Tishuvah-Return

August 28, 2009

We call the process of repentance tishuvah or “return”.   This is very telling.  The process we engage in during this Jewish month of Elul and through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot is not a process of becoming someone we are not, but rather a more organic process of getting in touch with who we really are -humans who are made in the image of God, who are at our core moral and good, and who are, even if it is difficult at times for us to connect to, spiritual, endowed with the ability to imitate and cleave to the infinite and harmonious Divine.

The process of tishuvah involves, according to Maimonides book of Jewish law, 4 stages.  First we must feel charatah, regret; then we must verbally confess our sins or lack of mitzvoth to before God; next we must ask and receive forgiveness from those we have sinned against, whether other people or God.  Lastly we must change, becoming people who are different than before, people who are not drawn to the sin in the same way as before.   Its not change from who we essentially are, rather change back to who we are and can be.   During the year lots of spiritually detrimental things cover over our Divine soul -money, desire, selfishness, ego, etc.   During this time of year we are challenged to slowly uncover our soul from under all those things that are not really us, that cover us over, to be able to let go of the sinful things that we have come to take hold of during the year.

My best wishes for much love, returan, inspiration and insight during this High Holy Day season.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner

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Misplaced Compassion

August 27, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

This past week I spoke and participated in a rally in vicinity of the UN.  The purpose of the rally was to protest the recent decision by Scottish justice officials to release the terrorist responsible for the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.  The bombing killed all 259 passengers on board and 11 residents of Lockerbie.  The rally was emotional and moving; a number of the victim’s relatives joined us in raising a powerful and tender voice in condemnation of this decision.

This decision by Scottish official to release al-Megrahi is troubling on a number of levels.  In today’s post, however, I wanted to explore briefly the official predicate for al-Megrahi’s release and to cite a Jewish source that perhaps places the rally I attended in proper context.  Al-Megrahi was reportedly released on compassionate grounds: he is suffering from late-term cancer is expected to live only a few more months.  This reasoning – showing compassion on a hardened and unrepentant killer – calls to mind a comment made by Rashi in last week’s parsha, parshat Shoftim.  The Torah, in teaching some of the laws relating to warfare, begins this section with the introductory statement, “When you go out to battle against your enemies ….”  (Devarim 20:1). The words “your enemies” are superfluous.  When one declares and goes out to war, it is by definition a war against one’s enemies.  Rashi, remarking on this apparent superfluity, derives the following teaching from the words “your enemies.” Rashi states, “they shall be in your eyes like enemies; do not show compassion on them for they will not show mercy on you.”

This sentiment is a bit jarring to modern ears, and our tradition’s attitudes towards our enemies are certainly more complex than this.  But Rashi – who witnessed the first crusade in 1096 – is right in this essential point.  It hardly serves the goals of justice to show compassion on a true enemy of civil society.  The families of al-Magrahi’s victims are the ones deserving our compassion.  And when we gathered in protest, we also gathered to show compassion to Babette Hollister, whose daughter Katherine, would have celebrated her 41st birthday this week.  Compassion for Hope Asrelsky who is certain that her daughter Rachel, who was just 21 when she died, would have been in Washington today, advocating for a better more just world.  It is cruel to betray these families on a fleeting and groundless gesture of mercy.  Al-Megrahi and his Libyian enablers would certainly not have done the same.


Morethodoxy and Health Care – Rabbi Barry Gelman

August 25, 2009

There have been very few public statements from Orthodox groups regarding the Heath Care debate that is raging in this country.

Agudath Yisrael of America recently stated that President Obama’s efforts to “make health care more accessible to the uninsured and underinsured should be applauded” and that “promotion of good health and well being are religious imperatives.”

The Agudath Yisrael should be commended for stepping into the debate and making a statement based on Jewish values.

Where are the other Orthodox groups….especially the Modern Orthodox? It seems that we are comfortable letting the Jewish position on Health Care reform be staked out by the right wing and let wing of Judaism.

For so many, Orthodoxy remains irrelevant because in our shuls and schools we hear about the minute details of how to keep kosher and debate how long a woman’s sleeve must be and ignore serious discussions on societal and moral issues of our day. Here was our chance (maybe there is still time) to appear relevant by formulating an approach on the most significant issue facing America and we have remained silent. Read the rest of this entry »


Rabbi Lopatin’s Travelblog: 24 hours in Cincinnati

August 25, 2009

My wife and I and our kids packed up the car and headed on Saturday night for the great city of Cincinnati.  Just about five hours from Chicago, Cincinnati is in Ohio, but only minutes from Indiana – which feels like Illinois – and from Kentucky – the South!  Reform Judaism is still big in this town, and the original HUC branch has been given a lease on life only recently, and the great Reform synagogue, the Isaac Wise Synagogue (formerly Plum Street Synagogue) is still glorious.  But I want to point out three highlights of this trip that highlight some exciting things from the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

We went to a wedding at Adath Israel  Congregation, which has been led for the past 18 years by Rabbi Irvin Wise (Reb Irv).  You have to see this shul: I’ve seen a lot of shuls of all movements, but this shul is stunning because for a shul of 600 members (or so I was told) it is huge!  It has a Hebrew school building that would be reasonable for a nice sized day school; it has a parking lot bigger than Detroit, Motown Conservative synagogues, and there is a totally unused grassy lot next to the parking lot that is equally as large.  The shul is even more beautiful inside, with a six year, multimillion dollar renovation recently completed.  Stunning and contemporary stained glass windows in the sanctuary, granite counters in the bathrooms, with a combo of automatic faucets and manual ones as well, presumably for those who don’t use electricity on Shabbat.  There were rooms and rooms, and a huge social hall where each table had its own spotlight to shine on the centerpiece.  This shul is a living monument to the glory days of the Conservative movement.  I have no illusions that Adath Israel must have its challenges which affect all Conservative shuls, and especially in the Midwest, but I urge you to go to Cincinnati and see this shul, and you will be taken back 50 years to the days when it seemed that Conservative Judaism would lead all Jews into a beautiful future as proud Americans.  Again, we all know the difficulties all American Jews face, but especially the Conservative movement, but you won’t feel it when you go to a wedding at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.

But don’t only go to Cincinnati to relive the glory of Conservative Judaism.  Go there for the kosher places under the supervision of the local Orthodox Va’ad.  I have heard that Orthodoxy in Cincinnati is struggling and splintered – and my friend Rabbi Hanan Balk of the Orthodox Golf Manor Synagogue was not in town for the one day I was there, so I could not delve further into the challenges for the Orthodox community in Cincinnati.  But I must say that the Vaad has its act sufficiently together to supervise  three unique kosher eateries that are worth the trip: First, the quaint Kinneret Kosher that is the quintessential mom and pop dairy restaurant: The pop took our order and provided coloring sheets and crayons to my four kids.  The mom was in the kitchen cutting up the tomatoes for the tuna Panini that I ordered.  Actually, the Panini did taste exactly the way they tasted in Paris, but the quality of the food was not the star here: the grace of a small operation, and the love and sweetness of the owners were what was really unique here.  Second, Marx’s bagels – it’s a chain, but only one has hashgacha : They have the most amazing French toast bagels – that taste exactly like French toast.  OK, you say, fine, but not worth flying to Cincinnati for.  Maybe, but the final place I tried is a fantastic, low keyed, kosher vegetarian Indian restaurant called Amma’s.  They have a great lunch buffet, all you can eat for $8.99, including taxes and dessert and the place is filled with real Indian people, not just a bunch of Jews who think they know authentic Indian.  Amazing!  Amma’s is the  vegetarian equivalent of Kohinoor in the Crown Plaza in Jerusalem, which is the best meat Indian I have ever had.  But meat, anyone can make tasty; vegetables are a different story. I’ve had a lot of vegetarian Indian – including a lot in India when Rav Ahron Soloveichic said I could trust the strict vegetarianism of India, but this food in Cincinnati was by far the best.  I am already thinking of ways of getting back to Cincinnati to get some more of this great Indian cuisine, and to go back for seconds of the rice pudding dessert.  Kudos to Orthodoxy in Cincinnati for getting this places under Hashgacha.  This city is a gem – great museums, skyline, great people and between Adath Israel and Amma’s Indian cuisine, it will take you to a different place as a Jew and a connoisseur of style and good food.  Someone is doing something right in Cincinnati.

Asher Lopatin


Prostitutes, Rabbis and Teshuvah (Return) By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 21, 2009

The Talmud tells two stories of Rabbis visiting prostitutes and subsequently doing Tehsuvah (return, repentance).  A comparison of the two stories yields deep insights about our own work of Tishuvah at this time of the year.   A good and inspiring Month of Ellul to all.

Story #1 (Babylonian Talmud, Minachot 44a)

Once a man, who was very careful about the commandment of tzizit, heard about a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold coins for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold coins and appointed a day with her. When he came to  her door the harlet’s maid told her, “The man who sent you four hundred gold coins is here and waiting at the door”; to which the harlot replied “Let him come in”.

When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes (Tzitzit) of his garment struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. She also got down from the bed and sat upon the ground and said to him, “I will not leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.”  He replied, “never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one commandment which God has commanded us, it is called tzizith, and with regard to it the expression “I am the Lord your God” is written twice, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future and I am He who will give reward in the future. The tzizith appeared to me as four witnesses”.

She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, the name of your school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; the bed clothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Beth Hamidrash (house of study) of Rabbi Chiyya, and said to him, ‘Master, give instructions that they may make me a convert’. ‘My daughter’, he replied; ‘perhaps you have set your eyes on one of my students?’ She thereupon took out the paper and handed it to him. ‘Go’, said he ‘and enjoy your acquisition’…Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for the student for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully.

Story #2 (Babilonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 17a)

It was said of Rabb Eleazar ben Dordia that there was no harlot in the world he did not have relations with. Once, upon hearing that there was a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of gold coins for her hire, he took a purse of gold coins and crossed seven rivers to reach her. As he was with her, she had flatulence and said, “As this gas will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in repentance.”

He thereupon went, sat between two mountains and exclaimed: “O, mountains, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed!”” He exclaimed: “Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me! They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment.””… He then pleaded with the Sun and moon and the stars and constellations to plead for mercy on his behalf but they all gave the same answer.

Said Rabbi Eliezer, “Then it depends upon me alone!” Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed (he died). Then a bath-kol (voice from heaven) was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!’ When Rebi heard this story he wept and said: “One person may acquire eternal life after many years, and another person in but an hour!” Rebi also said: Not only are those who repent accepted but they are even called “Rabbi”!”

Questions and Explanation

Why in the first story does Rabbi Chiyyah’s student do tishuvah without dying and even merit marrying the harlot, but in the second story though Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordi does tishuvah the ending is more tragic?

I would suggest that the difference is in the differing attitude and motivations of the two rabbis with regard to tishuvah.   Rabbi Chiyyah’s student repents out of his appreciation for mitzvoth, for holiness.  He is able to weigh the infinite value of the spirit (his tzitzit) against the fleeting pleasure of the physical.  This well balanced approach brings him to teshuvah without losing himself, and the parts of himself that are of value and can be used for holiness.  He will be able to elevate the physical by his connection to the spiritual, and indeed in the end of the story he truly does this, as the Talmud points out, by marrying the harlot and transforming the bed clothes that were illicit into those of a mitzvah.

In the second story, in contrast, Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordi is only moved to tishuvah when the physical becomes repulsive, only when the harlot, the object of his desire, passes gas, and is thus suddenly stripped of her sensuality and the curtain of his idealization of her and her sensuality is lifted.  He does not have the spiritual tools with which to raise the physical and sanctify it, his obsession and desire are gone and he is left alone and empty.

The lesson is an important one for all of us as we engage in the process of tishuvah at this time of year.  There are many motivations for teshuvah.  Sometimes we feel empty and lost, grasping at straws.  Tishuvah can emerge from there but it does not always sanctify one’s life, rather such tishuvah often functions by jettisoning one’s current identity and replacing it with a different life.  In contrast one can add holiness to the life one already leads and let the mitzvoth not expunge who we are but sanctify us.  The second I think is more organic since it does not demand the severance of one’s self but the sanctification and tweaking thereof.

Much blessing for a New Year that is one not of, not repentance through rejecting who we are, but a “return,” a “tishuvah” to the Godly people that we truly are.  Shanah Tovah.


Yoga Mincha

August 20, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

There have already been a few entries in this space discussing the efficacy of prayer, and what we, Morethodox Jews can learn from others about tefilah.  I’d like to add to this theme in my post today.

I believe that one of the foundations of prayer is the ability to intertwine fixed/set prayer with spontaneous prayer.  Chana, who according to the Talmud (Brachot 31a) was the progenitor of prayer, prayed twice when she beseeched God for a child as recounted in Samuel 1, chapter one and two. Her first prayer was wordless (“And it came to pass, as she continued praying before God…Now Chana spoke in her heart.”

יב וְהָיָה כִּי הִרְבְּתָה לְהִתְפַּלֵּל לִפְנֵי יְהֹ וְעֵלִי שֹׁמֵר אֶת־פִּֽיהָ: יג וְחַנָּה הִיא מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל־לִבָּהּ

 (Samuel 1:12-12)   This prayer was spontaneous, filled with visceral emotion.   In Chana’s second prayer, however, one has the sense that she sat with her quill and parchment for days, composing carefully her words of gratitude and praise to God.  Her second prayer was deliberate and formal.  In fact the Yalkut Shemoni Shmuel 1 says that it is this second prayer that became the blueprint of the shmonei esrei. 

Our challenge is to follow Chana and find ways to combine both set (keva) prayer as well as spontaneous prayer into a meaningful and godly experience.  I spent this past week at a Jewish retreat center where I encountered the difficulty of this challenge. At one point on the retreat I stepped into a Jewish renewal style Shabbat morning service, and found that there was very little traditional liturgy weaved into the davening.  This type of formless prayer did not appeal to me.  On the other hand, I had the opportunity to “daven mincha through Yoga,” as the program advertised it.  To my surprise, I found that embodying, literally, the words of the mincha prayer to be an extremely uplifting experience.  (The Yoga Mincha did not, of course, replace my regular traditional davening).  We threw our hands up in the air in joy as we recited the word “ashrei.’ Then we went into a sitting pose at the word “yoshvei.”  And then dropped our hands down, in a cave like manner, to create a home as we said the word “Vaytecha” (Ashrei Yoshvei Vaytecha—How happy or praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your house).  Imbuing traditional liturgy with an entirely new element forced me to think about the words in a different way. I found myself reaching out to God “with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might.”  I was reminded of the experience Yitzchak might have had as he mediated in the field at evening time (Bereishit 24:63).  Or the uplifting prayer of the Levites, who according to Psalms (150:3) praised God with the harp, lyre, and through dance. Spirituality takes on many forms.  Tapping into ones spiritual self is the challenge.  

Meaningful prayer is something that many strive to attain and maintain.   I learned this week to step out of my prayer comfort zone, just a little, even if to experience a taste of how others achieve spiritual moments.  As we enter the month of Elul, a month where we focus more than ever on our prayerful selves, let’s keep striving to bring ourselves closer to God.


Man In Search Of Heschel – Rabbi Barry Gelman

August 18, 2009

If you understand the title of this post you are ahead of the game.

I wonder why the Modern Orthodox community does pay more attention to and study the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Aside from his book The Sabbath, much of his work goes unnoticed and certainly unstudied in our community.

Rabbi Heschel wrote and spoke about so many of the challenges of religion in a free society. He concentrated the need and difficulty of balancing the regularity of Jewish religious practice with spontaneity, referring to these to contrary principles as kevah and kavanah, the religious ideal of living a life of, what he called, “wonder” and “radical amazement” by never taking God’s world for granted and fundamental importance of Halacha as an ingredient of the life of a spiritually healthy Jew.

While many are familiar with Rabi Heschel as the rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama, many are unaware his focus on Halacha. I sometimes wonder if the popularity of the picture of Rabbi Heschel with King in Selma has diminished focus on the other aspects of his career.

Part of the reason why Heschel goes unnoticed in the Orthodox community is because he spent most of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary – the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. As such he is deemed “treif” by large segments of our community. To my mind this is a terrible shame and we continue to ignore his writings and teachings to our own peril. We should be teaching Heschel in our schools and in our shuls. Read the rest of this entry »