Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2010

One of my projects for the past couple of months has been working with a web designer on our new Ahavas Israel web site.  By the time you read this it should have replaced the web site that Paula Bojsen created for us about five years ago.  Paula created a state of the art web site which over the years has been a valuable virtual front door to the congregation.  It is fascinating to me how quickly time goes by in the internet world.  Five years is a generation.  A five year old web site looks dated, but more importantly, the technology that was used to create and maintain had become obsolete.  We undertook the redesign project in order to ensure that our web site functions not only as an attractive and informational brochure for potential members, but also as a communications tool for our congregational family.

While researching web sites of other synagogues, I found many, belonging to both large and small congregations, that contained broken links and out-of-date information.  As a virtual front door to the congregations, they reflected badly on the organization.  We are grateful to Rachel Lutwick-Deaner for keeping our website updated for the last few years.

One of the interesting things about building a web site is that it is a great equalizer among congregations.  A 2000 family synagogue might have a large building and staff along with an eight figure budget and a multi-million dollar endowment, and might offer a greater variety of programming than a small congregation, but you can put their web site and ours side by side, and the differences shrink.  A large congregation is just as likely to have a difficult to navigate, out of date, web site as a small congregation.

I also found organizations with web sites that gave no sense of the personality of the congregation.  Many Federation and Chabad web sites, which take most of their content from a national organization suffer from this.  Such generic sites may have useful information, but the personality and uniqueness of the local organization is buried underneath the identity of the national parent organization.  In the world of news, we know that national and international news can be found any number of places; local news sources, however, are much more limited in number.  A web site of a congregation should stress the local, not the national.  Our web site reflects the fact that Ahavas Israel exists to provide local community and connections.

Our new web site can be found at the same address, AhavasIsraelGR.org.  Please visit it and let me know what you think.  Let me know what else you’d like to see, and let me know if the organization and layout is intuitive and usable.

Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Embodied Torah Tagged: Divre Harav, web site design

Judaism and Zionism

An article in the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” makes a strong case that American Jews are abandoning Zionism in favor of liberal values.

The article alludes to, but doesn’t directly deal with what may be the primary reason for the disconnect between American Jews and Israel.  We are spending far too many resources building Holocaust museums (which are an entirely negative reason to remain Jewish, as in Emil Fackinheim’s 614th mitzvah, “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.”) and birthright trips to Israel.  Birthright has been a wonderful program, but the fact is that you cannot create a bond to Israel in 10 days unless there was something there before the trip.

We have failed to give our young generation a Judaism that is sophisticated and modern, but also maintains a connection to traditional Torah principles.  Reform has embraced liberalism as a religious principle, ignoring the centrality of the practices of Torah as the glue that hold together Jewish community; Orthodoxy ignores modern political realities in favor of a messianic approach nibbling the edges of racism, that if we only hold on long enough God will reward us richly.  I think the Conservative Jewish approach is perfect for finding the middle ground, although I see far too many of my colleagues falling into the sensationalist rhetoric of comparing Obama to Chamberlin, and the Middle East to 1939 Nazi Germany.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not a left wing peacenik.  The security concerns are real – Israel is fighting for its life, and Iran is a dangerous enemy.  The United States is pushing for a peace agreement as if both sides (Israel and Fatah/Hamas) were equally at fault and equally trustworthy.  Israel without Judaism is a state without a moral center.  However, the Judaism that is increasingly found in Israel lacks morality.

I want to see a Judaism deal honestly and openly with the texts of our tradition that disdain the “other,” while at the same time relying up them to do the work of maintaining our State on Shabbat, providing us with organs when we need transplants, and employing them as our menial laborers.  I want to see a Judaism that believes that belief and practice are more central to our identity than genetics; a Judaism that is open to strangers; a Judaism that actively encourages seekers.  This kind of Judaism will be able to speak compassionately to Palestinians while still building a security fence.  This kind of Judaism will be able to treat the Moslem and Christian Arab citizens of Israel with dignity and equality.  This kind of Judaism can teach young people how to be both passionate Jews and passionate Zionists.

I am open to comments, disagreement, questions.  I realize that in a relatively brief essay, I have challenged Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews, Federation Jews, and Jews whose lives are defined by the Shoah to address the hard question of how they would respond to Beinart’s article.  I am not arrogant enough to think that I personally have all or even most of the answers – but I passionately believe that without a compassionate Torah center, the answers are not to be found.

Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Israel - Embodying one's Judaism in the Jewish State Tagged: Israel, liberalism, peace, racism, Zionism

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day

Today is the 43rd anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.  The following link gives me chills – it’s the actually news footage of the Israeli army going to the Kotel, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.  The first link contains a complete transcript and translation.  The button on that page that is supposed to play the audio doesn’t work on my Mac (Safari or Firefox) system.  However, the second link contains an embedded youtube video of the same material.



Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar Tagged: Israel, Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim

Hello, Wilbur

To add to the conversation about Eating Animals …

Hello, Wilbur

Hello, Wilbur

If we love adorable animals in children’s books, are we ethically obliged to raise our kids vegetarian?

BY MARJORIE INGALL | 7:00 am May 10, 2010

CREDIT: Nickolas Murray, George Eastman House Photography Collection

In the current issue of The Horn Book, the venerable magazine about children’s literature, there’s an essay [1] by children’s-book author Jennifer Armstrong [2] called “Eating Reading Animals.” Armstrong points out that of the all-time bestselling children’s books, fully a third feature animal protagonists. We love to read about our furry and feathered friends. We immerse our kids in animal-centric educational and caretaking experiences. We take them to zoos and farms and encourage them to lavish love and care upon our kitties and doggies. We tie our explanations of global warming and deforestation to how these phenomena endanger adorable fauna. Animal talk is central to the ethical lessons we try to impart to our kids.

And, Armstrong writes, just as we no longer burn live cats or engage in bear-baiting [3] for amusement the way fun-loving Westerners did centuries ago, we need to continue to evolve as moral people. Which is why it’s time to stop eating meat. “[W]hat I am suggesting is that if you love children’s literature, you cannot kill animals just because they taste good on a bun,” she writes. “There’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved in urging children to empathize with pandas and polar bears and bunnies and ducks in books and at a distance and then feeding them hamburgers and sliced deli meats. The United States kills approximately ten billion land animals every year for human consumption, which works out to over one million animals per hour. No number of books about runaway bunnies, or ducklings negotiating Boston traffic, or terrific and radiant pigs can compensate for that scale of violence, in my opinion.” Her best line: “What is [a child] to make of the trusted adult who holds in one hand a living baby chick to caress with tender care and a chicken nugget in the other hand to eat with special sauce?”

It’s a valid question, even for those of us who nix the nugget because McDonald’s isn’t kosher. Meat is still part of the American Jewish family experience—Shabbat dinner often still revolves around the roast beast; the Jewish deli, while disappearing, still holds iconic cultural pride of place.

Some Jewish writers [4] have recently considered the moral issues around what we ingest. Sadly, as we all know, kashrut isn’t always synonymous with eating morally—look at Postville and the way the Rubashkins’ plant [5] treated animals and workers. I’m involved in a kosher, ethical meat co-op and have followed with interest the attempts by Conservative and Modern Orthodox activists to certify kosher meat as ethical as well as “kosher” according to the letter of halakhah, Jewish law. Ethical kashrut should involve respect for humans and animals. I don’t eat much meat—I joke that I’m in a mixed marriage because I married a Reform Jew from Wisconsin who lives for bratwurst and owns a “Bacon is a Vegetable [6]” t-shirt—but when I do eat meat, I need to know its origins and trust the source. My standards of kashrut wouldn’t be acceptable to some other Jews, and my standards of what’s ethical wouldn’t meet those of vegetarians or vegans. We all have our line in the sand.

And that line can shift. The one time as an adult I willfully broke my own standards of kashrut was when I was writing for a travel guide in rural Greece. On a remote island in the late 1980s, a family insisted I come home with them for dinner. They were fishermen. They caught a fresh squid and smashed it against the side of their fishing boat. I felt just as caught as the cephalopod. I thought about having to explain not just kashrut, but what a Jew was. And I decided that their philosophy of philoxenia, kindness to strangers, was more important than my kashrut. Just that time, and just for me.

At that family’s table I stared down that calamari, heart pounding—I’d never had any unkosher seafood before—and slowly brought one of those ring-y things to my mouth.

Holy moly, it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.

Thus ended my one and only foray into non-kosher seafood. So, what’s the moral here? That it’s hard to generalize about ethical rightness. We’re often weighing different goods. And of course, for many people kashrut isn’t about morality at all—it’s about following God’s literal word. Attaching Western values to kashrut is specious, according to many Orthodox folk, because kashrut is about obedience, not moral choice.

My kids love the story of me quaking over a plate of squid rings. Josie tends to follow Daddy’s religion (meat is God), and Maxie tends to follow mine (an occasional hot dog, some white meat, but generally not a fan of the fleisch), and they both revel in tales of my anxiety and waffling—welcome to childhood, where parents’ dithering is children’s joy. Both my kids have experienced that classic youthful moment of revelation, drumstick on way to mouth: Wait, you mean chicken is chicken? Both were briefly horrified; both also forgot or compartmentalized. I expect the classic “OMG, I am so going vegan” to happen, on schedule, in the teen years. If at any point they choose to go fully veg, we’ll accommodate. The amount of meat we eat now is a constant, low-level source of tension (Jonathan wants more; I want less), so adding still more thrumming demands to the mix will only add to the merriment.

In any event, for now, despite my family’s love for our kitty Yoyo and for William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble [7], we will continue to eat meat. Some more, some less; some only kosher, others wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with crawfish. But Armstrong’s essay should make us all think, wherever we fall on the fleshtastic and/or kosher end of the spectrum. Where does food come from? How do we refrain from exploitation of workers, animals, resources? How do our consumer choices affect the planet? We should all be sweating a little. That goes for kashrut-keepers who don’t think the conditions in a slaughterhouse matter, or who wish to shove any further questions about this issue under the blood-stained rug [8]; it goes for vegans with easy answers about what everyone else should do; it goes for Michael Pollan, whose seven-word mantra (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) doesn’t allow for class or cultural nuance.

The word “mitzvah” doesn’t actually mean “good deed,” though many people think it does. It actually means “obligation.” And one obligation that comes with having kids is not getting to go for easy answers anymore. Let’s keep reading, and keep asking the questions. It’s a mitzvah.

Article printed from Tablet Magazine: http://www.tabletmag.com

URL to article: http://www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/33112/hello-wilbur/

URLs in this post:

[1] an essay: http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2010/may10_armstrong.asp

[2] Jennifer Armstrong: http://www.jennifer-armstrong.com/index.htm

[3] bear-baiting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bear-baiting

[4] Jewish writers: http://www.amazon.com/Eating-Animals-Jonathan-Safran-Foer/dp/0316069906/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273167099&sr=1-1

[5] Rubashkins’ plant: http://forward.com/articles/119184/

[6] Bacon is a Vegetable: http://store.dieselsweeties.com/products/bacon-is-a-vegetable-shirt

[7] Sylvester and the Magic Pebblehttp://www.amazon.com/Sylvester-Magic-Pebble-Aladdin-Picture/dp/0671662694

[8] blood-stained rug: http://forward.com/articles/127824/

Filed under: Embodied Torah, Kashrut - The Embodied Torah of Eating Tagged: Jewish Ethics, Kashrut, Kosher, Vegetarian

Happy Mother’s Day

A bit of Torah in honor of mothers (Kiddushin 31b):

“When Rabbi Joseph heard his mother’s footsteps, he would say: ‘I will arise before the approaching Shekhinah.’

Shekhinah is a reference to the presence of God, coming from Exodus 25:8, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

Honoring one’s father and mother, the fifth of the ten pronouncements, forms a bridge between the mitzvot between human beings and God and the mitzvot between human beings. The placement of this command reminds us that our parents are potentially our earliest link to God. Similarly, the statement of Rabbi Joseph honors his mother as the one who gave him life and links him to the presence of God.

Let us be thankful to our mothers, those who gave us biological life and/or those who raised us. They gave us life and hopefully taught us something about how to use our life to bring light and goodness into the world.

Thank you to my colleague Rabbi Rob Scheinberg for sharing the source.

Filed under: Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: mothers, shekhinah

Torah Art

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi

About 3 1/2 years ago, the Sisterhood completed a project to create new Torah mantles.  At the same time, we cleaned out one of the back rooms in which we had stored a number of old Torah mantels.  Judy Joseph took some of them, along with an unused Parokhet (curtain) for the Ark, and made a set of wall hangings for the Sanctuary wall.  We offered the rest to donate to congregations in need.  Most of them, however, were unclaimed.  We were on the verge of discarding them by burying them in our cemetery, when I found an artist in Jerusalem, Jo Milgrom, who turns discarded objects (often of Judaica) into Midrash art.   Her pieces are sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious, sometimes poignant, and always thoughtful.  You can see her catalog on her web site, jomilgrom.com.

Jo sent me pictures and brief comments about five pieces that she created from our Torah mantles.  As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, celebrated May 18-20, we might consider what these pieces say to us about Torah.

Found and Lost and Found Again

The first piece, entitled Found and Lost and Found Again, is made of Torah mantles and a Torah reading table cover on a luggage carrier.  The Jew in the Diaspora maintains his or her identity despite wandering and exile and the ultra-mobile society in which we currently live by carrying around small symbols of Torah.  A mezuzah; a seder plate; a hanukkiah; a tallit; tefillin; a siddur or humash.  What have you carried with you during your lifetime, from one home to the next, that roots you in Torah?

Your Mother's Torah

The second piece, Your Mother’s Torah, depicts the Torah mantle with a nest inside, but is also reminiscent of a sewing kit.  Jo describes it as a mother with a fruitful nest.  We might consider using the teachings, mitzvot, stories, and wisdom of Torah to stitch together a Jewish practice and a Jewish home that is comforting and nurturing.  That home – not the synagogue! – is the primary means by which we transmit the values of Torah to the next generation.

Your Mother's Torah - closeup

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The third piece is a Torah mounted on a baby stroller – Out of the Mouths of Babes.  Like the children in the hagaddah, we teach Torah through engaging with questions.  No question is out of bounds – and sometimes the most innocent questions are the most challenging and searching.


The fourth piece is a poster from the Metropolitan Museum with part of a Torah Mantle mounted on  it.  Entitled Counterparts, Jo writes that “the figural trees in the poster invited the association with Torah as Tree of Life.”

Safety in Torah

Finally, the last piece is entitled Safety in Torah — what could be safer than safety pins!  It reminds me of the joke — “What do you call a Torah with a seat belt?   A Safer Torah!”  The pun requires a little knowledge of Hebrew (the word sefer, meaning book or scroll).  The piece also alludes to the notion associated with the mezuzah, representing a mini Torah scroll, that the name of God written on the Mezuzah container (Shaddai, the Almighty) stands for the phrase shomer d’latot Yisrael, guardian of the doors of Israel.  While I do not believe that either the Torah or the Mezuzah function in any way as protective amulets, there is clear evidence that people who are active in religious communities live happier and healthier lives.

The experience of viewing art is very personal and subjective – the brief comments I have written above are my impressions.  Please feel free to share your own comments and impressions.

Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Embodied Torah, Eyes, Ears, Nose, Tongue and Body - The Embodied Torah of Using our Senses Tagged: Midrash art, Torah art

A Walker Among Those Who Stand

Leviticus 18:4 teaches:  “You shall observe my rules, and keep my laws, to walk in them, I am YHVH [your God].”

Our job, according to Leviticus 18:4 is to walk in God’s rules and laws.  We are supposed to be walkers and movers, as in Zachariah 3:7:

Thus said YHVH of Hosts: If you walk in My paths and keep My charge, you in turn will rule My House and guard My courts, and I will make you walkers among those standing there.

There are many people who are just “standing there;” who live their lives inside a narrow box, always doing the same things, eating the same foods, watching the same types of movies and television program, reading the same kinds of books.  You know the type – they are the kind of people who run away from change.  When they have the chance to do something different, they avoid it at all costs.  They like the way things are right now – change, by definition, is negative and to be avoided.  Is this such a bad thing?  Halakha doesn’t change, does it?  Keeping kosher, reciting the Shema, praying regularly, wearing tefillin and giving tzedakah every day (except Shabbat) – all of this is a routine mandated by God’s laws and rules.  Standing firm on God’s laws without compromise is a good thing, right?

Right, except it seems to be better to be a walker than a stander.  So who are the walkers?  What do they do?  The Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efrayim, author of the Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, taught:

All that we do – in Torah study, in prayer, in keeping the mitzvot and doing good deeds – is directed toward raising up the Shekhinah to unite her with Her Husband.

A person is called a “walker (holekh),” for people are constantly moving from one spiritual stage to another, either diminishing in capacity, or increasing in awareness each day upward and upward. This is the intent of our verse, “You shall observe my rules, and keep my laws, to walk in them” from stage to stage (level to level), all with the focus of “I am YHVH.”

Walkers are also people who devote themselves to Jewish practices, to mitzvot, just like standers.  The walkers, however, are open to learning to do things differently.  Not abandoning traditional practices necessarily, but finding new and meaningful ways to enhance those practices.

Kashrut, for example, is all about eating kosher food — but it could also be about eating healthy food, grown in sustainable, cruielty-free ways?   It could also be about the ethics of food production.

Walkers occasionally stumble.  Not every movement is going to be up the spiritual ladder towards increasing awareness.  Some movements are going to be downward, spiritually deflating.  But in order to reach the highest possible elevation, we need to risk the occasional falls.  Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim concludes his lesson in good mystical fashion:

That is, we are to join and unite “I (ani)” – another name for the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) – with “YHVH.” This is the combination of HVY”H (that is, YHW”H) and ADN”Y, the unification of the blessed Holy One and His Shekhinah.

Rather than focus solely on the mechanics of a mitzvah, the mystical tradition encourages us to focus on the goal of the mitzvah — to unite God’s presence down here on earth with the Infinite and unknowable mysterious Holy One, of Blessing.  He encourages us to be open to new paths towards the recognition and enactment of God’s unity.  He asks us to use God’s rules and laws, to direct all of our Torah study, prayers, mitzvot, and good deeds towards the union of the Shekhinah and the Kadosh Barukh Hu.

R. Moshe Chaim Efrayim of Sudylkov is the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.  He was born in 1742 or 1748 and died in 1800, on the eve of Lag Ba’omer (this year, his yahrtzeit will be the coming Shabbat).

Filed under: Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Hasidut, Leviticus, Spiritual development, Zachariah

Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

Keeping kosher is expensive.  We pay a premium for kosher meat.  No doubt our parents’ or grandparents’ generation paid more for kosher than non-kosher meat, but it seems like the relative difference between kosher and non-kosher meat is much higher now than it used to be.

I have always thought that the reason for this difference can be attributed to two factors:

  • • the move to a standard of Glatt kosher, and
  • • the fact that the soaking and salting of the meat is done by the processing plant rather than by the purchaser

I suspect that consumers are not complaining about paying a little bit more to avoid having to soak and salt the meat themselves, a somewhat lengthy process intended to draw the blood out of of the flesh.

The glatt standard, however, was intended to be a premium standard of kashrut, for those few who could afford the higher prices.  Glatt is a Yiddish word meaning smooth – it refers to the lungs of large animals.  If the lungs have small removable adhesions, and the lungs themselves have no punctures, the animal is kosher, but not glatt.  I have read estimates of the number of animals kosher slaughtered who were found to be glatt ranging from a low of 20% to a high of 60%.  Realize what this means … 40 – 80% of animals who have gone through the kosher slaughter process need to be sent to a non-kosher meat distributor.  This alone significantly raises the price of kosher meat.

However, the glatt standard only affects the price of beef.  The lungs of chickens and turkeys are not inspected for adhesions.  Yet, the relative price of kosher poultry has risen just as much as the relative price of kosher beef.

After reading the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, I am wondering if there is another reason that kosher meat is so much more expensive than non-kosher meat.

Foer makes a devastating case against factory farming methods of raising chickens and turkeys (and pigs!), as well as the meat slaughtering industry.  There are virtually no “family farms” raising poultry for consumer consumption, although most cattle ranches still raise the animals naturally and humanely.  Factory farms breed animals for a narrow set of physical characteristics aimed at producing the greatest amount of meat, artificially manipulate the environment to grow the animals as quickly as possible, and feed the animals massive amounts of antibiotics to compensate for unnaturally crowded living conditions.  Factory farmed animals are have large numbers of physical defects, are generally unhealthy, and methods of handling and transport result in a large percentage of broken bones and sores.  Their is no way to effectively dispose of all the waste produced by so many animals in such a small space – it is a major source of environmental pollution and probably diseases such as asthma, influenza, and antibiotic resistent strains of infections.

He makes the case that the large poultry producers, such as Perdue and Tyson, have used factory farming techniques to keep the prices artificially low.  The price of poultry has increased at a much slower rate than the price of any other food item.  Meat is the only thing that has become less expensive in the past generation.  This has happened only because in the calculus of how meat is priced, we are ignoring the huge cost of producing factory meat to the environment and to the health care system.

I wonder if kosher meat has actually increased in price in a natural way, rather than having been kept artificially low.

If an animal is diseased; if an animal has broken limbs; if an animal is not killed carefully and properly; it will not be kosher.  While the problems with certain kosher meat slaughter plants are well known, the case that “Eating Animals” makes against the meat industry primarily, though not exclusively, apply to the non-kosher industry.  There is a significant financial disincentive for kosher processors to mistreat the animals.

There is a larger argument in the book, though, that affects both the kosher and non-kosher meat industries.  The argument, quite simply, is that the raising of meat for food is unsustainable.  The very act of killing animals on a large enough scale to satisfy our current desire and expectation for eating meat is dehumanizing.  It cannot be done better, because it is inherently cruel and desensitizes those who engage in slaughter to the horror of the mass killing of animals.  We have destroyed so much of the genetic diversity of chicken, poultry, and pork and we have concentrated so much production is so little space and we have destroyed virtually every small animal farm, that there may be no way to roll back time, change our societal expectation of how much meat should cost, and rebuild an infrastructure of small individually run farms raising animals for slaughter at small, local, processing plants.

Foer writes that the book is not a straightforward case for vegetarianism.  It is much deeper and more complicated.  It explores the relationship between food and memory, animal flesh and forgetting.  It explores the stories we tell about ourselves by the foods we eat and don’t eat.  It explores the words we use and don’t use when speaking about our animal diet.

For vegans, vegetarians, selective vegetarians, selective meat eaters, and proud meat eaters, it is worth reading “Eating Animals.”  I have not even touched on the problems he raises with the fish/seafood industry, the egg industry, or the dairy industry.  Foer does not touch on the problems that corporate farming has raised in the non-meat farms.  The overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, genetic engineering, the reduction of genetic diversity, the patenting of plant species … we really don’t know what effect all of this is going to have on our planet, on our health and the health of the next generation.

Filed under: Embodied Torah, Kashrut - The Embodied Torah of Eating Tagged: beef, Eating Animals, glatt, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kashrut, Kosher, poultry, turkey

Embodying Torah at the Ethical Crossroads

For Judaism to be a fully embodied religious behavior, we need to be aware moment by moment of the actions we are taking and the decisions we are making, and how Jewish wisdom might inform us.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in “The Halakhic Man,” [sic] poetically explains how everything we see, hear, and touch, all of our input, as it were, should pass through the filter of halakha.  For example — the sight of a leafy pear tree might engender thoughts of the appropriate berakha for fruit, the suitability of his branches to use for s’khakh to cover a sukkah, and the impermissibility of building the sukkah under the tree.

As I remember his book, Rabbi Soloveitchik was primarily thinking about traditional Jewish practices such as Shabbat, kashrut, celebration of holidays, prayer, etc.  However, his philosophy also applies to Jewish ethical behavior.  In the course of an average day, how many moments do we experience when we are faced with some kind of ethical decision?  I kept track of a number of those moments over the course of a weekend – questions that did prompt – or should have prompted – thought about the Torah’s response to my situation.

  • • Following services at Ahavas Israel, I was asked to help make another minyan – I declined.  Are we obligated by Jewish ethics to be the 10th person in a minyan?  Does it matter if the minyan is populated by people who would not reciprocate?  Might we ever ethically decline to help another Jew in need of a minyan?
  • • May one publish a possibly embarrassing incident online, if we change the name of the subject of the story?
  • • At what point does a parent helping a child with homework cross the line from teaching the child to doing the child’s work?
  • • Does using profane language violate Jewish ethics?

I’d like to devote occasional posts to Jewish ethics using real world dilemmas.  Would you share with me moments when you were at a crossroads and weren’t sure what to do?  Moments when you might not have turned to Jewish sources for an answer, but made a decision and after reflection you are now curious whether Jewish wisdom might have suggested a different answer?  You may post your moments on the blog in response to this post or you may email them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  If you want them to remain private please indicate this, and I will change enough details so that you cannot be identified.  If I am not sure whether I have sufficiently disguised your identity or if you want to see what I’ve written before I publish it, I will email my response to you before publishing anything.

Remember — The purpose of this blog and the mission of the synagogue is to explore what it means to make our lives embody Torah.  How does our eating, our Shabbat practice, our prayer experience, embody Torah?  How do we internalize and embody our Torah study?  How do we embody Torah in our ethical decision making?  Please join me in this exploration — I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Posted in Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: Jewish Ethics

Ayeka Reflections – Bringing God Into My Clothes

The following article was written by my friend Aryeh Ben David, who has created an organization called “Ayeka.”

Ayeka’s Mission
Ayeka is bringing God back to the conversation.
Ayeka provides an agenda-free, safe space to personally explore the question: How can I best fulfill the challenge of living in the Image of God – in my daily life, my relationships, my work and community, with the Jewish people and all of humanity.
Ayeka Reflections
Bringing God into – My Clothes

By Aryeh Ben David

It took 100,000 people to get me dressed this morning.

My sneakers were made in China, my cotton shirt in Indonesia, my pants are from Vietnam and my Timberland vest was made in El Salvador. How many people were involved in the designing, the growing, the making, the marketing, the transportation, and the selling? At least 100,000.

I basically wear the same thing everyday. Dark pants and a blue shirt. Nine months of the year I wear the same sandals. I am pretty boring. As my kids lovingly say to me: “Abba – Imma is cool, you’re a nerd.” And they’re right.

Nevertheless, even when I am racing to get dressed in the morning, putting on my nerdy clothes, sometimes there is a moment of deep awareness.

Is God in that moment?

In Kabbalistic tradition it says that God originally dressed us in “clothes of light” in the Garden of Eden. Clothes that shed the person’s inner light on others and evoked a spiritual response.

Do my clothes do that today?
I doubt it. They probably don’t evoke much of a response at all.

I am awed by people who think about what they wear and whose clothes do convey a deeper or spiritual presence. Somehow their clothes actually reflect their inner selves. Somewhere in their wardrobe is this hidden light from the Garden of Eden.

For now, for me, finding God in my clothes is not so much about evoking responses from other people, as evoking a response from within me. Am I at least aware of what is happening at this moment? Who was involved in bringing this about? Can my clothes become a vehicle for greater appreciation, for a connection with a countless number of people who I will never see and whose names I will never know? This moment of appreciation connects me to what a diverse and interconnected world God created and how privileged I am to experience it.

100,000 people from China, Indonesia, Vietnam and El Salvador the United States and Israel helped me get dressed this morning.

Thank you. Thanks to each of you.

For Reflection:

  • What do you think about when you get dressed?
  • To what extent is your clothing expressing who you are internally, as opposed to just accentuating and decorating your external being?
  • What do you think someone looking at your wardrobe would think about you?
Ode to My Socks

Putting on socks can be one of the most mindless moments in a day. Here is something to think about while putting on your socks, especially the last paragraph.

Ode to My Socks by Pablo Neruda; Chilean Noble Prize winner for literature in 1971
(Translated by Robert Bly)

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin.
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.

They were so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts.
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
Beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.


Posted in Definitions, Embodied Torah Tagged: Aryeh ben David, Ayeka, clothes

Principles of Torah Study

For the past couple of days, I’ve been adding and organizing a group of links to the blog, which appear below the search box in the sixth section down the right hand column of the page.  Currently, the links fall into two categories:

  1. Selected blogs from other rabbis who I think have interesting things to say; and
  2. Selected website that offer weekly divre Torah on the Parasha or Haftarah.

Right now, the links only feature material from the Conservative movement, but I expect to add material from other perspectives as well.  My only rule is that I have to find the D’var Torah or commentary interesting, intellectually challenging and honest, and spiritually meaningful.

I tend not to give credence to Torah commentaries that don’t distinguish between p’shat (literal, contextual, historical meaning) and d’rash (metaphorical, allegorical, or other attributed meaning).  I like midrash (an alternative form of the word d’rash), but in my Torah study I think it’s important to remember that the words of Torah had an original meaning that might be quite different from the accumulated layers of interpreted meaning.  It’s also important to realize that every commentary has an agenda.  I always ask myself, when reading an interpretation, ‘what’s motivating the commentator to read the story in this way?’

I believe that the Torah contains eternal truth, but I do not believe that every interpretation, even or especially those of the classical mefarshim (commentators) such as Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, is equally true or equally valid.  Their commentaries are often influenced by historical circumstances and may include assumptions that we no longer accept today.

I also do not believe that every commentary, even those authored by the classical mefarshim, needs to agree with every other commentary.  There is no such thing as “The” Midrash.  There are midrashim, and the corpus of midrash is not internally consistent.  Different historical strands and styles of commentary, such as Talmudic sources, mystical interpretations, and hasidic commentaries, do not necessary agree with each other.  Attempting to harmonize them is more often than not a waste of time and a misreading of the Tradition.

Bottom line — my purpose in engaging in Torah study is to better understand myself and the world in which I live; to develop a better relationship with my family, my community, and the broader world in which I live; to seek understanding of why I was created and what my role in the world ought to be; and to make my every decision and action bring the Divine spark within me closer to its source, the Blessed Holy One.

Posted in Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: commentary, D'var Torah, Haftarah, Parasha, Torah study

Becoming the Face of God – Parshat Yitro and the Second Pronouncement

In this week’s Parasha, Parashat Yitro, we read the Aseret Had’varim, the 10 pronouncements of Mount Sinai.

The second pronouncement begins, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness [of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth]” (Ex.20:4).

The late 18th century Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efrayim of Sudylkov also known as the Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, reads this verse not as a command against making images of God, but rather as an instruction concerning one’s general religious behavior.  He suggests that the verse means “You shall not make of yourself a sculptured image or a likeness [of God.]”  Don’t make yourself into an image of God?  On one hand, it’s a puzzling reading because we know from the beginning of Genesis that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.  On the other hand, isn’t it obvious that we shouldn’t have the arrogance to make ourselves into God?

Reb Moshe Chaim’s intent is more suble than either of these readings.  He believes that the face of the shekhina (divine presence) visibly shines through the face of the spiritually elevated individual, the most righteous, meritorious, and wise of any generation.  Those who devote their lives to representing God in the world actually become the face of God, as it were.

It’s true, isn’t it?  Don’t you see God’s love for the poor and downtrodden in the face of Mother Theresa?  God’s love for people of all races and creeds in the face of Martin Luther King, Jr.?  God’s love for a Torah both of Shabbat and of Social Justice in the face of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?

Most of us, however, have not attained this lofty level and are just the image and likeness of God as are all created human beings.  Reb Moshe Chaim’s reading of the second statement teaches us not to be satisfied merely being the image and likeness of God, but rather to push ourselves to embody the face of the Shekhinah.  Anyone can be the image of God.  Don’t be satisfied merely being the image and likeness of God, he tells us.  Aim higher.  Aim to be the face of God.

Filed under: Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: 10 commandments, Image of God, Likeness of God, Moshe Chaim Efrayim, Yitro

To Be or Not To Be … A Bridesmaid

Question:  A friend of mine is engaged to a man who is an alcoholic and regular drug user.  She has invited me to be a bridesmaid, but I don’t think getting married to this man is what’s best for her. Prior to her relationship with him, she was opposed to drug use.  Now she is also a more than occasional user, and is also on anti-depressants.  She wants to be a teacher and but I feel like going through with the marriage and continuing on this path would be a great loss. I’ve never been real close with her, but having indirectly expressed my concerns about what was going on she doesn’t call me to talk about what’s going on anymore.  Do you feel it is ethically better to step down from being in the wedding party? Should I decline the wedding invitation entirely?  Should I tell her what I think?  Truthfully, it may not sway her from doing what she’s going to do, and worst case, she could get married and if she’s not happy get divorced. They want to have a child together.

Answer:  My understanding of what it means to stand up for someone’s wedding is that you are supporting the marriage.  If you think it’s an unwise marriage, you should not stand up.  You probably shouldn’t attend either, but if it was a close friend I might say that you should attend in order to preserve the relationship, so you’ll be there to catch her when she falls. The Jewish principle involved is based on the verse, “You shall not … place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19.14).  Read broadly, this verse teaches that one should not place moral or ethical or behavioral stumbling blocks before those unable to recognize them.  Don’t give a drink to an alcoholic.  Don’t forward alarming email unless you have verified that it is true (and ‘I got this from the close friend of the cousin of someone I trust’ doesn’t count).  Don’t tell a person that a certain food is kosher when it is not. Don’t tell a person that a certain way to avoid paying taxes is legal if it is not.  Don’t help a person enter a marriage if you believe (and have evidence to support the belief) that they marriage will be seriously detrimental to her physical and/or emotional health. The question of how explicitly you should talk to your friend about the reasons why you will not stand up and why you are not attending the wedding (if you are not going) is a bit more complicated. The Jewish principle is “Reprove your neighbor so that you will not incur guilt on his account” (Leviticus 19.17).  Basically, the instruction is that you have an obligation to tell your friend if she is doing something wrong.  If you see something happening that is wrong and you keep silent, you are complicit.  It’s like the old slogan about fighting AIDS in the mid 1980’s, “silence=death.”  However, the Rabbinic tradition inserted a large caveat —  If the person is not likely to listen to the reproach, and in fact is likely to get mad at you for the advice, then you should keep your mouth shut. In this case, you have already told you friend indirectly that you think the marriage is a bad idea,  I think you should say one more time, in the gentlest possible voice, that you cannot stand up at the wedding because you think the wedding is a bad idea due to the alcoholism and drug use.  I realize that this might cause you to lose a friend, but you say you’ve never been very close anyway.  You say worst case, they get divorced.  Not true.  Worst case, they get divorced and a child has to suffer for the rest of his life with the pain and separation of divorced parents and an alcoholic drug using father and drug using mother.  There may be nothing that you can do to prevent the marriage, but you don’t want the burden of having supported that worst case on your conscience.

This article is one of an occasional series of posts bring Jewish ethics to life using real world dilemmas.  Would you share with me moments when you were at a crossroads and weren’t sure what to do?  Moments when you might not have turned to Jewish sources for an answer, but made a decision and after reflection you are now curious whether Jewish wisdom might have suggested a different answer?  You may post your moments on the blog in response to this post or you may email them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  If you want them to remain private please indicate this, and I will change enough details so that you cannot be identified.  If I am not sure whether I have sufficiently disguised your identity or if you want to see what I’ve written before I publish it, I will email my response to you before publishing anything.

Remember — The purpose of this blog and the mission of the synagogue is to explore what it means to make our lives embody Torah.  How does our eating, our Shabbat practice, our prayer experience, embody Torah?  How do we internalize and embody our Torah study?  How do we embody Torah in our ethical decision making?  Please join me in this exploration — I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Filed under: Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: alcohol, drugs, reprove, stumbling block
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