise "true" Jewish values to live in the Modern world. I haven't even read any of the Hebrew websites, but I'm sure they were perfectly happy to rip Rav Cherlow to shreds.
Yet, thinking of my coworker from so long ago, things aren't so simple. First and foremost, the secular world constantly looks to jump on the Rav Cherlow bandwagon in its search for "moderate" Jewish voices. In that same vein, the Chareidi world is more than willing to attack him even when he says something that's not all that shocking, nor that controversial. Finally, Rav Aviner was answering a text for a youth-oriented publication. He probably thinks that it's forbidden to shake hands in general, but his answer to teens looking for loopholes, who struggle with halachically mandated separation of the sexes, makes a lot of sense. The last thing we need are kids running around telling each other that Rav Aviner says that you can shake hands. His one-sided answer ensured that wouldn't happen.
Two final points (sorry for the long, long post).
The first comment (Israelis calls them "talk-backs") to Rav Cherlow's shiur came from someone who wrote that in his secular work environment (here in Israel), he at first would shake the hands of women so as not to embarrass them. To his shock, he was quickly identified as "Dati Lite". When he changed tactics and stopped shaking women's hands, his coworkers had no issues and the work environment did not suffer. So here in Israel, where everyone knows that there are people who won't shake hands, it might be much less of a problem not to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex. Rav Aviner really might have a point.
Yet, in the States, where most people are not Jewish and not familiar with halachah, the concern for embarrassment and also negative financial consequences is significant. I think back to my coworker of so long ago. I actually told him what I had heard, and he stopped giving women the "wet fish", which did help . Should a person meeting someone of the opposite sex at a job interview set out on the wrong foot from the get-go? Is that what halachah demands?
Rav Cherlow doesn't think so, and neither do I.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Ya'akov's Faith in the Land of Israel

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeitzei : Ya'akov's Faith in the Land of Israel
Every oath has two parts: an "if" and a "then", as in, "If" you do x, "then" I'll do y. After his fateful dream on Har Hamoriyah, Ya'akov makes an oath. Yet, the oath seems to present both textual and ideological challenges. After examining the problems with Ya'akov's oath, we discuss some possible solutions, and then analyze Ya'akov's oath from a very different, moving perspective, by analyzing a powerful piece from the introduction of Rav Teichtal to Eim Habanim Semeichah.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Best Pickup Line in Jewish History?

(From a set on Parshat Hashavua called Mei'otzareinu Hayashan. Great set with terrific nuggets like this. Highly recommended.) I share this in the spirit of Parshat Vayishlach, which focuses on the shidduch between Ya'akov and Lavan's daughters.

The philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was, as it was well known, a hunchback. Yet, his wife was unusually beautiful, in addition to the great wealth that she inherited from her father.
How did Mendelssohn arrive at such a shidduch?
In his youth, Mendelssohn served as a teacher in the house of Gugenheim, a wealthy, well-known Berliner. He liked Gugenheim's beautiful daughter, yet at first she was uninterested in him due to his deformity.
One day during a conversation he turned to her and said,
"Do you, my dear, believe in the concept of a divinely inspired mate?"
"Yes," she said, "I do believe that."
"Well," said Mendelssohn, "Let me tell you a story."
Forty days before the birth of a child, our rabbis teach us, they announce in heaven, "The daughter of so-and-so will marry so-and-so!" When I heard the angel announce, "The daughter of Gugenheim will marry Moses Mendelssohn!", I grew curious about her, so I asked the angel, "What will my mate look like? Will she be beautiful?"
"No," the angel told me. "She'll be quite ugly, deformed. She'll be a hunchback."
When I heard this, it caused me great pain so I called the angel. "Go to the Creator and tell him that I'm willing to take her hump on my back, as long as my mate would be lovely, without any deformities..."
Mendelssohn's story touched the heart of Gugenheim's daughter, and she agreed to become his wife.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Living With Doubt

During Seudah Shlishit at the YU Kollel Shabbaton in which my family participated this past Shabbat, Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh, one of the Roshei Yeshiva made the following announcement to the Kollel: "Please make sure to finish eating bread by 4:42 to avoid the question of whether to bentch with ya'aleh v'yavo. If you finish eating bread before that time, then according to 99% of the poskim, you only need to say retezei during birkat hamazon."
(Just to explain the issue, when Rosh Chodesh falls on a Sunday, birkat hamazon for Shalosh Seudot presents a halachic conundrum. Normally, we have no problem extending Shabbat into Saturday night, and when one recites birkat hamazon after dark we nevertheless recite retzei as normal. Yet, when Rosh Chodesh falls on a Sunday, if you extend Shabbat, you run into Rosh Chodesh which raises the issue of what do with during birkat hamazon. Do you recite retzei only, as you normally would? But it's after dark, and Rosh Chodesh has already arrived. Ya'aleh V'yavo only? But you began the meal on Shabbat, and essentially it's a Shabbat meal. What about just saying both? That also makes little logical sense, as the two days don't chronologically overlap. Any way you slice it, it's a dicy halachic situation, hence Rabbi Bednarsh's sage advice: Avoid the situation by consuming your bread early.)
I, of course, piped up. "What if I don't want to avoid the safek situation? What if I want to eat bread later? What should we do then?
He thought for a minute and said, "Still just say retzei."
Yet, his suggestion makes me wonder: is it better to avoid situations of safek - halachic doubt? Should I go out of my way to avoid situations in which I'll find myself in halachic conundrums which I then need to sort out? Or, should I live my life and deal with the halachic issues as they arise, looking for the proper resolution for each safek situation? Usually I choose the latter. God put us in the world to live Torah lives, and we must apply the rules of halachah to each situation as it arises. I don't go out of my way to avoid certain situations which will then force me to make a challenging halachic choice.
At least that's what I thought. And then an offhand comment by Rabbi Michael Broyde caught my attention.
During a shiur that he gave at YU's popular Kollel Yom Rishon, Rabbi Broyde discussed some of the halachic conundrums that Orthodox Jews face in the workplace. He stated the obvious fact that most frum Jews don't have the luxury of dealing with only Orthodox people in their workplace, and therefore they face numerous challenges in that they knowingly or unknowingly assist Jews in the violation of halachah. (For example, a Jewish doctor prescribing contraceptives to a Jewish woman is directly aiding her in non-halachic sexual behavior.) He said, "Some of us are privileged to have a job in which we only work with Orthodox Jews, but most of us don't." Then he added, almost as an aside, "Most of us don't even want such a job." (to which he received a smattering of laughter).
His side comment caught my attention. I work in a religious environment where I interact almost entirely with religious Jews. I have never had to pass a coworker a ham sandwich during a work-related meal, nor have I ever felt that I was abetting a fellow Jew in chillul Shabbat. I'm clearly in the minority and don't think that being in Israel is an better that the Diaspora on this matter. (In fact it might be worse. Outside of Israel there's a strong chance that most of your coworkers are not Jewish, so passing them the ham presents no issue. But in Israel, the vast majority of your coworkers are Jewish, and if you send them the file right before Shabbat, it's a sure bet that they're violating the Shabbat.)
But I love the fact that I don't face these types of ethical and halachic challenges in the workplace. I feel fortunate that we close for every Jewish holiday without fail (and the Israeli ones too). I appreciate that kashrut is a given. And I'm not entirely sure that I'd want to confront the halachic challenges that most everyone else faces and the compromises that they demand. In many ways, while we might need to confronting situations of safek, it's surely easier to avoid them.
Which is exactly what I did at Seudah Shlishit. I would have said only retzei during birkat hamazon anyway. But I finished my bread early.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Millionaire's Stroller

On Friday evening, right before Shabbat, our old stroller died. It was a loyal Peg Perego (bought on ebay) that weighed a ton, and lasted through two children before the handle gave way, and off it went to the great dumpster in the sky.
With our single car and the fact that I'm always driving it to work, Rena knew that if we didn't buy a new stroller right away, she might not get one for weeks. Since we had spent Shabbat in Yerushalayim at the YU Israel Kollel (it was a wonderful Shabbaton), off we went to Talpiyot in search of the perfect stroller. The stroller needed to fulfill two conditions: (1) It fit into the back of our car and (b) it was reasonably priced.
As I walked into the store, before me lay a veritable parking lot of strollers, running the gamut from baby joggers to mini-tanks to umbrella strollers. It didn't take us long to narrow down our search and we found a nice model for about 350 shekel, but while the guy was in back getting our stroller, I took the opportunity to "browse" and suffered a serious case of sticker shock. I cannot for the life of me understand why in the world a stroller would be worth 4 or five thousand (yes, thousand) shekel. Actually, I know why someone would ask for that kind of money - they think that they can sucker a future parent out of any sum of money. And they're right. But what about the parents? People who normally drive "Chevys" suddenly find themselves in the market for the Rolls Royce of strollers. And they don't come with GPS! Sure, it might offer a smoother ride. It might have more padding (both of which your baby will never notice.) But is it 3,500 shekels more padding?
Some things I'll never understand.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Toldot: A Bowl of Stew and the Price of Faith

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Toldot:A Bowl of Stew and the Price of Faith
How much would you risk on a bet if you believed that the payoff was a sure thing? The more confident you are, the more you'd bet. How much would you be willing to change your life for the promise of great return? Again, the more you believed in the payoff, the more you'd sacrifice. These questions confront us as we wonder why Yaakov tried to finagle the birthright from his brother for a bowl of soup. What were they really talking about? Why did Eisav say yes? And what's all that got to do with Christopher Hitchins?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Are We Children of Eisav or Children of Ya'akov? Thoughts for Parshat Toldot

Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1936 until his death in 1944, traveled around the nascent State of Israel offering spiritual guidance and support for the people living in the Land. He reached a certain town where the people presented the rabbi with an ethical and religious dilemma that they had struggled with. They wanted to know whether he thought that they should keep kosher.
It seems that economic circumstances were so difficult they had arrived at the conclusion that they could not keep Shabbat. The demands of work necessitated, in their minds, that they violate Shabbat on a regular basis, something they knew to be against Judaism. Yet, they were mired in a debate about whether they should keep their communal kitchen kosher. While some argued that they should, many felt that since they did not observe Shabbat, what would be the point of keeping Kosher?
Rav Amiel answered them with a verse from this week’s Parshah.
“I told them,” he wrote in his work הגיונות אל עמי, “that while their line of thinking (knowing that chilul Shabbat was wrong) indicated that they were descendants of Ya’akov, in their willingness to give up by following their line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, they indicate that they are not, God forbid, from the seed of Ya’akov, but instead from the Children of Eisav.”
When Eisav returns from a hard day in the field, famished for a crust of bread, he arrives home to find Yaakov cooking a pot of soup. “Give soup please. Me hungry,” he tells his brother. “Sure,” Yaakov said. “All it will cost you is the birthright.”
Eisav has a perplexing thought. הנה אנכי הולך למות, ולמה זה לי בכורה – “behold I am going to die, so of what use is the birthright to me?” Esav’s statement seems strange, and the commentators struggle to unravel its meaning. What logic does he use to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew? Rashi understands that the birthright implies the obligation to serve in the Beit Hamikdash, as originally, before the Sin of the Golden Calf, the firstborns were supposed to perform this holy service. Based on this understanding, Rashi explains Eisav’s thinking.
אמר עשו מה טיבה של עבודה זו? א"ל כמה אזהרות ועונשין ומיתות תלוין בה כאותה ששנינו (סנהדרין סג) אלו הן שבמיתה שתויי יין ופרועי ראש. אמר אני הולך למות על ידה אם כן מה חפץ לי בה
Said Eisav: What is the nature of this worship? [Ya’akov] said to him, there are a number of admonishments and warnings and [threats of] deaths that rest up [this service], as we learned, “These are those who are executed…[those who serve in the Temple] drunk, or ungroomed…” Said [Eisav], “Since I would sure die in this type of service, if so, what do I want it for?”
Rav Amiel noted that it never dawned upon Eisav to tell himself, “You know what? While I’m not perfect now, I can at least do my best, and in the course of time accustom myself to life without booze, etc.” Rather, Eisav insisted that if I can’t do it all, right now, perfectly, then I might as well not try. If I’m going to die in the end, then what benefit is the birthright, even for a little bit? Eisav wanted it all immediately – or nothing.
Rav Amiel asked the people of that settlement: Are you children of Eisav or children of Ya’akov? If you’re children of Eisav, then you’re right. If you cannot be perfect; if you cannot have everything, then it’s not really worth doing anything at all. If you can’t keep Shabbat, then why bother keeping kosher. After all, if we’re after perfection that will never happen. But Ya’akov didn’t subscribe to that ideology. And neither do we – or at least neither should we.
Too often we allow ourselves to fall into an all or nothing mentality; a black and white phenomenon especially prevalent among young people, who often don’t appreciate nuance, compromise, and the frailty of humanity in religious observance – even their own.
I recently saw a blog post about a newly coined term called “lazydox”. The term refers to people who consider themselves Orthodox, but on the other hand, choose willingly or otherwise to forgo certain observances. Yet, the term itself, and its self-deprecating nature, to my mind fly in the face of the religious experience, and in a jocular manner denigrate people who, for whatever reason, aren’t perfect. It implies that you can’t be Orthodox unless you keep everything, and that if you don’t, either because of choice or ideology or plain weakness, you’re not Orthodox (i.e. religious), but something else. Lazy.
I beg to differ. I know of no perfect Jew. The phenomenon does not exist. So on some level, we’re all “lazydox.” We all make choices about our personal level of observance, tolerance, commitment, and willingness to follow proscribed practice. We all take shortcuts and make compromises, some more public and visible than others. And we do not and should not consider those shortcomings anything less than “Orthodox”, because the struggle itself is the hallmark of religious life.
It’s not all or nothing. Rather, it’s the struggle to climb the mountain of observance; the miscues and mistakes, and then hopefully also the successes and achievements – and the setting of our sight on yet higher heights – that define what it means to be a Jew.
We are not children of Eisav. Life isn’t all or nothing. And we must teach ourselves and our children that our failures demand not that we redefine ourselves into some new category, but instead compel us to confront our weaknesses, and strive to improve.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What's Jewish about the American Jewish World Service?

The press is abuzz with the funny video about the American Jewish World Service, which last year doled out $22 million to over 400 organizations around the world. They really used the star power effectively to promote the organization. Yet, the video - and the AJWS, raise some questions in my mind.
Sarah Silverman has the money line when she says, "The probably don't help any Jews. I mean, like Jews are fine, you know?"
Asking about the name Julia Louise Dreyfus asks, "Is it a world thing? Is it a Jewish thing?"
The dog (which I've never heard of, apparently called Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) says that instead of AJWS, the organization should be called, "Something simple, like "Jews Helping Goyim."
What is the AJWS? After all, I've never heard of it before? The AJWS website says that,
American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality.
Sure, Judaism does instruct us to pursue justice. But does that make the institution Jewish? While I have no doubt that the AJWS does great work, it seems cheap, even inappropriate to call it "Jewish." Other than the weekly Torah portion, I fail to see anything Jewish about the organization. I'm sure you don't have to be Jewish to give money or sit on the board (although most board members seem to be Jews.) You don't need to be Jewish to receive money either. Is justice just a Jewish ideal? Isn't it also a Christian and Muslim principle? Why not then call the organization the AJCMWS?
This raises, in my mind, the question of how we even identify Jewish organizations anymore. They used to be connected to Jewish causes or Israel or Jewish education, but seemingly no longer. In some ways, the AJWS allows Jews to think that they're practicing Judaism, without doing anything particularly "Jewish" at all.