Friday, December 31, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Va'era - Kvetching

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Va'era - Kvetching
To understand the beginning of Parshat Vaera, we must first examine the end of Shemot. Why does Moshe complain? How can he complain to God? Didn't he know that this would happen? His complaints (and the explanation of them by the commentators) tell us a great deal about Moshe, and also about ourselves.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An Oldie But...

One Shabbat morning, the venerable old Rav climbed up the bimah to deliver his weekly drashah. Yet, instead of starting the speech, the rabbi just stood there.
Five minutes passed. Then ten.
Finally, the gabbai went up the rabbi to find out what was happening.
"Rebbe," he said. "Why aren't you speaking? Is everything all right?"
"I can't speak," the poor rabbi whispered to his trusted gabbai. "I forgot my teeth at home, and I can't speak without them. Can you please run home and fetch them for me?"
"Of course," the gabbai told him. He ran to the rabbi's house, found the dentures, rushed back to the shul, and the rabbi began to speak.
And speak. And speak and speak. In fact, he wouldn't stop. Twenty minutes, then thirty, then forty five. Finally, the gabbai again approached the rabbi.
"Rebbe, what's going on? Before you couldn't speak, and now you won't stop!"
"I can't. You brought me the wrong teeth. Instead of bringing me my dentures, you brought my wife's."

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 5 - Rav Teichtal's New World (to come) Order

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 5 - Rav Teichtal's New World (to come) Order
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

All our lives, we've been waiting for Moshiach. Waiting seems to be part of our religious and national persona. Yet, it's so impassive. If we're waiting, then there's really nothing that we can do. Rav Teichtal is clearly tired of waiting. In explaining the importance of building the Land of Israel, he subtly but fundamentally shifts the way we view the messianic process. From Dr. Seuss to Rambam to EHS, we examine Rav Teichtal's New World (to come) order.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Judaism or Democracy: What Would You Choose?

In the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, signed on the eve of Israel's War of Independence, the founders of the State tiptoed around a fundamental paradox. Their attempt to evade this glaring issue, probably because they could see no ready solution to the problem, has been the root of many, if not most of the major debates in Israel and across the Jewish world.
It's worthwhile to spend time studying the document in its entirety, but I'll focus on two small sections for now.
השואה שנתחוללה על עם ישראל בזמן האחרון, בה הוכרעו לטבח מיליונים יהודים באירופה, הוכיחה מחדש בעליל את ההכרח בפתרון בעיית העם היהודי מחוסר המולדת והעצמאות על-ידי חידוש המדינה היהודית בארץ-ישראל, אשר תפתח לרווחה את שערי המולדת לכל יהודי ותעניק לעם היהודי מעמד של אומה שוות-זכויות בתוך משפחת העמים.
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people - the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe - was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.
Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.
I need to make a small but critical point here: there's a problem with the translation in the text. I didn't translate here. The Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did. Notice the section that I've highlighted in bold and red: "the problem of its homelessness", which is a paraphrasing of the words, בעיית העם היהודי. While technically correct, it's missing the critical nuance of the language that the framers clearly intended. When we translate the words בעיית העם היהודי literally, we find that this phrase means "the problem of the Jewish nation." This is clearly a reference to the "Jewish Problem" articulated by Nazi Germany. See also here. As we all well know, the Nazis came up with a rather ingenious solution to the problem. I see this minor translation (or the lack of nuance) as critical, because it highlights how strong a role the Holocaust played in the creation of the State of Israel, not only in the minds of the members of the international community, but also in the minds of the founders of the Jewish State.
With this is mind, we can begin to get a sense of the urgency of creating a Jewish State. Jews were slaughtered by the millions, with nowhere to run for refuge. The founders of the State declared openly that this would never happen again. Israel would stand ready to accept any Jew running from persecution. It would be a haven for Jews fleeing from the rampages of antisemitism. It would do so, by definition, by creating itself as a Jewish State: by the Jews, and for the Jews.
But then, later on in the document, the framers make another important statement:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
In other words, Israel would be a democracy, granting full rights to all of its citizens. Sounds great. But there's only problem. How do you ensure that the State remains Jewish if it truly adheres to the principles of democracy fully? If you grant "complete equality" to all citizens, what do you do if a minority grows to the point that it threatens to overtake the Jewish minority?
Let's leave the territories of out the equation. What do you do when you see secular Israelis fleeing the country, while the Israeli Arab population explodes? Would the State of Israel still be a Jewish State if its Arab majority voted for an Arab Prime Minister? How then do you guarantee that the State remains both Jewish, and a democracy?
In a word, you can't.
Until now, we've been avoiding this internal contradiction. We haven't had to confront the truth: a Jewish State and true democratic values might not be completely compatible. Something has to give.
So you've got to choose. Which are you willing to sacrifice? Are you willing to risk Israel's status as a Jewish State for the sake of the principles of democracy, equality and fairness, hallowed and sacred and important values? Or, will you sacrifice that equality for all to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish country?
That's the choice. Which would you choose?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot - Reluctant Leadership

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot - Reluctant Leadership
Moshe's initial reluctance to take a lead role in the salvation of the Jews makes us wonder: Why don't we want to get involved? Should we seek out leadership roles when relevant, or avoid them as Moshe seems to do?

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 4 - The Cause

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 4: The Cause
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

Finding himself alone with no students and unable to study, Rav Teichtal turns to the most difficult of all questions: Why did God allow the Holocaust to happen? Contrary to our modern reluctance to give reasons for calamity, Rav Teichtal exhibits no such reluctance, and declares that the underlying reason for the Holocaust is... (well, for that you're going to have to listen to the shiur). We begin the second introduction which starts on page 33 of the Hebrew printing of EHS

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Another Shemot Thought: The World's First Speech Therapist

Standing at the burning bush, commanded by God to return to Egypt and redeem the Jewish people, Moshe flatly refuses. "I'm not the guy. Find someone else."
Actually, my theoretical quote is inaccurate. According to many commentators, Moshe probably said something like, "I'm n-n-n-n-n-not the guy. S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-send s-s-s-s-s-s-s-omebody else." No, I'm not mocking Moshe. Chazal explain that Moshe was a stutterer.
When told to go lead the nation Moshe tells God, (Shemot 4:10)
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְקֹוָק בִּי אֲדֹנָי לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי:
And Moses said unto the LORD: 'Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.'
What does this unusual phrase, כבד פה - "of heavy mouth" mean? Rashi writes,
בכבידות אני מדבר, ובלשון לעז בלב"א [גמגמן]
"I speak with heaviness. In old French the word is "balba" - a stutterer
(Just as an aside, Rashbam completely rejects this Midrashic interpretation, insisting that Moshe did not in fact suffer from a physical disability, but rather lacked the power of verbal eloquence, especially in the Egyptian dialect. Rashbam wonders: "Is it possible that a prophet who spoke to God face-to-face and received the Torah from [God's] hands stuttered in his speech?")
In fact, the issue of Moshe's speech limitations comes up again and again in Moshe's communications with God. In addition to his complaint here, he raises the issue of being an ערל שפתיים - "of uncircumcised lips" twice after he had already returned to Egypt! (see 6:12 and 6:30). It's clearly an issue that continued to concern him.
Yet, back at the bush, God rejects Moshe's concern, telling him:
מִי שָׂם פֶּה לָאָדָם, אוֹ מִי-יָשׂוּם אִלֵּם, אוֹ חֵרֵשׁ אוֹ פִקֵּחַ אוֹ עִוֵּר--הֲלֹא אָנֹכִי, ה'. וְעַתָּה, לֵךְ; וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִם-פִּיךָ, וְהוֹרֵיתִיךָ אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר
'Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? is it not I the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt speak.'
How did God's answer address Moshe's issue? How would teaching Moshe what to say alleviate his concern over a physical speech impediment? Ibn Ezra explains:
וזהו טעם "אנכי אהיה עם פיך והוריתיך" - אמר שיורנו אשר ידבר מלות, שאין שם מאותיות הכבדות על פיו
And this is the meaning of "And I will be with your mouth and I will instruct you" (verse 12) - that [God] would instruct him which words to speak, which did not have the letters that weighed upon his mouth
In other words, God promised to instruct him in the most effective way to speak in order to avoid the crippling effects of his speech impairment. While God might not have given Moshe therapy to improve his speech (and I hear it's doubtful whether there even is any effective therapy for stuttering), in giving Moshe strategies to improve his verbal communication, God was clearly acting as the world's first recorded speech therapist.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Shemot Parshah Riddle

Back at YIOP, I used to ask a parshah riddle before the Torah reading each Shabbat. This week's parshah motivated one of my favorites (or at least one that I remember). ]
The riddle is: Where is there an allusion to the Incredibles in this week's Parshah?

Answer: In Bat Par'oh. (Batya, Par'oh's daughter)
I'll explain. The Torah teaches us that as baby Moshe floated down the Nile, his little ark passed the party of Par'oh's daughter as she bathed in the river. Seeing the tiny floating lifeboat, she felt a pang of compassion and,
וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת-אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ
and sent her handmaid to fetch it
Yet, the word אמתה, which we translated as "her servant" is also the same word in Hebrew that means "forearm.". For this reason, the Midrash explains that an "incredible" event took place here.
ותשלח את אמתה - שנמשכה ידה ונתמתחה
"And she sent forth her arm" - that her arm stretched out and extended itself
Seeing the baby floating far away, she extended her arm towards him, and miraculously it kept extending and extending until it reached the girl.
I heard a nice thought about this miraculous Midrash today from Rav Gutel, the president of Orot. I Batya (the daughter of Par'oh) really was standing far away, why did she bother extending her arm? Did she really think that was indeed Elastigirl, capable of catching a ark floating far away?
Yet, the rabbis wished to convey to us the critical message that even when a task seems impossible, we still must make an effort. We must at least extend our arms, expressing a desire to make a difference. In truth, we might not be realistically able to expect a miracle, and most often it won't happen. But we must still make the effort, because we can never know when the Divine assistance may come to extend our reach and help us catch the next savior of the Jewish people.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Selling Land to Arabs: A Pre-Post

About two weeks ago, a group of rabbis from across Israel, prompted by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, publicized a ban on anyone selling or renting land to Arabs.
The reaction was swift and severe. Commentators from the Prime Minister of Israel on down to a group of rabbis in the United States rushed to condemn the statement.
Loyal readers of this blog must surely have been wondering: "Where's your post?" After all, isn't this a topic that speaks directly to the essence of this blog: Torah, Israel, Zionism, etc? In truth, yes, it is.
And yet I hesitated, not because I don't have what to write. I do. Problem is, I have too much to write. It's not a blog post - it's a mini-essay.
The issue raises a number of critical questions including:
1. Is there halachic basis for Rav Eliyahu's call?
1b. If his claim is halachically valid, does that mean that halachah is in some sense racist?
2. Even if Rav Eliyahu was right, should he have publicized his opinion as he did?
3. What is the nature of a Jewish State that claims to give full rights to its Arab citizens?
4. If the Jewish State does give such rights to its minority citizens, how does it ensure that it in fact remains a Jewish State?
5. What do we do about the little-discussed fact that many Jewish towns and neighborhoods are slowly becoming Arab enclaves? (While we fight over the settlements, we may very well be losing our cities.)

All of these are, to my mind, good and important questions. And yet, I haven't written because (a) I haven't had the time to write an article of that length and (b) I'm not sure blog readers really want to slog through a long, serious article.
In any case, even thinking about these questions is to my mind, important - even without my personal spin on the issue.
I recently gave a shiur at Orot (where I teach a weekly class on Hilchot Shabbat) on this very topic, and prepared a source book that deals with many of the questions I raise here.
For interested parties, you can access the source book here. (Note to all - the sources are entirely in Hebrew. If I had time to translate them, I'd be halfway towards writing the real post.)
In the meantime, if these types of sources are your cup of tea, have at them!

Watch This Video. (And Then Ask, How Can I help?)

Sharon, who works with me here in Orot sent me this video, which I hadn't seen before. It's a very moving and powerful testament to the need for volunteerism, to defend Israel, and the fact that one person really can make a difference. After watching the video, I called offering to help by giving shiurim to the volunteers on the subject of Zionism and Judaism. (I think I know something about the topic.) No, I don't have time, but if things work out, you've got to make time.
After watching the video, ask yourself: what can you do for them?
Their website is here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Amazon Kindle in Israel: Nice, but Not Ready for Prime Time

As I wrote here, a while back we ordered the Amazon Kindle in order to easily access English reading material for our children. The Kindle itself is a wonderful device: I'm happy that it's only a book reader, without a color touchscreen or a web browser. (Actually, it does have a browser that almost immediately crashed the device. I wonder why they even included it.) The kids immediately took to the Kindle, reading books at their level. My daughter likes to enlarge the font until there's about three words on a page, but it works for her. She's reading Henry Huggins wonderfully. Sounds great, right? Not really.
1. The device started crashing. A lot. While Amazon promised a month of use, we were regularly getting far less than a week. On more than one occasion, we brought the device for reading in the car on a long drive, and it simply wouldn't start. Plugging it into the computer solved the problem, but it was annoying nonetheless. Rena finally realized that Amazon only promised a month of battery life with the wifi off (and in our bedroom, where we normally keep the Kindle, the wifi signal is quite weak). So we shut off the wifi, upgraded the software, and are now hoping for the best. So far so good.
2. Another minor pet peeve. The device is registered to my email account. Yet, over Chanukah Rena received a gift book to her email address. I got one to a different email address - my hotmail address that I almost never check. Simply put, different people have multiple email addresses, but there was no way for us to (a) know that we'd gotten the gift to another email address and then (b) for Rena to link the eBook to my account, as she herself had a separate Amazon account. Sounds confusing? You're right. She had to return the book, then send my account the book as a gift, and only then buy the book again on the "right" account. That's a lot of work, and needlessly confusing.
More concerning though, is the fact that many of the more popular books are not yet available in Israel. On the face of things, that's just annoying. But from my perspective, it's also dishonest. I'll explain.
Simcha and Bezalel have been pining for a very popular book called "The Lost Hero" by Rick Riordan, so we put it on their wish list. Their aunt, a very generous and loving woman, bought them the eBook, to their great excitement. But when I clicked on the button:

 I found myself looking at this message:

Here's my problem: Amazon knows that we live in Israel. Our Kindle was shipped here, and is registered here. Yet, when our relative bought the book for my kids, instead of getting a message from Amazon that the book is not available where we live, they happily sold it to her. Now we have to exchange the book for a gift card. Another problem: most of the books my kids want are also not available in Israel. What are we supposed to do with gift cards if my kids can't get any of the books that they want. It seems to me that if I can't get a book on my Kindle, Amazon should not allow me to add it to my wish list, or at the very least tell us before someone buys it that they won't sell it to me.
To me, it would be like my buying a physical gift on Amazon for someone to be shipped to, say, Mineappolis, not knowing that due to the severe weather there, Amazon no longer shipped packages there. But instead of telling me this, they went ahead and sent my recipient a gift card. Is it stealing? No. But it's also, to my mind, really, really slimy.

Bottom line: We really like the Kindle. If Amazon worked out the kinks and made every book available here in Israel, it would be amazing. If Amazon was at least more honest and up-front to gift-givers about which books they should or should not buy, I'd at least be a little less upset.

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 3 - The Tangible Power of the Land

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 3: The Tangible Power of the Land
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

As Rav Teichtal concludes his first introduction to the book, we get a sense of the tangible, very real power that he attributed to the Land to save him in his darkest hour. While we know the Land speaks to each of us, we can only yearn for the palpable, very real connection he himself felt. At the end of the shiur we discuss a "Kol Korei" issued by rabbis in Israel prohibiting the sale or rental of land in Israel to Arabs.

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Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayechi - Buy Jewish Real Estate

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayechi - Buy Jewish Real Estate
Before his death, Ya’akov insists that his sons bury him not in Egypt, but in the Holy Land. In addition to examining the difference reasons for this insistence, we analyze the difference in language between how he speaks to Yosef and all the sons together. We also study an incredible comment of the Ramban, describing a war that history seems to have forgotten.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

I Was Right. And Wrong.

In this post about the American Jewish World Service, I wondered what was in fact Jewish about the AJWS if anything, and whether the organization's good works give people an ability to express their Judaism without any danger of meeting any Jewish content. It seems that I was on to something. A recent NY Times article about the AJWS video on YouTube (which has garnered enough hits to generate a news story), quoted several of the celebrities who participated in the video.
“I am a secular type,” Ms. Silverman said in an e-mail this week. The “J” in American Jewish World Service may stand for Jewish, she wrote, but “it’s just because it’s run by Jews (like the media and the banks).
“But it’s for everyone and anyone in need, and they do truly just work.”
Mr. Apatow, one of the all-powerful media figures Ms. Silverman had in mind, e-mailed a similar comment about his Judaism.
“I am the kind of Jewish person who feels very Jewish but does not practice at all,” he said. “I did not take part in this project because Jewish people run this charity. I got involved because they do very important work that is changing many people’s lives in a positive way."
In essence, that's what passes as Judaism for probably most of America's Jewry - and these are the Jews who both "feel" Jewish and actually consider themselves Jewish as well. Either you like the "chesed" or you just like that Jews are doing good work. Nothing wrong with either, but not very Jewish itself.
At the same time, I was wrong about the AJWS itself.
Ms. Messinger says that Mr. Apatow’s humor has proven a valuable way to reach many who, like Mr. Apatow, have no interest in religious Judaism. But she says that the American Jewish World Service is committed to religious learning, and that the students it takes around the world on service trips are taught the Jewish roots of their work. For example, the trip leader might ask students to consider the biblical context of a jubilee year, when slaves were to be freed and debts forgiven.
“The Torah commentary is, if you don’t forgive debts every 50 years, you will end up with permanent classes of people, those who have, and those who don’t,” Ms. Messinger says. “Guess what? That’s what we have.”
I guess the AJWS has found a great combination: woo the donors and contributors with "easy" Judaism. Give to our good works, feel Jewish, enjoy some self-deprecating humor, and we'll see you in shul next Kol Nidrei. But at least it understands the need to convey some authentic Jewish learning in some of its programming, which gives me hope that the next generation of donors might want more than a Judd Apatow video at the gala fund raising dinner.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Nation of Schnorrers

Each year on Chanukah, Orot (where I work) takes the entire administrative staff on a tiyyul. (It's a rather nice perk - a great day, and a fascinating tiyyul. We always hire a rather popular tour guide named Elyada bar Shaul, who sadly, speaks almost no English, and speaks Hebrew so fast that an American wouldn't follow. But he's truly a terrific tour guide. But I digress. You can see a tour of his following the footsteps of Rav Aryeh Levine here.) The tour, which followed some of the military activities of the Eshel and Lechi during the British Mandate immediately preceding the creation of the Jewish State, began at Kikar Safra and wound its way through some of the neighboring areas.
Towards the end of the tour, we wound our way through the back edge of Me'ah She'arim. I was lagging behind at that point, and was speaking with someone when I caught up to the group. As we passed through the street, I noticed an elderly Chareidi man, with a long, dirty black coat, white beard and his hand out, collecting money.
When the group passed him without making a donation, he turned to us and yelled angrily (in Hebrew), "Not one of you! Not one of you gave anything!" What was he collecting for? He didn't really say. Yet, it seemed clear that because we took the liberty of walking in his streets (ours too), he felt that we owed him a donation. His indignation at our unwillingness to give him money indicated his clear expectation - not so much that we would give - but that we should.
This, I imagine, is not an unusual story. Anyone who has tried to pray at the Kotel has had, I'm sure, a very similar experience. I daresay that this same event takes place in many shuls around the world. I walked away from the man without any sense of guilt. He might feel that I owe him money, but I certainly do not. But this tiny episode illustrated to me a much larger issue that our country needs to face following the recent fires in the North.
Following the devastating fires in the Carmel region last week, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a rather controversial blog post (also here) that garnered a great deal of attention. Goldberg essentially argued that while giving money to victims of the fire is an important act (and he did), giving money to the JNF to pay for fire engines only enables Israel to continue to make bad choices.
Let us be clear: there's never enough money to have everything that you want. Budgeting, whether in our homes, our communities, or an entire country, is about making a series of difficult choices about what we want vs. what we need. (Truth be told, the United States is notoriously bad about these kinds of choices. Why else would it be borrowing money from China to give tax cuts to rich people?) The State of Israel can afford fire engines. The reason it never bought more fire engines, or newer ones, or cooler one, is because we've never had a terrible fire like this one before. It has always rained much earlier in the year. The ground was wet (or at least damp) for much of the summer. And most of the buildings in this country are made of stone or concrete. Sure, houses burn, but not entire buildings. You almost never hear of major fires like the ones that occur in the United States.
Moreover, after the fire the Israeli government allocated 2,500 shekel to every person in the North displaced by the fire, at a total cost of 60 million shekel. Imagine that the government had spend that 60 million shekel on firefighting equipment this year. It's impossible to know whether we would have had the fire under control earlier and saved all that money later on. But the money is somehow there (some other need won't be met this year). We just didn't want to spend it on fire trucks.
So, whether correctly or incorrectly, no one making budget choices felt that the possibility of a major fire should take precedence over another choice. So we bought parks, and schools, and roads and numerous other things that a country wants and needs, instead of buying fire trucks. As an aside, we also bought gas masks for the entire population of Israel. I picked up ours last week. One can only imagine how much the Israeli government spends buying and distributing them. In essence the government made a choice: what is the likelihood of a gas or chemical attack on the civilian population, versus the likelihood of a major forest fire? I'm not sure that we chose wrong.
After the fire, it's clear that we need fire trucks. The only question is, who should pay for them? And is there a problem with asking Jews from the Diaspora to fund infrastructure that the government should itself provide?
On some level, the answer is clearly "no." We have no problem with the fact that private individuals fund the construction of hospitals, parks, schools, and numerous other buildings that dot the country. People should give. They should donate to build the State of Israel. But, at the same time, we need to understand that Israel didn't neglect to buy fire trucks because it couldn't. Rather, the lack of necessary equipment resulted from a choice that we made - a bad choice, but a choice nonetheless. And asking Jews of the world to pay for our bad choices only encourages us to make the same choices down the road.
I think that was Goldberg's point. We're no longer the Israel of the 1950's, where we really can't afford to supply even basic needs. This is a thriving, growing, vibrant society, with wireless 3g internet service (albeit spotty), great kosher restaurants and a solid economy, which in truth is probably in better shape than that of the United States. (There is a shortage of butter now, but no one's sure why.)
Of course we need the help of Diaspora Jewry. And of course Jews from around the world should feel the desire and need to help the State of Israel grow and prosper. But I keep coming back to that Jew in Me'ah She'arim. He chose a certain lifestyle - where exclusive Torah study precludes the possibility of gainful employment. And yet now, he expects me to pay for it.
Sorry. I didn't make that choice for myself, nor for him, and his expectations notwithstanding, I will give tzedakah, but not to support what I consider to be inappropriate choices with which I do not agree.
We need not be a Nation of Schnorrers, with our hands out at every turn, looking for money to solve every problem. When Jews around the world stop seeing Israel as the poor, downtrodden Jew, but instead as the bustling Jewish wonder which is the greatest incubator for Judaism since Biblical times, they will give. But not because they feel guilty, and not because someone yelled at them. They'll give because they understand that giving to Israel is the best investment that they can make in the future of the Jewish people.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 2 - The Oath

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 2: The Oath
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

Rav Teichtal, using Ya'akov Avinu's oath on Har Habayit as a model, makes a promise himself in the hopes of emerging from the Holocaust alive.

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Not So Funny. More Like Sad.

Goldberg titled his post, Why I Love America, part 86. I'm pretty sure that he really means it. But to someone who actually cares about the meaning of Chanukah, the picture isn't funny. It's sad.

What Not to Do

If you're going to terrorize customers as a method of garnering negative reviews in order to build your business, it might not be a good idea not to brag about it to the New York Times. That might pique the interest of Federal Authorities, who might arrest you and send you to jail.
Threatening people might very well build a business. But bragging about it to an international newspaper? That's just stupid.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 1 - The Living Land

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 1: The Living Land
This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.
The first shiur begins with the first introduction, pp 27-28, introducing the unique notion that the Land of Israel itself brings special and unique merit to the Jewish people.

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Audio Shiur: Parshat Miketz - Make All Your Dreams Come True

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Miketz - Make All Your Dreams Come True
What types of dreams did Yosef have? Were they the sleeping kind, which came to him voluntarily? Or were they more conscious, emanating at least partly from him? This question carries huge ramifications for how we view the story of Yosef and his brothers, and how we relate to our own dreams as well.

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Jaywalking on Shabbat and Related Issues

If you can see the attached story, (and if not, the link's here) the Jewish blogosphere is in a tizzy about the scandal of an Orthodox Jew, caught by a police officer jaywalking on Friday night whom the officer proceeded to give a ticket. When the Jew tried to explain that he couldn't sign the ticket because it was his Sabbath, the officer gave him a choice: sign the ticket or face arrest.
The rabbi signed the ticket.
I'm less outraged at the NYC Police Department's insensitivity. While the officers probably should have let him off (or gone with him to his apartment), it's pretty clear that jaywalking of Jews on Shabbat is a neighborhood issue that frustrates local residents. Hence this comment:
I live the area and can tell you that jaywalking on the Sabbath is a real problem on Kings Highway and Coney Island Ave and am surprised that people aren’t killed every weekend for being so careless.
Let's leave the chillul Hashem issue aside. The Yeshiva World News reported that the officers,
forced the individual to write his name and address on a paper. They told him, if he refuses, they will arrest him. Fearing spending Shabbos in jail, with his family not knowing where he was, the individual followed their orders.
I'm left wondering whether he should have.
Writing is one of the 39 Melachot Shabbat - a biblically prohibited behavior. Halachah prescribes that if one writes with a shinuy - in an altered manner - with the wrong hand, for example, that action is nonetheless prohibited, but only constitutes a rabbinic transgression. So even if the "rabbi" signed with the wrong hand, he was still not permitted to sign. Jewish law does allow one to violate Shabbat in cases where human life is in danger, but was that really a concern? While the prospect of spending 24 hours in city lockup surely wouldn't seem enticing, is it really life-threatening?
Finally, let's say that he lost his head for a moment, and in the confusion he decided to sign the paper. Would you then go and publicize the fact that you did just that, compromising the very religious principles you told the policemen you couldn't violate?
And, of course, I cannot resist mentioning that the best solution to the problem is living in a country where they (a) know what Shabbat is and (b) don't give you a ticket for jaywalking.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Women and Chanukah Lighting

Growing up, everyone in my family lit the Chanukah menorah. Everyone, that is, except my mother. After my father lit, we would go in the order of the children, from oldest to youngest, including my sisters. I imagine that if you grew up in an Ashkenazic home, your family followed a similar practice. There's only one problem: it doesn't really make much sense. If my mother didn't light, then why did my sisters - especially after they became Bat Mitzvah? And if adult women should light, shouldn't mothers light as well?

Click here to download a pdf of the article.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Joke and its Implications

My nephew, studying in Yeshivas Mir, visited (together with his sister) for Shabbat. He told me a joke that's making the rounds.
A woman climbs on a bus (here in Israel) wearing very little clothing, and sits herself down next to an obviously Chareidi man. Clearly uncomfortable with the immodesty sitting right next to him, he stirs in his seat for a while, and then reaches into his bag. Pulling out an apple, he hands it to the woman.
"Here," he tells her, "take a bite."
"Why?" she wonders. What's with the apple?
"Take a bite," he tells her, "because after Chava ate the apple, she realized that she was naked."
The woman thinks for a moment, and pulls an apple out of her bag.
"Here," he tells her, "take a bite."
"Why?" he wonders.
"Because after Adam ate from the apple, he realized that he'd have to work for a living."
Ironically, my niece had heard the joke, but not the last line. Somehow in seminary everything's about tzniut, even when the joke isn't really about tzniut. But I digress.
I share the joke with you not just because it's funny, but because my nephew learning in the Mir told it to me, obviously highlighting a tension present not just in the yeshiva, but in the entire Chareidi world.
Last week, Rabbi Chaim Amsallem, a Knesset member from Shas gave an extremely controversial interview in which he stated that Jewish men should work. Not shocking for a reader of this blog, but in the context of the Knesset debate about stipends for Chareidi kollel families, it's a bombshell. Shas is supposed to be in favor of the stipends and kollel learning in general. For a member of their Knesset delegation to go off the reservation and take an opposing view is tantamount to heresy. Literally.
After he gave the interview Shas party hacks literally called for him to resign. Most surprisingly, he said "no," defying the explicit demands of Rav Ovadia Yosef, which in the world that is Shas really is kefirah. (He claims that the party has been taken hostage by interests that are in bed with the Ashkenazi Chareidi world, and that traditional Sephardic Jewry never subscribed to a lifetime of full-time Torah learning. He's clearly correct, but since when does being right have anything to do with politics, here or anywhere in the world?) While the English-language press has noted the story, in the Hebrew press it's huge - especially in the secular Hebrew press. They love frum-on-frum fighting.
When Rav Amsallem defied Rav Ovadia, the gloves came off. The Israeli press is reporting that in Shas' paper,
במאמר נוסף הושווה הרב אמסלם ל"עמלק אשר נצטווינו בתורה למחות את זכרו". בסיומו של אותו מאמר אף נקבע: "סופו של האיש יהיה כסופם של עוקרי הדת ומסלפי ההלכה, אשר נתרסקו אל תהום הנשייה".
In an additional article, Rav Amsallem was equated to "Amalek, who the Torah commands us to destroy his memory." The article concludes, "The end of this man will be like the end of those who uproot religion and distort halachah, who fell into the depths of hell."
Ouch. Even for politics in Israel, that's a little harsh. OK, very harsh.
I have two reactions. First and foremost, the very fact that someone from the Chareidi establishment would dare utter words against the current kollel system represents yet another crack in a broken system that clearly demands reexamination. Like my nephew's joke, everyone knows the truth. The only question left is when reality will hit and the guy on the bus takes a bite of that apple and starts getting trained for gainful employment.
Secondly, while I might agree with Rav Amsallem's sentiments, I think he should have quit. When you sign on to Shas, you sign on to the party line. You do what Rav Ovadia tells you to, whether you like it or not, and whether you think he's being manipulated or not. That's how the system works.
If you don't like it and want to start spouting truths against the party line, maybe you should have started your own party, or joined one closer to your line of thinking.
Or, better yet, maybe you shouldn't have gotten into politics at all.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?

About a decade ago, a short time after I arrived in Oak Park, I found a new doctor to manage my thyroid condition (which I've had since college). I already knew the drill. He'd come in, examine me carefully, draw blood and then adjust my medicine based on the results. And that's pretty much what happened: examination, blood test - everything was going fine until he said, "Oh, and if you don't lose weight, in ten years you'll have type-2 diabetes."
Whoa. He could have slapped me in the face. Here I was, sitting comfortably in the doctor's office, minding my own business, and he has the gall to tell me true things that I really don't want to hear. But then he adds,
"You Orthodox eat too much," he being a secular Jew. Orthodox? Why's he picking on us? And then I thought about it, and it's probably because he's right.
Think about a typical Shabbat:
Friday night begins with a big meal: appetizer, soups, main course, a ton of bread (challah), dessert. Then you go out for a Shalom Zachar: some beer, a couple pieces of cake. Drag yourself home and conk out.
Shabbat morning: Piece of cake and cup of coffee before davening. (For now I'll ignore the halachic issues of eating before prayer.) After davening, which can often end at noon or later, you head for kiddush, which is now a mainstay at shuls looking to attract and retain members. At the very least, you're looking at a few pieces of Entemann's (which really aren't that good), some chips and soda. At the worst, you've loaded up on cholent, kugel, maybe some herring - without a doubt a full meal on any other day of the week. And then you go home and do what? That's right - eat another meal - and a large one at that, again with a nice slice of bread, maybe some chicken, cold cuts, and dessert. More sleep.
After minchah, of course comes...Seudah Shlishit. (Shalashudes in the American vernacular). At most shuls this is a simple affair, but it's a meal: maybe a roll, some tuna fish, and a piece of now stale cake leftover from kiddush. (I've seen sheet cakes last longer than some Hostess foods. Scary.) Were we hungry for Shaleshudes? Often we were not, but it's a social thing, everyone's eating, and hey - it's a mitzvah!
Motzei Shabbat: (let's assume it's a early Shabbat, around Thanksgiving time) Whether you call it a Melave Malka or not, what's Saturday night without a slice of pizza (or two or three)? A movie, some popcorn too perhaps?
Objectively, this is a ton of food. But it's also a very typical Orthodox Shabbat - and we haven't touched Sunday yet. All of this points to the very obvious question: Is Orthodoxy unhealthy?
Obviously, there's nothing in Orthodoxy that demands overeating and unhealthy living. But, especially in America, Orthodox lifestyle has clearly led Jews into a dangerous cycle of overeating and indulgence. (A rabbi I know once came to a conference having lost a great deal of weight. When I asked him how he did it he said simply, "I decided that at simchas I was only going to eat one meal, either at the shmorg or at the sit-down dinner." Think about how right he was: How many functions do we attend at which we eat more than one meal? How many bar mitzvahs, school dinners, weddings?)
I've been thinking about this issue for two reasons: Yesterday I received the latest OU Jewish Action, which featured an article about the challenges of healthy eating at kiddush. Asked what to eat at a shul kiddush, the author had a hard time coming up with anything.
This article reminded me of a conundrum we had at YIOP. When the Kollel Torah Mitzion would visit for a shabbaton, I wanted to have them give short shiurim after shul. But we couldn't ask people to stay around for a short class without first giving them something to eat. At the same time, money was quite tight. So we came up with the idea of the DunkinKiddush, at which we'd serve only coffee and donuts - cheap and quick. There was only one problem: I and any diabetic, dieter or simply healthy person, had nothing to eat. So we added baby carrots and hummus, so everyone had something to munch.
With the issue at the back of my mind, I opened up an email from a relative, who sent a couple of pictures from a recent wedding. The pictures are of total strangers, who I don't know at all. Yet, looking at them, I was struck by the fact that they're all overweight - and not by a little.
This is something that you notice coming from Israel immediately when you walk into an American shul. Sure, there are people here that are overweight (and I by no means exclude myself from this category. Far from it.) But in general, people there weigh much more than people here.
I remember when we waged the battle to open the kosher Dunkin Donuts in Oak Park (for reasons I still cannot fathom, the parent company was giving the franchisee trouble about going kosher.) After the battle had been won and the kosher store opened, I got a call from a local columnist at the Free Press. When he asked me how I felt about the victory I said, "I'm not sure that we've struck a blow for the waistlines of Orthodox Jews, but it's a great win for our community. I only hope we can bring the same energy to more important issues down the road."
People used to ask me whether we celebrated a traditional Thanksgiving. I've got nothing against a good turkey dinner, but I personally did not, only because I felt that a huge meal on Thursday would negatively impact my Shabbat meal. (and it wasn't my family minhag). But with many Orthodox Americans stuffed with turkey and the latkes of Chanukah on the way, I wonder about a community full devoted to the gastronomic customs of both secular America and traditional Judaism.
I worry about the long-term health of Orthodox Jews, especially in America. I fear an epidemic of heart disease, diabetes, and of course, unnecessary deaths resulting from complications of obesity. Our community rightly protects the value of life. We'll fight for the right to cling to every last second, devoted to the notion that every moment is precious and holy.
And yet, at the very same time, under the banner of frumkeit we've adopted a lifestyle that's literally going to cut years and perhaps decades from our collective lives.
I call on the OU undertake a study of the collective health of Orthodox people, and especially men between the ages of 35 and 65. The OU's done great work helping Torah Jews put more into our mouths. Now it's time for the O.U. to take the lead in helping us put a little less in as well.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeishev - The Circle of Trust

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeishev - The Circle of Trust
How we treat the people around us depends greatly on how close we consider them: the closer we are, the more generously we relate to them. It's obvious that we're going to act differently to our children than to a stranger in the street.
We see precisely this dynamic in play as Yosef's brothers alienate themselves from him, and eventually commit a heinous act towards him. But, before they can bring themselves to do anything, they first must push him, at least in their minds, out of their inner circle.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Handshake Hullabaloo - Follow Up

Follow-up of this post.

Last Friday, I joined the YU Israel Kollel on a terrific tour of Nachlaot with Rav Benji Levine, the grandson of Rav Aryeh Levine. As we toured, he described some of the characters that he knew as he lived with his grandfather in that single-room apartment in Nachlaot. One was Rav Unterman, the second Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, about whom he told the following story.
One day, Rav Unterman was standing outside Heichal Shlomo in the center of Jerusalem, where much of the rabbinic business of the Religious Zionist movement took place, when a secular female tourist was walking by. Somehow, she learned that the Chief Rabbi was standing near her. She walked up to the Chief Rabbi, who was surrounded by a group of rabbis, extended her hand, and introduced herself. Rav Unterman shook her hand, exchanged pleasantries with her, and she continued on her way. After she had left, he said to the somewhat surprised crowd:
לא שאני מקיל בהלכות נגיעה. אלא אני מחמיר בהלכות כבוד הבריות.
It's not that I'm lenient with regard to the laws of touching [a member of the opposite sex]. Rather, I'm stringing regarding the laws of [maintaining] the respect of other human beings.
True story.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bibi, Don't Take the Deal

As we speak, the Cabinet of the Knesset is weighing whether to accept an American proposal for security guarantees to Israel in exchange for a three month moratorium on building in Judea and Samaria. Despite my being rather right-wing and in favor of continued construction and Jewish presence in our Biblically mandated lands, I'm against the deal for a very different reason: We're essentially discussing a bribe, and taking bribes never works in the end, either for the briber, or the bribed.
Essentially, the "security guarantee" is $3billion in advanced fighter planes. Now, I like advanced fighter planes as much as the next guy. They fly over my house practically every day. But what do fighter planes have to do with the security arrangements in the West Bank? What have they got to do with whether we do or don't build in East Jerusalem? Nothing. And that's what bothers me.
In an op-ed article in the Washington Post, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer writes,
This is a very bad idea. And while Washington will almost certainly come to regret bribing Israel, Israel may regret receiving such a bribe even more.
I agree with him, and found some of his points critical. But while I don't agree with his thesis that Israel is "behaving badly", he's right on the money when he calls the deal a bribe, plain and simple. And we shouldn't take it.
The reason I believe we shouldn't take it is because of the attitude of normal Americans. It's difficult to overstate their justified anger at Wall Street, General Motors, and the other fat cats that the American government bailed out and gave money for no reason. Often, the most angry Americans are the ones who offer Israel the greatest support.
And now we've got our own hands out, asking for money to justify a peace process that no one is their right mind thinks will pan out. Does that smell right? If I was a "regular" American, that would make me pretty mad, and wonder whether all that other money the U.S. gives to Israel isn't also some kind of payout - when it fact it really does represent an important strategic investment in the Middle East.
Taking the money now will only reinforce the very worst stereotypes about the Jewish State: that all we want is America's money, whether it's good for the United States or not.
If Bibi thinks that we should refreeze building for another three months, then he should try to push the initiative through without the promise of new planes. And if he doesn't think it's a good idea, then taking planes as an "incentive" to change our minds is a very bad idea, making us look cheap and petty, and willing to sell our souls (and our ideals), as long as it's for the right price.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayishlach - Ya'akov's Foreign Policy

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach: Ya'akov's Foreign Policy
Ya'akov's dealings specifically with Eisav serve as a historical model for how his children dealt with his descendants. Yet, some of his behavior is not only challenging, but difficult to understand and relate to, especially today. We'll discuss some of the problems with Ya'akov's actions, and Ramban's amazing attitude towards the opening episodes of the parshah.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The View from Here

Here at Orot, they recently moved my office. Whereas before I was in a small office on the first floor, now I'm in a roomy, airy office on the third (highest) floor of the building. I at first resisted because, let's face it, we all hate change. But, upon about two seconds of reflection, I love my new office. I love it because it's a little bigger - I used to have to turn sideways to get to my desk). I love it because it's got a ton of natural light. But most of all, I love my office for the view. And what a view it is.

I share this view with you not just to boast, but because, if you look carefully you'll see at the upper left hand side the faint shadow of buildings. On a clear day you can see all the way to Tel Aviv. That's right - from my office, in Elkana, you can clearly see the largest, most densely populated area in Israel. The reason you can see it is because we're pretty darn close. Just look at the map:
As you can see, Elkana's on the right, Tel Aviv on the left, and they can't be much more than 15 miles apart. Moreover, my view is so great because we're on the top of a hill. You can see pretty much the entire Gush-Dan area from here, which gives me my amazing view, and makes the next statement pretty obvious:
Anyone who thinks that we should hand over Elkana to the Palestinians is crazy.
I write this because looking yet again at the map, you'll notice the dotted line running down the map about a quarter of the way from the right. That's the Green Line. (I wonder why the Goog made it grey.) Politically, Elkana's in the "wrong" place, on the wrong side of the map. But strategically, it's an absolutely essential location for Israel's safety and security. You don't need to fire rockets from here to kill innocent Israelis. All you'd need is a mortar. And not a big one at that.
I write these words because sometimes, looking at a map from halfway around the world people seem to know what's best for us over here. As an example I quote Jeffrey Goldberg, whose blog I enjoy, who seems to consider settlements like Elkana an obstacle to peace. He recently wrote,
I would like to see Prime Minister Netanyahu go to Ramallah and address the Palestinians directly, and provide them with a vision -- a generous vision, I hope -- of what the future could look like, and then set Israel on a course to achieve that vision. Part of that vision, of course, includes what he thinks the final borders of the unborn state of Palestine should be.
Why is it always up to us? Why does the Israeli Prime Minister need to travel to Ramallah to provide a vision? Has he ever heard of Hamas? Does he really think that the larger Palestinian goal is two live peacefully, side-by-side? And even if he does, would he bet his life on it, much less mine?
Over there, these are nice theoretical questions to ponder for political punditry. But that's over there. Mr. Goldberg, next time you're in Israel, come visit me in my office. We'll sit, drink coffee, and contemplate the view together. I daresay you might come to some different conclusions when, firsthand, you see the View from Here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why Am I Throwing Out my Dryer? A Letter to the CEO of Whirlpool

Mr. Jeffrey Fettig
Chairman and CEO, Whirlpool Corporation
2000 N. M-63
Benton Harbor, MI 49022-2692

Dear Mr. Fettig,

I write to you today with a sense of frustration about the fact that I'm about to throw away my beautiful, two-year-old Whirlpool dryer (model awz 3477), for a very simple reason: it has stopped drying clothes.
The dryer looks great. It spins nicely, and blows air wonderfully. Sadly, it only blows cold air. You may wonder, why don't you get it fixed? We tried. The technician who came took the machine apart, looking for problems. When everything looked great, he took the electronic board out to bring to an expert for examination, assuming that this was the problem. The technician took one look at the problem and said, "That's a Whirlpool Dryer? The board is fine. It's the core heating element that's the problem and needs to be replaced. It's a known problem." (Funny, I didn't know about the problem. But the people who fix these things do.)
My wife confirmed this by speaking to a parts supplier, who told her that there are sixty of these heating elements on order.
Why then don't we get the part replaced? Simple economics: the machine itself, reasonably priced, cost around 1,200 shekel (we live in Israel). The replacement part costs at least 500 shekel, and including installation that's at least 650 shekel. Would you spend 650 shekel on an old machine that broke after two years? Would you spend 800 shekel (a full 2/3 of the price of the machine) for a service plan? Or would you just cut your losses and decide to get a new machine?
Clearly this is a frustrating waste of my money. But it's also just a frustrating waste - throwing out a beautiful, almost-new dryer. It's a waste to the environment, which I'm not indifferent to, and simply a wasteful act.
Why am I writing you about this? Actually I'm not. I'm posting it on my blog. But I'm doing so in order to complain about the fact that your machines, which are supposed to be of high quality have a known problem and I have no recourse but to throw it away and get a new one, as it's out of the one year warranty period. Whirlpool relies on its brand name to represent a quality product; one which will attract consumers looking to make a long-term investment in a large household appliance. Quality means producing good products. But it also means that when something goes wrong, you stand behind your name and fix the problem.
Because for me, the Whirlpool name simply doesn't mean that much anymore.

Yours truly,
Reuven Spolter
Yad Binyamin, Israel

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Handshake Hullabaloo

Way, way back, during one of my summer stints as an intern at System Automation, a coworker confided in me that she had her doubts about a certain frum member of the staff. (I have no idea why she talked to me. I was in 11th grade. But she did.) What gave her cause for concern? His handshake.
It seems that every time he shook her hand, he gave her a "dead fish", and she felt that he seemed weak, and slightly off. Of course, I knew exactly what was happening. He, coming from a somewhat Chareidi background, and following years of segregated yeshiva study, had been ingrained with an appropriate sensitivity to the separation of the sexes. She, on the other hand, not only had no knowledge of what negiah is, but would have trouble understanding it if someone took the time to explain it to her. So, in a business setting, he would shake her hand, but psychologically he just couldn't give her a firm handshake. His palpable discomfort brought about the "wet fish" handshake that was hurting his reputation in a business environment.
I've been thinking of this story in light of a mild brouhaha regarding the notion of shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex. And a brouhaha it has been.
It started with an article in Yediot Achronot, which publicized a recent psak halachah of Rav Yuval Cherlow's in which he decided that if a woman extended her hand to a man, then he would be allowed to shake her hand and not embarrass her in public. This is really a deeper halachic discussion which demands extended analysis, which Rav Cherlow actually did (on his site here). In the shiur, he examines the nature and prohibition of non-sexual physical contact between members of the opposite sex. Then he attempts to measure the halachic significance of embarrassing someone in public, and to what degree halachah should bend to avoid that embarrassment.
(As an important aside, this is an ongoing debate between the Chareidi world, which feels that halachah should not bend at all for the sensibilities and feelings of others, and the more "modern" world which does take issues of kavod habriyot (personal dignity) into account in its halachic decision-making process.)
Objectively, his psak is not shocking nor that striking. While issuing a lenient ruling, he explicitly recommends that one make an effort to avoid physical contact if at all possible, and forbids extending one's hand to a member of the opposite sex. Still, Rav Cherlow - who's something of a lightening rod for criticism (much of it justified) - for some of his liberal halachic pronouncements, drew fire yet again.
Ma'ariv (
there's nothing the Israeli secular press loves more than an inter-rabbi halachic scuffle) happily published the response from Rav Aviner, a much more right-wing RZ rabbi, who issued the following psak in the weekly newsletter Olam Katan (which is very, very popular among young people. Just this week a young person told me, "If you're in Olam Katan, you're 'in'. If not, you're not.") Rav Aviner answers SMS Halachic questions, so his answers are always brief - 140 characters or less.
(As another aside, the entire SMS psak halachah phenomenon, which is huge here in Israel, requires analysis and attention as well. Simply put, you can't answer questions in 140 characters, and I'm not sure that publishing all of them is a great idea for Judaism. But they're really entertaining to read. End digression.)
Rav Aviner wrote,
אין להעליב את חברו אבל כאן הוא שגורם לעצמו בושה. הגר"ע יוסף לא החזיר יד לראש הממשלה הגברת גולדה מאיר. הגר"מ אליהו לא החזיר יד למלכת אנגליה ובערב שניהם קיבלו התנצלות. אכן יש להתחשב ברגשות של שומרי הלכה
"One may not embarrass his fellow man, but here he causes himself embarrassment. The Gaon Rabbi Ovadia Yosef did not shake the hand of Prime Minister Golda Meir. The Gaon Rav Mordechai Eliyahu did not shake the hand of the Queen of England, and that evening, they both apologized to each other. Rather, one must take into account the feelings of those who guard halachah."
I won't quote the harsher comments from more hard line rabbis. You can read the article yourself.
Of course, the Hareidi websites watched with glee as, in their estimation, Modern Orthodoxy stepped in it yet again demonstrating its willingness to compromise "true" Jewish values to live in the Modern world. I haven't even read any of the Hebrew websites, but I'm sure they were perfectly happy to rip Rav Cherlow to shreds.
Yet, thinking of my coworker from so long ago, things aren't so simple. First and foremost, the secular world constantly looks to jump on the Rav Cherlow bandwagon in its search for "moderate" Jewish voices. In that same vein, the Chareidi world is more than willing to attack him even when he says something that's not all that shocking, nor that controversial. Finally, Rav Aviner was answering a text for a youth-oriented publication. He probably thinks that it's forbidden to shake hands in general, but his answer to teens looking for loopholes, who struggle with halachically mandated separation of the sexes, makes a lot of sense. The last thing we need are kids running around telling each other that Rav Aviner says that you can shake hands. His one-sided answer ensured that wouldn't happen.
Two final points (sorry for the long, long post).
The first comment (Israelis calls them "talk-backs") to Rav Cherlow's shiur came from someone who wrote that in his secular work environment (here in Israel), he at first would shake the hands of women so as not to embarrass them. To his shock, he was quickly identified as "Dati Lite". When he changed tactics and stopped shaking women's hands, his coworkers had no issues and the work environment did not suffer. So here in Israel, where everyone knows that there are people who won't shake hands, it might be much less of a problem not to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex. Rav Aviner really might have a point.
Yet, in the States, where most people are not Jewish and not familiar with halachah, the concern for embarrassment and also negative financial consequences is significant. I think back to my coworker of so long ago. I actually told him what I had heard, and he stopped giving women the "wet fish", which did help . Should a person meeting someone of the opposite sex at a job interview set out on the wrong foot from the get-go? Is that what halachah demands?
Rav Cherlow doesn't think so, and neither do I.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Ya'akov's Faith in the Land of Israel

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeitzei : Ya'akov's Faith in the Land of Israel
Every oath has two parts: an "if" and a "then", as in, "If" you do x, "then" I'll do y. After his fateful dream on Har Hamoriyah, Ya'akov makes an oath. Yet, the oath seems to present both textual and ideological challenges. After examining the problems with Ya'akov's oath, we discuss some possible solutions, and then analyze Ya'akov's oath from a very different, moving perspective, by analyzing a powerful piece from the introduction of Rav Teichtal to Eim Habanim Semeichah.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Best Pickup Line in Jewish History?

(From a set on Parshat Hashavua called Mei'otzareinu Hayashan. Great set with terrific nuggets like this. Highly recommended.) I share this in the spirit of Parshat Vayishlach, which focuses on the shidduch between Ya'akov and Lavan's daughters.

The philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was, as it was well known, a hunchback. Yet, his wife was unusually beautiful, in addition to the great wealth that she inherited from her father.
How did Mendelssohn arrive at such a shidduch?
In his youth, Mendelssohn served as a teacher in the house of Gugenheim, a wealthy, well-known Berliner. He liked Gugenheim's beautiful daughter, yet at first she was uninterested in him due to his deformity.
One day during a conversation he turned to her and said,
"Do you, my dear, believe in the concept of a divinely inspired mate?"
"Yes," she said, "I do believe that."
"Well," said Mendelssohn, "Let me tell you a story."
Forty days before the birth of a child, our rabbis teach us, they announce in heaven, "The daughter of so-and-so will marry so-and-so!" When I heard the angel announce, "The daughter of Gugenheim will marry Moses Mendelssohn!", I grew curious about her, so I asked the angel, "What will my mate look like? Will she be beautiful?"
"No," the angel told me. "She'll be quite ugly, deformed. She'll be a hunchback."
When I heard this, it caused me great pain so I called the angel. "Go to the Creator and tell him that I'm willing to take her hump on my back, as long as my mate would be lovely, without any deformities..."
Mendelssohn's story touched the heart of Gugenheim's daughter, and she agreed to become his wife.