Monday, February 6, 2017

Impermanent Things- Getting a hold of what matters


On rare occasions, there are songs which grab me the first time I hear them. Sometimes it’s the music. Other times, the lyrics grab my attention. On rare occasion, it’s both. Although it’s not a new song, Peter Himmelman’s song Impermanent Things had that effect on me when I first heard it a few weeks ago. As I’ve listened to it multiple times over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that its message resonates so deeply with me.

All these impermanent things Oh how they fool me dominate and rule me...

Last week, my wife got me a new phone. My old one was not working well, as it had little memory left. While I had realized for a while that it was a time for an upgrade, I had held off on getting a replacement. It wasn’t that I didn’t want one. On the contrary, I very much wanted one, and thus knew I should hold off.

...Well their beauty's never aging but their worthlessness's enraging...

My father was one of the least materialistic people I’ve ever met. Other than buying a couple of new suits every couple of years, I rarely saw him buy anything for himself, other than books, and enough cigarettes to feed his habit. Like many things, I never asked him about his lack of need for things.

...Why keep hanging on to things that never stay things that just keep stringin' us along from day to day...

For me, it’s an acquired taste. Okay, that’s not really true. I have no taste for it. I still want things. It’s just that my tastes far exceed what’s in my wallet, so if I can’t beat it, might as well pretend it doesn’t exist.

...All these impermanent things Present yet elusive passive yet abusive Tearing out the heart in utter silence...

I’m in class, pontificating to a class, in one of the many cities I’ve lived. I’m sharing my theory that once you pay for a car which has everything you can reasonably need, paying for anything extra is wrong, even immoral. A student whose parents own a Mercedes, who in my self-righteousness I have failed to notice is feeling uncomfortable, raises her hand. I call on her and she asks “Do you apply the same standard to yourself when you buy things you can afford?”.

I’m silent.

...All these impermanent things Well they point in all directions like secondhand reflections...

My father was from the Bronx. Maybe that’s why he was as blue-collar as they get. When he bought his last car, they had to special order it. You see, nobody else was insisting that they wanted a car without electric windows. He could the windows on his own, thank you very much.

...All these impermanent things Well they're trying to convince me baptize my soul and rinse me...

As soon as I got the new phone, I knew it was holding me, rather than the reverse. It was shiny, and thin and new. Maybe even the latest model. And it was mine. All mine.

...Purge my mind of honesty and fire...

What else, and more importantly, who else, do I treat like things? Do I buy sefarim to draw closer to God, or the sefarim another possession I want to own? Maybe it’s God who I wish to possess, as if this is an area where I can have what others want. I can philosophize it and talk of Buber’s I-It, but that just pushes it off, as if it’s just an idea, and not something deeper. Something more concerning.

...All these impermanent things Well they all add up to zero they make-believe that they're my hero Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires...

There’s another approach. One that doesn’t involve fighting what I might not be able to change. One that accepts it, somehow channeling it into good. With this path the doubt dissipates as I recognize that it’s not just others that I treat as an object. In letting go of the need to possess things, might I find myself?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Finding God in History- A Review of When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook


As I have noted in a previous review, Rav Kook, despite being somewhat well known, is the victim of all sorts of assumptions. This is particularly true in the English speaking world where he is primarily known for his Zionism (more on this later), and secondarily as a charismatic leader. While there are various reasons for why he is seen in this manner, I will just focus on a few.

Until fairly recently, not that many of Rav Kook’s writing were easily available to the English reader. Of those that were, most came from his more mystical and theoretical writings. My sense is that even those who study his writings in Hebrew, are less aware of his more practical writings. Fortunately, Rav Bezalel  Naor, who I am privileged to count among my teachers, has committed to not only spreading the teachings of Rav Kook, but in his latest work, a new edition of When God Becomes History- Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (first published in 2003), Rav Naor has committed to showing that Rav Kook had a more practical side, and that he spoke out and wrote about some of the pressing issues of the day, some of which continue to affect us today.

In addition to many of the features which make any work of Rav Naor worth reading in general, and in particular those on Rav Kook, including his erudition, scholarship, and fascinating endnotes which are often almost worthy of a book of their own, there were a number of things which stand out in this book. To begin, we see Rav Kook not just as theoretician, whose writings sometimes border on the prophetic, but we also see him addressing various situations, including the passing of Herzl, in the eulogy he delivered in his memory.

Another chapter offers us the speech which Rav Kook delivered at the ceremony marking the opening of the Hebrew University in Yerushalayim. What makes these last two examples particularly fascinating is that Rav Naor writes of the controversy that each of these speeches engendered among Rav Kook’s friends, talmidim and opponents. Several letters are brought where we see Rav Kook clarifying his remarks to those who intentionally or accidentally misunderstood him.

Perhaps the most fascinating part for me (although there is this amazing idea in the endnotes from the Pachad Yitzchak , whose author Rav Hutner appears in the book…), is the introduction to the eulogy for Herzl, where Rav Naor shows that the common understanding of Rav Kook as a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist, with no misgivings about the Zionist venture to be mistaken. Rav Naor conclusively demonstrates that Rav Kook had strong misgivings about Zionism, particularly early on in his stay in Israel, and that he took the positions he did about Zionism due to careful considerations, despite his concerns, and it is here that I come to what makes this book one that only Rav Naor could have written.

I have studied a decent amount of Rav Kook’s Torah, and read many articles and essays about him. While there are many scholars in the Hebrew and English speaking worlds who can do research and share interesting ideas about Rav Kook, Rav Naor is sui generis in having expertise in so many of the areas which made Rav Kook who he was. When he writes or speaks of Rav Kook, one almost gets the sense that they are hearing from someone who studied with Rav Kook firsthand, even as they know that to be impossible. His grasp of nigleh and nistar, as well his serious scholarship makes him unique in those who can teach us about Rav Kook.

This fascinating volume will benefit the expert and the laymen, those who have studied much of Rav Kook’s Torah and those who have not, and especially those who think they’ve heard all that has to be said about this fascinating polymath. It can also serve as an excellent introduction into the ideas for Rav Kook for those who might have assumed that his Torah and ideas are inaccessible to them. Once again, Alec Goldstein of Kodesh Press is to be commended for making a quality work of Torah scholarship available to the English-speaking world.

The book launch for this book will take place next Thursday, February 9th, at the YU Seforim sale. Rav Naor will speak at this event, which is free. For more information, please click here.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fun, Family, or Faith?- What is Modern Orthodoxy really about?


"He is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture."

Rav Yosef Soloveichik in the Lonely Man of Faith

Rav Soloveichik once said that rabbis and teachers had managed to give Shabbos over to their congregants and students, but had not succeeded in giving over Erev Shabbos. They had managed to give over the rules of Shabbos, but were unable to convey its spirit and purpose. In thinking of the Modern Orthodoxy of today, I would paraphrase these words and say that we have been succeeded in conveying the religion of Adam I to the next generation, but have failed in giving over the faith of Adam II.

An essay was recently written which suggested that intermarriage is starting to spread to the MO world. While I think the claim of the writer is mistaken, and certainly disagree with the possibility that the intermarriage rate in our community is 10%, I do not disagree that we are increasingly facing the failure of our community to produce a next generation who are meaningfully engaged with Judaism as a religion.

In Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveichik famously speaks of Adam I and Adam II. In discussing the approach of the former towards religion, the Rav speaks of a person who is interested in what religion offers him. He likes the community aspect, and the connection to tradition and customs. He might heartily agree that “the family that prays together, stays together”. Adam II on the other hand sees Judaism not just for what it adds to his life, but also as something which connects him to Ratzon HaShem. Instead of asking what he gets from being religious, he looks at what is asked of him. He is searching for a faith. It is my strong contention that Modern Orthodoxy of today is largely a community of Adam I, and only rarely a community of Adam II.

If Judaism is nothing more than a system which is supposed to produce happiness and meaning, than how can we be surprised when our children decide that what made us happy is not what leads to their happiness? Why shouldn’t they move towards a more egalitarian approach to religion, or even more towards taking from religion only that which works? If we move entirely away from the language of commandedness, to one of choice, why should we be surprised when our children, in fact, choose?

We’ve somehow arrived at a largely bifurcated educational system where we either emphasize text learning or a more fun approach that is more about finding meaning. What both of these approaches lack is the thick religious experience which is more commonly found in the charedi world. We, and by we, I mean our homes, shuls, communities, and schools are not giving over a religious experience which reaches our kids in their kishkes. We’ve got minyan three times a day, daf yomi, kosher sushi, and sleepaway camps, but do we have a relationship with God. We are frum, but are we religious?

If I’m honest, I’m not sure if we as a community really want more than what we have right now, but if we do, it is going to take more than changing school curricula. Even if our schools, and Israel yeshivot and seminaries can light the spark in our children, in which community are our children supposed to land? With all the hand wringing that exists over kids “moving to the right” (a phrase that needs to be unpacked), why would we expect our children who have discovered the deep meaning of Judaism to stay in our community if we are unable, or even worse, uninterested in producing a community that is more connected to God? If our daughter has discovered the joy and meaning of davening, why should she attend a shul where talking during davening is the norm. If our son loves singing slow plaintive zemiros, will he enjoy a Shabbos meal where the talk mainly revolves around politics and pop-culture?

If we are unable to give over Shabbos and Erev Shabbos, our kids will either look for a community that does, or walk away from a neutered version of Shabbos which offers a nice family meal and some time away from technology, but little more. Those benefits can be found outside of our community, and yes, outside of our religion. If our kids are to stay, we need to offer them something deep and real. If we don’t, can’t, or won’t, we can’t complain if they take our decision seriously, and make their life choices accordingly.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Hidden Confession- A Review of the new edition of Hillel Zeitlin's Tov V'Ra


It is no exaggeration to say that the writings of Hillel Zeitlin have changed my religious life. Since coming across his name in a footnote less than two years ago, and reading Arthur Green’s translation of some of Zeitlin’s writings, my experience of belief, prayer, and religion itself have undergone considerable revision. Like a new convert, I have tried to spread the word. I have also discovered that in addition to Green, there are many people who are writing about Zeitlin, translating his works, and learning and teaching his Torah.

Among those who have helped lead to a revival of Zeitlin’s works are Dr. Jonatan Meir of Ben Gurion University, who has written a number of Hebrew scholarly articles on Zeitlin, Dr. Shraga Bar-On, Rav Oz Bluman, the aforementioned Green and Ariel Mayse, as well as Sam Glauber, a young Torah student, who has recently begun to translate some of Zeitlin’s writing. An academic conference dealing with Zeitlin and his two sons will take place at Tel Aviv University on May 4th. Clearly, Zeitlin has become a topic of great interest in the academic and lay world.

At the same time, it continues to be difficult to acquire most of the prolific Zeitlin’s works and writings. While his son Aaron did republish some of his father’s writing (with a small degree of censorship), until recently it had been many years since one of Zeitlin’s works was republished. In November, Leor Holzer, the owner of Holzer Sefarim (a wonderful used-bookstore in Jerusalem) republished Zeitlin’s Tov V’Ra, more than 100 years after it was first published. In addition to Tov V’Ra, a masterful treatise on the nature of good and evil (which was originally serialized in a journal in 1899, and was published as a book in 1910), Holzer’s new volume contains two important essays by Zeitlin; Mitehomot HaSafek V’Hayeiush (From the Depths of Doubt and Despair) on his teacher and mentor, the Russian literary critic Lev Shestov (published in two parts in 1923-24), and HaTzimaon (The Thirst) a poetic description of Zeitlin’s unquenchable search for God (published in 1909), as well as a biography of Zeitlin, written by Yaakov Fichman, a well-known Hebrew poet who knew Zeitlin personally. While I can’t speak to the reason why the two essays were included in the new edition, it is was through the essay on Shestov that I came to understand Tov V’Ra.

I must admit that it took me a while to appreciate Tov V’ra. Having been familiar with Zeitlin’s poetic and lyrical chassidic, kabbalistic and religious writings, his more somber and even scholarly description of how various Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers thought about the nature of good and evil did not fully grab me at first. It was only as Zeitlin moved into the modern era, having discussed Buddhism, ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and the Middle Ages, as well as other approaches, that I sensed that Zeitlin’s spirit and not just his prodigious mind had gone into producing this volume. As he began to touch on the modern era, and thinkers such as Spinoza, Nietzsche, and, l’havdil, Rebbe Nachman (Zeitlin later wrote separate volumes about each of them), I began to see the Zeitlin that I had come to appreciate. In fact, Zeitlin’s conclusion finishes off with poetry, and poetic thought. Still, it was only in retrospect, after having read the essay on Shestov that I fully grasped why what made Zeitlin unique, had seemed to be missing from the beginning of the book.

As mentioned parenthetically above, the chapters of Tov V’Ra were originally written in 1899. It was during this time that Zeitlin was in the midst of a profound religious crisis which had begun after he studied philosophy and biblical criticism as a teenager (it is worth noting that Zeitlin never attended a formal yeshivah or university and that he was essentially self-taught Jewishly and secularly). While some of his writings during this time period reflect upon religious themes, Zeitlin was struggling mightily to discover what, if anything, he still believed. While his search cannot be seen in the early part of the volume, even implicitly, it is in the writings about the modern era where his search becomes more manifest, and it is here that I return to his essay on Shestov.

After first enumerating the various attempts to ascertain metaphysical and general truth, including Hume, Kant, various Neo-Kantians, Nietszche, positivism and materialism , Zeitlin moves on to Shestov’s approach. Essentially, Shestov argues that objective truth cannot be ascertained, and that any sense of truth cannot be found outside of oneself, and that it is only once one is completely broken, that they can discover in themselves their truth. This truth may or may not be compelling to others, but in one’s brokenness the truth for which you are willing to live your life is found. Shestov’s novel understanding of the great writers and philosophers, including Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, among others, is that hidden within their writings, as in a confession, one can discover the truth they believe in, in their deepest being.

With this understanding, one can return to Tov V’Ra. In the beginning, Zeitlin was sharing philosophical ideas. They were serious and important ideas, but not ones which represent his deepest truth. As he moved into the modern era, consciously or not, his true confession, the one that he was in the midst of figuring out for himself, appears. It is here that the reader who knows how the search will progress, sees glimpses of the Zeitlin who is yet to be. The reader who is familiar with Zeitlin’s later writings, knows how the story will progress, so to speak, even if Zeitlin himself does not. That reader is familiar with the essay HaTzimaon, where Zeitlin will write of his desperate search, as well as his later writings where we are privileged to witness the profound and passionate faith that Zeitlin discovered.

Leor Holzer, who is as fascinating and uniques as his store, has done a tremendous service by publishing this book. He has made available one of the works of a thinker who has so much to offer to the thinking and struggling Jew of today. While there are a few small things which could be improved upon (there are some typos, and there are no footnotes), Holzer has done an incredible job in making this Hebrew work available (uncensored) at a very reasonable price. It is my hope that he and others will continue to republish Zeitlin’s writings, and that others will translate Zeitlin’s other works for the English reading public.

Only 500 copies of Tov V’Ra have been published. The remaining copies can be purchased at Holzer Sefarim which is located at 91 Rechov Yaffo. The book can also be ordered by calling the store 076-543-3800.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On the Direction We Face- Choosing between a focus on ruchniyus versus gashmiyus


There’s been a lot written about the high costs of raising a family in the Orthodox world. There have many articles and discussions about the tuition crisis in the Modern orthodox world. While these are certainly very real issues which require serious thought, I’d like to look at another issue involving wealth and the Orthodox world. To what degree does the pursuit of wealth and comfort interfere with, and even contradict, the desire and ability to live a life of holiness?


There is a gemara in Maseches Baba Basra on 25b which says that one who wants to be wealthy should face slightly towards the north when davening, while one who wants to be wise should face towards the south. This is based on the fact that in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash the Shulchan, which represents physical blessing, was to the north of the mizbeach, while the menorah, which represents wisdom, was to its south. A friend of mine once pointed out that from the gemara it seems clear that one must choose their loyalty, and that one can’t truly pursue both paths. This, of course, is not to say that there are not people who do not possess wisdom and wealth. Rather, to some degree, one can only be most loyal and desirous of one of them.


Having just completed Rav Soloveichik’s Lonely Man of Faith, I was struck by how prescient much of what he wrote half a century ago was in describing the Orthodox world of today. In particular, I was taken by his description of a level of observance which desires to get the benefits of religion without any sacrifices. He bemoaned the sense that religion is there to provide comfort to us, without asking anything of us in return. I found myself wondering what he would say about communities where Torah and Mitzvos sometimes seem to be just a topping on top of the main course of consumerist values.


A dear mentor has noted that when reading certain religious periodicals, he is unsure whether to concentrate on the peshat in the “gemara” in the middle of the page, where stories are told of the gedolim who lived simply as they pursued lives of ruchniyus, or on “Rashi” and “Tosefos” on the sides of the page, where there ads for Pesach in Switzerland, and gourmet supermarkets advertising also sorts of delicacies. Again, I must stress that this I am not suggesting that wealth and deep Avodas HaShem cannot go together. Tanach and Shas contain examples of those who in fact combined both. Still, I wonder whether we as a community are putting the emphasis in the right place, and providing the message that when we must choose, there is one obvious choice we should make.

While we are blessed, to live in a time where are surrounded by prosperity, we also face certain challenges. We run the risk of becoming observant of mitzvos, while failing to live by some of the values of the Torah. While we often talk of “tzniyus”, modesty is about much more that what one wears. In the Middle Ages there were takanos made about not being ostentatious in building expensive homes. While one could, mistakenly in my opinion, make the claim that we no longer need to worry about those outside of our community seeing our wealth, we do need to be concerned by those inside of our community, indeed within our families seeing how we live. It is not just about the differences between the haves and the have-nots. It is the message of what we value most that should also concern us.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Of Skies and Hearts Aflame- partnering with HaShem in creation



Still groggy, I started my car, and began to drive. As I looked up, I saw one of the most breathtaking things I had ever seen. The sky over New York City was a stunning color of red. It brought to mind a fire, but one that provides warmth, rather than one that consumes. Over the next few minutes as I drove, I snuck in quick glances to witness this beautiful scene, before sunrise would make it disappear. For me, it was a truly religious experience. As the sky grew lighter, and the color began to change, I felt a mixture of sublime joy at the sight, and sadness, knowing it would soon be gone. My eyes kept on hungrily drinking in the the scene, but then suddenly, the beauty was gone. A large, dirty highway sign announcing the next exit, blocked the horizon. This man-made blight had ruined my last opportunity to see the NYC sky aflame one last time.

I began to think of why the juxtaposition between the sky and sign had been so jarring. At first, I thought it might be the difference between nature and things made by man. I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. Part of the beauty of the scene that I had glanced was the NYC skyline. The red sky by itself would have been beautiful, but with the skyscrapers beneath it, it was spectacular. Additionally, there are things in nature which are unpleasant, or even painful, to see. So what bothered me so much? Suddenly, I thought of a passuk from Parshas Bereishis. וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ- And HaShem said to them “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land, and conquer it etc.”.

What does it mean to conquer the earth? To me, conquering brings to mind the idea of violence. One conquers in war. Destruction occurs before the opponent, through surrender or death, is subdued. What does God ask of us when he says the word וְכִבְשֻׁהָ? Are we truly meant to defeat the land? Should we build, dig, and manufacture with no thoughts of the violence we bring about to the earth itself, as well as to our own need for beauty?


I’d like to suggest that, homiletically at least, the word וְכִבְשֻׁהָ comes from the word כבש, ramp. This word is found by the altar in the Beis HaMikdash. The purpose of the ramp is to allow human beings to go up to a place of holiness. Man builds a structure through which he can draw close to God. When HaShem says וְכִבְשֻׁהָ, he does not ask us to conquer, or even to subdue the world, but rather to use human creativity and ingenuity to build things which are ramps, objects through which we have the opportunity to reach a more lofty place of holiness. We are asked to partner with God in how we change the world. Build buildings, roads, and yes, road signs, but look for ways to make these things more than utilitarian. Man, through his building can help God build a fire of warmth, rather than one which consumes.

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.

Abba