Thursday 31 May 2007

Answer to Halachic Dilemma #1: Mishna at a Shivah

Originally published 5/31/07, 4:25 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Given #1:
There is a Minhag to learn Mishna at a Shivah. One of the reasons given is that the words "Mishna" and "Neshama" have the same letters.

There is a prohibition for the "aveil" Mourner to learn Torah during the Shivah period.

How can one teach Mishnah to the visitors [menachamin] as per #1 without violating #2?

Note: There are several possible approaches to resolving this conflict.
Here is an elegant answer that came to me mostly through Divinely inspired serendipity.
The Mishnah on  Elu Megalchin (Mo'ed Qatan: 3) discusses Aveiluth. The Rambam's commentary on the last four Mishnayoth forgoes explaining these Mishnayoth, and proceeds to provide a form of "Kitzur Hilchoth Avieluth." Now, by avoiding "analytical learning" and focusing upon "halachah p'sukah" - the Rambam's commentary provides us with a combination of Mishnah learning with a permitted topic. This is because aveilim are permitted to learn Hilchoth Aveiluth.

If I had the power to implement this Minhag universally, I would suggest this: Study those last four Mishnayoth of Mo'ed Katan with the Commentary of the Rambam; thereby avoiding the conflict inherent in the two "givens" above. Plus, it will certainly raise awareness of an area of Halachah that is rarely learned in depth anyway.

When feasible, I bring photocopies of these Mishnayoth to the Shiva and use them as a text.

Sometimes, you can be "Yotzei yedei sheneihem" [fulfill both opinions] without having to bend over backwards.

Kol Tuv- Best Regards,
Rabbi Richard Wolpoe

Monday 28 May 2007

Methodology of Halacha

Originally published 5/28/07, 7:51 PM, Eastern Daylight Time

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Recently the student newpaper of Yeshiva College, the Commentator, presented an interview with Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth of JTS which can be accessed here.

The article touched upon two issues that may be deemed somewhat controversial. One questioned the difference between Conservative Judaism and the Open Orthodoxy advocated by Rabbi Avi Weiss. This, it should be noted, follows an article in Yated Ne'eman, from a few months ago, questioning the Orthodoxy of Rabbi Weiss' yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovivei Torah. This, however, is not the issue that I wish to address in the post. (It is my desire, at a future time, to discuss this issue in a more extensive manner, within the context of discussing the definition of Orthodoxy. I should perhaps mention that, while I do hope to again return to this broad subject within the context of this specific issue of YCT, I have addressed aspects of this broad issue in the past, in such articles as those found on the Nishma website, regarding the Slifkin Affair)

The issue I wish to address in this post is Rabbi Dr. Roth's description of the process of Halacha. When questioned about the difference in the Conservative movement's approach to Halacha and the approach within Orthodoxy, Rabbi Dr. Roth makes a few, most interesting statements. While we may wonder about the application of Halacha to Conservative Judaism, specifically in that the vast majority of lay members of Conservative Judaism do not see themselves as truly bound to Halacha, it cannot be forgotten that Conservative Judaism did -- and still does -- see itself as a halachic movement, albeit pursuant to its definition of the halachic process. It is this halachic process to which Rabbi Dr. Roth was commenting, with an implication that it is actually the more valid approach.

The question for me is not which approach is the more valid one. As an Orthodox rabbi, it is obvious to which approach I owe, with reason, my allegiance. The question for me is whether individuals recognize these distinctions in approach and are able to identify approaches to the process of Halacha that are within the parameters of Orthodoxy and those approaches that are not. What is your response to Rabbi Dr. Roth? Do we even understand what he is saying? Do we know why Conservative halachic decisions, especially those from early on in the twentieth century and before that, were unacceptable to Orthodoxy?

Halachic Dilemma #1: Mishna @ a Shivah

Originally published 5/28/07, 2:18 PM, Eastern Daylight Time

Given #1:
There is a Minhag to Learn Mishnah at a Shivah house. Some of the reasons given include that Mishnah and Neshamah have the same letters.
There is a prohibition for the "aveil" Mourner to learn Torah during the Shivah period

How can one teach Mishnah to the visitors [the menachamim] as per #1 without violating #2?

Note: There are several possible approaches to resolving this conflict.

Kol Tuv- Best Regards,
Rabbi Richard Wolpoe

Friday 25 May 2007

Frank Lloyd Wright Home - Dilemma in Modernization

Originally published 5/25/07, 11: 24 AM, Eastern Daylight Time

About five years ago the Bergen Record ran a story in the Real estate section. An owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright home had a 1950's kitchen and wanted to modernize it. he was faced with the following alternatives:
  1. Don't touch a thing. This is a piece of art! One cannot improve on "near-perfection." Would you "modernize" a Mozart Concerto? But, faced with this choice, how could he function in the 21st century with an obsolete kitchen?!
  2. Fuhgeddabout Frank Lloyd Wright. You godda do wahtcha godda do! Just rip out the kitchen and put in a brand new modern state-of-the-art kitthcn and don't give a hoot about teh consequences. Well, that would make the kitchen more livable, but it would devalue the house completely on the market place AND destroy a part of history.

What to do?
Baruch Hashem there was a third choice. There are specialists, architects who are steeped in the traditions and the mind-set of FL Wright who can visualize how to make a 21st century kithcen in the Frank Lloyd Wright Tradition. The new kitchen will not be the exact replica, but it will be congruent with the house in general. It will be BOTH Modern and Traditional - and preserve the beauty, the history, and (hopefully) the resale value. It won't come cheap, though. Balancing the tension between tradition and modernism would require a lot of extra effort. The owner felt that this was worth the price.

Tuesday 22 May 2007

Dayyeinu - The Answers

Originally published 5/22/07, 12:31 AM, Eastern Daylight TIme

Reprise the questions:

  1. Can it be true that had God taken us out of Egypt only to abandon us either at the shore of the Red Sea or in the Desert without provision that it would have really been enough?
  2. What is the purpose of stating The list of Dayyeinu and THEN summarizing them with "Kammah Ma'alotTovot" - i.e.How many advantages... etc."?
  3. What is the point of God bringing us "CLOSE to Sinai" without giving us the Torah? Isn't the entire point of Sinai the Giving of the Torah?! Clue: Consult the Haftarot associated with the Readings of Torah on Yithro and Shavuot
  1. As previously mentioned in the comments, the Dayyeinu really means: "It would have been enough for us to Praise God, or IOW enough to justify reciting Hallel over each and every step."
  2. The number 15 matches the 15 levels corresponding to 15 steps in the Holy Temple and the 15 Psalms of Shir Hama'lo as well as the 15 steps of the Seder.
  3. The point of Ma'amad Har Sinai without the Torah is similar to the divine revelations to Isaiah and Ezekiel respectively in those Haftorot. I.E. Israel witnessed and experienced divine revelation firsthand just as tte prophets did in their individual prophetic visions. A legacy of this is reflected in our kedushah that excerpts the Kadosh... from Isaiah and the Baruch... from Ezekiel. This mystical level of national prophecy was unique peak experience that was independent of any "law-giving aspect" and deserves it's own Dayyeinu or cause to Praise God.
This third point segues us right the upcoming Holiday of Shavuoth!
Kol Tuv
Rabbi Rich Wolpoe

Thursday 3 May 2007

MY Rabbi is better than YOUR Rabbi

Originally published 5/3/07, 11:50 PM, Eastern Daylight TIme

Informal survey:
Both Rav Shaul Lieberman and Rav JB Soloveichik died around the Passover season. The close proximity of heir respective yahrtzeit’s led me to the following question:
In your experience who – of the 2 rabbis above -had a greater impact on:
  1. Rabbis
  2. The Torah World
  3. General Jewish Life in North America
Remember this is NOT quite a poll about your opinion of whom you THINK had a greater impact!
Rather, the question focuses upon your own experience of “Who impacted YOU more personally” - whether it be directly or indirectly.
Kol Tuv,
Rabbi Rich Wolpoe

Learning Mishnah

Originally published 5/3/07, 11:36 PM, Eastern Daylight Time

Here is a conventional way to learn Mishnah, but with a very subtle twist…
Here are your steps:
  1. Take the new edition of Kahatti Mishnayot with Bartenura.
  2. Read the Hebrew text of the Mishna
  3. Read the Kahatti commentary and understand both his commentary and the original Mishnah {nothing new so far}
  4. NOW go read the Bartenura’s commentary.
You might ask yourself why read Kahatti BEFORE Bartenura, shoudn’t it be the other way around? Afterr all Bartenura came FIRST, much before Kahatti?
I’m glad you asked such an intelligent question!
You see Kahatti is written in a user-friendly dialect of Hebrew. He is relatively easy to understand. Bartenura is written in quasi-Aramaic Rabbinic dialect; this is much more difficult to understand.
Now you ask: “So, why bother even learning Bartenura at all!?”
Another excellent question! You see, the Bartenura preseves the terminology – or the jargon if you prefer – of the original Talmud. Having mastered the basic simple meaning – the Peshat - of your Mishna in steps 2 & 3 above – it is now a good time to find out how the Talmud itself might haae phrased the same concepts. Now you add Bartenura – and you have taken a step clsoer to Talmudic terminology without sacrificing learning understanding the Mishnah itself. So now tht you DO understand what is being sai,d you cn approach a more confusing way of saying it without losing track. At this point the Bartenura helps to bridge the gap between the Mishna and Talmud by using the relevant Talmudic phrases.
By a subtle twist, we have a pedagogical technique, going from simple to complex, from local to global.

Kol Tuv
Rabbi Rich Wolpoe

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Total Eclipse, Partial Eclipse - A Parable

Originally published 5/2/07, 9:57 PM, Eastern Daylight Time

Once there was a Wise Wizard who had the following of three young Apprentices. All realized how much knowledge the Wizard had to impart and so all three listened intently, albeit they reacted differently.
One day, near the end of the life of the Wizard, there was a total eclipse of the Sun. Wishing to protect his three young charges, he admonished them to shade their eyes, lest the Sun demons cause them to go blind. He issued each one a shade, and warned them that despite the darkness of the Sun during the eclipse, unseen demons were at work, and they must be cautious and wear the shades.
The First Apprentice was very pious, very literal, and very rigid. This pious Apprentice kept the shades on and notices how much better his eyes felt. He soon realized that if keeping the shades on during the darkening of the Sun worked to ward off demons, how much more so it would work when the Sun shown brightly. Soon the Pious Apprentice was wearing his shades all the time, for if wearing it somewhat helped, wearing it all the time helped even more!
The Second Apprentice was very bright, but also very cynical. He had it all figured out. He noticed that there were no demons at all - that this was the stuff of old wives' tales. His five senses told him clearly, there was no danger looking at an eclipsed Sun, and soon he desensitized himself to look even at a Noon Sun. He let all the light in and became quite enlightened. He never hesitated to gaze at the Sun as often as he wished, so he never bothered with ideas of demons nor of shades.
The Third Apprentice was a reasonable man of faith. He knew the Wizard had hidden wisdom, but he did not believe in superstition either. He was suspicious about the ideas of demons, but he also trusted the Wizard's intelligence and humbly realized that his limited mind could not possibly know it all. He observed when and how the Wizard shaded his eyes. By imitating him - even without understanding all of the underlying implications - he realized that he could make sense out of when the shades were needed and when they were unnecessary. He began to see the patterns and make sense out of them, even though he could see nothing at all about demons.
The Wizard passed on. The Three Apprentices became Masters in their own right. The Pious Master wore shades all the time. His eyes remained young and healthy. He was safe and sound. He saw little light, and knew little light. His eyes were always fresh, but they were also practically unused. The Cynical Master unknowingly burned the retina in his eyes. He was truly enlightened, but blinded by the light. Soon ALL he could see was bright light. He could not see anything other than pure white His ability to see it all soon enabled him to have a blindness of white. Instead of a dark blindness, it was as if he was snow-blind. With white light everywhere he could make no distinctions, nor discernment. Everything was the same.
The Reasonable Master sometimes wore his shades and sometimes did not. His eyes were used but not abused, and he aged gracefully. He saw a lot of light but did not get burned. Occasionally he kept the shades on when he did not need to, and occasionally he left them off when he should have used them.
Later in his life he learned the secret of the demons. They were nothing superstitious at all, just a metaphor for Ultra-Violet Radiation. He grew old, satisfied that by combining faith with reason that he followed the mystical ways - trusting in a meaning behind the invisible. He knew that underneath it all the Wizard's ways were reasonable, even when they appeared to be irrational.
Which way do you choose to look at wisdom? Do you follow blindly? Do you ignore the wisdom of the elders. Do you respect that which you do not quite fathom?

-- Kol Tuv- Best Regards,
Rabbi Richard Wolpoe

© 2001 by Richard Wolpoe

The Torah Call to Think

Originally published 5/2/07, 9:49 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Rabbi Ben Hecht

Rabbi Zvi Lampel, in his fine work "The Dynamics of Dispute", asks the question: "Why didn't the Sages always spell out exactly what they meant and leave no question about their intentions?" This question could be posed to God as well? Why leave room for interpretation, and even possible misunderstanding? Why not be clearer?

Rabbi Lampel, in the presentation of his answer to his question, writes the following: 'All this was meant to train the scholars in quick, deep and profound reasoning and in mastering the sources. The goal of learning Torah is not merely to know the answers but even more important, to master the methods of arriving at them." This response in itself (and it should be noted that Rabbi Lampel devotes a chapter of his book to essentially this question and the lines quoted simply, in a certain way, introduce his more extensive answer) demands further deep and profound consideration. In my Nishma Introspection article "The Cloud of Revelation" I also contend that the lack of clarity we find in Torah sources was intentional. We are supposed to think. But a consequence of this lack of clarity is also the possibility of mistakes.

Is the process thus to be understood as more important than the conclusion? Is this issue connected to the famous question in the gemora in Kiddushin regarding which is more important -- Torah study or mitzvah action? And how would the famous answer that 'study that brings to action is greatest' connect with this extended issue? The bottom line is that Torah is not clear. Furthermore, to gain any insight demands great intellectual effort. Why? What does this say about God's purpose in Torah? I think this is something we may wish to ponder.

I just want to mention, since I referred to Rabbi Lampel's book, that I do highly recommend it. While I would not say that I agree with everything that he presents, I found this work to be a most honest presentation of what Torah She'b'al Peh really is, especially in contradistinction to the often poor and misleading presentations of Torah She'b'al Peh that usually are found.