Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Chukat - the Rock of Og

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chukat - the Rock of Og

The end of Chukat tells the cryptic story of the Battle with Og, the King of Bashan. Rashi, the Little Midrash Says and the Gemara in Brachot tell the fantastic story of Og's rock (more like mountain), his amazing height, and his Achilles' Heel. What do we do with such a story? And why does it appear in the Shulchan Aruch? Listen and find out. You can also see the picture from the Little Midrash Says on the Left - click on it to see it full size. Thanks to digital assistant Simcha Spolter for his help in scanning the picture.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

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

Monday, June 27, 2011

Texting on Shabbat: Assur Now, But in Fifty Years? Who Knows? The Lessons of Shabbat Makeup

A recent article in the New York Jewish Week has set the Jewish Internet ablaze with a fury about the apparently prevalent custom of Jewish teens who text each other on Shabbat. (Saying that they keep "Half-Shabbat" is especially disturbing.) While I at first wondered how prevalent this really is, Rav Yonah Goodman, head of the Department of Spiritual Education at Orot asked that very question to educators on an email forum, and received responses from American educators indicating that it happens much more than we think. (i.e. all the time.)
Let me be very clear: One is forbidden to text on Shabbat.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's not clear at all why. While every major posek agrees that one is prohibited from using electronics on Shabbat, the reasons behind that prohibition are not at all clear. Few poskim suggest that electricity is Biblically prohibited, and most use of electronics a rabbinic prohibition of one type or another. Moreover, in my recent visit to the Zomet institute in Alon Shvut, I saw a number of electronic implements that the institute had designed for Shabbat use for very specific purposes (safety, security and health) that according to their poskim are entirely permitted.
So, let us suggest for the sake of argument, that Zomet creates a version of the iPhone that's only permitted for use by doctors on Shabbat. After all, very often doctors need to email specific instructions about care and treatment of their patients. Many doctors in fact use their cellphones for this purpose nowadays. Would teens be able to use those very same cellphones to text their friends? I'm not entirely sure that the answer would be (some day in the future) a resounding "no." Why? Let's look at the curious case of Shabbat makeup.

For women, and especially young women, wearing makeup on Shabbat presents a very challenging hurdle to overcome. Simply put, a woman is not permitted to paint her face on Shabbat. It's a violation of the prohibited Melachah of Tzovea - "dyeing". (A man can't paint his face on Shabbat either. But he also can't paint his face during the week either.)
This can present serious challenges to Orthodox women. Many ladies accustomed to wearing makeup during the week simply feel ugly when they go out without their makeup. Moreover, on Shabbat they're not just running out to the grocery store. They're getting dressed up, going to shul, trying to look their best. And then we tell them, "Sure, look your best. Just don't make up your face, like you usually do." In today beauty-driven culture, not putting on makeup is truly a serious hardship for many women.
And yet, the original sources are pretty clear - from the Gemara all the way up to the Shulchan Aruch. The gemara (Shabbat 95a) writes,
רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר משום רבי אליעזר, אשה לא תעביר סרק על פניה בשבת מפני שצובעת
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, a woman may not apply red [coloring] on her face on Shabbat, because that is [considered the Melachah of] dyeing.
Rambam concurs, writing (Laws of Shabbat 9:13)
הצובע חוט שאורכו ארבעה טפחים, או דבר שאפשר לטוות ממנו חוט כזה--חייב.  ואין הצובע חייב, עד שיהא צבע המתקיים; אבל צבע שאינו מתקיים כלל, כגון שהעביר סרק או ששר על גבי ברזל או נחושת וצבעו--פטור:  שהרי אתה מעבירו לשעתו, ואינו צובע כלום; וכל שאין מלאכתו מתקיימת בשבת, פטור.
One who dyes a string the length of four tefachim, or material from which one could weave a string of that length - is in violation [of a Torah prohibition]. And the one who dyes is not in violation, unless the dye is lasting, but dye which does not last at all, like one who applies red or lacquer on copper or brass - is not in violation [of a Torah law]. For one is applying it temporarily, and is not "dyeing" anything. And any activity that is not lasting on Shabbat - is not in violation [of a Torah law].
At face value, that sounds good. Sounds like Rambam says it's OK. But it's not. This is because when Rambam uses the term פטור - "not in violation", he's only talking about the דאורייתא level - a Torah prohibition. Wherever we find the term, it still means that the activity is rabbinically prohibited. So, according to Rambam, using makeup on Shabbat is not prohibited from the Torah, but is forbidden rabbinically.
Shulchan Aruch codifies this rule, writing (Orach Chayyim, 303:25)
אסור לאשה שתעביר בשבת סרק על פניה משום צובע. ומטם זה אסורה לכחול בשבת.
A woman is forbidden from applying red dye to her face because of [the prohibition of] dyeing. And, for this reason, a she is forbidden from painting her eyes on Shabbat.
Seems pretty cut and dry. No painting the face on Shabbat. No lipstick (which is also prohibited for other reasons), no rouge, blush, eyeliner or any of the other products women use to make themselves beautiful.

Enter the solution of Shabbat Makeup. Shabbat Makeup? How can there be Shabbat makeup? Didn't we just say that painting the face was prohibited? It all starts with a responsa of Rav Moshe Feinstein. Someone asked him about applying powder to the face on Shabbat, and Rav Moshe wrote (Orach Chayim 1:114),
וכן אסור לאשה לצבוע את פניה מדין צביעה. אבל לזרוק את הפאודער האבקה לבן על הפנים שלא מתקיים כלל, אין בזה איסור צביעה. ומלבד זה נראה שלא אסרו העברת סרק אלא מפני שהסרק נדבק יפה בעור הפנים.
And furthermore, it is forbidden for a woman to color her face due to the law of dyeing. But, to throw white powder on her face that does not last at all, is not prohibited from the perspective of dyeing. Moreover, it seems that [the Sages] only prohibited dying the face because the dye clings well to the skin of the face.
What did Rav Moshe permit here? Did he permit Shabbat makeup? In a later Teshuva, he clarifies that he was talking about colored powders as well.
In an article discussing the matter on the Star-K website, Rabbi Dovid Heber writes,
HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l was of the opinion that one may use powdered makeup that is not long lasting. This circumvents the problem of tzovaya. This powder is commonly known as "Shabbos makeup." Rav Moshe only allows the use of certain powders that have been carefully tested to ensure they are not long lasting. HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l disagrees and opines that all makeup may not be applied on Shabbos regardless of how long it lasts. This opinion is more widely accepted by Poskim. According to Rav Shlomo Zalman, all makeup, even "Shabbos makeup," is forbidden to use on Shabbos. One should consult a Rav to determine which opinion one should follow.
The article then gives a detailed description of the proper application of the Shabbat makeup. Yet, Rav Moshe was not the only posek to offer a lenient opinion on the issue. Rav Ovadyah Yosef also ruled permissively when he wrote (Yechaveh Daat 4:28),
ואף על פי שאנו אין לנו אלא פסק מרן השלחן ערוך להחמיר, אבל אין להוסיף לאסור גם נתינת פודרא שאינה מתקיימת כלל, וגם אינה נדבקת בפנים, כמו העברת סרק ואודם שפתים. ולכן יש להתיר נתינת פודרא גם צבעונית, ובלבד שלא תהיה מעורבת במשחה או קרם. וראה לרבינו אליעזר בר נתן, הראב"ן (סימן שנ"ד), שהתחשב להקל בנידון כזה, מטעם שלא יתגנו על בעליהן, בפרט לאשה הרגילה בכך. ובשל סופרים הלך אחר המיקל, כמבואר במסכת עבודה זרה (דף ז' ע"א). וכן פשט המנהג להקל והנח להם לישראל.
And even though we only have the ruling of Maran HaShulchan Aruch who is strict, nonetheless we should not add [the prohibition of] place powder that does not last at all, and also does not stick to the face, as in the case of [normal] makeup and lipstick. Therefore, one may permit the application of even colored powder, as long as it is not mixed with any ointment or cream. See also the ruling of Ra'avan, who considered ruling leniently in this matter, taking into consideration the factor that [women] do not become repulsive to their husbands, especially if a woman is accustomed to this. And in matter of Rabbinic [prohibition] we follow the lenient opinion, as we find in Masechet Avoda Zara. And so the custom has spread to be lenient, and "leave it to the Jewish people."
As a personal aside, I never really understood the leniency of Shabbat Makeup. After all, if the whole point of the product is to color the face, how then can someone argue that the color doesn't last. If the color didn't last, then no one would use it. The fact that women do use it, and can put it on in the morning and have it last at least until they come home from shul seems to indicate to me that some coloring is going on. See the video here as Shaindy applies the Shabbat makeup, telling you not to "dab" - which she then does, and not to paint a line over the eyes, which she also seems to do. To me, the "before" and "after" say all that needs to be said. And, Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, who was known as an expert in matters of Shabbat, and wasn't unusually strict, categorically rejected the idea of Shabbat Makeup. But my opinion really doesn't matter on the issue, for a few reasons:
1. Rav Ovadya Yosef and Rav Moshe Feinstein permitted it, and if one wants to rely on their opinion, their shoulders are certainly broad enough.
2. Women already use Shabbat makeup, and take it for granted that it's permitted.
In my Hilchot Shabbat class at Orot, one of the students gave her model lesson on this issue (I actually wrote this piece with the aid of her sheets), and nearly all of the students took it for granted that using this type of makeup is permitted on Shabbat. Moreover, here in Israel there aren't brands of makeup with "hechsherim" like you can get in America. They just buy powdered makeup and apply it with a brush. This, I think, leads us to the most important part of Rav Ovadia's leniency: the last three words - הנח להם לישראל - "leave it to the Jewish people."
He doesn't even finish the sentence or explain what he means. Rabbi Howard Jachter, on his excellent website explains:
The point of departure for the lenient approach is that the prohibition to apply Serek (the cosmetic discussed by the Gemara) is only rabbinic in nature.
We should note that this is a typical approach of Poskim who seek to present a lenient approach in case of great need. The first step is to demonstrate (if possible) that there is no possibility of violating a Biblical prohibition. Thus, the first step of the lenient argument regarding cosmetics is to prove that the prohibition to apply Serek is only rabbinic in nature and thus there is more room to be lenient than had it been classified as a biblical prohibition...
In this context Rav Ovadia Yosef explicitly states a motivation for adopting a lenient approach to this issue. In Teshuvot Yabia Omer he states that his concern is “Shema Titganeh Ishah Al Baalah”, that domestic tranquility might be disturbed. The source for this idea is the Gemara (Shabbat 64b), which records that Rabi Akiva permitted wives to wear makeup even when they are Niddot, in order to promote Sh’lom Bayit (domestic tranquility) between husband and wife...

In Teshuvot Yechave Da’at, Rav Ovadia refers to the oft-cited Gemara (Pesachim 66a) that states regarding an area of uncertainty with respect to the Halachot governing Korban Pesach, “leave it to the Jewish People, if they are not prophets then they are the children of prophets”. Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. B’nai) adds “and [therefore] observe what they (the Jewish people) do” and that will resolve the uncertainty. Rav Ovadia applies this principle to this situation, as he notes that many women who are meticulously observant rely on the lenient approaches of Rav Moshe and the K’tzot Hashulchan.
We should note that this principle of “if they are not prophets then they are the sons of prophets” applies only to an area of uncertainty in Halacha and only to the practices of those who carefully observe Halacha. The sin of the golden calf clearly demonstrates that it is not an all-embracing principle.
Thus, Rav Ovadia ruled leniently in this matter for three reasons:
1. It's not a Torah prohibition
2. It's a case of great need
3. People were doing it anyway
Sometimes, the poskim really do follow the people. If there's enough cause and the issue isn't clear-cut, the posek has "wiggle room", and current practice can influence halachic decisions. This type of psak is not for the narrow-shouldered. It takes a person of the stature of a Rav Ovadia Yosef to make this kind of ruling.

Let's return to the issue of texting on Shabbat.
Texting is such a new phenomenon that most adults simply can't relate to using texts as a primary source of communication. Sure, I text, but it's a pain in the neck to me. All those little buttons. I'm not good at it and can never get the spelling right.
The same is not true of young people today. My wife's students are so good at texting that they do it during class, in their pockets, without looking. (Yes, it's really disturbing.) I can't imagine texting someone on Shabbat. Apparently, many young people can't imagine not texting on Shabbat. Using Rav Ovadia's criteria, what about texting?
1. Is it a Torah prohibition? Most poskim say that electronics are only rabbinically forbidden.
2. Is there great need? I don't think so, but apparently the teenagers do.
3. Are people doing it anyway. Apparently they are.

The fact that this is a behavior that we take for granted as prohibited doesn't mean that this will always be true. So, is texting on Shabbat prohibited? Yes it is, without a doubt.
I'm just not so sure that it will be in another fifty years. Or less.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer Grapes

I am a produce snob. I like my fruits and vegetables, but only when they're a certain freshness. By that I mean: really, really fresh.
I like my green apples crunchy and tart; my nectarines crunchy, and my bananas just a slight tinge of yellow. Any mush, and they go straight to my daughter. Who is one.
And then there are grapes. When the grapes feel ever so mushy, I keep moving. This means that there's a very short summer window during which the grapes are large, sweet, crunchy - everything a grape should be.
We just hit that window here. As my wife put it, it feels like the grapes were still on the vine this morning. That could very well be true. When I opened the fridge and saw the carton of grapes she bought this evening, I immediately thought: where are the grapes for tomorrow?
It'll be a short window, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Parshat Korach - Leadership and the Power of the Ketoret

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Korach - Leadership and the Power of the Ketoret

The Ketoret plays a central role in the story of Korach, from the death of the 250 challengers to the salvation of the nation from a terrible plague. Why does it sometimes kill and other times save?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

What's on Israel's Mind Right Now? Cottage Cheese

When I lived in the States, I would, like many Jews I know, after first checking my email in the morning, surf on over to the Jerusalem Post and then maybe Ynet just to check on what's going on in Israel. After all, Israel was an important part of my identity, and I wanted to make sure that everything was OK. Then I'd get back to work.
Now that I'm here, I pretty much do the same thing. But, I've recently noticed that these English language sites don't always reflect what's truly going on in Israel. If you really want to know what people are upset about here, it's not Hizballah, and it's not Hamas or Egypt.
They're worked up about cottage cheese.
Food here is actually quite expensive. The same cereal box that you might buy at Target or Walmart for two dollars here usually costs at least 18 shekel (do the math...divide by 3.5 - yes, the dollar is really weak right now...and that's about 5 dollars for a box of Cheerios - minimum!) A quick check of the Meijer's website and I find that they're selling a pound of sour cream for $1.39. So cottage cheese can't be more than two bucks. Here, they don't sell cottage cheese in sizes that large. Not even close. They sell them in small containers, about 200 grams each - which is less than half a pound, for at least 7 and a half shekel. All that means that cottage cheese here costs more than double what it costs in Michigan. And Israelis, who eat a lot of cottage cheese for breakfast, are angry.
So, some guy started a Facebook page encouraging Israelis to boycott cottage cheese in July. When it reached 20,000 people, it got the media's attention. Now its up to 90,000 people, which is a lot in a country of 7 million.
All of this made me wonder: if it's such a big deal here, why doesn't it really appear in the English language press? Then I realized that people in the Diaspora don't really care about the price of cottage cheese here. Why should they? They've got their own economic problems to deal with. News sites understand this. They're about clicks and page views. They write about what people want to read about, and they don't want to read about my grocery bills.
Just take the Yediot Achronot website this morning. In English, the site leads with a startling, troubling article about Hizballah.

But if you click on the Hebrew main page of the very same newspaper, you get a very different story leading the news:

Even if you can't read the Hebrew, you can tell that it's not a scary article about Nasrallah. Nope - it's the doctor's strike, which drones on for yet another week. (I'll write about that in another post soon.) That's because the news about Nasrallah isn't really news, and the article isn't really about anything new or significant.
Oh, and people here don't care much about Nasrallah right now. (He hated us yesterday. He still hates us today. Ho hum.) They care about the price of cottage cheese.
Which brings me back to where I began. When I open the paper and see articles about cottage cheese, I'm actually quite happy. They tell me that life here, while expensive and stressful at times, is relatively normal. Sadly, we all know that sooner or later the websites will have more important things to report, and the articles will be about real security concerns. But as long as things are quiet, life goes on, and we worry about the price of groceries, like the rest of the world.
And that, I think, is good news.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Son's Recent Israeli Hospital Experience - Interesting and Subtly Different

As a former pulpit rabbi, I have a lot of experience with hospitals, having spent a great deal of time in them visiting patients. I wouldn't say that I "enjoyed" the hospitals per se - no one likes being sick. But I did find the visits usually meaningful and helpful, and liked helping my members.
This week, my son needed to have minor surgery, so I spent half a day in Assaf Harofeh hospital near Rechovot. It was a surprisingly positive experience both personally and medically. The staff was terrific; the doctors seemed quite nice and competent, and my son is doing great.
But, during the recovery, I had some time to wander around the youth floor (which was pretty empty, thank God), and a few things caught my attention.
I think that in the United States you just tune it out, but I forgot just how Christian most American hospitals are, or at least the ones that I frequented. From the crucifix on the wall to the pastor making the rounds to the church channel on the free TV, religion pervades much of US medical system. This never really bothered me. It was something that you took for granted; just part of the landscape that I simply tuned out.
But in Israel, Judaism pervades pretty much every aspect of life here, and the hospital is no exception. In the waiting area, instead of finding a New Testament, there was a stack of Tehillim, and even a used gemara. There was a place to light candles (which I must admit I've never seen used for health, but who knows - maybe it's a Sefardi thing.) There was a dedicated area to light Shabbat candles (in the US we just used electric.) Everyone ate the regular hospital food; there was no "kosher" meals, as everything is kosher throughout the hospital. None of these things should shock anyone. None of them seem out of place. But, coming from my very different experience, they stood out to me.
Regarding health insurance: I didn't pay the hospital a shekel. You call your snif, and they arrange the paperwork authorizing the surgery. We downloaded the form, and I gave it to the cashier at the hospital before the surgery, and that was it.
From a technological/medical perspective, the hospital seemed well-fitted. Granted, the children's hospital beds were "manual" - you could raise and lower them, but only by hand. But they seemed to have all the necessary scanners, machines and the like - although the IV machine used by the child next to my son was donated by some Jews somewhere in the world - I think Denver.
And there was also Wifi throughout the building - which was a lifesaver for me, as I a lot of work done, but was also critically important for my son. I never really turned on the TV, but as soon as he felt well enough to be bored, I simply tuned him into YouTube, where he watched a seemingly endless roll of old cartoons, from Bugs Bunny to Woody Woodpecker to Spiderman. (He didn't like the Flintstones. I think he's still too young.) It's all there! Thanks Youtube! You were a lifesaver.
And thanks, of course, to the Creator for keeping my son's minor issue minor. Thank God he's on the mend, and seems primed to return to Gan soon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Parshat Shelach: Sticks, Stones and Fringes

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shelach: Sticks, Stones and Fringes

After a brief study of the mekoshesh - the gatherer of sticks who was stoned, we turn our attention to the tzitzit, and the power Chazal attributed to this beautiful mitzvah. While we know the text of the section by heart, delving deeper into the text reveals the depth and meaning in this mitzvah.

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Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 23 - The Pull or the Push?

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 23 - The Pull or the Push?
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

In one of my favorite sections in the book, Rav Teichtal uses a gemara in Baba Kama about kinyan meshichah as an allegory for the way Jews move to the Land of Israel. Will we feel heed the call, or run away from the staff of affliction?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Russell Crowe Tweets Circumcision: Nothing New Under the Sun Dept.

The Internet is ablaze with the comments of Australian actor Russell Crowe, who Tweeted about the barbarity of circumcision.
A Crowe follower told the Australian celebrity that he was expecting a son soon, and asked for his input on whether he should have his baby circumcised.
Crowe responded harshly, saying that "circumcision is barbaric and stupid. Who are you to correct nature? Is it real that GOD requires a donation of foreskin?"
The actor added that "babies are perfect" when they are born. Crowe later said that he "will always stand for the perfection of babies, I will always believe in God, not man's interpretation of what God requires."

I find Crowe's Tweet fascinating - not because he brings anything new to the table, but for precisely the opposite reason: his comment is actually thousands of years old. No, Crowe isn't that old - but his tweet almost exacly repeats a conversation between Rabbi Akiva and Turnusrufus (a Roman representative in Judea who apparently liked to shmooze with Rabbi Akiva) found in the Midrash Tanchuma (Tazria 7):

"שאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר’ עקיבא "איזה מעשים נאים של הקב"ה או של בשר ודם?
אמר לו ר’ עקיבא: של בשר ודם נאים.
אמר לו טורנוסרופוס הרשע: הרי השמים והארץ יכול אתה לעשות כהם.
אמר לו ר’ עקיבא: לא תאמר לי בדבר שהוא למעלה מן הבריות, שאין שולטין בהן, אלא בדברים שהן מצויין בבני אדם.
אמר לו: למה אתם מולים?
אמר לו: אף אני הייתי יודע שאתה עתיד לומר לי כן. לכך הקדמתי ואמרתי לך מעשה בשר ודם הם נאים משל הקב"ה.
הביאו לטורנוסרופוס שבולים וגלוסקאות (ועוגות).
אמר לו רבי עקיבא: אלו מעשה הקב"ה! ואלו מעשה בשר ודם! אין אלו נאים?
הביאו לטורנוסרופוס אנוצי פשתן וכלים מבית שאן (בגדים יפים),
אמר לו רבי עקיבא: אלו מעשה הקב"ה! ואלו מעשה בשר ודם! אין אלו נאים?
אמר לו טורנוסרופוס: הואיל הוא חפץ בברית מילה, למה אינו יוצא מהול ממעי אמו?...
ולמה אינו יוצא מהול? לפי שלא נתן הקב"ה לישראל את המצות אלא כדי לצרף בהן
The wicked Turnusrufus once asked Rabbi Akiva: Whose creations are better: those of man, or those of God?
Rabbi Akiva answered: Mankind['s] creations are nicer.
Said to him the wicked Turnusrufus: Behold the heavens and the earth. Can man fashion similar items?
Responded Rabbi Akiva: Don't ask me about things that are above [the ability] of the creations, over which we have no dominion. Rather, let us speak about items that are found among people.
[Turnusrufus] asked: Why do you circumcise?
[Rabbi Akiva answered]: I knew that was what you wanted to ask me. That is why I said that mankind's creations are better. 
Rabbi Akiva brought before [Turnusrufus] sheaves of grain and biscuits, said: These (the grain) are the creations of God, and these (biscuits) are the creation of man. Which are nicer?
He then presented stalks of flax and [linen] cloth from Beit She'an and again said, These (the flax) are the creations of God, and these (cloths) are the creation of man. Which are nicer?
[Turnusrufus] asked: If God wishes for people to be circumcised, why does He not create us circumcised?...
Rabbi Akiva answered: Why does the child not emerge circumcised? Because God gave the commandments to Israel to forge (and purify) them...
Truth be told, Russell Crowe doesn't need to love circumcision. It's not for him or about him. It's not about health, curbing HIV, or any other medical matter. It's a matter of faith and covenant. It's a declaration that we believe not in nature alone, but instead in God who both created that nature, and then gave us a covenant to purify ourselves in nature.
Perhaps that's the most important message of all in this great bris brouhaha. We live in an age of faith in reason, evolution, science, computers, technology; anything but God. Now more than perhaps any other time - even the times when the Romans celebrated the perfection of the human form, we need circumcision, to articulate our firm faith in the Creator, and the Torah He gave us by which we must live our lives.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Great Site So You'll Never Miss Bentching Again

I eat at my desk a lot. That's just the way things work out when I'm at the office - and sometimes even at home. I'm too lazy to go down to the lunch room to eat, and I often bring food from home. Only problem with eating at my desk, is that I have, at times, found myself forgetting to recite Birkat Hamazon. Moreover, I've got to find a siddur, get the page. (I try to bentch from a text when I'm not driving. I find that driving and reading don't often go well together.) You know - difficult things to do when I've got work to do.
I just found an internet site that makes all that a thing of the past. No need to open an actual book, or even take our your iPhone and tap on the bentching app. Nope, now there's eBirkon.
You click to the site, tell it what nusach you want, and presto - the text of Birkat Hamazon is right there on the screen.
Only one problem: What will my excuse be when I forget to bentch now?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How We Relate to Non-Religious Jews: A Powerful Message about Raising Our Children

Of late, I've been quite interested in the issue of chilonim (secular Jews) in Jewish law. There's a large amount of literature on the topic, and I've been recently focused on the question of whether today's secular Jews fall into the category of sinners and apostates (who Jewish law frowns upon quite strongly), or "captured children" who are not responsible for their own spiritually erroneous ways. What's the difference? To quote Rambam, it's the difference between life and death.
Regarding those who "throw off the yoke of Torah and mitzvot" Rambam writes,
Minim… and apikorsim… there is a mitzva to kill them; if a person has the power to slay them publicly by the sword, he should do so, and if not, he should plot against them in such a way as to bring about their death. How so? If he saw that one of them had fallen into a well containing a ladder, he should go ahead and remove the ladder, and say to him: I will lower my son from the roof and then return it to you, or the like. (Rambam, Hilkhot Rotze'ach 4:10) (I got this translation from an online shiur on the topic by Rabbi Haim Navon on the Har Etzion website. For a full treatment of the issue, read the shiur here.)
In another section, Rambam expands on this idea, noting the obligation to "get rid" of Jews who overtly reject the Oral Torah and its obligations. But then, Rambam severely limits this law, applying it only to a very specific group:

This applies only to one who repudiates the Oral Law as a result of his reasoned opinion and conclusion, who walks lightmindedly in the stubbornness of his heart, denying first the Oral Law, as did Tzadok and Boethus and all who went astray. But their children and grandchildren, who, misguided by their parents, were raised among the Karaites and trained in their views, are like a child taken captive by them and raised in their religion, whose status is that of an anus, who, although he later learns that he is a Jew, meets Jews, observes them practice their religion, is nevertheless to be regarded as an anus, since he was reared in the erroneous ways of his fathers. Thus it is with those who adhere to the practices of their Karaite parents. Therefore efforts should be made to bring them back in repentance, to draw them near by friendly relations, so that they may return to the strength-giving source, i.e., the Torah, and one should not be hasty to kill them. (Rambam, Hilkhot Mamrim 3:3)
In essence, Rambam categorizes someone who abandons his faith as an apostate only if he came to his conclusions on his own. But, if he was raised not to follow the precepts of Jewish law by his parents, then he bears no responsibility for his lack of faith.
Leaving aside the issue of whether modern-day secular Jews fall into this category (and there's a growing debate on the matter which I'll share in another post), teaching this piece on Shavuot evening brought to me a chilling revelation about child-rearing which we probably know but often fail to consider fully: a child's spiritual fate (and categorization) rests not in her own hands, but instead in the hands of her parents. Even when she reaches adulthood, if she lacked the proper spiritual education as a child she can never be expected to come to faith on her own. She will always, according to Rambam, be an "anus" - coerced by the forces of her times - to abandon Torah-true faith.
It's a chilling thought. Our kids are not only completely dependent upon us for their physical well-being. They rely on us for their spirituality as well. It's not just about intellectual Judaism, because to me, that could and does come far later on in life. Rather, childhood is about allegiance, emotion, connection and attachment. During these formative years, we form the personality that will define us for the rest of our lives. Without that firm basis to rest upon, perhaps as an adult a child will grow to love the spirituality that Judaism has to offer. Perhaps she will appreciate the binding nature of Torah, and wish to live within the framework of Jewish law. But perhaps not. And she will never have the innate sense of allegiance that comes with being raised with the values of Torah and an inherent connection, through her parents, to the generations that came before her. 
And for religious parents, that's a very heavy burden indeed.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Read this Article. Shavuot is Coming

Last week, I wrote a long article critiquing Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz's short piece on why not to make aliyah. (I didn't realize just how widely that piece made the rounds. What in the world was it doing in the Florida Sun-Sentinel?) Then, a few people pointed me to this really important article by Daniel Gordis that's now making its way around the Interwebs. (the rest of this post will make much more sense to you if you read Gordis' article first) and it dawned on me that the two are in some ways connected.
Looking back, I think what bothered me most about Rabbi Yanklowitz's article was a subtle tone that while Israel is clearly important, there are more important things in Judaism, most specifically, acts of kindness.
While Israel remains the destiny of the Jewish people, we also must not abandon the Diaspora. Firstly, the Torah demands that we, as a nation, commit to pursuing justice; to be warriors against injustice, it behooves us to be stationed everywhere around the globe. This work as an ohr l'goyim, a light unto the nations, is our raison d'être.
I already addressed his specific article extensively, but I think what worries me most is the underlying discomfort with Jewish particularism.  The sense that I get is that, "It can't just be about Israel. It can't just be about the Jewish people. There must be more. I don't want to just care about the Jews. I want to fix the world."
Last month, Rabbi Michael Broyde penned a powerful piece about his sense of pride upon his son's graduation from his officer training course in the IDF. (On a personal and unrelated note, I identified strongly with his wistful lament about his inability to share in his son's accomplishments in person. His lament was one of a number of different emotions that contributed to my decision to make aliyah. I didn't want that to be me.) His article expressed a sense of pride in his son's desire to serve the Jewish people through his service in the IDF, which elicited the following comment:

Why is this man happy that his kid is joining a foreign army? It sounds like a lack of loyalty and hakarat hatov to the country which actually does protect the flourishing of Jewish life. I would of course have no problem with an Israeli child fighting Israels wars. If he needs to kill a Palestinian child to protect himself, its regrettable but it may happen. But what business does an American child have pulling the trigger on a Palestinian one? Is an abundance of feeling now enough to justify entering someone else’s fight?
In truth, I should not allow comments on a blog to surprise me or upset me. But where have we come to when Jews (ostensibly) consider the IDF a "foreign" army, and see a true disconnect between themselves and the citizens of the State of Isreal?

I get the sense that this tendency underlies the unwillingness of some liberal rabbinical students to embrace Jewish particularism and peoplehood described so eloquently by Daniel Gordis. They don't identify with the ideas that we are a unique people; that we are a persecuted nation with enemies; and that we must care first and foremost for each other.
This week Jews around the world will celebrate Shavout. Most people think that Shavuot marks the day that we received the Torah - and they're correct, but only partially. On that day on Sinai we didn't just get a book or a guide or a way of life. Rather, by accepting the Torah we entered into an eternal covenant with God. It's actually an explicit passage in the Torah:
ועַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי--וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 
Now therefore, if you will listen to My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak unto the children of Israel.'(Shemot 19:5-6)

It's not just about receiving the law and tradition of the Torah. On Shavuot, far more than on Pesach, we became a nation - God's nation - with all that this implies: a fealty first and foremost to each-other; a Land; a way of life; an obligation to create a place that reflects God's dominion in the world.
I marvel at times how easily we forget the first blessing of the Birchot Hatorah - the blessings that we recite on the Torah. Even before we read a word, we bless God,
אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו
Who chose us from among the nations and gave us the Torah.
We need to refocus on this specific point. With all the freedoms that the United States has granted the Jewish people and the universal equality championed by the West, Judaism isn't just about a way of life. It's about belonging to a nation. It's about putting our Land and our people first, and doing our best to ensure that all of us live our lives in a manner that reflects the will of God.
Only when we do that do we possibly have the chance to truly repair the world.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 22 - First Settle the Land, and then Moshiach will Come

Audio Shiur:
Eim Habanim Semeichah Shiur 22 - First Settle the Land, and then Moshiach will Come
(This shiur studies the classic work of Rav Yissachar Teichtal on the importance of settling the Land of Israel, following the Hebrew text with English translation.)

Rav Teichtal reinforces the notion that only after we settle the Land will Moshiach be able to come, as we can only truly repent if we feel the presence of God. And we can only truly feel God's presence in His holy Land.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

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

Parshat Naso: Don't Eat that Cake! Or Should I?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Naso: Don't Eat that Cake! Or Should I?

It's all about the Black Forest Cake - which I did have, but shouldn't have. Or maybe I should have? The cake served as a springboard for a larger discussion about enjoying God's pleasures, or avoiding them. Which is a better way to attain spirituality? Through our study of the section on the Nazir, we examine the two classic opinions on the issue, from the Gemara through Rambam.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on YUTorah.org.

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

Mazal Tov to my son Bezalel. And to me.

Recently, a neighbor approached me about his son's learning. It seems that he wants to supplement the Torah that his son is learning at school, and wanted to know what I suggested. After a moment, I suggested that he learn with his son Mishnah Yomit. First of all, it's not a lot of learning every day, but it is every day. Secondly, over the course of time, his son would acquire a tremendous amount of knowledge. And finally, the time invested learning with him in person would be invaluable to their relationship.
I made the suggestion, because I've been doing exactly that with my son Bezalel for almost a year now. Last summer, when the Mishnah Yomit started shas anew, I got a bug in my head that we should learn the two daily mishnayot together. Initially, Bezalel strongly resisted, wondering why I was forcing him to learn. But very, very quickly, he really took to the program, taking his learning very seriously, and ensuring that we were up to date. His reading ability (in Hebrew - we do the Kehati) has improved dramatically, as has his shas knowledge and learning skills. We fell quite a bit behind at one point, but eventually caught up, and last week concluded Seder Zeraim. Over the months we learned mostly in person, but at times on the phone, over Skype, and recently he's been calling me on my cell so that we could learn while I'm on the bus.
Tomorrow morning Bezalel will make a siyyum on the Seder, and we've already begun Moed. I'm really very proud of him, but I'm also proud of myself for sticking with the program and keeping after Bezalel when he wasn't in the mood, or I wasn't, or I was crazy busy - or all three. I myself had doubts about how things would go, and feel great about sticking with it. Now I just feel guilty for not learning regularly with Simcha.
Watching the joy on Bezalel's face when we finished that last Mishnah in Bikkurim gave me great joy. He had a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that few children his age have, and I got that rare sense of satisfaction that one has from a long-term project which has reached a major milestone. It was hard work, but truly worthwhile.
That's what I was thinking when I suggested Mishnah Yomit to my neighbor. It's not just about his son's knowledge. It's about so much more.
He seemed hesitant, and when I asked him why he responded (honestly) that he didn't feel he had the knowledge to learn the Mishnah together with his son. That got me thinking (yet again) about a project that I had long wanted to do: a Mishnah Yomit website that would have the audio of the Mishnah, together with the text (and probably some clear explanation and translation). The audio could be specifically geared towards someone who didn't already understand the Mishnah (most Mishnah Yomit audio takes knowledge, lingo, and familiarity pretty much for granted). I got as far as buying a domain name (MorningMishnah.org), and then came to realize just how much time I would have to invest to do the project right.
I don't have that kind of time right now. But wouldn't it be a great project?