Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz: A Healthy Relationship with Halacha

Listen_Apple_ButtonListen_Spotify_ButtonListen_Google_Button

SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, the director of semicha at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), about the development of halacha.

Rabbi Lebowitz has written numerous articles and several books on the practical applications of Jewish law and is behind the popular “Ten Minute Halacha” lecture series.

  • What is the role of rabbinic “intuition” in halachic rulings?
  • To what degree does the common practice of the community shape halachic rulings?
  • How has the focus of rabbinical studies shifted over time?
  • Does the concept of emunas chachamin, faith in the rabbis, mean blind adherence?
  • How are the personal circumstances of the individuals seeking a halachic ruling factored into a posek’s decision?

Tune in to hear a conversation about halacha and its practical applications.

Interview begins at 21:32.

Rabbi Lebowitz is the rabbi of Beis Haknesses of North Woodmere and the director of semicha at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). He previously taught at Lander’s College for Men and at the DRS Yeshiva High School (HALB).

References:

Ten Minute Halacha

Tales Out of Shul: The Unorthodox Journal of an Orthodox Rabbi by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz’s halachic guide to showering on Yom Tov

Gray Matter by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Contemporary Halakhic Problems by Rabbi J. David Bleich

Shabbat by Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon

Orchot Shabbat by Rabbi Shalom Yosef Gelber & Rabbi Yitzchak Mordechai Rubin

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore different a topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin. And this month, we’re exploring halacha. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number 1-8, followed by the word F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you could also find videos, articles, recommended readings and weekly emails.

I think one of the things that I was concerned about in approaching the topic of halacha was having somebody who actually decides — what’s known as a posek, somebody who decides halacha — on to the podcast. The reason why I was kind of concerned about it is that, it’s easier in a lot of ways to talk about something conceptually, give conceptual frameworks, and that’s a lot of what we do.

The moment that you invite somebody who is deciding practically how to live your life according to halacha, it’s a value judgment that I know so much of our audience is either going to find too lenient, or too strict to find that exact right balance. It’s part of the dance that we always try to do on 18Forty, where we’re kind of passionately centrist in a lot of ways, which is easier to do when you talk conceptually, you talk about ideas. But when you are looking for someone to actually talk about halacha itself and how it integrates into your life, that can be a lot trickier. I realize that so many of our listeners have different orientations vis-a-vis halacha, live in different halachic communities. And I was like a little concerned, because while I know it was important to have somebody who’s doing this practically in their lives, helping people decide the most serious issues, I also knew it would be fairly difficult to find the right person. It reminded me of that old George Carlin line. George Carlin — the somewhat profane comedian, but very, very insightful — once said that, “When you’re driving, anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and anybody who drives faster than you is a maniac.” And I think this is the way our community looks at other communities other than their own, in terms of their practical observance.

Anybody who drives a little bit slower, a little bit more of a conservative community, a little bit more traditional, a little bit more slower paced in their halachic change, you sometimes say, “They’re idiots, they’re…” I hate using that word, it’s just from the Carlin joke. But you look at them and you say, “Look, they’re ossified, they’re fossils, they’re not moving fast enough.” And then you look to the other side and you say, “A community that’s faster, more progressive, more lenient in whatever way, they’re absolute maniacs. I mean, clearly they’re not doing the right thing.”

And the only one on the road who’s driving properly very often is ourselves, we’re doing it right. My father, somebody one time was describing themselves religiously to my father and they described themselves as, “We’re normal, 98.6 normal,” like the temperature, what a normal temperature is. And my father chuckled realizing that everyone is normal only vis-a-vis, the extremists that they assume to the right of them and to the left of them.

But I do think the analogy of driving is instructive, when we think about developing a healthy relationship with halacha. There was a heartbreaking video that I actually shared on Twitter, because it reminded me in many ways of the way that we look out at how other people are relating to other people’s observance. It was a video of a car crash and it showed the lead-up to it.

This Honda’s in this really dangerous rush. It’s trying to drive really, really unsafe on the roads, really in a dangerous rush. And this white pickup truck becomes adversarial and deliberately slows down to kind of blockade the Honda and not allow it to pass. And a lot of times I think of the way that we relate to other communities, where sometimes a community will see another community making a lot of changes and it’ll deliberately slow down to kind of impede their movement. I don’t know if that makes sense either. I mean, every community needs to figure this out for themselves.

And on the flip side, the Honda who’s driving dangerously fast and kind of weaving in and out and trying to pass, eventually goes onto the shoulder in this video, which I think was taken down, because it was an actual car crash. It was quite heartbreaking. Then goes onto the shoulder, trying to pass it, swerves, and hits the side and flips over.

It’s a terrifying video. The saddest part of the video for me is the person filming this road rage, where the person who is filming it cheers when the car flips over. They cheer, they say, “Ah, great, they had it coming to them.” And I think a lot of us, whether you identify maybe with a community that’s driving a little bit quickly and unsafely on the ritual highway, or maybe you’re part of a community that is deliberately slowing up, and making sure that things progress and develop in a more safe pace, or whether you’re that third person in the car, who’s kind of just watching it all. I think most of us are that third person. The saddest thing for me is to hear a cheer, that triumphalist cheer, when a car flips over.

We want everyone to have a healthy relationship with halacha, with Jewish life, with Jewish practice and it’s not always easy. You have some people who are deliberately driving very slow, and you certainly have quite a few people who are deliberately driving really, really fast.

We always think of ourselves as being in the middle, no matter who you are. I’ve never met somebody who self-identifies as, “Well, actually, I’m the kind of the road rage of halachic progress.” Or, “Well, actually, I deliberately drive at a snail’s pace on the highway.” There’s nobody who… We all kind of subtly, in a self-conscious way, identify with that third person. And what I would say is that when you see communities, individuals kind of crash — and we do see this, this is what I wrote about, this kind of explains my father’s own relationship with halacha, that he grew up in a community that did make a lot of changes. And ultimately, Jewish life in that community disappeared.

He knew that it could be lost, and I think that’s why he reoriented his own relationship to halacha in a much more serious, stringent way because he knew it was something that if you don’t grasp onto it, it can eventually disappear. But I do think the reaction is what saddens me the most and I think we’ve all at times in our life been guilty of that reaction, where we’re filming different communities, and we take out our phone and we start to cheer when we see this road rage implode. Looking at Jewish communities, looking at individuals who are not able to strike that balance can be extraordinarily painful. And I think for ourselves, the healthy reaction is a lament, is with pain, is that the realization that healthy halachic practice over the generations of Jewish history has been lost, can be lost, and needs to be preserved.

And when we see it lost for whatever reason, either driving too fast or too slow, that is not a reason to cheer. And even if we are all watching and observing and seeing how this next generation of Jewish life unfolds within our communities, within the world, we have to make sure that we are only cheering for our successes and lamenting any crashes, any instability, any difficulties that we see in the world, because we need to know, ultimately, like on social media, people see us cheering, people see us getting excited from the pain and the difficulty. And that aside from not being a good look, it is not the healthy way a Jew, any Jew regardless of community, should orient themselves vis-à-vis the rest of the Jewish people.

And that is why I am so excited for the person who we chose and that is Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, who’s director of Yeshiva University’s Semikha Program. He’s the one who really sets the stage for Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school program. But my history with him goes back a ways further. And to me, it is part of why I feel such an instinctive trust with his perspective on halacha. For me, of course, I look at him as driving at the perfect speed. You don’t need to feel one way or the other, but I want to explain a little bit why I thought this was the right voice for our audience.

We’ve been using the analogy of developing a relationship with halacha like a home, like building a home, like learning how to design a home, learning how things work, so if anything goes wrong, God forbid, you know how to fix it. And it’s funny, my relationship with Rabbi Lebowitz actually begins with my childhood home. It goes back that far. My living room in my childhood home, which still is exactly the same as it was when I grew up, was designed by none other, not Rabbi Lebowitz, but by Rabbi Lebowitz’s mother, Debbie Lebowitz.

We are old, old family friends. We grew up going to the same shul. He’s obviously a little bit older than me, our sisters, my sister, Sara, his sister, Yael, are childhood friends to this very day. And we always knew each other growing up, and then eventually in my shul, Rabbi Lebowitz became the rabbinic intern. It was his first rabbinic position. I have been learning with Rabbi Lebowitz for probably around two decades.

I first began learning with him, I believe, when he became, not the intern rabbi in my shul, which was in his early twenties, but when he became an educator in my high school, during a gap year from law school. He took off, he was going to go to law school and he took one year off to teach in DRS where I was a student. He was probably 21 years old, very, very young and I was a student there. And that is when I first began learning with Rabbi Lebowitz.

And I think these two analogies — now obviously, he’s not the one who designed my living room, but there is a very homey, cozy feeling that you feel. The sense of trust and organic intuition that you feel when you have Rabbi Lebowitz in your life, that he is able to guide you, to cultivate a relationship with halacha that you know is going to be there for the long term.

You don’t feel like you are building an edifice that you cannot actually live in and develop a relationship with. Rabbi Lebowitz presents halacha with an accessibility, with a kindness, with an empathy that you know, this can be my home for the rest of my life. It’s not just a, sometimes you build a starter home or you have it, you buy a starter home, you rent, you live in an apartment initially, and you say, “I don’t know if we’re going to live here the rest of our lives, but this is a good place to start.” It’s not that.

And it’s also not this kind of retirement home, or someplace you build after, at the very end of your life. He is the home that you are able to grow up in and grow into. And I think a lot of that is a testament to how his own relationship as a Jewish leader, as a leader of halacha, as a posek developed. Rabbi Lebowitz is probably most famous for a series of shiurim that are hosted on YUTorah’s website, called “Ten Minute Halacha.” And I always say the innovation of “Ten Minute Halacha,” which spoiler alert, they’re rarely 10 minutes, but he essentially distills a complex halachic subject into a 10-minute presentation.

And the innovation of this is not that he’s saying major insights in halacha, it’s not that he’s saying things that you can’t hear anywhere else, the innovation is the accessibility. The innovation is to distill complexity into 10 minutes, where you can walk away with substance, with grounding, with an understanding of the subject and the basic layout of the room, so to speak, in just 10 minutes. And these absolutely took off. But I think more than anything else, what makes him unique as a presenter of halachic ideas, as a posek, as a shul rav, are the demographics that he began teaching. Who did he begin teaching? And I want to point out two demographics that I think are really important, that give you an insight for his approach to halacha.

First and foremost, Rabbi Lebowitz began teaching high school students. A lot of very serious poskim get their career going and they teach in major yeshivas. They’re teaching, like he does now, semicha students, rabbinic students, and they’re teaching the absolute cream of the crop. Now as somebody who knows who Rabbi Lebowitz began teaching, because I was one of those people, we were not the cream of the crop. We were decidedly, whatever the opposite of the cream of the crop is, maybe it’s the leftover crunchies from that crop. It’s the leftover refuse from the crop. That is who we were.

We were a terrible bunch of teenagers. We gave him absolute gehinnom, or as it’s translated H-E-double hockey sticks in our community. We were a terrible group of kids. We were decent kids, but we did not take his teaching seriously. We were rowdy, we were rambunctious, we were disrespectful. We were terrible, and he was teaching us classes and just, we were not paying attention, we were not listening. I think we even may have, I’m afraid to even say this, I’m pretty sure somebody stole his final, that first year that he was teaching.

And I remember at the very end, we were all shocked that he stayed on for more. We were shocked that after a year of being this rowdiest bunch of kids. Teaching a class, this young new teacher, who’s the one who you’re not really going to take all that seriously. He said, “No, I want to do more of this.” And I think it was his commitment to bringing substance to whoever was in front of him, no matter the audience, no matter the class, it wasn’t just fancy scholar in residents, or a big rav of a shul, or a semicha program, no, whoever was in front of him.

Not only was he a phenomenal educator, but it was his commitment to substance, it was his enduring belief that whoever is in front of me is entitled to substantive Torah. And I’ve said this many times before, but I want to give a very clear example of this because the influence that Rabbi Lebowitz has had in my life cannot be understated. When I was in 12th grade, Rabbi Lebowitz, who I believe was in his first or second year as a rebbe. I don’t think he had a full-time class. He was kind of an assistant rebbe to the menahel, to the head of the school. Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky, our mutual rebbe.

One Thursday night, he had to take over what was known as mishmar. Mishmar was the Thursday night, late night learning. We probably learned at around seven o’clock for 45 minutes. And this is the graveyard shift of high school education. We’re all souped up on Chinese food, we’re in school late at night. No one is particularly focused and nobody took mishmar all that seriously. And Rabbi Lebowitz, all of, I don’t know, 22 years old, maybe 23, came in, and again, this is over 20 years later, he presented on a lecture that he had heard from historian known as Shnayer Leiman on the, what I now know is a somewhat famous dispute between Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Yonasan Eibschutz, and some of the really wild accusations that Rav Yaakov Emden had, particularly involving the gravestone of Rav Yonasan Eibschutz’s wife. It’s a fabulous lecture that he got ultimately from Rabbi Shnayer Leiman.

But I was sitting there as a 16 year old, max, and I was enraptured. I was so focused because the substance and the care, in which he came in as a substitute mishmar teacher. Do you understand what that is? Substitute mishmar teacher, it’s like substitute teacher multiplied by mishmar equals chaos. This is a disaster, any other teacher in his position … if I was given this slot, I don’t know, most teachers would come and look around the room and be like, “Let’s do question and answer.” That’s usually like the “get out of jail free” card for educators who don’t want to put in the actual work. And he looked around, and he prepared, and he presented something that had the entire room absolutely focused.

And to this day, 21 years later, not only do I remember what he said, but because of the care, seriousness, and substance with which he invested for that half hour-45 minutes slot on a late Thursday night, after eating more beef and broccoli from Wok Tov than is humanly possible, it developed in me a lifelong love of Jewish history. That was when I fell in love with Jewish history. I’m able to pinpoint the moment.

And it’s a testament — not that Rabbi Lebowitz is a Jewish historian, he’s not. What he is a masterful educator, what he is somebody who, whatever slot and whatever audience he is given, he is going to make sure that he is able to inspire, stimulate, earn their focus and earn it with substance. And secondly, the second demographic that he really developed, and I know this because we kind of grew up…

Again, he’s a generation ahead of me, a high school generation ahead of me. He’s probably, I don’t know how old is he, I don’t need to speculate right now, nobody needs that, but it’s not hard to figure out. But the other way in which I saw kind of this seismic leap in his role within the community, was my sister, the same sister who was best friends with his sister. After she got married and they were looking to settle in a community, and they began an offshoot of what was not a major part of the Five Towns where we grew up, which was known as North Woodmere.

North Woodmere was not the bustling community that it is known now. They had about a dozen families and they were looking for a rabbi. And eventually, they hired Rabbi Lebowitz to be the rabbi of this very, very young community that really had a little bit more than a minyan. And I grew up, I used to go to my sister all the time, not only for Shabbos, I spent Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur there, and the minyan began in the basement of Rabbi Lebowitz’s home.

And I think that learning to lead a community, deliberately with a young couple who are just beginning to establish themselves as families and growing with them, and learning the cadence as your first rabbinic position of being the founding of a young couples’ shul and growing up with them, gives you an insight to how halacha can be integrated into people’s lives in the healthiest way and in a way that is able to have a long-term relationship with halacha.

He wanted to make sure that his approach in building this shul and building this community developed that long-term relationship and allegiance to halacha that people could build their lives around. And in fact, if you visit North Woodmere now, without a doubt, he has been incredibly successful. And my brother-in-law was the first president of the shul, they’re the ones who kind of established it.

And when you look at it now, it is absolutely remarkable. Not just his shul, but what his shul did to the entire North Woodmere community, is simply jaw-dropping. And to me, it is a testament of his very approach to Jewish life, to halachic life, which is always prizing the audience that is in front of him. Making sure that whoever is seated in front of him is going to be able to access the dignity, the substance, the realness, the authenticity of what halachic life actually is.

Whether it’s an 11th grader, whether it’s young couples, whether it is semicha students, he is able to build doorways to the most complex topics, but make it so accessible and so real, that when you listen to Rabbi Lebowitz’s shiurim, you literally feel like you’re walking into your childhood living room. I could get comfortable in here. I can build this relationship for the rest of my life, which is why I am so excited. And, it is really such a privilege to introduce somebody who really had a founding influence on my relationship, not just with halacha, but with Jewish life in general.

We grew up together in the same shul. He was my rebbe in high school, and he was the rav of the shul which I would visit in my 20s. And now, as somebody who I think of as a mentor, think of as a guiding star in all of the work that I do and even when I slip up, even when I mess up, there’s nobody who you want to help you right the ship in your own life, like a Rabbi Lebowitz. It is such an absolute privilege and pleasure to have him in my life and to share our conversation with Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz.

I am so excited to have somebody who — aside for the fact that I grew up with this individual, and I’ll probably share more of that later — is a little bit older than me, but our families have intertwined in countless ways. I am so excited to introduce a mentor, a leader, somebody who I’ve known for many, many years, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Thank you so much, Reb David, it is great to be with you. And, I have to tell you, I really, really enjoy your podcast.

David Bashevkin:

Oh, sheesh.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

I am so honored to be on the podcast, but I really enjoy listening to it. It is eye-opening in so many ways, allows me to think about things in different ways that I never thought about, and very, very educational.

David Bashevkin:

That means a great deal to me. And I want to begin with almost an anecdote that I had mentioned this beforehand, of why specifically I chose you. There are a lot of rabbis, a lot of people who are involved in deciding halacha, why specifically you? Aside from our family connections, we know each other for a long time. I had somebody in my office about 10 days ago, who was trying to figure out where to live, where to set up a home.

He’s in a community now and is struggling. And by reputation alone, he said, “I want to move to North Woodmere and be a part of Rabbi Lebowitz’s community.” And I think it’s a testament to this center and a word that’s always dangerous to use, the “normalcy,” of how you’ve created healthy, religious life surrounding the North Woodmere community. Again, a lot of family connections around that community too, that we don’t need to get into now.

But I wanted to begin with a question, which is what is your methodology, which is a fancy word, what is your approach to psak? I always look at what you do and the way you speak. A lot of it is a function almost of your personality, but there’s something very healthy and normal about the way you transmit ideas. And I’m wondering if you think you have a specific methodology for how you approach psak halacha?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. So, first to take a step back to that word that you used, “normalcy,” I think that’s a very, very important word, because I’ll tell you one of our mentors in common, Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky, I was once sitting next to him at a wedding. And I think Rav Dovid Feinstein was the mesader kiddushin at the wedding, was the officiating rabbi at the wedding. And sometimes, you look at the officiating rabbi, and he’s trying to fulfill every stringency and he’s nervous, he’s fidgety, and he’s always looking in 18 different directions.

And Rabbi Kaminetsky pointed out to me, he said, “Look at Rav Dovid Feinstein,” who was one of the great Torah giants, who we lost just recently. He said, “Look at the way that he officiates at the wedding, everything is just smooth and normal, everything just fits. There’s nothing, there’s no nervousness, there’s no craziness. He’s not observing any crazy stringencies. And even if he were, you wouldn’t notice it,” meaning when halacha is being observed properly, it shouldn’t be the cause of anxiety, it should be that which relieves anxiety.

Meaning, when a person has direction and you know what you’re supposed to be doing and you feel like you’re in a comfortable place, because this is the will of God, this is how I live, this is how I live every moment of my life, it gives a person a certain, a calmness in their approach to things. And I think it’s a very critical element that you have to be able to look at a Jewish lifestyle, which is governed by halacha, to be something that fits seamlessly into the way a person should live. And I think that’s the way it should be presented.

David Bashevkin:

I’m just going to jump in, before we get to the actual methodology. I’ve been mesader kiddushin at two weddings in my lifetime. And I sweated straight through my suit, not just my shirt, extraordinarily fidgety. So, I did not embody whatever you were describing. But it came from a lack of confidence, which I think is part of the healthiness and normalcy that you’re talking about. When you’re deeply educated and rooted in it, you have a confidence to approach issues that provides calmness, rather than exacerbates anxiety and all that other stuff.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Right. Meaning you’re taking it, for example, a person is in a — let’s pick an extreme example — a person’s going through a tragedy, let’s say, someone dies. So most of the time when that happens, people are so shaken up that they just don’t know how to behave. You find very often that when you start offering halachic guidance in those circumstances, there’s a certain sense of calm that takes over the person.

Like, oh, now I have direction, now I know what I’m supposed to be doing, now I know what the next steps are. And that should really reflect itself in the way we live our lives in general, that halacha gives us a way to live our lives and it gives us direction in life. It’s not a constant battle of decision-making and moral dilemmas. There’s a morality that’s an objective morality that sort of helps us out.

David Bashevkin:

So tell me, you look at different Jewish communities and they’re all so different, and I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the geographic differences, a lot of it might have to do with the financial differences, which we spoke about in our previous series. But one of the big differences you see is different communities have different approaches to how halachais felt within the community. So I’m curious, aside from being the director of Yeshiva University Semikha Program, which we’ll talk about, you’re the rav of a community. Do you have a methodology for how you guide halacha in your community? Do you have a way that you approach things? I don’t know if you want a specific example, I could give you one.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Let me start by giving a basic overview.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

And then I’d love to hear your example, especially if I’m off-base in terms of what you’re looking for.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

So just as a basic overview, I think when we say, when we guide halacha, that means two different things. First, it’s how to set up a knowledge base whereby you’re going to know how to live your life on a day-to-day basis. Meaning, you’ll know how to observe Shabbos properly. You’ll know what to do from the moment you wake up in the morning of those things that come up every day, what bracha to say on your favorite foods and how to daven properly, the things that come up on a day-to-day basis.

I think those are the kinds of things that as you learn and you immediately put into practice, you immediately implement, those just become second nature. That becomes a habit. And then, there are those shailas that come up. The questions in halacha that are unusual, that are different, that you hadn’t prepared for. And then, you can really look at the system to approach how to deal with those shailas. And obviously, or maybe not so obviously, it’s not purely legal, meaning you look at the legal texts, you look at the sources, you look at the basis for where everything starts. You see how the legal thinking has developed through the ages. But part of the system also includes concepts like sha’as hadchack, hefsed meruba, meaning these are concepts that mean something is a particularly stressful or difficult situation, something’s going to cost a major monetary loss. You take into account what you’re losing on the other end, whether it be a person’s physical or mental health … Life is dynamic and halacha is meant to address life. It’s meant to address real life. So all of those factors play into the system of halacha. And I think where you find sometimes that people have difficulty with it, is that they don’t know how to balance those different factors. They’re either too black and white or too touchy-feely, and the balancing of all of those factors in order to have a proper approach, I think is where the halacha gene sort of kicks in.

I mean by halacha gene is sometimes you meet people who know kol haTorah kula, they know the entirety of Torah. They could tell you chapter and verse, where everything is, but they’re just missing that feel a little bit. There’s like a sixth sense.

David Bashevkin:

An intuition.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. That intuitive sense of the right thing to do. Obviously, the intuitive sense alone is not enough. But the two together, I think, are very critical. Again, I don’t know if that answers your question. So maybe if you give an example.

David Bashevkin:

So yeah, I’m going to give you, I have like a few examples in my head. They’re teeny tiny, but I’m curious how you approach them. Here’s one way where I see different communities respond to this differently.

Most Orthodox communities that you live in today, you will almost never … though, during Corona, I actually saw a little bit of this in Teaneck, God bless the people, who I love. You’ll very rarely see somebody riding a bicycle on Shabbos, almost never. But if you go into any community or many communities, you will sometimes find young children riding scooters and I look at that as like a really interesting distinction. I know some communities don’t like the scooters, because we never allowed bike riding, it was never something that became commonly accepted. And some communities, they belong to a shul where kids don’t ride on the scooters on Shabbos. How did, when the first time… Now, I don’t know if anybody ever asked you the question, how did you approach the question? Somebody comes to you, not a two year old, “Can my 9, 10-year-old child ride a scooter to shul on Shabbos?”

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Right. So what you’re highlighting is really another element of the halachic development that I didn’t highlight before and that is common practice plays a very critical role also, meaning there are certain things that you can’t necessarily point to a particular passage or a particular ruling that will say that this is prohibited, but there is a sense that it’s just not the appropriate thing. Meaning the entirety of a sense of what Shabbos is, for example, might give a person a feeling that bike riding is probably not something we should be doing on Shabbos. Why? I could point to 10 things that it sort of borders on.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

A gezera that you might come to fix the bike because the chain might come loose, you might carry it outside of the eruv, because you can go long distances in a short amount of time. You might go beyond the tchum Shabbos, you might sweat and put in a lot of exercise, because bike riding is a form of significant exercise and you’re not supposed to do strenuous exercise on Shabbos. Now, are any one of those things like exactly a prohibition? Not really. But overall, Rav Asher Weiss has one of his more famous essays in his sefer on Chumash, where he talks about the issur of tzar ba’alei chaim,causing pain to animals. And he says, “It’s a issur deoraisa to cause needless pain to animals.”

David Bashevkin:

Biblically prohibited.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. Biblically prohibited. But there are, I believe, if I recall correctly, 13 different opinions where in the Bible it’s actually prohibited, which tells you that there’s nowhere in the Bible that’s actually explicit that it’s prohibited. But his point that he takes out from that, which he didn’t invent, it comes from Rav Elchonon Wasserman before him, the rosh yeshiva of Baranovich, the student of the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Brisker where he developed this idea called ratzon haTorah, that there’s a sense of what is the will of God in writing the Torah, even if it’s not stated explicitly.

It’s like the child asks his parents, “Can I go out with my friends tonight?” When the parents really want him home for a family gathering and they just don’t want to put up a fight, so they say, “Do whatever you want.” “Oh, okay, I can do whatever I want, I guess you’re okay with it.” So that’s like Hashem’s way of indicating to us that he’s not really happy with it. So the difference between scooters and bicycles is fascinating … When my kids were young and we noticed some people in the neighborhood were riding scooters, our children just knew that it’s not something we do. Meaning we grew up, we raised our children in a neighborhood where there are different types of Jews, different types of shuls. And they were comfortable with the idea that there are certain things that other people do that we don’t do, even though they’re wonderful Jews and they’re observant Jews and they’re great. And there are things that we do that other people… I mean, there are people to our right, to our left for lack of a better term.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

And that’s okay. We were comfortable with that, we were fine with that. What I found so interesting when it comes to the issue of scooters is that it’s the right-wing community that really-

David Bashevkin:

Embraced the scooter.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yes, yes. And I think probably because a scooter was always viewed as something that a child would ride, whereas a bicycle is for everybody. So they figured, okay, it’s just for young children to ride around a little bit, but a bicycle is something that all the adults, they have their Bike4Chai outfits and they bike long distances. Probably, that’s how it developed. Now, I see adults sometimes riding around on scooters, but it still makes me cringe a little bit. I can’t say that they’re violating any prohibition, but I find that–

David Bashevkin:

There’s something that’s an interesting, and I don’t want to harp on scooters, I’m going to give another example in a moment. When it comes to being a rav in a community and dealing with common practice, there always seems to be like this tug between “provide as much information as possible” and explain the details of the — whether it’s a prohibition or something permitted — explain it out. But then on another side and the other tug of that rope, there’s almost “provide as little as possible,” because then people start to kind of take their own interpretation and you lose some of the cohesive communal standard that in any community … Like you go into a wedding, everybody’s dressed a certain way. There’s an ambience that’s created, I think, particularly laws surrounding Shabbos and Yom Tov, that comes up. And I’m curious about one specific thing, as it relates to, not the specific details, but the logic that you had in your methodology of publicizing it.

There are a couple rabbis who are like known for their one-page primers on different issues. If it is rainy outside, it’s about to storm, I know Rabbi Brander is going to send out his primer of the laws of the hurricane. I know it’s going to be in my inbox, someone’s going to send it to me. Before every Yom Tov, no matter what WhatsApp group I’m a part of or what world, I get a primer that I remember seeing as a teenager that is on your letterhead about showering on Yom Tov, how to take a proper shower on Yom Tov. Now, I don’t want to go through all the rules, I’m curious about your reasoning, almost like a public policy decision to put that onto paper.

A lot of people … I grew up and like nobody, I don’t think I knew any… I mean, maybe I grew up in a… I have very holy parents.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

You do have very holy parents.

David Bashevkin:

I do have very holy parents. I didn’t know that many people who showered on Yom Tov. I did see it become more and more common as I was growing up. I’m curious if you had hesitance, you were fairly young when you put that out.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

Were you in your twenties? Is that…

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. In my twenties.

David Bashevkin:

So I’m curious, what was the background? And you don’t have to talk specifically about showering on Shabbos, I don’t want to like…

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Not Shabbos, Yom Tov.

David Bashevkin:

Showering on Yom Tov, I’m sorry. I don’t want to pit you into the corner. I’m curious about what your reasoning is when you publicize something like that with all of the reasoning. And when do you say, “You know what? Better to kind of keep the details a little fuzzier to kind of maintain maybe a more blanket black-and-white approach to a given issue.”

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Right. Okay. Let me back up one step before we get to that particular example. You painted two approaches, which you do see a lot. There are those that believe in explaining things clearly, explaining where things come from, what the logic is for the halachic ruling. And there are those that are of the mind that you just have to tell people yes or no, this is what you can do, this is what you can’t do and hope that they’ll trust you, that you know what you’re talking about. I very much am in the first camp. I think that in today’s day and age, people find it enthralling and exciting and they relate to it better when they see that it makes sense. I don’t think people like to hear nowadays, it just is. “Why do I have to listen?” “Because you have to, because I’m the rabbi and you’re not.” There are rare circumstances where that comes up.

Particularly, I’ve spoken to a number of therapists. If they tell me that when dealing with people who suffer from OCD, when I’ve worked with a therapist in terms of how to deal with halacha in those kinds of cases, they tell me very often, “You just have to tell the person it’s permissible, because I’m the rabbi and I said so.” Because once you start explaining, then there could be 15 counter-arguments. But in a normal halachic situation, I always find, or almost always find that it’s better to explain things. Because let’s face it, halacha is counter-cultural, it’s not something that we’re used to.

And it sounds weird to a lot of people, a lot of the halachic moves sound unusual. And if you don’t know where it’s coming from, it feels weird. And you start to question it, but when you hear, “Oh, this is based on this verse in the Torah, and this is how the Gemara had interpreted it and this is how it developed through the times of the Rishonim. Oh, now I get it, now I understand. When I have an understanding of something and it was explained clearly to me, I relate to it much better and I’m much more likely to observe that halacha. So as a rule, I’m much more in the camp of explaining things, at least in today’s day and age, at least in the 21st century. Whether that was always the case, I don’t know. I wasn’t rabbi in the 17th century, I’m a rabbi in the 21st century. Now, as far as the decision to publicize, how to shower on Yom Tov in a halachically acceptable way.

What I found was that many, many people had heard — because everyone hears things, through a WhatsApp chat, through my friend, my sister, my… — someone told them that really there’s no halachic prohibition with showering on Yom Tov. I never heard of that before, but my sister told me that her brother-in-law’s rabbi said that it’s okay, so it must be that it’s okay. And what I found was that a lot of people were showering on Yom Tov, especially a three-day Yom Tov, where it’s… And Simchas Torah very often, where there’s a lot of dancing and sweating and they were doing it anyway. And if they were doing it anyway, without any direction, there’s a high likelihood that they were violating at least rabbinic prohibitions, and sometimes perhaps even biblical prohibitions, in doing so. But like you said, I was in my twenties and I don’t view this as like a great work of mine, that one sheet of paper of how to shower on Yom Tov. But I asked guidance from my rebbe, from Rav Schachter shlita, our great rosh yeshiva here in Yeshiva University.

And I said, “Should I publicize this?” “Should I put this out there?” And he said, “Well, are people doing it anyway?”

I said, “Yeah.” So he said, “So then, you’re obligated, I think you absolutely should.” And I asked him to read it for me, to make sure that it was acceptable and that it was accurate. And, he did and that’s the only reason I put it out. Now I have gotten pushback, because I put it on Twitter.

David Bashevkin:

You did.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Oh yeah. I put it on Twitter and a rabbi from a shul in the tri-state area emailed me, “How can you put something like that out? Now, I’m not entitled to an opinion, because all of my congregants see that Rabbi Lebowitz put out a thing, where you’re allowed to shower on Yom Tov. I happen to hold that you’re not allowed to, I hold that even with all the precautions you put in place that it’s not acceptable. So now, my congregants think that it’s perfectly okay for them, so how can you put something out like that? I wasn’t particularly sensitive to the argument, because we live in a world where information is at our fingertips and you will find people that hold a wide variety of opinions. If you trust your rabbi and you go to him for guidance on, whether it be matters of halacha or other things, so his opinion will matter to you. If you don’t trust your rabbi, his opinion won’t matter to you.

The fact that there’s one other voice out there shouldn’t be threatening, I don’t think, to a rabbi.

David Bashevkin:

So you will, I mean, all your shiurim are on the internet, they’re accessible and that way, you’re not strong on not being able to share online. It could be just a basic misunderstanding of how social media works. I’m curious, just my final question in that first category in the common use question. When something is not done, there isn’t a great halachicreason or maybe the halachic reasoning is not as strong as the fact that nobody does it. I would put — I’m scared to make a list of these things — but we put scooters in that category, maybe Rav Moshe Feinstein’s approach to smoking marijuana could be in that category, perhaps. If you look, he’s got like 14 reasons there, tricky. Maybe even … you never find people using umbrellas on Shabbos, almost never.

And although there are very real reasons, there was a big controversy around that. But when that is not done, do you sometimes share people that the real guiding reason is just communal acceptance? Or is that something that it’s better for a rabbi, particularly when you see certain changes in the slippery slope argument, “it can lead to mixed dancing.” People always make a mockery out of halachic development because of that, but it’s a real thing. You can see things begin to erode. So, do you ever marshal the reason of “this is not done?”

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yes. I think that there are going to be areas of Jewish life, where that ultimately is going to be the answer. But I think that people are willing to accept that only if they don’t view that as the majority of Jewish life. Meaning, if people think of that as that’s always the answer because we just don’t do it, but nothing makes sense in this religion, then it’s very hard to accept. But if 99% of the religion makes sense, if 99% of Jewish practices make sense once you understand the system … now it is important that you have to understand the system. And a lot of people, even educated with Torah education, don’t understand the system of halacha. So it’s the example that people would often give, if I’m totally uneducated medically and I were to look at a pill and say, “How could swallowing this pill fix my headache? This Tylenol, just doesn’t make any sense.”

Yeah. Well, if I don’t understand the system, I don’t understand how it works, of course it doesn’t make sense. But once someone has a basic understanding of the system, and they’re taught, and educated, and are able to self-educate on the meaning behind 99% of it, I think we’re able to take that leap on the last 1%. But I think it’s when nothing is explained. I’ve dealt with a lot of people who have a very unhealthy relationship with halacha from growing up and they said, “Just nothing ever made sense, you weren’t allowed to ask questions and everything was just because, and nothing was explained clearly. So, I think it’s very important that people see the majority of our religion for what it is.

Something that could be explained clearly. I think I heard Rav Lopiansky speak about this once, that you need that kernel that you do understand. And once you have that kernel that you do understand, then all of those things that you don’t understand, you’ll be willing to take that leap of faith and say, “You know what?” Even though I don’t understand it, there must be some reason for it, there must be value to it.” Just parenthetically, Rav Lopiansky pointed out that that’s probably the true meaning of the concept emunas chachamim, a faith in the rabbis.

He said, “People use that terminology incorrectly and they think it means that you have to ask your rabbi what kind of highchair to buy for your child and what kind of investments to make,” and things of that nature. And I thought this was a great line, he said, “The danger in misusing a term is not only because you’re using the term in the wrong places, but you’re not using it where it should be and that’s an equal danger.” So that concept of emunas chachamim, of having faith with the rabbis, is a genuine concept, but it’s similar to how you would trust a doctor where you have some medical knowledge. I understand up to a point, but I realize this person’s a specialist; and therefore, they may understand a little bit more than I do.

David Bashevkin:

One of the most major issues that I’ve seen people deal with is halacha, not in the communal level, but halacha in the home and in the family. And I’m wondering if you’ve ever had to discuss with couples, whether spouses, people who are dating, who have differing, sometimes dramatically differing, relationships to halacha. Are there circumstances when a husband and wife, who have differing approaches to halacha or different levels of observance that could erode a lot of the culture in the home, is that grounds for the relationship to fall apart, to deteriorate? How do you guide a couple who has different approaches to their level of observance to create a healthy halachic home?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

So this happens frequently. A lot of times one spouse is growing, let’s say in the relationship to halacha, in their relationship to God, more rapidly than the other. But sometimes, you have two people that meet headed in different directions and they just happened to have crossed paths for that one moment and that’s when they got married. And then, the one who was growing continued to grow and the one who was falling continued to fall. So, you have things like that. I think really that’s more than a halacha question, that’s a marriage question. Meaning when a couple has a great deal of love for each other and a great deal of respect for each other, it’s possible to have different approaches to how they live their lives, as long as I’m not trying to ruin you, I’m not trying to, what we call in halacha to be machshil you, to cause you to stumble, to cause you to do something that would be against your better judgment and you can do your thing.

Take an example, let’s say there were many great, great talmidei chachamim, great Torah scholars of last generation, whose wives didn’t cover their hair, even though they were married women. And from a strict halachic perspective, a married Jewish woman is supposed to cover her hair. So, many, many great Litvishe roshei yeshiva‘s wives did not cover their hair. And if you were to ask them, “Does a woman have to cover her hair?” They would say, “Yes, of course, it’s halacha.” “But wait, but your wife doesn’t do it.” “Well, what does it have to do with me?” Meaning that she’s going to choose what she does and what she doesn’t do. And she’s going to choose where her battles are going to be, and maybe she’s going to be exceptional in her observance of the laws of lashon hara, of slander and evil speech, but she’s not going to be… So, she’s not ready or she’s not interested in taking this upon herself.

And that’s okay, because she’s not doing it to the marriage. But let’s say she doesn’t keep kosher and she feeds me non-kosher food, so that’s a real problem, because that’s a lack of respect and that’s going to destroy the marriage, not because of the halachic destruction, which it is that too, but it’s just a lack of respect. That’s a marriage that’s doomed to failure. Rav Moshe Feinstein, you mentioned before, has a teshuvah where he talks about, it’s interesting, this teshuvah is always quoted in the opposite direction from how it was. He was discussing a case in Russia many, many years ago, where the parents were observant, Torah-observant Jews and the children were not. And the parents wanted to know, can they eat at the children’s home? And the parents said, “Look, the children would never feed us non-kosher food. They know that it would destroy us, if we ever found out that they were doing that. They would never do that to us. They don’t want to hurt us, they just choose not to be observant.” And Rav Moshe says, then you’re allowed to trust them, that they’re giving… Now, it’s always the opposite direction. Thank God we’re in a generation now, where very often you have parents who are not Torah-observant. And you work for NCSY, one of the many, many hats that you wear, and then this comes up often in NCSY, where you have a teenager who is observant.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

And then they grow up, and they live in an observant home and they know that their parents love them and would never want to hurt them and never want to make them do something that’s against their better judgment. If that’s what they feel and that’s what they believe, then they’re allowed to trust them. So it’s really more of a respect issue than a halacha issue in most cases.

David Bashevkin:

So outside of your role as a communal rabbi, you also recently became the director of semicha at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, what’s known as RIETs.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

And I’m always fascinated, I think there is a PhD on this, of different curriculum for how do you become a rabbi, how do you get semicha? And I’m curious if you could take me through, what is the basic curriculum that you teach in Yeshiva University? And if you could highlight, especially things that have either changed, if anything, or things that have been emphasized more, I’m sure it hasn’t stayed the same completely over the last-

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Certainly has not.

David Bashevkin:

… century or thousand years. So, what do you learn to become a rabbi?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Okay. So there are two parts to our Semikha Program here in Yeshiva University. There’s the part that takes up the bulk of the students’ time, which is the classic semicha, which means that they study halacha and they study what’s called issur v’heter. They study the “Shulchan Aruch,” what’s prohibited, what’s permissible. And the methodology of halacha, that is a separate section of the Semikha Program, which is somewhat unique to Yeshiva University. Some other yeshivas do it to some lesser degree, more to some differing degrees, and that is the public speaking and psychology and all of the other things that a rabbi needs to do in his day-to-day life. And, my role here in Yeshiva is more on the first part. My title is Director of Semikha, but thank God we have an outstanding rabbi here by the name Rabbi Larry Rothwachs.

David Bashevkin:

One of the greats.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

He’s one of the greats. He’s really one of the greats. He runs the other part of the program, which really, how do you take a family through shiva and counsel them? How do you deal with a family that’s struggling with raising their children and having difficulties there, or difficulties with shalom bayis, with peace in the home, things of that nature. And hashkafically, where do we fit within the Orthodox world and how do we relate to other members of the Orthodox world? He’s fantastic at that. That’s not really my role. My role is really what the bulk of the curriculum is, what takes up the bulk of time, which is the study of halacha.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. Could you take me through what that is?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

And I have a more in-depth question, that’s probably a little more uniquely to you to follow up, but take me through year by year, what exactly are they learning?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Right. So the truth is it’s changed over time. When I studied at Yeshiva University, we spent six months learning the laws of shechita, of slaughtering animals. I have yet to slaughter my first animal. I didn’t even see an animal the entire time that I was learning the laws of shechita. And prior to my time, they used to learn the laws of treifos. They used to learn the laws of what types of illnesses or diseases that animals have that would render it not kosher, where you would open up a cow and look at its lung and, you’d open up a chicken and look at its intestines and be able to figure out whether the animal is kosher or not. But nowadays, we’ve removed that from the semicha curriculum. And the reason we’ve removed that from the semicha curriculum, is that it used to be that most of the questions that a rabbi would get in a small town in Europe would be a woman who would bring her chicken and say, “Is this a trefah?” Like a chicken that was just slaughtered down the street and “is this a trefah?”

Nowadays, you never get that question. There are four rabbis probably in Empire that are dealing with all of the trefah shailas. By the time it makes it to the store in Cedar Market, where you live, or Gourmet Glatt where I live, or all the wonderful stores. I’m not trying to make a plug, although I will for Cedar Market, because he davens in my shul. But-

David Bashevkin:

We’ll make a…

Aryeh Lebowitz:

… by the time it makes it to the shelf, that shaila has already been dealt. So, it does change. So what we have right now is … there are three major halacha, the amudim, three major areas of halacha that the students spend a full year on in each of these three areas. And then, there are a number of minor areas of halacha, where they’re hopefully trained, at least enough to have a basic working knowledge of it, although they can’t necessarily rule on serious matters. So the three major areas, where they should be able to come out of our program being able to pasken, being able to issue a halachic ruling, at least on the most common questions in these areas, are hilchos Shabbos, because we find that … and that was a recent innovation, it wasn’t always that way, to include hilchos Shabbos.

Because I find that whether you’re going to be a communal rabbi, or even a rebbe in a school, in a day school, the students will ask hilchos Shabbos questions. It’s one of the more common types of questions. Then one year of hilchos niddah and aveilus. We do that in the same year, the laws of family purity and the laws of mourning. Depending on the makeup of the community, sometimes it’s more emphasis on hilchos niddah if it’s a younger community, sometimes more of an emphasis on hilchos aveilus, if it’s an older community, it’s sometimes a mix, it’s both. And then the most challenging of the three years, is what’s called issur v’heter, where we learn the laws of kosher, the laws of meat and milk, and the laws of kosherizing utensils and things of that nature. Then there are a whole bunch of smaller areas, where we just want to make sure that they’re basically familiar with what an eruv looks like.

We want to make sure that they have a basic sense of what a mikveh looks like, to at least know how to ask these questions and a number of other areas.

David Bashevkin:

I’m curious in … I’m sure it wasn’t just by dictatorship, you got up and said, “We’re changing this and that.” Was there any debate over a topic that — you mentioned Shabbos as one — was there any debate of other topics that should get a more major time spent in the Semikha Program or any topics that people are still pushing, “we don’t need to spend time on this at all?”

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Right. So we’re constantly reassessing — we’re not constantly changing because that’s unhealthy, you lack stability if you constantly change — but we’re constantly reassessing and thinking about what is needed and is not needed. Shabbos was a no-brainer, meaning when we went to our senior roshei yeshiva for approval of adding a year, meaning by adding a year of a halacha, what it means is we’re taking away from something else.

It means we’re taking away from learning more Gemara, Gemara b’iyun, from in-depth Talmud study. And that’s no small thing, especially in our yeshiva where the prime emphasis has always been in-depth Talmud study, but it was so obvious to our senior roshei yeshiva that how can you give someone semicha if he doesn’t know anything about hilchos Shabbos? It was so obvious that there wasn’t much pushback on that. How exactly to fit it in? Okay, so those are details that we work out. But I do get emails from time to time from people saying, “I went to Yeshiva University, I have semicha from Yeshiva University, and it’s such a travesty and it’s so terrible that I don’t know Tanach or that I don’t know the basics of Jewish philosophy.”

We actually do have a course in the basics of Jewish philosophy that students have to take. “But I don’t know what it says in ‘Moreh Nevukhim,’ in the Rambam’s ‘Guide to the Perplexed.’ How can you give semicha to somebody who doesn’t know what it says in the ‘Guide to the Perplexed?’” Now, my response to that in general is — I’m not speaking on behalf of the institution, I’m speaking on behalf of myself — is that semicha is a particular degree. It’s a degree in paskeninghalacha, in ruling on halachic matters. We happen to incorporate more into it, because we’re trying to prepare our rabbis for all the different things that they’re going to face, to the extent that it’s possible.

But it is a particular degree, we believe that and I believe that a person has to be a lifelong learner. You can’t expect that you come out of semicha knowing everything that you need to know. And part of the degree is not to know the “Moreh Nevukhim” and not necessarily to know “Emuna V’Bitachon,” whatever the different philosophical works are, but you should get to it at some point in your life. You need to have some sort of plan to get to these things. One has to be a constant learner. I’m reminded of the story Rabbi Emanuel Feldman told when he became a rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia. So he wrote a beautiful book, as I’m sure you’re familiar with. What was it?

David Bashevkin:

“Tales Out of Shul.”

Aryeh Lebowitz:

“Tales Out of Shul.” Yeah. So he said that soon after becoming a rabbi, he was in his office and he was studying, he was learning and one of his congregants came in and said, “Rabbi, what are you doing?” And he said, “Well, I’m studying.” He said, “Oh okay, I won’t tell anybody, I thought you passed all your exams already, it’ll be our secret.”

A rabbi — and a Jew, forget about a rabbi — everybody always has to be learning, always has to be studying. So, a lot of the pushback I get are things that aren’t really part of what our core degree is about.

David Bashevkin:

Can I jump in and this question may make you deeply uncomfortable, but I think, I know, I personally want to know the answer to understand that, I don’t know if you’ll have the recall to say it. When you began, you taught me Nach and Nevi’im, in DRS, in high school. I was in 12th grade I believe and it was your first year as an intern rabbi. If I remember correctly, you were probably 21 at the time. Is that…

Aryeh Lebowitz:

22

David Bashevkin:

You finished semicha at a young age. You got married at a fairly young age. Can you take me through how you developed in your — I don’t want to say a word that makes you uncomfortable — but your expertise, your development and your relationship to halacha. You give shiurim on every topic imaginable, you could search “Ten Minute Halacha” and it’s every topic imaginable. At what point, you were young, you had teaching responsibilities. When did you go through, I don’t know, Shas? When did you go through “Shulchan Aruch?” Like, at what age were you able to find the time to develop each of these things? When I knew you, my guess is you were 22 years old, the things that you knew, you knew well, you had studied two years in Israel, you had probably a little bit of semicha under your belt. But when the bulk of your kind of that more general mastery of Torah has to unfold over time. When did that happen for you?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah, I think this highlights, meaning what way you’re highlighting is exactly the point I was trying to make, that we find this is a problem with a lot of our semicha students, is that a lot of them don’t want to pursue a career in the rabbinate because they look at their rabbis who are 20 years older than them, or 30 years older than them, or 40 years older than them and they say, “Well, I’m not that, I don’t know as much as Rabbi Schachter, Rabbi Sobolofsky, or Rabbi Twerski, or any of our great roshei yeshiva, so I don’t have what it takes. I can’t be a great rabbi.” And you have to realize, although some of those names I just threw out might have been exceptions to this, but at your age, when they were young, they weren’t that either. I mean, that takes time to develop … There’s no moment in time where all of a sudden you say, “Oh, now I’ve gone through all of ‘Shulchan Aruch,’ now I’ve gone through all of Shas. Me personally, I give Daf Yomi shiurim. I’ve been giving Daf Yomi shiurim for 17 years, so you make it through Shas a few times and you try to do it well, you try to do better each time than the time before. You study a little bit every day, what you said before that what you know, you know well, what you know, you study properly. That’s critical, that’s critical because if you do nothing well, then the buildup over time is that you kind of, sort of know, but don’t really know a lot of things. It’s much, much better to see how Torah growth can happen day after day. And it can happen exponentially.

As you know, let’s be honest, we know each other for a long time, you were always… I knew you since you were in 10th grade. I mean, I knew you before you were in high school, I know you when I was a little kid, but when I was your teacher, it was before 12th grade. It was, you were, I think in 10th grade when I first taught you, maybe 11th grade. It was always obvious that you were the smartest, one of the smartest people in the room, and certainly a lot smarter than the teacher in front of the room, which you probably used to your advantage many times. But, it was also obvious that I was not the smartest person in the room. No one will look back and think of, who I went to school with, will think of me as the smartest guy in the room. And I’m still not the smartest guy in the room, you don’t have to be the smartest guy, you just have to keep on working and keep on building on that knowledge.

David Bashevkin:

I think what I noticed for you, and it’s something I’ve tried to incorporate in whatever areas I’m interested in, is your organization and your writing, meaning you wrote a lot and you would have these outlines of different topics that became very, very usable and probably made it easier to remember. I’m just curious. I’m just going to push one more time, because you didn’t really give me the answer I was looking for.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Just tell me the right answer and I’ll give…

David Bashevkin:

The ages from 25 to 30, what were you learning during your spare time? That’s probably the time when we weren’t as in touch. 25 to 30, what was going on in a day in your life? So you entered 25 as a very solid, you published an article on whether you could brush your teeth on Shabbos. I mean, remarkable, but not remarkable in the way it was remarkable. And then you came out, and all of a sudden in your early thirties, maybe out of the “Ten Minute Halacha,” it became much more of a lot more notoriety, or more prolific — notoriety is sometimes a negative connotation — more prolific. 25 to 30, what did you spend your time learning?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

The same things I learn now. I spent time learning Gemara each and every day and time learning

halacha each and every day. And what you said about note-taking is a very, very important part of my day, to organize thoughts, to organize the sugyos, so to speak, the topic, to be able to put everything in an outline form. That’s just the way I think. If I can’t put it in an outline form, then I don’t feel like I know it. So I was giving shiurim that whole time. And each year, I would challenge myself to… I felt that whatever topic I felt like I wanted to know, that I didn’t know well enough, I’d just give shiurim on that topic.

So my preparation for the shiurim meant I had to learn it well enough to present it to other people in a way that they could understand. And that’s where all those outlines that you used to see around my shul and all of those things, that’s where they come from. So I think that’s also a powerful tool, is when one is put on the spot to teach and to share Torah with other people, there’s no fooling other people. You could fool yourself as far as what you know. There’s no fooling other people, so it really helps to organize and to make sure that you’re doing it right.

David Bashevkin:

Now, I’m just curious if you feel like there was a turning point in your own development, when you started to see your own intuition really come to the fore, as in your approach to halacha. And if so, when was that turning point?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

I can’t think of like a particular turning point other than when I started teaching. Meaning when I started teaching, that’s when I came up with the idea that everything I teach has to be written up in an outline form in advance and that helped my learning a lot. Even the sefarim I’ve written, are really… There’s nothing brilliant in any of them. It’s just the thing that those who appreciate them appreciate about it is just organization. And it’s a skill, I guess, that one develops over time that most people can relate to much more than they can relate to brilliance. A flash of brilliance is something most people can’t really strive for, but organization is something everyone can strive for. I probably, when I wrote that article that you referred to before in brushing teeth on Shabbos and I realized that it hadn’t really been done before.

No one had really organized all of the issues with why it should be mutar, why should it be assur, and each of the eight or nine issues that can come up with brushing teeth on Shabbos. I realized that I was on to something because I got so much positive feedback in that article. That’s really what it’s all about, it’s taking the topic, trying to identify all of the halachicissues. And then clearly, clearly presenting, studying and studying until you have clear in your mind, then clearly presenting all of the issues in one neat package.

David Bashevkin:

So kind of turning back to both the semicha, there’s a system for what people are learning and what rabbis are learning, and also the rav of a community, and you kind of serve as this bridge in between the two. I’m curious how you teach or is there a way to teach how to factor in personal human factors into the way that you decide halacha.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

I think particularly now, just because of the internet and you could Google anything and I am a part of no less than four halacha WhatsApp groups, where I could just text the rabbi and many of which are run by mutual friends of ours. You notably do not run one. And I’m curious, how… I’m not sure if this is the reason why you don’t run one, it could just be a time factor, but I’m curious, how do you factor in the human factor? Who’s asking the question? How do you train somebody to do that in the way, when somebody comes to you for a question, figuring out what’s going on in their life before you give an answer?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. I think it’s very, very important to factor in the human factor. And I think the way we teach young rabbis how to do that is through what’s called shimush. We just show them actual real questions that have come up. We discuss how to answer this question, how to approach this question, what the person is going through. Meaning I may spend, let’s say two weeks on a particular melacha in hilchos Shabbos, they’re learning Shabbos this year. So I may spend two weeks, so that will be a total of eight shiurim. The first six shiurim, we’ll go through the sugya. We’ll just go through what the Gemarasays, when all of the commentators say, how the halacha developed. And then the last two shiurim, okay, practical applications, here are real-life shailas that have come my way, let’s discuss.

And when you see it in action, I’m still the beneficiary of that shimush, thank God I work in an institution where my rabbeim and my mentors are all here. So when I have a question, I’m able to go and ask Rav Schachter and ask Rav Willig, and Rabbi Sobolofsky … and all the great poskim that we have here. And it has to develop from seeing it in action. What I’ll do very often with the students is, if someone emails me a question or texts me a question, and it happens to be on the topic that we’re learning — we’re learning hilchos Shabbos this year, so every hilchos Shabbos question I get, I’ll just forward to my shiur chat, not to my halacha chat, to my shiur chat. These are the questions that come up. These are the things that you’re going to see.

And then we’ll talk about, someone will say, “Oh, that’s going to be us,” and I’ll say, “Well, do you know that this person,…” I hate to always go back to OCD and pick on that, it’s just the easiest example to give. “This person has OCD, and therefore it’s likely what they mean by that word is a little bit different than the way you would interpret it, when you see it on a text.” And, you have to know the person to be able to know when they see…

David Bashevkin:

Can I give you another example? Financial factors.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Right, excellent example.

David Bashevkin:

People who are living and don’t have means. When have you factored that in?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

You factor in all the time.

David Bashevkin:

Do you have examples?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. Does any example come to mind of when I factor that in… Meaning there’s something called in halacha, like we said before, a hefsed meruba and that, the poskim discuss … whether there’s an exact definition of hefsed meruba. Some poskim thought yes, but more likely, you have to just really, we assume l’halacha, like those opinions say, you have to really assess the issue. Now, there are some things that are a non-starter, that even if it is going to be a financial hardship, there’s nothing you could do about it. But other times, where it’s a financial hardship, the halacha allows for leniencies in those cases. Yeah, it’s important to be familiar with the whole story.

David Bashevkin:

So I have to figure out a way to get into your shiur WhatsApp group, that seems to be the takeaway from this conversation. My final questions relate to halacha before the rapid fire. I’m always curious about people, especially someone like yourself, who’s dealing with so many halacha questions. Are there any halacha questions that you wish you got more and are there any halachic questions that wish you got less?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

I wish people would ask a little bit more about how to speak about other people, about what they are and are not allowed to say, about lashon hara and not even lashon hara, aside from slander and evil speech, there’s something called ona’as devarim, where people say hurtful things to other people. And I think that may be an even bigger problem in our communities than lashon hara. And I wish people would ask, “Is this an acceptable thing to say?” “Is this an acceptable thing to put in my Twitter feed?” “Is this an acceptable thing to WhatsApp to a group?”

I think people are not mindful enough about the power of words or on the flip side, the power of a positive word. And I wish people would think about that a little more and ask questions about it.

And partially, it’s my fault, meaning I find that whatever I speak about, and whenever people start being mindful of, and they start asking along those lines. What I wish people would ask less of is, I’ll give you an example, the kinds of question that came up, I must have gotten it a dozen times last week. I don’t know if you’re familiar, but sports betting became legal in New York recently. And one of the major sports betting places or platforms had come up with a deal that if you invest $3,000 into betting in their platform, they’ll give you an extra $3,000 of betting money. And I got the question about a dozen times last week, can Reuven and Shimon both put in $3,000, each get an extra $3,000 of betting power. And then, they’ll take two different sides of the same game. I’ll bet on the next to win and the other one will bet on the next to lose. And the deal will be that we’ll split all the money at the end, so we’ll get to take home this extra $3,000. It’s guaranteed money.

David Bashevkin:

You got this question like a dozen times.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

A dozen times last week, and I wish people would take a step back and say, “Is this really a question?” Meaning, is this something a Jew should be doing? Is this something a religious Jew should be doing? Where does this end? Meaning when they realize that all of these bets are being placed from the Five Towns and Brooklyn, and Bergen County and Monsey. And, is this going to end well? Is this really… Meaning, does this need to be a halachic question? So I sort of wish those questions were asked less and that people just had an intuitive sense that if I’m going to ask, it’s after already deciding that this is not the right thing to do.

David Bashevkin:

That is absolutely fascinating. It kind of is a reflection of halacha not being the ceiling of your behavior, but the floor.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

And just because something is permissible, does not mean the…

Aryeh Lebowitz:

That is what Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, zichrono l’bracha, our rabbi growing up, used to say.

David Bashevkin:

Yes, we stood together in JFK for his levaya, and that was when you first operated as a pulpit rabbi, was in his shul that he ran, that’s where you began as an intern rabbi. So I always wrap up with more rapid fire questions. My first question is if somebody is looking to develop a better understanding of halacha, they want to break free from the Google, from the WhatsApp, from the just texting, yes, no, but they want to develop that rhythm and intuition. Is there a work in Hebrew and in English? I’m asking for two different works because very often, there’s one in Hebrew that could really help foster that intuition that we’ve been talking about.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. I would say that in English, what did it for me a lot is the writings of Rabbi Chaim Jachter, Rabbi Howard Jachter, who was just a wonderful talmid chacham. And he has a beautiful style of writing things clearly and simply, and you don’t need much of a background to understand it. And yet, you come out feeling like you really understand where this is coming from, that things are not just arbitrarily prohibited or permitted, that this is really based in something. And you really understand the different points of view and different perspectives. So he wrote several volumes many, many years ago called “Gray Matter.” Now, he’s about to publish a volume on the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities in psak halacha.

David Bashevkin:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think it’s already out. Fantastic.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

So, I think his stuff is really great from that perspective. I think also Rabbi J. David Bleich in “Contemporary HalachicProblems” has, I think seven volumes of… It was really a collection of his essays from Tradition, and also explains things very nicely, a little more sophisticated, a little more sophisticated than Rabbi Jachter’s, meaning a high school student probably, maybe when you were in high school, you would’ve understood it…

David Bashevkin:

I was about to say, when we used daven in your or basement, when your shul first started, and I would sometimes get a little antsy during davening, it’s one of my less favorable characteristics, I would go upstairs to your study and I would read Rabbi Bleich. I believe you had all the volumes right there in your study.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

And I would pull them off the shelf and I would just start reading them. If I went through all your summaries already with which I also used to read during davening, which was not when they were intended to be read, but that’s certainly when I read a lot of them.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

It’s an amazing thing about shuls is that, if you want people to read something, just leave it on a table in a shul, they’ll never read it anywhere else, but whatever you put out on a table in a shul, will absolutely…

David Bashevkin:

It will get read. And what about in Hebrew? Where do you tell somebody, they’re not going to enroll in semicha, they’re not going to… They don’t have the time to be a part of a official program.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

So where would you tell them to get that rhythm and cadence of halacha? What would you recommend?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

I think my answer to this has changed over the last couple of years, because there is a great talmid chacham, who’s been a real gift to the Jewish people I think, in the works that he’s producing, named Rav Rimon from the Gush. And I haven’t seen anyone else that’s able to write halacha in Hebrew as clearly and as methodically as he does. And again, if you’re looking for a work that makes sense, that you’re going to come out of it and say, “I get how this works now, I understand this.” I think he’s exceptional.

David Bashevkin:

What did you used to recommend? You said your answer changed. I’m just curious. Did you have something that you used to recommend before?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

So before I knew of Rav Rimon, I was familiar with another excellent work, but not at the same level of development and sophistication called “Orchos Shabbos,” which was Rabbi Rubin, who was the rabbi of the shul in Har Nof that was attacked a number of years ago, is also an exceptional talmid chacham, a student of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Shmuel Auerbach, and he did a very, very beautiful job in hilchos Shabbos. To me, it’s not quite like Rav Rimon, in terms of just the development from alef to taf, to take you through step by step.

David Bashevkin:

If somebody gave you a great deal of money, and allowed you to take a sabbatical and go back to school and get a PhD in whatever subject you wanted, what do you think the subject and title of that dissertation would be?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

That’s a very good question and I knew it was coming because I listen to your podcast all the time, but I just didn’t think about it in advance. But, what would be… Part of the trick is that I never really had aspirations for a PhD. I often thought about what I would do if I could just take a year off to learn full time.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. What would you learn? Sure, that counts.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. So I think I would continue, I’ve written three books in the last five years in Hebrew and I’ve been going in order of the “Shulchan Aruch,” the topics that I cover, in order of the “Shulchan Aruch.” I would continue that and I’d be able to move much more quickly, hopefully, and to have a much greater base of knowledge. I mean, “Shulchan Aruch” is big and I’m not even halfway done with “Or HaChaim.” And, that’s what I would focus on.

David Bashevkin:

On. My last question is I’m always curious about people’s schedules, particularly yours, because you seem to be so incredibly productive. What time do you go to sleep at night and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Aryeh Lebowitz:

So, it varies. I mean, I wake up at 5:00 because I have to prepare the Daf Yomi. I think it’s helpful for a person in general to have something to wake up for, meaning … if you’re waking up in the morning and you could daven at the seven o’clock minyan, at the eight o’clock minyan, so you’ll always just hit snooze another time. But it’s helpful to me, that there are people waiting for me in shul for me to say the Daf Yomi shiur and that I hadn’t prepared it the night before, so I still need to prepare it when I wake up.

David Bashevkin:

That is one scary game, my friend. That’s like what I used to do with, when I used to write for Mishpacha magazine, the article was due Sunday night and I would write it Sunday morning. That was…

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

You don’t get a lot of sleep those nights. I can only do it once a week, though.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Yeah. So obviously, there are days that I oversleep and the Daf Yomi shiur is not as good, but I generally wake up at 5:00, so that I can have an hour to prepare the Daf Yomi shiur, which is given at 6:15 every morning. And then when I go to sleep, I aspire to go to sleep at 11:00. It doesn’t always happen. As I’m getting older, I’m finding sleeping to be a lot more difficult. Like sometimes, I’ll just be wandering around my house between 2:00 and 3:00 AM. But I mean, that’s not a good thing, that’s not something…

David Bashevkin:

I cannot thank you enough really for your time, your guidance and everything that you represent in the Jewish community. Rabbi Lebowitz, thank you so much.

Aryeh Lebowitz:

Thank you Rav David, thank you so much for having me.

David Bashevkin:

I think there’s one other really important thing that we didn’t talk about in our conversation, because it would’ve been a little bit strange. And I think I alluded to it a little bit in the intro, but I want to mention one other thing and that is, what does it feel like when you go to your rav to ask a question? I think a lot of people end up developing an unhealthy relationship with halacha, and I do presuppose and I have as an assumption throughout this, that that is possible. There’s something called an unhealthy relationship and there’s something called a healthy relationship. But very often, that unhealthiness is not a reflection of your relationship with halacha, it is a reflection of your relationship with the person who is helping you navigate halacha, with your rav, with your rabbi, with your posek, with your educator, with your mentor, whoever that may be.

And, I think it’s that relationship that makes Rabbi Lebowitz so unique. I just want to point out two things, he’s going to kill me for this and he’ll probably never come on again, because I’m talking so much about him, which is something that he absolutely hates. But there’s a characteristic that is underappreciated or under spoken about — I think it’s very much appreciated with Rabbi Lebowitz — and that is how he approaches people with the biggest smile in the world. I always think about people because I like cracking jokes that different people are like different types of basketball rims. Like sometimes, you have people they’re like a very tight rim when you play basketball. Like if you don’t have a swish, the ball is not going to go through the net. And then, there are other people who have like a very forgiving rim.

Like even if it kind of like bounces around, it’s very forgiving and any shot you take, it’ll give you a couple bounces and it’ll go through the net. Rabbi Lebowitz is one of the most forgiving rims when it comes to smiling and laughter. And I feel like anytime I am speaking with him, it is so easy to bring a smile across his face. And to me, it is an underappreciated quality of a posek and somebody who is guiding you in your relationship to halacha. As serious as he takes halacha, as substantive as he is as a person, as a character, he is always smiling and he always has a warmth to him that I think for others, whether or not you daven in his shul, and this isn’t a plug to move to North Woodmere. Though, I will have you know that there was somebody in my office many, many weeks ago, who was having difficulty in his religious life. And he came to talk to me, he says, “I think I want to move to Rabbi Lebowitz’s shul, I think I need this kind of rav in my life.” It’s really a plug for a certain kind of rav and a certain kind of experience. If every time you go to speak to a rav, you feel nervous, you feel uncomfortable, you feel just like this is not a good fit, that’s an intuition worth paying attention to. And you want to make sure that you have somebody that I am blessed to have in Rabbi Lebowitz, but others have in their halachic leaders. But I think it’s very important that in the very experience of asking a halachic question, there is a comfort, there’s an authenticity, there’s a realist, and there’s a smile, and there’s a joyousness of the journey of integrating Jewish life and Jewish practice into your life.

There are obviously very serious questions that we need to ask and there are some that don’t merit a smile and don’t merit laughter. But to make sure that the stasis in your life, when you think about halacha, when you think about answering a question and getting guidance in your own halachic life, the fallback should be with a smile, because this is a joyous journey that animates our Jewish life, that animates our Jewish people. And if you can find somebody in your life that is able to guide you with substance and seriousness, but do it with the joyousness that I think Rabbi Lebowitz embodies, that is the way that we can ensure that the great halachic edifice that we have been building generation after generation can stay intact and welcome future generations of the Jewish people. So, thank you so much for listening.

This episode, like so many of our episode was edited by Denah Emerson, our fearless audio engineer. And, it wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt. So if you enjoyed this episode or any episode, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. You could even donate at 18forty.org/donate. That’s the number 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org/donate. This all really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. You could also leave us a voicemail with feedback, questions, don’t worry, we don’t have to use your voice, we might, that we could play on a future episode. And the number for that voicemail is 917-720-5629. Once again, that number is 917-720-5629. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18forty.org. Once again, what is it? The number 1-8, followed by the word Forty, F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you could also find videos, articles, recommended readings, weekly emails. Please sign up, join, and enjoy. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious, my friends.