How The Torah Can Take On The internet

Technology and Judaism

Technology has always been seen as a challenge to religious societies and their mores. I recall a discussion with a visitor to my home: the topic of conversation was a man in full Hassidic garb he had seen standing in the street speaking on a mobile phone. What I thought was an interesting synthesis of old and new worlds my guest considered hypocritical for reasons he clearly felt deeply, but was unable to articulate. And a famous London rabbi who resisted the use of video cameras at weddings was once criticised in this very paper for being ‘an enemy of modern technology’! There seems to be a perception that technology and Orthodoxy don’t quite mix!

Recently, computers - and particularly the internet - have thrown up a range of issues that Jewish scholars have started to tackle. The most hotly contested of these is how to ensure that the internet is used safely. The plethora of pornography, nefarious chat-rooms, violence and hate that pervades the sinister side of the web has caused immense consternation in all civilised parts of society; it has encouraged Orthodox leaders to offer strongly-worded edicts to control its use. In many Haredi circles today, use of the internet for essential business use is reluctantly permitted, whereas home use is disallowed; there are residential areas in Israel where few homes have internet access. The exponents of this view feel that the dangers of internet use far outweigh its benefits, and that a ‘kosher’ home should, if at all possible, be web-free. This opinion is reinforced with powerful rhetoric and some quite draconian measures: a number of communities have even incorporated harsh internet restrictions into their school-entrance policies.

Yet leaders of other Orthodox circles have adopted a different view: they realise that the internet is a supremely useful tool that many find indispensable, and that banning it is unlikely to actually stop people from using it. An increasingly common perspective sees the internet as the greatest opportunity for knowledge-dissemination since Gutenberg, one that the religious world should embrace, while simultaneously taking robust precautions to avoid exposure to its disreputable and nauseating parts. This view is tacitly endorsed by the proliferation of Torah websites and other Orthodox internet resources.

But while the internet has occupied centre stage in recent rabbinical pronouncements, many other fascinating issues are raised by computer use. Over the coming months, in a series of occasional articles, I intend to address some of them. Among other topics, we will consider how Jewish law deals with modern intellectual property matters, Shabbat complications generated by internet use and some surprising consequences emerging from the growth in the availability of wifi.

The application of ancient Jewish sources to a modern issue is always an exciting opportunity for Torah scholarship, but the almost paradoxical meeting of the worlds of halakhah and state-of-the-art technology is especially fascinating. I never cease to be awed by the comprehensive nature of Talmudic and mediaeval sources: the corpus of Jewish legal literature contains a vast range of precedents from which any contemporary case can be decided, no matter how extraordinary. Of course, this process has existed since the earliest times and the current issues raised by computers are the successors of topics like protecting copyright, which was addressed many centuries ago by such luminaries as Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (16th century Poland). In due course, our subjects will give way to the next generation of conundrums; we can’t predict what they will be, but we can be sure that the halakhah contains the tools with which to handle them.

I believe that halakhah can deliver cogent and relevant answers to apparently unprecedented hi-tech problems and that this is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. The answers emerging from halakhic debate often seem to presage the conclusions that other systems of thought eventually reach by longer and slower means.

The little-understood willingness of rabbis, even of those of the most insular schools, to engage directly with every aspect of modernity is, potentially one of the greatest assets of the contemporary Jewish world, one that we should export to the rest of society. Torah scholars are absolutely dedicated to incorporating the very best achievements of the 21st century into Jewish life. Yet they are equally committed to taking vigorous precautions to ensure that negative aspects of technology (both the halakhically questionable and the spiritually damaging) are firmly excluded from Jewish society. I hope that this series affords a small taste of this tremendous resource.


Internet access in the home is only permissible if required for a person’s job. Computers without internet access will be required to have software installed which will prevent such access in order to prevent children from connecting them to the internet. Children of families that do not comply with the rules will be barred from school in order to protect the other children in the class. (Excerpts from internet ban of Lakewood NJ)

A computer is not a toy. It is a tool, like an electric saw. A blanket ban on home computers is as foolish as a blanket ban on electric saws. But it is just as foolish to leave an electric saw plugged in, out in your living room where there are children. Education is all about teaching our children how to use life’s tools. (Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen)

See, a blog devoted to discussing the future of Orthodox internet use.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Un-hijacking Hanukah

Hanukah and the Greeks

Many of us will have come across presentations of Hanukah that portray it as the anniversary of the ultimate victory of Jewish history – that of Judaism over the secular culture of the time. In this depiction, a pure, unadulterated Judaism, untainted by any non-Jewish influence, prevailed over an engagement with the surrounding society, its aspirations and intellectual activity.

This portrayal may be at odds with a number of ancient Jewish sources. In an allegorical reading of the laws governing the parah adumah (red cow, the ashes of which were used for spiritual purification), the Zohar learns:

'Unblemished’ – this refers to the Greek kingdom, for they are close to the path of truth. (Zohar HaKadosh 2:237a)

In the same vein (although in reality, this has no modern application), one may write certain holy texts in Greek as the sole alternative to Hebrew. The Sages find a source for this ruling in the post-diluvian blessings given by Noah to his sons: Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people and Yefet, the ancestor of Greece. The usual translation of the verse is:

God shall give beauty (usual translation is ‘broaden’) to Yefet, yet He shall reside in the tents of Shem… (BeReishit 9:27)

The Talmud radically rereads the verse:

God shall give beauty to Yefet, and it shall reside in the tents of Shem – the interests of Yefet shall reside in the tents of Shem. (Megillah 9b)

These sources may indicate that far from rejecting Greek thought and culture, there is a view that incorporates them into the Jewish world. The Greeks developed the aesthetic aspects of life, such as music, art, literature, mathematics, and certain types of philosophy. This is the ‘beauty of Yefet’, which the Talmud encourages us not to revile, but to place firmly within the ‘tents of Shem’.

Yet while we Jews may subscribe to the coexistence of the physical and spiritual worlds, many Torah sources attribute to the Greeks an unwillingness to admit any connection between this world and the next. They may have believed in a higher reality, but considered it to have no impact on human lives. As such, the Torah could be revered as a classic of world literature, but not as the Divine guide to purposeful existence; it could take its place in a library alongside the works of Aristotle, but could never be considered a tool for human elevation.

In this light, we may recast the distinction between Jewish and Greek ideologies and hence the true nature of the victory of Hanukah. Having uncoupled the physical and spiritual worlds, the Greeks saw literature, philosophy, music, etc., as autonomous pursuits, rather than ways of experiencing spirituality within the physical world. In contrast, Jewish life encourages these endeavours only when they are a means to touch the Divine, but never as ends in themselves. The beauty of Yefet can and must live only within the tents of Shem.

The difference between our world view and that of the Greeks may seem slight, but it lies in understanding the very purpose of all cultural and other ‘secular’ pursuits. The victory of Hanukah – one of means over ends – is one that changed the face of the world.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

A Visit To Sochaczew

A day in Poland

Last week, I fulfilled a long-held desire – to visit the ruins of the Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew, a town some 40 miles west of Warsaw. With a Jewish population of over 3000 prior to its destruction by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Sochaczew was known as a centre of Hassidic thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries (as well as being very close to the birth-place of the composer Frederic Chopin).

The Rebbes of Sochaczew were world-renowned thinkers: the first was the son-in-law of the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Bornstein (d. 1910), known as the ‘Avney Nezer’ after his monumental collection of halachic responsa; he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel (d. 1926), known as the ‘Shem MiShmuel’ after his nine-volume collection of discourses on the Torah and festivals. Representing a rare blend of intellectual, psychological, esoteric and inspirational material, the Shem MiShmuel rigorously analyses Midrashic sources, which are used to offer a creative approach to understanding Biblical narratives.

Around fifteen years ago, I was introduced to the writings of the Shem MiShmuel by a friend in Gateshead, and I have been a devotee ever since: his ideas have heavily influenced my own thoughts. My younger son is named for him, and as I am about to embark on a major research project into his writings, it was a privilege to be able to visit Sochaczew to daven at his grave and that of his illustrious father.

On my first visit to Poland some years ago, it struck me that the Holocaust happened very close to the UK – it took just two hours by plane to get to Warsaw from my home in London. This visit brought home again how easily the Nazis might have been more successful in their attempts to invade England, in which case my grandparents could have been victims of the Nazi’s death camps. Yet for reasons we can never know, it was European, rather than British Jewry who fell victim to the horrors of the bestial murder-machine.

My travelling companion and I found the visit to Sochaczew powerful and intense, yet it was outwardly unremarkable. There was no crying, no grand gestures, no throngs of people and nothing even slightly remarkable to look at. The cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis, but since then, a memorial wall to the murdered Jews of the locale and a memorial made from fragments of desecrated tombstones have been erected. The graves of the Rebbes have recently been restored, and an ohel (small building) constructed over them. We were only in Sochaczew for an hour, during which time we said some Tehillim, prayed for various people and davened Minchah. But the most powerful part of the experience was learning two short essays from the Shem MiShmuel, standing close to his grave: it was a truly memorable moment, one that I hope to repeat quite soon. There is something indescribable about standing in a small building in the middle of a field in a hick-town in the Polish countryside next to the grave of a man who made a real contribution to Jewish thought, while studying his very words. Therein lays the beauty of great ideas: they are eternal. The Nazis may have deported and murdered the Jews of Sochaczew and even attempted to erase every trace of Jewish habitation there by destroying the cemetery, but the ideas of the Shem MiShmuel exist for ever in the thoughts of his spiritual inheritors.

For photographs of my trip, please look here.

For more information about the destroyed Jewish community of Sochaczew, please look here.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Avinu Malkenu Paradox

Yom Kippur 5768

Since Rosh HaShanah, we have said the beautiful prayer Avinu Malkenu – our Father, our King – numerous times. Painfully aware of our inadequacies, we approach God, our benevolent father and ruler, and beg Him to bless us in every possible material and spiritual way. Its first and last lines read:

Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You….

Our Father, Our King, show us grace and answer us, for we have no [good] deeds. Perform acts of benevolence and kindness for us and save us.<

The text is familiar, yet the opening phrase of each line expresses a surprising reality about our perception of God, touching on what is sometimes called the ‘immanence-transcendence paradox’. It is axiomatic that God is distinct from everything in creation, perfect and unbounded in every way – as the ruler of the universe, He transcends it. Yet we also perceive Him as our Father, concerned and intimately involved with the affairs of each of us, our constant support and rock. Struggling with this contradiction is a feature of any meaningful religious life.

In the Avinu Malkenu prayer, the paradox is simply stated: it is acknowledged in every line, but not resolved. When we stand before God we ask Him for life, health, success and redemption as though He were our father, yet simultaneously we recoil in awe, overwhelmed to stand in the presence of transcendent, wholly other-worldly, power. We sense that we may have to live with the paradox and not let it overly trouble us.

That is until the Ne’ilah, (closing) service of Yom Kippur. Just before finishing ten arduous days of prayer and introspection, we again say Avinu Malkenu, but append a short affirmation, said only on this occasion and by a person close to death. The key line of this declaration is borrowed from I Melakhim 18:39:

Adonay hu HaElohim.

Translated roughly into English, this equates to saying that God is God, which seems to be tautology. However, the original context of the verse offers some insight: it is the story of the prophet Elijah fighting the false prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. After a fierce religious contest, the outcome of which would determine the fate of the Jewish people, God answered Elijah’s prayers by consuming the entire altar upon which he had prepared an offering with fire. When the people experienced the sudden revelation of the true God:

they fell on their faces and said: Adonay is Elohim.

The name Adonay refers to God in His essence – the ruler of all, unbounded by time or space - whereas Elohim describes Him manifest in this world. There is often a huge dichotomy between our expectations of the perfect King and the harsh reality of the imperfect world in which we live, where suffering and inequity abound. We may find it impossible to accept that the source of all life and love is the same God who allows pain and apparent injustice to exist.

In the time of Elijah, the Jewish people had been attracted to Ba’al worship; like other ancient religious systems, it probably drove a wedge between heaven and earth - between two different and apparently irreconcilable perceptions of the Divine. It acknowledged that God may be in heaven, but claimed that the forces controlling life on earth are not in His control and must be worshipped separately. Yet when the fire of God consumed Elijah’s offering, the people realised, albeit momentarily, that there really is no distinction – Adonay is indeed Elohim. It may remain beyond our comprehension on all but the rarest of occasions, but it is true nonetheless: the God of perfection is the same God who inhabits and is manifest within our imperfect reality.

Declaring Adonay hu HaElohim at the end of Yom Kippur is the profoundest achievement of the entire religious year: the apotheosis of ten days of devotion. It is an incredible, unparalleled spiritual moment, in which we find ourselves able to shout out with complete conviction that Avinu – our Father – is Malkenu – our King.

The earth-shattering collapse of boundaries in our understanding of the Divine that characterises the end of Ne’ilah may only last for a few moments, but its impact must reverberate throughout the rest of the year. One of the remarkable gifts we can take from Yom Kippur is a heightened awareness that the imperfection that seems to pervade our world is not as it seems. A close friend pointed out to me that every experience, including those challenges that seem unfair, unjust or are unbearably painful, emanate from a perfect, all-knowing and all-loving God, who while He is not always evident to us, acts for our long-term good. He is, despite appearances to the contrary, simultaneously Adonay and Elohim. This provides us with a fresh lens though which to greet with fortitude everything that God has in store for us in the year ahead.

Based on a short address given each year by the author to his community at the end of Ne’ilah.  The ideas here are based on the Nefesh HaChaim of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

At Least Remember The Rabbi's Joke

The Rabbi's Rosh HaShanah 5768

A childhood memory: I am walking home from Shul on Rosh HaShanah with my father. En route, fellow congregants are discussing two aspects of the recently-finished services: whether the rabbi’s joke was funny and how long his tekiah gedolah (final shofar-blast) had been. Years later, and now the likely subject of such pre-prandial chit-chat, I hope that I will feel inspired to preach on a topic that will disturb my congregants’ conversations well into lunch, perhaps even beyond their Yom Tov afternoon nap. Should I fail, I trust that they will at least remember my joke and that they will have cause to glance at their watches before my breath gives out!

Preceding Rosh HaShanah, the month of Elul, is traditionally dedicated to introspection, extra prayer and reviewing the past year’s achievements ahead of the season of Divine judgement. It is difficult for anyone with a busy schedule to manage this, but paradoxically, this period can find a pulpit rabbi torn between personal and communal responsibilities.

Part of the problem is simply a matter of time. During this period a rabbi (supported by his lay-team) must ensure that all of the practical details, such as timetabling and arranging officiants, are in place. He will need to rehearse relevant parts of the services, prepare news-sheets containing community information and inspirational ideas, assemble numerous special lectures and, of course, write those all-important sermons. As Yom Kippur and Sukkot approach, the number of halakhic questions that congregants ask increases, and before Yom Tov, senior rabbis will often find their counsel sought by a bevy of junior colleagues. This will have to be fitted around a rabbi’s regular teaching, as well as any pastoral, consultancy and writing commitments.

My ideal Elul would be a more private and personal one. It would consist of days scrutinising the texts of the Yamim Norayim (High-holy days) prayers, repairing relationships with those I have upset during the year, internalising the guides to self-improvement of Maimonides, Luzzato and Rav Kook, exercising more than usual, and getting some early nights. However, since it is simply impossible to completely accommodate both sets of demands, some aspects of personal development must be shelved in favour of communal responsibility.

But beyond the fact that there is insufficient time to achieve everything in the pre-Yom Tov period, there is a clash of paradigms that is seldom mentioned. It is often unclear what expectations occasional congregants have of their Yom Tov Shul visit, but it is likely that they differ considerably from those of their rabbi. Ask an Anglo-Jew, ‘Why participate in the three-times-a-year show?’ and the response will probably be, ‘it’s just something I’ve always done,’ or, ‘I’d feel guilty if I didn’t’. Ask the same question to that person’s rabbi and he will say something like, ‘it’s an unparalleled opportunity to reawaken one’s divine consciousness, repair one’s relationships with other people, and declare God sovereign over all creation.

This explains why a rabbi may conduct himself as though the first day of Rosh HaShanah (in most Anglo-Jewish Shuls, the noisiest of the year) is the ultimate moment of mystical union with God, while some of his congregants are catching up on a year’s news. This mismatch of expectations can inhabit every aspect of the Yamim Norayim experience, including the style and timing of the prayers, what constitutes appropriate conduct during services and, it must be said, the objective of the sermon. Some pulpit rabbis are fortunate to have a community of receptive, intelligent and knowledgeable people, eager to hear an inspirational Jewish message. Yet others may struggle to square the rich aspirations of their own ‘inner’ Yom Tov with the reality of their congregants’ expectations of light entertainment.

These unarticulated tensions can obviously lead to frustration, but also to something worse – a miserable rabbi who assumes that all the preparations have been pointless, even that the Yom Tov season was a failure. To avoid this, I try to focus on two things. First, despite what I have written, I endeavour to plan a sermon that will stir both me and my congregants, by concentrating on some universal aspect of the human condition, such as the challenges of faith or the importance of personal growth. Indeed, I would like to think that my most successful sermons to date were those that almost moved me to tears when I delivered them. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I try to remember that it is a sublime privilege to be the religious leader of a community. For whatever reason, God has granted me the opportunity to carry hundreds of people with me on a spiritual journey at this time of the year: this fact alone allows all of us to share the same inspiration and makes the whole enterprise indubitably worthwhile.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission. 

Kol Isha Today

Women Singing

The Israeli media recently reported the story of an observant singer, Eliyahu Faizkov, whose high-pitched singing vocals have been banned from some religious radio stations. Apparently, some listeners had objected, assuming that they were listening to the voice of woman.

The mere suggestion that kol ishah (the prohibition of a man listening to a woman singing) should apply in the modern era is bound to raise hackles. In a society where overt sexual behaviour is common-place, this rule seems anachronistic: laughable perhaps, certainly deeply counter-cultural and to many, disempowering and offensive to women. Yet kol ishah is widely observed in the religious world and actually reflects deep truths about male-female interactions.

The key source is the Talmudic statement by Shemuel noting that a woman’s voice is sexually exciting; this indicates that in principle a man should not listen to a woman singing. Almost all sources understand this dictum to refer only to a woman’s singing voice.

The circumstances in which this rule applies has been debated for centuries. Some suggest that Shemuel’s statement was made only with reference to a man reciting the Shema – i.e. he may not say the Shema within earshot of a woman singing. Other important sources understand that the statement is a general one: a man may not listen for pleasure to a woman singing even when he is not praying or saying the Shema, as this would be considered a forbidden form of stimulation. The Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish law) clearly rules in favour of the second, more stringent opinion.

There is fierce discussion among later sources about men and women singing together in groups, especially around the Shabbat table. Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg notes that the common practice was (and remains) that women refrained from singing Shabbat songs in the presence of guests who were not family members. Yet in nineteenth-century Germany women commonly participated in zemirot (table-songs), relying on the Talmudic principle that ‘two voices singing together cannot be distinguished’. This assumes that kol ishah applies only to a solo voice, although the sources do not extend the leniency beyond the Shabbat table. Rabbi Weinberg, while not entirely happy with this reasoning, allows women to sing holy songs in mixed groups, based on the additional assumption that the religious nature of the music precludes arousal. This view has been contested by a number of subsequent authorities and remains a matter of dispute. The ‘traditional’ practice is the norm in most Charedi societies, whereas the ‘German’ custom is common in Modern Orthodox circles.

Contemporary halachists debate whether the restriction of kol ishah should apply to broadcast and recorded music. Rabbi Yaakov Breisch assumes that the prohibition applies with full force in such circumstances, but Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg contends that in the case of a radio broadcast or recording, one is not actually hearing the voice, but an electronic reproduction of it. While this may seem a technicality, the qualitative distinction between live and recorded music is undeniable and since one cannot fulfil the Mitzvah of hearing the Megillah over the radio, presumably a broadcast of a woman’s voice cannot constitute kol ishah. He also connects visual and aural stimulation and rules that when the man cannot see the woman, he may listen to a radio broadcast of her voice. Rabbi Yosef agrees with this position, but asserts that the same leniency won’t apply to a television show! For obvious reasons, he also restricts it to a case where the man has no idea what the woman singing looks like.

For the modern reader, the halachic issues are insignificant in comparison with the conceptual difficulties raised by kol ishah. Are men really aroused by women’s voices? Why is there no equivalent prohibition for women, called, say kol ish? Shouldn’t these rules be dependent on societal norms? If so, hardly anyone today considers a woman’s singing voice to be erotic. (Rabbi Yosef and others assert that the fact that we are comfortable with women’s voices does not remove the prohibition of kol ishah).

<o:p></o:p>The Talmud places the onus on men to avoid listening to women’s voices. It may be polite (and it certainly makes life easier) for a woman to avoid singing in the presence of a man, but the burden of obligation falls on the man to avoid situations that compromise his religious life. There is no obligation for a woman to refrain from singing and no expectation that a woman should stifle her need to sing: sometimes, a man will have to make himself scarce. As with other areas of Jewish life, great sensitivity is required to weigh competing interests – in this case, the very real need of women to express themselves through the powerful medium of song, balanced against the law of kol ishah.

Judaism offers a wise approach to understanding male-female interactions. We delude ourselves if we think that men and women are sexually stimulated in the same way: a cursory glance at contemporary advertising and media is sufficient to dispel that myth. Judaism recognises that men are more frequently aroused by visual and other sensory stimuli than women. To redress this quite natural imbalance, Jewish law imposes a number of restrictions on men beyond those also incumbent on women: one of these is kol ishah. Put simply, creating a healthy and respectful Jewish society demands recognition and regulation of various stimuli, tailored to the needs of each gender.

In a desensitised world, kol ishah seems quaint, almost absurd. Yet it enables us to understand just how delicate our level of awareness should be. It is a tragedy that most men today claim to find nothing erotic in a woman’s singing voice, something that is natural and healthy. Observing kol ishah is one way to rekindle lost sensitivities, enabling us in turn to invest more of ourselves in our special relationships.


Shemuel said: the voice of a woman is ervah (sexually exciting), as the verse says: (Song 2:14) for your voice is sweet and your appearance attractive. (Talmud Berakhot 24a)

It is prohibited (for a man) to hear the voice of one forbidden to him. (Shulhan Arukh Ever HaEzer 21:1)

Whenever the song isn’t crude and [the man] doesn’t intend to enjoy [the woman’s] voice… while it is certainly appropriate to be stringent (and avoid listening)… it isn’t a surprising view (to be lenient). (Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, Sedey Hemed, quoting Divrey Hefetz)

When I came to the city of Berlin, I saw men and women singing holy Shabbat songs together in the homes of the very orthodox and I was astonished, for it contradicts an explicit law…. But after some investigation, I discovered that Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch from Frankfurt allowed the singing of holy songs together…. (Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, Seridey Aish 2:8)

….Shemuel’s law is not a general proposition as to the sexually arousing character of a woman’s voice, but rather is a restriction on the recitation of Shema under circumstances where it is not possible to maintain proper concentration. (Rabbi Saul Berman, Kol Isha)

The conclusion (of Rabbi Berman)…. is fundamentally mistaken, resulting from the author’s having ignored the key discussion…. (Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, Kol Isha Reviewed)

Do not think that now that everyone is accustomed to women’s voices we are no longer concerned about erotic thoughts…. (Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer 1:6)

Joke: May a religious man attend the opera? He’s not over* until the fat lady sings.

* doesn’t transgress

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission. 

Hard Questions About Kiruv

Motivation in Outreach

I have been involved with formal and informal outreach for more than 15 years but have only recently started to ask myself a few pointed questions, which I share, anticipating that they will be of value to others.

How do we ensure that those we help to become involved in Jewish observance stay tolerant of others who have not taken the same bold steps as they? Surely we don’t want Ba’aley Teshuvah (the newly observant) to regard their family members as sinful failures. It is likely that their childhood homes were the incubators within which they learned a sense of social justice, the pursuit of truth and the dedication to family values and were therefore indispensable to their ultimate discovery of a Torah lifestyle. Do we, as the facilitators of religious seekers’ spiritual growth constantly emphasise this, or do we see their families as opponents to be defeated?

Perhaps worse, it seems that the newly-religious sometimes maintain their relationships with non-observant friends simply to try to make them religious. It seems improbable, but is it just possible that we encourage it? Picture, if you will, Bob and Jenny, old friends of John (now Yochanan) and Sheila (now Sheindy). Bob and Jenny are unlikely to feel kindly disposed to their newly-religious friends (or indeed Judaism at all) if they discover that Yochanan and Sheindy have only remained in contact with them in the hope of making them frum.

While it is beneficial to develop a confident and firm attitude to one’s own Jewish life, will the products of outreach also remain open-minded towards those who have adopted a different style of Orthodoxy from their own? This can be very painful: I recently heard of a case where two scarcely-observant friends from a traditional community became religious and went off to Yeshivos in Israel: one to a modern-style establishment, the other to a Charedi institution. The acrimony between them over religious issues is now so ingrained that when they come home for vacation, the local rabbi struggles to contain their feuding.

To what extent do we encourage our charges to recognise that integrating key aspects of their previous existence into a newly-observant life is indispensable to mature religious development and a healthy emotional future? People who come late to Judaism are often strongly attached to certain expressions of culture such as art, music and literature, and also to sport. Might it be a little off-beam (and not such great psychology) to encourage them to relinquish these when they become observant? For a time, the excitement of their newly-found Torah life will carry them through, but afterwards, sometimes years on, an inexplicable sense of emptiness may develop. If not addressed, many of us have seen this develop into unhappiness and even doubt about the fulfilment offered by a religious life-style; in extreme (but not uncommon) cases it may lead people to re-evaluate their original decision to become observant. And, crazy at it might seem, addressing this pain may well involve advising people not to adopt new religious stringencies or say more Tehillim (psalms). It could even mean helping them to reintroduce long-abandoned cultural experiences into their lives, albeit with careful guidance. Could The Beatles, Monet or the Boston Red Sox be part of the solution, rather than the problem? Despite conventional wisdom, might it be better to help the newly-observant recognise that they can be fully-fledged members of the religious world without discarding major aspects of their previous lives.

But most importantly, do we constantly re-examine our motivations in helping others to become more observant? Do we focus on them as individuals or see each of them as an opportunity to make another ‘notch in the shtender’? Is it faintly possible that some outreach is conducted with the objective of turning people into a pre-determined product which merely mirrors the kiruv-professional’s own life-style and affiliation? Many people are critical of a certain Chassidic group, whose objective appears to produce new members of the sect, but might some parts of the kiruv world be doing the same thing? Are religious neophytes just potential new members of our group, to be steered into a particular life-style and social-setting? Might, we perhaps without even realising it, envisage the newly-interested couple a few years into their religious journey living in a certain neighbourhood in a certain type of home, their children attending a certain type of school, with certain rabbis advising them, with certain aspirations: he learning in a certain type of institution, wearing a certain type of hat, she pushing a certain type of baby-stroller while wearing a certain type of hair-covering?

To be fair to the incredible outreach professionals who dedicate their lives to sharing the beauty of Judaism with others, many potential Ba’aley Teshuvah are drawn to monolithic parts of the religious world without much encouragement. They may consider what is on offer there ‘more authentic’ with the perceived benefits including rigidity of lifestyle and the comfort of not having to make one’s own decisions. Yet, if we actually encourage that outlook by role-modelling the religious world in that way, we may risk a potential tidal-wave of disaffection and disillusionment ahead of us.

There are, of course, many possible causes of religious disenchantment, including those completely beyond the control of the outreach professionals who engaged the Ba’aley Teshuvah in the first place. These may include pre-existing emotional instability, the unexpected pressures of living in religious society, the disappointing discovery that the Orthodox world isn’t actually perfect, and even a sense of personal failure in comparison with one’s perceived religious responsibilities. Each of these deserves a separate treatment, but we will focus here on religious disillusionment stemming from the outreach process itself.

I hope that it’s not too controversial to suggest that the objectives of outreach are to help each Jew reach his or her full potential as a human being, ultimately through Mitzvah observance and Torah study. Presumably we should get to know those who seek our guidance: learn to love them as individuals; discover their interests, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. Developing a sense that the religious needs of each person we meet differ considerably from those of every other can be difficult, but might we be doing those with whom we work a disservice by adopting any other approach? The Sages teach:

When a man mints many coins with one stamp, they all look the same, but while the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, minted each person with the ‘stamp’ of Adam the First, no one looks like any other. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

If God created us as individuals, it should be the role of those privileged to help His children along their journey towards Him to foster that individuality. Shouldn’t we try to craft a tailor-made religious path for each of our students? Despite the complexities of doing this, it might just enable them to benefit from the wonders of Torah life without stifling their personality or crushing their need for self-expression.

Is it just possible that the multi-chromatic vision of the Jewish world isn’t the common one in the kiruv scene because some of those in charge don’t subscribe to it? Some of us may have come to believe that there is a single optimum way to be a Torah Jew: one ‘correct’ approach to all Jewish issues, one best way of observing halakhah (Jewish law), one ideal mode of living and one supreme authority for Jewish life. May I suggest, perhaps contrary to prevailing norms, that a kiruv operative would see it as a sacred duty to learn about (and hence validate) the range of Jewish possibilities and to incorporate that into his or her kiruv practice. After all, the magnificent system of thought and practice called Judaism really does have a multiplicity of expressions. Finally, might an outreach professional who thinks that it is his or her mission to turn an eclectic group of non-observant Jews into a bunch of religious clones be in the wrong job?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

From Beneath My Desk

Tisha B'Av 5767

Certain key occasions in the Jewish calendar invoke strong memories of my seven years in Gateshead Yeshivah. One of my teachers assured me that by spending Yamim Tovim and other special moments in the Yeshivah, I would have a store of powerful experiences on which to draw in later years: I am truly grateful for that advice. I constantly try to recreate those powerful moments in my community, something from which I know my congregants have benefited, perhaps without realising. And even when that isn’t possible, I can retreat into the realm of inspirational memory and lift almost any occasion for myself and my family.

Tisha B’Av is one such day: each year, from Rosh Chodesh Av, two memories are especially vivid, each associated with Kinnot (dirges read on Tisha B’Av lamenting the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and other Jewish calamities). The Kinnot are perhaps the most demanding texts of our entire liturgy: many of them are written in difficult Hebrew, and are replete with obscure scholarly references that require considerable Talmudic and Midrashic background to appreciate fully. Indeed, rather than plough through all of them, many Shuls (including my own) elect to read only a selection of the Kinnos, accompanied by explanation and elucidation (a job that the ArtScroll edition of the Kinnot has made much easier). The Kinnot are potent, elegant, yet very challenging.

My first recollection is of sitting on the floor as a sign of mourning beneath the desk at which I normally davened (prayed) in Gateshead Yeshivah at about 11am on Tisha B’Av. The Kinnot were well underway, and I admit that I was struggling to maintain my interest in the reading. By this time the sun had risen sufficiently to shine in my eyes through the very large front-windows of the Yeshivah. Remarkably, this coincided with the recital of the famous Kinnah, ‘Tsion’, by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (author of the Kuzari), a few translated excerpts of which follow. For a full text, see here.

Zion, will you not enquire about the welfare of your captives? Those who seek your welfare – they are the remnants of your flock….

You are the royal house; you are the throne of the glory of God, so how could slaves have sat upon the thrones of your nobles?

I yearn to be given the chance to wander in the places where God appeared to your visionaries and emissaries….

This lament, apart from being outstandingly beautiful, marks a radical change in the tone of the Kinnot: up until this point they are about destruction, misery and exile, but beginning with ‘Tsion’, they express hope and yearning for a better world. It is hard to describe the impact that the concurrence of the sun shining and the majestic poetry of Yehudah HaLevi had on me. It created a sense of optimism, divine love and context to the hopeless gloom of Tisha B’Av that has stayed with me: I hope that I have managed to convey something of that feeling in words.

The second memorable moment arrived at the very end of the Kinnot, with the reading of ‘Eli Tsion’, a poem detailing all the tragedies of the Temple for which we should weep. It offers a glimmer of hope, in that it compares the tribulations of our history with the pains of child-birth: the torment is not futile, but heralds the rebirth of Am Yisrael: some excerpts follow. For a full text, see here.

Wail, Tsion and her cities, like a woman in child-birth; and like a damsel girded in sackcloth (crying) for the husband of her youth….

(Wail) for Your name, which was desecrated in the speech of those who arose to torture her; and the supplications of those who scream out to You: turn Your ear and listen to her words.

Although the text is powerful and, at least for me, summarises the themes of the entire corpus of the Kinnot, the most well-known aspect of ‘Eli Tsion’ is its tune. This poignant melody somehow synthesises the calamity of Jewish history with our unshakeable confidence in a magnificent future. Regrettably, it has been turned by some into a kind of pop song, sung at an inappropriate tempo, robbing it of its depth and power. During my years in Gateshead, ‘Eli Tsion’ was led by Rabbi Zeev Cohen, who sung it movingly in a high-pitched and haunting fashion, in the Lithuanian style: in one short rendition, he had captured the essence of Tisha B’Av. For a similar (albeit lower-pitched and slightly faster) version of ‘Eli Tsion’, listen to this, a recording of the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, zt”l leading a responsive reading of the Kinnah in Boston in 1978. I cannot lead the poem as beautifully as Rabbi Cohen, but his interpretation has inspired my own reading.

Most importantly for me (and I hope for my congregants and students too), the memories of Tisha B’Av in Gateshead Yeshivah encapsulate the very spirit of the day: redemptive mourning.

May this, truly, be the last Tisha B’Av.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Most Annoying Phrases

Poor English

A while ago, a feature article published on the website of the UK Telegraph newspaper asked, ‘what is the most annoying phrase in the English language?’ Suggestions included ‘chill out’ and the replacement of ‘now’ with ‘at this moment in time’. The posting, before it disappeared, elicited over 2000 comments from readers, each of whom mentioned a pet hate. A random glance at them yielded such expressions as ‘all intensive purposes’, ‘fell pregnant’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ tautologies such as ‘potential risk’ and the use of the soccer-player’s favourite phrase ‘at the end of the day’, which, it was claimed, actually means nothing at all.

The observant world is blessed with a number of eloquent speakers and writers who are outstanding advocates for Judaism. Their sensitive and lucid writings have drawn many hearts towards authentic Judaism and, when necessary, they articulately defend the Torah from outside attack: we would be a poorer community without them.

Yet the standard of their written and spoken English is scarcely reflective of the majority within the observant community; even in English-speaking countries, low standards abound. À la Telegraph, one could prepare a list of the most annoying phrases used by members of the religious community. My bête-noir is the common misuse of the word ‘by’, as in ‘I’m eating by the Cohens this Shabbos’ and ‘we daven (pray) by the Oshplotzer Rebbe’. This may be correct syntax in Yiddish, but is it English? Some even seem to be unaware that the words ‘takke’, ‘mamash’ and ‘ziche’ may be unfamiliar to the plumber.

In some parts of the religious community there is little appreciation of the value of using clear and accurate English and examples of frum-speak are common. Numerous English-language books and journals are filled with basic spelling errors (don’t the authors use ‘spell-check’?), inaccurate usages, and scant attention to English syntax, quite apart from the limited and simplistic vocabulary. How should one respond when one’s children notice simple spelling and grammatical errors in the school-worksheets prepared by their teachers? In a masterful exposition of this problem (aptly named: ‘Tefillin in a brown paper bag’), Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote in reference to the contents of an Orthodox periodical:

The alphabet and the words were English, but the sentence structure, the rhythm, the syntax, the tone, were of another language altogether.

Perhaps we have forgotten that many books and articles on the market are commonly read by the less observant: in fact, the literature is frequently prepared with them in mind. For them, weak English is often a real turn-off, as they inexorably associate the message with the medium: bad English equals bad message. Some recent ‘outreach’ publications suffer from this deficiency: notwithstanding the time and resources that have been devoted to their publication, I suspect that they will have little impact on their target audience. Rabbi Feldman again:

Beyond theory, the use of deficient language has practical negative consequences as well, for it prevents us from preaching to anyone but the Orthodox choir. Intelligent, educated non-Orthodox Jews will surely be put off by the argot which passes for much of Torah Judaica today.

Some opine that at least within the observant community, this is unimportant: provided the intended audience understands the message, who cares if the English is poor? It is difficult to treat this seriously. A well-known Jerusalem Rosh Yeshivah remarked that it is hard for him to understand why anyone would aspire to speak English poorly. Why, he asked, would one aspire to learn English from people who speak it badly; why would one want to ignore the nuances of expression available in English and communicate in a puerile or ambiguous manner?

Does anyone truly believe that simply because the audience is familiar with the ‘lingo’, the use of poor English has no consequences? Language is not merely a means of communication, but exposes the outlook of the speaker:

Every language expresses the core ideology of the nation (that speaks it) according to its Weltanschauung and in accordance with its grasp of the essence of reality: from this emerges its language. (Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, Shiurey Daat, Likutim)

Every language connects the core (of a person) with the external world…. (Shem MiShmuel, Devarim 5676)

If a language reveals the essence of the speaker’s world view, perhaps it follows that a limited vocabulary and the use of clichéd phraseology is reflective of tired, uncreative thinking and narrow horizons, hardly noble religious aspirations.

Negligible attention to presentation and slapdash English spill over into other areas of life too. Do we fool ourselves into thinking that when our children neglect English, this has no impact on the quality of their Torah achievements? Children are unable to compartmentalise their experiences – if they see sloppy presentation in one part of their schooling, it will affect others: is it too daring to suggest that users of poor English may become inexact Talmud readers?

Inaccurate English is most often caused by laziness and occasionally by a smidgen of arrogant superiority that allows people to think that they can get by without bothering to master the language. Simplistic English has a different source: inattentive reading, which leads to careless use of syntax and scant attention to the subtleties of language. Carefully reading a range of appropriate literature is the only way to develop a sophisticated and nuanced approach to the use of the language.

We need to produce more journals, children’s books, English-language scholarship and fiction that are engaging, rich and nuanced, and exposing our children to them, as well to a carefully-selected range of general literature. This will contribute to broadening their horizons and improving their capacity for self-expression and excellence in Torah learning. And without doubt, it will help us to extend our influence far beyond its current confine.

Sacred Or Superficial?

A Visit to the 'Sacred' Exhibition

Encouraged by a number of my congregants, my wife and I recently visited the impressive ‘Sacred’ exhibition at London’s British Library. Billed as ‘the rarest and most exquisite sacred books and manuscripts presented and explored, side by side, in a major UK exhibition for the first time’, it didn’t disappoint. Balanced between Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books, the 202 exhibits are absolutely magnificent (get a taste of them here) and left me wanting to return to see them again soon. As the exhibition doesn’t end until 23rd September, if you live in the UK or are planning to visit, do make it a priority. I hope to get there at least once more.

I was especially taken with the calligraphy, the accuracy and beauty of which defy description. I am not particularly skilled with my hands: I actually struggle to read my own handwriting. In comparison, the control, artistic flair and accuracy required to produce an illuminated manuscript are quite breathtaking. I am, of course, familiar with beautiful safrus (Hebrew sacred calligraphy), but I have never been exposed to exquisite scripts from other religions written in other alphabets; I found learning about their manufacture fascinating (see here) and consider the final products a remarkable testimony to human ingenuity.

The layout of ‘Sacred’ is also most attractive: the manuscripts are interspersed with religious artefacts, all of great beauty and some of major significance (for example, an original entrance-curtain from the Kaaba in Mecca). There is also tasteful background music, as well as carefully arranged lighting and projections; it’s clear that a huge amount of thought and effort has gone into arranging the exhibition.

While, understandably, great care was taken to avoid mentioning areas of violent religious conflict, the curator was bold enough to address an obvious question: why there are so few very early Jewish manuscripts. In at least one place, the display informs the reader that the extreme rarity of early Jewish manuscripts is explained by the practice of mediaeval Christian authorities of collecting them up and burning them.

The exhibition is not perfect, of course. I was irritated by some of the display panels referring to aspects of Judaism in a rather simplistic and only partially-accurate manner: I also felt that some of the interactive computer displays about Judaism lack depth and substance. I am insufficiently knowledgeable to assess the quality of the displays and computer materials dealing with Christianity and Islam, but I could well imagine a scholar from one of these traditions expressing the same frustrations.

My enthusiasm for ‘Sacred’ is also tempered with some reservations about its objectives. The exhibition is supported by a number of foundations whose mission is to promote understanding between members of different faiths. In a difficult world, where religious tensions run high and especially in the <st1:country-region st="on"><st1:place st="on">UK</st1:place></st1:country-region>, where the benefits (or otherwise) of multiculturalism are the topic of weekly high-level concern, this is certainly a vital and responsible ambition. However, there is a huge gulf between developing mutual respect, understanding and intelligent dialogue between the faiths (an objective that I whole-heartedly endorse) and advancing the notion that what divides the faiths is slight, perhaps even only a matter of style and cultural expression (one that I reject).

One can assert one's beliefs without compromise, even reinforcing why one rejects other religious convictions, without losing one’s tolerance and even acceptance of those who strongly disagree. The differences between the beliefs, practices and aspirations of the different faiths are huge; even the nature of God Himself is hotly disputed, never mind how one ought to live one’s life. We deal ourselves and our attempts at interfaith harmony a serious blow if we pretend otherwise. Reducing religious differences to externalities is unhelpful and misleading.

Perhaps I am over-sensitive, but ‘Sacred’ smells to me a little like an attempt to promote the ‘we’re all really the same it’s just a question of style’ ideology. Rather than being grouped by faith origin, the manuscripts are displayed according to eras, progressing from Jewish through Christian and Muslim tracts. One of the reasons for this is clearly to allow a comparison of the calligraphy of different periods, but to me it also conveyed a sense of ‘look how similar they all are.’ Moreover, I felt that some of the displays went out of their way to present the small number of similarities between the three religious traditions, rather than offer a more balanced picture. For example, as depicted in one of the video displays, Jewish, Christian and Muslim wedding ceremonies do indeed have more than a passing resemblance to each another. However, when it comes to any kind of serious issue, such as basic theology, festival celebration, Messianic belief, and even the value and function of the Bible itself, they differ vastly. And the final computer at the exit leaves the visitor with the explicit message that there is so much that the faiths share, much more than what divides them: in some ways this is true, but in so many other senses, it is not.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents