Thursday, December 31, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot - Bringing Children into a World of Misery

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot - Bringing Children into a World of Misery

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the slavery in Egypt is the fact that Jews continued to have children over the decades of slavery. Why did they continue to reproduce? According to the Midrash, they almost didn't want to, and we almost did our job for Paroh. Along the way, we also discuss how Paroh thought that his plan to kill Jewish boys would work, when things don't really seem to add up.

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Conversion Standards, and the Debate about Private Conversion Courts in Israel Today

Over the past several months, the media in Israel has made a great deal of noise about the private conversion court convened by Rav Nachum RabinovitchIt seems clear to me that there's a great misconception about how gerut takes place here, and the standards for conversion. Truth be told, I myself did not really understand the full picture until I heard a talk from Rav Yisrael Rosen of Tzomet during a Yom Iyyun at my son's yeshiva. Rav Rosen has been intimately involved in the Rabbanut Conversion Courts for many years.

Rav Rosen speaking at the Yom Iyyun in Ma'aleh Adumim
First we must ask ourselves: why is there such a thing as a conversion court at all? Why not just go to the regular Beit Din? With the first waves of aliyah from the former Soviet Union, it became clear that the normal batei din were not equipped or willing to handle the kinds of cases that were coming before them. Applying the regularly accepted (and rather stringent) standards that are common in Chutz L'aretz made the process impossible, and a dayyan who wished to be lenient would be criticized by his colleagues. Ask a dayyan today from the "regular" battei din - from any stripe - RZ, Chareidi, etc - about the giyyurim and they'll immediately say: "I don't have anything to do with giyyur." These battei din are a separate entity, not related to the Beit Din structure. The only official connection that they have is that they require the Chief Rabbi's signature to be acceptable in the secular context of the State of Israel.

Rav Rosen explained that in the early 90's, Rav Bakshi Doron approached a number of leading RZ rabbis asking them to deal with the giyyur issue. They established a beit din system as well as a framework of machonei giyyur - essentially giyyur seminaries - aimed at training potential candidates for conversion. These rabbis explicitly view these conversions not only in a halachic framework, but also in an ideological framework, hand in hand with the Religious Zionist view of the State itself. He quoted one explanation that the אובדים מארץ מצרים would be non-Jews who were lost to their ancestry over time, and would one day return the Land.

For this reason, these Batei Din do not see their role as adversarial to the potential convert. They never ask any "gotcha" questions, and see themselves as guides, looking to help people who wish to join the Jewish nation. A very high percentage - well over 90 percent - of the candidates who apply to convert are in fact converted in the framework of the conversion courts. He explained that they're not looking to "catch" anyone, and if someone declares the intention to keep the mitzvot, then they take them at their word. 

This is the basis for most of the conversions taking place in the framework of the rabbinate. The situation is even more "lenient" (for lack of a better word) in the IDF, where candidates in the Netiv program study a three-month program about Judiasm before conversion. It is common knowledge that a very significant percentage of these converts do not keep Shabbat or kashrut in any normative manner. This is not to say that they don't keep mitzvot. But we would not consider them Orthodox. Rav Rosen actually lamented that not enough people convert in Netiv, where they're easy to target as candidates for giyyur, as they're stuck in the army anyway.

Let me be clear: the current standards already in place for decades are far, far below the standards of any Beit Din in the United States that I am familiar with - and intentionally so. The entire network of Batei Din for giyyur was created specifically to encourage as many Russians as possible to convert. This also explains the entirely legitimate criticism of Rav Sherman (from the regular battei din) and many of his chareidi and non-chareidi colleagues, who disagree entirely with the methodology and ideology that created the batei din l'giyyur, and question their validity. The only reason these many thousands of conversions are accepted today is because Rav Ovadya Yosef accepted them and was willing to sign the conversion certificates.

The new conversion court in session
When Rav Rabinovitch ruled that in his opinion a beit din can convert a minor child despite the fact that his mother is not a Jew nor converting herself, he wasn't deviating from accepted halachic norms in the Beit Din system. The issue isn't that controversial, ironically. Even Rav Moshe allowed the practice. (In an interesting twist, Rav Kook explicitly forbade such conversions.) But Rav Rabinovitch is deviating from the Rabbanut policy, one that Rav Yitzchak Yosef doesn't accept. Rav Rosen and Rav Druckman actually agree halachically with Rav Rabinovitch's psak. They just don't think that he should attempt to implement it with a private Beit Din because of the legal ramifications here in Israel. Essentially they're afraid that if the Israeli Supreme Court allows Rav Rabinovitch's (and Rav Riskin's) unlicensed conversions, what's to stop a Conservative Beit Din from doing its own conversions that would then have to be accepted by the State? (Good question. Answer: nothing.) 

To sum up: The new private Beit Din isn't a geirut of a different standard than the current rabbinate standard. That ship sailed long ago. It's a political fight about power and control (as is almost always the case), with the current Chief Rabbi (Rav Yosef) unwilling to sign on giyyurim that Rav Rabinovitch feel's are a critical and relatively simple tool - giyyur kattan - for addressing an ongoing demographic problem in the Jewish State.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Conversations We're Not Having: Racism and Rage

This week, a firestorm erupted in Israel surrounding a wedding celebration during which teenagers glorified the murder of an infant, dancing with knives, guns, mock Molotov cocktails, and most shockingly, mock-stabbing the picture of an Arab child killed along with her parents in a firebombing of the family home several months ago. (The government has not, as of yet, definitively proved who perpetrated this terrible crime.) These youths in Israel are known as נער הגבעות - "hilltop youth" - who advocate an extreme right-wing ideology devoted to ארץ ישראל השלמה - Jewish control over the entire Land of Israel.

With the release of the videos, political, government and religious leaders from every stream rushed to condemn this phenomenon. The left saw this as a golden opportunity to condemn the right - and specifically the religious community. But even right-wing rabbis and politicians have loudly proclaimed: "This isn't us! This doesn't represent our community!"

I attended a talk at my son's yeshiva during which the Rosh Yeshiva quoted an anonymous acquaintance who he described as "a leading, well-known right-wing rabbinic leader." He said that the rabbi said to him, "These kids don't even listen to me! You can't talk to them."

All of the rabbinic declarations seem hollow to me. Are we really to believe that this group of teenagers somehow created themselves? They made up their own ideology, without a leader or a teacher?  There's no talking to them, and they don't listen to us? I think that they're listening to their rabbis and their teachers, and getting a clear message. I'm not suggesting, God forbid, that any rabbi glorifies murder. But they are hearing a steady message that's very easy to misinterpret and translate into an extremist view that justifies horrible acts.

Take the following example from a video report of the wedding of the child of Rabbi Benjy Gopstein, a well-known leading right-wing rabbi. He told the reporter that there are no Arabs at his weddings - only Jewish employees. What if an Arab waiter came to serve food?

Let's just say that if there was an Arab waiter here,
he wouldn't serve the food.
When asked what he meant by this, he said:

It would seem to me that he would be looking
for the closest hospital.
Really? An Arab worker comes to serve food at the wedding, and the crowd of young people would beat him until he needed hospitalization?

This is an extreme example, but just one of the many ways that many rabbis preach racist values within the religious community. Hatred for the Arab population isn't something that's explicitly advocated. Rather, it's an insidious assumption and underlying value communicated in numerous ways. How many rabbis condemned Rabbi Gopstein for saying these and so other hateful comments? Can we then be surprised if the children who follow him translate his words into actions? Of course he would never advocate throwing a firebomb into a house. But would it be so difficult to imagine a teenager, hearing him advocate beating up an Arab waiter, then deciding to take action on his own?

"They're not listening to me?" Sorry rabbi, I think that they're hearing you loud and clear.

At the same time, these teens are expressing an emotion that's natural, normal and expected. Yesterday (Dec. 23, 2015), we read about three more attempted murders against innocent Jews. Two days ago, two men were murdered (one by multiple stabbings, and one in the crossfire) when two Arabs attacked them without provocation.
Another death. Another shiva. More posts of outrage on Facebook. 
Ho hum. 
It just makes you angry. Furious.
Where's the anger? Where is the rage? What are we doing about this? 
We have become so inured, so accustomed to the daily murder of Jews in Israel that we're not longer outraged. In fact, we no longer react with any emotion at all, because you simply cannot allow yourself to become upset and angry on a daily basis. It's just not healthy.
So we do nothing.
Teenagers, full of vitality, idealism and passion, don't understand. They're outraged! They're angry! And they're right! This situation is outrageous. The adults honestly don't know what to do about it. They see videos featuring thousands of Arabs dancing with knives, promoting the murder of men, women and children. They see a society that glorifies those murders, and encourages children to perpetrate more murder of innocents. And they wonder: why doesn't any do anything? Why doesn't anyone stop this madness? These are very good questions, to which we - the adults - don't have good answers.

Let leave the "hilltop youth" aside for a moment - even though they're all of our children. What about the rest of the kids: those growing up today in Yad Binyamin, or Jerusalem, or Petach Tikvah. They live with the ramifications of terrorism every day. It affects they way they take the bus to school; how they hang out at the mall; it's what their parents talk about around them all the time. It's easy to criticize "racist" Israelis (and settlers) from the comfort of the United States, or the relative security of Yad Binyamin (although truthfully, there's no way of really securing anywhere in Israel totally). How do you teach young people, who grow up experiencing hatred every day not to hate back? How do you combat hate when your experience tells you that you are hated - and hunted - and there are practically no voices from within the Arab world speaking out against that hatred?

Discussing the issue of why rabbis don't speak out against racism against Arabs (and all too often actively promote it), my wife asked me: "How do you know that most rabbis agree with you? Don't you think that deep down, they look at you as a liberal American, raised with your liberal values? Perhaps rabbis don't speak out against Benjy Gopstein because on some level, they agree with him?

I have no idea how to even begin to answer these questions.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Parshat Vayigash - the Wagons of Yosef

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayigash - the Wagons of Yosef

According to the Midrash, Yosef specifically sent wagons to pick up his father in Cana'an, but also to send him a secret message. What was the nature of that message? Did Yaakov get the message? Do we?

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Parshat Miketz - Turning Dreams into Reality

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Miketz - Turning Dreams into Reality

When dealing with global tragedy and struggle, the world often attempts to address the crisis without addressing the underlying problem that generated the crisis. We all know about the famine in Egypt. Yet, have we ever wondered why there was a famine at all? Yosef did. And what he did to address that problem may surprise you. We also address a beautiful thought about Chunkah from the Maharal, talk about the problem in addressing the Agunah crisis, and finally offer my solution for the battle of the West vs. ISIS. All in less than an hour.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Just Say No! to Sufganiyot

This morning I found myself at Roladin working (waiting for my car to finished being serviced), all the while staring at the counter of sufganiyot staring me in the face. I'm just going to come out and say it: I don't get the whole sufganiyot thing. Really, I don't.

Don't get me wrong. I've got a sweet tooth so bad that I have to go cold turkey to stay away from sweets. But the Jelly Doughnut Month-long madness that seems to take over Israel leaves me bewildered. Do people really think these things are so good? Why the mounds of different types of candy on top? If I really wanted a shot of caramel liquor, do you think that I'd want it on top of a day-old piece of fried dough filled with artificially flavored jelly? If people like sufganiyot some much, why don't they eat them during the rest of the year? We're the victims of a mass marketing machine that has learned to co-opt Jewish tradition in the name of gluttony and corporate profits! (OK, that was a bit over the top, but you get the point).

If you want to enjoy sufganiyot, make a batch at home. Smear on some fruit preserves, and eat them fresh. Once over the duration of the chag. Your acid reflux and your waistline will thank you.

Chanukah Sameach!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Audio Shiur - Parshat Vayishlach - Yaakov's Fears and Our Own

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayishlach - Yaakov's Fears and Our Own

Why would Ya'akov fear Eisav if God promised his well-being? We discuss a number of possible answers, as well as an amazing comment of Abrabanel which carries great significance for us dealing with terrorism especially in Israel.

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Come to Jerusalem for Dinner

We drove last night to Yerushalayim to meet with friends for dinner last night, and decided to meet at Burgers Bar on Yaffo - near the Midrachov. We ended up at Cafe Hillel next door, but I was truly surprised at just how few people were out enjoying a really lovely Thursday night.
I was expecting the normal crowds - normally you have to fight your way into Burgers Bar to order your food and wait for a table to clear. Last night - plenty of empty tables. So come to Israel and buy dinner. The restaurants, and the Holy City miss you.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayera - Tzedakah and Mishpat

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayera - Tzedakah and Mishpat

Avraham is included in the decision to destroy Sodom because he will instruct his descendants to be people of Tzedaka and Mishpat. Yet, these two values can often contradict, especially in the lives of Avraham and the people of Sodom - and in our lives as well.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Lech Lecha - Does Prayer and Study Prevent Attacks? The Line Between Action and Faith

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Lech Lecha - Does Prayer and Study Prevent Attacks? The Line Between Action and Faith

The attached video, currently making the rounds of Facebook, features Rav Uri Sharki, a well-known Religious Zionist rabbi, essentially ridiculing the idea that prayer and Torah study are the appropriate response to the current wave of terrorist attacks plaguing Israel. Instead, he suggests learning how to fight properly, and the Israeli government imposing its will on those who would do us harm. Is Rav Sharki correct? What is the role of faith in difficult times? In the shiur, we look at two episodes where Avram chose action over faith, and how different commentaries interpret and criticize Avram's actions.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Noach - Murder and Tzelem Elokim

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Noach - Murder and Tzelem Elokim

The prohibition against murder, one the seven Mitzvot commanded of all humanity, has been on our minds here in Israel in recent weeks. The Torah specifically connects the commandment to the notion that we are all created "Bzelem Elokim" - in God's image. This week, we discuss whether there was a moral and legal code before the time of Noach, and how we can cope and grow during such a challenging time.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Our Enemies Give Us Strength

A display set up in the lobby at the Orot College of
Education, where I work. The sign reads
עם ישראל לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה - "The Nation of Israel is not
afraid of a long road..."
Don’t let anyone fool you.

Things are not "business as usual." Times are very tense across the country, as people struggle to commute to work all the while looking over their shoulder, wondering whether – and from where – the next attack will come.

Our children returned to school (away from home) this past Sunday, which required that they travel through busy public areas. Every parent breathes a sigh of relief when each child sends that text that they've arrived and all is well.

A few things to remember: Despite all of the suffering, the bravery and strength of the Israeli people amaze me. When I watch the videos of the attacks or immediate aftermath (and these videos are all over the internet), I'm struck at how not only police, but ordinary citizens run towards the attacker. There's a strong realization that we're all in this together. The victim is a friend, neighbor, cousin, cousin of a cousin. Every victim is family, and we're all called to fight.

Secondly, I believe that it's useful to keep things in proportion and remember the terrible scale of the last wave of attacks that took place fourteen years ago. Today, due to incredible work of the security services, combined with tremendous Yad Hashem, what were once brutal attacks with many casualties are now far, far less damaging. This doesn't minimize the suffering of the victims of terror in any way. But it's important to recognize this fact and give thanks that things are what they are.

What our enemies never seem to realize is that waves of terror only serve to strengthen the resolve of the Jewish people. They serve to unite us and bind us together. We are at our weakest during long periods of quiet. We begin to bicker about politics and back-room deals and inter-religious squabbles and budget battles. We quickly forget our common goals, and attack those closest to us for the smallest slight. These waves of attacks help hammer home the obvious reality that history never changes: The enemies of Israel don't care if you're a "settler" from Har Brachah or a secular Jew from Afula or a Hareidi from Yerushalayim; they're trying to kill Jews, for no reason other than that. What other reason would there be?

Moreover, for every victim of a terrorist act, many hundreds of thousands more gain strength and a sense of connection to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Precisely because it's a frightening time, everyday acts carry greater meaning and impact. A visit to the grocery store becomes an act of patriotism, as does a bus trip to school and dinner with friends in a restaurant. Every act of sacrifice – and sometimes that's as simple as commuting home –strengthens the faith and resolve of each citizen who refuses to stay home and carries on as if everything was normal. Even when it is not.

One day – tomorrow, in a week, a month – whenever it is, this Wave of Terror will end. And, as always, our enemies will have exacted a terrible toll. But they will also have made us a stronger, more resilient, more faithful, more interconnected Am Yisrael in the process.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Using Fruit of Shemittah for the Four Minim - Yad Binyamin Edition

I've noticed a bit of an uptick in social media regarding the use of Shemittah fruit for the Four Minim this year (since the fruit in Israel are Shemttah). I strongly encourage that my chu"l friends make a point of purchasing Israeli produce through the Otzar Beit Din system, thereby supporting Israeli farmers who are having a difficult enough time getting through Shemittah. (See Rabbi Daneil Korobkin's letter here.)
Here in Israel, the point is moot: all the fruit here is Kedushat Sheviit.
But this year, my etrog is really Kedushat Sheviit. I know this because I picked it myself.
Yesterday morning, I was running in the fields near Beit Chilkiyah (which is a Chareidi argricultural yishuv right next door to Yad Binyamin), and I noticed that a gate which is normally closed was instead open). So I took a look, and found myself in an Etrog tree orchard open to the public for Shemittah. The trees grew in such a way that they formed a canopy over you, so as I walked down the road it felt like I was walking in an enclosed Etrog forest. Better still, the owners of the fields who are meticulously observing Shemittah left clippers for visitors to cut Etrogim, asking only that we take care not to harm the trees.
I didn't have anything to carry etrogim with me, and I wanted to share the experience with the family, so I brought Rena, Leah and Moriyah with me back to the field later in the day. Here are some pictures.
While someone told me that we got there very late in the season, I managed to find a really lovely etrog that I will use on Sukkot. To me, there's nothing more hadar - beautiful, than using an etrog of shemittah that I merited to pick myself in the field five minutes from my home.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Parshat Netzavim - Lo Bashamayim Hee - Seven Lessons to Prepare for Rosh Hashanah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Netzavim - Lo Bashamayim Hee - Seven Lessons to Prepare for Rosh Hashanah

The phrase "Lo Bashamayim Hee" carries critical lessons, especially as we approach Rosh Hashanah. In this shiur, we discuss some of the challenges of Teshuvah and some suggested ways of approaching the Yamim Noraim using Lo Bashamayim Hee as a guide.

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Monday, September 7, 2015

The Slog of Selichot

My good friend Rabbi David Brofsky shared a Facebook post defending Selichot:
There’s a lot of complaining this time of year- Selichot.
First, it’s a significant addition to the three daily tefillot, and it’s a considerable hit to one’s sleeping schedule, either early in the morning or at night. Waking up at ashmoret ha-boker is a beautiful idea. As an idea.
Second, they are rather difficult to understand. At least fully.
The Shulchan Arukh (OC 1:4) writes טוב מעט תחנונים בכוונה, מהרבות בלא כוונה (better few supplications with concentration than much without concentration). R. Hutner adapted this statement: טוב מעט בלי כוונה מהרבה בלי כוונה. In fact, in Yeshivat Chaim Berlin (and Pachad Yitzchak in Israel), I have heard that they say abridged selichot. I full identify with this sentiment: I often say a shorter, abridged Tachanun (Mon and Thurs), Pesukei De-Zimra, Kinot and of course, Zkhor Berit (Erev RH).
But, I also have to say the following: I enjoy Selichot. I find them meaningful. I like saying (yelling?) the first part ('לך ה and שומע תפילה). I enjoy finding the rhythm in the different selichot, even if I don’t always fully understand the meaning. I say the 13 midot of rachamim with great awe and trepidation, as I recall the image of God revealing them to Moshe, as the key to forgiveness. I like the tune of the final pizmon, and how the sheliach tzibbur and the tzibbur say each part. Yes, and I love rushing through the zkhor rachamekha, hoping to say ve-havi’otim before the sheliach tzibur says shema koleinu. Shema Koleinu! Hashiveinu! Al tashlikheinu! How can one not find meaning in a good confession (viduy)? And racing through the final aneinus matches the Rav’s description of “tze’aka”- a prayer said in a time of crisis - spiritual crisis.
Finally, the voices and tunes of decades of ba’alei tefila are in my head; R. Amital’s deep yet haunting tefillot ring in my ears (see minute 28 below..).
There is meaning in tradition. There is meaning in structure. There is meaning in years and years of melodies. And there is meaning in oscillating between slow and fast, and whispering and screaming, while the voices of great baalei tefilla echo in one’s ears. I wouldn’t trade that for all the uplifting “hashiveinu”s and funky “rachamana”s out there.
Rabbi Brofsky is right. Selichot today has a "bad name." Today it's Carlbach Selichot. Here in Israel, Tours of Jerusalem end with a recitation of Selichot somewhere in the Old City. It's not enough to pray; Selichot needs to be an experience.

I agree with everything that Rabbi Brofsky wrote, except I really don't usually experience Selichot as uplifting and passionate. Nor, really, do I expect them to be.  
In theory, it would be great if I had a passionate religious experience every time I pray. But I don't - far from it. Nor do I think it's reasonable to have that expectation. Human nature is such that we experience rhythms in life - highs and lows, and I believe the expectation of a perpetual spiritual high is unreasonable, unrealistic, and unfair to ourselves. 

This same rule applies to the recitation of Selichot. I don't get much out of Selichot (less so after midnight, which is why I say the Sunday morning Selichot on Sunday morning, at not at 12:30am) Despite the lack of such a high, I still make a concerted effort to say Selichot (albeit too fast) as I think that they're very important even without that spiritual high. This is because to me Selichot is a process building towards the end goal of Yom Kippur. 

I see Selichot both as an intentional slog, an extra effort we make around the Yamim Noraim, and also a way to gradually move towards the Tefillot on Yom Kippur. If a person experiences Yom Kippur on the first night of Selichot, what then can he expect to have left later on? During the waning moments of Yom Kippur, I always think of - and in truth feel bad for - the people who don't say Selichot leading up to Rosh Hashanah and during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. At that time, as we're piercing the heavens with the 13 Middot of Rachamim, we pause between each volley for a brief recitation, a respite of sort, most of which recall Selichot we have recited over the past weeks.Each stanza takes me back to those early morning Selichot, and gives me a bit more strength to push forward. Neilah - like everything else is life - means so much less if you didn't put in the time during the weeks of Selichot, steadily building momentum with each passing day.

I don't for a minute think that my Selichot this morning were Neilah. Nor do I think they should be. Selichot are a slog. But to my mind, that just how they're supposed to be.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

How Arye Deri Might Force the Chief Rabbinate to Recognize Rav Rabinovitch's Conversions

My favorite political writer in Israel, Zev Kam, floated a fascinating theory in last week's Mekor Rishon suggesting that the individual who might be most responsible for the official acceptance of the conversions performed by the new conversion Beit Din of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch might be none other than Arye Machlouf Deri, head of Shas.

Deri? you ask. He's the head of a Hareidi party, and a devoted follow of Rav Ovadia Yosef zt"l. Rav Ovadya's son, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rav Yitzchak Yosef, recently criticized the Beit Din by asserting that,
"They want to convert children who will eat pork and violate the Shabbat. This represents a falsification of the words of Torah, even according to Rav Kook and Rav Yisraeli. These conversions are forbidden." 
[A short digression on Rav Yosef's comments: On the first point there is no debate. The Beit Din does not require that the children commit to an Orthodox lifestyle. On the second point, Rav Rabinovitch doesn't need my defense. Yet, I note with interest Rav Yosef's choice of words about the conversions themselves. He could have said that they are illegitimate and will never be recognized. He did not say that. He said, הגיורים האלו אסורים, meaning that in his mind, it is forbidden for a rabbi to perform such a conversion. What would the halachic status of a person converted by a recognized rabbi? Rav Yosef did not answer that question. End digression.]

Yes, Deri.

How would Deri coerce the Chief Rabbinate to accept and legitimate these conversions? He'd do it, unintentionally, through the magical world of Israeli politics. This is because while Deri himself would never suggest accepting these conversions, given the proper incentive, Prime Minister Netanyahu would. Why in the world would Bibi want to get himself involved in this fight? Because he needs a gas deal, and he needs it sooner rather than later.

The Gas Deal
Jews around the world, and especially in Israel, rejoiced when we learned of the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in Israeli waters in the Mediterranean Sea. The first field, Tamar, is estimated to have 7.9 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's a lot. Discovered in 2009, the field came online and began producing gas in 2013. Just to get a sense of the crazy Israeli politics involved: Tamar is directly west of Haifa, but due to lawsuits and holdups in the Supreme Court, it turned out to be easier to just pipe the gas under the sea all the way to Ashkelon, one hundred miles to the south. (And if you drive north today on Road 6, you'll see crews laying pipeline to carry natural gas north from Ashkelon to the utility plants in the north. Crazy.)

Tamar turned out to be an appetizer for the main meal, as Noble Energy announced that it discovered another field they called Leviathon, which is estimated to contain 16 trillion cubic feet of gas (more that a lot; much more). Yet, before the company can begin producing gas, the government must sign off on the agreement that it made with the company to buy the gas. This turns out to be incredibly complicated. The general sense that I get is that right-wing parties want to sign the deal, while left-wing parties think that the government should hold off and demand a better deal from the fatcat tycoons who are getting filthy rich by selling gas that belongs to the Israeli public. Both are probably right. It's very confusing, which is why you're probably not even reading this paragraph, and skipped to the next heading when you read the words, "The Gas Deal"

Deri's Role
How does Deri fit into all of this? Well it turns out that in order to trigger the deal already approved by the Cabinet, it must be certified by the government's Antitrust Commissioner, ensuring that contracts to do not give monopolistic rights to specific companies. (This deal does seem to have all the markings of a monopoly). Yet, like so many Israeli laws, this one also has a loophole. Article 52 of the Antitrust law states that in cases of national security or foreign policy concerns, the Economy Minister (Deri) could sign a waiver that would circumvent the antitrust commissioner's objections. In other words, Bibi had a "Get out of jail free" card for his gas deal: Arye Deri. All Deri had to do was sign the papers, the gas deal would have gone through, the companies would have gotten rich, and the Israeli public would have enjoyed a windfall from the taxes on that gas (albeit less than they should get, but who's asking?)

Deri refused to sign the deal. Not once, but twice. It's clear that if Bibi thought for a moment that Deri wouldn't sign off, he never, ever, ever would have made Deri the Economy Minister. Never. But that's water under the bridge. And, on top of it all, the current Antitrust commissioner just resigned, and Deri has to find someone else to take the job. That person will then need to reexamine the whole agreement, create a commission to conduct an inquiry - a huge tumult. It will take months, if not years for this gas deal to go through. And, Egypt just found an even bigger gas field in its waters.

Bibi wants this gas deal. Badly.

How do you get approval for the deal if you can't get Deri - who you appointed as your Economy Minister - in your coalition, to sign the papers? Well, you can bring it to the Knesset for a vote, and approve it officially, without the need for loopholes.

There's only one problem: Bibi's coalition is 61 out of 120 seats - razor thin - and he'll never get the vote passed with that margin. He needs breathing room, and there's only one natural place for him to turn: Avigdor Lieberman.

The Lieberman Factor
Lieberman surprised the political pundits when he announced that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would not be joining the government this year. He can change his mind at any time, given the proper incentive. In fact, it has been widely assumed that he would eventually join the government, as Bibi himself never actually filled the post of Foreign Minister (keeping it for himself, and placing Tzipi Hotoveli as Assistant Foreign Minister) which he seems to be saving for Lieberman. What might Lieberman want in order to enter the government? I assume that he'll want a whole host of things, but included in the list might very well be the issue of conversions.

Lieberman represents an almost exclusive constituency from the former Soviet Union, and for them, the issue of conversions really is important, no so much because they want to convert, but more because those who are not halachically Jewish can't marry legally in Israel, and feel like second-class citizens. This is a symbolic issue that's very important to Lieberman's community, even if practically it won't make that much of a difference.

Last month, Lieberman held a very public meeting with Tzohar Chairman Rav David Stav in order to discuss ways to promote the acceptance of the conversions promoted by the new Beit Din. A Hareidi website reported that,
"Lieberman and Rav Stav agreed that the Yirsrael Beiteinu party will work with the relevant parties in the government and the Chief Rabbinate, in order to find a way to allow these alternative Batei Din to operate, with official recognition for the conversions performed."
Lieberman further threatened that if the conversions were not recognized, his party would once again introduce a new "Tzohar Law" legislating the rights and recognition of the new conversion courts. These threats and any new legislation, only have a hope of passing if Lieberman joins the government and helps pass the gas deal.

So, in the end, who might have forced Bibi to turn to Avigdor Lieberman to pass his gas deal, who in turn will force the Chief Rabbinate to accept Rav Rabinovitch's conversion court? That's right: none other than Arye Deri.

Maran would be appalled.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tavo - Mutual Responsibility vs Individual Rights

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo - Mutual Responsibility vs Individual Rights

Two themes play an important role not only in Ki Tavo, but also in the beginning of Nitzavim. On one hand, the Torah communicates the value of Areivut - mutual responsibility. At the same time, people have the ability to act in private. How do these two seemingly conflicting values coexist?

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click on the player below to play the Shiur or right click here to download)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Perfection and the Yamim Noraim

Way back when I was in the rabbinate, someone emailed me the description of the perfect rabbi:
The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.
You get the point: there's no such thing as a perfect rabbi, as much as there is a perfect teacher, lawyer, doctor or mother. Yet, ever since the first blast of the Shofar in shul last week, I've been thinking about perfectionism and the delicate balance between the dangers of perfectionism on one hand, and our concurrent need to strive for perfection.

Being a perfectionist can be extremely destructive. A perfectionist by definition is never happy. Because achieving perfection is literally impossible, one's work is never really good enough. Actually, it's never really good at all. And since it's not going to be "good" (i.e. perfect), often the perfectionist won't even bother starting a project or endeavor at all. After all, what's the point of working on something that you know will fail?

And yet, for all the dangers of perfectionism, that seems to be precisely the demand that Judaism places upon us during the Yamim Noraim. Rambam writes,
ומה היא התשובה--הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו, ויסירנו ממחשבתו ויגמור בליבו שלא יעשהו עוד, שנאמר "יעזוב רשע דרכו, ואיש אוון מחשבותיו" (ישעיהו נה,ז).  וכן יתנחם על שעבר, שנאמר "כי אחרי שובי, ניחמתי, ואחרי היוודעי, ספקתי על ירך" (ירמיהו לא,יח); ויעיד עליו יודע תעלומות שלא ישוב לזה החטא לעולם, שנאמר "ולא נאמר עוד אלוהינו, למעשה ידינו--אשר בך, ירוחם יתום" (הושע יד,ד).  וצריך להתוודות בשפתיו, ולומר עניינות אלו שגמר בליבו.  - הלכות תשובה ב', ג
What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again as [Isaiah 55:7] states "May the wicked abandon his ways...." Similarly, he must regret the past as [Jeremiah 31:18] states: "After I returned, I regretted." He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again as [Hoshea 14:4] states: "We will no longer say to the work of our hands: `You are our gods.'" He must verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart.
Each year, as I review these important halachot, I stop on that line from Rambam: He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again. Really? Never again? Can I really testify before God that I'll never revert to my past sins; that I'll never slip up? That I won't fall prey to my evil inclination, and commit a sin from my past?

Is not the obligation to "never return to this sin again" a demand for perfection? Never doesn't mean "try not to" or "promises not to" – it means never. Ever. Perfection.

Like many questions, I'm not sure that there's one good answer to this question. This year, I have come to understand that Rambam's formulation demanding a commitment to perfection represents a core aspect of Yamim Noraim that we, as imperfect beings, must confront at least once a year.

On Yom Kippur, the spiritual high point of the year, we emulate the angels. For one day, we eschew our physical selves; our hunger, sexuality, work and leisure, and spend this one day basking in the glory of God. We are, as much as we can possibly be, spiritual. At the same time, we recognize that this yearning is impossible.

That, in a nutshell, is the human condition: the desire for perfection, combined with the knowledge that it is something we will never achieve. During the rest of the year, we take refuge in our humanity, excusing our mistakes and shortcomings. But for one day, we expect perfection of ourselves, and that expectation propels us to improve, repent, return and transform ourselves into better, more perfect people.

There's a famous custom mentioned by the Rema (Orech Chayyim 583:2):
יש המדקדקים שלא לאכול אגוזים שאגוז בגימטריא חטא
There are those who are meticulous not to eat nuts [on Rosh Hashanah] for the gematria (numerical equivalent) of (the Hebrew word) "egoz" (nut) equals "cheit" (sin).
There's only one problem with this custom – or at least the explanation for it: the math is off. The words are not equal. Egoz (אגוז) is 1+3+6+7=17. Cheit (חטא) is 8+9+1=18. They're not even equal to each other!

Maybe that's precisely the point. Sin represents the definition of imperfection. Through our shortcomings, we demonstrate just how incomplete we truly are. In this simple custom, we refrain from eating nuts, to remind us of this exact point – that we are not perfect, and have much to strive for during the Ten Days leading up to Yom Kippur.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Jews of Prague (Part 1)

We don't get out much - at least from a vacation perspective. The last time Rena and I actually traveled on a vacation away from home for longer than a Shabbat took place on our Aliyah pilot trip, more than seven years ago. So when I turned forty a few years back we decided that we'd go away for a short trip. This spring, we finally made good on that decision and booked a trip to Prague.
Rena had the foresight to book our stay at the only kosher hotel in Prague - the King David (highly recommended). That was a particularly good choice, as the options for kosher food are incredibly limited, and it was great to start the day with a good kosher breakfast. No, it wasn't an Israeli-hotel kosher breakfast, but it was close. It was also great to have a minyan without having to look that far.

Prague is beautiful - clean, interesting, European, and a great place to walk around. Interestingly, there really isn't a Jewish community in Prague to speak of. It's basically gone, and hopefully never coming back. I see no reason to rebuild a destroyed Jewish community. Yet, Jews were everywhere, and our portrayal wasn't particularly flattering.

The Prague Astronomical Clock
Take the clock. There's a very famous clock Astronomical Clock in the Old Square in Prague that's a gathering point for tourists who come to watch the show of the clock striking each hour. It really is a show, and it's also a pretty incredible feat of engineering, as it was first build in 1410. After we settled into our hotel, it was one of the first thing that we saw.

Of the many fascinating aspects of the clock (it tells time in three different ways, including sha'ot zmaniyot!), there are also figures standing at the sides of the clock representing different human traits. Standing at the two sides of the clock are four figures (you can see them here): Vanity, death, the miser and the Turk. Sounds nice. Except the "Miser" isn't known as such. Here's how he's described not on an official tourism website:
The Prague Astronomical Clock is located close to Old Town square and it is one of the city major attractions. The clock has been in the square since 1410 and it is a very special clock since it was used not only to indicate the current time, but also the month and the day of the year (and the name you should give to your kids depending on their birthdate), moon phases, zodiac information and much more. The clock also depicts different figures like vanity, death, a Jew and a Turk. Finally, at every hour, two doors open on the clock to show the 12 apostles and a man dresses as a pageboy plays a horn from the top of the clock tower. Make sure you are nearby the clock in time, the show is very fast!
For hundreds of years, next to the Turk (not a complimentary sculpture) stands a miserly Jew (you can see him standing to the left of the clock in the picture above). The four figures stand as a religious warning about the passage of time, as an admonition to onlookers to use their time well: don't waste your time with silly things like vanity, as death nears ever closer with every tick of clock. The same goes for the Turk (who clearly symbolizes violence and vulgarity). And finally, don't be consumed with money, as is the miserly Jew, who cares for nothing but his bag of gold.

I can't say that I found the stereotype surprising. Bigotry is what it is, and I guess it's no different now that in was six hundred years ago.

Welcome to medieval Prague.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting on Tisha B'av: P'sak Halachah in the Age of the Internet

The Facebook post started with a simple question:
Has anyone ever heard of a pregnant or nursing woman only fasting until Chatzos if Tisha B'av is a nidcheh? I remember someone once telling me this and I'm trying to find a source for it...
The post clearly touched a nerve with the Facebook friends who began to suggest answers to the question.
- There are definitely kulahs with a nidcheh fast. Ask your LOR (Local Orthodox Rabbi). Will probably depend on the specific situation.
- Ask your rabbi...I've heard a few different things.
Then, the poster responded with a semi-joking comment:
I'm trying to send my LOR in the right direction :-)
This was followed by a series of comments and suggestions, including piskei halachah by no less than two rabbis, both of whom offered different opinions. One said, "A choleh should fast until morning. There's nothing special about chatzos for fasting." In other words, she must begin the fast, but can break it by morning. Another wrote that, "On a tisha bav nidche pregnant women who experience even mild discomfort, break their fast . see biur halacha 559:9 s.v. vaino . nursing women are in the same category this means whenever you feel worse than normal fast even a headache alone is enough to eat you eat normally no shiurim." In other words, you must fast normally, until and unless you feel discomfort, at which point you can break your fast.

In the course of the thread, other posters shared the rulings of Rav Avigdor Neventzal (who rules that pregnant or nursing women need not fast at all) and Rav Yaakov Ariel (who ruled that they must begin the fast and can break it if they feel discomfort).

The entire thread and ensuing discussion raises for me the thorny issue of psak halachah in the age of the Internet. What is psak halachah, and can there even be such a thing, when every possible question has already been asked (and answered), and is readily available to anyone who knows how to search for it - and often those answers conflict?

Clearly, this "open information" has already affected the way that we ask our questions. The thread I mentioned above is a case in point: instead of asking her rabbi, the poster asked a "shaila" of the "crowd". Moreover, it's not really a question per se, but a search for a specific answer that she's heard of. If she wanted a "clean" answer, she could have texted her rabbi, "Hi! As you know, we just had a baby. Do I need to fast this year on Tisha B'av?" But that wasn't her question. As she herself admits, she doesn't want a clean answer. She wants the "right" answer: "I'm trying to send my LOR in the right direction."

Then, as I noted above, the post developed into a discussion about actual psak, pitting two sets of rabbis (LORs and Gedolim) against one-another, leaving our harried poster both confused and frustrated. She wanted a clear answer, not a "see how you feel". After all, who doesn't feel hungry and thirsty and in discomfort on a fast day? (She's totally right about that point.) Yet, her desire for a straight, clean answer of yes or no is directly in conflict with her posing of the question originally. Does she really want a "yes or no", or is just a "no, you don't have to fast" the answer that will satisfy her?

I wonder how these types of questions are now affecting rabbis and the pressure they feel to issue more lenient piskei halachah. Imagine that I receive this question from a congregant, and I feel that halachah requires women to fast (unless they feel "discomfort"). Yet, I know that the person asking the question has already looked up this issue on the Internet. And if she hasn't, she will then turn to Facebook to express her frustration that she has to fast on Tisha B'av. I can just see the post now.
Poster: Ugh! I hate fasting on Tisha B'av, especially when I'm nursing!
Friend 1: What? Why are you fasting? My rabbi (who lives in another part of the world) told me that I don't have to fast.
Friend 2: I never fasted for two years after I gave birth. Sefardim rule!
Friend 3: Rabbi Such and Such posted three years ago that if you're thirsty, you can break your fast...
It's not that difficult to imagine. It happens all the time.

The next time this woman has a question, will she turn to her LOR? Or, will she turn to the rabbi across the country, or just to the "hive" to figure out what psak makes the most sense to her. The rabbi knows all of this. He knows both positions. To what degree does this knowledge affect the answer that he gives her?

I find the whole thread fascinating in that it raises important questions about psak and poskim in an Internet age where everything is available on the Internet. How can there be psak when we all have five rabbinic "friends" who give different answers? What does it even mean to ask a question?

The answers to these questions might very well be determined by no less than our relationship to halachah. The answer to all of these questions will ultimately depend on the degree to which we can return to the famous concept in Pirkei Avot called, "Aseh lecha rav" - make for yourself a rabbi. Halachah is uniquely personal. It can be both rigid but also flexible when necessary. But we, as a community, seem to have fallen into such a robotic adherence to ritual, without its attendant deeper meaning, that we're always looking for the easiest way to fulfill our obligation and be done with it. To do that, all you need is information. You don't really need a rabbi. You need a website, and today there are plenty of those. Then its simply a race to the bottom, to find the most lenient "accepted" rabbi, and before you know it, the most lenient position becomes normative.

The job of a rabbi isn't just to be a website. I've never really liked SMS questions (which are all the rage in Israel - still!) because they rid the halachic process of any relationship between the petitioner and the rabbi. The job of the rabbi isn't just to issue black and white rulings. It's to transmit not only the ruling in a manner that's most meaningful and relevant to the person asking the question.

The entire discussion about fasting revolved around purely technical issues - must a nursing woman fast on Tisha B'av or not? Of course there are technical halachic issues at play, but nowhere in the thread did anyone raise the issue of why: Why should she fast? Why should she not? No one "wants" to fast on fast day. Today we wish each other an "easy fast". "Hope it's not too hard!" Does that really make sense? Isn't the idea of fasting supposed to be hard? In essence, wishing someone an easy fast is saying, "I know we're all fasting because we have to; But I hope the day goes by quickly, with as little discomfort as possible." Clearly people don't mean it this way, but that's what it boils down to. If you're going to do it, hopefully the bitter pill goes down easy.

Nowhere in the discussion of whether this woman must or must-not fast was the issue of meaning. Chazal felt that our actions influence our attitudes, nowhere more than on days of mourning, like Tisha B'av. Nowhere in the discussion, did the personal needs of the individual arise. What if, instead of asking Facebook, the person asking the question called her rabbi with the very same question, and got this answer:
R: Well, how do you fast? (That's a really important question in this discussion, which never really came up.)
Cong: Well, I get pretty thirsty - but not really different than most mornings. It's a fast day after all.
R: Do you get bad headaches? Does fasting make it challenging for you to function?
Cong: Not usually, but I'm worried about having to fast and take care of my baby.
R: Can your husband come home and help out, instead of spending all morning in shul? If we can find a way to handle the childcare together, could you fast in a meaningful way?
Thus, the same rabbi might very well give two different answers to two different women, depending on each one's personal situation.

Rabbis would love to answer questions in this way, but they also need to feel secure in knowing that their congregants aren't shailah-shopping. Aseh lecha Rav means asking a rav a question with the confidence that the rav will give me the best answer for me, regardless of what he answered someone else (or what someone else answered on the Internet). It means asking an open, honest question, without a predetermined answer. It doesn't mean that you can't push back - that's definitely part of the conversation. But it does imply the trust that when I ask my rabbi my question, I trust that he will, to the best of his ability, give the answer that he feels best applies to me, in my current situation.

In the end, it's all about trust. And trust in rabbis in general isn't a popular topic nowadays. I guess we all have a lot to fast for this coming Tisha B'av.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

An Israeli Reporter Makes Aliyah with Nefesh B'nefesh, and Why I Can't See an American-Style Rabbinate in Israel for the Foreseeable Future

Yedidya Meir
Nefesh B'nefesh invited popular chardal media personality Yedidya Meir to join the latest Aliyah flight. Meir, who is a gifted writer whose column appears weekly in B'sheva, the free newspaper strewn across Israel, wrote a wonderful piece about his short Shabbat in Manhattan, his views of America, and a bit about aliyah. He posted the piece on his Facebook page, and if you can follow the Hebrew, it's worth reading. If you can't, I'll share a few choice sections:
ובכן, האמריקאים, ואני לא יודע איך לומר זאת אחרת, האמריקאים הם מאוד אמריקאים. אתם מכירים את זה שאתם הולכים במרכז ירושלים, ברחוב בן יהודה, נגיד, ופתאום נשמעת צווחה חדה שמפלחת את האוויר? יש רק שתי אפשרויות במצב הזה: או שמדובר חלילה בניסיון פיגוע וחייבים להזעיק את הימ"מ, או שמדובר בשתי נערות אמריקאיות נרגשות שלא נפגשו מאז אתמול וכעת ראו זו את זו ברחוב.
אז וולקאם טו אמריקה. הכול בגדול, בענק, בחזק. הכול מתוק מדי, צועק מדי, פלסטיקי מדי. נכון שבעולם הדתי אמריקה היא תמיד דימוי למשהו מאוד חומרני? נכון תמיד הדוגמאות של המשגיח בישיבה או של הרב בדרשה יהיו אנטי אמריקאיות, כאילו אמריקה היא יוון של ימינו? אז זהו, שבגדול הם די צודקים. כוס השתייה שבחרתי בקופה כי חשבתי שהיא הגדולה ביותר במלאי, התבררה כהכי קטנה. אחריה היו עוד אחת בינונית (כלומר, ענקית) ועוד אחת גדולה (כלומר, לפילים ומעלה). ואחרי שגמרו למלא לי אותה בקולה הוסיפו כמובן קרח. המון קרח. כמה שיותר. בקוביות גדולות.
And so, Americans - and I don't know any other way to say this - Americans are very American. You know when you walking in the center of Jerusalem on Ben Yehudah Street, say, and suddenly you hear a scream that splits the air? There are only two possibilities in this situation: Either it's an attempted attack God forbid and we need to call emergency services, or we're talking about two American teenage girls who haven't seen each other since yesterday, and just bumped into each other on the street.
So "Welcome to America". Everything is big, giant, strong. Everything is too sweet, too loud, to plasticky. You know how in the religious world "America" is always the image of something very materialistic? You know how the examples of the mashgiach in yeshiva or the rabbi in his drashah would always be anti-American, as if America is a modern-day Greece? Well, yeah - generally they're totally correct. It turns out that the drinking cup I picked at the checkout counter because I thought that it was the largest available was in fact the smallest. There was also a "medium" (i.e. giant) and yet another larger one (i.e., for elephants and larger). And after they finished filling the cup with cola, they of course added ice. A ton of ice. As much as possible. Large ice cubes.
I never noticed that Israelis don't like drinks with ice. I always order a cup of ice with my drink in a restaurant. I'm so American.
What I love about this piece is its honesty.
Meir isn't being nasty or mean, and many of his comments about America ring true. Yet, he doesn't only point out negative aspects of American life. He also writes about a number of positive aspects of Jewish (Orthodox) life in the United States, including very strong community life and the strong sense of devotion and dedication that people have to their shuls.
One paragraph struck me, and highlighted why, at least for now, there won't be any widespread form of a rabbinate, at least in the American sense. He writes,
הדרשה הייתה גם היא זרה ואחרת, ומעוררת מחשבה. הרב שניגש לדרשת שבת שגרתית נתן את נאום חייו. מעניין אם גם בשבת הבאה הוא ייתן את נאום חייו. כנראה שכן. זה היה שואו מהוקצע, כתוב ומוכן מראש, עם התחלה מסקרנת, שיאים רגשיים, רעיונות מקוריים וסיום שכרך את הכול ביחד. שיעור ברטוריקה. זה היה יפה. יפה מדי. בקיצור, אמריקאי.
The drashah was also strange, different - worthy of consideration. The rabbi that rose to speak on a regular Shabbat gave the talk of his life. I wonder if next week he'll also give the talk of his life. Apparently so. It was a professional show: written and prepared in advance, with an engaging introduction, emotional heights, original ideas and a conclusion that wrapped everything together. A lesson in public speaking. It was nice. Too nice. In a word, American.
For whatever reason, Israelis like things the way they're used to them. Many (but not all) Americans like their drashot they way they know them - in the style of the American rabbi: articulate, well-prepared, with a clear beginning and end, and an actual point. But, for whatever reason, to Israelis, that's too good - too sweet, too easy, too American.

I met recently with a young American rabbi considering making Aliyah. While I encouraged him to do it, I quickly disavowed him of any notion that there will be an American style rabbinate in Israel anytime soon. Israelis don't "get" American rabbis (they're just too American - as we see here), and most Anglo shuls pick an Israeli to be their rabbi. At least that's happened in nearly every shul that I know of, from Modiin to Yad Binyamin to Beit Shemesh to Raanana. American rabbis have found shuls, but usually they're for retirees, or they literally started the shul themselves (which is not impossible, but just very challenging). Still, I told him, there's an incredible amount that you can do here - the sky really is the limit - as long as you don't need your rabbinic life to support your family. Even as Israeli shuls are hiring communal rabbis, and Israelis are trying to develop the idea of the community rabbi through training programs, it won't be what Americans are used to. The Israeli rabbinate might borrow some parts of it, but it won't be the same. It will be Israeli, catered to the needs of a different community with vastly different expectations and needs.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Democracy and the Jewish State: Slomiansky v. Gal-On - Who Needs a Constitution when You've Got the Tanach?

Over the past several years, I have become increasingly interested in the fascinating intersection of religion and democracy in the State of Israel, and the numerous issues and challenges this thorny issue raises. Open a newspaper (those that still exist) on any given day in Israel, and the debate between Dat and Medinah jumps out at the reader. The struggle for the soul of the State of Israel began even before the founding of the State, and continues to this very day.
At the Orot Israel College, where I work (I work in admissions and administration, as well as teach a number of courses each year) I give a semester long course called "The Jewish State - the Intersection between Judaism and Democracy" which addresses precisely these thorny issues. I believe that in order to be good teachers (which Orot's students will soon become), these young women must be aware of and grapple with the dilemmas that frame public debate both in Israel, and across the Jewish world.

In an article published in Yisrael Hayom yesterday, MK Nissan Slomiansky was asked about the Bayit Hayehudi's opposition to passing more "Fundamental Laws" - essentially, a Bill of Rights (which the State of Israel famously lacks). He initially answered:
...בעיקרון אנחנו נגד חקיקת חוקי יסוד ונגד חוקה, משום שאנו מאמינים שיש לישראל חוקה והיא התנ"ך
אין שום סיבה שתהיה התנגשות בין החקיקה בכנסת לבין ההלכה היהודית. עד היום אין חקיקה שהכנסת חוקקה והיא סותרת את ההלכה היהודית.
Essentially, we are against the legislation of fundamental laws because we believe that Israel [already] has a [work of fundamental legislation], and it is the Tanach...There is no reason for conflict between Knesset legislation and Jewish halachah. To this day, there is no law passed by the Knesset that contradicts Jewish law.
That's quite a statement. While he went on to say that he was also concerned with the potential future interpretation of those laws by the judicial body (which is famous for its history of judicial activism and legislation), his first comment made a fundamental point: Why should the State of Israel need to legislate its own laws when we already have a God-given canon of ethics, morals and legal values? In other words, Slomiansky actually articulated, in a shockingly honest way: Democracy is fine, but not when it conflicts with the values of the Torah.
His comments predictably drew immediate fire from Israeli left, this time on the Facebook page of Meretz Chairwoman MK Zehava Gal-On. She wrote,

I'm sorry to pop Slomiansky's Medieval Fantasy Bubble [but]: In the legal statutes of the State of Israel there are certainly laws that contradict Jewish law, and this is a good thing. For example, the law that I legislated prohibiting human trafficking is not at all in concert with the laws of the Torah regarding slavery. For example, the fact that homosexuality is not a criminal offense, thanks to the law [passed by] Shulamit Aloni, certainly does not sit well with the prohibition against homosexual relations. There are a number of other examples.
In truth - we shouldn't really be all that upset. It's not that Slomiansky truly wants a government of the Torah according to all of it's halachot in which his wife, as a woman, would not be able to vote in election, and the elections themselves would never take because we would be a Jewish democracy led by a monarchy...Still, Slomiansky needs to understand that the vast majority of Israel's citizens - religious and secular - are interested in a democratic state, operating under the rule of law, that relates to all of her citizens with full equality, and which legislates sensibly with a great deal of thought and planning for the benefit of her citizens both now and in the future, and not out of automatic reliance on the laws of religion - which even if they were written with good intent and a great deal of thought, many of them are more appropriate for the era in which they were written, and less so for the present, and the values that we as citizens of a democratic state prefer to live by.
Gal-On's statement strikes me for a number of reasons: she strikingly formulates the seeming dichotomy between the two values of religion and democracy. Yet, at the same time, despite some effort, she cannot hide her antagonism for Jewish law - at least what she knows of it. Despite her allowance that Jewish law was written "with good intent and a great deal of thought", Slomiansky - and by extension all religious Jews - live in a "Medieval Fantasy Bubble" and adhere to an archaic set of values that, to her mind, do not and cannot relate to the modern era and the ideals of democracy, equality and fairness. And, of course, God is nowhere to be found in her democratic state. We are a nation of people, who legislate for ourselves.

How do we answer her charges? Is she correct that "the vast majority of Israel's citizens - religious and secular - are interested in a democratic state, operating under the rule of law", and would reject a Jewish state that adhered to halachah in full?
What about her more specific points: Do we really want to build a state that:
Would not prohibit human trafficking or slavery
Would appoint a king to rule over us
Would refuse women the right to vote
Would legislate homosexual activity as a criminal act (actually punishable by death)

These aren't simple questions by any means. Ideally, as religious Jews, we yearn for the coming of the Messiah, and the return of the Temple and with it the Sanhedrin. But where does democracy and equality fit in this equation? (If you'd like, Rabbi Chaim Navon offers his retort to Gal-On's comments on his Facebook page

Are we really living in a Medieval Fantasy Bubble? Of course not. Let us not forget that while her rhetoric works well in the United States (note the colors of her profile picture) Gal-On sits firmly in the minority in Israel, and her far-left Meretz party has steadily lost seats in the Knesset and influence over Israeli society over the past decade. Still, her questions deserve more than one-line answers. These are complicated issues, and demand careful consideration, thought and discussion.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Korach - The Ketoret, and the Chosen People

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Korach - The Ketoret, and the Chosen People

The Ketoret appears in a number of different places in Parshat Korach, making it an important theme deserving our attention. Why did Moshe challenge Korach's men specifically with ketoret? Why did he use it to save Aharon? What does it tell us about the Kohanim, and also about the nature of the Jewish people?

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click on the player below to play the Shiur or right click here to download)