The Great Book and the Empty Head

Empty, by Conor Lawless. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

This morning in the shower I was thinking about the book of aphorisms that I have been assembling over the past year. There are around a hundred or so, all original (I think,) and I began to wonder whether they sayings should be allowed to stand by themselves, or whether I should provide some short context or commentary on each.

Thinking this through, though, I considered my most recent addition. It its unedited form, it went:

“ ‘Don’t work hard, work smart’ is a false choice. It should be ‘work hard, but with intelligence and integrity.’ “

Accurate, I realized, but not particularly catchy. Clearly in need of word-smithing, and probably some commentary as well.

The word “commentary.” It got me thinking about how I might make my most recent aphorisms into a d’var Torah.

So I picked one, and tried.

And I couldn’t come up with a d’var.

So I picked another.

Still couldn’t come up with even a Torah reference.

Then I picked another. And another, And a third.

And hard as I tried, I failed.

It was not pretty. There wasn’t a single reference to anything in Tanach, much less Torah, that I could come up with after five tries. The problem, of course, was not with Torah, but with my ghastly low degree of Torah knowledge. I had never had my own inadequacy in that department hit me so hard.

I fought off the guilt, swapping it for resolve to establish and sustain an upward trajectory of Torah study.

Torah on Shabbat

One of the questions about Jewish practice that has always vexed me is the issue of Torah study on Shabbat.

On the one hand, Shabbat is a day of total rest of mind and body.

On the other hand, Torah study is a joy in itself.

Can we not, then, study Torah on Shabbat?

More Tips on the Crisis

Three short thoughts about dealing with crises of faith.

  • Not all study is equally helpful. Kabbalah and Talmud are uplifting and clarifying, but they are of little help in addressing crises of faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jewish custom postpones study of these texts until long after the bokher has addressed the core questions in his study. The esoterica of Zohar and the niggling of gemara sometimes form silent arguments on behalf of the Accuser. Crises demand the aid of sages and works more accustomed to fundamental challenges of faith.
  • Guilt sucks. The yetzer hara thrives on guilt, and will use it every time as an opening into the soul. The way to address transgression, I’m finding, is determined teshuvah, driven by repentance and stripped of guilt.
  • Don’t ignore the writings of Reform and Conservative scholars and apologists. If nothing else, the Haskalah at its best created a respectable corpus of thinking and texts designed to address crises of faith. This does not come as a surprise: arguably, it is the Jews in these communitiesThis makes sense, given that the Jews in these communities were least insulated from them.


Getting through the Crisis

What was most memorable to me about my most recent crisis of faith was that when presented with the fullness of a world without Hashem, wherein faith was mere fairy-tale, I did not recoil in fear, or revulsion, or dislike, or anger. The only emotional response was one of relief.

What turned me away from going further down that path was the realization that there was something fundamentally counter-intelligent (dare I say irrational) in a worldview that boils the universe and renders only that which we can perceive. It is like suggesting that water disappears when we boil it away because we can no longer see, taste small, feel, or hear it.

It was a quietly satisfying moment, for many reasons. Passing calmly through a crisis of faith is a step that suggests that I am more secure in my faith than I was when I was younger.

The crisis also reminded me that I need to resume my Torah study, and vindicated my conviction that I must also return to my studies of Jewish philosophy. ibn Pakudah’s thinking has always been helpful, for example, which suggests to me that some time with Sa’adya Gaon, Maimonides, and even the anti-Kababalists may be in order.

For how can we truly judge our ethos against a world of contending belief systems without understanding it, and without hearing the argument of the apologists with the same ears that hear the case of the rational secularists?

I guess this is all a long, rambling way of coming to a simple point: the most important lesson I learned was that the best response to a crisis in faith – whatever your faith may be – is study.

Is WALL-E a Jewish Parable?

Watch the Pixar Film WALL-E again with this thought:

Behind the love story, behind the science fiction, behind the earnest environmentalism is a secular, future-set retelling of Exodus.

Thirteen Petals in Autumn

Doing some reading before shul on the High Holy Days, I set aside the Torah a bit to start Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s seminal gateway to the Zohar, The Thirteen Petaled Rose. Let me qualify the following by saying that this was the first reading of any kind I had done on Kabbalah aside from some rather removed and clinical introductions.

Rabbi Dov Muchnik, schlicha of Chabad of Oxnard, spoke on Rosh Hashanah about R. Steinsaltz, and I renewed my resolve to delve into the works of that great master of Torah. The Thirteen Petaled Rose was my first stop.

I had always believed that for a person like myself – born into a barely observant Reform household and not even Halachically Jewish, Zohar would be like jumping into medical school without studying biology. And, to be truthful, I remain unconvinced that I’m wrong in this.

Rabbi Steinsaltz does a superior job at making the essence of Kabbalah clear to the tyro. But on every page, in every paragraph, even as I felt awed and uplifted by the profundity of the truths, I heard a patient but insistent voice inside my head calling me back to Torah and Talmud.

I reached page 10, unable to continue. I was overwhelmed not so much by an inability to comprehend, but of a sense of deep spiritual inadequacy.

“You have just restarted your journey of learning and teshuvah,” I audibly reminded myself. “Don’t make the same mistakes you made last time and place yourself on the path of ba’al teshuvah syndrome.”

The great work was returned to its honored place on the shelf, and, awe still with me, I picked up my Machzor, my tallis, and my kittel, and walked the rest of the way to shul, head, heart, and spirit swimming, but, B”H, not drowning.


If I will be a biscuit more observant at 53 than I was at 23, Chabad of Beijing gets a massive chunk of the credit.

Daniel Jackson on Belief and Rationality in Judaism

Although the challenges presented by the natural sciences have receded, fresh challenges have taken their place and seem to pose much harder and more far-reaching questions. The field of biblical criticism has unearthed a mass of evidence that the Torah is a composite document that reflects the prevailing ideas of other cultures contemporaneous with ancient Israel. How, in the light of such claims, can one adhere to the belief, required by Maimonides in his eighth principle of faith, that the Torah we have in our hands today is the very same Torah that was handed down by Moses, and that it is all of divine origin?

Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking”
Dr. Daniel Jackson

The erudite polymath Daniel Jackson, whose day job is professor of computer science at MIT, delves into the heart of the Jewish struggle between the belief in Torah as the faithfully transcribed word of Hashem and the rational challenges posed by biblical criticism.

I read the article hoping that Jackson had discovered a Rambam-like balancing point, but that is as yet too much to ask for. Judaism has made its peace with science thanks to Maimonides, and more recently with Darwin. But while he offers no guide to the textually perplexed, he does end with a subtle reminder that there is a difference between doctrine and the mitzvot, and that while must observe the latter, our greatest danger is to base the edifice of our belief on the infallibility of every bit of our received doctrine.

I couldn’t agree more. I think it is possible to believe that Torah is the divine essence transcribed through the poor tools of human language, and that the very reason the Oral Law and the Rabbinic Writings are so important is that, in toto, they represent a quest for perfection of our understanding of the essence of Torah. The Pentateuch in our Seferim Torah is the heart, but the Oral Law and the Writings are the body, and neither can live without the other.

Seven Words for Life

One for each branch

On seven words will I base the rest of my life:

  • Creation
  • Appreciation
  • Curation
  • Torah
  • Avodah
  • Gemilut Chasadim

(And not necessarily in that order)


On The Value of Talmud

Reading the title of this article would cause even moderately observant Jews to scoff. For anyone living in (or seeking to relocate to) the more observant precincts of our tribe, the value of Talmud is axiomatic. But for many of us, particularly those raised in the traditions that emerged out of Haskalah, the Talmud is a mystery, largely because one of the core tenets of the Jewish Enlightenment was the effort to remove Talmud study from Jewish education, beginning with the Free School in Berlin in 1778.

Today, millions of Jews have grown up with only a vague understanding of what Talmud is, and have no idea of its continuing relevance to Judaism. For these Jews – and I am one of them – we cannot take as axiomatic the value of Talmud. We must, instead, begin to articulate it so that its study returns to its rightful place in the education of every Jewish child.

I see Talmud as a kind of “Congressional Record” of Judaism, a scholarly proceedings that not only list the conclusions that were reached on a topic, but the exigetical process to reach those conclusions, and the debates over different interpretations. In so doing, Talmud reminds us that in Judaism, the ultimate decision has importance, but that this does not take away from the innate value of the losing argument and the debate itself.

In so doing, the redactors of the Talmud were handing us an invaluable gift, the blueprint to keeping Judaism relevant even as we remain rooted in tradition. No other work in the vast library of our faith can weave such a powerful, uniting fabric.

I was raised a Reform Jew, and my formal Jewish education, which I continued until I was 18, never delved into what Talmud was. It took the beginning of my Teshuvah at age 31 and Adin Steinsaltz’s superb The Essential Talmud to begin addressing my ignorance. There is no reason that this should happen to another generation. Talmud helps us cleave to Torah because it is a major part of what makes Torah a living thing, not just an ancient scroll. If we cut Talmud away, we remove the most important handhold for ourselves and our children to Jewish tradition.

Let’s bring Talmud back to liberal Judaism, and let us recognize that this is not part of an effort to turn the Reform movement into some kind of unbearded Orthodoxy, but to emplace in our heritage one more post in the fence that keeps us from apostasy or assimilation.


“Both Shevi‘it and Kil’ayim (Mixtures) contain material that has been cited in discussion of environmental issues. The prohibition of agricultural work in the sabbatical and Jubilee years teaches responsibility for the conservation of soil resources, while the prohibition of mixed species can be read as a warning against unwarranted manipulation of the natural order.”

Norman Solomon
The Talmud: A Selection

“Whoever has no need but takes will not depart this world until he becomes dependent on others. Whoever is in need but does not take will not depart this world until he is in a position to support others, and … Whoever is not blind or lame but pretends to be [in order to get charity] will not die of old age until he has become so, as it is said, JUSTICE, JUSTICE SHALL YOU PURSUE (Deuteronomy 16:20).”

The Talmud (Pe’ah, 8:9)

“Scripture lays down the rule of ‘an eye for an eye’ (Exodus 21:24) and demands capital punishment for a range of offences; the Talmud refuses to countenance the literal interpretation of the phrase, and though retaining capital punishment in theory, limits its application to such an extent that it would be virtually impossible in practice (Bava Qama 83b).”

Norman Solomon
The Talmud: A Selection

Fashioning a Heart

Ani ma-amin be-emuno sh’laymo
Sheboyray yisborach sh’mo
Yoyday kol ma-asay v’nay odom v’cho machsh’voysom, shene-emar:
Ha-yoytzayr yachad libom ma-mayvin el kol ma-asayhem

“I believe with complete faith that the Creater, Blessed is His Name, knows all of the deeds of human beings and their thoughts, as it is said, “He fashions their hears all together, He comprehends their deeds.”

I was reading through Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of faith the other day, and as I read number ten, a line seemed to jump off the page of the siddur and into my frontal cortex:

“He fashions their hearts all together.”

What grabbed me about this was the possibility that this means that all of humanity was created with a single, collective heart that Hashem has formed from a combination of each of our hearts. Could it be, I thought, that Hashem in his wisdom decided to create each of us bound heart-to-heart in an unbreakable web of love, compassion, mercy? Could it be that our job on Earth is to realize – and actualize – these pre-existing ties?

This is one of those moments where I feel the limits of my Torah scholarship. I have no answers. But this idea offers a great start to my next bout of study.

“If Scripture is the sun, the Talmud is the moon that reflects its light; its authority derives from its claim to interpret Scripture rightly.”

Norman Solomon
The Talmud: A Selection

Praying Alone

For a long time I have worried that I do most of my prayer alone, rather than as a part of a minyan. There are many reasons for that, none of which I will bother to discuss here for fear that they will be interpreted as excuses, and that they will detract from my main point.

I have always thought that prayer was required to be done in a minyan, and that Jews were only allowed to conduct their daily prayers alone only when there was no physical way of finding a group with which to daven.

So it was a physical relief to me to read differently in Rabbi Norman Solomon’s superb and highly-accessible Penguin volume, The Talmud: A Selection that the Sages felt otherwise.

However, Mishna regards the three daily services as individual rather than communal obligations; though it is virtuous to join others for communal prayer, individuals recite the daily prayers irrespective of whether they are in the synagogue or together with others.

So that is the distinction. While there is virtue in joining a minyan, the key is to pray. Needless to say, I feel a lot better now.

The Wonder of Artscroll

There are a range of Jewish publishing houses in American and around the world, each one of them doing remarkable things. It has been my intention to link to them for years, and I intend to in the coming weeks.

One cannot mention Jewish publishing in America without first talking about Mesorah Publications, Ltd., best known by the name of its primary imprint of religious texts, Artscroll.

Artscroll has since its founding in 1975 done something profound and extraordinary: among many other works, it has created siddurim, a chumash, translations of major Torah commentaries, biographies of Tzaddikim, and translations of both the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds that have only served the core Orthodox community, but that have provided non-observant Jews a textual pathway to teshuvah.

Whenever I travel I carry at least one Artscroll Siddur and an Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash, sized to fit my briefcase. These are my touchstones, and when I cannot carry my 72 volumes of the Talmud Bavli with me wherever I go, I know they are waiting for me at home.

If you have not already, bookmark their site. I try to buy from them directly: it costs a bit more, but this little publishing house in Brooklyn has become s0 important to American (and world) Jewry that I figure a few extra dimes out of my pocket are well worth the hope that they will be around for my grandchildren.

A Single Innocent

US death row study: 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent”
Ed Pilkington

The Guardian is hardly my favorite paper, but this is an article worth contemplating.

We must come to grips with the fact that the modern standard of proof for capital crimes is far lower than what Torah intended. That being the case, can any Jew in good conscience support the death penalty as it stands?

The idea of a just punishment for a crime is spot on, and the idea of suffering a killer to live sends a knife in my guts. But if Torah teaches that to save a single life is to safe the world entire, how do we address the possibility of even one innocent person being put to death?

These are not rhetorical questions: I am genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts, particularly those based in Halachah.

Joss Whedon, Serenity, and Torah

An amusement that is occupying a growing portion of my time is finding Jewish thinking in the works of non-Jews, or, even more amusing, in the work of atheists.

Joss Whedon is a remarkable artist, and as a science fiction fan it is hard not to place him among the best directors of the genre. I loved Firefly, consider myself a Browncoat, and was sad to see such a smart series disappear before Fox gave it the chance it deserved.

I disagree with Whedon’s Humanism, but unlike many other Humanists, he does not arrive at a conclusion and say “okay, I have the truth, and my job is to rid the world of religion.” Instead, he makes the exploration of the meaning of life a core part of his work. I find his approach refreshing, even as I cheerfully disagree with his outlook.

He won me over with the way he had Ron Glass portray Shepherd Derrial Book, the itinerant preacher, in Firefly. It would have been too easy for Whedon to turn Book into a caricature: instead, Whedon gives honest voice to the “other side,” demonstrating in the portrayal a belief in the value of the dialogue between believers and non-believers. He apparently thinks, as do I, that there is value for both sides, and humanity as a whole, in that discussion.

But one moment in the Firefly film Serenity will always stand out and forever endear Whedon to me, because in its clarity Whedon (probably unintentionally) gave life to the Jewish understanding of the balance between good and evil.

The Firefly shipmates discover that the government’s secret introduction into the planet’s ecosystem of the drug “Pax,” a compound designed to remove the inclination for violence and evil, resulted in the vast majority of the population of the planet Miranda laying down and doing nothing, unto death. As the hologram of a government scientist explains:

“And you can see, it wasn’t what we thought. There’s been no war here and no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It’s the Pax. The G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well, it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There’s 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die.”

Almost all, anyway. She forgot to mention that a tiny percentage went the other way. Their reaction: to become super aggressive, to the point of cannibalism.

I remembered this moment on a flight across the Pacific while reading the first volume of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s magisterial A Code of Jewish Ethics. He encapsulated the Jewish idea of the roles of good and evil as such:

“Human nature, as the Talmud understands it, consists both of a yetzer hatov, a good inclination, and a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. However, the Rabbis did not believe that the goal of a good person should be to fully eradicate the ‘evil inclination,’ for within it resides the aggressive instincts that prompt so much creativity and achievement. The Rabbis speculate that without a yetzer hara, we would not engage in business, build homes, marry, or have children. (Genesis Rabbah 9:7).”

That’s provocative. But as R. Telushkin notes, the Rabbis took it further.

“The Talmud relates that Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly wanted to destroy the evil inclination but were warned that doing so would have catastrophic consequences. They therefore chose to experiment by imprisoning the yetzer hara for thee days; they then searched for a new-laid egg and could find none (Yoma 69b). In other words, all human and animal life will cease if the evil, i.e., aggressive, inclination is eliminated.”

For Judaism and for Whedon, the quandary is the same. Take away the evil inclination, and we die. Give into it, and we become less than human, lurching ourselves over a precipice into a bottomless abyss. The challenge we all face is the eternal battle to balance both within ourselves. And the subtext to Whedon’s story is that the balancing should be left to each of us, not to some outside force acting in loco parentis.

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