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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.”