Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Danger of Too Much Information

Speaking this week at the Cybertech 2014 Conference in Davos, Switzerland, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the importance of secrets.
There isn't any privacy. You know why? You see this thing here, this computer? Porous. Anything that you see around you is perforated and if it's not perforated, it can be perforated. The networks are exposed. The fact that we have networks, increasing complexity of networks, interconnectivity on networks means that anything and everything can be exposed and violated.
That's not something that we've had in history. We have kept human society free because we have had a society of secrets. Individuals have their own space. What is developing now in the world is a fundamental challenge to the idea of privacy and secrecy. There are some who, for obvious and legitimate reasons, extol transparency and transparency has its virtues, but ultimately free societies have limits on transparency. They guarantee individuals or collections of individuals the ability to decide to keep their secrets. For example, the whole idea of intellectual property – that is being fundamentally challenged. The privacy of individuals – fundamentally challenged. The sanctity of our bank accounts – fundamentally challenged. And this goes obviously into public systems: power grids, traffic nets, water systems – you name it. Everything can be violated. Everything can be opened up. Everything can be also sabotaged.
Reading his comments, I began to wonder: What about halachic information? Would Netanyahu's warnings apply to Judaism as well? Is there a value to secrecy in Judaism? As Netanyahu said, "Free societies have limits on transparency." Would the same rule apply to halachic systems? Must everything be transparent? If the sanctity of our bank accounts depends on privacy, what about the sanctity of our spiritual lives?

Commenting on the commandment to build a "cover" for the Ark of the Covenant in the Mishkan, Kli Yakkar writes,
כיסוי מלמעלה, רמז שצריך לכסות סודות התורה שלא לגלותם ברבים כי דברים שכיסה עתיק יומין אל תגלה אותם
A cover above - this is a hint [to the fact that] one must cover the secrets of the Torah, not to reveal them in public, for matters that were covered from ancient times you shall not reveal them.
It seems clear that Kli Yakkar was referring to the public teaching of Kabbalistic teachings - what is called סוד - secret - in Jewish thought. Yet, could his lesson apply to larger Jewish teachings as well. Is there such a thing as too much Torah?
I think that the answer may very well be yes.

Today, every piece of Jewish information is available via the Internet. Whether via normal websites like, free portals like Hebrewbooks, or even through pay online portals like the Bar Ilan site or Otzar Hachochmah, if a Jewish scholar throughout history wrote it, you can access it. Information truly is free - open and available to anyone with a computer (and sometimes a credit card). These are, of course, wonderful innovations. More people are learning more Torah via the internet than probably ever before in our history. Thousands are learning daf yomi, mishnah, basic Judaism - you name it - utilizing the great power of the web to learn and grow.
But this great power can dangerous as well, for two reasons.
First and foremost, information can be used not to help, but to harm - even Torah. It can be molded and shaped to exclude, vililfy and distort.
Yet, the more dangerous aspect of "free" information, is knowing how to use it. While information might be openly available, that doesn't mean that everyone - or most people for that matter, know how to use it properly. It can be used to transform that which is pure into impure, and visa-versa.

The Gemara in Eruvin (13b - a little confession - I vaguely remembered the source, but couldn't remember where it was exactly. Guess who helped me find it? You guessed it - HaRav Google!) says,
א"ר אחא בר חנינא גלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שאין בדורו של רבי מאיר כמותו ומפני מה לא קבעו הלכה כמותו שלא יכלו חביריו לעמוד על סוף דעתו שהוא אומר על טמא טהור ומראה לו פנים על טהור טמא ומראה לו פנים...
R.  Aha  b.  Hanina  said:  It  is  revealed  and known before Him Who spoke and the world came into existence, that in the generation of R.  Meir  there  was  none  equal  to  him;  then why was not the halachah fixed in agreement with  his  views?  Because  his  colleagues  could not  fathom  the  depths of  his  mind,  for  he would declare the ritually unclean to be clean and supply plausible proof, and the ritually clean to be unclean and also supply plausible proof..
The Gemara is clearly alluding to exactly this problem. The Sages didn't just have the Torah at their fingertips. Rather, their greatness stemmed from the fact that they both had the information, and also knew how to use it properly. The halachah doesn't follow even the greatest of Sages when his knowledge is so vast that it cannot lead to a definitive conclusion.

Today, as we transition to an age where everyone has all of the information at our fingertips, I fear that while we don't really know how to use it properly, we have lost reverence for those unique individuals who do.

In his thoughtful comments on the raging issue of women and tefillin, Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf writes,
I have spent thirty years fighting for the right of learned rabbis to have their own halakhic opinion, contrary to some Rashe Yeshiva who deny them that prerogative. After seeing the half-baked, uninformed and revoltingly disrespectful way in which Facebookers and other Commenters treat Hazal, the GRA, the Rema, the Arukh HaShulhan etc. I begin to wonder. Orthodoxy maintains a balance between deep reverence for Tradition and Gedole Torah, alongside the need to confront new questions and challenges. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l used to predicate his hardest decisions on the agreement of colleagues. He was a giant of Torah and Piety and Humanity who was attached to the entire Jewish People, from Haredi to Hiloni. Still, he was cautious and responsible when he ventured into new territory. Yet here are people filling the Blogosphere, the Newspapers and Social Media who blithely toss out established halakhic categories as if they were so much detritus because 'it makes no sense to me.' As my revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל once said, innovations are the lifeblood of the Torah, but they occur within its autonomous sphere. You engage the system. You don't violate it by judging it because it doesn't fit superficial, media driven ideologies.
I believe that he has identified the primary challenge that leaders of Modern Orthodoxy must face over the coming years.
Today, every layperson with internet access feels that because he read a source (or secondary summary of a source), he can therefore proclaim himself the arbiter of proper Jewish practice. And, every rabbi with access to the Bar Ilan can find a responsa to justify any and almost every desired innovation. But a responsible, authorotative posek will take that responsa - and the breatdth of knowledge -  and place it in a larger context. He will not just know the information, but will also know how to use it.
Not everyone is a gadol. Yet today, it seems to me that we're living in an age where the phenomenon of finding forty-eight reasons to justify anything and everything isn't confined to the Beis Medrash. Rather, all it takes is a blog, a Facebook connection and an acquaintance at the Times of Israel, and you too can be a gadol.
But you can't. Because you're not. And while you might be fooling yourself and your followers, ultimately, you may very well be leading them astray.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Terumah - The Keruvim and the Urim Vtumim

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Terumah - The Keruvim and the Urim Vtumim

What was the Kaporet? Why was it necessary, and what did the Keruvim look like? Finally, what does its unique form teach us?

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Mishpatim - Protecting the Weak

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Mishpatim - Protecting the Weak

Over the course of two mitzvot - the prohibition against taking advantage of the weak, and the mitzvah of lending to the poor - the Torah conveys the critical importance of helping those less fortunate than ourselves.

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Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Community

A close friend from Oak Park recently made me aware of a tragic case of a young boy in Lakewood who was sexually abused years ago. Shua, who came forward and reported the incident to the police, produced a video which featured a song about how he's coping with the trauma that he experienced. His advice is to "Move On."
I find the video fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, I am in awe of this young man, who found the courage not only to report his abuser, but to share his experience with the rest of the world. His example will hopefully prompt others to come forward, and as they do, we will successfully rid our community of the habit of hiding such heinous crimes and trying to sweep them under the rug - behaviors that occur too often in the Orthodox community.

In my efforts to recruit students at Orot, I often will give seminars to women doing their year of National Service. This week, I gave a seminar on the topic of "Strategies for Coping with Emotional Crisis", and as one of seven possible strategies, I shared Shua's method of coping, to "Move On." He sings,
What's there to gain when you complain
About the pain ingrained in your brain
It won't change what G-d ordained
History will always be the same
So leave it behind just clear you head
Don't wallow in the tears you shed
Some things are better left unsaid
Move on instead

The young women participating in the seminar immediately pointed out the internal contradiction within the song. If his advice in dealing with trauma is to just "Move On", then why is he singing a song about it? Their question, to me, only highlights the pain and struggle that Shua must be dealing with. This must be the way that he found to cope - to "move on" by sharing his pain with others.
I struggled whether to post about Shua on my blog - mostly because this isn't an issue I normally write about. In the end, I decided to share Shua's song to honor his struggle, bravery and pain, and in the hopes that as we gain greater exposure to stories like his, our community will begin to understand that when we try and hide crimes like sexual assault, we only help the criminals that perpetrate those crimes find their next victim. ]
The more we're willing to talk about  sexual abuse openly, the fewer future victimes there will be.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Stark Tragedy, Lashon Hara and Chilul Hashem

A friend, neighbor and accountant extraordinaire Devorah Saban commented on my last post about Menachem Stark:
I'd have to agree with the other commentators. Possibly a nice point, but at the expense of either motzi shem ra or lashon hara, depending on if it is true.  Just because the Post prints it, doesn't mean it's factually true, nor permissible to replicate.

I don't agree for two reasons. First of all, from a halachic point of view, there's no prohibition of lashon hara on information that's public knowledge. The Gemara in Baba Batra states,
כל מילתא דמתאמרא באפי תלתא - לית בה משום לישנא בישא [כל דבר הנאמר בפני שלושה - אין בו משום לשון הרע].
Any matter that is said in front of three - is not subject to the statutes of Lashon Hara. 
Rambam (Hilchot De'ot 7:5) codifies this Gemara as normative halachah writing,
ואם נאמרו דברים אלו בפני שלושה, כבר נשמע הדבר ונודע, ואם סיפר הדבר אחד מן השלושה פעם אחרת, אין בו משום לשון הרע--והוא שלא יתכוון להעביר הקול, ולגלותו יותר.
If these matters were spoken in the presence of three [individuals] and the matter is already heard and known, and one of the three retold the story, there is no [prohibition] of lashon hara, for he did not specifically intend to pass on the story and reveal it more.
Readers of my blog undoubtedly didn't hear about these allegations from me. You might not like my wording, but my blog isn't making any news.

More importantly, sadly, we too often sweep troubling information "under the rug" with the catch-all that it's probably not true, and in any case, it's lashon hara. But, by doing so, we become silent accomplices in all matter of troubling behavior, allowing either the perpetrators themselves or others to continue to act in a similar manner. We've seen this time and time again, whether in dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse, withholding of a Get, etc. I don't believe in "outing" people due simply to unsubstantiated allegations. But this is clearly not the case.
I never wrote that Menachem Stark broke the law. I have no idea if he did. I called him a despicable slumlord. A slumlord is defined as "a landlord of slum property, esp. one who profiteers." It's also what we call a person who doesn't pay contractors, forces the poor to pay four months' worth of deposits which you fail to repay, etc, etc. There doesn't seem to be a debate about whether any of it is true. Has anyone in his community denied any of the allegations? To my mind, taking advantage of the poor is despicable. I guess others might disagree.

This entire episode is one massive, tragic chillul hashem. Truly terrible. Whether we like it or not, and whether it's true or not, New Yorkers associate Chassidim with Torah and Judaism, and whether you call it anti-semitism, bias, whatever - this individual's past, which didn't seem that difficult for reporters to uncover, created a direct association between people who claim to represent Torah and behavior. (It's also true for every kippah-wearing Jew as well!) Bernie Madoff's actions were terrible, and perhaps didn't help us on the anti-semitism front, but were they a chillul hashem? I'm not sure, because he never claimed - by his dress, action or appearance, to represent a Torah lifestyle or ideal.
When I think about this episode, the text keeps popping into my mind is the very disturbing language of the Gemara in Yoma, which describes and defines Chillul Hashem.
היכי דמי חילול השם, אמר רב כגון אנא אי שקילנא בישרא מטבחא ולא יהיבנא דמי לאלתר... רבי יוחנן אמר כגון אנא דמסגינא ארבע אמות בלא תורה ובלא תפילין, יצחק דבי רבי ינאי אמר כל שחבריו מתביישין מחמת שמועתו. אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק כגון הא דאמרי אינשי שרא ליה מריה לפלניא... אבל מי שקורא ושונה ומשמש תלמידי חכמים ואין משאו ומתנו באמונה, ואין דבורו בנחת עם הבריות, מה הבריות אומרות עליו, אוי לו לפלוני שלמד תורה, אוי לו לאביו שלימדו תורה, אוי לו לרבו שלימדו תורה, פלוני שלמד תורה ראו כמה מקולקלים מעשיו וכמה מכוערין דרכיו, ועליו הכתוב אומר באמור להם עם ה' אלה ומארצו יצאו. (יומא פו א)

What  constitutes  profanation  of  the Name? — Rab said: If, e.g., I take meat for the butcher and  do  not  pay  him  at  once...R.  Johanan said: In my case [it is a profanation if] I walk four cubits without [uttering words of] Torah or [wearing] Tefillin. Isaac, of the School of R.  Jannai.  said:  If  one's  colleagues  are ashamed of his reputation, that constitutes a profanation of the Name. R. Nahman b. Isaaccommented: E.g. if people say, May the Lord forgive So-and-so.
...But  if  someone  studies  Scripture  and Mishnah, attends on the disciples of the wise, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous in  his  relations  with  people,  what  do  people
say  about  him?  ‘Woe  unto  him  who  studied the  Torah,  woe  unto  his  father  who  taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him  Torah!’  This  man  studied  the  Torah: Look,  how  corrupt  are  his  deeds,  how  ugly his ways; of him Scripture says: In that men said  of  them,:  These  are  the  people  of  the
Lord, and are gone forth out of His land.

It's impossible to ignore how strongly Chazal refer to Chillul Hashem in the context of one's business dealings. If this isn't chillul Hashem, what in the world is? And if we refuse to talk about it, shushing ourselves due to misplaced concerns about lashon hara, how in the world can we possibly imaging that it won't keep taking place?

Audio Shiur: Parshat Beshalach - The Staff or the Hand?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Beshalach - The Staff or the Hand?

What did Moshe use to split the Reed Sea? What did he use to beat Amalek? What did he use to produce water? Most importantly, does it matter? (Of course it does!)

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Monday, January 6, 2014

The Double Tragedy of the Murder of Max/Menachem Stark

If it had been the plot of a movie, the ADL would have coordinated demonstrations outside the movie studio: A Chassid slumlord, beloved and cherished inside his community, reviled by the business associates he has cheated and stolen from. Except, tragically, the story is true, sad on so many levels: for his family, of course, robbed of their father and husband; for a community dependent on his many acts of kindness. But it's also tragic in larger way, as the publicity this case has generated serves as a massive chillul Hashem.
Rambam, (Laws of Teshuvah Chapter 1) defines the desecration of God's name as the worst form of sin. How does one achieve atonement for this type of sin? He explains,

אבל המחלל את השם--אף על פי שעשה תשובה והגיע יום הכיפורים והוא עומד בתשובתו ובאו עליו ייסורין, אינו מתכפר לו כפרה גמורה עד שימות, אלא תשובה ויום הכיפורים וייסורין שלושתן תולין ומיתה מכפרת...
One  who desecrates the Name [of God] - even though he repented and Yom Kippur arrived and he maintained his repentance and he endured suffering, he does not achieve complete atonement until he dies. Rather, his repentance and Yom Kippur and his suffering are suspended, and [only] death atones...
This, of course, only applies to Chillul Hashem that one caused during one's life. How then can one possibly atone for Chillul Hashem, if the vast majority of that desecration comes after you're no longer in this world? While we cannot know the answer to these questions, the very thought of them causes me to shudder.
Yet now, thanks to the New York Post, the Jewish community will probably not ask the most important question in this triple-tragedy: How is it that supposedly righteous people see such a clear dichotomy between their personal and religious lives, and their business affairs? Menachem Stark was a beloved ba'al chessed. Max Stark was a despicable slumlord. Sure, we all wear the mask of the stranger to some degree. But the point of Judaism must be to unify and solidify ourselves into a greater whole - into people of personal, spiritual and religious integrity.
This isn't just about Menachem/Max Stark. It's a question about ourselves.
Numerous Jewish sources highlight the critical importance of integrity in religious life. Each morning at the very beginning of Shacharit we pray, "לעולם יהא אדם ירא שמים בסתר ובגלוי" - "a person should fear heaven both in private and in the open." The Pri Chadash writes that the phrase means that we must fear God in private in the same way that we fear God in public. He suggests that the original source of this phrase is a story found in the Gemara in Brachot (28) which describes of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, lying on his deathbed, surrounded by his students.
אמרו לו: רבינו, ברכנו!
אמר להם: יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם.
אמרו לו תלמידיו: עד כאן?
אמר להם: ולואי! תדעו: כשאדם עובר עבירה אומר "שלא יראני אדם"
They said, "Our Master - bless us!"
He said to them, "May it bill the will [of God] that the fear of heaven should be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.
His students said, "That's all?"
He told them: "You should achieve that much! Know that when a person sins, he says [to himself], 'that no one else should see me'".
Judaism demands not just prayer and study and righteousness in the religious sphere, but spirituality especially in the world outside the shul and Beit Midrash.

The same section of the Gemara also tells the story of Rabban Gamliel and the test he gave in order to gain access to his Beit Midrash. Anyone who was not תוכו כברו - "whose inside was the same as his outside" - was not permitted to study. Ultimately, when Rabban Gamliel was demoted, they opened up the study hall to anyone who wished to enter, and literally hundreds of students entered to study.
Yet, we seem to have forgotten Rabban Gamliel's essential message. He wasn't interested in teaching externally pious Jews. If you wanted to study with Rabban Gamliel, he wanted to know that you would internalize the Torah you studied and assimilate into your very essence; that you would personify the Torah in your behavior outside the study hall, and not just wear it on your sleeve (or hat).
Every one of us lives this dual life to some degree. We are not, during the rest of the year, the pious people we are on Yom Kippur. And I hope that we act in shul and in the Beit Midrash better than we do on the street.
But I hope that it's not that much better. I pray that we don't so disnegage our religious and personal lives that we're Menachem Stark in shul, and Max Stark at the office.
Yet, with the focus of the Jewish world now firmly zoomed in on the NY Post and its hateful cover, it seems likes that this issue will surely be lost, making it all the more tragic.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bo - The Centrality of the Home in Jewish Life

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bo - The Centrality of the Home in Jewish Life

The text describing the commandment and implementation of the Korban Pesach mentions the notion of "bayit" an unusual number of times. These pesukim lead to an important conclusion about the center of Jewish life.

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