Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Teshuva for Turbulent Souls

I can’t imagine testing potential medicines and chemicals on myself, yet in the 19th century, it was not so rare for scientists to use themselves as their own guinea pigs. In one of the chapters in  “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, Bill Bryson tells the fascinating and often humorous stories about those who did so.

Of the philosophers, both general and Jewish, whose works I have read, I have seen two approaches. The first is what I would call clinical. Their discussions of various topics are logically arranged and scientific, or at least, as scientific as philosophy can get. The second group is made up of turbulent souls, to borrow a phrase from Stephen J. Dubner. They study philosophy, not as dispassionate analysts, but as if there very existence depends on it. They are not just trying to understand things. They are seeking to know God and themselves.

As Yom Kippur gets closer, I have been doing quite a bit of reading and studying. As I read some of Heschel’s “Man is Not Alone” on Rosh Hashana, I had to put it down. This was no rationalist discussion of proofs of God. Heschel’s words gave me the discomfort of standing in the presence of God, as opposed to merely thinking about Him. Rav Shagar’s “Shuvi Nafshi” is nothing if not penetrating, intimate and revealing. Coupled with the viewing of a documentary about Rav Shagar, I was left with the sad yearning to sit and study at the feet of this open and honest man, who left the world before his time.

What is teshuva and do I even aspire to understand, let alone to act on that understanding? As I force myself to remember to add the words “HaMelech HaKadosh” to the Amidah, I have not sufficiently looked for Him inside of it. Late at night, as I prepare for a shiur I will be delivering on teshuva, I am, alternatively challenged and pained by Rav Shagar’s words, and the need to pull back and distract myself by checking Facebook. Dare I discuss and try to explain teshuva, when it is only in my mind, and, I fear, likely to go no further?

I have (I am?) a turbulent soul. How do I cross from the clinical understanding of teshuva, the almost voyeuristic experience of seeing Rav Shagar’s exposed soul, to looking inside myself? I don’t know what scares me the most; what I might see, that I might fail, or that I might succeed. The door of this dark room is open before me, showing a glimpse of the light outside. Dare I exit, or will I, once again, merely wonder about the Source of the light?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Who Am I?- Becoming the people we wish to be

“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

-Jim Bouton

As I took up running to help lose 100 pounds, I wondered when I would actually be a “runner”. Was it running my first race? My first half-marathon? Beating a certain time? Eventually, I became a runner. I ran marathons, I had a blog about it, and spoke, read and wrote about it whenever I could. I ran six days a week, and then seven. I ran in the snow and rain, and I ran when I was sick and when I was fasting. I had become a runner. I find myself wondering whether that was a good thing.

Where is the line between merely doing something and being someone who does that thing? What does it mean to identify with an act so strongly that you are not sure where you end and it begins?

As with everyone else, I sometimes do things wrong. There are days when I don’t feel like davening with a minyan, or davening at all. There are times when I am inconsiderate and hurtful to the people I love the most. Who am I at those moments? Is there a moment when I cross the line from a person who davens poorly to becoming a bad davener? From sometimes acting like a jerk to being one? The Yamim Noraim in general, and tekiat shofar and teshuva in particular, seem to be about making this distinction. God, as it were, asks us to look inside and figure out who we really are, and to think about how we can prevent our actions to go from being a verb to being an adjective. The shofar is a primal cry from the inside, from where our deepest sense of being can be felt. Who am I on the inside, on the real inside that only God, and possibly myself see? This is followed by the time of confession and teshuva, when we are given a chance to examine whether our actions and attitudes are forming the kind of habits that will turn our behavior into almost permanent traits.
Teshuva becomes a challenge to the degree that we allow our misguided actions and attitudes become addictions. When, to paraphrase Jim Bouton, we stop holding them, and they grab hold of us. The gemara in masechet Sukkah speaks of the yetzer hara as being as thin and light as a single strand of hair and as massive and unmovable as a mountain. It starts out as the former, but, unchecked can become as permanent as the mightiest mountain. These Yamim Noraim, days of awe, are, in fact, quite awesome. They give us the opportunity to break away from habit, of both the physical and mental variety, even those that have become addictions, and to think about how we can behave in a way that will more permanently lead us to becoming who we truly want to be.

I hope to use the long hours that I will be in shul to look inside and think about who I wish to be. After a summer where I got away from running, I am slowly getting back out there. I hope to get back in shape, but I hope to not become a runner. There are so many more important things that I want to be.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Torah Tziva LANU Moshe- Torah as the means to bring the Jewish people together

Although Racheli Fraenkel’s new Rosh Hashana video and the Scottish election for independence, which is taking place today, seemingly have no connection, they have me thinking about peoplehood. Are we still one people? If so, based on what, and will that continue to be enough in the future?

In the video, Fraenkel speaks of the tremendous outpouring of unity and love that occurred after her son and two other yeshiva boys (ZTVKL) were kidnapped and murdered. She implores us to hold onto that feeling. Can we? Are we capable of showing unity without tragedy to connect us? While sorrow and pain can unite us, national mourning is, thankfully, too rare to serve as the glue to hold us together. Still, she is correct in asking us to remember the connection and to search for a way to keep it moving forward.

The Scottish independence movement also gives us a chance to think about what peoplehood means. The fact that a people might trade greater wealth and prosperity for full self-determination, reminds us that there are things more basic to our existence and happiness than money. Our Chachamim note this when they said that a person prefers a kav (measure of grain) that is his, more than 9 kabim given to him by (controlled by?) others. While, in some circles, nationalism has become a dirty word, in a world where individuality is forever being stressed, there is a strong desire to unite and connect with those around us, and discover what we share with others.

So where does that leave us? It has been said that we are a nation by virtue of the Torah. While there might be some truth in that, the pre-exilic books of Tanach seem to suggest that, even when the people are divorced from Torah, that a degree of national unity can exist. Additionally, in our day and many times in the past, Torah, what it means, and how it should be applied, has served to divide us. Even within religious communities, religious and theological terms, even when commonly used, seem to have very different meanings, meanings which often seem to divide and emphasize our differences, reinforcing a sense of loneliness. Israel and the communities outside of Israel seem in many ways to be moving in different directions, and friction between and within denominations show no signs of weakening. If Torah is to unite us, a different focus needs to be found.

I believe that the answer can be found within a phenomena that already exists, and is slowly gaining strength. The Torah can serve to unite us, if we stop insisting on our particular understanding of Torah to serve as the meeting point. The text of Torah, and not its particular application can be that which unites us if we will only allow it. Programs like Limmud outside of Israel, and secular and non-denominational batei midrash in Israel show that a new model of studying Torah is a real possibility. As leaders like MK Ruth Calderon continue to teach Torah in new and creative ways, and people like Rav Shmuel Pappenheim show that open dialogue, where we learn from each other with no strings attached, can take place, we are reminded of what can be.  

As we approach the Yamim Noraim, the high holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, holidays that are among the most observed in one form or another by the Jewish people, let us return to the Torah which was given on Yom Kippur, so that we might merit a good judgement, and unity based on celebration rather than tragedy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mazal Tov?- Thinking about our reaction to the recent brouhaha at Yeshivat Ma'ale Gilboa

Recently, Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa has been in the news after they wished, and then retracted, a “mazal tov”, to an alumni of the yeshiva, upon his engagement to another man. The yeshiva explained that the initial mazal tov had been a mistake, based on a misreading of the name of the man who was not from the yeshiva. I have no interest in examining the story and agreeing or disagreeing with the yeshiva’s actions. It is easy to pontificate from 6000 miles away, saying what I would have done. One of the Roshei Yeshiva, Rav David Bigman, has said that he will be addressing this on his own, and I look forward to hearing what he says. What I would like to do is to think aloud about the reaction to this story.

One thing that ought to be clear is that wishing someone a mazal tov has no halachic status. Simply put, it is the Hebrew equivalent to saying “Congratulations!”. As such, it should be recognized that any analysis of the propriety of saying “mazal tov” to a gay couple, be it from a yeshiva or from an individual is not a halachic issue. Wishing mazal tov to a gay couple should not be conflated with the halachic status of homosexual behavior, as it is separate issue. I am certain that we would all be okay wishing a mazal tov to somebody who is not observant upon their marriage, despite the realization that the couple will not be following the laws of taharas hamishpacha. I am trying to figure out why there should be a difference in the two cases.

One suggestion which I have heard from several people is that by wishing a mazal tov to a gay couple, we are validating or giving legitimacy to the marriage. I find this objection rather odd. What exactly is the concern? Do we really believe that there are gay couples who wish to marry who are refraining from doing so due to the fact that they think the Orthodox community is opposed to their actions, who will now do so after we say mazal tov? Does saying mazal tov to a non-observant couple legitimize not keeping hilchos taharas hamishpacha? Does it legitimize premarital sex? Other issurei kareis?

Others have suggested that a distinction needs to be made between what individuals do privately, versus what a yeshiva does publicly. Again, I wonder why this would be so. If there is value in being supportive, kind and understanding  to someone who is struggling with their homosexuality , or for that matter, someone who is accepting of their homosexuality, why should the yeshiva be different? I am not suggesting that every yeshiva must wish mazal tov in this case, but at the very least, why shouldn’t a yeshiva that wants to, do so? Is it better for the yeshiva to stay involved in a talmid’s life, or to give a message that we only value you when you do exactly what we wish? Which approach is more likely to lead to this couple wanting to live as halachically correctly as possible?

As a community, there are certain questions that we need to ask ourselves. Are we being as kind and sensitive as possible to all members of our community?  How do we act towards people who struggle differently from us? Are our feelings on matters like this based on ratzon HaShem, which includes kavod hberiyos, or just based on personal discomfort? While I recognize that there might be various responses to the questions I have asked, it is important that, at the very least, they be asked and dealt with an honest manner. I would hope that we are okay with struggling with complicated questions, rather than offering facile and simplistic answers.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Tree Grows in...- Generosity and kindness win the day

וַיָּבֹאוּ כָּל־הַחֲכָמִים הָעֹשִׂים אֵת כָּל־מְלֶאכֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ אִישׁ אִישׁ מִמְּלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה עֹשִׂים:  וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר מַרְבִּים הָעָם לְהָבִיא מִדֵּי הָעֲבֹדָה לַמְּלָאכָה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה יְהוָֹה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ: ו וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה וַיַּעֲבִירוּ קוֹל בַּמַּחֲנֶה לֵאמֹר אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אַל־יַעֲשׂוּ־עוֹד מְלָאכָה לִתְרוּמַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וַיִּכָּלֵא הָעָם מֵהָבִיא:   וְהַמְּלָאכָה הָיְתָה דַיָּם לְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתָהּ וְהוֹתֵר

With some trepidation, I posted yesterday about a “friends” dilemma. Over the past few summers, I have given shiurim on various topics, to a group of former (as if that ever exists) talmidim. Although it was on an inconsistent basis, it was serious and enjoyable learning. I never asked for, or would have taken payment for it. It was something they wanted, and something I wanted at least as much. A true labor of love.

Recently, I was contacted by one of the boys (one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met) about giving a weekly shiur. I was, of course, very excited. The only issue was travel costs. HaShem has given me so much, but sufficient parnassa is not one of those things. Simply put, the weekly commute is more than I can currently afford. I was not willing to ask the boys to pay. I had no desire to scare anyone off. While some suggested that I ask them to pay, or at least give them an opportunity to do so, I was unwilling to consider that. I was hoping for some sort of creative solution.

What happened instead was better than miraculous. It was chessedulous,  heartwarmingulous, and fantabulous. A number of people offered to sponsor the commute and shiur. Three of them were generous friends, okay, maybe four, unless of course Tzedaka Smith is a real person. Another was a former student, and current friend, of my wife. One was a wonderful young man (geez, did I just say that?) who I met under truly unique circumstances and kept up with all these years. A kind young man with whom I worked in one school said he would send over a check. Yet another two donations came from Facebook friends whom I have never met. Within a few hours, the shiur was sponsored for the year.

I would say I’m speechless, but I’m never speechless. I am incredibly moved, touched and appreciative. God willing, starting next Tuesday, I will have another opportunity to do one of my favorite things, teaching Torah. Thank you to all who helped make this possible.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

I Remember- My father's 9/11 experience

I wish my father had saved the shirt. It's what I would have done. I guess this is just one more way that we were so different. I am a hoarder. One who saves things to serve as a reminder. That is the origin of the word souvenir, French for “I remember”. It is why I can't throw out things that remind me of my parents ob”m. It's why my wife allows old furniture from their house to sit, unused, in our basement. I guess I understand why my father did not want to save the shirt, and remember what he experienced on 9/11. It was another part of his life that he was more than happy to leave behind, buried somewhere so deep, that even he could rarely access it.

As soon as I heard about the Twin Towers, I knew my father was there. Not in the building itself, but in the vicinity. That part of Manhattan was not only a place where, as a lawyer, he frequently worked. With its street vendors and hustle and bustle, it was one of his favorite places in the city. He was a block away when the first plane hit. Like a lot of people, he turned to run. Only, as a very overweight, two-pack-a-day smoker, running was a relative term. As the dark cloud which contained all sorts of unspeakable things, headed for him, he quickly lost his breath and became disoriented. Then, as if in a movie, a door opened, and a stranger pulled him inside. Probably for the only time in his life, my father entered the New York Stock Exchange. A number of workers had seen him struggling, brought him inside to catch his breath (did he, I wonder, paradoxically light up a cigarette?) and, seeing how dirty his shirt was, handed him a clean NYSE shirt to change into. After no doubt thanking them, he headed back out, making it to safety thanks to the help of other strangers along the way.

By the time I heard the story, the shirt was gone. As with so many traumatic parts of his life, he had no desire to hold onto it. So, like way too many episodes from his life, what that day was really like for him, is something I'm left wondering about. It wasn't just things he didn't like to hold onto. From time to time he would share bits and pieces from his childhood, little funny, or no-so-funny stories, but I was mostly left to hear the rest, third-hand from other relatives, or to fill it in with my imagination.

I suppose that's why I like to save things so much, and why I like to write. I want to remember. I want to tell. I want to know about the past. Sometimes, all that survives is a shirt. Other times, it's just memories and the imagination. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

We Must Do Better- Saying "NO" to a broken shidduch sytem

“I thought of my daughter” the owner of the Ravens said, by way of explanation for why his team cut Ray Rice, who knocked out his wife with a punch, while fighting in an elevator. Ignoring the question of why it took seeing the punch on video to think of his daughter, there is something to be said for thinking of a victim of a crime, as if it had had happened to you personally. In fact, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l praises Shimon and Levi for feeling Dinah’s pain as their own, even if they expressed it the wrong way.

It doesn’t take much for me to think of my daughters when I think of the current system for dating within the orthodox world. I have heard horror stories from friends and families about shadchanim who ask the most inane and absurd questions, mothers of marriage-eligible “boys” (a contradiction in terms?) who have absurdly high standards, and the pain of women who can literally go months without being able to get a date. To top it all off, these women are expected to have a resume, accompanied by a picture, references and personal information just to have a chance at getting a first date.

Making things even worse, these women have been educated to have a laundry list of features that the right “boy” must have, including mode of dress, career aspirations (or lack thereof), and particular type of yeshiva. While it is fine and good to anticipate the Yad HaShem in finding the right spouse, we are obligated to put in proper effort, and limiting the potential pool of eligible husbands does not help matters. No less a figure than Rav Pam zt”l, when asked whether yeshivish versus frum-hesder was “lechatchila-bedieved or chocolate-vanilla”, said it was the latter. It pains me to see women discover only after many years of frustration, that they are comfortable with a wider variety of guys than they thought.

Instead of parents, teachers and rabbeim saying “enough is enough”, we talk about the “shidduch crisis”, offer more money for shadchanim based on some fairly arbitrary criteria, and use numbers to explain the problem. Years ago, I sat at a wedding and heard a rebbe at a boys yeshiva say that Rav Herschel Schachter spoke of having shabbatons for college aged men and women. For those who thought mixing in such a manner (I mean, my God, what do we think this is? TU B’Av?!), he replied that it is pikuach nefesh. While that might, at first, sound like hyperbole, for those who are alone, it is anything but.

So what can be done? First, it is time that we ask our daughter’s teachers to stick to teaching and not tell our daughters how and who to date. We are derelict in our duty as parents, when we relegate that role to others. Second, young men and women need to be given the opportunity to meet in normal and natural ways, rather than through the shidduch system. Studies have shown that men consider women who are nice to be prettier than those who are not. The current dating system makes physical attraction the first thing that is learned about a woman, both through her resume (really?!?) and when they meet. Finally, I would love to see women of dating age get together and refuse to play the game. If enough women, including those who are wealthy and from the “right” families decided to opt out until other options were available, things might change very quickly.

I’ve tried, in writing these words, to control my rage and pain that I feel when I think about the current system, but as a father of three wonderful daughters, I am angry. As someone who has seen friends and relatives in real pain over being alone (not just unmarried, but unvalued by the communities in which they live), I can no longer remain quiet. Think of your sisters and daughters and ask yourself if this is what you want for them. The frum community can and must do better.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Better Paradigm for the Orthodox Community- A response to Eliyahu Fink

Before we can explain why people leave Orthodoxy, as Eliyahu Fink has attempted to do on his blog, I think we need to start off with a different series of questions.

  • Why should we care if people leave Orthodoxy?
  • What is the goal of Orthodoxy?

Although logic might dictate that the two questions be dealt with in the opposite order, due to Eliyahu’s post, I will go in the opposite order.

If Orthodoxy is merely a club or social group of some kind, those of us who are members will want people to stay for a number of possible reasons. Defections will make our social pool smaller, and possibly cause some dissonance as we wonder why people are abandoning what we find enjoyable and meaningful. If that is the main reason for concern, I am not sure why a rational person would care if people left Orthodoxy. Although we might have an emotional preference for people to like what we like and do what we do, most of us recognize that personal taste is subjective. I have yet to see a campaign to get people to like the same sports team or flavor of ice cream.

If we examine what the goal of Orthodoxy is, the first question can be answered differently. While Eliyahu comes to these questions from the world of kiruv professional (formerly) and the rabbinate, I will answer these questions as a Jewish educator.

Ultimately, Orthodoxy is about a connection with God, holiness, truth and meaning. Although different subsections of our community will approach this goal differently, the overall goal is fairly clear. If we are convinced that God speaks to us through Torah and that we are commanded to do certain things, our concern becomes religious, rather than social. Thus, while we will acknowledge that people might come to observe for all sorts of non-religious or theological reasons, the goal is ultimately theological and not social. As such, I would suggest that the kiruv/advertising approach, where everyone is beautiful, wealthy and young, is the wrong approach. Instead, we should take an educational approach. Will this lead to fewer people becoming observant? Quite possibly, but that’s not a bad thing. In sales, one can take the approach of caveat emptor, but I would hope that we are not trying to make a sale. If our goal is to get people to honestly connect with God, we need to stop doing kiruv and start educating.

Education, as opposed to kiruv, seeks to provide knowledge and understanding. There are no hooks, no promises, and thus, fewer defections. When defections occur, it is not because we have not made religion fun enough, but rather because a different belief system has won out.

There has been a recent fascinating phenomena in the charedi community. Many, have chosen , on a social and communal level, to stay within the community, despite mentally having checked out. In some extreme cases, the disconnect between the social appearance and private behavior is quitejarring. If the goal of the community is to be able to continue to have a large team, this phenomena need not concern us. If the goal of the community is to connect to God through Torah and the mitzvos, this phenomena is quite disconcerting.

It is time for the Orthodox community to focus more on the second of my two questions. To the degree that we do so, we will recognize that the goal is not to keep people living a certain lifestyle, but to instead truthfully engage with God through his Torah. We should, of course, put our best foot forward, but never lose sight of the true goal.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Holding on to the Zohar- Kabbalah for Moderns (part III)

If we are going to talk about what Kabbalah offers to the Modern Orthodox community, we are going to have to get past the elephant in the room. If we are to reject the traditional claim that the Zohar was written by Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and instead contend that it was written, or at least, compiled in the 13th century, what is its value as Torah?

Now, to be sure, the Zohar is not the only kabbalistic text, but it is one of the most often quoted kabbalistic texts, and thus, it is imperative to figure out if and how we can ascribe it value as Torah, regardless of when it was written or compiled.

A number of years ago, a chavrusa of mine shared a conversation he had with his Rosh Yeshiva on the subject. He asked the rosh yeshiva how we could treat the Zohar as a holy text despite scholarly claims that contradicted the “frum” understanding that it was compiled by the Rashbi. The rosh yeshiva was what I would term, for lack of a better phrase, open-minded charedi. His answer was, that the Zohar had been accepted by the Jewish people. At the time when I heard about this answer, I was very much dissatisfied, however I have come to think that there was more to his answer than I understood. I can not say for certain what the rosh yeshiva meant, as he is no longer alive, but within his words, there is perhaps the beginning of an answer to our question.

Although we sometimes talk of midrashim as if they are monolithic and exclusively a product of the talmudic time period, it is known that this is not the case. Some midrashim that have entered the midrashic “canon” were compiled as late as the early Middle Ages, with many others that only date back to the time of the Geonim. Nonetheless, we treat them as Torah, and often ignore the time period in which they were written. A possible justification for this approach can be found in the writings of Rav Kook zt”l. Rav Kook speaks of revelation occurring in two different ways. One is through direct revelation from God to man. The other is through the Jewish people. That is to say, that if a text or belief becomes accepted by the Jewish people, it occurs only due to Divine providence. In other words, once a book is treated as Torah, and is accepted as Torah, it in fact becomes Torah. I would suggest that we could thus treat the Zohar as Torah regardless of when it was compiled and by whom.

Of course, there is one significant caveat which must be added. Not all Torah is equal. A claim made by a tanna, such as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, has greater stature than that of a rishon. Thus, even as we accept the ideas of the Zohar as Torah, we can not ascribe to it the same stature as it previously enjoyed, even if in fact, as current scholarship suggests, some of the Zohar is in fact from time-period of the tannaim. Practically, this would mean that when the Zohar contradicts something found in the gemara, it would not have the halachic or theological weight to  be on equal terms. Thus, the value of the Zohar for those who take this approach will be lessened on a practical and theoretical level.

To take this idea one step further, I would suggest that the reading of, and approach to the Zohar, in particular, and Kabbalah in general, that has the most to offer the Modern Orthodox community is the the chassidic approach. Rather than focus on theurgical claims about God, and how the world functions, the chassidic approach primarily focuses on, and emphasizes, the psychological and personal meaning that can be found in kabbalah. This was the approach that Rav Kook took, and for those of us who value and study his Torah, it is an approach that can be of value, in that it offers the insightful language and content of the Zohar, without the more complex and controversial claims about God. I believe that for many Modern-Orthodox thinkers, who continue to creatively make use of the Zohar, this is the approach they take.