What is Torah Judaism (in 500 words or less) – #2?

Torah Judaism is actually an ideal that was never really fulfilled by the Jewish people themselves. Ever. But first, what is Torah? The word itself comes from hora’ah–teaching, and it means just that: a code of conduct which applies to every aspect of life. As the verse says, “in all your ways know Him (G-d).”

On a deeper level, Torah is a direct projection of the Divine Mind which makes the rectification of all reality, with Israel the bearers of the Messianic mantle, basically a done deal. What an awesome role, to be called upon to makes ourselves whole, to make the whole universe whole! To link our consciousness with the Divine Mind! Ultimately, the Torah is the means to remedy a cosmic exile, the self-exile of this world from its own real, optimal state. Thus, everything we do can either further this goal or temporarily obstruct it. The way we do everything we do can literally heal the world. It’s our choice, and the Torah is our manual.

So, perhaps the most basic thing that characterizes Torah living is a sense of mission, of grand purpose. There’s a Divine framework to the human condition, to the situation we’re in. There’s a Divine structure to history. We’re plugged in.

So, how does this manual work? The Torah is like a body, and the mitzvot are the limbs. Basically the Torah and its mitzvot are our personal and collective job, nothing less. But please, don’t be discouraged by “Torah living” as most people conceptualize it today. Can you imagine driving a car with half your body paralyzed? Well, no. You can’t. So instead you get a machine you can run. That’s Torah living as most people understand it. But real Torah living– step on board for the glorious ride and strap on your seat belts. It’s a work in progress.

–Micha Lindenberg

E Unibus Plurum

The casual observer of the current presidential polling data requires little expertise to identify a trend stretching back over the last two presidential elections. The population of the United States has been, and continues to be, split almost 50-50 in their support for a national leader.

At the same time, however, the division of country on a national level stands out in sharp contrast to what is happening locally. In his new book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, author Bill Bishop demonstrates how communities are becoming increasingly homogenous as people sort themselves into demographic cliques. The most striking irony, Mr. Bishop explains, is how the increasing singularity of ideas and values in neighborhoods across the country is resulting in increasing divisiveness throughout the country as a whole.

The statistical evidence is compelling. In 2004, in an election decided nationally by one closely contested state (Ohio) and less than 1% of the electorate, almost half the counties in the country recorded landslide victories locally for either one candidate or the other, nearly double the percentage recorded in 1976.

Here are a few samplings from Mr. Bishop’s introduction:

Freed from want and worry, people were reordering their lives around their values, their tastes, and their beliefs. They were clustering in communities of like-mindedness, and not just geographically. Churches grew more politically homogeneous during this time, and so did civic clubs, volunteer organizations, and, dramatically, political parties. People weren’t simply moving. The whole society was changing…

Marketing analyst J. Walker Smith described the same phenomenon as extreme and widespread “self-invention,” a desire to shape and control our identities and surroundings. Technology, migration, and material abundance all allow people to “wrap themselves into cocoons entirely of their own making,” Smith wrote. People are unwilling to live with trade-offs, he said…

As people seek out the social settings they prefer — as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable — the nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups. We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life.

Is it ever possible for there to be too much agreement? The mishna teaches that if the entire Sanhedrin votes to convict the defendant in a capital case without a single dissention, the death penalty cannot be given. No matter how overwhelming the evidence, the sages did not trust their own objectivity if none of their members could find even one mitigating factor. Brothers cannot testify together in beis din because they share a common perspective that calls into question their collective objectivity.

The more single-minded a group becomes in its opinions, the more calcified its thinking becomes in its evaluation of unfamiliar ideas, and the more quickly it rejects and condemns opposing viewpoints. Moreover, homogenous groups are more likely to devolve into parodies of themselves, shifting to ever-more extreme positions and allowing arguments that might once have been rational to descend to dogma and character assassination.

This is why candidates lean to the extremes in primary elections, laboring to attract support from the farthest wing of their respective parties, the one that is generally the loudest and most vehement. Then, once they have secured the nomination, the candidates tack back to the center for the general election to try and attract voters from across the political divide. Whichever side eventually claims victory will almost inevitably shift back again to the extremes, fearful of antagonizing the clamoring minority by appearing too moderate.

This is certainly one angle of the mishna in Pirkei Avos that praises machlokes l’sheim shomayim: when debate and dispute are motivated by a genuine desire to achieve true understanding, then such debate endures by producing greater clarity, by yielding new truths, and by bringing together ideological opponents who are devoted to intellectual honesty and ideological integrity.

Such was the nature of Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, who fought fiercely in the study halls but retained love and respect for one another. One has to wonder, given the increasing factionalism within the Torah world, whether students of the two academies would even speak to one another if they were alive today.

After the death of his main disciple, Reish Lakish, Rabbi Yochanon lamented that he had no one to challenge him any more. By posing 24 problems to every law his rebbe taught him, Reish Lakish stimulated the learning of Torah in a way that benefited both students and teacher. The replacement the sages found, Rav Eliezar ben P’das, brought 24 proofs for everything Rabbi Yochanon said, literally driving him mad.

The ideological differences between the different camps within the Torah world are not (yet) so insurmountable that we have any justification for refusing to bear one another’s company. This does not require compromising one’s principles. Rather, it requires a willingness to concede that the world is a sufficiently complex place to allow the coexistence of different but equally legitimate points-of-view, and to not be afraid that the slightest exposure to alternative outlooks within the mainstream of Torah thought will somehow lead to a swift descent down the slippery slope of apostasy.

When two or three schools in one neighborhood, only marginally different in Torah philosophy and united by their inability to make payroll, are each graduating classes of only five or ten students, when men choose to walk into one shul half-an-hour late on Shabbos morning rather than walking into a shul across the street on time because its parishioners wear a different style of kippot, clearly our commitment to the unity of Klal Yisroel is sadly wanting.

From the earliest days of the twelve tribes, the greatest strength of the Jewish people has been our ability to forge diversity into unity. How ironic, and how tragic, that now we have become united against one another.

The Unsung Victories of the Ba’al Teshuva

David on the Lake

The guest speaker was the world famous Ba’al Teshuvah Moshe (Mark) Wahrburg. Moshe’s story was so inspiring it never failed to fill halls and shuls with enthralled audiences. He had reached the pinnacle of fame and success in Hollywood and lived a life of debauchery and excess. And then he threw it all away after discovering his heritage, eventually becoming fully Orthodox.

The men and women in the audience were taken in by the drama and ultimate glorious ending.

A group of angels were congregating at the window, unseen. They were staring at the man in the last seat of the second row.

He was a very unspectacular looking middle aged fellow dozing off. Yet, the angels were staring at him and whispering in awe. He was a somewhat successful accountant whose biography for the most part mirrored 90% of the rest of the room.

But what no one could possibly know, and if they would know they would most likely look at him with disgust and disdain, was how he had in the past done some pretty immoral things and had somehow pulled himself away and quietly done true teshuva. In fact he himself cringes when he thinks of his past actions.

There’s no glamour in that Teshuva. No one will come hear his sordid tale. And he himself has no clue of his heroics and that is precisely what makes it so lofty…

Yet here was a group of angels quivering in his shadow..because angels..they see a different world.

What is Torah Judaism (in 500 words or less) – #1?

I believe that the ultimate manifestation of Torah Judaism is Chesed, acts of loving-kindness. It’s not the number of times one davens in a day, or the type of kippah he wears, or if her hair is covered completely, not at all, partially, or only sometimes. It’s whether all that davening and all those halachic guidelines and all that learning yields a better person, a better Yid. Does the person smile more, give others the benefit of the doubt more frequently, look for ways to make peace with others (instead of always getting his/her way), help others in time of need (whether it’s a seat on the bus, or picking up a dropped object, or bringing a meal to a new mother/sick friend/random member of the community), encourage children to play with those who seem to have no friends?

If all of that learning and studying and rushing to classes and davening does not make one a better person, then it does not matter to me how many of the mitzvot that person observes, or how stringent; it means they are not taking the Torah’s lessons to heart.

Years ago, I was surrounded by loving, kind, and generous observant Jews, and that spurred me to grow in my own observance. I believed that the Torah guidelines make for a pretty good foundation for life, and I still believe that. We must always keep the big picture in mind.

This is the first in a series of defining Torah Judaism for our non observant co-religionists in 500 words or less.

Answering Questions

By Elyah Leboff

As a religious Jew, it is almost inevitable that you will be asked questions about Judaism. There is a tendency to overreact to such encounters, viewing them either as a great outreach opportunity, or as a holy war. Due to this, questions are either completely misinterpreted, or fired at with a machine gun when a water pistol would suffice. What could have been a pleasant encounter often turns into an ugly debate. In this post, I hope to point out some of the most serious errors to watch out for when answering questions

1. It’s okay if people disagree with you. It is a sign of maturity and self-confidence to accept this. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect that you can force other people to think exactly the way you do.

2. Distinguish between a question and a statement. Recognize that you are not always being invited to share your opinion. For example, if someone says, “I think Judaism is out-dated,” the most appropriate response would be, “Oh.” Starting to debate would only make you appear hostile and intolerant.

3. Short and sweet. Even when someone asks a question, keep in mind that they might not necessarily have the patience for the most elaborate answer that you are able to present. Start with a simple “yes,” or “no,” you’ll be surprised how often you won’t need more than this!

4. Clarify the question. Asking, “What do you mean?” or, “What do you think?” can be very helpful for doing this. Until you understand the question in very specific and concrete terms, it is practically impossible to give a satisfactory answer.

5. Make sure your answer is appropriate for the questioner. Sometimes a person may be sincere about his question, yet his dedication to Judaism may not be strong enough yet to handle certain information. For example, someone who is not yet capable of being Shabbos observant, yet is asking to learn the laws of Shabbos. Under such circumstances it may be best to politely delay giving a response. The answers, otherwise, are likely to do more harm than good.

6. “I don’t know.” Is okay to admit. The humility to admit your limitations, expressing confidence that an answer does exist, and perhaps an invitation to read something or meet someone who does know, will probably make a favorable impression. On the other hand, fumbling your way though a half-baked answer is not very likely to impress anyone.

7. Dealing with family requires a serious examination of your relationship. If communication has generally been difficult, and support has generally been lacking, wielding the “absolute truth,” is not going to suddenly be a magic spell to win anyone over to your point of view.

8. Answer a person’s other needs. When you take the initiative to provide a person with food, honor, respect, sympathy, and empathy, this is likely to have a much greater impact than answering their occasional philosophical doubts.

Costs of Orthodox Jewish Life Survey

Many times in the past on this blog, we’ve discussed the extremely high costs of Orthodox Jewish life, from kosher food to tuition. A good friend of this blog, Ezzie of SerandEz, has set out to determine just what it costs singles, couples, and families to live in different Orthodox communities. To that end, he has created a survey to determine just how much it is that people spend, and it has been quite the eye-opener for many.

Please take the survey, read the introduction to understand just what it’s for, and help build a better economic future for the Jewish community. Then send it along to all your family and friends so they can do the same.

No More Church, No More Friend

By Aliza Hausman

When I was converting to Judaism, I asked a rabbi if I could walk into a church again. I wasn’t planning on returning for services but I had my sights on visiting the Sistine Chapel someday. It was also a question that bothered many of my Christian friends, particularly my friend, Cynthia.
going back.

Read the rest of the article here.

What Would It Take for You To Be More Active in Kiruv?

We’re all aware of the passing of Rabbi Noach Weinberg this past week. As you may know, one of Rabbi Weinberg’s most important projects was to get lay people involved in Kiruv.

What would it take for you to be more active in Kiruv?

1) Having tools and techniques to reach out.

2) Knowing that I would have some success in helping people become observant.

3) Internalizing the belief that every piece of Torah learned or mitzvah performed is valuable in and of itself.

4) Sensitizing myself to the tremendous chesed of bring people closer to Hashem.

5) Realizing that being aware of and acting on opportunities to bring people closer will tremendously help my own Yiddishkeit.

6) Having a clearing understanding that I have an obligation to do Kiruv under the mitzvah of Ahavas Hashem.

Tu B’Shvat – Fruits of our Labor

Rabbi Daniel Grama

I never really understood why we eat Carob, until recently. I give a weekly class to secular couples, and one week I found myself particularly stuck. Nothing was coming to mind. A friend suggested that I discuss the forthcoming Tu B’Shvat. While I know that the mishna lists it as one of the four Roshei HaShana, and the Ba’alei Machshava and Kabalah make a big deal out of it, to me it had no meaning beyond choosing between my favourite annual fruit and the unpopular Carob. So…..

Both Tanach and Chazal reveal a unique connection between the greatest of Hashem’s creations, Man, and His more basic creation of trees. Devorim (20,19) the Torah tells us that we may not destroy fruit trees, “For man is [like] the tree of the field.” Dovid HaMelech writes in Sefer Tehillim (92,13) that “the wicked grow like the grass and the righteous grow like a date tree.” Mesechet Gittin (57a), writes that when a child is born one should plant a tree.

Parsha Bereishis reveals a fascinating distinction between the creation of trees in contrast to the creation of the rest of the world. “B’Eser Ma’Amarim Nivrah Ha’Olam”, with ten utterances the world was created. Throughout the awesome event, a straightforward system was employed; Hashem said “and let there be… and then there was…..” Animals, stars, moon, night or day the process was the same, Hashem said it, Baruch Sh’omair, and that item came into existence, V’oseh. And once created, there was no need for follow-up. The creations would continue to exist or grow on their own. There was one exception. In perek 2 pasukim 8 & 9, the pasuk says, “And Hashem planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and He put there man that He created.” The next pasuk reads, “Hashem nurtured (Tzimach) from the ground all trees that were pleasant to see and good to eat. The Tree of Life was in the garden and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.”
Read more Tu B’Shvat – Fruits of our Labor

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of Blessed Memory

Rav Noach Weinberg

One of my best friends called me this morning at 6:30 AM to say the Hebrew words that translate: “Blessed is the True Judge”:

We write these words with great sadness and disbelief — our beloved Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Noach Yisrael Noach ben Yitzchak Mattisyahu Weinberg – passed away this morning, Feb 5/ Shevat 11.

“Reb Noach” changed my life more than any other person. We were not very close, but in many important respects he was like a father to me. He was the founder of the Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies, as it’s called officially, otherwise known simply as “Aish HaTorah” or “Aish.” Aish is a system of educational programs, including a full-blown yeshiva for students of all levels in Jerusalem as well as introductory and outreach programs throughout the world based on the premise of getting Jews back to Judaism.

I attended one such program, in Israel, after I emerged from college in 1985 as a puffy purposeless preppy who at least had the good sense to look for meaning, direction and truth. I was a little disappointed to realize, as I did, that Aish HaTorah was actually the vanguard of a whole “movement” — I didn’t want to be part of a movement; I just wanted to move. But I did move, and Aish helped move me, and what I learned and became and, in no small measure, what I left behind have made my life what it is today in virtually every positive aspect of it.

I was not young enough, or at least not in Aish early enough in my life, to be a close student, much less any kind of disciple, of R’ Noach. I don’t think I could have, anyway. I don’t believe we were simpatico that way. But still, personally, R’ Noach taught me plenty. He taught me how to live a life of resolute meaning, how to focus ambition on something greater than oneself, and how to give and give and give.

And though R’ Noach was sick, and I had been anticipating this day for years, and even had a premonition of his passing yesterday, I am very, very sad.

Ron and Rav Noach

And when I found the picture above I realized that I loved R’ Noach more than I perhaps understood until just now; and when I found the next picture in my scrapbook, of him warmly kissing my then-young children as if they were his own (for they were), I understood this even more, and even harder; and I let myself feel and admit that I miss him far more than I ever thought I would when I anticipated this moment, even already.

Originally posted here.

There will be a hesped for Rabbi Weinberg, delivered by Gedolei Yisroel, on Sunday Feb. 8th at 8pm

Yeshiva Ohr Yitzchok
1214 East 15th St. between L & M
Brooklyn, NY
A Woman’s seating section will be available

We Regret to Inform You of the Passing of Rabbi Noah Weinberg

From Aish

We write these words with great sadness and disbelief — our beloved Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Yisrael Noach ben Yitzchak Mattisyahu Weinberg – passed away this morning, Feb 5/ Shevat 11.

The funeral will be today at 1:30 pm, at the Ahavas Torah Shul in Kiryat Zanz, Jerusalem, and will proceed from there to Har Menuchos.

Words at this time feel wholly inadequate to describe the greatness of Rabbi Weinberg, of blessed memory. The shock is too great and the pain too fresh, but the situation demands a few words, and over the next week a more fitting tribute will be created.

Rabbi Weinberg was a Jewish leader and visionary par excellence. Every fiber of his being was animated by the reality of the Almighty and the truth of Torah. He lived with the awareness of God — His infinite love and awesomeness — and the power of Torah to instruct us on how to live a most meaningful life.

Rabbi Weinberg passionately believed in the greatness of every human being, because God Himself testified to the inherent greatness in every human being.

Rabbi Weinberg exuded love and concern for every Jew, and was a beloved father to thousands.

Rabbi Weinberg dedicated his life to bringing a renaissance within Jewish people, to reach out to every Jew and reconnect him to the depth and meaning of our heritage. The Jewish people are meant to be a light unto nations; Rabbi Weinberg undertook the task to galvanize the Jewish people and inspire us to live up to our mission and be Kiddush Hashem – to sanctify God’s Name in this world.

“The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, but the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah” (Deut. 29:28). Rabbi Weinberg lived with the reality that the all the revealed things are our responsibility. If masses of Jews are assimilating, it’s our responsibility to bring each and every one back. If there is a threat to the Jewish Nation or to the Western world, it cannot be ignored. We must meet the challenges facing us head on and do whatever we can to remedy the situation.

Rabbi Weinberg was fighting the battles of the Jewish people until his last day. Today we are orphans.

Seeing Is Not Believing

From an essay by Rabbi Nosson Weisz

Human beings can only make sense of the world they see around them by filtering the information presented by their senses through the intellectual lenses provided by their cultures. Living through events doesn’t guarantee that we see them in the proper perspective.

The idol worshipper lives in a physical world that exists separately from the beings that he worships. His Gods cannot tamper with the fundamental rules of reality. Plato sincerely felt that even God could not make the sides of a square equal to its diagonal. He did not feel that he was imposing a limitation on God’s power when he made this statement. His God was a part of the same reality as his own and therefore was also subject to the rules and limitations imposed by logic.

When a person’s cultural background teaches him that there cannot be miracles that violate natural law, he can actually experience the splitting of the sea and not see it for what it is. He will think that there must be some natural explanation. For him the miracle can never happen even when it happens. This principle is behind the spiritual rule we have developed in this essay; for such people the miracle of splitting the waters cannot happen by definition. Anyone who cannot see a miracle even when he experiences it never experiences it. He can easily drown in the sea that has been miraculously parted.

I Think I Owe a Big Thank You to Susie Essman

I owe a big thank you to Susie Essman. Yes, you read right—Susie Essman, the vulgar fouled mouthed comedienne now staring in the forthcoming Hallmark Hall of Fame documentary “Loving Leah.” Its not because she makes me laugh—believe me, she doesn’t, but Essman reminds me of why I am here and why I want to stay with Yiddishkeit.

When I first started thinking about writing this column, I felt flooded with self pity about how painful my teshuva journey has been. All kinds of unpleasant memories came back— my son being rejected from a yeshiva, my daughter being insulted by the Bais Yaacov principal, my other son getting potsched by his rebbe . No, the frum world hasn’t turned out to be heilige Disneyland I was, in my foolish naiveté searching for not now, but then I watched the YouTube clip of Susie Essman’s interview on the View.

In case you’ve been living Meah Shearim ( probably not a bad choice but then you wouldn’t be online would you) or in a cave, Essman is the star of the television drama “Loving Leah,” the latest media attempt to portray our people are bizarre primitives. “Loving Leah” is actually the story of —get this—a “modern thinking” Hassidic woman, a Lubavitcher ( no, not of the Rivkah Holzberg O”H ilk) who by a strange quirk of circumstance engages in a Levirate Marriage (yibum) with her late husbands secular brother.

And of course, , rather than the brother in law turned husband discovering the delights of the religious life, (that would have been the Artscroll plot) the opposite takes place, with lovely Leah letting her hair down and learning just how lovely it is to be secular, well maybe not quite secular but certainly a little less far frumped than she had been because being too frum is just, well, uncool, almost un-American.

Does everybody read the subplot? We , the uncompromising orthodox, the bnai aliya those of us who see our lives as a pursuit of holiness are a subversive group. Our culture is antithetical to the American way of life (the pursuit of happiness through whichever means suits you) and we need to be put in our place ie: made to seem ridiculous. That is what ‘Loving Leah” is all about..
Read more I Think I Owe a Big Thank You to Susie Essman

Some Musings on Words and Their Applications

By Rabbi Mordechai Scher
Beit Midrash Kol BeRamah/Santa Fe Torah Learning Coop

Like many who grew up in assimilated Jewish America of the 60s and 70s, I heard certain Yiddish terms commonly used to describe non-Jews. They were clearly used as part of a cultural lingo, to set apart the ‘other’ from ‘us’. What is interesting, and all too sad, is that the separation eventually appeared to me as a form of racism. After all, in nearly every way we lived the same as our non-Jewish neighbors; so why the insistence on a vocabulary of distinction and discrimination? It was clear that these terms were often intended to be pejorative. This bothered me even more when I had learned enough Torah to believe and understand that there are positive reasons for such distinction; but only in the larger framework of an overall commitment to Judaism. Now, the insistence on separation and discrimination solely for its own sake bothers me even more. Sadly, I recognize that this is a last vestige of a connection to Jewish history and tradition; but detached from that history and tradition it does not complement us at all. Even as we fled everything Jewish and ran to embrace nearly everything non-Jewish, we still insisted on these ridiculous, often insulting uses of language.

I can still remember with a laugh the one time an older relative saw me putting mayonnaise on a meat sandwich. She made a face and said, ‘that’s so goyish!’ This coming from someone who probably hadn’t eaten a bite of kosher food in decades. But that’s NOT goyish? And what rational reason did she have to object to something simply because it appears culturally non-Eastern European Jewish? Was she really worried about ‘hukoteihem’, the prohibition against imitating non-Jewish practices of religious import? The intonation made it clear that something ‘goyish’ is to be rejected.

Goy is, of course, a fairly neutral term in and of itself. Goyim simply means ‘the nations’. There is the Jewish people, and there are ‘the nations.’ Similarly, there is HaAretz (the Land, referring to the Land of Israel), and the rest of the world is Hutz L’aretz – outside the Land. For some of you there is New York, and the rest of the world is ‘out of town’. So, exclusive of intonation or other indications of disrespect, the term ‘goy’ by itself isn’t insulting.
Read more Some Musings on Words and Their Applications