Sharing Our Torah – Is There a Point When You Just Need to Move On?

We’re coming up to Shavous and we all feel blessed to be involved with Torah. But often when we try to share the Torah with those who aren’t observant they can sometimes look at us like we’re from Mars.

Yes we’ve listened to the tapes of why Torah Judaism doesn’t discriminate against women. And we know why believing we are the Chosen People is not a sign of arrogance. And we have an answers as to why wiping out Amalek is not barbaric. We know why kashrus, Shabbos, tefillin and all the mitzvos we perform are still relevant to the modern man.

Yes, we can answer all the tough questions, but we still can’t seem to move our neighbors off their position of rejecting Torah.

Do we just move ahead and not get distracted by those who don’t accept the truth of Torah? Or should we keep on trying to increase our clarity in these matters and work on ways that we can better share what we know with others?

Food, Body Image and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

Conference for Professionals, Educators, Rabbis and Students

Keynote speakers at the event will be Esther Altmann, PhD., a Manhattan psychologist and eating disorders specialist and Senior Consultant, Orthodox Jewish Eating Disorders Program, Renfrew Center; and Rabbi Abraham Twerski, MD, Founder and Medical Director Emeritus of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, psychiatrist, and prolific author.

Sunday, June 7th, 2009
Ramaz Middle School
New York, NY

Full details and registration at

There are many theories as to why there has been a rise of eating disorders in the Jewish community. Some say it’s because of the pressures for the need to control; some attribute it to the influence of the media and its emphasis on slimness; and still others have other reasons. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that eating disorders are a real and malevolent presence in our community today. Therefore, the Orthodox Union, in conjunction with the Renfrew Center Foundation, is sponsoring a seminar on “Food, Body Image, and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community,” on Sunday, June 7, from 9:00 am-5:00 pm. It will take place at Ramaz Middle School, 114 East 85th Street, New York City.

Here are some of the program highlights:


Eating Disorders: The Healing Power of the Jewish Community
Esther Altmann, PhD

So many Jewish girls live on the edge of an eating disorder – hovering, but not crossing over the line to a full blown syndrome. Their preoccupation and angst about food and body drain precious emotional and intellectual resources that could be directed toward more productive endeavors. Eating disorders can be life-threatening, debilitating, chronic conditions. Early detection and treatment can help prevent the anguish and suffering of young Jewish women and their families. Over the years there have been repeated efforts in the Jewish community to address the problem of eating disorders, yet the illness persists. Are there cultural stressors that may contribute to the problem? How might Jewish values mitigate eating disorders and their consequences? Dr. Altmann will address these issues and share clips from the documentary film “Hungry To Be Heard.”

Esther Altmann, PhD is an eating disorders specialist and Senior Consultant to the Orthodox Jewish Eating Disorders Program at The Renfrew Center in New York. Dr. Altmann is currently on the teaching faculty at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and the Drisha Institute. Dr. Altmann is a psychologist in private practice in Manhattan.


Spirituality, Self-Esteem and Recovery
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, MD

Eating becomes disordered when food serves some purpose other than nutrition. Food can be used as a tranquilizer, temporarily relieving the distress of anxiety, or as a means for demonstrating control. It is necessary to address the sources of anxiety and the circumstances that cause unmanageable feelings. Failure to do so leaves a void, which may be experienced as anxiety. Self-fulfillment requires using all the traits that distinguish a person from other living things. The totality of these traits can be described as the human spirit. Exercising the traits that comprise the spirit constitutes spirituality. A person can attain optimum self-esteem only by becoming or striving to become everything one can be. Hence, self-esteem requires the self-fulfillment of spirituality.

Abraham J. Twerski, MD is the Founder/Medical Director Emeritus of the nationally acclaimed Gateway Rehabilitation Center. An ordained Rabbi, practicing psychiatrist, and prolific author of more than 50 books, Dr. Twerski is recognized as an international authority in the field of chemical dependency. He has been Clinical Director, Department of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, Founder of the first Pennsylvania program for nurses with addiction problems, and Chairman of the Pennsylvania Medical Society Committee on the Impaired Physician. The recipient of honorary degrees from St. Vincent’s College, Duquesne University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Twerski has received numerous awards including the Nelson J. Bradley Life Time Achievement Award from the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers.

Rabbi Akiva and the Curse of Torah Without Respect

By Simon Synett

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and they all died in one period because they didn’t treat one-another with respect. In Hebrew shelo nahagu kavod ze-lazeh. (Yevamos 62b) The gemara continues that from that time, the entire world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva took on the five apprentices who would later become the leaders of their generation. Clearly then, Rabbi Akiva and his students were considered as the transmitters of Torah of their time, the greatest scholars and teachers.

Given that, it’s hard for us to grapple with the idea that people of such stature would sink to such a low level of behaviour in their interpersonal relationships that they deserved to be killed off by the Angel of Death. It must have been some deep and pervasive character flaw that was so destructive that they simply weren’t capable of transmitting Torah to the next generation. They had to be wiped out and Rabbi Akiva’s legacy would be passed through a new set of students. Can we put a finger on what the problem was? More importantly, can we make sure we’re not suffering from it?

In Avos 2:2, Rabban Gamliel tells us that Torah study is greatly enhanced by making an honest living, the idea being that combining the two keeps one from pursuing his baser desires and makes him far less likely to transgress the mitzvos. In fact, continues the author, Torah study that isn’t accompanied by work will no doubt lead to a rotten, sinful life.

The text of the Mishna is a little puzzling: For one thing, if the author had intended to point out that you need a livelihood before you can engage in study, then why does he emphasise the need to be doing both? As if to say that even if you have wealth, you need to work, not in order to make a living, but to prevent a descent towards a sinful life.

Secondly, Rabban Gamliel points out the flip side, that any Torah study that isn’t accompanied by melacha – work – is ultimately doomed to bring you to bad ways. He clearly wants to emphasise that it’s not that the lack of work brings you directly to sin, but that the lifestyle will eventually bring you down.

I’d like to suggest a novel way of understanding this that will help us make sense of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students for not giving respect to each other.

Given that there are whole communities of Jews who champion a lifestyle of Torah study without work, I think we can learn something by making some observations…

This choice of lifestyle is justified by reference to the mystical tradition of the kabbalists, as expressed by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin in his Nefesh HaChaim. The theme of this work and the underlying philosophy is the idea that the physical world that we exist in is really a means to the end of achieving spiritual delight in the spiritual world.

The spiritual world is the real world and the physical world is a low resolution reproduction, to use a modern analogy. You have to see your actions, not as mundane physical, mechanical processes, but as spiritual levers that make things happen in a Spiritual Reality. True, you can’t see it now, but when your time’s up here, you will see how every single thing that ever issued from your feeble mind, let alone mouth or hands, has contrived to create an Eternal Life that you have to live out forever!

Given that, it’s hardly surprising that if you take this to heart, you’ll want to make sure that everything you do has spiritual significance, and you’ll want to minimise your involvement with mundane activities.

When studied in depth and in context of the entire oral tradition of Judaism, this idea gives us an exhilarating way of looking at everything we do in life, how everything we do has knock on effects way beyond the immediate visible results. It can and should bring us to a fine tuned sensitivity to everything and everyone around us.

With a focus on the spiritual realm, we can come to convince ourselves that any bodily discomfort we’re feeling right now isn’t real, or that the desire to sit and play computer games instead of working isn’t real. This can be a very useful way of thinking. And it really gives us an edge of self control that would otherwise be hard to achieve.

But there’s a danger…

In the hands of lazy people (and aren’t we all a bit lazy) this way of thinking becomes a way of shrugging off the things that happen to us in the here and now, shirking responsibility and ultimately complete disregard for other people and the whole environment.

You see, if you’re trying to place your life’s daily events within a narrative that takes place primarily in the unseen spiritual world, then you must be telling yourself quietly but constantly that “what’s happening now isn’t really happening or at least it isn’t what it seems to be”.

Do you see how if you do that consistently enough you’ll really experience life differently? It will really matter much less to you whether your food is tasty, or whether your clothes are ironed, whether your streets are clean, or whether your kids are screaming. And again, there’s something to be said for being able to achieve that kind of personal peace. I can see the attraction of it.< /sarcasm>

But it doesn’t end there. For so many good people it becomes such a way of life that not only do these things cease to matter to them but they stop even noticing them.

Then, from not noticing your own discomfort it’s so easy to belittle other peoples’ troubles, and especially easy because it’s done in the name of holiness. “After all didn’t we learn that this world is just a means to an end? Don’t you see that if you could overcome your small minded worries you could achieve eternal spiritual bliss?”

Do you see what I’m getting at? The more you focus on the spiritual “reality” the more you numb yourself to physical sensations and eventually you come to care much less about life itself. After all, what could be better for you than to free your soul from the bounds of it’s very mundane and needy body. Why shlepp this lump of meat around with you when you could be soaring in the heavens.

This, I think, explains what Rabban Gamliel is getting at in his Mishna. Torah study, that is engagement in the spiritual world, does go a long way towards freeing you up from your more basic urges. It gives you an outlook that strengthens you when you’re confronted with an internal battle. No doubt.

But without derech eretz – working hard for a living, your disregard for the mundane will bring you down.

Sorry to be trite but we need to get back to basics: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) – this is a summary of the Torah, says the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Interestingly, the same Rabbi Akiva whose students perished for not showing respect. In fact it may be that he came to recognise this only after that trauma as I’ll show you in a moment.

The self esteem gurus will tell you that from here there’s an imperative to love yourself, for otherwise how are you to love your neighbour “as yourself”.

But Judaism is primarily a call to action so love isn’t defined by a purely psychological idea. Rather as Hillel the Elder explains, the deal here is that if you wouldn’t want something done to you, DON’T do it to others. Full stop.

That means that instead of trying to minimise your sensations of things that you’d rather avoid, you should actively cultivate a sensitivity to them, otherwise how will you know what not to do to others? You have to be 100% present in the here and now, feeling pleasure and pain with full sensation. If you do that you can start “loving your neighbour as yourself”.

Lo nahagu kavod – they didn’t treat each other with respect. Kavod, the word used for respect, comes from the Hebrew word meaning weight. This indicates that at the root of giving respect to someone or something is giving it the appropriate weight. You have to see the whole picture and you also have to get to the heart of how that person fits in, who he is and how he is important. When you do that, kavod, or respect flows naturally.

Perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s students were such scholars, so immersed in spiritual pursuits that they just weren’t able to engage one another in a way that led to true kavod. They related to one another as they related to themselves, as primarily spiritual beings. They didn’t pay much attention to the outer features and it didn’t occur to them that they were missing out. But they were. Completely. They could not possibly be trusted to transmit the Torah to the next generation because they would transmit their warped world view along with it.

Rabbi Akiva himself needed to come to the recognition that love your neighbour as yourself was the axis upon which the Torah turns, and to transmit that through his new students.

Should I Be Learning Kabbalah?

Dear Beyond BT

My friend and I have been frum for about 10 years coming though a Yeshivish environment. We both spend a decent amount of time learning, including regular review of the parsha with Rashi and we have gone through Mishnayos and Mishna Berurah on the Daf a day plan. In addition we both have regular Gemora chavrusas and shiurim that we attend.

For the past few years my friend has been learning Kabbalah like Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Innerspace, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s Way of G-d and the Knowing Heart and many other English Kabbalah books. I’ve told him that he really shouldn’t be so involved with Kabbalah and should stick to the standard Yeshivish material. He tells me that Kabbalah reveals the inner depth of Torah, and many great Rabbis think it is appropriate to learn these days, and he feels it helps him get closer to Hashem.

I’m wondering perhaps I should spend some of my time learning the Kabbalah seforim. Has anybody been involved with the Kabbalah seforim like the ones mentioned above? Would you recommend it for someone with my background?


What is Torah Judaism (in 500 words or less) #5

By Rabbi David Aaron

(This was composed primarily from Rabbi Aaron’s book – Living a Joyous Life – The True Spirit to Jewish Practice, which we highly recommend. Check out Rabbi Aaron’s other books or visit his website.)

Judaism clarifies the essential beliefs that inspire and enable us to live a purposeful, passionate, pleasurable life soaring to the greatest heights of vitality, meaning and joy.

The goal of Judaism is to be who we are, godly beings.

When we live according to Torah, we’re connected with a higher perspective on life. We’re seeing the bigger picture and behaving in a manner that expresses and reflects what reality truly is, even if we do not completely perceive it.

When we live the mitzvot, we behave in a way that is harmonious with the way life truly is. And we are rewarded with living according to our true essence.

Torah articulates the universal principles of spiritual and ethical life and empowers us to be who you really are. It frees us to live in harmony with the universe and to be one with G-d.

Through our involvement with the text of Torah we meet G-d the author, and begin to see how, through His words, he speaks through us and reveals Himself to us.

Prayer makes us a vessel to receive G-d’s blessings. It builds our awareness of G-d. The more we acknowledge G-d and the more we invite Him into our world, the more we experience His divine presence in our daily lives.

When we don’t work on Shabbos, we remind ourselves that we’re really working for G-d. Judaism says we are souls, a part of the creator, and therefore we are also creators. But we don’t create for ourselves, we create for G-d. When we realize that, we draw much energy and blessings from G-d.

Judaism gives us powerful and practical ways to connect to God and each other, ways to express our love and to feel love. It provides down-to-earth spiritual strategies for living a more complete, joyful, meaningful, and enlightened life. But we have to put a little soul into it. And when we do, our lives fill with profound purpose and passion and abundant spiritual pleasure.

Money, career accomplishments, vacations and physical pleasures can bring happiness but without spiritual awareness, it is a low level. Judaism helps us struggle with issues like “Am I a good person?” “What more can I do to better the world?” “Is my life meaningful?” “How can I be more connected to G-d?”. Even though such questions might bring discontent and sadness into our lives, the end result makes us much greater people.

The Torah does not give any dispensations from the challenges of life. It does not promise an easy life but a meaningful life. It does not offer an instant solution to sadness but it does offer a soul-ution to sadness and the secret to happiness. Through its’ wisdom and guidance, Torah empowers us to be souls and enables us to make I-contact with the Ultimate I – God.

Judaism offers us the tools so that we can be truly living a joyous life.

His Whole Life Turned On A Sandwich

by Michael Gros

You never know what event will spark a person’s interest to return to Judaism. Art Sherman was an assimilated Jew married to a Polish Catholic woman. He owned a non-kosher Italian hero shop, and an unbelievable comment one day by his Rastafarian employee sent him on a life-changing journey.

After their wedding in 1973, Art and Karen moved from place to place, first to Philadelphia and then to Brooklyn. There, he decided to open a small sandwich store. He made all types of sandwiches, from five different kinds of cheese steaks to Italian hoagies stacked high with ham, pork-salami and provolone cheese. Customers loved the sandwiches and business was great.

Over time, he started noticed specific groups of people who would not eat particular sandwiches. He had lots of Jamaican, Seventh Day Adventist and Muslim customers who said they didn’t eat pork because it was prohibited in the Old Testament.

Art continued to devour his non-kosher sandwiches, but over time he began to sense the irony of his non-Jewish customers attempting to follow religious dietary laws which he ignored completely.
Read more His Whole Life Turned On A Sandwich

Agudah and the BT

As you know from last week’s post, Ron Coleman, an integral part of Beyond BT, is being honored by Agudath Israel of America. We are setting a goal here on the blog to raise a modest $360 on behalf of Agudah and we on the admin side are personally pledging $100 towards that goal. If you pledge or give anything for the dinner please email us or leave a comment here.

We get a lot of requests to publicize causes from a lot of worthy organizations. We usually ask for a BT angle for the cause to make it relevant for our community. Of course, we don’t think BT causes are the only ones worth supporting, but the reality is that there are very few organizations who explicitly support BTs and that’s the cause that we’re focused on here.

So here are three ideas how Agudah can support BTs:

Show Explicit Concern For the Entire Jewish People
BTs sit in a strange place, often with one ear in the Torah observant world and one ear with family and friends in the non observant world. Most of us respect the gedolim as the leaders of the entire Jewish people, but many of our non-observant friends and relatives and perhaps some BTs themselves don’t feel the love and the concern that the gedolim undoubtedly have. Although Agudah is primarily tasked with overseeing Right Wing Orthodox issues, perhaps they can spend some tiny percentage of their resources showing concern and providing solutions or advice for all of the Jewish people.

Constructively Face the Challenges of the Internet
The official position of the Agudah seems to be that the Internet is prohibited to use, but many in the BT world feel that they need to access the Internet. Perhaps the Agudah can recognize this growing reality and start a campaign to encourage all Internet users to have appropriate filters and to use the Internet responsibly and constructively.

Help Us With Our Learning
The Daf Yomi Commission has helped many working people include some level of Gemora learning in their lives with Daf Yomi. BTs are probably missing out more than most in learning Gemora. Perhaps the Agudah can structure a deal with Artscroll to make the translations available at a low cost along with a program to enable and encourage any Jew that desires to put some Gemora learning in their lives.

Perhaps people can provide some other ideas on how Agudah can specifically help BTs.

Agudath Israel of America and me. And us.

I’m going to be an “honoree” at the Agudath Israel of America dinner a week from Sunday, May 17th in New York. I am among a handful of people receiving the Avodas Hakodesh award, which is for volunteers who contribute to the Agudah in some way by, well, avodah — work. If the Agudah calls what I do kodesh (holy) and asks me, as it has, to help promote the organization’s goals by agreeing to accept a plaque and to lean on my friends and associates to contribute, I’m happy to do it.

Someone asked me why. Part of it is that I am friendly with quite a few people who are very involved with the Agudah, and I like them, and what they do, and I like what they ask me to do, too. But on a less personal note, here is the letter I sent out, tweaked a little:

I have agreed to accept the Avodas Hakodesh Award at the upcoming 87th Anniversary Dinner of Agudath Israel of America at the New York Hilton Hotel on Sunday May 17th. And I am writing to persuade you to join me there.

The easy part is explaining why I have carried an Agudath Israel membership card for over 20 years and why this organization merits your support.

“The Agudah” is the largest grassroots Orthodox organization in the country, with chapters in over 30 states. In a time of dizzying political and social change, the Agudah is our community’s consistent voice in federal, state and local government. Its efforts on behalf of yeshivos and day schools, religious freedom, and advocating on behalf of the needy and disadvantaged are well known. Behind the scenes, I have been privileged to be exposed to Agudah’s efforts in coordinating private legal and allied resources where they are needed. And of course, the Agudah plays a leading role in spreading Torah throughout the world, in sponsoring social service and housing programs, job training, youth activities and summer camps, and providing overseas relief.

Agudath Israel takes on challenges that affect the whole Jewish world, with unusual clarity of mission. That clarity is a result of the fact that the Agudah operates under the direction and guidance of the Gedolei Yisroel. And that is why I am an Agudist.

As would be expected with an organization whose ambition and responsibility are almost boundless, the Agudah bestows great benefits… on countless beneficiaries… but is far short of benefactors. Please be one this year, when your support matters more than ever, by making a contribution via this link and, I hope, joining me at the Agudah dinner. Thank you for being at least a little open to persuasion!

You like? OK. Now, someone asked me why BT’s, in general, should want to be involved in this effort, and in particular why BBT-er’s would. To me, the foregoing is more than enough reason. The Agudah does important work on behalf of the Jewish people and it aspires to do its work by the principal of Daas Torah (Torah wisdom as enunciated by leading sages of our time).

It never occurred to me that BT’s might only be interested in supporting “kiruv” (outreach) projects, in the popular sense of the word. Supporting works that benefit the whole community and enhance kavod shomayim (the honor of Heaven) is for all of us. I can think of no better way to demonstrate a lack of need for social training wheels than for BT’s to demonstrate their commitment to the general welfare of our community.

Besides, it has been argued here often, and of course elsewhere, that the best kiruv of all is displaying to the “not yet frum” the “best” the frum world has to offer in terms of role models. Many of those role models are to be found in the ranks of the Agudah, both professionals and volunteers, and as I said, it was obvious to me almost as soon as I understood the “scene” that I must be an Agudist. The fact that I have, over the decades, had the chance to become friends with and work with so many of their number is one of those very happy bonuses in life for which I am very grateful to Hashem.

I like ’em. They’re my guys, and they’ve invited me to dinner. They even put me in a cool video. And now I’m inviting you!

(Don’t worry, glatt kosher. I asked. ;-))

Teshuva and Changing Politics

It’s been a long time since I posted here, but I was feeling kind of bad for Mark and David (who recently emailed out a request for posts) and I still remember the last question I was pondering for Beyond BT – a question that irked me so much, I found myself stymied. That question was: have your politics changed since you’ve done teshuva. And the answer is a very Jewish one – yes and no.

I was raised on liberal values. I attended the most integrated public schools in the most multicultural borough of New York City – Queens – and had friends of all races and ethnicities. In the summer, I attended a sleep-away camp with an international staff where we sang Pete Seeger songs and sent a “freeze the bomb” petition to President Reagan. In high school, I joined the student organization, the H.O.P.E. club, which stood for the Hillcrest Organization for Peace on Earth. Unfortunately, our faculty advisor was a communist, so that’s the “no” part of my answer. No, I am no longer a communist. But yes, I still retain my liberal values. Racism still offends me, and pacifism still appeals to me. I believe the government should spend money on social programs. And – don’t flame, please – though we don’t know how much of a friend he’ll be to Israel, I’m happy that President Obama won.

I know liberalism is unpopular in frum circles, and I know there are good reasons for it. Israel is number one, of course, but then there are matters like abortion and gay marriage. So I’ve learned to keep my politics to myself in the frum world. I was downright inspired when I came across the organization “Ayecha” a few years ago, a group dedicated to combating prejudice against Jews of color, but as far as I know, they’re not that active anymore.

So in a certain way, this isn’t a very happy post. I don’t like that I’ve had to keep part of myself in the closet all these years, and I think plenty of new and potential BTs would be turned off by the thought that they “have to” do the same. So here I am: out of the closet. Liberalism is a core value I learned in childhood. It didn’t die with my teshuva. And maybe, somehow, some way, I’ll figure out how to be a liberal activist in this participatory democracy while still maintaining my Torah lifestyle.

If the reaction to this post doesn’t get too nasty, there may be a Part 2 in which I’ll review President Obama’s Dreams from My Father. See you!

Introduction to Judaism Books – Are There Any Must Reads?

Many of us have shelves lined with Introduction to Judaism books, but I’m not sure there are any books that stand out as clear must reads. Many of the books out there are encyclopedic and many seem more geared to the BT already on his way.

Have you found any books that you would say are must reads?

If not, what would a must read book look like in terms of content, length and tone?

What is Torah Judaism (in 500 Words or Less) #4

By Rabbi Micha Berger

1- It is the nature of good to have a recipient

2- We were created to receive good

3- The ultimate good is the Image of G-d

4- Therefore we can’t just receive, Hashem gave us an opportunity to finish the job, to imitate the Creator

5- Thus, we must perfect our relationship with Him, and our relationship with others — to both receive and to give

6- Which in turn requires perfecting ourselves, the sole part of the relationship we can change

7- Halakhah is a tool for doing so

8- Because of the above, halakhah is produced in partnership between G-d and man

9- History is a process from Adam to the messiah

10- Perfecting the world requires cooperation, and thus one can’t be a Jew without being part of the community

Originally posted in the comments in this post