Monday, March 17, 2014

To Be or Not To Be- What can be done to reach our best and brightest students

I've met them in almost every school in which I've taught. The student who is bright and cynical and convinced that the Torah education that he (I use “he” for stylistic reasons, and not as a way to suggest that this problem mostly occurs with boys) is receiving is more indoctrination than education. Additionally, this student is not convinced of the truth of what he is learning in his Torah classes. Invariably, this student finds a secular studies teacher with whom he can openly and honestly discuss these concerns, and it is sometimes one who fans the students concerns, rather than try to help or to steer them towards limudei kodesh faculty who might be able to help. By the time this student graduates, he is ready to move on from more than just high school. I have long wondered what, if anything, can be done to keep these students from reaching the conclusion that Torah (and mitzvah observance) has nothing to offer them. While I am not comfortable sharing all of my ideas on this matter, what follows is part of my thinking on helping these students see depth and seriousness in the Torah they are learning.

To begin with, I'd like to point out something which is quite ironic. The same student who comes to doubt the reality of biblical figures like Avraham and Sarah, has no problem engaging in an analysis of Shakespeare and speaking of Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet as if they are real. What are we doing or not doing that prevents many intellectually-minded students from seeing the people and stories in Torah as real?

Midrash is fascinating. Understood correctly, they have much to teach us. Too often we do not provide our talmidim with the chance to move beyond the literalness of “Little Midrash Says”. While telling midrashim over as literal stories might be a good way of educating young children (or not), it is disastrous for older students. We live in a time when miracles are thought to be the stuff of fairytales. While there are certain miracles which we will teach with pride as having happened, adding to that list, especially when it is far from clear that Chazal intended these statements to be taken at face value, is a mistake. This is especially true for things that are scientifically not only impossible, but absurd. Whatever was meant by the midrash that Og was 300 amos tall (I have heard good explanations), basic knowledge of human physiology tells us that no such person could ever exist. I would suggest that the advice I received from Rabbi Howard Bald when I worked for him at Yeshivat Rambam be followed. He told me to never teach a midrash that I could not explain. I think this would include any Rashi which contains a midrash as well. Midrashim are not there for fun. They too must be treated as serious Torah.

The second issue is that we often teach Torah essentially as ahistorical. I wonder how many of our students could tell us when various biblical events took place, let alone what was going on at that time in the rest of the world. I recently saw a book which dealt with the historicity of the Purim story, where the author thought it necessary to justify why he was making use of archeology. Among other justifications were the fact that Rishonim made use of ancient artifacts when they came their way. Any time we fail to provide historic context as well as other information that students take for granted in their general studies classes (such as maps photographs of the area), we are unintentionally suggesting that these events are somehow less real.

Finally, I would add one more suggestion based on a conversation I had this morning with Dr. Alan Brill. It is important that our students also encounter the more rational mephorshim (as opposed to only those who relied more on midrash and/or mysticism). In doing so, they will discover the complexity of our tradition and come to realize that many of their “heretical” thoughts and doubts are anything but heretical. Ralbag, Ibn Ezra and others said things which some people today would consider to be theologically out of bounds. Why hide ideas from our students which might help them better understand and accept Torah?

As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, there are other things that need to be considered if we are not to lose some of our best and brightest students. If we recognize the problem, and are up to the task, it can be done.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Passionate Moderation- A D'var Torah for Purim

I went through a time when I was “Kanai”, a religious zealot. Every religious argument was a fight to the death, with every hill worth dying for. Every transgression by others was deserving of Divine punishment (although somehow, my own transgressions were excluded). My wife would joke that it came with being a Levi, and having Pinchas as my bar mitzvah parsha and Eliyahu HaNavi in my haftorah. Truth is, if one examines the Jewish attitude towards zealotry as seen in the Torah and through the eyes of Chazal, it becomes clear that we live in a time where the only passion of the time should be, to quote Rabbi Norman Lamm (who should have a refuah sheleima), to be “passionately moderate”. I would suggest that this is one of the lessons of Purim.

The gemara (Shabbos 88a) discusses the idea that when it came to receiving the Torah at Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael did not really have a choice. This is symbolically represented by the idea that God held Har Sinai over their heads and gave them a choice of accepting the Torah, or dying on the spot. Of course, this did not literally happen. The idea is that at that point knowing what they knew about HaShem and in general, being who they were and where they were, there was no choice but to accept the Torah. As noted by Rav Acha bar Yaakov, this made the acceptance less than ideal. We all know that a forced agreement is not much of an agreement. Rabah answers cryptically that they accepted the Torah willingly at the time of Purim. This is a very problematic statement. Where do we see an acceptance of the Torah during the time of Purim? If anything, the Jews are beginning to assimilate. After an analysis of knaus in the Torah, I will suggest an explanation to this challenging piece of aggada.

The first time we encounter an act of religious zealotry is when Shimon and Levi enter the city of Shechem, and kill Shechem who has raped (and/or seduced) Dinah, along with the male inhabitants of the city of Shechem. After they return, Yaakov angrily confronts them, and later, on his deathbed, mentions this heinous act (as opposed to their intent). While on a simple reading one could suggest that Shimon and Levi's actions were no more than an honor killing, it appears to be more than that. Rambam, Ramban and others struggle to understand the moral/halachic justifications for the brother's act, suggesting that there was more to the killing than simply avenging a family wrong. Tellingly, despite the explanations which suggest some sort of justification, the brothers are still seen as having acted unjustly and against the will of God. Even if Shechem has acted immorally, absent a commandment from God, one does not appoint oneself as judge, jury and executioner.

This of course, is the difference later on, when Moshe gathers the Leviyim to him with a cry of “Mi L'Hashem Eilai” to punish those who have worshiped the golden calf. Only now that God has revealed his law can the punishment be given. Only Moshe, who can speak with God “directly” can be the one to issue this call to action. Later on when Pinchas executes Zimri and Kazbi for their grossly immoral public act, Chazal are quick to limit the applicability of this act to very specific circumstances and very specific individuals. They even suggest that he got permission from Moshe before acting(!). “Kanayim pogim bo” is anything but a blanket invitation to vigilantism. Interestingly, Chazal recognized a thematic link between Pinchas and Eliyahu HaNavi (“Pinchas Zu Eliyahu”) who also is zealous for God. Ultimately, God reproaches Eliyahu for his zealousness against His/his own people, chiding him by asking whether God needs Eliyahu to stand up for him. God shows Eliyahu that He is to be encountered through a “kol demama daka” (quiet and gentle voice) rather than through thunder lightning or other powerful acts of nature. Eliyahu loses his mandate of prophecy with the implicit message that his job is to bring close, rather than to punish or push away.

While one might suggest that the story of Chanuka seems to allow for kanaus, and cries of “Mi L'HaShem Eilai”, the story does not end with the re-dedication of the Beis HaMikdash. Rather it ends with the Hasmonean descendants turning the sword against each other and against their people. Even when their actions are mentioned as part of the praises in the shemoneh esrei and birkas hamazon, their zealotry against their fellow Jews is somewhat hidden. Additionally, their less than ideal commitment to HaShem is suggested by the Ramban who says that the Chashmonaim should have given the leadership of the people to one from shevet Yehudah, rather than taking it for them selves.

Purim, the only holiday which takes place based on an event in Galus, suggests a very different approach. When the Jews of Shushan attend Achashveirsoh's party and bow to Haman, Mordechai, who along with his people, is in exile, does not try to forcibly change their behavior. Instead, he tries to lead by example. He continues to refuse to bow, no matter how much the Jews protest. In a yet to be redeemed world, the certainty which allows one to act with zealotry for the sake of God no longer exists. The transition from the almost absolute certainty of the prophet (for all but Moshe) to the lesser certainty of the chachamim has begun. “Lo BaShamayim he”. Machlokes is inevitable and even acceptable. Eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim Chayim. Mordechai can only suggest to Esther that perhaps she has become the queen for the purpose of saving the Jews. When Mordechai and Esther are successful and victorious, the sword is not turned against their brethren who have sinned, but only against the enemy which seeks to destroy them. 

This then, is the explanation for Rabbah's words in maseches Shabbos. The new acceptance of the Torah refers to the new approach to HaShem and his Torah. From this point forward, force no longer plays a role in Kabbalas HaTorah. It is no longer about an offer that can not be refused, but a willing and loving choice.

The only call of Mordechai and those who follow afterwards can be “Mi L'Hashem, L'HaShem”, those who are for God should turn to God. God can be found through his word and not the sword. Alternatively, only God can say “Mi L'Hashem Eilai”, all who desire My presence should turn to Me.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Road More Travelled

With Purim approaching, it might not seem like the right time to talk about Israel, but a thought-provoking essay suggests that there is indeed a strong connection between Purim and zionism (lower case “z”). With a trip planned for next week, I already have Israel on my mind. As much as I'm looking forward to my visit, I'm feeling somewhat wistful as I wonder about what might have been.

In 1996 we made aliyah. After three miscarriages, we had finally made it to the second trimester. I was finally going to sit down to try and learn Torah at a serious level. We were both so excited, even as we left most of our family behind. We stayed for two years, we grew as a family with the birth of two sons, and I discovered what I had been missing and I began my love-affair with Torah. Then, for various reasons, some good and some less good, we left, despite my uncertainty and Rochie's desire to stay. From time to time, especially when I go to Israel, I wonder how things might have turned out had we stayed.

As I child, I was fascinated by “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Rather than offering one story with only one ending, these books offered what felt like endless possibilities to me. Turn to page 49 and I might fall off a cliff and never be heard from again. Choose page 37 and I lived to continue my search for lost treasure, or the UFO, or the lost treasure and the UFO. Of course, I was never willing to make a choice and live (or not live, as the case may be) with the consequences. I'd turn to each page and see what would happen, and proceed accordingly. I would keep my fingers by each choice so that I could try each permutation. Eventually, I ran out of fingers, died many times, became fabulously wealthy and saved the world more times than I can count (you're welcome!).

Of course in real life, there's only one choice that can be lived. All others live on only in the imagination. Where would we live, what would our children's lives be like, would I have made it as a teacher in Israel, are only some of the questions that sometimes cross my mind. It's easy to come up with some rose-colored scenario where everything would be perfect, where all the good things in our lives would have, somehow, still occurred, without any of the challenges.

I've been back to Israel about half-a-dozen times since we left. I look out at the red clay roofs of small yishuvim, and surrounding green fields, as the bus or taxi brings me up, in all senses of the term, towards the Holy city. I wander through the streets of Yerushalayim with such sweet sorrow, as I see a dear friend who I have missed, and will soon leave, and miss once again. I read the street signs, happy to discover that I am walking on a road named for one of my favorite rabbinic authors. I walk through the shuk, entranced by the smell of the various delicacies offered in each stall. Outside the city, it is no different. I daven on Masada and look out to the other side of the Jordan, and thank God for standing where Moshe Rabbeinu could not. I stand on the porch of my brother's home, and am overwhelmed by the simple beauty of the rocky grass-covered hills.

I know that this is not the Israel of those who live there. They pay bills, vote in elections, and drive carpool. They break up fights between their children, feel frustration with their boss, and wonder how they will cope when their children enter the army. I know all this, and yet. I watch from a distance as their political battles are fought over the direction of the Jewish people, their bus drivers warmly wish them a “Shabbat Shalom!” and the national holidays are indeed holy days.

There is much we have accomplished here, and some things I would have no doubt missed, had we stayed in Israel. I lived close to my parents during the last year of their respective lives. I have taught much Torah and made wonderful friends. Still, as I get off the plane at Ben Gurion next week, and even more when I board the plane and head for home, I know I'll be wondering whether we made the right choice.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Second Question- How to deal with the big questions our students ask

Jewish philosophy classes in high school are somewhat like the parah adumah. Just like the parah aduma was described by Chazal as “purifying the impure, and making the pure impure”, Jewish philosophy classes often help those who are struggling, while causing those who are not, to struggle. Is there a solution that can be found that is beneficial to all? I believe that there is.

A friend likes to say that when rabbis say that Judaism believes in asking questions, they only mean the first question. The second question? Not so much. By this he means that as long as the questioner is willing to accept the answer to their question, their questioning is acceptable. As soon as they followup with a serious objection, the rabbi is no longer okay with questioning. Although this idea is a bit too cynical for me, there is some truth in what he's saying. There are too many rabbis and teachers who are not knowledgeable enough on major questions of Jewish philosophy. Some, when challenged, become defensive, or even go on the attack, rather than admitting that they don't have an answer. Even more, there is a tendency among some to refuse to admit that some questions do not have an easy answer. If difficult and challenging questions are not addressed seriously, what conclusion can the questioner reach, other than that there is no answer?

There is one other danger that was pointed out to me by Rabbi Scott Kahn, Rosh Yeshiva of Yesodei HaTorah. When rabbeim and teachers are not sufficiently well-versed in Jewish philosophy, they might mistakenly think that certain questions and/or concepts are heretical. Rather than being in a position to help their student understand why her question is legitimate, the teacher might deem it unacceptable and out-of-bounds. Alternatively, they might lack the ability to present all available answers.

At the same time there are those with simple faith. They are not the deepest thinkers but they believe in God, and feel his presence in their lives. They can't tell you why, or prove that they are correct, because they have probably never analyzed the reason for their beliefs. Even if they have, their answers are not deeply philosophical. There is no need to introduce them to the hard questions. These questions often lead to doubts, and those who are not intellectual might not understand possible answers. Some have suggested that these people will eventually discover these questions through various means, but I know of many cases where this is not true. Even in the cases where it is, what benefit is there in introducing them to the questions at an earlier point?

I believe that Chazal recognized this duality when they taught in Maseches Chagiga that certain complicated topics should not be taught in large groups, or sometimes to more than one person at a time. They were not hiding from the “second question”. They merely recognized that a good teacher addresses complicated issues in a way that the questioner can handle. There is no blanket answer to complicated questions, which will work for everyone, and some don't have these questions.

I have struggled through some of these questions, and emerged a stronger person, but I would never claim to have the answer. Our understanding of God is inherently limited. Let us struggle when necessary, as we passionately search for truth. We can not and must not avoid the second question. We also should not introduce the second question to those who do not ask it themselves.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dear 15 year-old me- My post-reunion post

This is the third, and possibly last reunion post. First, I wasn't going, then, I changed my mind. Here is how it went.

I'm rarely at a loss for words, but I've been having a hard time writing about the reunion this Sunday. It's not that I didn't have a good time. I had a blast. It went way better than I could have imagined, even in my best case scenario. I'm just afraid of sounding trite, or even worse, giving a message that sounds like I'm telling all people who had a hard time in high school “It was all in your head”. I know way too many cases of people who were really hurt, both physically, and, in my estimation even worse, emotionally. What I am about to write is in no way meant to minimize the pain that you felt, and continue to feel. I am only sharing my personal experience and my understanding of it.

My other concern is that I sometimes get just a little melodramatic and act like I have figured out a way to create world peace, or, at least, to get Ashkenazim to be allowed to eat kitniyot on Pesach (the holiday, not myself, just in case that needs some clarity). In that spirit, I write the following:

Dear 15 year-old me,

I know you are feeling alone right now, even when surrounded by people. You think that nobody understands you, the “cool kids” are all jerks, and the guys on the basketball team will never go bald. While I'm sorry to inform you that your last thought is correct, the others are not.

Imagine if you were judged for the two most obnoxious things you ever said. Yes, I know. You can't even put them down on paper. That kid in your grade who you think is so mean, he's really not. Even now, I can't even think of three harsh things she said over four years. Get to know him now. Otherwise you are going to feel really stupid at your 25th reunion, when you finally have the courage to speak to him, only to discover she is not only nice, but also an amazing person with tremendous empathy. (I wish I could share details here, but it would make it clear who it is).

You think that you are the only one who feels left out and ignored by the popular kids. You are not. You'd be surprised to know which of your friends feel the same way. There are a whole bunch of them with whom you'd trade places in a second.

Embrace your inner-freak. The sooner you get comfortable with yourself, the sooner others will do the same.

Believe it or not, one day you are not only going to get over your stage fright, you are going to be willing to speak in front of hundreds of people. Why wait to work on it? Wouldn't it be fun to be in the play?

You are going to be a rabbi one day. No, really. You will teach with some of your former teachers. Your feelings about them will be shown to have been mistaken. Well, about most of them. Remember what you didn't like and try to never become that way. If you can't love your students, get another job.

Even the rich kids and the pretty girls will have challenges in life. It's easy to see them as two-dimensional, from the outside.

When you see Mrs. Kohl, don't forget to tell her how much you loved “Mishpacha” class. You may not be able to list the names of the masechtot you learned in high school, but you will quote her class several times a year in your classes.

I know you think you are proving something by refusing to be in any pictures at school. You'll be successful enough that there won't be one picture of you in the yearbook that isn't posed. At the reunion, you'll wish you had not been so successful.

You know that girl that you like that you think doesn't know you exist? She doesn't know you exist.

There are some really wonderful kids in your class and grade. They are funny, creative, compassionate and more. Don't let a few jerks convince you otherwise.

Before being so mad at the kids above you on the social chain, ask yourself how nice you are to the kids below you on that chain.

Judging by the number of people you'll be happy to see at the reunion, along with the number of people you'll wish were there, you have a lot more friends than you think.

In two years, you'll be ditching school to get your hair cut at Astor Place. PLEASE don't wait that long. Oh, and get normal glasses.

Stay in touch with people. Not just through Facebook (I'll explain it in my next letter). You can never have too many friends (real ones not the virtual kind) and your heart can hold a lot of love.

When you finally win a big stuffed animal for the first time, on senior trip, don't give it to your girlfriend. You are going to break up with her three weeks later.

You are going to teach a lot of Syrian kids, most of whom you'll love (the rest you'll have to try real hard). It's a wonderful community which gives a lot of tzedaka, and can teach your Jdubs a thing or two about Ahavat Chinam.

Although you can't jump and can only hit an outside shot if the nearest defender is 25 feet away, you're not completely unathletic. You'll be running the Boston Marathon one day.

Don't let that rabbi convince you that you belong in Neve Tzion. You might not be the most religious guy in the world, but you've got some potential.

Learn to dance. Not because you should be going to Sweet 16s, or because you'll ever use it again after high school (ok, after Israel). Because you dance like a dork.

With love, patience and a little exasperation,

The 42 year-old you

P.S. Even though you don't like Country Music, you'll like this

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What's in a Name? (Part III) The Luchos and the Shivrei Luchos- A D'var Torah

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 two, click here and here.

For many, the parshiyos of Vayakhel and Pekudei seem superfluous. They wonder why, after discussing the mishkan and the role of the Kohen in parshiyos Terumah and Tetzaveh, the implementation of those two topics had to be repeated, and in painstaking detail to boot. Additionally, why is Betzalel re-introduced as the artisan who is given the job to build the mishkan, after already having been introduced in Ki Sisa? While one may simply suggest that he is re-introduced as the building is going to commence, I believe something deeper is going on here. What follows is an attempt to show that the “repetition” is anything but, and that it teaches a fundamental Jewish concept.

When Moshe ascends Har Sinai, he goes to get luchos, which are written by the “hand” of God. These miraculous tablets have, according to the midrash, letters that float. The angels ask God to not part with these luchos “which proceeded creation by 974 generations”. The midrash further suggests that Moshe could not absorb the Torah that he was taught and that God had to give it to him as gift, at the end of the 40 days. Finally, the luchos were made of a mysterious material that reminds one of heaven.

Additionally, Bnei Yisrael are able to reach the level of Adam HaRishon before the sin. The Torah, which after all is an Eitz Chaim, returns to them the potential for eternal life and knowledge. Of course, once they sin, they go back to their previous state.

Even stranger is how Chazal view Moshe’s breaking of the luchos. The letters float in the air back towards God. Chazal imagine God congratulating Moshe on breaking them, and even suggest that, as with Eitz Hada’as, the sin that led to them breaking, had to occur.

Not so, the second luchos. Those are crafted by Moshe and brought UP to Har Sinai. Although Chazal cryptically suggest that they were made with the “psoless” (chaff, as opposed to the unknowable Ikkar) of the first luchos, they are not miraculous. This time, the angels are silent and fail to protest.

Interestingly when the Aron is made, both the broken luchos and the second set go there (although not necessarily in the same place).

The story with the luchos is not the only story that seems to change. In Terumah one can certainly conclude that Moshe is to be the artisan who builds the mishkan and all that goes in it. In fact, Chazal seem to suggest this when they say that Moshe struggled to understand how to make the menorah out of a solid block of gold until he threw it into the fire, and the menorah emerged on its own (certainly suggesting a connection to the Golden Calf). When it is actually built, God says that it is Betzalel’s job to help create it. No impression is given to suggest that he struggled to do so.

The mephorshim debate when the commandment to build the mishkan was made. Some say it was before the sin of the golden calf, as the story appears in the Torah, while others suggest it came after the sin, to make amends. It is my contention that they are both correct, with the first commandment coming before, with the second commandment and the implementation coming after.

The initial commandment was given before the sin. The mishkan was to be built by Moshe, with the miraculous assistance of God. It was to host the perfect luchos, crafted by God. These represent the essence of God, which even Moshe can not grasp. The menorah as well, being made of a block of gold that is to remain whole and indivisible, also represents this unknowable perfection. If Moshe can not understand, no other person can do so. How can such a Torah, created when there was none but God (because how can there be generations, or even time, before the creation of physical matter?), be given to man, ask the angels. These luchos are thus smashed, indicating the inability of man to grasp the essence of God. The perfect mishkan is never actually built.

The second luchos represent man’s limited ability to understand God. They are not miraculous, and are produced by man, and brought up towards God. They are imperfect, representing only the limited amount that man can understand God. No need for the angels to protest luchos like these going to man. Indeed, they come from man. Moshe is able to grasp the Torah that they represent, as he is the human who comes closest to understanding God.

This also helps explain why Betzalel is re-introduced. At first he was chosen as Betzalel, the one who is in the “shadow of God” and knows how to “join the letters of creation”. He is to craft the mishkan, which will be a traveling Har Sinai, where man can encounter God. After the sin, the focus is on him as the grandson of Chur who, Chazal say, was killed when he tried to prevent the cheit haeigel. Just as the parah adumah is used to atone for the sin committed with “its mother”, Betzalel does the same with the sin committed against his grandfather. He is able to build the mishkan without difficulty, because this mishkan does not represent the perfect mikdash from above. It is only the limited one, built from below. It will contain gold which now reminds us of the sin. It will contain the broken luchos and the second set as well, reminding us that any understanding that we have of God and his Torah, can not be fully perfect. (While the reason for their absence from the Second Beis HaMikdash is beyond the scope of this essay, see Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s “Emes L’Yaakov” for a resolution of this question).

One may still ask, if Bnei Yisrael had to sin, why did it have to come through Aharon? If he is to be the Kohein Gadol, the one who can achieve atonement for Bnei Yisrael, he must truly understand the concepts of teshuva and kapparah. While before the sin he could understand these concepts intellectually, after the sin, he grasps them through experience as well.

The parsha (as well as the sefer known as Sefer HaGeulah) ends with the erecting of the mishkan. Paradoxically, the midrash teaches that no one but Moshe could do so. Why should this be? After all, his help is never needed again. Perhaps, we can suggest that the first time this mishkan is erected, it must be done by one who is free from the Cheit HaEigel. While those who were active in the commission of the sin have already been killed, the rest of Bnei Yisrael has committed a sin of omission (what Moshe terms a “chatah gedolah”), and are not guilt free. Finally, the Ananei HaKavod, which had disappeared after the sin, return (see The GRA for an explanation that connects this idea to Succos). God will no longer send an angel to lead them as he had said after the sin. He alone, kivyachol, will do so.

While the first Beis HaMikdash was built by Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men (who, despite his great intellect, still could not understand the reason for the parah adumah), it too was a man made and thus, inherently imperfect structure. We await the perfect Mikdash shel maalah, which will, suggest Chazal, descend complete, from heaven, and usher in a day when the knowledge of God will finally fill the earth.

Monday, March 3, 2014

If we must "fight', let us do so as brothers

Meanwhile, over on the Times of Israel, I discuss the current philosophical battle between the right wing Modern Orthodox world and the Open Orthodox world, followed by an invitation to Rabbis Gil Student and Ysoscher Katz to engage in a public dialogue, and a follow-up invitation.