Thursday, December 1, 2016

Stealth Messianism at Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim Conference Banquet (?)

Earlier this week, as the 'mainstream' Lubavitcher shluchim conference wound down (many people do not realize that their rival, the overtly messianic wing of Lubavitch, had their own shluchim conference at the same time, a parallel shadow government to the R. Krinsky wing, which can be followed at overtly messianic websites, such as this one), their annual banquet was held. Unlike other parts of the conference, which are not open to the public, it was broadcast for all to see. As a large part of the Lubavitcher PR campaign, much effort is put into the event, an elaborate theater production, which is intended to project an image of Lubavitch as being a cosmopolitan vanguard of traditional Judaism, ubiquitous, and unstoppable. A cavernous hall, giant video screens, big sound, and elaborate lighting effects, are used to those ends. At the end of the event a "rollcall" is held, to much fanfare, calling shluchim of different countries to stand when their locales are named, to give the impression that Lubavitch is everywhere. At the conclusion of it, an additional call is made, asking those sent out before the late Rebbe passed away to stand, with their number displayed in screen, followed by those who went out after his passing, whose larger tally is shown as well. The message is clear. Those who said that Lubavitch would fall apart after the Rebbe's death were very, very, wrong. Just look at the statistics.

As part of this sophisticated PR effort, messianism is hidden at the event, as the idea is to promote an image of Lubavitch as mainstream orthodoxy. Yechis, yechi yarmulkas, and moshiach flags are not seen or heard. On the other hand, however, the Rebbe is not referred to with זצ"ל or נ"ע either, which is definitely noteworthy. He is referred to in the manner of someone who is alive.

I noticed one interesting thing related to this, which probably eluded most non Lubavitch attendees. Just after seven minutes into the video, Tehillim was said. But what part of Tehillim? "The Rebbe's kapital" (#115), followed by "the Rebbetzin's kapital" (#116). But what is the connection of those chapters specifically with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rebbetzin? The answer is, that Lubavitchers have a custom that the kapital of Tehillim corresponding to the year of a person's life they are in, has a special meaning for them. So if someone is seventy two years old, meaning that they are now in the seventy third year of their life, kapital #73 is their kapital that year. In the last days of the last Rebbe, who passed away at age ninety two, twenty two years ago, his kapital was kapital 93. That is how it works with a living person. What if someone has passed away? I assume the practice is then ended. However, the Lubavitchers were treating the Rebbe (b. 1902)  as if he was still alive, and therefore in the 115th year of his life. The same for the Rebbetzin, who was a bit older, who was treated as she was in her 116th year.

The question is, if they are saying kapitlach for the deceased, according to their years, why didn't they say kapital 137 for the Rebbe R. Yosef Yitchak (b.1880), the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, then as well?

Something to think about.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Charedi paparazzi - A Rare Inside Look

Interesting short video (Hebrew, with Hebrew subtitles), with accompanying text, exploring the phenomenon of Charedi paparazzi, as well as looking at the related Gedolim photo magazines, Gedolim cards, stickers, and albums.

Among those shown are Maran Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit"a, a photographer who specializes in Sephardi gedolim, Gerrer and Vizhnitzer Rebbes, along with an analysis of the levush of Chasidic Rebbes, with a commenter comparing different bekeshes for home and away from home of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe to different football (USA soccer) uniforms for home and away games.

In this coverage, the proliferation of, and explosion in the amount of such photos, is viewed quite positively. According to the video, children who now play with gedolim stickers and cards, previously would play with cards of football/soccer stars or movie stars, with their accompanying negative sights and influences. So it was seen as being much better for them to play with gedolim cards instead, even if the photos end up on the floor sometimes.

That logic seems sound. So even if I might have reservations about some aspects of it, and it wasn't exactly that way in the alte heim, I am not going to blast the phenomenon at large at this time. Kids need things to do, and we have to consider the alternatives.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Mishlei Gender Gap and Its Consequences

Shlomo Hamelech, the חכם מכל אדם (wisest of men), wrote a sefer commonly referred to as "Mishlei".

A kinnui classically used for ספר משלי is ספר החכמה (the book of wisdom).

The book of wisdom, authored by the wisest of men. Seems like quite a piece of work. Who would pass on such a great read?

Unfortunately, however, it does not get as much attention as it should, especially among some portions of the tzibbur of male lomdei Torah (of course, the men have many others things they need to learn, such as major areas of gemara, and halacha, which take up much time and energy). On the other hand, on the female side, it gets a lot of attention. The result is a major gender gap when it comes to knowledge of Mishlei among אחינו בני ישראל.

The situation has gotten so bad that some people think of Mishlei as ווייבישע תורה, something like Tzena Urena, a portion of Torah designated for women, like an ezras nashim of תורה שבכתב. Of course, why some of the greatest gedolim, such as the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbeinu Yonah, wrote extensive peirushim on Mishlei, if it was just for talmidos of Beis Yaakov and seminaries, might be somewhat of a mystery then.

In addition to a general deficit in Torah knowledge, that a lack of any cheilek in Torah would mean, Mishlei is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for living life, of various hashkafos and eitzos. Now women have already had an advantage of over men in the area of בינה, due to their innate bina yeseira. But, that is balanced by an advantage in the area of חכמה on the male side, especially חכמת התורה. However, if women will be the only ones learning Mishlei, the sefer hachochmoh, that could create a serious imbalance in gender relations, which could negatively affect things like שלום בית and שידוכים, in addition to life in general.

Therefore I was happy to recently see a report of a grand siyum on sefer Mishlei in Lakewood. According to it, a Shul there was learning the sefer slowly, בעיון, בציבור, for fifteen (!) years, before reaching its conclusion. ברוך שזכינו.

If we could correct a skewed playing field so simply, by having more men learn משלי (and quicker than in fifteen years), wouldn't it be a great thing? Besides, Mishlei is such an enjoyable limud anyway, it is a win-win-win idea.

As the old expression goes, if only the עם חכם ונבון would have א ביסעלע שכל (a little seichel). With more people, especially men, learning and internalizing Mishlei, that could be attained in greater measure. May we merit a closing, and ultimately a disappearing, of the Mishlei gap soon.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Narrowness in scope of Torah study is one of the great tzaros of our time - Rav Avraham Pam זצ"ל

Such narrowness is a צרה not only because that Hebrew word comes from the root צר, meaning narrow (as in מקום צר, a narrow place).  It is a צרה because eagerly awaiting visit and exploration are a land mass of twenty four sacred books, כ"ד ספרים, of תורה שבכתב,  as well as a sea of talmud (ים התלמוד), positioned around six Mishnaic orders (ששה סדרי משנה), with thousands of pages for the Jewish man to traverse, along with many more treasures and adventures (such as deep sea Talmudic diving, inspecting sunken ships of the past, and prospecting for hidden valuables) beyond. And if some stay in a safe harbor of a selected few pages, rather than visiting the great expanses beyond, they will miss out on worlds, and not be able to ascend to the higher ranks of captains and commanders in the Torah realm.

Correcting a serious misconception

Some people mistakenly believe that the Litvishe tradition of Torah study does not esteem or demand broad based Torah knowledge (aka בקיאות). That notion, however, is emphatically not correct, and needs to be strongly refuted, which ב"ה it was recently, in a featured excerpt of a sefer in a widely distributed newspaper (the Flatbush Jewish Journal, a publication out of NY), citing the leading Litvak sages Rav Avraham Pam zt"l, and Rav Elazar Menachem Man Schach zt"l.

The greatly revered and loved Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Rav Avraham Pam zt"l, was known as a mild mannered man, and a great baal middos (of exemplary character and conduct). He was not a person who was seeking to criticize others, particularly students of Torah, who were so beloved to him. But he did, nevertheless, feel compelled to speak out strongly (in his soft-spoken way) against the problem (among some) of narrowness in scope of Torah study, echoing the great Rav Elazar Menachem Man Schach zt"l.

Both of those towering Litvishe Torah authorities, by the way, were old school Litvaks, the real McCoy, so to speak, not some synthetic modern hybrid versions. Rav Pam, despite his American citizenship, was a genuine Litvak, born in the Eastern European homeland of Litvishe Yidden, who studied Torah in Kovno, Lithuania, as well as being a close talmid of Rav Dovid Leibowitz, great-nephew of the Chofetz Chaim, and founder of ישיבת רבינו ישראל מאיר הכהן, after migrating to the USA. Rav Schach as well, despite his many decades in Eretz Yisroel, was at his root, also a Litvak from Jewish Lithuania.

  The relevant segment can be seen in the feature "A Vort from Rav Pam" (from the great sefer by that name) starting on P.4 of the FJJ issue of this past parshas Vayeilech, and continuing and concluding on p. 82 there.

May we merit Torah broadness in the path of our great gedolim.

P.S. The Sukkos edition of Yated Ne'eman of NY, has a precious interview with Maran Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit"a (by Avrohom Birnbaum), in which this topic is touched upon. It says there that in the early days of Lakewood, the (BMG) Rosh Yeshiva went away to Eretz Yisroel during the winter one year, and came back after after Purim, whereupon he gave a shiur on daf nun zayin (דף נז) of the מסכת. They had learned - and during first seder yet (so I asssumed - but perhaps lav davka) - from the beginning of the mesechta until daf 57. רב שמואל שליט"א is then asked, what happened, why yeshivos cover less ground now? The response given is twofold. One, that when Mirrer talmidim came from Shanghai, things slowed down, as they were used to learning slower than than the Kletzker Rosh Yeshiva, and two, that there were very few seforim (on gemara) in Lakewood in those days to distract them, so they were able to plow ahead and proceed veiter.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Litvishe spirituality - The role of the yeshiva mashgiach, as seen by Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l

The Yated Neeman newspaper from New York, in its current Rosh Hashanah issue, contains an important feature, based on an interview with famed משגיח and מחנך Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l approximately thirty years ago. In the piece, crafted masterfully by senior writer Avrohom Birnbaum, we get valuable insight into the role of the mashgiach (director of spiritual guidance), in Litvishe yeshivos, in the glory days of yore.

Nowadays, when the role of mashgiach is often diminished, if it exists at all (in some places it carries on, but in others it has totally disappeared, while in yet other places, Chasidim have been appointed to it, a move not in accordance with the mesorah of Litvishe yeshivos), it is quite worthwhile to gain new understanding and appreciation of the role of the mashgiach, at its highest level. Unfortunately, some people think of a mashgiach as a type of policeman checking with his watch if a student was late for seder or davening, for example, and accordingly dispensing fines, discipline, and so on. And perhaps in an institution for minors there is a place for that. But a classical mashgiach in the ישיבה גדולה sense, is really a source of vital, life-giving spiritual guidance, meaning, and counseling, via public and private activity, even up to the level of spiritual resuscitation, rather than being a petty enforcer of minor institutional rules and regulations.

Here are a few important points, in brief, from the feature.

1) Rav Wolbe strongly lamented the dearth of mashgichim today (thirty years ago, קל וחומר now). It greatly pained him. He wondered how the lack is excused. They claim that there is no Rav Yerucham (Levovitz), or Rav Chatzkel (Levenstein) (legendary mashgichim of yesteryear) today, he said. But there is no Rav Boruch Ber or Rav Shimon Shkop either now. Yet they still have Roshei Yeshiva. So why not mashgichim as well? יפתח בדורו כשמואל בדורו.

2) When asked why Roshei Yeshiva are being produced now, but not Mashgichim, he replied, simple - it is much easier to be a Rosh Yeshiva than a Mashgiach.

3) Rav Yerucham Levovitz on the respective roles of Rosh Yeshiva and Mashgiach - the Rosh Yeshiva straightens out the mind, but the mashgiach straightens out the heart.

4) When queried about his tremendous deference to his own mashgiach, he stated that Rav Yerucham brought him back to life, a kind of spirtual resuscitation, techiyas hameisim, and he did that to many others as well.

5) The purpose of a mashgiach is to elevate people, to create Torah personalities, to teach bochurim how to think independently, to form their world outlook. In that regard, Rav Wolbe cited the directive of Rav Yisroel Salanter זצ"ל to the Alter of Slabodka, that his task in a yeshiva should be להחיות רוח שפלים ולהחיות לב נדכאים (to breathe life into the spirit of the lowly, and into the heart of the shattered).

6) Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l, a Rosh Yeshiva, who acted as a mashgiach in terms of giving mussar type talks as well (showing the possibility of a Rosh Yeshiva having characteristics of a mashgiach too), was not self-made in that role. Rather, he was a talmid of Rav Yerucham.

For those interested in more, see p.52-56 in the Yated Neeman.

May we be zoche that the crown of elevated השגחה of the Litvishe tradition be maintained (where it still survives), as well as restored to its former glory (where it has perhaps been lost).

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Cast Down the Viduy Booklets? Response to a Leading Neo-Hasidic Leader and Mashpia

What are וידוי booklets, you may ask?

Well, some years ago, some people who are מדקדק במצות (scrupulous in their observance of Hashem's commandments), in order to be mezakeh the rabbim (merit the public), to enhance the seasonal prayers and עבודה (Divine service) of the ימי תשובה, the season of repentance, published some small booklets, expounding on different forms of viduy recited in the season (an integral component of the teshuvah process), which are focused on in this time of the year, to make it more meaningful and relevant for those who seek such things.

An updated version of one that has been around for many years, is shown here. Another one, from Artscroll, can be seen here.

Fine and dandy you say, huh? Who could have a problem with that? However, to a prominent neo-Hasidic leader, for some reason, they are viewed not as a welcome enhancement, but as a serious problem. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Mashpia at Yeshiva University, Rabbi of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY, and leader of the neo Hasidic movement, just came out with a scathing attack on such publications. In a gathering at his congregation a few days ago, he ridiculed them (relevant segments being at 69:40 mainly, as well as at 81:20). According to Weinberger they are problematic, because a person should not dwell too much on sin, rather they should concentrate on positive things, citing certain Hasidic teachings to that effect, particularly on the pasuk לב חכם לימינו ולב כסיל לשמאלו.

Now, there is some logic to that. Standard (non Hasidic) Jewish sources also warn against dwelling excessively on sins of the past. However, as part of the teshuvah (repentance) process we also have mitzvos of viduy which are intensified and focused on around the beginning of a new year. And Rabbi Weinberger himself mentions that in his talk. But then, he goes on to bash viduy booklets, which are useful aides for some people, adjuncts to do the mitzvos in a meaningful manner, going so far as to relate approvingly that when he got one as a youngster his father objected to it and threw it to the floor! He ridicules them to the delighted laughter of his Modern Orthodox audience.

To lash out at such legitimate and honorable works that are utilized by sincere Jews, ehrliche Yidden, is not appropriate in general, and certainly not for someone who (allegedly) is a big leader, and merits a signficant מחאה.

Ironically, it is the Hasidic nusach Sfard order of prayer, which is the nusach of Rabbi Weinberger and his congregation, which says viduy much more often than regular non-Hasidic Jews, having viduy as part of its daily weekday services through most of the year, while the nusach Ashkenaz used by non Hasidim, conversely, does not generally say it year round, but rather only at special times like תענתים and  עשרת ימי תשובה. The Vilna Gaon, the great Misnaged, limits it even further. According to the גר"א, viduy (the short אשמנו version, as well as the longer על חטא version) is only said once during daily selichos (as opposed to three times, as others commonly do), as well as only once per tefillah of Yom Kippur (e.g. once during maariv, once during shacharis, once during musaf, once during mincha). As opposed to others who say it an additional time per tefillah with the shliach tzibbur.

Sadly, this is not the first time that inappropriate rhetoric emanated from this personality. A previous case, discussed at this website in the past, was related to his speaking approvingly about dancing on Tisha Be'Av. Other cases, discussed elsewhere, include his wholesale bashing of kollelim. Even before that, he made other extreme statements that generated much controversy.

ב"ה it is never too late to repent, as long as people are alive. And for institutions who employ unworthy spiritual leaders, there is also room for rectifying past mistakes, and turning over a new leaf with new appropriate leadership. With the Richard Joel era winding down at YU, questionable initiatives and hires of his tenure should be reexamined as well.

May we all merit true teshuvah speedily.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Shabbos with Steven Hill (Reb Shlomo Hill) z"l

The news spread quickly. The famous Reb Shlomo (Steven) Hill was niftar the other day. Interesting posts appeared about his life and character on various websites.

I did not know him personally, nor from television or movie gazing.

But for me, Reb Shlomo Hill was still special.

I have fond memories of him, from a great recording released over twenty years ago, "A Taste of Shabbos", with Dov Levine, which he narrated beautifully, faithfully transmitting the taste of that special day.

If you have never heard it, you might want to take a listen now. Or listen once again, to savor the experience. I don't know if Reb Hill composed the lyrics, or just delivered them. Either way, he shone with a great performance. Seemingly simple words, but depth is there too.

A while back, Charie Bernhaut featured the album on his music broadcast. You can hear extensive clips there (scroll down to show #284, in the first hour) via the archived version, and get a taste of the magnificence of Reb Shlomo Hill.


(previously entitled The Jewish Majesty of Reb Shlomo (Steven) Hill z"l, and Hill Shines For Shabbos - "A Taste of Shabbos" with Reb Shlomo (Steven) Hill z"l )