Welcome to TheCollegeRabbi.com

taglitad2Are you a Jewish college student? Do you feel disconnected from the Jewish community? Is the Jewish community on your campus too small? Is there a large Jewish Student Union but it’s just “not your scene”?

Maybe you run the show. You’re a small Jewish college community that would like to provide more from their students, but just don’t have the resources.

I’m here for you. I am the College Rabbi and I can provide the Jewish resources you need. I’m here to answer questions, provide resources, and just to talk to if you need.

Feel free to surf the pages of this site. Also, enjoy the blog!

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As A(n) (Orthodox) Rabbi…

I’ve noticed on many an occasion reading an article or blog post where someone who had received some form of ordination at some Jewish institution of higher learning has qualified their writing with the phrase “as a rabbi…”  In fact, I’d say I see a disproportionate number of such articles coming from “Orthodox rabbis”.   I wondered about this: why the qualifier?  If you are working as a rabbi, and have the title ‘rabbi’ slapped next to your name, one would assume that your opinion is coming from a rabbinic place.   Some rabbis, such as myself, have to compartmentalize our rabbiosity due to constraints from work, and in such cases my humble College Rabbinic opinion (IMHCRO) stays within the confines of my rabbinic cybercampus.    However, if you’re confession is also your vocation then no such qualifiers should actually exist.

So what could be the motivation for such qualifiers?  I discussed this with my very own hassidish rebbe and we came to a few conclusions about what could be the motivation.  My rebbe felt the reason was not actually for Jews, but for non-Jews.  Traditionally, Jews didn’t really care about the titles.  The earliest rabbis from the times of the Prophets up through the Second Temple period never had an official title to denote their status as clergy.  Hillel the Elder, the most famous Hillel, was never ‘rabbi’ Hillel.  That was his grandson.   Many of the biggest scholars even until today in the Jewish community were never officially ordained while many people who went through a formal ordination program work in regular humdrum jobs.  Non-Jews on the other hand put a lot of stock in titles, such as the entire Bachelors/Masters/Doctorate scheme.    It makes their opinion more weighty in non-Jewish eyes.

Feeding off this idea is the idea of the argument from authority.   The argument from authority states that someone assumes that a person knows their subject matter simply because they hold a title in that area.  In extreme cases, people will actually use their titles to claim authority in areas they have no expertise in simply because they have demonstrated expertise in one.  For example, Richard Dawkins has used his expertise in Evolutionary Biology to build a career as a moral authority.  Actually, rabbis who went through a formal ordination process have a fairly limited training which is mostly centered on the laws of Kashrut (keeping kosher).  Still, when most people see rabbi they think all-wise.  I must say it does boost the ego, regardless of whether it’s actually true.

The other possible reason is that throwing this phrase is in place is to give the opinion an air of legitimacy it might not have otherwise.   When someone describes himself as a rabbi, one expects their opinion to be rabbinic.   Yet the bulk of articles using the “as a(n) (Orthodox) rabbi” express opinions that often push the boundaries of what could be considered a rabbinic opinion, if it can be considered an authentic Jewish piece at all.  Rarely is there a citation of a classical Jewish source, and even when that happens it is often misconstrued beyond the point that the author would recognize.  Without the qualifier, many of these opinions could be easily put forth by a layman.

I believe Tom Cruise said it best when he said “we all have our outmorals”.  As much as we rabbis should try to represent the Torah view, we should be honest with others, and ourselves, when we are expressing our own personal view.   Calling it a rabbinic view does not make it so, and we are much better off saying “in my personal opinion” and making that the qualifier, and not the other way around.

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The Mitzvah of Work

Work isn’t just a a necessity, it’s a mitzvah!  This is how:

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JVO Question-Lighting Chanukah Candles in Front of a Xmas Tree

My friend is Jewish. Her husband is not. I was at their home and now have a question. Is it kosher to celebrate Chanukah, lighting candles in front of a Christmas tree? I didn’t know what to say! 

My response

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Assessing Kosher Certifications

One of the stickiest subjects in the rabbinic world is evaluating which hashgahot (kosher certifications) are good.  On one hand, you want to make sure that the food that you’re eating is kosher, and certainly what you’re recommending to someone else, especially if you’re a rabbi.  On the other hand, casting a cloud of doubt over a certifying agency has a massive ripple effect over the restaurants and products they certify.  A bad word could kill a business, and saying such a bad word could be a grievance violation of the prohibition on lashon hara (evil speech).

Sooooooo, I thought a good person to ask if such a thing had been compiled was a non-rabbinic kosher aficionado.    So I approached one of the best, Dani Klein.  His response?

He didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. And I don’t blame him.  He’s best serving humanity posting righteous pictures of food and posting on the next and best products.

But then where does that leave the kosher consumer?  Some people have a rabbi that is knowledgeable in the salient issues, but many do not.    The difference between your house kitchen and industrial kashrut is the difference between changing out an outlet and industrial electrical engineering.  Not simple.

Still, it’s not as bad as I may have just presented it.  With just a few questions, you can make a more informed decision about what’s going in your face, without facing a potential law suit.  It’s all about Who, When, What, How, Why, and Where.

Who: Who are the people doing the certifying?

Any kashrut organization can tell you who’s the person checking out the food, or at least who’s in charge.  If it’s a small outfit, like the ones you might find in a small town, then there may just be the local rabbi.  If it’s a massive outfit like the Orthodox Union (OU), each person’s job is highly specialized.  Once you know the name of the rabbi, a quick search can tell you where they went to yeshiva and what training they’ve had.  A rare few hechshers are provided by Conservative and Reform rabbis, but any time it’s come up it I’ve always seen that they’ve been up front about it.  A group affiliation like membership in the RCA or Agudath Israel shows that the person is esteemed enough by the group to be a member, and should share the group’s values.  Someone with additional training from a group like the OU or the Star-K is likely to be more knowledgeable in difficult kashrut matters, whereas someone who’s certifying a restaurant or product after banging out four years in a rabbi mill is likely not to have the experience or training.  All things being equal, the longer the rabbi’s resume is in terms of the amount of time they spent in yeshiva post-high school and the number of kashrut positions they’ve held, the more reliable one should be able to assume they are.

That’s all things being equal.   If you google a rabbi and negative complaints come up, follow up.  You shouldn’t necessarily believe the rumor, but you should clarify the doubt.

When:  How often do they check in?

Not every establishment has a mashgiah tamidi (on-staff inspector).  It’s not necessary either, for some things.  It’s quite expensive to have a rabbi stand around all day.  However, for certain issues it’s quite necessary.  For example, meat must be supervised or locked up properly at all times in case someone might switch it for non-kosher meat (basar neelam min haayin)  Grape products must be supervised at all times (or at least until boiled) to make sure that a goy doesn’t touch it.    Milk labeled chalav yisrael all needs to be supervised full time during the milking process, although some places will use video cameras to accomplish this task.  Vegetables like broccoli are very buggy and have to be carefully checked by someone who knows what they’re doing.   I am aware of one hechsher in particular that a rav I know in the kashrut industry said was no good because they were certifying more places than they had the staff to properly inspect.   It’s a good and proper question to ask how often someone comes in to inspect the place.

What: What stringencies do they hold?

This is a bit nitty gritty but very legit.  Not every rabbi, even very hard core rabbis, hold every stringency.  For example, most hechsherim hold by the Ashkenazi ruling that it is sufficient for a Jew to light the stove or over for a goy to cook on to avoid the prohibition of bishul akum.  Sephardim hold a Jew must put the food on the fire, when necessary.  If you ask, the mashgiah should do it for you, and I’ve never encountered a problem when I’ve asked.  Rav Breuer zt”l held that you didn’t have to separate the challah portion of the dough from batter outside of Israel.  If you hold you have to, you should ask if it was done or not.

Then there are things that are NOT stringencies.  A kosher restaurant that is owned by a Jew cannot be open on Shabbat (the Sabbath).  There are leniencies for establishments owned wholly or in part by a non-Jew, but that’s a major discussion.  A rabbi that certifies an establishment that is open on Shabbat and is wholly owned by a Jew has compromised his reliability.  A kosher establishment is also not supposed to keep non-kosher food around.  This becomes an issue when there are non-religious or non-Jewish workers.  You can ask about the policy regarding outside food.

How: How thorough are the rabbis?

Of any of the questions, this is the one that is likely to get someone upset.  A rabbi can show you a whole list of stringencies and this and this that he says they keep.  If the rabbi doesn’t do a good job, it’s really a waste.   I will say something most people have likely not heard, but I would say to ask the establishment owners.  After all, they pay for the service and are the certifying agency’s customers.   They see what’s going on.  For example, I have a friend who owns a small restaurant and the mashgiah comes in around once a week, at random times.  He goes in, peeks around for 2 minutes, and leaves.   My friend left a box of pretzels that were not acceptable by the restaurant’s advertised standards in his kitchen for 3-4 months before the mashgiah noticed, and it was right on the counter.  I do not recommend testing people this way, but my friend tested this rabbi and he got a big F.

Why:  Why is this rabbi doing the certifying?

Some people are professional mashgihim.   Some are the local town rabbi and there’s no one else to do it.  A rabbi who has multiple occupations may not be dedicating the time necessary to do their job well.  Sometimes there’s no choice.  Still, it’s a little piece of info to keep at the back of your mind.

Where:  Where do I go because I don’t have anyone to ask?

While I am not endorsing anyone, there are four hechsherim that are considered to be the four “national” hechsherim.  These organizations are quite large, supervise many different products, and have people on staff to answer questions about kashrut:

Orthodox Union: https://oukosher.org/

Star-K: http://www.star-k.org/

OK Certification: http://www.ok.org/

Kof-K: http://www.kof-k.org/

Update:  I have been informed by a member of the kashrut industry that Rav Breuer did not have this leniency, which contradicts my previous information from a usually reliable source.  I’ll have to check.

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#YuLin -Food For Thought

I recently learned of this festival that will be happening this week that I had never heard of called YuLin, but since I first heard about it the event news has gone viral.  For anyone not familiar:

Now, if everything that is being reported about this festival is true, this would clearly be an event that we as rabbis could sanction for anyone. Forget about kashrut (Jewish dietary law):

  • Gluttony: As much as Jewish festivals involve food, and they do, the focus is not the food (believe it or not).  The meal is the setting by which we discuss and express the lessons of the day.  The best example of course is matza, the lechem oni.  Lechem oni means poor man’s bread, but with a slight vocalization change to lechem ahni becomes the bread of answering (Maharal), the bread that we discuss the Exodus over.  There is no Jewish festival where the purpose is to binge eat on a food as an end unto itself.
  • Animal Cruelty: Although there is no specific verse that says “don’t mistreat animals”, the sentiment is expressed in a number of different mitzvot (commandments) such as the mitzah not to allow an animal of your enemy to buckle under its load and the mitzvah to give an animal food before you eat.  The Aruchot Tzaddikim is clear the prohibition on animal cruelty is Biblical.  The packing in of multiple dogs into a single cage such as is seen in the pictures would seem to violate this ordinance.
  • Theft: Reports on the dog meat trade have shown that often it is not just farm-raised dogs that are consumed but any dogs that dog meat traders can get their hands on.  This can mean stealing pet dogs for the purpose of resale as meat.  The industry is not regulated and there is no one to check where the meat came from.   While it is not clear to me if the prohibition of lifnei ivir (causing someone else to sin) apply here in a strict sense (the laws are quite complicated and I need to make a further study of them),  demanding a product that causes others to do wrong in order for you to get it is probably not a product you should consume if avoidable.

Still, I wanted to ask a sort of hypothetical question, given the fact that one of the main arguments for stopping it is that there is something unconscionable about eating man’s best friend.  Is it more wrong to eat a dog than a pig or a cow? From the standpoint of kashruth, there is no difference eating a pig or a dog.  Both are non-kosher animals and are therefore forbidden for a Jew to consume while the cow is fine even for Jews, as eating meat is permissible according to Judaism.   The only restriction that Judaism places on non-Jews (to the extent that a non-Jew would listen to what we have to say) is the restriction to eat meat torn from a living animal, which is one of the seven mitzvot of Bnei Noah, seven commandments given to all of Mankind.  The fact of the matter is that the entire concept of a dietary restriction is a very recent development in human history, rather than the obvious restriction of scarcity.

I realize some of what I’ve said to this point might be considered upsetting to some.  “Isn’t there something special about dogs and cats?” some may ask.  Well, the fact of the matter is that according to Judaism everything in Creation has something special.  There is a midrash (early rabbinic work) called Perek Shira*, which quotes a verse from the Bible that each plant and animal “sings” as praise to G-d.  In addition, there are other rabbinic works that discuss the virtues that different animals have.  So I shall share a bit about the dog and the cat, perhaps to explain why they are so special to us.

The Dog: The Hebrew word of Dog is kelev, which can be broken apart to mean ‘close to the heart’.  Dogs in fact are close to the hearts of people, and have been for millennia.   One special things that the Torah mentions is that dogs have a special merit that they did not screech and howl as the Jews left Egypt during the Exodus.

The Cat: Cats are praised in the Talmud for having the special virtue of modesty.  Anyone who has a cat knows they are fastidious and clean up after themselves in their litter boxes.   The Torah also takes time to mention how a soldier should carry a spade to clean up after himself (Dt. 23:13).  We learn from this that there is a special protective power to being modest, and we should be very careful in this regard.   *h/t to Rav Lazar Brody for the free translation

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G-d is Not Your Nanny

There’s a major misconception about how G-d is expected to relate to the world, because obviously G-d is supposed to relate to the world by the rules we establish for Him.  According to the popular wisdom, if G-d does not lay out exactly what you should do, and I will add according to the weltanschauung, then the text claiming to be the word of G-d well simply isn’t.  It’s a pretty tall task for a text to live up to.

It’s also not the philosophical position of the Torah.  G-d tells Moshe shelach lcha, send for you, the spies to the land of Israel to explore it before the Jews enter.  All the commentators jump on the redundant language of send for you to say this was not the will of G-d, but G-d allowed them to voluntarily make the mistake, and reap the potential subsequent negative consequences.  Implicit in the language is G-d was saying this was not His will, but nonetheless was willing to put His honor aside.

This isn’t the only example of this either.  The most prominent is polygany.  Marrying multiple women (but not men) is Biblically permissible.  However, there is not one example where this amounted to a pleasant situation, for all parties involved.  The Bible allows the taking of a captive woman in war, but Rashi points out the subsequent listed events of home tensions and a punk kid from the marriage suggest this is not a great idea.    Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet at the time of Moshe, was given permission to travel with a band of Moabites where he was going to be solicited to curse the Jews.  He was ultimately beheaded during a battle with the Jews.

And so on and so on.  The Torah does something greater than telling us how to live our lives.  Cult leaders do that.  It advises us about HOW to make the best decisions.  This is the root of the mitzvah kedoshim tihiyu, you shall be holy.  There is a Biblical mandate to go above the Law, because the Law itself allows for the possibility of making bad decisions.

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Prepare Thyself

I gave this 3 minute talk a day or two ago.  It’s about the importance of preparing for mitzvot and how it may arguably better more important than the mitzvah itself. I don’t do transcripts so enjoy!



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The Sights and Sounds of Shavuot

I very much regret not giving the class I was scheduled to on Wednesday, not because I bailed since it was canceled on me.  Rather, I had something fairly deep to say and took a few hours to prepare.  C’est la vie.  I’d at least like to try and pull one idea out so my prep gets a little more mileage:

The description of the experiences of the Jews at Mt. Sinai for the most part sound like a volcano going off.  However, the description of how the Jews experienced it in Ex. 20:14-15 is a radical departure from a normal natural disaster, and actually sound like an acid trip, as the Jews are described as seeing the sounds as opposed to hearing them.  This has actually led some scholars to suggest that the Revelation at Mt. Sinai was some kind of mass acid trip, although I find the fact that they proposed this rather ridiculous as I would imagine most know from either first-hand or second-hand stories that no two people have the same trip at the same time.   I guess anything’s better than entertaining that the Revelation at Mt. Sinai was actually a historical event.

Be that as it may, the blurring of the line of the senses requires explanation.  What benefit would there be in this mixing of the senses for the observer?  To really condense what I was going to say on Wednesday, seeing is about perceiving the world as entirety while hearing is about selecting out information and processing it internally.    In order to pass the threshold beyond a regular miracle, where one could question it was the hand of G-d, to a place beyond question, something had to happen differently in this case.  The Rambam mentions explicitly that Mt. Sinai was qualitatively different than any other miracle, and it would seem part of that is that the experience crossed the boundaries between perception and understanding.

That’s all I have for now, time wise and otherwise.  Hag Samaeh.

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Bar Yohai vs. The Roman Legacy

Right now Lag B’Omer 2015/5775 is drawing to a close yet the parties are going on as my sources tell me.  Yet there is a strange and obvious question as there’s music and revelry: today is the day of Ribi Shimon Bar Yohai’s death, and we are celebrating?  Do Jews really celebrate death?  To answer the second question first, we absolutely do not.  We celebrate life.  For example, the custom is to fast on a parent’s yartzeit (death anniversary), and some have the custom to fast on the day of Moshe Rabbenu’s death, 7 Adar.

The thing we celebrate on Lag B’Omer is not Bar Yohai’s death, but his Torah and his legacy.  Bar Yohai was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Moshe and finished tasks that Moshe did not.  Moshe was punished and not permitted to enter Israel but Bar Yohai lived there his entire life, even as a hunted man by the Romans.  Moshe gave the Law while Bar Yohai revealed its hidden secrets (the Zohar).  Moshe’s children did not follow in his greatness while Bar Yohai’s son Ribi Elazar was just as great as his father.

Yet the legacy Bar Yohai left that Moshe did not, by definition could not, is the mesirat nefesh (personal investment) in Torah.  Moshe’s Torah was a gift from Heaven in the most literal sense of the word, as he was the messenger of G-d for 40 years.  His job was to remove himself personally from the situation and make himself a vessel (kli).  Bar Yohai on the other hand was pure mesirat nefesh.  Under penalty of death, Bar Yohai continued to teach Torah and studied in for 14 years in a cave with his son Ribi Elazar while in hiding.  In order to save their clothing, they buried themselves up to their necks in sand so their bodies wouldn’t be exposed.  When Ribi Pinhas ben Yair saw Bar Yohai, he cried over the condition of his colleague and yet Bar Yohai rejoiced.

This has been the power of our Rabbis, both before and after.  The Gra, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, used to only sleep 4 1/2 hour shifts a night.  The Hazon Ish would pass out in his chair studying nightly.  Rav Ovadia Yosef damaged his eyesight studying in the dark as a youngster night after night.  Compare this to the many secular philosophers and pundits who drowned their sorrows in alcohol or like Bill Maher, who once complained about having to leave the house at 7am in the morning.   The mesirat nefesh is what has carried their message, and why people are quoting Bar Yohai 1900 years after his passing while all of these pundits will quickly fade into the annals of history.

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The Holocaust and the Infinite Sadness

For Israel, and for many of us in the Diaspora as well, yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day.  For now, at least while survivors are still among us to tell us of their horrible experiences and their tales of survival, it is an emotional day of introspection.   For those of us of the religious persuasion it is not permitted to be an actual day of eulogizing and mourning since it takes place during the month of Nissan, the month of the great miracles.  But introspection is always okay, and one tweet I saw yesterday certainly caused me to have it:


Now, many people would likely be furious to see the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley compared to the Holocaust, and rightly so. But really, any two things can be compared, as long as it is very clear what the comparison is and how far the comparison is actually carried.  In this case, the comparison between the two situations is the human tragedy involved.  Loss of life equally tragic whether it occurs by an act of nature, one person against another, or a person against themselves.  Disagree?  My proof is the argument of the New Atheists that suffering suggests either no G-d or a cruel one, and they will frequently lump tragedies such as the Holocaust together as with those such as the earthquake in Haiti.  Suicide is often left out of this discussion, but considering its prevalence in modern society, it really shouldn’t be.

The question for those with a direct connection with the Holocaust becomes then: what is the tragedy behind the self abuse that has become the hallmark of musicians?  To explain that, I will use a broadened definition of the term Holocaust, the very politically incorrect use (or misuse as the case may be) that some Jews used to use to describe the rampant assimilation of American Jewry into greater American society, at the expense of their Judaism.  If we’re really to use the term properly, we can’t be speaking that Jews suddenly abandoned their Jewish roots for some greater ideology.  In the words of Reb Shlomo Carlebach: “The problem facing us today (in the ’60′s and 70′s ed. note) is not that there are Jews for Jesus or Jews for Reverend Moonie.  The problem is that there are so many sweet, holy Yiddelehs for Nothing.”*  Thus, the Holocaust isn’t so much that Jews, or anyone for that matter, are abandoning their traditions but that there’s nothing of substance to replace them.

Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) challenged the Jews shortly before his death (Dt. 30:11-20).  He told them that G-d had put a choice before them of life and death, good and evil, and told them to choose life.  In order for life (good) to be a choice, it has to be a viable one, and this is certainly not the case for many people.  I was speaking with a student about their views of Tanakh and I had protested that their views were based on an incorrect reading.  When it came to one particular issue, the student called me an idiot for maintaining my view.  The student was in tears as they conveyed this message to me.  It’s a reaction like this that tells me there is no choice, that this person lacks the knowledge base to make value decisions on much more than emotion.  Rav Tovia Singer once told me that the reason he is so settled and calm when he debates is because he is so fluid with the answers from years of research and discussion.  He said the people who get emotional during debates are the ones who lack substance behind their positions.  If this lack of substance applies to a person’s entire raison d’etre, there’s no wonder this causes crises.

Dr. Viktor Frankel was a psychologist who lived through Auschwitz and developed his theory of logotherapy**.  He observed in the camps that there was a difference between those who survived the horrors and those who chose to end it all.  The ones who fought their way through had meaning and purpose to their lives while those who had none lost their will to live, quite literally.  As these some of these stars demonstrate, one need not be in the middle of a war zone or similar challenge to find themselves in the situation of making the choice between life and death, and lacking the tools to choose life.  While certainly treatments for depression and other mental illnesses are crucial, as well as being able to discuss the issue publicly, it’s equally as important that people have meaning and have deeper substantive reasons for what they believe.  The tragedy that I speak to is that so many lack this latter tool for dealing with the challenges of life.


*Ahroni Fisch, Dov.  Jews for Nothing: On Cults, Intermarriage, and Assimilation

** Frankel, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning

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