Friday, July 30, 2010

Practice? You Talking 'bout Practice. A Topic for the Table for Parshat Eikev

When we think of medieval commentators who we would consider Zionist, Ramban comes first to mind. After all, Ramban lists living in Israel as a mitzvah in the Torah, and many of his comments about the Land form the earliest clear direction from which Modern Religious Zionism developed. He probably would argue that he's only quoting from the Midrash, Gemara, etc. (and he'd be right), yet, Ramban is always the Zionists' go-to guy.
And then there's Rashi, considered for centuries the first place to look when we try to understand a piece of the Torah. Was Rashi a Zionist? I would say yes. After all, the very first Rashi in the Torah relates directly to the Land of Israel. It cannot be coincidental that Rashi chose that topic to open his commentary. But that first commentary, pro-Israel as it is, pales in comparison to a comment in Rashi that appears in Parshat Eikev.
Eikev contains the second chapter of Kriat Shema, beginning with the words והיה אם שמוע - "if you listen..." Basically, the chapter outlines a policy of reward and punishment, telling us if we keep God's commandments, everything will be great. But if we don't...then it won't. At the conclusion of the section the Torah tells us,
וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת-דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה, עַל-לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל-נַפְשְׁכֶם; וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל-יֶדְכֶם, וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם.
Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.
Commenting on this verse Rashi writes,
אף לאחר שתגלו היו מצויינים במצוות, הניחו תפילין, עשו מזוזות, כדי שלא יהיו לכם חדשים כשתחזרו, וכן הוא אומר, "הציני לך ציונים"
Even after you are exiled remain practiced in [performing the] commandments. Lay tefillin, make mezuzot, in order that when you return they are not new to you. In this manner it is written, "Set thee up waymarks" (Jeremaiah 31, 20)
Rashi's comments, copied almost verbatim from the Midrash are, at the very least troubling. There's really almost no way to avoid them. He explicitly states that performance of the mitzvot outside the Land of Israel is little more than "practice." Do these things outside of Israel, so that you're ready, and they're not strange to you when you come to the Land.
Is that really what Rashi thought? He himself lived in France, and it's a safe bet that he put on Tefillin every day of his life. Did he himself think that he was just "practicing"? How should Jews living in the Golah relate to this Rashi (other than moving to Israel - which is a great idea! Highly recommended!)
I've got my own answer, (or at least the beginning of one) but the question and the subsequent discussion are far more important. If someone asks, I'll post my thoughts next week.
Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Eikev - Shema Part 2: For the Love of God!

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Eikev - Shema Part 2: For the Love of God!

After a short diversion into an amazingly Zionistic Rashi found in the second chapter of Shema, we return to the first chapter of Shema to ask: How can God command us to Love Him? It's a classic question, and we discuss several of the classic answers and how we can impart them into our daily lives.

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

Statement of Principles: Why I Haven't Signed

About six months ago, I received an email from Rabbi Nati Helfgot about a "Statement of Principles" that he was working to draft about how Orthodoxy should relate to homosexuality and people with homosexual tendency. I chose then not to get involved in the process, mostly because I'm not in the active rabbinate. The statement has been the topic of heated, respectful discussion on internal rabbinic email lists, but I must admit that I had not been following close attention. Then, yesterday, I received an email asking whether my name is, "intentionally missing", and whether I wanted to sign on.
Now I feel the need to respond to the statement, and why I did not - and do not plan on signing it.
First and foremost, I agree with the vast majority of the statement. I take issue with some of the language in the section about the children of openly gay couples which states that,
...communities should display sensitivity, acceptance and full embrace of the adopted or biological children of homosexually active Jews in the synagogue and school setting
Of course the children did not make their parents' choices. But how does a shul "fully embrace" a child while at the same time rejecting that child's parents' relationship? What is the rabbi supposed to say at the Bat Mitzvah? Does he acknowledge the parents (and laud them for their chessed, kindness, activism, what have you - common rabbinic practice), and indirectly project an approval for their family structure? (You could argue with that assumption of indirect approval, but I feel it would be there. You could also argue that we do precisely the same thing for parents who are not Shomer Shabbat. Fair point, but I see a difference.) I am not comfortable with the language in the statement, and probably would not have signed it for that reason alone. Or maybe they would have softened it if I had asked. Who knows?
Yet, I won't sign the statement for a more nuanced reason: I don't want to single out homosexual people at all. We live in a culture where a person's homosexuality is, by definition, a defining attribute of their identity. Every gay person, Western Culture says, should "Come out of the closet" and express their sexual identity with pride. Torah Judaism obviously sees things differently, and views homosexual tendencies as a spiritual challenge that one must struggle to overcome.That being the case, a paragraph like this troubles me.
Accordingly, Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community. As appropriate with regard to gender and lineage, they should participate and count ritually, be eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally be treated in the same fashion and under the same halakhic and hashkafic framework as any other member of the synagogue they join. Conversely, they must accept and fulfill all the responsibilities of such membership, including those generated by communal norms or broad Jewish principles that go beyond formal halakhah.
Mima Nafshach: If a Jew keeps his or her sexual orientation private, then she or he should of course be welcomed as a full member of the community. Who doesn't struggle to overcome sinful inclinations, be they the desire to surf porn on the internet or cheat on one's taxes? That's why we come to shul. But if a Jew has declared that lifestyle to be part of their identity, then they also insist that the community embrace their unacceptable behavior as part of the communal norm. That I cannot accept.
The statement bothers me because the very notion of singling out people with homosexual tendencies and their place in the community highlights the very thing that I feel is no one's business but their own. I (community member) don't want to know. I should not know, and should ask the single man to daven for the amud, lein, give shiurim, and live a full and productive life. I don't want to treat him as a "male with homosexual tendencies." I want to relate to him like a fellow Jew. To do that requires that he keep his personal struggles, as strong as they are, private.
Note here: I am not speaking as his rabbi. If he seeks spiritual guidance, he should turn to the rabbi who can offer counsel, advice, and listen to his pain. He might tell his parents, so that they don't nudge him about getting married. But the private should remain so, and must not become an aspect of a person's public persona, especially in the context of a Torah community.
This is where we digress from today's popular culture. It was once acceptable to promote a policy of "Don't ask, don't tell." (That's pretty much what I'm advocating.) But gays in broader society wonder, justifiably so, why they should hide a core component of what they view as their identity. It's a fair question.
But Judiasm cannot view homosexual tendencies in this way. It absolutely prohibits homosexual behavior, and demands that we fight to overcome those tendencies. It can never view these inclinations as a core aspect of one's identity. So to release a statement of principles which seems to counter this attitude is, in my view, counterproductive.
There is another, more sinister element to the list. It will now create a split in the Orthodox community between those who signed, and those who will not, for whatever reason. "Why did Rabbi So-and-So sign? Why did Rabbi Such-and-Such not sign? What if I was still in the pulpit but did not want to sign the statement for the reasons I outlined above? What would a congregant struggling with homosexuality think of me? Am I now "against" him - despite the fact that I've been very public about how we should respect and admire people who struggle with homosexuality. The very appearance of this list, while well-meaning, will undoubtedly cause rifts between community members within communities and between rabbis and their congregants.
Is it worth it?
I really don't know.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Rotem Bill

Living in Israel, I find the entire Rotem bill episode troubling to say the least. Not every Religious Zionist or Modern Orthodox (I really don't know what I am anymore) rabbi is in favor of the loosening of restrictions on Giyyur. What is the point of giyyur if we don't require shmirat hamitzvot? People complain about the rabbinate, and I'm sure that there are problems that could be improved, but in reality, the process is difficult and demanding. Do we not sometimes shoot the messenger? More than once I took the"blame" for a conversion that did not proceed with my blessing for the very simple reason that the convert wasn't serious enough in my view.
So, ironically, the liberal streams of American Jewry are doing exactly what the rabbinate hoped - killing a bill that they really, really didn't like over a small technicality. I personally am not in
favor of having a situation of איש הישר בעניו יעשה regarding giyyur. The RCA released a very long, drawn-out statement that basically said, "We should butt out." While I don't disagree with the RCA's hands-off statement, we could very easily have agreed that the bill should be killed - for precisely the opposite reason.
Moreover, I don't see the bill solving any problems. Does anyone really think that the hundreds of thousands of Russians living in Israel really want to convert? They're not interested in religion.
They just want to be full citizens in Israel. (much like many secular Israelis). Let's say that this bill passes. Does anyone think that suddenly all 300,000 Russians will line up to convert? Of course they won't. Let's imagine that the numbers increase tenfold - a staggering increase. What will you do with the other 260,000 Russians totally uninterested in Judaism?
Moreover, let's say that the bill passes, and that different courts start doing more lenient giyyur. To my mind, this will cause an even greater crisis than before, as religious Jews will distrust all
giyyur, and question every ger who wants to marry into the community.
There's a really fascinating Mishnah at the end of Eduyot (8:3) that speaks strongly to this issue. 
העיד רבי יהושוע ורבי יהושוע בן בתירה על אלמנת עיסה, שהיא כשרה לכהונה; ...אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, קיבלנו את עדותכם; אבל מה נעשה וגזר רבן יוחנן בן זכאי, שלא להושיב בית דין על כך, והכוהנים שומעין לכם לרחק, אבל לא לקרב.
Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Beteira testified about an almanat issah, that she is kosher to marry into priestly families...Said Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, we accept your testimony. But what can we do, that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai decreed that we cannot establish courts for these matters, and the priests listen to you to distance, but not to bring close.

Skipping the nitty gritty details, there was a type of woman called an almanat issah, the widow of a man who had a minute chance of being forbidden to enter into priestly families. The letter of the law decided that this type of woman could marry into the families of the Kohanim. But the end of the Mishnah is very, very telling. No one cared about the letter of the law. The Kohanim were very happy to listen to the rabbis' chumrot, (stringencies), but when they issued lenient opinions, the kohanim weren't interested.

It's amazing how little things have changed. Let us not doubt for a moment that if and when the "establishment" cheapens the value of conversion, many Jews will do one of two things: they will not accept any converts into their communities, or they'll establish their own courts to conduct "proper" conversions.
 We might not like it, but that's the way it will be. If someone is a Russian ger, people will want to know who did the giyyur, was the person religious afterward, etc. Cheapening giyyur might make admission to secular Israeli life easier, but not acceptance - not just on the part of the rabbinate, but on the part of the public.
The only solution I can see is creating a secular structure to allow non-Jewish Israelis to marry, live their lives, etc. That's long overdue, and to my mind will create less of an intermarriage issue
than the giyyur "solution" ever could.
The bill has now been "tabled" and I'm not sorry about it. But I think that's a mistake. I don't want it tabled. I want the bill to suffer a quick demise for an entirely different reason: What will the liberal community speak about during the upcoming High Holidays?
We're living in a critical time for Israel's security. We really really need broad-based American support for sanctions against Iran, if only to strengthen American resolve for the what-next if and when the sanctions don't work. Most rabbis give probably one solid Israel speech out of the four major speeches during the chagim. What will their speeches be about? The way the bill is today, are the rabbis going to talk about Israel's critical need for support from American Jews?
Doesn't seem likely.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Car Saga Part II

Properly equipped with a rental car, I take great care to make sure that I return the car exactly how I got it. I even parked a distance away from the entrance to the supermarket to avoid unnecessary pings and dents. You know the phrase - mentch trach un Gott Lacht - that's about as much Yiddish as I know - when I came back to the car, I saw that there was a small dent in the door of the rental, probably from someone's shopping cart. I should have parked closer.
Fast forward to today. Itzik calls me and says, the car is ready. Can you come now? I was already at work, but turned around. He'd been really nice, so I figured I'd try and save him a day on the rental. Wouldn't happen.
When I got there, the car was ready (nice work), so I went up and paid. In a rather humorous twist, he told me not to tell the secretary about the "other dent" that he fixed. She doesn't like when he does work so cheap. At least that's what he told me. I show him the dent in the rental, and his guys immediately get to work. No problem. We'll take care of it.
As we're settling up, she looks at the insurance invoice, unfolds the bottom of the page and says, "Oh, you're supposed to get a front alignment." Really.
I'm ready to leave. Itzik gives me the keys and I ask him, "What about the front alignment?"
"You want one?"
"Sure I want one. It's on the invoice."
He calls over one of his workers, telling him to run ourselves over to the local alignment shop and have the car tested. They do a "quick" test, and discover that the car badly needs an alignment, which leaves me in a bind. I've really got to get to work. I can't use my car - it needs an alignment. I can't use the rental - it's being fixed.
No problem. Itzik lends me his other loaner car which I use to drive to work.
So, on the way home, I drove his loaner from Orot to the body shop. Then I drove the rental car (now fixed and painted) from the body shop to the rental car place. Then the rental car guy dropped me back at the body shop where I finally picked up my car again, so I could drive home.
All for a felafel.
After all this, I'm rather proud that I kept my cool and kept things in perspective.
When I first saw Itzik this morning, I said that he's got a problem.
"What's that?" he asks me.
"Well, no one can visit you in your business and say, 'Hey Itzik, great to see you!'"
He laughed, and said that on Rosh Hashanah, when people wish each other a year of easy parsnassah, they don't really know what to say to him. After all, his parnassah depends on their mistakes. But he did say something that rang true.
"I'm not so bad. If people don't want to see me, imagine what they say to the doctor."
True enough. After all this hassle for a (really good) falafel, thank God we're all healthy. It cost me some money, aggravation and time, but everyone's well.
And that's what's really important.

Here is the beginning of my post. And here is the rest of it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Va'etchanan 5770 - What are We Listening For?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Devarim - Living with Faith

The first chapter of Kriat Shema appears in Vaetchanan, and this seemed like a great opportunity to focus on the deep, critical message of the Shema. What should we focus on as we recite the Shema, and how is that connected to the Syms (the computer game, not the clothing store) and Wired Magazine?

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

Meet Itzik. The Guy Who Fixed My Car. A Truly Israeli Story. Part I

Last week I ate the most expensive falafel ever. It cost me 1,017 shekel. 17 shekel for the falafel - it was an "aish tanur" the big kind, and 1,000 shekel to pay for the huge dent that resulted when I tried to park my car.
I called my insurance, and decided to have the car fixed in a garage in Petach Tikvah, which is a little out of my way on my drive to work. I GoogleMapped, and found a place in close proximity to a car rental agency.
I arrive at the body shop on Sunday morning, and meet Itzik. (For those of you interested in learning Hebrew, the word for "body shop" is פחחות. pachechut. Now you know.) Itzik is probably seventy, with a narrow mustache that was popular in the 40s. Maybe. He's got an intercom up to his secretary in the office from the 70s. To get up to the office you climb up a narrow, rickety, spiral staircase. I'm quite sure Itzik hasn't been up there in years.
"You're Elkana?" he asks me. I am. They were expecting me.
I show Itzik the car, and point out another dent on the other side of the car, asking if he can fix it. He first offers 450 shekel, and when I point out that he needs not paint the whole door, he brings the price down to 300 shekel. (For the main accident, which required the replacement of my door, I had a 1,000 shekel deductible.) Itzik's secretary, Chana, arranged a rental car, and Itzik got into his car to drive me there. As we're getting in the car I ask him, "Shouldn't you give me some kind of receipt?" After all, I was leaving a very expensive car with someone who I'd met not ten minutes before.
Itzik laughed. He really laughed, kind of involuntarily, as if to say, "You stupid American. What, you don't trust me?" What could I do? I left the car. No receipt. He seemed nice enough.

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Am I Fasting? Thoughts on Tisha B'av

This week on my way out of Orot, I stopped and picked up a couple of students who were headed my way. I try not to chat up the girls - they're often tired and just want a quiet ride and seem quite happy not listening to the English podcasts I enjoy. But this girl did want to talk, especially when she heard my Hebrew (and immediately realized that I'm from the U.S.). She had a problem with her relatives who were visiting from Passaic. She wanted to try and convince them that they should live in Israel, but somehow she kept coming up short. After all, they're religious, devoted to a Torah lifestyle, keep the mitzvot. What could she possibly say to them? Truth be told, she herself was struggling with the same question: why struggle here when it seems so easy over there.
Upon further reflection, it seems like a perfect Tisha B'av question.
Living in Israel, fasting on Tisha B'av presents its own unique challenges. While we mourn the destruction(s) of the past and lament the absence of a Temple and a Divine Presence in the world, many of the Kinot fail to resonate with me. How can I yearn for Zion while sitting on the ground in my shul - in Zion? We do not cower under the angry fist of other nations. Sure, there are people who hate us, and nations that wish to destroy us. But it's hard to cry about our subjugation to the nations during the reading of Eichah last night, as I hear helicopters and jets from our Air Force, protecting us, whiz by on their way to and from the nearby air base.
What then do we mourn today? Of course we mourn the absence of the Beit Hamikdash (a well-kept Orthodox secret. We don't want people to know what we really think, because then we might be considered radical and dangerous. Update: Kudos to former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau for telling it like it is.). But that seems abstract, difficult to quantify. What does the lack of a Beit Hamikdash really mean?
Let's go back to my inquisitive tremper. (To tremp means to hitchhike in Israel, so a tremper is a hitchhiker.) What I first should have told her is that it's a mitzvah to live here. God wants us to live here. So, as frum as you can be in Passaic, that's not where Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to be. Period. But I didn't say that. I aimed higher.
Ultimately we must ask ourselves what we want to be. What aspirations do we have - not just individually, but nationally? What is our role supposed to be in the world? The Torah teaches us that God aspires for us to bring His word to the world - to be what Moshe called a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש - "a nation of priests and a holy people." Through our achievements, greatness, spirituality and holiness we have the power and potential to bring Godliness - and God Himself, back into the world. But no individual, no community, has that power. Only a nation has that ability to influence on a global scale. In order to have a chance to make that difference, first we need to have a nation, and only then can we think about step two - transforming that nation into something greater.
Does that nation exist today? Kind of. The Land is there. The army is there. But the desire to sanctify God's name is not. We still haven't figured out what type of nation we want to be. If you think about it, every major debate that takes place in Israel, hinges on this question: what kind of nation are we? We have - since our inception - denied the holiness of the Jewish State, instead preferring to paint ourselves as a western country, with the same goals and aspirations as every other: freedom, peace and prosperity.
These are not the ultimate Jewish goals. Ultimately, we wish to build a nation upon the strong foundations of the Torah. But we don't know how to get there.
Do we wait until the secular society, fed up with the religious coercion, leaves Israel once and for all, so that we're left to do as we please? That would be a tragedy.
Do we work to convince the country to return to the path of Torah, so that the country unites in the lofty goals of redemption and national repentance? That sounds amazing, but it would take a miracle.
I guess that's what I cry about today: our inability to allow our Jewishness to carry the day. That we fast and mourn, but have not yet mustered the courage or inspiration to take this nation to the next level - to become the ממלכת כהנים that we can and one day will be.
That deserves a day of fasting. At least I think it does.
But if that's not good enough for you, why are you fasting today?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Quick Pre-Tisha B'av Thoughts

1. The husband of a dear co-worker of mine suffered a stroke this week, and needs our prayers. Please pray for the Refuah Sheleimah of Shmuel Zvi ben Pnina. Not that this matters, but he's a really good guy, also great giving directions to new Israelis.
This would also be a good time to remind all of my faithful readers to get your blood pressure checked. And exercise regularly. Really.

2. I've been reducing my caffeine intake over the past few days in preparation for the fast. Last week it was half-and-half (half real beans, half decaf), and on Sunday I made the full switchover. Which leads me to my next comment: decaf tastes terrible. Is there something about caffeine that makes it taste good? (As an aside, this could also be why people like Pepsi Max, which has twice the caffeine of regular Diet Pepsi.)

3. There's a prohibition against doing laundry during the Nine Days that dates back to the times of the Mishnah. It seems clear that this was legislated to prevent people from enjoying the benefits of freshly laundered clothing. Of course, this prohibition was far more meaningful when it meant that we actually wore dirty clothes, as opposed to today when we just take another outfit out of the closet. Moreover, the prohibition against doing laundry seems counter intuitive: who likes doing laundry? What emerges is a kind of laundry amnesty period for (mainly) women, where they by religious prohibition are forbidden from doing normal housework. This is supposed to make them sad?
The only suggestion I can make is that while they do enjoy the break, the growing pile of laundry haunts them, as the Nine Days progress and it grows bigger....

and bigger....

and bigger....
...until the 10th of Av, the day when most of the Beit Hamikdash burned, and women must symbolically destroy their own "Temple" of dirty clothes that has self-generated itself to about the size of Neptune.
Or larger.
Have an easy fast.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Devarim - Living with Faith

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Devarim - Living with Faith

When Moshe challenged the people for lacking faith, he challenged us as well. What is Emunah? How must we express it towards God? And why did I smash my car buying a felafel? Really.

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

For last year's shiur, "From Faith to Reality," click here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is That Really What We Believe?

A couple weeks ago I got the latest copy of the OU's Jewish Action magazine which I found enjoyable and interesting. (Best piece by far: the fiery exchange between Rav Aharon Feldman of Ner Yisroel and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Quick piece of advice: Don't get into a debate with R. Aharon L. You will lose.)
One particular article caught my attention - at least enough to blog about. In a witty humor piece about Tefillat Haderech at the end of the magazine, describing our fears of traveling, and the modern relevance of the prayer the author writes,
It occurs to me that it’s time for Moshiach. Maybe even before this flight takes off. I calm myself reflecting that when he finally comes, a lot of people will be thrown out of work: first to go will be that beady-eyed girl with the clipboard at the El Al terminal (“You understend why I esk you ziss questions?”); doctors will head for the nearest kollel; the entire military will retrain in driving tractors. When that big shofar blows, x-ray scanners will be cast aside and we will dance onto the planes taking us to Eretz Yisrael, as baggage handlers cheerfully, gently load our belongings aboard.
I agree that it is time for Moshiach. It's always time - today, right now. But is this really the way that she thinks it's going to be: a big shofar, baggage handlers, and people dancing onto planes? I read those words with a sense of incredulity. Now I know why people don't come. Why come now when you have to get a job, and learn the language, and acclimate. Better to wait for the shofar. It'll be that much easier, and that much better when the shofar finally blows?
Sorry, but I don't think that's how it's going to be. If you want to move to Israel with singing and dancing, the time is right now. I fear that people waiting for the right moment will wait just a little bit too long, and when they're finally ready, the moment will have passed.
And then they'll come - if they can. But there are no guarantees.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Are Shuls Too Big?

In my capacity as a program coordinator for the students of the RIETS Israel Kollel, I had the pleasure of participating in an international rabbinic conference in Jerusalem sponsored by Tzohar, a "moderate" rabbinic group here in Israel. I was only able to participate for the first day, but it was an inspiring, lively exchange of ideas between rabbis from literally across the globe. The sessions focused greatly on exchanging ideas and information, and sharing challenging that span the world.
In one smaller breakout session, we were encouraged to share rabbinic dilemmas. One rabbi shared a powerful issue that resonated strongly with me. He wondered whether his shul is too big. I think that it probably is.
His shul, boasts 400 families (fyi - any information is doctored so as not to identify the rabbi). According to the rabbi, it's impossible to have a relationship with all 400, especially since many of them - more than half probably - don't come to shul on a regular basis. Moreover, there are really only about 50 families truly interested in spiritual growth. The rest of them want the membership services that the shul offers, but aren't really looking to the shul to propel them to improve or change in any meaningful way.
I would add that the 350 families who are complacent actually drive away the dedicated 5o families. These families come to shul looking for a religious experience, and find themselves confronted by people who'd rather talk during davening, leave for the kiddush club, and generally ruin any semblance of a spiritual atmosphere. So they leave, opting to pray in the smaller shtiebel down the block, where they can daven with people who are most "like them," and who will help them create the environment they want for themselves and their children.
This leaves the rabbi only increasingly frustrated, as he watches his best, most committed members abandon ship, leaving him with few devoted members capable of influencing the broader community.
The obvious problem? You can't live on a shul of fifty members. You need the other 350 to pay your salary, and provide the means for the rabbi to do his work.
I've been confronted by this problem personally in Yad Binyamin. Since we moved, we've been davening at the very large shul literally up the street from my house called Beit Knesset Mercazi. I even got myself elected to the board. I like the people in the shul very much - they're great, wonderful people. But the davening leaves a lot to be desired.
For whatever reason, many people in Israel feel quite comfortable bringing their kids to shul, even on Shabbat morning, and especially at other times. I'm also not talking about older kids. I'm talking about babies, in diapers. Often in strollers. Kids run around, all the time, wild, without any supervision. And, truth be told, I have found that many of my fellow-daveners prefer reading Shabbat Alonim (weekly parshah sheets of every shape and color) to actually davening. (That wouldn't be so bad if they weren't really just looking at the ads.) Before I moved to Israel my job determined where I davened. Now, with the freedom to pray where I'd like, I find myself increasingly drawn towards a more "seasoned" shul, where the davening is simply that - davening. (I don't think that the determining factor is the shul's size, but it does make a difference.) Ironically, I don't think that I'm alone. A large number of people have been fleeing the main minyan, resulting in the interesting phenomenon that the 7:15am hashkamah minyan is now packed; the 9:00am "youth" minyan is also full, but the main shul, where every seat is accounted for on a chart on the wall, is empty. Sounds eerily American. I know a lot of shuls like that.
Maybe you cannot really fulfill the needs of a large group of people in one shul. For years rabbis have been complaining about the shtiebelization of America: how droves of members have been fleeing the larger shuls for more intimate davening experiences. Who complained? I did, as did my colleagues. Of course we complained. We had a vested interest. After all, what about ברב עם הדרת מלך - the greater the size, the greater the glory of the King? (Mishlei 14:28) The answer might lie in the previous verse: יראת ה' מקור חיים - "the fear of God is the source of life." Without yirat hashem, all the numbers in the world won't bring the King any glory.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A New, Beautiful Kinot. Is it Too Beautiful?

Someone recently asked me, "Is there a minhag to use junky Kinot on Tisha B'av?" I had never heard of such a minhag, but I had heard of a different custom - to throw away our kinot each year after we use them.
The discussion begins with a comment of the Levush (on Orach Chayim 559:1)
וכל ימיי תמהתי: כיון שנוהגים לקרות איכה בציבור ולברך 'על מקרא מגילה', מדוע לא נהגו לכתוב מגילת איכה כמו מגילת אסתר על קלף וספר בפני עצמו כדין כל הספרים שצריכים לצאת בהם ידי חובתם בציבור? ואפשר שנהגו כן מפני שלא היה מצוי להם, מפני שהסופרים לא נהגו לכותבם משום שאנו מחכים ומצפים בכל יום שיהפוך לנו יום זה לששון ולשמחה ולמועד. ואם היו כותבים מגילת איכה, היו נראים כמתייאשים מן הגאולה חלילה. מה שאין כן במגילת פורים כי ימי הפורים לא יהיו מבוטלים לעולם. ולפיכך על-ידי הדחק נהגו לקרות איכה מתוך החומשים ואחר-כך אומרים הקינות
I always wondered: Since we have the custom to read Eichah communally and recite the blessing of "al mikra megillah", why did we not have the custom to write a complete Megillat Eichah like Megillat Esther on a klaf, as a unique whole book, like all the other books that have this requirement in order to fulfill the requirement of a public reading? Perhaps they had this custom [to read out of the Chumash] because [a whole Megillat Eichah] was not available to them, because the scribes didn't want to write any because we wait and expect each day that the day [of Tisha B'av] will be transformed for us into a day day of joy and rejoicing and holiday. And if they would write a Megillat Eichah, they would seem to be abandoning hope of the redemption, God forbid, something that is not true about Megillat Esther, for Purim will never be annulled (even after the Redemption). For this reason, we are forced to recite Megillat Eichah out of Chumashing, and then we recite the Kinot.
This comment formed the basis for a limited custom (found mostly in Chassidic circles) to throw away the Book of Kinot each year. Indeed, most people can remember a time in shul when we recited the Kinot out of cheap booklets (that were as hard to read as they were to understand). How the times have changed.
Artscroll, of course, published a very popular version of Kinot that helps most people at least understand what they're saying during the service. Now the OU and Koren Publishing have published a new, beautiful version of Kinot complete with an updated translation and commentary from Rav Soloveitchik. It's a wonderful resource I'm sure (I haven't seen it yet), and an important way to find greater meaning on Tisha B'av.
But, along the lines of the Levush's thinking, I am forced to wonder: with these beautiful hardcover versions of Kinot, are we "abandoning hope of the redemption, God forbid"? If we really thought that we'd need to throw them away, would we invest in purchasing such nice volumes of Kinot in the first place?

Almost too Sick to Believe.

You really need to see this. It is truly, truly breathtaking. And people wonder whether we here in Israel are paranoid. And, if the theme park isn't enough, just read some of the comments.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Matot - Vows and Values: Women in Orthodoxy

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Matot - Vows and Values: Women in Orthodoxy
The opening section of Matot deals with the laws of vows directly. But, through these laws, the Torah clearly articulates a perspective on women's roles in Jewish society. What happens when the Torah view directly clashes with modern society? How do we deal with this difficult struggle, especially with regard to such a controversial issue in today's Orthodox world?

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

For last year's shiur, "Individual Wants vs Communal Needs," click here.

The Shalit March

Here in Israel today, a massive march on behalf of captured solider Cpl. Gilad Shalit finally winds its way to Yerushalayim. There the Shalits will encamp, outside the Prime Minister's office. The march began last Sunday in the north, and gathered steam, energy and people each day, to the point where thousands of people have joined the family during the final legs of the march.
I wanted to join. I wanted to walk with the Shalits to tell them that my heart was with them, that they're not alone; that every Israeli - and I'm sure every Jew around the world - thinks about their plight, the suffering of their son, and prays for his safety and well-being.
But I couldn't.
I could not join the march not because I don't pray for Gilad Shalit, but because the march is a political activity intended on convincing the government to trade Gilad at any price, no matter how high. It's message is to bring Gilad home, no matter which terrorists we have to free to get him back.
And while all Israelis certainly want him home, it's not at all clear that they agree with the Shalit's on this point. The Shalits have to make their demands. Gilad is their son. It's personal. But for the government, it can't be personal. It must be a calculated decision about the nation's best interests. Sure, getting Gilad back will bring joy to his family. But what about the family of the person killed, God forbid, by the terrorist freed to bring Gilad home?
In a way, the entire tragic episode leaves me with a sense of pride: what other nation would take Gilad's capture so personally? Where else would such a march take place? What other nation would produce such an outpouring of love? Sure, here it affects us all so strongly because everyone has a family member in the army. (Short story: A coworker in YU Israel was telling me about her son's upcoming trip to Eilat to go snorkeling. My response: Sounds dangerous. Are you nervous? Her: "No, that's nothing. My other son is now patrolling the Philadelphia Corridor. So snorkeling doesn't bother me.")
But there's something greater going on here. Deeply rooted in our DNA is the principal of כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה. Gilad is our son - all of ours - so we feel his parents' pain that much more profoundly. We detach ourselves from them not because we want to, but because we have to; because our enemies count on us making a personal decision when it's the wrong decision to make.
It's a complicated calculus, not without irony. In a way, the Gilad march actually makes things worse. If the Palestinians believed that Israel didn't really care all that much about Shalit (exactly what we believe about how Hamas relates to its own children), then Gilad wouldn't be all that valuable to hold. So, as much as the protest helps, it probably hurts the real efforts to bring Gilad home. The more we protest, the more valuable he seems, and the harder it becomes to secure his release.
But tell that to a parent, who goes to sleep each night and wakes up each morning thinking about her son, held captive in a basement in Gaza.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A List of Names: Thoughts on Parshat Masei

Jewish Communities
The opening sectioning of Masei chronicles the travels of the Jewish people as they traversed the desert. As we read through the list of places we don't recognize, we begin to wonder: who cares about all these places? Why did the Torah include them? The anonymous places carry a chilling message for the Jewish people as we contemplate Tisha B'av.

To download a pdf version of the d'var Torah, click here. Otherwise, continue reading.

When my children grow up, I imagine that one day we’ll look at the old photos and tell them about the places where we lived. “Well, we got married and lived in the Washington Heights. Then we moved to Linden, NJ, and then to West Hartford, CT. From there we moved to Oak Park, MI (We moved around a lot.). Then we made aliyah to Yad Binyamin.”
What will my children think about these different places? What could Linden, New Jersey or a small city in Connecticut mean to them? What about their children? To us the names of these cities bring back memories of small homes, early married life, friends and relationships from an earlier time in our lives. But to our children – and especially to their children (God willing!) the names of these places will probably mean nothing. They’re just names of places, no different than any other place to which they’ve never been and will probably never visit.
I think about these names of places when I read the first section of Parashat Masei. The first section of the parashah lists a number of places, most of which we’ve never heard of and could never locate on a map. Did you know that the Jewish people traveled from Livnah to Risah to Keheilatah to Har Shafer? It’s right there in the Chumash; (33:21-23) the list goes on and on, a litany of places that I neither remember nor care about.
Chazal too wondered about this long list of names. Rashi and Ramban suggest that the list is surprisingly short to teach us just how much God loved the Jewish people. He loved them so much that He only forced them to uproot the camp a relatively small number of times over a forty-year period. Ramban also quotes Rambam who suggests in Moreh Nevuchim that one day people might claim that the Jews never really traveled in the desert. (Can you imagine?) Therefore, the Torah meticulously chronicles their travels to affirm that the nation really did survive miraculously in the desert. Yet, even after quoting Rambam’s long explanation, Ramban adds,

והנה מכתב המסעות מצות ה' היא מן הטעמים הנזכרים או מזולטן, ענין לא נתגלה לנו סודו...
Behold, the writing of these travels is a commandment of God, either due to the reasons mentioned or without them; this is a matter whose secret is not revealed to us…
In essence, says Ramban, we don’t know why Moshe wrote down the names of the places, other than the fact that God commanded him to do so. God wanted us to have this long list, and didn’t tell us why.
Yet, while I don’t know precisely why God commanded Moshe to record the list, I can tell you how reading the list of these places makes me feel: I feel like I’m reading a list of Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Have you ever tried to look at map of Jewish Poland, and just read through the names of the communities? Just Google “shtetels in Poland”. I recognized perhaps five – of more than fifty! The names are foreign, strange. Have you ever heard of Kanczuga, Kiernozia, Kleczew, Konin, Korczyna, Krasnosielc, or Kurzelow? And those are just the K’s that have websites. Have you ever visited the Valley of Communities at Yad Vashem? It’s a haunting canyon that simply lists the names of destroyed Jewish communities during the Holocaust. If I would ask you how many communities are on the list, how many would you guess? 500? 1,000? Would you believe that over 5,000 names of communities are engraved on the walls of the Valley of Communities?
They don’t even feel real to me. And despite this feeling I know that each name not represents not just a place, but tens or hundreds or thousands of Jews who built families, communities, shuls and schools. And now they’re gone. How many thriving Jewish communities from Northern Africa are now just names on a list? What about the former Soviet Union? Ukraine? The Middle East? The list goes on and on.
This is the mournful message of Massei. The travels of the Jewish people outside the land of Israel are fleeting, temporary, and anonymous. We might stop at one location for a shorter time, and another for longer – perhaps much longer. But in the end, each place will be forgotten, just a memory of its former self, a name on a list, but nothing more.
Can it be a coincidence that we always read Massei during the Three Weeks, the period of time when we recall the destruction of Jewish communities from around the world? We know that as they traveled through the desert, the Midrash teaches us that each Tisha B’av, every Jew who reached the age of sixty that year died. How many Jewish graveyards were lost in the sands of the Sinai desert? Maybe this list is both a lament and a foreshadowing; a kinah of God for the lost time and the destroyed Jewish community which perished in the desert - a lamentation for the tens of thousands of Jews who died needlessly in the desert, and the tens of millions who would perish after them in the desert of the exile.
And what about America? To me names like Baltimore and Akron and St. Louis and Lawrence and Oceanside and Brooklyn seem natural. I’ve been to those places. I know people who live there. But do we have any illusion that they will always be known as Jewish places? (Is that something we even want?) How long will it be before those cities also become anonymous names on a meaningless list, foreign and alien and hard to imagine?
I’m sorry to be so depressing. Tisha B’av is coming.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Partners in Peace? With Friends Like These...

Today the New York Times reported that,
Mohammed Oudeh, a former math teacher who became the mastermind of the deadly attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, died Friday in Damascus.
Sounds like good news, doesn't it? Actually, it doesn't, not only because of his feelings about his role in the murder of innocent Israeli athletes, but even more because of the reactions of Israel's current "peace partners." Although in 1996 Oudeh, "and several other former guerrillas were allowed back by to Israel in order to attend an assembly amending the Palestinian national charter," and "joined those voting to remove the charter’s call for an armed struggle to destroy the Jewish state," he didn't feel all that bad about the terrorism after all.
“Would you believe me if I tell you that if I had to do it all over, I would?” he said in a 2008 interview with The Associated Press. “But maybe, just maybe, we should have shown some flexibility. Back in our days, it was the whole of Palestine or nothing, but we should have accepted a Palestinian state next to Israel.”
Thanks for that last part. Sadly, he never really changed his mind about being a terrorist mastermind. All he would have changed were his tactics; maybe not to kill all the prisoners - just some of them.
Of course, Hamas issued a statement mourning his death. But would you be surprised to learn that,
Amin Maqboul, secretary general of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization faction to which Mr. Oudeh belonged, praised him as “a fighter of the highest order.”
That's right - Fatah, the guys that we're supposed to be negotiating with in the West Bank. The group that the world wants Israel to give back territory to; our supposed partners for peace. These are the good guys, and they're mourning the death of a murdering terrorist.
At least Oudeh told the sad, unpopular truth: terrorism works. The Munich Olympics really did put the PLO on the map, and set the stage for the Palestinian Authority that we have today. So it's not so hard to understand why he would do it all over again today.
But if he would, wouldn't the people mourning him do it as well?
And these are the people that we're supposed to trust?