Torah Study includes self-introspection

In Jewish Theology in Our Time, one of the authors, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, talks about the idea of a non-dual Judaism, in which we recognize that all is divine.  In his essay, he touches upon the concept of Torah, and develops a meaning of Torah based on the approach of a non-dual Judaism.  He states:

How then do we understand Torah and revelation on such an approach?  On one level, all reality including ourselves becomes Torah, for everything is a revelation of divinity.  As Torah ourselves, we must recognize how our own person reveals the divine presence, and we must study ourselves intensively, going deeper and deeper, from the surface concerns of our p’shat (the literal meaning) to the fathomless nature of our sod (mystical meaning).  Introspection, mindful self-awareness, then becomes talmud torah (study of Torah).  – p. 37

I was highly struck by these words.  It reminded me of conversation I have had with people referring to the human being as a “book.”  We each write our own Torah, in the sense of how our lives are a narrative.  In spending time soul-searching, being mindful of what we have done, we are in a sense fulfilling the idea of studying Torah, as studying is not just about the physical books we can read but it is also about the book we create of our lives. A Violated Will A Violated Will.

This was a scary piece for those who live in Israel.  The rabbinic leadership feels it can impose upon the people it’s own even when it doesn’t violate halacha.  The challenge of criteria of death is becoming more about defending our territory than about making sound medical judgment based on the current science.  See RCA Backs Off Stand On Brain Death for Transplants.

Generation F

Generation F.

We under 40 crowd continue to struggle to find a place for ourselves.  It is interesting to note that while the methodologies of have changed regarding how to find one’s niche, the desire to do so has not.  For most of the under 40 crowd, it is not about new age spirituality so much as a means of molding Judaism into our own religion.  There are many who would argue that we should mold ourselves into Judaism instead of molding Judaism to fit ourselves.  Of course, when one looks at the history of religions, we see that religion is a symbiotic relationship, the religion shapes us and we also shape the religion. 

In my own spiritual journey, while I have always aligned myself as Orthodox, it has not prevented me from exploring other spiritual paths that could potentially be incorporated into the ritual and law.  I searched because I felt it would enhance what we already have in our tradition.  This is in line with the points made in the article.  The world of multiculturalism has permitted the soul-searching throughout the world’s religious traditions for means of enhancing one’s own spiritual practice.

Armageddon Fortress May Hold Keys to Biblical History

Armageddon Fortress May Hold Keys to Biblical History.

Israel Finkelstein, one of the preeminent current Israeli archeologists, believes that there is a way in which he can use the various strata of Meggido to date the stories of the Bible as well as provide dating for other historical events around the Mediterranean.  I like the ambition of this project but I hope that it doesn’t further complicate the already difficult idea of whether the bible is historically accurate (at least at some point in history).  I look forward to seeing what will ultimately come from this project.   See this piece on Finkelstein’s dating methods.

US Muslims: a new consumer niche – BusinessWeek

US Muslims: a new consumer niche – BusinessWeek.

This is a very interesting phenomenon considering the anti-Islamic sentiment in much of America.  I would suggest the following.

1.  The ability to develop a halal line of food is probably not too challenging when one considers that much of the laws about whether something is halal are paralleled in the Kosher food business.  This means food is already available to designate as Halal also.

2.  Anti-Islamic sentiment does not mean that Americans will abrogate the freedom of religion of Muslims when it comes to those things which do not impact negatively on society.  In other words, we don’t support mosques being built when seemingly anti-American, but we can support the dietary needs of Muslims.

Researchers Claim to Have Found Kevorim of the Shevatim » – The Online Voice of Torah Jewry

Researchers Claim to Have Found Kevorim of the Shevatim » – The Online Voice of Torah Jewry.

This caught my eyes.  I am not saying I believe it, but still, the sounds interesting.  The methodology does sound a bit weak, considering the earliest evidence is from about 1000 years ago.

More bans by the Israeli Haredi community

As seen on Failed Messiah:

Between this and the banning of a certain blog which has done it’s best to be a kosher blog, I can only say that the Haredi rabbi’s underlings either have nothing better to do or they feel that this is the only area that they can still control.  I mention their underlings because we all know that kol koreh’s come across the rabbis desks all the time and sometimes they are signed without fully knowing the context of the ban.  Either way, the fundamentalism expressed by these groups is getting more extreme and more bizarre by the week.

Netivot Shalom on Prayer 2

In discussing the concept of prayer being worship of the heart, R. Berezovsky presents a fascinating interpretation of a passage in BT Berachot 8a.  The Talmud states:  “R’ Hisda said that a person must always enter through two entrances and then pray.”   This passage has a few meanings.  Some read this literally, that a synagogue needs two entrances before the sanctuary.  If we look at most synagogues, the sanctuary is not immediately at the entrance of the synagogue.  There is at least one additional door to enter before the sanctuary.  R. Berezovsky reads this passage as referring to two levels a person must achieve before reaching the place of prayer.  The first is to rid one’s mind of all extraneous thoughts, only focusing on our worship of G-d.  The second door is to then work towards unifying and pairing with the divine. Only once we reach those two levels can we truly be praying, which is the worship of the heart.

Nefesh HaHayyim Section 1 Chapter 2

After presenting us with a general definition for tzelem, R. Hayyim specifies what the Torah means when it states “btzelem elokim.” His contextual question is, what characteristic trait does humanity share with the elokim aspect of G-d. For this definition, he quotes from the Arbaah Turim of R. Yaakov ben Rabbeinu Asher, that elokim refers to G-d as the master of all koah (power) (chapter 5). By having power, human beings have the ability to create and improve the world. However, the similarity falls short, which is R. Hayyim’s primary point in the second chapter.

For R. Hayyim, the distinction between humanity and G-d in relationship to creation is that humanity can only build from a preexisting object and once the item is built, it can remain in existence without the builder’s involvement. G-d, on the other hand, can create out of nothingness (at least at first) and cannot allow existence to remain without continuous involvement. As such, there is a continuous creative process, for G-d’s koah, as infinite and necessary, never ceases to operate.

In other words, the continuous nature of creation is not that G-d continuously creates but rather the supernal power, which is limitless, never ceases to stop acting. R. Hayyim further proves his argument by highlighting that we say in birchat yozer ohr the phrase l’oseh orim gedolim (from Tehillim 136:7), meaning that creation, in the context of our world,[1] is in the present and timeless.

Having established the criteria of G-d being able to create yesh me’ayin and that G-d is continuously creating, R. Hayyim concludes the second chapter by reiterating that all koah in all worlds is continuously emanating from G-d.  In his notes to the end of the chapter, R. Yitzchak of Volozhin comments[2]on how we know that the name elokim relates to power and strength.  However, he emphasizes that while we use the term elokim for other leaders, such as judges and angels, to signify their power, we must recognize that all power is ultimately from G-d.  As such, we refer to other powers as elokim aharim, meaning that their power comes from the elokim, the baal koach.  Therefore, when we say hashem elokaichem emet, what we are saying is that G-d is the true source of all power, the true elokim.  

[1] This is based on the kabbalistic schematic of the existence of four levels of created worlds: atzilut, beriah, yetzirah and asiyah.  In this Kabbalistic schematic, creation ex nihilo occurs from atzilut and beriah.  The worlds of yetzirah and asiyah are the worlds in which G-d fashions and acts upon the already existing primordial matter (Ramban Bereishit 1:1).  Additionally, as R. Hayyim’s son notes in this chapter, the action of oseh is the continuous manipulation of the divine name YHVH which can be mixed into 1080 different possible combinations based on the letters and the various vowelizations of the letters.  Based on the Zohar, the constant manipulation of the four letters is equivalent to the constant balancing of the four elements, earth, wind, water and fire. 

[2] R. Yitchak’s proof texts are reminiscent of Maimonides in his Moreh Nevuchim, sec.1 chapter.2: Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, “and ye shall be like Elohim” (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence “and ye shall be like princes.” Having pointed out the homonymity of the term “Elohim” we return to the question under consideration ( .

Parashat VaYechi and elements of family life

This week’s Torah portion, VaYechi, revolves around the last testament and death of Jacob.  In preparing some thoughts on the portion, I was reading some of the weekly divrei Torah sent out via email.  It seems that one of the primary themes of the Torah portion revolves around family life.  In my own thinking on the portion, I would tend to agree, as much of the portion is conversation between Jacob and his sons and Joseph and the brothers.  I want to share with you two Torah thoughts I read this week which I think are quite appropriate to build on. 

This first one is from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

Every Friday night we re-enact one of the most moving scenes in the book of Bereishit. Jacob, reunited with Joseph, is ill. Joseph comes to visit him, bring bringing with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  Jacob, with deep emotion, says:
‘I never even hoped to see your face,’ said Israel to Joseph. ‘But now God has even let me see your children.’ (48: 11)
He blesses Joseph. Then he places his hands on the heads of the two boys.
He blessed them that day and said,
“[In time to come] Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (48: 20)
So we do to this day. Why this blessing above all others? One commentator (Yalkut Yehudah)  says it is because Ephraim and Manasseh were the first two Jewish children born in exile. So Jewish parents bless their children asking God to help them keep their identity intact despite all the temptations and distractions of Diaspora life.
I heard however a most lovely explanation, based on the Zohar, from my revered predecessor Lord Jakobovits of blessed memory. He said that though there are many instances in Torah and Tanakh in which parents bless their children, this is the only example of a grandparent blessing grandchildren.
Between parents and children, he said, there are often tensions. Parents worry about their children. Children sometimes rebel against their parents. The relationship is not always smooth.
Not so with grandchildren. There the relationship is one of love untroubled by tension or anxiety. When a grandparent blesses a grandchild he or she does so with a full heart. That is why this blessing by Jacob of his grandchildren became the model of blessing across the generations. Anyone who has had the privilege of having grandchildren will immediately understand the truth and depth of this explanation.
Grandparents bless their grandchildren and are blessed by them. This phenomenon is the subject of a fascinating difference of opinion between the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud Yerushalmi.

The Babylonian Talmud says the following:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף ל עמוד א
אמר ריב”ל: כל המלמד את בן בנו תורה, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קבלה מהר סיני, שנאמר: והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך, וסמיך ליה: יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, “Whoever teaches his grandson Torah is regarded as if he had received the Torah from Mount Sinai as it is said, ‘Teach your children and children’s children,’ and then it says: ‘The day you stood before God your Lord at Horeb.’” (Deut. 4: 10-11; Kiddushin 30a)
The Talmud Yerushalmi puts it differently:

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת שבת פרק א דף ג טור א /ה”ב
כהדא רבי יהושע בן לוי הוה יליף שמע פרשתה מן בר בריה בכל ערובת שובא חד זמן אינשי ועאל מיסחי בההן דימוסין דטיבריא והוה מסתמיך על כתפתיה דרבי חייא בר בא אינהר דלא שמע פרשתיה מן בר בריה וחזר ונפק ליה מה הוה רבי דרוסי אמר כך הוה רבי לעזר בי רבי יוסי אומר שליח מנוי הוה אמר ליה רבי חייא בר אבא ולא כן אלפן רבי אם התחילו אין מפסיקין אמר ליה חייא בני קלה היא בעיניך שכל השומע פרשה מן בן בנו כאלו הוא שומעה מהר סיני ומה טעמא והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi used to listen, every Friday, to his grandson reciting the weekly parasha. One week he forgot this, and entered the bathhouse.  After he had begun bathing, he remembered that he had not yet heard the weekly parasha from his grandson, and he left the bathhouse.  They asked him why he was leaving in the middle of his bathing, since the Mishnah teaches that once you have begun bathing on a Friday afternoon you do not have to interrupt.  He replied, “Is this such a small thing in your eyes?  For whoever hears the parasha from his grandchild is as if he heard it directly from Mount Sinai . . .”
(Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:2)
According to the Bavli, the greatest privilege is to teach your grandchildren Torah. According to the Yerushalmi, the greatest privilege is to have your grandchildren teach Torah to you. This is one argument about which no grandparent will have the slightest difficulty is saying that both are true.
With an exquisite sense of symmetry, just as we begin Shabbat with a grandparent’s blessing so we end it, in Maariv, with the words of Psalm 128: 6: “May you live to see your children’s children— peace be on Israel.”
What is the connection between grandchildren and peace? Surely this, that those who think about grandchildren care about the future, and those who think about the future make peace. It is those who constantly think of the past, of slights and humiliations and revenge, make war.
To bless grandchildren and be blessed by them, to teach them and to be taught by them – these are the highest Jewish privilege and the serene end of Jacob’s troubled life.

The second Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Marc Angel:

Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool served Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City for a period spanning 63 years, from 1907 until his death in December 1970. In remembrance of the 40th year anniversary of his passing, I quote from an article he wrote in 1944, entitled: “Are We Disinheriting Our Own Children?”

“What parent would willingly disinherit a child, the child that looks to the parent with hero-worshipping trust?  Yet tragically many are the parents in Jewry who are so preoccupied with trying to give their children a material inheritance that they disinherit their children of their spiritual heritage.  They treat the child almost as if it were his lot to grow up to be a citizen of a world that is all body and mind, without soul. Our children have a right to a soul.”

Dr. Pool lamented that parents are so busy making a living, they sometimes forget what is really important in life.  They devote tremendous time and energy to material needs, but give scant attention to their own and their children’s spiritual needs. Their children have the latest clothes, computers, technological inventions–but their homes don’t reflect Jewish religious observances and traditions, don’t manifest the joy and sanctity of Shabbat, don’t echo with the sounds of Torah study and discussion.  Even in those homes where religious observance may be higher, the observance may be a matter of rote and habit rather than a fulfillment of religious ideas and ideals.

If parents do not communicate a positive experience of Judaism to their children, they run the risk of disinheriting their children from their spiritual roots.

Many years ago, I met with an elderly member of our Congregation who was nearing his death.  He had come to the United States from Europe as a young man; he worked hard; he married and had four children; he built a phenomenally successful business.  He raised his children in luxury. He and his wife saw to it that their children went to the most elite private schools, attended the best colleges, drove the nicest cars etc. But they did not maintain a religious Jewsh home, they did not give their children Jewish education beyond a Sunday school level.  The father worked 7 days a week in order to assure his family of a good, successful and happy life.  This congregant was basically a good man. He had a deep Jewish identity, and was generous to Jewish charities.

As he approached the end of his life, he called to speak with me.  With  tears in his eyes, he told me that he could not understand what had happened with his family.  After all, he was a good Jew, a devoted member of the Jewish people. He worked so hard for so many years to create a prosperous life for his family. Now, as the sun was setting on his life, he realized that he had amassed a huge material fortune–but had lost his children to Judaism. All four had married non-Jewish spouses; one of them had converted to Christianity and was a deacon in his church. 

In the well known story, Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to achieve worldly success. At the end of his life, he realizes that the earthly success he had attained was essentially meaningless; he had traded his soul for empty and vain symbols of power.  The story of Faust continues to resonate, because it repeats itself in so many lives.  People lose sight of the ultimately important things, trading their souls for fleeting signs of material success. They not only lose their own souls; they disinherit the souls of their children.

The Torah tells us that our forefather Jacob, when he was about to die, called his children together. The Midrash suggests that Jacob was deeply concerned: would his children carry on the faith and ideals that were so dear to him, that he had tried so hard to communicate to them?  To reassure him, the children said in unison, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  Jacob was so pleased to hear this united affirmation of faith, that he responded: Blessed be His name and glorious sovereignty for ever and ever.

No matter how high or low our level of religious knowledge and observance is, we can all devote more and better time to the spiritual development of ourselves, our children and grandchildren. We all would like our children and grandchildren to affirm their Judaism and their Jewishness. We need to stay focused on this ultimate goal.  We all have the right–and the deep need–for a soul.