Thursday, September 18, 2014

Adrian Peterson's Rosh HaShanah Moment

Adrian Peterson is a top-level, record-setting, award-winning star athlete. He is also a father of six children, and this past week he was indicted by a grand jury for "reckless or negligent injury" for beating one of his children, age 4, with a switch - a leaf-stripped tree branch, apparently on bare skin, causing deep wounds.

Mr. Peterson's defense is simple: he never intended to cause harm, he was trying to help his child. "I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child." Indeed, other athletes and public figures chimed in that this is a standard way to discipline children in contemporary society. The implication: I was disciplined with a switch and I grew up to be a healthy, well-adjusted, normal human being, and so in my mind, this is a good way to raise a child.

This is not the place for a discussion of Jewish tradition's complex approach to disciplining a child (but click here for a source sheet on the topic from a class of mine). Rather, I want to focus on Mr. Peterson's implication that he is healthy, well-adjusted, etc. It would be wrong for me to assume anything about him, especially when I have so many flaws and abnormalities of my own, but I would ask this about football players in general: are we sure that someone who makes his living playing a sport in which absurdly bulked-up humans crash into each other in front of millions of viewers on a weekly basis for several years (if they are lucky and good), before retiring with severely damaged backs and knees, and frequently with serious concussion damage suspected of leading to unusually high rates of depression and suicide, is... healthy?

Similarly, a while back I heard a radio pundit talk about how her parents were worried about the impact of high doses of television on the childrens of the '70s and '80s, and how "we turned out fine". Perhaps that generation - my generation - is fine, but when we read about out-of-control obesity, high rates of emotional and anxiety disorders, poor levels of social and civic engagement and so on, shouldn't we at least question whether we "turned out fine"?

Perhaps many of us naturally think of ourselves as having turned out fine, like Adrian Peterson and like the woman on the radio. But this is part of the Rosh HaShanah challenge: to look at ourselves and ask, "Are we healthy? Or do we need to change something?"

As long as we go about our lives believing that we are okay, we lack the impetus to re-evaluate and determine a more positive direction; we will go right on doing what we've always done. But consider the words of Cris Carter, a former football star: "My mom did the best job she could do, raising seven kids by herself. But there are thousands of things that I have learned since then that my mom was wrong...  She did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me." The same is quite possibly true for ourselves; we've done our best, but that doesn't mean we've been right.

As we approach Rosh HaShanah, let us ask ourselves whether we are where we ought to be, whether the way we were raised and the way we have raised ourselves has brought us where we should be, and whether we want to try something different as we move forward.

May we thoughtfully re-examine ourselves in the coming days, and enter the year 5775 wiser, more realistic, and with a path toward the people we wish to become.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Good Privacy and Bad Privacy

(From this week's Toronto Torah, hot off the presses)

Several years ago, late night comedian and band leader Paul Shaffer and the OU produced a video offering five reasons to speak lashon hara (harmful speech), including the observation that “speaking lashon hara lets the world know you care… about yourself.” The line was clever, but inaccurate; lashon hara is generally spoken in private, and the world doesn’t know anything about it. This privacy is not a mere detail; according to Rashi, our parshah suggests that privacy is a uniquely malignant characteristic of lashon hara.

In our parshah; Devarim 27:24 curses one who “strikes his friend in secret,” and Rashi states, “This refers to lashon hara.” [This comment appears to be based on Tehillim 101:5 and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 52.] Along the same lines, the talmudic sage Rabbah claimed that harmful speech uttered where its subject could hear it is not lashon hara. He declared, “Anything stated in front of its subject is not lashon hara.” (Arachin 15b) In practice, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deiot 7:5) prohibited even private harmful speech, but the intent of our parshah, Rabbah and Rabbi Yosi requires clarification: Why should privacy involve a special wrong? Might public slander be worse?

Perhaps the Torah sees private slander as a unique wrong if it involves a certain type of privacy.

Positive privacy excludes the world by default and only invites in intimates, with whom we wish to share ourselves. The Torah encourages this, terming it tzniut, as expressed in the instruction of Michah 6:8, “walk privately with your G-d.” Or as Ben Sira warned, “May many people ask after your welfare, but tell your secret to one in one thousand.” (Sanhedrin 100b) From this perspective, the world is outside of ourselves, and we invite in rare others based on a shared ideology and vision. As Rambam (Avot 1:6) cited from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “A friend is a second self.” Privacy is an expression of alliance. [For those interested in talmudic methodology, this is an approach of klal and prat; the klal is excluded by default, and only the prat is invited in.]

Negative privacy, on the other hand, includes the world in our lives by default; our ideas, speech and bodies are open to all, like posts on a public blog. The privacy limitation is for those whom we exclude because we view them as antagonists; privacy is an expression of hostility. [Returning to talmudic methodology, this is an approach of ribui and miut; the universe is included under the ribui, and specific cases are excluded by the miut.]

Seen in this light, Rabbah’s point and the lesson of our parshah is that while all slander is wrong, the grave sin of lashon hara is worsened by hostile privacy, a weapon. Privacy which aids its circle of participants, without harming those who are excluded, is no crime. Privacy which exists solely as a means of harming others is as dark and destructive as the lashon hara it protects. [We may also use this distinction to justify Section 184.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which affords protection to most private communications, but that is beyond the scope of this article.]

The distinction between negative, weaponized privacy and positive, allied privacy may also be seen in the way Moshe introduced our parshah’s litany of curses. Moshe declared, “Today you have become a nation for Hashem your G-d.” (Devarim 27:9) Today we have become a nation – and so we would find it repugnant to even contemplate speaking against each other. And we are a nation for Hashem our G-d, a holy nation, a nation capable of much good through our alliances, and a nation for whom gossip is, literally, unspeakable.

In Shemot 2, Moshe Rabbeinu witnessed an Egyptian beating a Jew; he saw that no one would halt the beating, and so he killed the assailant. On the morrow, Moshe saw a Jew attacking another Jew, and he again intervened. The aggressor said to Moshe, “Are you going to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” After which, “Moshe became frightened and he said, ‘The word is out!’“

A midrash (Tanchuma Shemot 10) suggests that Moshe was not concerned regarding being caught; rather, Moshe accused, “The word is out, there must be lashon hara among you! If so, how will you ever earn redemption?” Hostility expressed in negative privacy which shields the spread of slander is inimical to our status as a nation of G-d. If we wish to earn the redemption which Moshe mentioned, then we must recognize, “Today we are a nation for Hashem our G-d,” private only in the most positive of ways, a true nation of Hashem.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Is "take it easy" a Jewish idea?

The past week has been humbling for me. Eight days ago, my family completed our move to a new home, and I spent a great deal of time hauling boxes and doing amateur landscaping. The result was not only a cluttered new house and an attractive oakleaf hydrangea, but also waking up Monday morning with severe back spasms. I was largely bedridden for the next few days, and I am still using a walker and having difficulty sitting. Acknowledging my need for rest and rehabilitation during the past week did not come easily.

I grew up in a hockey-mad family that adored players who fought through pain and ignored injury, who lost teeth on the ice but did not miss a shift. My New York Rangers role models were Tom Laidlaw, Ron Greschner and Dave Maloney - not the scorers and finesse players but the scrappers and checkers.

The same message was broadcast in the holier context of yeshiva; the highest value was self-denying hatmadah (constant, continuous commitment to study), as the Talmud made clear with its choice of role models. Hillel froze on the roof listening to Torah being taught. Rabbi Eliezer scowled when students left the beit midrash (study hall) for a Yom Tov meal. Rachel endured abject poverty when her wealthy father disowned her for marrying Rabbi Akiva. And so on. I'm having a hard time thinking of a talmudic role model who takes a break when he is tired or hungry or ill. [Yes, the Talmud does discuss the importance of looking after our health, and see midrashim like Vayikra Rabbah Behar 34, but there is a difference between that broad approach, and a specific imperative of surrendering to physical challenges rather than trying to tough it out.]

So cancelling chavrutot and classes was more than disappointing; it felt like failure. Of course, I know it's not failure - and that incorrect response raises the question of how we ought to educate our young students. Training them to ignore the messages sent by their bodies is unhealthy and unsafe, but then why does the Talmud present scores of models for "toughing it out", but none come to mind who took it slow and easy when suffering? [The biblical Yitro does tell Moshe to set up associate judges rather than handle the nation's entire caseload himself, but it is pitched more as a concession to the nation's needs than to Moshe's.]

Did none of our heroes have moments of physical weakness? Unlikely; no one makes it from 40 to 80 without their body failing them at some point. So either all of them overrode their personal suffering, or the Talmud felt that discussing the times they surrendered was not worthwhile. If it's the latter, then is the Talmud's logic that life will teach us to take it slow, but playing through pain requires indoctrination via talmudic role models? Or is there some other reason why "take it slow" was omitted from the canon? What do you think?

Monday, September 1, 2014

What is an Assistant Rabbi's job description?

Note: I've been holding this post for a long time, because at least three of Toronto's synagogues went through a search for an Assistant Rabbi this past year, and I did not want to be misunderstood as commenting on any of those processes. This post has nothing to do with any of them.

I never served as an Assistant Rabbi, something which I think is a very good thing; I would likely have been awful. I would have been careful to avoid invading the Senior Rabbi's domain, of course, and I would have done what I was asked, but tzimtzum (reduction of one's presence) does not come naturally for me. But at one point I was asked by one of my avreichim for my thoughts regarding the Assistant Rabbi model, and here is what I told him.

To my mind, there isn't a single job description for an Assistant, any more than there is a single job description for a Rabbi (as we have discussed elsewhere on this blog). Each community has different needs, each Rabbi has different needs, and each Assistant has different skills.

Here, though, are three possible models, based on examples from the Torah:

1. Eliezer, servant of Avraham - Eliezer has no real voice of his own; he is meant to speak Avraham's words. Indeed, when he tries to improvise ("perhaps the woman I seek for Yitzchak won't want to come to Canaan") he is shot down. We don't see any special talents in him. Eliezer is assigned to take care of specific jobs, and he does them. [Gechazi, Elisha's servant, may also be of this model, but Gechazi proved untrustworthy.]

2. Yehoshua, student of Moshe - Yehoshua has positive traits as well as weaknesses, which are displayed in moments of crisis like the incident with the Spies and Eldad and Medad's prophecy. Yehoshua is given areas that are under his control, like war with Amalek, but he clearly answers to Moshe. It seems clear that any autonomy he owns could be withdrawn by Moshe at any moment.

3. Aharon, second to Moshe but also his peer - Aharon aids Moshe in conveying his message to the Jewish people; he is Moshe's navi, speaking on Moshe's behalf. In this sense, he is like Yehoshua. However, Aharon also has his own particular job as kohen gadol running the rituals of the Mishkan, and his own particular relationship with the community, largely independent of Moshe.

To my mind, the Eliezer model is unhealthy; if you apply for an Assistant Rabbi job and it sounds like that one, run the other way. It is unlikely that someone will go through rabbinical school just to become an Eliezer.

I could see the Yehoshua and Aharon models being healthy, in various circumstances. Perhaps a young rabbi could be a Yehoshua, and like Yehoshua he could evolve into someone who is ready to be a leading Rabbi. And the Aharon model sounds great - but it would require complete bi-lateral trust. Good luck...

There are probably more biblical models out there; what would you add?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pesach Night at the Windsor Arms

At Purim time, many months ago, attendees of a weekly shiur [class] of mine got together and purchased a gift certificate for two, for my Rebbetzin and me to enjoy dinner at the Windsor Arms Hotel, here in Toronto. It's a fancy establishment, and they provide kosher dinners by reservation on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. You order an appetizer, a main and a dessert, and that's $75 (before taxes), and there is a wine list as well.

The generous idea of the shiur was to offer a night's break before Pesach, but that wasn’t entirely realistic. As a result of the less-than-sane schedules we kept this past year, we couldn't take advantage of the generous and gracious gift. It was not until last week that we were able to use it.

I must say, I enjoyed the experience immensely; as some of you know, I admire and enjoy well-prepared food. [The menu is available here; the picture isn't great, and you'll need to magnify it in order to see anything above the wine list.] But more, it gave me an insight into what a Pesach Seder should be.

The room was luxuriously appointed. The server was congenial. The pace was leisurely; we could talk and take our time. And so, days after Tishah b'Av, I felt like I was enjoying what a Seder was meant to be: A slow-paced discussion, in beautiful surroundings adding to one's feeling of well-being if not royalty. We don't get to Shulchan Aruch for hours not because the Haggadah has placed page after page of text in our way, but because we aren't in any rush, we've broken from the hurly-burly haste of our lives and we are free to discuss and debate and reflect, and the food will be there when we are ready for it.

Of course, that doesn't happen at our sedarim, in general.
First, because the stress of preparing for Pesach leaves people frazzled.
Second, because the more luxury you create with fine dishes and cutlery, the more you need to clean up afterward and have piled up in your kitchen until the end of Yom Tov, ruining the atmosphere considerably.
Third, because the people who are supposed to be enjoying the seder are the same people who need to prepare the food in the kitchen.
And fourth, because the leisurely discussion is enforced by the pages of text, and isn't necessarily good for small children and elderly relatives and people who aren't familiar with the nature of Torah study and debate and don't understand what's going on.

Still, I feel that this is the answer to the age-old question of why we hold the meal at the Seder until after page after page of discussion. It's not meant to be torture; it's meant to show that we are taking our time, we are not rushed, we are enjoying a beautiful table, wonderful company, and the luxury of being able to proceed at our own pace.

[And yes, this is a direct contrast with the chipazon haste of Egypt, but that's a topic for another time.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

On Rabbinic Autonomy

A while back, I was speaking to a young rabbi who was entering his first pulpit, and he mentioned that in a shul he would have the freedom and flexibility to do that which he thought was most important for the community, and to do at the time that he felt would work best for thim and for the community. That reminded me of an important lesson regarding the synagogue rabbinate, as well as life in general: Don't confuse limited autonomy for total freedom.

It is true that shuls tend to trust their rabbis to make their own schedules; the rabbi decides when to visit people in the hospital and when to prepare shiurim, how much time to spend on counseling and administration and teaching and tzedakah distribution, and whether the shul needs another shiur or another chesed program. However, the rabbi who mistakes this brand of autonomy for total freedom is, in my opinion, making a significant error.

The shul rabbi's autonomy is like that of any contractor – the board wants a healthy community, and trusts the rabbi to decide how best to do that. However, the shul has a vision of what a healthy community looks like, and the rabbi who ignores their vision in favour of his own does so at his own peril. [Note: the wise rabbi will openly and honestly share his vision of "healthy community" when interviewed, and the search committee should vote for a rabbi whose vision matches that of the shul.]

If the shul wants a community in which members regularly consult with the rabbi about their personal troubles or schmooze with the rabbi at the kiddush, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

If the shul wants a community in which the rabbi teaches a shiur for every group of three Jews who want it, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

If the shul wants a community in which the rabbi is a regular contributor to the Op-Ed columns of the local newspaper and a bridge-builder to other sectors of society, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

Of course, there is ample opportunity for the rabbi to sell his vision, and if the community responds well, then that may come to be the community's vision. And the sensitive rabbi is open to learning and evolving, and adapting his vision to the lessons he picks up in the community. The "healthy community" vison may well be a moving target, and both parties can/should shift and grow.

My point is only what I said at the outset: The rabbi dare not confuse limited autonomy for total freedom. Keep an eye on your job description, my friend.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A new blog

For the near future, at least, I've decided to start a new blog. I'm not sure how long I will keep at it, but it's at least an outlet for frustration and at best a constructive way to disseminate useful material. You can find it at Feel free to email me your thoughts.