Min haMuvhar

Judaism and The Rhythms of Nature

THE RHYTHMS  OF  NATURE

 

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 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). 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 of his relationship with God. Indeed, experiencing God as Creator is the beginning of religious wisdom.

 

Moses Maimonides, the pre-eminent Jewish thinker of the middle ages, has understood this truth. He wrote:

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 (Psalm 42:3)’. When he ponders over these very subjects, he 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)?

 

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 Jews into a sensitive relationship with the natural world. Many commandments and customs lead in this direction, drawing out the love and reverence which emerge from the contemplation of God’s creations.

 

An ancient teaching is that God “looked into the Torah and created the world.” 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 was 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.

 

The Talmud (Makkot 23b) teaches that God gave the people of Israel 613 commandments. There are 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the number of limbs in the human body. And 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 are in rhythm with each other.

 

This harmony may also be implicit 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 world olam in Biblical Hebrew usually refers to time—a long duration, eternity. In later Hebrew, olam 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, through 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 as 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.” Then the psalm makes an abrupt shift. It continues: “The law of the Lord is perfect, comforting the soul…the precepts of the Lord are right, 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, as if accidentally put together by a careless editor.

 

But the psalm, in its present form, has been part of the Jewish religious tradition for thousands of years. Its impact on Jews has been as a unitary literary piece.

 

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 given us two roads to Him.

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 the same. 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.

Remembering Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool

Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool was the pre-eminent Sephardic rabbi in America during the mid-twentieth century. Born in England in 1885, he died on December 1, 1970, the first week of Kislev 5731, after having served Congregation Shearith Israel in New York for a period spanning 63 years.

Dr. Pool was the quintessential Sephardic rabbi of the Western Sephardic tradition. He was eloquent and dignified, and yet friendly and approachable. He was a fine scholar and author, and was also an admirable and respected communal leader. During his impressive career, he was an ardent spokesman for Zionism; a devoted spiritual guide to American Sephardim; a foremost voice in interfaith dialogue; a historian of American Jewry; editor and translator of the Sephardic and Ashkenazic prayer books.

When I began my service to Shearith Israel in September 1969, I was still a 24 year old rabbinical student. That first Rosh Hashana, I sat next to Dr. Pool on the synagogue’s Tebah, reader’s desk, where the congregation’s clergy are seated. Dr. Pool was 83 years old, frail, and in declining health. After services on the first night of Rosh Hashana, Dr. Pool placed his hand on my head and gave me his blessing, wishing me a happy and meaningful ministry.

That was a special and sacred moment for me. When I shook Dr. Pool’s hand, I was shaking the hand of a great spiritual leader who had begun his service to Shearith Israel in 1907; he had taken over from Dr. Mendes who had begun service to Shearith Israel in 1877. I was one handshake away from 1877! And just a few more handshakes separated me from Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas who had begun serving Shearith Israel in 1768. I felt the weight of centuries, the incredible continuity of a magnificent tradition.

I remember Dr. Pool’s aura of dignity and serenity, even in his elderly years when he was increasingly frail. He was a genuinely pious and humble man who served his community with selfless devotion.

Dr. Pool had maintained Shearith Israel’s traditions during his many years of service to the congregation. He not only followed in the footsteps of his venerable predecessors, but set the standard for his successors. Dr. Pool taught by example. He instructed his immediate successor, Dr. Louis C. Gerstein, who passed on the traditions to me. I learned that the Rabbis of Shearith Israel, as well as the Hazanim, conducted the synagogue prayer services and read the Torah with precision. The synagogue’s pulpit was reserved only for the synagogue’s rabbis. (On rare occasions, guest Orthodox rabbis were invited to preach from the pulpit.) Sermons were to be instructive and inspirational; frivolity was never allowed from the pulpit, nor was the pulpit to be used to advance a political candidate or to criticize anyone by name. The rabbi was to set an example to the congregation of proper devotion in prayer—no engaging in idle chatter or silly gestures, no reading books other than the prayer book during worship. The rabbi was to be at services punctually, not missing unless prevented by illness or a serious scheduling conflict, or unless away from town. The rabbi was to set the tone for orderliness and decorum, for neatness and respectfulness.

The rabbi was to set an example for social justice, communal activism, righteous behavior. The rabbi was to be a scholar, teacher, and pastor. The rabbi was to speak with his congregants, not at them. Dr. Pool insisted that each Jew take responsibility for his and her religious lives. In September 1922, Dr. Pool wrote to his congregation: “We do not, we cannot, all think alike, and there is no one of us that dares dogmatize for others in the realm of religion. If you expect your Rabbi vicariously to think through the problem of living for you, you will weaken and paralyze your own spiritual nature, just as surely as you will destroy your Judaism if you leave it to your Rabbi to live a Jewish life for you.”

In a sermon delivered at his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah in May 1962, Dr. Pool spoke of the need for the generations of Jews to live their Judaism actively. “We must not allow ourselves to become decrepit veterans dreaming of past victories in the struggle for holiness. We have to be something more than feeble survivors of once glorious days…Our life as Jews must be the result of something more than inertia based on the physical fact that we were born into the Jewish people….Within every one of us who is worthy of bearing the Jewish name there must be a conscious sense of a divine call to serve our fellow men for today and tomorrow…. Weaklings among us may fall away as they have done in every generation. But the true spiritual descendants of Abraham, of Moses, and of all our heroic sages and saints keep the Jewish light kindled, and hand it down from generation to generation.”

In 1966, he and his wife Tamar published a book, “Is There an Answer?” They made the following observation: “It is we ourselves who can and who must make life worth living. In the face of the harshest realities, we must cling to life and exalt it by giving to its positive values a commanding place in our consciousness. …To look constantly on the seamy side of life is false to the totality of existence. We must gratefully remember life’s goodness and blessings. We must discern what is transient in experience and what is abiding in our consciousness” (p. 23).

Dr. Pool died in December 1970, a bit over a year after I began my service to Shearith Israel. Yet, I seemed to feel his guiding hand throughout my rabbinic career. I read all his publications; I went through his sermons; I edited a collection of his sermons, addresses and writings. Throughout my many years of rabbinic service, Dr. Pool has surely been an important influence. Even now, as rabbi emeritus of Shearith Israel, I still seem to feel Dr. Pool’s hand on my head and I still seem to hear his words of blessing and encouragement. They mean as much to me now as when I first heard them at age twenty four. Perhaps even more.

Eternal Reward: A Parable

A righteous person dies and the soul is brought before the Heavenly tribunal. The Almighty, seeing that this person had lived an exemplary life, gives options.

“In light of your righteousness, you may choose the section of heaven in which to spend eternity. You may opt for your soul to dwell among the great sages of Israel, the finest Torah scholars of all generations.

“I do not choose this.”

Somewhat surprised, the Almighty then offers: “Your soul may dwell among the righteous rulers of the world, those who led their people with honesty and humility.”

“I do not choose this.”

A third offer: “Your soul may dwell among the famous philanthropists who piously shared their wealth with the poor, who financed great institutions for the betterment of humanity.”

“I do not choose this.”

A fourth offer: “Your soul may dwell among famous, brilliant, respected people of all nations who lived righteously.”

“I do not choose this.”

The Almighty then said: “I have offered you wonderful choices and you have rejected them. Where then would you like your soul to dwell for eternity?”

“I would like my soul to be with my parents and grandparents.”

“But they were simple people. They were not scholars; they were not powerful; they were not rich; they were not famous. They were quiet souls who lived quiet lives. I am offering your soul to be in the presence of the souls of much greater people.”

“I would like my soul to be with my parents and grandparents. They lived pure and good lives. They maintained Torah in the face of many obstacles. They did not hurt anyone. They sacrificed greatly to live as pious Jews. They were abused and cheated and disdained; but their faith was strong. Without my parents and grandparents and the millions of other anonymous quiet souls who kept the flame of Judaism alive over all the generations, I would not have been able to live my life as I did. I would like my soul to be with them.”

The Almighty smiled. “You have chosen wisely. It is precisely their section of heaven that is the highest and most blessed. It is precisely due to your parents and grandparents and the millions of other quiet pious souls that I have not given up entirely on humanity.”

And the soul of the righteous person was bound up in eternal life, along with the souls of parents, grandparents and the millions of other quiet pious souls who sustain God’s hope for humanity.

 

Bars, Gifts to Children, Covid Shots: Rabbi M. Angel Replies to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it proper to have drinks in a bar?

People will decide for themselves if it’s proper to have drinks in a bar, and under what circumstances they may decide to do so.

But speaking for myself, I think one should avoid entering a bar to have drinks. Bars, by definition, are places where people gather to drink alcoholic beverages…a classic place for idle chatter, gossip, excessive frivolity. There are better, finer places for socializing.

The popularity of bars is a reflection of prevalent hedonism in general society. By patronizing bars, we would be endorsing a set of values very much at odds with Torah values.

Drinking strong liquor, while perhaps appropriate in small quantities on Shabbat or special occasions, is something that should not be encouraged…not only in bars, but at home, in shul or anywhere else.

Rambam (Hilkhot De’ot 5:3) states: “One who becomes intoxicated is a sinner and is despicable, and loses his wisdom. If he [a wise person] becomes drunk in the presence of common folk, he has thereby desecrated the Name.” In his section on the Laws of Holiday Rest (6:20), Rambam rules: “When one eats, drinks and celebrates on a festival, he should not allow himself to become overly drawn to drinking wine, amusement and silliness…for drunkenness and excessive amusement and silliness are not rejoicing; they are frivolity and foolishness.”

It’s fine to drink in moderation and on special occasions. It’s not fine to drink excessively or in a hedonistic environment.

 

Is it proper to give children expensive presents for Chanukah? What about just gelt?

 

Why do we give presents on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other special occasions? Ideally, our gifts stem from the desire to express good feelings toward the recipients: we are thinking of you, we love you, we want you to be happy.

Giving gifts on Hanukkah, as on other special occasions, is a way of enhancing excitement and happiness. Children internalize the joyous spirit of the day. The holiday is forever linked in their minds with happiness.

The value of gifts isn’t to be measured in dollars. An inexpensive present that the child really enjoys is better than an expensive present that the child will seldom or never use.

 For our children and older grandchildren, we give checks. They know best what they want. With our younger grandchildren, we generally give their parents money to buy each of them a present that they would really like.

“Expensive” is a relative term. For wealthy people it means one thing; for less wealthy or poor people it means something else. It also depends on how many children and grandchildren will be receiving gifts. The goal should be to find the right level of giving based on one’s own financial situation. Giving overly expensive gifts may not only be a financial burden on the givers; this may also lead to spoiling the recipients so that they keep expecting more and more with each passing holiday.

Rambam taught the importance of following the “middle path” that strives for a balanced approach to life. This lesson is important also in the realm of gift-giving.  Happy Hanukkah!

 

Is it proper to be less than forthcoming about your vaccination status to avoid machloket or harassment?

 

I hope that all our readers are fully vaccinated and have also received booster shots. Given the seriousness of the covid 19 pandemic, it is essential for all of us to protect ourselves to the extent possible. Vaccinations are important not only for our personal health, but for the health of our family and associates. How tragic it is to learn about unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people who contract covid, who suffer, who die, who transmit the virus to their loved ones…all of which could have been prevented by having gotten vaccinated.

Everyone should know if the people near them are properly vaccinated. This is not merely a matter of idle curiosity, but could be a matter of life and death. A person who is asked about vaccination status should answer promptly and accurately. Truthfulness enables others to make responsible decisions.

Unfortunately, a great deal of contradictory information is available about the necessity of vaccinations. In spite of the recommendations of the leading medical experts, there are “anti-vaxxers” who vocally resist getting shots and who urge others not to get vaccinated. If they choose not to vaccinate, they should let the rest of us know. Life is dangerous enough without us having to be in close contact with people who choose not to protect themselves via the available vaccines.

 

Teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the major voices in Jewish thought and philosophy during the 20th century. Born in Poland, he received a traditional yeshiva education and rabbinic ordination. He then pursued his doctoral work at the University of Berlin, and also studied at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. In October 1938 he was deported to Poland by the Germans. He was able to escape the Nazi onslaught by obtaining a visa to teach in the United States where he arrived in 1940. His mother and two sisters were among the millions of Jews who perished during the Holocaust.

Heschel taught for five years at the Hebrew Union College; in 1946 he joined the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in New York City. Along with his academic work, he devoted himself to activism on behalf of social justice. On January 14, 1963, he gave a speech, “Religion and Race,” at a conference in Chicago. There he met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the two became friends. Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King at a demonstration in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

Heschel was a descendant of Hassidic masters; he was thoroughly trained as a rabbi and a modern scholar. While drawing on the spiritual foundations of Hassidism and Jewish mysticism, he sought to engage modern day Jews with a vibrant spirituality and a sophisticated religious worldview. When he reminisced about the warm religious life in which he was raised, he contrasted it with the often cold and barren religious experience of many modern Jews.

Why was religion losing its hold among moderns? Heschel pointed to a number of problems. “It is customary to blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.  When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless” (A. J. Heschel: Essential Writings, p. 49).

            For some Jews, religion became a matter of rote. People followed the rules by habit, not by inner spiritual connection. For others, Judaism was honored for its past, but not granted a serious role in life today. And yet for others, religion became disconnected from the ongoing crises of everyday living, the challenges facing society at large.

One of Heschel’s recurring themes was that moderns have lost the sense of awe, wonder, radical amazement, confrontation with the Eternal. “Awe is an intuition for the creaturely dignity of all things and their preciousness to God; a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something absolute. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to Him who is beyond all things” (God in Search of Man, p. 75). And again: “It is not utility that we seek in religion, but eternity. The criterion of religion is not in its being in agreement with our common sense but in its being compatible with our sense of the ineffable. The purpose of religion is not to satisfy the needs we feel but to create in us the need of serving ends, of which we otherwise remain oblivious” (Ibid., p. 351).

In an address to the Rabbinical Assembly in 1953, Rabbi Heschel lamented the diminishing spiritual experience in modern synagogues. “Of course, people still attend services—but what does this attendance mean to them? Outpouring of the soul? Worship? Prayer? Synagogue attendance has become a benefaction to the synagogue, a service to the community rather than service of God….Spiritual issues cannot be solved by administrative techniques. The issue is not how to fill buildings but how to inspire hearts. The issue is not synagogue attendance but one of spiritual attendance. The issue is not how to attract bodies to enter the space of a temple but how to inspire souls to enter an hour of spiritual concentration in the presence of God.”

Do moderns feel the presence of God? Has our secularized world robbed us of the gift of spiritual insight, radical amazement? “God is not an explanation of the world’s enigmas or a guarantee for our salvation. He is an eternal challenge, an urgent demand. He is not a problem to be solved but a question addressed to us as individuals, as nations, as mankind. God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance, which means a deep certainty that it is better to be defeated with Him than be victorious without Him” (Man is Not Alone, p. 92).

In a trenchant critique of the modern dilemma, Rabbi Heschel notes: “The joys of inner living are denied to most of us. Sensitivity is a luxury, but entertainment is becoming a compulsion…The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use” (The Insecurity of Freedom, pp. 40-41). Utilitarianism and hedonism obstruct the path to the Almighty.

One of R. Heschel’s religious heroes was the Hassidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern (1787-1859) of Kotzk. In his book about the Kotzker Rebbe, Heschel highlights the struggle for integrity. The Kotzker was famous for his clear-headed thinking and for his abhorrence of sham, of pseudo-piety. He stressed that each individual had to find his and her own road to God, and that the religious quest demanded an open mind and a receptive heart. There were no short cuts. The Kotzker commented on the biblical passage in Genesis: “And God appeared to him (Abraham) and he was sitting at the entrance to the tent.” Why does the verse mention that our forefather Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent when God appeared to him? This teaches that even in the presence of God, Abraham felt as though he were sitting at the door and not within the center of the tent.  He—as all truly religious people—understood that he was always standing at the beginning, at a starting point, still outside the center. Religious feeling requires humility and a sense of tentativeness (Kotzk, p. 113).

Rabbi Heschel wrote a book about the Hebrew prophets in which his own prophetic voice found expression. “The prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security; to him it is a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, not compromise; justice, though not inclemency. …The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven” (A. J. Heschel: Essential Writings, p. 63).

Rabbi Heschel believed that spirituality was not simply an ethereal experience of the transcendence. Rather, it is a power that makes claims on us. It expects us to work for righteousness. In his essay “What is Sin?” he offers these words:  “There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous” (Ibid., p. 86).

                                          *     *     *

            During my student days at Yeshiva College and then later in Yeshiva’s rabbinical school (1963-1970) I was attracted to the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I bought his books and read them eagerly. He articulated ideas that resonated strongly with me, as with so many others.

            But I never actually met him in person, nor did I hear him lecture. Indeed, I read his books and was an avid member of his reading audience…but he was, in some sense, considered “off limits” to students at our Yeshiva. After all, we were an Orthodox institution, and our spiritual guides were expected to be fully identified with Orthodoxy. Rabbi Heschel taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical school of the Conservative movement.

            We students at Yeshiva lost an amazing opportunity to be in the presence of Rabbi Heschel. And he was deprived of the opportunity to interact directly with Orthodox rabbinical students. I believe he knew that his words, through his writings, were reaching us along with a much larger general readership. The breath of his voice continues to resonate.

References:

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, ed. Susannah Heschel, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2011.

God in Search of Man, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1955.

Kotzk: The Struggle for Integrity, Maggid Press, Jerusalem, 2015 (Hebrew).

Man is Not Alone, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1951.

The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Farrar, Straus And Giroux, New York, 1967.

nce, Farrar, Straus And Giroux, New York, 1967.

Benjamin Disraeli: An Ongoing Enigma

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was one of the most illustrious and powerful men in 19th century England (and the world), and yet he remains an enigma. Was he a proud Jew? Was he a sincere Christian? Was he a brilliant politician? Was he a buffoon? Was he a great and visionary leader of the British Empire? Was he a party hack who was mostly interested in advancing himself and his loyalists?

            The answer to all these questions seems to be: yes, no, perhaps, we are not sure.

            Disraeli’s family had been members of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of London. His father, Isaac—for a variety of reasons—decided to have his children baptized and raised as Christians. In July 1817, shortly before Benjamin would have celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, the young boy was brought to church and was baptized.

            Now that he was a Christian, he could blend in better with English society, right? In a way yes, but in a way no. He was still identified as a Jew. His very name gave him away. His appearance was described as being “oriental,” not really a pure English Christian. Benjamin dressed flamboyantly and acted accordingly. After completing his studies, he spent a few years with a firm of solicitors in London, and then he tried his hand at journalism. He made some disastrous investments that put him in serious financial trouble. Heavily in debt, he tried to salvage the situation by writing popular novels that would pay him decent royalties.

            He turned to politics but lost his first several attempts to get elected to Parliament. At last, in 1837 he won an election and became a member of Parliament. In 1839, he married a prosperous widow (although not as wealthy as he had expected), and went on to live a happy married life with her until her passing in 1872. Benjamin Disraeli was a gifted orator and a very able debater. He came to lead the “Young England Party” in Parliament. He rose to various high positions in government, and became Prime Minister in 1868 for a short spell. He again rose to become Prime Minister in 1874 and served in that position into 1880. He held the title of Earl of Beaconsfield.

            Although Disraeli was a Christian, a member of Parliament, a popular author, a confidant of Queen Victoria…his detractors never stopped seeing him as a Jew, an outsider, an interloper. He had to struggle against unceasing political malice and anti-Jewish malevolence. He climbed to the top of the “slippery pole” of political power by dint of his genius, his political prowess, and his ability to outshine all his rivals.

            Instead of denying or de-emphasizing his Jewish roots, Disraeli flaunted his Jewishness. His public posture was that Christianity was an outgrowth and broader expression of Judaism. “Everything gentle and sublime in the religious code of the New Testament is a mere transcript from the so-called oral law of the Jews” (Weintraub, p. 453). In his novel, Tancred, one of his Jewish characters taunts the English nobleman by pointing out that “half Christendom worships a Jewess, and the other half a Jew….Which is the superior race, the worshipped or the worshippers?” The Christian world owed the Jews an immense debt.

            In his novel, Coningsby, Disraeli idealized a wise man by name of Sidonia. “All of us encounter, at least once in our life, some individual who utters words that make us think forever. There are men whose phrases are oracles; who condense in a sentence the secrets of life; who blurt out an aphorism that forms a character or illustrates an existence. A great thing is a great book; but greater than all is the talk of a great man” (Coningsby, p.149). Sidonia the Jew was such a man, one who had “exhausted all the sources of human knowledge.” Sidonia propounded the greatness of the Jews.  “And at this moment, in spite of centuries, of tens of centuries, of degradation, the Jewish mind exercises a vast influence on the affairs of Europe. I speak not of their laws, which you still obey; of their literature, with which your minds are saturated; but of the living Hebrew intellect. You never observe a great intellectual movement in Europe in which the Jews do not greatly participate” (p. 271). Sidonia reminds Coningsby that Europe owes the Jews “the best part of its laws, a fine portion of its literature, all its religion” (p. 273).

Anti-Semites never forgave Disraeli’s Jewishness and constantly identified him as a Jew in spite of his conversion to Anglicanism. In response to a vicious anti-Semitic comment made in the British parliament, Disraeli famously retorted: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Disraeli’s novel, Tancred, originally published in 1847, tells of a young British nobleman who had a spiritual longing to visit the Holy Land. When he arrived, he spent time with a Jewish family and became acquainted with Jewish religious life. His visit coincided with Succoth, and he was told that this is a great national festival celebrating the harvest. He was shown the lulav and etrog, symbols of the autumn harvest. Tancred was deeply impressed.

Disraeli writes: “The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal law enjoins the children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persist in celebrating their vintage, although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards. What sublime inexorability in the law! But what indomitable spirit in the people!”

Disraeli notes that it is easier for “the happier Sephardim, the Hebrews who have never quitted the sunny regions that are laved by the Midland Ocean,” to observe the festival, since they can identify with the climate and setting of the early generations of Israelites who celebrated Succoth. “But picture to yourself the child of Israel in the dingy suburb or the squalid quarter of some bleak northern town, where there is never a sun that can at any rate ripen grapes. Yet he must celebrate the vintage of purple Palestine! The law has told him, though a denizen in an icy clime, that he must dwell for seven days in a bower….”

He continues with a description of the ignominies which Jews suffer in their ghettos in Europe “living amid fogs and filth, never treated with kindness, seldom with justice....Conceive such a being, an object to you of prejudice, dislike, disgust, perhaps hatred. The season arrives, and the mind and heart of that being are filled with images and passions that have been ranked in all ages among the most beautiful and the most genial of human experience; filled with a subject the most vivid, the most graceful, the most joyous, and the most exuberant…the harvest of the grape in the native regions of the vine.”

The downtrodden Jews, in observance of Succoth, find real joy in life. They decorate their Succahs as beautifully as they can; their families gather together to eat festive meals in the Succah. The outside world may be cruel and ugly; but their inner life is joyous and noble. Their external conditions may not seem too happy, but their internal happiness is real. The Jews, while remembering the glories of the Israelite past, also dream of the future glories of the Israelites when their people will be restored to their ancient greatness.

            Was Disraeli a Zionist before there was an official Zionist movement? Yes…and no. Like so much about Disraeli, there is ambiguity. On the one hand, he spoke and wrote emotionally about the Jewish attachment to the holy land, and to their ultimate return to Israel. But on the other hand, he did not actively initiate or pursue any policies that would lead to a Jewish return to the land of Israel.

In his novel, Alroy, the Jewish hero states: “You ask me what I wish: my answer is, a national existence, which we have not. You ask me what I wish: my answer is, the Land of Promise. You ask me what I wish: my answer is, Jerusalem. You ask me what I wish: my answer is, the Temple, all we forfeited, all we have yearned after, all for which we have fought, our beauteous country, our holy creed, our simple manners, and our ancient customs.”

One of Disraeli’s political associates, Lord Stanley, wrote in his diary that on one occasion Disraeli spoke to him “with great apparent earnestness on the subject of restoring the Jews to their own land….The country, he said, had ample natural capabilities; all it wanted was labour, and protection for the labourer; the ownership of the soil might be bought from Turkey: money would be forthcoming: the Rothschilds and leading Hebrew capitalists would all help.” These words were spoken a half century before Herzl’s The Jewish State (1897). Yet, Stanley went on to note that Disraeli “never recurred to it again. I have heard of no practical step taken or attempted to be taken by him in the matter” (Kirsch pp.909-91).

Disraeli described himself as the blank page between the Old and New Testaments. He belonged to both Testaments in part, and to neither in full. He was born a Sephardic Jew and remained very proud of his Jewish roots. He was a member of the Anglican Church, and expressed loyalty to its teachings. But in spite of his being baptized as a child, he was still thought of as a Jew. Winston Churchill put it very well:  “I always believed in Dizzy, that old Jew. He saw into the future.”

                                         *     *     *

            Benjamin Disraeli’s family were members of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of London, a sister Congregation of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York—where I’ve been associated as rabbi since 1969. The two congregations share the Western Sephardic traditions and religious worldview. When I think of Benjamin Disraeli, I somehow imagine him as one of my own congregants…even though our lives are separated by many decades, and our actual religious commitments are very far apart.

            It is difficult for me to be “proud” of Disraeli, since he was, after all, a Jewish apostate who lived his entire adult life as a Christian. Yet, it is also difficult not to be “proud” of him.  He was, in spite of his being a Christian, very visible as a Jew, very identified as being a Jew. He spoke with tremendous pride of his Jewish antecedents and believed the Christian world owed an immense debt to Judaism and the Jewish people.

            If his father had not had Benjamin baptized, it would have been impossible for him to have risen within the British political system, and he never would have become Prime Minister. His entire success as a statesman was contingent on his being a Christian. Yet, this Christian political figure never stopped being a Jew. However hard his anti-Jewish detractors strove to undermine him, he outmaneuvered, outsmarted, and outlasted them.

            Fortunately, it is not our responsibility or right to judge Disraeli. That is entirely left up to the Almighty. But I admit, without apology, that I still regard this wayward son of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue as one of our own.

References

Disraeli, Benjamin, Coningsby, Penguin Books, New York, 1989.

_______________, Tancred, CreateSpace Publishing, Scotts Valley Ca., 2015.

Kirsch, Adam, Benjamin Disraeli, Schocken Books, New York, 2008.

Levine, Richard, Benjamin Disraeli, Twayne Publishers Inc., New York, 1968.

Weintraub, Stanley, Disraeli: A Biography, Truman Talley Books, New York, 1998.

 

 

 

 

 

Forgiveness, Piety, Tolerance: Rabbi M. Angel Responds to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it proper to tell someone you forgive them if you don't mean it?

 

In his “Laws of Repentance,” (2:10), Rambam writes: “When a sinner asks forgiveness, one should grant it with a full heart and willing soul. Even if the other has sinned greatly against him and caused him much anguish, he should not take revenge or bear a grudge.”

Rambam expects a lot of us! How can we forgive someone with a full heart when that person has wronged us grievously? How can we be expected to act in such a lofty, saintly manner?

The answer is: when we harbor grudges, we infect ourselves with negative emotions. We are expected to offer forgiveness not only for the sake of the sinner—but for our own sakes. If a person has the courage to apologize to us and admit past sins against us, we now have an opportunity to rid ourselves of negative, self-destructive feelings.

What if we cannot reach this high level of forgiving? Then we should forgive anyway, even if not sincerely. At least this is a step toward reconciliation with the offender. And it is also a step toward self-purification.

 

Is it good to fill one's sentences with "baruch Hashem," 'iyH," and "bli neder." How about when talking with non Jews?

 

Genuinely religious people feel the presence of Hashem. They naturally and spontaneously offer blessings. They know that future plans are contingent on the will of Hashem.  They often use such phrases as barukh Hashem or im yirtseh Hashem…and these are sincere expressions of a religiously sensitive person.

If these phrases are used “for show” or to impress others with one’s religiosity, then these phrases are counterfeit. Instead of reflecting genuine piety, they reflect hypocrisy.

Whether speaking with a Jew or non-Jew, one should use such phrases carefully and appropriately. One should neither flaunt one’s piety nor be ashamed to mention blessing and gratitude to the Almighty.

We learn from religious role models. My grandfather Marco Romey, of blessed memory, used to say “bendicho el Dio” (Ladino for barukh Hashem) on many occasions. When he said it, though, he tended to pause a moment so that the words were said with concentration, not merely mumbled as a formula. He set a good example that all of us would do well to follow.

 

Should parents encourage children to be tolerant of opposing political opinions?

 

Parents “encourage” their children to be tolerant and respectful by setting the example themselves. Children learn more from their parents’ behavior than from their preachments.

Unfortunately, we face growing divisions within society. The level of vitriol and outright hatred has risen dramatically in recent years. There is a tendency to stick to one’s own views, political or otherwise, and not give careful attention to those who differ. Instead of thoughtful discussion and dialogue, we too often are confronted with hostile shouting and name-calling.

Those who foster extreme divisiveness are part of the problem; we should strive for ourselves and our children to be part of the solution. The issue isn’t merely tolerance of opposing opinions, but actually listening to what the opponents are saying. If they have any truth on their side, admit it. If they are wrong, then refute their positions respectfully.

Some people are so opinionated, it’s not possible to discuss things with them in a calm way. So it’s best to articulate one’s own views without wasting time in useless arguing.

We want our children and grandchildren to grow into responsible, thinking and respectful citizens. Don’t preach at them: set the proper example.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Writings of Elias Canetti

   

    Elias Canetti (1905-1994), a Bulgarian-born Sephardic Jew, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. He spent part of his youth in Manchester, England, but after the untimely death of his father, his mother took her three sons to Vienna. In 1938, Canetti escaped Europe and Nazi persecution and settled in England. Known as a modernist novelist, playwright, and memoirist, he was a keen observer of human behavior.

In his memoir, The Torch in My Ear, he reflected on an insight that came to him as a young man: “I realized that there is such a thing as a crowd instinct, which is always in conflict with the personality instinct, and that the struggle between the two of them can explain the course of human history” (The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, p. 387).This idea became central to Canetti’s life, ultimately resulting in his classic book Crowds and Power.

     What is the “crowd instinct?” It is the desire to blend into a crowd, to dissolve one’s personality into a large mass of people. The crowd instinct can be witnessed in sports’ arenas, where fans become one with each other and with the players on the field. It can be experienced in mass rallies where fiery orators fire up the crowd, or at rock concerts where fans lose themselves in their wild admiration of the singers and their music. People have a deep desire to be part of such crowds.

     Yet, crowds can become dangerous. When individuals succumb to crowds, demagogues can control them, can drive them to do terrible things, can turn them into lynch mobs or murderous gangs, and can push them into terrorism and war.

     So we also have a “personality instinct,” a deep desire to retain our own ideas and values, to resist the mesmerizing power of crowds.  Although we at times want to share in the enthusiasms and griefs of crowds, we simultaneously want to maintain our inner freedom from the crowds. We want to blend in…but not to blend in.

     Leadership entails working with crowds, striving to create consensus among various factions. Nations demand patriotism, national symbols that inspire citizens to feel united with each other. But nations can become dangerous crowds. Demagogues can manipulate the crowd’s emotions and can control information that they share with the masses.

     How can one resist the power of crowds? For this we need the personality instinct. Each person needs to understand the crowd, but keep enough independence not to totally succumb to the power of the crowd. Each person literally has to be a hero, has to be willing to stand up and stand out…and possibly take terrible risks in order to maintain personal integrity.

     Throughout human history, there has been an ongoing tension between the crowd instinct and the personality instinct.  Too often, the crowd instinct has prevailed. Masses of people have been whipped up to commit the worst atrocities, to murder innocents, to vent hatred.

     In our time, like throughout history, there are those who seek to manipulate crowds in dangerous, murderous and hateful ways. There are those who play on the fears and gullibility of the masses, who dissolve individuality and turn people into frenzied sheep.

     But there are also those who refuse to become part of such crowds, who resist the crowd instinct and maintain the personality instinct. These are the stars who will form a new kind of crowd, a crowd that will bring human beings together in harmony and mutual respect.

     An ever-present problem for people is putting on symbolic masks, pretending to be what they are not. In their desire to blend in or to control, they take on artificial poses in order to manipulate others.

     In describing the impact of a mask on its wearer, Canetti notes: “As long as he wears it he is two things, himself and the mask…Because it can be torn away, its wearer is bound to fear for it. He must take care that he does not lose it; it must never be dropped and must never open. He feels every kind of anxiety about what may happen to it….He must manipulate it, remaining his everyday self, and, at the same time, must change into it as a performer. While he wears the mask he is thus two people and must remain two during the whole of his performance” (Crowds and Power, p. 377).

     One wearing a mask wishes to preserve the illusion of being someone else. Being unmasked would ruin everything. So the mask wearer tries to protect the illusion by staying in control of the mask. No one must be allowed to get past the mask.

     But what happens if the mask wearer comes to identify totally with the mask? Much human tragedy is the result of people forgetting who they are at root; they don various masks and personae. They may imagine that they can only be successful or happy if they adopt a certain persona, if they betray their selves for the sake of winning the approval of others.

     People, in their desire to be popular, often end up play-acting. They dress, speak, laugh, socialize—the way they expect that others want them to dress, speak, laugh and socialize. To gain approval, they will wear whatever mask they think will advance them. The mask-wearers are terrified by those who would unmask them.

     The great challenge for each human being is to be authentic, to resist wearing masks, and resist those who attempt to manipulate us by donning masks of their own. The great challenge to society are those whom Canetti terms “survivors.” These are individuals who cut down or out- maneuver all opponents; they survive the climb to the top of the social ladder ruthlessly. They are thirsty to rule, to control, to command. They demand total obeisance; they feel threatened by anyone who sees through their schemes.

     Canetti writes:  “What has radically changed in our time, however, is the situation of the survivor. …He has been glorified as a hero and obeyed as a ruler but fundamentally he is always the same. His most fantastic triumphs have taken place in our own time, among people who set great store by the idea of humanity. He is not yet extinct, nor ever will be until we have the strength to see him clearly, whatever disguise he assumes and whatever his halo of glory. The survivor is mankind’s worst evil, its curse and perhaps its doom. Is it possible for us to escape him, even now at this last moment?” (Ibid., p. 468).

     Even an observer less gifted than Canetti would have noticed the rise of Nazism and Fascism sweeping through Europe. The mobs were incited by ruthless megalomaniac leaders; ugly crowds were forming; almost unlimited power was granted to a few leaders. The recipe for society’s destruction was in place. Canetti identified the problem, but could do nothing to prevent the inevitable catastrophe. He fled to England where he survived the war.

     Although anti-Semites spoke about “the Jews” as if all Jews were cut of the same cloth, Canetti emphasized the tremendous diversity among Jews.  In recounting his visit to the Jewish Quarter in Marrakesh, Morocco, he wrote:  “ I walked past as slowly as possible and looked at the faces. Their heterogeneity was astonishing. There were faces that in other clothing I would have taken for Arab. There were luminous old Rembrandt Jews. There were Catholic priests of wily quietness and humility. There were Wandering Jews whose restlessness was written in every lineament. There were Frenchmen. There were Spaniards. There were ruddy-complexioned Russians. There was one you felt like hailing as the patriarch Abraham; he was haughtily addressing Napoleon, and a hot-tempered know-all who looked like Goebbels was trying to butt in.  I thought of the transmigration of souls. Perhaps, I wondered, every human soul has to be a Jew once, and here they all are: none remembers what he was before, and even when this is so clearly revealed in his features that I, a foreigner, can recognize it, every one of these people still firmly believes he stands in direct line of descent from the people of the Bible” (The Voices of Marrakesh, p. 40).

     In Crowds and Power, he made the same point. “No people is more difficult to understand than the Jews. Debarred from their country of origin, they have spread over the whole of the inhabited earth. Their talent for adaptation is well known, but the degree of their adaptation is immensely variable….Jews are different from other people, but, in reality, they are most different from each other” (Crowds and Power, pp. 178-9). Canetti points out that Jews are not a “racial” or monolithic group, but rather are united by a shared memory of the Exodus from Egypt of the ancient Israelites. That sense of being a crowd, a wandering crowd yearning for the Promised Land, has been the unifying symbol that binds Jews together.

     The victimization of Jews is an example of how tyranny can prevail in whipping up masses of people to commit horrific crimes against targeted individuals or groups. As long as there are such tyrants, and as long as the masses are willing to go along with them, that is how long it will be until humanity can be redeemed from its own evils.

                                                   *     *    *

     When I learned in 1981 that the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a Sephardic Jew of Judeo-Spanish-speaking background, I was very pleased. Being myself of Judeo-Spanish background, I felt an immediate kinship with Canetti.  But after reading his various writings, I felt a huge distance between us. The “ethnic” link was shaken.

     Canetti wrote in German, the language of culture that his mother instilled in him in Vienna. His major writings are on general human themes, not with any particular “Sephardic” flavor. Even his memoirs left me feeling that his    Sephardic upbringing was far from traditional or representative of Sephardic civilization. But as the years have passed, I find myself feeling much closer to Canetti. I appreciate his keen insights into human motives and behaviors. I admire his close observation of people and places. With prophet-like clarity, he foresaw how humanity could destroy itself…or save itself from the brink.

References

Auto-da-Fe, Continuum, New York, 1974.

Crowds and Power, Seabury Press, NY, 1978.

Kafka’s Other Trial, Schocken Books, New York, 1974

The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, (The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, The Play of the Eyes), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1999.

The Voices of Marrakesh, Continuum, New York, 1981

Rabbi M. Angel Replies to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it proper for one to be overly familiar and casual with his/her parents?

 

 Jewish law and tradition emphasize the honor and respect due to parents. Being overly familiar and casual with parents e.g. calling them by their first names, is a breach in proper conduct.

When I grew up among the Sephardim of Seattle, it was expected that children would not only act respectfully to parents, but that we would be deferential to elders and teachers.  The traditional societal structure encouraged a hierarchical system, where the younger generations were imbued with a sense of respect for the older generations. We were not “equals.”

As time has moved on, there has been an increasing societal pressure toward “egalitarianism,” where the traditional hierarchies have been challenged. We now find children addressing parents, teachers and elders by their first names. This isn’t only about names; it’s about an attitude: we are all basically equal, and no one has to defer to anyone else.  While some loosening of the old hierarchical system has positive value, too much loosening leads to an erosion of respect for authority in general.

For a family—and society—to function optimally, it is vital for children and parents to enjoy positive and warm relationships. Austere and authoritarian parenting is not in the best interest of either parents or children. But neither is overly casual and informal parenting to be desired.

Maintaining a proper balance is not always easy…but it is the best way of fostering healthy families and a healthy society.

 

 

 

Is it proper for a husband/father or wife/mother to leave their family for an extended period of time (say, over a month)?

 

 

Ideally, parents and children should live happily and peacefully in harmonious households. Extended separations from family are generally not in the best interest of the parties involved.

 

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and various non-ideal situations arise that may necessitate separations from the family unit. It sometimes happens that one must travel on extended business trips in order to maintain family financial health. While it would be nice to earn a living without having to travel, not everyone can manage this.

 

In unfortunate cases of physical or emotional abuse, it may be necessary for the victim to separate from the abuser until the situation can be ameliorated. Separation in extreme cases is not only proper, but absolutely necessary.

 

It is best to follow the advice of Hillel, as recorded in the Pirkei Avot: Don’t judge others until you find yourself in their same situation.

 

 

Is it proper to give an aliya to one who has a seiruv issued against them by a reputable beit din?

And generally how should one interact with such a person?

 

When issued a summons by a reputable beth din, one is obligated to show up. If the beth din ultimately issues a seiruv, the person should face communal disapproval unless there is good reason behind the refusal to appear. Each case needs to be evaluated on its own merits.

When it comes to the area of gittin, a “get” should never be used as a bargaining chip. Once a marriage has broken up, both husband and wife must arrange for a “get” promptly. Their issues of contention over children or property should be settled in a beth din or civil court.

A man who is summoned by a reputable beth din to issue a “get” must comply. If he refuses and the beth din issues a “seiruv,” the man should be treated as though in “herem.” He certainly should not be given an Aliyah or any communal honor. In my view, he should not even be allowed into a synagogue. He should be shunned in business and avoided socially.

It is especially painful to learn of men who attempt to extort money from their wife or her family before agreeing to give a “get.” Such reprehensible behavior not only reflects on the corrupt nature of the man, but casts discredit on the halakhic system that allows or tolerates such corruption.

The “agunah” problem could be ameliorated if all couples are required to sign a binding pre-nuptial agreement that stipulates that both parties will agree to a “get” if, Heaven forbid, the marriage ends in divorce. A recalcitrant party will face heavy and expensive penalties. There are halakhically approved pre-nuptial agreements available from the Rabbinical Council of America and other responsible rabbinic groups.

If you have children of marriageable age, please make sure they insist on a pre-nuptial agreement before their wedding. Much suffering could be avoided if proper precautions are taken early.

 

 Is it proper to spend time on social media?

Assuming we live to age 90 and sleep an average of 8 hours per night, we spend 30 years of our lives asleep. We spend many additional years at work; and other years on our basic bodily needs, waiting on lines, shopping, going to the doctor and dentist, dealing with illness etc. If we spend one hour a day watching television or on social media, that’s another 1/24th of our lives gone.

Time is our most precious commodity. It is limited and irreplaceable. If we keep this in mind, we will be very careful in how we utilize the time that the Almighty grants us.

Having said this, it is important for each person to decide for him/herself how much time to devote to social media. In many cases, people use social media to stay in touch with family and friends who live far from each other. Without this means of communication, these relationships would suffer. In other cases, people turn to social media to keep up with news, communal events, and items of general interest.

While each person should not squander precious time by overusing social media, neither should anyone decide what is or isn’t proper for anyone else. Each person has the right—and responsibility—to use his and her time in the way that seems best in their personal judgment.

Thoughts on Albert Einstein

     

   When Albert Einstein was a little boy, his father showed him a compass. The needle pointed north no matter which way Einstein turned the compass around. This amazed the child. In his autobiography published in 1949, Einstein recalls his feelings on that occasion. “The needle behaved in such a determined way and did not fit into the usual explanation of how the world works. That is that you must touch something to move it. I still remember now, or I believe that I remember, that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. There must be something deeply hidden behind everything.”

     But more than his amazement about the compass, Einstein gained another insight. “Why do we come, sometimes spontaneously, to wonder about something? I think that wondering to one’s self occurs when an experience conflicts with our fixed ways of seeing the world.”

     Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was one of humanity’s greatest geniuses, a man whose mind plumbed the depths of universe. But his greatness transcended his being gifted with an extraordinary IQ: he had imagination; he wondered about things; he let his mind drift in new and unexpected pathways. He remarked: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world” (Einstein on Cosmic Religion, p. 97).

     Einstein believed that the sense of wonder is an essential foundation for human creativity. “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle” (The World as I See It, p. 7). In one of his famous aphorisms, he asserted: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

     Although Einstein was a deeply religious man, but in his own sense of the word “religion.”  He believed in a cosmic religious sense. “This is hard to make clear to those who do not experience it, since it does not involve an anthropomorphic ideas of God; the individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought” (Einstein on Cosmic Religion, p. 48). He did not subscribe to the classic dogmas and rituals of religion, but was drawn to a cosmic God who is manifested in the awesome orderliness and vastness of nature. “The basis of all scientific work is the conviction that the world is an ordered and comprehensive entity, which is a religious sentiment. My religious feeling is a humble amazement at the order revealed in the small patch of reality to which our feeble intelligence is equal” (Ibid., p. 98). He was convinced that “the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest driving force behind scientific research. The only deeply religious people of our largely materialistic are the earnest men of research” (Ibid. pp. 52, 54).

     He described his own understanding of religiosity: “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man” (The World as I See It, p. 7).

     Einstein, while proud of his Jewish identity, was not particularly observant of Jewish religious traditions. His religious focus remained “cosmic,” not particularistic. He tended to view Judaism (and “organized” religion in general) as being bogged down in dogmas and rituals, not centered on cosmic religion. Einstein’s cosmic religious sense infused his scientific work.

     His papers on general and special relativity led to a dramatic revolution in scientific thought. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in physics.

     When Hitler came to power, Einstein realized there was no future for Jews in Germany. He settled in the United States, and was appointed head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. While philosophically aligned with pacifism, he played a significant role in having the United States develop atomic weapons.

     Along with his intellectual and scientific work, Einstein was famous for his advocacy of ethics, social justice, and human rights. He identified with the Zionist movement, which offered Jews the possibility of living in their own land of Israel. Given the prevalence of anti-Semitism, he understood that Jews needed a safe haven where they could live as dignified and free human beings. He lent his name to the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and was hopeful that the Jewish return to their ancient homeland would usher in a new era of Jewish creativity.

     He became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and campaigned for the civil rights movement in America. In 1946, Einstein was awarded an honorary degree by Lincoln University in Pennsylvania—a historically black college. In his address on that occasion, he spoke about the scourge of racism in America, stating that “I do not intend to be quiet about it.” And he wasn’t.

     He viewed his Jewishness as a foundation of his humanitarian outlook.  He noted: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence—these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it” (The World as I See It, p. 103).  He believed that “the bond that has united the Jews for thousands of years and that unites them today is, above all, the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual ad and tolerance among all men” (Ideas and Opinions, p. 195).

     While stressing the long-standing Jewish commitment to social justice, Einstein lamented the general moral decay which he felt was setting into society.  “One misses the elementary reaction against injustice and for justice—that reaction which in the long run represents man’s only protection against a relapse into barbarism” (Out of My Later Years, p. 10). He felt that technological advances gave humans great powers—but that if these powers were misused, then catastrophe would ensue. He was optimistic that humanity had the ability to achieve a better world. “If we desire sincerely and passionately the safety, the welfare and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state” (Ibid., p. 113).

     Einstein sought a Grand Unified Theory that would explain the workings of the universe in a comprehensive way. He was convinced of the ultimate orderliness and unity of nature. In spite of his mighty brain and his tremendous efforts, he was unable to achieve his goal. But he pointed the way for others who would continue the search.

                                                                   *     *     *

            When I was a student at Yeshiva College, I wanted to gain an understanding of Einstein’s theories of relativity so I enrolled in a philosophy of science class. The professor was excellent; the readings were enlightening; the assignments were challenging. I was a diligent student—but I was unable to fully grasp Einstein’s theories.

            In the process of my readings for the class, I came across a passage from Einstein that was more important to me than my failed efforts to understand relativity. The passage reflected Einstein’s genius, humility, and ultimate optimism. “Our lives are so small that we are too often in our solitude like children crying in the dark. Nevertheless our little solitude is a great and august solitude in which we can contemplate things that are greater than mankind.”

            And if that is all that I learned from the class, I have no complaints.

 

References:

Einstein On Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms, Dover Publications, Mineola, 2009.

Essays in Humanism, Philosophical Library, New York, 1978.

Ideas and Opinions, Three Rivers Press, New York, 1954.

Out of My Later Years, Citadel Press, Secaucus, 1956.

The World as I See It, Citadel Press, New York, 2006.