Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Frum and Normal - A Reason for Hatred?

At the onset of this blog, my purpose was to vent/rant about things that annoyed me about living in a frum community for the first extended period of time in my life. Because of Ner Israel, Baltimore is naturally a bit more right-wing (religiously) than the average frum community. Therefore, it makes sense that most of my annoyances and peeves about the frum community stem from the ring-wingedness of this community. However, while as a general rule Baltimore is more right-wing, that doesn't mean there are left-wing (religiously) groups of people. To show that I am not necessarily anti the right-wing, I will discuss an issue that bothers the hell out of me regarding some within the so-called "left wing".

It seems as though there are some (and I do not intend to say that this is all, or even a majority) in the religious left-wing that express anger when their peers, who previously may have been on an equal (lower) religious observance level, become more religious and observe more mitzvos. It may very well be the case that the person, when becoming more religious, ignores or loses touch with his/her friends. This always bothered me about people becoming more frum – alienation from that which they knew before. In this case, I would agree that the friends would have what to be upset about. However, it seems that in situations where this isn’t the case (ie, the friend is not spending less time with friends), some still get upset when their friends become more passionate about their Judaism and make it a more meaningful part of their life.

This may be because to the left-winged friends usually view those more to the right of them as being “not normal”. Thus, when their friend moves a bit to the right, it would make sense that they would become less normal in the mind of the friends. Therefore, feelings of anger or discontent arise when people feel as if their friends are becoming less normal. However, a lot of times those that move a bit to the right do not become less normal. Anyone that knew me 5 years ago knows that I have definitely taken a turn to the right religiously. However, most would tell you that interpersonally I have changed little – or at least I hope. What is mind-boggling is that there are those that think that one cannot be “frum and normal” at the same time, and this in unfortunate. Just because I drink a couple of beers every once in a while doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to have chavrusas, and just because I’m on time to shul Shabbos morning doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to be an avid UMD basketball fan. Unfortunately, to some, frumkeit and “normalkeit” are two mutually exclusive things. I’m sorry that I smoke hooka here and there, yet also attach meaning to my Judaism.

Persaonlly, I think this is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger posited that individuals have cognitive dissonance when people’s thoughts and actions are not line. The classic case is of a smoker who is aware that smoking is bad for them – their thoughts (smoking is bad for you) and their actions (they are a smoker) are not in line. Festinger said that in order to alleviate this dissonance, one must either change their attitude (convincing themselves that smoking isn’t really as bad as people say it is, etc.) or their behaviors (quitting smoking). In our case, I believe these religious left-wingers with these ideas have conflicting thoughts and actions. I would like to think that they believe that doing mitzvos and attaching meaning to their Judaism is the right thing to do. However, their actions do not match this belief, as they are not interested in becoming more religious (learning more, davening, etc.) nor attaching meaning to what they do. Therefore, according to Festinger, they must change either their beliefs or actions. Obviously, since they are not interested in growing religiously (ie, changing their action), they are forced to change their attitude. Their new attitude tells them that growing religiously is not the right thing to do. Thus, when they see their friends going against this new attitude, they are upset.

This is just a theory of mine, and it could be way off base. Whatever the case, some people spend so much time focusing on how upset they are about others religious advances/demises that they miss out on the opportunity to grow themselves. I hope to see the day that becoming frummer, while staying normal, doesn’t piss people off.

Shavuos Torah #1

The following is entirely my thought and may be way off base:

On Succos we have the Succah, Lulav, Esrog, and the Daled Minim. On Pesach we have the seder and the mitzvah to eat Matzah. On Purim we have the Megillah, Shaloch Manos, etc. On Rosh Hashana we have the Shofar. On Yom Kippur, we have fasting.

If I was to ask you what tangible mitzvah there is on Shavuos, outside of the regular Yom Tov restrictions, what would you say? Sure, we have the custom to stay up all night learning. Sure, there’s the custom to eat dairy products. But neither of these are mitzvos that we can attach ourselves to during this chag. The question is: why does every other chag have a tangible mitzvah attached to it – but nothing by Shavuos? I shall offer my own thoughts.

As Jews, we like to have connections; connections with other people and connections with the chagim. For a lot of people, their connection to Pesach is the time spent with their families. For some, their connection to Rosh Hashana is introspection, and their connection to Yom Kippur is atonement. However, even if one does not have that special thing about the chag that they can tangibly call their “connection” to the chag, Chazal had built in “connections” that connects every Jew with the holiday. Whether or not one values the family time together on Pesach, they will always have the seder, the matzah, and the built in meaning. Whether or not one feels compelled for a complete atonement on Yom Kippur, they will have their fast. Each of the aforementioned mitzvos are meaningful on so many levels that there is enough inherent to that mitzvah to serve as the connection between the Jew and the chag.

So if Chazal has built in these mitzvos to serve as vehicles to our connections with the holidays, why did the neglect to here by Shavuos? I believe that what Chazal are telling us is that the holiday of Shavuos and the essence of the holiday, Torah and Limud haTorah, is not something that can be connected to easily with a tangible mitzvas hayom. It’s easy for a lackadaisical Jew to run through the motions of all of the other holidays: to run to Shabsi’s to buy a Lulav, hit up minyan and space out during Megillah and moan and complain about fasting on Yom Kippur. While many, many Jews have proper intentions for the aforementioned mitzvos, it is plausible to just run through the motions and fulfill them, albeit with no meaning.

This cannot be said about the essence of Shavuos – Limud haTorah. Learning isn’t something you can just run to Shabsi’s, buy a sefer, and fulfill your obligation of Limud haTorah just by buying that book. Learning is something we make sacrifices for. Sure, it would be great to have every evening available to jump to every social gathering that comes up. When you enter the college world, the married world, or the work world, life is crazy. We’re involved in so many committees, classes, and other obligations, that it’s easy to say that it’s too tough to set up a regular time to learn. But let’s be honest – learning is the type of thing that’s tough to “get around to” – one must be kovea itim (establish fixed times) for learning. Being kovea itim is a huge sacrifice because you aren’t just saying that you can’t go out tonight, but you’re saying that during these days during these hours, I’m off limits, I can’t do anything. It's for this reason that is one of the only questions that Gd asks us when we go to heaven ("Were you Kovea Itim?"). Shavuos comes to teach us that Limud haTorah isn’t something you can just go through the motions to do. The “going through the motions” Jew probably doesn’t learn all that much – and Chazal, by not giving us a tangible mitzvah to serve as a vehicle to connecting to the chag is telling us that certain things in life are worth making sacrifices for. Hopefully, this mindset is one that will permeate all mitzvos that we do.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

They would've wanted me to....

A couple of days ago, the mother of Orioles right-fielder Jay Gibbons died unexpectedly. The passing of a loved one is obviously a very sad time - especially when it is one's parent. However, what astonished me was the fact that the very next day Gibbons was in uniform, back with the team. This case was not an aberration, as we often hear of athletes' loved ones passing and the player is back with the team in a ridiculously short amount of time. Time and time again we hear the athlete say, "It is what they would've wanted" or, "he/she wouldn't have had it any other way".

Personally, I think it's ridiculous. There is a loss that is felt whenever someone near passes on. To just jump back in the regular routine the next day is side-stepping the natural course of grieving, and one that could potentially cause the person to have trouble coping with this loss later down the road. I really doubt that any of these athletes had conversations with their loved ones before they passed detailing how long they would miss from "the game". Therefore, their guess as to what they would've wanted is just that, a guess. And, on top of that, you're depriving yourself of a very important time of mourning.

Of course, in Judaism, we have a very detailed outline for this grieving process. The process lasts almost a full year with a gradual tapering of the mourning practices. This, I believe, is the healthy way to do things. To continue to mourn and remember for a lengthy period of time, while gradually moving back in to the regular rigors of a job and family. I was happy to see that upon Larry Hughes' brother's passing a couple weeks back, he didn't pull the whole "he would've wanted me to" shtick. Hughes, a key contributor for the Cavaliers, missed 4 games of a hotly contested 2nd-round matchup against the Detroit Pistons. Hughes realized that his brother was very important to him and someone that deserved a period of remembrance and reflection. Don't tell me that coming back the next night is the what they wanted; more than probably, you're lying to us, to them, and more importantly, to themselves.

They would've wanted me to....

A couple of days ago, the mother of Orioles right-fielder Jay Gibbons died unexpectedly. The passing of a loved one is obviously a very sad time - especially when it is one's parent. However, what astonished me was the fact that the very next day Gibbons was in uniform, back with the team. This case was not an aberration, as we often hear of athletes' loved ones passing and the player is back with the team in a ridiculously short amount of time. Time and time again we hear the athlete say, "It is what they would've wanted" or, "he/she wouldn't have had it any other way".

Personally, I think it's ridiculous. There is a loss that is felt whenever someone near passes on. To just jump back in the regular routine the next day is side-stepping the natural course of grieving, and one that could potentially cause the person to have trouble coping with this loss later down the road. I really doubt that any of these athletes had conversations with their loved ones before they passed detailing how long they would miss from "the game". Therefore, their guess as to what they would've wanted is just that, a guess. And, on top of that, you're depriving yourself of a very important time of mourning.

Of course, in Judaism, we have a very detailed outline for this grieving process. The process lasts almost a full year with a gradual tapering of the mourning practices. This, I believe, is the healthy way to do things. To continue to mourn and remember for a lengthy period of time, while gradually moving back in to the regular rigors of a job and family.

I was happy to see that upon Larry Hughes' brother's passing a couple weeks back, he didn't pull the whole "he would've wanted me to" shtick. Hughes, a key contributor for the Cavaliers, missed 4 games of a hotly contested 2nd-round matchup against the Detroit Pistons. Hughes realized that his brother was very important to him and someone that deserved a period of remembrance and reflection. Don't tell me that coming back the next night is the what they wanted; more than probably, you're lying to us, to them, and more importantly, to themselves.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Parshas Bamidbar

Sefer Bamidbar opens with the organizing of the Jewish people into Machanos, camps. Four camps were organized with tribes of similar natures grouped together. The midrashim tell how each camp had its own flag and color scheme and in fact, almost their own culture.

What was the purpose for this restructuring? Some commentators suggest that the benefits of dividing into camps appeared to be based both on functionality and military/security concerns. Arranging all the tradesmen together, for example, would allow the optimal amount of development in that field. Also, as a defensive strategy, organizing into groups would allow them to best protect the weaker tribes and prevent a more severe massacre should they be attacked.

R' Yaakov Kaminetsky, in his Emes L'Yaakov, asks: if there was a utility for having the camps arranged as such, why did they wait until now to do it if the benefits could be reaped now? They had already been out of Mitzrayim for 2 years! Moshe should've stratified after the exiting of Mitzrayim, or by the splitting of the sea - why the wait?

Answers R' Yaakov - splitting the nation into groups with their own flag and cultures inevitably bred a bit of strife and plants tiny seeds of rift between the groups. Sure, they're still Am Yisrael, fighting for the same goal, but divisions inevitably lead to, at least, a small amout of dissention. This potential strife would be a detriment to keeping Klal Yisroel a Klal of Achdus, and probably, a klal at all. Chronologically, at this time, they were just finishing up the building of the Mishkan - the ultimate tool for establishing Avodas Hashem. The Jews had to wait before dividing so that they could lay the foundation for Avodas Hashem and Ahavas Hashem - tools, that if not in hand, would lead to the aforementioned strife and dissention. Only when the foundation was layed by the Mishkan was the Klal strong enough to stratify. Had they divided immeditely after Yetzias Mitzrayim, there would've been benefits to Am Yisrael; it's just that the detriments would've been more than any potential benefit.

The practical applications of this are far reaching. When we construct a building we first need a very strong foundation. If you try to build on something without a foundation or with a weak one, it will only be a matter of time before your building will come crashing to the ground. The same should be said by many things in life. Obviously, when becoming frum (or frummer), there is a step-by-step procedure that should be followed to make sure that each new thing taken on is being built on a strong religious foundation. Before getting married, one needs to make sure that the foundations in themselves are fortified before trying to give to another. Marriage doesn't build these foundations for you - it is only the next step after establishing yourself. Next, before going into the work world it makes sense to have that college experience not only knowing the material relevent to that field, but also, of knowing who you are.

Most things we deal with in life are cumulative - they build on something that has been done before. If we ignore what has happened previous and refuse to use life experiences to build our foundations, our buildings that we will try to build along the road will crash. Life's a long process - just take it one step at a time.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Shout Out

Gil posted about the gemara in Gittin which discusses the death of titus by mosquito. I must admit, this topic interests me more and more every time I hear about it.

In the third paragraph, he writes:

"In the latest issue of Derech HaTeva, a journal of Torah and science published by Stern College (under the guidance of Dr. Harvey Babich), Rachel Rechthand surveys the views about Titus' death (I assume she ommitted the Me'or Einayim out of piety) and suggests that he died of a brain tumor. Summarizing articles from the past 15 years, she concludes that the causes of death from various ancient sources, including the Gemara, are all consistent with a brain tumor. And Titus' activities after developing this tumor are not inconsistent with that diagnosis."

Oh yeah, I married her sister. If you have access to this journal, I would recommend reading the article - she is a real tzadeikes and a Bas Torah whose love for Torah is to be emulated.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

And I Proudly Stand Up...

All too often do we hear about horrific things happening to Jews/Jewish places in Europe. Whether the defacing of headstones at a Jewish cemetery, or stabbings of Jews in Russia, one cannot help but think of pre-war Europe. The violence hits home a bit more knowing that it is affecting fellow Jews, but lets be honest - these events fade in our memory to a degree with time. Living here in America, where we do not face the blatant religious persecution, we become complacent with our situation.

Whether we realize it or not, we have it pretty good here in America. We are thriving. Jews are at the top of their fields, whether it be in medicine, academia, entertainment, or politics. Sure, certain newspapers and publications are more or less pro-Israel than others, but on a personal level we do not feel outright, constant, blatant persecution that is present at times in other parts of the world.

There is a blessing that is said in some shuls, basically blessing the president, vice-president and the entire government. Some shuls say it, some shuls don't. Yes, the government does things that I don't agree with. With the president's approval rating at an all-time low, people are clearly unhappy with decisions being made. Some hate the president so much that they would even coin him, "evil". Regardless of our views on the president, his staff, or the entire government, we are privileged to live here.

This prayer is often grouped together with the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel and the prayer for the IDF. Some shuls say these, some shuls don't. Regardless of a shul's stance on Israel and whether they say the Israel prayers, I believe every shul should say the prayer for the American government- and among those that say it, this prayer shouldn't just be the time to catch up with your buddies. The Aruch haShulchan in his introduction to Chosen Mishpat essentially says that regardless of the political views of the president and his government, the economical decisions that can hit the wallet hard (my addition)- we have to give thanks to the fact that we live in a place without religious persecution. We bless them that they should be healthy and prosperous, for if not, who knows what type of regime will come into power and what the situation will be for the Jews.

It's ridiculous to think that you are more frum for davening at shul that doesn't say this bracha. On the other hand, you aren't less frum or less zionistic for davening at a shul that does. The Aruch haShulchan was a pretty frum dude, and apparently he felt it was a good idea.

Monday, May 22, 2006

How did you find me?

My new theory is that you can tell how well-rounded a person is based on what Google searches found their blog. Below are a couple google searches that linked to my page within the last couple of days - hopefully proving that I'm a good mix of Torah, community, music, and alcohol.
  • "matisyahu religious hfstival Saturday"
  • "powerade alcohol"
  • "baal Teshuva struggles"
  • "Maimonides school's recent troubles"
  • "chatas olah"
  • "Sameach Tisamach"

I promise to get back to the blasphemous juicy stuff within the next couple of days.

How did they find you?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Marching to the Beat

After just coming back from a Lechaim filled with singing and dancing, I realized a disturbing phenomenon among frum Jews: the inability to be able to keep a steady tempo during the length of a song (I am not claiming this only happens by frum Jews - it may be by humans in general). For whatever reason, there is a tendency to speed things up; sometimes to the point where the ending tempo is 2-3X the original tempo.

Case in point (#1): I am leading davening last Friday night at a local shul, and by "Lo Savoshi" I change the tune to the classic "Bum buna da bump, bum buna da bump..." tune. For whatever reason, the tune just keeps getting faster and faster. I decide that in order to keep the tune to a respectable tempo, I will bang on the bimah to dictate the tempo. Yeah, that didn't work.

Case in point (#2): I am dancing at a lechaim and am excited that someone brings a guitar. I figure that the guitar will be able to keep the tempo steady. For whatever reason, the masses overpower the guitar and what is supposed to be a moderately upbeat niggun turns into a 100m sprint.

We are blessed with many beautiful voices within the frum world/community. If only we were blessed with the ability to keep a tempo. Hashem Yeracheim.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

No Time to Digest

I was recently reviewing the laws of Bentching with a chavrusa, and reviewed the opinion that the Mishna Berura quotes as saying that for someone who fears G-d, a kippa is not enough, and that one should wear a hat and jacket while bentsching. I realized when reading this that this is the makor for the commonplace custom to put on a hat and jacket when bentsching. However, I was a bit taken aback when I was asked by my chavrusa, "So, are you going to wear a hat now?" It turns out I misunderstood his question, but it made me realize that some people really do read something once and completely change the way they've been doing things for X number of years based on one source.

I believe this phenonenon happens more in Baalei Teshuva than in mainstreamers. This is understandable, as BT's are in a process of changing the way they lived their lives. So, when they see a reputable source, such as the Mishna Berura, telling them that G-d fearing people wear a hat and jacket during bentsching (note: this is just an example - I can think of others as well), they will be more prone to going out to the Hattery and getting a new Borsalino (with a short brim, of course). However, there are a few things they forget to consider:
  • There may be dissenting opinions
  • Something about the "change in the times" may effect practicality
  • There is a bit of a hock whether or not the MB is actually a "halacha" sefer

Without taking a look at what Rishonim, Achronim, and contemporaries say, one may change the way they do things, when it is actually not appropriate and/or necessary.

But let's just pretend that there are no dissenting opinions, it still applies today, and you view the MB exclusively as a halachic work. That's still not enough for me to change the way I do things. I would never change the way I live or act after reading something in a 45-minute chavrusa. OK - it's one thing if you didn't know that eating pig was forbidden, and then you read the Torah saying that it is - I understand. But for me to read the MB quote a source giving advice (and not obliging us to) to wear a hat/jacket and then go ahead and do it? I think it shows instability. I believe that if there were major, glaring flaws in the way that I practice yiddishkeit, someone would've told me by now. And sure, I have my religious quirks, but all minhagim that I have are shared by others.

As I have said time and time again, the purpose of Kiruv and the goal of BT's should be to mainstream people. Institutions need to speak out against the "read it once, gotta do it!" phenonmenon, or BT's will continue to be a sect within Judaism instead of part of the Klal.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Note to College Grads

I know a good amount of those that read this blog are still in college, and some of you may be graduating here soon - barring any disastrous finals. College students tend to live their lives in a bubble, and realizing this bubble is going to burse (AKA graduation) can be a very sad, scary realization. Being that I graduated and have been in the working world for about a year, I feel I can offer a couple notes of advice/what to expect/what to look forward to in your post-college lives.

  • Work isn't so bad - There's definitely something to be said for the fact that there's no homework when you're in the work-force. Assuming you're not going to graduate school right away or that you aren't studying for any certifications, it is an amazing feeling being able to leave work and totally forget about it until the next morning. Yes, not all of us worked too hard in college, and a lot of us saved those papers until the last second - but just not having that nagging little voice in your head telling you to get around to that paper is a relief. You'll get into a routine at work and with your free-time, and it usually runs like a well oiled machine.
  • Shabbos - not spending every Shabbos binge-drinking may be a change, but overall, you'll appreciate Shabbos so much more. When in college, students spend a lot of time slacking off - so, when Shabbos comes, "not working" isn't too much of a change from the week. But when you're in the work force, you won't be sleeping, keeping in touch with friends, or doing Jewish things as much as you want to. Shabbos helps out with all of the above.
  • Note of advice - Jewish life in College Park is thrown in your face. Hillel is serving you Kosher food 5 minutes (walking) away, minyanim are right there, and so is the Beis Medrash. Whether or not you are a minyanaire or a learner or not, just being around so many Jewish people in a Jewish environment is amazing. When you join the work-force, all of these decisions are ones that you really need to talk yourself into. It's very easy to say, "I need to be at work early today, I can't go to minyan", or, "I can't learn this week because I'm too zonked from work". However, decisions to refrain from partaking in these Jewish activities can leave you feeling separated from the community. You're working all day and eating lunch with co-workers, so you're only chance for Yiddishkeit may be to wake up 40 minutes earlier and hit that minyan. When I first started working I would daven at work everyday, as I liked to get here very early and leave very early. I am much happier, however, now that I found a minyan that davens very early which still allows me to come to work relatively early and leave relatively early. Sure, you may have skipped minyan in college for any number of reasons - but at least then you would go to Hillel for lunch and still be actively involved in the community. Neglecting davening and learning may mean neglecting your Yiddishkeit for the day.

Sure, it's scary. All of those questions of "what do you want to be when you grow up" are culminating in your entrance into the work-force. Try not too think about that too much, take it day by day (by day by day - hamayvin yavin) and you'll be fine, and actually come to appreciate certain things more.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Parshas Emor

In this week's parsha we are given the time-appropriate mitzvah of Sefiras haOmer (counting the weeks between Passover and Shavuos). The pasuk says that we should count "Sheva Shevuos Temimos" or 7 "complete" weeks. Most learn out from Temimos that it needs to be a complete 7-weeks; specifically, that on Shavuos night, when the count ends, we make Kiddush after Tzeis haKochavim (at which point it is vadai lailah) and our count will therefore be complete.

However, the Medrash Rabbah suggest that when has a person fulfilled this idea of "Sheva Shavuos Temimos? He answers that this is when a person is doing the ratzon of Hashem. Interestingly, the Medrash says that it's not just the weeks that should be Temimos, but ourselves as well.

One piece of advice as to how to attain "Temimos", I believe, can also be found in this week's parsha regarding the concept of "Mumin" - or (bodily) blemishes. So, in the same parsha we have the two extremes: completeness and defectivness. One such blemish that deems a Kohein unfit for service is termed,"Sarua". Rashi explains that Sarua is when the limb of a person is larger than its counterpart (ex. having an arm that is 3 ft. long and another that is 6 ft. long).

This blemish fits in well with concept by Sefira of "Temimos". It was said over by R' Moshe's funeral that what made him great was that he was such a well-rounded person. Sure, he was a Gadol, but he wasn't just a Gadol in learning. He was a gadol in Middos, in Anivus, in Psak - in everything. Figuratively speaking, there was no limb on his body that was larger than any other.

Obviously, attaining the level of a R' Moshe is unfathomable. But, there are small people and there are large people. We're not asking you to have the body (figuratively speaking) of R' Moshe. The key is that whatever level of Yiddishkeit you are on, you should have Temimos. OK, so you're in college - it's easy to say that one doesn't have time now for davening, for learning. The goal is to strive to become a well-rounded person: someone that takes their work seriously, but their Yiddishkeit seriously as well. Or, you're in yeshiva, shtaiging 8 hours a day. It's very easy to say that you're too busy learning - no time for chesed; but, that's not the "Temimusdika" thing to do.

We're all midgets compared to R' Moshe, but the goal is to distance ourself from the blemish of Sarua and make sure that each of our Jewish limbs are the same length.

Monday, May 08, 2006

How frum are you during these 33 days?

What's very interesting to me is how people in the frum community approach minhagei aveilus (customs of mouning) during the period of Sefirah, the period of time between Pesach and Shavuos in which 24,000 students of R' Akiva died.
  • Do you go to concerts?
  • Do you only listen to recorded music?
  • Do you only listen to acapella?
  • Do you not listen to music at all?
  • Do you object if others listen to music when you're driving with them?
  • Do you shave every day?
  • Do you shave for Shabbos?

These are decisions which all of us are faced with every year; decisions which I am inevitably ambivalent about on a year-to-year basis. At the end of the day, however, I don't view these decisions as life-changing, as these decisions are based not on halacha, but on custom. I'm not one to knock Jewish customs; the concept of passing down customs from generation to generation is a fascinating and important part of the religion - we stand or sit for Kiddush based on what our parents do - how we run a seder is based on how our fathers do it- I don't bentsch because my father doesn't, etc. However, (at least to me) they are not as important as halacha.

What's interesting to me is that everyone, regardless of their position on the "minhagei sefira frumness continuum" seem to associate themselves with a rabbinic position that holds like they do. Those who are machmir min hamachmirim quote positions that say that is what they should do. But even those in the MO world (or even the non-MO world) who are on the lenient side of the continuum seem to attach themselves to opinions of the sort. If you ask someone why they shave on Erev Shabbos they will probably tell you that R' Aharon Lichtenstein says it is imperative to do so. Those who shave every day will probably quote "the Rav" who says that the period of sefira is like the "12 month" period of mourning rather than the normative opinion of "shloshim". I think that these people who are quoting these lenient opinions left and right are likely not, while not wearing tzitztis, quoting you the positions that say that you don't have to wear tzitzis during the day if you are wearing nighttime clothing. They aren't quoting the lenient opinions that say wearing a kippa is only mandatory when indoors while going bare inside. Again, people seem to attach themselves to rabbinic opinions by minhagei sefirah (custom) while not doing so by halachos.

In my mind, halacha trumps minhag any day. I think I figured out why I am so ambivalent about minhgei sefirah every year: I need to put halacha higher in my mind - therefore, I take the minhagei sefirah less seriously. While I believe anything anyone does to take a step up the ladder of Judaism (which observing minhagei sefirah is) is great, I believe it's more important for people to focus on things which are clear-cut halachos than that which is only minhag. It seems to me that during this 33-day period (or 49 days, depending on how you hold) how frum you are is based on what you do or don't do during this time, and not how frum you are with the real clear-cut halachos. Oh yeah, by the way, just joking about the not bentsching thing (I really do).

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A.K.A. Pella

I don't want to turn this blog into an advertising blog (although, for some reason, Blogger's Spam Robot thought that my blog was spam) but I must plug something. Fellow Kiddush Club member Dovi Ziffer and 7 of his buddies have recently released their first CD, titled A.K.A. Pella - A Premium Blend. The acapella CD was released in time for Sefira, a time when many refrain from listening to music, except for acapella. Most of us put up with acapella during this period because we have to, but this CD is honestly something that I will continue listening to after Sefirah ends.

With the combination of having so many guys and using the latest technology, the CD is able to sound as far away from acapella as any acapella CD has ever been. In fact, one NY/NJ store put up a sign saying that people should refrain from listening to the CD during Sefirah, as they thought it was instrumental.

The CD is a great mix of Jewish lyrics to non-Jewish tunes (ie. Gilligans Island, Heal the World, Scarborough Fair, etc.) and the range of voices among the group is amazing. Check out their website, listen to the clips, and get their CD if you like it. Email me with any questions: AlanLaz AT gmail DOT com.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Parshas Acharei Mos/Kedoshim

In parshas Kedoshim we find the mitzvah of orlah. Essentially, the first 3 years of a tree's life we do not eat its fruit (only in Eretz Yisrael); in the 4th we it may be eaten, but only in Yerushalayim, and from year 5 and on, it's all gravy baby. It is a pretty well-known idea that the mitzvah of orlah is being mesakayn (is fixing) the sin of Adam in Gan Eden. Essentially, Adam's sin was one of self-control. He had thousands of trees that he could eat from, and only one that he couldn't eat from. He was lacking the self-control to withstand the urges to eat the fruit of the Etz haDaas, and thus we have the first sin. Therefore, as a symbolic rectification, we wait before eating the fruits of a tree. But - that being said, why do we wait 3 years? Why not just 1 month or 1 year?

The pasuk by the sin of Adam states that:

וַיְצַו יְקוָק אֱלהִים עַל הָאָדָם לֵאמר מִכּל עֵץ הַגָּן אָכל תּאכֵל

"Gd commanded man saying "from all of the trees of the garden you may surely eat."

Gd then goes on, after this verse, to warn Adam against eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The Ohr haChaim haKadosh asks: How can Gd tell man that he can eat from ALL of the trees, if there was 1 tree he couldn't eat from?! The word "ALL" fundamentally means that it is not lacking. Therefore, since there was a tree in the world that man couldn't eat from, the Torah's language is faulty. What's pshat? He answers that true, right now the tree was forbidden to eat. However, once Shabbos came, the tree was no longer going to be forbidden to him, and there would've been no problem eating from it. So when the Torah uses the term "all", it is referring to Shabbos, while the prohibition of eating from the tree was before Shabbos.

The Sefer Sifsei Kohen in Parshas Emor discusses exactly what Hashem's schedule was on the day he created man (a Friday). He breaks it down hour by hour. Without going into each hour (ex. Gd molded the dirt in this hour, mixed it with water in this hour, etc.) man was created in the 9th hour. Shabbos starts in the 12th hour (shaos zmanios) on Friday. Therefore, man was created 3 hours before Shabbos started. As mentioned before, the Etz haDaas was only assur (according tot he Ohr haChaim haKadosh) before Shabbos, not on shabbos. Therefore, Adam only had to wait 3 hours and then the tree would've been permitted to him!! Therefore, the mitzvah of orlah is 3 years - one for each hour that Adam only would've needed to wait to eat from the Etz haDaas.

Clearly I am in no position to judge Adam haRishon, but basically, if he would've thought about his actions and used a little more self-control, he could've eaten from the Tree of Knowledge in 3 hours. The self-control aspect is not for now (needless to say, it is essential). However, the "thinking before we do things" aspect should be touched on briefly. We live in a day now where if we want something, we get it immediately. Want to know what the score of the Orioles score is?...just log onto ESPN.com and get it. Want to know what a word means? ....dictionary.com! If you turn on the TV, we get news as it unfolds. The closest thing I have to waiting to hear about something is not finding out Friday night if the O's won, but waiting until Shabbos morning (and waking my wife up to tell her) to read it in the newspaper. Everything is NOW NOW NOW. It's to the point where I can find out what's going on the world, check my email, send out emails, and read blogs without even thinking once about it. These are relatively trivial things. There are, however, many more things that we do in life that are much more meaningful. It's very important not to let the tendency to do things without thinking affect those decisions that mean alot. Should the thought process as to whether or not to put on Tefillin in the morning be as simple as the thought process to go check the news? Absolutely not; however, easier said than done. Let's learn from Adam haRishon that a little thought before action, combined with a little self-control (it was 3 hours!!) can have long lasting implications for the good or for the bad.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Shoresh and NCSY

I have many individuals and organizations to thank for helping me along my path in becoming a Torah Jew. Without a doubt, two organizations that helped me the most were Camp Shoresh and NCSY. I will assume for now that most of those reading this are familiar with both organizations; if not, I have linked to both.

I was recently thinking about organizations I support, both on a personal and financial level, and I realized that while I support Shoresh, I am no longer involved in NCSY. After some thinking, it became clear that while I never had an official falling out with the organization or those involved with it, there must've been some sort of progression in which my views on Kiruv and their views were no longer in line. I will try as best as possible to coherently spell out a couple of (my) perceived differences between NCSY and Shoresh, and why I no longer have a relationship with NCSY but maintain one with Shoresh. (Disclaimer: I will make generalizations which in reality, may just have been my experiences in the organizations)

Focus on the group vs. the individual

  • NCSY - Because NCSY is mainly something that has 3-4 Shabbatonim a year, there is much less time to create a cohesive a group. Therefore, the focus is much more on the individual; not to say that this is all bad. As non-frum kids gain interest in being frum, they do need this individual attention. However, my focus here is mainly on the frum kids who participate in NCSY. Because NCSY exists for the non-frum kids (I firmly believe this), the attention is given most to these kids, leaving the frum kids with less attention and supervision. These frum children are often on very rigorous day-school schedules, and an NCSY Shabbaton can be viewed by them as their "time off". We would hope that the frum kids would have a positive effect on the non-frum, but often times this isn't the case, as the non-frum kids catch the frum kids during an "off time" religiously. If someone could tell me what good NCSY does for frum kids, I'd be all ears. It should be noted here that I have heard the analogy between the Parah Adumah and NCSY - haMaven Yavin.
  • Shoresh - It could be argued: but why doesn't the same thing happen at Shoresh? I believe that it is because Shoresh does it's best to instill a sense of family (corny, yes, I know). Sure, there is individual attention given when necessary, but because of outward efforts and the fact that it is an everyday, 6-week camp, the individual feels a part of something bigger than just their personal endeavors. When the frum children are able to internalize this sense of group and of family, I believe they are less likely to view camp time as "off time", at least entirely.

Where they fall on the religious continuum

  • NCSY - I believe that NCSY falls a bit more to the right on the religious continuum than Shoresh does. At the spiritual helm of the Atlantic Seaboard region of NCSY is Rabbi Yitzchak Dinovitzer: a truly holy, learned man - a real hayliga neshama. However, there is no question that he is very frum. For me, I always viewed his level of religiosity as unattainable. I also felt that his level was unattainable, because I've never heard a step-by-step approach (which, in my opinion, is the only way to go) endorsed by NCSY. It is hard to imagine oneself attaining R' Dinovitzer's level without looking at the individual steps along the way.
  • Shoresh - At the spiritual helm of Shoresh are Rabbis David Finkelstein and Asher Stein. While I knew they were orthodox, they were people I could relate to and I never felt that I couldn't one day reach their level. Rabbi Dave's interests in baseball or it cracking jokes may cause a stir among some, but it was precisely these types of things that made him seem normal to me. Rabbi Stein and Eitan G's "Hanz and Franz" (I want to pump, YOU up) probably wouldn't go over well in a Beis Medrash, but these were things that I could relate to. Also, Shoresh openly endorses a step-by-step progression in frumkeit. They realize that just throwing a kid in a day school may turn him/her off and that a better approach is to take things one step at a time. In Shoresh, it's always about one more thing today or tomorrow, not about doing it all right now.

There are a lack of normal, mainstream Baalei Teshuvah. The bottom line is that a quick scan through my mind reveals that an overwhelming percentage of normal Baalei Teshuva that I know went through Shoresh. I believe the goal of Kiruv should be to mainstream Baalei Teshuva into normal, mainstream orthodoxy. Shoresh accomplishes goal, in my opinion, far more often than NCSY - and that is why I will continue to offer support to Shoresh, but not NCSY.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Oberservation in Shul

Going into this post, I am quite confident that my thoughts will get blasted by the oilam, and that's fine. My observation irked me, so I'm blogging about it. If you disagree, great, but I'm still free to opine.

As many people know, as a general rule, it has become the established custom (except for the Rav Soloveichik/R' Aaron Lichtenstein followers) that those who do not need to shave for work/school, refrain from doing so during whichever Sefirah period held by that individual. A noted exception to this rule happens once every couple of years, when Rosh Chodesh Iyyar falls out on Erev Shabbos. The added joy of the impending Shabbos combined with the already present joy of Rosh Chodesh, notes the Mishna Berura, is enough to permit shaving on Erev Shabbos. Yes, I am aware that this leniency is not really discussed elsewhere, and there is the opinion of R' Yehuda haChasid who forbade shaving on any Rosh Chodesh. Either way, this leniency has been accepted and endorsed by many Rabonnim and Yeshivas.

I was dismayed in shul this past Friday night when I saw how many people had not shaved for Shabbos. True, many people are lazy, forget, or hold of R' Yehuda haChasid. If these people were any of the above, then I completely understand. However, I feel as though that at least some of these people refrained from shaving as a way to show their frumkeit. "Sure, it's muttar/allowed to shave, but the frum thing to do would be to not", they must've been thinking. I'm sure their chavrusa wouldn't of thought less of them for shaving.

The problem is that people associate these outward expressions as signs of growth in Yiddiskeit, when often, there may be little to no association. I can understand wearing the black and white, or wearing a black hat; this is the established dress code for this crowd, and wearing them shows association with this hashkafa. However, by this minhag, there is no established "black hat" type of established way to do things. By choosing not to shave for religious reasons, these individuals, I believe, want to be viewed as frummer. I think, though, that at the end of the day their chumra on this minhag is at the expense of looking respectable on Shabbos.

We believe you're frum, we really do. Next go round, shave, it's the cool thing to do.