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

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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.