Thursday, December 24, 2009

From the Other Side of the Pond

Greetings from London, where I am spending my winter break with my summer chevrusa, Hannah Sassoon. There is something both weird and comforting about seeing Jews living outside of the U.S; this adventure has also been quite the Jewish education-and Limmud hasn't even begun yet.

A few thoughts from a wandering Jew in Briton:

1. There is something really special about walking around a city where you can happen upon structure that are hundreds of years old, and stand in front of graves of people of people who have changed the world (for me personally and/or the world) and be able to think "that person! That person is right there!." There is a real sense of history here. I always find the idea of tradition to be one of the more compelling ones when it comes to my own Jewish practice, and being constantly hit with powerful reminders of how history and tradition have played out has been very moving.

2. It is strange to be in a place where Jews and Judaism are not in the public eye to the extent that they are in the U.S. New York in particular has a culture of Jewishness (I think it was Lenny Bruce who said that anyone residing in New York City is actually Jewish) that means that I feel a certain sense of cultural belonging-and even a sense of authority within that culture-whether it's a random day in March, or Christmastime. Depending on your point of view, this is either a good thing or a very bad thing, but I've never felt that by not celebrating Christmas I was somehow acting less American, the way I feel that elements of Christianity define what it is to be British.

3. Hannah on the Changing of the Guards in front of Buckingham Palace: "This is just like halacha!"
In other words: it is a series of long, intricate rituals meant to bring glory to the monarch. And while we have a sense of the ultimate goal, we don't really know what is going on or why.
Which prompted me to think further (generally a dangerous event): On the one hand, I can't imagine why Brits are ok with their tax pounds going to the royal family, who receive this money as payment for existing. However, the Royal Family and the monarcy are extremely important symbols and figures that represent, and to a certain extent define, a vast British history and culture. It's important to acknowledge and honor their role, but I know that if I were British, I would sometimes want to throw my hands up in frustration and say "I give you all this money; what have you done for me recently?"
Use this metaphor as you will.

Tomorrow we are off to Limmud! If you're there, come to the session on "Reinventing the Yeshiva," Tuesday, December 29th, 7-8:10pm.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Beit Shammai World

Every year in day school, we were taught about the opinions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, who argue about the best way to light Channukah candles. Beit Shammai writes that each day the number of candles lit should decrease, from eight on the first day to one on the last, while Beit Hillel writes that they should increase, starting with one candle and eight on the last day. Dr. Devora Steinmetz pointed out that we tend to ignore the opinion of Beit Shammai. This isn’t that surprising; after all, not only do we not practice according to Beit Shammai in this case, Beit Shammai also tends to be the one with the weird opinions, and it’s relatively easy to just think of this opinion as just another one of the weird ones. This position also happens to be particularly depressing; rather than going out of the holiday with a bang, the light decreases each day until it disappears.

But Dr. Steinmetz pointed out something fascinating about Beit Shammai’s opinion. As the holiday of Channukah continues, the days begin to get longer—there is more light in the world on the last day of Channukah than there is on the first day. On the one hand, we could use the Channukah candles to complement the increase in light, as the opinion of Beit Hillel does. But in Beit Shammai’s world, when we decrease the amount of candles we light each night, we are responding to what is happening in the larger world. On the first night, when the nights are long and the world desperately needs light, that is exactly what we provide when we light all eight candles. When we get to the last day of Channukah, and the world is not so totally lacking in light, we light one candle, in recognition of the fact that this is not what the world needs from us right now. Beit Shammai is making a statement about how we should involve ourselves in the world and how, as we celebrate our own particular holiday, we should understand how we can provide something to the larger world.

Happy Channukah

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Special Rosh Yeshiva Mazel Tov!

Mazel tov to Rav Shai and Rachel on the birth of their son this morning!
May Baby Held live a life filled with wonder, moments of radical amazement, and an understanding that "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy" (Abraham Joshua Heschel, of course).

Video courtesy of Rav Shai, included in the birth announcement:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Yom Iyyun: A Lunchtime Scene

A thought from Jen Taylor Friedman in honor of the one-week anniversary of Yom Iyyun.
Source sheets and videos from the Yom Iyyun can be found here:

You know what one of the really nice things about eating lunch at the Hadar Yom Iyyun was? Leaning across the table afterwards to some total strangers and being able to say "Rabbotai - nevarech?".

And knowing that they'd understand that I meant "Would you care to join in this shared grace-after-meals which I am now initiating?".

And knowing that, since the default setting was "egalitarian," I didn't have to worry that there wasn't a quorum of men at the table and perhaps they would be offended at being expected to do shared-grace-after-meals with women and perhaps the women wouldn't count women in the sharing-quorum and be discomfited and all those other awkwardnesses that crop up when the default is "non-egalitarian," because gender just wasn't an issue either when eating or when giving thanks for eating.

And knowing that, since the default setting was "observant," there wouldn't be that excruciating pause when people think "grace? what a weird thing to do after a meal on a weekday" or else "oops am I imposing religion on people?" and those who know the words don't want to embarrass those who don't and before grace can be said someone has to shuttle off to hunt down some gracebooks, because everyone either knew the grace by heart or had a gracebook in their pocket.

It was awfully nice just to be able to say grace in company without it being a huge performance, that's all. Spending all day doing halakha geekery is jolly good fun and all that, but being able to say "Rabotai - nevarekh?" to random people at your table, that's better.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Aharon Varady: The Talmud on the Virtues of Robots and Cats

When I see Aharon Varady during davening, I realize that life is a lot more interesting when, amidst the standard minyan and davening, there is one person going against the flow, and who would think to add Bilhah and Zilpah to the Imahot during the first bracha of the Amidah.
Aharon is also a prolific blogger, whose enviable skills I can only hope to achieve with much practice. From Aharon's Omphalos:

A few days ago Engadget blogged a story originally reported in the Israeli print media that a local family was surprised to discover that their Roomba had ingested a dangerous poisonous snake (Vipera palaestinae)...
The Talmud on the Virtues of Robots and Cats

Posted using ShareThis

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cultural Encounters

Let's start the week off right, with a look at the beautiful things that can happen when cultures collide:

I dare you not to have The Miami Boys Choir stuck in your head after this. You're welcome.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Join Us for a Yom Iyyun!

Mechon Hadar's Halakha Yom Iyyun
Halakhah as a Language of Applied Values:
Theory and Practice
Sunday December 6
at Yeshivat Hadar
190 Amsterdam Ave, NY
(@69th St – West End Synagogue)

Cost:$15(Register below)
· Students pay only $5
· Lunch will be available for an extra $10
Watch remotely at by clicking here for a live broadcast of select sessions.

If you are interested in exchanging childcare with other participants, please e-mail

Register Here

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Great Thought

Shared with me today by Avi Strausberg, a true woman of the world, who will hopefully honor us with a guest post in the coming weeks:

When Avi was working on the farm at ADAMAH, she would come home after spending hours in the field. She would look at her hands, grimy with the dirt from working the earth, and wonder any of the seeds she planted would grow, and what would come of her hard work.

Now she comes home with her hands stained with ink from studying Talmud and other Jewish texts all day. And once again, she wonders whether the knowledge she gained this day will take root, and what will come of it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ask the Goldberg

As we contemplate what we are most thankful for in this world, I would like to take a moment and give thanks for David Goldberg. The Goldberg is a fellow in the year program, and on leave from rabbinical school at JTS. While he is clearly serious about Judaism, it is his openness to life, his joke telling "skills," and to sharing his peanut butter and honey sandwiches, that complete the awesomeness that is The Goldberg.

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. This is…Ask the Goldberg.

1. Why do you think mustaches are so awesome?

I grew up with men with facial hair, so I’m partial towards it. What can I say? Mustaches are funky and unique.

2. What is the most random class you’ve taken as an undergraduate?

The first was a class called “Frontiers of Modern Science. We had to take a science, and I took a lot of science in high school, but I still didn’t want a sciency-science class. So I took a class on the history and philosophy of science. It was a great class.

The second was something about the history of the Balkans and the Balkan region. It was fascinating to study the religious, social, and cultural integration there. There was much more local identification, and that sense of unity led to stereotyping of other localities. Jews there would often take on the local and religious customs, and it was the same with other religions. But that led to a sense of Serbian identity vs. Turkish. The class raised all kind of questions about what the definition of an ethnic group is.

For a course I would have taken, if I could have, it would have been a course on the American presidency. I’m interested because of The West Wing, but it’s a course at Columbia that I sat in on with a friend. The class was about Reagan, and it was fascinating.

3. What kind of rabbi do you want to be?

I don’t know. I’m open to different ideas. Whatever I do, I want to make sure I have an open and welcoming home to bring in Jews from all backgrounds to love Jewish living and to learn.

4. What’s the funniest clean joke you know?

What is the difference between Moshe Rabbeinu and the Lubuvicher Rebbe ?

At least we know where Moshe died.

[Long silence. I try to laugh politely because I don’t get it.]

No, wait—we don’t know where Moshe is buried, but we know where he’s buried. The rebbe, we know that he’s dead, but we’re not so sure where he’s buried.

[I thought we know where he’s buried]

OH! No, Moshe Rabbeinu, we know he’s dead, but we’re not sure where he’s buried. The rebbe, we know where he’s buried, but we’re not so sure he’s dead. Right.

5. What is your favorite/least favorite part of the liturgy?

I think one of my favorite parts of the liturgy is doing the festival repetition of the amidah; I just find the nusach to be really fun.

I think the part of the liturgy that I often struggle with is the day-to-day liturgy. Though a lot of the time it can be very, very meaningful, a lot of the time it can be mundane and difficult to do every day…But I think that also is why I love the festival liturgies. Because when you do that chazarat hashatz, it’s really nice.

6. Being Canadian in America—discuss.

Truly it’s been awhile now; I already had two years in New York before this, and Rebecca and I started dating when we were 17. And I’ve been around Americans a lot starting at age 17or 16. So it’s not really anything new…Americans are pretty cool most of the time. Except when they’re annoying with their Canadian jokes. The sad thing is that I lost a lot of my Canadian accent where people, more often than not don’t notice when I say. Sometimes they notice and say “why do you say house so Canadianly?” but most of the time people don’t notice, so it’s kind of sad. And I think I may have even taken on some Chicago accent.

7. Who is your favorite character from the Talmud?

I don’t know if I have a favorite character necessarily, but I really do like As a Driven Leaf as a book…I think that really the story Milton Steinberg wrote about [R’ Elisha ben Avuya’s] life is really cool.

8. If I ran Hadar for the day, I would…

I would have open learning time all day with all of the faculty here to help people just maximize chevruta study.

9. If you weren’t a rabbinical student, what would you be?

Probably a teacher.

[Of what?]

I don’t know. If I couldn’t be a teacher of Jewish studies, probably, I don’t know, maybe history or something. Something in the humanities in high school or something like that.

10. Who or what has been a defining figure or moment in your life?

I think a defining figure, if I could give a broad answer, would be my family. Defining figures. Specifically, in terms of my rabbinic path, my grandfather, my sabba, plays a huge role in defining what I do and who I am. And also my savta. And my parents, the house I grew up in. Rebecca, who pushes me now to a lot of the things that I think about. She challenges me and we talk out a lot of issues—like Jewish issues that I’ve been thinking about. So, my family.

The Siyyum: Kiddushin Edition

We are pleased to announce that Jaclyn Rubin (shlit”a) has finished the Talmud’s Masechet Kiddushin. Since we anticipate many more of these events, we decided we’d better learn how to get the celebrating done right. While there was no scotch (yet. When Jaclyn finishes the Talmud next week or so, we’ll get on that) there was a delicious chocolate/strawberry cake.
The caption reads: “Learning Torah is the Elixir of Life,” from Kiddushin 30b.

Special thanks to Mimi Lewis for her excellent idea of baking a cake, to Robin Weintraub for providing the recipe, the pots, and her cake-baking expertise, and Aharon Varady, for his quick-thinking in taking the picture before the cake was devoured.

Mazel tov, Jaclyn! Onward and upward!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Weekend News

One of my favorite parts of the Yeshivat Hadar opening event was when R”M Avital discussed the different visions of work that exist in Rabbinic literature. After four consecutive days of Torah reading, and not a lot of sleep to get me through them, I was finding it easy to sympathize with the position that work is a punishment from God.

Today, work consisted of running into Dr. Ruth Westheimer, reassuring an usher that she was not a crazed stalker, and making sure she had her face time with Theodore Bikel. And later tiptoeing, chopped-liver sandwich in hand, towards the fridge, as Mr. Bikel napped in his pajamas about three feet away from me. And I remembered that sometimes work can be fun and rewarding after all. And can reenergize me for Torah-reading day…tomorrow.

Another reward of the weekend: the Riverdale Shabbaton! As usual, Jen says it much better than I ever could: Asking Rav Eitan

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Social Justice II

During last week’s shiur klali, Dr. Steinmetz discussed, among other things, Bereishit 21:15-21, analyzing Hagar and Yishmael’s banishment from Avraham’s house, and their wandering through the desert without water until the angel appears to Hagar. One of the most memorable and striking elements that Dr. Steinmetz pointed out was the text’s criticism of Hagar’s actions towards her son in the desert. When they run out of water, Hagar places Yishmael under a bush, and then sits far away from him, so that she does not have to see him suffer and die. The text takes a critical tone towards her actions; it states specifically that it is Yishmael’s cries that God has heard and is responding to, not Hager’s, and the first thing that the angel says to Hagar is, in essence, “What’s going on? Why are you over here?” It is clear that the text is critical of Hagar’s focus on her own discomfort, at a time when she should be focused on the person who desperately needs her at his side during his suffering. While the pain that Hagar is going through is unimaginable, she does not recognize that nonetheless, this moment is not about her.

I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Steinmetz’s shiur when we visited the nursing home today. Every week I am able to sympathize with Hagar, and her desire to run away from the pain of another human being. Among the many difficult features of this chesed project is internalizing the idea that whatever I may be feeling at the moment, these visits are not about me. While I can examine the difficult feelings I have at any other point, for the two hours I am in and out of rooms, it is about connecting with another human being, responding to their needs, and being physically and emotionally close to them.

Rav Shai described the word “chesed,” generally translated as “lovingkindness,” as “love manifested as kindness.” But love is not a completely positive emotion—if that were the case, there would be far less acoustic guitar in the world. With love comes a good dose of fear, whether it is a fear of vulnerability, a fear of the consequences of being in a profoundly affecting relationship with another person, or something else entirely. The point is to take that love, and all of the messy feelings and baggage that comes with it, and be present in a way that results in a positive force acting on the world.

For my impatient fans: Ask the Goldberg is coming later this week!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Abi Gezint

As I realized that time I was a cross-dressing klezmer musician, hiding my love for a colleague, sometimes Molly Picon is best at singing exactly what I'm feeling (lyrics and translation under "more info").

This week, the blog will be back to its regularly scheduled programming.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer Loves Mumbling

I never knew how much I needed a davening counselor until I met Rav Elie. It is extremely liberating to have someone davening a few feet away who can engage in a discussion about any random liturgical topic that might come to mind; knowing that an understanding of any aspect of davening is only a question away makes the entire enterprise much more personally meaningful.

I asked Rav Elie to write this post, based on one of my favorite talks of his. Mumbling is something that I am still working on when it comes to my own davening; I could use a reminder about its wonders, and I hope others begin to embrace it.

“The members of the congregations are reminded and ordered to follow the cantor’s prayers quietly and silently. They must refrain from the illegal and cacophonous shouting which so frequently disturbs peaceful and true devotion.”

(Proclamation concerning the Improvements of the Worship Service in the Synagogues of the Kingdom of Westphalia, Sept 24, 1810)

What is “good davening”? Usually people define it by the intensity of the music or the quality of the shatz. But I think it comes down to this: mumbling.

In truth, prayer was never meant to be silent. The Amidah is unusual in that it is said silently, but in the ancient world, reading was done out loud (thus the word in Hebrew for “to read”—kara—is the same as “to call.”) The Psalms describe one “contemplating” the words of Torah day and night (Ve-hagita Bo Yomam Va-Laila)—but hagah really means “to pronounce in a low growl.” This atmosphere of a “mumbly” davening stands in sharp contrast to a library atmosphere. In a silent reading, the atmosphere is often rigid and staid. When a group of people mumbles the words of the siddur instead of reading them silently, the experience is completely different. In the low mumbling reading, the atmosphere resembles nothing that we have experienced in Western society—a humming or buzzing sound of praise and prayer.

The mode of silently reading prayers puts the worshiper in the realm of the cognitive—just as we might experience reading a book on the subway. But the act of mumbling moves from a purely cognitive experience to a more viscerally emotional act. The aesthetic effect of this mumbling serves a dual purpose: Besides its own value as a way of engaging in prayer, it provides a contrast to the truly silent parts of the prayer: the Amidah. The silence of the Amidah is all the more powerful when it replaces the sounds of prayer that preceded it. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, was thought to be drunk when she prayed completely silently (1 Samuel 1:13–15). Clearly the Amidah, which the Talmud notes is modeled after Hannah’s form of prayer—is different from the rest of the prayer experience. The silence of an Amidah that begins (with no interrupting page announcement or stage direction) right after the mumbling of the worshipers is a contrasting silence—a silence that makes us straighten up and pay attention to the new mode of prayer before us.

How does one learn how to mumble? Here are some tips:

1) Daven the words fast – mumbling is not about enunciation, it is about entering into a different head-space in relation to the words, one that can be done best when the words flow.

2) Experiment with volume – mumbling is not monotone. When I mumble the prayers, some words come out louder than others. I am often surprised by which words I say more loudly – they allow me to relate to those particular words in a different way.

3) Practice with a line you already know – Take the first line of Ashrei. Memorize it. Then start saying it fast, over and over again. Say one word louder than the next. See how that familiar line begins to change in your experience.

4) Be louder than your neighbor – The best mumbling is experienced in a group. If only one person mumbles, there is no din and atmosphere. But people rarely want to be the leader on this. Take a risk and set the pace for others with your own mumbling.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Rabbi Steven Greenberg Visits Hadar

By the time Rabbi Steven Greenberg came to speak to the Hadar fellows on Wednesday for our shiur klali, I was relatively certain that I could give his life story. The night before, a few of the fellows and I had watched Trembling Before God, the 2001 documentary about the hidden lives of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, which featured R’ Greenberg. In addition, we watched the extended interview with him that was included in the Trembling extras. During Sukkot I had also read R’ Greenberg’s book, Wrestling With God and Men, so I was well-schooled (perhaps creepily so?) in the life of R’ Greenberg by the time he came to speak. When he walked into the room, I had a moment of mental confusion, when my mind tried to reconcile the actual person sitting in front of me with the person I knew existed theoretically. I was having a movie star moment.

And then he began to speak about his life, both things I had heard, and new stories. It was very moving to be able to hear about his religious journey, and the turns it took as R’ Greenberg began to acknowledge his homosexuality, and to know that instead of sitting in front of a screen, we could actually interact with him. The topic of homosexuality and Judaism is one that my mind struggles with, as someone who believes that the issue of gay rights is the civil rights issue of my generation, and yet who has thrown her lot in with observant Judaism—which includes That Text (in my less generous moments, that title includes asterisks of profanity). When I listened to R’ Greenberg speak, I wasn’t just thinking about how halachic-based Judaism could honestly accept homosexuality, but the need for living within a halachic system that is moral. And while I feel frustration—at myself, at the universe—when I can’t accept a particular line of reasoning given by R’ Greenberg, I still have to acknowledge that the way in which I think about homosexuality in general, and homosexuality within Judaism in particular, is so different than the way I would have thought about it ten years earlier. As frustrating as the Jewish universe can be on this subject, R’ Greenberg’s willingness to talk, to open himself up for questioning and for judgment, has done so much in nudging people’s minds open. And as anyone who grew up on the Orthodox spectrum can tell you, that’s big.

R’ Greenberg ended with what is now my favorite drash. When God created the world, God performed each particular task on each of the first six days, and saw that it was good. The first mistake that God made, that God could not pronounce as “good,” and instead saw that “it was not good,” was Adam being alone. And before woman was created, God proceeded to (figuratively) throw animals at Adam so Adam could test all of them out. While God can handle everything in the universe, and create it to perfection, when it comes to the human heart, God needs a little help, as the human being must search for who to love.

And, in the end, it all comes down to love.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Come In, We're Open!

Excitement was in the air today. Whether it was due to the promise of pizza, or the fact that we all looked a little bit nicer, there was a sense of anticipation that hung over the learning today. After countless e-mails had been sent to friends, family, and random strangers, logistics were coordinated, and the usual last-minute dramas were attended to, my own feelings could best be summed up picturing Rav Elie in my head saying, in his own inimitable way, “Folks, this is it.”

The food was good. People of all ages and (non)denominations came. We celebrated Hadar’s transition to permanence, and the establishment of a place of constant learning for men and for women. While the topic of the text study was “Is Life About Torah or is Torah About Life,” the real theme of the evening was to work on closing the gap between the existence of the “Hadar Bubble,” and our mission to be present, often as actively as possible, for the community. After all, the work we do is meaningless if it only serves to impacts the lives of eighteen people until we lock the door of the yeshiva at the end of the day. Yet at the same time, the religious journeys that many of us are going through can be deeply personal. How do we navigate between the life of the mind, and our desire to live in the world?

Rav Eitan brought in a source by the Rambam, who expressed this very concern. The Rambam worries that the individual learner who sits in yeshiva all day studying Torah will not be able to translate his or her knowledge into a real-world context. When that happens, ironically, the Torah that the full-time scholar is studying ceases to become Torah. Yet the question doesn’t end there. The Kesef Mishneh and the Yam Shel Shlomo have their own worries; what can be done on a communal level to transmit Torah to the next generation?

In the end, there are two pieces to this puzzle, the individual and the community, and they each have to make a commitment to meet the other halfway. Rav Shai put it nicely when he said that “every step towards God is a step towards—not away from—the world.” As we engage in this intense, sometimes deeply personal process we should be aware of a constant movement towards connection with others. At the same time we move to connect with others, they can take the step of joining us in the Beit Midrash, and providing us with a support system that we can rely on. And what a glorious meeting that will be.

Folks, this is the start of something big.

Look! We're Famous!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This Is It!

And by "it, I mean, "the chance to discover where it is I've disappeared to since June." I'll be wearing nice shoes, so you know it will be worth it.
See you there!

"Any Torah study without work will ultimately be lost and lead to sin."
Pirkei Avot 2:2

"I am abandoning all practical training for my children and I will only teach my children Torah."
Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14

Is life about Torah, or is Torah about life? [Ed. note: yes] And what's at stake in the question, anyway?

As we celebrate the opening of Yeshivat Hadar's full-year program, come join us as we explore the relationship between our commitment to Torah and our work in the world.

Yeshivat Hadar's Full-Year Celebration:
Wednesday, October 21
7:30 pm -- 9:30 pm

The Schafler Forum at Congregation Rodeph Sholom
7 West 83rd Street
New York, NY 10024

RSVP by email: or by phone 212.284.6549

Mechon Hadar is an institute that empowers young Jews to build vibrant Jewish communities through:
· Yeshivat Hadar: the first full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America
· The Minyan Project: resources, networking, and consulting for more than 50 independent minyanim nationwide

Mechon Hadar is grateful to multiple individual supporters and national foundations. For a complete list of foundation supporters, visit

To learn more about Mechon Hadar visit our website:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

At Yeshivat Hadar, the Learning Never Ends

This weekend, some of us decided to forgo our Shabbos naps (a pretty major sacrifice) and went to a shaloshudes (third Shabbos meal) talk at the apartment of the inimitable Chippy Hait. Chippy, a Hadar alumna from this past summer, decided for her project to initiate a series of talks on Shabbos. There to inaugurate her first one was Ben Mernick, a Hadar summer fellow from 2008, who spoke about the halachic approach to risky behavior. Drawing on sources from the Talmud’s discussion of which women are allowed to use diaphragms (or the ancient equivalent) to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s teshuva regarding the halachic permissibility of smoking, Ben described four categories of risky behavior:

  1. Taboo and dangerous
  2. Not taboo, not dangerous
  3. Taboo, not dangerous
  4. Not taboo, dangerous

While it was relatively easy to find examples for the first two categories, in discussing what would go in the latter two, it became clear that much of what is considered taboo or dangerous can depend on an individual’s upbringing, ideology, and/or the subgroups of people he or she interacts with. In other words, it becomes a statement about values. Rabbinic texts don’t deal with the first two categories; the second is simply living life nondramatically, while the first has no reasons why it should be allowed. When it comes to the other two categories, it becomes difficult, both for those of us in the room, and for the rabbis, to draw the line between what should be avoided, though luckily if one doesn’t God supposedly protect fools (such is the claim in Psalms), and what is simply too dangerous and should be forbidden. When Rav Moshe writes that smoking should not be assur because most people who smoke do not end up dying from it, he is expressing a different outlook and set of values than the Tsitz Eliezer, who argues that the health dangers associated with smoking renders it forbidden. And those of us in the room who were appalled by Rav Moshe’s teshuva were biased by our own cultural and social values.

Ending the weekend on a high note (literally and figuratively) was the Uptown Salon, which also began as a student project from the summer of 2008. For almost a year, artists have met once a month at Andres’ apartment to share their work and creative visions. It was a privilege to be in a room with so many talented people. There were musical performances, poetry and prose readings, and one woman showed us her artwork inspired by Shacharis. Andres’ band will be performing at 8pm, Wednesday October 28th, at 254 W. 72nd St, and the Uptown Salon will be meeting again next month. The Salon was a wonderful reminder of how many creative people there are in the world (both in and out of Hadar), and that sometimes Torah can be learned through media other than ancient or rabbinic texts.

Chodesh tov.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Social Justice

I had a fantastic post planned about Rav Shai’s introduction today of our social justice project, visiting the sick and the elderly. And then Jen Taylor Friedman, Soferet extraordinaire and an alumna from Yeshivat Hadar summer ’09, sent me this blog post of hers and stole my thunder.


When writing Torah, the sofer is supposed to speak each word before
writing it.* The speech somehow causes the essence of the words to
waft through the air in holy, mystical fashion and settle onto the
parchment, to be followed in short order by the letters themselves.
Like spreading rose petals before a bride, if you will.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Vacation Adventures

Mazel tov to Hadar alum J.G on the birth of a daughter! It’s nice to know that Hadarniks have been busy with the simchas.

Another Hadar person on! R.L has been living and working in New Orleans, and shares her thoughts on the connection between rebuilding the city, and the holiday season. It’s great reading, and she’s doing amazing work.

Thanks to a Friend of Hadar and R.G for finding this: Because we’re not the only ones who might find certain aspects of Sukkot a little strange:

At Hadar over the summer I led a discussion group called “Meat Eaters Anonymous,” which was neither anonymous, nor for meat eaters, but was about the significance of our food choices and what we choose to eat—or not eat. One of the things we discussed was the emotional connection that people have to food, which can make the decision to become a vegetarian very difficult. So I found this article to be quite validating of those thoughts:

I’ve read accounts by women who discuss how uncomfortable they feel in shul being the only woman wearing a tallis and/or tefillin, or having to make the decision whether to wear a tallis or tefillin in a shul that is unused to seeing women decked out in ritual garments, and might be hostile to them. For the first time in my life, I could relate to their experience, when I went to shul over chol hamoed and found that I was the only person in the room not wearing a tallis. It was an interesting experience, and one that gave me a new appreciation for how women in particular identify themselves ideologically, and thereby marginalize themselves, in davening spaces through what they choose to wear. The mix of clothing, gender, and prayer spaces is a difficult subject to confront, and it’s something I’d explore more during the year.

Zman Stav at Yeshivat Hadar starts tomorrow! Come learn with us, and come for our opening event on October 21st (details to follow)!

Friday, October 2, 2009

I'm on the Internet!

The post is for a Birthright:NEXT series called Harvest to Harvest, which is looking to turn this holiday season of repentance and reflection into a call for action.

Though Yeshivat Hadar has no official programming to combat homelessness, as a Friend of Hadar pointed out to me the other night, it is nonetheless a topic that is discussed often. Over the summer this included, in addition to informal conversations, a talk by Ruth Messinger about our obligations to help those in our communities, and a shiur given by Rav Elie about the nature of tzedaka. While I have not yet managed to consistently turn my ideas about homelessness into practical action, and am still searching for the safest and most meaningful ways to do so, I am hoping that what I have written can serve as a metaphorical shofer blast for me the next time I pass someone in the street who has no warm bed to go home to.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Siyyum

Jaclyn Rubin shlit”a has officially read the entire Mishna (which she probably also knows by heart, but those rumors have received no official confirmation). Demonstrating that there is absolutely nothing the rabbis won’t discuss, Jaclyn read from some of the Mishnas she has learned, with topics ranging from the classification of a zav, (a man who has had a seminal emission) to the laws regarding a parah aduma (a red heifer whose ashes are used to purify those rendered impure by contact with dead bodies). She discussed the different approaches various rabbis took regarding halacha: whether they saw the halachic system as taking place within an ideal world, or the world as it is (an early expression of the tension surrounding what to do when, in the words of Rav Shai “the world as it is is not the world as it should be”).

And then we had cupcakes. Because learning Torah is sweet.

Yasher koyakh to Jaclyn! May this year be filled with more learning, understanding, and the fulfillment of all of your goals (particularly your davening ones)!

On another note: Elul Zman has officially ended for Yeshivat Hadar. G’mar chatima tovah! May you have an easy and meaningful fast.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yeshivat Hadar Was On a Boat

It was a day of adventure for Yeshivat Hadar as we sailed the high seas, the wind in our hair, a red sky beckoning, and home just a faint memory. Contending with marauders, scurvy, and the compulsion to act out that scene from Titanic, when victory was at hand we drank in celebration from commemorative mugs. Then we gathered and told tales of our journeys to distant lands, halachic triumphs, the defeat of foes, and where not to go to buy a decent hot dog.

Apparently there is a world beyond the beit midrash, and it is good.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tzom Gedaliah: My Unpopular Opinion

Even though this is one of the most overlooked and maligned days in the Jewish calendar, I have to confess that for years I’ve thought of this as one of the most important fasts. Maybe it’s because the philosophical reason (at least as I understood it) has always made the reason for the misery of the day more understandable than any of the fast days. As much as I try to make myself regret the process of losing the Temple, and its actual destruction, I have to admit that I’ve grown used to post-Temple Judaism; meanwhile the rebuilding of Jerusalem has always been a theoretical prospect. And Esther fasted so…why not. But setting aside a day to think about the ways in which we Jews can be our own worst enemy is extremely meaningful. Rav Eitan mentioned that there are Jews who use this day as a way to commemorate the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, which I think is a powerful way to give this day meaning in the contemporary world. But rather than think of this day on a grand political scale, I’ve always stopped to consider the ways in which we show contempt for each other in a thousand ordinary ways, based on what denomination we do or don’t belong to, or how we practice Judaism. To force ourselves to suffer to some extent as we recognize these issues is a powerful statement.

I hope everyone had an easy fast.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Shana Tova! Complete With Sumo Wrestling!

On my morning walk to Hadar, I met Lief (Leaf?), one of the cast of characters I occasionally encounter in the morning. The first time I met Lief over the summer, we shared a series of jokes, and when I saw him again, I asked him if he had any new ones.

Here it is (I changed the priest to a rabbi because, you know…):

One night after Maariv, a rabbi gets into a cab to go home. Unfortunately, there is an accident, and both the rabbi and the cabdriver are killed. Nebuch. Luckily, however, both of them reach heaven, and are welcomed in by God, who shows the rabbi to a lovely little house in a great neighborhood, and with a full set of Shas on the bookshelf. The rabbi is feeling pretty happy, until he looks out of his window, and sees the cabdriver in a beautiful mansion. Confused and upset, he approaches God and says: “Dear God, I dedicated my life to you! Why do I get the small house, while the cabdriver gets a mansion?”

To which God replies: “You encouraged people to pray. When they were in his cab, they meant it.”

(This obviously takes place in Manhattan)

Warning: I’m about to ruin the joke by over-analyzing it. Feel free to leave now, while you’re still smiling.

For those of you still with me, I think this joke points to two important aspects of prayer, namely, that meaningful prayer is often easier to obtain in nontraditional settings, and that motivating someone to work on their relationship with God is easier when the impetus is fear, rather than love. On the one hand, as we go into Rosh HaShana, perhaps we should take to heart the question of “who will live and who will die” and see ourselves as if we are passengers in that cab, and really mean what we say when we pray for our lives, and the lives we hope to lead this coming year.

As we consider the joke, however, it is clear that meaningful prayer from fear is not depicted as something we should strive for. Nor is it portrayed particularly positively in more traditional sources; we just learned in Yoma, chapter 8, that sins are considered more leniently when the impetus for the teshuva is love, rather than fear. Perhaps what we should instead take from this joke is that it is not enough to know how to pray “properly” (the rabbi obviously did). The best type of prayer is not necessarily traditional, or the one that makes us feel great individually, but may be one that allows us to engage on a communal level, and induce powerful feeling in others. It’s not just about relating to God, but how others can relate to you while you are making a divine connection.

Shana tova.

And to start off the year right: Sumo Wrestling!

(HT: Friend of Hadar)

A Hadar Alumni First (I Think)!

Mazel tov to D.Z and Y. (Yeshivat Hadar Summer alums) on their engagement! With genes like that, I look forward to the day that their kids will be teaching me Talmud.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bagels and Books

On Monday the yeshiva commemorated the five-year anniversary of the death of the father of one of the fellows. Even though none of us had ever met S.’s father, the way in which S. chose to pay tribute to her father generously allowed for us to connect to him in a way through which we, as a community, could mourn for him in a meaningful way.

After her final recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, ending davening, S. spoke about her father, and described a man who fiercely believed in the value of education. Until his death, S.’s father collected books that he would never read, leaving a tangible legacy for his children, along with the less concrete values he imparted. For those of us at Hadar who have the privilege of studying with S., it is a legacy that we also benefit from, as we interact with, and learn from, S.

But S. did not just use words to convey her connection to her father, and honor his memory. Instead of cereal for breakfast, S. brought bagels, because her father loved them. That morning, eating and enjoying the same food as S.’s father was strangely moving. The pleasure of having something delicious and different for breakfast became a joy that was not about the food, but that her father had lived and loved bagels, and now we could do it too, and connect to the person he was.

Bagels and books—I can think of no greater Jewish legacy. May the family be comforted, and may S. continue to honor her father’s legacy as embarks on her religious journey this year.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Hashem Sfatai Tiftakh, Ufi Yagid Tehilatekha

If you recite Shemona Esreh as often as you should—three times a day, plus musaf every Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and holidays—you will recite this phrase more often that you might care to think about. Even I who has not (yet) reached these lofty heights has said it so often that this phrase has pretty much ceased to register, even on my best davening days. In fact, it seems completely redundant; we ask God to open our mouths so that we may pray, after we’ve spent a good deal of time on psukei d’zimra, yishtabach, and birchot kriat shema. Of all the struggles we may be having at that moment, the inability to speak or pray is not one of them.

And yet, this phrase is one of the most powerful that we utter. Often enough, one of the hardest things to do is simply to open our mouths and communicate what is important to us to those we love. The context of this phrase, Psalm 51, shows this clearly. Attributed to David, this psalm was written in response to his confrontation with the prophet Nathan, who condemns David for his relationship with Bathsheba. David bemoans the severity of his sin, beseeching God to forgive him. At this moment of anger and shame, David recognizes the difficulty he has communicating. Yet rather than retreat into his disgrace, he recognizes that he needs God, and asks God to help him communicate so that they can reestablish their relationship. When we recite the same plea as David, we both recognize how difficult the Amidah can be in its demands on us to communicate in a very personal way, yet also recognizing the importance of connecting at the moment that is most difficult for us.

Yesterday during the orientation inaugurating the yearlong learning program at Yeshivat Hadar, one of the recurring issues was communication. Whether it was the hope that we would learn the language of the Torah, or wondering how our past, present, and future selves could interact with each other as we grow throughout the year, the issue of how we can communicate with ourselves and others is one that is very much on the mind of fellows and faculty. It is my hope that this blog can serve as one of the tools through which we can connect with each other, and will open the doors of communication and relationship between Yeshivat Hadar and the world beyond the yeshiva.