Getting Beyond the Proofs

In the introductory program of the baal teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem where I was introduced to Torah Judaism, the “Proofs of God and Torah M’Sinai” was the hottest thing going. We fought over them, stayed up until three o’clock in the morning debating them, and spent weeks and months on them. Having a degree in the life sciences I was particularly loathe to drop the idea of random evolution or accept the idea of a soul. After three months of fiery debates, participating in them and also observing some of the best minds of the finest universities getting shot down to the dust, I was pretty convinced.

Then came summer break. With a new addition to my backpack – a pair of tefillin – I made my way with a few guys down to the Sinai for scuba diving and fun in the sun. From my present perspective it’s hard to envision what there was to do on the beach for so long, but suffice it to say that a month later the “Proofs of God and Torah M’Sinai” were a distant mirage. The tefillin didn’t see the light of day anymore.

What happened? It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. One can see valid evidence and be convinced by intellectual proofs, but the influences of peer pressure from the surroundings and physical urges hold sway.

No one brought any evidence to the contrary. I never even discussed the proofs. But the entire edifice crumbled under the onslaught of vacationing youth on the beach.

Although I had chosen at this point to remain non-religious, I returned to the yeshivah, feeling distant from what had begun to be a tentative tasting of the Torah lifestyle. I needed a base to plan my next step, graduate school or work, so I returned to the dorm. Someone from the administration sat down with me and offered the next stage of programming: Mishnah, Gemara, Chumash, Ulpan. I liked the idea of getting textual, and gaining some Hebrew language skills.

That’s what did it for me. It was a case of “boy meets Gemara, and they lived happily ever after.”
There are no questions for the yeshivah student who is happily engrossed in the intricacies of the Gemara, gaining an intimacy with spiritual Intellect that is the foundation of creation. It is literally the authentic “soul food.”

Now, I’m not naïve. I understand that peer pressure and environment is a two edged sword. I’m not claiming my spiritual experience of the love of Torah is any kind of proof.

What I am saying is the experience of spiritual pleasure in Torah life, whether it be derived from Torah study, prayer, Shabbos, or good deeds, is the counterbalance to the physical urges and egocentric motivations that disturb us from perceiving the truth.

The existence of God is the single most obvious element of existence. What sometimes prevents the greatest minds from perceiving it are the biases of ego, physical desires, and a desire for unrestricted moral freedom.

No one is going to be able to batter ram the truths of Judaism down the throats of millions of secular Jews. Although presenting the evidence for the claims of Torah Judaism is an important first step, and absolutely vital in today’s marketplace of ideas, it cannot be the basis for a commitment to Torah.
This is because a human being generally does not operate on a rational basis. For example, Rabbi Galinsky tells the amusing story of a college professor who passionately lectured to him for hours about the dangers of smoking and then lit up a cigarette after the lecture.

The evidence for the existence of God and Torah M’Sinai is out there (check out www.simpletoremember.com for a selection of the material). A person can and should base his emunah on reason and knowledge. However, the crux of free will necessitates that we need something more to counterbalance the effects of egoism and physical desire, which influence us to conveniently overlook our intellect.

That’s the way to get beyond the proofs. A Jew who is sincerely motivated to become close to God and His Torah has to find an avenue of lasting spiritual pleasure that works for him/her on a personal basis and has the power to overcome the siren song of this world.

First published on Jan 10th, 2008

Filters and Upgrades

Rabbi Moshe Weinbeger, of Congregation AishKodesh in Woodmere, NY recently gave shiur on an essay of Rav Kook’s titled “Al pnimiushaTorah” and spent a few minutes discussing the issue of the internet and filters. One of the many things that Rav Weinberger mentioned which I found to be meaningful was that while filters are extremely important in addressing the information we can access on the internet, filters do not address the person who is using the internet. You can have, in his words, the biggest filter in the world for the internet, but if a person has a tayvah (urge) for something, using a filter will not change that urge. He offers the example of someone hiding the candy jar at home. If an adult hides it, then the child and the adult will still have that desire for the candy. Rabbi Weinberger’s view is that have to address the person, not just the use of the internet and start educating people from an early age about the pneminus (inner essence) of the person, of the innate Kedushah (holiness) the each of us possess and the greatness within.

Rav Weinberger says in the shiur, “People would like to install Yiras Shamayim. You can’t do that, you can’t install Yiras Shamayaim, that’s the only problem. You can install a filter, but the person is the same person sitting down to the computer.” When dealing with a computer and a web browser, we can install a filter. A person needs to change his behavior.

My own take on what I heard from his shiur was that there needs to be more of a focus on the positive within the person. I have to upgrade myself and how I think and a feel as a Torah Jew and how I relate to Hashem. I have to focus on the greatness within, which is what the concept of Gadlus Ha’Adam is all about. I have to find the greatness within myself (this idea can be found in both Chassidic and Mussar writings). Changing how I see myself is only part of the upgrade. It is probably just as important, in my mind, how I see others. When speaking with my children, do I focus on the negative or accentuate the positive? Do I try to reveal and teach my children about the greatness within themselves? Do I view my wife as a neshamah or a person? It’s way easier to write these questions than have to actually address them in real non-electronic life.

I believe that Rav Weinberger is correct, we all want that magical quick-fix, we want the Yiras Shamayim app installed and not have to put in the effort to grow. Anyone who is growth-oriented knows that isn’t how it works. RavY itzchok Blazer (one of the main disciples of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter) writes that Yiras Shamayim encompasses the worry and discontent that that one feels, “lest he transgress and not fulfill one of the Divine commandments or not perform the mitzvah according to specification” (Kochvei Ohr 8, from Rabbi Zvi Miller’s translation). We have to understand the gift and responsibility of being created by Hashem and, while filters are great for helping us steer clear of problematic territory, we really have to work diligently and change who we are and how we think.

Are You Going to the Siyum HaShas? Are You Starting Daf Yomi?

The first week of August 2012 is a momentous time. On Wednesday, August 1, 2012 one of the largest gatherings of Jews will take place at Met Life Stadium in NJ to celebrate the completion of the Daf Yomi Cycle. It promises to be an awe inspiring event.

The current cycle is actually scheduled to end on Thursday on the Daf calendar, but the last Daf is short and they will actually complete it at the Siyum HaShas on Wednesday. It will be completed after nightfall so perhaps technically, it will be Thursday’s Daf.

On Friday, August 3rd, the Daf Yomi will begin the new cycle with Mesechta Brochos. My Rav is a proponent of deeper learning of Gemora wherever possible, and I asked whether I should learn the Daf when I was inspired at the Siyum HaShas 14 years ago in Madison Square Garden. He told me that if I didn’t give up any of the sedorim (learning sessions) I had at that time, it would be ok.

My experience over the past 14 years is that the Daf is a very fast pace and it’s hard to retain the information. In addition, you really don’t have the time to give each Daf the mental workout it requires. However, I think it is valuable to learn the Daf because:

1) It commits you to learning Gemora every day and it’s hard to catch up when you fall behind so you usually meet that committment.

2) You get exposed to many different Gemora sugyas and structures.

3) You’re connected on a regular basis with others who are learning the same Daf. It’s nice to be able to say to your friend, did you see the Daf today. My Rav calls the NY Times OP-Ed page, the Daf Yomi of the secular world, so it’s nice to be on the same page with the real Torah thing.

4) Art Scroll can get you through any Daf. It takes about 30 minutes to learn the Daf with all the Art Scroll notes. Of course, your mileage may vary.

5) If you spend more time on it with review, you will retain more material.

6) Although in theory you can use that time to learn something else, in reality the 30-60 minutes on the Daf will certainly be among the best spiritual hours of your day.

I’m still a big proponent of deeper Gemora learning, but I think BTs (and FFBs) should at least give the Daf a try, as long as they don’t give up any existing sedorim. I know there will be some who will discourage you from starting, but show them this article and if that doesn’t work have them send me an email or call me, I’m still waiting to hear a strong general case against giving it a try.

– Are you going to the Siyum HaShas? Why? Why not?

– Are you starting Daf Yomi? Why? Why not?

Dealing With a Tearless Tisha B’Av

“Shmuel” in Eretz Yisroel

I had a pretty strange experience during davening this morning.

It’s erev tisha b’av and as part of my mental preparation for the upcoming fast I cast my mind back to last year – and I remembered how I was unable to cry.

It’s not that I feel disconnected with the suffering of the Jewish people – on the contrary. Most prominent in my mind is the constant war we have been waging in Israel. My heart bleeds at the thought of the suffering of thousands of my borthers and sisters, whose closest relatives have been killed or injured. I think about the grieving families whose lives will never be the same again. I think about the ongoing terror in our homeland and yes my heart bleeds.

And I think about the spiritual destruction wreaking havoc for so much of world Jewry. I think of all the Jewish children growing up without any idea of what it means to be Jewish. I think of the frightening rates of intermarriage and assimilation, and of the spiritual death facing so many thousands more of my brothers and sisters. And again my heart bleeds.

And I think of how in so many ways we have become distant from our Creator and over this too I grieve.

I recall how there had been several times during the course of the year when I had shed tears over our suffering. Yet somehow tisha b’av came along and the tears just wouldn’t flow. I reminded myself again and again of all the suffering we had faced and were still facing. And I reminded myself how all of these things came as a direct result of the churban.

I heard the mournful tones of Eicha and the Kinnot, I was even sitting at the Kotel – the most tangible remnant of our beloved Beit HaMikdash and a poignant reminder of its absence. I tried to cry. I tried as hard as I could to force the tears to flow. Somehow they just didn’t.

So this morning I thought I’d get an early start this year. And as I stood in tefillah before Hashem I began asking Him to help me connect with the essence of the day coming up and to cry.

And then I stopped.

I thought to myself “what have I just done?”
Here I am standing and asking Hashem to make me cry. Could anything be more distorted than that? Hashem doesn’t want me to be shedding tears or to suffer. What was I saying?

So then I changed my prayer – I asked Hashem to bring about a tisha b’av where I wouldn’t have to cry. To bring about a time when, as the Navi promises, tisha b’av would be a day of simcha. Where tears would no longer be necessary.

We have been engulfed in a bitter exile for so long that in a lot of ways we have lost perspective. We’ve gotten so used to our present state that we often forget that this isn’t what normative Jewish living is about! Normal Jewish life is one in which the Beit HaMikdash stands, avodat haKohanim takes place every day, and we have the Sanhedrin leading us as a people. It’s a life in which there’s no argument about whether we really are the chosen people or not, whether the Torah’s true or not, whether the Jewish people have a right to love in Eretz Yisrael or not. It’s a life in which you don’t debate the existence of Hashem – you feel it!
We may not have been experienced it for the past 2000 years but that doesn’t change the fact – that’s what normal Jewish living is about. Our current bitter exile is not.

My experience this morning proved to me how far off the mark I currently am. It proved just how much work I have to do to be at the stage where I can honestly say I await and anticipate the coming of Mashiach every day.

May we be zocheh to see this time of suffering turned into a time of joy, bimherah beyamenu.

First published July 2007

I, Rabbi (Part Three – Conclusion)

Part One of this three-post series is here.

Part Two is here.

It was a nice wedding. Not a heimishe wedding, despite my best efforts in that direction, but nice all the same, and kosher, too.

Well, the food wasn’t kosher. Oh, mine was, as was that of the other “special kosher” diners, but it was kind of the “airplane food” scene. I was a little disappointed. Not over the food, but over the clear (and accurate) appearance that we were eating “the kosher food” and everyone else was not. No, it was not lobsters or over-the-top treif, but I think my groom was in a bit of denial over what the contrast would look like.

But by then I was mostly done. The ceremony went off without a hitch, though I was glad to have my “real rabbi” backup and witness whispering in my ear when I got nervous (and I was nervous!) and stammered over the pronunciation of a word in one of the Sheva Brochos. (For all my glibness, I had stammered considerably at my own wedding over 20 years earlier!) The chupa [“canopy,” i.e., the ceremony conducted under the canopy] wasn’t conventional by orthodox wedding standards, but it was as kosher as what I put in my mouth later at the meal. Evidently my cantorial skills held up respectably as well (always a touchy topic with me!), but no one rushed up to me at dinner with a recording contract or a request to preside over Yom Kippur services on an ocean liner either.

I did decide that I’d have to wear my “Rabbi Suit” (dark suit, straight tie and fedora) and give them their money’s worth, so I lost the rare opportunity to wear black tie, in which I look so dashing, as the invitation indicated. It was more than compensated for, of course, including by the pleasant comments I got from attendees as the evening went on. Many were very grateful for how I had described the respective stages of the ceremony as we went through them, noting that they had been to many traditionally-structured weddings but never understood what was going on. I also answered questions that people had, which tended to be very basic. Also the staff at the hall and with the caterer called me “rabbi” all night, which was kind of fun and pretty harmless. No serious halachic inquiries were broached.

One very pleasant encounter was from a cousin of the groom’s father who had, along with her husband, flown all the way from England for this wedding. They were frum, in fact, and were steeling themselves for who-knows-what of a wedding ceremony. They were surprised and delighted that the wedding had been conducted, per the words used by the groom, k’das Moshe v’Yisroel [in the tradition of Moshe and the Jewish nation].

Another nice moment came from the groom’s father. He was a Sephardi, but like many families who had left the world of Oriental Jewry one or two generations ago the old ways were only a memory for him. They were, however, a vivid, warm memory, and he told me gratefully and emotionally how the wedding, as well as the Friday night Shabbos meal the couple had arranged the Shabbos before, had brought him back with bittersweet memories of his youth. He seemed to feel some regret for what he had left behind.

My work here was done. I am back in rabbinic retirement, and not seeking additional engagements (so to speak). Marrying twice — marrying my wife, and marrying this couple — is plenty of marrying for me! I’ll stick with the low-pressure environment of federal court, thank you.

What Strategies Do You Use to Reduce Loshon Hora?

In the notes from a class titled The Stunning Power of Speech a number of Strategies to Improve Our Speech are suggested. They are:
1) View Others Positively
2) Develop Humility
3) Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
4) Controlling Anger
5) View Yourself as a Soul, Not as a Body
6) Develop Constructive Speaking Habits and the Art of Silence
7) Prayer
8) Torah Study

Please take a look at the paper and let us know which strategies make sense to you and whether there are others you’ve found successful.

Steven Covey’s 7 Habits and Mesillas Yesharim

One of my favorite secular books is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. (Covey passed away on July 16, 2012 at the age of 79) Covey says he studied the wisdom literature to write this book. The book was recommended to me by 3 mussar-oriented friends at about the same time, so I picked it up and try to integrate the lessons learned into a Torah lifestyle and outlook.

The first 3 habits in a nutshell are
1) Be proactive: Take control of your life. Live a life by design and not by default.
2) Begin with the End in Mind: Begin with the image of the end of your life as the frame of reference by which everything else is measured.
3) Keep First things First: Organize and implement your activities in line with the aims established in habit 2.

One could say the tag line for the first 3 habits is: Organize and Execute around Priorities: Habit 1 says be proactive and organize; Habit 2 says set priorities; Habit 3 says execute around those priorities;

When studying the first opening line of the “Man’s Duty in this World” chapter in Mesillas Yesharim, I was struck by the similarities to the first 3 habits.

The foundation of Saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God…
– Here the Ramchal is telling us to Be Proactive and strive for saintliness and perfect service as that is what we are here for.

…lies in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world
– We should Begin with the End in Mind, which is our duty in this world to come close to Hashem

…and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.
And we should Keep First Things First and direct all our visions, aspirations and labors toward the end of comimg

So Ramchal is telling us to organize and execute around priorities. Work towards perfection by prioritizing or focus to get closer to Hashem through Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasadim.

Please take 5 minutes to review the first chapter of Mesillas Yesharim. We were learning in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops.

Here is Chapter 1 from the R’ Shraga Silverstein’s translation and posted here through the genrosity of Feldheim Publishers. It is available for purchase here.

The foundation of Saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.

Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avorh 4:21), “This world is like a corridor to the World to Come.”

The means which lead a man to this goal are the mitzvoth, in relation to which we were commanded by the Lord, may His Name be blessed. The place of the performance of the mitzvoth is this world alone.

Read more Steven Covey’s 7 Habits and Mesillas Yesharim

BBT Links for the Week of July 12th

Everything in a Torah oriented life presents opportunities for spiritual growth, even the rules of Shuls.

In response to a popular secular article on “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, Tzivia Reiter, the author of Briefcases and Baby Bottles, discusses “Having it All the Jewish Way”.

Summer is here and the Pirkei Avos learning cycle is restarting at Chapter 1. Why not delve into an explanation of the Mishna of your choice or explore the foundations of TAG (Torah, Avodah, Gemillas Chasadim) Judaism here.

Why is it So Difficult to Judge Favorably?

If you regularly read Jewish publications, you’ll see that there is a tremendous amount of criticism leveled against different communities. Although the criticisms may indeed be warranted, they’re often scathing, with little charitable understanding of other points of view.

Perhaps people feel their criticisms won’t register if they present other point of view. Or maybe people feel it’s impossible to judge favorably in many situations.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to judge favorably?

Have you be successful in presenting criticism while still judging favorably?

Are there any techniques that you would recommend?

Learning to Get Along with People of Wildly Different Persuasions

By Zev Gotkin

There is a lot of talk these days in the media about ‘polarization,’ especially within the context of politics. Often it seems as if being a ‘moderate’ is going out of style. Being labeled a centrist is to be seen as ‘wishy-washy’ or indecisive. Perhaps going to extremes makes people happy, because it means they don’t have to do too much thinking. When you see everything in black and white, you don’t have to worry about the shades of gray. I conjecture that this mentality is (and always has been) the reason behind why many exclusively hang around those who share their views and opinions. Dialogue poses a threat…especially to the insecure individual. Can we be friends with those who hold opinions and world-views that dramatically differ from ours? I venture to say that it is possible.

I remember when a few years ago that attention-loving, political pundit Ann Coulter made a comment on national television that Jewish people are “im-perfected Christians.” According to Ms. Coulter we Jews are ‘almost there.’ We just need to accept the man on the cross and salvation is ours. Even though Ms. Coulter wasn’t really saying anything new or original, but echoing the sentiments of Christianity since its inception, her statement caused quite the media storm. Naturally this not only offended many in the Jewish community, but rapidly became a subject of much discussion and derisive comments in the media. It is understandable why her comment shocked polite company as it recalled centuries of persecution Jews suffered at the hands of the Church and Christian regimes. However, if one is familiar with Christian teachings which clearly state that a person needs to have faith in Jesus being divine and/or the Messiah in order to attain salvation, one can almost see Ms. Coulter’s remark as her way of delivering a compliment to the Jewish people – if not a back-handed one.

At the time of this controversy a Jewish friend angrily told me how a mutual Catholic friend of ours told him point-blank that he agrees with Ms. Coulter. I privately took our Catholic friend aside and questioned him about it. “Do you believe I am going to Hell?” I asked. He stammered and sputtered before admitting that yes, he did in fact believe that I was destined for the underworld in accordance with Catholic doctrine. Of course it is hard to tell if this is in fact reflective of Catholic doctrine today as the Church’s position on this matter has done a bit of flip-flopping as of late, but you may wonder whether or not I became angry or upset with my Catholic friend.

The answer is no. I was not offended. This is my friend’s sincere religious belief and as long as he is not proselytizing me or trying to impose his religious views upon me, I can respect it. I actually like to occasionally discuss religion with this particular friend. As an observant Jew I feel I often see eye-to-eye more often with religious people of other faiths than I do with many Jews. My Catholic friend and I share many common values even if our theologies radically differ. I respect him the same way I would hope many of other religious or no religious affiliations would respect me.

Orthodox Jews have some customs and beliefs that seem strange to other people. I myself having become orthodox in my early twenties after having grown up in a secular Jewish home can understand why someone might find many aspects of Orthodox Judaism strange. While I seriously doubt I could be friends with someone who passionately hates Judaism and/or the Jewish people (I doubt they’d want to be my friend either), I don’t see a conflict between living in accordance with Torah and associating with those who do not share many of my values or points of view. In fact Judaism teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to be a good person or get to Heaven. The Torah teaches that a non-Jew who is an honest and ethical person and believes in the Creator will actually earn a share in the World-to-Come.

What about secular Jews? Surely, those heathens are going to Jew-Hell, right? Wrong. First of all while Judaism does have a concept of Hell known as Gehinnom, it is believed to be a temporary rest-stop to get the stains out of our souls before being moved into a blissful existence. We do not believe in eternal damnation (except for a select few, horrible individuals). Furthermore, most secular Jews today are not considered heretics by contemporary rabbinic authorities. Most Jews simply do not know enough about their religion to actively rebel against it and are therefore not liable to punishment. In fact even many Jews who grew up religious and abandoned it don’t usually go ‘off the path’ out of pure rebellion, but due to family problems or negative experiences in school.

Those of us who consider ourselves observant Jews must treat those Jews who self-identify as secularor non-orthodox with loving kindness in accordance with the dictum of our Sages that “all Jews are responsible for one another” (Shavuos 39a). Our Sages also teach that “all Israel have a share in the World to Come”(Sanhedrin 11:1). Furthermore, Chassidic philosophy and Kaballa explain that all Jewish souls emanate from the same root in G-dliness. Plenty of my friends and family members are secular and some are even anti-religious or hostile toward my way of life. The best thing we observant Jews can do is increase Ahavas Yisrael (love of one’s fellow), answer questions that are posed to us sensitively and honestly, and remember to love the person even if we vehemently dislike what the person says or does. This is not always easy and I don’t pretend to be flawless in this arena, but if we want to perfect the world and bring the Final Redemption it would be prudent to do our best.

Our Sages teach that we lost the Holy Temple due to senseless hatred between Jews. With senseless love we will rebuild it. Even though we can disagree and get into heated discussions about various topics we must work hard to make sure it doesn’t get personal and if it does to quickly apologize and make peace. It doesn’t matter who ‘started it.’ During the Three Weeks when Jews traditionally mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple we should make an extra concerted effort to ponder these ideas and put them into practice.

Are You Comfortable Wearing Your Hat in The Summer?

The NY Times had an article on Hasidic dress in the warm weather. It reminded us of the days when David Kelsey used to comment here, and he would often voice his objection to inappropriate Orthodox dress in the summer in the non-Hasidic communities.

In any case, many of us non-Hasidim do wear hot black felt hats in the summer. In what hashkafic basket do you put that practice?

Do you feel the benefits of being part of a community by adopting their standard dress brings great benefits?

Do you think it’s more or less important for BTs to conform to communal dress codes?

Matisyahu and His Fame Filled BT Path

Matisyahu has an interesting interview on Aish. They have a strange disclaimer at the beginning of the article where they state that they don’t endorse everything Matisyahu says and does. I never thought that they endorsed everything any writer or interview subject says or does.

In answer to the question “Can we set the record straight: Are you still a religiously observant Jew?”, Matisyahu responds:

I don’t really know what the word “religious” means. I believe deeply in God, and if we mean that Torah and Mitzvahs are our guide for the journey, then yes some will call me “religiously observant,” but others will see the external changes I’ve made and say that I am not. Perhaps labels based on these types of externalities are too simplistic, or just convenient. I certainly understand that my position in popular culture lent value to those external elements. My recent changes are part of my own journey, and are not a rejection of the inspiration that gave people.

I am still committed to Judaism, to seeking truth through halacha and observance. I find a tremendous amount of inspiration and truth within Torah and Judaism, but I had taken on certain minhagim, customs, and stringencies that became habit – either because at one point I had connected to them, or simply because I had been convinced that “religious” Judaism had to look a certain way. Over time some of these external aspects, like the beard, had become deadening and oppressive for me. I had to take a step back.

So it seems that Matisyahu is still observant but unfortunately he made a typical BT mistake of going too fast. Shaving off your beard would certainly be considered normative in the Beyond BT universe and in the Aishosphere. And there are occasions, especially in regards to earning a living where the halacha would allow the removal of a yarmulka. In fact Ron Coleman wrote a post about not wearing a Yarmulka at work a few months ago.

Let’s give Matisyahu a collective Brocha that he should continue in his growth in Torah and mitzvos, and successfully meet the challenges that continued fame will bring. Enjoy the Aish article and enjoy the music.

When the Secular Little Cousins become Teenage Cousins

Blast from the past originally published 9/17/2008.

Fresh from my annual time share vacation with the secular family, I want to write for the Beyond BT readers on a topic that I think needs some further exploration and discussion.

Logic says that the longer we are working things out with our secular family, the easier it gets. Everyone finally realizes that the orthodox family isn’t going to change its mind, and they didn’t really join a cult. They get used to the fact that there are some simchas we aren’t going attend, and they don’t make as much of a fuss ten years into it, as they do the first time you send back the R.S.V.P. with a “sorry, we cannot attend.” You’ve figured out how to eat in mom’s kitchen, or at least, everyone accepts the fact that you’ll bring your own food. Yes, it’s absolutely true that in many ways, on many occasions, it gets easier. So if you’re a new B.T., take heart – you won’t spend the rest of your life trying to convince your mom that you really do mean it when you say that you can’t eat her lasagna with meat sauce, even if she’s the best cook this side of the ocean.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and here’s one: When the kids and the cousins start growing up and become pre-teen, or teenagers.

Every year we assemble the entire extended family for a week at a time-share in the mountains. It was accepted when we didn’t come for Shabbos and chose mid-week instead. They rolled their eyes a bit when we brought in a wheelbarrow of food because kosher food wasn’t available for purchase, and we didn’t want our kids to feel deprived all week long. They even eventually accepted our rule that sister and brother can no longer sleep in the same bed. In many ways, we’ve worked out a lot of issues, but. . . .

I wasn’t prepared for how DIFFICULT it becomes when the little cousins who once played with each other on the floor, and talked about barney and sesame street, now talk about “hot” boys, my space, and IPODS. When the kids were little, the differences between all of the cousins was not as pronounced, and other than making sure that the kosher kids only ate the kosher food, it wasn’t much of a problem.

Now – my girls aren’t supposed to do mixed swimming anymore, and I caught a conversation between my oldest daughter and her teenage cousin who couldn’t quite believe that my daughter has never had a boyfriend. Now the teenage cousins bring their computers and IPODS and videos to vacation, and none of it is Jewish. Now my 10-year old son’s eyes can easily be diverted by his teenage cousin’s non-tnius dress, or lack of dress.

In the beginning of the week, my kids think their cousins are weird. But after only a few days, they start looking fascinated, and that’s the biggest problem. I don’t think it has ever gotten to the point where they’d want to trade places, but one never knows what can happen when that thought is introduced for even a day or two. And, what really bothers me is that I want my kids to feel really privileged and lucky to be frum Jews. I worry when the “other side” starts looking attractive, and our way of life seems to be making them “miss out.” (Yes, of course we can give the speeches to our children about how the secular kids are really the ones missing out, but hey, kids are normal, and some freedoms in life look very delicious at times to them).

The most challenging aspect of this problem is that it’s not one my secular family would understand. I can say, “sorry, can’t come to the simcha on Shabbos, mid day, an hour’s drive away.” But how can I possibly say, “sorry, I don’t want to expose my children to their teenage cousins, your sons and daughters?” It will never happen. These words I wouldn’t say, other than in a forum like this. Their kids are fine people, just not harmonious in many ways with ours. Those who have taken the stand that they will not allow their teenage children to “be exposed”, if that works for you and your family, amazing. It would never work in our family. My parents, and brothers, and nieces and nephews would be so insulted, there would be permanent damage. All we can really do is talk to our children about it, prepare them, protect them as much as possible when we are there, and then talk about it in the car on the way home. And, like most of you, our get-to-gethers are infrequent.

I would suggest that there be some discussion about this issue on this forum. I’m not writing with a solution, but rather, with an acknowledgment that this is a source of trouble, and unlike many other issues that get resolved over time, I think that this issue gets much more problematic as the kids grow older, not less so. Especially for those of us that maintain a commitment to ongoing connection to extended family.

Best to you all –