Thursday, December 17, 2015

Guidance for the Perplexed? - Does the Orthodox community offer help to those who are struggling with religious beliefs?

What is Orthodox Judaism?

If it is a sociological group, a club of sorts, then we can make any membership rules we want. Want to join? Believe what we do, think as we do, or you are not welcome. If however we use the term Orthodox Judaism to describe a (the? the best? the only? -as some might say) way of being Torah observant, than what is our responsibility towards those who want to be part of that world, but struggle to accept or believe some some aspects of our belief system?

In a recent article, Rabbi Francis Nataf wrote about the things that he admires about Open-Orthodoxy. Whatever one thinks of his article, he got me thinking about one particular thing that I admire about the OO world. Many of the detractors of the OO world have suggested, basing themselves on the Rambam and others, that certain theological statements made by OO rabbis are out of the pale. There are, they insist, certain things that Orthodox Jews must believe. While the detractors might be correct, even if we haggle over the particulars, there is one thing that they almost never seem to do; offer meaningful answers to people who are struggling to accept certain Orthodox beliefs. “You are out, while we are in” they say, seeming to not care about (or is it not knowing how to answer?) the questions of those who are struggling.

What do we do with our religious struggles and doubts? What happens when, despite our best efforts to accept established doctrine, we are unable to do so? Can one be a believer while simultaneously accepting some ideas that conflict with traditional theology? These are tough questions to answer, and those of us who have gone through periods of religious struggle, not only search for answers, but also must think about which ideas that might seem true, can also be expressed publicly.

Those within the OO world take those who are struggling with religious doubts, as well as their questions, seriously. They recognize that various aspects of the modern world make it difficult to accept claims that seemed obvious in earlier times. Whatever one thinks of their answers, it’s hard to not admire the sense of עמו אנכי בצרה, I am with you in the pain of your struggles, that comes from the OO rabbis. While I am sure that those who oppose them care about their fellow Jews, their lack of putting forth other answers is, at the very least, curious.

At the same time, I wonder whether attempts to publicly wrestle with these questions can be productive. Almost every time an attempt was made by an Orthodox thinker to spell out some sort of theology or approach that might make more sense to the modern perplexed Jew, the result led to its writer being “expelled” from the orthodox community. Whether it was Louis Jacobs or Tamar Ross and Torah MiSinai, or Eliezer Berkovits, and his approach to halacha, to name just a few examples, their approach to various aspects of Torah were found to be unacceptable by members of the Orthodox world.  Courageous answers which push at the edges of traditional belief, even if ever so slightly, arouse tremendous defensiveness and pushback.

I believe that the Rambam in his introduction to his Moreh Nevuchim warns us about the dangers of espousing beliefs that will be difficult for the community to accept. There he says that his work will contain seeming contradictions, and that he will not help resolve them. He further says that he leaves it to the intelligent reader to figure out what he truly intends. The Rambam seemed to believe that some of his views needed to be kept secret in order to avoid communal reproach.

So where does that leave the Jew is struggling to believe? Perhaps, as I discovered when I myself was struggling, the questioner has to seek out learned and scholarly individuals who are willing to privately suggest that there are more nuanced approaches to Jewish theology than the commonly accepted ones. There are great thinkers, including some from the charedi world, who while outwardly professing to believe that which their community thinks is necessary, privately are much more broad than their congregants, followers, or students might realize. While it might be unfortunate that these discussions can not take place more publicly, those who are questioning should not despair, and realize that they need not go it alone.

"What is Orthodox Judaism? If it is a sociological group, a club of sorts, then we can make any membership rules we...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Some Thoughts on Tachanun, Tehillim, and Tefillah

I have to admit that until recently, I was one of those people who was happy when I got to skip Tachanun. Whether it was a newly married man in shul, an Erev Rosh Chodesh, or even, in a shtiebel, when it was the Yahrtzeit of some chassidic rebbe, I was far from disappointed when I got to avoid saying Tachanun. Recently that has changed (well at least partially, as the “Long Tachanun” is still a work in progress).

As I have been dealing with some challenges in my life, the beginning of Tachanun which is basically the 6th perek of Tehillim, has been one of the most important parts of davening for me. As I read the words of the Psalmist, as he cries out to God to answer his prayers, I feel a sense of relief as I find words that express so strongly what I am feeling, and struggling to express. During the past two weeks, my connection to these words has become even stronger.

Several weeks ago, I began studying Rav Elchanan Samet’s Iyunim B’Mizmorei Tehillim (which is based on his shiurim on the VBM, which have been translated into English). Rav Samet, who teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion, explores a number of perakim from Sefer Tehillim, and analyzes them, not only with the eye of a rabbi reading a holy text, but also as a scholar with a deep and profound understanding of literature and poetry. His chapter explaining the 6th perek of Tehillim gave me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the psalm, as, for the first time, I understood the structure of the perek, and the message that each section contained. Now, as I say these words twice each day, I feel an even greater connection with the message.

All of this has me thinking not only about tefillah in general, but specifically about Tehillim. I have never understood why Tehillim is recited, almost like a magical incantation, when someone is sick. Additionally, never having formally studied Sefer Tehillim, I never connected with its ideas and messages. As I think about this, I feel frustrated how the study of what is not only a sefer from Tanach, but also a work whose words make up so many parts of the siddur, is not taught in most schools. How can we hope to have any kavanah as we pray, if we don’t understand what we are saying? When I say understand, I don’t only mean the meaning of the words. Tehillim is poetry rather than prose. What meaning can it have for us without, at least, a basic understanding of poetry?
I know that I have a lot of work ahead of me. So far, I have not worked on any other section of Tehillim that is part of tefillah. Still, I am excited for what lays ahead. If I have come to identify so strongly with a part of davening which I always hoped to avoid, I am hopeful that more effort will lead to an appreciation of other sections as well. If what I have written speaks to you, I would encourage you to join me in studying Sefer Tehillim, Rabbi Samet’s sefer, and other parts of tefillah.


"I have to admit that until recently, I was one of those people who was happy when I got to skip Tachanun. Whether it...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Unhealthy Obsession- Gil Student's RCA Fiasco

I hesitate to write this, and it is with a sense of regret that I do so. Rabbi Gil Student is a talmid chacham and someone who has helped spread Torah, both through Torah Musings, as well as through articles he has written, and books which he helped publish. I have personally gained a lot from many of his writings. He is a man of integrity and yiras shamayim. Still, in what I can only describe as his obsession with pushing Open Orthodoxy out of the door of Orthodoxy, he has crossed the line of propriety and judgment.

Nearly two years ago, I reached out to Student in the hope that, as someone who was a moderate thinker in the Right-Wing Modern Orthodox camp, he could help try and bridge the chasm that was growing between the MO and OO worlds. He made it clear that not only was he not interested in closing the gap, but that he wanted to do the opposite, and see that the OO world would be clearly seen as being outside of  the world of Orthodoxy. As disappointed as I was, I saw his decision as regrettable, but not severe enough to change my view of him as a moderate thinker who ought to be speaking for his community.

Recently, as Rabbi Avraham Gordimer became the self-appointed, and seemingly single-minded, critic of all things OO, Student appeared more temperate and balanced, and to my mind was not worthy of strong criticism. However, as the one who brought the ill-fated RCA Declaration on female rabbis to a vote, he seems to have crossed the line into obsession and lack of judgement, and thereby joined the ranks of Gordimer and others. Even for those who are opposed to women’s ordination, or to the approach to women’s ordination taken by the OO world (as is true about myself for reasons that I will not elaborate upon here), the timing of the proposal was clearly ill-conceived, and the lack of anticipation of a negative reaction was shocking. As Yoel Finkelman convincingly and astutely noted, the proposal had the very opposite effect that Student and those who share his opposition could have hoped for. Not only did it galvanize those who support women’s ordination, and bring new supporters into their ranks, but it also made those who oppose it seem clumsy, sexist, and biased.

More problematic is the fact that Student’s connection to the RCA is questionable. As someone who has private semicha, he would not be entitled to membership  in the RCA, if not for a recent rule change. Additionally, as opposed to the many members who are shul rabbis, and thus have a mandate to speak for their community (many of whom opposed Student’s proposal), Student is not a practicing rabbi, and has no constituents to whom he must answer. While he does consult with several rabbis about what he posts on Torah Musings, one of those with whom he consulted, Micha Berger, a noted talmid chahcham and thinker, was removed from his position, apparently for pushing back too much on Student’s zealotry. Furthermore, while he enjoys and makes use of the power that comes with membership in the RCA, he seems to speak with a degree of dishonesty when he says that women do not need semicha, as it does not give one more power.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that Student not only does not regret his actions, but continues to believe that he was correct in forcing the RCA vote. While he might justify his actions as he has in the past by saying that he consulted with a posek on this issue, choosing a posek who is not American, does not understand the facts on the ground here, and is not always so sociologically astute again suggests that Student has lost the ability to be a moderate spokesman on this, and, perhaps other issues.

Watching the fiasco that he started and the damage that it brought about, I can’t help but think of Ahab the obsessive captain in Melville’s Moby Dick, whose inability to back off from his goal, proved so costly to his crew and ultimately himself. A chacham, we are told in Pirkei Avos is one who can anticipate the results of his actions. When a talmid chacham loses this ability, it is either time for him to look more critically at his actions, or for those who trusted him to look for a more temperate, honest and responsible voice.


"I hesitate to write this, and it is with a sense of regret that I do so. Rabbi Gil Student is a talmid chacham and...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thursday, October 29, 2015

YU's Next President- who gets a say?

While the selection for the next president of the United States is on many people’s minds, there is an additional presidency that many in the Jewish community have been discussing. With the recent announcement by Richard Joel that he will not continue as president of Yeshiva University, once his current contract ends, the Jewish world is abuzz with suggestions and speculation of who will fill this important role. What hasn’t been discussed is the process that will be used to find the right candidate. While one writer suggested the criteria through which the new president should be chosen (albeit with such specificity that all but one or two people in the world  have been eliminated from the discussion), he gives no reason why he should be the arbiter of this decision.

I strongly believe that the future of YU matters for the American Jewish community in general, and specifically for the future of Modern Orthodoxy. If I am correct, the decision of how to choose the next president and who will do the choosing, is too important to be done behind closed doors. While it is obviously not possible for the whole process to be open, the process leading up to the search needs to be public.

I strongly believe that a committee should be put together consisting of a broad swath of the different constituencies in the Modern Orthodox world; men and women, Jewish professionals, rabbis and laymen, YU graduates and even students, should be chosen to decide which qualities and qualifications the next president should have. Additionally, at least some of these same type of people should be on the search committee once an open process has led to a public discussion of what YU should be as it moves into the future. A secret and closed process made by the Board of Trustees and/or unpublicized members risks too much.

In essence, I am arguing that the future of YU, much of which will be shaped by its next president, will not just affect future students, it will affect all of us who identify so strongly with Modern Orthodoxy. On some level, YU belongs to all of us, and as the flagship of Centrist orthodoxy, is too important to fail. With the economic situation of the school in peril, and with many possible paths that YU might take, our voices need to be heard and seriously considered. Anything less than this risks too much.


"I strongly believe that the future of YU matters for the American Jewish community in general, and specifically for the...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Remembering What Matters- Why does Succot follow Yom Kippur?

Although it’s to be expected, the first mindless mitzvah I do after Yom Kippur always leaves me feeling very disappointed. Having spent weeks building up to Yom Kippur, with its conclusion where each word of  Neilah is said with passion, care and intent, the inevitable descent always seems to happen so quickly. What has happened to the commitments we made while doing teshuva? Is there anything that can be done to help us internalize the gains we’ve made on Yom Kippur? How do we avoid simply going back to the life we lived before?

According to the Torah (Vayikrah 23:43) the mitzvah of Succot is to help us recall that God caused us to dwell in Succot when we left Egypt. Famously, the Tur asks why we recall something connected to the exodus from Egypt in Tishrei, rather than in Nissan when it occurred. While the Tur suggests one well-known reason, I’d like to suggest another one.

If asked to group Succot with other holidays, we might suggest Pesach and Shavuot, as they, along with Succot, make up the Shalosh Regalim. The Vilna Gaon suggests another grouping, based on proximity on the calendar. It is hard to imagine that it is simply by chance that Succot falls out right after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Surely there must be a connection, but what might it be?

In both the gemara, as well as in the Rambam, an emphasis is made on the idea that we are supposed to leave our homes, described as a “dirat keva” (permanent dwelling), and live in a sukkah, which is called a “dirat arai” (temporary dwelling). For seven days, or eight for those outside of Israel, we leave the comfort of our comfortable homes and live in a flimsy hut. There must be a message in making this change so soon after the Yamim Noraim. In fact, the Rema, Rav Moshe Isserles, suggests that one should start building his sukkah right after the conclusion of Yom Kippur, leading one to conclude that two holidays are connected.

On Yom Kippur, we emphasize our spiritual side to the exclusion of our physical reality. We avoid common physical pleasures, acting for one day, as if we are angels. We search deep inside and discover spiritual strengths we might not have known we possess. We set new goals, and make the decision to be more than we’ve been. Still, this purely spiritual state is ephemeral. As physical beings it must be so.

Despite the inevitable return to ordinary human life, the mitzvah of sukkah offers us something to take with us. Do not forget, it calls to us, that there are two sides to you. One is permanent and eternal, and one is temporary. We enter the month of Elul with things having gotten out of balance. We have taken the side of ourselves that we have on loan for a relatively short amount of time, and made it the focus of our lives. As we experience the Yamim Noraim, we get back in touch with the spiritual aspects of our existence.  The Sukkah calls out to us, sounding like Shlomo Hamelech in Kohelet. Life is not about accruing wealth. No material pleasures last forever. Remember, calls the Sukkah, which part of your existence is permanent and which is temporary. Return to life, but do not return to normal. Remember what truly matters. Remember who you are and who you wish to be.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Speechless Before the Judge- Some thoughts on teshuva

I was lucky. Being the one giving the shiur, I got to choose the subject. I picked a topic that I could speak about with confidence. I chose the topic that doesn’t scare me, the one that doesn’t keep me from sleeping comfortably. I stayed away from the topic where I would have sounded less rabbinic, the one where I can hardly serve as an example.

There is a story that is told about a non-observant professor who had a conversation with the saintly Rav Aryeh Levine. The professor suggested that those who are religious are lucky, as they can do teshuva, as they have the religious texts which show them how to do so. The rabbi responded that for that very reason, it is difficult to do teshuva. I think I understand the story. I’ve opened the sefarim, read the words, and tried to apply them. Still, I am not sure I have done teshuva, at least not in the way I want to. No, the way that I need to.

So I chose to speak about teshuva, and how it relates to God. I spoke about moving from an approach of fear, to one of joy. Of seeing teshuva not as a way to avoid punishment, but as a way to become the person we wish to be, and the person we were created to be. I spoke about this because I could. It’s a message I’ve mostly eternalized in my own life. This year, I’ve worked on the religious side of things in my life. I am no longer as scared as I once was of Divine punishment. I see a deeper aspect to religion. Unsaid in all of this was how I think about teshuva as it connects to my relationship with others, and with myself.

I couldn’t and can’t speak about those things because I just don’t know what to say. When the things I’ve done wrong to others go from disconnected mistakes to expected patterns, what does teshuva even mean? How does one continue to apologize for wrongdoings that have become habits, and seemingly taken on a life of their own? How do I stand before God and say that this year will be different, when I have no reason to believe that to be true?

There was a moment this past Rosh Hashanah where this thought hit me, and I’ve been reeling ever since. It was a moment of recognition where I realized that so much that troubles me about who I am when I’m not in front of a classroom teaching Torah, or away from the public eye, did not just happen, but came about through choice. At that moment, all of the excuses simply faded away. As I let that thought settle over me, there was no fear of punishment, and no thought about how God might judge me. There was something worse. I sat not before the proverbial beis din shel ma’alah (the Heavenly court), but before a much harsher judge and jury. I sat facing myself, having no idea what I could possibly say.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Many Roads to Serving HaShem- audio shiur marking the 80th yarhrtzeit of Rav Kook

In this week’s shiur, we look at a derasha delivered by Rav Kook, as a way of marking his 80th yarhrtzeit.

We examine the challenge of balancing growth as an individual versus being part of the larger community. Combing a fascinating derasha which helps us begin to turn towards preparing for Rosh Hashana, along with a similar idea found in the Shem MiShmuel, we learn that personal identity, and commitment to the klal need not contradict. Most importantly, we discover that there are multiple legitimate ways to serve HaShem.

Running time- 40 minutes

Monday, August 17, 2015

Required reading- On the importance of Rav Kook and his sefer LeNevuchei HaDor for our generation

In the 80 years since Rav Kook passed away, much has changed in the world. One wonders how he might have responded to the holocaust, the death of nationalism, and so much that has changed during that time. Even now, we are quite possibly watching the demise of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, an institution for which Rav Kook had such high hopes. Still, there is much that he wrote and taught that continues to feel relevant, and even essential. Perhaps none of his works are more in need of study in our time than LeNevuchei HaDor.

LeNevuchei HaDor was written in Europe over 110 years ago, before Rav Kook made aliyah. For reasons that need not concern us here, this important work did not see the light of day until very recently. There were those who even questioned the existence of this work, less than 10 years ago. While Merkaz Rav Tzvi Yehuda published a censored version of this work, Yediot Achronot published a full annotated version of the text, along with an important introduction, and essay at the back. While LeNevuchei HaDor is not yet available in English, it is written in a Hebrew much more comprehensible than the one Rav Kook adopted after his arrival in Israel.

Rav Kook wrote LeNevuchei HaDor as the Moreh Nevuchim, the Guide for the Perplexed, for his generation. The Rambam had written the Moreh to help  a generation that was perplexed over issues of Greek philosophy. Rav Kook saw a generation that was struggling with the issues of biblical criticism, the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, evolution, socialism, Zionism, and more. When he saw that nobody else was dealing with these issues in a way that spoke to the young people of his generation, he decided that he had to be the one to do so.

While some of what he wrote is dated (in fact, he himself would change his thoughts on some of these ideas after moving to Israel) a lot of the ideas continue to resonate today. He took bold positions such as allowing for the possibility that some of the ideas of the bible scholars of his time need not be rejected. Perhaps the most important lesson that he taught, a lesson that sometimes seems lost on many of today’s leaders, is the importance of teaching the ideas of Judaism in a way that is relevant, and that responds to the pressing issues of the day. Rather than attack those who believed in ideas that many rabbis felt were incompatible with Jewish thought, he reached out to them, and suggested a way of inculcating these ideas into Torah. In doing so, he showed that Judaism’s timeless message could continue to resonate, as long as its teachers were knowledgeable enough and bold enough to be creative.

As a new generation calls out to its leaders and teachers for guidance and relevance, LeNevuchei HaDor should be required reading for those want to help.

[For those who are looking for English works by or on Rav Kook, I would highly recommend Rav Betzalel Naor’s masterful translation of Orot, and Rav Yehuda Mirsky’s excellent intellectual biography Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.]

Friday, August 14, 2015

Why Was There Only One Mikdash?- Unity and individuality in serving HaShem (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur we examine the prohibition of offering sacrifices outside of the Beit Hamikdash, and the centralization of worship in the Mikdash. What was gained by having one place of worship, and what was lost? Perhaps most importantly, how do we make up for what was lost?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Tears for a Broken System- Protesting an approach that fails most of our boys

It was, at once, one of the most beautiful and one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. “Shmuel”  a 15 well-behaved and polite 15 year-old boy, was sitting in shul after Shachris going over a mishnah using a Hebrew-English mishnah. Even with the help of the English translation, Shmuel was struggling. As I listened to him struggle with both the Hebrew and English words, it seemed clear to me that he didn’t understand what he was learning. While there was great beauty in his effort to learn and his refusal to give up, I felt great sadness watching him struggle. I thought of the gemara in Chagigah where it discusses HaShem crying for one who can’t learn Torah and tries anyway. While there different ways to understand the gemara, one approach that I’ve heard is that HaShem sheds tears for those like Shmuel, because there are other ways for him to serve HaShem, approaches in which he could succeed.

I thought of Shmuel when I saw the cover of this past week’s Mishpacha magazine. Over a picture of a boy holding up a gemara, the headline screamed “Yes, Your Son Can Love to Learn”. While the article described the approach of a loving rebbe who has come up with a teaching style, and approach to review that helps some boys become more successful in learning gemara, the headline promised parents much more. It seemed to say that even if your son does not love to learn, he should, and we know how to make it happen. Furthermore, while the word gemara was absent from the headline, it was clear from the article that the only focus was on boys learning gemara. Taking this into account, Mishpacha was suggesting (insisting?) that your son can and should love to learn gemara.

I thought of Shmuel’s parents. Might they be fooled into thinking that he can love to learn gemara, if only he would try harder and his rebbe would try a different approach? What of all the boys who are in yeshivahs for boys who have “rebelled” against the system? Is the solution to what ails them to be pushed back towards a religious life where only gemara learning marks one as a successful Jew? Is there no other way to be a frum Jew? Is there no other meaningful way to learn Torah? What exactly is wrong with Tanach?

In a well known Midrash, it is said that of 1000 who begin learning Tanach, 100 move on to mishna, of which, only 10 make it to gemara. That’s one percent. There was no suggestion that the other 99% could or should learn gemara. Why do we insist on being smarter than Chazal, especially those of us who are so careful to listen to other things that they say?

I have no problem with the article itself, excluding the implied suggestion about the gemara-only approach. I understand that a headline stating “Here’s a Rebbe with an approach that some schools might consider” might not have been as exciting, or even qualified to be on the cover, but how much longer will we push our boys into a harmful one-size-fits-all system, a system that should make all of us join HaShem in his crying?

"It was, at once, one of the most beautiful and one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. “Shmuel” a 15 well-behaved...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Monday, August 10, 2015

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tu-gether again- Why is Tu B'Av considered one of the two happiest days of the year? (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we discuss the enigmatic holiday of Tu B’Av.

The gemara describes tu B'Av as one of the two happiest days of the year. What is Tu B'Av, and why is it so special? We will examine the various reasons given by the gemara, as well Tu B'Av's proximity to Tisha B'Av and try to explain what the day is about.

Running time 43 minutes

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Was There a Walking Talking Snake in Gan Eden- Using our intellect in studying Torah- Project Makom (video shiur

This is the link to the shiur I gave last night for Project Makom.

In the shiur we examine the story of the nachash (snake) in Gan Eden, as a way of examining to what extent we are allowed to, or even obligated to, use our intellect and rationality in studying Torah.

We start with the question of whether we are obligated to believe that there was a walking, talking snake who interacted with Chavah. We start by studying what Rishonim like Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Rambam, and Abarbanel said about this episode. We then move onto the last 200 years and look at the ideas of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Shadal, and Rav Kook, the latter who gives the most radical but important lense for how to look at this story, and Torah in general.

The shiur begins a little past the 3 minute mark. It might lose the audio feed for a moment or two toward the beginning. Running time is about 1:20 including the questions at the end.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Justice for the Children- Some thoughts from the Taubenfeld abuse trial

I know that I can’t have held my breath for 1 ½ hours this past Friday. Still, as i sat in the courtroom listening to Laiby Stern testify about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his former neighbor Moshe Menachem Taubenfeld, a powerful and influential member EDIT (my original information description was incorrect) [a teacher and mashpia] in the chassidic community in New Square, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

As I listened to Laiby as he was cross-examined by the defense lawyer I felt so many different emotions rise up inside of me. Perhaps the strongest emotion that I felt was anger. Anger at the dozens of men who were there to support Taubenfeld. Men who smiled, smirked, and even laughed each time Stern, who has a learning disability, was tripped up by the high-paid defense attorney. Anger at a community that instinctively circles the wagons around its most powerful members, rather than protecting those who are most vulnerable. Anger at a community that refuses to recognize the dangers posed by abusers in their community, where the abuser might receive, at most, a beating and a warning to not do it again, or, if they are influential enough, no consequence at all. I also felt anger at the the fact that the community fears the outside world more than it fears its children being hurt, and anger that it blames the victim for any subsequent problems  he or she might face, rather than holding the abuser responsible.

After the trial, I heard about how other victims of abuse in New Square and other chassidic communities are following this case, anxiously waiting to see whether it’s worth it to come forward to bring charges. If Laiby loses his cases, these young people will take it as a sign that they can not succeed if they come forward. I was told that some might give up more than that, and had suggested they might jump off a bridge if Taubenfeld is found not guilty.

After having had some time to process what I saw and heard, more than anything, I feel powerless, knowing that whatever anger, fear, and frustration I might feel, there is little if anything I can accomplish to bring about change. Perhaps the presence of those who attended the trial to support Laiby gave him some encouragement as the defense lawyer tried to get him frustrated and catch him in a lie, but I am left wondering what, if anything else, I could do to effect change in a community of which I am not a part. I attended the trial wanting to give hope to Laiby, and to other victims, wanting to believe that somehow, justice would prevail, and to believe that, finally, in communities like New Square the wellbeing of the children would finally take center-stage. It was this lack of power, and the wishful thinking it subsequently brought about, that, in the end, leaves me feeling so deeply sad and afraid.

"I know that I can’t have held my breath for 1 ½ hours this past Friday. Still, as i sat in the courtroom listening to...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Monday, July 20, 2015

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Glue that Holds Us Together- Why was half of Menashe chosen to go with Reuven, and Gad?

In this week’s shiur, we look at the decision of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan. Why did they want to stay there, and what does that say about them? Additionally why did Moshe Rabbeinu put half of the tribe of Menashe with them? What made Menashe the glue that could keep Bnei Yisrael together? In the course of the shiur, we discuss the challenges of wealth, how you bring about unity, and the importance of aliyah.

Running Time- 51 minutes

Thursday, July 9, 2015

From Pinchas to Bonhoeffer- What are we willing to risk for God, truth, and others? (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we discuss the story of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, a German Pastor, who was part of an attempted assassination on Adolph Hitler ym”s. We compare this story to the story of Pinchas in this weeks parasha.

Through these two stories we examine the idea of being a religious zealot, and of being willing to risk everything for the sake of one’s religion, God and/or people. What is the mindset of one who can give up their life for a higher cause? Is the level of zealousness a good thing? What can we learn from Bonnhoeffer and Pinchas?

(Running time: 61 minutes)

Monday, July 6, 2015

Open the Book- Do we know as much as we think we do?

I really appreciate the thought of Rav Kook and study his sefarim as often as I can. It’s hard to imagine that I went more than 15 years without doing so. All because I thought I knew what he believed without having read a word of what he wrote.

19 years ago, I spent the year in a right-wing- Zionist Kollel in Israel. At the beginning, I did what I could to fit in. I started going by my Hebrew name, wore the right kind of kippah, and shared many of the religious and political views of my peers. Over time, for reasons that I will not discuss here, I stopped seeing eye to eye with many in the kollel. I wasn’t exactly sure what I believed, but I knew this was not my world. Along with that realization, I knew that Rav Kook was not for me. After all, if his writings had produced the philosophy of many of those in the kollel, it had nothing to teach me. I remember the moment when I made the decision to give up on Rav Kook. One of my friends, who was particularly strident in his views, called Rav Kook’s collective writings the “Shas HaLavan”, literally the white shas. In a somewhat joking manner, he was suggesting that in addition to the regular “Shas”, as the talmud is often called, there was the white Shas, the writings of Rav Kook, which have been published in Israel with a white cover with green print. If Rav Kook was for them, I knew it was not for me. It did not concern me that I had never read a single word of Rav Kook.

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to meet all sorts of Jews from outside of my little world. I have spoken with Toledos Aharon Chassidim, and with Reform Jews. I have attended the chag hasemicha at Yehivat Chovevei HaTorah, a secular kabbalat Shabbat in Jerusalem, and davened with Breslov in Tzefat. I have met people who love learning Torah, who have blue hair and multiple piercings, conversions that are not halachic, or are members of the LGBT community. I have met all sorts of people who are different from me. At times I have felt more comfortable and at times less, but always I have come away with a sense that I  better understood someone who is different from me. I have frequently left certain assumptions behind.

One of the best things about these meetings and interactions is that they forced me to leave my little world, where everyone thinks the same, and is sure who is in God’s good graces, and thinks they know who is sincere in their beliefs and actions. While it can be flattering to meet someone new and have them recognize my name from my blog, I have gained much more from the recognition that the vast majority have no clue who I am when we meet. While in my corner of the shul, or on my Facebook wall my opinion might matter, for most people out there, my thoughts are irrelevant.

Why do I write about this now? There seems to be a lot of opining, posturing, and arguing going on in the Jewish world right now. Many people and groups seem certain that they know who is on the right side, who should be teaching Torah, and what the world needs. Me? I’m confused. I have my opinions, but the more I meet people, and listen to them, the less I think I know. A lot of opinions I had in the past have fallen away as I’ve discovered the complexities of people and their situation.

There is one things that unites almost everyone with whom I’ve spoken. They are sick of the fighting. They don’t want leaders who posture and play politics. They are sick of the unnecessary divisions. I am not suggesting some mystical Shangri La where we all pretend that there are no issues to discuss, debate, and disagree. I am suggesting that we need to think really carefully before we introduce a new machlokes, something else to divide an all too divided people. While our comments and posts might score “likes” on Facebook amongst our friends, there are thousands of people who are looking for something else. Are we willing to listen to them?

[While I don't get into specifics, I hope that what follows encourages some thoughtful discussion and reflection on some...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Monday, July 6, 2015

Friday, July 3, 2015

Those Who You Curse are Cursed- What would have happened if Bilaam had cursed Bnei Yisrael?

I this week’s shiur, we examine the story of Parashat Balak. We try and figure out why God had to tell Bilaam not to curse Bnei Yisrael, if, in any case, they were not cursed. In trying to explore this idea, we examine whether Bilaam was actually a navi, and how the biblical understanding of prophecy differs from how the surrounding nations understood prophecy.

Running time 45 minutes

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Can we "create" Torah?- An examination of the Falasha Mura work "Petirat Aharon" (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur we examine a very fascinating question. To what degree can we create Torah? We start off by looking at “Petirat Aharon” a holy work of the Falasha Mura and ask whether it is a sefer or only a book. We then proceed to examine the view of the Gaonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim towards midrash as a way of shedding light on our question.

The shiur can be listened to by clicking here

Running time:48 minutes

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Techiyat Orot- A review of the new translation of Rav Kook's Orot by Rav Bezalel Naor

[This review is based on the review that appeared in the Book supplement in this past week's Jewish Press. Subsequent to writing this review, I had the pleasure of meeting Rav Naor, and now attend his weekly chabura.]

Although Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook was one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the last few centuries, there are many Jews who are unfamiliar with his worldview and writings. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Some think of him only as an early leader of the religious Zionist movement, evidently unaware of the spiritual and philosophical breadth and depth that his writings cover. Those who are aware of the scope of his writing, have oftentimes been prevented from exploring those writings, due to the fact that he wrote in  a poetic and flowery Hebrew, challenging even to the native Israeli. This unfamiliarity is particularly unfortunate, as Rav Kook offers ideas and insights of great importance to the modern Jew, in areas as varied as humanism, biblical criticism, and the religious-secular divide.

In the early 90s Rabbi Bezalel Naor, himself a serious and prolific thinker and writer, as well as one of the preeminent scholars of Rav Kook’s thought, wrote and published an English translation of Rav Kook’s Orot. Orot, which was originally published in 1920, offered a new, almost prophetic vision of where the Jewish people were headed and how they would get there. Rav Kook provided a religious framework for how to understand the “secular” Zionist movement, an emphasis on the value of a religious and physical revival, the import of “secular” studies, as well as a sense of great hope to those who feared the growing religious-secular divide. For many who wished to understand Rav Kook, Naor’s translation opened the door to this profound and prolific thinker.

Naor’s translation became an instant classic, not only due to the skill with which he translated Rav Kook’s words, but also for the fascinating introduction in which Naor traced the history of the publishing of Orot and the subsequent controversy which arose in pre-war Palestine. To top it all off, Naor included more than 80 pages of endnotes tracing the origins of Rav Kook’s thoughts, which included quotes and allusions from Tanach, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, midrashim, the Zohar, as well as from thinkers as varied as the Rambam and Rebbe Yehuda HaLevi, the Maharal, the Baal HaTanya, Rav Nachman, and Hegel and Nietzsche to boot. For many years, the original translation has been out of print. After more than 20 years, it has been re-published, this time by Maggid Books, a subsidiary of Koren Publishers.

In addition to all of the above mentioned bonuses, the new edition has various additions that will make it even more valuable to those who wish to undertake the challenging, but rewarding path of exploring Rav Kook’s thought. Most prominent among these additions is the inclusion of the Hebrew text alongside Naor’s translation (this is only available in the hardcover edition). This has the added benefit of making it possible to try and read Orot in its original language, while at the same time, offering a translation for the more challenging words and phrases. Naor has written a new introduction for this publication which includes even more fascinating stories and information about the publication of Orot, things Naor has discovered over the past 20 years. The new edition has even more endnotes than the original,  as Shemonah Kevatzim, eight of Rav Kook’s original journals, have been published in the last two decades. These journals offer readers a glimpse into the original form in which Rav Kook thought of the ideas, that ultimately became Orot. Naor has gone through these journals and carefully notes the differences between the journals and the book that was ultimately published. While some of these differences are merely semantic, others show how carefully Rav Kook, and his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda, who was his publisher, weighed his words, as they attempted to get across a subtle point, or soften the opposition of his adversaries. Finally, Naor made the decision to provide the chapters of Orot with English titles and to begin each chapter with a brief summary of its contents. He chose to do so, following in the footsteps of some of Rav Kook’s editors, due to the fact that Rav Kook wrote in a poetic, free-flowing manner, with little, if any, thought given to how it might be understood by his readers.

There’s very little to quibble with in this incredible new edition. I would suggest that future editions have the numbers for the footnotes on the Hebrew side as well as the English. Additionally, it would be helpful to have the Hebrew and English page breaks  align more closely, to make it easier for those who are making use of both sides of the page.

I am quite certain that, just as the original translation became a must read for those who wished to understand Rav Kook, the same will be said for the new edition. Naor has done the incredible, offering a translation that is, at once, comprehensible and useful for the novice, while at the same time offering even those who already are most familiar with Rav Kook’s thought and writings, many new avenues of thought to consider.

Click here to order the hardcover edition, here to order the softcover edition, and here for the Kindle edition.