Connecting to a Higher Place

By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

“When Mashiach comes, the final topic he will study before commencing his mission will be the Torah of Rav Kook.”  With these words, Gary Sternberg explains his own, much more modest mission.  Sternberg, a young graphics designer for abc.com, has long been involved in attempts to bring the insights of Jewish spirituality to a world thirsting for, and ignorant of, their profound beauty.  Sternberg believes that mainstream Torah thought can compete quite effectively with those who either offer ersatz spirituality to the unsuspecting, and can reach those who have no connection to spirituality at all.

Warning:  Do not try this at home!  Entering the world of Kabbalah has its dangers, and is not for everyone.  When studied properly, especially through works that interpret and predigest, the world of Jewish mysticism is enriching and uplifting. Sternberg’s aim is to responsibly gather material that will direct the thirsty to places they can drink safely.

Sternberg does not think his prediction about Mashiach is an overstatement.  Who else but Rav Kook lavishes as much detail on the important place of the non-Jew in God’s ultimate plan; or the contributions different societies make to that plan; or how human moral consciousness evolves with time; and what the Jewish people’s role is in that development?  Where else can one find not only the assertion that all the forces in the macrocosm and microcosm play a role in displaying the greatness of Hashem, but ample description of exactly how the smaller pieces fit into the biggest one?  The cosmic vision, and the universality of Rav Kook’s thought are precisely the tools that any redeemer of mankind will have to employ to win mankind to his cause.

Rav Kook is not easy reading.  You will require the guidance of people who have already been there.  Chances are, though, that you will never get around to it unless tantalized by some exposure on a small scale.  Sternberg’s site http://www.orot.com gathers delicacies like a chocolate sampler – they vary in size, texture and color, but they are all delicious.  (If you can download the flash plug-in, use www.orot com/index2.html for much more sophisticated graphic presentation.)  After viewing the orot.com introduction, the reader will hopefully become inspired to partake of a more balanced diet of Rav Kook, including study of longer pieces.  Behind most of the pieces stands the eminence grise of the single most important interpreter of Rav Kook – Rabbi Bezalel Naor.  His expertise fills most of the site.

You can read passages that have been competently translated into English from several of Rav Kook’s works, essays on selected topics as well as some wonderful excerpts from the rich collection of his correspondence.  My favorite is Letter #89, a fascinating insight into the historical evolution of a higher moral consciousness, and why it cannot be accomplished through Torah legislation!  A weekly thought on the parashah will be coming soon to this site.

Sternberg’s intention is to help the seeker find a genuine balm for spiritual malaise, and to find it within Torah circles.  While Rav Kook’s works are an important tool, Sternberg makes use of a variety of others as well.  You will find translations from the Leshem (a kabbalistic giant who was a mentor of Rav Kook, and the grandfather of the preeminent posek Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv), and a long essay on a kabbalistic approach to evolution, authored by Susie Schneider, a contemporary teacher of immense popularity.  Another Jerusalem resident contributes a revolutionary view about changes in the role of women, which can only be described as sui generis.  Devorah Jacob is the nom-de-plume of a gifted Charedi essayist with roots in Breslov and Ger Chassidut.  While hardly beyond controversy, her contribution has received favorable assessments by a number of stellar personalities in both the Chassidic and yeshivah orbits.  Turn to this site not when you are looking for entertainment, but when you are ready to add to your list of intellectual, spiritual mentors.

more on internet safety

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times missed the point entirely when he wrote that the ban some poskim in Israel had placed on home access to the Internet proved that many of the Orthodox “Don’t like windows or Windows” (Foreign Affairs, June 22, 1999).  Most of us have windows wide open to much of the world at large.  We nonetheless equip our glass windows with blinds, curtains, and shutters.   We have learned to provide similar appliances to the windows we keep open to the Internet world.  Parents must make important choices about what they and their children should be permitted to view on the Net.  We turn again to the ongoing saga of Internet safety.

Several earlier columns dealt, in part, with the various filters that come and go on the commercial market.  While most of the commercial packages offer 14-day free demos, you may want more time to evaluate how well-suited a filter is to your needs.  Or, you may simply decide that you don’t want to spend money on a monthly fee if there is an alternative.

Prowler may be that alternative.  It is available as an absolutely free, no strings attached download at: http//www.webkeys.com  Prowler offers five different levels of sensitivity, which can be applied to different users within the family.  (Warning: at the greatest sensitivity, Prowler was so persnickety that it wouldn’t let me into its own home page!)  Prowler will also give you a complete log of all sites your kids have visited, flagging the objectionable sites, allowing you to make good on your threat of “I’ll know if you cheat!”  I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how the product is kept up to date after the initial download.  Attempts at reaching the company met with no success.

Incidentally, it might be a mistake to try to evaluate different products at the same time.  While I have not found any conflicts between filtering products and the applications I use, some of these products seem to have a less than civil attitude towards each other.  Like the warning label on many over the counter drugs, using a few filters at the same time may produce unwanted side effects.  In my zeal to test several products at the same time, I got some bizarre behavior, which was not cured by merely turning off the second installed product.  It took a complete uninstall to restore my computer to health (accomplished easily enough through Add/Remove Programs in Control Panel, as long as you remember the password that the filter asks you to supply at installation).

Many major sites such as Yahoo offer special children’s sites.  One of our readers inquired whether sites like Yahooligans might serve the needs of observant homes.  Unfortunately, these sites merely offer a convenient portal to locations that the authors feel are useful and interesting to children.  They offer absolutely no barrier to connecting with everything else available.  Anything remotely approaching the needs of a concerned Torah home requires the assistance of an adequate filter.

An important exception is the set of parental controls that can be set up with America On Line, the most popular Internet service provider out there.  Turned on to the max, they will curtail access to all chat rooms, all search engines, and everything on the Net — except for a group of pre-approved sites specifically recommended for kids. (Keyword:  parental controls.  Go to “Set parental controls,” and customize individual options for each of the users with distinct screen names on your account.)  This is definitely restrictive.  After no prior experience, it took my 9 and 11year-olds only four hours to complain that they were shut out of too much!  This control may provide a safe way for kids to learn how to use the Net on their own: they can avail themselves of fuller access when you are around to supervise.

Competing claims abound concerning the risk of taking a wrong turn down Internet Lane, and winding up on the wrong side of the tracks.  I firmly believe that it happens more often than we would like to believe.  It can happen for a variety of reasons, including a simple misspelling, and resulting in you or your children getting an eyeful of something for which you did not plan.  Banner ads – the large strips of advertising that come along with the sites you access — are a major culprit.

AdSubtract is a wonderful utility (free download at http//: www.adsubtract.com/se/download.html), which strips those ads from the websites you visit.  You get the picture?  Actually, the point is that you won’t get the picture!  You will be spared the ones you didn’t ask for, the ones we assume are the price we must pay for all the great stuff that is out there.  Select another option, and it will eliminate the cookies that allow commercial predators to study your Internet habits.  A neat feature is a counter, which will tell you how many ads it saved you from in the current user session.  AdSubtract can save you much time, since your browser will not have to download large graphics files before you get to the information you really want.  It will also improve the moral climate of your Internet use by intercepting graphic displays you didn’t plan to receive.  It is no cure-all, but you won’t want to deny yourself its usefulness.

improving with age

When the Knesset decided that it wanted to make the wealth of rabbinic literature available to its members, it turned to the Bar-Ilan Responsa Project.  Bar-Ilan patched its Judaic Library database into the Knesset computer system, giving all of its members access to a thousand years of Torah knowledge.

BI (Bar-Ilan) is a great software product that simply gets greater, settling for nothing less than manifest excellence.  Version 7.0 keeps adding to an already overwhelming library of holdings.  There are about 100,000 new hyperlinks, several new volumes of responsa, and incursions into the territory of some of its competitors.

Years ago, BI was the only location for responsa literature; other products were the only logical choice for midrashim, philosophy, bibliography, and mussar.  More recently, both types of products have been trying to lure customers by filling in at least some of their weaker areas.  BI -7 adds a nice assortment of mussar and machshavah works, having already filled in some of the blanks in other areas.  Some of us would have preferred them to put more energy into filling in some of the gaps in the responsa themselves: Beit Ephraim, Ktav Sofer, Beit Yitzchok, and Shevet HaLevi are works whose presence is sorely missed.

Other improvements include an on-line dictionary of abbreviations, and a tweaked user interface.  The most significant qualitative change about BI-7, though, is an entirely new way of searching the responsa database.  Besides looking for particular words or phrases, which require the user to have some familiarity with the basic source material, BI-7 allows a search by topic.  In the top menu bar, you pull down Topics, and you are offered about 375 categories (each followed by various sub-topics), which provide a basic framework to help you find material in areas you know nothing about.  While the list has thus far been applied only to five different works of responsa, its inclusion is more important than the number indicates.  By going back to the source material through suggestions you glean from this new feature, you can gain enough familiarity with the background to do fuller, more intelligent and exhaustive searches of the entire library.

BI (PC only) is available from TES for $699.

For those who really prefer a fuller subject-driven search, Nehorai will prove invaluable. Nehorai 4.0 vastly improves upon the old interface, and now includes two areas of halachic interest – refuah (medical issues) and berachot (blessings), which it pursues exhaustively, utilizing even more sources than BI, but unlike BI, not always including their full citations.  The refuah module, for instance, sports 29,777 references (providing the actual text in the case of 8,196 of them) on 5,454 different sub-topics.  Sampling the berachot area on a dessert-deprived evening, I had no trouble finding a favorite of mine – litchi nuts – treated as its own topic, and producing two references and a mouth-watering illustration.

The two products should be seen as complementary, not competitive.  And it will only be the more sophisticated halachic student who will need Nehorai, and find it extremely rewarding to use.

Nehorai (PC only) is available directly through its developer, who can be reached via email at: nehorai@actcom.co.il or by calling 972-3-619-4179.  The much larger module on refuah costs $139; berachot can be had for $39.  Combined, they go for $169, or a version without text citations runs $39.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein reads the works of Rav Kook and waits for Mashiach in Los Angeles, where he directs an outreach program for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  He is a contributing editor to Jewish Action.

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This article was featured in the Fall 2000 issue of Jewish Action.
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