Friday, April 26, 2013

Bring Back an Old Prohibition

This store sells products made from Yoshon.
And they accept food stamps too!
Keeping a kosher kitchen is a basic tenet of normative Jewish life. While the rules can be complicated, we all know the basics: which animals can be eaten and which cannot; not to mix milk and meat; meat must be slaughtered and prepared in a precise, exacting manner - if you keep kosher, you know what I'm talking about. But there's another basic law of Kashrut that you may have never even heard of, even though it appears explicitly in the Torah: a law called Chadash (new grain). Essentially, grain planted after Pesach is not kosher until the next Pesach.
No, this isn't some crazy stringency. It's black and white in the Torah, in Parashat Emor.

ט וַיְדַבֵּר ה', אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. י דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי-תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם, וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת-קְצִירָהּ--וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם, אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן. יא וְהֵנִיף אֶת-הָעֹמֶר לִפְנֵי ה', לִרְצֹנְכֶם; מִמָּחֳרַת, הַשַּׁבָּת, יְנִיפֶנּוּ, הַכֹּהֵן... יד וְלֶחֶם וְקָלִי וְכַרְמֶל לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, עַד-עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה--עַד הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-קָרְבַּן אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the Land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring to the kohen an omer of the beginning of your reaping. And he shall wave the omer before the Lord so that it will be acceptable for you; the kohen shall wave it on the day after the rest day. And on the day of your waving the omer, you shall offer up an unblemished lamb in its [first] year as a burnt offering to the Lord...You shall not eat bread or [flour made from] parched grain or fresh grain, until this very day, until you bring your God's sacrifice. [This is] an eternal statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. (Vayikra 23:9-14)
Essentially the Torah teaches us here that we are forbidden to eat any grain planted after the second day of Pesach until the Omer sacrifice is offered in the Beit Hamikdash. If there is no Temple, then we at least must wait until the end of the day that it should have been offered - the second day of Pesach. This prohibited grain is called Chadash (often written in America as Chodosh) which means simply, "new". Thus, the only permitted type of grain is "old" grain, conveniently known as Yashan (or Yoshon)
You might be wondering: if this prohibition is so explicit, how come most people have never heard about it?
Great, wise rabbis, recognizing the extreme difficulty strict adherence to this rule would incur, issued legal leniencies upon which Jews relied to permit them to eat the local bread. Two hundred years ago in Eastern Europe, there wasn't that much grain available to begin with, and often the only flour available was new grain, planted that year. If you really want to understand this issue in a deeper way, many shuirim and articles are available on the web which can explain them, the scope of which are far beyond a simple blog post. (There are numerous articles on the web which explain the issues related to Chadash and the leniencies involved. See here, for example.) Rest assured that the kulot are there, and one may rely upon them.
But they are leniencies. The basic halachah has not changed. The basic prohibition against eating Chadash remains fully intact. And, times have changed for the better. Grain is readily available, and storage options are open to everyone. It's no longer nearly impossible to keep the laws of Chadash. It's simply inconvenient. (Today, if you want to eat only yoshon, you can buy basically any kosher grain product from Pesach through about Rosh Hashanah. After that point, you've got to start checking lists in order to know which grain went into what product. See here. It's rather involved.)
Here in Israel, everyone keeps the laws of Chadash, primarily because the halachic leniencies rely, among other things, on a debate whether the rules of Chadash apply only in Israel (like those of Terumot and Ma'asrot) or also outside of Israel. In Israel, there was never a debate, and all grain in Israel is Yoshon (although someone asked me about products imported into Israel. I'm still trying to find out).
I understand why kashrut agencies didn't originally attempt to require that certified products include only yoshon grain. After all, in their infancy decades ago, they lacked the leverage to make such a demand from major corporations. Moreover, imposing a yoshon requirement might very well have made it impossible for them to certify any widely produced commercial food products. But today these agencies carry great weight, and even if they couldn't insists that all Cheerios come from yoshon grain, they could at least make a run of "yoshon" Cheerios - and many other popular products - and label them as such. Moreover, entire communities could locate the necessary storage to purchase enough grain to last throughout the winter until Pesach (there are plenty of self-storage businesses across the country). With minimal effort, local Kashrut councils could create a co-op allowing consumers the ability to communally purchase, and then share the grain they needed to adhere to this halachah.
I've always been fascinated by the fact that broad communities now adhere to the halachah of Chalav Yisrael - which is a great thing, and should be lauded. People really sacrifice for Chalav Yisrael, especially in communities where finding CY dairy products can be challenging. Yet, for some reason, many if not most of those same people do not make the same effort to adhere to the strictures of Yoshon, for reasons that were never clear to me.
Rabbi Avrohom Pollack of the Star-K, concludes his article about Chodosh by writing,
In fact, a few Rabbis have suggested that there are more compelling reasons to observe chodosh than there are for eating only Glatt Kosher and Cholov Yisroel. Although at this time none of the mainstream kosher supervising agencies are insisting on Yoshon, except in those instances where a caterer, store proprietor, or food manufacturer advertise Yoshon, one never knows what will happen in the future as the Yoshon trend among kosher consumers becomes more pronounced.
I think that's a bit of a cop-out. Do the kashrut agencies wait for consumers before deciding what's kosher and what's not? Why then should the consumer first create demand for what's clearly a halachic value? It's time, to my mind, for Kashrut agencies to take the lead, and return this "old" law to the awareness, and adherence of the general public.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Emor - The Paradox of Sefirat Haomer

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Emor - The Paradox of Sefirat Haomer

The Omer is a merging of opposites. Reading through the text in the chumash, we find a number of examples of these opposite values, and try to understand how the Torah blends them to create deep meaning.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Fortuitous Phone Call

My phone rang this afternoon, and a wonderful gentleman was kind enough to tell me about the amazing salvation that he received when he turned last year to Rabbi Abuchatzera (the great mekubal). If I wanted his prayers on Lag B'omer to save me too, all I needed to do 1.
I pressed 1.
A moment later, a lovely young woman told me my options.
It seems that the Rav Abuchatzera is having a hachnasat Sefer Torah on Lag B'omer, and wants me to dedicate a page of the Torah.
How much? Well, for just 360 shekel a month for 12 months (they never tell you the full sum, just how much it will cost), I can dedicate an Amud of the Torah, and the names that I submit will enter into the Rav's special list for whom he'll say Kabbalistic prayers during a special Tikkun. But that's not all.
I will also receive a special kamea (amulet). She didn't specify what the amulet was for.
But wait, there's more.
I would also get a special flask of olive oil that was (her words), "Found from the era of the holy Ar"i." Wait, really?
"Yes, she said. There's a tradition from 'back then' that this oil was kindled and remained lit from the time of the Ar"i.
But how can they have that much oil, I wondered? After all, they couldn't have found that much? I hope this isn't oil that they bought in the supermarket. (Yes, I said that.)
No, she explained. I just get a flask of shirayim (leftovers). And, the Kabbalists blessed the oil and sanctified it.
"Really? They made kiddush over the oil? I thought you only make kiddush over wine?"
She explained: "I don't really understand Kaballah, but the rabbis prayed that this oil should help the people who use it." Now I understood.
What if a whole amud is too much for me? Can I buy a verse?
Sure you can, she said. That will cost 148 shekel. (times 12 months). But then you get the amulet, but you don't get the oil. They don't have very much of the oil.
Any other options?
You can dedicate four words of the Torah, and that's 74 shekel (times 12). You get the amulet too.
Really? That much? Almost 1,000 shekel for four words?
Look, she told me. This isn't just any Torah. It's a special Torah in which all of Klal Yisrael is taking part. That's a great merit.
She was pretty convincing. After all, who doesn't need salvation? I sure do. But then my wife called, and I had to hang up.
Then I remembered an article published last year listing the ten richest rabbis in Israel. It seems that three of them have the last name "Abuchatzera." It's amazing that they're the ones who found the holy oil. How fortunate.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Audio Shiur: Yom Haatzmaut and the Shalosh Shavuot

Audio Shiur:
Yom Haatzmaut and the Shalosh Shavuot

There's a very famous Gemara in Ketubot (110-111) that discusses the "Three Oaths" related to the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. While some see the three oaths as a primer text on why not to inhabit the Land, I see in them a good source for the religious and spiritual significance of the modern State of Israel.
Yom Ha'atzmaut Sameach!

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The women (with a small "w") at the Wall: Solving a Real Problem at the Kotel

It has now become a monthly event. Each Rosh Chodesh, a group of women enter the Kotel plaza and deliberately pray with a Tallit, sometimes even going so far as to recite Kaddish. (Personally, as they claim to be Orthodox, I'm not sure how they recite Kaddish without a minyan, but we'll leave that aside for now.) Invariably, the police enter the picture, detaining the law-breaking ladies. Yes, their actions are technically against the law, drawing the international press, which loves this stuff, as it brings all-coveted clicks on the news sites, which then understandably draws international condemnation from American Jewish groups (and some Israeli ones as well).I still have difficulty understanding why people think we can forge some type of peace agreement with the Arabs, when we can't even agree among ourselves about which Jews can pray where and how at the Western Wall.
A few points:
1. I wish the Orthodox establishment and thus the police would ignore these women, and then they'd have their davening and move on. Somehow, people fail to recognize that protesting against them was precisely what they wanted, furthering their agenda and garnering them the press they so badly needed.
2. The Kotel isn't where we should be exerting our energy. While it's an important location, we pray there (and fight about it) at the cost of forgetting that it's the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, which - whether you pray there or not - is the holiest site in Judaism. I wish we gave a fraction of the attention we pay to the Kotel to Har Habayit (the Temple Mount).
3. Sadly, I don't find the Kotel to be that great of a place to commune with God. I try not to daven at the Kotel too often. Sure, I visit - but I want the place to stay special and unique to me, and not just another shul that I daven in. Moreover, davening there is often not that spiritual of an experience for me, for a simple reason: it's a circus. Even on non-Rosh Chodesh days, when women aren't protesting and getting arrested, there are usually ten minyanim within twenty feet of where you're davening. People still walk around asking for money. Tourist are taking pictures. Chabad helps people lay tefillin. All great things, none of which make for a spiritual experience. For this reason, whenever I'm invited to a Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel, I try to daven beforehand at shul near my home. It makes for a much less pressured (and safer) drive into Yerushalayim, and a far better prayer experience. In addition, when I daven in the Kotel, I try to daven inside the Cave (all the way to the right, as far in as I can. There's plenty of wall for everyone, and there's much less traffic there. I find I can concentrate on my prayer there far more.)
4. The "Women of the Kotel" who want to wear tallit and tefillin aren't the women whose needs we should first address. Their complaints have made me that much more aware of the injustice to all women at the Kotel, who are crammed into a far more cramped space than the men, with almost no area covered from the elements. Many cannot pray near the wall itself, often at the same time that a huge swath of the men's section is entirely empty.
To my mind, before we begin to talk about the claims of the "Women of the Wall", we need to address the needs of the women of the Wall.
First and foremost, the current mechitzah must be moved to the left, to address the simple lack of space and make the plaza more equitable.  But that, to my mind, would not be sufficient.
There's already a women's balcony in the covered cave of the men's section - but it's behind the men, with no access to the Wall. I propose that an additional Women's section be installed (with a full mechitzah) to the left of the men at the far end of the "Cave". This would give women more access to the Kotel itself and also afford them a location to pray covered from the elements (rain in the winter and hot sun in the summer) where they could meditate and worship in relative peace.
Only after we address the real needs of the women of the Wall, should we consider turning our attention to the Women of the Wall - which I'll address in a different post.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Israeli TV Star You've Never Heard Of, But Will

During our time in Detroit, we were privileged to meet a number of Israeli families who we've kept in touch with since. Once of those families, the Tzobels (Assi, Sharon and kids), served as members of the Kollel Torah MiTzion based in West Bloomfield, but would come to Oak Park for shul programs and activities. Assi loved acting and theater, so when a fellow rabbi shared the idea on a rabbinic email list to do an "interview" with a major historic figure, I turned to Assi. He loved the idea, and we decided to invite "Rashi" on his 900th yahrtzeit to our shul for a visit.
Everything was planned carefully. Michelle Sider, - a shul member who's also an artist - studied the types of clothes Rashi might have worn and drew the picture in our flyer. We researched Rashi's biography and developed a script. I gave a shiur on Rashi's commentary on Chumash Friday night. We even had a screening of a video for kids about Rashi planned. Everything was all set for Shabbat morning, when Rashi would "visit" and I would interview him instead of the usual Shabbat morning drashah. We planned a Rashi inspired kiddush too. And then it snowed Friday night. About a foot and a half.
A small number of people came to shul, I think, because they felt bad for me, which was fine with me. But the shul was pretty empty, understandably. It was a tough walk to shul that morning in the snow. But Rashi (Assi) came, and he was really, really great. Assi really embraced the role, French accent and all. He was so good that he did the program for the students at Akiva.

Fast forward a couple years. Assi returned to Israel and decided to enter film full-time. He enrolled in the Ma'aleh film school in Jerusalem. While there, he was approached about producing a children's program (and writing the scripts) that would appear on the website of a yeshiva called Machon Meir. Machon Meir is well-known in Israel as a welcoming, open-minded, Religious Zionist Israeli kiruv yeshiva. Visit there are you're likely to hear shiurim in Hebrew (of course), but also in English, French and Russian. Machon Meir's founder, Rav Begun, recognized that if the religious community really wants to reach people "where they are", the best way to reach them was in their homes, via the internet, on their computers. Yet, instead of talking heads giving classes and lectures, he wanted scripted television programs.
Tuvia, Polke and Assi
In a relatively short period of time, Assi was starring in the program called "Assi and Tuvi" (and their friend Polka - a puppet chicken) readily available on the Internet. Today, after years of shows, 700 episodes of Assi and Tuvi have covered every imaginable topic, offering young children an endless stream of commercial-free shows. Machon Meir's kids website has 10,000 (ten thousand) subscribers, who pay for access the Machon Meir's archive of programming. (Sadly, there's no English language programming to speak of, other than a few dubbed episodes. Proper English language episodes would require writing new scripts and staging them with native English-speaking actors.)
I didn't realize the degree of Assi's stardom until his family visited us for Shabbat. As we walked around Yad Binyamin, kids would stare from a distance, as in, "That's Assi!" Kids approached my children, awestruck, asking them, "Assi is staying at your HOUSE?" We reached a new level of Religious-Zionist eight-year-old coolness that weekend. He really is a household name in our community, and does events over the holidays, as well as private parties (for a fee, of course).
The Tzobel family with the Spolters after Shabbat
Yet, Assi's not stopping just with a kids show on the web. Rav Begun has recognized that most secular Israelis aren't watching TV over their computers. Rather, he needs to bring his programming to their living rooms, and has recently announced the launch of HOT Channel 96 - Machon Meir's own cable TV channel. It's an amazingly expensive proposition, but if it succeeds, the channel could have a long-term positive effect on Israel's broader public.
Assi's quite busy now: as Director of Children's Programming for the television network, he's developing a number of different children's series while still filming new episodes of Assi and Tuvia. If you haven't heard of it him, one day soon, you will.

A Tiny Symbol of Resistance in the Lodz Ghetto: Cholent

I'm finding Yom Hashoah rather challenging this year. I'm not sure why. I just heard a fascinating talk given by a representative of Machon Shem Olam (which catalogs different forms of religious and spiritual resistance that took place during the Holocaust), and it seems appropriate to share one small example that the speaker shared.
This photograph, at face value, seems unremarkable.

It seems to portray a child emerging from a food distribution center. People stand in line, seemingly waiting to get in. And if you look carefully, you can see a Jewish policeman (with the armband) trying to keep order, perhaps.
Yet, historical records do not show that there were any food distribution centers of this type. People went to soup kitchens for meals, but never went home with full pots of food.
Rather, documentation (that he showed us) clearly indicates that this picture is a depiction of an age-old Jewish practice. For centuries, Jews who wanted warm food on Shabbat morning, would leave their cholent pots in the over at the bakery on Friday afternoon, and pick up their food on Shabbat morning. They continued to do so in the misery of the Lodz Ghetto; when food was as valuable a commodity as could be had, Jews still, to whatever degree was possible, observed the prohibition against cooking on Shabbat, risking the possibility that their food might be "stolen" by someone else when out of sight.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Embarrasment that is the Women's Section in Many Orthodox Shuls in Israel

Rivkah Lambert Adler's piece lamenting the sorry state of the woman's section in Orthodox shuls is spot on. Many, many shuls in Israel, even in ostensibly modern communities, consign the women to a location where they can barely hear, much less see what's going on during davening. Take our shul, for example.
When we arrived in Yad Binyamin, the municipality was already well into the process of building the shul. The plans had long-since been approved, and changes of any kind weren't really much of an option.
When we finally inhabited the building, we realized that the architect, while he built a physically striking and beautiful building, had never spent much time in a shul, much less in the women's section. The women were seated in the balcony at the back, but in such a way that it was impossible for them to see anything while seated, as the wall separated the balcony from the main section was at least four feet high (and about a foot thick). Moreover, the entire section was built on a single level - not on graduated steps, so there was (and still is) no way for anyone behind the front row to see anything.
When the time came to buy the furniture, the shul quickly ordered the nice, comfy seats for the men's section, while the women sat in plastic chairs. Today, the women have been upgraded to nicer, plush office chairs, but they're still waiting for their Lavi seats. (That's in the works, I hear) We quickly replaced much of the wall with glass, but added decorative stickers on the glass that obscure the view to some degree.
It should go without saying that this situation would never, ever happen in an American Modern Orthodox shul. Before I left Michigan we were in the planning stages of finally replacing the old mechitzah, and we spent an inordinate amount of effort and energy trying to ensure the mechitzah that would allow women to feel part of the davening to the greatest possible degree. And yet, as Adler notes, if you tour many shuls in Israel you almost never find this type of attention given to the women's section. Why not?
Part of the blame for this situation lays with the men, of course. Men build the shuls and, for the most part, run them as well. Yet, to claim that it's only the fault of men would be less than accurate.
Back to our shul in Yad Binyamin. Almost immediately after we took possession of the building, it became clear that we had to quickly change the mechitzah wall. The shul sent out an email asking female members of the community to serve on the committee that would implement the changes, and of the women who responded, exactly none of them were Israelis. Only Anglos answered the call.
And, while Israeli women do complain about the cramped nature of the women's section, they aren't really active in trying to effect change. Why this is so is difficult to say. Some might suggest that after years of frustration, they've bothered trying. But I think that there's something else going on here as well.
In the United States, attendance at shul is an integral part of Orthodox Jewish life. Many, if not most women, attend shul each and every week. In my former shul, the women's section was as full as the men's each and every week, without fail. Shul wasn't just the domain of the men, at least on Shabbat.
That reality somehow hasn't made its way to Israel. While some women do attend shul regularly, and of course deserve a respectable women's section, far less women come to shul than men. Many women come to meet their husbands leaving shul and wait outside for them with their kids. Even many women whose husbands daven at an early minyan don't come to shul to daven - something their U.S. counterparts would usually do. Shul attendance and participation is just not seen as integral to women's religious lives. They come less and have less to do with the shul in general, which leads to the men (justifiably or not) putting less resources into the women's section.
We spent last Shabbat in Modiin, at the beautiful new shul in Buchman where my good friend Rabbi Shlomo Sobol serves as rabbi. The shul now sports three minyanim on Shabbat morning (so there's room for everyone), but on Friday evenings in the winter, when there's no early minyan, the place is packed. At least the men's section is. While men can't find a seat, there's more than enough room in the women's section.
While all of this doesn't excuse skimping on the women's section, it certainly does explain it. (Except at the Kotel. That's really an embarrassment.) The more women attend shul, participate in shul life, and take ownership over the shuls they belong to, the less we'll find the disturbing circumstances detailed in Adler's article.