The classical commentaries on Acherei Mot–Kedoshim — the Torah portions in Leviticus read in synagogues this Shabbat — by the classical commentators are black and white, graphically and philosophically.
Long blocks of text parse and examine and explain key biblical words that illustrate such concepts as the Azazel goat ritual in the Wilderness, forbidden relationships, and obligations to the poor.
“The Shmuz on the Parsha” (Feldheim Publishers) — pronounced like the more-familiar shmooze, to gab in Yiddish — is by no means classical. The cover of Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier’s book is a collage of color images, including a shattering light bulb, a judge banging a gavel, and juxtaposed Israeli and Palestinian flags. The five pages devoted to this week’s double parsha h are even more distinctive — narrow columns of large type are separated by generous white space, subheads that summarize the following paragraphs, and brief questions and answers offset in a pink shade.
It’s a typical chapter. Though the book looks like the “Dummies Guide” books that have initiated readers to everything from magic to medicine in recent years, “The Shmuz” is not dummy material. Hardcover, weighty, expensive, it’s more coffee-table gift than intellectual tome, the content more classical than its graphic design, assuming wide familiarity with Torah sages and Hebrew terms.
“I specifically didn’t dumb it down,” says Rabbi Shafier, sitting in a classroom of the Rabbinical Seminary of America, a yeshiva in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, minutes before giving his weekly lecture to a few dozen men.
The rabbi, a native of Kew Gardens Hills, now lives in upstate Monsey. He wrote his Torah commentary — an outgrowth of a decade-old, expanding network of in-person and virtual lectures on ethics and Jewish tradition — as a highly personal, uniquely high-tech form of in-reach.
Rabbi Shafier’s primary audience is the growing number of yeshiva and day school graduates who stray from consistent Jewish learning when they enter the working world. (“The Shmuz,” the rabbi says, also attracts men and women from non-Orthodox backgrounds.) Less learning, he says, means less synagogue attendance, less commitment to observance of the mitzvot, less identification with anything Jewish.
So he took an old message and dressed it in modern garb.
His collection of weekly commentaries originated in the faxed and e-mailed messages he has sent to a growing list of recipients for 32 years, which in turn originated in a series of lectures he gave in the greater New York area.
His audience, originally all male but now including mixed-gender groups, is usually adult, but he has high school students in mind.
Infact, Rabbi Shafier, 49, taught for 15 years at yeshiva high schools in Rochester and Monsey.
“The most difficult audience in the world is high school boys,” he says. Eventually, the rabbi says, he was able to connect to the adolescents with a combination of warmth and street smarts, humor and toughness, fealty to uncompromising Orthodox Judaism and lessons divided into short, attention-retaining segments. Especially effective, he says, were short speeches he delivered that combined a moral message with a theme from the Torah portion, “a mussar shmooze” in yeshiva parlance.
“The Shmuz,” an updated version of his high school successes, was inspired by two incidents about nine years ago.
First, the late Rabbi Henoch Lebowitz, then head of the Chofetz Chaim yeshivot, asked Rabbi Shafier to create a social and learning organization patterned after the Tiferes Bachurim program that offered young men a forum for making friends and studying Torah in Europe during the early 20th century.
Then, a serendipitous meeting on a Monsey street on a Shabbat afternoon, with a student the rabbi had taught in 11th grade in Rochester several years earlier.
“Are you learning?” studying Torah on a regular basis, Rabbi Shafier asked.
No, the one-time student answered.
“Why not?” the rabbi asked.
“Would you like to learn?” Rabbi Shafier asked.
“Sure,” the student said reluctantly.
Rabbi Shafier quickly organized a weekly class, on ethics and Jewish philosophy, for a like-minded group of young men. The class became The Shmuz (theshmuz.com); the rabbi gives his weekly classes in New York, Monsey, Passaic, Lakewood and Baltimore; there are also holiday editions, Webcasts, podcasts, YouTube and Twitter offerings.
“Parshah books are a dime a dozen and many start to look and read the same,” says Danny Levine, owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica in Manhattan. “The Shmuz,” he says, has drawn an audience in the Orthodox and non-Orthodox community. “The interaction with the Web site, which is touted throughout the book, encourages the reader to delve deeper.”
A second-degree black belt in karate, Rabbi Shafier is as aggressive in the classroom — or in print — as he is on the mat, tossing out questions, challenging his audience to question him. He looks like a typical haredi rabbi. Until he starts speaking. Or writing.
“He pulls you in. He makes the pages of Torah come alive,” says Avraham Chaim Silverberg, an optometrist who attends the rabbi’s weekly lecture in Kew Gardens Hills and is a reader of the rabbi’s parshah book.
In the chapter about this week’s parshiot, Rabbi Shafier discusses the biblical responsibility to give rebuke. “If Shimon eats a ham sandwich, why should I be punished?” the rabbi asks, introducing a discussion of mutual responsibility and accountability in Jewish tradition, using the traditional names of two fictional Jews, Shimon and Reuvain.
“The Shmuz” presents a few rhetorical questions, a quick story, and a conclusion: “We are teammates, and I am responsible for your performance.” And a suggestion: “Don’t Rebuke Others — It Doesn’t Work.”
Next, “God-willing,” the rabbi says, is “The Shmuz on Life.” The book is slated to appear in September, in time for the High Holy Days. Instead of treating the weekly Torah portion, Rabbi Shafier says, it will offer “a focus on understanding life, finding meaning and purpose. It will be much more of an essay on life.”
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