Some random thoughts on Orthodoxy

I got my first real taste of Jewish learning as an undergrad at Arizona State University in 1987. As a younger teenager I had become interested in Judaism and mitzvoth, but at ASU I had my first discussions about Orthodoxy, the binding nature of halacha, religious Reform and more. Near the end of my first year in Tempe I started a chevruta (study partner) on Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, with Rabbi Barton Lee, the head of the ASU Hillel and a committed, religious Reform Jew. The interaction spawned many conversations about Reform vs. Orthodox Judaism, but it was clear that I was headed to Orthodoxy and the world of Halacha (Jewish law). In that self-assured, condescending way of a 20 year old, I learned quickly to dismiss Reform as a pathetic quasi-religion that had little in common with authentic Judaism.

In part, the hubris was justified. I noted, correctly, that the sparse attendance at most Reform congregations (including the one I grew up in) consisted of the elderly, and of young families whose children were not yet old enough to refuse being taken to services. Young adults looking for Jewish vibrancy went to Orthodox shules, because that’s where the mitzvoth were, and as a result, that’s where the passion was.

After making Aliya I spent several years in yeshiva, discovering the Talmud and honing my Torah-learning skills. The passion of yeshiva life and halacha strongly defined my 20s and 30s.

All these years later (I’m 46), however, I find my frustration level with Orthodoxy rising with every scandal, perhaps even more with every outrage that doesn’t make the headlines. I find myself frustrated that we seem to be falling into the same traps that defined the First and Second Temple periods, and especially upset that on a societal level, the technical observance of mitzvoth serves as a substitute for true spiritual work and deep service of God (that word is a perfect case in point: So many people take care to write G-d, which has no halachic implication at all, but have no compunction about cheating on their taxes or protecting child molesters).

Even worse, I fear that the halachic system itself prepares the groundwork for the abuse of religious norms, even of basic human morality. With an enormous focus on the intricacies of Talmud, I fear that we, on a societal level, have engaged in sophisticated trickery to justify gross violations.

For example: When interviewing a victim of sexual abuse, one woman told me that her abusive father – a prominent rosh yeshiva in his community – took care not to penetrate her “in the usual way,” thus avoiding the technical, halachic definition of incest. The woman told me that this was the basis for her father’s claim that he had done nothing wrong – “I didn’t violate the halacha, so I didn’t do anything wrong,” he is reported to have said.

Perhaps as a result, I find my “yeshivish” contempt for non-halachic Judaism, which lasted well into my 40s, to be moderated. I would still argue strongly against the idea of Jewish religious practice that is not defined de facto by halacha in practice, but I find myself increasingly drawn to “subversive” ideas: For instance, take the Torah’s command:

וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ: וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים
הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם—עַל-לְבָבֶךָ:   וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ, וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might: And you should set these words which I command you this day upon your heart: You should teach them to your children, you should speak of them when you are at home and on the road, when you go to sleep and when you get up.

Halachically, the requirements of the Shema are clear: We have to say the words of Shema twice a day, and before bed. We have to put on Tefillin.

But the gemara (Masechet Brachot, around pg. 14/15), has a whole discussion about whether that passage really should be limited to a narrow set of actions, or perhaps Hashem is driving at something far deeper: A total, overall consciousness of Godliness, a sense of walking with the Divine word at all times. A Godly, Torah mindset that dictates everything we do, every aspect of our lives. That view holds that we shackle these exalted concepts by attaching strict, technical legalese to them, rather than demanding the tough spiritual work required to develop a God-like personality.

As a result, of this approach, I find myself listening to non-Orthodox rabbis and thinkers such as Ruth Calderon in ways that I haven’t in years.  As friends of mine (formerly of Efrat, now in Jerusalem)  have turned to a Conservative congregation, I find a vibrancy to their Judaism that is often lacking here in Efrat – much the way I found Orthdoxy so vibrant once upon a time, in contrast to the “dead” Reform services I remember as a kid.

In all, I suppose this all comes in under the heading of humility, a topic that forms a major subject in yeshiva study but that I now understand is impossible for a 25-year-old to understand .That’s a feeling and character trait that comes with age (and especially with having to parent teenagers!).

Thoughts and feedback welcome.

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On Israeli Elections

It is hard to describe the feeling of voting in israel. Like many aspects of life here, the mere fact of voting feels like nothing less than a celebration of life itself. Election Day in Israel is a time for all the old Zionist kitsch to well up inside – deep gratitude for the first Jewish-majority country in 2000 years, for the revival of the Hebrew language, for the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel after 2000 years, for the privilege of living in the Holy Land. For generations of Jews, including our greatest scholars and leaders, Eretz Yisrael was nothing more than a dream. The enormity of living here is not lost on me.

For me, the religious significance and Divine privilege of living my life here is not limited to holidays. I try to remain cognisant of that on a daily basis feelings, but those feelings are emphasised ten-fold on special Israeli occasions such as Independence Day, Jerusalem Reunification Day and Election Day. Yes, many aspects of life in Israel are challenging, and our ongoing inability to win out over those challenges is particularly frustrating. But overall, I am grateful for the challenges, for the opportunity to face these them as a sovereign nation. I am proud of what Zionism and Israel have accomplished over the past 150 years. Election Day is a critical time to remember all that.

In addition, given the challenges we face, electing a new Knesset also carries with it a strong, palpable sense of doom, even of fate. In 1996, my first election in Israel, my hands literally trembled as I put the white slip in the little blue envelope. In America, a Republican or Democratic victory might be cause for celebration or sadness, but little more than that. Elections might be important, but the future existence of the country was never in doubt.

In contrast, Election Day in 1996 felt like the Zionist experiment could come to a violent end, with the re-exile of the Jewish People, had Shimon Peres won that election. Opponents of Binyamin Netanyahu clearly feel the same feeling in the other direction today.

Altogether, then, the decision not to vote is a serious matter, far beyond the proportions and emotions of voting or not voting in other places. Many Americans view voting as a chore, rather than privilege, and voting competes there with work and university obligations, shopping or just plain laziness or apathy. This is reflected in the fact that less than 60 percent of eligible voters voted for president in 2012. Similarly, in Australia nearly all citizens vote, but many people say openly that they would not feel a strong moral voice compelling them to do so were it not for the $75 fine they would receive for not voting.

In contrast, my decision not to vote in the elections following the 2005 destruction of Jewish communities in Gush Katif and the subsequent abuse of the victims of th at operation was fraught and painful. I believed, and still do, that disengagement, as the Israeli left euphemistically called it, and especially the neglect of the victims of that move, was nothing more than the abuse and exploitation of democratic norms in order to save then-prime minister Ariel Sharon from indictment on a series of corruption charges. In the years following that trauma, hundreds of families complained that they had had their homes stolen in broad daylight, while consecutive governments refused to provide fair compensation for their losses, and made it difficult to obtain the minimal compensation that was available.

To me, the poor treatment of the Gaza refugees seemed – and still seems – like a clear message to the settlement community: If you oppose a future pullout from areas of Judea and Samaria, the Gush Katif model can and will be replicated for you. If that was what Israeli democracy had become, I wanted no part of it.

As a result, in 2006 and 2009 I took the principled stand not to participate in Israeli democracy. That decision was a painful and sad reminder of my inner pain and sadness at the notion that were it to become politically expedient, I knew Israeli society would not hesitate to violate democratic principles in order to evict me from my home. Simply put, I felt that Israel had lost faith in me, and I reciprocated that feeling. My decision not to vote was (at least to me) a stinging rebuke of Israel. I rejected the legitimacy of Israel itself in light of Gush Katif.

I returned to the voting booth in 2013, for two reasons: First, the Gush Katif settlers themselves had turned out en masse to vote in the elections following their eviction.They said clearly that even if this country had betrayed them, they would not betray Israel. “This isn’t about us,” one settler told me five years after Disengagement. “Israel didn’t stick a knife in our backs. Israel stuck a knife in our country’s back. Ariel Sharon did not betray us. He betrayed Israel.” I found comfort in Eliyahu Uzen’s words, and decided that if he could continue to vote in Israeli elections,if he did not reject the legitimacy of Israel, then I had a responsibility to find the inner space to do the same.

The second reason I voted in 2013 was the emergence of the Yesh Atid party. I was never enthralled with Party Chairman Yair Lapid, but I liked his strong list of non-politicians. I have said and written for years that Israeli politicians are largely responsible for having creating much of the messy situations that Israel faces toadying that committed, intelligent, fresh-thinking new voices that were unbound by “how politics works” could at the very least inject new tone and content into the Israeli poltiic. Whether or not they accomplished that goal is not the subject of this essay, other to say that I continue to identify with that attempt to re-define the way in which our country is governed. I also felt that that redefining politics was an important step towards repairing my broken feelings following Gush Katif.

Despite those reasons, the decision to vote was difficult. It was tough to reconcile my dreams and hopes for Israel and the rational understanding of what a world without Israel means for Jews with the deep hurt that lingered as a result of the Gush Katif pullout.

All of which brings us to today. Unlike post-Disengagement , there was a small movement over the past several months of Israelis who said they would take the principled stand not to vote. Their argument is simple: The current elections, and indeed the current crop of candidates for the Knesset, collectively represent their contempt for Israel, Israelis and for democracy. In their view, today’s election was a sign of Israel’s failed leadership, not a celebration of democracy. According to that view, voting for the current crop of candidates, with no prospect for change on anyone’s horizon, would have been irresponsible. As in 2006 and 2009, I strongly identify with that message.

And yet, having overcome the trauma of Gush Katif to vote in 2013 – essentially deciding that the sins of Disengagement did not outweigh the overall good of Israel – I could not stay away from the ballot box today. In part, this feeling was inspired by Facebook – so many of my friends wrote passionately about the privilege and blessing they felt when voting here, it was hard for me to disagree. It is a privilege and an honour to live here, and I try to remain thankful for that.

But I simply could not give my sacred vote to any of the candidates running. While I continue to value the message that Yesh Atid represents, I felt they did not sufficiently acknowledge the areas in which they were unsuccessful during the 19th Knesset. That felt to me like they had fallen into the traditional Israeli political refusal to take responsibility and to learn from mistakes. Walking into the voting booth, I told my wife that I was going to vote for BeZchutan – the small group of haredi women who tried to challenge the rabbinic establishment by forming their own party. It was not a joke, and I seriously considered voting for those brave women.

Ultimately, however, I felt that while I had a holy obligation to vote, I had an equally strong obligation to vote “no confidence.” While I agree and disagree with certain elements of every single platform on offer (including the United Arab List), there was no way for me to avoid the fact that none of the parties have earned my vote, or give me any confidence that they would serve the country’s needs – rather than their party’s needs – as members of the 20th Knesset. My white slip of paper indicated to all candidates that while I celebrate the State of Israel, I am offended by the way their politics operates. To that, I will not be a party.

And so, with my hands trembling the way they did in 1996, I placed the white slip into the little blue envelope. I voted, and voted with my conscience, and I am whole with my decision.

May God bless Israel, and grant the members of the 20th Knesset the wisdom, courage and insight to guide this country towards peace, security, economic prosperity and more. As we celebrate Israel on this Election Day, I pray that our leaders deliver on their obligations to serve Israel faithfully and honestly, and that their efforts create an Israel that is truly a Light Unto the Nations.

After the bar mitzvah

Dear Idan

It’s the day after your bar mitzvah, and I’m still on the emotional high I’ve been riding for the past week. Somehow, I always forget how powerful the wave of love and pride is that comes along with seeing one of your kids take such a terrific step towards adulthood and independence.

Predictably, I guess, many people who couldn’t make it to the bar mitzvah have called today or come over to ask about it all, and especially to ask “so? How was he?” Of course, I know what they are asking. They want to know how your leining went, how you did at reading the Torah and the haftara (additional reading).

It’s a question that seems so out of place to me now. It’s true – your Torah reading, the haftara and your bar mitzvah speech were all terrific. But my love for you and my pride at being your abba has not changed at all since you came into our lives 13 years ago, and it has nothing to do with your performance yesterday. Before you’d done anything more than nursed and cried, my soul swelled with pride and happiness – not because of a performance you’d given, but rather because of who you were, who you are.

I guess now, the only thing that has changed is that all those emotions have grown stronger as you’ve grown and developed. For the past several weeks, and especially since Shabbat ended, the only thing I’ve been able to think about has not been “how did you do?”, but rather “what are you like?” Because for me, your performance on Shabbat morning was nice. But it was nothing more than a cherry on the top of a terrific, sweet, rich cake that is called Idan.

I’ve thought so much about this over the past few months – you bring so much happiness into my life, and into the lives of everybody who knows you well. There is nobody I enjoy being silly with more than you – no matter how many times I make the same stupid face at you, you still react with the same oversized harrumph and you try not to laugh. It doesn’t always work. The staring contests you challenge me to might be the most ridiculous game anybody has every asked me to play. I don’t think you’ve ever lasted a second, but the joy in your eyes when we do things together is worth more to me than any Torah reading.

When I do silly stuff around your friends, you pretend that it drives you nuts and embarrasses you, but I’m pretty sure it’s mostly a game. You still invite them to the house whenever you can, so I guess it can’t be all bad.

As I said to you on Shabbat, the fact that you were very nervous actually added to the experience because it showed that you really took the bar mitzvah seriously and understood the hugeness of becoming a halachically-responsible young man. To you, your nerves were very annoying, but to me they were a terrific sign that you are an individual with depth and feeling, and the ability to recognise an issue that requires seriousness and commitment.

So I guess my main answer to the people who have asked “how was he?” is to ignore their question, and only to answer the question “how IS he.” And to that question, there is a long list not only the reasons I love you, but also so the very many reasons I like you and all the reasons I enjoy spending time with you, all the different ways that you bring happiness and laughter into our lives into our family.

My boy, I think the only thing we didn’t say at the bar mitzvah is that your 13th birthday is not an end, but a beginning. May God grant you a long, healthy life of happiness and satisfaction, the ability to figure out your interests and the abilities to set goals and achieve them, and may you look back at your bar mitzvah day as one of the highlights of your life, Amen.

Love,
Abba

To Idan, on your bar mitzvah

My boy,

I have never had trouble understanding the Song at the Sea. To the contrary: For a nation emerging from slavery, the spontaneous explosion of song feels like the most natural reaction, even the only appropriate thing to do at that moment in time. The vision of the Egyptian army disappearing beneath the crash of a newly fluid Red Sea put a final exclamation point on the sojourn in that country, in a way that even the unspeakable tenth plague – the death of every Egyptian first born – could not. The definitive end of our captivity came with a deafening certainty that rings painfully true to the modern ear: Never again would we fear the Egyptian whip.

And yet, during our study for your bar mitzvah you noted the irony in the Song: Instead of celebrating freedom, the Song at the Sea largely celebrates the Egyptian downfall. We learned together the famous midrash – “the lowliest maidservant achieved a higher level of prophecy at the Red Sea than even the great prophet Ezekiel” – but we struggled with the implication of the parable. Here, on the cusp of Jewish history, the best we could manage was to jab the Egyptians once again and to raise a toast to this latest episode in the Egyptians’ suffering and humiliation?

On the other hand, the Song at the Sea is essentially a prayerful vision for the future, a moment at which the Jewish People, and the entirety of Creation celebrate the Godly ideas of freedom, justice. Az Yashir Moshe U’vnei Yisrael, the day will come when Moses and the Jewish People will sing this song to God. Many classical commentators note the Torah’s use of the future tense: The exodus from Egypt introduced the idea of freedom to the world and the birth of the Jewish People. But that is not the final goal: Our nation was born with a promise. We are commanded to become a people of destiny, a light unto the nations. Ultimately, we are called to the task of Tikkun Olam, of perfecting this broken world, of creating and ensuring justice. The use of the future tense points to a time that those lofty goals will have been accomplished, when it will truly be said that the Torah spills forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

My son, as you celebrate your bar mitzvah and mark your entry into Jewish adulthood, I suggest five lessons from this special Torah portion to guide your path.

  1. Break into song. Give yourself the inner freedom to fully celebrate the positive things that happen in your life. Sing, dance, smile, savor the moment.
  2. Believe in the future, and in your ability to shape it. Dream big, and think creatively about ways you can turn your dreams into reality.
  3. Connect with and celebrate God’s presence in the world. The splitting of the sea was a critical moment in our history, but it shouldn’t take Grade A miracles to inspire you. Strive to maintain your childish curiosity, your ability to laugh easily, your innate understanding that people are good and that the world is a good place. Learn to identify the right path for you, in Torah study and in all areas of life, and learn to use your many God-given talents to succeed. Most of all, take care to be thankful for the gifts you receive.
  4. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Your bar mitzvah portion is filled with triumph and celebration at the Red Sea, but also with the pain and failure of life in the desert: No sooner had the Egyptians perished than we found ourselves in the desert, thirsty, hungry and scared. Be creative and determined, believe that the impossible can occur – even drawing water out of a rock.
  5. Believe that at the end of the day, justice and right will prevail in the world, and work towards bringing about that exalted day. Egypt had the upper hand on the Jews for 210 years, but the Hebrew slaves eventually paraded out of slavery in grand fashion. This can be a tough call – we live in a world where injustice is allowed to flourish, and where the righteous often face insurmountable difficulties. If you believe, however, that tzedek – justice – will ultimately prevail, your faith will give you strength and conviction to work hard towards creating a world where that is so.

Idan, you stand today like the Jewish People on the far side of the the Red Sea – looking forward towards a life of possibility and promise. May God grant you not only success, but also the ability to celebrate the journey of life itself. Go forth, my boy. Let the Song at the Sea inspire you to create a life of song, of wonder, a life of passion and love and challenges and fulfilment.

Love,

Abba