Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tazria 5771 - Through the Darkness

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tazria 5771 - Through the Darkness

Reading through Tazria for me is an exercise in frustration. We simply have no idea what the Torah describes. We believe in Tzaraat - we know that it's real. But we have no idea what it is or should look like, despite the fact that we read about it year after year. Sometimes Judaism today seems like that; for all we know, we're still walking in the darkness. In light of a number of difficult tragedies that took place this week, the shiur focuses less on what we do know, and more on what we don't.

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 16: He'll Be Riding a White Donkey When He Comes

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 16 - He'll Be Riding a White Donkey When He Comes
(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.)

We all know the Midrash that Moshiach will be riding a white donkey when he arrives. But have we ever stopped to wonder: Is that a good thing? Rav Teichtal certainly does. The shiur took place the day after the tragic death of a young father in Yad Binyamin, and we were all reeling from the loss, which was the appropriate context for Rav Teichtal's first analysis of Jewish suffering.

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Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?

Yes, you might have seen this article somewhere...but now it's been published by the OU in the Spring Edition of Jewish Action. You can download the pdf here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When No Bias is the Worst Bias

Imagine if after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, a leading congressional figure had said, "Obama is fully qualified to take on the presidency. And the fact that he's black should not raise any problems."
Such a statement would, justifiably, raise the obvious follow-up question: Why would it be a problem? You see, the very fact that someone thinks there's a need to deflect criticism isn't indicative of a lack of bias, but of the most sinister, insidious bias. (It's kind of like saying, "Some of my best friends are black.")
Now, no politician that I'm aware of was stupid enough to make such a statement about Obama. But what if the statement was said not about being African American, but about being a religious Jew?  There'd be an outcry! The world would not stand for it! Right? Don't be on it.
Recently, the Israeli government released the identity of the candidate for the top spot in the Shin Bet. The Jerusalem Post reported that,
Yoram Cohen will make history as the first head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to wear a kippa – serving as another example of the increasing presence of national religious officers within Israel’s security and intelligence organizations.
Cohen, 51, lives in Jerusalem but grew up in Tel Aviv and went to a yeshiva high school in Pardess Hanna, before being drafted into the Golani Reconnaissance Battalion.
Oh, there's another apparently important detail about him: he wears a Kippah. In other words, he's a religious Jew.
Defending the decision to appoint Cohen to the position,
Former Shin Bet head (Israel Security Agency) Yaakov Perry on Tuesday morning said that incoming chief Yoram Cohen is "a professional with moderate views" and in the past had supported a deal to release Gilad Schalit, according to Army Radio.
"The fact that he is a religious person should not interfere, though he is the first person to enter this position wearing a kippa," Perry told Army Radio.
Phew! That's a relief. Because it's clear from the question and answer that most - if not all religious Jews are complete fanatics who can't serve their country with distinction. Why else would they have to go out of their way to emphasize just how "moderate" he is - as opposed to the rest of us.
How would the non-religious public feel if every kippah-wearing Israeli assumed that they were Meretz-supporting liberals willing to give the country away to the Arabs? Can we question the fitness of the non-religious public to serve their country because they don't keep the mitzvot? After all, won't they just make yeridah and end up Miami or LA anyway?
I hope that the time will soon come when the general Israeli public stops looking at every kippah-wearing Jew with suspicion; when we're appreciated not just for our spirituality, but for the values and contribution we bring to the table.
Because sometimes, just asking the question reveals that the bias rests not in the heart of the subject of the question, but in the person who asked it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Hilarious and Troubling Video

At my first full-time shul, the Agudas Achim in West Hartford, CT, many of the shul's members did not adhere to each and every one of the mitzvot all of the time. Like many shuls in America during the middle part of the 20th century (most of which have gone away), the vast majority of the members were not Shomer Shabbat. Many arrived at shul in the cars, parking in the (open) parking lot. One particular member stands out in my memory. He was relatively younger than the other members (in his fifties at the time), and would drive his minivan to shul every Shabbat.
"But it's OK," he would tell me. "You see, I've put an eruv over the top of the minivan. So when I get into my car and drive here, I'm always inside the eruv."
He was being clever and trite, and hiding the small amount of anxiety his chillul Shabbat generated. I would laugh at his little joke half-heartedly, not finding it all that funny.
But I thought about his joke this week when I saw a video currently making the rounds from comedy central. The report, which aired on the Daily Show with John Stewart, focuses on the ongoing battle between the secular Jews of Westhampton Beach on Long Island, and the Orthodox community trying to build an eruv.

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The Jewish guy is truly a caricature of himself. Truly. Notice his rings, glasses, affectation - the whole thing. At the same time, two things about the piece give me great cause for concern.
1. He (and the other secular Jews in the town) really is worried about an Orthodox influx. While he and his group might be bigoted and close-minded, what does his response say about how Orthodox communities interact with their non-Orthodox and non-Jewish neighbors? Some might feel that they're overreacting, but clearly they're afraid of something, and it's not imagined. Even more than walking in the streets on Shabbat, we don't send our children to the public schools, we're exclusionary (at least from the outside), and often disengage from broader community institutions when they don't relate to our own parochial needs. Sure, you can mock the guy. But do we have the right - or the luxury - to absolve ourselves as a community from his concerns?
2. The piece makes the whole notion of eruv seem ridiculous and foolish. Perhaps it would have been better to have a more religiously learned representative explain what an eruv is (something more sophisticated than halfway between Alice in Wonderland and Mr. Snuffalupugus). And John Stewart's job is to mock, which he does quite well, but the mocking and snark raise the challenge of defending ritual in an era of logic and science which regards ritual like eruv with complete and total disdain. (Best question: Can I kill someone in an eruv?)
I think I could do a better job of explaining the notion of eruv, but it really does represent an imaginary enclosure and logically is difficult to explain. I don't have a problem with the notion that fishing wire "allows" me to push a stroller on Shabbat because I subscribe to and understand the system. But we need to confront the reality that to the uninitiated, and especially people who consider themselves learned and sophisticated, the very idea of the eruv seems silly.
How do we promote Judaism and ritual in this kind of anti-spiritual environment? I'm really not sure.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Old Spice Times Three: Purim Torah Edition

We start with the original Old Spice guy. If you haven't seen it, here you go.

We then proceed to the Grover version, an instant classic.

Finally, the Orthodox version, featuring former Detroiter Dani Ungar. Go Dani!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Purim: A Man's Holiday

Notwithstanding the yearly brouhaha about whether women should read the megillah for women (these issues never do seem to simmer down), it recently dawned on me: Purim is much better if you're a guy.
Sure, we had a joint Purim party in our community that was gender-neutral (although all the skits were performed by men). Women are required to hear the megillah and participate in the mitzvot of the day. But, to the best of my knowledge, most women I know don't get drunk. And that, by far, is the very best part of Purim.
I get drunk once a year. And, being a halachic person (I try to be, at least), despite the desperate pleadings of the OU, I think that there is a mitzvah to get drunk. And if you get drunk in the company of similar, like-minded spiritual people, it's a heck of a lot of fun. Yesterday I had the privilege to participate in just such a seudah. There was much singing, dancing, accordion and guitar playing, drum beating, divrei Torah, stories, revelry and much laughing. (The jokes are much, much funnier with the benefit of inebriation.) No one threw up, thankfully. The was no wild craziness, nothing inappropriate to my mind. We just had a great time.
And the women watched.
Sure, they might have enjoyed it, but for them, it was a spectator sport. And my daughter was justifiably bored.
I'm not sure if there is a solution to this problem. I don't know if I'd recommend a separate seudah with drinking for the ladies. Somehow, I don't seem them getting plastered together. And the halachah does say, חייב איניש לבשומי - "a man must get drunk." I'm not an aramaic specialist, so I can't say for sure whether איניש is a gender-neutral term, but I don't see chazal admonishing Jewish women to drink of Purim.
One could argue that women don't need the benefit of alcohol to allow their spirituality to express itself. One could say that it's kind of sad that men need to drink to let go, and express their religious joy. One might be correct.
But that in no way diminishes the fact that getting drunk on Purim -if done correctly and appropriately - is really, really fun. And, for men only.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 15 - Not by Nationalism Alone

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 15 - Not by Nationalism Alone
(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 lauding the achievements of the secular settlers, Rav Teichtal does a "180" and explains that despite their good intentions, with Torah values all their efforts would be for naught. I'm really sorry, because I began the shiur with a dvar Torah on the parshah, but I simply forgot to hit record. To hear the dvar Torah, you can listen to the beginning of this week's parshah shiur.

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Parshat Tzav and Megillat Esther - Purim, Bacon, Matzah Balls and Jewish Survival

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tzav and Megillat Esther - Purim, Bacon, Matzah Balls and Jewish Survival

We begin the shiur by noting the allusion in the parshah to the terrible killings in Itamar that took place over last Shabbat. We then turn our attention to Megillat Esther and wonder what the Jews did to 'almost' merit annihilation. Note to listeners: I'm pretty hardcore RZ. I know it. Don't say you weren't warned.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Amazingly Treif "Jewish" Food

What is Jewish food? Is it cholent? Bagels and lox? Matzah balls? I've come to realize that these might be foods that Jews like to eat, but that doesn't make them Jewish. What's Jewish food? Any food that's sanctioned by God for Jews to eat - i.e. food that's kosher. Everything else? Jewish style.
I came to this realization after reading an NPR article about a new L.A. restaurant which specializes in covering traditional Jewish foods with bacon. That's right - bacon.
The article begins by telling us,
At his restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, Top Chef Ilan Hall is wrapping a piece of bacon around a traditional matzo ball.
Great. Really. I must say that I'm not altogether shocked - not even surprised. But that's what Jewish food has become - another ethnic niche food for chefs (Jewish ones too) to fuse with other foods, regardless of the kashrut implications.
If you take the six minutes to listen to the audio, you'll also note that Ilan's grandfather, in Israel, although working as a kosher butcher by profession, took the time and energy to illegally import pork products through Lebanon for his own personal consumption. Lovely.
I guess the apple (or pork braised applesauce and latkes) really don't fall that far from the tree.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tragedy in the Eyes of a Five-Year-Old

It's difficult to explain just how personally people feel the terrible terrorist attack this past week in Itamar. It's not only all over the news; here people relate in an individual way. I get the sense that in the States (and elsewhere) it's sad, but it's a distant news item. Living here now, I understand how much more pervasive things are. I'll illustrate with a short conversation I had with my five-year-old driving him to gan (kindergarten) this morning.

Five-year-old: Abba, did you go to the sad place in Yerushalayim yesterday?
Me: No. What sad place are you talking about? (He was clearly talking about the funeral of the Fogel family on Har Hamenuchot, attended by tens of thousands.)
Five-year-old: Well, my gannenet went yesterday.
Me: Oh? What did she tell you?
Five-year-old: She said that on Friday night, a family, after they finished and went to sleep, some goyim came into their house and killed them, and the little baby, and the two boys ran away from the aravim (Arabs), and the sister also came home and ran away too.
Me: Did you say Tehillim?
Five-year-old: Yes.
Me: How did it make you feel? Did it make you feel scared?
Five-year-old: No. Just sad.

In America, we would have insisted that the school administration immediately suspend the kindergarten teacher for raising such a painful and frightening topic with a group of five-year-old children. I'm still not sure how to react, but I think that the attitude is that the atmosphere in Israel is so pervasive, that children intuitively know that something is wrong, and it's better to get things out in the open and let children talk about it, than wonder what's bothering everyone around them.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Case You Were Wondering What Haman Meant

When, in Megillat Esther, Haman tells King Achashveirosh that he would like to kill,
אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים מִנַּעַר וְעַד-זָקֵן טַף וְנָשִׁים בְּיוֹם אֶחָד
all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day
...this is what he meant:

Our hearts cry out that we need such stark reminders.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 14 - The Amazing Sinners

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 14 - The Amazing Sinners
(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.)

Most of Eastern European Orthodoxy had nothing good to say about the secular Zionists who were then building the Land of Israel. What about Rav Teichtal? What he says might surprise you.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Starbucks, the CRC, and the Truth

Back when we were kids, we used to eat ice cream at Howard Johnson's. It was just accepted fact that it was kosher. (Juicy Fruit gum was too. You just had to check the ingredients. For some reason though, Big Red was not. At least that was my mesorah.) We just operated on this set of facts, regardless of whether it was accurate or not. Then, when someone came to the realization that Howard Johnson's was a totally treif restaurant, that was a tough pill to swallow. After all, it's just ice cream! But, as time passed and the new reality set in, HJ fell off the map. We found Carvels, and Baskin Robbins seemed an acceptable alternative. (It was until this post.)
I feel like we're now going through the same process with coffee. Only this time, I'm not sure that people will have such an easy time accepting the truth. Sadly, I'm writing about Starbucks.
Last month, the Chicago Rabbinical Council released this chart, mapping out what one may and may not drink at regular Starbucks restaurants. Tragically, brewed coffee is on the not recommended list. That's right - regular coffee. Why not? It's very simple. Starbucks is a non-kosher restaurant, and they often wash their dishes, utensils and other items together with some of the utensils used to make hot coffee.
(A little inside baseball here. A number of years ago, Starbucks prepared to open a new shop on the corner of Ten Mile Road and Greenfield, literally a quarter-block from the Young Israel of Oak Park, in the heart of the Jewish community. A rumor erupted that the Starbucks would be kosher, and enough people suggested the idea that a Vaad representative went for an initial survey of the premises. He found that many of the cakes sold at Starbucks - at least back then - were specifically made with animal shortening. Yes, lard in the cake at Starbucks, probably because it tastes good. But it's really not kosher.)
Basic kosher rules tell us that heat serves as one of the primary components that transfers taste between utensils, whether kosher or not. So, you have truly treif items and hot coffee all over the store. Mixing the two does not provide a kosher environment. Now, I admit that one could imagine a scenario where the soap nullifies the non-kosher taste, which then makes the coffee not treif, but permissible bedieved. But is that the standard of kashrut most people have come to accept? I think not.
Sadly, it seems pretty clear that coffee at a regular Starbucks that also serves food, is just not recommended. The CRC is not the Badatz of Jerusalem. They're pretty level-headed.
At the same time, I wonder whether even religious and observant people will be open to giving up their beloved Starbucks. It's become so ingrained in the American experience that you can buy a cup of coffee anywhere (even McDonalds!) that many devout Jews seem unable to imagine that the truth might not be true at all.
In all probability, this will just become another distinguishing factor between religious Jews: those that drink coffee out and those that don't. Ironically, keeping kosher (and the various levels thereof) has become one of the dividing demarcations between different groups within Orthodoxy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 13: How Did We Inherit the Land of Israel? Part 3

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 13: How Did We Inherit the Land of Israel? Part 3
(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 concludes his explanation of why the Torah refers to the Land of Israel specifically as an inheritance, and connects this idea to the notion of the Torah being an inheritance as well. If we keep the Torah, we keep the Land, and if not, well, you get the idea. Somehow this also led to a discussion of the End of Days, and whether we really yearn for miraculous messianic times.

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