Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Obama Seder: Good for the Jews?

The New York Times featured a rather pleasant article about the yearly Seder taking place in the White House - the first president to ever conduct a Seder at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At first glance, it's a great story: a non-Jew, looking for richness and wisdom from an ancient Jewish practice, conducting a seder mixing themes of freedom from bondage with freedom from slavery. What could be bad?
For Obama, I think it's great. The seder is a powerful experiential way to teach his children about the values of freedom, and a great parental teaching tool. Chazal understood this very fact when they designed the Seder so many years ago. I'm not worried about Obama or his daughters. I'm more worried about what Obama's Seder says about its observance in America, and specifically, how Pesach is celebrated by the Jews.
I wrote once about how I feel bad for religious Christians on Christmas. While the United States "celebrates" the holiest day on the Christian calendar, it has, in truly American style, commercialized the holiday to the point where most Americans of every faith see no contradiction between their own beliefs and putting up a tree in the living room. As the Passover Seder grows in popularity across the United States (and it will, especially now that the President celebrates it), it will grow broader and less focused on the Jewish concepts of redemption from bondage and the creation of the Jewish nation and concentrate more on the broader themes of freedom in general.
No, it's not bad for Barack Obama or Valerie Jarett to spend an evening focusing on freedom vs slavery. That's fine. But David Axelrod is spending his Pesach focusing on those very same themes. And while I guess I'm happy that Axelrod will be celebrating Pesach at all, it's important to understand the true focus and theme of the night of the Seder, and impart those values to our children, which include:
  • The direct, Divine role that God played in freeing the nation of Israel - אני ולא מלאך, אני ולא שרף
  • Our transformation from a band of slaves into a Holy People - ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם
  • The critical role of ritual in religious life
  • The understanding that God freed us not to behave as we see fit, but instead to have the ability to worship Him and receive the Torah - הוציאנו ממצרים...ונתן לנו את התורה
These are not broad, universal themes. They are specifically Jewish, religious ones. And I have no reason to expect President Obama to appreciate them.
But what about the rest of America's Jews? How many of them even think about these themes on the night of the Seder? As the Seder grows even more ubiquitous in American life, will American Jews return to their roots, and wonder about the "Jewish" elements of the Seder? Or, will the Americanization of the Pesach Seder transform one of the last truly Jewish rituals practiced by a large number of American Jews into a nice meal devoid of any real Jewish meaning?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

This Year in Jerusalem? How Will We Get There?

Each year at the end of the Seder we say, לשנה הבא בירושלים - Next Year in Jerusalem!
Well, I'm not sure we'll be ready by next year. And I'm not talking about the Beit Hamikdash. I'm talking about the traffic.
Last night we traveled from Yad Binyamin to Jerusalem for a wedding at Ramat Rachel. The traffic was heavy from the moment we merged onto Route 1, and got even worse after we entered the city. The problem? A soccer game. Which we needed to bypass.
Which made me wonder: if Moshiach came tonight (by the way, did you pay your $3.50 to reserve your sacrifice for this year yet? You can do it here) can we even imagine the traffic nightmare? If traffic was heavy from Latrun because of ten thousand people at a soccer game, imagine the endless gridlock of several million traveling to the Old City to bring the Korban Pesach.
Is there any chance that they'll finish the light rail system anytime soon?
I imagine that they'll have to shut down private car travel throughout the entire city. And build a subway with a stop at Har Habayit.
Or maybe, in addition to all the ancient miracles for which the Beit Hamikdash was known, we'll add another, almost unbelievable miracle to the list:
"No car even stopped due to traffic on the way to the Temple."
That would really be a miracle.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

For This! More Thoughts on the Hagadah

We published this short piece in the Orot Newsletter mailed to alumni and friends.

My seven-year-old daughter asked me recently if she could read to me as part of a school assignment to practice her reading skills.
"Sure," I told her, as we sat down to read the story of "Kippi and the Bike Race", an old Sesame Street book. As she read to me with wonderful articulation, comprehension and emphasis, I felt a sense of pride both in her growth and accomplishment.
I can imagine what you're thinking: Sesame Street? For a seven-year-old? What's the big deal? I felt so proud because she was reading the book, fluently, in Hebrew.
When addressing the שאינו יודע לשאול, we explain to him that the reason we celebrate on the night of Pesach is because,
בַּעֲבוּר זֶה, עָשָׂה ה' לִי, בְּצֵאתִי, מִמִּצְרָיִם
"It is because of this" that Hashem did to me when I left Egypt.
What is the זה that the Torah refers to? What do we celebrate? Rashi explains that the זה refers to the mitzvot that we perform on Seder night:
בעבור שאקיים מצוותיו, כגון פסח מצה ומרור
In order that I fulfill His commandments, like [offering the Korban] Pesach, [and eating the] matzah and marror.
Yet, the Hagadah omits one of the mitzvot Rashi mentions:
יכול מבעוד יום? תלמוד לומר "בעבור זה." בעבור זה לא אמרתי אלא בשעה שיש מצה ומרור מונחים לפניך.
I might have thought that [we tell the story of Pesach] during the day. The verse comes to teach you, "because of this" – we only say "it is because of this" at a time when the matzah and maror sit before you.
What happened to the Korban Pesach? Rav Menachem Kasher in his introduction to the Hagadah Sheleimah (p. 124) notes that the Mechilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai does mention the Korban Pesach:
בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים – כל זמן שגופו של פסח קיים
"For this Hashem did to me when I left Egypt – during the entire time that the sacrifice remains."
What's the difference if the Midrash mentions the Korban Pesach or just matzah and maror? This subtle difference holds the key to unlocking the power of בעבור זה. Jews ate matzah and maror during every era in every location. Whether in Israel in the second century or Prague in the 17th, we ate matzah and maror. But we only eat the Korban Pesach in Eretz Yisrael, and only when we have the Beit Hamikdash, and our presence in the Mikdash signified a substantial Jewish presence in Israel, and a national Jewish identity.
The section in the Torah in which we find the בעבור זה begins as follows:
וְהָיָה כִי-יְבִיאֲךָ ה' אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב, וּדְבָשׁ; (שמות יג:ה)
And it shall be when the Hashem will bring you into the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, which He swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey…
Why did Hashem take us out of Egypt? He redeemed us to bring us to the Land of Israel, where we could build a Jewish nation to proclaim His glory to the nations of the world. When we fulfill our mission, we also merit the benefits that the befit the Jewish nation – life in our own country, our own language, government, army – and a Beit Hamikdash to properly worship God.
No, we're not there yet. The Jewish nation has a long way to go to achieve its mission, and barring some incredible miracle, I will not partake of the Korban Pesach this year.
But listening to my daughter read "Kippi and the Bicycle Race" in Hebrew I couldn't help but think, "We're off to a pretty good start."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wedding in the Hurva Shul: A Story You Probably Haven't Heard

Leafing through the numerous Shabbat sheets floating around shul this past Shabbat, I came across a heart-warming story that I had not heard about the Hurva shul's rededication.
After the conclusion of the national dedication of the Hurva shul following its extensive construction, a young couple celebrated the first wedding in the shul. You can find an article in Hebrew about the wedding here (and more pictures), and someone posted a video of the wedding here. You can also see the story here (on page 6). But I haven't yet seen anything about it in the English press.
Here's what happened:
A young lone soldier from the United States, named Bezalel, planned to marry Ashira, his Ethiopian bride. Ashira's only family joining her was her sister, and Bezalel came with just a few army friends. Nonetheless, they decided to have the wedding in the Old City, hoping that they could find a minyan to help them make the wedding.
The story reached the leadership of the Corporation for the Development and Building of the Jewish Quarter, who upon hearing the story decided to ask the guests from the dedication ceremony to stay for the wedding in order to ensure the required ten men.
Hundreds stayed, and they danced the young couple to the chuppah with great joy. The article explains,
A Tallit was spread over the heads of the couple, and Nissim Arazi, the head of the Corporation for the Development and Building of the Jewish Quarter reminded the crowd of the words of our Sages who said that, "Anyone who brings joy to a chattan and kallah - it is as if he built a ruin from the ruins (hurvot) of Jerusalem."
The rededication of a shul destroyed by Arabs in 1948 brought me a measure of joy - coming full circle to some extent. But I've been in the Old City. I'd seen the shul, and I wondered about it: who would actually daven there? Would it return to its useful role, as a vibrant sign of renewed life in the Old City? Or would it now be consigned to a stop for tourists; a beautiful landmark to be sure, but absent the vitality and activity that brings a shul to life?
It's impossible to know the shul's true future. But the thought of an American Jew joining the IDF and finding his Ethiopian bride in the Holy Land says more to me about the rebirth of the Jewish people in our homeland than the dedication of the Hurva shul ever could.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Audio Shiur: Hagadah 5770 - Calculating the Redemption

Audio Shiur:
Hagaddah 5770 - Calculating the Redemption
Reading about the calculation of the redemption raises obvious questions, including: did the Jews suffer for four hundred years? How long did the slavery last? By looking back at the original text of brit bein habetarim, and carefully examining several answers to this question, we can arrive at a new appreciation of the Seder experience, even living in relative comfort and freedom today.

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

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Losing Friends

Ida Kleid passed away last night.
(You can see Ida on the right on the night before a shul event with her daughter Esti and daughter-in-law Jill).
Ida and Henry lived next door to us in Oak Park. They stocked our fridge before we arrived in Oak Park. They walked home with us on Shabbat after davening. They invited us over for their annual Sukkot spectacular (or should I say "meat-tacular" - Ida liked cooking meat in its various forms, and Henry liked eating said meat) on Chol Hamoed. They would collect our mail during East Coast trips, and theirs was the ladder I would borrow without asking when I needed it.
Ida was a doer. She would come in before a shul kiddush to make the cholent (ah, what cholent). She was a driving force behind pivotal shul events, like the Purim Seudah. Make a shul dinner, and there she was in the kitchen, making the kugel. She was a pillar of Yeshivat Akiva, not only working there, but making Akiva part of her lifeblood. She served as an administrator in the school, taking care of so many of the things that you took for granted.
More than anything, though, Ida was a woman of great strength. Not physical strength, but emotional, spiritual strength. Ida suffered from a debilitating disease for much of her adult life. She cared for an ailing mother, suffering from dementia for as long as I lived in Michigan. Her son Dovid, a caring and unique young man, was born with a physical condition that required constant attention and devotion. Frankly, Henry couldn't have been a picnic to live with all those years. (OK, that last one was a joke). But for all the times she was sick; for all the nights she spent in the hospital; for all the personal and physical challenges she faced, I never heard her, not once, complain about herself. Not once.
I spoke to Henry this morning, and told him that chazal teach us that yissurin - suffering - serves as a form of atonement. When a righteous person suffers in this world, he need not endure additional suffering in the World to Come.
I can say with a fair degree of confidence that Ida Kleid went straight to heaven. And, if they got her to make her cholent, they're eating quite well right now.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Count the Ridiculous Statements in One Article

The Jerusalem Post featured this article tonight, entitled, "Metzger: Jews don't want to build Temple." The article explains that while speaking at the dedication of the Churva Shul in the Old City of Jerusalem, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger sent a message to Arab leaders:
The Jews do not plan to replace Al-Aksa Mosque with a Jewish Temple.
Palestinian clerics have claimed that the rebuilding of the Hurva would pave the way for plans by right-wing Jews to lay a cornerstone for the construction of the third temple on the Temple Mount – a rumor, based on an 18th-century rabbinic tradition purportedly declared by the Vilna Gaon, which has been brushed off by right-wing activists themselves as having been given a “certain poetic license.”
"Do not attribute to us aspirations that we do not have. We don't want to climb up and build a temple on the Temple Mount. We just want to rejoice in the celebration of this building, stop the incitement," Army Radio quoted Rabbi Metzger as saying at the ceremony.
I don't know about any legends in about the Vilna Gaon and the Churva shul - that's a new one to me. But I certainly do know something about wanting to build the Temple. We ask God for the ability to do just that three times a day at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esreh: שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימנו...Let it be the will before You, O' God...That the Temple shall be rebuilt speedily in our days."
How many times in how many different ways do we yearn for, pray for, hope for - the rebuilding of the Temple?
And where, pray tell, would we like to build it, other than on the Temple Mount?
And what do we imagine will happen to the mosque built on that Mount when we go to build our Temple?
"We don't want to climb up and build a Temple"? Who's we? I sure do.
And then there's Khatem Abd el-Kader, holder of the Fatah's Jerusalem portfolio. (Remember that Fatah is the party that we're negotiating with - you know, the guys that don't say outright that they want to kill us all. Yay.) He,
called the renovation of the Hurva a “provocation” and warned Israel that it was “playing with fire.”
Let me get this straight: When Arabs destroy a synagogue in a war trying to kill the Jews and evict them from our City and our Land; and then we not only win that war, but win subsequent wars that reconquer the city; and then have the unmitigated gall to rebuild the very synagogue that the Arabs so kindly blew up - that's a "provocation"? It's almost too ridiculous to believe.
I'm trying to figure out what el-Kader would not consider a "provocation". Oh yes, I think I know: If the Jews would voluntarily put down their guns, leave Jerusalem, and for that matter the holy land, settle in South Florida, and leave Israel to the Arabs. That would probably be OK with Fatah. Only they'd complain that we didn't leave quickly enough, and call that a "provocation."
To my mind, here's what Rabbi Metzger really should have said:
"Of course we yearn and pray for the day when the Jews will merit the rebuilding of the Temple. It's important to remember that the Temple Mount represents the holiest site in the world to the Jewish people. We mourn the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash each and every day, and yearn for its rebuilding desperately. And, while we might rejoice in the construction of yet another Jewish house of worship in the Old City of Jerusalem, our joy will forever remain incomplete while the true House of God lies in ruins."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Other Two Brothers

Once, on a hilltop in Jerusalem, two brothers shared a field, split straight down the middle. Each brother enjoyed half of the field's yearly produce. Yet, these two brothers could not be more different.
One brother lived as a bachelor, alone but unburdened. He needed only enough sustenance for himself, and no one else.
The other brother was the head of a large family. Although his sons assisted in the work, he nevertheless found himself with the burden of providing for the many hungry mouths.
One day, the bachelor brother, evaluating the situation, said to himself: "My brother has many children. When he grows old his children will help him, provide for him and care for him. I, on the other hand, will be alone. Who will provide for me?"
So, each night, he crept to the fence dividing the shared field and stealthily "borrowed"from his brothers pile of grain, adding to his own.
That same day, his brother too thought to himself, "I have a large family and many mouths to feed. My brother, on the other hand, is alone. Why should we equally divide the yield of our field when my burden is so much greater?"
So, that night, he crept to the opposite side of the field, taking from his brother's pile and adding to his own.
The next morning, to their amazement, both brothers awoke to find themselves with the same amount of grain that they had at nightfall. Each night this same scene took place, and each morning, to the brothers' bewilderment, the outcome remained the same.
One night, both brothers happened to arrive at the fence at the same time. In an instant, they realized what had been happening each night for so long.
"You've been stealing from me!" the first brother angrily accused.
"Me, stealing from you? I was only returning that which was rightly mine! It is you that has been stealing from me!"
And, with that, the brothers entered into a lengthy, draw-out and bloody fistfight.
Looking on from the side, a tear welled in the eyes of David, visibly moved by the brotherly scene.
"That," said Ben Gurion, "is the most beautiful sight that I have ever seen! This hill is where I will build the Knesset."

(Hear from my friend David)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Teaching the Value of Freedom at the Seder

Should we cause our children to suffer in order to help them fully appreciate the Redemption we're supposed to relive on the night of the Seder? Maybe we should. After all, as parents, we cause our kids to suffer all the time.
You can download this article in pdf format by clicking here.

If you just want to read the text, click below to see the entire piece.

Along the same lines, my wife Rena shared with me this story of parents outraged an an educational attempt to help kids appreciate the suffering of the Holocaust. Do you agree with the incensed mother at the end of the story? I'm not sure.

Imagine the following Seder "teaching" technique. (Full disclosure: my wife has forbidden me from actually doing this at our Seder this year. Or any year.)
After Kiddush, sometime after eating the Karpas and breaking the middle matzah, you turn to one of your children arbitrarily, point to her angrily and say, "Go to your room. Now!"
"Why? What did I do?"
"Get in your room I said! And the longer you take to get there, the longer you'll be there."
After either a small or large argument, your child will storm off, likely in anger, perhaps in tears.
Wait five minutes. Then call the child, giving her permission to return to the Seder, and ask her the following: "How do you feel? Wouldn't you like to celebrate the fact that you're now free to return to the Seder? Hasn't your time in your room given you a new appreciation for your newfound freedom?"
If your child has calmed down enough to speak, her answer will probably be "no." Before celebrating her freedom, she'd want to know why she was sent to her room in the first place. It's hard to celebrate redemption from a perceived injustice.
But isn't that exactly what we do at the Seder.
We're supposed to relive the Redemption from Egypt. We're supposed to act like kings on the night of the Seder, luxuriating in our newfound freedom. But in order to appreciate the good, the Mishnah (Pesachim 116a) tells us that we must first begin with the bad: מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח – "we begin with the criticism and conclude with the praise." With which "criticism" do we begin the Seder? The Gemara presents two answers:
רב אמר מתחלה עובדי עבודת גלולים היו אבותינו [ושמואל] אמר עבדים היינו
Rav said, "Originally our forefathers were idolaters" and Shmuel said, "Our forefathers were slaves."
Examining Shmuel's explanation, I wonder: Sure, we were slaves. And yes, God redeemed us from slavery. But why were we in slavery? How did we get there? Was it not the same God that redeemed us Who also sent us into slavery in the first place? Rav's explanation seems to answer this question. We entered into slavery because we were idolaters. In essence, God initiated the process of שעבוד מצרים in order to redeem us. Commenting on the section of מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה in the Hagaddah, Rabbi Yishaya of Tarani (רי"ד) explains:
לפי שיש לשאול, מה שבח הוא זה שהכניס אותנו המקום למצרים ואחר כך הוציאנו. לא יכנוס ולא יוציא והרי אנו בני חורין, ולמה נשבח על אותה הוצאה?
For one might ask, what praise is there that He brought us into Egypt and only then redeemed us. Let Him not bring us in nor redeem us, and we would have remained free. Why should we offer praise for this redemption?"
Good question. Rabbi Yishaya answers:
לכן אמר מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותנו; אף על פי שהיו אבותינו בני חורין היו עובדי עבודה זרה, ומה שגזר עלינו הקדוש ברוך הוא שעבוד לטובתנו היה, שעל אותה שיעבוד חס עלינו הקדוש ברוך הוא והוציאנו, והכנסנו תחת כנפיו, ונתן לנו את השבת ואת התורה, ובנה לנו בית הבחירה לכפר על כל עוונותינו.
For this reason it says, " Originally our forefathers were idolaters"; even though our forefathers we free, they were nonetheless idol worshippers, and that which God decreed upon us was for our own benefit. For, through this subjugation the Holy One had compassion upon us and redeemed us, and brought us under the canopy of His wings, and gave us the Shabbat and the Torah, and built for us the Temple to atone for all our sins.
In essence, God punished us in order to redeem us. He took away our freedom in order to give it back to us in a new, fundamentally different way. He couldn't just give the Torah to Ya'akov's sons in Cana'an. Their children (us) would never have accepted it fully. Only through the crucible of suffering and the joy and relief of redemption could we come to appreciate God's greatness and the redemptive nature of the Torah.
All this makes me wonder: how much do we as parents impose suffering upon our children in order to make them grow?
What cruel parent imposes suffering upon her children? you wonder. We all do, as well we should. What child wants to sit and do her math homework? Which self-respecting teenager wants to wash the dishes, or sweep the floors on erev Shabbat? What child wants to spend time in her room (or without internet or cell phone access, God forbid!) as a punishment for some minor or major infraction?
We "subjugate" our children by "forcing" them to do countless things that they would prefer to avoid in order to help them grow. In fact, if we failed to "subjugate" and "oppress" our children; if we gave them complete freedom to act as they pleased and do whatever they wished, we would be abdicating our parental responsibility. We would be bad parents.
All of this brings me back to our original scenario. The gemara I mentioned above concludes with a story:
אמר ליה רב נחמן לדרו עבדיה עבדא דמפיק ליה מריה לחירות ויהיב ליה כספא ודהבא מאי בעי למימר ליה? אמר ליה בעי לאודויי ולשבוחי אמר ליה פטרתן מלומר מה נשתנה
Said Rav Nachman to Daru, his slave: A slave whose owner freed him, and gave him money and gold – what should he say to [the owner]? He answered: he must thank him and praise him! [Rav Nachman] said back, you have exempted us from reciting the Mah Nishtanah.
The story in the Gemara sounds to me much like my "educational" scenario. Retelling the story of the Redemption to our children isn't about reading the text of the Hagaddah and sharing commentary on the text. It's about personalizing the story so that our children can come to appreciate both the meaning of suffering that they taste in the Matzah, and the value of redemption they must feel as they lean back and drink their wine.
Which makes me wonder: while I won't send my child to her room on the night of the Seder (remember, I've been forbidden to do so), wouldn't I be a better parent and "teller" of the story of the Redemption if I did?

Audio Shiur: Hagaddah 5770 - Back to the Beginning

Audio Shiur:
Hagaddah 5770 - Back to the Beginning
"We begin with the negative, so that we can conclude with the positive." The two positions in the gemara regarding this statement from the Mishnah teaches us a great deal about the message of the Hagadah, and the way that we must view the world. In addition, we discuss the notion of suffering, and the question of how much suffering a parent imposes upon his or her children to foster growth.

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

Monday, March 8, 2010

Kiddush Clubs and the Rabbi

In a recent post, I articulated a particular position on Kiddush Clubs. In case you didn't read the post, I came out against them.
I also noted that during my tenure as rabbi, I did not fight vociferously against the Kiddush Club in my shul, and that I consider this to be a major failure. Truth be told, we did try and keep the KC in check. There were unspoken rules. You had to arrive in shul before 9:30am to go to the KC. No guests were officially permitted. The KC ended before my speech - and most of the members returned to the sanctuary for the drashah, some more sloshed than others. I would slip in a dig against the KC periodically. But I didn't fight against it. I let things slide, and the KC continues to this day.
At the same time, looking back the criticism (or self-criticism) seems patently unfair. By criticizing the KC, I would be causing the shul to possibly lose members and thereby put my own livelihood in jeopardy. Name another profession where the very nature of the job, if it's done well, might very well put you out of work: politics comes to mind. How often must the politician make the choice between the popular and the productive? (Anyone following the debate on health care?)
Ostensibly, I was hired to lead. But when my opinions made people uncomfortable, somehow leadership took a back seat. (And, if you don't know me, I'm not known as someone who cowers or kowtows very much.) There's a famous saying about the rabbinate that speaks to this tension that goes something like this: If none of your members like you, then you're not much of a rabbi, but if all of them like you, you're still not much of a rabbi.
During my first year in Oak Park, I gave this drashah about the need for constant struggle in religious life. This led me somehow to how nothing in Modern Orthodoxy advocates coeducation, and how the local school, Yeshivat Akiva should really be separate. That week my Chairman of the Board, a very well-intentioned man, came to my office to give me the unsolicited advice that I should be more careful with what I say. Right or wrong, he said, "I just want to make sure that you're still able to give speeches after your first contract ends." I pulled out my contract and showed him the explicit clause giving me the freedom of the pulpit, and the right to say whatever I deemed appropriate. I told him that I reserved the right to express my views, regardless of their popularity.
But I never spoke about coeducation from the pulpit again. I never consciously avoided the topic. But, for whatever reason, it never again was the focus of a speech from the pulpit.
I guess my point is, if you're waiting for your rabbi to take a stance against the Kiddush Club in your shul, you're being patently unfair. Sure, he'll back you, at least unofficially. But is it reasonable to expect him to take the lead on an issue that most balebatim shrug about and ignore?
Would you risk your job, you kids' tuitions, to take a stance in your community? Would you risk everything for an issue like Kiddish clubs?
I didn't.
And until our rabbis earn their livings from some other source, and don't depend on their congregants for their parnassah, I don't think very many will in the future.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tisa - Shabbat's Protective Nature

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tisa - Shabbat's Protective Nature
Before the tragic narrative of the Sin of the Golden Calf, we find the story interrupted by a short description of the Shabbat. What are these pesukim doing here? How do they relate to the chet ha'egel? What can they teach us about how we should relate to Shabbat today?

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

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Sad Truth

The attached video has been making the rounds of the web during the past week, mostly because it's really funny.
Viewed from another perspective though, the video makes me sad - not because it features Hitler. That part's also funny. What's sad about the video is the subject matter itself: the very existence of the Kiddish club.
Full disclosure here: my former shul, the Young Israel of Oak Park, sported a kiddush club. To this day I consider my unwillingness to confront its existence one of my greatest failings. I simply didn't have the guts to confront the longtime members of my shul who were full and longtime members of the Club. They gave too much money; they were too powerful; it wasn't worth the effort. Baloney. I simply didn't want to put up the fight and expend the effort. I was lazy. And my former shul continues to pay a heavy, heavy price.
I know the arguments. Actually, they're all right there in the video. Don't guys deserve a break? It's about the camaraderie. It's not about the drinking or the food. What's the big deal? Sorry, but I have come to believe that these clubs are doing nothing less than destroying our movement.
"Come on rabbi, what's the big deal? You're making a big to-do about nothing."
No, I'm not. Let me count the ways:
  1. Kiddish Clubs as religious statements: First and foremost, KC's specifically take people out of davening during the davening. They extend through the rabbi's speech, intentionally. They make the obvious statement that davening is too long, boring, drawn out and irrelevant to be useful, and that one can obviously make better use of his time telling jokes over herring and booze. Is that really why people come to shul: To arrive an hour late, rush through a quick shemoneh esreh, and then run out for two fingers? Moreover, the mass exodus at the start of the haftorah isn't inconspicuous. Everyone sees the Kiddish Club members leave. Some do it proudly. Some members invite guests to join them as they leave. How important can the davening be if a good chunk of the attendees leave in the middle?
  2. Kiddish Clubs as social statements: Like it or not, we are social animals. Our neighbors' behavior affects us. So, if I'm a person trying to take davening seriously and watch a group of guys leave in the middle, how does that make me feel? Clearly, the cool guys get it. They've done their davening and now they've moved on. And in my former shul, the kiddish club members were the "cool" guys, leaving all the "losers" to stay in davening and suffer the rabbi's drashah. Did they ever say that? Of course not. They didn't have to.
  3. Kiddush clubs as educational tools: What better way to educate your children about the insignificance of prayer, the unimportance of hearing words of Torah from the rabbi, and the irrelevance of having an actual spiritual experience in shul on Shabbat? (I intentionally omit the booze/drinking aspect. That's been addressed before. And if you don't realize that you're an alcoholic, my blog post certainly won't help you.)
  4. Kiddish clubs as Kiruv tools: Imagine you're a seeking, searching soul looking for a place that will connect you to authentic Judaism. So your lawyer friend invites you to join him at his shul. After witnessing the Kiddish Club, is there any chance that Orthodoxy falls several notches in your eyes? Is it any wonder that our shuls are so bad at kiruv, and "outreach centers" do so much better than we do? Sure, Chabad loves to serve a good drink. But they do it after davening!
  5. Kiddish clubs as membership motivators: Sure, there are people attracted to the camaraderie of the Kiddish club. But what about the opposite effect: the masses of people running in droves away from larger shuls to the smaller shteibels. Do we really wonder why? I could never really get serious, religiously motivated people to daven at my shul on a regular basis, and while that doesn't fall totally on the back of the Kiddish Club, it certainly did not help.
The comments on the YouTube page of the video say it all:
"Shkoyach from one of the founding fathers of the BZKC in Montreal, the best kiddush club to ever exist! Now a proud member of the CHMKC in seattle."
"If my shul had a Kiddush Club, I'd say Skoyach. But everyone in my shul knows the 2 rules of Kiddush Club: Rule #1: There is no Kiddush Club. Rule #2: see rule #1"
This is the Kiddish Club MO: deflect any criticism with light-hearted banter and sarcasm. Tell people to chill out. Make a funny "Fight Club" reference. Enjoy the thrill of the Kiddish Club. Take it easy. It's not that big a deal.
It is a big deal, and the longer large shuls ignore them, the more membership they will lose, and the faster Modern Orthodoxy will continue to fade into irrelevance on the American scene.

Here's the truth: Kiddish Clubs represent the very worst aspects of Modern Orthodoxy. I would not daven regularly in a minyan that sported a Kiddish Club, and would seriously think twice before joining a shul that did. Kiddish clubs are no less than a cancer on our shuls and our entire movement. The people who frequent them should be embarrassed, and not emboldened. Every shul in North America should abolish its Kiddish Club, damn the consequences.
If you attend such a club, it's not funny. It's not okay. You should be embarrassed that you can't sit through shul once a week. You're a terrible example for your children, your fellow shul members, and your community. You make a mockery of what a shul is supposed to represent: communion with God, spirituality, and seriousness.
I don't care how much money you have. I don't care how long you've been a member of the shul. If you want to get together with the boys for a drink and some kugel, do it at home, and not during davening. Because by building your Kiddish Club into not just a diversion, but an ideology, you've succeeded in transforming Modern Orthodoxy into a sad, pathetic joke.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Purim Costume Customs and A Philosophical Query

Come Purim, each person finds his niche. Some are great at Purim Torah, churning out a witty, thoughtful parody that makes its way around the interwebs. Others come up with clever themes for their mishloach manot, sending out lovely, tasty and inspiring treats dressed up as something else. (My favorite this year: we got a "plant theme", complete with chocolate mud cake, grass, a candied strawberry and even gummy worms.) Still others expends tremendous thought and energy designing, creating and even sewing clever costumes - especially here in Israel. It's not uncommon to see kids dressed in costumes created from scratch by their parents, er - mothers.
Not us. We now have our own costume custom: pull down the costume box from the attic, and see what we can pull out.
It's worked for the past couple of years, so why not this year.
Our son, Petachya, is almost five, which means that he's the perfect size for our Robin costume. First of all, this brought up a tricky problem. I took him to gan in costume on Friday, and they asked me what he was dressed up as. I said "Robin." In the States, I would have gotten a knowing look, an "Oh, how cute," and moved on. Not here. The gannenet gave me this puzzled look, as in, "What's a robin? Isn't that a kind of bird?", kind of shrugged, and we moved on.
In any case, when putting on his costume Petachya wanted the whole getup, including the belt and cape. When he started "flying around", we had to, of course, explain to him that Robin could not actually fly.
Which only made us wonder: if Robin couldn't fly, why did he wear a cape?
Why indeed?