Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Love conquered

In Uncategorized on March 15, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Love conquers much but perceived indifference kills it every time.

“…when our love was strong we could lie together on the tip of a sword, but now that it is no longer strong, a bed sixty cubits wide seems small.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a)

The Pure Vapor Breath of School Children

In Uncategorized on March 15, 2009 at 7:20 pm

Today, at a kindergarten celebration, each child took a rose which they offered to their mothers. Some mothers chose to let their daughters have the rose–the boys seemed to defer. One girl who reclaimed a Rose, broke the stem burst into tears and seemed to be inconsolable, until a classmate came and along with a hug, gave her the rose that she had been given. It made my day.

If A City Chooses Not To Support Educating Its Children, Then Bye Bye City!

In Uncategorized on March 15, 2009 at 6:48 pm

The passage from the Rambam which declares that “a city that does not assume responsibility for educating its children should be destroyed” needs to be unpacked a bit further. He actually is quoting directly from the Talmud emphasizing that he does not see this as a rhetorical exercise in hyperbole. It is a matter of law that not only appears in his legal code, but in subsequent authoratative Jewish codes of Law. Here is a fuller text of the Talmud from where the Rambam took this quotation.

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 119b

Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi: The world only exists because of the breath vapor of small school children.
Rav Papa said to Abayye: What about us?
He answered: The vapor that is tainted by sin is not the same as the vapor that does not have this stigma.
And Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi: One does not cancel the studies for small school children even for the building of the Temple.
Resh Lakish said to Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi: This is what I have received from my ancestors, and there are those who said that he meant, from your (Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi’s) ancestors: Any town that does not sponsor instruction for school children should be destroyed!
Ravina said that the inhabitants should be excommunicated.

To view the passage and my commentary in its entirety, Click here.

Parents as Teachers, Teachers as Parents

In David Brooks, Education, Judaism, Parents, Teachers, Teaching on March 13, 2009 at 6:07 pm

David Brooks put his two cents in regarding the Prez’s education plan:

We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.

Because the master teacher–i.e. the rabbi–in Jewish life is also the central authority, Brooks’ statement resonates loudly in Jewish tradition. Originally, it was the parent who was given the responsibility to teach his child, but in Talmudic times, this responsibility had been transferred to a new profession, the teacher. Teachers had assumed a parental responsibility and were afforded the respect that parents had only enjoyed. As stated in the Mishnah:

Your parents have brought you living into this world, but your teachers will usher you into the next. (Mishnah Bava Metziya 2:11)

Implicit in this understanding is that the teacher by definition assumes not only a parental responsibility, but a parental interest in the child.

I always tell teachers that they have to take this responsibility very seriously and yes they must love the children, but they need to get their love at home. Beyond proper tools, beautiful buildings and cutting edge technology, there is the one who knows and also cares.

Obama takes an unwitting cue from the Rambam on Education

In Education, Maimonides, Obama, Rambam, Synagogues, Tzedaka on March 13, 2009 at 3:26 pm

My understanding is that even though No Child Left Behind had some positive impact, the implementation of standards was never followed up with the funding that was promised. It is clear, however, that Obama is going to put serious money where his mouth went this past week.

Years ago, I collected several sources from the Rambam’s Mishnah Torah regarding his priorities for what were considered essential communal services.

In Hilchot Matanot Aniyyim Laws of Tzedaka, He states that every Jewish community has to have a community fund to take care of the poor, and acknowledges that he never heard of a community that didn’t have one.

In Hilchot Shekhaynim, Laws regarding good citizenship, he states that citizens can force each other to contribute to the building of a synagogue and the purchase of a community Torah scroll.
Note the injection of coercive language that was absent from the community fund.

In Hilchot Talmud Torah, Laws of Torah Study, he commands that every town must hire a teacher for their children, and if they don’t we put a ban on the town, and if they still don’t, we destroy it.

Why is the most coercive language saved for educating children? The Rambam knew that if one didn’t have an educated population, soon enough one would not have synagogues or community funds. Education is the foundation of civility, success, and communal memory. It is where we are reminded of our connections to each other and the value of a collective enterprise. A school is where these messages are reinforced. Obama’s right! Education reform, in the long run, is the most critical of all his goals and it can’t wait.

Just look at the most dispossessed of peoples and their profound adaptability when only a text kept us together for nearly two thousand years, then one may understand, “Why are you Jews So Smart?” Click on the link for the Rambams in question.

The Architect and the Intellect–Bezalel the artist’s artist.

In Uncategorized on March 12, 2009 at 11:12 am

Haven’t we got enough bad news already? So, excuse me if I don’t dwell on the Golden Calf. Parshat Ki Tissa introduces us to a character as enigmatic and uniquely gifted as Avraham, Bezalel, the architect for the mishkan–the Tabernacle. He was imbued with:

Chochmah–that which is learned from others
Tevunah–that which he inferred from what he had learned
Da’at–that which he received from the Holy Spirit
–Rashi

He was also chosen by God, and as his name attests, he walked in his shadow. It was a clever person who named the famous art institute in Jerusalem, Bezalel, a person who could learn, think, and was open to inspiration. He was God’s definition of artistry and creativity. Click here to learn more

It Seems That Public Humiliation Is Really Not Cool EVER!

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2009 at 9:41 am

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 11a offers three instances where individuals behaved badly and nevertheless they were spared public embarrassment through the grace of others. It was considered laudatory not to call an individual out for indiscretions in front of one’s peers.

In one case, seven judges were invited to deliberate over the calendar year and eight came, even though these deliberations were by invitation only.

Rabban Gamliel had ordered his emissaries to invite seven judges only to find that eight had arrived. He asked the one who had not been invited to step down. Shmuel Hakatan (who had been invited) immediately said, “I was not invited but only came to see how it’s done according to the law.”

In this case it is presumed, I think, that the Beit Din crasher didn’t know that these were closed deliberations and therefore was spared embarrassment.

In a second case, someone had come into Rebbe’s class stinking of garlic, and Rebbe asked whomever it was to leave the class, and Rav Hiyya (who had not tasted garlic) immediately left, and the rest of the class followed, so as not to embarrass Rav Chiyya.

This case one could also presume that the perpetrator was not aware of Rebbe’s aversion to garlic breath, and was therefore protected from being publicly humiliated.

The Gemara asked where did Rav Chiyya learn this lesson and the Gemara says it was learned from Rebbe Meir.

In that case a woman comes to the Beit Midrash of Rebbe Meir and states that one of his students had betrothed her through conjugal relations. Rebbe Meir (who had not done this) immediately gave her a writ of divorce and all of his students followed suit, thereby protecting the individual student who had behaved in such a dishonorable fashion with a presumably indiscreet partner.

The Gemara then brings examples in the Bible either where it explicitly states or learns by inference that Biblical figures and even God Himself go to great lengths not to publicly embarrass those who have egregiously sinned, even though they were certainly punished.

For example, the Gemara sites an aggadic passage where Joshua asks God who disobeyed His commandment and took spoils of war when he was commanded not to, and God rebukes Joshua by saying in effect, “Do I look like a snitch, draw lots and find out yourself.” Even in this case God was reluctant to single out an individual and preferred to punish all of Israel.

I wonder why public censure is so illegitimate, even in cases where the miscreant has brought great misfortune on his brethren? It is a terrible thing to humiliate someone publicly, but in some of these cases, public censure would not only seem permissible, but effective in righting a wrong where others had not only suffered but even died.

In a certain way, the burden of the individual is greater because of this sensitivity. A whole group will be punished because of ones misdeeds. Feelings will be spared but only at great sacrifice and great humiliation to the group. For people of conscience, that would certainly make them feel worse and maybe this is truly the meaning of the oft quoted “All of Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39a)–not only because we must endure the punishments caused by others misbehavior, but even then their feelings have to be taken into account and their dignity preserved.

Luddites Unite!

In Uncategorized on March 8, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I remember reading from the responsa of the Chasam Sofer regarding a machine that kneaded dough that was powered by steam. The question was whether such a machine could be used for making matzot for Passover. The answer was negative because of the moisture that the machine produced from being steam powered, but the clincher was: One should not use this machine for anything ever since it was an invention of the devil that had come to place stumbing blocks before the blind on Passover. I remember being somewhat unsympathetic to this point of view and I was in very good and devout company.

Enter Kindle II. The cool hand held electronic device that potentially places scores of books at your fingertips and at a fraction of the cost of a book. The New Atlantis Blogger Alan Jacobs explores what this means to the future of reading. Is it a good thing to be able to give up a book and replace it instantaneously with a dozen others? He’s afraid we may give up on books too easily. I,who often have three books going at the same time, do not share this concern, but I wonder if one hundred years from now, only frum Jews will have “Shabbos and Yom Tov Seforim” while the rest of the world kindles away and whether the Chasam Sofer would see this as an act of the devil that would tempt Torah scholars to desecrate Shabbos.

Unlike the shabbos clock and other halachic accomodations to technology, one can’t imagine how their could be a shabbosdik book substitute. Even now, many of us break out our bound indeces because we do not use the computer’s databases on shabbos. Will we be the only ones using books, say even fifty years from now? Is that a good or bad thing? I guess we might adapt by downloading and printing what we want to learn and let it be part of our preparing for shabbos.

Now that I’ve read similar concerns by blogging literati, I’m feeling a bit more generous toward the Sage of Pressberg. There is a sense that every time a gadget is introduced a tradition takes a hit, the unintended consequences of which are impossible to gauge, so enter insecurity and trepidation. I remember when my friend Rabbi Jim Ponet was busy fundraising for a new building for Yale Hillel–his students began waxing nostalgic about the crowded basement they called “home”. Sometimes we are Luddites, and sometimes we do lose something that is quite valuable that will never be retrieved.

Who would be considered wise? The one who is able to make this distinction.

Hard Wired for Hashem

In Uncategorized on March 6, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Even atheists believe in something–they just don’t call it God.

Parshat Zachor: A Chasidic Understanding of the Mitzvah

In Uncategorized on March 6, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Sometimes it better to focus on the enemy from within than the enemy from without. Just ask Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev.