Rembrandt, the Holocaust and the Quest for Authenticity

As we are in the season of Yom Hashoa, I think of Rembrandt’s superb Large Self-Portrait, which is exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It cast a spell on me when I first saw it. But on Yom Hashoa it invites thoughts that penetrate deeper and deeper into my very being. When trying to do the impossible—imagining what happened to members of my family and to millions of other Jews who perished in the Holocaust—Rembrandt’s self portrait awakens me from my slumber.

Ba’al Teshuvah Twice Over

Poet Robert Bly speaks of two periods of “opening” in human life, roughly between 18 and 23 years of age, and then again sometime in one’s mid-40s. The first of these coincides with our college years, a time of notable openness to new ideas, new ways. It was as a freshman at Yeshiva College that I was introduced to serious religion, and I became an enthusiastic participant. My engagement lasted only five years. I was very much in love with the Orthodox life, the practices, and the learning. But for better or worse I had a philosophical conscience.

Exciting News from the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

Spring 2013

We are very pleased to announce that beginning June 1, 2013, Rabbi Hayyim Angel will serve as National Scholar of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. A remarkable scholar and teacher, Rabbi Hayyim Angel will dramatically increase the programming of our Institute by offering classes, serving as scholar in residence in communities throughout North America, organizing public conferences, conducting seminars for Judaica teachers…and more. Along with his work for our Institute, he will be expanding his teaching at Yeshiva University.

Meaning and Authenticity in a Contradictory World:

It’s 11:45 P.M. I am standing in front of the sink, washing individual leaves of Swiss chard, holding each leaf up to the light to check for the creepy-crawlies that come attached to my farm share’s local organic produce. My alarm is set to go off in exactly seven hours; in eight hours, I will be en route to work. Behind me, yams boil away on the stove for my 9-month-old daughter, who is going to wake up every two hours between now and then as her first teeth poke through. But I am determined to get all the produce bug-free, because I’m trying to get a jump on Shabbat.

It’s Tuesday.

Religious Jews Leaving Religious Life

“Then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie ... and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?”
—Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Going off the derekh is one of the greatest epidemics facing the religious Jewish community today. You would be hard-pressed to find a frum family untouched by this phenomenon, whether it is a child, sibling, spouse, cousin, friend, or schoolmate who has left religion behind. In the wake of the individual leaving is a tempest of emotions—confusion, guilt, anger, hurt, and sadness.

In Search of an Authentic Judaism: Blessings and Challenges of Modern Orthodoxy.

I am often asked what was it that attracted me, a Dutch Calvinist Protestant, to Judaism.[1] There were many motivations for my eventual conversion to Judaism, such as the desire to experience a spiritual connection (for which many if not all religions could qualify), a belief in one God (limiting my options to the monotheistic faiths), the Torah (narrowing it down to Judaism), and a religiously inspired and committed lifestyle that permeates life in all its different realms (which left me with Orthodoxy).

Teaching Mathematics in Yeshivot using RMBM's Hilchot Qiddush Hachodesh

Secular subjects are taught with various approaches in Jewish schools. Some take the approach that they are a necessary evil, and are taught only because they are required to do so by the civil authorities. They believe that only really worthwhile learning is that of limudei qodesh. Others take a more positive attitude toward limudei chol, considering them important at least for purposes of earning a living. Others go even further and consider all knowledge to have some intrinsic value. Scientific truth has sanctity in that it attests to the wisdom of the Creator.

Re-imagining Issachar

Issachar and Zebulun are said to have founded an economic model that has become popular within a segment of Orthodox Jewish society. The model is commonly viewed as follows: Issachar “bore the yoke of Torah,” devoting himself exclusively to study, while Zebulun was a successful global merchant. Recognizing the benefits and deficiencies of their single-track careers, they contracted to share the rewards, if not the burdens, of their respective interests. Each brother received goods produced by the labor of the other. Lacking time for constant study, Zebulun financed his brother’s cerebrally pious lifestyle and, in return, was guaranteed a portion of Issachar’s metaphysical reward. Issachar avoided traditional work but, thanks to Zebulun, he could still put food on the table.

Learning from the Bene Israel of India

“Rabbi, what will you do about the rain?”

Exhausted and in shock from my first exposure to the realities of the swarming, squalid city of Mumbai, then called Bombay, I stared back, perplexed and concerned.

“Don’t you know, Rabbi, there is a drought here in Maharashtra.” Their thoughts, though unsaid, were loud and clear: “We have survived as Jews for 2,000 years without rabbis; if you can not bring rain we do not need you.”