Monday, November 17, 2014

From the Prescribed Details of our Sacrifices in Ancient Times to Multi-Faith Interaction Today

Here I am still plowing through the details of the Karbanot – the sacrifices – those aspects of the life of our ancestors that defined in so many ways our relationship to G-d and the essence of who we are as the people of Israel in Masechet Yoma of the Talmud. The details of the offerings, their order and specific elements is dizzying after a while, and I just have to get up and walk around and think about what I just read, knowing fully well that I only absorbed a small amount of the information conveyed. Elements are repeated continually and various Rabbinic strategies of studying the language of Torah are utilized to indicate the specific nature of each and every offering. One of the messages conveyed in this process is the unique nature of each element of the Karbanot/sacrifices and that one should not be confused for the other, no matter how similar they may appear (to the untrained eye perhaps?!?). There is an important lesson here, of course!

In my many involvements in inter-faith and multi-faith work, I often find that not only does this work build important and strong bridges so very needed in our fractured world, but I also confirm my own strength as an observant Jew. Yes, those very interactions that so many of my co-religionists will not partake in are so much a part of my life and the lives of our family. I often teach that at the end of the day, “more unites us than divides us” and we would all do well to remember that. This being said, let us not forget to focus a bit on what divides us, because these differences are as important as those elements we share. In fact, I believe that the only way that honest sharing and dialogue can occur is if we see, respect, acknowledge and honor these differences. To obliterate the specific beliefs and practices of those with whom we interact and to not acknowledge powerful differences does not accomplish the goal of understanding and interaction. We all must bring our honest game and selves to the table. Otherwise, I do not truly SEE the other and then any acceptance of the other is really not an acceptance of them but rather a superficial nod to what I feel is similar about them and myself. This is NOT interreligious dialogue and interfaith understanding.

Whenever I have taught about the sacrifices, I always pose the question about why there are so many clear details not only given, but as I continue in my study of Masechet Yoma, they are repeated again and again. Why is this? Sacrifices were the standard of observance in our ancient world much like prayer is in our world today. Everyone was doing it!

Recently I was at a gathering of our area’s multi-faith council. The Reform Rabbi of the congregation that housed the group began the meal by explaining the Motzei, the prayer we say over bread and the meal that comes with it, to the group of whom the vast majority were Christians of many different streams. It was really interesting to watch the group and to note the respect everyone showed towards each other. I quietly went out to wash my hands first and then joined the group with my lunch that I had brought from home so that I not compromise my standard of Kashrut and yet can sit among these wonderful people. It was truly a feeling of shared experience and acknowledging that we are distinct as well as part of an entity. One need not come at the expense of the other. When I completed eating, I quietly said the blessing after food, Birkat HaMazon, to myself.

During our conversations, many people around the table remarked how they felt they could be comfortable in many of the faith communities represented. Much of the talk was about the similarities that were expressed. In my mind, I was definitely registering differences as well that I am sure will continue to be explored as we continue to meet, and I suspect have been discussed at other times (note that I am new to the group but it has been meeting for many years; it is safe to say that there has never been an identified Orthodox Jew in the group, and this was confirmed). One way some of these differences came through was when people were asking questions of clarification of each other. This was wonderful and definitely brings about the types of inter-faith dialogue that is so valuable.

When our ancestors were offering their various sacrifices, it is so important to remember that they were not the only ones doing so. Sacrifice was an important element of the way that people worshipped in so many cultures. That is to say, that it is not the act of sacrifice that distinguished the Jewish people, but the specific details structuring their offering that did so. This is why the details are so important and bear repeating – so we do not confuse the elements of our practice with those of other peoples even though there are similarities.

Unfortunately too many people in our world today do not value religion as they have been worn down by the abuses and misuses we have witnessed in its name. This is, to me, definitely throwing the baby away with the bathwater. I think religion and faith is so critical to our well-being as members of our human family. I know that this sentiment is shared by the people with whom I sat at our multi-faith council last week! If we can all communicate to those around us this wonderful balance of sharing what unites us with the details that identify our specific type of worship and belief we will accomplish so much that our past gives us and hopefully use it to truly build meaningful and lasting bridges of understanding.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What do Kohanim and their required state of purity have in common with CEOs and their required state of focus?

I have always been somewhat bothered by and thus reticent to learn about the Kohanim and specifically the Kohen HaGadol (the priests and the High Priest of the ancient Jewish community respectively) and their needed state of purest purity, with all of the accompanying prohibitions regarding involvements that could potentially divert their attention from the tasks of their office. Specifically, many of these laws have to do with their need to separate from their wives during times of service as well as additional restrictions regarding whom they can marry. To be sure there are other proscriptions regarding their lives, many of which are laid out in Masechet Yoma, dedicated primarily to the complicated and intensely detailed service of the High Priest as we narrate (at least part of it) during the Avodah prayers of Yom Kippur.

Then when I think again about these restrictions in terms of our modern lives, it occurs to me that people are making these decisions all of the time. How many people are “workaholics” forgoing family functions and personal relations and connections for the sake of their profession in our world today? These are choices that are made for individual and defined goal achievement, for the greater good of an institution and so on. It is often considered a noble choice and at times, perceived as a great deal of self-sacrifice in our contemporary society. Think about the CEO today who has such great responsibility for the positions of others, the maintaining of institutions they have either created or taken the reins of control for, and the volumes of hours they spend away from family life and personal involvements for the sake of these institutions. Then there is the research scientist, the medical doctor, the lawyer, the statesman, the public official, the educator, and so many others. We have indeed on many levels become a society of workaholics, all dedicated to important causes and professional goals. The ultimate betterment of our society as a result of these decisions, and degrees of dedication varies, as does the element of personal gain in terms of monetary benefits and reputation. The difference is that in the case of the Kohanim, their focus was required for the sake of the entire community and therefore their single-mindedness and dedication to the task at hand was critical; the very well-being of an entire nation depends on it and G-d commands it.

We often comment on how our leaders tend to age before our eyes. Golda Meir, herself, bemoaned how while she is considered by the world to be the mother of a nation, she was not the mother she should have been to and for her own children. We all know those people who are on 24/7 call and yet try to balance their lives to insure that other important facets of their existence are included and hopefully not slighted. In our lives today, more and more of us are the ultimate jugglers, balancing many different facets of our existence simultaneously. We also note that with the best and most sincere and honest of intentions, mistakes are made and focus is lost. We are mere human beings and this is just the reality of who and what we are – flawed humans.

This was not an option for the Kohanim and the Kohen HaGadol. In fact, if there was a flaw, a “moom,” that Kohen had to be excused from service. No flaws and no lapse of attention was a possibility for this important service. Therefore, the Kohanim could not go to work with various worries on their mind so to speak. They had to be single-minded and solely dedicated to their service, on behalf of them, but more importantly, the entire community. Perhaps these restrictions were there to insure, as much as possible, that this would be the case.

Further, the Kohanim and Kohen HaGadol had to be pure and as “perfect” as possible in their being and in their service. It was acknowledged that the Kohanim, and even the Kohen HaGadol, did not have to be, nor were they always the most intelligent or the most honorable of the population. Nonetheless, they had to be above reproach and laws and dictates are set in place to insure that this would be the situation as much as possible. This had a significant impact on whom they married, what they did and where they went.

Being a Kohen or a Kohen HaGadol in our Jewish past was clearly a calling that was so demanding it went far above and beyond the normal rhythm of life. Therefore, those that held these positions had to be protected from a lot of the potential downfalls of that normal life. I think that there is a lesson here for all of us. We, too, need to acknowledge our flaws as human beings and navigate the many different demands on our time and energy in a way that is respectful and honoring the many different aspects of our responsibilities. The point is that the Kohen and yes, even the Kohen HaGadol WAS PERMITTED and in fact WAS SUPPOSED to have a family and be part of the larger society and then have restrictions set in place to enable that experience of his own humanity in a reasonable way, given the importance of his office. Perhaps, for him this was to keep perspective in that no matter how important his WORK was, he was also a human being. All the more, we must remember this about ourselves.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


This week we begin the story of our hero, Avraham Aveinu in Parshat Lech Lecha. We are mindful that this is a pivotal moment in the history of humanity in that we now have evidence and general consensus on different levels that some one who lived around 1948 in our calendar of 5775 years began an ongoing relationship with G-d that was filled with accountability and intentionality. This first intentional monotheist, claimed by the three Monotheistic religions and others as a prophet, Patriarch and so much else is known to us as Avraham Aveinu.

This past week, when we went to visit our son at SUNY Binghamton. we dovened at Chabad. There was something about the avirah that inspired me to really be particularly attentive. So, it was definitely one of those instances where something we have read so many times looked new and novel to us all of a sudden. As we read in the beginning of Shacharit on Shabbat, I noticed a lovely passage in which G-d makes a covenant with Avraham that comes to us from Divrei HaYamim I: 16: 8ff when David brings the Aron HaKodesh into the sanctified space.

… HaShem, our G-d; over all the earth are G-d’s judgments. Remember G-d’s Covenant forever – the word that G-d commanded for a thousand generations – that G-d made (covenanted) with Avraham and G-d’s vow to Yitzchak.

The word that is used to express this action of making a covenant here with Avraham Aveinu is כרת . This would be the word that does not fit if we were playing that Sesame Street game “Which of these isn’t like the rest?” There are four pivotal words in this phrase in the Hebrew text: BERIT (covenant), TZIVAH (commanded), KARAT (made a covenant) and SHEVUATO (his vow). I found this use of this root Kaf-Reish-Taf in the word KARAT interesting as this particular word/root is used copious times in our Tanach and elsewhere to indicate the exact opposite – to cut down or out. In fact this is the word to use for cutting off someone from the people – a most ominous thought. It also refers to a bill of divorcement.

And here it is meaning exactly the opposite of its various derivations and forms. In the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon of word usage in the Tanach, only one other reference is made to this meaning of covenanting in Isaiah 57.8 but is suspected to be a corruption of the text in the RV translation rendered from the Septuagint. In so many cases, all that I have found in fact, this is not the meaning of כרת.

So how do we explain this anomaly? Let us step aside from this question for a moment and we will come back to it. I want to introduce a new question. WHY AVRAHAM/AVRAM? This is an oft-asked query as there are those who posit that Avraham really was not anything special. What do we know about him that so many of us live as his offspring, so to speak?

Consider the following teaching by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks provided in his Parsha thoughts on this reading in 5771, four years ago:

"The most influential man who ever lived, does not appear on any list I have seen of the hundred most influential men who ever lived. He ruled no empire, commanded no army, engaged in no spectacular acts of heroism on the battlefield, performed no miracles, proclaimed no prophecy, led no vast throng of followers, and had no disciples other than his own child. Yet today more than half of the 6 billion people alive on the face of the planet identify themselves as his heirs.

His name, of course, is Abraham, held as the founder of faith by the three great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He fits no conventional stereotype. He is not, like Noah, described as unique in his generation. The Torah tells us no tales of his childhood as it does in the case of Moses. We know next to nothing about his early life. When G-d calls on him, as he does at the beginning of this week’s parasha, to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, we have no idea why he was singled out.

Yet never was a promise more richly fulfilled than the words of G-d to him when He changed his name from Abram to Abraham:

“For I have made you father of many nations…” (Gen. 17: 5).

There are today 56 Islamic nations, more than 80 Christian ones, and the Jewish state. Truly Abraham became the father of many nations. But who and what was Abraham? Why was he chosen for this exemplary role?"

Sacks goes on to suggest that it is due to the fact that by virtue of his deeds, he shows that he is a worthy human, if not an exemplary “man of his generation” as we learned last week about Noach. He tells us that Avraham does three things that distinguish him:

1. As we learn in the Midrash about him in his father’s idol workshop, he smashes and breaks things that are not meaningful and exposes them for the empty shells they are.

2. In another story from our lore, Avraham comes to realize that the world/universe has One Absolute Ruler, a new concept in many ways as the result of a dream he has.

3. Maimonides tells us that Avraham was quite the philosopher, discerning proof of G-d’s presence in the world before Aristotle and others will even begin to ask such questions.

For this reason, we are taught, Avraham distinguished himself as one who believed. According to Sacks, this was based on his beliefs, which inform his actions, and not the other way around as many may suppose and many more do. If one takes this notion seriously, we begin to understand that while we may question Avraham’s actions as the Monday morning quarterbacks we love to be (Why did he argue on behalf of Sodom and Amorah? Why did he send Hagar and Yishmael away? Why did he agree to the instruction to prepare his son Yitzchak as a sacrifice?), we come to comprehend that we DO NOT have to the ones who understand why Avraham did what he did. He did these things, according to Sacks, Rambam and others precisely because he intuited what G-d wanted from him and was more than willing to play his part, even acting in ways that others around him may not have and certainly did not understand from the vantage point that reason would afford.

It is this that earns him the merit of the three-fold promise bestowed upon him by G-d, indicating that he will be the father of many, will have land and many nations that will be blessed because of him.

Only one who truly had such faith and belief in G-d deserved the multi-faceted ברית that AVRAHAM AVEINU was given by AVEINU BASHAMAYIM. Sacks focuses on this notion – Avraham as father who can stand as a role model of a believing man who has a relationship with his G-d – this is his most salient and powerful role. He is indeed worthy of being the FATHER OF MANY NATIONS, as he is promised and his new name of AVRAHAM will reflect.

We still have not resolved my issue with the word in question – KARAT. So here is what I came up with. To have an opposite meaning of a Hebrew word and its developed root with the change of a vowel is not unusual – it is present all the time to preserve sanctity (e.g. Birkat HaShem; Kadesha, etc.). But I really think something else is going on here. COVENANT IS ABOUT CUTTING ONE SELF OFF…. Let’s think about this. One makes a covenant to marry someone and in doing so cuts one self off from a certain level of relations with all else. The Brit Avraham made with G-d was AFTER he exposed the idols and other objects of false belief and empty value through his actions. In order to COVENANT, to be party to a BRIT, one has to first cut one self off from all others, KARET! Just as a United States citizen, with very few exceptions, cannot maintain allegiances to other countries when becoming naturalized; when one makes this all encompassing affirmation of an exclusive relationship, other ties recede in importance.

So where does this leave us? We are members of the Jewish people. We are part of an entire world. That world is filled with so many nations that come from Avraham and there are other nations from the sons of Noach as well. We are part of this world and AT THE SAME TIME, must separate ourselves from them and their actions when we are consider our role in the BRIT with G-d. We are to maintain our own standards and behaviors as the Metzuvim that we are, regardless of what is going on around us. We are to take needed actions, stand up for others and do so many other things even when, and especially when this is not the normal tone of any society in which we live. This is the lesson of Avraham. This is what makes him worthy of his status in history – that he apparently, as the story is told, understood this and passes this legacy on to us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lessons from Masechet Yoma about Moral Corruption of our Leaders

So here we are again with yet another controversy surrounding questionable and problematic practices of a highly respected Rabbinic leader in our larger Jewish community, with potentially devastating consequences for members of our Jewish community and converts who have come into that entity, expecting the high moral standards that we like to think we represent. Before going any further, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that in many if not most cases, this is indeed a fair and appropriate expectation.

That being said, here we are again with the complex moral quandary guided by Halacha in how do we balance NOT turning a blind eye to those who have been harmed and not perpetuating the misdeeds by ignoring them, while also not judging prematurely and giving the benefit of the doubt to the one suspected of misdeeds? Clearly, I am writing in obtuse terms for just this set of reasons and out of a sensibility that ALL who have felt the impact of events recently brought to light must be protected. I found out about this recent situation under the cloak of the protection of the last days of Chag this past week – definitely exemplifying the principle of “HaPares Sukkat Shalomecha” – the notion that we ask for G-d’s protective cloak of peace and well-being to be upon us. To say I was shocked and deeply saddened about the evidence that was mounting up against the Rabbinic leader in question is an understatement. It did cast a pall on my celebration and observance, as I pondered the impact of this “matzav” or situation regarding someone I know to be so highly respected in a part of the Jewish ideological spectrum that is so often under attack – namely the Modern Orthodox world.

Finally, Motzei Shabbat, I checked news sources and the gravity of what was going on began to truly set in. Then on Monday morning, when I resumed my daily Gemara study, lo and behold I am learning Dapim 9a nd 9b of Masechet Yoma. The topic that just glared out at me?! Corruption of leadership! On these dapim, there is a discussion of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the reasons given for the destruction of the First Temple (idol worship, sexual improprieties, and taking of life) and the Second Temple (hurtful and harmful speech that destroys, which is set as even more serious than all of the previous misdeeds stated in terms of its endless impact). Further, there is discussion about the pervasive harm of the leaders of the Jewish people who did indeed engage in behaviors that then spread and negatively influenced all. Eli’s sons are cited for their idol worship and sexual immorality, and of course the many ways we “spill blood” by such negative actions. These actions poison the sanctity of the community and ultimately will lead to their negatively altered existence.

In one statement of protest in the Talmudic discussion, it is posited that the sons of Eli and others did not “miss the mark” or commit a sin (chet) but rather a mistake was made in thinking this the case. Here we have a problem, precisely the problem many of us are confronting at this moment in time. Do we just say “a mistake was made” and go on; or do we understand and come to terms with the serious nature of what is being revealed about what has happened and call people who need to be held accountable to that standard of accountability? Are all “mistakes” of equal value? What happens when leaders who set the tone (and standards!) for our community engage in behaviors that are absolutely forbidden and harmful, be they mistakes or a “chet?”

We LIKE to think we do not have misconduct of leaders in our community. We LIKE to think there is not bullying in our Jewish lives. We LIKE to think that Halacha guarantees living by a higher standard of correctitude. However, what we LIKE to think and what the reality is – are not always the same thing! For the reality MUST take into consideration the human factor – the notion that we are always dealing with human beings that are fraught with frailties and weaknesses and faults. This is precisely why we ask for forgiveness DAILY and why we have just gone through this pensive time of Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim, reminding us of our frail nature as mere “beings of flesh and blood.” The irony of timing of this situation is not lost on anyone, having occurred so soon after this time of serious consideration – and right at the time of Hoshanah Rabbah, the point at which the final gate, we are told, closes as G-d continues the role of Judge of all of us.

As a human being, I am pained by the misuse and abuse of human beings by other members of this human family of which we are all part. As a Jew, I am particularly hurt when members of our Jewish family use their positions of leadership for ill-gotten gains in terms of benefits to them and/or hurt to others. As a Modern Orthodox Jew who often “gets slammed” from both/all sides of the ideological spectrum, I am particularly devastated when one who has stood for so much in terms of the morality and ethics of Jewish life has succumbed to one’s own weaknesses and misused the position of leadership entrusted to him. We should all remember, however, that it is not the system that is broken, but rather we are reminded that no system is impervious to the weaknesses and faults of the human beings who oversee its operation. The phrase that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” must be invoked here as we remember that all of us, LEADERS included, must hold onto the humility that reminds us of our limits and that ALL OF US are answerable to Ribbonu shel Olam for all of our actions!

May Ribbonu shel Olam continue to spread the protective covering of peace and well-being on all of Israel and help each and every one of us to continue to find our way and hold all members of our leadership accountable in appropriate ways.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Families of Faith, Please Stand Up and Be Counted!

As we continue our Chagim, we think about the Torah cycle of readings, for which we will celebrate both the completion and the beginning on Simchat Torah in a few days. At that point, we will finish up with the final words of Moshe of reminder, caution and consideration of who and what we are as the inheritors of the traditions and teachings of Torah. Immediately after that we will begin with the story of Creation of all things by the Creator of all things in the first chapters of Bereshit, the very beginning of our story as the human family we are. Within the first chapters in that first weekly reading, we begin with narratives of family dysfunction and flawed individuals – that is the telling of how we survive our own shortcomings and personality deficits. On one hand, we might wonder what is the point of these stories? On the other hand, there is a very important underlying story of continuity here – namely that of the influence of our families on us and on our journeys in this world of which we are all part.

While none of our patriarchs or matriarchs are flawless, that is precisely the point! There is something bigger carrying them through the ramifications and consequences of their own actions and misdeeds. That something bigger is the FAITH to which they all hold on in the most difficult and confusing of times. So it is with us as well. While it is easy to believe and proclaim to have faith when things are going well, it is specifically when the going gets tough, that we find ourselves having to be tough in faith instead of fulfilling the second part of the statement, as we know it… the tough get going. Instead we hold on for dear life and reaffirm our faith, in our own self, in G-d, and yes, in our families and those that surround us.

We hear so much talk about individuals of faith and faith communities, so I want us to think for a moment about families of faith and whether or not we are setting the stage for this phenomenon in our lives. All studies show that the most powerful element in a person’s life is not camp, school, peer group or any other group affiliation though all of these are indeed capable of and do make lasting impacts. The number one influential unit to which we all belong is FAMILY!

So what does this mean practically? We know that our family units are so foundational to our identity and that it is within those units that we have the most available option to teach our youngest members and confirm for our older members what it means to be family – to care about another, to share, to put the other first, to love the other as one loves one self and so much more. It is in our families that we get to teach our children to be strong and to stand up for what they believe. We are often taught that the primary gathering place in which Judaism occurs daily is the home, even called Mikdash Katan (the smaller replica of the Hallowed Temple).

Yes, to be sure, as in the case with the generational narrative of Bereshit, there is a multitude of challenges in our families, but the point of family is that we do not walk away. Jacob DOES come back to meet Esau in spite of everything; Abraham DOES send EACH and EVERY ONE OF HIS CHILDREN away with something meaningful, the brothers and YOSEPH do come back together. Why? Would not one think that their fractured relationships were beyond repair? Yes, in many ways they were just so and with understandable reason. That being said, Yishmael and Yitzchak came back together to bury their father and Yoseph is reunited with the very family that left him deserted so many years earlier. There are tears of reconciliation, coming to terms with differences and acceptance of inherent inequities that mark families for generations in Bereshit. Many of our commentators talk at considerable length about foreknowledge, belief in G-d and the trials and tests of faith that mark the narratives of these Patriarchs and Matriarchs that are our ancestors.

As we move past Yom Kippur and the Ten Days of Repentance and so much talk about ourselves, as individuals, and our communities, let us remember the very important place in the equation of who we are that is played by our families. It is not easy to be a family of faith and praxis, but to do so enriches our lives immeasurably. As we continue to read about these families and their misdeeds and coming to terms with their shortcomings and less than idea relationships, let us consider that maybe, just maybe, they understood how pivotal their role as units would be to the continuation of the people who actually even carry the very name of Children of Israel, the name that was attributed to Yaakov.

As we share these stories and their personae with our friends, children and family, let us remember to look at them realistically and NOT to whitewash what they did that was not ideal. The only way we will learn from them is to look and see who they were in reality – as individuals and as families. May we all continue to have and pass on to future generations this most precious gift that we can actualize and share in our families, that of faith and belief in so much about ourselves individually and collectively, through both our successes and our derailments.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another Lesson from Masechet Eruvin: Balancing Leniencies in Jewish Law with Insuring Our Children Do Not Forget How to Practice their Judaism

One of the Jewish areas of law that has often puzzled me is that of Eiruv, that set of rules and regulations that govern movement and transporting of things on Shabbat. For many Jewish practitioners, this is not something that is often on the radar screen. Yet, for those of us who do worry about this defining element of domain in which we can walk our strollers, carry food, or just hold onto our house key, this is a factor of our lives every week on Shabbat. Let’s begin with the fact that moving our selves or things that we may wish or need to use in an unfettered manner is one of the 39 defined areas of WORK that are proscribed on Shabbat according to Jewish Law. We are not the only ones who have difficulty finding a category into which Transportation and Transporting should properly be placed. Even in the United States Government, the history of this department and what comes under it and what does not as well as who supervises it has shown interesting developments through the history of our government, leading to questions of its status not unlike those in Jewish law.

So what is the big deal in moving one self or something in one’s possession from place to place? After all, you are not changing its status, creating anything, destroying anything, improving it (generally, unless it is plants for example, that need sunlight), or in any way truly altering its substance, as IS the case in the other 38 forms of Melacha (work) as defined by Shabbat observance guidelines. It is clear that this was puzzling as well to the Rabbis and authorities of the Mishnah and Gemara as indicated in the rather long and detailed discussions dedicated to this issue. And further, how can placing a string with posts (what is called an Eruv, and is actually one of three types of categories in declaring such domain) around a community to define it as such override so many proscribed actions associated with moving things or people?

Within the laws of Eiruv, those actions or intentional initiatives that effect movement of objects on Shabbat are described in great detail and often, there are NOT clear conclusions reached, or alternatively, the discussion ends with one practice being accepted by some authorities while another one is the custom of yet others. This tells me something – namely that the sanctity of Shabbat is so important that every change one makes, including movement, is to be a conscious affair – and yet, we are not supposed to get so lost in the details and proscriptions that we lose the joy and richness of Shabbat. Therefore, the deliberations are valid, while we are to be careful in terms of not observing every possible level of strict adherence excessively. The point is NOT to limit our lives to the point of discomfort, but rather to adhere to the nature and the different domain of time that is Shabbat by thinking about and making pointed differences in our domain of movement on Shabbat.

Within the laws of Eiruv, I found the expression of the following three elements that are present within the context of many detailed discussions about what may or may not be moved from this type of domain to another specified area:

a) The use of Eiruv is to enhance and increase one’s joy and not create a burden;

b) When leniencies can be used, they should be implemented; and

c) We should maintain laws of Eiruv so our children do not forget its use and purpose.

Within the many stringencies that are presented, there are also a great deal of practical details that is needed and appropriate for the reality of the time and the way in which people lived. Access to bodies of water (remembering that this is BIP – Before Indoor Plumbing), placement of food (in this age of BR, Before Refrigeration), movement of utensils, walking to a designated location and so many other aspects of daily life will look different on Shabbat because the essence of Shabbat itself is so different.

Yet within this framework, it is often determined who can use what area for transporting of things that are used according to who benefits the most. In other words, if one has to climb a high wall to get to something, this is difficult and therefore its being allowed is a great source of discussion. Will the acquisition of said object take away from the rest and re-creation of Shabbat? Therefore, judgments offered by the Rabbis of the Talmud are based on “who gets comfort and enjoyment through the use of X” in many cases.

As a ritualistically observant Jew, I am very aware that movement of items and their use, so taken for granted on weekdays, IS INDEED a conscious and intentional matter on Shabbat. Further, I do not think that this is not a good thing. What many people may look at as inconveniences is actually one of the things that make Shabbat so special. If Shabbat is, as has been suggested, G-d’s weekly STOP SIGN, then using that to think about our selves and our movement makes sense to me in the context of intentional living.

Another teaching that often peppers the discussions and deliberations of Masechet Eiruv is that when one can use a leniency, one should do so. I am often so amazed at how individuals in our community will in fact go for the most restrictive understanding of Jewish Law when in fact there are often such warnings to not use too many stringencies. This is to make our lives comfortable and meaningful (as indicated in topic #1 above), not be an obstacle course. I think we would do well to remember this aspect of Jewish Law – it is NOT a matter of who can be the most strict in all cases, but rather how we achieve meaningful observance!

Finally, we are to teach and use the laws of Eiruv intentionally so that our children will not forget them. What a lovely idea! We should observe and live in a way that our children will remember and utilize in their lives. Now where have I heard that before?!? It is also important to remember that our children will observe not just what we practice but how we do so and how we accept the observances and practices of others, as did the Rabbis of the Talmud. No, our children should not forget the practices that have tied generations one to the other, nor should they forget the humility and questions, some of which are still not resolved, about those practices.

After this intensive study, I know I will never look at this string that wraps and defines my community in the same way again, and will feel differently about preparing my Eiruv Tavshilin for Hagim/Shabbat observances. Yes, the details of the observances are important, but even more so is the notion of how this limitation of movement better facilitates the joy, rest and remembrance of so much that is important on the Shabbat day.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Do Not Live Amongst a Talebearer, A Lesson of What is Really Important in Jewish Law

I find it fascinating that according to Jewish Law, we are specifically proscribed from living amongst and participating in social interactions with those who gossip. Yet, not only are we NOT adjoined not to live with those who believe differently than we do or who do not observe Kashrut or Shabbat, but rather, there are long discussions throughout Jewish law about how we interact with these neighbors, how we are to do business with non-Jews in a scrupulously honest matter, and so forth .

Let’s really think about this a bit. For example, in learning about how one creates an intentional community (as described in Masechet Eruvin) there are long discussions about the inclusion of property owned by non-Jews in communities where Jews reside and need to negotiate movement on Shabbat, about how one can or cannot take over ownership/rights to such property in business arrangements, with the approach of Shabbat, no less, and how one can or cannot carry and move things in a community with mixed populations. This is all to say that we have always understood a couple of basic truths:

1. We will live in areas that have mixed populations of Jews and non-Jews.

2. There are regulations that we must follow to maintain both the integrity of those relationships and the adherence we, as Jews, have to a life of MITZVAH individually as well as collectively.

3. These regulations are designed to maintain our own community as well as good relations with others, as we are told elsewhere that we should always give some of our resources (Tzedakah) to non-Jewish causes, we are not to take advantage of ANY human being in our midst, and so forth.

As I often teach my students, we cannot be an OR LAGOYIM in the corner of ME’AH SHEARIM – think about the statement. In other words, we HAVE to be part of the big vast world in which we live in order to truly have an impact on it. This is truly a responsibility. It means finding ourselves in spaces in which keeping Kashrut or Shabbat might be a challenge, but this we do. Further, we are to do it without compromising the integrity of others in our midst, for ALL HUMAN BEINGS, according to our belief as Jews, are created by THE CREATOR of all!

WHAT WE ARE NOT TO DO is to become insular and subject to the ills of society such as tale-bearing, gossip and doing damage to others around us in use of our words, our business practices and any other of the “24/7 Mitzvot” that govern the very way we live our lives with consistency and in the spirit of Mitzvah. We are enjoined to follow this practice both in terms of other members of the Jewish community and all members of society.

In the Jewish world, we find ourselves in the period of Selichot for ALL of us at this point, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, Jews of all ideological movements, and so forth. Take a moment at some point to really look at the Vidui and notice HOW MANY of these missed marks in our lives are about these 24/7 Mitvot. Then notice how Religion too often in our fractured world has such a bad name due to extremist expressions, which unfortunately do plague ALL of our religious groupings. Look back at the Vidui. Imagine (in the words of John Lennon) if we would all truly observe these practices – that is stop ourselves before spreading a rumor, hurting someone else with our words, speaking falsely, and participating generally in such activity either actively or passively.

IMAGINE… what such actions would do to curb bullying, help our fellow human beings feel better about themselves and maybe eventually others as well, and change the tone and the impact of our interactions with others. What steps we would all be taking to truly heal our fractured world – to do the real and dedicated work of TIKKUN OLAM.

As 5775 is ready to dawn, let us all imagine what a world we could all help to make if we continue to work on our personal religious and ritual selves as well as intentionally create community with those who will heal it and not compromise the collective. Shanah Tovah U’Metukah to all and may this coming year be a one of healing words and actions for all of us.