Monday, December 17, 2012

Kosher Quandries

There are so many important issues to write about at the current moment . . . that and I'm admittedly delayed on finishing my comments on Brit Milah.  Nevertheless, I'm writing about something that's been on my mind for a while, and is currently a hot topic of conversation in Israel.

Recently, a new Jewish leadership organization called Beit Hillel was formed, comprised of leading Rabbinic figures (with a focus on synagogue Rabbis ;-)) and female religious leaders and educators.  The group was formed with an emphasis on promoting a more moderate and sensitive version of Orthodox Judaism than that which people (too) often encounter.

What's caused a stir is that they recently put out a teshuva (document containing legal rulings) regarding the permissiblity of dining in homes and establishments which are not Kosher.  The document can be accessed here, and is noteworthy for many reasons:

1) Style
While the observant community, particularly its Rabbis, used to be known for scholarship and scholarly debate regarding important issues, this trend has experienced a significant decline in recent years.  We've grown used to proclamations of law, "kol koreh" documents, conflicting verbal accounts, and simple stories, rather than the scholarship and reasoned argument of generations past.  Argument occurs by tumult and fiat on far too many occasions, without sophisticated or nuanced debate.

Beit Hillel's rulings are organized, well-researched, thorough, and sourced.  They cite opposing arguments, and note why they've chosen to rule the way they have globally, and then on individual issues as well.  This is a surprisingly refreshing trend, and hearkens back to the way things were done not so long ago (save the fact they've posted their thoughts on the organization's website :-)).

Lastly, this helps to push back against a growing problem.  Many legal rulings in the Jewish world today are heavily influenced by ideology and haskafa, one's philosophical-religious outlook on life.  That's all well and good, and it's done on all sides of the equation.  However, there's been a trend whereby those associated with a more stringent version of Judaism assert that the law or custom is such, when the legal ruling of the classical sources was much more lenient.  However, the Rabbis in question merely issue a proclamation, without explaining that the added stringencies are based on a sequence of philosophical suppositions, suppositions which many of us firmly reject.

2) Content
Right at the beginning of the teshuva linked to above, Beit Hillel transparently note the religious ideology that motivates them, and passionately argue for it.  Basically, they state that while keeping Kosher according to Jewish law is an important value, there are other values that are also important.  Therefore, when certain norms in Kashrut which are stricter than the basic law become normative, other values suffer.  In this case, strictures have kept the people of Israel from socializing with each other, increased strife and skepticism of the Rabbinate, and decreased the honor due to God and his Torah.

Therefore, they published a researched guide explaining (according to mainstream Jewish law) how Jews who keep Kosher might legally eat in other settings, in an effort to increase cooperation and interaction between Jews.  These include rulings permitting wrapping food in aluminum foil and warming it in a non-Kosher oven, and eating vegetables which may not have been checked for bugs (based on the fact that there may be reasons why it's permissible - the subject of another overdue post) especially given that a person can always check as they eat.

I would add that the Rabbinic desire to return to a basic observance of law, yet stress communal and national cooperation (also the subject of many positive mitzvot) rather than individual piety is a much needed and long overdue step in the right direction and a return to religious balance.  This actually represents a Rabbinic move to take other ignored yet central Mitzvot into account.  To the extent that any of the rulings cited seem a little edgy, it's only because our halachic discourse has shifted so far towards stricture that normative Jewish law now sounds unreliably lenient.  Three cheers for Beit Hillel!          

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Thoughts . . .

First, I'd like to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers (I'm not sure how many there are :-));  this is the perfect opportunity to express my gratitude that you've taken the time to read and respond to my thoughts.  Though I haven't posted as often as I might like and still do hope to find the time to be able to post more, I definitely appreciate the feedback and discussion I've come to expect when I do get around to posting.

As many of you are likely aware, the celebration of Thanksgiving in the Orthodox Jewish community is far from a given.  During the twentieth century, major poskim (decisors of Jewish law) issued different rulings regarding the celebration of Thanksgiving.  Three basic views were promulgated in regard to this matter:

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik permitted and proudly celebrated Thanksgiving himself, according to those close with him.  Members of his class at Yeshiva University heard him talk of going home to Boston for a Thanksgiving meal.  Others, such as Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner categorically forbid any celebration of Thanksgiving, ruling that it was either an idolatrous holiday or, at the very best, something akin to it.  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein took something of an intermediate position, ruling that it was a secular holiday, and therefore not idolatrous.  Nevertheless, he stated that he felt it was irrational and foolish to celebrate the holiday, and that there would be a tangential problem of adding to the commandments by celebrating on a particular day in a particular way each year.  

The intention of my post today is not to discuss the merits of these and other legal arguments about the validity of Thanksgiving in Jewish law, but rather to briefly discuss some of the implicit messages and implications inherent in these views.  

1) By claiming that Thanksgiving is, in essence, silly, we place ourselves "above" the need for a day of gratitude to our Creator.  Some have claimed that Jews are thankful every day, and that no special day of thanks is needed.  True, we should always be thankful.  I don't see why a believing Jew would feel that way any more than anyone else, though.  Further, Judaism is replete with the notion that we ought to set aside specific times of the year to focus on that which we ought to focus on every day of the year.  Passover is a once a year focus on the exodus and the responsibility resulting from that freedom, a topic we are commanded to mention and remember each day of the year.  Tisha B'av is a once a year focus on the destruction and exile that has haunted our people, something we also reflect on each day of the year in our liturgy.  It's self-evident that we humans need to set aside specific times to focus on things we'd like to focus on throughout the year.  These special appointed times serve as a focus and motivation, keeping us on track, affording us the time off to do what we say we ought to be doing, and serve as an important cultural statement of shared values.

As Jews, giving thanks to our brethren, country, and ultimately to God is one of the major tenets our religion stands for.  As an example, the entire system of blessings before and after food is designed to increase our awareness of and gratitude towards God in our everyday enjoyment and survival.  Further, the entire notion of the Sabbath, one of the hallmark features of Jewish life, is predicated on the notion that we should set aside time once a week to thank God for his blessings in our week.  This is clearly the philosophical outlook behind the prohibition of melachot (39 specific forms of labor), and the popular notion that Shabbat is the mekor haberacha, the source of all blessing in our lives.  Refraining from our own creative activity allows us to acknowledge the "behind-the-scenes" God who makes it all happen.  Being a blessed nation (i.e. having a clear relationship to God) is dependent first and foremost on acknowledgment and gratitude.

2)  The Rabbinic decisors who accepted Thanksgiving did so because they considered it primarily a secular holiday.  Though Washington's original proclamation was steeped in the soaring language of thanks to the Divine, this doesn't accurately reflect the reality, they would claim.  Thanksgiving, at its essence, is a holiday consisting of a turkey dinner with family, football, Black Friday, etc.  Those  Rabbis who rejected Thanksgiving emphasized its Christian origin.

Personally, I feel that there is another approach inherently espoused by many, perhaps even a silent majority.  While Thanksgiving certainly has its fill of cultural hallmarks and practices, so do all good secular and religious holidays, meaningful or not.  At its core, though, Thanksgiving is an important day about the very thanks it's named for, and it's a good and positive thing, Jewishly and otherwise.  That the idea of thanking God was commemorated in this way by Christians who happen to worship in a different way to a different deity is immaterial.  After all, Washington and many of the founders were deists as much as they were truly believing Christians.  More importantly, we feel a kindred commonality with many Christians and others of faith.  We believe in a higher Source, and they believe similarly.  This can be said not just of Christianity, but many faith systems.  That our theologies are different, even vastly so, remains important but less so than it once did.  Fundamentally, we relate to and even share the religious sensibility that motivated a day of thanksgiving to God, regardless of particular religious beliefs.

All that we have is ultimately due to the benevolence and blessings of God.  More than the ideas which divide us, this powerful idea motivated Thanksgiving, and is one that many of us (myself included) proudly share.  As a Jew, I am grateful that we live in a country which celebrates this fact, and would urge us to celebrate thanksgiving with this focus in mind, rather than focusing on our differences.  Broadly, we are commanded to remain a people separate and apart in order to preserve our identity as a group that recognizes and promotes God in the world.  When we emphasize our particularity to such an extent that we can't even take part in a celebration of thanksgiving to the Creator, we fail to actualize our divinely ordained mission, and render our unique identity pointless.                   

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Circumscribing Circumcision - An Introduction

I know it's been a while . . . the holiday season proved to be busy, but it's time to get back to commenting on  real issues that matter.  For the next several posts, I wanted to do a series on the recent circumcision debate taking place in New York.

As many readers are likely aware, many Jewish groups have filed suit, and are challenging a recent controversial decision by the New York Board of Health (see here).  The decision by the Board of Health, in brief, requires informed parental consent before metzitzah b'peh is allowed at a brit milah, the Jewish ritual circumcision performed on all males.  Metzitzah b'peh is/was a small customary component of the ritual, whereby the mohel (man who performs the circumcision) would suck to draw a small amount of blood during at the conclusion of the ceremony.  The custom is sourced in ancient ideas about bloodletting, with the notion being that this ceremony will help to protect the baby.  Many have preserved the custom while also insuring higher standards of safety by having the mohel used a sterilized pipette instead of sucking directly.

The NY Board of Health issued its ruling in part because of controversy surrounding the death of certain children, and the possibility that potentially deadly diseases such as Herpes may be transmitted to the baby, resulting in illness and even death.

There are several important questions to address:  1)  From a perspective of Jewish law, what is the status of this custom, and need it be kept in light of our modern scientific knowledge and understanding about viruses and the transmission of disease?  2) Should we be tolerant of more conservative approaches towards the preservation of custom?  3)  How big need the risk of illness or death be before we act?  4)  Are the challengers correct in asserting that the First Amendment protects them against government regulation?  5)  What is our general attitude towards laws with a secular purpose which incidentally impinge on religious practice?

As many of you know, I have the benefit of writing from multiple perspective on this issue.  On the one hand, I studied at Yeshiva University, and had the pleasure of studying this topic with the esteemed Rabbi Tendler (an outspoken advocate on this issue).  On the other hand, I am an attorney, and have long taken a particular interest in issues relating to the 1st Amendment, particularly the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

In the next post, I'll begin by discussing the relevant constitutional clauses, and other relevant Supreme Court Cases.  I hope that this will be a fruitful and educational discussion about the cross-section between religious freedom and governmental regulation.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Special Guest Post

This week, we are honored to have a guest contributor, Michael Hein.  His thoughts carry a crucial and central message at this juncture of history, and the strength of their argument speaks for itself:
This week's parsha - Shoftim - gets me into more trouble, er, I mean is one of the most emotionally and philosophically moving of all parshiot. Commentary on it is endless. At its end are the particulars of the Egla Arufa.

Midrashically, it is said that the particulars of the ceremony (taking place exactly on the border of two towns, the breaking of the neck of the calf so that blood spills onto the ground, etc.) represents (one among many interpretations) the idea that in our communities, the level of decency and law-abiding-ness was lax enough to allow a murderer to exist and commit his crime; that the spiritual air of the place(s) was not “clear” enough to fill the lungs of such a person to dissuade him from his heinous act; that the society charged with rearing him, and giving him his middos (or if a traveler – hosting him) failed to inculcate by example an appreciation of and respect for Torah and Mitzvos, for the sanctity of life, or, at it's barest minimum, for following the rule of Law. And for that deficiency, teshuva is in order.

But why the forced declaration of the leadership of the involved towns? Why must expiation be made for the residents, almost all of whom, could not possibly have anything to do with the physical act of the actual murder?

The answer, of course, lies in another phrase - Kol Yisroel Arevim Zeh ba Zeh (Every member of Israel is responsible for each other). It is a weighty philosophic concept - truly an Ol Malchus Shemayim - or, it is just lip service.

Parshas Shoftim assures us that if we truly believe in the ambient morality of the klal (community), of the spiritual purity of the air we breathe, of the accountability each has to the other in society; then the upward delegation of the responsibility for monitoring the lawfulness of society to interested (or advantaged) community members (more specifically the abdication of one's responsibility to such members); the free reign given to men in positions of great power and realm without accountability and oversight; surely condemns all of us to the eventual necessity of having to stand at the border of "two towns", in a ditch, with a bloody knife literally in the hands of those very unexamined leaders, as pennance, bewailing the occurrence of terrible crimes, (billions in theft, money laundering, assault, battery, bribery, extortion, domestic abuse, arson, pederasty, etc.), the crowd seemingly "not understanding where such guilt could possibly come from"; aware of our defilement, pleading for catharsis, yet not being willing to open our eyes to the very source of our contamination staring at us in the mirror.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

form over substance

The story is a simple one, and it is widely told and taught as an example of the profundity of Jewish law and ethics (Devarim Rabah, Parshat Eikev, Chapter 3).  The great tanna (mishnaic author), Shimon ben Shetach, purchased a donkey (in one version, his students purchased the donkey for him) from an Arab salesman in order to ease the burden of his physical labor. When the purchase arrived, he was surprised to discover that the donkey had a rather sophisticated sense of style; it was wearing a necklace containing a valuable precious stone suspended from its neck.  Shimon's students, overcome with joy, suggested that God himself had now blessed Shimon with wealth.  Life would get much easier for their teacher than they had ever imagined.

Only one problem - Shimon ben Shetach famously ordered the students to return the donkey, with one short and sweet retort.  "I purchased a donkey, not a precious gem."  As the story concludes, the students return the donkey to the Arab salesman, who declares, "Blessed is the Lord, God of Shimon ben Shetach."

Just a few weeks back, a third-party vendor mistakenly offered tickets to Israel on El Al Airlines for just $300.00.  This, for tickets that normally cost well in excess of $1,000.00.  Hysteria raged as friends contacted friends, Facebook and Twitter abuzz, so that people would have the opportunity to purchase tickets before the obvious mistake was corrected.

Many noble human beings led the way and declined the temptation to succumb to pure self-interest, either by declining to purchase the tickets or by voluntarily returning the tickets when they learned of the error.  Most others have not followed this path.

Now, the airline industry is famously ruthless, and I'm sure we all have our share of horror stories about how this or that particular airline ruthlessly ripped us off, resulting in ill-will and a host of negative feelings.  Trust me, I have my stories as well.  Still, the current case brings to the forefront a certain tension that deserves and demands to be studied:

The very reason we as Jews value the land of Israel so much is our religious/historical connection to the land of our forefathers and because of the divine imperative to live in our land to be a people uniquely righteous and just.  The whole point of having a land is that we're supposed to be a nation that goes above and beyond (no pun intended) to distance ourselves from dishonesty.  Certainly, Shimon ben Shetach understood the importance of yahsrus, acting in a moral and decent manner, especially when it comes to monetary arrangements.  He understood this even when dealing with an Arab merchant, someone who did not belong to his people.  A lot of ink has been spilled about the legal obligations of the purchasers in our case (see here for Rabbi Gil Student's analysis).  In a similar case, when the seller made an error, Shimon ben Shetach's inquiry was much simpler and easy to understand.

If we hope to reflect positively on our benevolent and loving creator, we'd best start not only to distance ourselves from the financial scandals that ruin our God's name, but to act morally and justly in the ambiguous and difficult cases as well.  Going to the Land of Israel by cheating El Al out of their due is a perversion of justice, and compromises the integrity of the very land we pine after.        

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jewish [dis]unity

Achdus.  Jewish Unity.  These days, it's all the rage in the Orthodox Jewish world.  Countless events, publications, and more, are all named with the goal of Jewish unity in mind.  Earlier this year, an Orthodox Union magazine was titled, "Jewish Unity - It Begins With You" and contained a mirror on the front cover.  I cite this merely as an example of the prominence of the movement.  It's become a catchphrase, a buzzword, in the Jewish world.  Since assuming a position as a pulpit Rabbi, people frequently ask me, "[a]re you for Jewish unity?", as if such a complex question and topic can be answered in one word.  What exactly does unity mean, I wonder.  Unity of opinion? Purpose? Dress?  That we can all get along on some level?  Does serious disagreement run counter to Jewish unity?   

My post this morning is not really about Jewish unity, but is tangentially related.  When people praise the ever sought after Jewish unity, the praise often goes as follows:  "There were so many people doing 'x' together; some were wearing knitted kippot, some velvet kippot, black hats, straw hats, streimelach, bare heads, all in the same room at the same time."  Invariably, the mark of unity is that people wearing different styles of clothes, now used to identify people with a specific stream or subculture within the Jewish world, have come together for a particular event or cause.  But why the focus on dress?

More and more, it seems that dress has become the marker of how identify, judge, and relate to others within our community.  Now, it's obviously true that the clothes a person chooses to wear reflect something about their choices and preferences.  Wearing the garb associated with a particular subgroup within the Jewish community no doubt does tell us something.  But increasingly, it seems we no longer allow for slight variance or individuality, but prefer the superficial prejudice of costume as a near absolute.  

When determining the religious preferences of individuals, the focus (for men and women) is almost entirely on dress.  "They look like a frumme yid (serious Jew in Yiddish)."  Rather than focusing primarily and mainly on the character of individuals as markers of quality, the focus is primarily on dress.  People can abuse, steal rob, etc., but as long as they dress in the costume, their status is affirmed.  If someone, for whatever reasons, chooses to forego the costume (think Mattisyahu, who recently shaved the beard and abandoned much of the classic Chassidic dress), they are likely no longer to be trusted.  People who choose not to wear kippot or yarmulkes, as they're popularly known, are not considered serious.  No matter the charity work they do, that they are always there for those in need, or that they pray and study with diligence on a daily basis.  

I myself have witnessed such things on multiple occasions in my short time in the Rabbinate.  Person 'x' will be specifically banned from performing certain functions (for example, a Kosher food supervisor or other role) merely because we "don't trust someone who dresses like that."  There's something toxic out there, and we're so deep in I'm afraid we're totally blinded.

It's now the month of Av, when we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temples that twice stood there, the idolatry that preceded the Babylonian invasion and communal discord and fracture that preceded the Roman version, and the resulting exiles.  Today, dress has become our idol, borne from superficiality, prejudice, and a desire to feel included and exclude the other.  Praising an event for its unity based on the variety of dress is paradoxical and perplexing.  Time for us all to engage in some serious reflection this year.   

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

George Washington's Letter . . .

Here in the United States, today is the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our independence from Great Britain.  Really, though, it's the day we celebrate our freedoms, liberties, and the important principles of respect and tolerance that make those liberties a reality for all of us.  These were the bedrock principles of our great nation, and continue to remain alive and well today.  In fact, the scope of our allegiance to these principles has grown larger, in some sense, to include blacks, women, and other groups that couldn't fairly have joined in celebration back in 1776.  

In August of 1790, George Washington issued a brief yet profound letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, commenting on our great then-nascent nation and the promise of tolerance for all people, Jews included.  So simple and straightforward, yet this idea has been so elusive in the history of our people.  I'm proud to say that George Washington's promise has absolutely been fulfilled; there is indeed a historical example of a politician making grand promises and having those promises completely fulfilled.  Today, in commemoration of July 4th, the highly acclaimed National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia is displaying the original copy of George Washington's letter for free from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm. In that spirit, I've decided to post the letter here, and urge everyone to read it carefully, and take some time today to reflect on the great accomplishments of the United States.  We owe our thanks to God, the founders, and all of the men and women who have fought,served, and sacrificed (militarily and otherwise) to preserve the liberty so precious to us all.  

George Washington's Letter

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.
If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy--a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants--while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
G. Washington       

(letter copied from

Happy 4th!!!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bird's Eye View

It's been an exciting news day, given all of the hoopla around the much anticipated Supreme Court decision released this morning.  However, Shabbat is still approaching and I thought it would be worthwhile to publish some thoughts and musings on the weekly parsha (Torah selection).  The following is an essay I submitted to the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) for their weekly d'var Torah; it was motivated in part by my honest concern about the overall direction of the public view of rabbinic leadership, and in part by some of the following questions: 

1) Why was the punishment of Moshe and Aharon seemingly so severe?
2) Why were both Moshe and Aharon punished when Moshe seems to be the only culpable party?
3) Why was Moshe specifically instructed to take his staff to the rock if he was only intended to speak to the rock but not to hit it?

And now, the text:

One of the central events in the entire Torah, the punishment of Moshe and Aharon, occurs in this week’s reading.  Moshe is commanded to take his staff, and Moshe and Aharon are commanded, “speak to the rock,” (Numbers 20:8) in an effort to bring forth water and provide faith to an increasingly impatient and unsatisfied people.  As we all know, things didn’t go as planned, and Moshe and Aharon are condemned to an early death before reaching the Promised Land.
There are many different explanations of this seemingly harsh punishment provided in the rishonim and later commentaries.  Rashi explains that the Moshe’s sin and the resulting punishment are the result of his striking the rock; God’s command was to speak to the rock, and “striking” was mentioned on this occasion.  Others explain that the primary error was Moshe’s statement, “[h]ear now you rebels, shall we fetch you water out of this rock?”  The use of the word “we” implied that Moshe and Aharon were performing the miracle of their own volition, robbing God of the credit he was owed.  Other alternative explanations abound.
In his excellent series Amittah shel Torah, Rabbi Yitzhak Twersky convincingly argues that there were many related elements to the sin.  A better understanding of the whole picture puts the sin and resulting punishment in the proper perspective.  The people of Israel had consistently made the mistake of denying the divinity of their mission, instead assuming that Moshe and Aharon were at the lead.  During the incident of the golden calf, the people referred to Moshe as “the man” who had brought them out of Egypt.  In fact, it was this initial characterization which necessitated a replacement for Moshe upon his supposed loss on the mountaintop in the first place.  Afterwards, it was Korach and his companions who questioned Moshe’s inability to lead the people to the land of Canaan.  “Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, and dost thou also make thyself a prince over us?  Moreover, thou hast not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of the fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men?  We will not come up” (Numbers 16: 13-14).  Here, Korach is criticizing Moshe for his failures, willfully ignorant of the fact that it is indeed God’s mission, with Moshe merely acting as messenger.
                In this week’s reading, the trend continues.  Explicitly identifying themselves as sympathizers with Korach’s complaint, the people proclaim, “[w]ould that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord!  And why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?  And why have you made us come up out of Mitzrayim, to bring us into this evil place?  It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, nor is there any water to drink” (Numbers 20: 3-5).  The people express their regret at not having joined Korach’s rebellion, and then echo his complaints almost verbatim. 
It is in this context that a teachable moment presented itself.  Miriam had just passed away, and God wanted to reinforce the message that no mortal had taken the people out of Egypt, tasking them with a special historical mission and a land all their own.  The death of one of the members of the family of Moshe and Aharon was the perfect time to reinforce the notion of the mortality of the leadership and the pre-eminence of God in history.  This was especially necessary given the fevered pitch of the community’s complaints.  Therefore, God commanded Moshe to speak to the rock, as the miracle would be more obviously from God, and clearly not the product of Moshe’s own action.  It is in this context that Moshe’s use of the term “we,” combined with the more natural “striking” of the rock completely undermined God’s plan and served to reinforce the people’s erroneous beliefs.  Moshe’s staff was to be used as an agent of instruction, pointing to God as the author of miracles; instead, it suggested the opposite. 
                With this understanding, the “harsh punishment” meted out to Moshe and Aharon no longer seems as arbitrary, but rather a cogent response to the situation that was.  To enter the land of Israel, the people would need to clearly understand that it was God who had sent them on a divine mission, and that the observance of his commandments and fulfillment of his ideals was their raison d’être.  Having Moshe and Aharon die without entering the land was now necessary as the ultimate reinforcement of this point.  This would be the only way to demonstrate to the people that Moshe and Aharon had not decided individually to leave Egypt and enter Canaan, and that they possessed no special supernatural powers.  God was the driving force behind it all. 
                In our current religious climate, there is a fundamentally disturbing trend that is growing by the day.  Reverence for leadership has grown into something dangerous, and what started out as an upright respect for those who chose piety and study has become perverted at the core.  In the modern day, the trend to idolize Rabbis to an excessive degree has grown, and has even contaminated more moderate streams of Orthodox observance that would seem naturally averse to such pressures.  People regularly engage in conversations focused entirely on the merits of individual leaders, and leaders themselves often focus on their own “kavod” in ways that seem self-serving and disingenuous.  As religious leaders in positions of power, it is incumbent upon us to take to heart the central lesson of this week’s reading.  Our job is to point to God and explain why honor is His.  Idolizing a particular individual necessarily detracts from the honor due to God; the time is long past to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction.  To the extent that respect for the teachers of God’s law detracts from our focus on the divine, then respect has gone too far and its purpose entirely uprooted.  May we continue to advance a style of leadership that doesn’t disproportionately focus on the honor due ourselves, and remember that our primary mission is not to promote our own leadership but to promote the leadership of our Father in heaven.     

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lessons of Leadership

When reviewing this past week's Torah reading, I was tortured by a horribly unpleasant thought.  The reading begins with God commissioning a scouting mission, whereby selected leaders from the the twelve tribes of Israel would go to scout out the land.  The Malbim, a precise and exacting later commentary, notes that one person was sent from each tribe because each tribe was being apportioned a separate piece of land; the scouting mission was something of an ancient pilot trip.  Each tribe's representative could report back about the economic and other advantages of the specific parcel of land allotted to that tribe.  It goes without saying that these scouts weren't supposed to question the ultimate mission, but either to plan for the upcoming arrival more properly, or else to assuage any fears that might exist among the public.

Fast forward, and the rest is history.  Despite direct promises from God that He (the same God who had taken these same leaders out of Egypt with just a few miraculous episodes would lead them into the promised land, and that this was their ultimate destiny, they revolted and tried to sabotage the entire mission. "We can't do it," they exclaimed.  "We're not strong enough, and defeat is all but certain," or so the complaint may have sounded.  But who were these "scouts" who ignored the simple and obvious plan of God?  Surely, they weren't the major leaders of the generation; a majority of a generation's righteous leaders would never commit such an error.

The Torah informs us otherwise.  "[T]hey were all men of stature, leaders of the children of Israel" (Numbers 13:3).  Somehow, ten of the twelve leaders of the people, reputed by our tradition to be wise, spiritually unique tribal heads erred by ignoring the simple and obvious charge of the divine call.  The people listened, and disastrous consequences ensued.

I can't help but painfully admit that we're in a shockingly similar situation in the modern day.  Many of our "leaders" remind us of the Jewish law principle that decisions go after majority rule.  This is emphasized by the Torah's command (אחרי רבים להטות), and the famous story of the "Tanur Shel Achnai."  Still, it now seems like a huge number of these same "leaders," I fear encroaching on a majority, have accepted norms directly opposed to God's given command.

Modern day self-proclaimed leaders now promote niche interests focused to an extreme and grossly distorted version of Jewish law.  Nowhere is this more true than in areas of child abuse.  I'll state in unequivocally; we have a major problem with abuse in our community.  Now, normative Jewish law demands that we turn in the abusers to protect the public, and because the laws of the United States are fair and just (for those halachists out there, no prohibition of Mesira applies in these cases).  Further, Jewish law demands that we protect innocent children and shield them from this kind of harm.

 Still, righteous leaders (many many big names included) of Agudath Israel proclaim, most recently in Misphacha magazine, that complaints must first be heard by Rabbis, untrained in these areas, who will determine if the complaints are credible.  This seems like a clear violation of mandatory reporting provisions in civil law.  This seems like a difficult reading of the halacha.  All of this combined with a culture that opposes stronger laws in these areas and a street culture that actively harasses victims and their supporters while holding rallies for and financially supporting criminals.  This is just one of many areas where the leadership, to follow the metaphor, is leading us to spiritual death in the wilderness and far away from the Holy land.  I'll say it as clearly as I can; we have a major problem with leaders totally and absolutely unfit to rule in our communities.  On this issue, leaders should be seen supporting the victims and leading the charge against abuse.  Instead, we are dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. 

The Jewish people are supposed to be a light unto the nations.  For thousands of years, our religion has served as a shining example of morality, diligence, family values, commitment to community, education, social justice, and support for those who need it most.  We brought humanity monotheism and the Ten Commandments, and have left an indelible impression on the moral makeup of our society.  How sad that we no longer continue to lead, instead ignoring God's commands in favor of our own bizarre partisan protectionism (not just on the abuse issue, I just chose it as the most egregious), and the world repays us by teaching us about the very justice we once introduced.  Let's stand up and reclaim the mantle of Judaism from those who would assert they represent the tradition, when in fact, we must reluctantly but forcefully admit they are leading us far far away from the promised land.       

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Yoga vs. Shul: Round 2 - ה' שפתי תפתח

Last post, I wrote about the externals of the synagogue experience and how that relates to prayer.  Plainly, the post wasn't about the specifics of prayer (why we pray, what we pray for, etc.), but rather the idea that whatever prayer is or ought to be, it will require a meditative type of atmosphere to allow for regular success.  Many posted useful comments on the blog and elsewhere, and I hope to address/discuss some of those comments in future posts.  If you are reading and feel that you have thoughts you'd like to contribute on the subject, I'd welcome guest posts (under my discretion) in this area.

Prayer is one of the most significant and common activities that occurs in Judaism, and we've got to do a better job at getting it right, discussing what it means, and fully examining all things prayer - this includes the atmosphere, text, purpose, methods, etc.  For many practicing Jews throughout the world, prayer forms one of the central religious experiences.  Wouldn't it be something if daily prayer was more of the transformative experience it was intended to be.  Of course, this isn't to say that prayer doesn't work now . . . just that I think we can do better collectively, to make prayer consistently more meaningful, the same way a good yoga instructor or meditation leader does everything possible to create a favorable experience.

Today, however, I wanted to focus on the opening lines of the Amidah, the recitation that forms the central text of our daily prayer.  The Talmud notes (Berachot 4b) that Rabbi Yochanan felt we should say the phrase,"ה' שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך" before we say the amidah, the central prayer in each Jewish prayer service.  In translation, the phrase reads "My Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth will tell of your praise."  Initially, the Talmud asks why this doesn't represent an unauthorized interruption into the prayer.  After all, the paragraph immediately preceding (about being redeemed from Egypt) is required to be directly connected with the prayer itself.  The Talmud's answer is telling; namely, this phrase is indeed part of the prayer in some way, and is therefore not an interruption.  Based upon this answer in the Talmud, Rav Soloveitchik ruled that the prayer leader should recite this phrase out loud before his public repetition of the Amidah.

What is so essential about this phrase?  At its root, prayer is about a conversation with the divine, and a communion with God.  Whatever the reason behind prayer, it definitely assumes the form of a conversation between the petitioner and God.  Each time we pray, the temptation is to merely recite the words in the prayer book as if they are undirected words.  This, however, is not prayer, but a mere recitation of words from a book.  Proper prayer requires a God-consciousness, and is then followed by a meaningful statement directed to God.

In order to stress this, Rabbi Yochanan inserted a line that speaks straight to the point.  Even at the very moment we engage in the act of prayer, we do so only as creatures created and sustained by God, and the very posture of being means that we are engaged in a relationship with the Divine.  It is God who allows us to open up our mouths, and so it is God who indeed opens in some sense.  Before prayer, we are intended to meditate on our dependence on God, and establish in our hearts and minds the deep relationship that exists.  Then, prayer is a possibility.  This is the clear and obvious meaning of the phrase.

Sadly, I fear that the moving message upon which our prayer is predicated has been lost.  This phrase has been lost as it is mumbled out of habit and haste, and it certainly does not serve in any practical way as a preliminary meditation.  In any synagogue, one sees people bowing and moving onto the next words the instant the individual prayers begin.  This means that few are taking the time to first reflect on their relationship with God, and further demonstrates that the whole exercise of prayer has become broken to the extreme.  Let us all (myself included) re-examine Rabbi Yochanan's introduction; meditation upon our relationship with God is the necessary introduction to any dialogue with the Divine, and prayer absent this meditation is missing the foundation.        

Monday, April 23, 2012

Yoga vs. Shul: Round 1

Tonight, I went to a Yoga class at the local JCC.  Lasting for one (quick) hour, the class encouraged mindful consideration of body position, energy, relationship to the surrounding environment, and more.  The mood was peaceful, and highly conducive for contemplative and meditative types of experiences.  Lighting was set just so, and the instructor calmly talked us through in a way that helped aid our efforts. Feeling rejuvenated, energized, and more mindful, I left just in time to go to the daily mincha/maariv prayer service at my Synagogue.  

It was there that I was struck by the difference in atmosphere, and just how far we have to go to improve the nature of our services.  Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan certainly popularized the still unfamiliar notion that authentic Jewish prayer is a meditative experience.  Now, many in our synagogues are aware of the idea.  The Talmud in Berachot recounts how the early sages used to prepare for an hour, pray for an hour, and then spend an hour poised in post-prayer contemplation. 

Now, I'm not saying we have to spend three hours praying, but is the Synagogue environment conducive to a true prayer experience in its current iteration?  Even on a weekday afternoon prayer, when the text is not overly burdensome or lengthy, it is very difficult to be in the right frame of mind.  For one, few synagogues pay serious attention to whether the lighting is conducive for a meditative experience.  Further, the parts of the prayers that are said out loud are rushed.  The yoga instructor used calm tones and relaxed pacing to help create the right atmosphere; our baalei tefillah should be instructed to do the same.  Racing through ashrei and the kaddish before the silent devotion can ruin or constitute a serious setback to the prayer experience.  Lastly, sound and quiet whispering begins in almost all synagogues about 30 seconds to a minute into the silent devotion.  Even if everyone is silent, the clang of charity falling into the pushka (while well intentioned) is completely disruptive to the mood.  Charity is important, but should be given before or after the the silent devotion, not during!   

This isn't meant as an indictment of our synagogue or any other synagogue, but a call to action.  We should be seeking to create a peaceful prayer environment, in order to better help the mood.  Is it any wonder that calls for increased synagogue attendance are falling on deaf ears.  Let's make some serious changes, and when shul becomes a place conducive to spirituality and an authentic Jewish prayer experience, we'll have myriads of lost souls knocking at the doors . . . 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Making of a Meaningful Passover Seder

Part I

For years, one of the arguments used as a justification for affirmative action has been "diversity."  Academic institutions have incorporated race and other such factors into their admission decisions, claiming that such practices are necessary to advance the cause of education.  

Truthfully, I've always felt that race was a rather shallow and imprecise way of ensuring diversity of viewpoint and robust classroom discussion.  Here is a description of the reasons for my discomfort: I very strongly agree with the assertion that diversity of opinion is vital to an educational environment.  Further, I agree that academic institutions are more than justified, perhaps obligated, to promulgate diversity of viewpoint and experience through their admissions processes.  Where I have trouble is in the use of race as a primary factor in establishing diversity of viewpoint.  If we are truly seeking to live in a society that is color-blind, as Martin Luther King Jr. so strongly and passionately articulated, why should we presume that people will have varied opinions on the basis of race.  While it is in fact true that racial identification does correlate with political, social, religious, and other beliefs, by using race as the indicator, we further the notion that there are inherent differences in human beings which can be fairly judged (or at least assumed for the purposes of admission) based on race. 

Rather, college admissions might be better off asking for candidates to describe their background, family, and upbringing, describing how it has shaped their political, religious, and social views.  Diversity of experience, background, and opinion are all incredibly important; why not ask about these things directly, rather than through the intermediary guise of race?  I truly believe that by using race as the overwhelming criteria, we continue to foster prejudices and do ourselves a disservice, however well-intentioned.  

Part II

I expect that many of you will voice various concerns or disagree with sections of what I wrote above.  That's expected, and the point of a blog.  This section is the main point I wanted to make; the above is just a related thought. 

This year, I was incredibly fortunate, and my wife and I were able to host incredible and meaningful sedarim at our house.  What made the nights special was largely the people who attended, their participation, sincerity, enthusiasm, and diversity.  While all of us were of one race (as best I could tell), there was tremendous diversity present.  Some were college students, some high school students, others children.  We had adults at various stages of their lives.  We had Republicans, Democrats, Independents, a variety of religious outlooks and denominations, and more.  What this led to was productive, meaningful, and inspiring dialogue all grounded in the text of the Haggadah and the Passover rituals we hold so dear.  

Many people approached me this year and inquired as to what they might do to have a more meaningful seder.  At the time, I wasn't sure.  Now, I'd say that the one of the most important things is to make a concerted effort to invite people from different walks of life.  It certainly enhanced my holiday, and made it one of the most meaningful in recent memory.   

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Limited Patience and Cruel Bondage

It's been way too long without a post, and I apologize for that.  We've all been there, where the myriad of to-do list items can best be compared to cockroaches in Manhattan.  For those who haven't had the fortune of living through it first hand, I'll share my experience.  During the night, when the nocturnal space-alien like creatures invade, a killing spree is the only solution.  Despite best efforts, their numbers only grow by the day.  Think of the midrashic interpretation of multiplying frogs.  This metaphor could aptly describe our e-mail inboxes, cell phones, etc.  We're simply overloaded.

Now, let's turn our focus to a verse in last week's Torah reading.  God commands Moshe to tell the people about his plan to lead them out of Egypt; in response, the people don't listen.  It's not that they object, per se.  The people were incapable of  listening because of קצר רוח, shortness of spirit or lack of patience, and because of עבודה קשה, burdensome work.  The difficult task before them was too overwhelming, and so the collective spirit of the Israelites was crushed.  There was no room for a spiritual message of freedom, human respect, and the worship of the only true God.  Concerns about mortar production, the exhaustion of physical labor, and the monotony of the awful routine prevented any introspection.

How true this rings in our own day.  On a personal level, I've often felt that I sorely neglect my relationship with my Creator, serious thought about important religious, moral, ethical, or philosophical issues, family, friends, and others, simply by being stuck in the busy routine.  For some, it's work.  For others, it's technology.  For others, the monotonous routine of religious life itself can provide the very ironic framework for a distraction from all that is important.  We simply don't have time to meditate, reflect, prioritize, plan, and consider.  Whether it's looking backward, forward, or at the present itself, there's rarely a moment to breathe.

How important, then, that in memory of our being taken out of Egypt, we are commanded to rest and cease "doing" each week.  This is as much a pleas as a confession.  Rest on the Sabbath doesn't merely entail a technical compliance with the rules.  Additionally, there are also other competing aspects to the Sabbath.  These include prayer, community, family, and more.  As the Rabbi of a synagogue, the Sabbath is a jam-packed day (not complaining, just noting).  Still, the physical ability to rest from the relentless bustle of the work week does provide a truly unique opportunity.  We are so fortunate to have the day built-in to the calendar.  This week, let's all try and take a little quiet time to reflect and hear God's call, the same one we were too busy to hear all those years ago.  Even though we're no longer slaves in Egypt, we're still slaves in many senses of the word.  A few private moments to close the eyes, think, reflect, connect . . . this has to be part of Shabbat.  We work very hard to prepare the Sabbath meal, and rightfully so.  We wouldn't dare think of skipping out on the meal.  Let's not spend some weeks skipping the spiritual component either.

שבת שלום ומבורך