Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Devil Went Down to Georgia...

…was actually the first song we heard on the radio when we entered Tennessee. It was a drive that passed through such sites as Hungry Mother State Park, and a vending machine selling live bait. But those 18 hours passing through parts of the US stirred within me the most patriotic feelings I’ve ever experienced. This is such a beautiful country, and I’m so glad I was able to travel and appreciate it.

This week’s Yeshivat Hadar Blog will be brought to you from Koinonia, an intentional Christian community in Georgia devoted to nonviolence, anti-racism, and environmental sustainability. The adventure was organized and is being led by Dr. Steinmetz.

Some thoughts from day one of living in a Christian community:

Among the graffiti on the doorpost of my room is the command: “Pray before you walk out this door.” Every time I pass it, it strikes me that forcing me out of my own headspace and compelling me to think about God as I walk out the door is pretty much what a mezuzah is supposed to do. I find this to be a much more effective method; whether that’s because I respond well to more direct reminders or that obnoxiousness is some kind of motivator for me is a question for the ages.

I haven’t gotten used to having someone tell me matter-of-factly, in the midst of relating their life story, when they found Jesus. And being totally serious. And not having a tale of angst and/or woe when describing their past or current relationship to Jesus. It’s the casual religious devotion without all the torment that I find so alien.

And finally, on my vacation, I’m still waking up at 7am so I can make it to minyan. Except this time it’s Christian minyan.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Empowered Judaism in Action (Updated!)

After an unanticipated, too-long hiatus, I knew I had to come back with something spectacular. Luckily, on Friday morning I had the opportunity to host shmura matza baking in my apartment, under the supervision of Rabbi Ethan Tucker. It was a surprisingly powerful experience to actually be able to connect with the essential part of this chag in a physical way. We may have had more technology, but it was the first step in recreating the Exodus experience, which is such an important part of what Pesach is. It’s not just telling the story, but living it. And demystifying some of the scary Pesach preparations in the process.

One of the most intense parts of the process—aside from the constant fear of doing something to render everything into chametz, and attempting to avoid the 550-degree oven while maneuvering the matzah within it—was how all-consuming it needed to be. For each stage in the process there were instructions to ensure that the matzah would be made properly. We had to constantly manipulate the dough so that it wouldn’t ever be left unattended and start the dreaded 18-minute countdown. Each finished piece had to be checked for folds and soft bubbles. Hands had to be constantly washed with cold water to prevent the proliferation of chametz from the dough that was on our hands and fingernails. But the most important part was having to keep in mind the purpose of the baking. Before each batch was kneaded, and at various intervals through the process, we declared “L’shem matzas mitzvah” (depending on who was saying it, the phrase was more or less Hebraisized). We sang niggunim, pieces of Hallel. Every moment was a reminder that we weren’t engaging in any kind of baking experiment, but that this was something important, and even a little spiritually transcendent.

I hope everyone who was there enjoys their matzahs, and feels proud of seeing the matzahs they made themselves on their seder tables. And regardless of where your matzahs come from, may you all have a chag kasher v’sameach!

UPDATE: We are famous!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Git Shabbos!

Today's pre-Shabbos singing was led by Avram Mlotek, an heir to quite the Yiddishist legacy. In addition to the numerous beautiful niggunim, Avram taught two Yiddish songs.

Shnirele Perele:

Zol Shoyn Kumen di Geule:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New York Times on Redefining Manhood

A really interesting NY Times article that touches on some of the issues raised during our Snow-Day Sicha. In the article, which I mentally filed under “Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too,” Dana Jennings discusses dealing with the sexual side effects of his treatment for prostate cancer. He discusses what it’s like to live in a society that promotes a certain sexualized ideal, while dealing with the physical inability to engage in sexual activity. During the course of the sicha, Rebecca Ennen made the point that we live in a culture that assumes everyone is sexually available all the time and that she found the concept meaningful that there are certain times when that assumption cannot be the reality, and couples have to find other ways to relate to each other. It was a comment I kept in mind as I read the article, as he describes the ways in which he has redefined intimacy in his relationship with his wife.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of reading my entire bat mitzvah parsha, Parshat Bo, in celebration of my second bat mitzvah. Reminiscing about the festivities the first time around, it was always nice when I was practicing and actually layning, to come across 10:8-11, which I wrote about for my bat mitzvah d’var torah. In what perhaps was, in retrospect, a sign of my budding egalitarianism, I was drawn to the negotiations between Pharoah and Moshe, when Pharoah finally begins to give way. Yet while Pharoah is ready to let Moshe go with the men on a “3-day jaunt” into the dessert, Moshe emphasizes that he expects to be able to take everyone: men, women, children, and cattle. This is unacceptable to Pharoah, and the deal is off the table. Ever since fifth grade, when I first saw these psukim and decided to write my bat mitzvah speech about them, I’ve found the philosophy of those psukim to be extremely compelling; none of us are free, until all of us are.

An organization that I’ve recently become involved with in an effort to put this ideology into practice is ATZUM. ATZUM is an organization that, among other things, aims to end human trafficking and sex slavery in Israel, an issue that is not often discussed, but is a major issue there. What these trafficked woman experience is nothing short of horrific, and by educating ourselves and taking action, we can make real progress on this front. With Pesach coming up, we are about to commemorate the utterance of those words that I chanted, and to celebrate the society that was able to be created because of Moshe’s insistence that it was everyone or no one. It is worth thinking about the slavery that currently exists in the world, and working to create a world (Jewish or otherwise) where we are all truly liberated.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Remember That Time We Went to Yeshiva During the Blizzard and it Was Awesome?

Some highlights from the day:

1. Sitting with a cup of hot cocoa in front of a Talmud knowing that I had an entire day of independent study to work on it (the hot cocoa and the Talmud).

2. The lunchtime sicha about creating an egalitarian taharat hamishpacha ethic. While I can’t exactly bring myself to shout for joy about the idea of mikvah, it was interesting to hear the various thoughts being floated around. And starting conversations is generally more interesting than sitting and stewing.

3. Rav Elie’s book, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities, has just been published! We received the first shipment of shiny new books today (UPS, I will never doubt you again), and had a proper celebration. Songs were sung, cake was eaten, speeches were made; it was a moment for us to show our appreciation for Rav Elie and this major accomplishment of his. Snowballs may or may not have been thrown in celebration.

As they say at the YU Sforim Sale, "snow does not stop Torah."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Learn More, Love More

As the year has progressed, we are at the point when, as individuals and as a group, we’ve pretty much settled into a routine. We have our learning projects, and know what we need to do for our classes. This past weekend, our comfortable yeshiva habits were upended, to make way for the sudden influx of over sixty other fellows from past summers. Those of us involved with the yeshiva will sometimes joke about the “Hadar Bubble,” and how isolated we sometimes feel from the wider world. This weekend I sat in a roomful of people who converged on Manhattan from across the US and beyond, each of whom had dedicated one summer to Torah study, and spread their experiences throughout the world. We shared Torah, compared our different versions of the same private jokes, and debated which summer had it rougher. If I may be so alliterative, it was a weekend of reverence and of revelry.

In his closing remarks, Rav Shai reminded us that the biggest form of heresy is to see the world as it is, and in response shrug your shoulders and say “well, that’s just how things are.” Hadarniks came together this weekend to remind each other that together we are working to create something big. The bubble popped.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Davening Thoughts

Tomorrow’s shiur klali will be related to one of Rav Elie’s favorite topics: “How Can I Pray What I Don’t Believe,” specifically how to handle prayer when you disagree with the content of the liturgy. Davening has never been particularly easy for me, but I confess that I’ve recently had a more difficult time with it. In truth, now that I’m davening in an adult and egalitarian environment, and no longer have the externals (mechitza, the transformation of the davening area into a battleground between students and faculty) to concern myself with, I’m surprised to discover how contentious I still find prayer. Without the distractions, I can actually look at the words on the page in front of me, and think about what I’m saying.

The results have been unexpected. In a less controversial episode, after years of saying “Az Yashir” during Shacharis, I suddenly noticed, and thought to ask about, a completely random Aramaic phrase that popped up. But actually reading the words has rendered prayer more personal. These may not be my words, but I suddenly expect them to express my feelings—or at least the feelings that are floating around my community. Right now, I’m having a particularly difficult time praising God, or asking God for things with any honest expectation of receiving a response (particularly a positive one). I’m discovering daily the ways in which I can communicate (or not) with God; what I am willing to say, what I am willing to say and believe, and what I can’t bring my lips to say because my heart resists.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

YU Sforim Sale

In preparation for my first ever YU Book-sorry, Sforim-Sale trip, I asked the Roshei Yeshiva to send me a list of sforim they thought every budding yeshiva bukhur (with an unlimited budget) should have.

Happy book hunting!

Midrash Rabbah
Shas Mishna
Rambam Mishna Torah
Minhagei Yisrael

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In Defense of Religion

Some chizuk, courtesy of Jen Taylor Friedman:

Here's an old question: How can you be religious when there is zero evidence to support the idea of Gods and no reason to think such a thing exists? Is it not foolish to act so illogically?

And here's one perspective.

I live with depression. Depression is very clever at erasing evidence. You can list all sorts of reasons for being glad and enjoying life, and depression can knock down every last one of them. When depression is masking your brain, it truly seems as though there is no reason at all to keep going.

But you keep going nonetheless, because you have some hazy idea that there's something beyond what the evidence suggests. Some days faith in that idea is the only thing that keeps you from giving up and swigging lethal quantities of codeine and whisky.

Most people around one agree that giving up is a bad idea. They encourage you to keep it up with the blind faith, against all perceptible evidence and rational analysis. Thus, apparently, sometimes blind faith, against the evidence and contrary to logic, is not wholly a bad thing.

I live much of my life on the basis that there is a state of being better than the one I presently perceive, even though the depression in my brain makes me unable to reason out how this could be. Even though all the available evidence suggests that such a belief is entirely unfounded, I choose to believe it, and no-one would say me nay.

As a religious person, I also live much of my life on the basis that there is a state of being beyond my present perception, even though reason and observation cannot support it.

Just as sometimes the depression lifts and life can be enjoyed, sometimes life's perspective widens and transcendence can be experienced. Both of these add value to my life.

The frames of mind which lead to each are precisely similar. One does not require any more suspension of disbelief than the other. It is not about living one's life entirely by rational scientific principles and then having a whole different set of rules for religion that require reason to be abandoned; from this perspective, it is simply about how much one concedes may be beyond the evidence. If it is not unreasonable to live with irrational faith concerning the one, it does not seem unreasonable to live with irrational faith concerning the other.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two Items

1. Miep Gies, one of the rescuers of Anne Frank and the others hiding in the attic, and the woman who actually kept Anne's diary throughout the war, has passed away at the age of 100. She was a remarkable woman, who risked her life to try and save a group of people, some of whom she barely knew. I can’t help but be inspired by the way in which she refused to accept the evil that was present in the world, and who, regardless of the danger to herself and her loved ones, had a moral compass that was unwavering.

2. On that note, everyone is doubtless aware of the recent earthquake in Haiti. When others in the world are suffering, it is our responsibility to step in and help however we can. Below is some information that I received from my shul about how to help:

1) Hope for Haiti - an organization supported by NBC News and the American Red Cross—is collecting:

• Aspirin (Tylenol, Motrin, Children's Advil, etc.) • Basic First Aid Supplies • Chlorine Tablets • Sutures • Bandages • Antibiotics • Casting Materials • IV Fluids • IV Kits • Wound Cleansers • First Aid Creams • Sterile gloves • Masks • Tapes • Medical Instruments

2) UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, together with the Jewish Federations of North America, are partnering with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to provide urgently needed aid and relief. Donations can be made here.

I will try to have more updated information about any projects to help out that are happening at Hadar once I return to the yeshiva.

Mazel Tov!

A belated mazel tov to R"M Avital Campbell-Hochstein and Yisroel Campbell on the birth of their baby son-and on R"M own recent birthday!
That kid is going to be the funniest Torah scholar alive.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Two articles that appeared in the Times this week that were particularly interesting, considering the recent discussions that have been taking place at the yeshiva regarding egalitarianism. The first of our official sichot was a discussion about the different types of egalitarianism, and the discussion was framed around Yehuda Kurtzer’s three categories of egalitarianism:

1. Sociological Egalitarianism-Men and women participate equally (i.e there is equal participation, but not necessarily mixed seating)

2. Anthropological Egalitarianism-Men and women are considered identical (i.e there is mixed seating, but not necessarily equal participation)

3. Theological Egalitarianism-the language used (liturgically and otherwise) to express egalitarian principles.

The discussion was thought-provoking, with issues being raised from the issues surrounding gender roles, to God language, to dealing with non-egalitarian sociological baggage in an egalitarian space. It was the beginning of a conversation, and no conclusions were drawn, except that there are far more than three categories that can be drawn up.

One of the most interesting elements of the sicha for me was that these categories, and much of the discussion, revolved around davening. I’m trying to figure out why davening in particular makes people anxious when traditional gender boundaries are broken. I have never had a discussion in any educational setting—religious or secular—about the issues surrounding men and women sitting in class and learning together. There’s no fear that we will be so overcome by sexual desire that we won’t be able to focus*, and there’s also no angst that if we give everyone equal access to the learning, as well as to all the spaces within the room, there will be some erasing of sex differences.

I’d love to hear thoughts on why davening, specifically, seems to be the focus point for many of these discussions, and what categories of egalitarianism you find most relevant.

*Which is not to say this concern isn’t ever articulated. But the assumption seems to be that while it happens, at the end of the day students need to get over themselves and study. I should also note that in general, when all of the above issues are discussed, the assumption is that there is no one in the space who is attracted to members of the same sex.