Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wherever We Let Him In- Bringing God back to Orthodoxy

מכריז רבי ינאי חבל על דלית ליה דרתא ותרעא לדרתא עביד

RRav Yanai proclaimed “Woah to the one who lacks a courtyard, but builds a gate for the courtyard”. (This refers to one who learns Torah but lacks Yir’at Shamayim)

Orthodox Judaism is drowning. We are drowning in Torah, mitzvohs, and halacha. Drowning in mutar and assur and chayav and patur. Drowning in gemara, Shulchan Aruch, and the Ketzos. Orthodox Judaism is drowning in shtreimlech, black hats, kippot srugot, and sheitels. In 30 minute shachris, daf yomi, and dress codes. We have so many mitzvot, so many ways to be an Orthodox Jew, and more Torah learning than at any time in our history, but we don’t have God. We do mitzvos without thinking of the M’tzaveh, and learn Torah with nary a thought of the Nosein HaTorah.

My community, to give just one example, is a model of talmud Torah, and tefillah. There are multiple daf yomi and shavua yomi shiurim. So many men and women learn Torah on a daily basis, and multiple batei midrash are full each night. We have numerous shuls with shachris, mincha, and maariv available during every permitted time to say those tefillos. Still, I have never heard of a local shiur in how to daven, or in how to relate to HaShem. In this we are far from unique. How many communities have shiurim in Derech HaShem, chaburahs in Bnei Machashava Tovah, or Shabbos derashos which talk about our relation with HaShem?

Have we, and at least equally important, our children, dwelled on the Rambam’s description of Ahavas HaShem, deeply studied Chovos HaLevavos, or given thought to the fact that all of the sheish mitzvos temidiyos, the six mitzvos in which we are obligated at all times, deal with how we relate to God?

We speed through pesukei d’zimrah, without allowing the words of the Psalmist to help prepare us to stand before our creator. When we sing Lecha Dodi, do we mean it, or feel sadness at the end of Shabbos when we lose our Neshama yeseirah?
I saw a poster last night about a new shiur in Hilchos Tefillah. Quoting the Chafetz Chaim, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky, it asked “How can we daven, if we don’t know how to daven?”. However, the question, in relating it to halacha, is mistaken. Halacha teaches what to do during davening, not how to daven. Indeed, how can we daven if we don’t know how to daven? When we encourage our children or students to daven with kavanah, what do they think we mean? Even if they understand, have they ever truly learned how to daven?

While it is true, at least according to Rav Chaim Volozhin, that, when we are learning Torah, we should concentrate on the content of what we are learning, and not think about HaShem, do we do so beforehand or after we are finished? Do we learn Torah facts, or, as the gemara says in Maseches Shabbos, learn about, as it were, the soul of God?

It is said that the Kotzker Rebbe once asked his chassidim where God can be found. “Everywhere” they answered excitedly. “No” he replied. “He can be found wherever we let him in.

Are we truly letting him in?

To read my suggestions for how to work on Avodas HaShem click here

"Orthodox Judaism is drowning. We are drowning in Torah, mitzvos, and halacha. Drowning in mutar and assur and chayav...
Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Unmaking of a Godol?- what those who we most venerate says about who we are

Let’s be honest. Terms like “gadol” and “tzaddik” are amorphous and hard to define. I would go so far as to say that our use of these terms says at least as much about ourselves, as it does about those to whom we assign these titles. Sometimes these terms speak of what we value; Torah scholarship, kindness, and other abilities and traits. Other times, these titles expose a darker side to the world, as we show how much we can tolerate certain faults and flaws, without removing someone from the pedestal on which they’ve been placed.

A few weeks ago, Rav Yisroel Belsky z”l passed away. A number of my friends posted about him in very positive terms. Being that I did not learn in Torah Vodaas, and was only familiar with some negative issues, I posted asking people to tell me the positive things they knew about him. I discovered some wonderful things about him. I was told about the tremendous chessed he did for so many people, including some, who many other people would not help. There were people who spoke about him welcoming people into his home, when nobody else would do so. The stories were truly beautiful.I heard about his tremendous genius, and how he knew a lot about science in addition to much Torah. I was moved by what I heard. Still, I couldn’t get the other things I already knew out of my head.

I am not writing to judge Rav Belsky who, like all of us, was human. We like our heroes to be perfect and villains to be nothing but bad, but that’s not how it works. He is no longer alive and any judgement will come from God, and not me. What I can’t get out of my mind is how many in the frum community can use the terms “tzaddik” and “gadol” for someone who did some things which can not be defended. I’m not going to list everything that he did, but his involvement with two generations of Kolko abusers will suffice. Even if one will argue that Rav Belsky did not know the full extent of what abuse the senior Kolko perpetrated, or that, given the times, he was not aware of the consequences, the nasty attack on a prominent family in Lakewood, when their child was abused, can not in any way be excused. Even when many in Lakewood, apologized to the family who they had driven out from the community, and welcomed them back, Rav Belsky never backed down to his dying day, even though the abuser pled guilty in court, and is sitting in jail.

Again, I will leave the judgement of how to view this complicated man, who did so much good, and some pretty serious bad, to God, but what of the community that venerated him? There are all sorts of small things that might have gotten him kicked out of the gadol and/or tzaddik club. Imagine the uproar had he said that bnei yeshiva in charedi yeshivas in Israel should serve in the army. What would have been said in the frum periodicals if he had started a college program in the yeshiva? He might even have been attacked if he was seen drinking the so-called “chalav stam”. I am not suggesting that he be treated without respect for the many good things he did. Rather, it just seems to me that terms like gadol and tzaddik, are, or at least should be, reserved for the select few who are role-models in the truest sense of the term.

Of course, this is not just an issue that connects to Rabbi Belsky. The Satmar Rebbe is treated with tremendous respect by his community, and by some from outside of it, despite having protected abusers from within Satmar. What does it say when a misheberach for Israeli soldiers would mark him as treif, but protecting Weberman and others does not? If we call rabbis who protect abusers by titles which suggest that they are the most venerated members of our community, what message are we giving to the victims of abuse?

A number of months before Rabbi Belsky passed away, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l passed away. As a true gadol ba’Torah, there were many stories about his brilliance, knowledge and hasmada. There were also many story of his tziddkus; stories when he was kind in ways beyond what we would expect, stories of how every person he met was treated with kindness, dignity and respect. There was one thing that I didn’t hear discussed at the time, but which I will never forget. When it became clear that Rav Motti Elon, a prominent rosh yeshiva in the Dati Leumi  world, had been guilty of abusing students, Rav Aharon did everything within his power to see that Elon was removed from his position of power. This despite the fact that Elon was not involved in Rav Aharon’s yeshiva. He suffered many unfair attacks from Elon’s apologists, but Rav Aharon would not be stopped. His actions conveyed the message to those who had been abused that they mattered to him, and that their pain was his pain.

I don’t use words like gadol and tzaddik lightly, but when I do, it is for those who live up to the ideals of the Torah, in the truest way possible. Rav Aharon was a gadol and a tzaddik. When we think about who deserves these titles, we should have role-models like Rav Aharon in mind.

"Let’s be honest. Terms like “gadol” and “tzaddik” are amorphous and hard to define. I would go so far as to say that...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Wednesday, February 10, 2016