Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tests, Challenges and Nisyonos

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Lech Lecha opens with one of the ten nisyonos Avrohom Avinu confronted. Nisyonos are commonly translated as tests or challenges. Avrohom was confronted by ten of them and earned the title of Avinu by passing each test and overcoming the challenges.

We first learn the parshiyos of Bereishes as children and too often retain a juvenile perspective on them into adulthood. In truth, every posuk and every tale is layered with deep meaning.

A common misconception when studying these parshiyos is that Avrohom Avinu faced ten difficult situations, which he successfully endured. He was therefore blessed with better times.

Upon further scrutiny, however, one finds that this is not what a nisayon is about and it’s not what life is about.

There are many interpretations as to why we lain the story of Hagar and the birth of Yishmoel on Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps we can suggest another.

We read in this week’s parsha that Hagar, the servant of Avrohom and Sorah, ran away from them. Sorah didn’t take kindly to her, so, having had enough of the bad treatment, Hagar ran off into the desert. A malach found her in the desert and asked her where she was coming from and where she was going. She replied that she was running away from Sarai. The malach told her to return to where she had come from. “Shuvi el gevirteich vehisani tachas yadeha - Return to your mistress and submit yourself to her domination.” The malach then told her that she will have so many children that it will be impossible to count them. He told her that she would give birth to a son and that she should name him Yishmoel to memorialize the fact that Hashem heard her prayers. He then told her that the son would be a terrible person, who would be despised and hated by all (Bereishis 16:1-16).

Ostensibly, the malach was seeking to comfort her, so why did he tell her to go back to Sarai and be mistreated? What consolation was there in hearing that she should return and submit to the torture? Apparently, he was telling her to return so that she may give birth to a son who would be granted to her on account of Hashem hearing her prayers. Why, then, did the malach tell her that he would be an awful person?

Why would hearing that entice her to return? “Go back and suffer, but have no fear, as you will have a terrible son.” Why? “Because Hashem heard your prayers.” How does that provide her with an incentive to return to the home of her mistress?

In fact, if we think about the pesukim, we realize that the malach was not telling Hagar that everything from now on would be rosy and bright for her. He didn’t tell her to go back because she would live happily ever after in Avrohom’s house. He was telling her, “This is your shlichus, this is your mission, so embrace it. Your mission in life is to work for Avrohom and Sorai. Your mission is to give birth to this son. Hashem heard your prayers and this is what He wants from you.”

The happily-ever-after ending was the assurance that it was Hashem’s will that she return, difficult as it may have been. And that, too, is a consolation. Once she understood that her suffering was part of a Divine plan, she was able to accept it. When she heard from the malach that her mission was to give birth to the archetype pereh adam, she was relieved, satisfied with the knowledge that the travails were chosen for her by a loving G-d who heard her prayers.

The Ramban (Bereishis 22:1) says that the purpose of a nisayon is to reveal a person’s dormant abilities. A nisayon is not really a test. It is an opportunity for growth. A person grows by accepting the curve balls that life throws his way and maintaining his faith and determination as he acts and reacts properly.

The posuk states, “Lech lecha…el ha’aretz asher areka - Go…to the land that I will show you.” The Meshech Chochmah explains allegorically that by following Hashem’s word, Avrohom would be shown his latent abilities, and they would be shown to the world, as well. We can add that it is by being faced with the nisyonos and overcoming them that Avrohom was nisaleh, as his potential was realized.

Chazal proclaim, “Ba’asarah nisyonos nisnasah Avrohom Avinu ve’omad bekulam,” This literally means that Avrohom rose up to all his tests. The Slonimer Rebbe explained that Chazal state that “omad” refers to tefillah. As Chazal say, Ein amidah elah tefillah.” He explains that Avrohom Avinu faced ten nisyonos and responded to each one in the same fashion: by davening.

We may wonder what Avrohom davened for. What was his request of Hashem?

We may answer that his prayers were not necessarily for him to merit what we would call a happy ending. Avrohom davened to merit the strength and conviction to fulfill Hashem’s will, come what may, and that he react the way that was expected of him.

This idea is further enforced by the Torah’s description of the Bris Bein Habesorim. When Avrohom heard of the pain and the darkness of the golus (15:12 and Rashi there), he was overcome by great fear. Hashem promised him that his children will live in a strange land, where they will be enslaved and tortured for four hundred years, ultimately being redeemed berechush gadol. “You will die at an old age, and the fourth generation of your progeny will return to the Holy Land, because until then the Emorites will not have sinned enough to merit their eviction.”

Though he was informed that his children would be oppressed for four hundred years, he was comforted because he was told that it was part of a greater plan. Four hundred years of enslavement should be crushing. The revelation that his people would be subject to such confinement and abuse should have caused Avrohom more pain. But he accepted it, for he knew that it was the will of Hashem and not something caused by happenstance. Although he was promised the Land of Canaan, Avrohom was comforted with the knowledge that although the happy ending wouldn’t come as soon as he had expected it, because he learned that there were many Divine calculations which determined the length of the exile, “lo sholeim avon ha’Emori.” It wasn’t how he had envisioned it, and there would be many years of pain and deprivation on the way, but he was happy, for he now knew that there were more factors involved in Hashem’s plan than he could ever fathom.

Our Hollywood-influenced generation tends to believe that every story has an instant happily-ever-after ending. Many of the communal problems we face stem from these false expectations. People are sad and feel unfulfilled because they think that they are entitled to the perfect job, family, children, neighborhood and life.

As we grow and mature, we have to accept the reality that Hashem decides what we get. The fairy tale ending comes when we embrace His plan and make it our own. When we realize that a perfect life is one that embraces the challenges that it confronts, we can begin to anticipate achieving joy and inner peace. As long as we cleave to fictionalized views of life, in which success and happiness mean having wealth, beauty, shiny white teeth, a big house on an expansive field, and many cars in the garage, we will be unhappy and always seeking to find the elusive true joy.

A group of bochurim facing the Russian military draft went to the Chofetz Chaim to request a brochah that they be spared. He assured the group that they wouldn’t be drafted. Indeed, they weren’t. There was one bochur, however, to whom the Chofetz Chaim said, “Es iz nisht geferlach if you get drafted, as a person can be mekadeish sheim Shomayim wherever he is, and he can help others observe mitzvos.”

That bochur was drafted into the army and faced hardship, privation, hunger and loneliness. Along with his troop, he stopped in a town that had a Jewish community. The soldier went to speak with the local rov and unburdened himself about his difficult situation, explaining how rough it was to be a lone shomer Torah umitzvos. The lack of kosher provisions added to the burden.

The rov, determined to help him, set out to obtain kosher food for the soldier. The rov organized the local askonim, who went through the tedious bureaucratic process and eventually succeeded. The rules were changed and kosher food was allowed. The bochur convinced another 40 Jewish boys to eat kosher.

The Chofetz Chaim’s message to the boy was that everyone has a shlichus, is part of a plan, and the ultimate goal is to be mekadeish sheim Shomayim. If you are destined to be in the army and can be mekadeish Hashem and encourage people to do mitzvos during your period there, then that is also a happy ending.

People wonder how we can be happy on Purim when we know the fate of Esther Hamalkah, heroine of her people. Her extreme valor and the rescue of the Jewish nation came at an extreme personal cost. Esther remained the wife of Achashveirosh Harasha long after everyone else was saved.

The answer might well be that she also had joy, for she knew that she was exactly where the Ribbono Shel Olam wanted her to be. Her shilchus was to serve as the queen, and therefore, for her, serving in that position is a happy ending.

Perhaps we read the story of Hagar on Rosh Hashanah to reinforce that message. Whatever Hashem plans for us in the coming year, we will accept and embrace, because that is our destiny and there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that we are fulfilling the will of Hashem.

Speaking to my friend, Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, last week, I shared this idea with him, for he exemplifies comprehending this message in a very real way. In return, he shared a story that he said keeps him going day after day.

He told me about a chassidishe Yid in Russia named Reb Mendel Futerfass, who was incarcerated in the Gulag. Reb Mendel retained his joyous demeanor and bearing even in jail, much to the surprise of his Russian cell-mates, who were broken by their situation.

One of them, an intelligent fellow, asked Reb Mendel how he succeeded in maintaining his high spirits despite the bleak and gloomy surroundings.

“Before we were imprisoned,” Reb Mendel said, “you were a prominent banker. They brought you here and took away your identity. Of course you are devastated. But before my imprisonment, I had one identity, and now, here, I have the same identity. I was a Yid before and I am a Yid now. I was happy before and I am happy now. I served Hashem before I came here, and now that I am here, I continue to serve Him. Nothing has really changed.”

This is what is meant by the Chovos Halevavos, who says that a person who has proper bitachon is most joyous. Those who are able to internalize this message achieve serenity and peace. They are blessed with clarity, allowing them to appreciate their task.

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein in his sefer, Piryo B’ito, relates the story of a high-ranking Israeli soldier who seemed to be on track to a promotion into one of the army’s top-secret, elite units. Unfortunately, he was kidnapped by Arab terrorists.

His cruel captors began to press him for information, but the loyal soldier refused to divulge anything. They started to beat him and threaten the wellbeing of his wife and children, but he wouldn’t budge. Although the beatings worsened daily, and as much as his captors afflicted him, the soldier remained firm in his refusal to speak.

One day, they beat him to a pulp and left him more dead than alive. They threw him back into his cell and he crawled onto his cot, battered and bruised, unable to move. As he lay there, he thought to himself that his life was worth more to him than the military secrets his captors were after. He decided that he was going to cooperate with them, so that he would have a chance to live and return to his wife and children.

As he lay there thinking these thoughts, he overheard traces of a conversation between his Arab captors coming through the threadbare wall. They were speaking to each other in fluent Israeli-accented Hebrew. The same people who spoke to him in Arabic Hebrew for weeks thought no one was overhearing them and spoke to each other as two Israelis would.

The prisoner grasped that he wasn’t being held by Arabs, but by Israelis. He reasoned that they were members of the Israeli army, sent to test his resilience. The realization emboldened him, and the next day, when he was dragged out for his daily round of beatings and pressured to give up the secrets, he felt a new confidence. One of his captors held a gun to his head and said, “Tell me what I want to know or I will kill you.”

By now that he knew that his captors were Israeli Jews, he had faith that a Jew would not pull the trigger on a fellow Jew.

With resolute strength, he said, “Shoot me if you want, but I am not telling you a thing.”

His tormentor returned the gun to his holster and told him the truth.

“We are Israelis, posing as Arabs, to test your strength and ensure that you have the strength demanded to serve in a leadership position in our unit. You have earned the promotion,” they happily proclaimed.

When the soldier perceived the truth, that the people tormenting him were his colleagues, he derived the strength and resolve he needed. The knowledge that his torture was part of a plan enabled him to pass the test.

When Hagar heard from a malach Hashem that she should go back and withstand the suffering, she accepted it, for it was His will.

May these parshiyos open the floodgates before us so that we perceive our roles as His servants, “chayim birtzono,” living by His will. And may our paths be joyous and serene until we merit the great day when “oz yimalei sechok pinu - laughter will fill our mouths.” On that day, just as the reason for his children’s suffering was revealed to Avrohom, we will be able to look back and understand everything that afflicted us. We will know why we suffered and why it appeared as if we were lacking what others took for granted. The plan and plot will be revealed, and everyone will be joyous.

The onset of winter’s cold is compensated by the warmth of the winter parshiyos, the accounts, stories and messages that formed us as a people and guide us until this very day. The avos hakedoshim imbued us with strengths and qualities that stand the test of time and define us through trials, travails and tribulations.

Hashem assured Avrohom Avinu that even though we daven to Elokei Avrohom, Elokei Yitzchok v’Elokei Yaakov, calling upon the zechus of all three avos, nevertheless, “becha chosmin,” we will close with Avrohom’s name, as the first brocha of Shemoneh Esrei concludes with the words “Magein Avrohom (Pesochim 117).

It is related in the name of the Chiddushei Horim that Hashem was telling Avrohom Avinu that the final stage of golus, the last generation, will be infused davka with his middah, enabled by the strengths Avrohom implanted in his children.

Thus, “becha chosmin,” in the merit of Avrohom Avinu’s middos, the geulah will arrive. In the merit of us embodying and perpetuating his middos of chesed, emunah and bitachon, and in the merit of his kindness, graciousness and acceptance of Hashem’s plan, Moshiach will put an end to the current chapter.

May we all do what we can to follow Avrohom’s path, for our own benefit and for the benefit of all mankind. We - and they - will be much happier.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Givers of Lakewood- Welcome to Giverville!

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Across the country and around the world, Lakewood, NJ, is referred to as the “Ihr HaTorah” out of respect for the many thousands who reside here, learning, breathing and living Torah every day. We not only learn Torah on a grand scale, we scrupulously follow its precepts.

There are always exceptions, and we have become used to the scorn and ridicule heaped upon us when someone who happens to live here is exposed as a fraud. Then there is what the media refers to as our “insular lifestyle,” which draws contempt. Others view us as interlopers, whose patriotism they wrongfully question. The many burgeoning private educational institutions are also often pointed to by haters, who fear that we will take over their towns and force them into exile. There seems to be no bar beneath which they will not climb in order to push us into the gutter, and writers and bloggers never run out of topics worthy of analysis - and of course criticism.

One topic that the negative nabobs always avoided was the charitable nature of the community and the many selfless acts of chesed regularly conducted for neighbors and strangers alike.

A new vista has been opened.

Mark Oppenheimer, Beliefs columnist for the New York Times, who also holds the Corcoran Visiting Chair in Christian-Jewish relations at Boston College, visited Lakewood recently. A report on his visit was published in Sunday’s Times Magazine under the title, “Beggarville,” which ought to give a hint as to the type of article it is. Another hint is its popularity. It was the 11th most emailed Times article of the day on Sunday. Another is the front page reference to the article: “Bruder, Can You Spare a Dime? P. 40.”

For some reason, the article has a funny feel to it. It seemingly highlights the openhandedness and munificence of the Lakewood Orthodox community, but the writer seems to have trouble letting more than a few paragraphs pass without some sort of jab or judgment about the community. To us, it is condescending, to say the least.

Some people are happy with the article. “Wow, the New York Times wrote about Lakewood.” It’s a big simcha to be noticed. In truth, whether the writer intended it or not, between the lines of the adjective- and euphemism-filled report lies the altruism of the Lakewood community, whose members open their pockets to dozens from across the world, who descend upon the town, counting on the generosity of their fellow Jews, many of whom are themselves struggling financially.

It’s interesting that we never look at these people as beggars. We call them “collectors” or “meshulochim.” Begging has such an awful connotation. When a person knocks on our door, he is not a beggar. He is a fellow Yid in trouble. We care about him and his matzav, even if there is little we can do about it. We sympathize, we give him a few dollars, and we offer a drink. Not only in Lakewood, but wherever Torah Jews live around the world, that’s just how we act. That’s how we were brought up. It’s how we feel. It is a mark of pride.

Is it this person’s fault that he was born a Sephardi, barely tolerated by the Ashkenazi elites since the founding of the State, and left penniless, reduced to asking for a handout? How about the rosh kollel who knocks on doors to be able to pay yungeleit? Is he doing something wrong that he should be ashamed of? What about the nice poor people who have lost their safety nets thanks to our loving friends currently running the government of Israel? What should they do, starve to death?

Having gone around with some of these people, I know what it’s like to knock on a door. I know the feeling of degradation. I know the hesitation at each house. I know the embarrassment.

I wonder if the Belief writer ever had that experience. I know what it means when someone tells you that they care, and then they smile and treat the “beggar” like the human being he is. I resent and am personally affronted by the snide remarks of a professional religion expert describing the changeover of a “WASPy summer village” to something out of the Yiddish Theater. 

The author describes how one collector, R’ Elimelech Ehrlich of Yerushalayim, typically spends three weeks collecting in Lakewood.

“The yeshiva students may not give much,” Oppenheimer reports, “but nearly all of them give - and there are so many of them. Between 1990 and 2010, Lakewood’s population doubled to about 92,000 residents, largely because of the growth of its ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.”

Some of Oppenheimer’s observations in his report seem to betray a bias. Listen to this one: “[Lakewood is] now at least half Jewish, and the newcomers here have created an economy centered on the things they need that almost no one else does.”

Painting us as simpletons, he describes how locals work in “kosher restaurants and markets, religious elementary and secondary schools and haberdashery and dressmaking shops.”

To be fair, he makes mention of the “Orthodox bankers, mortgage brokers and insurance salesmen [who] serve a community that knows nothing of the real estate bust.” I still can’t figure out if that is a good thing or a bad thing. If it is true that the town is “in many ways [ ] a pre-World War II European village, right down to the Yiddish and, to an extent, the clothes… full of broke students…,” how can it be that they know nothing of a real estate bust? And if there are enough “bankers, mortgage brokers and insurance salesmen” to maintain the rising real estate values, then apparently the Potemkin village is not as bad off as it would seem and there is more than the one rich man the article describes.

One wonders how this economy is “centered on the things they need that almost no one else does.” Perhaps this is the obligatory depiction of Orthodox Jews as different, blinkered and inward-looking. Who knows?

Oppenheimer says, “They work in kosher restaurants and markets, religious elementary and secondary schools and haberdashery and dressmaking shops.” What is different about that? Where do people in Boston work? Do they not have restaurants and schools? Where do people who live in a town buy their clothing if not in a haberdashery shop?

Perhaps the good writer wants to come with us on a walk down Clifton Avenue to meet the nice, good, charming people at R&S Restaurant, at Gelbstein’s Bakery, and at Feldman’s Grocery. He can then savor their wares and see if there is anything different about the proprietors and employees, who are the salt of the earth, just like the good people at The Suite Shop, Bagel Nosh, Schreiber’s Shoes, Torah Treasures and Town Appliance down the street. I think he would actually be genuinely surprised if we took him around town to see what it’s really like in Lakewood at cutting edge places such as Astor Chocolate, Oorah, Card Cash, and so many dozens of others that it is silly for us to even mention these. The Visiting Chair would probably be genuinely surprised and enlightened.

But back to the article and its examination of “this separate and booming religious economy.” The problem, writes Oppenheimer, is that it “comes with a rider: itinerant beggars like Ehrlich. Hundreds every year.”

He says: “It’s not that Lakewood residents enjoy having their doorbells rung two, three or four times a day to hear a hard-luck story. But while other towns may criminalize beggars or tell them to move along, Lakewood has an obligation to fulfill - Jews are literally family, according to the Torah. So the town came up with a modern solution to an ancient problem: paperwork. Beggars are registered and licensed in Lakewood, as a means of preserving trust in this community that aspires to be a village but is outgrowing that label.”

The report explains that there is an organization called Tomchei Tzedakah from which collectors may receive an ishur, a permit, describing their charity needs. The organization issues between 950 and 1,100 ishurs a year.

The majority of collectors “are from Israel, but they are from all over,” a Tomchei Tzedakah volunteer told Oppenheimer. “Russian immigrants living in New York City, people with health problems from upstate New York. There’s a guy who came to me recently from Wisconsin. I think he lost his job, and he couldn’t afford basic necessities. We’ve seen people from the West Coast, from Chicago, Baltimore.”

Despite its tone, the article reveals the beauty of the community, describing how  Aryeh Leib Greenspan, a 30-year-old yungerman, recently hosted an Israeli sofer whose career had been ruined by a hand injury. On his latest trip, he stayed for two weeks, and every night a different Lakewood resident escorted him to knock on doors. These men, R’ Aryeh Leib told Oppenheimer, “give up their supper, their family time,” to help the sofer raise money.

Aryeh Leib said that when he lived near the yeshiva, before he moved, the knocks were constant. “Four or five times a day,” he said. Oppenheimer asked how much he gave. “One dollar, two dollars. People who I can’t give to, I offer them a cup of water or juice. If it’s a Friday afternoon, I give them a piece of kugel.”

Oppenheimer’s report goes on to state that “door-to-door begging is generally for out-of-towners,” while “the local poor are supported by local charities, dozens of them. Many are gemachs: a Hebrew acronym for acts of loving kindness, but colloquially a place for free stuff.”

He shares that there “are separate gemachs for coffee urns, for dehumidifiers, for dinette sets, for boys’ clothes, for bridal gowns - anything you could want. Then there are the more traditional social-service agencies: One helps people with medical-insurance premiums, another puts up families visiting a hospitalized relative, etc. The specialization of the gemachs and other services is so thorough that no one ever feels as if he’s begging.”

In truth, it’s not only about gemachs and dehumidifiers. It’s about a full-fledged community, of rich and poor and everyone in between, working hard at what they do and sharing what they have with others. It’s the parlor meetings and the dinners, the carnivals and Lose-4-Autism type events, and the millions of dollars raised for every conceivable good cause.

It is a town blessed with many successful people, who take great pride in what they do, and do not necessarily all speak with “a trace of Yiddish singsong,” though you can be forgiven for thinking so after reading the Times article.

It’s about a town with world-class experts in virtually every segment of Torah, from Tanach to Gemara and halachah, and every nuance of the rich Jewish religious literature, customs and history, as well as medicine, investing, real estate, nursing homes, insurance, construction, catering, and, yes, haberdashery.

Lakewood is many things to many people, but, sorry, it is not a Hollywood set for Fiddler on the Roof.

Overall, the article falls short because, essentially, the collecting phenomenon is not about begging. It is about giving. It’s not about the takers, but about the bond that connects co-religionists.

It’s not about nomadic souls wandering darkened streets, going from house to house like vagabonds, but about caring families opening their doors and hearts to people they don’t know and may never see again. It is about people who work late and rise early, yet take the time to be kind to strangers, practicing the Torah’s precepts. It is unconditional chesed, with no ulterior motive, agenda or accolades.

It is a beautiful kiddush Hashem that, for some reason, outsiders cannot fathom or articulate.

Mr. Oppenheimer, we invite you back to Lakewood so that we can show you what really goes on here. You can then write a new piece, not titled “Beggarville” or “The Beggars of Lakewood,” but, more appropriately, “Giverville, The Givers of Lakewood.”

Dinner in Estreia on River Avenue in Lakewood?

Who would turn that down?

My dime!

Rabbi Avi Weiss to Step Down

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Open Orthodoxy’s flagship institutions, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and a vocal proponent of granting semichah to women, announced on Shemini Atzeres that he is stepping down from the pulpit of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR). He had previously given up the presidency of Chovevei Torah.

In a speech to his congregation, Weiss announced his plans to end his tenure as rabbi, a position he has held for over four decades.

“There is natural sadness that I feel as I step back, but it is overwhelmed by feelings of hoda’ah laKel, of gratitude to G-d, and of simchah, joy,” Weiss said. “As we embark on this necessary and critical transition phase, let’s do so with joy that as wonderful as it has been, the best is yet to come.”

The 70-year-old Weiss - who called his wife Toby up to the bimah after his speech - said he would step down in July 2015.

Weiss said he is not retiring, stating that he will still serve as rabbi-in-residence at HIR, adding that he would continue speaking and mentoring rabbinic students.

In his speech, Weiss called “Rabba” Sara Hurwitz - who he ordained - “my hero,” stating that “although Rabba Sara is spending more time as the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution which grants semichah to women, her contribution in the Bayit (HIR) has been historic, and it continues to be indispensable. A woman’s voice in the spiritual leadership of our Bayit as a full member of our rabbinic team is crucial to our future success.”

While Weiss is stepping down from leading the congregation, the agenda he has set in motion continues to wreak havoc. His graduates occupy pulpits in congregations and schools across the country, propagating his innovations under the cloak of Orthodoxy. In fact, in his speech announcing his “transition,” he proclaimed that he would be working on “establishing an umbrella organization which will hopefully encompass the myriad of today’s Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox voices.”

He has been the subject of many articles and columns in this publication over the past decade, decrying his faux-Orthodoxy and calling on him to ditch the label and acknowledge his changes for what they are. They are not Orthodox.

While the RCA and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate do not recognize the semichah and geirus granted by Weiss and his institution, mainstream Orthodox organizations have failed to condemn his actions. In fact, Allen Fagin, executive vice president and chief professional officer of the Orthodox Union, is scheduled to attend the installation of Open Orthodox Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg, a YCT graduate, as spiritual leader of OU member congregation Beth Israel in suburban New Orleans, LA.

In rejecting a geirus performed by Weiss, the Israeli Rabbanut explained, via its legal adviser, Harel Goldberg, “The Chief Rabbinate has been contacted by various rabbis known to the rabbinate, some of whom hold positions in the RCA [Rabbinical Council of America], who claim that Rabbi Weiss’ halakhic positions, as expressed in various incidents and under various circumstances, cast doubt on the degree of his commitment to customary and accepted Jewish halakha.”

As an example of the double-speak that organizations engage in when talking about Weiss, the RCA quickly issued a statement a day after the Rabbanut said that. The RCA stated, “Recent assertions that the Rabbinical Council of America advised the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject the testimony of RCA member Rabbi Avi Weiss are categorically untrue.

The statement continues: “The RCA regrets that the discussion concerning the reliability of American rabbis for technical matters under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate has been used to promote broader issues relating to the contours of American Orthodoxy and its limits. The RCA believes that there are better places and ways to work through these issues.

“Since its inception, the RCA has cherished its relationship with the Chief Rabbinate and has been working closely with it in recent months to create a new protocol. This protocol will enable Jewish status letters to be written by its member rabbis and be endorsed in the United States, where the RCA is better informed and positioned to resolve matters in ways that will avoid the problems and embarrassments of these past weeks.”

What makes one Jewish person Orthodox, another Conservative, and a third Reform? What is it that has defined Orthodoxy ever since that term was formulated to describe our way of life?

When the Reform movement began, its proponents claimed that they were simply interested in reorganizing davening to make it more orderly and beautiful. They shortened the tefillah by removing parts that they claimed were no longer understood, relevant or necessary. There was absolutely no attempt to tamper with the fundamental underpinnings of Yiddishkeit or make any readjustment to the doctrines that are at the foundation of our religion. Nor did they amend any halachos or observances.

That all came later. It was in 1885 that the Reform rabbis, meeting in Pittsburgh, issued their proclamation to do away with all the “rituals” that they deemed to be “dispensable.” They discarded the Torah and removed it as an influence in their lives. They did away with awaiting a return to Eretz Yisroel and established, for all intents and purposes, a new secular religion.

The Conservatives also began as a seemingly harmless group devoted to maintaining halachah, but concerned with tweaking a few observances here and there so that they would conform to the times. Everything else came later. At their founding, they referred to themselves as “Historical Judaism,” as they sought to counter the radical inroads of the Reform.

Conservatives sought to implement certain minor changes and amendments, and promoted them all as being consistent with biblical and rabbinic precedent. They maintained fidelity to the traditional form and precepts of Judaism and did not deviate by changing any of the laws, not even the language of prayer.

Eventually, the Conservative movement also degenerated and became a religion without a G-d, constantly seeking to amend its observances and conforming to the prevailing notions in style at the moment. To them, the mitzvos of the Torah, which we cherish and observe as the word of Hashem as we seek to draw closer to Him, are the stuff of legend which are followed in order to feel good and part of some glorious ancient tribe with fabulous customs and recipes.

The Conservative yeshivos and rabbinic organizations became tools of the secularists. Although they may have been founded with good intentions and employed Talmudic scholars, they became pedestrian-level institutes of sophistry, doing little more than providing a cynical religious cover to a meandering, secular, assimilationist organization.

Orthodoxy was the term given by the Maskilim to those who remained loyal to the Torah, halachah and minhagim as handed down through the generations. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, “Orthodoxy looks upon attempts to adjust Judaism to the ’spirit of the time’ as utterly incompatible with the entire thrust of normative Judaism, which holds that the revealed word of G-d rather than the values of any given age are the ultimate standard.

“The Orthodox community, institutively realizing that liturgical reforms were only the beginning of a long-range process designed to change the tenets and practices of Judaism…reacted with an all-out effort to preserve the status quo.”

Orthodoxy regards with great alarm even the slightest tampering of any part of tradition. It refuses to recognize or participate in any united collective religious organization that deviates from - or reforms in any way - traditional halachic Judaism, which is based upon observance of the Shulchan Aruch.

We have repeatedly written about Rabbi Avi Weiss and his innovations. We have written exposés about his yeshiva, Chovevei Torah, and its graduates. He is at it again and authentic halachic Orthodoxy is once again sleeping at the wheel. We feel that it is about time that he be considered outside of Orthodoxy. Once and for all, the collective bodies of Orthodoxy should declare that he has driven himself out of the camp.

Open Orthodoxy began its path by crossing socio-religious red lines, such as fostering greater cooperation with and recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy, and engaging in celebratory religious interaction with Christian clergy. Then came their adopting new standards for geirus. New attitudes toward non-traditional marriage were proffered by YCT’s rabbis, radically changing accepted Orthodox norms so as to bring Open Orthodoxy in line with the times, yet not violating halachah. Soon thereafter, Open Orthodoxy introduced the ordination of women, again accompanied by teshuvos to justify this breach of tradition on technical halachic grounds. Then came changing tefillah: Tefillah could be led by women, and brachos could be cancelled and replaced. They updated davening and nusach to reflect the values of the day. Sometimes, bogus halachic loopholes were created, while at other times, no halachic justification was offered.

Open Orthodoxy’s reforms and attempted integration into Modern Orthodoxy are met with deafening silence at best and sometimes even with cooperation and support. To wit, YCT’s graduates are landing pulpit and campus rabbinical positions at synagogues and universities affiliated with mainstream Modern Orthodox synagogue organizations.

Popular Modern Orthodox lecturers and authors, affiliated with mainstream Modern Orthodox organizations, participate in YCT symposiums and contribute to YCT publications. Meanwhile, Open Orthodoxy continues its leftward trek over the edge, reforming Orthodoxy and breaking away from the chachmei hamesorah, and even censuring the ideas of Chazal when they do not fit in with the times. 

Open Orthodoxy has very ambitious plans to change Yahadus, and Modern Orthodoxy and its organs had better wake up, whether Avi Weiss is rabbi of the Bayit in Riverdale or not.

Avi Weiss has a long history. He kept on pushing the envelope as far as he could and waited to see if anyone pushed back. When there was no pushback, he took the next step, and then the next and the next. Eventually, he went so far that he clearly stepped off the cliff and descended into a different realm.

Weiss’ actions are even more brazen than those of the original reformers, yet he has succeeded in evading the eye of scrutiny and continues to be permitted to parade as an Orthodox rabbi.

Why should we care? For the same reason Jews cared for the past three hundred years when reformers of all stripes advanced their agendas. We fought back and repelled them from the normative community. There is no reason that Weiss should be permitted to speak in our name. There is no reason that students of his rabbinic institute should be allowed to label themselves as Orthodox and compete against frum candidates for open pulpits in synagogues across the country.

Having learned from the Maskilim of previous centuries, the students of that movement in this century demonstrate that they have learned from the mistakes of the former. Without seeking to entrap the masses on an individual level and convert them to their beliefs, they concentrate their efforts on a communal level, aiming to conquer pulpits in communities across the United States and Canada in their bid to corrupt Orthodoxy.

Zacharias Frankel, referred to as the Conservative movement’s intellectual ancestor, wrote, “The means [of transformation] must be grasped with such care, thought through with such discretion, created always with such awareness of the moment in time, that the goal will be reached unnoticed, that the forward progress will seem inconsequential to the average eye.”

Pretty soon, the innovations and transformations put into motion by Rabbi Weiss won’t be considered silly, and there will be more and more aberrations, if the phenomenon is permitted to fester.

Yes, it is late. We should have dealt with this earlier. But it is not too late. Even as he rides off into the sunset, his sun still shines.

Let us take this most recent step in his career as an opportunity to remove this cancer from the midst of Orthodoxy.


by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

 Once again, as the hue and glow of the greatest month of the year begins to fade, we find ourselves reading the story of Noach. As we slip from the joyous days of Sukkos into the inevitable chill of winter, we find that the parshas hashovua offers warmth, compensating for the dips and turns of the calendar.

There is a lesson inherent in the parsha as we battle to adapt the inspiration and spiritual highs of the Yomim Tovim to the practicalities of everyday life. Schools are open once again. Yeshivos are beginning the longest zeman of the year and working people are back at the grind. We are all attempting to rise above the bleakness confronting us.

The Torah introduced us to Noach at the end of Parshas Bereishis. After telling us that man had veered from the path Hashem had intended for him to follow, the Torah relates that Noach found favor in Hashem’s eyes (Bereishis 5:32, 6:8).

This week’s parsha (6:9) reintroduces us to him. Rashi explains that since the Torah mentioned Noach, it found it necessary to praise him (Bereishis Rabbah 49:1). The posuk states, “Aileh toldos Noach - These are the offspring of Noach.” Again, Rashi enlightens us and teaches that the main toldos, literally offspring, of righteous people are their positive actions (Bereishis Rabbah 30:6).

Apparently intending to list his attributes, the posuk states, “Noach ish tzaddik tomim hayah bedorosov.” He was an ish, a tzaddik, and a tomim, bedorosov.

Let us study the posuk, word by word.

When the Torah says that the toldos of Noach will follow and Rashi adds that the intention is to praise the tzaddik, we understand that what follows are words of praise of a giant. Toldos is translated as offspring, but it also means biography. The Torah is stating that what follows is the short version of Noach’s biography. Rashi comments that the primary “offspring” of a tzaddik are the maasim tovim he performed. Thus, if you want to encapsulate the life of a great person in a few words, the way to do that is by recounting his good deeds. This does not mean that everything else about him and his life are not important, but rather that this defines his essence.

Noach was such a person. While there is much to say about him and his accomplishments throughout his long, productive life, a condensed description is that he was an ish, a tzaddik, and a tomim, bedorosov.

If you wish to sum up a person, it boils down to his maasim tovim, his willingness to do for others, and his concern and selflessness. Each person writes his own epitaph and decides how he will be remembered, as we see from Noach.

The first appellation the Torah uses after mentioning Noach’s name is ish. Perhaps we can understand that attribute by studying the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:5) which states, “Bemakom she’ein anoshim hishtadel lihiyos ish,” which literally means, “Be a man in a place where there is none.” The Rambam (ibid.) explains this lesson to mean that if you have no one to teach you Torah, you should endeavor to study it on your own. Rabbeinu Yonah (ibid.) takes it a step further, stating that if you are in a place where there is no one to help you with your mitzvah observance and set you on the right path, work on yourself to independently do what is right and proper in the eyes of Hashem.

We can understand the Torah’s description of Noach as an ish to mean that despite the fact that the entire world was lacking in moral character and justice, he brought himself, on his own, to the level of a tzaddik, which is the next adjective the Torah uses to describe him. We commonly refer to a righteous person as a tzaddik, but, as the Ramban on this posuk states, the word means that Noach was undeserving of any punishment that befell the rest of the world, because he was a zakai bedin. A tzaddik is one who emerges victorious and innocent in a judgment. A rasha is one who is found guilty. Noach was the consummate innocent person. Despite all that went on around him, he was free of sin.

The definition of the word tomim is complete. Either the Torah is defining Noach as a complete and perfect tzaddik, pure in his tzidkus (see Ramban ibid.) or it is an appellation on its own, praising Noach as also being a tomim. Perhaps we can understand it in accordance with the Vilna Gaon, who says in Even Sheleimah that a tzaddik gomur as referred to in the Gemara (Brachos 7a) is one who is not only exceptional in his actions, but also in his middos. [See also Gemara Avodah Zora 6a]. The Torah testifies that Noach wasn’t only a person who was righteous, learned and innocent of wrongdoing, but also the consummate baal middos tovos.

Bedorosov. Since the Torah is listing Noach’s positive attributes, we must assume that the word bedorosov also intones positive notions about him. He maintained his independence, doing what was right, being an ish, despite all that was going on around him. He lived in a generation of evil and wicked people, but he was not influenced by them. He stood above them and even reached out to them in an attempt to raise their level and return justice and morality to the world.

Much has changed since then, but some things remain constant. Here we are, each of us struggling, just as Noach did, to be an ish in a dor gone mad.

Yes, we are surrounded by the good fortune of being able to live as proud Jews. We are surrounded by like-minded people who endeavor to study Torah and observe the mitzvos. Our generation is light years ahead of that of our parents, who came of age when Orthodoxy wasn’t given much of a chance and a Torah way of life was not in fashion. Their social lives were crimped. Their ability to succeed was viewed as hampered, as people like them were few and far between. We have been gifted, yet we don’t always appreciate the gift. We sit in spacious, attractive sukkos, while a generation ago, many towns sufficed with kiddush in a shul sukkah and one set of Dalet Minim for the entire kehillah.

But even with our blessings, we are still in golus. All around us, the world sinks deeper into immorality. Social standards and norms accepted just a decade ago are now considered old-fashioned. Our way of life is regularly mocked. Our chastity and charity are treated by the mainstream media as puns in an old Yiddish Theater joke. Instead of praising the chesed of Lakewood, NJ, the New York Times call it “Beggarville” in a long, snide article published this week.

Metzitzah b’peh has been roundly condemned by supposed scientists. The very same people who played down Ebola are the ones who characterized us as baby killers, backward Neanderthals who care more about ancient traditions than modern science and health. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Center for Disease Control, who confidently assured the country that he had Ebola under control, was shown to be a liar, knave and fool, whose word is meaningless and whose knowledge of infectious diseases is sorely lacking. It’s hard not to remember his patronizing lectures when he served as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s health commissioner, the two of them joining forces to save us from our own supposed lack of hygiene. 

Rabbeinu Yonah, on the Mishnah quoted above, advises someone living in a time and place of simple people to reach beyond, to imagine himself surrounded by learned, sophisticated people and act accordingly. He understands Chazal’s directive to be an ish in a place where there are none as a mandate not to hold yourself back from gaining wisdom even if you reach a level where there is no one in your city who is a greater chochom than you are. If you find that in the entire generation there is no one with more chochmah than you, imagine that you are studying with the chachmei haTalmud. If you feel that you have reached that level, imagine that you are with the neviim, until you reach Moshe Rabbeinu. This way, you will always endeavor to improve and grow, not being held down by the people around you.

Perhaps we can apply this insight to this week’s parsha as well. Noach was a tzaddikbedorosov, in his generation,” meaning in the generation he created for himself. It was his own. He ignored everyone around him and visualized a new generation in which he could thrive, and he made that his reality. It was dorosov - he lived in the generation he formed in his mind.

People have an ability to rise above their surroundings and live bigger. Over Yom Tov, I met a delightful Yerushalmi Jew who told me about his Hungarian grandfather, a Jew from Toshnad who met the same fate as the bulk of Hungarian Jewry. Taken to the concentration camps with his wife and children, only he survived. “Of all the awful experiences of the war,” this grandson asked him, “which was the worst?”

The grandfather answered that for him, the worst moment came after the war had ended and he had been freed. He emerged from the concentration camp alone, barely alive. Seeking solace, he made his way back to his hometown of Toshnad, but the Jews were gone. A non-Jewish family had assumed ownership of his house. He walked up to the door, wanting to get a final look at the place where he had lived with his family. It was his home, and he had left it without saying goodbye.

The family nameplate was still firmly fastened to the door. Emboldened upon seeing that, he knocked on the door and asked permission to enter. The squatter was kind enough to let him in. The owner entered and looked around at the walls that had absorbed the laughter and song of his murdered family. Everything was just as he had remembered it. The dining room table that had been the scene of festive meals, with the Torah and zemiros of so many Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim, was still there. Even the leichter that his wife had lit candles on for many years was right where it had always been. As he stood there, lost in his memories, the poacher chased him out. “Okay, Jew,” he commanded, “your time is up. Get out.”

The fellow walked out to the street and paused. Decades later, he recounted to his grandson that he had never felt so degraded and distraught in his entire life. All the pain and heartache he had experienced came to the fore in those moments. He recounted that he stood at the gutter and thought to himself, “I have a choice. I can either let the anguish pull me down and give it all up or I can summon the strength to rise above it.”

Rise above it he did, finding his way to Yerushalayim and remarrying, giving birth to a new family of children and 150 grandchildren.

The decision he made on that awful day, the worst of his life, returned his vitality to him and enabled him to go on living the way he had before the calamitous period interfered. He triumphed.

Life is about choices. Thankfully, we are not faced by choices such as the one the lonely survivor had to cope with. But we, in our world, feel the despair and longing for the sweet days that have just passed us by. As we do, we can make the decision to use them as a springboard to live bigger, taking the elevation of the Yomim Noraim, as well as the na’anuim and hakafos and yeshivas sukkah, and the shofar and Kapparos and Ne’ilah, and using it to paint the winter days ahead with color, meaning, depth and joy.

During hakafos, you see people dance with heavy Sifrei Torah. Though clearly weighed down by the large scroll, they march on, lovingly holding their weighty packages in their right hands, close to their hearts. The knowledge that they are bearing the object that gives their lives meaning and defines their very existence energizes them, pumping the physical strength to match the spiritual. Their feet dance on, being swept along in the joy of the moment. They continue moving in the circle, men and boys, one after another, a group comprised of individuals, each of them an ish.

Learning this parsha, we should think about what others would say about us if they tried to encapsulate our lives. Which maasim tovim will be our toldos? Are we as kind to others as we should be? Are we as charitable and forgiving as we should be? Do we feel the pain of others? Do we live for ourselves or do we live for others? Do we stand as Noach did for 120 years trying to convince people to right their ways and prevent catastrophe? Are we selfless and caring and sharing, or do we always think about what is in it for us? What is our legacy?

As we leave the beautiful world of Sukkos, parting from the protective shield of the Tzila Demehemnusa, standing on the precipice of the olam hamaaseh, we would do well to utilize the beam of light we just encountered to point the way through a dark winter, lighting up each day and night for growth and aliyah, for ourselves and for others.