Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Greatest Miracle

Recently I was speaking with a friend of mine, a dedicated educator who works hard at trying to inspire teenagers from the yeshivah world who want some validation that Judaism is worth being passionate about. He's been using pseudo-scientific "proofs" to try to convince them that Torah is divine. But as you may know, I'm not very enthusiastic about those "proofs."

So I had another suggestion for him: Why not tell them about the single greatest uncontested miracle of human history - the return of the Jewish People to their ancestral homeland? An ancient nation, exiled and dispersed and massacred with the most horrific persecution in history, fulfills its ancient prophecies and returns to its homeland, to create an amazingly vibrant country and triumph against overwhelming odds. What better validation is that?

"Yeah," he agreed. "But that sounds like Zionism, and so the yeshivah won't let me teach it."

Happy birthday Israel, and thank you to everyone who helped create this inspirational miracle!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zecher tzaddik l'vracha

The loss of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is a great tragedy. In the charedi days of my youth, I figured that he couldn't be a "real" talmid chacham - after all, he was clean-shaven and had studied English literature in university, whereas I had been taught that only exclusive Torah study produces real Gedolim. But then my horizons broadened, and I learned that many great Torah scholars had also studied other disciplines (and that several members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah had also been to college!).

Then I started to actually study what Rav Lichtenstein  had to say. I discovered that he was a gadol b'Torah who was wise, thoughtful, sophisticated, and humble. Rav Lichtenstein's treatment of the topic of Daas Torah is one of the most important discussions of the topic that I have ever seen. You can read the original Hebrew at this link, and my friend Joseph Faith produced an English translation which you can download here.

May his legacy endure and inspire.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Place For Ex-Charedim

Guest Post by Allison Josephs

A couple of years ago, after a speaking engagement of mine in Monsey, a couple approached me. They had been raised, as they described it "ultra-Chasidish," but did not feel that they could live such a strict life any more. Unfortunately, their families had rejected them when they expressed their desire to lead a more moderate observant Jewish life. “We still want to be frum," they told me, "we just don’t know who to follow.”

I was troubled by how lost they were and told them I wanted to help them. "You'll come for Shabbos," I said. "I'll introduce you to our rav." But then someone interrupted us, and when I looked up, they were gone. I tried to find them after the talk to no avail, so I started reaching out to people at major Jewish organizations, asking if anyone wanted to help create a program to help people in this situation. Nobody was ready to do anything about it.

As the months passed, every so often I'd remember that this couple was still out there and feel guilty, but it wasn't until last year that something finally pushed me to act: I read an account online of an ex-Satmar woman who wanted to stay observant after she left her Satmar community, but every non-Chasidic school she checked out didn’t want her kid. Her new non-Chasidic neighbors never really welcomed her and her son had no one to play with on Shabbos until she started paying a neighbor to do so. After enough rejections, she got fed up and just left altogether. Today she is no longer observant.

The moment I read this, I knew that something had to be done even if I didn't know what that thing was. And so I posted an article on asking our readers to speak up if they were willing to help people in this situation. We heard from 200 people from around the world (including the couple who I lost! And we did have them for Shabbos and introduce them to our rav!) Apparently many people like me had been wanting to help but didn't know how. We even had two women volunteer to spearhead our effort (Mindy Schaper and Gavriella Lerner, who are now our co-directors), which we've named "Project Makom." Its mission is: helping former and questioning Charedi Jews find their place in Orthodox Judaism.

We put out a survey to find out what former Charedim would want if someone was willing to help them. Based on that info, our directors developed a survey for people who want to volunteer to learn with a participant (either Jewish or secular studies), have them for Shabbos, be a friend, etc. If you are a former or questioning Charedi looking for help, you can sign up here. In the last several months, our co-directors have interviewed one hundred volunteers. We have already begun matching up participants with them.

We are planning a Shabbaton in couple of months in the Five Towns, which we'll be posting about in our Facebook group. We have thankfully received positive feedback both from leaders in the Charedi community and from the formerly observant community. The Jerusalem Post also just featured our initiative this week so we're hearing from people in Israel. Please help spread the word, so that anyone who needs help can access this service. And if you can help us out in any way, we recently received up to $5000 in matched funds to help us build a website and get programming started. Thank you for your help!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Bracha from Batman

Yesterday I had the interesting experience of getting a bracha from Batman.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. I wasn't getting a bracha for myself, but rather recording him giving a video bracha for someone else. And he’s not Batman, at least not yet; he’s still only Bruce Wayne.

I’m referring to David Mazouz, a very talented young actor who plays twelve-year-old Bruce Wayne in the hit new television series Gotham. It turns that David attends the same school as my nephew. I seized the opportunity to do something special for the children of a neighbor of mine, who are big fans of the show and who have suffered a family tragedy. David kindly agreed to bless them with “bracha and hatzlacha.” (As a friend of mine quipped – it was a bat-mitzva!)

Meeting the young Batman just a few days after my encounter with the Lord on the beach, I was reminded of that post. I had reminisced about the stage of my life when I subscribed to a black-and-white view regarding the legitimacy of sources of religious inspiration. Anything [Orthodox] Jewish was in; anything not Jewish was out.

At that stage of my life, about twenty years ago, I was once speaking to a certain brilliant Jewish educator of a decidedly non-charedi disposition. He was a big Batman fan, and told me about various creative insights that he had, connecting Batman with Jewish ideas. I was appalled. As a teenager, I had always been a big Batman fan (not the campy TV show with Adam West, but rather the more serious and intense graphic novels). But to claim that Batman could be a source of Jewish inspiration seemed downright sacrilegious. In a fit of religious fervor, I took my collection of Batman graphic novels and sold them.

Fast forward many years, and, as noted in my earlier post, my view has broadened. If Bnei Brak can draw inspiration from a Christian parable about the Lord on the beach, then we can draw inspiration from wherever it is to be found. And, with regard to Batman, I came across a wonderful little book entitled “Wisdom from the Batcave.” It is written by Rabbi Cary Friedman, a prison chaplain who also teaches classes on spiritual growth for law enforcement officers, including the FBI. The book is all about spiritual lessons to learn from the Dark Knight, including such concepts as how to triumph over adversity, the value of willpower, the blessing of family, and so on.

A few years ago, I myself was spiritually assisted by Batman. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was a halachic situation in which I was being tempted to come up with some sort of rationalization for why I didn't need to observe it. Then, all of a sudden, a page from the second-greatest Batman graphic novel of all time, The Dark Knight Returns, popped into my mind.

It was where a middle-aged Batman, having come out of retirement, is in a tank-like vehicle, with an utterly evil monstrous person called the Mutant Leader in his gunsights. In the world of Batman, there are some concrete rules. One is that Batman never, ever kills. He might bruise and maim and break bones, but he never takes a life. Another rule is that criminals never remain incarcerated – they always manage to somehow escape from prison or from Arkham Asylum, to commit further atrocities.

So, Batman is looking at this monster, and thinking to himself that the only thing that makes sense is to fire the tank cannons and blow him off the face of the earth. But, he reminds himself, to do so would mean crossing a line that he drew for himself thirty years earlier. And so he doesn't do it.

In this particular scenario, it may well make perfect sense for Batman to kill the Mutant Leader rather than sparing him to inevitably end up committing more atrocities. But if Batman kills this person, then there is no real reason for him not to kill other bad guys. And once Batman becomes a mass executioner, the world is a much worse place. And so he doesn't kill him.

This is a very important concept that I have successfully since used with others, in particular with Orthodox Jews who have faith issues and who are questioning whether they should observe particular halachos. Like the situation in which the Dark Knight found himself, the question is not whether there is sufficient reason to keep a particular halachah. Rather, the question is, what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to be part of halachic society, or not? That question can have a very different answer, which motivates a person to observe halachah even in a case where he would otherwise see no reason to do so.

Of course, this does not mean that every message communicated by Batman is of value. Indeed, in the aforementioned story, Batman proceeds to come up with a second and apparently more important reason for not killing the Mutant Leader – because he wants to see if, in his fifties, he still has what it takes to win in hand-to-hand combat. This is absurd – you don’t risk letting evil triumph in order to boost your ego! The first reason alone is valid.

So, one can draw religious inspiration from Batman. I plan to send my copy of Wisdom from the Batcave to the young Bruce Wayne – he is a very fine young man, and I’m sure that he will appreciate seeing how he can learn from the character that he plays. I hope that he will grow up to be a great man, and perhaps one day there will be many more Jews seeking a bracha from Batman!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Footprints of the Lord

Since it is no longer a secret as to where I am spending Pesach, I decided to share the following thought.

Yesterday, I was walking on the beach next to the hotel where I am staying. I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to me, and the other to the Lord. It reminded me of the following famous text:
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it:

"Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me."

The Lord replied: "My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."
That text is well-known, and while its precise source is debated, it is of Christian origin. Yet I came across it about twenty years ago in a contemporary charedi sefer of parashah vortlach called Yalkut Lekach Tov. It presented the Footprints text as being a parable stated by "an Adam Gadol."

At the time, I was very much into a black-and-white understanding of the principle of "Torah b'goyim, al ta'amin." God spoke to the Jews through the Torah, and not to anyone else. I took great pride and dignity in the difference between Jews and non-Jews. Yet here was a Christian parable being presented in a super-frum parashah sefer! This was one of the many things that led me on the path of realization that things were not always as black-and-white as I had previously thought.

Anyway, when I encountered the Lord on the beach yesterday, he made a similar offer to the Lord on the beach in the parable. He was telling my wife about how bad he feels for wives who have to suffer their husband's books being banned, and he said that if we are ever feeling down, we should just write to him and he will call and offer whatever chizzuk he can!

Needless to say, no other Knight has ever offered to save me from distress. Which left me pondering a thought that was very appropriate for Pesach: It was nice that this knight was different from all other knights!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Irrational Clothing Decisions

If you were choosing the most irrational mitzvah, shatnez might be a top contender.

That was a thought that crossed my mind today as I went today to get a new suit checked. I went to the official Los Angeles shatnez "laboratory," which might conjure up an image of a high-tech research facility with people in white coats poring over sophisticated equipment, but was actually someone's living room with a high-powered lamp. As I was waiting for my turn, I pondered the significance of the prohibition against wearing mixtures of wool and linen.

Rambam claimed that it is about negating a pagan practice. Rav Hirsch (if I recall correctly) writes about the importance of keeping the domains of animal-products and plant-products separate. Many others would simply categorize it as a divine chok which has no rationale that can be grasped by mankind.

Whatever one's view of the reason for the institution of the mitzvah, the reasons for the observance of the mitzvah can be entirely different. I would suspect that for some, it is about heeding God's word, while for many others, it is about being part of the Orthodox Jewish community.

As I was thinking about these things, a fascinating scene unfolded in front of me. A very secular-looking woman had brought in a man's suit. It transpired that she was an employee of a store where someone had purchased a suit and asked them to have it checked for shatnez. Since this woman was the only Jewish employee, albeit entirely secular, she had brought it in.

Much to her dismay, it was found that both the jacket and the pants contained shatnez. Not only that, but the shatnez was so thoroughly embedded that it was basically impossible to remove it. Not only that, but the process of finding the shatnez had damaged the suit such that no refund was possible.

"What a shame," she lamented. "That was a seven thousand dollar suit."

My jaw dropped open. Seven thousand dollars?!

After the woman left, I commented to the shatnez tester about the absurd price of the suit.

"Oh," she said, "That's nothing. A few weeks ago, someone brought in another suit that was irreparably full of shatnez, and it had cost twenty-six thousand dollars."

Twenty-six thousand dollars?!?!

Shatnez might not have a reason that we can rationally grasp, but it certainly isn't anywhere near as irrational as spending twenty-six thousand dollars on a suit!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Angry Rabbits and Ticked-Off Tigers

This is too funny!

On the advice of a reader, I just purchased a book in Hebrew for toddlers. On the cover is the title, Shafan, with a stripe of black paint over it. Beneath it is the animal who painted it over: an angry rabbit!

The book is about how this rabbit is very angry that everyone calls him by the wrong name. Instead of calling him arnav, which is the proper name for "rabbit," he is called shafan. Eventually, he leaves town in disgust, and goes to find the real shafan in the wilderness - a hyrax. They switch places, but it doesn't work out too well - the rabbit does not like living in the wild, and the hyrax doesn't like being pulled out of a magician's hat. And so the story ends with the rabbit going back to his old life, and hoping that writing this book will help people call him by the right name.

The transposition of the rabbit with the hyrax is, of course, a classic case study for Biblical zoology. But the book deals with other transpositions, too. During the course of the story, the rabbit goes to a therapy group for animals that are frustrated due to their often called by the wrong name. There's an eagle that is complaining about being called a nesher and a tiger that is called ticked-off about bein called a namer, amongst others.

The transposition of nesher from vulture to eagle is a case similar to that of the shafan. Just as the name shafan was transferred from the hyrax to the rabbit due to there being no hyraxes in Europe, so too the name nesher was transferred due to the eagle's status as the king of birds in Europe. But the transposition of the namer from the leopard to the tiger is more difficult to understand. It is a very common error - see, for example, this painting from the 17th century Rymanow synagogue. Yet tigers are not found in Europe either. I am still trying to figure out the cause of this transposition.

I'm not sure what the message of the book is for its intended readership, but I enjoyed it immensely!

(On a related note, for those interested to read the new Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, the LA book launch is taking place this Monday evening, at Beth Jacob, 8pm - please spread the word to anyone you know in LA. Or, if you're not in LA, you can order it online at Israel orders are already being shipped out, and US orders will be shipped out soon. Free shipping in Israel, Europe and North America!)