Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Project 929 America- Bringing American Jews together through Jewish literacy

It’s a fairly familiar trope. How many  American Jews know the name of Jesus’ mother and how many know Moshe’s mother's name? Of course, to be fair, the two women do not have equally significant roles in the respective religions, but there is still an important point being made here. Far too many American Jews are ignorant of Tanach, and this includes the Orthodox community. How many American Jews know the names of the books of Trei Asar, let alone have studied any of them? How many people in our communities are familiar with the book of Melachim?  It is for that reason that I would like to make an immodest proposal.

Project 929 was recently started in Israel. The project, which began at the home of Israel’s president, is based on the idea that all Israeli Jews should study the 929 chapters of Tanach, by studying one chapter each day. With an attractive website, and articles from all segments of the Jewish-Israeli population, it is off to a very promising start. Even as some features of the program have attracted some controversy (click here if you can read modern Hebrew), there is still a lot of excitement about the project.

It is time for a similar program to be started in America. It is past the time for "The people of the book" to study the book. While most American Jews are not fluent enough in Hebrew to read Tanach in its original language, there are a number of excellent translations available (of course, I can not avoid noting the irony of making this suggestion one day after the date that the rabbis say the Torah was translated into Greek). As with the Israeli edition, there could be articles contributed by scholars and laymen on the various chapters. Imagine an article by Leon Wieseltier about the sale of Joseph by the brothers, or the chance for the average American Jew to be exposed to Rav Soloveitchik’s Adam I and II. Also similar to the Israeli program, there would be articles shared  from across the Jewish spectrum of all the denominations, as well as secular Jews. Not only would such a program help generate American Jews who are more Jewishly literate, but it would also be a project which could lead to much unity, as Jews from all walks of life would be studying the same chapter together. Imagine the discussion groups that could be started that could be open to all Jews regardless of affiliation. Consider the thoughtful discussions and debates that might occur between Jews who until now lacked a common religious language.

I don’t know the cost of the Israeli program, or how much it would cost to start Project 929 America, but whatever the cost, there are things that are important enough that money should not be an obstacle. Truly, this project would be priceless.

Partners in Crime?- Why did things turn out differently for Shimon and Levi? (Audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we examine possible reasons why the tribe of Levi merited to be the tribe selected for divine service, whereas the tribe of Shimon did not. We suggest that despite the fact that Shimon and Levi were brothers who seemed to be “partners in crime”, that they did not play an equal role in the killing of the men of Shechem or the selling of Yosef.

It can also be listened to on YouTube by clicking here

(Running time- 52 minutes)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Why Did Yosef Wait to Reunite with Yaakov? (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur (part 1 , part 2 ) we discuss the question of why Yosef, once he became Viceroy in Egypt, did not immediately reunite with his father. We discuss three possible approaches, one based on traditional commentaries and two based on modern approaches.

To hear it through Youtube, click here.

(Running Time: 1 hour)

Due to technical difficulties, the shiur was uploaded in two parts. The Youtube video has part 1 added on the end.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Looking Back- Some thoughts on the first year of this blog

This year, I won’t be posting my Facebook year-in-review. It’s not that I don’t like the pictures they chose. On the contrary, I was happy to see them. It’s just that I feel like they give off a one-sided impression of my year. Yes, there were some truly unforgettable moments, but there were a lot that I’d just as soon forget. Instead, with my blog having recently reached its first blogaversary, I thought I’d share some thoughts on what I’ve learned from it.

By design, my blog focuses both on the personal as well as Jewish content. If I had to pick the common denominator between those two, I would say that I am looking to be honest and thought-provoking, while giving voice to some challenging issues that might resonate with others. For the most part, I feel that I’ve hit the mark, and have been gratified by the response. I’ve met many new people virtually, and some have blossomed into real-life friendships. It’s hard to imagine that I have some friends who I did not know before I started writing.

On the other hand, I’ve made some mistakes with what I’ve written. There were a few posts for which I wish I’d paused a bit before hitting the publish button. However, I have chosen to not delete any posts as I think it’s important to live with the effect of one’s words once they’ve been put out there. I’ve received some good feedback and some helpful mussar from friends and strangers alike.

At times, I’ve struggled to find the line between open and honest, as opposed to being confessional and sharing what should be private. I try and remind myself that not everything that is thought should be said, and not everything that is said should be put in writing. My putting myself out there, continues to be both a strength and weakness.

I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to share my Torah in a more public forum. Some of my insecurity has dissipated after receiving some really positive feedback from talmidei chachamim and scholars. It is good to be reminded that I shouldn’t be afraid to be creative in Torah, fearing that my ideas are not worth sharing.

Writing about Jewish education has been both gratifying and frustrating. I’ve received a lot of thanks for discussing some of the problems in the field, and appreciation from those in the field of Jewish education. At the same time, I’ve wondered if my openness about what I’ve seen and what I think, has contributed in any way to my being unable to get a job in chinuch. While I know that I’ve gotten some interviews because of what I’ve written, I have no way of knowing if it has cost me any interviews.

I’ve also shared some of my audio shiurim and tried my hand at poetry. As for the latter, while I’m happy to have moved on from AA-BB poetry, I don’t think I’ll be a poet laureate any time soon. Still, I appreciate the feedback and encouragement I’ve received, particularly from those who are more talented.

Finally, I’d love to pretend that I write just for me and don’t care how many people read what I write, but it would be a lie. Writing has been described as turning blood into ink. Thank you for reading, responding and pushing back on what I wrote. While this year has had some great highs and extreme lows, many of you have helped make the former even more enjoyable, and the latter more bearable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Succot in Kisleiv- Connecting Chanukah and Succot (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we discuss the connection between Chanukah and Succot. Despite the fact that these holidays seem to have little in common, by comparing the two, we learn something significant about the message of Chanukah.

Click here to listen to the shiur on YouTube.

(Running time- 44 minutes)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Refusing to Join the Exodus- Why parents and schools should stay away

There are, according to the gemara, certain mistakes that are so serious, that one who makes them, can be fired without warning. One of those on the list is a teacher of Torah, who teaches something incorrectly. In explaining the rationale, Rashi says that once a mistake enters the students mind, it can not be removed. I would like to apply this idea to movies which purport to tell over biblical stories, such as Exodus: Gods and Kings, which recently started showing in theaters.

Exodus tells the story of the Jews slavery in, and subsequent exodus from Egypt. Although it is loosely based on the biblical text, many liberties are taken in order to turn it into a box-office success. While the lack of authenticity in telling over the story is problematic, I would suggest that even a movie where the director would attempt to follow the text is problematic.

I remember when the animated movie The Prince of Egypt was released in theaters. There was a good deal of excitement in the Jewish community as the movie had been made in consultation with rabbis. There was even a haggadah that was to be made connected to the film, in conjunction with a major orthodox Jewish organization. The principal of the elementary school where I was teaching at the time took the entire school to see the movie. While there were certain parts of the movie that were thought provoking, I was troubled by the lack of accuracy. In particular, I remember how Aharon was portrayed as a goofy and immature big brother. That was far from the only problem I had with the film.

When we study Torah with children, we are sharing ideas which will stay with them forever. One of the great things about studying from a text is that we allow the student to conceptualize things in their minds. In this particular case, a picture is not worth a thousand words. Even if we make clear to young viewers that there are differences between the text and the movie, the images that they see and the ideas that they hear are not forgotten. While it is reasonable to teach children that biblical personalities were human, and thus, imperfect, allowing them to view a Hollywood rendition of Torah stories, can lead to children seeing these righteous individuals as petty, cruel and backwards.

I have no doubt that Exodus will be a box-office hit. A lot of money has been put into it, and the controversy it has generated will not hurt and might just help. I would humbly suggest that we stay away. There are some mistakes which can not be corrected.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Finding the Chanukah story in Tanach, Gemara and Jewish History (Audio Shiur)

In this weeks shiur, we look at the question of why the initial emphasis on the Chanukah story focuses on the military victory while the later sources focus on the miracle of the oil. This is bookended by an idea based on Rav Kook about the menorah and focusing our studies towards God.

The shiur can also be viewed on Youtube by clicking here.

(Running time 53 Minutes)

Off-the-derech or Off-A-derech? Learning to love our children more than our reputation

This past summer, I had the opportunity to spent some time in a yeshiva in Israel for boys who were, or had been “OTD”. While it didn’t surprise me, I was pained by the fact that the goal of the yeshiva seemed to be to put the boys back on the very same derech that the boys had rejected, having felt alienated by the system.

There are many reasons for the phenomena of children who are raised in frum homes leaving their community and much of Jewish observance behind. I won’t pretend that the intensive gemara-only educational system, with its many hours a day spent sitting in yeshiva, is the only reason boys leave observance, but in my estimation it is a significant one. Whether it is learning issues, intellectual curiosity, an inability to sit still for so many hours on end, or some combination of the above, many boys struggle within the yeshiva system. While some manage to stay within the system, many are so bothered by the system that they leave it, and the frum world, behind.

Sadly, the response to helping these boys (or is it “saving” these boys?) is to have yeshivas set up that are ultimately designed to get them back in the system, complete with the “correct” mode of dress, and an approach to Torah learning that mostly ignores the fact that Torah includes much more than just gemara. While for some boys this seems to be effective, I have met many boys who have no interest in going back to the approach that they rejected.

So the question becomes are these boys off-the-derech or simply off-A-derech? To put it differently, do parents want to help their children find an approach to yiddishkeit that works for them, or only to get their children back into their own yeshivish community? I have seen boys for whom the yeshivish system did not work, find a home in the Modern-Orthodox or chassidish world. They have embraced shemiras hamitzvos and found a derech that works for them, but it often seems to me that their parents and mechanchim don’t see this as enough.

Imagine what might happen if boys with questions were exposed to the worldview of Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Nachman. If they were allowed to learn the Moreh Nevuchim and serious Tanach. Might not some of these boys take to these derachim? While for me, that would seem to be a success, for many within the yeshivish community it seems to be, at best, a bidieved. At the end of the day I sometimes wonder whether parents are more worried about their own reputation more than their children’s well-being. Maybe it’s not the boys who are OTD.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Refuge of the Imaginative- Some thoughts on my approach to study and thought

There are two questions that cause me discomfort when I hear them (well, three actually, but hopefully the third is only temporary). The first is when I am asked where I learned in yeshiva, and the second, where I studied in college. When I hear the former, I fear that my answer will show me to be a pretender in the world of Torah study, while the latter question will expose my lack of qualification to be seriously dealing with the academic subjects which fascinate me.

I came to serious Torah learning late, even later than my Modern-Orthodox peers who “flipped” in Israel after high school. I blew off most of my year in yeshiva, and barely treaded water in learning in the subsequent years. It was only after I had married, spent two years in chinuch, and been accepted in an Israeli kollel, that I finally started to learn seriously. Even then, I made a lot of progress on my own and with chavrusas, and never had a real “rebbe” or developed a single derech halimmud.

On the secular side, I also came to my interests in academic bible study and philosophy way too late to benefit from any formal study. Though I’ve made some progress through reading and relationships with rabbis, professors and knowledgeable friends, I’m still essentially an advanced-beginner in these fields.

It is only recently that I have begun to see these weaknesses as partial strengths. Though I sometimes wish that I had learned the Brisker derech of learning, and often wish that I had a PHD or two (or three…), my lack of a particular system has enabled me to develop in a way that feels more organic and true to myself. Is it odd to like Rav Tzadok and William James? Strange that I read Sarna and study the Heamek Davar and learn the Moreh and the Nesivos Shalom? Perhaps, but somewhere in that mix of frum and “heretical” and academic and rational and mystical and existential, is not only where I find myself, but also, where I have found myself. I comfort myself by thinking of quotes like that of Oscar Wilde, that “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative”. Somehow in this stew of the religious and secular, intellectual and intuitive, I have found my voice.

This is not to deny that I sometimes (ok, often) find myself thinking of the “what ifs” and dreaming of somehow going back to school to study once again, but here I am, and it is in the here and the now that I must live, think, write and teach. When I am asked those questions that make me uneasy, I am forced (or choose, perhaps) to focus on my weaknesses, but when I am more at ease, I recognize that through the very same experiences which have led to these weaknesses, I have managed to find strengths, and more importantly, myself.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Parshat Vayishlach “Eisav Soneih Et Yaakov”- Always and Forever? (Audio Shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we discuss the idea that Yaakov and Eisav’s relationship not only is one of brothers, but also represents the relationship between the Jewish and Christian community. By looking at how their relationship has been seen from talmudic times to the present, we see various ways of looking at the relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities based on a reading of the Yaakov-Eisav narrative.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Running time: 51 minutes