Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Purim Pashkeville: Reprise

In the wake of all the warnings about alcohol and minors on Purim, a Local Yeshiva Bochur (name suppressed to protect the protagonist) composed the following Purim Pashkeville last year.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Musical Note Teruma 5767

The Jewish Imperative to Sing
Part II (Second in a series)

The Tashbetz, a Rishon (d.1444), tells how a Chazzan/Talmid Chacham was insulted by some of his congregants as he officiated on Yom Tov in Majorca. In anger he vowed to never daven again at the Bimah. The congregation asked the Tashbetz to nullify the Chazzan's vow so that he could resume his position. The Tashbetz declared that the Chazzan's davening is a Torah Law ("mid'oraita") because "he is fulfilling the obligation of the congregation to say Kedushah...." His vow is therefore invalid because you can't vow to cancel a Mitzvah! After some discussion, the Tashbetz concludes his decision by adding that G-d Himself would want the Chazzan to reverse his vow, since "G-d wants to be sanctified by a person who has a good voice!" (As we wrote in last week's Note).

Daven well and sing along!

(© 2007 Cantor Sherwood Goffin. Reprinted by permission from LSS Echod)

Yated's YCT Critique Critiqued

I had been troubled by R' Harry Maryles' seemingly uncritical acceptance of critiques of the Left by the Right; instead of subjecting the critiques to investigation, he accepted them, with some disclaimers, as a basis for criticizing the Left (or the non-Right, at any rate). I am glad to see that he has modified his post about the YCT article.

However, the original Yated critique of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah deserves its own direct critique, because many of its points are either distortions or fabrications. Now, since no silver pot comes without a tarnished lining, there are one or two items where I agree with the article, and would like to see a response from Chovevei. But overall, as a basis to dismiss YCT as "non-Orthodox", the article is not well-grounded.

* * *

Ordinees of JTS and HUC (Conservative and Reform rabbis) working at YCT.

a) one is an administrator (Director of Wexner Fellows)

b) one teaches pastoral counseling (you need a musmach [Orthodox rabbi] for this?)

How does this break with the Rav's [Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt"l] klapei-pnim [internal]/ klapei-chutz [external] dichotomy [we may cooperate with the heterodox on antisemitism and other issues affecting Jews, but no theological dialogue - we are too far apart], how does it? These people are not teaching Conservative theology, they're teaching how to deal with congregants. I see nothing in hiring non-musmachim to teach psychology, that contradicts the extract from "Confrontation" [the Rav's article explaining his policy] they brought in the article.

* * *

The Hillel rabbi who caters to homosexual students. He's a HILLEL RABBI. He's not the rabbi of an Orthodox congregation. He HAS to deal fairly with non-Orthodox students, counsel them, help them maximize their religious experience. And plenty of Orthodox rabbis are Hillel rabbis. Not to mention that the president of YU was hired on the strength of having revitalized Hillel.

The Reform rabbi administrator - she's not "teaching young, aspiring rabbis." Actually, she doesn't appear on YCT's website at all. And YCT is not mentioned in her bio at the Wexner Foundation website. So where they got this one is a mystery.

The JTS-affiliated rabbi who teaches Talmud criticism, R' Jonathan Milgram: Look him up, and surprise surprise, he's a YU musmach. [Update: as a commenter notes, lots of Orthodox people are employed at JTS]. Revel has had people teaching this for decades, such as the late R' M.S. Feldblum. "We will not consider what criticism of the Talmud means for fear that finding out might require rending our garments." Obscurantism! Not even a "da ma shetashiv", but simply spitting on it unexamined. If there's one thing the Rav, as portrayed by R' Rakeffet, despised, it was the obscurantism of the Right.

* * *

R’ Maryles had characterized the quoted parsha piece by R’ Zev Farber as “disgusting”. I don't see anything "disgusting" in it, I don't see any of this psychologizing you criticize, I just see reading the text as given. I certainly don't see any of the "kefirah" [heresy, denial of basic principles] the article attributes to him. They're remarkably unspecific as to what Chazal say that R' Farber allegedly transgresses. And exactly how do they define "kefirah"? I thought it was defined as going against Rambam's 13 Principles. Not going against some anonymous article-writer's biases.

* * *

Kleinberg seems to be some kind of weirdo. There's dialogue, and there's giving in, which seems to be his path: teaching in a Reform-led interdenominational kollel, etc. I suppose. Their continuing enthusiastic endorsement of R' Kleinberg does seem a bit strange. They had a piece praising him and his new synagogue in the Fall 2006 newsletter. He seems politically blind/naive at the least, since he walked right into the wrong side of an argument between the Orthodox and Heterodox rabbis. The Phoenix rabbinic board had split, about 8 or 10 years ago, between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, and he joined the non-Orthodox side. His sample parsha piece quoted in the article, about God's imperfection, that does seem a problem. While yes, the apparent lack of knowledge has to be there to teach us something (naaseh adam betzalmeinu, lo tov heyot adam levado, etz oseh pri), they can't actually be imperfections in God. To me, this does seem a valid critique.

* * *

Dancing with the leaders of the heterdox seminaries at your Chag haSmicha is not giving them a platform from which to preach.

* * *

R' Berman disagreeing with R' Kotler etc., so what else is new? So did his rav, RYBS. Disagreeing with RYBS? I don't actually see that in the comments they quoted, which seemed pointedly to address klapei chutz, brit goral involvement, and explicitly citing irreconcilable theological differences.

* * *

Participating in the interseminary seminar: this I find problematic as well. However, the EDAH rabbis used to make one point very clear: the Rav taught his talmidim to think for themselves, to pasken for themselves. He did not generally insist that his opinion be universally followed, except for certain instances such as R' Rackman's agunah proposal. R' Yosef Adler, rosh yeshiva at Torah Academy of Bergen County and rav in Teaneck, described how someone had asked him about using the hot water tap on Shabbos. There was something special about it, I forget what, but he brought it to the Rav. The Rav told him to think for himself, and to see the second Reb Chaim on the Rambam, who does provide a justification for using the hot-water tap on Shabbos. I'm sure the Rav wouldn't have done so himself, but he ratified R' Adler paskening that way for someone else. Similarly on women's tefillah groups: lechatchilah [ab initio] don't do it, but bedieved [ex post facto], R' Riskin, here's how it should be done.

* * *

The attack on R' Linzer seems entirely unwarranted. There are mitzvos that are hard to deal with. Facing the fact that they are hard to understand, hard to deal with in terms of our understanding of God's goodness, is not "second-guessing" them. It is the only honest approach to many things. Sweeping problems under the rug with "you are not allowed to ask questions" is so often cited as "the reason I went off the derech - I asked questions in yeshiva, and was dismissed and told not to ask such questions." I've heard it time and time again.

Note that R' Linzer is not saying these mitzvos should be ignored, or erased, but that they are hard to live with. There is a famous story of the Rav, when someone came to him about a wedding, and it turned out that he was a kohen and she a gerushah, he thought about it all night, paced up & down, cried a long time, and eventually had to tell them "no". That is surrender to the halacha. But that is also confronting the very real human problems we face in following the halacha.

In fact, I went to their supposed “source” in Rashi for this “principle”, and found something completely different. But that deserves its own post.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Musical Note I

The Jewish Imperative to Sing,

Part I (First in a series)

By Cantor Sherwood Goffin

In Mishlei (Proverbs 3;9), we read "Honor G-d with your wealth", using the word "may-hone-cho". The Sages tell us to read it "may-chon'cho" - with what He has endowed you, and the P'sikta interprets that to mean, "may-gron'cho" -that if one has a good voice, honor G-d with your voice. The Bais Yosef, quoting the Shibbolei Haleket, comments that this teaches us that if one has a good voice he should use it to serve Hashem as the Shaliach Tsibbur in shul. The Bais Yosef quotes the story of Navot, who was punished because he once refused to use his G-d given gift of song in the Holy Temple, to show that using your talents for serving G-d is required, and not merely a good suggestion.

Daven well and sing along!

(Reprinted with permission from the Lincoln Square Synagogue Shabbat Echod)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Antisemitic Book Title

"Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ"

Just got the latest Scholars BookShelf catalogue - lots of great surplus stuff. They introduced a series on Daily Life in Antiquity: Periclean Greece, Aztecs, India, and of course...Israel, with the title above.

Grr. This title strikes me as antisemitic on two counts:

1) The Land of Israel was not called "Palestine" at the time of Jesus, it was the Roman province of Judaea, so-called after the Jewish kingdom of Judah which had still existed there, albeit under subjugation, when the Romans took over from the Greeks (Remember King Herod? What was he king of? The Sturgeon King? No, that's Barney Greengrass).

It was called Palestine only after the Bar-Kochba Revolt was defeated in 135 CE, more than a century after Jesus' death, as a direct slap at the few remaining Jews - it was named after another ancient tribe that had once been in the area, the Philistines.

2) If you're going to pick an anachronistic name, pick Israel - that's the name of the current country/political entity that has sovereignty over the area. To call it Palestine is to delegitimize the State of Israel - calling after either the
Roman-Byzantine-Arab-Crusader-Arab-Turkish-British name for the area, or the name used by the Arab enemies of Israel.

If one is writing a book on life in antiquity, one cannot but be aware of the history of the area. Using "Palestine" is a direct slap at the Jews and their State, the State of Israel.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Echoes of an Early Tu-Bishvat

I finally read Yaari's article on Tu Bishvat. I still think Tu Bishvat seders are silly, if you don't speak the Kabbalistic idiom for them to be meaningful. However, more information has come to light:

1) Tu Bishvat was a minor holiday in Eretz Israel in the Geonic period. Piyutim have come to light from the Cairo Genizah for the morning services on Tu Bishvat. In Bavel, however, it was nothing special.

The old Eretz Yisrael community was wiped out during the conquest of the First Crusade - most Jews shmadded out, the rest fled to the East. Records of their minhagim have only turned up recently, in the Geniza manuscripts; there is an old book of "the differences between the Eastern (Bavli) and Western (EY) Jews"; and some texts, such as the Minor Tractates and the Talmud Yerushalmi, bring down Palestinian customs.

Some of those customs have survived in Minhag Ashkenaz, as the Ashkenazim mostly came from Jews who had come from Eretz Yisrael in the Roman and Geonic periods, settled in Italy, and then moved north across the Alps into the Rhineland, France and Germany. Some of these customs' distinctiveness, and some of their existence, have been muted by increased interaction between the Jews of Christendom and the Jews of Dar al-Islam during the period of the Rishonim.

2) A teshuvah from Rabbenu Gershom Me-or HaGolah, early 11th century, says that we do not fast on Tu Bishvat, because the mishnah calls it a Rosh Hashanah, and we don't fast on Rosh Hashanah. But really the halacha is that we can fast on Rosh Hashanah, so what's going on? Odds are, he had a tradition that Tu Bishvat was a minor holiday, and he used the Rosh Hashanah connection as an asmachata (contrived support for something we know is true anyway).

3) Maharil records that we don't say techinot; the Minhagim of R' Isaac Tyrnau says that we don't say Tachanun; and a student of R' Israel Isserlein records that in Austria they don't say tachanun on Tu Bishvat. These are 16th-century sources, I think.

4) A book of Ashkenazic minhagim first printed in Venice in 1590 records that Ashkenazim eat extra fruit on Tu Bishvat.

The suppression of Tachanun and of fasting are brought down in the Shulchan Aruch.

The Hemdat Yamim then, about 1675 or so (not printed until 1721) creates the Tu Bishvat seder from Divine inspiration, and encourages his friends from his mystical society to do it as well. He incorporates the old custom of eating fruit, with the newer kabbalistic infusion of sanctity into acts. Tu Bishvat was a nothing day in the Eastern lands, no suppression of fasting or tachanun, no special fruit-eating, until their adoption of kabbalah brought the Tu Bishvat seder into their habits.

So the Old Ashkenazic customs, which trace back to Old Eretz Yisrael customs, of eating fruit and of not fasting or saying tachanun, long predate the Hemdat Yamim. It makes sense that EY/Ashkenaz preserved this day as a minor holiday, while Bavel/Edot haMizrach ignored it, since only in EY is the fiscal year for maaser and trumah operative.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tu BiSh-what? Seder?

The more I look into it, the more I think: Tu Bish'vat seders are silly.

Josh Waxman on Parshablog has a post about his problems with the Tu Bishvat seder as currently practiced, particularly among the Moderns. He held that it was Lurianic, and practiced among Sephardim, but the connection of its source with Sabbateanism made a black mark against it.

The problems run deeper than he initially says, though. The fundamental text for the Tu BiShevat Seder is from the Hemdat Yamim, which, as Waxman brings from, is widely considered to be of Sabbatean origin. Given that much of Jewish culture since 1667 has worked to stamp out Sabbateanism, this doesn't sound good for us.

The Tu BiShevat Haggadah has been separately published as "Peri Etz Hadar." It begins with a long harangue on the benefits of making blessings before eating, because not doing so, is like stealing from God, rather than asking His permission to use His food. Then we have some explanation of a list of thirty (30) fruits, organised as sets of ten sefirot (channels of Divine emanation, loosely) with the three (of four) lower spiritual worlds. We then get a series of scriptural, Midrashic and kabbalistic readings, then a series of Kabbalistic readings associated with some of the 30 fruits, and 4 cups of wine of different colors are drunk during the proceedings. All told, the whole ritual should take several hours to complete.

Even according to Peri Etz Hadar, which I have (it's a nice little book you can pick up in Judaica shops; it's also a few pages of squinchy Rashi print in the Hemdat Yamim which can be found on, it's not Lurianic. The author states right out that the Rav ZLH"H (by which I assume he means the AriZal) never did this ritual, but that he does it and encourages his friends to do so as well. So while the text may be "Lurianic", it's not found in The Writings of the Arizal. Pseudepigraphy is hardly unknown in Kabbalah (viz. the Zohar itself, which is at least in part from the 13th century).

As far as I can tell, then, it originates with (Sabbatean) Hemdat Yamim; it's a made-up service unconnected to the AriZal; and really, folks, Tu Bishvat is the April 15th of the trees.

If it's all about created ritual, and we Ashkenazim don't speak in Kabbalistic idiom since the early 19th century, the Zoharic readings from the Peri Etz Hadar will mean nothing to us. The symbolism remains empty. So why bother? If you're Sephardic, or Chassidic, and still think in Kabbalistic idiom, say the whole service, let it mean something. As for us, if we do bother, why not just use the made-up Reform Gates of Fruit service (or whatever it's called) - it has just as much "legitimacy" as Pri Etz Hadar.

The Parallels of Asher Lev

I just added an Analysis section to the Wiki entry on The Gift of Asher Lev, showing parallels between Potok's "Ladover Chasidim" and the Lubavitcher movement. In case anyone cares. It has been a while since I read the books, so I don't remember enough details to do a great comparison, but it's a start.

We'll see how long it takes for partisans of one position or another within Lubavitch to start mucking with it. Call it an experiment.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Movie of the Rav: Lonely Man of Faith

I attended the New York premiere of Lonely Man of Faith, the Rav Soloveitchik biopic, last night at Yeshiva University's Lamport Auditorium, the room where the Rav used to give his big public lectures.

As expected, the event began on Jewish time, about eight o'clock or so. R' Brander said a few words of welcome, as did one or two others, but then Ethan Isenberg, the filmmaker, spoke for 20 minutes, droning on and on thanking everyone who had helped him with the film - the interviewees, correspondents, R' Nordlicht the keeper of the tapes, the foundations that produce books, the relatives who allowed him to use photographs, the YU leadership for all their help, the camera operators, the key grip, etc. etc. Twenty minutes of this.

Finally the film began. After some initial technical difficulties, it went pretty well. A number of people I know spoke on the film about the Rav and their relationships with, and experiences of, him: R' Saul Berman, R' Reuven Cohn, R' JJ Schachter, R' Shalom Carmy, R' Kenny Brander, a number of Boston people who I didn't know, and most affectingly, his sister Dr. Anne Gerber.

It really brought out how New York was always a source of tension for him, even if that was where his main talmidim (students) were, towards the end he worried that some were listening to him in search of something on which to "get" him, much as some have speculated that yeshivish guys listen to R' Herschel Schachter's shiurim on to find grounds on which to criticize him.

Boston, however, was home. He was always relaxed there, his wife and children were there, the school that was his pride & joy (although his wife, and later his daughter Dr. Twersky, really managed the school on a day-to-day basis). After the difficulties of the early years, when he was falsely accused of racketeering in his efforts to clean up the kosher meat business, and encountered opposition from assimilationists over the founding of Maimonides, Boston became his center, his base.

The Rav was a caged tiger during shiur, through the early 1960s, one rav recounted. Flashing black eyes, darting to and fro. If he called on you, and you understood the material, he wrote down "yada" (knew it). If you didn't understand it, he wrote "lo yada" (didn't know). If you looked like you knew it but didn't understand it to his satisfaction, he wrote down "shakran" (liar).

The annus horribilis of 1967, when he lost his mother, brother and wife in a thre-month period, changed him, mellowed him. At one point in the 1970s, R' Haym Soloveitchik stopped in during shiur, and when someone came up with an answer, the Rav said "not too bad, could be". R' Haym noted afterwards, "since when did Papa say 'not bad' to such nonsense?"

The film stated outright that the final illness was Parkinsons. The Rav was aware and thinking right up to the end - one of the rabbeim came to visit near the end, and said something about a shaila in the Rambam, and the Rav quoted back several paragraphs out of Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah.

The film concluded with the controversy over defining what the Rav was: rav, posek, teacher, philosopher, for/against secular studies, for/against this or that. It was noted that he gave different answers to different people, and even beyond that, different students who were in the room at the same time could come away with different impressions of where the Rav stood on any given issue. R' JJ Schachter said, The Rav was a complicated man.

We left immediately after the film and went to the seforim sale, hoping to beat the worst of the crowding, so we didn't get to hear the panel discussion afterwards. I expect that will be recorded on within a few days.

Someone who used to daven at my shul has recently set up a great resource and links site on The Rav. R' Brander noted it by name in his opening; please check it out. Full disclosure: he links to my notes on some R' Rakeffet lectures on the Rav from 1993.

I think Isenberg's too-long speech may be due to youth. Isenberg had been in computers, then switched to film school. He was scrounging around for a project, his first one, and R' Rakeffet mentioned that he was looking for someone to make a film about the Rav - so the shidduch was made. It's his first feature film project. I've been to other screenings of a documentary, e.g. Trembling Before G-d by Sandi Simcha DuBowski. DuBowski gave a 3-minute speech introducing the film, we saw the film, then there was a panel discussion. Worked just fine. Improvements will come with age, I'm sure.

I highly recommend the film, and hope it comes out soon for wider distribution, so we can show it at our synagogue.