On Shtiebelization and Baltimore

As a 2nd generation Baltimorian (Baltimoron is actually incorrect) with yiches and a sense of perspective, I wanted to record my thoughts, if not outright critique, of the posting by R’ Yitzchak Adlerstein on the Baltimore community and Shomrei Emunah in particular.
It’s true that Baltimore is a unique community in the United States. It’s probably the best place to be a balabos in America. I’m neither, though. I had a debate with a student from Teaneck once about which frum community is bigger, Teaneck or Baltimore. I know that Baltimore dwarfs Teaneck, but this student was clinging to his New-York-centric misconceptions. He compared the number of Kosher eateries in Teaneck to the number in Baltimore. Fair point. There are more in Teaneck.
Then we switched to shuls. There are at least twice as many Orthodox synagogues in Baltimore as there are in Teaneck, if not three times as many. It’s not that Baltimore is ‘shtiebelized’, although there are a great many shtieblach in Baltimore. There are just that many shuls. Most of Baltimore’s large shuls started out as shtieblach, though. They just kept growing, knocked down the house and built a building or just added on to the existing building. My grandfather had a shtiebl in Baltimore. The classic kind. He and his family lived upstairs, and the shul was downstairs. When he built it, there was no other local minyan.
That’s not the type of shtiebl that R’ Adlerstein is criticizing, though. He’s talking about when grumpy people form breakaways. At a certain point, though, there need to be more shuls. Geography and minhag are real factors.
Either way, shtieblach tend to grow up, eventually. As the shul grows and its constituents get older, they need social halls, larger buildings, a full-time Rabbi, etc. Makeshift solutions are temporary by definition.
With regard to Shomrei in particular, I find it to be very ironic that the shul being extolled as a paradigm for large-shul inclusiveness started off, as its name indicates, as the right-wing breakaway from a large Orthodox shul (in this case, Pickwick Jewish Center). I’m sure there were some very justifiable reasons for the break-away. But breakaway it was. The congregation bought a house just 2 doors away from PJC. Eventually, PJC sold their building to Shomrei, which became the ‘big shul’ in the neighborhood and continues to grow.
It’s also worth mentioning that ‘right-wing’ at Shomrei isn’t so far right, and the left isn’t so far left. Within a block or two of it, there’s a shul that’s more to the left, and a shul (maybe even two) more to the right. That allows it to maintain a certain distance from fringe elements. There would be many more inclusive shuls around if the extreme elements on either side could be bled off. There also aren’t any particular families which dominate the politics or insist on throwing their weight around, which makes for smooth functioning. It has truly defied the odds in keeping a reasonably diverse constituency happy, and with a Rav who can be appreciated by the different groups. Yes, it’s a testament to the Rav, to the community, and to the city, but also to a set of fortuitous circumstances.
One very wise move they’ve done is basically to ‘shtiebelize’ the big shul. There are a ton of minyanim there. You essentially have the benefits of big-shul membership and a shtiebel all in one. I think it’s an excellent paradigm, which exists elsewhere as well. Woodmere comes to mind (for it’s ‘diversity’ as well as the plethora-of-minyanim-in-a-big-shul paradigm). If you don’t like the Rav’s drasha – you can go to hashkama or the ‘beis medrash minyan’.
I’m a fan of this paradigm as the best of all worlds. I see a value in having a big shul, but also see the value of having shtieblach. Shuls serve a variety of religious and social functions; neither the cathedral-synagogue not the shtiebl will satisfy both. Creating paradigms where different combinations are available within the same shul complex (or ‘Synaplex’, to go a bit further afield) is very healthy, I think.


I find the entire kitniyot discussion to be extremely annoying. Extremely.

First of all, the word ‘kitniyot’. It doesn’t mean ‘legumes’. It means ‘little things’. That’s what the word means. There was a Pesach ban, at some point that is shrouded in mystery, for some reason that is shrouded in mystery, on little things that grow and are edible. Over time, the category has grown to include new little growing edible things that were discovered (fortunately, like grains, only little edible things that grow from the ground were included in the ban; can you imagine Pesach without chocolate or coffee?), like soy, peanuts, corn and most recently quinoa.

Generally, we don’t extend the scope of gezeirot if there’s no compelling reason to. Normal halakhic reasoning would note that any grain that was unknown in Europe at the time of the gezera (certainly before the 13th century) shouldn’t be problematic. Thus, soy, corn, peanuts, and certainly quinoa would be fine. Unless you take a stance that the ban included all little edible things that grow from the ground, even if they are as yet undiscovered. Of course, I have no idea why one would take such a position, especially since we’re dealing with a derabanan (see also Igrot Moshe OC 3:63).

I also can’t understand why oils made from plants that are not generally eaten would be considered kitniyot. Even if the derivatives of edible things (like corn oil) are included in the ban, why would things like rapeseed oil (known to us in its more popular variety, Canola Oil) be considered kitniyot? People don’t eat rapeseed, in any form! Cottonseed oil goes without saying. Only hippies eat linseed oil, and even then, as a type of organic supplement and not as a food. The rest of us use it to make clothing. And nobody eats marijuana (I’m like, doin’ biur chametz, man…).

I’m not ready to go all the way and eat things that I don’t think are kitniyot but many do consider kitniyot – yet. Corn and soy will stay of the list this year. However, my 2-year-old son lives on peanut butter, and I’m not going to deny him that this week. Last year, I found a whole bunch of old haggadah’s with Planters’ ads in them, reinforcing for me the oft-heard claim that peanuts became kitniyot in the past generation. I’d stay away from them myself as a symbolic way of saying ‘Screw you, Jimmy Carter’.

If I could get a hold of some quinoa, I’d use it for karpas – ‘le-hotzee mi-liban…’. Maybe next year I’ll use peanuts for karpas. I’d love to use tortilla chips and dip them in salsa. Karpas is hors d’oeuvre.

Regarding this recent psak of R’ David Bar Hayim, it’s apparently consistent with his general approach to halakha and Eretz Yisrael. I can’t say I’m a fan of his approach to lo titgodedu – more on that in a different post – but he’s got a worked-out position. I’m not into the idea that folks will use the individual rulings of an idiosyncratic posek to dispense with an inconvenient minhag.

Lechem Oni

Last year, I posted that I saw a ‘peirush’ that explained that ‘Lechem Oni’ got its name from the fact that since it’s very hard to digest, it keeps people from being hungry despite only having a little bit of food. I saw it again today: it’s the Orchos Chaim in the name of R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, who quoted from someone who had seen this bread served to inmates in an Indian prison.

The truth of this definition still resonates.


Pesach Posts

I've updated the category links so that stuff that I wrote for past Pesachs would be easy to find. I was just reading it. It's good stuff. When did I stop being so creative? It's really kind of scary.


Wanted: A Goy Who Really Likes Beer

For the past few years, I’ve made myself available as an agent to sell chametz. At UMD, I’d sell for like 300 ppl. per year. Here in Israel it’s a bit slower because there are so many rabbanim available to do it, and there are even websites which let you do it completely online. What I do, as in years past, is have some forms available, and also post the form to the web, so anyone can download it and bring it over to me. As you can see, the form I use (which is the standard RCA form) leaves space for the seller to estimate the value of the chametz being sold.

Well, it just so happens that one of my ‘clients’ it the proud owner of the Dancing Camel Brewery. Needless to say, this man owns a heck of a lot of chametz. So whichever lucky gentile purchases this man’s chametz can have a really fun week (although the brewer is hosting a Pre-Pesach Keg Party this Thursday night at the brewery, so stocks will be somewhat depleted).

This evening, we were trying to dream up ways to brew a Kosher for Passover beer. We actually had an idea. You’d start with a mild honey or potato beer, but then add roasted barley (since it’s already roasted, it can’t become leaven, unless you don’t eat gebrokhts) like you would to a stout beer. You’d end up with something that might just be halfway decent. We’ll let you know how the experiment goes.


Funny as Hell or Chilul Hashem?

Apparently, some chassidishe rebbele attached a retrofitted school bus to his house and converted it into a matzah bakery. Unbelievable. It’s really ingenious. Too bad it violated building codes and safety regulations like crazy. Then again, building code violations are ticketable offenses, not crimes. And apparently even the cops said that it wasn’t terribly dangerous.

Nevertheless, we’re generally very, very careful to keep the matzah under close scrutiny from when the wheat is reaped, sometimes even before, and some of us, Chassidim mostly, won’t eat matzah that has become wet, in case there’s an unbaked flour particle in there. Just as we wouldn’t want the tiniest bit of chametz to get into the matzah, wouldn’t one also want his matzah to be as free from any moral wrong as possible (ok, matzah bakeries are like sweatshops, but it’s hard not to sweat when you’ve got a superhot oven going)? I’m done moralizing.

It sounds like the cops had a sense of humor about this. I’m glad.

I will now pose a challenge to Chabad: Can you guys figure out how to drive the thing through town? You can have the le-shem matzos mitzvahmobile!


When Secular Law Confronts Religious Law

How do we respond when secular legislation runs counter to religious law? Well, it obviously depends. If there is legislation which specifically targets Jewish practice, even if it’s not obligatory, we say yehareg ve-al ya’avor. If it’s not specifically against Jewish practice, but nevertheless flies in the face of our obligations, we lobby, fight, and often just do it anyway. An example would be a law against circumcision.

But if it’s a general law against something non-obligatory, then it must be observed. Swiss Jews have learned to live with imported meat. Jews in Western countries have adapted quite nicely to regimes that prohibit slavery and polygamy. We’ve gotten over the fact that American law won’t let men marry their nieces or very young girls. Whether it’s ideal or not, the fact that we obey the law of the land – indeed, are obligated to obey it- is a foregone conclusion.

Apparently, however, this is not so obvious to our monotheistic cousins. This fact alone should not be terribly shocking, especially coming from a religion that aspires to global domination (don’t we all). [Though, as Larry points out, this doesn't really say anything about the Muslim position either. It's about one jerk hiding behind the Koran and one wacky judge buying it.]

What’s surprising, even shocking, is that a German court upheld this worldview. This is absolutely incredible! A woman is denied a divorce from a husband who beats her because the Koran says it’s muttar (is sharia the Arabic word for muttar? In Aramaic it’s shari)? The Koran also says it’s muttar to kill infidels. Maybe the judge is not saying that it’s muttar, just not grounds to sue for a religious divorce. You sleep in the bed you make. But here the issue is not just divorce, but the safety and wellbeing of the woman’s kids. Send hubby back to Morocco.


“A Black Day for Women”?

For the first time in three years, Israel appointed new dayanim to its rabbinical court system. 15 were appointed, of whom 12 are charedi. The Religious-Zionist world is shraying chai ve-kayam, and women’s organizations like Kolech, ICAR, Mavui Satum, Emunah, and Na’ama”t are calling it a “black day for women” because of what this will mean for agunot.

The Israeli Reform movement called the appointments a “slap in the face” to Religious-Zionists, but this is what they can expect from now on, and this is what they get for supporting an Orthodox religious monopoly for all those years. Too true.

Tzohar weighed in as well, all over the place, making the basic claim that nobody but them really knows how to deal with the man on the street. I’d argue with them on two counts (other people do, too; they don’t always), but that’s for another time.

Justice Minister Daniel Freidmann said that the R-Z are full of baloney, because when they actually had a say in rabbinical court appointments, they didn’t do squat for agunot. Good point. It is hard for any court to force a guy to give a get.

Ha’aretz laments that only one of the judges has a background in law. No kidding. Perhaps they should expand their understanding of law to include Choshen Mishpat.

I saw the list of names. I actually recognize three as ramim at KBY: R’ Yishai Buchris, R’ Tzion Luz, and R’ Zvi Birnbaum. Are all three Religious-Zionist appointees KBY ramim? Or are not all of the charedi appointees actually charedi? Remember, Chief Rabbi Metzger, a KBY guy, was the charedi candidate.

What is really upsetting people is not the agunah issue (because nobody is attacking the reconrds of any of these dayanim on the issue, with the exception of one dayan who once performed a wedding after a heter me’ah rabbanim) or the fact that the courts are being haredized (which they are). It’s politics. The decisions were made before the meeting began, and NRP was left out of the loop. So now they cry about how they were left out in the cold while the charedi parties increase their hegemony over the religious establishment. Chaimi Navon put it well – NRP wasn’t bothered by this as long as it was on the inside.

I also think that the automatic reaction that charedi dayanim are a disaster for women is downright prejudiced. Not every charedi is a misogynist. True, there are dayanim who are performing a form of ‘afkinhu rabbanan le-gittin minei’ by retroactively disqualifying divorce documents. And it may well be that this new crop is a disaster as well. On the other hand, we should probably wait and see before passing judgment.

At the end of the day, though, the whole thing stinks because everybody is related to everybody else. There is high demand and short supply for these appointments, so protexia is the name of the game. It’s not just about being qualified anymore. So maybe these guys are good, maybe not. It definitely wasn’t a factor in their appointments, though. And that, more than anything else, is what alienates the people from the dayanim (well, that and the fact that religious law is enforced by the state in matters of personal status, like marriage, divorce, and conversion).

It’s silly to protest political appointments. Politics is politics. Either deal with it, or start agitating for major reforms like civil marriages (like Chana Kehat of Kolech recently did - link). If the system stinks, then get rid of it (or ignore it) but don’t complain that you didn’t get a large enough piece of the pie.


The Heartland of Basketball

I don’t have a lot of free time on my hands, but I took a few minutes to check something out. I wanted to figure out, based on the number of teams each state has in the tournament, which areas of the United States are most basketball-crazed. There are certain states that are known for being fanatical about basketball – namely, Indiana and North Carolina. Those two states are not particularly close to each other, though. So I did some figuring, and here’s what I came up with. I’d like to do the same for previous years, but it would be time consuming. Anyone have connections at the Elias Sports Bureau or some other company that would be interested in this type of thing.

As we all know, there are 50 states in the U.S., plus the District of Columbia. Of those 51, there are 20 that have no representation in this tournament. Of the remaining 31 states (incl. DC) 13 have only one team representing them. That means that 52 of the 65 teams (incl. the play-in game) are produced by 18 states (incl. DC).

But it gets better. 9 of those states (again, incl. DC) have 2 teams each, which leaves 34 teams, more than half the field, from just 9 states. Those 9 include the 2 most populous states: Texas and California, with 5 and 4 teams, respectively.

The other 25 teams are from 7 states which all happen to be contiguous. They are: North Carolina (3), Virginia (4), Tennessee (4), Kentucky (3), Indiana (4), Ohio (4), and Pennsylvania (3). This would seem to indicate that basketball’s heartland roughly corresponds with the Ohio Valley region, give or take, with some extension toward the Mid-Altantic.


The Women who Congregated

And he made the bronze laver and its bronze base from the mirrors of the [female] congregators, who congregated at the doorway of the ‘Ohel Mo’ed. (Shemot 38:8)

And Eli was old, and he heard what his sons had done to all of Israel, and how they slept with the women who congregated at the doorway of the ‘Ohel Mo’ed’. (I Samuel 2:22)

I’m fairly certain that this group of women, the ‘tzov’ot’ is only mentioned in these two places in TaNach. The connection seems clear: this was a group of dedicated and religious women who stayed as close to God’s precincts as they could. They wanted to give what they could and even gave up on earthly vanities (symbolized by the mirrors – according to Midrash, the same mirrors they used to beautify themselves to allure their husbands in Egypt) in order to be close to God.

Tragically, members of the religious establishment took advantage of their naiveté (without getting into the discussion of what the bnei Eli actually did) for their own advantage. See here and here for more on the sons of Eli and their milieu).

Unfortunately, it does not seem to be uncommon that religious leaders take advantage of their congregants’ naïve devotion for their own purposes. This is true of Judaism and other religious communities. Power tends to corrupt.


Holiday Weekend

What a packed week/weekend this is. So many minor holidays, Jewish and non-Jewish.
First, March 14 (That's 3-14, get it) is Pi Day. I learned that here (very funny link). Then today is the Ides of March. That's right - no tachanun. It's Caesar's yahrzeit (incidentally, I was once in a shul where on Tzom Gedalyah the sha"tz went straight into Kaddish after Avinu Malkeinu, skipping tachanun. I said all's well - it's GEdalya's yahrzeit anyway).
Then, this Shabbat corresponds with March 17, which is St. Patrick's Day. Just for fun, I bought a bottle of Guiness to drink at the Shabbes tisch. The wife's from Boston, where St. Patty's Day is a real yontif. Next week is also Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which, in addition to the regular semi-holiday status of RC, is one of the four Rosh Hashanas (For Regnal Years and holiday cycles), and also inaugurates a celebratory season (no tachanun, 'yachol me-Rosh Chodesh').
Finally, it's also the beginning of the NCAA Tournament. It's not an official holiday anywhere, but actually causes more loss of work than pretty much any other holiday. I admit, I set up a local pool (with about 15 entrants). So far, I correctly picked 6 of the 7 games played (and it looks like Vandy is in complete control, making it 7 of 8). That's not a big deal, though, since there haven't been any upsets yet. My one loss is because I violated by own basic rule - never pick against the ACC in the first round.
Also, I just realized that the Finals will be on the Seder night. So much for ein me'arvin simcha be-simcha. This is not the first time this has happened. The Finals are always on a Monday night, which is not infrequently the Seder night. I remember well that C-Webb's infamous 'time-out' call was on the Seder night, April 5, 1993. By now we know that the game in question never really happened, though.
Anyhow, enjoy the continuation of this semi-holiday season.

Volunteerism and Compulsion

And Moshe commanded, and they passed a rumor throughout the camp, saying that every man or woman should no longer make any more work for the offering of the Sanctuary; and the people stopped bringing. -Shemot 36:6

One wonders why the Torah communicates something which seems so obvious, that when the news that the Mishkan had raised sufficient funds spread, the people immediately ceased making contributions. Furthermore, one may wonder at the way that the message was communicated: not, as usual, by direct command from Moshe to the people, but by the spreading of a rumor. It’s almost as though the people’s response to the news was purely spontaneous, that they were not commanded to stop just as they were not commanded to contribute, and that the same spirit which moved them to give also moved them to cease.

Volunteerism, like anything else, can devolve into a compulsion. Pressures, internal and external, can induce a person to volunteer where he or she otherwise wouldn’t. The degree to which volunteerism is compelled is the degree to which it’s not actually volunteerism. Although generally these pressures are positive in that they produce good, they detract from the ‘purity’ of the volunteerism, and can sometimes generate situations where the goals of the volunteer are personal, and not aimed at the good of the Other.

This lesson was not an easy one for the Israelites in the desert. This event is set in the wake of the Golden Calf episode, when a legitimate concern quickly spun out of control. The building of the Mishkan provided the opportunity to correct those wrongs by remaining in full control, and not allowing inspiration to become frenzy. When one’s motivation is truly the concerns and needs of the other, then one will stop giving once the recipient is no longer in need. This sounds deceptively simple, but in truth it is very difficult to hold back once one has dedicated herself to a particular cause, even if continuing is not necessary what is best for one’s intended beneficiary.
It is no accident that the Sabbath is invoked at the beginning of the account of the building of the Mishkan (Shemot 35:2-3). All of the craftsmanship required in this grand construction project was prohibited on the Shabbat. For if one cannot stop producing, creation becomes a compulsion. We demonstrate our control by stopping.


Interesting Intersection

I’m currently reading two books. Both are non-fiction. Both are simply fascinating, excellent books. I’m reading each for totally different reasons, and in totally different places (one in shul, the other someplace else). One is Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, by Juan Williams. The second is Community, Covenant And Commitment: Selected Letters And Communications by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot. Before discussing the books themselves (not in this post), I wanted to point out a single person who appears, albeit briefly, in both books.

The person is Dr. Milton Konvitz (1908-2003). In the Rav book, he appears as the addressee of the first letter in the collection. In 1950, he wrote to the Rav regarding the Interfaith Chapel that was being constructed at Cornell University. There were certain halakhic issues for which he got the university president to agree to abide by the Rav’s arbitration. It is clear from the correspondence that he was the voice of Halakhic Judaism in Ithaca.

In the Marshall book, he appears on page 125, where he is named as one of two lawyers that Thurgood Marshall hired for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in 1943. Many black soldiers had been complaining of mistreatment during World War II, and the fact that they were fighting against racism and bigotry abroad led many of these soldiers to fight for the same rights at home.

I found it to be extremely interesting and also very inspiring that the same man would be mentioned in these very disparate contexts. The same man who stood for halakha in a prestigious university also stood up for the rights of black citizens decades before it was in vogue in liberal circles.

I cannot help but sense that these two facets of his personality were integrally connected. The same commitment to halakha which motivated him to protest human images in a place of worship also motivated him to fight for justice on behalf of those created in the Divine image.


Purim Miscellany, Year II

1) My daughter is sick. This will be a total damper on Purim.

2) I've just labeled Purim p
osts from years past, some Purim Torah, some real Torah, some a combination. Ayen sham.

3) A few new insights int
o the Megilla as I was reading it this year (3x so far):
a) 8:17 and 9:3 are similar verses, just that in the first
one, the masses 'Judaize' out of fear of the Jews, and in the latter, the officials promote Jews out of fear of Mordechai.
b) The verb f
or of 'Mishteh' is 'Lishtot' in the Megillah. These parties were nothing but drinking.
c) the scene where Esther enters the kings chamber and he raises his scepter, etc., is phallic.
d) Haman is his
own undoing. His defeat is completely because he had to have it ALL - and he ends up losing it all. When complaining to his 'loved ones and wife' about what he has, he lists "his honor, wealth, many sons, and promotion by the king", but it's meaningless to him as long as Mordechai won't submit. He tries to make that happen ASAP - and that's his downfall.
e) If the king made me a eunuch, I'd al
so conspire against him.

4) I came up with s
ome names for teams in the Israel Baseball league. I have a whole bunch of team names, but here are my favorites:
a) The Bnei Brak D
b) The Gaza Strippers
c) The Jerusalem Syndr
d) The Beit El Pirates (f
or Arutz 7)
e) The Dim
ona um, Cement Factory
There are a few
others that are actually pretty good ones, but we'll leave that for a longer post.

A friend sent a Purim br
ochure he made, announcing a conference in Iran honoring the great Persian statesman, Haman, whose legacy has been ruined by Zionist propaganda. Very clever.

A Freilechen.


Go Miracle!

Modiin just got its first professional sports team. They will be the home of the Modiin Miracle, a semipro baseball team in a new Israeli league. Should be fun. I hope they maul the hated Blue Sox of Beit Shemesh (just trying to get a bit of a rivalry going).

I also like the team name. It’s rooted in Modiin’s ancient history. We also could have been the Oilers or Maccabees (though there are enough Maccabi teams around). The Petah Tikva Pioneers are a good team name as well. The rest pretty much stink, but only for lack of imagination. I mean, Samson lived in or near Beit Shemesh. He was a pretty good athlete. What’s wrong with the Beit Shemesh Jawbones? David killed Goliath a few minutes drive from Beit Shemesh, in Emek Ha-Ela. Why not the Fighting Davids of Beit Shemesh? Doesn’t every underdog always look to David for inspiration? Or how about the Suns? It works for Phoenix, and it’s still better than Blue Sox.

The other three host cities – Ra’anana, Netanya, and Tel Aviv – will have a harder time, since they are newer cities. Typical names (Express, Tigers, and Lightning, respectively) are to be expected, but not necessarily welcome. Some imagination can be used – maybe the Tel of Tel Aviv representing a pitcher’s mound or something?

The teams from Modiin and Beit Shemesh will share a home field in Gimzo. That invites the question, in what sense are the teams from Modiin and Beit Shemesh? Maybe we should be the Gimzo Gizmos (and the team motto should be ‘It’s All Good’).

As it turns out, I even know one of the players. It was this guy’s counselor at a sports camp in Baltimore 11 and 12 years ago. I actually even remember that he once made a diving catch of my line-drive in short right-center to rob me of at least a double.

In other local sports news, it seems that Tamir Goodman is averaging almost 20ppg for the nearby Maccabi Shoham (link). Maybe I’ll get to catch a game at some point. Remember, I made Aliyah from Baltimore, where he was a local legend before becoming nationally known (and before almost completely disappearing from the radar - link). As far as I’m concerned, the novelty of a pro basketball player wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit has not worn off. He’s still the only Shomer Shabbat in the Israeli league.