Out of Borough Experience

Back in the fall, a candidate for the New York State Assembly made construction of major new housing in Borough Park the centerpiece of his campaign.  A New York City councilman heartily endorsed that same goal. Currently, a developer is planning to build 13 six-story edifices in the neighborhood that will provide nearly 130 new apartments.

To those of us who don’t live in southern Brooklyn, efforts that will add to the population density and vehicular traffic there (an area some of us call Borough Double-Park) seem to border on irrationality.  But of course, to residents who wish to see their married children settle in the neighborhoods where they were raised (and to those children who wish to live near their parents), new housing is an urgent priority.

No one lacking the requisite rebbishe credentials should arrogate to suggest to others how they should make decisions as important as where to live.  But, having just spent a warm, memorable and inspiring Shabbos in Cincinnati, Ohio, I’d like to at least share a few impressions of that small but vibrant kehillah; and some others about some others.

Neither my wife nor I had ever been to Cincinnati before, and the fact that the occasion was an Agudath Israel “Shabbos of Chizuk” and featured a special and celebrated guest from overseas, Dayan Aharon Dunner, surely made it an unusual few days for the community.  But it doesn’t take great effort to extrapolate an impression of a community’s essence from even an uncommon Shabbos.

Much of Cincinnati’s kehillah is concentrated in one area, and offers a broad variety of housing options that can cater to Jews all along the economic spectrum.  The local day school is an impressive center of Torah chinuch.  The mechanchim and mechanchos who teach there, as well as the rabbanim of shuls in the area, are remarkable people.  As are the friendly, learned and dedicated members of the community kollel and their wives.

But this is not a column about Cincinnati.  Cincinnati was just its inspiration.  I could write many thousands of words in praise not only of Cincinnati’s kehilla but of Providence’s, (where we lived for 11 years), or of Detroit’s (where two of our daughters and their husbands are raising beautiful mishpachos), or of Milwaukee’s (where another of our daughters and her husband are doing the same, baruch Hashem).  Or any of a number of other communities we’ve visited or know about.

The point is that there is a broad Jewish world –a vibrant and wonderful one – out there.  Yes, even beyond the exotic realms of Staten Island, Passaic or Stamford.

Admittedly, there are challenges to “out-of town” living.  If a choice of chalav Yisrael pizzerias or fast food joints (or nice restaurants) is a must, not every city out there will be able to oblige.  But for those for whom the benefits of a diverse but cohesive and dedicated community outweigh gastronomic concerns (and, of course, other more significant ones), the thought of living “out of town” should not be treated as unthinkable.

I like to imagine a well-funded organization that could amass sociological data about observant Jewish families in the New York area willing to consider moving elsewhere. and that would maintain a comprehensive database of housing and employment opportunities in other communities.

The data, in my fantasy, would then be crunched, and a group of New York-born participant families with similar backgrounds would receive invitations to move together to a new locale.

Just think… Satmarers in Seattle… Klausenbergers in Kansas City… Lakewooders in Las Vegas… Bobovers in Boston… Briskers in Boca…  The possibilities are endless.

More seriously, though, one meets former New Yorkers in frum communities nationwide, and they seem entirely happy to live where they do. Yes, there are downsides, not least of which is being at a distance from family members back in the “old country.”  But the upsides are powerful: warm, caring communities, slower pace of life, inexpensive housing, the sense of being appreciated.  In fact, being appreciated.

Nor are Torah resources – batei medrash, shiurim or chavrusos – lacking.  “Minyan factories” might be rare, but not Minyanim.

And the confluence of housing crunches and the growing number of cities across America that are already home to yeshivos and kollelim should spur more of us to seriously consider whether, if we choose to live in chutz laAretz, where we live or think we need to live is necessarily the best place for us to be.

© 2015 Hamodia


Exodus Exegesis

Well known to every yeshiva child of even tender age are the four terms used in parshas Vo’eira to describe the redemption of our ancestors from Mitzrayim, and associated with the Seder’s four cups of wine.  Two other words, however, are used repeatedly by the Torah to refer to Yetzias Mitzrayim.  While they may come less readily to mind, they share something odd in common: both, along with “yetziah,” one of the leshonos of geulah, are terms for describing a marriage’s dissolution.

The Gemara’s term for divorce is geirushin, and its root is a word used repeatedly in Shmos (as in 6:1, 10:11, 11:1 and 12:39) to describe what Par’oh will be compelled to do to the Jewish people – “divorce” them from the land.  And the Torah’s other own word for divorce, shilu’ach – as in vishilchoh mibaiso (Devorim 24:3) – is also used, numerous times in Shmos (examples include 4:23, 5:2, 7:27, 8:25, 9:2, 10:4 and 13:17) to refer to the escape from Mitzrayim.

In fact, the word yetziah, one of the four well-known redemption words and the word employed in the standard phrase for the exodus, Yetzias Mitzrayim, also evokes divorce, as in the phrase “viyatz’a… vihay’sa li’ish acher (Devorim, 24).

More striking still is that the apparent “divorce” of Klal Yisroel from Egypt is followed by a metaphorical marriage.  For that is the pointed imagery of the event that followed Yetzias Mitzrayim by 50 days: ma’amad Har Sinai.

Not only does Rashi relate the Torah’s first description of a betrothal – Rivka’s – to ma’amad Har Sinai (Beraishis 24:22), associating the two bracelets given her by Eliezer on Yitzchok’s behalf as symbols of the two luchos, and their ten geras’ weight to the aseres hadibros.  And not only does the novi Hoshea (2:21) describe Mattan Torah in terms of betrothal (v’airastich li…, familiar to men as the p’sukim customarily recited when wrapping tefillin on our fingers – and to women from actually studying Nevi’im).

But our own chasunos themselves hearken back to Har Sinai:  The chuppah, say the seforim hakedoshim, recalls the mountain, which Chazal describe as being held over our ancestors’ heads; the candles traditionally borne by the parents of the chosson and kallah are to remind us of the lightning at the revelation; the breaking of the glass, of the breaking of the luchos.

In fact, the birchas eirusin itself, the essential blessing that accompanies a marriage, seems as well to refer almost explicitly to the revelation at Har Sinai.  It can, at least on one level, be read to be saying “Blessed are You, Hashem, … Who betrothed His nation Yisroel through chuppah and kiddushin” – “al yidei” meaning precisely what it always does (“through the means of”) and “mekadesh” meaning “betroth” rather than “made holy” as in, for instance, “mekadesh haShabbos”)

So what seems to emerge here is the idea that the Jewish people was somehow “divorced” from Egypt, to which, presumably, it had been “married,” a reflection of our descent there to the 49th level of spiritual squalor.  And that, after our “divorce,” we went on to “marry” the Creator Himself, kivayochol.

On further reflection, the metaphor is truly remarkable, because of the sole reference to divorce in the Torah.

It is in Devarim, 24, 2, and mentions divorce only in the context of the prohibition for a [female] divorcee, subsequently remarried, to return to her first husband.

The only other “prohibition of return” in the Torah, of course, is a national one, incumbent on all Jews – the prohibition to return to Mitzrayim (Shmos 14:13, Devorim, 17:16).  We cannot return, ever, to our first “husband.”

More striking still is the light thereby shed on the Gemara on the first daf of massechta Sotah.  Considering the marriage-symbolism of Mitzrayim and Mattan Torah in that well-known passage reveals a deeper layer than may be at first glance apparent.

The Gemara poses a contradiction. One citation has marriage-matches determined by divine decree, at the conception of each partner; another makes matches dependent on the choices made by the individual – “lifi ma’asov,” according to his merits.

The Gemara’s resolution is that the divine decree is what determined “first marriages” and the merit-based dynamic refers to “second marriages.”

The implications regarding individuals are unclear, to say the least.  But the import of the Gemara’s answer on the level of Klal Yisroel – at least in light of the Mitzrayim/Har Sinai marriage-metaphor – afford a startling possibility.

Because Klal Yisroel’s first “marriage”, to Egypt, was indeed divinely decreed.  It was foretold to Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13): “For strangers will your children be in a land not theirs, and [its people] will work and afflict them for four hundred years.”

And Klal Yisroel’s “second marriage,” its true and final one, was the result of the choice Hashem made, and our ancestors made, by refusing to change their clothing, language and names even when still in the grasp of Egyptian society and culture.  When they took that merit to its fruition, by saying “Na’aseh vinishma,” they received their priceless wedding ring under the mountain-chuppah of Sinai.


Private Matters

It comes as something of a revelation to many to confront the Rambam’s treatment of kiddush Hashem, or “sanctification of Hashem’s name” for the first time. One definition of the concept in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 5:10 – perhaps its most essential one, has nothing to do with readiness to give up one’s life or to act in a way that presents a good image of a Jew to others.

To be sure, that the Torah commands us to be willing to perish rather than violate certain commandments (or any commandment – even custom – in certain circumstances) is well-known to most Jews with a modicum of Jewish knowledge.  And the understanding that living an upstanding life, exemplifying honesty and sterling demeanor, is also a form of kiddush Hashem is likewise widely recognized.  The Gemara in Yoma (86a) famously describes various amora’im’s examples of such projection of Jewish personal values, labeling them kiddushei Hashem.

What is surprising is the Rambam’s statement that kiddush Hashem is something that can be accomplished as well entirely in private.  In fact, particularly in private.

“Anyone who violates, willingly, without any coercion, any of the precepts of the Torah…” reads the Rambam’s psak, “has profaned the name of Hashem…”

“And likewise,” the halachah continues, “anyone who refrains from a sin, or performs a mitzvah, not because of any this-worldly concern, nor threat, nor fear, nor the seeking of honor, but only because of the Creator, praised be He, has sanctified the name [of Hashem].”

It would seem that the core of kiddush Hashem isn’t an act’s effect on others, which it needn’t have, but rather the fact that it has been freely chosen, out of pure, selfless devotion to the Creator.  Dying al kiddush Hashem, in other words, is but a manifestation of such selflessness. But it is selfless devotion to the Divine that itself truly defines kiddush Hashem.

Elsewhere (Peirush Mishnayos, last commentary in Makkos), the Rambam writes that such performance of any mitzvah, or refraining from any sin, out of pure selflessness and desire to do Hashem’s will is the key to Olam Haba. “It is of the fundamental beliefs in the Torah that when a person fulfills a mitzvah… fittingly and properly, and does not join with that performance any ulterior motivation… but for its own sake, with love… he has merited eternal life [Olam Haba].”

The Rambam there presents that idea to be what Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya meant in his famous Mishnaic dictum about Hashem’s gifting us with many mitzvos as a means of affording afford us merits.

It’s not easy, of course, to do something purely out of altruistic, Hashem-focused motive.  We do myriad mitzvos daily, but their very daily-ness allows them to easily be muddled by habit. There are tefillos recited but with scant thought about their meaning, brachos recited as mumbled formulae, tefillin that we sometimes notice suddenly on our arms and heads, with meager memory of having consciously donned them.  Even “Lisheim Yichud”s – intended to focus our attention on what we’re doing – are themselves relegated to rote.

We are, moreover, constantly subject to the pressure of our peers – the knowledge that it just won’t do to eat at that restaurant with the less-than-ideal hechsher, or to miss a tefilla b’tzibbur or regular shiur.  And even in the relative privacy of our homes, well, we want our spouses and children to think well of us, no?

But when those moments of potential pure choices appear, when decisions to act, or to not act, are unaffected by rote and impervious to considerations of honor or other’s expectations, they are gold mines of potential kiddush Hashem.

That our contemporary world offers us such moments was the message of Rav Avrohom Schorr in his Motzoei Shabbos message at this past year’s Agudath Israel national convention.  He noted an irony: modern technology presents us with challenges that are, by very virtue of their ease and privacy, free from influences like fear or honor.  The only motivation we have to stand up to and overcome such challenges is yiras Shomayim, our freely chosen and sincere choice to accept Hashem’s will.

Rabbi Schorr asked the large gathering to consider why Hashem has given us such challenges, which did not confront any Jewish generation until our own.  The answer, he said, is clear: “Because He wants to bring about the time of nisgadalti viniskadhashti”; He wants to offer us the opportunity to accomplish kiddush shem Shamayim.

It’s in our hands in a way it has never been in any other ones, ever.

© 2015 Hamodia


Greed Is Gross

The carnival of carnage that seems a constant in the Islamic world proceeded tragically apace last week, with a suicide bombing at a gathering in Ibb, Yemen to commemorate Islam’s founder’s birthday.  At least 23 people were killed; an Al Qaeda affiliate is the suspected culprit.

Then, over in Afghanistan, at least 26 people attending a wedding party were killed, and 45 wounded, when a rocket struck a house during a firefight between government forces and Taliban insurgents

But what might rank as the week’s most senseless loss of life took place in a non-Islamic land, China.  At least 35 people were killed and 43 injured during a stampede in an area of Shanghai where tens of thousands had gathered to celebrate the advent of a new calendar year

The cause of that disaster is unclear, but it was reported that shortly before the crowd had grown restless, people in a nearby building had dropped green pieces of paper that looked like American $100 bills.

Now, there’s an awful metaphor for our covetous times.  The pursuit of money is nothing new, of course.  It has been the engine powering many a civilization, and the rot destroying many a human life.  And while it’s easy to decry the venality and greed of the worst that Wall St. and Hollywood have to offer, it’s considerably harder to check our own individual inclinations to grab what green we can.

It’s a silly inclination, of course.  Not only can money buy only stuff, not happiness, but a believing Jew should have well absorbed the truism that his financial status is, in the end, a function of what is decreed for him by Hashem at the start of each Jewish year.  To pursue money, then, for the sake of, well, pursuing money, to exert oneself in a quest to have more than one needs, is just to court expenses that one wouldn’t otherwise have.

Still and all, mindless greed somehow seeps into countless lives, even Jewish ones, even Jewishly educated ones.  Lavan, after all, is in our family tree.

Yet possessions are valuable things.

Yaakov Avinu, we all know, recrossed Nachal Yabok in order to retrieve small jars inadvertently left behind.  “From here we see,” Chazal explain, “that the possessions of the righteous are as dear to them as their bodies.”

That comment, of course, does not mean to counsel greed or miserliness; Yaakov, after all, is the man of emes, the forefather who embodies the ideal of “truth” or honesty.  It is meant to teach us something deeply Jewish, that possessions have worth.  And that is because they can be utilized for truly meaningful things. A dollar can be converted not only into a euro but into a mitzvah.

It can buy a soft drink or a packet of aspirin or part of a New York subway fare.   But it can also buy a thirsty friend a drink, or a get-well card for someone ailing, or part of the fare for the ride to the hospital to deliver it in person.  It can be put into the pushke or given as a reward to a child who has done something reward-worthy.

Possessions are tools, in their essence morally neutral.  Put to a holy purpose, though, they are sublime.  And so, the Torah teaches, valuing a small jar can be a sign not of avarice but of wisdom.

It’s unfortunate – no, dreadful – that some of us seem only to remember the importance of valuing money but forgotten the reason for its value.  Greed – all the more so when it leads to less than honest expression – is the very antithesis of the example set by the Jewish forefather associated with emes.  The righteous, continue Chazal in their statement about Yaakov’s retrieval of the small jars, “do not extend their hands toward theft.”  Truly Jewish-minded Jews see money not as an end justified by any means but as a means that can lead to a holy end.

And if it’s only the end that matters, as it should, the means cannot be of any inherent importance.  Means can take many forms.  A wealthy person can, as many do, use his financial resources to help others and support Torah.  But the financially unendowed are at no disadvantage.  They simply resort to what other wealths they may have, their time, their intellects, their talents.

And so should we find ourselves with dollars, actual ones, raining down upon us, the Jewish thing to do would be to perhaps hold out our hands, but to stand perfectly, happily still.

© 2015 Hamodia


Letter to Editor in Hamodia

The following letter appears in this week’s Hamodia:


“John Doe New Yorker”’s diatribe against Mayor de Blasio is an unfortunate example of how some “commentary” these days in Orthodox media mirrors the worst of the angry rhetoric and illogic that passes for political commentary outside our community.

Emboldened by anonymity, the writer mimics the overheated labor union leader who blamed the mayor for indirectly causing the recent murders of two police officers.

The mayor’s sin?  Having publicly shared his personal experience of worrying about the safety of his son, who is black.  (Mr. and Mrs. de Blasio told their son that he should act respectfully and obediently in any interaction with police.)  That, the writer contends, told “society’s worst elements that the men in blue are the enemy.”

He then interprets the mayor’s efforts to keep the recent New York protests of grand jury decisions peaceful (which they overwhelmingly were) as a “failure to stand up for” police, as if police are always in the right – and as if declaring that falsehood would have discouraged, rather than encouraged, violent reaction.  What nonsense.

We visibly Jewish Jews are fortunate to live in a place and time when we do not feel threatened by the police.  If, chalilah, there were some rash of suspicious police actions against young members of our community, would Jewish mothers and fathers not be concerned, and not advise their children to act with caution in the presence of police?  If we wouldn’t, we would be criminally negligent parents.

One can feel, and express, support for police officers (who deserve it), be critical of those who refuse to accept a grand jury’s decision, and even point to excesses on the part of some minority activists, all without unfairly smearing innocent people.  We don’t have to buy into the crass “us versus them” narrative of partisan hacks.

Guilt for the murder of the officers rests only on the murderer and on those few miscreants who called for such violence.  That doesn’t make for compelling, righteously indignant op-eds.  But it serves truth, which is what we as a community and Hamodia as its organ should be fostering.

Rabbi Avi Shafran


Bricks For Bombs

A driver, reportedly shouting an Islamic slogan, rammed a vehicle into pedestrians in the French city of Dijon last Sunday, injuring twelve people.

Understandably, the attack (and several subsequent ones in France) brought back memories of this past autumn’s spate of vehicular terrorist attacks in Israel.  Although they seem to have abated in Israel (despite much Palestinian social media encouragement that they continue), the devil’s brew of blood-lust and creativity in some Arab and Muslim hearts continues to boil apace.

Spewed from the cauldron recently was one Yasmin Sha’aban, who, according to the Shin Bet, was planning to carry out a suicide attack in Israel.  She intended to receive a permit (“for medical reasons”) to travel from Jenin, where she lived, into Israel proper. There, she hoped to disguise herself as an expectant Jewish woman, with explosives hidden under her clothes, and create as much carnage as she possibly could.

That plot, baruch Hashem, was interrupted by Israeli security forces; Ms. Sha’aban and several compatriots were taken into custody.  It turned out that her friends had also planned to bomb a bus carrying soldiers and to kidnap a soldier.

The perennial question returns: How to discourage such savage determination to kill and maim?

Well, not by resorting to vandalism, as members of an anti-Arab group called Lehava seem to feel is the solution.  The group, which presumably also considers fires to be best extinguished with gasoline, has been linked to a number of attacks on Arab property, and, recently, on a school whose student body includes both Jews and Arabs.

For its part, the Israeli government has embraced a deterrent it had long abandoned (at the recommendation of a special military committee): the demolition of terrorists’ homes.  The day after the Har Nof massacre, the military turned the house of Abdel Rahman al-Shaloudy, who had plowed his car into pedestrians a month earlier, into rubble.

Such demolitions, however, are understandably controversial, as they effectively punish family members who may not have had anything to do with the terrorist act.  And while they may indeed give pause to some would-be terrorists, they may just as well encourage others who don’t particularly care for their family members (Not all Arab families, it’s rumored, are as close-knit and loving as the media portray them to be.)  Finally, many nations consider the policy to be collective punishment and a violation of human rights (although some of them show precious little concern for human rights within their own borders, but never mind that).  In any event, the Israeli Supreme Court is currently mulling the legality of the demolitions.

Sometimes, strangely, two problems can add up to one solution.  In addition to domestic terrorism, Israel faces, at least on the international front, the strong disapproval, even by some of her most stalwart friends (like the United States), of construction in the “disputed territories.”

Many supporters of Israel assert that the country has every right to build as it sees fit not only in greater Yerushalayim but in Jewish outposts in Yehudah and Shomron.  Indeed it does.  But not everything that one has a right to do is necessarily the right thing to do.  In 2009, Israel herself, and under her current Prime Minister, froze West Bank construction for a full 10 months, to coax the Palestinian Authority to resume peace talks in earnest (to no avail). For a number of reasons, largely having to do with internal Israeli politics, no similar subsequent action has taken place, despite the pleas and demands from others.

Enter my “Bricks for Bombs” plan.  Here goes: An immediate year-long freeze is put into effect on all construction in Yehudah and Shomron, to encourage meaningful peace talks (and remove the easy excuse for some of the Israel-aimed ire).  At the same time, a new policy is announced:  For each terror attack, or discovery and foiling of a credible attack, permission to construct a building (or a given number of buildings) will be granted, despite the freeze.

With that plan in place, Israel will have shown its good will and sensitivity to the concerns of the nations of the world (Klal Yisroel is in golus, let’s not forget); Arab acts of violence will be deterred (since few terrorists want to be the cause, Allah forbid, of greater Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael).  And Israelis might go through their days feeling a bit more secure.

What’s more, the deterrent to terrorism will have taken the form not of destroying homes but of building them.

© 2014 Hamodia


Letter to the New York Times Book Review

A slightly edited version of the letter below appears in the January 4 edition of the NYT Book Review.


In reviewing “Living the Secular Life,” Susan Jacoby misunderstands the argument of those who maintain that the idea that there can be “good without God” is absurd.

The question isn’t whether an atheist can live an ethical life; of course she can.  And believers can do profoundly unethical things.  But an atheist has no reason to choose an ethical life.  “Good deed” or “bad deed” can have no more true meaning for him than good weather and bad weather; right and wrong, no more import than right and left.  If we are mere evolved apes, even if evolution has bequeathed us a gut feeling that an ethical life is preferred, we have no more compelling reason to embrace that evolutionary artifact than we are to capitulate to others, like overeating in times of plenty.  If dieting isn’t immoral, neither is ignoring the small voice telling us that whacking our neighbor on the head and stealing his dog is wrong.

Only a psychopath, Ms. Jacoby contends, could disagree with the Golden Rule.  The evidence presented by the large number of people convicted each year of thievery, assault, murder and rape (not to mention the even larger number of litigants in most civil lawsuits) would seem to argue otherwise.  No, being willing to do unto others what one would not want done to himself isn’t a sign of psychopathy.  It is a part of human nature.  And only the conviction that there is an Ultimate Arbiter of right and wrong, and that we are created in the image of that God, can give us pause when we consider expressing the darker facets of our natures.

Rabbi Avi Shafran

New York, NY


Leaf Bag Lesson

An aroma all but absent these days but deeply evocative of childhood to many of us who grew up before pollution laws is the bouquet of burning leaves.  Back in the day, we would rake the dry debris of autumn into a pile or put it into a metal trash can (remember those?) and set the leaves aflame.  The resultant smoke, at least at somewhat of a distance, was a seasonal perfume, an olfactory hint that the snow days weren’t far off.

Today we put what we’ve raked into very large double-reinforced paper “lawn bags” and leave them for the recycling pickup.  (I don’t imagine they put the leaves back on trees, but surely something worthwhile is done with them.)

A few weeks ago, while I was doing the final leaf-raking of the year, the lawn bag I was filling provided me some timely spiritual direction.

I needed the chizuk, and for a reason not unrelated to how distant a memory the scent of burning leaves is, to how many years have elapsed since it would regularly waft through the autumn air.

Having several months ago passed the 60-year life-mark (the “new 40,” as I prefer to imagine it), I find myself among the population I casually regarded for so much of my life as “old.”  I still like to think of myself as a young adult, and am always happy when, at a simchah, I’m seated with people much younger than I.  I prefer to converse about the sort of things un-old people talk about, not my contemporaries’ various aches, pains and medical conditions. (Though, of course, if anyone demonstrates the slightest interest, I am happy to share details of my own.)

One danger of passing the half-century mark and then some is the enticing thought that it’s time to “settle down” and rest on one’s laurels – or, if one doesn’t really have any laurels, to rest at least on one’s easy chair.  That is to say, to imagine that the season of personal growth and development is in one’s past, and that the present and the future are limited to “maintenance,” not only of our physical health but our spiritual states as well.  The baalei mussar, however, famously warn us that there’s no spiritual standing still in life, no neutral gear as we climb the hill of our personal histories.  Take your figurative foot off the accelerator, they caution, and be prepared to drift downward.

A Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 1:3) speaks of the various stages of life, comparing a baby to a king and an aged person to a monkey. Every parent understands the royalty comparison – we wait on our newborns, happily but often exhaustedly, hand and foot; high chairs are thrones and the will of the little one (in most cases) must be done.

What’s with the monkey, though?  Explains the Kotzker, zt”l:  An ape… apes.  That is to say, he imitates what he sees.  Visit a zoo and engage one of the simian prisoners.  Slowly raise your hand; as likely as not, he’ll do the same.  Lift your leg; he’ll follow suit.

When people grow old, explains the Kotzker, they all too often come to just imitate… themselves, or, better, their younger versions. They just keep on keeping on, with their lives mere mirror reflections of their earlier days.  They daven the same, they study Torah the same, they observe Shabbos and Yomtov the same, they interact with others the same way.

Whereas once, in youth, striving for higher levels of sensitivity to tefillah, Torah, Shabbos, Yomtov and interpersonal relations was a given.  As we grow older, unfortunately, it is all too often a forgotten.  Yet, we do well to recognize that “ohd yenuvun biseivah” isn’t just a brachah; it’s a mandate.

It’s not easy to maintain growth after a few decades of adult life.  Like objects moving closer to the speed of light, where the faster they go, the more energy they need to increase speed, it takes greater effort as we age to avoid complacency, to not become lazy about life.

Such thoughts were bouncing around in the back of my head as I raked the leaves.  And then I noticed the apparent motto of the “home-improvement center” where I had purchased my lawn bags, inscribed in large letters on the side of the bag.  It seemed to be speaking to me; halevai I should take it to heart.

It read: “Never Stop Improving.”

© 2014 Hamodia


Candles and Candor

A non-Orthodox writer recently reached out to ask if I would participate in a panel discussion about Chanukah.  The other panelists would be non-Orthodox clergy

While I cherish every opportunity to interact with Jews who live different lives from my own, I had to decline the invitation, as I have had to do on other similar occasions. I explained that my policy with regard to such kind and appreciated invitations is a sort of passive “civil-disobedience” statement of principle, “intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, [I] opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary.”

“Sorry,” I added, “Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”

The extender of the invitation, Abby Pogrebin, was a guest in the Shafran sukkah this past Chol Hamoed.  Both my wife and I were impressed with both her good will and her desire to learn more about traditional Jewish life and beliefs.  In fact, she is currently writing a series of articles for the secular Jewish paper the Forward on her experiences observing (in both the word’s senses) all the Jewish holidays and fast days over the course of a year.

Ms. Pogrebin recently produced her Chanukah-themed entry in the series and, with remarkable candor, reported that her research has led her to the understanding that Chanukah is really about the victory of Jews faithful to the Jewish religious heritage over those who were willing to jettison it.

“I know it’s too simplistic to say the Maccabees stand in for the observant, and the rest of us for the Hellenized,” she writes. “But implicit in so many rabbinic Hanukkah teachings is that we’re in danger of losing our compass, losing our difference – abandoning the text and traditions that make us Jews.”

Then she continues in a personal vein:  “And that sense of alarm makes me look harder at where I fall on the spectrum before Hanukkah begins this year.”

Ms. Pogrebin goes on to quote Jewish writer Arthur Kurzweil as maintaining that Chanukah “is about Jewish intolerance in the best sense of the word” – that is to say, intolerance of assimilation to the larger culture.

He adds an analogy: “Baseball has four bases. You can invent a game with five bases; maybe it’s even a better game. But it’s not baseball.” Judaism, he explains, “is not whatever you want it to be.”

She goes on to note that it was hard for her “not to see the echoes of Maccabee-Hellenist tension this very month,” citing her failure to enlist traditionally Orthodox participants in a panel discussion she was moderating, the one to which she invited me.  Having requested, and received, my permission to do so, she then quoted my response to her invitation.

Of course she finds reassuring voices, like that of Conservative rabbi Rachel Ain, who tells her “I wear tefillin every morning. They’re black and what all the men wear. I find it so powerful. I also wear a kippah, but it’s a beaded kippah and I have a tallit that was made for me – it’s green and purple and blue – and it’s very feminine and very halachic… Hellenizing? I say it’s innovating.”

But Ms. Pogrebin is a tenacious reporter, and cannot ignore the other, more Jewishly grounded, testimonies she received.

And it personally pains her.  In words like Mr. Kurzweil’s and mine, she hears an echo of “countless voices in the observant world who would likely dismiss my level of Judaism as perilously assimilated.” And she is, understandably, distressed by that thought.

“Hanukkah,” she realizes, “celebrates those who refused to blend in.”

“Where,” therefore, she wonders, “does that leave those of us who, to one degree or another, already have?”

To my lights, Ms. Pogrebin is too hard on herself.  She’s no Hellenist. She may be entangled with the larger culture in which she lives – so are, to one or another degree, all too many observant Jews.  But she doesn’t reject the Jewish religious tradition, as did the Hellenists of old.  In fact, she has embarked on a quest to better understand our mesorah, and seems rightly suspicious of the blandishments of those who proffer “innovations” to Jewish religious praxis.

Observance, to be sure, is central to Yiddishkeit.  But a heartfelt undertaking by someone who wasn’t raised to be Torah-observant to learn more about observance, is hardly the enterprise of a Hellenist.  It’s the hallmark, I’d say, of a Jew.

© 2014 Hamodia