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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parashat Chayei Sarah - Dealing with Formerly Frum Children

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Chayei Sarah - Dealing with Formerly Frum Children

The Cover of Motzash Magazine
Recently in Israel, the Religious Zionist press has highlighted the phenomenon of Datlashim (formerly religious people) through a number of very prominent newspaper articles. Yet, studying Parshat Chayei Sarah we quickly realize that this phenomenon is not at all new. Rather, the first Datlash (and the first Ba'al Teshuva) lived thousands of years ago. And he came from the best of families!

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Monday, November 14, 2011

"Avraham the Fraier" - A Thought for

I listen to a popular American radio program (via the magic of iTunes podcast) called "This American Life", a story-based show about different aspects of, you guessed it, American Life. In March, while running in Yad Binyamin listening to the show, I heard a story that taught me pshat in Parshat Chayei Sarah.
The show's narrator interviewed an Iranian immigrant about the unusual Iranian custom of Ta'aruf, which, according to Wikipedia, "leads people to constantly offer things they may not want to give, and to refuse things they really want." Basically, even though you want something, practitioners of Ta'aruf must say exactly the opposite, in an elaborate charade meant to finally reach a nuanced conclusion. The Iranian immigrant, interviewed for the story, describes an imaginary interaction that takes place in Iranian stores every day.
You go into a story and you go and you buy dried fruit or something. You take it up to the counter to go pay, and the store owner says, "It's worthless. This is worthless. Your value is so much greater than this thing that you're trying to buy. Then you have to say, 'No, no, no, really, how much does it cost?' He tells you, 'No, no, no, just take it.' You have to argue to find out the price, until finally you get to the point where he tells you the price, and then he quotes you a price that's way more than the item is actually worth. Then it becomes a bargaining session." 
Does that sound vaguely familiar? Listening to the story, I realized that this short description precisely matches the first section of Chayei Sarah (Bereishit 23), where Avraham Avinu purchases the Me'arat Hamachpelah.

To read the rest of the piece, click here to download the formatted pdf version.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Defining Success in Modern Orthodoxy: Thoughts on Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel

After I recently wrote about the upcoming thirtieth yahrtzeit of my father, a number of people commented on just how young he was when he died, leaving my mother to raise seven children between the ages of sixteen and two. Looking back, I continue to marvel at what she accomplished. Somehow, she raised each of us to follow in the values of Torah and Shemirat Hamitzvot. Each one of her children is an active, dedicated member of his or her Orthodox community, no small feat for a family that suffered such a devastating blow at such an early stage.
One interesting aspect of my family is the spectrum of Orthodoxy that we represent. From my brother in Florida and me (both of whom attended Yeshiva University) on the "modern" side of the spectrum, to my sisters who attended Stern College and married "yeshivish" (please excuse the generalizations) to another brother who first studied in yeshiva after high school but then went on to university and medical school, to my brother who learned for years in kollel and never attended college and sister whose husband studied in kollel in Lakewood for years. I'm not sure to what degree my mother guided each of our choices, but she honored them. My sister always wanted Beis Ya'akov Yerushalayim. My mother understood what that meant and supported her. When a brother transferred from Sha'alvim to Rav Zvi Kushelevsky's yeshiva, my mother stood behind him. In hindsight, she didn't seem to care where on the Orthodox spectrum we fell. But she did - and still does care deeply that we maintain our allegiance to Torah and mitzvot.
He was clearly proud of his upbringing.
Are his students?
It is in this context that I contemplate the recent passing of the late Mir Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel. By now it's well known that Rav Finkel grew up in Chicago and attended what would later become the Ida Crown Jewish Academy. That revelation brought me to wonder: When a modern Orthodox institution educates a child who then goes on to accept some most tenets of its ideology, but reject others, is that a success? Or, better yet, to what degree is that a success? If you find the question provocative, ask it the other way around: If a graduate of a right-wing yeshiva grew up to become a major Modern Orthodox leader and thinker (perhaps like this giant), would that institution proudly promote the accomplishments of its graduate? Or would it instead say (as was quoted in Ha'aretz) about Rav Finkel that while,
"He grew up on baseball, American kosher hotdogs, apple pie and everything else that represents the American Jewish scene. He transcended all - in order to develop into a personality that develops other personalities."
In other words, he had to overcome his upbringing in order to become the Rosh Yeshiva that he became. Yesterday, my wife and kids watched a video report on Israel National News about the funeral, which included commentary from a number of people including Rabbi Avrohom Goldstein, the Co-head of the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who said a number of times in his two minute narrative that Rav Finkel achieved greatness despite the fact that he, "Grew up from nothing and built himself into a giant." 
No, he didn't grow up from nothing. He grew up in a family that cherished Torah enough to send him to an Orthodox Jewish Torah school, an act we might now take for granted but certainly was not widely popular in the late fifties and early sixties when Rav Finkel attended high school. It was a major, significant expense that many families simply could not justify. But his parents paid that price, and reaped the benefits of merit and nachas in the accomplishments their son would achieve not despite his Torah education, but because of it.
I am sure that the Ida Crown Jewish Academy is, and should be proud that its graduate grew to become a major figure in the Orthodox world. As well it should be. Modern Orthodoxy need not be about creating replicas of ourselves. It must - and I think does correctly - realize that different students will find their unique relationship to Torah Judaism, and that Orthodoxy's message resonates in each of us differently. Were we to consider right-wing graduates as "failures" who we didn't properly educate (or more appropriately, "indoctrinate") to "our" values, I would consider the failure not in the child, but in the educational vision. Kids aren't stamps. They aren't clones. They must be given the leeway to find their own path in Torah, allowing them to thrive in the manner most appropriate to them.
My mother (and others as well), recognizing my passion for Religious Zionism, likes to needle me by asking, "What will you do if one of your children chooses Chareidi Judaism?" In essence she's asking, "How would you feel if your child rejected your way of life?" The question used to bother me more than it does now. I have grown to answer (truthfully, I think), "I would love and respect that child. If they want to be Chareidi, great! But," I always add, "I would make it quite clear: If you want be Chareidi, I will honor and respect your choice. But I'm not going to pay for it or support it." 
Rav Finkel didn't come from "nothing." He didn't "transcend" his American Torah education. That education encouraged him to strive to be the great Torah scholar he became. It gave him the foundation of values and skills which guided him for the rest of his life. It probably gave him the communication skills so critical to grow the Mir into the colossus it has become.
His life represents not a failure of Modern Orthodoxy, but yet another example of its great success.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayera - Occupy Wall Street and the People of Sodom

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayera - Occupy Wall Street and the People of Sodom

Recent worldwide protests calling for social justice raise critical questions about how we view our money - and that of others. (See the great Colbert interview to get a sense of the true nuttiness of the Occupy Wall Street youth.) What does the Torah tell us about capitalism? The text - and Midrashim - about Sodom have a lot to teach us.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Limits of Rabbinic Chutzpah

A friend recently emailed me a "Mishpacha Magazine" exclusive about "Pressure at the Pulpit". The article, while minimally informative, contained a few nuggets. My favorite:
A rabbi sitting near me leans over. "I don't get why we have to be available for all their shei'los if they aren't available for all our answers. I'll tell you what I mean. A congregant calls me earlyone morning from a hotel in the Caribbean Islands, he wants to know about using the coffee maker in the room.
I told him, 'Yankel, you didn't ask me if its appropriate to vacation in a place where it's a battle to watch your eyes from forbidden sights. You didn't ask me about traveling to a place with no minyan. Nowyou call me? For this question, I'm not available, sorry.'"
I must admit: there have been times when I've wanted to say this to a congregant, but I then thought better of it. After all, what does a rabbi have to gain from this type of interaction? The next time, the congregant won't call him about the hotel or about the coffeemaker, and will probably make his life miserable going forward. Is it the best time, when he's sitting in his hotel room, to tell him that he really shouldn't be there? And, if a rabbi wants to get the message across, perhaps there's a better way to tell him, gently and softly.
Maybe that's really the point of the story. The pressure really had gotten to the rabbi after all.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Now Available in Israel! The Morning After Pill!

Last Friday afternoon, I rushed to the pharmacy to fill a prescription for a sick child. (As an aside, we couldn't find a doctor who was open on Friday, and we thought - correctly - that she needed a round of antibiotics. Happily, the message at the local clinic said, "If you'd like, for an additinal fee, you can have a doctor pay a house visit." Curious, I called the number. How much would it be for a doctor to come to the house? 73 shekel. I paid, and the doctor - a very nice, thorough Russian woman, was at our home several hours later.) In any case, as I waited on line at the drug store to fill my prescription, I noticed the following sign hanging over the counter.

It says, "Now, also in Israel! NORLEVO - The pill for 'The Day After' sold worldwide." The box is for show only, because it only holds one pill.
That's right - the Morning After Pill is not only now sold in Israel - but prominently so! I'm not surprised that they're selling it here; just the open brazenness of the advertising - as if this pill is no different than the antacid sign that used to be there before.
I tried to imagine seeing an ad for "Plan B" (what the drug is called in the States) over a pharmacy counter in the United States. I simply can't. There was an outcry when the ad was scheduled to run on MTV. Imagine the uproar if this sign showed up in your local Walgreens. Quite the opposite. In the US pharmacists get fired when they refuse to sell the drug at all. And there's even a ballot initiative in Mississippi that would legally asign personhood to a fetus immediately after conception, making this type of drug - and most forms of contraception - illegal. (One wonders whether state troopers would examine womens' personal effects for contraband when entering the State). And yet, in Israel, which really is a far more conservative society in many ways than is America, nobody bats an eyelash at ads like these.
What about halachah's take on these pills? Can a rabbi allow a woman to take a "Morning After Pill"?
From a halachic point of view, the implications of these types of pills are not entirely clear. Halachah generally forbids contraception for normal, married couples, encouraging procreation strongly. At the same time, Jewish law permits some forms of contraception in unique, specific circumstances. (This is not a post about this topic. If you have a question, ask your rabbi, as this is a very complicated, involved halachic issue that's not fodder for a pithy blog post.)
In general, these "Morning After" pills don't abort the fertilized egg, but instead prevent it from emplanting in the uterus by triggering an early period. It's also probably fair to say that if a young woman wants to know if she can take the pill, there really is an extenuating circumstance. On the other hand, allowing the use of pills like these would only encourage even greater sexual promiscuity.
A rabbinic friend told me (off the record) of a case that he knew of where a posek permitted a young woman (not married) to take the pill. To what degree would an unplanned pregancy affect an unmarried, religious young woman? I would venture to say that it would affect her a great deal. Would that be enough to allow her to take the pill the mornnig after an "unOrthodox" encounter?
I don't know. To get an answer to that question, you'd need to ask a posek.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What's Under Me'arat Hamachpelah 2 - The Rest of the Story

Continued from this post.

In our last (and only other) installment, I wrote about the story of how Moshe Dayan sent down a young, very skinny girl through the hole in the floor of the building built above the ancient burial site. (A kind commenter corrected me - it was not Moshe Dayan's daughter, but that of an aide.) Nonetheless, she reported walking down a narrow corridor and finding a staircase, climbing the staircase and knocking on the rock she found at the top only to hear...someone knocking back. Sounds like a bad made-for-TV movie, but it really did happen.
She zipped back to the hole and climbed out, undoubtedly scared out of her wits. It wasn't clear whether they had told this poor young girl about the legends (Jewish and not) going back hundreds of years stating explicitly that anyone who ventured into the cave would die. In any case, my tour guide, Noam Arnon, said that when she came out and reported her findings, he realized that there was another way to enter the case.
Arnon knew that there were in fact two entrances to the cave - the first being the hole in the floor, and the other found at the far side of the cave, blocked by a huge stone. He surmised, correctly, that the cave had two entrances - one from the top and another from the side, and that when the girl knocked on the stone from the inside, someone had simply knocked back from the outside.
The hole in the wall
Knowing about the entrance was only part of the challenge. Getting in to the cave was another matter entirely. As previously mentioned, the Arabs considered themselves the caretakers of the cave. It didn't help that the Israeli government told them so. (Sometimes our collective foolishness simply boggles the mind.) In any case, before the terrible Baruch Goldstein massacre, the two groups prayed at the cave in loose shifts - the Jews at times, and the Arabs at others. (Today, the IDF separates Jews and Arabs completely). Arnon and his friends knew that the Arabs left close to midnight, after the final prayer (Islamic tikkun chatzot?) and would not return until early morning. Being Elul time, they planned an elaborate Selichot. Or, as Arnon put it (using a very thick Sefardi accent) Se-li-hot, a prayer service that would involve a great deal of crying out, screaming, singing, shofar blowing, and other forms of spiritual mayhem. And, they also brought pickaxes, shovels and other tools not commonly used during Selichot to remove the stone.
As selichot progressed, they began to work. "ANA Hashem!" they'd scream. Boom! Boom! "Tekia!" WHAM! As the davening continued, young men hammered away at the stone. Eventually, davening ended when they removed the rock and did indeed find the staircase that they expected, leading them down. They entered the hole, and climbed down the stairs.
Arriving at the bottom, they walked down the corridor described by Michal and found...nothing. There wasn't anything there. They came back to the staircase. Again, nothing. Sooner or later, though, they realized that they felt a slight breeze. There must be something under them. Getting to work, they began to remove the stones in an area they found in the floor, and eventually uncovered a cave beneath them. They descended into that cave, and, as Arnon describes it, found pottery consistent with that found from the times of the Beit Hamikdash (I think he said Bayit Rishon, but I don't remember.) They then realized that the chamber they were in was an outer cave, leading to an inner cave - a cave within a cave - a double cave - (Me'arat Hamachpelah) and when they proceeded into the inner cave, Arnon said, "I realized that I was standing in the midst of human remains."
I'm not entirely sure how long they were down there, but time clearly was a factor. They needed to clean up, get out of the cave, and try to cover their tracks before the Arabs arrived in the morning. They reassembled the stone floor as best they could, recovered some pottery, made their way out of the cave, and tried to put the rock back where they found it.
Arnon's drawing of the cave
It was a valiant effort, but when the Arabs returned in the morning, it was pretty obvious that something was amiss. They realized that the Jews had entered the cave against their will, and sealed off the rock with concrete. Since that time, no archaeological examinations of any kind have taken place at the Cave.
After his talk, I had one question for Mr. Arnon: "Why didn't you take more pictures?"
He told me the obvious. Cameras thirty years ago were somewhat more complicated and difficult to manage than our point-and-clicks today. It was pitch black. Lighting was impossible. He took as many pictures as he could, but it's not like today, where you look at the screen and see what you've got. Anyone older than thirty will remember that way back, not more than ten years ago, you took a picture with something called "film", and you shot the picture and hoped for the best.
What you see is what came out.
Pottery from the Cave
Often, when visiting ancient sites here in Israel, I find myself wondering whether this is the "real" burial place, or just some shrine erected centuries later. (Think: Kever Rachel, Kever David, Kever Yosef - the list goes on and on). Some part of me always wondered whether that same question applied to the most important burial ground in Jewish History. Hearing Arnon's story doesn't answer the question scientifically, but I never needed absolute proof. That place was - and is - an ancient burial ground - and I truly believe that Avraham Avinu chose that cave as the final resting place for his wife, himself, and his descendants.
Its a tribute to Noam Arnon and the people who live in Hevron today, that we merit the ability to visit, pray and worship there today.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Parshat Lech Lecha - The Personality of Lot

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Lech Lecha - The Personality of Lot

Lot doesn't come off well in the Midrash. But a careful look at the text paints a far more nuanced picture, and we come to realize that we have much more in common with Lot than we might have thought. .

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Latest (and last for now) Simcha Spolter

The Original Simcha Spolter

Almost 30 years ago, my father passed away at the almost unbelievably young age of 39. As I am now currently that very same age, I find this fact somewhat disconcerting, but more saddening. I (still) consider myself young. I have very young children, as did he. I have come to the point where I mourn the loss of his life not so much for myself - that feeling wells up at times too - but for him.
Because I now live in Israel only a short drive away from my father's grave, I am now able to visit his kever and pray there more than I ever did. On erev Yom Kippur this year, I found myself drawn there. It seemed not just appropriate, but necessary, and my two eldest sons, Simcha and Bezalel were there with me.
As we recited Tehillim, for reasons I don't really understand I landed on the chapters that begin with Shir Hama'alot, towards the end of the book. One chapter, Psalms 128, particularly caught my attention.
שִׁיר, הַמַּעֲלוֹת:
אַשְׁרֵי, כָּל-יְרֵא ה' - הַהֹלֵךְ, בִּדְרָכָיו.
יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ, כִּי תֹאכֵל; אַשְׁרֶיךָ, וְטוֹב לָךְ.
אֶשְׁתְּךָ, כְּגֶפֶן פֹּרִיָּה - בְּיַרְכְּתֵי בֵיתֶךָ:
בָּנֶיךָ, כִּשְׁתִלֵי זֵיתִים - סָבִיב, לְשֻׁלְחָנֶךָ.
הִנֵּה כִי-כֵן, יְבֹרַךְ גָּבֶר - יְרֵא ה'.
יְבָרֶכְךָ ה', מִצִּיּוֹן: וּרְאֵה, בְּטוּב יְרוּשָׁלִָם--כֹּל, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ.
וּרְאֵה-בָנִים לְבָנֶיךָ: שָׁלוֹם, עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.
A Song of Ascents.
Happy is every one that feareth the LORD, that walketh in His ways.
When thou eatest the labour of thy hands, happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.
Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine, in the innermost parts of thy house;
thy children like olive plants, round about thy table.
Behold, surely thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the LORD.
The LORD bless thee out of Zion; and see thou the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life;
And see thy children's children. Peace be upon Israel! 
As I recited the words, tears welled up in my eyes. What's the most that a person can really ask for? Who is truly fortunate? King David was right: All you can hope for is to walk in the path of God, "eat the fruits of your labors", enjoy the blessings of a loving and dedicated wife, and sit with your children around his dinner table. Reading these words next to my father's grave, only two thoughts came to my mind: I have all of that (and don't appreciate it enough), and he never really did. At least not enough, to my way of thinking - although no one seems to have asked me. Now, even almost thirty years after his death, I mourn - not for me, but for him.
He was never able to enjoy the Bat Mitzvahs of his sons or the weddings of his children; he never held a grandson on his lap as he received his name, nor walked down the aisle to the chuppah with a child.
But he did set a standard for us - quite a high one at that, which continues to live on in each of his children, and now his grandchildren. He was a pillar; a man of knowledge and erudition, of ethics, morals and integrity. Quiet and introspective, even now it's clear to me that he commanded an unusual level of respect in his family, community and even at work.
Almost immediately after his untimely death, relatives began naming children after my father. My father's brother Arty named his eldest son, Scott, after him, making him the first Simcha Spolter of his generation. (My father's English name, Seymour, seems to have been out of the question for any of us. Little wonder why.) Soon after, my mother's brother named his son Simcha as well.
But my mother - and I think my siblings and I as well - always knew that we would name our sons after our father. And indeed we did. My two eldest sisters named their firstborn sons Simcha. The only reason the third sister did not name a child Simcha is because her husband's name is Symcha. (It didn't seem appropriate). My brothers and I followed suit, each of us naming our eldest sons after our father. I get a sense of consolation knowing that my Hebrew name, when I'm called up to the Torah is Avraham Reuven ben Harav Simcha, and that my son is called up as Simcha ben Avraham Reuven. It just fits. It seems right.
Last week, the Simcha (Raczkowski, of Baltimore) named by my eldest sister got engaged to be married. On the very same day, my youngest brother's wife gave birth to a boy after three girls. There was little doubt that he too would name his son after his father, although he never knew his father at all, having become an orphan at the unthinkable age of two years old.
Simcha Spolter z"l's namesakes live around the world in Chicago, Yad Binyamin, Baltimore, Boyton Beach, Kiryat Sefer, and Cleveland. It now seems clear that this newest Simcha Spolter represents the last of this generation of Simcha Spolters. With eight Simchas named after my father, this seems fitting. It's enough, and they have great shoes to fill.
Good thing that there are a lot of them.
The Youngest Simcha Spolter