Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Healer of Broken Hearts - (Yom Kippur Sermon)

Rav Levi of Berdichev would constantly challenge God to see the greatness of His children. One Yom Kippur, Rav Levi overheard the tailor in the corner of the synagogue doing a spiritual accounting before God. The tailor conceded he had done some misdeeds in the previous year. But then again, so had God; He had allowed some terrible injustices to occur. So the tailor looked up to God and said: “God, you have done things wrong, and I have done things wrong; why don’t we just forgive each other and call it even?”. Upon hearing this, Rav Levi couldn’t contain himself, and shouted out: “Why did you let God off the hook so easily?”

I wish we had Rav Levi here today. Most Yom Kippurs we ask questions of ourselves, but this year our community has many questions for God. In the past year, we have experienced the heartbreaking loss of 4 young people.

Maybe Rav Levi could explain to God that we cannot let Him off the hook this year.

With broken hearts, we must wrestle directly with God. And that is very difficult for man to do; we wonder if in the heat of battle we will let go of our faith, or if in response to a heretical maneuver, God will push us away. However, some have wrestled with God and never let go of their faith. Elie Wiesel wrote the following words to a Cantata entitled “Ani Maamin”:

I believe, Abraham,
Despite Treblinka.
I believe, Isaac,
Because of Belsen.
I believe, Jacob,
Because and in spite of

Elie Wiesel is engaging in Rav Levi’s type of wrestling, where one contends with God but never lets go of Him. This type of wrestling that is worthy of the descendants of Jacob, who strove with God and prevailed.

But the grief stricken don’t just wrestle with God; they wrestle with life itself, and question if they can recover from their loss. The words from Psalms (147) declare: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”. But tossing and turning in bed late at night, the broken hearted wonder: when will my broken heart heal?

Some think that “closure” can heal the broken heart. The term “closure” first originated with the Gestalt school of therapy in the early 1900’s, and specifically applied to resolving incoherent feelings into stable mental patterns; today, closure is catch phrase for rapidly ending all types of pain, including the pain of mourning.

I have a problem with closure. Acquaintances with good intentions badger mourners in the name of closure, telling them to “move on”. This has the contrary effect of making the mourners feel even worse, because they now are both grieving and embarrassed by their own grief. (This actually happens; I have seen people turn to the mourners on the first day of shiva and say “you know, you will have to move on”).

But closure is not just misused; it is a lie. At best, closure is an elaborate self deception encouraged by a societal aversion to grief. For the truly broken heart there is no closure. In my previous synagogue there was a Holocaust survivor named Shulem who had lost his first wife and children during the war. He eventually made his way to Montreal, remarried, and had two more children. Yet he would come to synagogue on the yartzeit of his first family and would speak with me about their deaths. It was clear that even 60 years later, even after rebuilding his life, Shulem still carried painful wounds. There was no closure for Shulem.

Instead of closure, the Jewish tradition embraces memory, even memories of loss. At weddings, there is a custom to break a glass, so that even at the happiest of times the destruction of Jerusalem is still remembered. And it is often at the best of times, at celebrations and holidays, when the comfort we experience becomes undone. We hit the heights of joy, only to recall who we can no longer share this joy with; and we immediately feel the pain of loss once again.
Shulem taught me that closure is impossible; but his willingness to rebuild offered me an insight into a passage in the book of Job, and in turn, an insight into what it means to live with a broken heart.

The storyline of Job is a test of faith; God takes away Job’s wealth, livestock, and afflicts him with boils; tragically, Job loses 7 sons and 3 daughters in a house collapse.

Yet after these tests, despite having to endure the sanctimonious preaching of friends, Job holds on to his faith. In return, at the end of the book, God decides to reward Job with twice his previous wealth. Not only that, Job is rewarded with another 7 sons and 3 daughters.

Since meeting Shulem I started to wonder about this text: How is this closure for Job? Twice as many animals as a reward?; that I understand, OK. But replacement children as a path to closure??? How can that even be suggested?

I would answer that the new family isn’t a reward for Job; actually it is his most difficult test. Job has proven he has faith in God; what remains to be seen is if Job can maintain his faith in life. Sometimes resignation offers the greatest comfort to those hurt by tragedy. Yet Job refuses this path to comfort. Instead, he teaches us one last lesson of faith: don’t lose faith in life itself. Even after disaster, one must live. To do so is an act of defiance, a refusal to give in to the angel of death.

Closure is the false refuge of emotional weaklings, while defiance is the heroic willingness to live with pain.

When in pain, there is a howling sense of injustice. We are angry at God, yes, but even angrier at the angel of death. Rav Soloveitchik explains that defiance is the only Jewish response to evil: “one must never acquiesce in evil, make peace with it, or condone its existence. Defiance of and active opposition to evil, employing all means that God put at man’s disposal, is the dominant norm in Halakhah (Jewish Law).” This defiance is present, even at the funeral. The Mourner’s Kaddish, and in particular the version of Kaddish recited in the cemetery, focuses on redemption and peace. Grieving at graveside, we turn to the angel of death and defiantly proclaim that we will never lose faith in life.

Yet defiance is an act of courage, not consolation. On the contrary, an enduring grief can disrupt the joyful moments of life with tears and sadness. And one is still left to wonder: what type of comfort is available without closure?  

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Priest, wrote an essay in 1979 entitled “The Wounded Healer”. He found the inspiration for his title in a passage in the Talmud Sanhedrin 98a that speaks about the Messiah:

“R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai's tomb…. He then asked him, 'When will the Messiah come?' — 'Go and ask him himself,' was his reply. 'Where is he sitting?' — 'At the entrance of Rome.'  And by what sign may I recognise him?' — 'He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie their bandages all at once, and rebandage them together,  whereas the Messiah unties and rebandages each separately”

The Messiah is sitting at the epicenter of exile, the city of Rome, and sitting with those exiled from the city, the lepers. He himself is hurting, wrapping and unwrapping bandages; the only difference is he does them one at a time, in order to remain ready to bring redemption at a moment’s notice.

Inspired by this passage in the Talmud, Nouwen emphasizes that the Messiah is wounded himself. But what makes the Messiah different is that he sees beyond his own pain and is ready to help others.

This ethos is deeply embedded in the Jewish way of seeing life. We view exile as the basis of an obligation to love the stranger; we see a history of loss as a reason to stand up for other losers.

Wounded healers defy the cruelty of fate with compassion, the pain of loss with love.

Jews have always been wounded healers. Actually, we have gone a step past the Berdichever Rebbe: Not only have we not let God off the hook; we have not let ourselves off the hook either. With tears in our eyes, we insist on making the world a better place.

In 2004 years ago, I visited Beersheva in the aftermath of a terror attack. We visited people who had survived a bus bombing at Siroka hospital, and were taken on a tour of the emergency room. Outside, there was a Magen David Adom ambulance. I was moved to tears by the inscription on it which said:

“Given by the wife and children of Benzion Rosenswajg, of Melbourne, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, 6 August, 2004. And in memory of his wife Sarah Chana, children Yechiel Shlomo and Yitzchak Meir and siblings, Nathan Moshe and Feige, who perished in the Holocaust.”

Here was a man like Shulem who had lost a wife and children; he too had rebuilt his life and started another family. And that family was inspired to generously give an ambulance to heal others.

This ambulance proclaims the philosophy of the wounded healer; One can grieve and love with the same heart, one can remember and repair at the same time. The broken hearted can lead the way to redemption.

As we start the New Year I pray: May God give us a year of blessing and happiness.

And may God inspire our hearts, the broken ones and the whole ones, to fix this world, bind the wounded, and heal the broken hearted.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Case for, and Against, Sweetness

This is honey season. In our home, the custom is to dip the Challah into honey from Rosh Hashanah until Simchat Torah, to eat something sweet in prayer for a year that is sweet.

The desire for sweetness should be incontrovertible; of course we want a sweet life. But actually there is room for a debate about sweetness, and there is a case for, and against, sweetness.

The case for sweetness is easy. Life should be sweet, and our Judaism should be sweet. There was a medieval custom that a child would be taught the Hebrew Alphabet by writing each letter in honey on a board, and after learning the letter, the child would then lick the honey; this was meant to symbolize how sweet the Torah is.

Not everyone wants their religious experience to be sweet. It is easy to see religion as primarily discipline and seriousness. H.L. Mencken once quipped that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” In our own community, we need to teach how sweet Judaism is, and that it could be and should be seen as a joy. Our relationship with God is one of sweetness, and many Jewish philosophers see creation as an act of love, a gift of joy to mankind. And this idea is reflected in a Jewish approach to life. In 2012, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that Jews have the highest well-being and happiness levels of any of the American faith groups. Joy is an essential part of Judaism and Jewish culture.

But there is another case to be made: a case against sweetness. Happiness cannot be our ultimate goal, and we need to recognize that happiness and meaning are not one and the same. In a 2013 study, Professor Roy F. Baumeister found that that “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life”, while “the unhappy but meaningful life..(is)...seriously involved in difficult undertakings”. In other words, to exclusively pursue a sweet and happy life leads to a superficial and materialistic mindset.

So what is the choice? For many the difficult choice is the easier one. John Stuart Mill wrote “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” This echoes the Jewish tradition that you serve God without interest in a reward, and do what is right simply because it is right. And even if you have to make sacrifices, you continue to do what is right because that is what make a man into a mensch. In a choice between happiness and meaning, you choose meaning, because it is better to be a good man than a happy man.

We live at a time where sweetness is the ultimate goal, and that makes the case against sweetness even more important. The American Council on Education has been surveying incoming college freshman since 1966. In 1967, 82.9% of freshman felt that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was essential; in 2015, only 46.5% felt that was an important objective. (In contrast, in 1967, 43.5% of freshman considered it essential to be “well off financially”. By 2015, that number had gone up to 81.9%).

So we pursue happiness almost exclusively; but what is next? As Estragon says in “Waiting for Godot”:  “What do we do now, now that we are happy?”.

Even though Judaism cherishes happiness, we know that it cannot be the ultimate goal. Had our ancestors decided that happiness was the goal, there would not be any Jews today. It wasn’t always happy to be a Jew, but it was always meaningful.

Professor Marc Michael Epstein tells a powerful story of his days working in the rare book department at Sotheby’s. Inevitably, elderly people would show up with old books of little value, assuming they were important antiques. One day, one such elderly man arrived, with a book of Psalms from 1920. Not knowing how to explain that the book had no monetary value, Epstein asked him: “what did you pay for this?”. Epstein describes that “the old man drew himself up to his full 5 feet, 2 inches. “For this, I paid seven days’ Auschwitz bread,” he replied. It seems that the Nazis had caught him with the little Psalm book, and, as a penalty for possessing it, imprisoned him without food—only water to drink—for an entire week. Epstein writes that he stammered, until he finally said: “ too valuable for us to sell.”

As we start the new year, we come to celebrate what will hopefully be a sweet future. But we never forget that  there are things greater than happiness,and goals more noble than joy.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Loving God More Than Halacha

It would seem to be old news. This past summer, the Petach Tikvah Rabbinate rejected the conversion of a young woman who was converted by Rabbi Lookstein. There were protests, op-eds and negotiations; and the crisis ultimately ended in absurdity and ambiguity, with the Supreme Rabbinical Court dodging the case, and instead pressuring the convert to undergo a flash reconversion. Rabbi Lookstein’s convert is now free to get married. One could say this is now over. But it’s not.

Unfortunately, many of the issues behind the disqualification of Rabbi Lookstein are still ongoing; and of greater concern is the religious philosophy that precipitated this crisis, a philosophy which promotes an unhealthy fixation on Halachic rules while forgetting the ultimate goals of Halacha.

This fixation is not new. The Talmud (Sotah 21b) talks about the “pious fool”. It says:

היכי דמי חסיד שוטה? כגון דקא טבעה איתתא בנהרא, ואמר: לאו אורח ארעא לאיסתכולי בה ואצולה

“What is a pious fool? a woman is drowning in the river, and he says: 'It is improper for me to look upon her and rescue her'.”

A pious fool looks only at the rules and never at the goals. A woman created in the image of God is dying, yet this pious idiot can’t even look at her in order to throw her a lifeline!

The discipline of Halacha is so intense that we must always worry about mutating into pious fools; and I believe the Lookstein case is a classic example of this phenomenon, of putting meticulous observance of Halacha before Jewish unity and serving God.
To understand this, we need some context. While it is unclear why Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion was rejected by the Petach Tikvah Beit Din, one suspects that it has a lot to do with an ongoing conflict in Israel regarding conversion. In 2008, Rabbi Avraham Sherman disqualified thousands of conversions by Rabbi Chaim Drukman. He did so because he felt Rabbi Druckman was no longer a qualified Rabbinic Judge. In his decision Rabbi Sherman wrote:

"שביה"ד לגיור של אבה"ד הרב דרוקמן הם בי"ד פסול,משום שמזלזלים בהלכה שנפסקה ע"י כל הפוסקים …...ונוהגים "בקלות דעת", שמכניסים גויים גמורים לכלל ישראל ומכשילים את הרבים בחטא גדול, ויש לראותם כמגלים פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה…... התנהלות זו הפכה להיות "שיטה", על כן יש לראותם קלי דעת שאינם נכנעים לפסק דין תורה והשו"ע, ובודים מלבם דברי הבל ומטהרים את השרץ בק"נ טעמים ומדמים בלבם שיש בכחם לעקור דבר מן התורה ולכן יש לראותם מזידים ו"אפיקורסים"

“The conversion Beit Din of Rabbi Druckman is a disqualified Beit Din, because they disrespect the Halacha as decided by all of the decisors…..and act with a lack of seriousness, should see them as  frivolous people who do not accept the decisions of the Torah and Shulchan Aruch, and fabricate on their own empty words….therefore one should see them as intentional transgressors and heretics…”

Rabbi Sherman is referring to a lenient view in the laws of conversion, one accepted by Rabbi Druckman. In response, he claims this view is fabricated, and any Rabbi who follows it is a transgressor and heretic. Therefore, not only are converts who are converted based on this lenient view disqualified, but Rabbi Druckman himself, because he holds this lenient view, is disqualified and considered a heretic and a sinner.

After all of the shenanigans this summer, I was left with the sneaking suspicion that a similar process was at hand with Rabbi Lookstein. After all, one could see immediately that this convert was quite meticulous in her observance of mitzvot; that was admitted by all. And the idea that a well known Rabbi was “not known” by the Rabbis in Petach Tikvah was also a smokescreen; why couldn’t they make a few phone calls and find out who Rabbi Lookstein was? Clearly, the rejection had something else behind it. And I suspected this was an attempt to apply the Sherman ruling to Rabbi Lookstein, to say that he is disqualified because he may be “too lenient” to be a qualified judge.

This attitude is disastrous. The age old etiquette of Halachic debate has been destroyed, replaced with a “my way or the highway” attitude. In the past, we could disagree passionately about serious halachic subjects, but we never allowed that to divide us. The Mishnah in Yevamot (1:4) writes about the debates of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel:

א,ד  בית שמאי מתירין את הצרות לאחין, ובית הלל אוסרין.  חלצו--בית שמאי פוסלין מן הכהונה, ובית הלל מכשירין; נתייבמו--בית שמאי מכשירין, ובית הלל פוסלין.  אף על פי שאלו פוסלין ואלו מכשירין, אלו אוסרין ואלו מתירין--לא נמנעו בית שמאי מלישא נשים מבית הלל, ולא בית הלל מבית שמאי כל הטהרות והטומאות שהיו אלו מטהרין ואלו מטמאין לא נמנעו עושין טהרות אלו על גבי אלו
“Even though these  prohibit (certain marriages) and these permit, these disqualify and these allow, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai. The utensils where these ruled pure and these ruled impure, still they (Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel) did not refrain from using utensils the other deemed pure.”

The way of Torah is to allow debate without division; without it, we cannot hold a diverse community together.  The tragedy of the Sherman ruling is that it cannot imagine another legitimate Halachic interpretation, and cannot see as legitimate Rabbis with differing points of view.

Disqualifying Halachic opponents is an ersatz piety. It is easy to define a community by it’s opponents and to manufacture passion by harping on an imagined threat to the Halachic tradition. This tendency is not new, and events like the disqualification of Rabbi Druckman were predicted over a 100 years ago by the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893).  He writes in his Meshiv Davar (1:44):

והנה המעריך הורו והוגו עצה להיות נשמר מדור זה להפרד זה מזה לגמרי כמו שנפרד אברהם מלוט, במטותא מן המעריך עצה זו קשה כחרבות לגוף האומה וקיומה, הן בשעה שהיינו באה"ק וברשותנו כמעט בבית שני נעתם ארץ וחרב הבית וגלה ישראל בסבת מחלוקת הפרושים עם הצדוקים וגם הסב מחמת שנאת חנם הרבה ש"ד מה שאינו מן הדין היינו בשעה שראה פרוש שאחד מיקל באיזה דבר אע"ג שלא היה צדוקי כלל אלא עשה עבירה, מ"מ מחמת ש"ח היה שופטו לצדוקי שמורידין אותו, ומזה נתרבה ש"ד בהיתר ולשם מצוה בטעות וכבר רמז ע"ז בתורה (ס' במדבר סי' לו מקרא ל"ד) כמבואר בהע"ד והר"ד, וכ"ז אינו רחוק מן הדעת להגיע ח"ו בעת כזאת ג"כ אשר עפ"י ראות עיני א' ממחזיקי הדת ידמה שפלוני אינו מתנהג עפ"י דרכו בעבודת ה' וישפטנו למינות ויתרחק ממנו ויהיו רודפים זא"ז בהיתר בדמיון כוזב ח"ו, ושחת כל עם ה' חלילה זהו אפילו אם היינו בארצנו וברשותנו:

“Thus, when a Pharisee saw someone being lax in a certain matter, even though he was not a
Sadducee but only sinning in this matter, because of unnecessary hatred he judged him to be a Sadducee…From this mistaken attitude numerous people justified murders (of religious opponents) …..”

It must not be like this; we cannot allow exaggerated piety to destroy our community. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein liked to quote the phrase “the traditions of civility”; and our community needs those traditions of civility desperately. We must learn how to respect each other’s religious perspectives and how to live together as one community. In medieval Europe there was a debate over the permissibility of caul fat, a fat found on the outside of the animal’s stomach. The Shulchan Aruch notes that it was considered prohibited. The Rama notes that this was ruling was accepted everywhere except for the Rhineland, where people ate caul fat. The Rama (Yoreh Deah 64) then adds:

חלב הדבוק לכרס שתחת הפריסה אסור.

הגה: וכן המנהג בכל מקום. מלבד בני ריינוס' שנוהגין במקצתו היתר ואין מוחין בידם שכבר הורה להם זקן (הגהת אשיר"י ומרדכי ורוב הפוסקים).
ובכל מקום שנוהגין בו איסור דינו כשאר חלב לבטלו בששים (א"ו הארוך) אבל אין אוסרין כלים של בני ריינוס הואיל ונוהגין בו היתר (חידושי אגודה).

“One does not prohibit the dishes of the Jews of the Rhineland (even though they eat caul fat), because they consider (this fat) to be permissible”.

This is an exceptional ruling!! In the Rhineland, people are eating a food that the rest of Europe considers to be absolutely prohibited. Yet even so, Jews from the rest of Europe would eat off of what they considered non-kosher dishes in order to respect the Jews of the Rhineland. In contrast, today it is far more common for one to dismiss those who accept an “unsuitable” hashgacha. We have sadly become pious fools, forgetting that our priority should be unity, not Halachic stringency.

Halacha is intended as a way to bring us close to God; but that can only work when we put God first. When we forget God, Halacha can become a heartless discipline. The Talmud (Yoma 23a) tells a tragic story that represents the worst of a Halacha-first attitude, where overzealous love for Halacha ends up leading to murder. The setting is the Temple, where two young priests are competing for the privilege of doing the service on the altar. The Talmud recounts:

תנו רבנן: מעשה בשני כהנים שהיו שניהן שוין ורצין ועולין בכבש, קדם אחד מהן לתוך ארבע אמות של חבירו - נטל סכין ותקע לו בלבו. ... בא אביו של תינוק ומצאו כשהוא מפרפר. אמר: הרי הוא כפרתכם, ועדיין בני מפרפר, ולא נטמאה סכין. ללמדך שקשה עליהם טהרת כלים יותר משפיכות דמים.

“Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were equal as they ran to mount the ramp (to do the service) and when one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. …. The father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: ‘May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions (alive) and the knife has not become unclean.’ [The father’s remark] comes to teach you that the purity of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood.”

The father’s statement is both chilling and telling; here is a man worried more about the purity of the Temple than the death of his own son. The Talmud includes the father’s words to underline that how widespread a halacha-first attitude was at the time.

But we must love God more than Halacha; and the greatest of Rabbis would put God first. In a famed case from July 1802, Rav Chaim of Volozhin grapples with a difficult agunah issue, of a woman whose husband was presumed dead but there was a dearth of clear evidence to permit her to remarry. (Chut Hameshulash 1:8). In page after page of careful legal reasoning, Rav Chaim disputes precedents, and allows the woman to remarry. He explains he did so because  וחשבתי עם קוני וראיתי חובה לעצמי להתחזק בכל כחי לשקוד על תקנת עגונות והשי"ת יצילני משגיאות “I have thought together with my creator, and saw it was my obligation to use all my might to find a solution for agunot; may God save me from mistakes”.  Rav Chaim recognized that to truly follow Halacha one must look to serve God, and he had to look for a way to alleviate the suffering of a bereaved widow.

I thought of this when the Rabbis in Petach Tikvah were busy rejecting Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion. They rejected his conversion without any due diligence: not one Rabbi from Israel called Rabbi Lookstein to discuss his conversion standards. From all appearances, the Petach Tikvah Beit Din did not consider the emotional turmoil they caused this poor woman. Clearly, they did not “think it over with their creator” before rejecting her conversion.

The ultimate lesson of the Petach Tikvah incident is this: we must learn to love God more than Halacha. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, who elsewhere writes about the importance of pure devotion to Torah, never forgets that God must come first in Halachic decision making. We need to think about morality and spirituality before, during, and after opening the Shulchan Aruch. If we don’t, we are doomed to become pious fools again and again.

Loving God more than Halacha requires spiritual sacrifices. Rabbi Abraham Twersky tells an inspiring story about the great Rabbinic leaders, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Meir Shapiro. He writes:

On the return from a convention in which many Torah sages participated, the train made stops in several towns, whose Jewish communities came out to greet the gedolim. The Chafetz Chaim, however, in his profound humility, never went on the train platform to meet the people. HaGaon Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin, although he was a young man, boldly approached the elderly sage. “Why aren’t you going out to meet the people?” he asked. The Chafetz Chaim answered, “Why should I go out? What is it that they want to see? I don’t have horns on my head. It is because they have this idea about me that I am a tzaddik, and if I go out to them, I am making a statement about myself that I am someone special.” Rav Meir Shapiro asked, “And what is wrong with making such a statement?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “What do you mean ‘what is wrong?’ It is ga’avah (arrogance).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “And if it is ga’avah, so what?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “Ga’avah is a terrible aveirah (sin).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “And what happens if one does an aveirah?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “Why, for an aveirah one will be punished in Gehenom (hell).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “Throngs of Jews will have pleasure from seeing you. Aren’t you willing to accept some punishment in order to give Jews pleasure?”

From then on, every time the train pulled into a station, the Chofetz Chaim was the first one on the platform to meet the people.”

This attitude needs to inform every aspect of our halachic observances. If Halacha is to have any meaning, it must lead us closer to God, to love our fellow Jew, and to serve mankind. Simply put, we must love God more than Halacha.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Letter to the KJ Community Regarding Conversion

Dear Friend:

A few weeks ago, a rabbinic court in Petach Tikvah, Israel refused recognition to one of KJ's converts. The Rabbinic court claimed that they did not "know" Rabbi Lookstein, and therefore could not validate his conversions. His convert was unable to get this ruling reversed, and she had to repeat the conversion ceremony before the rabbinate would issue her a marriage license.

We know that many of you are now concerned and have many questions: will this case affect my conversion? Will I be accepted as Jewish by potential spouses? Will my children be accepted by their peers? And some of you have said you feel humiliated as if you are not true Jews.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It bears repeating a fundamental Jewish teaching: converts are beloved members of the Jewish people. The great Rabbinic sage Maimonides writes in his Letter to Obadiah the Convert that "no difference exists between you and us." Not only that, Maimonides recognizes the enormous sacrifices converts make to join the Jewish people, and says "While we (i.e., naturally born Jews) are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you (converts) derive (your Jewish identity directly) from Him through whose word the world was created." The spiritual journey you have taken is inspiring and heroic; no one can impugn your Jewish identity in the eyes of God. Indeed, anyone who insults you insults God, who cherishes the convert. And at KJ, our Rabbis, leadership and congregants are here to support you unconditionally.

Sadly, this convert's situation is due to the bureaucratic pettiness and religious fanaticism in one Rabbinic Court. However, several organizations are now working to change the way the Rabbinate in Israel treats sincere converts. In fact, in the wake of this case, both of Israel's Chief Rabbis announced that they accept Rabbi Lookstein's conversions.

Most importantly, any convert who intends to move to Israel should please consult with the Rabbis at KJ, to ensure that they present their credentials to a rabbinic court that is familiar with Rabbi Lookstein and our standards for conversion. We believe that we can prevent this from happening again.

We know this is a troubling issue for everyone. Please let us know if you would like to speak further about this.

May God bless you and support you in all of your endeavors.


Haskel Lookstein      Chaim Steinmetz       Elie Weinstock      Daniel and Rachel Kraus

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Where You Go I Shall Go

(originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News)

It was a daring rescue in hostile territory, where even the smallest mistake could have doomed over a hundred lives. Yet this remarkable military operation succeeded; and forty years ago, on July 4th 1976, Operation Entebbe became the stuff of legends, with multiple movies and books recounting this dramatic military mission.

What is overlooked is that Operation Entebbe is much more than a heroic military rescue. Former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has said that Entebbe was not the most difficult or dangerous operation he was a part of in during his military career. So what made the Entebbe raid special? To Ashkenazi, it was the look on the faces of hostages. As the Israeli commandos burst into the terminal, the hostages initially reacted with fear, thinking the commandos were Ugandan soldiers coming to execute them. A few seconds later, when the hostages saw the Israeli insignia on the commandos’ uniforms, the look on the hostages faces suddenly changed to pure relief; they knew their brothers had come to the rescue. Ashkenazi says that is when he learned what it means to be an Israeli and a Jew: that each one of us must take care of each other no matter what. To be a Jew, you need to be loyal to your people.

Loyalty is a difficult virtue to understand. Ethical obligations are generally understood as categorical and universal. Ethics teaches that you cannot murder all people, and you must be respectful of all people. But loyalty is different, because it means we give special treatment to those closest to us. So why do we consider it a virtue to act with loyalty towards our family and friends?

Loyalty may be a troublesome concept for philosophers, but it has never been a question for Jews. To be a Jew means to be loyal to a community and to a tradition. We understand that we have to go above and beyond for those close to us, because this is critical in creating families and communities. Without loyalty, the Jewish community would have crumbled a long time ago. The Biblical character who is the paradigm of loyalty is Ruth. Despite being encouraged to return to a comfortable life in Moab, she insists on going with her mother in law Naomi and says: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God...nothing but death will separate you from me”. This is the most eloquent statement of loyalty ever spoken, as Ruth declares that her dedication to Naomi and her people knows no bounds.

What happened at Entebbe 40 years ago is an exceptional example of Jewish loyalty. Yiftach Atir, one of the soldiers on the mission, told me that in the days of preparation before the raid, the commanding officers sat everyone down and explained how risky the operation would be. They asked the soldiers if they wanted to go; immediately every soldier raised their hand. Like Ruth, they were saying “where you go I will go”.  

The lessons of loyalty are not just for IDF; they are for all of us. I thought about this recently when our son Eitan made plans to join the IDF.  Our friends have asked us whether we would try to stop him from enlisting. Well, we certainly hadn’t planned on Eitan enlisting in the IDF. And we are both quite nervous about him enlisting; so is every Israeli parent. But there is no escaping that loyalty to our brothers and sisters in Israel meant we had to answer yes. So with a mix of nervousness and pride, we gave Eitan our blessing. After all, Ruth taught us to be a Jew is to say “where you go I will go”. The IDF follows Ruth’s path; how could we do any less?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Two Quick Posts From Israel: June 2016

Tonight, young residents of Tel Aviv came to shop, eat, and chat at the Sarona Market, just two weeks after a horrible terror attack.
They came because it was a beautiful evening.
They came because it is a beautiful mall.
And they came because of “Davka”.
“Davka” translates as “in spite of” in English, but it means a whole lot more. Davka reflects a courageous spirit and a sense of purpose, the remarkable stubbornness of a people that has refused to abandon their mission no matter what they encounter.
Davka is the Sarona Market. Davka is the Jewish people.

Tonight, on June 22, 2016, I officiated at a special wedding in Caesarea, Israel.
The bride is the granddaughter of my friend John from Montreal. John is a survivor of the Holocaust lucky enough to have been in the Russian Army during the Nazi onslaught; his entire family, except for his mother, were murdered by the Nazis.
When I arrived in Israel, John told me he was up a couple of nights thinking about the date June 22nd. Like all weddings, the couple had chosen the date for logistical reasons, but in the back of John’s mind he knew June 22nd was also a very important date; he just couldn’t remember why. Then 2 days before the wedding, John realized that on June 22nd, 1941, the Germans had invaded Russia. On that day the Russians came to take him for military service, and it was the last day John saw his father, brothers and sister. June 22, 1941 was a terribly tragic day in Jewish history, and on that day, John’s young life was torn apart.
But now 75 years later, something else was happening on June 22. His granddaughter was getting married and living in Israel, to a veteran of an elite IDF unit. John could barely imagine that he would survive, and now his granddaughter was getting married in the Jewish state.
Jeremiah prophesied that והפכתי אבלם לשמחה “I will turn their mourning to joy”. On this night, I saw this come true with my own eyes. It was a miraculous moment, and I was privileged to be a part of it.
Mazel Tov Brittany and Mickey!!

Am Yisrael Chai!!

Friday, June 17, 2016

War and Peace

(This originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News on June 7, 2016)

The pro-BDS movement infuriates supporters of Israel. On university campuses, students in search of a cause condescend to Israel, protesting the lone democracy in the Middle East. They demand moral perfection from the Jewish State, while ignoring the the actions of ISIS and Assad, and scapegoat a Western style democracy in order to atone for the colonial sins of their ancestors. Yes, the involvement of a few Jewish students in anti-Israel activism seems shocking, but that’s because we underestimate how attractive self-righteousness can be.

The posturing of privileged college students who have never taken shelter from a Katuysha or attended the funeral of a terror victim is both absurd and reprehensible. But in response, we need more than angry rhetoric, because justifying Israel’s self-defense deserves more than cliches. Indeed, the question of what is moral during wartime has been debated for centuries and remains a hot topic of debate in contemporary Israel .

Idealists strive for moral purity, and there is nothing purer than non-violence. The only way to categorically avoid violence is to embrace pacifism, to meekly respond to aggression by turning the other cheek. Remarkably, some groups have been steadfast pacifists; Mennonites have refused to support the military in any way, and will flee if under attack, refusing to protect their families and property.

As morally attractive as pacifism may be, it has an enormous failing: it’s suicidal. If the good do nothing to protect themselves, then evil will triumph, and as Jews, we know that it’s a failed ideology.  In 1938, Mahatma Gandhi wrote the following to the head of the German Jewish community, Rabbi Leo Baeck: “My advice to German Jews would be that they commit suicide on a single day, at a single hour. Then would the conscience of Europe awake.”  Baeck gave a blunt response:  “We Jews know that the single-most important commandment of God is to live.” For Jews, pacifism is immoral, because we have a responsibility to care for our own lives and defend ourselves.

Sadly, some in our community consider the right to self-defense to be an ethical blank check. They argue that if war is unavoidable, any tactic should be acceptable. So they encourage soldiers to execute prisoners, and endorse reprisal killings of Arab civilians. Ignoring morality in the service of self-defense, these extremists are the malevolent mirror image of pacifists, distorting the value of self-defense to immoral extremes.

The path Israel has followed is one that undertakes a double responsibility of war and peace. Israel defends herself vigorously, yet the importance of human life is never forgotten. This “Just War” doctrine is well grounded in Jewish sources. For example, Maimonides notes that the army must open a path for people fleeing a besieged city, because they no longer want to be combatants and should be allowed to save their lives.

The IDF continues to carry this dual responsibility with pride. During the 2014 war with Gaza, a member of my synagogue told me how his grandson, who was in a search and rescue unit, went in to save two young Palestinian children who were pinned down in a firefight between Hamas and the IDF.  “Jonathan”, an IDF soldier serving in Gaza at the same time, wrote a letter to Tablet Magazine about feeding animals in an abandoned house, and dropping off a box of military rations for a hungry Palestinian teen. These actions are the work of an army that takes seriously the dual responsibility to protect Israel and pursue peace.

There are different ways to think about war and peace. Some chant slogans from the safety of a university campus, ready to gamble the lives of millions with naive schemes. But the young men and women of the IDF face danger every day as they carry a dual responsibility of protection and peace, and in doing so, make us proud.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Jerusalem of My Grandfather

How do you tell the story of the Kotel to people who haven’t been there before?

Two years ago I was part of a Mega Mission from Montreal that brought nearly 600 people to Israel, including 150 who had never been there before. As we arrived to the Kotel on the second night, my task was to talk to the the group about Jerusalem, and to answer a fundamental question: Why is Jerusalem special?

Well, the answer depends on who you ask.

If you ask one who is immersed in Halacha, the answer is simple: Jerusalem is a place that obligates us with unique mitzvot. One third of the Talmud deals with laws connected to Jerusalem, including the rules of the service in the Beit Hamikdash and the rules of ritual purity. A great deal of the practice of Judaism rotates around Jerusalem.

Envisioning these practices in real life yields a dramatic picture. The three time a year pilgrimage of “aliyah leregel” brought millions of Jews together into Jerusalem for the holidays; Josephus writes of a year when 256,500 Passover sacrifices were brought, and estimates that at least 10 people shared each one, which works out to over 2.5 million visiting little Jerusalem for Passover!! It was a time when people of all classes, countries and observances came together as “chaverim”, colleagues; as the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo put it “countless multitudes from countless cities come, some over land, others over sea, from east and west and north and south at every feast.”. (In addition, there is another law called Maaser Sheni, a kind of “holy holiday”, where 4 out of every 7 years the farmer would bring 10% of the value of his produce to Jerusalem to enjoy meals in the holy city.)

The needs of those visiting Jerusalem required highways, which are being discovered by archeologists, and the importance of maintaining ritual purity led to a huge amount of Mikvaot being constructed; today it feels like every time someone does a construction project in Jerusalem, they unearth a 2,000 year old Mikvah! And in Bat Ayin, along one of the ancient highways to Jerusalem, there is naturally enough an ancient mikvah built for those who were going on a holy holiday to Jerusalem.

So this is the answer of the Halachic Man: Jerusalem is filled with opportunities for mitzvot. And while the answer means a lot to me, I recognize it may not resonate with people who do not share my Yeshiva background and training. So let us turn to another religious personality, the mystic.

For the mystic, the answer is simple: Jerusalem is the center of the universe. The Midrash Tanchuma in Parshat Kedoshim (10) writes that Jerusalem is Umbilicus Mundi - the navel of the world. It then explains:

מציון מכלל יופי אלהים הופיע (שם שם ב).
ארץ ישראל יושבת באמצעיתו של עולם,
וירושלים באמצעיתה של ארץ ישראל,
ובית המקדש באמצע ירושלים,
וההיכל באמצע בית המקדש,
והארון באמצע ההיכל,
ואבן שתייה לפני הארון, שממנה נשתת העולם.  

“The land of Israel sits in the middle of the world, and Jerusalem in the middle of the land of Israel, and the Temple in the middle of Jerusalem, and the heichal in the middle of the Temple, and the ark in the middle of the heichal and the Foundation stone from which the world was founded before the ark.”
Jerusalem is the center of the world, the source of divine creation.

The mystical view is well traveled, and even makes its way into popular culture. There is an old joke, that was actually told by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to President Reagan at a White House State dinner, that reflects this view. Begin’s joke goes like this:

“The President brought me into the Oval Office, and he showed me on the table three phones -- one white and one blue. And he explained to me: ``The white is the direct line to Mrs. Thatcher; the blue to President Mitterrand.'' And then I asked him, ``What is the red phone?'' ``That is a direct line to God.'' So, I asked the President, ``Mr. President, do you use it often?'' And the President said, ``Oh, no, very rarely. It's very expensive. Long distance -- so long a distance. And I cannot afford it. I have to cut the budget and -- -- '' [Laughter]

So, then the President visited Jerusalem, and I showed him my office, and there are three phones. One was white, one was blue. And I said, ``The white is a direct line to President Sadat.'' By the by, I have such a line, and he has such a line. ``And the other, well, to Mrs. Thatcher.'' And there is a red phone. And the President asked, ``What is the red phone for?'' And I said, ``This is a direct line to God.'' So, the President asked me, ``Do you use it often?'' I say, ``Every day.'' ``How can you afford it?'' And I said, ``Here, in Jerusalem, it is being considered a local call.””

(Begin continued quite beautifully by saying: “Now, Mr. President, neither of us has direct lines to God. I only believe that God listens to the prayer of a Jew and a Christian and of a Moslem -- of every human being. But, if I have to continue with the story, then I will say that when you come, as I do believe, to Jerusalem, I will immediately put at your disposal the red phone. [Laughter] On the house. [Laughter] A local call.”)

Such is the mystical view. Jerusalem is different because God lives there, and a call to Him from Jerusalem is a local call.  The great Spanish mystic Yoseph Gikatilla (1248 – after 1305) wrote in Shaarei Orah:

ומבית המקדש היו כל הצינורות נמשכות לכל הארצות כולן .. ואם כן נמצאת השכינה משלחת הברכה כפי השיעור הראוי לכל הארצות מבית המקדש
“From the Temple all the channels of divine influence spread out to the world...therefore, we see the divine presence sends blessing to the entire world through the Temple..”

This resonates quite deeply with many people. When we go to the Kotel we put in a “kvitl”, a small note of prayers. Everyone does: Presidents, Prime Ministers, Actors and Rock stars. (Of course, the note is immediately pulled out by a reporter and published in an Israeli newspaper). All of them are closet mystics, and see Jerusalem as a place very close to God.

But not everyone is a mystic; not everyone feels comfortable putting notes in the wall. However, even rationalists can appreciate the powerful history found in Jerusalem. And if you turn to the historian, they will explain that Jerusalem has a remarkable history.

The personalities who walked through this city, who revered this city, have transformed the world. The founders of Judaism lived here: Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezra and Nehemiah, Judah Maccabee and his sons, Hillel and Shammai, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael; and the list goes on and on. Jerusalem’s influence is not restricted to Judaism; the important personalities of Christianity, Jesus, James, Peter, and Paul all lived in Jerusalem as well.

Because of it’s enormous importance in the Christian world, Medieval maps had Jerusalem at the center. Here is an example of a classic medieval map called a “T-O map” because it looks like the outline of a T in an O. At the center is Jerusalem.

Another example is even more beautiful: The Bünting Clover Leaf Map of 1581, which has Jerusalem as the center of a world shaped like a clover:

Jerusalem has always played a large role in world history. And those who know this history are immediately affected by Jerusalem. Thomas Friedman tells of the time Neil Armstrong visited Israel:

“When American astronaut Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian, visited Israel after his trip to the moon, he was taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there. “I told him, ‘Look, Jesus was a Jew,'” recalled Ben-Dov. “These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.”

Armstrong then asked if these were the original steps, and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were. “So Jesus stepped right here?” asked Armstrong.
“That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov.
“I have to tell you,” Armstrong said to the Israeli archaeologist, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.””

If you ask a historian what is special about Jerusalem, they will tell you: it is a place that has changed the world. And it is exciting to walk where some of the greatest figures in history have lived.

So here we have another answer, the answer of the historian. And while I appreciate the answers of the Halachic man, the mystic, and the historian, I believe there is one answer that exceeds them all: the answer of the simple Jew.

I learnt about this answer when I visited Israel when I was 7. My Zaide who was 71 at the time, came with us; it was our first trip to Israel. The look Zaide had on his face upon arriving to Israel and going to the Kotel was the look of a man transformed, a Jew achieving his dream.

Zaide’s dream is our dream, and our dream is an ancient dream. Jews have dreamt of Jerusalem from the moment we left. When we went into exile in 587 B.C.E, we cried for Jerusalem, as it says in Psalm 137:

אִם אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי:
ותִּדְבַּק לְשׁוֹנִי | לְחִכִּי אִם לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי אִם לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת יְרוּשָׁלִַם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי:

“If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”

We never forgot Jerusalem. We pray about Jerusalem every day, we pray towards Jerusalem every day, and at every wedding, we break a glass to remember Jerusalem. At the Seders we sing “next year in Jerusalem”.  We did so in good times and in bad, in the Kovno Ghetto and the Warsaw ghetto, in the Soviet Union and in Syria. In Ethiopia each year, children would look at the storks migrating towards Israel and sing a song to the storks:

Stork, stork, how is our land?
Stork, stork, how is Jerusalem?
Stork, stork, give us the word!”.

The simple Jew has always dreamt of Jerusalem. And to him, it is a field of dreams, where we all connect, where the dreams of the Jewish history and Jewish people all overlap.

Forty nine years ago when we returned to Jerusalem the simple jew was overjoyed. My friend Donnie was in Israel volunteering during the Six Day War, and he told  me that the first night the Kotel opened for visitors, on the first night of Shavuot, people lined up all the way from The King David Hotel to get in. Such is the love of the simple Jew.

It is the love of the simple Jew that makes Yom Yerushalayim special. We know how so many who dreamt of this place never made it there to see their field of dreams; but now we can. Moshe Amirav, one of the the soldiers to reach the Kotel on June 7, 1967, said this:

“I can't help from smiling today when I recall how we searched for the Kotel. There we ran, a bunch of panting soldiers, wandering around the Temple Mount, looking for a huge stone wall…..We pass the Mograbim gate, pushing, hurrying, and all of a sudden we are stopped, as if hit by lightning. In front of our eyes stands, grey and large, quiet and sad - the Kotel. I remember feeling only once before such a feeling, when I was a child, and my dad brought me up close to the Aron Hakodesh…...Little by little I started getting closer to the Kotel. Slowly, as if I was sent to pray in front of an ark. I came closer, an emissary of dad, grandpa, greatgrandpa, and all the generations from all the diasporas that didn't make it here, and so they sent me here. Someone said the Shehechianu prayer, and I couldn't say amen. All I could do was put my hand on the rock, and the tears flowing out of my eyes were not mine...they were the tears of all the People of Israel, tears of hope and prayer, Hasidic niguns, Jewish dances, tears that singed and burned the grey heavy stone.”

This is what the Kotel is about. It is not just about ideas; it is about the simple Jew, the dreams of the Jewish People. It is about hearing the footsteps of previous generations, and feeling moved by their voices, their tears.

Forty nine years ago, our field of dreams became a reality, and the simple Jew could go home again. And that is what is special about Jerusalem, and that is what is special about Yom Yerushalayim.

Chag Sameach!