Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tisha B'av Live Webcast

For those interested, there is a live webcast of kinnos and shiurim given by Rabbi J. J. Schacter going on for a while today (I think it ends at 5:00 for mincha). You can also get there by the link on the YU website.

Have an easy and meaningful fast, everyone.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Religious Security

This post is written in response to this one by Honestly Frum. The excerpts are two comments, the first by The Hedyot and the second by Garnel Ironheart.

"First you say: " is people like Rabbi Avi Weiss and Yitz Greenberg who are so out of the mainstream that soon their brand of Orthodoxy will not be recognizable."

Then, you write,
"The minute you tell me that my hashkafos are wrong and therefore everything I believe in must be discounted because they do not fit into your box, you throw everything that is great about our religion out of the window. "

You're perfectly comfortable with writing Avi Weiss out of Judaism, but you think it's such a travesty when black-hatters do it to you?!

Don't you realize that the same way that you view Avi Weiss is how they view you? How can you complain about what they're doing, when you are doing the exact same thing? Yes, I know you might say say that Avi Weiss is too far outside the confines of halacha, but then wouldn't they say the same thing about you? And wouldn't Avi Weiss say that he is within the parameters of halacha just like you would say to the Lakewooders?"

"As The Hedyot noted, if MO is going to rant at the Chareidim that they're not taking you seriously, then you have to answer a question: what's the difference between that and when the non-Orthodox complain that MO doesn't take them seriously?"

I think that point is really important. I thought of it as I was reading the post (before I got to the comments). On the one hand, you don't want to be looked at as less frum because to you, you are frum, but on the other, you're looking at others as less frum when to them, they are frum. I'm not saying people like R' Avi Weiss are doing things that are completely acceptable. But on the other hand, it's a double standard to complain about Yeshivish people feeling they are so much frummer than you and then you feeling you are so much frummer than people on the left.

The way you behave and feel about your own religious validity should not be based on what other people are doing, anyway. I don't feel insecure about my hashkafos and the way I practice Judaism and, therefore, I don't really care that some Yeshivish person might look down on me. I know I'm a frum person. I don't need the approval of everyone "to the right."

I think the bigger problem is that people assume that if you're in the Yeshivish community or you speak the lingo or you're a guy who has long payos and wears black and white and a hat or a girl in a beis yaakov uniform, etc. - that it means those people are "frummer." You don't know how they practice Judaism. They belong to a certain upbringing and philosophy, but that philosophy doesn't actually mean they behave in a "frummer" way than you. So they don't have TV in their homes. Okay. But maybe they are really rude or speak a lot of lashon hara. Or have no concept of kibud av va'em. Or anything. They have weaknesses and you have weaknesses and there is what to be learned from everyone, to the right of you AND to the left of you, both on how to behave AND how NOT to behave. Not having a TV in your home or not talking to boys or wearing a pleated black skirt does NOT make a person frummer.

Then again, I strongly dislike the mentality of, "Okay, so I don't keep the laws of tznius, but I'm a nice person which is more than can be said for you!" There has to be a balance there, too. You can't excuse skimping out on important areas of halacha just because you follow others well. Kudos to you for whichever areas of halacha you keep like they are second nature. However, that does not mean you should feel satisfied with your religious growth. We are obligated in ALL of halacha - not just ben adam l'chaveiro and not just ben adam l'makom. Judaism is a combination of the behavioral - honoring your parents, not speaking lashon hara, being respectful towards others - and of nitty-gritty details, such as dressing tzniusly (an area many girls take issue with in high school), what time of day certain mitzvos are to be performed, etc.

I've heard both sides: "Do you think God really cares if I cover my elbow or not? Or if I cover my hair? Or how much hair I actually cover? Do you think God really cares when or how I perform this mitzva? They're just semantics so that other people can feel superior and in control by telling you to do them. That's what's wrong with our religion." And there's also, "I follow halacha. What you're doing is not halacha. Very nice that you're nice to people, but anyone can be nice to people. I'm actually following halacha. Look at the way I dress, the way I shuckle when I daven. I'm super frum."

Both of these mentalities are wrong. Judaism is not about "do you think God cares?" It's not about making the religion more convenient for you. It's about how much you care. If there's someone you really respect, you would do things for that person, even if you weren't sure how much that person cared that you were doing those things, right? Look at the way fans treat celebrities.

At the same time, it's not about focusing so much on the measurements and details that you forget the bigger picture.

Judaism is both. It's about caring, it's about the big picture, it's about human relations, and it's also about the measurements, calculations, and little details. You should not have one without the other. Doing so would be lacking in your halachik observance.

What is important?

Following halacha, following the Torah, serving God.

We trip over ourselves because "following halacha" is so vague. What does it mean to follow halacha? Whose halacha? Which way of following halacha is acceptable? How far can you go before you're out of acceptable halachik bounds? And who decides that?

That's where the problems start, and then spiral out of control.

I have no answers. But I do think part of the problem with our perception of other Jews is that we tend to think of Judaism either like this:

Or like this:

With both diagrams depicting a linear ascent towards Torah and God. Either it's a ladder with Modernity at the bottom and Torah at the top so that those closer to Torah look down on those closer to Modernity, or it's a straight line with those on the right closer to Torah, while Modernity is all the way on the left.

But I think Judaism is more like this:

There are many ways to be a frum, Torah observant Jew. Notice that for each arrow, one can still be closer to Torah or further away, but there are equal points on each arrow. A person on one arrow and a person on another are coming at Torah from different ways, but are equidistant from it. So if one arrow was Modern Orthodoxy and another was Yeshivish Jews, a MO Jew and a Yeshivish Jew could both be equally as frum, or equally not as frum.

Of course, the diagram is not perfect. Not every path a person can take leads to Torah. And this is not a call for people to start wondering where certain groups in Judaism fall on these arrows.

It is a call for you to start wondering where you fall. And not to look at other people so much. Just because someone seems to be of a different camp does not mean that person is any more or less frum than you, and therefore you have no business judging anyone but yourself. If you work on your own religious observance, you will feel more religiously secure. And the more religiously secure you feel, the less you'll care about anyone "looking down" on you or "trying to change you." You'll just laugh at that because you'll have a feeling of shleimus that cannot be breached. Not by something so silly as someone else being too judgmental of you.

I believe so strongly what I say here because it is something I have struggled with in various aspects of my life - not just religion. The more comfortable you are with yourself, the less you'll care what anyone else thinks. It just won't matter.

So work on your own religious observance and stop looking at other people's. Stop looking at other people looking at you, as well. You'll be a lot happier.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


"What is it that I like so much about the house you're building for me, Howard?"

"A house can have integrity, just like a person," said Roark, "and just as seldom."

"In what way?"

"Well, look at it. Every piece of it is there because the house needs it -- and for no other reason. You see it from here as it is inside. The rooms in which you'll live made the shape. The relation of masses was determined by the distribution of space within. The ornament was determined by the method of construction, an emphasis of the principle that makes it stand. You can see each stress, each support that meets it. Your own eyes go through a structural process when you look at the house, you can follow each step, you see it rise, you know what made it and why it stands. But you've seen buildings with columns that support nothing, with purposeless cornices, with pilasters, mouldings, false arches, false windows. You've seen buildings that look as if they contained a single large hall, they have solid columns and single, solid windows six floors high. But you enter and find six stories inside. Or buildings that contain a single hall, but with a facade cut up into the floor lines, band courses, tiers of windows. Do you understand the difference? Your house is made by its own needs. Those others are made by the need to impress. The determining motive of your house is in the house. The determining motive of the other is in the audience."

"Do you know that that's what I've felt in a way? I've felt that when I move into this house, I'll have a new sort of existence, and even my simple daily routine will have a kind of honesty or dignity that I can't quite define. Don't be astonished if I tell you that I feel as if I'll have to live up to that house."

"I intended that," said Roark.

"And, incidentally, thank you for all the thought you seem to have taken about my comfort. There are so many things I notice that had never occured to me before, but you've planned them as if you knew all my needs. For instance, my study is the room I'll need most and you've given it the dominant spot -- and, incidentally, I see where you've made it the dominant mass from the outside, too. And then the way it connects with the library, and the living room well out of my way, and the guest rooms where I won't hear too much of them -- and all that. You were very considerate of me."

"You know," said Roark, "I haven't thought of you at all. I thought of the house." He added: "Perhaps that's why I knew how to be considerate of you."

--The Fountainhead

Last summer, I started reading The Fountainhead and felt very frustrated with it. I did not like either of the main characters, seeing them both as crazy extremes of the way one is to approach life. This summer, I am reading it again and I find it to be an interestingly, wonderfully different experience. It's amazing how much a person can change in a year. Even subtle changes can inspire drastic growths in one's outlook on the world.

This particular segment of the book is one which I feel speaks directly to me and my learning experiences this past year, so I am sharing it with you. It speaks volumes of truth to me. I hope it does to you, too.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Conversation Of The Day

[I'm working in July as a substitute assistant teacher in a pre-school where my mother does physical therapy. Today was my first day. With about an hour left to the day, the music teacher came.]

Teacher: This is [my mom's name]'s daughter.

Music Teacher:'re the writer?

Me: Heh, yeah.

Music Teacher: Yeah, I had a whole conversation with your mom after graduation.* You know, soon after that I got an email from the father of one of the kids who thought I did such a good job with the graduation, and I saw that on the bottom of the email there was a link to a website. I clicked on it and saw that this boy's father is an author! A really big one.

Me: Oh, cool.

Music Teacher: Yeah, I thought of you. I don't know if you've heard of him or not...Gordon Korman?

Me: [thinking: did I hear that correctly?] Gordon Korman?! I used to read his books! Oh my gosh! That's so cool!

Music Teacher: Yeah! So I wrote him back and we're going out for coffee so I can pick his brain because I'm thinking about writing kids' books also. I'll mention it to your mom.

Me: ::starry-eyed:: Reeeaaally???

Gordon Korman...Jerry Spinelli...Louis Sachar...ah, childhood.

But how cool is that?!

*I went to the pre-school graduation a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Importance Of The Back And Forth

I wasn't sure how to begin this post, so I suppose I'll begin with myself. I don't like getting so personal, even though I have written some very personal things on here before, but I feel this is an important point to make.

It's very difficult to listen to other people's critical opinions concerning myself. I'm sure this is true for most people. When someone voices a criticism, it's as though that voiced criticism has a power ten times greater than anything going on in my own mind. So even if I previously believed I could do something, once someone verbalizes a doubt, I begin to doubt myself.

This is a bad thing. No one else's opinion about yourself should have that much weight. You should listen to that person's opinion, you should decide if you feel it is a valuable one, and you should take from it what you think reasonable. You should not in any way allow that person's opinion to define the way you think of yourself. Just because someone voices something does not mean that thing is accurate or true. And speaking something aloud does not give that thing any power if other people do not allow it to have power - if you don't allow it to have power.

On the other hand, an opinion expressed now has a life. It is up to you to decide if that opinion is silly, whereupon you can quash it with your own common sense, or if it has validity. If you determine it to be valid in some way, you can internalize those valid parts and use them to improve yourself.

Now let's extend this beyond the personal.

If someone criticizes an institution, does it mean that criticism is true? Of course not. It is one person's biased opinion - and opinions are nearly always biased. Everyone comes from his/her own point of view and each point of view is unique.

However, once that criticism is voiced, others may listen to it and agree. Or even if they do not agree, they may suddenly be considering that opinion. It is in their heads. It has a life.

This does NOT mean it is correct, nor does it mean the person voicing this opinion should be bashed for doing so. What it means is that someone who believes differently should voice his own opinion.

You see, before any opinions are expressed, they are believed. One person may speak them aloud, but many others are already thinking them in their heads. Keeping voices silent does not keep thoughts silent, and silent thoughts are almost more dangerous than ones verbalized in discussion.

Discussion is the key here. Without discussion, there cannot be real growth. Why do people learn in chavrusas? Because it is the discussion, the back and forth, that enables greater understanding. Otherwise, everyone should just learn on his own and keep his own thoughts to himself. That way they won't interfere with someone else's thoughts - right? They won't mess anything up for anyone.

Is that really an ideal way to exist? To have everyone think his own things in an isolated bubble of belief? How can we be one nation if we don't intellectually and religiously engage one another?

If there is a strong voice on one side, make sure you have an equally strong voice on your own side. There is nothing to be afraid of that way. Discussion is not to be feared. Without it, you would never get to explain to someone else why what you believe makes sense.

Someone of a different opinion would have no influence.

But neither would you.

Wave Over Wave

I really like this song.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


I forge my way through brambling woods, a path crunching under my footsteps. Each step leaves its own imprint, joining in the trail of footprints behind me. Ahead, there is no path, for I have not yet tread beyond where I stand right now.

To say I don't know where the path leads is a misinterpretation of how I live. In my life, my footsteps create the path, like Hansel and Gretel dropping breadcrumbs along their way. I can turn around and look at the road I have paved with each small step I venture toward the unformed future. I can see the way it weaves, sometimes making sharp turns, sometimes going rigidly straight, but never in too predictable of a pattern.

I am my own person and so I make my own choices. I alone am the craftswoman of this path. I am the artist. I decide whether to go right or left, or diagonal, or circular. I make my own wrong turns and I find new ways to reach where I wish to go.

Sometimes I watch other people and their paths, trying to learn and understand which choices have certain results, which direction is rockier, which is smooth, which is an uphill struggle, which will let me slide easily downward. (Of course, perhaps it is better to struggle upward than to slide downward.)

And sometimes my directional choices take me far away from people who once tread nearby. They also bring me closer to others. But it's strange, the way that happens. I am used to certain scenery, certain company, and then gradually - too gradually for me to notice right away - everything changes. I end up somewhere else, somewhere new, somewhere wonderful.

But what about those whose paths used to be nearer to mine? What if my path does not naturally head in their direction anymore? Do I just leave them behind? Or do I try to force my feet in directions they do not wish to walk so I may travel closer to those the rest of me wishes to be near? What if that means turning back instead of going forward? Is there a way to turn back while still advancing in my own direction?