Friday, July 31, 2009

Not as Secular as We Think

While many like to complain about the secular nature of the State of Israel, I often comment that secular Israelis are not as anti-religious as they seem. Many lay Tefillin, celebrate Shabbat with family members, fast on Tisha B'av and Yom Kippur, observe some level of kashrut, and care very much about Jewish ritual life. I saw a recent survey that seemed to agree with my sentiments.
Yediot Achronot (a very secular newspaper) published a survey taken on Tisha B'av that asked average Israelis whether they wanted the Beit Hamikdash to be rebuilt. To my pleasant surprise, 64% - almost two-thirds, and nearly half of secular Israelis said yes, they would like to see the Beit Hamikdash rebuilt. Rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash is a pretty abstract idea, so I personally would have expected people who identify themselves as "secular" not to care much about the Beit Hamikdash. But apparently they do, and that's a great thing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Website You Might Not Know About

If you've ever been to a shiur of mine, you know that I generally try and hand out source sheets to the shiur with copies of the original text as it appears in book form. (Some people just copy the text from a CD, but I feel that the form factor of the text is important, and contributes significantly to the learning experience.) So I faithfully scan the books, edit the scans and paste the material using Microsoft Publisher. I once even gave a short presentation on how I make my sheets at the Soloveitchik Institute (a"h) for a bunch of rabbis. At the Tzohar Conference last week a fellow participant told me that since then he's been making his sheets that way, and he always thinks of me because of it.
I recently discovered a new tool that has the potential to save me a ton of time. HebrewBooks is a website that has put literally thousands of old seforim - most of which you've never, ever heard of - online and available for download. It's truly incredible. But they also helped me quite a bit, because they recently added a shas section which has the entire Shas available online both for reading and download. If you learn daf yomi and need a quick printout of today's daf, they've got you covered. If you're giving a shiur on masechet Brachot, and need a perfectly scanned copy of the entire masechta with the Rosh, Rif and Rabbeinu Yonah (like me), you can do that too. Oh yes - it's also totally free.
My chavruta and I were learning recently and we came across a reference to a Teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein in Igrot Moshe. I was about to get up to get one from the library when he opened his laptop, and quickly opened a pdf file with the entire eight-volume work. When I asked him where he got it from, he answered me in his heavy Hebrew accent: "Hebrewbooks."
You know how we're always complaining about how terrible the Internet is, with the pornography, violence, gambling, and pretty much everything else. We're right too. Except we don't often acknowledge that there's another side too. The Internet also has amazing learning sites (like, ummm, I don't, where you can download thousands of shiurim for free, and even learn the entire shas.
It's not that the Internet is bad. It's neutral. The trick is learning (and teaching our children) how to use it, and how to have the self-control to know where to go, and where to stay away from.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Va'etchanan - Growing from Tragedy

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Va'etchanan: Growing from Tragedy
While Va'etchanan teaches us a great deal about the causes of and reasons for calamities that befall the Jewish people, it also conveys critical parenting lessons in the process.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mourning for the Kotel on Tisha B'av

Over the weekend, I read an article in Mekor Rishon about the kotel. (they have a funny web system, so I can't link to the piece.) The author lamented the fact that over the past few years he had grown increasingly distant from the Kotel. In past years, before any wedding the chatan and kallah would have pictures taken in front of the Kotel. You see less and less of that nowadays. We recently went to the Kotel for the Bar Mitzvah of the son of friends. Instead of davening at the kotel, I intentionally davened early at shul in Yad Binyamin to avoid having to daven at the Kotel. I did this so that I wouldn't feel pressured to make it to the Bar Mitzvah on time primarily. But there was also a part of me that doesn't really like davening at the Kotel. It's too much of a production. People are always bugging you for money. It's such a scene. And some part of me recoils at a sort of Kotel worship that I sense in so many Americans. The Kotel makes me sad, as I think it should. Instead of running to the kotel, sometimes I avoid it. I'm not entirely sure, but I feel that this might be a healthy feeling.

I wasn't alive for the capture of the Kotel during the Six-day war. I never felt that personal powerful sense of euphoria that's so evident when watching the old black and white video of the capture of the Kotel and Rav Goren blowing the shofar. But it's clear that the Kotel became a sign not of mourning, but of redemption. It became the symbol not of destruction and loss, but of redemption and rebirth.

I've never had that feeling. Every time I visit the Kotel, especially when I approach the site from the Jewish Quarter where I have to descend from the city to the Har Habayit, I feel a powerful sense of loss. How can you not, knowing that the Kotel was simply the outer retaining wall of the larger Beit Hamikdash structure. I find it at times difficult even to pray there, knowing how close - but how far we really are from where we should be. And I often feel that our celebration of the Kotel - our willingness to accept the Kotel as "good enough" - gives us a sense that we don't really need the Beit Hamikdash. After all, we have the Kotel. Do we really need more than that?

We do. The fact that we settle for the site "down below" while the Arabs occupy the holiest location in Judaism in the world should and must be a cause for mourning. I find it difficult to celebrate anything at the Kotel - because that celebration seems to fly in the face of God's House, lying in ruins, occupied by strangers.

And that, by itself, should give us pause on Tisha B'av.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shock and Disbelief? I Think Not. Thoughts for Shabbat Chazon

Let me begin this post by saying that the level of chillul Hashem the recent case has and must pain each and every one of us. For this reason, instead of hiding from it, we need to write about it. Unless the Jewish community begins to address the core issues at the heart of this case, this won't be the last time we see rabbis in handcuffs.

Even here in Israel, all people have asked me about this morning are the charges of corruption against a large number of government officials and private citizens in the New York Metropolitan area, including several rabbis and leaders of the Syrian community in Deal, NJ. It's really bad. My immediate reaction is simple. The Torah spells things out quite clearly:
וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד--כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.
and do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous.
Note that the Torah does not say that bribery transforms the righteous into sinners. It blinds the righteous. No one is immune - not even rabbis with long black coats and white beards. Anyone is susceptible to the draw of easy money, even rabbis, and bad things always happen when people begin to think otherwise.
Reacting to the story in the New York Times, Dov Hikind said,
“Shock and disbelief — my cellphone, my office phone, they’re ringing off the hook,” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, who represents an Orthodox Jewish community adjacent to the southern Brooklyn neighborhoods where about 75,000 Sephardic Jews live. “People do not believe it.”...
David G. Greenfield, executive vice president of the Sephardic Community Federation, a group representing the approximately 100,000 Sephardim in Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey, said in a statement, “The community is shocked and saddened by these allegations, which go against every value and teaching the community holds dear.”He added, “If over time these allegations are proven, we must remember that these are the isolated actions of a few individuals.”
Really? We don't believe it? Come on Mr. Hikind. These are the actions of a few isolated individuals? Please. Who didn't know that things like this happen all the time. The check to the school, shul, tzedkah - which takes a cut and returns the bulk of the money plus a receipt for a full write off. I wonder what percentage of day school tuition is paid in this manner? (and for that matter, wonder how this scandal will therefore affect Day Schools, as parents fearing repercussions, can no longer deduct their tuition "donations". It's an open question.)
At the same time, we need to begin to address the root of this issue. For whatever reason, the notion of stealing from and cheating the government is simply an accepted behavioral practice in large swaths of the Orthodox community. This is just the latest example of corruption that everyone "knows" about, looks the other way, and the only thing that really shocks us is the fact that they got caught.
A simple example of this is the story of the three yeshiva bochurim currently sitting in jail for drug trafficking in Japan. Let's assume that the bochrum are telling the truth, and that they had no idea that they were carrying drugs in their suitcases. But they did think that they were smuggling artifacts into a foreign country and thereby circumventing the laws of the government. They had no problem whatsoever doing that.
Which makes me wonder: why does our religious educational system (or a really big chunk of it), supposedly steeped in ethical and moral study, which emphasizes adherence to God and continued self-assessment and self-improvement, raise children who think nothing of lying and helping others steal?
Why is it OK to steal from the government - any and every government - in many Jewish circles? Why do we wink at this kind of behavior and look the other way, instead of speaking out loud about it and finally saying that it's got to stop?
This story is especially timely in light of the Haftarah we'll read this Shabbat - called Shabbat Chazon. We call it Shabbat Chazon because the Haftarah begins with the word "chazon" - the vision that the prophet Yishayahu conveys of the coming destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash. Why? Why were the Jewish people slated to lose their beloved Temple? The prophet answers clearly and unequivocally (See Isaiah Chapter 1):
שָׂרַיִךְ סוֹרְרִים, וְחַבְרֵי גַּנָּבִים--כֻּלּוֹ אֹהֵב שֹׁחַד, וְרֹדֵף שַׁלְמֹנִים
Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loves bribes, and follows after rewards;
If we really want to bring redemption, the prophet tells us quite clearly how to do it:
צִיּוֹן, בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה; וְשָׁבֶיהָ, בִּצְדָקָה.
Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.
Until we finally start speaking out, the chillul Hashem will only continue. We will continue to see ever more men in black coats, kippot, beards, hats, etc, led away in handcuffs. And we will all suffer the consequences.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Devarim - From Faith to Reality

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Devarim: From Faith to Reality
We examine the textual challenge of how the story of the Meraglim is described differently in Devarim and in Bamidbar. Using these distinctions, we try and draw lessons both about the tragedy in the desert and the lessons that we can derive from it for our daily lives.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Should There Be an Open Parking Lot in Yerushalayim

Continued from this post

Imagine for a moment Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas sitting around the table at Camp David. After days of strenuous negotiations, they've finally reached an agreement an nearly every critical issue; every issue except one: Kiryat Sefer. The Palestinians insist that there can be no peace deal without the Jewish State abandoning the Chareidi city of 40,000. Netanyahu demurs. It's a pretty big city, and he can't make that decision on his own. So he decides to put it to a vote of the citizens of Israel: Do we keep Kiryat Sefer, or do we give it back to the Palestinians and make peace?
Who wants to guess what the outcome of that vote would be?
Now imagine what would happen if people thought about Yerushalayim the way they do about Kiryat Sefer.
At the International Rabbinic Conference sponsored by Tzohar that I attended yesterday, one of the sessions focused on the issue of p'sak halachah. The fascinating discussion that I participated in focused on the question of how broader perspectives can influence decisions of psak halachah.
During the conversation (which wandered widely), I noted how sometimes we in the religious Zionist community focus on issues that are important to us, but fail to speak out when matters of religious observance arise. As an example, I cited the recent brouhaha surrounding the opening of the parking lot in Yerushalayim that has become the subject of international attention. Disregarding the protests, which are ridiculous, I said, don't the Chareidim have a point? Why are they the only ones against chillul Shabbat? After all, the mealy-mouthed excuse that too many cars parked illegally on the streets may constitute a danger and therefore qualifies as pikuch nefesh seemed to me to be especially weak.
One of the rabbis at the session gave what I thought was an excellent answer that requires careful thought.
The protests over the parking lot are really about a much larger issue: control over the city of Yerushlayim. Who sets the tone and the agenda: The city - and its citizens, or the chareidi community, which continues to grow as a percentage of the city's population? The parking lot was simply a symptom of a larger issue, as these things often are.
How would we feel if Yerushalayim became entirely Shomer Shabbat? At first glance, that would seem to be a great thing. On the one hand, the yishuv I live in, Yad Binyamin, is entirely Shomer Shabbat. Nothing beats the peace and tranquility that brings. Wouldn't it be great if you could literally walk down the center of King George Street on Shabbat morning, because they didn't allow cars to drive in Yerushalayim on Shabbat?
No, it wouldn't be great. Because while it might be peaceful and tranquil, it would also shut out and completely alienate an entire population of people, who happen to be the largest percentage of citizens in Israel.
Secular Jews drive to Yerushalayim to tour the Old City on Shabbat not because they want to be mechalel Shabbat and upset Chareidim. They come to Yerushalayim looking for a connection, for spirituality, for meaning. And they need a place to park. If we allow a group to succeed in alienating them from Yerushalayim entirely, making it a place they feel has no connection to them, while there might not be anyone driving in Yerushalayim on Shabbat, there's also no guarantee that the Holy City would also remain in Jewish hands.
Because that meeting between Bibi and Mahmoud might very well happen. And they won't be talking about Kiryat Sefer. They'll be talking about Yerushalayim.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Religious Zionist Orthodoxy in Israel: Who's Kosher, and Who's Treif?

Recently, Michlelet Lifschitz, a well-known teachers' college in Israel appointed Dr. Samuel Glick as its new head and president, scheduled to begin his new position in September. (Full disclosure: I work for the Orot College of Education, which competes directly with Michlelet Lifschitz. So, sadly, I might very well gain significantly from this story.) Everyone was happy. Dr. Glick was a noted expert in education, and had been a member of the Lifschitz board of directors for many years.
Until last week.
Last week, as Ma'ariv reported,
the institution's board went back on its decision to appoint Prof. Shmuel Glick as the school's new head, after rabbis affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox stream that supports religious Zionism, threatened to stop sending their students to the college if the appointment goes through. According to the rabbis, Glick had in the past taught at the Schechter Institute for Jewish studies, which is affiliated with the Masorti (conservative) Movement in Israel. Sources involved in the affair told Ynet at the time that the rabbis' decision to come out against Glick was in fact motivated by long-standing power struggles at the college.
Why do the rabbis have so much power? Because they essentially decide where their students attend college "on the side" while they're studying in yeshiva. Should the rabbis choose to pull their students out of Lifschitz, they would essentially destroy the school. This essentially gives them a great deal of control over the nature of the school.
So, it's not really clear whether these rabbis are actually upset about the fact that Dr. Glick taught in a conservative environment. It probably is a power play, with Dr. Glick caught in the middle. But the power play is really about who controls the religious-Zionist community here in Israel - a very high-stakes game.
The sides in this game of chicken (in which Dr. Glick has been a victim) are, on one side, the "Chardal" rabbis and the yeshivot they represent. Chardal is a Hebrew acronym (actually, the Hebrew word chardal - חרדל - means "mustard") - חרד"ל - which stands for חרדי דתי לאומי - Chareidi Religious Zionist - who on the one hand support the State of Israel and army service, but favor a more right-wing religious stance. On the other side of the debate stand the more liberal דתי לאומי community, who favor a more open and innovative approach to many issues.
These debates have only just begun to play out in the public square, including in the appointment of Dr. Glick. Last week at a widely attended public lecture, Rav Yehoshua Shapira, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva in Ramat Gan called liberal Orthodox groups such as Kolech, B'nei Akiva and certain Religious Zionist leaders, "Neo-reformists." For an English version of this same issue, see here.
This week another Rav said that he was wrong. Rav Dr. Eliyahu Zini, the head of the Hesder yeshiva in Haifa said that Rav Shapira didn't go far enough. "We're not talking about neo-reformists, but complete reformers."
It's pretty bad out there, with rabbis attacking rabbis, with most people caught squarely in the middle. Many modern-Orthodox Jews stand squarely with the liberal rabbis, who are fighting to try and find a way to integrate Orthodoxy into modern life. They even held a protest last night outside Rav Shapira's yeshiva. But many find themselves uncomfortable with some of the more liberal pronouncements of the left-wing rabbis. Two years ago, Rav Yuval Sherlo, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah issued a ruling on the internet stating that single women could halachically conceive through the use of In-vitro Fertilization - causing a mini-ruckus that still leaves many uncomfortable. This month he said that blind men could "feel" their dates, to know if they wanted to marry them. (Sounds somewhat harmless, but it's pretty controversial. And perhaps even more importantly, why is Yediot Achronot devoting an article to this?)
Who will win? It's very difficult to know. There are a lot of normal, modern Orthodox people in Israel who recoil at the notion of Chareidi-type rabbis imposing their will on the community. On the other hand, Israel is a very traditional place - much more so than America, and liberalism is not popular at all with many religiously-committed Zionist Jews. So, at this point, it's impossible to tell.
What is clear -at least to me, is that while this fight is clearly "for the sake of heaven", with each side standing strongly for its beliefs and fighting for its religious viewpoint, for now, all of us seem to be losing.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

An NFL Kiddush Hashem

My friend Nethaniel Warshay shared this on Facebook. It's a real kiddush Hashem. I especially appreciated his comment at the end that given the chance to do it all over again, he would still have played in the NFL. And I'm pretty sure that I've never seen anyone davening with a Super Bowl ring. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Audio Shiur: Matot-Masei - Parshat Matot-Masei: Individual Wants vs. Communal Needs

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Matot-Masei: Individual Wants vs. Communal Needs
The requests of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to remain on the East Bank of the Jordan River elicits a powerful and negative reaction from Moshe. We discuss the problems related to their request, which leads us into communal and personal issues, shtiebelization, Israel politics, and even the challenge of Aliyah.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Parenting Conundrum

On Shabbat morning, my son came to me with a request. It seems that a group of his friends decided to get together and play poker on Shabbat, and they were going to play for chips. Potato Chips. Could he play?
I found myself in a very sticky situation. On one hand, it's potato chips. The kids are playing a game together. And more importantly, I already say "no" to a whole host of things. For exapmle, we don't play ball on Shabbat. His friends often do. So I truly felt that I didn't want to give him another "no."
On the other hand, I really did not approve. I know that the game itself is harmless, but the gambling bothers my. Why should kids need to gamble - even potato chips - to have fun on a Shabbat afternoon? Can't they find something better to do than poker?
In the end, I tried to play it both ways, which I think was the proper way to go. First, I explained to him the halachic issues with regular gambling. In a nutshell it goes like this:
The Gemara says that when a person bets, he doesn't really think he's going to lose. Actually, he rather hopes he's going to win, because if he knew that he'd lose for sure he'd never have bet. So the winning of a bet is called "avak gezel" - the dust of theft. It's not outright theft, but it's certainly not honestly gained winnings.
Then I said, "While I know that you'll only be playing for potato chips, I don't think that the activity of gambling is a healthy and productive activity. It's not a good habit to get into. But I'm not going to tell you that you can't. I'm only going to say that I don't want you to. It's up to you to decide what to do."
What do you think happened?

Monday, July 13, 2009

An Ethical Quandary at the Drugstore

Rena and I were at a mall near Rechovot and we stopped in at the grocery store to buy some vitamins for the kids. As an aside, there are about a zillion brands of kosher vitamins for sale in Israel, in every possible form and size. It's truly amazing. In any case, I don't like to buy new vitamins until we've run out, but our local store stopped carrying our brand, so she walked in to check. When she got to the shelf she took one look at the product which was selling for 47 shekel and said, "Wow. It's way cheaper than where we buy it." (It was at the same chain.) Then we looked at the other boxes of the same product. 67 shekel - the normal price. Which brought us to our quandary.
Is it right to purchase a product when you know definitively that it was mis-tagged? We put it down, picked it up, and then put it down again. Then I had a bright idea: "Maybe the store has a policy that it only charges the price as marked?" Then, the price of the item is whatever the price tag says it is, and not what the store marks the price as?
So I brought the item to the checkout counter. The lady scanned it and immediately noticed the difference in prices. Without either of us saying a word to each other, she marked it down to 47 shekel. I paid and we left the store.
Which brings me to my question: Should I have pointed out the difference in price and paid the extra amount (or not bought the item)? Did I have to do so, or would that just have been the nice thing to do? I'm really not sure about this one.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Controversy over the IDF Chief Rabbi: Should Girls Serve in the IDF

Last week, IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Avihai Ronsky raised an apparent ruckus in secular Israeli society when he said that "women should not have to serve in the military." This had secular lawmakers, pundits, journalists and the like in a tizzy for his apparently insensitive remarks. "How dare the head of the IDF - who's the head of the entire army, both men and women, express a sentiment that up to half of the army shouldn't really be serving!"
(1) Was Rav Ronsky right that women shouldn't serve in the army? (2) And should he have the right to express that opinion while serving as the head of the IDF?
(1) Of course and (2) Yes.
In the Religious Zionist world, it's very much taken for granted that serving in the IDF constitutes a breach of both tzniut, and the appropriate place for women in society. In general when you take a bunch of young people and put them in close quarters, you'll find that it's almost impossible for them to maintain any semblance of religious standards of modesty. (See Exhibit A: The American College Campus.) That's especially true in the IDF. Moreover, Judaism has always attributed different roles for men and women - and fighting in an army does not constitute a fulfillment of a role that Judaism attributes to its young ladies. This is not me talking - it's pretty much every rabbinic authority in our community, who universally discourages religious girls from serving. (The desire on the part of women to serve in the IDF is not insignificant and requires special attention - but I'll deal with that in another post.)
Should Rav Ronsky have expressed his opinion? I think so, for two reasons: first and foremost, as a rav he's obligated to tell the truth; to say it the way that he sees it. The fact that he's a member of the IDF does not negate the fact that he's first and foremost a Jew, and a rav with an allegiance to Torah and halachah. Moreover, he sees himself as obligated to infuse the army with classical Jewish values, and sometimes to do that you have to express uncomfortable truths.
But there's an important subtext to this entire brouhaha. Rav Ronsky has been at the forefront of returning a sense of Jewish identity and religious values to what has long been a very secular army. His efforts were particularly apparent in the recent Gaza war, where army rabbis were embedded in combat units, encouraging and supporting soldiers in the field. They gave them a strong sense of mission and purpose, and the results were clear and apparent.
Secular Israeli society sees Rav Ronsky and his successes. They also see a rising number of committed, passionate religious soldiers and especially officers, coinciding with a dwindling number of secular soldiers, many of whom are now avoiding service. (Combine that with what will soon be an entire Nachal Chareidi Brigade, and they're really worried.)
This is why they look for any and every opportunity to attack Rav Ronsky. They're afraid not only of what he's done, but how far he'll go. The army is a fundamental cultural value in Israel. It colors everything that happens in Israeli society. If the army grows more religious, so will the broader society.
And while that might make secular members of the Knesset worried, it makes me - and many people like me quite happy.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Real Life Israel

Reading the Jerusalem Post, I noticed two ads on the right side of the text. The bottom one, of course, is for "Real Life Israel", a program aimed at getting young people to consider making aliyah. The top on is for...exploding vans?
That's right - terrorism. Actually, it's for United Hatzalah Volunteers, and nothing gets people to click and donate like images of exploding cars, ost
ensibly the work of terrorists.

Here's a look
at the entire ad...

How's that for "Real World Israel?"

Competition in Education Part 1: The New Program at Hesder Yeshivot

Last month, the newspapers in Israel took note of a seemingly minor decision made by the heads of the Hesder yeshivot in Israel, to open a new four-year program that will now be available to Hesder students. Seems reasonable, and not really that big a deal. But the decision reflects a troubling trend in Jewish education that does not bode well for our children.
Regular soldiers serve three years mandatory service in the IDF. Hesder is the term for a type of yeshiva that allows Israeli men to combine Torah study with their military service. Hesder typically lasts five years, comprised to two years of Torah study, followed by two years of army service and then another year of learning. Mechinah (or mechinot) are preparatory schools, but most often refer to one year academies that many students attend to emotionally and spiritually prepare themselves for army service. Following the year in mechinah, men serve a regular army stint of three years.

While I would like to believe that Hesder yeshivot have decided to offer a shorter program to serve, as Rav Druckman said, the "many young men who do not have what it takes to be scholars, but who still want a very religious framework," the cynic in me sees things quite differently. Oh yes, in the Hebrew press (see page six on that link if you want to read the article) things sound just a little different.
מסלול זה נותן מענה לצורך שהיה קיים בנוף של גיוס בני ישיבות. בעקבות פתיחתו, אוכלוסייה שלמה של תלמידים שנרתעו בעבר מאורך המסלול או מתקופת הלימוד המשמעותית בישיבה, יוכלו להשתלב במסלול הסדר חדש שמותאם לצרכיהם", אומר מנכ"ל איגוד ישיבות ההסדר, איתן עוזרי
"This track answers a need that existed in the landscape of the draft of Yeshiva students; an entire population of students who were afraid in the past of the length of the program and the intensive period of study in the Yeshiva. Now they will be able to participate in a Hesder track that's appropriate to their needs," said the head of the Organization of Hesder Yeshivot, Eitan Ozeri.

What could be bad about more students learning in yeshivot? Sounds like a great thing, right? Let's read on.
עוד התברר בדיון כי בנוסף לכ 50- הישיבות החברות באיגוד, ממתינות שתי ישיבות הסדר נוספות לאישורו של משרד הביטחון, ועוד כ 10- ישיבות חדשות לאישורו של האיגוד. באיגוד אומרים כי ריבוי הישיבות החדשות שנפתחות מצביע על מגמה של הצטרפות אוכלוסיות חדשות לישיבות ההסדר, בעיקר בוגרי תיכונים דתיים. "עבור אותם מצטרפים חדשים שבעבר לא פנו לישיבות, מתאים גם המסלול החדש, בו שנות הלימוד בישיבה קצרות יותר".
It was also revealed during the discussion that in addition to the almost fifty yeshivot Hesder in the Iggud, two other yeshivot are waiting for approval of the Defense Department, and ten more [are waiting] for the approval of the Iggud. In the Iggud they say that the large number of new yeshivot opening indicates a trend of entire new populations joining the Hesder yeshivot - mainly graduates of religious yeshivot. "For these new students who in the past did not turn to the yeshivot this new track is appropriate - in which the number of years in the yeshiva are less."
So, to read between the lines, there are now fifty - and there will soon be sixty Hesder yeshivot dotting the landscape of Israel, in almost every city and town you can imagine. On one hand, it's great. But from a different perspective, it's not so great.
If you're graduating yeshiva high school and deciding what to do next, you would generally decide whether you wanted to spend three years in the army, four years in mechina + army, or five years in Hesder. It would seem to make sense that the more serious you are about your spirituality and your learning, the longer you'd be willing to commit towards Torah study. (Let's also not forget that for truly serious budding scholars, there's a program called Hesder Mercaz, where young men who study for up to ten years then serve about six months in the army.) So we're not dealing with the normal "future Roshei Yeshiva" of the world. Just frum, devoted high school graduates.
If you used to be the kind of student who really didn't think that Hesder was for you - you either didn't want to put in five years or couldn't learn for three full years - you went to a mechinah. But now you have another option. While you're still spending the full four years, now you don't have to do a full army stint, as you can spend two of those years learning. Don't get me wrong, but the option of trading a full year of army service for yeshiva seems enticing indeed.
And it's not just me saying it. The Jerusalem Post article says that,
Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld, head of the Shadmot Mechola Yeshiva in the Jordan Valley, said he was still debating whether to offer the four-year option. "There is the danger that guys with intellectual potential will choose an easier path. That would be a shame," he said. Rosenfeld said that over the years, as the number of hesder students has grown, there has been a larger proportion unable to sit and study for long periods. "There are a lot of good guys who are God-fearing and want to be in a religious environment, but who find the curriculum too demanding," he said."These guys will spend a little less time in the study hall and a little more time in the army." However, sources close to the Pre-military Yeshiva Academies, which combine a one-year preparatory course of Torah studies - that is sometimes expanded to two years - with a full three years of military service, voiced concern that the new four-year program might attract students who would otherwise have gone to the Pre-military academies. One source close to the academies said in response, "This new option will breed mediocrity. The guys won't learn properly and they also won't do full army service properly. I don't see the justification for shortening a religious guy's army service if he is not learning Torah seriously."
And there's the rub. How will this new influx of students affect the current atmosphere in the Beit Midrash of the normative Hesder yeshivot? Will the traditional Hesder student continue to spend five years in the yeshiva, when his classmates are finishing after four? After all, let's not forget that these young men put their lives on hold for yeshiva and army. They want to get married, get degrees, and get on with their lives? In five years and ten years, what percentage of the Hesder students will be studying the full five years?
This is just a single example of the watering down of education due to competition. More yeshivot open, causing each to clamor for students. New programs (mechinot) prove a threat to the old way of doing things. Ultimately, what suffers in the long run could very well be the quality of education across the board.
And then no one wins. Certainly not the Jewish people.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Pinchas: Were Tzlafchad's Daughters Feminists?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Pinchas - Were Tzlafchad's Daughters Feminists?
Through a careful reading of both the text, commentaries and midrashim on the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad, we'll discuss some of the challenges that they had to overcome and the way that they affected the Jewish people, even today.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Audio Shiur: Parshat Balak - the Sexual Ethic of the Jewish People

First of all, I'm sorry about this late posting. Somehow it didn't upload properly to the YU site last week.

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Balak - The Sexual Ethic of the Jewish People
Balak is a strange parshah with even stranger details. But underneath the strange and unusual details lies a theme that has marked the strength of the Jewish people for all time: our sexual propriety and sense of sexual modesty.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Lasting Legacy

This week I officiated at the wedding of Josh Schopf, an old classmate from grade school. It was great to participate in his wedding, and I enjoyed being a part of their simcha. During the dinner, his mother, Paula Schopf and I were talking, and she said something that stuck in my mind. She said, "You know, no matter what you do in your profession, no matter how great your accomplishments, the bottom line is that your greatest legacy is your children."
The conversation was about her, so I didn't tell her what I was thinking, but what crossed my mind is, "And that's why I now live in Israel." Twice this week I've seen people from the States, both of whom asked me whether I miss the rabbinate. (I won't answer the question now - that's an entirely different post.) But it was very hard - gut-wrenchingly hard - to leave our shul and congregational life. It was, without a doubt, the hardest decision we ever made, because while we loved leading the membership of the shul and playing a role in our community, we knew that no matter how good Detroit or the rabbinate was for us, Israel would be better for our children.
And we were right on so many different levels. The schools are an order of magnitude higher than comparable schools in the States (at least for us). Life has much greater meaning. Children are freer, and yet given more responsibility. My children already have a sense of devotion to Am Yisrael that it would have been difficult, if not impossible to convey to them in the States.
I thought of this notion of legacy in light of a rather tragic section in Parshat Pinchas. After God instructs Moshe to climb Mount Avarim and gaze upon the Land of Israel before his death, Moshe asks God to appoint a new leader for the Jewish people. Rashi wonders: why does he wait this long? After all, he knew that he was going to die long before, so why does he only ask God to appoint a new leader at this point.
Rashi's answer always makes me a little sad:
כיון ששמע משה שאמר לו המקום תן נחלת צלפחד לבנותיו אמר הגיע שעה שאתבע צרכי שיירשו בני את גדולתי. אמר לו הקב"ה לא כך עלתה במחשבה לפני, כדאי הוא יהושע ליטול שכר שמושו שלא מש מתוך האהל
When Moshe heard God's instructions regarding Tzlafchad's inheritance that went to his daughters he said, "The time has arrived for me to make my own request - that my sons should inherit my greatness. Said God, "That did not enter into consideration before Me. Yehoshua is worthy to receive the reward for his service, for he did not stray from within your tent."
After everything Moshe had done for God and the Jewish people; after all his hard work and dedication; after giving up his nice life in Midyan to save the Jewish nation, separating from his wife, suffering through the forty years in the desert - after everything, all he wants is one thing. הגיע שעה שאתבע צרכי - "the time has come for me to claim my needs." For all that he had done: rescuing a nation, transmitting the Torah to them, remaking world history single-handedly; none of that was enough. He wanted his legacy to be his children. And that he could not have.

I listen regularly to a podcast called "This American Life." A recent episode called "Origin Stories" contained a story about advertising executive Julian Koenig, who made up famous ad campaigns like the "Think Small" campaign for the VW Beetle. Apparently, a former colleague claimed credit for much of his work, and Julian Koenig has spent a ton of time trying to retake credit for his work. But why, his daughter asked him, did he care that much about who got credit? After all, no one really knows about this stuff or cares, and anyone who does care already knows the truth? His daughter Sarah, who narrates the story says,
"He's eighty eight years old now, so his legacy is understandably on his mind. And even though he did famous campaigns: for all sorts of good causes: gun control, nuclear proliferation, Robert Kennedy's senatorial and presidential campaign, my father's not really satisfied with his work."
Said Julian:
Advertising is built on puffery, and on deception, and I don't think that anyone can go proudly into the next world with a career built on deception, no matter how well they do."
On one hand, it's impressive to see a person capable of looking back at his life's work with honesty and candor. But from another perspective, all I can think is: How sad. How many people will look back at a life of work spent sitting at a desk in front of a computer at an office, knowing that they helped corporations grow and prosper, or computers talk to one another, but spent less time on our true legacies - the values and principles they passed to their children; the energy they spent on their people, or their relationship with God?