Monday, February 27, 2006

Discussing Divine Punishment With a Child

Earlier today I engaged in a hit-and-run post in which I asked who was Moshe Rabbeinu's father. The impetus for this was in part a fragmented memory and in part the impact of having watched a movie with my son.

The two of us watched Prince of Egypt. The film has some issues but I wasn't going to engage a five-year-old in a discussion of how the filmmakers might have taken some liberties with the movie.

Anyway, we watched a watered down version of the Exodus and it generated some tough questions. As the title of the post suggests one of the questions was in relation to divine punishment. It wasn't the easiest topic to discuss as it really is quite involved.

There is the question of why people enslave others. That is a pretty serious talk in itself as it incorporates many elements such as prejudice. It actually ties in well with the M.L.K. discussion he and I had last month, but at the same time I try not to throw too many things at him at once.

So there we were with the question of what happened to the Egyptians who were in the Red Sea. He wanted to know what happened to them and why. And for a moment I was unsure of how to respond because I didn't want to make G-d look bad.

That sounds kind of funny, doesn't it. The atheists who read this probably got a kick out of that one. But it is true, I do believe and G-d and my personal belief is not a G-d of fire and brimstone.

Part of the question is why kill all of those Egyptians. Why not come up with some other miracle. You can part the Red Sea, surely you can make them go blind for a few minutes or make them take the wrong turn and end up in cleveland. Why kill.

I am not the first person to ask those questions and I have been part of discussions that dealt with that very topic, but they are a little too sophisticated for a five-year-old.

So we meandered around a bit and talked about how some people don't like others and why it is important to judge people based upon what they do and how they behave. But I can't say that we came to a conclusion that was satisfactory to me.

But I was rescued from this awkward place as we had to run to a birthday party. I still have to come up with some answers, but I have more time to do it.

Public Prayer

Shtender at HaYom posted an essay on minyans formed in public.

Reading that, I was reminded of something I saw last week that moved me. I went to a shopping center near my office to get a cup of coffee. There are many construction projects in this part of town, so it's common to see dusty, dirty Ford pickup trucks driven by strong guys in jeans, workboots and caps. I'm always a bit amused by the way they store their shoes -- stuck in the space between the cab and the truckbed -- so that it looks like someone has been stuffed inside the truck somehow.

I was passing by one truck when I noticed that the two guys hanging around the truck were not lounging in the usual posture of guys taking a work break. They both had bent their heads and rested their elbows on the truck bed wall, clasping hands together. In prayer. They remained that way, looking downward, as I stood nearby. I heard one of the them speaking softly, the words not quite audible to me. Beside him was a stack of books that had the same multi-colored pattern on the edges of the pages that Jewish "Sifrei Kodesh" have. I figured those were Bibles and other holy books.

I went in to the coffee shop, got my coffee and came back out. One of the men was now reading from a book as the other listened. Clearly, these guys were taking time out from their paid-by-the-hour day to pray and read the Bible.

It's not something you see every day.

Now here in Central Texas, we don't have minyanim forming in public places. I'm pretty sure it takes a Herculean effort just to keep a daily minyan going. (The Chabad house has them for Shacharit and Mincha.) But what if a group of ten Jewish men were gathered at the corner instead of two Christian guys?

Well, first off, that's 10 not two. At what point does a group of people, even engaged in prayer, begin to look vaguely threatening? Perhaps rather quickly, especially if the group is dressed differently than most of the population.... And even benign curiosity can be distracting if you want to focus on your prayers. Do you really need gawkers? Generally, I would agree with R' Y. Kaminetsky, quoted by Shtender, that it's best to keep your davening (praying) private, rather than become a public spectacle.

But on the other hand, seeing people praying or learning together is inspiring. One person praying on the street looks like a loon. Ten people praying may look like a gang of sorts. ("Run, they've got a siddur!") But two people praying brings a taste of peace into a busy shopping center.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Moshe Rabbeinu- Who Was His Father?

I have been pondering this all morning. I can't remember learning a thing about him. Who was Moshe Rabbeinu's father and why don't we hear more about him.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Muktzah-Carrying Dog

(Or, the lighter side of Halacha)

Last summer, my stepkids spent a Shabbat with my parents and got to experience, first-hand, the Orthodox way of observing Shabbat. They enjoyed the weekend very much, especially my mother's cooking (chicken soup, chicken, kugel, etc.). They hung around my parents' Jerusalem apartment, and successfully refrained from turning on lights or tearing toilet paper. Everyone was happy.

The only problem is that ever since then, every Shabbat the kids have loads of questions. No matter how many times I tell them I am no authority on anything -- "Ask the Rabbi!" -- they keep asking me. As if from the vaults of my childhood memory I will unearth not only what I did but why I did it.

Some of their questions from today:

Son: "If I was Orthodox, could I wear my hearing aids on Shabbat or would that be carrying?"

Mirty: "Yes, you can wear hearing aids or glasses or anything else you need for your health like that. I think it's considered part of your body; so it's not carrying."

Daughter: "You can wear glasses?"

Me: "Yes."

Daughter: "So can you carry stuff you really need, like a pencil in your pocket?"

Me: "No. You can only carry if there's an eruv or if you're in a walled city, like Jerusalem."

Husband: "Ah. The Old City in Jerusalem."

Daugher: "Can you just carry your wallet?"

Me: "Pencils and money are both muktzah. You can't touch them on Shabbat."

Daughter: "Can you --"

Me "Do you know what muktzah means?"

Daughter: "No."

Me: "It's what you can't touch on Shabbat, like money or pencils."

Daughter: "What if.... What if the dog carries your wallet into the room and drops it in the middle of the room. Can you pick it up and put it away?"

Me: "If you indeed have a muktzah-carrying dog, and I'm sure some people do, I think you have to train the dog to pick up the muktzah and put it back where he found it."

For some reason, daughter and son found this amusing.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

My view of Halacha(Jewish Law)

Someone asks you to build a house. And asks you to be faithful to the plans. And gives you drawings about how to build it. Well, actually lots and lots of drawings. There is the original set of plans, which are kind of sketchy on details, and some things aren't very clear. In fact, it would be difficult to build a house just on those plans. Explainations of the plans came with it, but unfortunately it isn't a clear list of details, but is a large volume of discussion about the original plans, by people who lived 800 years later, and frequently contains no resolution of the discussions. Also, those discussants lived in a different climate than you, and it isn't clear if the climate affected their house plans. Included in the discussions are some notes about how if all the serious house builders agree on something, then that detail can become accepted just as if it was part of the original plan. Then there are volumes and volumes of how many others built their houses. Some had houses in hot areas, some in humid areas, some had wild animal infestations. It isn't always clear how and if those conditions affected the plans, and if those changes were intended just for that climate, or should be accepted as changes to the original plan. Finally, you can see those around you building their houses. Some have focused on just one part of the plans. Some, for example, thought that the original planner loved arches, so they have built houses entirely of arches, neglecting many other details. Others, have just decided not to build houses at all. Some, have built houses exactly the same as the most recent builders. who were in an area that suffered from attacks from wild beasts, and had few windows and thick walls.

The person who builds the house exactly as the most recent builder, risks the least as far as being faithful to the plans. He relies on the interpretation of those that came before him, and knows at the very least, he is not doing any worse than they. Those who look at the most recent plans and find a not very pleasing house, and compare them to many of the plans that came before, notice some significant differences. They also may find esthetically pleasing houses in older plans. However, it is not clear which elements are changes that occured because of local climate and conditions, and which are original elements that are essential to the original plan. By making changes to the most recent plans, even if it is based on older plans, the person risks elminating a key ingredient. However, it also is possible that the builders made changes that weren't part of the original plan, and changing back would restore a key portion. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to know what is part of the original intent, and what is a product of changes over time.

The choices:

1. build a house that you know at least isn't any further from the original than the most recent builders, even though it isn't asthetically pleasing to you.

2. read as many of the plans as you can, try to figure out a plan that fits within the framework of the plans you have been given, but also fits with your idea of what the original planner wanted.

3. read as many of the plans as you can, especially the older ones. Try to figure out which details got changed, and why, and if there is a good reason to change back.

4. Read a few of the plans, especially the original, and make up the plans that you think are the original planner would want, even if parts go against all the subsequent plans.

5. Not build a house at all, or, ignore the plans completely.

I go with number 3.

Oh, and remember the references to the idea that if every(or almost every) serious builder agrees on a detail, it is accepted as part of the original plan.

Build away.

(Cross posted at BavaDilbert)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Taking Advice

Hello everyone, as I said on my other blog, I am in the middle of a Blog Hiatus. I plan on returning the first week in March. But that doesnt mean I can't blog on TJC. So here it goes.

Today I was reading through the Parsha and I had these thoughts.

This weeks Torah portion is a big one. The big event that sticks out of course is the giving of the Ten Commandments. Every year this is the main topic of discussion for this weeks Torah portion. Parshas Yisro.

One of the things I like about this parsha is the concept of being able to take advice. The whole getting the Ten Commandments is a very important event, no doubt, and there are many lessons and great things to be learned from that. But for me, what more than anything else sticks out, is the concept of taking advice.

Yisro see's that Moshe is having a hard time judging all the cases that are coming before him. Yisro suggests to Moshe to set up a court of judges, and that they should assist Moshe in governing the nation and deciding cases.

This wasn't just an instance of one person taking advice from another person. This was a case of someone who was the leader of an entire nation, who had gone through so much. After everything that happened in Egypt, after growing up in the royal palace, after freeing an entire nation, the splitting of the red sea, after wandering the dessert, after everything that transpired, he was being given advice. Someone who could have just as easily said. "You're giving me advice? Who are you? do you know what I've accomplished so far? Thanks anyway, I'll be fine." He didnt, obviously, and of course this speak volumes about the type of hero and leader Moshe was.

Still, the way I see it this goes deeper. He was being given advice from a 'parental' figure, and not an actual parent, but an in-law. The very people we always want to look good in front of. Most people don't want to take advice from an in-law. It makes them feel like they aren't able to fend for themselves. Many son in-laws want to impress their father in-laws, showing them that their daughter made the right choice.

In some ways its better if the advice would have come from an actual parent, but from a father in law? He still took the advice. It can go even deeper. Yisro was not just his father in law, but he was an outsider. As much of an outsider as it was possible. This wasn't some relative of Yosef Hatzadik or Avraham, Yitzchok or Yaakov Avinu, but some guy who used to be a priest. He was a convert, and more than that, he didn't even leave with them from Egypt or go through the red sea, or live through the plagues.

He met them while they were already in the dessert. I don't think advice could have come from a more unlikely place. Yet he took it. This to me is a great lesson. Taking advice is sometimes the hardest thing to do for anyone. We all want to think we can handle things on our own. We all want to try to do things without seeking help. No one WANTS to ask for help. Moshe was trying to do the best he could, and things were getting hectic. Yisro saw this and had a good idea. He came to Moshe and Moshe took his advice.

This ties into probably one of the most popular questions people ask stemming from this weeks Parsha. In a Torah portion where we have the Ten Commandments. One of the biggest events in all of Jewish history, the Parsha is named after an outsider, highlighting a story about a convert who had some good ideas. Yisro was chosen as the name over all the names that would have pointed to us receiving the Aseras Hadibros.

This shows you the lengths that we have to go to respect people. Taking advice in a way is a lesson in respect. You have to be able to respect people to take their advice. Or more so, respect that you are not perfect. Everyone can take advice. Even from someone who you think would have nothing to offer. Someone like Yisro, who came from such a distant place to end up giving the leader of the Jewish people advice.

We learn from this, that even greater than the Ten
Commandments is the concept of respect. At least that's what I take from this. I'm not a Rabbi of course, just some guy with a blog.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and it wasnt too serious or preachy.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Kiwi's Questions #4

This is the last of the questions:

Are there still Orthodox Jews who oppose the use of Hebrew in secular life? Why, when it's prophesied in the Torah?

I'm just going to break into my own little tangent here. I've started to wonder whether the Hebrew Language is a benefit or a detriment to Jewish spirituality. I look at people who struggle just to understand the words of the prayers or the Torah and are either unsuccessful, or put so much effort into the mechanics of translation that there's little energy left over for the actual understanding of what's written. Or I see people who pray with much enthusiasm, but obviously don't understand the words and might as well be saying mumbo-jumbo. And on the other side of the coin, I see secular Israelis, who should have no trouble understanding a Siddur or reading the various Jewish texts from over the millennia, who are completely uninterested in it or even turned off by it.

Does the language barrier also provide a shield, so we don't actually have to think about what we're saying? Is it easier to sing the "praises of the Lord" in a foreign language, than to say it in English where it starts to sound very hokey? I myself find that I much prefer to sing songs that are only in Hebrew, and that when they are translated into English I get uncomfortable with them.

OK, now go discuss.

Kiwi's Questions #3

A few more questions from Kiwi:

3. The Torah says that those who curse Israel will be cursed, which would certainly apply to the Arabs, especially the palestinians. Is there any similar prophecy that would apply to those within Israel who unwittingly oppose God's purpose? Pat Robertson thinks so, but I don't trust him. If he were right, Christians and Jews should be sorrowful, not self-righteous, and praying for Ariel Sharon.

4. Why does Israel require women to serve equally in the military with men? Isn't that contrary to Jewish history and Orthodox social norms? There were women military leaders in the past, but they were the exception, as I understand.

5. Apparently in the beginning of the Zionist movement, Jews began buying property in historical Israel and restoring it. Since nobody had really claimed that land until the palestinians started whining (apparently later), why did the Jews need to buy it, and who did they buy it from?

The Advantages of a Being a Ger/Jew By Choice

During the last four months or so I have encountered a number of Gerim. For those who are not MOT you can translate this to mean someone who has converted to Judaism or you can use the headline Jew By Choice.

However, I need to add that from a personal standpoint I am not real fond of applying Jew By Choice strictly to those who have converted as I like to think of myself as being a Jew By Choice. That is, I choose to be Jewish because I want to be not just because I was born a Jew.

That brings me to the next point which is that I find it interesting to hear why people convert to Judaism. It is not something that you hear about every day. There are a variety of reasons for it, some of them are based upon historical incidents in which proselytization of non-Jews was dangerous.

If you are interested you can find some background on conversion and topics surrounding it by starting here. In the interim I have a different focus for this post.

One of the challenges of being brought up with a particular faith or set of values is that we often do not take the time to really question why we believe what we believe. We simply watch our parents and mimic their behavior. "Dad was Democrat and so am I," blah, blah, blah.

In concept this doesn't sound like a problem but in reality I think that there are issues with it. The area that takes primacy is a question of values. What values are important to you and why. They may not be the same as your parents. That doesn't automatically disqualify or lessen their importance.

From my standpoint I think that it is important for people to consider what they believe and why. I like to understand why I think it is important to act/behave in a certain fashion. I want to know my principles well enough to explain them in a clear and succinct fashion. It helps me to understand myself and what place I want to take in the world around me. It also helps to guide me in guiding my children.

So when I look at people who convert to Judaism I view them as someone who has taken time to consider their beliefs and reached a place in which they see Judaism as filling a natural and important role. And I see them as often having a deeper and better understanding of why they are Jews than many of us who were born Jewish. And to me that is valuable.

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Kiwi's Questions #2

Here's the second question from Kiwi the Geek:

I've heard that prophecies say the Arabs and Jews will always be in conflict. Where does the Torah say this? The only place I know is concerning the conflict between Jacob & Esau, but I'm under the impression that the Arabs are Ishmael's descendents, not Esau's.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Kiwi's Questions #1

The following is from an email I received from Kiwi the Geek, a long-time Psychotoddler reader and fellow blogger on Our Kids Speak. She has some interesting questions and I thought it would be good to post them here so that people more knowledgeable than me can have a chance to respond to them. Specifically, she is looking for the Orthodox view, but I'd be interested in all points of view. If any of you know of someone who can answer these questions authoritatively, please direct them here.

Part 1:

I hope this doesn't weird you out too much, since I'm a Christian, but I have some questions about prophecy & Israel & such that you might be able to help me with, or direct me to some websites. If you don't mind. I just watched a documentary on the subject. Obviously some of the answers are in my Old Testament, but I don't know where to find them...

Apparently part of what was once Israel -- the tribes of Mannasseh, Reuben, and Gad -- are now undisputed territory of Jordan. (By undisputed I mean in contrast to the West Bank and Gaza.) Are these considered the rightful territory of Israel today or not, since those tribes requested the land long after God's many promises, just before the Israelites began to take possession of Canaan? Are there groups that want to reclaim that area as well?

Thursday, February 02, 2006


I don't want to take sides. I don't want to say one side is right and the other is wrong. Most of the pictures I see just upset me. Last year during the disengagement we saw pictures like these:

And now we see this:

I am ashamed and embarrassed. We are better than this.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Big Dunk and a Little Prick

Sometime in December it occurred to me that my son was quickly approaching his 13th birthday. Now, there is no thought, just yet anyway, of his bar mitzvah because he didn't start his Jewish education until he was 9 and he's only halfway through the second year of Hebrew School...and we require starting the fourth year before they can even consider bar mitzvah training.

But in December, at an oneg, people started coming up to me and asking me really strange questions. At least I thought they were strange.

I mean here we were, full members for the past three years and change...ever since my bet dein and mikveh on 30 Sivan 5763. Ever since, we had dutifully enrolled the Boy into Sunday School and when the time came, Hebrew School, and fully participated, with him, in synagogue life.

We chaperoned Hebrew School trips to Squirrel Hill and made shalach manot baskets and delivered them on Purim. It was well known that we constructed a sukkah every single Sukkot. The rabbi had always made sure we were invited somewhere for first seder and we always attended the community second seder. We didn't miss a second of High Holidays since we joined and you could count on us for Kabbalat Shabbat services every.single.week. Our son had perfect attendance in Sunday School as well as service attendance.

It wasn't like we were invisible.

So when three DIFFERENT people came up to me in December and asked me if Evan was being raised as a Jew...well, to put it frankly, it blew my mind. I had thought our decision to be pretty obvious. I mean, when we enrolled him in Sunday School one of the commitments we had to agree to was to raise him AS A JEW. So when the Director of Education came over during an oneg and asked me if we were raising him as a Jew...well, yeah, I was a little lost for words.

When I converted I had wanted to bring my son with me. Convert the both of us at the same time. But my rabbi didn't want to do it that way. She said to wait. So we waited. And waited. And waited. And now here we are and Evan is going to be 13 and he needs to go to the mikveh and have the hatafat dam brit.

The Big Dunk and a Little Prick.

I spoke to more than one of my friends about it. And they all agreed, it was something that needs to be done and done soon.

But oy, have you ever contemplated telling a 13 year old boy with autism what a hatafat dam brit is?

The answer is...why yes, he did freak out!

Because he freaked out so badly, we tabled that discussion for a while. Maybe the rabbi, when she gets back from Israel, can explain it in more delicate terms than I did because when I was done, my son was absolutely convinced we were going to cut his penis right off his body.

Now the mikveh, that was easy. I explained to him that he would need to go to the mikveh. I said it in Jewish terms using real Hebrew words to explain...I said "mikveh" not "bathtub" for example. I told him he would go into the mikveh which is filled chest high with very warm water and that he would go under three times and recite special prayers and when he comes out he will be a REAL Jewish boy.

And I was sure he understood it because he talked about it quite a bit after I had told him what it was and he always was so excited becausee it was what would make him, finally, a REAL JEWISH BOY...which is what he thinks he is anyway. And which is why completing his conversion is so critical right now. I shudder to think when someone may dare to challenge his internal Jewishness because the final steps have yet to be taken.

It would really do him in I think.

Well, I told him not to discuss it with his Hebrew class or the teacher or the rabbi because it was private and when the time was right, we could all discuss it together. And I was sure he'd listen to me. He's a good boy. He usually does.

Until the very evening when I had told him NOT to discuss it and I dropped him off for Hebrew School and then came back an hour and a half later and ran into the rabbi as she was going into her office between bar mitzvah students.

"You will never believe what your son asked me," she said.

A million things went through my mind. With my son? It could be anything from the properness of escorting a Catholic girl to the school dance to debating whether it really WAS Eve's fault that she and Adam got thrown out of Gan Eden.

"Really?" I said, following her to her office.

"Yeah, he wanted to know when he was being baptized."

Evan's Hebrew teacher who is from Israel fell over chuckling about it. She said the rabbi handled it very well when Evan asked...even though *I* was mortified.

Hopefully this all will be taken care of soon and then we can ALL laugh.

(crossposted at Matzah and Marinara)