Thoughts on Judaism

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Acts of Random Stupidity

At Simchas Torah, there are often one or two casualties, due to acts of random stupidity. They usually involve:

1) Several adults jumping full force on tables not designed to bear their weight
2) A 15 year old emptying a quart of 80 proof
3) Performing the helicopter, secured only by the neck
4) Alcohol and testoterone mixing to form compound violence
5) Drunk teenage boys showing off for teenage girls
6) Reckless projecting of heavy objects and people without regard to environment or other people
7) Reckless projecting around people carrying small children on their shoulders
8) Recklessness amidst overcrowding
9) Attempts to remove holy books and artcles from a sea of oblivious stomping feet
10) Radical political and religious pronouncements made in a room full of drunk zealots
11) Attempts to begin a nigun without proper authority
12) Banging on a table with all one's might, without regard to possible effects on the bare hand
13) Obliviousness to the fact that alcoholic drink containers are made of glass
14) Obliviousness to the fact that liquids on a floor render the floor slippery
15) Oblviousness to the fact that suddenly laying down on the floor or performing sluggish acrobatics in the path of heavy foot traffic is rarely well advised

And thank G-d we do not drive on Yom Tov

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Monsoon Shoteh

This past Yom tov I spent among Chabad chevra. It is their custom to eat in the sukkah, even in the rain, and the weather was not disappointing. Baseball players would have safely in their hotels. All non-shotehs had long gone inside. After all, it is only shmini Atzeres, and even stalworts do not make a blessing. I remember only one such monsoon before, when I was a young whippersnapper in Crown Heights. I was amazed as they set up the sukkah. You mean, we are eating .... OUT THERE???!!!! 50 mph gusts and 45 degrees and a cold, whipping rain racked the little sukkah on the 3rd floor porch, as the paperwares went flying around together with the plastic on the table covering them. I point out that it says that only a Shoteh would eat in the rain according to the Gemorrah. Well, replied my host, it is a good thing that it is not raining that hard. Sukos in CH is only for the most weatherresistant, I decide.

This year, I had the pleasure to host and be hosted by two Lubavitchers for whom I have the utmost respect. The first, a chasid from the early days of CH, sat down in the sukah and recounted the flavor of life in the Bedford Yeshiva. Not only did he devise a way fo us to eat in the driving rainstorm, but he recounted nostalgia that was so intriguing, I might have stayed yet another hour to hear more. Alas, my guest finally became too waterlogged himself and decided he needed to bench and leave. His stories and his life reminded me vividly of what I had loved about Chabad, back when I did indeed love it. I would add that this gentleman was one of those whom I had in mind when I wrote the "foundation of kindness" paragraph of "Defending Chabad". I realized why he had wanted to sit in the sukah that evening. This connected him with his Rebbe, in an unbreakable way, in the way that a million nonsenical slogans cannot. No Yechi. No Ad Mosai. No "we want Moshiach now". Just a Bedford Yeshiva veteran doing what chasidim do, because he could not conceive of doing otherwise nor a reason for doing otherwise. Ah yes, we used to call that "TRUTH" didn't we?

By the daytime meal, the rain had slowed to a steady cold shower, but the soup still suffered and the cutlery still flew. This sukah was full, our host, the venerable shliach and ardent Moshiachist, his son, a young budding shliach, brilliant and kind, but interested in apologetics (we must cure the boy quickly), some alter Ruskies and some other non-Chabad types like myself. I attempted several innovative methods to keep myself dry and mobile enough to eat, to a chorus of laughs from a certain rebeltzin and her daughters who shall remain nameless. Hmph! The host wore a long black "kopata" and wide rimmed 1940's Fedora, as is customary in Chabad, and nothing at all in the way of raingear. Again, surprisingly, no slogans, a few Chasidic stories of the formula variety, and some rather interesting Torah discussion from the jillions of verter that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had said, dictated and edited. I noticed that our host seemed to gain strength from the rain.

So, I suppose at the end, the food was a little soggy, the clothing was ready for dry cleaning, and an adventure was had by all. There is a lot more to being a Shoteh than meets the eye.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Al chet for my Kids

For the sin of telling you to work it out with your brother without caring to hear the details

And For the sin of not wanting to listen to the recounting of the fire truck passing with sirens wailing on the way home from school

For the sin of not giving you my undivided attention while I was responding to email

And For the sin of spending more time at work than at home

For the sin of not playing catch because I was too tired

And For the sin of not reading you a story before bed because it was too late

For the sin of not attending to you because of the more pressing needs of your brothers and sisters

And For the sin of lecturing you instead of teaching you

For the sin of not listening to you more and talking less

And For the sin of not getting to know you as well as I should have before you left home

For the sin of not learning what interests and excites you

And For the sin of not remembering which of you likes and dislikes which food

For the sin of yelling first and thinking later

And For the sin of dampening your excitement in new experiences with overprotectiveness

For the sin of not wanting you to make your own mistakes

And For the sin of not taking your dreams more seriously

For sin of being the human that I am and not the superhero that a parent needs to be and is in the eyes of a child

And for the sin of not repenting all of this sooner

Wave a WHAT over my head?

What on Earth is the source of this "custom" of kaparos with a white chicken? Obviously, the rationalists in the Sephardic world couldn't find it either, the Rashba at the head. He nodded to the custom as endorsed by gedolim, but he did not endorse it for his community. Later authorities said that it should be stopped, as well, but such an order never spread thoroughly.

One wonders at that point. The Sephardim would have known the kabalah behind it, if it was indeed kabala. It seems to have been a popular practice that found its way to popularity before the authorities got a handle on it. If you know the makor for this or any source in early kabalah, do tell.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Defending Chabad

While it has been easy to make light of the peculiarities of Chabad, we can often miss the positives of Judaism's most colorful movement. In the soil of its Messianism, narcisistic fervor and fundamentalism grows some of the grass roots kindness and caring that changed the Jewish map over the past 55 years. Here are some of the things I like and respect about Chabad.

Yom Tov

One of the most remarkable things about the Chabad derech is its emphasis on bringing Judaism to the uninitiated. It is rather refreshing to go to a shul that does not have "tickets" for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Can you imagine what our forebears would have thought if they were required to buy expensive seats in shul? Many times, a person who gets an aliya in a Chabad House will stumble through the brachas, with several people guiding him word for word. He is tattered and bruised after the harrowing event, but beaming with acccomplishment. The Rebbe once famously said that the most beautiful books are those that have battered and worn covers and bindings, because it shows that they have been used for their purpose. Often, people come to Chabad shuls not knowing the rudimentary elements, and they find people ready to guide them in the mechanics and significance of what they are doing.

Wherever I go, there I am

Go to Thailand or Hong Kong on vacation, and you will find a Chabad House there. Wyoming, Vermont, South Dakota? If there is half a minyan, a Chabad House is sure to be their home. The Chabad derech is to bring the Torah to the Jews, wherever they are found. Why would a kid who grew up in Brooklyn want to spend his life teaching college students in Phoenix or Omaha to say brachas? The Rebbe's derech was full of military symbolism. There were "campaigns", "Neshek", "tanks, and "tzivos Hashem". And there were soldiers who were willing to go where no one wanted to be, to do a job that no one wanted to do.

The Chabad Rebbe

While I have discussed his derech in the past, I have never discussed what I think made the man a gadol. The burning dedication of the Chabad Rebbe could be seen in his conduct as well as his learning. He would speak every week, producing volumes upon volumes of new work on deriving an operative philosophy from the parsha, from the Pirkei Avos, from Rashi and from Chasidus. As well, a cursory examination of his work reveals that he was an expert in Rashi, in Mishna Torah, in Gemora, and in Chabad Chasidus. For hours on end, as an elderly man, he would stand without so much as a bathroom break, while thousands of people passed by. He would give dollars, Tanyas or some other keepsake, always with a purpose of making them aware of an idea (tzedaka or learning) and with making some personal contact with each one. It was rare that the Rebbe stopped before the line ended.

Nothing more illustrates what I admired about the Rebbe more than these exchanges. Once, after a project was completed, the gevir told the Rebbe that the work was complete and that he hoped that the Rebbe would be satisfied with it. The Rebbe told him that such a goal was useless, since he would never be satisfied with a past accomplishment. Once, a shliach reported with beaming pride that 60% of the Jewish students in his community attended his school, the only Jewish school in the area. The Rebbe made clear that he was not to be satisfied with anything less than each and every Jewish child in a Jewish school.


In fact, it is useless to deny that the modern stress on outreach to the nonobservant was initiated at 770 Eastern Parkway, even to the extent that they built yeshivas that strictly cater to the adult who did not learn as a child. A "beginner's yeshiva" like those in Chabad were not even necessarily considered a good thing before Chabad showed that it could work.

Foundation of Kindness

It is also undeniable that there are those within Chabad (few though they may be, we would all do well to learn from their example) who excel in kindness. Moreover, the chabadniks who excel in kindness do so out of a genuine personal caring for every Jew, regardless of belief level, background, affiliation or yichus. They are a lesson not just in how to be kind, but in why to be kind. The Chabad Rebbe also stressed that a person should be kind, not just to attract another person to Judaism, but simply because the person is created in the image of G-d. You know who you are.


So, as we approach Yom Tov, and we see Jews that are unaffiliated, Jews that are in remote places, Jews that do not a teru'a from a terabyte, know that there is a steady stream of Chabad stalwarts ready to blow the shofar for them, shake the lulav with them, sit and teach them, for no reason other than that the Chabad Rebbe's vision included everyone. There are those among them who are interested in the people, not in monetary gain or their own interests. They will spend this Yom Tov finding Jews and trying to connect with them on some level. A good and successful Yom tov to all of them.