Category Archives: Personal

My so-called life.

One Year Aliyahversary

On August 12, 2014 I landed in Israel as a new immigrant, beginning, a new chapter in my life. For many Olim Aliyah can be a formative change, but this is not something I have experienced yet. Not that I’m surprised, after all, a new chapter is just an extension of the same book.

There isn’t much more to add since my Half Year Aliyahversary. The main “goals” for my first year have been met. I’m employed, and finally found a place to live in Nachlaot. Work takes still up most of my time 1, and I’ve been able to continue learning/reading on the commute. 2 I have started thinking about “what next,” which I confess is a bit difficult, especially with limited time and energy. I’ll probably try new things, take periodic breaks from others, and deal with the unexpected as best as I can.

In other words, nothing too exciting either good or bad, just a continuation of life as I know it.

Notes:

  1. As jobs tend to do.
  2. I’ve kept up with DafYomi thanks to Koren’s fantastic Talmud PDFs and according to Goodreads I’ve finished 28 books so far this year. כן ירבו
Posted in Personal. Tagged with .

Not Much to Say

One recurring theme on this site is that no matter how busy or neglectful I’ve been, I usually try to force myself to write something on my birthday. This isn’t always a bad thing; having artificial standards or deadlines can be useful for getting myself out of my head and produce something. But the truth is, right now I’m tapped out. I’ve got nothing.

Years back when I created this site as a personal platform, I made a conscious effort to contribute a unique perspective which was otherwise going unstated. Barring that, at the very least I didn’t want to contribute to the noise on the web. 1 Unfortunately, noise has historically been the coin of the realm on the internet, and social media has only inflated its value.

If you follow me on Facebook you might have noticed I’ve been relatively quiet as of late, particularly with everything going on in Israel in the past few days. Israel generally evokes heightened emotions, which are thrown into overdrive any time there are tensions. Invariably, the discourse is one of attacks, defensiveness, and counterattacks, based more on partisanship than principle. I’ve seen people who regularly condemn “all Arabs” pleading for nuance and understanding that a few lone individuals do not act in the name of the whole. I’ve also seen some of the most vitriolic statements coming from people who in other circumstances, religiously call for “compassion.” 2

Now, I’m fully aware I have a hyper-sensitivity for hypocrisy, or any sort of intellectual dishonesty when people tell others how to think or act. I don’t expect people to be fully consistent, and I’m much more ok with it when it’s kept to themselves. People are free to work out their own issues. However, my alarms go up the moment someone tells someone else what’s best, right, proper, in an attempt to get another person to change their behavior to conform accordingly. This is compounded by the total lack of awareness and empathy captured by the Golden Rule, “what is distasteful to you, don’t do to others.” I’m also fully aware that people generally don’t appreciate when you point these sorts of things out, which means people will just continue talking past each other. Frankly after a while, it simply becomes exhausting.

I’m not giving up on writing or on any of my other quixotic quests, but with managing a full-time job with Aliyah, 3 I’ve decided to spend more time observing on the sidelines and choose my windmills more carefully.

Notes:

  1. For those who don’t remember the J-Blogging days, imagine all your friends’ posts as separate web pages.
  2. I call this phenomenon, “weaponized compassion” where individuals care less about compassion itself than being the authorities determining when it should be granted or withheld. Alternatively, refer to the Book of Armaments Chapter 2, “O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.”
  3. Especially no Sundays
Posted in Personal.

Flying the Flag of Failure

After several weeks of intense fighting in Israel and Tisha B’Av fast approaching 1 celebrations will be be more subdued this year. 2 In a sense it’s kind of fitting given how eventful this past year has been for me personally. As I announced last March, I left my position as Rabbi at the Stanton Street Shul to make aliyah. 3

While friends have been very encouraging, supportive, and congratulatory regarding this significant life change, I’m not sure how many people realize that this past year for me, in many respects, was marked by some pretty significant failures. Some of these are public knowledge; I got priced out of my neighborhood, and other professional and academic pursuits did not end in success. Other failures have been more private (at least for the time being) though to be sure no less spectacular.

If there’s a difference in myself at 37 is that I no longer equate failure in specific endeavors with failure in life, nor must failure necessitate feelings of regret. At some point this past year, I realized that virtually all the times I’ve set out to do something specific, I’ve either failed or otherwise come up short. In contrast, the most amazing experiences I’ve had were more often the result of serendipity/hashgacha or otherwise things I never would have imagined, let alone intended. 4 This by no means demonstrates that my efforts were worthless, only that work with one goal in mind frequently opened up opportunities I had never considered. 5

Thus as I turn 37 I am proudly flying my flag of failure, the “דגל הבל” if you will. 6. And as I venture off into the great unknown of Israel, I look forward to the many varieties of new failures I have yet to experience, having full faith that in the end, וַיִּהְיוּ כַּטּוֹב, the ultimate results, while unintended, will be just as good. 7

Notes:

  1. The “Sad Trombone” does not constitute impermissible music during the 9 days.
  2. At least I can fulfill Ecc. 7:2 and Ecc. 7:4, and you know it’s a Good Time whenever you’re following Ecclesiastes.
  3. Lots of people have been asking me the same questions so I’ll save some time: My flight leaves next Monday August 11th landing in Israel Tuesday August 12th, I’ll be staying in Arnona, Jerusalem with my parents until I find a job, at which point, I move to wherever it makes sense based on the job location and my budget. I’ll initially be looking for tech jobs as there are more positions which tend to pay better, but I’m open to all possibilities. More on that later in this post.
  4. My trip to Medellin Colombia comes to mind.
  5. דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט / Man plans, God Laughs
  6. Not a literal translation, but in addition to the rhyme, the gematria of “דגל” and “הבל” are both 37.
  7. Both “כַּטּוֹב” and “וַיִּהְיוּ” also have the gematria of 37. Incidentally, the gematria feature alone is why lazy rabbis ought to splurge for the Bar Ilan.
Posted in Personal.

Ep. 151 Levaya / Funeral for My Grandfather, Mayer Bender (Meir Yechiel ben Moshe Ephraim V’Leah)

“It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice”
Sign in LBC Clothing

Dear Friends,
This past Thursday, April 10th 2014, 10 Nissan in the Hebrew Calendar, my grandfather Mayer Bender Meir Yechiel ben Moshe Ephraim v’Leah passed away at the age of 94. The following is an audio recording of the funeral, in which you will hear in detail just what an exceptional person he was. Those who knew him invariably loved him, and I consider myself privileged to have had a relationship with him, and honored to have been his grandson.

Levaya / Funeral for My Grandfather, Mayer Bender (Meir Yechiel ben Moshe Ephraim V’Leah)

Posted in Personal, Podcasts.

It’s Time

Dear Friends and Loyal Readers,
In shul this past Shabbat I formally announced my intentions to the community to step down as Rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul with the intentions of making Aliyah this summer. 1 For those who know me the decision to make Aliyah itself should not be surprising. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, my immediate family is all there, and of course it’s a religious obligation. 2 But making Aliyah is still a huge step. It’s probably the only time where you can give up a career, family, friends, security, and the entire life you knew for a completely uncertain future and people will still wish you “Mazal Tov” for doing so. 3 The question for me is less a matter of “why” than it is “why now?”
Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Ideally on the August 11th Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight from JFK, though I’ve learned from experience nothing is final until it’s in writing.
  2. See M. Ketubot 13:11 and B. Ketubot 110b. For an interesting halakhic fact, according to Rabbinic Judaism the halakhic consequence for a woman not wanting to make Aliyah with her husband is that she gets divorced and loses her entitlement to her husband’s estate as defined in her ketubah. This is the exact same consequence if a married woman goes out without a head covering (M. Ketubot 7:6). While it is undoubtedly easier to put on a hat than it is to move to another country, women’s head covering has ironically become an identifier of religious commitment among Orthodox Jews, at least in America.
  3. Tell your parents you’re going to become a rodeo clown and see how that works.
Posted in Personal.

Birthday Thanks

הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה
You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy
Psalms 30:11

Dear Loyal Readers,
Normally when I do my annual birthday post I tend to write something observational, reflective, or otherwise “rabbinic” on turning a year older. This year when I sat down to collect thought I not only ran out of ideas for the usual theme, but it occurred to me that the usual theme couldn’t quite capture what this past year has been for me.

Without getting into details, this past year was not easy and in fact most of it was quite difficult. I admit when it comes to personal struggles I’m usually stubborn and used to going at things alone, but this year that proved impossible. In short I was only able to make it through some painful periods with the help of some important people who took a particular interest in maintaining my well being. Cliche` or not the truth is I really could not have done it without you.

I cannot thank you enough and I hope I can justify your faith me.

Josh

Posted in Personal.

Modesty Mussar For Rabbis

With the topic of tznius/modesty buzzing around the Orthodox Jewish world I wanted to share a brief but personally significant story from my rabbinical school days. In 2001-2002 I was in my third year of semikhah and fortunate enough to study in Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel in Bayit Vegan. It is perhaps one of the most unappreciated perk of YU’s rabbinical school in that accepted students pay they way to Israel but get free room and board, allowing for greater focus for one’s studies.1 The dorms are not what you’d consider “new” with relatively thin walls, thinner doors and apartments stacked on top of each other,2 My year of the 30 or so students only 9 were single, while the rest were married rabbinical students, some with children.

One day after our regular Yoreh Deah class, the Rosh Yeshiva called us in to give us some mussar. There was a concern that husbands and wives from other couples were socializing excessively with each other. After all, the Torah teaches “Be Holy” (Lev. 19:2 which Ramban interprets as “הוו פרושים מן העריות ומן העבירה” – separate yourself from illicit behavior and sin, and so forth.

I will stress here that I am/was unaware of any incident which could be classified in any way as inappropriate. Most of the kollel couples knew each other before coming and the relatively cloistered environment would understandably lead to inter-socialization. And even the Rosh Yeshiva had mentioned that he wasn’t responding to anything in particular, but was just making a general observation and expressing a concern.

Strictly speaking, this concern is not entirely unjustified. M. Avot 1:5 states explicitly, “Do not talk excessively with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor” and B. Nedarim 20a explains that it is because this speech will lead to adultery.

Something else occurred to me at that time. The audience here consisted of rabbinical students who would at some point venture into communities as actual rabbis, which at some point would entail talking to women. One would hope that rabbis ought to be able to converse with female constituents without viewing them as sex objects, and if there were any doubt on this point then perhaps they ought not remain rabbinical students. If there was any concern of the moral integrity of the future rabbis of America, then perhaps we had bigger problems on our hands.

But it also occurred to me that it is precisely because of the nature of our profession that this mussar was appropriate. Most professional rabbis have countless interactions with congregants or students. If a rabbi is particularly outgoing or friendly, it is not inconceivable for a conversation to be interpreted in a way other than what was intended.3 In short, if interpersonal boundaries are important for Jews, they are much more so for professional rabbis.

I do not know if this was the message the Rosh Yeshiva actually intended, but it was an important lesson nonetheless.

  1. Academically it was a wonderfully productive year for me. I completed Yoreh Deah, 4th Year Halakhah Lema’aseh, and a triple Revel paper.
  2. Yes, I know that’s how apartments work, just using an expression.
  3. While rabbinic scandals do happen these are a negligible percentage compared to the rabbinate at large.
Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Personal.

When I Was A Lad

Thoughts on turning 34

I believe I’ve passed the age
Of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too,
I had my pointless point of view,
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.
Billy Joel, “Angry Young Man

 

This year’s birthday post will probably be an improvement over last year’s, which in retrospect was kind of depressing. To be sure, it reflected where I was at the time and if anything conveyed a sense of forced optimism. While today I don’t feel a sense of enthusiams or exhilaration, I can honestly say I’m much calmer – perhaps even using the term “stable.”

The funny thing is that nothing specific happened this past year to account for any significant change in mood. Of the two major life issues of family and career there has been little progress if not outright setbacks; my fultile experiences in blind dating are now well documented and I faced the disappointment of not getting into PhD programs.

So what happened?

My best guess is that while in the past I’ve tended to obsess about the “big questions,” this year I’ve been working on handling the smaller, immediate, and more controllable issues which come up every day. Instead of viewing each decision as an immensely important life defining choice, I realize while all actions have repurcussions few result in the dire consequneces I would sometimes imagine. It’s not that things aren’t important anymore, it’s just that I’m seeing things from a new perspective.

In short, I think I’ve mellowed in my old age.

I’m only partially joking here. Despite what the AARP thinks, I know that 34 isn’t really “old” (though I suppose it’s relative). But I do think that at 341 I’m starting to approach life differently. It’s not that I don’t have priorities, goals, or dreams,2 but I am reevaluating exactly how to accomplish them and manage the inevitable disappointments, keeping in mind that life is much bigger than anything I can imagine.

I have no idea how long this new attiude will last or if it will help result in any of the meaningful changes to which I still aspire, but I can guess that I’m going to find the process much more enjoyable.

And of course, I have my friends and Loyal Readers along for the ride.

  1. “לד” in Hebrew, hence the gematria inspired title of this post with the bonus Gillbert and Sullivan reference, FTW.
  2. I’m still clinging to my delusions of academia
Posted in Personal.

The Statistics of Shidduchim – A Case Study In Futility

One man among a thousand I found,
but a woman among all these I have not found. (Kohelet 7:28)

 

There was a time on this website I used to write about my dating life, which as it turns out I haven’t really done since 2006. I think I’ve avoided doing so for a number of reasons, the main ones being my being in a long-term relationship (since ended) and now a relatively public figure as a pulpit rabbi. However, in two days time I will taking a significant step in the dating process by leaving the popular dating site Saw You At Sinai1 (SYAS) as a paying customer.

For those unfamiliar, SYAS is essentially an online implementation of the blind shidduch / matchmaking dating system. Users create profiles, but instead of searching for other singles users choose matchmakers who do the searching and suggesting for them. Some prefer this method to avoid being contacted directly by creeps, having a reliable person vet out the weirdos, or less cynically prefer to have a mutual acquaintance look out for the interests of both parties. The obvious limitation is that a user’s options are entirely dependant on the judgement of the matchmaker.

As of this posting, SYAS boasts 595 matches made and there are of course hundreds if not thousands of Jewish couples who continue to meet through the shidduch system. However, despite empty platitudes of encouragement, it is obvious that this system does not work for everyone, and I would place myself in this category. Thanks to the records of my SYAS account, I will prove mathematically just how ineffective and futile blind shidduch dating can be.

In the SYAS system, a matchmaker suggests a match which is then sent to either the man first, the women first, or both simultaneously (to avoid deadlocks the women make this decision in their preferences). Once a match is sent either party then “approves” or “declines” a match accordingly. If both parties approve, contact information is released and it is expected that they’ll call and arrange a date. Simple enough.

Now let’s start with my numbers. The first recorded match I have is in 2004 at which point I was still living in Chicago. That gives us about 7 years to work with, minus 2.5 years during which time I suspended my account while in a serious relationship. Here are the stats:

  • 711 suggested matches
  • 152 of which I accepted
  • Yielding 28 first dates
  • And zero (0) meaningful serious relationships

Breaking down these numbers, I approved approximately 21.37% of all suggestions and of those women whom I approved only 18.24% reciprocated. Out of all 711 total suggestions, only 3.93% resulted in an actual first date. As pathetic as these numbers are, they don’t even tell the full story. In the event a woman chose to receive the suggestion first, it would not necessarily appear in my list and thus I could be under counting just now many times I’ve been declined.

One could look at these numbers and say that I’m too selective even though my percentage of approving women at 21.37% is greater than the 18.24% reciprocity. From my experience, here are the main reasons why I declined matches:

  • Already Friends / Dated – I don’t have an inherent objection to dating people I already know, but I can tell if I’m not interested. If I’ve already dated someone, no point in trying again unless there’s a good reason. On the plus side, it does give me a sense if the matchmaker is on the right track.
  •  

  • Too Far / Distance – I’ve never done well with long distance relationships, and since becoming a rabbi I have neither the time nor money to travel. Despite saying this explicitly in my profile I’ve gotten many suggestions for people who live outside of my stated geographic range. (The most inexplicable one was London). A bad sign since it clearly indicates the matchmaker ignored what I had to say.
  •  

  • Personality – This is a little more complicated to quantify. As I discussed in my guide to online Jewish dating, writing profiles can be tricky. More often than not, women on SYAS write horribly generic statements which tell me nothing about themselves such that I have no idea how this person would match the personality for whom I am looking.2Even off the site I’ve found that many people find it difficult to answer the simple question, “how is she what I’m looking for and vice versa?” Just recently a good friend was pushing me to date a mutual friend of hers, however she was at a complete loss at how to describe her beyond the generic, “nice, sweet, pretty” bromides. Following what I’ve said years ago, I will only invest time, energy, and money into people whom I want to date. Meaning, there has to be a good reason for me to go out with this person as opposed to me justifying my reluctance.

I’d also add that I’ve periodically gone outside my range just for the sake of not being too obstinate, though the results have been the same.

Then of course is the actual date itself. In my experience, absolutely zero (0) blind shidduch date in any media has ever produced a meaningful serious relationship (though a few have resulted in good friendships). There are probably a whole slew of personal reasons for this, some of which I’ve explored at length elsewhere on this site. Both of the serious relationships I’ve had have come from meeting people in normal, if not optimal social settings.3

Has shidduch dating worked for some people? Absolutely. However, to insist that people continue to operate within the confines of a system which has clearly failed them is, as Einstein would put it, “insane.” One person is not a statistically significant sample, but I doubt my experience in the blind shidduch world is unique.

While I’m not quite giving up on dating, I am acknowledging based on the empirical evidence that this method is not working for me and it would thus be foolish to continue actively pursuing blind shidduch dates, let alone paying for the privilege. Since I started dating I would not be surprised if I have received at least 1,000 total dating suggestions; but like Kohelet, I have not found even one.

As Kohelet might say in this case, this is a time to move on.


1. The site’s name itself is sort of an inside Jewish joke, referring to Midrashic statements that all Jewish souls were present at the reveleation on Mt. Sinai. See for example B. Shabbat 146a.
2. To be sure, not everyone can express themselves verbally, but as I wrote in the guide to online Jewish dating, if you cannot get your personality across in a profile, don’t choose this medium since your profile is all someone has on which to rely. Additionally, it is possible to write good profiles; compare for example random ones found on Ok Cupid with any of the exclusively Jewish sites.
3. One at the first Edah conference, the other at a Shabbat meal in Washington Heights.

Posted in Jewish Dating, Personal. Tagged with , , , , , , , , .

The “Pathology” of Life

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true – or is it something worse?”
Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

 
Since becoming a pulpit Rabbi I have intentionally avoided writing about my personal life, but recent news prompts me to share some ideas which I suspect will resonate with at least some of my loyal readers. As some of you may know I recently applied for PhD programs in Religious Ethics, with the intent of focusing on the relatively unexplored ethical tradition of Rabbinic Judaism. With two M.A.’s, life experience, and a clear program of study I considered myself to be a decent candidate – certainly as good as anyone else who would apply. However, spots for these fellowshipped positions are extremely limited. One program to which I applied accepts an average of two students a year, though occasionally will go up to three or down to one. In a bad economy where more students are applying to graduate schools rather than going out into “the real world,” these programs are inundated with applicants. The other school to which I applied received over 10,000 total applications for graduate school study.

Thus it was not a complete surprised when I learned that I was not accepted into either of the two programs to which I had applied. To be sure, my GPA and GRE scores could have been higher but even so this would not have guaranteed admission. If potential advisors are not interested in an applicant’s chosen field of research, they have plenty of other willing potential students from which to choose. Furthermore, despite my academic background in Talmud, I intentionally did not choose to apply through the Rabbinics department because my interest was more in learning the ethical theory (and as I found out later the Rabbinics departments only had one opening). Since a PhD in an academic discipline rarely results in a significant financial payoff, I considered it pointless to pursue one unless there is at least some personal interest in the process.

Which brings me to my point of why I applied for Religious Ethics in the first place. For many years I had thought about doing a PhD but couldn’t quite determine the direction. It was after I first gave my class in Economics and Social Justice in my shul that I realized Religious Ethics was not only a field in which I was interested, but that it was an area in which I could contribute.

When I researched programs I found two universities which not only had a program in Religious Ethics, but also had a significant Talmud department. I was ecstatic. From everything I read it seemed that either institution would be a plausible fit, but more than that, it just felt right, that this was what I was supposed to do with my life – that this was the path I was supposed to take.

Applying was stressful; I had even delayed applying one year due to being in a suboptimal emotional state. I managed to overcome all fears of rejection, edited 3 old papers for writing samples, and dealt with needless drama involving a recommender, and still everything got in on time. Given how much I invested in applying, I’m holding up surprisingly well. I’m not crushed, not curled up in a fetal position wondering where my life went wrong, and not even regretting my decision to apply and setting myself up for the eventual rejection.

But even though I am disappointed, in some ways I think I’m more confused than anything else. After all, why would I be pointed in a direction with such a strong intuition, forced to overcome a whole lot of anxiety, and yet not actualize the goal. Why would I have the feeling that this PhD was part of my Path when clearly it was not meant to be?

Naturally I don’t have any useful answers, but I do think the question is itself important. We’d like to think that we’re on a path and that maybe we have some guidance in choosing which path we ought to take. Sometimes we’re given opportunities and other times we’re given intuitions which would help direct our choices. But what do these opportunities and intuitions really mean? Superficially it feels like these are directions we ought to take, but in reality these are just emotions – subjective and open to interpretation.

I can say this; I’m not going to obsess over not getting in, even if it means not pursuing a PhD in the foreseeable future. But what I will do is meditate on the emotions I’ve experienced and try to understand the signals I’ve received and their possible meaning. I don’t suspect I’ll find any substantive answers, but I do feel it is a question worth pondering.

Posted in Personal.