Monday, April 27, 2015

President Obama's Un-Presidential Bucket List

At the recent White House correspondents' dinner, President Obama joked about the fact that because he's in the "fourth quarter" of his presidency, people are asking whether he has a "bucket list". According to "The Hill",
"Obama mocked critics of his recent unilateral moves, saying he maintains "something that rhymes with 'bucket list."
"Executive action on immigration? Bucket," Obama said to laughs. "New climate regulations? Bucket. It's the right thing to do.
Essentially, the President of the United States used a subtle rhyme to allude to a crude four-letter term, allowing him essentially to curse without cursing.
It was funny and clever. But it was also inappropriate.
This isn't the first time members of the Obama White House have resorted to profanity to make their point. Late last year, Jeffrey Goldberg famously quoted a senior administration member calling Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a chicken#$@!. Whether you agree with the administration's position or not, use of profanity - and even the allusion to profanity - is unbecoming of a head of state, and reflects badly not only on the individual who makes the comment, but on the people he or she represents. Do we really want to see members of Congress cursing (using veiled references, of course) at each-other, or at the President when they disagree?
Many Americans may indeed speak this way in their private lives, and we certainly hear plenty of profanity in the media. But there has always been a higher standard of discourse in the public sphere. This latest example of presidential license does not bode well for respectful and courteous discourse in the future.
This isn't to suggest that politician have to like or agree with each other. Far from it. Yet we can and should expect them to creatively and cleverly insult one-another without having to resort to vulgarity. The President - and his writers - could have, and should have, left this joke off the speech.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Tazria-Metzora - Tzaraat in the Home: The Danger of Permanence

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Tazria-Metzora - Tzaraat in the Home: The Danger of Permanence

The text of the Torah seems to treat Tzaraat in the home as a "gift", especially when we compare the text to other similar texts in the Torah. Some gift. What lessons can we learn from this unusual spiritual phenomenon?

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

My Two Cents on the KosherSwitch: Forbidden Today. In the Future? Not So Sure...

The OrthoWeb is once again ablaze about the KosherSwitch (which is not in fact new in any way). If you haven't seen the press, just google it. I've written before about similar issues, such as texting on Shabbat and Shabbat speaker systems.

First let me make it clear that I am not in any way in favor of the KosherSwitch, and don't support its use in normal situations. It's pretty clear that I'm not alone in this view. That being said, a few comments:

Most lay people have trouble distinguishing between sha'at hadchak and lechatchila. One person's lechatchila is another's sha'at hadchak. Would you suggest to someone minimally religious, who tells you that they use the lights in their home - to install this switch? Is it permissible in medical situations? Security situations? Would you install one (or a similar switch) in your shul connected to an emergency alarm in case of medical emergency or some kind of terror attack? A person versed in halachic thinking readily appreciates the nuanced differences, but lay people often wonder at our nuanced perspective, and adopt the lenient view thinking, "I'm not that frum anyway."

Many rabbis have criticized the KosherSwitch as a device which will essentially ruin the essence of Shabbat, turning it into a glorified Sunday. Again, for technical halachic reasons, I'm against using this switch in normal situations. But I don't know how we're supposed to claim that using electricity ruins the spirit of Shabbat, when we do it all the time.

Many years ago, in a famous responsa, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein severely limited the use of Shabbat timers, as he considered having melachot being performed automatically to be a violation of Kibud Shabbat. He only permitted, begrudgingly, the use of Shabbat timers for lights, but not anything else.

He forbade their use, and the world adopted their use for everything from air conditioners to lights to alarm clocks (they have kosher clocks too, with haskamot of poskim). Essentially, we live in a world that universally allows the switching on and off of electrical devices on Shabbat as long as we do it beforehand. And we don't bat an eyelash about it. Has this practice turned Shabbat into Sunday? Hardly. It's just what we're used to.

Would a rabbi permit a quiet Shabbat robot to sweep the floor after we go to sleep on Friday night? How about a dish washing machine that works on a timer, and washes the dishes so they can be clean on Shabbat morning? (may authoritites already allow this). Why is it greater shmirat Shabbat for me to have to wash those very same dishes by hand? I can well envision my grandchildren (I should live and be well) asking me: "What? You washed dishes by hand on Shabbat morning? Why?" How would we feel about a robot that was programmed to clean the table and clear the kitchen after we've already gone to sleep? (not yet invented, but is it that hard to imagine?) Why are we OK with live "help", but find mechanical assistance so troubling?

I get the sense that halachah has yet to settle on a way of categorizing and addressing the incredible technological advances we have witnessed over the past twenty years. We're fine with hashgachah (for kashrut) over video systems, but not with conducting a virtual minyan. We accept Shabbat clocks and lamps, but not switches. It's incredibly confusing for rabbis - much less your average ba'al habayit (layperson). This imbalance is natural and to be expected. A halachic system that slowly developed over centuries is not designed - nor should it - instantly digest incredible changes in lifestyle and society. Our natural halachic "conservatism" is what has maintained us all these years. And yet, we must also acknowledge that something is out of whack, and it will take time for things to come back into balance. We should not cavalierly dismiss people who use the Shabbos switch as "mechalelei Shabbos" who are "turning Shabbos into Sunday." While they might not have an explicit heter, that's a far cry from Chillul Shabbat.

I wonder what poskim who lived two hundred years ago would say about our Shemirat Shabbat - with our kosher lamps (which you essentially turn on and off) and our whole-house timers and our Shabbat ovens. I get a sense that they'd be shocked. I also have a strong feeling that our sense of what Shabbat is or is not will have very little bearing on the practices of future generations.

Their Shmirat Shabbat might look very much different than our own.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Tefillin of the Holocaust: Thoughts for Yizkor

Rav Tamir Granot begins his series of shiurim on Faith and the Holocaust at Yeshivat Har Etzion's Virtual Beit Midrash with an incredibly powerful story, which I feel bears quoting in its entirety. My grandfather's entire family was also decimated in the Holocaust, and around this time of year, especially as we recite the Yizkor on Pesach that falls before Yom Hashoah, I often think about how little I knew of him and his family. I know that his brother, who survived the war, abandoned his faith, while my Zeide did not. He was a tireless supporter of Israel, and sacrificed a great deal to ensure that his children enjoyed the benefits of a Jewish education. He didn't leave a pair of tefillin, but left a legacy of descendants that would make him quite proud.
I will share one of the most meaningful parts of this journey with you. When I celebrated by twelfth birthday, my grandfather, R. Tzvi Greenstein, z"l, phoned my father, ylch"t, and told him that he had decided to buy me tefillin for my bar mitzva. My father was surprised at my grandfather's alacrity, and mentioned that doubtless my other grandfather, R. Yosef, ylch"a, would also want to buy me tefillin, because I was the oldest grandson on both sides of the family. Remonstrance was of no avail: Grandfather Tzvi forced my father and everyone else to comply with his wishes. His insistence bore fruit, and several weeks later he purchased the tefillin.
My grandfather knew what he was doing. He did not merit to attend my bar mitzva. Shortly before my bar mitzva, he died peacefully in his sleep, kissed by God. He suffered no prior illnesses; he was seventy-two years old. In his drawer, we found two envelopes: one contained a standard will, and the other contained a piece of paper with the heading,
"My Heart's Desires." I will now share the latter with you:
Tzvi Greenstein, Kiryat Motzkin, 23 Harav Kook St.
My help comes from the Lord,
My Heart's Desires!
a. Do not, under any circumstances, perform an autopsy upon my body.
b. I sincerely importune you to bury me next to an upright, God-fearing individual.
c. I request that you do your utmost to bring me to burial on the day I die.
d. I request that you place the head-tefillin (sitting in the clothes closet, next to my prayer shawl and tefillin, in a special case) in my grave, next to my head, so that it will bear witness that under the most trying conditions I risked my life to perform the commandment of laying tefillin, which have [inscribed on a parchment] within them His oneness and His unity, may His name be blessed in the world.
e. I request that you place a very modest and simple headstone upon my grave, and engrave upon it the words attached to this letter.
I accept upon myself the yoke of the heavenly kingdom unreservedly, with no remorse or desire to repent of my decision. I believe with complete faith that You, God, are true and Your Torah is true forever, unto eternity.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. God reigns; God has reigned; God shall reign forever and ever. Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom, forever and ever.
Your faithful and devoted servant,
Tzvi Greenstein
Son of Shemaya and Sara Pesil, z"l, Hy"d (May God avenge their deaths)
These moving words were written by a Jew whose entire family – except for his brother Shelomo, ylch"t – was wiped out by the Nazis: both his parents, four of his brothers, and, above all else, his first wife and his only son. His wonderful declaration of faith at the end of the letter was neither a theological conclusion arising from the Holocaust nor even a decision arrived at in spite of it. This spark of faith, as I understand it, is the real reason he survived the trials of the Holocaust and had the strength to start a new family in Israel.
My grandfather's request regarding the tefillin was the surprising part of the letter. We had not known about the old head-tefillin he wrote about, which indeed was sitting in his closet. My grandfather spoke about the Holocaust a lot, but not in the first person. The story completing the picture, which was told only after his death, was that he had smuggled these tefillin into Auschwitz, and later into Buchenwald, where he was imprisoned during the war. Risking his life, he had put them on every day. Near the end of the war, he had been caught wearing them during his prayers, hiding behind one of the barracks. An S.S. officer began strangling my grandfather with the straps, and he would have completed his task, had God not been with my grandfather, for at that moment an air raid siren sounded warning of incoming Allied bombers. The German left him alone, and the head-tefillin had remained in his possession ever since.
In retrospect, I realized that, for my grandfather, the act of purchasing the tefillin completed the circle of his life: it was a joyous departure from the life that tefillin had imbued with meaning and force (and that, in the end, went with him to his grave). He left his gift for me, his grandson and successor, confident and joyful in the knowledge that the Jewish life he believed in would be continued by his descendants.

When I put on my tefillin, I have in mind not only the well-known kavvanot (mystical intentions) included in the "Le-shem Yichud" recitation, but also kavvanot and thoughts of continuity, gratitude to God, and remembrance and appreciation of my grandfather, z"l. In so doing, I reaffirm his tremendously powerful faith.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What's Your Special Holiday Food?

Two summers ago, we spent a few weeks in New York, and visited the Museum of Natural History, which features a special exhibit on food. Among the fascinating elements of the exhibit was a display on special holiday foods, describing the different foods that people of different cultures use during their celebrations.
After watching the video and seeing the exhibit, I turned to my own children and asked them what food they most associate with the holidays. To my mind, I thought that they'd say something like apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, or matzah on Pesach. Nope, and nope. Each one said the exact same thing: Fricassee. That's right. My mother's fricassee.
She served it as an appetizer, made of chicken wings, necks, pupiks (if you have to ask, don't) and meatballs. I've done away with the necks and pupiks, but the taste is the same. I make it twice a year: Sukkot and Pesach, and especially on the night of the Seder, when you're already full from eating eight tons of matzah before you even start eating, all we have is chicken soup with kneidlach, and fricassee. And then it's on to the afikomen.
I was pleasantly surprised that my children have grown so attached to a food I learned from my mother (which she learned from hers). I'm certain that every family has its fricassee. Unless you're from one of those families that goes to a hotel for Pesach. Oh well.