On Sabbatical: A Rabbi’s Journal

by | in Israel

imageIn a series of weekly e-mails that Rabbi Steven Pruzansky sent to members of his shul while living in Modiin, Israel, for several months this past year, the New Jersey rabbi recorded his observations about Israeli life. Here are some of his reflections.

A New Hat
As my black Shabbat hat has never traveled well, I decided to purchase one here in Israel. My shopping excursion took me late Friday morning to the nearby Chareidi town of Kiryat Sefer, a suburb of Modiin. Where better to find a black hat? My experiences that day revealed the subtle stereotypes that inform our snap judgments and often lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about people.

Being off (rabbinic) duty and mindful of the warm weather (temperatures were in the upper eighties), I was dressed in civilian clothing: a blue polo shirt. The outfit was mild by Teaneck standards, but shockingly modern in Kiryat Sefer, a sea of white shirts and black pants. Unfamiliar with the area, I stopped several pedestrians and asked (in Hebrew) for the location of the nearest hat shop. “What type of hat?” each one asked. “A Shabbat hat,” I answered, “like the black one you are wearing.” Each pedestrian glanced at my shirt, and burst out laughing. The unstated enigma was, what would a person wearing a blue polo shirt want with a black Shabbat hat? Nevertheless, in true-Israeli style, I was told, in rapid-fire Hebrew, “Straight, left, right, right, left, straight.”

The store was divided into a few departments, each with a different proprietor; unfortunately, the hat department was closed. I informed the owner of the neighboring shirt department that I couldn’t go into Shabbat without a hat, and that I would appreciate it if he could serve me. A very pleasant Sephardic gentleman, he said “Bechavod,” which I took to mean “Help yourself.” Within a few minutes, I found the perfect hat that needed steam cleaning, which, of course, the shirt salesman had no idea how to do. Again, “Bechavod,” and I turned on the machine (violating, I am sure, some OSHA regulation) and, after burning my thumb on the first attempt, successfully steam cleaned my new hat, picking up a handy skill in the process. The gentleman was genuinely impressed, and asked me if I had ever been in the hat business. I paid him—in fact, bought a white shirt from him, too, and departed with my new black hat.

Fast-forward several hours to Shabbat, which I spent in a small yishuv near Modiin. As I entered the shul dressed in my white shirt, my new black hat and a black suit, I was greeted by hundreds of people clad in white shirts and kippot serugot. I stood out, but now in a completely different way. In the early morning, I was the modern amidst the Chareidim, now I was the Chareidi amidst the moderns.

Uniforms serve to bind a person to a team, a cause, a profession. They help us form a superficial judgment of the person before us. They tell us little more. Yet, we often presume to understand an individual simply by virtue of his clothing, facial hair or accent. The Prophet Samuel thought he could identify God’s anointed by his external appearance, until Hashem led him to anoint David “… for it is not as man sees—man sees what his eyes behold, but Hashem sees into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

It is a person’s deeds, thoughts, values, commitments, goals and aspirations that reveal his true nature. Kippot worn today—each different in size, texture, material and color—tell us with which “team” a person identifies, but they tell us nothing about what type of player he is. Were we to form an opinion of others based on their discernible qualities and not the “team” with which they identify, we would grow in love and appreciation of all Jews.

Spiritual Gridlock
Living in Israel is complicated. Eating in Israel is even more complicated. The multitude of local rabbinates (many with standards of kashrut that are unacceptable to one accustomed to Rabbinical Council of Bergen County or OU standards) makes shopping or eating out a treacherous minefield. During a shemittah year, kashrut becomes an almost impenetrable maze. Nonetheless, even while it mystifies and bewilders, shemittah adds a dimension that exalts life here—with a constant reminder of the sanctity of the Land of Israel. The fundamental Torah obligation of shemittah is to allow the land to lie fallow every seven years, to not do more than maintain the land for future use. Since I dislike gardening, I’m perfectly willing to let the small plot of land in front of my dirah, roughly half the size of a basketball foul lane, lie fallow for the next six years as well (on the small chance they have the wrong date). But one does have to eat.

A country with its own culture shapes its own destiny, and develops a strong sense of national pride.

Theoretically, during a shemittah year, a person is entitled to walk into any Jewish-owned field and collect enough produce for a day’s meal. Practically speaking, two issues arise relating to fruits, vegetables and other produce: First, they must be treated as kedushat shevi’it (consumed in their usual way, but not squandered or thrown in the trash). In fact, every shemittah-observant home contains a special receptacle to store peels and leftover produce until they decay, at which point they can be discarded.

The major complications concern the second issue—the prohibition to sell perot shevi’it. In our modern economy, how can the farmer get the product to the consumer in a way that does not violate the laws of shemittah? On this point, there is much disagreement.

The three main methods are to purchase produce from an otzar beit din, to obtain what is called “yevul nochri” (non-Jewish produce, either Arab or European) or to rely on the famous heter mechirah, the “sale” of the land to Arabs in order to allow Jewish workers to work their fields and then sell their produce to Jews.

The otzar beit din, by far the preferred arrangement, involves a communal body that assumes control of Jewish fields and their produce, pays the farmers a sum of money to do the work on behalf of the beit din, and then sells the produce—proceeds to the beit din—at certain designated stores. This process is mentioned in a Tosefta, and was endorsed by the Chazon Ish, thereby carrying a lot of weight. But the Rambam doesn’t cite this as a halachic possibility, many authorities don’t accept it and many farmers do not wish to be part of the otzar beit din system (probably for financial reasons).

Eating non-Jewish produce is the least problematic halachically, especially if it comes from outside the Land of Israel. (The Chazon Ish, for example, ruled that even Arab-owned produce in the Land of Israel has to be treated with kedushat shevi’it.) But the notion of buying produce from Arabs does not sit well with many people; it is especially repugnant to purchase it from the new “owners” of the hothouses of the former Gush Katif (at least the ones the Arabs didn’t ransack), and it is widely assumed that such purchases underwrite terror.

The third method is the most controversial. The heter mechirah, well over a century old, was endorsed by many gedolim in the past (and opposed by many as well). In 1904, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook endorsed its use temporarily, as “an emergency measure” to prevent starvation. Undoubtedly, in the context of his time, he was correct. But no one will starve today. Nowadays, it is more a question of loss of farmer’s income than anything else. Every shemittah cycle, the “sale” is carried out, with fewer and fewer straight faces.

Add to this fact that the Chief Rabbinate has been lukewarm in its endorsement of the heter; numerous jurisdictions have prohibited use of the heter; the High Court of Justice has actually ordered the Chief Rabbinate to implement the heter and a new rabbinical organization named Tzohar has offered its own hashgachah using the heter, breaking the Rabbanut’s kashrut monopoly in the process. What we have is a major-league balagan. Every question has an answer, and every answer generates new questions.

A few weeks ago, we were stuck in traffic on the Ayalon Highway. Suddenly, we noticed the road sign above us: “Pekak ad Kibbutz Galuyot,” “Gridlock Until the Kibbutz Galuyot Exit.” I soon realized the deeper message: there is gridlock—spiritual gridlock—and there will be, until all the exiles come home and until Mashiach arrives. Only then will all these questions be answered, all these problems resolved, and as Torah Jews we will speak with one voice in acknowledging the Torah that comes from Zion, and the word of God that comes from Jerusalem.

Religious Life
Jewish life here has a natural rhythm to it—part similar and part dissimilar to our experiences in America. The davening is the same and the forms of mitzvot are identical. The most noticeable change in my davening routine here is that Birkat Kohanim occurs every morning and twice on Shabbat. As a Levi charged with hand-washing duty during every chazarat hashatz, the chazzan’s repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei, I step outside to take care of business. Aside from the occasional bout of carpal tunnel syndrome (one shul had eighteen Kohanim), I enjoy it immensely. Why we do not experience this inspiring blessing in our daily lives throughout the Diaspora remains unclear.

But what Israel lacks most is our sense of religious community. For example, in Teaneck our lives revolve around the shul, with a community rabbi to whom we turn; that institution is mostly lacking in Israel, and American expatriates often tell me that is what they miss most.

A (Shabbat only) shul located in a local school in Modiin tries to replicate the American-shul experience. It offers a fine young rabbi, social and youth activities, shiurim, ruach, et cetera. It will surely be a successful endeavor and hopefully a model that other communities can emulate.

Kippot worn today—each different in size, texture, material and color—tell us with which “team” a person identifies, but they tell us nothing about what type of player he is.

Without a central rabbinic figure, most shuls remain lay driven (with all the positives and negatives that portends). They exist as places to daven, period. A Yemenite Jew who had duchened one morning was subsequently called up for revi’i, the fourth aliyah. When I inquired why a Kohen was getting the fourth aliyah and not the first as is the custom, the gabbai confessed that he was wondering the same thing. Perhaps the Yemenites have a custom that the Kohen can get any aliyah, he said. I responded that perhaps the Yemenites have a custom that a Yisrael can duchen too! Indeed, without a central authority, strange things can happen.

The bright side: because the success of each minyan depends on every person, people become more involved. While a shul in Buchman Darom, the new neighborhood in Modiin where I am currently staying, remains to be built, there are minyanim on the street, including an especially beautiful Maariv minyan. Every night under the stars, at 9:30, in a park on our corner, twenty-five to thirty people materialize out of the darkness, face Jerusalem, and daven together, our individual voices rising as one in the crisp evening air.

“Americanizatzya”
America has long served as the world’s cultural trendsetter. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Israel.

Although English is a second language in Israel, this fact fails to convey the extent of America’s infiltration into Israeli society. It is not that you can get by without speaking Hebrew; indeed, it is difficult to embrace the society without speaking Hebrew. But English idioms have become commonplace in Israeli speech—and not just the “ya” endings of yesteryear (“televizya,” “protektsiya”). Listen to any Israeli speak—be it an ordinary citizen or a media personality—and he will sprinkle his sentences with words or phrases like “why not,” “time,” “time out,” “so what,” “OK,” “chance,” “conflict” (pronounced “con-FLICT,” plural “con-FLICT-im”), not to mention technical terms like “Internet,” “e-mail,” “fax,” “high-definition” and literally hundreds of other words, all of which are transliterated into Hebrew in the press. No doubt this is partly the influence of globalization, here known, of course, as “globalizatzya.”

Rather than grasp for a Hebrew word, it is often easier to just say it in English, with the occasional conversionary suffixes. Preparing for a public speech a few weeks ago, I looked up the word “speculative.” I need not have; the Hebrew is “speculativi.” Occasionally, the pronunciations and etymologies are humorous. Liat Collins, who writes a language column in The Jerusalem Post, reported an argument she had had with her commander in the army many years ago, who gave her an “ool-ti-mah-tum,” claiming it was a Hebrew word and correcting her (she is British) when she insisted on pronouncing it “UL-ti-mah-tum.”

As an aside, part of me wishes that “Saturday” would enter the Israeli lexicon in order to avoid hearing such non sequiturs as “On Shabbat, we drove to the Galil for a picnic.” Another part of me feels that at least use of the word “Shabbat” helps keep the idea of Shabbat alive, even if it is not observed properly.

The most amusing illustration of American influence that I have seen is “Halailah,” Israel’s The Tonight Show. “From Kikar Dizengoff in Tel Avivvvvv, it’s Halailah—starring Lior Schleiiiiiiiiin!” It is rank mimicry of the late night talk shows in America—featuring the host, the monologue (I never would have thought that Asarah B’Tevet could be mined for comic material!), the set—complete with the desk, the backdrop of Tel Aviv (instead of New York City or Hollywood), the sofa chairs, the band and the banter with the bandleader.

Certainly, the culture as it is has little general appeal to the more traditional elements in society. Religious Jews are blessed with a plethora of shiurim—every night of the week, and on an immense variety of topics—in almost every community in the country. But it is very difficult to combat a cultural behemoth like the United States. The revolution against Greek culture that occurred during the Second Temple era began right here in Modiin. Yet, it is worth recalling that despite the Chanukah victory, less than 100 years later, Simon the Maccabee’s own great-grandsons, who bore the fine Greek names Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, fought each other for the throne and self-destructed.

A country with its own culture shapes its own destiny, and develops a strong sense of national pride. American culture may be dominant in the world, but, in truth, it is scarcely felt in countries like Russia or China, each of which has a rich cultural tradition of its own. An indigenous Israeli culture exists, but it is overwhelmed by America’s. Israelis write books, yet the bookstores are mainly filled with Hebrew translations of American best sellers. In time and given the right circumstances, Israel will surely develop a culture that is uniquely Jewish and that touches the mind, heart and soul. It is part of building a state, liberating the Jewish spirit from centuries of exile and shaping the national character that will engender “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.”

Abba shel Shabbat
The Jerusalem Post recently profiled Jerusalem’s first, and probably only, female Chareidi taxicab driver. She chauffeurs only women and couples (never men alone), and solely by reservation. The cab belongs to her husband, who was working such long hours to support their family that their children began to refer to him as “Abba shel Shabbat,” the Shabbat father, for they saw him only on that day. Realizing the detrimental effect his long work hours were having on the children, the couple made some schedule adjustments. She obtained her cab license, and they split the taxi time between them. He is now able to stay home with the children a few mornings or evenings during the week and is no longer Abba shel Shabbat.

Aliyah often requires some creative, out-of-the-box thinking. One of the increasingly common methods of earning a living here (so to speak) has become the long-distance commute. The fathers work in the United States (or the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe) and travel there every week, every two weeks, once a month for ten days, a month at a time or some other permutation. It’s still unclear what the long-range effects of such arrangements are on the family dynamic. In essence, wives and children must delineate two different patterns of family life: when Abba is home and when Abba is not home. When Abba is home, the family unit is complete; when Abba is not home, something changes.

Based on my conversations with some of the wives of such commuters, it would appear that they are comfortable with this lifestyle, in utter defiance of Chazal’s presumption, articulated in several places in the Talmud (e.g., Sotah 20b) that, loosely translated, states that “a woman prefers her husband’s presence and less income than her husband’s absence and more income.” If Abba’s prolonged absences enable the family to live in Israel—and as he draws an American salary, live in Israel very well—then so be it. While some wives do perceive a hardship, or at least an inconvenience, still something has changed.

What may sound strange on the surface sounds more reasonable under further scrutiny. While there is surely a gaping void in the family unit when Abba is away, when he is home he is usually completely home. He might even spend more time with the children—mornings, evenings, Fridays (which has become like an American Sunday here) and Shabbatot—than if he had a regular nine-to-six job in Israel or in America. He may be an “Abba shel shvuayim,” the biweekly father, but overall he might spend more time—both quantitatively and qualitatively—with his family.

One need not be an overworked cab driver in Jerusalem to become an “Abba shel Shabbat.” How many of us work such hours that we rarely see our children during the week? The working man can easily leave home before small children are awake, and return home long after they are asleep. Worse, he can come home late on a Friday afternoon, rush to prepare for Shabbat, hurry to shul, fall asleep at the table, repeat the same scenario Shabbat morning, sleep again Shabbat afternoon and before you know it—Havdalah, and the cycle starts again.

The challenge of finding the appropriate balance between being a worker and a parent/spouse exists in Israel, America and everywhere else in the world. The question ultimately becomes, for what exactly do we work?

Obviously, the more that material luxuries are perceived as necessities, the greater will be the commitment of time and energy required to provide them—with the concomitant diminution of the time and energy available for worthier pursuits. It is worthwhile to carve out certain blocks of time in addition to Shabbat when children can expect to interact with their working parents. The time we spend rearing our children under our roofs passes more quickly than we realize. The pleasure that is provided by one’s good, virtuous, well-adjusted, productive children and grandchildren far exceeds that of any other pleasure in the material world.

Closing Thoughts
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim and rav of Beit El, was once asked: Is it appropriate to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut when Israel is headed by a secular government and is not yet a Torah state? He answered that not only is it appropriate, but it is also a mitzvah to give thanks to God, to not be indifferent to the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

What generations long pined for came into existence in our day. Legions of Jews who dreamt of returning to Israel would probably be astonished at the disenchantment among those who claim that statehood has not unfolded as they had anticipated. Despite the constant struggles, the Torah obligates us to appreciate our gifts, and accept each challenge—personal and national—as Divine opportunities to develop ourselves and perfect His world.

Rabbi Pruzansky has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, since 1994. He is the author of A Prophet for Today: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Yehoshua (Jerusalem, 2006) and the forthcoming Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim (Jerusalem, 2008).

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2008.

Leave a Comment