Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Seder, President Obama, and true Redemption on Pesach

For years now, the Seder has been part of the Obama tradition, as the President (he began the minhag even before he became President). The White House published the attached video, in which the President explains to thousands of young Israelis why he brought the Seder into his household. He said,
After enjoying Seders with family and friends in Chicago and on the campaign trail, I’m proud that I've now brought this tradition into the White House. I did so because I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah, and the story at the center of Passover that makes this time of year so powerful.
It’s a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah. It’s a story about finding freedom in your own land. And for the Jewish people, this story is central to who you’ve become. But it’s also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering, but also all of its salvation.
For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me, personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home. 
Taking President Obama at his word, he himself found the Seder personally moving. The Seder speaks to him, and he identified with the notion of overcoming slavery, seeking freedom and salvation, and rising to the greatest heights achievable. He wanted his daughters to share in the story because he correctly realizes that they cannot relate to it. They grew up in relative wealth in Chicago, and even worse, in the House of Pharaoh, in the lap of luxury that is the White House, where someone is always waiting to cater to your every need. How do you teach your children to appreciate what you have when they don't know what suffering is? How can you celebrate freedom if you've never tasted the bitterness of slavery?

It is this exact question that I feel vexes the Jewish people today. For centuries, we had no trouble appreciating the bitter pill of exile and degradation. That was the stuff of a daily Jewish existence, where antisemitism, bigotry and hatred formed the basis of a Jew's core identity. Yet, today we (thank God!) live in relative Utopias where Jews worship freely in the United States, and easily reach the highest levels of society, be they in the media, the financial and business world, and the government. While life is no picnic in Israel with enemies at every border, in another sense life is wonderful. We have a powerful army that protects us, great friends who care for us deeply, and a wonderful standard of living. Things are, in a very real sense, amazingly good. So we have no trouble with the elements of monarchy that we commemorate at the Seder. In fact, while the symbols that we invoke (leaning? What king leans to the left?) seem arcane, we fail to notice that the homes we consider normal or even small would have seemed huge, even obscene to most people just a few hundred years ago.
We already live like kings, with every luxury and whim at our fingertips. Food fills our fridges and any possible form of entertainment from across the globe lies no farther than the press of a button. How then can we possibly understand and appreciate what it means to be a slave?
And if we can't understand slavery, what is the meaning of redemption? After all, the Sages in the Gemara insisted that מתחילין בגנות ומסיימין בשבח - we must begin with the negative, and only then can we conclude with praise of God. Without the negative; without the suffering, there can be no praise.
For this reason I wonder whether Barack Obama might truly be able to appreciate the Seder experience more than most Orthodox Jews. How many of us grew up in parts unknown, yearning for a better life? How many of us have had to overcome true adversity, and know the sting of racism, prejudice and hatred?

Yet, there's another aspect of the Seder that President Obama cannot appreciate - no matter how hard he tries. While freedom from bondage and overcoming difficulty are critical elements of the Seder, they serve as means to an end. God did not free us to act as we choose. אין חרות אלא תורה - "There is no freedom other than [adherence to] the Torah. God freed us to become a Holy Nation with a unique, singular mission in the world. President Obama said,
And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland. That’s why I believe that Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea -- the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own. 

While he's right, he's also wrong. Israel is not rooted in the idea that "people deserve to be free in an land of their own." Israel is rooted in the idea that the Jewish people belong in and to the Land of Israel. It's not only a universal story. It's a particular story. It's our story, and it's our Land. On his Atlantic Magazine Blog, Israel Go-To Guy Jewish Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote,
No holiday embodies the essential tension at the heart of Jewishness like Passover does. The story of Passover is the story of a particular people moving from a specific land of slavery to a particular land of freedom (President Obama, on his trip last week to Israel, seemed to understand very well the -- you should pardon the expression -- Zionism at the heart of the Exodus story).  Passover is also the most universal of Jewish holidays. It provided the world with what long ago became its most important, and metaphor-ready, story of human liberation. It also inculcated in Jews a restless and eternal urge to upset the status quo. The tug between the universal and the particular plays out in Jewish life in all sorts of ways, most notably on the Middle Eastern stage.
It's a prescient comment. That is, this struggle takes place almost on a daily basis here. Is Israel a universal idea - a nation of freedom and democracy first and foremost - or a particular one - a Jewish State? From my point of view, while democracy and freedom are clearly critical values, we are and must always be a Jewish State, and when the two values clash, then the compromises must come from the former, and not the latter. Interestingly, the last elections here (and arguably the ones before that as well) have articulated precisely this viewpoint among the majority of Israelis. We don't just want to be a free country. We want to be a free Jewish country - and not just because we happen to have a majority of Jews. President Obama concluded his speech by saying, 
And as the President of a country that you can count on as your greatest friend -- I am confident that you can help us find the promise in the days that lie ahead. And as a man who’s been inspired in my own life by that timeless calling within the Jewish experience -- tikkun olam -) -- I am hopeful that we can draw upon what’s best in ourselves to meet the challenges that will come; to win the battles for peace in the wake of so much war; and to do the work of repairing this world. 
Here he made a mistake (at least his speechwriters did), expecting the Israeli crowd to readily identify with the "universal" notion of Tikkun Olam, not realizing that he was simply parroting a trope that's been popularized by American non-religious Judaism: that our core national mission is "Tikkun Olam" - repairing the world. It's not, and to suggest so to a crowd of even secular Israelis will strike them as foreign, which explains why Obama's line got such a muted response (when he would have gotten a standing ovation for such a line in front of a UJA Federation crowd). Israelis think that Tikkun Olam is nice, but that's not why we're here. We're here to rebuild the Jewish Nation. Our soldiers stand watch not to "repair the world," but to protect and defend the Jewish nation. And, to repeat an oft-quoted Orthodox trope that's worth repeating, we do believe in Tikkun Olam: לתקן עולם במכלות שדי - "to repair the world in the Kingdom of God."
That's what we're building. That's the Redemption we pray for at the Seder. We want not just universal freedom and the right to live in peace and tranquility on our Land. Rather, we are building towards the day when the Jewish Nation succeeds in bringing about the spiritual transformation that will warrant the return of God to our Midst.
That can and will only be achieved by this Nation, on this Land.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Who's the Best Rabbi?

For whatever reason, Pesach seems to be rabbi season, during which we choose the "Best" rabbis. I take that back; "we" don't choose anything. For whatever reason, the American secular Jewish media has seen fit to dedicate Pesach to choosing its favorite rabbis:
The Forward gives us the thirty-six (a special Jewish number) "America's Most Inspiring Rabbis", while the Daily Beast shares with us a list of "America's Top Fifty Rabbis". Who chooses what's considered "inspiring"? What exactly makes a "top rabbi" anyway? How do you "make" the list?
I find these lists particularly demeaning to the rabbinate. They imply that (a) there's a way to rank rabbis and (b) that there should even be a list at all. How is one rabbi "better" than another? Is he (or she) a better teacher? A better counselor? More compassionate? More learned? (actually, that's easier to judge - but doesn't seem to be a criteria on these lists). From what I can tell, from the Forward's perspective, the "best" Orthodox rabbis are the most progressive, who fit into the mold of Orthodoxy the Forward's editors can most easily stomach. At least the Daily Beast found fit to list rabbis in Orthodoxy who have major followings and actually are considered leaders in their communities (although I wonder whether Rav Matisyahu Solomon's PR people had to work very hard to get him on the list).
I much prefer the list put out by Motzash Magazine (the weekly Dati Lite publication from Mekor Rishon), who before Pesach published an issue called "The Top 100 People Who Define the [Religious Zionist] Demographic"  The issue listed 100 movers and shakers, from politicians to actors to academics who play prominent roles in Israeli society, and also happen to be Religious Zionists (at least most of them seem to be). While some of the hundred are also rabbis, they were chosen as authors, writers, or other accomplishments outside of their rabbinic roles. In fact, the list's editors wrote in their introduction that they decided at the outset to exclude rabbis from the list. It seemed inappropriate and unseemly. They were right.
It's fascinating to note that throughout the Hagaddah we recite on Pesach night, we mention a great number of rabbis. Yet, the most important rabbi of them all - Moshe Rabbeinu - gets only a tangential mention, despite the fact that his contributions played the most pivotal role in our nation's birth.
Perhaps that's the most important lesson here: A rabbi's importance or significance has literally nothing in common with any possible list he "makes". The single measure of importance is the impact he has on those he can influence, teach, help or heal. Making any other list is about as significant as the paper on which the list was printed, if it was even printed at all.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Audio Shiur: Hagaddah Shel Pesach - Past Redemption and Future Redemption

Audio Shiur:
Hagaddah Shel Pesach - Past Redemption and Future Redemption

The experience of the Seder has changed through the ages, depending upon the circumstances in which Jews found themselves. Taking a careful look at Avadim Hayinu, we'll analyze some of the clues chazal left for us indicating how they saw us commemorating the night of Pesach. Sorry, but the batteries died about 45 minutes in, which in the end wasn't so bad, because we got into a heated exchange over whether you can judge someone who chooses not to live in Israel.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kol Isha: A Woman's Perspective

At the Orot College of Education (where I work in the admissions office and also teach), I teach a class on Halachah called, "Hanichnas Lapeh v'Hayotzei Mimenu", meaning, "What Goes into the Mouth and What Comes Out of It" - giving me free reign to teach kashrut, laws of prohibited speech - it's a pretty wide range of topics. When the controversy surrounding The Voice erupted, I decided to study the issue with my students.
The classes, given over two weeks, were volatile and invigorating. Orot students are, by and large, Religious Zionists (that's why they study here), but they also represent a broad spectrum within the RZ community.
None, to a person, agreed with the choice to perform on The Voice. But while some couldn't understand why performed in violation of halachah, others expressed a sense of identification with a lack of venue which would allow her to express her God-given talent.
In response to my first post on this issue, I share (with permission) the following email from Sarah Maslowe (formerly of Silver Spring, now of Jerusalem!)
When I was 16 yrs old, a millennium ago, I was very confused about the kol isha issue.  I had an especially beautiful voice & loved singing.  I went from Rav to Rav to get an understanding why I could not sing on stage or in front of any man.  I never got an answer, why G-d created me with a beautiful voice, but I couldn't use it.  The best I got was that I will be able to use it to sing to my children (who only enjoyed it when they were little.  Teenagers have no interest in it.:-)).  Of course that answer made me angry!  When I was 17 I had the opportunity to perform with a semi professional group.  I made the decision to go against that prohibition.  At the end of the program, I was very depressed because I saw that if I were to continue to perform, my shmirat Shabbat was going to be compromised.  
There is no greater thrill to sing well to a large adoring audience.  Of course, I made the right choice & now the grandchildren enjoy my voice when the sons-in-laws are not around.  
I am very moved by this young girls situation & I wish there was a better explanation why G-d would give such a gift that cannot be used fully.  Of course there are plenty of mitzvot without clear explanations that we must follow, & that was what convinced me as a girl.  Of course that advice did not come from the Rabbis, it came from my wise mother.  Perhaps, getting the Rabbis to address the issue better could help this girl.
Lastly, at least now there are women performing groups that young women can showcase there talent.  I even tried out for a show, & my daughter & grandaughter were very impressed with my skill.  I was not as good as the "Broadway" talent of the women who got the parts. But, I felt a part of the sisterhood who found the acceptable place for their talents.  They are amazingly gifted. 
This issue has deep ramifications, from the stage all the way to the Shabbat table.I recognize that I cannot understand or appreciate the restrictions of Kol Isha. I love to sing and do so whenever I choose, while my wife (and now daughter) always think twice before singing if anyone else is around. I recognize that I cannot fully appreciate Ofir ben Shitrit's struggle, having been born with a beautiful voice halachah prevents her from showcasing in public.
But I also challenged my students to be the ones to create those venues. 
Here in Israel, the religious community is large enough to create singing venues and even perhaps competitions that would allow women of all ages to sing, in public, for other women.
A PR Pic from the Noga Dance Company
Over the past ten years, Orot has built the only religious School for Dance Education in the world. Our graduates teach in schools across the country, and have created a dance company that performs for women-only audiences to rave reviews. At the day-long programs that I coordinate for visiting Sherut Le'umi students, Orot's dance students have given dozens of performances, of which I have never seen a single one, as well I should not.
If we can do it for dance, we can - and must - also create the venues to allow women and girls with beautiful voices to express themselves in a manner fully consistent with halachah. 
I am sure that one day soon, someone will.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Kol Isha and Modern Orthodoxy

In a previous post I wondered how the Modern Orthodox community seems to ignore the accepted halachic psak regarding the issue of kol isha. I received some thoughtful comments, including one from Noam Stadlan who wrote:
Many in the thinking MO community agree with the rationale, underlying assumptions, and thinking set forth by Rav Bigman, and certainly do not agree with Chareidi views of society and the place for women. Why should they adopt the Chareidi psak? If you think that Rav Bigman's view should not be followed, then in order to make a case that will fall on accepting ears you have to address the issues. For the thinking MO, it is the quality of the argument, not who said it (within reason) or how many said it, that matters. So if you oppose the action, you have to make an argument based on sources and logic, not a list of poskim.
Noam's comments concretized exactly why Modern Orthodox practice regarding kol isha bothers me so much. Since when has the Shulchan Aruch been appropriated by the Chareidi community? Suddenly, every rav and posek who doesn't conform to our values is now Chareidi? Even Seridei Eish, who allowed mixed groups to sing for kiruv purposes would never have permitted a public performance like "The Voice". Does that now mean that he was clearly Chareidi as well?
The comment suggests that the normative halachah of Kol Isha follows Modern Orthodox practice, and that some kind of Chareidi chumrah has crept into modern day Jewish life. Reading the sources (and I did); that is simply not the case, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. It's one thing for Rabbi Bigman to publish his position, which is of course his right. But at least he himself must acknowledge that his opinion contradicts normative halachic psak. It's quite another to suggest that someone who disagrees with him is "Chareidi" (i.e. radical), which can and should be easily dismissed. Noam wrote,
"For the thinking MO, it is the quality of the argument, not who said it (within reason) or how many said it, that matters."
Really? That's how halachah works? Every psak must be argued and debated and explained to the satisfaction of every individual? This entire line of thinking is precisely what bothers me (and to my understand, many, many others) about so-called "Modern Orthodoxy". It articulates the view that if a behavior or value that's explicit in the Shulchan Aruch and later poskim - and it is explicit and cannot be denied - doesn't match with my view, I can choose to ignore that view and attach myself to the da'at yachid I do like and do agree with, labeling anything more radical than myself as "Chareidi". Is there no notion of submission in Modern Orthodox thinking? Is everything subject to the litmus test of the individual?
That's not the way I learned that Halachah works. Rabbi Bigman is a moreh hora'ah, and can issue whatever psak he chooses. But Halachah isn't a poo-poo platter of choices for us to choose from, grabbing the ruling that we like and disregarding those that offend our tastes. Doing so flies in the face of the concept of Mesorah and an allegiance to the tradition that we believe can and must be transmitted through the generations. While the thinking you articulated certainly does match post-modern values which reject absolutes and demand that we only adhere to practices that match our personal, individual attitudes, that's not how Jewish law works.
If you want to follow Rav Bigman, then follow Rav Bigman. But don't just do it for kol isha. Do you know anything else about the piskei halachah that he issues? Do you follow his chumrot as well as his kulot, or does he too need to justify his thinking to you? (Clearly he does).
I'm not suggesting that I'm perfect. Far from it. I doubt that the Shulchan Aruch smiles on the fact that I watch "Top Chef" (not a good example, I know). But instead of suggesting that I'm really correct, and that anyone who thinks watching "Top Chef" is out of touch, and even worse - Chareidi - I'm mature enough to recognize that I probably shouldn't watch it, and this an issue that I struggle with.
A recent comment on Hirhurim about keeping two days of Yom Tov illustrated this point precisely. Joseph Kaplan wrote,
I was once told by R. Adler that there are Teaneck residents who daven in other shuls but are affiliate members of Rinat just so they can consider R. Adler their moreh deasra and follow his psak on observing only 1 day. We’re full members so it was slam dunk that all four of my kids observed 1 day during their year in Israel. And my sense is from speaking to friends that more and more MO observe only 1 day in Israel, some of whom observed 2 days not so long ago.
At least in Teaneck they some feel the need to affiliate with Rabbi Adler's shul in order to follow his psak. But according to Noam's way of thinking, who needs to affiliate? What difference does it make if he's your rabbi? After all, it's the arguments that count, which is precisely why "more and more MO observe only 1 day in Israel." They like the psak, so why not follow it?

This brings me to another comment regarding kol isha related to the Rav. Another commenter wrote that the Rav attended the opera. Sorry, that's not a psak to me, and the fact that individual rabbis allowed (or allow) individual people to attend the opera also doesn't convince me.
There's a concept in Jewish law of individuality, and not everything every rabbi tells an individual immediately becomes normative Jewish law. It's well-known that the Rav's wife did not cover her hair. Does that mean that the Rav also didn't believe in kisui rosh? Quote me a shiur, a written article, anything - where the Rav issued a psak allowing men to attend to opera. He was a very, very smart man, and knew his audience and the time in which he lived. He knew when he was speaking publicly, and when he was speaking privately, and the two are not the same.
I myself have issue piskei halachah for individuals that I would never write in public. Halachah is quite flexible in this manner. Yet, when every individual has a me-too attitude, and tells himself, "If he could do it, why can't I," the very foundation of halachah finds itself in peril of collapse.
Truth be told, this is where I fear a significant chunk of Modern Orthodoxy is headed. Without fealty to mesorah; when we can choose what appeals to us and reject authority when rulings do not - the very concept of shemirat hamitzvot finds itself on very shaky ground indeed.

My problem with a religious girl singing on The Voice isn't the fact that her rav allowed it. I know for a fact that he doesn't permit public singing. My problem is the fact that she never even asked the question in the first place. And that, as you wrote, is the very essence of Modern Orthodoxy.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Kol Isha and a Rabbinic Conundrum

In my class on Halachah this week at Orot, we studied the halachot of Kol B'isha Erva (the prohibition against hearing women sing) in the context of the recent appearance of a religious girl on the Israeli reality show "The Voice" (or, as they say here, "de voyce"). It's not an understatement to say that this episode has been a rather significant issue here in the religious community in Israel.
From my perspective, it's clear that the producers chose her in the competition not only for her voice, but specifically because she's religious. The issue comes up during her first tryout, and the words that they use to describe her singing ("pure", "modest") are clearly influenced by this issue. They even ask her to sing piyyut, which she gladly does.
Her appearance obviously raised the challenging question of how to respond when a member of the religious community does something that contradicts the values of Jewish law. (And her singing publicly clearly does violate halachah according to the vast, vast majority of poskim, despite arguments to the contrary. This episode reminds me of when the Maimonides grad who participated in a modeling reality show.)
How should her school - a religious Ulpana react? Educational institutions are not charged with policing the actions of their students, nor should they be. But when a student publicly acts in a manner that clearly contradicts the values of the school, she becomes a de-facto spokesperson and representative of that school. Other parents rightly or wrongly begin to wonder: "Really, that's how students at that school act? Maybe it's not the best place for my daughter." (We might not like it, but that is how things work). In this case, the school struggled mightily with this tension, and in the end the student agreed to leave school for two weeks voluntarily, allowing the school to express its displeasure with her performing without officially punishing her.
What about her rabbi? How should he conduct himself throughout the episode?

In my prep for the class, I came across a fascinating article describing what happened when the film crew came to the girl's yishuv to film hoping to conduct a joint interview with the rav of the Yishuv, Rav Zvi Arnon.
Rav Arnon refused to speak on camera, even after the camera crew literally ambushed him at shul during minchah. He explained his refusal by saying that no matter what he said, he would be portrayed as a villain, specifically because he represents a viewpoint that's against the underlying values of the entire television show.
Fascinatingly, the members of his community (a religious community), rather than supporting him, were angry with him for failing to support the budding television star.

The article raises fascinating and important rabbinic issues, including:
1. Dealing with a media hostile to religious values
2. Dealing with ba'alei batim who don't support a halachic viewpoint
3. Representing a Torah point of view unpopular in a modern Orthodox community
4. Interactions between religious and non-religious Jews: In her tryout, three different mentors vied for her to choose them, one of whom clearly had religious tendencies. She chose Aviv Gefen, apparently the most secular of the three. Is that something we should try to discourage? The clip I shared above is her visit with him to the shul in Nir Galim, as they talk about religion and faith. Can you create a Kiddush Hashem in the context of a larger violation of Jewish law?
5. Finally, why don't Modern Orthodox Jews, by and large, adhere to or seem to care about the halachot of kol isha?

Personally, I believe that Rav Arnon made absolutely the right choice. He found himself in a lose-lose situation, over which he'd have no control. But it cannot be easy to be the representative of an unpopular Torah value without even the support of the members of your own community.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Audio Shiur - Hagadah Shel Pesach - Avadim Hayinu - Two Types of Sedarim

Audio Shiur:
Pesach - Avadim Hayinu - Two Types of Sedarim

The experience of the Seder has changed through the ages, depending upon the circumstances in which Jews found themselves. Taking a careful look at Avadim Hayinu, we'll analyze some of the clues chazal left for us indicating how they saw us commemorating the night of Pesach. Sorry, but the batteries died about 45 minutes in, which in the end wasn't so bad, because we got into a heated exchange over whether you can judge someone who chooses not to live in Israel.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

The Piece of Gemara Dr. Ruth Calderon Skipped

While the buzz has certainly died down following Dr. Ruth Calderon's moving Talmud shiur in the Knesset (now approaching 200,000 views), the issues that she raised continue to resonate, and form the fault line between the Chareidi political parties who refused to allow their young men to enter the IDF, and the current Bayit Yehudi-Yesh Atid alliance, which refuse to enter a Netanyahu government without a firm agreement to implement the draft for the vast majority of Chareidi youth.
To recap: Calderon read a story in the Gemara from Ketuvot 62b about Rav Rechumi, who would only return home once a year on Yom Kippur to his wife, and how one year, totally immersed in his study, he forgot to come home. When his wife finally shed a tear out of anguish and pain, the loft upon which Rav Rachumei was learning caved in beneath him, killing him. Calderon used the story as a warning against using the study of Torah as an excuse to legitimate the harming of others. She associated Rav Rachumei with the Chareidi world, which sits in its ivory tower, and his wife with the rest of Israeli society, bearing the brunt of his learning. (if you haven't seen the talk, you can see it here with English subtitles.)
It was wonderful drush, and a powerful message. But Calderon began her lesson without mentioning the beginning of the section of gemara. She essentially told only half the story. And the part that she left out paints a far more complicated, nuanced picture.
The Gemara that introduces the story deals with a husband's obligation to fulfill his wife's sexual needs - the mitzvah of onah. According to Jewish law, a husband must satisfy his wife's sexual needs on a regular basis, an obligation codified in Jewish law. How often? That all depends on what you do for a living (and, according to Rambam, on how many wives you have). The range that appears in the Mishnah (Ketubot 61b) ranges from daily (!) all the way to once in six months. But then the Mishnah adds,
התלמידים יוצאין לתלמוד תורה שלא ברשות שלשים יום
The students [may] leave [their homes] for the study of Torah without [their wives'] permission for up to thirty days.
That doesn't sound like too much. But the Gemara (on 62b) notes that many Torah scholars would stay away from home for far longer.
אמר רב אדא בר אהבה אמר רב זו דברי ר' אליעזר אבל חכמים אומרים התלמידים יוצאין לת"ת ב' וג' שנים שלא ברשות אמר רבא סמכו רבנן אדרב אדא בר אהבה ועבדי עובדא בנפשייהו
Said Rav Ada bar Ahava in the name of Rav, that [thirty day period] is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, but the Sages said that one may leave for the sake of Torah study for two or three years without permission. Rava said: the rabbis relied on the position of Rav Ada bar Ahava and practiced themselves according to his opinion.
To clarify: Halachah makes demands of a husband that requires a him to be home at least once a month, if not more often. But, on the other hand, serious Torah study demands that one leave home and study at the academy, often a great distance from home. Trying to study while juggling other responsibilities greatly diminishes the level of one's study.
How do you balance the two? Should a person choose his individual obligation, he cannot realistically grow in the way that he could by investing in exclusive Torah study for an extended period of time. On the other hand, what right does a person have to make the choice to abandon his own obligations towards others and leave his wife (and probably children) so that he can sit and learn?
And yet, that's exactly what the Sages did. That's also how they became Sages. They made difficult choices (the formulation in the Gemara is fascinating: "they themselves practiced according to his opinion"). The Gemara gives the impression that they didn't really ask anyone for permission - not their teachers, nor their wives. They understood that their choice may not have been ideal. Yet, they nevertheless left home, family, community and other obligations for two to three years at a time if not much more (see the famous story of Rabbi Akiva) all for the sake of Torah immersion.
It is with this background in mind that the Gemara relates the story of Rav Rechumei, and the difficult, tragic price he paid for the pain he inflicted upon his wife. The story doesn't condemn his choice. Chazal agreed with it. Many, if not most of them made similar decisions.
Yet, perhaps he went too far. Perhaps his error wasn't in the choice he made, but in his lack of sensitivity for and appreciation for his wife, and he sacrifices. Maybe, had he understood her pain, his story would not have ended in tragedy.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tisa: The Impossible Luchot

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tisa: The Impossible Luchot

Before we can ask why Moshe broke the luchot (which we ask), we need to ask a better question: why did God give Moshe the luchot at all? Once we tackle that question, we can take a stab at why Moshe broke them.

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Audio Shiur: Parshat Zachor - Overcoming Amalek

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Zachor - Overcoming Amalek

Following the reasoning of Chazal as they explain the essence of Amalek, Netziv's commentary in both Dvarim and Shemot shine a new light on how we can and must overcome Amalek today.

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