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.

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.