Thursday, May 31, 2012

Upping the Ante: A New Shabbat Speaker System

For previous posts discussing technology and Shabbat see here and here.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of being a community rabbi was the opportunity to speak from the pulpit every Shabbat. I worked very hard at it, writing my speeches beforehand, giving a good deal of thought not only to what I would say, but how I'd say it. Yet, one aspect of the Shabbat Drashah presented a challenge that was never easy to overcome. Instead of speaking from the pulpit, I had to scream. Otherwise, no one would have been able to hear me.
The main sanctuary in our shul is indeed beautiful. But it was also quite deep (and narrow), with the women seated behind the men. In order for any of the women to hear me at all, I learned to speak slower, but also how to project at a rather high volume. Essentially, I had to yell without yelling. And, as any public speaker will tell you, that takes away any possibility of nuance in tone. It's all one tone: loud.
It would have been much easier to speak using a microphone. Only there wasn't one that was widely accepted for Shabbat use. At least there wasn't until now.

Machon Zomet recently introduced a new Shabbat microphone system brandishing its stamp of approval. In truth, from a halachic point of view, this is really nothing new. People (including my son) have been using hearing aids for years, and hearing aids are essentially identical to the system in question. Moreover, the issue of sound systems on Shabbat has enjoyed comprehensive halachic analysis from many different circles, and while many modern poskim permit its use, you simply don't see them in normative Orthodox shuls. Why not? Because they don't feel right.
For some reason, the Orthodox community simply rejected the use of these microphone systems, labeling shuls that installed them as "progressive" or "liberal", which are code for "almost Conservative." In essence, the use (or lack of use) of these types of systems isn't halachic, but cultural. We don't use them because...we don't use them.
Yet, Zomet has, over the past thirty years, achieved a level of authority - especially in Israel, where you can find its stamp on many products that you buy every day, from water heaters to gas stoves - and even in the United States as well. I'm not sure how many shuls in America will order this system today. But you will begin to see them in Israel. In fact, Ynet (in Hebrew) just reported on a Shavuot evening program that used the microphone (and they probably gave a shuir about why they were using it). As more and more communities install these systems over time, the pressure to install them will grow, as people will rightly wonder why those hard of hearing, or the people in the back of the shul, or women (stuck in the balcony) shouldn't be able to hear the Chazzan or the Rabbi. After all, there are real tangible benefits to loudspeakers. Even in shul.
And, as so often happens, when Americans return to their shuls from a visit to Israel, they will begin to report on how wonderful davening was at the very reputable shuls in Israel at which they davened. And they'll start pressuring their rabbis to allow them to install the system in their shul as well.
Will the system become widely accepted in most Orthodox circles? Who knows? Moreover, as they become more widely adopted (which I think they will over time), I fear that they will also serve to further divide our community, between people who will daven in shuls with a microphone, and between those who don't. (Would a chareidi family daven at a family simcha in a shul which had a mike? Conversely, would the shul agree not to use the mike should a family make a request? I can see the fights already...)
Just to be clear, I am not personally comfortable with such a system. It just doesn't feel right. I really don't like the computer screen in the back of our shul that displays davening times. It just doesn't belong in the sanctuary.
My point is, something that doesn't feel right to me might not bother my children - or their children - at all. So while we might reject the use of this microphone today, there's no way to know if it won't be a part of some, or most Orthodox shuls in the future.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Naso - Sotah and the Sanctity of Marriage

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Naso: Sotah and the Sanctity of Marriage

The subject of the Sotah raises some seriously sensitive issues, namely, our struggle to reconcile the values underlying the laws of Sotah, and the apparent inequality between husband and wife, with today’s view of marriage. As always, the text of the Torah serves as a platform for discussion, debate and hopefully deeper understanding.

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Staying Up All Night on Shavuot

I have a confession to make: I don't really enjoy staying up all night on Shavuot. Several days before Shavuot, I'd be in a kind of funk about it. It's not fun to be so tired that you can't keep your eyes open - and then to have to learn Torah during that time.
Truth be told, the original minhag is not just to stay up all night learning. Rather, there's a specific text, based originally on the Zohar, that is recited throughout the night of Shavuot called, "Tikkun Leil Shavuot." As a born-and-bred Ashkenazi, I'd never even heard of this text. But, when I got to Israel, I found that while we Ashkenazim learn in Chavrutot and sit through shiurim, the Sephardim sit around a huge table basically going through a huge book (while munching on nuts, rasins and assorted cakes.) I'm sure that there are Chassidim who recite this Tikkun as well, but, as I mentioned above, I had never even heard of it before moving to Israel.
When I was a shul rabbi, I really didn't have much of a choice. We needed to have a night-long program, and I needed to build it. People volunteered to teach, but I always gave the final shiur - the 4am to 5am slot. It seemed unfair to dump it on someone else.
But, to be honest, how much can one truly concentrate on prayer after having been awake all night? Add to that yetziv pitgam and you've got a mini-nap in Aramaic. I can't say that I was actually standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments during any of those years. Who remembers? And then we'd eat a quick bite, stumble home and fall into bed, while my wife had the enviable task of keeping the kids quiet while I tried to sleep. Chag Sameach!
In America, it's livable, because at least you have the second day to actually spend with your family. (The first day is completely shot). But in Israel, where we only observe one day of Yom Tov, the Tikkun Leil Shavuot kills the whole day - and the wy

So, for the past couple of years, I've done something a little a little different. I learn for a few hours, and then at about 2am, head to bed. After a good night's rest of six hours, I head to shul for a normal, pleasant, meaningful davening.
It's been terrific. This year I learned pirkei Avot from 10:30 - 11:00pm, Mishnah with Bezalel until about 12am, Gemara with Simcha until 1am, and then attended a shiur until 2am. (I say attended because while the shiur must have been good, I didn't catch all that much of it. Did I mention that it was in the middle of the night? I find it much easier to give a shiur at that time than to listen to one. I wonder what my audience thinks...)
Moreover, davening was really good - half-empty, but pleasantly quiet, and it was also one of the first times that Petachya followed the Torah reading together with me. We heard the Ten Commandments together, which was quite a meaningful experience, which I would not have had at 5am. (truthfully, I doubt I would have heard much of anything).

I mention all this because one of the blogs that I follow, but a young rabbi with a shul in Israel (he's anonymous - calls himself Rav Tzair), wrote about the fact that his whole shul followed this exact schedule. The shul ran a tikkun until 2am, and did not conduct and early, early minyan.

There's a place for staying up all night, if you can focus and concentrate while learning seriously, and it won't ruin your entire Yom Tov. Otherwise, getting some real learning in for a couple of hours, and then turning in for the night, seems like a good way to go.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I Haven't Posted in a While Because...

Well, things have been somewhat busy. Sure, there have been holidays, work, and all the usual stuff. But in a addition to all of that...we bought a house in Israel!

It's really exciting, but also very very detail oriented and time consuming. We haven't actually completed the mortgage process yet. You buy the house before you get your mortgage. (no, I don't really know why), and then we have do a "little bit" of work, as well as install a kitchen (the person who built the house did so as an investment, and gave us the choice of having him install the kitchen or doing it ourselves. We chose to do it ourselves.)
 Where's the house?
In Yad Binyamin, about a five minute walk from our current house. (For those who are planning a visit or have been here, it's on the other side of the shul. So, what was a three minute walk will now be a two minute walk.)

When are you moving?
Good question.  We're looking to move in the middle of July. Did I mention that there are a zillion things that need to get done? I did?

More to come...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bechukotai - Meshech Chochmoh and the Merry-Go-Round of Exile

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bechukotai - Meshech Chochmoh and the Merry-Go-Round of Exile

Commenting on the end of the Tochecha, where God promises not to abandon us completely, the Meshech Chochmah wonders: how is possible that we could survive in a strange land through generations of persecution without assimilation? How indeed. From there he proceeds to describe the circular nature of the Jewish predicament in the exile, and more importantly, why it keeps happening. And he wrote all of this mere decades before the Holocaust. This important passage from Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk represents a key commentary that should be part of any modern Jew's religious awareness.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I've Been Hacked!

If you recently got an email from me (at my Hotmail account) offering you either:
1. A great way to earn money from home
2. A plea for money because I'm stranded without my wallet at a hotel in Europe
3. An offer to sell you a magical product that will enhance a part of your body
It's not me. I've been hacked! Thanks to the people who sent me emails notifying me of this sad development.
And yet, I feel fortunate, for I was hacked at my Hotmail account, which I abandoned years ago as my primary account, and only used for dumb websites that required me to supply an email address.
Also, a few months back I read a quite chilling account of email hacking in an article in the Atlantic, (read it - it will scare you too!) and was frightened enough to change my password (from the one my Gmail account used to share with my Hotmail account - oops) and to try and back up my email. For whatever reason, I couldn't get it to work properly.
The greatest danger of hacking isn't that my friends will wire money to Uganda. Rather, it's the loss of critical information. Because hackers - once they're into your account, will usually just delete it all and start sending mass emails.
Think about it this way: how much of your critical personal information - not only stuff that identifies you and is the gateway to your money - but the stuff you need and use to function in today's digital world? If you lost your main email account, how much of your life's history would be gone?
For me, it's a lot. Which is why:
1. I changed my password yet again.
2. I'll take the time to properly backup my email.
I strongly recommend that you do the same.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Does Shalom Auslander Tell the Truth on This American Life?

Recently, This American Life (a podcast that I reguarly enjoy) garnered a fair amount of press attention (OK, a huge amount. Just Google: This American Life Retraction) after it was forced to issue an hour-long mea-culpa for airing a "dramatization" about factory workers in China as facts. It was an impressive thing to listen to, as frustrated host Ira Glass grilled the performer about why he lied to them, telling them that his show was totally accurate, when in fact he had fabricated significant portions of the dramatization. (He made some crazy claims about a "larger truth", but his real motivation was clearly to get the incredible publicity of appearing for almost the full This American Life show.)
In any case, TAL has since made clear that it will not represent a story as non-fiction when it cannot fully verify the truth of that story. It's an admirable policy, especially for a show that essentially tells stories. Still, This American Life often attmepts to explore aspects of the news, sometimes exposing scandals in 60 Minutes-like fashion, so telling the truth seems to be an inherent, critical aspect of the show.
This morning, an article in the Washington Post wondered about other segments that frequently appear on TAL (and other NPR shows) from humorist and author David Sedaris. Sedaris tells semi-funny stories in a humorous way to get laughs. (Apparently, that's what comedians do.) Along the way, he makes up some things to give the stories a funnier edge. When the Post asked TAL host Ira Glass about all this,
In an interview, Glass said no one at his program was concerned about Sedaris before the Daisey episode. “We just assumed the audience was sophisticated enough to tell that this guy is making jokes and that there was a different level of journalistic scrutiny that we and they should apply,” he said.
But the Daisey debacle has brought about a reassessment. Glass said three responses are under discussion: fact-checking each of Sedaris’s stories to ensure their accuracy, labeling them to alert the audience that the stories contain “exaggerations” or doing nothing.
Personally, that seems fair enough. After all, Sedaris just wants find humor in unusual situations. He's not really targeting anyone. And, from the pieces of his that I've heard, the biggest target of his humor is himself, as he highlights the ridiculous situations ni which he finds himself.
Shalom Auslander
Not so Shalom Auslander.
Auslander, another fairly regular contributor to the show, regularly tells stories about his own childhood - and victimhood. As an Orthodox Jew, I find his pieces far less entertaining, as they target not Auslander himself, but Judaism - and specifically Orthodox Judaism. He ridicules and mocks the religiosity and piousness of the figures from his childhood, clearly still angry about an abusive father who mistreated him (as he tells it).
Take, for example, a story that was recently rerun on TAL about a teacher of Auslander's from grade school who told him that his name (Shalom) was in fact one of God's names, and therefore forced him to place any item with his name on it in the Shaimos box, designated for burial. As he tells it,
Life with God's name was more difficult than I imagined. I was annoyed with God for being so selfish with them all. He had 71 other names. I couldn't see why he'd mind so much if I used just one. I didn't want to tell God how to do his job, but I wondered if maybe there weren't bigger things for him to be worrying about than who was using one of his six dozen names without permission. Isn't this, I wondered, what led to holocausts?
The Shaimos Box in the prayer hall filled quickly: my homework, my test papers, my what-I-did-this-summer, even my Highlights For Children. And buried at the bottom of the box, a pair of underpants my mother had written my name on with permanent marker.
If this story is true, it is indeed fantastic: lunch bags and underpants in Shaimos? Any Orthodox Jew knows that we do indeed treat items of religious value with respect. We place matters with Torah writings in a special box designated for burial. But Jewish law limits these items to Torah articles, old books, worn Tefillin of significant religous value. To extend this practice to underpants would indeed be as ridiculous and foolish as Auslander implies that they were, making the Orthodoxy of his youth sound as silly and worthy of abandonment as he continues to demand that it was (and is).
And yet I wonder. Notice the nuance in the story, which begins with a subtle, but critical description of Rabbi Breyer, the villain of the tale:
Eli said that his big brother said that Rabbi Breyer once broke a student's nose by slapping the student's face. Dov said that his big brother said that Rabbi Breyer had once broken a student's arm when he was dragging the student from the room for talking during prayers. Rabbi Breyer was the scariest rabbi in the whole yeshiva.
He was a stocky man, wide as the doorway, with a long, rough beard and thick, angry hands, and everyone trembled that first day of third grade when he stomped heavily into the classroom, wrote his name on the blackboard, and shouted at Akiva for slouching in his seat. Nobody spoke during class. Nobody doodled in the margins of their prayer books. And when, at the end of the first test at the end of the first week, Rabbi Breyer shouted, "Pencils down," it was as if the commandment had come from God himself.
Auslander doesn't verify hat the rebbe broke the students' arms. The kids "said" that he had. Yet, he dangles these rumors as facts. Did the kids ever really say that, or did Auslander make it up? What does it mean for a rabbi to have "angry" hands? Of course his beard was "rough". Has Auslander ever met a rabbi with a "smooth beard" and "Gentle hands"?
Listening to his story, I had a difficult time believing that it was actually, factually true. It seemed much more like a composite story, gathering facts from different stories and characters from different parts of his life, to weave a unique tapestry worthy of publication. Was there a rebbe in his school who slapped students? I'm sure there was. But did he really make Auslander put everything with his name in it in Shaimos? I highly, highly doubt it.
I wonder whether Glass or the many producers of This American Life ever thought to verify the details in Auslander's stories. Because, unlike Sedaris, whose lighthearted stories are pointed squarely at himself, Auslander still clearly has his former faith in his sights.
And he shoots to kill.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Behar - How Much is Enough?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Behar - How Much is Enough?

The challenge for many of us today isn't a lack of means; rather, we have too much - or at least we think that we need more than we do. By studying the mitzvah of Shemittah (and the Ramban and Kli Yakkar), we can raise our sense of awareness about the mitzvah, and its spiritual ramifications, even to those of us who don't own land in Israel.

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Are we One Movement Anymore? The Problem and Challenge of Religious Zionism

by Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Student Recruitment

Following the (recently cancelled) announcement of early elections here in Israel, the Religious Zionist movement found itself in a familiar position: unprepared. After years of leadership in the Knesset, the religious Zionist movement splintered over ideological grounds into two generally distinct groups which then aligned themselves into distinct political parties. Habayit Hayehudi places its emphasis on religious Zionist activity throughout Israel while stressing the importance of involvement within greater Israeli society. On the other hand, the Ichud Haleumi (sadly, they haven't really updated their website in three years! If you'd really like to see just how sad the split it, see here.) finds itself more attuned to rabbinic instruction and direction, and places a far greater emphasis on settlement of the Land of Israel over other values.
While the split reflects genuine differences in a very diverse community, it also has significantly weakened the Religious Zionist community's influence and political clout. Instead of one political party with eight Knesset seats (and the power, influence and financial wherewithal that brings), the greater movement founds itself with two parties of four seats each, one of which found itself a member of the majority in the soon-defunct government (with the "important" portfolio of Science and Technology – and yes, I am being sarcastic when I say “important”) while the other remained in the opposition, left with little to no political power at all. The split truly cost us all. The question we must contemplate is: Can we find a way to reunite? Can we restore the power that we should have (and badly need), or, due to our unwillingness to find common ground, will we continue to diminish our influence and thereby fail to properly influence broader Israeli society?
Orot's Amadot Conference Schedule
At Orot’s recent Amadot Conference, Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikvah participated in a panel that addressed this vexing question: Are we one movement? And, more importantly, can we remain a united force, or have we become so divided that we can no longer operate as a single unit.
Rav Sherlo made a number of fascinating points that I’d like to share.
Legitimacy: One of the critical measures of whether groups have split irreversibly is how they relate to each other. Put another way, do they relate to one another as legitimate? That is the difference between machloket – dispute – and division. As long as both groups legitimize each other, they can remain united. Yet, if one group refuses to acknowledge that the position of the other might be wrong – but still remains legitimate, and instead insists that the position of the other is not legitimate, then they have lost any sense of common ground, and rupture is inevitable.
Marriage: Do groups within the framework marry each other? Rav Sherlo pointed out that the Mishnah (Yevamot 1:4) emphasizes that despite all of the great disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, לא נמנעו מלישא זה עם זה – “they did not refrain from marrying with each other.” Can we same the same about different Religious Zionist groups today? He explained that he teaches at Migdal Oz (a rather left-wing women’s seminary), and he has yet to witness a wedding between a Migdal Oz girl and a yeshiva student from Har Hamor (a very right-wing yeshiva). This is a matter for concern. To what degree have we split ideologically so far, that little, if any interaction remains between the two groups that fall under the broad umbrella of Religious Zionism?
Language: The language of ideology doesn’t lend itself to compromise. Ideology articulates a specific vision, a worldview which represents idealism in its purest sense. It speaks to the world which we would create – if only we had the power to actualize our dreams. Platforms of ideology don’t often include words like love, compromise, mutual respect and the like. Imagine a marriage based solely on ideology, where words like those didn’t exist. How long would such a marriage last? Not long.
Rav Sherlo noted that we also suffer from two mutually exclusive beliefs. We believe that the world not only wants what we have to offer, but is waiting for us to save it. We have the truth – the combination of Torah and real life; of Religiosity and Zionism, of spirituality and worldliness – that provides the proper path for the Jewish Nation. Yet, at the very same time we also believe that the same world hates us: the secular press can’t stand us; the European Union is trying to topple us; the Israeli Supreme Court can’t stand us; the Chareidim attack us at every turn.
So which do we really believe? Does the world look to us to save it, or is it trying to bring us down? 
Rav Sherlo suggested that the solution to all of these challenges lies in a single word: Relax. We need to find the proper balance that pulls on Religious Zionism at all times. Our community defines itself in a kind of musical tone: Religious-Zionism; Yeshivat-Hesder; Kibbutz-Hadati. (He compared it to a metronome, which sways from side to side in rhythm.) Each side pulls on the other. Is it Religious? Or is it Zionism? Is it a Yeshiva? Or is it Hesder (part of the army)?
If we can learn to Relax, and see the value inherent in each of these seemingly contradictory terms, then the tension between them has the potential to draw us even closer together. In fact, the fact that the two parties formally agreed this week to run as a single party gives cause for hope. (Although the proof is in the pudding. With elections now pushed off for another year, a lot can happen between now and next October.)
On the other hand, if we cannot or will not learn to relax, and instead insist on remaining absolutists; if we continue to insist that we can only define ourselves in the most literal sense, then the forces pulling on the two sides of Religious Zionism have the chilling potential to irrevocably tear us apart.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Internet Filters: Why We Need Them, Even if They Don't Work

Gil Student just published an important piece on the various forms of internet filters available. I highly recommend it, and especially the advice for parents with children on the web that he shares at the end of the post (which I haven't fully implemented yet - but will). In Israel, the server-side filters are far more developed than they are in the United States (we use Internet Rimon, but there are other options available as well), and are even cheaper than many of the regular internet providers.
And yet, despite all of our efforts, we know that internet filters don't really work. For every effort that we make to make the internet safer in our homes, we know, deep down, that our children are often way, way ahead of us.
I was recently invited to speak to a group of seventh-grade boys, and I spoke with them about the challenge of making good choices. When I casually alluded to the choices that they make when they're sitting at the computer and noted that we have Internet Rimon in our home, their teacher chimed in.
"You know," he told me, "there's a program that you can download to get around Rimon's limits - and all of the kids know about the program?" I didn't know. "Even worse," he said, "is that you can download the program from the web, and Rimon doesn't block the site from which you can download the program!"
I can't say that I was that surprised. After all, children throughout time have exerted immeasurable efforts to circumvent the limits that their parents place upon them.
And yet, despite the fact that these filters are limited; despite the fact that they have holes - they're critical tools that every religious person needs to install in his or her home. Moreover, they're not just for our children. These filters are important - perhaps even most important - for ourselves.

Let us not mince words. The Internet doesn't only present a danger to our children. We fall prey to those very same dangers ourselves. We seek not only to protect the members of our families from their lapses; rather we must also protect them from our failures as well.
How then are we supposed to protect ourselves from ourselves? After all, if I'm the one that set up the web filter; if I have the passwords, and can circumvent the censor, of what value is the filter?
I believe that they offer great value, especially when we examine an important aspect of how the yetzer hara functions, and one of the principal ways that he (the side of us which draws us toward sinful activity) operates.
Essentially, our yetzer hara doesn't want us to think. He wants us to do anything but think. He wants us to yearn, to desire, to act impulsively. He realizes, perhaps better than we do, that when we pause to examine our actions, chances are that we'll make the right choice. When we stop to weigh whether we really want to sin, and consider not just the benefits, but also the consequences, there's a strong possibility that we won't sin after all. It's just not worth it.
Our yetzer hara knows all of this. So his best bet is to avoid the thought process entirely. So he tells us to, "Just Do It." Now. Don't Delay. Don't think. And that, to our great dismay, is precisely what we do.
The best illustration of this tactic that I've ever read can be found in the first letter of C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters." (While Lewis himself was speaking about Christianity - in fact, the entire book is a series of "letters" from a head tempter to one of his junior associates - the work is perhaps the most effective mussar work I have encountered, and I try to reread it before Rosh Hashanah each year.) In the first letter he writes,

My Dear Wormwood,
I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false," but as "academic" or "practical," "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless." Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about.
The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy's own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result! Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don't let him ask what he means by "real."
Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (oh, that abominable advantage of the Enemy's!) you don't realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, "Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning," the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added "Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind," he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape, and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safe guard against the aberrations of mere logic." He is now safe in Our Father's house.
You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable "real life." But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is "the results of modern investigation." Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
Your affectionate uncle,
If what Lewis wrote held true in England of the 1930s, how much more true are his sentiments today! We live in an era of constant distraction, when we can't get anything done without being interrupted by texts, instant messages, emails, status updates, tweets, calls - the list is unending. It seems that if we're not doing three things at once, we're not really doing anything. And, with smartphones, we're distracted even while interacting with other people. Even when I'm giving a shiur, people constantly check their phones, text, send email. (As a teacher, that's really distracting.) It seems that what happens on Facebook today is, in fact, more real than the actual lives that we're leading. That's just how the yetzer hara likes things. Don't think. Click. What's next. Click on that link.
The greatest danger of the Internet isn't simply the content. Rather, it's the fact that the most dangerous, insidious, pernicious content is instantly accessible. Back when I was a kid (yes, I know, ages ago, when they still distributed movies on tapes), if you wanted to watch something remotely inappropriate, you had to have gumption to actually rent it from the video store. There was some sense of shame. But not today. With the web, you're there in literally an instant, without thinking. And, before you know it, you've enmeshed yourself in a website from which it's difficult to disengage.
This, to my mind, is one of the primary motivations for internet filters.
No, they're not perfect, and clever people can get around them, perhaps easily. But filters make us pause, if only for a moment. And a critical moment it is. If I've got to get around the filter that I myself put into place, I must take at least one additional step in order to access a site that the software thinks I should not.
That instant is crucial, because it's the moment that I must stop and ask myself, "Do I really want to access that site?"
More often than not, the answer is no. So I click elsewhere.

Lag B'omer Schedule 5772

Just to give you a sense of the craziness that is Lag B'omer in Israel, I'd like to share with you the suggested schedule emailed to the members of our yishuv, with suggeted "times" that the various bonfires should end this coming Wednesday night.

זו המלצה בלבד, אך כוחה של המלצה זו יפעל רק אם כולנו ההורים ניישמה, ובכך ניטיב עם ילדינו. עשרות הורים בכלל הקהילות כבר הודיעו על הצטרפותם למהלך. בהצלחה לכולנו.
המדריכים מתנועות הנוער נתבקשו להיות במדורות עד שעת הסיום המוצעת.
כיתות א-ב (אם יש כאלה שעושים ללא ההורים)
כיתות ג
כיתות ד
כיתות ה
כיתות ו- ח
בשעה  01:00-03:00 יוצאים למשחק המרוץ למיליון.

This is just a recommendation, but its power is only effective if all of us parents follow through - for the benefit of our children. Tens of parents in the community have notified us that they will partipate in this initiative. Good luck to us all.
Madrichim of the youth groups are asked to remain present at the bonfires until the recommended end time.

Grade and Suggested End time:
Grades 1-2 (If there are those who make bonfired without parents: 10:30pm
Grade 3: 11:30pm
Grade 4: 12:30am
Grade 5: 1:30am
Grades 6-8: Between the hours of 1:00am and 3:00am the children will participate in the "Race for the Millions" games (a takeoff on a popular Israeli game show).

Reading the email, all I could think was, "Really? My fourth grader should be up until 12:30am at her bonfire? Kids in sixth grade have a program that begins at 1:00am? Why is this a good idea? And why in the world are there parents who let their kids stay out so late?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Jerusalem Post is Out of Control

Thank God that the Jerusalem Post finally concluded its long-awaited conference last week. (Truthfuly, the paper crossed the line between "news" and "self-promotion" ages ago, and self-congratulatory editorial doesn't help matter.) No, I didn't go, and truth be told, it doesn't really seem like anything especially interesting happened at the NY Marriott Marquis. Why then am I happy that the conference is over? Because the paper's site has been bombarding viewers with crazy ads for months, framing the entire page with distracting banners, popups, and animations making the site almost impossible to read. Just as an experiment, I took a snapshot of the JPost homepage this morning, and blocked out the ads. How much space is left for actual content? See for yourself:

Not so much. For comparison, I did the same for a new Israel news website called the Times of Israel, which thusfar seems to have some quite compelling content. This is what I found:

Just for comparisons, what about the Old Grey Lady, the NY Times herself? How many ads does she run? Here you go:

Not nearly as much as the Jerusalem Post - not by a longshot. (Makes you wonder why the Jewish sites don't go wider like the Times.)
Now, I certainly don't begrudge JPost the need for revenue. They're in business for a reason. Yet, one gets the sense that Jpost needs to squeeze as much revenue as possible to support a bloated and expensive print operation, which is undoubtedly dwindling due to the proliferation of digital media. Yet, legacy print publications are learning, perhaps the hard way, that there's a limit to the number of ads a reader will suffer through. Eventually, a leaners, more economically viable competitor will emerge (See Huffington Post, and now the Times of Israel) which probably pays writers very little (if anything at all), and organizes the information in a far more readible, accessible fashion.
Personally, I've got nothing against Jpost. I can't say that I buy their paper every Friday, but I have been a pretty loyal web surfer, until now. It's just getting too hard to find the news amid all the clutter.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What is Jewish Culture? Does it Even Exist? A Thought for Achrei Mot

On Shabbat, when we sing the zemirot around the table, I often wonder about the tunes to which we sing the beautiful words of the songs. To what degree are those tunes simply a reflection of the myriad of cultures from which the Jewish people have emerged?
Take Dror Yikra, for example. On the one hand, its a Sephardic ballad, drawing heavily on the mournful Arabic notes we all recognize. The next week, it's a gruff German tune, short, curt and severe. Then, the following week, it's a Beach Boys tune (who doesn't love Dror Yikra to Sloop John B? Check out this version - nicely done, but it really highlights the Beach Boy's theme.) You can even sing it to Scarborough Fair. Some claim that Paul Simon actually stole the tune from his grandfather, and that it was originally Dror Yikra. Actually, I think that you can sing it pretty much anything. While the words are undoubtedly Jewish, to what degree does the tune influence the song? Is Dror Yikra to the Beach Boys "Jewish"? Is that the way we're supposed to sing these songs? And if not, what tunes do we actually have that are in fact authentically Jewish? What "Jewish" culture exists that isn't borrowed from the surrounding culture in which we lived?

The section of the Torah that outlines the numerous forbidden sexual relationships is called the Arayot. One would think that it needs no introduction. And yet, the Torah introduces this section in a rather unusual manner.
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.. דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם:  אֲנִי, ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם. כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם, לֹא תֵלֵכוּ. אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם:  אֲנִי, ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם. וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם:  אֲנִי, ה’.
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: I am the LORD your God. After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes. Mine ordinances shall ye do, and My statutes shall ye keep, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God. Ye shall therefore keep My statutes, and Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them: I am the LORD. 
The entire short section requires analysis and explanation. Rarely, if ever in the Torah, do we find allusions to other cultures and civilizations. What behavior of the Canaanites and Egyptians does Judaism find so abhorrent that it must be mentioned specifically? What is the meaning of the final phrase, וחי בהם - "he shall live by them", and what is its relevance to the rest of the section? What is the meaning of the commandment, "you shall not walk in their statutes"? What do they do that we may not?
While the notion of  - חקות הגויים - "the laws (or practices) of the nations" - is a broad and fascinating subject that requires deeper analysis, I'd like to focus on Rashi's powerful comments. What do they do that we may not? Rashi writes,
מה הניח הכתוב שלא אמר, אלא אלו נמוסות שלהן, דברים החקוקין להם, כגון טרטיאות ואצטדיאות. 
What has the verse left out that has not yet been stated? This must refer to their customs - things which are statutes for them, such as their theaters and stadiums.
In other words, Jews are forbidden to follow secular, non-Jewish culture. According to Rashi we may not attend non-Jewish sporting events, nor may we sit in their theaters to watch their plays (or movies).
Rashi's comments raise a myriad of challenges for the modern Jew (and I imagine Jews in all times). Does he really mean that I can't attend a Tigers game (I'm not sure) or the latest Avengers flick? (pretty much sure that he meant that) To what degree have we become so embedded in the culture surrounding us that it is now our culture as well? More pointedly, if Judaism disdained foreign, non-Jewish culture, what is Jewish culture?
I thought of this question in light of a short news item about a future Ten Volume Look at Jewish Culture that recently appeared in the NY Times, which reported that,
Yale University Press and the Posen Foundation are embarking on a 10-volume anthology that covers more than 3,000 years of Jewish cultural artifacts, texts and paintings. “This monumental project includes the best of Jewish culture in its historical and global entirety,” the editor in chief, James E. Young, a professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said in a news release. “It will provide future generations with a working legacy by which to recover and comprehend Jewish culture and civilization.”
The series, called the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, is starting at the end, with Volume 10, a collection of works that date from 1973 through 2005 and include cultural figures like the writers Saul Bellow and Judy Blume, the architect Frank Gehry, the sculptor Louise Nevelson, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Harvard law professor Alan M Dershowitz. (Volume 1 will begin in the second millennium B.C.) More than 120 scholars are expected to work on the project, according to John Donatich, director of Yale University Press.
Reading the piece I wondered (and commented on the site - I'm "Shibaz"), "Why is the writing of Judy Bloom "Jewish culture"? (Sure, she wrote great books, but was there anything particularly "Jewish" about Superfudge?) Will this be an anthology of Jewish culture, or simply a collection of cultural items created by Jews? And perhaps most importantly, what's the difference between the two?"

So is singing Dror Yikra Jewish if I sing it to the Beach Boys? Is that not what Rashi meant when he wrote that we must not follow "their customs"? And if he did mean that, how should I sing Dror Yikra - or any other song? What is a Jewish melody? What is Jewish culture?