Browsing Tag

why Orthodox Jews do what they do

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized July 1, 2014

Was All That Praying a Waste?

My friend Andrea is our guest blogger today. See end for Andrea’s bio.

What horrible news we had yesterday, about Eyal, Gilad and Naftali A”H, the boys murdered in Israel 18 days ago. As Jews and non-Jews everywhere reel from the news, I am starting to see the question pop up, on my Facebook feed,  in blog entries and on a bulletin board that I frequent: questioning what the point was to all that praying everyone did.

Now, I am not the biggest “pray-er.” I do take challah and pray for people on a regular basis, but I find that spontaneous prayer works better for me than reading psalms or formalized prayers.  In the time that the boys were missing, what I saw in news, on social media, and in communities everywhere, was an incredible number of people praying, doing mitzvot and reading psalms, in the merit of the return of the boys. I saw the people of Israel, and so many of our friends, coming together – unified by our desire to see the boys home safe.

In addition, many of us, if not all of us, recognized the unity that was sweeping across the world of Judaism and were impressed that three missing boys could cause such an incredible shift in the old adage “two Jews, three opinions.”  We had one opinion and it was very clearly “Bring them back home safe.”
While we now know that by the time people started davening for them, they were dead, I believe that those prayers were still heard.  It is because we cannot change what has already happened with prayer, and once a prayer is spoken it cannot be taken back, that I believe that those prayers were all heard. They were heard by the world, who saw that Jews were coming together and praying (not reacting in violence), they were heard by ourselves, as aforementioned, and most of all, by God.  If you don’t believe in God, then all that good karma was out there and is still coming back to us…
This past Thursday, my daughter was in an accident.  It was  a very serious situation and one which, if any one of ten different things had gone differently, I would be sitting shiva right now. In fact, it is miraculous that all ten of those things did not happen. After seeing the question “Why did we bother?”  I decided that all that davening, and all those mitzvot and all that ahavat yisrael acted  to make it possible that instead of a tragedy, in or family, we are dealing with “just” an accident, instead of a tragic one.
God heard our prayers.  God saw our achdut (unity) and all the amazing mitzvot done in the merit of the safe return of the boys.  I believe that because there was nothing else that could be done for them, all the incredible goodness that was generated by these prayers and actions, was redirected.
Some people may have survived car wrecks, chemo might have worked, or aerosol cans blew up and yet the injury was “just” like a bad sunburn. In addition, many people were praying for the safety of the members of the IDF who were looking for the boys, and the delay in the discovery of their bodies meant that the IDF had legitimate opportunity to discover the smuggling tunnels, weapons production locations and to confiscate whole arsenals that will not be used against Israel now.

A friend pointed out all of the above and that we will never know how many lives have been saved by removing those threats.

Do you know someone who suffered in the past 17 days from something that could have been much worse and wasn’t?  Do you know someone who walked away from something that should have killed them?  Maybe they, and by extension, you, we, klal yisrael were the beneficiaries of that good outcome precisely BECAUSE we all showed such achdut and we all prayed and did mitzvot!  This may not be the answer we wanted or expected but it is absolutely an answer!
So I, a Jewish mother who is NOT sitting shiva today, believe that your prayers and our achdut are the reason for that. Thank you!
Your prayers in the merit  of a speedy and complete recovery for Ariel Mia bat Chana Miriam very much appreciated. and it was very clearly “Bring them back.
Andrea Levy considers herself an “Under-Constructionist Jew.” Formerly a non-observant, mostly cultural Jew, Andrea and her family are very pleased to have grown in the direction of increased observance of mitzvot. She is married to Marc Schwartz and has two children, Max and Ariel. Collectively, the family is known as “The Schwevys.” Andrea owns a business providing Kosher Catering in Hamilton, Ontario, as well as working as a kosher supervisor for the Hamilton Va’ad Hakashrut. She is the lead volunteer for the Adas Israel Synagogue’s United Shabbat programme. Andrea enjoys post apocalyptic and dystopian books and loves all things Zombie and Vampire.
Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 23, 2014

Rude Orthodox Men

Hi Ruchi,
Was wondering what your thoughts were on this. 
The woman that I work for, who is an unaffiliated Jew, went into the local kosher takeout place yesterday to pick up an order. I go out socially with her and some other friends once a month. They are so respectful and accommodating and want me to be able to eat. They either order from a kosher restaurant or check with me before they buy something from the grocery, and serve on all paper/plastic.

So she asks me in front of the other women last night to explain to her why observant Jews seem to be so unfriendly. She goes on to say that she was waiting at the restaurant to get her order and there was a man with his wife and kids also waiting at the counter. She said in non-Jewish restaurants (elevators, bank lines, etc.) people say hello or might make small talk. She said the people at this kosher place were so unfriendly.
She typically dresses VERY conservatively. She happened to have a sleeveless dress on yesterday with a somewhat plunging neckline, which was out of character for her. So I explained to her that religious men try to be careful about having too much conversation with other women.
I have another friend who is the receptionist at my other office who asked the same thing about a religious man who comes in and barely (if at all) looks at her. If you are not observant, you don’t get this at all. It just seems flat out rude and then these women associate that behavior with Orthodox Jews across the board and probably mention it in conversation to their other friends.
So I understand and value men not making too much conversation with another woman (especially if she is not dressed very modestly) but it affects us religious Jewish people as a whole in such a negative way sometimes. I don’t have an answer. Do you?
Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 19, 2014

Eli Talks #3: Two Zions

Welcome to Eli Talks #3, A Tale of Two Zions.

The main reason I chose this particular talk out of the selections Miriam sent me is this: I disagree completely with most of it.  More later.

First, here’s the talk, and a comment about the name “Mishael.”  I think it is an excellent name.  I wonder why it’s not more common.  Daniel, Mishael and Azariah were a threesome but somewhere along the way Mishael fell off the name wagon.  OK.  Onward, or as they say so pithily in Israel, “Yala!”

Eli Talks’ Miriam Brosseau says:
Rabbi Mishael Zion is nothing if not a family man (he even wrote a haggadah with his father); and that includes his extended family of the entire Jewish people. Which makes the premise of his talk all the more provocative. What does it mean for a family to be simultaneously united and divided?
In some ways, I find his premise to be totally intuitive. Of course! It’s a descriptive talk, not a prescriptive one. This is just how it is! And I love the way he intertwines Hillel’s deceptively simple teaching about responsibility and selfhood.
In other ways, it’s an unsettling position. The Land of Israel isn’t the only great dream of the Jewish people? And hey, even if we are talking about Israel and America (or Jerusalem and New York, as it sometimes feels), what about the rest of the Jewish world? What are they, chopped liver?
Ultimately I do think it’s a prescriptive talk – a talk that’s trying to encourage a sense of mindfulness. We are a people with a project…or two. We are in it together. So we should learn from and with one another and get it together. Cuz if not now, when?
(And if you liked this talk, a good companion piece is Gidi Grinstein’s “Flexigidity.”)
OOTOB’s Ruchi Koval says:

I mean, I loved the stories about the grandfather – how could you not?  And of course about working together, etc.  But there’s  underlying premise here that I really just can’t get around, and the irony is I felt that way when I first watched this talk a couple of weeks ago, before #bringbackourboys.  Before Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali were kidnapped – three kids, teens, unarmed – just for being Jews.  Not for being Israelis mind you, as one is not Israeli but rather American.
How can we say we’re better off than in our ghettos, when there are plenty of neighborhoods – shockingly, the whole middle chunk of the country – that is unsafe for Jews?  How can we say our dreams have come true when kids are kidnapped for no reason whatsoever?  How can we say this is the successful story of our arrival?  By the same token, how can we say the Diaspora experience is the fulfillment?  The only thing Israel has over America is its holiness.  And it had that before 1948.  If you look at our prayers, it’s all about Israel.  Every single thing we say references Israel.  “God, thanks for the awesome meal!  Oh, and bring us back to Israel!”  Really.  True story.
And part of that is fulfilled by Israel today.  The holiness.  The intensity.  The opportunities for Jewish expression.  But much is NOT fulfilled.  Much is unfulfilled.  And it’s unfulfilled in the Diaspora too.  That’s why we continue to wait for the Messiah… may it be soon.

In this vein, not only isn’t the rest of Diaspora “chopped liver” (yum) but Israel is the epicenter from which all radii, um, radiate.  So Israel, then unifies us ALL.  No matter which Jew I am chatting with, Israel is something we can talk about, even if no one has been there.  This actually happened to me at a rest stop in upstate NY when three teens with tattoos and chains walked in.  I was terrified, till they came over and seriously bageled me!  In Hebrew! We all care about it.  Most of us know someone there!  (The only thing that really comes even halfway close is Jewish NY’s weird relationship with Miami.) So Israel, far from being a competitor (!) to “us,” is a unifier.

Uncategorized June 9, 2014

Why Am I Invited to this Wedding?

Hey Ruchi,
I’ve noticed in the religious community that I’m getting invited to weddings and bar mitzvahs that are out of town and that I would SO OBVIOUSLY not attend because we are not that close to the people, etc. So and so’s daughter is getting married in NY. So and so’s son who used to live here is having a bar mitzvah in Chicago, etc. Do I then I have to send a check or a donation? I sort of feel like… just because one person has the (in my opinion) chutzpah (too strong, I know, but not sure right word) to invite me when it would be pretty extraordinarily to leave town for an acquaintance’s relative’s event, why do I then have to be in the position to send a gift. It happens a handful of times a year. If it were an event in town, it wouldn’t bug me as much. Though even that can feel a little unnecessary based on the VERY CASUAL level of friendship I”m talking about. Friendship is not even the right word… just people I know.
I did not edit this so sorry for typos and general nasty tone. I just opened another invite so was feeling it in the moment.
I have definitely noticed this difference between the religious and secular communities.  Orthodox folks, for some reason (like their guest lists aren’t big enough as it is) invite everyone and their mother to their simchas. It’s just a way of being inclusive.  Gifts are not expected when people don’t attend, unless you’re close – even then it’s in poor taste to “expect” a gift, but you know what I mean.  They’d probably be shocked if you sent one and would then say, “Oh my gosh!  Can you believe they sent a gift!  That was so unexpected and sweet of them.”
But I do always send back the reply card and say thanks so much for including me, and I’m so sorry we cannot participate in person, and end with a blessing (which they’ll appreciate just as a gift) like “May you build a beautiful Jewish home of which everyone can be proud!”
Or to a bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, “May you grow up to be a wonderful member of your family and community, and bring much nachas to all!”
Hope that helps,
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 April 27, 2014

Staying In for Yizkor

Yizkor is one of the strangest events that happens in a synagogue.  Most of the members leave the sanctuary, and only some stay to say a special prayer that only applies to them.  The reason for this is that if someone has both of their parents alive, and is thus not obligated to say Yizkor, it would be an “ayin hara” to stay in and have all the bereft congregants feel envious.

Yizkor is said four times a year: on Yom Kippur, the last day of Sukkot, the last day of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot.  There’s also a custom to light a yahrtzeit candle for our loved one the night before Yizkor is said, and to say “L’EEloy nishmat [Hebrew name ben/bat father’s Hebrew name]” which means, “may this be an elevation of the soul of [insert name of loved one]”.  A candle is compared to a soul in a number of places in Jewish literature and lighting a candle is a Jewish way to memorialize a loved one.

I’m in the Yizkor Club – the club no one wants to be in.  I’ve been saying Yizkor since I am 7 years old, aware of the pity for being so young.  Even now at 39, it’s somewhat depressing that a person my age has to say Yizkor, even though it’s actually one of my favorite things to say.  I’ve always connected very strongly to what Judaism teaches us about the afterlife, and in Yizkor, it’s so poignantly and openly discussed – essentially, permission to dwell on death.  
It’s kind of like the elephant in the room.  Talking about the loved ones that we miss, especially decades later, is something that’s not socially appropriate most of the time, and those of us who have lost a loved one treasure the opportunity to talk about them, cry for them, and mourn a mini-mourning.  More, Yizkor is my chance to offer help to my deceased father by asking God to remember him in the next world.  This is incredibly empowering in a situation which mostly leaves one feeling helpless.
It always suprises me how short Yizkor is.
God, please remember the soul of my father, my teacher, Moshe ben Aryeh Leibush, who has gone on to his world.  Because of this, I will commit to giving tzedakah in his merit.  May his soul be bound up in the bonds of life, with the sould of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah and with the other righteous men and women who are in the Garden of Eden; and let us say Amen.
That’s it.  But the old ladies in shul always hung around for longer, leaving me wondering what on earth they were doing for so long.  So since I didn’t want to leave conspicuously early, I just used those moments to meditate on my loss, and my hopes for the future.
It was in those moments, I discovered the Kel Malei Rachamim prayer that delves even more beautifully into what is going on with the souls of our loved ones in the next world.
God who is full of mercy, who dwells on high, please find a good peacefulness, on the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Spirit of femininity), in the lofty heights of the holy and pure, who shine like the brilliant brightness of heaven, to the soul of Moshe ben Aryeh Leibush, who has gone to his eternal rest.  Because of this I commit to giving tzedakah on behalf of his soul.  May his resting place be in the Garden of Eden.  Therefore, may the Master of mercy care for him under the protection of His wings forever, and bind his soul in the bond of everlasting life.  God is his inheritance and may he rest in peace, Amen.
These last few lines are so incredibly moving and comforting for me.  They remind me anew each time that death is not an end, that what we see is not all there is, that I matter in continuing the legacy of my father, that Jewish continuity effected by me and my siblings matter to him, and that I am not at all helpless in the face of loss and tragedy.
May God remember, and may we remember.
What has your experience been with saying Yizkor?
Uncategorized April 13, 2014

Four More Questions to Ask on Passover

Father, I’d like to ask you the Four Questions.  Why is this night different from all other nights?

The first question is:

Why do we get generations together for the Seder?

Because the whole point of the seder is the Haggadah, which literally means, the telling.  We’re commanded, “And you should tell your children on that night saying, ‘God took us out of the land of Egypt!'” Which essentially means that if you’re wondering when is the right time to sit your kid down and transmit what you know and care about Judaism, this is the night.  So we get generations together so that one generation can transmit to the next what it’s all about.  Being Jewish.  Being a nation.  Being free to be a Godly people.

The second question is:

Why is matzah so hard to digest?

This is a difficult question, my son.  But I’ll do my best.  You know how “wonderbread” was called that because it was so easy to digest?  Matzah is the barest form of bread ever.  It’s supposed to be rough stuff.  It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.  If you don’t like it, that’s a good sign.  Eat it anyway.  For a week.  And see how you do.  That’s a teeny, tiny glimmer into being a slave.  Kvetch if you must, but that’s the point.

The third question is:

Why do Passover and Easter always coincide?

You are a perceptive one, son.  Good job.  Easter was tied to the lunar calendar, not the solar one, and thus didn’t have a set date.  Due to the way it was set up, it invariably coincides with Passover.  More, the Last Supper was likely a Passover Seder – Easter is about Passover in its origin.

The fourth question is:

Why do so many Jews eat kosher food on Passover?

I don’t know the answer to that one, son.  But  I will say this: observing Passover in some way is an almost universal expression of being Jewish.  90% of Jewish couples attend a Seder, and 65% of intermarried couples do.  This and lighting Chanukah candles are the two most widely observed Jewish rituals.  Chanukah’s easy: it competes with Christmas.  But Passover?  Why Passover?  Something tells me that Jews sense that this holiday is about our very identity, our infancy.  About asking the older generation to give us something of meaning to take along.  Even if we don’t identify strongly, we sense that tossing this ritual aside is something of a sacrilege.  And maybe continuing the holiday throughout the week, by altering our eating habits, is a part of that.

Can I ask you a question, now, son?

Sure, dad.

How did I get so lucky to get a son like you, who asks such great questions about Judaism?

I dunno, dad, I guess the same way I got a dad like you, who can answer them.

Happy Passover to all my OOTOB readers!  See everyone after Passover!