Sunday, April 16, 2017

Tradition? “tradition”

**Note -- sorry about the lack of hyperlinks. I wrote this in Word and C/P it here. I tried to make the included references into links but got bored.

A while ago, I was considering whether to go to Israel for an upcoming holiday, one that in the US would be celebrated for 2 days (, but only for 1 in Israel ( The practice of the second day developed outside of Israel because of a concern over the exact date of the new month ( declaration (which would in turn affect the certainty of the date of a holiday later in the month). In Israel, where there was no uncertainty, no extra day was needed. This practice was so established ( that when Hillel II fixed the calendar scientifically (, the 2 day practice was institutionalized. But what is still argued is whether someone visiting Israel has to celebrate two days, as his minhag ( (sort of “tradition”, sort of “accepted practice) would dictate, or one day because “when in Rome” ( The underlying question seems to be whether the tradition is incumbent on the person or the place and which, in any situation is dominant if the two practices are different.

Minhag avoteichem b’yadeichem (being careful about keeping family traditions) --

Minhag hamakom (customs that are based in adhering to a local practice) -

Certain practices are clearly subject to the location – if one goes to Jerusalem, even as a visitor, over Purim, one celebrates Purim on Shushan Purim, a day after when he would celebrate it were he in an unwalled city. His practice is dictated by where he is. Similarly, a Kohen who visits Israel from the US says the Priestly blessing daily as is the Israeli practice. Regardless of the law which applies to him outside of Israel, a change in location affects how he behaves. The law seems to be on the place, not the person.

I also wanted to donate plasma over chol hamo’ed. I spoke with my rabbi and he said that the understanding of the law dictated that something quasi-medical but not definitively life threatening that could be rescheduled should be. I pointed out that in Israel, the Magen David Adom actually encourages people to donate blood over chol hamo’ed and I’m sure that they do so with the knowledge of the rabbinate. He guessed that the difference is that in Israel, and reduction in donations (because of the size of the country and the constant concern of attack) would immediately and certainly become a life threatening set of conditions. I wondered then, if I were to travel there, would the local understanding of law and application of it apply to me as well – is the issue the way my authority rules or the way a law develops in relationship to the geography of the adherents.

This question also applies then to the question of kitniyot, legumes, on Passover. Ashkenazic Jews have developed a minhag/tradition/practice with the power of law not to eat them. One reason ( has to do with the confusion over grains when similar objects are stored with each other. Because one could not ensure that a given grain-type product was free of the 5 grains which must be guarded and controlled on Passover, the rule was established to eschew all similar looking products ( But in communities where the offending legumes were not mixed in, or were checked, the practice never took hold ( There was never any uncertainty about the unadulterated status of the legumes there so there was never any need to prohibit them ( This is the case with many communities within the Sephardic tradition.

So what if I were to visit some place which historically never established this minhag. Is the law on me or the location? I am not asking about my practice if I eat at someone’s house in Teaneck and the person is Sephardic and eats kitniyot but about being somewhere where there was never the worry which demanded that the tradition even exist. Shouldn’t I be able to eat legumes because the concern over their status – the exact reason why I am forbidden, is completely alien and assuredly not the case! If the law is on me specifically then it needs no reason: I can’t eat legumes simply because of an accident of parentage. But if other practices as listed above switch based on where I am, regardless of my birth, why shouldn’t this.

And then the question of 1 or 2 days of the holiday returns. If there is ample precedent for abiding by the rules of the location, then why would there be any reason for me to celebrate 2 days in Israel? Their understanding and application of the law didn’t have the development of the 2nd day in the same way that their location and conditions provide for a different day for Purim, and an allowance to duchen daily, or give blood on chol hamo’ed. Why am I subject to their practices in certain cases and not in the case of the second day of the holiday, unless one wants to say that the law is on the person, not on the place.

Maybe this all depends on the notion of “law” vs. “tradition” vs. "minhag" and maybe the gradations between and within each are too fine (and they are certainly beyond my understanding), but it seems almost arbitrary to require that certain practices stay with the individual no matter his location while others are flexible if he changes and eliminates the condition of uncertainty which inspired the distinct practice.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

To the big guy:

No, not the "Big Guy" but certainly the big guy. To the big daddy, the papa doc, the DOD, RAR, the Imperious Loudmouth, the man who taught me what "prolix" means, and who taught me to study before I spend, the guy who got me hooked on leftover casserole, who still teaches me about morality and mortality, the man who proved that righteous indignation is genetic and a man of whom Rabbi Akiva would be the man who was an early adopter but a believer that new is always good, who serves the public good and who models being a good person, rather than lecturing about it, to the daddy-o who got me to cherish the word, and almonds and who thanks the world for not someone who never stops surprising me and makes me want to be better at being who I am, who has been a curmudgeon with a heart of gold for as long as I can remember, and someone who made decisions upon decisions so that others would be the intellectual who laughed at Monty Python with me (though he might not remember it, he really enjoyed the Crunchy Frog sketch and I won't let him forget it) and who enjoys movies with explosions and unmemorable the trail blazer who taught me to try things once, do what needs to be done and get it done right (but if it isn't right, own up to it and fix it), eschew the spotlight and focus on results, to the celebrity who never quite made it onto Italian television, to the armchair grammarian, the pilot, the story teller, the man who taught me to love the clutch and use him often, to someone who understands what it means not to like people but to love his People and who made sure that I could do what it was I wanted to the doctor who diagnoses gout every day, the teacher who knows that the biggest challenge is helping people learn on their own and to the student who still has worlds to conquer

to my dad:

Happy birthday. To 120 and six months.

[and yes, I know that today is not exactly his birthday, but when the muse strikes, the iron is hot]

Monday, April 3, 2017

I'm an Idiot

Sometimes I find myself alone, sitting, and thinking about life. Car rides are like that. Rainy afternoons at home when there is nothing on but old cooking shows and movies I either have seen too many times, or have no interest in seeing. I let my mind wander and inevitably it fastens on some completely and unforgivably stupid thing that I have done. And there are plenty to choose from.

By word of preface and apology, this post will be introspective and vague, often because the idiocy in which I engaged would still have consequences were it discovered now. Not all the consequences involve the penal system but those that don't invoke embarrassment beyond what I can handle. So I shall repeatedly avoid specifics.

But trust me, I'm an idiot.

I really did dumb things. I ran around and climbed where I shouldn't climb. I put myself into physically dangerous situations and I could have been killed. More than once. It is starting to sound like a confessional litany in here. In fact, instead of going through each case, I can just make a list of some of the the things that could have happened to me had the world been an ever so slightly different place.

I could be dead, in jail, dead in jail, alone, in pain, insane, excised, despised, lost, tossed, ignored, abhorred, reported, deported, chased, maced, laced, erased, ashamed, blamed, named, defamed, fired, fried, tired, tried, afraid, flayed, hated, hurt, muddied, sullied, and a bunch of other things I can't even think of now.

By all rights, and according to the laws of the universe, I should be dead, or sad, or something even worse. I have been so lucky so far and I think that part of growing up is the admission that I was a jerk, a joke, a fool and a failure and I somehow got away with most of it.

I am trying to change, but so many of my stupidities only appear in the rear view mirror of life, so while I hope not to be such a reckless and wreckful idiot in the future, I issue blanket anticipatory (first strike) apologies. I want to live a life worth living and full of opportunities to rise above not crash and burn. I guess we'll see.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Purim Dvar Torah

Purim is, in certain ways, the absolute, unequivocal and unquestioned winner of “Most depressing holiday of the year.” The underlying facts surrounding it paint the bleakest possible picture. Consider other holidays

Channukah: the temple had earlier been destroyed and Antiochus is trying to finish the job, but a rag tag band of ne’er do wells rises up and, in the Cinderella story (well, the version where she kills all the bad people) they win and eat fatty food. Awesome. Today, we won’t let anyone “finish the job” because we really appreciate fatty food!

Passover: We were slaves in Egypt and things were bad, but then a charismatic leader inspires us and we, a rag tag band of ne’er do wells up and walk out so that we can complain for 40 years even though we get breakfast in bed EVERY SINGLE DAY! We aren’t slaves like that anymore so the story won’t happen again. And Chopstix delivers.

The two Tus: In Sh’vat we talk about how great plants are, and Av, where ladies, dressed in white, run around in the meadows with no fear of getting their clothes dirty, for lo, they are protected by God and an invisible barrier available now, in new and improved Dreft.

Purim is such a downer because of something that I have missed until this year – at one point, the king, Achashveirosh, enacts a rule that people have to bow to Haman. Mordy refuses and the rabbis explain in Esther Rabba 6:2 that Haman was wearing a symbol of idolatry around his neck so Mordechai didn’t want to bow to idols. Depressing fact one – Jews are put in no win situations.

But hey, he gets away with it. For a while.

Then, in chapter 3, verse 4, the servants who observed Mordechai’s refusal finally tell Haman. Wait – what? He had an idol around his neck. He would have to have been facing the people when they bowed to him so that they would see the idol. How could he not have known that Mordechai was not bowing? Maybe he was not paying attention. Maybe he had bad eyesight. Maybe his people were pointing out that even in the future, Mordechai didn’t intend to bow. Who knows; all I know is that we would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids! Depressing fact two – when Jews are getting away with living their lives according to their faith, others narc on us and get us in trouble. And later, when Haman sees Mordechai doesn’t even stand or move (5:9) he decides to hang the guy. It isn’t that Mordechai didn’t bow anymore – he didn’t even rise. All Mordy was doing was SITTING THERE. Depressing fact three, even when Jews try to lie low and avoid conflict, it finds us.

And finally, when things do turn around, Esther, and her trusted sidekick Mordechai approach the king and ask him to rescind his order. Things are looking up, right? The king sees the problem and will let people defend themselves, right? Not so much. He shrugs his shoulders and says “there’s nothing I can do.” Depressing fact four – the people in charge don’t really want to help us. Sure, he tells Esti that she can think of something, but he wants no active part in helping.

OK, so if this is a depressing holiday, marked by the randomness of a lottery and the unfairness of arbitrary anti-Semitism (all of which echoes in this day and age) then what is the celebration all about?

It isn’t about “God saved us” that I can tell you. But, underneath it all, Judaism has never been about “God did the saving.” We learn in Pesachim 64b, Lo Samchinin Anisa, more popularly said as “Ein somchin al haness”, we don’t rely on miracles. And Purim reminds us that we are partners in our own salvation.

At the sea, the Children of Israel saw the Egyptians behind them and the water in front of them. They could have just prayed. They were supposed to have faith that God would save them, right? But they learned a lesson from Yaacov, who, when faced with Eisav’s army didn’t just pray, he also took proactive steps, sending gifts and preparing for battle. Simple faith isn’t enough! We have to take action. And at the sea, the medrash reports that Nachshon, instead of waiting for a miracle, walked in to the water up to his neck. This act is what triggered the sea’s splitting. The Maccabbees were stirred by the rallying cry of Mi lahashem eylai – whoever is for God is with me. But that cry was a call to arms – faith was demonstrated through action, not a crutch.

Mordechai was a man of faith. He was really informed of all things Jewish, including prayer. But while he dons sackcloth and ashes and cries, he doesn’t stop there. He stirs people to pray and fast. But is that enough? He could have dropped it at that and just let God, you know, do his thang. Instead he tells Esther that she has to act, and act now. Wait, she says, I’m gonna get in so much trouble – can’t we just wait and let the big man in the sky take care of this so I don’t get dead? He says, “NO.” We have to initiate the action, even at personal risk. You have to walk into the sea to get it to split. Yes, you have to pray, just to make it today, but the song doesn’t say “you ONLY got to pray” -- you also have to send gifts and prepare for war. Esther understands this allusion thousands of years before MC Hammer is born (possibly the true Purim miracle) and says “I’ll fast, but I’ll also take action” and it is the action, the plan (the plan was rock solid) which leads to the salvation of the Jews.

So what is the message of this horrible, depressing holiday? Is it that we will always be victims and that when the world conspires against us, we can sit back, do some prayer and rely on God to bail us out.


No, the message is that we can bring about our own survival by being proactive. Give charity, be friendlier and don’t wait til things get horrible and then start praying, expecting miracles. And when things get bad, as they generally do, don’t sit back and cry. Get on up and do something about it.

Purim reaffirms not just that God is God and that he will save us, but that we have to be Jews, rising up and accepting our responsibility, and carrying the burden of acting, being involved like the Maccabbees instead of demanding others solve our problems for us.

Friday, March 10, 2017

To A T

Let me tell you about kid number 2.

Kid number 2 is a bright, pure light. When she walks into a room, not only does SHE smile, but everyone smiles. The pets smile. Heck, inanimate objects smile. Kid number 2 is a force of joy. And maybe that's why I worry so much.

OK, to be fair, I generally worry so much. It's a thing I do. Telling me not to worry about my kid would be like telling a zebra not to worry about its kid and we all know how much zebras worry about their kids. Worry is one of the primary job elements of a parent -- I once asked my parents (after I had "grown up") when they stopped worrying about me and the response was "We'll tell you when it happens." But there are different flavors of worry. My elder is in the army so I worry. She is barely 20 and she is walking around carrying a gun. I would prefer that she not walk with scissors so the whole gun thing makes me want to buy some Rogaine so I can grow some hair so I can lose my hair from worry. But that's the kind of worry that is prompted by the natural growing up. My worry about number 2 is a bit different.

First off, I worry because she is a happy soul in a sad and angry world. The world beats down happiness and I can't protect her from the "winds of heaven that would visit her face too roughly". And I see when the world dulls her shine. I see her when the girl drama that comes from having teen-aged girls interact with other teen-aged girls swallows her up with petty squabbles and political in-fighting. I see when school and life, with their incessant demands keep her from enjoying the process of living. I see her when she is most alone, sad and vulnerable, when her inner-joy, exhausted by the attempts to drown it, simply gives up, if only for a time. So I worry.

I worry because she takes the weight of it all onto her shoulders. She gives up what she has claim to so that others will be happy. She allows others to be put first because she cares more about their satisfaction than about some phantom dream of success. She takes all the anger, pain and sorrow and internalizes it. Now, maybe you will suggest that she is "too sensitive" and that things shouldn't get to her. But you know what, that sensitivity is her strength. She feels, for herself and for others and I wouldn't have her change that for anything. Does it mean that some things rise to the level of drama that others might be able to slough off? Maybe, but it means that she can read a situation with a precision that eludes those others because her various -pathy skills are more finely sharpened.

So when she comes to me saying that she doesn't feel good, or well for that matter, I worry even more. A headache here, a stomach ache there and I start worrying. Is she stressed out because of life, or because life is beating her down? Is she cracking under the strain of trying not to crack? Is there something real and physical which I need to catastrophize about (because I, naturally, do)? Is it because she watches too much television (that girl will grow up and go into television show development, just so she can greenlight shows so that she will have something to binge watch). Is it that such a pure, shining light is contraindicated in a world like this that has gone to seed so something bad is certainly to happen? And when she demands, I worry because she is calling out saying, "I never ask for anything so just give me this one!" But sometimes, even that one is a bad idea and I have to say "no" and be more reason for her to be sad. Yes, it is my job to say "no" as a parent, but it is tough to say "no" to someone who is so frequently willing to say, "no thanks."

But she is also my hope for the future. She is not angry and she is not giving up. She is why I believe that the next generation can turn this wreck of a planet around and make it sing, if one could imagine planets sing. I see her joy when she dances for no reason, and makes jokes with her dizzying intellect, and I see her insightfulness when she asks questions and wants to understand her world. I see her interact with adults and children with a practiced maturity which allows her to connect with all others. She laughs and the world can't but laugh with her and she dreams big and works to make dreams come true.

So I worry. I worry about her day-to-day existence, her future and prospects, her friendships and her challenges. Will she find a love worthy of her and will fortune allow her to be what she wants to be. I worry about each complaint and setback. I worry about how sad she is, even when she is happy, and I hope that maybe, in some magical way, my worrying will take some of the pressure off of her and put it on to me. Here's to my second kid -- the cause of, and solution to, much of my worrying.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Unnamed

There's a new baby boy on the block and my greatness has increased by the measure of one infant. Strangely, I don't get to append another "great" onto my title of "great uncle" even though my niece and her hubban have been blessed with another child. Nor does my title expand even though they now have a boy and a girl. But what is strangest is that, for the next week, the child will be he who has not been named.

In the Jewish tradition, a girl is named at the first Torah reading that the dad (or proxy...I've seen proxy) can make it to after the birth, so a girl need not go without a name for more than 3 days (assume a birth right after prayers on Monday morning). But a boy, barring medical delay, waits until the 8th day, at the circumcision to get a name. Girls, it seems, mature faster than boys even in this department. Why do we wait to confer a name (read: identity) on a boy? According to one site I found, the original bris was made in conjunction with a name so we commemorate that by delaying the naming until the bris. I guess that since Sarah was not "named" in connection to a mitzvah ritual, her name needs only to be announced in a public setting, like a Torah reading. But I've been mulling this over like a good cup of cider and have come to a strange conclusion -- the Jewish boy doesn't achieve a position of communal relevance until he has been ushered into the group by means of the circumcision and therefore his name, while the girl belongs to the community as soon as we can all get together and celebrate her arrival! This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be caring about the child until then, only that the boy lacks a certain innate spiritual position and needs to have his place physically marked, whereas a girl is automatically connected to our heritage and can have her name within the Jewish people practically immediately!

When God changed Avram's name to Avraham, at the time of circumcision, he changed Avraham's status from a local father (Av Aram) to a father of a multitude (Av hamon). Sarai ("my princess") became a princess to all. But nothing happened to her. She could have become that princess to all at any time -- she had to wait for Abraham to get his act together and achieve HIS new status. She was already there -- a princess and a princess in waiting, while he needed God to step in to make him into something proper via the circumcision. Her status as barren changed with a new name so her name was not allowed to be changed any earlier; she could not be the mother of Abraham's child until HE was Abraham, even though she, on her own merits, was spiritually where she needed to be.

So back to this baby, whatever his name will end up being. In one week he will be on his path to greatness, with a name which influences and reflects a strong family, a heritage worth commemorating and a destiny which will, God willing, have him become another pillar in the Jewish community.

Though I'm sure I should wait until the bris and for his official welcome into the community, I figure that with the time zone difference, it is already next week in Israel so I say Mazal Tov to the parents, grand and great grandparents, family, friends and other relatives.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rabbinette

In case you don't know it, I am a rabbi. Strange but true.

A number of years ago, I, realizing my own weakness in my understanding of Judaism, started looking for someone who would teach me what I needed to know to be a good and informed Jew. The program I found was part of a kollel, a religious learning program, and graduates are awarded rabbinic ordination. So I sort of stumbled into the title. It wasn't my goal -- the goal was simply to be better by knowing more stuff.

So I'm a rabbi. And amidst all the current hubbub about women rabbis, I have been trying to forge a position. Now, truth be told, I haven't read all the fancy position papers and responsa and articles in all the papers, and maybe that's why I'm struggling. Trying to make up my mind without knowing things is tough; but I've never let that stop me before, so why start now?

Here's the thing: I have no idea what a "rabbi" is or does so I can't figure out what all the fuss is about. And remember, I speak as someone considered a rabbi! So if I have no idea, odds are others have even less. What I'm going to present here is a collection of MY thoughts -- I represent no branch, institution or specific ideology other than the Congregation of Ignorance, of which I share the presidency with millions of others.

I was trying to figure out what a rabbi is and does because only then could I make an informed inference about the propriety of a woman's performing said function so I figured I would break down what I see rabbis do and ask for each thing, is it religiously OK for a woman to do that.

1. I studied a large collection of Jewish texts and sources on a variety of topics. Can a woman, according to Modern Orthodox Judaism, study what I studied? It seems that, yes, she can. I work in a school in which girls and boys study the same material.

2. I attended classes and discussions about aspects of Jewish law. Can a woman attend these classes? I think so. Even if the class were to be offered in a separate setting for a female audience, nothing in the content was secret or related to gender.

3. My ordination attests to my having passed a test about certain areas of Jewish law. Can a woman take a test? I don't know why a woman wouldn't be able to take a test.

4. Some rabbis teach classes in Jewish text or which review Jewish laws and ideas. Of course, some teachers of the same content are men who are NOT rabbis, just learned scholars, so it isn't specifically a function of a rabbi to teach texts. Can a woman teach texts? Many already do.

5. Some rabbis officiate at weddings. But, in fact, one does not need to be a rabbi to "officiate" a wedding. Very little is done by an officiant. The gender limitations related to saying prayers are not related to being ordained.

6. Leading a funeral? Same as #5. While a woman might be precluded from reciting certain prayers, it isn't about ordination.

7. In some synagogues, the rabbi leads services. But that isn't due to his having ordination. A layperson can lead services. If a woman cannot, it is because gender and leading prayers is a separate discussion. This is not about a rabbi.

8. Sometimes, a rabbi gives a sermon. But one need not be a rabbi to deliver a sermon. Is there a problem with a woman standing in front of a congregation at all? If so, that is a gender issue but not a rabbi one, as many who stand are not rabbis, and there are plenty of rabbis who never lead a congregation. Already young women in MO schools give speeches to all others on Torah topics and lead discussions. Can a woman be a synagogue president? The often cited problem of serarah, leading, has been discussed as it applies to Kosher supervision and being a shul president but that might not even be relevant! Is it immodest for a woman to be up on the bimah, talking? Is it wrong for a woman to make decisions which place her in a position of power over a man? Let's assume that to be the case -- not every rabbi is a congregational one, or one who supervises, or who makes eict and establishes law and practice for others. If one takes out any and all aspects of the position of rabbi which demand a public presence and persona, and boil "rabbi" down to a title reflecting learning, then all those objections go away.

9. Some rabbis visit the sick, or collect money for the poor. A woman can do that.

10. If I have a question of observance, sometimes I ask a rabbi and he reviews the literature and the sources and can explain an answer. However, this is often not done by a local rabbi -- instead, he asks a higher up rabbi (I recall the story of a co-worker who studied with his rabbi for 25 years before he was ordained. Afterwards, his instructing rabbi said "If I find out you ever tried to make a legal decision, I'll kill you.") Can a woman call a higher authority, explain a fact pattern and transmit the response to a lay person? I think so.

11. A rabbi sometimes looks up sources himself and points to texts which would answer a query. Can a woman read the same texts and refer the questioner to the source so he can learn it and apply it to his situation? I would think so. Already, women are approved as authorities in particular areas. Why would a woman be limited to certain areas of law? The books are the same for other topics.

12. A rabbi often establishes religious norms (in terms of liturgy or tradition) for his congregation. But a ritual committee can make decisions without a rabbi, simply aping the practices of other communities. If a rabbi is not necessary, then anyone on the committee, male or female is a viable voice.

The fact is, the title "rabbi" and the position of rabbi are not well defined these days. The proliferation of available texts and the incredible wealth of Torah law and writing on the internet, in religious schools and synagogue collections has empowered many more people to study and develop expertise so as to help others on the journey. Other than the title which proves that I passed a test, the position of rabbi, as it applies to me, is really vague.

So, again, I'm speaking out of ignorance here. Would someone please explain to me precisely what function which is exclusive to someone called "Rabbi" is not able to be carried out by a woman? Can the title as a reflection of learning be separated from (some or all of the facets of) the communal leadership role which seems to concern some people?

As a final note -- please do not take this as an approval, tacit or otherwise, of women being granted ordination under Jewish law. But it is likewise not a disapproval -- it is a cry for help in understanding the issue. I am too unlearned to have an opinion at this point.