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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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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?

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