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: