Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Turning Failings into Mitzvot: Classic, but Pathetic

We all live with some amount of cognitive dissonance: the gap between the way that we act and the way we think that we should act. This dissonance is a good thing. It propels us forward, hopefully, spurring us to change and improve. We grow when we can look at former behavior that we used to consider positive and realize just how destructive and negative it was. (For example: I used to think hanging out with my friends and drinking at the bar was great - time well-spent in leisure and cameraderie. Now I realize that I was an insufferable drunk avoiding spending time with my family.) Conversely, our spirituality and growth is in greatest peril when we stop thinking that we're doing something wrong; when we mentally shift our attitudes and consider what we used to think of as negative behavior into "acceptable" or even "admirable" activities.
The Gemara in Yuma (86b) makes precisely this point, teaching us,

דאמר רב הונא כיון שעבר אדם עבירה ושנה בה הותרה לו הותרה לו סלקא דעתך אלא אימא נעשית לו כהיתר
Rav Huna said: once a person committed a violation and then repeated that act, it is permissible to him. Does he really think that it is permissible? Rather, I must say that it becomes as if it is permitted.
Rav Huna reminds us that this precisely is the M.O. of the yetzer hara. It's much harder to get someone to sin than to convince him that his activity isn't actually sinful. It's also much more efficient. No one wants to actively engage in destructive or sinful behavior, and if he does, he feels a sense of remorse afterwards. That's too much work for the yetzer hara, trying to get us to commit sinful acts each and every moment. Rather, he'd much rather work on our attitude towards that behavior, because once he's shifted our perspective, there's no need to entice us to sin. It's automatic.

Readers of this blog know well my Zionist ideology. I quit my job, picked up with my family and moved to Israel, mostly because I consider aliyah a religious and spiritual imperative.
I'm not alone. Scholars throughout the ages considered living in Israel a vital aspect of Jewish life. Living in Israel is encoded into Jewish law. I have very little patience for arguments about whether the Rambam considered aliyah a mitzvah or not; whether it's a mitzvah kiyumit or a mitzvah chiyuvit. Really. Who cares? In either case, Jews are supposed to live in Israel.

At the same time, I try and walk a difficult line and avoid overtly criticizing Diaspora Jews who don't make aliyah. No one knows just how difficult moving to Israel is more than us olim. It's never an easy decision, and I have tremendous respect and admiration for the people who make the leap of faith to come and live in Israel, and I really try hard not to judge Jews who don't. Four years ago that was me, and there's no need to be critical of people who choose to live the USA. We all have our challenges, and they haven't yet been able to make the jump to Israel. But at the very least, they know that they should. They feel the pull, as well they should.
But when someone comes along and says, "No they shouldn't, and argues that living in the Diaspora is a mitzvah, I feel a need to respond. Even worse is when the person argues both badly, and incorrectly, as Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz recently did in a short piece in the Long Island Jewish Star.
Essentially, Rabbi Yanklowitz argues that Judaism's values prompt us to not only live in Israel, but also to fulfill our national mission in the Diaspora. To put it bluntly, he's wrong, not only Judaically, but factually as well.
It's best, I think, to rebut his short essay point by point.
Living in caravans in a small settlement town during my years learning in Israel, my dream was always to settle the land. As a religious Zionist, I feel that living in Israel is a tremendous and miraculous opportunity, and all Jews can and must consider making this life transition as we are all very familiar with the halakhic obligation of yishuv ha’aretz, the religious obligation to settle the Land of Israel. I would like to suggest, however, that in addition to this well-known imperative, there is also a crucial duty to reside in the Diaspora.
Let's stop here. If there's a halachic obligation of yishuv ha'aretz, how then can there also be a crucial duty to reside in the Diaspora? Doesn't make that much sense, methinks.
The Rambam, following the Babylonian Talmud, allows for limited exceptions to the mitzvah to reside in the Land, including studying or teaching Torah, searching for a marriage partner, living in safety, or in the case of economic hardship. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, suggests that there is no prohibition against leaving Israel at all, even if one is already living there.
The Rambam is accurate. But I've asked around about his unattributed reference to the Yerushalmi, and I have no idea where in the Jerusalem Talmud one can find the suggestion that there's no prohibition against leaving Israel. Of course there are circumstances that allow for one to leave the Holy Land temporarily, but that's not the implication of the piece. I'm certain that this is a quote taken out of context. At the very least, it suggests that one was already living in Israel.
Some of the great 20th century authorities have argued that one is not obligated to reside in Israel today: Rav Yehudah Amital, the late rosh yeshiva and Israeli leader, once said, “In America there are many great Torah scholars, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe and others. Is it possible that not one of them knows the halakhah?”
This again is a quote clearly taken out of context. Does anyone remotely imagine that Rav Amital, the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion, didn't think that one is obligated to live in Israel today? Of course he did. Yet, he wasn't a man who made broad pronouncements, especially about great Torah sages. I've asked some friends of mine who studied in the Gush, and they suggested that he was supportive of people who wanted to settle in the Diaspora to teach Torah. But it is impossible to suggest that Rav Amital didn't think that the average Jew is obligated to live in Israel. He was speaking about great Torah sages. To apply a single quote about a very specific group of unique people to the entire community of Diaspora Jewry is the height of intellectual dishonesty. And, aside from this out-of-context quote, which rabbinic authority has ruled categorically that one is not obligated to live in Israel?

While Israel remains the destiny of the Jewish people, we also must not abandon the Diaspora. Firstly, the Torah demands that we, as a nation, commit to pursuing justice;

This is an oft-quoted liberal slogan that's hard to justify, mostly because it's not true, notwithstanding the fact that it's now taken as gospel truth. Yes, the Torah tells us צדק צדק תרדוף - "that we must chase after justice." (see Devarim 16:20. I also find it ironic that the verse continues, למען תחיה וירשת את הארץ אשר ה' אלקיך נתן לך - "that you live and inherit the Land that the Lord your God gives you." The entire commandment to pursue justice is explicitly connected to inheriting and inhabiting the Land. Rabbi Yanklowitz is using this very commandment as an excuse to do precisely the opposite!) The clear literal understanding is that the verse refers to internal justice within the Jewish people. God reminds us that we must ensure that we act with justice and righteousness towards each-other! Somehow, this has been transformed into a slogan for global justice. I'm certainly not against global justice, but arguing that this is a specific Jewish value is difficult to defend. Rabbi Yanklowitz continues:

to be warriors against injustice, it behooves us to be stationed everywhere around the globe. This work as an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, is our raison d’être.
Again wrong. Our raison d’être is to follow the word of God and fulfill the Torah. And, if we do that adequately, then God says that we will become a light unto the nations. The phrase actually emanates from Yeshayahu, who, in words of consolation to the nation conveys God's promise that the Jews would return to their Land following destruction, and again one day return to their status as a strong, powerful nation that others looked to and admired. See the Hebrew Wikipedia article on the term אור לגויים, which provides a nice summary of the use and misuse of the term throughout the ages.)
It is in the Diaspora where we can fulfill the Torah’s charge to combat global poverty, injustice, and oppression wherever it may be found. While Israel has been known to do inspiring humanitarian work, a nation-state’s primary concern must be the welfare and security of its own citizens. We must be concerned with Israel’s security as well but our responsibility is also broader. I’ve met thousands of other young Jewish leaders who have intertwined their religious Zionist identities with identities as global citizens.
This is just plain silly. Sure, one can do great chessed in the Diaspora, and fight for social justice. Yet, the State of Israel performs chessed internationally on a scale that pales anything that Jews are doing in America. Sorry, but that's just the truth. What American NGO sent a team of doctors and technicians to Haiti following the earthquake that saved numerous lives? What American organization sent a military unit to Japan to help with logistics and disaster relief after the tsunami and nuclear disaster? That's right, it was the State of Israel.
Israel, through it international reach, performs far more acts of chessed through international business relationships, humanitarian missions, and diplomatic initiatives than any American private organization could hope to reach. What's more effective at fighting global poverty: an American NGO in Haiti, trying to incubate small businesses (not a bad program, but usually minimally effective), or an Israeli biotech company that invented a water system that will allow that same Hatian to successfully irrigate his field? Finally (and most importantly), I fail to see why living in Israel and being a devoted global citizen are mutually exclusive. Israelis are far, far less parochial than most Americans, and are willing to - and do - travel to more places around the world than do Americans. If Rabbi Yanklowitz and the "thousands" like him really have intertwined their religious Zionist identities with global values, then they should move to Israel and do their good works from here. What's so important about doing it in America?
Second, though Jewish thought can and should remain distinct from that of other cultures, and obviously, other religions, the Jewish intellectual tradition has always benefitted, and continues to benefit, from development in conjunction with a diverse array of neighboring societies. Taking a cue from Muslim scholars like Al Farabi and Avicenna, Rambam integrated Jewish thought and Greek philosophy without the need to sacrifice our halakhah or our identity. 
True. We have universities here too. Good ones.
Today in America, as in the “Golden Age” of medieval Spain and the Talmudic academies of Babylonia, there is a great concentration of stellar Jewish academic programs and yeshivot. Rabbi Nehorai goes so far as to suggest, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah – and do not assume it will come after you – for it is your colleagues that will cause it to remain with you” (Pirkei Avot 4:18). This should raise Diaspora self esteem as one must reside where they can develop their best intellectual and spiritual achievements.
This is a joke, right? Is he really suggesting that the United States has developed yeshivot remotely on par with their Israeli counterparts? Why do thousands of young Americans, who run the ideological gamut, travel to Israel to study then? Does anyone other than Rabbi Yanklowitz truly think that one should "exile himself" to New York City to learn Torah. If I read the beginning of his article correctly, he himself "exiled" himself to Efrat (not in the United States) for an extended period of Torah learning. Shouldn't others do the same?
Aliyah to Israel is on the rise. 17,880 immigrants arrived in Israel in 5770 as compared to 15,180 in 5769 – an increase of 18 percent. There is no need for the demographic prophecies of gloom that if we don’t make immediate aliyah, Israel will fumble and that the Diaspora provides no hope for the Jewish future. Neither argument paints an accurate picture nor do they demonstrate the faith to survive that has driven Jews for millennia.
Agreed  But just don't think it's a mitzvah to live in America.
Many have argued for Shelilat ha’golah, the idea that one cannot sustain a Jewish life outside of Israel. One should be cautious of those who suggest that one can only live fully as a Jew in Israel. While there are particularistic mitzvot that can only be performed in Israel, there are also universalistic mitzvot that can only properly be achieved with the cooperation of Jews in the Diaspora. 
Again, I fail to see how he comes to this conclusion. But now I'm just repeating myself. Or is he repeating himself? 
One should not feel shame for choosing to reside in London, Kiev, or Chicago, but rather should proudly accept the responsibilities of supporting Israel while serving as a global ambassador for the Jewish people.
I don't know if I would say that someone should feel "shame", but one certainly should feel lacking if they choose to live in Kiev instead of Israel, just as someone should feel lacking if he doesn't spend time with his children, or learn Torah regularly, or follow any other religious precept. Sadly, Rabbi Yanklowitz has, through a series of logical jumps that are both specious and unrelated, transformed that important feeling of guilt and anxiety into a positive. Don't feel bad not making aliyah. You're not supposed to. You should repair the world!
Which brings me to my final point. Let's assume that he's right. Let's assume that one could only do good works in L.A., and that was a proper reason to remain in America. How many Jews in the United States are really so passionately involved in these types of projects, and not in their shuls, or their kids' schools, or in nothing at all? How many readers of the Long Island Jewish Star can truly consider themselves "global ambassadors" to the point that their engagement justifies ignoring a primary Torah value?
Sorry, Rabbi Yanklowitz. You might be fooling yourself, but for all of your justifications, Jews still belong in Israel. About that, I have no doubt.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 21: The Sequence of Moshiach

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 21: The Sequence of Moshiach
(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.)

Truthfully, we don't really give much thought to the process of Moshiach. When it happens, it'll happen. But if we asked ourselves what we really think will happen, most people would say that it will be a miraculous, instantaneuos process. We'll hear that Shofar blow, and whooosh! - we're in the Holy Land. And we'd be wrong. Rav Teichtal analyzes the steps of redemption and in the process, upends our understanding of what will really happen at the end of days.

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

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Audio Shiur: Parshat Bamidbar: Protecting Holiness

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bamidbar: Protecting Holiness

The final pesukim of Bamidbar outline the responsibility and danger inherent in the job of transporting the vessels of the Mishkan. Why was it so dangerous? What does that danger teach us about protecting sanctity today?
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The New York Times Once Again Misleads about Israel

Ha'aretz isn't the most conservative paper in Israel, and I say that with tongue planted firmly in cheek. So when Ha'aretz ran a headline that says, "Haaretz poll: Netanyahu's popularity soaring following Washington trip", one gets a sense that Israelis found his trip successful and productive.
Thankfully,  though, the New York Times saved the day with a negative pronouncement, writing, "Israelis See Netanyahu Trip as Diplomatic Failure." Really? I'm pretty sure that the most left-wing paper in the country said the opposite. But there's the rub: which Israelis? All Israelis, as the headline seems to imply, or some Israelis - most notably Netanyahu's political adversaries.
Does the New York Times think that liberal columnists are going to like what Bibi does? That's like deciding that Americans approve of Barack Obama based on a Thomas Friedman article in the Times. Sometimes the media is so locked in its own world that it can't see beyond the front door of the paper's building.
I thought that Bibi did a great job in the U.S. He's got an almost impossible task trying to balance different, almost unthinkable pressures. Apparently, so did most Israelis.
From what I see here, what they print in the Times about what goes on is Israel does resemble reality, but only from a very specific point of view.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Article: The Omer Imbalance

Over the course of history, the Jewish people have endured unspeakable suffering. From Churban to pogrom to exile to Inquisition, all leading up to the unimaginable losses during the Holocaust, we have plenty to mourn for. Yet, when we look at the Jewish calendar, while Chazal set aside Tisha B'av (and the Three Weeks) as a mourning period for basically everything else, we devote almost five full weeks to remember the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students.

How can we devote so little of our calendar to the Holocaust, and so much of it to a seemingly smaller tragedy in the course of Jewish history? The answer to this question lies in a deeper understanding of why we mourn during Sefirat Ha'omer.

Click here to download the article in pdf format.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Meet Herman Cain

On this week's Fox News Sunday, Herman Cain, who just announced that he's running for the Republican primary for President, was asked by host Chris Wallace on whether he would offer the Palestinians anything in negotiations for peace, Cain bluntly answered: "Nothing."
"I’m not convinced the Palestinians are really interested in peace. If the Palestinians come to the table with Israel, with a genuine offer, that the two of them can sit down and negotiate, the United States would in fact try to facilitate that discussion," said Cain.
"But if we look at history, it has been clear that the Palestinians have always wanted to push the Israelis and push Israel for more and more and more."
(Note to Cain - check the facts on the Right of Return. Oops.)
Will Cain win? Who knows? (You really can't tell anything about American politics anymore.) But his rhetoric certainly helps the discussion.
I'm not a Barack Obama hater. I really do think that he wants to do what's best for Israel, and help Israel achieve a peace agreement. He's really been on the forefront of sanctions against Iran, funding Israeli defense - very strong indeed. But trying to push Israel into a corner only emboldens the Palestinians to expect ever greater concessions - which they won't get, and only further delays the possibility of peace. Tell them that they get nothing, and then maybe they'll be willing to make the concessions necessary to get a deal done.

Lag B'omer Recap

Our entire neighborhood still smells. Ahhh, smoke. Which, of course, made it harder to breathe for a period of time.
We were in Yerushalayim for Shabbat at the Gruss Kollel in Bayit Vagan. For those of you who have been there, there's a road that leads down the hill towards the Kollel. On one side there are houses, and on the other a steep hill. The kids built what must have been a fifteen foot fire there. They were just getting started when we drove by. The fire was so big, that the kids couldn't stay on the same side of the street. In the middle of a major city! You can't make it up. How could they be sure that the fire wouldn't fall into the street (where many buses and cars drive by)? Be sure? Are you kidding? That's probably what they were hoping for.
Back at Yad Binyamin, we returned to quite a surreal scene. I love a bonfire as much as the next guy, but why thirty of them? Each of my older children had a separate fire to attend, and they all participate in the same youth group. I can't think of a reason why they couldn't all build a fire together (or at least one for the boys and one for the girls), but apparently there is one. A fellow Oleh remarked that the scene reminded him of a downed F16 fighter in Vietnam - fires along a line as far as the eye can see.
I think this is one minhag - and it really is a cultural thing - that I just will never understand.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lag B'omer is Coming, Lag B'omer is coming! (Close your windows)

The powers that be in Israel debated briefly whether to push off Lag B'omer. Push off? How do you do that? You don't actually, but the education system considered briefly giving off Monday instead of Sunday. They considered not because they think religious people will start burning everything in sight when it's still Shabbat. Rather, they considered the measure because there's concern that much of the secular public sector that deals with safety and security (mainly police on the roads leading to Meron) will start preparing while it's still Shabbat.
In the end, though, they decided to keep Sunday as the day off (why give a day off, you ask? Because many children will spend much of the night bored out of their minds telling themselves that they're having fun burning things.). This, I think is because no matter what government officials decided, Lag B'omer would still take place on Saturday night, as would the bonfires. 
For those of you already living in Israel, you know precisely what this means: close your windows! Lag B'omer eve is an orgy of male-dominated pyromania, some guitar playing, and many hot dogs.
Just as an illustration, I took a short trip around my block. Yes, my block. The pictures below are all within a sixty-second radius (walking) of my home. And this scene can be found all over the country. The zeal with which children (and often their fathers) gather, store and burn wood is almost amazing. If only they worked so hard on their schoolwork, Israel's education problems would be solved.
But it's not school. It's fire. A lot of them.

Changing Tzedakah Priorities

I was recently invited to attend a program by Yeshivat Sha'alvim - the Hesder yeshiva which I attended during the years after high school. My years in Sha'alvim represented a formative time in my life, educationally, personally and intellectually. I met some of the most intelligent, passionate people I have ever known. I learned about unapologetic religious Zionism first-hand (something that simply doesn't exist in America, where Zionists must struggle between the pull of their ideology and their residence in the Diapsora), and my Hebrew skills improved exponentially, spending much of my day immersed in a predominantly Hebrew and Israeli culture.
I'm probably going to attend the event. But I'm beginning to wonder about a shift in my tzedakah priorities: on one hand, we give looking back to the institutions that made us who we are. But we also give looking forward, trying to anticipate communal and family needs. My high school was great. But I no longer live in Silver Spring, Md. Or America. And the Yeshiva of Greater Washington now serves a new generation of students and families. So I don't give to them anymore - not because it's not a good school, but because it's time for the current YGW community to take up the burden of support.
This brings me to wonder: Do graduates support institutions because of what they received, or because they want the institution to give others what they received as well. Do I still continue to give to my old yeshiva, or turn to new priorities that will have a greater impact on my new home, and my childrens' future?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bechukotai: Unlucky Number Seven

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bechukotai: Unlucky Number Seven

The Tochecha is not nice. It's not fun. So we do our best to avoid it. But we do so at our own peril. In this shiur, we examine four themes which run throughout the text of the Tochechah and the unified message that these themes convey. It's best to follow along with a chumash, because we do a lot of jumping in the text.

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

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 20: Loving All Jews

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 20: Loving All Jews
(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 conclude the section about relating to non-Jews by reading an overwhelming number of sources that encourage us to stop fighting with each other, stop denigrating Jews who don't follow the mitzvot, and focus more on creating bonds of love between Jews.

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.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What is an Orthodox Shul?

I was recently invited by Rabbi Marc Shneier of The Hampton's Synagogue to view their 2011 Summer Calendar. (First, an aside. I recently heard that in order for your institution to have "gravitas", it must be "the" something. The Hampton's Synagogue. The Jewish Center. The National Synagogue. Maybe I should change the name of this blog to The Torah Blog - which I just claimed on Blogger. Or something like that. Sadly, I bet it would increase readership. Sadly, you have to be really presumptuous to make yourself "the" anything. But that's the way things are nowadays. End rant.)
Leafing through the booklet, an impressive, thirty-two page rundown of dignitaries, educators, politicians, diplomats, authors and performers, I found myself wondering: is this Orthodox?
Let me be clear: in no way am I questioning the halachic validity of the mechitzah, the rabbis, the davening, or anything ritualistic about the shul. I'm wondering about the programming.
Let's leave aside the interfaith dialogue during which clegry of other religions visit and speak.
What about the lecture given by Cokie and Steve Roberts about their book, "Our Hagaddah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families"? Is it really appropriate for an Orthodox shul to invite speakers that overtly encourage intermarriage, and finding rituals that speak to those families? (That question was rhetorical. I say no.)
What about the August 22nd showing of the "Naomi" - which is synopsized as "Ilan Ben Natan, a 58-year-old Astrophysics Professor, is obsessively in love with his young wife, Naomi. When Ilan discovers that his deepest fears have come true – Naomi has a lover – he is unable to control himself. He confronts the lover and commits a horrible act, the consequences of which will weigh heavily on his conscience." Is that really normal "shul" fare? What religious value comes from showing an Israeli film about adultery?
What about the September 3rd concert featuring The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene presents “Rising Stars of the Yiddish Stage”. I'm pretty sure that kol isha is still on the books. Is it appropriate for a shul to publicly ignore an explicit halachah.
You could argue, "Well, you're not a member there, an no one's asked you to join." True - but I was, for some reason, emailed the brochure. Are they a member of the OU? They certainly appear on the OU website, but I can't say for certain whether they're officially a member.
So why even ask the question?
I ask because the Hampton Synagogue proudly calls itself "Modern Orthodox". I also call myself "Modern Orthodox". If we're going to call ourselves the same thing, it stands to wonder whether we actually represent the same ideals.
I ask because other shuls (and their members) see a "Modern Orthodox" shul running certain types of programs and wonder: "Hey rabbi, why can't we do that too?"
Without a doubt, the HS promotes the study of Torah. It caters to a clientelle that demands a certain standard of programming. Many of the programs offered in the brochure are excellent and exciting. But I cannot understand why a shul that calls itself Orthodox feels the need to run programs that simply counter the values and rules of Jewish law. How is that Orthodox? Why is it necessary? Do we really need to go back to the days of the Pre-Selichot Dinner-Dance"? Could they not have found other films or groups or programs that promote traditional Jewish values and adhere to halachah? Of course they could - just look at the rest of the program.
Finally, what does this brochure - and it's programs - say about Modern Orthodoxy, and how other Jews relate to it?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Decline of the Main Minyan

A short while back, Gary Rosenblatt’s column included a quote from Rabbi Stephen Listfield, who is serving this year as interim rabbi at a Conservative congregation in Massapequa, who said, among other things,
“If people who lead busy lives are going to come to a three-hour service in Hebrew at the same synagogue every Shabbat, they need to hear a message beyond ‘be a mensch.’” 
What caught my attention most was the description of Shabbat morning davening as a, “three-hour service in Hebrew”, and the focus he placed on the “same synagogue every Shabbat.” Clearly, these details present challenges for shuls, and not only in the Conservative community. Unknowingly perhaps, Rabbi Listfield hit on a very charged issue in Orthodox circles as well.
Looking back, Shabbat morning davening in my shul usually lasted the better part of three hours (beginning at 9am, lasting usually until noon, including a drashah, announcements, etc.). I was really busy during that time, speaking, overseeing the davening, often running to youth groups, asking questions, making up riddles. For me, because I was “working”, I never felt the length of davening to be burdensome. (I also never fell asleep during the rabbi’s speech either.)
But now I can’t imagine attending a davening that would take that long. There’s no drashah during davening, misheberachs often take thirty seconds or less, and chazzanim rarely yodel on and on. Davening at my shul almost never lasts longer than two hours, and if it gets close, I get antsy. I can say with certainty that if it did, I wouldn’t daven there. (And many people prefer a hashkamah minyan that takes even less, usually an hour and a half.) There is a short shiur after davening ends, and I can choose to stay – or not, if I’m tired, busy, hungry, or just not interested.
This phenomenon is clearly not about me. People are abandoning the “main minyan” in droves, preferring a more personal davening experience that lasts less time and more reflects their spiritual needs.
When I lived in Detroit, walking to shul each Shabbat morning from my home required that I personally pass (or at least came very near) at least three Orthodox shuls, shtiebels or minyanim. Pretty much every member of my shul did the same, and as time passed, many stopped passing these shuls, preferring to daven in them for one reason or another. They ran the gamut from a kollel, to a yeshiva minyan, to a basement shul, to a more liberal minyan that allowed women to do gelilah. A minyan even opened in the building of the old mikveh, which shared a parking lot with us – literally fifty feet from our front door. This minyan catered to “young men,” run by a charismatic former kollel fellow, offering a shiur and most importantly, cholent every Shabbat morning.
Since I’ve left even more shuls have cropped up. Chabad and Aish Hatorah opened shuls in a neighborhood adjacent to our community. An older shul refurbished, and the new rabbi began to attract people to the shul. And it’s not only in Detroit.
When I would return to Silver Spring and visit the Shomrei Emunah where I davenened growing up, I found the main minyan both shocking and depressing, a shadow of its former self. It had become a refuge for mainly the elderly and retired, especially the older women. (Many retired men had long since abandoned 9am for 7am.) This is not to say that the shul has withered – far from it. It boasts many other minyanim, from Sephardic hashkamah to the “young couples minyan” (read here: we don’t want to daven with the old folk) to the 9am youth minyan.
I just spoke with my uncle, who’s a member of Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, who told a similar story. The shul boasts eight small minyanim (he daven’s at a small “yeki” minyan). But the old “main” minyan? Empty.
Unless you live in the tri-state area (and probably there as well), the main minyan is suffering. And now that I no longer have a vested interest, I’m not so sure that this is such a bad thing. Large minyanim seem to attract people who want to talk more and daven less. Decorum is always challenging, and I always cringe when someone has to get up and “stop” the davening because of noise. It’s truly sad. People want a spiritual experience when they go to shul, and they find davening more meaningful in a small, more intimate group of people who are looking for the same kinds of experiences. One person might need more translations while another might find it annoying and distracting. Quite simply, the Orthodox community has become large enough that one size no longer fits all.
What does this mean for the large, community shuls? The way I see things, they must adapt and conform or they’ll suffer. I remember once complaining to Rabbi Anemer zt”l about the proliferation of minyanim at YISE in Silver Spring, and he said explicitly, “This is what people want, and unless we give it to them, they’ll find it somewhere else.” He simply was not attached to a single, large, centralized minyan. (Looking back, he was truly a visionary in many ways.)
Large Orthodox shuls must continue to transform themselves from a single, one-size-fits-all approach, to the multiplex model, where people can find what they’re looking for religiously under a single roof.  Kids coming back from yeshiva don’t want to daven for three hours on Shabbat morning. They want to daven, have some cake, and then learn with a chavruta for an hour and perhaps have a serious shiur. And if the shul won’t give that to them, then they’ll daven at the kollel. And a young father who’s become a ba’al teshuva won’t find that minyan helpful either. He needs a slower, explanatory service.
This presents real challenges for rabbis trying to maintain a sense of cohesion and unity among a larger “congregation.” In essence, rabbis of large shuls really aren’t rabbis of one particular minyan. They must find ways of reaching each unique constituency, even if it’s not through a single speech on Shabbat morning. Many of my friends and colleagues do just that: they shuttle between minyanim, speaking at four different times on a Shabbat. They might start at the hashkamah minyan, give a shiur to the young parents, and end with a drashah in the “main” minyan. But it’s not really a “main” minyan anymore. It’s just one of many.
If true then, these rabbis really aren’t “shul” rabbis at all. They’re really “community” rabbis, catering to a number of different “communities” (or congregations) which happen to be under the same roof. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder: why do these shuls have to be in a single location? What’s the difference whether they’re all in the same building? Could we envision a model where a number of smaller shuls unite to hire a rabbi to serve their needs, giving shiurim, answering shailot, coordinating programs and community initiatives? What’s the difference what minyan the rabbi davens in if, for the majority of a community the rabbi does not daven together with them?
Again, I look back at Rabbi Anemer. He somehow managed to lead a shul with two separate branches – one larger – and one much smaller – for many years. He simply couldn’t be in both places at once, and the membership pitched in and grew from it. The shul still boasts numerous shiurim delivered by the many capable learned members, and I never really felt slighted that the rabbi wasn’t in our shul on any given week. That was how it was.
I a sense, that’s exactly what we have here in our yishuv. We have a rav who delivers shiurim at numerous locations including our shul. He addresses vital communal needs, like mikveh, kashrut and the like. He works with the youth. But he doesn’t daven in our shul.
That’s also the way things were in many European communities. Many shuls didn’t have their own rabbi. The community had a rabbi, who set the tone, answered questions and addressed communal needs. That’s how it was. And maybe that’s how it will be again.
Why can’t a group of like-minded minyanim hire a spiritual leader together? They can have the best of many worlds: the intimacy of a small shul, but the benefit of needed spiritual guidance and leadership that they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Audio Talk - Yom Ha'atzmaut 5771 - Israel, and our Ability to Change

Audio Shiur:
Yom Ha'atzmaut 5771 - Israel, and our Ability to Change

I gave this (short - 25 minutes) talk to the members of the YU Israel Kollel as well as the students of Yeshivat Torat Shraga, on the eve of Yom Ha'atzmaut 5771, as we began the celebrations for the 63rd birthday of the modern State of Israel.

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.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Yom Hazikaron 5771 - Reciting a Blessing on the Bad

Today, the State of Israel pauses to collectively remember the over 22,800 men, women and children whose lives were lost defending, protecting and living in the State of Israel. As my son told me last night at the community program in our Yishuv, "It's very different here than it is in America." Indeed it is.
I was invited last Friday to speak on Israeli radio (Kol Yisrael, Reshet Moreshet. Click here, and then scroll down to פרפראות לתורה. Then click on the radio button. It should be up for about another week.To be honest, I was quite nervous, mostly about speaking in Hebrew, but thankfully, everything went pretty well.) I'd like to share with you one of the thoughts I mentioned on last week's parshah in memory of the souls of those who died on our behalf.

The Mishnah in Brachot makes a surprising statement:
חיב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שהוא מברך על הטובה, שנאמר (דברים ו) ואהבת את יי אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך. בכל לבבך, בשני יצריך, ביצר טוב וביצר רע. ובכל נפשך, אפלו הוא נוטל את נפשך.
A man is obligated to bless [God] on the bad, just as he blesses on the good, as it is written, "And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart and with all you soul and with all your ability." (Devarim 6) "With all your heart" - [this means] with your two inclinations - your good inclination and your evil inclination. "With all your soul" - even if He takes your life.
Explaining this unusual Mishnah, Rav Ovadia of Barenura writes,
כשמברך דיין האמת על הרעה, חייב לברך בשמחה ובלב טוב ט כשם שמברך בשמחה הטוב והמטיב על הטובה
When he blesses, "The true judge" (on the death of a loved one), he must recite the blessing with joy and a glad heart, just as he blesses with joy [the blessing of] "he who is good and bestows good] on good tidings.
Intellectually, we understand the meaning of the words of the Mishnah. We comprehend that God's actions are good whether we can understand them or not. No matter how difficult or painful, we must acknowledge our inability to comprehend that which we consider "bad", and bless God not only in situations of joy, but in the terrible times as well.
But we're not intellectual people. We're emotional people. We're human. Who in his right mind has the ability to tear kriah over the loss of a beloved family member, and recite the brachah of "Dayan Ha'emet" - that God is the true judge - with the same joy, passion and excitement as if he had just bought a new family sedan? I've presided over many funerals, and at worst the blessing is recited with indifference; at "best", reciting the blessing causes great pain and anguish. Would we expect anything different? Does the Mishanah?
At the same time, perhaps Yom Hazikaron can give us one perspective into the meaning of this cryptic Mishnah.
In Parshat Emor, we read about the commandment of Kiddush Hashem, and the obligation to sanctify God's name. The Torah tells us,
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם:  אֲנִי, ה'. וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אֲנִי ה', מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם. הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים:  אֲנִי, ה'. (ויקרא כג:לא-לג)
And you shall keep My commandments, and do them: I am the LORD. And you shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the LORD who hallow you. That brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD. (Vayikra 22:31-33)
While there are a number of possible interpretations to the commandment to sanctify God's name - many of them positive and uplifting - Rashi chooses a rather sobering explanation, writing:

ממשמע שנאמר ולא תחללו, מה תלמוד לומר ונקדשתי, מסור עצמך וקדש שמי. יכול ביחיד, תלמוד לומר בתוך בני ישראל, וכשהוא מוסר עצמו, ימסור עצמו על מנת למות, שכל המוסר עצמו על מנת הנס, אין עושין לו נס  
Since it says, "and you shall not profane," what is the meaning of "and I will be hallowed"? Give yourself over and sanctify my name. I might have thought this [refers only to] an individual; for this reason the verse teaches me, "among the children of Israel". And when he gives himself over, he should give himself over to die, for anyone who gives himself over on the condition of a miracle, a miracle does not occur on his behalf.
Put succinctly, the Torah expects and demands that under certain circumstances, we must be willing and ready to sacrifice our lives for the sake of God. Indeed, during too many times of persecution and suffering, Jews sacrificed their lives rather than abandon the path of God.
This year specifically, we read this parshah on the Shabbat that fell between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. Reading these sobering words of Rashi, I could not help but think of the millions of Jews - men, women and children - whose lives were extinguished for the simple reason that they belonged to God's holy nation. They "gave themselves over" for death, and we will eternally mourn their loss and remember their suffering.
Rashi, writing his commentary, undoubtedly thought of the thousands of Jews whose lives were snuffed out at the hands of vicious Crusaders. He thought of the Jews killed in religious persecution. But it's hard to imagine that he could even fathom the murder of Jews on the magnitude of the Holocaust.

And then I thought about a second, different type of Memorial Day - Israel's Yom Hazikaron. Today, we mourn the over 22,800 Jews whose lives have been taken either in terrorist attacks, or fighting to protect and defend the State and people of Israel. One is too many - and certainly 22,800. But while the fallen soldiers of Israel also "gave themselves over" for death, never expecting a miracle for salvation, their sacrifice differs fundamentally from the Kiddush Hashem of the Holocaust. They died fighting. They perished protecting the first Jewish homeland in over two millennium. Their sacrifice has ensured the safety and security of the Jewish people. I doubt Rashi imagines this sort of Kiddush Hashem either.
And while we spend this solemn day marking these families' sacrifice on behalf of the entire Jewish nation, we offer them a sense of solace as well. They can recite "dayan ha'emet" on their loss, knowing that their sacrifice contributed to the continued growth and prosperity of Am Yisrael.
For that, we can and must give thanks to God.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 19: The Righteous and the Wicked

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 19: The Righteous and the Wicked
(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 take it as a given that the average secular Jew (Chiloni in Israel), has the status of a tinok she'nishbah - and doesn't bear spiritual responsibility for his or her religious indifference. Is that really true? We begin the shiur by analyzing two very different texts from Rambam, and then turn to Rav Teichtal's answer to this critical question.

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, May 4, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Emor - The Omer Offering, Israel's True Protection

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Emor - The Omer Offering, Israel's True Protection

The juxtaposition of the death of Osama bin Laden and Yom Hashoah challenged me personally as we vacillate between joy and mourning, hope and despair. What is the secret to our eternal national survival? Surprisingly, according to the Midrash, the secret lies in the Korban haOmer. Really? Yes. But how can a meal offering of barley save the Jewish people?

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.

Follow Orders or Daven on Time? A Religious Conundrum

This month, two religious officer cadets were expelled from their course for failing to follow orders in order to daven on time. The case, which has garnered a small amount of attention in the religious press (link to Hebrew article here), raises a very interesting conundrum that religious soldiers must face as they serve in the IDF.
The facts of the story are pretty straightforward. The group of cadets spent a long night in a navigation exercise, returning to their barracks quite late at night. As opposed to the rest of their platoon, for whatever reason, three soldiers were not woken up at the proper normal time for davening. When they were finally woken up, they were already late for a scheduled lecture, and their commanding officer instructed them to enter the lecture without delay. When they protested that they had not yet davened shacharit (and if they waited until after the lecture, they'd miss the proper time for davening - z'man tefillah), the commander nonetheless instructed them to attend the lecture.
One of the soldiers followed the order and entered the lecture. Two others ignored the command and went to daven before entering the lecture. When the commanding officer of the officer training course heard about the case, he insisted that the cadets be thrown out of the course - which they were.
Now, the case has become something of an issue, especially after the army promised to make all proper accommodations for religious soldiers. Remember also that many of the best, most dedicated soldiers come from religious homes, so the army doesn't really want to antagonize the dati community.
After reading about the case on Shabbat, I asked my children: What would you do? Would you follow the order and miss z'man tefillah b'zmanah, or ignore the order and daven? Would it make a difference if the officer told you to violate Shabbat? Where does a soldier draw the line when he must choose between following orders and adhering to Jewish law? In an ideal world, he should not have to make that choice. But we don't live in an ideal world.
I've got my thoughts about the case, which I'll share in a later post. But it's a fascinating question to ponder.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Halachah as Self Interest

Gary Rosenblatt this week writes about the increasing numbers of shul rabbis who find themselves scrambling for jobs, especially as they grow older. While stating that, "The Orthodox community does not appear to be experiencing a decline" (which might be true, but rabbis are remaining in their positions longer, not freeing up positions for new rabbis), he focuses on Conservative and Reform synagogues, whose ranks are thinning dramatically through shul mergers, rabbinic downsizing, and the elimination of positions. Yet, the money quote that really caught my attention, focusing on the Conservative community, came at the end from Rabbi Stephen Listfield, who is serving this year as interim rabbi at a Conservative congregation in Massapequa, L.I.
“We should be looking within to see where we might be falling short in this precipitous decline, and asking ourselves, ‘do we have anything to say to people? If people who lead busy lives are going to come to a three-hour service in Hebrew at the same synagogue every Shabbat, they need to hear a message beyond ‘be a mensch,’” he said. “They need to hear that our laws come from God or that we are part of a 4,000-year tradition that has stood the test of time by demanding that people think for themselves and improve themselves.
I find it fascinating that a rabbi sees the decline in rabbinic jobs to have emanated from articulating a proper message. It may very well be that rabbis long refused to take strong halachic positions for fear of alienating people and losing members. Yet, this challenge is not unique to the Conservative movement.
I remember early in my rabbinate in Michigan when I gave a fiery speech about how coeducation was not halachic, nor Modern Orthodox. That didn't really go over very well, as my Chairman of the Board sat me down to explain that I wasn't acting judiciously, and the fact that I might be right doesn't mean that I should always express my opinion on a particular subject. He was right in a way; I didn't say everything I thought. But I also wasn't particularly well-known for my restraint. I usually called it like I saw it, and I'm sure paid a price for it in shul membership and support. 
Every rabbi struggles to find that proper balance between taking strong stands on issues, and taking such a strong stand that you're out of a job. It's not an easy line to toe. At the same time, at least we have our red lines. Halachah stands for something, and Orthodoxy by definition binds us to certain positions.
Not so in Conservative Judaism.
In the Conservative movement, where you can find or create a leniency for most anything, rabbis took the easier road and told people what they wanted to hear. Perhaps now they'll take a more conservative position (pun mine) - if for no other reason than their own self-preservation.