Monday, March 31, 2008

Reb Nachman Weighs In on Lipa

Musical Note By Cantor Sherwood Goffin
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov on Secular Music

For those of us who are perplexed by the recent rabbinical ban on concerts of Jewish Music here and in Israel, we can attain a small insight into the general attitude of the "frum" world to music that sounds too much like contemporary popular music, through this excerpt from "Likutei Maharan," the words of this great Chassidic leader who lived in Bratzlav, Ukraine, from 1772-1810: "A holy melody gives strength to the forces of holiness. But the music of the "sitra achra," the "other side," damages these forces and lengthens the exile. It makes people stumble and traps them like birds in a snare. Be very careful never to listen to this kind of music at all. The musicians and singers who produce it have no religious intentions whatsoever. On the contrary, they only want to make money or become famous. Listening to this kind of music can seriously weaken your devotion to G-d. But the melodies played by a truly religious, G-d-fearing musician can be very inspiring. They can strengthen your devotion immensely."


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Spirituality - Pfui!

This week’s parsha, Shmini, opens with the dedication of the Kohanim. At the end of the ceremony, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav & Avihu, in an excess of religious zeal, caught up in the excitement of the moment, brought two shovels-full of burning incense as an offering, and were struck dead by God for the favor.

Why? Seems pretty harsh. And the Torah doesn’t even explain exactly what went wrong until three parshiyot later, in Acharei Mot, where it gives the proper procedure for entering the Holy of Holies – the Yom Kippur Divine Service. If one wants to enter the Holy of Holies, a kohen has to do the whole Yom Kippur service, with 10 washings and immersions and changes of clothing, goats, bulls, confessions, Azazel, the whole shebang. It’s so involved that I doubt anyone ever did it other than on Yom Kippur when it was ordained as proper.

So why wait so long? We noted that the end of the parsha was about kashrut, permitted and forbidden animals, prefaced with instructions how the priests are to eat different types of sacrifices, characterized over and over again as “choq”, arbitrary rules. The whole set of laws dealing with the Temple are basically chuqim, arbitrary. We aren’t expected to understand them, we probably can’t understand their rationales (even if in many cases we can ascribe hermeneutical meanings after-the fact). And in fact, every law in the Torah has an aspect of choq – we are to follow them, even if we don’t personally understand them. God is laying the ground rules for dealing with law and life – you gotta do what you gotta do (to quote Toranga Leela).

The following parshiyot cover a wide range of tumah-taharah issues: childbirth, metzorah (leprosy), metzorah of the house (mildew), zav zavah and niddah (discharges from the organs of generation) –all of which are not just bodily functions that occur in or out of normal time, but also convey tumah, a condition of unfitness to enter the Temple, and the prescribed arbitrary rituals for purification from same, and restoration of taharah, fitness ot enter the Templ.

Only after two parshiyot of all this do we get the third parsha, of Acharei Mot (After the death of these saints, the sons of Aaron). Here we are given the rules for entering the Holy of Holies, id est, the entire Yom Kippur Avodah. Only afterward do we get more rules about sanctity, such as how to shecht (slaughter), which sexual relations are acceptable or not, and finally in the next parsha, Kedoshim, what R’ Ed Feld calls “the Holiness Code”, a set of ethical rules to govern our interpersonal relations, to set us apart socially and ethically from the other nations that do not have the Halacha, the Divine Law. Why the interlude? Why only then can we be given the rules about personal probity?

What was the flaw in Nadav and Avihu’s actions? Lawlessness. They acted out of pure personal will, with no aspect of Divine will. They were swept up by the spirit of the moment, and in an expression of their personal spirituality, they did for themselves what they saw Papa and Uncle Moshe doing, figuring that this was the Right Way to Go. But they had missed a crucial detail: everything Moshe and Aaron did in the dedication of the Kohanim was By The Express Command Of God. Why was this personal expression of spirituality then forbidden, if it was just a copy of what Moshe and Aaron were doing? Why was it answered with death?

We have to reenact the learning process of Bnei Yisrael to get to the answer. Look at the ensuing material. Permitted and forbidden animals (described as tahor and tamei, parallel to fitness for Temple service). Purity and impurity for Temple service. Distinctions between the usable and the unusable. Judaism is all about distinctions. They had to be educated about distinctions in food. They had to be educated about distinctions in fitness and unfitness of their own bodies. Then fitness or unfitness based on outside factors, in the home. Basic bodily processes related to life (childbirth) and potential life and its loss (menstruation and zav/zavah). Only then, once they understood the breadth of distinctions necessary to comprehend the arbitrary distinctions in the Temple, could Bnei Yisrael understand that Religion and Law Walk Hand in Hand. That extensive procedures, based on emphasizing distinctions between sin and righteousness, life and death, exaltation and commonality, were necessary to approach God, the ultimate distinction, between the supernal Unity of God and the multiplicity of the physical universe.

Spirituality, the inchoate yearning for Something Higher, can be a good thing, if it leads to Torah and Mitzvos, which in turn bring us closer to God. But unfettered Spirituality, the inchoate yearning made flesh in totally self-willed acts of trying to get close to God, ultimately denies God and elevates the personal will to a pseudo-Divinity. That is why Nadav and Avihu lost their lives. In their self-willed drive to approach God, they lost sight of the most important thing – that only God can tell us how to approach Him. Without the two-way relationship, we are running into a brick wall, and can lose our way and our lives. It is a cautionary tale, that while all people may approach God, they may only do so in the way He prescribes, through Torah and Mitzvot. Any other path elevates our will above His Will, and misses the mark.

This talk was delivered by my beautiful brilliant wife Debbie Baker to her parsha group here in Flatbush. We worked it out together last night, and she gave it over (this is my understanding; I expect her presentation was somewhat different) this afternoon.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Purim links

The Jewish Week, often good

A Kol Korei against learning Na"ch (hat tip,

The Jewish Press

Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship (hat tip Saul Lieberman z"l)

Shushan Purim Missive chez Chaz

Musical Note By Cantor Sherwood Goffin


Today I am writing about the freedom that all of those who lead the daily and Shabbat services really have - here and throughout the Western World. There is truly no necessity to worry about utilizing proper Nusach Hatefillah. After all, if one looks around - according to the dictum of "Minhag Yisroel K'din Hu"- since no one else is doing it, I declare that it is fully legal to disregard the "so-called rules" of davening, regardless of anything I have written previously.

It is therefore also acceptable to throw in any melody that comes to mind into the davening - from Les Miserables to Bon Jovi - as long as the congregation recognizes it and is willing to stand up and call out: "Daven Well and Sing Along" while doing "The Wave." The Wave must however be done from Right to Left as is prescribed in the Holy Book of "Minhagei Chelm V'hoAsoro HaBatlonim". Shachris, Musaf, Yom Tov - what's the difference! "As long as it feels good", is the mantra to follow.

Dikduk, Beiur Tefillah, all that stuff is really unnecessary, as long as when we get up to dance before saying the Amida, the rhythm tickles our toes and gets the feet moving. Kavana is no longer a requirement, since most of us already talk to each other more about Spitzer and Bear-Stearns than we talk to God in the Siddur.

This is the World of Hefkervelt, and if we like it, it will inspire us to come back again and again. What better way to get new members and keep the old ones glued bug-eyed to their seats! And if I don't stop right now, I'll have a hemorrhage!


Monday, March 10, 2008

And may you go from Splinter to Splinter

In the early part of this century, the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) was formed as a YU/RIETS alumni rabbinical group, because the European-trained rabbis of Agudas Horabbonim looked down on American musmachim, even though in many cases they themselves had granted that smicha. Today, the RCA, and its affiliates the Orthodox Union (congregational) and Cantorial Council, are the strongest Orthodox groups in America.

But when a group becomes dominant, it can often stagnate, and lose sight of the reasons it was founded. Today, we have a new Modern Orthodox rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. It has a consciously Modern program, ordains its own rabbis, and sends them to pulpits and schools across the country. It has a strong service component, training rabbis for community work rather than simply for Torah’s sake. While this might not be an ideal, it is necessary as fewer Modern Orthodox rabbis have been going into pulpit and school work, weakening the Modern Orthodox movement in America, as the best live up to their Zionist ideals and move to Israel, while the relative paucity of Modern Orthodox teachers and rabbis allows the larger number of Black Hat rabbis to fill schools and pulpits, where they influence the next generation to reject modernity and openness to society.

Just as the Black Hat Torah-Only (see R. E.E. Dessler, Michtav M’Elyahu, III:353) model was less than ideal, but perceived as necessary to rebuild Orthodoxy after the War, so too, Modern Orthodoxy needs to rebuild itself after becoming unwitting victims in a culture war not of its own making.

[From R’ Chaim Brown’s Divrei Chaim blog: R’ Dessler (Michtav vol III p 353) wrote that the Lithuanian yeshivos follow a different path than those of Frankfurt; it is better to sacrifice 999 bachurim who won’t make it through the system in order to produce one gadol b’yisrael through torah-only immersion.]

Just as they fear for (or welcome?) incursions from the Right, RIETS and the RCA have closed ranks against the upstart Chovevei, and have refused membership to rabbis ordained by Chovevei. Too, in the recent conversion controversy, the RCA basically knuckled under to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (increasingly dominated by Black Hats who themselves are non-Zionist) in limiting the number of Modern courts empowered to do conversions without requiring similar stringent standards from Black Hat conversion mills, both in Israel and abroad.

Therefore, Left Wing Modern Orthodox rabbis from Chovevei, who need a rabbinic support organization for their future work, and more Modern-oriented rabbis from the RCA who want to set up conversion courts not dominated by anti-Modern forces in Israel, are joining forces to create the Rabbinic Fellowship (an unfortunate name; while Chevrah is a good Jewish word, in English it connotes Christian groups). As there have been similar rumblings in Israel about Black Hat domination of local and national official rabbinates, perhaps this group will join up with the more left-leaning Israeli National-Religious rabbinate to create a truly worldwide united Orthodox rabbinate.