Posts Tagged ‘halacha’

Halacha: The Chok’s On You

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015
by Sam Glaser

Joanne Atkinson was everything a young piano student could want in a teacher.  She was humble, upbeat and encouraging.  Never harsh, never demanding.  If there was a piece to which I didn’t relate or which was too intricate, she allowed me to move on, no problem.  She also instituted a separate music theory class for her more advanced students, allowing me to grasp such concepts as classical harmony, counterpoint and transcription. Then my Bar Mitzvah tutor, Aryell Cohen intervened. He told my mom, “Sammy has something special and he needs a REAL teacher.”  Immediately thereafter my five-year love affair with Joanne ceased and I now was faced with the tyranny of Aryell’s German teacher (she-who-must-not-be-named) who lived with a pair of Dobermans and Bosendorfers in the Hollywood Hills.  Now I was chastised if I didn’t perfect my repertoire or scolded if I flubbed my dexterity exercises.  She didn’t really believe in my ability to “make it” as a pianist and regularly reminded me.  The creaky turn-of-the-century wooden home felt eerily haunted and it reeked of the food she cooked for her pampered pets.  I had to wash my hands before stroking her beloved 88’s and God Forbid I ever touch my shoes and then touch the keyboard!  She even denied my mother entry, making her shiver in the dark in our family station wagon waiting for me to finish each lesson.  Talk about dedication…thanks mom!

In spite of the horrors of enduring this caustic spinster, I did learn to take my art more seriously.  I developed practice techniques that I utilize to this day.  Yes, it was shocking not to be praised and coddled, but thanks to her unremitting tutelage, I tackled pieces that I likely would not have entertained had I remained with the effervescent Mrs. Atkinson.  After about a year of this torture I rebelled, telling my parents that now that I was a man (of 13!) I had decided to quit the piano and take up guitar.  Of course I still used the piano for songwriting and it wasn’t long before I was back, having found great teachers in David Kaminer who taught me how to rock, and then in my senior year, Dick Fister, who enlightened me on the finer points of jazz.  While it was liberating to learn to jam and improvise, I can safely say that I never again worked on my craft with that same degree of discipline as my year with the tyrant.
In hindsight I realize that what the cantankerous teacher truly gave me was the gift of appreciating how to harness my creative energy.  My innate ability was meaningless without the imposed structure. This insight helped me understand the value of the “harness” that the Jewish People has used to thrive through the millennia.  We call it Halacha (the path one walks,) or Jewish law and the multitude of constraints on our supposed freedom actually serve to give us direction and purpose, to coordinate our human efforts towards a greater goal.  Trying on the “yoke of heaven” sounds like a burden that no one would want.  Save that stuff for the religious fanatics or masochists! Surely no one wants a yoke around his or her neck.  Especially this beach loving, quasi-hippie California kid. But a yoke allows oxen to plow and thereby bring sustenance and hopefully abundance into the world. These rules and regulations are really our freedom, the secret of true success, a wellspring of pleasure and joy.  Mastering halacha seems like a dry, empty endeavor, but incorporating it into one’s life turns the most mundane acts like getting dressed, eating and interacting with others into profound moments of spiritual significance. I want to dedicate this month’s newsletter to developing an appreciation for the finer points of Jewish law and it’s various subdivisions. Bear with me…this overview requires a bit of vocabulary.
We begin with a primary distinction, the Written and the Oral law.  The written law is based on the legal sections of the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and the oral is based on the teaching of Moses and subsequent commentators.  Although there is disagreement on the exact numbering, all of our sages agree that there are 613 official mitzvot in the written text.  These are divided into 248 positive (Thou Shalt) and 365 (Shalt Not) commandments.  The “Oral Torah” elaborates on how we do these 613.  Clearly there is more to the divinely inspired script than one can find in print; several passages of the Torah indicate that Moses perceived celestial diagrams and was not just taking dictation.  Around the year 217 CE Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi committed this orally transmitted tradition to writing in order to preserve it for posterity.  His work is a terse six-book set called the Mishnah.  Over the next 400 years the commentaries on the Mishnah were compiled in the expansive 63-volume Gemara.  Together the Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud.  Got it?  As an example, let’s assume that you want the rules to build a sukkah. The written law succinctly states that all citizens of Israel have to dwell in booths for seven days. The oral law elucidates exactly what the parameters of such a booth should look like, who exactly is obligated, what to do if it rains, what activities comprise “dwelling” in the sukkah, etc.  Yes, every last detail has been covered!  Our sages maintain that both written and oral law are binding, and that the inspiration for all of the legalese as espoused by the commentators stems from the original revelation at Mt. Sinai.
Next we have a further distinction in our legal code: these biblical written and oral laws are called D’oraita, and laws introduced by the sages are called rabbinic or D’rabbanan.  Examples of rabbinic laws are the mitzvot to light Shabbat candles or to celebrate Purim.  These are not part of the original 613 mitzvot but we refer to them as mitzvot nonetheless.  The fact is that we live in a rabbinic world in that most of the laws that we observe in our daily lives are from the rabbis.  Just like the logo on the side of the LA Police cruisers states, “To protect and serve,” our concerned rabbis have instituted multifarious gezerot (fences) to keep us from trampling on the D’oraita commandments and takanot (decrees) for the public welfare.  Even though we may feel that we already have plenty, these “extra” laws are for our own good. Furthermore, each community has minhagim (customs) that can acquire the force of law when the majority adopts them.  Wearing a kippah is an example of one of these.  Without a Temple, priests and sacrifices these days, there are only 369 of the original 613 that we can do.  Not to worry: the rabbis have given us plenty more mitzvot to keep us busy!
Within the Written Law there are three categories.  The first is Mishpatim, from the word mishpat (judgment.)  These are the rational laws, the social ordinances that are intuitive, those that any functioning society might require.  Just remember that word mishpat: these are the laws that you could figure out using your own “judgment.”  Do not murder or steal are two of the mishpatim, for example.  The next category is called Chukim, or Chok in singular.  A chok is a superrational law, one that cannot be understood using human reason.  The laws of kashrut and family purity are in this class of chukim.  Yes, we can analyze why certain foods are off limits, but the fact is we are left with a best guess and never truly know.  That’s right, even though quality USDA pork chops will not give us trichinosis at this juncture of history, they are still verboten.  Assuming that we know better than the Master of the Universe is naïve and even foolhardy. Observing chukim is simply an act of love, a deep connecting with a Creator Who has the ultimate perspective, Who gave these laws for a reason that we may not ever grasp. In spite of the fact that we don’t understand, we observe chukim because we love and trust the Lawgiver.  This is the secret of that powerful formula “Na’aseh v’nishmah” (we will do and then we will understand) that we collectively uttered at Sinai.  Clearly we intuited that only performing mitzvot we understand would undermine the relationship, signifying a lack of trust by second guessing God’s ability to nurture us.
Finally there is a category called Edut, or those mitzvot that are testimonial in nature, declaring God’s power and guidance of history.  These are the laws like the observance of Shabbat and our major holidays.  The details of performing Mishpatim, Chukim and Edut are bandied about in animated conversations recorded in the Talmud, an intimidating Aramaic text that requires seven and a half years to complete by reading one complicated page at a time.  Thankfully we have a number of compilations that summarize the tachlis (bottom line) of Jewish law so that we don’t have to spend a decade looking up the proper blessing for a banana.  The primary text that enjoys universal hegemony is the Shulchan Aruch (set table) compiled by Talmudic genius Yosef Caro while he lived in Tsfat in 1555.  Caro had the misfortune of being born in Toledo, Spain in 1488; he and his family were victims of the expulsion in 1492.  They immigrated to Portugal only to be sent packing in the Portugese expulsion of 1497.  Like Maimonides he had to study while on the run.  Remarkably, his exposition of Jewish law still stands to this day; there is scarcely a home without a copy of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, an abridged version of his code.  Ashkenazim get their specific angle on observance through Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s (the Chofetz Chaim) Mishna B’rura (the clarified teaching,) a text that I have taken great joy in studying over the years.  Sephardim get their unique insights from kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s halachic masterpiece, Ben Ish Chai (the son of the man who lives.)  Both of these texts appeared in the 1800’s and remain the trusted references in the Jewish world.
With the advent of the Internet and quality English books like Artscroll’s new Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (that includes the clarification of the Mishna B’rura) it’s tempting to avoid bothering one’s rabbi with a shyla (question.)  I pity our overburdened rav who gets cornered every time he teaches or during spare moments on Shabbat by earnest congregants with urgent questions.  The fact is, however, that this is why we have a rabbi!  Ideally your rabbi knows you well and can advise you based on your unique circumstances and idiosyncrasies.  Jewish law is not monolithic.  It is highly flexible and your skilled rabbi will know just what you are ready for…or not.  Furthermore, there is far greater leniency in the enforcement of D’rabbanan as opposed to D’oraita.  Any time I ask Rabbi Cohen a shyla I see him pause to reflect on the origin of the commandment in question and guide me accordingly.  The interpretation of halacha is also geographically dependent; a case in point is when my younger brother Aharon moved from our community to the other side of town (the Hancock Park area.) He was told to find another posek (a rabbi who specializes in halachic issues) in his new domain.  Indeed, every locale has its own nuanced framework that only a local rabbi can know.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) details the exacting chain of transmission of Torah law from Sinai to the present day.  You can rest assured that this immense quantity of Jewish “how to’s” is not the invention of some crafty rabbis along the way.  Illustrating the veracity of our canon is beyond the scope of this essay but I assure you that the information is available.  While it seems that there are so many disagreements in the Talmud, there is one important fact that cannot be overlooked: the rabbis of the Talmud agree on nearly all the major precepts handed down in that chain of transmission.  They are just arguing the finer points, the seemingly insignificant “hairsplitting” details that shed light on the ultimate truth of any given matter.  God refers to us in the Torah as a “stiff necked people.”  We get especially stubborn in our search for truth and we do not budge from our time-tested beliefs.  I believe this is also the reason why we have over fifty synagogues within a one-mile radius in our LA-based shtetl.  It’s not that we don’t get along…it’s just that each subset of our multinational nation has a deep love for specific minhagim and whenever possible, prefers not to compromise.
Familiarizing yourself with and observing Jewish law offers access to the highest realms of spirituality.  While it seems like the People of the Book spend too much time reading to impact the world, the fact is that our devotion to the understanding and carrying out of God’s truth as revealed in our Torah profoundly affects reality.  Just like a smile is contagious, so too is there a ripple effect from each mitzvah performed.  In the end, all laws are mysterious chukim.  We will never understand the inner workings of God’s great plans for humanity.  But by studying the “owner’s manual” we can become acquainted with the Creator and align our will with God’s will for the Chosen People.  When we do, as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said, we are “dreaming God’s dreams.”  Judaism is a religion of life, of this world.  Yes, there are rewards in the next world beyond our imagination for every mitzvah.  But the real payoff is in the here and now, in the form of living with deep meaning, optimal relationships with all those you encounter, emotional and physical well being and most importantly, a sweet song of joy and holiness accompanying your daily dance with the Almighty.
Halacha seems daunting but only when studied from a distance.  Put that analytical, college-trained logic aside for a while and try on a chok for size.  Go ahead and do the research…but you will never understand the reason for the mitzvot.  You may feel foolish or feel like you are entertaining antiquated superstitions.  But then something clicks inside and you feel a sense of connection with your heritage.  Then you try another mitzvah and that leads to another.  Soon you are using your God-given power of choice to choose God.  Then you realize you want to soak up every mitzvah opportunity and you have a lot to learn.  At last, the chok’s on you!  Early in my life I learned that true art requires the imposition of order upon chaos, shaping a collection of random notes into a masterpiece.  All of us can develop the expertise to master our own instrument, playing our own unique role with diligence and passion, capably contributing to the sublime symphony of creation.

Jews in the Pews

Friday, October 25th, 2013

by Sam Glaser

Business is great.  The economy’s steady upturn has slowly trickled down to the bottom feeders of the socioeconomic ladder: non-profit organizations. With a bit more disposable income and the promise of more down the road, members of synagogues have been making good on unpaid dues and supporting special programming like Shabbatons, musicians and speakers.  Boards of Directors and clergy have realized that they cannot rave about dynamic synagogue life if they have cut back all their programming. And singer/speakers like me who offer all-ages programs rich in enthusiastic Jewish celebration and deep soul content are suddenly in fashion again.

The problem now is that Jewish institutions, which have been gasping for breath for the past five years, perceive that the real issue is greater than mere membership retention.  Those proud and few who have remained true to their shul in the lean years are the proverbial “choir” to whom the synagogues and JCC’s are marketing their refreshed calendars.  The great challenge revealed in the Pew Research Center’s recent study is that most of our fellow Jews are not even exposed to the message.  The real wake up call is  that Jews on the fringe are an endangered species and the challenge of our generation is fight complacency and endeavor to bring them back.

According to the study, 1/3 of Jews age 33 and younger, the American Jewish future, are claiming that they are Jewish with no religion. They have a vague sense that they are part of an elite and afflicted ancient cult and have a predisposition to enjoy Seinfeld and deli-food. Thanks to thewidespread acceptance of Jews in the greater culture, most have a sense of Jewish pride.  But the net result of that acceptance is that 4/5th’s of these “non-religious” Jews will marry out of the faith and all but eliminate the likelihood of raising the next generation with even basic Jewish values. Who will support Jewish non-profits in the future? Who will our teachers teach?  Who will fill the pews of our mega-synagogues?  No wonder this study has organized Judaism reeling.

I’d like to offer a few ideas for turning this ill-fated ship around.  I believe I have an unusual perspective gained from twenty years of visiting Jewish communities in fifty cities every year. I interact with, teach and entertain Reform, Conservative and Orthodox audiences, work with preschools through elder-hostel programs, visit schools, shuls, temples, JCC’s and even the occasional church. The formula that seems to work best requires a combination of three factors that I think are ignored at our peril.  I’ll sum them up in three simple words: Hineni, Halacha and Hillel.

In my office we can tell well in advance if my weekends are going to be successful. Some organizations hire me, pay a deposit and then we don’t hear from them until they request my travel information a few weeks before the show.  The fact is that we help our clients to be self sufficient by making all the marketing materials available online.  On the other hand, some venues bother us incessantly about how to “get out the vote.” Some daily.  These are often the gigs that are exceptional.  These organizations realize that they must strive to gain consensus, to establish committees for the sake of getting more people involved, to get the adults and kids in choirs on stage with me, to have my music playing “on hold” when people call in.  They may honor a few dignitaries, include a raffle or Chinese auction and call on local businesses to advertise in the program. They send the congregation links to my videos, they send buses to the senior homes to bring in the elderly, they have the teens run the intermission concession and pass out the aforementioned programs. They have the community vote on which workshop I present during Shabbatons, arrange for multiple individuals to pick me up and feed me, give out honors in advance for opening the ark and being called to the Torah.  The cantor might sing a duet with me, a brave teen instrumentalist gets to sit in on a particular song and then soloists and choirs all combine for a blockbuster finale.

Hineni CvrIn short, experienced leadership galvanizes the community by making requests, giving individuals the chance to answer Hineni, here I am.  I have a theory that since the time of Abraham, Jews have been primed to wait in quiet desperation until they are called upon and they cannot help but answer in the affirmative.  We respond to the call with a sense of honor and duty, glad that we were thought of, wanting to make a difference. Leaders can elicit Hineni responses when coordinating membership drives, planning artist-in-residence programs, banquets, even when recruiting enough folks for a minyan. The only prerequisite to releasing the inherent Jewish drive to take on a task, contribute funds or volunteer is a leader with the ability to pair individuals with a particular job and the guts to make the request.  The request must begin with “I need YOU to do ___________ for the community,” in other words, the community member feels uniquely singled out for the job.  Synagogues that elicit the Hineni response are typically busy beehives of activity, with all ages constantly coming and going, more like community centers than cold and corporate auditoria.

I recently co-officiated with a rabbi who had just taken his first full-time rabbinic position and was already beloved by his chosen congregation.  He was a capable speaker, practiced what he preached in terms of living a Jewish life and also had a fine voice for leading the prayers.  He had connected with the community in pastoral moments where he displayed his God-given gifts of compassion and insight. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but I felt compelled to give him this Hineni theory before I departed.  His community is aging and is endemic of the “running for the exits” tendency of the younger set.  I believe that all those great sermons and moments of tenderness will be ineffective in stemming this tide unless he finds the inner resolve to get under people’s skin with chutzpah.  I encouraged him to invent programming to empower the full range of congregants, to chase after ex-members, young familes and the unaffiliated with communal, even secular activities and not to spend an extra minute in his office when he can be meeting his constituents “where they live.”  In short, to get past the fear of rejection and elicit Hineni from everyone he meets.

Another crucial component to our survival in my humble opinion can be summed up with the word Halacha, or the path.  Just like planets have their orbit around the sun, so too do humans and more specifically, Jews. Our path is informed by the vast system of mitzvot that we have held sacred for millennia. No need to reinvent the wheel here. Part of the “Hineni” job of Jewish leadership is to reinforce that we all have an internal compass that is nurtured by the 613 commandments and clarify that they are not the 613 suggestions. Mitzvot are the skeleton that supports the body of Judaism. There is no continuity or survival without them. When an interviewer asks me where I’ve seen evidence of flourishing communities, I point out those synagogues where the leadership has laser-like focus on making mitzvot a priority, regardless of denomination.  One case in point is Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, a Reform congregation where I experienced a united, dedicated community like no other.  I asked Rabbi Fred Guttman if he would reveal his secret. He replied, “it’s simple: I just get the congregation to take on mitzvot and build from there.”

Incorporating halacha into a leadership style is controversial. It requires that the leaders personally engage in halacha, to “walk the talk.” It requires that the education budget be allotted not only to the children but also on increasing the chance for true “informed” choice for the adults. It requires gentle, private tochacha, or rebuke, when any given individual is straying from the path. It requires nudging our young people to try on kashrut, to make Shabbat and holidays sacred, to marry within the tribe and be fruitful and multiply. I see posters around my neighborhood reminding me that parents are the “anti-drug,” in other words, that in spite of evidence to the contrary, our kids do care about what we think. I believe we continue to care about what our parents and other role models think until we’re six feet under. We can all look back on our lives and acknowledge the times that a mentor steered us on the right track. We Jews have a spiritual “right track” and it’s worthy of intensive research and aggressive marketing.

My last item, at least for this essay, is Hillel.   And by that I mean the amazing collegiate institution that is the pride of Jewish America, and by extension, all Jewish programming for our endangered tribespeople under thirty. Hillels enhance Jewish life on campus for those lucky enough to have had a Jewish day school education and are the last chance for engagement for those that haven’t. I just returned from leading a Shabbaton at Lafayette College, a top 50 liberal arts school in the rolling hills of Easton, PA. A passionate, self-selected group of Jewish students celebrated Shabbat with me, a 27-hour period which included spirited davening, divrei Torah, great meals, my workshop “Jewish Perspective of the Afterlife” and after Havdalah, a rowdy concert where many of them got into the act. Perhaps the Hillel board chose the afterlife course since Halloween is coming up? According to the Hillel website, 94% say that being Jewish will “continue to be important” to them after graduation. Is there any question where our benefactors should be directing funds?

That said, I think what we are seeing is that “continue to be important” is not enough to give these young people the gift of Jewish grandchildren. Nor is the powerful Birthright program or the multitudes of great Jewish summer camps that dot our countryside. The programs with the efficacy that we require must open the door to a life of Jewish commitment, in other words, a life of mitzvot. Hillel Shabbatons, Camp Ramah and NFTY will succeed only to the degree that Jewish leadership pursues the aforementioned individual “Hineni” connections. And when these young people are called upon, the framework on which they base their Judaism must include not only adventure travel and falafel but also an opportunity to learn of the Jewish derech, or path. Yes, we have to “nudge” them. Or else I fear they will be lost in space, spineless, grasping for meaning in their lives that they will satisfy in arenas outside the Jewish weltanschauung.

Some argue that students that come to Hillel events are from different backgrounds and therefore must be catered to with kid gloves so as to not offend or demean those with less Jewish education or tradition. I must admit that I was saddened when the dear students with whom I was interacting over the weekend were stumped when I asked what Lech L’cha meant or what was Abraham’s noted character trait. They didn’t realize that Jews believed in reincarnation and had no idea of the meaning of Kaddish. I’d like to make a plea that our national Hillel rabbis and interns take it up a notch. As I’ve seen at every Hillel function that I’ve had the pleasure to lead, the students will rise to the occasion. They are hungry for Torah and leadership. They need role models that are living a Jewish life and doing so with class and a sense of fun. They want their programming to include not only talks on Jewish history, Israel and the holocaust but on the Jewish soul, text study and personal growth through mitzvot. They know that they are about to enter the abyss of the job market and the ills of society at large and need to be armed with our Jewish secrets for success. Like many Jewish events, food is the primary magnet to attract these “starving students.” But once they are there for the meal we must also feed their hunger for spiritual transformation, for our rich tradition of tools they can use to navigate the waters of life.

I agree that it’s pointless to cry about the Pew study without coming up with concrete action items. I will be working with my wife to raise a pool of matching funds for Hillel programming over 2014-15. We will be partnering with the non-profit Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity to enable Hillels to book programming that informs as well as entertains. Several campuses in each region will be involved in any given weekend with Thursday Night Live concerts, Shabbatons and Sunday workshops and teacher/staff/board training. Students can opt in to any or all of the events on the schedule with transportation provided. In tandem with this effort will be a subsidized distribution of Jewish music downloads from top Jewish artists, with a featured album available every month for free to university students. It is my hope that this small effort will help to create a groundswell of renewed enthusiasm for Jewish life and serve to better inform the choices of young Jewish people during their college experience and after they graduate.

The solutions above are a-denominational. Some may argue that Orthodox Jews are immune to the above issues. I can state from experience that they too are badly in need of an injection of renewal and joy and lose sleep over their kids’ connection to Yiddishkeit. Others might argue that mitzvot are outside the purview of Reform Jews or are “optional.” No! In fact “The (1999) Pittsburgh Principles asserts that each Reform Jew has the right, indeed the obligation, to enter into dialogue with the mitzvot…affirming a mitzvah, declaring one is not ready yet to accept it, or even rejecting it. But the dialogue must precede the decision, or it is not really a decision.” Conservative Judaism wins the prize in the Pew reports of Jewish organizational hemorrhage. I’m hopeful that the new breed of JTS/AJU graduates are eschewing the ivory tower-academic rabbinic model with which I grew up and instead can incorporate the wide-eyed sense of amazement and intoxication with God’s love that religious life requires. Many Conservative rabbis model halachic life but are unwilling to offer halachic education or tochacha to increasingly secular congregants for fear of appearing pushy or damaging relationships with the board. Clearly the clergy of all denominations must restructure their time; they can’t be too busy in board meetings, fundraising and preparing sermons or they will miss out on crucial Hineni moments. If the Pew study revealed anything it’s that all our movements are in need of healing and that any one’s success is a victory for the Jewish People. More than ever, we’re all in this together.

My friends, all denominations are struggling with retention. All of our organizations are striving to improve the Jewish experience that they offer. All are concerned about maximizing nachas: that profound Jewish joy button that is only pushed when our deepest soul clearly perceives that the Jewish mission is alive and well. When our leadership has the guts and the wisdom to create Hineni moments in our lives, we will rise up and say, “Here I am!” When we are encouraged to focus daily on the Jewish “path” and nurture every age group with Jewish literacy, Torah study and the importance of halacha, our out of kilter orbit will eventually stabilize. And with the devotion of resources to inspiring and directing our youth, we will create an atmosphere of love for heritage that will make the decision to raise a Jewish family a no-brainer. Let us spend our hard earned resources not on further Pew exposés of our demise but on the programs that have proven to have efficacy in stemming the tide of assimilation. I’m confident that with resolve and sagacity we’ll once again see Jews in the Pews.