Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Project 929 America- Bringing American Jews together through Jewish literacy

It’s a fairly familiar trope. How many  American Jews know the name of Jesus’ mother and how many know Moshe’s mother's name? Of course, to be fair, the two women do not have equally significant roles in the respective religions, but there is still an important point being made here. Far too many American Jews are ignorant of Tanach, and this includes the Orthodox community. How many American Jews know the names of the books of Trei Asar, let alone have studied any of them? How many people in our communities are familiar with the book of Melachim?  It is for that reason that I would like to make an immodest proposal.

Project 929 was recently started in Israel. The project, which began at the home of Israel’s president, is based on the idea that all Israeli Jews should study the 929 chapters of Tanach, by studying one chapter each day. With an attractive website, and articles from all segments of the Jewish-Israeli population, it is off to a very promising start. Even as some features of the program have attracted some controversy (click here if you can read modern Hebrew), there is still a lot of excitement about the project.

It is time for a similar program to be started in America. It is past the time for "The people of the book" to study the book. While most American Jews are not fluent enough in Hebrew to read Tanach in its original language, there are a number of excellent translations available (of course, I can not avoid noting the irony of making this suggestion one day after the date that the rabbis say the Torah was translated into Greek). As with the Israeli edition, there could be articles contributed by scholars and laymen on the various chapters. Imagine an article by Leon Wieseltier about the sale of Joseph by the brothers, or the chance for the average American Jew to be exposed to Rav Soloveitchik’s Adam I and II. Also similar to the Israeli program, there would be articles shared  from across the Jewish spectrum of all the denominations, as well as secular Jews. Not only would such a program help generate American Jews who are more Jewishly literate, but it would also be a project which could lead to much unity, as Jews from all walks of life would be studying the same chapter together. Imagine the discussion groups that could be started that could be open to all Jews regardless of affiliation. Consider the thoughtful discussions and debates that might occur between Jews who until now lacked a common religious language.

I don’t know the cost of the Israeli program, or how much it would cost to start Project 929 America, but whatever the cost, there are things that are important enough that money should not be an obstacle. Truly, this project would be priceless.

Partners in Crime?- Why did things turn out differently for Shimon and Levi? (Audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we examine possible reasons why the tribe of Levi merited to be the tribe selected for divine service, whereas the tribe of Shimon did not. We suggest that despite the fact that Shimon and Levi were brothers who seemed to be “partners in crime”, that they did not play an equal role in the killing of the men of Shechem or the selling of Yosef.

It can also be listened to on YouTube by clicking here

(Running time- 52 minutes)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Why Did Yosef Wait to Reunite with Yaakov? (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur (part 1 , part 2 ) we discuss the question of why Yosef, once he became Viceroy in Egypt, did not immediately reunite with his father. We discuss three possible approaches, one based on traditional commentaries and two based on modern approaches.

To hear it through Youtube, click here.

(Running Time: 1 hour)

Due to technical difficulties, the shiur was uploaded in two parts. The Youtube video has part 1 added on the end.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Looking Back- Some thoughts on the first year of this blog

This year, I won’t be posting my Facebook year-in-review. It’s not that I don’t like the pictures they chose. On the contrary, I was happy to see them. It’s just that I feel like they give off a one-sided impression of my year. Yes, there were some truly unforgettable moments, but there were a lot that I’d just as soon forget. Instead, with my blog having recently reached its first blogaversary, I thought I’d share some thoughts on what I’ve learned from it.

By design, my blog focuses both on the personal as well as Jewish content. If I had to pick the common denominator between those two, I would say that I am looking to be honest and thought-provoking, while giving voice to some challenging issues that might resonate with others. For the most part, I feel that I’ve hit the mark, and have been gratified by the response. I’ve met many new people virtually, and some have blossomed into real-life friendships. It’s hard to imagine that I have some friends who I did not know before I started writing.

On the other hand, I’ve made some mistakes with what I’ve written. There were a few posts for which I wish I’d paused a bit before hitting the publish button. However, I have chosen to not delete any posts as I think it’s important to live with the effect of one’s words once they’ve been put out there. I’ve received some good feedback and some helpful mussar from friends and strangers alike.

At times, I’ve struggled to find the line between open and honest, as opposed to being confessional and sharing what should be private. I try and remind myself that not everything that is thought should be said, and not everything that is said should be put in writing. My putting myself out there, continues to be both a strength and weakness.

I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to share my Torah in a more public forum. Some of my insecurity has dissipated after receiving some really positive feedback from talmidei chachamim and scholars. It is good to be reminded that I shouldn’t be afraid to be creative in Torah, fearing that my ideas are not worth sharing.

Writing about Jewish education has been both gratifying and frustrating. I’ve received a lot of thanks for discussing some of the problems in the field, and appreciation from those in the field of Jewish education. At the same time, I’ve wondered if my openness about what I’ve seen and what I think, has contributed in any way to my being unable to get a job in chinuch. While I know that I’ve gotten some interviews because of what I’ve written, I have no way of knowing if it has cost me any interviews.

I’ve also shared some of my audio shiurim and tried my hand at poetry. As for the latter, while I’m happy to have moved on from AA-BB poetry, I don’t think I’ll be a poet laureate any time soon. Still, I appreciate the feedback and encouragement I’ve received, particularly from those who are more talented.

Finally, I’d love to pretend that I write just for me and don’t care how many people read what I write, but it would be a lie. Writing has been described as turning blood into ink. Thank you for reading, responding and pushing back on what I wrote. While this year has had some great highs and extreme lows, many of you have helped make the former even more enjoyable, and the latter more bearable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Succot in Kisleiv- Connecting Chanukah and Succot (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we discuss the connection between Chanukah and Succot. Despite the fact that these holidays seem to have little in common, by comparing the two, we learn something significant about the message of Chanukah.

Click here to listen to the shiur on YouTube.

(Running time- 44 minutes)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Refusing to Join the Exodus- Why parents and schools should stay away

There are, according to the gemara, certain mistakes that are so serious, that one who makes them, can be fired without warning. One of those on the list is a teacher of Torah, who teaches something incorrectly. In explaining the rationale, Rashi says that once a mistake enters the students mind, it can not be removed. I would like to apply this idea to movies which purport to tell over biblical stories, such as Exodus: Gods and Kings, which recently started showing in theaters.

Exodus tells the story of the Jews slavery in, and subsequent exodus from Egypt. Although it is loosely based on the biblical text, many liberties are taken in order to turn it into a box-office success. While the lack of authenticity in telling over the story is problematic, I would suggest that even a movie where the director would attempt to follow the text is problematic.

I remember when the animated movie The Prince of Egypt was released in theaters. There was a good deal of excitement in the Jewish community as the movie had been made in consultation with rabbis. There was even a haggadah that was to be made connected to the film, in conjunction with a major orthodox Jewish organization. The principal of the elementary school where I was teaching at the time took the entire school to see the movie. While there were certain parts of the movie that were thought provoking, I was troubled by the lack of accuracy. In particular, I remember how Aharon was portrayed as a goofy and immature big brother. That was far from the only problem I had with the film.

When we study Torah with children, we are sharing ideas which will stay with them forever. One of the great things about studying from a text is that we allow the student to conceptualize things in their minds. In this particular case, a picture is not worth a thousand words. Even if we make clear to young viewers that there are differences between the text and the movie, the images that they see and the ideas that they hear are not forgotten. While it is reasonable to teach children that biblical personalities were human, and thus, imperfect, allowing them to view a Hollywood rendition of Torah stories, can lead to children seeing these righteous individuals as petty, cruel and backwards.

I have no doubt that Exodus will be a box-office hit. A lot of money has been put into it, and the controversy it has generated will not hurt and might just help. I would humbly suggest that we stay away. There are some mistakes which can not be corrected.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Finding the Chanukah story in Tanach, Gemara and Jewish History (Audio Shiur)

In this weeks shiur, we look at the question of why the initial emphasis on the Chanukah story focuses on the military victory while the later sources focus on the miracle of the oil. This is bookended by an idea based on Rav Kook about the menorah and focusing our studies towards God.

The shiur can also be viewed on Youtube by clicking here.

(Running time 53 Minutes)

Off-the-derech or Off-A-derech? Learning to love our children more than our reputation

This past summer, I had the opportunity to spent some time in a yeshiva in Israel for boys who were, or had been “OTD”. While it didn’t surprise me, I was pained by the fact that the goal of the yeshiva seemed to be to put the boys back on the very same derech that the boys had rejected, having felt alienated by the system.

There are many reasons for the phenomena of children who are raised in frum homes leaving their community and much of Jewish observance behind. I won’t pretend that the intensive gemara-only educational system, with its many hours a day spent sitting in yeshiva, is the only reason boys leave observance, but in my estimation it is a significant one. Whether it is learning issues, intellectual curiosity, an inability to sit still for so many hours on end, or some combination of the above, many boys struggle within the yeshiva system. While some manage to stay within the system, many are so bothered by the system that they leave it, and the frum world, behind.

Sadly, the response to helping these boys (or is it “saving” these boys?) is to have yeshivas set up that are ultimately designed to get them back in the system, complete with the “correct” mode of dress, and an approach to Torah learning that mostly ignores the fact that Torah includes much more than just gemara. While for some boys this seems to be effective, I have met many boys who have no interest in going back to the approach that they rejected.

So the question becomes are these boys off-the-derech or simply off-A-derech? To put it differently, do parents want to help their children find an approach to yiddishkeit that works for them, or only to get their children back into their own yeshivish community? I have seen boys for whom the yeshivish system did not work, find a home in the Modern-Orthodox or chassidish world. They have embraced shemiras hamitzvos and found a derech that works for them, but it often seems to me that their parents and mechanchim don’t see this as enough.

Imagine what might happen if boys with questions were exposed to the worldview of Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Nachman. If they were allowed to learn the Moreh Nevuchim and serious Tanach. Might not some of these boys take to these derachim? While for me, that would seem to be a success, for many within the yeshivish community it seems to be, at best, a bidieved. At the end of the day I sometimes wonder whether parents are more worried about their own reputation more than their children’s well-being. Maybe it’s not the boys who are OTD.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Refuge of the Imaginative- Some thoughts on my approach to study and thought

There are two questions that cause me discomfort when I hear them (well, three actually, but hopefully the third is only temporary). The first is when I am asked where I learned in yeshiva, and the second, where I studied in college. When I hear the former, I fear that my answer will show me to be a pretender in the world of Torah study, while the latter question will expose my lack of qualification to be seriously dealing with the academic subjects which fascinate me.

I came to serious Torah learning late, even later than my Modern-Orthodox peers who “flipped” in Israel after high school. I blew off most of my year in yeshiva, and barely treaded water in learning in the subsequent years. It was only after I had married, spent two years in chinuch, and been accepted in an Israeli kollel, that I finally started to learn seriously. Even then, I made a lot of progress on my own and with chavrusas, and never had a real “rebbe” or developed a single derech halimmud.

On the secular side, I also came to my interests in academic bible study and philosophy way too late to benefit from any formal study. Though I’ve made some progress through reading and relationships with rabbis, professors and knowledgeable friends, I’m still essentially an advanced-beginner in these fields.

It is only recently that I have begun to see these weaknesses as partial strengths. Though I sometimes wish that I had learned the Brisker derech of learning, and often wish that I had a PHD or two (or three…), my lack of a particular system has enabled me to develop in a way that feels more organic and true to myself. Is it odd to like Rav Tzadok and William James? Strange that I read Sarna and study the Heamek Davar and learn the Moreh and the Nesivos Shalom? Perhaps, but somewhere in that mix of frum and “heretical” and academic and rational and mystical and existential, is not only where I find myself, but also, where I have found myself. I comfort myself by thinking of quotes like that of Oscar Wilde, that “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative”. Somehow in this stew of the religious and secular, intellectual and intuitive, I have found my voice.

This is not to deny that I sometimes (ok, often) find myself thinking of the “what ifs” and dreaming of somehow going back to school to study once again, but here I am, and it is in the here and the now that I must live, think, write and teach. When I am asked those questions that make me uneasy, I am forced (or choose, perhaps) to focus on my weaknesses, but when I am more at ease, I recognize that through the very same experiences which have led to these weaknesses, I have managed to find strengths, and more importantly, myself.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Parshat Vayishlach “Eisav Soneih Et Yaakov”- Always and Forever? (Audio Shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we discuss the idea that Yaakov and Eisav’s relationship not only is one of brothers, but also represents the relationship between the Jewish and Christian community. By looking at how their relationship has been seen from talmudic times to the present, we see various ways of looking at the relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities based on a reading of the Yaakov-Eisav narrative.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Running time: 51 minutes

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Parshat VaYeitzeh (Audio shiur) - Did Yaakov really dream about a ladder?

Parshat VaYeitzeh

In this week’s shiur, we examine Yaakov’s dream, which is commonly understood to be about a ladder. Through a careful reading of the pesukim and an examination of ancient Near-Eastern religions, we suggest a different meaning for the word “sulam”. This interpretation allows us to not only better understand Yaakov’s dream, but also helps us understand the story of Migdal Bavel.

If there is a problem opening the link, click here to listen.

Also available on Youtube
(Running Time 45 minutes)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sisyphus? (poem)

Peel by peel,
one layer at a time.
Punch by punch,
painfully lands on me.
Push by push,
I slowly climb the hill.
Step by step,
I continue to move.
Hard to believe,
something that feels futile, 
is part of the plan.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Back to the Future- Thoughts from my first NCSY shabbton in nearly twenty years

It’s been nearly half a lifetime, and most of a head of hair, since I was at an NCSY shabbaton. More than twenty years ago, I started out as an advisor. I loved the kids, the attention, and doing kiruv. I also loved ebbing; the activity that combined slow singing and a moving story as Shabbos ebbed away as well as havdalah. Even as I learned that not all the stories were true, or at the very least, had happened exactly as told, I continued to be moved by the whole experience.

This past Shabbos, for the first time in almost twenty years, I spent Shabbos back in my old region, Central East, as an Israel rep for an Israeli yeshiva. No longer cool, or perhaps, more accurately, even less cool than I’d been back in college, and also no longer someone who is so into many aspects of the world of kiruv, I was still moved by the experience. Rabbi Tzali Freedman, is still the Regional Director due to the fact that he still has “it” and the strong convictions that help a person change lives. As much as my cynical side has only grown since my NCSY days, as twenty of us sat singing “Kah Ribon” to my favorite tune at a Friday night staff oneg, I was just as moved as I was back in my days as an advisor, and judging from how he looked, so was Tzali.

I’ve moved past the time when I could do kiruv, having developed instead a strong preference for chinuch. I’ve gone from being an advisor to “the only Orthodox teen in Charleston, West Virginia”, to her friend (she even happened to be in Cleveland this past Shabbos). I struggle to make my emunah feel real in a way that I did not back then. Despite all of these changes, when I sing and sway along to havdalah, I immediately enter a world where things seems more simple, true and real. Even as I wonder about my dreams and whether some will ever come true, I continue to enjoy watching high school students, on the verge of becoming adults, thinking about their dreams and fleshing them out. While it might be true that you can never go back to the past, it was good to revisit it. While I was hardly the target audience of the shabbaton, I was certainly brought closer by the experience.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lulei Toratecha- Torah-learning as a type of prayer

לוּלֵי תוֹרָתְךָ שַׁעֲשֻׁעָי אָז אָבַדְתִּי בְעָנְיִי

Were it not for Your Torah my delight, I would be lost in my pain.
(Loose translation of Tehillim 119:92)

I’m struggling with tefillah and not for the first time. The words seem stale and I mostly mumble them thoughtlessly. I wonder about the efficacy of my prayers, and about their purpose. At the same time, I’m probably more engaged in my Torah-learning than I’ve ever been. It has not only given me a creative outlet and a connection to God at a challenging time in my life. In some ways, it has become a form of prayer.

This past Shabbos, my friend Rabbi Neil Fleischmann shared an understanding of the above-mentioned pasuk from Tehillim. He pointed out that Torah does not always offer comfort at times of difficulty. It only does so when it is “my delight”. This idea really resonated with me. Not all Torah-learning is the same. As with tefillah, there are times when it can feel uninspiring. If I am engaging in Torah to a greater degree than in the past, it is because I have found areas that interest me, showing the wisdom of the chachamim who said that one only truly learns that which they are interested in learning. As I struggle to find the meaning of a midrash, or make sense of a challenging concept, I am where I want to be, and I think that shows in the Torah that I am sharing.

There’s a second step however and here’s where my Torah-learning feels like a type of prayer. The Psalmist refers to it as “Your Torah”, seemingly emphasizing the point that the joy and comfort that can be found in Torah is discovered when the Torah is seen as God’s Torah. As I learn God’s Torah, and attempt to make it mine, I feel as if I transform what I am learning through my understanding, and return it to God as a prayer. It is at that moment when I feel as if I am most directly connecting with my Creator and expressing my trust and belief in Him.

Parshat Toledot- The Mysterious Cloak- From Adam to Eisav

Parshat Toledot- What was the mysterious cloak that God gave to Adam HaRishon and how did it end up in Eisav’s hands?

We examine a series of fascinating midrashim which talk of the Ketonet Ohr that God gave to Adam. Ultimately it ends up in the hands of Eisav, until Yaakov buries it in the ground. While recognizing that this midrash is not meant literally, we carefully examine the various pesukim which led to the formation of the midrash, as well as examining its meaning.

Click here to access the link. If that does not work use this link to listen to the shiur, or try listening on YouTube.

Running time 1:08

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Weighty Problem- My struggle to get back to where I was

The articles ( and here and now here) could not have come at a worse time. While I appreciated experiencing the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol said we all receive, the timing of my weight-loss success story could not have come at a worse time. After five years of maintaining my weight and becoming a serious marathon runner, I have put on more than a little weight and am struggling to get back into running.

When I first learned that CNN wanted to do an online story about me back in April, I was excited. I enjoy sharing my story with others and through it have helped others others take up running and become more healthy. The writer, who is the sister-in-law of a friend, reached out to me and we spoke by phone and communicated through email. Although I was not running as frequently as I usually did at the time, I was not concerned, nor did the slight accompanying bump in weight worry me. I knew I’d be back. I knew I would never let go of the changes I’d made to my life.

Only I did. During an incredible seven weeks that I spent in Israel this past summer, as the head counselor for Sdei Chemed, I ran too infrequently and I ate things I shouldn’t have eaten. The combination of Israel’s summer heat, the exhaustion that came from a lot of amazing trips, and the lack of my usual running support network, kept me off the roads. As for the eating, let’s just say that Israel’s amazing food was too tempting for me. I told myself I’d get back on track when I got home, but a habit broken is not easily recovered.

The fact that CNN was not able to publish the article until recently, left me with mixed feelings when I got message from friends and strangers saying “Respect” and “Awesome”, and thanking me for the inspiration. I wondered how people would feel if they saw me. I hesitantly shared the first story, but felt no desire to do so with the latter ones (the last of which I did not know was coming).

So here I am, wondering whether I have it in me to get back to where I was. In the past, I only semi-jokingly said that I’d traded my eating addiction for a running one. Now as my drive and desire to run have faded, and I’ve lost some of the self-control I had with eating, I struggle to get back on track. I will resist the urge to end this with some sort of upbeat message along the lines of knowing that I’ll be back, because right now, I just don’t know.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How Old was Rivkah when She Married Yitzchak? - Audio shiur for parshat Chayei Sarah

In this week’s shiur, we discuss the well known midrash, which is quoted in next week’s parsha, that Rivkah was three years old when she married Yitzchak, and that he was 37 years her senior. We look at a midrash which offers to be a more tenable approach as well as suggesting a number of figurative ways of understanding the message of the midrash that she was 3.

(Running Time- 50 minutes)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Malachim- What are they and can we see them? (Audio shiur for Parshat Vayera)

Link for shiur for Parshat Vayera

Our parsha contains one of the stories from the Torah where people seem to interact with physical malachim. In this shiur, we consider four different approaches to explain how such an interaction can take place, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

(Running time- 50 minutes)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Words of Wisdom- Educating our children to the beauty of Torah

As a teacher and student, I’ve walked down more than my fair share of school hallways. I’ve seen hallways with pictures of great rabbis, educational posters, and photographs of beautiful scenes from nature. Last night, at a wedding, which took place at a yeshiva in Lakewood, I saw something in a school hallway that I’ve never seen before. On one side of a long hallway, opposite pictures of gedolim, there were framed facsimiles of old pashkvilim from Israel.

Anyone who has spent time in Israel has seen posters known as pashkvilim hanging in charedi neighborhoods. Pashkvilim are posters of a religious nature which generally are used to try and enforce appropriate religious behavior. They might discuss proper religious attire for the neighborhood, or mark certain activities or locations as off-limits.

As I looked over the various posters, I wondered who had decided that this was something to use to decorate a yeshiva. Sure, they were historically interesting, but what educational message was given when hanging posters that either banned so many activities, or forbade entry to so many places? Is the idea that Judaism is about assering things an educational message that our children need to hear?

There was one poster that caught my eye. It set a minimal price limit for eggs (six for a grush). An explanation was given that this limit was there to protect the poor people of Yerushalayim. Now this was a poster that had educational value. Imagine if the hallway showed in various ways, the message of deracheha darchei noam. Along with a poster like this showing gedolim using their power to help the poor, there could be other pictures and posters emphasizing the idea that Torah can and should be a driving force for kindness and goodness.

I didn’t recognize all of the gedolim whose pictures lined the other walls, but among those who I did know, were Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov and Rav Shlomo Zalman, who were pictured with their characteristic smiles. If one indeed wants to hang posters with the words of chachamim in the yeshiva (leaving aside the educational question of whether this is a good idea), wouldn’t it be better to hang posters with the words of these and other chachamim that show the boys of the yeshiva the teshuvos and divrei Torah of Toras Chessed koach d’heteira adif  that these great men produced and represented? This is not to deny the fact that there are prohibitions in the Torah, and  some things that are off-limits. Still at a time when so much is banned and forbidden, it behooves us to show our children (and selves)  the beauty that Torah represents.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Meeting Our Partners in Peace

I know that I am not the only Zionist who has sometimes asked the question “Where are Israel’s partners for peace?”. Reading a steady stream of headlines and articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s easy to wonder where the Palestinians who are willing to talk and listen can be found. Still, I have always assumed that once you get past the Palestinian leadership, there are people on the street who want peace as much as Israeli citizens do. I must admit that I sometimes wonder whether all of those who ask the question, are really interested in meeting and hearing from those partners, or whether the question is just a way of seeing the Palestinians as a faceless other and deflecting the need to listen. In writing this, I hope to give people the chance to meet, hear from and talk with Palestinians who also believe in dialogue.

I recently wrote about the opportunity that I had to hear from Ali Abu Awwad, the co-founder of Roots, a West Bank based organization dedicated to peaceful dialogue,  at a local Reconstructionist temple. I wondered why it was that I had not had the opportunity to hear from those like Awaad in any Orthodox institutions. After the event, I discovered that my friend Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who lives in Alon Shvut, was one of the co-founders of Roots. When I reached out to him, he told me that he had been unsuccessful in finding Orthodox institutions in the US and Canada that were willing to host a Roots event. I expressed my hope that this was just an aberration, and that I was interested in serving as a matchmaker of sorts, and helping to identify Orthodox shuls and schools that would host such an event.

In May 2015, Awwad and Schlesinger will be coming back to North America to speak about Roots and the real progress that they are making in creating meaningful dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. They will be in the States through early June. If you believe in dialogue and are interested in hearing from a legitimate partner for peace, please do not what you can to bring Awwad to speak in your community. Although my focus in this post is on the Orthodox community, I encourage people from all walks of Jewish life to take advantage of this special opportunity. There are real partners for peace who want to talk. Please join the conversation.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Case Study- Some thoughts on my interests in Torah

The other day, I commented to my wife how glad I was that the seforim on our shelves are being used so frequently. While this was perhaps, in some small measure, an attempt to justify my frustrating habit of not returning sefarim to the shelf and putting sefarim back in a fairly messy way, there was much more behind my comment. To me, it is sad to walk into a house and see from the sefarim that they are positioned in a way that suggests that they are hardly ever used. Essentially, I was saying that no one would ever make that mistake by looking at our shelves. Thinking about it a little more, that’s only half true. It depends upon which of our shelves one looks.

We have about 6 bookcases packed with sefarim in our living room, with three on one wall, and the other three on the adjoining wall. Along one wall, are the sefarim that deal with Tanach and machshava/philosophy. On the other shelves, are sefarim that deal with gemara and halacha. Of course, being that these sefarim are mine, it’s not quite that neatly divided, but I digress. The first set of shelves look as if they have been hit by a tornado. Sets are somewhat broken up, sefarim lay horizontally on top of other sefarim, and everything looks used. By contrast, the Shas and halacha shelves are, if not collecting dust, way too ordered and neat. It’s hard for me not to think about what this means.

For a long time, my learning interests tended to be talmudic and halachic, as were the shiurim I gave. I loved tracing a topic from its talmudic roots through modern day posekim. I would often pick up a SHU’T (Shailos and Teshuvos) to see how a modern posek dealt with a particular subject. All of that has changed. While I continue to be fully observant and enjoy hearing halacha shiurim when the chance comes up, that is not the area that draws my mind and heart. These days, I am more likely to pick up Rav Kook rather than Rav Moshe, the Moreh rather than the Mishnah Torah, and the Tzidkas HaTzaddik rather than the Mishnah Berura.

This was brought home to me last night when I posted a comment that contained a few sloppy mistakes about halacha. While it was by no means part of a serious Torah post, I couldn’t help but realize that I wouldn’t have made that same mistake five years ago. Whereas a number of friends took the opportunity to push me to return to a more balanced approach, I’m not yet ready to find the middle ground. For now I simply recognize that I traded one pole for its opposite. I know the middle exists, and I will one day find it, perhaps by looking at the interplay between the two poles, but for now, I am not yet ready.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reaching Out- God, Avraham and choice (Audio shiur)

In Lech Lecha, God commanded Avraham (Avram at that point) to leave his land to go to Canaan. Absent from the story is any reason for Avraham being selected for his special role.

In the shiur, we explore various possibilities as to whether God chose Avraham or Avraham chose God. In the process, we explore the concept of what it means to be chosen, and the relationship between God and mankind.

Below are the links (the shiur is in two parts due to technical reasons)

Running time 1:10

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Middle Ground- Finding the balance in our relationship with God

“Yedid Nefesh, Av Ha Rachaman…”

The other night after my shiur on parshat Noach, I got into an interesting conversation with a student. We somehow ended up discussing the danger of viewing God as one who can be manipulated through things like davening, Tehillim and baking challah. I pointed out to him, that the rationalist side, a side that has become very common within the world of modern-orthodoxy, has its dangers as well. He asked what they were, and I responded off the cuff with a quick answer. What follows is an attempt to give a more complete answer to the question.

Rav Eliezer Berkovits zt”l wrote about the fact that the God of Aristotle is not the God of the Torah. Aristotle spoke of the Unmoved Mover, a God with whom man can not truly engage. On the other hand, the Torah speaks of a God who listens, commands and gives rewards and punishments. In short, a God who cares. While Rambam attempted to somehow merge the two ideas, for many he created a supercomputer of sorts with whom it is difficult for us to relate. While he moved Judaism away from a God who could be seen as too human, he left us with a God with whom it is hard to connect.

Rav Shimshon Raphael  Hirsch in his commentary on Bereishis, took note of this difficulty. On the pesukim found at the end of parshas Bereishis (6:6), God, in advance of the flood, is described as regretting the creation of man and feeling sad.

וַיִּנָּחֶם ה' כִּי־עָשָׂה אֶת־הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל־לִבּוֹ:

Rav Hirsch notes:

Let us here make a general remark about anthropomorphic expressions in Scripture. Scholars have philosophized about these expressions, in order to keep us far from ascribing to God material features.
He continues by noting:

This gives rise, however, to the danger that the Personality of God will become increasingly blurred and indistinct to our perception. Had that been the Torah's intention, it could easily have avoided such expressions. Rather, the second danger (that of blurring the Creator's Personality) is greater than the first (that of anthropomorphizing the Creator). (Emphasis added)

...All this affirms the Personality and freedom of God and preserves the purity of faith. This is also the view of the ראב''ד, the distinctively Jewish thinker: Belief in the Personality of God is more important than the speculations of those who reject the attribution of material features to God.

While it can be argued that in Rambam’s time the greater danger might have been in the opposite direction, it seems to me that Rav Hirsch is correct in noting that the pendulum has swung too far in our community. Why daven when God is unchanging and uncaring? How can we relate to His mitzvos when we can’t relate to Him at all? If all we know is what he is not, how can that be enough for the basis of a relationship?

It is time to think about finding a proper balance. While the God of the Torah is not a gumball machine from which we can receive what we want whenever we want, he is also not a supercomputer running the world. It is time to return to language that speaks not only of God’s perfection, but also of His concern, and for us to not see him as merely the creator, but also as a God who loves and cares about us.