Min haMuvhar

The Universalistic Vision of Judaism

At the Revelation at Mount Sinai, God chose the people of Israel to receive the Torah. This unique and unprecedented covenant between God and a group of human beings was to have an immense influence on human civilization. The Torah prescribed a specific way of life for the Jewish people. Yet, the Revelation—though experienced directly by Israel--was also concerned with humanity as a whole.

A fascinating Midrash points out that at the Revelation the voice of God divided into seventy languages, representing the seventy nations of the world i.e. all of humanity. The Torah, while containing a particular message for the people of Israel, also includes a universal message for all human beings.

Paul Johnson, in his History of the Jews, has noted that “the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place.... To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as a foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it might have been a much emptier place.”

The Jewish enterprise, then, has been both particularistic and universalistic. The Torah and rabbinic tradition have been the guiding forces animating Jewish life over the millenia. The halakha (Jewish law) has been understood by the Jewish people as a Divinely-bestowed way of life. Through living a life of righteousness based on Torah and halakha, Jews thereby serve as “a light unto the nations”. The achievement of this ideal is dependent upon faithfulness to the particular teachings of the Torah as well as a universalistic vision for the well-being of all humanity.

Maintaining this equilibrium is a basic desideratum of Judaism. Yet, this vital balance is threatened by various trends in modern Jewish life.

On the one hand are those who stress universalism, while playing down particularism as much as possible. They advocate Jewish ethics, but denigrate the need to fulfill the specific ritual commandments of the Torah. On the other hand are those who are devoted to the ceremonial rituals, but who are very little involved with the world at large. They retreat into their own spiritual and physical ghettos, often trying to drive as many wedges as possible between themselves and the rest of society. Both of these approaches represent a deviation from the harmonious balance implicit in classic Judaism. Our ethical teachings are rooted in the mitzvot. An ethical universalism outside the context of observance of the mitzvot is not true to the Jewish religious genius. Likewise, a parochial commitment to rituals, without a concomitant concern for universalistic ethics, is also an aberration. Judaism emptied of its particularistic mitzvot is hollow; Judaism robbed of its unversalistic vision is cult-like, rather than a world religion.

The current tendency within the traditionally-observant community has been toward particularism. This tendency manifests itself in the phenomenal growth of the hareidi (right-wing) community, as well as its pervasive influence throughout contemporary Orthodox Jewish life. Religious self-sufficiency and spiritual isolationism are dominant themes in the right-wing Orthodox way of thinking.

The turn inward within contemporary traditional Judaism actually has deep roots in Jewish history. It reflects centuries of anti-Jewish persecution. In the face of vast hostility and cruelty committed against Jews since antiquity, it was natural for Jews to turn inward, and to develop negative attitudes toward their non-Jewish oppressors. Could Jews fully trust non-Jews whose societies denigrated Jews and Judaism, forced Jews into ghettoes, compelled Jews to forsake Judaism by converting to the dominant religion of the land, and deprived Jews of elementary civil rights? Centuries of persecution taught Jews to be suspicious of the non-Jewish world, to focus on their own internal Jewish needs, and leave the non-Jews to take care of themselves.

The negative attitude toward the non-Jewish world found expression in rabbinic literature. For example, the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches that God began humanity by creating an individual human being, Adam, “to teach that if anyone destroy a single soul from humankind, Scripture charges him as though he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves a single soul from humankind, Scripture credits him as though he had saved a whole world.” This is certainly a universalistic teaching on the value of human life. Yet, at some point, the text of this Mishna was revised, so that many editions read that Adam was created alone “to teach that if anyone destroy a single soul from Israel, Scripture charges him as though he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves a single soul from Israel, Scripture credits him as though he had saved a whole world.” The text has thus been transformed to a quite particularist teaching about the value of a Jewish life, rather than the value of all human life.

The negative attitudes toward the non-Jewish world have led to a serious distortion of the original teachings of Judaism. A narrow, xenophobic approach has developed, especially among those Jews who have felt most alienated and threatened by non-Jews.

Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik offered a more nuanced approach in an address to a conference of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in 1966, in which he dealt with the extent of Jewish responsibility toward non-Jews. He argued that Jews are obliged to love fellow Jews unconditionally, and are absolutely responsible for the welfare of all Jews. When it comes to non-Jews, though, the obligation is not identical. Since all human beings are created in the image of God, Jews obviously have to respect this fact when dealing with non-Jews. Yet, the extent of responsibility toward non-Jews is conditional: if they act properly toward us, we are obliged to act properly toward them. But if non-Jews hate us or persecute us, we have no obligation to be kind to them or work for their well-being. These sentiments reflect Jewish caution when dealing with a non-Jewish world that has a long history of persecuting Jews.

During the modern period, when Jews gained full civil rights in the Western countries, efforts have been made to shake off the mistrust of the centuries, and to strengthen the universalistic impulse within Judaism. Yet, these efforts have met resistance in the more traditionally-oriented Jewish communities. Those modern Jews who have been most identified with universalistic attitudes have also tended to be those who have moved away from traditional religious beliefs and observances. Thus, universalism has been identified with assimilation and loss of Jewish religious integrity.

Although the tendency toward isolationism may be understandable from a historical and sociological perspective, nevertheless, it is a tendency which needs to be corrected. Vibrant religious Jewish life needs to look outward as well as inward, and to regain its spiritual vision that focuses on all humanity.

The Torah (Devarim 4:6-7) tells the Israelites to observe and fulfill the commandments: “For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes shall say: ‘surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’; for what great nation is there that has God so near unto them, as the Lord our God is whenever we call upon Him?” Interestingly, the Torah is concerned that the Israelites be perceived in a positive light by the nations of the world. The medieval Italian commentator, Rabbi Obadia Seforno, comments on verse seven: “The reason it is appropriate to be concerned that you should be considered wise and understanding in the eyes of the nations is that God, may He be blessed, is close to us when we call upon Him. This shows that He chose us from all the nations. And if the nations should think that you are fools, it will be a desecration of God’s Name, for they will say: ‘This is God’s people.’ Since the people of the world look upon the Jews as the bearers of God’s Torah, the Israelites’ behavior reflects back upon the Almighty. If the Israelites are righteous and wise, then they sanctify God’s name; conversely, if they are foolish and unrighteous, they profane God’s name. The Israelites, thus, are not given the option of living in isolation without caring about the opinions of others. On the contrary, they need to see themselves as emissaries of the Almighty.

These passages in Devarim are cited by a great 19th century sage, Rabbi Eliyahu Hazan (Taalumot Lev 1:4). Rabbi Hazan had opened a school in Tripoli in which Jewish children were given instruction in religious topics, as well as in other subjects - including several languages. He pointed out that “it is the praise of our holy nation that the peoples of the world will say that this is surely a wise and understanding great nation with righteous laws and statutes, who should live among them. And if the scattered Jewish people would not know or understand the language of the people (among whom they live), they would be--Heaven forbid--a laughing stock, a derision and a shame among the nations.” In this responsum, Rabbi Hazan has indicated that Torah law requires that Jews be perceived as a wise people. They are obligated to be understood by their non-Jewish neighbors. Although Jews have their own distinctive religious way of life, they nevertheless must interrelate constructively with the non-Jewish community.

But the Jewish responsibility to the non-Jewish world is not merely that of setting a good example of wisdom and righteousness. The Jewish tradition teaches a principled and active responsibility for all people. All human beings are created in the image of God.

The Midrash, commenting on the Song of Songs (4:1) observes that the people of Israel offered 70 sacrifices in the holy Temple during the festival of Succoth. These sacrifices were offered by the Jewish people to seek atonement for all the nations of the world (symbolized by the number 70). Praying for the well-being of the nations is a powerful statement of concern and responsibility.

The Talmud (Gittin 61a) records the law that Jews are obligated to support the poor of the non-Jews along with the poor of the Jewish community. Moreover, Jews are obligated to visit the non-Jewish sick and to bury their dead. The Talmud specifies that these deeds of compassion and loving-kindness are to be done “because of the ways of peace.” In order to maintain a harmonious society, people need to care for each other and to offer help to those in need. Rabbi Haim David Halevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, has pointed out that our responsibility toward Muslims and Christians (as well as other non-idolaters) does not stem from expedience, but rather from a firmly established ethical imperative (Aseh Lekha Rav, 9:30 and 9:33).

Jews are commanded to be constructive members of society. The Torah demands that we be righteous and compassionate. This responsibility is not confined merely to the broad category of social justice, but extends to the general upbuilding of human civilization as a whole. Rabbi Benzion Uziel (Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 2, p. 98) discussed the classic concept of “yishuvo shel olam,” responsibility to help in the upbuilding of human civilization. This involves practical society building, but also includes expanding human knowledge. Scientific research, for example, helps us gain a deeper appreciation of God’s wisdom. It also leads to technological discoveries which improve the quality of life. Working to improve the human condition is a Jewish religious imperative.

As noted earlier, the Jewish impact on human civilization has been vast. We have given the world many ideas and ideals. On the other hand, we have also learned from the non-Jewish world. And we have been strengthened by non-Jews who have converted to Judaism. In the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh (Israel and Humanity, trans. Maxwell Luria), “each proselyte in becoming converted has contributed his own impulses and personal sentiments to the Israelite heritage.” Rabbi Benamozegh argued that “in order to achieve the concept of a universal Providence extending to all peoples and sanctioning the legitimate rights of each, men must cease to believe that the national or ethnic group is all that counts, that mankind has no significant existence apart from the nation or tribe….We should not be surprised that such has not been the case with Hebraism, which teaches that all mankind has the same origin and thus that a single Providence looks over all.”

Victor Hugo observed that “narrow horizons beget stunted ideas.” Classic Judaism has included an idealistic universalistic world-view. Judaism’s horizons have been great; and it has begotten great ideas. The challenge to modern Jews is to remain faithful to their distinctive mitzvot while maintaining a universalistic ethical idealism.

Israel: A Tiny Nation, A Great Destiny: Thoughts for Yom Ha'Atsmaut

Thoughts for Yom Ha'Atsmaut
by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

A tiny nation, often misunderstood and maligned, changed the course
of history for the good. This tiny
nation produced the Bible and its prophets; sages and mystics; poets and
dreamers. This tiny nation, generation after generation, in many ways has been
the conscience of humanity, the litmus test of human civilization.

This tiny nation lived in a tiny land in antiquity. Its King David
established Jerusalem as its
capitol city a thousand years before the dawn of Christianity and more than
1600 years before Mohammed. It was seldom allowed to live in peace: other
nations threatened, attacked, made war. It saw its capitol city razed by
vicious enemies, its Temples destroyed
by Babylonians and Romans, its citizens ravaged and exiled.

This tiny nation, scattered throughout the world, faced persecutions and
humiliations. Its men and women and children were confined to ghettos, deprived
of elementary human rights, subjected to pogroms and pillage. Millions of them
were murdered during the Holocaust.

Exiled from its land for nearly 2000 years, it always dreamed of
returning to its ancestral soil and re-establishing its sovereignty. It prayed daily
for the return. Many of its members made pilgrimages, and some remained living
in the land throughout the generations, in conditions of poverty and
oppression.

In spite of the persecutions it suffered and in spite of the callousness
of so many nations of the world, this tiny nation maintained faith in One God
and in the mission He assigned it to bring the lofty teachings of Torah to
humanity. In spite of all its sufferings, this tiny nation maintained faith in
humanity: it strove to make the world a better place for all human beings, with
an eternal optimism that is truly a wonder.

This tiny nation, born 3500 years ago, wove its way through history and
refused to be destroyed or silenced.
This tiny nation, scattered throughout the lands of the world, found the
will and the courage to return to its historic homeland after nearly 2000 years
of exile. The return home has been difficult. It has had to fight wars, withstand
terrorism, overcome economic boycotts, endure political isolation, and combat
hateful propaganda.

Yet, this tiny and ancient nation, against all reasonable odds, has
re-established its sovereignty in its historic homeland; it has created a
vibrant, dynamic, idealistic society, dedicated to the ideals of freedom and
democracy. With its memory spanning the millennia, it has created a modern,
progressive state.

My wife Gilda and I first visited this historic land in the summer of
1968, a year after our marriage. When we glimpsed the shoreline from the
airplane window, we both found ourselves with tears in our eyes. We were not
born in this land; we had never been there before; and yet we were returning—we
and all the generations of our families were returning through us. “When the Lord turned back the captivity of Zion, we were
as in a dream (Psalm 126:1).”

This tiny people is Israel. This tiny
land is Israel. This
nation of dreamers and visionaries, builders and farmers, sages and scientists,
warriors and peace makers—this nation is Israel. This tiny nation is a great nation. This tiny
land is a holy land. “The tiny shall become a thousand, and the least a mighty
nation (Isaiah 60:22).”

Israel is a bastion
of hope in a world filled with despair. It is a wellspring of human dignity in
a world filled with shameless hatred and strife.

To stand with Israel is to
stand for the redemption of the people of Israel and
humanity. To stand with Israel is to recognize
the sheer wonder of the survival and contributions of the people of Israel. It is to
affirm the preciousness of life over a culture of death; righteousness over
hypocrisy; idealism over despair. This tiny nation in its tiny land is a
testament to the greatness of the human spirit. It is a testimony to God’s
providence.

It is a privilege, beyond words, to dream with Israel and share
its destiny.

“For Zion’s sake I shall not be
silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I shall not rest, until her righteousness go
forth as brightness and her salvation as a flaming torch (Isaiah 62:1).”

Hatred and Violence Endanger Everyone...Including the Criminals

According to the NYPD, six teens between the ages of 12 and 16 were approached by three male teens, who “stated that they wanted to fight them and that because they were Jewish, they wanted to get them.” “The suspects brandished a knife, crow bar and a sword, and followed them towards their residence before fleeing,” said a spokeswoman for the NYPD. “There were no reported injuries as a result of this incident. The NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force was notified and is investigating.”

     The above news story about a recent incident on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is disturbing…and not entirely accurate. Yes, the Jewish teens were not physically harmed and the perpetrators got away. But the report states that there were “no reported injuries”…and that is only partially correct.

    In fact, there were very serious injuries. The Jewish victims were not simply confronted by weapon-wielding haters; they were psychologically injured by the confrontation. Their level of trust in their personal safety has been compromised. Their trust in their fellow human beings has been shattered. They will now need to keep wondering if they will be attacked again…only because they are Jewish. 

     The injuries go beyond the psychological damage to the teen victims. All Jews have another reason to feel that they can be victimized only because they are Jews. We can try to put this incident aside as a fluke aberration from our normal sense of safety and well-being…but a scar—however small it may seem—will remain.

     And it’s not just Jews who have sustained injuries in this incident: it is also the perpetrators themselves. One act of hatred and violence tends to lead to another, and then another. The teen haters are condemning themselves to a life of hatred and violence that may ultimately land them in prison. Even if they escape justice this time, eventually their violence and bigotry will backfire on them.

     It is very upsetting watching the news these days. Not only do we view the horrific situation in Ukraine and Palestinian terrorism in Israel; we see images of violent people in our own city and country who hit, rob, shoot, and murder others. We are witnessing a rise in hate crimes against Jews, Asians and other groups. 

     On the positive side, politicians speak out forcefully against bigotry and gun violence. Law enforcement leaders assure us they will catch the criminals. But on the negative side, we sense a breakdown within society. Pundits blame racism, anti-Semitism, gangs, mental illness, availability of guns, frustration due to the Covid pandemic etc. 

     While so much needs to be done in order to maintain civility and safety, a key area that needs to be studied is the family. Healthy families produce healthy, productive children. Healthy families convey moral values. Healthy families strive to help family members who are moving in dangerous anti-social directions.

     When families do not properly fulfill these functions, our entire society suffers the consequences. But what is being done by our government, schools, and media to promote healthy families? Have things deteriorated beyond repair? Have the leaders and opinion makers given up on promoting healthy families?

     We are told that a high percentage of violent crimes are committed by a small number of criminals. But who are these criminals? Where did they learn to hate and hurt? What kind of families do they have? What could parents do to better guide their children? What resources do parents of problematic children have to help them steer their children in the right direction? And if the parents themselves are haters and criminals, how can the children be freed from the bad influences of their parents?

     When society was first confronted with the Covid plague, vast financial and human resources were mobilized in order to deal with the virus and its spread. It was quickly realized that the virus posed a threat to all of us.

     But the virus of hatred, violence and bigotry receives inadequate responses. This virus undermines the foundations of civil society and is a threat to everyone. It demands a strong response. The goal is not only to punish perpetrators but to strengthen families and schools so that our younger generations grow up with healthy moral frameworks.

     The Covid crisis demonstrated how society rallied massive energy and budget to bolster society’s physical health. Shouldn’t we be able to act with an equal sense of emergency on behalf of society’s moral and psychological health?

    

    

Children in Synagogue; Putin; Smart Phones; Chat Rooms: Rabbi M. D. Angel Responds to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it proper to bring very young children to shul?

 

Many parents want their children to become accustomed to attending synagogue from an early age. That’s fine; but parents must assume responsibility for their children during services. If the children become restless, noisy, and disruptive to others, then parents need to bring them out of the sanctuary until they settle down.

Many synagogues provide child care during services, so that children can spend some time in the main sanctuary and the rest of the morning in child care/youth programs/youth services.

If children are very young, it’s very difficult to expect them to stay quiet for a long stretch of time. As they grow older, the time they spend in services can be gradually increased.

It is essential for parents to be extra sensitive to the needs of the entire kahal when they bring their children to synagogue. It is essential for the kahal to be very understanding and patient when it comes to the needs of parents and young children. Striking the right balance isn’t always easy. But it can be done with the goodwill of all the members of the community—young and old.

 

Is it proper to daven for the demise of Putin in order to save lives in Ukraine, and stop him from additional aggression?  What about a supporter of Russia davening for victory in taking over Ukraine?

 

It is proper to pray for peace. It is proper to pray that human beings will all strive to live up to their potential as having been created in Hashem’s image. It is proper to seek Hashem’s guidance for a troubled humanity…for refuat hanefesh and refuat haguf.

It is not proper to use prayer as a magical gimmick or as a p.r. event.  Prayer is not a tool for manipulating the actions of the Almighty, but a humble gesture of dependence on Hashem.

Bruriah taught that it’s best not to pray for the demise of sinners…but to pray for the elimination of the sins themselves. Our prayers should seek Hashem’s help in showing tyrannical leaders the errors of their ways; moving them to reconsider their destructive policies; guiding all leaders on all sides to genuinely consider what is right and best for their own citizens.

It is proper to pray for peace and human understanding. It is proper—and vital—for these prayers to be accompanied by suitable actions that help make our world a better, safer, and happier place.

 

Is it proper now to own a smartphone? When is it appropriate to use one and when not? Does using the filter solve the problem?

 

Each of us has the right and responsibility to make decisions that affect our lives. When we face change—technological or otherwise—we need to be able to evaluate the positives and negatives—and then decide what’s best for us.

Smart phones are incredibly useful in so many ways. They are amazingly helpful in maintaining quick and easy communications. They provide instant information on the weather and the news. The apps make it easy for us to drive without getting lost; to order an Uber driver or a pizza; and so many other features that simplify our lives.

Yes, it’s possible to over-use or mis-use a smartphone. But that is true of many things. The question isn’t whether it’s proper to own a smartphone; the question is are we responsible enough to use smartphones wisely.

If you wonder whether or not you should own a smartphone, ask for advice from others who do own one. Find out if this device is something that will enhance your life or be a waste of money. Then make your own decision.  Whatever you decide is not final; you can re-evaluate as time goes on and as circumstances change.

Think clearly. Make your own decision. Adjust your decision if and when needed.

 

Is it proper to click and follow the personal social media accounts of the opposite gender? If so what about chatting socially with them using the platform's direct messaging?

 

It would seem unwise to click and follow the personal social media account of anyone outside your immediate family and circle of friends, whether of the same or opposite gender. It is also a bad idea to chat with anyone you don’t know personally.

 Unfortunately, people are lured into activities and conversations without realizing the long-term (or even short-term) implications. It is all too frequent to hear of people who have been financially or physically harmed due to careless use of social media and chatting platforms.  People may think that these things only happen to others and that they can handle things without getting into trouble. But why put yourself at needless risk? Why waste your valuable time?

 The yetser hara is very powerful and relentless. It’s best not to give it an opening by engaging in problematic online behavior. Remember: you are answerable to the Almighty Who is fully aware of your actions. You are not alone, even if you are in a room by yourself.

 

 

 

Reflections on Jewish Spirituality

 

Creation

 

            To a religious person, the universe is filled with hidden voices and secret meanings. The natural world, being the creation of God, signals the awesomeness of its Creator.

            The Torah opens with the dramatic words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It does not begin with the story of God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, nor with specific commandments. The first chapter of Genesis establishes in powerful terms that God created the universe and everything within it.

            An ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah interprets the Hebrew word “bereishith” (in the beginning) to mean “behokhmah” (with wisdom).[1] According to this translation, the Torah opens with the statement: “With wisdom did God create the heavens and the earth.” A human being, by recognizing the vast wisdom of God as reflected in the universe He created, comes to a profound awareness and relationship with God. Indeed, experiencing God as Creator is the beginning of wisdom.

            Moses Maimonides, the pre-eminent Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, has understood this truth. He teaches: “Now what is the way that leads to the love of Him and the reverence for Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous acts and creations, obtaining from them a glimpse of His wisdom, which is beyond compare and infinite, he will promptly love and glorify Him, longing exceedingly to know the great Name of God, as David said: ‘My whole being thirsts for God, the living God’ (Psalms 42:3). When one ponders over these very same subjects, one will immediately recoil, startled, conceiving that he is a lowly, obscure creature…as David said: ‘As I look up to the heavens Your fingers made…what is man that You should think of him (Psalm 8:4–5)’”[2]

            The source of the love and fear of God rests in the contemplation of the world which God created.

 

The Torah and the Natural Universe

 

By opening with the story of creation, the Torah teaches that one must have a living relationship with the natural world in order to enter and maintain a living relationship with God. Jewish spirituality flowers and deepens through this relationship. The ancient sacred texts of Judaism, beginning with the Torah itself, guide us to live with a keen awareness of the rhythms of nature.

            Jewish spirituality is organically linked to the natural rhythms of the universe. To a great extent, Jewish religious traditions serve to bring us into a sensitive relationship with the natural world.

            An ancient teaching is that God “looked into the Torah and created the world.”[3] This statement reflects a belief that the Torah actually predated Creation and served as the blueprint for the universe. This enigmatic teaching has been subject to various interpretations. But perhaps its main intent is to reveal the organic connection between the Torah and the universe. Since the laws of the Torah are linked to nature, it is as though nature had been created to fit these laws. The natural world was created in harmony with the revealed words of the Torah. A talmudic statement teaches that God created the world only on condition that Israel would accept the Torah. If not, the world would again be reduced to chaos and void.[4]

            The Talmud (Makkot 23b) suggests that God gave the people of Israel 613 commandments. There are 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the number of limbs in the human body. There are 365 negative commandments, corresponding to the number of days in the solar year. This means that the Torah’s commandments are ingrained in our very being: in our limbs, in the years of our lives. God’s original design in Creation was related to His original design of the Torah and its commandments. The natural universe and the spiritual universe coalesce.

This harmony may also be implied in the blessing recited after reading from the Torah. The blessing extols God “Who has given us His Torah, the Torah of truth, and has planted within us eternal life (hayyei olam).” The phrase hayyei olam has been understood to refer to the eternal soul of each person; or to the Torah, which is the source of eternal life for the people of Israel. Yet, perhaps the blessing also suggests another dimension of meaning.

The word olam in biblical Hebrew usually refers to time—a long duration, eternity. In later Hebrew, it came to mean “the world,” referring to space rather than specifically to time. Hayyei olam, therefore, may be understood as “eternal life,” but also as “the life of the world.” The blessing may be echoing both meanings. Aside from relating to eternal life, the blessing might be understood as praising God for planting within us the life of the world. That is, though His Torah, God has tied our lives to the rhythms of the natural world. Through this connection with the natural world, we are brought into a living relationship with God.

Jewish tradition, thus, has two roads to God: the natural world, which reveals God as Creator; and the Torah, which records the words of God to the people of Israel. But the Torah itself leads us back to the first road, the road of experiencing God the Creator. The Torah and nature are bound together.

The relationship of Torah and nature is evident in Psalm 19. This psalm has played an important role in Jewish religious consciousness, since it is included in the Sabbath liturgy (and is read daily in some communities). The Psalm has two distinct parts, which at first glance seem to be unconnected. It begins: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament tells His handiwork. Day unto day utters the tale, night unto night unfolds knowledge. There is no word, no speech, their voice is not heard; yet their course extends through all the world, and their theme to the end of the world.” It goes on to describe the sun which rejoices as a strong man prepared to run his course. “Its setting forth is from one end of the skies, its circuit unto the other extreme, and nothing is hidden from its heat.” But then the Psalm makes an abrupt shift. It continues: “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, comforting the soul…the precepts of the Lord are rights, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.” From a description of the glory of God as manifested in the natural world, the Psalm jumps to a praise of the Torah, God’s special revelation to the people of Israel. The Psalm seems to be composed of two separate segments.

The enigma of this Psalm’s organization, however, is easily solved. Psalm 19 is teaching that one may come to an understanding of God both through the natural world and through the Torah. God has provided us with two paths to Himself.

This concept underlies the organization of Jewish prayers, both for the morning and evening services. In both of these services, the recitation of the Shema—the biblical passage proclaiming the unity of God—is a central feature. In each service, the Shema is introduced by two sections, each concluding with a blessing. Although the words of these sections vary between the two services, their themes are identical. The first section praises God as Creator, the One Who called the universe into being, Who set the sun, moon, and stars in their rhythms, Who separated between day and night. The second section praises God as the giver of the Torah, as the One Who loves Israel. Only after reciting both sections do we recite the Shema and the subsequent prayers. The God of creation and the God of revelation are One, and we may find our way to Him through His world of creation and through His revealed word.

 

Sunrise

 

            Certain moments of the day are particularly conducive to pensiveness. At dawn, with the rising of the sun, the sky in the east awakens with color and light. At sunrise, one experiences the still-fading darkness of night, along with the faintly emerging light of day. It is an in-between time, vague, pregnant with possibility.

            Jewish tradition has long taught that the ideal time for morning prayer is at sunrise. It is considered particularly virtuous to pray at that time, when the prayer is in harmony with the emerging sun. The prayer of the morning extols God, Who “in His goodness ever revives each day anew His work of creation.” The rising sun is symbolic of this daily recreation of the universe. At the very moment when the sun rises and the world seems to be re-created—that is the preferred moment for the morning prayer. In that mysterious, quiet, in-between time, we experience God the Creator both in the skies and in the words of our prayer book.

 

Sunset

 

            Sundown, too, is a mysterious and poetic time. The sun is dropping out of sight. The sky in the west is streaked with red and purple. In a short while, the world will be plunged into darkness.

            Jewish tradition has understood the connection of human spirituality with the natural world. Jewish law prescribes that the afternoon prayers be recited before the sun sets. Many Jews recite the afternoon prayers just as the sun is setting. The night prayers are to be said ideally when the starts in the sky can be seen.

            The daily prayer rhythm brings the worshipper into the natural rhythm of sunrise and sunset.

 

Changed Perceptions

 

              The rhythms of the sun and moon govern our times of prayer, our religious festivals, our meditation of the universe[r1] . The phenomena of nature evoke within us responses to the greatness of God, the creator, and we recite blessings on witnessing the powers of nature.

            Centuries of Westernization and urbanization have profoundly affected Jewish religious sensitivity. There has been a steady and increasing alienation between Jewish religious observance and the natural world, with a parallel diminution in sensing the awe of God as Creator of the natural universe.

            To illustrate the changed perception, we may consider the commonly observed Jewish religious experiences that recur on a regular basis. Modern Jews identify their religious lives with such events as the Passover Seder, the High Holy Day synagogue services, Friday night Shabbat ceremonies and meal, the study of Torah, synagogue worship. The common denominator of these observances is that they generally happen indoors. They are observances in a synagogue, a home, or a place of study.

            If we were to consider the situation of the ancient Israelites, we would be confronted with a different religious sensibility. The most important observances for them would have included the three pilgrimages to Jerusalem, when they would journey to the holy city to celebrate Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkoth. They would include the observance of bikkurim—the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple, a ceremony which was a great outdoor celebration. They would include the festivities that took place during the harvest festivals, the sharing of harvests with the poor, the bringing of animals to Jerusalem to be offered as sacrifices. Almost everything, in fact, would have involved being outdoors in contact with the natural world.

            Obviously, we have moved a long way from the agricultural life of ancient Israel to the urban life of contemporary society. Our religious images and observances, the things we consider essential and meaningful, have been transformed over the generations due to the sociological and demographic changes. By urbanizing religion and by placing its most important events indoors, we have lost touch with the original religious insight which connected us with the rhythm of nature.

            Jewish law often speaks in the old “natural” language. It describes the times of prayer in relation to sunrise, sunset and the stars at night. Today, though, we are more likely to speak of prayers as taking place at 7:00 am or 6:00 pm, for example. In former times, Jews knew that the Sabbath had ended by going outside and looking for stars. If it was dark enough to be able to observe three stars, then the Sabbath was over. Today, calendars and synagogue schedules list the time when Sabbath ends with the precision of mathematics, with no need to witness the stars at all. A person may pray in the morning without having experienced sunrise; may pray in the afternoon without having experienced sunset; may say evening prayers without having seen a star in the sky. Religious life can be celebrated indoors with the assistance of clocks and calendars, without the need arising to go outside.

            By bringing religion indoors, some of our feeling of awe for the universe and its Creator has been lost. The regular daily connections with nature which Jewish tradition has prescribed are no longer easily experienced. But losing contact with the natural world threatens to make religion increasingly artificial, removed from its basic life source.

            The Jewish ideal of a religious person has undergone a change over the centuries. Until relatively modern times, the ideal religious personality would have spent much time outdoors, and would have had ample opportunity to contemplate the wonders of the universe and the wisdom of its Maker. The ideal Jew lived in harmony with nature and participated in its rhythms. The notion that ideal piety can be found in a pale, scholarly, undernourished saint who spends his days and nights studying Torah in a study hall is not true to the original Jewish religious vision. The biblical heroes and prophets, the talmudic sages, the medieval pietists and mystics—all were involved in outdoor religion.

 

 

Prayer and Windows

 

            Attitudes on spirituality are suggested by the kind of windows used in places of worship. Windows are the connection between the indoor world and the world outside. The location and transparency of the windows indicate the extent to which worshippers are expected to relate to the world outdoors while they are engaged in prayer in the synagogue.

            The Talmud (Berkahot 34b) records the opinion of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: “A person should not pray except in a house that has windows….” The proof text is drawn from the Book of Daniel. Since Daniel offered his prayers while looking through a window in the direction of Jerusalem, so this precedent should be followed by subsequent generations. Rashi, the great talmudic commentator, explains, “Windows cause one to concentrate the heart, since one looks toward the heavens and one’s heart is humbled.” According to this opinion, a person praying indoors may reach a higher spiritual level by looking out a window to see the heavens.

            Yet, windows in synagogues have varied from place to place and generation to generation, reflecting different attitudes toward the outside world. In some synagogues, windows were built high up on the wall, above the height of any person. This was done in order to prevent people from being distracted from the prayers by letting their eyes wander to the outdoors during services. Windows, which serve to bring the outside in, also serve to connect the inside with the outside. If praying requires concentration on the words of the prayers, windows can be distracting. Indeed, a fear of the distraction of windows emerged in many communities. The Magen Avraham, a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 90:4), states that one’s eyes should be directed downward during prayer. “Nevertheless, when one’s concentration is broken, one may lift the eyes toward the heavens in order to awaken concentration.” In a sense, windows—placed high on the walls of the synagogue—are a necessary evil to be used only if one’s concentration on prayers is deficient.

            Stained glass windows, though they may be very beautiful, were not incorporated into religious architecture merely for the sake of beauty. Rather, stained glass is an effective way to create an inside environment that shuts out the external world. There is no intrinsic need for us to place stained glass windows in our synagogues; indeed, these windows reflect a philosophical attitude on prayer and our sense of spirituality. They protect the indoor world from intrusions from the outside.

 

Sacred Space

 

            The Torah records the dream of Jacob in which he saw a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending its steps. When he awoke from his dream, Jacob said: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.” Jacob was frightened. He said: “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob took the stone which he had used as a pillow and set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on it as a sign of consecration. He named that place Beth El, the house of God (Genesis 28:16–19).

            The ladder in Jacob’s dream symbolizes the connection between the physical world and the spiritual world, between the finitude of matter and the infinity of spirit. These two seemingly opposite domains are connected and related to each other. At the instant of that recognition, Jacob recognized that he was in a sacred place. His immediate response was to take a simple rock and sanctify it, making it a symbol of God’s presence of earth. Certainly, God cannot be limited to a particular stone or any other specific place. God transcends space, just as He transcends time. Yet, Jacob consecrated the place so that this physical space was also to be considered “the gate of heaven.”

            This story dramatically demonstrates a key feature of religious understanding and experience. While God cannot be limited to a particular space, yet a human being can set aside a place and recognize it to be sacred, a point of connection between self and God. While the entire world is a manifestation of God’s will and power, and as such is a reflection of sanctity, yet humans can designate specific places as being sacred. We can create new spiritual realities, new gates to heaven. Sacred and non-sacred space may appear objectively to be the same; but within the mind of a religious person, they are different kinds of worlds.

            Upon entering a synagogue with stained glass windows, we enter a religious realm, a world unto itself without reference to anything outside. It is irrelevant where such a synagogue is actually located: it might be in the middle of New York City or in Jerusalem or atop a mountain or along a sea shore. To a person inside the synagogue, the outside world is closed out; it cannot penetrate the colored windows.

            The underlying motivation for creating such windows is the belief—whether acknowledged or not—that prayer can best be experienced in a place which is closed off from the distraction of the outside world. When one enters a synagogue with stained glass windows, one knows immediately that this is a place of worship. The “inwardness” of the building makes its message known.

            There have been many synagogues where windows have been clear, where worshippers could see what was going on outside. In such synagogues, people could recite their prayers while also viewing the gardens, trees and other outdoor scenery. The synagogue of Rabbi Joseph Karo in Safed, for example, has clear windows through which one can see the wonderful mountainous scenery of the Galilee.

            Since the natural world and the spiritual world are organically connected, the Talmudic requirement of praying only in a building with windows makes much sense. The windows, though, should provide an opening between the person praying and God, Creator of heaven and earth. The windows in our synagogues are also windows to our souls. They represent our attitudes toward the outside world and toward the inside world, and toward the world inside each of us. Even when we pray in synagogues that have stained glass windows, we should keep our minds open and receptive to the world outside the synagogue buildings.

 

Halakha

 

            Jewish religious tradition provides observances and symbols that bring one into as full an awareness of God’s presence as possible. The natural world unfolds the glory of God the creator; but one can grow accustomed to the phenomena of nature and take them for granted much of the time. Halakha, Jewish law, adds a dimension of specificity to Jewish spirituality. It is not merely a poetic, artistic experience; it also involves specific activities to do and not to do. It is a full system and guide for life; through its precepts, one maintains a continuous relationship with God.

            Since halakha is an all-encompassing guide to life which describes what God wants us to do, it is essential that we understand its role in our lives. Observing the mitzvoth is a way of connecting with the eternal reality of God. To treat halakha as a mechanical system of laws is to miss its meaning and significance. Halakha provides the framework for spiritual awareness, religious insight, and even spontaneity.

            At the root of halakha is the awareness that God is overwhelmingly great, and that human beings are overwhelmingly limited. Humility is the hallmark of the truly religious person. One must be open to the spirit of God that flows through the halakha. Halakha is the ever-present link between God and the Jewish people. Through observance of halakha in the spirit of humility, one has the opportunity to live life on a deep, spiritual level. The goal of halakha is to crate righteous, saintly people—those who live their lives in constant relationship with the Almighty.

 

Renewing Jewish Spirituality

 

            A rabbinic teaching has it that the way of Torah is a narrow path. On the right is fire and on the left is ice. If one veers from the path, one will be destroyed by either the fire or the ice.

            The Torah way of life is balanced, harmonious and sensible. It imbues life with depth, meaning and true happiness. Yet, it has not always been easy to stay on the narrow path.

            Veering to the left freezes the soul of Judaism. Classic Judaism expresses itself through its connection with nature and its commitment to the basic texts of Judaism—the Bible, Talmud, halakhic codes, philosophical works. These are the sourced of its warmth and harmony that imbue the rhythms of Jewish living with meaning. When one abandons Jewish belief and observance, this is a turn toward the ice. Inevitably, it leads to a breakdown in Jewish experience and Jewish identity.

            Veering to the right leads to the spiritual destruction cause by fire, or excessive zeal, religious extremism. This tendency manifests itself in a spirit of isolationism, self-righteousness, and xenophobia. It reduces the Torah way of life to self-imposed physical and spiritual ghettos.

            A basic challenge for modern Jews is to re-capture and renew the sources of spiritual vitality within the vast Jewish tradition. We need to reconnect with the sacred, and reconstruct Jacob’s ladder that linked heaven and earth. We need to avoid the ice and the fire—and to maintain a clear, serene and focused path in our relationship with the Almighty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Targum Yerushalmi, Genesis 1:1. See also Benzion Uziel, Hegyonei Uziel, vol. 1, Jerusalem, 5713, p. 1.

[2]Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah, 2:2.

[3]Bereishith Rabba 1:1. A number of rabbinic sources express the belief that the Torah predated Creation. Among them are Bereishith Rabba 1:4; Vayikra Rabba 19:1; Pesahim 54a.

[4]Avodah Zara 3a.


 [r1]Meditations on the universe?

Remembering and Appreciating Some Special Teachers

           

     I joined the debating society of Franklin High School in Seattle during my junior year. I joined because I was relatively shy and not a very good speaker. By rights, the debate coach—Mrs. Eva Doupe (pronounced Du-pay) shouldn’t have accepted me. But she did. And that literally changed my life.

Mrs. Doupe had faith in her students. She encouraged us, challenged us, criticized us, honed our talents, forgave our shortcomings. She had high expectations, and she expected us to work hard. She was rightly regarded as one of the best high school debate coaches in the State of Washington, and her students did well in the various debate tournaments in which they participated.

Aside from improving our oratorical skills, she taught us the importance of preparing thoroughly. Each year, the National Forensic League issued a topic that all schools would debate for that school year. We had to research the topic and be able to make a strong case both for and against the resolution at hand.

I asked Mrs. Doupe, “If we feel strongly about the affirmative or negative cases, why can’t we just debate on the side that we believe in?” She answered: The goal of debate is to make us think carefully about opposite ways of looking at the same question. If we must argue both the affirmative and negative positions, we learn how to value both sides. There are compelling arguments pro and con, and we need to open our minds to seeing things from opposing angles.

She also taught us the art of “impromptu” speaking. She would prepare topics on slips of paper and put them in a basket. She then called on each of us to draw a topic, think about it for 30 seconds, and then deliver a five-minute talk on it. She gave us rules: Start with a catchy opening statement; formulate an outline of what you want to say; conclude with a strong line. Don’t bluff. Don’t pretend to know something when you don’t know it. Don’t speak longer than five minutes, but not too much less either. No er’s or um’s. Speak with clarity and confidence. Have eye contact with your listeners.

In order to succeed at impromptu speaking, she emphasized the importance of reading widely, thinking about issues in the news, drawing on personal experience, relating to the interests and concerns of the audience. Don’t speak at people, but engage with them.

As a Junior in Mrs. Doupe’s class at Franklin High School, little did I imagine that I would spend the bulk of my lifetime as a rabbi, public speaker, and communicator of ideas.

 

* * *

 

When I was a senior at Franklin High School in Seattle, my teacher for Language Arts was Mr. James Britain. Even after these many years, I remember him and his class quite vividly.

I invariably got A grades on all my papers. But once, Mr. Britain marked my paper with a D. I think I learned more from that D than from all my A papers. What was the paper about, and what did I learn?

Mr. Britain often presented the class with challenging assignments. Once, he asked us to walk around the outside of the school building and to observe its architectural details. Another assignment was to study a painting and analyze it as carefully as possible—its colors, perspective, lighting, etc. His goal was to teach us to “see,” to focus on detail, to look for the usual and the unusual.

One day, he played a recording of atonal electronic music for the class and asked us to write our impressions. I was outraged by this “music” and wrote a scathing essay condemning it. This was not music at all! It was a cacophony of senseless screeching, painful to the ear. Mr. Britain gave me a D on this paper. He wrote me a one line comment: “In order to learn, you must open your mind to new ideas.”

When I spoke to him afterward about my “unfair” grade, he calmly explained that I had entirely missed the point of the assignment. He indicated that I should have listened carefully, with an open mind; I should have tried to understand the intentions of the composer; I should have put aside my preconceived notions so as to experience the music on its terms—not on mine. Only after I had processed the experience with an open mind was I entitled to offer my judgments about it. Think carefully, don’t rant.

That was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned—and one of the most difficult to apply.

We all have fixed ideas on a great many topics. It is often painful to hear opinions that conflict with our sure understanding of life. New ideas, unusual approaches, unconventional artistic expressions—these are difficult to absorb. It is tempting—and usual—to shut off ideas that challenge our own views and tastes. It is very common for those who have different views to talk at each other, or to talk against each other; it is far less common for people actually to listen to each other, to try sincerely to understand the ideas and approaches of others. To open our minds to new ideas demands tremendous self-control and humility.

 

* * *

 

September 1963 was the first time I got on an airplane. My friend Morrie Butnick and I flew to New York to begin our freshman year at Yeshiva College.

In those days, Seattle was a relatively small city with a tiny Jewish population. Coming to New York was an amazing change of venue—a bustling city of millions, and a large and diverse Jewish community. It was an exciting time, and eye-opening in so many ways.

One of the most powerful eye-openers for me was Professor Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, who taught Western Civilization. For me, and probably for many other out-of-towners, this was the first experience with a teacher who was an Orthodox rabbi with a Ph.D from Harvard. Dr. Greenberg was young, tall, somewhat gangly, with an engaging smile. To me and many others, he was a model of the synthesis between traditional Torah learning and general secular education. One could simultaneously be a learned rabbi and a world-class historian.

Dr. Greenberg was a phenomenal teacher. His lectures were riveting. He engaged us in conversation, invited questions, and spoke with genuine enthusiasm. He assigned many and diverse readings, including readings from the New Testament. Some students objected to being assigned to read texts from another religion. Dr. Greenberg then announced that the readings in the New Testament were optional, and no one had to read them who felt uncomfortable doing so. But he reminded us that the New Testament/Christianity were basic components of Western Civilization and that it would be valuable for us to have some basic knowledge of them.

Dr. Greenberg was (and still is!) a unique figure in the Orthodox Jewish world. While deeply committed to tradition, he is something of a revolutionary. As a historian aware of historical process, he sees Judaism as a living organism that naturally evolves with time. He, and his wife Blu, were pioneers of Orthodox Jewish feminism. He was—and is—an articulate and often lonely voice for interfaith dialogue—not merely friendly conversation, but deep discussion of the basic elements of faith and spirituality that unite and separate us. His writings and lectures on the Holocaust are classics for those seeking to understand the spiritual and intellectual framework of that nightmare of human history.

Because he was a creative and original thinker, he was often marginalized by the arch-traditionalists who feared and resented his teachings. That made him an intellectual and religious martyr of sorts—and this very notoriety contributed to his great popularity among his students!

Rabbi Dr. Irving Greenberg taught us so much in his courses on Western Civilization. But perhaps the greatest thing we learned from him was to candidly face the challenges of being traditional Orthodox Jews while being true to the demands of modernity. To be an Orthodox Jew, even a rabbi, did not entail turning off our minds. Quite the contrary. The grandeur of Judaism is best approached with a searching mind and a yearning heart.

 

* * *

 

Rabbi Dr. Maurice Wohlgelernter, known popularly among his students as "The Reb," passed away on Saturday night June 22, 2013.

I first met The Reb in September 1963, as a freshman in his English 101 class at Yeshiva College. He was an astonishing teacher. He demanded clarity in our writing, marking each of our papers with an overly active red pen. He crushed our egos with his harsh grades—but he taught us, and taught us very well. To get an A from The Reb made it all worthwhile!

His career was multi-faceted. He served for many years as Rabbi of a synagogue in uptown Manhattan. He taught English writing and literature at Yeshiva College, Baruch College, and later at Touro College and NYU. No one who took The Reb for a course can ever forget him.

He was devoted to the study of Torah and Talmud. He was in the first class of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and he was the one who coined the title "the Rav" for Rabbi Soloveitchik. The Reb studied Talmud all through his lifetime, and always saw himself as a yeshiva bochur.

He earned his Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University, and went on to author books and articles on literary topics. He was a master stylist who valued the power of words. Well into his 80s, he was writing and publishing significant articles, including several in our Institute's journal, Conversations.

The first wedding the Reb performed as a young rabbi was for one of his classmates, Paul Schuchalter and his wife Dorothy. Rabbi and Mrs. Schuchalter are my wife's parents—my in-laws. When Gilda and I were married in 1967, The Reb recited one of the Sheva Berakhot. We retained our friendship over the years, meeting regularly for a cup of coffee, some literary discussion, analysis of issues in the Jewish world, and more. It was a singular honor and privilege to have enjoyed this friendship for just about 50 years.

I always thought that "The Reb" had another significance: the Rebel. And that is what he was. He rebelled against nonsense and hypocrisy. He had no patience for superficial glitz and inflated egos of overly comfortable establishment figures. He was a source of agitation to those who feared his sharp tongue, his utter unpredictability, his energy, his intellectual restlessness. Perhaps he was such an amazingly popular teacher precisely because he was a rebel who brooked no nonsense, who was committed to truth at all costs. He had a phenomenal sense of humor, but he took life and ideas very seriously.

I am grateful for having had the privilege of being part of his world. He was one of a kind, unforgettable. He will always remain—for all of us who knew him—a source of blessing, strength and wisdom, and he will always be prodding us to follow his inspiration in being devoted to truth, in being a rebel against shallowness, mediocrity, and hypocrisy.

 

* * *

 

The Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859) was an insightful Hassidic master whose wisdom continues to impact on thinking Jews of our times. He made an important observation based on the fact that the Torah was originally given and taught in Midbar Sinai, the wilderness of Sinai.

He taught as follows: The Divine Presence only rests on one who sees him/herself as being in the wilderness. No matter how much one has learned, he/she still remains in a place that is vast and untouched—i.e., there is so much more to know. And just as a wilderness remains empty and unproductive unless it is seriously cultivated, so a person remains empty and unproductive unless that person expends tremendous energy and effort to attain wisdom. Only such a person can merit genuine knowledge of Torah and the blessing of being touched by the Divine Presence.

The Kotzker Rebbe had little patience for pseudo-scholars and pseudo-intellectuals. He was repelled by the phenomenon of self-contented, self-righteous and arrogant individuals whose vanity made them think they were great and important. He despised sham piety, pretentiousness, and inflated egotism.

I was recently reminiscing with a friend about our years at Yeshiva College during the 1960s. One of the teachers who made a lasting impact on me (and on so many others) was Professor Alexander Litman. Dr. Litman taught philosophy in a unique way. He took a topic from Plato and suddenly—he WAS Socrates. He asked us questions, probed all aspects of the issue, he challenged our assumptions. He made us think! Other professors of philosophy may have given academic discussions about philosophers: Dr. Litman was a philosopher.

I remember Dr. Litman’s slow and deliberate way of speaking, his cryptic smile, the sparkle in his eye when he made a particularly clever remark. He would end class with an announcement: “We will meet again on Thursday…if there is a Thursday.”

Dr. Litman knew a tremendous amount. But like Socrates, he saw himself as a searcher for truth. He understood that in spite of all that he had read and learned, he was still in a wilderness, far from achieving ultimate truth. He might well have identified with the words of Socrates: “And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise;…he is only using my name by way of illustration as if he said: He, O men, is the wisest, who like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.”

The Kotzker Rebbe probably never read Plato, and Dr. Litman may not have been familiar with the teachings of the Kotzker. But both of these men, like all genuine teachers, understood the essential qualities required of those who strive for wisdom: humility, critical thinking, hard work. Both of these men, like all genuine teachers, taught their students to think, to reject glib and superficial people who pretend to be learned or wise.

Students are those whose minds are active, interested, searching. Non-students are those who are intellectually stagnant, vacuous, self-contented. Students always feel they are in a wilderness, with so much more to learn and so much territory that needs to be cultivated. Non-students feel they know a lot, that they have truth in their pocket, that they are smarter and cleverer than most everyone else.

 

* * *

 

When I think back on my years at Yeshiva College (1963–1967), I am forever grateful for having studied with a number of truly remarkable professors. One of the best was Dr. Louis H. Feldman (October 29, 1926–March 25, 2017).

Dr. Feldman taught classical languages. He had very few students—there were four of us in my Latin class. When I registered for Latin, one of the upperclassmen warned me: Feldman is a very tough teacher; you should avoid him if you can. But instead of discouraging me, that warning whetted my curiosity.

Aside from teaching us Latin, Dr. Feldman taught us how to think critically. While I have forgotten most of my Latin, I have not forgotten his intellectual guidance.

In his lectures, he gave us the following notice. “Everything I tell you might be true or might be false. But if you ask me a question, I’ll always give you the correct answer.” We had to listen carefully when he spoke; and we had to use our critical faculties to assess whether the information he was giving us was true or false. If something sounded wrong, we had to ask him for clarification. His basic point was: Don’t rely on authorities, not even your own professor. Think for yourself; think carefully and analytically.

Sure enough, on one of his exams we all answered a question “correctly,” and we all were marked wrong. When we objected, since we only wrote down what he himself taught us, he replied with a wry smile: “Yes, but I wasn’t telling the truth then! You should have been more perceptive, you should have challenged me.” So we all received poor grades on that exam; but we learned a lesson that transcended Latin: We learned to be attentive, critical, self-reliant.

Dr. Feldman assigned us to write a paper that we would present to the class orally. Since I was taking a class in Chaucer at the time, I decided to write a paper on Virgil’s influence on Chaucer. When it was time for me to present my paper, Dr. Feldman sat in the back of the room. No sooner had I made my first point, Dr. Feldman raised his hand. “How do you know that Chaucer drew that phrase from Virgil? Maybe he came up with it himself?” I was a bit flustered, but replied with some confidence: “Professor Thompson, who is a foremost authority on Chaucer, wrote specifically that this passage was drawn from Virgil.” Dr. Feldman said: “I don’t care what Professor Thompson or anyone else thought. You have to demonstrate that in fact Chaucer was drawing on this passage from Virgil. Quoting this professor or that professor does not make something true.” “But he’s an authority,” I replied. “Don’t rely on authorities,” said Dr. Feldman. “Analyze things for yourself. Citing an authority doesn’t prove your point.”

That was a powerful lesson that has stayed with me over the years. Whereas it is very common in religious life to rely on “authorities,” Dr. Feldman taught us to think for ourselves. Yes, we certainly can and should learn from scholars, but ultimately we need to make evaluations of our own. Because rabbi X or authority Y said something does not in itself make something true.

Dr. Feldman had strict rules when it came to submitting our papers. He would deduct one third of a grade for every five typos/misspelled words/grammatical errors. We had to proofread our papers very carefully before handing them in; we knew that he graded strictly. The first paper I ever published was a term paper I wrote for Dr. Feldman comparing five English translations of the Aeneid. Dr. Feldman submitted the paper on my behalf to the Classical Journal—and it was published during my senior year at Yeshiva College.

Aside from his brilliance as a teacher, he was a singular role model. He was not only a world-class scholar of Greek and Latin; he was a Torah scholar who could often be seen in the Bet Midrash well into the night as he studied Talmud. He was serious, but very witty; he had a ubiquitous smile and dry sense of humor. He was strict but not austere. He was demanding but not pedantic.

It is one of the unique joys of life to have studied with great teachers. It is one of the unique qualities of great teachers to expand the intellectual horizons of their students. Dr. Louis H. Feldman was that kind of teacher and that kind of human being.

 

* * *

 

When I had been in the rabbinate for only a few years, I asked myself a painful question: What could I possibly do in order to succeed? I was working with as much energy and self-sacrifice as I could muster, and yet nothing seemed to be changing. Was I prepared to spend a lifetime spinning wheels or treading water?

I discussed my dilemma with Rabbi Meyer Simcha Feldblum, my Talmud teacher at Yeshiva University. Rabbi Feldblum reminded me of a talmudic lesson. When the priest in the Temple in ancient Jerusalem was grinding the spices for the incense offering, someone was required to stand by him and say: “Grind them fine, grind them fine.” The reason is that “The voice is beneficial for spices.” Yet what benefit could a voice have in this process?

Rabbi Feldblum answered: The priest would inevitably reach the point where he thought that his grinding made no difference and that nothing was happening. He would want to stop. So he needed someone to encourage him: You may think that you are not accomplishing anything, but you are perfecting the spices. Keep at it. Ultimately your grinding does make a difference.

This lesson applies to all who wish to transmit the teachings of Torah to their children, grandchildren, students, and members of the larger community. The work will often seem to be in vain, yielding no visible results. But we must continue our task with selfless devotion. Something is happening. We may not see the results now, and we may never live long enough to see the results—but something is happening. The words and teachings of Torah are being planted. They will eventually take root. They will blossom.

Maimonides has taught that the religious person must be a model of human excellence: gentle, honest, friendly, and courteous. People should look at that person and wish to follow the example, recognizing that Torah has the power to create such ideal individuals.

Those who wish to transmit Judaism must strive to be exemplars of Judaism at its best. Being a religious Jew means living with failure, personal and communal. It means falling short, feeling lonely and misunderstood. But if we ourselves can strive to reach our ideals, and if we can convey our ideals to others with sincere devotion, we can lead lives imbued with genuine meaning. And that is success.

 

* * *

 

Haham Solomon Gaon passed away on 19 Tevet 5755 (December 22, 1994). During the course of his lifetime, he impacted on many thousands of people. He served for many years as the Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese community in London; and was the founder and director of the Sephardic Studies Program at Yeshiva University in New York.

As one of Haham Gaon’s first students at Yeshiva University in 1963, I want to share a few thoughts about a man who was not merely a teacher, but a mentor and friend. Had I not studied with Haham Gaon, I almost surely would not have become a rabbi; had he not been a constant guide and friend, I almost surely would not have had a rabbinic career spanning five decades.

Solomon Gaon was born in Travnik, Yugoslavia in 1912 and studied at the yeshiva in Sarajevo. Both his parents died in the Holocaust. He received his rabbinic ordination from Jews' College in London. In 1949 he became Haham (Chief Rabbi) of the Sephardic congregations of the British Commonwealth. With Alan Mocatta, he is credited with revivifying a declining community. Beginning in 1963, he became involved (initially on a part-time basis) with Yeshiva University in New York, and was integral in the founding of its Sephardic Studies Program. While in New York, Haham Gaon was closely identified with Congregation Shearith Israel where he attended services regularly.

Haham Gaon had an uncanny understanding of human nature. He seemed to know what was on your mind without your ever having to tell him. He was one of those rare rabbis and teachers who actually cared about others with a fullness of concern. He held impressive titles and received many honors; but he was among the humblest people I have ever known. Whatever he achieved was not directed at self-glory, but was for the glory of God. He spoke to all people with respect and kindness. He was as non-judgmental a rabbi as I have ever met. His motivating emotion was love; his compassion and empathy seemed to know no bounds.

Haham Gaon seemed to have boundless energy. He traveled extensively; he visited many Sephardic communities around the world. He spoke at many conferences and scholarly gatherings. As busy as he was, he always seemed to have time for family, friends, and students. He and Mrs. Gaon were gracious hosts; they enjoyed being with people, sharing happy times.

Haham Gaon had a lively sense of humor. He also had gravitas. He knew how to carry himself with great dignity while still not becoming aloof.

Haham Gaon, like the classic rabbis of Sephardic tradition, placed great emphasis on prayer. He seemed to have a remarkable spiritual intimacy with the Almighty. When Haham Gaon prayed, all of us in his presence felt an extra spiritual energy in the room.

In an article I wrote on Sephardic models of rabbinic leadership, I referred to Haham Gaon:

 

As a young rabbi, I learned much from my teacher Haham Solomon Gaon, with whom I studied at Yeshiva University, and to whom I turned for guidance for many years thereafter. I once complained to Haham Gaon that I was called upon by various organizations and committees to attend their events and meetings. I felt I should be exempt from these communal responsibilities, so that I could devote more time to my studies. I thought the Haham would support my request. Instead, he gently rebuked me. He said: The people who devote their time and effort on behalf of the community need to know that the rabbi is with them. They need to see the rabbi, to hear the rabbi’s suggestions, to know that the rabbi appreciates and participates in their work. Yes, you need time to study; but you also need to devote time to working with members of the community. Haham Gaon was a Haver haIr, a friend of the community.

 

I went on to write that the classic Sephardic rabbinic model personified by Haham Gaon has been on the decline. “For a variety of sociological and psychological reasons, there has been a sea change in Orthodox rabbinic leadership in general—and an even more profound change in Sephardic rabbinic leadership. The upsurge in the influence of extreme Hareidi religious authorities has dragged much of Orthodoxy to the right.”

Haham Gaon represented a balanced religiosity, deeply faithful to tradition while deeply sensitive to the needs and feelings of modern men and women. Haham Gaon was a model of dignity, compassion, and total commitment to the People of Israel and the State of Israel. He did not attempt to validate his religiosity by adopting “Hareidi” style rabbinic garb; on the contrary, as a proud Sephardic rabbi, he refused to compromise his own traditions in order to curry favor among others. He respected Ashkenazic rabbis who were faithful to their traditions, and he expected them to be respectful of his traditions.

The broadness of vision, tolerance, spirituality and humanism of the Sephardic rabbinic tradition is on the brink of extinction. At the very moment when the Jewish world needs exactly this kind of spiritual leadership, we miss Haham more than ever.

Video Games; Luxury Cars; Talking in Synagogue: Rabbi M. Angel Responds to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it proper to play video games? What about young children?
 

A recent survey found that respondents spent an average of 16.5 hours per week with video games. While the numbers were high for children, especially teens, the numbers were also surprisingly high for adults. Three-quarters of those aged 44-64 reported that they spent about 16 hours per week on video games.

While it is fine to spend some time on amusements such as video games, it is difficult to avoid overdoing it. Those who play these games often become “addicted” and keep playing one game after the other. Time flies by.

If one wishes to play video games, or to allow children to play, one needs to be quite disciplined. First, one needs to decide what games are proper and which are not. Then, one needs to fix time limits and stick to them. More importantly, one needs to calculate risk/benefits of playing video games altogether. Is the recreational benefit I or my children gain from these games greater than the risk of wasting an inordinate amount of time that could be spent on more constructive things?

Within careful limits, video games can provide recreational value for children and adults. It is important to establish proper limits…and keep to them.

 

Is it proper to buy an expensive luxury car?

The question goes beyond expensive luxury cars, but relates to the general category of conspicuous consumption. Should people live in huge mansions, wear expensive jewelry, have multi-million dollar summer homes etc.?

On one level, people can buy whatever they can properly afford. On the other hand, no one should feel the need to go into debt in order to buy luxuries beyond their means.

Some people buy luxury cars/homes/jewelry because they see these things as signs of “success.” They wish to impress others with their wealth. It’s a classic stereotype of the “newly rich” that they want to flaunt their riches. It’s not so much the luxuries that they want—they want public recognition. While some may be impressed with such ostentatious displays, others will see these things as highly pretentious and vain.

Our religious traditions stress modesty, moderation, humility. These are values that promote inner strength and self-reliance…the ability to stay true to oneself without seeking to call undue attention to oneself, without needing to show off to others.

The things we buy—cars, homes, clothing, jewelry etc.—are reflections of who we are. When we make our choices, we should make them wisely. 

 

Is it proper to stop someone from talking during davening?

Who would be so brazen as to come to a place of worship…and engage in chattering? How could anyone, with even the tiniest sense of reverence, profane the holiness of a synagogue with idle talk? Surely, observant Jews fully understand that the synagogue is a place of kedushah, a place of prayer to the Ribbono Shel Olam.

Surely.

The problem is that in spite of what I just wrote, synagogues and minyanim often are places where people do indeed chatter. They talk with friends and seat-mates. They discuss the latest news in business, sports, current events, shul politics. They socialize.

But what if you really want to pray with full heart and concentration? And you can’t pray properly because the person next to you or behind you is talking.

If you chastise the talker, he/she gets angry or annoyed. If you give a “be quiet” signal, he/she thinks you’re being rude or self-righteous.

You complain to the rabbi, who makes an announcement for people to refrain from talking during services. And the people keep talking.

You have a sign placed on the eastern wall: “If you come to shul to talk, where do you go to pray?” People smile…and keep talking.

Obviously, people come to synagogue not only to pray…but to socialize.

Yes, if someone is talking during services, you should signal your disapproval. If you were at the opera or theater, wouldn’t you hush chatterers who were ruining the experience for you and everyone else?

Perhaps all synagogues should have a separate room for chatting. In the sanctuary, no extraneous talking allowed: if you wish to socialize, please do so in the adjoining room where you won’t be disturbing fellow congregants…and won’t be offending the Almighty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emma Lazarus, Maud Nathan, and Alice Menken: Notable American Jewish Women

(This article is excerpted from Marc D. Angel, Remnant of Israel: A Portrait of America’s First Jewish Congregation—Shearith Israel, Riverside Books, New York, 2004.)

The 1880s ushered in a period of mass immigration, with many hundreds of thousands of Jews among those seeking a new life in America. Some immigrants were fleeing oppression, and some were simply seeking a better life for themselves and their families. The image of America as a promised land with streets paved of gold attracted the poor and downtrodden of Europe. Between 1880 and 1900, the United States population surged 50 percent, from 50 million to 75 million.

Among the throngs of Jewish immigrants were many who were fleeing the pogroms and persecutions in Tsarist Russia. Most entered the country though the port of New York, and a large majority remained in New York City and environs. To Americanized Jews, their incoming coreligionists posed new challenges. The newcomers, for the most part, were poor, unfamiliar with English, and unskilled by American standards. They were very much “old country” in their garb, language, religious outlook, and manners. They needed places to live, jobs, schools for their children, and medical care. In short, they needed help in adapting to American life.

The Jewish immigrants crowded into tenements on the Lower East Side of New York, eventually also spreading out to other neighborhoods in uptown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The native American Jewish community established agencies to help the immigrants, and expended considerable energy and resources to assist them. Certainly, there were sometimes tensions between them culturally, economically, and socially. Yet, to the credit of the New York Jewish community in particular—and American Jewry in general—much good work was done to assist in the absorption of the immigrants into American life.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a descendant of old and distinguished Shearith Israel families, became an ardent spokesperson on behalf of these immigrants. She spent time with Russian-Jewish families in their tenement homes and sought ways to alleviate their misery. A noted poet in her day, she expressed her empathy with the plight of immigrants and gave voice to American idealism at its finest. Her poem, “The New Colossus” was inscribed on a plaque and affixed to the Statue of Liberty in 1903. In it, she wrote her now famous words:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Among the millions of Jews who arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1924 were 30,000 to 40,000 Sephardim who were mostly from Turkey, the Balkan countries, Greece, and Syria. The existing Jewish agencies that helped immigrants were geared for Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews like themselves. They did not easily recognize the Sephardim as Jews because the Sephardim did not have what they thought of as typical “Jewish” names and because they did not speak Yiddish….

The Sisterhood [of Shearith Israel] established an “Oriental Committee,” whose sole task was to work with newly arrived Sephardim. The Sisterhood operated settlement houses on the Lower East Side specifically for the Sephardim. The one at 86 Orchard Street opened in 1913, and a larger one at 133 Eldridge Street opened in 1918. These settlement houses provide social services, advice, meeting places, youth programs, a Hebrew School, and even a synagogue.

Shearith Israel’s spiritual leader, Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes, was very interested in the welfare of the immigrant Sephardim. His assistant, Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool, worked most actively with the Sisterhood’s “Oriental Committee” and with the Sephardic immigrants themselves. He represented Sephardic interests at meetings of Jewish social workers and charity agencies, and wrote articles explaining their background and needs to the Jewish community at large….

Shearith Israel’s commitment to the Sephardic immigrants entailed a remarkable expenditure of time, effort, and money. Had Shearith Israel performed no other public service at the time, the congregation would still have reason for pride in its social action work.

However, the social conscience of the congregation found expression in other causes as well. Several members of Shearith Israel made particularly notable contributions to the improvement of life in New York City—and well beyond.

Maud Nathan

Maud Nathan (1862–1946) was a social activist and a strong advocate of women’s rights. She was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement and was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as the head of the women’s suffrage committee in his National Progressive Party. She became an international figure in the women’s rights movement, addressing conferences on the topic in such places as London, Lucerne, Stockholm, Budapest, the Hague, Canton, and Peking.

Maud Nathan was once confronted by an opponent of women’s rights. The critic asked her derisively: “Would you want your cook to vote?” She answered calmly: “He does!”
A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Maud Nathan had deep roots in American life. A member of Shearith Israel, she was imbued with a commitment to public service. She was a founder, and the first President, of Shearith Israel’s Sisterhood, established in 1896.

Throughout the nineteenth century, almost all charity and social action work in New York was conducted on a denominational basis. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews each had their own separate institutions and agencies to meet the needs of their communities.

By the end of the nineteenth century, individuals from the different religious groups began working together. Maud Nathan was one of the first Jewish women in American to be involved on the highest levels in a social action cause that crossed denominational lines.

Josephine Shaw Lowell, a prominent personality in the New York social service world, invited Maud Nathan to become involved in the work of the Consumers’ League of New York, which was founded in 1891. Maud Nathan not only joined this group, but went on to serve as its President from 1897 to 1917. She also served as Vice-President of the National Consumers’ League that developed on the model of the New York Consumers’ League.

In her work for the Consumers’ League, she and her colleagues addressed the terrible working conditions of young women clerks in New York’s department stores and shops. The basic insight of the Consumers’ League was that the problem was caused not just by the callousness of employers but by the thoughtlessness of consumers. If shoppers would demand proper conditions for store workers, the employers would be forced to comply. The Consumers’ League printed a “white list” naming the stores that met at least the minimum standards required by the League. At first, only a few stores earned the right to be included on the list. It soon became clear, though, that consumers were becoming sympathetic to the cause. More and more shoppers were patronizing “white list” stores and many were refusing to shop in stores that exploited their workers.

Through persistent hard work and ongoing negotiations with employers, the Consumers’ League brought about a revolution in working conditions for the store clerks. The success was so monumental that other cities and states copied the New York model, which won adherents internationally as well. Maud Nathan described the history of the Consumers’ League in a book she wrote called The Story of an Epoch-Making Movement.

Through her work for the women’s suffrage movement and in the Consumers’ League, Maud Nathan left an imprint on American history. In eulogizing her at her funeral on December 15, 1946, Rabbi David de Sola Pool referred to “her strong spiritual insight.” She is noteworthy for having been able to translate her spiritual insight and idealism into practical action that helped her fellow human beings.

Maud Nathan was outspoken in her criticism of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. She felt that group hatred and bigotry were increasing in New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In her autobiography, Once Upon a Time and Today, she reminded her readers:

Prejudice produces humiliation which is not easy to bear. And the sad part is that the nature becomes warped and the spirit of kindliness and friendliness is changed into bitterness and resentment. To live in peace, there must be mutual confidence, trust, cooperation, no antagonism. How often, instead of mutual respect for differing spiritual values, there is suspicion, intolerance. Does not this intolerance find its final expression in the un-American principles of the Ku Klux Klan?

She saw herself as a victim of discrimination, both as a woman and as a Jew. Still, she took pride in the fact that he had “been able to make her protest count, because she persisted.” She devoted her life to advocating the American—and Jewish—ideals of freedom, mutual respect, and social justice.

Alice Davis Menken

A remarkable contemporary of Maud Nathan, also an active leader within the Shearith Israel community, was Alice Davis Menken (1870–1936). She, too, descended from early Shearith Israel families who had served in the American Revolution. Her husband, Mortimer Menken, was a successful New York attorney, and served as Parnas of Shearith Israel from 1922 to 1926. Alice Menken was President of Shearith Israel’s Sisterhood from 1900 to 1929….

Alice Menken’s interest in helping shape a better society went further [than the Sisterhood’s operation of settlement houses on the Lower East Side]. She was troubled by evidence of delinquency and vice among poor young Jewish immigrants. These young people often grew up in horrendous conditions and it is no wonder that some of them fell into anti-social behavior. Alice Menken believed that the way to deal with such individuals was through genuine, kind assistance and not through punishment. The goal was to rehabilitate them, not to harden them. In 1907, she was a prime mover in founding the Jewish Board of Guardians, which created a system of volunteers to look after wayward young people. Volunteers were given responsibility for supervising Jewish youth who had been placed on court-ordered probation.

In 1908, she organized a group of women from the Shearith Israel Sisterhood to work with the probation department of the Women’s Night Court of New York City. The Sisterhood group took responsibility for delinquent women so that they would not have to be incarcerated. In 1911, she helped found the Jewish Big Sister Association, through which women would “adopt” young women who were at risk of leading anti-social lives. Through one-to-one relationships, the “big sisters” could help guide the “little sisters” to constructive and fulfilling lives.

Alice Menken set a personal example for service. In the period from 1919 to 1922, in cooperation with the probation department, 346 probationers were under her own supervision—for as long a period as required by each of them. The average age of these women was 20, and 197 of them were foreign-born. Alice Menken spent time getting to know the young women, and assessing their needs and wants. She sought to find ways of helping them to help themselves. Almost all of the women for who she took responsibility went on to live better lives—returning home, finding jobs, establishing families of their own. In at least one case, Alice Menken took a probationer home to live in her own house, making her part of her own family for several years! The young woman went on to live a good life, and was ever appreciative of this incredible generosity of spirit.

In 1920, Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed Alice Menken to serve as a member of the Board of Managers of the Reformatory. In this capacity, she strove to improve prison conditions and to eliminate solitary confinement. She believed that prisoners needed an environment that offered them the possibility of rehabilitation.

In 1933, she published a book entitled On the Side of Mercy, in which she discussed her philosophy (and her actions) relating to problems in social readjustment. She wrote

We must seek a balanced philosophy of life. We must live to make the world worth living in, with new ideals, less suffering, and more joy….And when the cry of distress is heard from those overtaken by moral disability, organizations and individuals whose creeds are different, but whose ideals are one, respond in full measure. In this way the new generation, maturing during these years of depression, will be cheered to action and taught something of human and spiritual values.

A Purim Miracle: Thoughts for Purim

Esther the Jewess marries King Ahashverosh. Her Uncle Mordecai tells her not to reveal that she is Jewish. The Jews throughout the 127 provinces of the Empire know Esther is Jewish. But not one of them gives away the secret. Ahashverosh, Haman and the entire royal court are kept in the dark about the Queen’s true identity.

This, commented Rabbi Haim David Halevy (late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv), was an amazing phenomenon, a veritable miracle. Not one Jew in the entire empire betrayed the secret. The Jewish people were united, discreet, and disciplined to an extraordinary degree.

Let us imagine how this story would play out if it occurred today.

Jewish reporters would fiercely try to outscoop each other to report about a Jewish Queen.

Wikileaks would put an image of Esther’s birth certificate on the internet, with the indication that she was born Jewish.

The Hareidim would demonstrate worldwide at the travesty of a Jewish woman marrying a non-Jewish king, a wicked one at that.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel would issue a statement that Esther’s Jewishness was in question, and that she would need a “giyyur le-humra” (a conversion to be on the safe side) if she wanted to be considered Jewish for purposes of aliyah.

The Zionists would point to Esther and say: you see, the Jews of the diaspora are assimilating; they all should make aliyah before they totally disappear.

The zealous Litvaks would say: Esther is merely a Persian Jewess and doesn’t have our fine Ashkenazic pedigree. We wouldn’t want our sons to marry such a woman.

Chabad would send another shaliah to Shushan, to re-enforce the staff already there at the Chabad House. Cholent (Persian style) would be dished out each Shabbat morning along with prayers for the Queen’s prompt release from bondage in the palace.

The Sephardi Federations around the globe would glow with quiet satisfaction that one of their own made the big time.

The peaceniks would say: this whole crisis could have been avoided if Mordecai simply bowed to Haman and would not have been so stubborn. If Jews simply gave everything away, we wouldn’t have to worry about anti-Semitism.

The kabbalists would manufacture a new batch of red strings for bracelets, and sell them at a suitable price to those who wanted to provide mystical salvation to Esther and the Jewish people.

The secularists would blame the fanaticism of the religious community; the religious would blame the secularists for their innumerable sins which surely brought on God’s wrath.

Jewish newspapers would be filled with spicy attacks and accusations, op ed pieces and letters to the editor. Everyone would have an opinion, invariably wrong. All the commotion within the Jewish community would catch the attention of the non-Jewish media.

It would not take too long for Queen Esther’s hidden identity to be revealed. Esther would have then been ejected from the throne; Haman would have had full sway; the Jews would have had no powerful person to intercede on their behalf. The Purim story would have ended in disaster. The joyous holiday of Purim would never have come to be.

The Jews of the ancient Persian Empire demonstrated remarkable intelligence and restraint. They understood what was at stake and they rose to the occasion with admirable self-control. They surely had differing opinions and ideologies among themselves; but when faced with national crisis, they knew enough to set their differences aside, to refrain from destructive gossip and back biting.

While we modern Jews cannot hope to achieve the unity and self-control of the ancient Persian Jewish community, we can strive to act and speak with discretion, courtesy, and respect for the views of others. We can avoid vitriolic attacks on those with whom we disagree. We can focus on the really big issues which confront the Jewish people, and think how each of us can be constructive members of our community. We can know when to speak and when to remain silent. We can know when action is necessary and helpful, and when action is counter-productive and misguided.

Rabbi Halevy thought it was miraculous that the Jews of ancient Persia acted so wisely and so discreetly. Perhaps it is too much to expect such miraculous behavior from us. But perhaps—with intelligence, compassion, discretion and respectfulness—we can be part of a new Purim miracle for our generation.

Remembering Haham Solomon Gaon

Haham Solomon Gaon passed away on 19 Tevet 5755 (December 22, 1994). During the course of his lifetime, he impacted on many thousands of people. He served for many years as the Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese community in London; and was the founder and director of the Sephardic Studies Program at Yeshiva University in New York.

As one of Haham Gaon’s first students at Yeshiva University in 1963, I want to share a few thoughts about a man who was not merely a teacher, but a mentor and friend. Had I not studied with Haham Gaon, I almost surely would not have become a rabbi; had he not been a constant guide and friend, I almost surely would not have had a rabbinic career spanning five decades.

Solomon Gaon was born in Travnik, Yugoslavia in 1912 and studied at the yeshiva in Sarajevo. Both his parents died in the Holocaust. He received his rabbinic ordination from Jews' College in London. In 1949 he became Haham (Chief Rabbi) of the Sephardic congregations of the British Commonwealth. With Alan Mocatta, he is credited with revivifying a declining community. Beginning in 1963 he became involved (initially on a part-time basis) with Yeshiva University in New York, and was integral in the founding of its Sephardic Studies Program. While in New York, Haham Gaon was closely identified with Congregation Shearith Israel where he attended services regularly.

Haham Gaon had an uncanny understanding of human nature. He seemed to know what was on your mind without your ever having to tell him. He was one of those rare rabbis and teachers who actually cared about others with a fullness of concern. He held impressive titles and received many honors; but he was among the humblest people I have ever known. Whatever he achieved was not directed at self-glory, but was for the glory of God. He spoke to all people with respect and kindness. He was as non-judgmental a rabbi as I have ever met. His motivating emotion was love; his compassion and empathy seemed to know no bounds.

Haham Gaon seemed to have boundless energy. He traveled extensively; he visited many Sephardic communities around the world. He spoke at many conferences and scholarly gatherings. As busy as he was, he always seemed to have time for family, friends, and students. He and Mrs. Gaon were gracious hosts; they enjoyed being with people, sharing happy times.

Haham Gaon had a lively sense of humor. He also had gravitas. He knew how to carry himself with great dignity while still not becoming aloof.

Haham Gaon, like the classic rabbis of Sephardic tradition, placed great emphasis on prayer. He seemed to have a remarkable spiritual intimacy with the Almighty. When Haham Gaon prayed, all of us in his presence felt an extra spiritual energy in the room.

In an article I wrote on Sephardic models of rabbinic leadership, I referred to Haham Gaon: “As a young rabbi, I learned much from my teacher Haham Solomon Gaon, with whom I studied at Yeshiva University, and to whom I turned for guidance for many years thereafter. I once complained to Haham Gaon that I was called upon by various organizations and committees to attend their events and meetings. I felt I should be exempt from these communal responsibilities, so that I could devote more time to my studies. I thought the Haham would support my request. Instead, he gently rebuked me. He said: the people who devote their time and effort on behalf of the community need to know that the rabbi is with them. They need to see the rabbi, to hear the rabbi’s suggestions, to know that the rabbi appreciates and participates in their work. Yes, you need time to study; but you also need to devote time to working with members of the community. Haham Gaon was a Haver ha-Ir, a friend of the community.”

I went on to write that the classic Sephardic rabbinic model personified by Haham Gaon has been on the decline. “For a variety of sociological and psychological reasons, there has been a sea change in Orthodox rabbinic leadership in general—and an even more profound change in Sephardic rabbinic leadership. The upsurge in the influence of extreme Hareidi religious authorities has dragged much of Orthodoxy to the right.”

Haham Gaon represented a balanced religiosity, deeply faithful to tradition while deeply sensitive to the needs and feelings of modern men and women. Haham Gaon was a model of dignity, compassion, and total commitment to the People of Israel and the State of Israel. He did not attempt to validate his religiosity by adopting “Hareidi” style rabbinic garb; on the contrary, as a proud Sephardic rabbi, he refused to compromise his own traditions in order to curry favor among others. He respected Ashkenazic rabbis who were faithful to their traditions, and he expected them to be respectful of his traditions.

As we mark the anniversary of the passing of Haham Gaon, we may well also be marking the end of an era of Sephardic rabbinic leadership. The broadness of vision, tolerance, spirituality and humanism of the Sephardic rabbinic tradition is on the brink of extinction. At the very moment when the Jewish world needs exactly this kind of spiritual leadership, we miss Haham more than ever.

Haham Gaon was an optimist. He believed that the tradition he embodied would be a source of strength to the Jewish People in the generations to come. Those of us who were his students and friends must also be optimists. We must be worthy heirs to the spiritual legacy he has left us.