Monday, January 28, 2019

Parashat Mishpatim: "Seeing God" and Covenant

Listen to tonight's class on Parashat Mishpatim, "'Seeing God' and Covenant," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Are Cigarettes "Kosher"?

Listen to tonight's class, "Are Cigarettes 'Kosher'?" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

For further research:

1) Read the full text of the RCA's pesak, which we cited, here.

2) Read R. Shlomo Brody's brief summary of this topic in his A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, here.

3) Read R. Nehorai Ohana's extensive analysis of this topic, in his פסקי רפואה:אקטואליה רפואית בהלכה, here.

4) View the source sheet on this topic from the Olamot website here.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Parashat Yitro: Torah and Teshuvah

Torah and Teshuvah
Thoughts on Yitro 2019
Click here to view as PDF

Having journeyed from Refidim, they [Bnei Yisrael] entered the wilderness of Sinai… (Shemot 19:2)

Rashi questioned this pasuk’s seemingly unnecessary mention of Am Yisrael’s travels from Refidim in the context of their arrival for ma’amad Har Sinai. He quoted from the Hakhamim, who suggested that the text parallels the character of Am Yisrael’s journey from Refidim to their arrival at Sinai: “Just as their arrival at Sinai was in a state of repentance (teshuvah), so too was their travel from Refidim.”[1]

Linking Torah to the process of teshuvah is unsurprising. The fifth berakhah of the Amidah couples our request of “returning to Your Torah” with “bringing us back through complete teshuvah before You.” Talmud Torah has likewise been paired with the highest levels of repentance, as some have suggested it as the primary component to fulfilling teshuvah of the greatest depth.[2] And Ramban pinpointed teshuvah as the subject of Moshe’s statement, “Surely, this instruction (ha-missvah) which I command you on this day is not too baffling for you…” (Devarim 30:11), which the Hakhamim had already explained as a reference to talmud Torah.[3]

Conceptually, however, talmud Torah and teshuvah appear to stand apart from one another. Whereas studying Torah represents our cognitive apprehension of God’s words, repentance entails our emotional return to His presence. How do these distinctive approaches cross paths?

The answer, I believe, is a reorientation of the very function of talmud Torah. Consider, for example, the Talmud’s conclusion to the debate about whether Torah study or halakhic practice is greater: “Study is greater, for it leads to practice.”[4] Maharal of Prague understood this seemingly contradictory statement as contrasting the missvot’s ability to affect only our physical actions to talmud Torah’s power to integrate godliness into our intellect and soul.[5] R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l similarly observed: “Talmud Torah is not just informative or illuminating; it is ennobling and purgative.”[6] It is no wonder, then, that as we attempt to adjust our approach of God through teshuvah, the greatest tool at our disposal is the transformational experience of talmud Torah.

It remains a challenge, however, to approach our study of Torah with this perspective. We tend to separate the intellectual endeavors of talmud Torah from their emotional counterparts.

During the early 19th Century, the school of Hasidut led by R. Simhah Bunim z”l  in Przysucha preached a service of God that coupled analytic study with passion. The story is told about a great scholar who had studied Torah for thirty years in Lithuania who once traveled to learn from R. Yisshak of Vorki z”l, a major figure in the Przysucha movement. Meeting the scholar for the first time, R. Yisshak asked him, “You are a scholar and you have learned many years, do you know what God is saying?” The man didn’t understand R. Yisshak’s intent and responded, “God says to lay tefillin, to pray and to learn Torah.” Following several similar encounters over the course of a few weeks, R. Yisshak finally explained what he meant by means of a derashah: “’Thus God says: If a man hides in secret places…’ (Yirmiyahu 23:24) – that is, that he sits cloistered for thirty years learning Torah, nevertheless – ‘I will not look at him,’ says God.”[7] R. Yisshak taught that a Torah scholar who does not know what God is saying is missing the point of Torah. Although he may believe that by shutting out the world he is dedicating himself to Torah, he is actually avoiding the critical “cry on the street.”

Michael Rosen reflected upon the philosophy of Przysucha in this context:
A Torah scholar who has no relationship with God, who does not know what God is saying, is missing the point of learning…Przysucha was a world that asked, “Why am I learning Torah?” “What does God want of me? “Can I hear what God is saying to me?”
He summarized the idea: “For Przysucha, Torah has to be something that changes and purifies the human being.”[8]

Divorcing knowledge from heart – or life is in fact reminiscent of Adam and Hava’s fatal mistake regarding the two trees of ess ha-da’at and ess ha-hayim. A well-known Kabbalistic tradition explains that by eating from the Tree of Knowledge they separated these entities from one another, “interrupting the stream of life which flows from sphere to sphere.”[9] It follows, then, that we too repeat the sin of Eden every time we turn the “living Torah” into mere “information.”[10]

The Mishnah in Avot (6:1) enumerated the positive effects of ideal Torah study:
R. Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things…He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of God,” “lover of men,” “delighter of God,” “delighter of men” … It prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, it distances him from sin, and draws him near merit.
Viewed through an accurate prism, the experience of talmud Torah stretches us beyond the realm of knowledge of God into the domain of shared emotions with Him.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 19:2 (s.v. va-yis’u), based on Mekhilta DeRibi Yishma’el.
[2] See R. Hayim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayim 4:31 and R. Avraham Y. HaKohen Kook’s Orot Hateshuvah 10:1.
[3] See Commentary of Ramban ad loc. (s.v. ve-ta’am), and R. Yaakov B. Zolty’s Mishnat Yaavess: Orah Hayim (Jerusalem, IS, 1996), no. 54.
[4] Kiddushin 40b.
[5] R. Yehudah Loew b. Bessalel, Netivot Olam, Netiv HaTorah 1.
[6] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Study” in Twentieth Century Jewish Religious Thought (Philadelphia, PA, 2009), pg. 934.
[7] Ohel Yisshak 126:295.
[8] The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim (Jerusalem, IS, 2008), pg. 83-5.
[9] See, e.g. Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 232.
[10] See Arthur Green, Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (Woodstock, VT, 2003), pg. 145.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Halakhic Man

Listen to our classes on R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man:

Part I        Part II        Part III

Follow along with the source sheets: Part I,  Part II,  Part III.

Avodah Zarah 10a-11b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to:   10a,     10b,     11a-b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Parashat BeShalah: In Praise of Idleness

In Praise of Idleness
Thoughts on BeShalah 2019
Click here to view as PDF
Parashat BeShalah begins our national story of movement. It tells about Am Yisrael’s first steps of freedom after their stagnancy in Egypt for more than two centuries. And then, just as the muscles of the nation’s men and women had begun to loosen in the desert, God instructed them to return to that uncomfortable feeling of idleness:
“See, for God has given you the Shabbat…Sit each of you where he is, let no one go out from his place on the seventh day.” (Shemot 16:29)
Although He would later (at Ma’amad Har Sinai) provide a clear rationale for this day of rest – to recall His creation of the world and His hand in leading us out of Egypt – God’s message at this point was quite simple: just stop moving. But absent the theological component of Shabbat, what did a day of inactivity mean to Am Yisrael at that point?

In The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer wrote about how many of the very people who work to speed up the world are also the most sensitive to the virtue of slowing down. He was impressed by the way that workers at Google’s headquarters spend a fifth of their “working hours” on trampolines and in treehouses – “free of work.” He marveled at the fact that many in Silicon Valley observe an “Internet Sabbath” every week, during which they turn off most of their devices on the weekend. And Iyer was fascinated by the mandatory meditation room in every building on the General Mills campus in Minneapolis.[1]

But if our growth is driven by movement, as we know, then what is the role of idleness? What’s the point of slowing down the minds of the world’s greatest innovators?

Idleness provides the grounding and structure within which our movement can prosper.  “Movement makes richest sense when set with a frame of stillness,” Iyer wrote.[2] It provides the space for us to focus on positioning our activities in the appropriate direction.

Consider, for example, Yaakov’s reaction when he awoke from his fateful dream at Bet El:
Yaakov woke up from his sleep and said: “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know!” (Bereshit 28:16)
Yaakov was shocked that he had overlooked that place of great sanctity. How had that happened? The moments leading up to that dream provide a hint:
And Yaakov departed Be’er Sheva and went toward Haran. He encountered the place and slept there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place and arranged around his head, and he lay down in that place. (28:10-11)
Notice the excessive activity! The Torah was perhaps teaching that Yaakov’s incessant movement at that time had overwhelmed him to the extent of distraction. By stopping all activity and submitting to the idleness sleep, however, his focus was restored.

Researchers at the University of Southern California found that a particular style of neural processing is suppressed when we pay direct attention to things, emerging only when the brain switches to “default mode.”[3] In other words, some our most unique thoughts and ideas are discovered in a state of “daydreaming.” An “unplugged” mind flourishes in ways that the connected one cannot. Idleness benefits our mental endeavors as much as it does our physical.

Shortly after Am Yisrael began their journey in the wilderness, God called their attention to the importance of periodic inactivity. By conspicuously leaving out the theological significance of Shabbat as He instructed them to cease all activity on that day, God was teaching them – and us – about the intrinsic values and virtues of idleness.

[1] Pico Iyer, The Art Of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (New York, NY, 2014), pg. 42-4.
[2] Ibid., pg. 15.
[3] Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou and Vanessa Singh, “Rest is not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 4, pg. 352-64.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Parashat BeShalah: Remembering Amalek

Listen to tonight's class on Parashat BeShalah, "Remembering Amalek," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Avodah Zarah 8a-9b

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Avodah Zarah from this past week!

Listen to: 8a,    8b,    9a,    9b

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.