Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Candle Lighting for Yom Kippur

As with all holidays, we light candles at the onset of Yom Kippur. Because Yom Kippur this year falls out on Shabbos, when reciting the brachah add in the additional words for Shabbos. Yet, particularly in our shul where most women come to shul on Yom Kippur eve, women must be especially careful when lighting to follow the halachah carefully.

Candle Lighting before Shabbos
Normally, when women light candles on Shabbos, they automatically accept the sanctity of Shabbos upon themselves immediately upon reciting the brachah. This is the reason why women first light the candles and then recite the brachah afterwards. If she recited the brachah (and accepted Shabbos) and then lit the candles, she would inadvertently be violating the Shabbos! But what if a woman wants to light candles a little early but still has some work she needs to take care of after lighting? Normally, it's not a good idea to do this, and it's much better to finish the work and then light the candles. But what if she wants to light candles and then ride to shul Friday night? If she accepts Shabbos when reciting the brachah, she wouldn't be able to get into the car. What should she do?
Many poskim permit a woman to light candles on condition that when she lights, she does not accept the Shabbos upon herself. But to do this, she must verbally state that she does not accept the Shabbos when she lights.

Candle Lighting before Yom Kippur
Unfortunately, making this verbal condition before lighting candles does not work on Yom Tov for a very simple reason: the brachot include the brachah of she'hechiyanu. When a person recites this brachah, he implicitly acknowledges the sanctity of the day, and may not perform any prohibited work afterwards. So what then should a woman who wants to light at home and then drive to shul before Yom Kippur do?
  1. She should verbally state that she does not accept the sanctity of Yom Kippur upon herself when she lights candles and recites the brachah.
  2. She should light candles normally, but recite only the first brachah on the candle lighting, and she should not recite the she'hechiyanu at home.
  3. When she comes to shul, she should recite the she'hechiyanu together with the shul at the proper time. (In addition, a woman who lit normally and accepted the sanctity of Yom Kippur when she lit and walked to shul should not recite the she'hecheyanu in shul, as she has already said that brachah at home.)
I'd like to make one other obvious but important point: Erev Yom Kippur is a very, very busy time, and it's a struggle to eat the meal, give the kids their blessings, do kaparos, and all the other things we need to do and still make it to shul on time. Yet, with candle lighting at 7:14pm (one may light before 7:14pm -- any time after 6:16pm) and Kol Nidrei at 7:20pm, it's very important that every person take special care to arrive at shul with enough time to park, put away any muktzeh items and conclude any prohibited activity before sunset, at 7:32pm. It would be a terrible shame to begin the holiest day of the year by unintentionally violating the sanctity of the holiday.
If we make an extra effort to maintain the kedushah -- the holiness of Yom Kippur, we can then stand before God with the feeling of hope that He will bless us and inscribe us all with a year of health, blessing and prosperity.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Equation for Communal Growth

Two interesting but seemingly unrelated articles appeared in the Rosh Hashanah Edition of Detroit's Jewish News. The first piece, describes the sale by Congregation Sha'arei Zedek of it's Laker Educational Center in West Bloomfield to Temple Shir Shalom. While seemingly un-noteworthy, a couple of interesting points caught my attention:

"The reason we are selling the building is that during the last few years, its usage was less than in previous years, primarily due to the fact that we reduced our educational requirements for attendance by one day," [Sharei Zedek Executive Director Janet] Pont said.
Interesting. But there's more.

Those plans are highlighted by what Shir Shalom Rabbi Dannel Schwartz calls "changing the paradigm of what synagogues do. We are ready to interface and create a bridge bringing our two congregations together," he said. "And that will give us four rabbis instead of two."
Calling it a significant initiative, he said, "The whole concept of the building is synergy. We will begin with an adult education program for both congregations next month. And it has been proposed that our religious school kids do programming together as well."
Enthused by the upcoming efforts of the two congregations, CSZ Rabbi Eric Yanoff maintains that although there will be combined programming between members of both synagogues, there is absolutely no talk of merging CSZ and Shir Shalom.
Of course there won't be a merger. After all, we're talking about two streams of Judiasm, with very different outlooks and perspectives on core Jewish values. Or are we? How else would they be able to share not only classroom space, but also rabbis and programming? In the end, what difference does it make if there's a technical merger or not, if the two congregations work together, establish programming together, and share rabbinic duties together? Where's the line between coexistence and cooperation, and merger?
Moreover, the entire tone of conciliation and accommodation in the piece raises serious questions for me -- not about Shir Tikveh -- I know what Judaism they stand for -- but about Shaarei Zedek. What do they actually teach in their supplementary religious school? How in the world can they consider sharing religious school programming with a Temple that preaches doctrine completely alien to Conservative Judaism's teachings?

In the same issue, JN publisher Arthur Horowitz wrote a piece suggesting a number of bold changes intended to bolster the Conservative Jewish community over the next five years. While a number of his ideas were indeed important and positive, one of them actually shocked me. He suggests the merger of Congregations Shaarei Zedek and Adat Shalom, creating a mega-congregation (the largest in the country), that would be able, due to its strength and size, to cater to the community better than the two congregations now can. I have a few simple questions:

  1. What does this say about the nature of each of the congregations right now? It seems that in Horowitz's mind, shuls are just like department stores. They're really all the same, and people only care about the departments and services that they offer. That being the case, why not merge every single conservative synagogue in the region to form one mega-shul with a large number of different prayer services available, from the traditional style sanctuary service to a music-filled ruach service to a family service, a youth service, a babysitting room, and perhaps even a Yoga service. (I wish I were kidding about that one.) After all, wouldn't it be more cost-effective to merge secretarial services, maintenance, overhead -- and all the other costs associated with running a synagogue?
  2. How does shrinking the number of synagogues actually strengthen the community? Doesn't diversity in numbers of institutions strengthen us, and not the opposite? Have the Conservative mergers of the past strengthened the Conservative community, or only further weakened it?
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that Horowitz views the shul - and any religious institution from entirely the wrong perspective. A shul is not a business out to make money. It doesn't sell a product. It's a house of worship - a mikdash me'at -- a House of God. It must connect with people's hearts and minds, and become a spiritual home for its members and the community at large. Mega-shuls (and Churches) might offer services, but no one ever felt at home at Walmart or Costco, and without that sense of connection and spirituality, Judaism will never convey the warmth and authenticity that motivate people to grow closer to God. And let's not forget that the ultimate goal of a synagogue is not balancing the budget (not to say that's not important): it's connecting its membership with God.
While lowering the Hebrew school requirements (probably to cater to demands of parents unwilling to bring their children three days a week) might seem harmless, that concession ultimately leads to the closing of the synagogue - or its merging with another. (Any way you look at it, one shul in a merger closes). While this might seem harsh, it's actually rather obvious to me, because diluting what you stand for makes your members wonder what it is you actually provide, and why they should value membership at all.
We're watching the gradual dilution of Conservative Judaism both in our community, and across America. They lose adherents and members for the precise reason that they don't actually know what they want to, or should be. Therefore, in a bid to remain competitive for membership, they dilute their Judaism while at the same time reaching out to every possible constituency, and allow the dilution of their denomination.
This ambivalence will continue to destroy Conservative Judaism, until we're left with two major movements: Orthodox, and not Orthodox. And to be honest, that really does make me sad, because too many Jews, unwilling to make the leap to an Orthodox synagogue, will find themselves on the slippery reform slope to assimilation and intermarriage.
While the Orthodox community might consider itself unconcerned with these matters (and many refuse to even read the Jewish News anymore), if we're concerned with the future of the Jewish people, it really is our problem. Kiruv cannot possibly reach enough people. Conservative Judaism used to play a critical role for the Jewish people, offering those unable or willing to commit to a life of frumkeit an option that at least resembled traditional Jewish practice. That, it seems, is slowly melting away, and that loss is one we must mourn.
What can be done? How can Conservative Judaism grow and thrive in Detroit?

  1. Build smaller shuls. We need small synagogues -- or smaller branches -- in more places. From what I hear, Shaarei Zedek's branch in West Bloomfield is doing just fine. It has a heimish atmosphere, a nice chevra, and a sense of community. Why not build (or create) another branch in Huntington Woods, and yet another in Berkeley, and another in Commerce Township, each with its own dedicated rabbi, and each its own feel, and each its own sense of family? Better yet, who needs branches of a larger shul? Smaller is better, more intimate, and less costly. Moreover, smaller shuls demand more member involvement and less reliance on professional staff. My shul runs hundreds of classes throughout the year and tens of programs for youth, families and adults. How do we do it? People volunteer because they realize that if they don't get involved and active, no one else will. Sure, we could use more help, and there's never enough volunteers, but there's no feeling like walking into a kiddush prepared not by a caterer, but by the shul membership. And there's no greater feeling than attending a program organized, arranged and run by shul members. You'll never have that feeling in a mega-shul.
  2. Get rid of Hebrew Schools entirely. They don't work. I have never met a person who went to Hebrew school who didn't hate it. If Conservative Judaism is to survive, it will have to teach its members that Jewish Day School is not an option -- it's a necessity. And, as peer pressure grows to send children to Hillel, more families will do just that, and integrate the religiosity of the school into family life. Fortunately, that simple move will save the synagogues their greatest expense, allowing them to remain small and financially viable.
  3. Get serious about halachah. To quote "E-Loan", people are smart. They get authenticity. And sometimes that means saying "no" -- both to homosexuality (which traditional Jews understand the Torah prohibits - despite anyone's good intentions), and especially driving to shul on Shabbos, which the former chancellor of JTS acknowledged was a cardinal error, and probably the beginning of the decline of the movement. These small shuls must start insisting that their members walk to shul. They must insist on kashrut, both in shul and at home, and also at the parties they attend and the Bnei Mitzvah they celebrate. The must talk about mitzvot not as good deeds, but as commandments. As they must acknowledge that in the Torah God gives two types of commandments: positive commandments, and negative ones, all equally binding. Without the word "no" halachah is meaningless, and everyone, including laypeople, intuitively know it.
We in the Orthodox community must be ready to reach out to traditional families, welcoming them into our homes and our shul, giving them the sense of authentic Judaism and warmth that they've been missing. It sounds simple -- but it's actually quite difficult to maintain our own sense of identity and integrity while still remaining open to newcomers unfamiliar with Orthodox practice and ritual. I'm not just talking about kiruv, which we already do. I'm speaking of changing the closed-door mentality so prevalent in Orthodox life, and pervasive in our homes, shuls and even schools. We've started moving in that direction, but to make a significant and meaningful difference, we will have to accelerate what will undoubtedly be a painful and difficult process.
As you can see, I'm pretty passionate about this issue, because I feel it's so critical for the Jewish community. Will the Conservative congregations take my advice? I doubt it.
But then don't be surprised if, one day soon we do see a merger between Adat Shalom and Shaarei Zedek, and then not long after that, another merger between "Adat Zedek" (or "Shaarei Shalom"?) and Shir Tikveh. And then there won't be anything left of Detroit -- or America's -- Conservative Community.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Avodas Halev - A Thought for Rosh Hashanah

Last night at Shalosh Seudos (before slichos 5767), I gave the following דבר תורה that I wanted to write up so I would remember it in the future:

Standing at the edge of the ימים נוראים season, we struggle trying to prepare oursevles for the upcoming יום הדין. All too often, while we know that we're supposed to do something, we don't really know what it is we're supposed to do. Perhaps we can find some direction both from the Rambam and the parshah.
At the outset of הלכות תפלה, the Rambam introduces the notion and source for the requirement to daven to God. He writes:
מצות עשה להתפלל בכל יום, שנאמר "ועבדתם, את ה' אלוהיכם" (שמות כג,כה): מפי השמועה למדו שעבודה זו--היא תפילה, ונאמר "ולעובדו, בכל לבבכם" (דברים יא,יג); אמרו חכמים, איזו היא עבודה שבלב, זו תפילה.
First and foremost, the word להתפלל itself requires explanation, as does the word תפלה itself. At face value, the word תפילה shares the root as the word להפליא -- as in judgment or separation. Yet, how does that word connote the notion of reaching out to God, speaking to Him, and opening our hearts to Him? Moreover, the word להתפלל uses the reflexive form of the word, implying that this separation or division is self-induced. How is one supposed to separate himself, and how does that imply worship and prayer?
We can find initial answers to these questions by examining the text of the first הלכה of the Rambam. In this section, Rambam notes that the Torah never uses the words תפילה or להתפלל. Rather, the Torah commands us לעבוד את ה -- to serve God. Yet, without the added instruction of the חכמים, we would never know what the Torah intended when using this cryptic phrase, עבודה שבלב. For this reason, the תורה שבעל פה teaches us that this work -- this service refers to תפילה.
But we're still left to wonder: what is this עבודה שבלב? Is it simply the act of opening one's heart when praying to God instead of simply reciting meaningless words? If so, wouldn't the Torah then use the term תפילה, and then have the תורה שבעל פה teach us the importance of כוונה? Is there a notion of עבודה שבלב independent of prayer that can also manifest itself in the act of prayer? What is עבודה שבלב?
חז"ל teach us that in creating man, God combined two totally incompatible elements, each which struggles to return to its natural and original state. God took our souls -- the צלם אלקים, literally a spark of the רבונו של עולם Himself and placed this totally spiritual existence in the midst of a physical body. The body, created from the earth, yearns to return to its roots, seeking to satisfy its primal, physical urges and desires. The soul, also wants to return to its original form -- only it struggles to return to the heavens and free iteself of the burden of a cumbersome and futile physical existence.
This, in a nutshell, is the struggle of humanity. We find ourselves stuck in the middle of the battle between the physical and the spiritual; the struggle between the יצור הטוב and יצר הרע; the impulse of a physical body against the soaring and lofty goals of the soul.
I think that this is what Rambam alludes to when he refers to תפלה as עבודה שבלב. The real work that we need to do on our hearts is the battle between the יצר הטוב and the יצר הרע -- the struggle between the desire to soar to the heavens and submit to the mundane and coarses aspects of human nature. That's why we refer to prayer in the reflexive form: להתפלל -- to separate ourselves, from ourselves.
I often tell my students (7th graders) that while we can force them to say the words of תפילה, no one can force them to daven. No one can force them to focus, concentrate, and reach out to the infinite. That inner work -- that עבודה שבלב -- the work both of the heart, and in the heart -- is something that must come from within, or not at all.
This is the greatest challenge of the ימים נוראים: to rise to the occasion to find meaning through the words, but not to seek refuge in the ritual and recitation itself. To transform תפילה from recital into reflection and division. When we truly reach out to God and find our true selves, we have begun the process that Rambam calls "worship of the heart."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Table Talk -- Netzavim-Vayelech 5767

One of the verses in this week’s parshah presents a unique challenge addressed in three different ways by three different commentaries. At the end of Moshe’s final speech, the Torah tells us that, וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת – “and Moshe wrote this Torah, and he gave it to the Kohanim, the sons of Levi…” What exactly does Moshe write down?

  1. Ramban explains that Moshe actually writes down the entire Torah from the beginning of Bereishit until the very end of the Torah. Yet, according to Ramban’s interpretation, Moshe chronicles his own death before it actually occurs.
  2. Seforno suggests that Moshe only writes down the section of the Torah dealing with the commandment of hakhel – the commandment to gather the people together once every seven years to hear the reading of the Torah. Yet, why would Moshe write down and hand over only this small section of the Torah?
  3. Rashi agrees with Ramban, that Moshe writes the entirety of the Torah and hands it over to the Kohanim. Yet, he says that the handover takes place later – כשנגמרה כולה – “when it is completely finished.” Yet, according to Rashi, we’re left wondering why the Torah mentions the giving of the Torah when it actually happens later in the text.

Which interpretation is correct? They’re all correct; yet each one solves one problem while it creates another.

Monday, September 3, 2007

My New Laptop, Computer Woes, Advice, and More

With the demise of the screen on my shul laptop, it was time to spring for something smaller for personal use. So, I went out and got an HP Pavilion tx 1210. I actually bought it at Officemax, and after rebate (which I don't really like, because I have to remember to mail in the rebate) it was $999 - a really great deal. To be honest with you, thus far I'm really happy with the notebook. It's got a great screen, seems somewhat fast, although with Windows Vista there's really no way to know, and it's worked well in a bunch of different places. The only real problem is that I'm having some trouble getting used to the touchpad (my IBM Thinkpad -- yes, it was that old -- has an eraser/pointer that I loved), and the right shift button is way too small, so I often accidentally find myself one line above in the text because instead of shifting, I ended up hitting the UP arrow instead. Other than that, the notebook is really great -- about 4 pounds, has a DVD player for trips and the like, and feels pretty good. The big problem thus far is, you guessed it, Windows Vista. What are the problems? Let me count the ways:
1. First of all, I really liked the old folder system in the start menu. Now, all my programs show up in an annoying list. Is there any way to go back to the old system?
2. Next, was the Hebrew, which is the source of major frustration for me. I added the Hebrew in the Microsoft Office Tools, checked that Hebrew was enabled in the Control Panel, but when I went into Word, nothing. I did the regular Alt-Left-Shift that works in WinXP, and nothing. I didn't know what to do. Tried a number of different ways, with no sucess. Then I searched the Help for Hebrew support, and learned (or so it seemed) that if I wanted Hebrew support -- which is actually essential for my work -- I would have to purchase an upgrade to Vista Ultimate, which has the Hebrew language module. Very annoying -- but what are you going to do? I shopped around, and found the best deal for the software at Provantage, and they sent me the upgrade the very next day. Great.
After I installed the software, which, unbeknowst to me did a full install - and took hours (which I'll come back to later), I tried the Hebrew again, and still no luck. Now I'm frustrated. Wasn't this supposed to work now? After playing around for a while, I discovered that all I really had to do in the first place was use the mouse to click on the small Hebrew menu in the language menu at the bottom of the screen, and switch from English to Hebrew with the mouse. But it wasn't clearly documented, so I wasted $150 to upgrade to Vista Ultimate, which I have no use for whatsoever.
3. The upgrade: When I got the Upgrade disk and entered the code, it just didn't work. So I took out the disk, put it back in again, and this time it seems to work. Only now when I go to activate the software, Windows tells me that the code isn't valid, because after all, I only bought the right to upgrade from Vista Home (preloaded on the computer) to Vista Ultimate, and I for some reason loaded a fresh, new copy of Vista Ultimate. I have a few questions:
a. If I bought a disk that was supposed to be an upgrade, why would it even have a full install version of the software on it?
b. what's the difference between an upgrade and a full install, if I end up with the same thing?
I'm planning on calling Microsoft to see if they'll help me out of this. Otherwise, I'm not sure what to do.