Wednesday, November 25, 2015

(Yet Another) Open Letter to the RCA

To Whom It May Concern,

I honestly understand why members of the Rabbinical Council of America were compelled to make another public statement on the matter of female clergy. Although I may not have done the same, I definitely get it. However, I feel compelled to write to you about one bothersome aspect of the most recent resolution.

I personally lack the knowledge, erudition, or authority to discuss the validity of semicha for females. However, I have been a Jewish educator for a number of years and your resolution directly addresses the world of chinuch. As the resolution states:

Therefore, the Rabbinical Council of America... Resolves to educate and inform our community that RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not...allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution

This passage does not directly bar women with semicha from teaching in Orthodox institutions, but has that effect; would a woman with ordination apply for a job that requires delegitimizing something she worked so hard for?

As an experienced Jewish educator, please permit me to voice an opinion about female rabbis teaching in Orthodox institutions.

A career in Jewish Education is not considered the most prestigious or realistic path for today’s Orthodox professionals, both male and female. As a result, many talented individuals avoid the world of chinuch, leaving a vacuum often filled by those less fitting for the job. These circumstances alone should encourage Orthodox institutions to expand their pool of potential hires. This alone should discourage excluding candidates due to title or training. However, I’d like to add another consideration.

Encountering the myriad ways my students relate to religion has fostered within me a greater appreciation for religious flexibility. Our Torah is a Torat Chayim, resonating differently within each individual Jew. To paraphrase the Gemara in Masechet Berachot, our students are as disparate in psyche as in looks. Without a sense of adaptability, this discrepancy could result in the loss of a Torah lifestyle for many. As such, there exist greater concerns for chinuch than the defending the parameters of Orthodoxy (itself a non-halachic construct) and reinforcing the policies of a specific rabbinic organization.

But where to draw the line? The ultimate decision should belong to school leaders. Every institution has a unique set of stakeholders, and what is best for one group may not be best for another. Schools should always be concerned with potential candidates communicating certain core values to students. However, it should be left to each institution to ensure its hashkafot aren’t being compromised. If a particular Orthodox institution feels compelled to be maximally cautious with their values, let them be clear about what those values are with all potential candidates. Let each school determine its own comfort with hiring a Maharat, Yoetzet, or female with another title. This is the place for significant influence from local Rabbonim, locally, not in setting educational policies for Jews across the country. (Just to reiterate, my qualm here is with the educational policy, not with the RCA discouraging female ordination.)

Barring RCA members from hiring females with ordination will not immediately hurt the world of Jewish Education. But I do think it presents a message that is a bit out of touch. Our schools are fine with keeping to Orthodox tradition and most students are aware of what is “Orthodox” and what is not. Our students need dedicated teachers who love what they do above all. Closing the door to those who do not fit the classic definition of Orthodox sends the wrong message. While there must be a distinction between what is ideal and what is practical - what is l’chatchila and what is b’dieved - chinuch is not the place for that distinction. I would think that m’chanchim and practicing Rabbonim, confronted by the living nature of the Torah on a constant basis, would appreciate this idea. I wonder what percentage of those voting in favor of the resolution were professionals with semicha, as opposed to teachers and rabbis.

If I had any influence, I would urge the RCA to be transparent about the demographics of who voted in favor of the current resolution. Not every member of the RCA has should have their opinions revered equally. For the sake of honesty, you owe it to the Orthodox community (yes, I do believe you owe it) to be clear here. Second, I would urge the RCA to reconsider the clause in the resolution that sends a message to the Orthodox community about priorities in chinuch. I respect the work that each of you do on behalf of Klal Yisrael, and please take this letter as a respectful disagreement.


Yair Daar
Limmudei Kodesh Department, SAR High School

Originally published in the Jewish Link of New Jersey

Monday, March 9, 2015


A teacher friend of mine once joked that when school leaders type “collaboration” into their phones, it must autocorrect to “competition.” If you are connected to Yeshiva education in any way, you should get this joke (and it may hit too close to home to laugh). Unfortunately, cooperation between schools, and often within schools, is not something we are experts at.

Inter-institutional rivalries are most acutely felt during open house season. The amount of time, money, and other resources that go into planning the school open house is unbelievable. I would imagine that most leaders would love to scale back a bit on the pageantry. Just the ability to redirect some of these assets to other areas could be really helpful. And wouldn’t it be refreshing for schools to recruit based on their actual merits?

To be fair, let’s give competition its due. Kinat soferim (jealousy among scholars) can be a powerful force for good that drives people and institutions to be better. However, we must remember the context: Kinat soferim tarbeh chochma - jealousy among scholars increases wisdom. Competition is meant to maximize learning, not promotional videos or free keychains.

To be fair again, for parents to place their children (and money) in the hands of a school, that institution should do its best to present as professional and thoughtful. Parents deserve to feel confident with their choice, and a proper presentation is key to provide that sense. Most people are also wise enough to know that an impressive video is not a reason to choose a school, and the open houses aren’t the only part of the decision. The open house competition isn’t necessarily influencing where most children end up, but it might for those on the fence.

Either way, it might benefit everyone if schools agreed to reduce the fanfare, agree on a standard open house format, and/or agree to a maximum dollar amount to spend. Truthfully, I might suggest an even more radical idea. Let our community create an objective third-party entity to evaluate the character of various schools and then help parents match their children to the school with the appropriate profile. This plan could really push schools to be better, as student matching would be based on the essence of the school.

Active collaboration is the other piece of the puzzle. As opposed the infinite secular studies market, the market for Jewish educational products is tiny. Little financial opportunity exists for those who could produce cutting edge Torah learning, and we therefore lag behind the rest of the world in regards to innovation (there are other reasons as well, but this is a biggie). One major way to overcome this hurdle is to collaborate. If schools pool resources, compromise, and work together, a viable market might be created for some major curricular and methodological advancement. Another option is for staff from different schools working together to create a set of advanced instructional tools that many schools can use.

We must remember that we are all on the same team. We all want to transmit a Torah lifestyle to the next generation. We want this for all members of our community, irrespective of where each family sends their kids to school. If we truly care for one another in this way, cooperation should be an integral part of the fabric of our school system. Every stakeholder, from parent to faculty to board member should be asking “what is my school doing to build working relationships with other schools?” Collaboration (with healthy competition) could be the key to moving Jewish education forward.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Costume Crisis

As Purim approaches, a sense of desperation is beginning to set in among Jewish role models everywhere. “Last year it was so easy. My wife’s sheitel, a skirt, a pair of fake tefillin, and the cheap laughs just rolled in,” says one educator who chose to remain nameless. “But this year, who am I going to mock?”

Last year, SAR High School permitted two girls to wear tefillin, setting off a firestorm of controversy and inspiring a number of “SAR girl in tefillin” Purim costumes. The incognito ensembles allowed educators to impart lessons in an active manner, serving as material manifestations of insults towards heretics. In the words of one such role-model, “I’m usually only able to verbally ridicule those I disagree with, but now I can mamish teach by example.”

The negative consequences go further. Some are now forced to spend time normally dedicated to learning Torah thinking about a costume. Others have even given up on wearing a costume at all. “If I can’t set an example with what I wear, I’ll have to get doubly drunk this year,” says Rabbi Chaim (Jeremy) Schwartz.* “That way I can really express my love of Hashem for all to see.”

Although the situation seems dire, options seem to exist. Why not dress up like Barry Freundel? “Rabbi Barry Freundel should not be mocked,” Rabbi Schwartz argues. “He is just a good man who fell victim to his yetzer hara. You can’t equate what he did to girls wearing tefillin. Only one of them is true heresy.” Wise words from a man of morals.

Costumes aren’t the only problem; Purim shpiels are in danger as well. Last year’s scripts mocking girls wearing tefillin are no longer relevant. And the situation is dicey. “Without an easy target that everyone can make fun of, students are now going to make fun of others in our school,” says student-activities director Rabbi Noam Farbstein. “We can’t leave our students open to public ridicule.” Sound hypocritical? Not so, says Rabbi F. “We don’t really know the names of the girls who wear tefillin, so it’s not really that bad. It’s almost like they aren’t actual people in our students’ eyes. The boys won’t feel like they are saying real Lashon Hara."

But all hope is not lost. As I write these words, Shalhevet High School of Los Angeles is furiously investigating all leads into potentially scandalous decisions made at SAR in the past few months. According to editor Samantha Silver, “we’ve heard rumors of potential mechitza-removing and Triangle-K eating, but nothing we can confirm at this time.” Such news would be music to the ears of many. “I’m really hoping for something to come up soon,” said a local Rebbetzin. “My children really need to learn the importance of properly placed scorn and contempt. Isn’t that what Purim is all about?”


*All names have been changed for the sake of privacy

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Forum or Against 'Em?

As a Jewish educator, I am constantly aware of the various ways in which individuals relate to our religion. The individualistic approach is often most stark with high school students in the process of identity formation. Interacting with teenagers as they navigate the assimilation of religion into their personae can be at once fascinating, frustrating, disheartening, and inspiring. Above all, these experiences have solidified my appreciation of the need for various forms of Jewish expression.

For this reason, I am a bit wary of Yeshiva University’s choice of Neo-Chassidus for its latest Orthodox Forum. As a colleague of mine pointed out, phenomenology (the study of how people experience things) is a large part of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, and is therefore a very appropriate lens for Yeshiva University to use. If the goal of this forum is understanding the experience of Neo-Chassidus and using this understanding to gain a more nuanced view of religion, kol hakavod. Unfortunately, current trends lead me to be concerned that this may not be the case.

To be clear, I do not intend to project dubious intentions on those who chose the topic, nor is this directed at any of the writers. My concern is simply about the current social climate that made this topic a relevant choice.

In recent years, social media has broken down boundaries across the world, and in doing so has allowed public conversations to include millions of voices at once. No longer are any ideas immune from criticism or mockery. On the other hand, the global conversation has facilitated a tremendous amount of idea-sharing, allowing individuals to develop nuanced viewpoints on subjects they never would have access to in the past.

Global Jewish conversations have followed the same pattern. It has become in vogue for Jewish pundits, writers and experts (those deserving of the title and self-appointed ones) to place a large amount of energy into deconstructing the behaviors and customs of those who do differently. Besides creating animosity, this phenomenon has another result. Those able to positively impact their own communities through influential writing, public initiatives, and proactive leadership are not. Instead, they spend time criticizing others in the “defense of the truth.”

Bringing this back to Neo-Chassidus, the criticizers were in top form after the Jewish Action article chronicling Neo-Chassidus was published. One blogger felt the need to defend the faith by asking “Why not Neo-Hisnagdus?” as if there is a competition for the heart of the Orthodox world. An article in this paper two weeks ago discussed those who “worry out loud” about Neo-Chassidus as if it has destructive potential, and many people give Neo-Chassidus nothing more than a “at least it keeps some people frum” nod.

The practice of placing every idea and behavior under the microscope of authenticity has to stop. There is nothing wrong with respectful debate, even if emotions run a little high. This is all normal. But it should give one pause when Yeshiva University feels it so important to dedicate its one annual forum to deconstruct a phenomenon that brings joy, spirit, and depth of understanding to Judaism. Neo-Chassidus is not a threat, and it is not the “other.” It is simply one expression of a Torah meant to reach many. If we can’t appreciate the validity of various approaches, that is a problem.

Although we begin asking ourselves “how does this fit into my identity?” as teenagers, the process doesn’t end there. Thoughtful individuals are constantly assimilating certain ideas and behaviors while rejecting others. However, it is important for us to realize that what one rejects can become the identity of another. One approach is not necessarily right and the other wrong; the two are simply different. Live and let live; such a simple idea, yet so routinely ignored. Maybe we should hold a forum to discuss it.

Originally Published in Jewish Link of NJ and of Westchester Bronx & Connecticut (,

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Torah Sheba'al Peh and Jewish Values

Eventually, every student of the Talmud will (or at least should) ask himself, and others, the simple question, “Why?” Why learn Gemara? What is the value in analyzing legal conversations that often contain rejected opinions and halachot that don’t apply to us today? Why can’t we just be told what to do? Many of those who have sought answers to this question have heard some or all of the following:
Gemara helps us appreciate where our practices come from. There is no substitute for the sharpening of the mind that comes with learning Gemara. Gemara is the ultimate in Talmud Torah because it requires complete dedication of one’s time and intellect. It purifies the mind and the soul because of the effort required to learn it…because that’s what we do.
And the list goes on.
One angle that I appreciate the more I learn and teach (and that is less commonly referenced) is that the Torah She’ba’al Peh is a conduit for teaching Jewish values. Our sages’ halachic thoughts and rulings were not born in a legal vacuum, devoid of religious meaning. The Torah She’ba’al Peh is, by its very essence, driven by the will to actualize Jewish values.
We don’t normally think about the Torah She’ba’al Peh in this manner. To many, the Torah She’ba’al Peh is a process in which Jewish sources are analyzed, compared, contrasted, and questioned to determine proper halachic practice. The outcome is really the important goal, and how we get there almost seems unimportant in the grand scheme. Even the halachot are commonly viewed from a practical standpoint; that they represent a way of uniting Jews through ritual, and that is all. However, if we view the process and halachot as a way of transmitting Jewish values, study of the Torah She’ba’al Peh becomes a much more meaningful venture.
I’d like to provide one example of how this came up in my 9th-grade Torah She’ba’al Peh class.
At the end of the second chapter of Masechet Bava Kama, a number of halachic scenarios and rulings are provided by Rabbah. In one of these situations, Rabbah provides a puzzling ruling. Rabbah said: If someone throws an object (belonging to someone else) from the top of a roof while there were mattresses and cushions underneath (for it to land on), even if said mattresses or cushions were removed by another person (while the object was in the air), or even if [the one who had thrown it] removed [the mattresses and cushions] himself, there is exemption from payment…
Here, Rabbah rules that the one who damages is completely exempt from payment because neither of his or her actions can be defined as a “destructive act.” The act of throwing the object from the roof doesn’t meet the criteria because when the object was released, it was projected to land safely. The act of removing the cushions is not an “act of damage” because it does not involve exerting any force (direct or indirect) on the object itself.
At first, this ruling seems absurd. How can we exempt someone from damage if this person is completely responsible? However, if we take a values approach, we can make sense of Rabbah’s halacha.
Perhaps Rabbah is teaching us that there is a Jewish value of avoiding looking for a people to blame when disaster strikes. A society in which blame defines responsibility can become a society where there always must be “someone else” at fault. If so, we can almost always point to one person or event and say “there is the cause!” when, in fact, there may not be a true cause, or maybe the fault lies in us. Halacha may require a stricter definition for responsibility due to this value, even at the expense of giving the one responsible a way out in certain situations.
Taking such an approach to this Gemara helped many of my students (but not all) come to grips with Rabbah’s difficult ruling. This approach also facilitated a nice discussion about the importance of viewing halacha as “Jewish values put into practice.” It was interesting to see certain students react when faced with the possibility that halachic observance cannot be divorced from living with Jewish values.
Not every unit of thought or halacha mentioned in the Gemara is driven by an easily detectable value or set of values. However, we owe it to ourselves, our students, and our children to be on the lookout for meaning in our religious learning and rituals. This is a key component of the Torah She’ba’al Peh and a crucial idea to pass on to the next generation.
Originally posted on the SAR High School Faculty Blog: