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Friday, November 10, 2017

On Rabbis and the Employment of Reason

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On Rabbis and the Employment of Reason


Rabboisai,

I would like to start this week’s Drasha by describing the Reboinoisheloilum:








No, there is no typo, you Minuval! I did not fall asleep at my keyboard, or smoke too much Besamim, if you know what I mean. I simply followed the tradition of the RAMBAM who declared that you can only describe Hakadoshboruch by what He is Not.

Now, the RAMBAM of course was a Sefardi, so he was certainly hardly an Erlichah Yid. He worked as a physician to many, including to the principle advisers to Salah A Din, the Muslim conqueror of Eretz Yisroel who chased out the Crusaders Yemach Shmum. So instead of learning thirty hours a day like a good Jew, he was busy engaging in Bittul Toirah by saving lives. What a waste of time! All of his patients are undoubtedly dead by now, so the RAMBAN passed up the eternity of Toiras Moishe Rabbeinu to engage in what was only a temporary fix, at best. This is certainly not the choice any of OUR Gedoilim would have made, of course. Can you possibly imagine Reb Auerbach, SHLITA or Reb Kanievsky, SHLITA stopping leaning over their Gemarrah long enough to wipe up their drool?

But the RAMBAM cannot be all bad. After all, Art Scroll wrote at least one book about him. And he did, of course, only learn medicine from the Gemarrah and while sitting in the Bais HaKeesay. Which is where I developed my Value Investing strategy when I was a teenager: How to take something small and make it bigger until it shoots out a big payoff...

But RAMBAM’s basic premise requires a thoughtful analysis, at least long enough to fit three pages so that I can cross the line “Write a new Drasha” off of my To Do list, and I can get to the next item on my list: “Whatever is in the headlines, blame Hillary and Oibama”.

The RAMBAM, in his day, was confronting a reality that was in many ways quite similar to our own. Jews were persecuted in some places, yet found safety in others. Religious traditions within Klal Yisroel were becoming divergent. People were beginning to allow the beliefs of modernity to impact their Emunah in the Aimishteh. And women were beginning to assert their right not to be treated as sex objects by covering themselves with Burkas, donning metal chastity belts, immersing themselves in the Mikvah, and avoiding any man whose last name was “Weinstein”.

To the RAMBAM, a key concern was the literalism that had infiltrated the Jewish perception of The Divine. He believed that people who took Biblical references such as “the hand of God” or “the finger of God” as literal walked a treacherous path leading to a form of Avoidah Zarah, idolatry. He believed that anthropomorphism of the Reboinoisheloilum was a falsehood and was, in fact, dangerous, and that Hakadoshboruchhu could never be understood in human terms. He even went so far as to say that most prophetic confrontations with the Aimishteh in the Toirah were not actual encounters, but the product of inspired dreams, perceptual imagination, or LSD flashbacks.

At the center of the RAMBAM’s focus was the need to find the balance between faith and reason. For the RAMBAM, the Toirah was a one time gift given to Klal Yisroel through Moishe Rabbeinu. The Toirah was not a rule book designed to outline reward and punishment, as these were human concepts. To the RAMBAM, the Reboinoisheloilum exists beyond any human understanding and is outside of the realm of human activity. The RAMBAM believed that the Toirah’s primary purpose was to provide order and structure to society. That was the role of Faith. However, understanding of the Divine, while never fully achievable, was the essential higher objective of mankind. And the only way to approach that understanding was through Reason.

The RAMBAM faced struggle and challenge throughout his life. He was born into the golden age of Islam in Spain, where philosophy, mathematics and the natural sciences complemented his education in Kol HaToirah Kooloih. But his upbringing in the equivalent of the Upper West Side, the Five Towns, or Teaneck was cut short by the rise of a regime practicing an intolerant form of Islam that demanded that Jews convert or die. So the RAMBAM, his father, his brother, and presumably the rest of their family fled for their lives, not unlike many of our own parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Plus they had to shlep their pet dogs, cats, and hamsters, which must have made for a messy exodus.

After spending time in Morocco and witnessing the deprivations of the Land of Israel firsthand, the RAMBAM settled in Egypt. He lost his father. He lost his brother. He dealt with depression. But he also became an internationally renowned religious scholar, known for his seminal religious writings: His commentary on the Mishnah; the Mishnah Toirah, which was an audacious attempt at systematizing Halachic scholarship up to that date; and the Moireh Nevuchim, The Guide For The Perplexed, where he laid out his theology and philosophy. He also published medical textbooks. And he wrote a humorous comic strip syndicated in all the major newspapers of Egypt about a tortoise named Menachem Mendel and a hare named Yoili.

Given his knowledge of the science of his day and his keen awareness of the wretched state of Jewish existence, and perhaps troubled by his own personal suffering, the RAMBAM worked to reconcile the equation at the heart of the struggle between faith and reason: The punishment suffered by the Jews did not fit the actions of the masses. So rather than explain away the suffering by attributing blame to the Jewish People, he dispensed with the equation altogether. The Reboinoisheloilum was beyond understanding. There was no linkage between human action and reward and punishment. Hakadoshboruch could not be understood in either physical or rational terms. The world existed as a holistic whole, with its own ebbs and flows, and man’s best path to God was to embrace the Unknowable, through philosophical reasoning. Man could never truly know the Divine. Man could never even describe the Aimishteh. The only way to describe Him was to describe “what He is not”.

This view stands in contrast to everything we ourselves have learned since we were little children in kindergarten. (Maiseh Sheyoh: I do not know about you, but at the age of four I had a kindergarten teacher named Moirah Ginzberg who was so scary, the other kindergarten teachers would shit themselves every time she walked into the room. Mamish.)

Obviously, RAMBAM’s is not the only Da’ah, the only opinion, on the nature of the Reboinoisheloilum and the broader questions regarding human existential purpose. Indeed, his perspectives were at times considered so controversial, manuscripts of his writing were burned in some Rabbinic circles as heresy. Plus artistic renditions of his likeness were often defaced by Talmidim drawing Groucho Marx glasses, including a mustache and thick eyebrows.

But his is a voice than cannot be easily dismissed. Indeed, the RAMBAM is often cited today when Rabbis, including those engaged in Kiruv, want to highlight Judaism’s rationalist perspectives on issues related to Faith and Reason. Their renditions often shy away from the deeper implications of RAMBAM’s thought, however. But to be honest, Rabbis often shy away from meaningful implications, unless it involves the renewal of their contracts.

And what are those implications? The RAMBAM is dismissive of direct Divine engagement in the world, a view which stands in direct contrast to the belief in a world based on the values of reward and punishment in Oilum HaZeh and Oilum HaBah, this world and the next. Yet he strongly believes in a Halachic system, with a strong emphasis on moral laws Bain Adam LeChaveiroi, between human beings, as they are philosophically rational and necessary for an orderly society. And he believes that human engagement with the Divine through prayer and ritual is designed to suit human needs; though for him, intellectual contemplation of the Unknowable is what truly brings human beings closest to the Creator.

One of the most famous brief pieces of writing of the RAMBAM is his Teshuvah, his Rabbinic responsa, on the status of forced converts. As mentioned above, RAMBAM himself had to flee for his life when an oppressive brand of Islam replaced the progressive leadership of his native Spain. Years later, when consulted by a community in Yemen where some Rabbinic leaders were rejecting people who had converted to Islam under threat of death from returning to the body of the Jewish community, the RAMBAM spoke strongly of the need for embracing the many individuals who had been forcefully compelled to convert to Islam, if only publicly. In his Igeret Teiman, Epistle to Yemen, he strongly chastised those who would close their hearts to their fellow Jews, their fellow human beings, forced to continue to suffer a plight that no fault of their own.

If RAMBAM were alive today, I suspect that he would be sorely disappointed by much of our Rabbinic leadership and their unwillingness to act in a manner sensitive to the oppressed, whether the descendants of Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain for generations, Agunot, sex abuse victims, or those who have chosen a less observant path who are forced to fight to retain access to their own children.

For instead of embracing reason, a rational approach to managing an orderly, humane society, too many of our Rabbinic leaders have instead opted for the path of falsehood and idolatry.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.


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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Simchas Toirah Drasha

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Simchas Toirah Drasha


Rabboisai,

This week we celebrate the conclusion of Sukkois and the completion of the annual cycle of Kriyas HaToirah by getting stinking drunk and dancing with members of the same gender.

Rav Moishe Chaim Luzzato asks: Why do we dance with other men, which is a clear violation of Lifnei Iver for Mishkav Zachor, an unacceptable temptation that may lead to playing “bury my Sukkah pole in your Schach,” if you know what I mean?

There is a famous machloikess that addresses this question. Reb Yisroel Salanter comments that the completion of the Toirah cycle is meant as an Ois, a microcosm, of Oilum Habbah. With the completion of the Chamishei Chumshei Toirah, we experience a moment that is a foreshadowing of Biyas HaMashiach and Oilum Habbah, the dawning of the Messianic era and the World to Come. As such, we know that when Moshiach comes, many of the Halachic restrictions of Oilum Hazeh will fall away. Just as Tisha Ba’Av will shift from being a day of somber mourning to our greatest day of celebration, Biyuh SheLo KeDarko with another man will shift from being an “abomination” to a “Mitzvas Asei SheHazman Grummah.” It will also be a great way to reward your Chavrusa for knowing all the latest dance steps to “Zara Chaya VeKayama.”

Rebbe Nachman MiBreslov proposes a similar approach. He suggests that we do not dance in celebration of completing the annual cycle of reading the Toirah, since in ancient times much of Klal Yisroel followed a triennial cycle, completing the Toirah in three years. Rather, Rebbe Nachman states that we dance with other men to signal the end of the long holiday season. He writes in his famous treatise Likutei MoHaran that “Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Toirah clarify the essential differences between men and women. At this time of year, while men are busy trying to eke out a living without being fired for missing work, building the Sukkah, preparing the Arba Minim, etc., their wives are constantly calling them with requests, such as:

-- ‘Reuvain, can you please pick up bok choi on your way home from work’

-- ‘Shimoin, I don’t think we have enough dessert for the fourth meal we are hosting; can you pick up some brownie mix?’

-- ‘Layvee, I have to stay late at the office; can you come home early to give the kinderlach a bath?’”

Says Rebbe Nachman, “If I can trade being called fourteen times a day by my wife and being incessantly hen-pecked in exchange for engaging in Mishkav Zachor with another man, I will gladly play catcher in Biyuh SheLo Kedarko with a big sweaty Yeshiva Bochur named Lazer.”

However, the Vilna Goyn suggests that Rav Moishe Chaim Luzzato and Rebbe Nachman MiBreslov probably spent a bit too much time hanging out at the Mikvah on Erev Yoim Kippur. He writes farkhert in Chuddushe HaGruh, “In Klal Yisroel, we don't have homosexuals. We don't have that in our Kehillah. In Yiddishkeit, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it.”

Instead, the Gruh points to the seasonal nature of Shaloish Regalim as the true reason we celebrate on Simchas Toirah. He notes that just as Peysach is Chag HaAviv – the Spring Festival, and Shavuois is Chag HaBikurim – the Harvest Festival, Shmini Atzeres -- and especially Simchas Toirah -- celebrate something critical in the calendric cycle of Klal Yisroel and of Kol HaOilam Kooloh in general.

To make his point, the Gruh cites a famous machloikess. The Tur asks, “What is the most important Aliyah during Kriyas HaToirah?

According to Reb Yoisaiph Karo, the most important Aliyah is Rishoyn, the first Aliyah, since it is the Aliyah reserved for the Koihayn, the representative of Klal Yisroel designated by the Reboinoisheloilum to bless His chosen People.

According to the Bais Yoisaiph, the most important Aliyah is the second Aliyah, the Aliyah of the Layvee, since he silently enables the holy activities of the Koihayn by washing the Koihayn’s filthy hands and smelly feet.

According to the Keseph Mishnah, the most important Aliyah is the third Aliyah, since it is typically reserved for the biggest tzaddik in the room. Or, more frequently, it goes to the guy who writes the biggest check to the shul, even though everyone knows he frequently schtupps his hot shiksa secretary while eating pork, and makes his money by selling variable mortgages to eighty year old widows who live off of Social Security.

However, the Shulkhan Arukh holds that the fourth Aliyah is the most important one. His reasoning: Unlike the first, second, or third Aliyahs, the fourth Aliyah is an RBI position. He is batting clean up, while the others simply have the responsibility of getting on base. He has to drive them home, an awesome responsibility. As proof, the Shulkhan Arukh cites the fact that the last Aliyah is typically reserved for a Bar Mitzvah boy or a light hitting shortstop. Or for a pitcher in the National League, Chass v’Sholom. These mamzerim are likely to get out anyway, so we may as well put them in a position where they can’t do any damage.

Continues the Goyn: On Simchas Toirah, we echo the external calendar and combine the completion of the Toirah cycle with the completion of the Major League Baseball season. Consequently, there is a strong Minhag for men to dance together and jump on top of each other in victorious celebration. There is even a Minhag amongst the Sephardim to pour champagne over each others’ heads, although us real Jews celebrate by drinking scotch and making Mei Raglayim in the Ezras Nashim.

I am reminded of a famous Maiseh Shehoya. Reb Elchanan Wasserman once took a break from the Simchas Toirah celebrations at his Yeshiva and ran home for a quick snack. When he arrived, the house was empty. No one was in the kitchen and no one was in the living room. He went upstairs, opened the door to his bedroom, and to his surprise, he found his wife Chraindie naked, rolling around in bed with the wives of his three Talmidei Muvhak, his leading student protégés. In shock, he asked his wife, “Voos Tootzuch Mit Der Gefilte Fish Party”?

His wife Chraindie responded, “Elchi, you are off in Yeshiva celebrating the end of the Toirah cycle, while we are here celebrating the end of our cycles.”

Pausing for just a moment, Reb Elchanan told his wife, “You are indeed an Eishess Chayil!” He then ran back to the Yeshiva, passed through the Bais Medrish amidst all of the Freilechin dancing and singing, and joined his three Talmidei Muvkak in his private study off the Bais Medrish. Together the four of them intently watched a playoff game on TV for the next hour and a half.

Ah Freilechin Yuntif, You Minuval.


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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Sukkois Drasha

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Sukkois Drasha

On this holiday, the yuntif of Sukkois, we wave fresh fruit at the sky for seven days, and eat in an open air beehive. We cap it off by dancing cheek to cheek with a bunch of bearded men. (I have a date with a talmid named Yerachmiel; I hope I get lucky!) 

According to Chazzal, Sukkois is the time when Moshiach will come. And according to Reb Hai Goyn, it is the holiday when you are supposed to separate yourself from the secular world. He cites as proof the fact that you are forced to take off so many work days right before end of year reviews, you might as well start polishing up your resume.

The RI holds that Sukkois is actually a celebration of homosexuality. When Klal Yisroel were preparing for the long winter, planting in the fields by day and sleeping in huts at night, at the end of a long day they would sit down bichavrusa (in pairs) and study a little Talmud. One minute they are on daf yud baiz, amud alef, and the next minute they are on the floor, committing Mishkav Zachor. And who can blame them? I get excited by a gevaldik Toisfois myself!

The RI cites various Sukkois practices as proof for his position:

- We wave our phallic lulavim on the faces of all the other men, boasting about how ours is the biggest in the shul;

- Alongside our lulav is our esroig, where the gemarrah tells us that the more bulbous and full of veins, the better;

- We commit a sadomasochistic act with a handful of willow branches; 

- We dance around the Toirah with other men, our fingers firmly entwined with others' hot, sweaty, hairy hands.

However, most Rishoinim disagree with the RI, referring to his rather abrupt departure from his position as director of the all boys Orthodox summer camp in Northern Lithuania (although they settled out of Baiz Din, so no one can prove a damn thing).

The RIF points to the beauty of the Sukkah celebration as a unique mitzvah within Yiddishkeit. Fresh fruit. The outdoors. Many Rishoinim hold that you should live in the Sukkah for eights days. It says in the Gemmarah that Rish Lakish would move into the Sukkah, and use it as an excuse for not having to deal with his mother in law all week. Rav Ashi, on the other hand, insisted that his mother in law sleep in the Sukkah, and take one or two of the kids with her.

The Sukkah offers many opportunities to be Hiddur Mitzvah, to go above and beyond the letter of the commandment. It is customary to decorate the Sukkah with pictures and other decorations. (Vooz iz givehn plastic fruit, anyway? I understand the Reform decorate their Sukkahs with shrimp.)

According to Rabbeinu Tam, it is actually a Mitzvah Dioraisa to buy Christmas decorations in January at fifty percent off, to be used in decorating the Sukkah the following year: Flashing lights. Ornaments. Candy canes. Indeed, one year the Vilna Goyn decorated his Sukkah with a nativity scene he bought for six dollars.

There are other things that one can do with a Sukkah. A Braisah brings down a story of Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, who, as a teenager, had the roof removed from his family's minivan so that he could drive down to the beach and be mekayaim the mitzvois of pleasuring his girlfriend and eating in the sukkah at the same time. What a tzaddik!

Yet the most beautiful element of Sukkois, and the aspect most shrouded in mystery, is the mitzvah of esroig. I still can't figure it out. It looks like a lemon. It smells like a lemon. It even tastes like a lemon. But it costs as much as heroin. How come it is easier to buy fresh peaches from Antarctica than it is to buy an esroig at a reasonable price? 

And how many times in your life have you heard of esroig jelly. I bet you have heard of it all your life, but have NEVER seen it. You know why? Imagine this boast to your friends and neighbors: "I took 100 esroigim that last week retailed for a total of $5,000, mixed them up with a little sugar and pectin, and now it's worth about $1.50." Really impressive.

For this reason, I have a personal minhag. Two days before Sukkois, I buy 5 pounds of lemons in the supermarket, take them home, and then take a baseball bat to them. After about ten minutes of beating the crap out of them, I have plenty esroigim for myself and the kinderlach, and sell the remainder in the shul. With the extra money I buy some cologne, so I can smell nice for my dancing partner on Simchas Toirah night.

Ah Gutten Yuntif, you Minuval.


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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yoim Kippur Drasha

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Yoim Kippur Drasha


You good for nothing Menuval, you have sinned all year long, and now you are going to pay for it!

From Kol Nidrei at sundown until the blowing of the Shofar, you will be cramped into an overcrowded room surrounded by unshowered, unshaven men whose empty stomachs are growling louder than the chazzan. But look at the bright side: at least you get your exercise. Between the frequent and incessant beating of your chest and the four instances of full kneeling, you have become a Moslem Tarzan. Shkoiyach.

Chazzal spent many, many hours contemplating the true meaning of Yoim Kippur, while awaiting the horses to reach the finish line. There is a famous machloikess (rabbinic debate) in Yuma on the subject between Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel. Bais Shammai holds that the true commandment of the Toirah is that you should sin all year long, and then repent on Yoim Kippur. Bais Hillel, on the other hand, holds that you should strictly avoid sin all year long, and then enjoy a nice honey glazed ham right after Kol Nidrei. Of course, this is one of the fourteen instances when we hold like Bais Shammai (along with such critical issues as not using toilet paper on Shabbos and the infield fly rule.)

The Reshoinim struggled to define the metaphor by which we can understand how the Jewish People should look upon a single day in which they can redeem themselves for past mistakes and plan for the next year without the aid of a good tax advisor or financial planner.

According to the Rabbeinu Tam, Yoim Kippur is like an all day telethon, where the Aimishteh is raising funds and support for the coming year, and you are asked to contribute of your soul. The ROISH disagrees, using the same metaphor, but reversing it. Says the ROISH, YOU are hosting the telethon, and are appealing to the Rebboinoisheloilum for his support, and you refuse to go off the air until He is ready to write you a check. (And if He pledges 75 dollars or more, you'll send Him an autographed CD of Luciano Pavoratti in concert.)

The RIF holds that the true metaphor for Yoim Kippur is that of the annual performance review. Hakkodoshboruchhu is your manager, and at review time, He reaches out to your colleagues, your superiors, your subordinates, and your clients, soliciting feedback on your performance. He looks at your numbers. He checks how often you have been absent or late to shul. He then synthesizes the information and decides your fate. Will you be terminated? Will you get a raise? Will you get a better bonus? Will you get a hot new secretary?

But how can you protect yourself as the Aimishteh's employee? How can you best ensure a positive year? According to the Pas Akum, this metaphor explains one of the age old questions, which is: Why does Sukkois so closely follow Yoim Kippur? Say the Aimishteh decides to terminate you. What can you do? Can you prove wrongful dismissal? Says the Pas Akum, we stand before Hakkodoshboruchhu four days after Yoim Kippur and wave our phallic looking palm branches at heaven as if to say, "if you terminate me, I'll sue you for sexual harassment!" And in the current politically correct environment, even He has to be careful.

We prepare for this holiest day of days with the greatest degree of sobriety. We set aside Ten Days Of Atonement for spiritual introspection. We say Selichois, special prayers beseeching the Aimishteh for forgiveness. We blow the shoifar, which is intended to strike an internal chord of repentance. And we wave a live chicken over our heads.

In the time of the Second Temple, there was a great debate over this strange practice. The Prushim (Pharasees) held that before Yoim Kippur, every Jewish male should take a chicken by the legs, wave it over the heads of his loved ones, as if to absorb their sins, and then send the chicken off to slaughter. We have recently learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes, on the other hand, held that before Yoim Kippur every Jewish male should choke the chicken, if you know what I mean. Given that the Essenes are not doing too well these days, I guess that was the wrong approach.

There is a famous story of Rabbi Chaim MiVerlozhin. Reb Chaim was traveling from town to town in Inner Mongolia, trying to raise money for his Yeshiva's IPO. When Yoim Kippur came, Reb Chaim went to the only shul in town just in time for Kol Nidrei. "We're sorry," he was told, "but you can't get in without a ticket." Not having purchased a ticket in advance, Reb Chaim was sent away, denied the opportunity to daven on Yoim Kippur in a minyan.

The next morning, as Reb Chaim went downstairs in the small hotel in which he was staying, the host greeted him saying, "Rabbi, please join us. The missus just made up a huge breakfast, including a fresh batch of muffins." Reflecting on his experience the night before, on his rejection at the shul and at the prospect of having to daven for the next sixteen hours by himself, Reb Chaim took off his yarmulke, sat down at the table, and began to serve himself.

That night, the Aimishteh came to him. "Reb Chaim," the Aimishteh said, "why did you sin today?"

"I'm sorry, Aimishteh. I was so drained by the ticket thing I just had to grab a bite to eat," Reb Chaim responded.

"No, you fool," the Aimishteh replied. "Why did you let all that nice bacon go to waste?"

Repentance, and sin, are somewhat in the eye of the beholder. So when you are standing before the Melech Malchei Hamelachim at Neilah, don't just mouth the words; picture it as a conversation, one on one. Before you beg for forgiveness, establish rapport. Tell a couple of jokes. Ask the Aimishteh how He's doing. Ask about the wife and kids. Sure He's busy, but a little brown-nosing never hurts.

Gmar Chassima Toivah, You Menuval