Finkorswim.com http://finkorswim.com Tue, 11 Oct 2016 18:10:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.6.6 Eliyahu Fink clean Eliyahu Fink thefinks@gmail.com thefinks@gmail.com (Eliyahu Fink) Finkorswim.com http://finkorswim.com/wp-content/uploads/powerpress/PJC-105.jpg http://finkorswim.com 17178358 What It Feels Like to Be A Survivor of Sex Abuse in the Era Of Trump http://finkorswim.com/2016/10/11/what-it-feels-like-to-be-a-survivor-of-sex-abuse-in-the-era-of-trump/ http://finkorswim.com/2016/10/11/what-it-feels-like-to-be-a-survivor-of-sex-abuse-in-the-era-of-trump/#comments Tue, 11 Oct 2016 17:01:55 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9605

We all heard Donald Trump brag about committing sexual assault. It was shocking to hear, and upsetting to nearly everyone. Trump wants us to believe that it was locker room banter: just men talking the way men talk! In other words, it was harmless. But Donald Trump is wrong. The words he spoke were not […]

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We all heard Donald Trump brag about committing sexual assault. It was shocking to hear, and upsetting to nearly everyone. Trump wants us to believe that it was locker room banter: just men talking the way men talk! In other words, it was harmless. But Donald Trump is wrong. The words he spoke were not harmless at all.

Trump’s words bite. They are vicious and degrading to all women and violate all notions of decency in a civil society. But for many people, Trump’s bite is more than just a bite. His words carry a poisonous venom which seeps into the bloodstream and becomes life threatening.

Whether Donald Trump turned sex abuse into a punch line or into a boast, his words tear at the heart of anyone who has been raped or touched or groped or even gawked at sexually or violated in any way without consent. Trump trampled on consent. He normalized abuse. That is salt in the survivor’s wounds and it burns.

Trump’s words inflict the kind of pain that survivors of abuse are accustomed to feeling in a society that includes boors and brutes like Donald Trump. We know that not every space can be a safe space, and we can live in a mostly good world even with a few monsters.

Here’s what we cannot live with: Our friends, family, teachers, mentors, leaders, and community members standing behind this bully. Trump didn’t merely boast about assault and then offer a pallid, halfhearted non-apology. He said he’s sorry. Then he said we should really be focusing on ISIS and Bill Clinton and jobs. This communicates to anyone who was hurt by his words that if they care about this at all, they are overreacting. They should really be worrying about ISIS.

We can’t live in a world that is less than completely and totally sickened by Trump’s words. When you choose Trump, you are not choosing Trump over Hillary Clinton. You are choosing Trump over your friends and family who are survivors of sex abuse.

Abuse happens because good people are silent, or because there are no good people who will listen to the abused. It happens because men can joke about forcing themselves onto women without consent and then run for president. Billy Bush, the other man in the lewd conversation with Trump, was deemed unfit to host morning television. Yet, somehow, Trump is still in the running to become the leader of the free world and civil society.

Survivors of abuse know that there are monsters in the world. Abuse hurts. But for many survivors, the real pain is the isolation of having nowhere to turn for help, not believing society cares, witnessing abusers receiving honors and plaudits, and the ever-present thought that our world will always choose the charismatic bully over the broken victim. Abuse breaks so much inside a person. Supporting and cheering a predator like Trump breaks those same places again.

A vote for Trump affirms the survivor’s most basic fears. Your vote for Trump says that sexual assault is not a big deal. It says that joking about abuse is okay. It’s another way of saying that you prefer the predator over the victim.

Know that this is what you’re saying to survivors of abuse and others with your support for Donald Trump. You are choosing the violent perpetrator over the victim. It creates a world that is impossible for a survivor of sex abuse to accept. It is a world that no good person should be willing to accept.

Edited by Elisheva Avital. Hire her!

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Why the War of Words About Open Orthodoxy Won’t Matter http://finkorswim.com/2016/02/10/why-the-war-of-words-about-open-orthodoxy-wont-matter/ http://finkorswim.com/2016/02/10/why-the-war-of-words-about-open-orthodoxy-wont-matter/#comments Wed, 10 Feb 2016 20:06:32 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9564

Judging by the number of articles, words per article, comments per article, and pure passion, one could reasonably conclude that the war of words being waged against Open Orthodoxy is of major public interest and concern. I am certain that many people are extremely invested in how this all plays out on the pages of […]

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Judging by the number of articles, words per article, comments per article, and pure passion, one could reasonably conclude that the war of words being waged against Open Orthodoxy is of major public interest and concern. I am certain that many people are extremely invested in how this all plays out on the pages of Orthodox publications and blogs. I am no longer one of those people.


Every real argument I have seen against Open Orthodoxy is a version of an appeal to authority. Whether the authority is a particular rabbi, Daas Torah, meta-halacha or mesorah, authority is the issue. Opponents claim that Open Orthodox rabbis and teachers lack authority, so their opinions are invalid. This lack of authority is demonstrated by pointing to incidents, statements, and policies that contradict prevailing Orthodox norms. Proponents of Open Orthodoxy refute these claims by invoking other commonly accepted authorities who do support them. ‘Round and around it goes.

This entire argument is based on the false assumption that denominations of Judaism will continue to be as rigid as they are today. Remove this assumption, and the entire war is rendered academic and of minuscule consequence. I don’t believe that the people waging the war, nor the people who are publicly defending and retaliating, are aware that they are doing battle on a platform which rests upon a mountain of dynamite. It is about to explode.

Here’s the thing. The next generation of Modern Orthodox Jews are Millennials who grew up in a digital world where authority is routinely challenged. Fact-checking teachers was easy even when we had only Microsoft Encarta. Today, Google allows us to fact-check from our phones before the authority finishes their sentence. Now, authority must be based on sound reasoning and meaningful arguments, not fear or shame. Observance and religious practice are still of utmost importance, but the reasons for observance and practice are different. Appeal to authority with Millennials at your peril. The gods of man-made authority are dead to them.

Authority remains alive and well within the insular Orthodox Jewish communities. Without regular access to the Internet or digital media, the next generation of insular Orthodox Jews are throwbacks to the Baby Boomer generation. In essence, they are living the kind of life the Boomers lived. When it comes to authority, Boomer-aged Modern Orthodox rabbis and scholars are more similar to insular Orthodox Jews than to Modern Orthodox Millennials. The genie is out of the Modern Orthodox bottle, and there is no going back.

All religious denominations are artificial constructs, including Modern Orthodoxy. We self-identify with a denomination because we voluntarily conform to the typical practices of that group. Denominationalism only functions in a world of authority, as it would make no sense for a person to join a denomination without accepting the group’s authority to govern. It would be as pointless as someone playing poker with friends, but using a different set of rules. The existence of the group relies upon its members accepting authority. In order for the denomination of Modern Orthodox Judaism to exist, people need to voluntarily accede to its governing principles and general rules. In other words, Modern Orthodox Judaism still relies on authority. This will become a problem, because Millennials don’t really do authority.

Modern Orthodoxy as a denomination may not exist in twenty years. The next version will shift from a denomination of people who agree on matters of authority, to a self-selecting group that wants to share common religious experiences and values. Autonomy will replace authority. Once self-selection is no longer based on voluntary compliance with authority, the war being waged right now will seem like a non-essential footnote in our collective story. The war only makes sense if we choose to police who may self-identify with our group. It won’t be long before that form of self-identification will be our generation’s dinosaur. We will think of it the way Modern Orthodox Boomers think of “that’s way we did it in the shtetl.” Boomers know about that sort of thinking, but they don’t make any use of it in their internal community policing. They do use “the Rav said” or “Rav Schachter says” or even “Reb Moshe held” for internal community policing. Now, those days are numbered.

The assumption that Modern Orthodox Judaism will function as an artificially constructed division of people with a commonly held reverence for an authority is incorrect. Soon, no one will care what Rabbi Gordimer or Prof. Marc Shapiro said about the kashrus of Open Orthodoxy. What will matter is the way religious experiences are constructed. Groups will be determined by common values and goals, not reverence for common authority. Arguments over who is right or wrong about this text or that halachic nuance will have no bearing on who we allow into our social group. Our groups won’t preselect members based on compliance with a specific authority. Individual practice will not be the determinative factor in group formation. That’s why I don’t think the war is relevant. Modern Orthodox Millennials are not invested in the question of whose authority will reign supreme; it doesn’t matter to us.

This all may sound like insane doublespeak and troubling hooey to people older than 35 or 40 years old. It may sound so disturbing that the establishment will feel pressure to quash autonomy. You may think you must fight this trend and resurrect authority back from the dead. Don’t bother and don’t worry.

As an idea, Modern Orthodox Judaism can thrive without relying on authority. It already does. Just look at the deinstitutionalized mixed Modern Orthodox communities, the Millennial Shabbos minyanim, the surge of neo-Chassidus, and the incredible online networks of autonomous and committed Modern Orthodox Millennials. That’s your future. You can influence and inspire an inclusive future or waste more time sustaining a divisive Quixotic Crusade disguised as an imperative war. We’ve made our choice. You make yours. Choose wisely.

Edited by Elisheva Avital. Hire her!

I stopped paying attention to the heated debates for and against Open Orthodoxy when i realized that pretty soon…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, February 10, 2016

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Conscious Judaism Reading List http://finkorswim.com/2015/12/07/conscious-judaism-reading-list/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/12/07/conscious-judaism-reading-list/#comments Mon, 07 Dec 2015 15:23:16 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9504

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In 2011, I compiled a list of my favorite books that explore and inform the rationalist Orthodox Jewish world and shared it around Chanukah time. A couple of years later, I compiled a list of my favorite books that are decidedly non-rationalist. People actually use these lists and that’s awesome.

Over the last couple of years, my personal journey has taken me from rationalist Judaism to something very different than rationalist Judaism. I am not sure what to call it, but I think it can be called Conscious Judaism. By this we mean to say that we engage with Judaism, its flaws, its beauty, its quirks, all of it, consciously. We do not seek to answer all the hard questions or claim that anything is perfect. Instead, we seek out the beauty and meaning in each aspect of our Jewish life and consciously choose to experience those moments as best as we can.

Along the way, I have read a lot of books. I have reread a lot of books in a new light too. I thought it might be useful to compile a new book list. This list would be a compilation of books that have influenced or inspired me along this journey. It might not be apparent how it all fits together, and that’s okay, but I assure you, these books all mean a lot to me.

The List:

Torah Umadda might be my favorite book about Judaism. It is almost certainly the most influential. But it’s not because of its content, which is amazing. It’s because of its author. Through his books and writings, Rabbi Norman Lamm has become my muse and inspiration. Torah Umadda is magnificent, but Derashot Ledorot and the online library of his sermons has changed me forever. The art of drash, the power of symbols, the willingness to stand alone, and the importance of precision and mastery over language in all Rabbi Lamm’s work, is profoundly meaningful to me and I think Torah Umadda is an excellent gateway into Rabbi Lamm’s universe.

Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation by my friend Eric Kaplan does the unthinkable, it is book of philosophy, religion, culture, parenthood, and comedy that makes every single one of those subject more interesting than they would be on their own. That makes the book great, but the thing that gets that book onto this list is Kaplan’s ultimate point. I won’t ruin the book, but he argues that mysticism, and really all religion, is not meant to be the answer, rather they are meant to help us discover the answer. I agree. Leave it to a guy who writes lines for Sheldon Cooper to make sense out of everything.

The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim was recommended to me a bunch of years ago by a good friend. I was in my rationalist phase and thought there was no way it would be interesting to me to read about a Chasidic Rebbe. I am glad I was wrong but I am also glad I waited to read this book. It meant so much more to me now than it would have meant 5 years ago. In essence, Reb Simcha Bunim was the “anti-Rebbe Rebbe” who iconoclastically “wasn’t” a Rebbe for a massive following that he told not to follow him. He was a pharmacist and a philosopher who emphasized modern ideas like self-awareness and brutal honesty with oneself. A Millennial Rebbe.

The Sabbath, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is an absolute gem. Rabbi Heschel waxes eloquently about the beauty of Shabbos as a holy monument of time. The short book has inspired many people to appreciate the beauty of Shabbos and it was incredibly emotional to experience this great man’s feelings for Shabbos through his written word. The concepts and presentation have influenced me over the last few years. The Sabbath is very powerful and an indispensable text.

The Queen You Thought You Knew was reviewed on this site when it was released in 2011. It was my initial foray into the Torah of Rabbi David Fohrman and I was hooked immediately. Subsequent to the release of this book, Rabbi Fohrman launched Aleph-Beta Academy where he has unleashed his creative and ingenious text based interpretations of Torah and N’aCh. I enjoy Rabbi Fohrman’s commentary on Torah more than any other and I am a huge fan of Aleph-Beta. In a nutshell, Rabbi Forhman is hyper-focused on the text of the Torah which he unlocks in novel fashion by asking simple, yet piercing questions and using subtle hints in the text and clever connections in his mind, to retell the stories, customs, and laws in a whole new way. Rabbi Fohrman’s work is ground breaking and I admire his brilliance and courage. The Queen You Thought You Knew turned me on to Rabbi Fohrman with its fresh approach to the Purim story and I have a feeling it might do the self for you.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion was also reviewed on this site. I bought the book after I saw Alain de Botton’s TED Talk because I was hooked. He was saying everything I had been saying, just smarter and with a better accent. The book argues that non-believers can learn a lot from religions because the rites and rituals are an important part of the human condition. Even if one does not believe, one can benefit from religious experiences. This is music to my ears. I also believe that one can enjoy religious life and live a committed religious life, independent of religious belief. Further, it is valuable to seek out the universal or humanistic meaning in our religious experiences so that we can get the most out of religious life. Brilliant writer, brilliant book. My one word British review: Brilliant!

Between the Lines of the Bible, by my friend Rabbi Yitz Etshalom uses the Academic approach to the Biblical text in a religious way. The questions all sound like Academic questions and the answers sound just as Academic. But in between the lines, we are treated to Rabbi Etshalom’s original and compelling interpretations of the text. As a symbol, the book represents the idea that we can study Torah like the Bible critics and come out the other side even more turned on to Torah and Judaism.

Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations is another book that I reviewed on this site. It’s so frustrating that Orthodox Judaism relies so heavily on received wisdom and is so dismissive of data. Families and Faith has all the data you need and the conclusions of the epic study which is the subject of the book, are not necessarily intuitive (or received wisdom). But they are so important. I was inspired to gather data about our social issues, even if it is anecdotal data, just to have real information instead of speculation. More importantly, the book shed some valuable light on the most common area of speculation in the Orthodox Jewish community. The book actually answers the questions of why people stay and why people leave religion.

A friend gave me an early version of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture because he said I would appreciate it. I did. The concept of the book is that the Bible can be a vehicle to teach a sophisticated and important philosophy. But the more important thing for me is the book’s willingness to reinterpret the Bible with our modern eyes and the valuable lessons the Torah can teach us today. Too often, the student of the Bible must choose between taking the Bible seriously as a religious text that is primarily a book of revelation and treating the Bible like a giant hoax that fooled people for thousands of years. But the truth is that neither is correct. The truth is that the Torah has meaning beyond religious observance and whether it is a hoax or not, is irrelevant to obtaining wisdom from its tomes. I think you can see that this is a recurring theme.

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis was recommended by a visitor to the Shul on the Beach after he heard one of my original interpretations in Genesis. I was told that this book was doing the same thing I was doing, but obviously on a more sophisticated level. So I bought the book last year after we finished reading Genesis for the year and promised myself I would dive into The Beginning of Wisdom when Genesis rolled around again. I reminded myself about the book all year and I spent hours looking for the book on Sukkos because my library was not set up in our new home and the books were still in stacks on the floor. I found it. I read it. I love it. The Beginning of Wisdom reads the Torah like literature, but really good literature, and tries to understand it on its own terms. I love the insights and innovative interpretations of the Genesis stories in this book and the book has quickly become an all-time favorite. I almost don’t want to finish reading it.

Frameworks, by Rabbi Matis Weinberg is the best modern commentary on Torah I have ever seen. Rabbi Weinberg is a genius and he reads everything so I think he knows more information than anyone else in the world. He knows all of Torah and so much of everything else that it would be hard to best his accumulated knowledge. I heard a lecture by Rabbi Weinberg when I was 9 years old and I will never forget how that one hour made me feel. I was mesmerized by the sheer brilliance of the lecture and how obvious it all seemed at the same time. The thing with Frameworks is that Rabbi Weinberg draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of Torah as well as non-Torah wisdom and builds the most gorgeous, intricate interpretations of Torah I have ever seen. It’s not even possible to summarize his essays because they are already summaries of massive ideas that Rabbi Weinberg tries to shrink into palatable, bite-sized pieces. Yet, the essays are thousands of words long and almost clumsy sometimes. But Reb Matis’s Torah is the sweetest Torah of all. (I am vaguely aware that it is nearly impossible to find these volumes in print. I link to Amazon with hope that it will be in stock when you click.)

Bonus Book:

The Lonely Man of Faith is your bonus book. I am not a student of Yeshiva University and I am no Brisker. So imagine my surprise when several people told me that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith is basically an ode to “living in the tension” and acknowledging that “life is in the struggles,” ideas that we’ve been tossing around on this site and my Facebook page for a couple years now. I include it as a bonus because I believe these people but I have not yet read the book so I cannot say anything about the book based on my own experience. I own it. I will read it. Race you to see who reads it first?

So there you have eleven books that influenced and inspired me in the last couple of years plus one that does even though I didn’t read it. These are not rationalist books, nor are they non-rationalist Orthodox Judaism books. These are Conscious Judaism books. So if you are looking for Chanukah gifts for a reader in your life you would appreciate some of the best writing within the more widely accepted views of Orthodox Judaism, you got it.

What did all this turn into? Glad you asked. It’s called the Shul on the Internet and you can Like our Page in the sidebar or footer of this site. Join us at shulontheinternet.com for a fusion of all these ideas and more. It’s the place where popular culture, Torah, and the Internet converge.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission of the sales generated by the links in this post.

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Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show: Women Rabbis and Hevria Academy http://finkorswim.com/2015/11/05/finkorswim-live-on-the-stunt-show-women-rabbis-and-hevria-academy/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/11/05/finkorswim-live-on-the-stunt-show-women-rabbis-and-hevria-academy/#comments Thu, 05 Nov 2015 19:43:07 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9446

Presenting another episode of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. Today’s show featured two topics. Understanding both sides of the Orthodox women rabbis issue and Elad Nehorai joined us to talk about Hevria and Hevria Academy. The show aired at 1 PM ET today on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on […]

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Presenting another episode of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. Today’s show featured two topics. Understanding both sides of the Orthodox women rabbis issue and Elad Nehorai joined us to talk about Hevria and Hevria Academy.

The show aired at 1 PM ET today on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-06-at-2.49.31-PMToo many of us miss the point when we talk about Orthodox Jewish women rabbis. The questions and answers become about authority and law. But I think there is a much more important discussion that needs to happen.

The second part of the show was all about Hevria and Hevria Academy. I am very excited about Hevria Academy and my course on Non-Conformist Orthodox Judaism. I am grateful that Elad joined us to discuss Hevria with us.

Thank you to Nachum Segal and the Nachum Segal Network for this opportunity.

Listen here: NachumSegal.com
Or get the NSN App: iOS, Android

 

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My Course on Non-Conformist Judaism at Hevria Academy http://finkorswim.com/2015/11/04/my-course-on-non-conformist-judaism-at-hevria-academy/ Wed, 04 Nov 2015 19:35:19 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9438

About a year ago, I launched a series of Torah classes that has taken me on an inspiring journey. The chief complaint of the mostly Millennial group who asked me to teach this class, was that they were fluent in the basics of Judaism, they knew the curated version of its meaning that they learned in school, they wanted […]

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About a year ago, I launched a series of Torah classes that has taken me on an inspiring journey. The chief complaint of the mostly Millennial group who asked me to teach this class, was that they were fluent in the basics of Judaism, they knew the curated version of its meaning that they learned in school, they wanted to be observant, but the Judaism they knew did not resonate with them.

My approach to this kind of issue is to give others the tools and experience necessary to curate their own version of meaning in Judaism. We demonstrated how meaning of Mitzvot is subjective interpretation and always has been a space of greater academic freedom than codification of Jewish law. Our journey was a journey through time as much as a journey through ideas. We discovered different interpretations of the messages or benefits of Mitzvot and we noticed that sometimes these ideas were uniquely connected to their own place and time. photo-89343173

The journey empowered all of us to think about our own Judaism and our own observance. It challenged us to find the meaning of the way we practice or want to practice Judaism in 21st century Los Angeles. Together, we reviewed the Judaism they once learned as children and teens, and with new tools and fresh eyes we rediscovered a more intimate and personal Judaism as adults.

I loved this class. I loved learning and researching the material. I loved the people in the class. Above all, I loved what we were doing in the class.

Over the past year, many of the ideas and concepts that we discovered through our work in the class have been consciously and subconsciously incorporated into so many of the things I say or write about Judaism. If you read my blog, Facebook posts, or other materials. You may already recognize some of these ideas from my writings. It has been life changing for me. I’ve learned that it has been inspirational to many other people as well.

It seems that most of these people are non-conformists who want a Judaism that is less focused on conformity and more focused on spirituality and positive Jewish experiences. In particular, people with strong creative or artistic personalities who did not feel comfortable in Orthodox Judaism and felt even less comfortable out of Orthodox Judaism, felt comfortable with this kind of Judaism. To me, this was the most important and meaningful part of all.

This summer, my friend Elad Nehoral asked me if I would be interested in teaching a course at the nascent Hevria Academy. I saw this as an opportunity to bring this material to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. Hevria Academy has launched and the first courses are starting soon. My 10 week course is called “Guide to YOUdaism: Non-Conformist Orthodox Judaism for Everyone” and you can register for the course right now.

I am offering two tracks for the course. There is a live group course with a lot interaction and opportunity for group discussion. At some point, a self-guided course will be offered as well.

You are invited to register for the course and join me on this journey. The course will be interesting for anyone. It will be interesting and incredibly useful for people who are struggling with their Judaism in this way. If you know someone who might find this course helpful, please reach out to them and invite them to register. I am really looking forward to this adventure and hope you will join me.

I am happy to answer any specific questions.

REGISTER HERE: Hevria Academy

Very proud to announce that I am teaching a course called “Guide to YOUdaism: Non-Conformist Orthodox Judaism for Everyone” at Hevria Academy. Join us!Registration is open.

Posted by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, November 4, 2015

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Why Jews Should Look to Germany for Inspiration This Rosh Hashanah http://finkorswim.com/2015/09/11/why-jews-should-look-to-germany-for-inspiration-this-rosh-hashanah/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/09/11/why-jews-should-look-to-germany-for-inspiration-this-rosh-hashanah/#comments Fri, 11 Sep 2015 15:58:02 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9423

This article first appeared on Haaretz.com. It is reproduced here with permission. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the starting block and finish line of our yearlong journey. The High Holidays offer us time to reflect, repent, and redo. We are seeking a chance to start over, aspiring to a better life. As we start […]

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This article first appeared on Haaretz.com. It is reproduced here with permission.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the starting block and finish line of our yearlong journey. The High Holidays offer us time to reflect, repent, and redo. We are seeking a chance to start over, aspiring to a better life.

As we start over in synagogue, tens of thousands of impoverished families across the world are quite literally leaving their homes in desperate search for a better life. Over four million refugees have escaped Syria – innocent victims of war wandering around the globe on foot, hoping to settle someplace better, someplace new, aspiring to a better life.

No one wants these people. Wealthy nations in the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas are doing comically little to absorb refugees and the crisis is only getting worse. Our modern international community may pride itself on ethics and morality, but it’s all talk. The facts betray the empty promises of life and liberty to all. Refugees are being turned away on the threshold of freedom and the doorstep of redemption.1026487215

One country has led the way of light, pledging to absorb 800,000 refugees. Some other countries have followed the lead of this international bastion of moral clarity and kindness. Somehow, Germany has emerged as the beacon of light in this darkness. Every other country comes off terribly. Germany can proudly look herself in the mirror. Germany?! Germany.

For so many Jewish people, the Holocaust has left an indelible mark on our collective soul. All the savage imagery of the Holocaust reopens old wounds. But it can be difficult for us to connect to a historic event. I think this explains the ubiquitous reluctance of American Jews to purchase German products, and a resistance to treating Germany, her land and her people, just like everyone else.

Focusing on the past crimes of Germany creates cognitive dissonance with reality. Presently, German Jewry is flourishing. There is no place in Europe that is more welcoming and helpful to Jewish people. This week, Germany invited refugees to make a new life on the same soil that could not tolerate non-Aryans and was soaked in their blood.

What happened? How did Germany go from being an aggressor to being a savior in a few short decades? What about the stereotypes and assumptions? Can Germans really be friendly?

The answer is of course they can. More importantly, they have been friendly.

Through legislation, education, social programs, and plain old kindness, Germany has produced a tolerant and benevolent society. It is built on top of the ashes of people who were murdered because they were different. As Danielle Berin writes in the Jewish Journal: “Seventy years ago, who could have imagined that the country that nearly annihilated God’s Chosen would one day be chosen as a light among nations?”

In many ways, we all have a little Germany in us. We’ve all sinned grievously. We’ve all harmed others. Others identify us based on our worst behavior. Sometimes, we identify with the way others may think of us. We don’t believe that we can change because “leopards don’t change their spots.”

Look to Germany for inspiration. A short 75 years ago, Germany and many of her citizens were efficient murderers. They were stoics with no soul. But two generations later, we’ve discovered that change is possible. If they did it, we can do it.

Perhaps above all, take hope for the future. I hear equally horrible, and oftentimes deserved, descriptions of Arabs and Middle Eastern Muslims. People are certain that they are inherently evil or hardwired for violence. We thought the same things about Germans a just a few years ago. Germany showed us that Jew hatred and Jew killing is a temporary problem meant to be solved, not a conclusion meant to be presumed eternally.

Freedom, justice, and modernity are the tools a society needs to be just. We must encourage these ideals anywhere they are lacking. Reciprocation of bigotry or aggression in response to violence may embolden the baser elements in a society. Of course, we must be careful and protect ourselves, but our primary efforts must be in building good societies. Like Germany.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur loom on the horizon. Around the world, Jewish people will be asking for forgiveness and promising to do better. Many people will just go through the motions. They’ll be certain to check off the boxes they need to cover in order to earn a prize. But many others take it seriously and try to refine their character. It’s too easy, and too lazy, for us to settle into our comfortable roles as we have been. It’s too easy, and too lazy, to put others into the same old tired boxes. Instead, let’s celebrate the human capacity for change and embrace the infinite possibilities for a better future.

My latest on Haaretz.com.In the never ending battle against evil and the never ending battle within ourselves, it’s…

Posted by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink on Thursday, September 10, 2015

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Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Services http://finkorswim.com/2015/09/09/rosh-hashanah-and-yom-kippur-services/ Wed, 09 Sep 2015 09:09:00 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9400

The High Holidays are upon us. For the last 7 years, I have been in Venice for the High Holidays. I will certainly miss that experience this year. A few people asked me if I would be leading a High Holidays service this year. I would love to lead a High Holidays service this year. […]

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The High Holidays are upon us. For the last 7 years, I have been in Venice for the High Holidays. I will certainly miss that experience this year.

A few people asked me if I would be leading a High Holidays service this year. I would love to lead a High Holidays service this year. I can and I will – if there is sufficient interest.

So if you are interested in participating in an intimate High Holidays experience near Roxbury Park (Beverly Hills), please complete and submit the form below so I can make a decision.hd0827chabadhighholidaysjpeg-6d1d8d29d94e9d1aServices will sound traditional, feel welcoming, be inspiring, taste delicious (homemade kiddush / break fast), and will engage you. Singles, couples, and families are welcome. All levels of observance and general interest in Judaism are invited.

If you have any relevant skills or talents, please indicate in the appropriate area on the form. Please feel free to forward this to anyone you think may be interested.

Meanwhile, I think you will appreciate this video:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs changed Rosh Hashanah for me, forever.[Click HD for Optimal Viewing Experience]

Posted by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, September 9, 2015

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Why Can’t We Argue Civilly? http://finkorswim.com/2015/09/04/why-cant-we-argue-civilly/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/09/04/why-cant-we-argue-civilly/#comments Fri, 04 Sep 2015 07:20:35 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9388

Orthodox Judaism emphasizes Talmud study. Some people love the analysis and debate format of the Talmud but other people prefer studying the final decisions of the Talmud. They don’t enjoy the argument and discussion in the Talmud, and they most certainly do not love the layer upon layer of subsequent debate about the arguments in […]

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Orthodox Judaism emphasizes Talmud study. Some people love the analysis and debate format of the Talmud but other people prefer studying the final decisions of the Talmud. They don’t enjoy the argument and discussion in the Talmud, and they most certainly do not love the layer upon layer of subsequent debate about the arguments in the Talmud. They simply want the sausage without seeing how it is made.

I happen to enjoy the Talmud’s version of the Socratic method. I especially love the intensity of later commentaries arguing vociferously over small details with broad ramifications.

From a historical perspective, Talmudic argument until the modern era was very different than modern argument. It is not uncommon to read an argument between people from different times and different places who did not know each other and may have never even heard of each other. They argued in slow motion. Their weapons were ink, quill, paper, and snail-mail. This is especially true of the Medieval commentators.

Modernity has gifted us with lightning quick communication. We can argue faster and more often than ever before. Given the opportunity, our People will never pass up an opportunity to argue. The Internet has also democratized communication a bit. People who had no voice in the old world, can have a voice in the new world. The thing about democratized communication is that without the social filters that prevented average people from being heard, it can be challenging for us to distinguish between distinguished voices and voices that perhaps should be extinguished. Internet debate also encourages rhetoric and exaggeration, because levelheaded reasoned debate doesn’t play well online.

This is all relevant every day, but this week it’s more relevant than usual. A new Beit Din was established to handle difficult Agunah cases. The Beit Din relies on minority or discarded halachic opinions to unchain women who are still technically married to recalcitrant husbands. This is a certainly a worthy cause and I fully support any attempt to try and build support for the Beit Din.

The problem is that any attempt to resolve the Agunah issue must be consensus based. If even one prominent rabbi disagrees with the tactics of the Beit Din, then the entire enterprise is useless because no one will want to marry the unchained woman for fear that a child will be considered a mamzer or their marriage would be considered “in sin.”

This week, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the most prominent and learned rabbi in the Modern Orthodox world and four major co-signers, wrote a letter to his colleagues and students urging them not to rely on this new Beit Din. The letter did not make a legal argument. Instead the letter appealed to the lack of rabbinic experience and expertise on these matters, coupled with the gravity of potential sin in these cases.

Much of the vocal response to this letter has been embarrassing.

People are calling Rabbi Schachter a bully, power-hungry, and arrogant. His letter has been called an “unsubstantiated attack” and “scare tactics” as well.

Here’s the thing; none of that is true.

Clearly, reasonable rabbis can disagree on the effectiveness of the new Beit Din’s tactics. Rabbi Schachter has every right to advise the people who rely on him for religious instruction and guidance, he may even have an obligation to do so. His letter was to his constituents.

It is completely inappropriate for anyone to attack Rabbi Schachter’s character or motivation for his opinions. It is especially inappropriate for people with no knowledge of the issues, arguments, and precedent to attack Rabbi Schachter’s character or motivation for his opinions. The most one could say about Rabbi Schachter right now is that he is a conservative halachic jurist.

To one who knows Rabbi Schachter’s character and heart, the rhetoric is even more ridiculous. This is a man who cries nearly every time he speaks in public about issues like Agunah. This is a man who is reduced to tears every time he spends hours on the phone working on an agunah case. This is a man who pulls himself out of the study hall to protest recalcitrant husbands. This is a man who is considered by some Haredi Beit Dins to be too permissive with regard to Agunah and has been “excommunicated” and slandered as a result.

The personal attacks need to stop. The personal attacks that plainly contradict reality are simply embarrassing.

I don’t know enough to argue the issues of the new Beit Din on the merits of precedent and policy. But I know enough to know I don’t know enough. I also know enough to know that the only valid criticism in this discussion is analysis of legal principles. (It feels awfully similar to the lack of honest debate about the Kosher Switch. See: Both Sides on the Kosher Switch Debate)

When it comes to philosophy, religious meaning, interpretation of stories, and social issues I think experience and expertise are important but not determinative. But when it comes to Jewish law, our community would be best advised to argue, debate, and discuss the issues among people at any level, but in the end, to defer to the experts. If you’re not going to defer to the experts, at least respect the experts. Remember that there is a proper way to argue. There is a historically consistent way to argue vociferously. Internet shouting matches, click-baity headlines, and hyperventilating are not the way we are supposed to debate important issues. Rabbi Schachter deserves better. We all deserve better.

Much of the invective toward Rabbi Schachter regarding the International Beit Din has been embarrassing and completely inappropriate.

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Friday, September 4, 2015

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Who Will Comfort Us? http://finkorswim.com/2015/07/24/who-will-comfort-us/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/07/24/who-will-comfort-us/#comments Fri, 24 Jul 2015 19:12:28 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9379

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal. The Jewish family is in a constant state of mourning. Most of the time, we push our mourning to the back of our collective consciousness and carry on our daily lives as if we’ve suffered no loss. Once a year, though, we allow the misery and pain […]

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This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

The Jewish family is in a constant state of mourning. Most of the time, we push our mourning to the back of our collective consciousness and carry on our daily lives as if we’ve suffered no loss. Once a year, though, we allow the misery and pain of our tortuous 2,000-year Diaspora to creep into view and dominate our emotions.That would be Tisha b’Av, our day of mourning. We cry for all that we have lost, for all that could have been, and for a compromised national identity that was detached from our homeland for so long and without its glorious monument to our God. Once a year, we sit on the floor in agony and feel the dormant pain in our souls.

Mourning is a metaphor that helps us cope with Tisha b’Av, which this year begins on the evening of July 25. Metaphors can help us relate to challenging concepts and they can also shine new light to our traditions and rituals.

Jewish mourning is unique, and the concept of sitting shivah has even been popularized in media and popular culture. If we are mourning on Tisha b’Av, we are sitting shivah on Tisha b’Av.

I see the entire Jewish family sitting on the floor together, sitting shivah together, crying together and mourning together. On Tisha b’Av, our synagogues and prayer gatherings become our shivah homes.

But something is incomplete. One player is missing from the metaphor.

Who will do the mitzvah of nichum aveilim — comforting the bereaved? If we are all mourners, we cannot comfort each other. A shivah with no visitors to comfort the mourners compounds the pain of loss. Have we been so abandoned that no one will come to pay a shivah call to us? Who will comfort us this Tisha b’Av?

It has to be God. Our comfort will come from God.

God is our Menachem (“comforter”). God “visits” us on Tisha b’Av. That’s why we go to synagogue to mourn. Generally, it’s easier to feel God’s presence in synagogue, so we mourn in God’s House. But the Jewish laws of comforting mourners require that the visitor wait for the mourner to speak first. When the mourner is ready to talk, the visitor listens and responds as appropriate. Listening is the most powerful tool in our comfort toolbox.

The character Sadness from the new Pixar movie “Inside Out” taught the world this important lesson when she just listened to Bing Bong and gave him a shoulder to lean on. Somehow, that helped him feel a lot better. A mourner just needs someone to listen.

God is our Visitor. God is sitting in the shivah house. God is just waiting to comfort us. But we need to speak first. We have to give God the opportunity to listen. God is ready to listen; we just need to speak.

Eikhah (Lamentations) and kinnot (expressive religious poems) are our chance to speak. We cry, we lament, we wail, we contemplate, and through the experience, we acknowledge our pain. God listens while we speak. But first we talk. We talk to God about our pain; the new pain and the old. Eikhah and kinnot give us a chance to speak first and it is our way of granting God permission to comfort us.

This Tisha b’Av, let us be conscious of our mourning. Let us imagine ourselves experiencing shivah together in God’s House. Let us remember that we have not been abandoned. God is coming to comfort us. Let us allow God to comfort us by speaking to him first and acknowledging our suffering with our words. Let us experience God’s “shivah call” and may we merit to feel God’s comfort. Let us hope and pray that this year we will get up from shivah after Tisha b’Av and never feel the spiritual agony of Tisha b’Av ever again.

My Tisha b’Av article for this week’s Jewish Journal:”I see the entire Jewish family sitting on the floor together,…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Friday, July 24, 2015

 

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Religion is Dead, Long Live Religion! http://finkorswim.com/2015/07/13/religion-is-dead-long-live-religion/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/07/13/religion-is-dead-long-live-religion/#comments Mon, 13 Jul 2015 16:48:54 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9356

The Pew Research Center released their recent study, and the results paint a bleak picture of our religious future in America. It is clear: God’s poll numbers are down across the board, and especially among Millennials. Immediately, frantic media headlines prophesied the end of religion as we know it. Is this fate? Are we destined to live […]

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The Pew Research Center released their recent study, and the results paint a bleak picture of our religious future in America. It is clear: God’s poll numbers are down across the board, and especially among Millennials. Immediately, frantic media headlines prophesied the end of religion as we know it.

Is this fate? Are we destined to live in a non-religious world? I don’t think we are doomed, unless we keep doing the same things we are doing now. If we want to reverse the trend, we need to reverse course. Suggesting change in religious circles is often taboo. It reminds me of one of my father’s oft repeated (aren’t they all?) jokes. How many Ultra-Orthodox rabbis does it take to change a lightbulb? [beat] Change?!

We believers think God gave us our religions. They are not ours to be tinkered and toyed with on a whim.sf Thus, many believers exclaim that people are abandoning religion because we have become too flexible, too apologetic, too concerned with popular opinion and trends. Their solution is fundamentalism, as it was for the Puritans after the Renaissance, premillennial dispensationalists after Darwin, and Evangelicals in the 80’s after the sexual revolution.

Unfortunately, post-modern fundamentalists are making a fundamental mistake. Most Millennials will never be fundamentalists. Above all, they reject the idea that there is only one universal truth. Where hippies rejected authority on principle, Millennials reject appeals to authority because there is no such thing as an authority of ideas. For my entire lifetime of active learning, I’ve been able to fact check anything asserted by an authority as fact. I have never needed to trust authority or rely on the opinions of one person. Self-guided research, diversity, and subjectivity are native to the Millennial generation.

When presented with fundamentalist ideas, we don’t find the “all or nothing” packages attractive. Some of the ideas that are preached by fundamentalists have merit, but that does not translate into adopting fundamentalism. It did in the 80’s. Evangelical Christianity and the Jewish “returnee” movement were massive movements that took hold in the 80’s, and both remain in their own shadows from that time. More fundamentalism is not the answer. In fact, it’s part of the problem.

Traditionally, the non-fundamentalist option has been to change. When the rules get tough, change the rules. If some of the theology is at odds with modern ideals, just rewrite it. By drawing a target around the arrow after it is lodged in the tree, liberal religious groups can make participation effortless and guiltless. The appeal of change is that is promises everything, but the reality is that this sort of change completely undermines religion.

Millennials flock to authentic experiences. Burning Man is a perfect example of this.  A Burning Man experience is powerful, unique, and above all, authentic.  Similarly, artisanal foods are quintessentially Millennial. No Millennial is trading fine French cuisine for a Big Mac. We want the real thing. We want meaningful experiences.

A counterfeit religious experience is no religious experience at all. It might keep families together at church and synagogue for a few more years, but without authenticity and engagement, nothing will connect Millennials to the experience. It’s hollow. When the structural shell is removed, nothing remains.

But all is not lost. I think there is an alternative approach that respects tradition, does not compromise authenticity, and works for Millennials. The first part of my proposal is that religion is actually a collection of beliefs and practices which ask us to struggle in the tension they create. There is beauty in tension. Ambiguity and doubt are key ingredients to great art. Poetry, music, theater, visual arts, culinary arts, love, and beauty are all ambiguous. They are all open to interpretation, and they all ask us to insert our struggles into the space they create for creative understanding.

We must stop preaching certainty and begin preaching doubt and struggle. Find beauty in the tension, instead of satisfaction in certainty. Religious leaders must be honest, and publicly acknowledge their own struggles and doubts. Instead of occupying the space of certainty that is anathema to Millennials, religion must occupy the space of subjectivity, ambiguity, and struggle. Religion is not the answer to life’s questions. Religion is the tool for exploring the big questions.

We can tolerate mistakes, difficult challenges, unanswered questions, and tension between tradition and modernity. We will not tolerate platitudes, over-confidence, false bravado, and apologetics. Be honest. Acknowledge the problems. Admit your own struggles. Then, invite the Millennials in your life to join you for an authentic experience of engaging with life’s struggles through the lens of religion. The Biblical heroes were flawed and they struggled. Let’s emphasize those stories and animate those Bible passages in our teachings.

The second part of my proposal is found in the tension between nostalgia and relevance. So much of our religious instruction and experience is nostalgic. We try to recapture something magical from our childhood, or a latent memory from a place and time that tugs at us. Millennials love nostalgia, and it’s a valuable tool when, but religion cannot subsist on nostalgia alone.

Our world is so different from the world of our Biblical heroes. Our lives are virtually nothing like the lives of the centuries of interpreters and teachers of religion. We must continue to lean on the eternal teaching they have bequeathed to us, but their teachings felt contemporary to their direct audiences. When we retell their teachings, they may feel nostalgic at best and irrelevant at worst. We must continue to write and create teachings that resonate with us and tell our story.

The Bible is an incredible canvas. Religious texts offer innumerable opportunities for modern interpretation. Not the kind that strips religion of its precepts, rather, the sort of modern interpretations that bring ancient teachings to life. When we explain our rituals, we must choose explanations that add meaning to our lives today. Take ownership of our religions. We can’t expect Millennials to be spectators of their religion. Millennials want to participate with mind, spirit, soul, and body. Relevance is key to hooking religion to our lives, and not merely relegating our traditions to museums and mausoleums.

I believe in God. I believe in religion. I believe in Millennials. This is fixable problem. Let’s fix it. Acknowledge our struggles. Live in the tension. Make religion relevant with new and modern interpretation. Live a life infused with religious meaning. When the results of the next Pew report on religion in America are released, we can shock the world.

See also: Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show: The Decline of Religion in America

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“Religion is Dead” – Everyone after Pew Research Center demonstrated the dramatic decline of religion in Millennials.”Love Live Religion!” – Me. (See below)

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Monday, July 13, 2015

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Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show: The Future of Orthodox Judaism http://finkorswim.com/2015/07/05/finkorswim-live-on-the-stunt-show-the-future-of-orthodox-judaism/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/07/05/finkorswim-live-on-the-stunt-show-the-future-of-orthodox-judaism/#comments Sun, 05 Jul 2015 16:17:22 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9353

Presenting another episode of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. On this episode we got to some pretty substantial discussion of the current state and future of Orthodox Judaism. The show aired at 1 PM ET on July 2, 2015 on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page. I have […]

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Presenting another episode of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. On this episode we got to some pretty substantial discussion of the current state and future of Orthodox Judaism.

The show aired at 1 PM ET on July 2, 2015 on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-06-at-2.49.31-PMI have been working on crafting a version of Orthodox Judaism that is uniquely American / Western Democratic and native to the 21st century. We talked a bit about what this means and why it’s necessary. Then we were joined by my superstar guest, Rabbi Doniel Katz.

In my view, Rabbi Katz is leading the charge in addressing these issues. We come from very different perspectives but our ideas overlap significantly. It was a great discussion and we could have done another 8 hours, at least.

Read more about Rabbi Katz and his work:

Thank you to Nachum Segal and the Nachum Segal Network for this opportunity.

Listen here: NachumSegal.com
Or get the NSN App: iOS, Android

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I Believe in Torah, Halacha, and Equality http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/28/i-believe-in-torah-halacha-and-equality/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/28/i-believe-in-torah-halacha-and-equality/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 13:26:01 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9339

On Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to ban same sex marriage. The issue still divides America, though the latest Pew numbers say 54% of Americans are in favor of gay marriage and only 36% oppose. In the Orthodox Jewish community, the matter is far less […]

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On Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to ban same sex marriage. The issue still divides America, though the latest Pew numbers say 54% of Americans are in favor of gay marriage and only 36% oppose.

In the Orthodox Jewish community, the matter is far less polarizing. I could not find any actual numbers, but I think most people are correct in assuming that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews oppose same sex marriage for themselves and for America. All the mainstream Orthodox Jewish umbrella organizations have issued statements over the past few years reiterating this opposition. Some Orthodox Jews are ambivalent on the issue, and a small minority are in favor of gay marriage.

I celebrate the Supreme Court decision.

A lot of people are confused how an Orthodox rabbi who follows the Torah and its laws could celebrate the legalization of gay marriage.america-reaction-scotus-gay-marriage1.si

I have been mocked, berated, insulted, defrocked, and even ousted from Orthodoxy for supporting marriage equality. I’ve been asked, respectfully and less respectfully, how I reconcile my  belief in marriage equality and my religious beliefs. This is my official response.

Marriage equality is a civil rights issue. Gay people exist. They are your neighbors and co-workers. They might be your friends and family as well. It’s hard to be gay in America. There’s trauma involved. Gay people fall in love. They want to live together as a married couple. They want to get married for the same reasons everyone else wants to get married. Restricting consenting adults from a loving, committed marriage is a form of discrimination. I believe that discrimination is wrong. I believe that citizens of free countries should not feel oppressed. I believe that more freedom for more people is a good thing for everyone, including Orthodox Jews.

Of course, I am concerned about the implications of the ruling. I am concerned about clergy with religious objections to officiating a gay marriage, but those personal concerns cannot trump the more basic civil rights of others, especially people who typically suffer persecution and discrimination.

I am not concerned about slippery slopes or men marrying dogs and bikes and children. Marriage requires consent. Dogs, bikes, and children cannot consent.

I am not concerned that America is becoming a Godless state with no morals. If you want equal rights and protection under the law, everyone else must benefit, too. It is wrong to suggest that equality applies unevenly. Orwell said it best in Animal Farm“All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It is moral to be fair to others, even if those others are people who violate your religious beliefs. There are competing morals in this case, and America is choosing the more compassionate and the more just of the moral options.

Marriage equality is a good thing. I celebrate marriage equality. I am also an Orthodox Jew and I would not perform a religious wedding ceremony that is not consistent with my understanding of Jewish law, including a gay marriage. Those two statements are not contradictory.

There is a long list of things that I think are very important to Orthodox Judaism. Banning gay marriage is near the bottom of the list. Kindness, compassion, and fairness are near the top of the list.

I understand that many Orthodox Jews have visceral fears about this gay marriage because of Jewish law. I hope we can get past those fears and move forward toward understanding and love.

Edited by Elisheva Avital. Hire her!

I BELEIVE IN TORAH, HALACHA, AND EQUALITYOn Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it is…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Sunday, June 28, 2015

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Growing Up: What Religion Can Learn From the Magic of Inside Out http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/24/growing-up-what-religion-can-learn-from-the-magic-of-inside-out/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/24/growing-up-what-religion-can-learn-from-the-magic-of-inside-out/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2015 19:20:47 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9321

Let’s talk about Inside Out again. But this time we are not just going to talk in the superficial, “go see it” kind of way we did last time. Now it’s time for real talk. Storytelling and Canvas Building Movies can be diversions or just pure entertainment, but sometimes movies can be so much more. There […]

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Let’s talk about Inside Out again. But this time we are not just going to talk in the superficial, “go see it” kind of way we did last time. Now it’s time for real talk.

Storytelling and Canvas Building
Movies can be diversions or just pure entertainment, but sometimes movies can be so much more. There are movies that illustrate grand important ideas in a new way that pushes culture and society forward. To me, this is the peak of storytelling. When the story itself is not really the thing the story is saying, because the thing the story is saying is so much bigger than the story, we experience a sort of storytelling magic.

Too often, fiction undermines reality. I’ll never forget this quip from Rabbi Tendler during a private study session. “If you expect marriage to be the way marriage is portrayed in novels and films, you’re going to be waiting a long time for the violins.” In context, he was teaching me that relationships take work and popular culture is not very good at real relationships. Generally, we watch saccharine caricatures of real life with simple resolutions, over-emphasis on raw feelings, and of course, violins.

I love when fiction does not try to rewrite reality. I love when fiction tells us something about reality. Done right, a movie can be a powerful storytelling device that helps us to understand and deal with reality. Fiction can be real.

A Movie of Biblical Proportions
Inside Out is not a very interesting story. There’s no villain, except maybe “the passing of time” and most of the story happens inside the head of an 11 year old girl named Riley. A lot of people seem to think that the movie is about the voices inside Riley. But the movie is not about the voices inside Riley’s head at all. They are just part of the canvas the real story of Inside Out is painting.

The brilliance of Inside Out is its lesson. Its mini lessons along the way are amazing. The way it teaches its lessons, using its internal metaphors and symbolism, is much more than brilliance, it is almost Biblical.

I think the primary lesson of Inside Out is profoundly simple. We have all been misled to believe that happiness is the cumulative feeling of avoiding pain, sadness, misery, and doubt. That is a lie. Happiness and joy are not the absence of bad experiences at all. In fact, without negative experiences, there is no joy. Children are not mature enough to understand this sophisticated point even if it is taught directly. Children deal with emotions and feelings in a very binary way. Things are either good or bad.

The real world is not like this at all.insideout-640 Everything in our lives is a complex cocktail of contributory emotions. A little bit happy, a little bit sad, a little bit angry, a little bit worried, a little bit thrilled, and all at different levels. The first time we feel these complexities, it can be disconcerting. Adolescents are often brooding, moody, unpredictable, and sometimes their personalities are very different than they were as children. Part of that is the discomfort with encountering reality and perhaps even the real self. Inside Out is a parable that helps us understand the challenge of growing up from a child to an adult.

The New ‘A Separate Peace’
The fear and loathing of meeting one’s real self is the theme of one of my favorite books, A Separate Peace. It’s a mediocre story, but the story is not really the thing the story is saying. A Separate Peace is about adolescence, and facing one’s true self. That’s what it’s really about.

Inside Out is working on a different angle. The movie is helping us be honest with ourselves about what really makes us happy. Inside Out shows us that the best feelings and best emotions are a mixture of joy, anger, disgust, fear, and even sadness. In fact, Joy was only able to return to Riley because of Sadness. Acknowledging our sadness gives us the opportunity for happiness, not avoiding sadness. It wasn’t only Sadness, it was also letting go of childhood by saying goodbye to her imaginary childhood friend, Bing Bong. It’s counterintuitive at first, but just past the initial superficial level, lies this obvious truth. There is no happiness without sadness and there is no growing up without letting go of childhood.

These ideas are almost glibly demonstrated during Inside Out. But don’t let the simplicity of the way Inside Out teaches its lessons fool you into thinking these are not sophisticated and meaningful teachings.

Once Riley’s feelings are able to work together to craft more meaningful memories, their control panel console grows. Children only experience one feeling at a time and only one feeling can be in charge at any given moment. When we grow up, each feeling has a seat at the table and they all work together instead of jockeying for control. This is the primary lesson of Inside Out.

Some Bonus Lessons
Along the way, Inside Out creates a magnificent storytelling device that gives the writers opportunities to teach so many more lessons that are tangential to the story. Inside Out sees our memories as sources of power for several islands in Riley’s brain. Each island represents a fundamental group of memories and experiences that Riley “visits” during nostalgic moments. The internal logic of the movie kicks Joy and Sadness out of Riley consciousness following a traumatic experience. Joy and Sadness find themselves marooned far away from headquarters. Their path back to headquarters is along the connection between headquarters and the islands. As Riley destroys her islands by poisoning her memories with rebellion, the path through Family Island remains Joy’s last hope. But when Riley kills Honesty Island, the paths to headquarters are all gone. I thought this was an incredible, subtle message about the importance of honesty. As long we are honest with others and ourself there is a path back.

Another amazing lesson was perhaps the most explicit moral of all. Bing Bong is feeling very sad and Joy tries every trick in the book to cheer him up. She is doing everything she can do to overpower Bing Bong’s sad feelings with her intense joy. It does not work. Sadness sits down next to Bing Bong and just listens to him tell her how he feels. Sadness tells him that she totally understands why he is sad and offers a hug and shoulder to cry on. That works. Joy is flabbergasted. Sadness explains that she saw he was sad so she just wanted him to know that she understands.

Later in the movie, Riley and her parents share a tender moment when they are honest with each other about how they feel. No one tries to fix their sadness or anxiety. They simply hear each other and enjoy a loving family hug.

Too often, we think the way to help a sad friend is to cheer them up. But I think it’s always more helpful to just listen, understand, and offer a warm hug and shoulder to cry on.

There are many additional teachings sprinkled though Inside Out. A few memorable moments stand out. My favorite might be when a box labeled “Opinions” and box labeled “Facts” spill over and the contents get mixed up. “Oh no!” exclaims Joy, “these facts and opinions look so similar!” “People are always getting these mixed up,” says Bing Bong. Indeed, they do.

Who Cares?!
Why am I talking about Inside Out? Is there a point to all this?

Good question. Yes, there is a point to all this Inside Out talk. Two major points, in fact. One from the negative perspective and one from a positive perspective.

We are all Riley. Those of us are religious Rileys have an additional island of memories in our brain. Religious Riley has Religion Island. That’s where all our religious memories live. For most children, Religion Island should be pretty sweet. Kids love religion. It’s fun. The stories are interesting. The food is familiar. You spend more time with parents and family. Religion Island is awesome when you’re a kid. I think it’s important to actively create this sweetness for our families and communities.

Religious Trauma
Inside Out showed us how trauma shatters our childhood islands. When pain and sadness infect our religious nostalgia, we are destroying Religious Island. Some trauma is a direct result of religious experience and other trauma is unrelated to the religious experience. Any trauma can wreck Religion Island. This can happen even against our own wishes.

Religious leaders who seek to hide or inhibit public conversation about religious leaders who stumble or other flaws in their community, for fear of encouraging religious reprisal., or worse, are missing the point. It’s not the knowledge of bad behavior that harms people, it’s the trauma itself. Trauma severs the relationship between the person and the positive memories. Hearing about it does not do that at all. I think the Religious Island Destroyed by Trauma metaphor severely undermines the strategy of silencing criticism or victims of abuse.

More importantly, it explains why most of the people who leave their religious communities, don’t find comfort in a less strict religious community. Their religious island is gone. This new place is not the old place. The new place feels fraudulent and fake. The trust is gone. But that does not mean it’s the end of the story.

There is also something incredible hopeful about the way Inside Out portrayed how Riley rebuilt her islands. True, the islands were completely useless following the trauma Riley experienced. But the movie shows us those islands restored and thriving even more than they were before they were broken. We also see added complexity to Riley’s islands and they are being powered by the new core memory cocktails of mixed feelings.

Often enough, people want to rebuild their dilapidated or broken religious islands. Somehow, Religion Island was destroyed for them at some point.  Eventually, they might want to reassemble their religious islands. But reconstruction is not possible using those old simple memories that are generally good. The cotton candy version of religion is gone for these people, but building something new, with complexity, embracing ambiguity, and engaging in their struggles, is absolutely available. It takes work, but it might be worth the effort.

Consciousness and Construction
I think most conscious people have had their dreamlike childhood memories smashed. They might have felt real in the moment, but they are not reality. The real world is complex and confusing and contradictory. Real lasting relationships are built out of mixed core memory cocktails. Relationships between us and our spirituality, between us and our religion, between us and our community, our family, our spouse, our parents, our children, and ourselves, all can function, blissfully unaware, in rainbow, lollipop, and unicorn mode. In that mode, they are super fragile and they might collapse in a quick heap. But all our relationships function on a much higher level if we are conscious of the relationship and its complexity. They improve, when the parties to a relationship make the effort to build after something has been broken.

This secret to living is the soul of one important message in Inside Out. It’s applicable to religion, but it’s just as applicable to friendship, courtship, marriage, self awareness, and any other relationship. We start with only childish nostalgia. It might break one day and that will hurt, a lot. But moving past our childish nostalgia is not bad or evil, it’s just growing up.

It’s about time too. After all those years of hinting to us that we should try to just be a kid and stay young forever, Disney Pixar is telling us that it’s also time to grow up – from the inside, out.

“I love when fiction does not try to rewrite reality. I love when fiction tells us something about reality. Done right,…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, June 24, 2015

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Inside Out | Movie Review and Analysis http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/17/inside-out-movie-review-and-analysis/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/17/inside-out-movie-review-and-analysis/#comments Wed, 17 Jun 2015 15:07:31 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9304

Disney Pixar movies are cultural events in our world. No studio is as careful with their product and as successful with their product as Pixar. Yet, my anticipation level for their latest film, Inside Out, far exceeded previous expectations. I was a little concerned that I was setting myself up for disappointment. A few hours […]

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Disney Pixar movies are cultural events in our world. No studio is as careful with their product and as successful with their product as Pixar. Yet, my anticipation level for their latest film, Inside Out, far exceeded previous expectations. I was a little concerned that I was setting myself up for disappointment. A few hours ago, I saw an early screening of Inside Out and it was the greatest movie I have ever seen. The after-movie feeling was like Interstellar, only more intense.

Everyone is familiar with the premise of the film. We interact with the main character on two levels. Riley is our 11 year old hero on the surface level, but the movie also tells its story from the perspective of her feelings. We meet her Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust as they work together to give Riley the best emotional experience. That’s the part everyone knows, but that’s not really what the movie is about.

The movie is actually a coming of age story. It’s not so much about Riley’s emotions, as much as it is about how Riley’s emotions as a child are completely different from the emotions that come as she reaches her teenage years. This is the note Inside Out plays so magnificently. The story of Riley’s feelings takes the first 25 minutes of the film. It is spectacular. I was grinning from the first moment and crying from the second. Inside Out is an emotional roller coaster and the first act of the film is a steady barrage of sweetness peppered with punches to the gut. I loved it, but it was intense.

Luckily, Inside Out is also hilarious. We are treated to plenty of the customary slapstick humor as well as high brow comedy that strikes just the right balance of subtle humor and insight into the characters.40089bd8a3615c0db500adc387c0794a_XL

Inside Out is at its most magical during Act II. The conflict of the film and its resolution are never really in doubt as you watch the movie. The gift of Inside Out is not it’s story, but its storytelling. Act II uses the canvas established in Act I and animates a world so intimate and connected to our personhood that it seems like the metaphors are being stretched too thin. In truth, the metaphors of Inside Out are so magnificently constructed that they bend but do not break. I am reluctant to spoil anything for readers who want to see Inside Out without more direct clues and references, so I am warning you now. Extremely minor spoilers ahead. Choose wisely. If you are leaving now, go watch the movie, come back to this page, and continue reading from here.

If the the story of Riley’s feelings is the canvas, what exactly is the painting? In essence, the premise of Inside Out is that every memory we collect in our life is assigned an emotion. In the movie, these memories are colored crystal spheres. The spheres are filed in various places in Riley’s brain the way we would imagine our memories being collated. Some are discarded, others sent to Riley’s Long Term Memory, others remain local, and the most important memories are called Core Memories. These Core Memories build the thematic islands in Riley’s memory. There is an island for family, and friends, and goofiness, and hockey, among others. Throughout her day, Riley’s brain shifts between recalling old memories from relevant islands and adding new memories to those islands. Each crystal sphere is defined by a feeling and when it is added to the inventory or remembered, the memory retains its feelings. An angry family memory will be colored red, it will be added to the inventory, and it will help power the family island. That’s how it all works.

Of course, there is so much room for humor and hijinks when dealing with memories. I won’t spoil those, but the group of mostly adult theater goers were laughing hysterically when they weren’t collapsing from the emotional drain of the sentimental moments.

Without spoiling the plot, Act II is all about the crystal spheres and the islands. The story is nice, but as I said in my Interstellar review, the greatness of this film is not its story, it is the magic of its storytelling device. Pixar does not waste its opportunity. Inside Out is a battering ram of important lessons, ideas, and issues. Which leads me to a some final points.

It’s possible that one reason I related to strongly to Inside Out is because I am the father of a son who recently turned 12 years old. Inside Out was basically about him. He knew it. We knew it. And it was quite powerful to experience this movie with him. Pixar is not just entertaining us with its movies. Pixar is moving the cultural dial. There is stuff in the movie that we have been working on as a family and as individuals. Character stuff. Growing up stuff. In fact, the comparison I keep hearing in my head is to A Separate Peace: a coming of age story that encapsulates the social struggles of the high school teen, and by proxy, adults as well. Inside Out is a coming of age story that encapsulates the emotional struggles of the preteen, and by proxy, teens and adults as well.

But above all, I heard so many themes, lessons, and metaphors in the film that sounded more than just familiar to me, they sounded like me. I have been using a version of the crystal sphere memories metaphor for years. I’ve applied it to religion – that is the essence of this essay: Cultivating Positive Jewish Experiences and Rising From the Ashes of Bad Orthodox Jewish Experiences , I’ve also applied it to relationships in my pastoral work, and I’ve applied it to life in general. Seeing an idea I’ve worked through over the course of many years in my own life and in conversations with others come to life on the big screen was a powerful experience for me on a personal level. Inside Out is saying something that I have been trying to say for a little while now. That was pretty special for me.

One last thing. On a societal level, I am proud to be part of a global community that values the fundamental moral of the Inside Out story as I see it. We all want happiness and joy and we can sometimes think that we will feel happiness and joy if we don’t feel all the other feelings. But one thing our society understands is that happiness and joy can only be real when they are part of a collective of feelings. Inside Out teaches this lesson superbly, and that makes me proud.

Adults, teens, and children 10 and older should definitely see Inside Out. Younger children might not appreciate its finer themes, but there is nothing objectionable for the under 10 crowd. Families should capitalize on this film to engage in frank conversations about feelings and emotions. Use Inside Out to inspire and ignite you to make yourself a better person, friend, spouse, parent, and child.

I intend to write a follow up essay that actually discusses some of my favorite lessons and most poignant moments from the film. I also want to demonstrate how I think this all connects to religion and Judaism. But it wouldn’t make sense without seeing Inside Out. So get on that, and hopefully soon I can write a more spoiler-y analysis of Inside Out’s brilliance. Meanwhile, if you want to buy me a gift (my birthday is one month), get me some Inside Out plush from Amazon!

UPDATE: I wrote the follow up! Growing Up: What Religion Can Learn From the Magic of Inside Out

Edited by Elisheva AvitalHire her!

Why was Inside Out the greatest movie I have ever seen?Short answer: It made me feel things no other movie has every made me feel. ALL THE FEELS.Long answer: Click…Go see it asap.

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, June 17, 2015

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The Future of American Judaism http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/10/the-future-of-american-judaism/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/10/the-future-of-american-judaism/#comments Thu, 11 Jun 2015 00:32:37 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9291

This essay was written on October 8, 2013. It was never published. I think it’s still perfectly relevant. The Pew report confirmed what many Jewish people already knew. Non-Orthodox Judaism is in crisis. According to Professor Stephen M. Cohen over 75% of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarried. About 43% of children of intermarriage consider themselves Jewish. […]

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This essay was written on October 8, 2013. It was never published. I think it’s still perfectly relevant.

The Pew report confirmed what many Jewish people already knew. Non-Orthodox Judaism is in crisis. According to Professor Stephen M. Cohen over 75% of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarried. About 43% of children of intermarriage consider themselves Jewish. The numbers are devastating and religious leaders are scrambling for solutions.

On the other hand, despite doomsday predictions from the 20th century, the Orthodox Jewish data demonstrates strength and viability. Almost 0% of Orthodox Jews intermarry and over 80% of Orthodox Jews between the age of 19 and 29 stay orthodox.

Some people think this is cause for celebrating Orthodox triumph. Other Orthodox Jews think that Orthodox Jews must step up outreach efforts to bring non-Orthodox Jews into the fold of Orthodox Judaism.

I think there is a third approach.

Professor Cohen suggested that Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox increase their social ties. Both groups believe that the other is not interested, but that needs to change.

I agree with Professor Cohen. As it stands right now, Orthodox Jews are enjoined from participating in inter-denominational activities and groups as per a nearly unanimous rabbinic ruling of the generation’s greatest Torah authorities in the middle of the 20th century. But there is a price to this ruling. The price is very clear boundaries between fellow Jews. Sociologically this has the negative effect of preventing cross-pollination of ideas. Non-orthodox Jews get little access to the vibrancy and beauty of Jewish traditions and practices that are found in Orthodox Judaism.puzzle-pieces-852x500

The context that non-Orthodox Jews have the greatest interaction with Orthodox Jews is “kiruv.” But this is not the same as creating social ties that breach the gates of the self imposed ghetto. This is interaction for the purpose of eliciting a specific desired result. I am suggesting interaction for the sake of interaction. Social ties with no strings attached won’t limit the interactions to potential kiruv candidates and will more likely be institutionally accepted by the non-Orthodox.

A kiruv relationship is one where the Orthodox Jew wants something for the non-Orthodox Jew. But the non-Orthodox Jew may not want the same thing. Even if the non-Orthodox Jew eventually comes to desire the same thing the Orthodox Jew wants, the relationship began as an uneven partnership. The two parties had different goals. The desired outcome is different for each party. The Orthodox  Jew wants the non-Orthodox to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle and the non-Orthodox Jew might simply want a friend. The best relationships are mutually beneficial and are created as balanced partnerships. Both parties have similar goals and aspirations for the relationship. They agree on the hopeful outcome. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews must create these kinds of social ties. Friendship for the sake of the friendship.

This is aside from the obvious benefit increased intra-denominational activity will have on Jewish unity.

In an article published by OnFaith, Rabbi David Wolpe suggested that liberal Judaism must embrace rituals in order to survive. “Wearing Tefillin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, Kashrut, Jewish communal adherence and activities — these things (while not necessarily limited only to Jews) are activities that keep the core of the tradition alive.”

Rituals create a common language and uniquely Jewish experiences. Jews with these collective experiences as part of their religious identity will want to perpetuate these rituals in their family lives. This increases the desirability of marrying Jewish. It’s not simply tribalism or religious mandate. It’s a self-interested choice to pass on uniquely Jewish experiences to one’s children.

But what’s the point of all these rituals? What benefit is there to the non-Orthodox Jew? This is a question that Orthodox Jews are adequately positioned to answer.

Who better than Orthodox Jews to impart the wisdom of these rituals? What better way is there to demonstrate the value in these rituals than the people who do them on a regular basis? It need not be for the purpose of proselytization. It is simply an opportunity to better appreciate the role of rituals in Judaism.

If non-Orthodox Jews are interested in learning about rituals, the Orthodox Jewish community is uniquely poised to step in and create mutually beneficial relationships with non-Orthodox Jews. Now we can honestly say that we are interested in the same outcome. We have an opportunity to create balanced, even friendships. We all want the same thing. This can stimulate increased social ties between all Jews.

Hopefully, non-Orthodox Jews will heed Rabbi Wolpe’s call and trend toward adding more traditional rituals to their observance. After all, this is a major key to Jewish continuity.

Even among formerly Orthodox Jews who have made the choice to leave Orthodox Judaism, many find that some rituals are worth perpetuating. Most end up marrying fellow Jews. I suspect that this has a lot to do with common experiences and a bit of nostalgia toward their Judaism. That can be replicated within the non-Orthodox Jewish community as well.

The Orthodox Jewish community cannot afford to let this opportunity slip through its fingers either. It is time we adjust our goals and reach across the aisle for the sake of friendship and mutually agreed upon goals.

I ask Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis and leaders to consider the price of denominational isolation. I ask my Jewish brethren to consider the price of our failure to communicate to one another. We are all in this together. Let’s act like it.

It’s time to revisit some societal norms in the Jewish communtiy.This essay was written on October 8, 2013. It was…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, June 10, 2015

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The Manufactured Controversy Between the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/01/the-manufactured-controversy-between-the-chief-rabbinate-and-rabbi-riskin/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/06/01/the-manufactured-controversy-between-the-chief-rabbinate-and-rabbi-riskin/#comments Mon, 01 Jun 2015 18:51:18 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9280

Another summer in Israel, another war. This war is playing out in the pages of the Jewish media, and this time we’re our own worst enemy. Intramural fighting between passionate commentators and rabbis has a place in our culture. In the Talmud it is called the milchamta shel Torah. But sometimes, zealots for our cause […]

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Another summer in Israel, another war. This war is playing out in the pages of the Jewish media, and this time we’re our own worst enemy. Intramural fighting between passionate commentators and rabbis has a place in our culture. In the Talmud it is called the milchamta shel Torah. But sometimes, zealots for our cause can creates a war that should have been settled patiently by cooler heads.

We are being told there is a battle between the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin. I am not so convinced, but some things are abundantly clear. Supporters of the Chief Rabbinate and their brand of more conservative Orthodox Judaism are concerned about more liberal Orthodoxy. Supporters of more liberal Orthodoxy are uncomfortable with the de facto institutionalized rabbinic authority given to the Rabbinate. These are legitimate differences of philosophy that are not particularly new, nor very likely to be solved by the current controversy.

If we scratch beneath the surface, something disturbing emerges. It seems that the entire controversy has been manufactured by supporters of both sides with little concern for fact checking or measured reaction.

Haaretz reports: “On Monday, the Chief Rabbinate Council, headed by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, refused to extend Riskin’s tenure in the post and demanded that he present himself at the council’s next meeting to discuss the issue. […]

“According to the Chief Rabbinate, the problem is strictly technical: Whereas younger rabbis’ appointments are usually renewed automatically, Riskin is over 75, and all rabbis over 75 are required to submit a written request for reappointment and then appear before the council. Riskin neither submitted a written request nor attended Monday’s council meeting, and therefore, his appointment couldn’t be renewed, it said.”

The second paragraph explains the first paragraph. The Chief Rabbinate is following its own protocols and thus they did not “refuse” to extend Rabbi Riskin’s tenure, nor did they “demand” he present himself for a meeting. This is what they are supposed to do under the circumstances.7526-toysoldiers-06

Still, the request was seen as an admonishment and personal attack on Rabbi Riskin. After all, Rabbi Riskin holds many opinions that are far more liberal than the Rabbinate, so everyone just assumes this is a religiously motivated political attack.

The line in the sand was drawn and shots were fired from both sides of this controversy. Some lined up behind Rabbi Riskin to defend him against “inappropriate” treatment. Others defended the decision of Chief Rabbinate by pointing out how far Rabbi Riskin has veered from the traditional positions of Orthodox Judaism.

All of this based on virtually nothing! Put your weapons down everyone. There’s nothing to see here, yet.

It wasn’t until Rabbi Seth Farber from ITIM researched the issue that we got any evidence based data. Rabbi Farber’s research discovered that rabbis are generally rubber stamped even if they are older than 75. Citing public record, Rabbi Farber argues that this is the first time the Rabbinate has made such a request. Thus, the assumption that the Rabbinate was snubbing Rabbi Riskin for ideological reasons was correct.

Fight on!

The Chief Rabbinate responded that all the previous cases were before the tenure of the new chief rabbis, and the new policy is to hold hearings for renewal of older rabbis. Further, the Chief Rabbinate claims that they also gave notice to the chief rabbi of Jerusalem that fitness hearings would be standard operating procedure in the new regime.

Oh, maybe not.

I have a general rule. When presented with a choice about how to explain something that bothers us, and one of the choices is a legitimate justification for the behavior and the other is assigns negative motivations and harmful intent to the behavior, choose the one that sees the act favorably. In other words, we can choose to be hurt by ambiguous behavior or we can choose to rationalize ambiguous behavior. Unless the only reasonable option is that the behavior was done to harm us, we have to choose the benevolent option. That doesn’t excuse ambiguous behavior that hurts us, but it does soften the sting of hateful intentions.

In this story, the Chief Rabbinate’s behavior is plausible and well within reasonable norms. Rabbis in their employ should be of fit mind and health. That’s a good policy. It’s true that creatively connecting the dots, reinterpreting their actions, adding unspoken motivations, and calling them liars will build a story that is insulting and unsettling, but that requires a lot of subjective interpretation and some conspiracy theory. On the other hand, if the hearing is pro-forma and Rabbi Riskin is being treated the same way the Chief Rabbinate will treat everyone else, the story is not disturbing at all. If they want to get rid of Rabbi Riskin, why do it in a profoundly offensive translucent manner? If this is their play to remove Rabbi Riskin, it’s pretty stupid. Since when is the Chief Rabbinate afraid to “own” offensive positions?

Our loud reaction to this story, by supporters on both sides, tells us more about ourselves than about the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin. Too many people among the ranks of both sides are little bit too trigger happy. Perhaps it’s some form of religious warfare PTSD and the slightest noise sets us over the edge. It’s as if there are two armies, battle weapons drawn, just waiting for someone to fire, even if it’s inadvertent. We need to settle down. Rest our war machines. Talk to each other. Maybe share a Coke, or something. That always seems to work.

We will all have our answer in a month. The hearing is scheduled for the end of June, so all this hyperventilating seems a bit premature as well. However, even if the Chief Rabbinate discriminates against Rabbi Riskin and rules against him, that only determines whether Rabbi Riskin draws a government salary. That’s all. He can still be the rabbi. He can still be Orthodox. It sends a strong message of intolerance, but we already know the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbi Riskin are on opposite sides of a spectrum where tolerance is tenuous.

Personally, I strongly support Rabbi Riskin’s right to an opinion. I hate the idea that the Chief Rabbinate can effectively play the role of de facto Sanhedrin and establish universal standards of Orthodox Judaism. That is not acceptable to me. I am very hopeful that this will all have been wild speculation by soldiers of the Almighty suffering from PTSD and not the rare occasion where conspiracy theorists can say “just because I am paranoid, doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

UPDATE: Rabbi Riskin Won’t Be Fired

A bunch of people asked me what I thought about the Rabbi Riskin controversy. Here’s what I think:Short answer: It’s not actually a controversy.Long answer: Click.

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Monday, June 1, 2015

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Fresh New Frum Feminism http://finkorswim.com/2015/05/28/fresh-new-frum-feminism/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/05/28/fresh-new-frum-feminism/#comments Thu, 28 May 2015 15:57:28 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9260

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Recently, I had the privilege to learn from a great Torah scholar and teacher. Her name is the Honorable Dr. Rabbanit P’nina Neuwirth, and she helped found an organization called Beit Hilllel. The speech was magnificent for a few reasons, starting with the content. I can’t do it justice here, but it is worth sharing the three minute version of her 30 minute presentation. It’s relevant to another thing I’ve been meaning to write about, so hopefully this essay will spawn a discussion about both.

In Genesis, Adam’s wife is given two names. First she is called Isha, and later she is called Chava. A careful reading of the verses shows that God names her Isha, and Adam names her Chava. Adam only gives her a name after the sin and the resulting punishments. Adam declares her the “em kol chai,” mother of all life, and therefore she is called Chava. This set of facts is troubling on several accounts. One big question is, why doesn’t Adam call her Isha? Also, why is he calling her the “mother of all life” after her punishment of difficult childbearing? It seems awfully insensitive.

In the commentary Akeidat Yitzchak, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama explains these names as representing two ideals. The name “Isha” represents the complete woman: she has both a religious destiny and a maternal destiny. Man and woman are meant to have equal roles as Ish and Isha. The name “Chava” only includes the maternal destiny, “em kol chai.” nausheen-bigstock-Feminism-Symbol-60217055

After Chava causes Adam to sin, they are both punished. Adam believes he made a mistake about the role of his partner. He regrets trusting her with his spiritual destiny, so he condemns her to a life of only motherhood.

The plan was for man and woman to have equal roles in spiritual and parenting destinies, but Adam made the error of stripping away the spiritual destiny of his wife by calling her Chava. According to Rashi, the prophet Jeremiah predicts that the Messianic age will be identifiable by women courting men as if they are equal.

Rabbanit Neuwirth argues for the dual true destiny of women. Women are not meant to be either spiritual or maternal, but both.  A few centuries ago, it seemed like women may never have the opportunity to achieve their spiritual or religious destiny, but as the Messianic era draws nearer, women are returning to their dual roles, as originally intended.

A very similar Frum Feminist (Wo)Manifesto is the thesis of a book called Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism by Miriam Kosman. This is one of the most nuanced books I have ever read by an Ultra-Orthodox author, and it is so intricately packed that unpacking it properly requires that one actually read it.

In essence, Kosman argues that the famous Midrash about the sun and the moon in the primordial days of creation is a metaphor for man and woman. The original plan was for sun and moon to be equal, but the moon was unhappy splitting duties with the sun, so God made the moon smaller. In the days of the Messiah, the moon will again be like a second sun. Similarly, Kosman argues based on a book called The Moon’s Lost Light,” man and woman were meant to be equal, but woman sinned, so God made her subservient to man. In the days of the Messiah, woman will begin to return to the intended state of equality and will achieve that equality when the moon is restored to its glory.

Kosman builds an entire concept of gender roles based on this Midrash. That seems a bit tenuous to me because there is no support elsewhere for the idea that the sun/moon Midrash is about gender, but let’s accept it for now. The book contains a lot of contradiction, and doesn’t actually answer as many questions as it claims to answer, but it’s a valiant attempt. I definitely recommend it. It is thought provoking and worth a read. The book argues that woman is crawling her way back toward equality, and that’s a good thing, even according to Torah and Chazal. This is virtually the same concept as the Frum Feminism of Rabbanit Neuwirth.

To me, the most important development is the acknowledgement of the reality for Orthodox women. Both Rabbanit Neuwirth and Mrs. Kosman are forthright about the problems with our entrenched gender roles. Until recently, the most common Orthodox approach to this issue has been that the Torah thinks women are better than men, and that’s why men must be so publicly and actively engaged in Jewish observance while women are exempt. This is a nice soundbite, but the blessing of “shelo asani isha” throws a wrench into it.

The New Frum Feminism of Rabbanit Neuwirth and Mrs. Kosman is definitely an improvement. From a darshan’s perspective, the Modern Midrash of these ideas is awesome. I’m glad someone acknowledges that women have been traditionally treated as second class citizens, and doesn’t attempt to whitewash the historical inequalities in Judaism. This can empower Orthodox Jewish women to proactively seek more public roles. However, from a liberal perspective, I find their resignation to the status quo a little troubling. They seem to be saying that full equality is not for us to create, and that we should wait patiently for Messianic times.

My personal approach is similar to this New Frum Feminism, but I take it a little further. Orthodox Jewish gender roles are fifty years behind American gender roles. It’s the Mad Men era. We are not “there” yet, but we are also not Neanderthals, Ancient Greeks, Victorians, or pre-suffrage Americans. I am hopeful, because in the grand scheme of human civilization, fifty years is an entirely bridgeable gap. I believe it’s on us to take our community the rest of the way.

Despite our differences, I see Rabbinit Neuwirth as an ally for more progressive Orthodox Judaism, especially for women. Mrs. Kosman is harder to pin down, but I think she too is helpful to the cause. Read their works, teach their ideas, and help restore the proper order to humanity: equality.

Further Reading:
The Future of Women in Orthodox Judaism

Defenders and Benders of Roles for Genders
Dear Chaya
Will the Real Charedi Feminists Please Stand Up?
Apropos of Nothing (well… maybe something): Rabbi Julie Schonfeld Edition

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Affiliate, I receive a small commission of all book sales generated by the links in this article.

Edited by Elisheva Avital. Hire her!

 

I am seeing more and more examples of the new Frum Feminism. It’s an interesting approach and a huge improvement over…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Thursday, May 28, 2015

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Some Suggestions for Lakewood, NJ http://finkorswim.com/2015/05/19/some-suggestions-for-lakewood-nj/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/05/19/some-suggestions-for-lakewood-nj/#comments Tue, 19 May 2015 16:26:20 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9242

All across America, fewer young people are choosing to keep the faith in which they were raised. Orthodox Judaism is familiar with this phenomenon. For about two decades, this issue has been at the forefront of our collective consciousness. It’s safe to say that every American Orthodox Jewish community, including the most insular communities, has […]

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All across America, fewer young people are choosing to keep the faith in which they were raised. Orthodox Judaism is familiar with this phenomenon. For about two decades, this issue has been at the forefront of our collective consciousness. It’s safe to say that every American Orthodox Jewish community, including the most insular communities, has seen this happen. I think almost every community has adopted some measures as attempts to solve this problem.

Each community reacts differently. Some have relaxed academic standards, others have encouraged non-conformist schools, and others have retreated inward to protect from the perceived onslaught of the outside world sucking people into a vortex of darkness. For every problem, there are multiple solutions. Every solution can create new problems, but this is life. There is no silver bullet. The best solution might be simply that solutions are being sought.

We’ve also learned about trauma, abuse and triggers, poor parenting and dysfunctional relationships, bad education and harmful teachers. Many communities are vaguely aware of some of the factors that can turn a young person away from Judaism. Some communities have even organized seminars to uproot entrenched ideas that can damage our children.

Lakewood is a city built around a Yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha. It is the fastest growing non-chasidic, charedi community. The numbers are staggering.  The focal point of the city is an institution of passionate avodas Hashem, genuine yiras Shamayim, and steadfast learning of Torah. It’s the highest common denominator. People in Lakewood are generally not “frummer” than the yeshiva. It’s the gold standard.Rasaljo1901to1907a

With such growth, more and more people living in Lakewood are not BMG material. They live very frum lives, but the flavor and the values are a little less intense than BMG. Some men wear clothing unacceptable in the yeshiva, like polo shirts, colored oxfords, even jeans. Some women in Lakewood adhere to halachic standards, just not Lakewood standards. These are families that would not be devastated if their children attended university and pursued careers. Their homes have internet access and they use smartphones. Since the leadership of the yeshiva remains the leadership of the town, at times, there’s a slight disconnect between the wider public and the rabbinic leaders.

One communal issue with differing approaches relates to rebellious teens who are struggling with faith and observance. A group like this hangs out on the Lake Carasaljo boardwalk. These are local kids who live at home, but do not conform to community standards in dress or observance. Some of the neighbors are uncomfortable with the scene, but handle it as best they can. Others, especially those who are more insular, feel that the atmosphere at the lake is a breach of kedushas Shabbos, and an elevation of kedushas Shabbos is necessary to restore balance in the spiritual realm.

This past Shabbos, the yeshiva organized a protest. A group of about 200 rabbis and young men walked to the lake dressed in their Shabbos garb. They wanted to bring a feeling of respect for Shabbos back to the lake, so they sang religious hymns as they marched through the hangout. The teens found it amusing and somewhat disturbing. A few videos of the event have been floating around the Internet (NSFVF), and at some point the police arrived to disperse the crowd.

I understand the need to elevate Shabbos with a statement of protest in defense of Shabbos, but this protest is for the benefit of the protestors, not the kids at the lake. I don’t think anyone really believes the protest will convince anyone to keep Shabbos. The protest is for the Shabbos observers to counterbalance the chillul Shabbos in their city, but there are also negative consequences. I think it’s likely that this protest will further disenfranchise some of the kids at the lake. It also adds discomfort to the frum people of Lakewood who don’t agree with this tactic.

More importantly, in Lakewood proper there are no yeshiva day schools or high schools that officially teach a more moderate version of Orthodox Judaism. The only thing that locals are offered is the most insular version of yeshivish Judaism, even if that is not how they practice at home. For a student who is not succeeding in the top tier yeshiva, there is no other option. It seems that this is another area of significant divide between leadership and layperson.

I would like to make a few recommendations. I am not urging massive overhaul or reevaluation of core Lakewood values. I am urging a reevaluation of priorities and efficiency.

Firstly, if you want to engage the teens at the lake, I suggest doing so in their own language. It’s potentially damaging to march through their hangout area and basically ignore them while singing religious tunes. It feels like they are not being spoken to as people, only being demonstrated against. It would be more effective to find the right people to have some conversations with these kids. Be their friends. Generally, people don’t provoke or offend their friends. Maybe the kids will be more sensitive to the community if they feel like they are welcome as part of the community. Further, where are these kids going to be if they are not at the lake? It’s probably better that they are out in public in Lakewood than exiled out of the city on Shabbos with no idea what they’re doing.

Secondly, it’s time for an honest discussion about the viability of insularity in a giant community like Lakewood. The hardcore yeshiva people might be able to pull it off, but there are far too many people in the city who don’t buy into that lifestyle. Enforcing the more insular standard on everyone is basically begging people to rebel. For some, the rebellion is merely shirt color; for others it can be far more egregious. It’s unhealthy to enforce a lifestyle that makes so many – even people who diligently follow Halacha – into rebels. People need to be able to keep their legitimate brand of Judaism without feeling like they are black sheep. Maybe it would be helpful if the rabbinic leadership of the yeshiva community sanctioned a yeshivish non-BMG community with its own leaders and community standards. They would have still strict halachic standards like other yeshivish communities, just less strict in non-halachic norms. Most importantly, a more diverse school system should be established. I have a feeling that would be very helpful.

The Shabbos March is a visceral example of some of the social issues in Lakewood. It is not the actual issue, but perhaps the entire saga could inspire some adaptation and adjustment for the benefit of everyone in Lakewood.

Edited by Elisheva AvitalHire her!

A lot of people were disturbed by the “protest” in Lakewood this past Shabbos. I know I was.Here are some respectful suggestions for Lakewood that might offer a better way forward.

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Tuesday, May 19, 2015

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Yom Yerushalayim | Od Yaishvu http://finkorswim.com/2015/05/17/yom-yerushalayim-od-yaishvu/ Sun, 17 May 2015 20:52:31 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9228

I was inspired to make this video for Yom Yerushalayim. The song is Od Yaishvu by Mordechai ben David. The words are from Zechariah:  “.עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ מֵרֹב יָמִים. וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת מְשַׂחֲקִים בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ” “There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places […]

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I was inspired to make this video for Yom Yerushalayim. The song is Od Yaishvu by Mordechai ben David. The words are from Zechariah:

 “.עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ מֵרֹב יָמִים. וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת מְשַׂחֲקִים בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ”

“There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem, every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the broad places of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the broad places thereof.” (Zechariah 8)

Amen.

Yom Yerushalayim | Od YaishvuFor 2000 years, we dreamed of Jerusalem. In 1967, our dreams came true.

“Od Yaishvu…”

One of my favorite Jewish songs by my favorite Jewish singer, Mordechai ben David. (I actually walked down the aisle at my wedding to this song.)

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Sunday, May 17, 2015

Here’s a YouTube link.

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Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show: The Decline of Religion in America http://finkorswim.com/2015/05/14/finkorswim-live-on-the-stunt-show-the-decline-of-religion-in-america/ Thu, 14 May 2015 18:13:51 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9220 Presenting another episode of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. Today we brought another discussion and conversation that is dominating the religious conversation in America to these radio waves. The show aired at 1 PM ET today on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page. Today we talked about the […]

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Presenting another episode of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. Today we brought another discussion and conversation that is dominating the religious conversation in America to these radio waves.

The show aired at 1 PM ET today on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-06-at-2.49.31-PMToday we talked about the recent Pew Research Center study that demonstrates the decline in religion in America. I went through some of the proposed ideas that I think are off base and then we welcomed our guests to talk about what might work.

My guests were JR Foresteros, who is working through these issues with his Nazarene Christian congregation, and Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, has been somewhat vocally challenging the status quo in the way we approach Millennials and Judaism. Tune in. It was a lot of fun, and very fascinating.

Thank you to Nachum Segal and the Nachum Segal Network for this opportunity.

Listen here: NachumSegal.com
Or get the NSN App: iOS, Android

 

Some of the conversation was about these articles:

Families and Faith
Finkorswim Book Review
Faith Street
Torah Musings

Very fascinating discussion today about the decline of religion in Amerca on Finkorswim Live on the Nachum Segal Network.

My guests were JR Madill Forasteros and Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin. They were amazing and I think you will enjoy the show. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Podcast link is here.

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Thursday, May 14, 2015

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Lessons We Can Learn From #momoftheyear http://finkorswim.com/2015/04/30/lessons-we-can-learn-from-momoftheyear/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/04/30/lessons-we-can-learn-from-momoftheyear/#comments Fri, 01 May 2015 02:08:34 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9212

When things are too difficult to comprehend, we have a tendency to focus our attention on a smaller detail that is part of the story. The Baltimore riots and their social environment are incomprehensible to many people. But within the broader story are mini-stories that we do understand. To me, the anecdote that has become the […]

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When things are too difficult to comprehend, we have a tendency to focus our attention on a smaller detail that is part of the story. The Baltimore riots and their social environment are incomprehensible to many people. But within the broader story are mini-stories that we do understand. To me, the anecdote that has become the distraction from the Baltimore riots is the story of how one mom, Tory Graham, saw her son joining the rioters so she ran out to pull him away. As she pulled her son away from the mob, a camera captured her passionately yelling at him and striking him with her hands on his upper body and his head.

The public and the media fell in love with her and her story. It wasn’t long before she was being called #momoftheyear for pulling her son away from the rioters.

When #momoftheyear was first being reported, I think it was mostly to great praise. People were proud that she “saved” her son from joining the mob. He was about to do something he might regret and she prevented it. That’s heroic.unnamed-3

Later, I heard some more thoughtful and complex ideas in the media and on social media. “If she was a good mom he wouldn’t have joined” or “it’s terrible parenting to beat your child” or “white people only cheer a black mom if she is beating someone.” There is certainly at least a dash of merit to all these points.  Some are more meritorious than others, but these analyses are far more introspective and insightful than anointing someone #momoftheyear based on a 30 second video.

I think something a little deeper is happening here too. Stories usually operate on multiple planes. One plane of a story includes every possible context that may have a connection to the story. It can go back to the beginning of time and include every event in history. Another plane looks at a story with limited context. Only the super relevant stuff is part of the story.

There’s another plane that ignores all context to an event and includes just the event as it was seen. Clearly, this is unfair to the people in any story because it’s far too easy to misunderstand or misinterpret events with no context. If I see someone push another person, they are a bad person. When I see the car speeding into the person who got pushed, the pusher becomes a good person. Despite the inherent lack of truthiness to an event without any context, it has independent value as a “moment.” The truth of a “moment” is not important. A moment can arouse feelings or explain something or ask questions. It exists on a plane that does not operate within the true / false paradigm. It’s art.

As a “moment,” #momoftheyear was powerful, moving, and visceral. It made us feel something, maybe it was a parental connection to the Baltimore riots, and the thing we felt was good. There’s value in paying attention to the “moments” that move us and the things they make us feel. This also might explain our celebration of #momoftheyear and elevating her to hero status. We may have translated the good feelings of that “moment” into a modern fête of #momoftheyear.

But as a parenting story, a mom story, I don’t think it makes an ounce of sense to consider this mom a hero for anything beyond that “moment.” We know that it’s definitely wrong to beat your kids. We have no idea if she is a good mom in general or if her parenting was a factor in her son’s potential involvement. We also know that black people being beaten by authority is a significant social issue, especially in Baltimore. Therefore, the ensuing discussions of these issues in the context of #momoftheyear are useless at best and juvenile at worst.

I think it’s worth deescalating the rhetoric about #momoftheyear (or #worstmomever, if you see it that way) as a person or parent and instead we should focus on what this “moment” has brought to the consciousness of our culture. To me, the #momoftheyear “moment” was powerful on its own, but it carries with it some very important conversations about more general issues. The conversations have played out in the media and social networks, digital and non-digital. I’ve been reading and hearing a lot of opinions. Some have been great. Others have been disturbing.

I am appalled by people who still believe it is okay to beat children or teens. The mere thought brings me to tears. Education through fear is a nearsighted and selfish way to parent. Fear does not teach lessons or values. It teaches fear. The worst kind of fear based education is corporal punishment. Inflicting pain on anyone makes me extremely uncomfortable. It must be absolutely necessary to cause pain to another before crossing that line. It is never necessary for a parent to strike a child. Most of the time, hitting children is a way for a parent to vent or find an easy “solution” to a challenging problem. It’s actually pathetic. I cry when I think about children being hit by adults. If you hit your kids, please stop. If you don’t stop, please stop telling people how great it is to hit your kids.

I am appalled by people who think that a wayward child or teen is a reflection of the parents or their parenting. This is always true, but it is especially true when the waywardness is religious waywardness The best parents in the world have children who stray or act immorally. Children are people too. Ever person has their own struggles and there are no magical ways to parent out of every issue. Further, we don’t always know what a good parent does or what good parenting looks like. When it comes to religious choices, sometimes the best choices for that person are not religious choices. We will never have enough information to make that judgment about others. Stop making that judgment.

I am appalled by people who think they can make wholesale judgments about people based on a tiny slice of a person’s life. We have to learn how to give less value to the small sliver we see of people’s lives in short video clips. The world is changing and our worst moments are going to be playing on phones and larger screens. We can’t prevent that. But we can determine what we think when we see tiny slices of people’s lives. My opinion is that we should try to undervalue those “moments.” They lack context and cannot be trusted to tell a complete story. They should be treated that way.

If #momoftheyear inspires us to improve in these three areas, maybe she will truly earn her honorific. Perhaps more importantly, we should refocus our collective attention on the more systemic failures that have been exposed by the unrest in Baltimore. Let’s not forget, that’s the real story here.

Here are some of my thoughts (all are explained in the article): 1. Hitting children and teens is not okay.... Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Thursday, April 30, 2015

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Both Sides on the Kosher Switch Debate and Some Commentary http://finkorswim.com/2015/04/24/both-sides-on-the-kosher-switch-debate-and-some-commentary/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/04/24/both-sides-on-the-kosher-switch-debate-and-some-commentary/#comments Fri, 24 Apr 2015 10:55:53 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9185

The Kosher Switch has been in development for several years. According to the inventor, the device replaces the standard light switch and through the magic of technology and Jewish law allows Shabbat observant Jews to switch their lights on and off. Last week, the company launched a campaign on Indiegogo to raise funds to satisfy […]

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The Kosher Switch has been in development for several years. According to the inventor, the device replaces the standard light switch and through the magic of technology and Jewish law allows Shabbat observant Jews to switch their lights on and off. Last week, the company launched a campaign on Indiegogo to raise funds to satisfy minimum manufacturer requirements and begin production. The promotional video claims that leading rabbinic authorities approve the device for Shabbat use. In response, a proclamation signed by prominent American rabbinic authorities warned residents of Flatbush that the device was not kosher for Shabbat use and it should not be brought into one’s home.

A lot of the subsequent discussion has been somewhat juvenile. Questions about motive, credibility, and consistency have been raised in all directions and accusations of impropriety have been levied as well. To me, this is all just a distraction from the real issue here: Is the Kosher Switch Kosher? [Please show your work]

Instead of delving into the religio-legal issues raised by the Kosher Switch, I find far too much of the discourse to be declarative and even in the rare case that arguments are made in favor or against the device, the articles read like persuasive briefs instead of dispassionate legal jurisprudence. I have read everything I could find and would like to present both sides of the issue as I see it.

Needless to say, this discussion is for educational purposes only. If you are looking for a psak, ask a posek.

The Prohibition

I. Flipping a light switch on Shabbat might be a Biblical prohibition, but according to many opinions it might be a rabbinic prohibition.electricity-05 If it is Biblical, one set of principles applies, and if it is rabbinic, another package of principles apply. Activating a circuit is presumed to be prohibited, but as has been noted, it’s extremely difficult to identify the actual prohibition. Lighting an incandescent bulb is the most likely candidate for Biblical prohibition due to the heating of the coils and the heat that it emits. But we live in a fluorescent world, and I think we can assume that the Kosher Switch is trying to solve a rabbinic problem as opposed to a Biblical problem.

II. The Torah forbids mindful acts of Shabbat desecration. Thus, there are several leniencies that can theoretically mitigate Biblical prohibition. When one performs an action that unwittingly causes a prohibited result it is permissible. This is called davar sh’eino mitkaven. But the leniency only applies as long as the unintended result was not inevitable, otherwise it is prohibited. This principle is called psik reisha, and the action is Biblically prohibited. However, if the unintended result of the action is undesirable it is called a psik reisha d’lo nicha lei and it is not Biblically prohibited. There is a dispute among the Medieval commentators whether a psik reisha d’lo nicha lei is still rabbinically prohibited or if it is permissible.

III. There is a secondary dispute among the late Medieval and Renaissance commentators when a psik reisha only produces a rabbinically prohibited result. Some say it is still prohibited rabbinically, and others say it is completely permissible. Even those who prohibit in these cases may allow psik reisha d’lo nicha lei. Some prohibit even in such cases, and others only allow under certain conditions.

IV. When it’s unknown if the psik reisha resulted in a prohibition it is called a safeik psik reisha. One late Renaissance opinion holds this would not even be considered a psik reisha, and is not prohibited at all. One Contemporary authority rules that safeik psik reisha is permissible when the result is rabbinically prohibited.

Proximate Cause

  1. Indirectly causing a prohibited result is called grama. The Talmud offers two seemingly contradictory positions on grama. One is permitted to place vessels filled with water in the path of a fire. The fire will be extinguished by the water in the vessels, and extinguishing fire is normally prohibited. The Talmud explains that this is a permissible case of grama. However, the Talmud also prohibits tossing wheat with its chaff into the wind to separate the kernel from the chaff, even though that appears to be a grama as well. Several narrowing definitions of grama have been proposed to reconcile this issue.
    1. When there is a time lapse between the action and the result it is considered a grama. It will take some time for the water to be released from the vessels but the chaff will be removed from the wheat almost immediately.
    2. Perhaps grama is only when the indirect cause is the normal manner in which the result is achieved. Normally, one would not extinguish a fire by placing vessels of water in its path, but one would toss wheat in the air to winnow.
    3. Perhaps grama is only when the person completes the indirect act, and an intervening act is still needed to cause the prohibited result. The water is trapped in vessels that are a distance away from the fire, so the fire must travel and burst the vessels.  In the case of the wheat, the wind is already blowing when one throws the wheat in the air.
    4. Or perhaps grama is only when the prohibited result is not inevitable. There is no guarantee that the fire will be extinguished by the water in the vessels but it’s certain that the wind will remove some chaff from the wheat.
  2. Grama is not a blanket permission. The general consensus is that grama is only allowed in cases of great need. Some Modern and Contemporary authorities hold that grama would also be permissible when the result is not desired.
  3. One Contemporary rabbinic authority holds that oneg Shabbat (pleasure of Shabbat) is considered a great need.   

Not Even a Grama

  1. The foremost Renaissance halachic authority for Ashkenazi Jewry says one can leave a candle near a door if the wind is not blowing, even if the wind will eventually blow. He also holds that grama is only permissible in cases of financial loss, and since here he makes no such stipulation, it can be assumed that he holds this is not even a case of grama.
  2. Perhaps grama is when the other contributing factor causing the prohibition exists. But where the wind is not blowing, the thing that is needed to complete the act does not even exist at the time of human act.
  3. Perhaps grama is when the human act is connected to the thing that will complete the prohibited act. The human is only opening a door to let the wind blow. The wind is the thing doing the extinguishing and the act is not connected to the wind.

The Kosher Switch

  1. Basically, two things are happening inside the Kosher Switch. First, there is an emitter and a receiver that complete a circuit. When the emitter and receiver are active, the circuit is complete and the light is on. The second component is a barrier that creates a blockage between emitter and receiver when the switch is flipped.
  2. When the light is on, the emitter and receiver cycle through sleep and active periods and an indicator will tell the user when they are asleep. The user will move the barrier by flipping the switch, and at a random time, the emitter will try to connect to the receiver. If it cannot connect, the circuit will be disrupted and the light will turn off. When the emitter and receiver are sleeping, an indicator tells the user it’s safe to move the switch. If the barrier is moved, the emitter and receiver will communicate at a random time and will attempt to complete the circuit. Even when the barrier is removed, the emitter and receiver do not automatically connect. They both randomly generate codes that must “match” in order to complete the circuit. After each failed attempt, the emitter will try connected again at a random time. If the barrier has not been moved, the emitter will not see the receiver and the light will remain off.

Show Your Work

  1. Flipping the Kosher Switch does not directly turn the lights on or off.KosherSwitch1
  2. Assuming it is considered a psik reisha, the result is a rabbinically prohibited act. This is permissible according to some authorities.
  3. Assuming a psik reisha that produces a rabinically prohibited act is still prohibited, the act of flipping the switch might be a safeik psik reisha. This is permissible according to some authorities.
  4. It might be a grama because there is a time lapse between the switch flip and the circuit completing.
  5. It might be a grama because an intervening act, by the emitter and receiver, is needed to complete the circuit.
  6. It’s possible that it could be a grama because the Kosher Switch is not the normal manner one turns on a light. Maybe.
  7. If the light is considered oneg Shabbat, grama plus a “great need” would render the switch permissible according to some.
  8. It might not be a grama at all, because the current is totally dead at the time of the act. Non-grama is certainly permissible.
  9. Or it might not be grama at all because the human act is not connected to the emitter and receiver. The human act only connects to the switch and barrier.

Objections

  1. Rabbi Rozen says: “Even if they added to the ‘Grama’ additional apparatuses, and even if there is a one in a thousand chance that the action will not occur, I have received from my rabbis (R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and R. Shaul Yisraeli) that this does not change in any way the halakhic status of regular ‘grama’ (just like grama D’grama and other artificial arrangements).”
  2. Rabbi Rozen says: “Even if the method of operation is non-active from the point of view of the agent, i.e. because he merely removes the “preventing element,” Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach and others wrote that this remains forbidden and is treated like it was done directly by the person, since the action occurs immediately after the human intervention/action. Even if the result comes only after a delay caused by an additional factor, this is plain grama, which is still not permitted L’chatchila.”
  3. Rabbi Student argues that the Kosher Switch is only a grama according to some opinions and even a grama is not permissible ab initio.
  4. Rabbi Tzvi Ortner says: “We must question whether a case can be built for permissibility based on what the Gemara does not say. That is, the fact that the Gemara does not speak of the halacha of something that has not entered the world does not prove that this case is less than a grama. Perhaps this case is deemed a grama too!”
  5. Rabbi Tzvi Ortner says: “Even should this logic be sound, one can hardly call the pulses “not in this world,” since the switch is designed for the function to turn on intermittently. It is an absolute certainty that the force will come back into existence, and this is by design. Even if we could find a case of wind that is not “in this world” that is permissible, this is only because the effect is not under man’s control, which thus “distances” his action from the eventual force (see Magen Avraham 328:53). However, the pulses in the Kosher Switch are designed and controlled by man to arrive with continuity, and thus bear no comparison to the case of the wind, which is beyond his control.”

Possible Responses

  1. Okay, but there is precedent for “not even grama” under similar circumstances. Not everyone has to agree with what you received from your rabbis.
  2. Right, but this is a switch that is delayed and also dependent on random emitter and receiver contact which could have legal implications according to some precedents. Further, even if it is a grama, it could be combined with oneg Shabbat to establish a “great need.”
  3. There is a solid argument, with precedent, to say that it is not even grama. And again, even if it is grama it might be okay.
  4. The Talmud doesn’t say it, but the foremost Renaissance rabbinic authority seems to hold this way.
  5. Sure, this is possible. But so is the alternative proposed by Kosher Switch proponents. It might be different than the wind, but it might be similar as well.

Conclusion

So there you have it. A legitimate discussion about Kosher Switch from a religio-legal perspective.

It seems like two things might be happening here. It’s possible that the opponents of the Kosher Switch did not read through the responsa on the Kosher Switch website. All their questions are covered in their materials. But I think there is something deeper happening here as well. I have a feeling that the Kosher Switch proponents are using a different paradigm than the opponents.

The opponents seem to hold that in order for something to be permissible it needs to work according to all established rabbinic authorities. The Kosher Switch certainly does not meet that bar. Kosher Switch proponents hold that in order for something to be prohibited it needs to not work according to all established rabbinic authorities. Unfortunately, both sides seem to believe that their approach is the only correct approach so they do not acknowledge the validity of their opponents.

This represents a huge gap between two acceptable ways to look at halacha. I do think that the idea that we should try to satisfy all halachic precedent has some roots in the Talmud. But the importance and universal emphasis we give to this idea is somewhat a new innovation. It’s prominent in the Mishna Berura, a 20th century compilation and commentary on one section of the Code of Jewish Law. The Chofetz Chaim seems to have attempted to select and codify the halachic opinions that were most universally held. Today, the idea is very prominent in Brisk and its progeny. The hallmark of this approach is its lack of self confidence and self reliance. We are nervous that we are not doing it right so we try to fulfill as many positions as possible because one of them has got to be right.

We also have a tradition of “koach d’hetera adif” – the power to permit is great, and the concept of “limud zechus” – trying to find any halachic path to justify questionable behavior. The Aruch HaShulchan, by Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, an exhaustive restatement of Jewish law written in the late 19th century, is known for its efforts on this side of the halachic coin. Rabbi Epstein tried to be machria and choose a path but he presented a potpourri of acceptable opinions in every section. It seems that this tradition is less prominent in our society. The hallmark of this approach is autonomy and courage. We try to research a topic as best we can, and attempt to forge a personal path that rings true to our genuinely held religious convictions.

I do harbor some concerns that our preference for the former over the latter is having a net negative impact on 21st century Orthodox Judaism. A society that looks for stringencies and looks down upon those with a different approach to Jewish law can become extremely uncomfortable for its non-conformist constituents. Autonomy and self confidence are authentic Torah values too. We ignore them at our peril.

This dispute might be a case study of this dichotomy or I might be completely off the mark, but either way, researching this topic inspired this idea in me. I believe there is a valid halachic path that permits the Shabbos Switch. I also acknowledge that this path will not be universally held. I think that’s okay. Variety and diversity can be good things. Let’s try to bring a little more of that back into our world.

I have included links to several published articles that have the sources for everything I quoted in this essay:
Rema on Kibui grama
Aruch HaShulchan on Kibui grama
Electricity on Shabbat
Rabbi Flug on Psik reisha
Detailed Kosher Switch Halachic Analysis 
Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Shapiro Responsum Permitting Kosher Switch
How the Kosher Switch Works
Rabbi Rozen’s Objections
Rabbi Student’s Objections
Rabbi Ortner’s Objections
The Flatbush Ban

I was a bit dismayed by the lack of substantive discussion about the KosherSwitch so I decided to do it myself.
As promised.
This is really long but it also is really clear and easy to understand. Print it out and read it over Shabbos. Or read it now. Or don’t read it at all and pretend you did.

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Friday, April 17, 2015

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Why Do We Keep Kosher? http://finkorswim.com/2015/04/17/why-do-we-keep-kosher/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/04/17/why-do-we-keep-kosher/#comments Fri, 17 Apr 2015 15:18:26 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9168

This week’s Torah portion outlines many of the laws and precepts regarding Kashrut. Specifically, which animals are fit to eat and which animals are prohibited to be eaten. Kashrut is also the subject of one of the more common conversations between a Kashrut observant Jew and anyone else. That conversation goes something like this: “Taste […]

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This week’s Torah portion outlines many of the laws and precepts regarding Kashrut. Specifically, which animals are fit to eat and which animals are prohibited to be eaten. Kashrut is also the subject of one of the more common conversations between a Kashrut observant Jew and anyone else. That conversation goes something like this:

“Taste this [non-kosher food].”
“No thanks.”
“You sure? It’s really good.”
“Ya, really, I’ll pass.”
“Just try it!”
“I can’t. It’s not kosher.”
“Kosher?! You keep kosher!? But you seem so normal!”
“Ya, I keep kosher.”
“But isn’t that an archaic law that was about being healthy and staying clean in the desert? Nowadays, we know that pig is safe to eat and shellfish are safe to eat. Why would you keep kosher in 2015?!”

At this point,1024 just about every Kashrut observant Jew will almost always say the exact same thing:

“Kashrut has nothing to do with health! That’s a myth created by people who just don’t want to eat kosher! Kashrut is about [insert something spiritual or religious or whatever]. Only super liberal Jews and secular Jews think it is about health!”

Sounds familiar, right?

The thing is, this is a lie. Sure, there are plenty of reasons one can propose or concoct for keeping kosher. For some people it is discipline, for others it is mindfulness, for others it is spiritual health, and there are many other reasons.

Maimonides says in the Guide (3:48, Friedlander Tr):

I maintain that the food which is forbidden by the Law is unwholesome. There is nothing among the forbidden kinds of food whose injurious character is doubted, except pork (Lev. xi. 7), and fat (ibid. vii. 23). But also in these cases the doubt is not justified. For pork contains more moisture than necessary [for human food], and too much of superfluous matter. The principal reason why the Law forbids swine’s flesh is to be found in the circumstance that its habits and its food are very dirty and loathsome. It has already been pointed out how emphatically the Law enjoins the removal of the sight of loathsome objects, even in the field and in the camp; how much more objectionable is such a sight in towns. But if it were allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks. A saying of our Sages declares: “The mouth of a swine is as dirty as dung itself” (B. T. Ber. 25a).

The fat of the intestines makes us full, interrupts our digestion, and produces cold and thick blood; it is more fit for fuel [than for human food].

Blood (Lev. xvii. 12), and nebelah, i.e., the flesh of an animal that died of itself (Deut. xiv. 21), are indigestible, and injurious as food; Trefah, an animal in a diseased state (Exod. xxii. 30), is on the way of becoming a nebelah.

The characteristics given in the Law (Lev. xi., and Deut. xiv.) of the permitted animals, viz., chewing the cud and divided hoofs for cattle, and fins and scales for fish, are in themselves neither the cause of the permission when they are present, nor of the prohibition when they are absent; but merely signs by which the recommended species of animals can be discerned from those that are forbidden.

Clearly, Maimonides held that kashrut laws were about health, and he wasn’t a secular Jew.

What are we to make of this?

The reasons for commandments are flexible. They change with time, place, medical and scientific advances, and personality. This is unavoidable for many reasons. This is a good thing. The laws are firm and cannot be changed, but the social benefits and ideas they are able to teach us change all the time. We can seek – we should seek! – and discover the meaning that subjectively resonates with us and we cannot impose subjective meaning on others.

There are no objective reasons for Torah commandments. There is only subjective speculation. These ideas can only enhance our observance of God’s word and they cannot be a reason to undermine or violate God’s word. We have to do it, but we can do it for the reason that works for us.

Kashrut is a huge part of observant Judaism today. It can mean so many different things to different people. It is extremely unlikely that kosher food is part of an undiscovered secret healthy diet and the rest of the world is consuming deadly foods every day. Aside from having no scientific or medical basis dietarily speaking, there is just no way anyone would believe that Jews possess any gastronomic advantage over anyone, especially Ashkenazi Jews.

You want to know why people keep kosher? Ask them. Ask yourself. Research the issue and find something that makes sense for you. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, I think that is what we are supposed to do.

What's your reaction when someone says Kashrut laws were for archaic health reasons?

You might want to check this out…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Friday, April 17, 2015

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All Who Go Do Not Return | Book Review and Analysis http://finkorswim.com/2015/04/01/all-who-go-do-not-return-book-review-and-analysis/ Wed, 01 Apr 2015 19:46:25 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9157

It’s been a couple of months since I received and read an advance copy of “All Who Go Do Not Return” by Shulem Deen. It is a very well written book. No simple feat for a New Square educated ex-hasid. It stands out in its very uncomplicated way of conveying very complex emotions and situations. That’s […]

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It’s been a couple of months since I received and read an advance copy of “All Who Go Do Not Return” by Shulem Deen. It is a very well written book. No simple feat for a New Square educated ex-hasid. It stands out in its very uncomplicated way of conveying very complex emotions and situations. That’s not an easy task for even the most accomplished writers. As a work or literature, All Who Go Do Not Return deserves the precious 7/8 of an inch it will occupy on my bookshelf.

I read the book in two sittings. To me, that’s the sign of a good read. After reading his book, I talked to Shulem about his story and that conversation influenced my opinion of his book.71fyz-YNj3L

Like any memoir, the book touches on so many aspects of life, adulthood, parenting, religion, God, and of course Hasidic culture. One theme in the book felt woven through the entire story: Shulem was the family man who lost his family. In fact, Shulem told me that the thing that his friends from New Square could not understand was how Shulem could choose to lose his family. They didn’t expect Shulem to cling to the theology or observance, but they did expect Shulem to keep his family intact.

Family is a recurring theme in “All Who Go Do Not Return.” Shulem had a good relationship with his father and maintains a good relationships with other members of this family. Shulem was also determined to make his “almost arranged” marriage work and he did everything he could do to keep his family together. I cried when I read the end of chapter 6. Describing his marriage after the birth of their first child, Shulem writes: “We had created love.”

When described the experience of losing his faith to me, Shulem compared it to being passionately in love and then one morning the person you loved is gone. But they were never really there in the first place, and one cannot grieve for someone that one realizes never existed.

“All Who Go Do Not Return” also provides a somewhat cynical, but seemingly accurate, depiction of New Square life. Shulem came to New Square as an outsider so his perceptions and insights are invaluable. He can discuss the realities of living in New Square as someone who yearned to join the community, successfully integrated into the community, and one who rebelled and eventually left the community. Even as someone who left, Shulem has a refreshingly optimistic view of the progress being made in New Square. It’s easy to be frustrated by injustice and narrow-mindedness, but seeing incremental progress, as Shulem truly does, is quite admirable.

Similarly, there is no real scandal in his story. Some things are outrageous, but they are presented in their context as if they are almost understandable and reasonable. “All Who Go Do Not Return” is an incredibly empathetic book, for the most part. We hear about Shulem’s world from the perspective of an insider even when the insider is frustrated and hurt by the community.

The most important contribution of “All Who Go Do Not Return” to the “Coming of Age and Then Leaving Orthodox Judaism” sub-genre is that Shulem genuinely wanted to stay. Other widely read books in the same genre described people desperate to leave for whatever reason or people who needed to leave for more fundamental reasons. Shulem wanted to stay. But he was forced out by the vicious combination of his own disbelief and his community’s intolerance. I don’t mean to say that Shulem would have been better off staying or that he should return to observance in some capacity, I mean that at the time of his choice, leaving was a reluctant admission that he could no longer stay. This is so important. After reading books by the likes of Auslander, Brown, Feldman, Vincent, (all books I highly recommend) and other anonymous writers online and in print, it is possible to believe that those who go, go because of trauma or extraordinarily unjust circumstances. But Shulem left when he could no longer stay – despite wanted to stay. That’s different and more common than I think people realize. This, combined with the lack of scandal make “All Who Go Do Not Return” different and give it a unique voice in this ever growing genre.

Finally, as someone who has benefited from the Orthodox Jewish blog community as a consumer and contributor, I read the Hasidic Rebel portions of the story with personal interest. One of Shulem’s first blog post as Hasidic Rebel compared New Square, Williamsburg, and Kiryas Joel to Iraq in terms of oppression and suppression. It’s a brilliant comparison, but more profoundly, it was a revolutionary moment in Orthodox Jewish blogging. An insider armed with a great gift for expression, a computer, and an Internet connection had the power to educate and influence anyone in the world. The Everyman’s opinion could go viral and change everything. That possibility shifted the entire power structure in Orthodox Judaism. Shulem gets much of the credit for that monumental shift. “All Who Go Do Not Return” may be Shulem most prolific and complete contribution to date. Trailblazing the Orthodox Jewish blogosphere will likely remain his most important contribution.

Personally, I am grateful for both. I am also grateful for the many hours of conversation online, and by phone, I have enjoyed with Shulem. It is easy to recommend All Who Go Do Not Return. It is a very good book and a very important book. Shulem’s story is also the story of many other Shulems. At the very least, let’s look out for our fellow brothers and sisters who are going through the challenges Shulem encountered. Let’s hear them when they cry for our help or sympathy. Let’s do everything in our power to help any of our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the swirling fires of existential turmoil emerge from the flames unscathed and sheltered in our love for each and every Jew.

Disclaimers: I received an advance copy of the book for review. As an Amazon Affiliate, I receive a small commission of all book sales generated by the links in this article.

I was early to the party when I read Shulem Deen's excellent memoir a few months ago. I am late to the party with my review and analysis.I hope you'll indulge me and read it anyway.

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, April 1, 2015

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Farewell to the Shul on the Beach http://finkorswim.com/2015/03/15/farewell-to-the-shul-on-the-beach/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/03/15/farewell-to-the-shul-on-the-beach/#comments Mon, 16 Mar 2015 01:36:59 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9149 This coming week (Vayikra) will be my last week as the rabbi of Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach. To send us off, the Shul is planning a community luncheon and we would love for you to join us. When our landlord gave us 60 days notice, it gave us a chance […]

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This coming week (Vayikra) will be my last week as the rabbi of Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach. To send us off, the Shul is planning a community luncheon and we would love for you to join us.

When our landlord gave us 60 days notice, it gave us a chance to reevaluate our lives and we decided it was time to move on.

We part ways with the Shul on excellent terms. It’s been an incredibly life-changing 6.5 years and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to have been the rabbi of such a historic shul and special community. I have learned so much about myself and others, but above all, I have built memories, friendships, and relationships that will be a part of me forever. The time has come to move on and we are very excited about the bigger and better things ahead.

The Orthodox Jewish community really does not have anything like The Shul on the Beach. A traditional Orthodox service that is accessible and can appeal to people from all backgrounds and perspectives. A place without judgment and a place of warmth and comfort. A place of conscious living and personal growth. A place where everyone belongs. I have been asked about bringing “The Beach to Beverlywood“ – among other places – and I am eager and excited to accept this challenge.

Thank you to all of who I met at The Shul on the Beach or at our home in Santa Monica. To those of you who hoped to visit or meet at The Shul on the Beach, of course we would love for you to join us the Next Thing. Meanwhile, The Shul on the Internet lives on.

Fittingly, we just completed the Book of *Exodus* with these words:!חזק חזק ונתחזק

(As seen on Facebook)

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The Rabbis Hid God For a Reason http://finkorswim.com/2015/03/05/rabbis-hid-god-reason/ Thu, 05 Mar 2015 16:56:34 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9139

One of the best advertised features of the Purim story, as told in Megilat Esther, is the absence of God’s name. In fact, the story is perfectly viable without God playing any role in the tale. Much like our lives, the presence or absence of God is impossible to prove or disprove. Some people are able […]

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One of the best advertised features of the Purim story, as told in Megilat Esther, is the absence of God’s name. In fact, the story is perfectly viable without God playing any role in the tale. Much like our lives, the presence or absence of God is impossible to prove or disprove. Some people are able to see God’s trademark in everything, while others are incapable of seeing God in any part of their lives.

In book in the Jewish Biblical canon,  God’s conspicuous absence is particularly striking. These are the books of God, yet God is nowhere to be found.

Interestingly enough, God’s absence in Megilat Esther is even more significant than most people realize.Esther-goes-to-the-king-to-plead-for-the-safety-o Esther was a late inclusion in the Biblical canon. The Talmud says it was written by the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah along with a few other late books. Within a few hundred years, another version of Esther crops up in Greek and Hebrew. One later version has additions throughout the text and these additions are footnoted in another later Esther text. All of the additions share one general guiding principle. They all add God into the story.

For example, Mordechai is shown a prophetic vision at the beginning of the narrative, and it comes true at the end of the story. Also, the prayers of Mordechai and Esther are included in some versions. In the non-Tanach version, God plays a starring role in the scene where Esther breaches protocol and sees the king unannounced. Many of the small additions are found in our Midrashic sources.

This means that our Tanach specifically did not include God in the text of the story, and when we had the opportunity to add it back into the text or to infuse a little bit of religion into the story, we rejected that option. It’s not merely that God wasn’t mentioned in the Megilah. It’s that God was deliberately omitted from Megilat Esther. Why?

The answers to this question are not really different than the answer to the question of why God is simply not mentioned in the text. Those answers still work. But the question changes, and that means there can also be new and different answers.

God may have been reinserted into the text for religious reasons. But not our religion. Christians also see significance in the story of Esther. Some say she was a proto-Mary. Others say that Esther was a proto-Jesus. Some even say that Esther’s bravery preserved the Jewish people and the Davidic line, which allowed their messiah to be born several centuries later. The point is that Christians used the book for very Christian teachings, and that might be a reason some people inserted God into the text.

At that time, the Christian god was very “present” and the Jewish God was very hidden. Thus, it also might be that the Jewish God of the time was a hidden God while the god of the Christians at that time was thought to be more readily accessible. Between a version of Esther with a hidden God and a version with a very active God, the Jewish path is clear. It was a time of great peril for the Jewish people. Giving up hope in the invisible God likely made the very active god of the early Christians and pagans much more attractive. The rabbis wanted to help avoid that kind of thinking, and instead they wanted to train people to see the Hidden God.

It makes perfect sense that the rabbis declined to edit God into the text. They specifically wanted to give the hidden God to the Jewish people. This would be their God for the duration of exile. So the rabbis made the somewhat controversial decision to give us this one book starring a Hidden God. The rabbis of the Anshei Knesset HaGedola were right. Our God is the Hidden God. One day, our God will no longer be hidden, but until then, we have Esther.

Edited by Elisheva AvitalHire her!

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Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show: Compatibility of Religious Observance Within a Marriage http://finkorswim.com/2015/01/29/finkorswim-live-stunt-show-compatibility-religious-observance-within-marriage/ Fri, 30 Jan 2015 04:53:33 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9135 Presenting the third episode of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. Today we brought another discussion and conversation that we have discussed on the blog and social media to the radio waves. The show aired at 1 PM ET today on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page. Today we talked […]

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Presenting the third episode of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. Today we brought another discussion and conversation that we have discussed on the blog and social media to the radio waves.

The show aired at 1 PM ET today on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-06-at-2.49.31-PMToday we talked about a topic inspired by a recent article in Mishpacha Magazine. We have been talking about this issue for years in other forums so it was welcome to see a prominent Orthodox Jewish magazine attempting to at least start the conversation. The issue arises when a couple evolves from their religious starting points in their marriage and are now very different religiously.

My guests were Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, who weighed in on our emphasis on compatibility and Eli Mandel who successfully navigated a marriage that evolved from two yeshivish people into one less yeshivish person and one non-Orthodox person. Tune in. It was a lot of fun, and very fascinating.

Thank you to Nachum Segal and the Nachum Segal Network for this opportunity.

Listen here: NachumSegal.com
Or get the NSN App: iOS, Android

 

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Why Did God Punish All the Ancient Egyptians? http://finkorswim.com/2015/01/19/why-did-god-punish-all-the-ancient-egyptians/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/01/19/why-did-god-punish-all-the-ancient-egyptians/#comments Mon, 19 Jan 2015 09:23:42 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9112

Exodus: Gods and Kings was a terrible movie, but that won’t stop me from finding some redeeming value in its new interpretation of the Exodus story. I waited for the Torah readings about the Exodus story in our Torah reading cycle to tackle the most thought provoking aspect of the recent film. The familiar version of […]

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Exodus: Gods and Kings was a terrible movie, but that won’t stop me from finding some redeeming value in its new interpretation of the Exodus story. I waited for the Torah readings about the Exodus story in our Torah reading cycle to tackle the most thought provoking aspect of the recent film.

The familiar version of the Exodus story includes a litany of harsh punishments levied by God against Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. Their suffering during these plagues is so immense that we have an ancient custom to spill some wine from our of goblets at the Pesach Seder as we recount each plague to demonstrate our sympathy for their pain. Nevertheless, the story is focused on our pain. We eat matzah to recall the bread of affliction that we ate in slavery. We eat maror to relive the bitterness of our servitude. We dip in salt-water to taste the tears of suffering we endured. In our version of the story, we are the good guys, the Egyptians and the Pharaoh are the bad guys, and God is our Secret Weapon.

The movie presents a more objective view. It tells the story with less self-interest than when we tell it, so we are able to see things in the film that we may normally overlook. I believe it’s a huge flaw in its storytelling that viewers of the film empathize more with Ramses II than Moses (see my review linked above), but it also speaks to a greater challenge the movie presents. We get the sense that the Egyptians are also victims of the Pharaoh. They are not innocent parties, but the average citizen can hardly be held accountable to the degree that Joe the Breadmaker must be made to suffer so greatly. In the film, fishermen do not deserve to be eaten by giant crocs. They’ve done nothing wrong. It is excruciating to hear the primal screams of the mothers of the stricken first borns during the final plague. They don’t deserve that either.

The movie is making a decent point. Great suffering and harm must be justified in order to balance the moral scale. How are we to understand Divine collective punishment? It is disconcerting. I thought we were supposed to be the good guys in the Exodus story? Why is our Secret Weapon causing so much unnecessary suffering?! Perhaps more importantly, what are we supposed to think of all this? Is it okay to even ask this question?

There is something that must be done before suggesting answers to this challenge. We need to establish the validity of the question. If you’ve wondered about this, I salute you. This is a question that has to be asked, and the ability to ask this question is a fundamental skill that has infinite value to me. To step back and wonder if the story demands clarification is important and sophisticated. This is not a childish or rebellious question. This is a genuine question that we should all struggle with. Further, the question is sometimes better than the answers available to us.

I can think of four accepted approaches in Orthodox Judaism:

1. All of the Egyptians must have deserved it. God does not punish the innocent and if they were punished they must have been guilty. Here you can be creative about their sins. I call this the Ray Lewis approach. “God does not make mistakes.”

2. Some Egyptians deserved it and others were collateral damage. God was punishing the leaders and the oppressors within the Egyptian nation. Once shots are fired, innocents will be harmed. I call this the Hiroshima approach.

3. Only the guilty Egyptians actually suffered from the plagues. In other words, the descriptions of the plagues are generalizations that seem to include every Egyptian. The truth is that only a small number of leaders and oppressors were punished, and their experience is described in the Torah. The innocent were not harmed; only a few guilty parties felt the terror of the plagues, and the rest of Egypt watched in horror. I call this the Selective Anecdote Becoming History approach.

4. Some argue that collective punishment is moral. Handwringing over death to Egyptians is a corrupt symptom of modernity and we need not think twice about innocent victims. There’s no problem here in the first place. I call this the Old-School Morality approach. “Woe to the wicked person. Woe to his neighbor.”

It’s also possible that an indirectly related novel idea I posted on Facebook before Parshat Va’era might reduce some of our anxiety about innocent Egyptians dying.

Maybe.

Finally, I think there might something else worth exploring. The question we are asking is certainly built on modern sensibilities. I don’t think the ancients were bothered by such concerns. (I could be wrong.) Just a few years earlier, the Pharaoh had decreed that all Israelite males be killed for population control purposes. Clearly, we are dealing with a society that is at odds with our views of morality.

Exodus: Gods and Kings superimposed modern morality on an ancient civilization. It’s not a perfect fit, and the act of forcing them to work together creates collateral damage to the narrative. Judging the way God deals with an ancient civilization with objectionable moral standards using our progressive modern standards of morality is worse than someone who only understands English judging Ugaritic poetry. It’s impossible to do, and if one tries, it demonstrates a lack of maturity.

I don’t think we have to think that God would do the same thing as God did in ancient Egypt. God does not conjure supernatural miracles to punish entire peoples anymore. Meanwhile, the world has changed. The way God interacts with the world could be reflective of the way we act toward each other. Thus, it’s not a problem for me if God’s actions toward an ancient civilization do not square with modern moral standards. I wouldn’t expect otherwise.

This is not to say that we should not even think about this sort of question. On the contrary, we must ask these questions and discuss the various options. The inquiry is more important than the conclusion, and should be encouraged. Exodus: Gods and Kings helped me think about the Exodus in a new way. It invited new questions and new questions invite new discussions and new discussion invite new answers.

This is beauty. This is Torah. This is where we experience the beauty of Torah.

Edited by Elisheva AvitalHire her!

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Do You Really Want the Return of Sacrifices? http://finkorswim.com/2015/01/05/really-want-return-sacrifices/ http://finkorswim.com/2015/01/05/really-want-return-sacrifices/#comments Mon, 05 Jan 2015 17:49:35 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9099

A recent editorial, written in the style of a letter to God, challenged the notion of animal sacrifices in the Third Temple during the Messianic era. A lot of people were understandably upset by the article. I will not refute or rebut the arguments made against the author and his provocative words. I think a discussion […]

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A recent editorial, written in the style of a letter to God, challenged the notion of animal sacrifices in the Third Temple during the Messianic era. A lot of people were understandably upset by the article. I will not refute or rebut the arguments made against the author and his provocative words. I think a discussion about these issues is valuable and I encourage people to have this conversation.

There are two things that I want to say about the controversy.

It’s a shame that the uproar over the article, its format, its perceived hubris, and its theological basis has eclipsed its substance, because the substance is so important. Brazen-altarFor about 1400 years, animal sacrifice was a daily part of Jewish life. Some animals were eaten by the Temple staff and penitent pilgrims, but most of the animals were completely burnt on the altar. From the time of the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE Jerusalem, our ancestors sacrificed animals as per the Torah’s Divine command. The practice was banned outside the Temple and thus we have collectively prayed and yearned for the return of our Temple and ritual sacrifice.

Many of our communal aspirations and prayers were established nearly 2000 years ago in the wake of our Temple’s destruction. It’s understandable that rebuilding the Temple and institutionalizing our national Messianic ambitions are prominent themes in our prayers, because that was the dominant feeling of their era. Persecution and the Diaspora experience have reinforced our desire for autonomy, freedom, and redemption. These feelings are also reflected in the prayers that have been added to our service in the centuries that followed our exile.

Animal sacrifice was normal 2000 years ago, and our prayers matched our society. A lot of time has passed since 70 CE. In the meantime, animal sacrifice has gone out of style in the civilized world. There is not a single advanced country where animal sacrifice is part of the daily routine. It survives in a few cults, tribal religions, and indigenous populations. Other than that, it’s gone. So it would be really weird and quite uncomfortable for many of us to simply resume a long discarded practice that once seemed moral and virtuous and now seems immoral and primitive.

When we ask God to bring the Messiah and the Third Temple and give us the opportunity to offer sacrifices, do we really mean it?

Generally, I have encountered three approaches to this question. 1. God commands it, ergo it must be moral. If you disagree, it’s a flaw in your faith or character. 2. The world will be so incredibly different in the Messianic era that although it seems weird today, it won’t seem weird after the Messiah changes everything forever. 3. Something about mysticism involving lots of thumb-dips and fancy terminology.

Here’s the truth: We have no idea what is going to happen, but feeling uncomfortable is completely legitimate and reasonable. You should be troubled at the prospect of taking animals and incinerating them for a non-anthropomorphic God’s pleasure. Indeed, it boggles our minds, and that is okay.

I wish that was the conversation we were having about animal sacrifices right now. What Rav Kook or the Rambam held or would hold is interesting in theory. But I want to talk about actual factual feelings. How do animal sacrifices make you feel?

This leads me to the other aspect of the “letter” that is important to me. We have to be okay with acknowledging that animal sacrifice gives many of us the heebie-jeebies. The absence of a satisfactory answer does not obviate the question, and it is far better to have an unanswered question than the appearance of confidence in an answer that is merely a mirage.

The questions raised in this conversation are tough to answer. We know our Holy Torah tells us that God commands animal sacrifices, we know that this is an anathema to 2015 thinking, and we have no reason to think that 2015 thinking about animal sacrifice is immoral or incorrect. Yet the Torah obligates us. It’s an infinite loop of truths that cannot be easily reconciled. There’s a temptation to ignore the tugging at our hearts on this issue, and others. But that would not be honest, and it would not give us the opportunity to embrace the struggle of reconciling Torah and modernity.

Too often, we sweep tough questions under the rug. After a while, the pile of confusion under the rug forms a noticeable bump that the rug can’t hide. If we ask the questions, acknowledge the challenges, and validate the ones raising issues, our rug stays nice and flat. It’s a comfortable place to sit, or perhaps even fly, as we ponder and contemplate the difficult questions. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Let’s be honest with each other. Let’s be comfortable with questions even without good answers.

Animal sacrifices in the Third Temple? It’s not the topic to pen a prayer to God for help in understanding. It’s something for us to respectfully analyze and discuss together. Be present in the struggle. Putting it on God is the easy way out.

Edited by Elisheva AvitalHire her!

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Are You a Destinationist or a Traveler? http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/29/are-you-a-destinationist-or-a-traveler/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/29/are-you-a-destinationist-or-a-traveler/#comments Mon, 29 Dec 2014 18:38:41 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9087

Writing on Hevria, Elad Nehoral discusses evolving as a person and as an Orthodox Jew. I suggest reading the description of his process in his own words. To me, it sounds like Elad was uncomfortable confining his religious experience to the Chabad worldview, and has started the process of exploring other versions of Orthodox Judaism. His loyalty to […]

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Writing on Hevria, Elad Nehoral discusses evolving as a person and as an Orthodox Jew. I suggest reading the description of his process in his own words.

To me, it sounds like Elad was uncomfortable confining his religious experience to the Chabad worldview, and has started the process of exploring other versions of Orthodox Judaism. His loyalty to Chabad began to feel like disloyalty to himself, and the dissonance ruined everything.

I admire Elad’s bravery. I see three significantly courageous aspects in this new chapter of Elad’s story thus far. First, he was honest with himself. It takes great personal strength to be self-aware. Many people are unhappy, but they don’t even realize it or understand why. The reason most of us are self-oblivious is because it’s so scary to confront our inner conflict. We are afraid to face ourselves. It takes courage, and Elad found that courage.

Relief from discomfort does not automatically follow awareness of discomfort. Sometimes we’re lazy. Other times, we believe we deserve our unhappiness. Mostly, I think we are scared to make changes. We are scared of God, or friends and family, or mentors and teachers, or any other influential force in our life. Our fear paralyzes us. Elad found the strength to make changes, and that is the second area of bravery.

Making personal changes is difficult, but still private. Publicizing one’s questions and doubts is scary. Telling the world about unconventional changes takes a lot of guts. We love to scrutinize others, and we think we know how to fix everyone’s issues. So when someone makes their issues public, we may criticize what we see as wrong decisions. If we’re kind, we may politely applaud the individual who is sharing their struggles, while reassuring ourselves that we there’s no need for us to change. Opening the door to this kind of scrutiny is extremely brave. Indeed, many have lauded Elad’s essay, but not everyone. The criticism can be summarized as “you’re not doing it right,” or “it works for me so it has to work for you.”

Some people thrive in closed systems, and these people just need to find the right system. The lucky ones are born into a system that already works for them, but many are less fortunate and need to search for their place. There are other people who are simply not “system people.” These are the seekers. They’re not looking for a particular system that works for them,  but seeking for purpose of seeking. It’s about living without the certainty a system provides. It’s about the journey.

When we encounter seekers, we so badly want to find them their place, but they have no fixed place! Their place is between places. That’s where they belong. We get so lost in the vicarious search for their place, that we forget to acknowledge that some people are not looking for a place. We don’t validate them as seekers. We implicitly tell them that the journey is about the destination, and this tells them that their journey is not valid. Doing this kills people. It kills their souls, their thirst, their love, their potential, their everything. It says to them, “you are not acceptable.”

Somehow we all need to accept that our religious preferences are subjective, and what works for us might be death for him, and vice versa. We get stuck in our institutionalized versions of whatever it is that we do, and reinforce the false paradigm that we must choose from a finite number of prefabricated boxes. We don’t accept people in the other box, or we insist that there are no problems in our box. Everything about this is wrong. The boxes are all just an illusion created for the Destinationists who demand certainty and rigidity. They can have their boxes and labels and institutions, but they cannot impose those shackles on the Travelers. Yet, this is precisely what has happened, and it is killing us.

Moreover, I think we are supposed to be Travelers and not Destinationists. Indeed, the Torah is a closed system, but within Torah there is almost an infinite number of paths. There is a reason the Talmud says there are seventy facets of Torah: boxes are a man-made booby-trap, not an ideal. The Torah wants us to choose everything we do, not to feel our Judaism wash over us as we lie asleep in the sand. We should be experiencing the Judaism that speaks to us, culling and curating from an infinite combinations of ideas, rituals, expressions, and flavors. This is how the Traveler lives a Jewish life. This is the ideal. This is being awake.

When I see someone escaping the box and beginning a never-ending personal life journey, I see cause for celebration. This is someone who has woken up and is beginning to choose more personally. This gives meaning to everything they do, and destroys the box that has been killing them for as long as they have been inside it.

There is nothing to fear. Each of us has a special, unique voice in the universal chorus of life. When we give our voice to institutionalized versions of Judaism, it is stripped of its individuality. This is a painful personal tragedy. but also a communal one. We need all of our authentic voices to sing in the chorus. In order to facilitate that, every box must have a door. If there is a box without a door, it must be changed. If someone leaves your box, hug them on the way out, and promise to love them no matter where their journey leads.

Leaving the box and talking about it should not require so much bravery. This option must be available to all Travelers. It must be available to every self-aware, awakened person. Destinationists fixate on the specific things that didn’t work for the Traveler. They try to fix those particular things, or explain them away, but it’s not about the “thing” at all. It’s about waking up and not wanting to be stuck in the box. Answers and excuses are not only irrelevant, they show a gross misunderstanding of the dynamics at play.

Judaism does not have to hurt. It should not be painful. Judaism does not have to be dark and scary. It should be pleasant. It should be beautiful. It should be meaningful. It should be yours. If you are awake, it’s all within your grasp. To get there, the first thing you need to do is forget about ever getting there. Then you are ready to become a Traveler. Join us.

Edited by Elisheva AvitalHire her!

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Ani Yosef by Eli Schwebel Lyric Video Debut http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/24/ani-yosef-eli-schwebel-lyric-video-debut/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/24/ani-yosef-eli-schwebel-lyric-video-debut/#comments Wed, 24 Dec 2014 15:08:55 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9065

It’s finale season on television these days. Writers try to make the finales the most compelling episodes of the season. The best stories drag us into their narratives so deeply that we feel the emotions of the characters and the lines between fiction and reality become blurred. The story may not be true or real, […]

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It’s finale season on television these days. Writers try to make the finales the most compelling episodes of the season. The best stories drag us into their narratives so deeply that we feel the emotions of the characters and the lines between fiction and reality become blurred. The story may not be true or real, but the emotions the viewer experiences are very true and very real.

This week’s Torah portion feels like the season finale of the Joseph saga. There’s a tendency to lose focus of the Biblical narrative and forget to experience the story. I make sure to tune in to the Joseph epic every year. It’s my favorite story in the Bible, and the season finale never fails to emotionally engage me. Joseph’s ancient drama of intrigue, fratricide, conspiracy, love, revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation has been enthralling us for millennia but it has always been an old story about Joseph and his brothers. I can relate to elements of the story, like any other good story, but it’s always been in terms of “Joseph the person who lived in ancient Canaan with a starring role in a very old tale.”

untitled (188 of 272)I think there is a great need for Modern Midrash. Our old Midrashic literature is rich and full of beautiful insights from a world very different than our own. All good Midrash channels the struggles of the Zeitgeist through the lens of the Bible. Modernity has its own unique challenges that demand our attention, and we should scour the Bible for new interpretations and ideas that speak to our contemporary battles.

One of the best examples of Modern Midrash is Eli Schwebel’s heartfelt Ani Yosef from his Hearts Mind album. Hearts Mind represents a necessary evolution in the Orthodox Jewish music genre. The last few decades have seen almost no musical innovation and have taken a step backwards lyrically. Ani Yosef and the rest of the album reverse that trend. The exquisite music and lyrics do not sound familiar at all in style or substance. In my mind, that is reason enough to celebrate this musical treasure.

More profoundly, Ani Yosef captures the tension of modern religious struggles spectacularly. It zooms out of the dramatic one-time encounter between Joseph and his brothers, turning his personal struggle into a powerful archetype of a spiritual warrior wrestling with faith and experience. We hear something original in this reinterpretation of the story. It speaks to us in a new way.

I discussed this modern spiritual tension with Eli. He said,“Ani Yosef is my attempt at reconciling my struggle with God, my personal emotional and intellectual walls, my rich Jewish heritage, tradition, and culture, and my unfolding consciousness.” The song was written at a time in Eli’s life where the tension of “trying to fuse a deep sense and knowledge of oneness with the education of a very specific way to connect with God” felt overwhelming. The raw emotion of that moment in Eli’s life is the soul of Ani Yosef.

Today, Finkorswim.com proudly presents the exclusive debut of the Ani Yosef Lyric Video. Behind the bold-faced text in the video, a story is told. This is an almost perfect metaphor for all Midrash. The text is in the foreground, but the interpretation is happening in the background. This video tells a new interpretation of the Joseph story. It’s a Midrash Inception, and in a subtle way, it makes the song’s message even more profound.

I asked Eli about this new artistic Midrash that combines music with Torah, and modern life. Eli grew up singing in the home of a famous singer and is the grandson of a Chazan, which gave him an intense love for music. Their music was most often expressing the sentiment of someone outside the self. “You take a verse, add a tune, and voila, there is a connection. This is the first level, the lowest and the safest.” There is a second level too. It is original. It tells the story of a hero outside the self. The singer steps into the shoes of the hero, almost voyeuristically. “Shloima Carlebach is a great example of utilizing stories and verses as an escape from his deep inner brokenness. But he never explicitly expressed his true self. He never let go and shared his broken heart and shattered soul.” There is yet a third level, when the music becomes a true expression of self. This is what we are missing. It is the place where the inner anguish and torment is displayed with complete candor and confidence. “Where is the Orthodox Jewish Johnny Cash? Who is utilizing Jewish tradition, its symbols, or its Torah to say something intimate?”

It has become unfashionable in the Orthodox Jewish community to honestly acknowledge religious struggles. Instead, we’ve created a false binary choice. One is either in or out, seemingly arbitrarily. Challenges and personal struggles are not seriously addressed. Ani Yosef hits this tension in the bulls-eye.

Eli was very candid about this problem.

“The reason the frum world is so scared of this expression is because it speaks to what is perceived as the greatest threat to Orthodox Judaism: doubt. Any sort of doubt is considered blasphemous. The mantra is ’never doubt.’ Meaning, you may not doubt. True art and personal expression can focus and connect the entirety of the human experience, including doubt and darkness, to something beyond our personal experience. But specifically there must be a ‘from’ to go toward. If we negate and minimize the from, we lose authentic context. If we negate and minimize our truest, deepest thoughts and feelings, we lose the ability to channel or transcend those feelings. We may feel good at a kumzitz, we may dance, but the artist that awakens something deeper toward something higher, is one that is completely whole with their demons and their power when they express their soul artistically. In the eternal words of the great Bob Dylan, ‘Chaos is a friend of mine.’”

Indeed, chaos should be a friend of ours. As a society, we’ve decided that chaos is our enemy. Joseph’s life was a life of chaos. Beauty and spiritual growth emerge from chaos; we just have to embrace it.

I asked Eli about his inspiration for the song and the video.

“Towards the end of his life, my grandfather Joseph Wassner (another Yosef) and I developed a deep bond as we talked about our ideas and our struggles. This song layers the life of Biblical Yosef, imagining what he must have been going through yearning for his fathers love, dealing with the anger towards his brothers, having to deal with his identity shifting as he takes on an entirely new culture, and his ability to still hold on to the core values by which he was raised. That is exactly what I am trying to do as I discover my place in this world, as my grandfather did, as we all do. The story of Yosef is all of our stories!”

I agree. We all need to find Yosef in ourselves. We tend to see the forefathers as larger-than-life figures, and it can be impossible to relate to them. They should be viewed as archetypes of our struggles. We are selling ourselves short by idealizing the Bible heroes, because we lose the ability to connect to them in a meaningful way, which is the whole point. Find yourself in the stories. Find yourself in the Joseph story. You’ll discover that it is really true for you: Ani Yosef – I am Joseph.

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Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show: Addiction and Recovery http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/18/finkorswim-live-stunt-show-addiction-recovery/ Thu, 18 Dec 2014 22:35:23 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9058 Presenting the second installment of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. We took another one the discussions and conversations that we have on this blog and social media to radio waves. The show aired at 1 PM ET today on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page. Today we talked about addiction […]

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Presenting the second installment of Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show. We took another one the discussions and conversations that we have on this blog and social media to radio waves.

The show aired at 1 PM ET today on NachumSegal.com and the NSN App. The show has been archived and is available as a podcast on this page.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-06-at-2.49.31-PMToday we talked about addiction and recovery in the frum community. My guest, Asher Ehrman, works at Transcend in Santa Monica, a very well regarded sober living facilty.

Thank you to Nachum Segal and the Nachum Segal Network for this opportunity.

Listen here: NachumSegal.com
Or get the NSN App: iOS, Android

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Make Your Chanukah Festive and Don’t Fight the Holiday Spirit http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/17/make-chanukah-festive-dont-fight-holiday-spirit/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/17/make-chanukah-festive-dont-fight-holiday-spirit/#comments Wed, 17 Dec 2014 16:25:55 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9041

♫ “It’s the most awkward time of the year.” ♫ For Orthodox Jews, and to a lesser extent, non-Orthodox Jews, the “Holiday Season” is certainly the most awkward time of the year. Everyone around us is in a super festive mood, lights and colors of the season are everywhere, and everything seems to somehow connect to the […]

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“It’s the most awkward time of the year.”

For Orthodox Jews, and to a lesser extent, non-Orthodox Jews, the “Holiday Season” is certainly the most awkward time of the year. Everyone around us is in a super festive mood, lights and colors of the season are everywhere, and everything seems to somehow connect to the Holidays. Drinks at your coffee shop change, the decor in all the stores, all the music, movies or television programming morph into Holiday Season themes. I was at the Third Street Promenade this week and one Holiday tune was blasting in the first store I entered. A few minutes later, the same song started playing in the next store. Even Disneyland feels completely different. It’s unavoidable.

This season makes me somewhat anxious, and I am sure it makes many other people feel uncomfortable.

There are three general approaches to dealing with this discomfort.christmas-tree-dreidel-somethingmarissa1 Some people embrace the dominant culture and assimilate further into American identity. Others use it as a justification for completely opting out of the dominant culture. They engage with the outside world sparingly, if at all, and avoid the discomfort completely. There’s also a group of people who do indeed engage with the outside world. They are aware of the Holiday Season. They imbibe in its non-religious flavors, but for the most part, they also are very careful not to allow the outside influences contaminate their religious celebrations this time of year. This group might enjoy a Holiday movie but would never dream of putting lights on the outside of their home in the Holiday spirit.

I think the second and third groups are made up of people with strong Jewish identities and mostly affiliated Jews who are fairly observant. These two groups treat the non-Jewish Holiday Season as somewhat prohibited or a guilty pleasure. Most agree that the outside influences of the Holiday Season don’t have a seat at the Jewish Holiday table. There are debates and discussions about presents, ridicule for Hanukah Bushes and Hanukah Harry, a complex about the way Chanukah seems a lot like Jewish Christmas, and a value system that discourages anything that “smells” non-Jewish.

I think there is a fourth way. We should not be fighting the Holiday Season. We should be leveraging it.

Here are the rules: If it’s prohibited by Jewish law, don’t do it. If it is not prohibited by Jewish law, and it enhances your Chanukah experience, you should do it. If it does not enhance your Chanukah experience, but might enhance it for others, or help you cope with Holiday Season angst, do it.

It’s widely considered taboo for Jews to put up Chanukah lights on their homes because it’s “not Jewish.” But it’s not not Jewish and nothing we do on Chanukah is “Jewish” besides the rabbinic obligation to light candles. Dreidel is not Jewish. Latkes are not Jewish. Sufganiyot are mostly likely not Jewish (Muslims have celebrated Eid with donuts for centuries and sufganiyot are a variant of the Jewish donuts from Arab countries). Many Rabbinic authorities consider Chanukah gifts “not Jewish.” Plenty of Chanukah stuff is not Jewish. It seems silly to say that we’ve adopted customs from the outside in the past but we can’t anymore. Be honest. Dreidel, latkes, sufganiyot and gifts came from the outside as a consequence of Jewish people assimilating a non-Jewish practice into Chanukah. That’s totally fine. It’s been happening for hundreds of years. Somewhere along the way, we decided nothing else from the outside would be kosher. I think this is a huge mistake.

The reason all those foreign rituals were adopted was not because a rabbi-gician performed a spiritual-oscopy and deemed these kosher customs. It happened because people liked the stuff they saw other people doing on their special days and they added those things to Jewish days. It’s not complicated. More importantly, it was a good decision! Nowadays we refuse to add things from the Zeitgeist to our Judaism, and I think this is hurting us. We should be leveraging the Holiday spirit and its flavors to improve our Jewish experience. There’s no good reason not to decorate your home for Chanukah. It’s a great opportunity to showcase Martha Stewart Judaism™. A Chanukah home should look at least as festive as a Christmas home. After all, we already call it the Festival of Lights.

I think this is actually one of the secrets of Jewish survival. Instead of assimilating into the outside culture, we’ve created a system of assimilating the outside culture into Judaism. We take their good ideas and Jewify them. That’s one way of crafting positive Jewish experiences. The Seder is one example of a non-Jewish experience, Symposium, that we made better and more Jewish. We’ve done this a million times and we stop doing it at our own peril. This is an integral part of our survival strategy. It would be unwise to jettison it. Every December we should leverage the festive mood, not fight it.

We should not have to choose between prohibition and guilty pleasures. We should embrace the festive season and make Chanukah awesome. Let’s be totally honest and say that Christmas looks like a lot of fun to the outsider so we thought it would be smart to incorporate some of the spirit into our Chanukah celebration. Same as we’ve done for generations. Honest. No guilt. Simply a better Chanukah experience.

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Will The Real Neo-Chassids Please Stand Up? http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/10/will-the-real-neo-chassids-please-stand-up/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/10/will-the-real-neo-chassids-please-stand-up/#comments Wed, 10 Dec 2014 15:27:05 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9030

The Jewish Action published a nice report on a phenomenon that is gaining steam in the Modern Orthodox world. The article identifies the movement as Neo-Chassidus and describes it as a path toward connection with God. It stands in contradistinction to other strains of Judaism that are described as dry, cold, and lacking in the deeper joy […]

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The Jewish Action published a nice report on a phenomenon that is gaining steam in the Modern Orthodox world. The article identifies the movement as Neo-Chassidus and describes it as a path toward connection with God. It stands in contradistinction to other strains of Judaism that are described as dry, cold, and lacking in the deeper joy that Chasiddus has to offer.

To be clear, the Neo-Chassids are embracing the 18th and 19th century versions of Chasidic philosophy and a smidge of practice. They are not converting to contemporary Chassidic sects like Ger, Satmar, Bobov, and Vizhnitz.

This is a great development. Typical Orthodox Judaism artificially constrains people to the customs and philosophy of the sect to which they are born. If you are born a Yekke, you will be a Yekke. If you are born a Hasid, you will be a Hasid.V12p066a01 If you are born a Litvak, you will be a Litvak. But some people who are born Yekkes would thrive as a Hasid but fail as a Yekke. Some people who are born Litvaks would thrive in a Sephardic environment. It’s prudent to allow cross-pollination between different versions of Orthodox Judaism. It gives more people a chance to succeed and feel connected to their Judaism. We should definitely encourage people to explore more versions of Orthodox Judaism and allow people the space the find their place along the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism. We should invite people to find the Judaism that speaks most directly to them and allow people to mix and match their Judaism so they can craft a personal experience that feels good and serves their religious needs.

I think it’s super awesome that Modern Orthodox kids who are seeking a more spiritual version of Judaism turn to Neo-Chassidus. If that works for them, great. It would be foolish to impose Neo-Chassidus on everyone, but for those who seek it out and find it to be rewarding, the option should be on the table.

While I support the Neo-Chasids, the whole process seems a bit off to me. Chassidus was started as a response to significant social issues within Orthodox Judaism. There was a spiritual malaise across the land. Our laws and rituals had become institutionalized to the point that they had lost their spirit and soul. Judaism became inaccessible to the average person. Something needed to bring passion and purpose to Judaism for everyone. Chassidus answered the call. It spawned enormous contributions to Orthodox Judaism, Torah, and philosophy. These interpretations and innovations addressed the needs of Jews living in Eastern Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, at some point, these Chasidic expressions of Jewish ecstasy and exultation also became institutionalized. Ironically, organized Chassidic sects are now very similar to the things they were invented to address.

The point is that Chassidus is an answer to a question that was relevant more than a couple hundred years ago. It is not a new answer to new questions and challenges. Some people are inspired by the ideas Chassidus teaches and that’s perfectly fine. But it seems like a roundabout way of addressing the modern challenges of the Neo-Chassids. Why answer a 2014 question with a 1714 answer? The first Chassids were not satisfied to answer 1714 questions with 1414 answers. That’s why they created 1714 Chassidus!

So my suggestion is to be more like those first Chassids and less like the 2014 Chassids. Real Neo-Chassidus, in my opinion, is not pantomiming contemporary Chassidus. To me, real Neo-Chassidus proudly adopts a methodology that gifted us with an avant-garde solution to a real problem in 1714. The methodology is the thing we need, not the solutions we crafted using that methodology a few centuries ago.

First, we must identify the issues that challenge 2014 Orthodox Judaism. We have been doing that here and on Facebook while others do the same in a variety of other forums and formats. Then we collaboratively create Jewish experiences that address those challenges. It’s possible that the answers we come up with will direct us towards institutionalized Chassidus or, perhaps more likely, a deinstitutionalized contemporary Chassidus. But it’s very possible that our 2014 answers will look and feel and taste different than 1714 answers. Our new answers will look more modern and feel more cosmopolitan and taste more fresh.

Rabbi Norman Lamm writes in Torah Umadda that Modern Orthodox Judaism in America is actually a form of Neo-Chassidus. Using the same methodologies that triggered Chassidus, Modern Orthodoxy was crafted to address the challenges of mid-20th century Judaism. I think he’s right. I also think it’s time to do it again and adjust accordingly.

In light of all this, I propose that the Neo-Chassidus featured in the Jewish Action should be called Retro-Chassidus or Hipster Chassidus. Neo-Chassidus should live up to its name and actually be “neo.” Those who are adopting teachings and practices of the 2014 Chassids are not Neo-Chassids. They are Retro or Hipster-Chassids. The group of people who use the methodologies of the first Chassids are the Neo-Chassids. We should be those people. We should engage in this process. We should be the Neo-Chassids. Only then can we be confident that we are properly addressing the needs of the modern American Jew. Only then can we imagine that we might find what the Judaism that we seek. Right now, nothing is more important.

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Misplaced Faith in The Kuzari Principle http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/09/misplaced-faith-in-the-kuzari-principle/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/09/misplaced-faith-in-the-kuzari-principle/#comments Tue, 09 Dec 2014 15:42:53 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9008

I promised an essay on matters of faith in Orthodox Judaism. This is the first of a mini-series (within a series) on faith. To the ancient Greek philosophers and medieval theologians, God’s existence was taken for granted. There was no debate about whether there was a God. They had two primary areas of dispute: the nature […]

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I promised an essay on matters of faith in Orthodox Judaism. This is the first of a mini-series (within a series) on faith.

To the ancient Greek philosophers and medieval theologians, God’s existence was taken for granted. There was no debate about whether there was a God. They had two primary areas of dispute: the nature of this God, and the proper way to demonstrate God’s existence. Thus, we have many interpretations of how God acts and what He wants from man. We also have many arguments demonstrating to Believers that there is a God.

English is a confusing language. For example, take the word “proof.” In mathematics, proof A can prove X and therefore X is irrefutable. More often, a proof does not demonstrate objective truth. Usually, a proof is an argument in favor of X and it can be sufficient, insufficient, accepted, rejected, argued against, and teamed up with other proofs for X.

This creates a problem when we moderns discuss the existence of God. Torah literate Jews are accustomed to seeing the word “proof” in the context of demonstrating God’s existence, and there is a tendency to assume  a”proof” is objectively determinative. But no God-proofs make an irrefutable point. They were not intended to function that way, and unsurprisingly, neither do they accomplish it.

We should stop using the word “proof” when we are making arguments in favor of the existence of God. I propose we use the word “argument” instead. The proofs for God in Torah literature are arguments in favor of believing in God. They are not proofs of irrefutable, objective truth. We believe they are true, but that does not make them mathematically proven.887537-110921-house-of-cards[1]

These days, the most popular “proof” for God’s existence and the Truth of Torah is a version of what is called the Kuzari Principle, derived from The Kuzari by Rav Yehuda HaLevi.  The principle assumes that it is necessarily impossible for a fictional narrative to be widely adopted as historical, divine truth. In the book, this argument is not being used to prove anything about God qua God. It is really about the veracity of the Torah and Judaism, not God.

I don’t believe Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi intended the modern argument that is made by Orthodox Jews in 2014. The Kuzari Principle is a throw-away line or two hidden in the text. It’s almost impossible to “find” the Kuzari Principle in The Kuzari! I imagine Rav Yehuda HaLevi would be surprised by the new versions of the Kuzari Principle presented in books like Living Up to the Truth. Further, this argument in The Kuzari is not being made to a true skeptic with modern sensibilities. It is being made to a fictional medieval Believer king whose skepticism is selectively determined by the author of the book. The laundry list of assumptions necessary for the Kuzari Principle to function is long and easily rebutted. One cannot argue that the Kuzari Principle proves the existence of God or the truth of our Torah is irrefutable. This is a certainty.

It’s easy to write about the Kuzari proof and its flaws and the flaws in its flaws. The Kuzari was attempting to make an argument from logic. He already believed in God. Everyone believed in God. The sole issue on the table was whether Judaism is correct, and the dialogue included the idea that if many people agree about something historical, it’s almost certainly true. It’s not a bad argument if you’re trying to persuade a Believer that Torah is true, but it’s a terrible argument if you’re trying to persuade an atheist or agnostic that the Torah is true. It doesn’t really work. If it does work, it’s willful blindness or involuntary confirmation bias. Neither are helpful, yet that is precisely what we do. We need to stop making the Kuzari Principle into what it is not.

We should use the Kuzari Principle for what it is, though. It’s part of a longer conversation about whether it is reasonable for Believers to accept the Torah’s claims. Beyond that, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice and setting people up for failure.

I’ve witnessed the havoc wrought by misappropriation of the Kuzari Principle. There are plenty of people who base their belief and observance on proofs and are convinced that these proofs are irrefutable. I take no issue with those people. But teaching these proofs as a kiruv tool is destructive. It’s simple enough to Google dozens of academic level rebuttals of the Kuzari Principle, and the teacher could seem like a gullible fool or a liar. Asking intelligent people to choose between their teachers and the evidence is a recipe for disaster. Eventually people figure it out, and if they have based their belief on a false proof, things fall apart.

It is important to note that the Kuzari Principle is dependent on the assumption that people are skeptics. If not, the Kuzari Principle would fall apart because it wouldn’t be anomalous or noteworthy for a fictional story to be accepted as truth by a large group of gullible people.

To me, this is the greatest lesson of the Kuzari Principle. We are expected to be skeptics. We are presumed to question things that we are told. That’s the axiom that gets the Kuzari Principle off the ground. So isn’t it ironic that we use a proof for God and Torah that builds skepticism into its logic but requires suspending disbelief and falls apart under the meager force of the tiniest shred of skepticism? Yes, it is. This was the irony I pointed out when a few dozen of my Facebook friends fell for another hoax.

It wasn’t about The Kuzari of Rabbi Judah HaLevi. It was about us. It was about our healthy skepticism and lack thereof. I apologize to those who thought I was mocking Rabbi Judah HaLevi or attempting to dismantle the faith of others.

There are no proofs that can irrefutably demonstrate that there is a God or that this God wrote the Torah. Yet, we believe. There are many arguments that can be made to persuade people to believe in God and the truth of the Torah.  I don’t think the future of Orthodox Judaism will depend on our ability to articulate logical arguments of philosophers and theologians from ancient and medieval history. It depends on other things. But, if we are going to teach arguments of Ancient Greeks and medieval rabbis, imams, and priests, we must be honest about their utility and include them in a much broader discussion about faith and God. That discussion must make space for skeptics and skepticism as well.

The next essay in this series will further discuss skepticism, faith, and God.

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ReplyAll Conversation: Antisemitism and Jewish Education: What’s to be Done? http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/05/replyall-conversation-antisemitism-jewish-education-whats-done/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/05/replyall-conversation-antisemitism-jewish-education-whats-done/#comments Fri, 05 Dec 2014 21:27:06 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=9004 I was invited to participate in a ReplyAll conversation about Jewish education and anti-Semitism. ReplyAll is a great format for discussing things that benefit from long, thoughtful, patient discussion. This was a great example of that kind of conversation. I learned a lot and I enjoyed the format greatly. I invite you to read our conversation […]

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I was invited to participate in a ReplyAll conversation about Jewish education and anti-Semitism. ReplyAll is a great format for discussing things that benefit from long, thoughtful, patient discussion. This was a great example of that kind of conversation. I learned a lot and I enjoyed the format greatly. I invite you to read our conversation below. If you have any questions for me regarding my contributions to this conversations, feel free to leave a comment on this page and I will try to respond as soon as I can. Enjoy.

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The Proper Response to Hacking http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/04/the-proper-response-to-hacking/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/12/04/the-proper-response-to-hacking/#comments Thu, 04 Dec 2014 23:36:08 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8991

On November 24, 2014, Sony Pictures was attacked by hackers. Attacked is the proper word to describe hacking in this context. The hackers intended to harm Sony financially and instill fear into the hearts of the studio’s executives and employees. Sites like Lifehacker make hacking sound like a cutesy hobby, but it is not cutesy. […]

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On November 24, 2014, Sony Pictures was attacked by hackers. Attacked is the proper word to describe hacking in this context. The hackers intended to harm Sony financially and instill fear into the hearts of the studio’s executives and employees. Sites like Lifehacker make hacking sound like a cutesy hobby, but it is not cutesy. It is destructive and a form of terrorism.

The victims of the attack feel vulnerable, abused, and angry. Digital burglars stole their personal information and private data. That hurts. Victims deserve our empathy and kindness. The breach itself is enough to cause real pain and suffering, but that is only a small piece of the destruction the hackers have wrought.

Every time someone reads a nugget of personal information or consumes media stolen by hackers, the knife is being plunged into their backs again, and again.cyber-attack-hacker The first blow is struck when hackers gain illicit access to private materials. It hurts to be violated. It also hurts that a few anonymous people know things that are supposed to be secret. Blame the hackers for the agony caused by their actual breach and the discomfort they caused by knowing things they should not know.

At that moment, publicly releasing all the confidential information and data has no further inherent negative consequence. That is to say, when hackers leak stolen information, the leak is not the thing that hurts. The thing that hurts is the public imbibing in the leak. If no one would care to taste the forbidden fruit the hackers are dangling in front of us, the victims would suffer no further harm. The leak hurts so much because far too many voyeurs gleefully devour the forbidden fruit. That’s on the voyeurs, not the hackers. That’s not kindness to victims of an attack.

It’s true that the hackers are the thieves. That’s evil. But the rest of us are “in possession of stolen property.” That’s also evil. We understand that viewing child pornography is immoral even though the viewer has not taken the photos or taken advantage of a child. But the demand for depraved images contributes to the market by giving the images value. If no one would look, fewer images would be produced.

Hacking is not the same as child pornography. But the personal violation is similar. No one granted us permission to view these divulged secrets. Hacking would be practically useless if we all agreed to embargo anything that is leaked by the hackers. But we don’t do that. Sadly, there is demand for hacked data. We drive the market. We glorify the hackers and get drunk on illicit access to intimate secrets. Suddenly, we are all Peeping Toms.

I doubt we can figure out a way to stop hackers from hacking. I am hopeful that we can find a way not to look.

It’s a lesson taught very early in the Bible. Upon witnessing the destruction of his world, Noah gets drunk and his sons discover him sprawled naked on the ground. One son stares. Two sons look away and cover their father’s shame. They are praised. The other is cursed. When we are confronted by the shame or nakedness or private information of others, there is only one moral choice. Gawking is a curse. Look away and cover their shame. That’s blessing. It’s what we would want others to do for us.

When hackers steal private information, it’s on us to ignore it. When hackers release pirated movies, it’s on us to go to the theater and pay to see the film. When hackers want to tell us secrets, it’s on us to ignore them. When hackers leak intimate photos of celebrities, it’s on society to look the other way and cover their shame. Our voyeurism is the fuel to the hackers’ fire. If we would just walk away, the fire would burn itself out. When we gawk, we are no longer innocent. We step across the moral line and we become the hackers.

Let’s neuter hacking. Don’t look. Avert your gaze. Respect privacy, especially betrayed privacy. Let’s make our society a place that refuses to drive the hacking market. Let’s care more about the victims of hacking than our prurient curiosity. Let’s not be voyeurs peering luridly into the figurative bedrooms of others as they suffer. Let’s knock on the door, offer our care and concern, and be their security blanket.

Cross-posted to Medium.

Don’t Blame Hackers For Your Voyeurism

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Rising From the Ashes of Bad Orthodox Jewish Experiences http://finkorswim.com/2014/11/11/rising-from-the-ashes-of-bad-orthodox-jewish-experiences/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/11/11/rising-from-the-ashes-of-bad-orthodox-jewish-experiences/#comments Tue, 11 Nov 2014 17:53:24 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8968

I promised an essay about dealing with negative Jewish experiences. This is it. Orthodox Judaism works for a lot of people. It’s vibrant, exciting, meaningful, and many are proud to live a life committed to Orthodox Judaism. Every version of Orthodox Judaism enjoys this success for the vast majority of its adherents. But every version also […]

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I promised an essay about dealing with negative Jewish experiences. This is it.

Orthodox Judaism works for a lot of people. It’s vibrant, exciting, meaningful, and many are proud to live a life committed to Orthodox Judaism. Every version of Orthodox Judaism enjoys this success for the vast majority of its adherents. But every version also has its share of people who have bad experiences. The negative experience could be social, religious, theological, cultural, anything.

Of the people with negative associations towards Orthodoxy, there are two categories. One group will leave, the other will stay. What follows, is not written to convince people to stay. This is an attempt to help people who want to stay, or people who want to help those trying to stay.

I recommend a three part process that has been successful for some people.

1. Purge
2. Explore
3. Integrate

It begins with the purge. The relationship with religious life is heavily influenced by parents and teachers.1800184_490114091111077_2051755693_n So much so, that many people think they should practice religion for their parents and teachers. The commitment is totally external with zero personal connection. This leads to lax observance. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, and resentment glom onto the cumulative religious memory and begin to cannibalize all other religious associations. Eventually, this person checks out of the religious experience entirely.

This is why it’s necessary to purge.

Subsequently, if this person does observe the religion, their experience is framed within the existing paradigm shaped by disappointed authority figures. The person feels hypocritical and uncomfortable, exponentially increasing the negativity associated with religion. Even though the commitment to observance is rejected, the worldview of those who taught the person about the commitment lives on.

This is why it’s necessary to purge.

Everything one knows about religion and tradition is on the table. Observance is not yet back on the table. First, one has to unlearn the philosophy and worldview that is causing the negative associations.

Broad themes that crop up in almost every situation and must be purged, include: Objectivity of religion, inducement by fear, crumbly proofs and arguments, hypocritical teachers or misplaced priorities, actual abuse, and cover-up of abuse. These are all false idols, yet they are an intimate part of Orthodox Judaism for many people. Religion and Judaism work much better without them. Destroy these idols. Slaughter these gods. Break whatever has to be broken.

One way to do this is to consciously and actively acknowledge the destruction these false idols have wrought. The power of acknowledgment is that it ends the internal conflict raging in one’s heart. It stops the war between one’s intuition that says those idols are wrong and one’s memory that is saying these idols are real. Don’t fight back against the intuition. It was correct all along.  The purge is over when the person gives their instincts permission to be victorious and Judaism can be approached without any baggage.

Next, the person is ready to explore. A newcomer to any religion must absorb new ideas and experiences on the fly. The mind may contain very loose associations connected to the experience, but they are so loose that the actual experience determines its own meaning. There are no biases or expectations for the experience. It can be anything.

Exploring means sampling religious experiences on their own terms. Instead of hosting the experience, the person should encounter the experience as a visitor, or a tourist. Take in the shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, thoughts, and connections like a human exploring a new planet. There are myriad ways to participate in rituals and traditions with an almost infinite number or sensory combinations that can craft the experience. The person should try as many as possible. If one was boring or terrible, sack it. Try it a different way later on.

Every experience is a completely voluntary exploration and personal discovery. Slowly, the person develops a taste for what they love, and eventually will be skilled enough to hybridize new personal flavors for their Judaism. This creates a subjective version of Orthodox Judaism that is deeply personal. It feels more like art than science. Interpretation and meaning should not be institutionalized. Religion is supposed to be art, not science.

Finally, integration is possible. In order to integrate any new experience into one’s life, it has to be worth it. The benefit of following prescriptions or proscriptions has to outweigh the benefit of not adhering to them. A person will not do things only because of obligation or prohibition. The only reason a person will voluntarily participate in religion is because his/her new perspective on the tradition is personal and makes them feel positive things.  Anyone would be eager to increase positive and meaningful experiences into their life. No one else has to know that the person is participating voluntarily. That’s private. To the observer, there is no difference other than the inevitable joy that accompanies great self-discovery.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a beautiful religious experience can emerge from the darkness. It begins with a death of sorts. Death is followed by a slow rebirth and the process of learning how to fly. It culminates with majestic flight that takes the phoenix soaring to the greatest heights.

I have seen this work in the field. We are able to excise the negative experiences from our hearts. We can discover subjective meaning in religion. We have the ability to incorporate positive experiences into our lives.

I am not saying this must be done. I am not arguing that people are obligated to give this process a shot. I am not confident that it works for everyone.

Far too many people want to enjoy Orthodox Judaism but lack the necessary tools and structure to create a personal Judaism. The principles in this essay are just a starting point to developing this powerful skill. There are additions and subtractions that can be made for each individual person. Everything here can be adjusted and adapted. It can be done.

If you want personal guidance to help you embark on this journey, please contact me directly.

Next essay in this series will deal with matters of faith in Orthodox Judaism.

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Judaism Needs to Bring Back the Tension Between Old and New Ideas http://finkorswim.com/2014/11/05/judaism-needs-to-bring-back-the-tension-between-old-and-new-ideas/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/11/05/judaism-needs-to-bring-back-the-tension-between-old-and-new-ideas/#comments Wed, 05 Nov 2014 21:05:04 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8957

There is an ever-present tension between modernity and tradition, especially for Orthodox Jews in America. American culture places significance on tradition, yet manages to remain optimistic about new ideas. It’s easy to be a fundamentalist. It’s easy to say everything new is wrong, or everything old is antiquated and bad. But I don’t believe that we should be looking for what’s easier. We should welcome the challenges […]

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There is an ever-present tension between modernity and tradition, especially for Orthodox Jews in America. American culture places significance on tradition, yet manages to remain optimistic about new ideas.

It’s easy to be a fundamentalist. It’s easy to say everything new is wrong, or everything old is antiquated and bad. But I don’t believe that we should be looking for what’s easier. We should welcome the challenges of reconciling tradition and modernity. There is great beauty in using the new to improve the old, and the old to guide the new, without relying on extremes. 

Yesterday’s elections reminded me that the American system of government was revolutionary in the 18th century, our Constitution a groundbreaking document that charted a new course for politics around the world.Kinderhand und Seniorenhand / Child hand and senior's hand We revere the Constitution, and every law passed since its adoption must conform to a valid interpretation. That sounds a lot like Orthodox Judaism.

The Torah was revolutionary around 2500 BCE. It remains a groundbreaking document that charted a new course for religion and theology around the world. We revere the Torah, and all of Jewish law must be based on valid interpretations. To an Orthodox Jew, some of the political tension between old and new feels familiar.

Thinking about this tension raises an interesting thought experiment. If we were starting a new country today, would we write the exact same constitution? Would Newmerica be the same country as Oldmerica?

We’ve frozen time in 1789 and only allowed 27 changes in 225 years. I can’t help but think about how many other things have been completely discarded since 1789. What is the worldview that grants specialness to political theory from 1789? The “new” argument asks why we even bother holding onto a 225 year old vision.

On the other hand, we can’t rewrite fundamental laws every day or even every year. One aspect of the argument in favor of traditionalism is how impracticable it would be to discard the old laws regularly, but this only works to a point. How long is long enough? Another “old” argument is that the laws seem to be working. Further, it could be argued that the Founding Fathers were especially smart and saw things in a unique way that renders their opinions superior to ours. But both of these arguments are incomplete and don’t fully respond to the issues raised by the “new” argument. Orthodox Judaism shares this tension with the United States.

Sometimes, this kind of tension leads to revolution. A revolution exclaims “the old is terrible and the new is good,” but an extreme reaction to extreme traditionalism is unlikely to yield balanced results. Presently, this tension is handled by Constitutional amendments and Supreme Court reinterpretation, which are ad hoc solutions. The real question is whether the Constitution reflects the best possible formulation of laws for our country today. Answering that would require a comparison between the Constitution and a comprehensive new effort; I’m not aware of any such effort. I imagine that some might even consider this heretical sounding notion a form of treason.

The current system of law in the United States is a masterful attempt to balance the need to change things with the need for continuity. It works pretty well, and the most important element to the success of a balanced approach that reveres the tradition and embraces modernity is an internal system checks and balances. Power cannot be reserved for the traditionalists, and it cannot be seized by revolutionaries. Both must coexist for optimal success.

This is part of our problem in Judaism today. We’ve all retreated to our own corners. In the past, we’ve had orthodoxies and reformers in Judaism, but we were operating within one system. Judaism evolved, but not too hastily. We melded our healthy skepticism of change with our yearning for relevance and flexibility. Then, about 150 years ago, the modernists and traditionalists stopped talking to each other and they stopped working within the same ecosystem. Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism were born. People who leaned toward tradition chose Orthodoxy, while people who leaned toward modernity chose Reform. The internal conversation ended. Orthodox Judaism lost significant progressive voices and seems like it was frozen in the 19th century. Reform Judaism felt little allegiance to the ways of old, and seems like it has no definitive doctrine and structure. We all lost.

Ironically, the future of modern Judaism requires that the “new” and the “old” go back to the traditional conversation of the past. In truth, tradition and modernity are symbiotic. We need to hear the best arguments from both sides in order to move ahead with a commitment to truth and Torah as we navigate the challenges of modernity. We need to go back to a large community that lives in the tension between the past and the future. That was our secret for centuries, and now it’s time to bring it back.

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Finkorswim Live Debuts on the Nachum Segal Network http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/30/finkorswim-live-debuts-nachum-segal-network/ Thu, 30 Oct 2014 15:25:11 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8950

Listen to the Nachum Segal Network today and get a taste of Finkorswim Live as one of the rotating hosts of the Stunt Show. The kinds of discussions and conversations that we have on this blog and social media will now take place live on the radio and I invite you to join us. My […]

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Listen to the Nachum Segal Network today and get a taste of Finkorswim Live as one of the rotating hosts of the Stunt Show. The kinds of discussions and conversations that we have on this blog and social media will now take place live on the radio and I invite you to join us.

My debut is at 1 PM ET today. Tune in at NachumSegal.com or the NSN App. The show will be archived and available as a podcast later today.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-06-at-2.49.31-PMToday’s show will be about conversion and our two guests are experts on the subjects. Rabbi Maury Kelman teaches and advises potential converts through the process and Ms. Skylar Bader has been through the process and writes about conversion on her blog.

You can participate in the conversation by commenting or messaging me on Facebook or GChat. If you are using the app you can just comment on the live stream page. I invite you to join us. It should be fun!

Thank you to Nachum Segal and the Nachum Segal Network for this opportunity.

Listen here: NachumSegal.com
Or get the NSN App: iOS, Android

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My Vote for CNN Hero: Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/30/vote-cnn-hero-rabbi-elimelech-goldberg/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/30/vote-cnn-hero-rabbi-elimelech-goldberg/#comments Thu, 30 Oct 2014 13:19:23 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8936

By now, you’ve heard of Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg. He’s the Orthodox Jewish rabbi who heads an organization called Kids Kicking Cancer. He has been selected as a CNN Hero, and if he gets enough votes, he will be the CNN Hero of the Year. A few days ago, I had a chance to talk with […]

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By now, you’ve heard of Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg. He’s the Orthodox Jewish rabbi who heads an organization called Kids Kicking Cancer. He has been selected as a CNN Hero, and if he gets enough votes, he will be the CNN Hero of the Year. A few days ago, I had a chance to talk with Rabbi Goldberg about his work.  The more we spoke, the more he impressed me.

Rabbi G. helps children suffering from serious illness cope with their pain. Using love, ancient wisdom culled from martial arts, and incredible empathy, Rabbi G. gives children in so much pain a modicum of control and dignity.  That’s enough to be a hero in my book, but Rabbi G. does much more. Three things about Rabbi G. and his work convinced me that he’s not just a hero; he’s a superhero.

The pain management techniques that Rabbi G. teaches come from martial arts. Rabbi G. is a first degree blackbelt in Choi Kwang Do and is also an expert in Silat, another martial arts discipline. 567At their core, martial arts teach mastery over one’s body. By using ancient breathing techniques, it’s possible to relieve many emotional triggers that escalate pain. Fear, stress, and depression can make pain feel much worse. Ameliorating these factors can help people feel less of their pain. This is what Rabbi G. teaches in his program, and it works.

I love that a committed Orthodox rabbi is using martial arts strategies to help children deal with pain. I asked him how he came to be a martial artist. It’s not a typical hobby for Orthodox Jews, let alone rabbis. When Rabbi G. was a pulpit rabbi, he needed a hobby to relieve some stress. He settled on martial arts because it was private, and he found compatibility between the disciplines inherent to Orthodox Judaism and martial arts. The use of wisdom that originated outside our community is beautiful when executed well. Rabbi G. nails it.

Rabbi G. not only teaches the children how breathing can lessen pain, but also how to teach it to others. His students demonstrate the techniques to other sick children, and even healthy adults, at seminars around the world. Rabbi G. empowers these kids to give back to others. He often uses the child’s parents or doctor as a ruse to get the child to learn the pain management techniques, by asking the child to teach their caretakers how to cope. A sick child is the recipient of so much love and help, and sometimes they need to be able to give back.

I love the way Rabbi G. empowers his students. He trusts them to use the wisdom he teaches in a constructive way. Most of all, the ability to give is often the greatest gift we can give to others.

Perhaps most exceptional is Rabbi G.’s audience. Everyone is a potential student. Many of our best organizations are focused solely on needs within the Orthodox Jewish community. Kids Kicking Cancer is for everyone. In fact, few of the children who benefit from Rabbi G’s work are Orthodox Jews. It shouldn’t need to be said, but everyone needs help, and children with cancer are in pain no matter their faith. Rabbi G. reaches across religious lines and helps everyone, even if it’s unpopular or costly. One of my favorite anecdotes I heard from Rabbi G. is a story of the time he was invited to a Vatican children’s hospital to teach. Rabbi G. remarked on the improbability of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi teaching Eastern meditation to Vatican Catholics. Incredible.

I love just knowing that there’s a sign in a Dearborn Michigan mosque saying, “A Perfect God…Created an Imperfect World…Perfectly” – Rabbi G. It warms my heart to see an Orthodox Jewish rabbi investing time and energy in anyone who is need. As much as his story is about chessed, it is also about Kiddush Hashem. There’s no question that Rabbi G. is a walking monument to Kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi G. learns so much from the children in his program. The greatest lesson they teach him is how to approach adversity, and the pain of bad things happening to innocent people. These children view everything as a challenge to become greater. The greater the adversity, the greater the martial artist. Every challenge is an opportunity, and the Kids Kicking Cancer live this every day.

Kids Kicking Cancer is doing incredible work. Rabbi G. is fixing the world, bringing Tikun Olam back to Orthodox Judaism. We are proud of him. We are proud he is one of us, and that he is showing the world what we can be. Now, we have to make sure everyone knows it. Vote for Rabbi G. every day and help CNN recognize that their Hero of the Year should by Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg.

Vote here: CNN Heroes

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It’s Time to Write the Modern Midrash http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/24/its-time-to-write-the-modern-midrash/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/24/its-time-to-write-the-modern-midrash/#comments Fri, 24 Oct 2014 18:30:26 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8927

Last night I hosted a screening of the Noah Movie followed by a discussion about the film. I loved it. We enjoyed great food, great company, and a great overall experience. But that’s not enough why I loved the event so much. I loved last night because I think the experience addressed a fundamental struggle […]

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Last night I hosted a screening of the Noah Movie followed by a discussion about the film. I loved it. We enjoyed great food, great company, and a great overall experience. But that’s not enough why I loved the event so much. I loved last night because I think the experience addressed a fundamental struggle to American Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) Judaism.

I view the film as a Modern Day Midrash. vlcsnap-2014-03-13-14h40m55s25The Bible story is very brief and is missing tons of details. The text also invites many questions about the narrative and morality. Torah scholars and teachers have looked at Bible stories through the lens of their time, place, and personality to answer these questions, fill in gaps, and teach lessons based on the text. These interpretations, whether they appear in the Apocrypha, Talmudic literature, or Midrash compilations, are all a form of Midrash.

For most Orthodox Jews today, old Midrashic interpretations are special. They are given almost the same authority as halachic texts from the same era. They are the “true” interpretations of the texts. We have “objective” interpretations of the text and they are cobbled together into a loosely canonized version of Midrash. That’s why so many people assume that all Midrash is historically accurate and scientifically correct. We are led to believe that some Midrash is objectively true. Ironically, the authors of the old Midrash and many of the early Bible commentaries were not working under those assumptions. They acknowledged their subjectivity. Yet, today we teach an objective view of Midrashic interpretation.

This is reinforced by classic commentaries like Rashi because they seem to view the old Midrashic interpretations as the only ones that matter. Or rather, the ones they picked became the only ones that matter. Further, Rashi is our most prolific, more popular, and most studied Biblical commentator and he barely says anything of his own. Just about everything he writes, is found in earlier sources. We are implicitly being told that the only interpretations that matter are older than Rashi.

But if you read other commentaries and later Midrash texts you see that it’s not so simple. Some Medieval commentators argue with oft-quoted Midrashic interpretations for any number of reasons. We also have more recent Midrash collections that add details and lessons that seem to be new. Interestingly, some of these later Midrashic interpretations are granted legitimacy by contemporary Orthodox authorities, but the reason they are accepted is because they are assumed to be old Midrash that was lost or hidden until the later Midrash publicized it. In other words, the idea that a later Midrash was added by a later interpreter without an earlier source is so troubling that these interpretations are reinterpreted as having originated with the old Midrash.

At some point it became unacceptable or uncomfortable to write new Midrash. But I don’t believe this is the correct approach. I think it is hurting us severely in many ways. Old Midrash is bursting with lessons and ideas about morality and spirituality. Those ideas come from a particular time and place. Of course there is beauty and power to these interpretations and we should study them and teach them. But they are somewhat handicapped by their birthday. The intended audience of the Old Midrash might have included us Moderns, but it’s not a perfect fit. Often, the moral challenges or personal struggles in the old Midrash are foreign to us. It’s like an American reading about daily life in the African Bush. We can somewhat relate to it but it’s not our life.

One of the things I proposed a few weeks ago was that we address the spirit of law in Orthodox Judaism. We should be writing new Taamei HaMitzvot that speak to us. Another phase of this effort is an attempt to create Modern Midrash. We should be reading the stories of the Bible and thinking about them in a new and fresh way. What does the story say to me, today, with my challenges, and with my struggles? We would never pass our questions and answers off as objective truth. But truth is not objective when it comes to interpretation. Different people can see different things in the same source material. They both can be true interpretations even if they are not both historically true. There is room for subjectivity in all interpretation of literature, art, music, or really anything that is not science or explicit Divine Revelation. Judaism is art, not science.

Darren Aronofsky, the producer of Noah, has written a Modern Midrash. Noah asks many of the same questions as the old Midrash and actually provides many of the same answers – with a twist. He also asks new questions and offers new answers that are often based on old ideas. It’s literally just like a Midrash. Some of his answers and ideas are odd or uncomfortable and that’s okay. He’s giving us a new way to think about an old story that stays true to ideas about the story that are deeply rooted in our tradition. When one watches Noah within this context, it’s not just a movie, it becomes a 2 hour and 20 minute Torah class. It invites us to think and criticize and discuss and learn about the Noah story from our modern perspective. And it does so spectacularly.

We need more Modern Midrash. I am certain that the struggles of our generation and the issues we face can be addressed by Torah. But we don’t have to look at Torah exclusively through the glasses of our great great great grandparents. We can look at Torah through our own eyes and see things from our own perspective. Like Aronofsky’s Noah, we make no claims of objectivity or historical truth. But the lessons and ideas can be eternal despite acknowledging their subjectivity.

American Orthodox Judaism faces many great challenges. I think Modern Midrash is part of the solution. It is empowering. It gives us credit for being well educated and steeped in Torah. It allows for creativity and expression. It speaks our language. It makes Biblical stories and their interpretations relevant. It will provide great thinkers an opportunity to see answers to our existential and religious questions in Torah. It will be the voice of our contemporary struggles and triumphs. It changes everything. The process and its results will help create new positive Jewish experiences for a new generation.

So join me in this journey. Let’s write the Modern Midrash together. The next few months of Torah readings are Biblical narratives. The soil is lush and fertile. Let’s build something new out of something old. I believe it is our duty and I believe that we will be successful. If we do succeed, I am confident that we will hear the echoes of the Voice that spoke to our forefathers. That Voice will help us discover our own path to a Jewish life that is full of meaning, religiously commitment, and spiritual ecstasy.

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No Rabbi Shmuley, That’s Not What the Talmud Says http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/22/no-rabbi-shmuley-thats-not-what-the-talmud-says/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/22/no-rabbi-shmuley-thats-not-what-the-talmud-says/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 14:19:31 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8910

Last month, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was interviewed by New York Magazine about his new book “Kosher Lust.” He drops a bombshell right off the bat: Among us religious Jews, sex is a big deal. It’s a religious obligation. In Jewish law, a man has to make his wife orgasm before he does. The interviewer is […]

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Last month, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was interviewed by New York Magazine about his new book “Kosher Lust.” He drops a bombshell right off the bat:

Among us religious Jews, sex is a big deal. It’s a religious obligation. In Jewish law, a man has to make his wife orgasm before he does.

The interviewer is skeptical. Really?

The Rabbi insists. It’s in the Talmud.

This week, Rabbi Shmuley cited the interview in an article that weirdly places the blame for Rabbi Freundel’s voyeurism on his wife. Or something like that. Here’s how he restated his position:

The rule applies even more to women. I was amazed last week that an orthodox Jewish sex counselor attacked me for an interview I gave on my new book “Kosher Lust” to New York Magazine, reprinted in Britain’s Daily Mail, that said that Jewish law encourages a man to make his wife climax first. This is Judaism’s tacit acknowledgment of a fact that modern science has finally caught up with – that women are much more sexual than men, having more deeply-rooted sexual needs.

This passage presents a softer version of the New York Magazine bombshell. It’s no longer a religious obligation for the man to make his wife orgasm before he does – now it’s encouragement – but there is a more fundamental problem with the entire premise. It’s not in the Talmud.

Undoubtably, the rabbi is referring to a selection from Tractate Niddah 31A.674x501_682670_548164_1346314330 “R. Isaac citing R. Ammi stated: If the woman emits her semen first she bears a male child; if the man emits his semen first she bears a female child; for it is said, If a woman emits semen and bear a man-child.” (Translation: Soncino)

The Soncino translation is confusing to the modern reader because women don’t emit semen.  In the original Hebrew, “emit semen” is “mazra’at,” which is more literally translated as “she seeds.” What does mazra’at mean in practical terms? And why would it affect the gender of the baby?

We find two general paths of interpretation in the commentaries. One is that when the female climaxes first, the child will be a boy. Thus, mazra’at is indeed orgasm. The other possibility is that women actually do emit a substance during intercourse and if the woman’s emission arrives first, the child will be a boy. In this version, mazra’at follows a more literal translation and refers to a female version of sperm.

It sounds completely unscientific to believe that gender is determined this way. In fact, we can demonstrate that both of the translations are absolutely false, but the Talmud and its commentators got these ideas from the science of their day. The two paths of interpretation may reflect a dispute between the Greek philosophers Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen, who all held that female orgasm was essential to conception in some way. Aristotle believed that the woman had no seed, but the womb was inhospitable to semen before she climaxed. Hippocrates and Galen believed that friction would “heat” the woman, and a seed would be released inside her body when she climaxed. (Source)

Either way, the Talmud holds that in order to bear a male child, the female must climax first. The background to all of this is purely medical and obviously obsolete.

Most importantly though, the Talmud does not say what Rabbi Shmuley claims it says. Not even close. Rabbi Shmuley is trying to teach a lesson about sexual pleasure within a marriage based on a Talmudic statement, but nowhere in this statement is there an indication of preference regarding which person climaxes first. Armed with the background information, his attempt seems laughable. The Talmud is not giving sex advice. The Talmud is giving information about sex selection. It simply informs the reader that, scientifically speaking, the order of orgasm determines the gender of the child. That’s all. No obligations. No encouragement. None of that.  Since the information is based on a false premise, it follows that any directive would be obsolete as well.

There is one last twist of irony that undermines the rabbi’s broader point and betrays a troubling bias. Rabbi Shmuley paints the obligation to pleasure one’s wife before oneself as an example of Judaism’s sensitivity towards women. However, the only way one could make that inference from the text is with the assumption that male offspring are better than females. Were males truly more desirable, one could argue that when the Talmud reports how to conceive a male child, it is actually instructing the reader to do so. To me, it seems totally incongruous to make a feminist point from a Talmudic statement that is instructing couples in the fine art of producing male children.

In Rabbi Shmuley’s defense, it’s possible that he borrowed this teaching from a 55 year old article written by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman in Tradition. He mentions this idea, citing the Talmud in Niddah 31A as part of his broader thesis in the article.  His version is softer than Rabbi Shmuley’s version, saying that the Talmud is specifically referring to practices that are not laws. Rather, they are natural consequences of principles that are part of the fabric of Jewish life and tradition.

In summary: Rabbi Shmuley waffles on whether it is an obligation or an encouragement. It’s almost certain that the entire purpose of the talmudic statement is to educate couples in gender selection techniques, and not in the secret to happy marriage. The Talmud is agnostic about whether he or she should climax first. That is, unless you are so patriarchal that you deduce the importance of pleasuring one’s wife first in order to have male children.

It’s wrong to advance one’s agenda by misquoting and misunderstanding sections from the Talmud. Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on mangled proof-texts to make Rabbi Shmuly’s point. In any good relationship, both partners are seeking ways to pleasure their counterparts. Whether it’s through intimacy, general kindness and consideration, support, helping significant others achieve personal success, or raising children together, putting the other ahead of the self is a fundamental of Judaism.

The Talmud (and this is actually true) says that a man has an obligation to make his wife happy (Kiddushin 34b). After all, the Torah commands us “Love your neighbor like yourself.” We are commanded to treat others the way we want to be treated. Seems to me, that’s reason enough to take Rabbi Shmuley’s advice. We don’t need advice that locks us into a specific formula; we use our discretion and follow the love in our hearts. A good husband already knows to put his wife first, as a good wife wishes to put her husband first.

Above all, a good relationship needs honesty and trust. Doling out advice based on an untruth – even decent advice – is a terrible way to teach people about relationships.

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Making Things Better in the Aftermath of Scandal http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/21/making-things-better-aftermath-scandal/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/21/making-things-better-aftermath-scandal/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:51:49 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8899

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal. Three groups of Orthodox Jews have made several prominent appearances in the media over the last few weeks: The East Ramapo Central School District was profiled on National Public Radio because Chasidic Jews living in the district have wrested control of a majority vote on the school […]

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This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

Three groups of Orthodox Jews have made several prominent appearances in the media over the last few weeks: The East Ramapo Central School District was profiled on National Public Radio because Chasidic Jews living in the district have wrested control of a majority vote on the school board even though their children attend private schools. The New York Times Magazine profiled the cycle of poverty and charity in the non-Chasidic ultra-Orthodox (Yeshivish) enclave of Lakewood, N.J. And the news media is covering a scandal involving Barry Freundel, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., who was arrested for voyeurism and the shocking allegations that he was filming women in the equivalent of a locker room as they showered and prepared to dunk in a ritual bath.

These three stories expose the underbelly of the three major groups of Orthodox Jews in America: Chasidic, Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish. Stories are interesting when they contradict conventional wisdom, and it is unexpected that Orthodox Jews, who hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and conduct, would find their most sordid secrets splattered across the press.

The public feels betrayed. Innocent bystanders and victims within Orthodox Judaism feel betrayed. Orthodox Judaism just doesn’t feel as trustworthy as it should feel. Recent affairs have whittled that trust away. Trust is the foundation of every relationship, and without it, religion is doomed, whether it is fundamentalist or progressive.

Orthodox Judaism needs to earn back the trust of the public. The media and their audience need to continue to believe that it is interesting when Orthodox Jews behave badly. Orthodox Judaism needs to get its groove back. It’s not impossible to regain trust, but it requires intent and effort.

One of the greatest gifts of Judaism is teshuvah — literally translated as “return,” and the Jewish word for repentance.108003346 Failure is inevitable. We are humans, and humans are flawed creatures who make mistakes. Judaism provides an opportunity to turn our errors into acts of goodness through the process of teshuvah. When we repent, we are actually closer to God than we were before we sinned. It’s as if a ribbon connects us to God. Sin cuts the ribbon into two, disconnecting us from God. True repentance ties the two pieces of ribbon together, reconnecting us. But the process of repairing the ribbon makes the ribbon shorter and reduces the distance between the two ends of the ribbon. Teshuvah reattaches us to God and makes us closer than we were before we sinned.

In any good relationship there will be mistakes that disconnect the two parties. These are opportunities for teshuvah. Whenever a relationship needs to be repaired, if it’s done right, the two parties should be closer after the “return” than they were before the relationship was harmed.

Traditionally, there are three steps to teshuvah: Acknowledgement, regret and reform. These are the three elements necessary to repair any broken relationship or any breach of trust. The Orthodox Jewish community must take these three steps to earn back the trust of Orthodox Jews and the general public.

The first step is acknowledgement. For most people, this is the hardest part of the process. We read about uncomfortable tactics and consequences in the situation in Ramapo. Our natural instinct is to argue that the Orthodox there have every right to run the school board. This is true. But that does not acknowledge any of the mistakes made along the way, or the pain experienced by the rest of the community. Also, without any acknowledgement, the public sees us as tone deaf to the issues raised by the status quo. We need to acknowledge that controlling the board has not been without error, and that criticism may be valid and that people have been hurt and harmed along the way. Only then can we express regret over mistakes and commit to making things better.

It’s true that Lakewood is a paradigm of kindness and charity. But implicit in the immense need for charity to support Torah study is that there is an accountability issue inherent in the kollel system. It is a system that perpetuates poverty and discourages financial independence. We need to acknowledge the problems that the system creates and exacerbates. This is obvious to observers, Orthodox Jews and everyone else. Until we acknowledge it, sympathy is harder to muster. Meanwhile, derision and condemnation by critics is harder to rebut. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Then the process of fixing the systemic problems can be repaired along with the relationship between the kollel community and everyone else.

The mikveh scandal brings two major issues to the fore. Opportunities for women in positions of leadership and communal policy is a constant itch in the Modern Orthodox community. When men in positions of leadership harm women by breaching their privacy, the itch gets a lot worse. It’s hard to imagine that a woman with the kind of authority granted to Rabbi Freundel would have acted similarly. But this is not the first time a male religious authority figure acted inappropriately toward women in his religious role with regard to matters of intimacy. The scandal also challenges the status quo of conversion in Orthodox Judaism, especially when the convert is a woman. This is the second time a very prominent conversion rabbi has sexually exploited conversion candidates. These issues must be acknowledged by the community in order to begin the process of return. Slowly, trust can be earned back through the teshuvah process.

Generally, the pain inflicted by violence or abuse to an individual or a scandal that violates a group is not as damaging as the pain inflicted by the cover-up. The opposite of acknowledgement is the cover-up. Too often we have been doubly stricken by the pain of the act, and then our suffering is compounded by the cover-up.

Fortunately, the responses to the mikveh scandal by Kesher Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have been heartening. There is indeed acknowledgement of the pain they have allowed to occur under their noses. Kesher acted swiftly in removing the rabbi from his pulpit. The RCA already has charted a new path for conversions that includes women acting as ombudspersons as well as a commission of men and women to reform current policies. These are the second and third steps of teshuvah. Clearly, there is regret as well as a commitment to fixing the problems. This gives a reeling public a glimmer of hope that trust can be earned back.

Fred Rogers famously quoted his mother’s comforting words during times of tragedy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,  “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Look around. You’ll see good people trying to make things better. You’ll see Orthodox Jews who want to earn the trust of the public once again. There are Orthodox Jews who are helpers. Those people deserve your trust.

Hopefully, the “helpers” can replace the people who are harming individual people as well as Orthodox Judaism in general. They can tie that ribbon and bring us all closer to one another. It’s already happening. I can see it. Trust me.

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Our Hands Have Spilled This Blood http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/20/our-hands-have-spilled-this-blood/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/20/our-hands-have-spilled-this-blood/#comments Mon, 20 Oct 2014 13:33:45 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8900

This article first appeared on The Lighthouse, my Haaretz.com blog. Kesher Israel, a prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington D.C., is reeling from a terrible scandal. Their rabbi, Barry Freundel, was arrested on charges of voyeurism and it is alleged that he installed a camera in the equivalent of a women’s locker room where he […]

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This article first appeared on The Lighthouse, my Haaretz.com blog.

Kesher Israel, a prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington D.C., is reeling from a terrible scandal. Their rabbi, Barry Freundel, was arrested on charges of voyeurism and it is alleged that he installed a camera in the equivalent of a women’s locker room where he filmed potential converts in varying degrees of undress before their ritual bath. The shockwaves in the aftermath of this scandal reverberate well beyond the District and are being felt across the entire Jewish world.

Generally, rabbinic “scandals” come in one of two varieties. Some scandals merely involve flawed human behavior that is only considered scandalous because of the stature of the rabbinic figure.wallpaperpackmortallity37_13 If a non-rabbi would commit the same acts, there would be no story. In my opinion, these are not scandals. Human beings behaving in a manner consistent with other human beings are not news. After all, rabbis are people too.

Rabbis are often subject to an artificially constructed angelic standard. This is the flip side of the coin that deifies and attributes clairvoyance or miracles to rabbis. Rabbis are viewed as being capable of the supernatural because they live supernatural lives and therefore are not like the rest of us. They are a more perfect kind of person. Under this standard, the public feigns surprise when rabbis share their struggles or flaws with their followers and critics. After all, rabbis are supposed to be above the petty concerns of the masses.

Such a standard is not fair or realistic and we are setting ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. Rabbis should be held to an achievable human standard.

The other kind of scandal — as appears to be the case in Washington — is when a rabbi commits an act that would be destructive or unethical regardless of one’s clergy status. Or alternatively, when a rabbi exploits his position of authority to manipulate or harm others. These scandals are worthy of our outrage.

We should be outraged whenever one person causes direct harm to another, and it is particularly egregious when one uses their position of authority to do so. That is not merely hurtful — it is the very definition of abuse. When a rabbi or any authority figure abuses others, they forfeit their right to lead. Abuse causes deep spiritual and psychological damage and removing an authority figure who acts abusively prevents them from causing more damage in the future. Without power, the abusive rabbi loses access to victims and the potential harm is averted.

When people undergo massive life changes on the scale of converting to Judaism, they are particularly vulnerable. A person who decides to convert is typically working through a very challenging period of their life. Conversion is a very difficult process made even more challenging by its very nature — everything is new, everything is strange. No one converts twice. It’s a first- and last-time experience for every convert. Most importantly, the convert is at the mercy of her sponsoring rabbi and therefore fears upsetting the rabbi and running the risk of ruining the entire conversion process.

This scandal isn’t the first time we’ve heard of a rabbi exploiting his power in the conversion process. In 2009, it was discovered that a rabbi was exploiting potential converts for sexual favors. The outrage towards this rabbi was deserved and he was forced out of his position of authority. But as the details of the events at Kesher Israel emerge, it appears that the Orthodox establishment did not learn its lesson five years ago.

If found guilty, Rabbi Freundel will be held responsible for his misdeeds, but we, the Jewish community, would also bear responsibility for allowing this to happen — again.

Taking advantage of a prospective convert is too easy to do and too hard to uncover once it happens. Will we learn our lesson this time — or will we be complicit in another scandal in which a single rabbi is given too much unbridled power?

Significant oversight of rabbis administering conversions that can prevent such abuse must be standard operating practice in the process. When power is granted and that power has been abused in the past, we have a duty to protect any potential future victims. This is true in any situation, but it is especially true when the potential victims of abuse are bravely volunteering to become part of the Jewish people.

The Torah enjoins us not to oppress the convert and also commands us to love the convert. American Orthodox conversion has now been rocked by two massive scandals of rabbis abusing potential converts in the last few years. Clearly we are not doing enough to prevent oppression and demonstrate our love towards converts. That needs to change immediately.

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Making Sense of Yom Kippur http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/03/making-sense-of-yom-kippur/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/03/making-sense-of-yom-kippur/#comments Fri, 03 Oct 2014 14:58:23 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8885

Yom Kippur is a confusing day. One of the most fundamental philosophical principles in contemporary Judaism is the concept of elevating the material into spiritual. We don’t view physical needs and pleasure as problems that need to be fixed, but as opportunities to sanctify the mundane. This idea is embedded in the Torah, Talmud, and Rishonim.  Even […]

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Yom Kippur is a confusing day. One of the most fundamental philosophical principles in contemporary Judaism is the concept of elevating the material into spiritual. We don’t view physical needs and pleasure as problems that need to be fixed, but as opportunities to sanctify the mundane.

This idea is embedded in the Torah, Talmud, and Rishonim.  Even among the many quarrelsome flavors of Orthodox Judaism that have evolved over the last few centuries, it’s almost universally held. From Rebbe Nachman to Slabodka, from the Baal Shem Tov to Rav Hirsch, from the Vilna Gaon to the Ohr HaChaim, and from the Sfas Emes to the Ramchal, this theme is ever-present. Today, you’ll hear it in Mir Yeshiva, Yeshiva University, Beth Medrash Govoha, Brisk, Yeshivat Chevron, 770, Gush, and day schools across the world.

So how is it that on the most important day of the Jewish year, we completely ignore our physical needs and desires? It’s like a day that recalls a long abandoned ascetic form of Judaism. But why? Our Judaism does not believe in this idea of self inflicted pain. Why would we act this way on Yom Kippur?

In my opinion, the beauty found in elevating the secular into the sublime is found in its tension.billing rate tug of war All art is an expression of some sort of tension. The tug-of-war between our base desire for instant physical gratification and our mature one for transcendent pleasures can sometimes be painful.  When we succeed in this struggle and create harmony between the two, it is undoubtedly exquisite.  For example, a Shabbos meal with its delicacies of food combined with a spirited Torah discussion is plainly beautiful.

The balance of financial pursuits and spiritual pursuits can drive a person mad, but when one serves the other, a precious peacefulness drives a person to greatness. The struggle is difficult, but it also manufactures its own reward.

Even in this beautiful wrestling match, one force is the part you want to be and the other is the part you want to improve. We love the physical side of our existence, but we want to identify as the spiritual side. One is the “real me” and the other is the “artificial me.” The goal is to be the elevated side and bring the rest of yourself up to that level as opposed to pulling the spiritual side down to your physical level.

Sometimes we forget who we really are. We get distracted by material pursuits or sucked into endless quests for pleasure. Our soulful side is neglected. On any given day, a very spiritual person might ignore their spiritual side for hours at a time. Most people ignore it for days, weeks, months, or even years.

Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when we neglect our physical side and remind ourselves who we really are. Sanctifying our world through the tension of our struggle is a way to make more things spiritual all year long.  However, we learn from the asceticism on Yom Kippur that it’s vital for the spiritual to retain its potency. We must deeply connect to that part of ourselves in order for everything to work. Yom Kippur is our chance to beef up our spiritual prowess and codify our sacred identities. We proclaim that our physical self is not our true identity.

This is why we begin the day with Kol Nidreh. We disavow our oaths. We detach ourselves from the external obligations we have created. Those are not our true duties, and they are external to our identity. We shed those before we begin Yom Kippur so we may approach the day most purely, with no strings attached. It’s microcosm of the entire day’s work.

Kol Nidreh loudly reminds us that we are not defined by our self imposed duties, but by our true selves. The Yom Kippur experience helps us define our true selves by banishing the physical and glorifying the spiritual. This is why we step so far out of typical Jewish character on Yom Kippur. It’s a necessary tactic to maintain the integrity of the whole system built on tension. Without tension, the system collapses, but without a day devoted to the transcendent, we risk losing contact with our souls. So we fast. We don’t eat or drink. We refrain from all worldly pleasures. All of this is done to remind us who we really are. Then repentance becomes easy. Our sins don’t represent our true selves. We are really our spirits, not our base needs. When we affirm who we really are to ourselves, it becomes easier to regret our sins and commit to doing better.

Yom Kippur is a long day. Some people revel in its rituals and oddities. For others, it can be grueling and depressing. I think if we are aware of how this strange day might sync with this very important structural element of Orthodox Judaism, it might help a little. It may help us direct our hearts and minds to the important task at hand. If you find yourself struggling during the day, freelance it for a bit. Think about who you really want to be and which side of yourself is winning the tug of war. Think about using this one day to power up your spiritual muscles. Show yourself who you really are and then commit to being that person all year long.

Hopefully we will all merit to enjoy a good Yom Kippur experience and a fruitful, successful, beautiful year of engaging in our struggles.

!גמר חתימה טובה

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The Shabbos App as Tragic Commentary http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/02/shabbos-app-tragic-commentary/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/02/shabbos-app-tragic-commentary/#comments Thu, 02 Oct 2014 14:12:47 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8875

Someone asked me a question yesterday that cuts to the core of the Shabbos App issue. It was something like this: “If the Shabbos App was halachically permissible, would you use it?” My answer is that I would not. I like my Shabbat experience the way it is right now. I don’t particularly want to add smartphones […]

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Someone asked me a question yesterday that cuts to the core of the Shabbos App issue. It was something like this: “If the Shabbos App was halachically permissible, would you use it?”

My answer is that I would not. I like my Shabbat experience the way it is right now. I don’t particularly want to add smartphones to my Shabbat experience.

That is the real issue here. The halachic question about whether it is permissible or prohibited and why is a fascinating and important discussion, but it’s relatively obscure and esoteric. Digging into the nitty-gritty halachic nuances is enjoyable for me, but I think we have to look at the big picture and examine the social and communal issues raised by the Shabbos App.

To me, it’s real simple. No one would have thought of the Shabbos App or the need for the Shabbos App if people were enjoying the break from technology that Shabbat affords.iber If we all loved being off our phones for 25 hours, the Shabbos App would be superfluous. No one would want it. No one would care to have it. But that is not the reality.

Many people struggle with observing Shabbat every week. The phone is a private and quiet way to escape Shabbat observance. That’s one the many allures of the smartphone. It’s like holding the universe in your hands, and if someone is feeling stifled by Shabbat observance, the world in one’s hands can feel quite liberating.

I think most people who have smartphones would be quite happy to be able to use them 24/7. It’s a bit of a challenge to restrict one’s smartphone usage for 25 hours if one is accustomed to using their device on a constant basis. It’s not addiction as much as it is a habit. Smartphones have become like appendages to our bodies. They accompany us to the kitchen for recipes and culinary inspiration. They come with us to the dinner table and can be used to research a point of discussion at the table or to share a YouTube video that gives everyone a good laugh. They are part of our Torah study routine with the entire Torah available at the tap of a finger. Calling us addicts completely mischaracterizes the challenge. Our devices are like auxiliary brains. They are part of everything we do during the week.

So when Shabbat arrives, it is certainly a challenge. Some people embrace this challenge. They say that Shabbat is meaningful because they love being free from technology. It’s still a challenge, but the personal satisfaction and ecstasy of freedom makes it worth meeting the challenge head on. Others just accept the fact that they might be miserable without their devices and slog through Shabbat like zombies. Then there are the people who don’t think it’s worth giving up their smartphones for Shabbat. The pain of abandoning technology for 25 hours is greater than the payoff of keeping Shabbat. Those people have no incentive to turn off their phones for 25 hours. Why should they?

That is a tragic commentary on our Shabbat experience.

One solution might be to allow for a halachic revolution or a slower halachic evolution to a place and time where using smartphones is halachically acceptable. Another might be to figure out methods of minimizing the desecration of Shabbat to the best of our ability. But I prefer a third option.

The best solution is to craft Shabbat experiences that are meaningful to American Orthodox Jews. This can be done in several ways and should be personalized to each individual person. We need Shabbat programming and meals and prayer services and activities that enhance Shabbat. The existing version of Shabbat works for a lot of people. Friday night services with some singing, family dinner that is almost exactly the same every week and in every home, a family game or a book, sleep, wake up 8:30 AM or later, head to shul, pray and listen to a sermon, grab some nosh at kiddush, eat a big lunch that is almost exactly the same every week and in every home, sing some songs, schmooze, take a nap, go for a walk, play with the kids / siblings / friends, wind down in the evening, mincha, seuda shlishit, maariv, havdala, and pizza for melaveh malka. That sounds heavenly to tons of Orthodox Jews. They wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s better than anything you can get on a smartphone.

But many people don’t like all the stuff or they might like it but not in the way that it’s currently configured. We can recalibrate. We can add and subtract within the boundaries of halacha. The experience could be more customized and appeal to each person’s preferences. In particular, we should focus on the benefits of a digital fast in our modern world so that it becomes something we subjectively want to do. We don’t need a standardized version of Shabbat. If Shabbat feels like a burden, there are ways to change it up so that it becomes a joy. When we love our Shabbat experience, the smartphone loses its appeal. We are tuned into our Shabbat experience. That’s better than being tuned out of Shabbat and tuned into our smartphones.

It’s obvious to me that this is the way forward. It’s what we discussed in the essay series a couple weeks ago. There is a version of Shabbat that is needlessly canonized, and it is to our detriment that it is. We have this idea in our heads that the meaning and lessons of Shabbat or other mitzvot are objective. I’ve heard a ton of comments that sound like “but Shabbat is about X” while the other commenter says “Shabbat is about Y.” It’s about what we make it. It’s subjective. This is not really a debatable point. So let’s think creatively. We all know the basic Shabbat rules and rituals that must be included in the experience. So let’s start from the beginning. To borrow a tech metaphor, let’s reboot. What would a Shabbat experience look like if we started building it right now? And how many other options and versions can we dream up? Let’s do it. Let’s try them. Let’s create our own subjective Shabbat experiences. Let’s make them really cool and really interesting. Let’s make our Shabbat better than anything a smartphone can offer. Let’s make the Shabbos App completely useless.

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Days of Atonement and Empathy | A Guest Post http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/01/days-atonement-empathy/ Thu, 02 Oct 2014 04:50:47 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8867

Ezra is a friend of mine and I think the point he makes in this essay is important and very relevant to many of the discussions and issues that we discuss on this blog and my Facebook page. – ef A Guest Post by Ezra Butler Growing up Orthodox, I was always instructed that Rosh […]

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Ezra is a friend of mine and I think the point he makes in this essay is important and very relevant to many of the discussions and issues that we discuss on this blog and my Facebook page. – ef

A Guest Post by Ezra Butler

Growing up Orthodox, I was always instructed that Rosh Hashana is a time for self-introspection, unlike the secular New Year which is markedly different in its celebration. We were taught that we are judged and forgiven by God during the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. Even today, I try to take this period to quietly take stock of my actions of the previous year and identify hopes for the upcoming one.

Over the past few months, as both my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter stream have been rife with negative judgments about current events from all sides, I kept wishing for a rise in empathy.

Last week, I caught a short interview with Kenneth Feinberg, the victims’ compensation consultant for 9/11 and the BP oil spill, and most lately, the accident victims of GM’s faulty ignition switches.Empatia-psicologia-tenerife-psicosalud

When the interviewer asked him about how the meetings with the families usually go, Mr. Feinberg said, “It has nothing to do with money.” He continued to explain, “When families meet with me, they have two objectives. Either one, they want to vent about life’s unfairness. ‘Why did my son die, Mr. Feinberg?’ Or they want to validate the memory of a lost loved one. My son was a great student, he would have gone far. He was a wonderful boy. Or my daughter was terrific. It gets very very emotional.”

As I heard him say these words, my mind began racing. How could it be that the man called the “Compensation Czar” of the United States, due to his work as the Special Master for TARP Executive Compensation, basically describe the secret behind his success as being really empathetic?

***

To better understand empathy, I thought back to an emotional phone call I received from my brother Menachem last week. He had just left a devastating Shiva house for a young man who passed suddenly in his early 30’s, who he did not know at all.

There had been silence, only punctuated by crying.

As Menachem sat with the crying mother, a Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant, he shared a story I had told him over a decade ago.

During my sophomore year of University, I had spent Passover in Kharkov, Urkaine organizing a seder and educating the local youth. A local Jewish university student had told me that becoming circumcised was tantamount to announcing one’s decision to leave Ukraine. A circumcised soldier in the compulsory military could be harassed, beaten or worse.

Suddenly, the mournful mother became reanimated.

She began to tell my brother a story in broken English about her son as a child. In the USSR in the 1980’s, circumcision was illegal. In the city of Vinnitsa, now-Ukraine, parents would wait until there was a large enough group of children wanting circumcision, and then bring in a Mohel from outside the city. They would have the circumcisions in a specially rented apartment, so that none of the parents would be tied to the event. The situation was so secretive, the parents were not even informed when it would take place ahead of time.

Her son was eight years old at the time. He called his mother to tell her that it was happening that day, and he would have her in mind to reenergize their commitment to Judaism, and that he was OK to do it without her there. Undeterred, she told her boss that she needed to take the rest of the day off. But by the time she arrived, he had already been circumcised.

The eight year old’s choice became more poignant when he told his mother that he didn’t want to be on the swim team anymore, because his teammates would mock him and beat him up, because he was Jewish.

The mother paused and remembered about a very religious visitor clad in black and white from the day before. “I was one of the other boys circumcised at the same time as your son,” he had announced. He informed the grieving mother part of the circumcision story she never knew. “We were all scared and nervous,” he continued, “but your son had the courage to go first.”

All the children in that apartment have since left Ukraine, and are now either living in Israel or the US. The visitor explained that he has been studying in a Yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey for the past dozen years, largely based on the example set by her son as a young boy.

But his mother never understood, until Menachem’s brief story, how hard life had been for her son in Ukraine, because her son protected his mother from knowing the true extent of the pain.

***

In an interview in 2008 with The Washingtonian, Mr. Feinberg said about victim reparations for future terrorist disasters: “Don’t ask one person to act like Solomon and try to calculate the value of lives. To be judge, jury, accountant, lawyer, rabbi, etc., is very, very difficult.”

Perhaps this year, we can take upon ourselves to heed Mr. Feinberg’s advice, to not be judge, jury and accountant to others. We should re-learn the power of empathy, whether it’s to a mother who tragically lost her son or daughter, someone who lost their job or just someone having a bad day. We should remember to listen, ask questions and share something from our own lives, just to show that we understand.

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The Shabbos App (Yes it is Real) http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/01/the-shabbos-app-yes-it-is-real/ http://finkorswim.com/2014/10/01/the-shabbos-app-yes-it-is-real/#comments Wed, 01 Oct 2014 19:58:30 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8857

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 […]

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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.

I am not an expert on these matters.halfshabbos1-635x355 I have studied them several times in various forums, so I am familiar with the general principles and arguments. Do not rely on anything I say here.

Briefly, the issue of electricity on Shabbat is not simple. Every Orthodox Jew knows that it’s prohibited. Many know about the psak of the Chazon Ish who prohibited electricity based on the melacha (Biblically forbidden creative activity) of boneh (building) because activating an electric device involves completing a circuit which is a form of building. Many people also know that this is not considered an accurate description of electricity or boneh by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Rabbi Auerbach famously concluded that although there is no particular forbidden labor that precludes use of electricity per se; it is forbidden because that has become the accepted halachic tradition in Orthodox Judaism. At most, this would be a Rabbinic prohibition.

This rule applies to electricity in general. There are electrical devices that can violate possible Biblical prohibitions. Using a microwave might be bishul, or lighting an incandescent bulb might be mav’ir. Smartphones raise another set of issues which are particular to modern personal electronics. I don’t think any of these would be Biblical prohibitions either. The greatest obstacle is probably tikun maneh or makeh b’patish, but these issues have already been handled with regard to electrical appliances that use a Sabbath (really Yom Tov) Mode. Once again, the Shabbos App team is comfortable navigating these areas of halacha. The problems raised by draining battery, writing, lighting the screen, generating sounds, and charging can be circumvented with technological workarounds. The Shabbos App does all this by running in the background of the smartphone and controlling those problem areas in a way that prevents the issues. Apparently, the Android OS is more flexible in this regard and thus presents a more robust solution. But even in Apple iOS, the app is functional and would potentially avoid all violations of Rabbinic prohibitions.

So it is real. And it actually does what they say it does. At least in terms of the technical aspects of halacha, it seems to avoid violating Shabbat prohibitions according to accepted halachic opinions.

The motivations of the Shabbos App team are genuine and holy. There are people who use smartphones on Shabbat right now. The way they use them is more likely to incur serious halachic problems. As a consequence, those who use them often feel very guilty.  Not to say that they shouldn’t feel this way, but guilt can morph into a form of religious self-loathing that triggers further departures from observance in other areas. This is a terrible result. The Shabbos App might assuage some of that guilt and keep more people in the fold. They might be right about that too. I am also very sympathetic to the emotional needs of people struggling with observance and I can corroborate the guilt slicked journey off the path. I am not expressing an opinion on the importance of this effort, or whether it outweighs considerations in the other direction. But it’s a valid concern. Further, if it is permissible to use a smartphone in this manner, then maybe they actually should be used.

So far, the objections to the app carry a familiar tune. In essence, the problem with the Shabbos App is that even if it is halachically acceptable, it will ruin the spirit of Shabbat. I am sympathetic to this point of view as well. There is something beautiful about avoiding technology on Shabbat. Recently I advocated using the digital fast concept as a social benefit to keeping Shabbat on this blog. I think it might be worth turning off our devices for Shabbat even if devices were permissible. However, Rabbi Heinemann addressed this concern when similar objections were raised against his Sabbath Mode ovens. His response was that if something is permissible then it can’t ruin the spirit of Shabbat. There’s no such thing. He supported his position by noting that when the Aruch HaShulchan or Rabbi Auerbach permitted the use of telephones on Shabbat the spirit of Shabbat was not a concern. Further, when they backtracked and prohibited the use of phones on Shabbat, they did not hang their hats on the spirit of Shabbat. Telephones were prohibited based on halachic concerns, not spirit of Shabbat concerns. When I asked the Shabbos App developer what Shabbat would look like if everyone would be using their smartphones, his answer reflected this sensibility. He said “Shabbat will look the way Hashem wants it to look!”

What’s going to happen when the app is released? Almost all Orthodox rabbis will prohibit it. That’s almost a near certainty. But what will the people do? Most adults will listen to their rabbis. I suspect that younger demographics might consider the Shabbos App. If they do, they will probably need to hide their smartphone use. I can’t see Orthodox Judaism adopting the app and its halachic implications en masse in the near future. But it is possible that as we become more and more dependent on technology, especially passive technology, there will be a natural movement toward greater leniency. If that does happen, I think we might look back on the Shabbat App and see it as a catalyst for that change. In the meantime, I don’t expect any significant change in the way Orthodox Jews think about smartphones, but at the very least we will be forced to talk about these issues with more halachic rigor and discussion. That is definitely a good thing.

Links: Shabbos App, Summary of Opinions on Electricity on Shabbat, VIN article.

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Rosh Hashanah is the Sweetest Day of Judgment http://finkorswim.com/2014/09/23/rosh-hashanah-is-the-sweetest-day-of-judgment/ Tue, 23 Sep 2014 23:38:38 +0000 http://finkorswim.com/?p=8847

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. […]

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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.

When the big day finally arrives, it begins with a short evening service followed by a festive dinner at home.s591346629795598172_p788_i1_w1280 At the Rosh Hashanah evening meal, it is customary to dip apples into honey. Some people serve sweet challah at the meal and dip it into honey. Symbolic foods (pomegranates, fish, fish heads, carrots, among others) are eaten during the meal. Through it all, there seems to be nary a thought of forgiveness or judgment.

The next day, a few hours are spent in prayer in synagogue. While the Rosh Hashanah prayers are a bit longer than usual, they do not express thoughts of repentance. In fact, the focus seems to be on the shofar blasts — and more shofar blasts. There are a lot of shofar blasts. But still, no crying or begging for mercy.

In the afternoon, a walk is taken to a stream or lake where the tashlich prayer is recited. In this symbolic ritual, we ask that our sins be cast off so that we may enter the new year free of sin. Sin and forgiveness are implied in the prayer, but tashlich can hardly be described as the “grunt work” of perfecting oneself or changing one’s character. Certainly our sins are not cast off just because we say tashlich. It is simply a symbolic ritual that reminds us to repent.

Which leads us to the punchline of Rosh Hashanah. How many ways can we distract ourselves from the essence of what happens on Rosh Hashanah?! Apples, honey, fun symbolic foods, shofar, tashlich…there a host of rituals that don’t help us repent, but rather take our minds off the primary focus of the day!

Since it is the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah could be a really hard day. People don’t really enjoy hard days. We already have Yom Kippur on the calendar as a designated hard day. If Rosh Hashanah were to be celebrated as two more hard days, it could actually take away from the overall High Holidays experience.

That the sages implemented rituals, traditions, and customs for Rosh Hashanah is actually fortunate. While they seem to skirt around the primary focus of the day, these small acts remind us, in a sweet or interesting way, that Rosh Hashanah is a judgment day. The rituals of Rosh Hashanah are intended to appeal to our sense of taste, our appreciation for music – even rudimentary music like the shofar blast. Rituals such as tashlich, which include a trip outdoors and powerful symbolic gestures, are all ways of arousing our spirits to repent without banging us over the head with the “REPENT OR DIE” anvil.

These special customs of Rosh Hashanah give this supreme day of religious obligation and spiritual accounting a flair of merriment so that we will be more engaged in the day. It’s the old marketing principle that uses association to lure the customers into endorsing or purchasing a product. If it looks good and feels good, it has a better chance in the marketplace. Part of what makes things feel good and look good are the favorable associations we make in our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is eased along by positive associations. We enjoy good food, the shofar evokes a deep and stirring nostalgia inside our souls, and tashlich takes us outside the synagogue. The distractions are not really distractions as much as they are bunting and balloons decorating a banquet hall. They may take the eye off the event for a moment, but overall they contribute to an atmosphere that is flavorful, fun, and festive.

Don’t look at the Rosh Hashanah traditions as separate from the Day of Judgment. Rather, they are the trappings that enhance the Day of Judgment. Enjoy the sweet food. Drink in the sounds of the shofar. Bask in the sunshine during tashlich. These are the rituals that give our holiday its special taste. Make them important. Make them meaningful. Make them a significant part of your Rosh Hashanah.

When Rosh Hashanah is regarded as a special time to which we look forward, when we value the day and when we have good feelings about Rosh Hashanah, we are far more likely to put more of our heart and soul into the Day of Judgment, and that will certainly have a positive effect on our verdict.

May we all merit a happy sweet New Year.

This article was originally published in NJOP’s Bereishith Newsletter (September 2014).

The post Rosh Hashanah is the Sweetest Day of Judgment appeared first on Finkorswim.com.

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