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September 2, 2014 / 7 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Vilna Gaon’

God is the Biggest Zionist of Them All

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Speaking at the recent Dangers of the Internet mega-gathering of 50,000 Haredi Jews in New York, a rabbi declared that the Internet was the greatest threat to the Jewish People since Zionism. In my humble opinion, rabbis who make statements like this, alienating their followers from the Eretz Yisrael and the supreme holy mitzvah of settling the Land, are as much a danger to the Jewish People as all the very grave problems of the Internet. This same blindness led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe, when many pre-Holocaust rabbis told their communities not to escape to Zion, but rather to stay where they were, even though people like Rabbi Kook and Zeev Jabotinsky repeatedly warned of the imminent devastation to come. It is the very same blindness which caused the Spies in the wilderness, who were the spiritual leaders of the tribes, to rebel against God’s command to journey on to Israel, bringing about the death of their entire generation in the desert.

The universally respected Torah giant, the Gaon of Vilna, taught that the sin of Spies haunts the Jewish People throughout all of its wanderings, and that many are caught in its deceptive web, including Torah scholars. He states:

“Many of the transgressors in this great sin of, ‘They despised the cherished Land,’ including many of the guardians of Torah, will not know or understand that they are caught in this sin of the Spies, and they will not sense that they have been sucked into the sin of the Spies in fostering many false ideas and empty claims. And they cover their beliefs with the already proven fallacy that the commandment of settling the Land of Israel no longer applies in our day, an opinion which has already been proven false by the Torah giants of the world, both the early and later halachic authorities” (Kol HaTor, Ch.5).

God Himself is a Zionist. In another two days, we will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. But with all of the greatness of the event, Sinai was not to be the last stop on our journey. God tells the newly formed Jewish nation: “You have dwelt long enough at this mountain – go up and possess the Land!” (Devarim, Ch.1) There is a special place for the observance of the Torah – not in the wilderness, not in the lands of the gentiles, but in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of the Jews.

Yes, the Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the World is a Zionist. So was Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabeinu, Yehoshua, King David, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the Macabbees, all the Prophets of Israel, including Ezra and Nechemia who led a seemingly motley crowd of sinners back to the Land of Israel from Babylon to rebuild the Holy Temple. Why didn’t the majority of Jews join in? In the harsh words of the Torah giant, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, in his classic work on Jewish Faith, The Kuzari, they preferred to stay in Babylon with their businesses and villas, thus undermining our return to the Land:

“This is the sin which kept the Divine Promise with regard to the Second Temple from being fulfilled. Divine Providence was ready to restore everything as it had been at first, if they all had willingly consented to return. But only a part was ready to do so, whilst the majority and the aristocracy amongst them remained in Babylon, preferring dependence and slavery, unwilling to leave their mansions and their affairs. Had we been prepared to meet the God of our Forefathers with an honest mind, we would have found the same salvation as our fathers did in Egypt. If we say in our prayers, ‘Worship at His holy hill; worship at His footstool; He who restores His glory to Zion,’ and other words of this nature, this is but as the chattering of the starling and the nightingale. We do not realize what we say by this sentence, nor others, as you can clearly see,” (Kuzari, 2:22-25).

The Sages of the Talmud teach that the Almighty is in charge of everything that transpires in the world – even the path of a leaf as it falls to the ground, God sends an angel to accompany its journey. How much more does this apply to the vast and miraculous ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Jewish Nation in Israel which we have witnessed in our time! Who has brought all of this world-sweeping drama to pass if not the Master of the World Himself? Who has directed all of the awesome and terrible World Wars surrounding the modern State of Israel, toppling great empires, and formulating new international agreements, if not the Holy One Blessed Be He? Who has brought about the tremendous agricultural and technological wonders that all the world has witnessed, and raised the devastated Jewish People out of the ashes of the Holocaust and put a Samson-like prowess in their hearts to become a military giant if not the Maker of Heaven and Earth? Who has orchestrated the massive building in the reborn Jewish State, including an unsurpassed proliferation of Torah institutions and Torah learning that has made Israel today the Torah center of the world – who has done all this if not God Himself? Yes, God is a Zionist. A proud and fierce Zionist. As fierce a Zionist as can be. And as all the Prophets of Israel have told us, He wants His People in the Holy Land He gave them, and not in the cursed lands of the exile, no matter how temporarily comfortable these exiles may be.

After The Amidah

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Question: At the conclusion of the Amidah, should the chazzan say “Yiyu leratzon imrei fi… – May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before you, G-d, my Rock and Redeemer”?

Answer: The Rema (Orach Chayim 123:6) rules that he need not. After “Uva l’tziyon,” the chazzan will in any event say the words in Kaddish, “Titkabel tzelot’hon – May the prayers be accepted.” He therefore need not say “Yiyu leratzon,” which means the same thing.

The Shelah and the Vilna Gaon, however, rule that the chazzan should say “Yiyu leratzon.” The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 123:21) concurs. The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayim 111:4) writes that the chazzan should say it silently (presumably because it is written in the singular).

Many congregations allow a second chazzan to replace the first chazzan before Ashrei, after the conclusion of the Amidah. In such instances, the first chazzan never says “Titkabel tzelot’hon” after “Uva l’tziyon.” Thus, even according to the Rema, he would have to say “Yiyu leratzon.”

Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, has authored several works on Jewish law. His latest is “Jewish Prayer The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas,” available at Amazon .com and Judaica stores.

Sotheby’s Auctions Three “Long-Forgotten” Chagall Paintings

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

Israeli & International Art

Sotheby’s New York

Auction: December 14, 2011; 2 p.m.

http://www.sothebys.com/

 

It’s hard to imagine an authentic Chagall painting or drawing that isn’t important, particularly to people who care about Jewish art. The three synagogue paintings (lots 13-15) slated to be sold at Sotheby’s, as part of its December 14 Israeli & International Art auction in New York City are no exception, which is why the high end of Sotheby’s estimate for the trio is $1.6 million (the low end is a cool $1 million). But it’s interesting to note not only the amount the works are promising to be sold for, but also how the works are being “sold” to the public.

According to the Sotheby’s New York press release, the works are “exceptionally rare oil paintings of synagogue interiors” by Chagall. Perhaps seeking to justify why the works are the rarest of rarities, Sotheby’s adds, “In all, only six finished oils of synagogues by the artist are known to exist.”

Apparently, news reports are buying the publicity materials that Sotheby’s has to sell. Writing for the Examiner.com New York art auctions page, Alison Martin calls the works “rare” and mostly cribs from the release. And, countless media outlets ran an Associated Press story, which began, “Three rare oil paintings of synagogue interiors by Marc Chagall are going on the auction block in New York City.” Sadly, the AP story also adds no details beyond the Sotheby’s promotional materials.

The truth seems to be that there isn’t a lot of information about the three works other than the name of their original owner (Max Cottin) and the fact that they last came to market 66 years ago, when they were acquired from an exhibit at the Gallery of Jewish Art in New York in 1945. Of course, provenance—or a work’s detailed past ownership—is particularly important these days, when many paintings were lost, stolen, or forcibly sold during World War II. But one wishes there was more information about the three works than just their previous owners.

Lot 14. Collection of Lillian and Jack Cottin. Marc Chagall. “Interior of the Yemenite Hagoral Synagogue, Jerusalem.” 1931. Oil over pencil on canvas. 28 7/8 by 36 1/4 in.

Lot 14, Interior of the Yemenite Hagoral Synagogue, Jerusalem (1931), is the largest and most expensive of the group. Sotheby’s calls the shul, which it says is near the market, Machne Yehudah, a “little-known” house of worship, which one accesses via “a maze of winding pedestrian streets, impassable to motor traffic.” It’s worth noting that the name of the shul, which Sotheby’s says is still in use, suggests the casting of lots—certainly an unusual name.

Chagall’s depiction shows the ark, the Aron—which has three parallel compartments, one of which is open to reveal several Torah scrolls—the podium, bimah, where the prayer leader stands, and an elaborate rug and other interior decorations. Above the ark is a depiction of the Ten Commandments, with seemingly correct Hebrew inscriptions, although a Hebrew verse on the ark itself seems to mis-transcribe the quote from Psalms 16:8, “I have set God opposite me always”—a verse that frequently appears in shuls. Chagall also represents a window, a kabbalistic-style amulet-drawing bearing God’s name, three hanging “Eternal Flames,” and what looks like two figures (albeit small ones, who are out of proportion) seated on benches. Most bizarrely, Chagall writes a Hebrew word (perhaps the Tetragrammaton?) above the top of the ark, as if it is written on the wall, or on a hovering halo.

 

This is pure speculation, but one wonders if Chagall didn’t intentionally decide to paint the ark off-center so as to include the blue door on the right side of the piece, and thus allow the viewer a point of exit. Of course, there are a variety of formal reasons for placing the door there – its arched top balances with the window and the Ten Commandments, and its deep blue color offsets the redness of the rug. And yet, after spending a good amount of time looking at the work, I can’t help but be struck by that door.

Knowing what we know about Chagall, he might have sought an easy exit strategy. “For a period of his childhood Marc Chagall was a singer at a synagogue, but he abandoned religion after his Bar Mitzvah, as did most of his generation,” writes Benjamin Harshav in the book Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World: The Nature of Chagall’s Art and Iconography (Rizzoli, 2006). Addressing a 1917 Chagall synagogue painting—which isn’t one of the three at Sotheby’s—Harshav notes, “This synagogue is colorful but hollow, not performing its authentic functions. The man on the stage is supposed to read the Torah scroll, but he looks embarrassed and lost with no Torah in front of him. No one pays attention to the reading …. It is an exotic, old, and weary world, however vivid the memories about it may be.”

The Case for Secular Studies in Yeshivas

Wednesday, November 17th, 2004

“When I was in the illustrious city of Vilna in the presence of the Rav, the light, the great Gaon, my master and teacher, the light of the eyes of the exile, the renowned pious one (may Hashem protect and save him) Rav Eliyahu, in the month of Teves 5538 [January 1778], I heard from his holy mouth that according to what a person is lacking in knowledge of the “other wisdoms,” correspondingly he will be lacking one hundred portions in the wisdom of the Torah, because the Torah and the ‘other wisdoms’ are inextricably linked together …”

(From the Introduction to the Hebrew translation of Euclid’s book on geometry, Sefer Uklidos [The Hague, 1780] by R. Barukh Schick of Shklov, one of the main talmidim of the Vilna Gaon.)

The role of secular subjects in the education of young people has been a controversial issue for generations. Today, however, some general studies have become part of the curriculum of almost all yeshiva high schools. I say “some,” because the level and extent of general studies in yeshivas vary greatly from school to school. There tends to be a decrease in emphasis on secular subjects in so-called “right-wing” schools. Still, even such schools continue to grapple with this issue. Recently the Jewish Observer (May 2004) devoted an issue to this topic under the heading “General Studies in the Yeshiva: A Neglected Frontier.”

One would think, given the statement of the Vilna Gaon’s featured above, that there would be no question that secular subjects should play a crucial role in the education of a Torah Jew. However, someone who occupies a prestigious position in the Torah world recently told me, “The statement of the Gaon was meant for the people of his time. It does not apply to people like us today.”

I do not understand how one can take such an approach. If followed to its logical conclusion, almost any statement by Chazal could be swept away with the result that not much of Orthodox Judaism would be left.

There are definitely problems with the general studies education that many young people receive in high school. There is also the attitude of “It’s only English, it doesn’t count.” The questions to be dealt with are “What are the sources of these problems, and what are the remedies?”

Elementary School Education

There are a number of problems that prevent yeshiva students from achieving their potential. One that must be addressed is the fact that there are boys who have completed eight grades of elementary education whose mathematics and reading skills are far below the level required for a student to master ninth grade secular subjects.

Over the years I have tutored boys in mathematics, and there have been some who simply could not read properly and did not know basic arithmetic. Often, but not always, these students attended a chassidishe elementary school. When asked why they did not know fractions or their times tables, they responded, “What do you want from me” I went to such and such yeshiva. “English” was a joke. We learned almost nothing!?

One simply cannot expect a student who does not have the proper background to comprehend any of the subjects taught in high school. The result can only be boredom and frustration on the part of the student, which usually leads to discipline problems in the classroom. How parents can send their sons to schools that do not prepare them for high school secular subjects and then expect them to perform adequately in high school has always been a mystery to me.

Attitude Toward Secular Subjects

The negative attitude toward secular subjects held by many mesivta students today is in sharp contrast to the attitude of students in the not-too-distant past. About twenty years ago my eldest son applied to Mesivta Torah Vodaath for admission to the ninth grade. Part of the admissions procedure involved an interview with the general studies principal, Rabbi Moshe Lonner, z”l, who had served in this position for many years. My son and I both met with him, and, during the course of the interview, he asked me about my educational background and what I did for a living. When I replied that I had a Ph.D. in mathematics and that I was a college professor, he was obviously pleased. (I subsequently learned that Rabbi Lonner himself had an advanced degree in mathematics.)

Rabbi Lonner then proceeded to outline the general studies curriculum with emphasis on the mathematics component. He spoke of the math courses in the ninth, tenth and eleventh grades and of the excellent instructors he always strove to hire. I then asked him, “What mathematics do you teach in the twelfth grade?” He became somewhat crestfallen and replied, “What can I tell you, Dr. Levine – It is not like it was years ago, when boys like Rabbi Belsky and Rabbi Steinwurzl would stay after school and attend an extra math class that I taught. It is not like it was years ago.”

Interplay of Limudei Kodesh & Secular Subjects

Clearly not all secular subjects can or should be studied in a yeshiva high school. There should be a “Torah reason” for selecting those that are studied. Given this, I find it surprising that yeshivas model their general studies curriculum after what is being taught in the public schools.

The choice of secular subjects taught and how they are taught should be a function of the Torah goals they are to fulfill. In this way secular studies become an extension of Torah studies, rather than a collection of courses appended onto the yeshiva day. Yeshivas should develop curricula that reflect their Torah philosophies and are in consonance with them. The following are some examples of what might be done.

Mathematics: In most “right-wing” yeshivas students take three years of mathematics consisting primarily of selections from topics in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, probability, logic, and statistics. In New York, passing the math Regents is the goal, while in other states, the state guidelines for public school curricula are adhered to. Often there is no mathematics taught in the twelfth grade. I do not understand why the yeshivas do not gear their mathematics courses to the goal of having their students study selections from the GRA’s sefer Ayil Me’Shulash in the twelfth grade.

The sefer Ayil Me’Shulash HaMevuar-Ha’GRA, volume 1, by Rabbi Avinoam Solimani was published not long ago in Eretz Yisrael. It contains the text of the first three sections of the GRA’s original sefer as well as modern day diagrams and Hebrew explanations of these sections. If yeshiva students were to study this sefer they would not only learn some of the mathematics that the Vilna Gaon thought was important, but they would also have the benefit of studying these topics in Hebrew, something that would no doubt improve their mastery of the language.

Oral Communication Skills: No matter what one ends up doing in life, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is important. The teaching of the skills required to make good presentations before an audience should be an integral part of yeshiva education. This can be done by incorporating the presentation of material by students to their peers on a regular basis. For example, each day one student could be responsible for preparing a five or ten minute talk on the parsha or on a halacha. It is worth pointing out that such presentations are appropriate during both limudei kodesh and limudei chol.

Writing: The ability to present ideas clearly and concisely in writing is another fundamental skill that our young people should be taught. An effective vehicle for doing this is to have students write precises of articles or other written documents. (Pr?cis: A concise or abridged statement or view; an abstract; a summary; a summary of the main points of an argument or theory.) Writing a pr?cis requires a person to understand the main points that a written document is making and to be able to differentiate between what is crucial and what is not. The articles to be precised can deal with either secular or religious subjects.

Science: One of the many contributions that Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, made during his lifetime was to teach us how one can appreciate the Creator from the world He has made. Rav Miller often took something like the ear and spent time explaining its intricacies and the function of each individual part. Such a discussion invariably helped his listeners realize the many miracles involved in hearing just one word. He did the same when it came to other phenomena in nature, such as rainfall and snow. Science in yeshivas should be presented at least in part from this standpoint.

History: Young people should be taught history, but not simply from non-Jewish sources. At a minimum, students should be exposed to what was going on contemporaneously in the Jewish world when they learn about events in the world at large. For example, a mesivta or Bais Yaakov graduate should be able to name some of the great rabbis who were alive when Abraham Lincoln was president and know the events of importance that occurred in the Jewish world during the Civil War. Amazingly, many young people know little about the Holocaust, despite the fact that the Holocaust has had and continues to have repercussions that affect Judaism as no other event in
recent history.

Life Survival Skills: This is another vitally important body of knowledge for our young people. Some of what falls under this category used to be taught in the home, but in most cases this is no longer true, due mainly to changes in our lifestyles. Many of these skills are learned as people go through life, often by trial and error: map reading, simple electrical and plumbing repair, simple cooking and sewing, basic accounting, nutrition, childcare, child development, child discipline, comparative shopping, investing, and law. And make no mistake, since these are survival skills applicable to our lives today, they should all be taught to both boys and girls.

Behavior, Kiddush Hashem, Honor System: Years ago I heard a story about two boys who excelled in their Torah studies but were a constant problem in their general studies classes. Not only were they not paying attention in class, they were disruptive and prevented the other students from learning the subject matter being taught. All efforts on the part of their teachers and the general studies principal to curb this behavior proved futile. Finally, in desperation, the principal sent these boys to the rosh yeshiva, who told them the following: “When the gedolim felt that it was necessary to introduce limudei chol into the yeshivas, they designated time to be taken from learning for these studies. To waste this time is bitul Torah!”

Yeshivas have to stress that no aspect of cheating has a place in the life of any yeshiva bochur or Bais Yaakov girl. Not to do so can lead to far-reaching negative consequences and attitudes that undermine the role of the Jewish people as a nation that is to be “a light unto the other nations.”

Given this, I am at a loss to understand why an honor system is not part and parcel of every yeshiva high school. An honor system is an excellent vehicle for teaching ethical behavior, and every mesivta and Bais Yaakov should implement one as soon as possible and make sure that it works well.

Implementation

Implementation of the ideas outlined above calls for an extensive revamping of the general studies curriculum that is presently taught in our yeshiva high schools. Given the limited resources by which almost all yeshivas are bound, and the scarcity of teachers qualified to teach in consonance with this approach, a natural response to these ideas is, “Even if we wanted to do this, we couldn’t.”

One need not, however, introduce all curricular changes at once. In fact, it is probably best done gradually, so that each innovation can be evaluated and modified as needed. Also, the development of these changes could be shared by various yeshivas.

Finally, there is a resource becoming available that yeshivas should take advantage of. There are talented people with excellent Torah and secular backgrounds who will be reaching retirement age within the next decade. It is likely that at least some of these professionals would be willing to devote their time at little or no cost to assist the yeshivas in developing new courses and directions of study.

Conclusion

The thoughts expressed above are made with the goal of giving secular studies their “just due” within a Torah framework. Often yeshivas simply “tack on” subjects that are taught in public schools at the conclusion of the limudei kodesh portion of the school day, utilizing the same texts and techniques that are part and parcel of public school education.

The approach outlined here is quite different. General studies are to be presented in a manner that makes them a natural extension of religious studies. While limudei kodesh will always be the most important part of a yeshiva education, the goal is to present a general studies curriculum that falls within the framework of limudei kodesh. The yeshiva student will, as a result, be made continuously aware of the important principle that all aspects of life are to be encompassed within the purview of Torah. Students educated within such an environment will learn over and over again that the Torah is to be applied to all of their endeavors throughout their entire lives.

Implementing such a curriculum will require innovation and imagination on the part of those who direct and teach in our yeshivas, in limudei kodesh as well as in limudei chol. But we must move boldly and quickly, because this is an area that sorely needs attention.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-case-for-secular-studies-in-yeshivas/2004/11/17/

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