Touching Reality

The great virtue for me of daily tefilah is that it serves to remind me that the so-called “real world” is a consensual creation of mankind, existing in a bubble encompassed by the fullness of Hashem’s creation. We can choose to immerse ourselves in that bubble, or we can choose to be of it but not be confined by it.

Remaining Firm

The ability to remain firm in our beliefs, even in the face of hardship and danger, indicates that we have fully internalized the level of holiness to which our soul aspires. According to the degree by which we have assimilated this level, we will find within ourselves the inner strength to withstand the challenges of the turbulent sea that rages around us.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook

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!

Naziism Was Not Christian

For those antithesits out there who would assert that Naziism was a religious movement or a movement of religion, a thought from an esteemed scholar of religion.

“In speaking of the Christian world, we use two different terms: ‘Christianity,’ meaning the religion in the strictest sense, a system of belief and worship and some ecclesiastical organization; and we use a different word, ‘Christendom,’ meaning the whole civilization, which grew up under the aegis of that religion, which is in many ways shaped by that religion, but which nevertheless contains elements that are not part of that religion, or may even be hostile or contrary to that religion.

Let me illustrate that with a simple example. No one could seriously assert that Hitler and the Nazis came out of Christianity, but no one could seriously deny that that they came out of Christendom.”

— Bernard Lewis

 

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.

Can an Atheist be a Ger Tzaddik?

There are good theists, and there are evil theists. There are good atheists and anti-theists, and there are bad atheists and anti-theists.

What we should be focused on is NOT whether I can prove to Richard Dawkins in terms he will accept is whether God exists. I have enough proof for me and that should be enough for all of us to allow me to continue believing what I believe.

Better we should be having the more important debate – which Pope Francis appears to be trying to set up – which is “what does it mean to be good, and why?”

As for we of the Hebrew persuasion, we should ask – is there room within the construct of the Noahide Laws for an atheist to be a ger tzaddik, or at least a righteous non-believer? And if not, do we simply accept atheists and even anti-theists as one of the nations provided they don’t come after us?

As our theistic world is compelling non-believers to adhere to modes of belief that explicitly exclude God, how are we to address those who not only disregard our beliefs, but who (as in the case of Sam Harris) regard them as amoral and anti-intellectual?

Is Moderate, Rational Atheism a Fallacy?

English: Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins after ...

English: Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins after Maher’s talk at the Atheist Alliance International conference in Burbank, CA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An erudite atheist friend said recently that every atheist he knew personally, as many as a couple of hundred, and (he contended) all of the Big Name atheists:

“..have said, explicitly, that to the limited extent I outlined above (‘there may, against all the evidence so far, be a god’) they are agnostic. There is zero conflict in this position if you claim to be an evidence-based rational thinker (which most, but not all, atheists will claim).”

It was an interesting claim.

Now, while I would love to test that statement against all of the Big Name Atheists, I thought I would try it for one, possibly the biggest name, Richard Dawkins. At best, he is conflicted. While he has been frequently quoted as saying “There probably is no God,” thus sounding intellectually honest, on at least one occasion in public he has said ““You are utterly wasting your time – all of you who are indignant at being attacked about your god – because there is no god.”

That doesn’t sound like the kind of intellectual honesty to which my friend alludes: it sounds like a statement of absolute faith, or at best a vacillation between two positions, one agnostic and quite acceptable in polite company, and one anti-theist, and steeped in faith.

The atheist might retort that God does not exist because his existence has not been proven. My response to that atheist is simple: we all have our standards of proof. God has met mine, he just hasn’t met yours yet.

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.

It is just this simple

“The frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance. Question: Isn’t the real truth that they are intolerant of religion?”

– Ronald Reagan, August 23, 1984

There is no more excuse for irreligious intolerance than there is for religious intolerance.

I’m willing to say “live and let live.”

Are you?

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.

A Thoughtful Point on Atheism

Furthermore, to say that religion is evil because religious people have committed heinous acts in the name of religion is like saying medicine is evil because Dr. Josef Mengele committed heinous acts against the subjects of his Auschwitz experiments in the name of medical research. One can take any constructive enterprise and use it for destructive purposes. This offers no grounds for condemning the enterprise itself.

via The Atheist Crusade.

I would not condemn an atheist or secularist because of the acts of Josef Stalin. Why is it that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would condemn my faith for the acts of a totally unrelated fanatic?

A Final Thought on the Late Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer was no great fan of the late Christopher Hitchens, primarily because the correspondent, journalist, and author made it his quest in his last years to give eloquent defense to secularism. It was sad to me that someone with so much to say – and such talent to say it – should place that talent in service of a cause so unlikely to improve the lot of man.

Yet while I felt his evangelical atheism wrongheaded and a tad hypocritical (though not nearly to the degree of Richard Dawkins‘ deicidal mania), even those of us who disagreed with him have to grudgingly admire his passion, eloquence, and doggedness in pursuit of his own beliefs.

As we continue the Great Debate, perhaps it is permissible to pause and suggest that Hitchens’ voice booming from the other side of the table will be sorely missed. There is nothing in the world better for the thoughtful man of faith than a thoughtful man who disbelieves, and my own religious growth will be the lesser for the loss of a fine advocate for the other side.

Though you might resent this, G-d bless, Mr. Hitchens, and G-dspeed.

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.

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.

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

A Blogger’s Prayer

Drawn from a much lengthier prayer formed by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, The Chofetz Chaim, and prepared by the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yehuda Zev Segal, zt”l, is a prayer for all of us, but especially those of us who take pen or keyboard in hand each day to post our thoughts online.

Master of the Universe, may it be Your will, Compassionate and Gracious G-d, that You grant me the merit today and every day to guard my mouth and tongue from speaking loshon hora and rechilus. And may I be zealous not to speak ill even of an individual, and certainly not of the entire Jewish people or a portion of it; and even more so, may I be zealous not to complain about the ways of the Holy One, Blessed is He. May I be zealous not to speak words of falsehood, flattery, strife, anger, arrogance, hurt, embarrassment, mockery, and all other forbidden forms of speech. Grant me the merit to speak only that which is necessary for my physical and spiritual well-being, and may all my deeds and words be for the sake of Heaven.

Amen, selah.

Meeting of Mind and Soul

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in ha...

Image via Wikipedia

It demands no great mind of science to deconstruct faith. It requires no saint to enumerate the shortcomings of science.

The truly brilliant will find in Faith a questing of a kind different from – but no less legitimate than – the Method.

And the truly Holy will see in science a new way to know the hand of G-d.

The great minds and the great souls will forge a path of tolerance, of mutual respect, of unity, for tey will apprehend a truth, a shared quest, and the complementarity of their journeys of discovery.

Judeo-Christian Ethics and Sustainability

China hands even the most grizzled conservative an opportunity to contemplate our growing need to be better custodians of the planet. Along those lines, Worldchanging did an interesting interview with Jonathan Watts, author of the recent bestseller When a Billion Chinese Jump. Naturally, the topic of sustainability came up, and Watts’ comments are interesting, especially toward the end.

JW: Looking for a solution to the predicament we are in, of living unsustainably, the importance of values comes up again and again. The focus in China is mainly on science and technology, on hardware – on things that if you drop them will hurt your toe. The importance of values hasn’t really kicked in, but it’s absolutely essential. Where do you get these values? Clearly western values haven’t stopped the west from screwing up the environment. So, it’s worth looking to China’s philosophical and cultural roots.

Which got me thinking (being that I live in China but I am from a country that is still skittish about making any major commitments to the environment), perhaps it is time for non-Chinese to look into our philosophical, cultural, and religious roots for answers to why we might need to change our behavior toward the planet.

Those of you who know me understand I am nobody’s idea of a tree-hugger. But there is so much sound and fury around climate – often pitting the eco-zealots against the self-interested – that I am starting to think that it is time to go back to a more fundamental source for some perspective in the debate.

A few places I am looking for ideas and guidance:

The Rebbe and American Values

Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Image via Wikipedia

In God We Trust: A Handbook of Values for All Americans, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

Compiled from talks and written works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory) makes a reasoned case for all in America to commit to a set of values that come from a place beyond man.

The Rebbe’s goal is not to convert anyone, make a case for Judaism, or suggest that America should become the kind of theocracy-in-fact that many fundamentalist Christians seem to support.

Rather, he suggests that the nation is better when we as individuals subscribe to and live by a set of values that is not subject to change at the drop of a hat. For those of us inclined to see the wisdom in what the Rebbe says, he makes an entirely satisfactory case. The Rebbe’s focus always was first and foremost to his own chassidim, his followers, and given that much of what was written here came from imprecations to the Lubavitchers in the original Yiddish, some of the material does not deliver the same force with outsiders as it might.

This is by no an aspersion on the Rebbe: when the occasion arose during his life (which, as he aged, was often) to counsel those of other faiths, he did so with a profundity and empathy that was as accessible as it was uncannily accurate. Those occasions – which came in primarily in the form of correspondence and personal meetings – are not captured here. If there is a weakness, it is in the necessary exclusion of those works (they were personal, after all) from the compilation.

Others, some of whom were the Rebbe’s Chassids, others who were not, have set out explicitly to lay out universal values, and have arguably done better. Denis Prager, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, and (Think Jewish), to name a very few, have concerned themselves much more with the matter of the wider audience.

But what the work does convey is what is to me one of the most profound beauties of Judaism: its staunch refusal to position itself as the sole legitimate faith, and its explicit recognition that there are many nations, each with it’s own path to God.