Friday, August 30, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Nitzavim - You Can Do It!

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Nitzavim - You Can Do It!

You too can be as righteous as Moshe Rabbeinu! Don't ask me - ask the Rambam. How did he know it? He read it in Parshat Nitzvim.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Windmills of Zionist Apathy

I had a chance to watch Rabbi Joshua Fass' speech at Yeshiva University's recent graduation, and while it was a great honor for him, it made me a little sad. You can hear it in his words, as he speaks about his lonely journey traveling around the United States fighting what he called "Don Quixote battles fighting the Windmills of Zionist apathy." (I'm having trouble getting the link to post to the right part of the video. Watch beginning at 13:17)

These aren't mere words. The statistics justify his frustration.
I remember the excitement around the creation of the organization. Rabbi Fass and Mr. Gelbart began Nefesh B'nefesh in order to solve the puzzle of the lack of Aliyah from North America. At first they thought that people didn't make aliyah due to a lack of money, so he offered grants to those who needed money to help them move.
He also built an incredible organization, which provides a wealth of information about communities in Israel. He hired staff to help immigrants integrate into Israeli society and navigate the sometimes confusing bureaucracy. (Truth be told, it's not nearly as bad as most people think it is, unless you're talking about the Ministry of Education). He built touch screen consoles to make the processing of Aliyah paperless, and ensured that new immigrants received their citizenship papers mere days after arriving in their new country. He created a network which helps people find work. The list goes on and on.
I remember reading about his bold predictions five and seven years ago. While that year the aliyah numbers were in the three-thousand range, he predicted that the numbers would rise to five thousand the following year, and then ten thousand in the years afterwards, numbers that would literally change the face of the Jewish State.
Last year, the Jerusalem Post reported that while,
...NBN’s stated goal is not only to facilitate migration from North America, but to significantly increase it. So far, that seems out of reach.
Proportionately, immigration to Israel from North America remains little more than a trickle. Of the approximately six million Jews in North America...only about 3,512 people, or 0.06%, made aliya in 2011. In comparison, some 0.35% of Jews in France made aliya in 2010 – 1,775 of about 500,000 in the country. Percentages are even higher for places such as Ukraine and Russia.
For all of the innovation introduced by NBN, the number of North American olim has not come close to breaking the 1970 record, when 7,130 people from the US and Canada moved to the Jewish state, basking in the glory of its victory in the Six Day War. It is also far from hitting the target of 10,000 olim a year by 2015 set by Oberman in a 2010 interview with the Post.
Nonetheless, Oberman, who made aliya from Australia in the 1970s, has still not given up on reaching that ambitious goal.
“That figure is still feasible,” he said on Thursday.
He said that while NBN is not satisfied with the number of olim coming from North America, he is confident the figures will grow due to a “snowball effect.”
“Many of those coming now are friends and family of those who already came, so we are looking for higher numbers in the near future,” he said.
And they're still waiting. Just check the numbers.
For the last year available, 3074 people made aliyah from the United States, as opposed to 3,187 the year before (2011), a three percent decrease. This year, the numbers seem to be near the previous two years, meaning that the Aliyah rates from the U.S. have not risen at all over the past few years, despite the inroads that Nefesh B'nefesh has made across America - and a massive recession in the United States that coincided with an economic boom in the Holy Land. If it really was about the money, then the numbers should have mushroomed over the past few years, and they did not.
Even Rabbi Fass, the founder of an organization devoted to Aliyah, when speaking to graduates of Yeshiva felt the need to temper his pro-aliyah talk by saying that his message, "Does not mean that you all have to live in Israel...although that would be magnificent. It means that at least you should all 'Live Israel." Et tu, Rav Yehoshua? Why not say it like it is? Why not say what you really think? Of course you think that they all should move to Israel! Why not say it?
The truth is, we don't say it anymore be people don't want to hear it.
Everyone now knows about Aliyah. They've watched the videos and seen the speeches, and they're still not coming. (The most fascinating aspect of the numbers to me is the breakdown by family. Each year, of the 3,000 olim coming from the United States, almost half of them are young single. This makes sense, I guess. It's much easier to come when you're young and single than when you're older with a family.)
I completely identify with his palpable frustration. I felt precisely the same way after returning home from a month-long visit to the states. Nothing makes you more frustrated about American Jewry's aliyah apathy than a visit to your family - and their desire to talk about anything but aliyah. It's hard enough to be so far away from family. It's even harder knowing that due to tuition expenses and the generally high cost of day school tuition, you aren't going to really be seeing any of them in a meaningful way for years, if not decades.
"But there's Nefesh B'nefesh! And your kids will do fine! And you'll find a job, and be happy!" I say in so many words.
"We know," they answer, in so many words. "So can you please stop bugging us, and just let us enjoy your visit?"
Sure. Fine. Whatever.

I guess I shouldn't be that surprised. After all, Moshe Rabbeinu himself alludes to the phenomenon of Aliyah Apathy - at least according to Rashi. I'll explain.
Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that in the end, after all the suffering of the Tochecha, we'll finally "return to our hearts," repent, and wish to return to God. When that happens, Moshe promises,
וְשָׁב ה' אֱלֹקיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה' אֱלֹקיךָ, שָׁמָּה.
that then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the peoples, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee.
Rashi and the Midrash wonder: היה לו לכתוב והשיב את שבותך - "It should have written "and [God will] bring back [those in] captivity..." Instead the verse seems to imply that God Himself will return with us from the exile to the Promised Land. God doesn't exist in physical space, and if He did, would it not make sense to assume that even though we were exiled, God remained in the Holy Land?
No, Rashi says. That would not be a safe assumption.
רבותינו למדו מכאן שהשכינה כביכול שרויה עם ישראל בצרת גלותם, וכשנגאלין הכתיב גאולה לעצמו, שהוא ישוב עימהם.
From here our Sages derived that it is as if the Shechinah dwells with Israel in the anguish of their exile. And when they are redeemed, God wrote in redemption for Himself, for He dwells with them...
Rashi's first answer conveys the beautiful notion that when God exiled us from His Land, he exiled Himself as well. It is as if God's presence in the Land of Israel cannot be complete and whole without His chosen nation dwelling in the Land together with him.
Rashi adds a second answer:
ועוד יש לומר, שגדול יום קבוץ גליות ובקושי, כאלו הוא עצמו צריך להיות אוחז בידיו ממש איש איש ממקומו, כענין שנאמר (ישעיה כז, יב) ואתם תלקטו לאחד אחד בני ישראל
One can also answer, that great is the day of the ingathering of the exiles - and difficult, as if God Himself must literally hold the hand of each individual person in his place, as it is written, "And you will gather one by one the Children of Israel." 
Rereading Rashi's comments, it dawned on me: There's no one big "day of the ingathering of the exiles." It doesn't happen as a group on one day. Each individual person has his day.
After spending over a month in the United States over the summer, I experienced an interesting emotion. Someone asked me whether I missed living in America, and I cannot say that I did - or do. But I do remember feeling, "I can't believe I actually picked my family up and moved halfway around the world." It's such a huge thing.
Don't misunderstand me. I am overjoyed that we made aliyah. It's the best thing that we ever did for ourselves and our family (and for the Jewish people as well). But it was by no means easy, and looking now from the other side, five years later, gives me a sense that it really was a big deal.
Aliyah is hard. The touchscreens, websites and seminars and red-tape-cutting certainly do lighten the burden. But they cannot change the essence of the act.
This, I think, is what Rashi refers to when he says that God will hold the hand of each and every Oleh. That's pretty much what it takes. And, as every Oleh will tell you, He does indeed take your hand and guide you.
All you need to do is reach out to Him, and you'll find yourself led in the right direction. I guess it's that first step that's the most difficult.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Is Your Tuition Going Down? I'm Still Waiting.

Was the mission
really accomplished?
While in America you've heard stories about free day school tuition in Israel - that's true basically for elementary school. (OK - it's a few hundred shekel per kid a year, which isn't nothing. But after shelling out thousands, a few hundred shekel seems manageable.) The wheels fall off the bus when you get to high school, which can cost anywhere from 10,000 shekel a year for normal school with no dorm, up to anywhere from 18,000 to 25,000 shekel per year for full dorm. (Again, I know what you Americans are thinking. But remember that we're paid in shekels as well.) This is such a critical issue, that many of us voted specifically for the Bayit Hayehudi over this issue. Actually, I can't speak for anyone else. I voted for them over this issue.
Well, "Mission Accomplished!" Thanks to the Bayit Hayehudi, our tuition has decreased! Hooray! At least that's what they're telling me. After all, early in the summer, they declared that they had succeeded in reducing day school tuition by forty (40!) percent! This was hailed as a "historic accomplishment" by Naftali Bennett, who lauded the achievement by saying, "We made a promise, and we kept it."
Today, the back of B'sheva (the free newspaper given out to us Religious Zionist folks all over the country) had a full-page ad proclaiming exactly that. See for yourself:

The ad says: "Tuition has decreased!"
Sorry, it actually says, "TUITION HAS DECREASED...ASK US HOW..."

All of this would be great...if it were true.
You see, the way that they reduced tuition was by sending a letter to each school telling them to: that's right, you guess it, decrease their tuition. Charge less, they said. Cut.
The schools replied: We'd love to charge less. Where would you like us to cut? From Torah hours? From secular subjects? These generally aren't schools that waste a ton of money, and to make such drastic cuts in tuition requires just one thing: money. And the Bayit Hayehudi didn't (or at least hasn't yet) sent any money. (Did I mention that the scheduled cut in every family's monthly social security payment went into effect this week? While Chareidim and Arabs will certainly be hit the hardest, Religious Zionist families tend to be larger than average as well, and will certainly feel a hit.)
I know this because that's exactly what I heard from the finance guy at my son's school. When I called to take care of tuition payments (they take it straight from the bank), I asked him about the cuts that the Bayit Hayehudi promised. He said, "As soon as they send us the money, we'll be able to lower tuition. Right now it's all a bunch of hot air."
Thankfully, the ad offers a hotline to ask questions and learn more. So I called. On the phone, the lady taking the information took my name, my phone number, and my son's yeshiva. Then she asked me for my email address, which I declined to give. She said, "OK, but it will cause a delay in us getting back to you." I wondered aloud why the lack of an email address would cause a delay in picking up the phone. She said, "That's what they told me to say."
Has my tuition gone down yet? Definitely not, despite what the ads say.
Will it?
To be continued...

Update: On Sunday, (the business day after I left a message), I got a call from a nice lady at the Misrad Hachinuch who asked me to send her official forms for how much I paid last year, and how much I'm being charged for the coming year. Seems reasonable, so I called the school to ask them for said forms. So far, I got last year's statement. This year? They're working on it.
 To be continued...

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Changing American Rabbinate: Is it a Good Thing?

The OU's recent cover story on the Changing American Rabbinate got me thinking. After all, I came from that world, and have a great deal of familiarity with it. The article hit many of the important points of the rabbinate: the twenty-four seven nature of the job; the crazy demands; the multifaceted aspects of rabbinic work; the challenges of raising a family under those conditions.
Truth be told, I found this specific issue tremendously daunting. In fact, the rabbi as CEO played a role in our decision to move to Israel.
For chinuch-related reasons, as our eldest son inched ever-closer to high school age, we began thinking about relocating to other communities. While we loved the Akiva community, I am not a proponent of coeducation, and would not consider sending my son hundreds of miles away for high school. (Ironically, in Detroit, there's no "normal" high school - not even a right-wing one run by Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. Looking back, I now realize that I should have tried to start one...)
When we started looking at available shuls that were a "step up" from my position, the only ones available were CEO-type positions of major, metropolitan shuls. Could I have done the job, and done it well? I believe that I could have. But did I want to? In truth, I did not.
I loved the rabbinate because I loved teaching. I loved it because I loved the personal interaction with community members. Of course mega-rabbis need to do those things. But there's also all of the management issues; running from minyan to minyan Shabbat morning, to the point that you don't ever really daven with your ba'alei batim; the endless meetings about administrative issues that are important, but have nothing to do with Torah or spiritual growth.
Finally, if we're being honest, we should also recognize that mega-shuls present certain spiritual challenges as well. Are they really the very best places for spiritual growth? Are minyanim which attract five hundred people more often uplifting - or noisy? The ones that seem to find that balance combining "b'rov am hadrat melech" and a yearning for spirituality seem few and far between.
I didn't apply for any position because we decided to move to Israel. But a large part of that decision was the realization that my skills and abilities matched the shul that I had; and not necessarily the one I would "move up" to.
Over the summer, I davened at my in-laws shul, Ohr Torah in Edison, NJ. While there are three minayanim on a Shabbat morning, it is by no means a mega-shul, and that's not a criticism. Rabbi Yaakov Luban, who has led the shul for decades, is not a "full time" rabbi in the official sense (he has another full-time job at the OU), and the shul does not boast a wide range of shul sponsored classes and programs. Sure, it has daf Yomi, a youth program, shiurim during the week and scholars in residence. But much of that programming comes from a learned lay leadership, and there are numerous other shiurim, programs and events offered by institutions and organizations throughout the Highland Park/Edison community.
Would the shul be a better shul if it produced a glossy full-color program, complete with numerous lunches, trips, scholars and programs? I'm not so sure that it would. It would be a different shul, but not necessarily a better one.
Finally, there's the all-important issue of dwindling community resources. It takes a great deal of money and staffing to offer all of these programs. The rabbi can't do it on his own. He needs an assistant, and an executive director, and support staff to make everything happen.
Does every shul need all that staff? What if we started thinking more creatively, and pooled our resources communally to share programming, but kept our shuls smaller, more modest, and intimate and spiritual places of worship?
In Toronto, Rabbi Jay Kelman runs a program called Torah in Motion, which offers a wide range of scholarly, Torah-oriented programming for his community. Wouldn't more communities benefit from this type of community-wide effort, freeing the shul rabbis to teach, tend to their members' needs, and do the work they always wanted to do?
With dwindling resources, shuls and rabbis should, to my mind, ask themselves honestly: what do we want to be? How big do we really want to grow? Rabbis should ask themselves the very same question: do I really want to be a CEO of a mega-shul? Or, can I work with the shul as I grow older to stay where I am, and augment my salary in other ways - by teaching in a local college, doing chaplaincy, kashrut, public speaking, or a myriad of other options open to the shul rabbi?
That way, when a rabbi feels the need to "grow", he won't first think of leaving a community he loves and a job that he excels at for a "bigger" shul. Rather, he and the shul can remain the "right" size, and grow not in numbers, but in substance.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tavo - The Qualities of a Nation

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo - The Qualities of a Nation

Chazal teach us that the allusions to war in this parshah and Parshat Shoftim allude to our never-ending battle with the yetzer hara. With this in mind, we glean a number of important lessons from the nuance of the text - and especially powerful lessons from Ohr Hachayim and Netivot (Nesivos) Shalom.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Showering over the Upcoming Three Day Yom Tov in Israel

Rafi Goldmeir on his popular Life in Israel blog recently noted some of the reasons why he's not looking forward to the upcoming Three Day Yom Tov.
If you are anything like me, the worst thing about 3-day yomtov is the shower situation.. The next worst thing is probably the food preparation - heating, reheating, cooking, leaving fires on, using timers, etc...
I emailed him wondering why he doesn't shower over Yom Tov, something that I've been doing for a few years now. Truth be told, this isn't a halachah blog, but I feel compelled to write about this, if only to make your Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah bearable - at least if you live in Israel. (Yet another reason to make Aliyah!)
There's no reason for me to write a synopsis of the issues of showering on Yom Tov, as many have already done me the favor. Rabbi Howard Jachter has a great piece on the topic, in which he concludes:
Showering and bathing on Yom Tov remains forbidden except for exceptional circumstances.
Fair enough. Except that it's important to note that the matter is subject to significant debate, and while he is stringent, there are more lenient views - which he himself notes.
More importantly, in Israel there's a very important factor which significantly mitigates a strict ruling. Much of the debate surrounds the issue of cooking on Yom Tov, and whether one may heat up water and bathe one's entire body. In Israel the issue is far less pressing halachically, as we have automatic hot water from the "dud shemesh" - the solar panel water heater in every Israeli home. To get a bit technical for a moment, this makes the hot water "toldat hachamah" (heated from the heat of the sun), and not "toldat ha'or" (heated from a fire), which is less significant halachically.
There's another point as well. Stringency in halachah is often laudable, but every chumrah (and yes, I mean every single one) has a price. If your stringent in one area, you're also being lenient in another. That price might be worth paying, but it's also important to be aware of. In this case, if you're stringent about not bathing on Yom Tov, you will, in the words of Rafi Goldmeir, hate it. In our finicky, spoiled modernity, we very, very rarely go two days without showering, much less three. You begin to feel grimy and dirty. Is that Simchat Yom Tov (a Torah commandment)? Is that the way to achieve Oneg Shabbat (also a Torah commandment)? I personally do not feel that it is.
But don't take my word for it. Take Rav Melamed's word for it. He's the author of the very popular and widely accepted set of books called Peninei Halachah. (My favorite part of Peninei Halachah is that you don't have to buy the books - although we just bought the whole set, because the entire work is available on the Internet. I've heard they're now working on an English translation.) Rav Melamed writes:
מפני חששות שונים המלווים את הרחיצה, רבים נוהגים שלא להתרחץ ביום טוב. אבל בשעת הצורך, מותר להתרחץ במים חמים שהתחממו בערב יום טוב, או במים חמים שהתחממו ביום טוב על ידי דוד שמש או שעון שבת. וזה ההבדל שבין שבת ליום טוב, שבשבת מותר לרחוץ במים פושרים אבל לא חמים, ואילו ביום טוב מותר לרחוץ במים חמים.
ויש מחמירים וסוברים שדין יום טוב כדין שבת, ואסור לרחוץ ביום טוב במים חמים אלא רק בפושרים. ויש מחמירים וסוברים שאסור מדברי חכמים לרחוץ בשבת ויום טוב אף במים פושרים. וכך נוהגים חלק מיוצאי אשכנז. אולם למעשה, העיקר כדעת רוב הפוסקים, שמקילים לרחוץ ביום טוב במים חמים. וכאשר הדבר גורם צער, כגון בראש השנה שנמשך יומיים, או ביום טוב שסמוך לשבת, ראוי לנהוג כמקילים, כדי לכבד את החג ולהתענג בו.
Due to numerous concerns associated with washing, many have the custom not to bathe on Yom Tov. But in a time of need, one is permitted to bathe in hot water that was warmed before Yom Tov, or in hot water that was heated on Yom Tov with a "dud shemesh" or a Shabbat timer. This is a difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov: for on Shabbat one may wash in lukewarm water, but not in hot water, but on Yom Tov one may bathe in hot water.
Some are strict and hold that the ruling of Yom Tov also applies on Shabbat, and one is forbidden to bathe on Yom Tov in hot water, and [may only do so] in lukewarm water. Some are strict and hold that one is rabinically prohibited from bathing on Shabbat and Yom Tov in either hot or lukewarm water. This is the custom of some Ashkenazim. But in practice, the essential [halachah] follows the opinion of the majority of the poskim who are lenient and allow bathing in hot water on Yom Tov. And, when this issue [of not bathing] causes pain, like on a two day holiday like Rosh Hashanah, or on a Yom Tov adjacent to Shabbat, it is appropriate to follow those who are lenient, in order to honor the holiday and enjoy it.
If that's true for a two-day holiday (remember that Rosh Hashanah is the only two-day holiday of the year here in Israel), it's especially true for a three-day Yom Tov.
If you live in Israel, enjoy your shower, and have an enjoyable, clean, fresh Yom Tov!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Teitzei - Fighting the Good Fight

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Teitzei - Fighting the Good Fight

Chazal teach us that the allusions to war in this parshah and Parshat Shoftim allude to our never-ending battle with the yetzer hara. With this in mind, we glean a number of important lessons from the nuance of the text - and especially powerful lessons from Ohr Hachayim and Netivot (Nesivos) Shalom.

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Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Elul During Summer Vacation?

by Rabbi Reuven Spolter
Judaic Studies Lecturer

Every few years, before the Jewish calendar can adjust itself with an additional month during the spring, the summer and winter chagim arrive unusually early. This year, for example, Rosh Hashanah, which "normally" falls towards the end of September, begins this year during the first week of September. Simchat Torah ends before the end of the month! It's an "early" year in every sense.

What difference does that make? Why should the secular date that Rosh Hashanah falls on matter? It shouldn't – but it does, because much of our lives revolve not around the Jewish calendar, but the secular one.

We take our vacations not based on the Jewish calendar, but on the secular one. Our lives are often governed by work and school schedules almost always set not according to the Jewish calendar, but the secular one. For this reason, you may well be on vacation right now because your children are still on vacation, which will continue until the end of the month. This is true not only around the world, but especially in Israel. It's a yearly tradition in August for parents of young children to complain that that they don't know how to go to work while their kids are off from school.

The Jewish calendar cares not for summer vacation or secular school schedules. While we were on vacation, the month of Elul began, ushering in the first pangs of the High Holiday season.  For men who attend shul in the morning (and especially for Sephardim who recite Selichot each night), the Shofar reminds us: Rosh Hashanah is coming. But for many women, and especially for our children who are enjoying their vacation, Elul has yet to enter their consciousness.

Recently, Rav Yona Goodman, head of Chinuch Emuni at Orot, shared a short audio (link here) which got me thinking about this issue. While during a normal year, it might make sense to leave the lion's share of Rosh Hashanah preparation to our kids' schools, this year, when they begin school only a short time before Rosh Hashanah, we must take it upon ourselves to educate our children both about Elul, and about the process of Teshuvah.

When do we do it? Actually, opportunities abound. You can:

  • Talk about Elul around the Shabbat table
  • Do your yearly Tzedakah accounting, sharing with your children how much you "owe"
  • Instead of the beach, use a vacation day for a family chessed project
  • Take a family Tiyyul to a spiritual location (shofar factory?), to put us in the mood for Rosh Hashanah
Rav Yona's words were ringing in my ears as we sat down to dinner last week, and two of my children briefly entered into minor spat over some insignificant slight. While I would normally try and ignore the argument during dinner, I instead noted that it was Rosh Chodesh Elul, and entered into a short discussion around the table about controlling our anger – and that perhaps this could be a goal that we could share as a family during Elul.

In truth, Elul during the summer presents a unique educational opportunity. Because our children learn about the High Holidays in school, a danger exists that they might come to see Teshuvah not as a personal, intimate process, but instead as yet another subject that they cover in school (which is entirely unrelated to their home lives). Nothing could be farther from the truth. The very best way to counter this mistaken perception is to bring Teshuvah into our homes, and make the process of introspection and self-improvement a household affair.

Even when you're on vacation.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Half Shabbos/Shabbat Comes to the Holy Land. Is it Zomet's Fault?

The cover story on texting
on Shabbat
Back in Israel after a relatively long family vacation, I was rifling through the Motzash magazines I missed (that's the magazine put out by Mekor Rishon, the paper most favored by the Religious Zionist community), and noticed that they did a long piece on the phenomenon of otherwise religious people texting on Shabbat.
The piece clearly generated a significant backlash (suggesting that rather than reporting on a phenomenon, Motzash actually helped to create one), because in the next issue the magazine editor defended himself from that charge, and it devoted two pages to responses from Rabbi Yona Goodman, Director of Chinuch Emuni (faith-related education) of the Orot College of Education (where I happen to work) and one from Rav Yisrael Rosen, the director of the Zomet Institute for Halachah and Technology. You can read the articles here.
The Responses of Rabbis Goodman and Rosen
Most American readers will probably not be surprised that the phenomenon has reached the Holy Land. It's been discussed in educational circles for several years now. People have been taking shortcuts (or making personal decisions about keeping certain halachot while ignoring others) since we received the Torah. Is this a phenomenon? Is it more unique than entire sections of the community ignoring halachot about negiah, or tzniut, or watching inappropriate media? Personally, as I too find myself addicted to my smartphone, I relish the fact that I cannot look at it on Shabbat, and feel sorry for people so addicted that they can't put it down for that twenty-four hour period. I also usually leave my phone home when I go to shul during the week; it's one less thing to distract me from the davening itself.
Yet, the conclusion to Rav Rosen's article fascinated me. After noting happily that the article outlines people who text on Shabbat aren't calling to change halachah, but instead don't think that their behavior is that terrible halachically (on the grand scale of things), he offers a fascinating confession:
In truth, as the head of Machon Zomet, which develops "gimmicks" to circumvent the prohibitions of Shabbat, mainly in the areas of electricity and electronics in the areas of medicine, security and similar fields, I ask myself many times if we are not legitimizing disrespect for the laws of Shabbat, specifically with regard to technology. Do we not bear some of the responsibility for the drift towards the slippery slope of tradition of "rounding of corners" in the words of the interviewees in the article?
It's  a great question. Why specifically are we seeing this trend of corner-cutting specifically in the area of technology? Why aren't people cutting corners in the laws of Borer, or carrying outside an eiruv, or any other area of the Laws of Shabbat? Might people think to themselves, even subconsciously, "Well, if a doctor can make a call on his cellphone; if he can type on his nifty computer - then it can't really be that big of a deal, can it?" Sadly, Rav Rosen clears himself of all responsibility.

My answer is that exact opposite is true. The gimmicks of Machon Zomet, limited specifically to cases of great need, testify like a hundred witnesses to the vitality of halachah, which includes allowances to account for necessary circumstances, even if there is no danger of loss of life. The solutions of Zomet do not negate the Halachah. Rather, they highlight the imminent possibilities hidden within it, which say: Up to this point is forbidden, but from this point forward is permitted. Openings such as these are the foundations of the unfrozen Jewish Halachah, a guiding light for legitimate Poskim. However, these boundaries are not given into the hands of each and every individual, but instead [only] to those rabbis and their students spread and involved across the chain of the halachic generations. For the development of Halachah is one of the foundations of our faith.
Read what he wrote again, because it's certainly a mouthful. First and foremost, Rav Rosen's Hebrew is rich and difficult. And I also agree with his underlying conclusion: Halachah isn't static; it does adjust to the needs and developments of time. It's easy to say no, and much, much more difficult to find creative halachic solutions to challenging problems.
Moreover, the new reality of a Jewish country presents challenges that simply must be addressed: What is the meaning of Shabbat in an Israeli hospital? Or army? Or police? The country cannot and will not shut down. Even if you could, would you want to rely on non-Jews to run the country every seventh day? Was that really the ideal given to us at Sinai? (ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת - The nation of Israel shall guard the Shabbat [and have all the goyim do the stuff they can't?]") I don't believe this to be the case.
I firmly believe in the great work of Zomet, and the fascinating approach that they've taken to addressing difficult challenges of fealty to Shabbat in an increasingly technological world. But at the same time, Rav Rosen, "Thou doth protest too much!" ("Testify like a hundred witnesses"? Really?) Can we really say that the leniencies of Zomet have not, to some degree, contributed to this phenomenon of casualness towards observance of halachah in the area of technology? Issuing lenient opinions related to Shabbat and technology is exactly what Zomet does, day in and day out. So it can't just wash its hands when we see negative effects of that work, as important as it is.
What then is Zomet to do?
I believe that Zomet must begin to take the other side of the coin, and speak not only about things that are permitted, but things that are forbidden. It should embark upon a campaign for Shemirat Shabbat - perhaps on an elevated, more stringent level - precisely because so much of our community must invoke the kulot in their lives either as doctors, or soldiers or as members of local security details across the country. After all, it's impossible to measure the effect of permitted use on a person's attitude towards Shabbat. After you've used the computer (with the kosher mouse and keyboard) to manage your yishuv's security cameras, how greatly does that affect your attitude towards the normal, non-Shabbat computer? Is there any way to really answer that question?
Of course half-Shabbat is not Zomet's fault. But it also bears a responsibility to counter the negative affects of its work, so that it ensures that as it finds important workarounds to challenging questions, it isn't undermining the very value of Shemirat Shabbat it works so hard to uphold.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Navigating the Dangers of Western Culture

I'm at the end of a very extended family vacation. During the course of our vacation, we used some of the family time for leisure, and some for enrichment (which was also usually leisurely as well). One morning we awoke in New Jersey looking for something to do, and we decided to head to the Jersey shore to walk the boardwalk, play some games - generally have a nice time. Sounded good.
As soon as we got there, my teenage son took one look around and said, "We can't stay here. The women are walking around in their underwear." I'm not entirely sure what I was thinking, because he was clearly right. I took a short stroll to see if there was any way to get near the boardwalk without over-exposure to the locals - there was not. I immediately agreed with my son, and told him that we would not be staying at the shore. We take great pains to try and help our children choose the media that they watch carefully, and it makes no sense to protect their eyes from a screen and then expose them to the same images in the flesh (literally!) We quickly drove away, and ended up taking a wonderful, impromptu family hike at a nearby nature trail. In the end, it was a far better day than we would have had at the shore.
Several weeks later, we planned a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have an appreciation for late European Impressionist painting, and wanted to expose my children to the amazing collection at the Met. (By the way, the admission prices at the Met are just suggestions. You can pay whatever you want to get in.) Yet, I knew going in that the museum visit would similarly expose my children to multiple images of (a) naked people - mostly women and (b) idolatry. I'm not sure why, but the naked women were more personally troublesome to me than the idolatry, while halachically, the avodah zarah is probably worse. In fact, as soon as we arrived we joined a tour of "master paintings" which took us to a number of Christian oriented paintings that were clearly used for religious purposes. It just so happens that in my daily morning Rambam study I came across the following halachah:
צורות שעשו אותן גויים לנואי, מותרין בהנאה; וצורות שעשו אותן לעבודה זרה, אסורין. 
One may benefit from images that the nations made for beauty; Yet images made for the purpose of idolatry are prohibited.... (Laws of Idolatry 7:8)
As we entered the museum, I described to my sons what they were about to see, and even mentioned the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter about the difference between art and pornography. Still, while Judge Potter might distinguish between the two, I doubt that the Shulchan Aruch makes any such distinction.
As we made our way through the museum, it was exactly as we expected: wonderful paintings, photographs and other works of art, surrounded on all sides by statues, paintings and other works of idolatry, religious symbolism, and naked bodies (of men and women). We eventually did make our way to the French Impressionists, and it was as good as I remembered. I really like those paintings, and especially a famous sunflower painting by Monet (my personal favorite. I know - so cliche - but it really speaks to me).
At some point, my kids had had enough, and as we left the museum, I felt that they at least got a sense that art is something greater than magic markers and crayons, and has the power to convey great beauty. At the same time, I find myself torn: exposure to any form of culture brings a risk, as most "kosher" culture (paintings of sunflowers) is surrounded by a great deal of "treif" culture. Is the opportunity to experience the good worth exposure to the bad? Most rabbis would probably say "no." Knowing this, I still took my family to the Met.
Was it worth it? What were the costs? I'm not sure that I know how to answer this question.