Saturday, September 12, 2015

Using Fruit of Shemittah for the Four Minim - Yad Binyamin Edition

I've noticed a bit of an uptick in social media regarding the use of Shemittah fruit for the Four Minim this year (since the fruit in Israel are Shemttah). I strongly encourage that my chu"l friends make a point of purchasing Israeli produce through the Otzar Beit Din system, thereby supporting Israeli farmers who are having a difficult enough time getting through Shemittah. (See Rabbi Daneil Korobkin's letter here.)
Here in Israel, the point is moot: all the fruit here is Kedushat Sheviit.
But this year, my etrog is really Kedushat Sheviit. I know this because I picked it myself.
Yesterday morning, I was running in the fields near Beit Chilkiyah (which is a Chareidi argricultural yishuv right next door to Yad Binyamin), and I noticed that a gate which is normally closed was instead open). So I took a look, and found myself in an Etrog tree orchard open to the public for Shemittah. The trees grew in such a way that they formed a canopy over you, so as I walked down the road it felt like I was walking in an enclosed Etrog forest. Better still, the owners of the fields who are meticulously observing Shemittah left clippers for visitors to cut Etrogim, asking only that we take care not to harm the trees.
I didn't have anything to carry etrogim with me, and I wanted to share the experience with the family, so I brought Rena, Leah and Moriyah with me back to the field later in the day. Here are some pictures.
While someone told me that we got there very late in the season, I managed to find a really lovely etrog that I will use on Sukkot. To me, there's nothing more hadar - beautiful, than using an etrog of shemittah that I merited to pick myself in the field five minutes from my home.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Parshat Netzavim - Lo Bashamayim Hee - Seven Lessons to Prepare for Rosh Hashanah

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Netzavim - Lo Bashamayim Hee - Seven Lessons to Prepare for Rosh Hashanah

The phrase "Lo Bashamayim Hee" carries critical lessons, especially as we approach Rosh Hashanah. In this shiur, we discuss some of the challenges of Teshuvah and some suggested ways of approaching the Yamim Noraim using Lo Bashamayim Hee as a guide.

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Monday, September 7, 2015

The Slog of Selichot

My good friend Rabbi David Brofsky shared a Facebook post defending Selichot:
There’s a lot of complaining this time of year- Selichot.
First, it’s a significant addition to the three daily tefillot, and it’s a considerable hit to one’s sleeping schedule, either early in the morning or at night. Waking up at ashmoret ha-boker is a beautiful idea. As an idea.
Second, they are rather difficult to understand. At least fully.
The Shulchan Arukh (OC 1:4) writes טוב מעט תחנונים בכוונה, מהרבות בלא כוונה (better few supplications with concentration than much without concentration). R. Hutner adapted this statement: טוב מעט בלי כוונה מהרבה בלי כוונה. In fact, in Yeshivat Chaim Berlin (and Pachad Yitzchak in Israel), I have heard that they say abridged selichot. I full identify with this sentiment: I often say a shorter, abridged Tachanun (Mon and Thurs), Pesukei De-Zimra, Kinot and of course, Zkhor Berit (Erev RH).
But, I also have to say the following: I enjoy Selichot. I find them meaningful. I like saying (yelling?) the first part ('לך ה and שומע תפילה). I enjoy finding the rhythm in the different selichot, even if I don’t always fully understand the meaning. I say the 13 midot of rachamim with great awe and trepidation, as I recall the image of God revealing them to Moshe, as the key to forgiveness. I like the tune of the final pizmon, and how the sheliach tzibbur and the tzibbur say each part. Yes, and I love rushing through the zkhor rachamekha, hoping to say ve-havi’otim before the sheliach tzibur says shema koleinu. Shema Koleinu! Hashiveinu! Al tashlikheinu! How can one not find meaning in a good confession (viduy)? And racing through the final aneinus matches the Rav’s description of “tze’aka”- a prayer said in a time of crisis - spiritual crisis.
Finally, the voices and tunes of decades of ba’alei tefila are in my head; R. Amital’s deep yet haunting tefillot ring in my ears (see minute 28 below..).
There is meaning in tradition. There is meaning in structure. There is meaning in years and years of melodies. And there is meaning in oscillating between slow and fast, and whispering and screaming, while the voices of great baalei tefilla echo in one’s ears. I wouldn’t trade that for all the uplifting “hashiveinu”s and funky “rachamana”s out there.
Rabbi Brofsky is right. Selichot today has a "bad name." Today it's Carlbach Selichot. Here in Israel, Tours of Jerusalem end with a recitation of Selichot somewhere in the Old City. It's not enough to pray; Selichot needs to be an experience.

I agree with everything that Rabbi Brofsky wrote, except I really don't usually experience Selichot as uplifting and passionate. Nor, really, do I expect them to be.  
In theory, it would be great if I had a passionate religious experience every time I pray. But I don't - far from it. Nor do I think it's reasonable to have that expectation. Human nature is such that we experience rhythms in life - highs and lows, and I believe the expectation of a perpetual spiritual high is unreasonable, unrealistic, and unfair to ourselves. 

This same rule applies to the recitation of Selichot. I don't get much out of Selichot (less so after midnight, which is why I say the Sunday morning Selichot on Sunday morning, at not at 12:30am) Despite the lack of such a high, I still make a concerted effort to say Selichot (albeit too fast) as I think that they're very important even without that spiritual high. This is because to me Selichot is a process building towards the end goal of Yom Kippur. 

I see Selichot both as an intentional slog, an extra effort we make around the Yamim Noraim, and also a way to gradually move towards the Tefillot on Yom Kippur. If a person experiences Yom Kippur on the first night of Selichot, what then can he expect to have left later on? During the waning moments of Yom Kippur, I always think of - and in truth feel bad for - the people who don't say Selichot leading up to Rosh Hashanah and during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. At that time, as we're piercing the heavens with the 13 Middot of Rachamim, we pause between each volley for a brief recitation, a respite of sort, most of which recall Selichot we have recited over the past weeks.Each stanza takes me back to those early morning Selichot, and gives me a bit more strength to push forward. Neilah - like everything else is life - means so much less if you didn't put in the time during the weeks of Selichot, steadily building momentum with each passing day.

I don't for a minute think that my Selichot this morning were Neilah. Nor do I think they should be. Selichot are a slog. But to my mind, that just how they're supposed to be.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

How Arye Deri Might Force the Chief Rabbinate to Recognize Rav Rabinovitch's Conversions

My favorite political writer in Israel, Zev Kam, floated a fascinating theory in last week's Mekor Rishon suggesting that the individual who might be most responsible for the official acceptance of the conversions performed by the new conversion Beit Din of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch might be none other than Arye Machlouf Deri, head of Shas.

Deri? you ask. He's the head of a Hareidi party, and a devoted follow of Rav Ovadia Yosef zt"l. Rav Ovadya's son, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rav Yitzchak Yosef, recently criticized the Beit Din by asserting that,
"They want to convert children who will eat pork and violate the Shabbat. This represents a falsification of the words of Torah, even according to Rav Kook and Rav Yisraeli. These conversions are forbidden." 
[A short digression on Rav Yosef's comments: On the first point there is no debate. The Beit Din does not require that the children commit to an Orthodox lifestyle. On the second point, Rav Rabinovitch doesn't need my defense. Yet, I note with interest Rav Yosef's choice of words about the conversions themselves. He could have said that they are illegitimate and will never be recognized. He did not say that. He said, הגיורים האלו אסורים, meaning that in his mind, it is forbidden for a rabbi to perform such a conversion. What would the halachic status of a person converted by a recognized rabbi? Rav Yosef did not answer that question. End digression.]

Yes, Deri.

How would Deri coerce the Chief Rabbinate to accept and legitimate these conversions? He'd do it, unintentionally, through the magical world of Israeli politics. This is because while Deri himself would never suggest accepting these conversions, given the proper incentive, Prime Minister Netanyahu would. Why in the world would Bibi want to get himself involved in this fight? Because he needs a gas deal, and he needs it sooner rather than later.

The Gas Deal
Jews around the world, and especially in Israel, rejoiced when we learned of the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in Israeli waters in the Mediterranean Sea. The first field, Tamar, is estimated to have 7.9 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's a lot. Discovered in 2009, the field came online and began producing gas in 2013. Just to get a sense of the crazy Israeli politics involved: Tamar is directly west of Haifa, but due to lawsuits and holdups in the Supreme Court, it turned out to be easier to just pipe the gas under the sea all the way to Ashkelon, one hundred miles to the south. (And if you drive north today on Road 6, you'll see crews laying pipeline to carry natural gas north from Ashkelon to the utility plants in the north. Crazy.)

Tamar turned out to be an appetizer for the main meal, as Noble Energy announced that it discovered another field they called Leviathon, which is estimated to contain 16 trillion cubic feet of gas (more that a lot; much more). Yet, before the company can begin producing gas, the government must sign off on the agreement that it made with the company to buy the gas. This turns out to be incredibly complicated. The general sense that I get is that right-wing parties want to sign the deal, while left-wing parties think that the government should hold off and demand a better deal from the fatcat tycoons who are getting filthy rich by selling gas that belongs to the Israeli public. Both are probably right. It's very confusing, which is why you're probably not even reading this paragraph, and skipped to the next heading when you read the words, "The Gas Deal"

Deri's Role
How does Deri fit into all of this? Well it turns out that in order to trigger the deal already approved by the Cabinet, it must be certified by the government's Antitrust Commissioner, ensuring that contracts to do not give monopolistic rights to specific companies. (This deal does seem to have all the markings of a monopoly). Yet, like so many Israeli laws, this one also has a loophole. Article 52 of the Antitrust law states that in cases of national security or foreign policy concerns, the Economy Minister (Deri) could sign a waiver that would circumvent the antitrust commissioner's objections. In other words, Bibi had a "Get out of jail free" card for his gas deal: Arye Deri. All Deri had to do was sign the papers, the gas deal would have gone through, the companies would have gotten rich, and the Israeli public would have enjoyed a windfall from the taxes on that gas (albeit less than they should get, but who's asking?)

Deri refused to sign the deal. Not once, but twice. It's clear that if Bibi thought for a moment that Deri wouldn't sign off, he never, ever, ever would have made Deri the Economy Minister. Never. But that's water under the bridge. And, on top of it all, the current Antitrust commissioner just resigned, and Deri has to find someone else to take the job. That person will then need to reexamine the whole agreement, create a commission to conduct an inquiry - a huge tumult. It will take months, if not years for this gas deal to go through. And, Egypt just found an even bigger gas field in its waters.

Bibi wants this gas deal. Badly.

How do you get approval for the deal if you can't get Deri - who you appointed as your Economy Minister - in your coalition, to sign the papers? Well, you can bring it to the Knesset for a vote, and approve it officially, without the need for loopholes.

There's only one problem: Bibi's coalition is 61 out of 120 seats - razor thin - and he'll never get the vote passed with that margin. He needs breathing room, and there's only one natural place for him to turn: Avigdor Lieberman.

The Lieberman Factor
Lieberman surprised the political pundits when he announced that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would not be joining the government this year. He can change his mind at any time, given the proper incentive. In fact, it has been widely assumed that he would eventually join the government, as Bibi himself never actually filled the post of Foreign Minister (keeping it for himself, and placing Tzipi Hotoveli as Assistant Foreign Minister) which he seems to be saving for Lieberman. What might Lieberman want in order to enter the government? I assume that he'll want a whole host of things, but included in the list might very well be the issue of conversions.

Lieberman represents an almost exclusive constituency from the former Soviet Union, and for them, the issue of conversions really is important, no so much because they want to convert, but more because those who are not halachically Jewish can't marry legally in Israel, and feel like second-class citizens. This is a symbolic issue that's very important to Lieberman's community, even if practically it won't make that much of a difference.

Last month, Lieberman held a very public meeting with Tzohar Chairman Rav David Stav in order to discuss ways to promote the acceptance of the conversions promoted by the new Beit Din. A Hareidi website reported that,
"Lieberman and Rav Stav agreed that the Yirsrael Beiteinu party will work with the relevant parties in the government and the Chief Rabbinate, in order to find a way to allow these alternative Batei Din to operate, with official recognition for the conversions performed."
Lieberman further threatened that if the conversions were not recognized, his party would once again introduce a new "Tzohar Law" legislating the rights and recognition of the new conversion courts. These threats and any new legislation, only have a hope of passing if Lieberman joins the government and helps pass the gas deal.

So, in the end, who might have forced Bibi to turn to Avigdor Lieberman to pass his gas deal, who in turn will force the Chief Rabbinate to accept Rav Rabinovitch's conversion court? That's right: none other than Arye Deri.

Maran would be appalled.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Ki Tavo - Mutual Responsibility vs Individual Rights

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Ki Tavo - Mutual Responsibility vs Individual Rights

Two themes play an important role not only in Ki Tavo, but also in the beginning of Nitzavim. On one hand, the Torah communicates the value of Areivut - mutual responsibility. At the same time, people have the ability to act in private. How do these two seemingly conflicting values coexist?

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Perfection and the Yamim Noraim

Way back when I was in the rabbinate, someone emailed me the description of the perfect rabbi:
The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.
You get the point: there's no such thing as a perfect rabbi, as much as there is a perfect teacher, lawyer, doctor or mother. Yet, ever since the first blast of the Shofar in shul last week, I've been thinking about perfectionism and the delicate balance between the dangers of perfectionism on one hand, and our concurrent need to strive for perfection.

Being a perfectionist can be extremely destructive. A perfectionist by definition is never happy. Because achieving perfection is literally impossible, one's work is never really good enough. Actually, it's never really good at all. And since it's not going to be "good" (i.e. perfect), often the perfectionist won't even bother starting a project or endeavor at all. After all, what's the point of working on something that you know will fail?

And yet, for all the dangers of perfectionism, that seems to be precisely the demand that Judaism places upon us during the Yamim Noraim. Rambam writes,
ומה היא התשובה--הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו, ויסירנו ממחשבתו ויגמור בליבו שלא יעשהו עוד, שנאמר "יעזוב רשע דרכו, ואיש אוון מחשבותיו" (ישעיהו נה,ז).  וכן יתנחם על שעבר, שנאמר "כי אחרי שובי, ניחמתי, ואחרי היוודעי, ספקתי על ירך" (ירמיהו לא,יח); ויעיד עליו יודע תעלומות שלא ישוב לזה החטא לעולם, שנאמר "ולא נאמר עוד אלוהינו, למעשה ידינו--אשר בך, ירוחם יתום" (הושע יד,ד).  וצריך להתוודות בשפתיו, ולומר עניינות אלו שגמר בליבו.  - הלכות תשובה ב', ג
What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again as [Isaiah 55:7] states "May the wicked abandon his ways...." Similarly, he must regret the past as [Jeremiah 31:18] states: "After I returned, I regretted." He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again as [Hoshea 14:4] states: "We will no longer say to the work of our hands: `You are our gods.'" He must verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart.
Each year, as I review these important halachot, I stop on that line from Rambam: He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again. Really? Never again? Can I really testify before God that I'll never revert to my past sins; that I'll never slip up? That I won't fall prey to my evil inclination, and commit a sin from my past?

Is not the obligation to "never return to this sin again" a demand for perfection? Never doesn't mean "try not to" or "promises not to" – it means never. Ever. Perfection.

Like many questions, I'm not sure that there's one good answer to this question. This year, I have come to understand that Rambam's formulation demanding a commitment to perfection represents a core aspect of Yamim Noraim that we, as imperfect beings, must confront at least once a year.

On Yom Kippur, the spiritual high point of the year, we emulate the angels. For one day, we eschew our physical selves; our hunger, sexuality, work and leisure, and spend this one day basking in the glory of God. We are, as much as we can possibly be, spiritual. At the same time, we recognize that this yearning is impossible.

That, in a nutshell, is the human condition: the desire for perfection, combined with the knowledge that it is something we will never achieve. During the rest of the year, we take refuge in our humanity, excusing our mistakes and shortcomings. But for one day, we expect perfection of ourselves, and that expectation propels us to improve, repent, return and transform ourselves into better, more perfect people.

There's a famous custom mentioned by the Rema (Orech Chayyim 583:2):
יש המדקדקים שלא לאכול אגוזים שאגוז בגימטריא חטא
There are those who are meticulous not to eat nuts [on Rosh Hashanah] for the gematria (numerical equivalent) of (the Hebrew word) "egoz" (nut) equals "cheit" (sin).
There's only one problem with this custom – or at least the explanation for it: the math is off. The words are not equal. Egoz (אגוז) is 1+3+6+7=17. Cheit (חטא) is 8+9+1=18. They're not even equal to each other!

Maybe that's precisely the point. Sin represents the definition of imperfection. Through our shortcomings, we demonstrate just how incomplete we truly are. In this simple custom, we refrain from eating nuts, to remind us of this exact point – that we are not perfect, and have much to strive for during the Ten Days leading up to Yom Kippur.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Jews of Prague (Part 1)

We don't get out much - at least from a vacation perspective. The last time Rena and I actually traveled on a vacation away from home for longer than a Shabbat took place on our Aliyah pilot trip, more than seven years ago. So when I turned forty a few years back we decided that we'd go away for a short trip. This spring, we finally made good on that decision and booked a trip to Prague.
Rena had the foresight to book our stay at the only kosher hotel in Prague - the King David (highly recommended). That was a particularly good choice, as the options for kosher food are incredibly limited, and it was great to start the day with a good kosher breakfast. No, it wasn't an Israeli-hotel kosher breakfast, but it was close. It was also great to have a minyan without having to look that far.

Prague is beautiful - clean, interesting, European, and a great place to walk around. Interestingly, there really isn't a Jewish community in Prague to speak of. It's basically gone, and hopefully never coming back. I see no reason to rebuild a destroyed Jewish community. Yet, Jews were everywhere, and our portrayal wasn't particularly flattering.

The Prague Astronomical Clock
Take the clock. There's a very famous clock Astronomical Clock in the Old Square in Prague that's a gathering point for tourists who come to watch the show of the clock striking each hour. It really is a show, and it's also a pretty incredible feat of engineering, as it was first build in 1410. After we settled into our hotel, it was one of the first thing that we saw.

Of the many fascinating aspects of the clock (it tells time in three different ways, including sha'ot zmaniyot!), there are also figures standing at the sides of the clock representing different human traits. Standing at the two sides of the clock are four figures (you can see them here): Vanity, death, the miser and the Turk. Sounds nice. Except the "Miser" isn't known as such. Here's how he's described not on an official tourism website:
The Prague Astronomical Clock is located close to Old Town square and it is one of the city major attractions. The clock has been in the square since 1410 and it is a very special clock since it was used not only to indicate the current time, but also the month and the day of the year (and the name you should give to your kids depending on their birthdate), moon phases, zodiac information and much more. The clock also depicts different figures like vanity, death, a Jew and a Turk. Finally, at every hour, two doors open on the clock to show the 12 apostles and a man dresses as a pageboy plays a horn from the top of the clock tower. Make sure you are nearby the clock in time, the show is very fast!
For hundreds of years, next to the Turk (not a complimentary sculpture) stands a miserly Jew (you can see him standing to the left of the clock in the picture above). The four figures stand as a religious warning about the passage of time, as an admonition to onlookers to use their time well: don't waste your time with silly things like vanity, as death nears ever closer with every tick of clock. The same goes for the Turk (who clearly symbolizes violence and vulgarity). And finally, don't be consumed with money, as is the miserly Jew, who cares for nothing but his bag of gold.

I can't say that I found the stereotype surprising. Bigotry is what it is, and I guess it's no different now that in was six hundred years ago.

Welcome to medieval Prague.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting on Tisha B'av: P'sak Halachah in the Age of the Internet

The Facebook post started with a simple question:
Has anyone ever heard of a pregnant or nursing woman only fasting until Chatzos if Tisha B'av is a nidcheh? I remember someone once telling me this and I'm trying to find a source for it...
The post clearly touched a nerve with the Facebook friends who began to suggest answers to the question.
- There are definitely kulahs with a nidcheh fast. Ask your LOR (Local Orthodox Rabbi). Will probably depend on the specific situation.
- Ask your rabbi...I've heard a few different things.
Then, the poster responded with a semi-joking comment:
I'm trying to send my LOR in the right direction :-)
This was followed by a series of comments and suggestions, including piskei halachah by no less than two rabbis, both of whom offered different opinions. One said, "A choleh should fast until morning. There's nothing special about chatzos for fasting." In other words, she must begin the fast, but can break it by morning. Another wrote that, "On a tisha bav nidche pregnant women who experience even mild discomfort, break their fast . see biur halacha 559:9 s.v. vaino . nursing women are in the same category this means whenever you feel worse than normal fast even a headache alone is enough to eat you eat normally no shiurim." In other words, you must fast normally, until and unless you feel discomfort, at which point you can break your fast.

In the course of the thread, other posters shared the rulings of Rav Avigdor Neventzal (who rules that pregnant or nursing women need not fast at all) and Rav Yaakov Ariel (who ruled that they must begin the fast and can break it if they feel discomfort).

The entire thread and ensuing discussion raises for me the thorny issue of psak halachah in the age of the Internet. What is psak halachah, and can there even be such a thing, when every possible question has already been asked (and answered), and is readily available to anyone who knows how to search for it - and often those answers conflict?

Clearly, this "open information" has already affected the way that we ask our questions. The thread I mentioned above is a case in point: instead of asking her rabbi, the poster asked a "shaila" of the "crowd". Moreover, it's not really a question per se, but a search for a specific answer that she's heard of. If she wanted a "clean" answer, she could have texted her rabbi, "Hi! As you know, we just had a baby. Do I need to fast this year on Tisha B'av?" But that wasn't her question. As she herself admits, she doesn't want a clean answer. She wants the "right" answer: "I'm trying to send my LOR in the right direction."

Then, as I noted above, the post developed into a discussion about actual psak, pitting two sets of rabbis (LORs and Gedolim) against one-another, leaving our harried poster both confused and frustrated. She wanted a clear answer, not a "see how you feel". After all, who doesn't feel hungry and thirsty and in discomfort on a fast day? (She's totally right about that point.) Yet, her desire for a straight, clean answer of yes or no is directly in conflict with her posing of the question originally. Does she really want a "yes or no", or is just a "no, you don't have to fast" the answer that will satisfy her?

I wonder how these types of questions are now affecting rabbis and the pressure they feel to issue more lenient piskei halachah. Imagine that I receive this question from a congregant, and I feel that halachah requires women to fast (unless they feel "discomfort"). Yet, I know that the person asking the question has already looked up this issue on the Internet. And if she hasn't, she will then turn to Facebook to express her frustration that she has to fast on Tisha B'av. I can just see the post now.
Poster: Ugh! I hate fasting on Tisha B'av, especially when I'm nursing!
Friend 1: What? Why are you fasting? My rabbi (who lives in another part of the world) told me that I don't have to fast.
Friend 2: I never fasted for two years after I gave birth. Sefardim rule!
Friend 3: Rabbi Such and Such posted three years ago that if you're thirsty, you can break your fast...
It's not that difficult to imagine. It happens all the time.

The next time this woman has a question, will she turn to her LOR? Or, will she turn to the rabbi across the country, or just to the "hive" to figure out what psak makes the most sense to her. The rabbi knows all of this. He knows both positions. To what degree does this knowledge affect the answer that he gives her?

I find the whole thread fascinating in that it raises important questions about psak and poskim in an Internet age where everything is available on the Internet. How can there be psak when we all have five rabbinic "friends" who give different answers? What does it even mean to ask a question?

The answers to these questions might very well be determined by no less than our relationship to halachah. The answer to all of these questions will ultimately depend on the degree to which we can return to the famous concept in Pirkei Avot called, "Aseh lecha rav" - make for yourself a rabbi. Halachah is uniquely personal. It can be both rigid but also flexible when necessary. But we, as a community, seem to have fallen into such a robotic adherence to ritual, without its attendant deeper meaning, that we're always looking for the easiest way to fulfill our obligation and be done with it. To do that, all you need is information. You don't really need a rabbi. You need a website, and today there are plenty of those. Then its simply a race to the bottom, to find the most lenient "accepted" rabbi, and before you know it, the most lenient position becomes normative.

The job of a rabbi isn't just to be a website. I've never really liked SMS questions (which are all the rage in Israel - still!) because they rid the halachic process of any relationship between the petitioner and the rabbi. The job of the rabbi isn't just to issue black and white rulings. It's to transmit not only the ruling in a manner that's most meaningful and relevant to the person asking the question.

The entire discussion about fasting revolved around purely technical issues - must a nursing woman fast on Tisha B'av or not? Of course there are technical halachic issues at play, but nowhere in the thread did anyone raise the issue of why: Why should she fast? Why should she not? No one "wants" to fast on fast day. Today we wish each other an "easy fast". "Hope it's not too hard!" Does that really make sense? Isn't the idea of fasting supposed to be hard? In essence, wishing someone an easy fast is saying, "I know we're all fasting because we have to; But I hope the day goes by quickly, with as little discomfort as possible." Clearly people don't mean it this way, but that's what it boils down to. If you're going to do it, hopefully the bitter pill goes down easy.

Nowhere in the discussion of whether this woman must or must-not fast was the issue of meaning. Chazal felt that our actions influence our attitudes, nowhere more than on days of mourning, like Tisha B'av. Nowhere in the discussion, did the personal needs of the individual arise. What if, instead of asking Facebook, the person asking the question called her rabbi with the very same question, and got this answer:
R: Well, how do you fast? (That's a really important question in this discussion, which never really came up.)
Cong: Well, I get pretty thirsty - but not really different than most mornings. It's a fast day after all.
R: Do you get bad headaches? Does fasting make it challenging for you to function?
Cong: Not usually, but I'm worried about having to fast and take care of my baby.
R: Can your husband come home and help out, instead of spending all morning in shul? If we can find a way to handle the childcare together, could you fast in a meaningful way?
Thus, the same rabbi might very well give two different answers to two different women, depending on each one's personal situation.

Rabbis would love to answer questions in this way, but they also need to feel secure in knowing that their congregants aren't shailah-shopping. Aseh lecha Rav means asking a rav a question with the confidence that the rav will give me the best answer for me, regardless of what he answered someone else (or what someone else answered on the Internet). It means asking an open, honest question, without a predetermined answer. It doesn't mean that you can't push back - that's definitely part of the conversation. But it does imply the trust that when I ask my rabbi my question, I trust that he will, to the best of his ability, give the answer that he feels best applies to me, in my current situation.

In the end, it's all about trust. And trust in rabbis in general isn't a popular topic nowadays. I guess we all have a lot to fast for this coming Tisha B'av.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

An Israeli Reporter Makes Aliyah with Nefesh B'nefesh, and Why I Can't See an American-Style Rabbinate in Israel for the Foreseeable Future

Yedidya Meir
Nefesh B'nefesh invited popular chardal media personality Yedidya Meir to join the latest Aliyah flight. Meir, who is a gifted writer whose column appears weekly in B'sheva, the free newspaper strewn across Israel, wrote a wonderful piece about his short Shabbat in Manhattan, his views of America, and a bit about aliyah. He posted the piece on his Facebook page, and if you can follow the Hebrew, it's worth reading. If you can't, I'll share a few choice sections:
ובכן, האמריקאים, ואני לא יודע איך לומר זאת אחרת, האמריקאים הם מאוד אמריקאים. אתם מכירים את זה שאתם הולכים במרכז ירושלים, ברחוב בן יהודה, נגיד, ופתאום נשמעת צווחה חדה שמפלחת את האוויר? יש רק שתי אפשרויות במצב הזה: או שמדובר חלילה בניסיון פיגוע וחייבים להזעיק את הימ"מ, או שמדובר בשתי נערות אמריקאיות נרגשות שלא נפגשו מאז אתמול וכעת ראו זו את זו ברחוב.
אז וולקאם טו אמריקה. הכול בגדול, בענק, בחזק. הכול מתוק מדי, צועק מדי, פלסטיקי מדי. נכון שבעולם הדתי אמריקה היא תמיד דימוי למשהו מאוד חומרני? נכון תמיד הדוגמאות של המשגיח בישיבה או של הרב בדרשה יהיו אנטי אמריקאיות, כאילו אמריקה היא יוון של ימינו? אז זהו, שבגדול הם די צודקים. כוס השתייה שבחרתי בקופה כי חשבתי שהיא הגדולה ביותר במלאי, התבררה כהכי קטנה. אחריה היו עוד אחת בינונית (כלומר, ענקית) ועוד אחת גדולה (כלומר, לפילים ומעלה). ואחרי שגמרו למלא לי אותה בקולה הוסיפו כמובן קרח. המון קרח. כמה שיותר. בקוביות גדולות.
And so, Americans - and I don't know any other way to say this - Americans are very American. You know when you walking in the center of Jerusalem on Ben Yehudah Street, say, and suddenly you hear a scream that splits the air? There are only two possibilities in this situation: Either it's an attempted attack God forbid and we need to call emergency services, or we're talking about two American teenage girls who haven't seen each other since yesterday, and just bumped into each other on the street.
So "Welcome to America". Everything is big, giant, strong. Everything is too sweet, too loud, to plasticky. You know how in the religious world "America" is always the image of something very materialistic? You know how the examples of the mashgiach in yeshiva or the rabbi in his drashah would always be anti-American, as if America is a modern-day Greece? Well, yeah - generally they're totally correct. It turns out that the drinking cup I picked at the checkout counter because I thought that it was the largest available was in fact the smallest. There was also a "medium" (i.e. giant) and yet another larger one (i.e., for elephants and larger). And after they finished filling the cup with cola, they of course added ice. A ton of ice. As much as possible. Large ice cubes.
I never noticed that Israelis don't like drinks with ice. I always order a cup of ice with my drink in a restaurant. I'm so American.
What I love about this piece is its honesty.
Meir isn't being nasty or mean, and many of his comments about America ring true. Yet, he doesn't only point out negative aspects of American life. He also writes about a number of positive aspects of Jewish (Orthodox) life in the United States, including very strong community life and the strong sense of devotion and dedication that people have to their shuls.
One paragraph struck me, and highlighted why, at least for now, there won't be any widespread form of a rabbinate, at least in the American sense. He writes,
הדרשה הייתה גם היא זרה ואחרת, ומעוררת מחשבה. הרב שניגש לדרשת שבת שגרתית נתן את נאום חייו. מעניין אם גם בשבת הבאה הוא ייתן את נאום חייו. כנראה שכן. זה היה שואו מהוקצע, כתוב ומוכן מראש, עם התחלה מסקרנת, שיאים רגשיים, רעיונות מקוריים וסיום שכרך את הכול ביחד. שיעור ברטוריקה. זה היה יפה. יפה מדי. בקיצור, אמריקאי.
The drashah was also strange, different - worthy of consideration. The rabbi that rose to speak on a regular Shabbat gave the talk of his life. I wonder if next week he'll also give the talk of his life. Apparently so. It was a professional show: written and prepared in advance, with an engaging introduction, emotional heights, original ideas and a conclusion that wrapped everything together. A lesson in public speaking. It was nice. Too nice. In a word, American.
For whatever reason, Israelis like things the way they're used to them. Many (but not all) Americans like their drashot they way they know them - in the style of the American rabbi: articulate, well-prepared, with a clear beginning and end, and an actual point. But, for whatever reason, to Israelis, that's too good - too sweet, too easy, too American.

I met recently with a young American rabbi considering making Aliyah. While I encouraged him to do it, I quickly disavowed him of any notion that there will be an American style rabbinate in Israel anytime soon. Israelis don't "get" American rabbis (they're just too American - as we see here), and most Anglo shuls pick an Israeli to be their rabbi. At least that's happened in nearly every shul that I know of, from Modiin to Yad Binyamin to Beit Shemesh to Raanana. American rabbis have found shuls, but usually they're for retirees, or they literally started the shul themselves (which is not impossible, but just very challenging). Still, I told him, there's an incredible amount that you can do here - the sky really is the limit - as long as you don't need your rabbinic life to support your family. Even as Israeli shuls are hiring communal rabbis, and Israelis are trying to develop the idea of the community rabbi through training programs, it won't be what Americans are used to. The Israeli rabbinate might borrow some parts of it, but it won't be the same. It will be Israeli, catered to the needs of a different community with vastly different expectations and needs.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Democracy and the Jewish State: Slomiansky v. Gal-On - Who Needs a Constitution when You've Got the Tanach?

Over the past several years, I have become increasingly interested in the fascinating intersection of religion and democracy in the State of Israel, and the numerous issues and challenges this thorny issue raises. Open a newspaper (those that still exist) on any given day in Israel, and the debate between Dat and Medinah jumps out at the reader. The struggle for the soul of the State of Israel began even before the founding of the State, and continues to this very day.
At the Orot Israel College, where I work (I work in admissions and administration, as well as teach a number of courses each year) I give a semester long course called "The Jewish State - the Intersection between Judaism and Democracy" which addresses precisely these thorny issues. I believe that in order to be good teachers (which Orot's students will soon become), these young women must be aware of and grapple with the dilemmas that frame public debate both in Israel, and across the Jewish world.

In an article published in Yisrael Hayom yesterday, MK Nissan Slomiansky was asked about the Bayit Hayehudi's opposition to passing more "Fundamental Laws" - essentially, a Bill of Rights (which the State of Israel famously lacks). He initially answered:
...בעיקרון אנחנו נגד חקיקת חוקי יסוד ונגד חוקה, משום שאנו מאמינים שיש לישראל חוקה והיא התנ"ך
אין שום סיבה שתהיה התנגשות בין החקיקה בכנסת לבין ההלכה היהודית. עד היום אין חקיקה שהכנסת חוקקה והיא סותרת את ההלכה היהודית.
Essentially, we are against the legislation of fundamental laws because we believe that Israel [already] has a [work of fundamental legislation], and it is the Tanach...There is no reason for conflict between Knesset legislation and Jewish halachah. To this day, there is no law passed by the Knesset that contradicts Jewish law.
That's quite a statement. While he went on to say that he was also concerned with the potential future interpretation of those laws by the judicial body (which is famous for its history of judicial activism and legislation), his first comment made a fundamental point: Why should the State of Israel need to legislate its own laws when we already have a God-given canon of ethics, morals and legal values? In other words, Slomiansky actually articulated, in a shockingly honest way: Democracy is fine, but not when it conflicts with the values of the Torah.
His comments predictably drew immediate fire from Israeli left, this time on the Facebook page of Meretz Chairwoman MK Zehava Gal-On. She wrote,

I'm sorry to pop Slomiansky's Medieval Fantasy Bubble [but]: In the legal statutes of the State of Israel there are certainly laws that contradict Jewish law, and this is a good thing. For example, the law that I legislated prohibiting human trafficking is not at all in concert with the laws of the Torah regarding slavery. For example, the fact that homosexuality is not a criminal offense, thanks to the law [passed by] Shulamit Aloni, certainly does not sit well with the prohibition against homosexual relations. There are a number of other examples.
In truth - we shouldn't really be all that upset. It's not that Slomiansky truly wants a government of the Torah according to all of it's halachot in which his wife, as a woman, would not be able to vote in election, and the elections themselves would never take because we would be a Jewish democracy led by a monarchy...Still, Slomiansky needs to understand that the vast majority of Israel's citizens - religious and secular - are interested in a democratic state, operating under the rule of law, that relates to all of her citizens with full equality, and which legislates sensibly with a great deal of thought and planning for the benefit of her citizens both now and in the future, and not out of automatic reliance on the laws of religion - which even if they were written with good intent and a great deal of thought, many of them are more appropriate for the era in which they were written, and less so for the present, and the values that we as citizens of a democratic state prefer to live by.
Gal-On's statement strikes me for a number of reasons: she strikingly formulates the seeming dichotomy between the two values of religion and democracy. Yet, at the same time, despite some effort, she cannot hide her antagonism for Jewish law - at least what she knows of it. Despite her allowance that Jewish law was written "with good intent and a great deal of thought", Slomiansky - and by extension all religious Jews - live in a "Medieval Fantasy Bubble" and adhere to an archaic set of values that, to her mind, do not and cannot relate to the modern era and the ideals of democracy, equality and fairness. And, of course, God is nowhere to be found in her democratic state. We are a nation of people, who legislate for ourselves.

How do we answer her charges? Is she correct that "the vast majority of Israel's citizens - religious and secular - are interested in a democratic state, operating under the rule of law", and would reject a Jewish state that adhered to halachah in full?
What about her more specific points: Do we really want to build a state that:
Would not prohibit human trafficking or slavery
Would appoint a king to rule over us
Would refuse women the right to vote
Would legislate homosexual activity as a criminal act (actually punishable by death)

These aren't simple questions by any means. Ideally, as religious Jews, we yearn for the coming of the Messiah, and the return of the Temple and with it the Sanhedrin. But where does democracy and equality fit in this equation? (If you'd like, Rabbi Chaim Navon offers his retort to Gal-On's comments on his Facebook page

Are we really living in a Medieval Fantasy Bubble? Of course not. Let us not forget that while her rhetoric works well in the United States (note the colors of her profile picture) Gal-On sits firmly in the minority in Israel, and her far-left Meretz party has steadily lost seats in the Knesset and influence over Israeli society over the past decade. Still, her questions deserve more than one-line answers. These are complicated issues, and demand careful consideration, thought and discussion.