Who to read

In the last few years there has been a very welcome addition to the unique genre of literature called the gedolim biography. I’m referring to translations of unusually intimate and detailed biographies, previously only available in Hebrew, of modern gedolim such as the Brisker Rav, HaRav Menachem Man Shach zt”l, and biographical sketches of other 20th century giants. The enthusiasm, and controversy, about these books once again raises the challenging issue, however, of how we are to interact with this sort of work — intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I have mentioned here before (links below), gedolim biographies are, axiomatically, not comparable to the literary genre known as biography in the “outside world.” They are, in fact, more akin to the genre known as hagiography, defined as “the study of saints.”

This choice of terminology is not meant as a criticism, as it is often used when describing insufficiently critical biographical works. Rather the premise of the gedolim biography is entirely the same as that of hagiography: The subject is a person entitled to, and granted by the presumptive readership, elevated reverence due to his spiritual accomplishments. The purpose of the work is to celebrate these and to inspire readers and teach by explaining how a person who walked so closely with God did so, so that we can emulate or otherwise learn from those ways. While it is true that a journalistic or “objective” biography can, by virtue of showing a “warts and all” portrait of its subject, sometimes be even more inspiring than a hagiography — especially because of its arguably more practical application — our sensibililty, as observant Jews, does not admit of that option.

For people such as myself who come from a secular background, and who may have honed their intellectual or analytical skills through one or more courses of university study, this last assertion requires some serious analysis and thought. We always must satisfy ourselves as to whether we are, after all, in a “comfort zone” intellectually, based on the hard-wired person we are today, or whether we are entering the realm of “believe this,” as opposed to “know this.” All of us have passed into the latter territory on this journey, but it is not granted to just anything, or anyone, and should not be.

To some extent I have wrestled with this issue before here, in this article, where we all discussed anti-religious blogging by Jews and in this essay-length comment to this fine Steve Brizel post. And I also wrote a while back about the challenges of Judaica publishing, and purchasing. It is not because I consider myself so citable, but rather because I don’t want to be accused of needless repetition, that I keep linking to these earlier musings; more importantly, these are all related: How we reach a point where following the instructions in the “how to” books and the halacha works and the Artscroll Siddur only get us so far. We want to know what’s next, how do we do more, what does it look like? And we don’t, most of us, have either parents or ancestors or even access to a personal oral tradition about what it might look like, for us, at “more” in this particular manner. So because we are, as has been said by many more scholarly than I, in the post-oral-tradition era and rely instead on written works, we turn to books about acclaimed people because we want to populate our internal personal galleries of personal exemplars of avodas Hashem [service to G-d] the highest order.

It is worth examining the premise of the modern-day concept of the “tell-all” biography in the first place. We start with the axiom that not everything ought to be said, much less written, much less published. More specifically, there is no question that we learn “more” from a “warts and all” biography, but it is far from clear that we learn better. It is said, or was said before it became so utterly anachronistic, that no man is a hero to his valet. Yet it is not the person who has the most “intimate” knowledge of a person’s least dignified, least elevated functions who has the most to tell us about who that person is — for in fact the most prosaic aspects of a person’s life are the ones that are the least distinguishing. We all know why Pharoah went down to the Nile in the morning, and notwithstanding the official story, surely his courtiers did as well. The pretense “worked” for all involved. And while in contrast halacha does not promote falsehood about the natural order of life and living, we still forbid a disciple from beholding his master in an undignified state, and so too a child his parent, and a subject his king. We don’t learn about a person by reading his entrails or his fingernail clippings or his laundry list — fine.

On the other side of the issue, fawning, starry-eyed treatment that turns a life of high achieviement and complexity into a facile fairy tale is of limited value. Not no value at all: For BT’s, at least, they still provide a basic narrative outline of stuff we didn’t learn growing up — names, dates, places — that is no less useful, and is probably more so, than the other accepted narratives (say, l’havdil [pardon the comparison] about the Pilgrims, Abe Lincoln, Babe Ruth) we learned about the world growing up. There are worse things to keep on your nightstand.

What is hard to excuse, though — and often hard to perceive, especially for neophytes — are distortions such as hidden agendas, material omissions and, of course, outright falsehoods. I am sure this phenomenon exists within the gedolim bio genre: more of the first kind, less of the second, and probably an unfortunate amount of the third. (But then this is true of ever kind of literature — especially blogs, of course; especially anonymous blogs; and, I’m comfortable saying, most especially, since you mention it, anonymous blogs that trash gedolim. Perhaps I’m biased that way, but at least I put my name on what I say.)

The more recent books, including some originally written in English, are better than many of the early entries, in part because people, perhaps people such as ourselves, demand more from our literature. They are increasingly well sourced, and while they respect considerations of dignity and reverence, they acknowledge the existence of the world around their subjects, as well as the fact that not all the gedolim being biographed agreed with each other about every little thing. Indeed, if you line all these narratives up in a mental spreadsheet, you can, reading between the lines, figure out a thing or two about what’s “really” being said. Then you have a starting point, and can seek information and guidance about from people who might be able to elucidate the issues and personalities more candidly, or from a different perspective.

There are still some serious flaws in virtually all such biographies. One important one is the lack of acknowledgment of the biographical importance of a gadol’s spouse and other non-talmud-chacham family members. Notwithstanding understandable concerns of privacy and tzenius [modesty and dignity], this consistent omission presents an incomplete picture of the life of such great men and indeed of Jewish life and human life in general. Not surprisingly, from what I am told, these omissions leave some female readers cold too. But there is hope. In particular, the first half (the only half translated so far) of Rav Asher Bergman’s biography on Rav Shach represents a very substantial step in the right direction on this score. It will be interesting to see if the second volume addresses some important and meaningful issues (some of which even BT’s know enough about to be looking for) in the life of this great man.

And at the end of the day, that is the thing: By these books, I have a sense of a kind of greatness I would not otherwise know. It helps me to appreciate how these gedolim have shaped communal values, made our present-day leaders who they are and, to some extent, how we’ve gotten into some of the pickles we’re in. You can’t believe anything you read, if it’s not the Torah — even if it’s about the men who lived and taught Torah. But a mature appreciation of gedolim biographies can lead to a mature appreciation of who we are today and what a person can achieve in this world and the next. That’s why I read them.

Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos

Just Released in Time for Chanukah!

by Bracha Goetz

Published by Judaica Press, 2010

Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos is a new book for little children that is full of tremendous potential. It enables children to actually experience the joy of doing mitzvos while the book is being read. The two dimensional children in the book’s illustrations transform into three dimensional finger “puppets” when children put their fingers through the holes on each page – and act out each mitzva!

As we watch, our children themselves give life, not only to the cardboard boys and girls in the book – but also to the mitzvos they pretend to perform. Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos is ideal for children coming from observant families where they get to see these mitzvos actualized, and it is also an engaging gift to give to a young Jewish child who does not ordinarily have the opportunity to experience all these customary mitzvos.

Children love to pretend, and with this book, they can get a real taste of the pleasure that is possible in doing mitzvos such as walking in Eretz Yisroel, dancing on Simchas Torah, baking challah, giving tzedakah – and even expressing gratitude to a parent with a great big hug. Their little fingers, stuck through the holes of this sturdy and colorful board book become either arms or legs, depending upon what’s needed to take part in each mitza!

Let Your Fingers Do the Mitzvos will be enjoyed again and again by young children who can fully delight in this interactive and novel book. It can be found in local Jewish bookstores and online at Judaicapress.com.

Eight Questions on This Weeks Parsha.

Some interesting thoughts on approaching the Parsha in a comment thread last week.
This weeks parsha Vayeishev has 4 chapters:
-Brothers Sell Yosef
-Tamar Tricks Yehuda
-Yosef in the House of Potifar and Jail
-The Baker and Wine Pourer’s Dreams

Here’s 8 questions to research about this weeks Parsha:

Was Yaakov justified in buying Yosef a special gift?

Who is responsible for jealousy, the ones who caused it, Yaakov and Yosef, or the ones who feel it, the brothers?

Was Yosef justified in giving Yaakov evil reports to the brothers?

Who sold Yosef to Egypt?

Was Tamar justified in tricking Yehuda?

How did Yehuda succumb to Tamar?

How did Yosef allow himself to be alone with Mrs. Potiphar?

Why were Yosef’s efforts considered a lack of faith when he asked the butler to remember him when released?

Are You a Closet Hellenist?

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The Greeks centered their opposition to the Jews on three religious laws that one the surface of things couldn’t be less threatening to them or their way of life. Why would a Greek concern himself about someone else circumcising his son? If a neighbor likes having three rather lavish meals on Saturday after attending the synagogue why let it occupy space in your mind? The most puzzling was their antagonism towards consecrating the new moon, a religious ceremony that had no observable impact other than being the basis of the Jewish calendar. Can you imagine losing any sleep over when Ramadan comes out next year?

The underlying antagonism was caused by what these commandments represent. Circumcision is a statement. It tell you that you are not born perfect, that perfection has to be earned, and that the path towards perfection requires a certain degree of sacrifice, and a certain measure of authentic submission to a force higher than your own ego. Nothing could possibly be less Greek.

Shabbos takes us even further from the Greek vision of a human centered world. What we say by keeping Shabbos is that even our creativity and our ability to dominate nature and make it our own, is not the end of the story. The highest level from our point of view is taking all of our creative energy and saying, “let go. It’s time to step back and see what God, not I, created”. When you see things from that angle, it isn’t hard to see what was so offensive about defining time through ritual instead of through human observation.

What all of this tells you is that this is the time of year that you can decide once and for all that you can finally stop being a closet Hellenist. You body, your endeavors and your sense of reality can all go beyond the limitations of the little castle called “me” and explore a new planet, one called “transcendence”. You can be bigger than your ego and your assumptions.

Let the light of the candles that reflect eternal truth give you enough light to step into the next phase of your life, into a more holy and God aware future.

Visit Rebbetzin Heller’s Website for more articles.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller will be speaking to women in Kew Gardens Hills,
Tonight, Thursday, November 18th at Congregation Ahavas Yisroel – 8:15 PM
147-02 73rd Ave, Flushing, NY 11367.
The topic is: “Becoming a Builder: Creating and Enriching Successful Marriages”.
Admission is free.

Are Our Yeshivos Meeting Our Communal Needs?

Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch recently posted an article saying that Today’s Yeshiva System Is A Recipe To Create Kids At-Risk.

In the article Rabbi Schonbuch says:

In general our yeshiva system has become too elitist and too inflexible to meet the needs of a growing percentage of Jewish children.

Let me be perfectly clear: most yeshivas today only want to accept kids who are known as APKs or Auto Pilot Kids. They expect that children will be able to sit in large classrooms (25-30 per class) listening to one Rebbe, chap the gemarah after one lecture, and rely little on the teacher for their personal, intellectual, or emotional needs.

The truth is that a large and growing percentage of our children don’t fit this mold. Many require individual attention, smaller classrooms, lessons and homework sheets suited to their needs, and a Rebbe that cares more about them than their marks. Many of our children need personalized attention, visually-based instruction (like slides or power point presentations), and Rebbes that are able to complement and bond with children who don’t necessarily fit the mold. Our yeshivas mistakenly offer an education that doesn’t reflect the dictum “Chanoch leNoar lifee Darcho” – to educate a child according to their way; rather, they maintain its “lifee Darcheinu” meaning “it’s our way or the highway.” So a significant proportion of Jewish children are rejected and find themselves out of the schools they need and onto the streets.

He also proposes a 12 point action plan.

Do you think Rabbi Schonbuch is correct in his assesment?

What percentage of high school students are in Yeshivos that don’t meet their needs?

Is this just a kids at risk issues, or is the average B student also under served?

Can our schools afford a finer tracked system?

The Baal Teshuvah and Israel

by Reb Akiva of Mystical Paths

As you become interested in Judaism and start reading the tefilot (prayers), you notice reference after reference to Israel. As a Jewish American (order intention) who’s looking to learn more about religion, the constant mentions of Israel are downright confusing.

Learning a bit more it gets even more confusing! Why do we say “moreed hatal” or “mashiv haruach umoreed hageshem” (who makes the dew fall or who brings the wind and rain) at different times of the year which may not match the local weather pattern? Because that’s when it rains or doesn’t rain in Israel!

Sitting back as an American, why am I suddenly expected to be praying about Israel all the time? Isn’t this kind of a political thing? Do I have to instantly become a zionist and supporter of the Israeli government to be religiously Jewish?

It takes some time to learn the proper balance and perspective. That is…Israel is the Holy Land and G-d’s gift to the Jewish people. Judaism is intimately tied up with Israel, such that over half the commandments can ONLY be fulfilled in Israel, every set of prayers and even birkat hamazon (blessings after a meal) mention Israel and the mystical side of Judaism teaches that all our prayers must travel via Israel on their way to the kisay hakavod.

While it is possible to be Jewish and religiously Jewish in any part of the world, Judaism is designed around Israel, Jerusalem, and the Beis HaMikdash (the Holy Temple currently in ruin with a mosque sitting on the site). This is not a political statement, this is religious statement that is a fundamental part of Judaism and Jewishness.

Now how Jews should deal with this in relating to a secular Jewish Israeli government operating a secular Jewish nation-state with a majority Jewish population in PART of the historical and biblical Land of Israel and incorporating Jewish culture and holidays is another question altogether.

But regardless of one’s political position there’s two things that can’t be denied. Judaism and Jewishness is directly tied to the Land of Israel. One cannot deny this without denying the Torah, the Mishnah, the Gemora, the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch.

And the current State of Israel has a whole lot of Jews living there. Just about 1/2 the Jews of the world currently live in Israel, with Jews from 63 different countries making their home there. The threats to the State of Israel are existential, meaning life and death, existence or genocidal slaughter.

So one quickly learns as a religious Jew that the Land of Israel involves every Jew and every Jew’s essence of Judaism. And while the State of Israel as a political entity is a separate matter, the threats to the Jews living there make it a matter of Ahavas Yisroel (love of your fellow) to support their safety.

Please Support Queens Hatzolah

We don’t need to remind you…

We don’t need to remind you that if there is an emergency, your first thought
and action would be to call Hatzolah.

We don’t need to remind you that the fastest, most reliable volunteer organization
in the world is Hatzolah.

And we don’t need to remind you that your donation literally saves lives
and prevents tragedies… because that’s the definition of Hatzolah.

We do need to remind you that the most important day of our year is
November 13th – Shabbos Hatzolah.

Whether it’s in Shul, online or by phone, please remember that
we’re counting on you for Queens Hatzolah.

Shabbos Hatzolah – November 13, 2010 – Shabbos Parshas Vayeitzei

Donate instantly online at QueensHatzolah.org

Parsha Toldos – What Divrei Internet Are You Reading?

Have you checked out Aish on the Parsha recently. Here’s the wide variety for Parshas Toldot.

Rabbi Weisz who is listed under Mayonot on the Aish page is a long time Beyond BT favorite. In this piece called the First War of the Worlds he highlights how Judaism and Christianity are rooted in the world views of Yaakov and Esau.

What Divrei Torah on the Internet are you reading?

Here’s Rabbi Rietti’s outline of Toldos. You can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash very inexpensively here.

#25 Esav Sells Birthright to Yaakov
#26 Rivkah in Palace of Avimelech
#27 Yaakov Takes Blessing from Esav
#28 Yaakov Goes to Padan Aram

#25 Esav Sells Birthright to Yaakov
* Rivkah is barren
* Rivkah’s painful pregnancy
* Prophecy that she will give birth to twins – two great nations
* Yaakov is completely honest. Esav is deceitful.
* Esav sells birthright to Yaakov

#26 Rivkah in Palace of Avimelech
* Famine
* ‘Don’t go down to Egypt’
* G-d’s promise to Yitschak to be an Eternal G-d & inherit the land forever.
* Avimelech almost takes Rivkah
* HaShem makes Yitschak exceedingly wealthy
* Avimelech tells Yitschak to leave his land
* Three wells of conflict: Esek-Sitna-Rechovot
* Yitschak goes to Be’ar Sheva
* HaShem reassures Yitschak: “Don’t fear, I’m with you!”
* Yitschak builds an altar
* Agreement with Avimelech
* Esav marries at 40 years old

#27 Yaakov Takes Blessing from Esav
* Rivkah persuades Yaakov to impersonate Esav
* Yitschak blesses Yaakov believing him to be Esav
* Esav’s blessing
* Rivkah tells Yaakov to flee from Esav

#28 Yaakov Goes to Padan Aram
* Yitschak tells Yaakov to go to Padam Aram
* Yitschak blesses Yaakov
* Esav marries Mahlat, daughter of Yishmael

Embarrassment Over a Chumra?

Dear BBT

I am wondering if you could help me answer a question.

In a class I gave this evening, a woman told us of an incident that happened to her that upset her very much. She was in a store and the worker behind the counter, a chassidishe gentleman, would not take her credit card from her hand, and indicated that she should put it down instead. She is a BT and was upset about this. She felt that he “embarrassed” her in public over what she felt was a “super chumrah”.

I wonder if you could please give me any background information regarding this halacha/chumra/whatever, so that I can show her where it is coming from.

Thank you

Bringing Friends Back Together

BeyondBT has done it again.

I came home to find a lovely message with a voice from the past. My dear old friend Y and I first met at Machon Meir in Yerushalayim in the early 80s, when I was the madrich for the English speaking students. We lost touch over the years, and then, in the mid-90s he found me not far from his home in Vancouver. The last time we saw each other was at Yaarah and my wedding, shortly before we left Vancouver. He knew I had been teaching in Brookline, but then lost the trail.

Then, a friend of his sent him a thread from BeyondBT. Usually he has no patience to read through 60 or 70 comments. This time, for some reason, he did so. There, at the bottom of the comments, was a comment I had left about Toronto. A little clicking and tracking, and he found me! ;-) A quick call to Santa Fe, and I came home to a message that had me grinning. We spent two hours on the phone catching up, and I have my friend back! Big smiles here.

Thanks BeyondBT!



Just Ten Minutes?

“Take ten minutes out of your day,
To do what you enjoy,” the “experts” now say.

Ten whole minutes? Is that all we get?
Nearly twenty-four hours with pleasures unmet?

Has it come down to this? Must we settle so low?
Our foremother knew more than today’s “experts” know.

“All her days were good,” our Torah makes clear.
Sarah enjoyed every minute – each year.

And within our souls, her dormant trait lies,
An innate potential that need only arise,

To extract out life’s pleasures, and feel ecstasy,
Not just for ten minutes – for an eternity!

Bracha Goetz is the author of twelve Jewish children’s books including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and The Happiness Box. She also serves on the Executive Board of the national organization,Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, and coordinates a Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister program in Baltimore, Maryland.