PURIM and What Comes After

It is a strange and exhilarating thing to have a secret identity. Scary, yes, but quite exciting. It is also deceitful, deceptive and, at times, duplicitous. I know all this, of course, so I decided to stop writing, hoping to put aside all the controversy that my writing begat–both personally and otherwise–and to focus on my Congregants and my family, all the while hoping, as I have all this time, that the doubts and convictions originating from my exposure to once-heretical thoughts would, if not disappear, then surely wane as I put my energies and efforts into a whole new set of endeavors. In this regard, as expected, I failed.
Fall became Winter and I continued apace, expecting that my ceasing to write and engaging with the Jewish Blogosphere would enable me to walk away, to put aside the critical questions that must be asked of an Orthodox Rabbi who is no longer Orthodox, of a Rabbi who is Orthoprax and who exhorts his Congregants—his family and friends—to behave and believe and follow a creed that has the ring of falsehood and the clear markings of an elaborate sham, one that I am perpetuating on a daily basis.
What drove me to write again, I think, was the advent of Purim. Purim is the time, maybe our only time as Observant Jews, to cut back, to completely and totally give ourselves over in celebration of something that is in a sense secular; that is, it is not a “miracle” or a completion of a ritual but a rescue from physical destruction, celebrated like the mere mortals we are: with food, drink and family. Indeed, even the donning of costumes,  our faces hidden while our actions depict our true natures, is uplifting, as we recognize the cognitive dissonance that is the backbone of our daily religious experience. And so I am writing again, chronicling my daily experiences as I try to navigate the uncertain currents of an agnostic in the space of true believers. But, if there is any lesson from Purim, however trite and cliche, maybe it is that we are all wearing masks, to some degree or another and, when it is incumbent upon us, we only need the courage of conviction to peak underneath.

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My Yom Kippur Speech

Below is the speech I would like to give this Yom Kippur, but cannot, at least to my congregation.

We end Yom Kippur and for many a highlight of the day, by proclaiming “Ado-nai Who haElo-him”. Many question how can those of us who don’t believe in God, either rejecting the notion of God in its entirety or those who merely don’t see a reason to accept God, can lead moral and ethical lives. In reality, I think that same question needs to be reversed and asked of those who do believe in God.

God – what is it? We all recognize that God is a non-corporal, and therefore an other worldly being(?) or thing. Rambam concedes that we will never be able to grasp what God is. From our perspective, God is nothing and everything. We live in a physical world with its natural constraints, with the ability to see or at least understand physical – worldly – things. God is none of these. God tells Moses he can never been seen, never fully understood, never knowable.

This view is borne out by those who profess belief in God. There is no single item regarding God that any of the various religions can agree upon (other than we can’t know God). As Jews we have witnessed those who kill us in the name of God. We, in turn, have also waged war (in some instances defensive) on behalf of our belief that God gave us – us and only us- the promised land. On the other hand, other religions, Christianity and Islam (and earlier religions), have done the same on behalf of their view of God. In other words, God is whatever we want God to be. So God is everything. That is, God can be and has been understood in mutually conflicting ways. If God is everything he is then Nothing.

How can we ask atheists or agnostics, “if you don’t have God where is your moral compass?” Where is the believer’s moral compass? God? If God’s word is fully subjective where is God? What is a God that means Nothing?

The Torah begins that our world was Nothing. A very apt beginning.

Those who don’t place their belief in God, have instead fixed moral and ethical compasses, whether it be the view that society can dictate these ideals or other views of morality, these are subject to not the review of Nothing but something verifiable. Something tangible, the opposite of Nothing.

In removing our moral and ethical beliefs from Nothing, we, as people have progressed. We have abolished slavery, placed women and minorities on equal footing with the majority, and no longer sanction the wonton killing of innocents. We have learned that genocide, even when demanded by God, is wrong. We have even established rules governing conflict and the laws of war. While one can and should note the deficiencies in our progress, this forces us to continue our path of improving ourselves. These improvements come not from Nothing but from something, our ever evolving notions of right and wrong, of justice, of ensuring that good is being done. This process is determined not by appealing to God but instead of continuing to work towards a common goal of improvement. Of course, continuous improvement, never being satisfied with where one is, is reflected in Yom Kippur, a yearly holiday which forces us to come to grips with our own shortcomings and attempt to improve upon them.

So we reach the end of Yom Kippur, our holiest days. On this day, the day for which supersedes the Shabbos – the day which reminds of creation, of Nothingness – let us loudly proclaim that God he is King but let us move beyond the God of Nothing and instead turn God into Something. We needn’t rely upon our primitive notions of God and that of religion to improve ourselves so that we can lead moral and ethical lives. We need Something. Ado-nai Who haElo-him.

Posted in High Holidays | 32 Comments

Rituals

First, I want to apologize for not responding to the various comments of late. As you can imagine, this time of year is an especially busy one for me. Preparing the myriad of derashosh, arranging for shofar for those who are unable to make it to shul, answering questions (although a three day Yom Tov is not that uncommon, it seems that many still require refresher courses as to what one is permitted to do in preparation for Shabbos), etc., etc. I hope to respond to some of the comments when I have a chance.
Second, I wanted to address something that was raised a while back, regarding ritual. The question was essentially, what meaning or purpose does an Orthoprax person find in Jewish ritual? For me at least, this time of year is illustrative of what I find meaningful. I love the various simanim, the apple and/or the bread in the honey, the various fruits and vegetables that many eat to symbolize a good year. The childlike enjoyment that we take from these things is thrilling. Sure, I don’t think that eating or foregoing these will truly affect my year, but so what – everyone sitting around waiting for the next item, relishing in the tastes is fun. The new fruit. Every year we try to eat something that we have never had before. Not for halakhic reasons but because it is truly new. When we make the Shechiyanu, we feel renewed but symbolically and materialistically. The shofar. It is our one attempt at including musical instruments in our services. The solemnity of the moment when are all standing, standing quietly, listening intently to hear the notes of the shofar is an amazing moment. The collective relief when the last shofar blast is sounded and everyone can relax a bit, we are released from the moment.
Tashlich, the act of throwing away our baggage, while simplistic is an important lesson is personal growth – to move on sometimes we have to let go. I especially enjoy my children’s reactions to these rituals. They really like them, they can relate to them in a way that others such as prayer and the like are harder to access. Everyone understands sweet foods make for a sweet year or, similarly new fruits are symbolic of newness, and, what a “new” year means. Who wouldn’t want to throw away their sins and start with a new slate (although there are other reasons for tashlich the most common reason is a purification process). Putting a talis or shaking a luluv are harder to related to. That is not to say easy access is the sole value of a ritual, indeed, too easy and one risks boredom and becoming clichéd. These rituals appear to strike a nice balance.
Additionally, I appreciate that during this time of introspection, we focus not only on methods of improving oneself spiritually, but there is an emphasis on interpersonal relationships. For me, that is especially meaningful. We don’t abandon our fellow-man to attain higher spiritual bliss, but instead, improving, fixing, reconciling with others is the mantra of these days. A very universalistic approach.
As I need to return to my regularly scheduled duties, I will sign off for now – to all, a happy and healthy New Year and enjoy those rituals.

Posted in High Holidays | 11 Comments

Back To School

School is almost upon us. With the start of school I can expect that I will inevitably get a call from one, or more, of my congregants – indeed, I too have this issue – that one of my kids’ teachers will be someone who espouses some rather right wing philosophy. It may be in the form of some Midrash or some Halacha or some new and ill conceived Chumrah or interpretation, but whatever it may be, one can pretty much count on it happening. In part, this is due to the fact that most of the religious teachers in Jewish day schools are right wing. The left wing hasn’t really produced teachers in the same numbers. But, the question is, does it matter? That is, how important is it that the teachers espouse the same views as me or any other parent?

Of course, I don’t really expect a teacher in a religious day school to espouse agnosticism, atheism or the like. But what I do hope to be taught (and I imagine many others do as well) is a more balanced view of Judaism, a view of Judaism that incorporates our long history of willingness to adapt and to change, to integrate and be productive member of society at large, all the while remaining Jewish. So I am troubled when my child comes home and recounts that the teacher said, “Goyim aren’t as smart as Jews” or “if a Goy has the opportunity they will kill us” (generally referring to our non-Jewish neighbors as “goyim” while I understand it can be understood as a literal translation, always seemed to be rooted in something more, something sinister and derogatory, and to this day that word is ill at ease on my tongue) or comments along the lines of R. Orlofsky’s recent comments regarding the Modern Orthodox. And, to be honest, I fail to see what the surprise here is, what all the chirping in the blogosphere has been about. I heard similar comments throughout my time in Yeshiva and beyond from many rabbis, including Orlofsky, so the fact that he was caught on tape saying something he always said is not really a big deal. Hearing his voice again for the first time in years, I was struck by how coarse and unfunny he is, and I wondered why I thought him so hilarious so many years ago.

While all these comments are troubling and should never be condoned, is there harm to the child? I would argue that the harm is less than we perceive. In looking back on my own school years it seems to me that while it may be the case some people are influenced by these comments, parents can provide the necessary counterpoint to such comments – not by raising a stink each time but by giving their children something more.

Let me explain. During elementary and high school, a significant percentage of children don’t really respect their Jewish teachers. Sure there are a few exceptions, but think about most of your Rebbim. Most weren’t people you wanted to grow up to be, not in the true sense of the phrase. Think back to your own school experience, is there anyone you can remember today that you really wanted to be like, that you were really were influenced by? There is one important caveat, the post-high school gap year(s). During that time, perhaps due to the conflation of age and place (it is especially common if one is studying in Israel), these teachers are ones that, to a much greater degree, a tremendous influence on their students and their students do say I want to grow up and be like them. Thus, you get kids who “flip-out” during that time and do take what these teachers have to say seriously. That said, by and large, this fervor doesn’t last. For some it extends for the year in Israel, sometimes for a year or two of college, for some even through their twenties, but by the time they hit their late twenties early thirties, their year in Israel and their teachers philosophy is long gone. (Note, however, that if one gets married shortly after the “flip out” period, this analysis is less likely to hold. I will explore that in more detail in a later post.) Is this just due to the time break? No. It is due to maturity. In part, (one hopes) that the impressionable 19 year old has grown up, started working, interacting with more people, has a family perhaps; in a word – the child has become a grown-up. Sure, not everyone will do this, but then again, not everyone can be serious enough about themselves to look at their Judaism, their beliefs, their being, in an objective manner that is what “grown up” means to me. This objectivity, the ability to analyze and challenge ideas, is the key to ensuring one’s children as well as each of us can fully grow up.

How did I get where I am? I did so because I refuse to be passive about what I am doing and who I am, and that, for better or for worse, lead me to reexamine everything. To be perfectly honest, that was not always fun. It’s no fun having to examine my own character flaws and then figure out how I am going to deal with them, how I am going to improve, what I am going to change. But a grown-up cannot merely sweep things under the rug hoping that someone else will deal with these problems. These problems are my own.

Belief is no different. Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur all force us to take stock of who we are. These aren’t merely holidays to demonstrate that we can force ourselves to stand the entire davening or fast for 25 hours; they are times that we need to reexamine who we are. Thus, to return to the school issue, sure it is offensive for my child to come home and relate some things he heard in school, but I have faith that when he is mature enough to understand and examine who he is and what is important to him, he will reject those statements and ones like them. I realize that individual statements by my child’s teachers won’t make or break them. Instead, I focus on teaching critical thinking, realizing that it is a good thing to take a step back and really think about something. Don’t accept just what one is told, you need to find out for yourself. I have gotten to where I am because of these ideas and I hope with the complete faith of a believer that my children will as well.

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Identity

A lot of discussion of late has centered on identity. Identity, of course, is not only about how we identify ourselves but how others identify us. When we are younger and more versatile, we are able to shift identities, to be become who we want when we want, with an impunity and impetuousness that is a trademark of the young. As we get older, however, our sense of self coalesces around a concept, a thought and an idea, of what we are and who we are. For the most part, that is then how we present ourselves to the wider world.

But what happens if something changes? What if that all-to-subtle shift occurs that flips the analysis, which undermines the foundation of identity built up painstakingly and with great care for all those years? What is supposed to happen then? Do we expect that person to keep up the façade? To continue to act as if all that came before is the current reality? For some, the cognitive dissonance becomes too great, and the foundation, their identity, crumbles unceremoniously, and their understanding of their self collapses along with it.

I am an orthoprax rabbi of a modern orthodox shul. I have a lovely wife, beautiful children and a warm and welcoming congregation. Are these all not part of my identity? Who is to say what is more important, my actions or my beliefs? Plainly, I do not believe what my congregants do, and I go through the motions doubting the whole way through. But as I read some of the rather aggressive and strained apologetics regarding the historical accuracy of the Torah and the extraordinary attempts to explain away the obvious; as I see others take the incredibly unusual position of defending orthodoxy and the second-class standing within the same, I am struck how some identities are so tethered to that world, so mired in its muck and minutia that they seem incapable of understanding life without it. And I, having come to the opposite conclusions, find that much like others, I am still anchored to the world of orthodoxy, my identities too intertwined to break free, my lie and life choices forcing me to stay on board.

And so I speak on Shabbos, I make kiddush in shul, I daven for the ummad. I do all those things because identity, at least for me, has become a prison. But as I look out into the faces of my congregants, when I see them radiant after shul or after a thought-provoking drasha, I am disheartened yet fortified anew in my role as a rabbi, and my search continues for an identity within that hallowed title.

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Who Cares

Who Cares
So there has been much ado about the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) having a woman lead Kabbalas Shabbos. In a pithy phrase of many wise men, who cares? HIR is a modern Orthodox shul in the way that the phrase used to mean; in the way that moniker was embraced by those accepting the challenges and complexities that come with living in the modern age. HIR is the same institution that famously ordained a rabba (woman rabbi with a different name). So, if Cross-Currents and Rabbi Adelstein get all worked up and trot out a bunch of right wingers and classic right-wing arguments using the same reductive and faulty analysis that continues to lead them astray, who cares? Would they ever go to HIR? What is Cross-Currents going to do, threaten them with a non-existent cherem? Have Avi Shafran write another inane apologia in The New York Times explaining as only he could how a woman davening for the ammud for a portion on Friday night presents a clear and present danger to the future of Orthodox Judaism? No, as certain as someone from New York acting more frum in order to marry off their daughter, they are going to yell and scream “the world is coming to end, the end of orthodoxy is nigh” and in a week the world will, surprisingly enough, still be here and Cross-Currents will have moved on to arguing that a convicted murderer should have his life spared solely because he is Jewish.

Moreover, it’s Kabbalas Shabbos people. Kabbalas Shabbos itself is a rather recent innovation, and presumably that too runs afoul of the inane trope “chadash assur min haTorah.” So that innovation is OK, but to have a woman participate more meaningfully in Kabbalas Shabbos is beyond the pale? As Dovbear and Gideon Slifkin have aptly demonstrated—and anyone with a hint of curiosity or desire to understand our religion and our rituals could just as easily discover—the entire composition of Kabbalas Shabbos is an innovation, and some of the same are hymns to Baal, which is more than somewhat noteworthy.

Do the people who write for Cross-Currents (and similar sites) ever go to HIR? If someone came into to one of their shuls and did something that was more halalchically observant but was new and innovative, would they mind and shout and object? Or would they rush to slavishly follow the stringency du jour in order to demonstrate their charedi bonifides, without a care or concern for the all-important, Why? Do the protectors of Orthodox virtue at Cross-Currents remember that each rabbi has the right to govern his shul as he sees fit? (See Shu’t Rivash no. 271). Each rabbi is allowed to make halachic decisions for their own congregation, and that is precisely what happened here. HIR and R. Weiss aren’t telling Lakewood to have a woman lead Kabbalas Shabbos, so why should anyone else care? Of course, the standard argument – “it is a breach in the walls of Orthodoxy; this is merely the first step in allowing gender equality in Judaism.” First, what’s so terrible about gender equality within halalchically permitted bounds? Second, just about everything has been decried using the same argument. Bat Mitzvahs seem to have worked out ok, even though they were started by R. Kaplan. So women participate a bit more. Who cares?

Something that is worth noting is the recent proclamation that demonstrates an attitude shift regarding homosexuals. An incredibly powerful document, it demonstrated a sea change in the approach of orthodoxy towards the issue of homosexuality in our community and demonstrates quite clearly that we can be more accepting of homosexuals while still maintaining the strictures of halacha. Much like Orthopraxy and its adherents, we can be understanding and aware while still being in touch with ourselves, and not shut out our convoluted nature and the ability to change that defines our existence.

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Speed Reading?

My first rabbinic position was as an assistant rabbi. I started during the summer, right around now, during the post Tisha’Bav lull. I was a newly minted rabbi and was joining an established shul, whose rabbi had been in that position for nearly 20 years. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous how I would fit in with both the community as well as the rabbi.

My first week there coincided with the rabbi’s vacation, so I settled in slowly. I began drawing up potential classes, meeting with congregants, and getting to know the shul better. I hoped that by the time the rabbi returned I would have something to show for my having started while he was away. When the rabbi returned he called me into his office. We chatted for a bit, how the housing was working out, which people I had met, etc. When I interviewed for the position, I found the rabbi a bit cold, distant and ponderous, although I knew his congregants loved him. Now, meeting him as his assistant I found that my initial impression was off. He was very friendly and gregarious and with a smile shared his vast institutional knowledge with me. We must have talked for over an hour about the shul and his experience there. At the end of the conversation he said, “[T]here is one more thing I would like to discuss.” I was a bit nervous as to what this would be and hoped he hadn’t heard anything negative in my short time at the shul. I shouldn’t have worried. The rabbi explained that he wanted to offer me the opportunity to daven Mussaf for the shul on the second day of Rosh ha-Shana. I was flattered that he would ask me to do so, especially as I had started less than a month before his offer. The rabbi explained that when he came to the shul some 20 years earlier, his first major duty was to lead the Rosh ha-Shana teffilos, and he was extending to me the same honor. I was euphoric and ecstatic, and I look back now at that moment of pure and unbridled joy as one of naiveté, but also longing, knowing that those feelings and emotions were both misplaced and of incredible importance, and I recognize they are not coming back.

I went home, almost running the whole way, to tell my wife the good news. Being that leading the teffilos was a coming out party of sorts for me, I immediately began practicing. I got tapes of various chazzanim and spent hours each day memorizing the tunes. I recorded myself so that I could hear how I sounded. As it got closer and closer to Rosh ha-Shana, I became more and more apprehensive, viewing this, perhaps unfairly, as a make or break opportunity. My wife was enlisted to listen to Mussaf, over and over again. I had a friend in Yeshiva who was something of a Chazzan, and we spent time on the phone going over each tune I intended on using. In the end, I knew the entire Mussaf by heart, no small feat.

Finally, the day came and I would like to think that I acquitted myself well. Although I was standing for hours I barely felt it; in fact, Mussaf felt like it was over before it began. Afterwards, the rabbi congratulated me on a job well done and noted all the preparations that had gone in to making Mussaf what it was. He particularly enjoyed the tune I used for kaddish, and I still use it today.

I was, however, surprised at the comments by the congregation. Everyone I met complemented the davening, but I was startled to discover that although each congregant focused on something different—a particular tune or tefilah—they, almost uniformly, included a variation on, “and we got out so early” or “it was so quick.” At the time I didn’t know if they were being polite – perhaps they didn’t really enjoy it and that was all they could come up with. Over time, however, I learned that my congregants weren’t sugarcoating their praise or trying to come up with at least one redeeming quality from my Mussaf. Rather, the most important factor for most everyone during the Yomim Noraim, almost uniformly, was to make sure they were home by noon. There was no inspiration to be had, no greater truth to uncover. This was simply a group of people going through the motions, doing what they have always done, stuck in neutral. They were not challenging themselves regarding their rituals and beliefs and they were certainly not embracing this spiritual opportunity for what it was; they were simply docile functionaries, doing what they have always done and passively moving from one ritual to the next, allowing the only bit of concern and effort to be expended in worrying about what was for lunch and if taking a nap will lead to a sleepy year.

Upon first being exposed to this attitude, I wrote it off to people being unable to convey what they really felt. I came to realize, of course, that for most, teffilah, even on the holiest days of our calendar, isn’t all that meaningful to those sitting to our left and to our right. It is something to get through, something to have survived, and to then tell war stories after about what time we finished and how long the break was. Davening was yet another hurdle to get past, a brief stop on our way to do what really matters. I only realized years later, after my path to Orthopraxy was well along, why this mattered so much to me, why it still matters to me. It was true, I discovered, that idealism is often defeated in its confrontation with reality.

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