Wednesday, November 26, 2014

#BeTheWall for Israel

This campaign is something my Beit Midrash developed with our local Bnei Akiva chapter, and it's been spreading on Facebook. The idea, which is based on The Shmira Project, is simple: Take on a mitzvah practice for Kislev, and dedicate the merit to a community in Israel.

I'm doing it, committing to extra care in my berachot, and dedicating merit to Gilo. If the project appeals to you, please join me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Do Rabbis Crash?

In an article titled "Rabbis on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", Jay Michaelson contends that the special political/emotional/psychological pressures of the rabbinate, coupled with the workload, could be one reason behind the regular appearance of scandalously poor decision-making by people who are trained to be wise, selfless community leaders.

In the comments on his piece, the author is taken to task by readers who think he is exonerating misbehaving rabbis. But I don't think he's finding criminals innocent; I think he is trying to identify a flaw in the system, which is making their crimes more likely. And I think I have something to add to that useful endeavour: 

Many articles have documented the link between exhaustion and impulsivity and poor self-control. Perhaps one of the best is a 2002 piece by the incredibly well-published psychologist and professor Dr. Roy Baumeister in The Journal of Consumer Research, titled, "Yielding to Temptation: Self-Control Failure, Impulsive Purchasing, andConsumer Behavior". [It's certainly influential; according to Google, it's been cited in 625 separate publications.]

Per Dr. Baumeister, one of the key ingredients of self-control is "the capacity to alter the self." And he contends, citing studies, that someone who perpetually exercises self-control can actually deplete it, making it unlikely that he will be able to continue to apply self-control. In one study, "participants in various control conditions were exposed to similar stimuli but did not have to regulate their behavior. For example, they watched the same upsetting film without having to regulate their emotions, or they were permitted to eat the chocolates and cookies instead of the radishes. Afterward, we measured self-regulation in ostensibly unrelated other tasks, such as physical stamina on a handgrip exerciser, persistence in the face of failure on unsolvable anagrams, or refraining from laughing and smiling while watching a comedy video. The findings repeatedly showed that self-control was poorest among people who had already performed a prior act of self-control."

Now imagine a rabbi who is involved with congregants on many diverse levels – pastoral, administrative, ritual, social, organizational – for 90-100 hours per week, including Shabbat. And imagine that yes, he owns impulses for grossly inappropriate behaviour. But he doesn't have daily time to flee the situation and recharge. How long will it be before he yields to a grotesquely wrong impulse?

Of course, other jobs also involve long, intense hours – and we see these breakdowns of self-control among professionals in those fields, too. We see it among politicians and doctors, police officers and nurses. And we see it among mothers. [It may exist in the modern wave of stay at home dads, too; I don't know.]

The uncomfortable reality, which I observed in my own synagogue rabbinate days, is that the job we have created for synagogue rabbis is impossible. Not "impossible" in the sense of "boy, that's hard". "Impossible" in the sense that there are not enough hours for them to do the job demanded of them, and recharge.

Here's a breakdown of a sample rabbinic week, acknowledging it depends on the nature of the shul/community:
3 classes = 3 hours of class, 9 hours of preparation = 12 hours
Shabbat sermon = 4 hours of preparation (on a good week!)
Hospital visits = 6 visits = 4 hours
2 funerals = 4 hours for the funerals, 4 hours beforehand with the families, 3 hours of attending the shivah homes = 11 hours
Nursing home visit = 1 visit to see various patients = 2.5 hours
Shul bulletin responsibilities = 1 hour (will vary widely across shuls)
Pastoral counseling = 8 appointments (if he's lucky) = 6 hours (if he's even luckier)
Answering halachic questions = 45 minutes each non-Shabbat day = 4.5 hours
Answering email questions/comments from the community = 30 minutes per day, including Motzaei Shabbat = 3.5 hours (if he's absurdly lucky)
Community organization meetings (schools, UJA Federation, JCC, etc) = 2 per week, 2 hours each = 4 hours
Tzedakah disbursement = 1 hour (will vary widely)
Attend 2 weddings = 4 hours per wedding = 8 hours (seasonal, of course, and depends on community)
Attend 2 L'chaims = 30 minutes per L'Chaim = 1 hour (ditto)
Work with shul committees to plan programs = 3 meetings = 3 hours
Preparing divrei torah/articles for special events = 2 hours
Participate in three shul programs (Sisterhood, youth, social, etc) = 3 hours           

This list is already at 70 hours, and it does not include:
Shabbos responsibilities
Pre-Yom Tov responsibilities
Community dinners and fundraising events
Responsibilities to the Eruv, Vaad haKashrut, Chevra Kadisha – and, yes, mikvah
Daf Yomi, which is standard for rabbis in many communities
Responsibilities to community organizations beyond attending a meeting
Learning with conversion candidates
Other life-cycle events - Bris, Pidyon haBen, Unveiling, etc.
Teaching Bar Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah students
Meeting with couples to prepare for marriage
Mediating disputes within families or between people
Writing articles for local newspapers
Calling shut-ins to wish them Good Shabbos
Oversee Adult Education efforts
Legwork to help people find work, a shidduch, a chavruta or a pair of tefillin
Meet with potential donors for the shul

And contrary to popular belief, this is not subject to synagogue size. A smaller community will have fewer hours devoted to some of the items on this list, but that will be balanced by greater responsibilities in other areas. In a smaller synagogue, rabbis have greater administrative responsibilities, and greater roles in communal institutions. They also do the programming/promotional work which is managed by committees in larger synagogues.

So yes – I'm not exaggerating when I say this is an impossible job. There is no opportunity to recharge the resources of self-control.

Is there anything we can do? Maybe, but I think that the best shot comes not from the rabbis or their organizations, but from the communities. It's Reality, for at least these three reasons::

1. There are more rabbis than there are positions, and so a shul can create an unrealistic job description and find a dozen or more qualified applicants. There is no check on the Search Committee and its polls of the synagogue membership, and no one saying, "Does that actually work?"

2. Rabbis are poor time managers. I believe it's a product of the system of yeshiva education, in part, in which we just throw time at our learning without spending a lot of energy figuring out whether we are learning efficiently. All use of time for Torah is good, right? [I also suspect that the rabbinate self-selects people who fit this mold; anyone with a sane understanding of how time works would find a different life.]

3. Rabbis are heirs to a tradition that idolizes total dedication, as I discussed here.

So I'd like to see the communities take the lead on recognizing the problem posed by their job descriptions.

I once counseled a friend who was interviewed for a shul job that was advertised as 20 hours per week. I suggested that he ask the committee how they wanted the 20 hours used. As I sit here now, I think that would be a good exercise for search committees in general, before they ever see candidates – break down the hours of the week and see how they fit your job description.

I have much more to say on the topic, but the reason I post only infrequently is that I am also doing one of those ridiculous jobs. I think my self-control is saved by the time I spend locked in traffic on Bathurst; if I don't use the phone at those times, and I let go of the fantasy that switching lanes will get me to my destination sooner, then that becomes time for my recharging…

But I have written a lot on the Rabbinic Job Description over the years; click here for other posts on the topic.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Poppies for Remembrance Day

Jewish Canadians love Prime Minister Stephen Harper; the surest way to earn an ovation at a Jewish event is to thank the Prime Minister for his support for the State of Israel. We are glad to live in a democracy that endorses our freedom of religion, and we certainly take advantage of the rest of the freedoms guaranteed by our laws, overseen by our government, and safeguarded by our military...

...so why are November's poppies, marking Tuesday's Remembrance Day, relatively uncommon in the observant Jewish community?

As I've written elsewhere, it seems to me that overt patriotism is somewhat “un-cool” in Torah-observant communities, in Canada and beyond. Perhaps this is a product of centuries of harm wreaked by a range of governments upon our people. Maybe it's due to Jewish law's insistence that the Jews should be "other" when living among non-Jewish neighbours. Or, it could be because of the way that those neighbours have marked us as "other" in painful ways.

Despite all of the reasons why Jews may be uncomfortable with patriotic expression, I believe that Canadian Jews ought to clearly, publicly express our gratitude for those who have given their lives in the Canadian military. Whatever the misgivings of Pirkei Avot (1:10, 2:3 and 3:2) regarding government and its intentions, we owe a great debt to Canada's soldiers, for their historic roles and for their current actions. I believe we ought to wear the poppy.

Within the realm of halachah, I have heard the contention that wearing a poppy may run afoul of the law of chukot akum, prohibiting dressing "in the manner of the nations", but a read of the relevant sources (Sifri Devarim 81, Maharik 88, Shulchan Aruch and Rama Yoreh Deah 178:1) makes clear that the prohibition applies only to (1) immoral dress and (2) dress worn for reasons which might trace back to idolatrous practices. Neither appears relevant in this case.

I wouldn't wear the poppy in shul for davening, because it would be a distraction for me. I also wouldn't insert it on Shabbat, because of concern for the laws of "stitching" involved in pinning the poppy. But for other times, I will wear my poppy in memory of the fallen. Hakarat hatov (gratitude) and darchei shalom (maintaining a peaceful society) trump being cool...


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ayeh? (Vayera 5775)

A thought:

Three passersby are welcomed to the tent of Avraham and Sarah, presented with water for their feet, and shown to a shady place beneath a tree. Bread and water are promised, and a much broader repast is laid before them. The appreciative wayfarers dine, and then turn to Avraham with a question: Ayeh? Where is Sarah, your wife? (Bereishit 18:9)

What is their purpose in asking Ayeh? It is not a request to meet the chef; Avraham and Yishmael also prepared the food. Further, they did not actually ask to meet her. And third, the question is unnecessary; as seen in the next biblical chapter, these are angelic beings! Why do they need to ask after Sarah's whereabouts? [Perhaps malachim are not omniscient, but given our first two points, they seem to be seeking something other than Sarah's GPS coordinates.]

Generations of commentators have perceived different messages within the visitors' question; see Bava Metzia 87a, Avot d'Rabbi Natan II 37, and Rashbam here for a range of approaches. However, we might gain additional insight by noting that our Torah portion includes two more Ayeh questions:
  • After their conversation with Avraham, the visitors journey to the city of Sdom, where they find hospitality in the home of Sarah's brother Lot. The residents of the city are hostile to guests, and wish to harm them. They crowd around Lot's house, and demand, Ayeh! "Where are the men? Take them out, and we will 'know' them!" (Bereishit 19:5)
  • The end of our portion finds Avraham and Yitzchak en route to bring an offering to G-d. After three days, they come to a mountain, and Avraham dismisses their two escorts. Avraham loads his son with the firewood, takes up the fire and knife in his own hands, and sets course up the slope. At this late stage, Yitzchak turns to his father with the question, "Here is the fire, here is the wood, but Ayeh, where is the lamb?" (Bereishit 22:7)

We may suggest that in all three of these cases, the query of Ayeh is not merely a request for information. Indeed, both the malachim and the people of Sdom know exactly where their subject is! But in all three instances, asking "Ayeh" is really asking, "Is this being playing its role?" Ayeh is a summons: the time has come, destiny is here, take your place and perform your role! [Indeed, the same may be said for many of the appearances of the Ayeh question in Tanach, and perhaps for all of them.]

  • Climbing Mount Moriah, Yitzchak turns to his father to declare, "It is time for the lamb to play its destined role, as a gift for G-d," and indeed, Avraham responds knowingly, "G-d knows where the lamb is – my son." [See Rashi to Bereishit 22:8.]
  • The villianous people of Sdom attack the home of Lot and demand, "It is time for these guests to play their destined role," to suffer abuse at our hands!
  • And the malachim similarly address Avraham regarding Sarah. "Until now, Sarah has been the faithful follower of your prophecy, travelling from Aram to Shechem to Egypt to Elonei Mamrei. Until now, Sarah has enabled your survival and success. Sarah gave you Hagar, and even insisted you take her as a full wife. But Ayeh! Where is Sarah, the woman you wedded? What she has done to this point is not the sum of her existence, this is not the person she is meant to become. It is time for Sarah to take on a new role." And so Sarah becomes the matriarch who determines the future of the Jewish people, and even the world. [This may also be linked to the change in Sarah's name; see Rashi to Bereishit 17:15.]

The Ayeh summons is not only a biblical call; ayeh is a summons for every human being, in every age. In the absence of visiting malachim, though, we are left to put the question to ourselves: where are we? And like the malachim, we know the literal answer, but the deeper question remains: where are we meant to be? Has our time come, is our destiny at hand, are we fulfilling the role for which we were created, and for which we are uniquely suited? May we not only ask the Ayeh question, but through our lives may we provide its answer.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How a mikvah scandal could happen: a thought

I hope you enjoyed your Yom Tov. For me - right before Simchat Torah, I found out about the mikvah scandal in Washington DC. That pretty much killed it for me.

In brief, for those who don't know: a veteran "Modern Orthodox" synagogue rabbi is accused of placing a hidden camera in his synagogue's mikvah, and committing related obscene abuses of his position. I spent Simchat Torah reeling at the multifarious horrific ramifications. [I omit his name not to protect him, but because seeing it makes me ill. If you need to know more, feel free to use Google.]

I can't understand this; I find this base betrayal of a community by its 25-year leader as incomprehensible as it is revolting. But I will venture the following thought, without claiming to mind-read the villain in this particular scandal: this sort of crime is enabled when people allow themselves to see others not as human beings, with feelings and emotions, but as objects which happen to populate their world. Ignoring people's feelings allows someone to say, "They won't find out, so where's the harm?"

Our weekly Torah portion, telling the story of the biblical Flood, speaks strongly against this objectification:
  • First, Bereishit 6:2 says G-d decided to destroy the world when powerful men "saw that the daughters were good, and took women from any they chose." The women were merely objects.
  • Second, this may be why G-d chooses to place all of the animals in the direct care of Noach's family for a year, rather than take care of them miraculously. Caring for others, immersing themselves in anticipating and meeting their needs, trains Noach's family to see others as feeling creatures.
  • And third, after the Flood, when Noach's son Cham displays no empathy in humiliating his intoxicated father (Bereishit 9), he is cursed for his insensitivity.
At the other end of the spectrum, one of the Torah's chief paragons of empathy is Moshe Rabbeinu. As a teenager, Moshe endangers his own life to save a Jew who is being beaten – and when he flees the country and arrives, friendless and impoverished in a new place, his very first act is to endanger himself to save Midianite women from harassment at a well. Moshe is worthy to give us the Torah, to be the first Rabbi – the empath who sees kinsmen and strangers, Jewish and non-Jewish, as human beings deserving of selfless friendship and protection.

May we eradicate the objectification of human beings that enables abuse. May we emulate Moshe's activist empathy. And may we teach our children this empathy, making ourselves worthy of the Torah that Moshe brought us, with which we danced last week, on Simchat Torah.

Monday, October 20, 2014

After scandal, a simple mikvah proposal

[Update 8:09 AM - Within a few minutes of posting this, I received a notice from a rabbinic friend, who informed me that the "Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington" has already sent out a notice listing steps that they are taking. One of them is, "Male volunteers who assist MES with maintenance issues at the Wallerstein Mikvah will no longer be permitted to enter the mikvah without a woman accompanying them." Baruch shekivanti, although I believe that having a committee of women control access is a more practical method than accompanying, as outlined below.]

I am still processing the rabbinic scandal from Kesher Israel in Washington DC. (I am not hiding his name to protect him; I am refusing to type it because looking at it makes me ill.) I have many thoughts going through my head, but I'm not ready to post on it today. I'm not sure which ones are logical yet.

However, I do want to make the following proposal: No male should have unfettered access to a mikvah, even a supervising rabbi. 

Like any male, the rabbi should have neither the keys not the combination, whatever system of access is used. There should be a small committee of women who are licensed to let him in (and who will have the ability to inspect it after he leaves, should there be any concerns).

I say this as a rabbi who supervised a community mikvah for eight years, during which time we actually had two mikvaos – an old one, which needed halachic maintenance, and a new one, which needed the halachic attention that comes with a new mikvah. I had the keys and I used them, but in truth, I could have done everything I needed to do by working through a small committee of contact people.

Of course, men also use the mikvah, and the rabbi could have access like any other male during those times. But women should be in charge of making sure the mikvah is open during those times, and should be the ones to lock up, and check the facility as needed, afterward. [And where possible, the men and women should have dedicated changing areas, with the women's changing areas locked when the mikvah is in use by men. Where this is not practical, women should inspect the changing areas from time to time.]

This is not about accusing all rabbis, or all men, of impropriety and evil intent. Rather, it's like in hashgachah in the kosher food industry. Just as we recognize that a religiously observant business owner has a yetzer hara for profit, and therefore we don't allow him unfettered access to his food service establishment, so we must recognize that most males have a yetzer hara in sexual matters, and therefore we should not allow them unfettered access to a place where women are unclothed.

Does this make sense to you?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Shabbos App, lay off my Shabbos!

If you haven't heard about The Shabbos App yet, it's meant to modify the function of your smartphone to avert halachic problems involved in texting on Shabbat.

Here is the opening line of their "Who we are" paragraph:
We are a team of people including programmers, marketing professionals and Rabbis who want to make it easier to be Jewish and fully observant. Today, there are too many people leaving the fold because they find observant Judaism too cumbersome and outdated and it doesn't need to be.

It would be fun to discuss the ins-and-outs of their mechanisms, which are briefly described (sans important halachic details) on their website. Indeed, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen of Machon Tzomet has pointed out a gaping hole in their understanding of grama, here. But I am more interested in their premise: that people are leaving Judaism because halachah is cumbersome and outdated, as demonstrated by the inability to use a cell phone on Shabbos.

I can see ways in which the halachic system is lagging in dealing with new realities, but to me, turning off a cell phone for Shabbos does not demonstrate an outdated halachic system. Just the opposite, it demonstrates the need for the classic halachic system of Shabbos!

I think the Shabbos App is a terrible idea. Am I really the only Jew who was relieved to not answer a phone call or an email for three consecutive days on Rosh HaShanah and Shabbos? For me, if such a break did not exist, I would have to invent it - just as psychologists routinely recommend to their patients that they take time out from the demands of the world on a regular basis.

It's also important to walk away from the phone for a whole host of other reasons, beyond the scope of this post; take Louis CK's advice and turn off the phone!

So I find the "Shabbos App" idea most un-app-ealing. It's not what I want for myself, for my children, or for my environment. I shudder to think of spending Yom Kippur in shul, Succos lunch with friends, Simchas Torah dancing with the Torah or Shabbos afternoon at the park surrounded by texters. Please, please: lay off my Shabbos!