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