Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Torah that Matters- giving our children the tools to engage in religious struggle

A frequent trope in many teacher-lounges is about how much better the students used to be in the “good old days”. While I suspect that many of these claims are based on selective memories, there is one such conversation that has stayed with me. A colleague said to me that it used to be that when he spoke about the obligation for married women to cover their hair, there would be protests and arguments from the female students. Now, he said, they just write it down in their notes and spit it out on the test. Interestingly, he was suggesting that he missed the days when students cared enough to argue. While I would disagree with his claim that students don’t care, I think he brings up an interesting point.

There are often discussions about what students should know by the time they graduate high school. I would like to suggest that we also think about what students think by the time they graduate. If I had to pick one thing that I would like my students (and children, for that matter) to possess by the time they are 18, it is a sense that Judaism and Torah matter enough to engage in the religious struggle that is an inherent part of engaging in Torah. In a thoughtful essay, Akiva Weisinger discusses the implications of Yaakov’s wrestling match with the malach, and the subsequent change of his name to Yisrael. He suggests that the struggle with God and his Torah is inherent to the Jewish experience. I sometimes wonder whether we are doing enough to ensure that our children and students will care enough to engage and struggle with our collective beliefs, teachings and ideas.

How do we get there? I think there are things that parents and educators can do to make it more likely that our children and students will take the idea  embodied in the name Yisrael seriously.

To begin with, we need to model the struggle. Whether it is at the Shabbos table or in discussions in the classroom, teenagers benefit from seeing that we practice what we preach. If we share our struggles, as well as talk of how we are dealing with them, it is more likely they will see this behavior as normative and important. We all need downtime. As with everything we do, our children see what we do when we have a few minutes to spare. To the degree that we spend time seriously engaging with sefarim and books that show that we are invested in the struggle, we can hope that our children will do so as well.

Educationally, it is important that we choose texts and subjects that are not merely about knowing facts. When we teach halacha, one of the reasons why it is wrong to teach it as merely a set of rules, is that it fails to show how the mitzvohs themselves have the potential to challenge us to think. Taamei HaMitzvohs should be a part of any discussion of halacha. Additionally, as I have mentioned before, we do a disservice to our students when we only teach the halachic parts of the gemara. It is in the aggadah that Chazal expresses some of their most profound ideas. By seriously engaging in the study of aggadah, we not only expose our students to essential ideas, but also allow them to engage with these beliefs and concepts. Finally, we as educators have to be up to the task. Any question that our students ask should be dealt with seriously, and that puts the onus on us. We need to study both religious and secular texts that we might not have learned in yeshiva or school. While it is obvious that we can not have the answers to all questions, it is imperative that we do as much as we can to show that we have seriously engaged in areas like philosophy, history and science and their implication for Judaism.

Whether it is in college, yeshiva, seminary or later in life, our children and students will likely have moments where they need to decide if Judaism is important enough to be part of forming their worldview. While we can not make this choice for them, the actions we take as parents and/or educators will play a significant role in their decision.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Days of Love and Hate- Learning to embrace our moments of doubt

A friend of mine once told me of a rabbi that he knows who would often take more than 15 minutes to say the Shemoneh Esrei. There were also moments when it took this rabbi less than two minutes to complete the amidah. Perplexed by these two extremes, my friend finally got the courage to ask the rabbi about his approach to prayer. The rabbi replied “Sometimes, I have so much I want to discuss with God. Other times, I can barely stand to be in his presence”. Many of us might struggle with our avodas HaShem, and even experience moments of doubt and loneliness. I suspect I am not alone in that during those times, I feel as if I am doing something wrong, and that my emunah is not strong enough.

In his classic mussar sefer Alei Shur (Chelek Alef pgs. 34-35), Rav Wolbe quotes the Sefer HaYashar, a book attributed to Rabbeinu Tam, as referring to yemei ahava and yemei sin’ah, literally days of love and days of hate. He explains that there are times when our avodas HaShem goes incredibly well. Our experience of the Divine is almost palpable. Like a baseball player during a hot streak who describes the ball as looking larger than usual, everything flows. Other times, we feel alone and distant from God. Rav Wolbe suggests that although during those times one might grow despondent, and even blame themselves for the lack of closeness, this need not be the case. By recognizing that, as with all relationships, our relationship with God has its ups and downs, we need not fear those yemei sin’ah, moments when we can barely stand to be in the presence of God.

Rav Wolbe does not stop there. He says that we need to embrace the struggle and make it part of our service of God. Quoting Rav Tzadok, who speaks of our greatest sins as indicating where we have the most potential, he suggests that the doubts and struggles need not be lead to shame or despondency. On the contrary, by examining them, we can grow in those very areas.

I recently suggested a way to deal with moments of doubt. Rav Wolbe encourages us to do more. Rather than simply live with the struggle and see it as a natural part of our religious lives, we can embrace it and use it to grow. Although it seems paradoxical, in the very moments when we don’t experience God’s presence in our lives, we have a unique opportunity to get even closer to Him.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

No Longer Alone- Getting real with Hilchos Yichud

If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that it is way past due for us to have a conversation with our rabbis and daughters about yichud. While both groups might, to a greater or lesser extent, be familiar with the basic rules of yichud, recent events have shown that the conversation needs to expand.

For those who are unaware, the laws of yichud involve the Torah prohibition against men and women being secluded in situations that might lead to forbidden sexual interactions. The rabbis, at the end of Maseches Kiddushin, discuss these laws, and the situations to which they apply. Interestingly they don’t stop there. The gemara tells of certain strictures that particular rabbis took upon themselves in this area. At first glance, some of these cases sound very strange to modern ears, even beyond the general prohibition of yichud. Why would some of the greatest rabbis need to be extra careful about these laws?

There is a concept in the gemara that says that the greater the person, the greater is their evil inclination. While this concept is sometimes mentioned, it often seems that it is not taken seriously. Do great rabbis really have a stronger yetzer hara? From the gemara in Kiddushin, the answer seems to be yes.

Rav Yuval Cherlow, a well known Israeli rav, has taken it upon himself to only meet alone with women in public places. When challenged over the propriety of meeting a woman at a cafe, he is quick to point out that he is being careful and thus appropriate. Along these lines, I would suggest that we as a community need to be extra strict with hilchos yichud.

Our rabbis need to be told by their employers that under no circumstances, should they meet behind closed doors with a woman, unless there are windows that make the meeting visible from the outside. It is to be made clear that meeting should take place in public where it is clear to all that nothing inappropriate is going on. This will protect them from being situations where they might cross lines, or be accused of doing so. All schools and shuls need to adopt this as official policy.

We must make clear to our daughters that hilchos yichud applies to all men, including their rabbis, and that no matter how holy the rabbi seems, it is never okay for him to speak with her alone in a secluded area. We need to convey the sense that we will always support our daughters if they come to us about a situation that makes them uncomfortable, and that they should trust their intuition. In no uncertain terms, we should make clear that kevod harav never requires them to do something that makes them uncomfortable.

Both respect for rabbis, and our community in general, have taken a big hit over the last few years. It is time to start rebuilding that which has been destroyed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sinai Moments- Coping with religious doubt

Many, if not most, religious people go through periods of religious doubt. While there are those like Rav Kook and Rabbi Norman Lamm, who explore the religious value of doubt, doubt can often be disturbing and demoralizing. What, if anything, can be done to get through the struggles that come with doubt? I'd like to discuss an idea that was discussed by Rav Eliezer Berkovits, and expand upon it.

In the fifth chapter of his classic work, God, Man and History, Rav Berkovits discusses the value of the initial religious encounter with God that occurred at Mount Sinai. Among other things, the encounter showed that God was a deity who was involved in the world and cared about his creation, as opposed to the unmoved mover of Aristotle. He suggests that the encounter serves as a reminder of God's care, during the many times when He seems absent from our lives. Just as the thought of her husband, might help an army wife, when her beloved is away at war, and make up for the silence and fear that he might not return, the Mount Sinai experience serves as a way of remembering God's concern, during those painful moments when that very care is in doubt.

What of those who were not actually at Mount Sinai? Rav Berkovits suggests that in the numerous commandments which reference the Sinaitic revelation, such as the Mishkan, HaKhel and Shavuos, one re-cognizes (once again thinks of) the revelation, moving it from a moment of history, to a personal experience.

For many of us, I'm not so sure that this is enough, and therefore, I'd like to go beyond Rav Berkowits point. I want to make clear that I am not suggesting that he would necessarily agree with my idea. Nonetheless, I think that my extension of his idea is not without merit.

There are moments in our lives when we experience God's care and concern. I can think of several such moments in my own life. While these experiences are inherently subjective, for those who experience them, they are real. I would call these moments “Sinai Moments”. While, unlike the revelation at Sinai, these moments are personal and will often mean little, if anything, to the one who has not experienced them, for the one who has, they express God's concern as much as the moment at Sinai did for those who were there. In this formulation, these Sinai moments are not merely to be appreciated at the moment that they occur. Rather, they are to be thought of at those times that one feels alone and distant from God. In thinking of these moments, we might experience God's absence as temporary, instead of doubting his very concern.

Whether it is through a deeply internalized experience of the Sinai-based mitzvos, as Rabbi Berkovits suggests, or through thinking of what I have termed Sinai moments, I would suggest that moments of doubt need not be experienced passively, hoping that we will once again experience the breath of the Divine, as it were. Rather, we can re-cognize moments of care, both big and small, which might help us get past our moments of doubt, even if only temporarily.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Strings Attached- Why I continue to wear my tzitzis out

The other day, as I looked in the mirror, I took note of my tzitzis, which were hanging out. I started thinking (is there anything that doesn’t make me think?) about a post that I had written about why I stopped wearing a black hat. What, I wondered, was the difference between wearing the hat and wearing my tzitzis out? Were they not both expressions of “frumkeit”, an approach to Torah observance that no longer appeals to me?

When I wrote the article about the hat, I was rather surprised to see it go viral, well at least by my modest standards. A friend informed me that my article had been shared in a Jewish women’s group, where it was discussed in the context of women who are struggling with the issue of hair covering. Although I was pleased that something I had written had found an audience, I was a little uncomfortable with the context. After all, wearing a hat is not a halachic requirement, whereas covering hair is. In the end I recognized that once something is written and given over to the public, it no longer fully belongs to its author.

Which brings me to tzitzis. Although Jewish men are supposed to wear tzitzis, there is no obligation to wear them with the strings exposed. In the Mishna Berura, the Chofetz Chaim, writes that a “ba’al nefesh”, one who is exceedingly pious, should wear the strings hanging out. As a friend likes to point out, Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l said that in his generation everyone realized that the term “ba’al nefesh” did not not apply to them, while today, too many people thinks it does. While I once might have been impressed with my religious level of observance, I no longer have that level of hubris.

So now that I know that I am not a ba’al nefesh and am less of a ba’al gaivah, why do I continue to wear my tzitzis exposed? The truth is, that I did not start wearing them that way after learning the Mishna Berura. I began doing so 25 years ago in Israel, after something occurred that gave me reason to think that I had reason to do something external to better remind myself of who I aspired to be. I figured that any place where I could not go with my tzitzis exposed was not a place I belonged.

It seems to me that, for me at least, stopping doing anything that smacks of an earlier stage of “frumkeit”, just to show I’ve changed, is as mistaken as taking something on that is not real to who I am. Although forever is a very long time, I will not go back to wearing a hat, but, ba’al nefesh or not, the tzitzis are here to stay. They are part of my being real with my Judaism.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Moshe Rabbeinu- Active or Passive? (Audio Shiur)

In this weeks shiur we examine whether Moshe was active in his role as leader, redeemer, and deliverer of the law. We examine various actions to show that he was often quite passive, and why this had to be the case.

(Running Time- 50 minutes)

The shiur can also be accessed on YouTube by clicking here.

Monday, January 5, 2015

W(h)ither Modern Orthodoxy?- Does Modern Orthodoxy still speak to us?

During the approximately two years during which I went through a crisis of faith, I spent a lot of time reading, as well as having conversations with many rabbis, academics and friends, in the hope of finding my way back to faith. Perhaps the most important piece of advice that I received was to go through the aspects of Judaism with which I was struggling, and figure out which, in fact, were essential to Jewish belief. Ultimately, I came to recognize that there was a much wider range of theological options available that could fit within a world of belief.

There was a time when Modern Orthodoxy was less doctrinaire. A perusal through the index of the issues of Tradition from the ‘60s and 70s shows that both in terms of content and writers, Modern Orthodoxy of that time had more theological room than does the Modern Orthodoxy of today. I will leave it to sociologists to evaluate the reasons for the change. Instead, I will talk about a way that we might go back to those more open days.

I begin with a discussion of a theory put forth by Thomas Kuhn about paradigm shifts in science. For those who are unaware of the theory, the following is a summation of the theory from an article by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University:

A mature science, according to Kuhn’s hypothesis, is one in which there exists a dominant paradigm—a conceptual framework that informs the scientist of what to expect as he engages in his or her scientific inquiry. It delineates the parameters of what can and cannot be considered acceptable solutions to a problem. Only that which conforms to the paradigm is deemed true. The training of scientists consists of inculcating them with the tenets of the paradigm, the rules of the game, before they embark on their own research. To engage in “normal science” is to endeavor to tie up loose ends and adjust the paradigm to reality. Paradigms introduce a sociological factor into science. To practice science is to engage the mysteries of the natural order not in unmediated fashion, but through the lens of the paradigm, itself a human construct. This dogmatic aspect determines who is considered “in” in the scientific community, and who is “out.”
Inevitably, results will begin to arise that are inconsistent with the reigning paradigm. At first these will be dismissed and faults will be found either with the method employed or with the assumptions upon which they rest. As these bothersome findings persist and accumulate, however, a creative scientist will come forward to challenge the axioms of the paradigm and propose a new one that encompasses the “problematic” results as well in a systematic fashion. Because the old paradigm is but a human construct, it is subject to human foibles: its articulators will typically dig in their heels, and the new paradigm will gain traction only as the masters of the old one pass from the scene. New paradigms do gain influence, but only slowly

Essentially, once a theory is accepted by the scientific community, it becomes a type of dogma which can not be challenged. Those who offer such challenges are ignored and/or rejected. Only when the challenges become strong enough, does the theory change. Although we are talking about religion and not science, the comparison is instructive. Jewish theology changes with the times. Throughout our history, challenges from within Judaism or from other religions have caused Jewish theology to pivot, as it were. While traditionalists at first fought back, eventually the pressure became great enough that change occurred. Even then, the change happened slowly, and usually, almost imperceptibly.

We live in a time when belief in Jewish dogma is very challenging. In various ways, scholarly or not, there have been those who have talked of these challenges and offered new ideas. As in Kuhn’s theory, these attempts have been rebuffed. Traditionalists have dug in their heels and insisted that certain beliefs are essential and not up for debate. Still, the attempts to spell out a theological approach that works for modern sensibilities, speak to some of the angst that is felt by many in our community.

So where do we go from here? Ideally religious thinkers from Yeshiva University, the institution that for many represents Modern Orthodoxy, would step into the void and try to address some of these concerns in a theologically sophisticated manner. Sadly, this has not been the case. Many of the roshei yeshiva are firmly in the traditionalist camp, and consider certain beliefs and concepts to be inviolable. Those roshei yeshiva and professors who are more open to modern sensibilities, have, to some degree, both in recorded lectures and in writing, addressed some of these issues, but there is yet to be an attempt at spelling out a full theology from those within the walls of YU. To some degree, some of the rabbis and students from Yeshivat Chovevei HaTorah have tried to bring about a paradigm shift, but in ignoring the idea contained in Kuhn’s warning that change occurs slowly in science,a truth that applies to the world of Orthodoxy as well, these attempts have failed to gain significant traction. I would hope that the leadership of YCT would think about why a community that hungers for a sophisticated more modern approach, has not taken to their approach. In America, new attempts are coming from the likes of Michael Fishbane, while the Modern Orthodox world fails to produce works along the lines of Rav Shagar’s works, which show how Orthodoxy might deal with the challenges of Post-Modernism.

Who, if anyone, will step into this void? If Modern-Orthodoxy is to stay relevant, a work will have to be produced that shows a level of theological sophistication, while, at the same time speaks to the layman. A new paradigm is needed for those, like myself, who passionately belief in the world of Torah and Mitzvohs, while at the same time recognize the challenges of the times in which we live.