Bringing Civility Back to Religion . . .

What we can we do to bring civility back to faith, and remove its thorn of toxicity? Decades ahead of his time, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber argued that one of the great spiritual challenges of our time is the process of purging our faith of all imagery that portrays the Divine as either vindictive or abusive. In his short but insightful autobiographical book, Meetings, Buber describes a meeting he had with a very pious and learned observant Jew. They had a conversation about the biblical story of King Saul and the war of genocide waged against Israel’s ancient enemy, Amalek. After Saul captures King Agag of Amalek, Saul does not kill him. The prophet Samuel becomes enraged at Saul, who places the onus of the blame on the people rather than himself. Perhaps he cannot kill his enemies with such reckless abandon, but Samuel will not hear of it; he personally hacks Agag to death. Afterward Samuel tells Saul to abdicate the throne, but Saul refuses. Buber tells the man sitting opposite him, that as a child, he always found this story horrifying. Buber recounts:

I told him how already at that time it horrified me to read or to remember how the heathen king went to the prophet with the words on his lips, “Surely the bitterness of death is past,” and was hewn to pieces by him. I said to my partner: “I have never been able to believe that this is a message of God. I do not believe it.” With wrinkled forehead and contracted brows, the man sat opposite me and his glance flamed into my eyes. He remained silent, began to speak, and became silent again. “So?” he broke forth at last, “so? You do not believe it?” “No,” I answered, “I do not believe it.” “So? so?” he repeated almost threateningly. “You do not believe it?” And once again: “No.”

“What. What”—he thrust the words before him one after the other—“What do you believe then?” “I believe,” without reflecting, “that Samuel has misunderstood God.” And he, again slowly, but more softly than before: “So? You believe that?” and I: “Yes.” Then we were both silent. But now something happened the like of which I have rarely seen before or since in this my long life. The angry countenance opposite me became transformed as if a hand had passed over it soothing it. It lightened, cleared, was now turned toward me bright and clear. “Well,” said the man with a positively gentle tender clarity, “I think so too.” And again we became silent, for a good while.[1]

Buber in the end of this anecdote mentioned how people often confuse the words of God with the words of man. To speak of God as “abusive,” is to speak of a man‑made caricature of God. Buber was well aware of the power such imagery has over people in the formation of their own personal relationships.

[1] Martin Buber, Meetings (Laselle, IL: Open Court, 1973), 52‑53.

The law of the “goring ox” and Kim Jong Il

There is an intriguing law from the Torah concerning the law of the “goring ox” found in the Torah:

If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death (Exodus 21:29).

Talmudic tradition teaches that if the owner has been warned on three separate occasions that his bull has gored, the bull is considered a danger to society, and the owner must take special caution to protect the public from his animal. Should the bull continue to wreck havoc, the owner must pay for full restitution and the bull must be destroyed. This dictum does not apply if someone goaded a bull to gore, as in the case of a bull-fight. The bull’s viciousness must emanate from within the animal’s nature, and must not be induced from the outside.[1]

When we look at North Korea’s behavior, here is a country that fits the model of the “goring ox” mentioned in the Torah. North Korea’s behavior should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Kim Jong Il’s behavior.

When we assemble the pieces of the puzzle, North Korea’s blast and its recent April 5th rocket launch of a satellite into space have obvious implications for its long-range missile technology. As to be expected, the Security Council condemned the launch as a violation of U.N. resolutions.

What is Kim Jong Il looking to achieve? Some think the blast is a show of virility, namely, he is still a force to reckon with even though his health has deteriorated. Others think that Kim Jong Il wants to wrest more concessions from the West. However, there is another scenario that ought to be seriously considered: What if this recent test was part of a collaborative effort with the Iranians? North Korea is always hurting for money and Iran has the means to give the country what it wants in exchange for missile and nuclear technology. Put in simple terms, the Iranians may well have tested their very first nuclear bomb. By renting space in North Korea, the Iranians are letting North Korea be the “fall guy,” a role that North Korea has no qualms about playing–especially since its serves their purposes. Continue reading “The law of the “goring ox” and Kim Jong Il”

YU Chancellor: Reform and Conservative Judaism Dead — Con-versing with YU Chancellor Rabbi Lamm

In a recent interview, Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm expressed some pessimistic thoughts about the future of Reform and Conservative Judaism. According to the article, “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” said Lamm, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “The Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking ….” He added further:

“The Reform Movement may show a rise, because if you add goyim to Jews then you will do OK,” added Lamm, referring to the Reform Movement’s policy, starting in 1983, of recognizing patrilineal descent.

The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 found that of the 46 percent of US Jewish households belonging to a synagogue, 33% were affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, a 10% fall from the 1990 survey. In contrast, the Reform Movement was up from 35% to 38% and Orthodox Jews rose from 16% to 22%. Two percent were affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement and 5% with “other types” of synagogues.

This writer does not take such a dim view of Conservative or Reform Judaism’s future. I believe there are many reasons for this: since their inception, both these movements have always attracted Jews who were raised Orthodox; even if Orthodox Judaism will eventually become the dominant denomination of Jews living in the United States, there will always be a considerable number of young people who will revolt against their parents’ orthodox lifestyle. Young people do what they do best—they reinvent their identities.

While the Conservative movement struggles with certain issues, it continues to show a resiliency that will not weaken. Lamm’s remarks remind of something Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” If I were Rabbi Lamm, I would be more concerned about the Haredization of Modern Orthodoxy, which is moving closer and closer to the ultra-right of the Orthodox spectrum.

Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm dismisses the growing presence of Ortho-feminism, remarking:

Change has to come to religion when feasible, but it should not be rushed. Women have just come into their own from an educational perspective. I would prefer not to have this innovation right now. It is simply too early. What will happen later… I am not a prophet.”

I must differ; already there are more and more scholarly Orthodox women who are fighting for semicha in Israel and in the United States. Already in Israel, woman attorneys are arguing cases with the traditional structure of the Beit Din (a Jewish operated court). If Modern Orthodoxy denies them this historical opportunity to function as rabbis, these learned women will fight until the change occurs. More and more progressive Orthodox yeshivot are encouraging women to study Talmud—despite the reticence of the Haredi halachic authorities.

Another one of the most glaring social issues confronting the Modern Orthodox community is the problem of freeing of women who are being held hostage by estranged husbands, who refuse to grant them a religious divorce. As the old American folk saying goes, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Should Orthodoxy fail to keep its women happy, they will end up as the next generation of Conservative Jews.

Progressive Modern Orthodox rabbis, who follow a more liberal Orthodox philosophy represented by such famous rabbis like Ben Tsion Uziel, or David Tzvi Hoffman, and Shlomo Goren, may eventually move away from Modern Orthodoxy—especially if it continues taking orders from the Haredi rabbis of Israel and the United States. I would further add that the more the Haredi  rabbis control  the autonomy of Modern Orthodox rabbis with respect to conversions, the more likely that many of these candidates will end up as Conservative or even Reform Jews–and you can take that to the bank!

If anything, Conservative Judaism is already inching more closely toward a more Orthodox-style; the Reform Siddur has raised all sorts of cackles within the movement that they are becoming increasingly more religiously traditional than they were before. Yes, change is necessary as it is inevitable; the lines separating Jewish denominations may not be as fixed as Rabbi Lamm envisions it.

The issue of accepting gay Jews is likewise going to eventually prove problematical for Orthodox gays, who incidentally have a visible presence in the Yeshiva University campus! Once again, should Modern Orthodoxy prove to be too Haredi in its attitude toward the frum homosexuals, guess where they will eventually end up?

Rabbi Lamm stresses that change should not be “rushed.” Perhaps in an ideal world, but the snail-like movement of the Modern Orthodox and Haredi world in dealing with this pressing issue and others, promises to keep Conservative Judaism vibrant for quite some time.

Now, if someone did not know Rabbi Lamm very well, s/he might think that Rabbi Lamm is expressing—in Freudian terms—“wish fulfillment,” i.e., a subtle desire to actually see non-Orthodox Judaism weaken and die. This is not the case!  This man has been a powerful voice for religious pluralism within the Modern Orthodox community for many decades; he has often taken heat for taking what the Haredi religious community considers “a heretical stance on Halachic issues.” For example:

The liberal movements should be appreciated and encouraged because they are doing something Jewish, even if it is not the way that Orthodox Jews would like them to, he said. “What they are doing is something, and something is better than nothing,” he said in his speech. “I’m very openly attacking the notion that we sometimes find in the Orthodox community that `being a goy is better'” than being a non-Orthodox Jew, he said in an interview (Debra Nussbaum-Cohen, 1997).

As usual, Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm remains a most provocative and challenging religious thinker. I have loved reading and re-reading his brilliant theological works since the seventies and his stimulating ideas have helped shaped my mind in many countless ways. Despite whatever differences we have, Rabbi Lamm’s legacy  will be long remembered as one of the most dynamic and important voices of Modern Orthodoxy in the 20th-21st centuries.

Journey through the Looking-glass: Pope Benedict XVI’s Interfaith Encounter in the Holy Land

One of the most interesting aspects of the Pope’s recent visit to Israel was the interfaith group that met with the Pope to discuss important issues and challenges that Jews, Christians and Muslims face as a faith community. Despite the good intentions of the forum’s organizers, the Pope’s desire to act as a facilitator for religious tolerance found some explosive road-blocks along the way, as they met at the holy site Norte Dame.

Following the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem, Palestinian leader Sheik Taysir Tamimi forced his way to the pulpit at an inter-religious event demanding that the pope to fight for “a just peace for a Palestinian state and for Israel to stop killing women and children and destroying mosques as she did in Gaza”; he asked the pope to “pressure the Israeli government to stop its aggression against the Palestinian people.”

Of course not a word was said about how these mosques were being used as military bases to attack Israeli citizens. Evidently, Tamimi doesn’t get what “Never Again” really means. Context is everything. But let us return back to our discussion.

Rather than confronting Sheik Taysir Tamimi, the Pope quietly listened and left the room. As one friend of mine wrote in his blog, “The biggest shame of it all is that the  entire Muslim community he represented was not even embarrassed by or ashamed of this verbal explosion.”

Yet, this was not the only place where Pope Benedict XVI found some difficulties. After he spoke at the Yad Vashem, the Pope proclaimed that he had come: “to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah … ‘May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!”

Rabbi Lau, the former Chief Ashkanzic Rabbi of Israel and holocaust survivor took center stage and said, “The Pope’s Speech was devoid of compassion …” Shaming any individual is wrong—especially when that individual happens to be the religious leader who represents over a billion Catholics worldwide!

If I were Rabbi Lau, I would examine my own behavior and ask myself: Couldn’t the criticisms have been made in a more personal and less public venue? On the other hand, the Vatican ought to be a little circumspect with his behavior as well. Rabbi Lau justifiably said that the Pope spoke in vague generalities about the victims of the Holocaust, and chose to use the word “millions” instead of the more specific “six million.” When referring to the Jewish victims, he referred to them as being “killed” rather than the more precise verb “murdered.” These are legitimate criticisms. That being said, I think Pope Benedict XVI’s next meeting will show a marked improvement in every respect.

Postscript: May 14th

If I were the Pope, I would look to the example of Pope John Paul II. One of the greatest qualities he showed was a capacity to personally relate with the people. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is a trained academic, who is more comfortable giving a lecture at a seminary or at a college. Pope John Paul II had a very charismatic ability and could relate to his audience with life anecdotes and the lessons he learned. When Pope John Paul II arrived at the Yad Vashem, his crucifix was made out of cast iron resembling the twisted barb-wired fences of the concentration camps; at the top of the crucifix stood an image of Jesus, intimating that he too was among those who suffered in the camps.  How could one not be deeply moved by such a powerful identification? With time, I hope Pope Benedict XVI acts more like his predecessor.

What was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice?

A reader may wonder: What was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice?

Professor Robert Alter writes that the biblical narrator used several techniques to convey meaning, e.g., statements by the anonymous narrator, by God, by heroes or heroines, by verbal clues, by juxtaposition of material, by characterization, and by effects of actions. Applying this technique, the verbal clues of the narrative can yield a number of interpretations that reveal the quality of Cain’s sacrifice. Some early rabbinic sources think Cain offered an inferior grade of sacrifice. Unlike his brother who offers the “firstlings of his flock,” Cain does not offer the “firstfruits” of his field. This could suggest that the rabbis may have indeed been correct in their scriptural observation.

This exposition would certainly be consistent with the prophetic message of sacrifices, e.g., the offering in sacrifice of a lame, sick, or blind animal is expressly forbidden in the Torah (Lev. 22:17-25; Deut. 17:1). However, it is  in the prophetic literature, this reason for this proscription becomes lucid and understandable.

“So says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise his name. But you ask,  ‘How have we despised your name?’  By offering polluted food on my altar! Then you ask,  ‘How have we polluted it?’ By saying the table of the LORD may be slighted!  When you offer a blind animal for sacrifice, is this not evil? When you offer the lame or the sick, is it not evil? Present it to your governor; see if he will accept it, or welcome you, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachai 1:6-8).

However, what if Cain’s sacrifice failed because of an entirely different reason–namely, his attitude?

Here too, Philo’s exposition may shed some light.  According to him, a bad person’s offering will never be considered a “true sacrifice,” for “even if he were to bring the altar ten thousand oxen every day without intermission; for his most important and indispensable offering, namely his soul, is polluted. And it is impious for polluted things to come near to the altar.” In other words, the worshiper’s attitude is even more important than what the actual sacrifice, which may be physically fine. Philo of Alexandria seems to be suggesting that so long as the heart and soul of the worshiper remains tinged with selfishness and pride, these kinds of moral imperfections will mar the beauty of any offering that is brought to the altar of God.

An Email from God concerning the Holocaust

Here is a letter from my friend Rachel, who wrote the following piece of creative Midrash, which I call: A Letter  to Humankind from God Concerning the Holocaust. The theological message is priceless and this is a letter any Sunday School class can easily benefit from.

Hi Linda,

God here. I got your email. Oy vey.

Obviously, you humans have very inaccurate information about how I work. I’m going to try to set the record straight. Why, I don’t know. It’s not like I haven’t set it straight before, but I’m an eternal optimist (ha ha), so here goes:

1. I did not cause the Holocaust–not because of Zionism, and not for any other reason. I don’t know who started that rumor, but I’d like it to stop immediately. As in, right now.

2. I am an incorporeal being and thus cannot take Xanax, which is actually completely immaterial (ha ha), because I don’t *need* Xanax. See my next point for details.

3. I basically set things up so that human beings would make good choices, but when they don’t, I grieve. I don’t get mad and destroy entire civilizations, although when I was younger, I definitely felt the impulse. Now that I am older, I do not try to evade my grief with anger and destructiveness. I just grieve and try to keep the world going to the best of my ability. You humans would be well-advised to follow my example.

4. Please love whomever you want. Really. It gives me no pleasure to watch you humans writhe around in abject misery.

5. My name is not really Rachel, but she was nice enough to let me use her wireless connection so that I could send you this message.

Have a nice day,


The Sins of Swiss Neutrality

During the week of Yom HaShoah, while Holocaust services were being observed all over the world, the United Nations reconvened its Durban Conference to discuss human rights issues and violations that are taking place throughout the world. Traditionally, the onus of blame has always been directed at Israel, as if all the other human rights issues of the world seem to pale, in comparison e.g., the genocide in Darfur, Jihadist terrorism, or the recent Russian invasion of Georgia and the theft of their land does not seem to matter.

Curiously, on Sunday April 19th, on the day that Adolf Hitler was born, the Swiss President Hans Rudolf-Merz decided to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran.

As all of you probably know, the Iranian leader is an avowed Holocaust denier; he was slated to give the keynote address before the United Nations forum known as “Durban II”, which was being held in Geneva.

Well, as it turned out, members of the Western countries protested; entire delegations walked out of the hall right after Ahmadinejad continued to raise the vitriolic hatred of his rhetoric, blasting Israel and the United States of America for all the problems of the world. The only comical moment of the entire speech came when three clowns positioned themselves at opposite ends of the hall. When Ahmadinejad began speaking, they whipped out the clown wigs from their pockets and yelled “racist” at the Iranian president. Yes, Durban II was a circus. Continue reading “The Sins of Swiss Neutrality”

Questioning the Limits of Rabbinic Authority

One of the most important issues being debated today is the matter of rabbinical authority; nearly every conflict between the Haredi/Hassidic rabbis and the non-Ultra-Orthodox rabbis revolves around one issue: Who has the right to speak for the Jewish people? Historically, every rabbi spoke for his own community;  an attitude of polydoxy prevailed  and each community respected the decisions of the other neighboring city.

Dissent always was and will forever remain an essential feature of rabbinic debate. However, there are rules of etiquette where each opinion must respect but not necessarily agree with the viewpoint of the Other; we must agree to sometimes disagree with one another. Controversies for the sake of Heaven can be passionate, but they must always lead to an attitude of peace among scholars. When debates serve the ego, often the outcome can become ugly and lead to factionalism within the Jewish community. Factionalism is the Original Sin of rabbinical discourse. Creating a consensus is a slow process; no rabbi has the right to rule by fiat alone.

Historically, Jewish law has long recognized the importance for new generations of rabbinical thinkers must occasionally take issue with the decrees established by the earlier rabbinical authorities. This is one of the main reasons why the first generations of Talmudic scholars deliberately left certain critical case studies in the Talmud remain unresolved, so that the future generations might come to their own conclusions. Minority viewpoints are always important because sometimes the circumstances of the future may require that a minority view become the appropriate law for its time. Rabbinical law is not inherently static, it is flexidox and not purely “orthodox.” Continue reading “Questioning the Limits of Rabbinic Authority”

“Seduced by a demon?”

Rabbinic material isn’t always dull reading; in fact, more often than not, it  contains some very fascinating and entertaining cases about life in the medieval era. Jewish folklore continues to enchant many Hassidic and Sephardic Jews, many of whom, still believe in the stories about demons in rabbinical tradition.  Keep in mind that Maimonides wrote his Mishnah Torah and “Guide for the Perplexed” to help wean the Jews of his time away from believing in such superstitions. Such a position did not make Maimonides very popular among the mystics of the Kabbalah.

R. Joshua Tractenburg writes in his “Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion”:

“Was a man or woman who had been seduced by a demon to be regarded as an adulterer? And if so, was such a woman to be “forbidden” to her husband? If, today, the issue strikes us as grotesque it is only because we have lost faith in the realities of the medieval world. Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, in the thirteenth century, considered this question at length and solemnly concluded that a person who had been seduced by a spirit was not to be held guilty of fornication.

In substantiation of his decision he recalled a legend of a pious man who was sorely grieved because a demon in human shape had enticed him into an indiscretion. The prophet Elijah appeared to him and consoled him: since this was a demon he had committed no offense. “If he had been guilty,” R. Isaac deduced, “Elijah would not have come to him, nor spoken with him, nor would he have acquitted him.”

Three centuries later a Polish rabbi was consulted in the case of a married woman who had had relations with a demon which appeared to her once in the shape of her husband, and again in the uniform of the local petty count.

Was she to be considered an adulteress? this rabbi was asked, and was she therefore to be “forbidden” to her husband, since she might have had intercourse with this demon of her free will? The judge absolved her of all guilt and “permitted” her to her husband” (Or Zarua, I, §124, p. 22c;—Responsa of R. Meir b. Gedaliah (Maharam) of Lublin).

I suspect that Maimonides and Sherlock Holmes probably would have offered a much simpler explanation, as would Sigmund Freud for such cases.

Emailing as a Moral Challenge

How did our ancestors regard the spoken word? What does the Torah say about the word and its power as well as its possibilities?

Biblical writers regarded the Divine Word as a cosmic force reverberating throughout the created order. According to Psalms 33:6, the Word of God animates the cosmos: בִּדְבַר יְהוָה שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ “By the Word of the LORD the heavens were made.” To the Hebraic (as well as the Semitic) imagination, words are powerful—it is the stuff reality is made of. In Biblical Hebrew, among its various nuances, דָּבַר(dabhar) connotes a “thing” (Exod. 35:1); or a “promise” (Deut. 15:6); and a “decree” (Jer. 51:12) or “affair” or “history” (1 Kgs. 14:12). [1] In each of these examples, the term connotes something substantive and real. Everything that exists in the world is viewed as a manifestation of the Word of God that animates it.

The intuitions of primal cultures never cease to fascinate and intrigue me. The spoken word was often used as a supernatural weapon; the curse of a soothsayer was believed to be powerful enough to invoke the forces of death itself.  One of the most well known biblical stories found, the book of Numbers relates how King Balak of Moab, hires the mighty soothsayer Balaam to curse the approaching Israelite people (Num. 22:6). From a modern perspective, one could describe Balaam as a motivational speaker; he is skilled in the art of inflaming the masses. Anti-Semites in the Middle East perform television documentaries on how Jews use Muslim and Christian blood to make their Passover matzas (see for hundreds of examples).

Despite our modernity, in many ways we fail to appreciate the impact that words have on our lives, as well as on the lives of others. As a result, the word in contemporary society tends to be devalued, yet their impact on peoples’ lives has not diminished to the least. There are many practical reasons for this phenomenon. Since the invention of the printing press, the world has become more literate than at any other time of recorded history. Along with the proliferation of literacy, the word has become increasingly more secularized due to advances made in human technology. The telegraph, telephone, television, radio, email, the Internet, and other forms of electronic digital media and telecommunication devices have inundated modern humans with a continuous stream of words—wherever they go—twenty-four hours a day.

Since words tend to be all the more diminished in light of the Internet, people will often rush through their written communications without giving much attention to what they are saying, or for that matter, how they are saying something. The imagination, when left unchecked, can often take two people or more to a unexpected places that create anger, resentment, not to mention—humiliation especially if the email has been sent to multiple receivers, many of whom the original writers do not even know. A reputation of a person can be destroyed with a single keystroke. With complete unanimity, an angry or spiteful posting can be effortlessly circulated for countless of other lurkers to read. Continue reading “Emailing as a Moral Challenge”