Friday, June 29, 2012

Rashi Questions for Chukat

According to Rashi...

1. How will the nations of the world react when they learn about the mitzvah of Parah Adumah? (19:2)
2. Why was Aharon's son given the mitzvah of Parah Adumah rather than Aharon? (19:3)
3. What does the word "morim" mean? (20:10)
4. What made the sin of the rock worse than other times that Moshe sinned? (20:12)
5. When did Moshe recommend that the bnei Yisrael stop eating the mann? (20:17)
6. Why did every house of Israel mourn for Aharon? (20:27)
7. What did the Canaanite king hear before he attacked? (21:1)
8. How many captives did the Canaanites take from us? (21:1)

Monday, June 25, 2012

My First post on the new Pop Jewish blog

I was recently invited by Rabbi Jason Miller, the king of Rabbi blogging, to join a new site called  This blog focuses on Jewish ideas and themes from television, movies, music, art and sports. All blog posts contain pop culture references and Jewish wisdom from the perspective of 21st century rabbis.  Today I posted my first piece.  Enjoy!

Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker recently refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of her book The Color Purple.
Walker is an ardent anti-Israel activist and was a passenger on a flotilla boat aimed at breaking Israel's blockade of Gaza.

It is always disappointing to learn that a celebrity whose work I admire is either anti Israel or anti-semite, or both. In such cases Jews are faced with what I call the "Mel Gibson Dilemma" or the dilemma of whether Jews can still enjoy the work of an artist despite the artist's offensive views.

Whenever possible I try to avoid learning the political views of my favorite artists, especially on the subject of Israel, because more often than not I am disappointed.

Alice Walker was one of those disappointments.

It has been awhile since I read the Color Purple, however I have frequently given classes in which Alice Walker's short story For Everyday Use was the subject of discussion. For Everyday Use is a brilliant piece that directly relates to the American Jewish experience. Walker is a brilliant author and it shocks me that she has such radical views regarding the Israel / Arab conflict. She has gone as far as to say that the treatment of Arabs in Israel is worse than the treatment of blacks was in Apartheid South Africa. I would expect someone of her intelligence to understand that the conflict between Israel and the Arabs is more complicated than the way that she seems to understand it.

I find it especially ironic that she would use The Color Purple as a political tool against Israel. It was two very prominent Jewish producers who brought The Color Purple to the stage. The film adaptation was produced by Steven Spielberg (whose movies were banned by the Arab league) and the Broadway musical was produced by Harvey Weinstein.
On the other hand, it is possible it was through her involvement with so many liberal Jews that she was exposed to Arab perspective of the conflict.

After learning about Walker's views I couldn't help but do a few google searches on some of the actors in The Color Purple and see where they stood on Israel and Jews.
Whoopi Goldberg starred in the movie adaptation of The Color Purple and despite her Jewish sounding stage name (Goldberg, not Whoopi) a google search reveals that she defended both Helen Thomas and Mel Gibson after each of their respective anti-semitic rants.

Danny Glover, Goldberg's costar in The Color Purple, is also not a big fan of the Jewish State (I liked him better in Predator 2. It takes Guts to replace King Arnold in a sequel. Almost like Jeff Bridges taking on John Wayne's role in True Grit).

Oprah was the big surprise. Before I hit the 'search' button I was a bit apprehensive. I have always thought that Oprah was one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Oprah introduced millions and millions of people to reading through her book club and she is regularly involved in countless acts of chesed and tzedakah, inspiring her millions of fans to follow her shining example.

I didn't want to learn that she too shared Alice Walker's extremist views.

But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Oprah has actually stood up for Israel in the past and went on an Israel solidarity trip. In fact, she has even been the subject of criticism for her pro Israel views.

This certainly supported everything I had felt about Oprah and I am happy to know that she is a friend of Israel and the Jewish people. I think it's time for a subscription to O magazine to show her my support.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rashi Questions for Korach

According to Rashi...
1. What did Korach witness that led him to a dispute with Moshe?  (16:1)
2. How did Korach campaign against Moshe?  (16:1)
3. What can we learn from the way that Moshe reached out to Datan and Aviram?  (16:12)
4. How did Korach gather the entire assembly against Moshe?  (16:19)
5. Why did almonds sprout from Aaron's staff?
6. In what manner did Hashem command us to give the gifts to the Kohanim?  (18:8)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Nebraska's Prisons are definately Kosher!

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of the Jewish social justice organization Uri L'tzedek, is joining in solidarity with protesters around the country in a hunger strike.  The cause today is to force prisons to stop putting prisoners in solitary confinement. 

Coincidentally, as I was reading his blog post, I got a call from my friend Joe Baldassano, an administrator at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

I met Joe a number of years ago.  At Tecumseh state prison, an hour south of Omaha, there was a muslim prisoner who insisted that for religious reasons he could not eat the food at the prison. 

Joe did some research and learned that the highest standard of religious diet that accommodates the most religions is Orthodox Jewish kosher.  They asked the inmate if an Orthodox Rabbi would be acceptable supervision for him.  He responded with an emphatic YES!
Enter the Chief Rabbi of the State of Nebraska!
Joe invited me out to the prison and together with his staff we created a vegetarian kosher meal plan that uses a rice cooker and utensils clearly labeled and set aside for kosher use. 
Hot meals consist of a special rice and bean based product that is certified by OU kosher.  It comes in 4 or 5 flavors which are rotated to provide the inmate with variety.  For cold meals the inmates have a choice of a number of products all certified OU.  Joe and his staff were amazed at how many of the products that they were already serving were OU products.
We developed the kosher protocol to be as easy as possible to limit the possibility of errors. I returned to Tecumseh when the protocol was complete to do a staff orientation.  The same protocol was instituted in prisons throughout Nebraska.  We even developed a pesach protocol as well.
The protocol includes a letter that can be provided to the inmates upon request with my credentials as well as sources from the Shulchan Aruch and others for every rule in the protocol.  (I used many leniency, for instance I ruled that the prison can serve kitniot on pesach.)  Inmates are also encouraged to write to me if they have any questions. 
Although there has never been an inmate in Tecumseh who identified himself as Jewish, over the years I have received several letters from inmates.  Two letters were sincere questions regarding the protocol which I responded to immediately, but I mostly receive letters of gratitude for helping make kosher food accessible in prison. 
Since my initial contact with Joe, Beth Israel has also donated to the prisons a number of old Bibles with the Hirtz commentary, yarmulkes, and talises.
The protocol was a big job for me and my staff with long trips to Tecumseh and many revised drafts to make sure that we covered all of our bases.  But I did it specifically because I was so inspired by how Joe and his staff cared for the well being of their inmates.

Today Joe was calling because he had a question.  Prison regulations currently call for punishment of inmates who throw their food.  In such circumstances inmates are taken off of the regular meal plan and given something called a nutri-loaf for every meal for a number of days depending on the degree of the infraction.  Joe wants to know if we can make the nutri-loaf kosher.

Given the current press about our country's prisons I feel an obligation to write a bit about my experience working with the prisons in Nebraska.

The Nebraska prisons will recognize any religion that comes forward.  Currently they recognize 20 religions from Asatru to Zoroastrianism and everything in between.  While 20 might not sound like a lot, understand that Christianity with all of its many denominations is just counted as one religion. 

Joe and his staff go far beyond the call of duty to help inmates meet their religious obligations while in prison.

To give an example aside from kosher food, the prison staff allows for prayer services and tries to provide all necessary requirements for those services.
Different religions require different religious articles.  For instance, Jews require tefilin and a Torah scroll.
The religion of Asatru requires a ceremonial dagger to pray. Wicca requires an atheme knife, Theodism needs a sword, and Satanism requires the Sword of Power (couldn't find a link for that one).
Obviously, the inmates cannot be given weapons, even to pray.  It would have been completely reasonable for Joe to simply say, "we cannot accommodate you."  But that is not the way that Joe works.  Just like Joe found an Orhtodox Rabbi to certify kosher food, he searched the country for experts in these religions - and made sure that the experts were acceptable to the inmates!  In Jewish terms, he allowed the inmates to choose their own Rabbi!
Most of these religions do not exist in Nebraska so Joe had to search the country.  For some religions he was able to find clergy, for some, particularly the North African religions based on the sun god Ra, the best he could find were college professors.  In the case of Shetaut Neter, he discovered there was a radio show based in Chicago dedicated to practitioners of that religion. 
Joe went to the experts.  He asked what would be acceptable replacements for weapons in the services.  Some of the poskim ruled that bidieved it is kosher to use cardboard swords.  One ruled that the inmates should use a feather in their service.  (Now I don't feel so bad about the kitniot thing!)

Joe's training is in criminal justice and public administration.  He never imagined that his job would require learning about all these different religions.  Despite his extensive research, he never presumes to be an expert in any religion.  He always works closely with the inmates to find an acceptable authority and figure out how to best accommodate their needs given the circumstances.. 

I asked Joe what his views were on the hunger strikes and the protests. 
He was happy I asked and told me that while there may be a few prisons in the country that use solitary confinement, in Nebraska they do not. 
They do have what they call segregation, where inmates are moved to a cell block where they are held separately.  I personally visited this block while we were developing the kosher protocol.  The inmates are able to see one another and they interact with staff several times a day.  They have their meals, even kosher meals if they choose, delivered to their cell rather than eat in the cafeteria.  The prison offers incentive programs for the prisoners to expedite their release back into the normal system.
The Federal government recently did a study on the country's prison systems and Nebraska came out among the top in the country.  We are ACA acredited which means we have to follow nationally regulated guidelines, and recently we won the coveted Eagle Award!  Nebraskans should be proud that our prisons are among the most humane and productive in the country.

Prison is hell. Even under the best circumstances, when your freedom is taken away so is your dignity. But prison is necessary. Joe and his staff take their jobs very seriously and make sure that prisoners are not punished any more than they have to be. I commend them all for the extra care and sensitivity that they bring to their jobs every day, and the inmates that I have heard from surely recognize and appreciate it. 

If there are inhumane prisons in this country then I hope that the hunger strikes are able to correct that.  But according to Joe, the Nebraska prisons are not experiencing widespread protests from the prisoners.  The only fasting that his inmates do is on Yom Kippur.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rashi Shabbat in review

Rashi Shabbat at Beth Israel was absolutely amazing! I absolutely recommend any shul to host Rashi expert rabbi yisrael Herczeg, editor of the Sparstein Rashi Translation, as a scholar in residence. He is very reasonably priced, a pleasure to work with, and the shul loved him.

Every one of his lectures was well attended and most people who heard him once came back to hear him again. I worked him pretty hard while he was here, although he says that teaching is his passion and it is not work for him at all.

His first lecture was Thursday night at the kripke Jewish library at our JCC campus. There was a terrible thunder storm which I feared would prevent people from coming out, but when I arrived with Rabbi Herczeg 15 minutes early the room was already full.
When the lecture began every seat in the room was taken. A good friend of mine, Dr. Leonard Greenspoon, teaches Jewish studies at the university of Creighton and he brought his class, most if not all of whom are not Jewish.
Rabbi Herzceg's topic was "the strangest rule in Rashi." He explains that of the 8000 comments that Rashi makes on the Torah, only about 200 times Rashi actually ask a question explicitly.  He brought a couple of examples and he demonstrated that in each case Rashi's real question is never the question he actually asks.
Rabbi Herczeg is great teacher. All of his ideas are clear and he gives background in a concise way that makes the class accessible to people without background without making it simplistic for people with background. The people in the class ranged from rabbis to non-Jewish college students and he captivated the crowd to a person. After the lecture Jews and non Jews stayed to thank him and ask some follow up questions about the lecture or about Rashi in general.

 On Friday I had the opportunity to learn privately with rabbi Herczeg in the morning. He has already written a translation and commentary to Rashi on the Torah as well as a number of books (Patterns in Rashi) in Hebrew and English on Rashi and a commentary to Rashi's commentary to psalms. Currently he is finishing a commentary on Rashi on Mishlei - proverbs - which he has been working on for a few years already. It seemed to him that the edition of Rashi that we have on Mishlei has been subject to censureship more so than other sections of the bible. This could be because much of rashi's comments refer to the efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. In order to reconcile this rabbi Herzeg went to the Hebrew university library where he was given access to a manuscript of Rashi from the 1200s that is located in a museum library in the Netherlands. Hebrew U has it on micro film. He found hundreds of discrepancies between that manuscript and the one that appears in our standard editions. Many of them clear up Rashi comments that have been unclear, others change the understanding of Rashi completely. He gave me a sneak preview of some of his notes.

Whenever I have a scholar in residence I take them with me on my hospital visits so that congregants who will not be able to make it for Shabbat can have an opportunity to hear from him a little. Everyone appreciated meeting Rabbi herczeg and having an opportunity to learn with him.

Every Friday our kosher nursing home has a kosher deli that is open to the community.  I took rabbi Herczeg there for lunch hoping to promote his Shabbat lectures. Fortunately everyone had already heard about him from my tweeting and Facebook posts.

At lunch we had a conversation about Rashi with the Chabad rabbi (who stopped by to see rabbi Herczeg on Shabbat afternoon) and the assistant rabbi at the conservative shul came over to thank rabbi Herzceg for his Rashi translation which he said was invaluable to him when he was studying to be a Conservative Rabbi.

Friday night rabbi Herczeg spoke between mincha and maariv. He gave an example of Rashi's question behind the question in the first comment to this week's parshah.  Since the comment deals with the topic of lashon harah, rabbi Herczeg ended with a nice idea of his own regarding lashon harah and Judaism's unique sensitive approach to speech.

On Shabbat morning he did something very interesting. He gave a brilliant sermon that was more like a fifteen minute class. He cited the Baal haturim in Miketz that suggests that the conversation between Yosef and yehuda regarding whether or not the brothers were there to spy out Egypt, was actually an allusion to the future episode of this week's parshah about yehoshua - a descendant of Yosef - and Caleb - a ascendant of yehuda. He explained how this idea sets up two paradigms represented by Yosef and yehuda respectively, and these two paradigms are represented consistently in their descendants yehoshua and caleb. He concluded by inviting everyone back to his evening lecture where he would demonstrate how these paradigms manifest in the methodology of Rashi on one side and his grandchildren, the tosefists on the other.

After davening we had a sponsored lunch followed by a Rashi workshop with rabbi Herzeg. I could not believe the big crowd that stayed to learn. I think everyone who attended walked away with a new appreciation for Rashi and developed skills that will enable them to learn Rashi better on their own.

In the late afternoon rabbi Herczeg gave a class on Rashi's commentary to Gemara that was advertised as being only for advanced students. Once again I was astounded at what an impression rabbi Herczeg had made on people. 25 people showed up to learn, most of whom did not have the requisite background. They just wanted to hear what an advanced Gemara class sounds like.
Rabbi Herczeg showed us a passage of gemara that appears in both kiddushin and in arachin. The passage is identical in both places but Rashi's comments are completely different - they even seem to present two differing opinions as to the halachah. Rabbi Herzeg first demonstrated to us how Rashi's comments took into account the different contexts in which the passage appeared and how Rashi was contouring his comments in away that reflected the different contexts.
At the end of the shiur he asked us to read the passages one more time with our new understandings of Rashi. What became apparent was that the passages were not completely identical! There was one single word that differed in the two passages, and that word supported the positions of Rashi in both places!
For those of us who had the background, the class was like watching the movie the Usual Suspects. Captivating the whole way through with the twist ending that throws you out of your seat. Unfortunately the topics of hekdesh for sdei achuza and kiddushin al tenai were a too technical and too advanced for those without background. Always sensitive to his audience, Rabbi Herczeg expertly adapted.  He truncated the class without dumbing it down at all. He is really a master teacher.

After the advanced class we took a short break as the sanctuary filled up for his  follow up lecture from his sermon earlier that morning. I was once again pleased with the large crowd, mostly form Beth Israel but people from other shuls in town as well.
This lecture was by far his best. It was based on a piece by the 19th century scholar rav Zadok hakohen. Rav zadok views the entire Torah as one passage in which every single topic is connected somehow. He started with rashis understanding of the passage where we are first introduced to the mothers of the Jewish people, Rachel and Leah.  He shows how they represent the beginning of the two paradigms of yosef - Rachel's offspring, and yehuda - leah's offspring. As promised he traced rav zadok hakohen's thesis all through the bible and all through Jewish history ending with Rashi and his grandchildren. He then proceed to bring one example after another of arguments between Rashi and tosefot that represented a fundamental disagreement stemming from the two different paradigms.
It was beyond interesting. It was an exciting roller coaster ride through tanach, Gemara, poskim, and Jewish history! The lecture was an hour, but based on the response from the crowd he could have easily gone all night without losing anyone's attention.

All in all it was a great success. Many congregants came over to me to thank me for choosing such an unbelievable scholar and asked if we could somehow arrange for him to come again in the future. I want to thank the anonymous donor (you know who you are) for making this weekend possible. It is not often that we are privileged to have this caliber of a Torah scholar come to Omaha but when such a scholar does visit us for shabbat, Beth Israel responds and demonstrates how enthusiastic we are to learn Torah. There is a great deal of excitement about Torah following his visit, and the next scholar has a high bar to live up to when he or she comes to Beth Israel in Omaha -  where every Shabbat is a shabbaton!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Rashi Questions for Shlach

According to Rashi...
1. Why does the episode of the spies come right after the episode of Miriam? (13:2)
2. In what manner did Moshe choose to present the land to the spies?  (3:17)
3. Who built Hevron? (13:22)
4. How many spies does it take to carry a cluster of grapes? (13:23)
5. Why did the spies mention that Israel was flowing with milk and honey?  (13:27)
6. How did Caleb get the people's attention? (13:30)
7. What is tichelet and where does it come from?  (15:38)
8. What does the tichelet thread symbolize?  (15:38)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Elecetion Update #3: The Jewish Week

As many of you know, I am running for the Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America.  The ballots were sent out yesterday by e-mail and by regular mail for older members who are not computer literate.  Over 1,000 Rabbis world wide received ballots.  Voting will stay open until July 5th to accommodate members in Israel who need to send in their ballots by mail.

There was an exciting development yesterday morning right before the ballots went out.  Apparently someone from the RCA leaked to the Jewish Week, a major Jewish newspaper, that the RCA was holding elections.  The Jewish week published an article that you can find here, and later it was picked up by a blog called False Messiah that you can find here.

False Messiah is an entertaining sensationalist blog which draws attention to scandalous stories in the Orthodox Jewish world.  His take on this story is so preposterous and conspiratorial that it just falls short of suggesting that aliens from outer space are orchestrating the election.  But he is just a blogger and I don't think that people hold him up to the same standards of journalistic integrity that one would expect from a major Jewish Newspaper. 

The story in the Jewish Week, however, is filled with speculation, inaccuracies, hearsay, and gossip.  The author, assisting managing editor Adam Dicktor, should be absolutely ashamed of himself for engaging in such blatant and irresponsible yellow journalism.  I don't read the Jewish week but I had thought that they were a reputable and respectable news source.  From Adam Dicktor's piece it is clear that they are just another gossip blog like False Messiah. 

The headline of the article is "RCA faces leadership challenge."  The real story - RCA holds its regularly scheduled annual democratic election for leadership.  The headline is meant to mislead people into suspecting that the RCA is experiencing some sort of turmoil.

The sub title: "Discord reported over executive choice as opposing slates vie for control of Modern Orthodox rabbinic council."
He tries to paint us as fighting around over the choice of a new hire.  The article is accompanied by a large picture of Rabbi Mark Dratch, the final candidate for the executive director position of the RCA. 
In what appears to be a sign of the increasing ideological stress within Modern Orthodoxy, the rabbinical arm of the Orthodox Union is facing a serious split over the direction of its future leadership, The Jewish Week has learned.
In a highly unusual development — some are calling it an insurrection — the proposed slate of officers set to continue in their lay posts to lead the 1,000-memberRabbinical Council of America for another year is being challenged by an upstart group reportedly opposed to the choice of executive vice president, the only paid position and one that calls for directing the day-to-day operations of the organization. 
He goes on to mention the "insurrectionists"  (false messiah calls us "rebels") by name, including me.
There are so many inaccuracies that I cannot even begin to go into all of them.  Just as one example, he writes that we are the rabbinical arm of the Orthodox Union.  That is not true.  I wondered where he got that idea.  Then I checked wikipedia and there is was.  Does he consider that acceptable journalism?  Even high school students are not allowed to site wikipedia without checking the source.

Not a single candidate running by petition for the RCA leadership has made any mention in any campaigning regarding the recent search for an executive director.  I would challenge Dicktor to provide even one shred of evidence.  This is certainly not why I am running nor have I heard or read anything in public or in private that supports this claim regarding any other candidates.

Dicktor goes on to write:
The critics are said to feel that Rabbi Mark Dratch, who was named after a long selection process to succeed Rabbi Herring, is too liberal for the job, though they have not publicly articulated their specific reasons for that conclusion.
Notice, he does not say, "the critics say" but "the critics are said to feel."  That's because none of the supposed critics would speak to him.  He called about 3 alternative candidates (he did not call me.  I guess he does not read Amerabbica - YET!) and tried to fish for some juicy gossip.  But all the candidates said the same thing.  We are a group of individuals with a variety of different views running for different reasons.

He refers to Rabbi Barry Freundel as the head of the opposition slate.  That is an inaccuracy and needs clarification.  Barry Freundel is running for the position of first Vice president which is the 2nd highest ranking position in the organization (I am running for Midwest VP, which, along with the other 3 regional VPs, is the 3rd highest position).  He is the Rabbi of a prominent shul in DC which is attended by a number of Congressmen, Senators, and other high ranking government officials including Joe Lieberman.  Dicktor assumed that since Rabbi Freundel is running for the highest ranking position of any of us that he represents the head of a unified group. 

But that is not true.  I have only met Rabbi Freundel a few times in my life and he has noting to do with my decision to run.

Dicktor mentions that nobody is challenging the position of president.  If we were in fact a unified group trying to take over the RCA wouldn't it have made sense to run for the head position of the RCA?
Contacted during a visit to Israel on Tuesday week, Rabbi Freundel declined to comment on specifics of the differences between the two slates.
“We have a different position on many issues, which are internal issues, not a single issue,” said the rabbi. But he stressed that the potential hiring of Rabbi Dratch is “not one of the issues on the platform.” 
So he quotes Freundel, our supposed "leader," and learns that Rabbi Dratch is not the Issue.
But some, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid creating a further rift in the organization, said there is increasing pressure from right-leaning members over issues such as the possible inclusion of rabbis ordained by Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT), an institution that was founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale and that describes its philosophy as “open Orthodoxy.”
Are you kidding me!!!!  He found some random anonymous Rabbi who happens to be a member of the RCA who speculated as to why we are running and considered that a credible source!!!
That would be the equivalent of CNN saying, "Prime Minister Netanyahu told us his version, however some cab driver has a different view of events which we thought was worth reporting to you.  The cab driver wishes to remain anonymous."
“There are objections to Rabbi Dratch on the basis of concerns that he might be too liberal,” said another member. “They are making assumptions about him.”
So now I am some irrational right wing extremist insurrectionist who makes erroneous assumptions about people without knowing all the facts.

Oh, and did I mention that Rabbi Dratch runs an organization called JSafe that advocates for Jewish victims of sexual abuse?  Well, Dicktor did.  I suppose that was meant to imply that I am opposed to advocating for sexual abuse victims too.

When he mentions my name he has a link to my shul's website.  He didn't even have the decency to link to my blog and get me some hits!  Had he done proper research he would have read my blog and he would have seen what I really stand for.  He could have also reached out to any one of the dozen other candidates running and found out what they stood for.

But he didn't.  Is it because he is a sloppy, lazy, and irresponsible journalist?  Or maybe he is just incompetent.

Or perhaps this whole article had a different agenda all together.

He closes the article with a quote by some random dude who has absolutely nothing to do with the RCA, Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee.

Bayne says, "I am not privy to the internal politics of the RCA."  That should have been the end of the quote. 
But Bayne goes on, and Dicktor saw this uninformed guy as worth quoting.

"Rabbi Dratch has been a positive force in his work in Jewish education and at his pulpits. He is very much a person who is open and willing to work with others. His [appointment] would be a very positive step.”  

What motivated Dicktor to slop together some uninformed, poorly researched, and irresponsible piece about a private internal matter that wasn't newsworthy in the first place?

What is his obsession with Rabbi Mark Dratch?

Is there some hidden agenda going on here?

Or was it just a slow news week so he resorted to some old fashioned muckraking by dragging the RCA, and some Rabbis including me through the mud?

There is something shady going on here, but for the life of me I cannot figure out what it is.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Election Update #2: YCT?

Still on the campaign trail for the Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America.
(Side note to Beth Israel members: Most of my campaign calling and blogging is late at night.  My days and evenings are still dedicated to being your Rabbi!)

Yesterday I promised that I would post my thoughts on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and my position as to whether they should be welcomed as members into the RCA.

I want top preface by saying that these are my initial thoughts.  I have heard from a number of people on this issue and there are passionate opinions on both sides.  I am still open to hearing the opinions of other people before I decide definitively.  This is still an ongoing discussion.

There are those who say that YCT as an institution has crossed the line and has left the camp of Orthodoxy.

One of the hot button issues that serves as an example is YCT's support and involvement in ordaining female orthodox rabbis.  At first blush, women orthodox rabbis seems to break completely with tradition.  But Rabbi Michael Broyde of Atlanta, an Orthodox Rabbi and an acknowledged expert in Jewish law, coauthored a long and thoughtful piece examining the issue.  On page 49 he quotes an interview with Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, past president of Yeshiva University.
[Based on earlier statements] people asked me, "Are you saying that according to Jewish law women are allowed to be rabbis?"  My response: I don't know - are you sure they are not allowed to?"
I encourage everyone to read the article in its entirety.  My point is that there is ambiguity in the mainstream Orthodox world.  Rabbi Lamm and Rabbi Broyde are respected members of the RCA.  We cannot hold Chovevei to a higher standard.

In the more chareidi world this is no problem.  The head Rabbis lay down the law and draw clear boundaries for the people.  But that doesn't work for the modern Orthodox world.  If the RCA wants to say that YCT crossed the line on these contraversial issues then they have to collectively draw that line.  Or it can be clearly demonstrated that YCT officially crossed well established lines -  like saying that driving is permitted on Shabbat.  Barring one of those two scenarios, I don't think that the RCA has a solid foundation to bar YCT from membership.

But there is another issue.

I went to Yeshiva University.  I was a fish in water there.  But YU is not for everyone.  Some people have problems fitting in.  Not because they are left wing or right wing.  They may have come from a different background.  They may not connect with the Rabbis or with the students.  YU is very big and perhaps they were looking for something smaller and more personalized.  YU requires a lot of independence and perhaps they were looking for more structure.

YCT is a very different experience from YU.  YU used to be the main choice for people who wanted to become modern Orthodox Rabbis.  YCT came and offered an alternative. 

YCT has definitely attracted students who have an outlook that is decidedly unorthodox.  That is a big problem for me.  While those students reflect poorly on the institution, I do not believe that they represent the views of the institution.  I think many RCA members would be more sympathetic to YCT if they were more selective of their students.  It is not unreasonable for an Orthodox rabbinic school to require that their students are Orthodox.  That aspect troubles me greatly. 

On the other hand, more often the YCT graduates I know are religious people who love Hashem, Torah, and the Jewish people.  Their agenda is not to move the Torah to the left or right, but rather to move Jews to Torah.  Many of the graduates are serving at shuls or on college campuses in position that YU graduates either would not take, or positions that would not take a YU graduate. 
They are faithfully serving the Jewish people as best as they can and I respect them for that and commend them.

So given the balance, I would be inclined to accept them into the RCA.  If a YCT member of the RCA did something publicly to deviate from Orthodox norms then he would be asked to withdraw his membership - the same way that a YU guy or anyone would be if he did the same. 

It is not an easy issue.  There are many who feel that YCT stands to jeopardize the integrity of Torah Judaism and break radically from tradition.  There are some that feel that YCT has already done that.  There are some who feel that allowing members from YCT will damage the RCA's credibility with its partners on the right. 

Those are all things to consider.  As I mentioned, my position on YCT is a work in progress.  In Omaha, Nebraska Orthodox is Orthodox.  These subtle nuances do not exist here and nobody would know the difference between a YU guy and a YCT guy. 

I am posting my initial thoughts on this issue even as the RCA election has begun and it may cost me votes.  But people have a right to know where I stand.  Nevertheless this is an issue that I need to learn more about before I come to a definitive decision. 

As I mentioned, my main issue is supporting Rabbis serving the Jewish people.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

RCA Election update #1: The Issues

My campaign for Midwest Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America is going well.  Thank you for all of your calls, comments, and 'likes' of support.

In my campaigning I have heard from a number of RCA members.  People want to know where I stand on the issues.

The big issue that people are asking about is whether or not the RCA should accept graduates from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as members.

Some background:
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) is an "Open Orthodox" Yeshiva in New York started in 1999 by Rabbi Avi Weiss.  YCT is primarily focused on producing graduates who will assume roles of leadership in the Jewish world, and those who graduated over the last decade are currently serving as pulpit Rabbis, day school teachers, and college campus rabbis across North America. 
Ostensibly, the yeshiva and its students represent what some consider the extreme left wing of Orthodox Judaism, while others think that YCT has crossed certain lines that would remove it from the camp of Orthodoxy.

The point of contention is whether or not the RCA, an organization for Orthodox Rabbis, should accept YCT graduates as members.  The status quo is that they are not accepted.

My relationship with YCT goes back to when I was in college at Yeshiva University.  I was a student activist and was a follower and admirer of Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of YCT.  I attended and recruited students for protests and rallies lead by Rabbi Weiss and I worked for him as a youth director on a high school outreach program he started called JET - Jewish Encounters for Teens (I even met my first fiance at a JET shabbaton!)

When I made my decision to go to Rabbinical school, Rabbi Weiss called me and asked me to come down to check out YCT and consider studying there rather than Yeshiva University. 
I would have been the third class at YCT.  I took Rabbi Weiss up on his offer.  I spent a morning at YCT and learned with the students.  In the end, for a number of reasons which I will elaborate on in a future post, I decided that Yeshiva University was the right place for me.  But I was and remained flattered that I got "the call" from Rabbi Weiss, someone who I respect and admire so much.

That was the first time I got "the call" from Rabbi Weiss. 

The second time was a few years ago.  Rabbi Weiss is the Rabbi of a major synagogue in New York city with hundreds of member families.  Many consider it one of the most vibrant and active Synagogues in the country - Orthodox or otherwise.  Because his full time activism, Yeshiva, speaking engagements, and other activities make him a frequent traveler, his synagogue employs an assistant Rabbi who, for all intent and purposes, serves the congregation as a head Rabbi.
The job was held by a good friend of mine for a number of years and he was moving on to run his own shul in a different city.  That is the second time I got "the call" from Rabbi Weiss.
Rabbi Weiss called me up in Omaha and asked me if I would be interested in applying for the job as his assistant Rabbi. 

Obviously I turned him down without much hesitation as I love Beth Israel and my Omaha Jewish community (#wesias).  But I was once again incredibly flattered that Rabbi Weiss would consider me. I had just gotten divorced and for him to take a chance on a single guy - a guy who was not one of his YCT graduates! - was a much needed boost of confidence that came at one of the hardest times in my life. 
(In the end the job went to my cousin ((married my cousin)) who is a YCT graduate and is much more suited for the job than I am.)

I bring this up only to demonstrate that there is good reason that some RCA members would think that I stand with those who feel that the RCA should extend membership to YCT.

On the other hand, I was tapped to run on the opposition slate by people who have clearly demonstrated that they are diametrically opposed to accepting YCT.  So there is certainly reason to believe that I share their views. 

In a future post I hope to weigh in with my own personal views, but for now I want to be absolutely clear that my candidacy for Midwest VP of the RCA has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ISSUE OF YCT!!! 

I want to be Midwest VP because I want to serve the Rabbis in the Midwest and across the country.  That is my issue.  The discussion of YCT is an important one.  There are two very compelling sides and both need to be heard.  I hope that we can come to a conclusion soon and put the issue behind us.  But either way, I want to help Rabbis.  I believe that I can help more Rabbis from a position of leadership in the RCA and that is why I am running. 

Incidentally, regardless of whether or not YCT is accepted into the RCA I would obviously still personally reach out to a YCT graduate who I thought was in need.  (Although, I must say, the RCA has what to learn from the way that Rabbi Weiss and his network supports their Rabbis.  A subject for a future post.)  I would reach out to any Rabbi in need regardless of views - regardless of denomination!
I can disagree with a Rabbi on every issue across the board, but in the end of the day, we are both Rabbis.  Rabbis are generally well meaning people who go into a very hard profession because they love Jews and want to serve Jews.  I love Jews so therefore I love Rabbis. 

If you are an RCA member, I want your vote for Midwest VP.  Elect me and I will work my hardest to redefine what a regional VP is supposed to be. If a year from now you are not happy, by all means vote me out.  But if at the end of a two year term you like what I have done, then elect the next guy who promises the same, or better yet, run for office yourself.  That is what the RCA needs.

Monday, June 11, 2012

This Shabbat at Beth Israel - Rashi

I like to think of myself as a creative Rabbi.  I am always trying to introduce new things to my shul and build them into the culture.
Among the ideas that I am most proud of is the Great Rashi Initiative.
This year at Beth Israel we have focused on Rashi's commentary of the Torah every week in shul.

Why Rashi?

Rashi wrote the most classic of all Torah commentaries.  Every standard edition of the Torah comes with his running commentary printed in its distinct script.  But there are many other commentators that we could have focused on this year.  There are two main reasons why I felt that Rashi was the most appropriate to begin with.

1. Rashi lived through the crusades.  When he lived the Jewish people faced the most perilous time in our history since the destruction of the Temple and expulsion of our people one thousand years before.
Today in the post Holocaust world that we live in we take Jewish persecution for granted.  But for the thousand years between the destruction of the Jewish community in Israel and the crusades, the Jews had not experienced wholesale destruction of communities.
Although you would never know it form the way that Rashi writes, it is quite possible that the Jews of Rashi's time thought that the world was coming to an end.  I contend that Rashi was trying to collect as much of our tradition as possible and condense it into something that would be portable that would survive the destruction.  Almost like Jews converted their wealth into diamonds before the war so that they could travel with them to safety and then rebuild when they escaped.
Rashi's comments are those diamonds.  By the time you finish his commentary you have read through a condensed comprehensive survey of the most important ideas in Jewish thought.  His commentary made it possible for Jews to maintain the ancient traditions so that they were preserved and rebuilt after the persecution of the crusades had passed.

2. Rashi's commentary is particularly famous for being concise.  An idea that would take others an entire page to write Rashi somehow managed to fit into a few words.  It is almost as if Rashi had some kind of limit of - say - 140 characters or something.  In other words, Rashi was a pioneer in tweeting!  My recent affinity for social media ha given me a new appreciation for Rashi.

This week we are going to have Rabbi Yisrael Herczeg as a scholar in residence at Beth Israel.  Rabbi Herczeg is a world renowned expert on Rashi's commentary.  He has written a number of books on Rashi's commentary and he wrote his own translation of Rashi that we use to study at Beth Israel.
By the end of Shabbat you will understand the greatness of Rashi and develop skills that will elevate your weekly study of the Torah portion.

Rabbi Jonathan Gross for VP in 2012

I am a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) a professional organization that includes over 1,000 Orthodox Rabbis from around the world, mostly in North America.
In the next two weeks the RCA will be holding annual elections and I will be running for the position of Vice President in Charge of the Midwest Region.  
I love being a Rabbi and I love the Rabbi business.  I want to win this election because I have a vision for what the RCA can be and I feel that by joining the leadership I can move the organization towards that vision.

I am running with a number of other candidates who also want to take active leadership roles in the RCA. 
Members can vote for ANY of the candidates that they choose.  You can vote for individual candidates OR for the whole slate.  It is NOT all or nothing.

Some of the other candidates I know well, others I have recently met, and some I have not yet met.  We all have differing views on a variety of issues and have different areas that we would like to focus on.  These are the issues that I feel are the most important and will work on if elected.

1. Election Reform:
Contentious elections are not a sign of divisiveness, they are a sign of vibrancy!  In a relevant organization there are a variety of talented people with differing views vying for positions of leadership.  Currently the next leadership is chosen by the prevailing leadership.  Rabbis are expected to "wait their turn" to be "rotated" into officer slots. 
This is my second time running for office and each time, despite popular support from my peers and careful adherence to the rules in our bylaws, there have been unreasonable obstacles placed in the way of those who want to run for office without the endorsement of the prevailing leadership.
This is OUR RCA and all members should have equal opportunity to run for office!

2. Membership Engagement
The current RCA leadership hosted a membership wide conference call that attracted almost 20 percent of our membership.  This was in direct response to the opposition candidates.  Leadership should be taking a proactive role -  not a reactive role - in engaging membership.  There should be regular conference calls and our regular e-mails and news letters should offer the membership real transparency into the governance of the organization. 
Members need to be regularly updated on important developments in the RCA!

3. Conventions
The annual convention was at one time a major event that Rabbis traveled from all over to attend.  Today most Rabbis will only attend the conference if it is local, and then only the one or two sessions that appeal to them.  It is not that Rabbis have stopped attending conferences.  On the contrary, there are more conferences for Rabbis to attend than ever before.  Rabbis are choosing to attend conferences of other organizations at the expense of the RCA conference.
Serious focus must be placed on making the RCA conference competitive with other conferences and attracting our members!

4. Broader Engagement
Only Rabbis are allowed to be members of the RCA, but I believe that the greater community has an interest and a right to know what the Rabbis are discussing.  Press releases are not an effective way to communicate.  We can reach our constituency through social media in a way that can engage them in our discussions of controversial issues. 
The RCA needs to be more relevant to the people that our Rabbis serve!

5. The Economy Stupid
The most important function of the RCA is to support its members.  Many of our members are feeling the effects of the down economy.  Fewer positions are opening up as other positions are being eliminated.  There are resources to help Rabbis who are unemployed and underemployed, most obvious is networking, passing resumes along, and creating opportunities to expose fellow members to further opportunities. 
In hard times we must do everything possible to help fellow Rabbis in need!

Those are the areas that I intend to focus on.  I have ideas of my own, but if elected I want to hear your ideas as well.  I want to know what is important to you and see if we can work together to make things happen.

If you are an RCA member, when you go to vote, please consider me and some of my other fellow candidates listed on our website

Working together we can make a relevant and strong RCA that continues to fulfil its mission of promoting and beautifying the Torah. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Rashi questions for Behaalotcha

According to Rashi....
1. Why does the section of the menorah follow immidiately after teh section about the Nesiim? (8:1)
2. What type of instructions did Hashem give Moshe for the Menorah?  (8:4)
3. Who was hovav?  What other names did he have?  (10:29)
4. Why are there two upsidedown nuns in this week's parshah?
5. Who were the complainers?  (11:1)
6. How does Rashi translate "kishuim?"  (11:5)
7. Who as the kushite woman that Moshe had married?  (12:1)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reform Judaism or Refrum Judaism?

People generally think of Orthodox Judaism as being more "religious" than Reform Judaism, but last week I found that is not always true.

A family from another city came to Omaha to do a stone dedication, a.k.a "unveiling" for their mother who passed away and was buried here a year ago.  I met with the family at the cemetery and since it was a small crowd I explained to them that there was really no formal prayer to say, rather we gather together to visit the grave and establish it as a place where future generations can come and learn about their ancestors and recall family stories of the good deeds that they performed when they were in this world.

They asked me if there were any special prayers to say.  I told them that there are different customs associated with the ceremony, but in my view they are just that - ceremonial.  Since we were a small and intimate crowd I did not think that the high church approach was necessary.  So without any official service I told them a short dvar Torah and they stood around the grave and told some stories about their mother.

The following week I called the family to follow up on some unrelated shul business that we discussed while they were here.  One of the family members mentioned how she had gotten together with her Reform Rabbi and he said that I was incorrect.  He felt that the prayers at an unveiling MUST be said and that the unveiling that I did was not kosher.


At first I couldn't believe my ears!  I am Orthodox.  We have prayers for everything!  Three times a day we fly through pages and pages of prayers!  If I snack on a single grape I have to recite a few paragraphs about making a pilgrimage to the Temple!  We even have a prayer for going to the bathroom!

When an Orthodox Rabbi tells you there is no prayer for an unveiling - that means that there is no official prayer for an unveiling!

How dare this Reform dude tell ME that I am not kosher!!!

But after I thought about it, I realized that perhaps this Rabbi had a point.  This family traveled a long way to be at the cemetery for the unveiling.  Would it not have been more meaningful to say a few chapters of Psalms with them?  I figured that they would not appreciate it, but maybe people do want some kind of official Hebrew stuff to capture the moment and bring some Judaism into the mix in an official-like capacity.  Perhaps it was insensitive of me not to think that the family would appreciate that.  Perhaps I sold them short by thinking that they couldn't handle it.

Maybe the Reform dude was right after all.  I don't know.  What I do know is that I was out-frummed by a Reform Rabbi.

I explained my position again to the family but conceded that I could have done more.  Please God, next time they come in may it be for a simcha and we will recite many brachot together.