I believe that G-d wants us to find the joy in wonder in every moment of our lives.
Might it be that the more we give ourselves permission to be in that state of joy and wonderment, the closer we will be to Hashem?
I believe that G-d wants us to find the joy in wonder in every moment of our lives.
Might it be that the more we give ourselves permission to be in that state of joy and wonderment, the closer we will be to Hashem?
For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue.
““Be a great painter, Asher Lev.” He was still looking out the window at the sun and the sky. “That will be the only justification for all the pain your art will cause.”
Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev
I often think about this quote.
As a Jewish man living in what appears to be the end-times of this particular iteration of Western Civilization, the call back to Torah, tradition, and communalism grows daily. Yet do I spend my life studying Talmud, living according to Halacha, or building synagogues or academies? Only to the tiniest degree: most of my waking hours are spent worrying about my family’s well-being, my clients, my colleagues, and my business.
I am sure that will not surprise you. What you may be interested to learn, though, is that this fact is the cause of a great deal of pain in my life, and probably pain in others.
I rationalize it by telling myself that, like Asher Lev, my urges and my G-d-given abilities have led me to succeed in this direction, so this must be a part of His greater plan, and I should not fight it.
And then listen to my soul. And I look at the world around me. And a voice out of the darkest depths of my genetic past calls me back to seferim, Yiddishkeit, and the people of my community.
And in hearing that voice I know a pain that Potok never placed in Asher Lev, but one that I know he must have felt: that the more blessings G-d gives you the greater your soul struggles.
The Master of the Universe, praised be He, blessed us with the gift of free will. Along with speech, this is perhaps the one thing that truly raises us above the animals.
But in His wisdom, He did not stop by just giving us the intellectual wherewithal to make choices. He then gave us His Torah as a guide to making those choices.
He then gave us the choice of whether to follow Torah or to allow our whims and our petty concerns drive our actions.
And He gave us the intellectual capacity, through the faculty of reason, to think through our actions, so that we could justify any course of action so as to ensure we would be able to live with our own choices, no matter how foolish or ill-advised. Or, if we made the choice to follow Torah, to use that capacity to apply its laws with wisdom, with justice, and with mercy.
Because we reason through our choices, our choices become the rungs in the ladders of our character. The internal struggle that precedes each choice we make is the hammer of a blacksmith on the metal of our soul, with each struggle between our instincts and “the better angels of our nature,” either weakening or breaking us when we come out with poor choices, or tempering and strengthening us when we make the choices that uplift us and make the world a better place.
So free will is more than about whether to eat a pepperoni pizza or go t0 synagogue. It is a forge for our character.
Have a wonderful week!
One question that growth of Christian communities that are taking the Benedict Option poses to Jewish communities is whether more of us should be following them – and our Orthodox brothers and sisters – into lives of greater Jewish communalism in the face of changes underway in wider society?
(And to clarify – the Benedict Option is not an alternative to living within society at large, and does not contemplate disengagement or withdrawal, but calls for communal living within the broader context of society.)
We Are Used to Being Apart
Naturally, living apart – voluntarily or otherwise – is nothing new to Jews. At times, greater communalism has served us well, strengthening the bonds that unite us as a community, serving as a barrier to assimilation. and enabling us to better address and withstand persecution from outside.
Yet at other times, communalism became insularity, leaving us out of touch with the outsider world, and simultaneously making us easier to isolate, attack, and even (as in the Holocaust) exterminate.
There is an argument to be made that despite the dangers implicit in spreading ourselves among the goyim in the Diaspora (intermarriage, assimilation), there is the virtue of keeping us engaged, keeping us from being easily targeted.
But when being close to the goyim stops serving our purposes – when being a physical part of a wider, interfaith community leaves us cut off from the rest of our people and subject to harassment or worse, the attractions of communalism begin to eclipse the risks.
This is Urgent in Europe
We are probably not yet at the point in America where we are better off in our own communities. Many countries in Europe, however are in a different place. When we look across the Atlantic to our tribesmen and women in Europe, the trend in France, Germany, and other European nations appears to be to institute restrictions and condone public behavior that combine to make living among non-Jews increasingly challenging.
The choice is becoming stark: draw away from the wider population and form communities that combine physical proximity with strong support institutions; or emigrate. European Jews need to engage in country-by-country discussions about how they can continue living in a post-modern Europe, before weariness of persecution or outright fear drive them to Israel or America.
What about the U.S.?
In the United States, at the very least we need to avoid being boiled frogs. American Jews, particularly those of us who do not presently live frum lives, should begin discussing at what point it makes sense for us to start basing our decisions about where to live on the proximity to strong Jewish communities, and when it would make sense to reinforce and extend the our communal institutions to better support us in a changing world.
We do not have to surrender our practices in order to cleave closer to the observant community, and to broaden the role of our community institutions. Nor am I asking the Charedim to invite Reform Jews to live among them. I am simply suggesting that we will survive against the coming storms only if we are one people, a community of communities, a “Kehillat Godol.”
And we do have to start responding as a community to movements in wider society that threaten our ability to practice our faith in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Vegetarian Jews must recognize a commonality of interest with their omnivorous tribesmen on questions of shechita. Public education advocates among us should also support measures that make Jewish education accessible to those who choose it. We should all take a stand against efforts to criminalize practices that lie at the core of our faith, including circumcision.
And it behooves us to watch out for other potential challenges to our faith, whether in the form of institutional anti-Semitism, the toleration of exclusionary practices or persecution, or efforts by outsiders to make Jewish practice illegal.
At the very least, we should consider whether we have allowed certain practices and institutions in our communities to whither, and whether it is time to return to a policy of more actively supporting them.
History has proven that as we live in nations aside from our own, the strongest guarantee of our continued safety and prosperity lies in the construction of strong communities and institutions. We don’t need to adopt the “Benedict Option:” we created it. We simply need to return to the time-honored practices that have served to shield our communities, our faith, our families, and ourselves from the vagaries of a non-Jewish world.
Aristotle apparently didn’t believe in either creation or evolution.
Does that make all of his work worthless?
The Rambam would certainly not have suggested as much.
If that is the case, what standard should we, as faithful Jews, use to delineate those ideas and thinkers who stand outside the pale?
Alternately, should we place no limits on such study, provided that the student is first fortified with a deep knowledge of Jewish thought?
I lean toward the latter, but I am painfully aware that there are some lines of thinking that lead only into dark swamps, not enlightenment of any sort.
Three short thoughts about dealing with crises of faith.
Since his assassination in 1948, Mohandas K. Gandhi has become something of a secular saint, recognized almost universally as a “great soul” who not only did much to liberate his own people, but who also changed the dialogue around violence and repression.
Gandhi lived by high principles that served him and the peoples of Greater India in the effort to cast off British rule. But Gandhi’s belief that his principles could withstand application to peoples and/or situations far different than those in which he lived was in many cases and unsupported conceit, and in other cases produced some convoluted thinking.
He believed that non-violence would have served India in the face of a Japanese occupation. He believed that the proper response of the Jews of Europe to Hitler’s Final Solution was to throw themselves upon the butcher knives of the SS death squads. And he believed that a State of Israel must wait until the Jews were invited back to their homeland.
Against the latter, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber penned an eloquent criticism. There is a complete text here, along with a broader overview of Gandhi’s relationship with Jews. At best, Gandhi was playing to the home crowd. At worst, he spoke from a willful lack of understanding of the true facts on the ground. Whatever the reason, little does more to tarnish the verity of Gandhi’s ethos than his offhanded treatment of questions around the Jews.
Probing Gandhi’s words on the subject, and contemplating the context in which he wrote them, it is little wonder that India has failed to sustain a Jewish community of any size. It also underscores that the time has come for a critical re-examination of his core beliefs, their roots, and their logical extensions.
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.
Reading an excellent article about artificial intelligence last week, I began to wonder which force was the greatest danger to Yiddishkeit: radical secularism or artificial intelligence?
But thinking about it on the plane to China the other day, I realized that they are actually two parts of the same problem.
At its worst, radical secularism is mankind’s Oedipus Complex. Kill the Father to supplant Him, to become Him. If we “kill” G-d, we take upon ourselves the power to create sentience without any obligation to pause and question whether we should do it in the first place.
Fear for any individual – or species – who places the power to do something before the wisdom to ask whether it is the right thing to do.
Last week, on my way to pick up my son at the school bus stop, and just as we were approaching sundown on Friday night, I was again reproaching myself for not being shomer Shabbos. As I mulled that – or even began to – I heard a voice: “what if all of this is a lie?
“What if we, for whatever reasons, have simply been brainwashed,” it continued. “What if this – all religion – is just a big illusion that we have created for ourselves, a super-Disneyesque consensual fantasy that we have just willed into being?”
How seductive, nay, beguiling, a thought it was. I was washed over with the sense that a great burden of guilt, reproach, and angst was being lifted from me.
Then I heard another voice inside as I passed the little school on Pierpoint. “That, surely, is the Yetzer Hara whispering lies again. A crafty one he is.”
Then the first voice spoke again. “What a clever ploy, this while the idea of a ‘yetzer hara.’ With a single idea, we have automatically disqualified any rational challenge to G-d’s existence.
I quieted then. And came the second voice. “But if rationality is a human construct, is it the only framework with which to apprehend the world? Is it even the best? And have there not been a long line of thinkers reaching into antiquity who have addressed that question?”
It was but one brick yanked out of a large wall of doubt, but it was enough to deconstruct – or begin the slow collapse – of the wall. At that moment, my crisis of faith began to pass, just in time for my son to climb into the car, and for us to head home for salmon and Shabbos.
The importance of Hasidism to modern Judaism is difficult to overstate. The effect upon the entire Ashkenazi community of a movement designed at its heart to popularize observance and study was profound, even as the guardians of the traditional Torah communities responded with dismay.
One part of the great value of Hasidism has been the rich vein of stories and legends. Martin Buber did much bring those to a wider community, and now, thanks to the internet, we have these stories at our fingertips. The Hasidic Stories website offers a rich vein for any Jew, and especially for those of us who look for material to use in teaching.
Have a look, and have fun!
The echoes of approaching jackboots haunt the streets of Wuppertal, Germany at night. You can almost see the flicker of the torches.
Make no mistake, my friends. The surrender of Germany to the Allies on May 8, 1945 did not end anti-Semitism, racism, or Naziism in Germany. It just drove those things underground, where they lie dormant.
We are watching the black shoots of hatred sprout anew from the European soil.
This time, let us not go gently.
Fight the darkness with light.
How does a utilitarian approach to morality lead to the Golden Rule?
Anyone who studies a little bit of game theory has to believe that “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” is, at best, an occasional outcome.
In Judaism, our love of G-d, combined with belief that we are all created in G-d’s image (spiritually if not physically) provides that path. Do we always live by it? No. But the more we live in consistency with our values, the more we are driven to take care of each other.
Utilitarian morality, on the other hand, begins and ends with looking out for Number One. For me, that’s a recipe for dystopia.
Donald Trump’s policy advisers are discussing plans to establish a registry for Muslim immigrants in the US, a man believed to be a key member of the President-elect’s transition team has revealed.
If the president-elect goes ahead with this plan, we must each choose how to address it. Some will support it, and in the case of some, their reasons will be both understandable and rational. Others, including myself, will resist it in different ways. We could send our checks to the ACLU, but I think that this sort of thing demands more than a well-funded court battle: it demands a bit of moral sabotage.
As a Jew, I will be placing my name on that registry, as, I think, should every clear-thinking descendant of Abraham in the United States. I will do it:
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.
My wife and my 14 year-old son were discussing the election yesterday. And my wife said that this proves that we cannot put our faith in man or in Earthly institutions. We must put our faith in Hashem.
She’s right. And it reminded me of a passage from the Tachanun:
And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”
We can trust people to represent us, but we cannot trust them to always have our best interests at heart, and, indeed, about all we can expect is for them to operate in the self-centered manner that economists call “rational.”
Do not put your faith in your leaders, elected or otherwise. Grant them a highly conditional trust at the very most.
“We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the Garden.”
— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”
Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” has been covered by many artists at different times, but to me there is no more moving rendition than the one sung by Joni herself on the remastered version of her “Ladies of the Canyon” album.
It’s just Joni and an electric piano, and it’s played slow, with the gentle insertion of backup singers. Listen to it with headphones on and in the dark. Joni’s notes are sheer beauty, and you will never hear the song the same way again.
Professor Shai Cherry credits the beautiful lyrics of the song to “Rabbi Joni Mitchell.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, naturally, but he invokes Joni in a discussion about teshuvah. She captures in a few words, he notes, the essence of the modern interpretation of teshuvah as framed by Rav Kook (Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kuk). We are an essential part of the universe, we are made in the image of Hashem, and our lives are built around bringing ourselves closer to Hashem.
Yes, we need to get back to the garden. Which garden is Joni singing about? And which one should we be seeking? Those thoughts stopped my brain literally in midair (flying between Los Angeles and Tokyo).
One other thing did occur to me as I listened to the song again on a quiet Beijing morning.
Mitchell’s tone in the song, the downbeat tempo, the simple delivery (instead of a wall of sound) conveyed a sense of mourning. I could not help but hear something deeper in her delivery. Was Joni singing a lament to the failure of the 1960s to bring us back to the garden? Was Woodstock simply the climax of a sort of secular spiritualism that shattered just months later? And is the song somehow an acknowledgement that the true path back to the garden lay on more ancient stones?
To suggest that this is what Joni meant to say 40 years ago is stretching it. But those of us who watched the promises of the 1960s die, who continue to try and understand why, and who did discover that path of ancient stones, cannot help but hear, behind the Wurlitzer and the Canadian contralto, the echoes of a generation that lost its way for all the right reasons.
There comes a time in every man’s life when he must face that gap between who he is and what he does to earn a living, realize he has a choice, and then decide what he is going to do about it.
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.
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?
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.
“Evangelicals Are Losing the Battle for the Bible. And They’re Just Fine with That”
The Los Angeles Review of Books
February 15, 2016
While I recognize that this may represent to some of my more frum friends and mentors something of a heresy, I do read religious texts from other faiths. I find doing so essential for two reasons.
First, because any other faith contains an implicit – or in some cases, an explicit – rejection of Jewish belief, I see in those texts an opportunity to hold up a mirror and examine the edifice of Jewish belief and thought. We are our own harshest critics, but we are not the only ones, and being the stiff-necked but self-critical faith that we are, outside perspectives can be essential guides to understanding our own issues.
The second reason is that it helps us to explain Judaism to others in a way that they will understand. For those of us who do not live our lives in the warm embrace of a Torah-based community, interaction with the goyim is a fact of life. When a Jew of even moderate observance comes into contact with a curious atheist or member of another faith, we are often called to explain – or defend – Judaism, and often to explain how and why our beliefs cannot be lumped willy-nilly together with those of other religions. We can only do this when we know those differences.
The question of Biblical literalism is a matter that affects us all. Many fellow Jews whom I admire deeply, not least great modern poseks like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, hold fast to the idea that the only history of the world before the arrival of the Tribes in the Promised Land is the one in Torah. I know of other sincere and observant scholars who hold the view that Torah is the moral history of the universe rather than a natural history. Both the Rambam (Maimonides) and the Ramban (Nahmanides) support a non-literalist view of Torah. Nonetheless, the debate continues, and I believe that we are better for it, just as Judaism was strengthened by the constant to-and-from between the schools of Shammai and Hillel.
it is, therefore, fascinating to watch Evangelical Christian thinkers move beyond the theological cul-de-sac of Intelligent Design as a means of reconciling science and faith. Any Jew who struggles with these questions and who lives among the goyim would do well to read Jim Hinch’s fascinating article.
Lisa Marie Mendez, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) student and employee at the UCLA Medical Center, has made her extreme distaste for “fucking Zionist pigs” crystal clear this past month in her rant against Jews on Facebook.
“[Rav Kook wrote that] the mitzvot light the way to the perfection of the future – a time when the animals will have been transformed into humans, and humans into angels. Thus kashrut is mean to prepare us for vegetarianism, a great step forward in the moral perfection of the human race – but must not be done before its time, for the complacency and self-satisfaction it might bring. Indeed, he wrote, one could imagine a bloodthirsty tyrant who prided himself on his vegetarianism, eerily presaging Hitler.”