Sunday, June 22, 2008

No Shortcuts in Spirituality

From an article in this week's Yated on the role of segulos in Judaism:

...In the past, we’ve mentioned the recitation of the parsha of the monn, which is clearly explained as effective only insofar as it strengthens our emunah, our faith, that it is G-d - and only G-d - Who provides for our sustenance. It is the same, explains the Mishnah Berurah (1:13), for the ‘segulah’ of reciting Ashrei, korbanos, the Akeidah, and more. The power and the segulah are in the way reciting these things will change our lives and bring us closer to Hashem - nothing more, and nothing less...

A ‘segulah’ which does none of these, but rather seems more like magic - independent of any religious growth - is far from a harmless ‘experiment.’ It brings us dangerously close to blurring the lines between believing solely in Hashem and in the power of our service to Him, and believing in copper snakes and in the power of Moshe Rabbeinu’s uplifted arms...

We are never alone or hopeless, so long as we can turn to Hashem. Doing the will of Hashem is the one and only real ‘segulah.’ All other segulos are a part of this greater segulah. This segulah may not always be easy, but it is equally available to every single one of us...


Monday, May 26, 2008

Towards a Torah Open-Mindedness

To what extent can a person identify as "Open-Minded" and as a Torah Jew at the same time? Assuming that there is an appropriate Open-Mindedness, is that defined by an intellectual tolerance and openness up to specific points, or does the entire concept of "Open-Mindedness" need to be redefined?

An excerpt from a thoughtful post by Dr. William Kolbrener:

...To be open-minded in this sense means to be open to the energies which will transform me into the person I want to become. Without incorporating those energies, I will remain in silent battle with those part of myself I can't face, instead of using those energies as a means of personal transformation. This not only means acknowledging things about which I'd rather forget (or repress) about myself; it also may mean acknowledging a past from which I had hoped to distance myself, the stranger within.

My own thoughts are that there are two aspects to any appropriate “Torah Open-Mindedness”:

First, “intellectual empathy”, the ability to appropriately identify with another’s mindset. In conversation, this would mean when appropriate, listening to a person without agreeing with their point of view, but entering their mindset to make them feel genuinely understood, which could be included in some cases under nosei b’ol im chaveiro.

Second, there is honestly recognizing and accepting one’s own humanity, rather than disowning it. R. Yerucham Levovitz(Daas Torah, V’zos Haberacha)writes that the Chovos HaLevavos himself, may have gone through the challenges mentioned in Shaar Yichud Hama’aseh(including, I assume, the intellectual ones listed there), and successfully overcome them.

There are sources which go further and say that it is specifically the challenges or the “skeletons in the closet” which are the cause of growth in avodas Hashem (eg, the letter from R. Hutner where he says about gedolim, “but who knows about their struggles, their failures, their falls and their regressions”).

As far the application to “Torah Open-Mindedness” is concerned, if one realizes that one suffers, or had suffered, from the same or from a similar malady, it could lead to a greater understanding of another's mindset.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Growing Pains

From a post by Rabbi Lazer Brody:

Linda, you ask the question, "Why have I changed? Who has changed me?" Here's a bombshell for your parents and teachers: Hashem is changing you. Hashem is using your bad decisions for your own good, because He loves you so much. He doesn't want you to be a shallow Jewish girl that discusses wigs and clothes styles all day long. Since you haven't developed a personal relationship with Hashem up until now, He wants you to do so by starting from scratch.

Along these lines, the Ramban indeed says that the purpose of a nisayon, a spiritual test, is to bring out the best in the person that passes it. Teshuva can also make bad decisions into something positive.

Of course, there can be nisyonos, teshuvah, and nekudas habechirah on different levels, no matter how frum one is. Indeed any growth needs reflection and challenge, rather than shallowness, as explained here.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

No Perfection

I am a rather lukewarm football fan, and was travelling in Manhattan, late Sunday night, during what must have been the final moments of the Super Bowl, or shortly thereafter. What alerted me that the Giants had won was when I heard jubilant cries when the subway pulled into three stations. Apparently, these New Yorker's disagree with the view advanced (see here) that "football is simply a bunch of men pummeling each other", as also was apparent with the parade which took place today in lower Manhattan.

What does interest me about Sunday's event was the concept of perfection. I am wondering if going into an important competition with a perfect record puts pressure on a team, and caused them not to win. Pressure can be an incentive, but perhaps this was a case of too much of it.

Today was also another "super day", namely Super Tuesday. While not as exciting as Super Sunday, it is much more significant in terms of current events, and I managed to vote this morning when the polls were relatively empty.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pictures: A Time for Music XXI

Pictures from Sunday night's HASC Concert are available here (the slide show view can be accessed by clicking the middle button on the lower right).


Monday, January 14, 2008

HASC XXI Concert

Sometimes when you're feeling all alone, you need some happiness to call your own. Nothing is going the way it should, you're trying to do the best you could.

Lift up your eyes to the sky, your life's in His hand. Trust in Him - He will reply, guiding all your steps. Always at your side, you are His joy and pride.

And don't you know you're never alone, it doesn't matter where you are. There's nothing in His eyes more special than you, wherever you go Hashem goes with you.

The above, sung by Avroham Fried, was the accompanying music to the HASC video at last night's concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall(to sample, see Holyland's Greatest Hits, song # 1).

For me, the evening's highlight was the "Four Tenors" , who sang Mona Rosenblum's stirring "Moriah"(click on # 2 to sample) and "Shiyiboneh Beis Hamikdash"(see below). The four were Dudu Fisher, Ohad, Avroham Fried and Chazzan Yitzchok Meir Helfgot.

Incidentally, Chazan Benzion Miller had previously sung "Shyiboneh" at a Time for Music # 17(click on # 9 to sample), where the entire theme was Jerusalem. On the redemption theme last night, in addition to "Moriah" and "Shyiboneh", Avroham Fried began with his classic "No Jew Will Be Left Behind"(here), and also offered his powerful "Harachaman"("Nu Nu Nu"), in addition to other selections from his latest album (click on # 11 to sample).

Surprises this year included Wally Eastwood's comedic juggling(he juggles balls onto a keyboard to play songs), Dudu Fisher's parody of a Chazzon's audition, a comedic clip of Country Yossie interviews, and a guest appearance by Ohad.

Finally, I enjoyed Etan Katz's heartfelt "Lmaancha"(the title track from here), as well as his brother Shlomo's "Shabbos Kodesh"("Yismechu") and "Niggun Nevo"(#'s 5 and 6, here), the latter sung during the concert as well as during the finale.

See here for pictures.


Sunday, December 30, 2007

Berdichever Philosophy

From an article in Mishpacha Magazine by Rabbi Horowitz:

I do not profess to understand Hashem’s workings, but perhaps when the Jewish people are one day in need of forgiveness, the 2 of you and all others who unconditionally love and believe in their at-risk sons and daughters will become Klal Yisroel’s Reb Levi Yitzchok Bardichiver and advocate for all of Hashem’s children.

This is a beautiful thought. The Jewish people need zechusim(merits), and the above scenario may very well play a role in hashgacha(Divine providence).

I also remember reading a story regarding a Chasidic rabbi(I forget which) whose followers wanted him to drive away his wayward child. The rebbe refused to do so, and responded that his actions prevented heavenly accusations against his own followers, who deserved to be "driven away" as well, according to strict heavenly justice.

Similarly, Rachel's seeing to it that Leah would not be embarrassed and her allowing a competitor to remain in the same home, enabled her to be an advocate for the Jewish people many years down the line, when during the reign of Menashe, there was the sin of idolatry, specifically, bringing an image into the Beis Hamikdash(Rashi to Yirmeyah 31:14, mentioned in above article).

Of course, there is a time when it is best for all concerned for a child to move out of the house, but when the issue is simply one of "what will the neighbors say", then the above thought would be appropriate.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Plausibility Arguments

From an article by Professor Aviezer in the latest Jewish Action:

"I shall challenge the above views and demonstrate that there are, in fact, striking similarities between knowledge in the realm of science and knowledge in the realm of religion. These similarities will be shown to form the basis for rational arguments supporting the Divinity of the Torah. A rational approach to belief in the Torah and the existence of God has been the subject of several recent books However, this analysis is quite different from those found in other accounts....

"The scientific discoveries listed above—and many others—correspond to the words of the Torah. The many areas of harmony between science and Torah constitute important plausibility arguments for religious belief. In the twenty-first century, the person of faith need not feel apologetic about his or her beliefs.

It should be emphasized, however, that the comprehensive agreement between science and Torah described above does not prove that the Torah is of Divine origin, and it certainly does not prove that God exists. Plausibility arguments are not a substitute for faith.

Faith (emunah) is the thread that weaves together our religious beliefs and our practices."

As with any post of this sort, my purpose is to bring to attention an article which I find of interest, and which others may as well. My intent is definitely not to create a hangout for skeptics--frum or otherwise-- who wish to attack ikkarie emunah(key principles of Jewish faith). There are other places for the latter, and in any event, my time is limited as far as editing and monitoring is concerned. For now, I am leaving moderation off, but if you wish to comment, please bear in mind that this is a frum blog.


Kosher Cheeseburgers?

Although I do not have any particular urge to eat non-kosher cheeseburgers(although as in Rashi Vayikra 20:26, that is not the reason why to refrain from eating non-kosher food), I found this news blurb on Yeshiva World interesting.

This is the part of Talila's menu which discusses the item:

"Talia’s To Go offers something that customers observing a diary-free diet, due to religious or health reasons, are going to love - Kosher Parve Cheeseburger. Add a slice of American or Mozzarella flavored Tofu Cheese to your burger, sandwich, or wrap. Longing for a smear of dairy free cream cheese? We got it! All cheeses are made from Tofu. They are parve, 100% vegan, cholesterol and fat free. Best of all – they taste like the real thing!"

Is this simply a negative aspect of consumerism which drives up demand for additional exotic kosher products? Or can anyone find a positive aspect to availability of this food product(eg, helping someone non-frum abstain from actual cheeseburgers)? What is actually the difference between this and any imitation milk product ?

Relevant mareh mekomos could be the oft-quoted Ramban in Kedoshim, as well as the gemara in Chullin quoting Yalta(109b). There was a recent article in Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society( I believe by Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky) which discussed just this question.

On a related note, here is a link to an article which discusses surimi(scroll down to "Kosher Lobster?!" in the CRC article) by Rabbi Zushe Blech, who parenthetically, I heard this past Motzoie Shabbos on the Zev Brenner show.

I suppose that the topic of food caught my interest just after the taanis, and I will conclude by stating the obvious, that this post is for discussion purposes only.


Monday, December 17, 2007

women rabbis, tefila groups and the conflict betweem moral sensibility and halacha

Reading much of the blogging done last week about women rabbis brought to my mind a fascinating din in hilchos tumas tzara’as. Tzara’as must be declared impure by a kohein. A strange situation can occur where a talmid chacham sees a nega and knows exactly what the halacha is, but must go to a kohein, who might be an am ha’aretz, in order to have the proper declaration made (see Rashi VaYikra 14:35). While various achronim find this din perplexing (see the Parashas Derachim’s discussion), it would seem that some modern minds don’t quite grasp that there is a kashe to ask. Thus, it troubles them not that a women who might have spent years studying hilchos niddah (just as an example) and be fully proficient in its intricacies is expected to ask her shaylos to her local Rabbi who may be less knowledgeable than herself. It troubles them not that a highly trained professional is not entitled to dispense advice of a binding final-word nature, but must defer to someone else simply because she is of the wrong gender.

What is especially fascinating is the attitude of the MO camp (for lack of a better label) on this issue. Imagine a student who spends years in medical school studying, who passes his exams with flying colors, who shows all the capability of being a promising doctor and doing great good. What would we expect the reaction of such a person to be if when it came time for the residency program to begin and for all that study to be put into practice they were told that they cannot continue further and are barred from the practice of medicine; they were told to continue studying and doing research, but to expect no papers to be published, expect to not be taken seriously by peers in the field, expect to be accused of pursuing medicine for false motives and under questionable pretenses rather than for the goal of doing good? This is exactly the situation that has been created by those who will not question the heter of R' Soloveitchik to teach women gemara, as kvar horah zakein, but fail to provide any opportunity for women to use that learning for practical good or appreciate why they should want to do so.

The questions of women’s tefilah groups, rabbis, and what-not are matters of halacha and need poskim with insight and sensitivity to guide us to answers, answers which must be more than an exercise in seeking a "Rabbinic way"to arrive at some predetermined conclusion. I am not in this post tackling the halachic parameters of these issues. I am, though, questioning the attitude of those who dismiss these questions as trivial, question the motives of those who raise them, or who offer pat answers that read value statements into what may be the realm of gezeiras hakasuv. I doubt anyone would say that halacha takes a lesser view of talmud Torah or talmidei chachamim simply because the psak of nega must be made by a kohein and not a talmid chacham. Why then have some come to the conclusion that because women cannot be Rabbis it means the Torah rejects equality as a value?

What amazes me is hearing the argument by those who otherwise identity with MO that since certain feminist concerns originate in secular society and not Torah, they are automatically to be rejected. Doesn’t the whole concept of Torah u’Mada according to any of its definitions direct us to incorporate the positive values of the external world into our framework of Torah life? And what values are we speaking of? Feminism as a sociological and philosophical movement is multi-faceted, and to dismiss all its appects in one broad stroke is simply wrong. We certainly accept the value of kavod ha’adam and kavod habriyos as validating the worth of all people- these are not external values, but at the core of Torah itself. Is a woman’s quest for spirituality any less significant because of her gender?

Halachic answers must be followed whether or not they are in concert with our modern sensibilities of equality. But that being said, where answers do not conform to what we see as fair and just, it does not mean we must dismiss our questions, our groping for better answers, our discomfort at what we perceive to be a conflict. Halacha is perhaps unique in that religious rapture must be channeled through a precisely defined system, which may dampen those very feelings of religious exuberance which sustain commitment. Accepting the halachic answer does not make that challenge any less real or meaningful.

There is a pervasive sense that moral discomfort in the face of G-d’s command is itself a pgam in one’s religiosity. There is a smug, dismissive attitude toward those who raise these issues, a sense that their questions are indicative of a lesser commitment to avodas Hashem, their yiras shamayim is deficient, as sense that their motives must be tainted and impure. (Undoubtedly this post will be read by some in the same way). I cannot see how such an attitude can be reconciled with statements like these made by R’ Ahron Lichtenstein:
When there is a conflict between the tzav and the moral order, what do we do about it?...The message of the akeida is clear: God’s command takes precedence, in every respect, over our moral sensibility and our conscientious objections… On the other hand, as those who do seek to ingrain moral sensitivity in ourselves and in our children, we need not dismiss the ambivalences, the difficulties and contradictions (at the initial level, surely)....We need not dismiss the wrestling and grappling as being a reflection of poor yirat Shamayim, of spiritual shallowness, or of a lack of frumkeit. Inasmuch as goodness itself is an inherent component of frumkeit, the goodness which is at the root of the problems, struggles and tensions is itself part of yirat Shamayim—and a legitimate part. If the sense of moral goodness is legitimate, then the questing and the grappling are also legitimate.
Some have used the fact that women’s tefila groups lack the distinctive kedusha of a minyan as a reason to call for them to be disbanded. Strange that if a group calls itself an "Amein group" it can meet every morning for Shachris and is touted as a great thing, but call it a tefila group and it suddenly is wrong. But to address the point more directly, is not satisfying the needs of women not itself a worthy value? A gemara comes to mind: lo mipnei she'smicha b'nashim elah la'asos nachas ruach l'nashim. The act of smicha on a korban as no spiritual value whatsoever if done by women, but Chazal permitted it because it gave 'nachas ruach' (Chagiga 16b). Again, I am not suggesting a halachic conclusion, but simply noting that the issue needs study and we should not be quick to make value judgments.

The only agenda that religion should serve is avodas Hashem - not -isms of any sort. To a certain degree the Orthodox feminist movement has shot itself in the foot by allowing itself to be identified with a broad constituency that we would only be kidding ourselves to think has lishma and avodah at heart. But, there are those who do. Last week we read a lot about the response to those that don’t. Where is the response to the others? What opportunities can we extend to these women to inspire our communities? What role do we expect them to take, what role do we allow them to take? How can we show that we value and esteem their religious efforts? Telling people what can’t be done should be accompanied by some thoughtful answers to questions like these. But first you need to respect these concerns as real and legitimate, and I don't know if we have come that far yet.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Jewish Heroism

There is an article by Rabbi Naphtali Hoff in this week's Jewish Press on the topic of heroism and Chanukah. There is a quote from Ariel Sharon regarding heroism and the Holocaust:

The heroism of the Jewish mother hugging her children close in their final hour, the heroism of the father who risked his life to find a lone piece of bread for his son, the heroism of those who helped their fellows in conditions of hard labor and freezing temperatures, the heroism of those who comforted a dying friend, the heroism of those who conquered despair in the death camps, the heroism of those who preserved Jewish tradition and held a Passover Seder while hiding in the ruins of the ghetto..

Rabbi Hoff concludes:

While we certainly acknowledge the Maccabees’ strength, courage and fortitude, it would be disgraceful to reduce their legacy to the fleeting glory of physical prowess and military might. Had Chanukah been about that alone, it would have soon faded far into our distant past, together with many other military successes in Jewish history.

What has secured Chanukah’s eternal place among our people is its emphasis on the Jews’ indomitable spirit.

May we see miracles "today, just as in those days". Happy Chanukah to all !


Monday, December 03, 2007

Learning from Lobsters

I remember reading the lobster mashal in one of Rabbi Twerski's writings, and today came across it online.

The point to note is that the stimulus that enables the lobster to grow is discomfort. If not for the discomfort, the lobster would never expand its shell!... If criticism makes one feel uncomfortable (as it generally does), rather than feeling resentful, one should seize the opportunity to utilize it as a stimulus for growth.

Easier said than done, but definitely true!