Permission

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?

Inspired by Sean Maloney

Sean Maloney, Executive Vice President of Inte...

Sean Maloney in 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though not what one might term a “Jewish Scholar,” Sean Maloney is a remarkable man. Leaving aside his meteoric career with Intel, he has also survived – and recovered from – a catastrophic stroke that pulled the plug on a large part of his left frontal lobe.

He offers three lessons that ring so Talmudic that they should be offered here:

  1. Pick the one thing that has the biggest impact. Don’t squander a minute.
  2. Fight for what you believe in. Never stop listening.
  3. Laugh, because you don’t know how long it is going to last.

I cannot imagine Akiva or Hillel (or even Shammai) arguing with any of those.

Thank You, Chabad Beijing!

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (...

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m incredibly grateful for the remarkable warmth, and love with which I was welcomed (back) into the Chabad Beijing community. Yom Kippur away from these wonderful people is, after over a decade in their fold, unimaginable. I will definitely have to arrange to come back every year — and, of course, many times in between.

Thank you to Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, Rebbetzin Dini Freundlich, Rabbi Nosson Rodin, the wise and learned Zalman Lipskar, and the entire Rawack family. Teshuvah never felt so comforting!

Reading “Kosher Nation”

As an aside, I am really enjoying Sue Fishkoff’s Kosher Nation. I listened to the first half of the book on my way to Shanghai, and I’ll listen to the other half on the way back.

I am a huge fan of Fishkoff after reading her book The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, where her balance and her approach to the topic put to rest my longstanding fears of dealing with Chabad. Her treatment of kashrut has been an eye-opener, and has dropped my personal anxiety level around the upcoming kashering of our kitchen.

Now if I could only get my wife to read it, we’d be off to the races.

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

20 px

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.

On Atheist Marriages

Atheist marriages: Should one nonbeliever marry another?
Jesse Bering
Slate
November 14, 2011

Okay, this one is a year old, but it is so brilliantly written and such a hoot that it is a must-read for believers and non-believers alike. Slate’s Jesse Bering (who now rates as our favorite gay atheist) probes with wit and sensitivity the question of whether degrees and nature of belief are criteria for long-term marital compatibility.

The conclusion he reaches is no surprise: your best shot at long-term happiness with a marital partner is a shared set of values. In all likelihood, the more closely beliefs and values are shared, the more compatible you and your partner will be.

Judaism has a lot to say about mixed marriages, mostly negative, and I understand why. No way would my wife and I have made it anywhere near this far without sharing our fundamental belief in Torah. In fact, that faith has held us together (and quite happily) despite the stresses and strains of a mixed-race marriage. Faith runs thicker than culture, to be sure.

The door should never be closed to interfaith unions – I’ve seen a quite few work out pretty well. But I’ve also seen disparate beliefs become the shoal on which many relationships foundered. Hunt first with your heart, then, but don’t forget your soul.

And as far as Mr. Bering is concerned, this article is proof that Theists and Atheists can have constructive conversations without falling into the gutter of kulturkampf.

Et tu, Maureen?

CDR Salamander: Maureen & the Subconscious Anti-Semite.

I try to stay out of politics on this blog. I spend enough time covering Chinese government and U.S. politics elsewhere that I try to leave this blog for musings on what it means to be Jewish.

But when one of the most prominent columnists in The New York Times, which has a history as a paper of record in the United States, begins to slide into rhetorical country that belies a subtle anti-Semitism, I have to raise the Chinese wall a bit.

I often find myself disagreeing with Maureen Dowd, but she has always been one of those voices I treasure because they she expresses herself so well. It was a disappointment, then, when naval blogger CDR Salamander caught Dowd apparently revealing an un-pretty bit of prejudice. The good CDR does an excellent job at explaining where the problem lies with Ms. Dowd’s rhetoric, especially when she appears to side with Israel’s enemies.

I respect Ms. Dowd for her opinions. I can only believe she must see the danger in overt Jew-baiting. I sincerely hope her rhetorical choices were meant as link-bait, and were not signs of a soul tainted with hatred of either Israel or Judaism.

Gandhi Gets It

While I prefer to quote Jewish sages, I tend to follow the course of Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: I’ll quote wisdom wherever I find it, thank you, particularly when that wisdom reflects a core tenet of Judaism.

Today I have to drop this one from Mohandas K. Gandhi, who wrote:

“I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and that also that all had some error in them, and while I hold by my own religion, I should hold other religions as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we were Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu; but our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should become a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, and a Christian a better Christian.”

Swap “Judaism” for “Hinduism” and “Jew” for “Hindu,” and I agree utterly with the statement.

I think we Jews and the Mahatma are are on the same page…

Egyptian authorities reportedly seize 1.7 million documents proving Jewish ownership of assets in Cairo

Egyptian authorities reportedly seize 1.7 million documents proving Jewish ownership of assets in Cairo | The Times of Israel.

Nice. Between this and the Egyptian President’s trip to support Gaza, how long until Egypt abrogates the Camp David accords.

UTJ – A Denomination, or a Post-Denominational Movement

Union for Traditional Judaism.

I was fascinated in my reading of the recent special report in The Economist about the growing movement toward post-denominational Judaism. For those of our faith who are moving past institutional distinctions, it’s not about whether you’re Haredi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist, but whether you’re on the path of Teshuvah.

My first exposure to this approach came through Chabad in Beijing, and radio personality Denis Prager also openly practices a trans-Denominational form of Judaism, incorporating the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements in his life.

But there are more sparks of the movement, and one of them is the Union of Traditional Judaism, a group whose beliefs fall between Conservative and Modern Orthodox articles of faith. The group seems interesting, but I wonder whether it is trying to hew a road between Orthodox and Conservative, or genuinely attempting to transcend such distinctions. I sincerely hope it is the latter.

Study Online: Rav Kook

 

A. I. Kook (d. 1935), Chief Rabbi of Palestine

A. I. Kook (d. 1935), Chief Rabbi of Palestine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rabbi Kook on Weekly Torah Portion (Parsha), Jewish Holidays and Psalms (Tehillim).

Rabbi Chanan Morrison’s superior site that offers commentary on the Torah, the Tehillim, and the events on the Jewish calendar based on the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Israel Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel.

The site is a treasure trove and worth spending time – at least an hour a week – looking through what is on offer.

Torah and the Force

“A Nerd Reconsiders Star Wars Philosophy”
Liel Leibovitz

Tablet Magazine
January 24, 2012

It is far too easy to dismiss Tablet as a publication of cultural Judaism as opposed to one of Torah Judaism, but that is hardly true. While the topics covered are primarily arts, culture, news, and politics, there is a healthy debate about religion in the publication, and this more than anything else draws me time and again to its pages.

Leil Leibovitz’s essay on the ethos of George Lucas was the most recent payoff for my effort to catch up on my RSS feeds. I absorbed Jedi culture before I knew exactly what the Talmud was, and while I never took it quite seriously as a faith, I appreciated the imagination that went into its creation.

Leibovitz points out that George Lucas’ ethos (or, more exactly, Joseph Campbell’s worldview as interpreted by George Lucas), has wormed its way into the popular consciousness over the past 35 years, and that is troublesome. Campbell’s work, interpreted generously, offers an opportunity to unite peoples and mitigate conflicts by showing how, beneath the specifics, we all share similar hopes and dreams. Leibovitz calls this “the monomyth.” Interpreted less generously, however, Campbell offers fodder for moral relativists. This is part of what appears to bother Leibovitz.

Campbell certainly had his dazzling strengths as an erudite and engaging scholar of comparative cultures, but his lack of understanding of faith and its machinations is astounding. In an 1985 interview he gave to In Context, a humanist journal, he called the Bible “the most over-advertised book in the world,” dismissed its claim to moral authority, and argued that the violence the Israelites visited on the peoples of Canaan precludes their scriptures from shining an ethical light unto the nations. Any religion, Campbell argued, is nothing more than an invitation to sectarianism and hate.

Campbell’s mistake is that he seeks the similarities and dismisses the nuances and differences that set the faiths apart. Too many atheists, particularly the recent crop of radical secularists, make this error as well. Few bother to dive into the specifics of each faith, choosing either to condemn faiths based on the behavior of outlying extremists, or to assume that if one religion is bad, the whole lot are.

Lucas’ fault is that he builds from Campbell a world where the good are really good, the evil are really evil, and moral ambiguity evaporates. That’s nice for mythology, but it has no attachment to the real world, and it perhaps suggests why the cultures built on mythologies either tossed them in favor of religions that addressed moral ambiguity, or were subsumed by cultures that did.

How many people out there, though, profess themselves atheists yet believe some version of, in Leibovitz’s words, “if we only open our hearts and understand people are all the same and all good we’d be enlightened enough to lift rocks with a tilt of our heads.”

I think this is why I never became the kind of hard-core Star Wars fan my demographic profile and personal interests suggested I should be. Lucas makes beautiful movies, but the philosophies that lie beneath them, like their dialogue, leave much to be desired.

Though Leibovitz goes no further, I will.

The truly great filmmakers of the past century have been those who have eschewed monochromatic morality and presented us with stories and characters designed to make us uncomfortable. One of the best films of the past decade, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for all of its eye-candy, grabbed moral ambiguity by the throat, shook it in our faces, and demanded that we confront choices that test the principles by which we think we lived. One wonders how long the world will remember a director who chose to serve us moral pabulum rather than confront us with human nature.

Or maybe I’m giving film as a craft too much credit. Maybe the moving pictures we watch in the dark, however impressive, should never be tasked with confronting these issues. Maybe the hard questions should be left for the synagogue, the schiur, the schmuss, and literature, thus kept out of the cinema entirely. After all, the goal of the rabbi or the bar teshuvah is to draw himself/herself and the world closer to Hashem. The goal of the auteur, however, is to draw closer to Mammon.

The call of the shofar

The call of the shofar
HBH”C Ploni ben Nistar

A beautiful post that captures the essence of why we blow the Shofar at this season.

I have heard a number of shiurim and D’varim about this topic, but this one stands near the top.

Happy Elul. May your days be filled with contemplation, wonder, and a love of Hashem.

The Blemishes of Orthodoxy

“Either/Orthodoxy
Lawrence Grossman
Jewish Ideas Daily
May 15, 2012

Lawrence Grossman of the American Jewish Committee sparks an thoughtful debate about the relevance of Orthodox Judaism when even some of its adherants are perplexed.

For his part, Grossman mounts a pithy assault on one book that argues against the divine inspiration of Torah, and another that defends Orthodoxy yet tries to frame Orthodoxy in the cast of modern spirituality.

In the end, Grossman poses a question: if, in fact, Torah is not from a divine source, and thus the justification for the mitzvot weak, why does Orthodox Judaism remain so “vibrant and successful?”

Read the article, but read it as you would attend a shiur: in other words, read the comments as well. They are in many respects the best part.

Chinese Studying Jews

Jewish studies flourish in China
David N. Myers

The Jewish Journal
August 15, 2012

A fascinating look at the growing field of Jewish studies in China, and the author’s experience lecturing at the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies in the ancient capital city of Kaifeng.

My favorite quote:

The Confucian ideal, parallel to the Jewish precept of “kevod ha-moreh,” is alive and well today. Unlike the consumerist approach to education in the United States, where students demand attractively presented products from their teachers, students in China feel happy to receive the pearls of wisdom that issue from their teachers’ mouths. At times, this leads to a certain passivity in the classroom on the students’ part. But the overall effect, especially for a short-term visitor from America, is wondrous.

Of course, the degree of open Talmudic discourse between teacher and students is missing in China, and that needs to change. Nonetheless, the point about the American “consumerist” approach to education is spot-on.

On Being a Goy

I was born into a family wherein my father had been born to Jewish parents, but my mother had not. My mother converted at a Reformed synagogue, and she believed that made her Jewish.

Fast forward sixteen years. Hot on the path toward becoming a more observant Jew, I am told by a dear (modern Orthodox) friend that I am not actually (i.e., Halachically) Jewish. Needless to say, that was upsetting, and it began a journey of 15 years wherein I wandered away from Judaism. I was brought back into the fold by a group of friends who cared less for my parentage than my beliefs, and then deeper into the fold by Chabad rabbis who understood that it was the inner spark (what the Lubavitcher Rebbe called the pintela yidI) that made a person truly Jewish.

Yet despite all of that support, I am not considered Jewish by those among my friends and mentors who are bound by Jewish law. As a result, my wife, who went through a conversion similar to my mother’s long before we met, is also not considered Halachically Jewish, nor is my son. The problem has not gone away.

So why do I react differently now than I did when I was sixteen? Apart from a few more years (and a few more pounds) under my belt, what has changed?

I think the answer is in the journey. Having spent years sampling from the tables of many faiths (the Episcopal Church, Roman Catholicism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Islam, and Buddhism among them), I kept coming back to where I found my soul, and that was in Judaism and Torah. Regardless of my status under Jewish law, I realized, I felt Jewish, thought Jewish, acted (somewhat) Jewish, and related to G-d as a Jew. Nobody, not even a beit din, had the power to give that to me, or my wife, or my son, or to take it away. What a Halachic conversion can (and, please G-d, one day will) confer upon us is the legal status of a Jew.

I my wife, and my son all live in this Halachic limbo, at best b’nei Noach, at worst goyyim, and will continue as such until our level of observance has evolved to a point where a beit din in good standing will declare us othewise.

And that’s okay. If our forefathers could wander in the Sinai for 50 years before G-d was ready to let them into the Promised Land, I suppose we must take our own journey of hardships before we reach our (spiritual) Canaan.

Bill Bishop Wonders about China’s Latent Anti-Semitism

Today’s China Readings May 24, 2012 | Sinocism.

On his excellent Sinocism blog, the thoughtful and prolific Bill Bishop examines whether China Central Television‘s (CCTV) talk show host is an anti-Semite, a subject broached by the Shanghaiist editorial staff.

While he reaches no conclusion either way, Bishop, whom I do not believe is a member of the Tribe, approaches the topic with tact and care.

When asked how Jews are perceived in China, I always fall back on the words of Rebbetzin Dini Freundlich of Chabad of Beijing, who once said, “Chinese say the same [stereotypical] things about Jews that everybody else in the world says. The difference is that they say it with respect.”

My experience over 17 years living in China and ten years traveling here before that is that most Chinese have a healthy admiration for Jewish people, albeit one based too much on hearsay for my comfort. (After all, a positive reputation based on hearsay can turn into a negative one when the hearsay changes, all without reference to the facts.)

It behooves every Jew with the ability to visit China to do so, and to make no effort to hide your Judaism, any more than an American should hide his origins. If the Chinese are to know us, they must know who we are, and I believe that the more they know us, the better we’ll be liked. (Especially if we act according to Torah in the process.)

Partners in Torah

Judaism, Torah, Jews | Partners in Torah.

This site promises you the opportunity to learn any Jewish subject with your own private teacher for 30-45 minutes a week over the phone.

Very cool…

The Saga of the Sarajevo Haggadah

Carol Off: Why Sarajevo could lose a 660-year-old Jewish prayer book – World – CBC News.

A fantastic story, well worth the read, for three reasons:

1. It’s Pesach soon;

2. It shows that not all Muslims are pathological anti-Semites; and

3. It is a reminder that we need to defend even the smallest relics of our heritage.

Another Tribe Returns Home

Chinese Jews feel more at home in Israel – latimes.com.

Fantastic story in the L.A. Times describing the physical and spiritual journey of a small group Jews from Kaifeng to Israel.

I totally get their initial indignation to “convert” to Judaism after having been raised Jewish. In the face of that initial frustration, their persistence is admirable. And they won’t be the last, please G-d.

I wonder what the Rebbe would have thought.

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.