Overcoming Infidelity–Learning to Forgive

In our self-righteousness, sometimes we lose sight of how we inadvertently push the people we claim to love away. Here is a wise tale for those who struggle with this issue. I rewrote the parable to give it a more Jewish flavor, but the message is truly universal. Letting go of anger is never easy; its toxic poison blinds our soul from seeing reality as it truly is. More often than not, we get stuck in anger; we want to be “right,” but the truth is more complicated, and sometimes even too painful to admit. . . . But if we look into our souls, we will hear a voice of purity that speaks out to us–I believe that voice of conscience is God’s calling card. All we need to do is say, “Hineni,” “Here I am ready to listen and learn.

Originally, I gave this sermon at a Yom Kippur Kol Nidrei Service, and I decided that it was time to post it as a meditation for the sad soul because of a good friend of mine who is going through some difficult times in a relationship that recently died. I wish him well …

“The Parable about the  Magic Eyes”

In the Hassidic village of Meseritz, there lived a long thin baker named Jacob—a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Jacob was so upright that he seemed to spray righteousness from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Meseritz preferred to stay away.

Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was beautiful and stunning. Everyone wanted to be in her soft and radiant presence

Rachel respected her righteous husband, and loved Jacob too, as much as he allowed her; but her heart ached for human affection and attention, for her husband Jacob was too busy to notice

And from this seed of sadness and loneliness, she strayed.

One early morning, having worked all night long in the bakery, Jacob came home and found a stranger in his bedroom lying in Rachel’s arms.

Soon Rachel became the gossip of the town; as everyone whispered her name with contempt and shock.

Everyone assumed that Jacob would quickly divorce Rachel, for after all, he was a righteous man. But to everyone’s surprise, Jacob remained committed in his relationship to Rachel, and said that forgave her as the biblical prophet Hosea forgave his wife for straying.

But in his heart of hearts, however, Jacob could not forgive Rachel for bringing shame to his name, no could he forget. Whenever he thought about her, his feelings toward her were angry and hard; he despised her as if she were a common whore. When it came right down to it, he hated her for betraying him after he had been so good and so faithful a husband to her.

Jacob only “pretended” to “forgive” Rachel so that he could punish her with his righteous mercy.

But Jacob’s hypocrisy did not sit well in Heaven. Continue reading “Overcoming Infidelity–Learning to Forgive”

What did God “know” after the Binding of Isaac?

After the binding of Isaac, כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי־יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים  אַתָּה  — “now I know that you fear God?” What does this passage really mean?

The verse would seem to imply that God did not know whether Abraham feared God. But, now as a result of the Akedah, God’s personal knowledge has been expanded.[1] But such a limited view of omniscience  was something many rabbis found theologically scandalous, for how can a human being grasp the nature of God’s omniscience, since God’s thoughts are higher than man’s (Isa. 55:9). Ramban offers a more sober theological answer.  Abraham’s “awe of God” existed only in potentia, but now as a result of his [selfless] deed, his “awe of God” became actualized.[2] Some scholars bypass this theological question altogether. Rashi paraphrases the verse to mean “Now I can give reason why I love you.” This use of “know” may parallel the use suggested in Genesis 4:1, where the text says, “And Adam knew Eve . . .”  There, the expression clearly implies intimacy; by the same token, here too,  God was  intimate with Abraham.

What it means to “fear God”?  The Hebrew concept of yare, when used in association with God denotes something far more profound. Most importantly, “fearing God” means more than having a sense of awe or reverence; it also involves a kenosis an emptying or  surrendering to the mysterious will of the Divine.[3] Martin Buber develops this important theme in his book, The Eclipse of God. Many of his ideas provide an important perspective to understanding the visceral power  of the Akedah and its historical effect in shaping the Jewish psyche. Buber writes: Continue reading “What did God “know” after the Binding of Isaac?”

Fighting for Your Soul (Jer. 45:5) Counselling through Post-Traumatic Stress

Q. I have a very close friend who is Jewish (Conservative). He is deeply religious and his faith is the foundation of his entire life; it provides the context for his close relationship with his family and motivates his work. The Torah is very important to him.

As part of his duty he served and played a key role in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and was on the ground there for several months. Since his return he has suffered from PTSD. He took the lives of innocent people by mistake, and he says he did other things during his work there which he won’t talk about, all for which he is sorry. He says he violated the Torah. He no longer believes he is a good person.

He has not been to synagogue since he returned. I know he does not believe he deserves to go and he is punishing himself. I have told him that God cannot be so unforgiving, and that it is not up to him to decide whether or not he should be forgiven, it is up to God. Everybody makes mistakes, surely that is to be expected. I’ve asked him to go to synagogue, even if his heart is not in it at first, in the hopes that it will open his heart back up to God.

But I am not Jewish; I do not have any religion. I need you to tell me what to tell him. I want his pain to ease and I want him to know he is still a good person, and he deserves to enjoy synagogue, even if he did violate the Torah. Please provide some wisdom for him. Thank you.

Answer:  I think your friend is lucky to have you in his life.

It seems to me that you should have your friend visit a good psychologist, or a good pastoral therapist who is skilled in dealing with these issues. There are a variety of  well‑established relaxation techniques exist which are likely to be effective in reducing the autonomic arousal associated with the experience of anxiety. Many techniques have been utilized to help individuals elicit relaxation including yoga, meditation, progressive relaxation, hypnosis, and bio‑feedback. Continue reading “Fighting for Your Soul (Jer. 45:5) Counselling through Post-Traumatic Stress”

Why do Lubavitchers spit whenever saying the Alenu Prayer?

Why do Lubavitchers spit whenever saying the Alenu Prayer?

This is a great question, but to put it in perspective, we must first analyze the  Alenu Prayer and its historical development. Without a doubt, the Alenu is one of the most moving prayers of the Jewish liturgy; it calls upon all the members of humankind to accept the One and only King of Kings, as Lord and Master of all the earth. Its universal message envisions a time when all the pagan gods will cease to be as humanity unites together in soulful worship. Without going into too much detail of the prayer, we will look only at the section that is relevant to our current discussion.

Let us praise Him, Lord over all the world;

Let us acclaim Him, Author of all creation.

He made our lot unlike that of other peoples;

He assigned to us a unique destiny.

We bend the knee, worship, and acknowledge

The King of kings, the Holy One, praised is He.

He unrolled the heavens and established the earth;

The origin of the prayer dates back to the time of the third century and is attributed to the sage Rav, who was a famous Babylonian scholar. The Jerusalem Talmud also makes an occasional reference to it.[1]Assuming that Rav is the writer of the Alenu prayer, then it is reasonable to assume he was referring to the conversion of the pagan—and not the Christian, since Christianity had not really spread into Babylon in Rav’s day. The prayer also stresses the importance of Israel, God’s chosen messenger, who introduced ethical monotheism to the world.

With this introduction, the background of the Alenu has been fairly well-established. During the 12th-13th centuries, Jewish communities in Europe often suffered because of the blood libels that were issued against them. At one famous accusation in the French town of Blois, thirty-four Jews were burned at the stake for having “participated” in the blood ritual. As they died, they recited the Alenu prayer.

Oppressed peoples who lived under the powerful hand of the Christian world often fought an ideological battle with the more powerful Christian or Muslim enemy, who oppressed them on a daily basis.  Obviously, they could not openly criticize their tormentors, so they resorted to a more subtle method of expressing their anger. Like the psalmist who wrote Psalm 137, ordinary people of that persecuted generation demanded that God dispense justice for the wrongs committed against their communities. The language of this psalm is disturbing but understandable when seen through the eyes of the powerless victim.

Some rabbis ingeniously used numerology to express contempt toward the Christian and Muslim world as a form of silent protest. So, a number of scholars decided to rewrite the Alenu Prayer with a couple of lines calling on God to eradicate the oppressive religions whose devoted followers  threatened Israel.[2]

Continue reading “Why do Lubavitchers spit whenever saying the Alenu Prayer?”

Did Jesus believe in Original Sin?

Q. I know that Christians and Jews share many religious beliefs and are very close to each other in spiritual brotherhood. But Christians basically believe that they are created sinful and unclean and, therefore, need a Redeemer, Jesus, to take the sins of believers on Himself so that they may come to God’s Kingdom when they pass over. Since Jews do not have this Redeemer, how do they become pure enough to enter God’s Kingdom? I realize there is the Law, but human beings, being who and what they are, cannot keep these laws sufficiently to reach purity and freedom from sin. Christians also believe that they are able to receive the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit directs their lives and brings them to true belief in God through Christ. How does Judaism look at the Holy Spirit and is the Holy Spirit considered to be active in bringing Jews to true belief? I can answer this question myself, from a Christian point of view, but that would be a one sided answer. I would very much appreciate learning what Judaism teaches in this matter. Thank you very much.

Answer: You are correct in assuming that most Christians believe in Original Sin, to a greater or lesser degree. As to whether Jesus himself really believed in Original Sin or not, I have serious doubts. In one of the Gospels, we read about how Jesus’ disciples once asked Jesus, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 1:1). However, Jesus gives one of the most profound rabbinical answers imaginable, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:2-3).

As a Jew reading the Gospel narrative, it seems to me that Jesus explicitly disapproved of any idea that man suffers from an inherited sin. By extension, every human fault we are born with serves a spiritual purpose so that we may glorify the Creator despite our natural shortcomings. Nowhere does Jesus ever speak of anything resembling the idea of a prenatal sin. Continue reading “Did Jesus believe in Original Sin?”

Can a woman serve as a Mohel?

Q. One of my congregants asked me a wonderful question. In Orthodox Judaism can a woman perform Brit Milah (ritual circumcision)?

I wrote back,

“ You have asked a great question! There is a controversy in tractate Avodah Zarah 27a regarding this very issue between Daru bar Papa who cites in the name of Rav and Rabbi Yochanan. Here is the substance of the argument. Daru b. Papa held that only someone who is obligated to observe the precept of circumcision can act as Mohel for others, whereas R. Yochanan felt that a woman can act as a Mohelet as indicated in the story of Tziporah (see Exodus 4:24‑26 for details). You could say she was a Moyhel of a goy’ol (pardon the pun!).”

In practical terms, R. Yosef Caro, the Halacha follows R. Yochanan and a woman may act as Mohelet (Yoreh Deah 264:1) but Maimonides adds one stipulation: this only applies in the event that a male Mohel is not available (MT, Hilchot Milah 2:1). However, Rema cites authorities who differ on this matter. Continue reading “Can a woman serve as a Mohel?”

Reflections on Interfaith Dialogue: My Recent Experience at Gordon College

Less than a month ago, I had the opportunity to be one of four national rabbinic scholars who spoke on the Psalms and their relevance for us today at Gordon College. For members of my community who are unfamiliar with this program, every year Gordon College produces a series of talks given by Jewish scholars from all around the country. As an evangelical school, Gordon College is a strong advocate for better Jewish and Christian relations. I must say it was a most memorable experience. While I was there, I met with the faculty, as well as with many classes of students where we engaged one another on the importance of interfaith dialogue in a society that has traditionally kept themselves apart from one another for centuries. True, Jews and Christian leaders do work on cooperative ventures, e.g., social issues, but seldom has there been an honest exchange where leaders speak honestly about the issues that have traditionally divided both our communities.

During the week I spent with the students and the local churches, I wanted to give a personal narrative how I came to embrace interfaith dialogue with the Christian as well as Muslim communities. True, there are many obstacles that face us all, but we have a duty to reach out. Rabbi Tarfun, a first century sage, expressed the thought best, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it” (Avot 2:21).

In my discussions, I maintain that it is essential for us to be honest with one another and speak about the historical mistakes each side has made over the ages. As with any family conflict, there are two sides of the story. Unfortunately, the family break-up of the Jewish and Christian communities that took place in the early centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple might have spared us centuries of anti-Semitic attacks; Jewish leaders were no less pluralistic then they are now; once the Jewish community threw out the Jewish-Christians from their synagogues, the seeds for revenge were sown for millennium that followed. Frankly, we can see many of the same intolerant attitudes threatening to split world Jewry today emanating out of the ultra-Orthodox circles in Israel today. Continue reading “Reflections on Interfaith Dialogue: My Recent Experience at Gordon College”

A Famous 20th Century Hassidic Rebbe Endorses Ptolemaic Science!

Why did the early rabbis of Late Antiquity believe that the sun revolves around the earth?

On the surface, the Sages wanted to uphold the belief that the earth is still the center of God’s universe.  However, in all honesty, one cannot blame the ancient rabbis for thinking that way; the majority of them were unacquainted with the science of the Greeks, many of whom (like Aristotle)  believed that the earth revolves around the sun. One would be hard pressed to find a modern rabbi of the last five centuries who would argue otherwise, yet, in modern times there is one famous rabbi who unabashedly believes in the science of Ptolemy over Copernicus–the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Here is an extraordinary letter the Rebbe wrote (dated: September 16, 1968):

I am in receipt of your letter of September 10th, in which you touch upon the question of whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa, in view of the fact that you heard from a college student that the truth is that the earth revolves around the sun. It greatly surprises me that, according to your letter, the student declared that science has resolved that the earth revolves around the sun. The surprising thing is that a person making such a declaration would be about one half a century behind the times insofar as the position of modern science is concerned. This belief is completely refuted by the theory of Relativity, which has been accepted by all scientists as the basis for all the branches of science.

One of the basic elements of this theory is that when two bodies in space are in motion relative to one another (actually the theory was initiated on the basis of the movements of stars, planets, the earth, etc.), science declares with absolute certainty that from the scientific point of view both possibilities are equally valid, namely that the earth revolves around the sun, or the sun revolves around the earth.

Cited from Herman Branover, Joseph Ginsburg, and Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (trans. Arnie Gotfryd) Mind over Matter: The Lubavitcher Rebbe on Science, Technology and Medicine (Jerusalem: Shamir 2003), 75-77.

Hebrew Numerology: A Primer on Gematria — Part 1

While I am not a big fan of biblical numerology, I do believe that numerological patterns still play an important role in the sacred texts and spiritual imagination of a people; the mind instinctively looks for patterns in the strangest places. Such thinking is not unique to Jewish biblical interpreters or mystics; it is common with all people of all faiths–whether it be seeing the face of Jesus  or Mohammad in a cloud formation, or in some other peculiar place–as people, we impose our mental  images and conceptions about order on the world and universe  around us.

In this short posting, I thought it would be fun to show my readers some examples of how the rabbis sometimes utilize a “gematria,” to prove a point; of course, one could prove anything using this interpretive device. The great medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra warned us against what he considered, “bogus,” interpretations that say more about the mind of the interpreter than it does the actual text one is commenting upon.

Nevertheless, some of the numerological patterns are, if nothing else, interesting and even suggestive–especially when people talk about its significance. Continue reading “Hebrew Numerology: A Primer on Gematria — Part 1”

The Meaning of PaRDeS: The Four Levels of Scriptural Interpretation

One of the most important hermeneutical paradigms introduced by the early and medieval rabbis is a belief that the Scriptures contain more than one layer of exegetical meaning. This intertextual approach came to be known during the medieval era by the acronym  פַּרְדֵּס”PaRDeS,” standing for “Peshat,” “Remaz,” “Derash,” and “Sod.” Briefly defined, peshat is based on the literal and factual meaning of a verse[1] and roughly corresponds to the medieval concept of sensus literalis as developed by the medieval Christian scholars Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyra: “that which the author intends.”[2] It is also helpful to remember that the early rabbinic approach of peshat serves to define the practical character of a community.[3] Remez (allusions) refers to the subtle types of word games and puns that are embedded in the text (cf. Gen. 1:31; 2:23; 6:8). Sometimes this may take the form of Gematria (numerology) Temurah (anagrams) and Notarikon (acrostics). Continue reading “The Meaning of PaRDeS: The Four Levels of Scriptural Interpretation”