Revolution in Jewish Life Called Limmud: Robust Identity Challenges Synagogues and Federations

by David Hazony

Where will we go once the synagogues are gone?

In a Jewish religious landscape dominated by denominations struggling to compete for dollars and daveners, the idea that the three big faith streams might fade into irrelevance, supplanted by a robust “just Jewish” identity, sounds like a fantasy.

But what if it turned out that the demise of synagogue-based life is actually just around the bend — that a new generation of Members of the Tribe, enervated by treacly litanies and tired Talmudic classification, may soon figure out that the greatest sources of Jewish spiritual inspiration, intellectual growth and artistic expression (I lump them together and so can you) might come not from pulpit-pounders and the familiar rituals they command, nor even from the plaque-plagued schools that teach the cantors to cant, the professors to profess and the rabbis to rab — but from somewhere else entirely?

What if something came along that threatened to permanently dislodge the federations and foundations, with their fetes and fiscal décolletage, as the bookends holding up our sense of collective self, and put the core of Jewish identity back where it was always meant to be — in direct engagement with content?

I’m talking about Limmud.

Before I take another step, a disclaimer: In exchange for my giving four talks and participating in two panels over the weeklong Limmud conference in Coventry, United Kingdom, this past December, the folks who ran it were kind enough to fly me there and give me a bed to sleep in. But I’ve had far more lucrative speaking engagements and never once wrote about them afterward. Indeed, I was on such a high when Limmud finished on December 29 that I decided to wait a bit before writing, just to make sure the Kool-Aid had passed through my system.

For those of you permanently stationed in Antarctica, Continue reading “Revolution in Jewish Life Called Limmud: Robust Identity Challenges Synagogues and Federations”

Parashat Vaera: What’s in a Name?

The Quest for Authenticityby Rabbi Herzl Hefter

2 And God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by My name LORD (YHVH) I was not known to them.

The Divine name El-Shaddai has a number of possible meanings.

1)      Nachmanides – the root of shaddai is ‘shadad’ (שדד) meaning ‘might’. He who defeats the laws of nature.  Hence the common translation of El-Shaddai as “God Almighty.”

2) “Shad” (שד) – breast; the aspect of God’s personality (so to speak) which we perceive as the  Omnipotent Sustainer.

3) Maimonides in the Guide (I ch. 63) The letter “shin” is the prefix contraction of the word “asher”, “that”. She – Dai.  That [which] is sufficient. This means that God’s existence is self-sufficient.

R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765–1827), one of the great Hasidic masters in Poland, put forth a fascinating possibility.  Utilizing the same form as the Rambam, She-dai, he explains that there is sufficient revelation of God in the world to recognize His existence. There is just enough of Me in the world to know Me.

Sufficient; only just enough.  This indicates the precarious nature of creation.  Too much Divine revelation and we lose our independent identities.  We have the children of Israel at Sinai beseeching Moshe to protect them from the all-consuming Presence of God.   On the other hand, too little Divine revelation and we have a world which is both deaf and dumb, devoid of meaning or the possibility of redemption.

The German philosopher,  Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) writes that God created the best of all possible worlds. According to R. Simcha Bunim, God created the only possible world.

This only possible world teeters  perilously  between faith and skepticism, hope and despair, existence and annihilation, God’s at once comforting and disquieting Presence and His terrifying absence.  Only in the world of El-Shaddai, where belief in God cannot be taken for granted and atheism is possible can faith be meaningful.

Parshas Vaera Chapter 6: Pharaoh’s Wizards

By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom

Dear Haverim,

Urim Publications and OU Press are proud to announce the publication of Rabbi Etshalom’s 2nd volume of “Between the Lines of the Bible” with 18 essays on Sefer Shemot.

The following is the first half of a new essay, previously unpublished on the internet, taken from the new volume, which can be purchased at your local Jewish Book Store or online via:

Yitzchak Etshalom

Interjected Observations

Although we read the Biblical text in the sequence that it is presented – and this is truest when reading narrative (we assume that event A precedes event B in the text because it preceded it in real time), there are numerous examples where the Biblical text adds in interjections which reflect a later reality to help the reader understand the text – or to maintain the narrative flow. For example, at the beginning of Numbers, we are told that the count of the people and their assignments to different camps was first commanded on the “first day of the second month”; this series of assignments includes the division of Levitical labors in transporting the Tabernacle. Yet, a month earlier, the chieftains offered (over 12 consecutive days in the first month) a total of 12 wagons which, as we are told in the pre-summary of the narrative of their donation (Numbers 7:3, 7-9) that Moses distributed the wagons and teams of oxen to the Levites based on the specific transporting needs of each family – in other words, it seems as if Moses already knew – and communicated to the Levites – which family would be in charge of which component of cargo; yet that command is only given in the next month!

The answer to this puzzle lies in our understanding of the Torah as an “edited” text; in other words, the events were not recorded as they happened, rather at some point later, God commanded Moses to commit them to writing – and in an order that would maintain narrative flow as it clarifies the reasons and etiology of certain practices. This is, parenthetically, a point of consensus among nearly all medieval commentators (Rishonim) and is fully anchored in traditional Rabbinic exegesis[1]. In the example invoked above, although the text marks the dates when the chieftains brought their gifts and when the people were to be counted (and the Levites were given their assignments), the final editing took place at a time when the results of those were all known – hence, the distribution of the wagons and oxen is integrated into the text of Numbers 7 to complete the narrative of the gifts and identify where each ended up.

This an example of a chronologically “flexible” narrative; yet there are more obvious examples of “interjected texts”, such as I Samuel 9:9 and Ruth 4:7 where early nomenclature or practices are clarified for the later (current) audience who would no longer recognize the words or practice invoked.

This short introduction will help us demystify several enigmatic passages involving the wizards of Pharaoh’s court and their role in the “Plagues narrative”.


The wizards/magicians of Pharaoh’s court appear in the Biblical narrative several times – and in all cases, they come off as quite incompetent and hapless.

The first time they appear is in their lack of success in interpreting Pharaoh’s double-dream (Gen. 41:8) which leads to Joseph’s release from prison and, very quickly, to his meteoric rise to royalty. This particular mention sets the Hartumim up as foils for Joseph and anticipates their serving a similar role for Moses and Aaron in our passages.

Before assaying the interactions with the wizards in the Exodus narrative, it is prudent to point out that the word Hartum[2] does not appear in the Biblical text after our passages – until the middle of the Hellenistic era (Daniel 1:20, 2:2) and, again, they are unsuccessful in interpreting the king’s dreams when Daniel (surely a latter-day Joseph) is able to do so.

The wizards appear Continue reading “Parshas Vaera Chapter 6: Pharaoh’s Wizards”

Psychologist, editor clash over going public with accusations

by Sergey Kadinsky

Hewlett-based psychologist Dr. Michael Salomon is an expert in treating victims of sexual abuse. He literally wrote the book — Abuse in the Jewish Community — and he’s worried that too many incidents are being swept under the rug.

“If you speak to people who work in the field, there’s a smokescreen,” he said.

But Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the editor of the haredi-oriented Ami Magazine, couldn’t disagree more.

He’s concerned that recent sensational stories about child abuse in the Orthodox community are unfair attacks by “self-hating Jews.”

The two were among lively debaters on the Zev Brenner show that aired on Saturday night, Nov. 19.

The professionals are being “stonewalled because of the issue of going to the police.” Dr. Salomon said.

His view that there is not enough reporting being done in the community was disputed by Rabbi Frankfurter and by Pinny Taub, who was abused at age Continue reading “Psychologist, editor clash over going public with accusations”

Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery excerpt

Excerpted from Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery (Urim Publications) by Kenneth Chelst, 259–263. Used by permission.

The Eve of Emancipation

The Passover night of expectation has an interesting Civil War parallel: the eve of the confirmation of the Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln announced a preliminary proclamation and gave one hundred days’ notice that a final proclamation would cover designated states and parts of the states of the South still in rebellion on January 1, 1863. The legality of this war measure was not clear. Many feared that Lincoln would change his mind or delay because of pressures from a variety of sources, including politicians in four border slave states that had not seceded from the Union. Churches in abolitionist strongholds in the North held vigils on New Year’s Eve, singing and praying that Lincoln would stay the course. Blacks placed candles in the windows of their homes. Early on New Year’s Day a large crowd of abolitionists gathered in Boston’s Music Hall. The event included many of America’s greatest poets of the day, including John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who read his poem “Boston Hymn.” In the evening a crowd gathered at Tremont Temple in Boston still waiting to hear affirmation of the original proclamation. Frederick Douglass recounted the scene:

Every moment of waiting chilled our hopes, and strengthened our fears. We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which would rend the fetters of four million slaves; we were watching, as it were, by the dim light of the stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries. Eight, nine, ten o’clock came and went, and still no word. A visible shadow seemed falling on the expecting throng. “It is coming!” “It is on the wires!” Joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression from shouts of praise, to sobs and tears.

That same afternoon in the District of Columbia, the black community awaited the publication of that day’s Evening Star so they could read Lincoln’s proclamation. Reverend Henry Turner of Israel Bethel Church tore off a section of the newspaper with the proclamation and ran headlong through the streets to his church while he waved the piece of paper over his head. After an emotional reading in the church, “great processions of colored and white men marched to and fro and passed in front of the White House and congratulated President Lincoln who appeared at a window and acknowledged them by bowing.”

The celebrations in Boston were far removed from the nearest slave affected by the proclamation. The slaves of Washington, D.C., were also not covered by the proclamation, since they had already been freed on April 16, 1862, which they formally celebrated en masse three days later. One January 1 celebration in the South took place on the Smith plantation in Port Royal, South Carolina, which served as the state headquarters of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He described his group’s January 1 celebration:

Continue reading Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery excerpt”

How to Choose a Career

by Rabbi Benjamin RapaportSelfDiscovery-fullCover_resized

Whatever career we choose determines how we spend a large part of our lives. Work that really fits us, that taps into our reservoir of potential and challenges us to become our best, can make all the difference in our quality of life.

It is encouraging to know that the struggle to find a good match between who we are and the work we do is not a new one. Bachye Ibn Pakudei, in his classic work entitled “Duties of the Heart,” written around the year 1040 in Zaragosa, Spain, deals with this issue and offers a brilliant, five-piece framework for finding a career that really fits. Here it is (Duties of the Heart, The Gate of Trust, Ch. 3):

  1. Does it pull you? Just like a cat is drawn to mice, and a hawk is attracted to birds, so too within each of us is a nature and a desire for a particular livelihood.
  2. Does it match your resources? A bird that captures fish possesses a long beak and extended thighs. A lion, that tears apart other animals for food, has powerful teeth and claws. So too, our physiology, and character is more suited for certain types of work than others.
  3. Are you willing to invest? Each profession has its hurdles to overcome, its entering price that needs to be paid before it can be practiced. Medicine requires many years of study. Professional sports require years of serious training. When considering what you want to do, ask yourself if you are willing to pay the price it takes.
  4. Do you have a desire in it? Passion may not always be there, but for you to love your work that level of vitality, of absorption, needs to be there at least some of the time.
  5. Emunah – translated loosely as faith. Keep the faith that once all the above line up and you have committed yourself to whatever path it is, that you will meet with success. Don’t get derailed the first time you get challenged, or even knocked down. Dig deep and stay the course.

If we want the pride of great work, we need to choose our path with these in mind. An easy way to remember these five pieces is with the acronym PRIDE:

P – does it pull you?
R – does it match your resources?
I – are you willing to make the investment
D – do you engage in it with desire?
E – do you have faith, emuna?

Four Common Obstacles

Knowing how to choose well though is not enough. We need to Continue reading “How to Choose a Career”

Post-Limmud Essay: “Rough Landing”

by Rabbi Herzl Hefter

I am depressed.  Early Friday morning I returned home to Israel from the Limmud Conference in the UK.  Jews of all backgrounds, secular, Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Liberal attended.  I say ‘attended’ and not ‘were represented‘ because we were all there as individual Jews, representing only ourselves, united by a thirst for Torah and community.  Limmud had managed to create a wonderful “safe space” where Jews could simply encounter one another as fellow Jews.  Coming from Israel, the experience was inspiring, almost intoxicating.

So why am I depressed?  Because Continue reading “Post-Limmud Essay: “Rough Landing””

Road map for change

by Geulah Grossman

Batya Ludman, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and trauma specialist, provides cogent descriptions of life’s challenges, mental exercises that lead to personal insights, and practical advice for dealing effectively and meaningfully with people and events throughout the life cycle

Reading Dr. Batya Ludman’s wonderfully wise Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships, Resolving Conflicts sparked some memories for me.

In 1970, when I had my first child, two best-sellers sat on my night table: the umpteenth edition of Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care and the just-published Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.

Spock’s message to parents was: “Be confident – you know more than you think you do – and the rest is clearly explained in this book.” Even in 1946, when the book was first published (it’s still going strong, having sold more than 50 million copies in 42 languages), many young parents needed both encouragement and a friendly source of knowledge because – like today’s immigrants – they were living far from their extended families.

Toffler defined future shock as “a personal perception of too much change in too short a period of time.” Although Toffler wrote his book before anyone could have imagined specific changes like computers in every home (or every room) and cell phones in every pocket, he was spot-on in predicting that masses of unexpected or unfamiliar information would weaken the sense that “I know how to get along in this world.”

In 1975, when I came on aliya, the only useful book I found was Continue reading “Road map for change”

Review of Abuse in the Jewish Community

by Israel Drazin

Abuse in the Jewish Community
By Michael J. Salamon, PhD
Urim Publications, 2011, 143 pages
ISBN 978-965-524-064-1

The Catholic Church’s sex scandal involves some 3,000 priests. A 1998 study found that one in four Protestant clergy who do not have the oath of celibacy had inappropriate sexual contacts with someone who was not their spouse. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2008 that one in four women and one in nine men are subjected to domestic violence. Sexual violence reported to police increased about thirty percent since 1990. The number of Jewish rabbis and teachers that abuse children is not known but, as Dr. Michael Salamon verifies in this important book, it is also high. And something must be done to stop it.

Salamon describes what constitutes abuse, mistreatment, neglect, violence, and trauma, and narrates many episodes of each in Jewish communities. There is abandonment, stalking, and physical, sexual, emotional, and substance abuse. The abusers are rabbis, teachers, coaches, family members, spouses, neighbors, and a wide variety of people who place themselves in positions of dominance, including social workers, bosses, and camp counselors. Too often people who are abused are not even aware that they are being exploited and mistreated. Salamon describes how abusers manipulate their victims.

Salamon points out that the divorce rate among shidduch weddings Continue reading “Review of Abuse in the Jewish Community”