Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Matrix - 10 Years Later

I saw this comic which informed me that the Matrix came out in theaters 10 years ago this month. I smudged out some adult language in the comic, from this site. In any case, April 2nd marked the tenth anniversary of the release of the Matrix, which I consider a very important science fiction film - mostly because it contains what I consider to be a great deal of truth.
No, I don't think that the world is run by a robots and that we're actually batteries powering their world. And, a friend in YB invited me to an anniversary BlueRay viewing of the film - and it has fallen considerably in my estimation of late. But it still raises important questions about the nature of reality - and especially the crucial scene where Morpheus explains the Matrix to Neo.
Judaism has a lot to say about the underlying assumptions that drive much of the plot in the Matrix. I daresay that much of it - a great deal of it - coincides with ideas in Jewish thought. I have often thought that there's enough material in the original Matrix for me to write a book. ("The Matrix of Jewish Thought?") Maybe I still should try. I just found other books that do exactly that with regard to philosophy.
But then again, I probably won't do anything other than write a blog post and watch the movie again. Too many other things to do.

Thoughts on Independance - Yom Ha'atzmaut 5769

Independence is really not a very Jewish notion.
In fact, we put a great deal of stock in "dependence," which is precisely the opposite term. What is independence? The dictionary defines independence as "freedom from control or influence of another or other." I get to decide. It's up to me. No one controls me, and no one tells me what to do. But Judaism teaches us that that we're as far as we can possibly be from independent.
We depend on God for pretty much everything, from the rooster's call that wakes us in the morning to the very slumber that lulls us to sleep each night. We bless God for every physical act we take during our lives, from eating to sleeping to using the bathroom. We follow "commandments" which is another nice way of saying that we do what we're told to. The very first thing that a Jew says the moment she wakes up each morning? Thank you. Modeh Ani - thanks, God, for my soul. I wouldn't have woken up without you. That's not independence. It's anything but.
All of this raises serious questions as we approach the celebration of "Yom Ha'atzmaut" - Israel's Day of Independence. Are we truly independent? Who did we declare independence from? What did we declare on the 5th of Iyyar, sixty-one years ago? And what does that say about us today?

I know - I'm kind of nitpicking about a word. But it's an important word. I've asked around, and no one can tell me why we call it Yom Ha'atzmaut. We just do. Looking at the Megillat Ha'atzmaut - Israel's Declaration of Independence, there's really not very much mention of independence at all. Sure, it announces of הקמת מדינה יהודית - "the establishment of a Jewish state" in the Land of Israel. But when the State was declared in 1948, there certainly was a need to 'establish" a state, but there was no need at all to declare our independence. The British Mandate had ended. No one really wanted Israel - other than the Arabs, of course. Who were we declaring "independence" from?

Why then don't we call it the מגילת ההקמה - "the Declaration of Establishment"? Why not call the holiday יום ההקמה - "the Day of Establishment"? Good questions. My guess is that there's no small amount of irony in the fact that Israel modeled much of itself after the United States. In the U.S., we call the document that gave birth to the country the "Declaration of Independece." We call July 4th, the day we commemorate its signing "Independence Day". So Israel did the same, despite the fact that we didn't declare independence at all. It's even a "mitzvah" (stated jokingly, but everyone still does it) of the day to celebrate with barbecues - all over the country. Sound familiar?

Today, as we celebrate our "independence", we must do so with the understanding that we're just as dependent on God as we ever were. Our enemies threaten to destroy us, and they're growing closer than ever to having the ability to do just that. While our standing in the world is relatively good, let us not kid ourselelves for a moment that it could change in an instant. So we sing Hallel to God for our dependence on Him, and give thanks to Him that He has given us the opportunity to live in a country that we can finally call our own.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yom Hazikaron 5769 - Remembering the Chatual Family

Yad Binyamin is a wonderful mixing bowl: Israelis (mostly) and Anglos; but even more significantly, Yad Binyamin brought in many residents of Gush Katif after the Disengagement (i.e. expulsion). I'll write more about this mix and the benefits that it brings to all of us in another post. That's not my point today.
At last night's Yom Hazikaron ceremony, the organizers dedicated part of the program to those people from the Gush (Katif - we just call it "The Gush", which many Americans confuse for Gush Etzion) who were murdered in terrorist attacks. Watching the names scroll up the screen, I found myself wishing that every name was the last one, and that there would be no more names of murdered women, men, children. Of course the number of killed stayed the same - but each name rising up that screen brings another pang of pain; another family destroyed.
Then I saw a set of names that I recognized. The Chatual family. You may not remember, but Tali Chatuel, together with her four daughters, was murdered in cold blood five years ago - right around this time of year. I remember the devastation we felt even in Michigan; the sadness and anguish and pain.
And I also remembered that I spoke about Tali and her children in shul that Shabbat - which was Parshat Emor. I would like to share that drashah with you, as I think it still carries a powerful message for each of us. You can download the drashah here.
May we elevate the memories of Tali, 34, Hila, aged 11, Hadar, 9, Roni, 7, and Meirav, 2 - through the ways we improve ourselves in their memories.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Reflections on Yom Hazikaron

Tonight begins Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and others killed in our ongoing struggle for survival. This time of year brings a whirlwind of emotion; the roller coaster ride of the emotional descent to Yom Hazikaron – and the sudden climb to the heights of Yom Ha’atzmaut.

This past Shabbat, the Beit Knesset Mercazi of Yad Binyamin (my shul) hosted Rav Ya’akov Meidan, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion (also known as the Gush). In his afternoon shiur, Rav Meidan spoke about the way we should approach Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.
In reality, Yom Hazikaron really borrows its name from another Jewish holiday – Rosh Hashanah. As we know, zichronot – memories – play a major role on Rosh Hashanah. During our tefilah, we refer to the day specifically as yom hazikaron. We relate to God as the zocher kol hanishkachot – He who remembers all that is forgotten. We ask Him to specifically remember us “for good, and not for bad.” What then is the connection between the real “Day of Remembrance” and the modern Yom Hazikaron?
Rav Meidan suggested a natural, inherent connection between the two days. The highlight of the davening for many people on Rosh Hashanah is U’netaneh Tokef – specifically the harshest part of the poem: מי יחיה ומי ימות – “who shall live and who shall die.” As we listen to the chazzan chant that haunting tune, our minds turn to those who we lost during the past year. And we wonder: who won’t be with us when we gather again next year? מי יחיה ומי ימות? This was an especially pressing thought for me during the high holidays as the rabbi of a shul. I knew who was sick and suffering. I presided over all of the funerals during the past year. I inevitably would wonder: who will we bury this year? Who won’t be sitting in our ranks next Rosh Hashanah? Morbid? Sure. But how do you stop those thoughts?
That emotion – that dread; the fear of the unknown; the wonder of who else will join the fraternity of tragedy, Rav Meidan said, is precisely what occupies the thoughts of most Israelis as they mark Yom Hazikaron each year. As we commemorate the loss of sons, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, and parents, we also wonder about the future. On Israeli television on Yom Hazikaron, one of the channels simply scrolls a list of the fallen throughout the twenty-four hours of the day. This year we added another 122 names to the list. It scrolls slightly faster this year than it did last year. How many more names will we have to add to the list for Yom Hazikaron 5770? מי יחיה ומי ימות? It’s a chilling, frightening question.
On a more personal note, I find myself feeling very much like an Oleh – an immigrant – this year. I don’t really have a strong sense of what I’m supposed to do tonight and tomorrow. Sure, I’ll go to the memorial service in Yad Binyamin. But when I come home from work early on Tuesday (work ends across the country after a half-day), while most Israelis visit various military cemeteries to remember friends or family members, can I exercise? Is that disrespectful?
In Israel, Yom Hazikaron is personal. It’s not like Memorial Day in America – which is more about sales and bargains than honoring the military, which itself seems more distant and unconnected to daily life. Here, where everyone served in the IDF, it’s about your uncle or cousin who died in a war; your neighbor or the member of your shul killed in a bombing; or the guy who lived on your block who didn’t come home from miluim.
Never having served in the army, I don’t feel that strong connection. I don’t have a friend or fellow officer I personally know of who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country. Thankfully, I don’t have a member of my immediate family in that category either. To be honest, I’d really like things to stay that way. Sure, it’s a natural emotion – but is that selfish? On one hand, I’m rather glad to be unable to really appreciate the gravity of Yom Hazikaron. But that gladness brings with it a twinge of guilt.
Is it right to be happy to not know the pain of Yom Hazikaron?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Gift of Tzara'at, on Yom Ha'atzmaut

By Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Recruiting and Special Projects
What's the worst gift that you've ever received? When I got married, my wife and I received a plastic platter in the shape of a fish. We found it both strange and rather ugly. So we kept it. Each of us has a gift like that. I'm sure we've all gotten pretty bad gifts. But in each case, at least someone tried to give you something nice – even though it turned out to be a miserable failure. But what if your neighbor "gave" you the flu – on purpose? Would you consider it a "gift"?
Parshat Metzora relates the very unusual appearance of nigei batim, blemishes that appear on the walls of one's home. The Torah describes the procedure requiring the removal of the tzara'at in order to purify the home. Yet, the language describing this particular tzara'at raises an important question. In other cases of tzara'at, the Torah describes the affliction in neutral language: אדם כי יהיה בעור בשרו שאת – "if a person has in his skin a blemish…" The Torah doesn’t make any judgments about the wound. It's there. How should he act? But when describing tzara'at of the home the Torah says,
כי תבאו אל ארץ כנען אשר אני נותן לכם אחזה, ונתתי נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחזתכם
When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession.
The word ונתתי doesn't really mean "and I put." It means "and I give," which leads us to wonder, what type of gift is tzara'at on one's home? I can think of many things I'd rather have instead of having to knock down parts of my home. Why then does the Torah use the verb לתת – "to give" when describing tzara'at of the home?
Rashi gives the famous answer that the Emorites hid money in the walls of their homes before the Jews conquered the land. So, when Jews moved into their homes, the homes broke out with hives, so that when the people knocked down the walls they found the money.
But the Yalkut Meam Loez (Vayikra page 153) answers the question in a way that can give us new appreciation for the trials and tribulations that we have experienced this past year in the Land of Israel.
When they originally built their homes, the Emorites dedicated their construction to their idol of choice, thus infusing these homes and buildings with a רוח טומאה – a spirit of impurity which would defile anything that dwelled in those homes. Because Hashem wished to give us the Land and that His presence should dwell in it, He did not wish for his Shechinah to dwell in a place of Tum'ah. For this reason, he sent blemishes in the walls of the homes containing the defilement, so that the people could remove them and purify their new homes, themselves, and their new Land.
Meam Loez asks us to see trials and tribulations from a new perspective. Although difficult to appreciate, sometimes destruction is actually constructive. If we succeed in removing the spirit of Tum'ah, and replace it with a sprit of purity, then the tzara'at was indeed a gift, even if it didn't seem so at first.
This week we'll celebrate the 61st anniversary of the great gift from Hashem that is the State of Israel. Like tzara'at habayit, sometimes we might feel tempted to look at the difficulties and struggles that Israel must deal with and think, "Some gift. Who needs all these troubles?" Why did we have to add more names to the list of the fallen during the past year? Why must we keep fighting wars to defend our right to live in our God-given Land?
But when we place these struggles in context and see the tremendous growth, bounty and blessing that is the State to not only the Jewish people, but to the world, we realize that we have a lot to be grateful for.
And one day we will also realizes that even the blemishes – which we commemorate on Yom Hazikaron before we celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut – were a necessary part of the process that brings about the needed purification of Eretz Yisrael.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Personal Parshah for Tazria Metzora - Understanding Tzara'at

Understanding Tzara'at
Tzara'at is difficult for us to understand and appreciate. We'll look at the deeper message of tzara'at, and a critical lesson it has to teach us especially today.

Click here to download the shiur, or you can play inside the handy-dandy audio player I have graciously provided for you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Female Rabbis and Devorah

Right before Pesach I received the following question regarding this post, which I am posting with permission, along with my answer.
I read your most recent entry on the Maharat issue. I have one question/issue. You set forth a very compelling case that a learned woman could serve as the functional equivalent of a rav in most categories of a 21st century rabbi, yet, as you contest, a woman doesn’t command the greatness, authority and leadership necessary for the job. As I read it the one name that popped in my head is Devorah. As I read Shoftim, my sense is that she possessed all of those skill sets with enough gravitas that men would go to war upon her command. (I’m aware that men have a tendency to do lots of atypical things because a woman asks; isn’t that the only recipe to a successful marriage!?!). But while she was a naviah, I think those same characteristics (leadership, authority, etc.) are available to (and are possessed by) many modern day women as well.
Thanks for your question about Devorah. On one hand, Devorah's role in Tanach seems to call into question my assertion that women could, but should not lead because it's a lack of modesty or appropriateness.

But when I thought about it more carefully, perhaps Devorah is the best example of precisely what I was trying to say. Devorah clearly could lead the Jewish people - and she did. Her gender really had no bearing on her ability to lead. In the words of the Midrash, הכל לפי מעשיו של אדם רוח הקדש שורה עליו - (the Divine Spirit of God rests on a person completely based on his actions.) Since she was capable and available, she became the leader.

But Devorah's example raises a larger question: If she was such a great example, where are all the other female leaders that should have followed in her wake? Why did so few women follow her example?

A predominant theme running throughout the book of Shoftim is the dearth of quality leadership who led the Jewish people during the period of the Judges. Go through the list: as great as each leader was, each one had a critical shortcoming: Ehud, Shimshon, Gidon. The Navi basically makes this point before the tragedy of Pilegesh B'givah (Chapter 19) when it states, ויהי בימים ההם ומלך אין בישראל - "it was in those days that there was no king of Israel." Shoftim chronicles the results of flawed leadership; the lack of unity that divides the people, the shortcomings in faith and devotion to God.

Discussing Devorah, the gemara makes precisely this point saying that she only became the leader of the people because there was a lack of righteous men in her generation - see Megillah 14a. (and I daresay that Devorah would have been the first person to agree with that statement.) Even when she sends Barak to go fight Sisra, he says that he'll only go if she goes with him. To this she responds: אפס כי לא יהיה תפארתך על הדרך אשר אתה הולך כי ביד אשה ימכר ה' את סיסרא -- "'I will surely go with thee; notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thy honour; for the LORD will give Sisera over into the hand of a woman.' (Shoftim 4:9) She mocks her own general for needing a woman to babysit him while he fights the war. (Sisra's finds his ultimate downfall in a similar manner - in the hands of a woman who seduces and then kills him. How's that for a military glory?)

Then the story ends and we don't really hear from Devorah again. She fades from the scene, most probably because she didn't really want to be the leader of her generation anyway. But, as they say, במקום שאין איש - "in the place that there's no man..." She had to take the phrase literally.

I think the Gemara (Berachot 20b) really says it best when discussing whether a woman could lead the bentching for a man: really, she could. אשה מברכת לבעלה - "a woman may bless for her husband." אבל תבא מארה לאדם שאשתו ובניו מברכים לו - "but a curse will (should?) come upon a man whose wife and children bless for him" - because he himself cannot.

That, I think is the point here. Once we assume that halachah does indeed distinguish between the roles of men and women (which I think the Torah clearly does), what does it say about the community that chooses a woman as its spiritual leader despite the fact that she cannot lead the davening, count for a minyan, judge, testify, etc.?

Devorah herself "sat under the date tree" in order to avoid impropriety. People came to ask her questions, and she answered them. But she herself never asserted that leadership. She avoided it. Because she herself understood that the Jewish people would have been much better off had their leader been a man.

Food in Jewish Thought, part 1

Post 1: The Problem

Over Pesach I spoke at Sha’arei Tefilah (a new shul in Yad Binyamin) on the topic of “Food and Eating in Judaism”, basing my talk on an essay from the Rav that appears in the book Festival of Freedom, published after his death. So, none of this is from me – it’s all based on the Rav’s first essay entitled, “An Exalted Evening: the Seder Night.”
So what’s the problem with food? We all like food. Most people I know have no problem with food – and in fact like it very much. (I consider myself strongly in this category, especially with regard to grilled meats.) Generally, food tastes good. It serves as a source of nourishment. It brings us a sense of physical well-being and even pleasure. So what could be bad? It boils down to biology.

Generally, human beings keep their biology to themselves. We consider biological function private and personal, to be shielded from the view of others. Think about the different types of biological functions that our bodies perform: defecation, lactation, cohabitation. We perform each function in private, as we should. And then there’s eating. Functionally, there’s nothing that distinguishes eating from any other biological function. And yet, for some reason, we perform that particular act in the most public of settings. Why? Frequency -- we use the bathroom every day. Pleasure -- sexuality certainly fits that bill, and despite changing societal norms, that still belongs in private. So what’s different about eating? Why should the biological function of eating enjoy a place in public while other functions languish in private?
We can also ask the question another way: in what ways can and should we humanize eating? Humanity considers itself substantially different than the animal world. We use our cognitive capacity to elevate ourselves both physically, but also ethically and morally. But the biological function of eating is substantively no different than that of the animal world. We eat – but so does the beast of the field, the fish of the sea, the termite in his wood. Each needs biological sustenance, so he consumes nourishment. We’re no different. We’re hungry, so we consume food. But we’re supposed to be different. We’re not supposed to simply fulfill biological needs; we must elevate them and even sanctify them.
In recent years, a new “sport” has cropped up called “competitive eating.” This sport pits contestants from around the world in a competition to see who can consume the largest quantity of – whatever food it is – in a specific amount of time. While this practice probably began harmlessly enough, with the pie-eating contest at the county fair (remember the great scene though, from Stand by Me) – it has mushroomed into a full-fledged sport complete with sponsorships, prize-winnings, and television deals. Who can forget Kobiyashi’s memorable championship performance during this year’s July 4th Hot Dog eating contest, where he suffered a “reversal” (that’s industry-speak for “vomiting”) but was able to re-ingest to avoid disqualification, and soldiered on. (Full disclosure: I missed the broadcast. Sadly, I was probably eating hot dogs on July 4th – not watching others). In any case, any objective observer who can take a step back would realize just how animalistic, vulgar and profane “competitive eating” truly is. It’s really unfair to call it “animalistic”, because no animal would ever eat in this way. An animal might eat a huge amount – but only because he’s been programmed biologically to store his food for an extended period of time. No animal would intentionally eat a quantity of food that would make him sick. What would be the point of that? No – “competitive eating” is an endeavor that only human beings engage in.
Hot-dog and matzah-ball eating contests only highlight the problem for us. They demonstrate the quandary food presents to us all: our biological functions have the ability to degrade below the level of the animal world. It carries that much danger – but also the same amount of positive potential. Just as food can denigrate us, in can elevate us – make us better people: more human, more spiritual and more exalted. The question is how.
The Rav, articulating the problem in his eloquence, notes that the Torah requires that we introduce God into the process of eating.
If man wants to redeem his eating activity and sanctify it, he must invite God to partake of the meal, or to join him and his friends while they are engaged in something so carnal and "primitive." This strange experiment of introducing God into the circle of men enjoying their food is not a homiletical image, but a solid biblical idea. Man eats his bread before God:
Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came and all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God (Ex. 18:12).
Upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink (Ex.24:11)
There you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice in all that you put your hand unto (Deut. 12:7).
"Eating before God": how strange this phrase would have sounded to the Greeks of old! Thinking before—or rather with God was a truism in late Greek philosophy, particularly among the Stoa, who considered the finite human intellect an infinitesimal component of the infinite divine logos, and who regarded thinking as a reflex of the divine poetic gesture. Whenever man engages in cognition, he submerges in God, because only through Him is acquisition of knowledge possible. To come close to God or to unite with Him through such an unrefined carnal activity as eating would simply evoke ridicule.
Yet our religious conscience felt differently: one eats with God, in His presences How? By sacrificial action, which converts the food of man into the bread of God:
You shall sanctify him therefore; for he offers the bread of your God (Lev. 21:8).
Command the children of Israel and say unto them: My offering and My bread for My sacrifices made by fire ...(Num. 28:2).
Judaism developed a new institution, the se`udah. It is neither an ordinary meal nor a feast; it is more than that. It is the crucible in which the bread of man is transposed into the bread of God; it expresses the fellowship between God and man and the participation of God in all human pursuits and activities.
The realization of the idea of se'udah can occur only when man eats differently than the animal, when he displays uniqueness even with regard to the physiological processes in which he must engage in order to satisfy the demands of his body.
Judaism answers the challenge of sanctifying our eating in a number of different significant ways, each addressing a different aspect of the process of eating. Appreciating the significant demands that Judaism makes during each step of the process can transform the way we look not only at the food that we eat, but the very way that we live our lives.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Conversation at the DMV, Israel Style. And the US Economy. Really.

Rena needs to transfer her driver’s license, so we drove up to Holon, one of the few places in the country where you can get your paperwork done. (The picture to the left is pretty much exactly what it looks like. Crowds. Long lines. I knew it would be an all-morning affair. I brought my laptop.) About an hour into the waiting a man sat down next to us and opened a conversation with, “So, what number are you?” We were 56, he was 68. They were up to 40. We had time for a talk.
He pulled out his papers, as he wanted to know whether I thought that the clerk would accept his paperwork. (No, I’m not sure why what I think matters either. “I hope I don’t get the religious clerk. She’s mean.”) It turned out that he only had a paper license without a photo ID. What happened to his regular license? They took it away when they convicted him of securities fraud before they deported him.
Throughout the entire conversation, he seemed unperturbed by his former profession. I didn’t get the whole story, but he apparently worked at a firm whose entire purpose was to steal from insurance companies and the like. “What – you pay your premiums your entire life, and then when you want to make a claim they don’t pay! That’s not stealing?” He had particular scorn for Bernie Madoff, who stole money from Jewish organizations, and organizations that gave money to Israel. But stealing from corporations? In his words, “Hey, הגונב מן הגנב פטור (one who steals from a thief is exempt [from repaying]), right?” (Actually, he’s not at all right. It turns out that this is a huge, well-known dispute among commentators on the Shulchan Aruch, and the Torah expressly forbids the act of stealing intentionally from anyone. But I digress.)
We got to talking about buying a new car, and how instead of paying 120% tax on our new car, we only had to pay 100% tax on it because of our rights as new olim. He was incredulous. “Hey, all these Jews from around the world want to move here, but they don’t because of the high taxes.”
I disagreed. To my mind, it’s all about the jobs – which brought me to his job. What would he do now that he was “out of work”? I suggested (probably naively) that he go into investment management for the Russian community. After all, I said, you speak Russian, (Georgian, he added), English, Hebrew. Plenty of immigrants need good advice. But this time you’ve got to be honest, I added just to make sure.
He didn’t think it was a good idea. “The yetzer hara is too great,” he said. “The money’s there for the taking. On Wall Street, you’re the criminal if you don’t take it.”
His honest explanation of his predicament – having been convicted of a white collar felony, spent time eating kosher food in a Federal prison in Pennsylvania, and deported to Israel (free flight!) – explains the mess of the American economy better than anything else I’ve heard so far.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Some Pesach Links

I'm just archiving some past Pesach material from my website, so I'll have these links saved. Nothing really new here.

Pesach Audio

Hagadah 5769: Ha Lachma Anya
The first paragraph in Maggid rasises some fascinating questions. Who wrote it?
Why is it in Aramaic? Learn important tools to help make the seder meaningful.
Click here for the Audio File

Hagadah 5769: The Wandering Aramean
Who is the Arami of the Hagadah? Where does this text come from?
This text, taken from the Torah, speaks clearly to us especially today.
Click here for the Audio File

Written Pesach Pieces
In Every Generation: A Modern Day Blood Libel and the Hagadah

To Lean or Not to Lean? The Laws of Leaning During the Seder
PDF version
Read on the web

Rabbi Spolter's Pre-Pesach Guide from 5768

Friday, April 17, 2009

Death in a Bottle

Just got my latest update from the CRC, a high-quality kashrut organization based in Chicago. In addition to the nice updates, I noticed some new beverages which now enjoy kashrut certification. (You can see the kashrut information on the CRC Kosher beverage list.) These "energy" drinks, produced by Dr. Pepper, are called Venom Energy Drinks. And get a load of the names of the flavors (I'm not making this up): Black Mambo, Death Adder, Mojave Rattler and Kill Taipan.

Which makes me wonder three things:
1. Who comes up with this stuff?
2. Does it actually sell?
3. Most importantly, are they trying to quench your thirst, or are they really trying to poison you?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Our First Pesach as Israelis

I admit it: I engaged in a guilty pleasure over the chag. Whenever I spoke with someone in the States, I would ask them how they enjoyed their "three day Yom Tov", with no small amount of glee in my voice. To me (and I'm sure most of you), three day Yom Tov's never seemed to end. It just felt like an endless cycle of shul, eat, sleep, shul, eat, sleep -- and then getting up and doing it all over again. I don't think that it's possible to miss a three-day Yom Tov.
I also didn't miss a second Seder. I will grant that at times the second Seder went better than the first; after all, you've had a chance to sleep during the afternoon of the first day, so you can actually keep your head up on the second night. (This year I just didn't have a chance to rest before Pesach. Combining that fact with the four full cups of wine this year - no grape juice - and getting through Nirtzah was a minor miracle.) Still, the second Seder always had a deja-vu kind of feeling to me. Wasn't I redeemed last night? Why then am I a slave all over again?
Still, the seven-day Yom Tov ended rather abruptly. It seemed strange - and just shorter than we were used to. And although it was so much work, Pesach's exit brought with it a sense of melancholy: did I experience redemption? How so? What will the coming year bring? After all the preparation and build-up, blessing the sun and kashering and cleaning the house, Pesach seemed to end not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Maybe an eighth day would have softened the landing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

An Israeli Perspective on the Four Sons

Every Friday night on my way to my seat in shul, I stop by the back to pick up a bunch of "gilyonot" - sheets put out by various organizations that write ideas on the weekly parshah. What's amazing in the sheer number, quality and diversity of these "sheets." They're not photocopied, black and white sheets; rather, they're full-color booklets and pamphlets coming in all shapes and sizes, most with a littany of ads aimed at the religious community. (Where better to reach a captive audience than in shul on Friday night, especially in Israel where many of the shuls have a d'var Torah during davening?)
Before Pesach, some of the organizations had published special editions, and one included the winners of cartoon contest. At right you'll find one take on the "four sons." I'm sharing it with you because it really demonstrates a uniquely Israeli point of view.
The Yeshiva Jew with the hat is the Tam - the simple son. The "Wise Son" is the most Israeli, but also Chassidic. This is really a relatively new development of Yeshivot which combine a love for the Land with the fervor and religiousity of Chassidut. The "Son who does not know to ask" is a follower of Kadimah, and specifically Tzipi Livni, and the wicked son is a "yasamnick", a member of the Israeli mounted police who participate in the evacuation of right-wing Jews from illegal settlements. (see left).
Obviously, the artist identifies most with the "chacham." (Don't we all think that we're the "wise son"?) I find the cartoon particularly insightful as it opens a window into the perspective of a group of people who we don't often hear from.
If you asked me to draw the "four sons" myself, I definitely wouldn't have chosen these specific groups as my vision of the four sons.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

As If He Exited from Egypt - from the files of Mark Twain

There is no use in stringing out the details. The earl put us up and sold us at auction. This same infernal law had existed in our own South in my own time, more than thirteen hundred years later, and under it hundreds of freemen who could not prove that they were freemen had been sold into lifelong slavery without the circumstance making any particular impression upon me; but the minute law and the auction block came into my personal experience, a thing which had been merely improper before became suddenly hellish. Well, that's the way we are made.

-From A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Twain so aptly outlines one of the most critical aspects of the Seder night, found at the beginning of Maggid: חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממרים - a person must view himself as if he actually had left Egypt. At the Seder, instead of telling a story, we must live it. We must envision ourselves as slaves, suffering under the oppressive Egyptian regime. Only then can we appreciate the salvation and redemption that God brought to us through the Exodus.
I think that today especially, we face a particular challenge in this aspect of the Hagadah. Sure, we can tell the story. We can write plays, read commentaries, sit like kings and eat the bread of affliction. But I don't think we can appreciate what it means to be a slave.
Intellectually we can contemplate being owned by another human being. We've all heard the stories of indifference and cruelty inherent to slavery. But those are really technical aspects of slavery. What we cannot and hopefully will never be able to appreciate is the mentality of slavery; the belief of the slave that his life truly is worth less than his master's; that he somehow does represent a lower form of existence, best utilized in the servitude of another.
In "A Connecticut Yankee", the author decides to venture out into England with the king incognito, looking for adventure. Yet, as well as he physically disguises the king in hair and dress, the king still acts like a king. So he must teach Arthur otherwise.
"Sire, as between clothes and countenance, you are all right, there is no discrepancy; but as between your clothes and your bearing, you are all wrong, there is a most noticeable discrepancy. Your soldierly stride, your lordly port—these will not do. You stand too straight, your looks are too high, too confident. The cares of a kingdom do not stoop the shoulders, they do not droop the chin, they do not depress the high level of the eye-glance, they do not put doubt and fear in the heart and hang out the signs of them in slouching body and unsure step. It is the sordid cares of the lowly born that do these things. You must learn the trick; you must imitate the trademarks of poverty, misery, oppression, insult, and the other several and common inhumanities that sap the manliness out of a man and make him a loyal and proper and approved subject and a satisfaction to his masters, or the very infants will know you for better than your disguise, and we shall go to pieces at the first hut we stop at. Pray try to walk like this."
Slavery and subjugation are first and foremost mentalities. Today, blessed with generations of democracy and equality, we bow before no one. Even when meeting the most powerful man in the world, we don't lower our heads. No, we extend our hand to him to shake as an equal. Even the thought of bowing to the president of the United States seems laughable.
But imagine for a moment that if you walked by not a president - but someone higher up the food chain than you - and didn't lower your head in submission, he might take out a knife and stab you, just for having looked at him in the wrong way. Imagine having your home, possessions, property - even children subject to the whims of the lord of your manor or your owner. You had no say, no voice - and you knew that nothing would ever change, and that you would eventually die the same way you were born - in slavery.
On the night of the Seder, we must first accept the mentality of slavery.
Only then can we begin to appreciate the blessings of freedom that God has given each of us..

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Female "Rabbis"

For the past couple of weeks, the web has been "aflutter" over the recent "ordination" of Sara Hurwitz, the Madricha Ruchanit (spiritual advisor) for the past five years at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Ms. Hurwitz received a new title, "Maharat", which stands for Madrichah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit - or "Spiritual Halachic Torah Guide/Advisor."
I've been mulling this post for a while, because it's not a simple one to write. It encompasses a broad range of Jewish issues that our community struggles with, and will continue to grapple with into the near future.

What the Heck is a Maharat?
Simply put, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute (and the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) made it up. It really doesn't mean anything. It's not a recognized professional title, nor does the it have any real meaning in Jewish life or practice. The Modern Orthodox world has worked itself into a lather because of what it perceives Rabbi Weiss wanted to do, would have done - and maybe even thinks he did: ordain the first female Orthodox rabbi. (Why didn't he if he did? Because had he, he would have put his yeshiva out to pasture.) Want to know if she's a "rabbi" or not? Watch this video and decide for yourself. (Did you even know there was something called "The Jewish Channel?")

Better Question: What is a Rabbi?
The real problem here lies in our confusion about what a rabbi really is? What makes him a rabbi? His semichah? The fact that he rules on halachic matters? His fantastic speeches? In fact, the rabbinate - at least in the Modern Orthodox world - has grown to encompass far more than the community rav of old. And that's not a bad thing. But must those tasks remain in the domain of men alone? Let's list some of the functions that I performed during my tenure as rabbi of shuls in America, and evaluate whether mainstream Othodoxy would object to a woman performing these functions:

Speaking: as a rabbi, I gave a lot of speeches. I spoke both in shul and outside of it, during religious functions and after them. I spoke at personal s'machot, at funerals, parties, celebrations, memorials - you name it.
Could a woman do it? Depends. Most Orthodox shuls (other than the HIR and a limited few others) would frown on having a woman speak from the pulpit during services. But almost none would object to a woman speaking after services, even in the sanctuary, at a bat mitzvah, for example. Women also speak at funerals, bar mitzvahs, and every other type of Jewish event.

Teaching: I taught a lot, giving numerous classes in shul and throughout the community on a wide range of topics to groups, individuals, pairs - whoever wanted to learn. (Not surprisingly, this was my favorite part of the rabbinate.)
Could a woman do it? Of course - and they do teach to both men and women around the world.

P'sak halachah: I answered questions relating to Jewish law when asked.
Could a woman do it? They already do. There are numerous, qualified yo'atzot halchah working in communities across the world. There's no reason why they should be limited to areas of women's issues and the laws of Niddah. If a woman can master the myriad rules of Niddah, she certainly can handle the complexities of kashering a kugel pan.

Visiting the sick, counseling the confounded, comforting the bereaved: Put these - and many other rabbinic functions - under the title of "social services" which have somehow found their way into the rabbinic repertoire. While certainly meaningful and critical functions, nothing about them seem "rabbinic" in nature.
Could a woman do it? Most of the bikkur cholim societies I know about are run by women. Women already serve as counselors in numerous capacities across religious society. Of course they could, as well they should.

Coordinating shul programming, running functions, serving as the synagogue mashgiach: This took up a bunch of my time; writing the d'var Torah for the shul newsletter, editing the calendar, planning programs, sitting in meetings and setting the schedule.
Can a woman do it? Certainly. In my last shul, we actually created a position of "family educator" capably handled by a woman from the community.

Attending minyan, leading davening, layning, etc: I was expected to be at minyan whenever possible, which ended up being pretty much always. I could layn on Mondays and Thursdays in a pinch, but almost never davened from the amud during the week.
Could a woman do it? She wouldn't count for the minyan, of course. She couldn't layn either. But she could still be there. And judging from the time that I used to arrive at shul (always 5 minutes late), they didn't need me for the minyan either. And if there was trouble getting a minyan, while she could never be the "tenth man", she might have an easier time getting the tenth man to show up during those frantic phone calls (which were perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of my rabbinic duties in West Hartford. I hated making those calls. Riinnnng. Riinng. Hello? Hey Sy, it's Rabbi Spolter. [louder] Spolter, the rabbi. At Agudas Achim. Yeah, I know it's early. Listen, would you be able to get down here and help make a minyan? How many do we have? Nine - you're the tenth. [never true - but you had to say so.] Ten minutes? [also never true.] Sure, that would be great. Thanks Sy.)

The Unspoken Sexual Bias in Orthodox Judaism
In all honestly, we really don't treat women fairly in religious circles. I'll give two examples. When my father died, leaving my mother to care for seven children as an educator, she learned to negotiate for her salary. I don't want to give the wrong impression: the schools she taught in were, to the best of my knowledge, as generous as they could be, and have always treated her well. But they also often would give additional titles, roles, and of course salary to her male counterparts - rabbis. When she would ask for similar treatment she would be told, "Well, they're the head of the household, and they need to provide for their families." That's hardly comforting to a widow.
My wife Rena teaches at Midreshet Moriah, a wonderful seminary in Jerusalem. The girls call everyone there by their first names - that's just the way they do it. (We can leave that issue for debate another time.) But the rabbis also get the title "rabbi," so her colleague would be "Rav Shlomo," while she's just "Rena." Now, no one imposed this system, and Midreshet is in no way discriminatory to women - anything but. But this simple reality that my wife, who has a masters degree in Jewish education and over a decade of teaching experience - lacks a title that her male counterparts benefit from - puts her at a disadvantage from the perspective of stature and authority. Her students respect her and trust her. But doesn't she deserve a title that would express that respect the same way a man does?

So What's the Big Deal?
If a woman learns the same material as a man does, should that achievement not have a form of recognition? If a woman can actually do all the things that a man could within the shul structure - and if a shul was willing to wait until after shul ended for the female spiritual leader to speak, and didn't need her for the minyan (not all male rabbis go to their own shul for minyan either), then why should we get so upset if a shul wants to choose a female to serve the needs of its members? By shutting out women from these positions, is it possible that we're losing some of our best potential candidates, full of spirit and desire and energy and passion - qualities critical in successful rabbis? Why does the vast majority of Orthodoxy reject ordaining female rabbis, especially if they already perform so many rabbinic functions?

It Is a Big Deal
Modern Orthodoxy - in whatever flavor you choose - "Centrist," Religious Zionist, YU, whatever -- finds itself in an eternal struggle to try and juggle two conflicting, sometimes contradictory values. On the one hand, we pledge allegiance to the Torah; not simply to technically fulfill the dry dictates of halachah, but to uphold and preserve the values, truth and lifestyle inherent in the Torah as well. At the same time though, we use those values as a guide to help navigate the modern world. Rather than reject confrontation with cultural, human and scientific advancement and hide within a self-imposed exile, we embrace the complexity of the outside world, despite the difficult challenges it presents and attempt to live Torah lives.
These values have greatly enhanced Jewish life; they spurred the building of the State of Israel. They have achieved incredible advances in the human condition, banishing slavery, oppression and discrimination to the dark underside of humanity. But that same world which has uncovered a great deal of light also spreads too much darkness. Rampant sexuality plagues our modern culture, left unchecked by any semblance of decency or appropriateness. Modernity advocates wholesale abandonment of faith, and rejects and mocks religion in favor of a total devotion to the religion of science. This leads to a relativistic sense of values, ungrounded in anything but the latest fad of decency.
So engagement with modernity comes with a price, when the values of modernity and Torah clash. This is precisely what has happened in the area of feminism and the advancement of women.
On one hand, the advancements that women have achieved in the religious spheres have been nothing short of amazing. Gone are the days where the boys received the education, and the girls stayed with the mother in the kitchen. And that wasn't that long ago. Nowadays, girls from across the religious spectrum study Torah seriously, at least through high school and even a year afterward. Women have the opportunity to study all aspects of Torah at an extremely advanced level, and in coed high schools it's not unusual for the girls to learn Gemara better than the boys. Women now take leadership roles in their shuls, and not just as the president of the sisterhood. They sit on boards, serve as officers, and in some shuls even serve as the president (as long as it's not a Young Israel shul).
And yet, for all the advancements that women have achieved, they still at some point his a "glass mechitzah." There's a point at which Orthodoxy says to its women: that's as far as you can go. Why? Because of tzniut.
Here we find the unspoken, difficult to quantify value not explicit in Jewish law, but implicit throughout. Judaism maintains that the differences between men and women are not simply physical, but manifest themselves in the roles that they take in larger society. While the notion of tzniut applies to both sexes, women's tzniut applies not just in terms of the clothes that they wear, but in their roles in broader society as well. While men have obligations and requirements within the communal structure - they must pray in public; they can lead davening, serve as judges and testify in court, women have none of these obligations nor the rights that come with them. These facts are built into the halachic system: a woman does not count in a minyan; she cannot preside over a Jewish court of law; she may not testify (under many circumstances) in that court either, and she cannot lead public prayer. All of these points create a larger picture of differing roles within the Jewish framework, where men take on a more public persona, and the women occupy a more private, modest role within the household.

All of this leads to the issue of female Orthodox rabbis: If we apply halachic rules at face value only without looking for a deeper pattern, there's no specific law that prohibits a woman from performing any of the roles I listed above. And, for that matter, it's difficult to argue that halachah prohibits a woman from serving as a "rabbi" - or maharat.

But when we frame our worldview based on the ideology behind the halachot that guide our lives, then a female rabbi becomes an oxymoron - an impossibility within a halachic framework, for a very simple reason.

In addition to all the tangible roles and tasks that a rabbi performs in his day to day duties, there's one other aspect to the job that's difficult to quantify, but critical for rabbnical success. A rabbi must be a leader. In fact, I believe that the term "rav" - the Hebrew word for rabbi - implies a sense of greatness, authority and leadership inherent in the role. Sure, anyone can teach. But what does the rabbi teach about? What are the goals of his speeches? Are they enlightening and entertaining and fluffy? Or does the rabbi take positions - sometimes unpopular, sometimes downright antagonistic to his members - but geared to push his community in the direction he believes will bring them closer to God? And it's that leadership; the need to stand before a community, put his foot down, and say, "This is the way it has to be," that defines what it means to be a rabbi. And that's not a role for women within the framework of traditional Judaism.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Slavery, and Not the Egyptian Kind

I'm writing this post in response to a friend of mine here in Yad Binyamin. He's decided that he wants to buy himself a slave. From Darfur. He figures that he will undoubtedly be improving the quality (and probably length) of his slave's life. He can't just bring some random guy over from Darfur, because no government would ever allow random Darfurian immigrants like that. So the only solution is to buy the man as his personal slave.
Despite my protests - and trust me, I protest - he claims that my arguments about the immorality of slavery are at best self-serving. Who cares about the morals and ethics of owning another human being when a person's life is at stake? For all my objections (he's somewhat persistent), he argues that in the end, whose plan works in the best interest of the poor man from Darfur: his, which brings him to a life of servitude but good treatment in Israel, or mine, which leaves him at the mercy of the new Dictator (er, President - hailed by the Arab League and under indictment by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges) of Sudan?
He's been bugging me to post this "moral dilemma" for a while now - so here it is. If you can propose a convincing argument (comment) as to why he should not try and buy a Darfurian slave, where both parties benefit - I'd really appreciate it.

To Lean or Not to Lean?

Leaning During the Seder
Click here to download an easy-reading pdf version of this article.

While the night of the certainly presents a wonderful educational and historical experience, many of us find some aspects of the Seder rather challenging. The Seder begins late, especially outside of Israel. We engage in lengthy discussions, long before we get to the food. Matzah and Marror aren't the easiest foods to consume, especially in the large Seder-night quantities. To me though, the most challenging aspect of the Seder is the issue of leaning. As we eat or drink during any meaningful portion of the Seder, we lean to the left and eat in an awkward, unusual position. Why do we do it? We lean to symbolize our freedom, of course. Funny though. When I lean during the Seder I feel anything but free.

Some Halachic and Historical Background
We can trace the requirement to lean during the Seder all the way back to the times of the Mishnah, which clearly assumes a requirement to lean. The Mishnah (Pesach 99b) states, אפילו עני שבישראל לא יאכל עד שיסב – "even the impoverished in Israel may not eat until he leans." The Gemara accepts the ruling of the Mishnah unconditionally, adding that one must not only lean during while eating matzah, but also as one drinks the four glasses of wine. Why must we lean? Rashi explains that we lean "in the manner of free people, as a reminder of our freedom, with a bed adjacent to a table."
Thank goodness for Wikipedia. How else would I have been able to easily learn about table habits during the Roman Empire? How did people eat their meals in the Roman era? Actually, it depended on who you were – which is precisely the point.
The dinner was consumed in a special dining room, which later was to be called triclinium. Here one would lie down on a specially designed couch, the lectus triclinaris. Around the round table, the mensa, three of these lecti were arranged in the shape of a horseshoe, so that slaves could easily serve, and a maximum of three diners would recline at each lectus. During the kingdom and early republic, the only people allowed a place on a lectus were men. By the late republic and imperial times, and especially among the aristocracy, women were permitted to recline during meals. Traditionally, women would dine sitting upright across from their husbands or fathers in chairs. More tables for the beverages stood beside the couches. All heads were oriented towards the central table, with left elbows propped on a cushion and feet at the outside of the dinner-couch. In this fashion at most nine people could dine together at one table. Further guests had to sit on chairs. Slaves normally had to stand.
On Pesach night, we're all the masters. There are no slaves standing around to serve, nor regular guests. In order to fully appreciate the level of freedom that we achieved on Pesach night, we each must recline on our own lectus triclinaris. No one dines upright on the Seder night because for at least this one night, we're all princes – or emperors.
There's only one problem with this halachic ruling: while the history of Roman dining is really fascinating, no one today – from the President of the United States to the Queen of England to the Prime Minister of Micronesia dines on couches, recliners, beds or especially lectus triclinaris. (or is that lecti triclinari?) So why must I recline in a manner that while certainly significant two thousand years ago has no meaning today?
This is not a new question, and was posed by no less than the Ra'avyah (Rav Eliezer the son of Yoel HaLevi, a member of the Tosafists, lived in Germany from 1140 until 1225), who noted that even by his time people had long since stopped leaning on couches. For this reason, he and his disciples, including the Avi Ezri quoted in the Tur (Orach Chayyim 472:2) wrote that, "nowadays, as we are not accustomed in our land to lean, one sits in the normal manner and is not required to lean." After all, logic dictates that if we lean to demonstrate our feelings of freedom, we should display that freedom based on the customs of our time, and not on ancient Roman practice.
Yet, while Ra'avyah's ruling did carry significant halachic weight (as we shall soon see), major halachic authorities never adopted his position. In fact, R' Yosef Karo writes in the Beit Yosef that, "[Ra'avyah's] is an individual [opinion] in this matter; meaning that the position of all the poskim is that one must always lean even nowadays." He expresses his position clearly in the Shulchan Aruch writing not only how to lean (on the left, preferably against something like an arm of a chair, a pillow, or the person sitting next to you), but also that one who fails to lean has not fulfilled his obligation to eat of drink and must repeat the consumption in the proper position. (472:7) (Rama, following Ashkenazic tradition argues that in a case of bedieved, one can rely on the position of Ra'avyah and need not eat or drink a second time.)

What about the Women?
Shulchan Aruch writes that "A woman is not required to lean unless she is significant (חשובה)." So, as Orot President Rav Neria Gutel explained, it's up to the woman: if she considers herself an אשה חשובה, then she should lean. If not, then at least according to Sephardic custom she need not lean. Rama argues on two critical counts:
a. All of our (read here: Ashkenazi) women are נשים חשובים.
b. Still, none of our very important, significant, honored and cherished women lean during the Seder. Why not? It must be because they relied on the ruling of the Ra'avyah.

Bottom Line and How Do I Do It?
As important as the Ra'avyah's position is, the bottom line is that everyone – men and women – must lean during the Seder. Unless someone suffers from a medical condition that would preclude them from leaning comfortably, halachah considers leaning an integral aspect of the Seder experience. Sorry.
There's still the question of how. What's the best and most proper way to lean? Ideally, get yourself a lectus triclinaris – or at least a chaise lounge. Place it next to the table, spend the night leaning to the left, eating grapes and living like a king. Barring that, one must lean to the left on something and not in the air, and lean the entire body and not just the head. I'd like to also add the suggestion of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Brachah) writes in his book Peninei Halachah on Pesach (page 226):
Instead of sitting straight upright against the back of the chair, one should pull his rear-end forward to the center of the chair, such that he is able to lean his back on the backing of the chair and lean himself towards the left.
In other words, nowadays the best way to lean on Pesach night is to…slump. What better symbol of freedom could there ever be? Throughout our childhood, our mothers told us to sit up straight and not slump in our chairs. On this night we slump!
Finally, on this night, we are free to practice bad posture. Just make sure that you've got the number of a chiropractor handy. And have a wonderful, happy and Kosher Pesach!