Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Letter to My Son as he Begins to Learn Gemara

[This is not an actual letter I’m giving to my son. It’s the means through which I am sharing some personal thoughts. Not that I would not want him to see this. I expect that at some point, we will discuss many of the topics included in this “letter”.]

Dear Ashi,

For the fourth and final time, I attended a program celebrating your taking your next step as you develop as a Jew and a learner of Torah. Unlike the first three times; when you got your siddur, received your chumash, and began learning mishna, each of which filled me with joy, this past Sunday’s program, marking the beginning of your gemara learning, left me with mixed feelings. I’ve been thinking about the reasons why, and I’d like to try and explain.

As I listened to the various speakers, and watched you and your friends, I began to think about what lay ahead. Whereas when it came to davening, and learning chumash and mishna I had a pretty good idea that the experience would be a pleasant one, something I’ve since seen confirmed, with gemara, I’m a little afraid. Not, God forbid, because you are not intelligent enough. It’s davka your intelligence which makes me concerned. I find myself wondering how you will do with a curriculum which is overwhelmingly focused on gemara, to the exclusion or limitation of chumash, nach, halacha, and hashkafa/philosophy. I particularly wonder about this, knowing that you are likely to learn little, if any, aggadeta in any yeshiva. Will you be motivated to progress in these areas on your own? Might you start to think of these areas of Torah as being irrelevant to you as a Jew, or think they are meant “only” for girls?

Of perhaps greater concern is whether you will find this learning to be religiously satisfying. I’ll tell you the truth. Although I teach gemara, and love learning it, it is not in gemara where I find the most religious meaning. For me, a serious Ramban on the chumash, a beautiful and profound chassidic idea, and a slow tefilla are some of the places where I find sipuk hanefesh. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you will have the same experience. Still, I wonder what happens if you are spending many hours a day on gemara and you don’t find it sufficiently connects you to HaShem.

Finally, as you heard from some of those who spoke, gemara is very challenging. There’s no punctuation, or nekudos, and much of it is in Aramaic. On top of that, the topics and discussion can often be very technical and challenging. In fact, until fairly recently, it was fairly rare for anyone to learn gemara at all. With your sensitive neshama, I wonder what will happen when you see some classmates who can’t keep up. I’m sorry to say, too often, those boys often feel like failures, and express their pain in all sorts of ways. I hope you’ll remember that each person has tremendous value in the eyes of HaShem, and remember that inside every one of these boys, there is a pure and holy neshama. Although I don’t expect, you might struggle as well. Remember to apply these same ideas to yourself.

Of course, at the same time, I’m excited for you. In just the last few days, I’ve already seen how excited you are to be learning gemara. I know you are in a wonderful yeshiva, and it was quite clear on Sunday how much energy your rebbe has, and how much he cares about each of you. I look forward to many wonderful days of learning with you. I just want to make sure you know that gemara is just one part of the Torah, and that there are many ways to experience God’s closeness and love.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Agudas Yisrael- Bound together by what?

Back in college, my friends and I would often debate whether Modern Orthodoxy or the yeshivish world was where real Judaism was to be found. With all of the certainty and over-confidence of 20-year-olds, we talked about things like mesorah, seriousness in mitzvohs, and which approach would lead our future children to be more religiously loyal. Some us saw YU as, at best, a compromise, and thought that, for the most part the real gedolim were to be found in the orbit of the Agudah.

Each year, a few of my friends would attend some of the sessions at the Agudah convention, which usually took place during Thanksgiving weekend. Even if we were not ready to embrace all parts of the yeshivah world, we recognized that there were serious thinkers who would be speaking at the convention, and that important ideas would be discussed. We made sure to read the Jewish Observer, which was the magazine where thoughtful Agudist ideas could be found. Even as I ultimately chose a different path, I think back to the Agudah gedolim of those days with great respect.

I thought back to those recently when I saw the schedule for this year’s Agudah which took place this past weekend. When I first saw schedule, I was curious which speakers would be speaking about important issues. I was disappointed, if not fully surprised to discover that none of the topics grabbed me. Even more, thinking back to the conventions that I recalled, none of the gedolim who spoke have the broad intellectual background that gedolim of the past possessed. Although Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky ZT”L passed away a little before I started thinking about these ideas, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, Rav Gifter, ZT”Land other Roshei Yeshiva, as well community rabbonim like Rav Shimon Schwab were still going strong. They followed in the footsteps of Rav Hutner and others who gave you a sense that the Agudah had serious and important things to say.

Although perhaps not fully by design, the Agudah world no longer has gedolim who have one foot in the world of modern ideas. The Jewish Observer is no longer published, having been replaced by various  less sophisticated periodicals. It is hard to imagine we will see a sefer like Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s Emes L’Yaakov being written anytime soon, nor should we expect a serious analysis of the Yud Gimmel Ikarim as written by Rav Weinberg. With few exceptions, the charedi yeshivahs of today are educating towards little but gemara and halacha, and few rabbonim from that world can thoughtfully address issues of philosophy with any degree of sophistication. The few who do (Rav Shalom Kaminetzky, Rav Triebitz, and Rav Lopiansky come to mind) seem to rarely publicly address the serious theological and philosophical questions which trouble some of the more intellectual balebatim in the world of the Agudah. I sometimes wonder whether the atmosphere of groupthink which exists makes it too dangerous to put serious ideas out into the public square, especially in writing..

I don’t pretend that most people want the Agudah to focus on these type of ideas. I suppose that Agudah gives their balebatim what they want. Still, I believe that in abandoning discussions of these topics, yeshivahs and the Agudah give a very harmful message about the possibility of being intellectual and frum. Of course, lo alman Yisrael, as there are many thinkers outside of the Agudah world who address these topics. Still, I yearn for the days when young adults who were passionate about searching for truth, could experience the tug that came from looking for it in different worlds.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Love That Matters- Is there room for sports fandom in the life of an oveid HaShem?

There is excitement in the air. A big event is happening for the first time in over 100 years. The long wait is over, and fans like myself are ecstatic. Today is the day that...Hillel Zeitlin’s book HaTov V’HaRa, last published in 1911, is being republished. I’ll forgive you of course if you thought I was talking about the Chicago Cubs, those lovable losers, who appear to be on the brink of winning the World Series for the first time since 1908. After all, it’s been front and center in the news. Still, in thinking of the contrast between these two events, I can’t help but revisit an old disagreement between two of my mentors, who ultimately became my friends and colleagues.

I believe I first heard of Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer in the mid nineties when he was living in Chicago and wrote an article not long after the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In the article, Rabbi Bechhofer bemoaned the fact that the average Modern Orthodox teenager in Chicago was much more distraught about Michael Jordan’s retirement from the NBA, than by the passing of The Rebbe. As much as I agreed with the thrust of Rabbi Bechhofer’s article, it didn’t completely sit well with me. Even as I knew that my priorities were not the ones under attack in the article, if one read the article carefully, it was a critique not just of values that are out of whack, but upon sports fandom in general. This hit close to home, as I was a pretty serious fan of a number of sports teams.

Fortunately, Rabbi Mayer Schiller responded to the article and made the distinction I was looking for. Yes, too many of our teens are significantly more passionate about sports than about Torah, but a thinking person can still be a Ben Torah, oveid HaShem and be a sports fan. Essentially, Rabbi Schiller suggested that watching a great athlete perform was somewhat akin to watching a great musician perform. Just as one can appreciate HaKadosh Baruch Hu through his creations, one can appreciate him through his creation’s creations. I read the article and immediately felt at ease.

It’s now more than twenty years later and I’ve had the all too brief pleasure of working with both Rabbis Bechhofer and Schiller, and engaged in many thoughtful and spirited conversations with them. I have students of my own, and I now find myself wondering about the balance which I once thought possible. In fact, I remember once asking Rabbi Schiller, who at one point was a pretty serious hockey fan, why he seemed to no longer seemed to be so into it. His answer, which I remember as if I heard it yesterday, was “There’s only so much love the heart can hold”.

There are many reasons why my own interest in sports has declined. My beloved Red Sox have won the World Series (three in fact!) after an 86 year drought of their own. Ticket prices have risen to the point where I can’t afford to go to games too often. I’ve read enough about the business side of the sports equation to not view the whole enterprise in the same romantic light. Most of all, I believe that Rabbis Bechhofer and Schiller are correct. In a world which pulls at us in so many ways, there are only so many things a person can truly love and aspire to.

Over the years, I’ve watched my students become enamored with fantasy sports, where one pretends to own a team, and competes with other owners. The excitement they feel when “their” players do well, and “their” team wins, causes me to wonder whether I have what it takes to help bring them to a passionate enjoyment (dare I say love?) of things more eternal. I think of my own fandom and how I can still be drawn into a game when “my” team is playing in a way that feels like misplaced concern. Finally I wonder whether something that we have loved can ever become something we merely enjoy, leaving room for the loves which really matter.

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.