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