From Skinhead to Haredi Jew: A Tale of Personal Transformation

In the previous posts, we touched upon the dynamics of the shadow archetype that hides the inner person that exists inside us. The key to a optimum psychological state of health requires that we get understand the hidden depths of our souls and psyches. Here is a remarkable story about coming to terms with one’s shadow, compliments of  NY Times and the Failedmessiah–two excellent websites.


From Skinhead to Orthodox Jew

Adam Lach for The New York Times

Pawel in the Warsaw synagogue. A former truck driver and neo-Nazi skinhead, Pawel, 33, has since become an Orthodox Jew, covering his shaved head with a yarmulke and shedding his fascist ideology for the Torah.

Published: February 24, 2010

WARSAW — When Pawel looks into the mirror, he can still sometimes see a neo-Nazi skinhead staring back, the man he once was before he covered his shaved head with a yarmulke, shed his fascist ideology for the Torah and renounced violence and hatred in favor of God.

Adam Lach for The New York Times

Pawel in the Warsaw synagogue. A former truck driver and neo-Nazi skinhead, Pawel, 33, has since become an Orthodox Jew, covering his shaved head with a yarmulke and shedding his fascist ideology for the Torah.

“I still struggle every day to discard my past ideas,” said Pawel, a 33-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew and former truck driver, noting with little irony that he had to stop hating Jews in order to become one.

“When I look at an old picture of myself as a skinhead, I feel ashamed. Every day I try and do teshuvah,” he said, using the Hebrew word for repentance. “Every minute of every day. There is a lot to make up for.”

Pawel, who also uses his Hebrew name Pinchas, asked not to use his last name for fear that his old neo-Nazi friends could target him or his family.

Pawel is perhaps the most unlikely example of a Jewish revival under way in Poland in which hundreds of Poles, a majority of them raised as Catholics, are either converting to Judaism or discovering Jewish roots submerged for decades in the aftermath of World War II.

Before 1939, Poland was home to more than three million Jews; over 90 percent of them were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. A majority of those who survived emigrated. Of the fewer than 50,000 who remained in Poland, many either abandoned or hid their Judaism during decades of Communist oppression in which political pogroms against Jews persisted.

But Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, noted that 20 years after the fall of Communism, a historical reckoning was finally taking place. He said Pawel’s metamorphosis illustrated just how far the country had come.

“Before 1989 there was a feeling that it was not safe to say ‘I am a Jew,”’ he said. “But today, there is a growing feeling that Jews are a missing limb in Poland.”

Five years ago, the rabbi noted, there were about 250 families in the Jewish community in Warsaw; today there are 600. During that period, the number of rabbis serving the country has grown from one to eight. The cafes and bars of the old Jewish quarter in Krakow brim with young Jewish converts listening to Israeli hip hop music. Even several priests have decided to become Jewish.

Pawel’s transformation from baptized Catholic skinhead to Jew began in a bleak neighborhood of concrete tower blocks in Warsaw in the 1980s. Pawel said he and his friends reacted to the gnawing uniformity of socialism by embracing anti-Semitism and an extreme right-wing ideology. They shaved their heads, carried knives, and greeted each other with the raised right arm gesture of the Nazi salute.

“Oi Vey, I hate to admit it, but we would beat up local Jewish and Arab kids and homeless people,” Pawel said on a recent day in the Nozyk Synagogue here. “We sang about stupid stuff like Satan and killing people. We believed that Poland should only be for Poles.”

One day, he recalled, he and his friends skipped school and took a train to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp, near Krakow. “We made jokes that we wished the exhibition had been bigger and that the Nazis had killed even more Jews,” he said.

He says his staunch Catholic parents, a teacher and a businessman, suspected he was a skinhead, but hoped it was just a phase.

“I never got caught for what I did or got arrested, so my parents didn’t realize things were so bad,” he said. “But they would get stressed out when I would come home in the morning wounded and covered in blood.”

Even as Pawel embraced the life of a neo-Nazi, he said, he had pangs that his identity was built on a lie. His churchgoing father seemed overly fond of quoting the Old Testament. His grandfather hinted about past family secrets.

“One time when I told my grandfather that Jews were bad, he exploded and screamed at me, ‘If I ever hear you say such a thing again under my roof, you will never come back!”’

Pawel joined the army and married a fellow skinhead at age 18. But his sense of self changed irrevocably at the age of 22, when his wife, Paulina, suspecting she had Jewish roots, went to a genealogical institute and discovered Pawel’s maternal grandparents on a register of Warsaw Jews, along with her own grandparents.

When Pawel confronted his parents, he said, they broke down and told him the truth: that his maternal grandmother was Jewish and had survived the war by being hidden in a monastery by a group of nuns. His paternal grandfather, also a Jew, had seven brother and sisters, most of whom had perished in the Holocaust.

“I went to my parents and said, ‘What the hell?’ Imagine, I was a neo-Nazi and heard this news. I couldn’t look in the mirror for weeks. It was a shock and it still is a shock to me,” he said. “My parents were the typical offspring of Jewish survivors of the war, who decided to conceal their Jewish identity to try and protect their family.” Continue reading “From Skinhead to Haredi Jew: A Tale of Personal Transformation”

The Origin of the World’s First Biblical Translation: The Septuagint

Every Apocryphal Story Has  a Germ of Historical Truth

According to an apocryphal legend,[1] Egyptian King Ptolemy Philadelphus (who ruled 285-246 B.C.E.) sent a delegation to a high priest named Eleazar in Jerusalem, who  organized  a group of 72 scribes  to write a new translation of the Bible for the city of  Alexandria.[2] These men purportedly translated the Hebrew Pentateuch into Greek in only seventy-two days.

A Jewish philosopher named Aristeas, records how the scribes felt inspired and arrived at a synchronous translation. Philo of Alexandria also claims that each of the translators, working under divine inspiration, arrived at identical phraseology as though dictated by an invisible prompter (Moses, 302).

Historians know that this apocryphal tale does not represent the composition of the Septuagint that we have today. Rather, it was composed over a sustained period of time from approximately the  middle of  2nd B.C.E. to the 1st century C.E. In any event, the name “Septuagint,” actually derives from the Latin septuāgintā, “seventy” (from the traditional number of its translators) : septem, seven; see sept in Indo-European roots + –gintā, ten times; see dek in Indo-European roots]. [3]

Sleuthing One of the World’s Great Mysteries

Scholars and lay-people often wonder what inspired the first translation of the Bible? Why was the first translation of the Bible written in Greek? What was the motivation of the early translators of  the Bible? What did they hope to achieve?  The real story behind the Septuagint almost reads like a good detective novel.

Actually, there were many practical reasons why the Alexandrian Jews embarked on this most ambitious literary project. First and foremost, the Septuagint made it easier to educate a generation of Jews who had partially forgotten their ancestral language after having settled in Egypt. Alexandria rapidly became known as the Athens of the Ancient Near East. In fact, by many accounts, Alexandria rivaled Athens in brilliance.

Established by Jewish merchants at the time of Alexander, Alexandria became the world’s first cosmopolitan city–comparable to what Paris now is in Europe. The world’s very first university was built in Alexandria; libraries containing the works of many great Greek thinkers and other famous non-Greek thinkers found a home in a society that was remarkably tolerant of different ethnic groups. Alexandria was proto-modern in a way that was unique.

The Commonalities Between Jewish and Greek Cultures

Obviously, the Greeks and Jews of Alexandria realized that both of their cultures had much in common. Greeks believed they had a chosen vocation to spread Hellenistic culture throughout the world; the Greeks were “chosen” by the gods to achieve this task. The Jews also believed that they have a chosen divine destiny to spread ethical monotheism throughout the world. Obviously, the Greeks were very curious about the Jews and their traditions. A new translation of their works made a lot of sense.

Practical Reasons for Writing the Septuagint

For the Jews who lived in Alexandria, Greek was for these Jews much like what English is today for American Jews, the “lingua franca.” Greek was the language of commerce which made communication in the diplomatic and business world possible. Jewish masses forgot how to speak in Hebrew.

Recognizing that without a translation of the Torah in Greek, the Alexandrian Jewish community would further assimilate, something had to be done.  A Greek translation would make the Torah service at the synagogue more meaningful and relevant. With such a translation, the Alexandrian Jews now had a key to understanding their own religious heritage. The Septuagint also served as a guide for everyday instructional usage. Continue reading “The Origin of the World’s First Biblical Translation: The Septuagint”

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 2)

Shmarya Rosenberg posted a correspondence he had with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on the plight of Ethiopian Jewry. It is a valuable historical document–one that will most likely be studied by future generations. Here is the record of  his correspondence with Rav Moshe  Feinstein.


Recently, I found Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s 1984 teshuva-letter on Ethiopian Jews stuck between two file folders. (You can click the thumbnail image for a larger, more readable image or download a PDF.[1]) This letter was written in response to a question I asked through Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rav Moshe’s son-in-law. He referred the question to his son, Mordechai, who then served as Rav Moshe’s secretary-assistant. What follows is a (rough) translation:

With the Help of HaShem

26 Sivan 5744

To the honored, my beloved grandson ha rav ha-gaon moreinu ha-rav Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, shlit’a, with blessings of peace and blessing and all good:

With my best regards,

Here as per your request, I reaffirm what you wrote in my name several years ago regarding the “Falashas,” that it is known what is written in the Responsa of the Radba”z, section seven, §9, that it is understood he considers them to be Jews; however for practical application of the law it is difficult to rely on this, for it is not clear if the Radba”z knew well the reality regarding them, nor is it clear whether up until our time their status has [remained the same and] not changed. But in regard to practical application of the law they are not mamzerim or the like, for the Radba”z mentions there that many many doubts apply to them. Review my responsa where I detail at length the qualifications of the rabbinical prohibitions regarding the legal status of ‘an illegitimate child of unknown fatherhood’ and ‘a child found in the street whose parents are (both) unknown’. Continue reading “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 2)”

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)

When I was looking at the numbers of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, I felt very proud of those rabbis and Jewish leaders that knew how to respond in times of great crisis. Jewish ethics teaches that anyone who saves one life is considered as though he saves an entire world.

The collaborative effort of Jewish leaders across denominational lines accomplished one of the great feats of Exodus in our day. Rarely has the Jewish community of Israel and the Diaspora shown such unity–I only wish we could replicate the experience in other areas of Jewish life today.

One particular American rabbinic leader, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1885-1986, Lithuania), acted as a catalyst  in mobilizing other rabbinic leaders to come to aid. This Lithuanian  rabbi proved to be the real Moses of his day. Here is a little bit of background information for readers who may not have heard about this great man. Widely regarded as America Orthodoxy’s greatest Halachic scholar, Rav Feinstein’s  humanity exceeded his vast encyclopedic grasp of Jewish law. When he died, over 300,000 people in Israel attended his funeral–the largest number seen since the Mishnaic era. He will long  be remembered as one of Haredi Judaism’s greatest leaders.

Rav Feinstein also distinguished himself as an expert in Jewish medical ethics; in addition, he was famous for knowing how to resolve labor and business disputes; he was the first Haredi rabbi to accept brain death as a viable definition of death at a time when no other rabbi did. Although he was not a religious pluralist, Rav Moshe (as he was affectionately called by many of his students) knew how to respond to the endangered Ethiopian Jewish community and added his voice to those participating in their rescue. Thinking ahead, Rav Moshe also worked with other leading Israeli rabbis in  laying out a practical Halachic plan that would accelerate their reintegration within the Jewish people. [1]

Perhaps Rav Moshe’s best legacy is his multi-volume exposition dealing with the thousands of questions people asked concerning Jewish law  that rabbinic and historical scholars refer to as “Responsa.”

What exactly is Responsa? Here is a brief explanation.

Without the aid of an Internet,  rabbis managed to develop a literary  phenomenon, viz. the rabbinical correspondence that is better known today as “Responsa.” About 1700 years ago, the great rabbinic scholars known as the “Geonim” (savants) of Persia corresponded with the rabbis of North Africa and Spain, and exchanged ideas and thoughts on a variety of topics affecting their communities. This genre of literature constitutes one of the most fertile sources of information for Jewish life in the middle ages. Maimonides, Rav Hai Gaon, Ramban and countless other luminaries sustained an ongoing relationship with other Jewish communities that were across the ancient world. Continue reading “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)”

The Odyssey of a Prodigal Son

I personally know of many prodigal sons and daughters of Lubavitch, people who left the famous Hasidic movement for a variety of reasons.  Their stories are all too familiar to me. Some became disillusioned with its values and philosophy; others could no longer reconcile the contradictions of a modern vs. pre-modern lifestyle. In each of these personal narratives,  it is always the individual who redefines his or her own identity.

For members of any closed society, it is typically the community that does the defining.  To leave this kind of world within a world takes a virtual Kierkegaardian leap of faith– into the realm of the unknown, where one undergoes a new kind of genesis. Or perhaps to use a more platonic metaphor, leaving Lubavitch is a lot like the man who left his fellow prisoners in the cave, only to discover a  different kind of reality (The Republic, Book 7). Yes, life  is a series of miniature rebirths. Here is a story about one man’s rebirth that I think many of you will find fascinating.

Shmarya (Scott) Rosenberg  is the owner of the Failedmessiah website. Shmarya’s spiritual journey is a remarkable one. He, like many of us, has taken the road less traveled.  His story began when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to get involved with the rescue of  Ethiopian Jews. The Rebbe’s refusal ultimately resulted in Shmarya’s exodus from Lubavitch.

In a personal letter he received from the Rebbe to Shmarya, the Rebbe wrote that “spiritually” rescuing American Jews from assimilation was an  urgent matter that took precedence over rescuing the “Jewish” community of Ethiopia. Rabbi Schneerson probably felt that  saving American Jews was a matter of triage. However, most of the other great rabbis of that era like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rav Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, supported the rescue efforts regardless of the practical Halachic doubts some of them  had concerning the “Jewishness” of the Ethiopian Jews. Even as of today, Lubavitch still refuses to have any kind of outreach with Ethiopian Jews, despite the fact they underwent Orthodox conversions in Israel.

It is difficult to blame Shmarya for his animus against the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, but his alienation from the movement has led him to a renewed sense of personal and spiritual discovery. Shmarya has long since  become a voice of Jewish conscience. He routinely holds the Orthodox world accountable for its countless misdeeds and foibles.

Much in the spirit of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, Shmarya reveals the Monty Python-esque characteristics of nearly all the great Orthodox rabbis of our present generation, and most of these anecdotes are outrageous. After reading his blog, one gets the inescapable feeling that the age of Gedolim (authentic rabbinic scholars who embody the best qualities of Judaism) has become either of thing of the past, or is an endangered species.

In a century or two from now, future generations will find this material historically valuable; students will read Failedmessiah much like we now study the 17th century diaries  of Samuel Pepys from London. Anyone interested, may want to read Shmarya’s critique of Rabbi Shafran, who recently blamed the Haiti earthquake on Jewish cartoonists who dared to castigate Orthodox outreach programs. His stories  on the  “holy Kabbalists” usually depict them as con-artists, who prey (pun intended) upon the gullible public. For the most part, Shmarya exposes a ruthlessness that exists within the Lubavitcher organization itself which its supporters never see. Frankly, Chabad can gain great wisdom from his criticisms.

To his credit, the Failedmessiah has literally forced the entire Orthodox world to become more circumspect and responsible with its members’ group behavior. Without his website, it is doubtful whether the yeshiva world would ever have taken ownership of the pedophilia cases that exist within their rank and file members and spiritual leadership. Really now, shouldn’t  the Orthodox members police their communities for everyone’s sake?

Historically, such issues have always plagued Jewish traditional observant communities. Prior to the Internet and blogging, these scandals would have most certainly been swept under the rug, away from public scrutiny. However, thanks to Failedmessiah and other bloggers that he has inspired, a conspiracy of silence is no longer possible.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first modern secular Jewish thinkers to see the profound spiritual and ethical disconnect of  the “religious” people of his era. He realized that it is far easier to worship God through mechanical ritual than it is to behave as an ethical human being. Freud subsequently viewed religion as a neurosis–and probably for good reason. When one observes the kind of shenanigans the Orthodox in Israel perpetuate daily in Israel, it is obvious that we do a pretty good job creating our own brand of anti-Semitism without the help of David Duke and his ilk. Shmarya Rosenberg provides an invaluable service for the Jewish community by forcing all of us to examine our shadow side. Continue reading “The Odyssey of a Prodigal Son”

When “Halacha” becomes “A goodly apple rotten at the heart”

Although Shammai had his differences with Hillel with respect to how one receives perspective converts to Judaism, one thing is evident—not even Shammai ever believed that a Beit Din [rabbinical court] has the right to keep perspective converts in a state of permanent probation. As we pointed out in the earlier postings on conversion, the Halacha makes it clear that even if the newly converted candidate goes astray from his Judaism, he is still nevertheless considered to be a Jew—a  “sinful” Jew, but his status as a Jew is never something that is ontologically kept in suspension or in doubt. [1]

However, much has changed in the last few decades in Israel. This simple Talmudic truth is no longer so obvious. A spirit of Haredi revisionism is making an assault on Jewish law that is far more threatening than anything else we have observed in Jewish history.

Recently, the High Court of Justice was asked to overturn a determination of the Rabbinical High Court regarding the conversion of a Danish-Israeli involved in a divorce case. Nonchalantly, the couple had appeared earlier before a lower-ranking rabbinical court where the woman was asked if she observed Jewish law, to which she answered that she no longer did. Little did she realize the ill-treatment she was about to create for herself and her family by simply being honest with her interrogators.

A bill of divorce was nonetheless arranged, according to Jewish law, but a divorce certificate was never issued. The court ruled that, as the woman is only,” ergo,  there was no technical  need for rabbinical divorce proceedings. They also said that by the same token, the woman and her children cannot marry Jews under Jewish law. The rabbinical court of appeals refused to reverse the lower court’s decision and thus the case arrived on the docket of the High Court of Justice.

Writing for the Rabbinic High Court of Justice, attorney and Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi wrote a legal opinion for the stating that all conversions to Judaism are never “final,” but remain in a fluidic state of Halachic abeyance.  Haredi rabbis maintain that they have the right to review the halachic status of any and all conversions that have taken place in Israel or elsewhere.

Now the way the Haredim rabbinate goes about sifting the “authentic” converts from the “inauthentic” converts is almost sleight of hand. The Orthodox feminist Rivkah Lubitch explains the insidious nature of this artifice:

“According to Yaakobi, the rabbinic courts have for many years routinely examined converts at the time of their divorce regarding their religious observance. As a rule, in all divorce procedures, it is customary to be very exact when referring to the names of the parties, as well as to their fathers’ names. Since the convert has separated herself from her biological family, her father’s name is not written. Instead, it is written: “The daughter/son of Avraham our Forefather.” However, Yaakobi claims that precedents exist that hold that if a convert has reverted to her old ways, it is an insult to refer to her as “the daughter of Avraham our Forefather.” So it is become the custom to ask the convert if she obeys the commandments. If she testifies that she obeys the commandments, the rabbis will write “the daughter of Avraham our Forefather”; but if she testifies that she does not obey the commandments, the rabbis will add the accolade “convert” after her name. So far, with respect to the divorce proceeding.” Continue reading “When “Halacha” becomes “A goodly apple rotten at the heart””

We need to welcome the “Jews by Choice”–not repel them!

I must confess. For decades now, I have never been a fan of the  London Beth Din. I have felt this way ever since they invalidated Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s conversion back in the 1980s.  Well, recently, the London Beit Din has earned my respect again–not because I believe in their halachic positions on “Who is a Jew?” but because they put  Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of Mill Hill Synagogue, chairman of the US [i.e., United Synagogue] Rabbinical Council, in his rightful place. Now, Schochet proposed the suspension a moratorium on all  conversions within the Orthodox world community.

What a bad idea!

Fortunately, the London Beth Din rejected Schochet’s novelty, saying that his comments  does not reflect the London Beit Din’s  “principles, policies or intended plans.”

Right on!

And the court went on to say, “As dayanim charged with the task of administering and overseeing the conversion process on behalf of Anglo-Jewry, we feel privileged to be involved in this vital and spiritual process. Righteous converts have made important contributions to our community and Anglo-Jewry is greatly enriched by their presence within our communities.”

Ditto. I could not have said it any better myself.

We need to welcome the “Jews by Choice”–not repel them! Perhaps this is the one issue all denominations of Judaism can agree on. We may disagree on the method and procedure of welcoming them, but we can ill-afford to follow Rabbi Schneersons’ foolish follower in Great Britain who, unfortunately, reflects his movement’s deep animus and distrust toward converts. The late Rebbe was responsible for sowing the seeds of discord by insisting on a “giyur khalacha” standard–implying that there is only ONE way to interpret Halacha. Haredi leaders joined the Schneerson bandwagon and the Jewish world has been at odds within itself ever since. Thank you Rabbi Schneerson.

Since when in the last 1800 years has any rabbinic court ever ruled for Jewish communities everywhere in the world? Historically,  halacha has never been so myopic or narrow. Great scholars have always differed since the early days of the Pharisees, e.g., Hillel and Shammai. Revocation of conversions is expressly forbidden in Jewish law. The current “Who is a Jew?” issue as championed by the late Rebbe, continues to create discord at a time when Jewish leaders should be promoting unity.

While I believe there are some fine Chabad rabbis serving their communities with distinction, its organization needs to discard their leader’s attitudes that are contrary to Jewish ethics, halacha, and especially–Jewish history with respect to those who consciously choose Judaism as their spiritual path.

Four Tales about Hillel’s Tolerance

The Talmud relates (BT Shabbat 31):

“A gentile once came to convert to Judaism, on the condition that he could learn the whole Torah while standing on one foot. He approached Shammai, who rejected him. So he went to Hillel and asked him that he wanted to be taught the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told him: “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, and everything else is commentary–go and learn!”

Another gentile who wanted only the written Torah came to convert. Shammai refused him, so he went to Hillel. The first day, Hillel taught him the Hebrew alphabet. However, the next day Hillel reversed the order of the  letters. Confused, the convert asks,  “But yesterday you said the opposite!?” Said Hillel: “Now you see that the written word alone is insufficient. We need the Oral Tradition in order  to understand the Written.”

A third gentile was very impressed by the Priestly garments and came to convert. Again, Shammai dismissed him, but Hillel encouraged him to study more. After learning, he came to realize that even David, King of Israel didn’t qualify to serve as a priest in the Temple, because he wasn’t born a cohen.” The latter came back to Hillel and said, ‘O gentle Hillel; blessings rest on thy head for bringing me under the wings of the Shekhinah!’ Some time later the three met in one place; said they, Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shekhinah (BT Shabbat 31a).

Hillel’s liberal philosophy endeared him to his entire generation because he personified kindness, patience, and a love for all people. Shammai’s machmir (stringent) philosophy, you might say, had a repelling effect. He probably could have benefited from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” but self-help books did not exist in Shammai’s time.

Rabbinic tradition acknowledges the Halacha follows Hillel’s liberal approach to the conservatism of Shamai (Soferim xvi. 9). It is fair to ask, why would the Halacha follow Hillel–the liberal–over Shammai, who was notoriously known for his ultra-conservative positions? The answer is simple; Hillel behaved like a mentsch at all times.

The Jerusalem Talmud records a story where Hillel and Shammai once differed regarding the ritual status of grapes and olives. As with most arguments, the issue is not what either party is arguing about, it is rather, how and why they are arguing. As the controversy grew increasingly hostile, it appears that the Shammites turned violent against the Hillelites. To calm the crowd, Hillel showed his greatness by de-hostilizing the  mob when he assumed a subservient position. Without fanfare, Hillel  proved why he was so  morally superior to his adversary, who probably viewed Hillel’s subservience as a “moral victory. ” Shammai’s abuse of his position was nothing less than idolatrous.

Jealousy isn’t always bad. Jealousy can often serve a positive function in motivating students to improve. Aristotle once wrote in his “Art of Rhetoric,” where he explains, “Jealousy is both reasonable and belongs to reasonable men, while envy is base and belongs to the base, for the one makes himself get good things by jealousy, while the other does not allow his neighbor to have them through envy.” [1]

Shammai’s personal disdain (or might it have been envy?) for Hillel grew so intense that  “A sword was planted in the House of Study and it was proclaimed, ‘He who would enter, let him enter, but he who would depart, let him not depart!’ And on that day Hillel sat submissive before Shammai’s rulings, like one of the disciples, and it was as grievous to Israel as the day when the golden calf was made ….” [2] Imagine how one Jew turned against the other, as the Shammaites attempted to murder the Hillelites for disagreeing with their master. This was the day when one brother killed another brother–all for the sake of Halacha?!

Eventually, a Heavenly Voice made Her Presence known at Yavneh, decades after the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem, which ruled that the Halacha follows the Academy of Hillel in every instance.[3]

And now you know–the rest of the story!



[1] Aristotle, “The Art of Rhetoric,” sect. 6, ch. 2.11.

[2] TB Shabbat 17a; TJ Shabbat 1:4, 9a (1:8, 3c); Tosefta Shabbat 1:16. See also Lieberman, Tosefta ki-Feshutah, Shabbat, p. 15, for clarification of the statement in TB Shabbat, “On that day Hillel sat bent over [i.e., subservient] before Shammai,” which implies that even in the days of Shammai and Hillel themselves, relations between them were difficult. This statement does not appear in the other sources. See Tosafot, Shabbat 14b, s.v. Veillu Shammai ve-Hillel; S. Lieberman, Yerushalmi ki-Feshuto, pp. 38, 52. This is no great surprise for the reasons mentioned above.

[3] Tosafot, Bava Meẓiʾa 59b, s.v. Lo va-shamayim hi.

Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome”

While the government considers it a national task, the state of conversion in Israel continues to deteriorate. Official data indicate a 12% drop in the number of conversions to Judaism in Israel in 2009. Just 986 out of 300,000 people with no religious affiliation have converted to Judaism in the last year. The drop in the Israeli Defense Forces stands at 4% compared with 2008. The reason for this drop is because of the feeling shared by many potential converts who fear that the Haredi  rabbis in Israel may invalidate their conversions for whatever the reason they conjure. Therefore, the state itself – no longer considers them or their descendants to be Jewish.

What are the practical implications of such a scenario unfolding? All denominations of Judaism–from the Reform to the Modern Orthodox–suffer from the Haredi approach Halacha that violates both the letter and the spirit of the Shulchan Aruch. In an earlier blog, I have already demonstrated why revocations of conversion has never existed until fairly recent times. In a country where all personal status issues – from birth through marriage, divorce, and death – are all controlled by Haredi rabbis, this means children who suddenly will not be able marry, spouses can’t be buried next to one another. Unfortunately, this type of policy making establishes a cast system where converts have a second class status. We have not seen this type of marginalization of an entire group of people since the  Spanish Inquisition period, where the Marranos were singled out for stigmatization by their fellow Jews.

Why is there so much distrust toward the “Jew by Choice” in the ultra-Orthodox world?

I often wonder whether  Haredi or Hassidic Orthodoxy suffers from a psychological illness that I call, “The Groucho Marx Syndrome.” The story goes that once Groucho Marx wanted to join a certain country club. Much to his surprise, they refused to give him membership.  You see, the club had a policy: No Jews allowed. In one of the more spirited exchanges, Marx wrote:

‘I have received your reply, and I think I understand.   It seems that I cannot join your country club because I am Jewish.   Now, my wife is not Jewish, so I expect that she could join.   Where I am confused is about my son, whom I guess you would consider half-Jewish.  Does this mean that he could join, but only go swimming up to his waist?’

Several years later, when Groucho Marx resigned from Hollywood’s Friar Club with the following quip:   “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Continue reading “Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome””

Why didn’t Judaism become a large international faith like Christianity and Islam?

If parallel worlds exist, I wonder what would the world be like if Judaism became one of the world’s largest religions? The question for some people may seem kind of funny. Can you imagine donating money to the government so that they could print the pictures of your parents or grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah on the national currency? But on a serious note, ask yourselves this question: Why didn’t Judaism attract the same following that Christianity and Islam later achieved?

Interesting question, no?

Historically,  there was a time when Judaism during the days of Late Antiquity went out of its way to welcome non-Jews to Judaism. A sizable portion of the Roman Empire had Jewish citizenry. The Jews of Alexandria specifically translated the Tanakh into Greek to help attract new converts to the faith. Jewish thought made philosophers like Philo of Alexandria and Aristobulus popular scholars the Graeco-Roman world enjoyed reading.

Yes, the Alexandrian Jewish community envisioned Judaism as a universal faith–a view that most the rabbis did not share because of their hatred of Hellenistic culture.  Jewish efforts to proselytize gentiles was so successful that the Roman Senate decided to expel the Jews in the year 139 B.C.E. and later in the year 19 C.E., according to Josephus (Josephus, Ant. 18.81–84). Incidentally, the NT indicates that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time engaged in outreach efforts to bring in new proselytes, thus we read, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you compass sea and land to make one proselyte” (Matthew 23:15).

With respect to our original question: Why didn’t Judaism evolve into a much larger faith? In a nutshell, it had much to do with war, attrition, and internecine politics between the Early Roman Church and the synagogue. Basically, once Christianity became the state religion, proselytization became a forbidden activity for Jews to engage in. By many estimates, the Romans killed over 1.1 million Jews as a result of the failed Jewish rebellions against Rome.[1] Exponentially, one million people could over a millennium result in hundreds of millions of people given enough time. Add to this another 97,00o that were taken captive by the Romans. Continue reading “Why didn’t Judaism become a large international faith like Christianity and Islam?”