Friday, October 24, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Noach - Unraveling the Mystery of Avram's Origin

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Noach - Unraveling the Mystery of Avram's Origin

The Torah gives conflicting evidence about the origins of Avram, our first Patriarch. What happened at the beginning of his life? Where was he born? Why did he leave? Was he really thrown into a fiery furnace? A careful study of the text reveals that there's a lot more to the story than what we all learned in nursery school.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

On the Convert's Bill of Rights

Bethany Mandel has written a fascinating piece demanding a convert's Bill of Rights in which she lists ten points that she feels converts deserve as they undergo the process of conversion. Generally, her article is courageous and important, if only to give "outsiders" (non-converts) perspective into the ordeal and challenge of conversion. I agree with almost all of her points, but have a few caveats.

She writes:
1. Converts are in a state of persistent limbo. During the process we are never told how long it can or should take. We cannot get married if we are dating, we cannot date if we are single. We lose control over the most important choices in our lives and hand them over to men with whom we are unfamiliar for an indeterminate amount of time. I was unable to give a new job a start date, to give my former job proper notice, sign a lease on a new apartment or set a wedding date because I was kept in the dark about how much longer my conversion could possibly take. Days? Weeks? Months? A year? Several? This is psychological torture. A rough estimate and a clear plan for how to move forward to get to the finish line, the mikvah, is the least that a convert deserves.
While this point seems to make sense, it doesn't really address the process of conversion. Conversion is not a course that one takes and then passes the test in a linear fashion (although in Israel it is precisely that, which is one of the primary criticisms about the process of conversion here). Rather, conversion represents a a process of spiritual growth and change that is not linear, but dependent totally upon the progression of the candidate. How is it possible to know when the candidate is "ready"? True conversion represents the inculcation of values, spirituality, passion and commitment. How do you demonstrate those in a written exam? How much time does that take? For some it can be weeks. For others, much, much longer. Imagine being given a clear timeline, and the rabbi feels that the person just isn't ready. Should he convert her anyways, because he needs to adhere to the schedule he gave her? And if he ignored the schedule, wouldn't that be worse? The limbo must indeed be painful, but I imagine that the entire process is painful as well, and sometimes that pain is a sign of growth.
3. The reasonable costs associated with conversion should be clearly laid out from the outset.
Right on. I have heard too many horror stories about people undergoing private conversions and being told, late in the process, about unexpected costs that they'd have to pay to "finish".
4. Communities have welcoming committees for Jews who move to the area but nothing in place for converts in the process.
5. Converts are constantly asked to discuss extremely personal questions by strangers in social settings.
6. Help us with matters of Jewish ritual. This falls on rabbis and community members alike.
These are, to my mind, common sense. Sadly, there's often not enough common sense in our communities.
7. If converts are expected to provide their “papers” proving their Jewishness for a school, synagogue, or wedding ask born Jews for the same.
This already happens in Israel to anyone wishing to get married. It probably also happens in many Diaspora schools and shuls.
8. The conversion process for those of Jewish heritage should be accelerated and unique.
This is a subject of great debate among contemporary poskim and one of the primary reasons for the ongoing debate about the proposed conversion law in Israel. While the concept of zera yisrael can be justified halachically, it's far from agreed upon by the vast majority of poskim. This isn't a common sense issue or a mentchlechkeit issue, but a halachic one that doesn't belong in this article.
9. Converts deserve to be treated with the same love and care as Jewish orphans from the moment we become Jewish.
10. We should not have to live in fear about the status of our conversions in perpetuity.
Also both true, and should be obvious.

Ironically, I believe that the effort to unify conversion standards was all about alleviating that fear: if rabbis adhered to a standard, then no one could come afterwards and question whether they were properly converted or not. This effort stemmed from decades of shady practices of rabbis from Orthodox communities who converted too many converts without requiring proper kabalat hamitzvot. Rather than blaming the rabbis who worked (and continue to work) tirelessly to uphold the honor of geirim, we need to point that finger at rabbis who perform personal conversions knowing all the while that they're following a da'at yachid not accepted by the broader community. When this type of conversion is called into question (and it will be), people will write angry editorials at the Times of Israel blaming the RCA and the Beth Din of America, when they should really blame the rabbi who converted them in a questionable manner.

While I can try and appreciate the anxiety of converts who now fear that their conversions will somehow be questioned due to the troubling allegations about Rabbi Freundel, in truth, the thought never entered my mind. It's good, I guess, that the RCA just issued a statement affirming the validity of past conversions, but I doubt that the issue was ever in doubt. (This was probably one of the easier statements for the RCA to publish in recent memory).
Rabbi Barry Freundel was the head of the Conversion Committee. But there was an entire committee committed to ensuring that each and every Beit Din adhered to the mutually agreed standards. The whole idea of the GPS is to take the individual rav (and his reputation - for better or for worse) out of the equation, so that we would never question the validity of the giyyur. Had Rabbi Freundel performed the conversions alone with a Beit Din of his own construction, people might be doing just that. But because he acted within the framework of a unified system, anyone who questions the validity of the conversions is doing so either to stir the pot, or to promote their own personal agenda.
I don't think that we could ever have imagined these circumstances, but to my mind, the GPS worked exactly as it was designed, protecting the Jewish status of converts even when a major representative from within the GPS is called into question.

It's now clear that opponents of universal standards will use the recent news as proof that unifying standards is a bad idea. Tragically, if they get their way, they will ultimately be harming the very converts they claim to defend.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Audio Shiur: An Overview of Tefillat Yom Kippur

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: An Overview of Tefillat Yom Kippur

General themes built into the Tefillah of Yom Kippur.

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sukkot 5775: Modern Day Clouds of Glory

For those of us living in the South (I live in Yad Binyamin, almost 40km from Gaza. Ashdod, Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva had it much worse, to say nothing of Otef Aza), this summer was the summer without a vacation. Everyone I know entered into the school year feeling that now that the summer had ended they need a vacation – and rightfully so. In fact, many schools in the south have given the students off during the "gesher" – the bridge days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, in order to give them a little time to breathe after such a trying summer.

Yet, the past summer's experience enriches and deepens our understanding for and appreciation of the mitzvah of ישיבה בסוכה – dwelling in a Sukkah.

The Gemara (Sukkah 11b) famously offers two explanations for the commandment to dwell in the Sukkah.

תניא כי בסכות הושבתי את בני ישראל: ענני כבוד היו דברי רבי אליעזר, רבי עקיבא אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם
It was taught, “That I settled the Jews in booths.” Rabbi Eliezer said that this refers to the Clouds of Glory. Rabbi Akiva said the Jews made actual booths for themselves.
While we can readily understand Rabbi Eliezer's position, and the need to commemorate and celebrate the miraculous Clouds of Glory that protected the nation in the desert, Rabbi Akiva's position seems curious. Why would we commemorate the fact that the people lived in booths that they themselves had built?

Rabbeinu Bachya explains that according to Rabbi Akiva we commemorate the fact that the Children of Israel dwelled in man-made booths to remind us that despite their efforts, their survival nonetheless required supernatural protection.

דעת האומר סכות ממש עשו להם, מפני זה נצטוינו לעשות סכות דוגמתן כדי שיתגלה ויתפרסם מתוך מצות הסכות גודל מעלתן של ישראל במדבר שהיו הולכים עם כובד האנשים והנשים והטף במקום ההוא אשר אין בטבע האדם לחיות בו...כי שם באותו מקום הכנתי להם כל צרכם ולא חסרו דבר
According to the opinion that says that the Jews made actual booths for themselves, we are commanded to make booths like those, to publicize the greatly elevated state of existence which the Jews enjoyed in the desert. They traveled in the desert with masses of men, women, and children in a place where it is not the nature of man to live … Even in that place, God prepared for them all of their needs and they lacked nothing.
The houses they built for themselves were not enough. They still needed God's help and protection to survive and thrive in the dangerous desert habitat. This lesson is especially relevant for the residents of the Jewish State, following the challenging, but miraculous summer we recently endured.

This summer, we discovered yet again that the homes we normally associate with safety and protection do not suffice. We required – and continue to require – an added level of protection, and I refer even to those of us who have a Safe Room that we ran to at the sound of the siren. This year, when we sit in the Sukkah under the open sky, we will not only immediately recognize our frailty and fragility. Rather, we'll also think back to the summer and remember how, even when sitting in our regular homes, we recognized that we were not in fact safe. We needed more protection – and thankfully, received it as well, as the Jewish people benefited from miraculous (from the root word "miracle") divine protection over the course of the summer. Nothing less than miraculous.

The same can be said of our own "Clouds of Glory".

Over the course of the summer, I tried to maintain my regular routine, including my regular runs around Yad Binyamin. Sometimes I run on the path that circles the yishuv, while usually I enjoy running along roads and paths through the local community and the local fields. Looking back, perhaps this wasn't such a good idea.

On one particularly clear Sunday evening, I found myself running along the road near Chafetz Chaim when a siren sounded. I watched as the Iron Dome rockets fired to intercept the unseen rockets rushing towards us suddenly took a turn – directly towards me. That's when I figured it might be a good idea to quickly seek additional shelter, and I spent the next few moments in a concrete drainage pipe.

Watching those rockets rise into the air, it was impossible not to marvel not only at the technological prowess that built the system, but also again at the Divine Hand guiding those rockets to their targets, and also directing the Hamas rockets the Iron Dome missed away from civilian areas. While Hamas fired literally thousands of rockets towards us, the vast, vast majority missed Israeli civilian areas, landing either in Gaza, in the sea, or in open areas, away from the populace.

Those misses represented nothing less than our own, national ענני הכבוד.

This coming week, as we sit in the Sukkah, we can and must celebrate, and give thanks for the additional protection we received, even while sitting in the booths that we have built, and also for the Clouds of Glory that protected the People of Israel who continue to thrive in the most dangerous neighborhood in the world.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech: The Connection Between Hakhel and Shemittah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech: The Connection Between Hakhel and Shemittah

We here in Israel will spend a great deal of energy on one tiny aspect of Shemittah: What can and should we eat during the coming years? But, in doing so, we'll also be ignoring many essential aspects of Shemittah, that we can discover by examining the connection in the Torah between Shemittah and the mitzvah of Hakhel.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Apple Partners with Machon Zomet of Alon Shvut, Israel, to Create ShabbatModeAppleWatch

September 15, 2014

Cupertino (JTI) - With great fanfare, Apple, the worldwide leader in portable technology, recently introduced the AppleWatch, a smart-phone connected smart-watch which monitors health, relays messages, tells time, and performs hundreds of other currently unknown functions, which will only become known when they are actually developed. Yet, this new device will present a challenge to Sabbath observant Jews, who cannot text, email, watch movies on their wrists, or send playful pings to their spouses sitting on the other side of the mechitzah.

Solving a Dilemma
To alleviate the Shabbat concerns of the AppleWatch, and to encourage the large market of religious Jews who will rush to buy Apple's latest offering, Apple reached out to the Zomet Institute in Alon Shvut outside Jerusalem, which has developed numerous technological innovations that allow Jews to live fully technological lives, without technically violating the Shabbat, according to some opinions.
"We were excited to work with Apple," said Rabbi Israel Rosenberg of Zomet. "The AppleWatch will undoubtedly become the must-have item of 5775, and we wanted to ensure that religious Jews weren't left out."
Asked about the modifications necessary to turn on the AppleWatch SabbathMode, Rosenberg beamed. "You don't have to do anything at all. The SabbathModeAppleWatch comes pre-programmed to sense your exact location, down to plus or minus two centimeters, so that the watch can turn on the Sabbath mode setting automatically for the next eleven thousand years, based on your location, the time, the day of the year, and whether you hold of Magen Avraham or Rabbeinu Tam." Asked how a watch could possibly identify an individual's halachic propensity, Rosenberg simply said, "Siri knows."

What Does it Do?
What does the AppleWatch do in SabbathMode?
"Actually," said Rosenberg, "this presented both halachic and technological challenges." As the AppleWatch is a health-monitoring device, Zomet felt reluctant to limit the blood-pressure monitoring software in the case of a health-related need. Thus, the watch will, based on an individual's health status, decide whether to (a) shut down health monitoring, (2) monitor blood pressure regularly or (3) call Hatzolah, if necessary. Zomet programmed the watch to call the appropriate phone number, again based on location.

What does the device do on Shabbat for a healthy wearer?
Rosenberg explains that the patented technology, sensing the arrival of Shabbat, deactivates all sensors and wireless communication, and places the AppleWatch in a time-only mode for the duration of the day of rest. The software also deactivates the alarm, and any buttons, so that a Sabbath observant wearer does not accidentally press a button, forcing him to wear the watch in StopWatch mode for 24 hours.

But if all the SabbathModeAppleWatch can do is tell you the time, how then is the SabbathModeAppleWatch different than any other watch?
Rosenberg smiled broadly.
"Ahhh, but it is different. Very much so. It's a ShabbatModeAppleWatch."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ray Rice, Teshuvah, and The Book of Remembrances

I've been thinking recently about the Ray Rice video (showing him knocking his wife unconscious in a hotel elevator). Before the revelation of the video, he received a two-game suspension, and was set to resume his well-paying career as an NFL running back. After the release of the tape he was fired, suspended, and may never play football again, costing him literally millions of dollars in lost revenue.
What really happened this week? Did Ray Rice do anything different? Did we not think after the release of the first video  (showing him dragging his wife out of the elevator) that he had hit her? Did we imagine that she suffered from a diabetic-related sudden blackout? Hardly. The world "knew" what had happened, but without the information right before our eyes, we looked the other way. We forgot. We moved on.
That's exactly what happens to us as we approach Rosh Hashanah.
When the time comes to make an accounting of the year, in order to begin the process of repentance and renewal, suddenly things become quite fuzzy. We conveniently forget the many, many times we acted  selfishly, harshly, crudely, nastily - you name the adverb. We forget the times we forgot to pray, bentch, make a brachah, do a mitzvah. We forget our sins - or at least the vast majority of them, and when looking back at the year think to ourselves: Sure, I can always improve, but I had a pretty good year, didn't I? Sure I did, assuming that I forgot all of my blunders, mistakes and misdeeds.
There's only one problem: there's a tape, just like the Ray Rice recording. Of everything,
The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah relates a familiar but chilling image.
אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבונו של עולם, מפני מה אין ישראל אומרים שירה לפניך בראש השנה וביום הכפורים? - אמר להם: אפשר מלך יושב על כסא דין
וספרי חיים וספרי מתים
 פתוחין לפניו - וישראל אומרים שירה? (ר"ה לב, ב)
Said the heavenly angels before the Holy on Blessed be He: Creator of the world, why is it that Israel does not recite words of praise (Hallel) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? [God] said to them: is it possible that the King sits on the seat of judgment, with the books of life and the books of death open before him, and Israel should sing praise?
The Midrash raises a number of fascinating questions, such as: what is the book of the dead? Who in fact is being judged (see here for a fascinating interpretation); why not sing praise during a time of judgment? Wouldn't that get us a better deal? But we'll leave those aside to ask another question: what's written in those books?
During Unetaneh Tokef, we get even more specific. In the context of this solemn, chilling prayer, we say to God,
אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַּיָּן וּמוֹכִיחַ וְיוֹדֵעַ וָעֵד
וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה
וְתִזְכֹּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת
וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּוֹ
It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness;
Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates.
You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles
 —  from it, it will be read - in which everyone's signature is. (translation from Wikipedia)
What is this "Book of Chronicles" that God reads on Rosh Hashanah while standing in judgment? What's written in it? And I don't remember signing any such book?
Actually, we've seen a similar book before in Tanach - in the Book of Esther, when the king can't sleep and has his servants read from his ספר הזכרונות - Book of Remembrances. Only then does he remember the favor Mordechai did in saving his life, and takes steps to repay Mordechai (and save the Jewish people). What's in this book? It's a detailed diary of everything - every word we've said over the past year, and over our entire lives. Every thought. Every feeling. And every action.
But the author of the Unetaneh Tokef poem only used the language and imagery available at his time. The idea of the signature connotes the undying accuracy of what's written in the book. How can you deny the veracity of a book's contents if they bear your signature. Today we'd say it differently. If we were writing a modern Unetaneh Tokef we'd say:
It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness;
Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates.
You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Divine YouTube,
 — from it, all will be viewed - in which everyone's action are found. 
There is a video. Of everything. Whether you can see it or not, there is a camera in the room. In all probability, there is in fact a camera on the device you're using to read these words. So it's not that difficult to imagine. Except that it's on, and recording, all the time, uploading to a special Sefer Zichronot YouTube site we cannot access. While we might not have access to this specific version of YouTube, it's there, and one day we too will watch it.
In the aftermath of the Ray Rice media circus, his wife Janay (who he punched) wrote, "To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing." It must indeed be horrible to have your worst mistake splashed on screens around the world; to have to live with the consequences of your most terrible behavior for the rest of your life.
But it's not just Ray Rice.
It's all of us. We just might not realize it yet.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tavo - Finding True Joy

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo - Finding True Joy

You might not expect simchah to be a primary theme found in Ki Tavo, the parashah of the Tochechah. But it is. How do we find joy, and why is it critical to a proper religious life?

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Teitzei - Rebellious Children

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Teitzei - Rebellious Children

The troubling section describing the treatment of the rebellious son causes many of us today to recoil: kill him? For what? For what indeed. Not to worry - we're not the first to ask these questions, and the answers that Chazal and the commentators offer have a lot to teach us about ourselves as individuals, as parents, and as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Is Democracy Ideal? Thoughts for Parshat Shoftim

For many years - decades in fact, the United States actively promoted the idea of spreading democracy around the world, spending many millions of dollars on efforts to promote democracy, believing that this would lead to greater freedom, fewer regional conflicts, and greater global stability.
Sometimes, this did in fact work. Japan is now a stable, democratic country, after centuries of imperial rule. But, in more recent history, this effort has backfired, and even has served to bolster those who wish to do the United States harm.
As we've witnessed in recent years, giving people the right to choose their government does not guarantee that they'll choose a liberal government that guarantees rights and freedoms. In fact, when given the right to choose, citizens of Egypt chose the Muslim Brotherhood, while their cousins in Gaza chose Hamas - sister organizations dedicated to the promotion of radical Islam. In fact, rather than leading to "liberal democracies", free elections in Muslim countries have resulted in "illiberal democracies" whose governments then proudly promote their legitimacy, as they were indeed freely elected.
None of this should come as any surprise to those who study Chumash with Ha'amek Davar, the commentary of Netziv. While following the will of the people seems inherently sensible, Netziv, noting a seeming self-contradiction in the Torah points out an obvious truth: what's seems sensible, isn't always the best choice.
Moshe instructs the nation that when the enter into the Chosen Land, they must appoint a king to lead them:
כִּי-תָבֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ; וְאָמַרְתָּ, אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ, כְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי. שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ: מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ, תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ--לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-אָחִיךָ הוּא.
When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me'; thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose; one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother. (Devarim 17:15-16)
Netziv notes that rather than just instructing the people to appoint a king, that appointment can only come should the nation desire a king - when the people say, "I will set a king over me." It seems that the Torah only commands the nation to appoint a king when they look at the nations around them, and wish to have a similar form of leadership. Yet, this condition seems to contradict the apparent commandment to appoint a king. In fact, Chazal do indeed interpret these verses as a commandment - a mitzvah - to appoint a king. So, must we appoint a king or not? Is it a mitzvah or not? According to Netziv, it depends. He writes:
ונראה דמשום דהנהגת המדינה משתנית אם מתנהגת ע"פ דעת מלוכה או ע"פ דעת העם ונבחריהם. ויש מדינה שאינה יכולה לסבול דעת מלוכה ויש מדינה שבלא מלך הרי היא כספינה בלי קברניט, ודבר זה אי אפשר לעשות ע"פ הכרח מצות עשה, שהרי בענין השייך להנהגת הכלל נוגע לסכנת נפשות שדוחה מצות עשה. משום הכי אי אפשר לצוות בהחלט למנות מלך כל זמן שלא עלה בהסכמת העם לסבול עול מלך ע"פ שרואים מדינות אשר סביבותיהם מתנהגים בסדר יותר נכון או אז מצות עשה לסנהדרין למנות מלך.
It seems [that the verse is ambiguous] because the leadership of the State is varied - whether it be a leadership of monarchy, or a leadership based upon the will of the people and their chosen [leaders]. There may be a state that cannot suffer monarchy, while another state without a king is like a boat without a captain. This matter cannot be enforced through a positive commandment, for matters related to the public can be issues of life and death, and would therefore supersede a positive commandment. For this reason, it is impossible to issue an absolute command to appoint a king, as long as the public has not agreed to suffer the yoke of a king, having seen the countries surrounding them functioning with greater order [due to their king]. Only then is it a positive commandment for the Sanhedrin to appoint a king.

Some nations - at some times - cannot suffer a monarchy, while others (or even that same country, in a different era), would literally disintegrate without the firm guidance of a powerful leader. It interesting to note that the Obama Administration seems to have come to this very conclusion (a bit late, in my opinion), drastically cutting funding to promote democracy in the Middle East.
Look what happened to Egypt (and Tunisia and Gaza - and probably Syria as well): While democracy sounds good, it seems clear in retrospect that only the firm grip of a powerful leader kept those countries from destroying themselves, and those around them.
Is Democracy the best choice? It can be. But, Netziv reminds us that it's only a good choice of government when the nations themselves are ready for it.