Torah from Alexandria is now available on Amazon.com!

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe that the birth of a concept I had when I was about 18, has finally come to fruition! The rest of the series is moving at warp speed and Exodus will be coming out sometime in November or possibly December. It looks to be a longer work, perhaps the longest of the series.

Leviticus will be out around Purim and Numbers will be out in the early spring of 2015. By summer of 2015, Deuteronomy will be out as well.

For anyone who has ever studied the weekly parsha with Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, you will discover a new but long forgotten Jewish exegete–Philo of Alexandria.

Philo has a unique way of making the simple meaning of the Torah come alive! Volume 1 of Torah from Alexandria has lots of notes and comparisons between Maimonides and Philo, not to mention many other unique insights long forgotten by Jewish tradition. Arguably, Philo could be considered one of the very first Torah commentators of the 1st century. If nothing else, he certainly composed the first philosophical exposition of the Torah.

Enjoy!

http://www.amazon.com/Torah-Alexandria-Biblical-Commentator-Volume/dp/0692291725/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1412303037&sr=8-3&keywords=Philo+of+Alexandria+2014

 

The Fly in the Coffee Cup

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What happens when a fly falls into a coffee cup? Here’s a list of responses:

The Italian  throws the cup and walks away in a fit of rage

The Frenchman takes out the fly, and drinks the coffee

The Chinese  eats the fly and throws away the coffee

The Israeli sells the coffee to the Frenchman, the fly to the Chinese, then buys himself a new cup of coffee and uses the extra money to invent a Device that prevents flies from falling into coffee.

The Palestinian blames the Israeli for the fly falling into his coffee, protests the act of aggression to the UN, takes a loan from the European Union for a new cup of coffee, uses the money to purchase explosives and then blows up the coffee house where the Italian, the Frenchman, and the Chinese, are trying to explain to the Israeli why he should give away his cup of coffee to the Palestinian

Isn’t it amazing how the United Nations is sponsoring “war crimes” against Israel because of their incursion into Gaza?

Yet, while all this is going on, the UNRWA schools continue to be used as military bases to attack Israel. The latest death of a four-year old Daniel Tregerman, who was killed by a Gazan rocket as he was playing in his living room is one of the newest deaths produced courtesy of Hamas and the United Nations.

The  IDF is reporting that the Hamas mortar that killed 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman today was fired from near an UNRWA school being used as a shelter in Gaza.

How strange it is indeed. One of the reasons why the United Nations was created was to ensure that no more genocides would ever occur in the world again. Yet, as the latest Gaza-Israeli war has shown repeatedly how the United Nations Relief & Works Agency for the Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has become an active combatant in the war to destroy all Jews living in Israel.

Rocket stockpiles have been found in many schools that is supposedly under their control. When the UN inspectors become aware of it, they hand the weaponry over to the local police. One would think they would confiscate the weapons and send them out of the country to be destroyed.

Their inept policies reveal a profound disregard for human life.

Then again, the war against Hamas has also demonstrated how the UNRWA supplies and building materials found in Hamas’s tunnel infrastructure, have been used to smuggle weapons and carry out terrorist attacks against Israel. When Hamas missiles backfire and blow up hospitals and schools, yet, Israel is to blame.

Way to go, United Nations. You’re batting a thousand!

To date, the UNRWA has yet hold any individuals or organizations responsible for placing the weapons stockpile within a children’s school.

And guess who is paying for the UNRWA? You guessed it, the American taxpayer.

President Obama’s animus toward Israel shows how lopsided his foreign policy has been when it comes to the battle against terrorism, a word that the President prefers not to have in his political lexicon.

It is time to acknowledge the simple and obvious truth. Whenever Hamas uses the United Nations schools in Gaza as rocket arsenals, the President says nothing. Whenever Hamas beast Gazans who try to escape after being warned by the IDF, the President says nothing, The IDF discovered that Hamas was planning a large-scale attack of Israeli kibbutzim on Rosh Hashanah, and yet,  the President says nothing.

Mayhem, mass kidnappings don’t seem to register on the Obama Richcter scale, Although he said many times that Israel has the right to defend itself, he really didn’t mean it. In the grand scheme of things, the UNRWA and the President are both enablers of Hamas.

No truce is going to solve this problem unless the UN and the Western Nations demand and supervise the demilitarization of Gaza once and for all. As it stands, the UN’s complicity makes it a primary accessory and is responsible for much of the mayhem that has occurred in this conflict.

Book Review: The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man 5*

 

Finis Leavell Beauchamp, The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man

Kodesh Press  (New York, 2014); 396 pages; ISBN-13: 978-0692237885

Price $14.95

Philo of Alexandria once said that every person who has ever become a proselyte walks a similar path that Abraham, our Father, once walked. According to Jewish folklore, Abraham came from a highly dysfunctional home. One legend tells us that his father Terah had his son arrested for breaking the idols of his father’s business. Yes, for those people who become righteous proselytes, their journey is often a dangerous one indeed. The same may be said about the author Finis Leavell Beauchamp and his wonderful book, The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man tells about a similar spiritual odyssey about a man who came to Judaism through a most remarkable serendipitous path.

Finis Leavell Beauchamp’s The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man is fascinating story about a person who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. This Protestant movement has a substantial number of followers all over the world. When I was working on my doctorate at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, a couple of my classmates were Southern Baptists, who came from South Korea.  It was quite amusing to see them try to imitate the body language and cadence of the American preachers.

They are a highly charismatic denomination that believes in many of the folk beliefs that are mentioned in the NT, e.g., demons, exorcisms, faith healings, miracles, speaking in tongues—many of the things that Beauchamp personally experienced when he was a young boy in his parents’ home.

In the beginning of his captivating book, Beauchamp writes a lot about an exorcism he had personally experienced as a young ten-year-old boy.  In one engaging paragraph, young Beauchamp writes about the details he remembered that remarkable day in Texas:

  • The distraction of that man’s breath freed my mind for a lone moment from the terror that I felt. My body shrugged, and I suddenly exhaled laughter. In the midst of that morbid room, I could only  think of how spicy was the cinnamon flooding through my nostrils.   I was horrified that I had laughed, and glanced at the men in the room. I tried to choke back any sound rising in my throat. The exorcist grinned. “It’s ok,” he said. “They know why you’re here,” he said, pointing to the bellicose demons inhabiting my breast. “And the Devil is a mocker. . .” (Page 20.)

On the back cover of the book, Beauchamp writes, “If you were locked up in an asylum, and left for years, or worse, were born in one, how would you learn to distinguish yourself from the others? How would you come to certainly know you were the one who was sane?”

As I read this book, I had a new appreciation for the complex journeys so many Jews by choice have made. However, in Beauchamp’s case, it reminded me much about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this famous tale, Plato describes a deep subterranean cave where people have remained imprison since childhood. Enchained from the neck down to their legs, all they could see was the back of the cave and the shadows that were cast upon it. These prisoners could not even see the source of the shadows that were on the wall, much less believe that there was an outside reality—a radically different world that did not resemble anything they had ever known. However, what if the cave-dweller were given the capacity to see beyond the cave?

Judging from his experiences, Beauchamp may well have been the kind of prisoner that Plato was talking about!

Fortunately, for young Beauchamp, he survived to tell his unique tale.

As a person endowed with a profound sense of spirituality, the author continued searching until he found in Judaism a faith that spoke to his soul.  One of the most important distinctions that separate Judaism from Christianity is how each religion approaches faith. Christian across the expression prefer certainty; the knowledge that one is “saved” is the only thing that can bring solace to the Christian heart. In Judaism, there is no such thing as a justification by faith. In fact, in Judaism, the questioning of faith prods us to grow and discover—which is exactly what Beauchamp did.

As a boy, he always wanted to solve puzzles. This skill made his mother nervous, which was one of the reasons she thought he was “possessed.” But as he learned, solving puzzles is something many of the greatest philosophical and scientific minds have been doing since the beginning of recorded history.

Thomas Hobbes may have said it most eloquently: Curiosity is the lust of the mind. For heart-centered Christians like his family of origin, intellectual curiosity is always a threat because it raises uncomfortable questions and demands authenticity. In a nutshell, this is why the author continued his spiritual quest.

Finis’s decision to have an Orthodox conversion proved to be like a psychological  rollercoaster ride for the author. His observations about the political shenanigans within Ultra-Orthodoxy are absolutely on target. His insight that these rabbis possess a control over another person’s life was also accurate (cf. p. 327-331). His comment, “These rabbis may function as angels, but they may also function like tyrants” (p. 330).  It almost seemed to me as I was reading his book that the author may have felt a certain sense of déjà vu when he felt utterly helpless and subject to a controlling rabbinical sponsor, who could care less how his professional decisions impacted the life of this exceptional candidate for conversion. This is an observation that the author never explicitly makes, but I think it is implicitly obvious to anyone who reads between the lines.

Fortunately for Finis, he met a fine rabbi who he enjoyed studying with while he was in Memphis, Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt. A good rebbe makes all the difference in the world for a Jew by Choice.

How true!

This book was not an easy read because of its naked intensity. One can only admire the courage that Beauchamp showed. His willingness to challenge the status quo is one of his most endearing qualities. It is my hope that he will never give up that trait even as he now practices Orthodox Judaism. Judaism can greatly benefit from people who have a healthy sense of curiosity, a willingness to question, and discover truth—no matter where that spiritual journey ultimately leads.  Finis Beauchamp’s candor and willingness to bare his soul is a rare quality among religious writers today, who often tend to write about other people’s spiritual narratives instead of sharing their own unique story with others.

Lastly, the author’s poetry in the back of his book as delightfully spiritual and rich.

 

Humpty Dumpty, Gaza Jihadists and the Meaning of “Cease Fire”

 

  • “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” —Alice’s  Adventures in Wonderland

Anyone following the news might wonder: Why is Israel entering into Gaza—again?!

Didn’t they just they agree to have a “cease fire”?

As mentioned before, the Jihadist view of a “cease fire,” means, “Israel must cease while we may still fire!”

In Wonderland, words may sound alike, but each word is as much as condition as a thing, no matter whatever terminology or nomenclature is used. Words have a substance beyond their context, and the citizens of Wonderland use words freely to mean whatever meaning they wish to impose. This explains the Israeli and Gazan Jihadists problem quite succinctly. The Gazan Jihadists use language differently from most normal people, much like Humpty Dumpty’s theory of language!

In Wonderland, words may sound alike, but each word is as much as condition as a thing, no matter whatever terminology or nomenclature is used. Words have a substance beyond their context, and the citizens of Wonderland use words freely to mean whatever meaning they wish to impose. This explains the problem quite succinctly!

One would think the Jihadist could want a respite after their humiliating defeat at the hand of the Israeli army. This is probably the reason why the Jihadists of Gaza can’t end the battle quite yet.

You see, it’s all about looking good to the other legion of Islamo-fascists threatening to blow the Middle East up in one colossal war. Then again, the Jihadist Islamo-fascists of Gaza hope that maybe ISIS or Hezbollah will stop their fighting and join them in their quest to destroy Israel—once and for all!

But what about their suffering? Jihadists never care about the people they claim to protect. Their people’s only utility is to serve the masters who control them; in this case, the Jihadists of Gaza wish to use their people as human shields.

While the conflicts and Israeli incursions into Gaza is nothing new, there is something different we have not seen in the past. This time around, we have seen a remarkable change in the Arab street. Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others condemn the Hamas attacks as reckless. One broadcaster named Amani al-Hayat from ON TV, which is affiliated with the Egyptian regime, blamed  Hamas was to blame for Israel’s “massacre” in the Gaza Strip and said that Hamas deliberately created the crisis in Gaza so that the Rafah crossing would be opened.

Wait a minute: Why is Hamas angry at Egypt for closing the Rafah crossing?  There are two basic reasons for this. Neither Israel nor Egypt wants the Palestinian Jihadists to ferment trouble in the Sinai Peninsula. In addition, the Jihadists of Gaza supported the Muslim Brotherhood in their fanatical attempt to establish Sharia Law in Egypt. The Egyptians said to the Jihadists and to our President—we do not want your support for the Muslim Brotherhood, they are religious fascists.

I suspect the non-Sharia states of the Arab world are getting weary of the Palestinians failing to get their act together in Gaza. For all the hundreds of billions the Western world has sent Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank, all they have done is purchase more weapons of mass destruction, while its leaders steal millions of dollars to put in their bank accounts.

While it is true that the citizens of Gaza are clearly the victims of  Hamas, who has placed them between their weapons arsenals and the Gaza families, we must not forget the it is the Gaza Palestinians who voted for Hamas. They are the ones who consciously chose a terrorist organization to represent them. Until they make the important decision to evict Hamas as their leaders, they must also bear the responsibility of the mayhem that exists in their country.

Israel never ceases to amaze me with their humanity for the Gazan people. Not only do they send no less than 1,200 truckloads of goods to enter the Gaza Strip during just one week during the week prior to Operation Protective Edge., they even fixed the electric power lines, leaving Gaza without electricity. They were quite literally and metaphorically, “sitting in the dark.”

The time has come for the Western nations to start encouraging the Palestinian people to take real responsibility for everything wrong that is in their lives. If God forbid, Israel disappeared from the Middle East tomorrow, they would still have to deal with the corrupt leaders and internecine religious wars that has become the trademark of Jihadist Islam since their inception.

The time has come for the Palestinian people to create a new social contract with a government that will help bring hope, prosperity and freedom to their lives. But to realize this possibility, they must stop using Israel as their scapegoat.  The Jihadist Islamic world’s inability to respect human rights for all its people is what is at the heart of this problem.

For the Love of Life

 

 

Nothing wakens Jews up like a little bit of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semites have a unique way of reminding us why we are special as a people.

Whenever I speak to my Bar/Bat Mitzvah students, I like to tell them that, “If we stood for nothing, the rest of the world wouldn’t care what we say or do. But the fact is that the Jew stands for something great; we believe in Tikkun Olam—bettering the world around us.”

Consider the Noble Prize, which has been given out  since 1901 for achievements in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. In 1969, they added Economics as one of the new fields of endeavor. To date there have been over 850 individuals of various nationalities who have received awards for their unique contributions. At least 20% of the recipients have been Jews, who represent .02% of the world population. Overall, Jews have won a total of 41% of the all the Noble Prizes in  economics, 28% of medicine, 26% of Physics, 19% of Chemistry, 13% of Literature and 9% of all peace awards.

Mind you, these are only secular achievements. In terms of spiritual achievements, Jews are and have been conscience of the world. Our values are very different from the rest of the world.

The latest war with Gaza Jihadism shows the disparity between the culture of death that is championed by Gaza Palestinians and their Muslim allies, e.g., Syria, Iran, ISIS, and others, versus the culture that champions life—Israel.

If Israel wanted to completely destroy Gaza, it would not take very long. Israel goes out of its way to warn the Palestinian citizens to get out while they can. Injured Palestinians routinely receive health care free of charge at Hadassah Hospital and other Israeli medical facilities.

Amazingly, Israel continues to provide gas and electric to the people who are shooting bombs at them. Did the British provide the Nazis with gas and electricity during WWII?

You know the answer.

Israel goes out of its way to avoid as much collateral damage as possible because Jewish ethics teach us to respect and cherish life—even the lives of our enemies. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount:

  • ·         You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. [1]

What does this passage teach us? An Orthodox rabbi and Dead Sea Scroll scholar named Dr. Pinchas Lapide once explained to me that this passage teaches us how to de-hostilize an enemy.

It does not mean we have to be victims to gratuitous violence, but it does mean that we need to hold on to our collective sense of humanity. The Palestinians leadership uses billions of dollars to create shelters for their weapons and not their people. Israel spends billions of dollars to create shelters for their people.

One of my favorite Jewish philosophers and teachers, Eric Fromm, writes about two opposite impulses that are struggling for supremacy in the world. He refers to them as necrophilia vs biophilia.

He explains that necrophilia, or the “love of the dead” is an ideation that is attracted to everything that is dead, e.g., corpses, decay, filth, dirt. The goal of necrophilia as political and religious phenomena is to transform everything that is living into death. This is exactly what Jihadism is all about. It is a death-force that aims to destroy life as we know it for the glorification of Allah, who behaves more like the bloodthirsty deity of the Bible known as Molech.

Jihadists love saying, “We love death more than you love life”

See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAOzy2zwyxo

The worse part of necrophilia is that the people this philosophy affects makes them totally indifferent to life and even attracted to death.

This would explain why being a martyr for Islam is so important. In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have museums celebrating the sacrifice of his human bombs; museums decorated with Israeli body parts across the wall.

Sounds like a museum made for Freddie Kruger.

Israel in contrast believes in what Fromm calls, “Biophilia” is the love of life, the attraction to everything that lives and grows. Preserving life and preventing death is one form of biophilia. Biophilous tendencies can be much more varied and tend to integrate and unite, to fuse with different and opposite. Biophilia is life that changes, grows, and develops to the changing circumstances of the environment. Fromm believed that for biophilia to emerge, there has to be certain circumstances to enhance its growth, e.g., the absence of injustice, the love of creativity, the presence of freedom, and the spirit to innovate.

In spiritual terms, biophilia encourages people to search for self-awareness, aspirations, and moral growth. Israel continues to develop technologies that improve the fabric of life while the Palestinian culture of death, which worships a god who loves shihads (martyrs) has produced a moral decadence that threatens the peace of humanity.

Let me add that any society is capable of embracing necrophilia. Last week, when some Israeli teenagers burned the body of a poor gay Palestinian boy, these individuals became Molech worshiper who demands the sacrifice of children to sate its savage appetite.

The time has come for the Palestinians and Israelis to work together and embrace a new paradigm of life that brings prosperity to all of its people.



[1] Matthew 5:38–42.

A National Disgrace: The Fort Hood Jihadist Attack — Five Years Later

The LORD then said: “What have you done! Listen: your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil!”  Genesis 4:10 

 “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16)

 When a man makes a vow to the Lord or binds himself under oath to a pledge, he shall not violate his word, but must fulfill exactly the promise he has uttered” (Numbers 30:2-3)

Political correctness says, “It is forbidden to mention Islam and terrorism in the same sentence.” Terms like “jihadist” and “terrorist” and “War against Terror” have banned from the current administration’s lexicon. On November 5th, 2009,  Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist, fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others, while shouting to the top of his lungs, “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”) in Arabic. Was this a terrorist attack? Not according to President Obama, this was a case of “workplace violence,” despite the fact that Hasan had numerous correspondences with the American  Al Qaeda  terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki.

In one of those emails that took place between December 2008 and 2009, Hasan wrote al-Awlaki, “I can’t wait to join you” in the afterlife. Hasan also asked al-Awlaki when jihad is appropriate, and whether it is permissible if innocents are killed in a suicide attack.[65] In the months before the shooting, Hasan increased his contacts with al-Awlaki to discuss how to transfer funds abroad without coming to the attention of law authorities.”[63]

Although the news is somewhat dated, the families of the Fort Hood victims have yet to receive a special financial assistance, despite the Obama administration’s promise to take care of the families of the fallen and the wounded.

A lawsuit was eventually filed at the United States Court on November 5th, 2011. The lawsuit claims that government has done everything it can to protect the shooter, Major Nidal Hasan, and their own interests while marginalizing the victims. The suit is seeking $750 million in damages.

One of the Fort Hood victims who survived wanted to meet with President Obama face to face, and the White House denied his request.[1]

Where is our outrage? This is not a Republican or Democratic issue–it is an issue about justice and compassion for the victims. To be silent in this case, is to be complicit.

The Republican Party missed a real opportunity to make the Fort Hood Massacre center stage during the last Presidential election.

Have we as Americans become so apathetic that we do not recognize the dangers we are facing with a resurging Al-Qaeda movement that has declared a new country in the land that we swore to protect—Iraq?



[1] http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/white-house-denies-09-fort-hood-victim-meeting/story?id=23288867

 

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — A Rebbe to Remember

Reb Zalman 2005.jpg

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014) died on July 3rd this past week. The world has lost of one its greatest and most imaginative modern Rebbes of modern times. In the early sixties, he and Shlomo Carlbach were among the earliest followers of Rabbi Schneersohn and their success set the standard for generations of Chabad shiluchim (emissaries).

My experience with Reb Zalman goes back almost four decades to when I was about nineteen years old.  Reb Zalman often used to travel to the Bay Area where he would do a variety of workshops.

In the summer of 1973,  I vividly remember him wearing a rainbow colored Tallit on Shabbat. When I asked him about the significance of his tallit, I remember him explaining to me how each color corresponded to a color of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.

I knew right away that Reb Zalman thought outside the box! Reb Zalman gave me a glimpse of what life might look like outside of Lubavitch.

After returning from vacation, I asked my teachers about him. Chabadniks often describe him as brilliant but somewhat wayward, a maverick of sorts. According to one narrative, young Zalman Schachter asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe if he could succeed him as the next Rebbe of Lubavitch. The Rebbe smiled and politely declined his offer, and said, “I hope that the Moshiach (Messiah) will replace me.”

Over the decades, Reb Zalman outgrew Lubavitch, and he subsequently became his own kind of Rebbe. As a modern Jewish visionary, he was one of the early exponents of interfaith dialogue that went far beyond the stodgy world of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Reb Zalman created bridges of mutual understanding with the Buddhist, Sufi, Hindu, and other religious traditions. He incorporated many of their techniques (e.g., Dervish-dancing) and meditation into Judaism.

He was also the first American Rabbi to be invited by the Dali Lama, who wanted to understand the mystery and lessons of Jewish survival for his own Tibetan community.  Reb Zalman was a pioneer and a visionary who sought to create a new kind of Jewish spirituality that would attract many young Jews who became disillusioned by the vapid and rote forms of Judaism that remain endemic of modern Jewish life.  He often had workshops designed to teach rabbis about the importance of silence—not an easy task indeed!

In my lifetime, I have known some outstanding spiritual teachers. I will remember Reb Zalman and R. Akiba Greenberg as two great giants of spirit who left a lasting influence on me. They were both in many ways, kindred spirits who also personally knew each other.

In retrospect, I would have to say that Reb Zalman had a much greater impact on me than Rabbi Schneersohn. Reb Zalman’s smile was contagious; he was always approachable.  Reb Zalman always took a sincere and personal concern all of his students and followers spirituality. He often recommended interesting meditative exercises to open my spirit to new possibilities. At times, he could be at times painfully honest—but always in a gentle sort of way. Often times, he offered advice to me that I did not solicit. Every year, I would always call him and see how he was doing and his memory was always sharp even to the end. A few months ago, he gave me a lovely recommendation on the cover of my new book, A Shepherd’s Song: The Shepherd Metaphor in Psalm 23 and in Jewish Thought.

As we grew older, Reb Zalman always used to say that we must go “from aging to saging,” a theme that later became of his most important books. For baby-boomers, this is wonder advice for all of us to remember.

Another one of the most important lessons he bequeathed unto a new generation of Jewish spiritual teachers is the importance of learning how to find their own spiritual voice. He also understood the power of the synagogue as a spiritual crucible for renewal and new possibilities.

His love for Jews of all backgrounds made him one of our most endeared rabbinical figures of modern times.

A great man has passed away and all who knew him will miss him.

Book Review: The Tefillah Revolution by Chaya Sara Lefkowitz

The Tefillah Revolution by Chaya Sara Lefkowitz

Menucha Publishers (Brooklyn, 2013); 184 pages; ISBN-10: 1614650950; Price 17.98

In her beautifully attractive book, The Tefillah Revolution, Chaya Sara Lefkowitz begins her subject focusing on one of the most important problems regarding the prayer life of people: Why do we find it so hard to focus on kavanah (intentionality) when it comes to prayer? What is real kavanah, anyway? How can it be attained?

The Tefillah Revolution is a book that deeply explores these issues. Over the years, I have noticed that female Judaic scholars have contributed to a growing literature dealing with the existential and spiritual aspects of Jewish prayer. I suspect that women in general seem to have a greater affinity for God—a point that the author makes later on in her book. She writes:

  • While it is a man’s task to immerse himself in Torah learning—the woman’s role is somewhat different; she must cleave to holiness through the physical and mundane. . . . When she adds feelings and heart to her words, even culminating in tears, which are the external expressions of her emotions, tefillah and kavanahare created (p. 29).

A person could argue that the distinction Lefkowitz makes regarding men and women is somewhat artificial; but my experience has shown me over the years that women seem to have a greater emotional affinity with God that differs considerably from men partly because women tend to be more in touch with their feelings.

Later she gives a clearer exposition of how she envisions prayer:

  • Tefillah attaches us to Hashem (God) like two pieces of broken glass that are melted and fused together. Our neshamos (souls) are part of Hashem. Through davening (praying) to Him, the soul becomes reattached to its Source. (p. 35)

Lefkowitz argues that the act of prayer shows that  God is in control. Moreover, such a realization can “arouse within us feelings of unworthiness and gratitude—we have the tools to transfer the trait to our relationship with Hashem” (p. 42).

She makes several good points; prayer is about connecting and reconnecting with the God who summons our being of the nothingness each moment of our lives. Reality is on its deepest level—relational. By praying, we are affirming that God is not indifferent to our needs and desires.

Throughout much of the book, Lefkowitz speaks about prayer as something that we articulate “to” God. While this is true, there is another aspect of prayer that is equally important—a point that I believe would greatly enhance her overall thesis about prayer: Prayer is also about listening to God through the words of the Siddur. God speaks to us all the time. Sometimes He speaks to us through our conscience; other times the Divine message occurs through the synchronicity of events that occur in our lives. Then again, the God’s Presence may be felt through the words of the Siddur itself—provided that we learn to listen.

Her exposition of the morning prayers in Chapter 19 is one of the best chapters of the book.

In Chapter 8, Lefkowitz describes the importance of preparing oneself for prayer. Although she quotes the famous verse, “I have kept the LORD always before me; “ (Psalm 16:8-11), she should have included the rest of the passage, which resonates with great spiritual energy:

I have kept the LORD always before me;

with him at my right hand, I shall never be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices;

my body also dwells secure,

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,

nor let your devout one see the pit.*

You will show me the path to life,

abounding joy in your presence,

the delights at your right hand forever.[1]

The author unfortunately left out an entire chapter she could have written about the role of the Psalms and their impact on the prayer life of the Jew. The book is full of great illustrations about famous people who have developed their own pathway to God in prayer. What is missing in this fine book are guidelines for people to develop their own personal spiritual journey through prayer.

There is a famous teaching that is attributed to Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (a.k.a. Baal Shem Tov,1698-1760)  the founder of the Hassidic movement.

He was asked why the Amidah, the central prayer of the daily services, begins with the triple iteration: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.” Why not just say: “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” He answered: The God of Jacob was not the God of Isaac, and the God of Isaac was not the God of Abraham. Each patriarch discovers God in his own way. Each one teaches us the importance of finding a connection with God that resonates within the depths of our own being.

In short, all the anecdotes about how Rabbi So-and-so prayed is fine and good, but in the final analysis, each of us must make our own individual path.

The Tefillah Revolution is a nice book; not too deep and Lefkowitz’s personal testimony about the power of prayer in her life is important as it is inspirational.

 

 



[1] Ps 16:8–11.

Rabbinical Thoughts on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly


 File:Good the bad and the ugly poster.jpg

 

Our society seems so bent upon the politics of personal destruction. When people fall–as famous and powerful people often do, there is a certain delight and comfort many folks experience in knowing that even the great ones have “feet of clay.”

But where is our reverence for human life? Is not every human being made in the Divine Image? As I write this new article, I wonder: What are the ethical implications of being made in God’s image?

Obviously killing somebody in cold blood is something that fills us with horror. But what about killing somebody’s soul?  What about killing somebody’s reputation? What about destroying a human being’s life dream? Yes, murder comes in many different forms–and our penchant for violence often blinds us from realizing just how barbaric and cruel we really are as a species.

I recall hearing a story about a Christian missionary who spent many years while working with cannibals. When asked about his success, he replied, “Before I arrived, they used to eat their meat with their hands, but after I worked with them, they now eat with forks and knives instead!”  I often think this aphorism describes the violent impulses that permeate our contemporary society. We may appear to be “civilized,” but the shadow nature of our souls remain uncivilized.

Jewish tradition teaches that murdering a human being is considered like one who has harmed the figure of the king; i.e., the likeness of God. R. Tanchuma points out the relational dimensions of the Divine image have important practical implications: Anyone who despises his fellow man is considered as though he despises the Creator, in Whose image he is created.[1] Going one step further, there is a poignant rabbinic story that illustrates this important idea:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, returning from a trip in Migdal Eder, from his teacher’s house met a certain man who was exceedingly ugly. Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Raka (simpleton), how ugly are the children of Abraham our father.” The other man replied, “What can I do for you? You may want to speak to the Craftsman Who made me.” Rabbi Shimon immediately alighted from his horse and bowed before the man and said, “I apologize to you, please forgive me.” He replied to him, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman Who made me and say, “How ugly is the vessel which You have made!”

Rabbi Shimon walked behind him for three miles. When the people in town heard of Rabbi Shimon’s arrival, they came out to meet him and greeted him with the words, “Peace be unto you, rabbi.” The other man said to them, “Who are you calling Rabbi?” They answered, “The man who is walking behind you.” Thereupon he exclaimed, “If this man is a rabbi, may there not be any more like him in Israel!” He told the people the whole story, and the townspeople begged him to forgive the rabbi, and he agreed, only on the condition that he never act in this manner again toward anyone. [2]

The story highlights an important truth: the willful mistreatment of another human being, in effect, devalues the image of God because we are all created in the Divine Image. The human face—regardless how disfigured it may be—commands that we show a respect to the uniqueness of the human person which transcends one’s physical attributes. True beauty emanates from goodness and a love of ethics. Without these traits, we might as well be living in caves.


[1] Genesis Rabbah 24:7.

[2] Tractate Derech Eretz (Chapter 4).

 

Creating an Inner Space for God to Dwell

 

 As Creator, and the Source of our being, God continuously brings our existence out of the abyss of nothingness, and is renewed with the possibility of new life.  God’s love and compassion is bio-centric and embraces the universe in its totality.  God’s power is not all-powerful (in the simplistic sense); nor is it coercive in achieving this end, but is all-relational in His capacity to relate to the world—even suffer with it as well. God’s love initiates new beginnings and endless possibilities ex nihilo to a suffering people. In the Exodus narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה   (´e|hyè ´ášer ´e|hyè) “I will always be present as I will always be present.”

The early rabbis referred to God’s indwelling among mortals by the designation of שְׁכִינָה (“Shekhinah”), which signifies, “that which dwells.” The root word שָׁכֵן, (shakhen), or שָׁכַן, (shakhan) “to dwell,” “reside,” cf. Isaiah 60:2). Rabbinical wisdom traces this epithet of God to the well-known biblical verse,  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם   “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). Most biblical translations overlook a more literal meaning that conveys a mystical meaning, “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that  I shall dwell in them.” God dwells not outside the human heart, but within the human heart. Hence, the idea of the Shekhinah best means “Divine Indwelling.”

Throughout much of the Jewish midrashic and mystical literature, the rabbis depict the Shekhinah in feminine terms; this aspect of the Divine personifies God’s maternal love. Although the Shekhinah freely embraces suffering, She is not overwhelmed or defeated by human evil and stubbornness. Whenever the Shekhinah sees suffering, She identifies with the pain of her errant children, “My head is heavy; My arm is heavy.  And If God grieves  over the blood of the wicked whose blood is justifiably shed,  how much more so is the Shekhinah grieved over the blood of the just!”[1] The Shekhinah represents the part of God that each human being possesses. In William Blake’s famous depictions of Job, the observant reader will note that the face of God and the face of Job are the same. This aspect of God corresponds in biblical terms to the “image of God” that each of us bears inside us.

One Midrashic text connects the Shekhinah with the opening passage of Song of Songs 1:1, which speaks about the Lover (God) entering into the Garden (symbolizing Eden), to be alone with His beloved (symbolized by Israel):

I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.

According to the Midrash, all of Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about God’s love for Israel. The word “my garden” has Edenic overtones and significance. The term “gani” (“My garden,”) implies not just any “garden,” but specifically to “My garden,” i.e., the bridal chamber where a bride and groom consummate their love for one another. By saying “My bridal chamber,” the text mystically suggests a return to a time when God’s Being was originally present and revealed.

The Midrash teaches that when Moses built the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah returned to co-inhabit the earth just as She did in the days of Eden before the primal couple’s great fall. In Eden, God “walked” alongside mortals (Gen 3:8). However, after the primal couple sinned, the Shekhinah began retreating Her Presence from the earthly realm. Bereft of Her divine intimacy, Adam and his wife hid themselves because they felt alienated from the deepest dimension of their souls.  Adam’s spiritual stature underwent a radical reduction.

However, the Shekhinah’s mystical ascent was far from finished, for when Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Feminine Presence felt disgusted with human violence and retreated unto the second level of Heaven in a panic. Alas, Her ascent away from the earth still continued;  Enosh forgot his Creator when he worshiped idols, so the Shekhinah retreated to the third level; after watching more of man’s inhumanity to man, a flood occurs, and the saddened Shekhinah retreats because She could not watch Her children perish. With the passage of time, the Shekhinah develops revulsion for violence. Once again, human cruelty chased Her, one more degree away from the earth.

After the Tower Builders announced their designs to conquer the heavens, the Shekhinah retreated yet another degree because she found human arrogance repugnant. The violence of the Sodomites upset Her even more, as she wanted nothing to do with men because of their barbarism and sadism. The Shekhinah’s withdrawal from the world reached Her zenith after the Egyptians mistreated their fellow earthly brothers and sisters, by enslaving the Israelites to a life of suffering and pain. She could not bear to watch. She wondered, “Could the rift with humanity get any worse than this?”

However, the Shekhinah could not remain in a permanent state of estrangement from humanity—despite its errant ways. Abraham was the first to recognize the Shekhinah’s reality and he sought to make her more intimate with mortals once more. Isaac’s willingness to die for Her, as a show of his love and devotion, made the Shekhinah yearn yet more for intimacy with mortals. Through his many struggles within himself, Jacob comes to discover the Shekhinah’s luminosity and beauty and finally understands the true meaning of blessing.

In an effort to purge himself from the violence that defiled his life after he and his brother Simeon massacred the inhabitants of Shechem (Gen. 34-31), Levi sought to renew his relationship with Her. The Shekhinah pitied this pathetic excuse for a human being and granted him a peacefulness of mind. She was determined to make Levi’s descendants do penance for their forefather’s crimes against humanity  by making them serve as priests to their Maker. She mused, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future–this applies even to Levi!”

The Shekhinah brought Yochebed and Amram together, and they became the parents of Moses—the liberator of Israel.  Mysteriously, She finds herself drawn back to the earth. With Moses, the Shekhinah found a lover who decided to build a new home for the Divine—The Tabernacle–a place that would permanently restore Her Presence to our world, where She would walk once more with humankind. [2] From the various rabbinical texts written about the Shekhinah, She appears in a world that suffers from the ruptures of history. She is vaguely Present when the fullness of God’s reality seems absence of God in human history because of radical evil and senseless suffering. Yet, the Shekhinah is the often associated with the Spirit of God that gives shape to the chaos of Creation, forming it into a cosmos. In the Midrashic imagination, the purpose of the Creation is to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Creation. However, only human beings can create the space for the Shekhinah to dwell.

[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 12:13.