Two messages for Hanukkah

 

Hanukkah begins tomorrow night.  I came across two pieces which offer differing explanations for the festival of Hanukkah.  The first is from an op-ed in the WSJ from Jon Levenson.

The eight-day festival of Hanukkah, which Jews world-wide will begin celebrating Tuesday night, is one of the better known of the Jewish holidays but also one of the less important.

The emphasis placed on it now is mostly due to timing: Hanukkah offers Jews an opportunity for celebration and commercialization comparable to what their Christian neighbors experience at Christmas, and it gives Christians the opportunity to include Jews in their holiday greetings and parties. What’s more, the observances associated with Hanukkah are few, relatively undemanding, and even appealing to children.

The story of Hanukkah also fits the political culture of the United States. Its underlying narrative recalls that of the Pilgrims: A persecuted religious minority, at great cost, breaks free of their oppressors. It wasn’t separatist Protestants seeking freedom from the Church of England in 1620, but Jews in the land of Israel triumphing over their Hellenistic overlord in 167–164 B.C., reclaiming and purifying their holiest site, the Jerusalem Temple.

Examined too casually, the stories of Plymouth Colony and Hanukkah seem to show heroes fighting for universal religious freedom. But the heroes of the Jewish story fought not only against a foreign persecutor. They also fought against fellow Jews who—perhaps more attracted to the cosmopolitan and sophisticated Greek culture than to the ways of their ancestors—cooperated with their rulers.

The revolt begins, in fact, when the patriarch of the Maccabees (as the family that led the campaign came to be known) kills a fellow Jew who was in the act of obeying the king’s decree to perform a sacrifice forbidden in the Torah. The Maccabean hero also kills the king’s officer and tears down the illicit altar. These were blows struck for Jewish traditionalism, and arguably for Jewish survival and authenticity, but not for religious freedom.

Over time, the stories of the persecutions that led to this war came to serve as models of Jewish faithfulness under excruciating persecution. In the most memorable instance, seven brothers and their mother all choose, successively, to die at the hands of their torturers rather than to yield to the demand to eat pork as a public disavowal of the God of Israel and his commandments.

To the martyrs, breaking faith with God is worse than death. In one version, their deaths are interpreted as “an atoning sacrifice” through which God sustained the Jewish people in their travail.

The tone here isn’t the lightheartedness of the Christmas season. The Christian parallels lie, instead, with Good Friday and the story of Jesus’s acceptance of his suffering and sacrificial death. In both the Jewish and the Christian stories, the death of the heroes, grievous though it is, is not the end: It is the prelude to a miraculous vindication and a glorious restoration.

The Roman Catholic tradition honors these Jewish martyrs as saints, and the Eastern Orthodox Church still celebrates Aug. 1 as the Feast of the Holy Maccabees. By contrast, in the literature of the Rabbis of the first several centuries of the common era, the story lost its connection to the Maccabean uprising, instead becoming associated with later persecutions by the Romans, which the Rabbis experienced. If the change seems odd, recall that the compositions that first told of these events (the books of Maccabees) were not part of the scriptural canon of rabbinic Judaism. But they were canonical in the Church (and remain so in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions).

And so we encounter another oddity of Hanukkah: Jews know the fuller history of the holiday because Christians preserved the books that the Jews themselves lost. In a further twist, Jews in the Middle Ages encountered the story of the martyred mother and her seven sons anew in Christian literature and once again placed it in the time of the Maccabees.

“Hanukkah” means “dedication.” Originally, the term referred to the rededication of the purified Temple after the Maccabees’ stunning military victory. But as the story of the martyrs shows, the victory was also associated with the heroic dedication of the Jewish traditionalists of the time to their God and his Torah. If Hanukkah celebrates freedom, it is a freedom to be bound to something higher than freedom itself.

Mr. Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School, is co-author with Kevin J. Madigan of “Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews” (Yale University Press, 2008).

Compare this with the piece from R. Marc Angel.

Hanukkah and Religious Freedom

By mdangel

Created 12/18/2011 – 7:42am
By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Hanukkah is widely observed as a holiday that celebrates religious freedom. The persecuted Jews of ancient Israel waged battle against their Syrian/Hellenistic oppressors, and won the right to rededicate the Temple and to restore Jewish worship and religious practices.

Religious freedom is a wonderful thing. It allows us to worship God freely, without being coerced or intimidated by others.

Religious freedom is not a self-evident fact of life. As Jews, we have experienced many circumstances in which we did not enjoy this basic right. Medieval Iberia expelled Jews and Muslims, believing that only Catholics have truth and that “infidels” must not be tolerated. Saudi Arabia of today does not tolerate non-Muslims to practice their religions freely. Indeed, throughout history (including our own times), various groups have not granted religious freedom to “outsiders”. Only the faithful had rights in this world; and only the faithful would be blessed in the world to come. The infidels were deprived of rights in this world, and were doomed to perdition in the world to come.

The great 19th century Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh of Livorno pointed out an obvious—but startling—fact. In his book “Israel and Humanity,” he noted that historic Christianity and Islam claimed to be universal religions—and yet, they were not universal at all. They only made room for fellow believers; “infidels” were persecuted, even murdered. Those of other religions were not granted equal rights in this world, and were deemed to be unworthy of blessing in the world to come. Judaism—which is often depicted as a small, parochial tradition—is actually the religion that is the most universal. It teaches that all who accept the basic Noahide laws of morality are beloved by God. The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. While not condoning outright idolatry, Judaism leaves much theological space for non-Jews to achieve spiritual happiness and fulfillment. All humanity is created in the image of God.

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we need to remember the value of religious freedom. We also need to remind ourselves—and others—that religious freedom is a two-way street. It allows us to claim the right to practice our religion freely; but it also entails that we grant this same freedom to others who do not share our religious beliefs and practices.

Religious freedom is a problematic concept for those who are sure that they, and only they, have the absolute Truth. Such people tend to be extreme and intolerant. Since only they have the Truth, they have no patience for those who have other beliefs; indeed, they don’t see the need to grant rights to others. They feel compelled to crush the “opposition”, either by converting them, by coercing them, by oppressing them, or even by murdering them. For the single-minded bigots, religious freedom exists only to serve their interests and to guarantee their freedoms; but it doesn’t involve a mutual commitment to religious freedom for others.

Even within the Jewish community, we have those who take this extreme view of religious freedom. They are happy to enjoy the benefits of freedom; but they disdain those Jews whose beliefs and observances are different from theirs.

Those who see themselves as the only Torah-True Jews do not think they should make religious space for others; on the contrary, they feel that the others should be brought into line with them even by means of coercion. They discredit those who are not in their camp. In Israel, where such extremists exert political power, they initiate coercive action and legislation that impinge on the freedom of others. Since they are convinced that they alone have Truth, they feel warranted in coercing others to follow in their ways. Their mentality is similar to extremists of other religions who find it difficult or impossible to let others enjoy religious freedom.

Religious freedom is not such a simple concept, after all. While it protects each of our rights to practice religion freely, it also demands that we respect the rights of others to do likewise. Religious freedom is the hallmark of a tolerant and wise nation and community. It is a lofty ideal to which all should aspire.

As we celebrate Hanukkah, let us seriously celebrate the value of religious freedom. Let us serve God with purity, with commitment, with spiritual heroism. And let us appreciate that all human beings also deserve the right of religious freedom. When extremists seek to deprive others of this freedom, all society suffers a loss of freedom and dignity.

The Hanukkah lights remind us that we can bring light into a dark world. We can hope that our lights will inspire others and bring them closer to the Almighty.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit said the Lord of hosts.” (Zekharia 4:6)

In reading these two pieces, I found it most interesting that two people can look at the same holiday and find almost completely contrasting views as to the message of Hanukkah.  For me, I find R. Angel most troubling because the historical account does not lend itself to the notions of religious freedom. 

Simchat Torah in Former USSR

I want to highlight a piece from the Wall Street Journal about Jewish revival in the former USSR.  It is important as we enter the end of the fall holiday season to reflect on where the Jewish world is today. 

A Miraculous Post-Soviet Religious Revival

As Jews around the world gather to celebrate Simchat Torah next week—the raucous holiday marking the completion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings—I am reminded of one of the more curious practices among Soviet Jews in the final decades of the Communist regime.

Living under duress, these Jews gathered illegally in homes or even in the streets to celebrate a holiday for an object that most had never seen, let alone read from. Such celebrations persisted despite systematic anti-Jewish persecution by the Soviets, including university quotas, discouragement from certain jobs, and an all-out effort to eradicate Jewish culture and religion.

And yet 20 years after the Soviet Union’s fall, this act of defiance has taken on an entirely different character. That’s because—contrary to all expectations—we are in the midst of one of world’s more miraculous revivals of Jewish civilization, and in much of the former Soviet Union such celebrations are no longer taboo. In fact a million or so Jews in former Soviet states are now celebrating their faith, history and culture with an enthusiasm previously unimaginable.

I credit this renaissance to two main forces.

First, and perhaps most extraordinary: the resilience of Jews whether in Ashkabad, Chisinau or Tbilisi. After the tsars and the Soviets, they cautiously embraced their new freedom and began to explore, on their terms, what it meant to be a Jew in an open society.

Second: the indefatigable efforts of American Jews and Jewish organizations. My organization, the Joint Distribution Committee, was actually described by Stalin’s prosecutors as the “international bourgeois Jewish-Zionist organization” allegedly behind the notorious “Doctors’ Plot” of 1953.

In reality, of course, the plot was a Stalinist fabrication and a pretense for anti-Semitic propaganda, show trials and executions. Nonetheless, we and many others continued our secret work in the Soviet Union. Then in 1991 we openly continued in the new states that emerged, with hands full of instruments of Jewish knowledge and tradition, helping to recreate Jewish life.

The quest for Jewish knowledge and community life, pa Ruski, is tangible among people grappling with the challenges of post-Soviet societies. And yet not only can Jews of all ages pray in a variety of synagogues—from Chabad to Reform congregations—they can also engage in bar and bat mitzvah retreats in the hinterlands of Siberia. In Hebrew and Russian prayer books, religious schools and even online, in the world’s first Russian-language Jewish education guide, they are learning about the Jewish New Year, the Torah, Israel, Passover and the mitzvot (commandments) that make up Jewish life.

In almost 200 Jewish Community Centers, music, art, dance and more lead to creative expressions of identity. As Moscow suffered from soaring temperatures and nearby forest fires two summers ago, young Jews at the local JCC—who inherited a society that eschewed modern philanthropy—led an unprecedented Facebook campaign to deliver food, fans and comforting words to the community’s poor and elderly.

In the public square, 200 Jewish libraries containing more than a million Jewish books complement the Jewish Studies courses at more than 100 universities in the post-Soviet region. In 16 Hillel centers, meanwhile, thousands of Jewish students are embracing their identity and wearing it publicly. Such pride was evident when Vladimir Goodkov, the Jewish winner of the popular Ukrainian Stars Factory program (a version of American Idol), had his friends from his Jewish youth group in Kharkov celebrate Shabbat dinner with him and his co-contestants on Ukrainian National TV.

When asked who inspired his decision to choose a televised Jewish meal over a concert in Cannes or his own CD release, he said: “The way I am now—enthusiastic, not afraid to say anything—is thanks to the people, the community that I became part of.”

It is a long journey from the days when owning a book in Hebrew or a Russian-language copy of Leon Uris’s “Exodus” was enough to get a Jew sentenced to jail.

Internet ettiquete for the holidays

While this piece was written for a pre Yom Kippur crowd, since there are traditions that the books remain open until Hoshana Rabba, it is important to note and to consider.  How we write on the internet is something of which we need to be conscious.

 

Dozens, hundreds and thousands of comments – “talkbacks” – can be found under articles on Israeli websites from readers seeking to address the article itself (in the best-case scenario) or its writer and other talkbackers (usually in the worst-case scenario).  

The talkbacks are often offensive, although not legally problematic. Still, after a talkback is published, its writer can no longer take it back and delete it.

 

This is what happened to a reader who regretted a talkback he sent to a certain website. He decided to turn to Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, head of the Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva, for advice.

 

“Dear rabbi, I have failed. I expressed contempt for religious scholars by writing inappropriate comments on the Internet. How can I take it back? Do I have to contact them and ask for their forgiveness, or not?”

 

Here is the rabbi’s answer:

“It’s very hard to fix things written on the Internet. The reason is that they are not deleted and appear time and again on different search engines. Therefore, every person writing on the Internet must act in a very responsible manner.

 

“One must remember that according to the Shulchan Aruch code of laws for Yom KippurEve, a person does not have to forgive slander against him, and Rabbi Moses Isserles explains that the slander resurfaces even after the forgiveness request and forgiveness does not solve the problem. So one must be very, very careful.

 

“So what should be done to make amends? There are three stages to this amendment (and we are talking about hurting any person, not necessarily scholars):

 

“A. If possible, call and ask for forgiveness. Each case must be considered individually, as it can sometimes be a lot to ask for; but, in principle, it’s the right thing to do. It’s important both for the person whose forgiveness we seek, even if he is still hurt and insulted, and for the person asking for forgiveness as part of shame’s ‘atonement repairs.’

 

 

“B. Try to repair the damage. You can’t erase what has been written, but you can write other talkbacks (of course only if that’s what you really thinks, and not lies) mentioning the good things about the person you hurt. Here too, each case must be considered individually as it can sometimes be a touch of slander in itself and can evoke harsh words against that person, but you must do all in your power to restore the offended person’s reputation.

 

“C. Turn the fall into a repair, and make a deep internal decision that you shall not resume the sin of writing nasty things about another person in public. This is an answer out of love, which turns malice into rights.

Repentance rules for talkbacker

Reader who wrote offensive comments against religious scholars on certain website asks Rabbi Sherlo’s advice on atonement. Answer includes three stages
Ynet

Dozens, hundreds and thousands of comments – “talkbacks” – can be found under articles on Israeli websites from readers seeking to address the article itself (in the best-case scenario) or its writer and other talkbackers (usually in the worst-case scenario).  The talkbacks are often offensive, although not legally problematic. Still, after a talkback is published, its writer can no longer take it back and delete it.

Talking Back?
Rabbi Aviner: Don’t read talkbacks / Kobi Nahshoni
One of Religious Zionism’s leaders says responding to articles on websites may lead to religious and moral transgressions. ‘Talkbacks can bring many blessings, but for the most part we see that they have many negative sides which means it isn’t worth it in the long run’
Full story

This is what happened to a reader who regretted a talkback he sent to a certain website. He decided to turn to Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, head of the Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva, for advice.

“Dear rabbi, I have failed. I expressed contempt for religious scholars by writing inappropriate comments on the Internet. How can I take it back? Do I have to contact them and ask for their forgiveness, or not?” Here is the rabbi’s answer: “It’s very hard to fix things written on the Internet. The reason is that they are not deleted and appear time and again on different search engines. Therefore, every person writing on the Internet must act in a very responsible manner. “One must remember that according to the Shulchan Aruch code of laws for Yom KippurEve, a person does not have to forgive slander against him, and Rabbi Moses Isserles explains that the slander resurfaces even after the forgiveness request and forgiveness does not solve the problem. So one must be very, very careful.“So what should be done to make amends? There are three stages to this amendment (and we are talking about hurting any person, not necessarily scholars):

“A. If possible, call and ask for forgiveness. Each case must be considered individually, as it can sometimes be a lot to ask for; but, in principle, it’s the right thing to do. It’s important both for the person whose forgiveness we seek, even if he is still hurt and insulted, and for the person asking for forgiveness as part of shame’s ‘atonement repairs.’

“B. Try to repair the damage. You can’t erase what has been written, but you can write other talkbacks (of course only if that’s what you really thinks, and not lies) mentioning the good things about the person you hurt. Here too, each case must be considered individually as it can sometimes be a touch of slander in itself and can evoke harsh words against that person, but you must do all in your power to restore the offended person’s reputation.

“C. Turn the fall into a repair, and make a deep internal decision that you shall not resume the sin of writing nasty things about another person in public. This is an answer out of love, which turns malice into rights.

Joy and Fear during the holidays

I recently published this piece in a couple of local newspapers.  I did already share this on Facebook but I thought pre-Yom Kippur, it would be good to reflect once again on this idea.

Joy and Fear during the holidays:

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy describes the Jewish New Year as a day consisting of two diametrically opposed images:  “Today is the birth of the world.  Today all creatures of the world stand in judgment – whether as children [of God] or as servants.  If as children, be merciful with us as the mercy of a father for children.  If as servants, our eyes [look toward and] depend upon You, until You be gracious to us and release our verdict as light, O Awesome and Holy One.”  How can a person simultaneously grasp these two images of a day of birth, a day filled with joy and expectations, and a Day of Judgment, a day filled with fear and trembling?   

As part of the preparation for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, there is a tradition to recite Psalm 27 at the conclusion of the daily morning services  as well as either the daily afternoon or evening services.  The recitation of Psalm 27 commences at the start of the Jewish month of Elul, the month preceding the holidays, and continues through the end of Sukkot.  The words of Psalm 27 were King David’s prayer to G-d that he should merit dwelling in G-d’s midst, even when feeling abandoned and orphaned in the world.

In times of joy, it is fairly easy to find comfort and peace in life.  Most people feel a sense of elation and independence.  When in crisis, however, people often turn to those who have always provided strength and security for them in life.  For most, parents represent that security.  Yet, many of the crises faced occur when parents are no longer able to help.  I have heard many caregivers of a dying loved one express the wish that one or the other parent were still alive to be a rock during troubled times.  In the pre-holiday tradition of reciting Psalm 27, one of the verses recited reflects on the need for security during crisis.  King David said, “While my father and mother have forsaken me, G-d will gather me in (27:9).” 

The liturgy highlighted above focuses on the crisis moment of the holidays.  The image of standing in judgment is an acute reminder that every year, as time moves forward, we face the inevitable truth that for some, the past year was not meant to be completed.  As such, survivors are struck by a sense of loss during the liturgical points reminding them of the essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, namely the renewal for another year for some people while the conclusion for others.  And yet, hope remains, that when we feel forsaken, there is still something to protect us.     

Loss changes the fabric of one’s life.  It removes the sense of invincibility and security.  Yet, while reflecting on Judgment Day, one is also reminded that there will always be a security blanket.  The security blanket, G-d, can be cherished or can be discarded.  Either way, the blanket remains, accepting however one feels and reacts to happiness and sadness, joy and fear. 

Pre Rosh Hashanah thoughts

After a most revealing conversation last Thursday, I have been sitting with fear as I worry about being entirely unprepared emotionally and internally for Rosh Hashanah.  As my friend pointed out, not being Yeshiva makes the month of Elul feel lacking somehow.  While listening to his words, I realized, he is right and wrong.  He is right in that the feeling is different.  However, pre-Rosh Hashanah prep is only as good as the person working towards a goal.  We who have spent time in a religious institution cannot use the excuse that our no longer living in that pristine environment is reason to not find Elul a meaningful month. 

What are my goals for this year?  Do I feel that I have the resolve to fulfill those goals?  Do I even care because usually any resolutions for the year die before the month of Tishrei is over?  What am I missing in all this?

Sure, I’ve done some reading.  However, I don’t think I can say much of it inspired me.  Perhaps that is the point.  The real inspiration will come when I blow Shofar or as I speak, for then the awe will be upon me.  My heart will be open to hear the cry.  And yet, something is always missing, as if the Shofar, the “alarm clock” has a perpetual snooze button. 

I realize this post is less substantive and more personal, but when facing such an awe-inspiring time, substance is secondary to the raw emotion.  May we all be inscribed for a good, sweet and peaceful year.

Musings for Elul

I came across R. David Goldwasser’s book Elul  at shul and decided to read it during Shabbat.  I came across two stories in his work which I want to share.  These are good thoughts for pondering as we get ready for Rosh Hashanah.

1.  “In our bais medrash, I noticed that there was one young married man who never missed a minyan, no matter how difficult it was for him.  He would always be among the עשרה ראשונים – the first ten.  One day there was a tremendous snowstorm.  Only three people had made it to the early minyan on time.  He was one of the three. 

Finally, I asked him, ‘How is it that you never miss one day and are so medakdek – careful – in coming to minyan, especially on a day like this?’

He answered me that as a teenager he was a little bit weak in shemiras hamitzvos.  His father was a very pious man.  The father used to come in every morning to wake him up to go to minyan, knowing full well that it was a tremendous nisoyon – challenge – for his son to get up and daven with the tzibbur.  Instead of rebuking the son, the father in gently waking him would always say: My son, it is time to get up for minyan.  But if you are going to remain in bed, sleep well.  And then he would proceed to make sure that I was covered properly with the blanket. 

The young man continued to tell me that on the day his father was niftar, he promised the Ribbono Shel Olam that he would always be medakdek in tefillah b’tzibbur.

דברים בנחת תהא נשמעים (p. 67 – 68)”  

 2.  “The Simchas Higayon explains that the way of the world is that when a person rents a house to his friend, he writes a lease in which he stipulates that one month before the lease expires the renter must inform him whether he wishes to renew the lease for another year.  In some places it is customary to pay up any outstanding rent of the previous year, as well as advance payment for the first month of the new lease.

However, there are people who, since they are so busy, forget this stipulation in the lease and they don’t notify the landlord until the last week of the year.  That last Shabbos, when the person is sitting at his Shabbos table relaxing in comfort, he remembers that it is almost the end of this year’s lease, and he still hasn’t told the landlord that he wants to stay.  He is afraid that maybe the landlord may have already rented his place to someone else.  He is troubled and distressed. ‘Where will I go?’

Therefore, on Motzoei Yom Menucha he runs with all of his strength to the landlord.  Maybe – just maybe – he can still obtain a lease for the coming year. 

We can well apply this story to ourselves.  Every year the Ribbono Shel Olam gives us a lease.  But one month before the year is up, Chodesh Elul, we need to come and ask that Hashem should ‘renew our lease.’  In fact, there are those that begin Selichos from the start of Elul.   However, because we are busy, we forget the stipulation.  We have forgotten to appear before the landlord to state our request.  On the holy Shabbos, when we relax in comfort we remember: we still didn’t tell the ba’al habayis (landlord) our request for another year of brocho – blessing.  What do we do?  On Motzoei Shabbos (Saturday night) we run to plead with and supplicate the Master of the World to ‘renew our lease’ for the coming year.”

Souls Shining Through

Souls Shining Through.

I have to share this piece I received via email yesterday.  I think it gets to the heart of what humanity really is.  No matter how much or how little we are able to function cognitively, there is always something that remains.  I think this is good pre-Rosh Hashanah reading to get our minds focused on the day and on life.  There can be no illusion when standing in G-d’s presence on Rosh Hashanah. 

As an activity director at a day care center for the memory-impaired, I often ask myself what I have learned from being with people who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

One thing I realized is that the mind and the soul are separate. I have seen the soul of a person express itself despite a very clouded mind. In fact I have witnessed this so many times I have come to expect it.

The first time I saw the spiritual side of a memory-impaired person take over was during a personal crisis. My father had recently returned home from the hospital after heart surgery and he was very disoriented. It was Shabbat eve and several of us kids were sitting around the table, grateful and nervous at having him returned to us in such a fragile state. My father was not doing well cognitively. He couldn’t remember who was who and kept mixing us up. He demanded to know where the other children were and why they hadn’t come yet. My sister and I began weeping because everyone he was asking for was already there, right in front of his eyes.

My mother tried to calm him by explaining what was going on but that did nothing to ease my father’s agitation. Finally, in frustration, he struggled to his feet. As he held the Kiddush cup in his shaking hand, the wine began to spill. We stood silently in terrible pain as we witnessed his weakness and his strength. For in a voice strong with emotion he recited the prayer in a melodious voice without missing a beat. This man, who for the life of him could not make out his own kids, was able to praise God and sanctify the Sabbath.

I have seen this time and time again in my work. The other day I posed a moral dilemma to my clients: There is a man driving his car on a cold stormy night. He sees three people stranded at the side of the road. One is the woman of his dreams. The second is the doctor who once saved his life. The third is an old woman. He has room for two people. Who does he leave behind?

A man named Max, who is so far into his Alzheimer’s that he can’t find his way home although it’s next door to the center, ruined my game. Without even contemplating the choices, he said very simply, “I would get out of my car and give it to them.”

Another one of our members is a Holocaust survivor named Abby, who survived the war by living in a Christian orphanage. One morning the lady who sits next to her kept repeating, “Help me, help me. Somebody help me.”

Abby, who no longer recognizes her only son, leaned in close to the other lady. “What is it dear?” she asked. “Are you scared? Do you want to go home? We are all in this together. You just have to make the best of it and stay out of trouble.”

Then Abby picked up the other lady’s spoon and began to feed her some applesauce. I watched from the corner of the room, like I often do, observing the behavior of these old folks who live in a twilight zone. And I thought how well Abby had just described this world. Here we are together in this world of nonsense and materialism and our souls are not happy. They want to go home yet must live in a place full of difficult tests. The best we can do is help other people in need.

If I have learned one lesson from working with people suffering from dementia, it is this: Work on yourself and strive to perfect your character. Because when most of your intellectual powers are gone, the kernel that remains will be who you really are.

On Rosh Hashanah we will stand before the Almighty who has been in the corner observing us. All of our masks and personas, illusions and excuses will disappear. God sees through all that. All that will be left is who we really are – our soul. Our true inner self shines through, no matter how much fog descends upon it.

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim – R. Marc Angel

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim, September 24, 2011 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Marc Angel presents a real thought provoking piece for this week’s Torah portion about the ability of our communities to accept people who are not “one of us.”  In the story he shares, a man who converted to Judaism expresses his frustration over the lack of feeling accepted by asking if he could have his conversion annulled.  To me, this is just sad.  Have our communities become so fearful of insincerity that we are afraid to make people welcome?  Do we not realize we are all on equal ground?  R. Angel relates this to the beginning of the Torah portion, in which the entire nation is gathered together to confirm the covenant one last time before entering Israel.  His piece is a must read before Rosh Hashanah, as perhaps our goal this year should be focused on being better to each other, especially in this crazy world we live in today.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God; your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the people of Israel; your little ones, your wives and the stranger/convert that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water” (Devarim 29:9-10).

Over the years, I have received many hundreds of inquiries from people interested in converting to Judaism. Some have been spiritual seekers who have found meaning in the great teachings of Torah. Some have discovered Jewish ancestry and now want to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Some have fallen in love with a Jew, and have wanted to become part of the Jewish people and raise a Jewish family. Whatever the motivation for their contacting me, I have derived much satisfaction and joy in dealing with this large and diverse group of people.

Recently, though, I received an email inquiry which was entirely new to my previous experience. The note came from a person who had converted to Judaism with an Orthodox Beth Din—and now wanted to know if it would be possible to annul his conversion!

I informed him that once a person becomes halakhically Jewish, there are no annulments. But then I asked him why he wanted to annul his conversion? I wondered if he had lost faith in God and Torah, or if he had experienced anti-Semitism, or if there were other factors which motivated this unusual request.

His answer relieved me…and pained me deeply.

It relieved me because he assured me that he loved God and Torah, that he studied Torah regularly, that he found great satisfaction in observing mitzvoth. His problem wasn’t with Judaism and the Jewish way of life.

It pained me deeply because he informed me that the problem was the Jewish community in which he lived! He felt that members of the community treated him like an outsider. Being a single man, he was having great difficulty establishing a positive social life. Whether this was his own impression or whether it was objectively true, he felt that he was discriminated against because he was a convert, because he was of a different background from the mainstream of the community. So he decided he wanted to annul his conversion because Jews had rejected him.

I told him that he should stay true to God, Torah and mitzvoth—but that he might be happier moving to another community! He seemed reassured by this answer, and wrote to me that he indeed would continue to study and observe Torah…but that he would try to find a more congenial Jewish community in which to live.

In describing the covenant between God and the people of Israel, the Torah informs us that ALL Israelites were to stand before God—from the elite leaders, to the humble masses, men and women, old and young, born Israelites and converts. The essential quality of the covenant is that it included every Israelite—all as equals before God.  If Israelites did not recognize the ultimate equality of each member of the group, this would constitute a breach in the covenant itself.

Maimonides (Hilkhot De’ot 6:3) provides the parameters for what it means to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” His words are of profound importance: “A person must speak in praise of his neighbor and be careful of his neighbor’s property as he is careful with his own property and solicitous about his own honor. Whoever glorifies himself by humiliating another person will have no portion in the world to come.” In the very next law, Maimonides notes that it is incumbent to love the proselyte, first because he/she is a fellow Jew, and second because there is a special Torah obligation to love the proselyte. All Jews are equal before God; all are equal partners in the covenant with God; all must be treated with the same respect and consideration that we want others to show to ourselves.

As we prepare to observe Rosh Hashana, it is important that we re-focus on the framework of the covenant between God and Israel, that we recognize how important it is for each Jew to be treated as a fellow partner in our adventure with the Almighty. Our communities need to reflect a sincere inclusiveness, a feeling of mutual respect among ourselves. One of the great strengths of the Jewish people is our diversity, our richness of traditions and backgrounds; we stand as one people before God, each of us equal in the eyes of God.

If even one Jew feels rejected or alienated because he/she is of a “different” background, race, or ethnic group—then the structure of the Jewish covenant with God is shaken. If even one Jew wants to “annul” his/her Jewishness because of feelings of rejection by other Jews, then the Jewish religious enterprise is challenged. Self-righteousness and smugness are antithetical to the ideals of Jewish peoplehood.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God…”

Let us each stand before the Lord imbued with love of God, love of our fellow Jews, love of our fellow human beings. Let our communities reflect love, compassion, spiritual vitality. Let us renew the covenant between God and Israel.

We are not enslaved

I found a fascinating discussion of the idea of being enslaved in my pre-Passover reading which I wanted to share.  The Netivot Shalom in his discussion of the haggadah discusses the idea of what we mean when we say in the haggadah, “If G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharoah.”  The question that is posed is what does it mean to be “enslaved to Pharaoh” as opposed to any of our other exiles, when we were subjugated to different kingdoms and empires.  He answers that the slavery in Egypt was unique in that it was not just an enslavement of the body, but of the mind as well.  We are taught that the people had descended to the 49th level of Tumah and if they had stayed in Egypt longer, they would not have been redeemed.  In other words, the enslavement went beyond physical labor but was a spiritual enslavement as well.  The other exiles, as the Slonimer explains, were merely of a physical nature.  Hence, Egypt we would have remained enslaved if G-d didn’t redeem us, but not in any other exile.

After having read that, I came across the following from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks which echoed this sentiment (p. 14 Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah):

In the Kovno ghetto in the early 1940s an extraordinary scene took place on morning in the makeshift synagogue.  The Jews in the ghettto had begun to realize the fate that lay in store for them.  They knew that none of them would escape, that the work camps to which they would be transported were in fact factories of death.  And at the morning service, the leader of the prayer, an old and pious Jew, could finally say the words no longer.  He had come to the blessing in which we thank G-d for not having made us slaves.  He turned to the congregation and said: ‘I cannot say this prayer.  How can I thank G-d for my freedom when I am now a prisoner facing death?  Only a madman could say this prayer now.’

Some members of the congregation turned to the rabbi for advice.  Could a Jew in the Kovno ghetto pronounce the blessing thanking G-d for not having made him a slave?  The rabbi replied very simply.  ‘Heaven forbid that we should abolish this blessing now.  Our enemies wish to make us their slaves.  But though they control our bodies they do not own our souls.  By making this blessing we show that even here we still see ourselves as free men, temporarily in captivity, awaiting G-d’s redemption.’

The Maccabeats in the Cyber-Responsa Literature

The Maccabeats in the Cyber-Responsa Literature.

I found this post on Menachem Mendel’s blog.  In thinking about the question and answer, it jogged my mind about the following question with which I have struggled.  On Hanukkah, we celebrate the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Syrian Greeks and the Hellenized Jews.  One of the elements we celebrate is the victory of a “pure” Judaism over a syncretized Judaism which was heavily influenced by Greek culture.  My question is:  How can we celebrate the defeat of the syncretistic Judaism when most of us around the world are not living a “purely” Jewish life.  Granted, what a pure Jewish life would be is hard to define, but clearly there is something contradictory in this.  I especially found this problem when contemplating the notion of “Torah U’Madda” when that clearly appears to be some form of synthesis, which I always assumed was what was being fought against.  Truth is, I know that the celebration of Hanukkah is more closely related to the military reconquest of the Temple away from Greek control.  Yet, when I hear the stories of combatting hellenization, I begin to cringe, for that was only a secondary element at best. 

The questioner, who wonders about the hellenization aspect of this singing group, I feel, has a very legitimate question.  The question is not meant to cast aspersions on the religiousity of the group but is rather a question of whether there is something antithetical to the nature of Hanukkah when people celebrate Hanukkah in a manner that doesn’t appear “purely Jewish”.