Make America Civil Again by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 9, 2016

Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

One of my congregants watched the presidential debates with their 9 year old child. After a few minutes the child stood up and said, “we are not allowed to watch this.” When they inquired why she replied, because it is lashon hara, (Hebrew for evil speech, slander), which the Torah forbids (Leviticus, 19:16).
Judaism teaches us that leaders should be examples of nobility, caring, and humility. It is no coincidence that Moses was, “the most humble man who ever lived.” That God chose him not because Moses had a plan for leading the people, or because he had the skills for leadership, he did not. God chose Moshe because Moshe cared about individuals and was willing to put himself on the line for them. He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, stopped two Jews from fighting and rebuked one for hitting the other, and defended the powerless among the Gentiles when he protected the daughter of Yitro from shepherds who refused to give her access to the local well. These three stories are all we know about Moses the individual before he was elected leader by God.
To the shock of the pollsters and American voters we will have a new president, who though to many people brings hope for a better life, prosperity and security, and who some feel was the best of the available options, is nonetheless a president whose character and persona has emerged publicly time and again as debased.
To Jews who believe that nothing is more powerful than speech, nothing more sacred than our character, and nothing more precious to God than how we care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner, how should we relate to an era which produces candidates who, a child reminds us, speak words to which it is forbidden to listen because they are so malicious? How should we react to living in an era when ego, not humility, wins the day? When candidates who propose to lead us are being investigated by the authorities? When we cannot allow our children to hear the misogynistic words spoken by the leader of the free world? How do we teach and learn nobility and respect in such a world? How should we respond to living here, to living now?
Finding ourselves in a place whose culture produces bad models for us and our children, Maimonides recommends moving to another society or living alone in a cave (Hilchot Deot 6:1).
I would like to suggest a third approach. As my brother-in-law put it, “Instead of mourning – organize.” I think this means that we can feel empowered to build a society with a more noble vision than the one our leaders paint through their actions. We can use what feels like a time of strife, and for half of America, disappointment and fear, to empower ourselves and others by coming together to make something better. You may not be able to fix Washington but you can impact the world around you, and by extension, America’s acrimonious culture which has dominated the public square these many months.
Here is a suggestion. Make a list of the 3 values you hold most dear, the ones you would like to inculcate in your children. Then make a list of 2 ways you can live out those values. Call someone you know to discuss ways to actualize one of them, maybe each of you in your own way, or by teaching them to people around you, or by joining with people or an organization who are committed to the same value.
Instead of feeling the anger, strife, slander, and suspicion of these many electoral months, become empowered to act. And every day ask yourself: Am I closer to or farther away from the life I think I and my neighbors should lead?


The Seder as a Tikun for the Sin of Joseph and his Brothers -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

May 4, 2016

Our seders are held primarily in homes and involve families discussing the Exodus and eating the symbols associated with it.  Without relating to another, no seder is complete. The child must ask, and the parent must answer. If there is no child, adults must ask each other. Jewish law, in fact, sees dialogue as so intrinsic to the seder that even if one is alone, that person must ask and answer the questions, creating a kind of interrelating even where there is none.

Why all this emphasis at the seder on familial relationships?

Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of Passover itself.   According to the Midrash, the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt due to the sin of Joseph and his brothers. The sale of Joseph eventually resulted in, and some say was a punishment for, the exile in Egypt.

If we look closely at the Passover seder, we see that it is a reenactment not only of slavery and freedom but of the story of Joseph and his brothers that led the Jewish people to Egypt in the first place.

We begin the seder with the strange custom of dipping a vegetable into salt water. This dipping is called karpas. The word karpas means “colored cloth” (Esther 1:6). This recalls Joseph’s colored coat that his brothers dipped in goat’s blood and brought to their father when they sold him into slavery saying that he had been eaten by an animal.

In preparation for the karpas, we wash our hands but without a blessing. This looks like we are washing for bread, but we do not eat bread or matzah; it is a different kind of ritual washing than we are used to. This recalls that the first thing Joseph’s brothers did after they threw him in the pit was sit down to eat bread. They eat bread, but the Torah does not record them washing their hands, so we wash our hands, after which we do not eat bread (or matzah).

We then break the matzah. Generally, the bread one blesses should be whole. On this night, we bless a broken piece.   Perhaps this recalls, in addition to slavery, how that which should have been whole, the Jewish family, was broken.

We drink four cups of wine. The Talmud says that we drink four cups because when Joseph was sold into Egypt and ended up in jail, it was through interpreting the dream of Pharaoh’s wine steward that he was eventually freed from bondage, and in this dream narrative the phrase “cup of wine” is mentioned four times.

We then begin the story part of the Haggadah, which strangely does not include the verses of the story of the Exodus from the book of Exodus but instead a four sentence summary of the story of the Jewish peoples’ descent into Egypt and subsequent redemption as told by the farmer who brings his first fruits to the Tabernacle in the book of Deuteronomy.

This recitation begins, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father, and he (my father) went down to Egypt.” We usually assume this is talking about Laban the Aramean, who tried to overwork Jacob, and Jacob, who many years latter went down to Egypt.

But the word “Arami,” “an Aramean,” can also mean a “deceiver.” There was a person whom “Arameans,” that is, deceivers, tried to destroy, and then he immediately went down to Egypt, namely Joseph whose brothers deceived him and sold him into Egyptian slavery.

Perhaps, in addition to the telling of the story of the slavery and redemption, we are also telling the story of the strife among Joseph and his brothers and hoping that through bringing families and the Jewish people together in a remaking of this encounter we can create peace and ultimately undo the cause for which we went to Egypt in the first place, hatred, which is indeed the cause of all exiles.


The Mystery of Sacrifices by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 23, 2016

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the torah continues its description from last week of the sacrifices and their rituals.   For us who live in the current period of time in the Western world animal sacrifice is fairly foreign and seems in many respects barbaric.   To us perhaps reading about the sacrifices in the Torah , imagining the most central national Jewish space as a place of burning animal carcasses, flowing blood, incense burning and priests bathing, seems very…well, un-Jewish.   How are we to understand the fact that the laws of the tabernacle and its sacrifices take up such a large portion of our holy Torah?

 

In the history of Jewish thought several well known approaches to sacrifices are presented.   I will discuss two classical ones and one modern.

 

Nachmonides (b. 1194) saw the tabernacle and its sacrifices as a continuation of the Mount Sinai experience.  God was revealed to us at the mountain and in the tabernacle and its successor the temple, God “dwelled” among the Jewish people.  Sacrifices were used to atone for sin according to Nachmonides in order that the one who brings the sacrifice will comprehend that, “there but for the grace of God go I.”  Since human deeds are committed with thought, speech and action, the hands are first laid upon the sacrifice, verbal confession is then said, and the animal’s body itself sacrificed before God, utilizing metaphorically all one’s facilities for goodness in place of their use for the sin committed.

 

Maimonides (b. 1135) in his book of Jewish philosophy, The Guide for the Perplexed (3:32), in contrast to Nachmonides, sees prayer as the true mode of relating to God, but he says, God gave sacrifices to the Jewish people at that time since after living in Egypt they were used to the idea of idol worship. And so God said, instead of sacrificing animals and bringing incense to idols do it for me in a temple of God.   But sacrifices, while required by that generation of Jews, is by no means the best way of connecting to the Divine.

 

Lastly, I would like to quote the words of a modern Reform Jewish commentator, Rabbi Gunther Plaut who emphasizes the sanctity garnered from the sacrificial rite: “I object vigorously when I hear people say that we moderns have progressed beyond such practices (of sacrifice)….we have retrogressed in essential areas upon which biblical sacrifice was founded…Most of the offerings were shared meals…in an atmosphere of prayer and devotion…an experience in an awe inspiring religious setting which impressed itself more on the participants than a mumbled berkat hamazon (grace after meals prayer)…offering the olot (totally burnt offerings) meant to give a valuable animal without deriving any measurable human benefit from them, purely for the love of God.  How often do we do this in any form or fashion?”

 

Though we do not have sacrifices today, and perhaps that is for the best according to Maimonides, it seems we have much to learn from our Torah’s teachings about sacrifices.


Book Review: “Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed”

March 14, 2016

(The following guest review article does not constitute an approbation of the book by the editors of Morethodoxy.)

A Book Review by Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Rafi Ostroff

“Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed” An Outline, Analysis and Candid Discussion By Yaakov Shapiro

A collaborative review by:

Talli Rosenbaum,  Individual and couples therapist and certified sex therapist Academic advisor – The Yahel Center http://tallirosenbaum.com/

Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, Founder of the Yahel Center www.facebook.com/JewishIntimacy

“Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed” is the cleverly chosen title of a new book recently self-published by Yaakov Shapiro. It is the first volume in a promised series of more books by Shapiro about sexuality and Jewish law, which are the result of the author’s self-described search for a “balanced approach in Torah.” The author’s website which includes videos of his shiurim can be found at sexualityandjewishlaw.com.

Shapiro’s biography describes him as having experienced the pluralistic gamut of Judaism, as he was born into a Conservative family that returned to Jewish observance in his youth. He was subsequently schooled, and at various times identified, as modern Orthodox, Lithuanian-Charedi and Chasidic Chabad. He earned rabbinic ordination through the Chabad system.  Regardless of his social identity within the various streams of Jewish life today, Shapiro is clearly a Torah scholar.

The author appears to have set several goals in writing this book. In comprehensively examining nearly every Jewish textual source referring to marital sex, Shapiro sets out to challenge the accepted consensus of what is halachically sanctioned in the bedroom between married couples. Moreover, he sets out, and succeeds in offering a historical perspective as to how rabbinic attitudes about sex have changed over the generations. Finally, the author admits as well to a personal objective.

Like many young Orthodox men, Shapiro reports receiving sexually restrictive premarital education as a groom and fundamental sex-positive rabbinic opinions were ignored, dismissed or distorted. He subsequently researched extensive modern-day Orthodox “family purity” and marital intimacy literature. These he found to overwhelmingly emphasize that when it comes to sex, only one path is that of the righteous and anything “out of the norm” is regarded as spiritually or physically deviant. Furthermore, he suggests that many, if not most, of these sources maintain thatcouples should be guided not by sexual passion, but rather by holy aspirations and the will to do the “right” thing in the eyes of God.

Shapiro recounts hearing stories of marital disharmony in his Chasidic community that possibly resulted from such messages.This led to a ten-year investigation culminating in a lengthy halachic discourse, meant to providecouples with what he believes to be a halachically sound “tikun.”

Shapiro examines every source relevant to the marital sexual halachic discussion, and adds a new perspective to the halachically-sanctioned sexual conducts that are believed by many to deviate from the norms of Halacha. Quoting Maimonides, the Tosefot, the Rema  and dozens of other sources, Shapiro challenges what is classically thought to be the mainstream approach of Judaism to marital sex.

Specifically, Shapiro challenges the fairly universally accepted idea that within marital sex, male ejaculation must occur only through the act of penile-vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, he tracks historically how rabbinic attitudes regarding extra-vaginal ejaculation were influenced by Kabbalistic sources.

The need for a balanced approach to extra-vaginal ejaculation restrictions has been addressed by both authors of this review.[1]. We appreciate that couples may need or want varied expressions of sexual pleasure, due to any number of reasons having to do with physical and emotional needs or desires. Therefore, the permission of varied sexual acts, as desired by both partners, may be a great source of relief and provide anxiety reduction for couples, concerned about doing the right thing. Shapiro, somewhat apologetically and with sensitivity to the female partner’s sensitivities, also emphasizes that while the language of the Talmud does not specifically address consent, (“the same way that a man may eat meat in whichever manner he pleases – whether it be salted, roasted, cooked or seared – so too may a man do with his wife whatever he pleases,”[2]), consent is always implied.

The author, relying on a combination of textual sources and logical reasoning, concludes that various sexual actsare permitted.However, one of the most pervasive topics of his discussion,mirroring a pervasiveness found in the classical rabbinic sources themselves, is the subject of  “biahshelokedarka” which the author asserts refers specifically to anal sex. While the author proves that anal sex, even to the point of ejaculation, is permitted by a majority of medieval halachic writersand by numerous key post-medieval opinions, hemight have acknowledged that the general Jewish perspective on anal sex is a negative one, even if it is permitted.[3}The author does acknowledge the potential discomfort to the woman, but he relegates such discussion mainly to the endnotes. He does note (p.16), however, that his purpose is not to encourage anal sex, per se, but toclarify the grounds of this heter[4]in order to enable the discussion on the legitimacy of ejaculation between limbs, “derech evarim,” which provides for varied and possibly more comfortable and acceptable “adventurous” sexual acts such as oral and manual stimulation to point of ejaculation.

The Talmud, while unabashedly addressing sexuality and sexual conduct of men and women, often uses “lashon sagi nahor”, as the virtue of modesty of speech is inherent in our Jewish value system. While the author acknowledges this model, he clarifies from the onset (p.16) that he purposely writes in a clear and straightforward manner, both when relating to the halachic sources and when writing about sexual conduct and behavior. He defends this approach by explaining that in matters of practical Jewish law one must speak clearly and unambiguously,and suggests thatcenturies of halachic argument over the accurate meaning of certain Talmudic sexual euphemism potentially contributed to painful marital discord. This assertion, as well as his graphic language, may not sit well with some readers.

Shapiro brings a straightforward and much needed discussion of sexuality to the orthodox Jewish world. He is a proficient ‘swimmer’, both in the ‘sea’ of the Talmud, as well as in the the thousands of additional sources that he researched for this study. For readers who appreciate halachic discourse and “seek the truth”, this book delivers what it promises; a rational and balanced approach to sexuality that will provide evidence based “permission” for couples to express their sexuality with one another, as they feel fit. For others for whom “Daat Torah” has the ultimate say, Shapiro, unfortunately, lacks the broad-shouldered credentials and the required rabbinic approbations.

As a Rav and couples/sex therapist dedicated to helping couples create and achieve passion and intimacy within a Jewish framework, we are hopeful that through this book and the discussion it facilitates, couples will claim and reclaim meaningful sexuality in their married life.

[1] See BavliEiruvin 100b, Ran Nedarim 20b BneiEima, BneiAnusa

[2] The term “shelo kedarka” translates as “not the normal way.” It is associated with the rape of Dinah (Rashi‘scommentary to the word tortureBereishit 34, 2) and compared to animal sexuality (Bechorot8a) (RO).

[3] See “I am his vessel”: Influence of male ejaculatory restrictions on women’s sexual autonomy in Orthodox Jewish marriages.http://tallirosenbaum.com/en/node/201

andהוצאת זרע לבטלה בהקשר הזוגי)  (http://www.zoogy.org/#!הוצאת-זרע-לבטלה-בהקשר-הזוגי/c16wr/5523bbc30cf21e26badc5363)

[4] One point on which I disagree with the author is in regard to his analysis and conclusion about the viewpoint of Rabbi Yosef Karoin relation to intra-anal ejaculation, (pp.135-151). From my readings of the texts, I believe it is clear that he opposes such sexual conduct even according to baseline Jewish law. (RO)

 

A Note from the Author, Yaakov Shapiro:

I want to sincerely thank Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Rafi Ostroff for their excellent book review.

Please note one correction: My website does not currently feature any video lectures, but one can find a link there to look inside the content of the book.

I would also like to respectfully point out in regard to footnote 2 of the review: a) The way I understand Rashi’s commentary on the verse in Genesis 34:2, “biah shelo cedarcah” and “biah cedarcah” are equally associated with the rape of Dinah. Indeed, the simple context of rape in Biblical and rabbinic literature is associated with “biah cedarcah;” b) I believe the translation of the Hebrew term “inoi” as “torture” in this context is perhaps extreme (see also, in this regard, end note 269 in the book); c) The way I understand the passage on Bechorot 8a, it is not speaking about “biah cedarcah” vs. “biah shelo cedarcah,” but to the nature of most animals to breed “face-to-back,” whereas humans and some animals breed “face-to-face.” All that being said, it is acknowledged in the book that “biah shelo cedarcah” is generally considered to be less than ideal even by the sources that permit it, and the distinction between baseline law versus sanctification is stressed throughout (though see page 68 and endnote 271 in regard to the express opinion of Tosfos Yeshanim, Nedarim 20b).

In regard to footnote 4 in the review, see the discussion in the book referenced there, where the analysis and conclusion are developed based on comments of well-known halachic authorities.

Finally, the review focuses on marital activities that may perhaps be associated more with interests of a husband. It should be noted that the book addresses numerous activities that would be associated with a wife’s interests as well.

 

 


For the Friend I Buried Today. By Yosef Kanefsky

February 24, 2016

I buried a friend today. A friend, who four weeks ago was healthy and well, and was living the life of kindness, friendship, community, and family that had endeared her to everyone. A tower of emotional strength and personal determination, a person whose love was both fierce and tender. A friend, who suddenly and without warning tumbled into a coma, then hovered for four weeks between this world and the next, until finally, on Monday night, leaving us completely. At this very moment, as I look at my shoes still covered with cemetery dirt, I – together were an entire synagogue community – am not only pained and saddened, but also shattered and stunned.

I can’t help but also think about the family and friends of David Wichs a”h, a man described as an angel, who lost his life in the blink of an eye about three weeks ago when a huge construction crane hurtled to the ground exactly where he happened to be standing. How surreal and startling, how impossible-seeming it surely sounded to his loving wife, to his co-workers, to his synagogue community. What an unfathomable loss. May his family somehow, at some point, know comfort.

It is at moments like these – and they seem to come with almost numbing regularity these days – that we gently check our notions of individual Divine Providence at the cemetery door. For while the idea that God knows and responds to each of us individually in accordance with our deeds is often both inspiring and spiritually useful, there are just times when we need to place it in a quiet corner for a bit, as we recognize with pain and sorrow, that life, Judaism, and God are just a whole lot more complicated, and a whole lot more inscrutable than that. There are just times when we must hang our theological hats on the teaching of the Talmudic sage Rava, who said that “length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit, but on Mazal.” (Moed Kattan, 28a)

Which is not to say that events like these simply plunge us into a religious vacuum. Really just the opposite. This is when Jewish practice, with its overwhelming and unvarying emphasis on גמילות חסדים (acts of love and kindness) achieves the apex of its religious strength. We are battle-ready and trained. To visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to cook the meals, to drive the carpools, to hug and embrace our fellow the way we would ourselves want to be hugged and embraced. Yes, in quieter and happier times, we can afford the luxury of the doctrine of individual Divine Providence. But on days like today, we just thrust ourselves headlong into the holy trenches of the hands-on mitzvot.

There’s a peculiar choreographic moment at the end of the daily Tachanun prayer. After petitioning God to forgive us our sins and to save us from bad occurrences, we come to the words “we don’t really know what to do”. We don’t really know the magic formula either for obtaining forgiveness or for securing protection. But remarkably, precisely as we say these words which carry such an air of resignation about them, we ritually rise from our chairs and stand upright. Yes it’s true that we don’t really know. But when confronted with not knowing, with not understanding, we respond by rising to the occasion, by embracing the certitude of goodness and kindness practiced toward those who are suffering the most.

For even Mazal can bend to Chesed.

 


The Gay Child in My Daughter’s First Grade Class

February 18, 2016

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It was a parenting moment that came much sooner than I thought it would. My six year-old looked over at me at the dinner table and told me that her teacher had said that a boy “can’t marry a boy, and a girl can’t marry a girl.”

I paused, chewing.

“Well, what do you think?,” I asked her.

“Well, I know that isn’t true.”

She knows that isn’t true because we have had gay couples at our Shabbat table. She knows it isn’t true because she has a friend with two moms, and because her little sister has a boy in her class with two dads. She knows that sometimes boys marry boys. She knows that gay people exist. This is 2016.

I responded by reminding her (and my two- and four-year-old, who were also at the table) what I’ve told my kids many times: It’s true that MOST of the time, a boy marries and girl, and a girl marries a boy. But SOMEtimes, it does happen that a boy marries a boy and a girl marries a girl. (I think that “married” is the only word they have for attraction and romance, not to mention domestic partnership.)

I told her that it made me sad that her Morah said that it doesn’t happen. It made me sad for the people who are gay. This is how Hashem made them, and this Morah is pretending they do not exist. What I didn’t tell her, is that I was most sad for the gay child in her class. Because chances are that yes, even in her Orthodox day school, there is a child, or children, who will later discover (or might already know) that they are gay. Think what it does to these children to hear their Morah deny their existence.

My daughter knew her teacher wasn’t right, not only because of the gay people in her life. She also had read, many times, our books by Todd Parr, such as The Family Book, which states unequivocally, “Some families have two moms; some families have two dads,” along with “Some families look like each other; some families look like their pets.” Also true.

My daughter had also recently read a book called And Tango Makes Three, a true story about penguins in Central Park Zoo. Two boy penguins are not interested in the girl penguins, but are interested in each other and become companions. They are sad when they discover that they do not have an egg in their nest, like all the other penguins. The zookeeper finds an extra egg that had no penguin to take care of it, and Tango is born, making their happy union into a family. My daughter got the message, that if it’s biologically true for penguins, it could also be biologically true for humans.

These books were baby gifts from a dear long-time friend of my husband’s, who happens to be gay. I have to admit that, while I was content to read the Todd Parr books to my kids right away, I hid away And Tango Makes Three for many years – six years to be exact. I had only just pulled it off the top shelf and left it around for my first grader to read. It was not because my children weren’t ready for the book, but because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for what my children’s questions might be. I wasn’t sure of my own feelings about homosexulaity in the Orthodox community. I wasn’t sure how I would respond, how I would engage with my children’s curiosity.

What I’ve learned, as a parent and as an educator, is that many of these conversations can be quite simple. Especially with young kids, and even with older ones, the most important message is simply that gay people are here. They are all around us, they are among us, they might even be us. They are Jewish and not, Orthodox and not, married and not, with children and not. A simple dinner conversation, spoken in soft tones, and in six-year-old language, can make it clear to children that gay people are here, and that Hashem made them that way.

Thankfully the Orthodox community is beginning to address the reality that LGBTQ individuals are among us. But beyond that, I write this piece in order to model what it might look like to have conversations with our children about complex and difficult situations. LGBTQ issues are only one of many tough subjects that may arise around the dinner table. Be ready for other important conversations, too. Be ready to explain that we don’t drive on Shabbat while other Jews do, without demonizing or disenfranchising those other Jews, and without diminishing our deeply-held value of halacha. My daughter recently said that all Jewish girls wear skirts that cover the knee. I needed to address the fact that even though it is what we do in our own family, there are Jews who dress differently. Complex conversations like these also happen outside the Jewish realm, of course. We need to discuss racism in a way that children can understand, explaining that there have been times in history when people with a different skin color were treated differently, terribly, were even enslaved, and this is wrong. Somehow, we are well prepared with robust information for our children about why they shouldn’t talk to strangers and why it’s important that they work hard in school. Let’s also be ready to converse with them about the complexities of life.

The conversation I had with my children about homosexuality was not complicated. I didn’t quote psukim from the Torah, or enter into halachic discourse. There will be time for that. Parents of adolescents will need to take a more nuanced approach. However, if parents speak openly and honestly about these complex topics when children are young, then the conversations when they are older become less fraught, more open and honest.

And then there’s my daughter’s teacher. I think about what that teacher might have responded. Had she been adequately prepared and trained for this kind of question, she could have spoken about the fact that each person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. She could have been honest about the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada, and has been for over a decade. She might have even been able to voice her own discomfort (or the halachic difficulties) with gay marriage, while also acknowledging that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. But the teacher was clearly caught off guard, and was not prepared to offer any answer, hence she simply brushed the question aside.

I was inspired by this video from an Eshel retreat. I hope that someday, every LGBTQ Orthodox young person can say something like this: “I’m still a Bais Yaakov girl; I just happen to be queer.” I think about that gay child in my daughter’s class. Will that child find a safe space to be both Orthodox and gay? Will he need to bifurcate his identity, thinking that he cannot be both frum and homosexual? He will, no doubt, face many challenges. But let him at least be recognized, rather than invisible.

Let us urge our day schools to equip our children’s teachers with the skills and sensitivity needed to respond to their questions. Let us open the door for these conversations with our children while they are young, although it is never too late to start. Let us take responsibility for making our community open and honest about the fact that gay people are among us. Do it for the gay child in your child’s class… who could even be your own.


The Purpose of Mitzvot by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 15, 2016

mosesDo mitzvot have reasons or are they purely a Divine decree?  Should we live lives insulated from other cultures or integrated with them?   Is religious life an ascetic one or should we take advantage of life’s pleasures?  Lots of theological profundities which impact the way we live our lives are the subject of much difference of opinion in Judaism going all the way back to the Talmud.

 
Different eras have required different answers to these fundamental questions.  For instance, the German Pietists in the 12th century were insular ascetics while at the same time in Spain the Sephardic sages were engaged in Spanish life, its pleasures and its poetry.

 
How should we see such central theological questions in our own time?

 
We are in the midst of reading on Shabbat about the crafting and erection of and the services within the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  The Ark served as the hidden power center of the Tabernacle.  It contained the tablets of the law and was flanked on top by two golden kiruvim, cherubs.

 
We understand the need for an ark to honor and hold the tablets, it is something we ourselves have in our synagogues, but why golden cherubs?  Indeed, their idol-like appearance seems like a dangerous risk.  In fact there are those who say the heads of the cherubim were, like in the vision of Ezekiel, the heads of a shor, a cow, forming a sort of golden calf.

 

Maimonides (who very much believed that all mitzvot have reasons) in the Moreh Nivuchim, the Guide to the Perplexed, 3:49, writes:
Most of the “statutes” (hukkim), the reason of which is unknown to us, serve as a fence against idolatry. That I cannot explain some details of the above laws or show their use is owing to the fact that what we hear from others is not so dear as that which we see with our own eyes. Thus my knowledge of the Sabean doctrines, which I derived from books, is not as complete as the knowledge of those who have witnessed the public practice of those idolatrous customs, especially as they have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws, the object of which I am unable to state.

 
According to encyclopedia of myths and legends:

The cherub itself can be traced to mythologies of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Near East. In these cultures, cherubim were usually pictured as creatures with parts of four animals: the head of a bull (cow, calf), the wings of an eagle, the feet of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. The four animals represented the four seasons, the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west), and the four ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water). These original cherubim guarded the entrances to temples and palaces.

 
The cherubim created the expectation of a deity in their center, but in the Mishkan, instead of an idol between the cherubs as in the ancient Near East, there was empty space.  It is from that space that the Divine voice emerged, teaching the Jewish people that their G-d is not concrete, not limited, without image.   That in the emptiness the Divine emerges.

 
We live in an era in which taamey hamitzvot, understanding the reasons for mitzvot as impactful in physical, emotional and spiritual ways is important.   Today the majority of the Jewish people do not find much meaning in keeping the Torah just because they are commanded.  They are proud to be Jewish but it is the nature of our era that without a profound sense of why mitzvot are beneficial, there will be little interest.  If we do not choose the correct attitudes for our era, we will be bereft.