Posts, Writings, Ramblings and more from Yaakov Menken

Every Step Up

by Yaakov Menken on September 12, 2014 at 11:56 am

stair_stepsThis week, the Torah makes us uncomfortable. It tells us something that we don’t want to hear: that there are harsh consequences if we turn away from G-d and His Torah. We are His nation, and our lives and successes depend upon remembering this. The Ohr HaChaim reminds us that we’ve heard this before, in the Torah portion Bechukosai at the end of Leviticus. Why does the Torah repeats the curses, at double the length — and, unlike the first time, not follow with words of consolation?

He explains that the first set speaks to us as a nation, in the plural, leaving open the possibility that we might get the wrong idea: as long as part of Israel is doing the right thing, perhaps HaShem won’t be concerned about those doing evil. Thus the second set speaks to us as individuals — and, of course, the Torah cannot guarantee that every individual will experience, in this world, the consolation of Israel that follows. The Torah reminds us once again that every individual Jew is part of the entire nation, and we are all responsible for each other.

Recently, two Rabbis wrote op-eds debating the importance of intent versus practice. The first Rabbi argued that a person on a path of growth is “on the spiritual scale, light years beyond those who go through the motions.” The second countered that “putting too much emphasis on intention… [can] mislead people into thinking that the intent is equal to, or even more important than, the act itself.”

They are both right.

It is obvious that both the one who is filled with spiritual feelings of closeness to God yet does not act upon them, and the one who performs the Commandments but without feeling or devotion, suffers from a profound lack. Both of these things must travel together.

At the same time, however, we cannot minimize the accomplishment of being “halfway there.” The first Rabbi wrote his reflections after speaking with a woman who felt tremendous spiritual motivation, yet felt that a particular area of Jewish practice (which he left unspecified) so intimidating that she felt unable to move forward. And she felt unable to do even that with which she was fully comfortable, because of the philosophical hurdle she had yet to overcome. And on the other side, those who lack inspiration inevitably feel their observance falling away, because doing a ritual without feeling can leave a person simply feeling worse than before.

In both cases, a person’s bad inclination is trying to convince him or her not to do the right thing. Every single positive step has tremendous value, and that includes both the person who prays with sincerity but does not fully observe, and the person who observes everything but lacks emotion. Focusing upon the negative simply leads a person to a feeling of hopelessness, while placing our attention upon the positive leads us to aim higher in the future.

When I founded Project Genesis over two decades ago, I recall speaking to a Rabbi who was and remains one of the leading figures in Jewish outreach. Unlike many others, he was not enthusiastic. He said to me: “the goal of Jewish outreach is to help an uninformed Jewish person go from 0 to 1000. What you are doing can only help a person from 0 to 1!”

The years that followed proved him mistaken, in that many people found their Jewish lives tremendously enriched even if their sole source of inspiration came via the Internet. [Many of you have shared stories with us; I hope that if you are reading this and have a story of your own growth through and other programs, that you will send it to us, either privately or in the comments.] But that was not why he told me, nearly a decade later, that he had changed his mind. Rather, it was the realization that one is infinitely greater than zero.

Every step up has tremendous value, and must inspire us to continue to grow in both spirituality and practice, every day of our lives.

Chain of Events

by Yaakov Menken on September 5, 2014 at 12:25 pm

futureThe Torah reading begins this week with three seemingly unrelated laws. First it teaches us how an Israelite soldier must conduct himself if, in the course of capturing a city, he is attracted to a captive woman. Then it explains the laws of inheritance if a man has two wives, and would like to give preference to the eldest son of the wife he loves, although that son is younger than his true firstborn, who comes from a wife he dislikes. And finally, the Torah tells us about the wayward son, who sets himself on a path of evil.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki shows us that the Torah is teaching a profound lesson here. First of all, recognizing human nature, the Torah does not offer a blanket prohibition against marrying a captive. The morally reprehensible conduct of most victorious armies is, of course, prohibited — even if a woman beautifies herself in the hopes of winning a soldier, which was apparently not uncommon. Rather, the Torah demands that she be brought to his home, that her fine clothing and jewelry be exchanged for garments of mourning, and that she cry for her lost family. Rashi explains that the Torah is ensuring that the heat of the moment passes, and she appears in ugly clothes without makeup, the soldier has an opportunity to reconsider his rash interest.

And if he does go ahead and marry her anyways, Rashi adds, that is how he is going to end up with a wife that he dislikes. And that, in turn, is how he is going to find himself with a son committed to wayward behavior.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin says (with one dissenting opinion) that the laws of the wayward son are so intricate and difficult that they were never actually carried out. The Torah made it impossible, practically, for a young man to be punished with death for having disobeyed and stolen (specifically meat and wine). If so, what was the purpose of telling us a Commandment that was never applicable? The sole purpose of this passage, then, is the moral lesson to be derived from it.

The Torah does not tell us in every case that a behavior is prohibited. Human beings have different needs, and what may be appropriate and even beneficial for the spiritual growth of one person may be detrimental to another. Each individual must have the opportunity to choose the good, facing an inclination that wants to fool him or her into thinking that any permitted action will lead to a positive end. As we know, the world doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes, two people can ask a Rabbi a what appears to be the same question, and receive very different answers. This often has to do with the circumstances surrounding the question. It’s acceptable to eat kosher fruit off a nonkosher plate, if invited to a dinner where it would seem impolite not to eat anything at all. Does that mean it’s a good idea to keep nonkosher plates in your house, to use only for cold items? Of course not.

One must look down the road at the likely results of his or her actions: “who is wise? The one who perceives the future” [Talmud Tamid 32a, see also Rebbe Shimon in Chapters of the Fathers 2:13]. The Torah is warning us that you can’t simply look at the list of Commandments and say “it’s not forbidden, so it’s okay.” Nothing is so simple. The Torah is trying to set each person on a path of individual growth, and one must, with guidance, look to the future and choose the path that will lead to greater heights.

Ferguson in the Torah

by Yaakov Menken on August 29, 2014 at 1:15 pm

FergusonOver the past few weeks, those reading the news in the United States have been confronted with two entirely different accounts of events in Ferguson, Missouri. In the first version, an unarmed man with his hands up was shot by police. In the second, a large, domineering man physically struck a smaller police officer until the officer, in fear for his life, shot his attacker.

Two such narratives can only take hold in an environment in which authority is not trusted. And indeed, in some countries the legal authorities have little to do with any actual justice. The Torah tells us, in this week’s reading, both that laws must be enforced rather than simply existing in a book, and that the leaders of a city must be dedicated to the welfare of each individual.

Our reading begins: “Judges and officers you shall put in all your gates” [Deut. 16:18], referring to each city. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki says that the officers are not mere bureaucrats, but must use “rods and straps” as necessary to force people to accept the judgment of the judges. This, of course, could be a recipe for tyranny.

The counterbalance is found at the end of our reading this week. There we learn that the elders of the city are obligated to look out for the welfare of every individual, even a visitor. When a person is found dead outside a city, its elders must come to the site and declare “our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see [him]” [21:7]. Rashi asks, “could we imagine that the elders of the court are murderers? Rather, [this means that] ‘we did not see him and let him leave without food and without escort.'”

Ferguson is the result of a breakdown in trust between the authorities and the people whom they are supposed to serve, a breakdown which is sadly replicated across the country. A veteran police officer (and Professor of Homeland Security) from Los Angeles touched off a firestorm of criticism when he dared to say that the middle of a violent riot is not the ideal time to confront a police officer, and that approaching an officer aggressively is a bad idea. Despite acknowledging that officers can engage in bullying and even criminal behavior — and saying that these should be challenged via appropriate channels — he was widely characterized as an advocate for dictatorship, a police state.

What his critics do not realize is that denying officers any authority “on site” is advocating for anarchy. Officers in Ferguson did not show up in armored vehicles because they wanted to play with their overgrown toys, but because stores were being looted, cars were being burned, and they were facing bottles, Molotov cocktails and even bullets. The public order is not preserved by letting every miscreant have his way.

There must be a balance. The leaders of a city must be interested in the public good, and every individual must respect the law, or expect to face “rods and straps” until he does. That is the lesson of our reading, and as current events demonstrate, it is every bit as apt today as it was when the Torah was given. Human nature has not changed.

We are fortunate today to live, for the most part, in countries where the leaders of each city and nation are elected, and can be voted out if they do not serve the public interest. In such a system, appropriate legal methods exist to challenge and correct abuses when they happen. It is the obligation of every individual to observe the law, use the law to challenge its abuses, and try to change it where necessary — not to “take matters into our own hands” or encourage the anarchists among us.

Much Ado About Something

by Yaakov Menken on August 28, 2014 at 10:52 am

I suppose I should have realized something extraordinary was afoot when a friend messaged me on Facebook to ask if I was “okay.” I wondered what he meant, until he said that he’d heard I was being “picked on.”

While it is true that my post reflecting on the entertainment industry, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, did get a lot of attention — I can’t say I felt I was being “picked on.” The first two responses were from people whose voices I have long respected, and whose comments were very favorable. Admittedly, this did not describe the comments of many others, but, as I’ll explain in a moment, that didn’t change my perception at all. But now that my friend Rabbi Shmuel Simanowitz, whose legal career included representing many musicians, decided to praise my post at a kiddush (money quote: “I can’t tell you how many clients’ funerals I’ve attended”), and my friend and former colleague (and noted Jewish musician) Rabbi Avraham Rosenblum has defended my perspective as well (though no, Avraham, I may indeed be “square,” but not at all as argued) I suppose some follow-up commentary is in order.

I would like to begin with a meta-observation, not limited to this particular post. It is interesting to me that some of those most vociferous about not using stereotypes about any other ethnicity or group seem to have no problem with stereotyping Charedi Rabbis. Everyone knows that Charedi rabbis have no background in statistics, don’t understand mental health issues, and are generally parochial and backwards in their thinking, with no sympathy for a secular entertainer like Robin Williams. So the fact that one particular Charedi Rabbi might have grown up using expressions such as “nanu nanu” and “shazbat” with his friends, have studied probability theory, psychology and sociology (though, without apology, none of the requisite textbooks expressed the depth of understanding of human nature found in Sifrei Mussar or a Daf Gemarah), and count as immediate family a (medical) Doctor, a veteran educator with a Master’s in education and counseling, and the Director of an institute devoted to the study of human behavior… all of that makes no difference at all. Everyone knows that Charedi rabbis have no background in statistics, don’t understand mental health issues, and are generally parochial and backwards in their thinking, with no sympathy for a secular entertainer like Robin Williams.

In order to feel “picked on,” I’d need to have the impression that (a) the person understood what I wrote and (b) identified a major error in fact or perspective. So I’m not going to feel picked on even if the person who comments that “Robin Williams brought so much happiness to MILLIONS of people. He gave laughter to soldiers overseas and didn’t mind the danger he put himself in, he was selfless and kind” then concludes that “Just because he’s not Jewish doesn’t mean his life had no value except as a lesson in a Yeshiva where some Rabbi uses him” [as if I'd said otherwise] or that “[I] should be ashamed.” One thing’s for certain — nothing I wrote diminished Williams’ gifts or his generosity in the slightest, or cast his life as valueless. The first two sentences of this supposedly contrary comment express my own feelings about Williams quite well, and thus the last two are a reaction to the commenter’s prefabricated stereotypes rather than a response to anything I’d actually written. [Alternatively, as this was a comment to an article critical of my own, it's possible she simply never opened my article before opining about it.]

Before writing my essay, I made a comment about the link between entertainers and suicide on Twitter — and was immediately challenged whether they were indeed any more likely to grapple with mental health issues. Fair enough. Thus some research was added to my post, demonstrating that harmful behaviors such as addiction, overdosing and suicide are almost endemic to top-flight entertainers. As it turns out, Mork had commented about this himself, calling Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and others “victims of their own fame” (link below).

But once it was posted, someone attempted to belittle my perspective with what he imagined to be a more rigorous refutation, inadvertently proving that old adage about lies and statistics. The fact that the overall population of those working in arts, media and entertainment does not have a particularly high suicide rate is both true and entirely irrelevant to the topic of my post. Producers, cameramen and TV anchors are not unusually prone to suicide, at least to my knowledge — successful entertainers are a tiny fraction of all those employed in the industry. Prior to hearing Rabbi Simanowitz’s comment, someone shared with me that comedian Jim Horton wrote after William’s passing that “In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide.” To pretend this isn’t unusual — and troubling — is to stick one’s head, ostrich-like, deep in the sand.

It is similarly untrue that I am unfamiliar or unsympathetic with mental health issues. Though some decided that I was somehow claiming that no observant person could develop mental illness, or that such people don’t deserve both our sympathies and professional help, there is nothing unaware or unsympathetic about the observation that fame seems to exacerbate depression, which I submit is obviously true — and again, was recognized without controversy when expressed by Williams himself as Mork, and by his friend Jim Norton.

Then came the argument that “rabbis shouldn’t sermonize about celebrities.” And here, I think, lies the crux of the issue. Besides the fact that “sermonize” is a pejorative in its own right, the author attempted to lump together my comments about Williams, with whose talents I am more than casually acquainted, with an older Rabbi who had used Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam as a “foil to teach Torah.”

Given that I know almost nothing of Eddie Vedder (beyond his anti-Israel rant during Operation Protective Edge), much less the Rabbi who spoke of him, I cannot comment upon that. But Judaism teaches us to try to learn from every situation and everything that happens, and the idea that celebrities should somehow be “given a pass” by rabbis (but not, of course, by People Magazine or the National Inquirer) is rather silly. And from whence does this critic get the idea that I commented upon Williams doing “something not in accordance with the morals of the Torah?” Well, yes, intentional suicide is against Halacha, but the writer is hallucinating if he imagines that I thought Williams committed suicide “being of sound mind and body.” On the contrary, my only remarks about Williams himself were complimentary and understanding. He was brilliant, charitable and humanitarian, and deeply troubled.

But Rabbis, you see, can’t say something that is critical of celebrities, the subjects of modern adulation. How dare the Rabbi present Torah as something deeper, more meaningful, and vastly more fulfilling?! The critique only seems ludicrous because it is.

He then compounds his error by ridiculing the idea that anyone could claim to find happiness via entertainment. At least he temporizes by limiting “anyone” to those over 25, but I suggest that he sit in the Yankees’ section in full Orioles’ regalia for an object lesson in [much older] peoples’ allegiance to a bunch of guys hitting balls with sticks for their enjoyment.

There is another way to read my essay, of course. It could have been written by someone who felt personally touched by Williams, and who was pondering the loss of someone who easily crossed from humor to reflection — someone who could easily have been seen as having once read (and according to all reports, have helped written) his own epitaph. And when addressed that way, the post was neither irrational nor a knee-jerk condemnation, but a sincere expression of regret that fame, especially in the world of entertainment, can be as deadly as Mork once said — precisely because entertainment is supposed to help us be “happier,” yet is making its leading practitioners, those who gave us so much humor and simple fun, so miserable.

But considering the post in that light, you see, would have broken all those stereotypes.

You Gotta Have Faith

by Yaakov Menken on August 15, 2014 at 11:05 am

thank_you_inscription_04_hd_pictures_170884Have you ever had something bad happen, and said a quick (or not so quick) prayer?

The truth is, it’s really not supposed to be that way. [It's not? What do you mean by that?] Let me explain:

The Torah tells us that G-d wants to bless us. G-d wants to give us everything, as our kind and beneficent Father. And most of all, He wants us to come close to Him, rise spiritually, become more “godly” throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, due to our own failings, these often don’t travel together: if our lives are blessed with material success, we are not as focused upon G-d! This is what Moshe warns us about in this week’s reading: “Guard yourselves, that you don’t forget Hashem your G-d, to not observe His commandments and judgments and laws which I have commanded you today; that you don’t eat and drink, and build good houses and dwell in them… And you will say in your heart, my might and the strength of my hand have made for me all of this wealth” [Deuteronomy 8:11-12, 17].

When that happens, when we forget G-d after receiving His blessing — well, that’s when He needs to remind us Who is really in charge. But we shouldn’t need something bad to happen before we turn to Him. Our goal should be to recognize His kindness when we receive blessing — so that we don’t need less pleasant reminders to turn to Him at every moment.

Death of an Icon

by Yaakov Menken on August 12, 2014 at 5:28 pm

I grew up watching Mork. I’ve seen Aladdin. I even, during college, watched him perform live. But I never knew Robin Williams.

He was the consummate entertainer. He just knew how to make us laugh. His improvisation, his off-the-cuff remarks, were brilliantly funny. But we never understood who he really was.

And that was, perhaps, the problem, that which made him so depressed as to bring him to a tragic end.

With his passing, journalists and commentators are talking about mental illness and depression, recognizing the challenges he faced. [UPDATE: And let me make it clear that I am not commenting about most cases, or even necessarily his case, of mental illness or depression. A person with either must seek professional treatment and it is a Mitzvah to do so.]

But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness. Few are discussing how common depression seems to be among the leading entertainers — or why this is so. While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.

Someone challenged me, asking whether it is true that so many entertainers are depressed, so I did a little research. I looked up Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 albums, and found that nine of the top ten artists (those with the most albums on the list) had a drug problem (Bruce Springsteen being the exception). So did all five of IMDb’s top five actors (that’s where I stopped looking, though #6, Dustin Hoffman, did as well). Sports figures, of course, must stay in shape, but even there you find one drug scandal after the next. And what are drugs? Escape from the plain, real, often-depressing world.

[UPDATE: Someone sent me the link to comedian Jim Horton's article about Williams. In it he writes: "So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction... In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide."]

I’m not aware of any other industry whose top practitioners are so likely to have trouble with drugs, alcohol, broken marriages, other self-destructive behaviors, and of course suicide… as entertainment. Not politicians, not the military, not any other profession or (legal) blue-collar field. In order to find a similar level of prevalence, one must look at drug dealers or prostitutes.

Isn’t something wrong with this picture? The entertainment industry is supposed to be about making us happy; entertainers are sharing happiness with us. Yet behind the scenes, they seem to need to escape. Either temporarily by getting drunk or high, or all too often permanently, whether via overdose or deliberate action.

The answer, I believe, is that what I said above is not really true. Entertainers are not sharing happiness, they are acting. Comedians practice their art and make people laugh… and then go home, where life isn’t funny. They aren’t creating something real, or (usually) making a lasting difference in someone’s life, so the feelings of accomplishment are similarly transient. Thus the need to escape.

True happiness is not found via entertainment. Happiness is tied to attainment, to achievement, especially to attaining completion as a person. The Vilna Gaon says on Megillas Esther (8:16) that in this world, Simcha, happiness, precedes Sasson, joy. “Happiness is moving forward to reach an objective in happiness, and joy is afterwards, when one has already achieved the objective and feels joy in his heart.”

Happiness is not a casual thing, it doesn’t just happen, it is something that one can pursue and develop. This is why Chazal say “it is a great Mitzvah to always be happy” — it’s something we can cultivate.

This statement also teaches us that happiness is not a state of laughing delight. Rav Alexander Mandelbaum, in his “V’hayisa Ach Samayach” (“and you shall only be happy”), speaks about two types of happiness considered by Chazal — happiness with one’s lot, and happiness in performance of Mitzvos. Happiness with one’s lot is developed by considering that G-d gives each individual precisely what that person needs — so he or she, even in a difficult situation, should be happy with the understanding that HaShem saw that the difficult situation would prove to be of ultimate benefit. That sort of happiness doesn’t “just happen.”

One does not always feel Sasson, joy. But it is a Mitzvah to always be happy — even on Tisha B’Av, even during Shivah. How can this be? We can comprehend this by understanding Simchah as a feeling of moving happily in the right direction, pursuing a goal. That is something that can remain with a person even during times of grief and pain.

That is real happiness. Unfortunately, the purveyors of what the modern world calls “happiness” — the entertainers — realize within themselves, either consciously or subconsciously, that they have not found and are not providing true happiness.

What makes this especially sad is that now that he is gone, the stories are emerging of Robin Williams, the humanitarian, who visited hospitals on Dec. 25 to give presents to all the children. When he met the doctors and nurses who had spent their holiday stabilizing a premature baby, he teared up — recognizing people whose efforts were real and transformative. Perhaps he didn’t realize that yes, you can make others happy, you can give people something lasting, just with a smile — and even a joke or two, which Robin Williams had in abundance.

Yes, it’s sad that he went, and it’s sad that he was so sad — he could have been so happy.

Two Tweets about Israel and Gaza

by Yaakov Menken on August 12, 2014 at 11:45 am

These are two of my more popular (commonly “retweeted”) entries about current events.