Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Is Orthodox Judaism Fundamentalism?

A firestorm of controversy has erupted over a recently released series on Netflix entitled My Unorthodox Life. It features an individual who chose to discontinue her practice as an Orthodox Jew. The individual now alleges that the practices of Orthodox Jews and its commitment to halachic observance as fundamentalism. The individual is not content with her own decision to leave her faith but campaigns her family and others to abandon their commitment to faith. There are too many distortions and inaccuracies depicted in this series and, quite frankly, beyond this space's scope. Instead, I would like to address and respond to a central theme of the series. The show's primary theme is that halachic observance is full of illogical restrictions and results in fundamentalism which the show compares to Muslim Fundamentalism. Unfortunately, this narrative misrepresents the entire purpose of the Mitzvos and why we have an opportunity and privilege to adhere to it. Our Rabbis have taught that Mitzvos are a means of connection to G-d in this world. When a person fulfills a mitzvah, the individual connects to G-dliness and holiness in this world. If an individual does not recognize the true meaning of Mitzvos and halachic practices, he will consider the ritual as a mindless restriction. It is our responsibility to properly educate our children and students that the ultimate purpose of the Mitzvos is because G-d loves us and gave us a medium of connection to Him in our finite days of this world. This idea is articulated in this weeks parsha, as it states וַיְצַוֵּנוּ ה' לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כָּל־הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת־ה' אֱלֹקינוּ לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל־הַיָּמִים. This is translated as "Hashem our G-d commanded us to perform these Mitzvos and to be in awe of Him, as it is good for us". Every time a person stands in prayer and utters the words Baruch Attah Hashem or Blessed are you G-d, he gets more connected to the divine presence of the Al-Mighty. Indeed, it is sad and painful to go around mindlessly practicing rituals without appreciating the larger mission of connecting to G-d and having a relationship with Him in this world. Even if a person does not choose to outwardly abandon their halachic observance, they walk around unfulfilled and empty. The damage that this Netflix series will cause remains to be seen. There has been a variety of reactions from the Jewish Twitterverse and beyond. My Unorthodox Life should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to examine the consequences when a healthy relationship with Hashem is not at the foundation of Orthodox Jewish life. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Reflections for Tish B'av

As we approach the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, we are once again asked and called upon to mourn over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. This particular year, the notion of mourning for a tragic event that took place nearly two thousand years ago seems more distant than ever. Yes, of course, the destruction of the holiest site in Judaism was a terrible tragedy. Still, one can reasonably ask, with everything going on in the chaotic times of 2021, don’t we have more pressing things on our mind to be concerned about than the destruction of a Temple that occurred nearly two thousand years ago? There’s a raging pandemic of Anti-Semitism that appears to be not only increasing but gaining a prominent foothold even in the previously thought Goldene Medina (golden country) of America. There doesn’t appear to be an area of mainstream American society that is immune from this ancient form of hatred directed against our people. American Jews were rudely reminded of this reality during the most recent round of hostilities in Gaza. There were several Jews that were physically attacked in broad daylight by individuals that simply used the Gaza conflict as a pretext to shield their Jew-hatred. American Jews are starting to ask themselves really uncomfortable questions, including if the unthinkable can occur in the Land of the Free. With this growing crisis in the background, why is there such a requirement to mourn over an ancient tragedy? It’s important to remember that the mandate to mourn on Tisha B’av is not simply for the destruction of the Jewish Temple/ Beis Hamikdash. That tragic event reflected a new world order that we are still suffering from.—The world at that time of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash went into a state of Hester Panim or G-d’s concealed face. The basic understanding of this is that although G-d’s presence is always in this world, the manifestation of His presence is far less profound and significant than in earlier generations. The destruction of the holiest site in Judaism reflected the reality of a spiritually bereft world. Unfortunately, we have only slipped further in our state of Hester Panim. This somewhat explains an issue that has vexed our community of faith for centuries. We struggle to reconcile how a just and benevolent G-d can allow such pain and tragedy to occur in this world. While this question can never fully find a satisfactory answer, understanding the concept of Hester Panim gives us some context. This spiritually bereft world with G-d’s hidden face begins to explain (but not entirely) how there can be such pain and tragedy in the times that we find ourselves. The partial removal of His presence allow blessings to be absent and curses to multiply. When we sit on the floor and mourn on Tisha B’av it would be worthwhile to not only reflect on the awful consequences of Hester Panim but also to pray for the day when G-d’s face is no longer hidden from us but revealed to us in the fullest way possible with our people reunified in a rebuilt Beis Hamikdash in Jerusalem! Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Servant Leadership

Let's call a spade a spade. The narrative of this week's Parsha is utterly depressing. The (arguably) most exceptional Jewish leader of all time, Moshe faces an uprising against his leadership. The rebellion, which started with some grumbling and resulted in a full-out assault on the communal structure, was led by a cousin of Moshe who, prior to that moment, was well respected and devout. Korach declared, "You have gone too far! The whole community is holy; every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then, do you set yourselves above God's congregation!"  This criticism deserves careful analysis. After all, Korach was correct in his assessment that the entire congregation was holy and G-d was with everyone. If that indeed was the case, why was the challenge to Moshe an illegitimate one? The commentaries point out that there was nothing wrong with stating their position that everyone is holy. Everyone stood at Mt. Sinai and heard from G-d that you are a holy nation. The dangerous error was the latter part of the statement, "why do you set yourselves above G-d's congregation.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote the following on this subject: "The most famous buildings in the ancient world were the Mesopotamian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids. These were more than just buildings. They were statements in stone of a hierarchical social order. They were wide at the base and narrow at the top. At the top was the king or pharaoh – at the point, so it was believed, where heaven and earth met. Beneath was a series of elites, and beneath them the laboring masses. This was believed to be not just one way of organizing a society but the only way. The very universe was organized on this principle, as was the rest of life. The sun ruled the heavens. The lion ruled the animal kingdom. The king ruled the nation. That is how it was in nature. That is how it must be. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled.[2] Judaism is a protest against this kind of hierarchy. Every human being, not just the king, is in the image and likeness of God. Therefore no one is entitled to rule over any other without their assent. There is still a need for leadership because without a conductor an orchestra would lapse into discord. Without a captain, a team might have brilliant players and yet not be a team. Without generals, an army would be a mob. Without government, a nation would lapse into anarchy. "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 17:6). In a social order in which everyone has equal dignity in the eyes of heaven, a leader does not stand above the people. He serves the people, and he serves God. The great symbol of biblical Israel, the menorah, is an inverted pyramid or ziggurat, broad at the top, narrow at the base. The greatest leader is therefore the most humble. This model of leadership has been the hallmark of effective Jewish leadership throughout the ages. About 100 years ago, a very impactful Rabbi and educator in Eastern Europe championed this approach. His name was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who was also known as the Alter of Slabodka. His philosophy was not to create a group of followers but rather to cultivate and create a new generation of leaders. Years later, his namesake, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel became the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yerushalayim. Under his leadership, the Mir Yeshiva grew to the largest in the world with thousands of students under his tutelage. I was fortunate to be one of the students with my arrival in Israel in 1997. His leadership was all about working to facilitate opportunities for his students to reach vicissitudes of greatness. His impact was not limited to the students enrolled in the Mir Yeshiva. His sphere of influence reached many different parts of the globe. One of the individuals who was touched by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel's leadership was Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks. Schultz penned an op-ed in the New York Times about the lessons in leadership he learned from the sage. He wrote the following: A decade ago, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a widely respected rabbi in Israel. As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the Rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further. "I've never been closer than this," the Rabbi told me. Astounded, I asked why. "You go," he said. "I'm not worthy."   From Moshe onward, our most outstanding leaders taught us the value of servant leadership. This notion of a leader is to serve the people. The grave mistake of Korach was his flawed understanding of leadership. He didn't understand that those who serve do not lift themselves high. They serve to lift other people high. That was the educational philosophy of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He was a leader who was not looking to have followers. He was a leader looking to create great leaders. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 4, 2021

Reflections on COVID

The last fifteen months have been extraordinarily challenging on many levels. Our generation was afflicted with a lethal pandemic that few people anticipated would occur in our lifetime. The world as we knew it unraveled, and many societal norms fell by the side. Congregational and communal life did not have immunity in the pandemic. Along with shuls around the world, our shul made the unprecedented and painful decision to close its doors in March of 2020 with the hope of containing an unknown and unpredictable virus from spreading throughout our community. In May of 2020, we began a phased and deliberate reopening of our beloved shul. We started with outdoor minyanim held in the parking lot and eventually moved back to the building with strict protocols. We assembled a blue-ribbon COVID task force and gave them the responsibility of advising us through this unknown maze. Our task force is comprised of lay leaders, physicians, and rabbis and meets regularly to assess and evaluate the situation on the ground regularly. All the taskforce's decisions and policies were guided by two core values to which we profess our fidelity. Those two values are Pikuach Nefesh/Saving Lives and Communal Tefila. Every decision that was made was because of our steadfast commitment to our values. One value that regrettably did not make it to the top of the list was convenience. We recognize that many of the protocols, including mandatory mask wearing, were inconvenient and burdensome. While we regret some of the inconveniences that we had to endure, we are proud of our accomplishments over the last year since our phased reopening began. To our knowledge, while several individuals tested positive for COVID in our community, there wasn't any transmission of the virus in the shul building! We are also proud that we have a consistent daily minyan under sometimes very trying circumstances without missing a day! It is a remarkable testament to this community, and we are so grateful to everyone that participated in our Daily Minyan! I also want to express my appreciation to all the members of the COVID taskforce for spending so much time and energy on this most important issue.  As we thank G-d seem to be finally turning a corner with COVID, we are pleased to move forward with the next phase of the reopening that will roll back the policy of mandatory mask-wearing. This is an important milestone, and we first and foremost need to be thankful to G-d for getting us to this moment. I believe that this is an essential time for reflection as hopefully, the harsh reality of COVID continues to fade in our lives. One of the outcomes of COVID was the widening gap of trust and respect among different groups and people. There is a diversity of viewpoints on many issues, including public health. Unfortunately, disagreement sometimes leads to polarization and division. It's essential to realize that while others may not share your view on critical issues; it's imperative to engage in respectful dialogue. Achdus or Unity is quite easy with people with like-minded opinions. It is slightly more challenging to foster achdus/unity with people that we disagree. Yet, that is our challenge, and we must live up to the moment.  COVID has created a new reality in many areas of life. Some are positive, and some are disappointing. Healthy dialogue, Derech Eretz  and respect for people with differing views mustn't become another casualty of the pandemic. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 28, 2021

Gratitude for the Greatest Sacrifice

America begins its unofficial start to the summer with the arrival of Memorial Day weekend. People will be flocking to the beach, firing up the grill for barbeques, and shopping for mattress sales. It's important to pause and reflect on what this day is actually about. Memorial Day is not just a day off of work or school. It is a federal holiday in the United States for honoring and mourning the military personnel who have made the ultimate sacrifice and died in the performance of their military duties while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As Jews living in the United States, I believe it is imperative for us to be grateful for the ultimate sacrifice that thousands of members of the U.S. Armed made during the Second World War. It will be 77 years this week, since June 6, 1944, when the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to fight the Nazis. There is an argument to be made that these heroic individuals made the greatest sacrifice in the history of the world. On those few days, nearly 10,000 soldiers were killed. The Allied casualties were comprised of American, British, and Canadian soldiers. Those brave men knew they were going to near-certain death but did so because that was the only way to stop the Nazi conquest from spreading. Although there were high casualties initially, eventually, the Allies broke the Nazi stronghold, and the tide of the war shifted toward the eventual defeat of the Nazis. It's hard to imagine now, but had the Allied Forces not intervened and defeated the Nazis, it would have most likely meant defeat of the Jewish People as we know it. Hitler made no secret about it. He had wanted the world to be Judenrein. The only thing standing in the way of his global ambitions from being carried out were the Allied Forces fighting back with of course, the help of G-d. The fact that the Jewish people survived not only to live another day, but to rebuild a modern Jewish State in their ancient homeland and find a benevolent refuge in America, could only have happened because of those Allied soldiers' great sacrifice. Today in Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, there are 9,387 heroes laid to rest in the Normandy American Cemetery. Among them, 149 Jewish headstones are marked with a Star of David. Regardless of which religious symbol occupies the soil, the righteousness of the soldiers that lie on that sacred ground will never be forgotten for the rest of history.  On several of my trips to Washington, I have found myself pulled to the World War Two Memorial in our nation's capital. There is a large inscription with the following words from President Harry S Truman: OUR DEBT TO THE HEROIC MEN AND VALIANT WOMEN IN THE SERVICE OF OUR COUNTRY CAN NEVER BE REPAID. THEY HAVE EARNED OUR UNDYING GRATITUDE. AMERICA WILL NEVER FORGET THEIR SACRIFICES. In an age when sacrifice and commitment have evolved into newer understandings, let us pause and reflect with tremendous Hakaras Hatov toward those without whom we would not have lived to see a better day.  May their memory be a blessing. יהי זכרם ברוך Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 21, 2021

Reflections on a Ceased Fire

As a tenuous ceasefire takes hold in Israel, I think it is imperative to reflect on the situation we find ourselves in and not pretend that all is ok because a ceasefire was announced. While there are many layers to this situation, not least the security of Israel and the continued threats to its existence, I would like to unpack a few factors that should weigh heavily on the collective mind of the American Jewish Community.  It's essential to recognize that 2021 is not the same as 2014 and definitely not 2009 regarding how America perceives Israel and its neighbors. The support of Israel by the United States Congress used to be a non-issue and a strong basis of bi-partisan support. Unfortunately, there appear to be cracks in the wall of support. There are presently a small but growing and influential number of Members of Congress who are not only indifferent to Israel's predicament but also openly hostile to its well-being. It was quite alarming that at the height of recent hostilities, when Israel was facing a barrage of thousands of rockets to its civilians, there was a measure introduced in Congress to block Israel from securing much needed funding for its defense. Equally disturbing was the backlash from the Congressional leadership on AIPAC for daring to criticize a Member of Congress who essentially was serving as the spokesperson for Hamas on Capitol Hill. The tenor and conversation have changed in Washington, and it should concern everyone no matter what your preferred political party is. Secondly, it is deeply worrisome about the violence directed at Jews throughout America. As mobs of anti-Israel people demonstrated against Israel, it quickly spread to violence in several cities, including New York and Los Angeles. Patrons of kosher restaurants were attacked and Jews were verbally and physically assaulted in several communities. For anyone that thinks that the animosity towards Israel and the Jewish People is limited to the Middle East, this was a rude awakening.  Finally, it was dispiriting to see the apathy to Israel from a growing number of people in the American Jewish Community. As we become more assimilated, it is no surprise to see increased disengagement and indifference towards the Jewish State. This week's widely read article in the NY Times highlighted the estrangement of many younger American Jews towards Israel. It quoted a 26-year-old Jewish woman who volunteers in Boston with IfNotNow, a network of Jewish activists who want to end Jewish American support for Israel, has found protesting for the Palestinian cause to be its own form of religious observance. Unfortunately, these groups can no longer be dismissed as fringe and irrelevant as their voices are growing stronger, and of course, they embolden our adversaries.   I heard once from a rabbinic colleague that the role of rabbi should sometimes be to comfort the afflicted and sometimes to afflict the comforted. I take no pleasure in choosing the latter this week. If recent events are not a wake-up call for us to strengthen our connection to G-d, the Land of Israel, and our fellow Jews, I am unsure what can be. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 14, 2021

Israel in Crisis

The Land of Israel has once again become ground zero on the world stage. In just four days, Hamas has rained down nearly 2,000 rockets into Israel. The vaunted Iron Dome has struggled to keep up with the barrage of missiles as the terror organizations attempt to overwhelm the defense capabilities and inflict maximum casualties on the Jewish State. It's essential to understand what the agenda of the terror organizations are and why they deliberately are putting their own citizens in harm's way to advance their nefarious plan. It's not because of a property dispute between Jews and Arabs in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. It's not because of the infringement of the right to worship for any Muslims on Temple Mount. Ironically, according to secular Israeli law, although Jews may enter Temple Mount with special permission, we are forbidden to pray on Temple Mount. There have been stories of Jews getting arrested by Israeli police on Temple Mount for merely reciting a chapter of Tehilim/Psalms. What than is the reason of all this violence that these Palestinian terror organizations have unleashed? It's a very simple yet uncomfortable truth. They are declaring war against the very notion of a Jewish State in its ancient homeland. They are declaring to the world that the Jewish people have no right to be in their homeland. Over the years, they have become more sophisticated and graduated from throwing stones to shooting missiles for hundreds of kilometers into Israel. The rejection of the existence of Israel is what this is about and what they are fighting for. Israel, of course, recognizes the battle that it faces and its security forces are working around the clock to ensure its citizens remain secure. It's important to remember that although we may be geographically distant, we can do much to assist in this time of crisis. Our Rabbis have taught about the importance of turning to prayer in times of distress. It behooves all of us to take a few extra moments out of our day and daven for our brethren in the Land of Israel. It is imperative to pray on behalf of the members of the Israel Defense Forces who put themselves in harm's way to protect us all. We should not delude ourselves into the false sense of security over here and assume that only the Jews in Israel are in danger. There is Jewish blood being spilled all over, and we are in desperate need of the Guardian of Israel to deliver salvation. It's time to move past internal divisions and turn our hearts to our Father in Heaven. The world is in turmoil. The call has been put out. What else are we waiting for? Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Is Orthodox Judaism Fundamentalism?

A firestorm of controversy has erupted over a recently released series on Netflix entitled My Unorthodox Life. It features an individual who...