Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

For Those Who Find Reading Annoying…a Parshat חקת VIdeo!

In Leadership, Moshe, Parshat Chukat, פרשת חקת on June 29, 2009 at 11:39 pm

Two minutes of teaching on why–maybe–Moshe Rabbenu was denied entry into the land. Consider it either a pilot, or a train wreck…

Quote for the Day

In fury, love, summer hailstorms on June 29, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Hail forms in strong thunderstorm clouds, particularly those with intense updrafts, high liquid water content, great vertical extent, large water droplets, and where a good portion of the cloud layer is below freezing (0 °C (32 °F)). The growth rate is maximized at about -13 °C (9 °F), and becomes vanishingly small much below -30 °C (-22 °F) as supercooled water droplets become rare. For this reason, hail is most common in midlatitudes during early summer where surface temperatures are warm enough to promote the instability associated with strong thunderstorms, but the upper atmosphere is still cool enough to support ice.

Late Afternoon Fury
Love’s fury
is as natural and,
as incongruous
a hailstorm
in summer.

Banter from the Brothers Weinstein

In dental humor on June 28, 2009 at 2:29 pm

“I have to have a molar removed.”

“Holy Molar!”

“Yeah, it’s the bitter tooth.”

Michael Jackson, Reverend Al, and Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Rock fans never saw Michael Jackson as one of them. The glitz, the choreography, and the polish were too mainstream for those whose primary fare was outside of Motown. Maybe, I’m wrong. I was in Israel from 1975-1986 and never experienced close up the cultural icons of that time. Consequently, I am profoundly bored by all the attention paid to the death of MJ, and have turned off my radio until further notice. I guess I can only be critical because he never made me happy, so, I have no inclination to countenance his alleged indiscretions/crimes/sins.

The whole notion of celebrity is stunning to me. All these people milling about his star on Hollywood Boulevard, and the Apollo Theater in Harlem mourning a man of dubious character and–I guess prodigious talent–as if they knew him. He may have been a leader of an industry, but he wasn’t their leader. They just liked to watch him sing and dance.

The poet John Berryman in his collection Love and Fame deals with this phenomenon from the celebrity’s side. He offers that fame’s prime motivation is the quest for love of “her”. If I’m famous, maybe she will love me. The love from the audience, unfortunately, is unrequited by design because they applaud, cheer…and leave. He is left without them, and, more imprtantly, without “her”. One can imagine the letdown if, afterward, one goes home alone, or even worse with a surrogate for the object of his desire.

But what of the audience? Why do they feel so close to someone who wouldn’t acknowledge, let alone recognize their presence? They have the songs, they have the films. Truly, what have they lost? Two more live appearances or concerts?

The audience imagines a relationship that will never exist, and as long as that hypothesis remains untested, the fantasy remains. Watch what happens, however, when the object of the audience’s affection snubs a fan, displays bad temper, or in some other fashion, dispells the mythified connection.

“I’m not gonna put no flowers on his Hollywood star–he was sooooo rude!” I’ve heard it said that the fastest way to hate a novel is to meet the author.

Goodness, there are so many pathetic people in the world.

Quote for the Day

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Actions may speak louder than words, but since when did noise bring clarity?

Rabbi Jay Miller ז"ל

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2009 at 2:20 pm

It is with tremendous sadness and not a small amount of regret that I mourn the passing of Rabbi Jay Miller. There are many of us from the golden age of Brovenders who will always bear his exacting brand of Torah study. He was a man unique in his talents and his flaws, but I always felt the two were inextricably tied, and as often is the case, without the other, the one would not exist either.

In the ’70’s when learning Gemara was all but closed to Ba’alei Teshuva, Rabbi Miller developed a method of learning that could achieve in a year what most day schools could not achieve in twenty, or fifty for that matter. The daily first year Mishnah class had a quality of perpetual high drama. Studying Mishnah and Gemara could only be characterized as a gladiator sport where he was always the last man standing. There would be no such thing as a slow day in Miller’s shiur.

Excited, irritated, mystically enveloped in a veil of tobacco smoke, he took Mishnahs we thought we understood, and then after rendering them inscrutable, he helped us relearn them correctly. He admonished us, shrieking, “Don’t think, just do what I do!” Many of us, I’d like to believe the best of us, loved him for it.

The fierce discipline, passion and commitment belied a softer side that would emerge only when he deemed necessary. I remember when we were helping pack up his books prior to his moving from Yerushalayim to New York. At one point, he opened a can of olives to share with us. He then saturated the olives in olive oil because Chazal said that olives cause one to forget, while olive oil helps one to remember. (Horayot 13b) He explained that these are the simple ways we keep the Talmud present in our lives and actions.

I remember thinking that it doesn’t matter whether olives and olive oil contain these properties in fact, but for him it was a simple act of affection and fealty to bring what our Sages had said into the world, reminding us that remembering Torah is important and forgetting any apart of it may even be a sin. Such was his devotion, to and his compulsion for learning.

If everything we contribute emanates from the skills we are given, then Rabbi Miller singularly, selflessly and passionately was the one who taught me, and countless others, everything.

Updates on the Multiple Intelligence Myth

In Uncategorized on June 24, 2009 at 2:01 pm

In the latest Chronicle for Higher Education, an article entitled, Not every child is secretly a genius, explores the gap between what we wish to believe and what is true–and the gap is enormous when speaking of the theory of multiple intelligences. Everyone wished to believe Howard Gardner when he single handedly revolutionized educational theory in the ’80’s, but the idea turns out to be…wrong. Not only unprovable, but wrong! One might say that a theory that persists long after it has been disproved is no longer a theory, but a religious belief, and a bad one at that.

I dealt with this issue back in April for those who are interested, but Christopher Ferguson makes some interesting points in his critique of the theory that does not let the facts get in the way. Here is a quote worth pondering:

The theory of multiple intelligences fundamentally conflates intelligence and motivation. (my emphasis) It’s a fatal flaw. Motivation is certainly important, and it works alongside intelligence to produce results. However, having the raw biological machinery of intelligence is simply irreplaceable.

The great mystery of motivation. Even though native intelligence is required for many cognitive tasks, without the desire to engage in them one might argue that the raw material just remains raw, unrefined and not particularly useful. Of course, this discussion is a sideshow. Let’s face it, skill building is a necessary evil if one is going to get to the fun stuff and skill building is drudgery for many of us. We may as well admit that some of us are never going to be able to acquire the skill.

Still, we know some people are mechanically inclined where others aren’t, but the presumption is that a physicist so inclined to get his hands dirty could fix a car if he wished to. He could learn to do it. The same is not true for one with limited “g” (the moniker for native intelligence).

We need to deal with the world as it is. As Lenny Bruce once said, “What is, is. What should be, is a lie.”

The Talmud and The Passions of Those Who Left it.

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Biographies of great failures make for wonderful reading, but paltry sales. Isaac Rosenfeld is a case in point. He is the Saul Bellow who never happened.

A new biography by Steven Zipperstein chronicles this cautionary tale of promise unfulfilled. Phillip Davis offers a thoughtful review of this all but forgotten man of letters. I was taken by a quotation lifted by Davis from Rosenfeld’s review of another classic The Rise of David Levinsky that, according to Davis, is not only a reflection of Levinsky, but of Rosenfeld himself:

Levinsky is a man who is not at home with his desires. Because hunger is strong in him, he must always strive to relieve it; but precisely because it is strong, it has to be preserved.

Are we supposed to be comfortable with our desires? The Gemara in Succah seems to think not. At least King David wasn’t. In the famous Bible story where David covets the wife of another, the Gemara provides “context”.

David himself precipitated this episode when he wondered why he was not included among the forefathers when people offered their prayers. God answers that it is because he has not been tested as they were. David asks for a test, and God complies even revealing to him the nature of the test–something he never did for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. David succumbs to his desires causing the Sages to comment:

A man has a small organ that is sated by starvation, but starved by satiation. (Sanhedrin 107a)

The same seems to be true for the consumption of simple carbs as well. As it is written: Bet you can’t eat just one…But stay away from them altogether and ones desires will be muted. In other words, one is better off eating none.

With sexual desire, however, “eating none” means no family life, no intimacy, no physical expression of love, so we live by necessity, uncomfortable with our hunger, but hungry none the less. Levinsky, Rosenfeld are examples of this age old struggle.

He who serves his Creator, enrages his passions (Midrash Ruth Rabba 6:1)

The Most Important things I learned Came from Shop Class?

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2009 at 9:07 am

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is philosopher/bike mechanic Matthew Crawford’s meditation on the value of skilled labor as a work choice. He eschewed the life of a think tank wonk for the joys of rebuilding master cylinders, and making Harley engines hum. He claim that the problem solving of such work helps him understand Heidegger. The integration of the mind with one’s hands.

Jews, at least American Ashkenazic Jews, have not been great fans of earning a living with one’s hands even though the Sages of the Talmud often had day jobs as cobblers, blacksmiths and farmers. The adulation of intellectual abstraction created a reaction called hasidism which legitimated Jewish artisans and their sincere aspirations to connect to the Divine.

I never understood why craftsmanship was not more of a Jewish value. Certainly, the dictum, Torah Im Derech Eretz urged people to have a profession, but for what purpose? Only to earn a living so as not to rely on the kindness of relatives or strangers, or in order that ones learning be informed by ones work? Crawford argues the latter, as would I. The best learning comes from the integration of worldly experience with lofty ideas–the merger of heaven and earth.

The problem is a question of balance and prioritizing that such a life presents. How much time should be devoted to each enterprise? One might follow Shammai’s advice:

Fix set times for Torah. (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

I assume he means every day. Shammai knows that the demands of work are such that they can easily take over most of the day. Therefore, he argues, part of the day’s routine has to include the Jewish examined life–Torah study.

As for those who denigrate the elegance of building cabinets, or the feat of diagnosing and curing an ailing carburetor, I am not among you. I stand in awe of those who do these thing well because I know if they examined their work, as Crawford does, they can teach me things that I would never get on my own.

Back from the sea, zeal renewed, strength restored…

In Maharal, Netiv Torah, Ta'anit on June 19, 2009 at 7:04 pm

And still scorchin’. After this short break, I realize what a gift teaching is. There I was, sitting outside with my laptop near Rehoboth Beach, but actually next to a small bay on the other side of the ocean. It was time for my Maharal class given on the Web through webyeshiva.org. My students who appear from California to Poland on my screen through their webcams are ready for Torah from רחובות.

The Maharal opens the second chapter of Netiv Torah (The Pathway to Torah) with a Talmudic passage from the Tractate of Ta’anit (Fasting).

Why is the Torah likened to water? As it is written, ‘Let all who are thirsty come to the water.’ (Isaiah 55:1)

Just as water from a high place always seeks out a low place, so too, Torah is only maintained in one who’s awareness [of self] is lowly. (Ta’anit 4a)

The Maharal explains that Torah is pure intellect and has no connection to the material world. Therefore, in order to receive Torah, one must be in a state of humility. Humility is what the modern Hasidic masters would call the Bitul Hayesh, the nullification of self. The opposite of which is Gasut Ruach (grossness of spirit, arrogance). Arrogance is the most material, and the crassest of all qualities. Why the most material? Because of its emphasis on size, on being bigger, and being the best. By definition, the arrogant are subjected to the realm of form and matter, and that is their limitation. No matter how big you are, you are only that size and no more.

The humble, however, by nullifying self as much as possible, have forfeited the realm of size, for something a tad more than nothing. Thus paradoxically, they have no limitation. Like water, the humble have transcended size by going to the low place, and therefore are capable of receiving and maintaining the Torah.

Rabbi Yehoshua Bar Chanina was speaking to the daughter of Caesar. She observed, “What magnificent wisdom contained in such an ugly container!”

Rabbi Yehoshua asked, “In what kind of vessels does the Caesar keep his wine?” “In vessels of earthenware,” she replied. “People as important as you keep wine in vessels so common?” He queried. “What should we keep them in?” she asked. “In vessels of gold and silver”, he answered. She did as he suggested and the wine turned to vinegar.

The Caesar asked her, “Who told you to do this?” “Rabbi Chanina did”, she said. The Caesar asked Rabbi Chanina, “Why did you tell my daughter to do this?”

Rabbi Chanina replied, “Just as she told me, so I told her. (Ibid)

The Gemara wonders whether it is possible for the handsome to learn? The answer is that they can, but if those who were handsome were less good looking they would have learned more.

This story demonstrates that the most precious of liquids is only preserved in the humblest of vessels. Torah, like these liquids, require the utmost care in order to be preserved. That care requires all who wish to receive it to be self-ignored and Torah absorbed.

A vacation isn’t a vacation without a little learning!