Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Do You Live in Israel? Are You a YU Alum?

If you answered "yes" to both of those questions, why not join us at the YU Israel campus this Saturday evening for an evening called, "What is Jewish Music?" with Rav Assaf Bednarsh, of the YU Israel Kollel, and a musical presentation by famous musician Aharon Razel?
If you're interested, make a reservation by emailing yuisraelalum@gmail.com! Quick!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kosher? Sure. But it Will Still Kill You.

A couple of months back, I wrote a blog post about whether Orthodoxy was inherently unhealthy. (You may be seeing that piece again in the near future. Stay tuned.) My answer was that Orthodoxy itself isn't unhealthy, but that much of today's Orthodox lifestyle is. I concluded by writing,
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.
Well, as of Friday, they still hadn't gotten the message.

I opened up the Shabbat Shalom email from last week to read the following headline:
Donuts vs. Cupcakes
Was it an article about the relative health of one dessert over another? An interesting Shabbat contest in which a shul pitted the doughnut lovers against cupcake connoisseurs? Hardly. It was a recipe suggestion. And I quote:
I think I’ve died and gone to “Snack Cake” heaven. My daughter Shani recently came up with the ideal snack cake recipe she found online. A cupcake topped with a donut!
Sorry, but is that really the best that the OU can do to promote kosher food? After eating a meal of carrot "kugel" (er, cake) and cranberry crunch as a side-dish, is one dessert not enough, that we need two desserts, piled on top of each-other? It just seems like a bad rip-off of Paula Deen's famous hamburger sandwiched between two a doughnuts. Really. (See above photo. I heard about it on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!")
Truth be told, I posted the original article long before my last doctor's appointment, in which I discovered that my cholesterol had jumped to 250. Not good. I'm trying to cut down, having rid myself of most cheese, my beloved wings on Shabbat, skin on chicken, my cream in my coffee, and other beloved foods. Do we really need the OU promoting an even unhealthier lifestyle?
I suggest that the OU start promoting healthy kosher eating, offering tips on whole-grain recipes, lower fat foods, and healthier cooking options. (You can check out Arlyn Boltax's blog for more ideas.)
We're getting to the point where we've got to ask ourselves whether we're killing ourselves with glatt kosher food.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Parshat Ki Tisa - The Sin of the Eigel, and Our Anxiety

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tisa - The Sin of the Eigel, and Our Anxiety

How could the Jewish people commit such a terrible sin so soon after the heights of Matan Torah? And, more relevant to us, what does their sinfulness tell us about ourselves? Why did they fail, and why do we?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 12: How Did We Inherit the Land of Israel? Part 2

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 12: How Did We Inherit the Land of Israel? Part 2
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

Continuing the theme of the inheritance of the Land, Rav Teichtal explains that our inheritance is contingent upon our willingness to act like children (and keep the Torah) and that our strength emanates from our dedication to the Torah

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

New! Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.

Thoughts on The Spirit of Shabbat, Part 1

Imagine I asked you to pasken the following question:
We're having a Friday afternoon wedding this summer (late Friday is the ideal time for the wedding, as everyone's available and there's no rush to leave). The only problem is, what's a wedding without music? So, would it be alright to hire a non-Jewish band to play music during the wedding on Shabbat?
I already know what you're thinking: of course not. Who would imagine allowing live music on a Friday night? At the very least, it's not shabbosdik- in the spirit of Shabbat, and there must be some type of prohibition against music, or non-Jews, or non-Jews playing music. Right?
Actually, wrong. Because while we're all certain that non-Jewish musicians at a Friday night wedding would be a no-go, one person wasn't so sure: the author of the Shulchan Aruch.
That's right. It's explicitly permitted, black and white in the Shulchan Aruch. Rav Yosef Karo writes (Orech Chayyim 338:2),
יש מתירים (ח) לומר לעכו"ם לנגן בכלי שיר בחופות. הגה: ואפי' (ט) לומר לעכו"ם ד לתקן הכלי שיר, שרי משום כבוד חתן וכלה, (י) אבל בלא"ה, אסור (מרדכי פרק משילין). ומיהו בזמן הזה (יא) נהגו להקל
Some permit one to tell a non-Jew to play with a musical instrument at chuppahs. (Rama adds) And even to tell the non-Jew to fix the instrument is permitted for the sake of the honor of the groom and bride, but without this [cause] is forbidden. Yet, in this time they customarily are lenient...
Why is one permitted to invite non-Jewish musicians to a wedding? Chafetz Chayim in his commentary on Mishnah Berurah (338:8) explains:
דאיסור השמעת קול בכלי שיר אינו אלא איסור דרבנן גזירה שמא יתקן כלי שיר ואמירה לא"י ג"כ אינו אלא איסור דרבנן והוי שבות דשבות ובמקום מצוה היא דאין שמחת חתן וכלה אלא בכלי שיר ושרי וכנ"ל בסימן ש"ז ס"ה ע"ש ויש מקומות שנהגו להחמיר בזה אם לא שהכינום לזה מע"ש ולא יאמר לו בשבת כלום או שבא מעצמו לנגן [כה"ג]:
For the prohibition of hearing the sound of musical instruments is a rabbinic prohibition - a decree lest on come to fix the instrument. And telling a non-Jew [to violate the Shabbat] is also only a rabbinic prohibition. [So combining the two] is a decree on a decree in the situation of a mitzvah, for there is no joy of groom and bride without music, and for this reason, it is permitted...and some places had the custom to be stringent in this matter if they had no prepared [the musicians] from before Shabbat, but they should not say anything to [the musicians] on Shabbat...
I found these comments almost shocking. Here's an activity that we'd never imagine would be permitted today (try it - ask your rabbi if you can have music at a Friday night Sheva Brachot), and yet the Shulchan Aruch allows it explicitly by using well-known and universally accepted halachic reasoning. What if I didn't want to hire a band, but simply wanted to put background music on a Shabbat timer, playing through a speaker system in the shul's social hall? We'd never consider that appropriate either, but doesn't the same logic apply?
What then determines what we consider "in the spirit of Shabbat" and that which we consider inappropriate? If an activity once considered appropriate can somehow shift, can our attitudes move in the opposite direction? Can something once considered inappropriate later become appropriate?
The answer to that question clearly seems to be "yes." I'll elaborate in my next post.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Buying Furniture, the Israeli Way

When Simcha's bed broke (the fifteen-year-old high riser frame finally gave out a while back) we knew that we'd have to buy furniture here. I'd been putting it off both for lack of time (there's no Sunday here), and also because I dread making significant purchases here, for a very simple reason: I always feel like I've been ripped off.
And, just as I expected, when we got to the store, there were no prices on anything. You just kind of have to rely on what the sales guy tells you. We found a bed we liked. He wanted 1,700 shekel. Couldn't he go down? Sorry, that's the sale price. We asked for a moment, and I expressed my frustration to Rena. She said, "Offer him 1,500 - take it or leave it."
I did just that. He took it, and rang up the sale. Mind you, I have no idea whether it was a decent price on a bed or not. Seems about right, but who knows?
Then, we had to wait for a few minutes while the storage guy came back (special for us) to load the bed onto the roof of our car. (Pay 250 shekel for delivery? Are you kidding?) The salesman - David (or Dudi, as his friends call him), did something I really didn't expect.
He told me a d'var Torah from the parshah.
To better explain my surprise, I need to paint the scene. Dudi is about forty-five, with a shaved head. Very professional looking, nice shirt and jeans. Gun in a holster at his hip. He struck me as a typical secular Israeli; nice guy, but not very religious.
And then he asks me: Why, in Parshat Ki Tisa, when the Torah tells us about the Tablets - the לוחות הברית, does the Torah spell the word לוחות without the letter "vav" - לוחת?
I checked, and he was right. The Torah tells us, (Shemot 32:16),
וְהַלֻּחֹת--מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים, הֵמָּה; וְהַמִּכְתָּב, מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא--חָרוּת, עַל-הַלֻּחֹת
And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.
He took out a siddur and turned to Pirkei Avot - the sixth chapter, where the Mishnah reads:
אומר: "והלחת מעשה אלהים המה והמכתב מכתב אלהים הוא חרות על הלחת".
אל תקרא "חרות" אלא "חירות", שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה.
and it says, "And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables." Do not read [the word} as (charut) - "graven" - rather read the word as (cheirut) - freedom. For there is no free person like the one who immerses himself in the study of Torah
Dudi asked: Why is this in the sixth chapter of Avot? For the same reason that the letter vav (meaning 6) is missing: Because the Torah was teaching us that true freedom for the Jewish people would only come in the sixth millennium, which is now.
I don't know if I paid a good price for the bed. But the d'var Torah, which was clever, really lifted my spirits, not just for its own value, but because it reminded me that you can't judge a book - or a furniture salesman - by how he looks on the outside.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tetzaveh - The Choice and His Clothing

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tetzaveh: The Choice and His Cloth

Why did God choose Aharon to be the Kohen Gadol? And what meaning can we find in the unique nature of the clothing of the Kohen? We talk leadership, clothes, and Torah.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 11: How Did We Inherit the Land of Israel? Part 1

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 11: How Did We Inherit the Land of Israel? Part 1
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

After describing how the Torah is an "inheritance", Rav Tiechtal now turns to explaining why the Torah is also a "morashah", and the implications of that fact.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

New! Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.>

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Tuition Crisis 3: A Public-Private Partnership?

My grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Hyman R. Friedman, ob"m, loved to tell us about his childhood, growing up in Baltimore. Back then, there were no yeshivot, no private schools, certainly not a Jewish school. Who could afford it? (If you haven't heard the recording of my Zayde, you can download it here. Just listening to it again brings tears to my eyes. It's an amazing recording.)
My grandfather said,
"I went to public school. There were no yeshivas at that time...I went to the public elementary school. I had very good teachers; one teacher, Mrs. Bernstein, my father insisted that I had her for fourth, fifth and sixth grade. She had excellent penmanship, and taught everyone to read beautifully. And that gave me my start in...penmanship - safrut. Then went to public junior high school...There I had one fabulous math teacher who inspired me and gave me an excellent mathematics education. For high school I went to the Baltimore City College - which was a high school, and I took three streetcars to get there. That was my secular education. My religious education - I went to a teacher - they used to have teachers who would teach in their own homes. One house of their homes was dedicated to the school. They taught children from four years old straight through until my Bar Mitzvah. He happens to be Jason Rosenblatt's great-grandfather. After Bar Mitzvah I went to a private rebbe for Talmud who was excellent. He was an old man, but he was excellent, and I went to his house. "
My grandfather excelled in Talmud, and when he finished high school he went on to yeshiva in New York at Yeshiva University, after which he dedicated the next fifty years of his life to the rabbinate.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the tuition crisis in the United States is the underlying notion of double taxation. Because private schools must provide not only religious instruction, but also secular instruction as well, parents end up paying twice for their children's secular education: once through property taxes and the public school system, and then again in day school tuition. Even more infuriating is the reality that often the public school system offers wonderful secular education opportunities, with great facilities, dedicated staff and a wide range of advanced courses that a relatively small Jewish private school could never hope to afford.
Back when we lived in Oak Park, one of the great "draws" of our neighborhood was the fact that for whatever reason, we were zoned in the Berkeley School District. Berkeley High School was (and is) well-known for its excellent education, and many non-religious (and even some Orthodox) parents were thrilled that their children had such a high-quality public education institution.
I always wondered: Couldn't there be a way to harness the power of the public school system for the educational needs of at least some of the members of the Orthodox community? I think that there could. It would take focus, political pressure, and a huge dollop of open-mindedness. But it just might be possible.
Could we create a system when students attend religious school during the mornings, and then four days a week, students would attend a public school run by the State. The school would be open and available to any child, regardless of race, religion, etc. The school would be unique in that: (a) the hours would obviously be different (b) the school might focus on requirement, and not electives and (c) it would be academically oriented, focusing on study only, without many of the social activities, clubs, sports programs, found in other public schools.
Writing on his blog, Gary Rosenblatt wrote,
Addressing the North American Jewish Day Schools Leadership Conference here Sunday night, Rachel Abrahams of Avi Chai, a leading supporter of day schools, also emphasized the financial benefits of an approach being used in more and more schools around the country.
“Day school students could potentially enroll” in charter schools “and have parts of their general studies education funded by the government, while their Judaic studies would be offered in a bricks and mortar learning center (perhaps incorporating some online Jewish studies courses as well).
On one hand, we often generally shy away from students so integrated with their non-Jewish peers. The powers of acculturation and outside influence do rightly generate great concern. Then again, many of these same children will one day leave home for the college campus, and be forced to confront these very issues. Could there be a benefit to having them confront them while still living with their parents, who might provide guidance and counsel?
Moreover, this type of solution would never really be mainstream. But it could provide a limited group of parents, who are perhaps considering sending their children to public school anyway, a different, better option.
I know that this isn't Baltimore of the 1930's that my grandfather grew up in. But if we think about it, was assimilation any less of a threat back then? We might very well discover that a great rebbe in the morning, a strong youth group, sports at the JCC and active and involve parents - combined with a quality public education in the afternoon - provide the best and most cost effective Jewish education for many of today's financially strapped parents.
And, if we're really talking about a crisis, all options must be on the table.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Tuition Crisis 2: Return to the Cheder

After my last post highlighting aliyah as the ideal solution to the tuition crisis, a commenter wrote,
Telling people that they should make Aliyah to solve the exorbitant tuition costs in Jewish schools in America does nothing to bring those costs down. It's like telling someone who's not happy with their job that they should just get another job. It's not an answer, and it's honestly not very helpful to people who are really struggling to pay for their kids' tuition.
Point well taken. People should move to Israel because that's where Jews belong. Affordable tuition is an entirely different issue. I've got a couple of suggestions which obviously aren't going to be mainstream, but perhaps will light a fire under some creative, forward-thinking people.

Almost a decade ago, Rabbi Dov Lipman (we were classmates in high school) left his job at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington to begin a new school, which would eventually be called the "Eshkol Academy." The school didn't work out (and its main funder ended spending some time in a Federal penitentiary) but for the first year (even before the school officially began), the school had ten students, no real building, and one main teacher: Rabbi Lipman. From what I recall, he was the Jewish studies instructor, and there were one or two Judaic instructors. Every day he would drive the kids to the JCC for physical activity during the day. While the school eventually found a building, hired staff, and later imploded (see above), I often thought about the education that the kids got during that first year. I'm sure that they learned more that year than probably any other year of their education. They had a personal relationship with an excellent teacher and mentor. They studied in a relatively small class. And they used already existing community structures to supplement what they didn't have.
Some day soon, an enterprising educator is going to go off the "reservation" and open his (or her) own personal "cheder" for kids spanning two grade levels, renting space in a local shul (which has unused classrooms) for twenty or thirty kids. He is the administration. He's the teacher. He's the guidance counselor. He knows every student personally. He uses a local available facility for physical educations (Kids need to run. A lot.) and parents assist with some of the grunt work - preparing food, helping with secretarial work, etc. He hires another teacher to teach secular subjects. Assuming that we're not talking about upper-level high school classes, that's not at all a stretch.
This model, to my mind, could easily work at least through eighth grade. Children would develop an important relationship with a rebbe, receive personal attention and direction, and be nurtured in a warm, caring environment. A teacher would have one class, have a handle on each of his students, know the parents, and have greater influence (and responsibility) for their growth. The community would benefit from using under-utilized facilities which sit idle for much of the week (have you ever been to a JCC during the mid-afternoon hours? How about a shul during a morning), and parents' personal involvement would both save them money and invest them personally in their kids' education.
Will some entrepreneurial budding educator take the plunge and try my idea? I'm in Israel, where tuition isn't a "crisis." But in America, where parents are drowning in tuition fees, it might be an idea to consider.

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 10 - The Truth of the Torah Part 2; The Gift of Faith

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 10 - The Truth of the Torah Part 2; The Gift of Faith
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

Rav Teichtal explains why God gave us the Torah as an inheritance, and the dangers of thinking that we can acquire the Torah on our own.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

New! Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Terumah - How Much is Enough?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Terumah: How Much is Enough?

By examining the details of the Shulchan, we learn a great deal about the way the Torah relates to physical pleasures, and the way we consume them. Our discussion culminates in an incredible commentary of Kli Yakkar who asks us to consider: how much do we really need?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thoughts on Brain Death 2: Way, Way Out There Department

The Brain Death issue remains perhaps one of the most complicated, difficult and frightening halachic and hashkafic challenges we face today. As a rabbi, I could never make that call to pull the plug and allow the harvesting of organs from one person to another. But, on the other hand, how could I not make the call? How could I rob a person of the potential for rebirth, from the gift of a new heart, or a lung or a liver?
Let's be clear: this decision rests firmly in the hands of the local rabbi (which is an interesting turn of events). With the gedolim lining up on both sides of the issue, families faced with such a drastic and consequential decision often turn to their own spiritual guide - as they should. The rabbi must choose whose psak he wishes to follow. In a world where every small question immediately goes to the rosh yeshiva or the gadol in Israel, small-time rabbis find themselves thrust back into the big-leagues of psak.
Yet, thinking about the "largeness" of the issue, I kept coming back to myself. If, God forbid, someone I loved needed an organ, would I take it? Somehow, with the incentive of a life-or-death decision, the abstract "Brain Death" question would probably matter little to me. After all, with skin in the game the decision becomes that much clearer. I'd probably say, "Well, with great gedolim on the side of accepting the notion of brain death, who am I to argue with them?" I'm pretty sure that I'd take the organ.
If I'd do that, though, how could I possibly dare to prevent someone else from doing the same? How can I be willing to take - which I am - but be wary of giving?
I think I've found an "out." It's way, way out there, so bear with me.
Consider for a moment a tragedy: John suffers traumatic injury resulting from an industrial accident, and doctors agree, using the requisite medical tests, that John is indeed brain-dead. Let us assume for the moment that we reject the notion of brain death, and consider life based solely on cardiac function. At this moment, from this point of view, John remains fully alive.
If, for whatever reason, the doctors needed to stop his heart to conduct a test, but then restarted that heart (which they can now easily do), did they kill him? I think that the answer is clearly no.
But what if they stopped his heart, and put it in another body. Is John now dead? Remember that his heart functioned independently of his body before. It continues to do so now; just in another body. Biologically we know that this is the case. Organ donor recipients must take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. Their bodies often consider the inserted organ as a foreign force to be rejected and expunged. If that's biologically true, cannot it also be spiritually true.
What I'm getting at here is, who are we to say that the life-force we knew as John ended when we transferred his heart to a different body? Could it be that on some level, John remains alive (or at least his life-force), living in the body of someone else?
To me, the entire brain-death issue smacks of excessive hubris on all sides: doctors think they can define life or death, and rabbis declare with certainty that we can definitively determine when life exactly ends. (To me, the "anti-brain-death" position has always appealed to me because it takes the "who knows?" approach. How can we end a life if we really don't know if it's over? Good question.) Yet, I have come to believe that this question of life is not binary. It's not yes or no, but shades of gray.
Judaism teaches us that there are many levels of life. On the very simplest level, there's something the Torah calls nefesh, and something else called neshama. To the best of my very limited understanding, nefesh refers to the life-force inside us, while neshama is that spark of God which illuminates our humanity. Could it be that the brain-dead person has been separated from his neshama, while his nefesh remains intact? How are we to know?
And if that's the case, when I take John's heart out of his body, it was already separated from his neshama.
And then, when I insert it into a new body and restart that heart, perhaps the nefesh that was, and is John, is still very much alive.