A Thanksgiving Meditation

Once upon a time, some American tourists went to Mexico on a vacation; they toured some hot springs, where they saw the natives washing their clothes! One tourist said to his guide, “My, isn’t it wonderful how Mother Nature provides her children with hot water to wash their clothes?” The tour-guide replied, “So you might think, Senor, but the natives complain that Mother Nature doesn’t provide the soap!”

It’s been said that the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.  Chinese wisdom teaches, “When you drink from the stream remember the spring.” Research has shown that people who regularly practiced grateful thinking were more than 25 percent happier, slept better, suffered lower levels of stress and even spent more time exercising. People sure like to complain. According to one recent author, who wrote a book on Gratefulness, Prof. Richard Emmons explains that” Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. […]  Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism […] The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”  Politicians, especially, love to create class-warfare between the haves and the have-nots, as if creaturely comforts would ever dictate our inner and spiritual state of mind.

In Yiddish, we have a word for such a mindset; it’s called “Kvetching,” or chronic complaining. It’s as old as the Bible itself. It seems that many folks, for whatever the reason may be, have an innate bias towards being or feeling negative.  In other words, for some of us, being a grouch comes naturally. Therapists and psychologists alike tend to focus on the ethos of victimization, and narcissism rather than engendering a life-attitude of thankfulness. Continue reading “A Thanksgiving Meditation”

Teaching our children to become “Serious Jews.”

Children never cease to amaze me …This past Sunday, Prof. James Cohen invited me to speak to his Sunday school class to examine whether having a religious  identity is more important than having a Jewish ethnic identity. Personally, I believe that being a healthy Jew involves a mixture of both the religious and the cultural. Of course such discussions often lead to broader issues pertaining to the age-old question: What does it mean to be a Jew today?

In the interest of brevity, like many other ethnic groups, being Jewish certainly has a rich ethnic dimension that can be seen in terms of its food, art, theater, humor,  music–in short all the things that define a Jewish culture. But is Jewish culture enough to preserve Jewish identity?

The answer is, “No, it is not.” Without Jewish values, even the cultural aspects of Jewish life  will eventually cease and disappear. On the other hand, culture, when combined with Jewish ethical and spiritual values forms a winning formula for Jewish survival.

In the final analysis, it really doesn’t matter which kind of Jewish denominational group a Jew religiously identifies with–from the Orthodox to the Humanistic. What really matters is how a Jew seriously takes his or her religion. It is far more important to take our Judaism seriously than anything else. I asked the youngsters, “Tell me, in what way do you take your Judaism seriously?” Several said, “I go to Hebrew School every week,” while others said, “I go to synagogue every Shabbat . . .”  “Well,” I said, “studying is really important as are synagogue attendance and holiday observances. However, there is yet another way taking our Judaism seriously, can you think of a different way we can take our faith seriously?” Continue reading “Teaching our children to become “Serious Jews.””

Did Maimonides really believe in a physical resurrection or not?

Maimonides’ position on the soul is very complex and this subject remains of the more controversial topics of Jewish intellectual history. Certainly in his commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides includes the belief in bodily resurrection among the basic tenants of faith listed in his famous Thirteen Articles of Belief.

However, in Maimonides’ most mature work, the philosophical tract known as “The Guide to the Perplexed,” the great philosopher stresses the belief in the soul’s immortality and says nothing about physical resurrection.

One might wonder: How consistent is Maimonides? Actually, one could answer that it all depends upon the specific target audience he was trying to educate. For traditionalists, Maimonides endorses the standard orthodox beliefs that everyone knew. This point is visibly clear in his famous essay on Resurrection where he defends himself against the accusation he “denied the existence of physical resurrection.”

Many scholars doubt whether Maimonides was really being truthful when he composed his letter; others think the text may have been a forgery. On the other hand, Maimonides sometimes expresses sentiments that he would never publicly endorse;  the belief in resurrection could be one such example.

Maimonides reveals his most personal theological views regarding resurrection in his Guide to the Perplexed–not so much by what he says, but by what he does not say! If I understand Maimonides correctly, I think he never really denies resurrection; rather, he gives it a new understanding. Resurrection simply means that the soul is reborn into the world of Eternity after the body perishes in this world.

Maimonides’ sophisticated grasp of anthropomorphism and his rejection of scriptural literalism strongly indicates that the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval era also viewed resurrection as a metaphorical truth. One must remember that Maimonides was the first Jewish thinkers to engage in a process of de-mythologizing Scriptures, which often speaks in mytho-poetic language that can best be understood as metaphor.

If this conjecture is correct, Maimonides’ view certainly fits a more modern way of viewing faith;  briefly stated, resurrection does not suspend the laws of nature, rather, it refers to a metaphysical  journey where the soul returns to its original state of being. Physical death does not have the final word on the soul’s existence.  By the same token, Maimonides (and especially Gersonides after him) generally interprets supernatural miracles of the Bible in naturalistic terms. Natural law within the universe remains inviolate. Continue reading “Did Maimonides really believe in a physical resurrection or not?”

When rabbinic leaders fail us: The Motty Borger Tragedy (updated)

Talmudic wisdom urges us to be circumspect with our behavior as a community when a tragedy strikes home. Because of our collective and corporate sense of identity, we are all responsible for the moral condition of our communities. This idea can be seen in one of the more peculiar precepts found in the Torah known as the  eglei aruphah. The precept derives from Deuteronomy 21:1-9, which centers on the discovery of a corpse near a community.

“If the corpse of a slain man is found lying in the open on the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who killed him, your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distances to the cities that are in the neighborhood of the corpse.”

Explanation: The court must ascertain the cause of death; was there foul-play? What kind of crime occurred, and why? Was the man accidentally killed by a wild-beast? In any event, the death of the innocent person demands justice. There must be an atonement sacrifice to purify the earth of the blood that cries out for justice (see Genesis 4:10). At the end of the ritual, the court declares: “‘Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see the deed; forgive  O LORD, your people Israel, whom you have ransomed, and let not the guilt of shedding innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.’ Thus they shall be absolved from the guilt of bloodshed . . .” (Deut. 21:7-9).

Talmudic discussions on this chapter raise an important forensic question on the text: Would it occur to anybody to suspect that the elders would be responsible for such a crime? Who could be more honorable than the judges?

The Sages point out that in biblical and in rabbinic times, it was considered unsafe to let a guest leave a host’s home without being escorted for at least part of that person’s journey. The judges of a community are to some degree indirectly accountable for allowing a murder to occur on their watch, “The victim did not come to us hungry and we sent him away without any food. He did not come to us alone and we offered him no protection.”

The American legal system has a category of law termed, “accessories after the fact.” This would include people who aid or abed a criminal after he does something wrong. Judaism teaches that there is another category “accessories before the fact” – this would include decent people who are good and respectable. Biblical ethics demands that each leader and citizen do his part in preventing a crime from taking place; silence or apathy is akin to complicity. In the final analysis we are our brother’s keeper.

This past week, a tragic incident occurred in Brooklyn that pertains to the message of this particular ritual and its wisdom. A young man named Motty Borger, two days after his marriage, commits suicide by jumping to his death from the motel he and his young bride were staying. Evidently, the young man felt tortured by memories of being molested while he was in yeshiva. Filled with shame, he could not approach his young wife, Mali, and consummate their marriage.

The sexual exploitation of children by clergy is not just a problem that occurs in the Catholic community; it is a Jewish problem as well; Jewish leaders across the denominational spectrum need to address its existence and develop some preventive solutions. While this is obvious to the non-yeshiva world, it is not so obvious to the yeshiva world. Haredi rabbis are more interested in “looking good” than they are in helping their students learn to overcome the tragedy of their lost innocence. Rather than bring such matters to the attention of the police, the tendency of these closed communities is to bury the problem and hope it will go away—but it won’t. Continue reading “When rabbinic leaders fail us: The Motty Borger Tragedy (updated)”

Maimonides’ Practical Advice: On Feigning Apostasy . . .

Maimonides’ famous Iggerot Hashmad (“A  Letter Concerning Apostasy”) was written in the year 1160 during a time when Almohades Muslims were forcing people everywhere to recite the Muslim Creed. Failure to comply meant execution.

One rabbinical scholar in Fez, Morocco exclaimed that any Jew who publicly uttered the Moslim confession–regardless whether they in truth practiced Judaism incognito—could no longer be considered a Jew. Outraged by this rabbi’s insensitive rabbinical response, Maimonides wrote a letter, where he demonstrates how this Moroccan rabbi  was seriously mistaken.

Such a view of martyrdom was in Maimonides’ eyes,  a misrepresentation of Judaism ‑‑ and could only push Jews away from Judaism. The mere utterance of a meaningless formula could NEVER render a Jew an apostate. In addition, the Talmud mentions how even some of its greatest Sages–Rabbis Meir and Eliezer (cf. Avodah Zara 18a)–feigned apostasy in order to save their lives.

“Even heretics,” Maimonides argues, “were worthy of reward for a single act of piety. Those who practice the mitzvot secretly are even more worthy of reward despite the circumstances of their forced conversion.” In summary, Maimonides succeeded in saving an entire Jewish population by keeping the door to their faith open for them to return.

In contrast, the Tosafists (a school of medieval French commentators to the Talmud) refused to follow such a halachic interpretation. They held that in the case of idolatry one should be slain and not transgress, “even in the presence of one person.”

Maimonides held on to an unusual attitude: so long as a person is alive and breathing, there is always hope that an ember of faith, if aroused will turn back into a mighty flame!

A Controversial Subtext to Maimonides Epistle

Maimonides’ liberal attitude toward the Jew who was forcibly converted to Islam may have an interesting subtext. Some Jewish and Muslim scholars (see the Islamic Encyclopedia for the bibliography) think that Maimonides was forced to convert to Islam as a child. However, at the first opportunity to return to his faith, and returned he did.

The source for this claim derives from an accusation a Muslim visitor to Cairo from Fez, who allegedly remembered Maimonides as a Muslim when he lived in Morocco. Thirty years later, the Muslim acquaintance was traveling through Egypt and was surprised to discover that Maimonides had become Egypt’s most distinguished rabbi. Outraged, the Muslim denounced him to the authorities as an apostate.

However philosopher and historian Allan Nadler observes:

“Maimonides practiced the time-honored medieval Islamic tradition of Taqiyya, or prudent dissimulation, by dressing and behaving like a Muslim publicly, perhaps occasionally presenting himself at a mosque, while remaining an observant Jew during the darkest period of Almohad persecution, which forced Jews to dress in hideous costumes and resulted in thousands of forced apostasies and deaths. There is simply no credible evidence that Maimonides converted, let alone that he was a “practicing Muslim.”

Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary

The British conversion crisis in Britain illustrates why a separation between Church and State is vital for everybody involved. The job of being a Chief Rabbi is not without its politics and intrigue.

Yet, in the everyday politics of the job, even the Chief Rabbi occasionally yields to the intransigent forces that define the Haredi community of Great Britain.

It was the year 2005; two women, who had undergone an Orthodox conversion in Israel, apply to get their children enrolled in the prestigious Jewish Free School of London. Rabbi Sack’s Haredi beth din, however, refuses to admit the children.

Political rivalry between Israel and Britain goes back a long way; back in the 1970’s, even the Chief Rabbi himself, Rabbi Shlomo Goren discovered that his conversions were not recognized by the London Beth Din. In rabbinical terms, this amounted to a public humiliation to the Israeli Chief Rabbi!

Rabbi Sacks realizes that he cannot succeed in his job without placating this radical element in his community—even if he must violate the very liberal principles regarding pluralism that he has endorsed in his books.

Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbi buckled under the pressure. He refused to certify either woman as Jewish. As the issue is examined, we discover that there are certain “procedural irregularities” in the conversion of Helen Sagal, he said; and Helen Lightman — herself a teacher at JFS — could not have been a “sincere” convert, because her husband, whom she married under Orthodox auspices in New York soon after her conversion, was a kohen. Jewish law requires that a kohen not marry a convert. However, if such a marriage occurs, the marriage remains intact, but at a loss of the kohen’s personal status in the community, e.g., he would not be able to receive a special honor being called first to the Torah when it is read.

To enforce its standards, the Jewish Free School initiated a litmus test to test the religious attitudes of its students—standards that are not really required by the Halacha itself—as the rabbis attempt to micromanage the families involved. For example: each family had to have a mezuzah on their door; students and families had to attend at least four services a year at the synagogue. During the High Holy Days, shuls of every denomination placed a box at the entrance, into which parents could slip a card with their names, proving attendance. Continue reading “Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary”

Behind the theology of Jewish Terror

The latest news article about the Jewish terrorist Yaakov (Jack) Teitel, a man who has allegedly murdered two people, not to mention, attempted three other murders and committed other acts of violence, has been arraigned in a Jerusalem court today.  “It was a pleasure and an honor to serve my God. I have no regret and no doubt that God is pleased.”

While the story is pretty exceptional, the ideology of Jewish terror is a grim reminder that we, as Jews, have plenty of work ahead in keeping our own spiritual house clean. In an age that is witnessing resurgence in anti-Semitism, it behooves us all as a religious community to be mindful of how we can generate anti-Semitism without the help of the neo-Nazis, skinheads, or Muslim extremists.

In a yesterday’s edition of the Ma’ariv Israeli newspaper, there is another  story that describes a Chabad “settler rabbi”[1] named Yitzchak Shapiro, who recently wrote a book named “The King’s Torah,” where he gives permission for Jews to kill gentiles who threaten Israel.  The book is quite radical and claims that one may even kill the righteous among the nations—regardless whether that person has sinned or may have violated one of the seven Noahide commandments. According to Shapira, any gentile who fails to observe even one of the Noahide precepts forfeits his life.  Beyond that, even babies and infants can be killed if they pose a threat to the Jewish people. Shapiro states:

‘It is permissible to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation,’ he wrote, adding: ‘If we kill a Gentile who has sinned or has violated one of the seven commandments – because we care about the commandments – there is nothing wrong with the murder . . .’ Rabbi Yitzchak Shapira Rabbi Shapira also determined that it is permissible to kill gentile babies “because their presence assists murder, and there is reason to harm children if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us … it is permissible to harm the children of a leader in order to stop him from acting evilly … we have seen in the Halakha that even babies of gentiles who do not violate the seven Noahide laws, there is cause to kill them because of the future threat that will be caused if they are raised to be wicked people like their parents.”

One might wonder: Did this particular rabbi express a viewpoint that is unique to him, or was he merely echoing an ideology that he had been indoctrinated from his faith-community? Among the Haredi and Chabad communities, it is customary to receive an endorsement from a prominent and respected rabbinic scholar who approves of his work. In this case here, Shapira received an endorsement from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburg, a leading Habad rabbi in Israel, better known for his books dealing with themes from the Kabbalah. Rabbi Ginzburg has a long history of supporting Jewish violence and was also instrumental in putting together a memorial book to Baruch Goldstein (who butchered Muslim worshipers many years ago in Kiryat Arba); he even contributed a chapter discussing Goldstein’s killings as a “Kiddush Hashem,” a “sanctification of God’s Name.” Continue reading “Behind the theology of Jewish Terror”

Did Abraham marry a Caananite wife after the death of Sarah?!

Very little is known about Keturah (Gen. 25:1). Rashi identifies her with Hagar while Rashbam, Ramban, Ibn Ezra and others argue that she was Abraham’s third wife.[1] Contrary to Midrashic and early rabbinic tradition, there can be little doubt that based on the genealogy of 1 Chronicles 1:32,  Hagar and Keturah were two separate women.[2]

Although Abraham would later insist that Eliezer not find Isaac a wife among the Canaanite women, that was essential for Isaac, for only he was considered the rightful heir of Abraham, but the children of the concubines were not.  As to her place of origin, the Torah does not mention which people she originated  from and this would probably suggest that she was a Canaanite. Sensing the scandalous implications of this interpretation, Bahya writes:

“Don’t ask how it was possible for Abraham to marry a local Canaanite woman after he specifically made Eliezer that he would not take a Canaanite woman for his son Isaac. The proscription never applied to anyone else but  Isaac, who was yet to carry out the lineage of Abraham . . .  Once Isaac was married, there was no reason why Abraham couldn’t marry any woman presuming she was a suitable mate for him and was a woman of virtue . . .[3]

Whether Keturah might was of Canaanite origin is questionable;  it is possible that she might have been from another non-Canaanite people who inhabited the such as the Perizzites or the Hittites, or from any one of the peoples who inhabited the Arabian peninsula. Little is said about her background, for after all, she was only a concubine who did not come from a family of distinction.

[1] As explained by Abarbanel, Ramban, and others.

[2] Judging from  Rashi’s commentary to 1 Chronicles 1:32, it would appear Rashi did not sense the inherent contradiction posed by his view that Hagar and Keturah were one and the same person. Rashi writes is “And the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine . . . Anything disgraceful that he could tell about them, the narrator relates these details in order to enhance Isaac’s honor, i.e., they were all the children of a concubine, but he [Isaac] was the mainstay and the master of the household.”

[3] Bahya’s interpretation of this verse is based upon Ramban’s commentary.

Overcoming Infidelity–Learning to Forgive

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

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

“The Parable about the  Magic Eyes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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