Do we feel our prayers

In the ongoing controversy of questions regarding women and certain Jewish rituals which had traditionally been in the domain of men, I wanted to share a link to an opinion piece which I think transcends the conversation.  I want to be clear that I am not coming on against nor in favor of any of the particular ritual discussions at hand.  It is not my place on many levels to do such a thing.  Rather, I want to focus on something which I think is more fundamental.  One of the areas many in my generation struggle with is finding passion for Tefillah (prayer).  For some, it is because schools mandated morning prayer and would grade students (still unsure what criteria after all these years, though I served as a gabbai in High School and almost didn’t get my de facto A grade because I would talk when handing out honors).  For others, it is the nature of prayer being forced and not something that is taught as an expression of Ahavat Hashem (love of G-d).  Others, it was the speed of prayer, being unable to have the time to think and feel the words we are saying.  It is a shame because so many bright, capable otherwise practicing Jews find that Tefillah is one of those checkbox categories in religion.  I invite you to read the piece below and hear another’s thought on this topic.

Reigniting prayer’s passion

by Atira Ote

JANUARY 22, 2014, 3:39 PM 

Hashem works in mysterious ways and I am sure it is no coincidence that my daughter’s siddur play took place last night, the same day I had been writing an essay on women and tefillin and my own davening experiences when I was a girl. Last night’s celebration made me alter the direction of my piece. Perhaps at another time I will write about my personal experiences, which I curiously remember rather differently than those views quoted in current articles, but for now I feel there is a more pressing matter within this whole women and tefillin debate that is being carelessly overlooked.

The mesibat siddur (prayerbook party) was beautiful, fun, and moving! What enthusiasm the girls showed! Such glee they expressed while dancing for this book of prayer. Even though this is the third siddur play in a row for us as parents (B”H!), each time we are proud and excited anew. Each occasion is unique and each child brings his or her own distinctive personality to their individual experience.

The gleam in our daughter’s eyes, her smile so wide as she sang the words of her solo with such fervor, brought tears to my eyes. “Kabel eli et tefillotai ha’olot mibein sefatai, bahen akir l’cha toda, kabel b’ahava.” “Accept, my God, my prayers which emanate from between my lips. With them I acknowledge gratitude to you, please accept them with love.”

After a week of practicing her solo and the song, my six-year-old daughter turns to me in the car a few days before her performance and says, “Imma, why can’t it be ‘mibat sefatai,’ why does it have to be ‘mibein’? Can I change it?” I thought, wow. Wow that my daughter who is six years old is actually trying to understand the words she is reading. Wow that she wants it to be correct in gender; after all, she goes to an all-girl school and she is a girl, saying her lines as a girl davening to HKBH, in an only-girl’s siddur play.

Why, then, can’t the wording be in female person? What a logical question! Well, obviously, I explained the reason why what she was asking was in essence a misinterpretation (bein means between, not to be confused with ben, which means boy) and we both laughed and it was a great learning experience and a wonderful mother-daughter bonding moment.

Something more fundamental is at play here. Recently I attended a Shabbaton weekend with American modern Orthodox 18-years-olds who graduated from high school last year and out of 16 youths, only 6 went to shul. I hear similar stories from other places as well. Young people today seem to have little passion left for the purity of prayer. The contrast is stark. Little first graders are enthused, celebrating the siddur, super-excited about tefilla! Yet, these young adults seem to have little fire left in them. What happened?

Well, apparently, we forgot how we felt at our siddur plays. (And if you ever get the chance to crash one, I suggest doing it!) We can’t remember what it is like to be inspired in our daily dialogue with the Almighty. We are recklessly disregarding the pure passion and fervor these most impressionable first graders are displaying right in front of our eyes. It’s true that these kids are only six and seven years old and it is difficult for them to truly grasp the gravity of such an important commandment, but a few years later when they become bar and bat-mitzva these intense feelings are reinforced.

And it is we who must encourage this eagerness. We should be basking in the glory – all the nachat that these kids are giving us, all the love ofmitzvot our kids are expressing to us. We, as parents and teachers, should direct energy towards conveying a tone of “ahavat torah” (love of Torah) and transmitting a love of mitzvot. Seeing students who choose to do more Jewish observances in their daily lives could very well restore the passion these little faces revealed in first grade.

Instilling enthusiasm for davening in students is still a battle for most modern Orthodox day schools. Perhaps if schools were to commend, rather than ostracize, those students who actually exhibit a love for davening to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, including those girls who daven with tallit and tefillin out of genuine love of Torah and a desire to connect to Hashem, the battle may prove to be easier.

Facing a new situation may cause some initial anxiety for the school, but as with any new experience, the opportunity for deeper understanding and lasting chinuch (education) far outweighs any superficial resistance the school might encounter. It is in their best interest to allow girls who truly perform this mitzvah l‘shem shamayim and want to connect to Hashem in this meaningful way to do so in their school.

This concept is not a new one. Religious women have been performing time-bound mitzvot for a long time. They have been relating to mitzvot in ways that are permitted but are not always popular or publicly accepted, such as studying Torah, reading megilla, hearing shofar, sitting in a sukka, and davening with tallit.

Instead of praising these people, we are treating them with anger, suspicion, and contempt. Or, perhaps we just aren’t paying them enough attention. It is at the early stages in their lives that they need guidance. It is in these important years of elementary and high school when their connection to Hashem is cemented and their love for holy words are sealed. Our children start their Jewish adult lives craving inspiration when in reality the flame still burns inside them – it is the vigor they openly expressed years before as stars on stage! They need to be reminded of that zeal and we need to give them accurate messages about prayer, spiritual commitment, and connection to God.

Hashem works in mysterious ways and the second set of lines which my daughter recited aloud in front of everyone, was very poignant and fitting to this discussion. “Kama nifla! Eizo matana! Hasiddur shelanu mechil bakashot hamatimot l’chol yehudi, b’chol zman u’b’chol makom, gam lachem, v’gam li.” “How wonderful! What a gift! Our siddur incorporates prayers of supplication appropriate for all Jews, at all times and in any place, for you as well as for me.”

Talking to Hashem, knowing that our prayers, even in our own words, are always heard, believing faithfully that we always have a straight line to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and that even unanswered prayers are a gift, is something so essential, yet so neglected nowadays, it is frightful. There is a thirst, a desire and passion so strong when we are younger that must be nurtured, fostered, and cultivated with all the love and energy we can muster. That is our duty as educators, our responsibility as role models, and our jobs as parents.

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Where is G-d in Tikkun Olam?

The following article leaves me with one question.  Why does the author not answer his opening line?  Why is G-d not discussed at an American Jewish social justice event?  The author presents a good case for the inclusion of a theology of G-d but does not get to the crux of the sociological underpinnings for G-d’s “absence.” Additionally, I struggle with the idea that merely because of the concept that G-d is the one true existence, and exists everywhere, we therefore cannot be remiss to exclude G-d talk.  Ideas of halachta b’derachav and tzelem elokim are theologies I can embrace, but because G-d is everywhere we need to care for others, that argument doesn’t do much for me.  I commend the author but wish he would have approached the presentation of the theology without the implicit sociological critique which he neglects to answer. 

The Role of the Divine in Social Change: Where is God in Tikkun Olam?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Jewish Week Online Columnist

Why is it that, at a typical American Jewish social justice event, no one invokes one of God’s names? When our movement openly accepts the role of the Divine in social change and in moral development, we embrace the most powerful part of our tradition.

There are seven primary inspiring reasons why Jews engaging in social justice should embrace God in activism. When the Jewish social justice movement neglects the Divine, it may be intellectually dishonest since we deny the primary source of our sense of responsibility and we also deprive the social justice movement of the passion it would otherwise inspire.

The mitzvah of Halakhta Bid’rakhav – The Torah tells us that God is merciful, and commands us to emulate God’s ways. The Talmud makes this connection explicit (Sotah 14a). The Rabbis explain that God is ultimately not a vengeful power-hungry dictator but rather a merciful moral healer and this is the path we must follow. We must attend carefully to the means of social change (our character) in addition to the ends (assisting the vulnerable in society). Further, it means that being like God requires action. Our ultimate role model is no less than the Creator of heaven and earth. The bar is set high.

The value of Tzelem Elokim – The Talmud teaches that to save one life is to save a world (Sanhedrin 4:5). This is an essential Jewish message: Humanity is created in God’s image, and is therefore sacred. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook goes so far as to argue that there is no such thing as an atheist, since God is in each one of us, and our souls long for their eternal source (ikvei hatzon, edar ha’yakar). We need not go this far but when we embrace that each human is created in the image of God we have the strongest model for ensuring the absolute unshakeable human dignity to all people.

The virtue of Humility – We must remember that the position of god has already been filled. The realization that in no way can we play the role of God should inspire humility in us. All too often, there can be arrogance in change-makers who see themselves as the heroes rather than as humble servants. The greatest Jewish leader, Moshe, was described as “exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth!” (Numbers 12:3).

A perspective of History – The Torah says “mibeit avadim” (from the house of slaves) describing when God took the Israelites out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 13:3) in order to show that God enters history in order to abolish slavery. God is the master liberator of the oppressed. Over time, God empowers humanity more and more with this role but still enters the global stage at crucial historical turning points.

A notion of Obligation – The responsibility to practice social justice is not optional or reserved for a ceremonial mitzvah day. When we embrace the notion that we are divinely commanded to heal the world each and every day, we raise the bar. Religion serves to remind us that at the end of our lives, we are ultimately held accountable for whether or not we fulfilled and exceeded our obligations. God cares whether or not we have lived up to our end of the partnership. Even further, embracing our obligations and commitments grants us dignity. Heschel explains that our dignity is not only a result of our rights but of our Divine obligations. “Our commitment is to God, and our roots are in the prophetic events of Israel. The dignity of a person stands in proportion to his/her obligations as well as to his/her rights. The dignity of being a Jew is in the sense of commitment, and the meaning of Jewish history revolves around the faithfulness of Israel to the covenant,” (God in search of man, 216).

Walking Together with the Divine – When we are struggling for justice as part of our relationship with God, we do not walk alone. When we look at evil in the face to combat it with love, God stands with us. “As I walk through the valley overshadowed by death, I fear no evil for You are with me,” (Psalms 23). Embracing religion is not comfortable conformity, but rising to a challenge. Embracing God is not believing blindly, but empowering oneself.

God is everywhere. The Me’Or Einayim (Rav Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl) explained that Avraham didn’t depart from God when he left the Divine presence to greet the three wanderers. Rather God is present in the ethical encounter as well because “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). When we realize that the Divine is present in all places and moments, we can only feel compelled to embrace the holiness of each moment and the concomitant ethical demands.

A vision of the Ideal – The notion of progress is rooted in the messianic vision: We hold paradigms of the perfect, like the heavenly realm, and we progress toward those ideal models by bringing them down to earth. There is a Temple located in the heavens that sits directly above the Temple on earth (Genesis Rabbah 69:7). The same God who makes the heavens radiate also illuminates our earthly existence.

For the religious maximalist, there is no room for cynical determinism. Rather we are free and empowered to bring about real progress in the world. The Kabbalists explain that the world is saturated with Divinity that longs to return to its Divine source. This happens through good acts (tikkunim). Messianism, however, embraces not only the end (messianic times) but also the process (repairing the world each moment).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says it well: “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be. Faith lies not in the answer but the question – and the greater the human being, the more intense the question. The Bible is not a metaphysical opium but it’s opposite. Its aim is not to transport the believer to a private heaven. Instead, its impassioned, sustained desire is to bring heaven down to earth. Until we have done this, there is work still to do” (To Heal a Fractured World, 27).

One can obviously be moral and effective in social justice work and not embrace God just as one can be devout religiously and not create any serious social justice impact. However, as a guiding principle, embracing God offers us the potential to raise the bar we set for what we must achieve and for how we must achieve it. God is the most powerful reality ever encountered, and like no other idea, embrace of the Divine can inspire humankind to ideal goodness and transformative justice. Merely embracing our own human authority represents a failure to recognize the power of and truth of our calling, destiny, and command. Embracing the humility to acknowledge a power beyond us demands social protest not Divine submission. Together, as servants, we serve God by healing the world.

Is it ever right to suppress others’ views?

I came across a piece in which five clergy of different faiths/denominations are asked if censorship is appropriate in a religious context.  I find it interesting that four of the five respondents seem to indicate that for the most part, censorship is unnecessary as we should support choice in life.  Unfortunately, not all clergy feel the way these writers do, as can be seen on a daily basis.  I will present short vignettes in between each one’s idea.  All  five ideas have merit, though some are more challenging to me than others.  It is a fascinating coming together of minds. 

Faith Forum is a weekly dialogue on religion coordinated by Rajan Zed.
We posed to our panel of religious leaders of the region the following question:

Religious censorship: Should we control freedom of expression, basing it on religious doctrines and raising concerns of blasphemy, sacrilege, impiety, etc? Should the organized religions attempt to suppress contrary views?

Here is what they have to say:

Choice is mine

Matthew Cunningham, Roman Catholic Diocese of Reno chancellor

Anyone paying attention to technology and commun-ications is aware that controlling flow of information in today’s world is nearly impossible. Anyone with a modicum of training and Internet access can have an audience with the stroke of a key. We cannot always control what information we receive and thus it becomes our personal decision whether to accept the message. We must make personal judgments about the suitability and value of communications. It is at this point that our religious beliefs must guide us.

It seems that what is more important than control of information is concern for the content of the message. Our focus should be on civility, common decency, truthfulness and respect when we communicate by any means. Parents, especially, have a responsibility to educate children about appropriate ways to communicate. We must learn to be discriminating readers and listeners. Our faith communities can assist us in this effort.

According to our first writer, it seems that religion cannot censor so much as people should self-censor based upon religious sentiment.  He does promote choice, though with limits.  We have to make choices not to see certain things. 

No Censorship in Buddhism

Jikai’ Phil Bryan, Reno Buddhist Center priest and meditation guide

Siddhartha’s teachings of the four noble truths and all subsequent Buddhist teachings emphasize tolerance, patience and understanding. There is no such thing as censorship in Buddhism. All views are open for discussion, debate, empirical testing and analysis in terms of the Middle Way. Buddha advised all followers to consistently respect other religions, but also not to react negatively to criticisms or disparagement by others. With only anomalous exceptions, Buddhism has welcomed engaged criticism aimed at alleviating suffering and improving conditions of life. Buddhism is a “religious” way of life, not a divinely revealed religion, so there is really no controlling Buddhist god to blaspheme, and nothing so divine in Buddhism to protect from sacrilege. A famous line by Hakuin, one of our greatest Zen masters, says, “Outside sentient beings, where do we find the Buddhas.” Buddhism’s concern is not in defending views, but in improving life for all.

Being human is about being exposed to life.  Ideas should not be supressed because they could be formulated as a means to reach the “path.” to equanimity.  Tibetan Buddhism under the Dalai Lama especially has exemplified the idea of confrontation. 

Contrary Views Welcome

ElizaBeth W. Beyer, Temple Beth Or rabbi

Contrary views in Jewish thought are welcome, as long as they are “for the sake of Heaven.” A good example of this is one of our longstanding traditions, which is to study Talmud, a compilation of works that includes opinions of various rabbinic sages over many centuries. Talmud is more than 1,500 years old, and it overflows with arguments between one rabbi and another or one group and another group. It is a multivocal document recognizing the validity of many perspectives in the search for truth on a vast number of topics. In contrast to a dispute for the sake of Heaven is one purposefully done to disrupt or create havoc. This type of dispute is unwelcome and would likely be censured. Recognizing and allowing creative, penetrating discussions while discouraging agitators is sometimes challenging.

Alas, I wish it were so simple.  She is basically rehashing an idea in Ethics of our Fathers (5:16).  The Mishnah states:

 ה,טז [יז] כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, סופה להתקיים; ושאינה לשם שמיים, אין סופה להתקיים. איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי; ושאינה לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת קורח ועדתו.

Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will have a constructive outcome; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome.  What sort of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? – The dispute between Hillel and Shammai.  And which was not for the sake of Heaven?  The dispute between Korach and his entire company.

Unfortunately, Jews of all stripes do not live out this ideal today.  Most argument we find now is harsh and tend towards disparagement and hate.  Some might try to justify themselves as doing it for the sake of Heaven, but the vitriol is such that I would be hard-pressed to believe our argumentation is merely for the betterment of the Jewish people. 

Love Allows Freedom of Choice

Stephen Bond, senior pastor of Summit Christian Church, Sparks

Jesus said our love for one another is the most important evidence that we are truly his followers. This means Christians are to be known for their love. This makes sense especially when we consider the Bible says that God himself is love. The Bible also defines love. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Clearly, love does not manipulate or coerce people. Love grants the freedom of choice — even when those choices are morally wrong. As a result, it would be contrary to Christ’s teaching to seek to control the expression of religion or to suppress contrary views.

I am troubled by this theology because the same love of which they speak has been used as a means to argue for conversion.  “We love you, we don’t want you to suffer the fires of hell, so convert or die.” I am not saying that these words would automatically apply today, but a doctrine of choice through love is wrought with dangerous precedent. 

Church should preserve freedom

Nicholas F. Frey, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints area public affairs director

The freedom of expression found in the Magna Carta contained guarantees of civil and personal liberty, which later found fuller expression in the Constitution of the United States. We hope such guarantees eventually sweep the world. The church, which also enjoys guarantees under the Constitution, should not infringe those guarantees by attempting to suppress contrary views. Without imposing censorship, when confronted with attacks on our own or others’ religions, we church members and leaders should insist on the right to be heard, responding within a framework of self-imposed tolerance, good taste and common sense. The church has a great stake in freedom. It must zealously act to preserve and maintain it. The forces of the church are applied through kindness and persuasion. In God’s plan, the inalienable rights of the individual are strictly and jealously protected. What the individual does, he does voluntarily, not by force.

Choice is valued because everyone wants his/her voice heard.  This last opinion is driven by modern Enlightenment sentiments of liberty.  We all have liberty to believe what we want, just allow us to all have a say at the table.

Religious Isolationism and Pearl Harbor

I realize this is a few days late, but I used this article in a discussion group yesterday and found it to be thought provoking.  As you read, you will recognize how religion as influenced by society often establishes and dismisses beliefs as deemed appropriate.  Additionally, one can see some interesting parallels between then and today, even within the notion of religious isolationism. 

 

Religious Isolationism and Pearl Harbor

By on 12.7.11 @ 6:07AM

The pacificism of the post-World War I era would no longer do.

In the American psyche there’s never been an event like Pearl Harbor, 70 years ago this week. Of course, 9/11 comes closest, but it followed decades of America’s strategic involvement in the world as a superpower, including the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and later the Persian Gulf War and Balkans’ conflicts, among others.

Pearl Harbor followed two decades of virtual U.S. strategic isolation from most of the world’s great conflicts. Most Americans had recoiled from World War I by firmly adhering to isolationism, non-interventionism, pacifism, or various combinations of all three. Clergy of the dominant Mainline Protestant churches, post-WWI, flocked to pacifism, reinforced by the liberal, utopian, “Social Gospel” theology then ascendant in the churches. A 1931 survey showed 54 percent of nearly 20,000 clergy rejecting war. A 1934 survey showed nearly 70 percent doing the same, with Methodists the most pacifist.

Methodism was then America’s largest Protestant denomination and closely followed this trend. After enthusiastically backing WWI, the church in 1924 declared war the “supreme enemy,” while insisting “selfish nationalism, economic imperialism, and militarism must cease.” Methodist bishops visiting President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 urged “avoiding military alliances of a political and military character.” In 1928 the church renounced “war as an instrument of national policy.” 

A prominent dissenter to Methodism’s increasing pacifism in the 1920s wondered if Britain’s hypothetical intervention on behalf of massacred Armenians under the Turks might be a “high act of ethical devotion.” This clergy also suggested “to allow atheistic Russia to overthrow American civilization would be a worse crime than war.” But this view was in the minority for church elites. In 1936 Methodism declared it did “not endorse, support, or purpose to participate in war.” The bishops confidently asserted that any objector to the church’s anti-war stance had “none other refuge” within Protestantism.

In a 1939 message to the Methodists, President Franklin Roosevelt noted the “trampling under foot of the sacred right of freedom of conscience” around the world while pledging the U.S. would continue to “sustain before all the world the torch of complete liberty.” At the church’s governing General Conference that year, FDR’s 1936 presidential opponent, Republican Alf Landon, a Methodist and delegate, condemned FDR’s step away from neutrality and recommended “further discussion” with Hitler. Landon warned: “Let’s stop fooling the people that economic quarantines and economic assistance mean anything other than sending American boys into the cockpit of Europe to fight.” But Landon, a non-interventionist who was not a pacifist, angrily disagreed with most delegates who endorsed conscientious objection to U.S. military service. In 1940, even as Hitler was overrunning France, Methodism, reiterated it “will not officially endorse, support, or participate in war.”

The most prominent Methodist and churchman of that time was the Rev. E. Stanley Jones, long-time distinguished missionary to India, friend to Mahatma Gandhi, and best-selling author, whom Time magazine later recalled as the best known American preacher other than Billy Graham. Jones had loudly denounced Japan’s invasion of China while also frenetically negotiating to prevent U.S. war with Japan. His solution: give imperial Japan the island of New Guinea to compensate for her withdrawing from China and to accommodate Japan’s “surplus population.”

New Guinea, Jones argued, had only 600,000 people but could fit 20 to 40 million. It was then evenly divided between the Dutch and Australia, “neither of whom needed it,” and whom America would financially compensate. Himself an international celebrity, Jones marketed his novel idea to prominent officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the Dutch and Australian ambassadors to the U.S. He claimed he found a “good deal of sympathy,” though the Dutch ambassador insisted “no part of the Dutch Empire is for sale!” The Australian ambassador politely noted his country would fear Japan’s being at its border.

Later, Jones advocated a partial lifting of the U.S. oil embargo against Japan to induce negotiation. Ostensibly the British ambassador, Lord Halifax, was receptive and even “threw me a kiss” as Jones watched Halifax head to a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State. Jones also met with the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to the U.S., who were mostly respectful but noncommittal. On December 3, 1941, he met with FDR at the White House, passing along the counsel of the Japanese ambassador that the President appeal for peace directly to the Japanese emperor. The delighted Japanese then promised Jones a dinner party on December 8 and added: “The Embassy is your home.”

Japanese Ambassador Kichisaburō Nomura told Jones, as Jones recalled: “Thank you for what you are doing. Those who try to reconcile others are doing the work of Heaven for it is Heaven’s work to reconcile us.” After the December 7 Pearl Harbor attack, Jones faulted the U.S. for giving Japan an ultimatum to withdraw from China without a quid pro quo, such as New Guinea.

“Japan is the immediate cause of this war,” Jones concluded. “But America has her responsibility in the remote causes that led up to it.” Oddly, years after the war, Jones was still pushing the idea of giving defeated Japan New Guinea. He claimed that Douglas MacArthur and John Foster Dulles, when he met them, were receptive. More likely, they were polite.

Of course, Japan invaded New Guinea, with the rest of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, after Pearl Harbor, inflicting untold savagery everywhere. In his new book, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, British journalist Max Hastings reports that more than 1 million Vietnamese were starved to death during their own Japanese occupation. Japan starved all its territories to ship food to the homeland. Elderly Vietnamese told him those several years were worse than subsequent decades of war with the French and U.S. They represented only a tiny percentage of imperial Japan’s millions of victims.

In 1944, Methodism’s governing General Conference revoked its pacifism. Noting over 1 million Methodists were in the U.S. armed forces, it declared: “We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forces to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men.” But the motion passed the clergy delegates by only 1 vote.

Religious pacifists in the innocent years before Pearl Harbor imagined the world, like their then well-run denominations, was innately orderly and susceptible to good will and reason. They had forgotten the savage power of human evil. Pearl Harbor reminded America then, as it should today, especially religious utopians, that peace and decent order are the hard exceptions rather than the rule for our fallen world.

Book Review/Personal Observations: Holy Beggars – Update

Someone recently lent me the book Holy Beggars, by Aryae Coopersmith.  The book describes the author’s experience as a follower of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  See here for some reviews of the book.  I will offer some of my observations from the book.

For me, Aryae’s story is interesting in that even when the book ends, I feel the author has not yet figured out his own life’s journey, though perhaps he would concede that point as one’s journey only ends at death.  It was imcomplete, which I think is crucial.

To me, one of his essential points is his statement that the spiritual gurus of the 1960s were able to guide people towards a spiritual journey, but they were unable to guide them in understanding how the journey jived with their relational lives.  I have observed among many in the various new-age movements the amount of multiple failed marriages people have.  I think the author was acutely aware of it, having been married three times and divorced twice.  How does one grow in a relationship without their partner growing as well?

The life of Shlomo Carlebach itself, as a Chabad Shliach, was more succesful than I had imagined.  To think that his inner circle from the House of Love and Prayer had so many people who became religious is a testament to his charisma as well as his absence.  Carlebach was always in their lives, yet he was merely a stepping stone for greater growth.  To me, Carlebach’s uniqueness shines through and is most impactful during a scene in the book when the author describes the group with R. Shlomo, walking 27 miles on a Friday night to arrive at their destination for Shabbat.  They had to walk because of the traffic on the way to the synagogue.  What is most fascinating is that the synagogue was a Reform Temple.  During the late 1960s, this could happen.  I cannot even fathom a religious rabbi walking so many miles today to provide spirituality to people who are not practicing religious Judaism.  If you even consider the last couple of sentences, you will see the contrast.  Our views on denominations are such that it is unfathomable.  However, if one truly sees all people as spiritual beings, the particulars become less important.

Having said that, R. Shlomo draws a line when the author decides to marry someone not Jewish.  He will teach all who want about Jewish spirituality but he has a limit as well.  As is a well known contrast, R. Zalman Schachter Shalomi is a universalist while R. Carlebach was still Judeo-centric in his thought.  Both had a mission from the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, and in some respects, both were successful.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book.  It spoke to my heart at points, somewhat unexpectedly.

Update:  I came across a new book review of this work as well as another recent book, which contains R. Carlebach’s thoughts on the first parshiyot on Bereishit. It is interesting to see a different perspective on the above discussed book. I do not agree with certain of the reviewer’s assessments regarding the chapter discussing R. Carlebach’s relationship with women.  While one never likes to see other’s dirty laundry, it is important to discuss in light of the fact that we all know Carlebach was challenged in this area.  If we don’t acknowledge his flaws, then all we are left with is the cult of personality, which would also be unfair.  True, he can’t defend himself any longer against those accusations, but anyone reading this book is aware on some level of his relationships and as such answers, even speculative, are in order.

Books contain both virtues, flaws

by Rabbi Jack Riemer

THE TORAH COMMENTARY OF RABBI SHLOMO CARLEBACH, VOLUME ONE, GENESIS, edited by Rabbi Shlomo Katz, Urim Publications, Jerusalem and New York, 2011, 263 pages and HOLY BEGGARS, A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem by Aryae Coopersmith, One World Lights, El Granada, Ca. 2011, 396 pages.

I confess my sin today. Very few of us, myself included, took Shlomo Carlbach as seriously as we should have while he was alive. Today, we realize what a pied piper he was and how many young people there are whose souls he reached but back then, most of us dismissed him as just an entertainer and we did not realize how bold his vision was and how much he cared about the lost souls that he reached out to. And therefore, these two books about Shlomo Carlbach are books that I wanted very much to like, but I had some difficulty in doing so.

The first is a collection of his words of Torah on Bereshit and the second is a memoir of what life was like in the House of Love and Prayer that Carlbach founded in San Francisco during the sixties.

The reason that I wanted to like these two books was that Reb Shlomo called me — just as he called every other person whom he ever met — one of his “top men” and so I treasure his memory. The reason that I am unable to like these two books as much as I want to is that each has at least one flaw within it that overshadows to some extent its undeniable virtues.

The problem with the collection of Carlbach’s stories and comments on the book of Bereshit is that these stories were meant to be heard, not read. The editor, Shlomo Katz, has transcribed them from tapes of concerts, conversations, classes and interviews, but even though he gets the words right, there is no comparison between the living moment and the cold page, between hearing Carlbach tell these words and reading them, between hearing them while standing together in a circle with a crowd of rapt listeners and reading them alone. You wish that this collection had been put out on disc instead of in print, because then, as you listened to them, you would understand that they were aimed, not only at your mind, but also at your soul.

Aryeh Coopersmith’s memoir is more complicated to judge. I came to it thinking that it was the story of Carlbach but instead it turns out to be the story of the author and of his own experiences at the House of Love and Prayer in the sixties. Carlbach is often somewhere offstage during this book while the author is always at the center of the story.

He does preserve some of Carlbach’s wonderful one-liners. For example, he tells the story of how he called Carlbach long distance in order to tell him that he had found a place for the House of Love and Prayer and asked him if he wanted a mechitsa in the prayer room or not. Carlbach answered:

“There are enough walls in this world between people already. Our job is to tear walls down, not to put them up.”

And he tells the story of what happened once when a pugnacious Orthodox Jew came into the House on a Friday night while the young people were dancing round and round and berated Carlbach for allowing these kids to dance together instead of insisting that boys only dance with boys and girls only dance with girls. Carlbach looked at the man, and said: “You know, when they rush someone to the hospital for an emergency operation, they don’t stop in the operating room to worry about whether his toenails need cutting or not. These kids are almost dead Jewishly and you want me to care about this?”

The man stayed, got drawn into the circle and eventually became a part of the group.

What then are the shortcomings of this book?

One is that it focuses more on the author and on his own spiritual journey than it does on Carlbach and on his journey. The author comes across as someone who sometimes is a disciple who wants to learn from his rebbe, and who sometimes wants to be him. This is why the narrative goes on for years after Carlbach’s death, taking us to the author’s reunions with his hevra in Israel and in America and telling us more than we need to know about how they have reconstructed their lives, some as haredim, some as business people, in the years since they left the House of Love and Prayer.

The other — the major fault of this book is that it includes a chapter on Carlbach’s relationships with women, which is simply inappropriate in view of the fact that Carlbach is no longer alive to respond to it. And that is all that need be said about a person who was never judgmental of others and therefore should not be judged — at least not posthumously — by others.

For those who want to have some idea of what the sixties were like for many young Jews and who want to know something about the one person who paid attention to these young people and reached out to them with a vision that they could help bring the day when the whole world would sing the song of Shabbas, this book is an invaluable guide. It is precisely because it achieves so much that it leaves me wishing it had done more and that it had left out some.

 

Black magic widespread in Middle East

Black magic widespread in Middle East – JPost – Middle East.

While many of us would think this is merely superstitious, it is clear that much of the world still believes in traditional magic.  In the west, these are not as overtly discussed, but in the Middle East, fear of dark magic runs deep within the culture.  Keep in mind that this is not just a belief held by Islamic Arabs.  Many North African and Middle Eastern Jews also believe in the powers of magic, both for good and bad.  One book I recall reading was called Without Bounds, by Yoram Bilu, a professor of anthropology and psychology at the Hebrew University (also see here).  In it he describes the life of a lesser known North African rabbi, including discussion of demonology and magic.  The rabbi lived in the last century and his family continues to live in Israel today. As you will see from the article below, even those who recognize the “forbidden” elements of magic are hard-pressed not to be influenced by it. 

Belief in witchcraft, spells, the occult and protective charms runs deep, despite religious and governmental bans against using magic.

 

When Tara Umm Omar was a young bride in her first marriage, she and her Moroccan husband took the youngest sister of a family friend into their home. On the day the young Moroccan woman arrived, she gave Umm Omar a doll, which Umm Omar promptly placed in a dresser drawer.

When Umm Omar told a friend of the doll, the friend suspected it was an item for black magic and suggested the doll be destroyed. Instead, Umm Omar tossed it in the garbage. That’s when household items disappeared, the family dog barked incessantly, Umm Omar started fighting with her husband and she began seeing strange insects in the house. When the guest finally moved out, the couple found their bed sheets and an identical doll to Umm Omar’s among the woman’s discarded belongings.

The message to Umm Omar was clear: The woman she invited into her home sought to destroy her happiness through black magic.

Umm Omar is since remarried to a Saudi and now lives in Riyadh. She runs the popular blog, Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis, a help website for non-Saudis marrying Saudis. As a quasi-marriage counselor for brides and grooms nervously entering Saudi society, Umm Omar dispenses religious and practical advice to help ease the cultural shock. That includes providing insight to the real world concerns of black magic and the evil eye.

“The truth is that all magic is haram [prohibited] and only leads to bad ends,” Umm Omar told The Media Line.

Belief in black magic runs deep in Saudi society. The issue was raised last month when the quasi-legislative body Shoura Council granted permission for Moroccan women to work as maids in Saudi households. Hundreds of Saudi women complained to the Council that granting Moroccan maids permission to work was tantamount to allowing the use of black magic in their homes to steal their husbands. Saudi wives complained the issue was not lacking trust in their husbands, but their men were powerless to ward off spells.

While greeted with skepticism in western societies, Saudis would no more question the existence of black magic than they would Islam. Two surahs (chapters) in the Qur’an under Al Mi’wadhatyan address black magic and are often recited during or after prayer. Simply, part of being a Muslim is believing in the existence of magic.

In April of this year, members of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice underwent special training in the Eastern Province to investigate black magic crimes.

Although also found in Christianity and Judaism, casting spells is particularly common in Oman, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco and Indonesia. Turkey is a secular Muslim country, but protection against evil eye is deeply rooted in virtually all aspects of daily life. Tools of witchcraft include using lizards, dead birds, photographs, hair, thread, dirt, blood and red ink. Hiding places to place “spells” may be in bedrooms and under beds. Written spells generally contain the intended victim’s name and one or two words to state the intention to do harm.

In 2007, the religious police in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, removed 23 black magic tokens, including knives and written spells on paper, from two graves in a cemetery. Black magic artists placed the tokens at the heads and feet of the corpses.

The Saudi press reported recently that evil eye was suspected in causing the death of Mastoora Al-Ahmadi, the Saudi poet who garnered international attention for her performance on “The Million’s Poet” on Abu Dhabi TV. She was the first woman to reach the semifinals in the Arabic poetry contest. Al-Ahmadi died unexpectedly on Oct. 2 in Madinah after falling into a coma.

Howaizan Muhammad, 26, of Madinah, told The Media Line that she had difficulty finding a job and failed in many interviews. And she hated the jobs she did find. She broke up with her fiancé and couldn’t find a husband. “My sister told me to read the surah Al-Baqarah to protect me against any spells,” she says. “After 14 days, my father found a spell written on paper and in blood with my name on it on the roof under our water tank.”

Muhammad says she had Indonesian maids at the time, but notes that anybody could have left the spell.

Sheikh Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, an Islamic scholar based in Qatar and the author of The Exorcist Tradition in Islam, told The Media Line that Muslims must not fight witchcraft with their own magic but refer to the Qur’an. “There are a number of Qur’anic texts that the Prophet said should be read with reflection as a means of removing or reducing the effects of black magic,” he says. “Eating adjuwah dates from Madinah is also a means of protection.”

He notes there is a tendency to fight magic with magic, but it’s prohibited. “People should avoid charms, amulets and other things that people have proffered, which has become something of a business in the Muslim world.”

Philips acknowledges that Moroccans have an “international reputation” among Muslims for practicing witchcraft, but cautions against overemphasizing Moroccans as master artists of voodoo. “Historically they [Moroccans] are most noted for it. But they are not much different than most in the Muslim world. Chechnya and Bosnia probably engage in it more.”

Although Saudis may claim that witchcraft is at the heart of their distrust of foreign maids, Umm Omar suggests that old-fashioned power struggles and jealously play vital roles in conflicts.

“There is a factor that Saudis are more well-to-do than Moroccans and magic can be used to remove those blessings [of wealth] if [maids] dislike them,” Umm Omar says. “Saudi women are used to feeling superior over maids, and in some cases look down on them. Moroccan women do not like to be pushed around and will defend themselves. My experience with Moroccan and Saudi women is they both like to be in charge of the household and are naturally bossy.”

Umm Omar adds that if a maid feels threatened, she could resort to black magic. “Of course that is not to say that a Saudi woman won’t seek out magic to harm a Moroccan maid.”
Left unsaid in this battle of wills between Saudi and Moroccan women is the consequences of practicing black magic in Saudi Arabia. Practicing witchcraft is an offense punishable by death.

Saudi religious police arrested popular Lebanese television personality and fortuneteller Ali Sabat in May 2008 on charges of witchcraft while he was on a pilgrimage. A Saudi court sentenced him to death. But an appellate court threw out the sentence in 2010, citing lack of evidence that Sabat harmed anybody. According to Amnesty International, the last documented execution for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia was in 2007. A Saudi court sentenced Egyptian pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim to death for casting spells in order to separate a married couple.

“Fortune telling is not just sleight of hand tricks, but involves the spirit,” says Philips. “As evil, it’s the same thing as black magic. Sharia proscribes the same punishment for both.”

Umm Omar points to ignorance and the absence of a strong foundation in the teachings of Islam that lead some Muslims to practice magic and evil eye.

Although Philips says that ignorance is no excuse for breaking laws, forgiveness should be considered. “God does forgive ignorance,” he says. “We should be more tolerant in some cases because some people are not doing [harmful] things deliberately.”

 

True interfaith

If a pope can invite agnostics to share in a call for peace, maybe we are onto something.  This to me is quite remarkable (though maybe I just don’t follow these stories often).  Most interesting is that Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, was among those who boycotted the original gathering 25 years ago.  I guess positions can cause people’s perspectives to shift over time.  Either that, or he felt compelled because as Pope, he has to be more politically astute (though I think I can recall other instances were he was not as PC).

Pope Benedict welcomes members of all faiths, and none, to Assissi

Pope Benedict XVI joined Jews, Buddhist monks, Islamic scholars, Yoruba leaders and a handful of agnostics in making a communal call for peace Thursday, insisting that religion must never be used as a pretext for war or terrorism. Benedict welcomed some 300 leaders representing a rainbow of faiths to the hilltop town of Assisi to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a daylong prayer for peace here called by Pope John Paul II in 1986 amid Cold War conflicts.

The World Jewish Congress was represented by Deputy Secretay General Maram Stern and by the Executive Director of World Jewish Congress North America, Betty Ehernberg.

Thursday’s meeting also included Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and representatives from Greek, Russian, Serbian and Belarusian Orthodox churches as well as Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist leaders. Several rabbis were joined by some 60 Muslims, a half-dozen Hindus and Shinto believers, three Taoists, three Jains and a Zoroastrian.

Traditional Catholics condemned the meeting — just as they did in 1986 — saying it was blasphemy for the pope to invite leaders of “false” religions to pray to their Gods for peace. The Society of St. Pius X, a breakaway traditionalist group that Benedict has been working to bring back into Rome’s fold, said it would be celebrating 1,000 Masses to atone for the damage done by the event and urged the pope to use it to urge others to convert to Catholicism.

Before becoming Pope,  Benedict had boycotted the 1986 event, disapproving of members of different faiths praying in the presence of one another. His 25th anniversary edition stripped away all communal public prayer in an attempt to remove any whiff of syncretism, or the combining of different beliefs and practices.

In his remarks, the German-born Benedict noted that in the 25 years since the landmark peace day, the Berlin Wall had crumbled without bloodshed and the world was without any great new wars. But he said nations are still full of discord and that religion is now frequently being used to justify violence. “We know that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty that considers itself entitled to discard the rules of morality for the sake of the intended ‘good,'” he said.

But the pope said it was wrong to demand that faith disappear from daily life to somehow rid the world of a religious pretext for violence. He argued that the absence of God from people’s daily lives was even more dangerous, since it deprived men and women of any moral criteria to judge their actions. “The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence,” said Benedict, who as a young German was forced to join the Hitler Youth.