Isaac Kaplan

"Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?"

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Old Mussar Seforim

I left off my last post with a question. If human nature and our environment have changed so much over the years, what do we make of mussar seforim from 200 years ago? Do we disregard them, or at best take them with a large grain of salt, because the world was so different back then? Or do we say, chas v'shalom! Torah is timeless, and these old mussar seforim are as relevant today as they were in 18th Century?

One of my rabbeim made an excellent point regarding this matter. He said, when someone has a shailah these days and wants to look it up in a sefer, they don't open up a Rif, a Rosh, or a Rambam. It's not to downplay the greatness of these seforim or their authors. And when one tries to understand a gemara clearly, their comments are vital.

But learning gemara and getting an answer to a halachic shailah are two very, very different things. There was no electricity in the Rif's times. It was a different world then. Plus, halacha takes into account many social factors and personal factors (ever heard of a "sha'as ha'dchak"?). What might have been an accurate answer for one society can be totally off-base for another group of people. (Another reason you can't paskin from these seforim is that we may have a different mesorah than those rishonim, or the mesorah may have evolved since then (which is an oxymoron, but whatever), and other reasons beyond the scope of this post.)

So in 2006, we probably can't even use a mishna brurah anymore. We're better off relying on R' Ribiat's books, Shmiras Shabbos K'Hilchaso, and the like.

The same is true, my rebbi said, when it comes to mussar seforim. We can't rely on the Shaarei Tshuva to tell us how to behave in 2006. It's not a knock on Rabbeinu Yonah, and I'm sure there are many things to learn from that great sefer. The same way that the Rambam has many of the yesodos of today's halachos, Shaarei Tshuva and other classics are the foundations of mussar. But I don't see how they're a practical guide of how to live in the 21st Century.

So if one wants to take mussar seriously, and really apply their principles to everyday life, it would seem like only the seforim from R' Wolbe, R' Matisyahu Solomon, R' Elya Lopian and R' Dessler would be most appropriate. Why? Because the world has changed, and they understand the problems we face far better than those who lived centuries ago.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Have People Changed?

When you look at some of the chinuch experts of our generation, you'll sometimes find a rather liberal approach. For example, Rav Wolbe ZTL was very opposed to hitting children or getting angry at them. And Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin seems to advocate more of a hands-off approach in some regards, such as not forcing your kid to go to shul. And in general, he encourages teachers and parents not to be too strict.

But when you talk to past generations, you hear about hard-line, ultra-strict rabbeim. You hear about "the strap," and parents and rabbeim who would occasionally give their kids a beating with a belt or ruler.

The question is, were these mentors wrong for practicing this kind of discipline (and possibly lucky that more people didn't go off the derech or have serious issues), or perhaps such methods aren't intrinisically wrong, but simply were more suited for previous generations, and are no longer effective approaches in 2006?

Of course, you also have some hard-liners who will stick with their age-old approaches, and mumble something about "mesorah" or "chodosh assur min hatorah" (which, by the way, is one of the most misconstrued lines ever) in supporting their old approaches. And these people are the same ones that laugh at a concept like "self-esteem" or "ADD" as a recent invention.

I think people have changed. After all, the world around us has changed so much, how can we not be affected? To me, it starts from the fact that, for the past 50 years, Orthodox Jewry has had its most materistically successful era in centuries. B"H, we live in relative peace, we can have almost any job we want, and we live in a country with civil liberties and religious freedom.

I'm not going to get bogged down into detail now, but growing up in a drastically different environment, people will turn out differently. Duh, people are affected by their surroundings. Perhaps because we're more spoiled and used to getting our way, acts of force are ineffective. Maybe in Europe, where everything was a struggle, perhaps people were more tolerant of getting whipped.

I was at a graduation recently, and the principal of the yeshiva said "the world around us has changed, we now have airplanes, internet, etc. but we as people haven't changed; we still need to eat, we still need sleep, etc." On a basic level, perhaps the rabbi is right. But on a psychological/mental level, I don't see how such a statement makes any sense.

There's a lot more to discuss here. One topic that comes to mind is approaching mussar seforim of the past. If the mussar seforim of 200 years ago were addressing very different people, what can we glean from them? Must we take their words with a large grain of salt, assuming that the psychology of the people of their era was a big factor in their mussar? Or do we say that these eternal words of Torah are applicable to every generation?

Okay, this post is too long already. I'll give you my take (and that of a rebbi of mine) next time around.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Is Shatnez-Checking a Multi-Million Dollar Industry?

Rabbi Abadi of has long since decried kashrus as a "multi-million dollar industry." That is a whole discussion in and of itself, and one which I don't know nearly enough to comment on. But I've heard a little about shatnez, and I would like to speculate on the possibility of that being a big money-maker.

One of my rabbeim once said that shatnez-checking is not necessary, at least for American suits. He said that the suits that have shatnez in them are so miminal in quantity to the ones that don't that we can rely on a rov. He admitted that the Hugo Boss-type suits would require checking. But the likes of Perry Ellis and Nautica? Not necessary, he said.

I think the shatnez checkers are useful in preventing people who buy fancy suits from transgressing the lavin. But when it comes to cheap American suits, do we really need to check them? After all, if we rely on a rove, we're fine! We're off the hook!

Let's say one would rely on the gemara's principles of rov and kol d'parish mayruba parish to eat a piece of meat. If the piece of meat is, in actuality, treif, was the guy over an aveira? No! He relied upon a rov, and once you do that, you're fine.

So for the purposes of full disclosure, why don't the shatnez companies say that if you get a Stanley Blacker suit, you're automatically fine? Instead, they advertise of the horrible chumros of shatnez, instead of the possible kulos involved. (One lab had a hat pasted on the wall, with a label saying "a young boy wearing this hat complained of headaches. Turned out, the hat had shatnez in it, which was causing the headaches!") And for a large family buying their children suits for yom tov, shouldn't they be spared the heavy expense of shatnez checking, especially if there's what to rely on?

Perhaps the mentality that "if someone wears shatnez, even if they're relying upon a rov, the tumah of the aveirah is still there!" comes into play here. And did they even have shatnez labs in Europe? Or is it a new thing?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Covers, part 1

Hey, if we can't listen to music, at least we can talk about it.

Cover songs are so interesting. Some give you a new angle on an old hit; others butcher a classic.

I'm not including songs from albums of covers. Talk about excess!! A cover is a treat when thrown in with some new stuff. But once you put cover albums out, come on. Just a cheap way to make money. Just ask Rod Stewart.

I was gonna do a top ten list, but I had more than ten good covers in mind. Plus, I didn't really have an order for them. So I'll just give you a list of covers I like and those I think leave the original artist rolling in their grave.

Hey Girl, Billy Joel - underrated. And haunting. On Carole King's recent live album, she tries singing the high part. Her voice isn't what it used to be; it sounds awful.

Superstition, Los Lonely Boys - Stevie Wonder done Texican style, complete with guitar jamming. Very cool.

Girlfriend, Michael Jackson - Before McCartney and Jackson collaborated on Thriller, Jacko did a cover of a McCartney solo song on Off The Wall. He does one heck of a job. The original, like many McCartney solo songs, just plain sounds weird.

Little Wing, Derek and the Dominoes -Clapton and Co. do Hendrix. And vocally, I like Clapton better than Hendrix. He sings with more feeling, especially on this song. Since "Tears In Heaven," Clapton sounds like he's singing from a hot tub. No emotion.

Gimme Some Truth, Pearl Jam - It's on one of their live albums, and they give a grunge-rock interpretation to this John Lennon classic. As a bonus, they update the Nixon line to a George Bush reference.

Without You, Mariah Carey- MUCH better than the original. Her voice is powerful. I don't know why everyone was crazy about Celine Dion in the 90s. Mariah kicks any day.

Endless Love, Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey - great duet here. My buddy Jack thinks the original is better. I DO disagree.

Total Eclipse Of The Heart, Nicki French - Her voice is much more tolerable than Bonnie Tyler's (whose isn't?), and I like the fact that she added a dance beat. French has now joined Des'ree, Dionne Farris and Jennifer Paige as 90's one-hit wonders.

Please Mr. Postman, The Beatles - Come on, it's a zeiss song, Thankfully, once they got to Rubber Soul, the Beatles stopped being zeiss and put out some decent music.

If Not For You, George Harrison - George does Dylan, and does it much, much better than Dylan. He sings beautifully on this one.

Stormy Monday, The Allmans - One of their many blues covers, on arguably the best live album ever, "Live at The Fillmore East."

Train Kept A-Rollin', Aerosmith - good stuff!! One of their best live cuts.

Knockin' On Heaven's Door, GNR - another Dylan cover, redone as only Axl and Slash could do.

THE BAD: next post.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Can We Agree On Anything?

In my neighborhood, there are various gatherings for tefillah going on tonight, due to the war in Eretz Yisroel. It's a great idea, but something about it disturbs me.

Why do Agudah and the OU, in a time of national crisis, have separate programs? Why can't we have one big program co-sponsored by both? What would be better, in a time of commemorating a churban caused by sinas chinam, than to have an event that bridges the gaps and settles the differences? And what about b'rov am hadras melech?

But, no! I don't know who's to blame here, but apparently, the two groups can't put together a joint program. Even in a time of crisis. To me, it's simply pathetic.

I could understand not hooking up with the Conservative and Reform. There might be women leading services and other tznius issues, so perhaps, sadly, we've gotta stay away. But last I checked, both Agudah and OU people are both shomrei torah u'mitzvos.

So if politics can get in the way in a time like this, then, as a people, we've got a lot to work on.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Anti-Zionism and Passion for Eretz Yisroel: Can They Coexist?

This was a topic I've wanted to address for a while, and thanks to a comment on the last post, here goes.

I went to chareidi yeshivos throughout my yeshiva days. I heard a little bit about the greatness of Eretz Yisroel, maybe a few Chazals like "avira d'yisroel machkim." But it was an afterthought at best. Mostly, I heard a lot about how bad the chiloni government was, and how, as a result, yom ha'atzmaut shouldn't be celebrated. And then I heard about why chareidim shouldn't serve in the army. And the Israeli Day Parade? Chazer treif.

Throughout the years, I always got the feeling that my rabbeim were straddling the fine line between "Israel" and "Eretz Yisroel." In fact, one Yeshiva I attended during the Intafada had a special mi shebeirach for Eretz Yisroel, lest they chas v'shalom bless the medina.

I hate to say this, but I honestly feel more passion for the Mets than for Israel or Eretz Yisroel or whatever you want to call it. And American politics gets me much more excited than Israeli politics. And this is even after I've gotten sick of both parties here. When I was in Israel, I spent a few shabbosos with my Dad's high school classmates who had made aliyah many years back. I never understood why they were so crazy about the land. I just didn't get it.

And, to be frank, it's hard for me to feel the pain of the land, to feel the tension, to feel the urge to talk about it. It's simply not on my mind. Where I work, there are nonobservant Jews who are more worried about the situation than I am.

- To me, the chareidi system is at fault here. They're so busy straddling the Israel/Eretz Yisroel line that they forget to instill passion in us for the land. And image-itis is a big factor here. They don't want to look all Modern Orthodox now, that would be horrible! So we can't talk about that holy land with the horrible government! Or to go to a rally with our brothers who happen not to be religious - can't do that! So instead, you have tons of people who don't care much about the land, and just go to Israel for sukkos because all the cool guys are hanging out at the Plaza.

Subtelty is nice if you're a trial lawyer trying to make the winning argument for your client. But when it comes to instilling passion for the foundations of our religion, I say, to hell with subtelty. Let's develop the feelings for the land, and we'll worry about the details later.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

How Feminism Saved The Chareidim

I'm sure if you ask any chareidi Lakewooder if he's a feminist, the guy would look at you like you were nuts. You'd probably hear the guy mumble something about "kol kvoda bas melech pnima," and then walk away. In fact, when Harry Maryles recently discussed the brocha of "sheli asani isha," Lakewood Yid, of all people, quoted a Rambam with very strict standards of tznius for women, standards that haven't been observed for years.

The irony of the matter is, BMG would probably be a lot smaller if not for the feminist movement. The chareidim ought to give a big kudos to a lot of those pioneering women out there.

Think about it. Women are probably the biggest source of income in Lakewood. I mean, does everyone have a loaded father-in-law? I think not. In many cases, the wives are picking up the slack financially.

And in the 1950's culture, what lucrative jobs were available to women? Sure, they could teach in a bais yaakov, but that's not a big moneymaker. Especially the places that don't pay on time. Some people could've been secretaries, but there's not a whole lot of cash there either. Now, girls can go to law school, dental school, med school, they can go for accounting, finance - jobs that, for women, were unheard of years ago!

Another benefit is that feminism gives these girls a much broader opportunity to pursue their ambitions. When the woman is expected to be the breadwinner, she can pursue a career, while her husband, with his more flexible schedule, can tend to household chores.

This is also one of the reasons why very few chassidim are in kollel for more than a year or two. Very few chassidish women have great jobs. If you're principal of a girls' school, NOW that's a big deal! So then the husband's gotta put bread on the table.

Rav Miller, ZTL, was a traditionalist who believed that wives should be in the home. But in his world, of course, there would be 50, maybe 100 kollel guys in the whole Lakewood.

Monday, July 10, 2006

10 Things Stupid Drivers Do That Piss Me Off

Sorry it's been awhile since last post. I'm tired of being all serious, so I figured I'd get personal. I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to driving. One of my favorite thrills is riding down the highway, AC on full blast in my face, and the iPod blaring. And nothing gets me more agitated (sorry for a "Mom" word there) that sitting in traffic on the West Side Highway at 12 midnight on a Saturday night. Here are ten reasons why sometimes I simply can't stand driving.

10) Taxi drivers - these mishuganas can't do anything right. They're nuts. Except for the slowpokes, that is.

9) People who don't let you change lanes - this happened to me once on the Belt. I was trying to switch lanes, and was going normal speed, but the guy next to me kept going faster. The schmuck didn't want to let me in.

8) The brainless people who just sit there when the light turns green - By the time they start moving, the "don't walk" sign is already flashing. Hey morons, I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but: GREEN MEANS GO!!!!! Keep that in mind next time you're driving.

7) People who pull over next to me at a stop sign - gets me so nervous. Just wait an extra friggin' minute, and you can make your left! It doesn't save you any time! And yes, if I haven't gotten through the intersection yet, chances are it's because there's a car coming!

6) People who don't look before they merge - I hate these idiots. I nearly ran into one of these people on the Van Wyck, and also at the GWB entrance. Have a little patience!

5) People who talk on their cell while driving - They're always the ones going slow, not signaling, taking too long to go when it's green. I agree with the NY law wholeheartedly. Almost as bad as the pedestrians yapping on their cell who almost walk into your car. Space in!

4) People who run stop signs - maybe I'm just bitter because I once ran one and got a ticket for it. But when I'm going down the street and some guy finally stops halfway through the intersection, while I have to swerve to dodge him - come on! WTF?

3) Slow drivers - they're dangerous, and they're annoying. The worst is when the light's about to turn yellow, and some selfish schmuck just crawls past the light. And of course, I'm stuck behind the red. Gets me so mad.

2) People who don't signal - big pet peeve. BIG pet peeve. Dangerous and annoying. Besides, it doesn't take a genius to slam the signal bar down before you turn or change lanes.

1) People who cause traffic jams - If there's construction or an accident, I can understand. But otherwise, come on! Let's freakin' move! I don't have all day!

And traffic jams late at night on weekends? Inexcusable. No reason for it, and THAT is the ultimate pissoff.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Developing Love For Learning, Pt. 1

In yeshiva, one of the "sales pitches" used by the rabbeim and mashgichim to get you to learn is that you will be happiest by choosing such a route. We hear countless stories of gedolim whose love for learning was tremendous. I've had rabbeim whose eyes lit up when someone in the class asked a good kasha or made a good point. And I've heard myriad Chazals and statements from mussar sforim testifying that Torah is the ultimate thrill, so to speak.

Yet, the more I think about these Chazals and anecdotes, the more I have difficulty understanding them.

But I was in yeshiva for a while, and I never felt it. I'm gonna save my personal experiences for part 2, but I can name many, many other guys who were in yeshivos and didn't enjoy learning. I can name a good few guys who learned well for a few years and then burned out. What were they missing? Why weren't they feeling it?

Some people will claim that "they weren't in the right yeshiva," "they had a bad chavrusa," and the like, but I don't know. I can see them perhaps clouding the joy of learning, but to make people want to leave yeshiva? What happened to the simchas hatorah?

And then some people blame the media. They say that these yeshiva guys who are busy reading books and watching movies are too distracted to learn well. And again, the "sales pitch" is that if only they would give up their "shmutz" and focus solely on learning, they would enjoy learning so much that they won't miss their other semi-intellectual pleasures of life. But is that true? Maybe some people are simply not cut out for in-depth learning, no matter what.

Besides, people vary greatly when it comes to what they enjoy. Some people enjoy art. They can spend hours at a museum enjoying the finer points of some painting. I know I never got into the stuff. I tried going once, and it simply didn't do anything for me. Some people enjoy the sciences; others can't stand that stuff.

And l'havdil, I think the same is true when it comes to Torah learning. Let's face it. People with great intellectual capacity, great attention spans and great mental stamina have a much greater chance than someone who can barely make a leining, someone who can barely pay attention to
a shiur, and someone who has very little interest in some of the arcane topics that come up.

- One way that the "sales pitch" helps is that it makes learning feel more meaningful. After hearing all about how important learning is, I feel good after an hour of learning, because I know it's better than an hour of TV or an hour of reading a novel.

But think about this way. Let's say I was brought up in a society where botany was the most important thing in the world. And from day one, we were trained that the best way to spend every waking moment would be to study plants. Eventually, even if I can't stand the topic matter, chances are that I'll feel good studying botany. After all, I've been taught that this is the most important thing in life. I've been taught that I was brought to this world to study plants. So when I do that, I'll feel pretty fulfilled.

Anyway, back to the nimshal. So when I learn gemara and end up feeling that emotion of achievement, is that real? Is that the simchas hatorah kicking in? Or is it all in my head?

More to come in Part 2. I'll talk about my experiences in yeshiva, and learning in general.