Monday, June 30, 2014

We Just Don't Know- Accepting the Pain of Uncertainty

I’m scared to write, but I struggle to hold back. I’m sad and hurting and angry, but mostly just numb. I keep thinking about what to tell my children who are here in Israel with me, but that implies that I know what to tell myself.

At moments like this, the usual answers of theology feel cheap. They are not enough. In some ways they feel more like a defense mechanism to push off the pain than like answers. We live in a society where, too often, the answer to sadness is an attempt to divert ones attention, by joking, by giving “answers”, by changing the subject, and, yes, by writing. It is as if we think that feelings are not to be felt.

Even worse, is the misguided sense that we need to defend God. That somehow, He needs us to defend him. When a child is hurting and angry, does a good father need his child to hold back his feelings? Do we do God and the cause of religion any favor by pretending we know why this happened? When our education leads us to think that we can give a meaningful answer, or even worse, the answer to a question that has plagued man since the beginning of time, we show just how poor that education was. A good parent or teacher knows that sometimes, the only answer is “I don’t know”. When it comes to God, how much more so should we not pretend to have an answer?

Sometimes it is best to let our children to see our tears flow down our cheeks, to feel that doubt and struggle are not bad and wrong, to give them the comfort of seeing their role-models struggle. If we learn texts that deal with this question, we must reinforce the idea that it is just one approach, rather than a definitive answer. If we want to turn to Torah, it should be to Tehillim or Iyov, and not some book which claims to know the Jewish view of… well, anything. There are almost no cases where there is a unified answer.

Our belief is most real if we treat God as God, as being beyond the understanding of man, as big enough to not be hurt by our anger or doubts, as One whose ways are not our ways. Let us give our children and ourselves the education of being real with ourselves, of dealing with our human emotions, of admitting the scary truth that we just don’t know.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

What Would You Do? Accepting the Things We Don't Control

It was supposed to be one of the happiest weeks of his life. After years of hard work and sacrifice, Isaiah Austin was about to live the dream of any boy who has ever dribbled a basketball, or practiced his jump-shot over and over for hours on end. At 7’ 1”, Austin was a star in the making. He was sure to be a first-round pick in tonight’s NBA draft, with the only question being which team would pick him. Then, diagnosed with Marfan’s Syndrome, a disease that makes it impossible for him to play basketball again, his dream went up in smoke.

What would you do? How would you react if suddenly the whole trajectory of your life changed? If the neat ordered world in which you lived, suddenly changed without any warning? Would you be bitter? Go with your anger, pain and frustration to the dark place it wants to take you? Could you adjust? Recognize that you now have a chance to do something different? Accept that somewhere deep, buried in your hurt and disappointment, lies the opportunity to recreate yourself?

Imagine if the disease had not been found. Instead of being symbolically drafted by the NBA, in a touchingand classy move, as he was tonight, he would have actually been drafted by a team. He would have signed a contract that would have  instantly made him a millionaire. Then, at some unknown juncture, during a hard practice or during a game, the unthinkable would have happened.

Could you see the change as a gift, or, at least, as the impetus to look inside and figure out who you really are? Would you be able to recognize that it’s possible to get through the upheaval and end up in a different place, maybe even a better place? Would you dare to dream again? Could you?

Lets imagine a future scenario. Austin walks into an auditorium, packed with some of the best high-school basketball prospects in the country. Before he begins to speak, highlights of his basketball career show on the video screen behind him. The kids grow quiet as they realize that this guy in front of them was pretty good. As the screen grows dark, Austin tells his story. About the easy classes he took, and the way his teachers and other adults looked the other way, to “help” him. About all the attention he got. About all the people who wanted to be his friend, girls who saw him as their ticket to the big-time. About how almost all of them went away, as soon as it became clear that he would not be a basketball star in the NBA. Suddenly, a second video starts to show. In it, Austin’s wedding is shown, as is his graduation from Baylor with a degree in counseling, or maybe, pre-med. The people surrounding him in the video seem happy for him, as if they are truly sharing in his success. As the screen again fades to black, he again begins to talk. He tells the prospects his story. He shares the pain he felt when his dream went away. He tells of the tears, and the many nights of lying awake feeling sorry for himself. He also tells them how, one day, he decided he had enough with the self-pity. How he decided to go back to school and get a real degree. He tells of the true friends he made, who weren’t seeing him as anything other than a friend. He tells of meeting his now wife, who wasn’t even a basketball fan. He shares the fact that he wants to help others avoid the pain that he went through. He warns the boys to open their eyes and look inside, and recognize that for most of them, they have to figure out what they will do with a life that will not involve playing in the NBA.

Could you use your pain to help others? How good would you feel knowing that you helped even one person avoid the pitfalls you experienced, along with all the hurt that came with it? Do you have it in you to accept that you are not fully in control? Do you have it in you to change? What would you do?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Questions- My Father's 8th yahrtzeit

Eight long and short years have passed since I was awoken to the news that my father had died. Since I went from having two parents to just one. Since I lost the chance to ask all the questions I wanted to ask, and didn't want to ask and needed to ask, and should have asked. Questions that still sit with me now. Questions that remain forever unanswered.

I sit here thinking about questions of all kinds.

Questions of faith that lead some to label me. To wonder who I am, if I believe, and to suggest I keep them to myself. To think I have answers, or worse, that I have the answers, or still worse, the answer. To see in me their biggest fears, and last hope. Where will they lead me? Should I be scared?

Questions about my dad and what he thought and believed and wanted out of life. Wondering why I save everything and he saved nothing. Whether he had regrets and what they were. Wondering why I keep on trying to please him and asking unanswerable questions.

Questions about me. Who am I? Where am I going? Why are reading and writing and talking and thinking like oxygen to me? Why do I breathe them in with the fear that I might not get to do so ever again? Why can't I listen? Leave room for another? Why has running lost its grip on me? Why do I want to teach so badly and help others? What am I trying to prove? What happens if I let go? If I follow my heart? If I keep losing my fears? If I let myself feel? If I finally try, really try, to be the husband and father and friend and Jew that I want to be?

Questions about home and whether you ever can go home again. Where is home and is it a place, my family, inside of me? What would have happened if we had stayed in Israel and will we make it back? Why does it pull at me now more than ever? What if I went back to my childhood home and accepted the visit to go inside? How would I feel at its unfamiliar familiarity? Upon seeing someone else in my room? At the realization that my cards and my matchbox cars and all the cool stuff in the closet is gone?

Questions about questions, and answers, and truth, and humor, and music, and sports and philosophy and God and truth...

Sunday, June 22, 2014

An Exchange of Letters- Of struggles, Slippery Slopes and Heresy

Last week I received an email from the father of several students who I taught a number of years back. After giving it some thought, I decided to share the email and my response. The man's name and one detail has been changed in order to keep his identity private.

Dear Pesach,

I've considered you a friend for many years, and still do. You were the rebbie to [a number of my children], and for that I'm grateful.

I see that your thinking about Judaism is evolving, and wish you success with your struggle to redefine your Judaism. I also am requesting that your remove me from your blog list, since I don't share this struggle, and am quite happy with the view of Torah Judaism that I've been taught and with which my parents raised me. Your new thinking is, I believe, a slippery slope to apikorsus. I don't have the bandwidth to argue or try to convince you; I'm too busy trying to keep my own sedarim in Gemara, Halacha, etc. But I wish that Hashem grant you menuchas hanefesh and insight into His Torah. 

I look forward to seeing you next time you visit [ ]. 

Best wishes to you and your family,

Yaakov (Name changed)

Dear Mr. Kramer,

I received your email, and, as per your request, have removed you from my blog email list.

For the most part, I appreciate the tone of your email. I consider you a friend as well, and appreciate the relationship that I developed with you, your sons and your family. At the same time, I was somewhat saddened by some of what you wrote. I certainly understand and even respect your decision to not read about certain topics and areas of thought which make you uncomfortable. There is certainly justification within our tradition for not exploring certain topics of thought. I too have lines that I prefer not to pass. 

At the same time your willingness to suggest that my "new thinking" is on the "slippery slope to apikorsus", was unfair, particularly without a willingness to back it up in any way. I am quite uncomfortable with a willingness to throw around the term "apikorsus" in a somewhat cavalier and unsubstantiated manner. To do so is dangerous and I would urge you to be careful how you use it. I suspect that there are those who would be willing  term the Judaism that you've "been taught and which [your] parents raised [you] as being on the slippery slope to apikorsus. Particularly, as someone who works in informal education, in a manner that tries to make Judaism understandable to people who might not connect to more traditional methods of teaching, I would hope that you would recognize that our tradition offers a broad range of hashkafot, including ones that allow us to deal with the most challenging of issues and questions. In fact, from Rav Saadiah Gaon, to Rambam, to Rav Crescas, to Rebbe Yehuda Halevi, to Rav Kook and Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, some of our greatest teachers of Torah have kept Torah fresh and meaningful by engaging in the questions that plagued their generation. To be sure, I am nowhere near their level, but at the same time, I take tremendous comfort in knowing that what I write seems to help many more people than it threatens.

If I indeed lack Menuchas HaNefesh, I am grateful that it spurs me to move beyond simple and easy answers. Through my struggles I have indeed gained "insights into [God's] Torah" far beyond those I had gained before. I have discovered that, if anything, questioning, struggling and looking for meaningful answers has deepened my faith in God and connection to His Torah. 



Thursday, June 19, 2014

Give or Take?- Using the Torah to Choose the Right Kind of Leaders

We live in a time when, sadly, we are no longer surprised to see those who lead religious institutions, yeshivahs and communities in the news for unethical behavior. While actions done to raise money to help others can at least be somewhat explained away, misusing positions of leadership for personal gain can not. In 2008, Chaim Saiman, a law professor at Villanova, wrote an article for the Forward about the Madoff scandal and its religious implications for Yeshiva University. Taking that a step further, I'd like to look at the Torah's expectations for leaders, by dealing with a number of questions on this weeks parsha.

Parshas Korach tells the story of how a large group of men, theoretically led by Korach, attempted to gain positions of leadership and influence within Bnei Yisrael. It begins with the passuk

וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן־יִצְהָר בֶּן־קְהָת בֶּן־לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן־פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן

All commentators ask the same question. The pasuk begins with the word וַיִּקַּח, which means "And he took", without saying what exactly was taken. Furthermore, it is written in the singular despite ostensibly talking about more than 200 men.

Furthermore, in pasuk טו when Moshe pleads with God not to accept Korach's offering he says
 וַיִּחַר לְמֹשֶׁה מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־יְהֹוָה אַל־תֵּפֶן אֶל־מִנְחָתָם לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי אֶת־אַחַד מֵהֶם

"I have not taken a single donkey from any of them and not done badly to them". Why does Moshe feel the need to justify himself? Even stranger is the fact that this statement seems to be the basis for the choice of the haftarah of the parsha.

As Shmuel HaNavi, who has been the leader of Bnei Yisrael, is coming to the end of his life, he is asked by the people to appoint a king to rule over them. As he goes to annoint Shaul, Shmuel gives a valedictory address. At the beginning he says:

הִנְנִי עֲנוּ בִי נֶגֶד ה' וְנֶגֶד מְשִׁיחוֹ אֶת ־שׁוֹר ׀ מִי לָקַחְתִּי וַחֲמוֹר מִי לָקַחְתִּי וְאֶת־מִי עָשַׁקְתִּי אֶת ־מִי רַצּוֹתִי וּמִיַּד־ מִי לָקַחְתִּי כֹפֶר וְאַעְלִים עֵינַי בּוֹ וְאָשִׁיב לָכֶם

Echoing Moshe's words, Shmuel asks the people to confirm that he has taken nothing from them. What are Chazal trying to emphasize?

Finally, at the end of the parsha, the Matnos Kehuna V' Leviyah, the gifts that the Kohanim and Leviyim receive from Bnei Yisrael, are listed. Going on the assumption that halachos that are introduced after a narrative episode have a thematic connection, what do these gifts have to do with the story of Korach and his co-conspirators?

Korach saw leadership as a way of getting things. He assumed that a leader would be in position to accrue wealth, comfort and luxury for himself. He wanted to have such a position for himself. He, along with his group wanted to rule in order to be able to take for themselves וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח. Even as they came together to complain, each one wanted power for his own benefit and thus וַיִּקַּח is written in the singular.

Moshe and Shmuel, in contradistinction to Korach and his men, recognized that to be a true leader was to be a selfless giver, with the goal of helping the flock rather than themselves. They sacrificed comfort, family and more all for Bnei Yisrael. In return, they took nothing, not even a donkey.

At the end of the parsha, in discussing the various gifts, the Kohanim and Leviyim are given the task of guarding the mishkan to keep Bnei Yisrael safe. In return, they are given certain gifts. At first, this seems to suggest that serving God leads to personal gain. HaShem stresses

וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל־אַהֲרֹן בְּאַרְצָם לֹא תִנְחָל וְחֵלֶק לֹא־יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּתוֹכָם אֲנִי חֶלְקְךָ וְנַחֲלָתְךָ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

"You will not receive a portion of land in Israel. I, Hashem, am your portion". Land was the primary way of accruing wealth in an agrarian society. The gifts are given to the Kohanim and Leviyim for sustenance. Their job is to serve, not to accrue gain for themselves. HaShem, who is the ultimate giver, the נתן התורה is their inheritance, and thus, their role model.

A leader's goal must be to help those who leads, not himself. To give to others, and not to take for himself. Perhaps it is time to reasess our goals in choosing leaders in our community.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

No Longer Alone- What Schools Can do to Better Support Students who Suffer from Mental Illness

As a teacher, I frequently heard students say that their grade was one big family where everybody was included. I think the boys and girls who said that, really meant it. Still, in almost all cases, they were mistaken. On the side, at best ignored, were some kids who just weren't cool enough to be part of the group. It was those who worried me the most. Of course, there were others about whom I was concerned, students who, despite their many wonderful traits and talents, never seemed to truly fit in.

Last week I heard of another suicide of a young adult. I didn't know him, but the news hit me hard. It awakened old wounds, as I thought of two former students, whose lives ended too soon, at their own hands. While it is impossible to reach every student who feels alone, thinks of himself as a malcontent, and/or has mental health issues, it seems to me that more can be done by schools to address this issue.

One thing that must be done is mental-health awareness. As in general society, mental illness is still very much stigmatized for teens, particularly for boys. Whether it's calling other kids “retards” or simply making fun of any perceived difference, there is an atmosphere that makes it very uncomfortable to acknowledge mental illness, or even ask for help. This stigma also causes families to not ask for help, help which would be forthcoming, if there was a child with any other illness.

Nearly 13 years ago, Rabbi Nati Helfgot wrote a very powerful article about dealing with severe depression. He shared his personal experience and how he was treated in a way that helped him get through it. Schools need to figure out how they can assist, or at least support, a student who is dealing with mental illness. Just as a girl who would have a disease like cancer would be supported by both the school and her classmates, the same should be done if she misses school for a reason connected to mental illness, assuming of course that the girl is interested. I have seen some schools that do this well, but it needs to become the norm.

While it would not be possible or advisable to ask for adults within the school community to discuss challenges they themselves have gone through in dealing with this, an alternative would be to show that great leaders both Jewish (Rambam and the Kotzker rebbe come readily to mind) and non-Jewish (Lincoln and Churchill) have dealt with mental illness without it destroying their lives.

Of course, I know nothing about why this young man killed himself last week, but it would be positive if his suicide could serve as a wake-up call to Jewish institutions such as schools and camps. We owe it to our youth to try harder and better.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Is it Time? - Dealing with the Challenges of Critical Biblical Scholarship

I'll say it right from the start. The comparison I'm about to make, in a story which is based on a number of gemaras, is imperfect. Therefore the lesson that I'm going to suggest, might not logically follow. I write this, as one who is torn, rather than as a suggestion of what must be. I welcome all responses, including critiques, on and off line.

In the 40 years that he was a businessman, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had seen it all. He'd met some of the most honest and honorable people imaginable. Competitors who had taken the financial hit in situations that they could have blamed on others, refused to overcharge, and been scrupulous about weights and measures. Sadly, but not surprisingly, he'd also met his share of scoundrels. Some of his fellow businessmen had two sets of weights which they used to their advantage. Others mixed water into their wine in order to increase their profits, while some used various devices with hidden compartments to get out of paying taxes, or to trick and mislead others. As Rabban Yochanan sat in the beis midrash, it was of these devices that he now thought. He was teaching the complex laws of tumah v'tehara, specifically as it relates to various utensils. Should he mentions these tools that were used to cheat? If he did, might it not encourage others to make use of them in order to cheat as well? If he did not, it would give people the impression that the chachomim were out of touch and were unaware of the real world outside of the beis midrash. For years, he had only taught these halachos privately, but these tools were becoming too ubiquitous in the marketplace to ignore. Pretending that this was not the reality was no longer an option. He had no choice. He would, for the first time, publicly discuss these vessels, and people would choose how they would respond.

In the past year, academic bible study has made it into the Orthodox world through a website that is committed to openly dealing with the issue in order to “address the challenges modern biblical scholarship poses to traditional Jewish faith and observance”. I and many others have been uncomfortable with the website dealing with such a sensitive topic in a public forum. My standard comparison is to the Rambam's “Moreh Nevuchim”. In the introduction, Rambam made it clear that he would not clearly spell out his particular beliefs, hiding them as it were, among seemingly contradictory statements. He was quite successful. In some ways, the Moreh is, to quote Winston Churchill's description of Russia, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. In reading the plethora of scholarship on Rambam's true beliefs, one sees how much the Moreh is an “aspaqlaria sh'eina meira”, serving essentially as a mirror to the one who seeks to interpret it. Rambam understood that not everyone would be able to understand, incorporate or make peace with all of his views. For that reason, he kept them well-hidden and out of the public view.

I have begun to wonder whether this is still a reasonable comparison. When everything is just a Google-search away, are we really living at a time when information about biblical criticism can really be kept off the communal radar? What message do questioners receive when they find few, if any, scholars who can cogently deal with their questions? Rather than suggesting that the sight is illegitimate, and that it should not exist, is it time to recognize that sites like this are not going anywhere, and that it is time for all those who love Torah, believe in its divinity, and have something to offer, to join the debate? What would Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai do?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Treasures of Home- My Journey From and Back to Modern Orthodoxy

[It is the short time period between the yahrtzeits of my parents A”H. The following is a reflection on some of what they gave me. May their memories be blessed.]

Stories abound of people leaving home to find riches, only to return home to discover that they were sitting on treasure all along. I am not alone among my friends and peers in having gone through such an experience in my religious life.

I was raised in a Modern Orthodox home. My mother received a limited Jewish education growing up, and my father received even less. My mother was the impetus behind their keeping a religious home, with some assistance from my brother. Our parents sent us to day school and made many personal sacrifices to pay for it. We kept Shabbos, without knowing hilchos boreir, and kosher where a K with any shape around it was good enough. I went to schools and camps where the boy-girl interactions were, shall we say, quite different from Satmar. Neither of my parents could translate a Rashi on chumash, let alone a mishna. They did however teach us some things which were more important than that. That being religious had to involve being a mentsch, that a businessman or politician with a kippah had to be incredibly careful about ethics, and to care about those who were less fortunate. They taught us that taking fancy vacations was less important than a solid Jewish education, that we should feel privileged to live at a time when Israel and Jerusalem were “ours”, and that kindness and honesty were as Jewish as Shabbos and Yom Kippur.

For me, this wasn't enough. I yearned for the real thing. To keep every part of Shabbos, the highest level of kashrus and to make Torah learning a more serious part of my life. I saw the “yeshivah world” as the place where those things could be found. I assumed that I would find the bein adam l'chaveiro component on which I'd been raised, emphasized to an even greater degree. And I did, except for when I didn't. I met many people who saw Orach Chaim as much more binding than Choshen Mishpat and the “fifth cheilek” of Shulchan Aruch. I saw people who thought that outside appearances were more important than the inside, and who told their daughters that if you don't marry someone in kollel, you are only getting second best. Don't misunderstand me. I met some incredible ba'alei chessed in that world, people who took all areas of Torah seriously, whose actions met their learning. When I looked around however, I realized that there were also people like that who wore crocheted or suede kippot rather than ones made of velvet. I saw battei midrash filled with Bnei Torah, who also serve in the Israeli army, and chessed and educational institutions run by wonderful and sincere Modern Orthodox Jews. In short, I realized that no group had a monopoly on truth, Torah or sincerity; or, unfortunately, on laxity in observance, nastiness or haughtiness.

I came home. Not to the exact same place as my parents, but at least within the same figurative neighborhood. It's nice to be back, although I'm saddened by the amount of time that it took, both in terms of my parents missing out on my “return”, as well as a lot of decisions I wish I had made differently. Perhaps it is inevitable that most of us can only appreciate home only after we leave. I would advise you to look carefully at everything you have before you decide to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Rising to the Occasion- How Technology has Changed the World of Psak

Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is one of the most essential mitzvos in the Torah. Although we might think of the act of studying as one that has essentially not changed in thousands of years, this is not the case. For most people who lived before the invention of the printing press, as well as for a while after its invention, talmud Torah was usually done by listening. Other than in the libraries of those who were wealthy, few, if any, texts could be found in the Jewish home. In talmudic times, this even included the siddur. This meant that for the most part, expertise in any area of Torah was not possible for the laymen.

Even, when books became more available, few men and almost no women, were well versed in the Talmud, which, along with its commentaries, were the primary tools for deciding matters of Jewish law. When legal codes were published beginning with Rambam's “Mishneh Torah”, and especially with the Shulchan Aruch several centuries later, there were many rabbis who were bothered by these texts. They were concerned with the idea that people would use these texts to decide halachic matters on their own, without knowing the requisite information. Despite these protests, and the fact that these rabbis were not incorrect in their assumption, legal codes were here to stay.

In the past 15 years, another major change has occurred. Computer technology has made nearly all major works of Jewish law available to anyone who wants it. The Bar-Ilan Responsa Project, has made it possible for anyone to research even the most complex of topics. Once again, there are protests that laymen should not be deciding matters of Jewish law, without consulting with an expert. Are those who protest correct? Possibly, but it doesn't matter. Just as the Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch thrived despite the protests against their use, the use of programs like the Bar-Ilan database will not disappear.

It is not possible to avoid change. Throughout our history, many of our biggest talmidei chachamim have been willing to deal with the challenges brought on by new circumstances. While to be sure, there were those who insisted on fighting the change, for the most part, they were unsuccessful. To pick one example, for all but the most dogmatic, no one believes that the world is less than 6,000 years old. However one reconciles the idea of it being the year 5774 according to the Jewish calendar, the idea of a much more ancient past is accepted.

To my mind, the advances in technology present a wonderful challenge to our rabbinic leaders. For many, even within the more insular communities, the days where the local rabbi decided halchic issues, and was, more or less accepted as the final word, are gone. It is no longer enough for a rabbi to posken. He must make a case for why his understanding is correct. Of course, part of this case involves explaining the sources and the thought process that led to the particular decision. It also involves something else. In order for a psak to be accepted, the posek needs to make his case in a way that resonates with those within his community, be it local or global. Part of this case is living, acting and speaking in a manner that combines scholarship, piety and compassion. Additionally, it must be clear that the psak shows an understanding of the realia of the case, as well as the community who is being addressed. To be sure, there will be those who will insist that nothing but scholarship should matter. Even if that once was the case, and I suspect that it was not, things have changed. Once again, great talmidei chachamim are rising to the challenge and will continue to do so.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Night to Remember- Learning, Teaching and Sharing Torah in a Reform Temple

It is somewhat frustrating that I feel the need to explain the purpose of an event I took part in last night, and what it was and wasn't about. Still, I am not going to pretend that for some, my involvement at a program in a Reform temple, talking respectfully with a Reform rabbi, requires justification.

Let me start by saying what the event was not. It was not a way to surreptitiously do kiruv, where I pretend I am interested in a dialogue only so that I can bring an audience to realize that I have the truth. I was not trying to “make” anyone frum. What I was trying to do was have an honest an open dialogue with my friend Rabbi Ben David, and his congregants. I was interested in sharing Torah. I was interested in learning from others and being challenged, and seeing if I could break some stereotypes without pandering to the audience or pretending that there are not real differences between us.

I had never met Ben in person. Years ago, we connected through running after I read an article in Runner's World about the “Running Rabbis”. Being a running rabbi myself, and one who liked to use running to help raise money for worthy causes as well, I reached out to Ben. For the past five years or so, we have been virtual friends with shared interests in Judaism, Daf Yomi, and running, among other things. We talked from time to time about getting together, and going for a run. While the run will have to wait a bit longer, last night's program, suggested by Rabbi David, was the get together.

On the way down, I davened mincha with a lot more kavvanah than I had mustered in a while. I davened that I should choose my words wisely, speak with honesty and nuance, and that I should not cause anyone pain with my words. Ben and I met for a few minutes to discuss the “ground rules”. We agreed that no question was off limits and that we would focus on areas where we agreed and disagreed. Rabbi David began with a devar Torah, where he quoted the Baal Shem Tov, and we were off.

I'm not going to offer a word for word description of what happened, but just some general thoughts. There were more than 100 people who showed up. Just that fact alone says something. Rabbi David asked me what the perception of Reform Judaism was in my community and I said that many if not most Orthodox Jews see Reform Jews as being apathetic. This crowd, showed that, as with most generalizations, that perception is wrong. Every man, woman and child who attended was there to learn, listen and talk.

Of course, I was asked about patrilineal descent. I honestly explained what I understand the Orthodox position to be, trying to be both delicate and truthful. From the responses, I think I was successful.

I quoted the Kuzari, Kant and Kierkegaard. I shared a few borscht belt jokes and my favorite joke about religion. I shared my own struggles and questions. Rabbi David asked great questions and we talked about our mutual love for Torah, even as we understand it quite differently.

Perhaps the saddest moment was when I was asked if the next step could be a meeting like this in my community. I didn't sugarcoat it. I honestly stated that there was not an Orthodox shul in my community that would host such an event. My answered saddened me, because it is time to learn Torah with other Jews on terms that show mutual respect, even while disagreeing. I am troubled by the fact that we fight the battles of at least 50 years ago, instead of dealing with a very changed reality. It is time for rabbis much bigger and wiser than me to share their Torah, and meet Jews who are passionate, articulate and curious, which brings me to my final point.

I did not and can not speak for Orthodox Judaism. It goes without saying that I spoke for no one but myself. I shared my vision of Modern Orthodoxy, one which is open to being challenged while standing proudly for Torah observance and learning, as a way of engaging the Metzaveh and Nosein HaTorah. I don't know how successful I was in my goal, but I am happy and proud to have tried. It is my hope that, for myself and others, last night was just a beginning.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Does Modern Orthodoxy Have a Future?

In the Middle Ages two theoretical approaches to Jewish thought emerged; rational philosophy and mysticism. Although neither approach was completely new, they were “new” in the sense that they were formulated in a way that made them accessible to the average Jew (or at least, the average Jewish male). By the 14th century the two were vying for the minds and hearts of Jews across Europe. Many of the greatest and most well-known Rishonim could be found in one of the two camps. It was far from clear which approach, if any, would win the day.

Looking back from where we sit today, it's hard to imagine that the two approaches were ever on equal footing. In terms of popularity, mysticism seems to routed rational philosophy. The chassidic world, and large parts of the Sefardic and yeshivish communities follow approaches which lean heavily, if not entirely, on mystical thought. Meanwhile, books like the Moreh Nevuchim, Sefer HaIkarim, and Ohr HaShem are for the most part, absent from the yeshivah curriculum. Even Rambam's Yud Gimmel Ikkarim, survives today absent the philosophical ideas which lay behind their formulation. While some of the popularity of mystical thought can be explained by the major tragedies which occurred in our community over the past 600 years, as well as personalities like the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal HaTanya and Rav Chaim Volozhin, there seems to be something else at play. Mysticism seems to tap into some human need, in a way that rational philosophy does not. It invests halacha and tefilla with a level of significance that is not found in the rational approaches. Mysticism suggests that our actions matter in the most serious of ways. In communities where mysticism plays a significant role, there is a high level of commitment, and, often, passion.

What does this mean for those of us who are not moved by and/or can not accept the claims made by mysticism? Is there a way to create communities where Avodas HaShem is not only important, but is engaged with in a serious and passionate manner? I'm not so sure. Rabbi Norman Lamm once said that our communities should be passionately moderate and not moderately passionate. If this is indeed the goal, for the most part, we are failing. A rabbi I know once shared a story with me. He told over the story of Franz Rosenzweig in his shul. Rosenzweig, who became a serious Jewish thinker, had been ready to convert to Christianity. Shortly before his conversion, he attended a Kol Nidrei service in a Chassidic shtiebel. Rosenzweig was so moved by the experience that he decided not to to convert. The rabbi asked his congregation “If Rosenzweig had davened with us, would he have stayed Jewish”?

While, to some degree, I think the problem is worse for the Modern Orthodox communities in the diaspora, which often lose their most inspired members to aliyah, it is an issue in Israeli communities as well. A friend of mine, who lives in a community which is built near a well-respected Hesder yeshiva, bemoaned the fact that many of the teenagers of the community were less “into it” than their parents. I would also suggest that the draw of Carlebach, both in terms of music and davening, as well as other neo-Chassidic approaches suggest that the youth from moderate communities in Israel are looking for something “deeper”.

To be sure, truth is not a popularity contest, but it is time for those of us in the Modern Orthodox world to wake up and figure out what we can do to create more meaningful religious experiences for us and our children. If our approach is not able to better engage our hearts and souls, it will not matter how much it engages our minds.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A new Beginning? I've Been Published

For a while, people have told me that I am a good writer. In my self-effacing and not always so secure way, I dismissed the comments as the flattery of friends, and refused to believe them. Even when I had the makings of a good story for a book, things didn't work out. With things being challenging in other ways, it's a nice boost to get published, and even nicer that I'm getting paid for it. Particularly nice is that it's in the Forward. I've read the Forward for years, and my parents A”H both enjoyed reading it. I'm pretty sure they'd be proud. Who knows? Maybe this is the beginning of something positive.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

One Heart- Unity through Torah

So much has been written about Jewish unity. How do we get there? Perhaps if we examine a midrash more deeply, we might gain a few insights.

Thanks, in part, to Rashi, it is one of the most well known midrashim. As Bnei Yisrael get to Har Sinai, the pasuk says וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵֽרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֨אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּֽחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־ שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר – "And they travelled from Rephidim and they came to the Sinai Desert, and they camped in the desert, and they camped there, facing the mountain". Commenting on the fact that the second time it mentions Bnei Yisrael camping, it uses the term וַיִּֽחַן, which is singular, the midrash explains that this refers to their level of unity, כּאיש אחד בּלב אחד "Like one man, with one heart". Why does the midrash have to say the words "with one heart"? If they were like "one man", is it not obvious that it was like they had "one heart"?

Actually, it is not. In a mishna in Berachos the words בּכל לבבך are understood to mean that you should love God with both of your hearts, the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara. We have competing drives. We sometimes behave with duplicity. We are pulled in two very different directions. Ordinarily, the best we can hope for is to channel it all into the service of God. Somehow, by Har Sinai, our two hearts became one. How did that happen?

In Jewish thought, God is described as a יושב, one who stays put, and does not change (as an extension, only a king from the house of David may sit in the Beis HaMikdash). Angels are called עומדים, creatures who stand, who have only one leg (we imitate this each time we say the amidah). They do not change, but are, of course, less permanent than God. Man is a הולך one who moves. While we sometimes move in the right direction, often we do not. We are constantly moving, striving, changing. While this movement is necessary, it comes with a cost. We can be at odds with ourselves. Certainly, one who has an internal civil war, can not easily love another person. We often work against each other, seeing success as a zero sum game, where another's success comes at a cost to me. It is during the six days of the week during which we strive, that we often strive against one another. Shabbos gives us a chance to rest, to be at peace. When Bnei Yisrael camped at Har Sinai, they too came to rest. They were no longer going somewhere. They had arrived. They could camp and rest.

By camping around Har Sinai, they had a common focal point (Rav Tzadok explains the idea of tzaddikim in olam haba encircling the shecina as suggesting equal value before God). God and His Torah became the unifying factor for all of them. While each person had all sorts of physical, emotional and personal differences, before God, they were equal. While there were 12 shevatim, composed of millions of people, they became more than one nation. They became one person, with one common heart.

As we again receive the Torah, may we be mekabel it with love, and again join together with one heart. Chag Sameach.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Proceed with Care- Deconstructing Judaism

Someone once asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l the following question; If I stay up on Leil Shavuos to learn, I will be exhausted for the entire chag and it will prevent me from learning properly. Is it better for me to go to sleep as usual rather than stay awake?

How might you have answered the question? Perhaps, if you were into being totally rational and historical you could have said as follows. The 'custom” of staying awake on Leil Shavuos is only about 500 years old. None of the Rishonim practiced it. It's not found in the gemara. The story that lead to it, involving the Ari and Rav Yosef Karo is hard to understand and believe. Thus, if you will lose more learning than you will gain, go to sleep as usual. Rav Shlomo Zalman answered differently. He told the man that this is an important custom and that he should learn for part of the night before going to sleep. I'm not interested in analyzing his answer as much as I'm interested in thinking about what we can take away from it and why our initial answer was wrong, even while it is factually correct.

In the movie “Big Fish” we are told the story of Will Bloom, a son who is estranged from his father. For years, his father Edward has told stories, most of which are, at best, hard to believe, and are probably completely false. As his father lays dying, Will comes to visit him in the hospital. Here too, Edward tells more stories, none of which are any more believable than any of the others he has told. Will plays along, even going so far to finish off the story, as his father becomes to weak to finish. As he finishes the story, his father breathes his last breath. At Edward's funeral, Will meets a number of his father's friends. While he indeed learns that some of the stories were, at least exaggerations, he discovers that there was truth behind many of them, and that even the ones which were purely fictional, were not lies.

As I learned more Torah, I discovered that there is no obligation to kiss the mezzuzah, or a sefer that falls. I found out that Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai did not write the Zohar or die on Lag BaOmer. In short I cam to a more halachically valid and historically true approach to Judaism. What I discovered was that not only did this not make my observance more meaningful, it brought out the worst in me. I judged others for practicing a form of Judaism that was inferior to mine. I also discovered that the more I removed from Judaism, the less I was moved by Judaism. Then I came upon biblical criticism and modern scholarship and came to recognize that my “better” version of Judaism had detractors as well. Detractors who could also dissect it, and show how imperfect it is.

I am not suggesting ignorance, where we put our fingers in our ears, and close our eyes to not hear that which makes us uncomfortable. I am suggesting that we dissect, discard and demolish with extreme care. If we do not, we risk destroying the very thing we seek to save.