For the Friend I Buried Today. By Yosef Kanefsky

February 24, 2016

I buried a friend today. A friend, who four weeks ago was healthy and well, and was living the life of kindness, friendship, community, and family that had endeared her to everyone. A tower of emotional strength and personal determination, a person whose love was both fierce and tender. A friend, who suddenly and without warning tumbled into a coma, then hovered for four weeks between this world and the next, until finally, on Monday night, leaving us completely. At this very moment, as I look at my shoes still covered with cemetery dirt, I – together were an entire synagogue community – am not only pained and saddened, but also shattered and stunned.

I can’t help but also think about the family and friends of David Wichs a”h, a man described as an angel, who lost his life in the blink of an eye about three weeks ago when a huge construction crane hurtled to the ground exactly where he happened to be standing. How surreal and startling, how impossible-seeming it surely sounded to his loving wife, to his co-workers, to his synagogue community. What an unfathomable loss. May his family somehow, at some point, know comfort.

It is at moments like these – and they seem to come with almost numbing regularity these days – that we gently check our notions of individual Divine Providence at the cemetery door. For while the idea that God knows and responds to each of us individually in accordance with our deeds is often both inspiring and spiritually useful, there are just times when we need to place it in a quiet corner for a bit, as we recognize with pain and sorrow, that life, Judaism, and God are just a whole lot more complicated, and a whole lot more inscrutable than that. There are just times when we must hang our theological hats on the teaching of the Talmudic sage Rava, who said that “length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit, but on Mazal.” (Moed Kattan, 28a)

Which is not to say that events like these simply plunge us into a religious vacuum. Really just the opposite. This is when Jewish practice, with its overwhelming and unvarying emphasis on גמילות חסדים (acts of love and kindness) achieves the apex of its religious strength. We are battle-ready and trained. To visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to cook the meals, to drive the carpools, to hug and embrace our fellow the way we would ourselves want to be hugged and embraced. Yes, in quieter and happier times, we can afford the luxury of the doctrine of individual Divine Providence. But on days like today, we just thrust ourselves headlong into the holy trenches of the hands-on mitzvot.

There’s a peculiar choreographic moment at the end of the daily Tachanun prayer. After petitioning God to forgive us our sins and to save us from bad occurrences, we come to the words “we don’t really know what to do”. We don’t really know the magic formula either for obtaining forgiveness or for securing protection. But remarkably, precisely as we say these words which carry such an air of resignation about them, we ritually rise from our chairs and stand upright. Yes it’s true that we don’t really know. But when confronted with not knowing, with not understanding, we respond by rising to the occasion, by embracing the certitude of goodness and kindness practiced toward those who are suffering the most.

For even Mazal can bend to Chesed.

 


How Shall We Secure Our Synagogues? by Yosef Kanefsky

January 12, 2016

It was billed as a “synagogue security meeting”, specifically for rabbis. And because we are living in the times we’re living, I drove over to our local Federation building yesterday and sat myself down around the board table. I wondered to myself though, why there needed to be a synagogue security meeting specifically for rabbis. Like so many of my colleagues, I am blessed with conscientious and smart lay-leadership who have been working hard on assessing and enhancing our synagogue’s security measures. And I was actually pretty certain that they had already been in contact with these very same Federation experts. What was it that was going to be rabbi-specific about this meeting, I asked myself. What is the specific rabbinic angle on the security situation?

Without taking anything away from what unfolded over the following hour – the presentation was extremely impressive, and I was grateful for having being invited to hear it – the bottom line was that the meeting didn’t really turn out to be rabbi-specific at all. It offered the same information that had been presented to lay-leaders. Nonetheless, the question about the unique rabbinic angle lingered with me. And the more I thought about it, the more sure I became that there certainly was one, that there must be something specific that I in particular should be focusing on.

My first idea emerged from the “pastoral” file. If people are anxious and worried, I reasoned, this must be affecting their family lives and relationships. And this is something that rabbis can and should engage, and have a unique way of doing so. But with some more contemplation, it occurred to me that the core issue is not pastoral in natural, rather spiritual. For living in a state of existential insecurity, can existentially threaten the life of the spirit.

Judaism, Torah, and Mitzvot all trade on the currency of optimism and faith. The world is a wondrous and miraculous place, we are asked to believe. God’s beneficence is in evidence everywhere, from the rising of the sun to the falling of the dew, from the food we have on our tables, to the basic bodily functioning that we too often take for granted, from the love we feel for our spouse, to the joy we derive from our children. And all of these blessings and wonders and miracles can and will persist and will be the gifts of generations to come, as long as we human beings can fulfill our fundamental charge to create communities and societies that function as effective delivery vehicles for these blessings and wonders. It is because we believe that the world is filled with goodness, that we structure our lives around perpetuating and channeling that goodness.

But what happens to us and our fundamental vision, when the foundations shake, when we begin to suspect that our fundamental optimism and faith are nothing more than naiveté and dangerous stupidity? How does this begin to reshape our personal vision, our communal goals?

We are taught, as a matter of Halacha, to see fellow human beings as noble bearers of the Divine image, whom we are commanded to greet cheerfully, whose material and emotional needs we are asked to engage, and to whom we are required to grant the benefit of the doubt. What happens to our ability to discharge our Halachik responsibilities when we feel no choice but to be fundamentally suspicious, to fear the worst, to see others as people from whom, first and foremost, we need to protect ourselves?

These are hard questions, and the geo-political reality which raises them is very real, and indeed very dangerous. Our worries over our security are very legitimate, and the need to enhance our security is very real. But what is the collateral damage? How will it change us, and change the nature of our Judaism? What we can do to protect ourselves from this threat?

I don’t know. Yet. But these are the rabbinic questions. Which is to say, these are the Jewish questions. And we need to have extraordinary meetings to address this too.


“HaShem and Allah. Who Knew?” posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 22, 2015

I’m not a huge optimist when it comes to most of the world’s problems. Try as I may, optimism isn’t my default state. Somehow though, I am an incurable optimist when it comes to one thing – the proposition that if people devote time and energy to getting to know and understand one another, they will almost always emerge with mutual respect and admiration, and maybe even mutual affection. It is this optimism which, several years ago, led me to build into our B’nai & B’not Mitzvah program a “home-and home” series with the middle schoolers at our local Islamic Center.  We go and visit them on a Sunday, and soon thereafter, they come and visit us.

This past Sunday was “part one” of this year’s series. The first moments of our visit stood in stark contrast to our visits of previous years, as we were greeted by very visible evidence of heightened security.  We’re all afraid these days. But American Muslims may be the most afraid of all. We have known similar things ourselves of course.  Once we were safely inside however, the script of optimism and hope played out predictably and magically, even now, even today. Nervousness and awkwardness quickly gave way to mutual curiosity, smiles, and laughter. That’s what a good icebreaker, some delicious munchies, and small-group discussions can do, provide a tiny glimmer of what world peace might look like.

But not everything is predictable. Something always happens that you couldn’t have seen coming. Which usually turns out to be the most wonderful thing of all.  Once back in the big circle, the kids had more questions for one another, including about what Halal and Kosher each mean. Halal, we then learned, involves (among other things) the person doing the slaughtering saying bismillah – “in the name of Allah” – before he begins. Which generated the following remarkable exchange (of which I am not embellishing a single detail):

              Who is Allah? A person? A God? Who do you worship?

               Allah is God. The one God who created everything. Allah has 90 names, many of which we’re not supposed to pronounce, so we say “Allah”.

               Oh. And we say Hashem instead of pronouncing God’s actual name. That’s so cool.

               It’s the same God.

Lightbulbs go on around the room. Along with that feeling of intimacy that you get when you suddenly discover that someone you’ve known as an acquaintance is actually your third cousin.  And the small number of adults in the room know that the world has just changed, if only a little bit.

Of course, we went on from there to talk about ISIS and terrorism. Our kids candidly expressing their horror at what Muslim terrorists have perpetrated, and the Muslim kids expressing their anger at what is being done in the name of their religion. It will be their lot to confront this issue.  And it will be ours – the responsibility of our kids – to give them strength and support they need. And here is where it starts.

I’m not an optimist about most things. But in this, I believe in with all my soul.


We Have Arrived: Orthodox Spiritual Leadership is Gender-Blind. By Yosef Kanefsky

November 3, 2015

Over the past few days, many folks have asked me what I think about the RCA’s latest broadside against Orthodox Female Spiritual Leadership. Especially as the broadside contained several lines directed fairly personally toward me, an RCA member who has hired an inspiring and endlessly creative Maharat graduate as my fellow spiritual leader.  So here’s what I think: This is one of the most gratifying and satisfying moments of my life. A cause that emanates from the very root of my faith, from my passion for Torah and Mitzvot, and from my commitment to truth and to justice, has been acknowledged – however grudgingly –  as being on the cusp of changing the face of the Jewish people.

But I am myself, of course, only the tiniest of cogs in all of this. This is something we have all achieved together. So to all the visionaries who first imagined the possibility of Orthodox women serving as Spiritual Leaders, to all of the women who are preparing themselves for  these positions, to all of the Jews who are supporting these efforts, to all of the rabbis and shul boards who are contemplating hiring female spiritual leaders: Let us all be strong and of good courage. Let us all appreciate the historic moment in which we now live.Let us all recognize that the stammering bluster of the RCA resolution, which seeks to limit rather to expand the number of teachers of Torah, which seeks to reduce rather than to enlarge the pool of people who can respond to Halachik questions, which seeks to minimize rather than to maximize the number of religious role models and leaders that our communities can have, marks the complete abdication of the RCA’s stated mission, “to make Torah great and glorious”. This mission has today been fully transferred to us. Let us work at it tirelessly. Let us be true servants of Torah and of God. Let us be strong and of good courage.


And the Lord God Said, “You’re not about sex”. by Yosef Kanefsky

October 24, 2014

The topic this time is not one I would have chosen, rather one that’s been thrust upon us all: the story of a religious leader who has grossly violated the trust that his community has placed in him, and who has grossly violated the dignity and the sacred humanity of his parishioners.

There are a million different things that could be said here, and you can already find almost all of them in the Jewish blogosphere. One facet that mustn’t ever be lost or overlooked is the humiliation and outrage of the victims. Every community is obliged to be on alert for potential abusers in its midst, and to both be vigilant, and to maintain sound precautionary policies.  (Please see http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/l.a._rabbis_seeking_to_reassure_mikveh_users_of_facilities_privacy )

But there’s another facet of this story that I want to share some thoughts about. And this has to do with the value and importance of our religious commitments. I could blame no one for reacting to this unseemly spectacle by disparaging religion generally, and Orthodox Judaism in particular. Religion generally, for the hypocrisy that regularly percolates to its loftiest levels, and Orthodox Judaism in particular for its halachik policies that potentially place women into the hands of powerful men who might take advantage of them. And in truth, both of these claims must be taken seriously. (I am working now with my colleagues in the IRF to revamp our conversion guidelines so that it is NEVER only men who hold a woman’s conversion fate in their hands. The RCA is doing the same. And it is high time for Orthodox women clergy!) Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I believe that it’s precisely times like these which reaffirm the importance of religion generally, and of one of Orthodoxy’s cultural/halachik norms in particular.
In a naïve-seeming, countercultural way, we religious folks insist that encounters with other human beings need not have, and to the greatest extent humanly possible must not have, a sexual dimension. We instead strive – religiously! – to see and perceive every person as a Divine creation, a creation whose voice God hears, and whose welfare God seeks. And when we take this religious view seriously, we do not see or perceive other human beings as objects to be used (or abused) for our pleasure, and we do not encounter them as sexual beings at all. This is Biblical religion’s great “chiddush” (revolutionary innovation). And our Orthodox “tzniut” norms, which I know we struggle with sometimes (and chuckle at sometimes), are precisely aimed at helping us maintain this quality of human encounter. And anyone who believes that “tzniut” pertains to one gender any more than the other, has entirely turned the whole thing on its head, cynically rendering it a tool of oppression.

Obviously, religious people including Orthodox rabbis, perversely fail at this religious task sometimes, must be held accountable for their crimes when they do, and deserve every ounce of the humiliation they experience when they are caught.  And equally obvious, at least to me, is that the uniquely religious notion that there is an intense human-Divine relationship ,and the uniquely religious behavioral imperative to  “Be Holy, for I God am holy” are our beacons in the darkness.


The Waning Moon of Elul by Yosef Kanefsky

September 15, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an essay entitled The ‘Busy’ Trap written by a fellow named Tim Krieder. Although I hadn’t thought about the essay much since then, it came flooding back to me in a sudden torrent last week, as I watched the moon of Elul wane.

Here’s the essay’s opening paragraph:
If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Yeah, that’s me. That’s probably a lot of us. Crazy busy. And it’s probably not such a good thing. Especially this time of year.

I’ve often thought, that in an ideal world a total stranger would be able to look at our appointment books and our to-do lists, and through these alone understand who we are, and what our life is about. He’d be able to describe our most cherished goals, maybe even catch a glimpse of our deepest dreams. In this ideal world, our daily calendar would be the concrete expression of our life’s vision, and the entries therein would be the pixels which together form a snapshot of our highest aspirations – the contributions we want to make, the impact we want to have, the progeny that we want to be able to offer to the world. But in this world, the one we actually inhabit, this “stranger” experiment wouldn’t work out. I can tell you that were a stranger to have tried this with my appointment book and to-do list this past week, he’d have concluded that my most deeply cherished goal is to replace the burned out fluorescent bulbs in our kitchen fixture, and that my grand personal vision revolves around securing an appointment for a colonoscopy.

There are two reasons for the disparity between what ideally might be, and what is. One is that we are basar v’dam. We are human beings with material needs and material problems that we need to spend time addressing. No less a giant of the spirit than Rambam divided God’s Mitzvot between those which are aimed at developing our moral and spiritual/intellectual selves, and those intended to improve our society’s material conditions. There’s no shame in this. This is the way we were created.

But the other reason that our daily schedules don’t tell the story of who we are and what our life’s vision is, has nothing to do with our flesh-and-blood composition per se. It is rather that we have all become – to one degree or another – crazy busy. We have, usually out of sheer necessity, surrendered to the un-time bound nature of modern-day work. And it now fills out our daily calendar wall-to-wall. It’s not that work isn’t meaningful. It should be, and hopefully is. But as we’re all keenly aware, work cannot all by itself constitute the story of a life. Work cannot all by itself comprise a vision for our short time here on this planet. You and I alike have experienced that dreadful feeling of running through life at break-neck speed, but without a firm handle on where we’re going, or what we really want to achieve. To borrow Moshe’s image from last week’s parasha, we often feel like the fully-sighted person who is “groping around beneath the noontime sun, as a blind person gropes in the darkness”.

And it might even be even a little worse than just that. At the end of his essay, Kreider alleges that as a society we’ve not only allowed busy-ness to steamroll our living with vision, we’ve actually adopted busy-ness in place of living with vision. He describes “Busyness” as serving “as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously our lives cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if we are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”. This is a rather pointed allegation, taking “groping in the light” to a whole other level. Of course it may be that he was referring to other people here, and that this isn’t true for us. Or maybe, it’s a little bit true for us too.

The moon of Elul is already waning. And what the waning Elul moon means for us is that the time has come, today, right now, to step out of our Busyness, and to reacquaint ourselves with our personal vision. To ask, “what is my story? Where am I going? How can I find my way back to those things, the mere thought of which causes my heart to pulsate and my soul to vibrate? What are my dreams? What is my vision?

It’s that time of year again. The moon of Elul is waning.


There’s Enough Room in the Heart. by Yosef Kanefsky

August 4, 2014

I know it’s an absurd question.  So I’ll only entertain it for a moment.

The eighth verse of Eicha (Lamentations) simply and plainly states that the Jews of Judea were themselves responsible for the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile from the land.  “Jerusalem sinned grievously, and therefore became an abandoned outcast”. This assertion is central to the theology and religious worldview of Eicha, and is consistent with the predictions and pleadings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and virtually all of Israel’s prophets.

Nonetheless, despite this clear assignment of blame and responsibility, despite the assertion that the military defeat was justified in spiritual and moral terms, the book immediately proceeds to mourn over the loss of all the children who were caught up in the war. “For these I weep, my eyes run down with water. My children are lost, for the enemy has triumphed.”

On then, to the absurd question:  Why does the book mourn? Isn’t this sort of mourning misguided and wrong? Doesn’t it reflect ignorance and willful disregard for the larger moral narrative? Isn’t it an expression of a dangerous – even threatening – emotional softness, when what it required is a hard, unflinching focus on the right-and-wrong of the story?

I know. It’s an absurd question. It’s an absurd question because the death of children, no matter how it happens, is a profound tragedy.  Woe for the horrible waste of it. The undeserved suffering. The loss of innocence and beauty. What heart is there that can look the other way?  The book of Eicha reflects what we all know. That no matter how compelling or morally weighty the explanation for it may be, the death of children is still heart-wrenching.

Each one of us has privately quietly mourned, after seeing the pictures and reading the stories of children who have died in Gaza. We have mourned because we are humans, and because we are Jews. And we have mourned thus, despite our knowledge that the blame and responsibility for these deaths lie squarely with the enemy, an enemy which holds children on its own lap while it fires at ours. We have mourned, because this knowledge does not make the outcome less tragic.

But while we have mourned in our hearts, we have been afraid of admitting to others that we have done so. We tend to feel that we mustn’t say it out loud. That we mustn’t include Gazan children in our public prayers for Divine protection.  Because we think that this would be perceived as a betrayal of our people, a betrayal of our selfless and courageous soldiers.  While in reality of course, such a failure to mourn would only be a betrayal of our own souls, of our deepest nature.

Each one of us is mourning the loss of every precious fallen chayal. Which of us could not see his own child in the sweet face of Hadar Goldin, or in the smile of Yuval Dagan? And we have, all of us together, just now completed the shloshim for Naftali and Gilad and Ayal. And the mourning for our own will always be more profound and more wrenching than the mourning for the other. But chevre, let us not be afraid to say publically that we also mourn for the dead children of Gaza. Because what kind of Jewish heart would not? What kind of Jewish nation could not?


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