Thursday, February 27, 2014

Missing the Forest for the Trees- A new approach to teaching halacha

Why don't we just sleep for 25 hours, so we don't do any melacha?”, my student said sarcastically. As much as I might have wished for her to have expressed her frustration with Hilchos Shabbos in a different way, she was not the only frustrated by the school mandated halacha curriculum. I disliked having to teach halacha that way. Although there was a small attempt to get into the ideas behind the halachos, in my estimation, it was far from enough. What follows is an attempt to suggest a better approach to teaching halacha to high school students.

When I was in the Aish HaTorah Kollel, I first heard about the Sheish Mitzvos Timidiyos (the six constant commandments), from Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l. The SMT, which as far as I know, was first discussed by the Sefer HaChinuch, are six mitzvos which have some sort of “constancy” that the other 607 mitzvohs do not. The six mitzvos on the list are:

  1. Anochi HaShem Elokecha- I am HaShem your God (It is beyond the scope of the current discussion to discuss whether it is a mitzvah and what the mitzvah might be)
  2. Lo Yihiyeh lecha elohim acheirm al pa'nai- do not serve other powers
  3. Shema Yisrael- God is one in every sense of the term
  4. V'ahavta- Loving god
  5. Es HaShem Elokecha tir'eh (Is this the correct citation?)- Fear/Awe of God
  6. Lo sasuru- Do not stray after forbidden desires

The way I understand the “constancy” of these six mitzvos, is that while the other 607 are not obligatory at every moment of life, these six mitzvos are always to be observed. I never thought to question why, or to draw any further conclusions. Recently, my friend Yehoshua Hershberg shared an explanation that blew me away. I am hesitant to bring the context, as the topic is one which could sidetrack the idea, but I do think the context is too important to leave out. Other than direct quotes, the ideas in this essay are only my own, and any mistakes should be attributed to me, and not to Yehoshua.

His comments came up in a discussion which involved a discussion about the push, by some men and women, for women to have more options in performing mitzvos from which they are not halachically obligated, and which have, for the most part, if not entirely, traditionally been performed only by men. Yehoshua made six points, five of which are relevant to this discussion, which are quoted verbatim:

  1. Women and men will never be ritually equal in halachic Judaism
    2. The natural thrust of feminism, the philosophy influencing all this, is to drive towards complete equality
    3. Feminism and improvements in women's education have created a situation where many orthodox women want to be more involved in Judaism and want to be "closer to God"
    (author's note- the quotation marks are there, only because he is quoting from something that was said, not as a way of disparaging this desire), etc.
    4. The general philosophy of most rishonim is that the way to be close to God is through the emotional/intellectual mitzvos, of which men AND women are equal in their obligation.
    5. I would advise that, in general, for men and women, (4) should be an important educational message (without underwriting the ritual mitzvos).

While one might quibble with the second point and suggest that there are various approached to halachic feminism, I do not wish to get distracted by that point. Additionally, while one can discuss what the mitzvah or mitzvohs will be at which the line will be drawn, despite any halachic attempt to being inclusive, I tend to agree that full ritual equality is an impossibility.

Yehoshua went on to elaborate on his fifth point, and tie it in to the SMT. He suggested that these six mitzvos are singled out due to being qualitatively different from the other mitzvos. While the other commandments are means to an end, the SMT are the end to which the other 607 mitzvohs point. I have my thoughts on why no bein adam l'chaveiro mitzvos (commandments between person and person) are on the list, but I will not share them here. Thus, while the halachic system does not have full ritual equality with those 607, both men and women are obligated in mitzvos which fall into each of those six categories, and thus, are equal in terms of the ultimate goal of mitzvah performance.

Whether or not one accepts these implications as a way of, at least partially, dealing with the halachic/hashkafic analysis of the desire for women to have more ritual opportunities, I wish to take his fifth statement at face value and deal with the implications for general Torah education for both men and women.

One of the subjects that is most difficult for teachers in Jewish schools to teach is halacha. Besides the challenge of not making it dry and boring (which can be overcome), getting students to see mitzvah observance as a means and not as an end to itself is a big challenge. Furthermore, even if we can inculcate the message that mitzvah observance is only a means, the end is often misunderstood as being some version of “mitzvah points”, and/or Olam Haba and other types of reward. Yehoshua's approach would allow for a paradigm shift. Whether we are to take Rambam's approach and suggest that the mitzvos are a means to achieving Y'dias HaShem (knowledge of God), or Crescas's approach that the goal is Ahavas HaShem (love of God) each mitzvah would be taught within a framework that treats it as a means to one of these goals through the prism of the Sheish Mitzvos Timidiyos. This would, of course, have to include an emphasis on ta'amei HaMitzvos (possible reasons for the commandments), with a strong preference on various approaches, both rational (Rambam and Chinuch etc.) as well as spiritual/mystical (rav Kook, chassidus etc.).

It is my contention that such an approach could complete change the way we view mitzvah observance, how we teach it, and, most importantly, how we live it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From my students, more than all others- Why I changed my mind, and will be attending my 25th reunion

This is a followup to my post about my upcoming high school reunion. If you have not read it, please click here to do so before reading further.

When I was a child, December 25th offered slim pickings on TV. Being that the alternative would have involved (GASP!) not watching TV, I went with what was on. While Rudolph and his shiny red nose never did much for me, I was a fan of “A Christmas Carol”. Not any of the high-brow ones, mind you. The only one for me was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Although I haven't watched it in years, I still remember it fondly. To me, the most powerful moment was when the Ghost of Christmas Future came back and showed Mr. Magoo what lay ahead of him, if he stuck with his current trajectory. There was something about the idea of learning from your mistakes, without actually having to live out the consequences, that really spoke to me. Of course, there was and is no such way of doing so in real life.

My students would ask me from time to time, why I became a teacher. I frequently made reference to a gemara that discusses the idea that when God was going to destroy the Beis HaMikdash, he told the angels to save the tzaddikim (righteous) from death. The angels responded by pointing out that the tzaddikim had failed to try and positively influence their generation. God responded that it would not have changed a thing. When the angels pointed out to God that while He knew that, the tzaddikim did not, God accepts that they are not deserving of being saved. I was not the not the most serious kid when I was in high school. Not only did I struggle to deal with the social chanllenges, but I also struggled religiously. While it would have been nice to have a rebbe who cared to help me with both, it would have been acceptable to have one who, having gone through struggles of their own, could have helped me figure things out a bit. While I'm fairly sure I would not have been open to their offers of help, there was no way for them to have known that without having tried. Among other things, like teaching skill and ideas, I have tried to be for my students someone who, having already been through some of what they are dealing with, can help them navigate that challenging part of their life.

So what does this have to do with my changing my mind about my reunion? Quite a bit actually. When I wrote my post about the reunion, I was hoping that what I wrote would resonate with some others, just as I do with whatever I write. I was not prepared for the reaction. Withing several hours, it became my most read post. I started getting friend requests on Facebook from people I did not know. I heard from some former-classmates who told me how much what I had written spoke to them. Surprisingly, some classmates, who were definitely more popular than I was, told me that they also felt similarly. Former students wrote as well. One boy shared a poem that he wrote on the subject when he was at Flatbush, letting me know I could share it, but, tellingly, only anonymously. My post seemed to have touched a nerve.

At the same time, I got two other types of reactions. Some, suggested various versions of “Get over it” with a few, more or less, telling me “Get over it, loser”. It seems that some didn't (couldn't?) empathize with the high school me, while some others saw themselves in my “tormentors” and felt judged. Others, including some former students, pushed back, and urged me, for various reasons, to reconsider. They succeeded in getting me to rethink my decision.

While the thoughts from my family and friends meant a lot and certainly helped, it was the comments from my students which ultimately persuaded me to attend. They seemed to be urging me to respond to this situation with the balance and sensitivity I had tried to model in the classroom. In other words, they were asking me to recognize that this was a teachable moment.

First, I recognized that how I would deal with the reunion would be a message to my students (and children) about how to deal with their own high school “tormentors” and demons. I could be the ghost from the future who could show them how to avoid, or at least, partially avoid, 25 years of pain.

Then I thought about the fact that it was not just them that needed to hear this message. I did. I realized it was time to deal with my own discomfort in a productive way. I plan to attend the reunion and see my friends. I'm also hoping to speak with the person who, for whatever reasons, real or subjective, more than anyone else, represents to me the pain that I went through. Not, God forbid, to say something harsh, embarrass them, or get even. Just to speak. As former classmates. As equals. I don't know how they will react, or even whether they will want to talk, but I do know that I will try.

It will take courage to go over to a person to whom I granted way too much power back then and in the subsequent years as well. It's time to speak and to turn them from a monster into a person.

Friday, February 21, 2014

How I would respond to the students of Ramaz

The Jewish social media world has been passionately discussing the petition from a group of high school students at Ramaz, one of the preeminent Modern Orthodox high schools in the country. These students, members of a student group called the Ramaz Politics Society, would like to have Rashid Khalidi, a controversial and well known Palestinian professor at Columbia, who is known for his Pro-Palestinian views. While the students see this is an event that would ensure that students are “exposed to other points of view”, which lead to open-minded dialogue. The administration has refused, saying that while they are open and encourage various points of view, Khalidi views are so extreme as to make him outside of those whose views should be considered, certainly by high school students. (this is my summary and not theirs).

There has been much debate on the blogosphere and Facebook about who is correct. There is much to unpack here, and I am content to sit and the side to listen to both sides.

I am, however, thinking about this from the perspective of Jewish education. Ramaz is in a tough spot. To capitulate to their students, would be to allow their students to be exposed to ideas which they consider to be well out of bounds, at an impressionable time in their lives. If they refuse to let him speak, they will be accused of not welcoming different perspectives, of indoctrinating rather than educating their students, and perhaps of much worse. Students will feel jaded, an effect that will carry over into how they look at other parts of their education, particularly the Jewish component. I do not envy Dr. Paul Shaviv, the Ramaz Head of School, who is an intelligent and thoughtful educator.

Here is how I would respond

Dear Students, Faculty, Parents and Alumni,

As you are aware, Ramaz has been in the news recently due to a petition from some of our students asking us to change our minds, and allow them to invite Rashid Khalidi to speak. While we remain committed to open-dialogue and to exposing our students to different perspectives in both their Torah and General studies, we can not allow Professor Khalidi to speak. It is not that ideas from the Palestinian perspective are not welcome in our school. On the contrary, we believe that it is essential that our students hear from different voices and perspectives on Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Rashid Khalidi's views are so beyond the mainstream, and so openly hostile to Israel as Jewish state, that his voice is not welcome, and he will not be welcomed into our school.

At the same time, I recognize, that words alone are not enough to quell the passionate claims of our students that by not welcoming Khalidi, we are not open to dialogue. It is for that reason that we will be hosting a special program on Monday, March 24th where we will have various speakers who will discuss their perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These speakers will include both Israelis and Palestinians, and will allow for open and uncensored dialogue. Due to the importance we place on the idea of open-dialogue, alumni and parents are welcome and encouraged to attend.

We remain passionately committed to the idea of Religious Zionism and the value of hearing from a plethora of voices, and, equally importantly, that these two values need not, indeed do not, conflict.


Pesach Sommer

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Why I will not be attending the Class of '89 25th reunion

Dear Class of '89 Reunion Committee,

I am writing to explain to you why I will not be attending the Yeshiva of Flatbush 25th reunion of the class of '89 at Yeshiva of Flatbush. I could simply not attend, or make some sort of an excuse why I will not be there. While you might call my bluff if I said the cost of the event is too much for me, there are other ways I could falsely explain my choice. Still, I try, quite seriously, to not lie. Besides, the truth can often set you free.

Up until a few weeks back, I was still thinking of attending, but then I happened upon the show “Freaks and Geeks”. Freaks and Geeks aired for only one season nearly 14 years ago. It tells the story of two siblings, Lindsay and Sam Weir who attend McKinley High School. Lindsay, an upperclassman, is a bright girl who is trying to figure out who she is. She has started hanging out with the “freaks” the kids who are too cool for school, and like to party. Sam, a short and scrawny freshman, is a “geek”, as are his friends. The show was a big hit with the critics but a ratings flop. Similar to other shows like “My So-Called Life”, which also showed the complexity and pain of the high school years, too many people found it to be too painful to watch. Most people, it seems, like to live with the illusion of their teenage years having been pain, and even, angst free.

I very much identify with both characters, but if I am to be fully honest, I must admit that I was more like Sam than like Lindsay. I still remember the outfit I wore on first day at Flatbush, an ensemble that I hoped would make me look cool. Of course, my light purple Polo shirt was anything but cool. Even if it had been, my curly hair, which I still insisted on trying to part and straighten, and my wire glasses, would have marked me as a loser.

Having attended a small school in my neighborhood where social-classes were less pronounced, and the kids were, on the whole, nicer, I was not prepared for what hit me when I got to Flatbush. Although I was never physically bullied, the words that were used against me, wounded me deeply. I did not yet have the self-confidence and awareness to realize that I merely lacked work-habits, and was not stupid, which was what one boy in my class told me in many creative and hurtful ways. Instead, I seethed on the inside and took the insults silently, until the day that I couldn't take it anymore, and discovered that sometimes, getting physical is a good way to quiet a bully. He never said a mean word to me again.

A year later, having been bounced from the top honors class due to poor grades, I discovered a new problem. Although there were many great guys in my class, some of whom remain close friends to this day, there was a sharp divide between most of the boys, who were in the lower half of the social strata, and the girls, most of whom were in the cool group. Over the next three years, I found various ways of dealing with my daily discomfort including sarcasm, sulking, self-pity and finding a good group of friends, both guys and girls, outside of school. Even when, before my junior year, I finally ditched my nerdy glasses and started getting my hair cut at Astor Place in the Village, I never could get in with the cooler kids.

To be sure, most of them were not nasty, although there were a few who were quite mean. For the most part, I was irrelevant. I felt like a waiter working at a fancy country club. While some club members might be nice to the waiter and others might be nasty, most don't really think of him at all. By the time I reached senior year, I had mentally checked out from feeling part of my grade. I stopped attending optional events like Senior Night, as I knew that for me, the personal jokes would be anything but personal. I refused to be in group pictures for the yearbook, as doing so would have suggested a closeness that I did not feel. Other than the formal class pictures, where you would notice if you looked, that I am not smiling, I did not appear in a single picture in the yearbook.
I don't want to be fully negative. There were some good things that came out of my experiences in high school. As a teacher, including for some classmates children, I am more sensitive than most, towards the boy or girl who are left out. I frequently challenge my students when they claim that the grade is one big happy family. I believe that teaching my students that “Everyone is nice to their friends. It's how you treat everyone else that shows who you are” is at least as important as teaching them how to read the gemara, or discussing Hilchot Shabbat. I avoid the somewhat common occurrence among teachers, of focusing on the cool kids.

I could, of course attend the reunion and hope that the fact I am thin and in good shape would overcome my loss of hair. I could write a biography that would, like many profiles on social media, project an exciting and meaningful life, devoid of challenge and discomfort, but would anyone care? If a needy self-description falls amongst those who don't care, does it make any noise?

I was relieved to be contacted by a member of the reunion committee who was a nice guy back in high school, despite not being a friend. It would have been way to ironic to have a classmate who wasn't nice to me, pretend that my attendance at the reunion would matter for anything but boosting attendance. Still, I have decided not attend. While there might be a few people there whom I have not seen in many years who I would like to see, there are other ways to do so. I need not attend to see my good friends with whom I am already in touch. Simply put, I can not attend the reunion as there was no union to speak of the first time around.


Marc (Pesach) Sommer

I've changed my mind and will attend, to see why please click here.

Friday, February 14, 2014

What's in a name? (part II) - Dystopia

From time to time, I will be writing about my reasons for choosing "Pesach Sheini" as the name for my blog. The more I have thought about the name, the more I have felt that it chose me and not the other way around. What follows is the second installation. To read the first, click here.

I recently read the children's classic “A Wrinkle in Time” for the first time. Although, I enjoyed the book, there was something bothering me while reading it, that, until this early this morning, as I lay in bed trying to find the quiet and serenity of sleep, I was unable to identify.

A brief synopsis for those who do not know the story

It tells, the story of Meg Murry, a high-school-aged girl who is transported on an adventure through time and space, along with her younger brother Charles Wallace and her friend Calvin O'Keefe to rescue her father, a gifted scientist, from the evil forces that hold him prisoner on another planet. Meg, is an awkward, but loving girl, troubled by personal insecurities and her concern for her father, who has been missing for over a year.

The three children learn that the universe is threatened by a great evil called the Dark Thing and taking the form of a giant cloud, engulfing the stars around it. Several planets have already succumbed to this evil force, including Camazotz, the planet on which Mr. Murry is imprisoned.

The children are transported to Camazotz a planet with stifling conformity. On Camazotz, all objects, places and people appear exactly alike, because the whole planet must conform to the terrifying rhythmic pulsation of IT, a giant disembodied brain. During their interaction with IT, Charles falls under IT's control. Although unable to save him, they do locate Mr. Murry, and escape just in time before they too lose control

Ultimately, Meg returns to Camzotz and while standing in the presence of IT, realizes that her ability to love Charles is the key to saving him. By concentrating on her love for Charles Wallace, she is able to restore him to his true identity. Meg releases Charles from IT's clutches and travels with him through time and space, landing in her yard on Earth, where her father and Calvin stand waiting. The book ends as the family joyously reunites.

The people on Camzotz are portrayed as horrified and saddened by their conformity. It seems to me, that, in fact, the vast majority of people who conform feel quite comfortable in their unity. It is the Meg Murry's of the world, who are the ones who are uncomfortable, unwilling (or is it unable?) to join the crowd.

I recently wrote about the harrowing and, somewhat paradoxically, rewarding experience of losing and regaining my faith. While I once again feel whole, I feel lonelier than ever as I look at the communities which surround me, communities which once gave me some degree of comfort and nourishment. Like Meg, I have become more comfortable with myself, accepting (embracing?) my strengths and weaknesses, only I have returned to a dystopic world.

As I have gotten back to writing, the reaction has made me feel as if I am playing a twisted game of Twister, with each too distant black and white circle representing a world with which I partially identify. One blog post leads to approbation and agreement from my friends in the traditionalist camp, with the commensurate silence or worse from those friends of mine who identify with the left-wing of Modern Orthodoxy, while the next post leads to the opposite reaction from those very same friends.

There is a somewhat well-known quote “Those who I can talk to I cannot daven with and those with whom I can daven, I cannot talk” (according to Google, it was said by Ernst Simon). For myself, I would add two categories. There are many with whom I can neither engage in meaningful dialogue nor daven. Our views of God and the world are so distant that it is as if we do not speak the same language. For me, the various forms of group think which those in this camp seem to embody, is particularly off-putting, as loyalty to the right “team” trumps all else. To be sure, there are those with whom I feel true connection, including some fellow intellectual Marranos within my local community, but they are too few in number and too spread out throughout the world to be meaningfully called community.

Perhaps, even more troubling, is the fact that communal leaders, both rabbis and others, rather than protesting the debilitating conformity, fail to object, some out of fear, while for others it is because the group-think is the very source of their power. For some, ba'alei teshuva, as well as those like myself who embraced a greater to commitment to Torah, the Orthodox world in which which we find ourselves, leads to a “buyer's remorse”, as the promised commitment to truth and holiness seems like just another promise made by a salesman desperate to make a sale.

Right now, the Dark Thing seems to be winning, as so many people within my world pursue IT, at the expense of more noble goals and callings. Meanwhile, the true Artist, who has created each of us with differences both physical, spiritual and emotional, awaits our return to Him and to ourselves.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Taking the Longstreet home- A proposal for a paradigm shift in Jewish education

With a casualty rate of over 50%, Pickett's Charge was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. To this day, many struggle to understand what made General Lee launch such an unsuccessful offensive. It seems that the plan of attack involved a “perfect storm” of traditional tactics used against new technology. The invention of the Minie ball, a type of rifled bullet, which replaced musket balls, made it possible to hit a target from 1200 feet, where previously one might miss in a duel at ten paces. Under a barrage of musket balls, a charge might succeed, and overwhelm the enemy position. Under a barrage of the new bullet, a charge was essentially suicidal. Only General Lee's highest ranking general, James Longstreet, recognized the futility of the attack, but his protests were ignored. The results, both that day, and in general, were tragic for the Confederacy.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, recently wrote a post entitled “Unsung Heroes” on his blog, which he cross-posted on Cross Currents. As is his want (or won't, as the case may be), comments and replies are not allowed on either post. What follows is an educational proposal based on what he wrote and implied. Although I will not be addressing the part of his post where he wrote words that were, at least, unkind, and, in my estimation, gratuitously mean-spirited and cruel, please do not take my lack of further comment to indicate agreement with what he wrote.

I think it’s time I came clean regarding my doubts about Judaism, about everything I was taught by my parents and rabbaim in yeshiva. How can we be sure that the Torah was really given to my ancestors at Sinai? Are its laws really eternal? Is halacha really G-d’s will? Are Jews in fact a special people? And are Orthodox Jews true examples of what a Jew should be?
I came across some very compelling literature that called traditional Jewish beliefs into question, and was disturbed by what I had read, and so I read more, and did a good amount of serious thinking and research.
As to Orthodox Jews themselves, yes, most seem to be fine people, but there have also always been “characters” – people with strange fixations or behavior patterns. And then there are Jews proven or rumored to be… not so nice.
The thought that the “outside” world might provide a more rarified and thoughtful community was an enticing one. And so I began to entertain doubts about Jewish beliefs, my religious identity and my community.
I was 14.
To my relief now, many decades later, there was no Internet then to intensify my confusion, and no examples of people who had abandoned Jewish beliefs and observance and written best-sellers about the fact. I had no opportunity at the time to capitalize on my doubts and gripes with a memoir that would garner me the media spotlight, interviews and royalties. Though I had what to tell, like how my second grade rebbe would rap my fingers hard with a ruler when I misbehaved. I would have had to have been truthful and admit that he didn’t do it in anger, and that I felt he loved me dearly throughout. But I could have racked that up to Stockholm Syndrome.
Lacking the commercial incentives, though, allowed me to take my time, do some critical thinking and research, and give Judaism a chance. I engaged my doubts with information, and was blessed to have parents who gave me space, who didn’t try to overly control my reading, dress or activities; and with rabbaim who didn’t consider any question off-limits.

If Rabbis Shafran is being fully open, he has not had any religious struggles or doubts since he was 14. If so, he is quite fortunate, both in never having been challenged by questions that a more developed intellect might ask, as well as having a rebbe who could give him answers to his questions; answers that were either true, or beyond young Shafran's ability to rebuff. Furthermore, he was able to do a search which only turned up answers, and did not lead to further struggles. By implication, he bemoans the fact that the internet can intensify one's confusion. Although I would suggest that a more thorough search might have turned up books which would lead to more questions, I will concede that the internet makes it far easier to discover things which challenges one's beliefs. The question is, how to deal with this reality. Being a student of history, I would suggest that we follow the Longstreet approach, and accept that new technology calls for a new response and not what once (sort of) worked under other circumstances.

There was a time where, more or less, we could shield children from the outside world, and all of its challenges. Educators could skip certain topics in science, with a reasonable expectation that their students would be none the wiser. A rebbe could make a comment about the outside world, and his talmidim would lack the ability to ascertain whether these claims were true. This is no longer the case (I would add the word “thankfully” to the beginning of that sentence). A boy who is curious about what his biology teacher skipped in yeshiva, can, with a few clicks, discover the truth. Students who might never have discovered biblical criticism, no longer have to wait until college to engage this challenging issue.

We, as Jewish educators, have two choices. We can allow the internet to be the one to introduce these topics to our students, and hope that, at best, our students will care enough to ask us questions about their struggles. Alternatively, we can introduce it to them within the relative safety of our schools. To be sure, this approach involves a risk. Dealing with these issues will raise questions for some students who might bot have thought about them. Although, we might try and figure out a way to limit these lessons to certain students, I can't imagine how that might work. Perhaps that is why our chahchamim said in Maseches Chagiga that these topics should not be taught in groups. Still, I would suggest that we no longer have the ability to keep these subjects from our classes.

There are two further challenges. This new approach would require that yeshivas have educators who are well educated on these topics, and by well educated, I do not mean thinking that disproving Wellhausen is all that is needed. This challenge is not insignificant, but it is manageable. Rabbeim and morahs need not have PHDs in Biblical Studies or ANE studies, but they should, at least, have an understanding of a well educated layman. Much more challenging, and in my estimation more important, is for us, as educators, to be willing to help our students (and ourselves) recognize that not all questions have perfect answers. While there will be young or unsophisticated students whom we might be able to convince that we have all of the answers, God forbid, that we should lie to our students about a Torah that comes from God, whose seal is truth.

If we have the courage to accept and engage in the new reality, rather than merely wishing it away, it is my hope and prayer, that God will help us avoid further tragedies which are brought on by a refusal to move on from what once worked.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A response to Rabbi Josh Yuter's critique of Rav Schachter

I write this with great hesitancy and trepidation. I am not a talmid chahcham and there are those who are more learned than I am who can, and, hopefully will, respond to Rabbi Josh Yuter's latest response to Rav Herschel Schachter's “letter” about women wearing tefillin. Quite honestly, I am tired and saddened by the debate over women wearing tefillin, and how it has gone on, although some of the discussions which have come out of this controversy give me some hope. My fear that there will not be a formal response to Josh's post, leads me to respond as a protest against the continued lack of respect for Rav Schachter, the Torah that he, as a world class poskek, represents, as well as the misconstruing of Rav Schachter's position. Additionally, as will become clear, I believe that Rabbi Yuter made a number of mistakes in his argument.


Although I have tremendous respect for Rav Schachter, I am not a talmid of his, or, in any serious sense, RIETS. I have had the honor and pleasure of interacting with him on personal issues of mine, as well as hearing his shiurim, and learning from his seforim. It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway that I do not think he is perfect, and neither does he. I can not claim that I would publicly disagree with him, even if I thought his judgment was in error, but I can say that I have, on rare occasion, disagreed with something he said (not in the area of halacha, as I am not on the level to do so).

Although I have only met Rabbi Yuter once, I enjoy interacting with him. He is bright, funny, and not afraid to speak his mind. I consider him a friend and I hope that he can say the same for me. There is no personal agenda against him in writing this.

I am posting this as a blog post because if I am choosing to enter the fray, I should be willing to have my words fully attributed to my name. I do not want to hide behind the relative anonymity of a more temporal Facebook post.


My previous post publicized a recent letter (PDF) authored by Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University. At the time of posting I did not have time for a thorough analysis, but several people took offense at my initial glib reactions on social media, calling it various forms of “disrespectful” or “not nice.” While I found these responses to be somewhat ironic given that R. Schachter himself used his letter to delegitimize those with whom he disagrees by comparing them to Korach and stating that they violate yehareg ve’al ya’avor, the rebuke is nevertheless well taken. Given his perceived stature in the Orthodox community, R. Schachter’s letter deserves a thorough analysis, as I’ve done before regarding his approach to Jewish law, especially as it pertains to the imposition of select religious authority.

While it is to be appreciated that Josh is willing to move beyond his “initial glib reaction”, this response does not contain an apology or even a willingness to not make disrespectful comments to “deligitamize” the one “with whom he disagrees”. This is not a substantive response to his argument, but it must be said.

Rabbi Yuter's insistence on interpreting “yehareg ve'al ya'avor” as anything but as a halachic claim is uncalled for. It might be a term that does not play well today, but it is a halachic term. If Rav Schachter had used this term against a position of Jews for Jesus, would Josh claim it was merely an attempt to deligetimize them? (I do not, God forbid, make this comparison to equate those with whom Rav Schachter is disagreeing with J4J in any manner. I am only using an extreme example to point out, that a posek is free to argue, and sometimes, compelled to argue, that a practice falls into this halachic category).  

To understand R. Schachter’s letter, it would help to review ideas I presented in a classic post comparing the roles of “Rav” and “Rosh Yeshiva”. Two of my teachers both emphasized significant distinctions between these positions, albeit for different reasons. Haham Yosef Faur compared the Rav and Rosh Yeshiva to their analogous authority in a legal system. The Rosh Yeshiva was comparable to the law professor, who may be exceptionally well versed in legal texts and reasoning but carries no inherent legal authority while the Rav, who may be less knowledgeable than a Rosh Yeshiva, has by virtue of his appointment as a Rav wields the actual halakhic authority for setting religious policy. To illustrate his point, Haham Faur noted that while law professors could give countless arguments as to why Al Gore ought to have won the 2000 election, none of them possessed the legal authority to declare Al Gore as the 43rd President of the United States of America.

It seems to me that this is a faulty comparison. While the comparison of a rosh yeshiva to a law professor might have some validity, it does not reflect the historic position that great Roshei Yeshiva played in the world of halacha. Furthermore, if one is to compare a rav to a judge, a proper comparison would be to a trial level judge, not a supreme court justice. Rabbi Yuter is free to suggest that, without the sanhedrin, we lack rabbis who can be compared to justices, but equating a rav to a justice is incorrect.

I would add to Haham Faur’s analogy that nature of this authority may be attributed to the willing acceptance of a specific community. When a Rav is appointed, a congregation accedes to that Rav’s authority, as defined by the very nature of his employment. There is a reciprocal relationship between the Rav and his kehillah, one which is necessarily based on the mutual consent of the leader and his constituents (M. Avot 1:6). On the other hand, a Rosh Yeshiva is employed by the academic institution of the yeshiva. Certain communities may decide to follow the religious ethos of a particular yeshiva, but there is no halakhic mandate on any one community to follow any one yeshiva. A Rosh Yeshiva may also serve as Rav, but his authority would be limited only to the specific community which willingly accepted his authority. According to ancient Rabbinic law, only the Jewish Supreme Court of the Sanhedrin is imbued with the authority to mandate Jewish law on the entire Jewish people. Without that legal institution, as Maimonides writes, “we do not coerce the people of one nation to follow the practices of another…[nor do we] listen to words of an earlier authority, but rather to the opinion which is most convincing, regardless of it being an earlier or later source” (Introduction to Mishnah Torah). Outside of the legal system established by the Sages of Rabbinic Judaism, there is no individual or institution which has any halakhic sanction to impose its religious will on the entire Jewish community, let alone to coerce others do submit to their authority.

Again, Rabbi Yuter makes a faulty comparison. Although I agree that as principal, Rabbi Harczstark has the room to set halachic policy for SAR, equating him to a rav, whose congregants have freely chosen him as a halachic authority is incorrect. In what sense is a student enrolled at SAR by his or her parents, equivalent to a congregant who has chosen of her own volition to attend a particular shul? Would Rabbi Yuter suggest that students in a school are obligated to accept their principal's halachic ruling on any level beyond school policy?

Furthermore, as I will explain below, Rav Schachter is not attempting to impose his will on anyone.

Another teacher of mine, R. Moshe Tendler differentiated between the Rav and Rosh Yeshiva on the grounds of skill. In his inimitable words, “God forbid you want a Rosh Yeshiva making psak for you. You want a Rosh Yeshiva to make psak like you want a mathematician to build your bridges.” For R. Tendler, the art of practical psak comes not from pure knowledge or reason, but in knowing how to apply Torah in the real world. A mathematician may know more about the calculations and equations than an engineer, but that does not mean he has the same aptitude to build large constructs. Similarly, a Rosh Yeshiva may be more knowledgeable of Jewish sources, but being secluded in the ebony obelisk of the yeshiva one does not necessarily know how to apply those sources to the actual situations one confronts in the real wold. 

The comparison of Rav Schachter to a professor who lives in an ivory tower is unkind and untrue. Not only is he the posek for the Orthodox Union, but he is consulted by literally hundreds of shul rabbis across the country on all sorts of practical questions. He is well aware of the world to whom is speaking. (The irony of so many rabbis turning to roshei yeshiva like Rav Schachter with their toughest questions, is apparently lost on Rabbi Yuter).

R. Schachter’s objection towards women wearing tefillin in public may be understood via two interrelated issues: diversion from the halakhic process as he see sees fit, and the need for denominational differentiation from those communities who do not follow halakhah as he sees fit. Regarding the latter, R. Schachter begins his essay by citing B. Yoma 2a which records the rabbinic sages intentionally followed a lenient opinion in order to dissociate themselves from the Sadducees, an ancient sect of Judaism which rejected what is now known as Rabbinic Judaism. For R. Schachter, Conservative Judaism is the modern day version of the ancient Sadducees. Furthermore, R. Schachter equates any concession to Conservative Judaism with acquiescing to a an antagonistic king like Antiochus who enacts decrees against the worship of Judaism. In such cases, it is better to let oneself be martyred rather than change “evan a shoe strap” when it comes to Jewish practice (B. Sanhedrin 74a-b). Therefore, since the practice of women putting on tefillin is closely identified with Conservative Judaism, that mere association is enough to consider it prohibited for all Orthodox Jews, as a matter of distinction.

The choice of the words “denominational differences” is a poor one, seeing how it implies that this about one team versus another. For Rav Schachter, Conservative Judaism represents not only a different approach to halacha, but a false and dangerous approach, along the lines of how the chachamim viewed the “Sadducees”.

The necessity for such differentiation is not merely superficial, that is giving the appearance of borrowing practices form Conservative Judaism, but according to R. Schachter, the decision to permit women wearing tefillin follows similar halakhic methodology and ideology as that he ascribes to Conservative Judaism. Specifically, Conservative Judaism, “is based on the foundation that it is permitted – and possibly even obligatory – to deviate from the ways of the tradition based on how they see fit,” even based on their own “sources.”
R. Schachter sees a similar problem with the particular tefillin decision, and presumably others as well.
In our days anything can be found on the internet or in ‘Otzar Hahochma’ or the Bar Ilan Responsa project and the like, and even an ignoramus can become a sage and teach and rule and decide Jewish law even regarding difficult matters, as if he knows of the sources on his own and all the sources and opinions.
Thanks to the resources mentioned, today’s Jewish community has unprecedented access to traditional sources. R. Schachter somehow distinguishes between “researching” a difficult topic and being intuitively knowledgeable of all the relevant factors. Indeed, R. Schachter argues that even though one reads the sources one does not truly know them. Thus people who assume that they too can read Jewish texts and make up their own minds are following in the tradition of Korach. R. Harcsztark committed the cardinal sin of not acknowledging and submitting to his superiors since “he did not seek guidance from the great halakhic decisors of today.”

The access that the average layman has to Torah sources is unprecedented due to modern technology. Still, while this is a positive development, it does not turn a layman or a rabbi into a high level posek. If Rabbi Yuter believes in his comparison to the various court levels, a law student might be able to research a topic well, but it does not place him on the same level as a supreme court justice, who not only has greater knowledge, but a greater “feel” for how it all comes together.

I once heard Rav Schachter tell a personal story that is quite relevant to this discussion. When he had finished learning Hilchos Shabbos, he wanted to see if he was ready to pasken. He attempted to answer several questions which had been asked to Rav Moshe Feinstein ZT”L in Iggeros Moshe. He pointed out that there were a number of times that Rav Moshe applied the logic of an unconnected gemara, on a totally different topic, to answer a question about Shabbos.

It is this level of knowledge and understanding which does not come with the most researched Bar-Ilan search.

As I wrote at length in my post on “Gadolatry” Rabbinic Judaism never established a class of uberrabbi which wields greater authority over the Jewish people, nor is there any objective criteria for defining who would qualify. By the fact that R. Schachter writes numerous opinions, including this one, we can assume that he considers himself to be among this elite to which all Jews must pay deference.

There might not be an objective halachic category of “ubberrabbi”, but that does not mean that Rav Schachter is incorrect. We all intuitively recognize this each time we seek out the best surgeon to perform surgery. We might be able to do enough research to understand some of the medical issue at hand, but we recognize as obvious that we are not qualified to perform surgery.

Rav Schachter including himself with this “elite”, is not due to any arrogance. Those who know him, have seen his great modesty. As Rav Moshe noted in his introduction to Iggeros Moshe, sometimes a rav has no choice but to become a posek. Rav Shachter's Torah knowledge brought him to that point. He would much rather be living and learning in Israel. He has sacrificed so much personally to be the posek of a large number of people, laymen and posekim alike.

When R. Schachter quotes R. Moshe Isserles O.C. 38:3 who rules that we prevent women from putting on Tefillin, he does so assuming that the Ramo is the final definitive word on all practice. He does not cite Tosafot B. Berachot 14a which records that it was once prevalent for women to put on tefillin, even with a blessing, just as they shake the lulav on Sukkot. Furthermore, someone who has access to a Bar Ilan CD (and know for what to look) can easily find examples where the current Ashenazi practice does not follow the Ramo, such as wearing tefillin on Hol Hamoed(O.C. 31:2). Or perhaps one would research the reason for Ramo’s ruling preventing women from wearing tefillin, and find that the reason is based on the fact that wearing tefillin requires a “clean body,” which would disqualify menstruating women. One could then find numerous examples where Jewish practice changed because of a different situation and conclude that women who are on birth control may no longer be assumed to lack a “clean body.” In fact, someone could find evidence in the Ashkenazi legal tradition, which would seem surprisingly similar to the methods employed by Conservative Judaism. 

I hope that Rabbi Yuter is not being disingenuous in his claim that he believes Rav Schachter to be claiming that the Ramo is the final word for Ashkenazi Judaism. The (near?) absolute lack of disagreement among hundreds of years of Ashkenazi posekim, shows that in this case, the Ramo was accepted by Ashkenazi Jewry. These posekim who certainly were aware of the Tosafos in Berachos, did not see that ruling as working against the Ramo.

Although Josh is correct in his claim that one might be able to show why the Remo's reasoning may no longer apply, as I will show below, Rav Schachter sees it as irrelevant.

The democratization of knowledge is thus a significant threat to those who wish to control it, and by extension, the people who depend on it. R. Schachter must create and rely on his myth that he and his cadre are the true arbiters and representatives of Judaism, and by extension, God’s will. Since the community at large has not formally appointed any “gadol,” he must delegitimize individuals and entire communities as being against the true Torah, even as they cite from the same texts on which R. Schachter relies. Past Roshei Yeshiva did not need to be accountable on the merits of their arguments because so few people had access to the same data to even attempt a rebuttal. Rather than face the indignity of having to defend a position, it is much simply to discard those who disagree.

Rav Schachter is perfectly willing to defend his position and has done so. One may, I suppose, regardless of their level of learning in comparison to Rav Schachter, disagree with his reasoning. He is not discarding them, but rather suggesting that they do not see this as the global issue that it is.

R. Harcsztark not only made his decision in the capacity of a Rav but he explained his position in a public letter with the attitude, sensitivity, and sensibility of a Rav. Perhaps what we are witnessing then is a social rebellion not against Torah, but against those who truly raised themselves over God’s community.

I myself called out those who suggested that Rabbi Harcztark had no right to set a policy for two girls within his own school. I saw it as a local issue and not as a communal psak. The response that followed showed that this was no longer a local issue but a communal one. There was good reason to think that this would be the latest litmus test for being a true Modern Orthodox Jew. Once it became a communal issue, it was no longer about a principal's role with his school. It became a question as to whether this could and should become an acceptable practice in the observant community. At that moment, the technical issues fell away and the larger issue of incorporating a practice that comes from the Conservative Movement, which, as a movement, can no longer claim a serious commitment to halacha, came into play.

Rav Schachter saw it as an issue that falls into the halachic category yehareg ve'al yaavor, a category for practices which are so egregious as to threaten the Torah system. Who may I ask, is qualified to make such a decision? Rabbi Yuter? A shul Rav? Certainly it should be someone with the shoulders to make such a broad evaluation for the observant community. Rav Schachter would not claim that he alone may do so. He would correctly claim that it falls to those of his level and not to one who possesses the latest version of the Bar-Ilan CD.

Rav Schachter has not placed himself over a community. Rabbi Yuter has attempted to place himself over Rav Schachter. I leave it to the hundreds of shul rabbis and thousands of laymen, who turn with their most serious halachic issues to rabbis like Rav Schachter, to determine which of these rabbis has a better claim of how halacha works.

Monday, February 10, 2014

If some is good, and more is better, even more is...- Are yeshivahs letting boys be boys?

You could , it was said, make two Einsteins of the Meitscheter Illuy, Rav Shlomo Polachek zt”l. He was known as a man of great brilliance, Torah knowledge and piety. Once, as he walked outside of Yeshiva University, where he was a rosh yeshiva towards the end of his life, he saw some children playing. “Nu, would it have been so bad?”, he said. Having entered Volozhin at the age of 12, and having shown great brilliance at a very young age, Rav Polachek missed out on being a child, something that he regretted, despite all he achieved.

My friend was giving his Rosh Yeshiva a ride to Brooklyn one Sunday afternoon. As they passed a yeshiva that was in session, the Rosh Yeshiva said to my friend “While your boys (referring to right-wing modern orthodoxy) are playing little league, my boys are learning Torah”. The rosh yeshiva said this to show the superiority of his approach, where even in the middle of the afternoon on Sunday, yeshiva is in session for boys who might otherwise be doing so-called frivolous things, like playing baseball with their friends.

The yeshiva day is getting longer and not just for boys in high school and beis medrash. It is not rare for boys (thankfully for the girls, their lack of obligation in talmud Torah frees them from such long days) who are not yet in middle school, to stay in yeshiva until 5pm or later. With limudei kodesh going until well past noon, the long day is to provide more hours for learning, not to give more time to limudei chol. Boys who have a hard time sitting still, are asked to spend increasingly more time sitting at their desks, to learn challenging texts in languages in which they are not fluent. For the boy who combines intelligence, the ability to sit, and enjoys learning, the system pushed them to achieve their potential. For those who lack this rare combination, the day ranges from challenging to painful. Learn to sit quietly, and you are safe. If you can not, things become worse. I have met more than a few teenagers whose struggles with observance came, at least partially, from an inability to function within this highly demanding system. Even for those who can hack it, it comes with a cost that while not so obvious to outsiders, still cheats these boys out of being boys.

As these boys advance through their learning it seems that a Peter Principle of sorts is in play, where the boys are pushed to higher and higher levels of learning, where all but the best, learn that they do not have what it takes. Of course, as I've mentioned before, with the focus for boys on gemara alone, many who fail in this system might not be failures in Torah, which does, after all, include Tanach, machshava and halacha.

I have often heard parents complain about the long yeshiva day, with a sense that there is nothing they can do. Of course, this is far from the truth. If enough parents join together to protest, those who run and control the yeshivahs will have no choice but to listen. Perhaps Rav Yaakov Horowitz said it best when he spoke on this topic. “When you are asked if you are anti-Torah, respond that you are not. You are pro-family”. As parents, we owe it to our children to let them be children.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

You Can't Spell Curmudgeon without OMG

If you are on Facebook, your wall has been bombarded over the last several days with messages that saidHere’s my Facebook movie. Find yours at ...”. My first instinct, which I unfortunately gave in to a bit, was to see this as just more Facebook spam, worthy of being mocked. Ultimately, I clicked on the link and saw my own movie, and, must admit that I found it touching. Later, I found myself wondering why I and others seem to feel the need to distance ourselves from activities of this kind, real and virtual, not just by ignoring them, but by proclaiming that we are above them.

I admit that, although I like kittens in real life, I have no interest in seeing pictures of them on my Facebook feed, even when posted by friends. Same goes for pictures of food, political rants, and any post that has “LOL” in it. Although my second favorite use for Facebook is having serious discussions about Jewish and social issues, I also post about my running, pictures and statuses about my kids that perhaps only I find cute, and funny or thoughtful pictures, articles and things that some might consider to be nonsense.

I was more than a little disturbed by some posts leading into the Super Bowl where the high road was claimed, by those who were not interested in the Super Bowl, as if somehow those who were, were less, I don't know, intelligent, sensitive or thoughtful. I invoked a phrase that I borrowed from my rebbe, Rabbi Mayer Schiller, that those who are tone deaf, should not criticize those who appreciate music. I might not appreciate rap (to put it mildly) but I can appreciate why someone might. OK, not really, but you know what I mean.

I will never change my profile for “Doppelganger Week”, but I understand why some people enjoy it. Although I don't always see the resemblance, I'm disturbed by those who think it's within the bounds of propriety to tell others that they are overestimating their looks (not in so many words, but with that implication). It's acceptable to sit out a dance, but not not to scorn the dancers, especially if you are criticizing their appearance, or, in truth, something even deeper.

I rarely laugh out loud, so I rarely write “LOL”. I'm sometimes amazed by things but usually without saying “oh my God” so I never write OMG, with or without twelve exclamation points. On the other hand, after years of thinking I would never do so, I do use acronyms for shorthand, out of laziness or to appear, as, I believe, young people say today, more hip. Or is it groovy? In any case, I do commit to never laugh any body parts off, or at least not to admit to it publicly, especially on Instagram, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Which brings me to my favorite use for Facebook. For me, it's about connecting with people, some whom I know in real life and others only virtually. More than a few times I've received comfort from the kind words of someone whom I have never actually met. I've made new running buddies, interacted with some amazingly intelligent and thought out people, and changed my opinion on issues of various kinds when the weakness of my argument has been pointed out. Yes, I can get a bit self-righteous, write things that are only worthy of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, or forget there's another real person with whom I am interacting, but I can also help introduce somebody to a great young writer, make someone smile or even laugh out loud, or just let them know that I care. So if watching ballet means more to you than watching the big game or you think only saps and emos make Facebook movies, that's fine. Just keep it to yourself. Your little joke or sarcastic dig might be hurtful to someone who finds these things to be meaningful. Kindness, even when expressed through silence, can go a long way.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Being a girl's daddy- Rethinking an important issue

I recently wrote about the painful but, in some ways, essential transformation I've undergone in the last few years. I must admit that, for me, feminism is still a loaded word. It's hard to imagine that I will ever call myself a feminist, but I have a different title, Abba, which has caused me to reexamine my views of woman’s place in Judaism.

While I've written in various places about the challenges to being a father to boys, having daughters has caused me to think deeply about so many issues. Issues like girl's/woman’s chinuch (I've already been overly self-referential, so you'll have to check out the blog if you want to see these posts), “tzniyus”, Torah-learning for women are either on my radar screen for the first time, or, at very least, registering much more heavily.

Although I've voiced my opinion on some of these issues, I'm most heartened by what I've read and seen from frum women themselves. Women, like Rebbetzin Sora Bulka, who was my principal in high school, who destroy stereotypes (including my own) of what it means to be a frum woman. Even as a less than serious high school student, who did not see any of my rabbeim as role-models, I was impressed by the combination of modesty and style that Mrs. Bulka showed, all while teaching AP US History. I've since discovered that she is far from the only one. I've learned from, spoken with and worked with, frum women who are bright, creative and well-learned, any of whom I consider to be worthy role-models for my daughters. I also see young women, including some former students who, as writers, teachers, scholars, doctors and principals, set a shining example, that I hope my daughters will follow.

I'm not a posek and am unqualified to address the halachic issues being addressed on issues like women wearing tefillin and the like. Truth is, I'm glad to sit on the sidelines and hear the woman’s voices, as they address issues which are, after all, about themselves. I look forward to watching my daughters join the conversation.