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.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Remains of the Summer

Earlier this summer I was given the opportunity to speak to a small group of people about how much of myself I bring to the classroom. I don’t remember the exact title, but that was how I interpreted it. How much of my personality, learning and reading interests, struggles, inspirations and aspirations do my students get to see? As summer vacation comes to an end , I find myself revisiting this subject in my mind as I wonder how much of my Grizzly Adams beard,  my hiking,and my learning of Orot Hateshuva and the Torah of the Piasezcna Rebbe my students will see, and in what way.

On some level, it’s an easy question to answer. The hikes are over, my beard has been tamed, and I am unlikely to quote anything from Rav Kook or Bnei Machashava Tova this year. But of course, I am thinking of this question in a more conceptual manner. Of everything that I did and accomplished, as well as everything that happened to me this summer, what remains? Who have I become, and what kind of teacher will it make me?

Of course, to attempt to answer this question I need to think about the different components of my summer and what they meant to me.

I haven’t been able to put into words why I let my beard go for five months. As I got comments and jokes from friends and people I know, I tried to think about why I was doing this. Over time, as the beard grew longer and more wild, I came to really like it, even as I couldn’t fully say why. At times I thought it represented a certain sense of unfettered freedom. At other times, I thought of it as being akin to orlah, just being allowed to grow on its own, free of any human touch. I grew used to absentmindedly  tugging at the beard while I learned. In fact, it wasn’t until I trimmed it so that I would look more presentable upon my return to work, that I realized how much I had come to like having a long unkempt beard. Now that it’s gone, what of it remains with me as I return to the classroom?

I think back to the hiking which started out as a low-key way to get back into exercise. It soon became something bigger than that. The opportunity to get out in the woods, breathe deeply, and see beautiful views, soon became a highlight of my week. Adding to it was the camaraderie, but it was also about the challenge; struggling to climb steep inclines, as I bumped and cut my legs, the cuts and bruises becoming battle scars of pride. The barbecues eaten at the end of some of the more challenging hikes, when my body was depleted, only added to the experience. So how does this all affect me as a teacher when I’m surrounded by the concrete and steel of Manhattan?

Finally there’s the question of my learning, and how it affects me as a person, and as a teacher. Teaching middle school students it is rare if ever if I make reference to, or even more so show them some of the Torah of Rav Kook, the Piaseczna Rebbe, or Rav Amiel. Still, as I learned the Torah of these thinkers as well as others, I tried to think deeply, and tried to internalize their idea and imaginings. While some days it was just book learning, there were many times like I felt it was something much deeper, as my religious personality was rewired. So much of this makes it into the classroom consciously and unconsciously, often in ways where I likely don’t even notice. That’s without even getting into that magical night on a rooftop in the Bronx where a group of us stayed up late into the night studying a Torah of Rebbe Nachman....

So how is the person I am now, different from who I was at the end of the school year in June? The only honest answer I can give is “I don’t know”. I do I know that without straying too far from home, I experienced something deep and wonderful this summer. Something I won’t soon forget. Something which I’m convinced will make me a better teacher.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Restored Faith In Oneself- Some thoughts on Rav Shagar's Faith Shattered and Restored

As I think of Rav Shagar zt”l, there’s an image which keeps coming to my mind. A searcher is climbing a mountain looking for the guru who will help him find truth. He finally reaches a plateau, and sitting right there is the one whom he thinks will answer all of his questions. The guru, who much prefers solitude, agrees to let the searcher stay, but only on one condition. The guru will continue his own personal search for truth, and the searcher can listen to it all, but he may not ask any questions. After all, the guru himself is still  searching.

With the recent release of “Faith Shattered and Restored”, which contains the first attempt to bring Rav Shagar to an English speaking audience, Maggid Books is attempting to bring Rav Shagar’s ideas to foreign soil. The question is whether a thinker who is very much a product of Israel can be understood by the Anglo reader. A number of excellent reviews have already been written. Levi Morrow, and Zach Truboff, have each written thought provoking reviews. Additionally, a fascinating conversation between the editor of the new volume, Dr. Zohar Maor, and its translator, Elie Leshem has recently been published. In a certain sense, one can ask what else can be said. Still, I’d like to approach things in a certain sense from where Morrow and Truboff left off, namely whether Maggid’s goal of bringing Rav Shagar’s ideas to an English speaking audience will bear fruit.

Before I begin, a few quick notes. I write this as the searcher who has found Rav Shagar. I am both privileged to be allowed to hear his thoughts, and sometimes confused by what I hear. Rav Shagar often seems to be megaleh tefach u’mechaseh tefachim, hiding more than he shares. For me, Rav Yair Dreyfus, who was a talmid chaver of sorts of Rav Shagar, and the one with whom he started his last yeshiva Siach Yitzhak, is the peirush Rashi through whom I make sense of Rav Shagar. Additionally, for those who decide to read this fascinating work, I would recommend that you make use of Rav Shalom Carmy’s afterward, while reading the book and not after, either by using his words as an introduction to each chapter, or as its summary. It is not that Leshem did not do a good job translating Rav Shagar’s words into English. On the contrary, he did a masterful job. Still, at least for me, even when one knows the meanings of the words, it is not always easy to grasp  Rav Shagar’s ideas. Finally, I will not attempt to summarize the specific essays in this book. Instead I will share more global thoughts which from having read this and a number of other of Rav Shagar’s works.

So with all of this, why should the thinking English reader try to make their way through Rav Shagar’s essays? It is not to find a systematic thinker. Consciously or not, Rav Shagar’s many essays written at various times  before his untimely death, pull in various directions. The fact that the essays in this book deal with postmodern ideas do not mean that he was a postmodernist. In fact, Rav Dreyfus suggests that he was more of an existentialist. What one does get from reading Rav Shagar is someone who bares his soul, or at least does so as much as he can. To me, it is not surprising that Rav Shagar’s two essay volume on Likutei Moharan of Rebbe Nachman reads so clearly. Like Rebbe Nachman, Rav Shagar struggles between simple faith, and the many ideas and experiences which make this pure faith so hard to maintain. I don’t say this lightly, but of all the thinkers who Rav Shagar quotes, he seems to be kindred spirits with  Rebbe Nachman.

To give one of the more important examples of what made him so complex, Rav Shagar fought in the Yom Kippur War. He was the driver of a tank, and was badly injured in an attack which killed the other two men who were with him in the tank. He called that war his generations Holocaust, words which are particularly filled with pathos in light of the fact that his parents were survivors. Already pushed towards a silent pessimism by his parents, surviving the attack while his friends did not, pushed him even deeper inside himself.

It is this complexity which I think can speak so deeply and directly to those who are searching. His questions are powerful and raw, and yet at the same time he struggles with them without losing his, I can use no other word, frumkeit. In this he pushes back on those who think that serious religious observance, and deep inner conflict cannot go hand in hand. Additionally, he eschews any attempt to make the various pulls that he experiences fit together. For him, there is no “Torah and” or “Torah im”. No attempt is made to synthesize the various parts of himself. He is willing to be who he is, without any sense that his conflicting sides must be solved.

Finally, I would add that he pushes the reader to look deep within him or herself to try and be their own hero, rather than looking to him as a savior who will make that which cannot be perfectly joined be put together. This can be seen from the fact that he has become much more popular (in both senses of the term) in death, than he was when he was alive. In a sense, for his readers he is not the chassidic rebbe to whom one flocks to receive answers. Instead, through his words, his questions and struggles, one learns how to look deep inside themselves.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Close Shave- Of beards, titles and sense of self

What is the connection between outer appearance and sense of self? Can we express in an action that which we feel on the inside? Does how we look help or hinder who wish to be, and what effect does it have on how others relate to us?

Usually, by this point in the cycle of Sefiras HaOmer, I am the point of wishing I could shave. The enjoyment of being able to sleep a bit later a few days a week has worn off, and the annoyance of itchiness and waking up with drool in my beard has increased. This year, I have wondered whether I should shave off my beard when Lag Baomer arrives.

It is not that I think a beard has any inherent religious meaning. I also don’t think it changes who I am as a Jew. Still, when I look in the mirror, I see a different person staring back at me. Part of this is the increase over the last few years, of white hairs in my beard. Each time I see myself in the mirror, I am reminded that I am getting older. While part of me wants to fight this sense of no longer being so young, I wonder if it’s not time to embrace, or at least accept it.

The excitement of seeing their normally clean shaven teacher with a beard has also worn off for my students. The sweet and funny comments which come from middle schoolers who are always ready to give style advice to their teachers are no longer made, as the novelty has worn off. I find myself wondering whether they see me as more rabbinic when I have a beard, and if so, whether that is a good thing. I am unsure whether being a rabbi helps or hinders me in my attempt to teach them about Judaism, and I am often convinced it’s the latter, as the title marks me as other, different even from the other adults they know.

What does it mean to look more rabbinic and why would I even want that? I already have a complicated relationship with the title “rabbi”. If I’m to be honest, I must admit that there are times when I enjoy being called rabbi, even as I feign humility and ask those who are not my students to call me by my first name. Other times, it legitimately feels like a burden, a title that I don’t always feel I deserve, one which doesn’t help with my Avodas HaShem.

There is, I believe, a reason why something as insignificant as whether to shave, matters to me right now. My relationship with Judaism, and I how I experience being religious, is not a linear one. I am not one of those people who long ago picked a “team” and knows where they fit in. Right now is one of those times where I feel like I’m in transition, where I don’t feel completely at home with myself, as what I learn and read, and how I experience God is in flux. So it’s not about the beard. It’s about identity, and a need right now, to see when I look in the mirror, some of what I’m experiencing inside.

Monday, April 3, 2017


I haven't written on my blog for a while. Just haven't had something I thought worth saying, or lacked the words I wished to say, but now an idea struggles to come out from within, and I wonder whether I should share it.

It's almost like in Dayeinu where you thank God for each individual step of the redemption, and I'm part way through. Part of me is so thankful, as I never could have imagined getting this far, and yet part of me wonders "Is that it?". Is there more to come in my development as a learner and a teacher of Torah? And if not, what do I do with this mix of thanks and frustration I feel?

When I talk about looking to teach in shuls and colleges and the like, I must admit it's less about trying to find a way of supplementing my income, although God knows I can use it. It's this sense that I want, no I need, to find a way of sharing this Torah that is welling up from within, and I know that there's an audience who might benefit from it.

As I think about this I wonder if I'm right, or whether I'm deluding myself, and whether it's hubris which makes me want more instead of looking at all the good and simply saying dayeinu, because there has still been more years where I wasn't on the learning and teaching Torah path, than years I was on it.
So I sit here at the nexus of overwhelming gratitude, and ambition and desire, where some dreams I hadn't even known i was dreaming have been reached, while others are so tantalizingly close, and yet feel like they might remain beyond my reach, and I wonder how to live at home in two places at once.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Discovering the Unknown- Experiencing simchas Purim

Purim is approaching and I’m in a panic. I know there’s something that I want to experience on that day, but I don’t know exactly what it is. As is my wont, I have been looking for the answer in books, but it hard to find something when you are not sure what it is that you are searching for.

I’m convinced that Purim has something very deep within it, that the comparisons between Purim and Yom Kippur have some essential message which can’t be expressed in a clever vort. I’m sure that there is some idea found in a sefer which is the key to the locked door which stands in my way. For nearly a month, I’ve been going through various sefarim searching for the conceptual understanding which will lead to a day of deep meaning.

Of course, it is possible that my way of searching is part of the problem. Perhaps I am using books as a way of not having to do the hard work myself, or maybe sefarim are a cheap substitute for that which I really seek. I read Rav Hutner’s words as I study his Pachad Yitzchak and I realize that what I really want is to be sitting at his Purim seudah, as his words are interspersed within singing, eating, and drinking. I read the words of the holy Piaseczna Rebbe as he looks deep within himself in the Warsaw Ghetto trying to give his fellow sufferers something to hold onto, and I wonder what it could have been like to have been his chassid before the war. In my mind’s eye, I picture Rav Kook sitting around a small table in his original yeshiva with his beloved disciples. I see their radiant smiles, but I cannot hear their words. Here and there, I’ve had enjoyable seudos with friends, but I know there’s something more that I want for myself and for my family.

In some ways, I’m a spiritual orphan. I don’t have memories of family Purim seudos with divrei Torah and joyous singing from which I can draw. There is no yeshiva which helped mold me, where I might have witnessed my rosh yeshiva or rebbe at their seudah, so that I might know what to do at mine. Instead, I look at words on a page and try to turn the two-dimensional letters into a three-dimensional image, but my mind fails me. I grasp ideas, concepts, divrei Torah begin to coalesce in my mind, but none of these are thing itself for which I am searching.

As I write these words, it begins to occur to me that my problem is that I seek an idea that I can grasp in my mind. Some concept, external to me which I can fully know and possess. Realizing this, I begin to grasp the idea of drinking to reach the state of Ad D’Lo Yada. The simcha of Purim is not outside of me in a book. Its secrets can’t be truly grasped by watching others, even when they are spiritual giants. Just as teshuva can be studied in books, but true teshuva can only be found by looking deep within, the spiritual treasures of Purim can only be discovered by letting go of finding something external, and discovering true simcha which already lies within ourselves.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Impermanent Things- Getting a hold of what matters

On rare occasions, there are songs which grab me the first time I hear them. Sometimes it’s the music. Other times, the lyrics grab my attention. On rare occasion, it’s both. Although it’s not a new song, Peter Himmelman’s song Impermanent Things had that effect on me when I first heard it a few weeks ago. As I’ve listened to it multiple times over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that its message resonates so deeply with me.

All these impermanent things Oh how they fool me dominate and rule me...

Last week, my wife got me a new phone. My old one was not working well, as it had little memory left. While I had realized for a while that it was a time for an upgrade, I had held off on getting a replacement. It wasn’t that I didn’t want one. On the contrary, I very much wanted one, and thus knew I should hold off.

...Well their beauty's never aging but their worthlessness's enraging...

My father was one of the least materialistic people I’ve ever met. Other than buying a couple of new suits every couple of years, I rarely saw him buy anything for himself, other than books, and enough cigarettes to feed his habit. Like many things, I never asked him about his lack of need for things.

...Why keep hanging on to things that never stay things that just keep stringin' us along from day to day...

For me, it’s an acquired taste. Okay, that’s not really true. I have no taste for it. I still want things. It’s just that my tastes far exceed what’s in my wallet, so if I can’t beat it, might as well pretend it doesn’t exist.

...All these impermanent things Present yet elusive passive yet abusive Tearing out the heart in utter silence...

I’m in class, pontificating to a class, in one of the many cities I’ve lived. I’m sharing my theory that once you pay for a car which has everything you can reasonably need, paying for anything extra is wrong, even immoral. A student whose parents own a Mercedes, who in my self-righteousness I have failed to notice is feeling uncomfortable, raises her hand. I call on her and she asks “Do you apply the same standard to yourself when you buy things you can afford?”.

I’m silent.

...All these impermanent things Well they point in all directions like secondhand reflections...

My father was from the Bronx. Maybe that’s why he was as blue-collar as they get. When he bought his last car, they had to special order it. You see, nobody else was insisting that they wanted a car without electric windows. He could the windows on his own, thank you very much.

...All these impermanent things Well they're trying to convince me baptize my soul and rinse me...

As soon as I got the new phone, I knew it was holding me, rather than the reverse. It was shiny, and thin and new. Maybe even the latest model. And it was mine. All mine.

...Purge my mind of honesty and fire...

What else, and more importantly, who else, do I treat like things? Do I buy sefarim to draw closer to God, or the sefarim another possession I want to own? Maybe it’s God who I wish to possess, as if this is an area where I can have what others want. I can philosophize it and talk of Buber’s I-It, but that just pushes it off, as if it’s just an idea, and not something deeper. Something more concerning.

...All these impermanent things Well they all add up to zero they make-believe that they're my hero Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires...

There’s another approach. One that doesn’t involve fighting what I might not be able to change. One that accepts it, somehow channeling it into good. With this path the doubt dissipates as I recognize that it’s not just others that I treat as an object. In letting go of the need to possess things, might I find myself?