Yogi on Teshuva

August 24, 2010

Yogi Berra was notorious for swinging at pitches well outside the strike zone, sometimes even hitting them. On one less fortunate occasion, he swung wildly at such a pitch and struck out badly. As he entered the dugout, his manager asked, “Yogi, don’t you ever think when you’re up there?” To which Yogi famously replied, “Think?! How can you think and hit at the same time?!” 

Like Yogi’s manager, we tend to assume that thinking is helpful whenever we’re determined to accomplish something important. In reality though, thinking can sometimes get in the way. 

There are elements of the process of Teshuva that do require thought. Confession, for example, is only as valuable as the intellectual attentiveness that accompanies it. The same can be said for the resolving to do not repeat a prior transgression. If performed thoughtlessly, the resolution is virtually valueless. The opposite is true however, when it comes to the opening step in the Teshuva process, that of regret. As is the case with hitting, you can’t think and regret at the same time.   

Regret over having hurt a loved one or anyone, or regret over having fallen short of what we know we’re capable of, is something that has to spontaneously wash over us, catch us by surprise. Trying to think ourselves into regret is like trying to think ourselves into being in love. It won’t work. Regret is a visceral, primal psychological scream. It’s what happens when the mind, the great rationalizer, had let down its guard, and the heart suddenly runs free. The more we think about regretting, the less successful we’ll be at it. 

But if Teshuva is premised upon regret, and regret must be outside the realm of conscious decision-making, what’s an Elul Jew to do? Well, we begin by deciding to do less thinking. This is the time of year for looking into the eyes of family members, neighbors, and friends, and instead of thinking, just seeing. We will see in their eyes, the favors we’ve done, the love we’ve shown, and also the disappointment we’ve engendered, and the hurt we’ve caused. Just feel, don’t think. This is also the time of year that we when we daven, we should talk less and listen more. These are the days when God speaks to our hearts, the place where regret can take root before the mind has had the chance to realize what has happened. 

Not to fear though. Our minds will soon recognize that the heart is up to something. And that’s when the conscious work of Teshuva can begin.

Thoughts For The Beginning of Year. – Rabbi Barry Gelman

August 18, 2010

While Rosh Hashana is still a few weeks away, for many of us the year really begins now as our children head back to school. With that come the hectic schedules, the carpools, and the feeling that we do not even have time to breathe.

I think the advice of Rabbi Kolonomus Kalman Shapiro, last Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto and author of Bnei Machshava Tova, is instructive. Writing in relation to spirituality and the ability to be moved by events in our loves, he notes that one of the major obstacles in the way of spirituality is a rushed lifestyle. He was writing this in the 1930’s. Imagine what he would have said about the pace of our lives in the 21st century?

He is so convinced that our rapid-fire life style is the cause of deadened spirituality that he repeats the word – Harcheik (keep away from or distance yourself from) three times when referring to rushing through life – “מן המהירות הרחק הרחק הרחק”.

It is not only moments of potential spirituality that are lost due to our harried pace. We rush through life at such a fast pace that we cannot appreciate our family, friends and our everyday surroundings. Many do not even have time to have a few minutes of conversation with loved ones.

(Part of the challenge is that many are involved in numerous organizations, worthy ones of course, that any time not spent at work is spent at meetings. I suggest that we limit our participation in some of those outside activities and focus on our inner life and our home life. I know ouf communities needs us, but other priorities (our iner life and our family life) must be considered as well. Responsible organizations should not accept the volunteered time of people who overdo it. )

Rabbi Shapiro is convinced that we can train ourselves to overcome this handicap. He tells us: “We exhort you in the strongest terms: teach yourself to watch. In general, become person who looks for God. Perhaps in your looking you will uncover God’s subtle presence – you may see His holiness. When you seek him, you will surely find him. And where will you find him? In yourself and in everything surround you.”

This is something I am going to work on this year…starting now.

10 Things I’ve Learned in 20 Years as a Rabbi-by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

August 13, 2010


The Theological Implications of Brussel Sprouts –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 13, 2010

To be sure as Orthodox Jews we believe that God gave the Torah to be relevant for all times (yemot hamoshiach and the kashrut of bacon aside).   Often it is argued that it can not be the case that something in nature has changed which would render something in the torah to no longer be true or observable.  For instance, it is often pointed out in kiruv circles that the torah states that a pig is the only animal which has cloven hooves but does not chew its cud and since the Torah is true not only has another animal never been found with such criteria but one never will.  From what I am told this is utilized as one of the many proofs of the Torah’s divine truth by many orthodox outreach organizations.

Another example:  It is widely claimed in many segments of the Orthodox community that homosexuality must result from nurture and not nature.  This is so, it is claimed, because God gave the torah for all times, so it must be the case that everyone can in theory marry someone of the opposite gender.   Indeed the torah commands “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.”   Since the Torah forbids homosexual acts and commands heterosexual marriage it must be the case that all Jews are able to be or at least act heterosexual with the right help.

Why is it then that kashrut organizations can forbid certain vegetables, telling us there is no way to check them for bugs and we do not bat an eye?  Does not the torah tell us in Birashit that all the “growing things are for you to eat?”  If the torah is applicable for all times and there is no way to check brussel sprouts for bugs why doesn’t this bother us theologically as much as claims for the genetic etiology of homosexuality?  Is it perhaps that a culture has developed among us whereby when it comes to forbidding something we have no problem expanding the torah, but when it comes to finding ways to include and  permit we do?  Perhaps the case, as Rabbi J. Telushkin has said, “Though Hillel wins in the Talmud, it is Shami who wins in Jewish life today.”

What Each of Us Can Do to Get Jews to Marry Jews by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

August 9, 2010

As a follow-up to some observations I made last week about the Mezvinsky-Clinton wedding, I want to offer so positive, real ways for all of us to help encourage Jews to marry Jews.  Across the board, from Reform to Orthodox to Ultra-Orthodox, I think we can all agree that Jews marrying Jews is what we want.  However, instead of a negative approach, which many people expressed, I think a positive, affirmative approach is much more productive.  However, the positive approach might take a lot more effort – but worthwhile things usually do take more effort.  Here are a few things you can do:

1) Encourage all the single men and women you know to join Saw You At Sinai or other online dating services.  My wife, Rachel, volunteers for Saw You At Sinai, and she puts in hours and hours each week trying to make shiduchin (matches).  But there is a dearth of men: many eligible man, who are looking to get married, are simply not signed up and therefore the choices for women, and the chance of getting that elusive match – made in heaven! – is greatly reduced.  Ask any single man, or woman, that you know: Are on Saw You At Sinai or Frumster or another Jewish dating service?  If not, why not?

2)If you are married, invite singles over to your home for Shabbat dinner or lunch.  Many homes are just not used to inviting people they don’t know, but this is an critical way for Jews to meet other Jews, and especially to meet their bashert, their intended.  We know of several people who have met at dinners we have had in our home, where we just had people over and they did the rest of the work themselves, and I just heard of another couple that met because someone else invited them.  Yes, it might be uncomfortable to invited strangers over; but if you really want to get Jews to marry Jews, it’s worth the effort.  I would encourage rabbis to encourage this.  If you are single, instead of waiting to get invited, make a simple Shabbat lunch or dinner on your own, and tell the rabbi or clergy in your shul that you are happy to have some people – or just invite some singles that you know casually who may be looking for a place for lunch.  It’s not the food, it’s Jews getting together with Jews.

3) At kiddush, take a moment to look for someone who is on their own, not talking to anyone, and introduce yourself to that person.  The conversation at a minimum will boost that person’s confidence that they are not invisible, but it may lead to a connection that will lead to a shidduch.  This stuff happens, but only when we make it happen.

4)Finally, and this is hard, but it’s the truth, the only way to really get a handle on Jews marrying Jews is by making aliya.  We need to encourage all our young people to get to Israel, for a summer, for a year, and preferably as a permanent decision.  True, there are issues of intermarriage in Israel as well, but at least you have a society where everyone is doing Chanuka, Pesach, Yom Kippur, even 85% observing Tisha B’av in some way.  In Israel the civic culture is Jewish, so it is totally different than American where the civic culture is Christmas, Halloween – Christian.  Long term, I am worried that Judaism cannot survive as a minority culture in a society where we are welcome to marry the Clintons and the Gores.  But in Israel, we have a majority culture of Judaism, and a vast majority of Jews – in the cities and towns where our children will live – so that the intermarriage problem is vastly diminished.  No, not everyone can move to Israel, but we are deluding ourselves if we think we can create a safe place for Jews to marry only Jews in America.  It’s too friendly and alluring a culture for us.

So please continue to be passionate about Jews marrying Jews, but please all of use should walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  There are concrete steps we can all take to make things better, and by helping Jews marry Jews we will make our community in general a more caring and nurturing place for all of us.

Asher Lopatin

Are We Torah True? -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 8, 2010

In a recent blog post http://blog.rabbijason.com/2010/08/yes-orthodox-judaism-changes-too.html Rabbi Jason Miller argues that orthodoxy can not legitimately claim it is Torah true any more than Conservative or Reform Judaism can, since things in Orthodoxy also change, only slower.  He points to the recent statement by 150 orthodox rabbis calling for more understanding for homosexuals in the orthodox community: http://www.tabletmag.com/news-and-politics/13912/unorthodox-position , the expansion of women’s leadership roles in Shirah Chadasha type minyanim, Rabbi Avi Weiss’ recent decision to have a woman lead Kabbalat Shabbat in a side minyan at HIR, and the new Yeshivat Maharat which will train Orthodox women for clergy positions.

Rabbi Miller writes, “A quarter century after the Conservatives opened its seminary to women, the more progressive Orthodox Jews in Centrist Orthodoxy are now debating the leadership roles of women in the synagogue. It was only a matter of time…The Judaism of 2010, in any of the denominations, looks different than the Judaism of past centuries. That’s because the times change and the Jewish religion changes too, whether people like it or not….Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on “Torah true Judaism.” If Judaism is truly going to be true to the Torah, then we must all embrace the Torah’s dictum that says the Torah does not reside in the heavens. It belongs to humanity and it is up to us to see that it remains vibrant and evolves.”

Perhaps though halachik change or the lack thereof alone is not what determines how true to the Torah one’s Judaism is.  Perhaps it is a group’s shmirat hamitzvot, keeping of all the mitzvoth, and passionate commitment to torah study and Torah values that determines its Torah true-ness.  If this is so then a movement which makes halachik decisions that are based on strong halachic precedent, even if these changes diverge from or expand current traditions, is still Torah true if its observance of mitzvot is total.

On the other hand if a group says it is committed to halacha but does not observe it as part of its culture it is not Torah true.  Such might be the case, for instance, for the bulk of Conservative Jews today, who do not keep shabbat, kashrut or taharat hamishpacha, or indeed for some parts of the Charedi world whom though they may keep with much passion the mitzvoth between humans and God, might not keep with the same care the mitzvoth between human beings, required even toward those outside their community.  I submit that it is not one’s lack of halachic chiddush that makes one Torah true, but how one observes the rest of Judaism along with the said halachic changes that determines one Torah true-ness.

An Orthodox community that, based on gemaras and their understanding of the Shulchan Aruch’s (Code of Jewish Law) definition of Kavod Hatzibur (honor to the congregation-the reason for not allowing women’s aliyot), allows women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat, and with that keeps with passion all the mitzvoth, is indeed Torah true in every sense of the word.

The Drift is Over, R. Yosef Kanefsky

August 3, 2010

The recently released Statement of Principles concerning homosexuals within the Orthodox community has gotten a great deal of notice, both here and in Israel. (If you haven’t yet seen the text, it is here: http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/ ) The document was authored primarily by my dear friend Rabbi Nathanial Helfgot, and I am honored to be one of the dozens and dozens of signatories.

The document is significant – historic really – for a variety of reasons. Some are obvious;  others less so. Here are two of the latter:

(1)   The document repeatedly acknowledges the very real possibility that homosexual orientation is genetically based and is not subject to change. While this is not really news to most of us, its explicit articulation in a document authored by Orthodox rabbis is paradigm-shifting. The true deep cause of Orthodoxy’s decades-long unintelligible stammering about homosexuality is the conundrum presented by the possibility that God is responsible both for homosexual orientation and for prohibiting homosexual behavior. The inadmissibility of either of the possible solutions to the conundrum (that the Torah is not Divine, or that God is terribly unjust) left our community inchoate at best, or championing “change therapy” at worst.  The current Statement of Principles offers no solution to the conundrum either. In Talmudic parlance, the question is left as a “teyku”. But the authors of the statement courageously decided that homosexuals should not have to daily pay the social price for our inability to solve the theological puzzle. This is a huge paradigm shift. 

(2)   The fact that so many Orthodox rabbi and educators, men and women, signed their names to the document, signifies loudly and decisively that Modern Orthodoxy’s dalliance with haredi-ism is winding down. The much-bemoaned “drift to the right” that changed the character of so many of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship academic, rabbinic  and synagogue organizations now has an upright, unafraid, and ideologically passionate counter-force that is determined to reclaim Modern Orthodoxy, and to restore it to its raison d’etre of engaging, rather than running away from, life’s toughest issues. There’s still a long road to travel. There are many complex factors that contributed to the rightward drift, all of which need to be addressed. But the will, the passion, and the conviction to tackle the challenge are all in bold evidence in the long list of signatories to the Statement of Principles. 

We need to appreciate the significance of this moment. It is in no way an overstatement to characterize it as a turning point.

Chilul Hashem vs. Kiddush Hashem: The Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding, Rabbi Asher Lopatin

August 3, 2010

We are living in interesting times.  In years past, it would be clear that an intermarriage, between a Jew and a Methodist, with a rabbi and a Methodist minister co-officiating, on a Shabbat afternoon, no less, is a high level chilul Hashem: Have we no pride?  Have we no shame?  And I am not saying that everything has changed.  The Clinton Mezvinsky wedding could clearly be categorized in the chilul Hashem column.

And yet, how can you look at the pictures of Marc with his tallis – a wool tallis! – and his kipa, with American royalty, Chelsea Clinton, and not say, “Hmm… maybe there is something significant and even, good?, for Americans to see.”  Here was not a Jew who was hiding his identity, who was minimizing his Jewishness.  No, what the world saw is that a fully attired – proud? – Jew could get right to the top of American society.  Not that reaching high society is our goal.  But the fact that there were Sheva Brachot, a chupa, a k’tuba and that tallis and kipa, for the world to see, doesn’t that put the wedding in the category of Kiddush Hashem as well?  Perhaps not, but I would bet that a lot of our enemies are scratching their heads wondering how the Clintons could marry their daughter to a Jew.  Maybe some are saying, “Aha, see this intermarriage! We now know the Jews are doomed.”  But I would bet most are scratching their heads wondering if the Jews have gotten the upper hand.

We are living in a world where what was once taboo, intermarriage, has the possibility to expose millions – millions of Jews – to a tallit they may never have known about.  And it was a Reconstructionist rabbi Ponet who did the “dirty” work.  For now, Orthodox rabbis, even Conservative, don’t want anything to do with an intermarriage.  But this Mezvinsky guy was willing to wear a tallis and a kippa in all the pictures – should we shun him forever?  No, certainly after the wedding, we welcome him – and Chelsea as well.  But maybe we need to think of a way of extracting the Kiddush Hashem from the Chilul Hashem.  I don’t know how – but I know that a lot of smart people read this blog.

Perhaps Chilul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem are closer than we thought.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin