Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Important, breaking news!

Two weeks ago, 230 girls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria by Boko Haram fundamentalists. Boko Haram opposes education for girls. Unfortunately, they do believe in rape and murder. The girls have not yet been found and hope is fading fast.

But wait! A jetliner is still missing! We must saturate the media with as much information about every aspect of the search.

Two weeks ago, 230 girls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria by Boko Haram fundamentalists. Boko Haram opposes education for girls. Unfortunately, they do believe in rape and murder. The girls have not yet been found and hope is fading fast.

What's this? The crisis in Ukraine continues? Well, it's important. There needs to be a lot of posturing by eastern and western leaders. And we need to know every detail of what Putin said.

Two weeks ago, 230 girls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria by Boko Haram fundamentalists. Boko Haram opposes education for girls. Unfortunately, they do believe in rape and murder. The girls have not yet been found and hope is fading fast.

WAIT, WAIT, HOLD THE PRESSES!!! An 80 year old white man made rambling racist statements in a recorded phone conversation! And he owns an NBA team! Forget Ukraine, or jetliners! Or anything else that I probably didn't even hear about! This is the most important news of all!!! Let's ONLY hear about this!

Two weeks ago, 230 girls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria by Boko Haram fundamentalists. Boko Haram opposes education for girls. Unfortunately, they do believe in rape and murder. The girls have not yet been found and hope is fading fast.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Teenage yeshiva students and sexual shame

I know most of you have already seen the article "Orthodox, gay, and the rest is private" by Mordechai Levovitz. But one sentence, early in the article, caught my eye, and deserves a discussion of its own on the greater issue of sexual shame and guilt in Yeshiva high schools. Here's the line:

"Every Friday my Rebbe would give a mussar shmooze (life lecture) about the ethical importance of resisting the sexual temptation of girls. Although the Rebbe took a hard line on these issues, my classmates actually really enjoyed the Friday shmoozes because it seemed to validate the normalcy of their adolescent hormonal experiences."

In a way, I wish my yeshiva had had something like this. As it was I suffered alone, sure that I was a deviant for not being able to stop fantasizing about girls. I was sure that all the boys around me were tzadikim.

All teenage boys fantasize. And with hormones coursing through their systems, it's almost impossible to refrain from masturbation. Yet in yeshiva they are told that abstaining from such behaviour, and even from thinking about girls at all, isn't just a lofty ideal, but is as neccesary and important as putting on tefillin in the mornings. Or as keeping shabbos. The message is that if you masturbate, you are a rasha. So teenage yeshiva boys, who are extremely unlikely to be able to abstain, are made to feel like freaks and perverts. They are sure that God is angry with them all the time. They are sure that they are weak-willed and worthless. Not to mention the warped ideas about sexuality that they absorb.

If yeshivas really feel it neccesary to teach this version of sexual morality, they should do it in a kinder way. They should stress that this is an ideal, and something to strive for, but that no one should feel bad for not living up to it. That it's normal and no one should feel like they're different than anyone else.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Shlissel Challah?

Here's my take.

I grew up mainstream Orthodox in the 1970's and 80's in Brooklyn. I went to a boys' yeshiva day school in Boro Park in the 1970's and early 80's. We had very frum rebbes and the student body ranged from Modern to Yeshivish.

I NEVER heard of Shlissel Challah in all that time. Not from my rabbeim, not from my friends, not from my yeshivish relatives.

In the 80's I went to a high school that had a fair number of modern kids, but the basic tilt was fairly yeshivish. During my entire time there, I NEVER heard of Shlissel Challah.

After high school I went to yeshiva in Israel for a year. Again, Shlissel Challah never mentioned, not once.

My entire twenties (admittedly when I got more modern and spent a lot of time on the Upper West Side)? Not a single mention of Shlissel Challah, by anyone.

I got married in my early 30's. We lived in several Orthodox communities since then, in NYC and in the midwest. Never heard of Shlissel Challah. No one made it, no one brought it up.

When did I first hear of this deep and ingrained minhag? Only 4 years ago. From a blog. When Eliyahu Fink wrote a guest post on Dov Bear's blog about it. He wrote:

"Unless you live under a (very litvish) rock you know that this week is Shlissel Challah Week."

My response: "huh?"

Even since then, I've never been at ANY Shabbat meal where this was actually practiced.

I suspect that until very recently this was only practiced by some chassidim and chassidish wannabes, and has just exploded in popularity in the last half dozen years because it sounds fun. Or, like upsherin, it sounds frum to some people because chassidim do it, so they started doing it too.

I'm willing to bet that a great many of you are just like me, grew up as Orthodox "insiders" but never heard of this minhag till relatively recently.

When did you first hear about it?

Any kosher bakers out there? When did your bakeries first start offering Shlissel Challah?

This is how very fringe minhagim become mainstream and almost obligatory.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Old Haloscan comments from my Torat Ezra blog

These are all the comments that I collected from my old blog before Haloscan went kaput. Most of those posts have been imported to this blog, so these comments match up with many posts. At some point in the future, I'd like to insert these comments into the appropriate posts, but till then, I figure may as well make them available to my readers.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Not ready to dump kitniyot

I have no objection to anyone giving up the prohibition of kitniyot. But for me it's still relevant the same way all halacha is relevant. All halacha is man-made. Some rules were created 2,500 years ago, some 1,700 years ago, and some, like kitniyot, is only around 700 years old. But that's old enough for it to have become embedded deeply into Ashkenazi Jewish life, and to become something kept by generations of my ancestors, alongside shabbat, kashrut, etc. So I'm not ready to just jettison it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Evolution of Judaism and the Seder

Jerusalem is under siege. The revolt against Rome is failing. The Beit Hamikdash, the heart and soul of Judaism, is about to be destroyed. The true worship of Hashem will be over, forever.

The year is 69 CE, and the end of Jewish nationhood and of the Jewish faith seems nigh.

But one man, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, has the vision to realize that the true heart and soul of Judaism is the study of the Torah. THAT is what will sustain Judaism without a temple, without kohanim, without sacrifices. He negotiates with Vespasian and secures a safe sanctuary in Yavneh, a place where he and his students can begin the work, through limmud Torah, of rebuilding Judaism into something that will be able to survive the coming centuries.


Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was a visionary. He knew that Judaism lay in intellectual achievement, in creating a legal and ritual system that didn't depend on grandiose temples or tributes to a priestly caste. He knew that God had to become a more abstract idea, not a unseen yet physical being who resided in a palace and who was fed by the smoke of animal sacrifices.

If Rav Yochanan ben Zakai and his successors had not realized these things, Jews and Judaism would likely have been just another of many dead Ancient Near East civilizations, with their temples, sectarian gods, and sacrificial cults.

Instead, Judaism changed and took on a new life. The ancient narratives continued to evolve into a canonized whole, something to be studied, the word of Hashem, where minute variations in the text were intricately parsed to support and formulate a growing system of laws that became our halacha. This new Judaism replaced sacrifice with rituals that revolved around the family and community, not around an overarching national authority. The three-times-a-year gathering at the Beit Hamikdash became daily prayer and gathering at the local Mikdash Me'at, the Beit Haknesset. The study of Torah became the highest ideal of this old, yet new religion. New oral traditions were created, no longer etiological tales to explain our origins, but intricate legal discussions, legends, and even jokes, that were eventually canonized themselves, into the basic texts of our old/new religion, the Mishnah and Talmud.

All of this required a new way of thinking, a new approach. Old rituals had to be changed and reinterpreted into something that could be performed in the home and in the shul.

Nothing symbolizes this more than the seder night.

Once upon a time, our ancestors sat in Jerusalem, in vast camps around the city on the first night of Pesach. The head of the household returned from the temple with the korban pesach, and they ate.

Now we recite maggid, and engage in lengthy exposition. We eat karpas, maror, korech, and the afikoman. We drink 4 cups of wine and pour one for Eliyahu, too. We lean as we eat and drink. We sit around a table with family and friends, and engage in elaborate rituals that are deeply intertwined with knowledge of our Torah and of our Halachah. This is something that our ancient ancestors would have barely recognized. This Pesach, we celebrate our freedom from Mitzrayim, without which Judaism could not have grown. But let us also celebrate the continuing growth and evolution of our faith, so aptly symbolized by the Seder night.

Maggid contains a passage that is one of the oldest in the Haggadah:

...עַל אַחַת, כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה, טוֹבָה כְפוּלָה וּמְכֻפֶּלֶת לַמָּקוֹם עָלֵינוּ

It then proceeds to list the various things that God has done for us.

Immediately preceding that passage, we sing the famous "Dayenu". This poem was written later. Its first full appearance is in the 9th century. Yet it is based on the above oldest part. Except that Dayenu leaves out the last words of עַל אַחַת, כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה, those words being לְכַפֵּר עַל כָּל עֲוֹנוֹתֵינוּ. During the few hundred years between two versions, Judaism evolved. In the last line of each, we thank God for building us the Beit HaMikdash. But by the time Dyenu was written, Judaism no longer needs a Beit HaMikdash to atone for our sins. We do that through prayer and mitzvot. And that's how it should be.

Chag Sameach

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Seder was taken from the Symposium? Horrors!

Today Dov Bear reposted (on Facebook) a piece of his from 2007 about the forms of the Seder being taken from the Roman Symposium. This is hardly new and is well known (though evidently not in all circles).
Yet some commenters objected, on the grounds that such "borrowing" would mean that "tannaim and amoraaim were stupid and needed the greeks to help them with our holy things".


One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is that our religion is, in a sense, a time capsule. We adopted so many things from so many vanished cultures and made them our own. Half of what we do came from other cultures.

The Italian Carnival, which started in medieval times but mostly (though not completely) petered out by the end of the 18th century? Where do you think we got the custom of dressing up on Purim?

Dreidel? Based on the Teetotum, a Eurpoean gambling top many hundreds of years old. Even the letters we use, supposedly standing for Nes Gadol Haya Sham, were really gambling codes.

Chassidishe Levush? I don't think anyone, even Chassidim, doubt that it came from Polish and Russian nobility.

Let's go back further. The names of our months? (Nisan, Iyar..) We got those from Babylonian culture. Those names are never mentioned in the Torah.

And yes, the Seder is mostly borrowed from the Symposium. So what? The beauty is that Judaism throughout the ages has taken things from Chol to Kodesh.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Will the masses ever engage with a skeptical Judaism?

In this article by Rabbi Arthur Green (HT: Gideon S), he asks: "Can a religion without literalist claims to divine will and dictate command the hearts of its adherents"

My answer? I'm not sure that can be done. Without the certainty of fundamentalist beliefs, without the absolute certainty that Hashem specifically commanded us (through the halachic process) to do things like have separate dishes for meat & milk, I'm not sure that the masses can ever develop the necessary passion for a living movement of any large size.

I wish that it were possible, since I'm certainly one of those who rejects "literalist claims to divine will". And happily, the passionate engagement I crave is certainly there in certain small communities. But I can't see it ever taking over and attracting hundreds of thousands of adherents.

My next paragraph is going to seem sort of elitist, but so be it.

Most people don't want to think that deeply about matters of faith and belief. They want a simple emunah, with a father figure at the top. Without that, the masses won't feel deeply engaged. Only certain pocket demographics within religious Jewry, such as Left-Wing Modern Orthodox / Open Orthodox or Right-Wing Conservative, or the independent minyan movement will spend the necessary time and thought to deeply engage without divine certainty motivating them.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Unexpectedly inspired by my trip to Israel

My wife and I just got back on Friday from our trip to Israel for my sister's wedding. I'm still totally jet-lagged.

I'm not usually given to superlatives, but the trip was wonderful, amazing, and inspiring. Why? I'm not really sure. Part of it was just being there for my sister's beautiful wedding, and spending a lot of time with family. But part of it was just being there, in Israel.

It's hardly my first time there. If I count up all the time I've spent in Israel, I've lived there about 3 1/2 years. That includes a year of high school, when my father took a sabbatical from his university, my traditional yeshiva year after high school, and aliyah in my late 20's. Plus various summers.

Still, most of the time I'd spent in Israel previously was during my younger, more idealistic years, and back then, I expected to be inspired and uplifted. Those were the years when I assumed I'd be living most of my life there. So I was never surprised by my reaction to being there. It was home, pure and simple. Being there was the fulfillment of a religious dream.

Now, on the other hand, it's around 15 years since I returned to the US after my short post-aliyah soujourn. And over the years, my idealism kept eroding. I'm much more cynical, and much less likely to be swept away by the religious fervor of my teens and twenties. While I love being a religious Jew, and am inspired in so many little ways by living a halachic life, I also see the flaws and the cracks in the popular narrative of Judaism. That is especially true of the narrative that pertains to Eretz Yisrael, that the return to the land in the last century, and the creation of the state is nothing less than the fulfillment of a prophecy, that Medinat Yisrael is ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו, the beginning of our redemption as a people, the beginning of the messianic process.

In my younger days, I was able to recite the Ani Ma'amin derived from Rambam's thirteen principles with utmost sincerity. אני מאמין באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח - I Believe... In the Coming of the Mashiach; that was a deep element of my faith, and as part of my deeply Religious Zionist upbringing, was also intimately connected with the state of Israel. Every trip there, every stint I spent living there, was a small and personal part of that grand destiny, my own participation in the fulfillment of a prophecy.

But over the years, my hashkafa changed. As readers of this blog and my page on Facebook likely know, I began to question the dogma of traditional Judaism to an ever-growing degree. Finally I reached the point where I realized, (and internalized), the truth that Judaism isn't a the result of a direct revelation by God, but rather evolved. The Torah was written by humans, and the halachic system is the result of a slow evolution and the development of a complex legal system by human beings. I believe in God, but as an ideal that human beings were striving for when they created this system of belief.

Most importantly for the purposes of this post, I realized two things:

1) The messianic dream is an idea that grew out of a political desire for a re-institution of Jewish independence and restoration to their land. It took on religious overtones over the centuries, but that was a latter addition. I cannot truly say the "Ani Ma'amin" sincerely, except as an aspirational dream.

2) Judaism didn't truly develop in Eretz Yisrael. At least not into the Judaism we know and practice today. It was initially a sacrificial cult that evolved and changed over time, especially in response to the destruction of the temple and exile from our ancestral land. We are probably better off without a temple. Judaism would never have survived without that forced change. We say כי מציון תצא תורה , Out of Zion Emerged the Torah, and that's true to a certain extent. The original Torah, those oral narratives that coalesced into a canonized text, originated in Eretz Yisrael. But the Talmud, the true founding text of our religion as we know it, was written in Babylonia. And throughout the succeeding millennium and a half, Judaism has continued to evolve ever further, into something that second temple era Jews would barely recognize. So while Eretz Yisrael is important, it is not nearly as central to Jewish practice and origins as we like to believe.

All this weakened my connection to Israel. It weakened my commitment to aliyah, except as a possible retirement plan. And the holier-than-thou attitude of some Israelis towards Jews who live outside the land also turned me off, as if they were somehow better Jews simply because of where they lived. It prompted me to develop my own internal justification for living in the US, one that absolved me of any lingering guilt. That justification is that there is nothing inherently better about living in Israel, at least from a religious standpoint. Sacrificing financial security, serving in the army... those are admirable, but doesn't make one a better Jew. Where to live is a personal choice.

It was with this changed attitude that I traveled to Israel two weeks ago. I was certainly looking forward to it. We would spend time with family, and see a lot of old friends. And I always enjoy being there. And, of course, I really needed a vacation.

But what surprised me was that I fell in love with Israel again. And it wasn't inspiring sites, or anything like that. It was just being there. Going to the supermarket and seeing the vast amount of fresh food and remarkable variety of kosher food (or, as Israelis call it, food.) It was taking the train to Tel Aviv. Chattering away in my suddenly much more fluent Hebrew to everyone around me (the level of my fluency picks up the minute I'm immersed). Going to the zoo. It's the little things. No we're not planning aliyah tomorrow, but who knows what the future holds?

In my earlier days, deep in religious awe, I refused to see the flaws and imperfections. This time I was well aware of them. Passing a Palestinian village in the Shomron and seeing how it was in dirty disrepair, while the nearby Israeli yishuv was clean and well-built. Charedim pressing close and begging me for money to help them deal with their self-inflicted lifestyles. A woman's face on an ad spraypainted over. A cab driver screaming obscenities to a driver who cut him off, yet committing the same offense himself not 3 minutes later. People obnoxiously inserting themselves in your business. Dog poop left on the sidewalk far too often.

I can't just chalk all these things up to being "charming" anymore. In many ways, I feel like I have my blinders off. And that's the thing - I expected  to have my religious blinders off, but didn't realize that I'd still love the country, deeply.

For every obnoxious Israeli, there are 10 who are kind and helpful. Yes, there's discrimination against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, but there are also many people committed to fixing that. The Charedi demographic problem is huge and their intolerance for others is well-known. But at the same time, Charedim can be warm and kind. The same cabdriver who cursed out the other driver? He also engaged in chitchat and seemed genuinely interested in us as people.

And what you realize, when you take off the religious blinders, is that it's really amazing what the country has accomplished. A dead language come to life. A cosmopolitan and liberal society. An amazing high-tech sector. A remarkable intellectual life, with a wide array of cultural institutions and higher learning.

And the fact that religious holidays are national holidays? That makes Israeli culture, even secular Israeli culture, Jewish. The same with the fact that most food is kosher. It returns Judaism to what it once was, in a way - a culture, not a religion.

Moreover, there's something I can't quite put my finger on. Life there is more... real, somehow. More vivid. I feel like I'm more awake while I'm in Israel.

So here it is. I'm a religious Jew. And I'm a Zionist. A very strong one. But I'm not a Religious Zionist. Not any longer. I'm a proud and inspired Secular Zionist. While the building of a Jewish homeland may have taken inspiration from the religious longing for Eretz Yisrael, it was built by blood and guts of incredibly courageous people. When I stand solemnly in front of the the Israeli flag and sing Hatikva, my heart is full, out of pride and a sense of belonging. There's a religious element, sure. You can't really separate that out. The significance of history, and the deep yearning for Eretz Yisrael certainly plays a huge part. But I've jettisoned the part about it being a fulfillment of a prophecy. Instead, it's about the will of a people
להיות עם חופשי בארצנו.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Israel sucks you in

Got an extra day here because of the Lufthansa pilots strike. Really don't want to leave...