Category Archives: Tefillah

Women on the Wall

Here in Israel, some would have you believe that the most recent contrived contretemps – women wearing talitot and seeking public prayer at the Kotel – has riveted the country and pitted groups, people and politicians against each other in waves of outrage and recriminations. The truth is that it is barely a story, discussed very little by Israelis, and reflective of the peculiar forms of Jewish self-expression that are rooted in the exile experience.
As such, two sensations wash over when reading the sporadic references to these matters in the media. The first is tedium. Whatever their motivations, and I assume at least some are sincere, this battle is same-old same-old. The movers and shakers among the provocateurs are predominantly non-Orthodox, and some of those leading the charge and being arrested for the blatant breaches of the law are secular women who would otherwise not be found within 2000 ells of a house of prayer. As is customary these days with all groups that are uncomfortable with established religious or cultural norms, they wrap themselves in the banner of “equality,” as if that justifies anything and everything.
Memo to provocateurs: Judaism does not believe in absolute equality, nor does nature or life itself. The Torah is quite explicit that men and women share the same essential spiritual worth – both males and females were created in the image of God. But that is not the same as saying that modes of worship, and treatment under the law, therefore have to be identical. In God’s orchestra, men and women, kohanim, leviim and yisraelim, all have different roles and play different instruments. That is why that orchestra produces beautiful music and has spawned millennia of faithful Jews who have clung to the Torah despite great suffering imposed from outsiders and enormous challenges from secular culture and values.
The orchestra of the provocateurs plays only one instrument – a loud trumpet that blares and blares, and attracts attention but not respect.
There is a second sensation that arises as well to which many have become accustomed as these arguments pop up every now and then: sadness. It is sad when women feel that they are spiritually significant beings only when they mimic what men do. Whatever obscure sources one wants to cherry-pick after the fact, it is obvious – for example – that women have never worn talitot during prayer. That these women should feel that their prayer is elevated and worthy only when wearing male garb in public is just sad. (One wonders why these women just don’t wear tzitzit¬ – a talit katan – everyday under their garments like observant men do, or is it just the public show that matters?)
Certainly men can light Shabbat candles every Friday night and go to the mikveh once a month, but those men are mimicking women and fashioning their own religion that has little connection to God or Torah. It is the ultimate in self-worship. Egalitarianism has become the dominant value – above all others – such that the Torah is merely a tool in achieving it, and any jot or tittle of the Torah that engenders any sort of inequality must be abandoned, according to this way of thinking. For example, there are non-Orthodox Jews known to me who refuse to daven anywhere there is a mechitza (partition between men and women), deeming such to be “immoral.” They are sincere, albeit misguided. Where does it end? Should we anticipate a day when women will be clamoring to grow beards during sefira and lamenting the unfairness of it all – the “male patriarchy” – if they can’t?
In truth, the groups comprising the Wall Women have different agendas. Some want to push for women’s prayer and the duplication of the male experience, while others want full egalitarian prayer – mixed minyanim and the like. They are not identical but have joined forces to fight the greater battle – much like Conservative Judaism does not accept Reform Jewish conversions but fight together against Orthodox control of the conversion process. Both, again, have found the convenient bogeyman – the Haredim who are the enemies de jure in Israel and blamed for much of society’s ills and the strife at the Kotel. But anyone with remote familiarity with the events on the ground knows that the most caustic opponents of the provocateurs are not Haredi men, but women, and not all Haredi women, just religious women who are happy in their lives, love the Torah and find no fault in it, and do not want their prayers disturbed by these foreign elements who have incessant complaints against God’s Torah instead of their own unwillingness to comply with it.
The Haredim, though, are depicted as the enemy because they are convenient targets, and a woman-woman brawl would be even more tedious. And not all the women involved are non-Orthodox, but, as we have seen in other areas, rebellion against Torah can come from those who wear suits, hats, tichels, wigs and tallitot – and from both men and women.
Much has been made of the arrests of women wearing tallitot and otherwise disturbing the peace at the Kotel. It sounds bizarre that anyone should be arrested for “praying” in an uncustomary matter, until one realizes that just a few yards away from the Kotel, Jews are routinely barred from praying near the Temple Mount, and even arrested if they are caught moving their lips. There is a concept among decent people of respecting the norms and customs of a place. Certainly, these women would not demand freedom of worship in Al-Aksa, nor even try to enter wearing shoes. They would not seek to impose their forms of worship on a church, and if similarly-minded Christians did, the church would be justified in having them evicted and, if necessary, arrested for disturbing the peace. In their egalitarian ardor, they show contempt for Judaism that they would never show to other religions. (It reminds me of when the late Leah Rabin visited Pope John Paul II and covered her head with a scarf, something she would never consider when visiting the Chief Rabbi. Interesting.)
Indeed, perhaps these women would garner more support if they took their prayer to the Temple Mount. A steel cage match between Muslims and liberal Jewish women would be worth ten times the price of admission. As one of my dear colleagues pointed out, it would be delightful if these liberal women fought for their rights to pray unfettered at Me’arat Hamachpela in Hevron, or at Yosef’s Tomb in Shchem. If nothing else, it would put them on the side of the angels in support of Jewish rights throughout the land of Israel.
Of course, Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is prohibited by Israeli law so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities. Why, then, are Jewish sensibilities any less precious than Muslim ones? And – to be blunt – Jewish sensibilities are offended by blatant violations of Torah and mockeries of Torah that take place anywhere and in any form. True, we control our rage better than Muslims do, but the issue is not prevention of violence but sensibilities. And law and order.
Right now, the law bans some of the antics of these women. They may not like it, as I don’t like other laws, but those who break the law deserve to be arrested. Civil disobedience comes at a price, although the left in Israel – trumpeters of the “rule of law” – have long reserved the right to break laws they don’t like for causes they consider to be just. They conveniently forget the illegal negotiations with the PLO before Oslo – when even meeting PLO officials broke the existing law. Anarchy results when people pick and choose which laws are moral and which laws they will follow.
The gloomier prospect is that this matter will not end. Natan Sharansky’s compromise has been hailed by many, and give him credit for trying. (He wants to enshrine in practice the High Court’s license to have such prayers take place on the Western Wall’s southern extension, near Robinson’s Arch, on the unspoken but compelling theory that “out of sight is out of mind.”) There is logic to it, although religious Jews recoil at the permanence of any arrangement that breaches Jewish law. As is well known (Masechet Sukka 51b), the Bet HaMikdash of which the Western Wall is but a remnant had a balcony for women erected whenever large crowds were expected. Perish the thought – but the Holy Temple for whose rebuilding we pray every day was not an egalitarian institution! And the same mesorah that teaches us that today’s Kotel is part of the retaining wall of the Mikdash and the place from which the Divine Presence has never left and which God vowed would never be destroyed (Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba 2:9) is the same mesorah that regulates how Jews pray.
And the compromise is sought on the specious grounds that failure to do something will cause a diminution of American-Jewish support for Israel. But that train left the station years ago; the primary supporters of Israel today in America are evangelical Christians, not Jews. Jews have become too unreliable, and too assimilated, to constitute a durable core of support, although few will admit this publicly, and the denial of this reality serves a purpose in keeping otherwise straying Jews somewhat tethered to Jewish life. And if the compromise is coupled with increased Jewish rights throughout the land of Israel – on the Temple Mount and elsewhere – it will have served a noble purpose.
But the controversy will not end – whether or not the “great compromise” goes into effect – because, as we have seen with race in America, “equality” leaves its seekers unsatisfied and they begin to demand special treatment and privileges. Robinson’s Arch will be construed as Plessy v. Ferguson re-visited, a “separate but equal” facility that will stoke the flames for years to come. In accord with Middle East custom, the provocateurs will pocket these concessions and plan their next move. It will not end, because the yetzer hara for Torah is also powerful and usually self-justifying. The latest reports are that the women in question have already rejected the compromise. They want more, and subtlety is not their strong suit.
What is missing – as is frequently the case in these intra-Jewish disputes – is surrender to a Higher Authority. Thus, this is a good debate to have, even if it has little traction in Israel, because it is a compelling reminder of the fundamental principles in Jewish life and the very foundation of Torah: Whom do we serve, how and why? What does it mean to be Jewish? How can all the deviations sought in Jewish law and morality not be deemed as self-worship? One recalls that among the initial founders of Conservative Judaism were Orthodox Jews and Rabbis. It is hard to imagine such a thing today, but, for example, Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes at the very end of the 19th century served as the president of the OU (Orthodox Union) and the Jewish Theological Seminary, of which he was one of the founders. It took two decades to sort out who was who and who stood for what. I sense that these groups and their agendas will not require that much time to determine whether or not they want to be part of the halachic world.
The answers to those questions usually are a powerful indicator of a person’s Jewish commitment, but more importantly, the extent to which that commitment will be transmitted to his/her children and grandchildren. A sin engenders a sin, and a mitzvah engenders a mitzvah. On which side of the wall, then, will these women, their supporters and their children, wind up? That is the critical question.
Meanwhile, a District Court Judge – identified as Orthodox – ruled yesterday that women can pray at the Kotel as they wish because there is no “local custom” that has to be obeyed. One would have thought that the Rabbi of the Kotel would have been in a better position to determine what the local custom is, but, at least, whatever the merits of his argument, this judge has now proven his liberal bona fides and put himself on the fast-track to a Supreme Court appointment.
Before anarchy descends on the Kotel, it would be a good time to remind ourselves that the Kotel is a symbol of Churban (the Destruction of the Temple) and not yet a symbol of redemption, may it come soon.

Cult of Alcohol

The Wall Street Journal ten days ago (February 9, 2013) featured a front page article entitled –“After these Jewish Prayer Services, Things Come ‘To Life’ at Open Bar,” with the sub-heading, “To Woo Worshippers, Synagogues Compete with Food and Booze.” The article was quite expansive about a number of shuls that serve very elaborate feasts every week, with lavish food and abundant drink, like the banquets of Achashveirosh in his time. Why? “In the face of dwindling attendance…the sumptuous food, fine wines and liquors are a way to help draw congregants.” Whatever it takes, I guess. Thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent per week on food and alcohol, with faithful Jews their enthusiastic consumers. No tuition “crisis” there.
In one shul, the rabbi has an “adviser on food and drink.” In another, a dedicated volunteer brings a gigantic bottle of $500 Scotch every Friday afternoon. In still another, the rabbi boasted about the “quality whiskey” served in his community: “the perception is, the more expensive the bottle, the more prestigious the Kiddush.” Not to be outdone, a Conservative rabbinic leader claimed, in essence, that Conservative Jews are just as good (or bad) as the Orthodox. “Finding a really good kiddush – that’s a blood sport in the Jewish community,” he said. At least he had the good sense to decry the “cult of alcohol” that exists in our world. One non-Jewish on-line commentator asked: “Where do I go to convert?”
It is fascinating that not one person I spoke to – within and without our community – was not embarrassed by the article, even people who drink alcohol. Moreover, I know that some of the rabbis quoted were horrified by how they were made to sound, and didn’t quite grasp the gist of where the reporter was going. And it is hard to resist the lure of being quoted in the newspapers, especially prestigious ones.
Rabbi Heshy Weinrib found “very upsetting” the nonstop orgy under the guise of spirituality, and Rabbi Heshy Billet spoke about people in his shul in years past leaving davening to drink, and coming back drunk and loud, and so liquor was banned. Period. Even for Kiddush. The article drily notes: “Some members left in protest.” Big loss, I’m sure. But the most telling statement was by Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, who said: “Once upon a time, some people went to synagogue to talk to G-d. Nowadays, more and more people come to see their friends. The prayers and sermons are a distraction. Conviviality goes better with a drink.” Is he right? It certainly seems so.
We can yell “Kiddush, Kiddush” as much as we want and think it is somehow rooted in holiness, and exult “l’chaim” and think liquor is really life; we can speak until we are blue in the face about the “mitzvot” we can fulfill with wine and liquor; we can preach about the importance of Kiruv (Jewish outreach) whatever the methodology used – even if underage college students are plied with free liquor to induce them to participate in “Jewish” activities; and we can really believe that what is most critical in shuls is getting bodies into seats and dues being paid. But what is missing from all this is one word –God. Where is G-d in all this? What does any of this have to do with G-d?
This travesty sheds light on verses from the tragic vision of Yeshayahu that have always troubled me: “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? G-d says. I am satiated with ram-offerings and the choicest of fattened animals…” (Yeshayahu 1:11) Traditionally, we understand the problem as insincerity – as bringing offerings in the Temple in a mechanical way, without repentance or genuine commitment. But that is true of the Korban Chatat or asham or even some olot (sin-, trespass-, or ascent-offerings) but what does that have to do with shelamim – with peace-offerings that are brought on festive occasions or as personal expressions of gratitude? There is no repentance or sincerity required for shelamim! So why did the prophet castigate those as well – what he referred to as the “fattened calves”?
The answer is that even shelamim require at least an acknowledgment of G-d and recognition of the holiness of the Temple. Indeed, the Bet HaMikdash also hosted a perpetual feast. Many of the offerings brought had to be consumed pursuant to a rigid system – a day and a night for some, or two days and a night for others. They had to be eaten in the vicinity of the Temple, so, in fact, in the Temple and its environs, people were always eating and drinking. But they came to “seek out G-d’s presence” (Devarim 12:5); to come to the Bet HaMikdash for the purpose of eating and drinking? For that the prophet admonished us in the harshest terms: “Who asked you to come and trample My courtyards?” (Yeshayahu 1:12). Indeed, who asked them to come? Apparently, G-d does not want them there – even for kiruv purposes, even to put bodies in seats, even to attract attention in newspapers. For the end result of such an edifice is churban – destruction. The building does not last, because it does not deserve to last.
King Shlomo stated (Mishlei 15:8) that “the offering of the wicked is an abomination to G-d,” and the Vilna Gaon commented here that “offering” means shelamim, the peace-offering that is purely voluntary and not at all for atonement – and yet it is still an abomination to G-d. But “His desire is the prayer of the upright.” He continued (ibid 15:16): “Even a little done with fear of G-d is better than a great abundance acquired with turmoil and commotion.” That is as true in life as it is for shuls and places of holiness. Quality matters more than quantity.
It is easy to build a shul: it is infinitely more difficult is to do it for the sake of Heaven, to serve only G-d and not man. That is much more complicated. Indeed, all people and all shuls struggle with the dichotomy between what is done and what is done “l’shem shamayim – in honest and heartfelt service of G-d. And all shuls wrestle with the dilemma that Professor Sarna highlighted – how to strike a balance between the people who come to shul to talk to G-d and the people who come to see their friends, between those who see the shul as a place to daven and learn Torah, and those who see it as a social environment in which davening and learning are just two of several possible functions and activities.
All shuls struggle with that, even ours. We don’t always get it right – but I like to think we are more successful than most, in keeping the lid on what is unsavory or at least frivolous and promoting what is most wholesome and virtuous – what enriches the spirit and not the body – even if that will not earn us front-page attention in the Wall Street Journal. The body finds it sustenance out there in the world, but the soul finds its enrichment in here, in the places designated for holiness. That is the uniqueness of a shul that is easily lost amid the cacophony of clinking glasses.
We drive away the divine presence when we sully His holy places and transform them into saloons that host prayer services. But we gain eternity and sanctity, and with it the spread of His presence, by focusing on true service of G-d and surrender to His will.

The Three-Ply Cord

King Solomon stated in his wisdom “Two are better than one, for they get a greater return for their effort.” But three are even better, “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed” (Kohelet 4:9,12). The Midrash (Kohelet Raba 4) interprets this as applicable to family continuity: “R. Zi’era said that a family of scholars will produce scholars, and a family of Bnai Torah will produce Bnai Torah, and wealth will beget wealth, ‘for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.’” One sage asked: didn’t a well known family lose their wealth? To which R. Zi’era responded: “Did I say ‘the three-ply cord is never severed?’ I said “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”  But why should a three-ply cord – tough and durable – ever be severed?

A new unpublished study recently brought to my attention has challenging implications for the Torah world – to wit, that 50% of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are no longer Shabbat or Kashrut observant within two years of their graduation. Another study from last year reported the not-quite-shocking news that 25% of those graduates who attend secular colleges assimilate during college and completely abandon Torah and mitzvot.

Those are frightening statistics that should cause us all to shudder. Perhaps the numbers are less dire than they seem on the surface. For sure, a not-insignificant percentage of students enter those high schools already lacking in Shabbat observance – their families are not observant – and they leave the same way. Other teens already fall off the derech while in high school – a more exacting study would measure their observance level at graduation and then two years later. But, undoubtedly, many slide off the path of Torah as soon as they gain a modicum of autonomy. Just as certain, there are some who return to Torah years later as well.

What are we missing? What are we lacking? What are we failing to provide them after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per child on their Jewish education? What is going wrong? And how can it be rectified?

It needs to be stated that parents who look to blame the schools, the shuls, the youth groups, the Rabbis, the teachers, and/or the greater community are looking in the wrong place. They should start by looking in the mirror. That should be obvious, because parents have the primary obligation of educating their children – “you shall teach [these words] to your children to speak of them…” (Devarim 11:19). Even if parents delegate this task, they still remain primarily responsible. And of course, the general disclaimer always pertains in these matters: there are perfect parents whose kids go off the derech and horrendous parents (absolute scoundrels) whose children are righteous and scholarly. Even such illustrious people as Yitzchak and Rivka produced one of each – a tzadik and a scoundrel. There is no panacea, and we can only talk about the majority. There will always be exceptions.

To me, it all goes back to basics – not just what the parents say, but what parents say and do. The “chut hameshulash” – the “three-ply cord” of our world is Torah study, prayer and Shabbat – and in no particular order. Children who see their parents prioritize shul – not once or twice a week, but every day – see shul as a value. Children who see their parents attend shul once a week and primarily socialize and converse while there see shul as a place to meet their friends. When older, they can just bypass the middleman and just go straight to their friends.

Similarly, children who see parents learning Torah during their leisure time perceive learning as a value. Children whose Shabbat is different than the other days of the week – the Shabbat table is different, the conversation is laden with talk of Torah, ideas, values, and zemirot instead of idle chitchat, sports, and gossip – experience a different Shabbat. It’s just a different day. When Shabbat is not observed as a different day, it stops being a different day.

I have noticed that there are teens who simply do not daven – they will converse the whole time – and invariably they are the children of fathers who themselves don’t stop talking in shul. Children who roam the halls of the synagogue Shabbat morning are invariably the offspring of parents who roam the halls. Like father, like son.

And something else: too many teenagers have absolutely no concept of “Bigdei Shabbat” – the obligation to wear special clothing on Shabbat. I am not even referring to wearing ties and jackets, although that is clearly perceived as dignified dress in America. Many teens come to shul dressed in weekday clothing but even on the lower end of what might be called “school casual.” How do parents not impress on their children from their earliest youth with the idea of “Shabbat clothing?” That is part of what makes Shabbat different. Every child – girl or boy – should have clothing specially designated for Shabbat, ideally a jacket and tie for boys and a nice dress for girls. At age five, I put on a suit and tie for Shabbat, and never looked back. How are children allowed to leave the house on Shabbat as if it is a Sunday – whether it is to attend shul in the morning or meet their friends in the afternoon?

Are we then surprised when Shabbat for them becomes “not Shabbat”? Their whole experience of Shabbat is being told what they can’t do, incarcerated for two hours in the morning in a place where they don’t want to be, to then eat a meal that might be devoid of spiritual substance, the day salvaged only when they meet their friends who have had similar experiences. But if Shabbat is not a different day, then apparently the moment the child gains his independence, or a moment or two after that, his Shabbat becomes Saturday, which, combined with Sunday and Friday night, makes for a long, fun and enjoyable weekend. The fifteen year old who walks around the streets Shabbat afternoon in shorts and sneakers will likely not be observing Shabbat when he is twenty. But no one will make the connection then – so make it now.

“For the three-ply cord is not easily severed.” The three-ply cord of Torah, tefila and Shabbat is not easily undone. The survey is not as surprising as is the persistent reluctance to draw the obvious conclusions and instead cast a wide net looking for the suspects. George Orwell famously wrote that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” The good news is that we need not look very far for solutions. If the parent wants the child to learn Torah, then the parent should learn Torah. If the parent wants the child to daven, then the parent should daven. If the parent wants the child to enjoy Shabbat as a holy, special day, then the parent should make Shabbat into a holy, special day.

Perhaps there is an even more important idea. The Midrash (ibid) also states: “two are better than one – that is, a man and his wife who are better than each alone, but the ‘third cord’ (that fortifies the first two) is G-d who provides them with children.”

Parents have to convey to their children beginning in infancy a sense of G-d’s immanence, a sense of the godly in life, and a Jewish identity that is rooted in the Torah that Moshe commanded us. Children should be inculcated beginning in infancy that what they do matters before G-d, and that mitzvot are not just performances but points of connection to the Creator. When parents enlist G-d in their parenting – not as the Source of all guilt and dire punishment, but as the Source of “the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov,” then “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”  Anything can happen. There are no guarantees in life, and each person is endowed with free choice. But “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”

We must reduce our expectations to the simple – what we want for our children, our greatest priority – is the summation of our lives: not that they should necessarily attend Columbia, Harvard or Yale, or become doctors, lawyers, rabbis, or businessmen, but rather “the sum of the matter, when all has been considered, is to fear G-d and keep His commandments…” (Kohelet 12:13). When we speak with pride not of “my son the doctor” or “my daughter the lawyer” but find our true pride in “my son the G-d-fearing Jew” and “my daughter the Shomeret Mitzvot,” then we and they will be prepared for the great era ahead, when G-d’s name will be made great and exalted before the nations.


“According to His Will”

     “This is the state of the contemporary Liberal world – the fear of giving offense has been self-inculcated in a group which must, now, consider literally every word and action for potential violation of the New Norms” (David Mamet, in The Secret Knowledge).

     That, as well as anything, explains the recent self-immolation of a colleague on the “Orthodox left” (perhaps, better, “left Orthodoxy”) who demeaned and denounced the daily blessing recited by men thanking G-d for “not having made me a woman” and opined that he has stopped saying it, in breach of a Jewish tradition that is several millennia old. Stealing from the non-Orthodox playbook, he castigated Orthodoxy for its “maltreatment” of women, and our “inherited prejudice that…women possess less innate dignity than men.” He even brazenly declared the blessing a “Desecration of G-d’s Name,” trampling any sense of propriety and humility and demonstrating the ability to leap over the spiritual giants of Jewish life in a single bound – quite a stupendous feat.

    To be sure, the condemnation of his remarks elicited from him a standard (and partial) retraction, apologizing for the stridency of the remarks but not their substance. This is the flip side of a fairly typical liberal criticism, the clichéd “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it,” when, actually it is the substance, often irrefutable, that bothers them. Here, not only was the tone repugnant, but the sentiments were equally abhorrent – and were not only not withdrawn but educed defenders from the “left Orthodoxy” who are adept at finding the one source that seems to support their views (even if it doesn’t) and are blithely contemptuous of Jewish tradition, history, custom and the wisdom of our Sages. It is impossible to read his remarks without sensing that he perceives the Talmudic sages and their spiritual successors down to our day as, G-d forbid, small, bigoted, and immoral people who are his moral inferiors. One wonders why he can respect anything that they say, being so flawed, and why any of his students or congregants should care to study the opinions of those hopeless misogynists. A rabbi must have enormous self-confidence, to say the least, to set himself up as judge and jury over the guardians and transmitters of the divine word, and he must also be inordinately sensitive to feel pain when none is intended.

     Some of my learned colleagues have written eloquent articles about the provenance of this particular blessing, starting with the Yerushalmi (Brachot, Chapter 9) that explains it as referring to man’s obligation in Mitzvot that are numerically greater than those of a woman, a servant and a heathen. (See, e.g., Rav Dov Fischer at Another distinguished colleague wrote beautifully of an encounter with a woman who said that she loved the female version of the blessing – a woman correspondingly recites a blessing thanking G-d “for creating me according to his will.” She understood it as follows: women were the last entity created during the six days of creation, and therefore represented G-d’s special creation – the only entity created perfectly, “according to His will.” It is the man who recites wistfully that G-d did not make him a woman. Not only is that interpretation clever, creative, respectful of Chazal, and reflective of a joy and contentment with life, it also echoes Rav Hirsch’s commentary that women are spiritually superior to males and naturally closer to G-d than men are. I don’t have to agree – I think men and women are spiritually equal before G-d but just given different roles – to respect her satisfaction with her station in life. That is true love of G-d and love of Torah – the exact opposite of the embittered assault on Torah and Orthodoxy (among other sins – batei din, agunot, the lack of female rabbis, etc.) that emanated from the quarters mentioned above. The task of the Rabbi is to teach Torah to the unlearned, not reinforce their basest stereotypes, and one who chooses an interpretation of Chazal’s words that put them in a bad light, as opposed to teaching the many traditional interpretations that are holy and positive, is defining himself and his biases rather than the Torah. Indeed, it is peculiar that a rabbi who claims to be concerned with women’s spiritual dignity would find that dignity not in a uniquely feminine role but in rank mimicry of man’s role.

     We are living through a period of history in which “sensitivity” has become so acute that every word and deed is scrutinized by self-appointed moralists for even the possibility of offense, and in a world in which we try to co-exist with numerous individuals who are always taking offense about something or other. Some people are just thin-skinned, but today there are many who have no skin at all; they are just a bundle of raw nerves, claiming either victimhood or an unrestricted license to protect potential victims as they see it, and using that status as a club with which to beat the less-enlightened who do not share their views. There is little that, read a certain way, does not give offense, so here’s a brief list of blessings that the fastidious might also consider omitting:

     Blessed is Hashem…Hamelamed Torah l’amo Yisrael (who teaches Torah to His peopleIsrael) – might offend the world by singling out the Jewish people for our special relationship with G-d;

 …hamachzir neshamot lifgarim meitim (who restores souls to dead bodies) – might offend those who r”l die in their sleep;

She’lo asani goy (who did not make me a heathen) – might offend non-Jews;

She’lo asani aved (who did not make a slave) – might offend the working man;

 …pokeach ivrim – (who opens the eyes of the blind) – might offend the blind;

 …matir assurim – (who unties the bound) – might offend the incarcerated;
 … zokef kfufim – (who straightens the bent) – might offend the hunchback;

 …she’asa li kol tzarki – (who provides all our needs, i.e., shoes) – will offend Shoeless Joe Jackson;

… hameichin mitzadei gaver (who prepares the steps of man) – might offend the lame;
 …Ozer yisrael bigvura and oter yisrael b’tifara (who girdsIsrael with might, who adornsIsrael with splendor) – really offends non-Jews who apparently were not so blessed with might or splendor;

hanoten laya’ef koach (who gives strength to the weary) – will offend the exhausted who nonetheless wake up every morning;

Yotzer ha’meorot (who formed the luminaries) – offends evolutionists, and sounds too much like the claims of those right-wing creationists.

Habocher b’amo yisrael b’ahava (who chose His people Israel with love) – offends…well, it is obvious. There are many others. It is not that everyone will be offended by everything; it is rather that someone might be offended by some of them, and the sensitivity police will be on the case, poseurs all.

     And, of course, noten Hatorah (who gave us the Torah) – will offend those who do not believe that G-d actually gave us the Torah but assume it is a man-made ball of wax that can be shaped as they wish in order to conform to the prevailing political correctness of every generation.

   But I suppose that is the whole point of this exercise. My colleague prefers to abstain from this blessing citing the Rabbinic dictum “Shev v’al taaseh, adif” (“it is preferable to sit and not do…”) Of course, that dictum is our general recourse when we confront a conflict of laws – when an action will simultaneously fulfill and violate different commandments; it is does not at all relate to a case in which one chooses not to fulfill  mitzva because he has shamefully construed it as a “sin.” And what really is the source of the alleged sin, to add to Mamet’s quotation at the top ?

     One of my distinguished colleagues recently called attention to the introduction of the Steipler Gaon to his work “Chayei Olam.” The Steipler writes that too many Jews are spiritually perplexed – either a consequence of intellectual confusion or uncontrollable desires whetted by what they see in the world around them – and usually because they have gazed in the works of free-thinkers whose words are impure and transmit impurity, and this nonsense is retained in and shapes their minds. And then he writes (translation mine): “It is appropriate to respond to these confused individuals that do they really think that they are the first people ever to have these questions and doubts ? Does it take some genius to be thus confused ? Rather do you not understand that thousands of the giants of Israel in every generation wrestled with every possible question, doubt and angle – and yet their faith remained perfect and complete, in force, and they all served the will of their Creator with fear and reverence because their souls were pure and in the light of their understanding they saw the truth clearly – what is true and what is false and counterfeit… From the simple faith of all our Rabbis, you will be able to understand that for every question and doubt there are clear answers….”

     Part of humility is deference to those whose wisdom, deeds and moral attainments were greater than ours, and teachers of Torah should attempt to inculcate that deference – rather than affect an air of moral superiority. This most recent effort to impose the fleeting morality of modern times on the eternal values of Chazal does more than disparage generations of Jews – men and women – who properly understood the intellectual depth and moral goodness of our Sages; worse, it ordains every individual to pass ultimate judgment on every aspect of the Torah, filtering every detail through a subjective moral code that will differ from person to person. Such lacks more than just humility; it undermines the unity of the Jewish people, our faith in Torah, and our acceptance of the “yoke of the divine kingship.”

      Many have traveled down that road; few have returned. The substance is as shallow as the articulation was disgraceful. Both should be withdrawn, and the honor of our Sages and their formulation of our daily prayers, and the spiritual dignity of men and women, affirmed.

Death of the Evildoer

    Purgatory gained a new resident, and, at least for one year, the solemnity of Yom Hashoah (27 Nisan) was lightened, with the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by an elite American Navy Seals team in a fortified compound in northeast Pakistan. The details of the raid are worthy of a Hollywood spectacle, and undoubtedly will be in due course, but it is time to celebrate the death of the mastermind of the worst atrocity perpetrated on American soil in history.

    President Obama can rightly claim credit for this success that greatly weakens Al Qaeda’s capacity and influence. The fact that its founder and charismatic leader was killed by the “great Satan” demoralizes terrorists across the globe, removes a symbol of the “rise” of radical Islam, and likely reduces access to the bin Laden family fortune. Since the “fish stinks from the head,” chopping off the head from the snake of radical Islam is a grave setback that allows moderate Muslims, to the extent that they exist, to come forward and reclaim the legacy they assert is theirs. Certainly, there are al Qaeda cells across the world, and the Muslim Brotherhood is on the ascent in every Arab country with public unrest. Hamas quickly condemned the “assassination of the holy warrior,” something that itself should preclude any American acquiescence to the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement and is reminiscent of the celebrations that erupted in Gaza, Ramallah and elsewhere in the Arab world when the Arab terror attacks of September 11 took place.

       Nevertheless, something was missing from the Obama announcement. It was not only the lack of graciousness to his predecessor. Typically, Obama asserted that he made the capture of bin Laden a priority immediately after he took office, implying… that Bush did not make that a priority? President Bush wrote in his memoirs that the failure to capture bin Laden was one of his “great regrets” as president, especially after pursuing him relentlessly for several years. A more gracious president would have acknowledged that this has been an American priority since 2001, and, to a great extent, even going back to the Clinton administration. Yet, the only reference to President Bush was to incorporate his statement after the Arab terror of September 11 and reiterate the cliché that America is not “at war with Islam.”

     What was missing from Obama’s address (besides smoothness; he is a much better speaker with the dual teleprompter that enables him to move his head right and left than he is with the single screen monitor directly in front of him – one reason he consistently eschews the traditional Oval Office address) was joy. Simple joy, but even what President Bush’s critics would have termed “smug satisfaction” had this occurred under his watch. (I recall a great Bush line, in which he referenced the criticism of his “swagger. In Texas, we call that walking.”) It is as if killing bin Laden was an unpleasant task, for which Americans should feel at least some guilt and sorrow; that he deserved it but we didn’t want to do it and we hope the Muslim world realizes it is not about them, it was just one bad apple, etc.  A smile, a gleam in the eye (even when thanking the unit that succeeded,  acknowledging their exceptional professionalism and courage) – show some joy ! Bush (I and II), Reagan, Clinton – they all would have known how to gloat without overdoing it. But Obama underdid it. Whatever happened to “when the wicked perish there is song” (Proverbs 11:10) ? There were spontaneous outbursts by the crowds that assembled outside the White House, in Times Square, and even at Ground Zero –  “USA, USA !” They had it right; Obama’s passion was missing, and somewhat discordant. Why ?

    Defenders will say that he projected seriousness because the war is ongoing, new terror attacks might be in the offing, and we do not want to provoke these attacks through excessive boastfulness (as if terror against innocent civilians is brought upon them by their own deeds, and not the evil of the terrorists). But maybe there is something else afoot  – the liberal’s aversion to war.

     All this is reminiscent of the famous discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) that during the miraculous salvation at the Red Sea, which necessitated the complete annihilation of the Egyptian military, “the Heavenly angels wished to utter a song of praise before G-d but He rebuked them, saying ‘My handiwork (the Egyptians) is drowning in the sea, and you wish to utter a song before Me’?”

     This passage is popularly understood as a reason not to celebrate the downfall of the wicked, and even the reason why we do not recite a full Hallel on the anniversary of that miracle, the Seventh Day of Pesach. (This is based on a Midrash, even though the Gemara Arachin 10a-b offers a wholly unrelated reason for reciting half-hallel that is the operative halachic principle here.)

     Yet, although the angels were rebuked, Moshe and the Jews did sing a most glorious song upon beholding the death of the Egyptians (“I will sing to G-d for He is exalted above the arrogant, the horse and its rider are hurled into the sea… the mighty sank like lead into the water”), a song that we sing every single morning, and an event that we commemorate every morning and evening. And we do recite Hallel on the Seventh Day of Pesach, just omitting a few verses from two of the chapters; it is not as if we don’t celebrate the event at all but are sunk in grief over the loss of Egyptian life. And in a very similar event – the miraculous destruction of the armies of Sancheirev, the Assyrian king, that also took place on Pesach – the king Chizkiah was criticized by G-d for not singing a song of praise over the majestic salvation of the Jewish people and an abrupt end to the siege over Jerusalem (Sanhedrin 94a). So, which is it – do we sing or not sing, do we rejoice (like the crowds of Americans responding to the news of the death of our enemy or do we remain somber (like the Commander-in-Chief) ?

     The answer is in the statement of the Talmud itself: the angels were rebuked by G-d, not the people who experienced the great victory – who endured the suffering and pain inflicted by the evildoer and now lived to see justice done. The “angels” reflect a divine perspective. From G-d’s perspective, evil itself is a terrible waste of human endeavor, and the death of every human being is a net loss. The most wicked individual was created by G-d in the “divine image,” which he then trampled and abused and then forfeited. We are supposed to acknowledge the divine perspective, because it is an aspiration for all human beings.

     But we are human beings, and in the world of human beings, the suffering of innocent people troubles us and the destruction of the wicked delights us. That is why “when the wicked perish there is song” (Proverbs 11:10), and that is why Moshe sang the song that we sing every day since – about G-d’s exaltedness, and the triumph of righteousness that is heralded by the death of the wicked. That is why Chizkiah was punished and, according the Gemara, not designated as the Moshiach – he did not sing when he witnessed the hand of G-d. If we cannot feel joy when the wicked perish, then our love of justice is impaired.

     Certainly, the boisterous and young crowds chanting “USA, USA” were not praising G-d or singing Hallel, which they might have had their educations and upbringing been different. But they were rejoicing in the death of the wicked and the triumph of good, something that should evoke joy and not guilt, and in the President, a facial expression of satisfaction rather than one who looks like he is chewing gravel.

     The war is not over, but yesterday’s accomplishment was a great milestone. Like the death of Saddam Hussein that abruptly ended the fantasy of some Iraqis that he was still lurking and might return to power, the brutal death of Osama bin Laden sends a clear message to all Arab/Muslim terrorists: there is a day of reckoning for all. President Bush vowed in the aftermath of the Arab terror of September 11 that Osama bin Laden would be captured, “dead or alive.”

      He was, and “dead” is better, and an occasion for rejoicing and thanksgiving. So kudos to the President and his team for a job well done, as bin Laden prepares to be greeted by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam and Arafat.

Eat, Pray, Love

   Well, forget the “eat” part. But what is the connection between “pray” and “love”?

     The Torah restricted donations to the Tabernacle to those people “whose hearts motivated them” to give. But it is the only mitzva in the Torah that is so circumscribed – the Torah never says observe Shabbat only if your heart is into it, eat kosher food only when your motivation is pure, or learn Torah only when you are in the mood. Those are absolutes – we are commanded to perform those mitzvot regardless of our internal state. Yet, here the Torah constrains the participants of this mitzva. Why ? What should it matter to the treasurer how you feel when you pay your dues ?

     Of course, this mitzva – and another that partakes of a similar framework – both come under the rubric of avoda – service of G-d. The Talmud (Taanit 2b) quotes the famous verse we recite daily in Sh’ma and comments:  “‘…to love G-d and to serve Him with all your heart.’ What is the service of the heart ? Prayer.” Both prayer and contributions to the Sanctuary depend on and are defined by the engagement of the heart. But how do we engage the “heart” in these activities?

     A recent visitor raised a question about a common phrase in our davening that I had never noticed before. More than one thousand times a year, we recite in the amida the (17th) blessing that begins “Retzai”, that “G-d should find favor with the Jewish people and their prayers, and restore the service to the Sanctuary, “v’ishai yisrael u’tefilatam b’ahava tekabel b’ratzon.”  Leaving aside the question of to which clause “v’ishai yisrael” (the fire-offerings of Israel) belongs – former or latter – please focus on the last four words: “u’tefilatam b’ahava tekabel b’ratzon“/ ArtScroll translates as “…their prayer…accept with love and favor;” Metzuda Siddur: “accept their prayer, lovingly and willingly;” and the new Koren siddur: “Accept in love and favor …their prayer.”

      Unfortunately, unanimity here trumps exactitude, because the translation does not precisely convey the meaning of the words. The translations would be correct if the words were juxtaposed – “b’ahava u’v’ratzon” – “with love and favor” (just like that phrase b’ahava u’v’ratzon  is utilized every Shabbat in Kiddush – “in love and favor You gave us Your holy Shabbat  as a heritage.”) But here it does not say that. It reads “u’tefilatam b’ahava tekabel b’ratzon”- the “love” and the “favor” are separated.

      What are we saying, according to the exact translation?  That You, G-d, should “accept our prayers that are offered with love.” It is obvious: if the tefilot are not offered with love, then how can we ask G-d to find favor in them ?

    I only found corroboration for this elucidation in one of the commentaries – that of Rav Shimon Schwab in “Rav Schwab on Prayer.” He too was troubled by this phraseology, and he explained it the same way, and stated that when he recites this blessing, he mentally places a comma after b’ahava:“u’tefilatam b’ahava, tekabel b’ratzon“/ In context, in this blessing, he suggests, we are asking nothing for ourselves. It is out of our pure love of G-d that we want His presence to permeate the world – so that “our eyes should witness Your return to Zion in compassion.”

      But perhaps the intention is even more expansive, and is meant as a commentary on prayer generally. A prayer that is not offered out of love is simply… words. Words. A contribution given to the Tabernacle in which the heart is disengaged – and is done perfunctorily, without feeling, sensitivity, or gratitude – is unwelcome, and unworthy of us. The arena of divine service demands engagement of the heart, because the whole purpose of the mitzva is perfection of the heart. It is not only the action of prayer that has to be carried out with love, but the person himself must be in a state of love when he recites his prayers. That is much rarer than we care to admit.

    Rav Kook wrote that the study of Torah is divine service with our minds and intellects. We develop and perfect our minds, all in line with G-d’s word. But prayer is divine service with our emotions (Orot Hakodesh I:252), another dimension of the human personality. For sure, the intellect is more reliable than the emotions in ascertaining truth, and is also more exalted – but the emotions are a more credible determinant of who we are and of how we perceive ourselves. We sometimes know things that we do not internalize, that do not animate us, and that do not even speak to us. We can know things that are not really a part of us. But we are how we feel. It is therefore that internal state that we bring to our davening – and that makes it either vacuous and mechanical or meaningful and heartfelt.

     We are experts in the obligations of prayer, and in satisfying those obligations often monotonously. A popular book on tefila contains a chapter on “Twelve Strategies to Getting Your Prayers Accepted,” as if that is a primary goal of tefila. Of course, some strategies are valid, some are better than others and some are just shtik (in deference to the modern dumbing down of Judaism). But entirely omitted was our simple phrase “u’tefilatam b’ahava tekabel b’ratzon” – “accept with favor their prayers that are recited with love.” Prayers that are recited with love are accepted; prayers that emanate from our hearts and that reflect our inner world find divine favor. To pray (properly) is to love, and to love is to desire to pray.

    And even more: those who pray with love find “eternal favor.” In a world that is filled with uncertainty and in which our enemies abound, the only certainty we have is in tefila – in our direct line to G-d that is contingent on the “offerings of our heart.” Only then will we merit beholding His return to Zion, and His protective hand that nourishes our eternal bond with Him, and our eternity as a people.


      Prayer is a daily obligation of every Jew, and therefore can become a most difficult endeavor. The dangers of insincere, lackadaisical or rote prayer are known to all – it was known in the time of the Talmud as well – and the struggle to maintain one’s sharpness or enthusiasm in prayer is constant. Too many people typically perceive prayer as a last resort, as something you do when all else has failed, as something you do when you want or need something – the province of the weak and the desperate. But that is only one – and a very narrow dimension – of prayer.

       Hundreds gathered at the Kotel in August for a prayer rally in support of Gilad Schalit, the captured Israeli soldier held by Hamas in defiance of international law and on the occasion of his 23rd birthday. There really is only one happy ending to his saga that I pray for daily: that he be rescued alive and all his captors killed. There is no other happy ending possible. Interviewed at the Kotel, Noam Schalit, father of Gilad, was quoted as saying: “We are not optimistic. If we were optimistic, we would not have come to pray.”

        I certainly have no intention of criticizing him, whose pain is intense and unimaginable. He was speaking off the cuff, and under great stress, and might have been misquoted. And I mention his statement only because it reveals an approach to prayer that many of us might share – prayer as the last resort, as asking for things, as making requests – and nothing more. It literally reflects the English word “prayer,” meaning “beg,” and was the type of prayer that the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh beseeched Moshe after several of the plagues: “Beseech G-d for me.” And immediately after Moshe did so, Pharaoh reverted to his hard-heartedness.  

      Making requests of G-d is a type of prayer and perfectly appropriate – but not what we would call tefila. And if requests (or demands) of G-d are the sum and substance of our worship, then such an experience can easily leave us desiccated and disappointed, frustrated and flustered, bigheaded and bored with the entire process. It is not always about us.

      I was chatting recently with a high school administrator about the well known difficulties of tefila among high school youth. They are bored and bewildered by the whole experience, and every school labors to find the right mechanism to inspire their students. He deduced that too many people pray – even come to synagogue – for two bad reasons: coercion and guilt. Some are forced to (as in high school, or in the case of adults who want to be part of a community or social group for which one price of admission is weekly attendance at synagogue). Others feel guilty not doing it. He related to me that when he was 20 years old, he was learning in shul before Mincha on Yom Kippur when an older man walked up to him, expressing surprise that he was learning just for the sake of learning – and said that he is in shul for only one reason – and this was on Yom Kippur day (!): if he weren’t, his father would be spinning in his grave. Guilt.

     Too many people come to synagogue with those motivations, and it is typically reflected in their level of interest and behavior, and the quality of their davening – and perceived quite easily by their children. But that’s what happens when tefila becomes only asking for things, a laundry list of requests from G-d as Santa Claus. No wonder teens find it hard to daven – how much do they have to ask for (we give them almost everything), and how much of our daily tefila really involves these supplications? Perhaps 5 minutes out of 30, not much at all.

     Rav Kook wrote that true tefila emerges from a thirst for G-d – itself a rare sensation today – and must be directed at Him in totality, and not to a particular attribute like His compassion. Rav Kook characterized tefila as “service of G-d with one’s emotions,” contrasting it with Torah study that is “service of G-d with one’s intellect.” That is not to say that the intellect plays no role in tefila; it is to say that prayer and Torah study are two different experiences. I note parenthetically that both the ArtScroll siddur, and the new Rabbi Sacks siddur are fine works (each with its own passionate advocates), with many fascinating insights about tefila. Both are filled with ideas, but both are missing something – the heart, the experience of standing before the King of Kings, and the sense of awe and reverence that should engender. But that cannot come from a siddur – that has to come from us.

       Those siddurim tell us what to contemplate, but not what to experience. They cannot convey the prayer that Rav Kook described as the “revelation of the depth of the soul,” and the spontaneous outpouring of the real person. The real person, as Rav Kook saw it, is primarily expressed through the emotions, not the intellect. The proof is that we don’t always obey the intellect – but we always know how we feel. (Of course, ideally, our emotions are shaped by our intellectual attainments.) That is the part of the human personality that is accessed during prayer, and that is why we – who often live purposely superficial existences – can find prayer difficult and exasperating.

      Pharaoh of old knew only begging, until the very end when he asked Moshe to bless him – in the language of tefila and not the language of begging. Until then, Pharaoh’s heart hardened after each time he sought Moshe’s intercession – because the beggar is never satisfied. There are always new requests that have to be granted. Prayer as begging will always be inherently unsatisfying, always leave us wanting more – more things, not more tefila. Requests are a part of tefila, but not an essential part.

      What makes tefila difficult is what makes it so sublime. It is not the quota of words we say or even our mouths that utter them – but rather the expression of what is inside us – our thoughts, our feelings, the framework and mindset with which we stand before G-d. Such prayer requires patience, practice and effort – but such prayer can be a joy, an inspiration, and an example for us and to mankind as to the way to properly relate to and serve the Creator.