What made Rav Soloveitchik a simply great Talmud teacher

It's now 25 years since my renowned teacher, Rav Soloveitchik, passed away.

When I published this short essay in 2005 in the Commentator, the YU undergraduate newspaper, I was proud to extol my rebbe in the most glowing terms I could imagine. After further review, as they say in the NFL, I still feel that way. I republished this in honor of the Yeshiva University Chag HaSemikhah Convocation that took place on Sunday, March 19, 2017. I received my rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva in 1973. My father received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva March 19, 1942.

Here again is my meager and utterly inadequate tribute to a truly great man.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Indelible Beginner

In the fall of 1969, as a college senior, I started four years of learning in Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik's Talmud shiur.  In my family we venerated the Rav above all other rabbis. We spoke of him with the utmost reverence that one would bestow only upon a truly saintly man.

I received in those four years so much from the Rav: a methodology of learning, a theology of Judaism and, above all, a secret of pedagogy.

Let me explain briefly this last point. The Rav would sometimes in an occasional moment of surprising self-reflection refer to himself as a "poshutte melamed," just a teacher of beginners. That statement puzzled me. Surely the Rav was the greatest sage of our generation. How could he represent himself in this ordinary way?

One day I accidentally discovered what he meant. We convened on the fourth floor classroom for our shiur - about to begin studying a famous sugya in Massechet Shabbat. That day I was using a Talmud volume from a small shas that my uncle had used when he studied in the Rav's shiur many years earlier, in the fifties. I found interleaved in this book a page of my uncle's notes (i.e., Rabbi Noah Goldstein, my dad's brother) from the Rav's discourse on this sugya fifteen or twenty years earlier.

As we started reading the text, the Rav began to perform the magic that he was so good at. He made it seem to us all as if he was looking at the text for the very first time. He made every question he raised appear as if he was discovering a problem afresh. He made every answer and explanation that he examined in Rashi or the Tosafot appear to us as if it was new to him - a complete surprise.

The Rav dramatically unfolded a complex and intricate exposition of the sugya - and each stage of the discourse seemed so new and alive. Yet as I followed along and I read in my uncle's notes, I saw that the Rav was repeating each and every element of the shiur exactly as he had given it years before, insight by insight, question by question and answer by answer. He had me convinced that he had just discovered every element of his learning. Yet I had proof in front of me to the contrary.

I saw that day how the Rav had the ability to make every act of learning a new, exciting and living revelation. I have striven to emulate him ever since to replicate this ability and to achieve as a learner and as a teacher some small element of this revelation.

Hanging over my desk as I write this I have a quotation from the great German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "If the angel deigns to come it will be because you have convinced her not by tears but by your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner."

I believe the Rav would agree.

//repost from 8/2009//


Was Roger Bannister Jewish?

No, the first athlete to run a mile in under 4 minutes, Roger Bannister was not a Jew.

He died 3/3/2018 at age 88. British Prime Minister Theresa May remembered Bannister as a "British sporting icon whose achievements were an inspiration to us all. He will be greatly missed."

Note that Harold Abrahams, the timekeeper who recorded Bannister's first, was a Jew. Wikipedia reports. "Abrahams's father, Isaac, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, then Congress Poland as part of the Russian Empire. He worked as a financier, and settled in Bedford with his Welsh Jewish wife, Esther Isaacs."

May 6, 1954: "Bannister crossed the line and slumped into the arms of a friend, barely conscious. The chief timekeeper was Harold Abrahams, the 100-meter champion at the 1924 Paris Olympics whose story inspired the film 'Chariots of Fire.' He handed a piece of paper to Norris McWhirter, who announced the time."

In 2011 there was some controversy over Abraham's role as timekeeper at the event.


My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for March 2018: Fighter for Gun Controls and Haggadah Hunters

My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for March 2018:
Fighter for Gun Controls and Haggadah Hunter

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I’m a high school student who was devastated by the recent deadly shootings in a Florida school and by so many other recent awful acts of gun violence in our country.

My friends and I are organizing activities to counter this terrible trend, but I’m afraid we will not succeed against the fierce tide of gun proponents.

What should we do to get some real traction and lasting results?

Fighter for firearms controls in Fair Lawn

Dear Fighter,

I am awed by the response of students after the latest tragic gun carnage in Florida. I especially was floored by the young speaker who made her displeasure with politicians clear, saying on TV, among other strong sentiments, “We call B.S.! Shame on you!”

How awful that our innocent schools and holy houses of worship have suffered violent attacks that resulted in multiple deaths. How utterly sad that venues of merry entertainment were attacked by perverse maniacs. What a dreadful day and age we live in.

I think about this contrast. Back in the 1950s my dad sat working during the day in his quiet rabbi’s study in the Park East Synagogue in New York City on East 67th Street, right next door to the local police precinct. The shul entrance was always unlocked as he worked alone in the big empty shul building.


Is Rush Limbaugh Jewish?

Yes, Rush Limbaugh is a Jew. Rush's Conservative Gentile persona is a successful act that has earned him record multi-million dollar contracts in the radio business.

Rush's real name is Ronald Levy. He was born on the upper West Side of Manhattan. His father was a dermatologist and his mother a junior high school librarian. He attended the Ramaz School where he excelled at floor hockey and then Amherst College where he double-majored in art history and chemistry.

Rush was accepted to Albert Einstein Medical School of Yeshiva University. He had to withdraw during his first semester because he could not control his mocking derisive laughter when confronted with the illnesses and infirmities of the hospital patients.

Happy Purim everybody. א פריילעכן פורים
Rush! Rush! Rush! !רָשׁ! רָשׁ! רָשׁ
חַג פּוּרִים, חַג פּוּרִים,
חַג גָּדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים!
מַסֵּכוֹת, רַעֲשָׁנִים,
שִׁירִים וְרִקּוּדִים!

הָבָה נַרְעִישֶׁהָ:
רָשׁ רָשׁ רָשׁ!
הָבָה נַרְעִישֶׁהָ:
רָשׁ רָשׁ רָשׁ!
הָבָה נַרְעִישֶׁהָ:
רָשׁ רָשׁ רָשׁ!
//repost from 5769//


Jewish Standard Feature Article on my Polychrome Historical Haggadah, the beautiful Color-coded Haggadah that highlights the Seder's origins

Jewish Standard Feature Article: 

Color-coded Haggadah highlights seder’s origins: The Polychrome Historical Haggadah

Teaneck rabbi reprints classic work of seven-hued scholarship

By Larry Yudelson

Who wrote the Haggadah?

We know who wrote the Hogwarts Haggadah. (Moshe Rosenberg.) We know who wrote the Rav Kook Haggadah. (Bezalel Naor.) We even know who wrote the ArtScroll Family Haggadah. (Nosson Scherman.)

But who wrote the original text?

Like all the siddur and other classic works of Judaism, the Haggadah dates back to before people started putting title pages and copyright notices on their books and listing them on Amazon. So we don’t really know.

We do know that most of the text we use today is found in the earliest Jewish liturgical manuscripts, which date from the ninth century. And the outline accords with the teachings of the Mishna from six centuries earlier.

But who put this together, and exactly when?

Truth be told, we don’t know.

Now, however, a Teaneck rabbi — and Jewish Standard columnist — has republished a classic work that highlights all the different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.

“We are having a conversation with Jews across all periods of history,” Rabbi Tzvee Zahavy said. “This is not just something we’re doing with our family. We’re having a dialogue across the ages.”

This month, Rabbi Zahavy reissued the Polychrome Historical Haggadah. Originally published in 1974, it was the work of Rabbi Jacob Freedman of Springfield, Massachusetts. It highlights the different levels of the Haggadah by putting each stratum in a different color. Biblical verses are black. Mishna passages are red. And so on — until contemporary additions like the Hatikvah, appropriately in Israeli-flag blue.

It is a seven-hued rainbow.


On the Awfulness of Our Post-Truth Society - reflecting on a New York Times Op-Ed

Molly Worthen discussed post-truth Christian society recently in the Times.

She vividly described living in and with a social world governed by a "Christian Worldview". I am not sure why she was so accepting of this cultural phenomenon that is so widespread. Sure there are good aspects of that preaching. Teaching people to be moral and ethical and loyal and faithful - who can argue with that side of the equation?

But many aspects of the thought systems that she described are now, and have been in the past, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual, gender biased, anti-gay, triumphalist, tribal to the extreme and generally obnoxious and awful.

Worthen concluded with a summary of a professor's ruminations on the contrast between a person who teaches academic thinking, whom she calls the skeptic, versus on who preaches fundamentalist religious thinking, whom she calls the cynic. Citing a professor of journalism at a Christian college she presented this pithy summary:
"The skeptic looks at something and says, 'I wonder,' " he said. "The cynic says, 'I know,' and then stops thinking."
He pointed out that "cynicism and tribalism are very closely related. You protect your tribe, your way of life and thinking, and you try to annihilate anything that might call that into question." Cynicism and tribalism are among the gravest human temptations. They are all the more dangerous when they pose as wisdom and righteousness.
Yes, I agree with the professor's words and conclusions. In the worldview of some of my Orthodox Jewish neighbors, the best rabbi is the one who is the most cynical and tribal - and who poses most vociferously as the wisest and most righteous.

That posing doesn't fool me. The danger of that person is real and awful. 


Is Janet Yellen Jewish?

Yes, my favorite person of the past four years, Brown graduate (Pembroke), and the now-newly-retired Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System of the United States, Janet Yellin is a Jew.

Wikipedia reports, "Yellen was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Anna (née Blumenthal) and Julius Yellen, a physician. She graduated from Fort Hamilton High School in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. She graduated summa cum laude from Pembroke College (Brown University) with a degree in economics in 1967, and received her Ph.D. in economics from Yale University in 1971 for a thesis titled Employment, output and capital accumulation in an open economy: a disequilibrium approach under the supervision of James Tobin and Joseph Stiglitz."

Yellin presided over the bull market of 2014-2018 during which the DJIA rose from 15,372 to 26,616, a gain of 74% in 4 years.

That's why she is my favorite person of the past four years.


My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for February 2018: Is Bitcoin Kosher? Should I post my medical status on Facebook?

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for February 2018
Is Bitcoin Kosher? Should I post my medical status on Facebook?

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My friend says I should buy bitcoin. He predicts I’ll make a big profit. He says that even though the value of the cryptocurrency recently has risen dramatically relative to the dollar, it’s not too late to buy. Should I trust his advice? And honestly, I do not understand how the currency works. Can you give me some insights? Should I trust bitcoin?

Taking Risks to Get Rich in Ridgewood

Dear Taking Risks,

I checked thoroughly and want to let you know that my research shows that the Talmud has no teachings about bitcoin. The Talmud is an ancient literature. Bitcoin was invented quite recently. Never the twain shall meet.

And although I worked for years in the financial services industry, at big banks and at hedge funds, I did so as a technology expert, not an investment adviser. I have no credentials to give financial or investing advice. And if the truth be told, I am not very good at following the sage advice I received over the years from the real money experts. Accordingly, please do not construe anything I say here as guidance for your investing. I will not and cannot tell you what to buy or sell or when to do so.

But while I researched and pondered what the Talmud might say about your inquiry — as if prophetically the Talmud could know about bitcoin — I did realize there are some striking similarities between the two systems — between traditional religion and the blockchain technology that underpins all cryptocurrency.


My Plea - In Mommy Edith's Memory on her Birthday - Quit Smoking Cigarettes Today

My mother was a strong athletic woman. I believe that she would be alive and 97 years old today, if not for cigarettes.

In 2000 my mother Edith Zahavy passed away on the 4th day of Tammuz after six months of hospitalization at Mt. Sinai in NYC. She was 79.

For 63 years she smoked, mostly menthol cigarettes. The corporate tobacco pushers hooked her into addiction by giving her free samples outside her school, Hunter College, when she was a teenager. They supplied her habit for six decades.

For several years prior to her death she could hardly walk because of her profound vascular disease, heart disease and emphysema. Her last months in the hospital on a respirator were awful as all of the organs of her systems weakened and failed.

My mother was a beautiful, selfless, generous, creative, religious person who dedicated her whole life to her family, to her friends and to her students. She first brought us up (myself and my brother and sister) and then went on to teach in the NYC public schools. She also founded the Park East Day School.

She stood behind my father, me and my siblings through thick and thin. But through the years she always smoked, mostly Newports and Salems. When I was in high school she would send me down on Fridays to buy her Challahs for Shabbat and a pack of cigarettes for Friday.

As I remember her -- an active vibrant woman -- I plead with you -- if you smoke cigarettes -- QUIT TODAY. Please for the sake of the memory of my mother -- for your own sake -- for the sake of your spouse, your parents, your children, your friends -- please stop.

(Repost annually from 2006)


Your Employer's Dirty Tricks - Dear Rabbi Zahavy - My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column - January 2018

Your Employer's Dirty Tricks
Dear Rabbi Zahavy - My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column 
January 2018

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

After I worked at my job for three months, my manager suddenly, without warning or discussion, tried to change the terms of my employment, to give me additional responsibilities, and to take away from me my vacation. This was directly contrary to the terms we had agreed upon when I accepted the job.
What can, or should, I do about this?
Blindsided in Bergenfield
Dear Blindsided,
Our Torah clearly defends the basic rights of the worker, “You shall neither steal nor deal deceitfully or falsely with one another… You shall not defraud your fellow; you shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Leviticus 19:11-13). And more recently, many of our grandparents, in the spirit of our traditions of justice and fairness, in the United States and in Europe, led the global movements for unionization and for social justice to protect the rights of workers worldwide.
But today, though, I assume that you do not have a union to represent you. Given the power differential in your case, there is not much effective unilateral action that you can take. If you stand your ground against your boss, chances are that you will find no compromise and be forced to resign and walk away. If you seek compromise, likely you will be met with blank stares or glares from your bullying manager.
And if you give in, you may be able to remain in your job, but at significant personal costs to your dignity, and potentially to your happiness and health.


Is Pink Jewish?

Yes, Pink is a Jew. The star performer dazzled everyone at the Grammy's with her singing, acrobatics and revealing performance in 2010 and again in 2014. Her mother is Jewish.

A 2006 interview with Pink said about her plans for tattoos (which I do not think were carried out),
Her Jewish mom will be honoured on her right arm, “with Hebrew writing and a cat ’cause she’s a snob and she’s a nurse and all that stuff,” she says cryptically. “And my dad is this country boy and he’s a wolf, or a tiger – I’m not sure which animal yet. And my mom grew up in Atlantic City so I’m gonna have all sort of casinos. And Carey has tattoos of Las Vegas casinos… Then for the country I want a spider’s web, Charlotte’s Web, all that stuff.”
Wikipedia says, "Pink was born (1979) Alecia Moore in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Judith Moore, a nurse, and James Moore, Jr., a Vietnam veteran. Her father is Catholic and her mother Jewish, and her ancestors immigrated from Ireland, Germany, and Lithuania."

I don't think she got the Hebrew tattoo.

Pink's "Raise Your Glass" video below gets seriously into religion at about 2:00.

[repost from 3/2011]