Archive for category Jewish Unity

New book on Torah education and the modern world

WE NEED YOUR HELP!

​I hope you’ve had an opportunity to enjoy my last book, Celestial Navigation.  Besides offering deeply thoughtful insights into the cycle of Jewish holidays, this project has raised over $11,000 for Block Yeshiva High School.  But this was only possible through the generous sponsorships that enabled us to print and distribute 4000 copies.

Crucible new cover​Please consider becoming a partner with us in our next publication, slated for this September:

A Crucible for Silver
Forging a brighter future for ourselves and our children

Not only has Block Yeshiva consistently turned out the highest caliber of spiritually and professionally successful graduates for 35 years; it is also one of the last high schools in the country that tailors its academic program to every type of Jew without compromising educational quality or halachic standards.

At a time when so many factions of our community have become more and more polarized, the continued success of schools like Block is increasingly difficult as well as increasingly crucial for the survival of both civil society and the relevance of Jewish tradition.

Honor a family member, friend, rabbi, or teacher with a full-page tribute for $2500 or more, or a partial-page tribute for $1000 or more.  All sponsors of $100 or more will be acknowledged, and every sponsor of $36 or more will receive a complimentary copy.

You can read the title essay here.

Thank you for your support.  Please contact me through the form below with any questions or to be a sponsor.

​With Torah blessings,​
Yonason Goldson

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Playing Second Fiddle

Published in Ami Magazine, issue 171 

This article is not about me.

imagesIt’s not about how I grew up virtually tone-deaf, or about how long it took me to figure out why Mrs. Pinkston, my elementary school music teacher, would bend down to place her ear directly in front of my face as the class sang together, giving me a curious look before moving on to circulate among the other students.

This article is not about the time I found my voice.  I was a sophomore in college when, the first night of our dorm camping trip, someone started to sing as we stood around the campfire.  I joined in, and out came a rich baritone no one had ever heard – including me.  Everyone – including me – burst into laughter.  I was a stringbean of a teenager, and my mouth had no business producing a voice like Enrico Molinari’s.

Neither is it about how I started to lead davening servicesafter becoming observant.  I had already finished college when I began to learn aleph-beis; pronunciation did not come easily, and neither did nusach – the subtle, not-quite-random liturgical chant.  But I was determined: whenever mastery of Talmudic texts eluded me, it was leading the weekday prayersthat gave me my only sense of real accomplishment.

It’s not about how I made the transition from weekday to Shabbos services.  The head of my yeshiva was old-school:  imperfect nusach was an offense to the congregation, and I was repeatedly disqualified as incompetent before finally being allowed to enter the regular rotation.  My wife still groans when she recalls the countless hours of practice she had to endure in our tiny apartment.

It’s not about gaining confidence before the congregation, first for Shabbos, then for festivals, and finally for the High Holidays.  A deeper intimacy with the liturgy and an appreciative congregationwere the rewards of my labors.  Over time, Shabbos chazzan became part of my identity.

This article is not even about the day I lost my father when, according to the laws of mourning, I found myself disqualified from leading the Shabbos services once again after a quarter-century.

This is what it’s about:  two women named Naomi and Ruth who, together, changed the world by laying the foundations of the Jewish monarchy.

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The problem with having had a mentor who was such a stickler for davening is that I myself became intolerant of less than fully-qualified chazzanim.  Mispronounced words, uneven rhythm, corrupted nusach, and dreary melodiesmade me wince and soured my entire shul experience.  After all, I could do so much better myself.

Until I couldn’t.  During my twelve months as a mourner, the only access I would have to Shabbos and festival davening would be as a participant, not as a leader.  And faced with the inevitable, my whole attitude began to change.

imgresWhat is a congregation?  Is it not the creation of one out of many, a microcosm of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai, when we stood together, k’ish echad b’leiv echad – like one man with one heart?  And what does it say about me if I stubbornly critique the shortcomings of others instead of looking for every way that I can contribute to the collective?

The one-thousandth piece of a puzzle can remain apart, a shapeless splash of incoherent imagery whose only contribution is to leave an empty scar upon an otherwise perfect picture.  But when it adds itself to the whole it does not lose its identity; rather, it becomes part of something much greater than itself while bringing completion to a thousand other pieces.  By the same token, a single voice, no matter how sweet, will be hard-pressed to fill a decent-sized sanctuary.  But add in the accompaniment of even a few moderately tuneful voices and instantaneously a rush of spiritual energy floods through the sanctuary and transports the parishioners to a higher plane.

Moreover, if one can use his talent anonymously to enhance the davening of another chazzan– or, by stepping into the breach, to spare him embarrassment when he stumbles — is there any expression of divine servicemore precious before the Almighty and more lovingly received before His court and His throne?

This is the divine magic of harmony, of unity, of the splintering of egos before the singularity of the Jewish nation.  Together, we create more than we possibly can as individuals; and if, by losing myself among the many, I also forgo the recognition of individual accomplishment… well, what of it?  Better second fiddle in an eternal symphony than first violin on some forgotten stage.

Which brings us at last to Naomi and Ruth, the real subjects of this article.

In a time of famine, in a generation beleaguered by national crisis, Elimelech took his family and left his land, forsaking his nation and his obligations as a leader among his people.  And his wife, Naomi, acquiesced, following her husband for the sake of her family duties, despite whatever misgivings she may have had about their collective decision.

Did Naomi protest against Elimelech’s abandonment of the Jewish people?  Did she try to dissuade her sons from taking foreign women as wives?  We would assume so, although scripture gives us no clues.  But Naomi stayed with her family until the bitter end when, bereft of everything she had once had, she sends her daughters-in-law back to their people and stoically accepts the justice of her fate alone.

But she does not remain alone.  Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d.  Can we begin to imagine Naomi’s reaction to these words, spoken by the daughter who refuses to abandon her, recompensing the dubious loyalty Naomi had shown the husband who led her away from her G-d and from her people, embracing her with a passionate expression of fidelity to return with her to G-d and to her nation?

Who must Naomi have been, to inspire such profound selflessness in a daughter of Moab, a nation so lacking in the quality of kindnessthat its sons can never be fully accepted as true converts even after ten generations?  Who must Ruth have been, to put so much trust in her adopted mother that she would cut every tie to her past and strike out penniless into the unknown?

Is this Naomi?  gasped the women who had known her before her departure, unable to reconcile the poor and lonely widow returning from afar with the visage of wealth and prominence they remembered.  But it was Naomi, the same woman who had silenced her own misgivings to follow her husband, who now suppressed her own feelings of shame and abandonment to guide the migrant soul of Ruth toward finding a place among her new nation.

And it was Ruth who, having lost her new husband, Boaz, on her very wedding night, declined the spotlight and eschewed center stage upon the birth of her son as the women proclaimed, A child is born to Naomi!  This moment was Naomi’s consolation for all she had lost, and far be it from Ruth to claim it for her own, however entitled she might have been.

imagesEach a heroine willing to step aside before the will and honor of another, Ruth and Naomi both rise as shining stars, showing future generations the way of selfless harmony that blends disparate individuals into a holy orchestra, led forward in its mission by their great-grandson, King David, the sweet singer of Israel, and guided by the celestial baton of the Conductor.

I still feel my blood pressure rising whenever a chazzan fails to do justice to the beauty of our prayers.  But now I hear the whispering of two women, reminding me that it’s not all about me, reminding me that I have a role to play even if it isn’t from center stage, and reminding me that when our devotion to one another outweighs all other considerations, then we will truly stand together as we did at Sinai, as one man with one heart, to merit the divine harmony of true redemption.

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True Gratitude

Parshas Pekudei

The contributions were enough … and there was extra (Shemos 36:7).

This week’s parsha continues the narrative of the mishkan, beginning with an accounting of all the materials donated by the Jewish people.  When Moshe had appealed for donations, the Jews had responded with such eagerness and enthusiasm that  Moshe had to ask them not to bring any more.

Curiously, the Torah seems to contradict itself in its description of how much the people contributed:  first we are told that they brought enough; then, in the same verse, we are told that there was extra.  Did the bring enough or more than enough?  It cannot have been both.

imagesExplains the Ohr HaChaim:  Yes, the people had brought more than enough.  But those who had donated so selflessly deserved to have their contributions accepted, not turned away.  Therefore, Hashem miraculously adjusted the needs of the Sanctuary to meet the amount contributed so that everything the people had given would be incorporated into the construction of the mishkan, the place where G-d and the Jewish nation were to meet.

Here we find a profound insight into ha-kores ha-tov, gratitude and appreciation.  It is human nature to be grateful when we are in need.  However, it is also human nature to lose our sense of appreciation once our needs have been fulfilled.  Out of sight, out of mind is one of the more unfortunate attitudes common to the human condition.

Really, it should be just the opposite.  We should be even more grateful for the past once we are no longer in need, since it was past acts of kindness and charity that enabled us to reach our present circumstance of independence and security.  To forget those who helped us in the past simply because we no longer need them is a crass disregard for Torah values.

After a long and successful career, Mr. Rosenberg closed his New York law practice and retired to Florida, where he lived on an annuity purchased with his savings.  And every year, he happily gave a donation of $5000 when the Ponevizher Rav came fundraising for his yeshiva.

One year, the Ponevizher Rav’s driver advised him not to visit Mr. Rosenberg, explaining that the elderly gentleman’s annuity had run out and that the rav would only embarrass him by asking for a donation that he could no longer give.

imgresBut the Ponevizher Rav insisted on making his visit nonetheless.  When Mr. Rosenberg began to apologize that he could not help, the rav cut him off.  “You don’t understand why I’m here,” he explained.  “After you supported us for so many years, it is now our turn to support you.”  For the next eight years, the Ponevizh yeshiva sent Mr. Rosenberg a check every month in the amount of his expired annuity.

It is easy to show appreciation for what others are doing for us now.  It is a sign of genuine gratitude to remember what others have done for us after we no longer need them.

Adapted from last week’s drasha by Rav Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul

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It’s not my job — or is it?

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Parshas Vayakhel

And Moshe said to B’nei Yisroel:  “See, Hashem has proclaimed by name Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Yehudah… to perform every craft of design” (Shemos 35:30-33).

RavIn the 1930s, Rav Elchonon Wasserman travelled to America to raise funds for his yeshiva in Baranovich.  Addressing an affluent congregation one Shabbos morning, Rav Elchonon asked the parishioners to consider giving a donation of $180, which could support a bochur in his yeshiva for an entire year.

The rabbi of the shul, worried that his congregants might resent being asked for so large a contribution, added that even a donation of one dollar would also be helpful.  Not surprisingly, Rav Elchonon received many one dollar donations and not many $180 donations.

Recognizing that he had undermined the rosh yeshiva’s appeal, the rabbi offered an apology for scuttling his efforts.  Rav Elchonon replied with the following moshel:

mishkanWhen Hashem instructed Moshe to appoint Betzalel as the chief architect of the mishkan, Moshe immediately went to the camp of Yehudah and began asking people if they knew Betzalel.  With over 74,000 adult males in the tribe, it took a while before Moshe found someone who could direct him to Betzalel.

Said Rav Elchonon:  “Did Moshe become angry with the people who did not know Betzalel?  Of course not.  If they did not know Betzalel, then Moshe would have to keep searching for someone who did.

“Supporting a Torah institution is exactly the same,” continued Rav Elchonon.  “Whatever money Hashem intends to provide for Torah education will come through the means that Hashem has prepared.  The only question is who will have the merit to participate in the support of Torah.  If one person does not have the merit to be such a participant, there is no reason to become angry with him.  Someone else who values the importance of educating students in the ways of Torah will step forward to act as Hashem’s agent, and that person will be rewarded in the next world in proportion to his generosity.”

And so we have to ask ourselves every moment of every day:  are we eager to accept the job as Hashem’s agents to bring about the fulfillment of His will, or are we all too eager to leave that job to others?

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

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Best Left Unsaid

Try to imagine the standard of ritual purity and cleanliness held by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest, the spiritual envoy of the Jewish people to the Almighty whose role demanded that he never come in contact with a dead body, prohibiting him from escorting even his own parents, spouse, siblings, or children to their final resting places.

gossipingNevertheless, if the Kohein Gadol encountered a meis mitzvah — the unattended corpse of an unidentified stranger — while on his way to perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash, the Torah obligated him to provide a proper and immediate burial, even if that meant an underling would have to assume his duties in the Temple.  The honor of his fellow Jew and respect for the divinity that resides within every member of his nation had to take precedence over virtually any other concern.

The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohein Kagan, applies this precept in an unexpected direction.

Read the whole article here on Block Yeshiva’s new blog.

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My intolerance of faith

The moment the rabbi walked through the door all the students jumped to their feet… and I looked about desperately for a way out of the room.

The rabbi wore a long coat, a wide, antiquated black hat, an untrimmed beard, Coke-bottle spectacles and, incredibly, sidelocks. I knew — I just knew — what was going to happen next: the rabbi would lecture us in a thick German accent and tell us we were all damned to hell. There was no way I could sit through such an ordeal.

Read the whole article here.

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How the righteous have fallen

Rabbi Yechezkel Fox was the heir-apparent to his father’s expanding kosher empire. But that path remained forever the road not taken. Instead, his quiet fishing expeditions and leisurely walks through the British countryside left his mind free to ponder the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. One day he told his traditional parents he was going to Israel to study in yeshiva. Like so many others, they thought he had gone mad.

He would spend the rest of his life pursuing his passion for learning Torah, teaching others and inspiring them to return to the traditions of their people.

Read my tribute here.

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The death of education?

In his letter of resignation to the Superintendent of Westhill Central School District in Syracuse, New York, vetern teacher Gerald Conti describes a litany of problems arising from the unwillingness of administrators to defend educational values against the relentless pressure of ideology and political correctness.  But the problem does not begin with administrators; it begins with parents, parents with egos so utterly dependent on the perception of success that they prefer to cripple their children for life rather than hold them accountable for living up to standards that will prepare them for genuinely successful lives and careers.

It is difficult to fathom the lengths to which people will go to tear down educators and their institutions when, by doing so, they can deflect from themselves responsibility for their children’s poor performance, attitudes, or behaviors.  No form of malicious gossip, character assassination, or outright slander is taboo, even from individuals occupying the highest levels of communal leadership.

History offers tragic examples of the damage inflicted on individuals and whole communities through irresponsible speech.  Innuendo, exaggeration, and outright lies, repeated often enough, seep into the consciousness of even the most well-intentioned people, until the damage eventually becomes irreversible.

Read the whole article here.

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Editorial Judgment and Responsibility

Published this week in the St. Louis Jewish Light.

Dear Editor:

Norman Pressman raises an interesting point in his objection to the all-girls musical productions of Block Yeshiva and Bais Yaakov (Letter to the editor, Feb. 29). He is correct that I will not be able to attend my own daughter’s performance, in accordance with Jewish law.  I appreciate his heartfelt concern for my feelings and those of my daughter, but our commitment to 3,300 years of tradition mitigates any pangs of disappointment.

Be that as it may, objection to this kind of “segregation” begs the question of consistency.  Why has Mr. Pressman not similarly denounced the JCC for segregating men and women into separate locker rooms?  Why has he not expressed outrage against the International Olympic Committee for refusing to integrate men and women in athletic competition, against the NAACP for devoting resources solely to the African-American community, and against professional basketball for its underrepresentation of the vertically disadvantaged?  Indeed, why has he not filed suit against the Department of Transportation for segregating northbound traffic from southbound traffic with those ubiquitous yellow lines?

Ultimately, it is neither the illogic nor the pettiness of Norman Pressman’s reflexive attacks upon Jewish tradition that matters.  Of far greater concern is the pattern of poor judgment shown by the Jewish Light in providing a platform for hatemongering and factionalism.

Responsible spokesmen representing different opinions may argue passionately without abandoning reason or civility, and a local paper should offer a forum for articulate voices expressing divergent views.  However, the failure of the Light to demonstrate sound editorial discernment is among the primary reasons why the paper has lost credibility in the eyes of so many while alienating a substantial part of the Jewish community.

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Denouncing Spiritual Terrorism

On March 16, 1968, soldiers of the 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company committed one of the most notorious war crimes in American history when they brutally massacred over 300 villagers in the Vietnamese hamlet of Mỹ Lai.

Was every soldier in the American army complicit in the crime?  Did the perpetrators of the massacre act in accordance with the dictates and the mission of the American military?  Was the savagery inflicted on innocent men, women, and children indicative of the country whose soldiers wore its insignia on their uniforms?

The simple answer is:  no.

We can talk, legitimately, about collective responsibility and the mixed cultural messages that may have contributed to the atrocity.  But when Americans learned about the barbarism of their own soldiers, the untempered outrage that poured forth testified that the individuals had acted as individuals, and that their inhumanity in no way represented the values of their country.

The same was true about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 by the marginally religious zealot Yigal Amir.  As unpopular as Rabin may have been among the religious community, only the most extreme ideologues saw his actions as anything other than an aberration of the Torah values he invoked to justify cold-blooded murder.

And the same is true now with respect to the hideous spitting incident in the Beit Shemesh community in central Israel.  It doesn’t matter that the perpetrator may wear a frock coat and sidelocks.  It doesn’t matter that he may refrain from kindling fire on the Sabbath, may keep a strictly kosher diet, and may stand in prayer before his Creator three times a day.  It doesn’t matter that he may study Talmudic texts and analyze the finest points of Jewish law.  It doesn’t matter if his neighbors, whether few or many, sympathize with his attitudes and his actions.

At best, he is a misguided fool.  At worst, he is an imposter and a terrorist.  Whatever he is, he does not represent the ideals of Torah Judaism.

The sad truth is that the Torah, the Almighty’s guide to morality and virtuous conduct, is only as good as we allow it to be.  The Torah may be a perfect expression of the Divine Will, but it only works to the extent that imperfect humans are willing to let it shape their conduct and, even more essentially, their character.  It does not mystically or magically turn us into saints; rather, it teaches us how to transform ourselves into spiritual beings.  But it remains up to us to follow the path it lights before us.

The sad truth is also that there are imposters among us; the Talmud itself laments the “pious fools” who clothe themselves in the external trappings of religiosity with no comprehension whatsoever of true spiritual values.  The Jew who prays fervently and then cheats in business, the Jew who clops his chest in repentance then slanders his neighbor, the Jew who meticulously trains his son to read from the Torah scroll and then spits on a child who may have innocently absorbed the social mores of the surrounding secular world – a Jew such as this is worse than a fraud.  He is nothing less than a terrorist, for he brings violent derision upon the Torah and all its sincere practitioners.

Frequently at odds with contemporary Western values, Torah values are easily mocked, satirized, and misrepresented by intolerant skeptics who would rather ridicule than seek answers to their questions.  But the Orthodox community includes tens of thousands of Jews like myself, Jews raised in irreligious homes who chose to return to Torah observance, Jews who learned to appreciate the ancient wisdom of our people by asking those same questions, by searching for teachers and mentors who could articulate the answers, and by listening patiently to their explanations.

Unfortunately, many secularists and most of the media prefer to deal in stereotypes.  It’s easier to depict bearded men in long coats as fanatics than it is to examine the historical and philosophical foundations of their tradition.  It’s more provocative to caricature women wearing head-scarves, three-quarter sleeves, and knee-length skirts as burqa-clad Jewish Wahabists than it is to concede the modest elegance projected by many Orthodox women.  It suits the progressive agenda better to decry separate seating on buses in religious communities as Shariah-like segregation than it does to contemplate how sensitivity to sexual boundaries bolsters the integrity of the family structure against the hedonism of secular society.

The useful idiots who masquerade as devoutly orthodox but possess little understanding of authentic spiritual refinement empower cynics eager to smear an entire theology with the broad brush of condemnation based on the actions of a few.  But amidst the outrage, consider this:  Does it make any sense that true adherents of the culture that taught the world the values of peace, charity, and loving-kindness would endorse the public humiliation of a little girl in the name of piety?

It doesn’t.  And we don’t.

Published in the St. Louis Jewish Light.

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