Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fanning the Flames- The Wrong Way to Move Forward

I am frustrated and upset. My recent posts have repeatedly been about YCT and Open Orthodoxy. I had planned to write something else today, but feel compelled to respond to a very unfair article by Gil Student in his online journal Hirhurim. In “Tzelofchad's Daughters”, Student deals with a section of a letter that was sent from Rabbi Ysoscher Katz to Rav Herschel Schachter. In the letter, Rabbi Katz suggests that Bnos Tzelofchad were proto-feminists in that they they asked for land for themselves as women (the letter is quoted in Student's article). Student not only objects to this reading, which he is certainly free to do, but smears Rabbi Katz by showing that it was Reform scholars who first made this claim, with the obvious implication that Katz's reading is not Orthodox.

One problem that I have with this article is that following on the heels of Yoram Hazony's thought-provoking article on Open Orthodoxy, where he challenges the Open Orthodox world to explain how their views fit into traditional Orthodox thought, Student seems to show that he has no interest in hearing their response and is only interested in keeping YCT and OO out of the orthodox camp.

Equally disturbing is that Katz's reading was possibly anticipated nearly 2000 years ago by Chazal. In the Sifrei on parshas Pinchas, which I loosely translate here, it says:

When the daughters of Tzelofchad heard that the land was being divided according to the tribes, and not being given to the women, they gathered together to think of an idea (of how to approach this). They said, “The mercy of God is not like the mercy of flesh and blood, for by flesh and blood there is more mercy for males than for women, but for The One Who spoke, and created the world, it is not this way, as He has mercy on males and females as it says 'and His mercy is on ALL of his creatures' ".

While this passage is a bit enigmatic, it seems to, at least, allow for a reading that suggests that Bnos Tzelafchad were motivated by a desire for fairer treatment for themselves, rather than for their father, as Student suggests.

Of course, my purpose in writing this is not to talk about how to read an episode in the Chumash. It is also not to take a side in who is correct about theological red lines. It is just to point out that if you issue a challenge, it is only fair to wait for a response. Rather than attempting to help the Modern Orthodox community deal with a challenging situation, Gil Student suggests that his way is the only way. To that, I must strongly object.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Uncomfortable Split

I am not sure whether the Volvo commercial with Jean-ClaudeVan Damme performing a truly “epic” split led to more sales of trucks. What I do know is that in addition to going viral, the commercial got me thinking, and for me, the split has become a metaphor.

It is either a sign of my nuanced views and/or an indication of my poor writing skills that as I have worked to try to create a middle ground between the worlds of Right-wing Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy, it has been assumed by some that I am a musmach of YCT, a believer in the need for the ordination of women, a supporter of partnership minyanim, a puppet to the “right-wing” roshei yeshiva of YU, a charedi and beholden to Rabbis Gil Student or Ysoscher Katz. In fact, I am none of the above. I am however, a believer in serious learning opportunities for women, making women as comfortable as possible in shul within the limits of halacha, that moderation is not a dirty word, that halacha has rules, and that Rabbis Katz and Student, are acting l'sheim shamayim and have contributed to the world of Torah. Although I am more comfortable within the world of YU, and lean towards halachic conservativism, I am sympathetic to some of the motivations behind psak that has come from musmachim of and teachers at YCT. I have been spiritually and intellectually nurtured by many of the Roshei Yeshiva at YU, even as I do not fully identify with most of them hashkafically.

I suppose that it is fitting that I write these words on Yom Yerushalayim, living in a community where most shuls said tachanun this morning. More and more, I find myself most sympathetic to Israeli institutions where serious Torah scholarship, combines with moderation and a willingness to make slow but steady progress in advancing thoughtful progressive change. Yeshivat Har Etzion's Roshei Yeshiva and rabbeim serve as models of what I aspire to in Torah. At Gush, as the yeshiva is known, there is a commitment to openness to the challenging questions on Torah and halacha, within a clear spirit of yirat shamayim. Beit Hillel acts to promote women's learning and leadership positions, tolerance and a values based approach to psak and the klal.

I find myself wondering what it is about Israel that allows for these institutions to achieve a balance that American institutions struggle to achieve. Looking for the chance to, once again teach Torah, I wonder if there is an institution which would be comfortable with my views. Being that aliyah is most likely at least a few years off, I remain stuck in this uncomfortable split, hoping that the supports on which I am precariously balanced, don't move further apart.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Farber Affair Part III- Talking to and Not Past Each Other

Already, in the time of the gemara, there was a recognition that few knew how to properly give or receive rebuke. If that was true then, it is even more true today. When Zev Farber published his article on the origins of the Torah, there were a number of responses. I already addressed the least serious and valuable of the responses. In this post, I'd like to analyze the other responses.

Part of the problem with looking at the response to Farber's articles is that for the most part, they were not just about what he said. Instead, the critique of his position, which was seen by many as being one which could not be reconciled with Orthodoxy, was used as a way to challenge the legitimacy of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, the institution from which Farber received his ordination. For those who believe that YCT can not be considered an Orthodox institution, such as Gil Student and Avraham Gordimer, Farber's article was lumped together with other alleged problematic positions taken by YCT musmachim, and policies and positions of YCT itself, as a way of criticizing the institution.

To me, this was a mistake for several reasons. It prevented an appropriate analysis and response to the particulars of Farber's claims. Perhaps more importantly, it put YCT on the defensive, and made it close to impossible for them to respond in a way that might have been productive. While it may be legitimate to discuss who should be accepted into an Orthodox semicha program, it most definitely is not acceptable to judge an institution based on changes that a musmach undergoes after receiving semicha. Furthermore, even if one would want to suggest that YCT deserves a level of criticism, the critique needs to be about ideas and not people. Unfortunately, that line has, at times, been blurred, if not crossed.

I was particularly heartened to read Yoram Hazony's article “Open Orthodoxy?”, which was posted on Gil's online journal “Hirhurim”. Using his experience at an Open Orthodox shul as the background, Hazony asked some very strong questions, with sophistication, and without getting personal. I was happy to see Ysoscher Katz's initial response:

Yasher Koach Yoram Hazony for rebuking Open Orthodoxy. This essay is a model for proper tochacha. Successful tochacha is kind, constructive and said with sophistication. 
And, to answer your question: No, what you experienced isn't Open Orthodoxy. Open Orthodoxy is devoutly orthodox and passionately open, without ever compromising one for the other.

In the interest of making those two work perfectly well together we explore multiple options. Some of the approaches work and some of them need to be discarded. Healthy mussar is a valuable tool in helping us sort out the bad ideas from the good ones. 

What remains to be seen is whether the leadership at YCT responds in a reasoned fashion. While they do not owe anybody a response, a detailed and specific official response could be used to express which mistakes have been made, and how they might be rectified. It is my hope that will be the next response so that those of us, like myself, who find ourselves somewhere in the middle between YCT and its critics, can gain some clarity. YCT has a chance to play a pivotal role in the development of Modern Orthodoxy. The ball is in their court.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Yahrtzeit- A Different Kind of Mother's Day

I don't need help knowing what to feel on my mom's yahrtzeit. I've got feelings a plenty. I'm more unsure what I'm supposed to do, or what the day means, besides a chance to reflect. So I fast for half the day, light a candle and think.

I think back to a Saturday night in Tel Aviv with a friend (which is a code-word for a girl), during my post-high school year in Israel. I don't remember what we were talking about, but all of a sudden it hit me. All those times that my parents did something that I didn't like, they were trying their best. Even their mistakes came from a place of love. Being that this was the olden days, I sent my parents an aerogram where I shared this with them, and apologized for having been a jerk. After they got the letter, my father told me “Your mother cried”. Of course, I swallowed my response, “What about you?”.

I swore up and down that I'd avoid all of their mistakes, and I did, except for when I didn't. I also made new ones, which they never would have made. I find myself wondering whether all my mistakes come from a place of love, or maybe from a murkier, more confused place.

Late in the afternoon, Chavi walks into the room. She has just finished a report on the Chassidim and Misnagdim. She did it on her own, without having to be asked by her parents, which I'd put off on her being female, except I have two other daughters. Somehow, the conversation moves from place to place, including sociology, Spinoza and the Haskala. Then it gets serious. She asks me what we are. I go into a soliloquy, which comes from a place of love. I talk about being confused, and looking for truth and being a parent, and choosing a high school for her, and why I still where a hat on Shabbos, and how it breaks my heart when she cries, but her tears get a vote, and not a veto. I don't know what she thought, although she seemed to take it in, and suddenly the yahrtzeit has meaning. For this year at least.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Accepting the Other- The Precursor to Unity

Before my trip to Israel in March, I spoke a lot about Achdus/t, unity. Seeing a fractured Jewish world, my initial response was that unity was the answer. While I still very much believe in Achdus, and continue to try to work with individuals who share this view, on a communal level, I no longer believe that achdus is currently achievable between the Modern Orthodox and Charedi worlds. Instead, I'd like to pivot and suggest a new communal goal, which might be a step towards ultimate unity.

When one speaks of unity, it is between people who see themselves as part of the same group. The more homogeneous, and the smaller the group, the easier it is to have unity. As the group becomes more heterogeneous, and larger, it is harder to keep everyone together. Over time, this usually leads to infighting, and ultimately, a split.

Comedian Emo Phillips has a great routine that highlights this point. He tells of an encounter with a man who is about to jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge. In trying to talk him down, Phillips starts to discuss religion. He asks the man whether he is Christian or Jewish. The man answers Christian. Emo responds “Me too”. He continues by asking Catholic or Protestant, and when told the latter, he once again responds “Me too”. The questions continue, with the same response of “Me too”, until, upon discovering that they are members of slightly different sects, Phillips says “Die Heathen!” and pushes him off the bridge.

Unity involves more than being part of the same people. No one, on either side of the divide, denies the Jewishness of the other. Where communal unity becomes impossible is when we turn to theology and halacha. The modern Orthodox (and for the point of this post, I'll be a little less nuanced, and include the dati leumi community under that title) and charedi worlds, have too many differences over what we believe God asks of us, relating to the outside world, the State of Israel, secular Jews, non-Jews and more. Regardless of who is correct, or even whether many of these issues have a single “right” answer, there is too much that divides us. The differences are so strong that we are unable to agree to disagree. I do not wish to deal with whose fault it is. Let's leave it that each group too often seeks to demonize the other. Let's ignore the question of fault or blame.

So, what is the alternative? Is there a way to move from the status quo? I believe there is. One, is less than ideal, but might just be the best that we can hope for. The other is far more ideal, and far harder to achieve.

In the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi tells the fictional story of a king who has a dream, where God informs him that he is on the wrong path. The words that God says are instructive. “Your intentions are good. Your actions are not good”. God acknowledges that the king means well. He is trying to do what is right. The problem is that he has chosen the wrong path. The king has good and noble goals, he's simply not doing the right things to achieve them. It is one thing for God to say this. After all, He knows that which is objectively. When a person uses these words, there is a bit on condescension in them. “Now, now” he says, sounding a bit like a scolding parent or school marm. “I know that you meant well, but let me tell you how it's done”. It is this connotation that makes it less than ideal. Implicit in the message is that we are right and you are not.

The second possibility is to recognize that our “objective” knowledge is, with few (possible) exceptions, subjective. Everything that each of us sees, we see through our own eyes, and understand through our own minds and biases. With this perspective, we can recognize that the person who sees things differently can have the same goal, but think the way to achieve it is different (Of course, we can and should extend this to people with other goals). Here, the goal is not agreement, or necessarily interaction. The goal is simply to understand that the other group is not anti-Torah or anti-God. It is much more difficult to achieve because we often fail to recognize that we are inherently subjective.

This new goal is much less noble sounding than a call for unity. It is however a necessary precursor to unity within our community. Before we can love our fellow like ourselves, we first need to stop demonizing him. This is the longer shorter way.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nashim Melumados- On The Natural Progression of Women's Learning

Take a look at this picture. What do you see? Are you able to tell the importance of the moment it captures? A young woman, holding a text is speaking in a shul or beis midrash. What is she saying? A devar Torah perhaps? If so, it is a nice but commonplace occurrence. It hardly seems momentous. Perhaps if we watch what's going on, with open ears and hearts, we begin to see that this picture holds a glimpse of the future.

It was not so long ago that formal Jewish education for women was anything but a given. For reasons both religious and sociological, the texts which inform so much of our lives as Jews, were inaccessible to almost all women. Although we take it as a given, Beis Yaakov was a revolutionary concept when it began. Even with the founding of these schools for young women, there was a limit on what was taught. For the most part, Torah Sh'B'al Peh, the oral law, remained an exclusively male domain. It is only in the last 40 years, for reasons both religious and sociological, that women have had the opportunity to learn gemara.

For some within the Orthodox world, women's learning is seen as a threat. Inherently, as a break with tradition, it is taken to be problematic. Even if this view is correct, and I personally think it is not, the phenomena of serious women's learning can not and will not be turned back. Trying to block it, is like trying to hold up a dam, as the flowing water, produces more and more cracks. Neither prohibitions or insults will do anything. We are in an era where Nashim Melumados, women well educated in all areas of Torah is becoming more commonplace and familiar.

For others, the progress is not happening fast enough. It is not enough for women to have serious opportunities for learning. Rabbinic ordination for women is the goal, and it needs to happen now. To me, this push for Orthodox women rabbis, threatens to diminish the opportunities for serious learning for women. It feeds fuel to the fire of those who claim that women's learning is agenda driven, rather than a natural expression of a desire to learn Toras HaShem. For good and for bad, for change to take place in the Orthodox world, it needs to happen slowly and imperceptibly, giving the impression of things remaining as they've always been. The ancient Greeks discussed the Ship of Theseus. If the boards of a ship are replaced as they rot, when there are no more original boards, does it remain the same ship? It might be perceived as the same ship, but only if the change happens slowly over time. In the Orthodox world, the connection to tradition, both real and imagined, calls for slow movement (I than Elli Fischer for both introducing me to this concept and its application to the world of Orthodoxy). If women's learning is allowed to progress naturally and organically, it will not be many years before there are women with the knowledge to be serious posekim. Whether that will lead to a formal title, remains to be seen.

Take a look at the picture again. Elisheva Finkelman, a young high school student from Israel is standing in the beis midrash of Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin. Rebbe Meir, of course, was the founder of Daf Yomi, a modest and innovative concept in its time, that today has taken over the world of Orthodoxy. Elisheva is one of those who, following Rav Meir's program, learns a daf of gemara each day. On a recent trip to Eastern Europe, she and her classmates visited Lublin. As luck or fate would have it, they arrived there when it was time to be mesayem Maseches Sukkah. When Rav Meir Shapiro started the daf yomi program, did he ever imagine that women would be taking part? Almost certainly not. Would he approve? Again, I doubt it, but here's the thing, it doesn't really matter. Daf yomi succeeded, despite being a new approach to gemara learning. Just as Beis Yaakov and daf yomi succeeded due to support of some gedolim, women's learning will succeed for the very same reason. Change is here. It can not be stopped and it should not be forced. I hope that we can all answer “amen” to Elisheva, as she completes the Hadran, asking for continued success in learning other masechtos.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Sometimes I want to go back to the time when I knew it all,
about God, and the way He runs the world,
in which marriage is always true love and forever, 
which is how long we all live,
lives of purpose and meaning,
which comes without challenges,
except for those that are easy,
which is the way we breathe, 
easy and steady,
which is how things proceed,
up, yes, always up,
which is clearly marked and without doubt,
which is only for those who don't know it all.
Sometimes, which is now.

Upside Down World- Leaving the Judgement to God

כִּי הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם וַה' יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב - שמואל א' פרק ט"ז פסוק ז

For man sees the eyes, while God sees into the heart.

Years ago, a rebbe of mine was giving a schmooze on the importance of behaving L'sheim shamayim, for the sake of heaven. A student raised his hand and asked where the line is between acting for the sake of heaven, and becoming neurotic about every minute action. My rebbe, in his inimitable way said “Do you know what I never liked about Pete Rose? He always knew his batting average.”. What I understood him to be saying is that we should not be so hung up on ourselves to constantly measure where we are. I'd like to suggest that we stop measuring ourselves and even more so others. Can we ever know our own, or anyone's spiritual batting average?

This past Shabbos, the Rav of our shul asked an interesting question. When it comes to Ma'aser Beheima, the tithing of animals, the 10th animal is automatically sanctified regardless of whether it is a good and fat one, or a thin and weak one. Ordinarily, we are asked to sacrifice from the best of our animals. In fact, the neviim often criticized Bnei Yisrael for doing the opposite. Why in the case o Maaser Beheima do we allow a weak animal to be sanctified? He suggested an answer in the name of Rav Moshe (I do not own Darash Moshe and can not confirm that he said this). By accepting any animal we show that anyone, regardless of their current level has the ability to become holy. The problem with this explanation is that the animal we are accepting as holy is currently a weak one. I'd like to suggest a different explanation.

The gemara in Bava Basra (10b) tells the story of Rav Yosef, the son of Rebbe Yehoshua who became ill and died (seemed to die?). When he was revived, his father asked him what he saw. He replied “I saw an upside down world. The higher ones were lower, and the lower ones were higher”. His father responded that he had seen the real world. It is our world that is upside down. As with any piece of aggada, we need to figure out the message.

Rav Yosef Albo in his Sefer HaIkarim gives a fascinating explanation for this story. In our world, we look around and think we might know who is doing better in God's eyes. By whatever criteria we use, we think we can evaluate who is on a higher level. Rav Yosef was shocked to see that in the world of truth, his way of understanding things had been all wrong. He looked at the finish product, when in truth, God looks at the process and the amount of change that occurred. The son of a Rosh Yeshiva, who was raised in a home of Torah and became a Rosh Yeshiva himself, might have achieved less than the unlearned Jew who worked hard to become a ba'al chessed and struggled to learn when he can. Someone who works hard is more deserving of olam haba than someone who didn't work as hard, regardless of where he ends up.

During the time between Pesach and Shavuos Rebbe Akiva's students died. The gemara says that they did not treat each other with respect. If we wish to learn from their tragic story, it behooves us to remember that things are not always as they appear.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Can We Say It Too?- Addressing the Confusion of Acceptable Beliefs

It has been nearly 10 years since Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books were banned for their supposed heresy. What was perhaps most ironic was that much of what he said came from the Rishonim, and achronim who are very much accepted in the charedi world. When this objection was made, the reply was “They could say it, we can not”. I would like to explore the idea behind this claim.

Recently, Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer wrote an article examining a connected idea, “Does Psak Apply to Matters of Hashkafa?”. I will not be addressing it from that perspective however. Rather, I wish to show how this related question connects to much confusion when it come to which beliefs are acceptable according to Jewish tradition.

There are three terms which, although somewhat connected, are used interchangeably with the expected confusion that follows from a lack of precise language; Orthodoxy, Torah and Truth. By examining each of them, I hope to show why the concept of psak is mostly misguided when it comes to hashkafa, and that while there are certain ideas we might not be able to say or teach within particular communities, we are certainly permitted to think them.

Orthodoxy is a social construct. As with all social constructs, it has its own rules and beliefs. Additionally, these rules and beliefs are decided on by the members of the group. While they might be factually correct, the truth of the claims is not what matters. If a person wishes to be part of the group, these are the beliefs which they must embrace. As such, the term Orthodoxy, and all its subdivisions, changes from time to time, and from group to group. As a social construct, it makes no sense to talk of psak. The only question that must be answered is, whether a statement is acceptable to the group. It is here that one can say that certain views of the Rishonim are off limits. If you want to be in their “club” you can not publicly say or teach these ideas. For those who wish to remain in the group, these prohibitions will matter. To everyone else, they could not matter less. Even where these things impact halacha, whether one is a heretic and it is allowed to drink wine they have handled, in a world without a Sanhedrin, this too remains subjective and will vary from group to group.

What counts as an acceptable understanding of the Torah can not easily be defined, and therefore can be debated. It is natural that there would be an attempt to clarify the issue and for traditional Jews, certain ideas are essential. Examples would be the existence of God, His relationship with the world, that the commandments are to be obeyed etc. While the Rambam most famously identified 13 principles, it is far from clear that we must accept them as the essential beliefs. Different groups in Orthodoxy may accept them, but as mentioned above, that is binding on no one, but those who self-identify with the group. I would suggest (while recognizing that this is not a definition) that any idea taught by one of the Rishonim, is a legitimate way to understand Torah. Thus, while Ralbag's view of Divine Providence goes against the commonly understood definition of the term, any Jew is free to believe it.

What however of Truth? By that I mean, how do we know if any idea is objectively true? Either God directly controls every little thing including when we stub our toe, or pull the wrong coin from our pocket, or He controls nothing and allows nature to take its course (as per Ralbag) or there is some third way, which lays somewhere in the middle, how God runs the world. Simply put, we can not know the answer. We can believe one approach to be correct based on understanding of the Torah, personal experience or wishful thinking, but we can not know the ways of God.

We live in interesting times. The internet has brought knowledge and ideas to our fingertips that we might not have had access to before. Biblical scholarship, philosophy and theology, areas that were mostly studied by scholars, are now studied by all and debated on blogs, Facebook and during kiddushes at shul. As these ideas are considered, those of us who seek to figure out where we stand and what we believe run up against those who insist that we must accept certain ideas in order to remain within the fold. If we keep the three concepts of Orthodoxy, Torah and Truth in mind, and recognize the ways they differ, we can have more respectful, nuanced and meaningful conversations and debates.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Some Thoughts on My Interaction with Rav Amnon Bazak

I have great respect for Yeshivat Har Etzion, commonly known as “Gush”. It's founding Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l as well as his long time co-Rosh Yeshiva Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, represent to me the ideal talmid chacham; one whose greatness in Torah is matched by his character and actions. Their commitment to honest self-reflection about themselves, their community, their yeshiva and their country show them to be true mevakshei emes.

Rav Amnon Bazak is one of the Ramim at the yeshiva. I know very little of him, and have not yet had the opportunity to learn much of his Torah. Interestingly, Rav Bazak has a Facebook account where he shares divrei Torah and some of his thoughts on Israel. To his credit, he not only shares information but responds to questions. I discovered this today through experience.

In the past few days, I shared a few of Rav Bazak's posts. I found them to be thoughtful, thought provoking and challenging. They also focused on some of the differences between how his world and the charedi world view Torah and their and its role in Israeli society. Some of my friends who are either charedi or sympathetic to the charedi worldview felt that his positions were antagonistic to charedim. Although I felt that they were not (or I would not have posted them), I decided to reach out to him through his page for his thoughts. I must admit that I did not expect to him to respond, or if he did, to only do so briefly. I respectfully suggested that perhaps he could made his points without mentioning specific names. I asked about how productive it is to discuss other communities on Facebook. I asked whether he thought what he was doing was in line with his rabbeim's approach. Each time, he answered with thoughtfulness, nuance and humility. At one point he asked me to change venues so the discussion would be private. He gave me his email address and we had one more virtual conversation.

I'm not going to reveal his responses, as some of them were part of a private conversation. I will however, make several points:

  • At no point in the conversation did he “pull rank” and tell me that I had no right to question him.
  • He admitted to struggling with these kind of questions himself.
  • Both on his FB page and in his email he “signed” his name without a title.
  • He very much is guided by the things he learned from his venerable rabbeim.

Personally, in my sharing of at least one of the posts, I made a few mistakes. One was that my own words were not weighed enough and came off as inflammatory. Second, due to a fact that some friends had not understood the first post due to its having been written in Hebrew, I posted an article by Natan Slifkin, which discussed Rav Bazak's thoughts rather than simply translating them. In doing so, I mistakenly gave the impression that I wished to share Rabbi Slifkin's analysis, when in truth, my goal was to share Rav Bazak's message. As always, I will continue to try and weigh my words as carefully as I can.

Ashreinu sh'zachinu laRebbe kazeh

Moreshet Yaakov- Ensuring That Every Jew has Their Portion in Torah

What is the goal of Torah study? Who should teach it? To whom should should it be be taught? How should Torah be taught? These are some of the questions which I have been thinking about. I suppose it began with MK Ruth Calderon's historic speech after she joined the Knesset. I was already fascinated by her back-story, as a founder of a secular beit midrash. I began to reconsider what Torah learning meant and how to approach it. For a long time, I had thought of it as an endeavor of those who are already observant or looking to be, or have academic interest in it. Suddenly there was another possibility; learning Torah to learn Torah. An article this week by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo “God is Relocating: A Critique on Contemporary Orthodoxy”, which is quite long but tremendously thought provoking, as well as an article by Beth Kisselef “Where Denominations Lose Their Meaning”, about various venues where Torah is explored together by Jews of various stripes, brought this issue back in focus. What follows is not meant to be a halachic analysis, or even my permanent conclusion. I write this as a way of sharing and helping shape my thoughts, and, of course, to get feedback.

In Eichah Rabbah the rabbis imagine God as saying “Would that they (Bnei Yisrael) abandon me and guard (keep?) my Torah”. On the surface, this seems to suggest that by observing God's Torah, we would return back to him. There is an obvious difficulty here. Part of observing God's Torah involves not abandoning God. Therefore, I believe the midrash is saying that by learning Torah, we are led back to God. I would agree that, at the very least, one who attempts to learn Torah with a goal of reaching God will be led back to Him. What of someone who learns without that goal? Assuming that they are not doing so for negative reasons (as per Tosafos), will it lead back to God? Sometimes.

What I do know is that, to echo Kierkegaard, our objectivity is inherently subjective, and thus, I have no desire to do kiruv, in the sense of trying to convince someone that I have the truth. What I do want to do is teach and learn Torah with my fellow Jews. Not as a hidden way of doing kiruv, but simply as a way of learning Torah. What about learning Torah from my fellow Jews? Am I really prepared to hear Torah from someone who does not believe in God, or believes differently? Absolutely. As much as for some of my fellow Orthodox jews, this might be shocking or forbidden, I wonder whether they have ever thought about what message is given when we are only willing to teach them, but not learn from them. To be clear, I am not talking about polemics, where they or I would be trying to push a belief system. The goal would be to learn the texts of Torah together, trying to understand the text. Is there a danger in this approach? I don't think so. I am not afraid to hear ideas which might be different than my own. None other than the Rambam advised us to consider the message and not the messenger when looking for truth. I do however think that learning in this manner might not be ideal for younger students.

Of course, I am not saying this is the only way that learning should take place but I do think there is great value in this approach. If we truly believe that Torah is the inheritance of every Jew, than seeing to it that as many Jews as possible learn it has to be the goal. To those who insist that it will be on Orthodox terms, by us, in our institutions, I would say that you are automatically limiting the amount of Jews who will learn Torah. Many Jews do not feel comfortable in our institutions, something which we ought to think about on many levels. If we will only teach Torah on our terms, that is another way of saying we are okay with many Jews never learning Torah. I, for one, am not

Finally, what's the end game? What's my agenda? Very simply, my goal is that as many Jews as possible should learn Torah, wrestle with Torah and think about what it means to them. I want the head of Jewish Federation to know how to learn gemara. I want a Hillel director to wrestle with the sugya of Tanur Shel Achnai. I want it to reach a point where a secular MK sharing Torah in the Knesset is as common as arguments in the Knesset. Finally, I want Orthodox Jews to be part of God's directive to ensure that His Torah is shared. V'sein Chelkeinu B'Torasecha.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Second Chances- Thoughts on this Peisach Sheini

For a long time I have connected to the idea of Pesach Sheini. Being that today, the 14th of Iyar, is Pesach Sheni, I thought I'd touch on a few ideas about the mitzvah and why it speaks to me, as a way of explaining why I chose it as the name for my blog.

One year after leaving Egypt, the Jewish people were commanded to observe Pesach (why it was necessary at that time and whether this was a one time commandment is beyond the scope of this essay). Among other things, this commandment meant that they would sacrifice the Korban Pesach. There were a number of men who were impure, having come in contact with a dead body. They approached Moshe and asked why they should lose out on this mitzvah. Moshe was told by God that they would be given a second chance, one month later to give this sacrifice. This was not a one time event. Each year, those who were unable to give the Korban Pesach, were given a second opportunity on Pesach Sheini. (For an incredible post and story about a Pesach Sheini seder in a concentration camp, click here).

There are several obvious questions on this whole episode:

  1. Why did these men think they deserved a second chance? They were impure, a consequence of which is that they can not give the sacrifice.
  2. Why did they want a second chance? After all, they were exempt from the mitzvah and would not have been punished.
  3. Why did God give them a second chance? By other korbanos, if you miss it, there is no second chance.

Clearly, these men had not become impure due to carelessness on their part. Otherwise their question would not have made sense, and Moshe would not have taken it seriously. Whether we go with a simple reading of the text they were simply involved with some issue of taking care of someone who died, or we accept the ideas proposed in the midrash, they were involved with a mitzvah which required them to become impure.

The second question brings us to the crux of the issue. What are mitzvohs and why do we do them? Chazal teach us that “Sechar mitzvah, mitzvah”, the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah. Based on the Rambam, I would suggest that this means that the reward for doing a mitzvah is...that you have done a mitzvah. Any other possible reward is beyond the point. By doing a mitzvah you have encountered God. That is the true reward.

Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapira ztvk'l, the Holy Piaczena Rebbe, became the rebbe for the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Through Divine providence, his collected drashos, delivered to Jews who were suffering terribly (as was he), were saved. Imagine what it must have been like trying to give hope to people who had none. In one drasha, he discusses the idea from Pirkei Avos that we should serve God without the expectation to receive reward. Basing himself on Rashi, he suggests that even if there was no reward, we would still serve HaShem. In the most terrible situation, he reminded his desperate followers that serving God, no matter the circumstances, was the greatest thing possible. Mitzvohs are themselves are the reward. With this understanding, it becomes clear why those who could not give the Korban Pesach wanted a second chance.

Still, we are left to wonder why here, by this specific mitzvah, a second chance was given. The Sefer HaChinuch suggests that because so much of our beliefs are reinforced through the mitzvohs of Pesach, including, belief in creation, and that God loves us and is involved in our lives, it was important that everyone have the chance to observe them. I'd like to extend this idea a little.

When we bury the dead, we demonstrate that we believe many important ideas. Among them are a belief that our lives matter, that we have a connection to the creator, a connection that comes through, among other things, performing mitzvohs. I would suggest that a second chance was given davka here and davka to these men because they recognized the true purpose of mitzvohs in general and the mitzvohs of the Korban Pesach in particular.

For nearly two years, I went through a very rough time. Part of that was a religious crisis. I did not know if or how it would be resolved. On this Pesach Sheini, I celebrate the fact that I again connect to God through his Torah and mitzvohs. I thank God that he did not lose faith in me, even as I questioned my faith in him.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

With Complete Belief

Is it a test,
bad luck,
part of something bigger,
or a way to humble me?
A Divine message?
If so, I can not read it.
Philosophy has many answers,
and thus, none at all.
I have found my portion in Torah,
and yearn to share it,
as fear, trust and confusion,
call out from within.
I believe with complete belief,
that I can not know the answer.


How rude!”
How rude!”
In the middle of kaddish!”
Blocking the way to my mother's grave!”
Look at how they're dressed!”
Look at how they're dressed!”
What do you expect?!?”
What do you expect?!?”
Those people!”
Those people!”
Similar and yet so different,
united by a distant past,
forced to live together,
and eventually to dwell forever as neighbors,
in the earth on which they stand.

Monday, May 12, 2014

It's Not Too Late- A Letter to a Chassidic Mother

I didn't want to discuss my feelings about Mother's Day yesterday. Talking of how my my mom died on that day, just didn't seem right. I felt as I'd be adding a sad note to a day, that for many people has a lot of meaning and joy. So, I was silent. I “liked” a whole bunch of posts and pictures, and enjoyed my friend's happiness, even as I felt a twinge of jealousy. I also read several articles and a post by my friend Malky, which got me thinking. While Frimet Goldberger, a former Satmar chossid wrote of a partial reconciliation with her mother, Malky, who comes from the same community wrote of the poor relationship with her mother which has never healed. Finally, I read Ruth Margalit's moving article, about being “unmothered” on Mother's Day. Moved by the ideas shared by these three insightful women, I share the following letter, written to a fictitious mother whose child has chosen a different course for her own life. (Although it is addressed to a mother, it expresses an idea that just as easily could apply to a father as well).

Dear Mrs. Schwartz,

I hope you'll forgive me, a total stranger, for writing to you. Although we come from very different worlds, I believe that my thoughts might be helpful to you.

I remember the first time I came home from yeshiva having learned about what the Pesach seder was supposed to be. I eagerly awaited the night of the seder, when my family would join in a long discussion and analysis (forgive me, I was a bit of a Litvak) about the Exodus from Egypt. I prepared various divrei Torah and topics of discussion which would involve my whole family. I'm sure you can imagine my disappointment when, after my second devar Torah, my father A”H, who never received a yeshiva education, made it clear that he was hungry, and not in the mood for any more long discussions. This was not a one time event. Each year, including in all the years after I married and had children of my own, the seder was heavy on food, but light on discussion, at least as far as sippur yetziyas Mitzraim. After my father passed away, I had the opportunity to conduct sedarim of my own. They had everything that I had ever wanted, discussion, analysis, singing and meaning. Well, everything except for my father. Despite the fact that I greatly enjoy my sedarim, I would give anything for one more rushed seder with my father.

I have only an outsider's understanding of your community, but I believe that in many ways, people are people. Chazal say that a father is never jealous of his son. This is generally understood to be a positive statement, but I think there is something a little dark hiding behind these words. At least in some cases, the reason a parent is not jealous of her child is because parents sometimes live vicariously through their children. Both their children's successes, as well as their children's failures, are seen by the parent as their own. We all invest so much in our children; time, money and hope, and we want the best for them. Often, the best we want, is what's best for us, assuming that what we want must be right for our children. It is indeed a comforting feeling to see one's children live a life similar to our own. What of the child who takes a different path? How can we not feel a twinge of disappointment when our son or daughter picks a different path?

HaShem has given us all bechira chofshis, free-will. Inherent in that gift, is the opportunity to live in the way he asks of us, or to reject it. Even then, even when it is objectively what He, as the creator knows is best for us, he still loves us. Af al pi sh'chat'u, banai heim, regardless of our choices, we remain God's children. How much more so should we, as mere humans, make this same choice? Is this not another instance where we are commanded to follow in God's ways?

In no way do I make light of your pain. I'm sure that it must be hard to see so many of your neighbors have children who all live according to the ways of your community. Perhaps you wonder whether some of your friends blame you for how your children turned out. I ask of you, for your child's sake, for your grandchildren's sake, and for your own sake as well, to not hurt them or yourself. As much as we don't like to think about it, none of us live forever. There will come a time when it is too late for hugs, apologies, acceptance and all that comes with being a mother and grandmother. Take advantage of the opportunity for reconciliation. You have so much to gain, and nothing to lose.


Mother's Day

Standing by the grave of a mother taken too soon,
a short time after attending a delayed bris.
The name with which you leave,
quite different from the one given at birth.
One earned and one given,
One a summary the other a hope.
From all around comes the smell of freshly cut grass,
Which will regrow once again,
nourished by the sun, and the tears,
and the dirt from which we come,
and to which we will return.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Possession is 10/10 of the Lords- A Torah perspective on ownership and control

This devar Torah is in memory of Herb Smilowitz z'l, who recently passed away. He was a humble and kind man, and a ba'al tzedaka and ba'al chessed of the highest order. Among other causes, Mr. Smilowitz was a big supporter of RIETS and Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush). Although I did not know Mr. Smilowitz well, through his children, I met him a number of times. I was zocheh to hear some meaningful and powerful stories from his family, during the time I was menachem avel. Mr. Smilowitz had money, it did not have him. In a quiet and humble way, he used his wealth in the most Godly manner possible. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Herb Smilowitz z'l surrounded by Rabbi Zevulun Charlap and Rabbi Mark Smilowitz
This might be the only time in history when a man had to be "tricked" into being honored.

It's one of the best known Rashis in the Torah

מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני

What does Shemita have to do with Har Sinai?

This question is asked by Rashi on the first passuk in Parshas Behar

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־ מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר

Unlike almost every time that HaShem speaks to Moshe, here, in introduction to the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Torah notes that it happened on Har Sinai. Why single out these mitzvos? Were all mitzvos not given at Har Sinai? To answer the question Rashi explains that just as Shemitah and all of its details were taught at Har Sinai, this also applies to all of the other mitzvos in the Torah.

What Rashi does not explain is why this mitzvah is singled out to teach this lesson. What is unique about Shemitah that it is chosen as an example?

Additionally, we see elsewhere that Shemitah is serious enough to lead to exile and other serious consequences when it is not followed. Why is this mitzvah singled out for such severe consequences?

By way of introduction, I will start with the second question first. The Ramban suggests that shemitah teaches us about the messianic era, which is represented by resting during the 7th year. The Kli Yakkar suggests that Shemitah and Yovel are a re-creation of Har Sinai. To prove his point, he points to several allusions including the number 50 and the use of a shofar, which is referred to in both contexts as a "yovel". As we will see later on, there is no reason to suggest that these explanations are mutually exclusive.

To answer the first question, we need to look at some of the mitzvos that are mentioned in this parsha:

  • Shemitah
  • Yovel
  • Freeing of an Eved Ivri by Yovel at the latest
  • Ona'as mamon (limits on profits) as well as Ona'as Devarim (hurtful words)
  • Prohibition to permanently sell a field or most homes in Israel
  • Returning of field to their original owner by Yovel
  • Prohibition on charging interest
  • Prohibitions against mistreating an Eved Ivri
  • Requirement to redeem a Jewish slave from a non-Jewish owner

If we look at the common denominator between these mitzvohs, we see that the Torah is focusing on ownership and property in parshas Behar. Despite the claims by different proponents of modern economic theory, the Torah's approach to property and ownership is neither capitalist or socialist. It is a unique system.

Bnei Yisrael have left Egypt. They were there long enough to become virtually identical to the Egyptians, both culturally and socially. Just as somewhat paradoxically an abused child runs the risk of becoming an abusive parent, and a captive runs the risk of experiencing Stockholm Syndrome, there was a very real risk that, with the gaining of independence and power, Bnei Yisrael would take an Egyptian view of possesions, particularly to ownership of slaves. It is not surprising that the Torah here uses the word פרך the very same word used to described how BY were enslaved, in discussing the prohibitions of mistreating an Eved Ivri. The Torah also talks of treating him as a תושב, another allusion to the slavery which took place in Egypt. Most telling are the words of HaShem כִּי־עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. Do not think of your slaves as your own. All of you belong to me.

The other mitzvos listed above, also place strong limitations on ownership, from limiting profit, to prohibiting permanent sale of land and property, to prohibiting the charging of interest. What, in the name of Adam Smith is going on here?

After creating man, HaShem blesses them saying

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־ הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל ־חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל־ הָאָרֶץ

Be fruitful, fill the land and be koveish it. What is the meaning of that word? Ordinarily, we translate it as conquer, but I think it could also mean something else here. Chazal speak of being koveish one's Yetzer HaRa. In that context, I would suggest it means more of channeling one's physicality, rather than conquering it. Here God is dealing with something inherent in man, and, I believe, particularly inherent in men. Man can be a conqueror. One who aims to control everything and everyone. A person who views the world in a binary way, saying "What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" and "kochi v'otzem yadi". God is blessing us to view things differently. In the next passuk he says

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת ־כָּל ־עֵשֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי כָל ־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת ־כָּל־ הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר ־בּוֹ פְרִי־עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה

Remember, says HaShem, I am the source of everything you have. Use it, but use it for a Divine purpose.

Now we can return to our original question, Why are these mitzvos specifically mentioned as coming from Har Sinai? If we think of what we know of Har Sinai, we begin to see an answer. Chazal say that by the giving of the Torah, Bnei Yisrael reached the level of Adam HaRishon before the sin. The goal of the Torah is for us to perfect ourselves and through our actions, the world. Although that level was inherently unsustainable at the time of Matan Torah, the Kli Yakar suggests that we receive a reminder of that goal through Shemitah, Yovel, and, I would add, the other mitzvos of this parsha. Moving over to the Ramban, these mitzvos are a reminder of the messianic era, the time when God's ideal world will be realized. Through a recognition of the limits of our ownership, we are reminded that we and all that we have, belong to HaShem, and that we should treat each other and make use of our possessions, in a way that shows we realize this. Our choice is to conquer and control the world, or to perfect it.

Monday, May 5, 2014

When Our Rabbis are Wrong

Click here to read my latest on Times of Israel.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Finding Our Path in Torah- An Apology

Earlier this week, I posted a status where I was not careful enough in my words. Despite wanting to say something positive about the Waterbury yeshiva high school, my words came across as insulting to the yeshiva and boys who learn or have learned there. I write the following as an apology.

How does one find their place in Torah? By Torah, I do not mean simply the texts of the Torah, but also, and especially, the inner meaning of Torah, which embodies HaShem, so to speak (Shabbos 105a). Although there are many different answers, I'd like to suggest two of them.

In Berachos 63b Reish Lakish suggests one approach. Based on a homiletical reading of a passuk, he says “Torah only last in one who kills himself over it”. Let's try and find the message contained in his words. To begin, it is important to remember what we know about Reish Lakish. For many years he was a highway robber, until he was “discovered” by Rebbe Yochanan, who became his rebbe. What does he mean when he says that one must kill himself over Torah? I believe that he is saying that in order to really grasp Torah, and the Godliness which can be found within, you have to be willing to get rid of the “you” that stands in the way of Torah. Had Rebbe Yochanan learned Torah merely as an academic pursuit, without being willing to channel himself through it, it would have had no lasting effect upon him. Furthermore, it is important to note that Reish Lakish says that this must be done willingly. Torah can not be forced upon a person. You might be able to control someone's body, but their mind and soul are theirs alone.

A second approach is found in Chagiga 14a. There it says that a person does not succeed in Torah, unless they have stumbled over it first. When a person struggles with something, there are times that they will fall. Rather than that being seen as an unfortunate occurrence, the gemara suggests that from the struggle itself comes the growth. When Torah comes easily, whether through lack of challenge, or through simple or simplistic ideas, it does not truly belong to the one who learned. Through the struggle itself, the recognition of having stumbled, and the subsequent attempt to get back up and move on, the Torah is acquired.

May we all find our connection to Torah in a serious, deep and meaningful way.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

All its Perfect Imperfections- Why I love Israel

I recently read two books about Israel. Although the books were written from different vantage points, to my mind they highlighted the maddening, confounding, paradoxical and holy perfect imperfection of the state of Israel.

The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State by Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, discusses exactly what the title implies. By focusing on the biographies of 18 thinkers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, Avineri shows the various ideas that led to the formation of the state. Ranging from the secular to the religious, from theory to practicality, from ignoring the local Arabs to recognizing them and their aspirations, the ideas considered do not easily mesh into a synthesized whole.

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who United Israel and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi comes at the contradictions inherent in the modern State of Israel from a different direction. In telling the story of the paratroopers who conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, Halevi masterfully shows the different viewpoints of what the reunification of Jerusalem meant to various parts of the Israeli population. In a book that reads as almost biblical, fascinating characters from Rosh Yeshiva and repentant redmptionist Rav Yoel Bin-Nun to Israeli protest-singer Meir Ariel, we are introduced to individuals and communities and how they viewed the Six Day War, and all that followed. Particularly for those of us who have been educated almost exclusively from the perspective of seeing Israel as a religiously significant, the book is eye-opening and thought provoking.

Over the span of almost 20 centuries, Israel, Jerusalem and redemption became almost ahistorical for the Jewish people. Rishonim wrote of Israel's contours without having seen it, Jerusalem seemed almost to be a metaphor and so often the redemption seemed either so far away, or superfluous. Although many Jews yearned to see the Moshiach, his arrival and all that would come through it, was viewed primarily as something that would happen to the Jewish people, as opposed to something that would be actively brought about by the Jewish people.

The Enlightenment, European Nationalism and the anti-semitism that followed, changed almost everything. Suddenly, the question became “Why not us?”. Jews began to wonder why they should remain forever the stranger, at best on the sidelines, and at worst, the victim of horrible oppression and attacks. Although some, like Rabbis Kalischer and Kook, asked these questions from the religious perspective, most looked at it from the perspective of socialism, communism, nationalism or some other worldview which did not involve God. While these views and the debates that followed were at first theoretical, before long, they became practical, leading to the plethora of conflicting views of Israel is and what it should be.

Let me now change course from the perspective of the aloof writer, to the passionate Zionist that I have again become.

We have been given a gift, one that comes, I believe, from God. It didn't happen in the way that our ancestors envisioned it, but suddenly that which was until very recently seen as ahistorical, has become very real. Jews of all types are living close to and sometimes amongst those with different languages, modes of dress, religious and political views, and perspectives. If this isn't enough, we find ourselves (oh to again be able to use these terms truthfully about myself and my family) in a pretty rough regional “neighborhood, with Arabs living among us and around us. All these years when we prayed, is this what we had in mind? Can this be the Jerusalem that we mentioned many times a day? And what of the redemption?

While some might answer these questions by suggesting that this can not be what God truly wants for us, and that thus, we must view Israel as just another part of galus, I can not answer the questions this way. While this is not the finished product, in many ways it moves in that direction. On the other hand, I can not accept the approach that says that we have all we need, either because this is the “Atchalta D'Geula” or because there is no redemption to follow. I am caught somewhere in the maddening, confusing and most wonderful middle. How else can I view Yom Ha'atzmaut, a secular day on the calendar, where Israelis, religious and secular alike celebrate with tiyulim and barbecues, which this year, as with most years, will be observed a day late, to avoid chillul Shabbat? Can I not be amazed at the founding of a charedi hesder yeshiva, and not, at the same time wonder why it took so long to get to this point? How can I not see the holiness in the bareheaded soldier protecting our land, including its yeshivahs? As I observe my friends living in communities where there is very real strife between religious Jews over what it means to be a religious Jew, how can I not be a bit envious of watching them live out the messy process of figuring out what a Torah state should look like? Finally, when visiting my brother's yishuv, how can I not think about the patch of prime real estate that lays undeveloped in the middle of the yishuv, as the dispute over its ownership remains ongoing?

While this is not the State we might have asked for, it's the one we have been given. While there are blemishes and imperfections, there is such incredible beauty, holiness and goodness. As always, God pushes us to be his partner in creating a holy world, rather than passively sitting back and waiting for the redemption to come from heaven. Shehechiyanu V'kiyemanu v'higiyanu lazeman hazeh.