The Shabbos App (Yes it is Real)

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The Shabbos App was introduced to the world this week. A lot of people think it’s a hoax. It’s not. It’s very, very real.

Several people asked me what I thought about the app and I wanted to speak with someone at the Shabbos App before I wrote anything. I had a nice conversation with one of the people working on the app and feel comfortable writing about the app, their ambitions, and the consequences.

Almost everyone working on the app is Shomer Shabbos. This is not a subversive attempt to ruin Shabbat or pull people away from Orthodox Judaism. Rather, the app is for Orthodox Jews who want to observe Shabbat and use their smartphones. The developers spent considerable time and effort researching halachic reasoning and opinions on the subject. They know what they are doing and what they are up against. Read…

Rosh Hashanah is the Sweetest Day of Judgment

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Rosh Hashanah is a funny holiday. It’s not funny because of the humorous High Holidays jokes that rabbis tell. The humor of Rosh Hashanah is to be found in its inherent contradictions.

The most important aspect of Rosh Hashanah is that it is our day of judgment, when every person’s fate is determined by G-d. Who will live? Who will die? Who will prosper? Who will experience failure? The days and weeks preceding Rosh Hashanah are filled with awe and reverence. We seek to make amends to anyone we might have hurt or slighted in the past year. It’s a propitious time for introspection and focus on the task at hand, teshuva – repentance. Read…

A Remarkable Rainbow of Rabbis

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A few weeks ago, the Israeli Rabbinate granted their coveted Rabbinic ordination to several dozen new rabbis. A cousin of mine was among the celebrants and I was very happy for him upon this great achievement. This cousin is an American born charedi learning in Kollel. He kind of defies stereotypical categories – yes it runs in the family – but if you saw him, you would assume he was an idealistic charedi who is living a very simple Israeli lifestyle for the sake of Torah study. And that sort of fits.

When I saw photos of the event, I could not help but notice something remarkable that also defies stereotypes. Read…

Picking New Apples for Rosh Hashanah

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A slight detour from the important discussion of the previous few essays. This is like a case study. We’ll get to the next essay soon.

Everyone on the Internet with a Jewish grandmother went apple picking yesterday and took photos for Rosh Hashanah. It was impossible not to notice Somehow this has become a tradition that more and more people are doing every year. I love it. It’s a lovely addition to the High Holiday season.

We always try to do something creative for our Shana Tova cards. Read…

Cultivating Positive Orthodox Jewish Experiences

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Quick recap: My theory is that belief in God and Torah m’Sinai is not the primary factor in one’s choice to join, abandon, or remain in Orthodox Judaism. The primary factor is how one feels about Orthodox Judaism. There is an infinite number of reasons that one might develop positive or negative associations with Orthodox Judaism that include intellectual, emotional, experiential, and spiritual reasons. Therefore, I suggest that the way forward is to refocus our attention from the overemphasis on beliefs in God and Torah m’Sinai and shift our emphasis to cultivating positive Jewish experiences. We should be giving people the kinds of experiences that make them want to associate with Orthodox Judaism and these experiences should be cleverly crafted and implemented.

Admittedly, this was a bit of an awkward place to pause. The implementation of the theory was open to very broad interpretation and analogies presented in the case for the theory seem to have influenced the kind of suggestions people who agreed with the theory were making. So let me clarify two things that I was not saying before we get to brass tacks.

I was not saying that people who leave Orthodox Judaism leave because it’s easy or fun or based purely on emotion. In fact, I have said many times that it is actually really hard to leave and sometimes people stay simply because it’s too hard to leave. They are miserably stuck. Further, many people discover knowledge that contradicts their religious education and they accept this knowledge as truth. But that’s not usually enough to push a person out of Orthodox Judaism. What happens next is the key. When their newly discovered knowledge is met with scorn and derision by authority figures, or bad answers are given for good questions, or the person realizes that they have been lied to, or when the internal conflict between two accepted truths is too difficult to navigate, the feeling that ensues because of the new data is enough to push someone out of Orthodox Judaism. So when I say people leave because they don’t want to stay, I mean that there are many reasons why someone might not want to stay and very often that feeling is sparked by intellectual discovery. Of course there are people who act purely for intellectual reasons. They are the exceptions. I hope this clears things up a bit.

I was also not saying that Orthodox Judaism needs to be more fun. I was not saying that Orthodox Judaism is just a social club. I was not saying we need more cholent and every Jewish experience should be like NCSY. I was not saying we should simply do a better job marketing Judaism. I was not saying to avoid discussing belief in God and Torah m’Sinai. I was not saying experiences are the only thing that matters. I was saying that we need to emphasize the importance of a positive Orthodox Jewish experience and in this essay I will be explaining what that means to me. I don’t think this will make Orthodox Judaism work for everyone. But I think there are a significant number of Orthodox Jews who would benefit greatly from this approach and I think the risk in maintaining the status quo is great.

A basic paradigm shift needs to happen in Orthodox Judaism for any of this to make sense, but I think it’s an obvious truth that has been ignored for too long.