4/28/2015

Be-zot yavo Aharon el ha-kodesh

[A devar Torah on Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (last week's/this week's parsha depending where you stand) and a thought about R. Lichtenstein zt"l]

Acharei Mot opens with a prohibition against entering the sanctuary whenever one wishes--"al yavo be-khol et el ha-kodesh"--and recalls the death of Nadav and Avihu, who perished as a result of coming ‘too close’ to God. The Torah then describes the special Yom Kippur offerings. Following that is the prohibition of shechutei chutz, bringing sacrifices outside the precincts of the Temple, which the Torah explicitly compares to foreign worship, here called ‘zivchei se’irim’.
These two prohibitions are antithetical. The first prohibits too much proximity to God, the second, too much distance. The first is rooted in a lack of boundaries between man and God, over-familiarity, unbridled and unrestrained love. It threatens to burn man up, to eradicate his ego and subsume it in the infinite. To function in this world, man must keep his distance from God.
The second prohibition is explicitly compared to idolatry. It expresses overwhelming reverence, a sense that God is absolutely unapproachable, that there is no way to bridge the gap between us and Him.
Taken together, these two prohibitions strike a balance. We are not to come to close to God, nor may we run too far away. We must operate in the space between too much love and too much reverence. We can live because we avoid those extremes.
In between these two prohibitions, the Torah describes the Yom Kippur service. On Yom Kippur we have the exceptions to these two prohibitions. On one hand, the high priest performs a service in the sanctuary itself. On the other hand, a goat--the "se'ir la-Azazel," the "scapegoat"--is taken outside the Temple precincts and hurled off of a desert cliff. This is the only sacrifice brought outside the Temple.
How are we to understand these Yom Kippur exceptions? Reb Tzadok has a wonderful piece (Dover Tzedek pp. 98-99) in which he describes a state of consciousness that lies beyond good and evil. It is attainable only rarely, but when it is attained, there are no limits or boundaries on how one approaches God. Extreme love and extreme reverence are acceptable.
There is another possibility: that Yom Kippur represents a much more difficult and heightened balance. Extreme proximity to God is warranted, but only when balanced by extreme distance. Extreme love must be countered by extreme awe. The two must be commensurate, or the hazards of each on its own still applies. This is very different from the paramount, year-round reality in which we remain balanced by eschewing the extremes of ahava and yir'ah. This is a balance achieved, rather, by experiencing those extremes in tandem.
This type of balance is rare and difficult. It is a tightrope with no safety net. Only on the holiest day of the year is the feat performed.
We have been privileged to see how Rav Lichtenstein zt"l held together passions that we did not think could coexist. Like the spectators who lined up to see the high priest perform his sacred duty, we must have no pretensions of being able to accomplish this service, but we can bear witness to the fact that it is indeed possible in this world and appreciate the fact that we were able to behold such a marvel.
אשרי עין ראתה כל אלה

2/05/2015

A Free Verse Hebrew Translation of U2's "Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For"

"חיפשתיו ולא מצאתיו"
מאת: בונו
תרגום חפשי: אלי פישר
על הרים ועל גבעות
תוך כרמים ושדות
ביקשתי
את שאהבה נפשי

ברחובות ובשווקים
ובחומות הערים
ביקשתי
את שאהבה נפשי

אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו
אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו

שפתותיך דבש נוטפות
אצבעותיך לי רופאות
כרשפי אש כשלהבת
ועזה כמוות

שוחחתי עם מלאכי עליון
אחזתי בידי השטן
בחום ליל ויום
בקור אבן דום

אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו
אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו

הנה ימים באים
ונתאחדו כל הצבעים
ארוץ לא איעף
ולא איגע

למוסרי אכן פתחת
ובעול כלימתי נשאת
ואני מאמין
באמונה שלמה

אכן ביקשתיו, ולא מצאתיו
אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו

10/22/2014

A Memory Jog on R. Barry Freundel, the RCA, and the Rabbanut

Jogging my memory by reviewing the whole history of the Rabbanut-RCA crisis that led to the revamping of the conversion system, I came across something significant (I collected the best posts from that era under the label "best of giyur")

In June 2006, Rabbi Barry Freundel and Rabbi Heshy Billet traveled to Israel on behalf of the RCA to meet and negotiate with the Rabbanut on conversion policy. There were some people close with Rav Elyashiv, notably R. Nachum Eisenstein and his Vaad Haolami Leinyonei Giyur, who wanted to make sure the negotiations failed so that the RCA is not recognized and so that a new initiative, the EJF, would be the address for conversions in the US.

To that end, they whispered some terrible things about Rabbi Freundel in the ears of Rabbanut officials. What is the worst thing they found to say about him, this group of rabbis with an interest in completely ruining Barry Freundel's reputation?

That his shul has a women's prayer group, even against the ruling of his rebbi, R. Hershel Schachter.
There are some important takeaways:
  1. The man was 54 years old and had a squeaky-clean reputation. Not everyone loved him, but nobody had any dirt on him. There was nothing. [UPDATE: It seems that there was some bad behavior at the beginning of the 2000s, maybe earlier; this doesn't detract from the main point - that his reputation was squeaky clean.]
  2. He enjoyed enough respect amongst his colleagues that he was selected to lead the negotiations with the Rabbanut.
  3. The initial reports about bad and bizarre behavior - which certainly pointed to control issues but were not sexual in nature - would have been addressed within the context of a lifetime of exemplary behavior [by reputation if not fact]. I still think that I would have responded to his treatment of prospective converts as cheap or slave labor more harshly and removed him from conversion on that basis, but I understand why colleagues familiar with his reputation would have given him the benefit of the doubt and simply asked him to desist.
  4. I do not claim to know how truly dark is the heart of any man, and I can't claim that I would resist the temptations of power if I had them. The moral of the story - the moral that I will keep coming back to, again and again - is that no person can be entrusted by our community with that much power over over another person.

Conversation on Learning and Teaching Hebrew

For the next week, I will be participating in a conversation on Learning and Teaching Hebrew, hosted by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education.
It's using the really cool ReplyAll platform.
Follow along below:

9/12/2014

Rav Asher Weiss on OCD

About two weeks ago, I posted on facebook a summary of R. Asher Weiss's responsum on OCD. I wrote:

Responsum #134 is quite possibly one of the greatest responsa I've ever read (I don't claim great expertise, but I've read quite a few and find it to be one of the most enjoyable forms of Jewish learning). 
It is addressed to a talmid chakham who suffers from OCD, who has been instructed by doctors to never repeat words during davening even if he thinks he mispronounced them (a practice I call "shmonging"). He asks R. Asher whether a) he should listen to them and b) assuming he should listen to them, should he take measures to minimize the problems that may result from possibly improper recitation of berakhot (for example, never eating a k'dei svi'a of bread so that he never has a Torah obligation to bentch). 
The responsum is divided into three parts. In the first, R. Asher establishes that the correspondent should listen to the doctors even if it means neglecting positive mitzvot. In the second, he cautions against trying to minimize such halakhic problems, as the constant search to obviate halakhic dilemmas will merely feed his obsessiveness, when the whole point of the exercise is to help him learn to live with it. In the third section, R. Asher allows that if the correspondent is concerned with occasions that he is responsible for others' mitzvot, he should let another do it instead. For example, his wife should make Kiddush for everyone in the family. And if there are guests, he should overcome his shame and ask one of the guests to make Kiddush. After all, he would not be ashamed to ask for assistance if he were missing a limb; this form of disability is no different.
I recommend reading it inside. The humanity and understanding that shine through in this responsum are simply breathtaking. R. Asher never tells his correspondent that he is "wrong" for thinking that his speech acts are insufficient. And yet, even as he gives the patient the validation he craves, he shapes and works within those constraints just as a therapist would, even encouraging him to move ever so slightly out of his comfort zone (don't be ashamed of your illness; have your wife make Kiddush for you). It answers the halakhic question, but more importantly it answers the person asking it (think the iconic scene in "Patch Adams."
Just amazing.

It got a lot of "likes" for a responsum summary, or so it seemed to me.
Last night after Rav Asher's shiur, I was shmoozing with a fellow attendee when Rav Asher walked by to join his ride. He said hello and continued, but a couple of seconds later he turned around and came back. He said to me: "You're Fischer, right? Elli Fischer?"
I answered in the affirmative.
"You wrote something about my teshuva? Someone send me something you wrote."
Gulp. I became terrified and began to hem and haw.
He said: "No, no. It's okay. I liked it very much. You were right."
And then he thanked me for promoting him.

A couple of takeaways:
1) Someone follows me on facebook and reports to Rav Asher. That's somewhat frightening. You know who you are.
2) I hope that's all he's seen from my feed.
3) There's probably a "mussar haskel" in there, but I refuse to learn anything from this.
One last thing: Rav Aryeh Leibowitz has a 17-minute "Ten Minute Halacha" on this responsum. Worth a listen.

5/01/2014

A Tribute to R. Lichtenstein

Mosaic (the successor of Jewish Ideas Daily) has published an article which is my tribute to Moreinu Harav Lichtenstein.

I wrote the last part first. Last year, at the event celebrating Rav Aharon's 80th birthday, I and many others who I spoke to afterward had real religious experiences that it took some time to digest. A few weeks later, I wrote an essay that I distributed to some friends, attempting to unpack. The concluding, personal element of the Mosaic piece is a distillation of that essay, which follows a sorry attempt to introduce Rav Aharon to a general audience.

Below are some paragraphs from the original essay that didn't appear in the Mosaic piece:


There is an important double entendre in the title of By His Light, a book adaptation of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein's thoughts on values and character development. The (intentional) ambiguity lies in the fact that R. Aharon himself is offering his thoughts on what it means to walk by God's light, which in turn allows us to develop our religious personalities through the light that R. Aharon sheds. For R. Aharon, the antecedent for "His" is God Himself, whereas for the rest of us, the antecedent is R. Aharon.

Then came the Friday morning of Rav Aharon’s birthday celebration. It was Rosh Hodesh, the first day of a new Jewish month. In those months, this semi-holiday was in fact the one date each month when the Old City of Jerusalem was once again wracked by the type of sectarian strife that ripped it to shreds once before. Factions and counter-factions fought over control of Judaism’s sacred precincts. In an earlier age, the Talmud tells us, the great sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai slipped out of besieged Jerusalem and petitioned the Roman general-cum-emperor Vespasian to be allowed to establish an enclave for the rabbis at Yavneh, outside the riven and doomed Jerusalem. That morning, Alon Shvut felt like Yavneh.
 
I felt secure that Rav Aharon’s effect on my faith was not diluted or confused by any personal charm or magnetism, as I have spent several years cultivating a visceral and – to my mind – healthy allergy to charisma, especially the rabbinic variety. There was no argument or proof that I heard at that event that could have had any profound effect on my convictions. Most of my mental energy during the hour of Rav Aharon’s lecture was spent trying (largely unsuccessfully) to decipher his difficult language. As always, his high register and conceptual complexity, combined with the fact that he spoke in my second language (Hebrew) and has somewhat slurred speech that has not improved with age, made it quadruply challenging to follow along.

A final note to those who arrived at this blog via the link at the end of the Mosaic article: this blog is largely defunct. I use it mainly to redirect some traffic toward articles I've published elsewhere. If you want to follow along, I recommend my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

4/14/2014

Pre-Pesach Update

In my last dispatch, I mentioned that Pesha and I would be scholars-in-residence on a Danube River cruise for Pesach. It was not meant to be. The cruise was cancelled several months ago, and we will be with my parents and sisters and all their families for the Seder. We are very much looking forward.

Since the last dispatch, I have begun writing regularly for several more newspapers and media outlets. I now have a monthly column at the Denver-based Intermountain Jewish News, and I have retained the right to publish those columns elsewhere after they appear at IJN, and all the articles are posted on my blog at the Times of Israel. In these articles, I criticize how hyperactive but bright students are addressed in Jewish day schools, reflect on why Vienna became the birthplace of Zionism, add a dimension to my Commentary review of My Promised Land, and critique Israel’s proposed “Nazi Law” by digging up some old articles in which Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky compare each other to Hitler. These articles have already been syndicated in Baltimore Jewish Life, The Lakewood Scoop, and The Jewish Link of Bergen County. If you are interested in syndicating my column in your local Jewish paper, please let me know.
                 
Although I have rarely been accused of representing the establishment, I found myself defending the RCA in a series of articles that appeared in the Jewish Week. The initial article praised the RCA for its handling of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Avi Weiss and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. That article was in turn criticized by Dov Zakheim and Steven Bayme in the same paper, which then gave me the opportunity to publish a rejoinder

The debates about religion and state in Israel proceed apace, and I recently had the opportunity to post my fullest treatment yet of this fraught topic. The context is a critique of a bill that purports to systematize the issue of religious conversion in Israel. The article appeared in Mida, and is currently being translated into Hebrew for that site. This will be my first foray into the Hebrew-speaking world on this issue. In addition, I recently rewrote my critique of religious institutionalization through the lens of the first chapters of the Book of Shmuel and the Talmud’s treatment of them. This article will appear in a forthcoming volume, which I am currently editing, honoring the memory of Marc Weinberg z”l. I have posted it online but have set up a paywall (just $1; if you’re interested in previewing it, email me).

The OU’s magazine, Jewish Action, recently had a special section on English-speaking olim and their impact in Israel. I contributed a short piece on life in Modiin and a short profile of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s impact on broader Israeli culture. I was also commissioned to profile filmmaker Joseph Cedar, but that piece did not end up in the magazine. I posted it here.

A couple of other odds and ends include this translation of an interview between Rabbi Prof. Alan Brill and Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes and this translation of an article on Mishna Sukkah by Rabbi Dr. Avie Walfish (see his stuff on Pesachim, too). A few months ago, I was interviewed by Nachum Segal about the English biography of Rav Yehuda Amital; the interview is archived here. A Facebook conversation about the history of Orthodox blogging, in which many of the most popular bloggers from a decade ago participated, was a lot of fun, too. Are we already getting nostalgic about the early years of blogging?

Before returning to Pesach, we must give Purim its due. This year was more productive than most on the Purim front, as I returned to work on our community Purim shpiel after a hiatus of several years. All of the clips can be viewed here, but my favorite is our lampoon of the Beit Shemesh elections, and particularly the concluding parody of “House of the Rising Sun.” I also posted a “news” item about controversies within Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In honor of the wedding of Dov and Esther Malka Karoll at the beginning of Adar II, a few of us wrote a קרולץ, a series of brief poems to be recited before each of the sheva berakhot. Good times.

Returning to Pesach, the recently-published Peninei Halakha: Laws of Pesah by R. Eliezer Melamed has been getting some good press and some excellent reviews. R. Eli Fink’s comments are here, and other reviews appear here and here. I was interviewed by Nachum Segal about this book as well. We posted a sample chapter (on kitniyot) last year, here. Speaking of kitniyot, my original contribution this year to the Pesach conversation has been a blog post on a theory of the origins of the kitniyot custom. I relate it to the shift to a three-field crop rotation in medieval Germany and northern France. Curious? Read the whole thing here.

Best wishes for a chag kasher ve-same’ach,

4/09/2014

My Profile of Joseph Cedar - and More

The most recent issue of Jewish Action features a large section on English-speaking olim to Israel. It profiles several communities and several olim who have had an impact on broader Israeli society. I was asked to write about being an oleh in Modiin, and was also asked to write two of the personal profiles. One - my profile of Rav Lichtenstein (scroll down)- was published. I also profiled filmmaker Joseph Cedar, but unfortunately the profile was ultimately left out, mainly because he simply does not consider himself an oleh. I really enjoyed my conversation with him, anyway. The editor has permitted me to post my profile of Cedar else here, so here it is:


Filmmaker Joseph Cedar has won awards and acclaim in Israel, Europe, and the United States, and has twice been a finalist for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Yet the day before the Academy Awards, a Shabbat, he walked several miles to a media event and addressed the crowd from a seat to which a microphone had been affixed beforehand, while his fellow panelists used hand-held microphones. This might make him seem like an American Orthodox dream come true, yet Cedar himself often wonders if the same avenues would have been open to him had his parents not made aliyah in 1973, when he was five. He looks at American Orthodoxy and sees that it has largely given up on attempting this balancing act, either by leaving the religion to assimilate and pursue ambitions, or by withdrawing from the broader cultural and professional world into a more exclusivist religious environment. He credits his sense of balance to his parents and the environment they chose to raise their family: “Their move to Israel meant I grew up with a values system that turned out to be superior to the one I would have adopted had they not made aliyah.”

Cedar does not consider himself an oleh. Aliyah, implies choice, and, as he puts it, “Nobody asked me.” He does not even consider himself American-Israeli, as his social milieu growing up in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood was almost entirely Hebrew-speaking. As Joseph and his five younger siblings grew up, even his parents’ home became Israeli. Yet American and world culture remained part and parcel of the home. “My parents exposed me to everything,” Joseph recalls, “not just American culture. The soundtrack of our house consisted of Broadway musicals, an American art form, but there were other things as well.”
Though he envisions a primarily Israeli audience when he makes his films, he acknowledges that this exposure, plus the additional years Joseph spent living in the US – as a student at NYU and when his father, a renowned molecular biologist, was on sabbatical – helped him consider a broader audience. His first two films (“Time of Favor”, 2000, and “Campfire”, 2004) explore aspects of the religious Zionist culture in which he was raised. They were acclaimed in Israel, but registered mild interest outside. His third film (“Beaufort”, 2007) examined the futility of Israel’s military presence in Lebanon. It won awards at major international film festivals. “Footnote” (2011), Cedar’s most acclaimed film, to date, is set in Hebrew University’s Talmud department and depicts the petty rivalries, competing theories, and sense of futility that characterize arcane academic disciplines. It won the award for best screenplay at Cannes and, like “Beaufort”, was an Oscar finalist.

Cedar made aliyah young enough to become a full-fledged, unhyphenated Israeli, a home-grown insider, but one who has been enriched by the culture, values, and religious sensibilities of his parents’ home. In this vein, he reminds us that the most profound way that Anglo olim make a difference in Israel is through their children and unborn generations who will be part of the Jewish future in the Jewish state.

4/03/2014

A Unified Theory of Kitniyot

The Ashkenazic custom to refrain from kitniyot developed out of agricultural and climatic conditions and developments that were particular to those communities. It is not the result of some sort of communal neurosis.

That's the gist of the brand-spanking-new theory of kitniyot that I just posted at the Times of Israel.
Enjoy, and please consider sharing that post with all those grumpy Ashkenazim and all those who think this custom is nonsensical.
Hag kasher ve-same'ah.