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.