Friday, December 30, 2011

Dvar Torah for Vayigash - Showing the Good

I gave this D'var Torah as a sermon at the Young Israel of Oak Park eight years ago, after my brother's wedding. Yet, the message still strongly resonates with me today. My brother's wedding marked the last of my siblings to marry - and in two short weeks the first of my nephews will stand under the Chuppah. We all face challenges but also enjoy many blessings. But, what emotions do we wear on our faces (and sleeves)? Do we broadcast joy or worry? In the end, what we choose to focus on - and share with others - is up to us.
You can download a pdf of the Dvar Torah by clicking here.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kol Hakavod, Uri Westrich

Uri Westrich
Growing up in the Jewish (and Orthodox) community, few professions articulated Jewish success more than medicine. The jokes about mother-in-laws and their son-in-law doctors were never really that funny to me, but the stereotype endured. If you're Jewish, and you're a doctor, you're successful.
Today, when you couple an ongoing economic downturn with the financial comfort that is all but assured for most doctors (yes, even the GPs) in the United States (until, of course, the system implodes), the pressure to enter one of the classically "Jewish" professions is significant. Doctor is fine, as well as lawyer, accountant, computer programmer - all great. But if you want to "break the mold" and follow your passion, you end up facing a bunch of frowning adults who accost you with questions like, "But how are you going to support yourself doing that?" I often wonder how many Jewish kids grew up dreaming of a career in tax law, spending countless thousands of hours staring at complicated documents? And yet, they choose just that career - or something like it - after their dreams are beaten down by the steady drumbeat of future financial obligation.
Interestingly, in Israel this phenomenon is far less pronounced, for the obvious reason that salaries are far lower than in the United States. People don't become doctors here for financial reasons, because medicine, while a fine profession, doesn't really pay that much more than other professions. Neither does law, or accounting. (You can do pretty well in high tech, but you'll work much harder than your doctor and lawyer friends too.) So people are less afraid to enter an unglamorous profession, start a business, or just take time off to study a field of interest. A neighbor (who's a successful company man) told me that he's studying for a teaching degree in Civics one day a week because it interests him. You almost never see that in America, but it's quite common here in Israel.
So, it's somewhat refreshing when someone has the courage to follow his dreams, and do not what's expected, but what he loves, hoping to turn his passion into a career.
We're all familiar by now with the wonderful Maccabeats videos that garner thousands of hits on YouTube. The videos have brought YU great, well-deserved PR, and propelled the singers themselves to Ortho-stardom. But the true star of the videos has been lingering in the credits: videographer/producer Uri Westrich.
What's great about the videos isn't just the singing - there are a lot of great acapella groups. Rather, Uri somehow figured out a way to tell a story through his videos. The Chanukah vidoes simultaneously (1) tell the story of Chanukah (2) Convey a sense of humor both about the guys and about Orthodoxy (3) Relate important messages about traditional Judaism and (4) Most importantly, convey an emotional warmth about the holiday itself. After watching the first Candlelight video, I wanted to light my Chanukah candles then and there! And I thought I was just watching a music video. While the singers are great, the popularity and success of the videos can be traced directly to Westrich.
So, I read this week with some sense of satisfaction that Westrich has recently decided to abandon medical school to pursue his video career. According to the New York Jewish Week,
He’s sacrificing medical school and wrestling with fears that his religious commitments might make it hard to succeed in the world of film and video.
“My parents were not exactly thrilled,” said Westrich, who graduated YU in 2009.
Uri, I don't know what your parents think now, but I think it's great and wish you the best. Film and video is the medium of communication in our time. We need many more talented young people like you, who can combine their Torah dedication with the talents and skills necessary to communicate properly through the medium of video. (Israel now has one full-time Orthodox film school, and many high schools have film and video departments. Orot has an entire department devoted to training the teachers to staff these schools. Maybe its time for YU to get into this game as well, and at least offer a series of courses for aspiring Orthodox filmmakers too. Sorry, Rabbi Brander - I know you're busy, but it's a good idea!)
So Uri, while you didn't ask for my blessings, you've got them. B'hatzlachah as you follow your dreams. I pray that Hashem bless you with success, and that you're able to continue to merge your passion for Torah and tradition with the video talents God has blessed you with. It won't be easy, I'm sure, and without a doubt your principles will be challenged (think tzniyut, values, etc. to say nothing of Shabbat and Yom Tov).
But, if you keep making great videos and producing more examples of Kiddush Hashem, it will well be worth it. And hopefully, other aspiring young people will look at your success and wonder, "If Uri could do it, maybe I can too."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Leadership and Taking Responsibility

It seems things have finally reached a tipping point, all because of a seven year old girl, portrayed on the news as too frightened to walk to school. The news report, posted on the Internet, has spread virally around the Jewish world, to the degree that it has reached both the Chareidi world and the New York Times (that too is the Jewish world.) In truth, the video is disturbing to any reasonable observer. How can anyone justify harassing small children? How do people justify spitting, rock throwing, and other forms of violence and intimidation?
You can't. So instead people claim that it's just a small group of extremists. They claim that they don't speak for the mainstream, or represent the true Chareidi point of view. This may or may not be true. After all, in the news report, it didn't seem like they had to look very hard to find someone willing to justify violence even against children who don't conform to the "accepted" form of dress. So we're left to wonder: Is it just a small group of kooks, as people claim, or a much more widespread phenomenon.
The answer must come from Chareidi leadership, which has been to this point, silent. And their silence, to my mind, is deafening.
Parshat Vayigash chronicles the final reconciliation of Yosef with his brothers. Yehudah's moving speech to Yosef asking that he remain in captivity in Binyamin's place moves Yosef to the point of tears, and brings him to reveal his true identity to his brothers. The Midrash relates that the conversation between Yehudah and Yosef was not one-sided, and involved give and take between them. According to the Midrash, Yosef asked his brother a simple question.
אמר לו יוסף, יהודה, מפני מה אתה דברן? והלא יש באחים שגדולים ממך? אמר לי, אף על פי כן, כולן חוץ לזיקה הן עומדין, אבל אני מעי קמתין עלי בחבל. אמר לו מפני מה? אמר לו הייתי לו ערב...
Yosef said to him, "Yehudah, why are you the spokesman? You have brothers who are older than you? He said to him, Nonetheless, they all stand disconnected [from this matter]. But me - my intestines are tied in knots with a rope." [Yosef] said to him, "Why is this so?" [Yehudah] answered: "Because I am for [Binyamin] the responsible party.
For whatever reason, the other brothers saw the conflict as external to them. They didn't want to get involved. Binyamin had a problem - and not them. Yehudah, on the other hand, had accepted responsibility for Binyamin. He made the promise to his father, and not the other brothers. And yet, the words of the Midrash speak volumes. According to Yehuda, "My stomach is in knots over this issue. I have to speak out." And only because he felt that level of personal responsibility does the family reunite.
Leaders - true leaders - must feel that same sense of obligation. When things spiral out of control, a real leader cannot divorce himself from the situation and convince himself that it's not his problem. Rather, he must feel it in his stomach.
Two weeks ago, the Jewish world was legitimately scandalized by a startling attack against an army base at the hands of a group of Gush Emunim youth. The Israeli public was outraged and startled, and rightly so. An attack against the IDF represents an attack against the core of the State of Israel, and signaled a troubling militancy within the "Settler" movement. Yet, after the attack, I was gratified to see leader after leader condemn the attack. Despite misleading headlines, no rabbi found any justification whatsoever for the activity, and criticized it unequivocally. Is the Religious Zionist community too tolerant of militant attitudes within its ranks? I'm not sure. But when a group of its members stepped over a very clear red line, the leadership of that community spoke forcefully against it.

I wonder: where are the leaders of the Chareidi community? How is screaming at children, calling them "Shiksas" as they walk to school an articulation of a Torah point of view? Can they not see the worldwide Chillul Hashem caused by people that purport to speak in their name - and the name of Torah Judaism? To most of the world which can't distinguish between different types of Orthodox Jews, they speak in my name as well, and I'm sickened by it. My stomach is in knots about it. How is the leadership of the Chareidi community still silent? How is a report on the NBC Nightly News about the Torah discriminating against women not a massive, worldwide Chillul Hashem? How can our collective stomachs not be in knots?
Which can only bring us to one of two conclusions: the really is not any Chareidi leadership to speak of, and it's a rudderless ship steered by the most fanatic, outrageous members within their ranks. Or, their actions and attitudes aren't that different from mainstream Chareidi views.
Either possibility is truly troubling.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Last-Minute Gift Giving Guide. Of a Different Kind.

Yes, I know that I'm late for the "gift giving" season. But this guide is for a different sort of gift. It's not the kind of guide where you give presents to your loved ones. Rather, this guide is for people who want to give to people that they don't know and never heard of. That's right - it's my First Ever, Annual, End-of-(Secular)-Year, Tzedakah Guide.
For those of you living in the United States (and Israel), we're at the tail end of the tax year, meaning that you might want to give some tzedakah and enjoy the last minute benefits of the corresponding deduction. And, according to this article in the Washington Post, you won't be alone. Plus, I received the following email from a friend, who wrote me:
I’m doing end of year accounting, and I while most of my tzedaka is local, I like to give something to aniyei eretz Yisrael. I somehow went an entire year without any personalized requests from people I trust. (I put solicitations from organizations I know nothing about directly into recycling – I’m so very eco-conscious that way.) Any suggestions? Oh, I do have two requirements:
1. I don’t like giving to organizations that hate me / my hashkafa / think I’m a goy but will accept my money anyway. I’m perfectly fine letting insular communities be completely self-supporting.
2. I don’t like giving to organizations that encourage dependency. If your hashkafa is to be poor and starving, that’s fine. I never considered the deprived monastic life a major part of my religion, but if that’s your religion I certainly don’t want to disrupt your way of life by pumping money into it.

So, I'm sharing my answers with you, in the hopes that you too will dig deep and help support a worthy Eretz Yisrael cause. Caveat: I work at the Orot College of Education, which I support wholeheartedly, and strongly recommend donating tzedakah towards our scholarship fund, which helps young women complete their education. If you're interested, email me here. That being said, here are some Israeli tzedakah options fitting the above criteria that I recommend wholeheartedly (all allow online donations):

1. Leket Israel: At its core, Leket Israel reclaims food that would otherwise have gone to waste, from restaurants to grocery stores to entire fields, and uses that food to feed the hungry.
2. Jobkatif: Created originally to assist the former residents of Gush Katif and help them find new jobs (and often new careers), JobKatif is a grassroots organization that has helped change literally thousands of lives in Israel for the better.
3. Pa'amonim: This organization, instead of simply giving poor people money, trains volunteers to help people who have jobs but have fallen into debt get a handle on their finances, so that they can get on track on their own, and don't need charity.
4. Hazon Yeshaya: It's a soup kitchen. They give hungry people food.
That's enough for one year. If you've got money left over, email me. I'll be happy to make other suggestions.

With blessings for a very blessed, profitable new (secular) year, in which you'll need to make many tax-deductible donations!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chanukah: The Last-Minute Chag

A Facebook friend posted this week: "OK, have to get Chanukah gifts TOMORROW. This is just way too last-minute." This prompted an extensive shopping-related discussion that didn't much interest me (apparently, you can't order gifts online at the last minute and expect them to arrive on time) – but it got me thinking two things: (1) I too must get my kids something for Chanukah and (2) The whole holiday seems very last minute. I'll explain.
We all know the story well. The Jews beat the Greeks. They arrived in the Beit Hamikdash to find only one small cruse of oil untarnished by their idol-worshiping tormentors. So, with no other option, they lit the Menorah which miraculously lasted a full eight days. It's a great story. But it's got some holes.
First of all, did they really have no idea that they'd soon conquer the Greeks? Was the victory really that sudden? Perhaps it was, but it stands to reason that at some point – perhaps a week or two before their final victory – the Jews got a sense that the war was turning in their direction, and that they'd have to rededicate the Beit Hamikdash. Did no one think to prepare some oil in advance so that they'd be ready to rededicate the Temple?
Let's ask another famous question about the story: Why didn't they wait for enough oil? Why did the Chashmonaim consider it so essential to light the Menorah that they needed to light right away, without having the proper amount of oil in advance? Couldn't they wait just another week?
The answer, of course, is that they could not – and that's precisely the point. The Chashmonaim predicated the entire Chanukah war on a faith that not only drove them to rebel against the Greeks, but also compelled them to specifically not worry about the oil, and light the Menorah with what they had as soon as they possibly could.
In the very first section of his monumental work on Jewish thought called Kad HaKemach, Rabbeinu Bachya, explaining the fundamental nature of Emunah writes,
וכן מצינו אליהו שהיו כל דבריו חכמה מקובלת מאנשי החכמה והאמונה שבאר ואמר (איוב לד) כי עיניו על דרכי איש וכל צעדיו יראה. (שם) אין חשך ואין צלמות להסתר שם פועלי און. ומתוך אמונת ההשגחה יגיע אדם לאמונת הנבואה והתורה שיאמין כי יצא מאת הבורא יתעלה שפע ההשגחה אל האדם עד שיתנבא ותנתן תורה על ידו, והתורה הזאת הצלחת נפשו של אדם, בה יושע תשועת עולמים בה ילמד ליישר מעשיו ועמה ידע דרכי החיים בכל פרטי פעולותיו...
We find that Elihu – whose words were all wise, received from men of wisdom and faith explained and said, "For God's eyes are upon the ways of a man, and He sees all his goings. There is no darkness, nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves." (Iyyov 34:21-22) And, from faith in divine oversight a person will arrive at faith in prophecy and the Torah; that he will believe that from the exalted Creator emanates the flow of oversight to man, until he prophesizes and Torah is given through him. And this Torah is the salvation of man; through it he will be eternally saved; through it he will learn to straighten his deed, and with it he will know the paths of life in all details of his actions…
Interestingly, Rabbeinu Bachya compares one with a lack of faith to a person in darkness, and a person who has a sense of Emunah to a person who basks in the light of God.
Intuitively, we know this to be true. Have you ever taken a walk, at night, in the complete darkness? A couple years back on vacation in the Golan, the hotel took us for a night tour of a local ruin. While some found it fun to feel their way through the pitch black, I hated it. I found trying to find my way through the woods in the darkness a dangerous and off-putting. Each step brings a possible hazard, and you're never sure of your footing. But, as soon as someone shone a light ahead, enough to see just a little, I could walk with a degree of confidence.
Life is very much like that. How are we to know where the next step will lead us? Who's to say that we're walking in the right direction, taking the proper steps in life? That's where Emunah plays such a critical role. It's the candle of light that gives us the strength to take any steps at all. With confidence of the light of our faith, we do what we are commanded in the knowledge that when we do what God asks of us, He will, in His wisdom, light the way forward.
When we recite the Al Hanisim on Chanukah, we must marvel at the sheer insanity of the Chashmonaim: רבים ביד מעטים is an understatement. In reality it was the armed in the hands of the unarmed; the trained in the hands of the untrained; they literally had no chance. But they attacked nonetheless, from frustration and desperation, but also from a deep sense of faith which carried them to victory. Had they worried about the future – about military battle lines, and arms strength, not only would they have lost. They would never have fought in the first place.
That's precisely why they didn’t worry about provisions for lighting the Menorah before they conquered the Beit Hamikdash, and also why they wouldn't wait to kindle the lights for enough oil. They lit – and if God wanted it to last a day, it would. And if He wanted it to last longer, that could happen as well.
Chanukah represents a holiday of faith over logic; of placing our fate in God's capable hands, especially when the outcome is far from clear. Perhaps then, Chanukah might very well be the most important, relevant holiday for a Jewish people struggling to rebuild the State of Israel. Today, the drumbeat that we hear constantly from well-meaning Jews (both Israeli and American) who favor returning land to the Palestinians rests on a patently logical argument: Israel wants to be democratic, but it controls the lives of over a million Arabs. It can't annex the land because then Israel might not remain a Jewish State, but it won't withdraw from the land either. What then, is the endgame?
It's a great question to which there's no visible solution. And that's what troubles people, so they insist on solutions (like giving away parts of Eretz Yisrael) that the Torah forbids. "Well," they ask, "if you don't like my solution, what's yours? How do you solve the problem?"
To tell you the truth, I don't have an answer that will satisfy them, because we're approaching the problem from very different places. They think that they have to have the problem solved on their own. I, on the other hand, know what I must do, and trust that He who solved our problems in the past, will properly solve our complicated problems in the future.
This is the light of Emunah that we must kindle in our homes each night on Chanukah. (What Oleh moves to Israel because it makes sense? We did it because it was what we were supposed to do.) We must rededicate ourselves to not only living lives of greater faith, but worrying less about how it will all end up. No, I'm not advocating not buying presents for the kids in advance. God's not going to do that for you. But we must continue to do that which we know is right, with the faith and confidence that the light of our Emunah will shine down upon us, showing us that we did indeed walk along the true and proper path.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - The Clothes We Wear

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeshev - The Clothes We Wear

In the context of the Chumash, the capture and defilement of Dinah represented an attack on Yaakov and his family, and a form of punishment as well. Why? What did Ya'akov do (or not do) to deserve such a brutal, harsh experience?

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

Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Will I At Least Get Credit for the Idea? Or Maybe an Invite? Please Mr. Prime Minster: Can I Come to Your Shiur? Or Give One?

Back in October, I posted about how, after reading about Menachem Begin's Tanach Shiur in Yehuda Avner's book, The Prime Ministers, I sent a note to Prime Minster Netanyahu suggesting that he follow suit and reestablish the custom.
I got a short note from his PR people that said,
Honorable Rabbi Spolter, first of all, we thank his honor for his communication to the Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu. Secondly, of course, for his important idea to reestablish the custom of Mr. Menachem Begin z"l with relation to the Tanach.Honorable Rabbi Spolter, it is true as you note in your communication, that the Prime Minister is occupied by an exceedingly busy schedule, a matter that prevents him from participating in activities that do not directly relate to the many subject that he must deal with.
Truthfully, it was a brush-off letter. "Thanks for the idea. See ya." I figured that I made a suggestion, and it would have been a nice idea, but let things go.
But then, in this morning's Jerusalem Post, I read a headline that said, "Netanyahu re-establishes PM Bible class."

Taking a page out of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin’s playbook, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will begin hosting a regular Bible study group in his official residence for researchers, public officials and invited guests.Netanyahu announced the establishment of the study circle on Friday at a ceremony marking 30 days since the passing of his father-in-law, Shmuel Ben-Artzi. The study group will be named after Ben-Artzi, a noted poet and Bible teacher.
What? I mean...great! I mean...What? Didn't the Prime Minster's Right Hand Man tell me that he was too busy for these kinds of things? Isn't it just a little too convenient for me to suggest that he restart the shiur, and then a couple months later, after brushing me off, does exactly that? 
I smell scandal.
Mr. Prime Minister, no need for yet another government scandal. I'll forget the whole thing. But any chance I can get an invite to the shiur?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Has My Yeshiva Not Revoked Steven Greenberg's Semichah?

In his fascinating biography of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, Rabbi Aaron (then Rothkoff) Rakeffet chronicles some of the issues that challenged the newly ordained rabbis which the Yeshiva sent out to communities across the United States. Among the most vexing was the issue of mechitzah. Congregations were removing the partitions between the mens' and women's sections at an alarming pace, yet still sought out the young Orthodox rabbis that the Yeshiva was producing.
According to the book, while Dr. Revel refused to allow his graduates to take pulpits in shuls with mixed pews, he did make exceptions in cases where he felt that the rabbi might succeed in bringing the shul back "into the fold" and reintroducing a mechitzah over the course of one year.If the rabbi failed, Revel insisted that the young man leave his pulpit and seek a new shul. What if a rabbi failed to convince his shul to install a mechitzah, but nonetheless insisted on staying at his position? Rakeffet writes,
When a Yeshiva graduate refused Revel's request to leave a position which had both mixed pews and a mixed choir, his ordination was revoked. Revel wrote to a graduate on September 19, 1933: "It grieves me to inform you that since you refuse to leave Temple...where the sacred laws of traditional Judaism are violated, I urgently request that you return the conditional document of ordination that you received from the Yeshiva. The basic purpose of the Yeshiva is to guard the sanctity of Jewish Law in this land. If you will not return the document of ordination, I will be obligated to publish newspaper announcements declaring the nullification of your ordination." The rabbi did not heed Rabbi Revel's request, and the Yeshiva publicly announced the cancellation of his ordination and proclaimed that "one can no longer rely on his answers to inquiries of Jewish Law." (Bernard Revel, pp 165-166)
In light of this short historical vignette, I find myself wondering how Rabbi Steven Greenberg still has his ordination from my yeshiva, Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yizchak Elchanan. (RIETS).
I have no intention of debating the issue of homosexuality and Orthodoxy on my blog. I recently signed a petition that stated, among other things, that, "By definition, a union that is not sanctioned by Torah law is not an Orthodox wedding, and by definition a person who conducts such a ceremony is not an Orthodox rabbi." I thought that would be enough. Apparently, I thought wrong.
In a recent article in the New York Jewish Week, Rabbi Greenberg explained that while he did not officiate at a "Gay Orthodox Wedding", "I officiated at a ceremony that celebrated the decision of two men to commit to each other in love and to do so in binding fashion before family and friends." He did so using Jewish language, symbolism, rabbinic concepts and halachic principles - but admits himself that it wasn't a Jewish wedding, per se. (At least we can agree about that.) Anyone with any sense of fealty to halachah readily sees just how far his stance on homosexuality has veered from Traditional Torah Judaism.
The most upsetting part of the piece to me was the fact that he is, "a Modern Orthodox rabbi."  While that might not be true ideologically, it remains true technically, because he continues to enjoy the benefits of his RIETS ordination, which, for some reason I cannot understand, has not yet been revoked.
I am a very proud musmach of Yeshiva and the grandson of another proud musmach of Yeshiva. Both of  our semichah documents hang on the wall in my home. I find myself consistently amazed at the great work of both the Yeshiva and its graduates, who have spread Torah literally to the four corners of the earth. Yet, the documents themselves mean very little. I learned some Torah - OK, a lot of Torah, and I took some tests which I passed. But the document states that I am worthy to teach and make pronouncements on matters of halachah. Essentially, its a document that confers status. Whether I'm smart enough to pass a test is beside the point. The point of the semichah is to instill trust: my Yeshiva, having taught and nurtured me, trusts me to use my education and intuition to protect and uphold Jewish tradition. I will take what I have taught and uphold it, protect it, nurture it and help it grow.
Yet, Rabbi Greenberg has taken that trust and warped it into something vulgar. He uses his knowledge and erudition not to defend tradition, but to bastardize it. He uses his halachic familiarity to create "halachically informed" ceremonies which he knows violates all accepted halachic and Jewish norms. His actions represent the very opposite of what his Semichah intended. He is misusing it, and thereby violating not only its implied terms, but every other Semichah that my Yeshiva has conferred.
The powerful words written by Dr. Revel almost eighty years ago still resonate strongly. "The basic purpose of the Yeshiva is to guard the sanctity of Jewish Law in this land." That must be as true today as it was then, and if Yeshiva revoked a Semicha because a rabbi refused to leave a mix-pew congregation, it can and must do the same for a musmach who openly promotes values that violate very basic tenets of the Torah.
The time has come for Yeshiva to revoke Steven Greenberg's semichah, and if you agree with me, I urge you to contact Rabbi Yonah Reiss, the RIETS Dean, and tell him so.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayishlach - Why Did God Punish Ya'akov?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach - Why Did God Punish Ya'akov?

In the context of the Chumash, the capture and defilement of Dinah represented an attack on Yaakov and his family, and a form of punishment as well. Why? What did Ya'akov do (or not do) to deserve such a brutal, harsh experience?

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

Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Cost of Kiruv: A Midrash I'm Struggling With

Would you want your daughter to marry this man?
Imagine that your beautiful daughter, having excelled at school, a model student, community leader, religous personality - basically a wonderful girl - called you from college to tell you that, "Guess what?! I'm engaged!" After the shock wears off, you start to inquire about the young man. Imagine your surprise when you learn that her "beloved" is not only nothing like you expected, but nothing like her at all. Or you. Actually, he's something of a brute - and that's being generous.
While the young man is technically "Jewish", he's not observant in any way. Far from it. He's more of a ruffian. Actually, he's a criminal, the chief of a gang of thugs in his city. He's vulgar, crude and violent as well.
When your blood pressure medication finally kicks in and you raise some of your concerns with your daughter, she understands immediately. "I know it's not what you were expecting. Actually, I don't really like him that much myself either. I'm only marrying him for kiruv. After all, isn't that a good reason to marry someone?"
Actually, it's not. And the seeming absurdity of my imaginary scenrio only makes a comment in Rashi from Parashat Vayishlach all the more puzzling.
Vayishlach chronciles the troubling story of the capture and torment of Ya'akov's daughter, Dinah, who is seduced/raped by Shechem, the prince of Shechem (his father named the city after him. How touching. Makes it pretty clear why he thought he could do anything he liked.). We are left to wonder why Ya'akov, who seemingly faithfully follows the word of God to the letter, is punished in such a brutal and vulgar manner. After all, while Dinah bears the brunt of the suffering, the defilement of a daughter was considered a criminal offense so severe, as Netziv points out, that people would regularly risk their lives (and kill) to prevent it.
Rashi (based on a Midrash) provides an answer that always puzzled me. Interestingly, we find his answer to this question not in his commentary to the story of Dinah and Shechem, but earlier in the Parashah, when Ya'akov brings his family into the Land of Canaan. There we read,
וַיָּקָם בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו וְאֶת-שְׁתֵּי שִׁפְחֹתָיו, וְאֶת-אַחַד עָשָׂר, יְלָדָיו; וַיַּעֲבֹר, אֵת מַעֲבַר יַבֹּק. 
And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and passed over the ford of the Jabbok.  (Bereishit 32:23)
Rashi wonders: Eleven? True, Binyamin was not yet born, but what about Dinah? If we count her, Ya'akov had twelve children. Where was she?
ודינה היכן היתה? נתנה בתיבה ונעל בפניה שלא יתן בה עשו עיניו, ולכך נענש יעקב שמנעה מאחיו שמא תחזירנו למוטב, ונפלה ביד שכם
And where was Dinah? [Ya'akov] had placed her in a box and locked her inside, so that Eisav would not lay his eyes upon her. And for this Ya'akov was punished, for holding her back from his brother - for perhaps she would have returned him to the positive [path] - and therefore she fell into the hands of Shechem.
The langauge of the Midrash castigates Ya'akov even more sharply. According to the Midrash, God said to Ya'akov, "You withheld Dinah from a circumcised man (Eisav). I swear that she will fall into the hands of an uncircumcised man!" Ouch.
Why was Ya'akov punished so harshly? According to Rashi, God punished him for hiding his daughter from his brutish, murderous brother Eisav - the very same brother that caused his first wife, Leah, to cry her eyes out for fear of being married to him. This is also the same brother that Ya'akov goes to extraordinary lengths to get as far away from as possible - an effort that the Midrash soundly praises. And now the Midrash (and therefore Rashi) tell us that Ya'akov should have wanted his daughter to marry this man - share grandchildren with him - all for the sake of kiruv? Isn't that asking a bit much of him, and her?
I've always struggled with this lesson. Of course kiruv is important, and it's also equally true that a righteous wife can have a powerful spiritual influence on her family (while the opposite is less apparent). But asking Dinah to change Eisav seems excessive to me. Did God really expect that much of him? Isn't that asking to much?
If you've got a suggestion, please share in the comments.

Occupy Wall Street, Sodom, and Tzedakah in Yad Binyamin - Part 3

Part 3 of 3 - Continued from this post. (You can find part 1 here)

When I think about the Occupy Wall Street movement, I can't ignore their utter foolishness at failing to actually articulate a demand, but their weirdness shouldn't really be what determines whether they were right or not. The underlying facts must be brought to bear. They want less capitalism. Less "mine is mine and you should go get a job." They want more sharing. More communal pots - to support the poor, fund health care, whatever. Essentially, they'd like to move the bar away from total, "Mine is mine" to something somewhat more nuanced, where "Mine is still mine, but I should share a little more." I used to think that people like that were crazy. But I don't anymore, because of my house.

I bought my home in Oak Park, Michigan, which I still own, for a price of $215,000. (I write this because you can look it up on the Internet.) Yet today, my home is not worth nearly that much, as much as I'd love to hope that it is. When I finally sell my house, I will lose a significant amount of money, tens of thousands of dollars. Why will I lose all that money? Of course it's incredibly complicated, but many indications point to a small group of people working on Wall Street who took advantage of quirks in our financial system to enrich themselves, without any regard for the consequences of their actions. As long as they could earn a fee - and earn fees they did in great numbers - they encouraged banks to lend money to people who could never pay it back. And they bundled those loans to make them look more attractive than they actually were, because other people were willing to buy anything that would give them a slightly higher return. And they issued huge, risky insurance policies on those securities, without even wondering whether their firms (which were too big to fail) could cover, because they earned a fee for the policy. And the people borrowing all that money had no issue with taking out a mortgage they couldn't hope to repay because, hey, the banks are lending, so what could be bad?
Did anyone ever stop to ask: Who might get hurt from all this? Who will pick up the pieces if and when everything falls apart? What happens when the music stops? Do I have a moral obligation somewhere in this mess? No, they didn't, because they functioned in a system that says, "What's mine is mine. What's yours is yours. And what's yours is just not my problem."
Tragically, the people who have suffered the most from their self-centered narcissism are those who didn't borrow more than they could pay; who paid their mortgage each month, as they were supposed to do (and even paid back a little extra each month as well - don't I feel stupid!) Because the guy who borrowed three hundred thousand dollars more than he could afford never actually owned the home that he lost. But what about the people who paid off their homes but now can't sell them? They're up the creek, and it's not their fault.
Perhaps things have gotten out of whack. I've started to think that the role of government must be to reign in the innate human selfishness that plagues us all. Left unchecked, we worry only about ourselves, and give not a moment's thought about the ramifications of our actions. We legislate selfishness and self-preservation, to the point where execution of the charitable becomes the law of the land. Without intervention, "what's mine is mine" quickly morphs into Sodom, where millionaires walk away from the wreckage of their own doing whole, while the rest of the country pays for their misdeeds.

All of this brings me back to the tzedakah collector in shul. He was wrong. Limiting donations in order to prevent cheaters is a good practice, and encourages people to give to worthy causes. But any action that limits how much we give is dangerous. It smacks of Sodom, and demands that we act with care and caution, so that we don't somehow one day wake up and realize that with all of our good intentions, we've become our own worst nightmare.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Buying Chicken in Bais Yisroel

Yesterday, a work-related presentation took me to Jerusalem, so I called my nephew currently learning in the Mir and asked him if I could stop by. My nephews have been learning there for over a year and I'd never visited to see the famous yeshiva, so I wondered if he'd give me a short tour. He (graciously) agreed - although he absolutely would not show me his apartment. I wonder what that means. (Actually I don't.)
As we walked around the confusing, labyrinthine alleyways of the Bais Yisroel neighborhood where the Mir yeshiva, I found myself thoroughly lost, although we were probably less than a five minute walk from Meah Shearim. He showed me three of the fourteen buildings that make up the Mir yeshiva, and I even walked into an enormous lunchroom where the second lunch shift was ending (at 3pm) That's where he listens to shiur, along with 700 other fellow shiur-mates. (His shiur is larger by far than most yeshivot in the world).
We wandered a bit, and then it was time to go. But before I could leave, I needed to daven minchah and pick up chicken. Another nephew is visiting for Shabbat, and he prefers chickens with a different hechsher than our normal one, so I needed to find a butcher that could accommodate his kashrut needs.
In Israel, you don't really buy chicken based on a brand. There's no discernible difference between brands, like buying Empire or Rubashkin (does that still exist?). You buy based on hechsher. At my grocery store, it's all rabbanut "mehadrin", but some people prefer "Verner" chickens, which they claim is a level up from that. Above that is Machpud (named after the rabbi who gives the hechsher), and above that is Rubin (you can guess why it's named that). I was told that my nephew prefers "Rubin", so that's what I set out to buy. I figured that near the Mir you'd have to be able to buy Rubin chickens. I was wrong.
First of all, my nephew could not identify a butcher in Bais Yisroel, which tells me that he's never bought a chicken there. I guess that's not that surprising. Yeshiva boys cook - eggs, pasta - but not real food. We stopped at a shtiebel and I asked a guy where to buy chicken, and he pointed to a small store right across the street. In I went and approached the man behind the counter for Rubin chickens.
Picture the scene: It's not the butcher store that you're accustomed to. Probably ten feet by ten feet, sparingly lit, on the left stood freezers, behind whose smeared glass sat various cuts of chicken and prepared products. At the "far" end of the store stood an industrial refrigerator, in front of which was a counter upon which a man was cutting up raw chickens. No display cases, probably because there's not much to display. They sell chickens. Prices were written in a neat chart on a piece of cardboard at the entrance to the store.
The shopkeeper, a stocky man with a large, bushy beard wearing a plastic apron, gave me the kind of look that said, "What?" That was my cue.
"Rubin chickens. Do you have Rubin?"
He sort of snarled at me, in a pitiful kind of way. With a sort of reserved sigh, he looked at me at said, "We don't sell Rubin here."
"Well then," I wondered, "what do you have?"
"We have Badatz, Eidah Chareidis."
The chicken neophyte that I am, I looked at my nephew and asked, "Will Yehuda (the other nephew) eat that?" He gave me a reassuring nod. Yes, he will. "Badatz is better than Rubin."
That's good to know. Information for life. So the hierarchy of chicken (of which I am aware - undoubtedly there are many more) is as follows (along with the population that eats it):
1. Rabbanut (Regular Israelis)
2. Rabbanut Mehadrin (Somewhat more stringent Religious Zionists. That's what I normally buy.)
3. Rabbanut Mehadrin Verner (RZ Chardal)
4. Machpud (Sephardim)
4b. Badatz Beit Yosef (for Chareidi Sephardim)
5. Rubin (Chareidi Ashkenazi)
6. Badatz (Machmir Chareidi Ashkenaz - although I think that the Rubin people think that they're machmir enough - if that's even possible) You can bookmark this post for when your relatives come for Shabbat! It's just a public service that I offer to you, my loyal readers.
Then came the time to pay. How much? My friend the shopkeeper says, "35 shekel a kilo." I knew it would be expensive, but that seemed really expensive. To explain, a little context.
The chicken that I buy (Rabbanut Mehadrin) is normally 18 shekel a kilo (bought whole, and cut up at the store. You have enough for dinner Friday night, shnitzel in the morning, and the bones for soup). But at Rami Levi, the store I shop in, if you buy them whole and cut them up yourself, you can almost always get them for about 10 shekel a kilo, which is really, really cheap. Being that I am cheap (er, thrifty), I cut up my own chickens. (Do the math: We eat at least 4 kilo of chicken a week, saving me at least 32 shekel weekly. Multiply that by 52 weeks a year adds up to a savings of at least 1,500 shekel a year, just for cutting my own chickens! Not cheap. Smart!) In any case, this Badatz chicken was at least double the price of what I pay. (This is not a rant specifically about the Badatz chickens. People tell me that Rubin is equally expensive.)
Mind you, I'm not complaining for myself, far from it. I don't buy it often, and thank God, I can afford it.
But, in my description of the Mir neighborhood, I neglected to describe the other defining attribute of Bais Yisroel that simply jumps out at you. There are people collecting money for tzedakah literally everywhere you turn. In the Mir buildings, a guy was standing at the entrance collecting money, and had a credit card reader! (I was impressed!) At the shtiebel where everyone davens minchah (minyan every two minutes), no less than 5 people asked for a donation, one walking up to me (I was the "mark" - clearly out of place with my light blue shirt) shaking his hand in front of me for a good ten seconds. (I got the message. He wanted money.)
The neighborhood, by definition, (not including the "rich" foreign yeshiva boys) is marked by abject poverty.  This makes sense, as many of its inhabitants learn all day in the Mir, earning very, very little money. Even people who "have" money are poor by comparison. And, while I thank God that I've got a good job - as does my wife - and we support our family, it's not easy for us, by any stretch of the imagination. We watch what we spend, and try to save where we can (like cutting up my own chickens). I can't imagine what people in Bais Yisroel go through to try and skimp where they can. And still they don't blink an eye at paying between double and triple what I pay for chicken.
On one hand, I admire their dedication to kashrut and chumrah, and their willingness to sacrifice to uphold the highest standards of kashrut. But at the same time, the situation seems absurd. The very people who struggle most to simply put food on their table, adhere to such extreme strictness that astronomically increase the costs of their food. (I'm assuming here that  because of the heightened hashgachah it really does cost that much more.)
But, if you're familiar with halachah, you'd know that much of the leniency built into the laws of kashrut strongly accounts for cases of "need", and especially material need. If you can't afford it, halachah very much understands and allows for that. It does not make strict demands of the needy, giving them leeway in kashrut because of the economic hardships that stringency would impose.
Except today, that's not the case. Kulah has become "treif". Even "Rubin" gets a snarl, as it doesn't rise to the level of Badatz. So people collecting money to feed their families must collect that much more to feed their families with the most machmir, most expensive chicken that money can buy.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Sodom, and Tzedakah in Yad Binyamin - Part 2

Part 2 of 3 - Continued from this post.

We find the most obvious example of greed in Torah literature in the description of the city of Sodom, and it's not a flattering description. When Lot lifts his eyes and looks to move away from Avram, he sees the lush lands in the Jordan Valley and the and the cities of Sodom and Amora, which were, "Like the garden of the Lord, like the Land of Egypt," and chooses Sodom. The represented an unwise choice as,
ואנשי סדם רעים וחטאים לה' מאד
And the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners against the Lord exceedingly. (Bereishit 13:13)
The people of Sodom were so wicked that they made the infamous list in Sanhedrin of people who, "Have no portion in the World to Come." How did their wickedness manifest itself? What made the so bad? Aside from the obvious (think Sodomy), the Midrash, in light of the "welcome" the angels receive when they visit to destroy the city, paints the wickedness of Sodom in monetary terms: they were exceedingly selfish. In simple terms, "they would not permit anyone to dwell in their city, and universally agreed not to receive guests, leaving them in the streets. They cut the trees surrounding the city to prevent the birds from benefiting from them, and passed a law in Sodom that any person receiving guests in his home would be burnt at the stake." (Yalkut Meam Loez, Bereishit 1, p 358). And they instituted numerous laws to ensure that strangers would distance themselves from their city for fear of harm. Simply put, they refused to feed beggars, and any beggar who remained in Sodom died of starvation. The Midrash tells the following rather gruesome story:
At that time, Lot married a daughter named Paltit to a citizen of Sodom. One day, a beggar came and asked her for charity, having already fasted several days - for no one would give him anything to eat. When Lot's daughter saw that he neared death she had compassion upon him, and secretly passed him food. Each day, when she went to the well to draw water, she would place bread in her jug and signaled to the beggar to take the food. This she did for many days.
The judges of Sodom marveled when they noticed that this beggar remained alive. They said, "Who is feeding him?" From the color of his face it was clear that someone was assisting him, and they needed to know who was committing the "crime" and had the [evil in his] heart to violate the laws of the Land.
So, three men went and hid secretly to discover the truth. The next day, they witnessed the daughter of lLot giving the man bread from her jug. They quickly ran and reported the matter to the judges of Sodom, who decreed that she be burnt to death. And they executed her in the center of the city to instill fear on the remaining people, that they not follow her ways and act with compassion towards visitors.
Yes, it was that bad. Thus, Midrashically, Sodom represents the worst aspects of monetary behavior: a miserly refusal to share in one's wealth to benefit anyone else, even the most desperate, coupled with a rigid enforcement of that very ethic threatening death to anyone who might violate the law and exhibit compassion for a needy person.
Where, though, do we draw the line? What is the root source of the wickedness of Sodom? Clearly, they were bad. But was it the death penalty for helping strangers, or their refusal to help in the first place? Or, was it the underlying attitude that their money was theirs, and they had no moral obligation to share it with others? While a proud capitalist confidently asserts an almost divine right to private property, the Mishnah isn't so clear.
In Avot, the Mishnah (5,10) presents four models of monetary policy.
 ארבע מידות באדם:  האומר שלי שלי, ושלך שלך--זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין, זו מידת סדום.  שלי שלך, ושלך שלי--עם הארץ.  שלי שלך, ושלך שלך--חסיד.  שלך שלי, ושלי שלי--רשע.
There are four possible attributes [related to money] a person can have. One who says, "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" - this is an average character type. And some say, this is the attribute of Sodom. [One who says] "What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine" - this is an am ha'aretz. [One who says] "What's mine is yours and what's yours is yours" - this is a righteous person. [One who says] "What's yours is mine and what's mine is mine" - this is a wicked person.
Commentators clarify that when the Mishnah alludes to one who says, "What's yours is mine" - this does not refer to a thief, because thieves are clearly evil, and stealing is forbidden. Rather, these four archetypes represents an attitude towards money. One who says, "What's yours is mine" doesn't have to physically steal his neighbor's property. He thinks that he has a right to his neighbor's property, and that it really should belong to him.
Examining the first two models of monetary policy carefully, we find that they represent the two economic models we're familiar with:
"What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" = Capitalism
"What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine" = Socialism
A red-blooded American would assume that Capitalism beats Socialism without breaking a sweat. But in the Mishnah, that's not the case. According to our Sages, at best, capitalism represents an average attitude. But the other opinion considers a capitalist worldview to be "The attribute of Sodom." On the other hand, the Mishnah labels the socialist as an am ha'aretz. Nowadays, if you called someone that you'd be insulting him. But in Mishnaic times it wasn't an insult. Rather, you were calling him the "salt of the earth." Rav Ovadia Bartenura explains that this is the type of person needed for the world to run,
For he benefits [from others] and allows others to benefit from him in equal amounts. And this is [necessary for the] settlement of the earth....and this is the meaning of the term am ha'aretz, [meaning that] he desires the proper function of the world." 
In other words, the world needs people willing to share what they have in order to benefit from what others have to offer.
Given the choice, which attitude in the Mishnah would you rather adopt: the one that's either unremarkable and average at best, and at worst the underlying attribute of Sodom; or would you rather describe yourself as someone advocating a worldview critical for the proper function of society? Asked in that way, you'd clearly choose the latter. But then you'd be a Socialist.
In his commentary on Megillat Esther called Kol Ya'akov, Rabbi Ya'akov of Dubno wrote,
דע שלולא תורתנו הקדושה שאסרה לנו הגזל והחימוד, היה ראוי ע"פ משפט השכל להיות כיס אחד לכל אדם יחד ושתהיה יד הכל שוין בכל שפע וברכה בעולם ואין גזל ואין צדקה שייך כלל, כי הלא באמת אין בעלים ואדונים על העולם הזה ומלואו כי אם הקב"ה, וכשם שאין במרום שום בעלים ואדנות וממשלה כי אם להשם לבדו, וכן למטה ממדרגתנו כמו הבהמות והחיות שאין עמלם אלא לפיהם ואת היותר יד כולם שוין בו. אבל אנחנו עם בני ישראל להיותנו עם סגולתו ית' חלק לנו את הארץ הטובה ונתן חלק ונחלה לכל שבט, איש לפי פקודיו ע"פ הגורל, להיות כל אחד אדון ומושל על שלו. לפי שרובי תורתו ית' תלויה בזה, כמו צדקה ומעשרות לקט ושכחה ופאה ואיסור גניבה וגזילה וחמדת ממון זולתו וכדומה, כי אם היתה יד הכל שוה אין חסד ואין צדקה... שהתחלת היושר שבין בני אדם להיות מה שיש לזה – שלו ומה שלזולתו – לזולתו, הכנתו ית' הוא כי הוא החליק לכל אחד חלקו כאילו היה שלו באמת, והכל היה בשביל להגדיל תורה בישראל ולהאדיר.
Know that were it not for the fact that our holy Torah forbade theft and jealousy, it would have been appropriate according to the law of logic for there to be one communal wallet for all of mankind. Andh every person would have equal acess to the bounty and blessings of the world, and neither stealing nor charity would have any relevance at all. For in truth, there are no masters over this world and its contents other than the Holy One blessed be He; just as in the heavens there is no ownership and dominion other than God’s alone; and below our level among the beast and animals, where there toil goes only to feed their hunger, and what’s left is open to all equally. Yet, we the nation of Israel, so that we should be God’s cherished nation, He apportioned to use the good Land and gave an inheritance and a portion to every tribe, each according to his accounting based on the lottery, so that each person should me the master over that which is his. This is because the majority of God’s Torah depends upon this matter. Take, for example charity, tithes, leket, shikchah, pe’ah, the prohibitions against stealing or theft or coveting the property of another and other similar commandments. For if each person shared equally in the property there would be no kindness or charity…for righteousness between men begins with the principal that that which belongs to a person – is his, and that which belongs to the other – is the other’s. To prepare us for this the Blessed [God] divided to each person his portion as if truly were his, all of which in order to enhance the Torah in Israel. (Thanks to my boss, Rav Professor Neria Gutel, for sharing this source and the next one in a shiur.)
It's a jarring comment: really, which asserts that we should all share everything - total socialism. We shouldn't really own any property, because it's all from God in the first place. And, the only reason why God gave us private property was so that we could adhere to the mitzvot in the Torah related to ownership and property. How can a person give charity if nothing really belongs to him? So God "gave" us property - but not because we really own it. Rather, it's only a means to follow God's will.
Rabbi Ya'akov Emden makes a similar comment in his commentary on the Mishnah in Avot writing,
שבלי ספק היה דבר מועיל מאוד בתיקון קבוץ המדיני אם היה כיס אחד לכולם, כי אז בטלה קנאה ושנאה מבני אדם. ולכן היו נמצאים בדורות קדמונים כתות פרושים בישראל שכל נכסיהם היו בשותפות, אין לאחד זכות בשום קנין מהקנינים לעצמו יותר מחבריו אלא כולם ניזונים מן האמצע.
For without a doubt it would be enormously beneficial for the improvement of society if there was one pocket for all. For then jealousy and hatred would be nullified from mankind. For this reason, in previous generations there were groups of separatists in Israel who shared all of their property communally, none having more rights to any of their acquisitions for himself than any of his friends. Rather, they all were supported from the [communal] pot.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Derech Hashem, Section 3, Chapter 2) makes a similar statement regarding wealth and poverty, (albeit in a different context) writing that God bestows wealth and poverty simply as a means to give us the opportunity to grow both personally and spiritually. God gives the wealthy man money not because he's better at business than his poor neighbor, but rather to test whether he will be generous with that wealth or stingy; will he look down upon others who don't enjoy his level of affluence, or exercise humility towards others? Still, the wealth isn't his as an end, but rather given to him by God as a means to a far more important goal of personal and spiritual growth.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Why Did Rachel Steal the Teraphim?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeitzei - Why Did Rachel Steal the Teraphim?

Before we can answer that question, we first need to know what the Teraphim were. Then we can unpack the reasons suggested by Chazal, and try to understand what would motivate Rachel to act as she did. And, if I'm right, she paved an important path for Jewish women to follow, especially today.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Goldberg Just Doesn't Get It

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg complained today about a recent Israeli ad campaign attempting to scare Israelis to return to Israel. Among other things he writes,
The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don't mind me resorting to the vernacular).
First, a nitpick: Why is the piece titled, "Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews"? Granted, you're not the biggest Bibi fan, but do you really think that the Prime Minister of Israel gives a personal stamp of approval to every government program? But, I digress...
Actually, Jeff (my name for you), the ads have very little to do with whether America is the place for a proper Jew. Rather, they're all about whether America is the place for a proper Israeli. They're all about culture - and the subtle nuance of innately feeling a sense of belonging to a place and a people due to shared values and experiences.

And there's the real irony. An American Jew, who doesn't understand Israelis at all (and yet somehow considers himself an expert on Israel) complains about an ad campaign he doesn't like, but actually doesn't understand, thereby proving the point. In complaining about the tone of an ad which states that American's can't understand the nuances of Israeli culture, Goldberg only reemphasizes just how true the ads really are.
Finally, his off the cuff comments about intermarriage - "But let me just say that intermarriage can also be understood as an opportunity" - (Jeff, save yourself some time, and don't write that intermarriage book.) - only demonstrate just how much he really doesn't understand and the threat of intermarriage not to Israel, but to the Jewish people in America.
For my part, while the ads don't say anything about whether America is a place of a proper Jew, I couldn't have said it better than he did. So I'll just quote him:
"America is no place for a proper Jew, and...a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel."
Right on Jeff.

Occupy Wall Street, Sodom, and Tzedakah in Yad Binyamin - Part 1

Like many other Orthodox communities, Yad Binyamin - the Yishuv in which I reside, often finds itself besieged by pan handlers. Whatever the cause, whatever the reason - for a wedding, a sick relative, an illness, a yeshiva, a kollel - they collect for it in Yad Binyamin. And the people of Yad Binyamin, like those of so many other communities - are generous. They gave, and continued to give. Sadly though, many of the collectors turned out to be fabricating some part of their tragic tales. A recent young Chattan, collecting for his wedding, turned out not to have actually met his kallah yet. But when he does, he'll have money for the wedding.
So, as is the custom in communities across the Diaspora, the rabbinate in Yad Binyamin formed a rabbinic committee which would issue a document to approved collectors whose credentials could be verified. The committee recommends that citizens of the yishuv donate more generously to collectors armed with a certificate, and to those without one, we should give a shekel. (Truth be told, it was not unusual to give a shekel to collectors in any case. People in Israel give far less to tzedakah collectors at the door than we did in the U.S.)
Yesterday in shul, a man made the rounds after davening collecting for his kollel in Yerucham. I had given money to the kollel previously, so I considered him reliable, and gave him five shekel. Everyone else in shul recognized him from previous rounds - he comes rather often - but due to the new protocol, no one else gave him more than a shekel. He began acting like many collectors do when they don't get what they think they should, and began muttering indignantly, under his breath, but in a manner that everyone could hear, " can't collect in Yad Binyamin....No one will give more than a shekel...I've never heard of a place that won't allow you to collect for tzedakah..." And then he said the magic words, that actually got people angry, "This reminds me of Sodom." Ouch.

This isn't just a local issue. The world has watched with some amusement as the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled, as police forced them out of the streets and in from the cold. Yet, the Occupy movement came at the heels of - and perhaps in response to - a similar tent-city protest in Israel demanding social change: better access to housing, cheaper childcare, lower grocery prices, and greater parity between the poor and the wealthy. In truth, the American protesters can only dream of achieving social change that would bring them to parity with Israeli norms now . Let's set aside the political undertones of each movement, which are significant but not relevant for this discussion of the larger issue. What does Judaism have to say about balancing wealth between the rich and the poor? Where does the Torah fall on the spectrum between Capitalism and Socialism? Does God want us to accumulate for ourselves, or share equally between all? Do the Occupiers have a point? Has capitalism run so rampant as to have warped American society completely out of balance?
Judaism has a great deal to say about these issues, and they are, of course, not black and white. But the way I read them, they take us in a direction that many in America might find surprising.

To be continued...

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Block Centers"? How About Just Letting Kids Play?

A "Block Center". I kid you not.
Growing up, I spent many, many happy hours with a set of blocks that my parents had somehow acquired. Blocks are great, for obvious reasons. You can make anything with them. They're large enought to build something big, but no so big as to be unwieldy.
So, it was only natural that as my own children began to grow older, I wanted them to have a set of blocks like I did. Not so simple. They really weren't all that easy to find, and the sets that were available were incredibly expensive. And, the kids didn't really clamor for them, so I let it go.
Some years later, when I built a cedar deck in front of my house, I didn't know what to do with the leftover pieces of wood from the construction. I had no real use for them, but I couldn't bring myself to throw them out. Then it hit me: make them into blocks - which is exactly what I did. A while later, I was left with squares, triangles, rectangles of various shapes and sizes. (it might have been better if they were uniform, but beggars can't be choosers), and over time - much spent in front of football games - I sanded the blocks down to make them safe. Today, we've got a huge tub of blocks which my children don't always play with, but return to from time to time.
I mention all this because it seems that I'm ahead of my time, at the forefront of educational theory. None other than the "Grey Lady" herself reported today on the growing trend of "Block Centers" cropping up in schools. Gushes the times,'
Eva Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who runs a fast-growing network of charter schools, said her schools had created a “religion around blocks,” and she proudly advertises their fully outfitted block labs alongside the chess program and daily science classes. The International School of Brooklyn is developing a program using blocks to reinforce foreign-language acquisition. And Avenues, the for-profit school scheduled to open next year in Greenwich Village, is devoting a large section of its kindergarten floor to a block center. 
Really? Block centers? Block religion? Block consultants?
I guess it's a good thing that people think kids should play with blocks. They engender creativity and imagination, which seem in short supply today, in a world full of single-purpose construction toys (think Legos intended to make a specific thing) and video games. But do we really need to professionalize playing with blocks into "block related study"? Honestly, not everything requires categorization and quantification. Kids need to play. They need to use their imaginations to expand their own horizons. And blocks are a great way to do that, whether it's in school, or at home.
Recently, my six-year-old was playing with his Playmobil soldiers (which he's crazy about), but ran into a roadblock. How could he hide his soldiers from each other as they battled it out? I suggested that he take the blocks and build them a fort. His face lit up, and before long, soldiers of one kind were attacking enemy forces hunkered down in a makeshift, crude, block fort.
Perhaps I should open a side business as a "block consulatant?" Actually, I doubt that would work here. In Israel, we just call it "playing."
So, if you're considering what to buy your child for Chanukah, perhaps instead of the new video games for the Wii or a video he or she is pining for, consider buying them a set of blocks. Not only will you be getting them a great toy. You'll also be an "educational trendsetter".

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Raising Eisav: A Parenting Conundrum

Reading through the stories in the Chumash regarding Ya'akov and Eisav, I cannot help but wonder: could Yitzchak and Rivkah have done anything as parents to alter Eisav's negative religious tragectory? Was he destined from the womb for evil? Either answer poses trouble: If they could have done something different, then what did they do wrong? And if they couldn't, then that means that for some children, no amount of parenting can influence them. That I find difficult to accept.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Parshat Toldot - Internal and External Judaism

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Toldot - Internal and External Judaism

Every religious individual struggles to transform his or her external religious experience into an internal one. We might perform the actions, but true religiosity depends on internalizing those actions into a religious experience. This theme appears throughout Toldot through the personalities on Yaakov and Eisav, and carries great import for the way we lead our own spiritual lives.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hiding Women from Public View. Thoughts on Modesty

In Israel, women have been increasingly finding themselves excluded from public view. I Jerusalem, you might not notice that ads in public places don't have images of women on them, for fear of vandalism or simply antagonizing a powerful economic force. This has led to a counter-campaign, placing ads of pictures of famous Israeli women throughout the city - but not in Chareidi areas. The Burka ladies have been a hot topic of discussion on the blogosphere, garnering a great deal of attention in their attempt not to garner attention. And an Orthodox publication made an international stir when it blurred out none other than US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year.
Not all of this is bad, per se. In Israel, because of the Chareidi influence, I can drive on the highway without fear of seeing a billboard of nearly (or completely) naked women. In the US, all bets are off. Mostly unclothed models dot the roads, enticing you to buy deodorant, stop at a mall, or even turn off at the gentlemen's club down the road (there were a bunch of those in Michigan).
And yet, there seems to be a lack of balance, to the point where women, completely clothed, are increasingly unwelcome in the religious public sphere.
The Lindenbaum ad
This past week, in an extended article in the Mussaf Shabbat in Mekor Rishon (the RZ paper of record in Israel), Rav Shlomo Vilk, a rebbe in the Israeli program, wrote a powerful essay about a letter that the seminary received after placing an ad in one of the weekly Alonim (parshah booklets) to attract new students. Commenting on the fact that the ad contained pictures of women, the letter writing wrote,
"מי שרואה תמונות של נשים יכול להימשך אחר תמונות כאלה, ובמקום להיטהר מדברי התורה הוא יכול ללכת הפוך". לכן, "לענ"ד אין לשים תמונות של נשים בעלון קודש ואם אתה רוצה לצאת מספק אתה יכול לפנות לגדולי ישראל בעניין". 
One who views pictures of women could be drawn to such pictures, and instead of being purified by words of Torah, might go in the opposite direction. Therefore, in my humble opinion, one should not place pictures of women in a holy booklet, and if you want to avoid any possibility of doubt, you should turn to the Torah gedolim regarding this matter. 
Rabbi Vilk did not mince words. In an extensive essay which is difficult to summarize (but I will anyway), he suggests that our job in life is not to see the world around us as "object" which we "use", but instead as blessings which must be cherished and honored. He writes,
רבנים החוששים מתמונת אישה בעלון פרשת שבוע גורמים לזילות האישה, להפיכתה לחפץ, להשתקתה הסופית – ולהפיכת האיש באותה עת לחלש ונרפה, לחסר אונים בכל המובנים. הם גורמים לכך שכשייראו אישה או תמונתה במרחב הציבורי כולו, ייראו רק פריצות וערווה, ולא אדם. כמה נורא הדבר.
Rabbis that worry that about a picture of a woman in a parshah booklet themselves cause the degradation of women. They transform her into an object and silencing her with finality, and transform the man at that time in a weak and sluggish figure - helpless according to any definition. They are causing the reality that when a woman, or her picture are seen in public, only sexuality and depravity are seen, and not a human being. This is a terrible thing.
Like I said, he doesn't mince words.
We find a reference to the notion of hiding women from public view twice in the book of Bereishit, each time in an attempt to protect the woman involved from exposure to the public, for fear of her being harmed. The most famous example (do you know where the other is?) occurs when Ya'akov returns with his large family from Charan, in the famous meeting with his brother Eisav. The Torah relates how Ya'akov took his "two wives, his two maids and his eleven children and crossed the Yabok pass". (Bereishit 32:23). Rashi asks the obvious question: What about Dinah? What happened to her? Rashi explains,
"He had placed her and locked her in a cabinet so that Eisav would not lay his eyes upon her. For this Ya'akov was punished, that he held her back from his brother, perhaps she would have returned him to the proper path. Instead, she fell into the hands of Shechem."
It seems even ages ago, that trying to hide women from public view in an attempt to protect them causes more harm than good.
I'm not sure that I agree with Rabbi Vilk's formulation (he actually calls the removal of women's images from the public sphere a form of reverse pornography - a little strong for me), but I'm troubled with the direction that things are moving in. I've written before about women who refuse to allow pictures to be taken of them out of a sense of modesty. Why should it be inappropriate for a woman to deliver a Torah lecture to a mixed group? It's not? Why then are so many women - and not just Chareidi women - unwilling to speak in just such a setting?
This is clearly not a black and white issue. Finding the proper balance between overexposure on the one hand, and objectification on the other, is not a simple equation. It takes subtlety and nuance, and a sense of halachah and the nature of the community seeking that balance. What worked in Michigan (not the billboards) might not work in Yad Binyamin, and certainly won't work in Meah Shearim (nor should it). But, as the father of two daughters, the trend of forcing women from public view is starting to trouble me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mortal Stupidity

I've long served as an advocate for personal safety, especially when it comes to bike helmets, seat belts and car seats (for young children). As a rabbi in Detroit, I used to randomly distribute tickets for free Slurpees to kids wearing their bicycle helmets, and I spoke about safety from the pulpit. To this day, I marvel at parents who allow their children to ride their bikes without wearing a helmet by claiming, half-heartedly (and, to my mind, pathetically), "What can I do? They don't listen to me." I'll tell you what you can do: You can take away the bicycle, and make the child walk. I'm fairly confident that after a week without the bicycle, the helmet will find its way onto said child's head. Even Rivkah fell off her camel. Thank God she was wearing a helmet!
I write this as I was reminded of the need for personal safety reading a rather tragic obituary. Any death, especially at a young age, is a tragedy. It's especially tragic when it could and should have been avoided. Still, a recent obituary in the NY Times caught my attention.
I was somewhat confident about the "cause of death" when I read the headline: "Jamie Pierre, Free Skier Known for Feats of Daring, Dies at 38." He didn't die of food poisoning. Rather, this "professional big-mountain skier" died "when an avalanche carried him about 800 feet over rocky terrain and a small cliff." Sadly, "the area was off-limits at the time; the resort had not yet opened for the season and avalanche-control measures had not yet been taken." Even more sadly, "Pierre had many concussions over the years but refused to wear a helmet. 'If something’s so dangerous it requires a helmet,' he said, 'then maybe I shouldn’t be doing it.'"
For whatever reason, our kids somehow think that they're similarly immune to head injury. I see them riding around our yishuv all the time without helmets, as hapless parents think nothing of it.
Parents, I don't think there's any better way to say it. Take some posthumous advice from a professional big-mountain skier. If something's so dangerous that it requires a helmet...wear a helmet.