Monday, January 30, 2012

Charging for Torah

Twice over the past week, I've been led to the popular blog of Rabbi Natan Slifkin, a growing star in the "anti-Chareidi" community, who has published a good number of popular books and is now a regular on the American scholar in residence circuit. Yet, each time I tried to access the recommended article, I was blocked by a pay wall. Rabbi Slifkin has elected to ask people for a "donation" of any amount via Paypal, in order to access his site's content. Some users seem happy to support him, while others seem to take quite the opposite view, expecting his content to be free. My favorite snooty comment,
why don't you get an honest job? Isn't it embarrassing to have to rely on the charity of others? I don't this "shnorring as any different than what goes on at bmg...
 A little harsh, don't you think? I certainly do.
And yet, the question remains: Is it appropriate to charge for Torah? While Rabbi Slifkin certainly has the right to demand donations to access content he has created, is excercising that right...right?
At first glance, the answer would be "No." After all, the famous Mishnah in Avot (4:5) reminds us,

רבי צדוק אומר, אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ולא קרדם לחפור בהם. וכך היה הלל אומר, ודאשתמש בתגא, חלף. הא למדת, כל הנהנה מדברי תורה, נוטל חייו מן העולם
Rabbi Zadok says, do not make [the words of Torah] into a crown to enlarge yourself with them, nor a axe to dig with. And so Hillel would say, "He who uses the crown, will perish." From this we learn that anyone who benefits from the words of Torah, takes his life from the world.
Yet, the issue is far more complex than it might initially seems. Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura, commenting on that passage in the Mishnah writes,
ולא תלמוד תורה כדי לעשות ממנה מלאכה שתתפרנס בה, כמו קרדום לחפור בה, שהעושה כן מועל בקדושתה של תורה וחייב מיתה בידי שמים כמי שנהנה מן ההקדש. ומלמדי תינוקות נוטלין שכר שימור התינוקות בלבד, שמשמרין אותן שלא יפשעו ויזיקו, ושכר פיסוק טעמים, שאין הרב חייב לטרוח וללמד לתלמידים פיסוק הטעמים. אבל שכר לימוד אסור ליטול
And one is not permitted to use the study of Torah as a manner from which he supports himself, like an axe one digs with, for one who does so robs from the sanctity of the Torah, and is liable to be punished with death from the heavens, just like one who benefits from property sanctified for us in the Temple. And those who teach young children take renumeration only for the watching of the children, for they watch that the [children] neither damage nor cause negligent harm. And, they also receive renumeration for teaching the cantillation [of the Torah], for a rabbi is not obligated to toil and teach his students the cantillation.
Bartenura's comments reflect the nuance inherent in the issue. On one hand, the Mishnah clearly castigates someone who takes money to teach Torah. Yet, who then is supposed to teach our children? If no one can take money, and everyone has to feed their family, who's going to teach Torah? So, he draws a line between fundamental teaching and everything else. The Torah must be free. But the rebbe also watches the kids. He tells them jokes. He watches them during recess. Even the Torah you might have thought was included - the cantillation - that's extra too. It sounds a little like today's airline fares: the base fare is for the trip, but if you want a blanket, drink, luggage, seat belt, or oxygen mask, those are extra. (You almost expect one day soon, that the flight attendant will instruct you before your flight, "In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, simply slide your credit card through the reader, and an oxygen mask will descend over your seat." But I digress.)
What emerges is the theoretical principle: "Torah is free",and it's application in the real world: "No it's not." Someone has to pay to support experts who can invest their time and energy to provide spiritual support, guidance and instruction.
(Please note, this is not, by any means, a thorough analysis of the topic. Rambam, who had a "real job" - don't you just love that term - famously castigated rabbis who took money to lead their communities. This prompted an extensive response from rabbinic scholars who, surprise, surprise, earned their living from their Torah knowledge.)
This, I believe, is where Rabbi Slifkin comes into our picture. Sure, his Torah should be free. And it is. Feel free to send him an email. But if you want to download it in electronic form; if you want if formatted in easy-to-read PDF form; if you want it in the English language - then you're going to have to pay for it. Because if he's going to find the time to reseach, study and write the pieces, someone's going to have to support his ability to do so.
Full disclosure: there's a personal element to my attitude on this issue. I too, for many years, took money to teach Torah. (Actually, the Torah was free. I took money to schedule the davening, counsel members, run programs, create flyers. All that cost money. The Torah was gratis.) And I continue to do so today.

I give three weekly shiurim in Yad Binyamin: two in English, and a third in Hebrew on Shabbat. For two of the shiurim I ask for a "suggested" tuition of fifty shekel a month for participants. It's really a very loose thing; people who cannot pay are invited and welcomed to join (although perhaps some don't because they'd rather not "freeload", even if invited to come for free). Others, I have heard, would like to come but choose not to because philisophically, the believe that the shiurim should be free of charge. Still, periodically, I struggle with the dillemma of whether to charge or not. Is it right for me to ask people to pay for the Torah that I teach?
I charge for a few reasons:
1. The money certainly helps. Sure, it's pocket money, but it negates a trip or two to the ATM each month, and that's no small deal. And, I invest time and energy to both prepare and deliver the shiurim, and one of the shiurim meets during regular work hours.
2. I think that people today often value what they pay for. Whether we like it or not, sometimes we devalue things that we get for free. A free blog - like this one - is fine. You're probably not even reading what I've written carefully. More like skimming. That's what people do on the web today. But if you've paid for one of Rabbi Slifkin's articles, there's a good chance that you'll take the time to read it more carefully than a free blog post.
3. My parshah shiur is always available for free, in recorded form (even as a podcast!) No, I couldn't resist giving myself a free plug.
4. Finally, if you've paid for a month of shiurim, there's a really good chance that you won't skip the shiur when something comes up. And, with adults, something always comes up. I believe truly that the shiur has endured, perhaps with a smaller attendance - because people pay to participate. Paying for something is often a good incentive to use it.

Ironically, while I honor Rabbi Slifkin's right to charge for his articles, I personally am not willing to pay for them. Which I guess, is exactly the point. He has the right to ask me for money. And I have the right to say, "No thank you."

Sunday, January 29, 2012

An Amazing Act of Chesed

Sometimes someone does something that simply takes your breath away. With all the negative news around, I feel the need to share an incredible act of Chesed on the part of a former rabbinic colleague. I can say that I met Rabbi Ari Sytner at rabbinic conferences, and was impressed with him then. This article says more about him that I possibly could.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bo - The Building Blocks of Redemption

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bo - The Building Blocks of Redemption

Using many of the details scattered throughout Parshat Bo, we can find the carefully engineered plan to transform the people that long suffered as slaves, into a nation ready to leave Egypt and become Am Yisrael.

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.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Florence Rosen, ob"m

Some people always seem larger than life, and when they're gone, you almost can't believe it, as if you somehow thought that they'd always be around.
Rena's grandmother passed away this morning, and Safta, as we called her, was certainly one of those people.
Safta and I hit it off right away. I was in love with her eldest granddaughter, and she loved me for it. She was my guardian angel, paving the way for my life together with my beloved wife. Her blessing was everything. Without it, I stood no chance. With it, nothing could stand in our way.
Safta was the quintessential American Jewish grandmother. On one hand, everything about her screamed stereotype, from her New York nasal tone to her perfect make-up to her weekly beauty parlor appointments. But, at the same time, everything about her was anything but typical. In fact, she defied stereotype.
Safta was born into a New York Judaism literally cracking at the seams. Raised in a religious home, while her siblings were and are traditional, none maintained Orthodox practice other than Safta. She was a woman of simple faith, in the most positive meaning of the term. She believed in the all-powerful Creator, and never deviated from that belief. Even in later years when going out to Shul on Shabbat proved challenging, she would spend Shabbat morning first davening and then reading the parshah herself. It was just part of her being. When the doctors told her not to fast, she called me, knowing that she simply had to fast; that was who she was. She wasn't a person of deep philosophical discussions. She left those to her husband. She was a person of action. The were mitzvot for Jews to keep, so she kept them. How many of us can say the same?
Safta was the force that guided her children towards observance, while at the same time devoted and tolerant of a husband who did not share her commitment to Jewish practice, but always honored her devotion to it. I cannot think of a marriage - one that lasted more than six decades - where two people showed such reverence, care and respect for each-other.
Safta was also the glue connecting the different wings of the family. She was the force behind the Chanukah parties that brought everyone together. She just took it for granted that the family needed to light the menorah together. So that's what we did.
One of my fondest Safta memories took place on the first Pesach after we were married. With a new rabbinic son-in-law to impress, before the second Seder Safta decided that she was going to drink four cups of wine during the Seder, and not her normal grape juice. Despite our desperate protests, as the cups of wine compounded, they began to get the best of her. Late into the night, after much singing, prayer and discussion, Savta stuck her hand in the air and shouted, "Wait! I have a question!"
We all waited with baited breath. What issue did she which to discuss? Did a subtle aspect of the Redemption trouble her? Perhaps she wished to ask something about Hallel.
"Yes, Safta, what is it?"
"Why..." she asked, her speech slightly slurred, "do they have to daven so fast in shul? I can hardly keep up!"
When we finished laughing, we returned to the Seder.
But in a nutshell, that was Safta. She left the complicated questions to others. All she ever really wanted to do was pray to God, in the best way she could, and maybe not so fast.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Gift of Music: A Song from my Zeida

My Zeida, Rabbi Dr. Hyman Friedman, z"l
Music has always played a major role in my life. I have strong, fond memories of our family singing around the Shabbat table, both when my father was alive, and even after he passed away. It might not be an exaggeration to say that after my father died, music represented one of the few sources of joy in our family. At every family simcha, music played a role. I remember singing together with my brother Yair at my Bar Mitzvah, accompanied by my sister on the piano.
We were always a family that sang zemirot on Shabbat, and in my home we still do. It's sometimes delicate, as I don't want to force my children to sing. But we've gotten to the point that most weeks, they ask me to sing, and not the other way around. A Shabbat meal without zemirot just isn't Shabbat to me, and when we don't sing, either at my home or at someone else's, I feel a sense of lacking, that a critical element of Shabbat was something missing.
Music has the power to transport us, both in time and place. Somehow, it brings us closer to those we love, and connects us to memories we cherish.
The best example for me of this phenomenon is the old Shabbat tune for Yah Ribon Olam. 
That song - or at least the tune that we always sing to Yah Ribon Olam - belonged to my Zeidi, or as we called him, Zeida from Boston. (He lived in Winthrop, a suburb of Boston, when we grew up.) It's a relatively well-known tune, but has two unique qualities.
1. Because it's slow, it tends to drone, and on a late Friday night, can have a certain sedative quality, especially when intentionally sung in my Zeida's nasaly New England tone.
2. Also because it's a slow tune, it lends itself to numerous, multiple harmonies, and when sung passionately, is exceptionally beautiful and moving. I have quite vivid memories of many beautiful renditions of this song at my uncle Zvi's house, especially when his boys lived at home and I would visit for Shabbat in Woodmere.
There are weeks when we sing Zeida's tune (for reason b), and others when we skip it (for reason a - as my son often prefers a more lively beat to bang on the table). But, at certain times, when we sing Yah Ribon, I can literally feel Zeidi in the room.
That happened two weeks ago.
As I've mentioned in a few previous posts, my brother and I traveled to the States for the wedding of our eldest nephew. The wedding was beautiful, and the Kallah's gracious family invited us to join them for the entire Shabbat Sheva brachot, which was lovely. On Friday night, during a lull in the speeches, we began to sing, and being together with most of my siblings, immediately settled on Zayde's Yah Ribon.
Quickly, two of my brothers, sitting at a table at the other end of the room, came over to join us. Soon afterwards, all of the other neices and nephews - teens not always prone to gathering for Shabbat Zemirot - gravitated to our table, pulling their chairs closer to sing that old family melody together. One just got the sense that they knew that this wasn't any regular song.
As the song progressed, the feeling grew even stronger, as each of us sensed, I think, the pull of our family, our connection to the music, and the emotional power that the song held for us all. One image that stands out strongly in my mind, is my Uncle Lippy, who had joined us for Shabbat, with his eyes closed, head slightly tilted to the side, just enveloped by the song. It was as if he was there, singing with us, but in some other, distant place as well.
As all songs do, Yah Ribon ended that night. But, thinking about it even now gives me a feeling of warmth and a connection to my grandfather that the song somehow articulates. As the song drifted away into the Friday night dinner and the waiters served the soup, I remember feeling fortunate to have been raised in a family rich with the legacy of the power music has to transcend, and connect, in a way that no other medium can match.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Who Wants to Leave Egypt? A Thought for Va'era

 On my recent whirlwind tour of the United States, my travels brought me to Lakewood, NJ, for the Sunday evening Bar Mitzvah of my nephew. The next day, I returned to Lakewood to spend the day with my family, as we shopped together before we caught our flight home. We hit a Seforim store, an amazing toy store, the pizza store, and of course, Target. (They have those in other places too.)
Truthfully, while it was really nice to see my sister's new home, I found Lakewood depressing for two very different reasons. I found that the center of town reminded me of Washington Heights - reason enough to get depressed. But then, right before we left, we ran to minchah in a brand new subdivision near my sister's house in a basement shul, and I began to grasp just how much Lakewood had expanded since my last visit several years earlier. The entire subdivision - and many of the houses surrounding it, were entirely frum. Moreover, the developer was obviously an Orthodox Jew as well, having named some of the streets after old European communities (Kelm Woods Drive, Brisk Lane). Seeing the street signs depressed me a great deal because it really hit me: here is a community of people truly dedicated to living lives of commitment to Torah, and they were building their Torah-true community in Lakewood, NJ. (If you didn't understand that last sentence and thought, "What's so bad about that?", there's a very strong chance that you don't live in Israel. Because if you do, the sentence would be self-explanatory.)
At the beginning of Va'era, God explains to Moshe the divine plan to deliver the Jewish people from Egypt. God tells Moshe, 
 וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי, אֶת-נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם; וָאֶזְכֹּר, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי.
And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant.
Rabbi Benzion Firrer, in his book "Hegyonah Shel Torah" asks why God needed to hear the cries of the Jewish people in order to remember His covenant. Does Jewish suffering make the covenant any easier to remember? In fact, it seems clear that the divine plan included increased suffering of the Jewish nation. After all, God knew that Par'oh would initially refuse to free the Jews, and would increase their workload as well. Why was all of this necessary?
Rav Firrer answers his question by quoting a famous Rashi about the plague of darkness. Rashi wonders what the purpose of the darkness was at all. After all, it didn't cause any lasting suffering or damage. What was the point? Rashi answers,
שהיו בישראל באותו הדור רשעים, ולא היו רוצים לצאת, ומתו בשלשת ימי אפלה כדי שלא יראו מצרים במפלתם ויאמרו אף הן לוקין כמונו. 
There were wicked Jews in that generation who did not wish to leave [Egypt], and they perished during the three days of darkness, so that the Egyptians would not see their downfall and say, "They are being punished like us."
Rav Firrer suggests that if a good number of Jews didn't want to leave Egypt after the first eight plagues, it would stand to reason that a much larger number didn't want to leave the country before any of the plagues hit at all. Sure, a small number of radicals were willing to follow Moshe from the beginning. But most Jews probably figured that while life was indeed terrible in Egypt, they didn't want to leave. 
Why wouldn't they leave an Egypt that tormented them so terribly? Rav Firrer explains that they didn't want to leave, because they considered themselves Egyptians. Sure life was bad. But in every country, some people did better and others did worse. Some groups enjoyed success while others toil and struggle. Why should Egypt be any different. And, they attributed their suffering  to the acts of evil people. They weren't enslaved because of any inherent difference between themselves and their masters. Rather, they all shared the same common nationality with their captors; they shared a bond that they weren't willing to give up. They wouldn't leave Egypt because in the end, they too were Egyptian.
This, explained Rav Firrer, is why God engineered an increase in their suffering. At some point, the Jews' suffering became so great that they came to recognize the truth: they were different. The Egyptians didn't see them as fellow countrymen, but instead as a separate people to oppress and subjugate. Only when the Jews themselves came to that realization could the Redemption even be possible.
I stumbled upon Rav Firrer's words this evening, as a perused his book at the back of the shul. Reading his thought, I realized that he had articulated what so bothered me about my trip, and Lakewood, and Baltimore for that matter. If you can build a Jewish city in the heart of New Jersey, then you really don't see yourself as inherently different. Sure, Orthodox Jews might act differently, eat differently and pray differently. But the Jews of America are precisely that: American. They (understandably) feel an intrinsic connection, and a sense of belonging to their homeland, and see no reason to think otherwise.
History is nothing if not repetitive. The time will come, whether sooner or later, when the Jews of America will come to realize that as great as America is, they do not belong. They might be from America; they might live there, speak the language, immerse themselves in the culture; but one day they will realize clearly enough just how different they are, and that it is not their place.
Lakewood, like Goshen, is a wonderful town. But those towns have no long-term future, no matter what they name the streets.

Crowd Sourcing the Sermon? Really?

There's some level of irony in the fact that in the same issue that the Jewish Week notes that, "To this day, it is still not universally accepted in the synagogue world that a rabbi must deliver a weekly sermon, as would a Christian preacher," it also shares with us a priceless article about a "Crowd Sourced" sermon.
For his “Social Sermon,” which he will deliver on a Shabbat shortly after he leaves the congregation in June to start a job at a L.A. day school, the rabbi is asking members of WSIS, and of his wider online congregation, to send in stories, jokes and themes ( that he will meld into his parting remarks from the pulpit.
For the record, I don't know Rabbi Einhorn personally. But, in an era when shul-goers are drifting away from the sermon in droves (think early-minyan, kiddush club), is crowd sourcing really the answer?
Over the years that I served as a rabbi, I invested a great deal of energy in my Shabbat morning drashah. Like it or not, my twelve minute speech represented the only Torah thoughts that some of my members would hear during the week, so I felt a responsibility to convey a serious Torah concept in a precise and exacting manner. I never, ever just gave a vort, and tried quite hard to speak about an issue that mattered to me personally.

Can the same be said for a crowd-sourced sermon? Sure, it might be shtick, and it might get a chuckle or two. It's interesting to note that Rabbi Einhorn is only giving this sermon after he's already decided to leave not only his shul, but the pulpit in general. Still, I get a sense that stunts like these leave the indelible impression that anyone can give a speech in shul, and that the rabbi probably copies his speeches from Facebook every week anyway.
That attitude, I fear, will not bring people back into shul for any rabbi's sermon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vaera - The Fifth Cup

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vaera - The Fifth Cup

Having recently returned from a visit to the United States, my Religious Zionist "spidey sense" is going on full blast. So, our study of the four languages of redemption highlight the obvious question: what about the fifth? What about the Land of Israel. Like last week, this week's shiur is replete with heavy Religious Zionist ideology, so if you live in the Golah and upset easily, it might not be for you.

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.

The Outer Circle

Can you find me, safely ensconced in the "Outer Circle"?
Sadly, the truth has begun to sink in. The evidence seems incontrovertible. I’m getting older. I’m no longer a member of the “younger” generation. Consider the evidence:
1. I just spent the weekend in the U.S., attending the wonderful wedding of my eldest nephew. That’s right, my nephew just got married. And we’re not one of those families where the mother had a child later on in life, so that the “uncle” and his “nephew” are really the same age.
2. I teach a class at Orot on Hilchot Shabbat, and was trying to explain to my students that in the generation previous to mine, oftentimes people were reluctant to accept halachot that they didn’t practice in their youth. (“What do you mean you can’t wash dishes on Friday night with a sponge? I’ve always done it that way!” That sort of thing.) Except, when I was about to say, “the generation before us.” Looking around the room at a group of twenty-year-olds, I realized that there was no “us” in the room. I was the “us”. To my students, I wasn’t describing their parents. That’s me. I was describing their grandparents.
3. I attended a lovely wedding a few weeks ago of a young couple from our yishuv. I was invited by the parents – the father attending my weekly gemara shiur. At the wedding, I came to recognize that this represented the first wedding I was attending as a member of the previous generation – not invited by the groom or bride whom I don’t really know at all, but solely through a relationship with the parents. And I realized that my place was now solidly in the outer circle.
My cool, hipster glasses
4. My niece recently commented on my cool, hipster glasses. After I finished laughing, I explained to her that my regular glasses had broken, leaving me with no choice other than to use the cheap, second-pair-free glasses that I had bought years ago that I used to run with at the JCC in Michigan. The glasses, rather than being new, are so old that they've come full-circle, and are now back in. Those are my cool new glasses.
At every wedding, when the dancing begins there’s an inner circle, and an “outer circle.” At first, the lines between them are clear: family inside, everyone else outside. Rebbeim and teachers inside, everyone else out. (I’m describing the men’s circles. I have no idea what goes on behind the michitzah. From the brief glimpse I’ve stolen over the years, it always seems like a blur of maypoles, signs and other paraphernalia flying about.) But then the lines blur, and the inner and outer circles divide not by relationship, but by age. The groom’s younger friends push forward, their energy, youth and vitality moving them at a pace that the older folk (having ingested some heavy food, a salad, and too much bread) simply can’t or won’t match. We’re OK with that, perfectly content to shuffle our way around the outer circle and enjoy the elation of the event from that relative safe distance. Sure, I might force my way in for a brief moment, but soon enough I allow the push of the young to force me back out to where I belong, in the outer circle, where I can mosey along, enjoying the simcha, but no longer a driving force.
I’ve come to terms with my new “outer circle” membership. After all, I will soon (please God) turn forty, and while that’s certainly not old, I’m rather comfortable not needing to get my cardio workout at weddings. And still, when you cross from one generation to the next; from one circle to the next, it’s a time to take stock and consider your next steps, as you dance perhaps a little slower, with a different crowd, but still at the wedding nonetheless.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Changing Communal Expectations

Last night, we celebrated the wedding of my nephew Simcha in Baltimore, MD. The wedding was lovely; lively and leibedik, the Chattan and Kallah radiated a sense of infectious joy. It was wonderful to see members of my family who live in America, albeit briefly. You can never really talk at family simchas, but the wedding represented the first time that all my siblings were in one place at the same time in eight years. Who knows when the next time will be?
Aside from the actual wedding itself, I appreciated another aspect the wedding as well.
The wedding was held on a Thursday night in the new hall of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore. The smorgasbord consisted of a few salads, some chopped liver (I was on vacation - I know it's bad for you), and a pan of potato kugel. The band consisted of four musicians, and the entire event began at 6:30pm and ended by 11:00pm. 
The wedding did not take place on a Sunday. It was not at a fancy hall in a hotel. The music was not from an 8-piece band. The smorgasbord did not include a meat carving station, nor numerous pastries, cooked foods, nor unlimited salads. The entire inventory of liquor at the wedding consisted of two bottles of wine: one for the Chuppah, and one at Sheva Brachot. No ice sculptures melted as people took their coffee. The wedding was close by, and everyone was able to get home at a reasonable hour in order to be able to get to work the next morning.
And to my mind, the wedding was perfect.
Why did my sister make such a "simple" wedding? Undoubtedly, the motivation was financial. But was anything lacking at the wedding because she "left out" so many elements common to Orthodox weddings? I didn't notice it. The dancing was wonderfully leibedik, and the band wasn't overly loud. I left the hall sated, but also satisfied that I hadn't eaten two whole meals in a single evening. 
So, if the "cheap" wedding had all the elements necessary for a wonderful Simcha, why to so many, if not all of us, do so much more? Do we really need the six or seven piece bands? Is the shmorg remotely necessary, especially with the ever-growing Orthodox waistline? Must we really pay for the members of our community to liquor up? Does that really add to the Simcha?
The answer, of course, rests in the notion of peer pressure. We do it because it's accepted, and because it's what's done. Somehow, our community has integrated a sense of norms far and beyond our financial wherewithal, and people invest money that they often can't afford to fulfill unreasonable, unnecessary and ever-growing expectations. We don't need the Slurpee machine for desert at the Bar Mitzvah, and yet we order it nonetheless.
I left the wedding hoping that my nephew's wedding would serve as a model for the rest of the community. I hope that this trend will grow, and that people will stop asking what everyone does, and start asking, "What can we afford?" and "is this really something that we need to spend money on"? And, "will this added expense add to my simcha?"
Almost always, the answer is no.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot - The Forgotten Dream

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot - The Forgotten Dream

Warning! Hardcore Zionism here, in which we examine the beginning of the book of Shemot as a backdrop for some of the troubling nuance I detect in the American Orthodox community. Don't say that you weren't warned. 

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.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Worst Kind of Israel Bashing: The Ignorant Kind

Generally, when you write about something, it's usually a good idea to make sure that you have your facts correct. For example, I don't write about what it's like to live in Syria, for the simple reason that I don't live in Syria, and you can't believe everything that you read on the Interwebs. (Although it doesn't seem all that pleasant right now, from what I read.)
In that light, I wonder about a recent blog post that a friend forwarded to me called, "Aliyah - the Ideal and the Real."
In the post, the author first idealizes a dreamworld.

We should be a nation of scholars and workers; soldiers and sailors; farmers and entrepreneurs; artisans and craftsman… a ‘full service’ nation. We should be a nation based on the ideals of Torah where every Jew serves God to the best of their ability and participates toward the common good in their own unique way. With love and tolerance towards one another in complete brotherhood.
Actually, I don't disagree. And Israel does fulfill much of that dream: soldiers and sailors, farmers and entrepreneurs. The accomplishments achieved by the Modern State of Israel are nothing short of miraculous. Truly.
But then our blogger turns to what he calls, "The Real". Too much fighting. No one can get along with one another. 
Israels (his typo) air must be polluted. Because it seems to be making Jews stupid – not wise. Instead of unity we have divisiveness. A divisiveness among Jews unmatched in any other part of the world where Jews can be found. In Israel - it is Jew against Jew.
I wonder: Why do American Jews seem to think that Jews in Israel are supposed to get along? Where in the Torah is there any guarantee that Jews would agree with one-another in peace and harmony? Struggle and strife are part and parcel of disagreement. We disagree about important things: the future of the Jewish country; the nature of the Jewish State; The destiny of the Jewish people. So Rabbi Maryles expects Chareidim to abdicate their views and just "get along?" Sorry, that's not how it works in the United States, and it's certainly not how things work here. 
In America, people get along so well because they basically ignore one-another. American Jews live parallel lives, never meeting except perhaps at the JCC, and Federation meetings (where they fight about how to allocate money). American Jews of different colors meet not in shul, certainly not in their schools. In fact, I was warned when I arrived in Detroit that the local Vaad would shun me if I joined the Board of Rabbis, the only interdenominational body in the city. (I joined.) In reality, American Jews never meet, never really influence one-another, and when they do, the conflicts can be legendary. So to imagine that conflict and disagreement should not take place in Israel, where the stakes are higher, and the issues really do matter, is nothing short of naive.
But I'd like to ask our blogger-author an even more important question: Let's assume that what you write is true. We do fight here too much. We should get along better. People shouldn't act out in extreme ways. But then our author writes,
What happened to the milk and honey? Under these conditions - why would anyone one to make Aliyah?
What does any of that have to do with Aliyah? First and foremost, does our author live in Israel? Does he have any idea what's really going on in the Jewish State? Do you think that for the most part, things that you read in the media about inter-Jewish strife have any affect on life here? (Let's leave Beit Shemesh aside for now. That really is challenging, and I feel for my friends who have to deal with the issue.)
I need to share with you, my dear readers, an important factoid about the media that you might not have noticed before: The Media likes to sensationalize. It focuses on extremes, because that's what generates clicks, sales, and their livelihoods. 
How much of the news that we consume is really news anymore? It's mostly quotes of people, saying ever more outrageous things, in a bold and often successful attempt to drive the media coverage of a certain issue. Is there any better example of this than Chareidim wearing yellow stars? Did anything really happen at that rally? Did anyone's life really change from that event. It was directed, focused and staged for the media, which lapped it up, whipping all of us into a frenzy. And do you know what I, and every single other Israeli did the next morning? We went to work. Ho hum. I didn't see a news item about that.
I've got more news for you too: many of those Israelis that went to work were Chareidim. And despite (and sometimes because of) the efforts of leaders in the Chareidi community and the government of Israel, more Chareidim are getting job training, education, and working in the public sector. And as this trend grows, tensions between groups will diminish.
Secular Jews in Israel aren't as anti-religious as the media makes them seem. Chareidim don't hate secular Jews as much as the media makes them seem. And despite the efforts of extremest on all sides, life goes on, and it's a great life at that.
So, if you think that by moving to Israel you should be coming to a Jewish Utopia where everyone gets along, singing Kumbaya each morning as we built a community in peace and harmony, sorry, the real world isn't like that. Strife, as troubling as it is, emanates from real disputes about critical issues, coming from passionate people who care deeply about the important issues that they represent. And, while the media often forgets about it, life goes on, people go to work, children attend school. I even attended a minyan yesterday in the Old City of Jerusalem where Chareidim and Dati Leumi prayed side by side, without dispute. It might surprise you to learn that events such as these take place in the Jewish State each and every day, many thousands of time over. 
So, if you don't want to move to Israel, that's fine. Everyone's got their reasons. But blaming it on Israel - or at least the Israel that the media portrays, won't make you more correct, and won't make you feel less guilty about it either.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayechi - Crossed Hands and the Essence of a Nation

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayechi - Crossed Hands and the Essence of a Nation

Yaakov's crossed hands always bothered me. We all know the story, but why he blessed his grandsons in this unusual manner is far from clear. With an eye towards Rashi and the Midrash, we find that Yaakov wished to convey a clear and critical message to his children and future descendants.

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.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Healthy Man

Of the many, many troubling aspects of the jarring viral news report from Beit Shemesh that started the brouhaha, one particular recurring theme continues to trouble me. Why, the reporter asked, must young girls refrain from riding bicycles in the streets? The answer was immediate:

"Because I am a healthy person."
He didn't say this explicitly, but the implication was the because healthy people have normal, natural sexual urges, women must cover themselves to protect the men from their sexual urges. Moreover, someone who does not respond sexually to women in the streets is "unhealthy". They explicitly state this later in the clip. The secular not only don't respect women like the religious do, but...well, I'll let him tell you:

" the irreligious, the woman is practically a sex symbol."
In the eyes of the Chareidim, the entire campaign against the repression of women represents a cruel, twisted Purim joke. It literally is "venahfoch hu," where a group of people that demeans women are lecturing the true supporters of women on how to properly behave.

Let us pose a simple question: are they correct? Must women cover themeselves in order to protect men from sexual urges? In general, there's a kernel of truth to what they're saying. But just a kernel, which they have managed to warp and distort past any semblence of halachic thought.
Tzniut - modesty - in Judaism, is an all-encompassing worldview, applicable to both men and women. The underlying rationale for tzniut was long considered self-evident, and needed little explanation. The Torah's emphasis on modesty stems from the fact that how an individual purports him or herself directly affects his human dignity, individuality and spirituality.
Yet, much literature exists regarding the importance of women covering parts of the body so as not to entice men. For example, Rabbeinu Yonah writes in his Iggeret Hateshuvah (Letter of Repentance):
וצריכה האשה שתהא צנועה ונזהרת שלא יסתכלו בה בני אדם חוץ מבעלה שהמסתכלים בפניה או בידיה יורדין לגיהנם, ענושה בעונש כל אחד ואחד מהם מפני שהחטיאה אותם ולא נהגה צניעות בעצמה ונכשלו בה.
And a woman must be modest and careful that people other than her husband do not gaze upon her, for those who gaze upon her face or hands descend to Gehinnom, and she is punished along with each of them because she caused them to sin and did not purport herself with proper modesty, so they stumbled through her. (For an excellent general overview of the topic of tzniut in Hebrew, seethe Wikipedia article here.)

At least according to Rabbeinu Yonah, women do seem bear the burden of tzniut to prevent "healthy" men from falling into the trap of sinful gazing. And yet, that very quote raises some interesting questions. What's a woman supposed to do? How can she prevent a man from gazing at her hands and face? Moreover, if it's such a problem, why didn't Rabbeinu Yonah simply suggest that women stay at home, or at least remain separated from men at all times, and in all places. After all, is it not unfair for a woman, with her wily, womanly presence, to entice a "healthy" man and send them all hurling down into the pits of Hell?
The answer to each of these questions lies in an understanding of a term found throughout the laws of modesty called  הסתכלות (histaklut) - which means "gazing." While both utilize sight, gazing is inherently different than seeing. When I see something, my eyes take in visual information which I need to function in the world. On the other hand, gazing at something implies not just the intake of information, but taking pleasure from that visual experience. Seeing is visual. Gazing is not just a physical action, but a mental and sexual act as well.
The Torah admonishes us to avoid seeing inappropriate sights. But, as we all know, a human being can also take something entirely appropriate and warp that thing into something inappropriate.
Imagine a man who, when stopping at the local drugstore to pick up a bottle of shampoo, notices one of the female clerks (fully clothed) stocking the shelves. No big deal. He turns away, checks his cell phone. Nothing inappropriate has taken place. It's a mundane, commonplace occurance. It happens to each of us all the time.
But what if he stops stop what he's doing, and begins watching her stock the shelves. She sees him staring, and stares back for a good long moment. Then, acutely aware that she's being watched, she begins carefully removing each item from the box, gingerly placing it on the shelf. You get the picture. The two - the man and woman - have never met. They have never even spoken to each other. And yet, they did, without a doubt, share a sexual encounter.
That's הסתכלות, and that's forbidden by the Torah.
Rambam writes this clearly,
ואסור לאדם לקרוץ בידיו וברגליו או לרמוז בעיניו, לאחת מן העריות; וכן לשחק עימה, או להקל ראש.  ואפילו להריח בשמים שעליה, או להביט ביופייה--אסור; ומכין המתכוון לדבר זה, מכת מרדות.  והמסתכל אפילו באצבע קטנה של אישה, ונתכוון ליהנות--כמי שנסתכל במקום התורף; ואפילו לשמוע קול הערווה, או לראות שיערה--אסור.
It is forbidden for a person to make motions with his hands or feet or wink with his eyes to one of the ariyot, to share mirth with her or to act frivolously with her. It is even forbidden to smell her perfume or gaze at her beauty. A person who performs any of these actions intentionally should be given stripes for rebellious conduct. A person who looks at even a small finger of a woman with the intent of deriving pleasure is considered as if he looked at her genitalia. It is even forbidden to hear the voice of a woman forbidden as an ervah or to look at her hair. (Thanks to Chabad for the translation).
Rambam doesn't say that a woman can't go out in the street - although in truth he wasn't a big fan of women in the street. But if she acts appropriately and modestly, it's not the woman's responsibility to prevent a man from gazing at her. Rather, he must control himself, and refrain from gazing inappropriately.
In a way, our Chareidi friend from the video does have a point. It is unreasonable for a woman to dress in  provocative manner that calls attention to her body and objectifies her, and then wonder why men objectify her as well.
But the opposite is equally true. It's unreasonable for a woman, who is appropriately dressed, to be expected to take pains to avoid men who will unfairly and grossly sexualize her. Someone who cannot exhibit that reasonable level of self-control; who cannot walk by a woman on the same side of the street without gazing at her sexually; who considers innocuous interactions such as simple business transactions or simply sitting near a woman on the bus to be sexually provocative; that person is anything but a "healthy man."
That person does exactly what he claims the "secular" do, but in an even worse manner. By sexualizing properly, modestly dressed women and girls, he, more than anyone else, makes them into "sex objects."
And that's anything but healthy.