Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Mazal Tov, Mr. Mayor?

When I saw the recent article about the birth of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's first grandchild, it brought mixed emotions. The NY Times reported that,

Ms. Bloomberg and her boyfriend, Ramiro Quintana, welcomed a son, Jasper Michael Brown Quintana, at 4:34 p.m. on Tuesday in New York City. He weighed 7.7 pounds. 
I figure that it's pretty safe to assume that Mr. Quintana is not, in fact Jewish (although these days, you really can't know!). While reading the article, I made a small mental note lamenting yet another Jewish child born to a non-Jewish father. Great news for the mayor, and his daughter and her boyfriend (the issue of marriage not even being an issue any longer). But not such great news for Am Yisrael.
But then, with a quick Google search, I discovered that the Mayor's daughter is herself not Jewish. This left me with two questions:
  1. What does this small news item say about the Jewish people as a whole, given that Mr. Bloomberg is the inagural recipient of the Genesis Prize, (ridiculously dubbed the "Jewish Nobel Prize") bestowed upon his as a model of “exceptional people whose values and achievements will inspire the next generations of Jews.” Really? What if the next generation - and the one after that - isn't Jewish at all? Who is the prize going to inspire?
  2. Secondly, and perhaps tragically, when a Jew celebrates the birth of a non-Jewish grandchild (or child) for that matter, do we wish him Mazal Tov?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vaera - Do We Believe in Miracles?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vaera - Do We Believe in Miracles?

In order to convince Par'oh of his authenticity, Aharon famously cast his staff before the king and it turned into a "tanin" (we discuss the identity of the creature in the shiur). Was Par'oh convinced? Hardly. Should he have been? Do miracles really make us believe in God? Should they?

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

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

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Seeing the Goםd - A Thought for Parshat Va'era

It was almost inevitable.

Even before the streets were plowed, media figures and government officials began calling for an investigation into the "failures" surrounding the recent blizzard that blanketed a good chunk of Israel. True, many people lost power, and thousands were stranded. But, from my point of view, we did pretty well: the roads were shut down appropriately, saving many, many lives; the power company crews worked around the clock to restore and repair power lines that buckled under the heavy weather.

And yet, we complain. Somehow, too often, our intuition is to see the negative, rather than appreciating the positive that exists in every situation. Our task – and responsibility, is to overcome this inclination to kvetch, and to try to appreciate and grow from our struggles. According to Rashi, this is precisely the message that God conveys to Moshe Rabbeinu.

By all accounts, things aren't going well.

Rather than rescuing the Nation of Israel from bondage, Moshe has only made things worse, as the people must now gather the straw necessary to construct the bricks themselves while still fulfilling their old quotas. Recognizing his failure, Moshe complains to God.
God, why did you deal negatively with this people? Why did you send me? Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has made things worse for this people; and You have not saved Your people.' (Shemot 5:22-23)
God responds by telling Moshe that He would, in fact, redeem the nation as promised. But then God adds:

'I am the LORD; and I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, as God Almighty, but by My name Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay I did not make known to them.
What is the nature of this minor lesson about the Avot? What is the difference between the two different names of God, and what is God trying to communicate to Moshe?

Rashi, in his second answer to these questions (on verse 9), quotes the Midrash explaining that God's message was a direct response to Moshe's complaints.

Said God [to Moshe]: I yearn for those who are lost but not forgotten!…Many times I revealed Myself to them, and they never asked me, "What is Your name?" And you said, "[When they ask] what is His name, what should I tell them?"

When Avraham wished to bury Sarah and could not find a grave until he was compelled to purchase one at great expense; When they complained to Yitzchak about the wells that he dug; When Ya'akov was compelled to purchase the plot of the field in order to pitch his tent –they did not wonder about My attributes! And yet you said, "Why have You made things worse?"
It's a chilling message.

How often do we "wonder" about the struggles we endure and immediately lapse into "complaint" mode – whether we're talking about the snow, our jobs, our kids' education?

I believe that these verses also carry the key to unlocking a successful Aliyah. After all, the subject under discussion here is the redemption of the Jewish Nation and their ultimate arrival in the Holy Land.) 

Aliyah, especially for people making Aliyah by choice, represents a degree of hardship.  Moving to the Holy Land requires sacrifice. Sometimes you really do feel like you've taken two steps backwards. And yet, God powerfully relays to Moshe the message that our attitude is critical. We cannot immediately complain when things don't go our way. Rather, we must permit ourselves to see the good, the blessing, and the potential that lies ahead.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

We've Got a Lot of Work to Do - A Tiny Picture from a Secular Public School in Israel

As part of our recruiting program at the Orot College of Education, I run a monthly seminar with a group of young women doing their Sherut Le'umi service with an organization called "Zehut". These young women join "Mercazim L'ha'amakat Yahadut" - "Centers for the Strengthening of Judaism" - and they teach Jewish ideas, themes and lessons in secular public schools across the country. (In fact, this program is so important and significant that the governement recently budgeted an additional 9 million shekel to expand and grow.)
Once a month they come to Orot for a Beit Midrash program, where they have a shiur on a Torah subject, and then a pedagogical lesson geared towards giving them tools to use in the classrooms.
Last night, before I gave my Torah shiur to the second group, I took a few minutes to ask them what lectures they felt would most benefit them in the field. They gave a number of excellent suggestions, including how to identify learning-disabled children, creating appropriate lessons for preschoolers, and understanding basic issues of child psychology. After a brief discussion, I started the shiur.
After the session, a young woman came up to me with a request: "Rabbi, there's another topic I'd like you discuss."
"Sure," I told her. "What is it?"
"What do we do when we're trying to teach Judaism, but some, if not most of the kids in the school are not Jewish?"
"Yes," another girls said to me. "Last week we were discussing the Tenth of Tevet, and a girls raised her hand and said, "I'm not fasting because I'm Christian."
I wasn't really ready for the question, which probably shouldn't have surprised me all that much. Many neighborhoods aren't predominantly Jewish in Israel in many cities, and while I'm sure many schools cater to specific populations, it stands to reason that a good number of public schools cater to the entire population, not just the Jews. Moreover, they encourage multiculturalism and understanding that would seem totally normal in the United States.
"Do you want to see what I mean?" the first girl asked me.
She took out her cellphone, and showed me this picture:

How do you teach Jewish values in a class  - and a public Israeli elementary school with a display like this?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Modern, Tragic Aspect to the Tenth of Tevet

I spent last weekend as a scholar in residence for Tzohar at Congregation Ohav Tzedek in Merrick, Long Island. It was a very, very quick trip. Shabbat morning, I spoke about the fast of Asarah B'Tevet. Here's a part of what I said:

A Postmark from Tel Aviv to the Tenth of Tevet
While most people (hopefully) realize that the we fast on the Tenth of Tevet to commemorate the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in the First Temple Era, there’s an aspect to the Tenth of Tevet – a much more modern aspect, that many Jews are unaware of.
In Israel, the Tenth of Tevet is also known as יום הקדיש הכללי – the day of General Kaddish. (see here too) This is because on the 27th of Kislev, 5709 – in 1948, the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel declared that the fast of the Tenth of Tevet would serve as a commemoration for all those Jews killed in the Shoah who had no one to say Kaddish for them, or whose Yahrtzeit wasn’t known. If you had lost a loved one and didn’t know when they had died or where – or even whether they were buried, this became your Yahrtzeit.
Yet, the story, of course, goes much deeper. The Jewish State was in the midst of a great debate about the identity of the date which would commemorate the Holocaust. The secular community wanted the date to be the 14th of Nissan – the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There’s only one problem with that date; it’s the day before Pesach. (Small problem.) The religious community – including most of the major poskim of the time – wanted there not to be a special, dedicated day at all. They felt that the best, and only day to commemorate the destruction of the Holocaust was Tisha B’av.  So, the Chief Rabbinate hoped that the Tenth of Tevet, which no one really related to anyway (but we still fast on), would become the de facto Yom Hashoah, and serve as a good compromise that everyone could live with.
The Original Chief Rabbinate Proclomation
The effort failed. The Knesset leadership, when it couldn’t have the 14th of Nissan, insisted on having the day at least during the month of Nissan – which it is today. (Israelis refused to have just a Yom Hashoah – a day of Holocaust. They insisted on focusing on the Gvurah – the uprising and the desire to fight back…) Chareidim don’t commemorate Yom Hashoah at all, as they consider it against the Halachah to institute a day of mourning during the month of Nissan. Nor do they mark the Tenth of Tevet as Yom Hakadish Haklali. Only a small fraction of the Religious Zionist community marks the Tenth of Tevet in this way.
Thus, the day that we spend fasting to commemorate the beginning of the destruction of the First Temple has now become a symbol not of our unity, but our inability to agree even on simple thing like the date to recite Kaddish for those who perished in the Holocaust.
We – the Jewish people – are standing at a crossroads today. What will the Jewish State that we leave to our children and grandchildren look like? Will we learn to find a way to create a meaningful balance between the desire for a truly Jewish State – a land enriched and defined by the Jewish values it represents, or will indifference, antagonism and apathy cause the unraveling of the very fiber of what makes Israel so historically, Jewishly unique?

At lunch afterwards, someone pointed out to me that today, educators in the Chaireidi world in America have placed a new emphasis on teaching the Holocaust specifically on the tenth of Tevet. Whatever the impetus for this effort, it's certainly laudible and important. I guess in the end, the rabbanut got its way, at least in Brooklyn.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Chief Rabbinate's Decision to Forbid Visiting the Temple Mount (Again) Really Does Matter

Kipa is reporting that the new Chief Rabbis, Rav David Lau and Rav Yitzchak Yosef, recently reaffirmed the decades-long psak halachah forbidding Jews to ascent to Har Habayit. The reasoning behind the prohibition is beyond the scope of this blog post, but dates back to the time of Rav A"Y Hakohen Kook, who explicitly forbade any efforts to asend to Har Habayit. (I recently heard a shiur from Rav Mordechai Greenberg on the underlying reasoning of Rav Kook, and at some point I'll try and post it. Just not now.)
Here's the psak:

The reaction of many on the left wing of Religious Zionist community will be to yawn, and see this as yet another example of the growing irrelevance of the Chief Rabbinate, who seems to want to reaffirm that we're still living in the past, that nothing has changed, blah blah blah. Moreover, this reaffirmation will do nothing to stop those people who visit Har Habayit from continuing to do so, as they are leaning on solid halachic shoulders which permit visiting very specific areas of the Temple Mount, and feel that their position is based on solid archaeological studies.
So, if non-religious people were going anyway, and religious people were relying on a different psak, why then did the Chief Rabbis issue their "reaffirmation"? Does it really matter?
Actually, it does matter a great deal.
For those following Knesset committee proceedings, for months the Knesset has been discussing the issue of the rights of Jews to pray on Har Habayit. (If you're looking to waste a couple of fun minutes, you can watch MK Ahmed Tibi freak out at one of these meetings - something he does quite regularly.) Legally, Jews are supposedly allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, but practically, the police prevent people from doing so, and arrest anyone who makes any type of Jewish religious declaration whatsoever. After Rabbi Yehuda Glick was banned from visiting and leading groups to Har Habayit, he later learned that the "crime" he committed which got him banned was the recititation of the Prayer for the State of Israel and the Prayer for the Safety of the Soldiers of the IDF. Those provocative acts got him on the "Do-Not-Visit-Temple-Mount" list, which led him to begin a hunger strike, which led the police to back down for now, and the saga continues.
Not surprisingly, with the recent resurgence of the Religious Zionist Bayit Hayehudi, the issue of the freedom of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount has taken on greater significance in the halls of the Knesset. In the committee meetings, Rav Eli Ben Dahan, the Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, asked the Chief Rabbis to change the official stance on the law, in order to allow his office to proceed with the proposed legislation. At the same time, he made it clear that while he personally doesn't think that it's a problem for Jews to visit and pray on the Temple Mount, he would not support pushing legislation to that effect against the wishes of the Chief Rabbis. So, while Jews continue to visit and silently pray on the Temple Mount (under the watchful eye of the police), they have really been hoping for legislation that would force the police to stop harrassing them and allow them to pray in peace (at least until the Arabs started rioting). Now, with the recent reaffirmation of the Chief Rabbis, the Bayit Hayehudi will not act against their will and push legislation they feel is against halachah (although in truth, the Chief Rabbis were also against the Tzohar law).
So don't expect Chabad to open a shtiebel and tefillin stand on Har Habayit anytime soon.