Browsing Tag


Uncategorized June 2, 2014

Amelia Bedelia and the Oral Tradition: Guest Blogger Rabbi Zee

Rabbi Zee (aka Zauderer) is a fast-talking New Yorker.  Except he lives in Toronto and has some really interesting things to say – if you can follow the pace.  He joined us in Cleveland for a Shabbaton weekend last year and I’ve been getting his weekly emails ever since.  He and his wife Ahuva and their eight children live in the Bathurst/Lawrence area, where their home is always open to anyone who wants to experience a Shabbos or a Torah class. Rabbi Zee (as he is known to his students) brings to his classes a special combination of Torah knowledge, teaching experience, and interpersonal skills.  In honor of the forthcoming holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah, Shavuot, here’s a classic piece of his on the Oral Tradition (the mishna/Talmud).  Rabbi Zee will be available to field comments and questions here.  Email him to be added to his weekly list – it’s great stuff.

“Now let’s see what this list says,” Amelia Bedelia read. “CHANGE THE TOWELS IN THE GREEN BATHROOM.”  Amelia Bedelia found the green bathroom.

“Those towels are very nice. Why change them?” she thought.

Then Amelia Bedelia remembered what Mrs. Rogers had said. She must do just what the list had told her.

“Well, all right,” said Amelia Bedelia. 

She snipped a little here and a little there.  And she changed those towels.

“Now what?  PUT THE LIGHTS OUT WHEN YOU FINISH IN THE LIVING ROOM.”   Amelia Bedelia thought about this a minute.

She switched off the lights. Then she carefully unscrewed each bulb. And Amelia Bedelia put the lights out.

“So those things need to be aired out, too. Just like pillows and babies.  Oh, I do have a lot to learn.”      
It is a foundation of our faith to believe that G-d gave Moses and the Jewish people an oral explanation of the Torah along with the written text. This oral tradition is now essentially preserved in the Talmud and Midrash.                
However, there are many Jews today who are skeptical when it comes to accepting a so-called “oral tradition,” claiming that the Talmud and all the interpretations of the literal text of the Torah were the product of later Rabbinic scholars who might have had hidden agendas and fanciful imaginations.                

Some of us might be willing to accept the notion of G-d revealing Himself to the Jewish people and giving us His Torah – the Written Torah, that is – but anything other than the Five Books of Moses is circumspect.                
If we study Jewish history, we will find that this is an old claim that was made well over 2000 years ago by a breakaway sect of Jews known as the Saduccees. While they accepted the authority of the Written Torah, they rejected the oral traditions and interpretations of the Sages, and they preached a literal reading of the text of the Torah…. which led to some interesting and strange practices. I guess one could say that the Saduccees were the “Amelia Bedelias” of the ancient world.                 
I will give you some examples of what can happen when we take every word of the Written Torah literally, without relying on a much-needed Oral Tradition.                
G-d commands the Jewish people in Numbers (15:38): “They shall make for themselves tzitzis (fringes) on the corners of their garments ….. It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it …..”  The Torah never writes explicitly that we should wear the fringed garment. If anything, the Torah says that we should see the tzitzis, implying that we should hang the fringed garment (today called the prayer shawl) on our wall in a noticeable place.
And that’s exactly what the Saduccees did! They hung their tzitzis on the wall, but would never wear them.                
How about the Sabbath? It is one of the Ten Commandments. Yet in the entire Written Torah, virtually no details are given as to how it should be kept! So how are we to know what to do? Should we keep the Sabbath by lighting candles… or maybe a trip to the park with the kids was what G-d had in mind? Or maybe it should be left up to each individual to celebrate the Sabbath in his/her own way?                
The details can be found in the Oral Torah, of course. As G-d said, “You shall keep the Sabbath holy, as I have commanded your fathers” (Jeremiah 17:22) – obviously referring to an oral tradition. But I bet that Amelia Bedelia and her predecessors the Saduccees sure would have been confused!      
Let me give you one more example, which has relevance to the upcoming holiday of Shavuos (The Festival of Weeks).
In the Written Torah, G-d commands the Jewish people to celebrate the holiday of Shavuos. But He doesn’t tell them directly which day they should celebrate.  Rather, the Torah states in Leviticus (23:15) “You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day seven weeks…”  The Torah writes further that at the end of those seven weeks of counting you shall celebrate the Festival of Weeks.
Now, if we are to believe that only the Written Torah was Divinely given, but not the Oral Tradition, then we are forced to conclude that G-d was playing some kind of cruel joke on His Chosen People!
I mean, come on, can’t you help us out here a little, G-d? On the morrow of the “rest day” we should count seven weeks and then celebrate Shavuos? Which one of the 52 “rest days” of the year are you referring to, G-d? Are we going to play Twenty Questions here, or what?                    
As a matter of fact, the Saduccees, for lack of a better option, decided to count the seven weeks from the day after the first Saturday after Passover, which means that Shavuos would always come out on a Sunday!                  
Of course, the Oral Torah helps us out here as always, and tells us exactly what G-d had in mind with that very vague and ambiguous reference.                
Now, when Amelia Bedelia makes such mistakes and follows everything Mrs. Rogers tells her to do – literally – it makes for an interesting and comical children’s book, at which we can’t help but chuckle. But it’s not so funny when the stakes are higher – when the very foundation of our faith and of our lives – our beloved Torah – is taken so literally as to become vague and confusing, and, G-d forbid, almost comical.

THE OBVIOUS QUESTION                

Okay, so let’s assume that G-d gave us two Torahs – a Written Torah and an Oral Tradition along with it to clarify things – but we still have to ask ourselves why would G-d do such a thing? Why couldn’t He just write everything clearly in the Written Torah?  This way He could have avoided all the problems and divisions among our people, whereby some of us accept both Torahs, and some reject the Oral Torah, because it seems to have originated with a bunch of Rabbis, instead of being Divinely given and inspired!               
I once posed this question to a man from West Orange, New Jersey, with whom I had been studying on a weekly basis. His ten-year-old son had joined us that evening, and the young boy came up with an answer that is, in my opinion, quite profound, and also has a connection to the very first words in this week’s Torah portion.               
In Leviticus (26:3), the Torah states: “If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time.”
The verse seems to be repetitious. What is the difference between “following my decrees” and “observing my commandments”? Rashi, the great Bible commentator, explains, based on the Oral Tradition, that “following My decrees” – which is read in Hebrew bechukosai tay-laychu – means that we should toil in Torah study, whereas the next words in the verse refer to the performance of the actual commandments.
It is difficult to understand where the Oral Tradition got the idea of “toiling in Torah” from the Torah’s words bechukosai tay-laychu, which simply mean “to follow My decrees.”
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, once explained this strange oral tradition as follows:               
There are two methods of writing – one with ink and paper and the other by engraving on stone. The difference between the two is that when one writes with ink, the words do not become one with the paper, making it possible for the message on the paper to be erased over time. When a message is engraved into stone, however, the words and the stone are one unit, so that the message remains in the stone permanently.
The Hebrew word bechukosai, or decrees, comes from the root word chakikah, which means engraving. G-d is teaching us that if we want the words and the message of the Torah to leave an indelible and permanent impression upon us, we must study them intensely and toil in them, so that we become one with the Torah that we study and it becomes engraved on our hearts.
And that’s exactly what the little boy answered to my question. He said that if the entire Torah had been written out for us, without our having to put any effort in trying to explain it and get to the deeper meaning behind the literal text, it wouldn’t become a part of us and would leave no permanent impact.
This is one of many reasons why the Oral Tradition is so very important and central in Judaism.
Uncategorized January 31, 2012

3 Steps to Fixing the Half-Judaism Trend: guest blogger Leah Weiss Caruso

My friend Leah Weiss Caruso blogs at, which is entirely appropriate because she absolutely does.  Rock, that is.

Leah is one of those rare breeds of human who is funny, wise, kind, open-minded, and respectful of those which whom she completely disagrees.  She and I agree on many, many things, and disagree on many too.  Yet our friendship and mutual respect prevails.  Our friendship is an icon for this blog.  

And here she is:
conclusion in her “Half-Judaism” post is that both parties are
half-right.  And half-wrong.  They have each only acknowledged half of

think Ruchi is spot-on.  Being an active, thinking Jew is more than
just being a good person, and it’s more than just keeping kosher.  There
is a phrase from our tefillah [prayer], “The World stands on three things: Torah, Worship, and Acts of Loving-kindness.”

Not just one of these things, but all three.

Torah (Written – 5 Books of Moses; Oral – Mishnah/Talmud): The Jewish
Way as we know it.  Kosher, Shabbat, marriage, birth, death, business
ethics, etc.  It’s all in there.  How each person interprets it . . .
well, that’s a whole other post!  But we must acknowledge its place in
our DNA, and find ways to incorporate its spirit, if not always its
letter, into our lives.  However, it can’t be our ONLY thing.

Worship:  Fairly obvious.  Except, it’s not.  Many of us think of prayer
as something we do a couple of times a year in a big room filled with
lots of people and questionable art.  Or maybe a Shabbat service here
and there.  And for many people, “prayer” hangs over them as a
prescribed thing that is in a relatively foreign language and said to a
deity in which one may or may not believe.

I’m here to say that, at
least for me, “prayer” = the hopes that I have, the dreams that I have,
the gratitude that I have, and how I express all of that and acknowledge
the Divine presence in my life.  It’s rarely in the form of what is in
our prayer-books.  It is, however, a part of my daily life.  I think
it’s integral to being a conscious Jew – being conscious others and of
the world around you.  Like #1, it can’t be the only thing you do. 
Being pious in prayer alone does NOT = good Jew.

#3: Acts of
Loving-kindness: “good deeds”.  Chesed.  Charity.  Being a good person. 
We all strive for this!  But it has to go hand-in-hand with #1 &

1+2+3 = 1.  A whole Jew.  How we incorporate these things into
our lives is as unique as our fingerprints, but we can’t go “halfsies”
on this.  This is our challenge:  be a full Jew.

Uncategorized December 15, 2011

Best Jewish Apps

What’s on my phone right now?  I always love the coolness of combining technology with religiosity.  So fun.  So I decided to share with y’all which Jewish apps are currently hanging out on my phone:

1. Zmanim

This literally means “times.”  In Judaism, the exact minute of sunrise and sunset are very important, as well as many points in between (like their midpoint).  Why?  There are certain times of day designated for certain prayers.  When Shabbat and holidays start and end.  When ANY day starts and ends.  Like if you need to figure out which is the 8th day for a bris.  So this app detects your location and offers you all the important times:  sunrise, till when you can do the morning prayers, midday, the earliest time you can do the afternoon prayers, sunset, nightfall, and mid-night (not to be confused with 12:00 am).

You can also change the date or location, like if you want to know when Shabbat will begin in four months (like for people who plan Shabbatons, ahem) or if you’ll be traveling and want to know if you can still catch a minyan at your destination.

2. Siddur

This is a prayerbook app.  The free one is Hebrew only (yup, that’s what I’ve got – I’m cheap, but for a small fee you can download one with English) and has bookmarks for the morning blessings, the Shema, the Amidah, the afternoon prayers (mincha), the evening prayers (maariv), “bentching” – Grace After Meals, the travelers’ prayer, and more.  It’s perfect for when I’m on the go, but, like many anti-Kindle peeps, I feel it’s just not the same.  Also quite distracting when an email or call comes in while I’m supposed to be concentrating on the Lord.  But there’s a concept in Judaism of looking at the words while you pray – even if you know it by heart.  Or maybe especially if you do.  Because it helps you concentrate, while you might be tempted to rattle it off by rote.  So this is great in a pinch.

3. Tehillim

This is the Book of Psalms.  Yeah, in an app.  Oxymoron?  Nah.  Jewish tradition has us turning to this book to pray for assistance or gratitude in any circumstance.  I confess, I’ve never used it.  I always revert to whispering the ones I know by heart.  But it’s very cool and has fun bookmarks.  Also, it makes me feel good just by being on my phone.

4. Calendar converter

This is a totally fun app that gives you the Hebrew dates for English and vice versa.  Very handy for choosing bar and bat mitzvah dates for our Sunday school kids.

5. Google calendar: Jewish holidays

This isn’t really an app, but did you know you could download the Jewish calendar into your google calendar?  Then all the Jewish holidays appear instantly, including Rosh Chodesh (first day of  the new Jewish month), and, if you’d like, the various Torah portions each week.  You can even choose your dialect for Hebrew (like Shabbos or Shabbat).  Very useful for making sure you don’t schedule an event on the first night of Passover or something like that.

6.  Avot

This is all six chapters of Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of the Fathers.  I’m teaching it in a class, and it’s perfect for checking quickly what we’re up to or reviewing before class.

7. Kol Halashon

Just downloaded this last week and I’ve already used it a bunch of times.  It’s for the more experienced learner, and basically it takes what is already a telephone learning service and offers it in app form.  It’s an extensive and organized collection of Torah lectures by today’s most popular lecturers.  You can choose parsha, mishna, Talmud, Jewish law, character improvement.  You can choose Hebrew, English, Yiddish and other languages.  I’ve bookmarked my four favorite lecturers.  You can either download the lectures or just play them, so it’s great for travel.  Eats up quite a bit of memory, but for me, totally worth it.

Which Jewish apps are hanging out on your phone?

Uncategorized November 21, 2011

What I’m Thinking When The Orthodox Make Headlines

A very thoughtful reader, alias “Should Be Working,” a self-described Reform Jew, posted the following incredibly respectful thought on my blog last week about The Danger of Being Orthodox.

“I want to take a risk here and ask a question in ‘outsider mode’, since I’m an outsider to Orthodox Judaism. This blog is one of the very few experiences I’ve had of feeling (not just seeing) the ‘inside’ of your Orthodox lives (in all the variations I’ve learned about here, thanks for all that insight into the differences), and also seen that warmth and caring and humility.

So my risky question is what it feels like from the ‘inside’ of Orthodoxy when you read about Orthodox Jews doing things that do not reflect love and joy with respect to those not in their communities–for instance in Jerusalem Orthodox Jews have spit on Christian clergy. Joy and love for one’s ‘own’ is a beautiful and admirable thing, but when you read ‘bad news’ or at least unflattering news, does it make you wish that other Orthodox people would behave more civilly and respectfully to ‘outsiders’? Does it make you feel like those people are wrong and the exception, or that they are just misunderstood, or that they have failed in responsibilities to what someone (Larry?) recently here described (don’t have the Hebrew term in my head) as representing the Jewish people in a positive light?

Such news reports, to be honest, do alienate me from Orthodox Judaism, but I want to hear from this thoughtful, positive-minded group what you think about such acts. I am, again, asking this with respect, and especially for Ruchi in creating this blog–because I can’t think of any other venue where I could actually ask Orthodox Jews how they view such incidents. (I suppose I could show up at Chabad or something and ask there, but the openness I’ve seen on this blog makes asking the question here easier.) “

A few of my other readers gave some good responses, and I’d like to add a fuller treatment of the question: it’s an important one.  Before I answer the actual question, though, I need to put forth a few general concepts.


The first thing that most Orthodox Jews will tell you  is, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.”  This is a cute line, and a nice way to sidestep our co-denominationalists’ disgusting behavior, but it’s just not satisfactory.  Can you say “don’t judge New York by New Yorkers”?  Don’t judge Islam by Muslims?  Don’t judge yoga by yogis?  If, indeed, the system is an appropriate one, and a functional one, shouldn’t you, indeed, be able to judge Judaism by Jews??  That’s just not good enough, while true.  To some degree, you can’t judge ALL of New York by SOME New Yorkers… but to completely sidestep that degree of accountability simply doesn’t sit right with me.  (I credit Rabbi Avraham Edelstein of Moreshet with clarity here.)

Therefore, we have to be able to judge Orthodoxy by MOST of the Orthodox. 


Item number two on the list: have you noticed that the vast majority of ugly news (Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike) comes out of Israel?  Why is this so?  Why is life there so fraught, so tense, so violent, so very, very on the edge of normal, polite behavior??  I just came back, and I lived there for five years, and oh, I love it so, but to be honest… it’s one of the reasons I simply could not live there.  Is it that Jews in Israel have to fight so hard, sweat so much, sacrifice so often, that simple manners become a luxury?  Is it that separation of church and state is a laughable Alice-in-Wonderland dreamworld there?  Is it that people live in such close proximity that “live-and-let-live” is for wimps?  Is it that Jerusalem has always been a place full of tension, a test of peace?  I don’t know, but it’s sad, and bad.  I don’t want to speak lashon hara (gossip) about the Land, my Land, the only Land I capitalize in respect and love, but man… it’s a tough place.


On the subject of lashon hara (gossip), it is important to distinguish between news, gossip, and opinion.  News is information that the public needs to know for a constructive purpose.  Gossip is information that the public does NOT need to know for a constructive purpose, but rather it’s to entertain or denigrate.  Opinion that is respectfully worded and deals with ideas is great.  Opinion that is personal and vindictive is lashon hara.  Not everything that is thought ought to be spoken; not everything that is spoken ought to be written; and not everything that is written ought to be published (Rabbi Y. Salanter).  I leave it to you, reader, to sort your reading material into its various categories.


This is my updated version of “don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.”  Instead of having Judaism and Jews live in silos, I view the Torah as the ultimately perfect ideal.  Everything in the Torah is beautiful and perfect.  No, that doesn’t always mean it all jives with the secular values of 2011, but it oughtn’t, because those will change.  Torah is immutable.  And I know some of you, my dear readers, interpret this in different ways, and I’m glad to discuss that one day.  But here’s my point:

To the extent that a person lives according to the Torah’s instructions, will his actions be beautiful, admirable, and noteworthy.

This, of course, transcends denomination.  It’s directly proportional.  This means if a person doesn’t even know he is Jewish, but is not a gossiper, that person is living in accordance with Torah teaching in this area of his life, and this area of his life will be beautiful and special.  If a person gives tzedaka (charity) – his actions in this area are beautiful.  If a person observes Shabbat, accepts suffering with serenity and faith, smiles at a stranger on the street, bends down to retrieve someone else’s trash, prays for clarity instead of getting angry… these are all ways to behave in accordance with the Torah.

Which means that when a person behaves in way that is ugly, illegal, rude, embarrassing, or hurtful, he is NOT acting according to the Torah in that area of his life.  He may be acting according to the Torah in OTHER areas of his life (Shabbat, kosher), so those parts of his life are beautiful, but the icky stuff is in trangression of Torah.

As well, the obvious Orthodoxy in the garb and external observance just complicates the issue, because now the bad behavior is not just in direct contradiction to Torah, but makes it seem as though “Orthodoxy” sanctions the bad behavior.  Double ick!

In short, when Orthodox people behave badly, that bad behavior is CONTRARY to Torah.  He’s acting that way despite his “Orthodoxy.”  If many Orthodox Jews (however you quantify that) act that way, you have a bad trend that must be addressed from the leadership.  On that note I will tell you that every lecture I attend and nearly every article I read in the “very Orthodox” circles are focused on how Orthodox people should and can improve themselves.  Introspection and upgrading our behavior, ESPECIALLY in the areas of interpersonal relationships (yes, with outsiders too) are at the top of the list.  In fact, the most Orthodox rabbi in the world (my designation), Rabbi AL Shteinman, may he live and be well, has said this publicly many, many times: always seek to upgrade your behaviors with other people.


Therefore, with all this information, here’s the chronology of my thoughts when bad news about the Ortho-Jews hits.

1. Denial
It’s not true.  It didn’t really happen.  That’s insane.  How could anyone seriously act that way??  OK, maybe it happened, but probably no one read it except for me.  How could anyone find this stuff??  The web is so big; maybe it got buried.

2. Anger
Anonymous (or not) Orthodox person, how could you do this to me???  To God?? Do you know how hard I try to be a good ambassador for Judaism?  Do you know how large is the gap that exists between fellow Jews??  Why are you making it worse, harder?  Don’t you  THINK before you ACT??  Journalist: why?  Why are you writing this?  Is this to denigrate, to sensationalize?  Are you happy you got people to smirk about how the supposedly-holier-than-thou Jews are finally revealed for what they really are: a bunch of no-goodniks?  ARRRR!

3. Bargaining
Let’s say this disgusting behavior really did happen.  It’s a crazy fringe group.  No one really takes them seriously.  You can’t possibly find any Rabbi who would sanction this.  None of this is in the Torah.  Torah is perfect.  There are so many Orthodox folks doing good; don’t they outweigh a few crazies?  Sure, their customs might be unfamiliar, their dress a bit different, their culture slightly divergent… so what?  I just have to work harder, blog faster, try harder to teach my kids that God wants us to behave with love, respect, and joy to all human beings… oy. 

4. Depression
I can’t.  Can’t read this stuff anymore.  Maybe I need to crawl under a rock and not read the news and DEFINITELY not read any blogs and unfollow a whole slew of people on Twitter.  I pretend I have such a thick skin, but I guess I’m kind of sensitive after all… It’s so upsetting, to try so hard, to know so well what Torah living is about, to shout from the rooftops how beautiful it can be… just to be thwarted by a bunch of bizarre crazies who make headlines and journalists who are gloating over the mound of charred hopes.  I go through my day like an automaton… have no zip…

5. Acceptance
“The work is not yours to finish; neither are you free to completely shirk it” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:21).  There will always be those, have always been those, that are a chillul hashem (disgrace to God’s Name with their bad behavior).  There is no way I’m going to change that.  What I can do, must do, is be a kiddush Hashem (elevation of God’s name with good behavior).  I can only do what is humanly possible.  I need to know enough to be productive, and that’s it.  I need to introspect and make sure no trace of bad behavior infects me.  I need to keep doing what I’m doing, reaching, teaching, learning, growing, parenting responsibly.  I need to to take things both more and less personally. 

“A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness” (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi).

Yes, readers.  These are, not coincidentally, the five stages of grief.  This is how I feel when I hear that an Orthodox person has publicly and badly failed in being a good Jew.  I grieve the Torah that was transgressed, I mourn the kiddush Hashem that was lost to us, and I wistfully miss the feeling that us Jews can indeed, be one family.  It’s hard to grieve so much.  But I care that much.  I love us that hard.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks for reading.