Religious Vegetarianism – is it time?

When I was 17, I happened upon a book I received for my Bar Mitzvah (!) by the name of “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, written by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. In it, he discusses vegetarianism as a religious ideal; its origins, merits, and dangers.

Here’s the (very!) short version:

  • Man was never intended to eat meat as it is immoral to derive pleasure from the suffering/death of other living creatures
  • Humanity failed to live up to the high moral standards set forth by God, leading to the flood
  • Man was permitted, temporarily, to eat meat for 4 reasons:
    1. Each “level” of creation needs to contribute its part to the gradual development and elevation of the world. In his current state, man depends – physically and emotionally – on eating meat for the world to develop.
    2. It is futile to try and maintain a moral standard of sensitivity towards animals while the world is filled with cruelty between humans. Humanity must first purge itself from far greater injustices before doing so towards animals.
    3. A prohibition to eat meat reinforces an equation between the species, legitimizing humans seeing themselves and acting no different than animals. Permission to eat meat instills the distinction between the species and therefore, an understanding that man is more than an animal, with greater expectations.
    4. Abstention from eating meat can create a false sense of morality which would – consciously or unconsciously – serve as an excuse for other immoralities. Eating meat serves as a “vent” for mans lower, animalistic, aggressions. Left without that “vent” people would find other, human, aggression vents, while still convinced they are moral due to their vegetarianism. (remember the stories of the vegetarian SS commanders walking their dogs through the camps?)
  • The Torah’s laws pertaining to animals incorporate both aspects – allowing man the use of meat while minimizing the cruelty involved in it while forcing him realize the moral compromise it involves. By following these “balance keeping” laws, man’s sensitivity towards animals can slowly develop, alongside humanity’s general moral development, towards the day when the full ideal of vegetarianism is natural and obvious.
  • In the meantime, vegetarianism should not be adopted by the masses but only by pious individuals who already lead lives of higher moral and religious standards. If the masses were to adopt it, he warns, it could lead – like during the generation of the flood – to the denigration and moral corruption of humanity.

Being the 17 year old idealist that I was, I knew for a fact that when Rav Kook spoke about the pious individuals who could take on vegetarianism, he was, obviously, talking about me… Six months later, after rereading the essay, I realized that – no, he wasn’t. I found myself looking down judgmentally at non vegetarians, excusing certain behaviors and avoiding guilt trips due to a new found sense of self righteousness. Thus ended my romance with vegetarianism.

Ever since, I have struggled with the topic and the degree to which I should or should not re-adopt it. Recently, inspired by the public display of vegetarianism by Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, the following thought has begun to haunt me:

How are we to understand the fact that animal cruelty today is the worst in history. Due to factory farming and the mass production of meat for human consumption and commercialization, animal cruelty is more severe and more systematized then could possible be previously imagined (I dare you to go on youtube and search “factory farming” or “animal cruelty“. Let’s see how long you can bare to watch)
Keeping in line with Rav Kook’s philosophy, the fact that, through industrialization, animachicksGroundDownl cruelty has become:
1. So severe
2. So well known and undeniable
One must say 1 of 2 things:
Either we are in greater danger than before of “blurring the species lines” (reason no.3) and in greater need of “non-human aggression vents” (reason no.4), or, these new scale cruelties are a divine “nudge”, forcing us to realize what was always there to a tolerable degree has now reached a horrible epoch, one that can no longer be rationalized by moral philosophy and that we have no choice but to move towards adopting vegetarianism on a larger scale.

Considering that Rav Kook also holds that the world – as a whole – is constantly moving towards greater moral refinement (something I believe with every fiber of my being, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel)
and that
The alternatives for a non-vegetarian diet are so easily accessible or even produced,
I wonder if we are ready to take on a greater moral standard and progress towards vegetarianism. Meaning, if in past generations there was a certain correlation between man’s lower moral standards and limited- “personal use”- animal cruelty, we now find ourselves with an opposite correlation – higher moral standards on the one side but increased animal cruelty on the other.
Personally, I feel less and less capable of rationalizing the support of and participation in the industrialization of animal cruelty, while aspiring to the loftiest moral and religious ideals.
What about you?

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A letter to my fellow Shlichim: How to educate to Aliyah

We know that in our work as Shlichim we will not be influencing the masses to make Aliyah. Based on historical precedence, the masses will make Aliyah only when and if large scale historical events take place such as dramatic shifts in the political and/or economic situations in the “host countries” and/or in Israel. As Shlichim we hope to influence individuals; individual students, individual families, individual classes and if we’re lucky – individual schools or shuls. But even among those with whom we have a close relationship, those who we teach day in and day out, those who hear our Shiurim on a daily basis, the influence towards actual Aliyah is frustratingly negligible. One can argue that the decision to make Aliyah is a dramatic one and needs to come about gradually and slowly but still – we have to admit that the numbers are frustratingly small, especially considering the efforts devoted to it.

I have found that there are 3 common approaches to educating towards Aliyah. Below is a short description of each approach including the advantages and disadvantages of each. I’d then like to suggest a 4th approach; one which I believe is sorely absent and may very well be far more effective.

Approach 1 – The “Stage 1, Stage 2” Approach

This approach holds that stage one is to connect people to Torah and Mitzvot in general and only once that is achieved you move on to stage two – connect them to Israel and Aliyah in particular. Advantages It seems to makes a lot of sense. How can you expect someone to follow the commandment of uprooting their lives and family due to belief in the holiness of The Land of Israel if they don’t first have a strong connection and obligation to Torah on its more simple levels? Disadvantage This approach is usually applied when dealing with people who are just discovering or rediscovering Judaism and observance. What happens if you never reach stage 2? Or if people become content with stage number 1? The goal of securing Israel as a central part of their understanding of Torah can easily be missed completely, let alone have them actually make Aliyah.

Approach 2 – The “Let’s Paint the Whole Picture” Approach

This approach holds that you focus on every topic appropriately. When getting to the appropriate places, Parshat Lech-Lecha, for example, one would naturally teach about the value of Israel and Aliyah but when in Parshat Noach – you wouldn’t Advantage This is a more accurate portrayal of Torah, where Eretz Yisrael is one topic – albeit an extremely important one – among many other topics This approach also allows for a steady and inconspicuous influence. The Shaliach is not seen as brainwashing listeners or too demagogic in his understanding and teaching of Torah Disadvantage People will think that Eretz Yisrael is just another topic within Torah, whereas, as Shlichim, we believe it is the topic in Torah most important for them to be aware of – realizing there is something fundamental missing from their lives as Jews.

Approach 3 – The “One Track Mind” Approach

This approach tries to connect everything, one way or another, to Eretz Yisrael. No matter the topic, no matter the Parsha or the occasion – the bottom line of the speech/Drasha/Shiur will be – “Israel is amazing” and/or “… therefore make Aliyah” and/or “this is what it teaches us about Israel today”, etc… A good example of this would be focusing exclusively in Parashat Bereshit on the 2 sentences of Rashi discussing Eretz Yisrael while ignoring the more obvious, very significant, topics in the Parsha… Advantage The message does not get lost among other information. The intensity and exclusivity of the message is clear. Repetition is a strong tool in education. Disadvantage People become desensitized to the message. Who will honestly buy that the message of every Parsha is the obligation to make Aliyah or that Israel is the most important concept in Torah? The Shaliach can be perceived as a demagogue and risks becoming irrelevant. There are different individuals/groups who may respond better to one approach verses the other and more often than not, we find people using different variations of all three.

Approach 4 – the “It’s Not About the Content, It’s About The Personality” Approach

This approach looks at the question within a much larger context. All three previous approaches are missing a very important point, that is – what actually motivates people towards action? People are rarely motivated to act, let alone life altering ones, based on logical argumentation. They do so either because they have no – or little – choice or because they identify with the value represented by that change. If we want people to make Aliyah because they value living in Israel – living in a Jewish country and state – they need to value it, personally. Valuing living in Israel in contrast to living in North America necessitates a certain kind of character, a character which has an affinity and identification with a national identity as opposed solely to a communal one. This is precisely what seems to be almost completely absent from North American Jewish identity, especially the youth.

How many American teens know, let alone care, about any political issues? How many of them are involved in discussions about immigration law, gun control or American foreign policy? How many of them can name a single government official other than the President (and possibly the VP)? To be clear – I do not blame them for this, rather, am just pointing out that for majority of American teens, the boundaries of the world they feel part of does not extent far beyond their tight nit communities and the comatose inducing world of commercialism. Contrast that with Israeli youth. Though they are exposed to the same commercialism and (sub) culture, they cannot escape the realities of life in Israel which – by definition – lend themselves to the formation of personalities with an expanded awareness of the world around them. There is not a teenager in Israel that cannot tell you which political party they support, who the finance minister is and how well he is performing his job and what Israel should do to finally achieve peace with the Arabs. When comparing North American youth to their Israeli counterpart’s one immediately identifies that most North American youth are lacking an entire section of identity – a national consciousness. Is it any wonder than that appealing to their intellect does not motivate them to make such a dramatic change in their lives? Giving up the comfort of friends and family, the comfort of cultural familiarity and the comfort of relative material contentment? Therefore, in order to promote Aliyah we need to mold characters that posses a national conciseness, that identify with its values and therefore able to internalize and act on the message of Aliyah.

How does one do this? I’ve actually found it to be simpler than it may seem: teach Torah – all topics in Torah – within the context of a national identity and existence. A few short examples:

1. Shabbat – less of a focus on its beauty and serenity and more of an emphasis on the role Shabbat has played in preserving Am Yisrael and the fact that the entire world has adopted the Shabbat model from us. Stage two very well may be the beauty of Shabbat, the time with the family, etc… but Shabbat begins as an אות, a covenant between Am Yisrael and Hashem, reminding us that we were taken out of Mitzraim. (First we are obligated by Shabbat Mitzraim, only then – by Shabbat Bereshit).

2. Shmirat Mitzvot – Emphasis on the aspect of continuity, that being a link in a long and consistent change makes one part of something big and meaningful. Another direction is to see the transformative affect the Jewish People have had on the world by maintaining our unique culture and way of life.

3. Tfila – Emphasizing that aspect of Tfila which has to do with the needs of the nation as a whole. Shmone Esre is not about a personal connection to Hashem, rather, yearning for the loftiest ideals of the Jewish People as a collective. Individual Tfila should be looked over by any means but we should not let it hijack Tfila’s primary – national purpose.

4. Israel – de-emphasize Israel’s role as a ‘safe haven’ from persecution or just ‘a great place to keep Torah’, and play up the role of the Land of Israel and the State of Israel in the fulfillment of Jewish Destiny and as the realization of the dreams, hopes and prayers of millions of Jews throughout thousands of years.

These are but few examples of how approaches to “regular” topics can create a different – and deeper – context to Torah in a way that powerfully impacts personality and values thus opening the way to Aliyah not just being an ideal to strive for, rather, an actual plan of action. I have found that it can be done in every area of Torah, in every Parsha, for any Simcha or event and so on. To be clear – I don’t think it is a trick or a manipulation. I believe this approach should be used not only because it is affective, rather, because I think it is correct. The entire Torah is זכר ליציאת מצרים in remembrance of the fact that Hashem took us out of Egypt, created us as a nation and defined our destiny as a national-communal one: ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש a kingdom of priests and a holly nation. I believe that only through the lens of our collective identity can one truly understand Torah and because it is true – it has the greatest chance of success, even for those who have forgotten long ago what it means to be part of a full Jewish national identity. It doesn’t mean they cannot be reminded.

Adults and youth whose spiritual world will be built with this orientation will find themselves naturally drawn towards the ideal of Aliyah, not only because they will become convinced of its truth rather because they will identify themselves within the collective and national ideal which are the increasing reality of the Land and State of Israel.

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The Legacy of American Judaism

1. Intro

Years ago, I was contemplating taking a summer job working with Jewish American teens in the US. Even though it was a fairly simple summer job I none the less debated whether it was the right “path” to take or whether I should invest my time and energy in educational endeavors in Israel. When discussing the issue with one of my rabbis, he asked me why I wanted to go. I answered that it would allow me to teach and promote a stronger relationship between American Jewish kids and The Land and State of Israel and therefor promote Aliyah (immigration to Israel). He responded that, “though indeed that is the only legitimate reason to leave, logic dictates that for that exact reason you should stay in Israel”. He explained that the largest waves of Aliyah have not occurred due to the educational efforts of individuals, rather due to large scale changes in Israel itsStatueOf Libertyelf; the settling of the land during the first decades of the Zionist movement, the establishment of the State of Israel, the Six Day War and the financial boom of the 1990’s. “If you really care about American Jews and want them to come to Israel – stay here and make Israel better”. When I asked “what about the meantime; what about all the Jews who will be lost – intermarried and assimilated – between now and the time when Israel can just draw them in?”. He looked me squarely in the eyes and said: “that’s not your problem”. With time, I learned that my rabbi’s answer, which shocked me at the time, was simply an expression of a deeply seeded approach towards world Jewry.

Throughout the past 20 years, during which I have made it my “problem”, I’ve found myself from time to time revisiting that exchange, wondering about its premise – that the only reason to invest in American Jewry is for the sake of promoting Aliyah (in one way or another). At the same time, as I was increasingly exposed to American Jewry and American Judaism, a question began to develop, a nagging quarry that lay right beneath the surface of everything I saw and did. It has taken me years to realize that it wasn’t to do with the specific congregation where I served as the Rabbi or the summer camp I directed or the post secondary Yeshiva where I taught or the Yeshiva High School I am the principal of. There was an underlining question that has always been there waiting to finally be fully grasped and articulated:

“What is/will be the Legacy of American Judaism?”

In order to best explain what I mean by “The Legacy of American Judaism”, though, I need to present several prefaces.


2. Dual centers

For the past 50 years we find ourselves in a situation that has occurred only a small number of times in Jewish History, where the overwhelming majority of World Jewry is concentrated in 2 major centers. It’s happened with Israel and Babylon during the 3rd to 5th centuries, with Spain and Ashkenaz (Germany and Northern France) during the 12th to 14th centuries and (one could argue) again with Eastern and Western Europe in the 17th to 19th centuries. Each one of these distinct communities has uniquely contributed to the development of the Jewish People. Be it through major creativity in the development of Torah scholarship, major societal changes or new movements within Judaism. Though none of these locations continues to serve as a center for Jews or Judaism – Israel being the obvious exception – they have left rich legacies, deeply and forever embedded in the communal Jewish identity and existence.


3. American Jewry as a Center

Consider America Jewry. When in Jewish History has there been such a large concentration of Jews for so long a period of time? Jews have been living in America since 1654, when a group of Jews fleeing Recife, Brazil – in wake of the Portuguese invasion – requested and were granted entrance into New Amsterdam. Soon after, in 1678, they established a Jewish cemetery and in 1695, a Shul. By 1730 the young Jewish Community had built the first Shul in America – She’erit Yisrael. 100 years later there were approximately 2000 Jews living in 5 different cities – each with their own community and Shul. 100 years later, numbers swelled to approximately 200,000  and so on after that, with the waves of mass immigration and the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries – millions.

Sheerit Israel shul

First American Congregation – Sheerit Israel 1654

For over 350 years, the Jewish Community in America has grown and flourished becoming one of the largest Jewish communities in history, numbering today anywhere between 5.5 to 6.5 million (depending on who and how you count). Furthermore, the Jewish Community has integrated so deeply into the story of America itself that one could easily identify the truth in the revealing words of American Vice President Joe Biden that “Jewish Heritage is American Heritage” as well as the words of President Eisenhower who, in describing the intent of the founding fathers, identified the American Government as rooted in “The Judeo-Christian concept“. One cannot deny that in our generation we are once again experiencing this “dual center” phenomena – Israel and the US.


4. Why the Answer Matters

Throughout my life, growing up in Israel, I was taught to think of America solely as ‘Galut’ (exile) and of American Jewry as divided into two groups – those who will, sooner or later, make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel) and those who will intermarry and completely assimilate. There was no third possibility. The logic of this thinking lay in a deeply rooted theological belief that the divinely orchestrated and miraculous survival of the Jewish People throughout the long and dark exile was necessary due to Jewish statelessness and powerlessness. Now that, through divine providence, we have returned to Israel – to sovereignty and self rule – the divine protection of the Jewish People is no longer necessary or justified, as the purpose of that very survival is now coming to fruition in Israel. The Jewish Collective has been reborn, making protection of Jewish identity outside Israel not only unnecessary but even counterproductive.

As I became increasingly exposed to the various facets of American Jewry and the degree to which America and “its” Jews have become intertwined, I began to think about the issue differently. To best explain my personal paradigm shift I will use an important Israeli example – the attitude towards secular Jews.

Ben Gurion and The Chazon Ish

Ben Gurion and The Chazon Ish – the empty and full wagons

The classic Charedi (ultra Orthodox) approach has always been that of the “empty wagon”. Enlightenment, Secularism and heresy are not things of substance, rather, are an absence of faith. They are foreign influences which should be categorically rejected. Traditional Judaism, on the other hand, is the “full wagon” as it is filled with thousands of years worth of faith, heritage, traditions and way of life and when two wagons meet on a narrow path, the empty wagon must give way to the full wagon. The response to Secularism, according to this approach, has been to see no value in what the secular world had to offer. At best, they were willing to fill the ’empty wagon’ with the contents from the ‘full wagon’ but it was absolutely a one way street (or is at least proclaimed as such).

The second approach, that of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, identifies the events of history – first and foremost those of the Jewish collective – as one of the primary tools through which the Will of the Divine Providence appears. Enlightenment, Secularism and heresy are things of substance meant to advance, cleanse and purify the Jewish People (and through them the rest of the world and humanity). Though Rav Kook acknowledges the damage such phenomena may bring in their wake, he sees them as temporary collateral damage, similar to those of growth pains or even childbirth. As a consequence, Rav Kook’s approach towards secularism and secularists was one of inclusion, focusing less on the “exterior” of what was being verbalized and more on the internal process these elements were serving – the rebirth of the Jewish Collective in the Land of Israel – the third redemption. In many places in his writings, Rav Kook analyzes the processes that were taking place in his time and that would shape the future. He focused on the complex ambivalence towards individuals and groups who – in speech and action – seemed far from traditional Judaism but would ultimately realize and identify that the ideals in whose name they have been working so hard and in whose name they were rejecting traditional Judaism, can – and should – be realized through traditional Judaism itself. It is “our” job to identify and expose the “sparks”, the correct, positive and even divine elements of these social, political and theological phenomena, allowing the secularists to “find their way back” to traditional Judaism.

This approach of Rav Kook has, for decades, served as the primary theological approach of the Religious Zionist movement in Israel resulting in a positive approach and full cooperation with secular Zionism. Varying degrees of ambivalence towards individuals and individual actions continued to be an inherent component of the Religious Zionist philosophy. (The fact that this approach was patronizing, to say the least, did not escape the Religious Zionist community’s attention but did not detract from the conviction of its truth).

As the decades went by since Rav Kook, it became increasingly troubling that the expected “return” to traditional Judaism had not taken place. The majority of Jews in Israel were secular and seemed very comfortable with the idea. Things were made worse when not only did Religious Zionism not seem to gain numbers beyond natural growth, but many Religious Zionist youth began gravitating “out” to secular society. Additionally, as the Religious Zionist community began participating in the political leadership of the state they found themselves ill equipped to deal with many of its challenges. Most of all, though, it was getting increasingly difficult to reconcile the dichotomy between the external words and ideals of secular Israel and the “internal process” of the return to the land and nationhood. Nowhere was this more evident than in the approach of the Religious Zionist community to the question of “Land for Peace”. Ever since the question presented itself – primarily following the six day war – they have been caught between the “inner” process (the return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel) and the “outer” one (cooperating with the Secular Jews who are, supposedly, fulfilling those same internal goals regardless of what they say and do). Similar difficulties presented themselves in questions such as “Who is a Jew” in relation to the Law of Return, conversion laws as well as the status of Shabbat in the public domain. Reality was not behaving as anticipated and expected.

Due to these, as well as several other factors, a fundamental shift and revisiting of Rav Kook has been taking place in the past 15 to 20 years. There is a growing understanding that it is not just a matter of “them” realizing that the truths they hold so dear can – and eventually must – be found with “us”, the keepers of their long lost tradition. There is a growing understanding that just as the re-awakening of the Jewish Collective through statehood and sovereignty require and force “them” to rethink their assumptions and understanding of Judaism, Jewish identity and tradition, it requires no less from us, even if in a different way. The result has been that the past 10 years have seen a significant shuffling in what one could call Israel’s undefined “denominational lines”. Different segments of Israeli society have been searching together for something new, something which encompasses the truth and the best from all worlds and times. The realization has hit that “they” are not “going” anywhere, rather that we are all going somewhere new together.

I’d like to suggest that the same is true for the perspective on American Jewry. For decades, the official Zionist approach to all Jews outside of Israel was an accusatory one, expecting them to drop everything and ‘return home’. The rhetoric ranged from emphasis on past, present and future antisemitism to fear of intermarriage and assimilation – cultural and ethnic.AliyahAs the decades since the establishment of The State of Israel went by, it became increasingly troubling that the expected ‘return home’ did not take place. At least not from the US. For sure, many Jews from around the world came back but most were doing so from countries and societies where their were far worse off than they would be in the State of Israel. Since 1920 until today, less than 150,000 American Jews have made Aliyah to Israel representing around 0.02% of the entire Jewish community in the US. And they seem to be very comfortable with the idea. It does not help that between the years 1948 and today over 200,000 Israelis have immigrated out of Israel to the US, with some putting the numbers at more than double that. Additionally, Israeli culture has been – and continues to be – heavily influenced by American morals, ideals and culture. Most of all, at least for me personally, is the fact that American Jewry continues to not only exist but also to flourish. (I will not get into the question of rates of intermarriage and assimilation as the question is far, far more complex than people make it out to be. Additionally, it is by no means just a question of numbers. Anyone well versed in the study of Contemporary American Jewry knows that though rates of intermarriage grow in the periphery of American Jewry, the “core” is getting stronger. Especially in the past 10-15 years. Those who are choosing to stay, are far more serious about doing so than in the past. This phenomena is true to all Jewish denominations. Additionally, a growing number of even intermarried families are maintaining some relationship with Jewish identity. For those interested, more detail can be found here). The fact that it is possible to live a seemingly full and rich Jewish life, while also maintaining a strong relationship with the State of Israel has been increasingly weighing on my ability to continue seeing all of American Jewry as nothing more that living on suspended time. Once again, reality does not seem to be behaving as expected. Here too, I believe, there needs to be a shift from what “we” need to teach “them” about themselves and Judaism (that it is the best thing for them to come home whether they realize it or not) to a larger question, one that needs to be figured out together.

American Jewry is not going anywhere anytime soon. The thought that a community of 5.5 million Jews is not worthy of serious contemplation beyond “they are a passing phenomena” is anywhere between naive and questioning the divine’s guidance of Jewish History. This is not to say I don’t believe that the ideal place for all Jews is Israel. I most certainly do. This is not to say that I don’t think American Jewry will be harshly judged by Jewish History for their “armchair Zionism” rather then joining in in body and not just in heart and soul. I most certainly do. This is not to say I don’t believe that American Jewry is now far, far more dependent on Israel’s existence for the sake of their self identification than the opposite. I very much believe that. None of that changes the fact that American Jewry isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and that, as a community, they have a distinct identity which has contributed and will, for the foreseeable future, continue to contribute to the development and progression of the Jewish People. And none of that changes the fact that there is a growing sentiment that Jewish Identity in Israel has unresolved issues. There are things American Jewry need from us – a home to return to and a national consciousness – but there are things we need from them as well. What are those things?
Within the answer to that question, I believe, lay the understanding of the role and eventually, the legacy, of American Jewry. The question goes beyond historical curiosity and touches upon a fundamental question of faith in Hashem’s providence in history. I believe that such a marvelous and possibly unique phenomena in Jewish history must have something important, even vital, for the Jewish future.


5. Achievements vs. Legacy

Before I take a very presumptuous attempt at answering the question of the Legacy of American Jewry it is important to distinguish it from the achievements of American Jewry. If we were considering the achievements of American Jewry we would mention things such as:

-Paving the way for America being a place of religious tolerance and freedom

– Serving as a safe haven from the European destruction through the absorption of approximately 2.5 million Jews between 1880 and the 1930’s.

– Extensive Support for the Jewish community in Israel during WW1

– Support surrounding the establishment and continued success of The State of Israel through both major financial and political support.

– Significant participation in and contribution to the Civil Rights Movement

– The fight for Soviet Jewry

– Imparting Jewish ideals, values and standards into mainstream American culture and society; distant past, recent past and present

All these are, no doubt, significant accomplishments which American Judaism should be proud of but I do not believe they will have a lasting impact on the Jewish Collective. Most, if not all, of these events would have taken place regardless of American Judaism’s efforts. Soviet Jews would have, eventually, been let out anyway. The Civil Rights movement would have succeeded even without the high percentage of Jews in it. The State of Israel would have been established with or without their support and so on. These events serve more as internal landmarks for American Jewry itself, rallying points, helping it form and define its identity. Will they have a long lasting effect on Jewish History and on Jewish Identity? Do any of these achievements hold within them a new message or a fundamental development to be shared with and adopted by The Jewish People throughout history? I do not believe so.


6. Legacy Suggestion

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in something that has permeated throughout American Jewry’s existence so well and that we take so much for granted that it is hiding in plain sight. Tight nit communities have been a trademark of our existence for close to two thousand years. These community structures supplied most all of the needs of their members, including everything from education to welfare to religious services to leisure activities and much more. The communities served as both a protective shield from a hostile world as well as a societal “green house” allowing for religious and cultural existence and growth.

Both Jewish centers – Israel and the US – presented a shift in this age old model. Whereas in the past Jews had no choice but to live in insular communities due to persecution and various levels of antisemitism, in the US – possibly for the first time in over 1500 years of exile – Jews were free to live how they chose while being fully accepted into the general population. The freedoms given to Jews from the moment they set foot on American soil and have accompanied them ever since, have created a Jewish Community which very well may be completely unique in Jewish History.

Discrimination and persecution, the foremost challenges confronting most diaspora Jews through the ages, have in America been less significant historical factors than have democracy, liberty of conscience, church-state separation, and voluntarism. Emancipation from legally imposed anti-Jewish restrictions, and the penetration of secular “enlightenment” ideas into Jews’ traditional religious culture, central themes of Jewish history in Europe, have also been far less central to the history of the Jews in the United States. Expulsions, concentration camps, and extermination, of course, have never been part of American Jewish history. By contrast, in America, as nowhere else to the same degree, Judaism has had to adapt to a religious environment shaped by the denominational character of American Religions, the canons of free market competition, the ideals of freedom, and the reality of diversity (Dr. Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism)

This has resulted in a Jewish Community based purely on volunteerism. No external coercion – in the form of discriminatory laws, physical harm or foreign religious persuasion – have been part of the American Jewish experience. American Jews are free to choose if and to what degree to be, feel and act Jewish with no repercussions beyond their own private lives. Put otherwise, what is amazing is not that so many Jews in America have intermarried and assimilated. What is amazing is that so many did not! rather, they chose – despite having no coercion of any kind – to remain connected to their Jewish identity and tradition.

In Israel, on the other hand, Zionism sought to do away with the “exilic” model of the Shtetle and replace it with the national identity through sovereignty of a people in its land. What need is there for the Jewish Community when a Jewish State exists? The State of Israel saw itself as responsible not only for the safety and economy of the Jewish People but also of Jewish identity. This included not only religious services such as Shuls, Jewish Education, Mikva’ot (ritual bath houses) and Kashrut, all of which were now funded by the state but also general culture, community centers, language and even sports. The feeling was that there is no longer a need for the smaller societal circle of the community. The single individual and The Nation were to be enough. Except, they weren’t. In the past 20 years we see Israel experiencing a dramatic return to the communal model. A plethora of organizations, institutions and initiatives have been popping up throughout the country recreating the community dynamic. Examples include such things as the establishment of many small Yishuvim in the Negev and the Gallil, catering to various “specialty” forms of living, such as environmentalism, religious diversity or even the arts. Private and semi private schools, focusing on various specialty educational models, are an growing phenomenon. People are willing to pay large amounts of money to have their kids part of these separate school communities, despite excellent options in the public system. To be clear, these do not refer necessarily to religious schools, rather to schools which serve as a response to demand by the general public. Other examples for the return to the communal model can be found in the many lay learning groups, social communes and city “Kibbutzim” so prevalent in recent years and even in the speed in which people find themselves joining social network groups and forums devoted to various causes. All these phenomena demonstrate the degree to which people are no longer looking exclusively to the State or society at large  for a sense of identity. There is a need for an intermediary circle, larger than the individual but smaller than the nation for a person to discover and express themselves.

Based on all this, I’d suggest that the legacy of American Jewry is the communal and congregational structures within a pluralistic and liberal society that can then be transplanted to the framework of The Jewish State. Imagine an entire nation having a deep rooted sense of “if I don’t take responsibility for my own Jewish identity – no one will” coupled with the safety net of living in a Jewish State which promotes Jewish life and values through its mere existence and where there is not even the possibility of any real assimilation and persecution.

What was (and remains) for American Jewry a method of survival can become the tool through which The Jewish People – as an independent and sovereign society in the State of Israel – launch forward to a much richer, much more comprehensive Jewish life, penetrating through all levels of identity – the individual, the communal and the national.

 


7. Conclusion

The fact that Israel has what to teach and give American Jewry has been clear and evident for many years and will only continue to grow. But Israeli society is mature and confident enough to recognize that it has what to learn from American Jewry, as well. Continuing to adopt and develop the communal structure in Israel, while translating it to the unique Israeli setting, will not only serve to enhance the Jewish identity of many individuals who are searching for it but will also promote a better understanding of American Jewry, a wider platform for communication and cooperation and – influence.

One could only hope that as Israeli society becomes enriched through the “hand-off” of the communal model so carefully protected and developed by American Jewry, American Jewry realizes in turn that a whole new – and far more significant – legacy is only now beginning to form and its promise and potential extend far beyond the here and now and into the realm of the loftiest dreams and yearnings of our people.

בינו שנות דור ודור – let none of us be caught on the wrong side of history.

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Shabbat App Source Sheet

Over the past week, over 3,000 people have read the posts here and here about the Shabbat app. Many people have asked for sources, either for their own learning or in order to teach and discuss with others. Below can be found a small collection of 10 fundamental sources focusing on the understanding of תשבותו and ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר as the safeguards set by the Torah (according to some) and the rabbis (according to everyone) so Shabbat stays Shabbat.

I’d like to thank my friend and colleague Rabbi Elan Mazer for putting together the Hebrew sources – all translations are mine.


 שמות פרק כג, יב
שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ וְיִנָּפֵשׁ בֶּן־אֲמָתְךָ וְהַגֵּר

Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and your maidservant’s son and the stranger shall be refreshed.

 מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה ט
שמרתם את היום הזה לדורותיכם למה נאמר והלא כבר נאמר כל מלאכה לא יעשה בהם. אין לי אלא דברים שהם משום מלאכה דברים שהם משום שבות מנין ת”ל ושמרתם את היום הזה להביא דברים שהן משום שבות

“Safeguard this day for your generations” – why was it said? Isn’t it so that it already said “no labor [Melacha] should be done on them”?
I only learnקed [the prohibition of] things that are [prohibited as] a Melacha. Things that are [prohibited from being] a “Shvut” [ceasing[ – from where do we learn [they are prohibited]?
[For this] it says: “safeguard this day” – to include things that are from Shvut [ceasing].

רמב”ן ויקרא פרק כג פסוק כד
נראה לי שהמדרש הזה לומר שנצטוינו מן התורה להיות לנו מנוחה בי”ט אפילו מדברים שאינן מלאכה, לא שיטרח כל היום למדוד התבואות ולשקול הפירות והמתנות ולמלא החביות יין, ולפנות הכלים וגם האבנים מבית לבית וממקום למקום, ואם היתה עיר מוקפת חומה ודלתות נעולות בלילה יהיו עומסים על החמורים ואף יין וענבים ותאנים וכל משא יביאו בי”ט ויהיה השוק מלא לכל מקח וממכר, ותהיה החנות פתוחה והחנוני מקיף והשלחנים על שלחנם והזהובים לפניהם, ויהיו הפועלים משכימין למלאכתן ומשכירין עצמם כחול לדברים אלו וכיוצא בהן, והותרו הימים הטובים האלו ואפילו השבת עצמה שבכל זה אין בהם משום מלאכה, לכך אמרה תורה “שבתון” שיהיה יום שביתה ומנוחה לא יום טורח.

It is my view that the Midrash is saying that we were commanded from the Torah to rest even from things that are not a Melacha… therefore the Torah “Shabbaton” [day of ceasing], that it should be a day of ceasing and resting, not a day of toil.

חידושי הריטב”א מסכת ראש השנה דף לב עמוד ב
וברם צריך את למידע דכל מאי דאמרינן בכל דוכתא שבות דרבנן לאו למימרא שאין לנו שבות מן התורה כלל, דא”כ נמצאת שבת כחול מן התורה שהחנויות פתוחות ואוצרות תבואה ויין, ומטלטלין חפצים מבית לבית דרך כרמלית ומודדין ושוקלין ומונין, ואינו בדין שאסרה תורה הוצאה כגרוגרת והתירה העמל הגדול הזה שא”כ אין זה יום מנוחה, אלא כך עיקרן של דברים כי בכלל מצות עשה שבות של תורה לשבות ממלאכות יש לשבות מכל שבות דרך כלל שלא לעשות שבת כחול, אבל בכל פרט ופרט כי עביד לי’ וזהיר באידך דלא הוי שבת כחול הוי שבות דרבנן, נמצא שיש לשבות עיקר מן התורה, ולפיכך העמידו בו חכמים דבריהם במקומות הרבה לדחות מצוה של תורה, וזו מרגליות שבידינו מרבינו הרמב”ן מפי מורינו ז”ל

But you need to know that what we say in every place “rabbinical Shvut” it is not to say that we do not at all have [a prohibition of] Shvut from the Torah, as [if that were true], Shabbat would be like weekdays from the Torah – shops would be open and storehouses of crops and wine, carrying objects from house to house through a Karmelit, measuring and weighing. It isn’t logical [that it is] legal that the Torah forbade carrying a “Grogeret” [small amount of food] from one domain to the other but permitted these great efforts, for if so – it isn’t a day of rest. Rather, this is the main point – included in the prohibition of “ceasing fro Melacha” is to cease [LiShbot] from all Shvut prohibitions as a general instruction not to make Shabbat as a weekday… we find that Shvut [Rabbinical prohibitions] are anchored in the Torah and therefore the rabbis set their words, in many places, to override a Torah Mitzvah

 רמב”ם הלכות שבת פרק כא הלכה א
נאמר בתורה (שמות כ”ג) תשבות אפילו מדברים שאינן מלאכה חייב לשבות מהן, ודברים הרבה הן שאסרו חכמים משום שבות

The Torah [Exodus 23:12] states: “[On the seventh day,] you shall cease activity.” Even things that are not a forbidden activity he must cease from doing and many things have been forbidden by the rabbis because of “Shvut” (ceasing).

 מגיד משנה הלכות שבת פרק כא הלכה א
א] נאמר בתורה תשבות אפי’ מדברים וכו’. כוונת רבינו היא שהתורה אסרה פרטי המלאכות המבוארות ע”פ הדרך שנתבארו עניניהן ושיעוריהן ועדיין היה אדם יכול להיות עמל בדברים שאינן מלאכות כל היום לכך אמרה תורה תשבות. וכ”כ הרמב”ן ז”ל בפירוש התורה שלו ובאו חכמים ואסרו הרבה דברים

It says in the Torah “cease” even from things etc. The meaning of our rabbi [the Rambam] is that the Torah forbade the particulars of the specified Melachot according to their matter and measurments and still, a person could labor in things that are not Melachot all day, therefore, the Torah said “Tishbot” [cease]. And similarly wrote the Ramban in his commentary to the Torah and the rabbis came and forbade many things


 ישעיהו פרק נח, יב-יד
(יג) אִם־תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶיךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג לִקְדוֹשׁ יְקֹוָק מְכֻבָּד וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר: (יד) אָז תִּתְעַנַּג עַל־יְקֹוָק וְהִרְכַּבְתִּיךָ עַל־במותי בָּמֳתֵי אָרֶץ וְהַאֲכַלְתִּיךָ נַחֲלַת יַעֲקֹב אָבִיךָ כִּי פִּי יְקֹוָק דִּבֵּר:

If you restrain your foot because of the Shabbat, from performing your affairs on My holy day, and you call the Shabbat a delight, the holy of Hashem honored, and you honor it by not doing your wonted ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words:
Then, you shall delight with Hashem, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land, and I will give you to eat the heritage of Yakov your father, for the mouth of Hahsem has spoken.

 תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קיג עמוד א
וכבדתו מעשות דרכיך וכבדתו שלא יהא מלבושך של שבת כמלבושך של חול
מעשות דרכיך שלא יהא הילוכך של שבת כהילוכך של חול
ממצוא חפצך חפציך אסורין חפצי שמים מותרין
ודבר דבר שלא יהא דבורך של שבת כדבורך של חול דבור אסור הרהור מותר

And you shall honor it, not doing your own ways:
‘and you shall honor it’, that your Shabbat garments should not be like your weekday garments.
‘Not doing your own ways’, that your walking on the Shabbat shall not be like your walking on weekdays.
‘Nor finding thine own affairs’: your affairs are forbidden, the affairs of Heaven [religious matters] are permitted.
‘Nor speaking thine own words:’ that your speech [conversation] on the Shabbat
should not be like your speech on weekdays

רמב”ם הלכות שבת פרק כד הלכה יב-יג
אסרו חכמים לטלטל מקצת דברים בשבת כדרך שהוא עושה בחול, ומפני מה נגעו באיסור זה, אמרו ומה אם הזהירו נביאים וצוו שלא יהיה הילוכך בשבת כהילוכך בחול ולא שיחת השבת כשיחת החול שנאמר ודבר דבר קל וחומר שלא יהיה טלטול בשבת כטלטול בחול כדי שלא יהיה כיום חול בעיניו ויבוא להגביה ולתקן כלים מפינה לפינה או מבית לבית או להצניע אבנים וכיוצא בהן שהרי הוא בטל ויושב בביתו ויבקש דבר שיתעסק בו ונמצא שלא שבת ובטל הטעם שנאמר בתורה (דברים ה) למען ינוח

12. The Sages forbade the carrying of certain objects on the Sabbath in the same manner as [one carries] during the week. Why was this prohibition instituted? [Our Sages] said: If the prophets warned that the manner in which a person walks on the Sabbath should not resemble the manner in which he walks during the week, and similarly, one’s conversation on the Sabbath should not resemble one’s conversation during the week, as it is written, “[refraining from]… speaking about [mundane] matters,” surely the manner in which one carries on the Sabbath should not resemble the manner in which one carries during the week.
In this manner, no one will regard [the Sabbath] as an ordinary weekday and lift up and repair articles, [carrying them] from room to room, or from house to house, or set aside stones and the like. [These restrictions are necessary] for since the person is idle and sitting at home, [it is likely that] he will seek something with which to occupy himself. Thus, he will not have ceased activity and will have negated the motivating principle for the Torah’s commandment [Deuteronomy 5:14], “Thus… will rest.”
13. Furthermore, when one searches for and carries articles that are used for a forbidden activity, it is possible that one will use them and thus be motivated to perform a [forbidden] labor. (meaning, the previous Halacha is not out of fear of violating an Issur Melacha! Y.S.)
[Another reason for this prohibition is] that there are some people who are not craftsmen and are always idle – e.g., tourists and those that stand on the street corners. These individuals never perform labor. Were they to be allowed to walk, talk, and carry as they do during the week, the result would be that their cessation of activity on [the Sabbath] would not be discernible. For this reason, [our Sages instituted] refraining from such activities, for the cessation of such activities is universally applicable.

 רש”י מסכת שבת דף קכג עמוד ב
שלשה כלים – ותו לא, ולקמן אמרינן דבימי נחמיה בן חכליה בבית שני גזרו על טלטול כל הכלים, כדי לגדור גדר להחמיר באיסורי שבת, מפני שהיו מקילין בה משנה זו – דלעיל, בראשונה היו אומרין שלשה כלים ותו לא – משום דהוו מזלזלים בשבתות, דכתיב בימים ההמה וגו’.

… and below it says that in the days of Nechemia son of Chachalia, during the Second Temple, they forbade carrying all of the vessels [on Shabbat] in order to create a fence to be stringent with the prohibitions of Shabbat because they were lenient in it.

Cellphone on Shabbat

Shabbos app

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Is the Shabbat Smartphone app Kosher?

My students approached me asking for my opinion on the so called “Shabbat App” which – according to the developers – “allows you to Halachically use a Smartphone on Shabbos”.Shabbos app
After reading the material on their website, I discussed it in class. Below is a summery of my opinion, followed by 4 correspondences between myself and the app developers.

1. The foundational logic of it is false and very disturbing:

Currently, using a Smartphone on Shabbos is prohibited. Unfortunately, this does not stop many otherwise observant Jews from using their devices on Shabbos, and can make Shabbos harder for the more adherent observer that do not use a Smartphone. The Shabbos App will give us all a way to keep shabbos with all the stringencies and still take full advantage of the wonderful technology the world has to offer.

As I told the students, it would be like saying – since there are so many people who aren’t Shomer Negi’a (and/or “find it difficult to not be”), let’s come up with rules of how to minimize the חיבה (affection) aspect of touching – only through clothing, only after stipulating that it isn’t affectionate touching, etc… As one of the students said – “that’s ridiculous. No one who touches girls would care about any of those things”. Exactly. I don’t believe there is anyone out there who is texting on Shabbat but at the same time is stringent with Brachot before and after eating. Meaning, people who are texting on Shabbat do not do so because they find it difficult to manage without cell phones.
They do so because they do not care enough about Shabbat and are violating other איסורי (prohibitions) of Shabbat as well. There is a concept in Halacha called הלעיטהו לרשע וימות – we do not have a responsibility to minimize an איסור for people who intentionally violate Halacha. Furthermore, if we did do this – it would serve as a destructive blow to Shabbat as it would open the door for other people – who wouldn’t otherwise dream of using their phones on Shabbat – to start doing so.

2. In their list of possible issues that using the phone on Shabbat entails, the writers miss the biggest issue. They list possible איסורים (prohibitions) – Mav’ir, Boneh, Kotev, השמעת קול, etc… but say nothing of the main issue – ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר – from which מוקצה and other איסורי דרבנן (Rabbinical prohibitions) come, of differentiating Shabbat from weekdays. For many Poskim this is also the reason we do not use many electrical appliances on Shabbat and not because there is any actual איסור מלאכה. Throughout history our rabbis made sure to maintain the unique distinction between Shabbat and weekdays, making sure that during Shabbat people not only not create but also not be engaged – in action or thought – in weekday endeavors. I can think of fewer things that would empty Shabbat from all that is beautiful about it. Think of the quiet of Shabbat, the quality time with family and friends, the Shabbat meals and songs, the special atmosphere in and outside Shul, the Drashot, classes and lectures and the long hours of rest. How much of that would continue if cell phones – the instrument which most isolates us from our immediate surroundings – were permitted on Shabbat?

3. The possible מלאכות and ways they are “fixed” through the supposed app are riddled with mistakes. To name two of them:
– The idea that a battery heating up is אסור משום הבערת אש is very childish. Fire is not an issue of heat. Like most Melachot, it’s an issue of (יצירה) creation.
– In the “solutions” it mentions that a גרמא (causation) system will allow typing to be delayed and random. This idea is one most well known from the Tzomet solutions. The obvious difference being that Tzomet comes up with solutions because there is:
A. An actual Halachik need to violate Shabbat such as for sick people, for security and safety and other similar situations.
B. An extreme loss of Oneg/Kvod Shabbat, such as disabled people and the like.
In order so people who have to violate Shabbat or cannot function normatively on Shabbat the Halacha has a solution: The Mishna says that גרם כיבוי is מותר, the רמ”א conditioned that this can be used only במקום הפסד (in a place where there is loss) and the Poskim of our generation have said that security and health needs qualify as מקום הפסד. Equating cell phone use to any of these is nothing short of a gross abuse of Halacha.

It was a great discCellphone on Shabbatussion with my students. Though they didn’t agree with everything, they understood the logic I presented as well as my claim that whoever is behind this is not coming at it will pure intentions by any means as they are completely disregarding the most problematic aspect of the question.

And if you need further proof that this has little to do with concern for Shmirat Shabbat and are wondering what is really behind it one may not have to look much further than the price of the app – 50 USD.

(SEE IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW 4 CORRESPONDENCES BETWEEN MYSELF AND THE APP DEVELOPERS)

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