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.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

There's No There Here- On looking for the answer

I was running but getting nowhere. In fact, in what I knew to be an illusion, the finish line seemed to be getting father away with each step I took. It was like being trapped in a work of art by Escher. I was less than 1/10th of a mile from the of what was most probably, unbeknownst to me, my final marathon. I was spent and just wanted to be done. I’d worked hard enough. I just wanted to get to the end.

I read a lot. These days, much of it is about Judaism, God, prayer, and religious experience. I sometimes discover authors and thinkers whose ideas move me. While some fit into my current approach to my Avodas HaShem, others push me away from my comfort zone, reminding again, that I am not there. That place where I often yearn to be, where I can coast, knowing I’ve found my derech. The approach at which all the annoying questions fade away. Even when, on occasion, I think I might be there, something comes along to remind me that I’m not.

The sense that there is some thinker whose ideas I can swallow whole, unfiltered, sometimes appeals to me. I think of those whose ideas bounce around in my head, those whose words tug at my soul with the alluring promise of putting an end to my search. How do these approaches fit together? Do they? Can they? More importantly, are these ideas truly a part of me, or are they volumes tucked away in the library of my mind, where they will gather dust, or worse, be checked out on occasion to suggest to others that I have answers?

It’s a hunger I can’t fully explain. I think of the words of the midrash Bikeish Yaakov leisheiv b’shalva. Is wanting to rest so bad? What’s wrong with wanting to take a break from the challenges and vicissitudes of life? If I can’t get there, or more correctly, if there is no there to get to, how do I live in the search? How do I function in a community where so many seem to know that they have the answer? What do I say when I am asked a question that feels like a punch to the chest. asking more of me than I can answer with a quote or reference?

Perhaps the answer is found in putting down the books, at least for a while, and being alone with myself. Thinking about who I am, rather than what others tell me about who they are. Thoughts and ideas can be found in books, but not solutions to the biggest questions. Those questions need to be addressed in the quiet moments where others’ ideas are left behind, and the books we are writing about ourselves, however inconsistently and imperfectly, are read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Path From Pain to Joy- Hillel Zeitlin's gift to me

It is tempting to intellectualize what I want to say here. It would be much easier, indeed much safer, than what I wish to do. I do not want to share an idea. Rather I want to reveal a small part of my soul, but if I do so, and put what I write out there, I leave myself open to getting hurt from those who see it and respond. Still, at least in this case, my desire to reveal a side of who I am, is deeper than my fear of getting hurt.

There are few individuals whose words, ideas, and feelings have moved me as deeply as those of Hillel Zeitlin ztvk”l. I am hardly an expert in what he has written, as I am still at the beginning of exploring his works. Still, he is one of the very few rabbis of whom I could imagine being a chosid, sitting eagerly at his feet, drinking in his every word. In his writing, both poetry and prose (which itself often borders on the poetic) he is so open, so full of depth and introspection, so clear about his desire to serve HaShem. Imitating the Kivyachol, he pours out his soul onto the page.

He was a ba’al teshuva in the deepest sense of the term. Born into a chassidic family in Homel he lost his faith after encountering biblical criticism, and philosophy. Yet he came back. Changed, I’m sure, but with the deepest of faith, faith that flows out of every word he writes. Even in the writings which were written before his return that I have read, there is depth through which one can almost feel his inner turbulence. I have not yet had the chance to read his words where he explains how he was able to return, as, sadly, in what is often the deepest (unintended) compliment, his sefarim have not been reprinted, and are not so easy to come by.

What can I take from his words? Dare I think that I can aspire to be like him in even the smallest way? What can I incorporate into my Avodas HaShem from this tzaddik who went to his death from the Warsaw Ghetto, wrapped in his tallis and tefillin, and clutching his beloved Zohar, like a modern-day member of the Aseres Harugei Malchus?

I have not struggled as he did, but it does seem to me that when one experiences a feeling of great distance from HaShem, that the gap is seldom bridged by returning to what one was. The struggle, the search, the panic, fear, and sadness, all combine to generate a new path. It is a path that can not be found in any other way. In his joyous service of the Ribbono Shel Olam, I see in him a confirmation of my hunch that this path, once reached, leads to something that makes all the struggle and doubt transform into worship and service and joy.