Pre Shabbos and Yom Kippur Links

Neal Harris’ notes on Rabbi Frand’s Teshuva Drasha: Painting Your Masterpiece.
The metaphor of Yonah is not just to think about our faults. We need to think about our mission. That’s Yonah. We live in an era today where the phrase “mission statement” is said hundreds, if not thousands of times a day. Everyone is talking about their “mission statement”. Fortune 500 companies and also ma and pa businesses have their “mission statement”. Yonah’s mission statement was to go to Nineveh. What’s your mission statement.?

Jonathon Rosenblum on Mission Possible.
By identifying the point of intersection between our talents, passions, and that which the society needs, we can begin to identify the mission for which we alone were created.
Read more Pre Shabbos and Yom Kippur Links

Heavyweight Fight Of All Time: Avraham Vs. Yonah

We often think of Rosh Hashanah as leading up to Yom Kippur, one stage in a progression leading to that awesome day. While that’s true, on a deeper level there’s a contrast between the two days which has a great relevancy for ba’alei teshuva. The two days illustrate two different ways to serve G-d, and understanding the difference is important.

If we had to pick one person who most represents Rosh Hashanah, we would pick Avraham. On both Rosh Hashanah mornings we read about his challenges with Hagar and Ishmael, and his almost unearthly demonstration of belief in G-d when he’s ready to bring Yitzhak as a sacrifice in the Akeidah. And if there’s one person who most represents Yom Kippur, it’s Yonah, as we read his story on Yom Kippur afternoon.

Avraham and Yonah had significantly different ways of following Hashem. For Avraham, when G-d asks him to do the seemingly impossible and bring his son as a human sacrifice, he replies Hineni – here I am, I’m ready to do Your complete bidding. No matter how hard the task, Avraham puts his complete faith in Hashem and is ready to follow Him to the ends of the earth.
Read more Heavyweight Fight Of All Time: Avraham Vs. Yonah

Teshuvah, Tzedakah, Tefillah

Repentence/Reconnecting, Charity, Prayer…

Time has slipped forward while we were barely looking and the great and holy days of awe are upon us. That great and holy time when we crown the King, the King of Kings, and he judges his nation, his people, and the world.

The awesome moment, the awesome words, who will live and who will die… spills from our lips.

Everyone says there is This World and the World to Come. We believe that the World to Come exists. It could be that This World also exists – somewhere. But here? From the suffering everyone goes through the whole time, it would appear that this is Gehenim. (Jewish purgatory)” – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Likutey Moharan 2:119.

I do not know if my teshuvah, repentence and reconnecting to Hashem, has been acceptable or even if it’s truly teshuvah. Perhaps it’s unworthy of consideration by the King. I do not know if my tefillah, if my prayers, are appropriate, had the proper concentration for even a moment, or even worth
listening to.

But I know I can take a dollar or shekel or pound or euro and alleviate someone else’s suffering, if only for a few moments.
Read more Teshuvah, Tzedakah, Tefillah

Same Place Last Year

As Rosh Hashana davening concluded, I once again felt an ambivalence of relief that I made it through the lengthy tefillos and contentment that for once during the year, I reached down into the depths of my neshama and attempted to spiritually connect with Avinu v’Malkeinu.

Rosh Hashana has always been the most difficult day for me – and that includes Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, it’s all about my foibles, my inadequacies and my abject failures. The person I am today, as an individual, a husband, a father and above all, a Jew, is completely exposed to the Borei Olam. And to the extent that I can articulate the viduy with kavanah and sincerity, I have bitachon that I will indeed be forgiven if for no other reason than He loves me. I certainly don’t intend to trivialize my aveiros, but He’s forgiven us so many times since Adam HaRishon and for far greater aveiros than mine, there’s no reason to think now will be different. Regardless of what we’ve done or failed to do, He still loves us and protects us. Rosh Hashana, however, is an entirely separate matter.

Honestly, I dread Rosh Hashana. Part of it, of course, is the long davening. But the trepidation I feel even before we begin blowing shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul is rooted in the absence of that which embodies Yom Kippur. It’s not about kapora. It’s not even all about teshuva. Sure, we’re obligated to begin the teshuva process. But it is not about me, or at least not the person I am today. It’s about the person I can, and should, become tomorrow. Who will I be during the coming year? It is taught that after a hundred and twenty years, one of the questions we will be confronted with isn’t why we weren’t as great as Moshe Rabbeinu, but why we weren’t as great as our own selves. That sends shivers down my spine. Each year, I worry whether I will actualize the potential that Hashem knows I possess and expects of me? And each year like the year before it, I fear that I will fail. Standing before HaKodesh Borochu in the same place I was last year is terrifying. What will I say? How will I know whether He’ll accept me? Worse yet, given my track record, what exactly do I say to persuade Him that I am worth His taking another chance on me?

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine, a Rav in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, writes a weekly Torah “Parsha Message.” As Musaf concluded on the Second Day, I read his Rosh Hashana message in which he recounted a moving and inspiring story. A young boy ran away from home. Years later, having regretted his rash decision, he wanted to return home to his parents but was unsure if they would accept him so he decided to write them a letter. He wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad, I know that I must have hurt you very much when I ran away. I would like to come back but I will understand it if you don’t want me to. So here is what I ask. If you would like me to come back, please place a kerchief on the apple tree in the backyard. When I pass by on the train, I will be able to see the tree. If the kerchief is there, I will get off at the next stop and come home. If not, I will understand and just continue on my way.” Several days later, the young man boarded a train to his hometown. As the train got closer to his home, he sensed a fear beginning to overtake him. What if his parents didn’t want him back? What if the kerchief was not tied on the apple tree? As the train neared the final bend before the backyard would come into view, the young man couldn’t bear to look. He turned to his seatmate and said, “Excuse me sir, but can you do me a favor. As we turn the bend, can you look out for the big apple tree in the yard? Just glance at it and tell me if there is a kerchief hanging from its branches.” The seatmate, unable to figure out why the young man was so agitated about a kerchief, graciously agreed to look. As the train turned the corner and the tree came into view, the seatmate gave a gasp. “What is it?” the young man asked, “Is there a kerchief there or not?” Those seconds seemed like hours to the young man. Finally, the seatmate responded, “Who would have thought? The whole tree is adorned with kerchiefs.”

With tears welling up in my eyes, I finally achieved clarity on the ambivalence that had eluded me all these years. Hashem has far more emuna in me than I do in myself. I have no doubt that He will always do His part, because He loves me and knows what’s best for me and my family. And above all, He believes in me. The young man that couldn’t bear to look at the tree was, at least in his own mind, that same little boy who had run away years before. To his parents though, he was anything but. Everyday, we’re running. Running to work, running at work, running home, running at home, running to bed and running to do it all over again. Some run faster than others and some run farther. But very few of us run toward Hashem. After an entire year of running, we arrive at Rosh Hashana and can’t bear to look for the kerchief because all we see is that we’re in the same place we were last year. We can’t, or don’t, see ourselves as any different and can easily understand if He won’t either. And yet, to Him we are neither the same person nor are we in the same place as last year. He clearly sees where we were yesterday, last week, last month and last year. If we’re lucky, we might recognize our accomplishments and improvements over ten, twenty or thirty years. But for that ever so slight, even microscopic, difference He sees in us, we’re still worth the world to Him.

May we all be granted a G’mar Chasima Tova, a gut g’bentched yohr and the strength to spend Atzeres Yemai Teshuva implementing even the most modest measures that will allow us to be zoche to stand before HaKodesh Borochu in a better place next year.

An E-Mail To My Brother-In-Law

Good afternoon. I wanted to touch base with you and apologize first for not being able to do this over the phone since our schedules usually make it hard to find time.

I realize that you have decided not to have bagels and lox at the brunch for your parent’s anniversary, yet this now puts me in a difficult position. On one hand, I try to keep kosher to the best of my ability, yet on the other hand, I strive to build bridges of understanding and tolerance to others who may not do what ~wife’s name~ and I do. As you can see, if I choose the option of eating strictly kosher it may be detrimental to my relationships with others who do not. And, if I eat whatever non-kosher food that is served than I feel as if I have compromised my beliefs. It is truly a lose/lose situation on my part. Either way, I go home without a good feeling.

Last Sunday, I suggested ~name of kosher establishment ~ bagels, lox, and cream cheese because I thought it would be something we could enjoy and also because I thought it to be a win/win situation for everyone. Since you opted for a lighter option that is also better for your father’s health, perhaps ~wife’s name~ could bring something, and that way you can still serve whatever you would like. I am completely cognizant of that fact that it is not my place to weigh-in on menu selection in your home. I am not attempting even in the slightest to dictate what others eat, only what I choose to eat. What I eat or refrain from eating is not commentary on anyone else’s life despite the fact that is repeatedly seen as such. Not once have I ever told a family member, or anyone else for that matter, that what they are doing is “wrong”.

I hope this e-mail will give you insight into my thought process. If you could see inside my heart you would see that I wrote these words without a trace of divisiveness. I ask that you give us the ability to help us participate and celebrate along with you. I think that misunderstandings that we have had in the past stem simply from a lack of honest dialogue. Both ~wife’s name~ and I strive to correct this and want to break down barriers of misunderstanding that may exist.

The Jewish Peter-Pan Syndrome

Translated and adapted for Beyond Teshuva by Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Bar/bat Mitzvahs, graduations and weddings are fêted and enjoyed by all in attendance. But no one awaits these celebrations with as much edge-of-the-seat anticipation as the bnai Mitzvah, graduates and brides and grooms themselves. For these primary revelers the parties are much more than opportunities to let the good times roll, they are rites of passage. These landmark occasions formally confer upon them new levels of adulthood, autonomy and, that which we all yearn for most, societal and self respect. The maturity that we so crave is always about achieving independence and individuation. What some of us tend to forget is that this is just as true for emotional and spiritual maturation as it is for education and finances.

All immature beings (AKA children) depend on the adults of their species (usually parents) for their physical sustenance. What is unique about the human condition is that in our youth, we depend on our elders not just for food, hygiene and medical care, but for information and ethics as well. The child does not know how to “do things” or how to distinguish right from wrong. More than by instruction and evocation, the child absorbs practical and moral instruction through observation of behaviors demonstrated by its elders (hence the vital importance of role models). Aware of its own limitations, ignorance and dependence the child possesses an innate learning instinct that compels it to imitate its elders. Children become masters of the art of monkee-see-monkee-do by constantly seeking outside cues, validation and approval. This is the only mechanism available to them to determine whether or not what they are doing or failing to do is “good” and “right” (or cool and hip!)

During adolescence peer group pressure to conform is enormous. In this transitional stage from childhood to adulthood the peer group supplants parents and other elders as the external validation mechanism for behaviors and attitudes. It is as if the “tweener” adolescent was declaring to his parents and elders “I’m old enough to think independently of you but not quite old enough to go it totally alone. I’ll get by with a little help from my friends. (Get HIGH with a little help from my friends).”

Although nature endows us with physical maturity at the end of adolescence other forms of maturity are not a given. BTs, especially those who began their return a bit later in life, are acutely aware of this. So many discover Torah only after becoming adults. Classically, very early in the Teshuva process, realization dawns that Vis a Vis Torah-Wisdom (and the skills to acquire it) and Mitzvah performance (and a sense of proportion) they are, once again, babes-in-the-woods. Then, the nearly forgotten and long-dormant powerful craving for maturity reignites with the force of an active volcano.

As we are all growth-oriented and spiritual-maturity-craving here at Beyond Teshuva it is crucial that we recognize signs of arrested development and confront possible causes of plateuing. Many among us may still be spiritual children in adult bodies taking cues from societal norms and constantly seeking external validation from peer groups/social structures. Paradoxically, others may be stuck in a kind of spiritual/emotional twilight where, IDF vs. Hezbullah-like, maturity and immaturity do battle with inconclusive and even counterproductive results. For such people the compelling rush to individuation often causes them to ignore the sage advise of those who are more spiritually ripe (and, at times, of HaShem Himself) and yet, adolescent-like, their inner emotionally-needy-child craves social approval and dares not deviate one iota from the notions and norms of their friends, family and neighbors.

The sainted Piaszetsner Rebbe ZY”A H”YD teaches us that for healthy and steady spiritual growth we need to cultivate the maturity to think and feel independent of our peer group but to retain the humility and childlike wonder to continue taking cues from our spiritual elders. Our bodies plateau at around 20-23, but if we just afford it the right conditions for growth, our neshomahs (souls) can continue growing until our last nesheemah (breath)!

And Straight Again!

I stumbled upon a list of aphorisms and one-liners from one of the premier Baalei Musar-Masters of Ethical Teachings, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, also known as the Alter from Kelm. One phrase made me chuckle at first but I realized it wasn’t and couldn’t be a joke so I highlighted it and parked it in a file entitled, “more thought required”. The statement goes as follows: “Torah is divided into three portions; 1) Simplicity 2) Complexity 3) Simplicity!” That’s it! Get it!? Which one of these is not like the other? Two of the three are exactly the same! What are and why are there three parts when only two different ones are listed?

A model for explanation may be found in the Rosh Chodesh Bentching, when prior to each new month we pause in synagogue to recite some prayers of hope. Amongst the handful of items we cry out for is that this month should be filled with: “fear of heaven”, and that it contain wealth and honor, and not have embarrassment and shame, and then at the end of the list again we ask for “fear of heaven”. Twice! Why is it mentioned twice on the same short list? The answer is given that there is a “fear of heaven” that comes before wealth and honor and before embarrassment and shame and there’s another brand of “fear of heaven” that comes after the experience of wealth and honor and embarrassment and shame.
Read more And Straight Again!

A Cheshbon Hanefesh at Beyond BT

With Rosh Hoshana just around the corner, it behooves us to review our actions to determine which ones we are happy with and which ones we would like to improve upon. The same holds true for Beyond BT.

A few of the things we are happy with are:

1. With rare exception, the civil tone of the blog;
2. The variety of points of view being presented in both the posts and the comments;
3. The new friends and connections that have been made online and off;
4. The way the blog has been able to raise and present issues affecting BTs and the broader Jewish community;
5. That many people have told us that the blog has helped them with BT and growth related issues and has filled a void.

Some of the things, we would like to improve upon are:

1. Increasing the number of contributors to the blog; (If you are interested, please contact us at
2. Gaining more support and assistance for offline events like Melave Malkes and Shabbatons;
3. Increasing the awareness of the site to all who might benefit or be able to contribute;
4. Expanding the tent of Torah so more people will feel accepted and supported on their growth path;
5. Increasing the awareness that the site is not a monolithic, one size fits all approach;

We want to thank all those who read, comment and contribute to the site and we wish you all a Kesiva V’Chasima Tova.

Growing Without Bounds – One Small Step at a Time

When I was growing up, for New Years Eve I would sleep over at a friend’s house, eat bags and bags of M&Ms and watch some New Years program on TV until I couldn’t stand it anymore. In between talking with my friends about which celebrity is wearing what, we would write or discuss the resolutions we would take upon ourselves in the coming year. I remember how carefully I chose what my resolutions would be, how we would discuss the pros and cons, and how ashamed I was in thinking, oh I didn’t accomplish that in the old year, but surely I’ll be able to do it in the new year.

I have now realized that I should just as seriously take this upcoming New Year.

Not only is Rosh Hashana the time when we start to stand accountable for our actions, but it is also the perfect opportunity to commit to some resolutions. The resolutions should not be as lofty as “I will become more spiritual”, but rather they should be concrete, tangible resolutions that we can SEE ourselves doing. It is the last part – seeing myself doing the resolution – that I failed to understand when I was growing up. I didn’t see myself going to the gym every day, but my resolution was to exercise more. I was setting myself up for failure by committing to a resolution I knew I couldn’t fulfil.
Read more Growing Without Bounds – One Small Step at a Time

High Holidays Multiple Choice

Our friends from Argentina, Leandro Katz and Matías Duek sent in the following contribution:

The High Holidays are coming and we have our opportunity to evaluate ourselves. What you think and what you say show how connected you are to the religion.

Take this test and read your results.

1) Your aunt who lives far from your house offers her house for the Rosh Hashana dinner. What do you do?
A) You say: “I don’t travel during Rosh Hashana”.
B) You say: “Why don’t you come home?”
C) You go on foot, it takes you 2 hours and then you go back home by taxi.

2) You are in the Synagogue and the Rabbi starts to blow the Shofar. What do you think?
A) Your senses sharpen and you are 100% connected.
B) Although you don’t know what you have to do, you relax and try to feel the Shofar sound.
C) You think: Gee! How long can he hold his breath?

3) At the Rosh Hashana dinner, your cousin starts to talk about sports. What do you do?
A) You say: “This is not a subject to discuss tonight”.
B) You use sports as a metaphor to share Torah words.
C) You join the conversation: “People say that Pete Sampras’s grandfather was a Jew.”

4) It’s 10 minutes before the end of Yom Kippur. What do you think?
A) I hope that in 10 minutes I will be sealed with a year of Torah and Mitzvot.
B) You try to take advantage of the last minutes but you get nervous when the cantor makes the prayer longer.
C) Yummy, pizza…

5) You are in the synagogue on Simchat Torah and everybody is dancing with the Torah. What do you think?

A) Clapping, maybe. Dancing, no way.
B) If my friends saw me dancing with the Rabbi…
C) Everything is cool, but the Torah is really heavy.

Read more High Holidays Multiple Choice

From “Another Brick in the Wall” to My Wall

In our home, there are two canvas framed photographs on opposite sides of the rear dining room wall. The one on the left depicts the famous archway in Tsfas (where everyone takes pictures) near the Alshich shul. Woven through the picture by way of superimposition is the blue wall of Tsfas. The photograph on the right shows hagbah (the lifting of the torah) at Meiron. This picture also has the wall of Tsfas woven through by way of superimposition. Both pictures are the work of Yaacov Kaszemacher.

I first met Yaacov more than twenty years ago on my first trip to Israel. I wasn’t frum at the time and I was just a teenager but something about Yaacov stuck with me. Maybe it was his French accented English. Maybe it was his psychedelic, colorful artwork. More likely it was his brilliant, warm smile.

Yaacov was born and raised in what he calls a completely secular home in post-war France. He quickly fell in with the poets, artists and intellectuals in the Parisian neighborhood of St. Germain des Presand, frequented by such luminaries as Jean Paul Sartre. Yaacov, then Jacques, would likely have been considered part and parcel of the beat generation and then later perhaps a hippie flower child.
Read more From “Another Brick in the Wall” to My Wall

Modern and Charedi

I’m usually pretty slow about responding to the topics that the BBT admins suggest to the contributors here, but the one labeled “The War Between the Modern and Chareidi” really provoked me. After all, it’s not a war. What we saw in Eretz Yisroel and Lebanon was a war. People die in war. Modern and Chareidi Jews aren’t killing each other. We may not always be nice to each other, but calling it a war is over-dramatizing. I will, however, agree, that it’s not a very warm peace.

Aside from the wording, the topic caught me because of a conversation I recently had with my son. His day camp, along with several others, rented out a water park for the afternoon. I asked if Camp “Modern” would be going. My son’s camp uses their swimming facilities, so it seemed to me they might join for a trip. My son responded with a cynical, “Them?” and then said something disparaging which I am ashamed to repeat.

I was horrified. I reminded him of who is Bubby and Zaidy are. He loves them and does not look down on them for being non-observant. I also said, “You can’t make fun of people just because they’re modern.”

My son replied, “They make fun of me because I’m Chassidish.”

Ugh. What’s a parent to do? I’m sure my son told the truth. Probably a few kids said some things they shouldn’t have. And even if my son didn’t retaliate then and there, it didn’t help his ahavas Yisroel.

To my mind, there’s really only one solution: modeling ahavas Yisroel. And the only way to do that is to develop ahavas Yisroel. So here’s one small method I’m trying for myself.

I read in Rav Avigdor Miller Speaks that when you’re walking along the street, and you pass a store owned by another Yid – not necessarily someone you know personally – daven for that person to have success in his business. In turn, Hashem will bless you because as we know, whoever blesses the children of Avraham will be blessed as well.

In keeping with this advice, I’ve added my own twist. I daven especially when my first reaction to the other person is negative. Whether my negativity arises because the other person is more modern than I, more Chareidi than I, or because I feel slighted for some personal reason, I whisper a little tefillah, usually for nachas. It definitely changes my attitude for the better.

Now of course, this isn’t the only thing. Friendship between Modern and Chareidi is an even stronger thing. In fact, I would say that one of the major achievements of this blog is that it connects people from different kehillos. And I know it’s not the only place in the Jewish world where it goes on. B’ezras Hashem, one day I’ll post about the Ayecha Shabbaton, a Shabbos that really was a life changer for me.

But just for day to day, I’m davening. I may never see the results, but Hashem listens to tefillah, so perhaps my tiny whispered prayers are making a difference for Klal Yisroel.

Have We Burned Out?

I am sitting at my desk thinking, “what do I write about?” I could write about my feelings about the war since I live in Israel. I could also write about Elul. I then realized that I am not supposed to be writing a regular torah column. It is supposed to be for Baalei Teshuva and their issues. I ask myself have we burned out in our mission?

The website started off with a bang and has continued over the last year. It has evolved into something, but what? Is it fulfilling its goal? Have we come up with workable solutions to the Baalei Teshuvah issues? Does anyone really care anymore? Have we become just another torah blog on the web? I leave that for you to think about.

What about the solutions for all the issues that have been brought up here on BeyondBT? Here is one more go at it. After careful thinking of the issues at stake, I would think to identify that one of the biggest issues facing BTs today is the lack of access to Rabbanim and mentors to help them transition and grow throughout their frum lives, ie: from “the cradle to the grave”.

I originally thought the answer was to focus on the macro and bring it to the micro. However I am convinced that it needs to be done in the micro and that will then spread to lots of little micros across the world and that will then make up the macro. Let me explain what I mean. Every community/synagogue needs to establish a mentor system, various members of the community who have the ability and time to mentor BT families. They wouldn’t be their halachic poskim however they would be there to model Torah Judaism and show them how to deal with the issues that BTs didn’t grow up with. They would be their “surrogate” parents. The Rabbi of the community would try to identify who the mentors should be and they would undergo so called “Sunday” training sessions. The community itself would pay their Rav extra $$$ so he doesn’t need to have a second job so he can be more involved in the daily life experiences of the community. Being that the mentors are local, shabbos could be a shared experience by all on a regular basis.

I think by approaching it from the micro level, there is no need to wait for some fundraisers to raise “big” money to establish another organization, which probably won’t happen and might not be the solution either. Being that many of the issues that BTs face are ones that need regular personal attention, the local community is nearest and hopefully dearest. There are a lot of nice communities out there that I am sure have qualified mentors and Ravs and also the ability to do what I am saying.

The biggest question to be asked is then what about the people that don’t live near one of these communities. It is a question that I don’t have an answer to other than move. I don’t mean that sarcastically. The Talmud tells us in various places the importance of living in a torah community. I realize it isn’t always so simple to pick up and move but I’ll leave that for a different article.

We need the 1st community to stand up and say that they’ll do it. There are various Rabbis that can help get it started. Then, once going this would be the model for all other communities. Do we have any takers out there…………

Sartorial Splendor and the Introspection of Elul

Elul is upon us and the time has come for a heightened degree of introspection, which means “too look inside.” The question is, Inside of whom?

Becoming a seriously committed orthodox Jew necessarily requires both internal and external changes. And there is controversy about how important, and how advisable, external changes are. Some question whether they are necessary at all, within the bounds of halacha. Obviously men cannot, say, shave their heads, nor can women (or men) wear immodest clothing; where these propositions are controverted, we are having a different conversation. Even on the “right” side of things, we can and do debate whether group identity is appropriately signified by the use of external signals — e.g., “yeshivishe” garb — when one is a relative newcomer to the subculture of strictly orthodox Jews, or when, as the gemara asks in Berachos, there is a serious question of whether tocho k’boro [“the inside is like the outside”], i.e., whether the book matches the cover.

We know from this, and from many other sources addressing kavod ha-brios (personal dignity) and tzenius (“modest” but translated by Rabbi Yitzchok Berkowitz as a concept more akin to “dignity”), that in Jewish sensibility there is indeed a link between what is inside and what is outside of a person. We do not say “clothes make the man,” which improperly elevates the superficial; but we reject as well the proposition, dominant in our time and place, that slovenliness and even a grossness or outrageousness in appearance are irrelevant to the degree of respect to which a person of normal means and sound mind is entitled.

What irks some people about the levush [dress] of the yeshivishe world is that they perceive it as a sort of uniform, and the choice to don it as a surrendering of individuality. Baalei teshuvah, those who love them, and frequently those old observant friends whom they may have “passed by” as they almost inevitably migrate to the right in their journey wrestle with this issue, among others, and ask: Is my personality, as expressed by my “look,” the price of admission to this community?

And let us take as a proposition that, unlike in some other demanding religions, in Judaism we do not consider the surrendering of personality a desideratum. Perhaps we can debate that point another time; but for here, let us hold it as a given that we do believe in individuality in expressing our avodas Hashem [service of God] and in our relationships bein odom l’chaveiro [between people].

The answer to the question here, however — as we so frequently say — is that the “question isn’t a question.” (This is to be distinguished from the maddening cliche used in the telling over of brilliant divrei torah that the answer is “really very simple” when it’s actually quite ingenious!) In other words, the premise is incorrect: Sincere self-expression, which is to say the expression and articulation of personality, is not a strictly, or even meaningfully, a function of clothing. And yet clothing is not irrelevant to how we place ourselves in a social context.

Using our costume as a way to “speak” for our individuality suffers from several deficiencies. One of them, pointed out to me recently by a very talented orthodox layman, is that it makes our realization of personality dependent on the reactions of others to our external show. Another is that it is eminently falsifiable. In minutes one can “change his personality” based on the shmattes [shmattes] on his back. Yes, the choices one makes do speak to what he wants to “say” with his clothes, but why should we trust those “words”? Another factor is that it is, as we suggested before, even without changing back and forth, it is simply superficial to say that rather than develop a personality one can simply take one off a hanger and put a personality on.

Now we have, arguably, proved too much. How can all this be true, and yet we insist on dignity and decorum in dress? And how do we reconcile these thoughts with the idea that there can be merit, even in a spiritual sense, in dressing in a way that conforms to a fairly narrow band of variety which in itself amounts to a standard “message” being sent to the world at large?

To attempt resolution of these questions, I suggest the following propositions:

1. Clothes do not make the man, but they do represent a choice in how one goes about presenting himself to the world;

2. That choice is indeed interpreted by the world. A person really is saying something about his values in how he makes those choices.

3. Dignity in appearance has an absolute value in Judaism. For women, tzenius in its traditionally understood sense is not only an halachic requirement, it should be a manifestation of a woman’s sensibility as a Jewish woman. For men, where “modesty” is less of an issue because of the differences between the sexes, dignity in its broader sense is also a value the Torah insists upon.

4. We can even agree on some broad outlines of what is dignified for public, much less synagogue, wear. Let us focus on the dress of men. I propose that if the word is to have much meaning, we must say that jeans are not dignified. Short pants are not dignified. T-shirts are not dignified, especially if they bear logos or messages and all the more so if these are not consonant with Jewish values. Shirttails worn outside are not dignified regardless of the cut or color of the shirt. Yarmulkas bearing the images of cartoon characters, sports teams, one-liners, heretical religious statements or fruits are not dignified. I recognize that these are subjective judgments, but I submit them for your consideration.

5. One can take the guidance in item (4) above and apply it more rigorously towards a more dignified appearance that more or less conforms with what is called more formal or businesslike dress, and this is a kiyum [achievement] in realizing more dignity, engendering more respect for the way Jews conduct themselves in communal and worship settings and even out and about.

6. I propose here the psychological truism that for most people, the effect of a more orderly, dignified and attractive appearance enhances their self-image as well as the way people relate to them.

Perhaps you think at this juncture I am going to suggest as item (7) the proposition that since all these factors lead ineluctably to the “Lakewood look” (abstracting from the troubling problem of the nearly universal eschewing of the necktie) I have defined the problem of individuality and “uniforms” away. I am not going to insult the house with such a suggestion, however. Rather, I am going to suggest an entirely different item (7), to wit:

7. A person who commits himself to a life based on Torah and mitzvos should strongly consider the possibility, in a world where external appearances are a source of judgment about a person and, by virtue of that, what paths are opened to a person in the world, by accepting the foregoing points (1)-(6), he may better realize the Jewish values of dignity and tzenius. Concomitantly, that identification with a distinctively Jewish way of dressing, associated with a community premised on that same sort of commitment he is now undertaking, will likely be healthy for his continued growth as a Jew; and that the more dignified the dress, the more he achieves this effect for himself.

And if this last paragraph, which we have worked so long to get to, is where we end up debating, then perhaps it was worth it; because I believe if we are seriously debating the sum and substance of items (1)-(6), we have very little common ground.

And I propose in conclusion that if we could agree to (7) as well, we could get the answer to our question about personality, and about the imperative to look within: By realizing the importance of external devices such as dress to insure that our influences are predominantly Jewish, and acknowledging that it informs the way the way the world reacts to us, and the responsibility we bear as we move through the world, we enhance our Jewishness and acknowledge that some degree of separateness is an aspect of Jewishness. At the same time, by narrowing our use of clothes as proxies for genuine individuality, we become better able to develop our personalities in the Jewish contexts that we have chosen for ourselves, and which are nearly infinite in possibility. And in doing so, we acknowledge that we are, indeed, taking a cultural and even a moral stand about who we are and where we want to be in a world awash with infinite choice for good and for what is not good.

Project Inspired for Rosh Hoshana

Project Inspired has their Rosh Hoshana campaign underway and they are providing great pamphlets about the Yomim Noraim that you can send for free to your non-observant friends and neighbors.

In their own words:

Project Inspire is a campaign to unify the Jewish People by means of monthly / bimonthly initiatives to share the richness and wisdom of our heritage in simple and inspiring ways.

Our united efforts this year will, with G-d’s help, be the seeds to infuse light, love and inspiration into the entire Jewish People.

I went to the Aish/OU sponsored Kiruv training seminar in KGH yesterday. I missed part of it due to a Simcha, but the hour that I caught was very inspiring. I’m trying to organize an advanced kiruv training seminar for people who are familiar with the proofs and the other basic material and want to understand how to deal with the more difficult and skeptical questions.

Confessions of a Bayou Jew

One of the great things about the internet (and this blog) is the ability to make friends with others that you probably would never have otherwise met. Through a comment here on the blog, I became friends with Amishav. Here, he shares the backstory of his “in progress” teshuvah path.

Confessions of a Bayou Jew

Well, its about time I fessed up I suppose and came clean with the whole story.

I had previously mentioned on my blog that my family originally came from Germany and that they had settled in South Louisiana, particularly the Donaldsonville area- which at one time was the Capital of Louisiana. From there they moved a bit down the Bayou LaFouche to Napoleonville, where they had a store and a plantation that specialized in sugarcane production.

The matriarch of my family, Caroline Schrieber was extremely successful and had amassed a small fortune of 94,000 dollars by the time she passed away in 1904. But things were not going well for my family Jewishly. We don’t know why, or exactly when, but the sad truth is that my family converted to Catholicism and were baptizing their children by the nineteen teens.

Still though, as late as the 1950s according to my mother, aunts, and uncles, our family was not so affectionately referred to as, “those damn Jew bastards.” You would think that this would raise the eyebrows of my mother and in fact it did. I was told that my mother’s generation did ask my grandparents why they were being called Jews. It didn’t make sense to them to be called Jews because they were practicing Catholics. The answer that they got from my Grandparents was, “The people in the town are confused. They are calling us Jews because we are Germans and they don’t know any better.” This excuse was sufficient for my mother, and she lived her life as a practicing Catholic.

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The Nail that Saved Her Life

Last August, my wife and I decided to use the Amusement Park tickets a client had given me to take our kids for an end of the summer trip. Since there is a fair amount of driving involved, I brought the van in for an oil change and a fluid check. When I came back to pick up the van, the mechanic advised that the front brake pads were alright for now but would need replacement shortly. So, what else is new, you bring in the car for wiper blades and they tell you that you need a new transmission!

A few weeks later, I noticed that my right front tire was low and when I pulled into the gas station to put some air in, I noticed a nail in the tire. I added the air and figured I would take care of the tire the next day. The next morning the tire was fine as the head of the nail, which is much wider than the point, seemed to have sealed off the hole. As such, I figured I’d let my luck ride (pun intended) and leave the tire for the time being (don’t try this at home!).

Motzei shabbos, a few weeks later, we were involved in a post-Hurricane Katrina clothing and home furnishing drive for members of the displaced New Orleans Jewish community. Our home was the drop off point for the neighborhood and we, baruch hashem, had an entire basement full of clothing, housewares, judaica, school supplies, toys, games, hats, furniture, bicycles, etc. A number of volunteers were busy boxing and labeling the items when they ran out of Sharpies and packing tape. I decided to let my wife drive us to the store since she was still practicing for her long awaited road test. She did great. The only problem was that when she pulled into the parking spot at the store, we heard that slow hissssssssss of trapped air rushing to freedom. I artfully readjusted the van so that the part of the tire with the nail in it was flush to the ground hoping that the weight of the van would push the head of the nail tightly against the hole. It seemed to have worked well enough to get us home.
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