Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why is this Dark Knight different than other dark knights?

Rabbi Cary Friedman - a young modern Orthodox Rabbi whom I have great respect for - taught a generation of kids that Jewish wisdom can be found in the most unlikely places.  

His classic book, Wisdom from the Batcave: How to Live a Super Heroic Life demonstrates how Batman lived a life consistent with Jewish values, and the life and mission of Bruce Wayne is in many ways metaphoric for the history and purpose of the Jewish people.

So when Rabbi Cary Friedman publishes an article in the Jewish Press about his thoughts on the new incarnation of Batman - as someone who also blogs about Batman I pay attention!

Rabbi Friedman contends that the "new" Batman from the Dark Knight is "definitely not the Batman I fell in love with as a child."  

The "old" Batman that he loved was the hero who responded to and triumphed over tragedy by creating a life of heroism and meaning.  He says that the old Batman represented the Jewish response to tragedy and hardship - bringing his own mother as an example:
"As a child of a Holocaust survivor who spent her childhood years fighting for survival and went on to create a family and life filled with meaning, compassion, for others, and dedication to justice, it is a model with which I am very familiar."
The new Batman is a dark and dysfunctional character who resolves his anger and abandonment issues by beating people up and "fortunately his actions are socially acceptable because the people he beats up are criminals."  In his opinion, the "new" Batman is all about violence and "isn't all that different than the bad guys he fights."  
At the forefront of this "dark" Batman's battles is the glorification of the violence itself; relegated way to the background, such that the lesson is obscured or lost, is the notion of a battle between good and evil.  Gadgets and fighting prowess take center stage, and principle and integrity get lost in the shuffle.
With all respect to Rabbi Friedman - who is definitely someone who knows his Batman - he writes as if he never watched even one episode of the old Adam West afternoon show.  Did he forget about the POW! BOOM!  SPLAT!  When Batman and Robin would hand deliver justice to the villains - dynamic duo style?
Did he forget about the amazing utility belt that always happened to have just the right Bat-device or Bat-gadget to help him and Robin escape from some giant elaborate death trap?  (Let us not forget when he whipped out the Bat-Shark repellent!)

The old Batman used violence, and the new Batman uses violence.  Violence is terrible, but sometimes violence is terribly necessary.  In World War II the allies did not throw flowers at the Germans.

Interestingly, in the Dark Knight Rises, Batman does not personally engage in that much violence.  From the start of the movie we see Batman as getting older -and he even visits a doctor who reports the terrible toll that the fighting has taken on Batman's tattered and worn body.
In the entire movie Batman only is only in two fights - one where he is beaten, and one where he wins - but not by way of his super skill, but because of his heroic will!

The many profound lessons of the Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises, two of the most popular movies in history, are too many to enumerate here. But I do want to express my complete disagreement with Rabbi Friedman, particularly with his statement:
This darkening of the character - the attribution to him of motives far less than heroic - reflects, and, in turn, fuels the general darkening and increasing disillusionment that pervades and poisons our society.
When I read that, I almost suspect that Rabbi Friedman didn't even see the movies he is writing about.

Starting with Batman Begins (which was actually a pretty good movie - but also pretty forgettable) a young Bruce Wayne struggles with the death of his parents.  He is filled with rage as well as a desire to save the city that his parents loved.  At first he acts rashly and recklessly.  He eventually becomes Batman as a way of channeling the anger that he has - the anger that he rightfully should have - from the loss of his parents.
Rabbi Friedman has a big issue with Batman's anger.  Of course he is angry!  His parents - smart people, generous people, altruistic people, righteous people - were murdered in cold blood over a petty theft.  The Rambam says that one who can simply walk away from tragedy and say, "that's life!" is a cruel person.  Batman is not cruel.  Batman is real.  But he channeled his anger and used ti for good.
And if Adam West didn't seem angry it could be because Adam West was an older Batman and he learned how to hide it better.

But more than anything, the Dark Knight flies directly int he face of Rabbi Friedman's piece.  Batman says explicitly that the whole point of being Batman was to bring about a wold that no longer needs Batman.  He vies for the day when the people of Gotham will be ready for a hero like Harvey Dent.  A real hero that can fight crime by day with with the rule of law, rather than by night with the rule of might.  Gotham City is in bad shape, but Batman never loses hope in the people.  At the end of the movie Batman triumphs over the Joker - not through violence!  He triumphs when the people of Gotham foil the Joker's plan with acts of human decency and virtue.  The movie ends on a down note (like all great second installments in history - a la Empire Strikes Back) but we are left with the hope that one day the people will get the hero it needs - not the hero that it currently deserves!

Dark Knight Rises is a similar theme.  The bad guys want to bring chaos and destroy the world.  Batman is willing to die to stop them.

If "new" Batman is "darker" than "old" Batman it is only because "new" Batman's world is darker.  I don't think Adam West would have been so chipper if he had to fight Heath Ledger instead of Cesar Romero.  But even so, Batman always maintains his integrity.  He dedicates his resources and his life to fighting evil - in whatever form it takes - and he davens every day for a world that does not need Batman.

I think if Rabbi Friedman searches a little harder he will find a good deal of wisdom in the Dark Knight's Batcave as well.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rashi Questions for Ki Tetze

According to Rashi....
1. What will be the consequence of marrying an eshet yifat toar?  (21:11)
2. Why do we kill the ben sorer umoreh?  (21:18)
3. What kal vachomer do we learn from the mitzvah of shooing the mother bird?  (22:6)
4. How is a fence like a bag?  (22:8)
5. Where does the word "shaatnez" come from?  (22:11)
6. How can you prevent getting tzaraat?  (24:9)
7. What do we call a criminal after he has received his punishment?  (25:3)
8. How was Amalek "cool?"  (25:18)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Our Cool Mikva Saga

"Hey, Mr. Electric company guy?  Can we hang up some wires from your poles so that we can push our babies to synagogue on Saturday?"

That was the craziest phone call I had to make - until yesterday.

"Hi, Mr. Ice delivery guy?  Can we get 250 ten pound blocks of ice so that we can put them in a small pool so that we can - you know - do marital stuff?"

It all started about a month ago.  I got a frantic call from my congregant who works at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home - the location of our community Mikvah.

"Rabbi!  They accidentally drained the mikvah!!!"  (If you don't know what a mikvah is, watch the 5 minute Jew ins the City clip right now.)

One of the maintenance guys messed up and thought that "cleaning the mikvah" meant to drain the entire mikvah.

This is a disaster. 

Without getting into a big discussion about mikvah, bottom line is that a mikvah like the one we have in Omaha requires a base of 40 seah of rain water to start (1 seah = 144 eggs.  There are disputes as to how we calculate that in modern measurements.  It is between 7.3 and 14.3 liters or between 9 and 15.9 quarts. 1 seah x 40 equals between 292 and 572 liters or between 360 and 636 quarts).

Once we have our 40 seah of rain water it is permissable to add as much tap water as needed.  But we can't do anything until we have our rain water.  Usually we collect our rain water through a collection system on the roof of the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home (I'll bet you Omahan's didn't know about that!).
Unfortunately, this had to happen during one of the worst droughts in history!!!  Had this happened in January with all the snow we would have been filled up in a week!

So I called Rabbi Senderovic.  You may remember him from other halachic projects like - the Omaha Eruv!

Rabbi Senderovic told me that it is critical that we clear out any debris or other objects from the roof.  If the rain water lands first on a chair or a hammer and then finds its way into our collection system then the water is invalid.  It must go straight into the mikvah.
Then he told me, "pray for rain!!"
We prayed, but to no avail.  In the meantime, our women have been shlepping over 2 hours late at night all the way to Des Moines to Beth El Jacob to use their beautiful Mikvah (thanks Rabbi Bolel!).

So after a month, it was time for a new plan.  Rabbi Yaakov Weiss, the chaplain at the Blumkin Home called up Rav Schacter of YU who recommended mikvah expert Yirmiyahu Katz, who has built and supervises more mivkahs in America than any one else.  He literally wrote the book on the modern mikvah.
Rabbi Katz said that in extreme circumstances we can rely on the ruling in the Mishnah that allows for the use of ice.
The challenge is that the ice must be completely frozen when it is placed in the mikvah.  If any ice melts before it reaches the mikvah then the water is invalid.  The only way to do it properly is to get large chunks of solid ice and place them directly in the mikvah.

So in fact Rabbi Weiss made the call to the ice delivery guy and ordered 250 ten pound blocks of ice to be delivered to the Blumkin home at 8:15 Friday morning.  Then we enlisted some volunteers to help move the ice.  The ice had to make it quickly from the truck to the mikvah so Rabbi Weiss drew up a plan.

One person to unwrap another to unload and pass it to someone off the truck who would pass it to one of the three runners who would bring it to the door of the blumkin home to the mikvah door to the anteroom to the mikvah room to the steps to the mikvah.  11 volunteers in all.

We were all set with special gloves ready to move the ice at 8:15am.  By 8:30 the ice had still not arrived and we started to worry.  We lost a few volunteers who could not wait any longer.
The ice truck finally arrived at 9:00am.  Rabbi Weiss got on the truck and lifted up the first bag - and it was dripping.
The ice that they delivered was not what we ordered.  We needed solid chunks of ice and they delivered to us bags of compacted slush.  Also, they truck was not refrigerated and they had started to melt on the way over.
So we told the delivery guy that this was not going to work.

So its back to the drawing board.  We need to find a place that will deliver us solid chunks of ice in a refrigerated truck.

We all went back to work disappointed.  As we went to our cars it started to drizzle.  I thought about how ironic it would have been if it had rained right after we had packed the mikvah with ice (like 10k spoons when all you need is a knife).

Hopefully we will get some rain over Shabbat.  Otherwise, we will have to get those ice chunks and assemble the mikvah brigade again.

Question on Brachot 26b

Many years ago I came across a question in messechet brachot page 26b.  It is a simple question and I have asked many great Torah scholars over the last 10 years and have not received a satisfactory answer.

Last time daf yomi was learning messechet brachot Mark Zuckerberg was still running facebook out of his dorm room and twitter did not exist.

This coming Monday, August 27th, daf yomi will be learning Brachot daf 26, which means hundreds of thousands of people around the world will be focusing on the very page where my question is and social media allows me to get that question out to those people.  With so many people in the world learning page 26 on the same day, I hope that this post falls into the hands of someone who is equally bothered by this question and can come up with a satisfactory answer.

Here is the question.

The Gemara says that Avraham established shacharit.  We learn that from the place in the Torah where it says:

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֥ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם בַּבֹּ֑קֶר אֶ֨ל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁר־עָ֥מַד שָׁ֖ם
"vayshkem Avraham baboker el hamakom asher AMAD sham."  Avraham woke up early to the place where he had STOOD.
The gemara then says that we know that he was davening because the verb AMAD implies tefilah - prayer.  We know this from a verse from Tehilim chapter 106:30 that says:
 וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֣ד פִּֽ֭ינְחָס וַיְפַלֵּ֑ל וַ֝תֵּעָצַ֗ר הַמַּגֵּפָֽה 
"VAYA'AMOD Pinchas vayipalel [vateiatzar hamageiphah]"   Pinchas STOOD up and executed judgement [and stopped the plague].
The word for executing judgement is VAYIPALEL which is the same root as TEFILAH which means prayer.  Granted that prayer is a form of self judgement, but according to the simple explanation of the verse, pinchas did not pray.  He acted.  To use that verse as a proof is a stretch.

But my question is as follows: given that 106:30 is a stretch as proof that the verb AMAD means prayer, why did the author of this braitah overlook a perfectly good proof found in the very same chapter just a few verses earlier?  106:23 reads as follows:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לְֽהַשְׁמִ֫ידָ֥ם לוּלֵ֡י מ֘שֶׁ֤ה בְחִיר֗וֹ עָמַ֣ד בַּפֶּ֣רֶץ לְפָנָ֑יו לְהָ֘שִׁ֥יב חֲ֝מָת֗וֹ מֵֽהַשְׁחִֽית
"Vayomer lihashmidam lulei Moshe bichiro AMAD baperetz lifanav lihashiv hamato meihashchit."
[Hashem] had said that He would destroy them, had not Moshe His chosen one STOOD in the breach before Him to turn away His wrath lest He destroy them.
In the Pinchas verse AMAD does not have to mean prayer.  It could easily be taken literally to mean that he stood up.  In the Moshe verse the verb AMAD is clearly a figurative expression.  Whether Moshe was sitting or standing is irrelevant.  "Standing in the breach" obviously means that he prayed.

It is hard to accept an answer that the author of the Braitah somehow overlooked this verese.  There must be some good reason why the Pinchas verse is better.  But in over 10 years nobody has been able to give me a good reason why.

If you know someone learning daf yomi please forward this to them and hopefully this time around someone can give me a good answer.  Otherwise I have to wait another 7.5 years.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Message to Donors of AJWS Rabbis Mission

Dear donor,

As one of the participants in the American Jewish World Services Rabbi delegation to Ghana, I want to express my sincerest appreciation.

As an Orthodox Rabbi and a political conservative I was an unlikely candidate for this trip.  Prior to the trip I held two preconceived notions about AJWS:
1.) I knew that they did very good work in developing countries but
2.) I thought that AJWS is a radical left wing organization that had no place for someone like me to participate.

My first assumption was compelling enough to entice me to participate in the mission and challenge my second assumption.  And I am so happy I did!

Of the 17 Rabbis on the trip I was the only one who would be considered a conservative.  At every session and in every discussion it seemed that I saw the issue in a drastically different way than my colleagues.  I lost count of how many times I found myself in absolute disagreement with an assertion, belief, or assumption of one of the other Rabbis.  Every conversation and discussion ended with an agreement to disagree, and sometimes we could not even agree to that.  
And yet I found that rather than confirming my assumption that there was no place for me, I discovered that I had a very important place.  I represented the conservative voice that made our discussions more complete and I believe that all of us, myself included, benefited from listening to and seriously considering the opinions of those with whom we disagree.

What I did not expect was for my first assumption to be challenged.  I thought I knew about the good work that AJWS was involved with.  I was completely wrong!  I had absolutely no idea of the impact that AJWS and its partners are making to change the lives of individuals and redirect the future of entire communities.

No article, book or presentation can accurately describe the plight of child trafficking and slavery.  We witnessed some of the poverty and heard from people who had actually been slaves as children.  

And we were inspired by those who have dedicated their lives stopping it forever!

After eight years in Omaha, home of Warren Buffett, the world's greatest investor, I recognize and appreciate the ability to find a good investment.  AJWS invested in James Kofi Annan and his Challenging Heights program - an investment that would make even Warren Buffett proud!

Challenging Heights rescues children from slavery, rehabilitates them, reunites them with their families, and gives them the gift of education in order to end the multigenerational cycle of poverty.

Visiting their rehab center and working at their school gave us the opportunity to meet and interact with the children that challenging Heights has rescued.  We also met with people who live in the communities where challenging Heights gives classes to educate parents on the issues that cause slavery and even helps them establish businesses to get them out of the poverty that forced them to sell their children.

Since its founding in 2003 Challenging Heights has directly affected the lives of 8,000 children and their families and changed the course of history for 40 communities.  They saved lives, granted freedom, and shared a vision of hope for a better future.

After 10 days in Ghana I realized that I could not begin to fully comprehend the impact that AJWS has made through Challenging Heights - and Challenging Heights is only one program of 400 that AJWS partners with in over 30 different countries!

To say that I knew about the the good work of AJWS before this trip was completely false!  I had no idea about the life changing impact that AJWS is helping to make for thousands and thousands of people all over the globe!.

Ten days with 17 Rabbis of every flavor and variety, each with his or her own beliefs.  And yet in the face of the great suffering and the inspiring work all of our differences seemed so trivial.  After all is said and done, we all have the same ultimate destination - we just have different ideas on how to get there.

AJWS brought us all together for a shared purpose.

I thank you for wisely investing in the Rabbis delegation.  Each Rabbi will undoubtedly share his or her experience with our respective communities.  We will give voice to those who are suffering throughout the world and let people know how AJWS is partnering with those who are bringing about change.

I am grateful for the opportunity to witness the great work of AJWS first hand.  And I am especially appreciative to have experienced it with so many talented Rabbis.  The work that AJWS does around the world is not left wing or right wing.  It is simply right.  It is sacred work that all Jews - all people - can rally around and be proud to participate in.

Thank you for investing in me, for investing in AJWS, and for making the world a better place for everyone.

Rabbi Jonathan Gross

Rashi Questions for Shoftim

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According to Rashi...

1. In what manner were the officers expected to enforce the laws of the judges?  (16:18)
2. How does one pursue tzedek?  (16:20)
3. How many wives can a king have?  How do we know that?  (17:17)
4. How many torahs does a king have to write?  (17:18)
5. What is a diviner?  (18:10)
6. What did Ov practitioners do? (18:11)
7. How were roads prepared for the cities of refuge? (19:3)
8. How does the Torah spare certain soldiers from embarrassment?  (20:8)
9. Why do the leaders have to declare, "our hands have not spilled this blood?" (21:7)

Youthcon 2012

Two weeks ago I spent Shabbat with Yeshiva University president Richard Joel at the YU Championsgate leadership conference in Orlando.  Last Shabbat I was in Ghana with Ruth Messinger, director of American Jewish World Services.  And yesterday Richard Joel, Ruth Messinger, and I were all together at the Hilton in Stamford Connecticut for YouthCon 2012 - the largest annual gathering of Jewish youth professionals.

Hundreds of professionals from all over the world gathered to network and to share ideas on how to engage youth in Torah and Jewish life.  It was absolutely amazing!!!

The conference is hosted by NCSY and the Orthodox Union.  160 different Jewish organizations participated, spanning the entire spectrum of Jewish life.

It may be the only conference that brings together leading Jewish institutions ranging from the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University, Chabad, Jewish Theological Seminary, Camp Ramah, Aish Hatorah, UJA Federation, and over 150 others representing every denomination, and some organizations representing no denomination.  

The groups differed in almost every way but they all shared a passion to connect the next generation of Jews to their heritage.

Some things that made the conference great:
  • the whole program cost $36 and it included a delicious catered lunch.  The OU was able to do this by finding a host of generous sponsors.
  • the conference was only one day 9:30 to 5:15.  When conferences go longer they tend to lose momentum by the second day.  Every second of Youthcon felt exciting!
  • the conference was flexible.  There were more programs than anyone could go to, but there were also a number of short programs, as well as plenty of time for networking and sharing ideas.  Sometimes the best ideas are shared outside of the formal sessions, and youthcon allowed for maximum networking opportunities.
I think the best thing about Youthcon was that there was clearly no agenda other than sharing ideas on how to engage Jewish youth.  I felt as if no ideas were off limits.  The sessions featured speakers of all denominations, outlooks, world views, and levels of observance.  But there was no fighting over differences of opinions or judgements about other people's Jewishness.  There also didn't seem to be any overt competition, even though many of the groups are often competing for the same target audience for their programs.  There was an atmosphere of openness and cooperation between people who are all involved in the same sacred mission.  It was really inspiring!

I could not begin to list all of the amazing sessions that were featured.  You can view the schedule on the youthcon website.

I got so much out of the conference.

  • I attended a session on social media about how to use facebook and twitter and blogging to reach out to people.  I think I am going to try that.
  • I heard a session from my good friend Matt Bar, founder of Bible Raps. 
  • I heard Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt give an inspiring presentation on how to focus the synagogue on youth without alienating adults.
The main plenary featured Richard Joel, Ruth Messinger, and Shimon Waronker.

For me the highlight was a debate between Ilan Caplan from American Jewish World Services and Omaha's own Joel Alperson.  Joel had published a number of articles stating that excessive focus on social justice and left wing politics is contributing to the decline of the non-Orthodox movements.  Ilan, representing AJWS, feels that political advocacy and involvement in non-Jewish social justice projects is inherently Jewish and no less Jewish then learning Torah or observing Shabbat.
It was a lively debate and the audience asked some really challenging questions for both presenters.

YouthCon was a great experience.  I will finally be back in Omaha tomorrow after 2 long weeks away.  I can't wait to get back and starting bringing back everything I learned to Beth Israel.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Back from Africa!

For the last 10 days I have been in Ghana as part of a service trip of young Rabbis with American Jewish World services.

For 10 days I have been without cell phone, Internet, or e-mail.  The only thing that I had with me was a spiral notebook and a pen.

I have so much that I want to blog about:
  • A travel blog of the experience
  • the work of American Jewish World Services
  • the work of the great projects that AJWS partners with in Africa
  • the issues facing Ghana that I learned about and saw first hand
  • the value of service trips in general
I flew from Ghana straight to New York and I am spending Shabbat in Teaneck, NJ with my family.  Sunday I will attend YouthCon - the annual informal and experiential Jewish educators convention -and I will head back to Omaha early next week. 

Over Shabbat I intend to read through my copious notes from my trip and I hope start some serious blogging after shabbat.

I wish everyone a great shabbat and I can't wait to get back to Nebraska to tell everyone about the trip in person.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rashi Questons for Re'eh

According to Rashi...
1.What are the plains of Moreh?  (11:30)
2. What is the difference between and altar and a pillar?  (12:3)
3. Where will  Hashem's resting place be?  (12:5)
4. What place is "our heritage?" (12:9)
5. Why does the Torah say to "be strong" regarding refraining from eating blood?  (12:23)
6. How can we cleave to Hashem?  (12:5)
7. What kind of animal is the Akko?  (14:5)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Dark Knight, Israel, and the Radical RIght Wing Agenda

My latest post on the Pop Jewish Blog:

Dark Knight hit the theatres on July 18, 2008 and became the highest grossing opening in history.

But something else made that same week a significant moment in Jewish history.  2 days earlier, on July 16, 2008, Israel released five convicted terrorists and the remains of 200 dead terrorists in exchange for the bodies of two captured Israeli soldiers. 

At the risk of trivializing a great tragedy by juxtaposing it with a movie about a comic book, at the time I could not help but feel that the movie was a deliberate commentary on the current events. 

The Joker was a terrorist.  Much like Hamas and Hezbollah, he could not be reasoned with and was happy to see the world burn.  He targeted innocent civilians and threatened to blow up a hospital if his demands were not met. 
Batman felt that capitulating to the Joker's demands would not bring an end to the Joker's reign of terror. 

In the movie there is a debate between Batman and Morgan Freeman, who represented Batman's conscionce, as to whether it was ethical to use Patriot-Act-like-technology that would invade people's privacy in order to find and stop the Joker.  Morgan Freeman is opposed in principle but ultimately agrees with Batman that it is warranted, necessary, and even ethical under the circumstances. 

The message to me was clear.  Batman does not negotiate with terrorists. The movie seemed to be making a clear statement, and the movie's overwhelming popularity, while not exactly a gallop poll, may have also served as an indicator of public opinion. 

Or perhaps not.

But either way, it is clear to me that Batman supports Israel's right to defend itself against its enemies, and in a broader sense Batman is a right wing (pun intended) political conservative and would probably vote for the Republican candidate for Gotham City Mayor. 

Dark Knight Rises, the latest Batman film, not only confirms this belief, but addresses a host of political wedge issues, all of which Batman falls on the Right side (as opposed to the Left side).

Here are a few examples: (SPOILER ALERT)
  • As far back as the Adam West version of Batman, the caped crusader is known for working in tandem with the police.  In the current incarnation, even when the police are hunting him down, the average police officers are portrayed as competent, valiant, and heroic - not the norm by any means for most Hollywood films.  But at the end of the movie one police officer, revealed at the very end to be the future Robin, makes a decision to throw away his badge and fight crime on his own.  He decides that there are too many laws that inhibit the police and encourage the criminals making it too hard to fight crime by the book.  If the bad guys are not playing fair then the good guys must use whatever means are necessary to stop them.  This quite obviously applies to Israel's war against its enemies, as well as the global war on terror, and the domestic debate on how to deal with crime.
  • Part of the evil plot involves taking away all of Bruce Wayne's money.  They do this by breaking into a computer and purchasing millions of worthless stock options with Bruce Wayne's account.  This could have been accomplished simply by stealing his Ameritrade login and password.  Instead, the writers of the film have the bad guys Occupy Wall Street.  In some outlandish scheme, the bad guys break into the Gotham stock exchange and hold everyone hostage, drawing the attention of an army of police and Batman.  This gratuitous plot hole was clearly placed to evoke images of the real life Occupy Wall Street movement.  Later in the movie, after the entire master plan unravels, speeches are made by the bad guys about how the have-nots have to take Gotham back from the haves.  Amidst the mayhem someone says, "now all of this stuff belongs to everyone."  In essence the movie is about Batman's fight to prevent a world where Occupy Wall Street has its day.
  • Wayne enterprises creates a nuclear device that has the potential to produce safe nuclear energy.  However, Bruce Wayne prevents certain people from attaining this energy for fear that the device will be used to make a bomb.  A character representing a very liberal kumbaya ideology constantly leans on Bruce telling him that he has to trust people.  Of course in the end the bomb gets into the hands of the very people who said, "trust me" and the outcome is disastrous.  This is a not-so-subtle echoe of the debate over how Israel and U.S. foreign policy should deal with Iran's nuclear program.  Do we trust those who think Iran should be allowed to develop nuclear power or do we prevent them from becoming nuclear.  I know where Batman would stand!
Rabbi Avigdor Miller was once asked if it was permitted to allow children to read Batman comics.  He did his research by reading one himself.  He answered that the comics are good for children because they "teach law and order to the kids by making sure the hero always overcomes the villain. The heroes even teach humility since they disguise their true identities and keep their good deeds confidential."

Batman has always been a platform for discussing serious issues and teaching morality.  The writers of Dark Knight Rises have continued that legacy by providing us with a movie that entertains as well as confronts us with serious issues.  But I wonder - does Batman's right wing stance on issues signal a change in the direction of the traditionally Left wing Hollywood norm?  Or are the writers of Batman anomolies and Hollywood will continue to promote the views of the radical left?  Will the Dark Knight continue to Rise?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

AJWS vs Rabbi Meir Kahane

Before I left for Ghana I scheduled a few blog posts

For those who don't know (a few months ago I didn't know a few months ago) Ghana is a country on the western coast of Africa.

I am going on a mission with American Jewish world services.  It is part of a Rabbinic fellowship.  Me and 14 other Rabbis form all over America are going to be doing some service in Ghana for 10 days.

During that period there will be no cell phones and no Internet.  I will be blogging the old fashion way, a notebook and a pen, and I hope to put up some interesting posts when I return.

I am actually pretty anxious about the trip.  I had to get an arm full of shots (at Kohll's Pharmacy!  Check out their video!) and I had to buy all kinds of gear to protect me from mosquitoes.

I am also pretty excited.  I am the only Orthodox Rabbi going on the trip.  In fact, I did not initially apply for this fellowship.  I had not even heard of this fellow ship. I vaguely had heard of American Jewish World Services - my sister-in-law did some work for them in India a number of years ago.

American Jewish World Services came to me.  They strive to make their trips pluralistic but they did not have any Orthodox Rabbis going.  They called a friend of mine at the Orthodox Union in New York and asked if they knew any Rabbis who would be interested in going to weird and out of the way places where there are not a lot of Jews.  "Well, we already have a guy in Omaha."  they said.  "Ghana is probably not such a stretch.  Ask him."

My first question was whether or not the program would accommodate Shabbat and Kashrut.  AJWS assured me that they strive to be as inclusive as possible and do everything to make sure that all Jews can participate.

So I sent in an application and I was chosen to participate in the fellowship.

Since then I have become more familiar with AJWS.  Their philosophy is, not-surprisingly, very liberal.  I have read their literature with interest and I am greatly interested in the contrast between them and other Jewish activists that I have read in the past.

For example:
There is a lecture by Rabbi Meir Kahane from the 1960s about being active on behalf of Soviet Jewry. He sites to the Biblical story of Moshe in Egypt.  Moshe saw an Egyptian beating a Jew.  Rabbi Kahane says, "Moshe did not see the Egyptian beating the Jew and then go and organize a committee to do a study on the root causes of Egyptian anti-semitism. He got up and saved the Jew by killing the Egyptian."
By contrast, AJWS sent around a text study on the same piece that reads as follows:

while Moses had an instinct for justice, he didn’t yet have a method
for making it happen.  His behavior, while powerful and inspiring, was also
impulsive, occasionally violent and ultimately inadequate.  There was a whole
Egyptian system which allowed the innocent to be beaten, but Moses didn’t
address that—he simply acted on rash impulse.  
On this particular point of disagreement between Rabbi Kahane and AJWS I think I would side with Rabbi Kahane.  While I understand what AJWS is trying to say, I don't think that Moshe's circumstances serve as a good example.  There is a time for violence and I believe that Moshe used proper judgement based on the information available to him and he made a decisive decision to risk everything and save an innocent life - even if it meant he had to kill the aggressor. 

I hope that over the ten days we have a chance to look at this piece.  It will be interesting to discuss my perspective with the rest of the diverse group of Rabbis.

Monday, August 6, 2012

going going ghana

Today I am leaving for a 10 day trip to Ghana with American Jewish world services.

I don't know what I am going to be doing there.  It is a service mission of some kind with a number of Rabbis.

I got an arm full of shots and some pretty intense anti mosquito gear and I am boarding the plane tomorrow.

AJWS does not allow the use of phones or computers on its trips so I will be out of communication for 10 days.  No blogging.

I intend to do a great deal of blogging when I return.

In the meantime, if you get an e-mail that says that I am out of the country and lost my passport and wallet and need money - don't be so quick to delete it.  It may not be a nigerian e-mail scam.  In fact, I may actually be in nigeria.  Call my wife and ask her before sending money.

But seriously, I am not sure what I am going to be doing.  I am going with an open mind and I am going to throw myself in fully to get the full experience - whatever experience it is that AJWS has in mind.

I plan to report honestly about my experience when I return and let you all know if these types of service trips are really worth while, or if we would be better off giving our money to some professionals on the ground to help the people of Africa.

Looking forward to telling you when I get back.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rashi Questions for Eikev

According to Rashi...
1. What are the Tzirah?  (7:20)
2. How did the people in the desert maintain their clothes?  (8:4)
3. Why is Yom kippur a day of forgiveness and pardon? (9:18)
4. What is not in the hands of Heaven? (10:12)
5. How is a mountain better than a plain?  (11:11)
6. What are considered improper motivations for learning Torah?  (11:13)
7. What does it mean to serve Hashem with all of your heart?  (11:13)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

YU Conference Travel Blog #2

Shabbat at the Yeshiva University Championsgate leadership conference was amazing!!!

Kabbalat Shabbat was an experience from another world!!!  It was lead by the great Chazan Shimon Kramer who was accompanied by the YU Macabeats!!

Then I met my new friend Rabbi Sharon Shalom.

Rabbi Shalom is originally form Ethiopia.  Almost 30 years ago, at the age of 10, he walked hundreds of miles from Ethiopia to finally achieve his freedom and a new life for him and his family in the Jewish State.

When he grew up he learned in the distinguished Har Etzion Yeshiva and went on to become the first ever Ethiopian immigrant to receive Rabbinic Ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbi.

In his short tenure so far accomplished a monumental achievement!  Rabbi Shalom wrote the first ever Shulchan Aruch, code of Jewish law, for the customs of the Ethiopian community.  The Ethiopians have a rich heritage of unique Jewish customs that was in danger of being lost for ever.  Through diligent research, Rabbi Shalom recorded these customs into a single compendium that is considered by the chief Rabbinate of Israel to be the authoritative book of Jewish practice for Ethiopians.

Today he is the Rabbi in Kiryat Gat, an inner-city neighborhood in Israel that is challenged with extreme poverty.  Rabbi Shalom is working hard to develop the community and break the cycle of poverty so the kids in the community will have a future.

Over the summer, he partnered with Yeshiva University to run a camp for the students in Kiryat Gat.  20 students from Yeshiva came to run a camp for hundreds of kids.  Rabbi Shalom told us that Kiryat Gat is very segregated.  The immigrants from different countries tend to stick to themselves, and the secular and religious Jews do not mingle.  He said that somehow the YU students were able to break these barriers for the first time and somehow all of the kids in the community felt comfortable participating in their programs and it brought the children and parents of the community together in a way that had never happened before.

I was honored to be able to spend some time getting to know Rabbi Shalom.  When I told him I was form Omaha he said, "Omaha? that sounds like an African name!"

Rabbi Shalom has already agreed to visit Omaha on his next trip to the U.S.  I am already writing the grant to fund his visit.  I cannot wait to introduce him to the Jewish community in Omaha.

After dinner there was an oneg shabbat with more singing and divrei Torah.  Then lights out.

Shabbat morning began again with daf yomi (2 for 2!  Only 2,709 to go!) followed by a beautiful davening with chazan kramer.

After davening there was a kiddush and lunch.  I wished mazal tov to my cousin (my father's sister's husband's father's father's brother) Joel Shreiber for be appointed as chairman of the board of RIETS (Rabbi Issac Elchonon Theological Seminary).  Most people do not understand how incredible Yeshiva Universities Rabbinic Seminary is.  Most people are aware that RIETS features some of the greatest Torah scholars on the faculty.  What people do not know is that the tuition at RIETS is completely subsidized.  My rabbinic degree did not cost me a dime.  This allows for the best and brightest students to pursue a Rabbinic career without having to think about how they will pay off their loans.  This is why YU is producing Jewish leaders in great quality and quantity.  It is a gift to the jewish people and the communities and organizations that YU Rabbis serve.

Most of the day was choices of lectures by YU faculty.  I attended a lecture about Jewish historical responses to changing technology form the printing press to the internet, and then a fascinating lecture on the cultural distinctions of the Yiddish language.
 Shabbat ended with a great shalosh seudot and a speech by YU president Richard Joel.
He spoke about the recent visit of a group of Catholic Arch Bishops to YU.  The Catholic Church is very interested in YU.  They have observed how YU students are passionate about learning and they want to know how they can impart that passion on their own youth.
Some time later the arch bishop from Philidelphia gave a speech in his Church and he mentioned YU.  
A few weeks ago, I visited Yeshiva University in New York for a dialogue between Jewish scholars and a group of Catholic bishops. Yeshiva is an Orthodox Jewish university that includes a focus on the study of traditional Jewish religious texts -- mainly the Torah and the Talmud. The study is done through daily lectures. But it's combined with a unique way of immersing oneself in the Word of God called "chavrutas," the Aramaic word for "friendship" or "companionship."
In the chavruta style of learning the young men sit together in groups of two and debate and challenge one another to a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. They're guided by senior rabbinical scholars, but the scholars themselves -- as they walk around the study hall -- become part of the learning dialogue and expand their own understanding of the sacred text.
I came away from my time at Yeshiva with three main impressions.
What struck me first was the passion the students had for the Torah. They didn't merely study it; they consumed it. Or maybe it would be better to say that God's Word consumed them. When a man and woman fall in love, a kind of electricity runs not just between them, but also in the air around them. The story of every true encounter with God is the same. Scripture is a romance. It's the story of God's love for humanity. When we give our hearts entirely to seeking God in the richness of God's Word, we begin to discover and experience that same kind of electricity. I saw it in the students at Yeshiva.The second thing I noticed was the power of Scripture to create new life. God's Word is a living dialogue between God and humanity. That divine dialogue mirrored itself in the "learning dialogue" among the Yeshiva students. The students began as strangers, but their work in reflecting on Scripture and in sharing what they discovered with each other, then created something more than themselves -- a friendship between themselves and with God.
Third and finally, I saw in the lives of those Jewish students the incredible durability of God's promises and God's Word. Despite centuries of persecution, exile, dispersion and even apostasy, the Jewish people continue to exist because their covenant with God is alive and permanent. God's Word is the organizing principle of their identity. It's the foundation and glue of their relationship with one another, with their past and with their future. And the more faithful they are to God's Word, the more certain they can be of their survival.
The weekend was absolutely inspiring.  I met some great people and I have plans to follow up and hope to partner with them on some programs in Omaha.
I hope that next year I can bring some representatives from Omaha to share the experience with me.

Friday, August 3, 2012

We are the Championsgate!

For the second year, Miriam and I have been invited to attend the Yeshiva University Championsgate leadership conference in Orlando, Florida.
Championsgate is a conference that is its own mini community that shares the Yeshiva University vision of modern orthodoxy coming together to discuss common issues and challenges, and inspire each other on building our respective communities.
Miriam and I attended last year and found it incredibly inspiring and we are excited to be here a second time.
Yeshiva University is the place where I got my undergraduate degree in mathematics and then went on to get my rabbinic ordination.
But YU is a great deal more than a university - it is a movement.  Although many of the people at the conference are YU alumni, many participants attended other universities but consider themselves part of the YU community because they believe in the unique values that YU stand for.

As an example, the key not speaker this evening, Professor Tal Ben Shachar, holds a doctorate in psychology from Harvard university, and taught for many years at Harvard.  His claim to fame is that at one time his positive psychology class at Harvard attracted as many as 900 students a semester, more than any other course offered at Harvard college.  But as a Jew, he finds a home at yeshiva university and he strongly believes in the way that The YU community is capable of being firm in their religious beliefs and practices and yet still able to speak to, make an impact, and influence the greater Jewish and nonjewish world.
He spoke about his specialty, positive psychology and he mentioned that according to the research of others the Orthodox community rates high on a happiness index.  He attributes this to the tightness of our community.

The conference runs over Shabbat until Sunday morning and the schedule is packed with speakers, panels, forums, and networking sessions.  Each session has at least three options to choose from and they all look great.  Miriam and I split up in order to cover as much ground as possible.  Then at the meals we share what we learned with each other.  (the girls are with a babysitter and having fun by the pool)

The most exciting part of the conference is all of the amazing people that we see between sessions.
Some are old friends, others are people we have met at last years conference and kept in touch with, while others are incredible passionate Jewish professionals and lay leaders.
Just to name a few, today I had a chance to speak with rabbi Steve Burg, the intergalactic head of NCSY and the managing director of the Orthodox union.

I also saw Rabbi Binny Marylis.  Binny was my dorm consider when I went to Yeshiva in Israel and today he is the national director of Young Israel, a network of hundreds of synagogues across North America.
I saw my old high school friend, Rabbi Avi Bossewitch.  Avi lives in Miami Beach and was recently made the head of academic affairs at the oldest and most established Jewish day school in the state of Florida.

I saw my friend Joel Mowbray. Joel is an investigative journalist and an expert in counter terrorism. I met him through my pro Israel advocacy as he is a sought after speaker and lecturer.  A few years ago he became active in the modern orthodox community and he is here s a participant.

I saw Steve Savitsky, past prudent of the Orthodox Union.  This summer Beth Israel has two teens who are making us proud by spending the summer in the NCSY kollel in Israel.  On their way to Israel they stopped for a night in new York and Steve Savitsky told me he was proud to have hosted them for the evening.

I also got to meet some of the members of my second favorite a capella group - the Maccabeats!!!  (My favorite a capella group is A.K.A. Pella - who will be visiting Omaha on September 7th and 8th this year!!!)

And of course, the president of Yeshiva University, Richard Joel, is here.  He is a visionary leader and I am inspired every time I hear him speak.

I could go on and on, as everyone here is a dynamic Jewish leader in some capacity.

We are about to daven maariv, which is an event in its won right when hundreds of people daven together.
The conference has just begun and we are already having an incredible inspiring time.


This morning started at 6:15 with a daf yomi class before davening.
Daf yomi is a daily learning program that unifies Jews all over the world.  Every day, the global Jewish community learns the same page of Talmud.  The program started almost 100 years ago in Europe and has continued until today.  There are 2,711 pages in the Talmud and by learning one a day you can finish the entire Talmud in 7 and a half years.  This past Wednesday was the final page of the last cycle and on Wednesday night 90,000 Jews gathered in Giants stadium in new York to celebrate the completion of this monumental achievement.
The new cycle just began.  We are now at the very beginning.  Maybe we should start a daf yomi program to Beth Israel so that we can participate in the celebration next time around.

After davening was breakfast.  At breakfast we heard from Jerry Silverman, executive director of the Jewish federations of north America. He was in Omaha earlier this year.  But he said that he as in 115 communities throughout north America since he took the job 3 years ago.  Wow!  Imagine that guys travel blog!  Jerry Silverman is a supporter of YU and praised YU and its alumni for their leadership in the global Jewish world and their support for Torah, Judiasm, and the sate of Israel.

Today there are great sessions to choose from before we get ready for shabbat.  I am going to "Reshaping your Non-for-profit" and then to a "Attaining a sustainable Jewish educational model in your community."  Miriam is going to "Meditation, Mindfulness, and more meaningful prayer."  There is also a networking session for Rabbinic couples.
Miriam and I are so fortunate to be here and we hope to learn some great things to bring back to Omaha!