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Preview: Study Hall of the Goblin King

Study Hall of the Goblin King

ㅁㅇᆘㄴㅡㅏㄴ ㄷㅠㅡㄴㅛㅈㅡᆘㄱ ㅁᆘㅡㄷㅠ ᆘㄱㅡㅁㄹㅜㄷז ה י ר ו ת :   מ ח ס ו ם   ד ר ק ו נ י ם   ל פ נ י ך

Updated: 2014-10-28T08:36:35.346-04:00


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A Nahhamu Devar Torah from Rabbi DINDŠ


Oh what the heck, anyone still reading this defunct blog is probably my friend — you can call me Rаν Ѕtеg. ;-) Anyway, I was going to a Shabbat meal this past Shabbos in Jerusalem (yup back there for part of the summer, leaving in a few days), and being all “revved up” and stuff now I thought I should keep a handy devar torah in my metaphorical back pocket. But I didn't end up using it, so I'm storing it here in not-fully-fleshed-out form on ye olde internet.

The question is, what's מבשרת ציון scared of, such that in the הפטרה of שבת נחמו she needs to be encouraged by the קול not to fear when she goes up onto the mountains to announce Redemption to a dry-grass world?

To answer, look back at the parasha, ואתחנן, in which Moshe begs God to let him into the Promised Land, but instead gets told to go up onto a nearby mountain to get a nice view of Cana‘an... because he'll never see it close up.

Maybe the מבשרת ציון is scared that if she goes up the mountain with her message of messianic peace and wonder, she'll never make it all the way there, like Moshe Rabeinu. But the prophecy continues with descriptions of God's transcendent greatness — measuring out earth and heaven, naming every single star beyond — to reassure her that this future redemption is being driven by a Force that knows what it's doing.

At first I thought it could mean that when redemption is enacted by God directly, every individual (like the stars) will not be lost, unlike with Moshe who was a human being dealing with the people on God's behalf. But we don't always think of the future redemption as Divine handwaving and handholding... so what would that mean for a process of slow human process towards the perfection that God has pointed us towards? Maybe it's an end to fear and worry. Maybe מבשרת ציון will never make it to ציון herself, but she should not give up hope. She's just a little piece in a big play, and everyone does their part to water the dry grass and weary minds so that they will sprout hopeful futures.



Remember 2007?mass rabbinic arrestmass rabbinic a.c.d.mass rabbinic impactmass rabbinic closureWell, they were at it again today!About 50-100 rabbis (sorry for the vague number, didn't get to count them myself), most affiliated with the New York Board of Rabbis, obstructed traffic on First Avenue in Manhattan, NYC, just south of the United Nations, at 41st street. The police threatened them with arrest, and most of the protestors moved aside, but 11 stood (sat?) their ground and went all the way in order to highlight dramatically the danger that Pres. Ahmadinejad of Iran poses to his own people, to America, to Israel and to the rest of the world.Please note: If you would like to make use of my photos, I am happy to contribute — but please email me at shtegosaurus you-know-what gmail etc. to ask for attribution information first! Thank you.Preparing for the Protest  Protest Rally on the SidewalkWith Speeches, Prayers and Tehillim   Stepping Out Onto the Streetand Obstructing Traffic    Sounding the Shofar Final Warnings from the NYPDProtesters Willing to Risk ArrestSit Themselves Down on the Streetand Refuse to Move  Arresting the Civilly-Disobedient Protesters  Loading the Arrestees into Police Vans And a Few Self-Reflective Media Photosbecause i admire real journalistslike Steven I. Weiss of The Jewish Channel Also, see the following videos of the rabbis sounding their shofars and chanting "STOP HIM [=Ahmadinejad] NOW" as the NYPD orders them to stop blocking traffic, and of Shmuly Yanklowitz (of Uri L'Tzedek speaking passionately of the danger that the Iranian president poses to the world:I'm just an amateur blogging photojournalist, but these real media reported on the civil-disobedience protest:‘Arutz Sheva‘ HEBREW and ENGLISH and an INTERVIEWAsbury Park Press BEFORE and AFTERNY Post VIDEOThe Jewish Channel's Week In Review VIDEOYahoo! News PHOTOS[...]

Another Thought on “Eli Tziyon”


אלי ציון ועריה כמו אשה בציריה
וכבתולה חגורת שק על בעל נעוריה

The piyyut compares Zion to a virgin, girded in sackcloth, [mourning] the husband of her youth. When singing this caoineadh this morning, I noticed the incongruity of that line. If she's a בתולה, a virgin, how has she been married long enough to be widowed?

At that point I realized — Tziyon's metaphorical husband died before they were able to "consummate" their marriage. All the pieces were there, but the job was never finished.

We were living free in our Land.
We had a House for God.
We had self-government.
We had prophets and miracles.

The marriage had taken effect — all the pieces were there in the formal relationship between God, People, Torah and Land — but it was never finalized. We never created the holy and just society that we were meant to. We never truly became a mamlekhet kohanim vegoy ḳadosh. We never taught the world to aspire to Unity.

It's not just what was there that we lost — it's the potential that we lost, too. The uncompleted task.

Subverting Mourning


Some people (such as Iconoclastic Litvaks) object to the custom to sing Lekha Dodi to the tune of Eli Tziyon on Shabbat Ḥazon, the Shabbos before Tish‘a b’Av. They think that it's an infringement by the mourning of Tishabav onto Shabbat, when public displays of mourning are inappropriate.

I was thinking about that this past Friday Night, as we sang Lekha Dodi to the tune of Eli Tziyon at shul, and I realized that it's not quite that simple. Lekha Dodi interweaves two themes — one is the approach of Shabbat, and the other is aspirations for Redemption. Matisyahu got the title of his album “Shake Off the Dust... Arise” from Lekha Dodi, after all, where it refers to the Jerusalem and the Jewish People, identified with each other, shaking off the necrotizing chains of exilic lethargy and rising to meet the Messianic Age.

Lekha Dodi is fundamentally hopeful — just as we stand at the end of the mundane week, on the threshold of the transcendent alternate universe of Shabbos, it looks out from Galut forwards, hopefully towards the Coming Days, and leaving the Valley of Tears behind.

When we foreshadow Tish‘a B’av by singing Lekha Dodi to the tune of Eli Tziyon, we aren't taking the mournful nature of the Fast and applying it to Shabbat where it doesn't belong — we're subverting and undercutting the entire mourning process before it's even had a chance to really get started. We go into Tishabav confident and hopeful, looking forwards towards the as-yet-unfulfilled prophecies of Consolation, instead of just looking back at the already-fulfilled prophecies of Calamity. Long before we read Eikha, we've already spun its message.

Complete and utter side-point:
You can also use the tune of Eli Tziyon to sing the song of the Dwarves longing for their dispossessed homeland in Prof. JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, both the English original and הנעמי's Hebrew translation. Which is pretty cool, considering the similar themes.

Star-K, Meet Star-H


Walking down Broadway in Manhattan today, I came across a discarded cardboard food-shipment box. It was a fairly typical box for meat delivery, but it had a certification symbol I had never seen before...


It looks like the followers of Muslim Dietary Laws are finally following in the footsteps of us who keep Jewish Dietary Laws, and starting certification organizations with recognizable symbols. I hope the Va‘ad of Baltimore doesn't go after these guys for trademark infringement or something!

Star-K[osher], meet Star-Ḥ[alāl]!

Now the question is... how long until they too have certification scandals?

Two and a Half Poems


Ḥozeh, Leikh Beraḥ (“Seer, Go Flee”) by Ḥ. N. Bialik, after ‘Amos 7:12„חוֹזֶה, לֵךְ בְּרַח“ "לֵךְ בְּרַח?" – לֹא-יִבְרַח אִישׁ כָּמוֹנִי!הֲלוֹךְ בַּלָּאט לִמְּדַנִי בְקָרִי,גַּם דַּבֵּר כֵּן לֹא-לָמְדָה לְשׁוֹנִיוּכְקַרְדֹּם כָּבֵד יִפֹּל דְּבָרִי."Go flee?" — a man like me does not flee!My cattle taught me to walk softly;But my tongue never learned to speak so,My word instead falls like a heavy ax. וְאִם-כֹּחִי תַם לָרִיק – לֹא-פִשְׁעִי,חַטַּאתְכֶם הִיא וּשְׂאוּ הֶעָוֹן!לֹא-מָצָא תַחְתָּיו סְדָן פַּטִּישִׁי,קַרְדֻּמִּי בָא בְּעֵץ רִקָּבוֹן.And if my strength was expended for naught — it's not my bad;It's your sin, so deal with your crime!My hammer did not find its anvil underneath,my ax came into rotten wood. אֵין דָּבָר! אַשְׁלִים עִם-גּוֹרָלִי:אֶת-כֵּלַי אֶקְשֹׁר לַחֲגוֹרָתִי,וּשְׂכִיר הַיּוֹם בְּלִי שְׂכַר פָּעֳלִיאָשׁוּבָה לִּי בַּלָּאט כְּשֶׁבָּאתִי.No matter! I will deal with my fate:I will tie my tools to my belt,And like a laborer stiffed of his payI will go back softly as I came. אֶל-נָוִי אָשׁוּב וְאֶל-עֲמָקָיווְאֶכְרֹת בְּרִית עִם שִׁקְמֵי יָעַר;וְאַתֶּם – אַתֶּם מְסוֹס וְרָקָבוּמָחָר יִשָּׂא כֻלְּכֶם סָעַר.To my home I'll return and to its valleysAnd I will enact a covenant with the forest sycamores;And you — y'all are rotten and decayedAnd tomorrow a storm will carry you away.I'm not runningI'm not runningI'm not running from todayIf you meet me on the mountainI won't be the one to pay(You won't be the one to stay)“Not Ready to Make Nice” by the Dixie Chicks'Forgive' — sounds good'Forget' — I'm not sure I couldThey say time heals everythingBut I'm still waitingI'm through with doubtThere's nothing left for me to figure outI've paid a priceAnd I'll keep payingI'm not ready to make niceI'm not ready to back downI'm still mad as hell andI don't have time to go round and round and roundIt's too late to make it rightI probably wouldn't if I could'Cause I'm mad as hellCan't bring myself to do what it is you think I shouldI know you saidCan't you just get over itIt turned my whole world aroundAnd I kinda like itI made my bed and I sleep like a babyWith no regrets and I don't mind sayin'It's a sad sad story when a mother will teach herDaughter that she oughta hate a perfect strangerAnd how in the world can the words that I saidSend somebody so over the edgeThat they'd write me a letterSayin' that I better shut up and singOr my life will be overI'm not ready to make niceI'm not ready to back downI'm still mad as hell andI don't have time to go round and round and roundIt's too late to make it rightI probably wouldn't if I could'Cause I'm mad as hellCan't bring myself to do what it is you think I shouldI'm not ready to make niceI'm not ready to back downI'm still mad as hell andI don't have time to go round and round and roundIt's too late to make it rightI probably wouldn't if I could'Cause I'm mad as hellCan't bring myself to do what it is you think I shouldWhat it is you think I should'Forgive' — sounds good'Forget' — I'm not sure I couldThey say time heals everythingBut I'm still waiting[...]

Beyond Evolution


Interesting and well-written article here:
"Confirmed: God is Slightly Gay"

It expresses what seems to be a very common view of spirituality today, the nature-centric "we are the universe made manifest" principle that many people have. It finds religious/moral value in the grandeur of nature and the rhythms of the natural world.

What the article doesn't seem to recognize is that some of us have spiritual/religious sensibilities that are based on the idea that humanity's sentience and self-reflective nature are a mandate to break with the rhythms of the brutal process of evolution. We're supposed to think and exercise altruism and self-restraint, not just give in to whatever urges and instincts lead to the tautological survival of the fittest.

Incredible Cosmic Power:
a Shavuos ShulDrasha


Our הפטרה this morning, for the Second Day of שבועות, was תְּפִֿלָּה לַחֲבַֿקּוּק הַנָּבִֿיא — the Prayer of the Prophet חבקוק, one of the ‘12 Minor Prophets’ called such not because they were less important to the spiritual history of Israel, but because so little of their prophetic-literary output was preserved for later generations.All we have of חבקוק is three short chapters.But תפילה לחבקוק is a hard-hitting masterpiece of praise, describing God as a divine warrior — the אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה of the Song at the Sea — whose power and glory cover the heavens and fill the earth, who shatters mountains and raises storms in both the upper and lower waters.Reminiscent of the imagery used by our ancient polytheistic neighbors, חבקוק describes God as a wrathful storm-god, riding a divine ‘chariot of rescue’ into battle, casting flashes of lightning like arrows and spears, with plague and pestilence swarming along with God's heavy crushing steps.But the battle that God is going out to fight is not a divine war or a metaphysical struggle. חבקוק asks rhetorically, הֲבִֿנְהָרִים חָרָה ה'؟ אִם בַּנְּהָרִים אַפֶּךָֿ؟ אִם בַּיָּם עֶבְֿרָתֶֿךָֿ؟ Is God angry at the rivers?
 Is God raging against the sea?No!This is not a skirmish in some eternal struggle between Order and Chaos; this is not the Creator forcefully asserting authority over the untamed rebellious Ocean, although such motifs do periodically occur in our tradition.הֲבִֿנְהָרִים חָרָה ה'؟No. God is not angry with the waters.The rays of light bursting from God's hand; the rent earth, the rushing torrents, the smashed mountains, the crackling lightning — what are they all for? What is the purpose of all this awe-inspiring violent pyrotechnics?יָצָאתָֿ לְיֵשַׁע עַמֶּךָֿ לְיֵשַׁע אֶתֿ מְשִׁיחֶךָֿמָחַצְתָּ רֹּאשׁ מִבֵּיתֿ רָשָׁע עָרוֹתֿ יְסוֹדֿ עַדֿ צַוָּארחבקוק addresses God, answering his own question — “You have come forth to rescue your people; to rescue your anointed — you smash the head from the villain's house, razing it from foundation to neck.”These tools of cosmic warfare, God's world-wrecking weapons, are not being used against cosmic enemies, against natural forces — but against the enemies of עם ישראל.בְּזַעַם תִּצְעַדֿ אָרֶץ“You tread the earth in rage”— but God's enemy is not the earth —בְּאַףֿ תָּדֿוּשׁ גּוֹיִם“You thresh nations in fury.”חבקוק speaks of his trembling fear, the rot in his bones at the enemy's approach — but אָנוּחַ לְיוֹם צָרָה he says, לַעֲלוֹתֿ לְעַם יְגֿוּדֶֿנּוּ “I wait calmly for the day of distress, for the arrival of the massing foe.”It doesn't matter how powerful the enemy appears, because he is confident in God's power — incredible cosmic might brought down to earth, brought to bear against those who would do us harm.וַאֲנִי he says, ,בַּה' אֶעְלוֹזָה אָגִֿילָה בֵּא'-ֵי יִשְׁעִי “I will rejoice in God, I will exult in God who rescues me.” וַיָּשֶׂם רַגְֿלַי כָּאַיָּלוֹתֿ וְעַל בָּמוֹתַֿי יַדְֿרִיכֵֿנִי “God makes my legs sure-footed as a deer, guiding my stride on my heights.”It's not God standing there victorious over the slain body of some cosmic foe — it's חבקוק, it's the Jewish People, surveying deliverance from above and giving thanks for God's awe-inspiring power.This isn't some cosmic metaphor —it's the struggle of our own lives.In the 89th Psalm, אֵיתָֿן הָ[...]

Happy New Year!
A Tazria‘-Metzora‘ DvarTorah


The first משנה in מסכת ראש־השנה tells us that there are actually four ראשי שנה — four new year's days.The first of ניסן is ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים — the new year for calculating kings' reigns, and for counting months and holidays. Not long before פסח we read the parsha of החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים, that ניסן, the month of liberation, is the first of all months.Then there's the first of אלול, ראש השנה למעשר בהמה — the beginning of each yearly cycle for tithing livestock.There's the first of שבט, or according to the other opinion in the משנה, the one we follow, ט"ו בשבט a.k.a. ראש השנה לאילנות, the beginning of each yearly cycle for tithing fruit trees.And then there's the first of תשרי, the ראש השנה that we celebrate as "ראש השנה" — the New Year for years, for the שמיטה and יובל cycles, and for some other agricultural calculations, as well.This past week I heard a lecture by ר' יובל שרלו. R' Cherlow is the ראש ישיבה of the ישיבת הסדר in פתח־תקוה in Israel, and one of the founders of צֹהַר, an organization that tries to help heal the divide between religious and secular Jews in Israeli society.He said that in his ישיבה, he calls יום העצמאות, Israeli Independence day — which is coming up this coming Wednesday — ראש השנה למדינה. The New Year for the State of Israel.Now let's just hold that thought — יום העצמאות as ראש השנה למדינה, the New Year for the State, and put it off to the side for a few minutes, while we discuss this morning's Torah reading.One of the dominant topics in תזריע and מצורע is the mysterious malady known as צרעת.The Torah tells us that צרעת — particularly-defined discolorations of the skin — can make a human being טמא, ritually impure.Similar discolorations can have the same effect on clothing, and on houses.רמב"ם and others see צרעת as a supernatural signal, warning the afflicted individual against speaking לשון הרע. The גמרא in מסכת ערכין brings a play on words — a person receives צרעת, and becomes a מצורע because they were מוציא שם רע, a slanderer.In this view, the three forms of צרעת — on people, clothes, and houses — are stages of warning or punishment. When someone begins to spread rumors and libel, the first thing to go is their home. צרעת appears on the walls, as an early-warning system. If they persist in their destructive ways, eventually the house will have to be disassembled. If they still don't learn their lesson, the צרעת moves to their clothes, until the clothes need to be burned.And in the end, if they still persist in misusing their God-given power of communication, the צרעת attaches itself directly to their body.This is probably the most popular understanding of how צרעת worked. You'll find it in numerous parsha sheets and children's books.But there are other explanations for the phenomena of צרעת and the rules of how to diagnose and deal with it — and I'd like to concentrate particularly on צרעת בתים, the impure discolorations that afflict houses.In the same place in מסכת ערכין that includes the idea that a מצורע is a מוציא־שם־רע, a slanderer, one of the other opinions brought is that צרעת of houses isn't a punishment for misused speech, but for theft; similarly, another opinion identifies the relevant sin as stinginess.As part of the house צרעת procedure, the building is emptied. All its contents are removed and placed outside. This way, if the house will be declared טמא, the contents will remain pure. However, while everything is outside, passers-by can —[...]

My Sun Salutation


No, I did not perform any yoga-esque stretches, but I did piece together my own liturgy for Birkat Hahhama, the Blessing of the [New] Sun, centered around the Mishna Berura's suggestions. It starts with some mood-setting texts about the sun and our relationship to it and to its Creator.1. from Yerushalmi Berakhot:מודה אני לפניך י' אלהי ואלהי אבותי שהוצאתני מאפילה לאורה!2. Based on Qidush Levana:ברוך יוצרֵךְֿ, ברוך עושֵךְֿ, ברוך קונֵךְֿ, ברוך בוראֵךְֿ;הוא יברך את ישראל מקדשֵךְֿ.3. from Mishna Sukot 5:2(-4)'s description of the Simhhat Beit Hasho’eiva:מוצאי יום טוב הראשון של חג, היו יורדין לעזרת הנשים, ומתקנים שם תיקון גדול. ומנורות של זהב היו שם, וארבעה ספלים של זהב היו שם בראשיהם, וארבעה סולמות על כל מנורה ומנורה; וארבעה ילדים מפרחי כהונה, ובידיהם כדי שמן של מאה ועשרים לוג, והם מטילין לתוך כל ספל וספל. [ג] מבלאי מכנסי הכוהנים ומהמייניהם היו מפקיעין, ובהם היו מדליקין. לא הייתה חצר בירושלים, שלא הייתה מאירה מאור בית השאובה. [ד] חסידים ואנשי מעשה היו מרקדין לפניהם באבוקות, ואומרין לפניהם דברי תושבחות. והלויים בכינורות ובנבלים ובמצלתיים ובכל כלי שיר בלא מספר, על חמש עשרה מעלות היורדות מעזרת ישראל לעזרת הנשים, כנגד חמש עשרה שיר המעלות שבתהילים, שעליהם הלויים עומדים ואומרים בשיר. עמדו שני כוהנים בשער העליון היורד מעזרת ישראל לעזרת הנשים, ושתי חצוצרות בידם. קרא הגבר, תקעו והריעו ותקעו; הגיעו למעלה עשירית, תקעו והריעו ותקעו; הגיעו לעזרה, תקעו והריעו ותקעו. היו תוקעין והולכין, עד שמגיעין לשער היוצא למזרח.הגיעו לשער היוצא למזרח — הפכו פניהם למערב ואמרו, אבותינו היו במקום הזה "אחוריהם אל היכל ה', ופניהם קדמה, והמה משתחוויתם קדמה, לשמש" (יחזקאל ח,טז); ואנו, ליה עינינו.רבי יהודה אומר, שונים אותה לומר, ואנו ליה, וליה עינינו.4. from the Piyutim of Ne‘ila on Yom Kippur, based on the above:אנו ליה ועינינו ליה.5. Four verses about the sun, spelling out God's Name, from the OU's Text:תהלים עב:היִֽירָא֥וּךָ עִם־שָׁ֑מֶשׁ, וְלִפְנֵ֥י יָ֝רֵ֗חַ דּ֣וֹר דּוֹרִֽים׃תהלים עה:בה֘וֹדִ֤ינוּ לְּךָ֨ ׀ אֱֽלֹהִ֗ים ה֭וֹדִינוּ וְקָר֣וֹב שְׁמֶ֑ךָ, סִ֝פְּר֗וּ נִפְלְאוֹתֶֽיךָ׃מלאכי ג:כוְזָֽרְחָ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם יִרְאֵ֤י שְׁמִי֙ שֶׁ֣מֶשׁ צְדָקָ֔ה וּמַרְפֵּ֖א בִּכְנָפֶ֑יהָ, וִֽיצָאתֶ֥ם וּפִשְׁתֶּ֖ם כְּעֶגְלֵ֥י מַרְבֵּֽק׃תהלים צז:והִגִּ֣ידוּ הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם צִדְק֑וֹ, וְרָא֖וּ כָל־הָֽעַמִּ֣ים כְּבוֹדֽוֹ׃6. Tehillim 148:1-6, like in Qidush Levana:הַ֥לְלוּ יָ֨הּ ׀
הַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־יְ֭הוָה מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֑יִם, הַֽ֝לְל֗וּהוּ בַּמְּרוֹמִֽים׃הַֽלְל֥וּהוּ כָל־מַלְאָכָ֑יו, הַֽ֝לְל֗וּהו[...]

Remember, You Were A Slave:
A Shabbat Hagadol ShulDrasha


[but not quite a Shabbat Hagadol Drasha](this drasha owes a lot to Ben Greenberg's Pesahh as a Liberation Imperative article and shiurim; this is also the first drasha i ever gave where i actually told people to 'get off their encounter-suited butts' and do something. and i reformatted it out of poem-style into prose-style for ease of reading in response to previous comments)During the course of the סדר, we recite a משנה from מסכת פסחים that contains רבן גמליאל's list of the basic obligations of the Seder Night.And he says that aside from the content of the Seder — the mention of פסח מצה and מרור without which one's obligation to retell the story of יציאת מצרים has not been fulfilled — the entire enterprise of telling the story of the Outgoing from Egypt boils down to one basic מצוה, one underlying obligation: בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עמצו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים. In every single generation, one is obligated to see themself as if they, personally, came out from Egypt.And he bases this on a verse in the Torah, שנאמר — והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר, בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים. Because it says, “You will tell your children on that day, saying: ‘It was because of this that God acted on my behalf when I left Egypt’.”I, myself — I left Egypt. I was taken out of מצרים. I was rescued from slavery by God, with symbols, wonders, miracles and awe.חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים.And there's another version of this משנה. According to some traditions, רבן גמליאל didn't say that one is obligated לראות את עצמו to see themself — but להראות את עצמו toshow themself.In every single generation we are obligated to show ourselves — to demonstrate practically — that we, personally, were rescued from slavery by God.But what does that mean? What does it mean לראות to see ourselves, or להראות to show ourselves, as if we personally left מצרים?What could it mean to have left Egypt ourselves?Does it mean the סדר? The long, luxurious philosophical meal, reclining around the table and telling stories between courses?Does it mean the Sephardic custom of wrapping מצה and holding it on our shoulders,while walking around the room in imitation of בני־ישראל trekking through the wilderness?Maybe to answer this question we should look back at the תורה.What does the תורה tell us — not about the experience of slavery... but the memory of slavery? Not about leaving Egypt... but about having left Egypt?According to the תורה, many of the מצוות that we are commanded are somehowconsequences specifically of יציאת־מצרים.God tells us that we are obligated to engage in commerce in an honest fashion, and then self-identifies as ה' אלקיכם אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים God who took you out of Egypt.A false prophet is put to death for inciting disloyalty against “God who takes you out of Egypt and redeems you from slavery.”The ציצית that we put on our four-cornered garments, and the third paragraph of שמעwhich describes them that we recite twice a day — all because God is the God who took us out of מצרים.And there are many more מצוות written in the תורה and associated with Egypt than just those few.There are the four times when the תורה warns us against oppressing the גר — the stranger, the convert, the immigrant — כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.And in פרשת משפטים it goes further — ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר it says, yo[...]

Purification and Survival:
A Ki-Tisa / Para ShulDrasha


Earlier this weekwe celebrated פורים,the holiday of ונהפוך הוא —of total reversal,of paradox —of God hiding in historyand human beings hiding in plain sight;of, on the one hand,the מצוה to always remember the evil of עמלק,and on the other,the practice of blurring the linebetween ארור המן and ברוך מרדכי,between cursed is המן and blessed is מרדכי.And now this שבתwe read the special מפטירof פרשת פרה,and may very wellhave fulfilled a Biblical commandmentby doing so.The פרה אדומהwas the pure red cowwhich was processed into ashand then mixed with waterto produce מי נידה or מי חטאת,which the כוהנים in the בית־המקדשwould useto purify the impure,removing a person who had come into contact with the deadfrom a state of טומאה,from a state of impurity.The פרה אדומהis one of the greatest paradoxes in the Torah:it isמטהר את הטמאיםומטמא את הטהוריםit purifies the impure,and it makes those who were puretaboo.The פרה אדומהcan only be processedby people who are purewho are טהור —but engaging in this holy workmakes them טמאeven as they busy themselveswith the literal productionof purity.And yetthis paradox isn't just a quality of the פרה אדומה by itself —the entire טומאה system is infused with this paradox!As רבי יוחנן בן זכאי saidin the מדרש במדבר רבה,טומאה is an inscrutable decreedeclared by God;it isn't objects or ritualsthat make someone or somethingpure or impure —it's just a חֹק,an inexplicable rulingfrom On High.However,this doesn't meanthat we can't examine it,or investigate itto find patterns,messages and implicationsfor our wider viewof Torah and Life.When we look at the טומאה systemwe see thatאבי אבות הטומאה,the most powerful source of impurityis a human corpse.The medieval philosopher-poetר' יהודה הלויexplains in his philosophical work The כוזריthat טומאהimpuritycomes with death.In distancing us from טומאה,the Torah is warning us awayfrom an unhealthy obsessionwith the grave.A man on the subway in New York City on Wednesdayasked me whether Jews believe in ‘Hell’ —and, among other things, I told him that our tradition teachesthat we are meant to focus on lifeand what we can do in This Worldinstead of assumingthat what is spiritually meaningful or significantcan only be found in what comes after.And yet,even though טומאה is so intimately bound up with death,there is something called טומאת יולדת.A womanwho has just given birthis impure.This is the opposite of death —a newborn baby, a new mother,the creation of new life —and yeta womanwho has just given birthis טמאה.Here is our second paradox —what does birthhave to dowith death?A contemporary Israeli scholar,,ר' יובל שרלוsuggests that childbirth is a source of טומאהbecause birth and deathlife and deathare inextricably linked.This is a “grim reality”which the Torah asks us to confront.We know this from science, as well.Evolutionin all its holy, dazzling varietyis driven by death.God's creatures remake themselves slowly,generation by generation,through natural selection —a process sometimes called‘survival of the fittest’because those who surviveto produce children,surviveto produce children.Creation and beauty —life and what makes it worthwhile —frequently comethrough struggle and suffering.The late-20th-century authorJ. Michael Straczynski wrote that“The future is all around us,waiting, in moments of transition,to be born in moments of revelation.No one knows the shape of that futureor where it will take us.We know only that it is always born in pain.”[...]

God = [Musical] Artist


See the sometimes-deep Sinfest comic, "AMADEUS"

(a long time ago, my brother showed me this one)

Darkness on a Sunny Day:
A Bo’ ShulDrasha


On this bright Shabbat morningI'd like to talk to youabout Darkness.When God created heaven and earth,at the very beginning of the תורה,there was Darknesson the face of the deep.And when God was about to tell אברהםthat his children would be“enslaved in a land not their own”for 400 years,אֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָֿה גְֿדֹֿלָהFear and great Darknessfell upon our first patriarch.Generations later,as the predicted oppressionand promised redemptionwere winding up to their climax,in our פרשה today,swarms of locustslike voracious cloudsblocked out the skyand darkened the Egyptian landscape —as if the eighth plaguewere merely a hungry rehearsalfor the ninth.Once againפרעה reneged on his desperate dealand refused to release the Israelites.And so,God instructed משהto stretch his handout towards the heavens,and Darknesswould descend on Egypt.נְטֵה יָדְֿךָֿ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִםוִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְֿ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִםוְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְֿThat last phrase —וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְֿ —has inspired speculationfor thousands of years.The more naturalistic commentatorssuch as שמואל דוד לוצאטוin 19th century Italyunderstood וְיָמֵשׁto come from a root meaning ‘touch’and explained thatthe Egyptians had to grope their waythrough the utter darknessthat no candle could counteract.Others,reading the verb the same way, ‘touch’say that the plague of darknesswas so thickthat it was tangible.Some of the great medieval commentators,אבן־עזרא and ספורנו,compare normal darkness —the neutral absence of light —to חשך מצרים,which was a physical phenomenon;not simply the lack of light, but some thing else.Similarly, Zora Neale Hurston,in “Moses, Man of the Mountain”,her novelization of the life of משהbased on African-American traditions,described חשך as a“ crawling darknessthat had a life of its own.It had body like the windand it heaved in motionlike the sea.”It's easy to seewhere this image of מכת חשךas supernaturally-pea-soup-thick, lighthouse-fog darknesscame from —in the very next verse after וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְֿwe're toldthat not onlydid none of the Egyptians see each otherfor the three days of the plague,but that they alsowould not —or could not —rise from their places.They were unable to move.As the מדרש puts it,those who were sitting could not stand,and those who were standing could not sit.Meanwhile,לְכָֿל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹֿתָֿםall of the Israelites had light in their dwellings.In the words of Sam Reinstein,the Egyptians lost their freedom of movement.בני ישראל had independent mobility,while the Egyptians were confined like slaves.The Egyptians groped blindly in the darknesswhile the Israelites could see clearly.Two late 19th early 20th century commentators,ר' ברוך הלוי עפשטיין and ר' יעקב צבי מעקלענבורגhave a completely different takeon the plague of darkness.It was not a thick fogthat fell from the skyor a smothering paralysisthat afflicted פרעה and his people —it was a thin skinor cataractthat blinded each one of themindividually.According to these two מפרשים,חשך was a very personal plague.At the Passover Sederwe quote Psalm 78,and describe how God afflicted Egypt withחֲרוֹן אַפּוֹעֶבְֿרָה וָזַעַם וְצָרָהמִשְׁלַחַתֿ מַלְאֲכֵֿי רָעִיםburning angerwrath, rage and troublea delegation of messengers of misfortune.ר' מעקלענבורג theorizesthat it was on the basis of th[...]

Silver Lining / Chocolate Covered:
A Bo’ DvarTorah


By the beginning of this week's parasha, פרשת בֹּא, we've seenseven plagues so far —seven punishmentsseven challengesto the authority of the king of Egyptand to the power of Egypt's gods.And finally,after the seventh plague —after his landis rockedand shakenby bombs of hailfalling from heaven,it looks like פרעהis finallygoing to give in.משהmerely has to threatento bring the next plague,the plague of ארבה,and the imageof swarms of locustscovering Egyptlike a voracious insectoid snowfallsends פרעה's advisorsquaking in their sandals.And they beg him,הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַֿע כִּי אָבְֿדָֿה מִצְרָיִם!؟“Don't you yet realizethat Egypt is lost?!”So פרעה is about to give into God and משה's demands —but when he finds outthat they want himto release the entire Israelite community —the old, the young, men, women,and their animals too —for this ‘religious festival’ in the wilderness —he changes his mindonce again.And פרעה threatens them in return,warning the representatives of בני־ישראלthat if he ever were to let them go,or kick them out,רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶֿדֿ פְּנֵיכֶֿם“be aware that רעה—”seemingly ‘evil’,“—is against you!”רש"י, quoting a מדרש,offers the possibilitythat רעה is the nameof an ill-omened starthat heralds blood and death;similarly, Cassuto,extrapolating on another מדרש,identifies רעהwith the Egyptian sun-god Ra —as if פרעה's silver liningin this horrific plague experienceis that even ifhe will eventually need to give in,he's confidentthat out in the barren desert,his divine burning sunwould have the last laugh.So פרעה refuses,and the locusts come.They come on an east wind,חֵילִי הַגָּדֿוֹל‘God's great army’as the prophet יואל would describe themhundreds of years later,enough ארבה to cover the land;in thick swarms that cast darkness over Egyptas if to foreshadow the next plague,חֹשֶׁךְֿ itself.And as predicted,the locusts eat all the food —all the fruit and all the grain,anything which had been lucky enoughto survive the earlier onslaught of ברד.פרעה is seized by a momentary attack of conscience,admits his sin,and God reverses the wind,blowing the ארבה out of Egypt,back where they came from.Why does God do that?Why sweep the locusts away?Why not leave them there,to cover מצרים in rotting, stinking pileslike the aftermath of the frogs?If it was good enough for צפרדע, why is ארבה any different?When I was in sixth grade,my נביא teacher, [name withheld for internet purposes],told us a storythat her father told herabout growing up a little boy in Yemen.Whenever there was a locust swarm,the locusts would eat all the food;and the people, left with nothing else,would eat the locusts.They would hold large basketsunder the trees,and hit the trunks with sticks —and the lazy, satisfied locustswould drop from the branchesinto the baskets below.In מדרש רבה,רבי יוחנן explains similarlythat when the ארבה came to מצרים,the Egyptians rejoiced —there was nothing left to eat,and so they were very happyto eat the locusts.They gathered theminto pots and barrelsto cook and pickle them for food.And then God said,‘No. What do you think you are doing?!You may not eat my plague!This is a punishment,not a smorgasbord.This is my army of retribution,not a crunchy snack.’And so,even the locustsin the cooking potsand the pickling barrelshopped upand flew awayon the west wind.Part of being humanis confronting adversityand making the bestof bad situations.But being humanis only worth it[...]

Inauguration Day


From my friend LS —
What blessing do you say when you see [President] Barack Obama?

עושה מעשה בראשית


I'll let the people who are much more excited than I am to write the long speeches. I'll just say that even if you didn't vote for him, this should be a pretty darn cool day in American history (although I understand if you'd prefer it were someone else).

This is for the many thousands gone.

(Modern) Orthodox Survey


This is a question for Modern (/Centrist/etc.) Orthodox Jews:

How old were you when you realized that to many people in the Non-Modern Orthodox world, "Modern Orthodox" is not a subcategory within Orthodoxy, but is actually a separate, Non-'Torah-True' movement?

I finally realized this in my mid-20's, not that long after I realized that growing up Modern Orthodox, I had/have no idea what Non-Modern Orthodox communities' religious standards, lifestyles and cultural norms are. Sometimes it's still surprising, though.

JNF Rabbinic Solidarity Mission


Blogger's Comments:This is awesome! The RCA and the IRF are co-sponsoring, working together for (as far as I know) the first time ever [and hopefully it won't be the last time]! Also, there are Non-Orthodox shuls sponsoring this solidarity trip of Orthodox rabbis! Look at the unity! Hopefully this Solidarity Mission to Israel will help create more solidarity among ‘Am Yisra’el as a whole, too.It was also leaked to me that "Joe the Plumber" was asked to meet them in Israel and report on the mission... it was not leaked to me, however, whether he said ‘yes’. Just have to wait and see.Update: They've got their own BLOG, too!(it's a press release)*For Immediate Release*Jewish National FundRabbinic Solidarity Mission Leaves for Israel(New York) January 12, 2009 — As the world watches the People of Israel endure the hardships and anxiety of war, 19 Orthodox Rabbis from all over North America along with several lay leaders will lift off to study Torah with their brethren in the Yeshivah of Sderot adjacent to the Gaza Strip. Ten more American Rabbinic colleagues and 20 Israeli Tzohar Rabbis will join the group on the ground in Israel. Together, in addition to Sderot, they will be visiting Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva in Israel’s Negev region, and Jerusalem. They will visit wounded solders, bring clothing and supplies to school children, comfort grieving families and meet with Israeli political representatives.According to the mission’s participants their aim is, “To comfort those who have put their lives on the line for the Jewish people and to show that American rabbis and Diaspora Jewry, though far from the difficulties of war, stand in solidarity with the Jewish nation and its defense forces, appreciate their sacrifices on all our behalf's, and pray for peace together with them.”Due to the limited time rabbis have to be away from their congregations, especially on the Sabbath, the group will only be in Israel for two days, returning by the coming Sabbath to be together with their congregations and report on what they have seen and experienced.The mission is sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and partnered with Rabbanei Tzohar of Israel. The Beer Sheva portion is sponsored by the Goodman Family Foundation.The mission is co-sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of America, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Hadassah, Chicago Israel Philanthropic Fund, Rabbi Josh Lookstein, The William and Sarah Siegel Foundation, Robert M. Beren Academy of Houston, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation (Chicago), United Orthodox Synagogue of Houston, Temple Sholom of Chicago, East Hill Synagogue (Englewood, NJ), Congregation Beth Yeshurun of Houston, Susan and Max Reichenthal, Anonymous for Jerusalem[...]

All You Jews Bloggers Look Alike


This past Shabbos, at the end of shul in the morning, I was folding my tallis and putting it back in its bag (permitted by R' Moshe Feinstein for those of us who don't like other people messing with our stuff! ahem), when a guy who had been sitting in the row behind me addressed me as follows:
“Excuse me, are you Rabbi Gil Student?”

Uh... no.

Step Up and Approach:
A Miqeitz~Vayigash DvarTorah


(for se‘uda shelishit)Just a few minutes agowe resolvedthe greatest cliffhangerin the תורה.יוסף has turned the tables on his brothers —accusing them of espionage;sending them back and forthbetween כנען and Egypt;demanding that they bring downבנימין, his youngest brother;secretly returning their money;hiding his silver goblet in בנימין's sack;and finally,threatening to keep the “thief”with him in Egypt as a slave.For a few hoursbetween שחרית and מנחה,we waited to seewhat would happen.Have the brothersrepented?Will they now defendיעקב's favorite son,instead of selling him down the river,as they did to יוסף?And then,this coming week's פרשה beginsויגש אליו יהודה.יהודה steps up,confronts יוסף,and saves the day.Last week's פרשהalso ended with a cliffhanger —יוסף in prison.Having descended into tragedyas far as he will ever go,יוסף waited for the שר המשקים,פרעה's chief wine stewardwhose dream he interpreted,to tell the king about himand rescue him from incarceration.פרשת וישב endedwith the שר המשקיםforgettingall about him.And then,at the beginning of this morning's פרשה,יוסף waits two long yearsbefore he is finally freed.From our point of viewas readers of the תורה,the cliffhanger is resolved —but יוסף languishes in prisonall that time,waiting in suspense,expecting to be releasedat any moment.In this coming week's פרשה,though,the suspense is shorteven from the point of viewof the people it's happening to.יוסף gives thema merciful-sounding ultimatum —בנימין,the accused thief,will remain with him in Egypt.The rest of the brotherscan leave in peaceand returnladen with foodto their father in כנען.And then immediately,ויגש אליו יהודה.יהודה approaches.יהודה steps up and takes a stand.Where יוסףlanguished in prisonwaiting passively for release,יהודה is active —confronting this Egyptian officialwho seems to takesadistic pleasurein alternatelyacting mercifuland cruel.יהודה himselfused to be like יוסף.When his first two sons died,he delayed,pushing off his daughter-in-law תמרuntil the third son, שלה,would be old enoughto perform ייבוםand marry her,to continue her family.But תמרtook matters into her own hands,tricking יהודהinto fulfilling the obligation of ייבום himselfinstead of waiting aroundfor some unknown futureto solve all their problems.And when יהודה admitsצדקה ממני“she is more righteous than me”he may be referringnot to תמר's innocence of the crime of semi-adultery,but to her take-a-stand, get-it-done attitude.And so,when בנימין's freedom —and bound up with it, יעקב's life —are on the line,יהודה steps forward,as יהודה המכבי and his brothers-in-arms didso many years later.Not only would the Maccabeesnot have wonthe miraculous warif they hadn't taken up armsto defend Judaismagainst the Seleucid Empire —the miracle of the oil, toowould never have occurredif they hadn't taken action.
After all,one day's worth of oilcould never burn for eightif you don't step upand light itin the first place.[...]

The Translator Between:
A Miqeitz DvarTorah


(for ma‘ariv)יוסף's brothers come down to Egyptto buy food,to support themselvesand their familiesthrough the faminethat struck both Egypt and כנען —but which only the Egyptianswere ready for,thanks to their new assistant-pharaohצפנת־פענחor as we call him, יוסף.Recognizing the brotherswho hated him,who wanted to kill him,who sold him into slavery —יוסף turns on them,singling them outfrom all the other hungry foreigners,and accuses them of being spies.As everything begins to fall apart around them,the brothers remember יוסףthrown downinto the utterly empty pit —and his voice,begging,which they ignored.And the brothersare terrifiedthat thisis their payback.But they didn't knowthat צפנת־פענח, vice-pharoah of Egypt,understoodwhat they said to each otherin desperationand self-incrimination —כִּי הַמֵּלִיץ בֵּינוֹתָֿםbecause a translator was between them.This whole timeיוסף had been making believethat he could only speak Egyptian,and not Cana‘anite or Aramaic,or whatever other languagehis brothers had been usingto speak among themselves.This translatoris identified by the מדרשיםof בראשית רבהas מנשה,יוסף's older son.מנשהwas born in Egypt.His father was יוסף.His mother was אסנת, an Egyptian aristocrat.Unlike his father,who grew up in ארם and כנען,insulated by familywho recognized their heritageand their inheritance,who had a sense of their relationship to Godand God's promise to them and their ancestors —מנשה and his brother, אפרים,grew up in Egypt,surrounded by Pharaonic opulenceand the rich culture, history and faithof the Land of Fertile Black Soil.And yet,as we will see in a few weeks,יעקב considered his Egyptian grandchildrenfaithful enough to the family's mission —Abrahamic enough —to be adopted by himand upgradedfrom grandsonsto Sons of Israel,worthy of foundingentire tribes.Rabbi Elli Fischer has pointed outthat every generationand every Jewish grouphas it's own חנוכה.For the Secular Zionists in Israel,חנוכה is about Jewish powerand military might.For some contemporary חרדים,חנוכה is about the victoryof the purity of fundamentalismover pluralism and accommodation.And in 20th century America,the environment in which manyof us grew up,חנוכהwas about religious freedom;about multiculturalism;about preserving and strengtheningJewish identityin sometimes hostile —and if not actually hostile,at least unsupportivesurroundings.Like מנשה and אפרים,we grow up in open homes.Through our windowscome the ideas, values and influencesof the society in which we live,both positive and negative.Most of us are not outsiders like יוסף —newcomers to a strange land.We are more like his children,at home in both worldsand both languages.We are translatorslike מנשה,the מליץ בינותם —standing on the edgebetween worlds,interpreting and transformingcultures, concepts,languages and lives.We enrich our relationship with Godand our understanding of humanitywhen we search for the good and trueno matter where it comes from.And we illuminate all of human civilizationlike the חנוכיה in the window or the doorwaywhen we express the wisdom of our Traditionin a way that the wider world can hear.מנשה's job of translationeventually ledto a reconciliationbetween יוסף and his brothers.Our task, though,is more challenging.We translatenot just to heal relationships between brothers,but to heal the [...]

We Count Up:
A Vayeishev ShulDrasha


This is the story of יוסף.He was seventeen years old,and he would herd sheepwith his brothers.יוסף dreamed dreamsof power —of bundles of grainpaying homageto his own;of the sun, moon and starsbowing before him —and his brotherswere jealousand angry.And they threw יוסףdowninto an utterly empty pit.And thenיוסף was sold to traderswho brought himdownfrom כנען to Egypt,where he was boughtas a slave;where he narrowly escaped being rapedby his master's wife;where he was then falsely accusedof attempting to rape her —and was thenthrown downinto prison.At the end of this week's פרשה,פרשת וישב,יוסף has descendedinto tragedyas faras he will ever go.Not onlyis he in prisonin מצרים —one of the תורה's prototypesof the most immoral society imaginable —but his last best hope for release,the שר המשקים,פרעה's chief wine steward,the one who was supposed to remember יוסף —supposed to tell the kingabout this innocent Hebrew youthwho could interpret divine dreams —the שר המשקים forgets all about him.יוסףis at the low-pointof his life;the darkest periodof his story.And while for usit will only be one weekuntil next week's פרשהand the continuation of the story,for יוסףit will betwo long yearsbefore he finallybegins to shine.In the Babylonian Talmudin מסכת שבתour Sages explainthe holiday of חנוכהwith the storyof the miraculous jug of pure oilthat lasted for eight dayswhen it should have only lastedfor one.When the Maccabeesliberated the בית המקדש,they found the Templestainedwith spiritual darknessand impurity.Everything had been desecrated.And then,in the midstof that thick dark cloudof impurity and despair,they found that first small jug of oil —the first glimmering hintof holy light.But we find another explanation —another layer of significance —to the eight days of illuminationin the Books of the Maccabees,which describe the first חנוכהas a late סוכות,celebrated by the victorious Jewish warrior-priestsin commemorationof the סוכות they were unable to observewhen they were busy fightingfor the survival of Judaismagainst the Seleucid Empire.This other layerof the Festival of Lightsis corroboratedby hints in the על הנסים prayerand by the opinion of בית שמאי in the גמרא —who taughtthat like the bull sacrificesof סוכות,we should count down in candlesfor the eight daysof the חנוכה holiday.Just as the number of sacrificesdecreased each day of סוכותfrom 13 to 12 to 11 and so on,according to בית שמאיwe should kindle the חנוכה lights8 on the first nightand 7 on the second6 on the thirdand so on,all the way downto one.Howeverwe don't ruleaccording to בית שמאי.Instead,following the opinion of בית הלל,we startat one candle the first night;on the second night, two;on the third night, three —and slowly,day by day,work our way upto eight.As בית הלל put it, going up in holiness.We increase lightwe increase holinessand we increase hope.In מסכת עבודה־זרהwe are told a storyabout אדם הראשון.After he was kicked out of Eden,Adam noticedthat the dayswere getting shorter.Every 24 hoursthe amount of daylight decreasedand the amount of darkness grew.אדם fasted and prayedfor eight days,terrifiedthat it was all his fault —that because of his sin inside the Garden,the light of creationwas dwindling awayto nothing,and the world was returningto empty chaos.A[...]

Divinely Romantic


another "guest post" from my friend the wannabe-Abelard

This is from a letter from the real Abelard to his love, Heloise.

Abelard to Heloise:

Nam et tuae Dominus non immemor salutis, immo plurimum tui memor, qui etiam sancto quodam nominis praesagio te praecipue suam fore praesignavit, cum te videlicet Heloissam, id est divinam, ex proprio nomine suo, quod est Elohim, insignivit.

For the Lord hath not been unmindful of thy wellbeing, either -- indeed, he hath been very mindful of thee, for he even pre-designated thee with a certain presaging of name, to especially be his -- when he called thee Heloise, that is, divine (אלוהית), after his own proper name, Elohim."

Ethics and Kashrut Panel


Tonight at Yeshiva University, a new student group called TEIQU: A Torah Exploration of Ideas, Questions and Understanding had a panel discussion about Ethics and Kashrut, ultimately precipitated by the Agriprocessors scandals of the last few years.

The speakers were:
Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudah
Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU Kashrut Division
Rabbi Basil Herring of the RCA
Shmuly Yanklowitz, RIT*, of Uri L'Tzedek

It was very interesting — the speakers were fairly diplomatic most of the time, and there were a few funny points, such as jokes that various speakers made, and when R' Shafran tried talking to the mostly Modern Orthodox audience about "gedolim". Rav Soloveitchik was invoked on numerous occasions (including R' Genack talking about how before he makes major decisions, he thinks "What Would The Rav Do?"). But the most impressive part of the evening was listening to Shmuly Yanklowitz. The other speakers mostly talked in general terms about halakha and Jewish ethics — Mr. Yanklowitz, though, was like a machine-gun of Torah, rapid-firing and saturating everything he said with an unending stream of heavy-hitting halakhic sources about our moral-legal obligations to care about other human beings and ensure that our economic acts do not strengthen the hands of evildoers and oppressors. It was shocking, but awe-inspiring.

At one point, R' Shafran said “we are all rabbis — or rabbinical students, which is just as good.” Guess I never need to actually get semikha, then... ;-)

* RIT stands for Rabbi In Training, i.e. Rabbinical Student