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