More Jibba Jabba

A number of this blog's posts have been nominated for awards in the various 'Best Post' categories:
Best Series: R' Shimon Bar Yochai
Best Picture or Video in a Post: Sukkot on Campus
Best News Post: The RCA Conversion Scandal
Best Torah Post: A Manuractured Midrash - Name, Speech, and Garb
Best Torah Post: Why God Chose Abraham
Best Religious Post: Ball-playing Rabbis

In my opinion, the first, third, and last of the above list are most deserving.


But Will He Pitch on 17 Tammuz?

With the final pick in the IBL draft, the Modiin miracle selected the legendary Sandy Koufax. Is was ingenious marketing, as dozens of news agencies picked the story up. I think this is the best publicity that the city of Modiin has ever gotten.
I bet the hated Blue S
ox will go out now and try to sign Rod Carew, who is eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
And that pretty much exhausts the list
of living Jewish (or married-to-Jewish) Hall-of-Famers. Hank Greenberg and Mordecai Brown now play for the Angels.

The First FFB

Having read an intriguing series of posts from Rebeljew on the Ba’al Teshuvah experience, reminded me that the experience of FFBs presents its own set of challenges. For a number of years, I have seen Yitzchak Avinu, the world’s first FFB, as a paradigm for those challenges, especially as his experience unfolds in this week’s parsha, Toldot. Please bear in mind that this in no way exhausts the potential to read Yitzchak in this light, rather represents some of my own somewhat disjointed thoughts on the issue.

This parsha tells Yitzchak’s story. Abraham’s death is recorded at the end of last week’s parsha even though he lived to see the events at the beginning of this week’s. Once he ‘passed the torch’ to Yitzchak after his marriage to Rivkah, and his story is no longer relevant to the continuity of God’s covenant with man. Yishmael, the rejected son of Abraham, is given short shrift, so that the story of Yitzchak can begin. The same pattern repeats at the end of Vayishlach and beginning of Vayeshev, ayen sham, ve-acamo”l.

Yitzchak’s story is summed up it the first verse of the Parsha: This is the story of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak.

That’s who Yitzhcak was, Avraham’s kid. Rashi directs us to a Midrash here that states that Avraham and Yitzchak were virtually indistinguishable, so there would be no room for cynics to suggest that Yitzchak was the son of anyone else. The Midrash communicates the latent message of this verse – that Yitzchak’s entire life, entire experience, goals, attitudes, and even the way he presented himself, were strongly shaped by his upbringing in the house of Avraham.

It’s not easy to be ‘The Rabbi’s Kid’. Dad’s the guy who hears the Voice of God, but the kid’s the one who ends up getting sacrificed. From a very young age, the pressure to speak and act in a particular way are enormous, as everyone has different expectations from ‘The Rabbi’s Kid’. I’ve seen with my own two eyes how two students may be carrying on in the exact same manner, but the Rabbi’s Kid is singled out because he ‘ought to know better’. The kid would wish nothing more that to simply be like everyone else, with little or no expectations.

In a sense, every FFB is a ‘Rabbi’s Kid’, to the extent that they live in a culture where they are keenly aware that they have different expectations from those in the surrounding culture. The child is tethered to the values and behaviors of the parents, with little or no opportunity to discover for themselves what would make a person desire or choose this awkward lifestyle.

In the second verse of the Parsha, Yitzchak’s experience is contrasted by the experience of Rivkah, the ultimate NCSY story. Again Rashi points us in this direction; she was born to a wicked man, in a wicked place, and had a wicked brother. She walked 9 miles each way to the synagogue, both ways uphill, in 2 feet of snow, yadda, yadda, yadda. She’s the ultimate Ba’alat Teshuva, having had no expectations given her upbringing.

But in the third verse, again, taking Rashi’s approach, we see that this introduction was almost a set-up for what ensues. When they pray for a kid, Yitzchak is answered, not Rivkah. Someone who overcame so much and someone who was given everything on a silver platter, and the latter’s prayers are more powerful. Rashi even tells us that prayer of a 'tzaddik ben rasha’ – the righteous the son of the wicked – is qualitatively inferior to prayer of a ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’ – the righteous the son of the righteous. Why?

I’ve heard in the name of R’ Simcha Zissl of Kelm that the key term is ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’ and not just ‘ben tzaddik’. The process by which ‘the son of the righteous’ who, by default, by habit, would be acting in a manner that would be consistent with ‘righteousness’ at conventionally understood. It’s no small matter for a person to become a ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’.

Religious growth can be conceptualized into two categories – change which manifests externally and change which does not manifest externally. Rivkah always had a ‘foil’, a starting point against which to gauge her growth. Yitzchak had no such luxury. If he was to grow and mature as a religious person, any change would be completely invisible to the world. It is a process which requires a great degree of self-awareness, to distinguish between elements of one’s personality which are habit, and those which have been freely affirmed. There is a certain comfort in ‘externalizing’ one’s religious growth, which can be seen regularly in the contemporary Orthodox community. This implicitly recognizes that interior growth with no external manifestation is very, very, difficult to affect and engenders constant insecurity with one’s own religious state.

The verb ‘to pray’, in Hebrew, is reflexive. Jewish tradition has understood prayer as a process of self-discovery and self-judgment. The prayer of a tzaddik ben tzaddik is indeed a potent prayer.

Yitzchak’s personality, in the Jewish mystical tradition, is connected to the process of ‘judgment’, again reflecting the process of ‘pure judgment’ by which he must scrutinize himself.

He is seen as the originator of the mincha prayer – said at a time where both the sudden clarity of morning and the confusion and darkness of night are absent. There’s light, but it’s old light.

Yitchak follows in his fathers footsteps, struggling against adversity to dredge the wells that his father had originally dug. Is that not the ultimate FFB experience? Redigging our fathers’ wells? Trying to rediscover the freshness and life within them?

Haloscan comments

The Conversion Experience

When referring to gerim and the process of giyur, the terms are often translated as ‘converts’ and ‘conversion’. Probably because nobody knows what the hell a ‘proselyte’ is. Had I not grown up on the Blackman Mishnayoth, I’d think it’s the opposite of an electrolyte, but I digress.

The term ‘conversion’ implies a radical break, and rather instantaneous. The paradigm ‘conversion experience’, for William James, the father of comparative religion, is Saul of Tarsus (aka St. Paul) beholding the vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. He’s not the same after the experience.

If the issue were belief, then I suppose a conversion can happen fairly instantaneously. I don’t believe in Jesus. BAM! Now I believe in Jesus. By the yidden, the process is far different. One can experience an epiphany and decide to believe in the Torah and the Covenant, but for us that’s just the beginning.

I think Chazal were onto something when they referred to ‘Jews by Choice’ as ‘gerim’. The term literally means ‘immigrants’ (not ‘strangers’ as is often translated). The process of becoming Jewish is very similar to the process of immigrating which, incidentally, is a highly traumatic experience. It means learning a new language, culture, attitudes, laws, you name it. Granted, there is a ‘moment’ when the legal (read: Halakhic) status of the ger changes from non-Jew to Jew, but the process is really much longer than that.

To illustrate, compare the process of giyur to the process of naturalization. In the US, the process of naturalization culminates with conferral of legal citizenship by the court. In halakha, a beit din confers the status of ‘ben brit’ upon the ger. In both, there is an agreement to protect and uphold the Law (Constitution/Torah) of the nation, and a binding of one’s fate with the fate of that nation. The parallels here are stronger than parallels to other types of religious conversion.

I find this line of reasoning helpful when trying to explain a) why being Jewish isn’t simply a matter of ‘personal choice’ or ‘identification’; citizenship (or enfranchisement) is a real, legal construct which has broad consensus and must be conferred by a representative body of the absorbing nation; b) why Orthodoxy doesn’t accept heterodox conversions.

Another implication is that nowadays, the baal teshuvah experience can also be a process akin to immigration, just without the issues of personal status (kinda like making Aliyah). Thinking about it in this way can help identify what some of the attractions and difficulties of taking on a Halakhic lifestyle involves.

Haloscan comments

Reading of Shabbat 31a, Part II

[continued from here]

Now that the context and character of this/these stories has/have been set out, the interpretations of the stories themselves becomes much more focused. Here’s an English translation (Soncino) of the text under discussion (From ‘Our Rabbis taught on 31a).

In each of these stories, the potential ger is motivated to find his way ‘under the wings of the Shechinah’, but is also held back by certain barriers. Whereas Shammai disqualifies each for not having what it takes, Hillel works with the individual until the barriers are overcome.

The following is my own attempt to make literary and religious sense out of each episode, and shouldn’t be read as an attempt to define the authoritative meaning of the texts. If my readings seem somewhat autobiographical, well, it’s to be expected:
  1. Why would a person coming in off the street ask “How many Torahs/Teachings do you have?”? Furthermore, if one of us were asked such a question, how many of us would answer like Shammai, and how many would go with the more intuitive answer of “One”? It seems that he’s looking for something authoritative. THE Truth. The Singular, Unadulterated, Immaculate Word of God. Shammai makes it clear to him that there’s really no such thing in Judaism. Sure, we have such a text, but that text isn’t the sole basis for Jewish worship. The Gentile only wishes to encounter the Word directly, and have no truck with anything that might have been corrupted by human fallibility. Hillel’s lesson is less about the authority of the Oral Law and more about the need to trust and rely on fellow human beings in the search for religious meaning; there is no encounter with God, or with His Truth, which is not filtered through human beings. Nevertheless, Hillel recognized that the Gentile’s impulse was good, though immature.
  2. The second, and probably most famous of these episodes, involves the Gentile who asks to be taught the Torah while he stands on one foot. The expression ‘al regel achat’ has entered modern Hebrew from this narrative as an expression of extreme brevity. What’s this fellow looking for? He wants to learn the whole Torah, but as he stands on one foot. He’s tougher to profile, as this can be the result of a number of factors and a combination thereof. Perhaps he’s simply a shallow thinker, who needs a slogan, a bumper sticker. Perhaps he knows that he’s got no attention span to sit and learn. Perhaps, beyond both of these, stands an ‘activist’. He’s a ‘doer’, not a ‘learner’, and he needs a slogan that can become his raison d’etre. Shammai and Hillel, we’ll assume, are both aware of the irreducibility of the Torah to mere slogans. Shammai even uses a ‘yardstick’ to drive the person away – an instrument of precision and insistence upon detail – as if his medium is itself his message. Hillel, however, sees someone who is restless and driven and in search of a cause to devote his life to. In a brilliant move, Hillel responds to this ‘activist’ by giving him a ‘passive’ cause, and then encouraged him to explore it further on its own. This guy’s rarin’ to go do ‘Tikkun Olam’ (said with the best American accent) and Hillel throws a monkey wrench into his thinking by suggesting that the Torah’s purposes are fulfilled by what we don’t do as much, if not more, than by what we do, in the human sphere. Must’ve confused the heck out of the guy, putting in position indeed, to continue his studies.
  3. The third Gentile, I’m convinced, really was Jewish from the outset, because I believe that he had a Jewish mother. He comes in with the attitude of “I can be whatever I want to be, as long as I put my mind to it”. If he’s impressed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the High Preist, and that’s what he wants to do, then by golly he can do it and nobody can tell him otherwise. There are really two issues with this fellow: one is that he doesn’t have the lineage to be the High Preist. The second, which isn’t really addressed by the Gemara, is that his attraction to Judaism is the funky priestly J-bling. Even if the first reason can be overcome, the second issue seems to be a far more serious problem. Cool Chai necklaces isn’t necessarily the best reason to become Jewish. Hillel, however, saw something beyond. The priestly garments and the pomp surrounding their ceremony, is not for the glory of the wearer, rather, for the Glory of God – kavod u-tiferet in the words of the Chumash. The guards at Buckingham Palace – you know, the fellows with the spodeks – are ‘honor gaurds. The ceremony and pomp surrounding their uniforms are not their own glory, but reflect the glory of something much greater than themselves. I think this would be more akin to someone saying that they have ambition to become a baseball player so that they can don the revered Yankee pinstripes. Hillel takes a very sound educational approach: let the learner discover for himself what his own shortcomings are. If one aspires to be a doctor, let them take organic chemistry. It has this amazing ability to weed out the underqualified, more than a heart-to-heart-you-don’t-have-what-it-takes speech. Hillel encourages him. Once he begins studying, he realizes how far away he is. He’s ‘coming with his staff and wallet’. He’s eaten his humble pie. He tells Shammai his chiddush; amazing how with people like this the only way for something to register is for them to learn it on their own. Yet, Hillel, even with this fellow, found a way to bring him under the wings of the Shekhinah.

Talmudic Reading of Shabbat 31a, Part I

Fellow Maven Freddie Mac recently posted here about a relatively well-known Talmudic narrative about a potential proselyte who doesn’t want to hear about the Oral Law, who Shammai rejects and Hillel accepts and convinces of the need for an Oral Law as well. Much of Fred’s discussion centered on the logic of Hillel’s argument for Torah She-be’al peh.

In general, I believe that a literary approach to these narratives are more fruitful than attempts to reduce them to philosophy. The philosophical merit of Hamlet’s reasons for and against suicide are secondary to the literary power of his soliloquy. So, too, or even kal va-chomer, the first analysis of this narrative (actually, a set of three different stories about Hillel, Shammai, and potential proselytes) should address the human story portrayed, attempt to understand the characters, etc. Fred’s post contains the original and translated text under discussion, so there’s no need to reproduce it here.

The over-arching theme of this story, which is clear from its context within the broader sugya, is a contrast between the attitudes of Hillel and Shammai. In all three episodes, Hillel is the patient, sensitive, and understanding hero, whereas Shammai rejects these people immediately.

In each story, a non-Jew comes before these Sages requesting to become Jewish, but with ridiculous auxiliary requests:

  1. on condition that I only study the Written Law

  2. on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while standing on one leg

  3. on condition that I become the High Priest

The first question that must be asked, for each story, is, “What is motivating this person?” Where’s he coming from? As a rabbi, and as one who is addressed with a range of questions, it’s easy to forget that behind the question or request stands a human being, and that my job is not to resolve the question as though it’s a Sudoku, but to address the human being who is bothered enough to ask the LOR. Sometimes the most difficult situations arise in connection with those who are most distant from my ‘four cubits’. I’ve screwed up conversations with potential converts who have no interest in Halakhic praxis and with fiancées of Jews, to name a couple. It’s simply not easy to understand where they’re coming from.

In that sense, I wonder if Shammai really behaved like such a ‘jerk’, or if these people simply didn’t have the tools to understand what he was saying, and only saw the rejection. The end of this Talmudic unit which describes a conversation between the three converts, would make that reading plausible.

Hillel, on the other hand, invites each of them to continue, works with them, converts them, and eventually (presumably) they come around. Hillel took them seriously. But beyond that, it’s fair to ask what exactly he saw. Why was he willing to convert them?

We’ll find out in Part II.

Haloscan comments

Collective Bargaining Agreements

I’m not an economist or a labor lawyer, but there are certain features of any labor dispute which seem obvious. There are always three parties involved: ownership, labor, and the consumer. The consumer is the engine that drives the whole thing. When two people own a goose that lays golden eggs, they might bicker over the details and responsibilities of ownership, but ultimately they understand that what’s at stake is more than just schnitzel. They know that keeping it together is ultimately beneficial and necessary for both parties.

The immediate cause for thinking about this is the expiration of the NFL’s CBA. Football is such a cash-cow that it’s simply impossible that there won’t be some kind of agreement reached between ownership and the players. In order to bring the product to the consumer, i.e., the fans, there must be a CBA. Ownership has everything, but can’t play the game. The players can play, but don’t have the resources to bring the game to the world. The needs of the fan dictate that the owners and players must figure out a way to get along, and re-enter into a contract with each other.

OK, but that’s football, right? Wrong.

17 You have agreed this day that the LORD is to be your God, and that you will walk in His ways, and keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His ordinances, and listen to His voice. 18 And the LORD has agreed this day that you are to be His treasure, as He hath promised thee, and to keep all His commandments; 19 and to raise you above all nations that He has made, to be a praise, a name, and a model of glory, and that you will be a holy people unto the LORD your God, as He has spoken. {P}
-Devarim 26: 17-19

The above passage is but one which discusses the nature of the covenant between God and Israel. It’s a bilateral covenant, wherein each side agrees to certain responsibilities. Using the sports analogy, God is Ownership, Israel is the players, and the rest of the world is the fan, the consumer. For better or worse, through thick and thin, God and Israel are ‘stuck’ with each other.

Essentially, Moshe was the first to point this out, in this week’s parsha, when he argues that once God has selected Israel, to destroy them would undermine the very message that He’s trying to broadcast to the world. The basis of this covenant, invoked by Moshe in our Parsha, is the ‘thirteenfold covenant’ which both names God’s attributes and describes for us how we can become ‘Godlike’, how we can ‘walk in his ways’. It also ‘forces’ both both parties involved, God and Israel, to renew the ‘contract’ every year (specifically every Rosh Hashana), where we agree to wipe the slate clean and give it another chance, basically because neither party has a choice in the matter.

There’s also the idea of a ‘Players’ Union’ which is so important. Individually, each player is expendable. Collectively, their bargaining power becomes formidable. Similarly, the bargaining power that each member of Israel has is pretty weak. Any one of us is ultimately expendable. It’s only through ‘collective bargaining’ and ‘unionization’ that we can ‘force’ God back to the table with us.

Haloscan comments

Put Down the Duckie

I’d like to mention 3 examples of where children’s literature, though it seems very innocuous, can contain meanings below the surface. Of course, there’s all kinds of stuff out there psychoanalyzing ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or whatever, and sometimes there nursery rhymes reflect historical memories, like ‘Ring Around the Rosie’. These are three examples that I really like, find interesting, or have a good, Jewish lesson. I’m probably the only yutz in the world who ‘learns’ bedtime stories with his kids. Sheesh. No wonder they can’t fall asleep.

a) Sesame Street aired a song a long time ago called “Put Down the Duckie”. As with many, many Sesame songs, the lyrics are outstanding. In this skit, Mr. Hoots is trying to teach Ernie how to play the saxophone, put since Ernie insists on clutching his little yellow friend, there’s an inevitable squeak which accompanies each chord. Thus, the refrain, “Put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone”.

Wise Hoots is pointing to a valuable lesson about human maturity. Intellectual maturity is not an incremental process. Often, it entails jettisoning earlier, preconceived notions about a whole variety of things, some of which can be very dear. Remaining in a very secure but ultimately childish zone can be the most comfortable path, but is also the least rewarding and fulfilling. Indeed, you gotta put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone.

b) There’s an old Yiddish song entitled “Hob ich mir a Mantle” (I had an Overcoat). It’s been turned into 2 different children’s books, one called “Something from Nothing” and the other called “Joseph had a Little Overcoat”. I own a copy of the latter, and it’s really well done, especially if you pay attention to the illustrations and newspaper clippings embedded on each page.

The story is about a fellow who has an overcoat which gets worn out, so he turns it into a short jacket, then a vest, a tie, a handkerchief, a bowtie, and finally a button which wears out, leaving the poor schlamazal with nothing at all. So he writes a song about it, proving that you can always make something from nothing. At each phase, the song/story describes the character as doing some activity – visiting his sister in the city, dancing at a wedding, drinking a glass of tea with lemon, etc.

The story is really about modernization, urbanization, and assimilation of traditional East European Jewry into Western Europe/ America. Each successive retrofitting of the original coat (and, of course, a ‘mantle’ has connotations which simply don’t translate into the word ‘overcoat’) describes a weakening of traditions grip on the Jewish people, until all that’s left is a sense of nostalgia. In the version that I own, the artistry really reflects this process. Though the book is upbeat, I find it very painful to read.

c) The last example was brought to my attention a number of years ago by Rabbi Yehuda Rock, now Rosh Kollel in Boca Raton, but who is a far better ‘AddeRabbi’ than I – a true contrarian and creative genius in the reading of texts. My kids know and sing this song now, so I was reminded of this point. It’s about the well-known Israeli nursery rhyme “Nadnedah” – the ‘See-Saw’ song. The composer of this rhyme is none other than the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who, as I’ve posted before (almost a year ago. Wow), doesn’t get the credit he deserves as someone who really struggled mightily with questions of religion and whose insight and poetic creativity in describing his own struggle with matters of faith are truly beautiful and heart-wrenching.

It turns out, Bialik is describing the ‘see-saw’ of his own mind when it comes to faith in God. This translation of the brief rhyme doesn’t do justice to the original, but it captures how it can be read as a description of a crisis of faith:

See-saw, see-saw
Descend, ascend, ascend, and descend
What’s above? What’s below?
Just me.
Me and You.
We are both balanced in the scales
Between the Earth and the Heaven

Haloscan comments

Where does God Live? A Reading of Brachot 48a

[The first Talmudic Reading that I posted, exactly one year ago, was of a narrative on the same Daf as this one. It can be accessed here, and is a personal favorite.]

Abaye and Rava were sitting before Rabbah. Rabbah said to them, “To whom do we pray?”. They said to him, “To The Merciful One.” “And where does The Merciful One live?” Rava gestured toward the rafters. Abaye went outside and gestured toward the Heavens. Rabbah said to them, “You will both be Rabbis”. And so people say, ‘The gourds are known from their sap’.
This is one of my favorite Gemaras to teach. It starts off seeming so silly, and by the end of the lesson, everyone’s blown away. On the surface, I mean, geez, my little kids run around singing Uncle Moishy’s ‘Hashem is here’! What makes Rabbah so proud of Abaye and Rava?

[I should point out that the Tosafot already point out that this Gemara is only linguistically connected to the Halakhic discussion that precedes it, but doesn’t really suggest that little kids can be included in a mezuman.]

Let’s assume that the Gemara is more sophisticated than Uncle Moishy, and that the discussion between the youthful Abaye and Rava, and the question posed by Rabbah, were more than first-grade theology. Furthermore, the method by which Abaye seemingly ‘one-up’s Rava is silly. Why would the Gemara communicate that? Is Abaye really giving a different answer?

Maybe the question is, “Where do you encounter God? Where can you find Him?”

When I pose the question in this format, and ask what the difference between the answers of Abaye and Rava are, it’s like someone turned on a faucet. All kinds of great suggestions simply start spilling out of the students, be they high-school students of adults. They start picking up on the fact that Rava’s approach is more ‘sheltered’ or ‘structured’ or ‘closed’. Rava looks for God in the details, Abaye in the big picture. I’ve had suggestions that Rava is a ‘Misnaged’ and Abaye is a ‘Chussid’, or that Rava is ‘Orthodox’ and Abaye is ‘Reform’, or that Rava is ‘Haredi’ whereas Abaye is ‘Modern Orthodox’, that Rava is like R’ Soloveitchik whereas Abaye is like R’ Kook, or that Rava is the ‘Halakhic Man’ whereas Abaye is ‘Homo Religiosus’, which actually seems to be the suggestion of R’ Kook in Eyn Ayah ad loc. Some have said that Rava is a conformist whereas Abaye is ‘out of the box’. Rava is religious, but Abaye is spiritual. Rava is a learner, but Abaye is a doer (sounds like another Gemara). Rava needs a framework, but Abaye is free-spirited.

The point is, it’s a wonderfully open-ended piece of Agadah (which, according to R’ Kook’s intro to Eyn Ayah, is as it should be) which acknowledges that indeed there are more than one path to God. I don’t think I’d agree with all of the suggestions I elicited, but the fact that a single Gemara can elicit this variety of responses really engenders that sense that indeed there ARE many ways to find God, each of which can be affirmed and developed, and each of which can lead to greatness, and each of which can be tailored to the individual searcher or worshipper.

Haloscan comments

The Long and Short of the Ba’al Teshuvah Experience

This past Shabbos, while schmoozing with a scholar-in-residence and a local student, the student made a point which he thought was pragmatic, and I thought pointed to a very fundamental reality. This particular student comes from a non-observant but traditional Conservative home. Over the past couple of years, especially in college, he has become steadily more involved with the Orthodox community. Nevertheless, he probably would resist identifying himself as ‘Orthodox’ for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that he hasn’t really bought into all of the ‘dox’. He gave two main reasons for his attraction to Orthodoxy:
  1. Its emphasis on life-long learning

  2. The closeness of Orthodox communities
I told him that those 2 reasons were at the top of my list as well (and in fact I blogged a similar point from R’ Kook’s writing here). In other words, for this student, and for many others that I’ve met over the years, the process by which one joins the Orthodox community is very gradual and devoid of experiences that one might call ‘Conversion Experiences’.

I remember another occasion when I was on a Beis Din for a giyur of a young gentleman who, while becoming more involved in observance, recognized that the giyur that a matrilineal ancestor underwent was entirely insufficient. The Av Beis Din (who, I guarantee, is accepted across the board) asked all of the questions about accepting the mitzvoth, easy ones and hard ones, and summed up by asking if this young man undertakes to be an Orthodox Jew to the best of his ability. He responded that he’s uncomfortable with the label ‘Orthodox’. The Av Beis Din then reformulated the question, asking if the young man undertakes to live a halakhic lifestyle to the best of his ability, to which he answered in the affirmative, and, to make a long story short, the giyur was fine. Again, for this young man, the process was gradual and devoid of conversion experiences.

This isn’t just a ‘one-step-at-a-time’ approach; that approach, which is also pretty common, can mean that one accepts the truth of something, but hasn’t yet overcome old habits enough to implement it. I’m trying to describe a process in which there’s no ‘jump’ or ‘leap’, rather a continuum of natural development.

I find this type of ‘Ba’al Teshuva Story’ to be much more inspiring than instances which involve running away from or rejecting a prior lifestyle. It strikes me as a more complete, organic, and individuated process with a very high rate of ‘mainstreaming’.

I’ll close by citing two high-profile examples which I find to be particularly inspiring:
The first is the noted klezmer artist Andy Statman. After he had already become an accomplished jazz and bluegrass musician, and had decided to explore his own Jewish roots through klezmer, he began a journey which took him to the roots of klezmer in Chassidic niggunim, and as he deepened and developed his own musical style, he became a chassid himself. I’m oversimplifying, but the upshot is that what brought him ‘tachat kanfei ha-shechina’ was a natural progression of what he already had become.

The second example that comes to mind is the late French-Jewish philosopher and activist Benny Levy. A pupil of Levinas and Sartre, his own penetration into the quandaries of existential philosophy led him back to the Judaism that he forsook in his youth. I think that he’s the person who the main character in the central novella of Sabato’s ‘Emet me-Are”tz Titzmach’ (Aleppo Tales) is based.

Haloscan comments

Positive-Historical Halakha

I recently had a conversation with a Conservative talmid/chaver of mine, whre I asked him about the Conservative position on two issues with Halakhic consequences that recently came up on this blog, namely, the reintroduction of tekhelet and the appropriate time to begin praying for rain.

I asked him because I felt that these are two areas where, if consistent, the Conservative movement would unequivocally recommend the addition of tekhelet to taliyot (Steg, MarG, & Freddie Mac – please verify that this is the grammatically correct plural of talit) and begin praying for rain either along with the beginning of the rainy season for that particular country or 60 days after the equinox (which I believe was yesterday or Monday). The Conservative movement was originally called the ‘positive-historical school’, and recommended the use of historical tools and understandings to influence the direction of Halakhic ruling. In both of these instances, the objective evidence points very clearly to what happened, and what the ‘original’ Halakha was intended to be. Thus, in both of these cases, the Conservative movement should adopt positions which fit their official approach to halakha. Is there any doubt that Zechariah Frankel would wear a tallit katan with tekhelet?

My friend responded that he didn’t think that the issues were weighty enough to be taken up by the Laws and Standards Committee.

To me, this was a very frank admission of a serious flaw with the movement. I ran a Bar-Ilan search on the question of the appropriate time for saying ‘ve-ten tal u-matar’ in the Southern Hemisphere. It is addressed by most of the major late 19th and early 20th century (need I even say Orthodox?) poskim. Apparently, they thought that the issue was weighty enough to merit their attention, and that it mattered to them whether people said those extra 3 words or not. Tekhelet has occupied the attention of many authors and response writers as well.

Granted, there aren’t so many Conservative Jews who pray thrice daily, or who wear a tallit katan. That’s definitely a part of the problem. But there seems, beyond that, to be a fundamentally cavalier attitude toward halakha in general, that these seemingly minor issues simply aren’t addressed in any sort of serious way.

An (I won’t say ‘The’) upshot of this thesis is that from the Orthodox perspective, the flaw with Conservative Judaism is not the halakhic mechanisms that they would employ, rather the cavalier attitude toward halakha in general. It would be one thing if the laypeople simply didn’t give a whit what the Rabbis say. It’s another for the Rabbinate to simply not address halakhic issues, even in an academic fashion. How difficult would it be to change the dates in the official UCJS calendar to reflect the ‘positive-historical’ reality?

Not too long ago, I suggested that there’s not much substantive difference, from the standpoint of pure, halakhic reasoning, between the hetter of carrying inside an urban eruv and the ‘hetter’ to drive for a mitzvah. Many people got a bit bent out of shape, either because they thought that I implied too strongly that driving might be muttar or that carrying inside some of our contemporary eruvin might be an issur skilah. Though I probably should have chosen a better example (driving on Shabbat is THE classic example of regrettable Conservative response; allowing women to participate in zimmun with men, for example, at least has some basis in the Rishonim), my point was that the difference lies NOT in the halakhic argumentation, but in the attitude toward halakha in general.

Haloscan comments

The Sin of Sodom

Sodom is the paradigmatic cruel society. In Tanach and throughout Rabbinic literature, Sodom is characterized by an attitude of supreme indifference, where the plight of the other doesn’t register in the consciousness of the Sodomite.

Yet, when the Torah describes the destruction of Sodom in this week’s Parsha, it doesn’t really address what their great crime was. In last week’s Parsha, we learned that they were very wicked, but without detail. The only crime that the Torah mentions in our Parsha is their attempt of homosexual gang-rape . Somehow, the notion developed, mainly in the Christian world, that Sodom’s great crime was sexual perversion. They even named a sexual deed after the town.

So here’s the question: if the problem with Sodom is complete lack of social welfare, why does the Torah virtually ignore that element and focus specifically on this act of sexual violence. It seems out of place. I think that the answer will also help explain what I believe is Chaza”l attitude toward sexual ethics. I know that I might be getting into some hot water with this, but believe me that it’s an honest attempt to understand one of the 613 mitzvot.

I’ll start with a joke:
The elderly Mr. Goldberg had a dream. In this dream, he is standing before a heavenly tribunal, being judged for his life on Earth. His record was stellar, completely unblemished. After going through his whole life, the ministering angel turns to him and says, “Mr. Goldberg, your record is so pristine that you can actually commit one grave sin and still get a seat in the front row. You’re time is up in one week; have a blast!”
It just so happened that in the same South Florida complex as Mr. Goldberg lived Mrs. Schwartz, a woman whose life had been made very difficult by a husband who had been debilitated for some years. Caring for him took up much of her time and energy, and her life, as a result, became sad and difficult.
Mr. Goldberg had noticed her occasionally give him the eye, so when he awoke from his dream, he already had an idea where he wanted to spend his one sin. One of their friendly conversations became a flirting match, and before you knew it, they were back in her apartment, making passionate love.
When Mr. Goldberg was ready to head home, Mrs. Schwartz stopped him and said, “I just want you to know, that you did SUCH a MITZVAH!”

You understand what the joke is, right? The act of lovemaking is one where a person experiences intense pleasure, but it’s also an opportunity to simultaneously give pleasure to another person. Mutual pleasure heightens the experience for each participant. It’s an act of simultaneous giving and receiving.

The people of Sodom were not at all interested in giving. The value that they placed on another human being was related solely to that person’s ability to make my life better. Human beings were means for one’s own gratification, not end in and of themselves. This is how they welcomed guests: they made it very clear that their stay in Sodom was contingent on their providing some kind of service for the Sodomite. If none was forthcoming, then they would take it by force. Their attempted homosexual gang-rape wasn’t about sexual baseness, but about a total lack of chesed, to the point that if one is gaining some kind of benefit from the city, even though it costs them nothing, they will take their payment in one way or another. Thus, the description of Sodom’s crimes in this week’s Parsha is, in this analysis, consistent with their lack of chesed.

The more interesting conclusion is the role of chesed in a Jewish sexual ethic. Sexuality that lacks chesed, is unconcerned with the pleasure of the other, runs the risk of becoming completely unbridled. Granted, there’s always a ‘price’ to pay for sex, but it will always boil down to a cost/benefit ratio. The Torah prohibits sexuality which is devoid of chesed, and as a case in point, to propose an understanding of the Chazal’s view of homosexuality.

Many are familiar with the explicit biblical prohibition against sex between men (I will avoid the term ‘homosexuality’ because I don’t believe that the Torah addresses sexual identity, only sexual acts). However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 58a) understood it to be contained within the 7 Noahide laws as well. Specifically, they explicated the verse (Bereishis 2:24) ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.’ The Talmud sees each phrase in this verse as excluding a different type of forbidden sexuality. The term “and shall cleave” is taken to exclude sex with another male. Rashi, ad loc, s.v. ‘ve-davak’ says – ‘there is no cleaving here, because the ‘nishkav’ (penetrated partner) receives no pleasure, he does not cleave to him’. The universal ban on sex between males was formulated as a relationship in where the potential for ‘dibuk’ is absent because the pleasure of one participant is not itself invested in the pleasure of the other. The joke that I wrote above would fall horribly short if it was about Mr. Schwartz instead of Mrs.

In our parsha as well, the attempted rapists were wholly unconcerned with the pleasure of their visitors. The fact that it was homosexual only serves to reinforce the point that there was no potential for the visitors to have a pleasurable experience.

I will add a final caveat that I am attempting to characterize what I perceive to be an attitude within Chaza”l. Obviously, it is those who are directly affected whose experiences must be trusted when determining whether or not “men don’t feel pleasure from penetration by another man”. I do believe, though, that Chazal’s sexual ethics, and the role of chesed in sexuality, is crucial, and that this approach to homosexuality is different and significant enough to merit further development.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Haloscan comments

Rabbeinu Gregory's Shittah on Praying for Rain

[Originally posted in November 2005 on the now-defunct Maven Yavin blog. The original comment thread has disappeared.]

First, a bit of a history lesson:
The calendar that the western world uses, called the Gregorian calendar after the Pope who made it the official calendar, isn’t that old. You can read up on it here, but suffice it to say that the current system, which contains 97 leap years every 400 years, is just over 400 years old. Before then, the Julian calendar, which contains a leap year every 4 years, was used. When the change was made, first in 1582 and whenever it was adopted afterward by other countries, the calendar had to be adjusted so that certain features of the astronomical year match consistently with the calendar year. For example, that the solstices and equinoces would not vary, and so that certain holidays (especially Easter) would remain in the appropriate season.

In order to retroactively adjust the calendar, 10 dates were dropped that year; those who went to sleep the night of October 4, woke up on the morning of October 15.

As is known, the Jewish calendar adjusts itself to the solar year as well by introducing an extra month in 7 of every 19 years, also to insure that certain holidays (especially Pesach) occur in the appropriate seasons. Additionally, the 4 seasons of the solar year are called in Rabbinic parlance the Tekufot of Tishrei, Tevet, Nissan, and Tammuz corresponding to Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer, respectively. The beginning of these Tekufot correspond to the beginning of the calendrical seasons as well: the autumnal equinox, the winter solstice, the vernal equinox, and the summer solstice. The days upon which those occur are called ‘yemei tekufah’.

Now, a bit of an astronomy lesson:
Solstices and equinoces are not days; they’re events. The equinox is the moment in time where the part of the earth closest to the sun lies at the equator, where somewhere on earth along the equator it is noon and the sun lies directly, absolutely, at the zenith of the sky, or when the line which goes from the center of the earth to the center of the sun is perfectly perpendicular to the Earth’s axis (all of these mean the same thing). We notice its effects in that the length of days and nights are as close to even as they get during the course of the year.
The solstices are the moments when the point on the Earth closest to the sun is as far north or south as they will get during the course of the year, when at High noon, somewhere along the tropic of Cancer or Capricorn, the sun will be directly overhead, when the angle formed by the intersection of the Earth’s axis and the line from the center of the Earth to the center of the Sun is at its most acute (or obtuse, depending on how you’re measuring).
The Gregorian calendar is arranged so that these events nearly always occur on the same four dates, which correspond to the beginnings of the four seasons.

Now, a lesson in Halakha:
According to the Gemara, (Ta’anit 10a), in Babylonia, which didn’t require all that much rain, they began to pray for rain (what Ashkenazim say as ‘Ve-ten tal u-matar’) on day 60 of the Tekufah of Tishrei, i.e., the 60th day after the autumnal equinox.
The autumnal equinox was originally designated to fall out on September 24 or so in the Julian calendar, but over the course of the centuries had slid back about 11 days. Nevertheless, September 24 was still treated as the equinox. Thus, Halakhic authorities such as Tashbetz (3:123) and Avudraham (Shmoneh Esrei, s.v. “Ha’revi’it Be-birkat) can rule that we begin praying for rain on the 22nd or November, and the 23rd on leap years.

However, astronomically speaking, when they wrote those words, the 60th day after the solstice was already 9 or 10 days earlier. Thus, just as the Catholic and Protestant calendars shifted, the Jewish calendar should have shifted as well, and the proper time to begin praying for rain, for us Babylonians, should be back at November 20 or 21 (when the equinox is on September 23, as it normally is).

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the Halakha never adjusted. We will continue begin praying for rain on December 5th or 6th until the year 2100, when the Halakha will observe a leap year but the rest of the world won’t, and we’ll begin praying for rain on December 6th or 7th. Eventually (i.e., in about 16,000 years), we’ll never pray for rain because Pesach will be before the 60th day from the Julian equinox. By then, though, hopefully we’ll all be living in Israel so we won’t calculate by the methods of the accursed Babylonians. For the time being, it’s another example of what happens when Halacha goes into exile.

Maven Yavin Posts

For a few months in early 2006, a few fellow bloggers and I had a group blog called Maven Yavin, which was where we posted our more serious, thoughtful stuff. At the time, it met with great success, but each of us, it seems, was more interested in furthering our personal blog(s), so it died. The archives are still available here, but I wanted to re-post the stuff that I wrote, so that it's available on this blog, labeled in its categories (I hope to categorize the whole blog at some point. I'm not even close to halfway there), and so that newer readers can see it.
I apologize in advance for the upcoming blitz of posts; if you've already read them, then there's nothing new.

Zeh Klal Gadol Ba-Torah

Chaim poses a question which intrigued me. What is Rashi getting at with his well-known comment on ‘Ve-ahavta le-Rei’acha kamocha’? That it’s a ‘klal gadol ba-Torah’? What motivated him to make that comment? Does it help explain the verses in any way?

Here’s my answer: yes. Look in the verses. Starting from 19:9 and ending with the verse in question, 19:18, the Torah gives a rapid-fire list of mitzvot which pertain to the social sphere (what we call ‘bein Adam le-chaveiro’). Each mitzvah on this list requires a specific type of action – leaving a corner of your field, not exacting revenge, not bearing false testimony, etc. In that sense, the last mitzvah on the list might seem a bit incongruous. Perhaps the reader would become confused and think there is a specific type of action mandated in order to ‘love your neighbor’ (and perhaps this explains Hillel’s famous inversion of this mitzvah, mentioned by the Sefer Ha-Chinuch on this mitzvah, that it is prohibited to do to another that which is hateful to yourself; in other words, the mitzvah remains, like the other mitzvot in this list, action oriented).

Rashi, citing Rabbi Akiva, does not interpret the verse in this vein. He understands the mitzvah to be a general principle upon which many of the other social mitzvot are based. That’s the meaning of ‘zeh klal gadol ba-Torah’. Rashi, ke-darko, opted to explain that by use of a Midrash rather than in his own words.


Nuffa Dat Jibba Jabba

[UPDATE #2] With just a day left in the voting, I'm within striking distance of the finals, 7 votes behind the 2nd place blog. Let's do it, folks. Let's get to the FINALS. It's like the playoffs!]

[UPDATE: There were some irregularities in my group, which are being adjusted. Coincidentally, or not, the two blogs which were adjusted down are still leading the voting. The whole thing stinks, in my opinion. I mean, people cheat on a meaningless blog award? Sheesh.]

Voting is open for this year’s JIB awards. I’ve been nominated for Best Religion Blog, because I guess this blog is mostly about religion. I’m in ‘Group A’.

Let’s be clear, though. This is not about ‘best’ anything, but about the ‘Most Popular’. I’m up against some very mediocre blogs, especially the one whose very name basically means “Middling” or “Mediocre”, vd”l.

Perhaps there should be a ‘Best Balabatishe Blog’ category, or a ‘Best Blog by a Rabbi’ category, for that matter. Maybe 'Best Lashon Hara Blog', 'Best Community Blog', and 'Best Apikorsus Blog'. Perhaps there should be a whole set on new awards, called JABs – Jewish Alternative Blog Awards. That’d be fun.


RCA and Rabbanut Reach Agreement

After almost a year, the RCA and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate have a deal worked out.
Link to the press release
Looks like everyone got their cake and gets to eat it, too. Rabbanut gets the RCA to get serious and tough on conversions. I've done a conversion with R' Freundel, and know that he's serious about giyur standards. RCA gets to remain the address for orthodox conversions in the US. Everybody's happy.


Balancing Ahava and Yir'ah

Here’s something I wrote up on Acharei Mot in the past. It’s not mine originally – it was inspired by something I read in R’ Tzadok – but it’s dead-on both textually and conceptually.


Lashon Hara in the Burbs

There are so many jokes about the way rumors spread in suburban communities that it’s almost cliché. People have no excitement in their lives while they go about winning bread and changing diapers, that they take disproportionate interest in the goings on of other people’s lives.

This past Friday night, on a whim, I attended a minyan which was one of the new ‘Egal Orthodox’ style minyanim. I attended on a whim, figuring that since it’s Carlebach style, there’s not much difference between this and a standard davening. The only real difference is who is standing up front during Kabbalat Shabbat.

It was a small minyan, yet somehow, by this evening, someone approached my wife out of the blue to talk about what a ‘big supporter’ of the egal Orthodox shul I am (Note: I’ve never been to the shul. Even if I wanted to, it’s a 45 minute walk. I attended a minyan a few blocks away, once), and that I go there all the time. Then this person said that I should tell people that I’m not a supporter of this minyan so that people don’t get the ‘wrong idea’. My wife asked how I should tell people, on the community email list?

I mean, WTF? I’m not a Rabbi here. I’m not a community employee. What’s this anyone’s business?

Ignoring the Sirens

Every year, Israeli newspapers inevitably print photos of people, generally Chareidim, sitting or talking on their cellphone while the sirens wail and the country observes a moment of silence on Yom Ha-Sho’ah or Yom Ha-Zikaron. I’ve always wondered: who takes these pictures? Why weren’t they observing the moment of silence?

In truth, I think it’s important to observe these moments. It’s pretty silly at the end of the day, but there’s something solemn about an entire country standing still.

This year, I found an article with a different criticism; it talks about a chareidi wedding that took place in Israel on Yom Ha-Shoah. Apparently, it was a bunch of chutznikim who didn’t know any better. I do not want to justify what these people did. It is probably more than a touch insensitive to hold a wedding on Yom Ha-Sho’ah.

Still, it makes you wonder. Why can’t the same solemnity be extended to the more venerable Jewish holidays, flaunting of which equally offends different segments of Israeli society? If the average Israeli can develop an innate sense that it is inappropriate to get married on Yom Ha-shoah, aren’t there other observances which can become more mainstream


Insult to Injury

Stories like this drive me up the wall. What the hell?

Tattoos Part II – Muttar Today

Soon after this post went up, I received this comment, which referred to this ruling by Rav Abadi, in which he says that the prohibition against tattoos is only prohibited if done as a reaction to the loss of a loved one. I quote:

“You would have noticed that in the Shulchan Aruch (and it is much clearer in the Beit Yosef,) it says that the only time we are prohibited to put on a Tattoo is when it is done out of the pain of losing a loved one. Thus it is completely irrelevant in our current era. Tattoos are not done in that way today and permanent makeup is certainly unrelated.”

I found this to be too shocking to believe, so I went a looked it up. Indeed, it is too shocking to believe. If fact, it is flat-out wrong (though he is correct about permanent make-up, contra the questioner).

The Tur, Beit Yosef, and Shulchan Arukh do not say anything about tattooing as a mourning ritual. The Tur rules that one gets lashes no matter what one tattoos, against R’ Shimon who rules in the Gemara (Makkot 21a) that one is only liable if he tattoos the name of a pagan deity.

The Tur then goes on to discuss a separate prohibition – serita, or some kind of ritual scratching as a sign of mourning, and also as a form of worship. Here, one is only liable for lashes if it is done in one of those two modes – as a sign of mourning or as a form of worship.

It seems that the good Rabbi conflated these two issurim. There is nothing in the Tur, HoJo, or SA which would limit the prohibition in this manner. I’d love to say that I’m shocked, but I’m not.



Four different times recently, the subject of tattoos came up, so I thought the topic is worth its own post, to cover the various facets of the topic that I’ve come across.
  • In Tel Aviv on Pesach, the wife and I noticed during a walk through the neighborhood that more and more Israelis have tattoos. In the ensuing discussion, I maintained that it’s just another manifestation of contemporary society and, while assur, does not threaten the fabric of Jewish life and is not a social ill per se. She holds that it reflects poorly on the culture, and that there’s something intrinsically ‘sketchy’ about tattoos. Who’s right?
  • There was an article in the Jerusalem Post about tattoos removed from inmates at Buchewald and saved for display. It recalled the Gemara about R’ Yishmael Kohen Gadol, whose face was flayed on the order of a Roman noblewoman who thought he was beautiful. Treating people like artwork is terribly dehumanizing, especially when it is against the person’s wishes (if a person – like a model – decides to treat themselves as an object of aesthetic admiration, it may be morally problematic but it’s not dehumanizing).
  • I’ve gotten into Prison Break, in which a tattoo features very prominently.
  • There was a post and discussion over on Mississippi Fred’s blog about bad Hebrew tattoos. In the comments, someone asked if a Hebrew tattoo like that would disqualify someone from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. So I’d like to make it perfectly clear that there is no such halakha that someone with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I’ve heard that one a bunch of times, starting about 5 years ago, and I have no idea where that notion originated. I only know that it’s a myth. I don’t even have a good theory to explain why this legend sprang up. The earliest reference I can find to it was a crack by Lenny Bruce that after his mother informed him of this law, he said that he’d have his tattooed arm amputated and buried in a Catholic cemetery. It seems to have gained steam from an episode of “The Nanny” (Series 4, episode 9) where the issue comes up. This discussion leads me to the following story which happened a few years ago:
One of my first campus experiences, before I became a JLI Rabbi, was a panel discussion that I did at the University of North Texas in ’03 (here’s the article that subsequently appeared). At the end, there was an impromptu ‘ask the Rabbi’ session where this issue came up. I gave a three-fold answer. First, I said, “Do you think Holocaust survivors will be denied access to Jewish cemeteries?” – that was for the shock value. The student who asked the question mumbled sheepishly “Oh, I didn’t think of that”. Then, I said that it’s a myth. Finally, I spoke about the idea of repentance, and how people can make mistakes like getting tattoos and repent afterward. To reinforce this point, I quoted a teshuvah which I had recently come across, and which I will reproduce here in full. The students loved the teshuvah, and in truth it’s a really fascinating one:

שו"ת מנחת יצחק חלק ג סימן יא

ע"ד אחד ששימש כחייל, ובצבא שם לו כתובת קעקע ביד שמאל, במקום הנחת תפילין, תמונה של אשה ערומה, שא"א להסירה מבשרו, ועכשיו נעשה בעל תשובה, והתחיל להתפלל, ורוצה לדעת אם יכול להניח תפילין ביד שמאל, על אותה התמונה, או שיניח ביד ימין.

(א) הנה בהשקפה ראשונה נלענ"ד, דאף דהוי דבר מגונה מאד, ויש שאלה אם רשאי לברך, בשעה שהתמונה מגולה, וכמו שמבואר באחרונים מזה, דיש לומר דשייך משום טפח באשה ערוה, גם בתמונה פוטוגרפית ... אבל עכ"פ לא נסתלק המציאות מיד השמאל, שהוא היד הכהה, ולדעתי היות שמקום יש בזרוע להניח שתי תפילין, כמבואר בש"ע (או"ח סי' כ"ז סעי' ז'), וא"כ אף אם יהי' התמונה מתפשטת בכל הקיבורת, הלא אפשר לכסות חלק גדול ממנה בתמידית, ורק להניח פנוי מקום הנחת תפילין (ויעשה לו תפילין קטנים שאפשר עפ"י דין), אשר באותו מקום לא יתראה כ"כ צורתה, ושם יניח התפילה ש"י, וכמובן שבשעת הברכה יהי' מכוסה כל המקום, וגם הכסוי שמכסה החלק ממנה בתמידית, יהי' נעשה מעור דק מאד, באופן שאם בשוגג ישמטו התפילין קצת על מקום הכיסוי, יהי' אפשר לצרף השיטה דשייך בזה ג"כ משום מב"מ =מין במינו= אינו חוצץ וצ"ע עוד בזה, וכפי מה שאומרים אפשר להעביר ע"י בקיאים כתובת קעקע.

Responsa Minchat Yitzchak (R’ Yischak Yaakov Weiss) 3:11

Regarding one who served in the army, where he got an unremovable tattoo of a naked woman on his left arm, in the place where one lays tefilliin. He has now become a baal teshuvah and wishes to know if he can place his tefillin on his left hand, on top of the image, or if he should place it on his right arm.

It seems at first glance, in my humble opinion, that even though it is a disgusting thing, and there’s a question if he can make a bracha when the picture is uncovered, as the latter authorities explain, that ‘tefach be-isha ervah’ applies to a photographic image as well…nevertheless the weaker left arm still exists. In my opinion, since there is room on the bicep for two tefillin (see Shulchan Arukh OC 27:7), so that even if the image covered the entire bicep, it’s possible to permanently cover a large portion of it, and to leave open only the place where he lays tefillin (and he should get the smallest kosher tefillin possible) in a way that her form won’t be seen that much in that spot, and there he should lay his arm tefillin. When he makes the bracha, the entire area should be covered. Also. The permanent cover for most of the image should be made of thin leather, so that if the tefillin slip onto the cover, it’s possible to rely on the opinion that a similar material doesn’t constitute a barrier…and this requires further study since they say that experts can remove tattoos.


Torat Ha-Metzora

Here’s a link to something I posted on this week’s parsha 2 years ago. It remains a favorite of mine because it contains what I think is a real bona fide chiddush – the progression of the way the Torah describes the person afflicted with tzara’at.

This year, I’m wondering if there’s a connection between the Metzora and the Nazir. More after Shabbat.


Selling Olam Haba

Earlier this week, my wife made a comment about something that she’s currently negotiating, saying that she wants to get a specific thing accomplished and would give a certain person and reward she might get in Olam Haba as long as she does the thing on her own.

I said that was funny. She said she was serious. I said that’s what makes it funny. She asked why.

I asked her if she really thinks that Olam Haba is a commodity that can be bought, sold, or traded. She accused me of not believing in Olam Haba.

I responded that I did, but not in an Olam Haba that can be bought or sold. I used the example of memory; can one transfer his memories to someone else? Can they be exchanged? Same kinda thing. I don’t know exactly what the afterlife is, but I tend to think that it forms an organic whole with this life, that some sense of consciousness or identity remains after bodily demise.

I also sense that this is the meaning behind certain statements that make light of the cause-effect relationship between mitzvot and their reward, statements like “Torah is so geschmak that it’s worth going to Gehinnom for.” It’s a sense of humor which downplays the role of Olam Haba in everyday decisions and also jokes about the causality between actions in this world and their results in the next.


Paradigms for Religious Success on Campus, Part IV: The Micromanager

Continued from part I, IA, II, III

Before anything else, I wanted to call attention to a new initiative to solicit essays by Orthodox students and recent graduates about the Orthodox experience on campus. I know that I have many collegiate readers, so I hope I can help encourage some of them to contribute to this worthwhile endeavor. The website is here. I hope that this initiative meets with success. Similar plans have been hatched, but haven’t totally caught on. See here, for example.

On to the regularly scheduled programming.

The hallmark of the micromanager is self-control, particularly when it comes to temporal matters. In college, the amount of time spend in class and doing homework is, at the end of the day, not that much. The average student has four days of classes per week, thirty weeks a year. That works out to about 120 days a year, or once every three days. That’s kinda ludicrous. Homework and papers are significant, but not that much. Thus, you are left with oodles and oodles of free time.

To a great degree, religious success and failure is directly linked to management of free time. Everything is vying for that free time – student organizations, friends, leisure, studying, etc. Successfully managing the clock can easily translate into religious growth. For example, college students are notoriously nocturnal. This does not bode well for minyan. The student who is disciplined enough to get to bed early can begin the next day in a more religiously productive manner – maybe even a shiur before shacharit.

The micromanager also might schedule classes to begin earlier in the day so that he has the afternoon to learn, or late in the day so he can learn after davening. He might schedule classes in blocks so that there’s no loss of time between classes – and nothing is as big a waste of time as a 45 minute break between classes. On the other hand, the mikcromanager might set up a chavruta in that 45 minutes. I know people who had set up 7 or 8 chavrutot per day, sometimes for as short as 15 minutes.

This method is for yekkes. People with ADD need not apply. It doesn’t seem to work very well at party schools. Distractions there seem more intense, though distractions are everywhere, and they can suck up time like nobody’s business. Rare – but successful – is the person who can remain disciplined.


Theologian or Am Haaretz?

I’m back on a Jewish philosophy/theology kick. There are some things I have to work out for myself. Over Pesach, I read the Rav’s ‘Halakhic Mind’. It’s a challenging read, and I hope to post a fuller review later, but suffice it to say that it didn’t do much for me. It provides a philosophical basis for the Rav’s halakhic endeavor. There are holes, though. Big ones.

So I’ve started Neil Gilman’s ‘Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew’. I’m only a few pages in, and already I’ve found two glaring examples of complete amhaaratzus. It’s astounding.

The first example is when he accuses R’ Yehuda Halevi’s proof of the Torah’s divinity and veracity of being circular. The evidence that there was a mass revelation is located in the very book whose veracity you’re trying to prove. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Kuzari’s proof. The proof rest on the assumption that a claim of mass revelation cannot be fabricated, and only the Torah claims mass revelation. The proof is not beyond refutation, but it’s also not circular. How can you miss that?

The second example is where Gilman claims that the Sinai experience is not so central to the Torah, but only became so later on. As a prooftext he brings the vidui bikurim, where Sinai isn’t even mentioned in the summary of Israel’s history.

What’s this guy smoking? How can you miss the centrality of the Sinai revelation in the Torah? The early part of DEvarim constantly emphasizes the importance of remembering Sinai. So much of the Torah takes place there. The claim is just ludicrous.

As for the vidui, I wrote last year that short summary narratives only emphasize the elements of the story that are important for the current situation. When one is bringing his bikurim, the emphasis is on how we went from a state of landlessness to having land, and God’s role in that. The Sinai revelation is not important to that particular narrative.

My expectations for this book have been lowered dramatically. Back to the drawing board.

Dealing with Sexual Abuse (in Baltimore)

I am so shocked and upset by this recent article that I just don’t know what to say. I remember when he passed away, after a long illness with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (or, as I prefer to call it, Franz Rosenzweig’s Disease). His son was my 9th grade Rebbi, and was an excellent Rebbi. Another son was my wife’s high school principal, and is a living legend in the world of contemporary Jewish education. I remember the third son from growing up in Baltimore. We knew that something was up with him, but didn’t really know what.
I also knew that in Baltimore, the frum community tended to keep things under wraps, but genuinely take care of business. Rabbi Herman Neuberger was legendary for it; he could arrange that someone would never get a job in chinuch again without publicly embarrassing anyone, or so I thought.
It also makes me rethink my own school experience. Did I ever have a Rebbi who was a pedophile? There’s only one candidate I can think of. I had a Rebbi who would touch students, putting his hand under their shirts, etc. (we were 10-12 years old). We used to joke that it was a good thing he didn’t teach as Bais Yaakov. There was also a profile of the students he’d touch – ambitious, willing to work hard an kiss-up to get good grades, always wanting to be in the teacher’s good graces (definitely not me; I was actually frequently banished to the hallway, including once for an entire week). The Rebbi would play favorites, even giving them gifts or taking them to ballgames. I don’t think it ever went past that, though. It was certainly inappropriate (one parent threatened to dismember this particular Rabbi if he ever touched his son again), but not criminal, as far as I know. Point is, it never should have even gotten that far.
Education in this realm has got to become explicit, and there has to be a hierarchy of evils which acknowledges that people are people. I’ve been advocating for this for several years (see here, here, here, and here, for example), and only baby steps have been taken. Jewish sexual education must get serious. We can take our cure from R’ Kahana in Brachot 62 – ‘It’s Torah, and therefore must learn it’.
I also get the sense that Rabbinic abusers go after what’s available without distinguishing between different sexual crimes, considering all sexual violations of halakha to be equally problematic. Some value judgments need to be put forth. For example:
It’s better to watch porno and masturbate than to engage in an actual sexual relationship. It’s better to have a sexual relationship with a consenting adult – same sex or opposite sex – than to have one with a child, student, or otherwise vulnerable or trusting subordinate. Better to hire a professional than to risk ruining the life of an acquaintance. Better to have safe sex than unprotected sex.
This can be developed further, but you get the idea.

The Legacy of Jackie Robinson

Having recently posted about black leaders addressing the legacy of slavery in the US in the 20th Century, I came across this article about celebrating`60 years since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. The author laments the fact that the proportion of African-American players (which doesn’t include black Hispanics) is declining, which undermines Robinson’s legacy.

That’s just dumb. Robinson’s legacy is not about affirmative action, or achieving a certain threshold of blacks playing baseball. It’s about giving those with the most ambition and ability to perform and succeed at the highest levels. If African-Americans prefer other sports, for whatever reason, it means nothing for Robinson’s legacy. As long as the best black athletes are given that chance to compete – and they are – then the numbers don’t matter. Draft day remains color-blind, and that’s the greatest tribute to the men who made that happen.


I’ll be posting much in the next day or two. Just a bunch of stuff to post.

It’s nominating season for this year’s JIBs. I’ve been nominated (actually, I shamelessly nominated myself) for ‘Best Jewish Religion Blog’. Thing is, I don’t think this blog really fits any traditional category. It’s got religion, sports, politics, life in Israel, whatever. Very eclectic – which is the function of it being the tortured product of an ADD mind. I’ll also be in the ‘best of the rest’ category, which is more appropriate.


A Pesach Shiur

I gave a bunch of shiurim over Pesach in the hotel. Most were the standard fare, though I definitely made use of a bunch of the ideas that I’ve blogged over time. There was only one that I developed anew, and it went over very well.

Basically, I took four different 20th Century African-American leaders and discussed the approach of each to the problem of dealing with a heritage of slavery. Using these four basic approaches as paradigms, I attempted to isolate the approach that the Torah and Chazal take with regard to the same issue.

The four figures were:

I compared different methods and aims that they were working toward – the ‘back to Africa’ movement, the legal battle for civil rights, the social battle for equality, and black nationalism – and described each in a nutshell. Then I tried to see if each had its parallel in the Torah. I concluded that the key element, at least initially, was to create a national identity, a la Malcolm X (whose very name echoes Chaza”l sentiment that if your master gives you a name, he robs you of your identity). I compared the Midrash about the Tribe of Ephraim leaving Egypt early to Garvey’s abortive back-to-Africa movement. Identity must precede secession. The social and legal elements don’t really appear in the Egypt narrative, but are definitely enshrined in the Torah’s law. The sensitivity, on both the social and legal planes, to the plight of the slave or otherwise disadvantaged, is a common refrain in the Torah, and constantly invokes the memory of our own servitude.

New Article on Gemara in Israeli Schools

If you liked this then you also might like this.
It seems that the solution - and we've been seeing it for years on the post-high-school level - is to make the boys' schools more like the girls' schools and the girls' schools more like the boys' schools.
If you think about the number of hours that the Yeshivot Bnei Akiva devote to Gemara - 2-3 hours a day for six years - and think about what is accomplished in those hours, it's just scary.


Kitniyot Kontinued

A few additions to my earlier comments:
  • I couldn’t find any KFP peanut butter. Everything in Israeli supermarkets is imported. 347 days a year that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, on Pesach there are none with a Hashgacha because very few certifying organizations in chu”l have a ‘le-ochlei kitniyot’ label. He’s not starving, though. He’s got Bamba for his PB fix.
  • I heard that there are Israeli community Rabbanim who permit canola oil. Hooray for the voice of reason.
  • Didn’t find quinoa for karpas. Instead, since we are at a hotel, I went to the buffet table, got some nice fresh vegetables and a nice dressing, and had a nice karpas salad, the way it ought to be.

More Observations on the Religion of Secular Israelis

On Erev Yom Tov, a whole bunch of my chiloni neighbors were outside in the morning, feeding their kids sandwiches on the front yard. Their houses were already chametz-free.

I also saw something very jarring, and extremely interesting: I saw a guy vacuuming his car out on Shabbat afternoon.

Walking around Tel Aviv on Shabbat Chol Ha-Mo’ed, I saw a restaurant open, and a guy sitting in it eating matzah and cholent. There was a place across the street selling sandwiches with bread, which was somehow less striking.

I also witnessed a domestic argument between a dad who didn’t want his kids carrying things on the beach, and his kids, who pointed out that he shouldn’t answer his cellphone on Shabbat. But hypocrisy is everywhere. I was simply surprised that carrying in a ‘carmelis’ would be someone’s ‘line in the sand’ (sorry, bad pun) for observance.

A final, unrelated observation: it is incredibly ungratifying to be at a hotel where the ba'al koreh is Sephardic. I've gotta belt out a good "ka-a-a-aileh" before the end of Yom Tov!

Yom Tov Sheni Musings

Why is it that the same Israelis who get all bent out of shape when chutznik tourists keep 2 days of yom tov in Israel also wouldn’t even dream of keeping 2 days in chu”l, even if they are there for an extended period? There are Israelis who have 1-day minyanim in chutz la-aretz (for example, having the full hakafot on Shemini Atzeret, and not because they’re chassidish).

I also remember a few years ago (6.5, to be exact), the Rebbetzin and I went down to Eilat for a couple of days after Sukkot. We arrived in Eilat a few hours before sunset on isru chag (the Rebbetzin was then pregnant with our first child, so we managed to visit every single rest stop on the way down). My brother-in-law then decided to play a cruel trick on us. Just before we arrived, he called and mentioned to us that there are acharonim who hold that one needs to keep 2 days of yom tov in Eilat. He really scared me before I had a chance to think it through, because it is forbidden to do any melacha if one is in a Jewish community on 2nd day Yom Tov even if one is a ben Eretz Yisrael.

When I thought about it, though, I realized that since R’ Tukachinsky holds that Eilat is indeed part of Eretz Yisrael, I can do melacha. As long as there is a position, even a minority position, that something is permitted on Yom Tov, there’s no issue of ‘mar’it ayin’ for a ben Eretz Yisrael to do it. Phew. Crisis averted. Good thing I knew the sugya, right?

Then we actually started to walk around Eilat a bit, and I saw all of these people with kippot driving cars, etc. At first, I was thinking ‘Hey, that guy must hold like R’ Tukachinsky; that guy must be kim lei like R’ Tukachinsky, etc’. Then I asked someone if anyone in Eilat keeps 2 days, and he looked at me like I was from Mars. Apparently, the only people who keep 2 days in Eilat live in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, and never actually go to Eilat. The people who really actually live there keep one day (by the way, this is the difference between the Aruch Hashulchan and the Mishna Brurah, ve-hamaven yavin).

Similarly, I imagine that nobody actually keeps Shabbat for two days a week in Japan or Hong Kong. The location of the halakhic International Date Line is a matter of dispute (like before, between R’ Tukachinsky and the Chazon Ish). Some suggest being chosheish for both, meaning that any land mass whose majority lies between the two lines would keep Shabbat 2x a week, 3 days of Rosh Hashana, etc. According to this chumra, it’s conceivable to have a 5-day Yom Tov. The Tishrei chagim would be an absolute nightmare. In reality, though, nobody keeps this. In actual communities, normalcy tends to prevail.


Pesach Ponderings, Year 2

  • The Pesach hotel experience is new to me. It has its definite pluses, but also some drawbacks. Some of the drawbacks are definitely avoidable, and some are not. Having a Seder with little kids in a big room is definitely not avoidable as far as the hotel is concerned. If I ever do this again, I’m bringing my own food for the Seder and then having a Seder in my own room. I like to tailor the Seder to trying to communicate yetziat Mitzrayim to my kids – like what the mitzvah really is, and it’s just really hard to do that with a lot of noise and a lot of people around.
  • A significant portion of the hotel’s clientele for the Seder night was religious, as is to be expected. Of the five elevators, only one was a Shabbat elevator. Furthermore, rather than stopping at every floor in only one direction, it stopped at every other floor all the way up and all the way down. It cuts the time down as effectively, but really doesn’t help those with strollers or wheelchairs, of which there were several.
  • Then, on the second day of Pesach, there was a small minority of hotel guests who were keeping a second day of Yom Tov. They must have asked to keep the elevator in Shabbat mode, because it stayed like that until the following nightfall. That ticked me off because people keeping a second day in Israel can explicitly ask bnei Eretz Yisrael to do melacha for them. There’s no issur of amirah le-Yisrael in a case where the other Jew is acting permissibly (another example is when one who already accepted Shabbat, who can ask someone who has not accepted Shabbat to do melacha). To make matters worse, another of the elevators was out of order, leaving just three for the rest of the guests. It was not pleasant. Did I mention that the hotel has 18 floors? I don’t think this hotel ever really had much of a frum crowd before. They’ll learn.
  • Speaking of elevators, we visited the Azrieli Mall in Tel Aviv today. It was mobbed. Like at the hotel, the elevators were packed an one often had to ride up just to gat a space for the way down, etc. We were on the way out of the mall, and I was pushing a stroller (with 9-month-old). There was some room in the elevator (and I didn’t want to carry the kid on the escalator for 5 flights down to where we were parked) so I pushed my way on w/ the stroller (the wife and kids took the escalator) even though there were some teenagers who stepped on just before us (and who had gotten to the elevator after us). One girl started complaining that I was taking up too much space. I told her that she has two good legs and could have taken the escalator (I hope my Hebrew was correct and I didn’t tell her that she has ‘nice legs’). Some guy asked me to move over, I was crowding him. I told him there was nowhere to go. Then some guy starts saying how it’s impossible to argue with Americans. I responded that it’s impossible to argue with people pushing strollers. To my great surprise, at this point another Israeli woman on the elevator took my side and said that people with strollers should have the right of way on elevators, and that I was absolutely correct. Meanwhile, the baby was cooing and giggling at everyone, which has this amazing effect of dissolving tension. It’s also amazing how one tough Israeli woman can put a whole group of bozos in their place. I love that.