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.

It is amazing how naive people can be – more Beit Shemesh

I think we are over-saturated by now with Beit Shemesh.  However, I do have to post one more piece (h/t Life in Israel) that just came my way.  The piece below will probably not shock people so much as reveal the sadness of how some in rabbinic positions respond to sickening and traumatic events.  I am glad there are people out there making sure these words are not allowed to stand.

A Guest Post by by Rabbi Dov Lipman

THE NERVE!

Attack me all that you want. I have been an activist, trying to set the city on a better course for years and people can disagree with me, even vehemently. That is fine and part of living in an open society. I accept it and never feel the need to respond. But when a local Rabbi attacks a little girl and her mother in the most vicious of ways, I cannot remain silent.

The following attack on little Naama and her mother, Hadassa, was penned by a local Rabbi. Everyone with a heart and soul should speak out against this distorted use of the platform given to religious clergy and his congregants should not only condemn him openly but should really think twice whether they want him to guide them in their personal and family lives.

Here is the quote:

“Poor 8 year old Naama Margolese. If my child was spat at, I would wipe the spittle off, gently, wipe away her tears, give her a piece of her favorite chocolate, tell her there are bad men in the world, and in 10 minutes it is over. Waiting three months (what’s that again? The huge outcry was orchestrated three months after it happened? Huh?) to create an overreaction, and having a huge escort to accompany the child to school, and having all sorts of people tracking through her house to visit her as if they’re coming for neechum aveilim… If this poor kid gets traumatized, I’ll tell you why!”You almost have to read it again to make sure your eyes are not playing games with you because it is not fathomable that a person who has spent years studying Torah and connecting to God could ever even think of writing these words, let alone actually writing them and publicizing them.

Let’s dissect the paragraph.

Wipe the spittle off, gently, wipe away her tears, giver her chocolate, and it is over? The writer clearly has no concept of the trauma little girls experience when being called “prutza” and “shiktza” and when they are spat at. Maybe children who are familiar with a world where violence and abuse are a part of life would be able to just move on, but in the Margolese home, the children are taught to respect other people and never raise a voice or condemn the actions of others. Therefore, it is very traumatic when a child in that type of home is exposed to this type of behavior. When children are being taught proper derech eretz, verbal assaults cannot simply be ignored. When children are taught respect, spit cannot simply be wiped away and forgotten.

Oh, wait a minute. I just realized something. This Rabbi never even came to the school to see, firsthand, what was happening. He probably subscribes to the camp that it is all an exaggeration. Isn’t there a concept that one cannot really have an opinion about something without actually experiencing it? The nerve to make light of what many girls, not just Naama, experienced without actually seeing it in person!

Let’s go further. “Waiting three months?” and “Three months after it happened? ” Rabbi, perhaps it is time to get your facts right before writing such a strong condemnation. In case you did not know, the extremists returned within the last few weeks! They returned with more people and with an organized bus! Our informants in RBS Bet told us that if there was not going to be some kind of strong response the extremists were going to escalate things until who knows what could have happened to a Jewish child, rachmana litzlan.
“To create an overreaction and having a huge escort to accompany the child to school?” Since when is thousands of Israelis wanting to come to defend a little Jewish girl an “overreaction?” Baruch Hashem, all of those “horrible anti-Torah secularists” have a Jewish pulse and, upon seeing the tears of this Jewish girl wanted to help. What a strong contrast with the reaction of this Rabbi who for months upon hearing about the traumatized girls responded with a message which seemed to convey, “What do you want from me?”

We continue. “All sort of people trecking through her house like neechum aveilim?” What a sick and distorted image. All one had to do was see the look on Naama’s face when MK Rabbi Amsalem gave her a siddur and tehilim (she davens from that siddur daily) to see how therapeutic and important this was for her. The same goes for the gift which Eli Friedman and the TOV party gave to her. These visitors are people who truly walk in the way of God and reach out to love other Jews instead of being defensive and writing nasty and soulless declarations. Perhaps in the divisive, extremist world visits of love and care feel like “nichum aveilim” but for the rest of the Jewish people they are actually quite pleasant and inspirational.

Finally, this “poor kid” will not be traumatized any longer. Her parents did what any loving parent would do and found a way to secure their daughter’s safety. In addition, her parents were able to show their daughter the beautiful side of a unified am yisrael and the beauty of true chareidim.

All sensible and caring people must do anything possible to condemn this Rabbi’s statements. But even more than that, we must work to make sure that people with this type of flippant attitude regarding verbal/physical abuse and assault and religious extremism not have any involvement in guiding Jewish children or their parents. Because when those “poor children” are turned off by what is presented to them as a soulless, uncaring, and extremist religion and their clergy not protecting them from abuse, no one will have to “tell you why.”

Welcoming The Charedi Spring – Um, excuse me!!

Update: To add fuel to the fire, see this post at Failed Messiah. If all the judge gives this person is house arrest with Yeshiva privileges, what recourse is left to fight the problem of tznius patrols.

I don’t often get into these debates with others, but this post truly makes me cringe. I am glad everyone is finally speaking up. All the Orthodox rabbinic organizations, RCA (their statement will be ready soon), Agudat Israel, and IRF (I don’t want to here comments about whether it is Orthodox or not), are making statements condemning religious extremist violence in Beit Shemesh. The Belzer Rebbe also alluded to the violence according to this piece. Yet, I wonder if perhaps it is another case of too little, too late. Religious violence in Israel has been there for years. And sure, for every stone thrower, there is a Rabbi who says it is not appropriate. Yet, you only hear about that years later. And even in this, while all the organizations are talking, who is to say the zealots are listening.

Now, don’t get me wrong, talk we must, but let’s not get carried away and make declarations like R. Adlerstein is, that this is the beginning of an “Charedi Spring.” I find the usurping of that term preposterous, as while I hope this event does cause a change, to equate it with what is going on in the rest of the Middle East is absurd. Besides, the Arab Spring upon which this is predicated upon is, by many accounts, turning into an Islamic winter.

To me, the violence should have been condemned and punished years ago. But when there was public silence against protesting Shabbat desecrators, all it did was embolden some of them to take their violence to another level. And to top it off, unless one of their grand Rebbes comes out and says the violence is not allowed, which most likely will not happen because of their own fear of their followers, I don’t see much in the way of curtailing it. And should the Israeli government step in and arrest some of the more egregious men who are attacking and cursing young girls, I have a hard time believing the more mainstream Haredi world won’t be up in arms to an extent.

To conclude, we should all hope that this violence will end as it is making us all look bad as well as proving Hillary Clinton correct to an extent when she sparked her own controversy with her comments about gender bias in Israel. To outsiders, it is no different, even if on the inside we can try to find the subtleties. I pray that these men find some seichel (intelligence) and stop this disgusting display of zealotry in a time when we need to be banding together as one nation.

Welcoming The Charedi Spring | Cross-Currents.

Welcoming The Charedi Spring

The Charedi Spring may have finally arrived. Eight year old Naama Margolese may do for Israel what a Tunisian street vendor did for the Arab world. The wave of revulsion for the behavior of the extremists, if sustained and channeled into focused police work, may release the Israeli public – both secular and charedi – from the tyranny of fanatics whose thuggery and primitivism ran unchecked in Meah Shearim for years.

The price we pay for it is a massive chilul Hashem, as hundreds of millions of people equate Torah with Taliban. The only partial antidote is for the genuine Orthodox world to do what Muslims do not do to their extremists. We must condemn with passion, conviction and without qualification.

As the numbers of Meah Shearim-grown extremists increased, they sought space in other communities. (It was not only a matter of space. They were repudiated by many in their own neighborhood, including the Edah Charedis, which was still unable to rein them in.) Large numbers settled upon the Beit Shemesh area. Their growing enclave in RBS-Bet gradually spread out, to the point that they found themselves in close proximity to existing neighborhoods of dati Leumi and conventional charedim. Ongoing clashes came to a head with the opening of a frum girls’ school on land the extremists coveted in the dati Leumi neighborhood of Scheinfeld. While the dispute has been going on for months, and while violently imposing their requirements on local businesses has taken place for years, the issue exploded upon the national and international scene through a clip from Israel’s Channel Two that has gone viral. Listening to an Anglo girl dressed in long sleeves and a skirt speak about her fears in simply crossing the street and having to run a gauntlet of taunts, curses, and spittle from bearded adults has turned out to be the impetus to galvanize a country – including many charedim – into taking action. Contrasting her angelic demeanor with the ugly rhetoric of one of the tormentors who is particularly honest about their objectives to take over the entire contributed to the mood of resistance.

Both the Prime Minister and the President spoke about the video. (Netanyahu was particularly gracious. “”We must beware of generalizing an entire population, because the vast majority of the Haredi public combines an adherence to Jewish tradition and a complete respect of the law”). Thousands came to Beit Shemesh and help stand up against the extremists. Groups of Knesset members are scheduling visits. Most remarkably, Haaretz reported that journalists were getting plenty of lip from charedim – but not to complain as usual about unbalanced treatment of their community. Rather, charedim were turning to them in person and by phone to implore them to keep the heat on through their coverage, so that the government will have no choice but to take firm action against the zealots who make life miserable for them as well. Haaretz even had to concede a difference between a minority population of out of control extremists and a “mainstream charedi” population.

To anyone not familiar with the history and dynamics of the charedi communities of Israel – and the century-and-a-half-long kulturkampf that created it, there is nothing in the pictures coming from Israel to differentiate the mobs in Beit Shemesh from those in Pakistan or Iraq. No amount of casuistry will put a dent in the plain truth: the behavior of many people who are seen as frum is a massive chilul Hashem of epic proportions.

Rabbinic and communal organizations are readying statements denouncing the barbarians at the gates of Beit Shemesh. This is necessary and good. It is probably not good enough. The extremists are not the equivalent of the poor, semi-literate unwashed masses in the Muslim suburbs of Paris. They were the recipients of many years of Torah chinuch. They studied, to some degree, the same seforim as the rest of us.

Even after we protest, the world will want to know what makes us more authentic than them. Why are they not the “real” Jews, and we are the reformers? How do we demonstrate that they are the imposters, that their understanding of Yiddishkeit is foreign to its genuine spirit? It is simply insufficient to say that we are right and they are wrong, or that our rabbis and leaders are greater than theirs. We dare not leave the very definition of Yiddishkeit to a he says, she says competition.

It is not enough to unequivocally denounce them. We must explain to the world – and fully and confidently to ourselves – why the extremists are a foreign, sickly weed, not another shitah among many. Where do we find within our mesorah the confidence to see these people as outside of it? We must be able to point not just to a collection of their terrible actions, but to fundamental themes in their lifestyle that make them different – and that we can package simply and reinforce in our children and students.

I have nothing magisterial or even particularly insightful to offer. A few thoughts, however, do come to mind.

How do I reject thee? Let me count the ways…

1) The dignity of everyone possessed of a Tzelem Elokim. We take it seriously; they don’t. You can’t take it seriously and still bring children to tears. You could never smear feces on the property of others. You could never spit at someone, rather than engage in discourse. You would see in all of this a belittling of the tzelem Elokim – the image of G-d vested in Man – not only of the other person, but of yourself. The imposition of one set of standards on others who are not willing (e.g. removing public benches so that women will not sit on them in public) is not only theft of the public, it is a denial of their Tzelem Elokim that allows them to choose their own decisors. Claiming that all other decisors but their own are wrong is a fatal distortion of halachic process.

2) Hakoras HaTov According to Chovos HaLevavos, owning up to the obligation to reciprocate what others have benefited you (even when done for the wrong reasons) is the key to any growth in serving Hashem. Closing their eyes to the benefits they have received from the State – the blood that has been spilled defending them in every war since ’48; the subsidies that feed their children and pay for their medical care – is so profoundly un-Jewish that it should be sufficient cause to call them opponents of Torah. All the mental gymnastics applied by them to prove to themselves that they owe nothing to anyone (i.e., if it weren’t for everyone else’s sins, the Arabs would be our peaceful and loving neighbors) should only prove that they can compound lack of hakoras hatov with distortion of sechel. R. Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l used to ask every year during Neilah that people daven for the soldiers of Tzahal. “Those who don’t understand why are fools.”

3) The simplest one, and the one that works the most for me: The proper way, we are told in Avos, is one that brings honor to Hashem and honor to the one who follow it. It should be simple enough to argue that a lifestyle that brings nothing but contempt upon Torah cannot legitimately be Torah! Discounting the small percentage of Israelis who truly hate Torah, the rest of Israeli society cannot be written off the same way. Where they should see the ahavas Yisrael of the R Aryeh Levin they remember a generation ago, they see nothing in the video clip but unvarnished hatred. Where they should see a lifestyle to admire, they see a community that cannot support itself, covers up its misdeeds, and shows itself entirely unsuitable to face challenges of real life. They react – and indeed often overreact – with contempt. But at least part of their contempt is understandable. It certainly means that the extremists are not bringing honor to anyone.

This alone proves that their way cannot be Torah. Everything else is commentary.

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. 

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.

Finding our own path within Judaism

I know many people who struggle because they feel they have to study and partake of areas in learning that they are not getting satisfaction from.  I myself go through this at times as well.  As such, it is good to find vignettes among the great Rabbis indicating the need for finding one’s own path.  Recently, on the dixieyid blog,  the author shared a piece from Rav Kook on the subject of why people go “off the derech.”  The main idea behind Rav Kook’s words is that streamlining all people is dangerous because we are individuals who have different intellectual desires.  I think it is important to focus on his thoughts as means to understand that each of us can find our place in study and thought. 

Some have gone off the derech of Yiddishkeit because in their learning and in their path to spiritual perfection, they betrayed their own personal, unique nature. Some are more fit for Agada, and halacha (modern pilpul/lomdus) is not in their nature as a *primary* way of learning. Because such people [have not been taught to] value and recognize their unique talents in Agada, they immerse themselves in Halacha as is customary [in yeshivos today].

But such a person feels an inner opposition to what he is learning because that which he is investing himself in is not in accordance with his essential nature. If, however, he would find the area where his talent and interests lie, and he would fulfill that by making that area of Torah which fits with the nature of his soul his primary area of learning, he would immediately recognize that the inner opposition he used to feel was not due to any deficiency in the holy and essential Halacha area of Torah learning.

Rather, he would know that his soul simply required a different area of learning as his primary study. Such a person would remain faithful in a beautiful way to the holiness of Torah. He would become great and strong in the area of Torah which speaks to him. In addition, he will assist those whose primary learning is in Halacha to also taste the sweetness of Agada.

But when a person does not [or is not given the option to] recognize the true reason for his inner opposition to what he is learning, and he attempts to overpower his own nature [because he is taught that there is only *one* correct way to learn Torah], then the moment some options for a non-Torah way to live are opened up for him, he will break out and then hate and become any enemy of Torah and emunah. He will go from one sin to another, and we know what such people have wrought. They attempt to create that which they envision as the ideal way of the world and they attempt to blind “the eye of the world.”

There is a great variety of areas of Torah learning which are fitting to the great variety of individual souls’ natures. Some people are even drawn to specific areas of secular wisdom. Even such people should go according to their inner nature and they must set aside specific times for learning Torah. If they do this, they will succeed at both because “Torah together with the way of the world is beautiful.” And the gemara at the end of Yuma discusses how to establish the right balance of primary and secondary for such people. In general, this whole subject is dependent on the character and nature of each individual person’s soul. (Emphasis and explanatory parentheticals added.)

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.

 

Rabbi Sacks on Vayera – family values

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks uses the brief dialogue of aqeidat Yitzchaq as his impetus to discuss the lack of family values that pervades the current world.  He blames the riots in England on the lack of good parenting on the part of the recent generation, as it led to disaffected youth who could do nothing more than violently riot during the summer.  I would offer a couple of comments on R. Sacks’ piece.

1.  I am not sure the single line of dialogue between father and son should be the impetus for this type of discussion.  The opposite just might be the case.  While the Torah only records that which is relevant to advancing the story, it seems strange that our forefathers have little communication with their parents.  Abraham and Isaac only talk in this story.  Isaac and Jacob have the one dialogue leading of the bracha Isaac gives him after being deceived.  It is only with Jacob do we see an involvement in his children’s lives (not always at the right time, but at least he tried).  My point is that while words don’t always leave as much of an impression as action, there is something missing in the Torah’s description to warrant the lesson R. Sacks tries to derive here.

2.  I do agree that the value of Shabbat includes the idea of family structure, allowing families to have a time in once a week to actually focus on themselves rather than on outside issues and situations.  Yet, I am not sure that we can make the jump that Shabbat itself is enough to show that Jewish values are greater than secular values.  Values are only as good as those who practice them.  And, the whole package can be valuable if the practitioners show sincerity.  

Walking Together

There is one image that haunts us across the millennia, fraught with emotion. It is the image of a man and his son walking side-by-side across a lonely landscape of shaded valleys and barren hills. The son has no idea where he is going and why. The man, in pointed contrast, is a maelstrom of emotion. He knows exactly where he is going and why, but he can’t make sense of it at all.

The God who gave him a son is now telling him to sacrifice his son. On the one hand, the man is full of fear: am I really going to lose the one thing that makes my life meaningful, the son for whom I prayed all those years? On the other hand, part of him is saying: just as this child was impossible – I was old, my wife was too old – yet here he is. So, though it seems impossible, I know that God is not going to take him from me. That is not the God I know and love. He would never have told me to call this child Isaac, meaning “he will laugh” if He meant to make him and me cry.

The father is in a state of absolute cognitive dissonance, yet – though he can make no sense of it – he trusts in God and betrays to his son no sign of emotion. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. The two of them walked together.

There is just one moment of conversation between them:

Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen. 22: 7-8)

What worlds of unstated thoughts and unexpressed emotions lie behind those simple words. Yet as if to emphasise the trust between father and son, and between both and God, the text repeats: Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. The two of them walked together.

As I read those words, I find myself travelling back in time, and in my mind’s eye I see my father and me walking back from shul on Shabbat. I was four or five years old at the time, and I think I understood then, even if I couldn’t put it into words, that there was something sacred in that moment. During the week I would see the worry in my father’s face as he was trying to make a living in difficult times. But on Shabbat all those worries were somewhere else. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. We walked together in the peace and beauty of the holy day. My father was no longer a struggling businessman. Today he was a Jew breathing God’s air, enjoying God’s blessings, and he walked tall.

Shabbat was my mother making the food that gave the house its special Shabbat smell: the soup, the kugel, the lockshen. As she lit candles, she could have been the bride, the queen, we sang about in Lecha Dodi and Eshet Chayil. I had a sense, even then, that this was a holy moment when we were in the presence of something larger than ourselves, that embraced other Jews in other lands and other times, something I later learned we call the Shekhinah, the Divine presence.

We walked together, my parents, my brothers and me. The two generations were so different. My father came from Poland. My brothers and I were “proper Englishmen.” We knew we would go places, learn things and pursue careers they could not. But we walked together, two generations, not having to say that we loved one another. We weren’t a demonstrative family but we knew of the sacrifices our parents made for us and the pride we hoped to bring them. We belong to different times, different worlds, had different aspirations, but we walked together.

Then I find my imagination fast-forwarding to August this year, to those unforgettable scenes in Britain – in Tottenham, Manchester, Bristol – of young people rampaging down streets, looting shops, smashing windows, setting fire to cars, robbing, stealing, assaulting people. Everyone asked why. There were no political motives. It was not a racial clash. There were no religious undertones.

Of course, the answer was as clear as day but no one wanted to say so. In the space of no more than two generations, a large part of Britain has quietly abandoned the family, and decided that marriage is just a piece of paper. Britain became the country with the highest rate of teenage mothers, the highest rate of single parent families, and the highest rate – 46% in 2009 – of births outside marriage in the world.

Marriage and cohabitation are not the same thing, though it is politically incorrect to say so. The average length of cohabitation is less than two years. The result is that many children are growing up without their biological father, in many cases not even knowing who their father is. They live, at best, with a succession of stepfathers. It is a little-known but frightening fact that the rate of violence between stepfathers and stepchildren is 80 times that between natural fathers and their children.

The result is that in 2007, a UNICEF report showed that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the developed world – bottom of a league of 26 countries. On 13 September 2011, another report by UNICEF, compared British parents unfavourably with their counterparts in Sweden and Spain. It showed that British parents try to buy the love of their children by giving them expensive clothes and electronic gadgets – “compulsive consumerism”. They fail to give their children what they most want, and costs nothing at all: their time.

Nowhere do we see more clearly the gap between Jewish and secular values today than here. We live in a secular world that has accumulated more knowledge than all previous generations combined, from the vast cosmos to the structure of DNA, from superstring theory to the neural pathways of the brain, and yet it has forgotten the simple truth that a civilisation is as strong as the love and respect between parent and child – Vayelchu shenehem yachdav, the ability of the generations to walk together.

Jews are a formidably intellectual people. We have our Nobel prize-winning physicists, chemists, medical scientists and games theorists. Yet as long as there is a living connection between Jews and our heritage, we will never forget that there is nothing more important than home, the sacred bond of marriage, and the equally sacred bond between parent and child. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav.

And if we ask ourselves why is it that Jews so often succeed, and succeeding, so often give to others of their money and time, and so often make an impact beyond their numbers: there is no magic, no mystery, no miracle. It is simply that we devote our most precious energies to bringing up our children. Never more so than on Shabbat when we cannot buy our children expensive clothes or electronic gadgets, when we can only give them what they most want and need – our time.

Jews knew and know and will always know what today’s chattering classes are in denial about, namely that a civilisation is as strong as the bond between the generations. That is the enduring image of this week’s parsha: the first Jewish parent, Abraham, and the first Jewish child, Isaac, walking together toward an unknown future, their fears stilled by their faith. Lose the family and we will eventually lose all else. Sanctify the family and we will have something more precious than wealth or power or success: the love between the generations that is the greatest gift God gives us when we give it to one another.

Shabbat Shalom

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.”

 

The Pursuit of Truth

Rabbi Angel offers a piece on this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, which asks the age-old question of whether or not we should acknowledge the literal story presented in front of us, specifically when it comes to whether or not the characters sinned.  He uses this as a polemic against literature that tries to gloss over the failures of the great rabbis.  In many traditions, it is inappropriate to assign sin to someone of grand stature, so instead the stock answer is that don’t really understand why they did what they did.  Now, I do believe the suspension of vulnerability and humanness among these people has led to lesser folks seriously sinning (i.e. the countless charges of sexual inappropriateness among clergy), yet the biblical element is more complicated than that.  It is difficult for some people to see a role model as being imperfect.  So instead, we gloss over or reinterpret the imperfections in a way as to exonerate the individual.

Personally, I want to see the vulnerability and the flaws.  It reminds us that we too are human and that we are all susceptible to error.  Yet, we can make mistakes and still rise to the highest of levels.  Instead, if we read about superhuman humans, we can easily feel less inspired because without the innate abilities that each has, we are merely treading water throughout life.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a Hassidic Jew who assured me that his Rebbe never committed any sins. He stated with certainty that his Rebbe was endowed with a grand and holy soul, far superior to the soul of any other people.

When I pointed out to him that even Moses committed sins, he flatly denied that this was so. I reminded him that the Torah itself reports Moses’s shortcomings. He said: You do not understand the Torah! It is impossible that Moses could have done anything wrong. He was perfect in every way.

The conversation came to an end, with both of us unhappy with the result. He felt I did not demonstrate enough faith in the perfection of saintly personalities, and I felt he was guilty of distorting the Torah’s words and distorting the reality of the human condition.

This conversation came to mind recently when I received an email from a colleague, in which he included some important passages by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The comments related specifically to stories reported in Parashat Lekh Lekha—but Rabbi Hirsch’s point is of general relevance to our study of Torah…and to our evaluation of saintly individuals.

The Torah relates various problematic narratives about Abraham.  For example, when going to Egypt, Abraham feared that the Egyptians would murder him and take his wife Sarah. Abraham told Sarah to say she was his sister, rather than his wife. In spite of (or because of!) this deception, Sarah was taken to Pharaoh. Abraham was given rewards and he thrived in Egypt. When God punished Pharaoh and when Pharaoh realized that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife, Pharaoh expressed outrage to Abraham over the deception. Pharaoh expelled Abraham and Sarah, who left Pharaoh’s domain with much wealth.

This story surely does not cast Abraham in a good light. He asked his wife to participate in a deception. He let his wife be taken by the Egyptians. He reaped financial rewards while his wife was in captivity in Pharaoh’s house.

Rabbi Hirsch makes a profoundly important point: “The Torah does not attempt to hide from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men, and precisely thereby it places the stamp of credibility upon the happenings it relates. The fact that we are told about their faults and weaknesses does not detract from our great men. Indeed, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they all been portrayed to us as models of perfection we would have believed that they had been endowed with a higher nature not give to us to attain. Had they been presented to us free of human passions and inner conflicts, their nature would seem to us merely the result of a loftier predisposition, not a product of their personal merit, and certainly no model we could ever hope to emulate.”

Rabbi Hirsch goes on to say that “we must never attempt to whitewash the spiritual and moral heroes of our past. They are not in need of our apologetics, nor would they tolerate such attempts on our part. Truth is the seal of our Word of God, and truthfulness is the distinctive characteristic also of all its genuinely great teachers and commentators.”

Our great biblical heroes, as well as our great spiritual heroes of all generations, were real human beings, not plaster saints.  They had real feelings, real conflicts. Many times they performed admirably; on some occasions they fell short.  To suggest that anyone is “perfect”—totally devoid of sin and error—is to misrepresent that person and to misrepresent truth.

There is a popular genre of “religious literature” that presents biographies of biblical and later religious luminaries as paragons of virtue, totally devoid of sin and inner conflict. In fact, such books are not authentic biographies, because they describe their heroes in an untruthful way. These personalities are drawn in such superlative terms, that readers will find it exceedingly difficult to identify with them or to emulate them.

There is an opposite tendency in some circles to point to every flaw and sin of our spiritual heroes, and to undermine their credibility as religious models. Our prophets and teachers are presented as though devoid of higher spiritual and moral qualities.

Just as it is false to overstate the perfection of our heroes, so it is false to undervalue their spiritual achievements. Rather, we must study their lives honestly, recognizing that these are remarkable individuals who reached great heights—and who had to struggle mightily to attain their levels of religious insight and righteousness.  Their failings can be as instructive to us as their successes.

Just as Truth is the seal of the Word of God, so is the pursuit of Truth the proper objective of all students of Torah and Jewish tradition.