Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
This past Shabbat, a dear friend rose at the third Shabbat meal to speak about her mother, whose fifth yahrzeit was that day. Her mother had been the sole member of her family to survive Auschwitz. She had also faced multiple illnesses and hospitalizations in her later years. Despite all this, as my friend related, her mother never complained. Not about Auschwitz, not about illness. And not only that, she would always interrupt her children if they ever began to say something negative about anyone else. “Do not judge anyone until you find yourself in their place”, she would say, citing the Mishnah in Pirkai Avot. My friend’s mother was a tzadeket, a righteous woman.
There was only one person whom she judged, whom she was angry at, and whom she blamed. This was God. She could not forgive Him. Could not abide Him. She could not believe in Him. She was a tzadeket who had no faith.
Sitting next to me was the faithless tzadeket’s husband, observing the yahrzeit of his wife. Also a survivor. A man who loves yiddishkeit with all his might. A man who is never happier than when he is in shul. And oh how happy he is in shul.
My friend concluding her remarks with a prayer that God embrace her mother’s soul. That He understand.
Faith in God. So fragile. So resilient. So fragile.
Who can understand? Who can judge?
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December 21, 2010 | 4:06 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
A bunch of years ago while attending a Darfur rally, I came into possession of a T-shirt whose front reads, “Humanity before Politics”. It’s become one of my favorite T-shirts to wear while hiking, and each time I do complete strangers stop me to, for the most part, enthusiastically endorse the sentiment.
I thought about my T-shirt as the fire-fighting relief arrived in Israel from Turkey and the Palestinian Authority a couple of weeks ago. Israel is herself, of course, a champion of providing humanitarian assistance to anyone around the globe who will accept it, and nothing makes us prouder as Jews. And it’s possible that this might have played some role in the decisions made in Ankara and Ramallah. In any case though, the Turkish and Palestinian decisions to place humanity before politics in this instance, were heart-warming.
As soon as the fire was out though, politics predictably returned to its dominant place. The outflow of humanitarian concern did not spill over into the still-deadlocked peace talks. Over the past few days though, I’ve been trying to imagine what the world might look like if “Humanity before Politics” governed not only emergencies, but international relations.
Within this exercise of the imagination, the tough issues that dominate the Israeli-Palestinian debate would all be recast and re-understood in humanitarian terms. As a result, the Palestinian leadership would, for example, intuitively grasp our primal, universally-experienced human yearning for the land of our ancestors, and would appreciate the urgent need for a sovereign Jewish homeland in light of the continuous human catastrophes that punctuated our life in the Diaspora. Placing humanity before politics, Abbas and Erekat (maybe one day even Haniyeh?) would be able to view the narrative of the Jewish people objectively and compassionately, and bring the resulting humanitarian sentiment, to the negotiating table with them.
Simultaneously, leaders across Israel’s political spectrum would draw the striking parallels between recent Palestinian history and our own centuries-long story. They would intuitively grasp what it feels like to have been displaced from one’s home and to have become a refugee, and what it feels like to be subject to the governance of a foreign military. And as a result, in addition to maps and real-world security concerns, Israel would also bring empathy to the diplomatic discussion.
And both sides would take as a given, that the use of violence is simply, humanly, unconscionable.
I know this sounds pretty Pollyannaish. I’ve spent time imagining it only because as we look back at the last 25 years, it’s clear that everything else has failed. We’re coming to that point to which Abba Eban was referring when he said, “men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. We’ve exhausted all other alternatives. And the wisdom of humanitarianism beckons.
Humanity before Politics is of course a two player game. But both players here are human.
Can you imagine it?
December 21, 2010 | 4:01 pm
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
I found this article about shopping to be very insightful and reflective of some very important values.
I have often commented on the plague of conspicuous consumption that exists in the Jewish community. This article should make us think about how we shop.
Perhaps the references to Christian theology will be unsettling to people so knave included another link to Jewish sources on the ethics of consumerism.
While this is the season during which people focus on shopping, the questions of how we shop, why we shop and how shopping affects our soul is worthy of ongoing consideration.
December 15, 2010 | 2:51 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Often we limit the Torah. We project our own ideas onto it—what we already identify with, ideas we think the Torah should be teaching us. Sometimes we feel the Torah cannot defend itself or be of value as it is, thus we fashion seatbelts for it that, I think, ultimately detract from it.
One example is how we see our Avot and Imahot. (I won’t even go into the Artscroll illustrations of the Avot wearing schtriemlach.) Instead of taking the Torah at its word, we remake the p’shat (textual meaning) of the Torah into descriptions of the Avot as perfect tzadikim (righteous people). In fact, it often seems that a majority of the stories the Torah chooses to tell us of the Avot in Breishit are just the opposite- stories which depict midot that we would not consider refined.
I am not saying the Avot did not make the right decisions in the situations they were presented with; in some instances they perhaps had little choice but to choose the lesser of two evils. I am saying that we should take care in claiming they were perfect, indeed the Torah, for its own reasons, which no doubt are right, did not choose to paint pictures of our Avot as perfect, but rather as sometimes lacking in midot.
A second important point- I am not denying that if read on a halachic/lomdishe level or on a kabalistic level, the actions of our ancestors cannot be justified- they can. I am asking the question of whether the Avot as presented to us in the p’shat (and the Torah must be readable on its p’shat level) are perfect. Some obvious examples: Sarah throws her son out of the house for playing/laughing, Yosef’s brothers plot to kill him because they are jealous of him, as the Torah clearly states. Yaakov and Rivka lie to Yitzchak, their blind father/husband. Noach, the only person called a tzadik in Breishit, turns to drunkenness immediately after being saved from the flood, etc. (There is one interesting exception to this trend which is Yosef. After he grows up, he attributes everything to God, puts God at the center always, and humbly puts himself in check in order to give to others.)
The notion that our ancestors were righteous and kept the whole Torah is taken as p’shat by our day school-educated children. After all, if they are our examples, how could they be anything but superhuman tzadikim? The idea that they may not be seems, instead of rendering our Avot more accessible as role models for us, to deeply threaten people’s faith.
The Torah has many faces and many understandings and to see the Torah as black and white, to say it has one explanation, is to remake it in our image instead of letting it teach us. Torah is holy and Divine and can protect itself. It does not have to fit neatly into the theological molds we make for it within our religious comfort zones. Instead , we must let the Torah challenge us to think outside the box. Perhaps our Avot were not perfect and there is much to learn from this.
There are actually conflicting notions in Chazal (our rabbis, may their memory be for a blessing) in regard to the question of whether our ancestors kept the Torah.
שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה ל
מגיד דבריו ליעקב חקיו ומשפטיו לישראל לא עשה כן לכל גוי אלא למי ליעקב שבחרו מכל העובדי כוכבים ולא נתן להם אלא מקצת נתן לאדם ו’ מצות, הוסיף לנח אחת, לאברהם ח’, ליעקב ט’, אבל לישראל נתן להם הכל
According to this opinion in the above Midrash, Noah kept seven mitzvot, Avraham eight, and Yaakov nine. That’s it.
Here we see the radical opposite Midrash brought in the Talmud.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף כח עמוד ב
אמר רב: קיים אברהם אבינו כל התורה כולה, שנאמר +בראשית כו+ עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקלי וגו’. אמר ליה רב שימי בר חייא לרב: ואימא שבע מצות! - הא איכא נמי מילה. - ואימא שבע מצות ומילה! - אמר ליה: אם כן מצותי ותורתי למה לי? אמר (רב) +מסורת הש”ס: [רבא]+ ואיתימא רב אשי: קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירובי תבשילין, שנאמר תורתי - אחת תורה שבכתב ואחת תורה שבעל פה.
According this piece of Talmud, Avraham kept not only the written Torah but the oral tradition and even rabbinic fences such as Eruv Tavshilin, a rabbinic commandment that was put in place to allow cooking on Yom Tov for Shabbat, which according to most, is probably only a rabbinic limitation itself.
But how are we to understand this opinion that our Avot kept the Torah, when indeed it was not yet given?
The Nitivot Shalom explains how we can understand the Midrashic idea that our ancestors kept Torah, even if it was not commanded to them, as follows (Hakdamah 3):
With regard to all things we must ask not only is this permitted or forbidden by law but is it “Good in God’s eyes.” Even if there is no clear source in the Torah from which to infer what is good or bad in the eyes of God, the human soul can teach us the truth of it.
It is in this way that we can understand that which the Midrash says, that Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given. For if it was not yet given, how did Avraham know it? One could say he knew it through Ruach haKodesh, the Holy Spirit, but in truth he knew it through the meaning of, “You shall do what is good and right in the eyes of God.”
This means we must do what brings us close to God. How do we know what that is (if one does not have the Torah as Abraham did not, or if it is not all written in the Torah)? The human soul can teach us how. The soul within us that is a true part of God above can sense what is good and right in God’s eyes, and, conversely, what will make us distant from God. This is how Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given.
The Nitivot Shalom here is saying that through the human soul and conscience, we can intuit what is good and right in the eyes of God. This is how Avraham understood the Torah and by extension, since we all have a Divine soul, so can we. We must not only keep the laws but go beyond the letter of the law to do what is good and right, with the holy, though perhaps less than perfect Avot as our guides.
December 7, 2010 | 5:05 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Though hunched over her walker, and barely able to shuffle her feet, Ruthie (not her real name) was flying. “I am so happy. So happy. Thank you.” It took a little doing to maneuver her into the front seat of my car, but after a few minutes she was seated and comfortable, and we were on our way. “I am so happy. You don’t even know.”
Ruthie and I had first met years ago, at a Chanukah party. A bunch of us from shul had gone over to the nearby Alcott Center for Mental Health on the Sunday of Chanukah to sing, dance, eat latkes and light candles with however many of the residents wanted to celebrate with us. It was a blast, and the first annual Chanukah party led to the first annual Rosh HaShana davening, first annual breakfast in the shul Sukkah, and a variety of other events. Without fail, whenever we got together with the Alcott Center folks, Ruthie was there. I still remember sitting with her in the Sukkah one year, as she shared her life story with me, a story of immigrant parents, of college studies and of marriage, which took a sudden but irreversible detour into mental illness, institutionalization and loss of contact with her family. But through it all, Ruthie never lost her love for her Judaism.
This past summer, Ruthie’s physical ailments forced a move out of the Alcott Center and out of the neighborhood, to a nursing home near downtown LA. “There are no other Jews here, Rabbi Kanefsky. Except one woman, who’s Jewish but isn’t proud of it.” I was delighted and surprised to see her at our Rosh HaShana gathering. She had managed to secure transportation somehow and there she was, softly singing Avinu Malkeynu, taking in the tekiot and the teruot, and contemplating I’m not sure what. As the day ended, she pleaded that I not forget about her, and that I somehow get her to the Chanukah party.
To be honest, as I stood in this unfamiliar neighborhood, waiting many minutes for somebody to respond to the intercom at the nursing home gate, I wondered what I was doing there. The Sunday of Chanukah is always an incredibly busy day, and I questioned whether this was the best use of my time. But with the first, “I am so happy”, I felt embarrassed at having entertained these thoughts at all. Each person is an entire world; so our tradition teaches. What is it to then to make even one person overwhelmingly happy? As Ruthie and I drove back to the neighborhood, I recognized that for a pretty modest investment of time, I had made a world happy.
And the party hadn’t even started yet.