Sunday, October 28, 2012

Derekh Hokhma - The Way of Wisdom

I am pleased to present my translation of Derekh Hokhma, The Way of Wisdom, written by the illustrious Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto. Rabbi Luzzatto, better known as the Ramchal, is perhaps most famous for his classic ethical work, Mesilat Yesharim. In Derekh Hokhma, which is structured as a dialogue between a teacher and a student, the Ramchal lays out a philosophy and methodology of Torah study that clarifies the purpose of learning and the proper prioritization of subject matter therein.

After discussing his general vision he works out the particulars of which subjects and texts should be learned, why they should be learned, in what order they should be learned, according to what method they should be learned and to what extent each respective area should be learned.

It is a brief and deceptively simple work that is enormously insightful; it is a guide to Torah Study the same way that Mesilat Yesharim is a guide to ethical and religious conduct. You can find my translation here

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Rabbi's Elephant

Many people have already viewed  "The Rabbi's Daughter", a moving film that offers the viewer a glimpse of the lives of three young women whose fathers are prominent Orthodox Rabbis but who themselves are no longer religiously observant. The movie is powerful and should not be missed. One cannot help but feel empathy for the estranged daughters who struggle to remain connected with and win acceptance from their families as well as for the parents who must be profoundly disappointed in their children's choices yet continue to love and support them.

Commentary on the video has astutely observed that the Rabbinic fathers are cast in a rather positive light as sensitive and caring parents. Others have pointed out that at least two of the three daughters featured in the film have strong artistic, even "hippie-like" tendencies, and that these qualities may have made any attempt to fit them into the Orthodox mold an even greater challenge.

However, no one has yet addressed the most obvious and most troubling issue of all, the elephant sitting smugly in the corner of the room: All three children showcased in the movie are daughters, not sons.

These young women are expected to dress a certain way and to behave a certain way. The external measures of conformity for Orthodox women are very strict. A woman's irreligiosity is palpable and perceivable - all she needs to do is wear pants or short sleeves, for example, and anyone who sees her will immediately conclude that she has left the Orthodox fold.

Were any of these daughters not a daughter but a son, he could conceal his ideological departure from the belief system of his family with little more than a baseball cap. Men who leave Orthodoxy can hide it with minimal effort and probably do, keeping their changes of heart to themselves.

But there is another, more significant aspect to this disturbing picture. After all, a "rabbi's son" is held to higher standards and experiences communal pressure just like a "rabbi's daughter"; however, for the son, there are benefits as well - he is held in high esteem as well!

The son may decide to follow in his father's footsteps and become a rabbi, teacher or community leader. He can pursue Torah learning opportunities of the highest caliber, attend the best yeshivot and perhaps one day inherit his father's position. There is a place for a rabbi's son in the Orthodox community.

The male offspring of a rabbi experience more than just the pressure, restrictions and standards that their female counterparts endure. Expectations of greatness are formed, hopes are hoped and dreams are dreamt for the rabbi's son and what he may become.

Not so for the rabbi's daughter. She is not held up on any pedestal, except insofar as marriage prospects are concerned. She is not hailed as a scholar or a prodigy. Her position in the rabbi's family doesn't prepare her for or lead her down any clear career path. For obvious reasons, she would be discouraged from and even condemned for  considering anything remotely similar to the career path of her father.

This, I believe, is the crux of the problem. Where is the rabbi's daughter to go? What place is there for her in the Orthodox world? Beyond the responsibilities, the pressure, and the stress of growing up with the label "rabbi's daughter" permanently emblazoned upon her identity, what does she have to show for it, where does it leave her?

It is particularly ironic that the same week "The Rabbi's Daughter" is making waves on the Internet, Rav Aviner - who is prominently and sympathetically featured, with his daughter Tamar, in the video - is also in the news for this.

I have tremendous respect for Rav Aviner and it is not for me to criticize his halakhic analysis (as a Sephardic Rabbi, I follow the view of Chief Sephardic Rishon Letsion HaRav Uzziel Z"L that it is permitted for women to serve in the government as democratically elected representatives). However, from a philosophical perspective, it is hard to overlook the connection between these media reports. After all, it stands to reason that Rav Aviner's view of women in general has exerted an influence on the way in which he has raised and educated his daughter. This, in turn, has undoubtedly contributed to the spiritual and emotional dilemma in which his daughter now finds herself.

There is little room for doubt that barring women from the world of Torah and denying them the opportunity to contribute their spiritual talents to our communities in some recognized capacity is a disservice to them. Truthfully, all of our daughters are at an innate disadvantage because of our failure or our tacit refusal to make room for them in our midst.

Precisely because of the fact that so many doors are open to women in our society and so many other options are made available to them, we cannot content ourselves with moving over a little so that they can squeeze in at the far end of someone else's bench. That's as good as saying "you can rest here temporarily but you're not really welcome here, find somewhere else to sit as soon as possible."

Instead, we must identify and sanctify a bona fide place for Orthodox Jewish women, a spiritual path and destination that belongs to them and that grants them the dignity of belonging, a goal for which they can yearn and an objective toward which they can strive.

Otherwise, the highly talented young women of this generation will find their potential both unacknowledged and unfulfilled and will feel themselves stifled, frustrated and shut out of our community. And if there is one lesson we can learn from the video, it is that, in the end, the Rabbis' daughters will suffer the most.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why The "Bar Mitzvah" Must Go

It is a well-known fact that many families maintain their synagogue membership only to ensure that their children will be able to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony when they come of age. This is particularly true among non-traditional or generally unaffiliated Jews; parents who are disinterested in religion per se may still feel a sense of obligation to see to it that their offspring experience this rite of passage in one form or another, and that means joining a congregation of some sort.

Without a doubt, the draw of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah provides an opportunity for the synagogue community to connect with and engage many children and adults who would otherwise have no involvement with Judaism, Jewish learning or Jewish practice. In this sense, the conventional institution of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a positive thing; at the very least, it persuades Jews who are quite distant from their religion to enter the realm of Jewish community and participate in synagogue life.

Nevertheless, it is equally well-known that many such families abruptly terminate their involvement with their chosen congregations as soon as the Bar/Bat Mitzvah obligation has been met. The event has no discernible long-term effects. Most of the time, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child, now a young man or woman, has not been inspired to continue his/her attendance at services or study of Torah.

On the contrary, it is frequently the case that the "graduate" of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah course is left with an antipathy to synagogue, is haunted by terrible memories of the stress, rote drilling and gloom associated with the demands of practice and preparation for the big day,  and is tremendously relieved to know that it is all over.

Why is it that the Jewish community routinely botches this golden opportunity to engage unaffiliated families? Why is it that we fail to inspire the youngsters in our Hebrew Schools and Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes? How come this momentous rite of passage that our children absolutely MUST experience (or endure) leaves them running away from, instead of running in pursuit of, more Judaism and more Torah?

I believe the problem is not the concept of the Bar Mitzvah, but the conventional form of the Bar Mitzvah: specifically, the notion that the student's goal should be to memorize and chant the Torah portion and Haftara and then deliver a token speech. One need not look far beyond the surface to see that the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies of today do not reflect and actually contradict many of the values that we teach and emphasize in Torah contexts. The format of the Bar Mitzvah fails us in three respects:

1. Improper Emphasis on Public Performance - Today's Bar Mitzvah is all about showbusiness and pageantry. (I am speaking of the synagogue service, not the ridiculously lavish parties, the shallowness of which speaks for itself.) The Bar Mitzvah is preparing for a well-attended public performance during which he will showcase himself. The personal growth, knowledge and character of the Bar Mitzvah are not highlighted. The focus is exclusively on the external trappings of religion, even when those superficial trappings are entirely devoid of substance.

Moreover, in Orthodox, traditional and Sephardic synagogues, this transforms the Bar Mitzvah into a ceremony of exclusion - boys have the opportunity to "shine", to do what everyone seems to think is important and worthy of effusive accolades, while girls are summarily denied that privilege. This problem has sent many Modern Orthodox in search of creative ways to allow young women to participate in synagogue services in a more public fashion; however, as I have argued previously, I do not think this is the correct approach.

2. Meaningless Preparation - I spend several hours a week preparing students for Bar Mitzvah at my synagogue, and several hours more lamenting what a waste of time it is. The process of repetition and rote memorization is boring and spiritually deadening for both student and teacher. There is no intellectual stimulation, no give-and-take, no excitement. It doesn't lead the learner to a deeper connection with Torah nor to an understanding of the significance of the portion being read. It is the ultimate example of a מצות אנשים מלומדה, a mindless regimen performed out of habit, which our Prophets continually warned us against. And it is the visceral distaste for this painful and empty routine that sends young men running from the synagogue once their Bar Mitzvah is over!

3. No Lasting Results - Teaching a youngster once a week for a year so that he can read one parasha or haftara seems like quite an accomplishment. When the resulting performance is a flawless one, lots of praise is heaped on the performer and his tutor. However, in reality, it is all a disheartening illusion. The Bar Mitzvah has gained nothing enduring from his year of study. He hasn't emerged a better person or a better Jew. He hasn't internalized any knowledge that will enrich his life, deepen his thought or inform his conduct. The skill he has spent one year acquiring will quickly evaporate from lack of practice and lack of interest. On the off chance that he shows up on the same Shabbat in subsequent years, he may be able to provide an encore performance - but even that is never quite as good as the first one, it is rusty from neglect.

 For these three reasons and more, I am calling upon the leaders of the Jewish community to abolish the format of the "Bar Mitzvah" as we know it. It will be difficult; we will likely meet with fierce resistance. The synagogue "stage parents" who have patiently awaited their children's moment in the limelight will find much to oppose in this suggestion. But if we are genuinely concerned with the future of the Jewish people and we are committed to saving the next generation of young men and women, it is incumbernt upon us to act now!

What will replace the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies? How can we merely dispense with such an important rite of passage, a signature life cycle event in our communities? I would like to suggest the following:

Instead of a performance, instead of preparing a child for twelve months so that he can read a parasha for less than an hour, let's require every Bat/Bat Mitzvah student to participate in a course of serious Torah study for one full year.

We can require the boys and girls in our communities to study - at the very minimum - their entire Bar/Bat Mitzvah parasha (or some other relevant Jewish text, as deemed appropriate) in depth, with the Rabbi or a qualified tutor, and to explore its themes, its commentaries, its difficulties, its message...How beautiful it would be were a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to have the experience of genuine one-on-one Torah study, guided by a seasoned teacher, once a week for a whole year! What a transformative process it would have the potential to be, how it would encourage intellectual exchange and the formation of close bonds between student and tutor/rabbi, and how it would engage the mind, heart and soul of the youngster with Judaism and Jewishness at a level we can hardly imagine...

This would be a worthwhile and substantial investment in the child and their relationship with Torah and would be an outstanding substitute for the enormous but ultimately futile investments we have already been making in the "Bar Mitzvah" - an event that unfortunately makes little or no contribution to the religious education or Jewish identity of the participants.

This revolutionary approach to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah would yield the following benefits:

1. The Concept of Siyum - The completion of a course of Torah study would be a true occasion for celebration. Putting all pomp, circumstance and pageantry aside, it would signify a real graduation, a new stage of growth reached in the intellectual and spiritual life of the student.

2. Relationships Formed - The Bar/Bat Mitzvah would have the opportunity to form a deep and lasting bond with his/her teacher. Rather than a simple, mechanical "tutoring" arrangement that ends with the passage of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah date, the shared experience of Torah study and the exchange of ideas would foster a relationship with the potential to withstand the test of time - the tutor is now a mentor, a confidante. The possibility that student and teacher might stay in touch for decades afterward and continue to interact with one another meaningfully is not at all far-fetched.

3. Authentic Experience - This model of Bar/Bat Mitzvah training would expose the child to the beauty of Torah and Judaism in all of its richness, with no repetitive, brain-numbing practice to carry out at home. It would open the mind and heart of the pupil to everything Judaism has to offer, in an intimate, warm, one-on-one setting.

4. Meaningful Results - The insights gained in Torah study may stay with a student for a lifetime. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah will walk away with new ideas, principles and values that he or she can apply to real-life situations inside and outside of the synagogue. And when the students experience the sheer enjoyment of Torah study and intellectual discovery, when they associate Judaism with something positive, enduring and exciting, the chance that they will return for more is increased a thousandfold.

 In fact, teaching Torah is the most effective marketing strategy we have in our arsenal - when we allow the children to see for themselves just how amazing, powerful and transformational Torah knowledge can be, there is reason to believe that they will diligently seek it rather than run from it.

5. Egalitarian - This model of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, because it is based on Torah study and not on public performance, is naturally and ideally suited to both boys and girls, even in a strictly traditional setting. The same effort and investment will be expected from both genders, and the same genuinely positive outcomes will be sought. Torah learning is the greatest equalizer as well as the greatest wellspring of nourishment and inspiration for the Jewish soul.

Simply put, the conventional "Bar Mitzvah" must go!

I realize that this proposal may seem radical to some. I am fully prepared to hear comments and constructive criticism from the readership. In fact, I encourage it and look forward to it. I am hopeful that the observations and suggestions that I have laid out here will serve as the beginning of a critical discussion about Jewish education, Jewish continuity and what steps we must take to ensure that our sacred traditions are preserved and successfully transmitted to the next generation.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Torah, Science and Women's Issues

In the latest post on Hirhurim, Rabbi Raphael Davidovich responds to Rabbi Broyde's recent article on Women's Torah reading with a basic ideological critique. He accuses Rabbi Broyde of essentially burying his head in the sand of halakhic minutiae rather than confronting the ideological and theological erosion taking place in Modern Orthodoxy right before his eyes.

While halakhic analysis of what is permitted or forbidden for women in the context of Orthodoxy is certainly welcome, Rabbi Davidovich argues that it sidesteps the more fundamental issue - namely, the fact that what many modern Orthodox Jews really have a problem with is not the specific halakhic parameters being followed but one of the foundational teachings of the Written and Oral Torah themselves.

 In other words, they are disputing, disparaging and dismissing the idea - codified and canonized in our tradition - that men and women are different and are, as a result, subject to different rules, regulations and obligations. Rabbi Davidovich brings much persuasive evidence for the fact that the Torah does, indeed, enshrine a very specific vision of men, women and their roles in society and in the world, as well as in their relationships with one another and with Hashem.

I have already weighed in on the issue of increased ritual participation for women. I strongly oppose it; I would much rather see increased Torah learning, tefillah, acts of kindess, and pursuit of justice among both men and women. Nevertheless, upon reflection, it became clear to me that the various rabbis weighing in on these issues are talking past one another. They are failing to directly address the underlying difficulty that lies beneath this entire  controversy and, in reality, comes between them. Without a head-on confrontation with this problem, their debates will never yield any fruitful conclusion.

Rabbi Davidovich astutely observes that there is much more at stake here than some particular halakhic ruling or another. Focusing on the halakhic issues is missing the forest for the trees. Despite the title and ostensible goal of his post, however, I don't think Rabbi Davidovich really succeeds in "refocusing the discussion". After all, what is the real substance of the dispute over women's status in Orthodoxy, what is the basis of this war raging between representatives of the Left, Right and Center of our movement?

I would argue that what we are in fact witnessing is another incarnation of the classic Torah-Science conflict. The Torah and Talmud present a vision of men and women, their relationships, societal roles, intellectual and emotional makeup, etc., that seemingly clashes with much of what modern civilization perceives, believes and teaches about these matters. There is a contradiction between what we know or have been taught by our tradition and what we see or experience with our senses. And as with any such Torah-Science conundrum, three rational responses are available to us.

One is to uphold the traditional viewpoint unquestioningly and to dismiss whatever external evidence appears to contradict it. The difficulty with this approach is well known: While it resolves the problem for all practical and theological purposes, it leaves us somewhat intellectually dissatisfied.

Granted, the Torah gives us an eternal, sacrosanct and absolute set of principles through which to understand males and females and their respective places in the world. And certainly, just as we can accept a straightforward reading of the Biblical Creation story on faith and remain skeptical of modern science, so too can we take refuge in our Divinely revealed tradition and derive much comfort, confidence and solace from it.

But how do we explain the odd fact that women today are scientists, doctors, lawyers, judges, etc.? How do we account for the reality that modern women seem more capable, intellectually sophisticated and emotionally independent than the Torah and Talmud would suggest? I don't know the answer to these questions, but I think it would be highly instructive were proponents of the  traditionalist approach like Rabbi Davidovich to provide some tentative responses to them.

The second option for dealing with this "Torah and Science" conflict, taken up by Rabbi Broyde and to a greater or lesser extent by many Left-of-Center Modern Orthodox rabbis,  is to find refuge not in the absolute theological teachings of the Torah but in the more flexible and neutral realm of halakha.

By working out compromise solutions that are halakhically defensible and socially acceptable, we can avoid confronting the deeper ideological problem that actually faces us. Rather than take sides on the question of the nature of women and their differences from men - specifically, rather than openly endorse the traditional or the modern view - we can cobble together practical strategies and public policies that foster compromise, quiet the protests and relieve us of the responsibility to tackle the weightier and more controversial matters at hand.

The third response available when we discover a conflict between Torah and Science or between theory and empirical data is to downplay or dismiss the former in favor of the latter. Some variation of this stance, which is highly troubling to those in the traditionalist camp, seems to be the one adopted by many of the advocates of Open Orthodoxy.

 While they do not reject the truth of the Torah or the authority of the Talmud, many proponents of Open Orthodoxy may question whether the teachings of the Talmud on scientific subjects, including the nature, emotional makeup, intellectual proclivities and societal role of women, carry the binding force of law, or whether, instead, they can be understood as reflecting the scientific and cultural views that were widely held at that point in history. As Rabbi Davidovich points out, their manner of framing the issues goes beyond quibbling about details of halakha - it represents a fundamental ideological parting-of-ways with much of Mainstream Orthodox thought on these matters.

Open Orthodox Rabbis see a world filled with female scientists, judges, world leaders, philosophers, etc., and reach the conclusion that we live in a different world than the ancients did. Just as they have set aside medicinal, astronomical and biological teachings of the Talmudic Sages in deference to today's scientific findings, so too have they set aside or at least augmented the beliefs about women that were current in Talmudic times and adopted more modern, egalitarian and liberal perspectives. They argue, in the spirit of the Gaonim, Maimonides and many others, that we are not obligated to accept the scientific and sociological statements recorded in the Talmud, just as we are not obligated to embrace the literal truth of its many Aggadic and homiletic passages.

There is a fourth option, of course, which would be to find some cogent, persuasive and theologically acceptable middle ground between these views, a way to integrate the truths of tradition with the facts on the ground. This might proceed along the same lines that some thinkers have proposed to reconcile the Torah's account of Genesis with modern cosmology and physics - not by choosing one over the other, not by declaring one version right the other wrong, but by creatively reinterpreting the two as somehow complementary, understanding them as two sides of the same coin.

As I said, I don't have a definite answer to the questions I have raised here. The objective of this post was not to settle any disputes as much as it was to reframe the discussion as yet another instance of the classic Torah-Science conflict.

Not all cases of apparent dissonance between traditional belief and empirical science need to be resolved in precisely the same way. Each genuine or apparent difficulty must be evaluated on its own merits before a conclusion is reached.

 However, in order for meaningful discussion to be had, and in order for our global conversation to move forward, we must address the philosophical or ideological issue of the nature and role of women in Judaism as if it were a real or apparent contradiction between Torah and science.

Our responses, whenever and however we formulate them, should confront this fundamental source of tension dead-on and should include a clear explanation of how we interpret it and propose to resolve it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why Women's Ritual Participation is Not The Answer

One of the signature features of Orthodoxy is the assignment of different public roles to men and women, and the reservation of specific ritual duties to males and females, respectively. In the past, I have been invited to a number of discussion forums that dealt with the idea of empowering Jewish women by expanding the scope of their ritual participation in the home and the synagogue. Apparently, those familiar with my stance as an outspoken advocate for women's Torah Study expected me to support this initiative as well.

 However, much to their chagrin, I was and I am strongly opposed to this approach. I do not believe it offers an authentic and satisfactory response to the concerns raised by Modern Orthodox women. In fact, I believe that this tactic is poorly conceived and fundamentally misguided.

This is why I was interested to see the arguments put forth in  this article from Open Orthodox Rabbi Zev Farber in which he vigorously promotes expanding the range of ritual participation available to Modern Orthodox women. His suggestion is that we go back to basics, reexamining each and every area in which distinctions have been made between men and women and questioning whether these distinctions have a legitimate halakhic basis or are simply customs by default, "the way it's always been done". On the surface, such a reconsideration of common practice in the light of traditional sources sounds reasonable and healthy. Certainly no harm can come from the advancement of knowledge and understanding.

Rabbi Farber's article also makes some outstanding points about the double-standard that is applied to the motives of men and of women vis a vis ritual participation. There is a tendency in the Orthodox world to criticize women who express interest in ritual activity. The movement to establish women's prayer groups, Torah readings, etc., is attributed to their ignoble desire for fame, honor, or power. Yet the men, who are subject to these same petty desires and impulses, who enjoy receiving honors and basking in the limelight just as much, are granted the opportunity to participate in these rituals as a matter of course, without having their agendas scrutinized or their motives questioned. These are very fair and accurate observations.

However, while I sympathize with his sentiments and accept the cogency of much of his reasoning, I strongly disagree with Rabbi Farber's conclusions. In my opinion, the solution is not to encourage MORE ritual participation among women. On the contrary, the objective should be to educate our communities to an understanding that ritual participation is not the sin qua none of Divine Service.

 Participation brings with it the thrill of performance in front of a group, the widely coveted opportunity to shine. However, in essence, it is not outward ritual that perfects us. It is not reading the Torah publicly, nor leading the prayers before the congregation, nor reciting Qaddish that draws us nearer to Hashem and actualizes our spiritual, intellectual or moral potential.

This objective, the ultimate objective of all of Torah and mitzvot, is realized only through authentic study of Torah and pure and sincere observance of mitzvot, particularly the mitzvot of Tefillah (genuine prayer) and the pursuit of justice, charity and kindness. The greatest Sages and Prophets of our history did not scale the heights of Divine Knowledge by virtue of serving as the cantors, rabbis or Torah readers in their synagogues; they were, by and large, loners and mavericks who pursued the truth relentlessly and independently, neither seeking public recognition nor caving to public pressure. This message is a message that both men and women need to hear. It is a principle that must regain its central footing in our religious consciousness and experience.

Were an archaic version of Rabbi Farber to have lived in the days of the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, we can envision the scene: He would have climbed the rooftops or the hilltops (there were no blogs back then) and proclaimed his dream of egalitarian ritual participation in the Bet Hamiqdash, the Holy Temple. He would have encouraged religious leaders to welcome women who wished to bring sacrifices to the Temple and to lean on them before they were offered (the Talmud in Rosh Hashana and Hagigah deals with the parameters of this halakhic subject). He would probably have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the halakhic principle that a non-Kohen can perform sacrificial slaughter, and sought to create opportunities for women to do so. He would have struggled mightily to involve women in the Temple Service to the full extent that Jewish Law allowed.

And yet, after all this work, he would be headed in the wrong direction, and he would be leading others down a literally God-forsaken path. "What need have I of your abundant sacrifices, the Word of Hashem," Isaiah proclaimed. Jeremiah preached, "But I spoke not unto your forefathers...Regarding burnt offering or sacrifice. But this thing I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way I instruct you..."

Hosea may have said it best, when he declared, "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; knowledge of God, and not burnt offerings."

The sacrifices of yesteryear (may they speedily return with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, God willing) are analogous to the public rituals of today. Our goal should not be the offering of more sacrifices, so to speak. Nor should we be clamoring to involve more people in officiating at our "sacrificial services". Instead, we should be promoting, encouraging and championing the life-changing and self-transformative study of Torah among both men and women of all ages.

It is only first and foremost through the deep and passionate study of Torah and then - in light of that Torah knowledge - through sincere and authentic prayer, acts of kindness and compassion, and the ceaseless pursuit of justice and charity that our people will find its way back to Hashem once and for all.

 Emphasis on expanding women's roles in ritual performance will contribute more to the problem than to the solution. It reinforces an ancient, deeply entrenched and distorted view of Torah and further misdirects the focus of our religious life toward the outward signs, rather than the substance, of true knowledge of God and Divine service. To borrow a poignant phrase from the Rambam, this kind of initiative "leads neither to the fear of Hashem nor to the love of Him."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

International Day of The Girl

Today has been designated by the United Nations as the first annual "International Day of the Girl" in recognition of the fact that "in many countries girls get left behind in all areas of life from school to work and many are prevented from fulfilling their true potential by severe discrimination and prejudice."

Invest in a girl and she will change the world!  - PlanUSA "Because I am a Girl" Campaign

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Random Thoughts on Hoshana Rabba

There is a widely accepted tradition that the judgment determined on Yom Kippur is finalized, once and for all, on Hoshanna Rabba, the last day of the Festival of Sukkot. The liturgy and melodies of Hoshana Rabba reflect this idea by imitating or borrowing from those of the High Holidays. Yet, when we examine the Torah and Talmud, we find no indication that Hoshana Rabba is singled out for any special treatment or has any distinct status. What is the basis for attaching such tremendous significance to the last day of Sukkot?

While it is true that there is no clear reference to Hoshana Rabba as a day of judgment in the Torah, we can identify a hint in the text that leads us to the answer. In Parashat Pinhas, the sacrificial order for every holiday is presented. On Rosh Hodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot we are commanded to offer a combination of sacrifices unique to those days.

It is easy to gloss over the details in Parashat Pinhas, particularly when it comes to the exact number of bulls, rams and sheep offered on a specific day of the year. However, the diligent student is struck by one fascinating pattern. Three days of the year have an identical "menu" of offerings, and all three fall in the Hebrew month of Tishre. Those days are Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atseret! In a subtle way, the Torah is suggesting that Shemini Atseret is linked to the High Holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is not simply a postscript to Sukkot; it is a return, as it were, to the themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. How does this work?

As I have explained in the past, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot represent a spiritual progression of sorts. Rosh Hashana sounds an alarm, encouraging us to liberate ourselves from unthinking habit and to reflect on the ultimate reality of God's Kingship. Yom Kippur is the natural reaction to that awareness - a rushing to the opposite extreme,  escaping from the material and mundane and immersing ourselves in exclusive focus on Hashem and His transcendence. Sukkot attempts to strike a healthy and joyous balance between the two - we engage with the physical, we enjoy and even embrace the natural and the beautiful, but we devote it to a transcendent purpose. In other words, we relate to the physical not as a distraction from or contradiction to the truth but as a vehicle that, when understood and used properly, can enable us to reach ever greater heights of intellectual and moral development.

We can see, then, why Sukkot cannot possibly be an end in itself. After our experience of reconciliation and reconnection with Hashem on Yom Kippur, we are not quite ready to dive back into ordinary life - we still need the Sukkah, the Lulav and the Etrog as safety nets that keep us connected to transcendence while we tentatively reengage with the natural world. Like a patient released from drug rehab, immediately returning to our old dysfunctional environment would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, we gradually move back to the material and the sensual, with the Sukkah and Four Species as our "lifeline" along the way. Eventually, however, the umbilical cord must be cut - we need to stand up and face life on our own, without the elaborate support system put in place on Sukkot.

Shemini Atseret, then, is the moment of truth. Bereft of the Sukkah, on our own, in our familiar, temptation-filled environment, we are now in a position to really gauge how much of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur has become a part of who we are...How much of its inspiration, insight and call to repentance have we genuinely internalized? Have the holidays changed us, or has the apparent "new beginning" been nothing other than an artificial effect created by the continued presence of so many mitzvot, so many reminders, so much structure that has kept our connection with the truths of Yom Kippur alive?

Precisely because Shemini Atseret is a throwback to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, its sacrificial order is radically different than that of the other days of Sukkot, repeating, instead, the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Temple Service. Sukkot was a necessary bridge from the High Holidays, with all of their grandeur and transcendence, and the less-inspiring, more murky existence we struggle with the rest of the year. But once we've crossed the bridge, we are faced with a test - have the effects of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur rubbed off on us as PEOPLE? Do we still have a deeper, more robust relationship with Hashem and His Torah, something worth celebrating even WITHOUT the fanfare of Sukkah and Lulav?

And this is why, I believe, Hoshana Rabba is so significant. It is the last opportunity we have to ensure that our observance of Sukkot has reached its objective and has helped us internalize the lessons of the Holidays of Tishre. We call out "Ana Hashem", help us, Hashem! Help us to remain true to the ideals that began inspiring us during Selihot and have stayed with us until now. Help us even as we are taking leave of the Lulav and Etrog and we are bidding farewell to the Sukkah. Give us the inner strength and courage to survive the intellectual and moral challenges we will face this year, and to continue on the course we charted for ourselves during the High Holidays even when Your presence is more distant from our consciousness than it is right now. Don't allow us to be overwhelmed by our impulses, our emotions or by the endless pressures and demands of everyday life and to abandon what we have worked so hard this month to achieve!

One last observation, that really deserves its own essay: One of the most prominent themes of the Hoshanot, including those of Hoshana Rabba, is our yearning for the Messianic redemption.We invoke a rare and unusual name of Hashem, "Ani Vahu", which according to the Rambam, is a reference to the verse in Haazinu "Ani Ani Hu" - I, I am He - the declaration Hashem will make to the nations of the world when He ends our exile, once and for all. What is the reason for this Messianic fervor?

I believe the answer is that our existence in a perpetual state of exile is, in and of itself, the true measure of our progress (or lack thereof) as the Chosen People. We pray, therefore, that the strides we have made this month will serve as the first steps toward our ultimate goal - the redemption of the Jewish people and, by extension, the redemption of all of humanity.

Yes, we've hopefully progressed, we've implemented changes and committed to new resolutions. And in the meantime, we have prayed for the gift of time - another year of life during which to grow in our knowledge and observance of Torah.But our repentance has a grander and more revolutionary objective, one that reaches far beyond the realm of personal development or self-improvement: namely, the fulfillment of our role as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, sanctifying G-d's name in the world and inspiring all of mankind to join us in our quest for knowledge of the Creator and to partner with us in our struggle to establish justice, peace and harmony on Earth. For this reason, even after all of our prayers and supplications, even after all of our introspection and self-correction, we still must cry out to Hashem with Hoshanot, yearning for His help to transform our individual processes of repentance into a national, collective process of reawakening, rejuvenation and redemption.

I would love to compose another note explaining what I think is the significance of beating the Aravot on the ground on Hoshana Rabba. Hopefully I'll have the time and the inclination to do so after the Holiday. Ana Hashem Hoshia Na!