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Friday, February 18, 2011

On The Role of the Synagogue President

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On The Role of the Synagogue President

Rabboisai,

I was sitting at home the other day learning Toirah – specifically, the linkages between Hilchois Nashim and Hilchois Makkos Arbaim, based on some recent educational materials starring Rebbetzin Jenna Jameson and Rabbi Yerachmiel Schneiderman (more popularly known as Rick the Schlong) -- when the phone rang. After thoroughly performing Netilas Yadayim, I picked up the phone to hear the shrill voice of the President of my Kehilla, asking my input on whether it was OK for the Shul to substitute blended scotch for single malt for the weekly Kiddush club. After berating the Minuval for interrupting my Limud Toirah for such Narishkeit, I pointed to a Gemarrah in Nezikin which brings down a Braisah where Rabbi Elazer Ben Azariah castigates Ben Hey Hey for serving “Sheissmead” at Kiddush instead of Yayin Shaychur.

The President should have known better. Last year he called me about delaying the start of our main Minyan so that several members of the Kehilla wouldn’t miss their Pilates classes.

What is this role of President of a synagogue? What is the basis of this role, which clearly violates the Toirah’s intentions of the Rabbi having complete authority over all of Klal Yisroel during every second of the day?

As best as can be determined, the role of the Shul President was established by Reb Yankif Emden, as a response to the Shabsai Tzvi phenomenon. In his siddur, Ka’as Shel Yaakov, Reb Yankif includes a prayer for the well being of the Shul President, and in an introduction to the prayer notes the importance of balancing the sacred guidance of the Rabbi with popular support of the President and the Board on all issues of consequence, “especially the year prior to contract renewal,” unquote.

The importance of the Shul President is not addressed extensively until relatively recent times. The topic does, however, receive detailed attention in the She’alois V’Tshuvois of the 1950s. Reb Moishe Feinstein responds to a letter in 1952 from “Curious in Connecticut” asking whether Shuls need Presidents, as well as Vice Presidents, Treasurers and Secretaries of Defense. Reb Moishe states that while he is not personally in favor of Shul Presidents, “recent circumstances highlight the need to acknowledge secular concerns and monitor current events, since the Reboinoisheloilum is certainly asleep at the wheel.”

Commenting on Reb Moishe’s Teshuvah, Reb Aaron Kutler notes his agreement with Reb Moishe’s position. Writes Reb Aaron, “I would not have agreed with this position in 1935; but given our recent history, it’s probably a good idea.” According to Reb Aaron, reliance on Rabbinic leadership for religious guidance inherently assumes that there is a God, and “given that my entire family in Europe was turned by the Nazis into a box of overcooked Kellogg’s Pop Tarts, I can no longer subscribe to any ideology that requires the existence of Hakadoshboruchhu. Either that, or He is a total dick.”

Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky, however, disagrees vociferously, referring to Reb Aaron as a “Shaygitz with a nice hat.” He insists that there is in fact an Aimishteh, but that the decimation of the Jews is not a reflection of the Reboinoisheloilum’s intent, since there is “free will.” These comments were made in a Teshuvah where Reb Yankif declared it a requirement MiDioraisa for a man to always carry a couple of “Kishka skins” in his wallet, since one never knows when the opportunity might arise to exercise free will in the backseat of an Oldsmobile.

The Steipler Ruv builds upon Reb Yaakov Kaminitsky’s position, noting that the existence of free will necessarily implies that Hakadoshboruchhu is not involved in the activities of the world, for if there is total free will for all human inhabitants, how can the Aimishteh influence their activities? Consequently, according to The Steipler, there can be no consequences, reward or punishment, good or bad, delivered to this world by any human agent, since, by definition, all of humanity acts through free will, not at the whim of the Reboinoisheloilum. Therefore, says The Steipler, the only ways that Hakadoshboruchhu can influence this world are through disease, natural disaster, and aliens from other planets. And since disease and natural disaster randomly affect all humanity including the innocent and children, then we must conclude that they too cannot function as agents of the Aimishteh, otherwise, in the words of The Steiper, “He is one pretty twisted Dude.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe acknowledges the positions of Reb Moishe, Reb Aaron, Reb Yankif, and The Steipler, referring to them as “my dry Misnagid brothers, who have about as much spirituality in them as an oversqueezed lemon has juice.” He cites the Kabbalistic principle of Tzimtzum in explaining the role of the Reboinoisheloilum in the world. Tzimtzum, originally described by the Ari ZAHL, refers to the Divine withdrawal of a part of His own essence in order to create space for the physical world. Notes the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Hakadoshboruchhu’s act of self limitation is not merely a physical description of time and space, but also applies to His involvement in the world. In creating the world, He chose to withdraw from direct engagement in world affairs, and therefore is not the source of human suffering, Jewish or otherwise. At most, comments the Rebbe, the Aimishteh’s involvement in the world is akin to “a child looking at the fish tank while waiting for her appointment at the orthodontist, moderately interested until she picks up the most recent edition of People magazine.”

However, Reb Oivadia Yoisaiph holds Farkhert to all of the above positions. Says Maran, there is in fact a Reboinoisheloilum, and He is fully engaged in the activities of the world. With regard to the tragedy that befell European Jewry, he states, “…People are upset and ask why was there a Holocaust? Woe to us, for we have sinned… All those poor people in the Holocaust…we wonder why it was done. There were righteous people among them. Still, they were punished because of sins of past generations" (an actual quote from a speech made in the year 2000). Of course, Reb Oivadia has made similar comments about a variety of topics in recent years, exemplifying the fact that after a certain number of years, even a great mind, like a fine steak, eventually turns to excrement.

This broad debate about the role of Hakkadosboruchhu in the world leaves us, all of us, with fundamental questions regarding how we, in our world, should relate to the Aimishteh, and what role should synagogue life play. If He does not exist, then why waste our time? If He is evil or sadistic, then why bother? If He is playing for another team, and indeed punished Klal Yisroel for rejecting Christ, Joseph Smith, Shariah, Buddha, Baal, or Jim Jones, then why not switch teams? But if He does exist, and He is accessible to our tradition, what is the purpose of prayer and fulfilling the Mitzvois?

This complex set of questions lies at the core of synagogue life, and is at the heart of the delicate balance between the roles of the Shul President and the Rabbi. The synagogue President is a lay leader representing Gashmiyus to the Rabbi’s Ruchniyus. The President represents the congregants, while the Rabbi represents the voice of tradition. The President represents the blank page, while the Rabbi represents the ink and the letters. The President represents the velvet cloth, while the Rabbi represents the embroidery. The President represents the pasta, while the Rabbi represents the sauce. The President represents the water, while the Rabbi represents the Kool-Ade. The President represents the tonic water, while the Rabbi represents the gin. The President represents the eggs, while the Rabbi represents the bacon. I think you know what I mean.

For those of us who have not rejected the Reboinoisheloilum despite rational arguments and bitter historical experience, we sit in prayer, worshipping a Diety that we cannot begin to understand, using forms and words and practices that are bound in tradition, even when they make little sense to us. The role of the Rabbi is to balance our reality with a proud tradition, synthesizing texts and philosophies with practical considerations. But it is the role of the President to serve as a counterbalance against Rabbinic excesses. If the Rabbi enforces excessive measures of Kashruth beyond rational or economic considerations, the President must speak out. If the Rabbi suggests an overly stringent form of Sabbath laws, the President must speak out. If the Rabbi engages in extramarital affairs, the President must speak out. If the Rabbi coerces a woman whom he is overseeing through the conversion process into having an affair with him, then the president must speak out. If the Rabbi condemns a Kiddush in his synagogue honoring the IDF, whom he had previously compared to Nazis, then the President must speak out. If the Rabbi engages in improper relationships with children or adolescents, male or female, then the President must speak out.

For if the President does not hold up his (or her) end of the equation, then Jewish communal life falls off kilter, and we may as well skip Shul and make Rabbinic decisions for ourselves, using the latest educational materials from Rebbetzin Jameson and other Gedoilei HaDor.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.

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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein

Rosheshiva

Yeshiva Chipas Emmess


Friday, February 11, 2011

On Current Events (February 2011)

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The Collected Writings of Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein

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Rabboisai,

Please excuse my mispellingz. I am writing this on my IPad as I sit here in Tahrir Square, checking out all the hot Muslim Brotherhood meidlach wearing their hijabs. I am astounded at how they can believe that their drab cloth hair coverings are any more modest than the Sheytel of my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah, which is made out of the actual real hair of Adolph Hitler’s granddaughter, coiffed in the 1970s style of Farrah Fawcett Majors by my wife’s trusted Sheytelmacher, Schprintze Guttenschtupp.

I have been out here for two and a half weeks with my comrades in arms, standing here in the cold, and the heat, of the Cairo winter, sipping mint tea and eating baklawa when not running from the regime’s secret police. I have made many new friends: Mustafa, who is a lawyer with the Egyptian law firm Hussein Hussein Hussein and Goldberg; Abdul, who is a teacher in a high school earning seventy dollars a month and all the chick peas he can eat; Kareem, who is unemployed, loves American movies, and would like to marry a nice Jewish girl and move to Florida; and Anwar, who is a shopkeeper and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who constantly thanks me effusively for supporting their cause, and then tells me how and his friends will celebrate the joy and freedom of the new Egypt by dancing on my grave when I am dead.

Rabboisai, there is a famous story about the Vilna Goyn. He once was sitting in his Bais Medrish learning Hilchois Tashmish HaBackSeatOfTheCar when two Talmidim of the Yeshiva broke into a loud argument, disrupting the studies of the entire Yeshiva. “Shah, you Minuvals!” the Goyn called out. But his students would not stop bickering, and he called them into his office. As they sat down on either side of him, sulking, he poured himself a double shot of single malt Shlivovitz.

“So you Vilde Chayas” the Goyn asked, “what is so important that you had to disturb my learning just when I was getting to the happy ending?”

Yechiel, his Talmid Muvhak, responded. “I found the jacket that I am holding.” With both hands he held onto a black wool coat trimmed with linen.

The other student, Oivadiah, held onto the other end of the coat and shouted “no, I found it!” Oivadiah was a new student in the Yeshivah whose tan complexion made him stand out from all the other pale students.

Yechiel argued, “No, it only belongs to me!”

“No, it only belongs to me!” Oivadiah replied.

The Vilna Goyn grabbed the coat out of both of their hands and declared “I will decide who this belongs to!” The students were immediately silent. An intense heat emanated from the Goyn’s eyes as he looked first at one and then the other. The few moments felt liked an uncomfortable abyss of solitude. Suddenly the Goyn spoke, in a soft but stern voice. “This coat belongs to Yechiel.”

“But Rebbe,” Oivadiah responded, “how can you declare that the coat belongs to that Mamzer? The Mishnah teaches us that in such a case, you have to divide the garment between the two of us.”

“That is true,” replied the Goyn. “But you are Sephardic, so I simply don’t like you. Now walk out of my office before I hand you over to the Cossacks!”

Rabboisai, this beautiful Maiseh Shehoya illustrates the conflicting emotions felt by all of us in these challenging days. On the one hand, the Goyn knew full well the prescription of the first Mishnah in Baba Metziah, that an object in dispute, with a shared claim of possession and no other external evidence, must be divided equally between the two parties. And this rule is a Halacha LeMoishe MiSinai, handed down to Moishe Rabbeinu by the Reboinoisheloilum Himself during a commercial break during an episode of Glee. On the other hand, the Goyn resented all Sephardim ever since a Yemenite girl would not let him get to third base on their first date.

Such is our dilemma. As we observe the happenings in Egypt over he last several weeks, we cannot help but be pulled in opposite emotional directions. We are a People with a legacy that favors self determination, freedom of expression, and emancipation from authoritarianism. The Toirah reminds us many times that we must never forget that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, and that the Exodus to freedom represented the culmination of our establishment as a nation and our covenant with Hakadoshboruchhu. (“Ani Hashem Eloikaichem Asher Hoitzaisee Esschem MaEretz Mitzrayim Lihyois Lachem Lailoikim.”)

Having said that, the Jewish national enterprise has been blessed by thirty years without a true existential threat, thanks to the stability ensured by the Mubarak regime. There has been respect for the peace treaty and collaboration on many security related issues. We may be at odds internally and externally about the ultimate disposition of the West Bank and Gaza, but the sudden uncertainties with the one country that represents the nexus of an existential military challenge has us all suddenly declaring “Palestinians Schmalestinians. Now we have REAL problems.”

Moreover, as members of Western countries, whether in the US, Canada, Israel, the Western Europe nations, or the Republic of Togo, we have all benefited from the geopolitical stability contributed by the Egyptian government in the global struggle against Al Qaeda, the fight against the spread of radical Islamist extremism, and the worldwide front against Shmuley Boiteach.

So we are all conflicted by our core empathy for national liberty juxtaposed against the very rational fear of the long term implications for the West and for Israel, and for what may follow, which could under an extreme outcome become a truly despotic regime echoing the tyranny of modern Iran. Moreover, if Egypt becomes a country which is closed to us, where will American and British college and yeshiva students studying in Israel go to buy cheap hash from Bedouins? That would truly be a crisis indeed!

With all of these deep challenges, we can be grateful that we are the Chosen People! Other nations would have to figure such things out for themselves, but we can turn to the Toirah for guidance and inspiration, and for Divine reasons to pay 50% extra for a basic meal.

The Toirah tells us about Yankif Avinu’s flight from his twin brother Eisav, and discusses his trepidation about remeeting him later in life. When that meeting occurs, Yankif Avinu prepares by surrounding himself by an outer ring of his concubines and their sons, with his wives and favored sons protected in the center. In the end, Yankif’s worst fears never materialize, as his brother embraces him and steals his wallet.

Whatever our personal preferences, on either side of the equation, it was never our place to determine the outcome of the struggle of the last two weeks. This was a historic movement operating under its own momentum. We must remember one key notion: This issue was never really about Israel. As much as Israel and Jews were scapegoated by both sides whenever it was most convenient, this was a political phenomenon that was about the aspirations for greater self-determination by the Egyptian People.

It may hurt you to hear this, you Mechutziff, but most of what goes on in the world is not about Klal Yisroel. We complain when we are blamed for the ills of the world. And then we complain when we are not at the center of attention. We complain when we are the victims of anti-Semitism, and then we complain when we are treated like all the other nations of the world. The Toirah often calls us an “Am Kshey Oireph”, a “stiff necked people”. But we are also a tremendously narcissistic nation. The Jews are like a woman in a low cut dress who is upset when people stare at her cleavage, and is equally upset when no one tries to sneak a peek.

So the current events, which have the potential to have profound and dramatic impact upon us, were never really about us. There was never anything that we did or could do to impact the phenomenon that resulted in regime change in Egypt.

But what we can do is determine how we respond, how we prepare, and how we react. Unlike our ancestors of 70 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, we are a strong nation which has taken its fate into its own hands. We are not victims to the events of the world, but active players in the ongoing historical narrative.

Like the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, we too hold our fate in our own hands. We should not cower in fear, but stand proudly as we walk cautiously into the future.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.