Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Leaving Har Sinai- On the challenges of taking Matan Torah Into life

Thanks to a wonderful shiur I listened to on Friday, I headed into Shabbos and Yom Tov with strong expectations. Rav Ami Silver gave over a derasha from Derech HaMelech, which the Piaseczna Rebbe first delivered nearly 90 years ago. I went into Shabbos wanting to learn through the rebbe’s words on my own, as I strongly wanted to internalize the message. It took a few times going over it, but eventually I was able to reconnect with the message of the derasha. I was deeply moved by the idea that Kabbalas HaTorah is something which re-occurs throughout time, and that we need to see ourselves as having something worthy to merge with the Torah, rather than accepting it passively. The part which touched me the most was the idea that we must dig down within ourselves, in our own “dirt” to discover that even there, we connect with the Ribbono Shel Olam.

Over the chag, I continued to learn from the Derech HaMelech, as well as from Rav Kook’s Midbar Shur. Combined with the time I spent with family, and the learning I did with several of our children, Shavuos was a deeply meaningful experience. I truly felt that it was a personal Z’man Matan Toraseinu.

Just as suddenly, as I went from Yom Tov to chol, the experience disappeared. I remember the words, and the ideas they conveyed, but I can no longer access them. Even as today is Iseru Chag, the day when we are to bind the experiences of the yom tov to our lives, the switch from kodesh to chol is too dramatic. While I try and pass it off as being a product of physical and mental exhaustion, it seems to me that something else is going on. As I stood at the base of Har Sinai, I could imagine finding the holy within dirt, even within my own. Now, having traveled on, my imagination fails, and this profound teaching has reverted to just an intellectual concept.

I better understand how 40 days after Kabbalas HaTorah there can be a Cheit HaEigel. To receive the Torah is an avodah, but to bring it with you from Har Sinai is a greater one, and right now I don’t know how to do that.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Mati V'lo Mati- Experiencing chassidus through seforim and the academy

One of the highlights of my week is the 45 minute chavrusa I have before mincha each Shabbos afternoon learning the Torah of the Piaseczna Rebbe. The combination of contemplating his approach to chassidus, along with the timing so close to the end of Shabbos, a time the Rebbe describes  as having the high that comes from having reached the highest stage of Shabbos, along with the sadness that it will soon be over, has a profound effect on me. Temporarily transformed, Mincha following this chavrusa is usually qualitatively different from the rest of my tefillos.

It is not just the chassidus of the Piaseczna Rebbe which draws me. In chassidus in general, I have found a psychologically profound approach, which has become a lens through which I see the world. The focus on interiority, and on finding Hashem in all parts of my life, has transformed the way I understand Judaism. At the same time, I not only do not consider myself a chassid, but I also find myself drawn to various academic approaches to chassidus, works which often pull back the curtain on that which I find so meaningful; analyzing, deconstructing, and, well, in some ways, neutering it. After recently picking up Mendel Piekarz’s book on Polish chassidus, I found myself wondering why I engage in two activities which, although somewhat connected, are in many important ways so diametrically opposed.

It would be easy to say that the academic approach adds to my appreciation of chassidus, helping flesh it out in a way somewhat akin to utilitarian nature of secular knowledge in the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach, but that would be letting myself off the hook. As much as there are times when the academic approach enhances my appreciation of chassidus, there are many others when it detracts. Even as I try to avoid those approaches which are more glaringly hostile, or coming with a strong agenda, it is not always possible to know what I will discover before proceeding. It is not always good to know too much about one’s heroes. In certain respects, less is more.

If I’m to be honest, there’s a part of me that is relieved to have some of the chassidus I learn demystified. I am deeply moved by much of what I learn, but I want it on my terms. I’m not interested in fully diving in, something that at earlier points in my life might have been tempting. While I have written glowingly (if you’ll excuse the pun) of someone who made the jump, I could never do so for all sorts of reasons.The academic literature helps put a bit of a brake, or even a damper, on some of my enthusiasm and passion. This helps create a “yes, however” approach in me, which leaves me somewhere in the middle, simultaneously drawn towards, and pulling away from the chassidus I learn, although not in equal measure.

The elusive balance which I’d love to achieve is best conveyed in a delightful story told by Rav Menachem Frohman about Professor Yehuda Liebes, which I encountered in a post by Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld on the Seforim blog. Rav Frohman writes:

I will conclude with a story 'in praise of Liebes' (Yehuda explained to me that he assumes the meaning of his family name is: one who is related to a woman named Liba or, in the changing of a name, one who is related to anAhuva/loved one). As is well known, in the past few years, Yehuda has the custom of ascending ( ='aliya le-regel)[21] on La"g b'Omer to the celebration ( =hilula) of RaShb"I[22] in Meron. Is there anyone who can comprehend - including Yehuda himself - how a university professor, whose entire study of Zohar is permeated with the notion that the Zohar is a book from the thirteenth- century (and himself composed an entire monograph: "How the Zohar Was Written?"[23]), can be emotionally invested along with the masses of the Jewish people from all walks of life, in the celebration of RaShb"I, the author of the Holy Zohar?

Four years ago, Yehuda asked me to join him on this pilgrimage to Meron, and I responded to him with the following point: when I stay put, I deliver a long lecture on the Zohar to many students on La"g b'Omer, and perhaps this is more than going to the grave of RaShb"I.[24] Yehuda bested me, and roared like a lion: "All year long - Zohar, but on La"g b'Omer - RaShb"I!"
(emphasis added).

I’d like to believe that somehow I can simultaneously be deeply immersed in chassidus, letting it mold and shape me, while at the same time imagining myself to be sophisticated enough to know the difference between what nourishes me, and what I can experience with a knowing wink, or even some skepticism or doubt. I don’t think I’m there yet, but increasingly I believe I can almost make out my destination from here.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

With A Lot of Help From My Friends- NYC Half-Marathon Race Report

After nearly three months of training, and raising nearly $6200 to help purchase an ambulance for Magen David Adom in Memory of Daniella Moffson z”l, it’s race day!

I’m nervous. While I’ve gone as far as 9.1 miles on one of my training run/walks, I haven’t run more than 4 miles straight. I know I’ll finish even if I have to walk the whole thing, but there’s a three hour time limit. Who knows? If I don’t finish by then, maybe race sponsor United Airlines will pick me up on the course, and stick me in the overhead bin on the bus.

Before the race

We get to the starting line at the Prospect Park Zoo and it’s freezing. How cold is it? The polar bears at the zoo are shivering. The penguins have started to waddle south. I’m wearing three shirts. A long sleeve running shirt, the flaming pink team shirt, and an NCSY sweatshirt from Vancouver which I’m planning on ditching if it ever warms up.

A random guy comes over and says “Shalom”. How does he know I’m Jewish? Could it be the beard? It’s only later on when I see a picture my wife took after dropping us off, that I realize my sweatshirt, which I haven't worn in ages, has a giant Jewish star on the back.

As I’m waiting to start the race, I find myself wondering whether I’ll see anyone I know. Suddenly, a Facebook friend dressed up as Ironman walks by. Little do I know that he is not the last friend I’m going to see today.

Mile 1

We’re off! They say failing to plan is planning to fail. I don’t know who they are, but I hope they’re wrong. I’ve been so busy with so many things that I haven’t really thought about what my approach should be out on the course, other than a friend’s advice to walk the water stops. All I know is that the first mile is downhill and ignoring everything I know about starting slowly, I let the excitement of the race get to me, and I’m going too fast.

I see someone in an old Camp Simcha sweatshirt. Deciding to do some bageling of my own, I say “Go Camp Simcha!”. Only when the lady wearing it, who’s old enough to be my mother, turns around and makes clear she doesn’t speak English, do I realize she probably got the shirt without working in camp.

Mile 2

It’s starting to warm up a bit. I ditch the sweatshirt. As I take it off, I notice my bib is torn by several of the pin-holes. I don’t want to lose the bib, which contains the timing chip. Let me tell you that re-pinning on a bib while running is not as easy as it looks. Ouch!

We pass BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I think back to a night, probably thirty years ago when my mom ob”m dragged us to see South Pacific, in an attempt to culture us. I'm not uncultured but all I remember from that night was a bunch of singing sailors/

We approach the Manhattan Bridge. Having barely trained on any hills, I decide to walk. As I do, I start cheering fellow runners who are running with Jewish teams, wearing shirts for the always inspiring Team Achilles, or wearing shirts marking them as survivors. As I get to the top, there are a couple of NYPD officers standing near their motorcycles. I ask them for a ride.

On the downhill part of the bridge, I push it. I’m going pretty fast. Well, sort of. Somewhere out there, not too far away, Rochie and some of the kids are waiting for me. I’m really looking forward to seeing them.

Mile 3

We get to the Lower East Side and start to see Hebrew and Yiddish signs on the wall marking many of the old buildings. Naturally, I ask every frum guy I see “Which way to the nearest minyan?”. 

Someone random calls out “Go Pesach!”.

Mile 4

I see Rochie and the kids, along with a sister-in-law and niece who live in the area. I’m really excited to see and hear them. After some hugs and kisses, I’m off. I’m sorry to leave. I’m having a hard time with the running, and am pretty sure I’m going too slow.

I look down at my shirt, and see the picture of Daniella and remind myself why I’m doing this.

Mile 5

We get to the FDR Drive. As usual, it’s crowded and I’m barely moving.

Random drivers going the opposite direction honk to cheer us on. It really helps.

Mile 6

I look at my watch. Surprisingly my pace looks good, even though I’ve been walking quite a bit. I might beat the three hour limit.

I see the UN. I’m really tired and trying to conserve my energy, but I still manage to thumb my nose as I go past. I can almost swear I hear them voting to condemn Israel.

Mile 7

We get off at 42nd St. It is really cold. We pass Grand Central Station, and the thought occurs to me how much faster I could get to the park by train.

Lost in my thoughts, I look up to see one of my favorite buildings, the New York Public Library, which besides being a beautiful building, was one of my dad’s childhood haunts.

I have to admit, running through Times Square is pretty cool. The cheering really helps.

Mile 8

I’m starting to think I might finish in the 2:40s. I find myself sprinting.

Mile 9

We get to Central Park, which is one of my favorite places to run. At this point, I’m past the longest training run I did. Incredibly, I’m still feeling great. Somewhere in the back of my mind I start to wonder if a finish in the 2:30s is possible.

I look up and see the Met on my right, and the Obelisk on my left and I start to cry. I’m thinking of the times earlier in the year when I’d walk nearby, desperate to get any exercise, watching the runners zip past, and wondering whether I’d ever run again. Incredibly, here I am.

I feel my Ramaz wristband dangling on my arm and think of all the incredible support I’ve received from so many people in the building which is just a few blocks to the east. From my colleagues who donated way beyond what I could have imagined, to my students who cheered for me as I ran laps in the gym, to the guards and secretaries who frequently encouraged me and asked about my training, they made me feel like they were all on my team.

Mile 10

The Reservoir, which is my favorite running spot in NY is on my left. I can almost swear I hear Szell asking “Is it safe?”.

I’m cheering on my fellow runners, and I realize I’ve become one of the most annoying people to meet at this point in a race; the late-race peppy guy.

Mile 11

Oh my gosh! I’m going to finish in the 2:30s, unless...I try to banish the disaster scenarios from my head.

Late in the mile I’m walking a hill, and I hear someone call my name. There’s my friend Joe who I’ve been wanting to run with for a while. He’s a really good guy, with a huge heart, who’s been dealing with his share of challenges. “I’m running you to the top of the hill” he tells me. It really helps. “Don’t go”, I want to say as we reach the top of the hill.

Mile 12

Suddenly I again hear someone call my name and there’s Ehud, a friend of mine who’s a great runner, and an even better person. He’s been following my race on an App and came to the park to cheer me on. Thanks to my flaming pink shirt, he spotted me and decided to run me in. He encourages me to give it all I’ve got. Despite his being capable of running twice as fast as my current pace, he tells me I look great.

People are cheering. “Go Pesach!” I hear. I also hear “Go Pee-such!”. Whatever. I'll take it.

Mile 13
800 meters to go , then 400. Ehud points out the Israeli flag at the side of the course.

There’s the finish line! I’m fighting back tears, as I high five the spectators.
I cross the line without pushing button on my watch hoping for a good picture by the course photographer (PS they missed me).


Ehud and I walk for a while chatting and continuing to catch up.

As we leave the park, I spot the Moffsons and some of the rest of the DMF team. I’m so happy to see them, and so honored to have been part of this incredible team which has raise over $130K.

What’s next?

This is what I’ve started asking myself. A generous friend offered to pay for my entry to do another half-marathon at the end of April, but with regrets, I passed. Another friend told me that he’s glad the Running Rabbi is back. Truth is, I’m not. I’m not really a runner yet. I can’t run hills, and I still struggle to run for too long outside. I think I’ll do a 10K at the end of May, as I continue to train and try to lose weight. After that, I might consider another half.

For now I’m so thankful for this experience for Rochie, the kids, and all the other family members, friends, and colleagues who have helped me along the way. While I’ve been the one doing the training, they’ve been the one to keep me going.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Hugging the Divine- Finding Hashem in the Torah we learn

The rosh yeshiva who I heard speak this past Friday night, was as brilliant as I’d been led to believe. Listening to him speak, one could believe the possibly apocryphal story which I’d heard about him, that a Soloveichik once said that they’d never met anyone else who who could think like that who didn’t share their last name. Still, as I tried to follow his brilliant analysis of a difficult Rambam, I felt like something was missing.

Thinking about it afterwards, I tried to reflect on how the shiur which I’d witnessed was any different than what I would have experienced had I listened to a lecture from a world-class physicist. While I imagine that in the latter case I would have been less familiar with the content of the lecture, I can still imagine that I could be mesmerized by their brilliance. I found myself thinking of ‘“What” has Brisk Wrought?’, an article Rav Moshe Lichtenstein wrote in the Torah U’Madda Journal nearly 20 years ago. In the Article, he spoke about the limitations of the Brisker Derech of learning, noting that they often stopped at the “what” of categorization, without moving on to the why. It is for this reason that while I’m often impressed by the analysis that comes from those well-versed in the Brisker Derech, I’ve rarely found it religiously edifying. In thinking about the rosh yeshiva’s shiur, I realized that for me, it felt like the Ribbono Shel Olam was missing, or that if he was there, it was with a separation of more than six degrees of separation with which we are all said to be connected. It was as if I was discussing the method by which a beloved friend’s favorite shoes are stitched, rather than talking about something more directly connected to my friend.

The next day, given the opportunity to attend another of the rosh yeshiva’s shiurim, I instead decided to learn with my regular chavrusa.It wasn’t a difficult choice. While I can’t say when I will again get the opportunity to hear a shiur of that caliber, it is during my weekly chavrusa in the Torah of the Piaseczna Rebbe’s Torah that I often experience the Divine.

As we sat learning Mevo Hashearim, the rebbe quoted a beautiful mashal from the Ba’al HaTanya used to explain why learning the non-esoteric parts of Torah also has value. When one learns Torah of any kind, one was is hugging Hakadosh baruch Hu who is found within the garments of Torah. Even if a particular approach involves hugging Hashem through more garments, one merely needs to keep in mind who it is who is wearing those garments. Ironically, it was here, in a chassidic rebbe’s defense of learning nigleh and not just nistar, that I found a way to frame the Brisker Torah which I had learned on Friday night. Even within analyzing the categories of the Rambam and focusing on a halacha which lacks practical application, one can, with the right focus, hug HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

More Than A Peirush- a review of the new Rav Kook Siddur

“A student asked his Rosh Yeshiva whether he should study Rav Kook’s perush to the siddur. In his inimitable style, the Rosh Yeshiva replied” ‘Ach, it’s not a perush to the siddur.’ Intrigued, the student asked “If not a perush to the siddur, then what is it?’
‘A neshamah on paper.’”

While it has been pointed out by both those who read the quote carefully, as well as those familiar with the actual context, that Rav Yaakov Weinberg, the above quoted rosh yeshiva, did not necessarily mean his words as a compliment, seeing Olat Reiyah as less than a peirush on the siddur and only “a neshmah on paper”, I believe that Koren, the publishers of the new Rav Kook Siddur were right to use this quote. Regardless of the rosh yeshiva’s intent, Rav Kook did not merely write a commentary, with all the limitations that this term implies. Instead he truly bared his soul, and even more importantly, showed that real tefillah cannot happen without each of us doing the same.

Until now, as with much of his thought, Rav Kook’s approach to tefillah was largely off limits to the English-speaking world. Rav Bezalel Naor, who wrote the commentary which accompanies the new Rav Kook Siddur, has once again made Rav Kook’s ideas available to a broader audience. As he has done with other of his published works based on Rav Kook (his Pesach haggadah being another example), Rav Naor has stayed away from a straightforward translation of Rav Kook’s sefer, in this case Olat Reiyah. While this decision means that not all of Rav Kook’s ideas on tefillah are to be found in the new siddur, it offers the benefit of being a single volume which can be used for davening and not just just to study. Additionally, Rav Naor does a masterful job taking Rav Kook’s difficult Hebrew and deep concepts, and making them understandable. On top of this, Rav Naor offers many of his own insights culled from his many decades of studying Rav Kook’s ideas.

I was pleased that Rav Naor decided to begin the new siddur with the translation of Inyanei Tefillah, Rav Kook’s explanation of the idea of tefillah which appears at the beginning of Olat Reiyah. In doing so, he offers the reader the ability to understand Rav Kook’s unique approach to prayer, which he sees as latently always taking place in the human soul, and becoming active during times of actual tefillah. With this introduction, and the other ideas which follow, one understands why Rav Kook could never have merely written a commentary on the siddur. For him, the words we say when we stand before our Creator are not merely vortelach, clever though they may be. Instead, they are words with which we express what lays most deeply within ourselves, or perhaps more properly, who we are in our deepest essence.

[One note for those who will want to use The Rav Kook Siddur along with Olat Reiyah. Rav Naor used an earlier edition of Olat Reiyah, and as such, the pages listed in the footnotes in the new siddur do not match up with the pages in the newer edition of Olat Reiyah.]

For those who wish to use this new siddur to not only study Rav Kook’s ideas, but to work on their avodas hashem, they now now have a new powerful tool to use as they truly engage in what is avodah shebalev, service of the heart. If Rav Kook truly bared his soul in writing Olat Reiyah, Rav Naor’s new masterful siddur allows us to see who Rav Kook truly was, and who we might be through the gradual baring of our soul on prayer.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Aish Kodesh in its Historical Context- A review of Torah From The Years of Wrath 1939-1943

Without lifting up a gun or molotov cocktail, Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe committed some of the greatest acts of heroism of World War II. While experiencing much personal trauma and suffering, the rebbe managed to offer words of encouragement and hope to unknown scores of Jews, religious and irreligious, chassidim and misnagedim alike, who, like him, were trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto. Those who have read the rebbe’s words of Torah delivered on many of the Shabboses and Yamim Tovim between the years 1939-1943, the written record of which miraculously survived after being buried in the ground before the ghetto was destroyed, have been inspired by his uplifting words delivered under the most trying of circumstances.Still, until recently, readers had an incomplete picture of his words.

After being discovered in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, the rebbe’s derashos were published by some of his surviving students and chassidim in a work they titled Aish Kodesh. While they did their best to give over the rebbe’s words as accurately as possible, there were various typos and other errors that made it into the sefer. Recently, Dr. Daniel Reiser of Herzog Academic College and Tzefat Academic College published an incredible two-volume critical edition of the rebbe’s derashos which is destined to be the one used by anyone interested in learning the rebbe’s wartime Torah. The first volume includes fascinating biographical information about the rebbe, as well as a fully corrected version of each of the derashos. The second volume has a facsimile of the actual pages which were buried by Oneg Shabbos, as well as a transcription in multiple colors of the rebbe’s words. Still, one problem remained. In delivering his words of Torah, the rebbe consciously chose to almost entirely refrain from mentioning the name of those who were behind the terrible suffering which he and his listeners experienced. With almost no exceptions, one who reads the rebbe’s words from this time period could theoretically be unaware of the particular tragic time period in which it was written. While his divrei Torah provide comfort and hope to those who are suffering, the reader is largely  left unaware of the particular events which led the rebbe to say what he did  each week.

To fill this void, Dr. Henry Abramson, dean of Touro College in Brooklyn has written Torah From the Years of Wrath 1939-1943: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh. As with Reiser’s books, Dr. Abramson’s book promises to be groundbreaking for both scholars and laymen alike.

After an opening chapter which provides biographical  information about the rebbe from before the war, there are three chapters each of which concentrates on a year from the war, what the rebbe spoke about at that time, and which events led to the choice of topic. Through Abramson’s thorough scholarship and compelling writing, the reader’s eyes are opened as the divrei Torah are connected to the rumors which might have been going through the ghetto that week, a new policy which led to additional suffering, or the narrowing of the parameters of the Warsaw Ghetto. Just to cite an example, the rebbe chose to speak about the walls of a house getting tzaraas during the week where the Nazis built the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. This is just one of the scores of examples that Abramson’s scholarship has uncovered.

In addition to providing the background information for many of the derashos, Dr. Abramson also provides other fascinating information about the rebbe’s time in the ghetto. One of the highlights of the book for me was reading about the rebbe’s pre-dawn visit to the mikveh on erev Yom Kippur. Meticulously planned, the rebbe’s efforts to immerse in the mikveh came at great risk, as the Nazis had closed all mikvaos and threatened to kill anyone who attempted to immerse. Even for those who can’t fully understand what going to the mikveh meant for the rebbe, the details of his visit with the help of others, as well as what happened when he reached the mikveh (page 139), will leave the reader speechless.

The book concludes with a fifth chapter where Dr. Abramson addresses something which has long been a point of contention among scholars. As one reads rebbe’s words from during the war, one notices a shift in his outlook. While at the beginning of the war the rebbe seemed to see the suffering that he and his fellow jews were experiencing  as fitting within traditional explanations for earlier tragic eras, where teshuva is required, it is clear that at a certain point he recognized that the level of suffering was way beyond that which could be explained by seeing it as a mere extension of earlier tragedies. The rebbe no longer suggested that those who were listening to him could change things by returning to God. Instead, he tried to figure out how a believer should view this sui generis experience. While unfortunately certain academic scholars have used this change to suggest that the rebbe (God forbid) lost his faith, Abramson shows the absurdity of such a claim (Rieser does this as well in the first volume of his work). He makes a conclusive case that while the rebbe struggled to make sense of the atrocities that the Jewish people were suffering, he remained what he had always been, a person with deep and enduring faith.

Dr. Abramson has written a book which is destined to lead to an increase of study of the rebbe’s Torah and thought in both the academic and Jewish world. His is a work which while maintaining high academic standards and containing ideas which will advance the field, is at once also accessible to the non-scholar, and written in an engaging and compelling manner. Especially for the reader who is looking for a work which contains both Torah and Avodas HaShem, along with serious scholarship, I can’t recommend this incredible book strongly enough.

Dr. Abramson will have a book launch for Torah From The Years of Wrath this Monday, October 30th at Touro College in Brooklyn. For more information, please click here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On Being Godly- God's place in the life of an Orthodox Jew

It happened a number of times. I started to think about writing what I’m about to write, and then I decided not to. I wasn’t sure if this was a topic which I could address in a thoughtful, meaningful, and nuanced manner. Each time however, something occurred which convinced me that I had to write it. Yesterday, after this pattern was completed for a third time, I decided that I had no choice but to try. I am not sure if I will be fully successful in trying to express what I want to say. At the very least, I hope I will spur a larger discussion.

The Orthodox world has a God problem.

Well, not exactly a God problem, as much as a language of God problem, or maybe a comfort with discussing God problem. Many of us, including our rabbis and teachers can easily discuss halacha and mitzvos, but somehow few attempt to discuss the encounter with God, in general, and their personal encounter with God, in particular.

Recently, a virtual friend bemoaned the fact that he could not hear a certain theologian who defines himself as halachic egalitarian in my friend’s own Orthodox shul. In the subsequent discussion I wondered aloud (assuming one can do that in a comment on FB) whether the problem was larger than whether this theologian, who I admire greatly, could speak in an Orthodox shul. Perhaps, I suggested, a big part of the problem is that there is a dearth of Orthodox thinkers who are openly willing to explore their faith in an open manner, and the fact that we need to look outside of our community to find those who are willing.

I would never question the value of learning and observing halacha. I strongly believe that halacha helps us encounter God in an embodied manner in all areas of our life. Still, I do wonder whether the fact that halacha plays such a large role in our lives, leads to the possible outcome that we get stuck in the details of the act, and lose the ability to feel, think about, and discuss the encounter with God which lays behind and within halacha itself.

More recently, while driving, I listened to a podcast where my friend and colleague Rabbi Joshua Bolton, a Reconstructionist rabbi, who works with students at the University of Pennsylvania, described his religious experience, including his encounter with God. It was profound, holy, and powerful. It shook me to my core. Part of what bothered me was that I couldn’t think of the last time I heard an Orthodox rabbi talk so openly about what it means to believe. Somewhere in the back of my head I wondered how many rabbis could find the words to discuss it. At first I pushed off this thought by thinking that talking about God is not an Orthodox activity. Immediately, I thought about things I’ve read from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Amital, the Piaseczna Rebbe, and Hillel Zeitlin where they discuss their encounter with God. My next question was, why is this not happening (more often?) in the Orthodox world?

I get it. Not everyone is going to encounter God in the same way. Heck, when I listen to Rav Herschel Schachter address an obscure halachic topic for an hour, it is a deeply religious experience, even as I can’t fully explain why. Still, when was the last time you heard a rosh yeshiva or shul rabbi explain what they experience when they learn a Ketzos or a Rav Chaim? I can’t help but wonder whether part of the discomfort that many Jews express about the lack of meaningfulness of tefillah (see this recent study for an example) comes from the fact that past a fairly young age, nobody talks about God anymore.

The final straw which convinced me to write this, came yesterday. This time, it was listening to Christian pastor Eugene Peterson address his religious experience on the NPR show On Being, a show which explores what it means to be human. I listened to him explain what he gets from reading the Book of Psalms. I heard him talk about how the experience of anger and frailty fits into his encounters with God. His experience was not my experience. In fact, his approach to religion, as well as his translation of the bible, do not fully resonate with me. Still, for 50 minutes I was enrapt. When the show was over I found myself wondering about which rabbis or teachers could so openly, comfortably, and compellingly discuss what they mean when they talk about God, and what they experience when they read Tehillim, forget something due to old age, or look in a baby’s eyes.

We are religious. We are observant. We learn Torah. We do mitzvos. Where in all of that, and in the world around us and inside of us do we find God?

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