Posts Tagged 'Theology'

7 Years of Emunah: Reflections on Faith and Fidelity

While her secular birthday was on September 2nd, Emunah’s Hebrew birthday is today. It is crazy to realize that today she is 7 years old. It is also crazy for me to pause to recognize that I have been writing this blog for 7 years. This blog started with her birth and I has grown along with her for the years. Every year around this time I reflect on Emunah, the name, person, and concept. I feel blessed to have them Emunah in my life.

As I have quoted before Martin Buber writes:

This ‘existential’ characteristic of Emunah is not sufficiently expressed in the translation ‘faith’, although the verb often does mean to believe (to believe someone, to believe a thing). It must further be noticed that the conception includes the two aspects of a reciprocity of permanence: the active, ‘fidelity’, and the receptive, ’trust’. If we wish to do justice to the intention of the spirit of the language which is so expressed, then we ought not to understand ’trust’ merely in a psychical sense, as we do not with ’fidelity’. The soul is as fundamentally concerned in the one as in the other, but is decisive for both that the disposition of the soul should become an attitude of life. Both, fidelity and trust, exist in the actual realm of relationship between two persons. Only in the full actuality of such a relationship can one be both loyal and trusting. (Two Types of Faith 28-29)

This year I take pause to thing about what it might mean to falter in one’s Emunah. The paradigm of this in the Talmud is the life of Elisha ben Abuyah a rabbi born in Jerusalem sometime before 70 CE who adopted a worldview considered heretical by his community. So why did he lose his Emunah? We learn in the Talmud:

‘How did this happen to him? He [Elisha] once saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree on the Sabbath, take the mother-bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the termination of the Sabbath he saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree and take the young but let the mother bird go free, and as he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed, ‘It is written, “Send away the mother bird, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days (Deuteronomy 22:7).” Where is the well-being of this man, and where is the prolonging of his days!’ He was unaware how Rabbi Akiva explained it, ‘That it may be well with you in the World [to Come] which is wholly good,’ And that you may prolong your days’ in the world which is unending. ( Hagigah 15b)

The Talmud depicts that Elisha lost his faith when he saw injustice in the world. As we see in Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, there is supposed to be a reward of life for sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs. In comparison Rabbi Akiva kept his faith because of his belief in a world to come where the perceived God’s injustice would be made right. In either of their cases it is about having or not having faith or belief. What about Buber’s idea of having fidelity and relationship?

It is said, “Mr Goldfarb goes to synagogue to be in relationship with God. I go to synagogue to be in relationship with Mr. Goldfarb”. It is interesting the Talmud does not say that Elisa did not believe Rabbi Akiva, but that he was unaware of his teaching. Is the assumption that if he was aware Elisha would have believed Rabbi Akiva? Maybe if Elisha was aware of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching he would have known that the system works for someone in his community and he would have stayed in relationship with Rabbi Akiva and his community.

Seven years later while Emunah my daughter might be a struggle times, my relationship with her is steadfast and unshakable, even if my relationship with faith is often a still struggle. Regardless I am still in dynamic relationship with my Emunah and look forward its development for many years to come.

 

 

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Push Pull Hold

I have said for many years that my Rabbinate is defined by three simple words: Push, Pull, and Hold. My job is to push people to take the Torah seriously, to pull them in by not taking myself too seriously, and to hold them when they need shelter from the storm. One might find it peculiar that “my calling” is not so centered on God. I am a man of the cloth, but where is the cloth?

I was thinking about this when reading Vayeira, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn that God appears to Avraham as he is looking out of his tent for people travelling in the  desert to bring in as guests. The Talmud explains that God was visiting him because Avraham was recovering from circumcising himself (Bava Metzia 86b). It isremarkable that God comes to visit Avraham at the moment when he is in the most pain and selflessly looking to help strangers. And where the strangers? According to the Talmud they were Gavriel, Michael, and Rafael (Bava Metzia 86b). Gavriel was sent to overturn Sodom, Michael was sent to inform Sarah of her pending pregnancy with Yitzhak, and Rafael was sent to heal Avraham after the aforementioned circumcision.

Reflect on my Rabbinate of pushing, pulling and holding I strive to look out of Avraham’s tent for my own strange angels. Gavriel was sent to destroy the city. In the start of  his Star of Redemption Franz Rosenzweig writes, “All knowing of the All begins in death, the fear of death”. All deep thinking comes when we are pushed to confront and not evade death as part of our lives. Michael was sent to tell of the coming of Yitzhak. Here in our portion we read, ”

And the angel said: ‘I will certainly return to you when the season comes round; and, lo, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Avraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And God said to Avraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is any thing too hard for God? At the set time I will return to you, when the season comes round, and Sarah shall have a son.’ Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And the Angel said: ‘No, you did laugh.’ (Genesis 18:10-15)

It seems absurd to have a child at her age. So much so that the child in question is named Yitzhak- after this laughter. God is pulling them in with the news of this child. God knows that the weight of Jewish history would be crushing if we did not have an amazing sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously. And finally we have Rafael who comes to cure Avraham.  Because some times we just need to be held and taken care of when things are tough.

The question that stays with me is if Avraham ever benefited from God’s visit. Was he too busy trying to be a good host ? Maybe he experienced God’s presence when he was helping others. I doubt my life is any different. I cannot claim to experience God with any regularity in my life. The closest I get is in helping others. Maybe God is in all of that pushing, pulling, and holding.

Taking Torah This Day

In the fourth aliyah of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read how Moses and the elders charged the people to set up large stones on Mount Ebal, coat them with plaster, and to inscribe on them all the words of the Torah as soon as they cross the Jordan River. There they are to build an altar to God made of stones on which no iron tool had struck, and they were to offer on it offerings to God and rejoice. At the end of the aliyah we read:

And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly. And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day you have become people to the Lord your God. You shall therefore listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do God’s commandments and God’s statutes, which I command you this day.’ ( Deuteronomy 27: 8-10)

On this Rabbi Yehudah asked what is meant by  “this day” ( Berachot 63b).  Was it on that day that the Torah was given to Israel; was that day not at the end of the 40 years of the wandering in the Wilderness? Rabbi Yehudah explained that the words “this day” served to teach that every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when God gave it at Sinai. But why at this moment are we reminded of the revelation at Sinai?

When my brother was in medical school he shared with me how they were teaching him to become a doctor. He said, ” To learn a procedure we would see one, do one, and teach one.” Different people will learn at different stages. For some people if they see something they will learn it right away. For  others they need to practice it to master it. And everyone will have mastered the procedure if they are able to teach someone else how to do the procedure. It has stayed with me throughout the years that this is probably true in the case of all learning.

It was one thing for the nation to see revelation at Sinai. Making these stone pillars was enacting a commandment of the Torah. On another level making these pillars was a national expression of our teaching the Torah to the world. While we might have been given the Torah at Sinai, it was only when we entered into the land and built these pillars that we took the Torah. Rabbi Yehudah was right. Every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when the nation of Israel took the Torah of Israel  in the land.

Revelation and Sustaining Our Community

When I was a Hillel Rabbi I had the fortune of helping a bunch of students apply to Rabbinical school. In my time on campus students went to almost all of the major schools. It is interesting to reflect that in one way or another each school’s application asked the potential student his/her perspective on Shavuot. OK, not the holiday, but his/her perspective on Revelation. This seemed to be based on an assumption that asking the applicant this epistemological question would clarify if the school was a good match.  With maybe one exception I would say that all of these students did not approach their interest in the Rabbinate in these terms. Rather, each one was drawn to the Rabbinate because s/he believed that becoming a Rabbi would help him/her make change in the Jewish community and contribute to the larger world. The idea of religious movement really came in as an afterthought to this broader vision. It seemed in almost all of the cases that this narrow idea of a specific movement was solely the trappings of the schools and not particularly relevant the student.

I was thinking about this when I started to read the beginning of  Behar Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years thou shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord; you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. ( Leviticus 25: 1-4)

In this portion we learn about the laws of Shmita. In this cycle the land is left to lie fallow on the 7th year and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden. Rashi asks an insightful question, ” Why are we talking about the matter of Shmita at Sinai?” Which is to say that the entire Torah is given at Sinai, why is this Torah portion outlining an ancient technique of creating a sustainable agriculture introduced as the laws that God “spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai”? It seems strange to single this law out. And maybe even more strange in that the Torah was given in Diaspora and this law was only going to be applicable in the Land of Israel.

When I think about these students I realize that many of them have already becomes or are about to become my peers. We were all drawn to the Rabbinate to create a more meaningful and sustainable Jewish community. I hope that all of us are contributing to the world in meaningful ways. But I am still worried. In the name of sharpening our skills, how has Rabbinical education dulled our initial visions to help the world? Has the lens of movement clouded our capacity to see the larger Jewish community and larger world?

In this sense I want to ask Rashi’s question in reverse. Why are we talking about the matter of Sinai when we are learning about Shmita? Do our understanding of what did or did not happen at Sinai really matter when it comes to making this world a better place? To what degree are the different understandings of Revelation or different movements of Jewish life still  relevant? So yes, I have fallen into the same trap of movement.  I call myself an Orthodox Rabbi.  But when asked what I am I will say that I am an Open Orthodox Rabbi.  And to a great degree I am still waiting to meet more Open Reform, Open Conservative, Open Reconstuctionist, Open Haredi, and Open Humanist colleagues. Repairing our fractured community scarred by a history of fighting movements might feel like moving mountains, but I hope it will make our community more sustainable.

Mark of a Tzadik

In Tazria-Metzora, this week’s Torah portion, we read about various forms of biblical ritual impurity. It addresses cleansing from skin disease (צָּרַעַת, tzara’at). What was tzara’at, this skin disease? The person with tzara’at has to present their case to a priest to determine the right course of action. Why would you need to present a medical case to anyone other than a doctor?

One approach  is simply that  tzara’at not a medical condition.  In the Talmud Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that skin disease results from seven things: slander, the shedding of blood, vain oath, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy (Arakhin 16a.) Even so, how would a priest help you deal with one of these seven sins?

Ideally the priests followed in the ways of Aaron. The priests tried to literally be the “disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace; love your fellow creatures and draw them nigh unto the Law!”( Avot 1:12) They were peacemakers. Who else would be able to deal with these seven sins?

I was thinking about the person of Aaron this past Shabbat. My wife was away and I was having Shabbat dinner with our three children. While I was making Kiddush Emunah (3)  started screaming. In response Yishama (6) yelled at her saying he hates her and her screaming and stormed off to the living room. Emunah started to cry. Without saying a word Yadid (9) went off to the living room leaving me head in hand. I have no idea what they talked about, but a couple of moments later Yadid returned to the dining-room.  He gently but his arm around his crying sister and said, “Yishama apologizes for what he said”. And just like that, we had peace again.

At that moment all I could think about was Aaron.  He was an ideal priest of the people, far more beloved for his kindly ways than was Moses. While Moses was stern and uncompromising, brooking no wrong, Aaron went about as peacemaker, reconciling man and wife when he saw them estranged, or a man with his neighbor when they quarreled, and winning evil-doers back into the right way by his friendly interactions. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12 and Sanhedrin 6b). I grabbed Yadid  and give him a big hug. I said to him that he is the gilgul, reincarnation, of Aaron. Yadid is a Tzadik.  I hope by the time Yadid reads this blog his tender soul is revealed to more of the world. But, for now I am happy that this Tzadik saved my Shabbat meal last week.

Having this experience with my son makes we question what else could restore peace to the world. Other then someone who works tirelessly to help people make peace for themselves, what else could heal the world? What else could remove the blemish of one of these seven sins?

I hope that this Shabbat goes smoother for everyone. Shabbat Shalom.

Where I Stand

I work on the fourth floor of an office building in Manhattan. This week my eyes glanced up in the elevator and I noticed that my building does not have a 13th floor. I realize that is common, but it still seems strange that it goes from 12 to 12A to 14. And in some buildings they just skip the floor completely.  It seemed a little crazy that in an industrialized country in the 21st century we still have a fear of the number 13. What is the origin of Triskaidekaphobia?

According to Cecil Adams:

But 13’s stock dropped like a rock in the middle ages. The proximate cause of this apparently was the observation that Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, made 13 at the table. Other great medieval minds, I read here, pointed out that “the Jews murmured 13 times against God in the exodus from Egypt, that the thirteenth psalm concerns wickedness and corruption, that the circumcision of Israel occurred in the thirteenth year,” and so on.

Pretty thin excuse for maligning a number that never meant any harm, you may think. I agree. We must inquire further, and if we do we conclude that while open hostility to 13 may be relatively recent, folks have had their suspicions about it for quite a while. Thirteen is a prime; primes have always attracted attention (compare 7). What’s worse, 13 is one past 12, the dozen, almost universally regarded as a perfect number, signifying harmony and all good things. Thirteen, by contrast, is a number of transgression, taking matters one step too far, turning harmony into discord. ( The Straight Dope)

Having just finished Passover, I am not that interested in any more Last Supers, but I am interested in the idea of going beyond perfection and or the norm. 13 is just past the perfect 12 ( Hours in 1/2 a day, months in a year, tribes, and of course the disciples). But why is this bad and not good?

In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the ceremony to ordain the priests and consecrate the Tabernacle on the eighth day. Moses instructed Aaron to assemble calves, rams, a goat, a lamb, an ox, and a meal offering as sacrifices to God, saying: “Today the Lord will appear to you.” ( Leviticus 9:1-4) They brought the sacrifices to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and the Israelites assembled there. Aaron began offering the sacrifices as Moses had commanded on this the eighth day. What is the significance of the number eight?

Seven are the days of creation.  This eighth day is the first commemoration of the first day of creation.( Megilah 10b)  It is the number of the natural world. Eight is also one day beyond God’s creation. Eight is the number related to our impact on the world. Eight is what makes us partners in creating the world. Similarly we perform a Brit Milah on the eighth day. While in Jewish imagination we are born without sin, it does not mean that we are born perfect. We still have work to do to better ourselves. The number eight corresponds to our realizing our role in the universe.

It seems that both 7 and 12 represent important natural numbers. Going one beyond these numbers is a mixed lot. For us as Jews the number eight is an auspicious number, and for our neighbors the number thirteen is not as lucky. So I am confused when I get off on the 12A-th floor, but at least on the “eighth day” I know where I stand. I still have a lot of work to do to realized my role in making the world a better place.

 

In Your Face Empathy

In BeShalach, last week’s Torah portion, we learned of the splitting of the sea. There we read, “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14: 21) At the start of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion we learn that Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law comes to meet Moses and the Israelites. There we read, ” Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ( Exodus 18:1) Why did Yitro come? He heard of the great miracles of the Exodus, especially the splitting of the sea. But, how did he hear? When discussing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Sages rationalized that this exception to the rule of science, must have happened every where on the world if it happened at all. Rashi (on Exodus 14:21) brings down the idea  (from the Mehilta and Shemot Rabba 21:6) that “all the waters of the world also split at that time” .

So the water in Yitro’s cup divided, but why did he run to get Zipporah and the grand kids in the car to see Moses?  The miracle of the splitting of the sea was not just that the Isrealites escaped their slave masters, but that it created a narrative with which everyone could relate. The story was not in a far off sea, but right there on our table. All too often we are not sympathetic to a cause until we connect with it on a person level. It is easy to turn a blind eye to someone who is suffering, until you look that person in the eyes.  In my mind this points a deep lesson in the power on empathy.

I was thinking about this lesson  when I saw a recently posted TED talk. In this video photographer iO Tillett Wright pushes us to see past the having check boxes like “female,” “male,” “gay” or straight”. She is the creator of Self Evident Truths—an ongoing project to document the wide variety of experiences in LGBTQ America. So far, she has photographed about 2,000 people for the project. Her goal: 10,000 portraits and a nationwide rethinking of discriminatory laws. Please watch:

In the words of Jewish Philosopher  Emmanuel Levinas, “the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me . . . the face presents itself, and demands justice. (Totality and Infinity 207, 294) In the spirit of Yitro, it is hard looking at the pictures of iO Tillett Wright and not heeding  the call and working for equality and justice for all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. When we see the humanity in another person, we cannot help but have empathy for that person. We feel that we are connected. And as Yitro teaches us, that is just what family does. Regardless if it is for a celebration or morning, we show up.


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