Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Responsibility We Surrender- What I learned from Dostoyevsky on Rosh Hashana

As I prepared for Rosh Hashana and decided which sefarim I wanted to learn, it did not occur to me to add Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to my reading list. However, when a friend for whom I have deep respect,gave me the book on the first night of Rosh HaShana, I decided to take a look at it during the times when I would not be learning or davening.

He didn’t hand me this novel out of the blue. A few days earlier we had been talking and he told me that I had to read the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”. Thus, in addition to learning Rav Kook, Rav Hillel Zeitlin, Rav Amital and more over Rosh Hashana, I read some Dostoyevsky.

To offer a brief summary for those who are not familiar (from Wikipedia):

The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive-questions by Alyosha. In the tale, [Jesus] comes back to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church.

To say I was captivated and disturbed, would be an understatement. I immediately found myself thinking of the world with which I am most familiar. While there was nobody who came to mind to whom I would dare to compare to the evil Grand Inquisitor, the parallel to the people who could one day think they are waiting for their messiah, and even meet him, and be ready to watch his execution, had my mind racing.

I can’t speak for others, but one of the things that makes Judaism meaningful for me, perhaps the most significant factor, is the idea of searching for a connection with God. While I was born into an observant family, friends who are ba’alei teshuva or converts have told me about how this factor led them to Judaism. Still too often, maybe even most often, Judaism gets reduced to something smaller. At some point, it starts being only about following halacha, and learning what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call Litvish Torah (a friend recently told me that God is best found in a Ketzos). It is not that I think these things are not part of serving God. It’s just that at a certain point, those who are looking for the proverbial forest are too often spiritually neutered, and given narrow borders in which to conduct their search.

It seems to me that in order to gain comfort and standing in the community, we give up on the control that we ought to have over our religious lives, and allow others to dictate the boundaries. The Grand Inquisitor seems to be correct. It is much easier to let our religious ideas be controlled by others than to live with the responsibility of making decisions for ourselves.

Of course, at moments like this, I remind myself of what Rav Amital and others warned about the dangers of trying to find spirituality outside of the system, but I’m convinced that within the broadest boundaries of our tradition, there is tremendous room to explore, and we give up those places at our own peril.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Mi Yichyeh- What will we choose for the year ahead?

With Rosh Hashana around the corner I suppose it’s normal for me to be pensive, but this year it’s particularly acute. Several recent events have me thinking about life and death to a degree that I usually don’t.

A good friend recently suffered a minor heart attack. Thank God, he is fine, but ever since he shared the news, I’ve found myself thinking about my own health. When I was a runner, I was in the best shape of my life and I was able to live with the illusion that health problems and even death were things that could happen to others, but not to me. Now, as I am unable, in some way that I can’t fully explain or even understand, to regain my health, life feels more precarious. It’s more than that however that has me thinking so deeply about the precariousness of life.

Since hearing about the news of the tragic passing of Jose Fernandez, who was a star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, and learning about who he was as a person, son, grandson (be prepared to cry) and teammate, I’ve found myself thinking about him, and how suddenly things can change, without any warning for any of us. The death of a person who seemingly had so much of life ahead of him, a person who touched and inspired so many lives on and off the field, has left feeling sad and empty.

I awoke today to the news of the passing of Shimon Peres. Unlike Fernandez, Peres lived a long and complete life. He served his people and country, and was recognized internationally as one who tried to do what was right. As perhaps the last of the surviving founding fathers of Israel, he was in many ways larger than life. It’s not his achievements however, which included being Prime Minister and President of Israel, as well as winning the Nobel Peace Prize which spoke to me so deeply. It was his ability to continue to be a dreamer, to reinvent himself later in life, and to not take himself so seriously, so that he could allow himself to do some out-of-the-box things to make people smile.

It is these latter qualities which link the passing of these two men who were different in so many ways, and who  most likely did not know about each other. For very different reasons they were looked up to, even idolized, by their respective nations. I know it sounds cliched, but both Peres and Fernandez took the challenges of their lives in stride, and managed to inspire and uplift so many people, often with warmth and humor.

It is here that I return to the upcoming Yamim Noraim. It is somewhat ironic that perhaps the most powerful part of the tefillah on these days is a prayer whose origin is shrouded in some degree of confusion. Over the years, as I’ve said U’Nesaneh Tokef, the words have hit me differently each time. I can still remember the first time I said the words “Mi yichyeh, u’mi yamus”, who will live and who will die, after the passing of my father. I struggled to utter the words, as tears poured down my face. This year, as I think about these words, I think about them differently. Yes, it is true that we do not know who will be with us at this time next year, but as we are constantly reminded, that is largely out of our control. What we can control and where we have a choice is mi yichyeh, who will live life in a way that they are truly alive. Will we inspire others, continue to dream each time life beats us down, and face life’s challenges with equanimity and whenever possible with a smile? As we head into 5777 on the Jewish calendar may we not only be sealed for life, but may we also choose to have a year of life lived well.

Ketiva V’Chatima Tova

Monday, September 12, 2016

Kippah-ing Us Together? - On uniforms, fitting in, and sense of self

This past Shabbos I did not daven in my usual shul. From time to time, I’ve been davening at a more yeshivish minyan which offers a change of pace from my usual davening experience. While I gain certain things from davening at this shul, I’ve noticed that with the exception of those with whom I am already friends, I have not really been welcomed by those who daven there. In thinking about the reason why that is so, I think the answer is fairly clear. While I take davening very seriously, don’t talk during tefillah, and learn during the down-time, I am not a member of the team. My lack of hat, as well as my kippah-seruga mark me as other. I am welcome to daven there, but I am clearly seen as an outsider.

It’s been more than two years since I stopped wearing a hat on Shabbos. At the time, I wrote about the reasons for my decision. Recently, I’ve again been thinking about religious symbols and what they mean. I know that if I dressed the right way, certain doors in my community would open up to me despite the fact that nothing of significance would change about who I am. Of course, it is not just in the yeshivish world where symbols matter. I remember walking one Shabbos with a friend of mine, who was wearing a shtreimel. A guy with a knit-kippah walking in the opposite direction said “Good Shabbos” to me, and with an edge in his voice, “Shabbat Shalom” to my friend. Seeing the “wrong” headgear, he instantly “knew” all sorts of things about my friend. My friend told me that this was not the first time something like this had happened to him.

Of course, what we wear is a way to let others know something about ourselves. In the past year, as I’ve further evolved in my religious outlook, there have been moments where I have wanted to change something about how I dress. These days, my black kippah-seruga feels a little too confining to me, as if I am trying to make clear that I am Zionistic but not off the deep end, frum but not a right-winger, YUish but  centrist, thank you very much, with a chassidish streak to boot. When I start thinking of alternatives, I think of how I’d be seen in my community, amongst my friends, and at school. I find myself wondering things like whether a guy living outside of Israel can pull off the big serugi look without seeming like a faker, which colors are simply too much, but mainly what the heck is wrong with me. Why am I making such a big deal about something so silly? Why do I need an external marker of internal change? If I don’t buy into this stuff, why I do buy into it so much?

This is not one of those posts where I finish off with a nice and simple answer, where everything is made clear. All I know is that I want these things to not matter to me and to others, although I know that they do. I’m not sure how to balance individuality along with a sense of fitting into a community. I also don’t know how to get rid of this feeling that I know someone before we’ve ever met, just because I see what they are wearing.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Book It- My decision to write a book

Back when I was a runner, I learned that the best way to make sure that something I wanted to achieve was going to happen was to make my commitment public. That is the reason why, despite my fear of doing this, that I’m sharing my decision to write a book.

I very much enjoy writing and I’ve been very gratified by the fact that a number of people have told me that they think I am a good writer. A few have even suggested that I write a book. I have to admit that I’ve thought about it before, but never acted on it for several reasons. I don’t want to write a book just for the sake of writing one. In fact, I try not to write unless I have something I want to say. It’s why there can be long stretches of time when I don’t blog. The one time I thought I was ready to write, a running injury put an end to what I hoped might be a good story. Additionally, I have no interest in writing something that people will not want to read. I do not want a few people to purchase a book out of pity or due to the loyalty of friendship. Finally, and that has only changed somewhat recently, I’ve been scared. What if I try and fail? What if nobody reads it? What if people don’t like it? Fear alone has been enough to keep me from trying.

Things changed while I was in Israel. While taking part in a seminar run by the Herzl Institute, I not only learned incredible things and met some wonderful people, but some new ideas coalesced with some old ones, and got me thinking. Although I’m not yet ready to share a lot of what I experienced, the seminar was, on many levels, transformative. As I was saying goodbye to someone, he said to me “You have a sefer in you”. I’m pretty sure that he did not mean that I had swallowed one, although he’d have been forgiven for thinking I swallowed a chassan’s shas. I was very flattered, and a little freaked out. Sefarim are not written by people like me. They are written by tamidei chahcamim, in Hebrew, and contain, or at least ought to contain, chiddushim. I thanked him, and shared his comment with nobody.

Last week, I met a Facebook friend in person for the first time, at the Yemei Iyun in Alon Shevut. Among other things, he told me that he likes the way I write. That was enough for me to share what I had been told the week before, and with a little prodding from my new friend, I began to consider the possibility that I might write a book. Getting past my fear, although without leaving it behind for good, I decided right then and there that I will indeed try to write a book. My intent is not to write a sefer. I still don’t think of myself as someone who is ready to write one. Maybe I will change my mind one day, but for now, I intend to write a book.

So what will I write about? My goal is try to write a book about tefillah. It will not be about hilchos tefillah, or even about the philosophy or theology behind tefillah, although those things will certainly inform what I write. My goal is to write a book that will be more about touching the heart, and less about intellectual ideas. I hope to write a book that deals with this essential activity in the real ways that we experience tefillah, and addresses the aspects of davening that make it so challenging. It will not be the book of an expert, but instead contain the thoughts and struggles of a fellow traveller. If it succeeds it will do so by making tefillah more real, by containing thoughts of how to make the act of pouring one’s heart out to God more honest and raw. I don’t know if I have that in me, but I am ready to find out.

I am giving myself up to two years to get it done. I’m hoping that my experience in learning Perek Tefillat HaShachar with my students this year will give me much to think about. I have a lot to read and think about before the real writing takes place. Still, I’m on the clock. I’m putting my goal out there. I’m ready to try and make it happen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Righting A Wrong- Thoughts on Rabbi Dr. Isaac Breuer on his 70th yahrtzeit

I write the following with two connected goals in mind. The first is to give thanks and acknowledge a debt to a thinker who has greatly contributed to my understanding of Judaism, philosophy, and theology. The second, and more important reason, is to right a wrong. To whatever degree possible I wish to bring a great thinker to the attention of many in the Jewish world who can gain so much from his writings. As the 70th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Dr. Isaac Breuer zt”l is today, the 13th of Av, it is time that he and his writings get the attention they deserve.

When I went through a major crisis of faith, I reached out to many people who I hoped could help me. One way in which they did so was by recommending books and articles for me to read. Among those whose writings were suggested were Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Kook, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It goes without saying that all of them were great thinkers and deserved to be on the list. It was only several years later, as my reading and search continue, that by chance I read a footnote which led me to the writings of Rabbi Breuer. How could it be, I wondered, that the thought of such a great thinker was not better known, and that nobody among those scholars and rabbis from whom I sought guidance thought to recommend any of his works for me to study.

Having read two of his biographies (this being the more important of the two) , as well as a number of his short essays, there seems to be certain reasons that kept from Rabbi Breuer from being better known. Although a good deal of his writings have been translated into Hebrew and English, much of what he wrote was in German. It was only later in his life, when he had already moved to Israel that he wrote several books in Hebrew. Additionally, as with many great thinkers, he was not so successful in the public arena. As one reads about his attempt to steer the Agudas Yisroel in a more moderate direction, one which, later in his life would have included joining up with the Mizrachi, it is hard not to wonder with some sadness about what might  have been had he been more politically astute. Indeed, as Shmuel Pappenheim writes a fascinating post today on Facebook, to the degree that Breuer is remembered it is done outside of the world of the very Agudah which he helped build. Furthermore, while he had a deep love for the land and people of Israel, his views on Zionism were complex and nuanced, and thus, not in line with any of the usual pro or anti-Zionist camps. Finally, in some ways, it seems to me, he disappeared in the shadow of his illustrious grandfather Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, especially as his grandfather’s legacy was steered away from the path of moderation which he and his grandson espoused. This is is particularly disappointing as Breuer was uniquely qualified to take what he learned from his grandfather and bring it to later generations with some important philosophical and theological developments.

It is said that Breuer had two photographs on the wall of his house. One was of his grandfather, and the second was of Immanuel Kant. Breuer was able to combine the thought of Rav Hirsch, Kant and other German philosophers, including Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as a deep understanding of Kabbalah into a philosophical and theological approach which addressed many of the questions that plagued the younger generations of Hirsch’s Frankfurt community. Among them, are many issues which continue to challenge many observant Jews of today including issues of biblical criticism, morality and autonomy, and religious belief in a world which grows increasingly hostile to such faith.

Every Shabbos I dedicate some of my time to going through Rav Breuer’s masterful work Nachliel. I have heard it described as an update of his grandfather’s Chorev, itself an important work which explains the reasons for the mitzvot, both individually and as a whole. While this description is true enough as far as it goes, it does a disservice to Breuer. While Nachliel does build upon many of the ideas of his grandfather, it also includes a plethora of thought based on the varied philosophical and theological texts that Breuer studied. Additionally, whereas Rav Hirsch’s system was built on being part of a separate Jewish community in Germany, Rabbi Breuer wrote for those who had returned to Israel, and saw the potential for Israel to be the place of the true messianic redemption. To cite just one example, Rabbi Breuer develops the idea of Shabbos, in connection with the shemitah year, Yovel, and the messianic age, and talks of how God wishes for us to act politically, economically and socially.

As an educator who deals with both adolescents and adults who are looking for a deep, sophisticated and meaningful system of belief, I constantly find trenchant ideas in Nachliel, ideas which might not only be potentially beneficial to my students. I find ideas which help me in my continued attempt to develop as a thinking Jew. If this short essay can help bring this great thinker to those like myself who can benefit from his writings, I will be most gratified.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Looking More Broadly- On the value of chassidic thought for moderns (Part I)

It is well-known that Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveichik used to give shiur in Boston each summer to his talmidim. What is not as well-known  is that one year, The Rav, as he was colloquially known, decided to give shiur in Likutei Torah, written by the Ba'al HaTanya, a sefer for which he had a strong affinity, rather than in gemara. When his talmidim protested and said they were not interested, he said something to the effect that his talmidim want his head, and not his heart.

Recently, there was a thoughtful conversation on Facebook about the need to come up with a theology that speaks to the modern observant Jew. Being as I see this as a valuable goal, although not one I am qualified to contribute to, I will not make a suggestion of what it might look like. Instead, I’d like to suggest a less obvious source which could be of value in coming up with such a theology, namely chassidus. Over a series of blog posts, I’d like to flesh out the idea of why I find chassidus to be a valuable source for the thinking modern-Jew who is interested in theology. To begin, I will explain why it is an under-utilized source.

All or Nothing Thinking

There are aspects of chassidus than many moderns, myself included, will struggle to accept. Theurgical ideas, based on kabbalistic sources, often do not speak to many of us.The idea that our mitzvos create worlds or have some sort of effect on God is not one that speaks to many people who might otherwise find value in the ideas of chassidus.

It is a mistaken notion that chassidus is a package deal that must be entirely embraced or rejected. One can, as I do, find great psychological and theological insight in the writings of various chassidic thinkers, without embracing all that they wrote.


When I speak with people about chassidus, they are often confused by what I mean. Some think of it as having to do with chassidic communities, dress and mores. Others confuse it with neo-chassidus, which, while it can be of value to some people, is not what I have in mind. Others think of the “Na-Nach” Breslovers and assume that somehow, that approach represents chassidus and/or the thought of Rav Nachman. Whatever the reason, many people who are certain that chassidic thought has nothing to offer them, are rejecting an incorrect idea of what chassidic thought is really about.

Lack of Familiarity

I live in a community which has a large sefarim store. There are all sorts of sefarim and books which can be purchased there, including some which deal with philosophy, kabbalah, and Jewish thought. The one near-exception are works of chassidus. Misnagdic institutions have decided that, even when they touch upon hashkafa, that chassidus is out. This is somewhat surprising considering that some Roshei Yeshiva from that world were influenced by chassidic ideas. To cite just one example, Rav Hutner’s Pachad Yitzchak, in addition to quoting ideas from the Maharal and Ramchal, contains chassidic ideas as well from Ishbitz and Rav Tzadok among others.Additionally, the misnagdic and chassidic worlds of day have more similarities than differences.


Many chassidic works contain language and ideas which are not easy to understand for those who do not have some familiarity with kabbalistic concepts. Even when these concepts are not referred to explicitly, they are part of the background information needed to fully grasp the ideas. Just as one who is not familiar with Greek philosophy misses out when trying to study the philosophical works of the Rishonim, so too some basic familiarity with kabbalistic ideas is required in order to grasp  many chassidic ideas.

I’ve laid out some of the reasons that make chassidic thought something that many thinking Jews find either inaccessible or not worthy of study. In a future post, I will attempt to make the case as to how these challenges can be overcome and why it behooves us to do so.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Solid Foundation- What is the unifying factor in our lives?

It’s one of my favorite stories in Tanach. Eliyahu HaNavi stands on Har Carmel having demonstrated that God is real, and that the prophets of Ba’al are frauds. As Bnei Yisrael stand there watching, Eliyahu chides them “עד מתי אתם פוסחים על שתי הסעיפים?” In modern parlance we might say “How long do you plan to be a double agent?” Make a choice he tells them. Either serve God or serve Ba’al, but stop serving both. In that situation, at least temporarily, Bnei Yisrael made the right choice.

Until recently, when I heard that story I assumed that they were simply living a double life; at times serving God, and at other times serving Ba’al. Looked at that way, the choice is simple. Pick one of the sides and stick with it, while leaving the false choice behind. What if Eliyahu is telling them
something stronger?

There’s a famous letter written from the great Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin Rav Yitzchak Hutner to one of his students. The student had written to the Rosh Yeshiva concerned that by leaving the full-time world of the yeshiva in order to earn a living he was living a double life. In a beautiful response, which exudes Rav Hutner’s love for his talmid (one of many examples of this love that can be found in his letters), he says that if one lives in two different locations he is living a double life, but if one lives in a single home with many rooms, he can still live a single life. In other words, if properly focused, even our “profane” activities can be of one piece with our inherently holy endeavors. (See here for more on this theme in the writings of Rav Hutner).

Ah, but there’s the rub. Living in one house need not lead to a double life, but even when it does not, what is the unifying force that ties together all that we do? Is a single house enough?

I look around sometimes and wonder what it is that most motivates us as religious Jews. We have multiple options for learning daf yomi, including on a train heading to work, a plethora of choices for kosher sushi and flavored herrings, and shuls to match every possible hashkafa. Never has it been easier to be “frum”. You can be shomer shabbos and still be the Secretary of the Treasury, wear a sheitel and be a CEO, and be makpid on chalav yisrael and have a successful career in academia. Still, I am curious as to what is the foundation on which our house of many rooms is built. In many cases we live solidly modern lives certified by the OU or even the Kof-K, but where do our loyalties lay? What is the singular lens through which we see all that we do? What is our one, the thing we love most? Towards what do we most aspire? We don’t live double lives, but it is good that we deeply examine what kind of single lives we live and aspire to live.