The Rebbe and American Values

Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Image via Wikipedia

In God We Trust: A Handbook of Values for All Americans, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

Compiled from talks and written works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory) makes a reasoned case for all in America to commit to a set of values that come from a place beyond man.

The Rebbe’s goal is not to convert anyone, make a case for Judaism, or suggest that America should become the kind of theocracy-in-fact that many fundamentalist Christians seem to support.

Rather, he suggests that the nation is better when we as individuals subscribe to and live by a set of values that is not subject to change at the drop of a hat. For those of us inclined to see the wisdom in what the Rebbe says, he makes an entirely satisfactory case. The Rebbe’s focus always was first and foremost to his own chassidim, his followers, and given that much of what was written here came from imprecations to the Lubavitchers in the original Yiddish, some of the material does not deliver the same force with outsiders as it might.

This is by no an aspersion on the Rebbe: when the occasion arose during his life (which, as he aged, was often) to counsel those of other faiths, he did so with a profundity and empathy that was as accessible as it was uncannily accurate. Those occasions – which came in primarily in the form of correspondence and personal meetings – are not captured here. If there is a weakness, it is in the necessary exclusion of those works (they were personal, after all) from the compilation.

Others, some of whom were the Rebbe’s Chassids, others who were not, have set out explicitly to lay out universal values, and have arguably done better. Denis Prager, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, and (Think Jewish), to name a very few, have concerned themselves much more with the matter of the wider audience.

But what the work does convey is what is to me one of the most profound beauties of Judaism: its staunch refusal to position itself as the sole legitimate faith, and its explicit recognition that there are many nations, each with it’s own path to God.

Self-Dealing in Science

Español: Investigadores en un laboratorio de l...
Scientists in a laboratory of the University of La Rioja. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a superb article in The Atlantic profiling Professor John Ioannidis and his work exposing the widespread issues with modern medical research, David Freeman wraps up with an interesting thought from his subject about wider problems in scientific research.

We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary – as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with a the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.

All of which suggests a very un-pretty truth about science: that research is more about careers than truth. There is nothing wrong with that: everyone is entitled to a career. It does mean, however, that the facts are at a variance with the impression scientists try to give the public.

And it washes away the patina of monk-like purity that critics of faith have tried to confer upon scientists and their work. Purpose and self-interest play as much a role in science as innocent curiosity, if not a greater one. Ulterior motives abound, motives that do not make their way into the papers scientists write about their work and the results obtained thereby.

Until all scientists come clean about the self-interest and bias that informs their research, they do their work and their profession a disservice.


Even if Halachah denies that I am a Jew, how dare I let that stifle the yearning in my soul for Hashem and Torah! These Halachah are not meant as a barbed wire fence around Torah, but a way to keep bais Yisrael Holy.

Sorry, I need to remind myself of this occasionally.

Ethics and Tikkun Olam

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Image by onBeing via Flickr

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

By creating a work that implores not only Jews but people of all faiths to recognize our mutual responsibility to one another, Rabbi Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, proves once again why he has become one of the most eloquent and inspiring advocates of a life lived with meaning and purpose.

Ethics is always a tricky subject, but to his credit Rabbi Sacks is reasoned but unrepentant about his message: there can be ethics without religion and religion without ethics, but it is the joining of the two that deliver the far greater impact over time.

Religious skeptics need not bother: Sacks is not trying to make a case for religion here, but for ethics.

A must read for anyone wondering how to make a real difference in the world.

Pathways, not Traps

The Haskalah is not something to be rejected or destroyed. Not only is faith redefined better than faith lost: it is a challenge to the observant to reach out, to understand, and to help build pathways for return.

It serves no-one to make the progression to greater observance harder than the Ba’al T’shuvah’s own heart makes it. And yet, by defining ourselves in silos, we create nothing more than traps for the soul.

Tolstoy and Secularism

“The instructions of a secular morality that is not based on religious doctrines are exactly what an ignorant person might do, if he were made a conductor and started to wave his hands in front of musicians well rehearsed in what they were performing. By virtue of its own momentum, and from what previous conductors had taught the musicians, the music might continue for a while, but obviously the gesticulations made with a stick by a person who knows nothing about music would be useless and eventually confuse the musicians and throw the orchestra off course.”

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings


“We forget that marriage is a social institution, not just a private contract between two individuals, and it needs social support.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World

Enriching the Haskalah

A Reform synagogue with mixed seating and equa...
Image via Wikipedia

While the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement, probaly saved millions of Jews from total assimilation, in its rejection of the Oral Law and much tradition as well as practice, did it not deny generations of Reform jews all knowledge of the richness of their legacy?

What I must wonder is how many we lost because of a shallow understanding of Judaism, and an ignorance of the true depths of its heritage.

Is it not time to consider turning the tide, to consider bringing to Reform and Conservative Jews a greater exposure to the parts of their heritage arbitrarily cast aside a century and a half ago?


“Chinese say the same things about Jews that everyone else in the world says. The difference is, the Chinese say it with admiration.”

Rebbetzin Dini Lipskar Freundlich


The best congregation is the one willing to be led by the rabbi they have chosen.

The best rabbi is the one with the strength to lead, and the heart to minister.


“Judaism, when taken seriously, must make you a better person. If it doesn’t, you are doing it wrong.”

Dennis Prager

Cutting Debate

The New York Times has run a piece in their Motherlode blog profiling the retired San Francisco hotel credit manager who is trying to make circumcision illegal. The comments are, mostly, a tiresome litany that belie the bankruptcy of a society that is slowly stripping itself of its moral foundation.

It is to me axiomatic that the latent tyranny of a majority (or vocal minority) with the best of intentions is the greatest shadow across the American polity. One can only believe this individual’s campaign hides a broader agenda. Yet no one is asking that question. To call an Atheist intolerant would be an unacceptable affront.


“Don’t you see?
It’s not the land
Or the sea
Not a country
But a dwelling place
For His majesty.”

Matisyahu, “Jerusalem”

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