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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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

Posted in current events, holidays, philosophical pieces, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Room For Dialogue?

I’d say the #1 complaint that I hear from those who have left the Orthodox community is that we are intolerant and unwilling to dialogue. Well, if it’s the #1 complaint then there’s probably some truth to it. I believe that I’ve personally put myself out there to talk but I also acknowledge that I’m the exception to the rule. There are various reasons for this but I think most people can guess what they are, and no formal background in Judaism is necessary to figure them out. I happen to personally believe this is a weakness in the community, but is articulately stated by a former member of the NY Orthodox community, Amram Altzman:

The fact is that I can’t help young Amram with his “inferiority complex”. That’s his issue not ours. The Meraglim (spies) sent by Moshe in Numbers Ch. 13 say after touring the land of Israel that the inhabitants were very intimidating, and in verse 33 say “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight”. It was only their self-perception that led the giants of the land to view them that way.  Those of us who are willing to dialogue are willing to sit down and discuss issues like adults and not like a parent lecturing a child, which is my guess what his impression of us is.

That being said, those who want to dialogue do have to understand some things about the Orthodox position.  This is not to say that the Orthodox community should set the rules for dialogue.  Rather, in order to dialogue as “equals” you have to appreciate the reasons the Orthodox world has taken the positions it has.  Many of these positions are as rooted in history as they are in dogma, and didn’t just come out of thin air.

So, here is my list.  I invite anyone to critique the list if they feel I’m misunderstanding the Orthodox perspective.  This is how we actually open conversation:

  1. Orthodoxy is Judaism:  While the term Orthodox Jews is only around 200 years old, Orthodox Judaism is the belief system most Jews have held throughout the 3,300 years of the Jewish people.  There have been moments where different sects raised their heads, but they never gained traction with the masses and fell to the wayside after a relatively short time on the historical stage.  The Sadducees were a sect of the elite and Karaitism was only embraced by 10% of Jews at its height.  Neither came to mold the course of Jewish belief long term. The same holds for Reform and Conservative Judaism, where the handwriting is on the wall for these movements as well.
  2. Most Jews are (at some level) orthodox:  While most Jews worldwide may not identify as Orthodox (as a group affiliation), they are in fact orthodox (what they understand Judaism to be is how Orthodoxy defines it) even though they may not be orthoprax (they don’t actually engage in Jewish ritual).  Even most Jews who identify as Reform and Conservative don’t actually know the theological differences in the movements and just think the differences are a matter of observance.
  3. Orthodoxy is under attack:  the Orthodox position is that secular institutions such as colleges are not simply on a quest for knowledge but are actively looking to debunk theism, and Judaism in particular.  This is particularly sensed in the academic Judaic studies departments and in the sciences, where it is believed academics are trying to prove that the Torah is false* rather than to simply find out more  about it and let the facts lead where they may.  This is both in terms of questioning the historicity of the Torah as well as promoting scientific theories that would force
  4. Orthodoxy is academic: while most people view colleges and universities as the real institutions of higher learning and free thought, Orthodox Judaism views the beit midrash as such.   The term rabbi itself means ‘great or many’, which means we ultimately find ourselves having to know way more about a greater variety of things than one would expect people who are otherwise not worldly to know.  More than that, Orthodox people want to be respected as such.  That being said…
  5. Orthodoxy is naive:  The Orthodox world, particularly post-Hatam Sofer, is incredibly insular and much less worldly than one would expect, especially given the long tradition of acquaintance with secular learning and some of the more explicit material found in the Talmud, particularly in tractates Ketubot and Kiddushin.  Somehow, the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) was deemed more threatening than Christianity, Islam, and Greek Philosophy, and the salient issues were not addressed properly.  Therefore…
  6. Orthodoxy lacks defense mechanisms:  Judaism never really considered Christianity, Islam, and Greek Philosophy threatening in the way modern Science and thought has because Jews always ‘knew’ they were wrong.   Jewish knowledge of G-d is experiential in a way that no other religion has been because of the unique revelations during the Exodus and Mt. Sinai.  Therefore, Jews never had to prove their religion, and thus left a relatively scant body of apologetics material.  For example, when Rav Saadia Gaon wrote one of the first Jewish polemics, Emunot v’Deot (Belief and Knowledge), he relied heavily on Islamic philosophers (that’s right, Muslims) for their proofs of G-d’s existence (Kalam).  I could name on one hand the number of Jewish apologetics works that came out before the 20th century, and in an odd sense Jewish apologetics is still in its infancy.  Yes, many of the ideas can be found scattered around the early Rabbinic works.  However, the ideas were not as well developed as other parts of the Rabbinic literature such as Biblical exegesis and Law.  Only now is Jewish apologetics becoming more vogue, and even then it’s an area of study overwhelmingly dominated by balei tshuva (the newly religious, suprise surprise), and balei tshuva are often criticized by rabbis of observant backgrounds of “not getting it” and importing non-Jewish ideas and understandings. In short, Orthodoxy has always taught how to be Jewish, and the game now is to explain why be Jewish, and it is still having trouble changing gears.

If I were to sum up what needs to happen for there to be real dialogue, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox need to understand where each other are coming from.  The non-Orthodox world really puts it out on the table in a way the Orthodox world does not, and I believe for good reason.  On one hand, Orthodoxy has a very good track record and reasons to uphold their position.  On the other hand, I can’t help getting the feeling that Orthodoxy is struggling with an inferiority complex at the same time.  I believe I somewhat accurately laid out where that dichotomy comes from.

All of this is taking place while both sides are trying to convert each other.  Yes, both sides, and it’s time both sides acknowledge this.  Between understanding each other’s backgrounds and understanding each other’s goals, there is real room for dialogue.  But only if everything is out on the table.


*Make sure also to see the comments section for a conversation I had with a college librarian about the issue.

Posted in current events, nomorethodoxy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 26 Comments

Voice Of Israel Interview-What I Should Have Talked About

I’m still going over in my head today’s interview* with Voice of Israel hosts Ari Abramowitz and Jeremy Gimpel, which I certainly appreciate that they granted me this morning.  I did have one problem with it, which was in my humble College Rabbinic opinion (#IMHCRO), that I sucked.  Sometimes we just drop the ball and that’s what happened.  Unlike Chris Rock, who has spoken about taking several months to get the suck out of scripts he is writing, I can’t take back the interview.  What I can do is put up some points that I either would have liked to discuss or hope to discuss during a different interview later.

1. Academic Judaic Studies: I mentioned briefly that it was an issue, but I failed to get into why.  A lot of the issues my hosts would have been into are connected to it.  This includes the war on religiosity on college campuses and the challenges to faith.

2. BDS: I am beyond not interested in getting involved in political discussions, and I believe students get turned off by it.  Nonetheless, students are getting bullied and threatened, and as rabbis we have to teach students how to do that.  It needed to be discussed.

3. Funding: I mentioned how the College Rabbi is funded.  I’ve meant to discuss this issue for awhile, because I believe I’ve developed a new model of how to spread the good word on a shoe-string budget, and I want to teach others how to do the same.  I did a poor job of explaining that though.

I understand their difficulty in conducting the interview.  College outreach is amorphous and not well understood.  I don’t even completely understand what I do or how I do it, but I have had great success considering external limitations.

In general, I know what my biggest weakness was.  I relied on the interviewer to poke around on my website to come up with the questions that would make my job as an interviewee easy.  Next time, I will get the suck out of my interview, bli neder.


*My name is mentioned on this link but I can’t find me.  Was I cut?  Looks like the entire end of the broadcast was changed, even the parts after me.  I’m still linking it.

Posted in personal, Q & A, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Self Destruction Through Entitlement

Getting garbage jobs is a rite of passage.  Everyone I know who is somebody began as a nobody, making little or even no money in their first jobs.  Before you can make serious money, you have to prove to an employer that you’re worth it.

That’s why I was absolutely horrified by this article in The Dartmouth about students complaining about the poor pay associated with internships, and trying to make the case that it’s in everyone’s interest to throw money at students so that they can intern.   They seem to miss the entire point of interning, and why it’s not a waste of resources for the company.  The irony of complaining was also completely lost on them, since they seem to believe Conde Nast deserved to be sued for paying their interns only one dollar, which in turn caused them to close down their intern program entirely.

Millenials may not want to hear this, but graduating from a university does not make you instantly qualified to run a company.  Adarabah (quite the contrary).  According to many reports, and my own experience, millenials are in fact the worse prepared to enter the workforce.    Internships give companies a unique opportunity to sift through the chaff to find good people to invest their time and capital in while at the same time giving back to the community.  Companies get to fulIn turn, students gain something they absolutely cannot attain inside the four walls of the classroom.  It’s a win-win situation

Posted in current events, personal, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

I Didn’t Want to Touch Abortion But…

Unfortunately one of my colleagues in the pastoral world decided the 24th of December, an auspicious day for around 1/5 of the world’s population, was also an auspicious day to misrepresent the Jewish view on one of the most sensitive hot-button issues of the day: abortion.  What I mean by misrepresent is he takes his neo Aristotelean values about human life (or lack of value thereof), and ham fists a number of classical Jewish legal sources to justify his view.  The fact that he doesn’t quote any contemporary authorities should tell any reader something is very wrong with this piece.

I anticipated that R’ Shmuly Yanklowitz would take this position, given his fundamentally non-Jewish outlook on what defines life.   In addition to his equation of human and animal life, he adds a new element to his assessment of whether a fetus has a fundamental right to come into this world: science.  This is a terrible error on two counts.  First, scientists themselves disagree on what constitutes life, as is evidenced by the debate over whether viruses are actually alive or not.  Second, and much more important, is science axiomatically rejects the existence of a soul since it is impossible to empirically test for one.  Since science fundamentally lacks explanatory power in this regard, he shouldn’t be appealing to it.  He should look to what Jewish sources say, considering the fact that he’s representing himself as a rabbi and authority in Jewish law and ethics.

So let’s look at what Judaism actually has to say about this issue*.  First of all, Judaism bases the value of a human life based on the fact that people were created in the image of G-d (Gn. 1:26).  Judaism even prohibits the wasting of seed, as is evidenced in the story of Er and Onan (Gn. 38:3-10), and a woman proverbially ‘sits shiva’ (undergoes a seven-day mourning period) for her unfertilized ovum each month (Lv. 15:19).  To claim that a fertilized zygote is less of a living thing that its component parts is preposterous.   Judaism views abortion as prohibited with certain leniencies, not permitted with certain restrictions as R’ Yanklowitz would have you believe.  The only question among our authorities is what prohibition it falls under.  Rav Moshe Feinstein maintained it actually fell under the rubric of murder.  One opinion whose name I am blanking on believed it is learned out from a man causing a woman to miscarry while fighting (Ex. 21:22).  The Siridei Aish learns it from the prohibition to injure oneself.   How none of these opinions were even mentioned in this article is beyond me.

This piece is so utterly irresponsible.  People look to rabbis to provide moral guidance, not rubber stamp their behavior.  If any place was a place to take a strong stand, it was here.  R’ Yanklowitz has misrepresented Judaism and failed his readers in the process.

*I am not claiming to be an authority on medical ethics by any stretch.  My knowledge of the topic of abortion is based on a class I took with Rav Mordechai Willig shlita of Yeshiva University.

Posted in current events, Jewish law, nomorethodoxy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Nonsense Approach to Psak

One of the defining features of Judaism is the fact that is action-oriented, and the actions are enshrined in codes of law.  The process by which Jewish law is decided is called psak, literally stating the conclusion of a search through the body of authoritative Jewish judicial material.  This material includes Tanakh (Bible), Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim, and later Rabbinic authorities.  The rabbi goes through this body of material and tells the person asking what to do the appropriate action.  The reason that the person listens to the rabbi is because he is acting with the authority of the Torah, and the reason the Torah is authoritative is because it is the word of G-d as transmitted to the entire Jewish people on Mount Sinai 3,300+ years ago.

So when read R’ Ysoscher’s article defending his recent article on changing the procedure for ritual immersion in the mikveh for the purposes of conversion, I was left scratching my head.  One thing that’s very clear he that he does not believe the Mesorah (Jewish tradition) is the immutable word of G-d.  If he did, he would never even raise the possibility of changing Jewish law based on non-Jewish morality, much less leaving it open to constant revision based on the whims of the day.  Clearly, he believes morality to be progressive, but fails to even entertain the possibly that progressive morality may be progressing off of a cliff.  The Torah accepts the fact that morality is purely a function of the Divine Imperative as axiomatic, and an approach to psak that operates under different premises simply isn’t psak.

But I want to take this from the opposite angle than most of my colleagues.  Even though he wants to take a more tzanua (modest) approach to allow converts to immerse in the mikveh without being directly witnessed, this isn’t completely tzanua.  Why is he requiring this backward ritual at all and putting the prospective convert through the dignity?  How dare he treat non-Jews as dirty!  If he doesn’t assume the Torah is the source of right and wrong, where is he getting his concept of morality from?  From secular Western culture?  Why is that authoritative?  He gives no reason, or any particular reason to believe that his acceptance of secular Western morality as a trump to Torah as anything but following his conscience.  This is no good as a source of morality, and certainly not psak.  We all know that different people’s consciences tell them different things, especially about the controversial issues, and therefore could never be the basis for something as objective as psak.

R’ Katz’ psak isn’t heretical or blasphemous.  It’s nonsensical pure and simple.  He wants to make legal rulings based on sources he casts aspersions on in the very article he uses to defend his methodology!  Who ever heard of such a thing?

Posted in Jewish law, nomorethodoxy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why Me, Inc. is not a 501(c)(3)

I’m finding Me, Inc. to be an enjoyable read, and while I’d like to finish it I think for my purposes I’ve read enough to say what I have to say.  I have little to offer in the way of critique of the business aspects of the book, since Gene is rolling in it and it appears that if I went in the funeral business people would stop dying.  Actually, in many ways our business philosophies are quite similar, especially about the philanthropic issue.  He must be familiar with the Rambam’s (Maimonides) statement that the highest form of charity is helping someone become self-sufficient.  I hope in the next 10 years I’m able to catch up at least a little bit.

What concerns me (big surprise) is the Jewish theme, which pops up a lot more than I would have thought before having actually met Gene.  Post book signing, actually not at all.  I stood on line to meet a rock star and I met a Jew, a proud Jew who was happy to speak to an Orthodox Jew for almost 2 minutes in Hebrew, and at least part of the conversation to mention proudly that he learned in Yeshivat Torah v’Da’at.  Understanding Gene’s Judaism is very important to understanding Gene’s philosophy on life, particularly when it relates to business.

I’m going to do something I almost never do when I write, which is switch to second person.  I don’t think it’s any secret that I am writing this with the intention that Gene should read it, and Gene, I think you’d appreciate the sentiment that if someone has something to say to you, they should say it to your face.   So Gene, this is how I understand your philosophy on life. I’d say the number one issue I have with your book is your view on education.  It’s the view of a fifth grader.  Why do I say fifth grader?  Because that’s when you left yeshiva.  While you may have your share of diplomas and degrees on the wall, your fundamental attitude toward education isn’t Jewish.  While I agree with you that education should prepare you for the working world, and I have taken this side of the argument, education is about a lot more than that, a lot more that can be quantified with dollars and cents.  Education should improve your metacognitive skills, appreciation of learning, and moral/ethical refinement.  Whether or not it’s currently doing that…

I want to go further with this point.  You claim that anything you can learn in school you can be self-taught, on the job, no experience necessary.  This may be true, to a point.  There are levels of perfection and refinement that can’t be achieved through self study.  Several times in your book you mention your ability to debate believers based on your having read certain texts.  I think you’d find those of us with serious theological backgrounds, especially those of us with a few years in the beit midrash (upper level yeshiva study,) to be a lot more challenging.  Let’s even talk about music.  You cite a number of musicians, including yourself, with no formal musical training, who have been commercially successful.  This may be true, but your self-study crowd is not producing the next Pavarotti or Yo Yo Ma, or any composers the likes of Mozart or Tchaikovsky.   Do you know there are bass guitar players in the rock world that use a pick?   A pick Gene!!!

I did notice you also got two digs in on Shabbat, so I’d like to address your understanding of vacations, particularly of religious days of rest. First off, none other than the Rambam (Maimonides) quotes Shabbat as being a mitzvah that is inherently logical, just that the specifics of how Jews fulfill it are not.   Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in the Kuzari also quotes the King of the Khazars (or possibly puts in his mouth) who praises the Torah for giving the Jews 1/6 of the year for rest (including holidays), which he says is a proper balance.  In short, people are not animals and were not meant to work like them, and the workaholic lifestyle is for an extreme view.  The fact that you actually offered some praise for the working conditions of the 1800′s just blew my mind, considering the systematic abuse of its workers that it involved.

Secondly, it is clear that the message ‘Shabbat is a day on, not a day off’ was not properly communicated to you during your time in yeshiva, which is very sad.  Given, it’s not a day to make money.  Rather, it’s a day to earn reward for the Next World, the one that comes after you die and other people get all the money you worked so hard to accumulate.  While many people even in the observant community miss this point, it is nonetheless the point of Shabbat to focus one’s attention away from the mundane and toward the holy, at least in part for preparing for the inevitable.   And I know you recognize this inevitability; you sell coffins for G-d’s sake!

While we’re on the topic of reorienting priorities, I really have to mention your attitude about family, though I could not really do it justice.  What I would have to write would be sufficiently scathing and personal that I couldn’t do a proper write-up without explicit permission.  That being said, I’d like to make one point. I think you recognize, as the sane world does, that you can’t put a price tag on family.  You wouldn’t trade either of your kids for a billion dollars, and you wouldn’t hesitate to go into bankruptcy to save one of their lives.  So why would you advocate something different for others?  I would suggest you rewrite the budgeting section that your young entrepreneurs budget for a significant other and AT LEAST one shorty by the end of theirs 20′s, so that they actually can enjoy them rather than being too old to run around chasing around kiddies.

The last point I’d like to address, but arguably the most important, is your attitude toward outward expressions of religion.  I touched on the point before, but taking a lesson from your book, I’m going to pound it home.  Religion is not a regular activity or a way to kill time.  It’s not simply an entertainment industry, although as you aptly point out it does have aspects of the entertainment industry, especially the way it’s practiced in America.  Religion is what explains the big questions in life.  It has the explanatory power science lacks.  The only inconvenience of course is with that explanatory power comes obligation; not a waste of time, but obligation. Therefore, to say it should be pushed aside as an impediment to material success is bad advice indeed.  I’m not saying you are wrong that religious expression makes it more difficult to find work.  I can tell you from experience that it is absolutely true.  However, it has gotten much better.  Tim Tebow kneeled in prayer on the field.  Matisyahu, Shyne, Mayim Bialik, and Ben Shapiro either are or were outwardly expressive Orthodox Jews who did not compromise their religious brand for their product brand.  Tim Uppal did not shave or remove his turban to become Canada’s Minister of State for Multiculturalism

And here comes my real point: you could have been part of that, and you could have helped advance it way further than where it is now.  You are one of those rare personalities that takes over a room and a drive to do whatever you want, almost literally.  However, while you were directing your energies toward material gain, there were all the quiet Rosa Parks, or maybe Steven Hills I should say,  out there making changes in society to make being religious and/or ethnic more acceptable.  In the 1980′s, Jews who worked for law and accounting firms had to take their kippot off their heads.  Now find a law or accounting firm, at least ones with a branch in New York, that doesn’t have a Jew with a kippah.  Similar accommodations have been made for people of all faith groups because of those brave labor suppliers that made employers reexamine what might simply be distasteful (peyot, turbans) and what might actually reflect negatively on the candidate (ink, plugs).

So, in short, why isn’t Me, Inc. a 501(c)(3)?  Because there is a fundamental lack of recognition of a world beyond the physical.  Gene has some very deep philosophical questions about the world, but seeing as his yeshiva education ended in 5th grade, so did his trek through the massive body of Rabbinic material dealing with those issues.  With that lack of knowledge comes a lack of appreciation of those things that can’t be quantified on a balance sheet.  While I do find it sad, I can’t blame him given my knowledge of his background.  I do hope this piece challenges some of his conceptions though.

UPDATE:  While I already said the relationship portion requires its own, extensive article, I did finish the book, including the piece on Women Entrepreneurs.  I was sufficiently horrified that I decided to chime in with this piece of wisdom about reading the book.  I couldn’t believe Gene could had such a negative attitude toward child rearing and family until I figured out how he understands wives and children, and the marriage relationship.  Unlike Judaism, which understands the marriage relationship as a partnership and the children as capital assets currently in R&D, he understands himself to be a sole proprietor, with a wife and kids being little more than recurring expenses, ignoring the emotional aspect of course.  This isn’t a surprise given the fact that Gene’s business model is Me, Inc., great for a sole proprietorship and a recipe for disaster for a partnership.  It’s like an old Navy chaplain explained to me: the organization that is successful on a Navy boat would get a Marines platoon killed, and the organization that works for a Marines platoon would cause mutiny on a ship.

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The Difference Between Peshat and Midrash

I want to thank an old-time blogger by the name of DovBear for inspiring this post.  We had gotten into a Twitter discussion about whether or not the Rabbis had hijacked the literal meaning of the text (peshat) in favor of non-literal exegesis (midrash) and were using the latter to replace the former.  I realized that many people confuse these terms, and therefore some clarification is needed.

The first thing to understand is that the Rabbis have designated for types of understanding of the text, by the acronym PaRDeS.  To a certain extent there are times that the lines between each category become fuzzy, so I will do my best to describe the categories as succinctly and accurately as possible:

  • Peshat: the literal or simple meaning of the text, which we will soon see can be neither simple or directly literal
  • Remez: literally hint, a subtle layer of meaning added to the text often created by abstract linking of texts or concepts, such as linking the numerical values of words (gematria)
  • Derash: translated as exegesis, this often deviates from the literal meaning to convey some coded moral lesson or overarching principle.  Derash is arrived at using hermeneutical principles of which there are many.
  • Sod: otherwise known as Kabbalah, this is a completely abstract understanding of the texts using a knowledge base and exegetical rules that for the most part is only utilized by very advanced scholars.  It is used to convey very deep ideas very succinctly, often in a way that laymen should not be able to understand.

For the purposes of this piece I will focus on peshat and derash and really I would like to focus on peshat.  Peshat, the “simple meaning” is actually composed of four different components: general, literary, historical, and exegetical.  General context means that the verse or passage is part of a longer narrative.  Literary context is the specific wording of the passage.  Historical context is the context that a particular work was written at a particular time period and that affects how the text should be understood.  Exegetical context would be the underlying philosophy or assumptions made by the author, or that the reader superimposes on the author’s intent.

As much as I have tried to give a definition, it is really best to illustrate with examples.  Now when we think of peshat, we think of something simple like when the Torah says don’t eat pig, then it means no luaus.  But lets take a more complex passage like Isaiah 53.  Isaiah 53 will illustrate my point very well.  The original text can be found here, but a summary of the verses is that there are a group of people who are watching how a lowly, unlikeable person demonstrated their greatness before the world.  Now, anyone reading this passage knows very well this is not just some random guy.  The general context is that the passage comes from the book of Isaiah, which is a prophetic work, and it is a parable for something else.  The literary context is that it is part of a much longer prophecy that starts in Isaiah 40 and basically continues to the end of the book.  The historical context is that it is being written in the days of King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah).  The exegetical context is the source of a raging debate between Jews and Christians, but after a full workup it is clear that the real peshat, literal reading of the text, is it is speaking about the Jews.  An in-depth treatment can be found here.

Unlike peshat, midrash is not beholden to the literal meaning of the verse in the same way.  The example that comes to mind is this the following mahloket:

“And the frog came up, and it covered the land of Egypt” …Rabbi Akiva said, there was one frog, which then multiplied all over the land of Egypt. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said, Akiva, Why do you involve yourself with aggadata? Finish with your words and go to study nega’im and ohelos. There was one frog, it called to the others, and they came. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b; Midrash Shemos Rabbah 10:5; Yalkut Shimoni Shemos 8:183) (sic)

Here it is apparent that the literal meaning doesn’t matter.  Ribi Elazar ben Azarya doesn’t criticize Ribi Akiva for being wrong, but rather criticizes is derash skills.  They both point to a specific odd word, and come up with fanciful ideas that communicate a deeper message, such as the stubbornness of the Egyptians as the continued to hit the frog even as that spawned more frogs.

Here’s another example: the Gemara in Berachot 54b says that Moshe, who was fifteen feet* tall and had a fifteen-foot staff, jumped fifteen feet high to hit King Og of Bashan in the shins to get him to drop a mountain on his head.  While this seems to be taken literally since the Shulhan Arukh says to make a blessing for a miracle when passing the spot that this happened, there seems to be something else going on here.  If Moshe had to jump 45 feet in the air to hit Og’s ankle, that would easily make Og over 300 feet tall!  Another Midrash (Pirke Ribi Eliezer Ch. 13) says that Og hung onto the outside of Noah’s Ark was about 500 feet, which clearly would have capsized the boat.   Something else is going on here, and since both are accepted as being equally true it is pretty clear either one or both are not meant to be read literally.

Now, let’s take a different example, the one we were discussing.  According to the book of Bereshit (Genesis), after Sarah dies Avraham takes a new wife by the name of Keturah.  Rashi, the classic medieval Rabbinic commentator, identifies Keturah as being Hagar, Avraham’s concubine that Sarah had given him to have children with and was thrown out of the house with her son Yishmael because of Yishmael deviant behavior.   DovBear wanted to say this was a case of the Rabbis throwing out peshat.  Not so fast.  Let’s look at what might be causing Rashi to say this:

1.  We don’t know who Keturah is or why Avraham would marry her.  We know why he married his first two wives, so this comes as a surprise.

2. Avraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Yitzhak in Syria, back where his family originated from.  He forbid Eliezer from taking one of the local Canaanite women for his son.  Something doesn’t seem right if a Canaanite woman was not good enough for his son but was okay for him.  So then where did this woman come from?

3. Rashi may or may not have had a tradition that the descendants of Keturah such as Midian considered themselves full brothers with the Yishmaelites instead of half-brothers.  This is purely speculative and of course there are not Midianites to ask since they have all been long killed out.  Nonetheless, when trying to figure out what the text is saying, it is these types of things that need to be taken into consideration.

It could be that Rashi’s explanation is not meant to be literal, or it is an honest attempt to figure out who a random person is in Tanakh.  Either way, this is the difference.


*1 1/2 feet is a very loose approximation of the unit amah, literally on arm’s length

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Slamming the RCA: Never Let a Scandal Go To Waste!

I was shocked and appalled when I first read about the recent scandal concerning one of my colleagues in the RCA in the Forward.  I even feel a little stupid because I had met him on one occasion and while I found him to be a bit gruff, I really thought he was a straight shooter and an upright guy.  I don’t appreciate getting taken, which would in fact be the case should he be found guilty of the disgusting crimes he is charged with.  So, I’ve tried to stay away from writing anything about it, at least until someone crossed a line where it couldn’t be avoided anymore.

R’ Josh Yuter, a fellow RCA member, has crossed such a line.  The accusation that the actions of one person, who to the credit of the RCA was dealt with swiftly and decidedly, undermines the entire organization and the credibility of GPS, the RCA’s conversion division, is absurd on one hand and dangerously misleading on another.  He uses the fuzzy math that two scandals in the past year among the many fine rabbis involved with GPS represents an 18% corruption rate because they happen to be from different circuits, and assumes there’s even more going on, borders on libel.  The accusation that the RCA and other rabbis are acting based on their gut without consideration of halacha or citation of facts on the ground outright jumps the fence.

The halachic reality that GPS and the Chief Rabbi’s strict position regarding conversion policies is not without precedent, and certainly not without warrant.  The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 3b says that converts were not accepted AT ALL during the times of Kings David and Solomon because the Jews were at their prime and converts were assumed to be insincere.  We live in very unusual times and the kashrut of gerim, or the Jewish status of anyone for that matter, is becoming all the more difficult to ascertain.  Who would have thought that a billionaire’s daughter or the daughter of a president would even consider conversion?  There are members of the Hebrew Roots movement who wear Hassidic dress and eat pig in non-kosher restaurants with a cross around their neck.  Forget about what the Reform and Conservative movements have done to undermine Jewish status.

But what about Orthodox rabbis?  Can they all be trusted?  Well, let’s take for example the author of the article himself.  He makes the claim that GPS goes way beyond halacha and is in fact detached from what Jewish authorities have previously said about conversion.  According to his article on conversion, the only requirement for people doing the conversion is that they be kesherim, fitting people, which he defines as “observant Jews in good standing.  He quotes the Rambam Issurei Biah 13:17, Shulhan Aruch Y.D. 268:3, and Aruch Hashulchan.  I don’t have an Aruch Hashulchan in front of me, but I do have a Rambam and a Sh”A.  The Rambam does not say kesherim but rather hediot, which is a massive discussion in Masechet Sanhedrin what constitutes a hediot (regular judge).  However, Maran makes it very clear that only someone kosher TO JUDGE!  There are only three explanations for this egregious mistake: R’ Yuter can’t read the halacha for himself and had to find out from someone else, can but just didn’t bother and relied on hearsay, or actually read the halacha but willfully misrepresented it to advance an agenda.  How am I or any casual observer supposed to feel comfortable with any random group of rabbis who start a conversion factory?

But there’s much more to the issue, because not only is it about criticizing the RCA’s conversion policy, it’s attempting to turn an unfortunate series of events into a left-right power struggle in the Orthodox world.  Since he went there, I guess I will have to address that too.  What is the difference between someone who violates the code of ethics (and neither R’ Freundel nor R’ Broyde were hardly right-wingers despite R’ Yuter’s suggestion to that effect) and what is going on with the radical elements in Modern Orthodoxy. R’ Freudel and R’ Broyde’s indiscretions were lapses in judgement and giving in to the worst aspects of human nature.  However, neither they nor the RCA is making any excuse for their behavior because it is universally acknowledged as unacceptable behavior.  There’s really nothing more to be said but to remove them from their posts of power and let the external powers (police etc…) do what they need to do.  End of story.  The violations of the extremist camp are not indiscretions but rather deliberate efforts to alter Jewish law and belief in ways that are completely inconsistent with the mesorah (Jewish tradition).  Indeed, it is safe to say that a number of these individuals are Orthodox no more.  Furthermore, when they don’t get their way working within the system, they will often run to non-religious and non-Jewish outlets to exert external pressure on the mainstream Orthodox community, a much more massive chillul Hashem than any one scandal, no matter how bad, could ever be.

I understand the frustration of converts with being not being accepted by the community, with being burdened with what may seem like insurmountable obstacles.  I understand the frustration of individual rabbis who feel like their power and influence is being stripped away by bureaucratic bodies.  What I don’t understand is taking a terrible scandal, in which many people were hurt, and using it to manipulate the system in order to advance an agenda.  To work to remove menuvalim from positions of power is a noble task.  To undermine halacha and control of Jewish personal status is just messed up.

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Savage, Learn About Your Religion!

A major problem that I’ve noticed with people with advanced degrees is they will speak about just about any topic with authority despite having very limited knowledge of the subject. Yesterday afternoon, Michael Savage really stepped in it.  I understand that many secular people want to equate all religions as being backwards and having skewed moral values and often see the ancient religious texts as sucking people back into the past.  However, his attempt to equate Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the Quran was completely inaccurate and demonstrated his utter lack of knowledge of Tanakh and Jewish tradition in general.  I’m not looking to turn this article into a Quran hate fest but only to vindicate my own tradition, and I will leave Muslim apologists to defend their own faith.

The major diatribe that prodded me to write this piece is Michael Savage’s statement that a verse in Isaiah is the source of Jewish polygyny and that Tanakh advocates for it.  Wrong and wrong.  Avraham (Abraham), Yaakov (Jacob) in the book of Genesis, Gidon (Gideon) in the book of Judges, Elkanah and David in the book of Samuel, and Shlomo (Solomon) in the book of Kings all had multiple wives.  Polygyny is also discussed in Deuteronomy 21:10-21.  None of these incidents make polygyny look glorious or desirable.  Indeed the verse he quotes, Is. 4:1, which is part of a much larger prophecy and only looks positive because it is found at the beginning of a chapter, an artificial creation of Christian publishers that has no source in Jewish tradition.  It happens to be part of a curse started in chapter 3.  Polygyny is a social construct that existed to protect women inside the institution of marriage and to assist with procreation.  The attitude of the Tanakh is fairly clear: it was a sometimes necessarily evil but certainly not a glorious institution.  See this article by Dr. Marc Goldfeder for further study.

The issue of sexual morality is misunderstood and obviously the most quickly demonized.  Of course, Dr. Savage should have taken a little time to look into the issue before denouncing it on air.  Yes, there are a variety of Biblical offenses beside murder that entail the death penalty.  Such was, and in some places is, normal in other societies, something he is quick to point out and thus equate.  What he doesn’t mention is the standard of proof to execute someone.  Receiving the death penalty in Biblical law requires the testimony of two witnesses that warned the perpetrator during the offending act.  The Mishnah in Makkot says a court that sentences a person to death once in seven years is a bloody court, and Ribi Elazar ben Azaria once in seventy years.  Judaism’s general attitude, which is the Biblical attitude, is that sins committed in private are between the person and G-d.*   Nonetheless, the Bible does state that sexual behavior can be regulated, as do many societies including the U.S.   The Bible’s regulations do not make it more backward.  Rather, it is an issue open for debate which behaviors should or should not be permitted in a civil society, if both sides wish to be intellectually honest.

Finally, there is the issue of violence, or specifically warfare.  The fact is that the Bible, and therefore Judaism, has no concept of conversion by the sword.  Yes, the Bible discusses wars that the Jews entered into.  The wars in the Bible have to do with two things: existential survival or territorial rights/competition for limited resources.  Unless you are willing to say that no war should ever be conducted, even in these cases, then the Jews should not be condemned for the wars we engaged in during the Biblical period.  The issue is obviously more complicated, as are any of the moral issues involving war.  The point is simply that one should not simplify the issues just because the Bible is a religious text.

I sincerely hope Dr. Savage takes some time to become acquainted with his tradition, and not to just write the Bible off just because it was written before Einstein and Sartre.  I’m very sorry, but even radio hosts need to be familiar with the relevant issues before they go off on something in public.


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