Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tetzaveh - The Me'il - Let's Make Some Noise!

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tetzaveh - The Me'il - Let's Make Some Noise!

What are some of the deeper reasons for the blue cloak of the Kohen Gadol? Why did his clothes need to "ring"?

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Smart Daughter. Less Smart Dad.

My daughter's cellphone died.
It just wouldn't charge, and it was time to buy her a new phone. Smart dad decided that to save some money, he would buy the phone direct from China. I've bought other minor doodads from China (on, and they usually arrive in one piece, so why not save some money. After all, they make these things in China anyway, right? And, if I didn't work out, I'm only down sixteen bucks (and 34 cents). And free shipping!
After about of month of waiting (yes, they really do ship using a slow boat from China), the package finally arrived. Only one problem: when I turn the thing on, everything is in Chinese. I fiddle with the buttons for a while, but can't seem to figure it out. And, what's worse, every so often a button I press locks the phone, and I can't decipher the Chinese to unlock it.
Smart daughter takes over. She opens Google Translate, and starts entering English terms, like "Unlock". We quickly match the right button with the symbols, and we're in. Next we search for language, and finally find how to switch to English. Very smart daughter.
Only one problem. We download her messages, which are all in Hebrew. The phone doesn't have Hebrew. Only English and Chinese. Not so smart dad.
I guess we've now got an extra English-Chinese cell phone lying around. Oh well.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Hidden Costs of Modern Orthodoxy in America - and How Different Things are in Israel

Elli Fischer has written a fascinating an important article on some of the hidden costs of Modern Orthodoxy in America. He notes that the exorbitant costs of day school tuition force parents towards careers such as law, finance and medicine, that allow for the possibility of paying Jewish day school tuition without having to apply for scholarships. One of these costs is the near absence of a creative class. He writes,
That is, the pressure to produce high earners discourages and marginalizes those members of the community whose calling is in music, literature, the visual arts, or the performing arts. The problem is not only that creative types will likely be unable to afford the Modern Orthodox lifestyle; the community itself tends to marginalize those who pursue artistic careers, viewing them as irresponsible. Some creative types will gravitate toward the rabbinate or Jewish education, careers that can offer a creative outlet, financial incentive in the form of tuition reductions, and social acceptability. Many will either give in to the pressure to pursue a stable, lucrative career, or leave Orthodoxy behind.
It's difficult to measure the importance of creativity to a community, society or individual. Yet, creativity clearly plays a critical role not only in personal development, but in communal health and expression as well. Fischer notes that in Israel, where tuition is free, creativity plays a much larger role in Religious Zionist society. I completely agree with him, and would like to elaborate.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of a number of different areas where creativity plays a fundamental role for communal expression.

Dance: I work at the Orot College of Education, a Religious Zionist teachers' college with campuses in Elkana and Rechovot. The women's division boasts the only religious education program for dance teachers. We train religious women who will be the dance teachers in religious schools around the country. Earlier this month, Orot hosted the second annual Dance Education Conference in the Religious Educational System (Chemed - chinuch mamlachti dati), where over 400 participants (students and teachers) representing fifteen different schools from across the country gathered to watch, learn and enjoy experiencing different types of dance. I was invited to watch the only program by men of the day, a twenty minute piece by the only religious male dance troupe in the world (that I know of) called "Kol Atmotai Tomarna". I admit that t was not for me. But I fully appreciated that they even exist. I cannot imagine such a group existing in America.

Film and Television: By now, many of you already know about the Ma'aleh film school, and Orthodox school that trains future filmmakers. But many people don't also realize that schools of education, including Orot (we actually just celebrated the release of two new student films this week), but many others as well, train high school teachers who run programs in film, giving high-school age children the tools and creative outlet to express themselves through video and film. It's incredibly empowering for them, and some actually do move on to careers in film. Even the local yeshiva in Yad Binyamin called Torat Hachayyim (which moved quite far to the right after getting kicked out of Gush Katif years ago) opened a school of film and drama, as they appreciate that the very best way to influence the next generation is through film, drama and television.

Art and Drama: There's a growing list of religious drama troupes, the most famous of which led by Chagai Luber called Aspaklaria. These groups put on productions about challenging issues in the religious (and general) community, using the arts to shine a light on life, and allowing us to view ourselves and others from an outsider's perspective. Moreover, many of these actors also engage in skit comedy as well as playback theater, and perform for schools, groups and communities, using the arts to convey messages, address interpersonal issues - but all using the cultural language of the religious community. Last month I joined my son Bezalel at his school for one such evening, in which a comedy duo performed a number of skits about the relationships between parents, children, teachers and school. The evening featured no follow-up discussion whatsoever. The Rosh Yeshiva felt that the skits spoke for themselves, and offered enough food for thought to allow us to follow up with our children on our own.

Creative Arts: Aside from the famous Israeli art schools, other schools exist (again a school of education) that focus on Art Education and training teachers to teach with art, theater and graphic design, again all under religious auspices.

Music: My son is taking music lessons with a teacher who's studying at a new religious music school in Givat Washington, a short drive from here. His teacher is great - and while I like him to do classical pieces, he prefers to give him jazz, blues, and anything else he can think of. He's now suggested that my son come to the school one day a week and join an ensemble. After all, he told me, exposure to other musicians is the best way for him to grow.
But it's much more than music school. Israeli music - Jewish music - has a range and quality that is almost nonexistent in "classical" Jewish "yeshivish" music (which is the main reason that I can't listen to it anymore). When was the last time you heard a good "Jewish" song in English? They've gotten so corny, and just plain bad, that they've stopped writing them.
This richness expresses itself in performers who express the joys, pain, challenges - whatever - of the religious experience into music. Sure, Avraham Fried is quite popular in Israel. Again, not my taste. But so are Yonatan and Aharon Razel. And the popular "American" Jewish music band Moshav Band are really all Israeli. And Shuli Rand. Wow. For most Americans, the Hebrew is too fast, and too complicated. But wow. Just wow. His first album expresses so many powerful religious feelings in such sophisticated ways, without resorting to quoting a verse from Tehillim over and over and over again.

Other categories that I haven't mentioned include comedy and literature, but you get the point. I don't want to give the wrong impression. I'm not at shows and exhibits and book discussions each and every week. Far from it. But I appreciate the fact that cultural offerings are not only available in Israel, but that they speak from, and to, my personal experience, and carry a power and speak to me in a way that non-religious, secular culture never could.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Terumah - Planting for the Future

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Terumah - Planting for the Future

The Midrash, Rashi and many others address an interesting question: where the heck did the Jews get trees from to build the Mishkan? These trees don't normally grow in the desert. We focus specifically on Ibn Ezra's answer, in which he lays out his view of accepting Midrash as fact - or not. We also learn a critical lesson about sending a message to future generation, through the planting of trees.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Life in a Single Box - An Article in the Jerusalem Post

The Jerusalem Post recently published a piece I wrote about Shorashim, a Tzohar program that helps Jews from the former Soviet Union proved their Jewish status. I'm pretty proud of the piece (and the work that Shorashim does). I do similar - but less intensive - work to help people from English speaking countries. You can find the piece here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Mishpatim - An Eye for an Eye?

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Beshalach - The God of War

Everyone knows that when the Torah says "An eye for an eye", Chazal reinterpret the verse to refer to monetary compensation. Yet, this only raises a larger question: If the Torah didn't want us to exact vengeance in this manner, why write it this way?

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Why We Ask: "What Do You Do?"

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg recently wrote a thoughtful post entitled "Don’t Confuse Earning a Living with Living", in which he relates a story about an encounter he had with a stranger sitting at a wedding.
At the meal, I found myself sitting at a table of people I had never met.  In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?”  He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living?  I earn a living as a plumber.  What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.”  His answer remains etched in my memory as he taught me a profound lesson that day in that short, but poignant answer to my simple social question.
Culturally, at least in the United States, "What do you do?" is the first thing you ask to someone that you don't know. It's an ice-breaker; a way to start a conversation. Tell me about yourself. Yet, after I made aliyah, I noticed that Israelis almost never ask this question. They ask different questions: "Where are you from?" "Where did you serve in the army?" To Anglos (like me), they'll often ask, "You're from America, right?" (It's a game where they try and identify you from your accent. It's not hard.) But they don't usually first ask about your profession.
That got me thinking about the differences between cultures and countries, and wondering why people in the States ask about and identify a person through his or her profession.
I think, at least subconsciously, "What do you do?" is also a question about money and social status.
When you ask, "What do you do?" you're also asking another question: "How much do you earn?" Because if you're a lawyer or a doctor, I can place you in one social sphere. If you're a plumber, you're in another; a teacher or social worker? Yet another. (When they asked me the question and I told them that I was the rabbi of a shul, people would inevitably ask me the obvious follow-up: "Really? How many families?" It's the same question: Are you the rabbi of some small shtiebel, or are you an "imporant" rabbi of a significant community?)
We assess people by their earning power, and extend to them social status commensurate to that financial wherewithal. It's sad, but too often true. Think about the shul you attend: how do people relate to the doctors, compared to how they relate to the physical therapists? It's not a question of how many aliyot a person gets, but a question of voice, deference, and communal authority.
In Israel, people earn far less money, and doctors and lawyers don't really earn much more than teachers (which is one reason why it's so hard for American doctors to make aliyah). There are very few truly rich people, at least where I live (to the best of my knowledge). I have no clue how much people do or don't earn.
This type of subconscious assessment is only natural. The people with greater means do get a greater say. We need them - at least externally - more than we do everyone else. Their donations keep the lights on; they pay for the kiddushim we enjoy, and for the rabbis' salaries as well. We have to give them a voice, especially in the decisions of the institutions that they support. Yet, this unspoken preferential treatment alienates those who don't fit the bill: the teachers, the marketers, the plumbers (although plumbers do fine, from what I hear).
I'm sure that Rabbi Goldberg meant none of this when he asked the plumber "What do you do?" Yet, in some part of his mind, I'm also sure that the plumber heard a different question: "Hello. I don't know you. Are you an important person? Does your profession make you someone I should respect?" To this question, instead of answering, "Actually, I earn a living wage by putting my hands in people's waste all day long," he chose a different path - an understandable one from that point of view. I wonder whether the plumber would have had the same reaction had his chosen profession been to own a chain of plumbers which served six states. Perhaps yes, although I doubt he would have reacted so sharply to the question.
Throughout the school year at Orot, we invite groups of young women serving in Sherut Leumi (National Service) for in-service days (yemei iyyun). Often, I give a seminar called "Finding the 'Me' Among the Masses" (מצאית ה"אני" בתוך ההמונים), in which we speak about balancing the need to actualize our individuality with the needs of the community and the country. I always begin this seminar by doing an exercise called "Why Do You Do What You Do?" (or WDYDWYD), a seminar that's given in business and school settings around the world. I do a little exercise where I ask the students to spend five minutes drawing a picture that explains "Why they do what they do." 
It's harder than you think, because before you can answer the question "why", you first have to ask yourself, "What do I do?" - a question that can be as narrow as "Why am I sitting in this room?" and as broad as "Why am I serving in Sherut Leumi?" It's always an incredible exercise.
Each time I give the seminar, I also draw a picture. During the first years after our Aliyah, I always drew a picture of my family. I interpreted the question to mean, "Why are you giving this seminar in Orot today? Why did you leave the rabbinate and make Aliyah?" The answer, to me, was always for the sake of my family and my children. Yet, each time I drew that picture, it forced me to ask other questions: If I really am doing it all for my kids, why don't I spend more time with them? (This actually prompted me to take a day off from work and take them on a tiyyul.)
Perhaps the question we should ask people when we meet them for the first time isn't "What do you do?", but instead, "Why do you do what you do?" 
That question would lead to a much more fruitful and interesting conversation.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Misleading Article on Purchasing Fruits from Israel - And an Important Update

Imagine I published an article about purchasing chametz after Pesach by explaining the following:
There are two types of stores: Those owned by a Jew, and those owned by a non-Jew. Regarding stores owned by non-Jews, one may purchase Chametz immediately after Pesach ends. Regarding stores owned by Jews, the Sages prohibited Jews from purchasing chametz that was owned by a Jew on Pesach. For this reason, one must wait until one is certain that all such food is no longer stocked on the shelves of such a store before purchasing Chametz items.
I know what you'd be thinking, because I'd be thinking the same thing: Two types? Isn't there a third type? What about the store owned by a Jew, which sold its chametz to a non-Jew?
To this, my answer would be:
Well, we think that the sale of Chametz is truly a non-halachic act. Let's be honest: both the Jew and the non-Jew have no intention of keeping the sale permanent, no matter how "official" they try to make it. It's simply a halachic loophole, and I don't think that it's legitimate. So I ignored mechirat chametz in my article. 
You'd be incensed, and you'd be right to be angry. My article, by leaving out basic halachic information would paint an incomplete, and therefore incorrect picture, potentially causing untold financial damage to the poor Jewish store owner who dutifully sold his Chametz, as per his rabbi's instructions, only to be ignored.

And that, my friends, is exactly what Rabbi Yair Hoffman did this week in his Five Towns Jewish Times article entitled: Costco and Fruits from Israel. Rabbi Hoffman writes,
There are three categories of products of Israel.
1] Fruits from years 1 – 6 in the Shmittah cycle – where trumos and Maasors must be properly removed before the fruits are consumed. Believe it or not, Costco Clementine fruit is still from year six until the end of the winter. Peppers and cucumbers are a different story. Check with your local Rav or the Keren HaMaasros in Lakewood, New Jersey as to the specific dates of each vegetable or fruit.
2] Fruits that are from the Shmittah year – which may only be consumed by following the guidelines of treating fruit Bikdushas Shvi’is properly.
3] Produce of the Shmittah year that is forbidden in benefit
When the fruit is actually from the seventh year, new issues arise. Firstly, if one accidentally purchased seventh year fruit from Costco, then it is forbidden to drive them back to exchange them. Rather, they must be eaten wit Kdushas Shviis, a protocol of special treatment....
There are foods that are entirely forbidden in benefit. Some of the vegetables sold in Costco fall in this category. Check with the Keren HaMaasros as to which ones fall into this category.
Rabbi Hoffman omits an entire category of produce which comprises the vast majority - if not all - of the fruits and vegetables exported from Israel during the Shemittah year: Produce sold under the Heter Mechirah.

As it has done for each Shemittah year since the inception of the State of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate has arranged for the sale of much of the agricultural land in Israel, thus circumventing many of the prohibitions associated with growing produce in the Holy Land during Shemittah. To state the obvious, this sale is a matter of significant controversy both inside and outside of Israel. Many great rabbis have ruled that the sale of land in Israel is not permitted (and therefore invalid). At the same time, many great rabbis have permitted the Heter Mechirah, including the current chief Rabbis of Israel. In fact, the rabbinate has expended a great deal of energy, effort and resources to ensure that this procedure is done properly and effectively, and has published guides for farmers and consumers who wish to follow this ruling.

In the Rabbinate's Shemittah Guide for Farmers, which gives detailed instructions on how a Jewish farmer should farm his land during the Shemittah year, Chapter 8 deals with the export of produce during the Shemittah year. The rabbis rule as follows:

I'll translate:
1. One may not export produce of the Seventh year to the Diaspora. This especially pertains to produce under the auspices of Otzar Beit Din.
2. It is permissible to export agricultural produce that does not have the sanctity of the Seventh year, such as: produce from the sixth year, flowers not grown for their scent, and fruit grown through the "Heter Mechirah."
Thus, according to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, produce grown under the Heter Mechirah does not have the sanctity of Shemittah, and can be exported from Israel. Moreover, for this reason one also does not have to separate Terumot and Ma'asrot, as the produce is considered devoid of sanctity.

Must Rabbi Hoffman agree with the ruling of the Chief Rabbinate? Of course not. But his article ignores the Heter Mechirah completely, as if it doesn't exist. That's both disingenuous, and dishonest.

Should you buy Heter Mechirah produce sold at Costco? Truthfully, you should ask your rabbi. I would. I do. (not at Costco - but here in Israel). I also feel that a Jew should make an effort to try and purchase products, including produce, from the Holy Land. Yet, rabbis that write about purchasing Israeli produce should include information about the Heter Mechirah in order to give readers the complete halachic picture.

UPDATE (and a pretty important one at that) - When I wrote this piece, I also sent an email to the office of the Chief Rabbinate, looking for information about the Heter Mechirah status of produce exported from Israel, and I couldn't find any reliable information on the web. It turns out that there's a good reason that I couldn't find any information: there isn't any. I got the following response via email today:
,בנושא הייצוא של פירות וירקות לחו"ל עוסק משרד החקלאות.כיום אין פיקוח בנושא השמיטה על יבול מהארץ שנשלח לחו"ל, וייתכן שמיוצאים לחו"ל פירות וירקות בקדושת שביעית.ייתכן גם שחקלאים מייצאים לחו"ל פירות וירקות שנמצאים תחת פיקוחנו בנושא היתר מכירה, אך אם לקונה בחו"ל לא ידוע מי המגדל ומהו הגידול – ייתכן שמדובר בפירות שביעית.
The Ministry of Agriculture deals with the export of fruits and vegetables to the Diaspora. As of today, there is no supervision with regard to Shemittah over produce from Israel sent to the Diaspora, and it is possible that fruits and vegetables that have the Sanctity of Shemittah are exported out of Israel. It is also possible that farmers are exporting fruits and vegetables that are under our supervision regarding Heter Mechirah, but if the consumer in Chutz L'aretz does not know the identity of the grower and how it was grown (permissibly or not) - it is quite possible that we are speaking about (sanctified) fruits of Shemittah.
Oy. It seems I owe Rabbi Hoffman an apology. Unless there's a way to find out where the Israeli veggies came from (and whether they were grown under the Heter Mechirah), you must treat the produce as if it's Kedushat Sheviit. I will write in an upcoming post how to buy (and eat) this produce.