Visual Aids for Hassidim in Prayer

 Hasidim praying opposite Victoria's Secret 112-2013


Hassidic literature teaches that one of the reasons given for Hassidim swaying in prayer is based upon the analogy of the movement that occurs in the act of love making. Prayer is like  “making love to the Shekhinah.” The Baal Shem Tov  is purported to have taught:

  • Prayer is zivug (coupling) with the Shechinah.’ Just as there is motion at the beginning of coupling, so, too, one must move (sway) at the beginning of prayer. Thereafter one can stand still, without motion, attached to the Shechinah with great deveikut (“cleaving to God As a result of your swaying, you can attain great bestirment. For you think to yourself: “Why do I move myself? Presumably it is because the Shechinah surely stands before me.” This will effect in you a state of great hitlahavut (enthusiasm; rapture). [1]

This morning I saw a picture of three  Hassidic Jews praying in front of a Victoria Secret Lingerie store [2] that made me think about this teaching. Yes, these men certainly seemed devout and seriously engaged in prayer. I would imagine that these Hasidim probably felt they needed some visual aid to have this type of experience and close encounter as described by the Baal Shem Tov. [Incidentally, this type of erotic/mystical teaching has very strong Sabbatean  quality. The false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1672) was famous for his free love and ritual fornication, incestuous sexual relations and ritual orgies that he and his followers had during the Purim holidays.]

Any normal person watching this spectacle might wonder: Are these Hassidim so lost in prayer that they are totally oblivious to their environment?

The answer is simple: They are much more consciously aware of where they are praying. According to the psychologist Carl Jung, such behavior represents the shadow archetype.

As defined by Jung, the archetype of the “shadow” represents the hidden or unconscious aspects of oneself—both good and bad—which the ego either represses or never recognizes, as he notes, “The shadow is the thing a person has no wish to be.”[3] The more unaware we are about this darker and amoral side, the less likely we will mindfully confront and change our inner nature. To become self-aware, it is imperative that each of us find a way to integrate our “shadow” nature. This spiritual and psychological task is not without its challenges and difficulties, as Jung explains further:


  • The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the darker aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the real existential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.[4]


An extreme example of shadow archetype can be seen in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this classic narrative, Dr. Jekyll, considers himself to be a kind, loving, and accepting doctor; yet he remains dishonest in facing himself as he really is. Little does he realize that there are two men who inhabit the same body and personality. At first, he changes in order to indulge in all the forbidden pleasures that were off-limits to Dr. Jekyll, but as his evil side progressively grows stronger, it is Hyde who dominates, until he is totally transformed into the Hyde persona. Had Jekyll been aware of the contradictions in his inner self, he might have been more capable of domesticating his inner savage. Continue reading “Visual Aids for Hassidim in Prayer”

Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and the American Collective Unconscious

After some reluctance, I decided it was important for me to weigh in on the Duck Dynasty controversy involving Phil Robertson and his off-the-cuff remarks regarding gays and African Americans. Robertson’s equation of homosexuality to bestiality is incorrect. The biblical passages dealing with homosexuality pertain to (1) homosexual rape, or (2) the sexual exploitation of male minors. The Bible has nothing to say about loving homosexual couples whatsoever. Such a social reality did not exist by the time the Bible was written.

“If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” (Leviticus 20:13). Note that the text does not say “if a male lies with a man …” I believe this is one of the first statements in the Torah against pedophilia.

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion. ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you” (Leviticus 18:22-24.) This passage is reminiscent of what the Sodomites attempted to do to Lot’s angelic guests when he practiced hospitality. Such sexually exploitative behavior is indeed an “abomination.”

Phil Robertson is not a Bible scholar; he interprets the Bible literally like millions of Christians do. It is this writer’s opinion that people are entitled to believe what they wish when it comes to the  Bible. We do not have to agree or accept their interpretations.

Personally, I do not care for the Religious Right and their Christian agenda for America—especially whenever it involves the likes of Sarah Palin and her ilk. In my opinion, people like her give a bad name to conservatives and independents. The political left is actually making Robertson into a folk-hero. I think the religious right ought to think twice about making Robertson into one of their patron saints.

Secondly, I have never watched Duck Dynasty, nor do I have any plans for watching the redneck program in the future. Reality shows like Duck Dynasty and Jerry Springer have no appeal for me whatsoever.

What concerns me is the matter of free speech in our culture. The ACLU blog says it really best:

  • The First Amendment really was designed to protect a debate at the fringes. You don’t need the courts to protect speech that everybody agrees with, because that speech will be tolerated. You need a First Amendment to protect speech that people regard as intolerable or outrageous or offensive — because that is when the majority will wield its power to censor or suppress, and we have a First Amendment to prevent the government from doing that.[1]

Curiously, the ACLU has declined to weigh in on this topic, and frankly, that is surprising.

Some advocates of the A&E station claim that Robertson may have materially harmed the station with his comments from the Bible condemning homosexuality or his nostalgic memories for the Jim Crow era. I think the producers of the station should have apologized and announce that Robertson’s view about gays and blacks does not reflect the view of the station. Instead, they censored him—but they are having a holiday marathon of the Duck Dynasty program. It seems to me that they are attempting to profit from the publicity and that is immoral.

A&E’s behavior is more ethically problematic and cynical.

Most of us (I hope) strongly dislike Phil Robertson’s comments. However, when we consider his personal narrative, what else would we expect  from an American redneck? Clearly Robertson is not Yale or Harvard material.

Noam Chomsky once said, “The freedom of speech is worthless without the freedom of offensive speech. Goebbels and Himmler were for freedom of speech that was inoffensive to the state.”

Fortunately, the State is not involved in this controversy, but it seems to me that Robertson has every right to sound like a moron if he so chooses. We also have the choice not to watch his program either. As a member of the ACLU, I am reasonably certain that the ACLU would agree with my position.

One gay writer offered the following defense of Robertson:

  • Phil Robertson is the modern day Archie Bunker. He should make us uncomfortable. We should be disturbed by the show’s narrow gender views, flagrant gun worship and open hatred of anything refined and cultured. This doesn’t mean that it’s not entertaining or relevant. It’s funny precisely because it challenges some of our sacred beliefs and relevant because it confronts our opposing ideals of masculinity.[2] Continue reading “Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and the American Collective Unconscious”

Santa Claus, Nitel Nacht and Chabad

Chabad Florida Tefillin Santa closeup 12-2013


This past week, a newspaper featured a picture of a Lubavitcher rabbi putting tefillon on Santa Claus. It reminded me of a story from Eli Plaut’s  book, Kosher Christmas. Once mentions how an old Ukrainian Jewish immigrant dressed up as Santa Claus and spoke Yiddish. When speaking to Alan King, he quipped, “Men Mahk a leben,” which means, “A man has to make a living!” (p. 135).

Chabad and Christmas seems like an odd combination. Actually, Chabad’s attitude toward Christmas as a holiday has never been especially positive. Chabad Hassidic literature proves this point.

Here is an anecdote.

A Chabad friend of mine sent me the following email that and solicited my opinion. It comes from the Lubavitch Headquarters regarding how the Lubavitcher (Chabad) Hasidim must conduct themselves on Christmas Eve. Many Jews and Christians may find this custom interesting but very strange–and for good reason!!

“December 25th is universally celebrated by non-Jews, as the birthday of the person upon whom a dominant non-Jewish religion was founded and who had the Halachic status as a Jew who lures other Jews to idol-worship. A spirit of impurity therefore prevails on that day.(Additionally, there was a period when members of that religion used to celebrate this eve by attacking Jews, which led to an enactment against keeping the Yeshivas open during the eve of Dec 25th).”

Note that Chabad never refers to Jesus by his proper name. Simply put, Chabad considers Jesus to be a non-person.

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe adds, “It is our custom to refrain from studying Torah on Nittel Nacht until midnight. The reason, as the Previous Rebbe heard from his father, the Rebbe RaShaB (Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneersohn, a.k.a., the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe), is so that one will not add spiritual vitality to that person [Jesus], and those who presently follow his views [i.e., Christians everywhere]. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (i.e., Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schnnersohn, the 6th Rebbe) quotes his father in the popular Hayom Yom(Teves 17), ‘I am not fond of those students who begrudge these eight hours and cannot tear themselves away from Torah study!’” [1]

Incidentally, most ultra-Orthodox Jews, like the Lithuanian and Sephardic communities, disregard this custom; for them—the study of Torah is of primary importance.


To understand a Jewish custom, it pays to have the curiosity and determination of a Sherlock Holmes. Most of you reading this Hassidic instruction might be wondering: “What in the world are they talking about? Why should we finish Torah study before Christmas Eve?”

The answer is more complex than most of us realize.

The origin of Nittel Nacht in modern rabbinic literature is one of the more fascinating chapters of Jewish history and folklore. “Nittel ” actually comes from the Latin, “Natalis,” or, “Nativity Night.” It is truly ironic that 99% of all the Hassidic Jews follow this observance, haven’t the foggiest idea that Nittel Nacht means “Nativity Night.” It is also possible that Nittel Nacht may be a corruption of the Latin dies natalis, “birthday,” i.e., the “birthday” of Jesus.[2]

While Christmas is a joyful holiday for billions of people, historically, during the  medieval era and the centuries that followed, Jews were forbidden to appear on streets and public places on the high Christian holidays under penalty of severe punishment; hence the schools and synagogues were closed on those days. [3] Young and old, who were compelled to remain at home, enjoyed themselves with a variety of games; consequently the meaning of the word Nittel received the folk etymological explanation as being an abbreviation for “Nit Iden-Tore-Lernen” (“Jews must not study Torah”).

Of course, the time of Nittel Nacht will vary depending whether one is a Greek Orthodox Christian or not, for they celebrate the holiday on January 6th. Some Hassidic Jews, Ilan mentions, will not study Torah on New Year’s Eve either for the same reason.

In the final analysis, is there a place for Nittel Nacht today? Emphatically, “NO!!!” Not unless one wishes to insult our Christian neighbors. While there are number of customs that originated during the most depraved times of medieval history, it behooves us to let go of our medieval attitudes.

As modern Jews, it behooves us to cultivate a relationship with our Christian neighbors and friends based on the principle of mutual respect. Jewish leaders often insist that Christianity purge itself of its anti-Semitic attitudes, and this is indeed necessary.

Therefore, the custom of not studying Torah on Christmas Eve ought to be discontinued by any person who wishes to cultivate a respectful relationship with their Christian neighbors. This cannot be done so long as we hold on to the old ideas that should have been discarded long ago in the dustbin of history. Fortunately, most Jews have long historically embraced this change in attitude–except for a handful of Hassidic Jews in Brooklyn and in Israel who are still desperately clinging on to the ghosts of Christmas past.

Today, even Orthodox Jews are beginning to explore interfaith dialogue for the first time in recent memory. We are no longer living in an age of religious polemics and religious intolerance. American society is definitely far more tolerant than the world our ancestors left long ago.

No religion is immune to the dangers of promoting religious prejudice; or as they say, “A pig with lipstick is still a pig.” Prejudice and intolerance should not be quietly accepted as if it is normal–because it is not! Unfortunately, the ghetto is more than just a historical space–it is an unhealthy state of mind that we must leave behind.

The medieval and hateful mentality of the past must be banished by all 21st century people of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. In a world where the Abrahamic religions are at times still in conflict with one another,  the only solution to the conflict is to let go of the symbols and metaphors of religious hatred and intolerance that still unconsciously clings to our own faith communities.

When Katie Goodman sings, “I’ll be Jewish for Christmas,” her song captures the ambivalence many Jews feel in living in a predominantly Christian society. It is true that many Jews tend to be hypersensitive to their status as the “Other” during the Christmas season.

Yet, this need not be the case. We need to live in the present and embrace a love for people of all faiths.

I want to wish all of my Christian brothers and sisters a very Merry Christmas to you all!



[1] Anonymous, HaMaaseh Hu HaIkar (Brooklyn, NY: 2006), 10-11. I would also add that the Rabbis of Lubavitch have never referred to Jesus by name, but always through the pejorative designation of, “that man.” In biblical and rabbinic literature, to be without a name is to be condemned to virtual non-existence.

[2] Curiously, but erroneously, Rabbi M. M. Scheneersohn attempts to provide a Hebraic basis for the word’s etymology, “The word  nitel’ implies ‘lack,’ or possibly ‘suspended.’ In Latin, natal means  “born,” i.e.,  ‘the time of birth’”” (Letter dated 9th Kislev 5735, printed in Likutei Sichos Vol.15,  554)

[3] The earliest Halachic reference of this custom dates back to R. Yair Chaim Bachrach (1638-1702) in his Mekor Chaim of the Chavat Yair OH:155

No Barbara, Obama is not the Messiah



An interesting conversation took place been CNN host Piers Morgan and Barbara Walters that caught my attention.Morgan asked Walters an important question.  “You have interviewed every president of my lifetime. Why is Obama facing so much opposition now? Why is he struggling so much to really fulfill the great flame of ambition and excitement that he was elected on originally in 2009 [sic, 2008]?”

  • BARBARA WALTERS: Well, you’ve touched on it to a degree. He made so many promises. We thought that he was going to be — I shouldn’t say this at Christmastime — but the next messiah. And the whole Obamacare, or whatever you want to call it, theAffordable Health Act [sic. Affordable Care Act], it just hasn’t worked for him. And he’s stumbled around on it, and people feel very disappointed because they expected more.It’s very difficult when the expectations for you are very high. You’re almost better off when they are low and then they rise and rise. His were very high and they’ve dropped. But you know? He still has several years to go. What does he have, three years more, Piers? And, you know, there will be a lot of changes, one thinks in that time.

As you probably know, Barbara Walters is an assimilated Jew who almost never attends a synagogue except when there is a funeral of an important Jewish leader. Still, buried within her psyche is a belief in a personal messiah.

Although Maimonides mentions the belief in a personal messiah in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, he discouraged speculation about the Messiah. For him, the Messiah is not a supernatural figure—his role is political in nature. His job is to serve as a shepherd for Israel and the world; his task is to create a just and peaceful society. Unlike Christianity, Judaism teaches that the Messiah is not an intermediary who is indispensable for the salvation of the individual.

Succinctly put, the Sages offer this piece of practical advice:

  • Rabbi Zera said: Three things come when one least expects it: the Messiah, a found article and a scorpion.[1] 
  • Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai taught: If you have a fruit-tree in your hands and someone says to you, “Here is the Messiah.” Go and finish planting your fruit-tree just the same, and afterwards go out and welcome the Messiah.[2]

Why Jews feel ambivalent about a personal Messiah?  This is largely because Jewish history is replete with many individuals who claimed to the Messiah but failed to fulfill the Messianic requirements of redeeming Israel and establishing world peace. Indeed, the Torah itself warns, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this Torah” (Deut. 29:28).

According to one midrashic text, when R. Akiba beheld Bar Koziba, he exclaimed, “This is the King Messiah!” R. Johanan b. Tortha retorted, “Akiba, grass will grow in your cheeks and he will still not have come!”[3]

Messianic pretenders have caused considerable trouble from the first century to the 20th century.[4] The vast majority of them were charlatans and impostors. Yet, for all the fanfare that has been made about the Messiah, the prophet Isaiah spoke about the gentile king of Persia—Cyrus—who acted as God’s Messiah (Isa. 45:1) who served to lead the Jewish people back to their ancestral homeland.

As you can see, anyone who purports to be the Messiah arouses suspicions for good reason. Granted, President Obama never claimed to be the Messiah, but many of his followers—especially liberal minded Jews like Barbara Walters—had that expectation.

Perhaps many of us did–myself included.

Perhaps Obama’s promise to “change America” had a messianic kind of ring to it; here was a man whose gift for oratory was exceptional. However, in the management of government, it is far better to tackle problems one piece at a time—both thoughtfully and carefully. We hoped he would channel the peaceful spirit of Martin Luther King  but not Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin’s message of class warfare.

Recklessness and a lack of honesty have harmed the President’s credibility and respect.

Recently, a federal judge in Washington ruled on Monday that the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records by the National Security Agency is likely to violate the US constitution. Suddenly, the whistleblower Edward Snowden is emerging as a modern American Patrick Henry who said, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Fortunately, our judicial system is starting to take notice of the Obama Administration’s excesses and misuse of executive power.

Judge Richard Leon declared that the mass collection of metadata probably violates the fourth amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and was “almost Orwellian” in its scope. In a judgment replete with literary swipes against the NSA, he said James Madison, the architect of the US constitution, would be “aghast” at the scope of the agency’s collection of Americans’ communications data.

Such a man is not a true leader—but a demagogue—and the President does not behave like a secular Messiah.

This is nothing new.

We have known such pretenders—sincere and insincere—in Jewish history. Whenever they appear, these individuals bring great harm and disillusionment to the people.  During WWII, the Jews of America put all their faith in another secular Messiah—FDR, who did very little until he was embarrassed by a group of Orthodox rabbis who marched in front of the White House, demanding a meeting with the President. FDR quietly left the White House through the kitchen rather than face thousands of angry rabbis demanding that he do something to save European Jews from the death camps.

If anyone behaved like a modern day Cyrus, it was President Truman. Against the wishes and advice of the State Department, he helped to create the Modern State of Israel—with no personal fanfare whatsoever. He was a man who acted out of principle. President Truman could qualify as an Isaiah-esque type of Messiah.


[1] BT Sanhedrin 97a.

[2] Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 31.

[3] Eichah Rabbah 2:4


Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted at

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Rabbi Akiba’s Hidden Love Life

(Picture: Madam Turnus Rufus probably looked something like Hedy Lamaar!)

One of the most illustrious sages of the Talmudic era is Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (ca.40-ca.137 CE). His life-story has inspired many legends and in many ways Rabbi Akiva’s approach to the interpreting the biblical text has become the foundation for many of the mystical interpretations that have evolved over the centuries. For R. Akiba, the Torah is a love letter from God; every scintilla of the biblical text contains esoteric meanings.

According to legend, Akiba began as a humble and ignorant shepherd. When he was 40 years old, his life took an unexpected turn. According to one ancient tradition, Rabbi Akiba observed how water-droplets had formed a hole through a stone. He mused, ‘If water could leave an imprint on a stone, then surely the words of Torah can penetrate my heart as well.”

A Love Story for the Ages: Rachel and Akiba

However, a different legend purports that the young shepherd had fallen in love with Rachel, ‘the daughter of Kalba Savua’one of the wealthiest Jews of his time during the final days of the Second Temple. ‘Akiba had worked for Kalba as a shepherd and that is how he met Rachel. Despite Akiva’s unfamiliarity with the Torah, there was something remarkable about him; she agreed to marry Akiva on one condition: He had to study Torah for a period of ‘twelve years. ‘Together, they had a quiet clandestine wedding.

As it might have been expected, Kalba did not approve of his daughter marrying such an ignorant man, and he swore that he would not offer any financial support; the young couple were reduced to poverty. She sent Akiba to study for twelve years ‘under the tutelage of R. Eliezer and R. Joshua. When R. Akiba ventured home, he now as a distinguished scholar who had a following of 12,000 students, Akiba overhears a conversation between Rachel and her friends. They said to her, ‘Rachel, how much longer will you live the life of a widow, knowing that your husband is alive but absent’’ She replied, ‘‘If he would listen to me, he would go back [to his place of sacred studies] for another 12 years.’

Twelve years later, R. Akiba has now 24,000 students who escort their teacher. When the townspeople hear about his imminent arrival, they all come out to greet him—including  Rachel! But poor Rachel looked poor and impoverished, dressed in rags. When she approached her husband, the students try to prevent her from speaking with their teacher. R. Akiba instructs his students to stop and says “What ‘is mine and what is yours—all belongs to her!”

All of the townspeople come out to greet him. So does his wife, who appears in ragged clothes and who refuses to heed the advice of her neighbors who suggest that she borrow suitable attire. When his students catch sight of her, they try to prevent her from approaching Rabbi Akiva. However, he immediately calls a stop to their efforts (using one of the shortest and most beautiful statements to describe their mutual relationship): “What is mine and what is yours – belongs to her!”[1]

The narrative implies that they lived happily ever after as a couple in what appears to be a storybook-like ending crafted in Hollywood.’ Maybe they did live happily ever after.

Deconstructing Rabbi Akiba’s Love Life

Using a hermeneutic of suspicion that is so typical of postmodern approaches to literature in general, and to the Bible in particular, we might ask the unthinkable question that no yeshiva student would dare ask his Talmud teacher: What if Akiba and Rachel did not get along after his return home? What if they had grown apart all these years and now they had become two different people?

Obviously, this approach might sound something like you might read in the ancient Judean equivalent of the National Inquiry. However, the lives of famous people often end differently from what people might expect. [2] A third tradition about Rabbi Akiba indicates that he took yet another wife.

Unfortunately, we do not know when exactly Akiba took a second wife. Conceivably, his beloved Rachel may have predeceased her husband. That is a possibility no reader of Akiba’s biography can deny. Perhaps they might have grown apart.

Enter Madam Turnus Rufus

In the third legend, we discover an altogether different story about R. Akiba’s love life, one that certainly raises questions. The Roman general of Judea in R. Akiba’s time was a man named Turnus Rufus. Despite the Roman disdain for Jews in general, it appears that Turnus Rufus and R. Akiba frequently had theological and philosophical discussions together. They jostle together on topics pertaining to circumcision,[3] the Sabbath[4], and the Jewish concept of ‘idolaters,’[5] as well as to the importance of giving charity to the poor.[6] In the midrashic narratives, R. Akiba always emerges as the victor (How could it be otherwise’)

For whatever the reason might have been, R. Akiba serendipitously meets Turnus Rufus’s wife. Medieval rabbinical exegetes suggest that Madam Rufus heard her husband complain about losing one debate after another to R. Akiba. ‘She says to him:

  • She said to him: “The God of those people hates licentiousness. Just give me your permission and I will trip him up and cause him to sin.” He gave his permission. She put on her makeup and, wearing most attractive attire, she went to see R. Akiba’[7]

To make a long story short, Madam Rufus dumps her hubby and converts to Judaism and marries Rabbi Akiba! Would today’s Haredi rabbis would have approved of such circumstances’ I doubt it. If such behavior occurred today between Israel’s leading  Haredi rabbi and a Gentile woman, the news-story would create shockwaves across Israeli society. In the end, Turnus Rufus oversees the torturing of Rabbi Akiba. For Turnus Rufus, this matter was personal.

Did R. Akiba have an affair’ Did he seduce her’ Yes, inquiring minds want to know.’ Strangely, Rachel is not mentioned ever again. As for Madam Rufus/ Akiba, one wonders whether her husband had her killed as well. We can only speculate.

Mishnaic Evidence’

In the Mishnah we find an unusual discussion:

  • The Academy of Shammai said:’A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity, since it is said, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in anything’(Deut. 24:1).’And the Academy of Hillel said: Even if she spoiled his dish, since it is said, because he has found in her indecency—in anything.’R. Akiba says: Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes’(Deut. 24:1).[8]

Hillel’s perspective is problematical; just because a wife may not measure up to the ideal model of Martha Stewart or Donna Reed, doesn’t mean that she ought to be so easily disposed. Perhaps all she needs is a cleaning person or a cook to assist her or tutor in the ‘skill of homemaking. At least Shammai’s perspective is certainly consistent with the simple meaning of the text.

However, Rabbi Akiba’s attitude if taken literally without the Talmud’s spin on his opinion may have been predicated on more than just a scriptural verse that he cited. Is it possible that R. Akiba may have preferred Madam Rufus precisely because she was prettier and sexier than poor Rachel’ If the scandalous interpretation of this Mishnah is true, it may explain why R. Akiba met such a dreadful death where his skin was flayed off his body. The flaying of Akiba’s skin may be an allusion to the verse, “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24). Since Akiba destroyed his marriage by marrying another man’s wife, his flesh is literally torn apart–and could be viewed as tallionic justice (measure for measure).

One is reminded of the scriptural verse from the Prophet Malachi, which may well apply to Rabbi Akiba:

  • And this you do as well: You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not’’ Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire’ Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless (Malachi 2:13-16).

This exposition of Rabbi Akiba’s life will obviously strike a raw nerve in the minds of many of my blog’s readers–especially students of the Talmud. ‘But given the complexity of human relationships, Rabbi Akiba was still a man of flesh and flood endowed with the same passions that have caused considerable havoc in the lives of men since time immemorial. Continue reading “Rabbi Akiba’s Hidden Love Life”

What are the Modern Forms of Idolatry?

Thutmose III (Menkheperra) 1

Question from Jewish Values Online:

Are the obsessions with money, celebrities and athletes, and maybe even Ivy League education, a form of modern day idol worship? My understanding of idol worship is when human creations or people themselves replace G-d and/or are worshiped as a god, this is idol worship. How do rabbis view idols in the modern sense? What does it mean to avoid worshiping idols? [Administrators note: For a somewhat related question concerning pursuit of money, please see]

Great question:

The subject of idolatry is a fascinating. Before answering your question, it is important to define our terms. The word “idolatry” derives from the Greek words εi δωλολατρεία; , (L. idololatria = adoration) , which comes from the noun εiδωλον  (= idol). Hence, it means the worship of images.

Historians of religion have long debated whether the ancients believed that the images housed the spirit of a deity, or whether the statue was  said to be alive and animate. In many ancient rituals dating back to Egypt and India, it was customary for the potter to breathe into a vessel to symbolically represent bequeathing unto the idol—new life. Thus, the ancients believed that the image somehow mysteriously and magically participated in the life of the deity being worshipped.  Thus, in many of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian records we discover special rituals designed to “open” the eyes of a newly constructed deity; the priest will “wash” its mouth, and so on. The prophet Jeremiah cautioned against those who worship “stones that have no breath in them.”  Every man is stupid, ignorant; every artisan is put to shame by his idol: He has molded a fraud,  without breath of life (Jer. 10:14).

According to Jewish theological tradition, Maimonides warned generations about the danger of thinking that anthropomorphism (human like personality traits) are an attribute of God. Interestingly, Maimonides felt that wrongful concepts of God can transform even a monotheistic faith like Judaism into an idolatrous cult and fetish.

Some 20th century theologians think that idolatry involves making something that has no existential existence apart from God into something that apart from God.  Take money for example, one can easily think that money has an independence and ontology that exists apart from God. The same may also be said of the human ego, for in our wildest imagination we often imagine as though we are “God.”

According to the Hassidic tradition, the Kotzker Rebbi once observed, “ The ‘I’ is a thief – because it takes the partial and mistakes it for the whole.  In theological terms, in our search for self-fulfillment, we  tend to seek meaningful existence in terms of our own existence and needs—rather than see the world from God’s perspective.

The theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich once defined religion as “man’s ultimate concern.” This rather ambiguous definition has a certain amount of elasticity. For many people, their ultimate concern might be the possession of power over others—that is what they live for. For others, it might be the acquisition of wealth—and that is what they live for. Each of these things by itself is not necessarily bad unless the pursuit of these things overwhelms one’s relationship with the Divine.

In capitalistic societies, we frequently see the exploitation of workers, of the environment, and the lusting toward unlimited profits at the expense of the consumer. Political philosophies can also promote idolatrous attitudes whenever government tries to usurp the power of God as the center of people’s spiritual lives. According to Jewish tradition, man does not live on bread alone—he is a creature who must find spiritual contentment through the worship of God. Idolatry can occur whenever people fail to pay attention to the deeper human and moral issues that are at stake, such individuals risk worshipping the works of their hands and ego.

One of the ways the Tanakh helps us avoid this mistaken attitude is by tithing from our best to God. Tithing teaches us that the world does not belong to man; we are merely God’s steward of the Divine treasure and are responsible to God alone for how we use our prosperity.

Even great people after their death have frequently been worshipped as deities. In the Torah, nobody knows the burial spot of Moses; God wanted to make sure that nobody would come to worship Moses as a substitute for God. Yet, in the history of paganism,  holy people have been venerated with rituals that ought to be exclusively given to God.

Over the last two and a half decades, the Lubavitcher Hasidim visit the tomb of their late Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schnersohn and ask him to intercede on behalf of his followers. If Maimonides were living in the present, he would have condemned such acts of devotion as idolatrous[1] Similarly, the Hasidim in the Rebbe’s headquarters re-enact rituals of handing out sacred dollars to the Hasidim—as though the Rebbe were physically among them. Conferring celebrity status to any human being is dangerously close to treating that person as a god.  Some of the Hassidic teachers have historically believed that their Rebbe was the body of God in this world (!).

I often thought that the Rebbe of Lubavitch—and rabbis in general, regardless of their denominational labels—could greatly benefit from the Eagles’ famous song, “Take it Easy.”

Well I’m a runnin’ down the road
Tryin’ to loosen my load

I’ve got seven women on my mind
Four that wanna own me
Two that wanna stone me
One says she’s a friend of mine

Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels

Drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand

And take it easy

The moral of this song is especially important for any kind of leader—religious or secular. We are NOT the movers and shakers of the world that we sometimes think we are. As human beings—each of us has a gift to offer the world. However, the world will never revolve around the human ego. The universe is God-centered and not human centered.

The Power of a Handshake: When Obama shook hands with Raul Castro

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Human behavior and animal behavior resemble one another in so many interesting ways. When an animal approaches the territory of another, it is commonplace for one creature to growl or make noise whenever it perceives its space is invaded. A dog will characteristically bark whenever it hears another dog walk by its territory. Cats will hiss when a new kitten is introduced as a new family pet. Species of birds will utter their squeaky territorial song and fly directly at the intruder, chasing it way from its territory.

The fear of strangers is universal and greetings reflect the ways human beings have tried to de-hostilize someone approaching their turf. The custom of the handshake goes back at least to Grecian times in the 5th century B.C.E., as seen on a funerary stele. People believe that the handshake demonstrate that one comes in peace without holding any weapon.

Although it is a simple gesture, a simple handshake can dissolve walls of animosity that have been in place for decades. President Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at the Nelson Mandela funeral created shockwaves in the international diplomatic community. Many pundits have criticized him for showing a gesture of respect to a political adversary of our country. This writer takes umbrage with such a narrow attitude.

The news story about reminded me of wonderful story from Yaffa Eliach’s excellent book, Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust. The story tells how a sincere greeting to a Nazi officer saved a concentration camp prisoner’s life.

  • Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic Rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties. Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat, and carrying a silver walking cane, the rabbi would take his daily morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law. During his morning walk it was the rabbi’s custom to greet every man, woman, and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial “Good morning.” Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.
  • Near the outskirts of town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Mueller, a Polish Volksdeutsche (ethnic German). “Good morning, Herr Mueller!” the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields. “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” would come the response with a good-natured smile. Then the war began. The rabbi’s strolls stopped abruptly. Herr Mueller donned an S.S. uniform and disappeared from the fields.(*) The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry. He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka, and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.
  • One day, during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood on line with hundreds of other Jews awaiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death. Dressed in a striped camp uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked like a walking skeleton. “Right! Left, left, left!” The voice in the distance drew nearer. Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton, and steely voice who played God and decide who should live and who should die. His lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:
  • “Good morning, Herr Mueller!”
  • “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” responded a human voice beneath the S.S. cap adorned with skull and bones. “What are you doing here?” A faint smile appeared on the rabbi’s lips. The baton moved to the right – to life. The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.
  • The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, “This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man.” [1]

There is one quote from Rabbi ben David’s book Shalom Aleichem that I really liked that the author attributed to Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein.

  • A person might belittle this simple act. He might think that nothing is accomplished by simply saying “Good Morning” respectfully to someone he passes on the sidewalk instead of looking the other way as if he does not exist. You never know, however, how much that person is looking forward to a warm greeting from another human being (p. 123).

Zilberstein is correct. A handshake and a greeting expresses more than just words, but a willingness to communicate with the Other.

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has written extensively about the power of the human face. When we see a face staring at us, behind that face is a human being like ourselves that commands respect—even if that person happens to be an enemy. The power of a greeting has the ability to transform human relationships.



[1] Yaffa Elliach, Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust (New York: Avon Books, 1982) pp. 129-30.

Book Review: Shalom Aleichem

Author: Rabbi Shiloh Ben-David. Book: Shalom Aleichem: A Collection of Halachos, Aggados, and Anecdotes about Greeting People.

ISBN-13: 978-9657599136; 217 pages; Publisher: Self-Published; Price: $23.95. Rating: 2.5 * out of four.

The 20th century Orthodox scholar and philanthropist Irving Bunim, in his monumental study on Pirke Avoth, makes a profound observation about the significance of an ordinary greeting.

  • “There is many a person whose petty conceit will not permit him to recognize anyone unless he is recognized first. The other person must make the first move. This is his way of establishing and maintaining his ‘dignity.’ Others will hesitate from a sense of insecurity to be the first to extend a warm greeting to those they meet. They are afraid to give a token of friendship and receive only an icy stare in return. They will therefore insist on waiting until the person they meet takes the ‘emotional risk,’ while they ‘play it safe.’ Whatever the reason, such behavior is wrong. Take the initiative, says our Sage. Do not seek a sense of importance, or an illusion of security, at the expense of another’s feelings. Give him a friendly greeting with a warm smile, and inquire of his welfare.”[1]

With this thought in mind, I shall now introduce a fine new book written by Rabbi Shimon ben David entitled, Shalom Aleichem: A Collection of Halachos, Aggados, and Anecdotes about Greeting People.

The first part of the book details the practical application regarding greeting someone with respect to mourners, interrupting prayer to greet a parent, a teacher, or even a potential enemy, such as a Roman King.  However, the author points out that even greeting someone has its limitation. For example, during prayer it is considered in appropriate to greet someone while the Cantor is leading a service. Modern synagogues could probably benefit from less socializing and more focused prayer. The author’s knowledge of the Halachic sources is impressive; he carefully annotates the legal discussions on the bottom of the page in Hebrew so that scholars might look into the Responsa literature that is written on the subject.

While most people would not think twice about the propriety concerning greeting a woman, the author mentions that many rabbis see nothing wrong with simply being polite. Yet, among the Ultra-Orthodox, such social niceties are considered “sinful.” Many of today’s Ultra-Orthodox rabbis fear that it might lead to a relationship (or possibly mixed dancing?).  Moreover, many scholars assert that a man is not even allowed to hear the voice of a woman (pp. 39-41).  Such reasoning only proves why there is such a degree of dysfunction in the Ultra-Orthodox world whenever it deals with gender interactions. This is very sad because young Orthodox people objectify the opposite gender.  Even making eye-contact with the opposite sex is considered “sinful.” Yet, we must not forget that when Jacob greets Rachel for the first time, the Torah tells us that he kissed her![2]

The author weaves many stories how rabbis of the past—from ancient to modern times—taught their followers about the importance of greeting a fellow-human being. Examples include:

  • Take care to greet one another with “Shalom”[3] (p. 109).
  • Anyone who greets another is as though he has given that person food and drink (p. 110).
  • R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: If one knows that his friend is used to greeting him, then he ought to greet his friend first, for it is said: Seek peace and pursue it (Psa. 34:15). Should his friend greet him first, but he does not return the greeting, such a person is called a robber, for it is said: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses (Isa. 3:14).[4]

There is one quote from Rabbi ben David’s book Shalom Aleichem that I really liked from Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein.

  • A person might belittle this simple act. He might think that nothing is accomplished by simply saying “Good Morning” respectfully to someone he passes on the sidewalk instead of looking the other way as if he does not exist. You never know, however, how much that person is looking forward to a warm greeting from another human being (p. 123). Continue reading “Book Review: Shalom Aleichem”

Book Review: Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership,


Rabbi Menachem Genack, In Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership  Sterling Ethos/OU Press, New York, 2013. 288 pages, ISBN 978-1-4549-0791-6. Price: $24.95

President Bill Clinton is in many ways one of the most iconic and beloved presidents of recent history. His congenial manner combined with his ability to speak directly to the people without the help of a teleprompter (unlike some presidents), illustrates how he loved to communicate with people.

Yet, for all of Bill Clinton’s great talents, his life in the White House revealed a man who had human flaws that were reminiscent of King David, or perhaps even King Solomon of the Bible. Combined with his legion of critics, Bill Clinton’s presidency was severely marred by scandal during his second term in office. The rest of the kings of Israel made Kings David and Solomon seem like paragons of virtue in comparison.

Great people frequently have feet of clay. This is, of course, a perennial theme of the Bible. Even the greatest people of the Tanakh suffered from moral defects of varying degrees. Moses loses his temper on a regular basis. By today’s standards—he might have been a candidate for anger management, along with YHWH, whose outbursts of anger results in the destruction of cities and continents.

In the Bible, even God makes mistakes (Gen. 8:21).

Rabbi Menachem Genack is an impressive writer. His newest book,  In Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership, reveals much about the ethical passions of Rabbi Genak. His book will greatly enhance any rabbi’s sermons on the weekly parsha or High Holidays.

A number of prominent rabbis and Jewish leaders added their voices and ensured that the President would be find the words of Jewish wisdom inspirational and relevant to the days he spent in solitude during his term as President. Essays from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and others—makes this book intriguing to see; think of it as a record to future generations to read.

The chapter headings in the book underscore the overall arching theme of the book. For example, “Leadership,” “Sin and Repentance,” “Creation,” “Community,” “Faith,” “Dreams and Vision,” and “Holidays.”  Christians in particular will probably enjoy how the rabbis expound many of the most familiar biblical stories from a Jewish perspective.

Here are a few choice examples that caught my attention. Judah in the Bible personifies strength and moral leadership. Yet, he did not always possess these traits. Like Jacob, his father, Judah is a hybrid of darkness and light. “There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection” and this adage certainly applies to all of various biblical personalities from Adam to Solomon, and countless others. The spiritual process of individuation (becoming a whole and integrated human being) requires that we face our shadowy self that hides beneath a veneer of piety and self-righteousness.

Even early on in the biblical story, Judah emerges as a born leader; his brothers look up to him; they listen to his advice; he commands their attention. Although he was not the firstborn son like Reuben, he might just as well could have been—judging by his demeanor and etiquette.  Yet, despite his natural gifts of leadership, he also has a dark side that is almost as cynical as his father’s. When the brother’s turn against Joseph, plotting to kill him, it is Judah who says:

  • So Judah said, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and hide his body?
    Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not harm him. After all, he is our brother.” And the others agreed. When the Midianite merchants came by, Joseph’s brothers took him out of the well, and for twenty pieces of silver they sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt. (Genesis 37:26-28)

In a section entitled, “The Ascent of Judah,” Norman Lamm points out a priceless insight  when Jacob blesses Judah on his deathbed. He notes that Judah’s greatness derives from the fact that he “rises from his failures. He atones for his sins and goes on to greatness. He redeems himself. The same Judah who counseled his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery now offers his own freedom and his very life to save Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother . . .Judah has now overcome his deficiencies. He has learned from his  mistakes. Judah is a study in growth, in development, a case study how to overcome moral vulnerability and emerge all the stronger” (p. 79-80).

Every time I read this book, I always learn something new and inspiring. I am certain that you will too.

I rate this book 5*out of 5*.

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom, is the author of The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Theology of the Caring God (Jason Aronson, 1996) and Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Conversation (Createspace, 2010) and four other books on Jewish theological, biblical and Talmudic subjects.  He may be contacted at

Nelson Mandela: A Man who Embodied the Spirit of Joseph & Moses

Nelson Mandela

Parshat Vyigash

Did Joseph really forgive his brothers? The biblical text strongly indicates that he did, one notable 18th century scholar, Hayim Ibn Attar (Ohr HaHayyim) argues that he didn’t. He explains that based upon Noahide law, anyone who had kidnapped or robbed is guilty of the death penalty. Although the victim could forgive the criminal, the law demands that the penalty be carried out.

  • So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made of me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Gen. 48:5).

Still and all, it is unclear whether the brothers felt that Joseph was merely biding his time for revenge; they thought that after their father’s death, Joseph would exact vengeance. This attitude is immediately evident after Jacob dies. In next week’s Torah reading, the brothers verbalize their anxiety and Joseph clarified his earlier thoughts on this matter:

  • ·          Now that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers became fearful and thought, “Suppose Joseph has been nursing a grudge against us and now plans to pay us back in full for all the wrong we did him!”  So they approached Joseph and said: “Before your father died, he gave us these instructions:  You shall say to Joseph, Jacob begs you to forgive the criminal wrongdoing of your brothers, who treated you so cruelly.’ Please, therefore, forgive the crime that we, the servants of your father’s God, committed.” When they spoke these words to him, Joseph broke into tears.Then his brothers proceeded to fling themselves down before him and said, “Let us be your slaves!” 
  • But Joseph replied to them: “Have no fear. Can I take the place of God? Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve his present end, the survival of many people.Therefore have no fear. I will provide for you and for your children.” By thus speaking kindly to them, he reassured them. Joseph remained in Egypt, together with his father’s family. He lived a hundred and ten years (Gen. 50:15-22).

These verses indicate that Joseph forgave his brothers and he felt sincere about it. It would seem highly irregular, if not downright anti-climactic  for the Book of Genesis to end on such an ambivalent note. To presume that Joseph was stingy with his forgiveness  would have tarnished his sterling quality; Joseph could hardly be called an exemplar to future generations had he been less than magnanimous in the art of forgiveness.

Subsequent Jewish tradition has always taught just as a person has a responsibility to seek forgiveness from a person(s) one has wronged, there also exists a duty on the part of the wronged party to act generously and be receptive to the experience of forgiveness if one sees that the wrong-doer is indeed sincere and penitent. Maimonides stresses this point in his classic study on the Laws of Penitence:

  • Whenever a person who has wronged another asks to be forgiven, he should do so with a perfect heart and with an agreeable spirit. Even if this person has distressed and wronged him exceedingly much, nevertheless, he should not be vengeful or bear a grudge towards him.[1] 

When the brothers found out about Joseph’s real identity, they feared retribution, but Joseph showed them by example how one must treat one’s adversaries. In many ways, it is in my view, the perfect conclusion to the Book of Genesis: Brothers must reconcile.

Why is this story about Joseph so relevant and important for today?

Rarely does the week day Torah reading correspond to the events of the world. Yet, this past week, we saw a divine synchronicity—the death of Nelson Mandela, who in many ways, personified the characteristics of Joseph in the Torah. The personality traits they exhibited reveal parallelisms that are striking.

  • Joseph and Mandela were hated by their brethren.
  • Both Joseph and Nelson Mandela spent years in prison; Joseph spent 22 years away from his home; Mandela spent 27 years away from his home.
  • Joseph ushers a new era of prosperity; Mandela also ushers a new era of prosperity and freedom for his people.
  • Both Joseph and Mandela proved to be great statesmen who brought great prosperity to their countrymen that lasted for decades.
  • By word and deed, Joseph and Mandela taught their people about the importance of forgiveness. Mandela’s words left a legacy, ”No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.”
  • “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for loves comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

It may be no coincidence that he died on the last day of Hanukkah. And like the Maccabees, he fought for the freedom for self-determination. Let us hope that leaders in our country will use their influence to bring healing to our nation, so that every person will realize life’s potential through the power of love and forgiveness.

[1] Maimonides, MT Hilchot De’ot 6:6.