Monday, December 7, 2015

It's *only* a minhag...?

A very disturbing occurrence happened last night.

We were lighting the menorah for the very first night of Chanukah. I our home - as in many households all over the world - we made the blessings and began singing the various songs associated with the lighting. in the middle of Ma'oz Tzur we have a brief interlude by the passage of "Yevanim" where we change the tune from the regular singsong to a more festive faster paced melody and we dance in a circle for a few minutes before continuing with the standard tune.

For some reason, my eldest son sat out the dancing, and didn't participate in the singing altogether (he's six years old). When I asked him about it, he dismissively gestured and said something along the lines of "it's only a minhag."

Admittedly, that was not one of my finer moments; I got very angry and responded to him harshly. Where had he learned such an attitude? Where did he even pick up such an idea? He certainly didn't learn it in our home and I don't know where he could have picked up such a sentiment. Of course I could see that he regretted saying that immediately in the face of my response but more than the isolated incident itself I was concerned as to where he could be getting that from. I was beside myself.

Later, I tried to sit with him and explain that what sets us apart is not only our adherence to halacha but our respect and in some way fealty to minhag and mesorah. Even the chag of Chanukah itself is set apart from the other chagim because of it's inextricable ties to mesorah and communal consciousness, more so than any other holiday. How do you explain to a six year old that the real reason why we do things is so much more transcendent than the fact that it's all written down and laid out in a convenient code of laws and instructions?

Yeah, he's only six. But that concept didn't materialize out of thin air. Am I somehow demonstrating that the "way it's been done" isn't good enough or is somehow lacking?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Restoring My Soul

The truth is, I'm still processing it.

I had the z'chut to attend the annual hilula (celebration) of my Rebbe, Reb Kalonymous Kalman Shapira zya hyd this past motzei Shabbos. It was such an incredibly moving event, the intensity of it all is still so overwhelming that I constantly found my thoughts drifting back to the words that Rav Moshe Weinberger spoke.

This year, the hilula coincided with the debut of a new book that my good friend Binyomin Wolf put out. A collection of the ma'amarim Rav Weinberger gave over the last 15 years since the inception of the hilula in 2000, this slim volume serves not only as an introduction to the Torah of Piaseczna, but that of Rav Weinberger as well. It's a beautiful addition to the legacy of the Rebbe, a strong homage to the message of the Aish Kodesh.

I consider myself fortunate. Lucky to have been introduced the the writings of the Rebbe during a particularly difficult time in my life and then later on - through my efforts to share his work with others - discovering the fount of Torah wisdom that is Rav Weinberger. It's no coincidence that the same praise and gratitude that Rav Weinberger himself attributes to the Piaseczna is said about himself by others. In this year's ma'amar (indeed, the motivation behind the book) Rav Weinberger addressed the phenomenon we are witnessing that people from all walks of life - Jews and non-Jews alike - are drawn to the Torah of the Aish Kodesh in ever growing droves. Soul searchers, academics, meditation enthusiasts, philosophers, people from various streams of Judaism - all come to drink from the wellsprings of Reb Kalonymous Kalman. What is it about the Rebbe? What is the appeal? Rav Weinberger discusses this and more, and it can be listened to here.

For me, personally? As Rav Weinberger intimated, there are people who search for tzaddikim who can breathe life back into our souls. They feel deflated, defeated, lost in the chaos of a world moving at breakneck speed. They long to hear words of encouragement, to taste - briefly - the "dew of life" on their parched lips. They seek healing; some may be healers themselves, giving away their own vitality to others while wondering (doubting!) in the back of their mind whether they have anything to give.

I am such a person.

The Rebbe's writings - in the inimitable words of Rav Soloveitchik - address themselves to the reader's soul. Even if the passage itself is not relevant to my situation, the essence of the Rebbe permeates every word and touches me to my very core. His teaching are a touchstone for me, a guide for my daily living. And many times I don't internalize his words, and I don't feel worthy of considering myself a talmid, let alone a chassid. Still, because of who the Rebbe was, I can never stay far away from him. It is the conviction, the knowledge that the Rebbe is speaking directly to me from the perspective of one who has also suffered that comforts me when I'm confronted with the existential loneliness that we all share.

It's his words of fire and hope that illuminate my darkness, the same words that Rav Weinberger echoed in that darkened room this past motzei Shabbos.

It strengthens me, and I can take hold of myself once more and plunge back into the fray.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Allowing ourselves to be loved

Commenting on my previous post, my bestie Karma Dude expanded on the parable from the Ba'al Shem Tov, stating that at some point the "child" in question needs to succeed - and recognize that success - in order not to give up hope. Because if the child continues to fall down and fail without any insight into the rationale of the exercise or without understanding his "absent" father's intent, he'll come to see Him as forever distant and get distracted.

It's a really good point, and I think it does happen. A lot.

But I think a fundamental misunderstanding is at play here (although I'm not attributing this to Karma Dude) that makes the concern all the more real. The concept of a loving God - despite the fact that it's explicit in the texts that we say daily in our prayers - is a foreign one in our community; it simply isn't taught or acknowledged in any meaningful way. Our focus is primarily on our end of the relationship - we must love God, we must serve Him, and service performed out of love is the highest form of avodah. We need to be cognizant of that, ever-aware of our duty to arouse love within ourselves and others for our Father in Heaven in order to succeed in our this-worldly mission. But the other side of that coin is understanding that we are in a reciprocal relationship that starts with God's love toward His creations.
He (Rav Akiva) used to say – Beloved is man, for he was created in G-d's Image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in G-d's image, as it is said: 'For in the image of G-d has He made man' [Bereshis 9:6]. Beloved are the people Israel for they are described as children of the Omnipresent; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to them that they are described as children of the Omnipresent, as it is said, 'You are children to Hashem, Your G-d' [Devorim 14:1]. - Avot 3:18
When was the last time a rebbi in Yeshiva gave a shmuess that focused on this point? I know many folks who had never heard the words "God loves you," until much later on in life when a mentor or a special teacher revealed that truth to them. I'm under the impression that this is a revelation for many, if at all, and that is very sad. This is something that needs to be articulated, explicitly stated, not assumed to be axiomatic or learned through some osmotic process. What can we do to achieve this paradigm shift?

Thankfully, there are contemporary sources and individuals that belabor this point. The reader is directed to the sifrei Chassidut, some of the latter-day mussar works, and Torah personalities such as Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg and the late Slonimer Rebbe. And we must strive to create more English language texts either translated or based on works from Rav Kook and others that deal with this matter extensively. One specific book that comes to mind is GPS! Navigation for the Soul based on the teachings of the Nesivos Shalom which is specifically geared towards teenagers and young adults, but can be read by anybody. The authors spill a great amount of ink making this point in an engaging manner.

And of course, teach your kids. Make it as immutable as anything else in their chinuch - equate it with your own unconditional love, and make it a reality for them.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Moving Towards God

If you don't understand what's happening, watching a parent teach his child how to walk can seem to be an exercise in cruelty. The child, off balance and teetering around, reaches out for the parent's hand - and the parent steps back, just beyond the child's reach. Of course, the parent is only trying to teach and prepare his beloved child with integral skills in this fashion, and we recognize this process for what it is. The child forgets about the rudimentary movements as his desire to be closer to his father, within his protective embrace temporarily distracts him from this physical task he is trying to master.

The Ba'al Shem Tov used this as a parable for our struggles in life. In those moments when God seems to be pulling away from us, just out of reach, we have to realize that He is teaching us how to walk towards him.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Purim Appeal - Please Help!

I have been very delinquent in posting here on the blog - I know that. It pains me, because I often write whole essays in my head about topical subjects and current events in the Jewish world and beyond. I wish I could say that I'm too busy; while I am working hard on certain projects, it's not the whole story. Part of it is lethargy and the inability to actually sit down and pen something. For that, I am sorry, and I will try to be more proactive in putting out fresh material.

With that said, I turn to my readers and anybody who comes across this posting to make a special request. A while ago, I posted about the drop-in center here in Passaic, NJ that myself and several other dedicated individuals started up over a year ago for the local teens. Thankfully, we entered our second year this past November and I'd like to say that we are experiencing some modest success. Of course, success isn't quantified by how many kids we "make frum" (we aren't doing kiruv in any active sense beyond modeling what appropriate behavior is and showing kids how religious adults act) but rather on the connections we make with our kids. We (the volunteers) have opened our hearts, our homes in some cases, and our wallets as well.

Unfortunately, money is an ever present issue, notably the lack of it, and the need for it to keep things running smoothly. We did a fundraising campaign just prior to the summer and raised a nice amount, but unanticipated events necessitated our going "on the road" for the whole summer, which depleted most of our funds despite our best attempts to be financially conservative.

Since the summer, we have expanded our program to accommodate the needs of our girls' programs; we have successfully placed some boys in schools/yeshivot and covered some of their tuition; we have begun liaising with local mental health organizations to provide some counseling for some our kids who have reached out to us, and we continue to run our programs throughout the week.

But we are broke. Really, really broke. I have put a lot of personal money into this endeavor, as have some of my colleagues, but it's not enough, and it's not sustainable this way.

We are appealing to everyone in the spirit of "kol haposhet yado, nitan lo" that exemplifies this time of year to please lend a hand. Every little bit helps of course; we have a monthly budget of $2000-$2500 and that's without rent. However, we anticipate being forced to go mobile again in the summer, which bumps our weekly budget up to nearly $1000 as we need to cover costs for food, travel, and activities.


Checks can be made out to:

The Chill

134 Boulevard #10
Passaic NJ 07055

We are a 501 c3; and we can send a receipt if you need one.

Tizku l'mitzvot!

Please share this!

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Fire Burns in Teaneck

It's pretty rare that Rav Moshe Weinberger makes a foray into New Jersey, despite the fact that a few days a week he's just over the George Washington Bridge serving as Mashpia in Yeshiva University. It's rarer still when this blogger's schedule is clear at that opportune time when he comes out here to be able to attend whatever event it is. Hopefully this Sunday will be one of those "planet-aligning" times, as Rav Weinberger will be speaking in nearby Teaneck, New Jersey this Sunday night on the topics of Purim, simcha, and all other good things associated with this one of year.
I'm very excited!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Some thoughts on the Jewish Action article on Neo-Chassidus

By now, most people have at least heard about the Jewish Action's cover story on "Neo-Chassidus". Over the few weeks that have passed since the issue came out, several folks have reached out to me about my response to the article and whether or not I agree with the article. In all honesty, I have mixed feelings about the overall tone of the article, although I remain hopeful and optimistic about the trend, as it were.

For the most part, I'm filled with excitement when I learn about peoples' move toward growth, especially in their relationships with each other and with God. When one makes a conscious decision to delve deeper into such a major component of their life, to simply not allow what is to just be but to grapple, to contend with it and to confront the existential elements that inform our everyday actions - I see that as a positive in general. If that brings a person closer to their roots, or draws them into a whole different world but gives them a healthy, meaningful perspective that allows them to actualize their spiritual potential then I fully support and encourage that exploration. That is what I believe is happening for many today, as they become exposed to the world of pnimiyut.

I have a long standing reluctance to use the term neo-Chassidism or its more well known alias neo-Hasidism; this is primarily because of its association with camps that exist clearly outside the realm of Torah Judaism. I would argue that one of the reasons why chassidut in general gets its bad rap nowadays (long after the hatchet has been buried between the so-called "camps", although there are a few clueless holdouts) and carries a reputation of being a twee, less-than-intellectually-serious derech haChaim is in no small part due to the neo-Hasidic movement with their romantic revisionism of what the Chasidic lifestyle was and what it was intended for. Why anyone would want to even bear a resemblance to that shameful miscarriage of a great and holy path of avodah is beyond me.

I find myself reluctant to even describe myself as a chassid without a prefix - if I do at times it's purely an aspirational thing.

Moreover, assuming the name neo-Chassidut effectively sets one apart from a great living tradition, a gestalt that has infused these last days of galut with light, joy and energy, not to mention volumes of astonishing Torah in all areas of study. I fear that this insistence on choosing a distinctive name stems from an egocentric place; I hope that I am wrong, although I have seen other indications that certainly point to a pronounced lack of bittul.

The article highlights the spread of chassidut in the Modern Orthodox world, but this is so much bigger than that. Indeed, there has been a renaissance of sorts in the past two decades at least even within the "mainstream" chassidic world. With teachers such as Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg, Rav Itchie Meir Morgestern and Rav Gamliel Rabinovitch - among others - dedicating their strengths to once again cultivate a more conscious approach to Judaism, more and more people are "buying in" in response to the phenomenon of "selling out" with a pale facsimile of monolithic Judaism. Instead the article focused on people within the movement for the most part, as opposed to the individuals leading the movement. Again, I'm concerned that this is indicative of a larger issue of people not understanding the need to have real leaders to rally around; neo-Chassidut has been described as a DIY (do it yourself) movement. While this can foster individual responsibility, it has many risk factors as well, especially in light of the youthful composition of the "movement's" adherents. There are not yet enough resources that make chasidic texts accessible to the initiate, although thankfully that is changing. Yet by and large, translations of major texts come from places and individuals who are not observant, and whose well-meaning attempts to translate and explain these fundamental aspects of chassidut fail miserably in so many ways. It's a very dangerous place to be, to enter into something as potentially powerful as pnimiyut without an experienced teacher and structure. Lord knows that I have so much lost time as a result of this. The JA article did not do justice to this warning.

We have to tread carefully and be very cautious in this area.

I was somewhat dismayed by the response in the various social media sites from both those within and without the neo-chassidut camp. There was some sort of triumphant horn-tooting and self-congratulating that came across to many including myself as immature, as well as premature. There was an impression of eliticism in response to those that didn't necessarily agree or appreciate the article (I saw "snag" and other derivatives of the word mitnagid bandied about); I have more to say on the general subject of the "right" way to serve God, but this post is too long as it is. Another time.

(I will mention one thing in particular: an individual who is a senior faculty member in RIETS has been ridiculed by many in response to his reported comments to JA. This individual is at least partly responsible for Rav Moshe Weinberger being at YU in an official capacity. At the very least he deserves some gratitude for recognizing what is "working" with many of the students and - despite his misgivings and skepticism - brought Rav Weinberger in as mashpia. The scorn leveled at him based on a quip that was quoted as part of a larger article is not fair, nor is JA's use of his on-the-record remarks to be set up as the "bad guy". Bad form.)

Many of the responses to the article have been so very cynical, even caustic in some instances. And while it is so natural to assume a defensive position and swat away at the attacks and criticism, we would do well to at least take heed to some of the more salient points that those critics make. It is precisely that opposition that keeps us on the straight and narrow and it behooves us to at least take it seriously, because there is a grain a truth in some of their words and we can learn from it.