Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Abrahamitic Vision - Reflections on Parshat VaYera 5778

(Genesis 18:1-22:24)



In this week’s Torah Portion, we read of another test – a much more serious test, in fact the ultimate test – of course, we speak of Avraham and the binding of Isaac, known in Hebrew as the Akeidah.
For his entire life, Avraham waged a tireless war against paganism and its attendant practices: the silly weather rituals, the macabre oracles, the bizarre and debased fertility rites, the monstrous human sacrifices, and especially the sacrifice of children to the fire god Moloch. And now in this tenth and final test of his life, Avraham is suddenly commanded to take his son and offer him up as an Olah, a burnt offering to the A-lmighty. And not just any child – this is the miracle baby born to Avraham & Sarah in their nineties.  It would be a little like telling someone to drop a newborn baby off an overpass, or drive your Rent-A-Truck down a bike path filled with people at 60 miles an hour. Avraham: go do that which is anathema to you. Avraham: go violate every principle that I have taught you; shatter all that is good and holy in your life.  Avraham: throw all your hopes and promises of the future on the funeral pyre. And yet Avraham wastes no time, and sets off immediately to fulfill the command of the Gcd that had led him unscathed through every previous trial in his remarkably tempestuous life.
And not just him: Yitzhak, too, becomes aware of the plan and is complicit with his father. One of the most poignant verses in all of Tanach is Bereishit/Genesis 22:7: And Yitzhak says to Avraham, and Avraham replies, “Here I am, my son.” And Yitzhak continues, ‘Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the Olah?” And Avraham says, “Gcd will supply the lamb for the offering, my son.” And they continued on together. Not taking the sacrificial lamb along was a glaring omission, like going shopping without your wallet and magically expecting to find money when you get to the store, or going golfing without clubs or balls. It is inconceivable that his father “forgot” the lamb. Yitzhak considers all this, and it begins to dawn on him what is afoot. Yet he continues on with his father. וילכו שניהם יחדיו. They walked together with complete unity of purpose; they walked together in perfect concord, prepared to do whatever the A-lmighty might command them to do.
It is precisely from this extraordinary act of faith by these two men that Avraham’s descendants are to be blessed until the end of time. Not only that, but we read that it is through us, the descendants of Avraham, Yitzhak & Yaacov, the Children of Israel, the Jewish People, that all of humanity is to be blessed.
I would like to introduce you to another Avraham. You may have never heard of this Avraham, or may only be familiar with him by name. This Avraham was a philosopher, a poet, a mystic and a visionary. His teachings are only now beginning to be seriously studied outside of Israel, but I believe history will adjudge this man to be one of the greatest Jewish minds of the 20th century. I refer to Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook.
Rav Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, during the Mandatory period. In his time, as in ours, there were great divisions among the Jewish people. In his day, Israel was divided between the deeply religious chareidi/Ultra-orthodox community, and the modern, irreligious Zionists. There was nothing in the middle. Each camp deeply mistrusted the other. The chareidim were offended by the Zionist’s flagrant disregard for the Torah, for the Sabbath, for kashrut, etc., offended by their brashness and arrogance, and were repulsed by their trendy, fashionable notions of socialism and communism. The chareidim were convinced that nothing good could come of an enterprise rooted in such foreign ideas.
For their part, the kibbutzniks saw the chareidim as anachronisms, as representing the very worst of the unenlightened ghetto Jew. The pioneers of the new yishuv (progressive Jewish settlement enterprise) viewed the chareidim as an annoyance, whose trifling, irrelevant concerns could be handily ignored.
It took the vision of Rav Kook, who was a deeply pious man himself, to begin to the bridge the gap between the two camps. He understood that every event in the history of Western Civilization was a step in the unfolding process of גאולת ישראל, in the Redemption of the Jewish People from our 2,000 year old exile. To the Chareidim he argued: the Torah teaches that we do not know the value of a mitzvah – in other words, what is considered a major mitzvah and what is a minor mitzvah. What’s bigger? The mitzvah of Shabbat or the mitzvah of shooing away a mother bird before we take the eggs? We don’t know. We just don’t know. These crazy, irreverent Jews were literally walking across Europe and the Levant to rebuild the Land of Israel, sweating over it, suffering terrible deprivations, and calling forth produce and greenery from a land that had refused to yield produce for 2,000 years. Is this not a mitzvah? And what is the value of that mitzvah? The Talmud in Sanhedrin 98b says that the surest sign of the Messiah’s imminent arrival is that the Land of Israel will once again be verdant and yield her fruit. While the Zionists may think they are building a socialist utopia, Rav Kook argued that with every whack of the hammer, they were the unwitting instruments of Gcd’s will. The kibbutzniks were hastening the coming of the messiah! And if the Almighty could work his will through the evil Pharoah, is it so inconceivable that He could do so through the hands of idealistic, albeit misguided Jews?
And to the Zionists he urged and persuaded – but never coerced – the performance of mitzvot. Build Shabbat into your new society. Build kashrut into your new society. For the first time in 2,000 years, we have the opportunity to keep the mitzvot tied to agriculture in the Israel. Don’t see them as a hindrance, rather rejoice in them! Torah is not the enemy. He taught them that without Torah at the core of their work, the work itself will never endure. He went out to the kibbutzim, taught them Torah, celebrated with them, and was beloved by them. וילכו שניהם יחדיו/ And they walked together.
It was through Rav Kook’s efforts at synthesis, and through the establishment of educational institutions to develop a cadre of like-minded leaders, that the Dati-Zioni, the religious Zionist movement took root. He was the father of modern religious Zionism and its philosophy, which thank Gcd has flourished and prospered in Israel to this day.
Our shul, Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, has an unprecedented opportunity to make a signal contribution to the quality of Jewish life in Williamsburg and beyond. I stand before you here today and declare: most of the troubles in the world stem from a lack of Jewish unity. For it is through us that that nations of the world will be blessed; it is through us that the nations of the world will come to understand ethical, compassionate monotheism; it is through us that the nations of the world will come to recognize the One True Gcd, who is wholly, utterly good, and who created the world for our benefit, and wants only good for us all. But how can Gcd's blessings be conveyed in a shattered vessel?
It is easy to look to one’s right and to one’s left, and cast a critical eye on our Jewish brethren. I could stand here all day and tell you, point by point, why I reject the philosophy of the Reform and the Conservative, or why I am not a Satmar Chasid. But that is not what the Almighty asks of us. He asks instead that we search hard to find those נצוצי קודש , those little sparks of holiness that exist in every Jew on the soul level. The truth is that there is really no such thing as Ultra-orthodox, Orthodox/Zionist, Conservative or Reform. These are artificial distinctions that only serve only to divide. There is but ONE GCD; THERE IS BUT ONE TORAH; AND THERE IS BUT ONE JEWISH PEOPLE. Not a single one of us is perfect, and we are all on the path of tshuvah, of continually refining our character traits and improving our performance of mitzvot. As Jews, we may be at different points on the way, but we all walk a common path. וילכו שניהם יחדיו.
Let’s labor to discover the things that we can agree on, and cultivate our bonds of unity and friendships from there. Jewish unity under the flag of Torah, which is our common heritage and belongs to every Jew, is in my view the most pressing need in Jewish life today. In Megillat Esther, the commentaries point out that it wasn’t until the Jews came together to fast and pray for three days that Haman’s decree was torn up in heaven. When there is Jewish unity, amazing things happen in the world. וילכו שניהם יחדיו.
Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom gives tangible expression to this world view. Yes, we are proud Religious-Zionists, but Jews of every stripe and definition are welcomed and comfortable in our shul.  We strive to ensure that all Jews, men and women, adults and children, feel embraced and valued in our shul, irrespective of a person’s background, knowledge, or observance level.
At Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, we teach an authentic Torah message that is guaranteed to enrich your life and relationships. When a person is connected to Source of all Life through the performance of His mitzvoth, life takes on a certain inner peace that is difficult to describe unless you live in it. When we cut ourselves off from the Source of Life by not doing the mitzvot, we sow discord and dissonance in our lives.

We want to inspire you, intellectually challenge you, make you think. Let’s learn Torah together; let’s explore the hard questions. Let’s grow together as Jews and as human beings.


The Akeidah seals the Abrahamitic covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people. A covenant is a contract; to the extent that we do the mitzvot with joy and hold up our end of the bargain, the Almighty holds up His. וילכו שניהם יחדיו. I invite you to walk together both with me to build up this shul which embodies these holy values; to learn Torah together and grow together; and to become worthy vessels through which our greater community and the indeed the entire world will be blessed.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Working the System - Reflections on Parshat Chukat 5777

Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you will not lead this assembly into the Land that I have promised them. - Bamidbar (Numbers) 20:12
As the revelations of a widening circle of public assistance fraud in Lakewood made national headlines this week, many people have written to me, confused, hurt and angry. 

People are trying to make sense of how ostensibly observant, charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews could bilk the Federal Government for millions of dollars in welfare fraud. Some of the sentiments I have seen include the following:
"What a desecration of Gcd's Holy Name (chilul Hashem)!"
"They don't represent us."
"I don't know how to respond." 
As a native son of Lakewood, and as the Rabbi of the last remaining non-Chasidic synagogue in Williamsburg, NY, I may have a unique perspective on the subject.

First of all, the Lakewood that I grew up in doesn't exist any more. When my grandparents moved to Lakewood in 1940, there was no Bais Medrash Gevoha (BMG), the principal yeshivah in Lakewood. Back then, Lakewood was just a quaint, small New Jersey town, a stone's throw from the Jersey Shore, with only one synagogue, Congregation Sons of Israel on East 4th Street. Rabbi Levovitz came to Lakewood in 1944, fresh out of the yeshivah (seminary), and would remain as the leader of that community for the next 54 years.

Lakewood was a winter resort destination, with dozens of large and small hotels. The great and mighty took the train from New York or Philadelphia to vacation in Lakewood. The John J. Gould estate became Georgian Court College. The Rockefeller estate became Ocean County Park. My grandparents bought the house in which the caretaker of the Rockefeller estate once resided.

I came of age at the tail end of that era. Laurel-in-the-Pines was long gone, but there were still a few small hotels - the Fox-Lieberman, the Irvington - hanging on for dear life. We would run up and down the empty halls of the Fairmont, play in the arcade and the empty fitness center. (They had these crazy machines with a wide belt that went around your backside, and when you turned it on, it jiggled your tush, I guess to reduce its size? But boy were they fun to play with.)

I still remember the horse-drawn carriages that would stand on the corner of Clifton and Main Streets, waiting to take people for rides around Lake Carasaljo. It had all the appeal and innocence of every small town everywhere - no one locked doors or cars; I'd disappear on a summer's day on my bike for hours, and as long as I was home for supper no one worried. It was the Mayberry of central New Jersey.

Baruch Dayan Emet, Rest in Peace, the Lakewood of my youth.

BMG swept all that away. When I was a kid, Lakewood was a town of perhaps 20,000 people. Today, it is a small city of 120,000, with the non-charedi having moved away years ago to Brick Township, Toms River or farther afield.

What was intended to be the Harvard of American Yeshivahs morphed into the community college of the charedi world. A public assistance mill sprouted up, allowing young single and married men to study Torah full time, supported completely by public assistance. The charedi world became adept at manipulating a social welfare system intended for the truly indigent to benefit the tens of thousands of yeshivah students that flooded into Lakewood. Politicians were paid to look the other way, and the Lakewood that we know today came into being. 

And if you applied and received public housing, food stamps, and other public benefits, while your in-laws were also sending you $3000 in cash a month to help support the grandkids, who was the wiser? The most important thing was the prestige of marrying a Torah scholar. 

As for the ethical imperative of self-reliance, of making a respectable living - that was for someone else. If the goyim are stupid enough to give us free money, why not take it?

From that mindset, it's not hard to extrapolate to public assistance fraud on a massive scale.

In Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood where real estate costs $700/square foot, public assistance is fact of life for most people. Manipulating the welfare system is taken for granted in the charedi world, because life in these dense Jewish ghettos would be financially impossible without it. Unfortunately, the competition for limited rent-controlled housing has pitched the charedi world against other needy ethnic groups, and the results are not pretty. 

And in a sea of Satmar Chasidim, I am the only openly and unapologetically Religious-Zionist, modern Orthodox Rabbi. I preach, among other things, the dignity of combining Torah study with a respectable occupation (Paint a target on my back...)

In my shul, about a third of the attendees are active shul members, supporting the shul with their time and money. Another third are spiritual seekers, hipsters and others looking for answers to the great questions of life. And the last third are chasidim, outsiders in their world, who (for a variety of reasons) feel more comfortable in my shul than in the 150 or so chasidic shuls or shtibalach in Williamsburg. 

We talk. I listen and I learn. 

In Williamsburg, people talk about being "in the System" or "out of the System." If you're in the System, the social contract demands rigid conformity in dress, thought, language, education, and social interactions. The reward for this abnegation of your personal autonomy is social acceptance and a presumption of a wholesome and unquestioned piety.

And while the System works for many, it is also undeniable that many scam artists, grifters and sex offenders use this presumption of holiness as a fig leaf to cover their misdeeds. 

If you're outside the System, you are, at best, irrelevant, or at worst, a threat to the System, because there is no Judaism outside the System.

One of the most important things I have learned in my short tenure as rabbi at Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom is that the Satmar world is by no means monolithic.

If you had asked me, a year ago, if I would have much in common with a Satmar Chasid, other than a vague common belief in the one true Gcd, I would have said 'no.' 

Yet I have met a select few chasidim that are genuinely pious; that learn Torah, that do great (and largely unpublicized) acts of kindness and charity, and are paragons of the spiritual life. Amazing, remarkable, inspirational people and true Tzaddikim.

I have also met many chasidim who wear the garb on the outside, but are thoroughly corrupt on the inside; chasing the almighty dollar by any means, legal or illegal, total phony baloney.

And I have met a small but growing third group: Satmar Chasidim who are true spiritual seekers; people who have one foot in the System and one foot out. Shtreimel wearing, payess wearing chassidim, secretly reading Ayn Rand and psychology texts and George Orwell and Rav Kook, all strictly forbidden inside the System. Secretly, privately, they question the Satmar Rebbe's position on the State of Israel (and other things), open to the idea that maybe, just maybe, they are on the wrong side of Jewish history. As one Satmar Chasid said to me: " I am a proud Satmar Chasid! but I also have a mind." 

The point here is that the external trappings of piety are no longer any indication of the heart and mind of the individual - if they ever were. 

So in a narrow sense, these individuals who have stolen millions in public funds do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism. No matter how long their beard is, rebbes who touch little boys do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism. No matter how learned they are, rabbis who secretly photograph women in the mikveh, and the scumbag rabbis who supply their mikvehs with unsuspecting young women, do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism.

But the landscape is, of course, more complicated than that. Because in the broader sense, we have a concept in Judaism of Arvut - that every Jew is responsible for one another. In the same way that Jews of great prestige and accomplishment bring great praise to the Jewish People and the Gcd of the Israel, whether we like it or not, Jews who act scandalously heap scorn on us all and on the Gcd we represent. Like Bernie Madoff or Jack Abromowitz or Barry Freundel or Daniel Greer. We are all tarred by their misdeeds.

At the end of this week's parsha, the Jewish People stand at Arvot Moav, the Plains of Moab, on the eastern shore of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho. But the word "Plains", Arvot, can also be read Arvut, mutual responsibility.

We are supposed to hold ourselves to a much higher standard of ethical behavior, to the 613 and not merely the 7. And we all must work constantly and consciously on improving ourselves, our service to Gcd above and our service to our fellow man. 

But rabbis and other communal leaders must also take a stand to change a social ethos which encourages heavy reliance on public support, and create a culture of self-reliance combined with a zero tolerance policy for this kind of malfeasance.

Shabbat Shalom from Williamsburg.