Yom Kippur Schmatta of a Bar Noach

Under my Kittel during Yom Kippur I wore comfortable clothes: blue jeans, non-leather tennis shoes, thick socks, and an oversized polo shirt.

I learned my lesson the hard way: teshuvah, Chabad-style, is work. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, it is a process for which a coat, tie, and slacks are unsuited (no pun intended.) A nice suit may show respect for the holiday, but more functional attire, IMHO, shows determination, focus, and commitment.

Or so I told myself.

My Yom Kippur Lessons

A few lessons I took from Yom Kippur this year.

  • Teshuvah begins with forgiving everyone else for being imperfect.
  • You can’t have true teshuvah without approaching life with a feeling of gratitude. That’s actually a core tenet of success, and opens the road to humility.
  • My problem is pride. The antidote is reflection, gratitude, humility, and study.
  • I have allowed my relationship with Hashem to whither a bit. That is the true source of my discontent.

Now if only I can keep those in mind over the next year.

Forgive the Rabbis. They Know Not What They Sell.

Forgive the Rabbis. They Know Not What They Sell.

Rabbi Hayim Herring suggests that regardless of denomination, too many U.S. Jewish congregations think that they are in the business of selling “memberships,” or, worse, seats at the High Holy Days. Herring, who in fairness is talking his book, says that what they should be selling is a complete Jewish ecosystem.

Having spent the past decade loosely affiliated with Chabad of Beijing, I can tell you that this is precisely what Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Mendy, Rabbi Nosson, and their families have done. Even better, they have done so in cooperation with (rather than in opposition to) the reformed/conservative community of Kehillat Beijing.

I once likened Chabad’s role as being similar to an artificial reef on a sandy sea bottom. Their job is to create just enough to incite the development of a Jewish ecosystem where before there had been little, or in some cases, none. I’ve seen this approach work brilliantly on the far frontiers of the diaspora, but R. Herring reminds us that the same lessons apply even in the heartland of international Judaism.

The Torah is Non-dialectic

The Hegelian Dialectic might apply to philosophy, but it makes a poor fit when it comes to morality. A moral code may evolve – indeed, an argument can be made that moral codes must either be fungible enough to deal with changing circumstances and evolving rival codes. It may be scored, altered or tempered in its clash with other codes. The alternative is irrelevance or implosion. Any moral code worth the title has at its core a steely mass of non-negotiable values or ideals that are simply not open to compromise.

For thousands of years, the enemies of Torah have tried to alter it, cut it down, add to it, or destroy it. The clash has not resulted in a “changed” Torah, or, to take an example, a bastard child of Torah and Greek philosophy. What has resulted is that Torah has become tempered, hardened by the fire and hammer with the help of great scholars and ordinary Jews who continue to polish the flood of gems that come from study, discussion, and exegesis. Torah is alive, electric, a tree planted by Hashem that is refreshed constantly by those who trim its branches and shoots. But it will not be changed at either its trunk or roots.

The Conversion of Aristotle

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Aristotle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the historic challenges to the Abrahamic faiths has been the rise of the Epicurian schools of rational thought. Judaism came to an intellectional accommodation with rationalism over time, a process that was completed and formalized through the brilliance of the Rambam. My understanding – possibly faulty – is that Thomas Aquinas attempted to do the same thing with Christianity and the greeks.

In my studies I have come across several claims that Aristotle underwent a deathbed conversion to Judaism. As near as I can tell (admittedely based on desktop research), the story is apocryphal. I have yet to find any conclusive evidence either way.

The claim stretches credulity both because of an apparent lack of evidence and because it appears to address the secret hopes of every Jew (including this one) that even the most ardent advocates of rational thought have discovered in its precepts a hole, a fault, that leaves too many questions unanswered. Like the Man on the Grassy Knoll theory of JFK’s assassination, the story’s support of our worldview makes it too tempting to believe. At moments like this, the precepts of our faith demand we step back and put our brains rather than our hearts to work.

Is there any historical basis? Would it matter if there was? The veracity of Torah and the worth of a life lived according to its precepts do not rest on the whims of an aged Greek philosopher. It should be enough for a thinking Jew to follow his own inquiry and reach his or her own conclusions. The need for us to tell ourselves stories of eleventh-hour conversions of skeptics only hints at unaddressed self-doubts.

Been to Aish yet?

About Aish.com.

By the way, have I mentioned how much I love Aish.com? Along with Chabad.org and Torah.org, Aish.com is just a superb guide to those of us on our own walk-in-the-desert journeys to Teshuvah.

It all begins with learning, and Aish.org is all about education. If you haven’t seen the site yet, go and spend some time. If nothing else, check out the Window on the Wall, watching the Kotel 24/7.

One Step Closer to Being Pushed Into The Sea

“Palestinians Still Embrace Spirit of 1947”
Jonathan Tobin
Commentary Magazine

Jon Tobin and I don’t agree on everything, but even if you are the furthest thing from a neocon, you need to read this op/ed from yesterday.

The quote that everyone should have emblazoned on their consciousness is this one:

The main truth about this conflict has always been guided by one fact: neither the Palestinians nor their backers were willing then to acknowledge the rights of the Jews. It is only now after decades of intransigence that the Arabs say they want a state. But the common thread from 1947 to today’s debate is the willingness of much of the world to delegitimize Jewish rights and to bypass negotiations.

Even to a moderate like me who has never hesitated to lambaste Israel’s leadership (especially Bibi’s Likud) for the continuing idiocy around the settlements issue, it is becoming painfully clear that the Palestinian goals have never changed. A two-state solution increasingly appears to be a stepping-stone toward a single-state solution. For if it were not, the Palestinian Authority would have recognized Israel’s right to exist long ago.

The painful truth is that successive waves of Palestinian leaders – starting from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1926 to Mahmoud Abbas and the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, et al – have talked themselves into a corner. Even if they wanted to recognize Israel, their legitimacy among their people now depends on their dedication to pushing the Jews into the sea.

That is sad. Because that makes this conflict less about a land agreement and more existential for both sides. And an existential conflict can never lead to peace.

Beyond Denominations

The Economist, in its recent special report about the Jews, “Alive and Well,” offers us an interesting – and I think defensible – chart of the key points of belief and practice, delineating where the similarities as well as the differences lie among the four major denominations – HarediModern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. The guide offers some interesting insights into the faith, and it raises some others into each of us. After looking over the list and seeing how that made some sense, I then gave myself a test. Where do my own articles of faith lie?

  • On the Source of the Torah, I agree with both Orthodox denominations in that I believe that the Torah was dictated by G-d to Moses;
  • On the Authority of Halacha, I find myself between the Modern Orthodox and the Conservatives: life is regulated by halacha but that halacha can evolve to a degree;
  • Similarly, on Ritual and Practice, I’m with the Modern Orthodox in that they are regulated by halacha, but that there is room for evolution;
  • On Zionism and Israel, however, I am torn. I generally support Israel, but I am troubled by the State’s handling of the settlements issue.
  • On the Definition of Jewishness, I am between the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative position, but mostly out of selfishness – I want to be considered Jewish, but my mother did not convert according to halacha and I am not yet ready to take on the full scope of the Mitzvot.

But enough of this navel-gazing.

The article raises much more meaningful questions: are the differences between the denominations as great as we believe? Are they always a matter of choice, or are they a matter of upbringing? Do not each of the movements and denominations serve a purpose? Should we take a more holistic approach to our faith? Is it time for us to knock down the walls that divide the denominations?

Inter-denominational dissing is too prevalent, and we forget too easily that bBaseless hatred cast us out of Israel. Is it such a leap to think that it is,  the continuing presence of Jew-on-Jew strife that keeps Moshiach away?

One of the things that inspired me about Chabad was how the rabbis, while clearly Orthodox almost to the point of haredi, refused to classify themselves as such, and profess a point of view that says “all Jews are the same.” If they can do that, why can’t the rest of us?

Speed the Day

Muslims and Jerusalem: Pilgrims’ plodding progress
The Economist
.
April 28th, 2012

This Economist article begins with a jolt. By the time you have read the first paragraph, you are starting to believe that the biggest obstacle to Muslims visiting Jerusalem is the Israeli government.

Read on. The truth is that it is Muslim leaders, and particularly Arab Muslim leaders, who prohibit their followers from visiting the Dome of the Rock in Islam’s third-holiest city.

For me, I look forward to the day when Jews and Muslims can greet each other in the streets of our shared Holy City as brothers should – in peace, in love, in laughter.

Torah Thought of the Day

This one really got to me:

“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom
Let not the mighty man glory in his might
Let not the rich man glory in his riches
But one should only glory in this:
That he understands and knows Me,
that I am the Lord,
Who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness on the earth.
For in these I delight, says the Lord.”

Yeremiachu 9:22-3

Amen, selah

Tisha B’Av: Celebrating Green Shoots

I was a superb conversation with a good friend about Tisha B’av on Twitter today, and we got around (as we normally do) to what we have been reading. He asked me if I had read a book that takes a dire view of assimilation among American Jews, suggesting that it portends the end of the Tribe.

I tire of the procession of modern-day Cassandras who see assimilation as the greatest problem facing Judaism today. There are surely others, not least of which are the way we often treat and speak of each other, that threaten our future more, that work against the will of Hashem, and that play a part in setting Jews onto the path of apostasy.

The highly pessimistic view of the faith with which many of us were raised, the view that also rejected out-of-hand the gifts of Rabbinic Judaism, is both incorrect and unnecessary. The Green Shoots of Judaism have in the past two decades begun to outnumber the wilted branches.

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known popularly as the Ba’al Shem Tov, was right about many things, but what he was most correct about was his imprecation to all of us to celebrate our faith, not mourn it. Tisha B’Av is a day to remind ourselves of the calamities in our past, but we must conclude it determined to build a better future.

An Air Force Colonel Calls for Holocaust Rememberance

In a short but clearly heartfelt article in this month’s issue of The Wright Stuff, a monthly publication of the U.S. Air Force’s Air University, Colonel Michael Underkofler calls on his fellow airmen to remember the Holocaust during the Yomim HaShoah this month.

Col. Underkofler, who commands the 514th Air Mobility Wing, reminds us all that the Holocaust does not just hold lessons for Jews, but for everyone as we consider the dangers of intolerance and prejudice.

The Sino-Hebraic Connection

Adam Daniel Mezei asks via Twitter:

What’s your read on the connections between Chinese and Jews. Beyond obvious factors, what do you think our connections are?

After wondering aloud if I could answer that in 140 characters, I though about it and gave him this precis of an answer.

I think Chinese and Jews look each other in the eye and see something comforting and familiar. It comes not necessarily from a shared set of values, but of common experience: each is the ancient and seminal culture of a civilization, has endured unspeakable hardship/persecution, and each has emerged from the crucible of history with great depth beneath the hardened exterior shared by all survivors.

Therein, I believe, lies the heart of the mutual respect and admiration – and in my household affection – between the two great cultures.

Thoughts?

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.