Shimon

I have a congregant, let’s call him Shimon. Shimon is a BT (used to be Steve). Shimon is a quality person, has a good job and a nice family. Fairly typical and clichéd, at least in my community. Shimon and his wife met in college, and at the time neither was orthodox. While in college, Shimon’s wife attended a Discovery seminar and eventually dragged Shimon along. Both were impressed by the seminar and through college and afterwards moved to becoming more and more observant. They became fully orthodox about a year before getting married and subsequently settled in our community. They now have three great kids, all of whom go to a black hat yeshiva. Because Shimon was originally attracted to orthodoxy through the Discovery seminar (I will refer to this type of material as Discovery seminar material with the realization that the Discovery seminar doesn’t have a monopoly on this understanding), he takes the authenticity of the Torah quite seriously. He needed to, he had to; the Torah’s authenticity was what had drawn him into the fold, and its centrality to his orthodoxy did not diminish over time. Of course, most orthodox take the authenticity and the supposed unchanged nature of the Torah seriously, but Shimon was incredibly taken by this concept and unlike some of us, it was ideas, and not ritual, that animated him.

During a recent parsha class, we were discussing Devarim and touched upon the idea that parts of Devarim are repititions from the rest of the Torah and some of that repetition differs from the other sources. In the class, our focus was upon the traditional commentaries and how they account for these discrepancies. Nothing earth shattering.

Shimon, however, approached me after the class. He was troubled because he had recently read that some prominent scholars and the like discount the interpretations we discussed, and instead posit that Devarim is a distinct book written by a different author than the rest of the Torah. This too is not all the earth shattering as anyone who has even the most basic understanding of the Documentary Hypothesis is aware of this position. But Shimon hadn’t heard or considered this possibility before—even as it stared him directly in the face—and it troubled him. He wanted to discuss.
Personally, while I understand and respect the traditional attempts to reconcile Devarim with the rest of the Torah, I find the arguments for a separate author more convincing. But, that isn’t the answer that Shimon wanted to hear, and Shimon isn’t alone. Moreover, I understood that this was no small issue for Shimon, as different authors or differing time periods eviscerates the entire premise of the Discovery seminar and undercuts the basis of how he is organizing his life. There are some who can be confronted with these somewhat heretical ideas and simply move on, dismissing its relevance to their lives and in their religious practice. Shimon, having committed his life to an idea now under assault, turned to me for advice.

So what to do? I explained that there are two distinct approaches, an orthodox perspective and the Documentary Hypothesis perspective, though there are multitudes in between. I laid out the reasons and arguments for each and then explained that, in reality, the two approaches are coming from entirely different angles. The orthodox approach assumes a single author – God, while the other makes no such assumption. That being the case, it is unremarkable that two entirely different conclusions are reached. This satisfied Shimon, his life and ideals and choices beginning to make sense again. With great difficulty, I restrained myself, wanting to ask him the basic question that if the orthodox position assumes God as the author, is it really all that surprising that Discovery would marshal proofs which ended up with the same conclusion as the initial assumption? That is, what is so attractive about Discovery is that it appears to be scientific, a verifiable method of showing the torah to be true. But, if the entire exercise is predicated on a false assumption, then the entire house of cards falls. Or, if they were honest, these seminars could acknowledge they are employing this assumption to reach its conclusion.

Indeed, such criticisms are appropriate not only for Discovery but to many of the interpretations that are taught throughout orthodoxy. What is amazing is that the so many can go on blissfully unaware, much as I did. For example, the well-known passage in the Gemara Kiddushin concedes that from Talmudic times, at the very least, the Torah is a flawed document. The Gemera explains that we are unsure which words should be written with or without a vav or the like. Again, this by itself may be unremarkable but it doesn’t appear to then prompt anyone to ask the obvious question regarding various proofs or the authenticity of the Torah. Or, where did the idea of keri and ketiv begin? How can we have, in some instances, one word appear in the text but when we verbalize the text an entirely different word is employed? Doesn’t this indicate a dispute regarding the text of the Torah? In our everyday lives, if someone handed you a document that was written one way but then told you when you read it aloud you insert different words, would that sound plausible? The simple answer is that there are and were conflicting texts and these are desperate and ingenious attempts to harmonize the disparate texts.

As I watched Shimon walk away, happy, secure and satisfied with all that had transpired, I was hoping he would turn back and ask, finally and simply, why? Why is there this massive repetition, much of which is not aligned with the previous version? Why are there two versions of the Ten Commandments? Why do we need a revelation, a divine, perfect, unchanging Torah? Why do we need myths and fairytales and hokum to keep us orthodox?
Discovery and Aish and similar programs will continue to peddle their wares to and fro, gathering the ignorant and the weak and the confused, preying on all that makes us frail and vulnerable, all the while gathering up souls like so much a cattle rancher. And then they come to me, to ask, to be certain, and to receive confirmation that whatever questions they are confronted with are simply small speed bumps in their long and dedicated service to Hashem. And, I give it to them, all of them, all the while hoping that they begin to question all that I have just taught them. That is my struggle.

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Magical Thinking

Magical Thinking

Loss has a hybrid quality to it. It can be intangible and physical, general and personal. In my last post I discussed a general loss, in that case the loss of the beis ha-mikdash and how we may not miss it all that much. On a personal level, my greatest loss has been, unsurprisingly, my loss of faith.

I did not start out on this journey looking to lose my faith in Hashem, in His Word, in His disciplines’ interpretations; I simply arrived there, forced to confront that which I had always feared. Words like devastating and distraught are not apt to describe the loss and despair that engulfed me upon realizing that I was most likely mistaken in how I had organized my life from for as long as I could remember.  I became a Rabbi, a pillar of the orthodox (and believing community), I aspired to be like everyone else, to be more like my colleagues.  I wanted to go to my shul and preach and convince and convey all that my congregants were all too eager to hear.  When I see my congregants -my family- when they ask me how I am, and I say “Baruch Hashem,” it is heart rendering and life affirming. My life would be far simpler if I could pretend all that I’ve learned and struggled with is simply the Yetzter Hara hoodwinking me yet again, or some inchoate need to pursue any and every taivah (as the Gemara suggests is the reason for those of us who dare to wonder). If I could do that, if I could find a lockbox for reality, then my life, my career, my family, they would all be in alignment and I would be living life without Loss.

Curiosity has never been encouraged in Orthodox Judaism. Questions are said to be approached unabashedly, with an eye towards the Torah and the  meforshim answering even the most difficult of queries. But, amid any penetrating and analytical probing with respects to tenets near and dear to heart of Orthodox Judaism, questions are quickly dismissed with an appeal to authority and to taivos nashim (I exaggerate, but not by much). When I was a child, I was ever curious. I had to know everything about everything, so I read through the encyclopedia (I got up to the letter M).  I was curious about faith and belief as well. I am not referring to the sophomoric questions regarding the conundrum of free will versus god’s omnipotence; those are the questions we would ask in High School to get our rebbi to forgo gemara. What do we believe in?  How can one have faith in something that is and always will be unknown? How do we, as believing Jews, deal with the overwhelming evidence that puts the Torah and everything that came after on the wrong side of history? Should we just have faith?  While that may very well be the truest definition of faith, it doesn’t explain why we should revere that exercise. Is faith merely a crutch to provide the answer when we can no longer point to the tangible and the verifiable or is it a leap of wonder and majesty, believing in something whose possible existence strains credulity? Is faith even a real emotion or is it more a state of mind?

Loss is not necessarily a negative emotion.  We will all experience loss in some way or another. We have relationships with finite beings and thus we will experience loss, tragic and inevitable as it is, perhaps on multiple occasions. Fortunately, as I sit today on a low chair and fast the fast of a mourner, as I think about all that has transpired (and not transpired) on this day, I keep coming back to the idea that while Loss will always be with us, we need not spend our lives Lost.

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The Temple

The Temple

The Temple. It was always referred to a beis ha-mikdash. As a Rabbi, I know my role is to mourn, to commemorate and to remind my congregants of what we lost on Tisha B’Av, and all that we have to gain upon the beis hamikdash being rebuilt. But should we yearn for its reconstruction and do the majority of orthodox Jews really understand what that would entail? Even when I was younger,  I really wanted to feel the loss but could not. After high school, when I was in Yeshiva in Israel, every Shabbos afternoon I would forego the afternoon nap and walk to the Kotel for Mincha and then study mishnayos related to beis ha-mikdash or the karbonos. I would do this every week without fail. Eventually, I even went to a Yeshiva to study Seder Kodshim. Around Yom Kippur time, I would review the avodah section of the mussaf teffilah, both the Ashkenaz and Seferad versions so I could fully appreciate the Yom Kippur service. But, when Tisha be-Av came around I could never feel truly sad about the loss of the beis ha-mikdah. I would hear stories about great rabbis who would cry over the loss of the beis ha-mikdash but never witnessed any. No matter how hard I tried, I never felt a sense of loss.

In thinking about beis ha-mikdash the question that we must ask is do any of us really want a return of the beis ha-mikdash? Do we really want to return to a time where we offer sacrifices. Think about it. You may be ok with a mincha offering of flour but do you want to kill a cow and offer it up on an alter? Would that be fulfilling? Do you want to have special classes of people, so that if you are a non-kohen you don’t sit in the same section as the kohen and levi? Forget high holiday seats, you aren’t even allowed in the same section as your friend Reuven the kohen. (See Dovbear‘s similar observation.)

Would standing around all day on Yom Kippur watching (more likely you wouldn’t see anything, and, at least according to chazal, at most you saw only a small part of the avodah), the kohen perform his duties really be satisfying? There would be no singing of piyyutim, so throw out all of your favorites and substitute sending a goat out to the wilderness and throwing it off a cliff and killing the another goat and sprinkling its blood. Then the kohen goes back to a room that no one can see all the while you are standing about, hoping and praying that the Kohen does the job correctly, all participation and autonomy stripped away and sequestered behind a wall of exclusion.

Some will say, “well the Rambam in Moreh, indicates that sacrifices will be abolished in the messianic era.” True, but our teffilos don’t seem to reflect that. We daven daily for the reinstitution of the sacrifices. Regarding the Rambam himself, his position in Yad is that karbonos will remain a central component of the service even in the messianic era. I know that there have been attempts to reconcile the two, but, again, in reality, our everyday actions, the teffilos indicate we think sacrifices will return.

Perhaps this is why most rush through the avodah section on Yom Kippur, they really don’t want that, they want the songs and the participation. I want those as well. The songs, the community all together, not seperated by kohen, levi or yisrael, all sitting together, singing, that is what makes davening, davening. But karbonos? Do we anticipate their return? How many comments have accused me of being dishonest, but are we really honest with ourselves about the beis ha-mikdash and karbonos?

The above understanding is reflected in my own speeches on Tisha be-Av. Rather than focus exclusively on the beis ha-mikdash, I focus on loss more generally. On persecution and perspective, overcoming and being overwhelmed. I speak about moral improvement, improving our interpersonal relationships, and on finding our own inner service that can connect us. Those are ideas and actions that will allow for us to become the type of people and nation we have always aspired to be—the kind of nation that world has always expected us to be—not by throwing a goat off a cliff.

Posted in Tisha be-Av | 120 Comments

Emancipation and Other Pursuits

Freedom is not a binary thing. It can be defined, but its definition need not be all-encompassing. Freedom can include as severe restrictions and unpleasant experience as there was before, but it is only the perspective that has changed. A rather simple example of this is virtually all of Sefer Shemot, where we have an emancipation of our people from slavery, only to be constrained and shackled by a new kind of slavery, our lives once again compelled and seemingly obligated to go in a certain direction, to conduct and comport ourselves according to a set of rules and strictures that bound those of us who came after to a lifestyle and a dictum that forces our conduct to go beyond all means of rationality.  And, as has been the case for some time, true freedom, of action and of perspective, eludes our grasp.

Honestly Frum made an interesting observation on my last post. He wondered, quite rightly, why it is not possible to accept there are things we don’t know and, as he put it rather bluntly “Who made Hashem? Frankly, who cares?” I think what he said and what he means is rather seductive, and it appeals to me as much as I think it appeals to him. And I could go down that road. It would be easy, understandable even, to conceal my doubts, my conclusions, my hard-fought understanding beneath a blanket of yet more uncertainty, but this is uncertainty is said to be of a benign nature, of the wonderment of that which we don’t understand. And I simply cannot do that. Not anymore. What I want for me and if I am fortunate, my son, is to be free of being forced to hope and to pray that Hashem really is out there; that I can impute Hashem into the vast uncertainty that those of us who understand confront every day. When I daven in Shul, when I get an aliyah, I stand tall and proud before the Torah, and pronounce the brachot with all the certainty that one would expect from a Rabbi. But in my heart, a place of a deep and abiding skepticism, Honestly Frum wants me fill it with wonder, or with apathy or with concealment, finding God in the proverbial details and letting the big questions skulk away in the shadow of small answers. I just can’t do it.

Emancipation did not work for the slaves; it took one hundred years until The Civil Rights Act was passed and even today, there are difficulties with that gracious and overdue act. Emancipation did not work for the Jews in Egypt either, as discussed above. What I want, desperately, for my son, is not to have to make those types of compromises and to be free, if he so chooses, to find the spirit of God or Hashem or whomever in whatever he sees around him. Emancipation doesn’t just happen because he knows who created God; it is a freedom to not have to think about that question at all.

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Tipping Point

Tipping Point

Memory is a funny thing and it is often not to be trusted. The thick cloud of history obscures the truth hidden behind that impenetrable wall of yesterday, and our thoughts and deeds and motivations become the ether and vapor we all fear will be our end as well. I was reminded of this while preparing my Drasha for Shabbos, when my son scampered into my office, bursting with enthusiasm and curiosity, with the single-minded goal of inquiring how it was possible for Hashem to have created both the Sun AND the Moon, and also to inform me that he no longer needs to listen to me because Hashem is in charge of everything and everybody, including his Abba. I smiled wanly and told him Hashem can create and do anything He wanted. Isn’t that what his Rebbe told him? He nodded enthusiastically and was on his way. He is young and unsullied, and did not yet comprehend the other obvious question: “Who made Hashem?” I long for him to ask that question to me, to see the kernel of reason and inquisitiveness that will hopefully one day lead to his emancipation. But did I tell him? Did I softly nudge him off this path? No. I kept him, like everyone else in my life, in the dark. And I die a little bit each time.

I don’t have a memory of when things suddenly became clear for me, when all my accumulated knowledge in Torah and Judaism and our way of life stopped making sense. There was no music montage of me abruptly understanding, of a Rabbi walking that lonely road when the proverbial light bulb goes on atop his head, akin to the masthead of this blog. No, it was slower than that. A death of faith from a thousand cuts of reason. But my memories, of my father answering my questions on His prowess, of doing the mitzvot and celebrating the chagim together as a family and a community, those are memories that have remained with me, memories that I cherish above almost all else, memories that have provided the colours and the contours of my life. So I do not ask my son about the origins of It all, nor do I pester him gently about what else his Rebbe said. No, I let him grow up and become part of the system, part of the process, and I watch despairingly each day, each month, each year as he grows into everything I fear he will become. Still, I am fortified by the resolve that he will make his own choices and reach his own conclusions, unaffected by some of my former colleagues who have become Rebbeim in yeshiva in Israel. And when he is ready, when his memory and a worldview are seemingly at odds and he can no longer withstand the cognitive dissonance, he will ask me again, perhaps ready to face that which I have long struggled with, and to confront the uncertainty and doubt that is at the core of what we are. We can then revisit that earlier conversation, and embrace, literally and figuratively, all that has kept us apart.

Posted in beginnings | 143 Comments

Why do I write?

Why do I write

Some people have questioned the existence and propriety of this site. First, no one is forcing anyone to read this. If you don’t like it or you aren’t interested, don’t waste your time here, there is so much out there, go enjoy yourself. Second, regarding the propriety. I acknowledge that my position may make some uncomfortable. Indeed, those who are strictly orthodox may be offended by this, but why does anyone write. In this instance, I write for myself, it forces me to examine my own life. Moreover, I hope that I can help others who may either be on the same path as myself or may be where I am already at the end of the orthodox path and blazing another.

Communication is a fairly basic need. Recent studies have shown that removing one’s ability to communicate can be as harmful as physical torture. The internet, of course, has been a boon to communication, it has allowed for all sorts of people, who beforehand would have been unable to air whatever they think is important to do so. Indeed, what the Church feared most about the printing press is the spread of heretical ideas (not much changes in 500 years).

But, while communication may be a basic need, what about a rabbi communicating about his beliefs or non-beliefs? There is a history here as well. R. Judah Areyeh of Modena, who lived in the 17th century in Italy and was on the Venice bet din (that is, he was an accepted rabbi) had a book which contains a terrific critique of rabbinic Judaism. Modena certainly authored a response to this book, but the response was weak which has lead some to conclude that he wasn’t really trying to refute the findings of the anti-rabbinic work, to the contrary he authored not only the response but the actual book. That would make Modena the first blogging atheist or orthoprax rabbi. By the way, his commentary still appears in the Eyn Yaakov (the collection of various aggadot). Oh and the really orthodox recite one of his prayers on Yom Kippur Katon (the day before the first of the month where the especially pious or those who just like suffering, fast and say special prayers). [Yes, I am aware that he had a gambling problem but none of us are perfect – even Moses sinned.] Thus, to put an Orthodox spin on it, I have asked my rabbi – Modena – and followed him. We are like midgets on the shoulders of giants.

While my day job may force me to be a mouthpiece for Orthodoxy, it doesn’t mean I can’t ever share my own views. This is my chosen medium, this is my printing press, my own mouthpiece for my own ideas. That is why I write.

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Fear, Not

Fear, Not

Of all the noteworthy things I’ve gleaned from the comments to my actually existing and in laying out where I am coming from and what my perspective is, it was not the vitriol—unfortunately, that is a standard and hallmark of blogging in general—nor was it the confusion at my willingness to continue to participate in a practice in rather meaningful way, a practice I clearly have moved on from believing in. Rather, it was the shear number of people who just don’t know, who are, forgive the hackneyed expression, sick and tired of being sick and tired. The overwhelming feeling that I sense is that of fear.

Fear is a tricky thing. Everyone feels it, whether it be the clichéd upside down stomach or the tingling on the back of your neck; it is ever present, lurking in anticipation, and we often succumb to it, allowing that we have no other choice. In reading and responding to all the comments on this blog and elsewhere, it reminded me of when my knowing sense of fear suddenly collapsed like the proverbial straw man that was my life. What fear was ever-present for me? God, of course. I feared angering him, upsetting him, letting him down. I followed and obeyed and cried and danced and shuckled, all out of a fear that bred devotion and sacrifice. I spent years learning and studying everything and anything that was said to be His word and His will, all in a vainglorious effort to do no wrong. This is not a post on the trope of Yirah vs. Ahava; that is an argument and discussion fit for a post-high school yeshiva dormitory, not for us here. When I look back at what my beliefs used to encompass, of the fear that drove me to do things and not do things that violated all of what my core was telling me was wrong and egregious, I recognized that fear is a far from a powerful tool of contemporary Orthodox Judaism; it is its driving force. Fear of God, of reputation, of social standing, of shidduch, of shul membership, of whispers, of being to frum, of being less frum. All of these drive any close knit and insular community, of course. But once that fear is gone, removed through an excruciating cocktail of knowledge and reason and understanding, what is left behind?

When I started on this path, I left my fear behind, as if I was leaving the Old World on the Mayflower for Jamestown. But my family—my wife, my children, my congregants—they still live in that space, confused, conflicted and concerned.  They are afraid. And I, tethered to this place and to this experience, am fearful right back.

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