Monday, August 30, 2010

A Timeless Message, Still Relevant

I recently found the following quote:
Imagine that you are about to take a trip to another world.
You are preparing for a most exciting experience. It will be a totally different place, and you are looking forward to things you have never seen or experienced before.
But it is different, and you will have to adjust to it. Your experiences here will be of little use to you once you get there.
You are given an instruction manual, telling you how to live on this new world. It is a thick book, filled with detailed charts and lists. You read it through and are left very confused and distressed. How can one understand this new world? How will one possibly adjust to all these complex conditions and rules? Before you have started, you are almost ready to abandon the trip completely.
But you make up your mind and decide to go through with the trip. You get there, and as you expected, find it very difficult to adjust, but then the days pass, and you become used to your new world. After a while, all your questions and apprehensions have vanished.
A while later, you look at your instruction manual again. This time, you read it in a new light. Most of it now seems very obvious. Things look very different now that you have experienced them.
What do you think that this quote was written about? Anyone who's a regular reader of this blog would probably tell you that it's a quote about aliyah and living in Israel.
Only it's not.
It was written in 1974 by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. He wrote these words about keeping Shabbat.
I was reading his short work on Shabbat in preparation for an online class that I'll be giving this semester. I'm amazed at how clear, precise and relevant his words still are.
And he encapsulates a problem that many teachers struggle with. You can take students only so far with intellectual study. It can be involving, engrossing, engaging. But at the end of the day, it's a cerebral activity. You can study your entire life, and never once experience the joy and beauty of Shabbat.
How can you convince someone to take the fateful leap to make a significant life change that will on the one hand, be profoundly jarring at first, but in the end deeply meaningful? How do you convey a feeling that is only meaningful when experienced personally?
I guess that's why they call it a "leap of faith."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Being There for Our Children - Thoughts for Rosh Hashanah

As my children have grown I they prompt me to think about Teshuvah in terms of my role as a parent. Parenting (like Jewish life), is an endless task. The demands seem infinite, whether in terms of financial obligations (especially if you live in chutz l'aretz and have to pay for yeshiva tuition) but even more so in time and energy. I find myself wondering: Do I do enough? Do I spend enough time with my children, es pecially the older ones? Am I helping them develop properly? And, as my older son recently celebrated his bar mitzvah, I ask the opposite question: Am I too controlling? Am I allowing and encouraging him to develop on his own?

Click here to download the shiur.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding: A Watershed Jewish Moment

It's been almost a month since the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding that rocked the Jewish world. The more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that as rampant as intermarriage is in America, the wedding represents a watershed moment for Judaism (and its demise) in non-Orthodox America.
Historically, while intermarriage has grown increasingly acceptable, it used to be at least "taboo." It was something to be, if not ashamed of, at least upset about. Parents made an attempt to convert the future spouse, if, for no other reason, sentimentality.
Yet, the picture of the Clinton wedding tells precisely the opposite story. It revels in the intermarriage. It's a celebration of the merge of cultures. At one time, a Jewish man marrying a gentile woman would have hid his Jewisness at the ceremony: no kippah, no tallit, no chupah, and certainly no ketubah. But this wedding demonstrates powerfully that this is no longer the case. Jews have gone from mourning marrying out to reveling in it as a celebration of a merger of different faiths, values and cultures. Intermarriage is the ultimate American expression: two people, coming from rich traditions, bringing their own heritage to a new family dynamic.
When I mentioned this to Rena, she noted that this phenomenon goes back to the hit movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It was a really funny movie, but set precisely this tone. Who was the villain in the movie? The father who opposed his daughter marrying someone not from the Greek community. But he wasn't just depicted as old-fashioned. He was a fool - someone who believed that you could cure any ailment with Windex.
That's us today - the Orthodox who continue to reject the richness of American diversity - at least for ourselves. We're the idiotic parents who spray Windex on everything.
And, as I feared, the cards are beginning to fall even among the Conservative rabbinic leadership, which is supposed to lead the charge against intermarriage.
Rabbi Jason Miller, of Michigan, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the Forward calling for the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly to change its rules to allow its members to attend intermarriages. This comes following JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen's attendance at, you guessed it, the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding. Rabbi Miller writes,
The R.A. isn’t about to allow its members to officiate at interfaith weddings. But the attendance ban, which is listed in the code of conduct alongside the officiation ban, is a different issue. This policy forces rabbis to choose between violating a rule and slighting loved ones. The policy, enforced or not, adds pain to an already difficult situation for families. It sends a message that Judaism puts tribalism before dignity and respect.
I wonder: Is the R.A.'s ban on intermarriage on such firm ground? Is it really that difficult to see the Conservative movement finding a reason to allow intermarriages (in situations where the spouse agrees to raise the children in a Jewish environment, of course), in the interests of putting "dignity and respect" above "tribalism"?
Rabbi Miller doesn't want to be the evil father who uses Windex for everything. He wants to be the cool kid. But that "tribalism" has preserved the Jewish community in the Diaspora for 2,000 years.
And abandoning it will not help that. It will only make things worse.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tavo - Modern Message of Mikra Bikkurim

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo - Modern Message of Mikra Bikkurim
Sometimes, words from the Chumash just jump out at you. You feel like they're speaking directly to you. I had that feeling this week when reading the first section of Ki Tavo about Mikra Bikkurim. Please be forewarned: this shiur is unabashedly Zionist. But then, so is the Torah.

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Another Crazy Israeli (Mis)Translation

You're a worldly person - willing to try new things, taste new kinds of foods. But then you're walking in the shuk in the city of Yafo (Jaffa) and you see the adjacent sign. And you wonder, what the heck is Grenad Juice? No, it's not "Grenad Juice". It's supposed to say "Grenade Juice". What's that? That's what you get when you're mistranslating.
In Hebrew, the word for pomegranate is רמון - "rimon". But the word rimon also means "grenade". (They do have a similar shape.) So the translator somehow mistook one "rimon" for the other. And misspelled it.

Thanks to Matan Erder for sharing the picture with me.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hospice, Death and the Orthodox Community

Death is no stranger to the Orthodox rabbi. In fact, death plays a major part in the rabbi's life. From frequent hospital visits, to the sometimes inevitable funeral, to the shiva and aveilut questions, a rabbi finds himself constantly surrounded by death.
Most aspects of death never really bothered me. I cannot say that I enjoyed them, but I appreciated the fact that at certain times I represented a source of solace and comfort that could come from no one else. People needed answers that only I could give them. They looked for a connection to the Eternal that I helped bring them closer to. They sought strength and guidance from a figure of authority that I could provide them. I found some of those experiences with families suffering in their darkest times to be the most meaningful of my rabbinic career.
And yet, at other times I felt impotent. I could only help so much. I could not alleviate the physical pain and emotional terror of the final throes of illness. And, on some occasions, I found myself pushed out of the picture to the detriment of my congregant.
In the Orthodox community, we consider human life a gift from God to be cherished and savored. Every moment is precious and holy; every instant sacred. For this reason, rabbis will often instruct doctors to take heroic measures in the interest of prolonging human life, even if the patient is comatose; even in the case of great suffering.
I take a more nuanced view. To my understanding, Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that a person is not required to endure pain and suffering to prolong her life. She could choose to forgo a treatment that might give her more time, but cause her considerable suffering. Yet, many rabbis take a different view, requiring that patients endure almost any amount of suffering to prolong their lives.
I once found myself in the hospital dealing with a dying member - we'll call her Sarah. Sarah had been suffering from prolonged congestive heart failure; multiple infections - normal end-of-life issues. She also had made her wishes perfectly clear: she was tired. She had had enough. She didn't want any more invasive treatments. (And if you've ever spent any time in the ICU you know just how invasive the treatment is.)
Yet, while Sarah and her husband belonged to my shul and attended regularly, their children had taken a more right-wing direction, and submitted their questions to a different authority, who instructed that they continue to treat her. They decided to insert a pacemaker in her chest to regulate her heartbeat, knowing full well the danger of the procedure to a woman as sick as she was. In fact, twice during the procedure her heart stopped, and twice they shocked her back to life. She died later in the week.
Speaking to doctors (even frum ones), they often describe the treatment that Sarah had not as medicine, but as medically sanctioned torture. I used to think that doctors were predisposed against terminal patients; that if they couldn't cure them, then they wouldn't want to treat them; just make her comfortable - prolonging life was not important. That still might be true for many doctors. But there's another side as well; a side that needs to start asking whether because we can do something we in fact should; whether it's our place to force a person, either through halachic coercion or guilt to impose tremendous yissurim upon themselves during the final episode of their lives.
I think of Sarah often, and the memory of her final days fills me with a great deal of anger. I wish I could have done more for her. But the family didn't ask me. Her children were not my members, and her husband deferred to them. After her death I spoke on several occasions about the importance of an advanced directive, specifically emphasizing the importance of choosing the rabbi that you want to address your issues. I practically begged people to sign the document. Some listened, but others did not.
I thought of Sarah again this Shabbat as I read a powerful article in the New Yorker about hospice care by Dr. Atul Gawande. It's a very important piece, and I recommend that you take the time to read through it. I agreed with many of the questions the article raised, but especially the following paragraph.
Like many people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But studies suggest otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure. They found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months. The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer. When Cox was transferred to hospice care, her doctors thought that she wouldn’t live much longer than a few weeks. With the supportive hospice therapy she received, she had already lived for a year.
Are we going about it all wrong? We assume that because we cherish life, we must treat more. We must accept every procedure. We must continue to feed and hydrate to prolong life. But maybe we're going about it all wrong. Perhaps for certain illnesses, the way to prolong life is to emphasize comfort and life at home; to accept hospice and pain management and removal of hydration, giving the patient a semblance of life, and the ability to confront her final days in consciousness, surrounded by family, friends, and with the guidance of the rabbi.
For Sarah, it's too late. But what about the next Sarah, and the one after that? Why must they suffer?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Home at Last, Home at Last...

We're finally home. It was a great, long trip, but we're finally home. I want to share some impressions...
1. Stuff: The United States has much, much, much more stuff. The houses are bigger. The cars are bigger. The stores are bigger. I don't think that anything in Israel can compare to Walmart, in terms of hugeness. It's just ridiculous how much stuff you can get in one store, and how wide the aisles are. I think you could drive a car through Walmart. Really.
In Israel, it's not that you can't get stuff. You can get pretty much anything you want (for a price) - except for Heinz Sugar Free Ketchup. That you can't get. But there's less place to put the stuff. You don't need as much. In the United States, we had an extra freezer, full of food. Here in Israel, we're fine with the regular fridge. You learn to function with less, and I don't miss the "having" more that's so natural to life in America.
2. Aliyah from America. Or the lack of it. Yawn. I spoke in shul in Silver Spring last Shabbat between minchah and Ma'ariv in the afternoon. I spoke about Israel, Jewish identity, understanding mitzvot in the context of national identity - nothing I haven't written about on the blog before. (In fact, someone who happened to be at shul is a reader, and he told me that I basically combined three blog posts together. Sorry about that.) I ended with a pitch for living in Israel, as that is the greatest, most powerful expression of Jewish identity. The talk was fine, I guess, but I just had a sense that the audience wasn't really interested. People have heard the "Israel" message before. They know we're here. And they really do care about Israel. But living here? That's not that high on the agenda - if at all. Getting that sense made me sad.
3. Produce: The produce in Israel is better. Especially the cucumbers.
4. Prices: Food in America - especially the processed food, is much cheaper. Clothes as well. It's ridiculous how much you can get for not much money at Target. (Yes, we spent a lot of time shopping.)
5. Family: We didn't tour that much - it was more about finding stuff for the kids to do. But we did spend a great deal of time with family, which Israel doesn't have much of for us. While my brother lives here with his family, the rest of my siblings (as well as Rena's) live in the U.S., and we miss them. While the Shabbatot were crowded, it was great spending time with everyone, and even greater that our children had the opportunity to get to know some of their cousins, but upsetting that it's hard to know when they'll see them next, and that they won't really know their cousins well at all.
6. Great Grandparents: The prime motivators for our trip were Rena's grandparents, who we affectionately call Savta and Grandpa. (For reasons unclear to me, the great-grandchildren call Savta "Bubby"). They are getting on in years, and were unable to come to Israel for Simcha's bar mitzvah. So we promised when we made aliyah two years ago that we'd come during the summer to celebrate with them. Simcha davened at my in-laws' shul, read the haftarah, and we had a family party on Sunday for extended relatives. It was wonderful to see them in such high spirits, but also hard, for obvious reasons. It's difficult to know when we'll be able to see them again, which is both sad and sobering. We call and we're going to Skype, but it's not the same.
7. You can't go home again: Somehow, this visit back to Silver Spring was different for me. I feel increasingly alienated every time I go back to the community in which I grew up. Each time I recognize fewer people. I drive by the homes where I spent my childhood, but the original families no longer live in them. What are those people doing in that house? I find myself wondering. Most painful for me was the absence of Rabbi Anemer, z"l. The shul has hired his assistant to take over, but out of deference, Rabbi Rosenbaum does not sit in Rabbi Anemer's seat, whether in the main shul or in the chapel. Both sit empty, forlorn, lonely. Rabbi Anemer was, as someone described to me, like a security blanket. His presence made you feel good, that all was well, that he was taking care of things. And returning to Kemp Mill, seeing his stark absence, left an empty feeling in my heart.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Enterprise Rent-A-Car: The Cpmpany That Picks You Up. Unless You're Stuck on the Side of the Highway - Part 1

Part 1: The Ford Flex - Probably the Coolest Car I'll Ever Drive

As our tour of the East Coast nears its completion, we left Silver Spring today on the way back to New Jersey, where we'll spend the next couple of days before returning home on Wednesday. I note that we left Silver Spring headed towards NJ, but didn't mention how long it took us, because we had a slight mishap on the way with our rental car.
First a few words about our rental. When we arrived at JFK, I happened to call Avis to find out how to get there, and casually asked them to confirm our rental. They had never heard of us. And the price that they quoted on the web was now a great, great deal more expensive. And we needed a minivan to accommodate our large family. We decided to split up. My in-laws, who met us at the airport, took Rena and some of the kids, and I decided to rent a car to at least get us out of the airport, after which we'd figure out what to do from their house.
When I got to Enterprise, I happened to ask whether they had any minivans available. They did not, but they mentioned that they had an SUV. Would that be allright? Sure, why not. The lady let me choose, and I chose a really cool-looking Ford Flex. It's a rather cool car, and it had all the trimmings: leather seats, GPS, power everything, dual zone climate control, and a stereo that sounds better than anything I own at home. It was a great introduction to gashmiyut of the United States. The kids liked it so much that they'd ask me to turn on the map so that they could watch it as we drove, like a video. Petachya started calling the car our "GPS". I think he meant SUV, but what's the difference?
The car had all kinds of buttons, so at one point I told them that it was such a special car, that it had a special rocket button. They didn't believe me, so I told them to count to three, at which point I pushed one of the buttons on the console and floored it, which impressed them to no end. They continually asked me to push the rocket button again. I declined.
The car kept surprising us. This morning we finally decided to see if it was serious about DVDs. The kids had seen one of its many screens that it had a DVD function. Would it really play movies? Indeed, it would, even while driving. (That seems rather dangerous to me, actually.) Thankfully, that function would come in quite handy later on in the day. I wish we hadn't needed it.

To be continued...

Friday, August 13, 2010

Finally, Some Honesty from Lebanon

Following the deadly killing of an IDF officer (and wounding of another) on the Lebanese border, some members of Congress are beginning to wonder why the United States sends $100 Million in aid to the Lebanese Army. Theoretically, the idea was to bolster the official Lebanese army in the hopes that it would rebuff the continued growth of Hizballah. No such luck, as the Lebanese army now seems to be just a branch of the actual army that Hizballah has built.
While the U.S. State Department continues to insist that giving money to Lebanon is a good idea and brings "stability" to the region, people in Lebanon aren't so sure. An article on the subject in today's Washington Post said that,
"Don't imagine that a strong army can fight Hezbollah," said a retired Lebanese general, Elias Hanna. "Whoever thinks this is possible is under a delusion. . . . Most of the Lebanese army now is against Israel and is pro-Hezbollah."
That's not my favorite quote, though. The cake goes to Lebanon's Defense Minister Elias Murr who said in a news conference Wednesday:
"Let them keep their money or give it to Israel. We will confront [Israel] with the capabilities we have."
So, the United States gives Isreal money (well spent, I say) to defend itself against terrorist regimes. Then it gives a hundred million dollars to armies that are supposed to help in the fight against terrorism, but are actually allied with the terrorists, supported by Iran, which is trying to build nuclear weapons "for peaceful purposes."
Does anyone (other than the U.S. State Department) not see a problem here?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Congregations Gone Wild

Last week the NY Times featured an article about members of the clergy burning out at an alarming rate. This week the Times featured a follow-up op-ed piece suggesting that perhaps the burnout stems from the fact that congregations don't want pastors anymore. They want entertainers.

...pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

I feel their pain.
I don't want to leave an incorrect impression. I loved the rabbinate. I loved speaking and teaching, interacting with people, visiting them in the hospital. None of that bothered me in the least. And I never shied away from letting people know what I thought, which is probably why my shuls, while they certainly remained healthy, were never magnets attracting hordes of people. I'm not very good at showy, feel-good Judaism, and people looking for that sort of thing stayed away. (There were other places to go that would let you talk through davening uninterrupted. Just not my shul.)
Yet, as I looked at different rabbinic opportunities other than in Michigan, I noticed that the rabbinate seemed less about being a "rav", and more about being the "CEO" of the congregation. Rabbis are expected to manage numerous aspects of congregational life, from PR to scheduling to fund raising to office management - none of which can be called core responsibilities of the classic rabbinic role. In my shul in Israel (which has no rabbi), members fulfill all of those roles voluntarily. Yet, most rabbis in shuls in the U.S. do all of those things and more. (I know rabbis who set up the chairs and take care of the building.)
People ask me whether it's harder living in Israel now that I have to have three jobs (four really). I answer honestly: first of all, my last year in the United States I taught two hours in the morning, so I had two jobs. But when you add up the time that I spent in the shul, plus the nighttime shiurim, Shabbat, meetings, etc. - how many jobs did I have back then?
Perhaps clergy burnout happens not only because congregations expect to be entertained. The burnout might also be a result of a rabbi not only being the rabbi, but the CEO, executive director, scheduling head, chief fundraiser, youth director, etc.
That's too many jobs for anyone. Even a rabbi.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thoughts at Simcha's Bar Mitzvah 2

We're in the United States right now visiting with family. The primary motivating factor for the visit was the opportunity to celebrate Simcha's recent Bar Mitzvah with the family members who could not be with us in Israel, including most prominently Simcha's great-grandparents, who we affectionately call Safta and Grandpa.

Over Shabbat simcha read a second haftara in shul and led mussaf. He did a nice job - not perfect, but practicing would have helped some. I was struck by how impressed people were. Someone in shul commented on how unusual it was that he was doing a second haftarah. I really didn't think much of it. After all, once you know how to do it once, it's really not that hard to read a second or third haftarah, is it? Yet, people seemed surprised that we got our son to do a second one, when, as one father said to me, "I'm having a lot of trouble getting my son to do the first one."

Yesterday my in-laws hosted an open house where Simcha gave a very short dvar Torah, and on the spur of the moment I decided to share a thought from last week's parshah. The Torah tells us that,

בָּנִים אַתֶּם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ, וְלֹא-תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם--לָמֵת.

Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.

In simple terms, the Torah forbids us to mutilate ourselves, especially in the context of mourning. This was a common ancient practice. Yet, what is the connection between the first half of the verse - that we are "children" of God - and the second half?

The Midrash adds a well-known teaching as an additional teaching of this verse. Rambam, writing in the Book of Mitzvot (45th negative commandment) writes,

וכבר אמרו שבכלל לאו זה, גם האזהרה [על ההמנעות] מפילוג העם ומחלוקת
הרבים ואמרו: "לא תתגדדו - לא תעשו אגדות אגדות":

[Our teachers] already said that included in this prohibition is the warning
from engaging in [behavior] that would divide the nation, and public dispute,
and they said, "You shall not cut yourselves - do not divide yourselves into
distinct groups."

This, I think, clues us into the connection between the two halves of the

e. As parents (and grandparents) age, one of their greatest desires is that their children remain close after they can no longer remain a uniting force. Conversely, they fear the opposite: that without parents to unite them, the family will disperse, lose contact, ultimately breaking apart. This is why the Torah connects the idea that we are "children" to God with His desire for us not to divide into distinct groups. As God's children, He wants us to focus on what we share; our common goals and aspirations; the values that unite us.

But it's not always that easy. The fear of a family falling apart is very legitimate. We all know of families who remain close due to the sheer force of a powerful personality and who bond around patriarchs, but lose touch once that parent no longer can keep everyone together. How then can a parent ensure that children remain together when they cannot count on the force of their personality to get the job done?

The answer has to be values. If parents can instill common values in their children, they while they might not be physically or even emotionally close, the values that they received and cherish from their ancestors will serve to keep them together, united in the goals and ideals that they share.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wearing a Tallit After Bar Mitzvah - Part II

Continued from part 1 here.

While the custom to refrain from wearing a tallit after Bar Mitzvah is almost universally accepted in most Ashkenazic sources, the basis for the custom is harder to pinpoint. Moreover, rabbinic support for this custom is thin at best. Noting the practice, the Chafetz Chayim (Mishnah Berurah Orach Chayyim 17:10) writes,
ומ"ש בדרשות מהרי"ל בהלכות נשואין שנוהגין שגם נערים גדולים אין מתעטפים בציצית עד שנושאין להם נשים וסמכו להן אקרא דכתיב גדילים תעשה לך וסמיך ליה כי יקח איש אשה הוא דבר תמוה דעד שלא ישא אשה יהיה יושב ובטל ממצות ציצית:
And that which is written in the Drashot of Maharil in the Laws of Marriage, that they had a custom that older young men do not wrap themselves in tzitzit (tallit) until they are married to women, and they based themselves on the verse where it is written, "You shall make twisted cords for yourself" and immediately following we read, "If any man takes a wife," (Devarim 22:12-13) - this is a suspicious matter, for until he marries a woman he should sit idle from performing the commandment of tzitzit?
Mishneh Berurah's comments require explanation: In Devarim 22, the Torah juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated topics.
גְּדִלִים, תַּעֲשֶׂה-לָּךְ, עַל-אַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת כְּסוּתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תְּכַסֶּה-בָּהּ.
Thou shalt make thee twisted cords upon the four corners of thy covering, wherewith thou coverest thyself. (Devarim 22:12)
The very next verse shifts suddenly to the topic of marriage.
כִּי-יִקַּח אִישׁ, אִשָּׁה; וּבָא אֵלֶיהָ, וּשְׂנֵאָהּ.
If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her (Devarim 22:13)
What possible connection can there be between these two verses? According to Mishnah Berurah's expanation, Maharil explained that the proximity of the two topics indicated that until a man married he should not wrap himself in a tallit Gadol. Indeed, this quote of a 14th century Tosafits seems to be the oldest, most authoritative and generally accepted primary source for the custom not to wear a tallit until marriage.
Yet, when we examine the source text itself, the matter becomes far more murky.
While Maharil's work on Minhagei Ashkenaz is a critical source of Ashkenazic custom, it's important to understand that Maharil did not himself write the book. Rather, Wikipedia writes (I'm pretty sure correctly) that,
[Mihagei Maharil] was compiled by Moelin's student, Zalman of St. Goar, and was first published - with various additions - at Sabbioneta, in 1556 and frequently thereafter. It had a great influence on the Jews of Central Europe and was largely responsible for the importance attached to minhag in these communities.
This minor detail carries great weight when we examine the text of Minhagei Maharil on the issue of wearing a tallit before marriage.
י] בדידי הוה עובדא שבחור הייתי ונשאתי גרושה, ותקנתי טלית חדש לנישואין ונתעטפתי בו מקודם הנישואין בשבועות לכבוד הרגל, כי אמרתי מאחר שהורגלתי במדינות אחרים ללבוש ציצית מיום שנעשיתי בר מצוה ולא נהגתי בארץ מולדתי בריינוס שנוהגין שגם נערים גדולים אין מתעטפין בציצית עד נושאין אשה וסמכוה להא דכתיב גדילים תעשה לך וסמיך ליה כי יקח איש אשה, ואני שניתי כשאר ארצות ואמרתי כבוד רגל עדיף. ואחר הרגל אמר אלי אמ"ץ מהר"י סג"ל דשלא כדין עשיתי דיום חתונה עדיף לגבי בחור מכל רגל וכל כלי חדשים יחזיק לנישואין
It happened to me that I was an unmarried young man, and I married a widow, and I purchased a new tallit for my wedding, in which I wrapped myself [for the first time] before the wedding on Shavuot in honor of the holiday. [I did this] because I said, since I had grown accustomed in other states to wear tzitzit [on a tallit] from the day that I became a Bar Mitzvah, and in the land of my birth in Reine, where they have the custom that even older young men do not wrap themselves in the tzitzit until they marry a woman, and they base their custom on the fact that it is written, "Thou shalt make thee twisted cords" and this is adjacent to the verse, "If a man shall take a woman." And I had the custom of the other lands, and I said that the honor of the holiday takes precedence. And after the holiday my master and teacher Mahari Segel said to me that I did not act in accordance with the law, for the day of the wedding takes precedence with regard to an unmarried young man over any holiday, and he should hold onto any new item of clothing to use at the wedding.
Examining the text, it's clear that the topic of whether a young man should or should not wear a tallit before he marries is not the subject discussed here. Rather, it's clear that in some communities young men did wear a tallit immediately following Bar Mitzvah, as was Rav Zalman's personal minhag in his home community, while in other areas, such as the Maharil's community young men waited until marriage.
Rather, the text deals with a different question entirely: if one has a new item of clothing to wear, is it better to wear that garment for the first time in honor of a chag, as Rav Zalman chose to do, or should he wait to wear the garment on the occasion of his wedding. Maharil told R. Zalman that in choosing to wear the new tallit on Shavuot he chose poorly, and should have waited until his wedding, which deserved the great honor of wearing the new garment.
Critically (for our discussion), there is no indication that the justification that R. Zalman gives for the custom not to wear a tallit after Bar Mitzvah (the connection between the verses in Devarim) came from Maharil himself, or that Maharil subscribed to or supported the custom.
What emerges then, from the text, is a source for a custom attributed to the Maharil that Maharil himself may never have taught or accepted. Thus, when Mishnah Berurah rejects the explanation of Maharil for the custom to refrain from wearing a tallit until marriage, it could very well be that Maharil himself never actually gave the explanation, never accepted it, and might also have rejected the custom personally even if he did not publicly repudiate it.
In essence, we have no evidence that the custom attributed to the Maharil came from Maharil at all.
If this is true, then we have to wonder: where did the custom originate? How did it become so prevalent in Ashkenazic custom? And most importantly, should we still follow the custom today?

To be continued...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Are Mitzvot in Chutz L'aretz Practice? An Answer to Last Week's Question

Last week I noted the comment of Rashi that compared observance of mitzvot to “practice.” I mentioned that I would try to explain Rashi’s (and the Midrash’s) comment if someone asked.
Someone asked.
Imagine yourself a citizen of the United States of America. Citizen of the USA celebrate certain national holidays that carry special meaning to them: Independence Day means parades, hot dogs and fireworks. Memorial Day means good sales. Thanksgiving means Turkey, too much food, bad football, and then more sales. Each day carries cultural, emotional and national meaning. We also have national rituals: we pledge allegiance to the flag. We sing the Star Spangled Banner before baseball games and Monster Truck matches.
Now imagine that, for whatever reason, you were forced to leave the United States. Take it a step further: the People’s Republic of China overthrew the American government in a bloodless coup by lacing every turkey in America with sleeping pills. We never knew what hit us (and we missed the only Detroit Lions Thanksgiving win in decades.) The Chinese exiled us all to Canada, and we can no longer tell the difference between Americans and Canadians. (We all start saying out like it’s “oot,” eh?)
When July 4th rolled around that fateful year, would we celebrate? If we did, celebrating America’s “independence” would seem a cruel, almost gruesome exercise, if not a way to remember the past in the hopes for a return to the hot-dog-eating contests and marching bands someday in the future. Without a nation, national symbols ring hollow, lacking meaning or purpose.
What does that have to do with the mitzvot? That all depends on how we view them. Because we’ve been raised after 2,000 years of exile (almost), we view the mitzvot that we consider so central to our lives only from a religious, spiritual perspective. Without a doubt they have critical impact on us as spiritual beings. But when given, the commandments had an additional, national element that was meant to bind us together as a people, sharing common practices, rituals and culture.
Rashi’s comment, that we must continue to perform the commandments in the exile so that they’ll not seem strange upon our return to Israel, tells me that first and foremost, the mitzvot are vehicles to express our national identity. Without that element, performing God’s commandments certainly has meaning, but only a shadow of their original intent.
Why do I keep kosher? I do it because the Torah commands me to. But do I follow the dietary laws to improve and refine myself spiritually, or to connect to my national identity? Either way, I’m keeping kosher. But the first perspective is all about me; the second is about something far greater.
Ironically, according to this perspective, one need not necessarily live in the Land of Israel himself to keep commandments as a member of the nation of Israel. The Jewish people must control the Land. We must have a Jewish “nation.” But if that nation exists, with its homeland, language and national aspirations, then the commandments take on their deeper, national aspiration even in Michigan or Mexico.
Sadly, too many religious Jews still lack an appreciation for this critical aspect of our Jewish identity. We still have far too many “galut” Jews, who cannot see in God’s holy commandments the seed of a holy “nation”. They see community; they see congregation; but they don’t really see nation, especially not in the commandments.
On the other side, of course, we find Jews who strongly believe in the critical importance of the Jewish nation. But they see our national identity expressed only through Land, language, army and national accomplishment in the secular realm. They fail to understand that our national aspirations can only be realized through the combination of a strong, viable state together with the spirituality that the mitzvot infuse into our collective identity. Without the mitzvot we might have a nation, but it won’t be a Jewish nation.
We must continue to work towards the day when all Jews appreciate that to build a proper Jewish nation, we must have a Land. But we must also be excellent in the mitzvot, and use them to propel us collectively closer to God, as we grow into a “Holy Nation.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Call Me Old Fashioned.

I know that we're supposed to be used to these things. And I know that in the United States in the 21st century, intermarriage is not shocking. After all, it happens every day. I also know that I live a pretty sheltered life, choosing to ignore things like these.
But when a Jew marries a Methodist over the front pages of the New York Times while wearing a kippah and tallit with a ketubah in the background, I feel a sharp sense of pain - for him, for us, for the Jewish people.
As I think I should.
Call me old fashioned.
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One Video, Two Vastly Different Pespectives

I received the attached video from a student in Orot with the comment: קצין תותח!!! מגן על העם שלו, סוף סוף יש במי להתגאות, תראו מהמם!!! Loosely translated, this means, "Amazing officer!! Protecting his nation. We finally have what to be proud of. Look at this incredible [thing]." (Israelis write with a lot of slang.)
Clicking on the link led me to the video that you see here - an IDF officer insisting that both Israelis and Palestinians stop planting trees to close to a settlement. What I find so fascinating is that both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict are now sending links to the very same video. One side tries to show how terrible the IDF is in preventing Arabs from planting trees, and this turns into a pro-IDF pro-settler propaganda video. Just read some of the most recent comments:
גאווה,ככה צריכים להיות כל הקצינים והחיילים.
[What] Pride! This is how all officers and soldiers should be.
איזה חייל מדהיםם...שירבו כמותו בצבא.. אדם שחושב נכון תחת לחץ ולא מפחד להגיד את האמת שלו ושל מדינתו.
What an amazing soldier - that there should be many like him in the army...A man who thinks properly under pressure, and is unafraid to tell his and his country's truth.
When different people look at the same video and see very different things, that to me represents a fundamental split that seems difficult to reconcile. Obviously, I'm with the soldier on this one. The question is, where is most of Israel? With B'tzelem, which posted the video, or the commenters, who like it for the exact opposite reason?