Thursday, May 30, 2013

Levine Kipnis, the Ma'apilim, and Parshat Shelach

This week I met the Israeli poet and author Levin Kipnis.
Actually, I didn't really meet him. He's been dead for quite a while. And, truth be told, I've known his work for quite a while. I just didn't know that he was the author of the songs, er - poems. (He in fact won the Israel Prize in the 1970's.) Here's a little quiz: Do you recognize this poem?

חנוכה, חנוכה,
חג יפה כל כך
אור חביב מסביב,
גיל לילד רך.
חנוכה, חנוכה,
סביבון סוב סוב
סוב נא סוב, סוב נא סוב
מה נעים מה טוב.

How about this one?

חג פורים, חג פורים,
חג גדול ליהודים!
מסכות, רעשנים,
שיר וריקודים!
הבה נרעישה:
רש רש רש!
הבה נרעישה:
רש רש רש!
הבה נרעישה:
רש רש רש!

You see - you probably do know Levin Kipnis! Or at least some of his poems. His songs have been played many thousands of times, even by the United States Army Band! He was a famous author of children's poems that my daughter will probably know by heart by the time she leaves kindergarten.

This week, though, I came across a very different poem by Levine Kipnis called אל ראש ההר - "To the Top of the Mountain." Here's the poem:

אל ראש ההר! אל ראש ההר!
הדרך מי יחסום לפדויי שבי?
מעבר הר הן זה מכבר
רומזת לנו ארץ צבי.

העפילו, העפילו,
אל ראש ההר העפילו!
העפילו, העפילו,
אל ראש ההר העפילו!

אחים עלו, אחים עלו -
לב מי יירך ייחת מאבן נגף.
צעד עשו, ראה תראו
פי שניים אנו אז נישגב


Listen to the song (and read the words) and answer the following question: What would you say is the attitude of the author towards the word העפילו or מעפילים - "Climb Up!"? Is להעפיל a good thing to do or a bad thing to do?
From the poem, the answer is clear. He wants us to "Climb the Mount!" Don't be afraid! On the other side of the cliff lies the Promised Land! In fact, the word מעפילים today carries an incredibly positive connotation, completely due to Kipnis' poem. It alludes to those who rise up to fight for the Land of Israel, despite the dangers and despite the risks. The poem itself refers to mortal dangers - and asks:
"Whose heart will soften from a stone of death?
See, do, look you will see
We will then achieve twice-fold!"
Today in Israel, the title מעפילים is so positive that even religious youth groups call an entire age group Shevet Hama'apilim - all thanks to Levin Kipnis.
There's only one problem with all of this.
Until Kipnis' time, the word מעפילים had an entirely different connotation. Instead of alluding to the positive, forward-thinking drive to overcome all obstacles to retake the Land, it had a totally negative implication, which is explicit in the Torah.

The word ויעפילו appears as a verb only one time in the Torah, following the story of the Sin of the Spies. After the Sin of the Spies, God decrees that the Jewish people would, due to their lack of faith in God's ability to guide them in conquering the Holy Land, the nation would spend forty years wandering around in circles in the desert. Their reaction is understandable:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּתְאַבְּלוּ הָעָם, מְאֹד.
And Moses told these words unto all the children of Israel; and the people mourned greatly. (Bamidbar 14:39)
I would also be upset if I learned that I'd spend the rest of my life in the desert, and that only my children would be allowed to conquer the Land. Yet, I find the next verse surprising, even shocking.
וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ בַבֹּקֶר, וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶל-רֹאשׁ-הָהָר לֵאמֹר: הִנֶּנּוּ, וְעָלִינוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר ה'--כִּי חָטָאנוּ.
And they rose up early in the morning, and got them up to the top of the mountain, saying: 'Lo, we are here, and will go up unto the place which the LORD hath promised; for we have sinned.' (14:40)
In other words, they wake up in the morning and say to Moshe, "OK, let's go! We're ready now!"
I can just imagine the conversation between Moshe and the Jewish people (reading between the lines):
Moshe: Let's go? What do you mean 'Let's go'? Didn't you hear me yesterday?! God said that you're going to die in the desert. We're not going anywhere.
People: Yeah, we know God said that. But that was yesterday. And we said that we're sorry. It's time to move on. Today's a new day! Don't be such a spoilsport! Let's go! You were right. We can take the Land! Let's GO!
Moshe's response is clear:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-פִּי ה'; וְהִוא, לֹא תִצְלָח. אַל-תַּעֲלוּ, כִּי אֵין ה' בְּקִרְבְּכֶם; וְלֹא, תִּנָּגְפוּ, לִפְנֵי, אֹיְבֵיכֶם. כִּי הָעֲמָלֵקִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי שָׁם לִפְנֵיכֶם, וּנְפַלְתֶּם בֶּחָרֶב: כִּי-עַל-כֵּן שַׁבְתֶּם מֵאַחֲרֵי ה', וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה ה' עִמָּכֶם.
And Moses said: 'Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies. For there the Amalekite and the Canaanite are before you, and ye shall fall by the sword; forasmuch as ye are turned back from following the LORD, and the LORD will not be with you.' (14:41-43)
In other words, "Don't do it. God will not be with you, and you'll all die." This of course, is exactly what happens. Yet, despite Moshe's harsh warnings, the people insist on doing it their way.
וַיַּעְפִּלוּ, לַעֲלוֹת אֶל-רֹאשׁ הָהָר; וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית-ה' וּמֹשֶׁה, לֹא-מָשׁוּ מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה. וַיֵּרֶד הָעֲמָלֵקִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי, הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּהָר הַהוּא; וַיַּכּוּם וַיַּכְּתוּם, עַד-הַחָרְמָה.
But they presumed to go up to the top of the mountain; nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and Moses, departed not out of the camp. 45 Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite, who dwelt in that hill-country, came down, and smote them and beat them down, even unto Hormah. (14:44-45)
Their reaction? ויעפילו - here translated as, "they presumed to go up."
Yet, the precise meaning of the word is actually unclear, as it doesn't appear in this form anywhere else in Tanach. What exactly does the word mean? Rav Elchanan Samet offers seven possible explanations for the word, of which I'll note a few.
1. In it's most basic meaning, עופל refers to the height of a mountain. Thus, Ibn Ezra explains that the word simply means that they "went up". According to this interpretation, the word carries no value judgment.
2. Targum Onkelos translates the word to mean וירשיעו - "and they acted wickedly"
3. Rashi follows Onkelos and the Midrash, assigning significant ethical value to the word. Rashi writes that ויעפילו means, "they strengthened their hearts," as in "and [God] strengthened Paroh's heart". In essence this refers to an overt desire to rebel. It's a way of saying, "Oh yeah? You tell me not to go? ויעפילו - I'm going up there anyway - in spite of what you want!"
Based on these explanations, the מעפילים were those who not only rejected Moshe's word before the Sin of the Spies. After they did so and were punished, they spit in his face and essentially said, "We're going anyway, in spite of your warnings." This has classically been the connotation of this strange, unique word for thousands of year.
And then came Levin Kipnis, and his poem called אל ראש ההר - "To the Top of the Mountain."
Israeli writer Uri Haitner describes (in Hebrew) the story of the writing of the poem. Kipnis, born in Russia (now Ukraine) in 1894, made Aliyah to Ottoman Palestine in 1913 - at the age of 19. He eventually studied at the Bezalel Academy for Art and Design. 
In 1919, he was on a hike with friends. Towards midnight, they reached a mountain and began to race towards the peak. Most of the racers dropped out, but Kipnis and two others finally reached the top. When they returned to Jerusalem, they shared the experience with their teacher, Professor Eliezer Sukenik. Kipnis explained that this had been the first time he had ever climbed a mountain, having been raised in the flat Pale of Settlement in Russia. Sukenik challenged Kipnis to write a poem about his experience...
Kipnis undoubtedly knew the negative connotation of the word ויעפילו. Raised in a traditional home and educated in Cheder, he surely knew the classical interpretation of the word מעפילים. According to Haitner, he specifically chose to use the word העפילו in order to make a statement. What statement did he want to make? 
At that time, one who wished to make Aliyah had to overcome two specific, very formidable obstacles. First and foremost, the Ottoman Empire wasn't keen on allowing masses of Jews to settle in Palestine, especially given the growing Zionist movement in Europe. At the same time, the vast majority of rabbis issued harsh, stern warnings against the spiritual danger of emigrating to Palestine. Zionism, to most of them, represented the abandonment of Jewish faith and practice. (In fact, for many Pioneers, it did in fact mean that).
One can easily imagine rabbis across Eastern Europe telling their Jewish communities, in exactly these words,
לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-פִּי ה'; וְהִוא, לֹא תִצְלָח. אַל-תַּעֲלוּ, כִּי אֵין ה' בְּקִרְבְּכֶם; וְלֹא, תִּנָּגְפוּ, לִפְנֵי, אֹיְבֵיכֶם.
Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies. 
Except, to the rabbis at the time, they worried less about physical enemies than spiritual ones.
Knowing this, Kipnis responded with his poem: העפילו - "Go up anyway! Despite the fact that there are powerful forces telling you not to come. Overcome them, and come up to rebuild the Land of Zion!"

I find it fascinating that many modern Israelis (even religious ones) know the word העפילו from Kipnis - in the positive sense, and have no idea that for thousands of years, להעפיל meant to rebel against the will of God. Meanings of words do indeed change over time. They take on new connotations and interpretations, teaching us about the Torah, our history, and even ourselves.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Why is it So Important For Chareidim to Learn Secular Subjects?

You know that famous book, "All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? While the book does have an important message, it turns out not to be true. In order to lead a successful, professional life, most people will need to know a bit more than they could ever learn before they reach grade school.
Mind you, I firmly believe that many of the life skills we learn in kindergarten are critical for a child's future development. But it's not enough. You need to have knowledge and skills. Which is why there's such a huge debate about whether Chareidim should be required to teach their boys (Chareidi girls already study this stuff) basic subjects like English and math.
Chareidim claim that in order to properly educate their sons for Torah greatness, the study of any other subjects would distract from their development. Moreover, should a chareidi wish to enter the workforce, he can easily pick up the subjects that he missed in a few short months.
It sounds good. After all, most Chareidim do spend much of their time studying involved and intricate Talmudic texts. They are by no means stupid. How hard could it be for them to pick up computer programming, or engineering, or accounting, or so many other possible professions? Actually, it's quite hard, because advanced study assumes a number of basic skills that an average college takes for granted as prerequisites for admission.
English: Many important texts are in English, including engineering and computer texts. "So they'll learn English," you say. "How hard could it be?" Actually, when you think about it, it's much, much harder than it sounds. It might be relatively simple to learn basic aspects of a language. But remember: these students don't need basics. They need to be able to read and understand advanced texts describing complex issues. The study of the English language compounds over time, growing increasingly advanced. It's nearly impossible to learn a sophisticated language quickly. It takes many, many hours of study, practice, and most importantly, use. That's why Israeli schools teach English from grade school. Unless you start early, you'll find yourself hopelessly behind later on. It's not a subject you can just "make up." While Americans often don't realize it, English is an incredibly complex language, with myriad rules and innumerable exceptions to those rules that make it quite challenging to pick up and master.
Math: This one I think is easier. You can learn math quickly, and move from subject to subject at a pretty rapid pace.
Yet, there's another critical aspect to core education independent of any particular discipline.
Basic study skills: Yes, it sounds funny, but Chareidim - who spend all day every day learning Torah - lack basic, critical study skills.
A neighbor here in Yad Binyamin teaches at Machon Lev, a well-known College of Technology in Jerusalem. On a number of occasions, he has described to me some of the challenges that he faces with chareidi students he teaches.
For their entire lives, they have been taught that the most important aspect of Torah study is, what's called, עמלות - "the toil." During every siyyum marking the completion of a major text we declare:
שאנו עמלים והם עמלים. אנו עמלים ומקבלים שכר, והם עמלים ואינם מקבלים שכר
For we toil and they toil. We toil and receive reward, while they toil and do not receive reward.
Yet, everyone knows that the rest of the world toils and does receive reward. It's called a salary. Why then do we insist that they do not? The most common answer offered is that in the study of Torah, results are not a critical measure of success. Of course it's better to understand what you're learning and study on an increasingly sophisticated level. But even if you don't succeed in Torah study, the עמלות - the toil itself is what's important.
It's a beautiful thought and a wonderful idea communicating the value of Torah study as an end to itself. But if you're raised on this value, then you never learn or internalize that in the outside world - to "them" results count. No one cares if you tried. They need you to get the job done.
My friend said to me the other day: Forget math. Just give tests. Give tests in Gemara for all I care, but make children accountable for their work, because right now, they're not. They study all day, but they don't have homework that needs to be checked and graded. Imagine spending your entire childhood in a system that made no measurable demands of you, and then you entered a course that required homework, studying, tests and evaluations. And carried with it the possibility of failure. It's simply unfair, unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that young man to simply "pick up" those skills instantaneously.
These aren't skills you can learn in a course. If you had them because you spent your childhood acquiring them, then you could relatively easily learn more advanced skills in a short period of time. But without them, what are the odds that you'll be able to study towards a career, and, when the time comes, complete tasks, meet deadlines, follow through on projects - with all the critical skills essential for success in today's workforce?
The odds are low. Which is why it's so important for young Chareidi boys to begin early - before they grow up and it really is too late.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Not "Who is a Jew?" but "What is a Judaism?"

The Forward recently published an article describing the Reform movement's decision to reconsider a previous decision to bar individuals who are either married or partnered with non-Jews from the rabbinical seminaries. According to the piece,
A growing chorus of voices — including newly-ordained and long-time Reform rabbis — says that changing it is the only way to be a truly inclusive movement.
While I used to write often about these developments, I've refrained from doing so in the recent past, as I see no point in criticizing liberal Judaism for the sake of self-gratification. The growing chasm between traditional Judaism and its liberal practicioners is self-evident, tragic and painful. One need only read the comments to this and other articles to see that today the Jewish world has already split into two broad categories, and because we no longer share a common religious vocabulary, instead of speaking to each other we fire comments at each other.
Yet, I will comment on this development as it seems to reflect a larger ideological chasm between the different wings of Judaism. Whereas we once fought over "Who is a Jew?", in the very near future the fight will instead be the result of the answer to that very question: "What exactly is Judaism?"
Some of the more snide comments wonder why a Reform Rabbinical student need be Jewish at all. For example,
The next step will be to allow non-Jews as rabbinical students. I mean...barring a Gentile from being a rabbi is discriminatory, right?
While the comment is intentionally snide and sarcastic, I wonder whether the Reform movement itself isn't wondering the same thing. In her letter imploring the HUC to reconsider its decision, Rabbi Ellen Lippman writes,
Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.
There's the rub. Reform Judaism simply does not view having a non-Jewish parent as a barrier to Jewish life. What then is Jewish life? It's a life of ritual, spirituality and meaning; it's a life devoted to seeking God through the prism of Jewish culture and ritual. But it is not, by Reform definition, genetic affiliation to a particular tribe. Well, it has been until now. But should it be? Can a blood requirement really be considered inclusive?
Reform Judaism, following a growing trend among non-religious Jews, has long moved towards the rejection of tribalism and in the direction of of specific liberal values, emphasizing the "universal values like justice and human dignity."
Why would you need to be married to a Jew in order to communicate such a system of values? Moreover, why would you need to have a parent who was genetically Jewish to be able to teach and preach universal values? Rabbi Lippman sees no conflict between being married a supportive non-Jew, who clearly participates in her Jewish, congregational life. And, if as she says, having an intermarried rabbi makes an enormous difference to her intermarried members, should she not have a non-Jewish rabbi for all of her non-Jewish members too?
I know that I'm sounding sarcastic, but I'm really not. If you reject the tribalism in the face of inclusiveness, that rejection can have only one logical conclusion: Judaism isn't a nation per se, but a series of common practices and beliefs.
And you don't have to be a Jew to be Jewish.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hadran Alach!

As the rabbi of YIOP, each morning we would study two mishnayot after davening. Over the years, we covered much of shas, but never finished it, because I skipped Taharot, fearing it two esoteric and complicated to explain in a five-minute shiur.
When we made aliyah about five years ago, we had gotten to the middle of Moed (or somewhere thereabouts), and I decided to continue learning those two Mishnayot each day (6 days a week). This time I didn't skip Taharot, and with the help of some picture books (primarily for Oholot), this morning I finished Shisha Sidrei Mishnah for the first time in my life.
On one hand, I feel great. It's a wonderful accomplishment and a testament to the power of learning a little bit each and every day. At the same time, I'm a little bit embarrassed that it took me over forty years to finish Shas Mishnayot. (Mom, I blame you.)
At the same time, as I've blogged about earlier, I've been learning Mishnah Yomit with my second son since the cycle began in Berachot - and we're now well into Nezikin. And my eldest saw us learning and he decided to study four mishnayot a day, a torrid pace that brought him to complete Shas over Shavuot, a feat that gives me great pride. I'm much, much prouder about his siyyum than I am about mine.
I guess that's reason enough to feel good.

הדרן עלך ששה סדרי משנה.
דעתן עלך ששה סדרי משנה.
לא נתנשי מינך ששה סדרי משנה.
לא בעלמא הדין ולא בעלמא דאתי.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Forcing Our Children to Accept the Torah?

As parents, we ofter struggle whether and when to coerce our children to behave appropriately. And, when we address this issue in the context of religiosity, the question becomes all the more pressing. Sure, we can force our children to live as religious Jews during their formative years. But is that really what we want? Don't we want them to want to follow the mitzvot on their own?

On Shavuot we specifically celebrate Ma'amad Har Sinai, and the beautiful, awesome power that the Torah describes as the Jewish people received the Torah. Chazal describe the Revelation as a kind of wedding between God and the Jewish people, establishing an eternal bond between us that can never be severed.

Yet, a famous Gemara (Shabbat 88a) relates that, at least according to one opinion, getting us to the Chuppah required some serious arm-twisting.
 ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר: א"ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב"ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם
"And they sat at the bottom of the mountain" (Shemot 19) Said Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa: This teaches us that the Holy One held the mountain over them like a barrel and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah, good! And if not, there will be your grave.'
According to the Gemara, despite the wonderful declaration of נעשה ונשמע, the Jewish people weren't altogether ready to fully accept the requirements of the Torah. So God made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Literally. "Take My Torah," He told us, "Or that will be the last decision you ever make."

According to Rashi's interpretation of the Gemara, this troubling statement leads the Gemara to raise a critical question.

א"ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא
Said Rav Ada bar Yaakov: from this verse we see a great criticism against the Torah.
What is the criticism against the Torah? Rashi explains that should God bring a claim against the Jewish for failing to follow the Torah [and ask them], "Why did you not fulfill the Torah that you accepted upon yourselves?" they could reply that they only accepted the Torah out of coercion. It's a powerful question. How can we be held responsible for not keeping a Torah that we never willingly accepted? And, because God coerced us with the threat of death to accept the Torah, why should we endure terrible punishment for failure to keep an agreement that we never really wanted?

The Gemara never offers a satisfying answer to this question. Yet, Rava seems to respond to the question by implying that in the end we did accept the Torah willingly.

אמר רבא אעפ"כ הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב (אסתר ט) קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר
Said Rava: Nonetheless, they still [willingly] accepted [the Torah] in the times of Achashverosh, as it is written, "They fulfilled and accepted" – [meaning that] they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.
Yet, this enigmatic, troubling section raises more questions than it answers. If we never really willingly accepted the Torah until the era of the Purim story, why were the Jewish people punished and expelled from the Land of Israel during the First Temple Period? After all, they had not yet willingly accepted upon themselves the covenant with God. How then could God fairly hold them accountable for failing to adhere to an agreement they never really wanted?

Rav A.Y. HaKohen Kook zt"l, in his Ein Ayah commentary, offers a different interpretation of this passage in the Gemara, based upon his understanding of the crucial nature of coercion in Torah education. He writes,

Free will is a specific form of content through which a person improves his ethical stamina. For this reason, he has specific control over its parameters and scope. But free will itself is part of the essential character of a human being – about which it is not relevant to describe as a freedom. We are not free to want or not to want. Free will is the essence of life itself, and life is given to us without our choice. We control the bending of our will to one of two directions, to the right or left. There we find the hand of choice.

If the Torah was simply the expression of the ethical content of humanity, it would have been worthwhile to have been given with complete free choice. But in truth, the Torah is the expression of the unique individuality of man, as he is. Violation of the Torah is an estrangement of a person – an estrangement from himself…for this reason, it was appropriate that the Torah should be revealed in this matter an essential, fundamental revelation…
Rav Kook's language can sometimes be confusing, so I'll explain.

God gives us freedom to make choices in order to allow us to improve upon ourselves. Yet, some aspects of our existence were never given to free will. God never asked us whether we want to breathe or not. We do – without choosing to, without free will. God never asked us whether we want free choice. It's essential to being a human being. Once we have free choice, then we must use that freedom to choose wisely and appropriately.

The same rule applies to the acceptance of the Torah.

According to Rav Kook's philosophy, the Torah isn't a force or power external to us that we must internalize, study and accept. Rather, the Torah represents the essential, inner spiritual nature of the Jewish people. We are the Torah, and it is us. For this reason, it wouldn't make any sense for us to have the freedom to choose whether to accept the Torah or not, because that would be akin to choosing whether or not we wished to exist or not.

That, explains Rav Kook, is exactly what the Gemara teaches us. According to his understanding, Rav Acha bar Yaakov isn't asking a question, but making a critical assertion:

א"ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא!
Said Rav Acha bar Yaakov, from here we see a great proof to the Torah!
At Sinai, when God figuratively held the mountain over our heads and forced us to accept the Torah, He was telling us that the Torah was essential to our very being. Without the Torah we would cease to exist! The greatest proof of this fact is that God didn't ask us whether we want it. Rather, He forced us to accept it without free will, because you cannot accept something that's already essential to your very existence.

To me, Rav Kook's powerful passage carries another important message as well. Coercion isn't wrong or inappropriate. Rather, it's an essential element of the transmission of Torah.

Look at it this way: Do we ask our children whether they want to go to school, or recite Shema at night or go to shul? We don't, nor should we. We coerce our children in order to internalize certain critical behaviors in their lives. We want the Torah to be an essential part of them.

Hopefully, at some point in their lives, these behaviors will become so essential to their identities that they'll continue to adhere to them after we no longer force to do so. But it starts with coercion –as well it should.

Should I force my children to follow the truth of God's Torah, and make it an essential part of them? To this question, my answer is an unequivocal "Yes."

After all, that's how we got the Torah in the first place.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Uniquely "American" Torah Program: Tikkun Leil Shavuot, American Style

People often ask me about the difference between the rabbinate in Israel and in America.
My friend and colleague Rabbi Dovid Cohen recently released on his Facebook page the lineup for Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Here's the flyer.

I want to be clear: I am not questioning or criticizing Rabbi Cohen or the program in any way. If I had thought of it, I would probably be doing the very same program, although the meat thing is new to me. Sea Bass maybe. Cheesecake? Definitely. Ice Cream? Of course. But we never considered meat. Intriguing. Also, as I commented to Rabbi Cohen, he forgot to add on the bottom of the flyer the 7:30am visit to the local emergency room for the chest pains. A minor oversight.
What's fascinating to me is the overt way in which the flyer and the event focuses on the melding of the spiritual and the physical. If we take such things for granted, let's ask ourselves: when did rabbis become caterers? Why is there literally a full, descriptive menu on a Shavuot night flyer?
The answer, of course, is all about attendance.
Imagine the very same program with no food at all, or minimal food - some cola, maybe a plate of cake. How many people would attend? Let's assume that significantly more people will participate because of the food than would have otherwise. In addition, let's not discount the element of competition. I imagine that there are numerous other programs on the Upper West Side on the night of Shavuot. Why come to this one? Well, you can either draw them in with content or with food. The content seems good - interesting, motivating, and not too heavy. But is it that much better than one can get at another location?
So, to supplement the spiritual side, we turn to the physical.
I remember when we first started the Beit Midrash program at YIOP in Oak Park, I insisted that the program have fresh pastries and fresh coffee - not instant (Chas V'shalom!) I myself went to Costco every so often to ensure that we had not only the coffee, but the good cups as well. I believed (and still believe) that no one was coming for the coffee, but if you were wavering about going out on a cold Monday night in the winter in Suburban Detroit, a good cup of coffee wouldn't hurt. I still serve fresh ground coffee at my Parshat Hashavua shiur every week here in Yad Binyamin.
A good friend and colleague in Israel recently asked me what motivates American shul rabbis. I told him that rabbis feel a constant pressure to bring value to their current members and draw in new members. This makes intuitive sense. Fewer members = less dues = lower salary --> no job. So, while our primary focus is of course attending to the spiritual needs of our members (and potential members), rabbis always have one eye on the "trimmings" that will bring people through the doors to participate in the spiritually uplifting programming they offer.
That pressure comes to a head on the night of Shavuot. Does every shul really need to have its own program? After all, only a percentage of the membership actually shows up. Most people like to sleep at night, even on Shavuot. So they're essentially competing for the same participants. (Some people will always go to their shul. Others will go to the most attractive program). But how would it look for a shul to go dark on the night of Shavuot? And how would it look for a shul to have a program and then struggle to get a minyan at 5am? Not good.
So, what has emerged is an arms race between shuls not in the realm of the spirutual, but in the physical. You've got Ben and Jerry's? We've got Haagen Daaz. You've got franks and blankets? We've got Pastrami Stuffed Rolatinis (I've never even heard of a "rolatini". What is that? I assume it's made from meat.) I also like the way the courses are spaced. You want food? Then don't go shul-hopping -- because you might miss the duck with hoisin sauce.
This pressure made me dread the night of Shavuot. Literally, I would go into a funk during the week leading up to the event, knowing that no matter how great the shiurim and the spread, many of my members would gravitate to the local kollel, and someone would invariably ask the hated question: "How many people were there at YIOP?" I hated that question. Still do - especially because there was always great learning during the program, and the members who did come and stay up all night found the program uplifting and motivating.

Israeli rabbis view this phenomenon in the American rabbinate with horror. I cannot imagine an Israeli rabbi that I know producing such a flyer, or even participating in such a program. They're happy to give the shiur, and don't mind refreshments afterwards, but would recoil at such a blatant effort to suck people into a supposedly spiritual event. After all, they're rabbis and teachers. Not caterers.
Then again, they don't face the constant membership pressure. Even the ones who actually take a salary are at best part time, and don't often compete for members the way American rabbis do.  And, I daresay that many would say that they'd rather not be a rabbi if the job required them to cater parties in order to do the job. (Easy to say when your job isn't on the line.)
Who's right? Neither is right; it's not a question of right or wrong, but more a question of circumstances and needs. I repeat: were I in Rabbi Cohen's shoes, I would probably create exactly the same program, or one very similar, and I'm sure that across the New York region, many stomachs will be filled with gourmet food of one type or another over the five hour period between 12am and 5am on the eve of Shavuot.
And, of course, much Torah will also be learned. That, after all, is the purpose of Tikkun Leil Shavuot.