Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Hugging the Divine- Finding Hashem in the Torah we learn

The rosh yeshiva who I heard speak this past Friday night, was as brilliant as I’d been led to believe. Listening to him speak, one could believe the possibly apocryphal story which I’d heard about him, that a Soloveichik once said that they’d never met anyone else who who could think like that who didn’t share their last name. Still, as I tried to follow his brilliant analysis of a difficult Rambam, I felt like something was missing.

Thinking about it afterwards, I tried to reflect on how the shiur which I’d witnessed was any different than what I would have experienced had I listened to a lecture from a world-class physicist. While I imagine that in the latter case I would have been less familiar with the content of the lecture, I can still imagine that I could be mesmerized by their brilliance. I found myself thinking of ‘“What” has Brisk Wrought?’, an article Rav Moshe Lichtenstein wrote in the Torah U’Madda Journal nearly 20 years ago. In the Article, he spoke about the limitations of the Brisker Derech of learning, noting that they often stopped at the “what” of categorization, without moving on to the why. It is for this reason that while I’m often impressed by the analysis that comes from those well-versed in the Brisker Derech, I’ve rarely found it religiously edifying. In thinking about the rosh yeshiva’s shiur, I realized that for me, it felt like the Ribbono Shel Olam was missing, or that if he was there, it was with a separation of more than six degrees of separation with which we are all said to be connected. It was as if I was discussing the method by which a beloved friend’s favorite shoes are stitched, rather than talking about something more directly connected to my friend.

The next day, given the opportunity to attend another of the rosh yeshiva’s shiurim, I instead decided to learn with my regular chavrusa.It wasn’t a difficult choice. While I can’t say when I will again get the opportunity to hear a shiur of that caliber, it is during my weekly chavrusa in the Torah of the Piaseczna Rebbe’s Torah that I often experience the Divine.

As we sat learning Mevo Hashearim, the rebbe quoted a beautiful mashal from the Ba’al HaTanya used to explain why learning the non-esoteric parts of Torah also has value. When one learns Torah of any kind, one was is hugging Hakadosh baruch Hu who is found within the garments of Torah. Even if a particular approach involves hugging Hashem through more garments, one merely needs to keep in mind who it is who is wearing those garments. Ironically, it was here, in a chassidic rebbe’s defense of learning nigleh and not just nistar, that I found a way to frame the Brisker Torah which I had learned on Friday night. Even within analyzing the categories of the Rambam and focusing on a halacha which lacks practical application, one can, with the right focus, hug HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

More Than A Peirush- a review of the new Rav Kook Siddur

“A student asked his Rosh Yeshiva whether he should study Rav Kook’s perush to the siddur. In his inimitable style, the Rosh Yeshiva replied” ‘Ach, it’s not a perush to the siddur.’ Intrigued, the student asked “If not a perush to the siddur, then what is it?’
‘A neshamah on paper.’”

While it has been pointed out by both those who read the quote carefully, as well as those familiar with the actual context, that Rav Yaakov Weinberg, the above quoted rosh yeshiva, did not necessarily mean his words as a compliment, seeing Olat Reiyah as less than a peirush on the siddur and only “a neshmah on paper”, I believe that Koren, the publishers of the new Rav Kook Siddur were right to use this quote. Regardless of the rosh yeshiva’s intent, Rav Kook did not merely write a commentary, with all the limitations that this term implies. Instead he truly bared his soul, and even more importantly, showed that real tefillah cannot happen without each of us doing the same.

Until now, as with much of his thought, Rav Kook’s approach to tefillah was largely off limits to the English-speaking world. Rav Bezalel Naor, who wrote the commentary which accompanies the new Rav Kook Siddur, has once again made Rav Kook’s ideas available to a broader audience. As he has done with other of his published works based on Rav Kook (his Pesach haggadah being another example), Rav Naor has stayed away from a straightforward translation of Rav Kook’s sefer, in this case Olat Reiyah. While this decision means that not all of Rav Kook’s ideas on tefillah are to be found in the new siddur, it offers the benefit of being a single volume which can be used for davening and not just just to study. Additionally, Rav Naor does a masterful job taking Rav Kook’s difficult Hebrew and deep concepts, and making them understandable. On top of this, Rav Naor offers many of his own insights culled from his many decades of studying Rav Kook’s ideas.

I was pleased that Rav Naor decided to begin the new siddur with the translation of Inyanei Tefillah, Rav Kook’s explanation of the idea of tefillah which appears at the beginning of Olat Reiyah. In doing so, he offers the reader the ability to understand Rav Kook’s unique approach to prayer, which he sees as latently always taking place in the human soul, and becoming active during times of actual tefillah. With this introduction, and the other ideas which follow, one understands why Rav Kook could never have merely written a commentary on the siddur. For him, the words we say when we stand before our Creator are not merely vortelach, clever though they may be. Instead, they are words with which we express what lays most deeply within ourselves, or perhaps more properly, who we are in our deepest essence.

[One note for those who will want to use The Rav Kook Siddur along with Olat Reiyah. Rav Naor used an earlier edition of Olat Reiyah, and as such, the pages listed in the footnotes in the new siddur do not match up with the pages in the newer edition of Olat Reiyah.]

For those who wish to use this new siddur to not only study Rav Kook’s ideas, but to work on their avodas hashem, they now now have a new powerful tool to use as they truly engage in what is avodah shebalev, service of the heart. If Rav Kook truly bared his soul in writing Olat Reiyah, Rav Naor’s new masterful siddur allows us to see who Rav Kook truly was, and who we might be through the gradual baring of our soul on prayer.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Aish Kodesh in its Historical Context- A review of Torah From The Years of Wrath 1939-1943

Without lifting up a gun or molotov cocktail, Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe committed some of the greatest acts of heroism of World War II. While experiencing much personal trauma and suffering, the rebbe managed to offer words of encouragement and hope to unknown scores of Jews, religious and irreligious, chassidim and misnagedim alike, who, like him, were trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto. Those who have read the rebbe’s words of Torah delivered on many of the Shabboses and Yamim Tovim between the years 1939-1943, the written record of which miraculously survived after being buried in the ground before the ghetto was destroyed, have been inspired by his uplifting words delivered under the most trying of circumstances.Still, until recently, readers had an incomplete picture of his words.

After being discovered in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, the rebbe’s derashos were published by some of his surviving students and chassidim in a work they titled Aish Kodesh. While they did their best to give over the rebbe’s words as accurately as possible, there were various typos and other errors that made it into the sefer. Recently, Dr. Daniel Reiser of Herzog Academic College and Tzefat Academic College published an incredible two-volume critical edition of the rebbe’s derashos which is destined to be the one used by anyone interested in learning the rebbe’s wartime Torah. The first volume includes fascinating biographical information about the rebbe, as well as a fully corrected version of each of the derashos. The second volume has a facsimile of the actual pages which were buried by Oneg Shabbos, as well as a transcription in multiple colors of the rebbe’s words. Still, one problem remained. In delivering his words of Torah, the rebbe consciously chose to almost entirely refrain from mentioning the name of those who were behind the terrible suffering which he and his listeners experienced. With almost no exceptions, one who reads the rebbe’s words from this time period could theoretically be unaware of the particular tragic time period in which it was written. While his divrei Torah provide comfort and hope to those who are suffering, the reader is largely  left unaware of the particular events which led the rebbe to say what he did  each week.

To fill this void, Dr. Henry Abramson, dean of Touro College in Brooklyn has written Torah From the Years of Wrath 1939-1943: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh. As with Reiser’s books, Dr. Abramson’s book promises to be groundbreaking for both scholars and laymen alike.

After an opening chapter which provides biographical  information about the rebbe from before the war, there are three chapters each of which concentrates on a year from the war, what the rebbe spoke about at that time, and which events led to the choice of topic. Through Abramson’s thorough scholarship and compelling writing, the reader’s eyes are opened as the divrei Torah are connected to the rumors which might have been going through the ghetto that week, a new policy which led to additional suffering, or the narrowing of the parameters of the Warsaw Ghetto. Just to cite an example, the rebbe chose to speak about the walls of a house getting tzaraas during the week where the Nazis built the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. This is just one of the scores of examples that Abramson’s scholarship has uncovered.

In addition to providing the background information for many of the derashos, Dr. Abramson also provides other fascinating information about the rebbe’s time in the ghetto. One of the highlights of the book for me was reading about the rebbe’s pre-dawn visit to the mikveh on erev Yom Kippur. Meticulously planned, the rebbe’s efforts to immerse in the mikveh came at great risk, as the Nazis had closed all mikvaos and threatened to kill anyone who attempted to immerse. Even for those who can’t fully understand what going to the mikveh meant for the rebbe, the details of his visit with the help of others, as well as what happened when he reached the mikveh (page 139), will leave the reader speechless.

The book concludes with a fifth chapter where Dr. Abramson addresses something which has long been a point of contention among scholars. As one reads rebbe’s words from during the war, one notices a shift in his outlook. While at the beginning of the war the rebbe seemed to see the suffering that he and his fellow jews were experiencing  as fitting within traditional explanations for earlier tragic eras, where teshuva is required, it is clear that at a certain point he recognized that the level of suffering was way beyond that which could be explained by seeing it as a mere extension of earlier tragedies. The rebbe no longer suggested that those who were listening to him could change things by returning to God. Instead, he tried to figure out how a believer should view this sui generis experience. While unfortunately certain academic scholars have used this change to suggest that the rebbe (God forbid) lost his faith, Abramson shows the absurdity of such a claim (Rieser does this as well in the first volume of his work). He makes a conclusive case that while the rebbe struggled to make sense of the atrocities that the Jewish people were suffering, he remained what he had always been, a person with deep and enduring faith.

Dr. Abramson has written a book which is destined to lead to an increase of study of the rebbe’s Torah and thought in both the academic and Jewish world. His is a work which while maintaining high academic standards and containing ideas which will advance the field, is at once also accessible to the non-scholar, and written in an engaging and compelling manner. Especially for the reader who is looking for a work which contains both Torah and Avodas HaShem, along with serious scholarship, I can’t recommend this incredible book strongly enough.

Dr. Abramson will have a book launch for Torah From The Years of Wrath this Monday, October 30th at Touro College in Brooklyn. For more information, please click here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On Being Godly- God's place in the life of an Orthodox Jew

It happened a number of times. I started to think about writing what I’m about to write, and then I decided not to. I wasn’t sure if this was a topic which I could address in a thoughtful, meaningful, and nuanced manner. Each time however, something occurred which convinced me that I had to write it. Yesterday, after this pattern was completed for a third time, I decided that I had no choice but to try. I am not sure if I will be fully successful in trying to express what I want to say. At the very least, I hope I will spur a larger discussion.

The Orthodox world has a God problem.

Well, not exactly a God problem, as much as a language of God problem, or maybe a comfort with discussing God problem. Many of us, including our rabbis and teachers can easily discuss halacha and mitzvos, but somehow few attempt to discuss the encounter with God, in general, and their personal encounter with God, in particular.

Recently, a virtual friend bemoaned the fact that he could not hear a certain theologian who defines himself as halachic egalitarian in my friend’s own Orthodox shul. In the subsequent discussion I wondered aloud (assuming one can do that in a comment on FB) whether the problem was larger than whether this theologian, who I admire greatly, could speak in an Orthodox shul. Perhaps, I suggested, a big part of the problem is that there is a dearth of Orthodox thinkers who are openly willing to explore their faith in an open manner, and the fact that we need to look outside of our community to find those who are willing.

I would never question the value of learning and observing halacha. I strongly believe that halacha helps us encounter God in an embodied manner in all areas of our life. Still, I do wonder whether the fact that halacha plays such a large role in our lives, leads to the possible outcome that we get stuck in the details of the act, and lose the ability to feel, think about, and discuss the encounter with God which lays behind and within halacha itself.

More recently, while driving, I listened to a podcast where my friend and colleague Rabbi Joshua Bolton, a Reconstructionist rabbi, who works with students at the University of Pennsylvania, described his religious experience, including his encounter with God. It was profound, holy, and powerful. It shook me to my core. Part of what bothered me was that I couldn’t think of the last time I heard an Orthodox rabbi talk so openly about what it means to believe. Somewhere in the back of my head I wondered how many rabbis could find the words to discuss it. At first I pushed off this thought by thinking that talking about God is not an Orthodox activity. Immediately, I thought about things I’ve read from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Amital, the Piaseczna Rebbe, and Hillel Zeitlin where they discuss their encounter with God. My next question was, why is this not happening (more often?) in the Orthodox world?

I get it. Not everyone is going to encounter God in the same way. Heck, when I listen to Rav Herschel Schachter address an obscure halachic topic for an hour, it is a deeply religious experience, even as I can’t fully explain why. Still, when was the last time you heard a rosh yeshiva or shul rabbi explain what they experience when they learn a Ketzos or a Rav Chaim? I can’t help but wonder whether part of the discomfort that many Jews express about the lack of meaningfulness of tefillah (see this recent study for an example) comes from the fact that past a fairly young age, nobody talks about God anymore.

The final straw which convinced me to write this, came yesterday. This time, it was listening to Christian pastor Eugene Peterson address his religious experience on the NPR show On Being, a show which explores what it means to be human. I listened to him explain what he gets from reading the Book of Psalms. I heard him talk about how the experience of anger and frailty fits into his encounters with God. His experience was not my experience. In fact, his approach to religion, as well as his translation of the bible, do not fully resonate with me. Still, for 50 minutes I was enrapt. When the show was over I found myself wondering about which rabbis or teachers could so openly, comfortably, and compellingly discuss what they mean when they talk about God, and what they experience when they read Tehillim, forget something due to old age, or look in a baby’s eyes.

We are religious. We are observant. We learn Torah. We do mitzvos. Where in all of that, and in the world around us and inside of us do we find God?

To join the conversation on this blog on FB, please click here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Ground Ball Day- thoughts from an over-invested Red Sox fan

As if I was stuck in a Bill Murray movie, yesterday I found myself in a scene I’d been in many times before. As Yogi might have said, it was deja vu all over again. I was driving home with one of my older sons in the car, nervously listening to the radio, as the Red Sox clung to a one-run lead in a do-or-die playoff game. Home run Astos. Instinctively, I punched my steering wheel, and trying to hold onto some level of fatherly dignity, I managed to say “Darn”, or maybe “DARN!!!”. When the Astros took the lead, a few pitches later, a lead they would not relinquish, I responded with another punch, and a synonym for the word darn, which also starts with the letters D and A, and rhymes with dam. So much for fatherly dignity. What made the experience so frustrating is that I‘ve gone through some version of this, many times.

I don’t have a TV and haven’t had one for many years, so on the rare occasions that I catch a Red Sox game, it’s on the radio, and being that I live in New Jersey, it’s mainly playoff baseball that I get to hear. Combine that with the fact that I rarely listen to the radio outside of the car, and you understand why my poor steering wheel has been victimized so many times. Of course, that doesn’t really explain why it’s been punched, because one can, or so I imagine, listen to one’s favorite baseball team disappoint them, without punching inanimate objects, or so I’ve been told.

Why is it that I can’t get past this? I don’t mean rooting for a team, which is, for the most part pretty harmless. I don’t pretend that I’m on a level where I have no time for leisurely activities, in fact, I’m far from it. Rather, what I’m trying to understand is why can’t I care less? What is it that makes me at 46, respond with only slightly more dignity than I did in 1986, and 1988, and…?

Here’s the thing. I’ve heard real-life bad and sad news on the radio, with nary a shot to my steering wheel. Terror attacks, tornados, grisly crimes, they all get, at most, some sort of intellectual response, with perhaps a shake of the head. Why do the Red Sox get more? All my attempts to answer this question feel insufficient. Childhood memories of games with my family, the joy of being part of a larger “family” might explain why I like baseball, but why does it have such a strong and emotional hold over me? As a rabbi from whom I’ve learned so much explained when I asked why he was no longer such a big sports fan, “There’s only so much love the heart can hold”. Which things don’t get my emotional energy when it is given to a sports team?

As with all scenes which we recreate in our lives, I’m convinced that it won’t go away until I figure out what I’m supposed to learn from this. I don’t think the answer lays in going cold turkey and stopping following sports, as I’m more interested in getting to the root cause of this. I have some time to think about it, but as a long suffering (and only rarely celebrating) Red Sox fan, I know they’ll give me many more chances to try and figure it out.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Bnei Machashava Tova- My aspirations to grow with the help of others

What can I say? I’m not a Litvak. Each year, when I come to Shabbos Shuva, having left Rosh Hashana and on my way towards Yom Kippur, I have no interest in a Shabbos Shuva derasha which explores the intricacies of Migo for 58 minutes, with a two minute reminder that essentially says “Oh yeah, don’t forget do teshuva” (I say this not criticize anyone's approach, but merely to point out what doesn’t work for me). Alas, I have made my home in Passaic rather than Mezeritch, so that chassidic derashos about teshuva and our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu are not to be found. It has been many years since I last attended a Shabbos Shuva derasha.

This past Shabbos, a friend from a different shul mentioned that he would be going to hear Rabbis X’s derasha, as he thought it would be more inspiring. As I thought about what he said, it occurred to me that what I was missing was not just a live version of what I could get in the Piaseczna Rebbe’s Derech HaMelech, but even more so, is a live version of what I have found in his Bnei Machashava Tova, which I recently completed for the second time.

Each time I go through a small portion of the sefer which was written to create small groups of chassidim who work together to become truer Ovdei HaShem, I am left with mixed emotions; joy and inspiration at the ideas he writes about, mix with feelings of sadness as I can only imagine what being part of such a group would be like. To cite one example, his descriptions of Shaleseudos leaves me yearning for an environment where the singing and camaraderie would truly be m’ein olam haba.

None of this is to suggest, God forbid, that I am not surrounded by those who aspire to greatness in their Avodas HaShem. I am fortunate to live in a community which has many Bnei Torah. At the same time, I’ve reached a point in my life where my soul yearns for a different kind of nourishment. While I’m fortunate to have a chavrusa with whom I learn Hachsharas HaAvreichim, which is a high point of my week, and to have friends in real life, as well as online who are into chassidus, most of the time I am left with the feeling of something akin to parallel play, like what young children do when they play next to each other, but not with each other, as each of us tries to grow in his own way.

Of course, part of my struggle comes from my own weakness. I am simply not capable of becoming who I want to be by myself. I want to learn together with others, aspire together with others, and grow together with others. I picture myself as part of a group of like-minded individuals with whom I could try and put the Piaseczna’s holy words into practice, meeting each week to learn, sing, and talk of holy things.

That’s what I realized this past Shabbos. Not only do I wish I could have been present for the Rebbe’s teshuva derasha from 1930, but that afterwards, my friends and I could have gotten together to talk of what we learned and how, together, we could take steps towards living it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Letting Go- On teshuva, religious experience, and the intellect

When I think about what I’m experiencing, I am scared. I feel myself changing, and that leaves me feeling vulnerable. I also find myself questioning the change and my motives. Is this real? Am I fooling myself? If I really change, what else goes along with it?

For a while, I’ve associated teshuva with brokenness, and gravitated to Torah where brokenness and even darkness could be found either explicitly or implicitly. Rebbe Nachman and Rav Shagar spoke to me, while other more optimistic approaches like that of Rav Kook did not. The reasons for my preference were not hard to understand. In the battle between my father’s pessimism and cynicism, and my mother’s ever hopeful optimism, life had mostly pushed me towards the former. I struggled to not fall into skepticism, or even worse, cynicism. Little by little, I tried to stop dreaming dreams, fearing getting hurt once again, if like Charlie Brown I convinced myself that this time I’d succeed at kicking the football.

I can’t put my finger on why things changed this year, but somehow the dark shadows receded, and I found myself connecting to Rav Kook’s Torah. I felt hopeful, and started believing that I could really change in a way I’d long thought impossible. Still, I struggled to just go with it. The fears of what this change would mean to me and those around me, and whether what I was experiencing was real, attacked me, refusing to let me go without a fight. I felt like a faker, pretending to be what I am not. A friend’s recommendation to take things a day at a time rather than worrying about the future helped, but only partially. Then I learned a section in the Piaseczna Rebbe’s Derech Hamelech this past Shabbos which I think might allow me to take a big step.

In the ninth perek of Derech Hamelech, the Rebbe gives strategies for working on Avodas HaShem. As with other places in his writings, he touches on the power of the imagination and how it can put you deeper in an experience than merely thinking about it intellectually. At one point he suggests a partial way to attack thoughts and feelings coming from the yetzer hara. Essentially, he suggests intellectualizing the experience. By looking at the thought and questioning where it comes from, the power of the feeling dissipates, as you stop experiencing it, and switch to thinking about it. In discussing this with my chavrusa, I recognized that this is the opposite of what the Rebbe suggests with davening, where he warns against intellectual thoughts and assessing whether davening is going well, as this prevents being in the tefillah.

Here, in the moment where an optimistic and hopeful teshuva feels possible, and my connection to God real,  intellectual scrutiny will be destructive. Putting these experiences under the microscope will dry them up, sapping them of their power and vitality. For now, I will simply be in my experience of teshuva, and not worry about ramifications, authenticity, or what comes next.