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.

Why Don’t the Women Sing in Shul?

July 18, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

Today, a friend told me of a question her three-year-old daughter asked her in shul on Shabbat:

“Mommy, why do only the men sing in shul?”

She was not referring to the fact that only men lead the davening or read from the Torah. She was noticing that when the tzibbur as a whole responds, or sings together, that only the men sing. My friend said that the question made her want to cry.

This phenomenon has bugged me for many years. In a typical Orthodox shul, the men sing, chant, mutter, even exclaim aloud at various points in the davening. The women sing beneath their breath, hum, or even whisper. It is as if we have taken the model of Chana, rak sefateha na’ot – only her lips moved but her voice could not be heard – and expanded it well beyond the silent Amidah into the rest of prayer.

Why don’t the women sing?

There is a possibility that it stems from concerns for Kol Isha. However, in Modern Orthodox synagogues, most women (and men) know that a group of women singing together does not violate the prohibition. There is also ample halachic evidence that even when a single voice is discernable within the group or when one woman is singing alone, the prohibition of Kol Isha does not apply in the context of prayer, education, or other holy activities.

So, why don’t the women sing?

I cannot speak for other women, but I can tell you why I don’t sing. It is not a halachic reason, but a musical one: I can’t sing in the men’s key!

It may sound like a simple, almost too simplistic answer. But for me, it is the truth. By the time the baal tefillah, hits those high tenor notes, I am silent on the other side of the mechitzah, having dropped my voice a long time ago.

For other women, there may be other reasons: some may feel shy; some do not enjoy singing out loud or would prefer to simply listen. But those of us who do try to sing find it almost impossible. When the baal tefillah is singing a lower part, we are in our upper range, struggling to sing an octave above him. And then as he moves to a climactic chorus, his voice soaring (along with so many other male voices on the other side of the room) it is just too high. It is then that we women need to dip down into our gravelly lower range to sing along. At that point, even if we are singing, no one can hear us, let alone can we hear ourselves. It feels as if whatever they’re singing over on the other side, where all the action is, makes our voices uncomfortable, and it is easier just to fall silent.

It is no wonder that davening in a women’s Tefillah fills me with a sense of relief. Many other women have told me they feel it too. Ah, finally. Just our key. We all sing aloud. Finally, we can hear ourselves, and each other. The room fills with women’s voices, strong and spirited.

Of course, there is more than a simple a choice of musical key that can cause some women to diminish their voice in shul. Some feel that the synagogue is not an atmosphere that is open and inviting to women. The choice of key is symbolic of the larger phenomenon – that the locus of control is elsewhere in the room. The decisions that are made as to how the service runs all come from a place to which we have no access. While it’s true that all the men in the room are also at the mercy of the baal tefillah’s choice in music and the gabbai’s choice in aliyah, we women know that these positions will never be open to us. I cannot simply wait until next week to choose my favorite tunes for Kedusha at Mussaf. I might indirectly influence the choice when my husband leads davening, and he chooses tunes he knows I’ll enjoy. Thus, it is only when I have an emissary on the other side that I feel I can have a voice. And even then…. Well, let’s just say my husband has a lovely tenor voice which does not jive well with my alto.

But maybe that’s just it. Maybe we women need male allies, advocates on the other side of the mechitzah, who will think of us, who will sometimes ask us what our preference is, and how we’d like to sing. It may sound patronizing, infantilizing even, to assert that women need this. But the reality is that if Orthodox women are going to have a voice in the typical Orthodox sanctuary, a musical say in the davening, it will only be with the help of the men.

I recall one particular time it did happen for me, when I was in Chicago, serving in a clergy capacity Anshe Sholom, on a Shabbat when the rabbi was away. As the baal tefillah was about to begin singing Lecha Dodi, he suddenly stopped. There was a long, silent pause, after which he looked across the mechitzah at me and mimed a total blank. He had choked. He simply could not come up with a single Lecha Dodi tune in that moment. I’m sure if the rabbi had been there, he would have started a tune. But our baal tefillah looked to me as the clergy who would have to step in. And without missing a beat, I began singing, and he followed suit.

Would it be so hard? I’m sure there are many musical women in our congregations who would jump at the chance to choose a tune, and yes, choose the key. Of course there are many Orthodox settings where women are leading Kabbalat Shabbat and other parts of Tefillah, but in situations where a woman cannot lead, at least let her lead from behind. I venture to guess that when the women’s voices are comfortable, we will more readily belt out Lecha Dodi – or Etz Chayim Hi or Aleinu – and that this will further our ability to feel like full participants in the room. I wonder what would happen if the women chose the key. I wonder if the men would begin to understand our experience. I wonder if we might create a beautiful harmony of the masculine and feminine voices in prayer, voices that could combine and together, reach the heavens.

A Tribute to “Superman Sam” – by Rachel Kohl Finegold

December 17, 2013

The Jewish blogosphere has been flooded with outpourings of love, support and sympathy for the family of Sam Sommer – “Superman Sam” who passed away this past Friday night at the age of 8, losing a battle to leukemia.

One might ironically imagine Sam’s childlike excitement at knowing that he has become “famous”. This was a boy who wanted fireworks at his funeral. (Instead, his community organized a professional fireworks display for him weeks before his death.) Having never met Sam, I could only assume that he would be pleased to know that his story has made it to the Forward, the Chicago Tribune, and His life has touched thousands.

Today, Sam’s little body was buried.

I do not figure in the circle of Sam Sommer’s life. I met his mother, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, only once or twice. I became Facebook friends with her, and followed Sam’s journey only toward the end of his life, as my Facebook feed began to buzz with words of support and deep, deep sadness, knowing that Sammy was not going to make it.

And yet, today I mourned.

Today, I went about my day in a daze, thinking

“Now, they are eulogizing him” and

“Now, they are shoveling earth into his grave” and

“Now, there are parents sitting shiva for their child.”

I absent-mindedly drove doing mundane errands, as I missed a turn and forgot where I was going. The banalities of life were hard to manage on a day like today.

Tonight, I lingered a little longer in my children’s rooms as I kissed them good night.

“Hamal’ach hago’el… yivarech et hane’arim…”

May God’s angel bless these children.

May God protect them from suffering,

Within this, a selfish request –

God, protect ME from the suffering of my children.

The night I learned about Sammy’s death, all three of my kids (ages 4 and under) were awake in the middle of the night – this one needing another drink, that one with a stuffy nose, and the baby wanting to nurse, yet again. What might have driven me to anger and frustration on another night, simply didn’t matter that night. Tending to my beautiful, healthy children’s mundane needs was a gift. I was grateful to be dealing with runny noses and nothing more.

And perhaps that is how the banalities of life can go on after Sam Sommer has gone from this world.

May Sam’s story keep us awash in gratitude.

May he sensitize us to our blessings.

The strength of the Sommer family shone through when, even in the midst of the darkest times, they were celebrating mundane moments – being grateful for their blessings.

Hamechadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh Bereishit.”
God renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation.

The miracles of creation are all around us.

Let us open our eyes to the mundane miracles that surround us daily.

In Sam’s memory, let us count our blessings.

The Torah,, and the Recent Tumult in Context – by Rabbi Zev Farber

July 25, 2013


I completed two educations as an adult, religious and academic. After spending four years in yeshiva studying gemara and chumash intensely (and teaching chumash and gemara in my early twenties), I spent one year working on peshat and literary readings of Tanakh, then attained my semikha, followed by dayanut. That was my religious education. I also have an academic education. After my B.A. (in psychology), I completed an M.A. in Biblical History, and following a 6 year break, earned my Ph.D. in Jewish studies with a focus on Bible.

Throughout this period I led a bifurcated intellectual life. I understood that both the religious and academic courses of study were meaningful, and believed both in Torah Mi-Sinai / Torah min ha-Shamayim, and academic bible studies. To live with this tension, I followed a version of the David Ben Gurion philosophy: “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” In other words, I kept my academics academic and my halakha halakhic. This is still my philosophy, in essence, but over the past few years I have given serious thought as to whether I can make the two sides meet at any point, or, at least, put them in serious conversation. Thoughts were percolating in my head but nothing clear had as yet emerged.


Project TABS /

The opportunity to begin to resolve a meeting point between academic Bible studies and classical religious faith emerged when Rabbi David Steinberg hired me to research and write for Project TABS’ website, Project TABS was founded by David Steinberg, a former kiruv professional, together with Marc Brettler, an observant Jewish Bible professor. According to the about page,

Project TABS (Torah And Biblical Scholarship) is an educational organization founded to energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of modern biblical scholarship.

When David and I first spoke, it turned out that we had had many of the same experiences even though we came from very different communities and backgrounds. Each of us had been contacted by people who were grappling with difficult questions. Some dropped out of the religion entirely; others stayed because they had children and spouses who wanted to, or because they enjoyed the social scene, but the fire had gone out. On top of this, it was becoming clear to me that a disturbing number of people in the Modern Orthodox world who were, ostensibly, doing well were, in fact, intellectually and emotionally checked out of Torah study. For some, the study of Torah lacked the intellectual intensity, rigor, and openness of their secular and professional pursuits. It was almost as if they “knew” that they couldn’t possibly really believe what they were being told, so they preferred not to invest too much emotional energy in it and risk disappointment, or worse.

At a certain point I realized that I had a choice: I could allow myself to avoid these questions, keeping whatever personal synthesis I had thought of to myself, or alternatively, I could offer my thoughts publicly and start a real conversation about the challenges academic biblical studies poses to the Orthodox Jew and brainstorm about how best to deal with it. It was beshert that David Steinberg and I were put in contact with each other at this time by another observant Bible scholar, since we both believed that the latter was the better course. In fact, it is part of my emunah that if otamo shel ha-Qadosh barukh Hu emet (the seal of the Holy One is truth) that an honest search would yield a way through.

The Manifesto

In my programmatic essay on Torah, History, and Judaism, recently posted on, I offer my preliminary thoughts on a range of issues. No single point of my piece is novel in itself, but the overall presentation is meant to guide the reader through the full spectrum of my struggle to make sense of the divinity of Torah without denying aspects of academic biblical study that seemed to me to be correct.[1] Certainly, as some have pointed out, some or many of the conclusions of academic Bible study or archaeology could, in theory, shift over time in a very different direction and be disproven, but that point does not help the religious person stuck in a quandary today. We need to understand the world, including the Bible, according to the best tools we currently have.

Do the worlds of tradition and academic biblical study need to contradict? Does it have to be one or the other? Can a person feel like he or she can engage in honest inquiry about the Torah and still keep his or her faith intact?

I will note that, throughout this process, my own faith has remained intact, albeit its hue has altered as my understanding of the issues matured. To be clear: I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel. I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the uniqueness of the Torah in its level of divine encounter. I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses are holy. I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah and its interpretation by the Jewish people. These are more than just words to me. My life is about studying, teaching and living Torah. The divinity of the Torah and the Sinaitic moment pulses through my veins – it’s who I am. Nothing I have said or written should fool the reader into thinking that I have abandoned my deep belief in God’s Torah and the mission of the Jewish people.

My own experience has taught me that it is possible to look at the issues honestly, to struggle with them, and to strive for synthesis, all the while maintaining a deep connection to Torah and Jewish observance. In fact, I strongly believe that if I had taken the opposite approach and denied myself the study and the struggle, my religiosity would have suffered. It is for this reason that I felt it necessary to take on these critical issues, and offer a possible synthesis in the hope that this will inspire others to do the same.

A Note about the Future

In my work for TABS I will be publishing my ideas and tentative theories to engender this conversation. Sometimes ideas might not be as fully nuanced as they should be or might be misunderstood;[2] I will make mistakes, state things too forcefully or not forcefully enough, we will rethink and revisit constantly—this is the nature of the type of endeavor upon which Project TABS is embarking. I look forward to the pushback, critique, and give-and-take our website will hopefully foster. The key is to be in conversation and to be exploring possibilities and struggling together.

To be clear, my programmatic essay was not—is not—meant to be a final statement, but a conversation starter. If some of my essay came off as a conversation stopper, I deeply apologize; mea culpa, it was not my intention. I am muddling through these complicated issues like many of you. I put my thoughts on the table as a suggestion; maybe I have discovered a way through, maybe I haven’t. Hopefully other people will share their suggestions, but we can’t just leave these issues as “a kasha”, “an interesting question” and end with that. The issues are too pressing, the problems are too large and too numerous, the consequences are too dire.

Our community desperately needs to have a candid conversation about Torah and faith, and the conversation must be held in a safe and open-minded environment, where there is no bullying, no threats, no name-calling, and where each person’s intellectual and religious integrity can remain intact. It is my hope that Project TABS, and its website,, will contribute to a greater engagement with Torah study. I look forward to continuing this conversation with the community as we all work together to find the right path in this challenging but crucially necessary endeavor.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Ph.D.

Fellow, Project TABS /

[1] In this sense I see myself as following in the footsteps of modern Torah thinkers such as Mordechai Breuer, Amit Kula, Tamar Ross, and Yuval Cherlow, not to mention the great medievalists such as Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Rambam, Yehudah ha-Chassid, and many statements of Chazal. Certainly the particular synthesis is my own, but many others before me have attempted to reconcile traditional belief with science and philosophy, as they understood these disciplines in their time-periods.

[2] I would like to take this opportunity to clarify one matter. Another piece of mine, an introduction to the opening section of Deuteronomy, caused quite a stir. One of the reasons for this was the abrupt end of the original posting. This was pointed out to me by a number of friends and colleagues—well before the Rabbi Gordimer’s Cross-Currents article attacking mine was posted—and I quickly reworked the ending to further clarify and add nuance. The reason the ending was so abrupt is because this post was originally part of a longer essay, which was divided into part 1 (the post in question) and part 2, which offered a modern midrashic understanding of the differences between Deuteronomy 1-3 and the other parts of the Torah. When the two were divided, the first was left, essentially, without an ending. This was a sloppy but serious mistake, and I apologize and will strive to be more careful and precise in the future.

God, Consciousness and the Problem of Anthropopathism: Theological Musings of the Late R. Shmully Moskowitz z”l – by Rabbi Zev Farber

July 27, 2012

An old friend of mine was buried last week. I haven’t seen him for a few years and did not call to say goodbye. I had heard he was sick but didn’t think he was going to die; pneumonia doesn’t generally kill 50 year old men, but, I guess, sometimes it does.

I am not going to use this post to eulogize him; many have done this and some of the eulogies are even available online. (I will throw in, however, that Shmully was one of the smartest and funniest men I ever knew.) Instead, I will take the opportunity to describe one of our last conversations and the important theological insight that he taught me. As the post is written in my words, and I will not have the opportunity to run it by him, I hope that the post accurately reflects his thinking.

A few years ago, when I was in Israel interviewing Israelis for the Torah Mitzion kollel I ran in Atlanta at the time, I spent Shabbat in my old neighborhood in Ma’aleh Mikhmas. Shmully was renting a house there at the time, and we got together for a seudah shlishit at a mutual friend’s house. The topic of God and religion came up, it often did with Shmully, and somehow we got to speaking about anthropomorphism. (I will explain how we got onto that subject at the end of the post.)

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, anthropomorphism means imputing human physical characteristics to something not human, in this case God. For example, people who imagine God as an old man with a big grey beard would be describing God anthropomorphically.

Anthropomorphism was considered by Maimonides, among other Jewish philosophers, as a grave sin, as it reduced the Almighty to human form. For Shmully and I, these ideas were rather old-hat. We were both trained in YBT (Yeshiva Bnei Torah, popularly known as Rabbi Chait’s Yeshiva), a yeshiva strongly influenced by Maimonidean thought, and being “on the look-out” for anthropomorphism was in our blood; (as Shmully was the son of Rabbi Morton Moskowitz, one of Rabbi Chait’s early friends and colleagues, Maimonidean philosophy was probably in his mother’s milk.) Shmully, however, said to me that he believed that even most Maimonideans haven’t really wrapped their heads around the problem.

At first I thought he was referring to the related problem of anthropopathism. For the jargonly-uninitiated, anthropopathism refers to the imputing of human feelings to the non-human. I was surprised, I said, that he thought that this concept was so little understood. It had been drilled into us at YBT that all descriptions of God having feelings, whether it was love for Israel or anger at sinners, were metaphorical, so it would be hard to imagine that this was the nuance so many of his fellow were not grasping. “What is it,” I asked, “that you think we run-of-the-mill Maimonideans aren’t getting?”

Here is Shmully’s response: Imagining a body is the most obvious “gross” anthropomorphism. Emotions are the next step up, as it makes intuitive sense to assume that the creator of the universe does not have “feelings”. However, there is a more abstract kind of anthro-projection at work that is difficult to notice. When we discuss God creating, for instance, or God’s providence, we inevitably imagine an organized, purposeful mind making a conscious decision. The mind has a thought and a will and decides to do or not do something. Although it is inevitable for humans to imagine this, it is also a form of anthro-projection, as we imagine the organization and function of our minds in the “mind” of the Creator. “Imputing consciousness to God is also a form of anthropopathism,” Shmully argued.

This, he said, is the import of Maimonides’ claim that all knowledge of God is negative knowledge. We cannot really say that God has a “will”, or that God “runs” the world. All such statements are filtered through human mental projection. Although some language about God remains necessary for any philosophical or religious discussion on the subject, all claims must be understood to be poor approximations of the real idea.

The key example we were discussing was God as creator. Although one can say that God created the world, all a Maimonidean could mean by this is that the world is in existence due to God in some way inexplicable to us. God is the ultimate cause of the world; anything more than this inevitably muddles the picture.

Although this point should have been obvious to someone who has read Maimonides’ discussion of God upwards of a hundred times, I found (and still find) the idea almost too abstract to wrap my head around (as Shmully correctly claimed about me at the beginning of the conversation). What struck me more than just the abstractness of the concept, was the amazing way that it solved a particular intellectual problem faced in discussion of modern religions.

The way we got to the issue of anthropomorphism was by way of a point I was trying (unsuccessfully) to make about modern religions. Shmully had been recently studying up on some eastern religions (I don’t remember which) and I said that it seems to me that one major dividing line between western and eastern religions is the concept of God. For Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is the force behind the universe. For Hinduism and Buddhism, it is an unconscious unifying force (Brahman). I argued—pontificated—that Freud discussed this difference in Civilizations and its Discontents, claiming that the former religions project father-figures onto the world, whereas the latter religions project the womb-experience onto the world.

It was in response to this that Shmully stated that I was making too fine of a distinction between the two sets of theologies. Since even God-based religions must admit that their God cannot be “conscious” in the human sense, assuming they do not subscribe to anthropopathic thinking (some do, of course), the distinction between western theology and eastern theology is overdone.

Years later, I still think about Shmully’s principle of abstract anthropopathism and its many applications. How does one think about revelation and divine providence without imagining consciousness? It was a lot to digest over a couple of ḥallah rolls and hummus, and I still considering the implications.

This was only one of the many conversations I had with Shmully over the years. Shmully, my friend, you will be missed.

A Jew and a Mormon walk into a Bar…. – Rabbi Barry Gelman

February 26, 2012

Recently the issue of the Mormon church engaging in posthumous conversions has resurfaced. Eh Wall Street Journal reports that:

“Researchers recently discovered that Mormons had similarly baptized the parents of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, whose mother died in a Nazi extermination camp in 1942. And one Mormon recently proposed for proxy baptism the still-living Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.” Read More

Naturally Jews are disturbed and insulted by this. No doubt, it has a serious icky factor.

Besides these factors, there is something else, something more religiously important at play here. For the Mormons, salvation is simply a matter of Divine Grace. Without any effort, sinners are excused for a lifetime of sins.

Judaism looks at salvation, or as we call it, forgiveness in an entirely different manner. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, in an article on Tradition 28:2  explains this approach, popularized by Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Rabbi Blau begins by quoting a Talmudic passage that expresses the difficulty in understanding repentance to begin with.

It was inquired of Wisdom, “What is the punishment of a sinner?” Wisdom said “Evil pursues the wicked.” It was asked of prophecy, “What is the punishment of a sinner?” Prophecy said to them, “The sinful soul shall perish.” It was asked of the Holy One, “What is the punishment of a sinner?”, and He said, “Let him repent and he will be forgiven.”

The article then goes on to explain the need for human initiative and creativity in the process of repentance.

“Most significantly, Rabbi Soloveitchik employs this theory of repentance as an illustration of the creativity of Halakhic Man. For the Rav, creativity represents an essential characteristic of Halakhic Man:

“The most fervent desire of Halakhic Man is to behold the replenishment of the deficiency of creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world, and the most exalted and glorious of creations, the ideal Halakha, will be actualized in its midst. The dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as a creator of worlds”

From this perspective, the Rav interprets numerous Jewish texts and explains many mitzvot, including repentance, in a new light. Here, the Schelerian view of repentance is crucial. If one views atonement as the miraculous intervention of God against all logic, then man plays at best a passive role in the process. Repentance would certainly not be so significant a component of man’s religious personality.However, the Schelerian understanding of repentance shifts the focus from God’s activity to that of man. Repentance exhibits man at his most creative, as he remolds and refashions his own personality. Rav Soloveitchik points to the halakha that repentance is manifested by changing one’s name. Through repentance, man recreates himself and truly deserves to be referred to by a different name.

It should be noted that Scheler’s approach does not necessitate that man attains forgiveness independently, that is, without any Divine assistance. What his analysis accomplishes is to show how regret and remorse function creatively and positively. Though man may call upon Divine benevolence to achieve atonement, he acts on his own in order to deserve that bestowal of kindness.” Read more

Like the rest of Jewish life, Rachmana Liba Ba’ei – God desires the heart and real religious experience is not defined by the fulfillment of certain rituals or recitation of words. Authentic spirituality is located in the heart and defined by noticeable change in our behaviour.

OK. So after writing and posting this serious post, I was sent a link with Stephen Colbert’s take on the Mormom conversions.

Thoughts about death and living life -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 23, 2012

One of my favorite stories is one told of a great rabbi and mystic who lived several centuries ago, Rabbi Menachem Mendal of Kotzk.  He asked his students, “What would you do if you knew you had only one more week to live?”  The first answered, “I would spend it with my family,” another said, “I would spend it doing mitzvoth, good acts of kindness,”  a third said” I would spend it studying Torah, meditating and praying.”   Then they turned to Rabbi Menachem Mendal and asked him, rabbi, “and what would you do?”   Answered the rabbi, “I would do what I do every day.”


I have often wondered what it would be like to know I was dying.  We all are, you know.  Religion runs the risk of missing this.  Often it either focuses on a different world after death, and so misses the impact of living here and now in a way informed by the reality of our death, or fixated on how to perform the details of this life, its proscriptions, beliefs and rituals, shrinking the space humans have in which to sit back and really feel the great reality of death; that we are dying and on some level, for even the most profound believer, death brings with it annihilation, nonbeing as we know it.


Some will instinctively dismiss this notion with, “yes, but for a better life with God.”   Perhaps, but even if that is so, if we do not give ourselves the opportunity to know we are dying, to feel the dread of oblivion first, then we have ignored an important gift.   Being human, truly being present in the here and now, means knowing we will cease to be.   Many deny death, ignore death in these and other much more superficial ways, but to live in a state of avoidance is perhaps to not really live.


How would you live if you knew we are dying?  (Which again I remind you, we are.)  What regrets do you have?   What changes can be made?  What letters written?  What experiences had?  What really is meaningful and what is not?  Why are we here?   What is my unique place and mission in this mysterious, but I believe meaningful, world?



No Time For Chareidi Bashing: What We Can Learn From Our Reaction to Beit Shemesh – Barry Gelman

January 2, 2012

There have been numerous takes on the recent events in Beit Shemesh. Most of them have focused on politics and sociology. I would like to offer a brief analysis based on spiritual values and, humbly submit what we can learn from our reaction to these events.

The chareidi men who have been harassing the little girls and the mothers claim to be acting L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, and in the name of God.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was no stranger to controversy or, for that matter, people saying horrible things about him and doing despicable things to him wrote the following about the limits of what we do for the sake of heaven.

כבוד-שמים המושג השגה בהירה מרומם הוא את ערך האדם וערך כל היצורים כבוד שמים מגושם הוא נוטה לע”ז, ומשפיל את כבוד האדם וכבוד כל הבריות

“When the duty of honor God is conceived of in an enlightened manner, it raise human worth and thew worth of all creatures…But a crude conception of God tends toward the idolatrous and degrades the dignity of humanity… “

Rav Kook is reminding us that honor of God that is based on the greatness of human beings, created in the image of God uplifts people. On the other hand, honor of God understood in a shallow fashion, as if God needs our honor, leads to anger toward those who do not honor God, and is idolatrous as, by definition, a wrong conception of God is being honored. This incorrect undersntanding of God leads to people being degraded and mistreated, all in the name of God. Rav Kook goes on with something even more amazing:

ע”כ גדול הוא כבוך הבריות שדוחה את לא-תעשה שבתורה , להורות על כבוד שמים הבהיר, המגדל בטובו את יסוד כבוד הבריות

It is for this reason the sages declared that the dignity of persons is so important that is supersedes a negative precept of the Torah…”

Here Rav Kook reminds us that performance of MItzvot can actually get in the way of Kavod Shamayim. Thus, in some cases, even God’s honor, in terms of some commandments, is set aside in order to protect the honor of a human being. What we have here is a real definition of what it means to honor God. In Rav Kook’s mind, it is simple. If something brings honor to another human being, it can be considered honor of God as well. On the other hand, if something brings disparagement or harassment to another human being, then by definition, it cannot be an honor to God. Rav Kook’s teaches that in all of our endeavours, even in our striving to to Mitzvot, that how we do what we do goes to the very legitimacy of our act. Perhaps not always, but in many many cases, the litmus test of deciding if what I am doing is a mitzvah or not is easy: Does it being honor to others?

It is clear that the Chareidi protestors in Beit Shemesh have lost all sense of what it really means to act L’Shem Shamayim. Spitting on little girl and calling women prostitutes does not fit Rav Kooks definition.

While what is going on in Beit Shemesh is horrible, it does offer us the opportunity for some introspection. What is so troubling is that these people are using any means neccesary to achieve their goals, even if means harming and disparaging others. The upset this is causing us should remind us to be careful in terms of what means we use to achieve our goals. Even in our religious strivings, we must be mindful of how our actions affect others. Is there a way to achieve our goal without hurting others? If not, is it really a worthwhile goal? Have we exhausted all of our halachik creativity to reach our goal while at the same time, protecting the dignity of others.

It is easy to engage in Chareidi bashing, but it will much more productive if we use our understandable indignation as a catalyst to self improvement.

Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer – 5772 – Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 7, 2011

This guide will be placed in each Machzor at my shul. Feel free to print it out and use it on Yom Kippur. May we all be inscribed in the book of life.

Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer – 5772

The Yom Kippur davening is challenging in that it is very busy ,full of choreography and very long.

Some find it difficult to focus and create moments of quiet introspection.

The Yom Kippur Mussaf is an amalgam of prayers with High Holiday themes as well as recreations of the Temple service, mourning dirges and the account of the Ten Martyrs.

Use this guide during the silent Mussaf Amidah or the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah to help you focus on the prayer themes. 

Instead of talking to your neighbor when the service starts to feel too heavy, use this sheet to redirect your thoughts.

Do not feel rushed to keep up. It is more important to internalize the prayers.

What Life Teaches about Judaism        (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

  • Never compromise your principles because of others. Don’t compromise on kashrut or any other Jewish practice because you happen to find yourself among non-Jews or non-religious Jews. Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. They are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.

Ask Yourself: How can I strengthen my Jewish commitments?

  • Never look down on others. Never think that being Jewish means looking down on gentiles. It doesn’t. Never think that being a religious Jew entitles you to look down on non- religious Jews. It doesn’t. The greatest Jew, Moses, was also, according to the Torah, “the humblest person on the face of the earth”. Humility does not mean self-abasement. True humility is the ability to see good in others without worrying about yourself.

Ask Yourself: How can I exhibit Jewish and personal pride without crossing the line of haughtiness?

  • Never stop learning. I once met a woman who was 103 and yet who still seemed youthful. What, I asked her, was her secret? She replied, “Never be afraid to learn something new”. Then I realized that learning is the true test of age. If you are willing to learn, you can be 103 and still young. If you aren’t, you can be 23 and already old.

Ask Yourself: Do I learn enough? Is my Judaism young? If not, how can I fix it? (Hint: Ask Rabbi Gelman)

  • Never be impatient with the details of Jewish life. God lives in the details. Judaism is about the poetry of the ordinary, the things we would otherwise take for granted. Jewish law is the sacred choreography of everyday life.

Ask Yourself: Do I make every Jewish moment count? Do I reflect when I pray? Am I mindful when I perform a Mitzvah? If the answer to any of these is no, seek ways to slow down so as not to let Judaism get erased in the hustle and bustle of life


How To Pray when one is not suffering – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (Man’s Quest For God)


But there is a wider voluntary entrance to prayer than sorrow and despair – the opening of our thoughts to God. We cannot make Him visible to us, but we can make ourselves visible to Him…The trees stand like guards of the Everlasting, the flowers like signposts of His goodness – only we have failed to be testimonies to His presence…How could we have lived in the shadow of greatness and defied it?  To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the Divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.


Faith In The Jewish People – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik


“Let me confess; sometimes, in bed at night, when I cannot sleep, and my mind wonders, I am assailed by sober thoughts and overtaken by worry concerning the Jews in Eretz Yisrael (Israel) and the fate of Diaspora Jewry. As far as the Diaspora is concerned, it seems to us that despite all of our great efforts, despite the growth of the yeshivas and the flowering of a wonderful religious youth, we are a very small portion of the Jewish population of America….And doubt gnaws away : will we be swept away by these strong waves of assimilation which rage around us in America….Such a view, in my opinion, strikes a blow and wounds our faith in Knesset Yisrael (the Assembly of Israel) which we are commanded to keep….[Regarding] the spiritually estranged Jew, [to] Jews who have deserted, assimilated and have become extremely alienated from other Jews and Judaism. Even regarding these, we have a standing assurance  that “if any of you be driven out unto the outmost ends of the horizon, from thence will the Lord thy God gather you.” Every prediction of “spiritual extinction” and complete assimilation” is contrary to faith in Knesset Yisrael, which s the same faith in the advent of the Messiah, a foundation stone of Judaism…” A Jew who has lost faith in Knessset Yisrael, even though he may personally sanctify and purify himself by being strict in his observance of the precepts…such a Jews is incorrigible and totally unfit to join in the Day of Atonement which encompasses the whole of Knesset Yisrael, in all its components and all its generations.”

Ask Yourself:

  • Do I identify with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s initial concern for the spiritual fate of the Jewish people? If so, what bothers me about the current situation and how can I make it better? If not, what are the positive elements of the current state of Jewish religiosity that are encouraging? How can I make them even better?
  • What is the best recipe for Jewish spiritual survival? Name three elements of a Jewish life that are indispensable to achieve that goal.
  • Rabbi Solovetichik ultimately “regains” his faith in the survival of the Jewish people. Ask yourself: Who do I think will ultimately be those who will survive and remain part of Knesset Yisrael? Am I part of that group?


Don’t Let A Good Sin Go To Waste   Rabbi Barry Gelman


Sounds like strange advice. Let me explain. According to Rabbi Solovetichik there are two kinds of Teshuva (return). One type of Teshuva calls for a complete obliteration of the past. “Certain situations leave no choice but the annihilation of evil and for completely uprooting it. If one takes pity and lets evil remain, one inexorably pays at a later date an awesome price…Repentance of the individual can also be the kind that requires a clean break, with all of man’s sins and evil deeds falling away into an abyss, fulfilling the prophecy, “An thou will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Many have experienced this feeling or the desire to erase parts of our life. We feel nothing good can come out of those particular experiences or memories. We may be so successful at this that we really cannot remember the event even if asked about it or reminded of it. This type of Teshuva is useful and necessary in certain situations.

There is another type of Teshuva. says Rabbi Soloveitchik: “…there is another way – not by annihilating evil but by rectifying and elevating it. This repentance does not entail making a clean break with the past or obliterating memories. It allows man, at one and the same time, to continue to identify with the past and still to return to God in repentance.”

Rabbi Chaim Navon, in his book Ne’echaz B’Svach, offers an analogy of two people who were in a car accident. One of them may decide never to get back on the road, while the other becomes a driving teacher in order to rain a new generation of careful drivers. They had the same experience – but the affect of that experience differed greatly between them.

The person who swore off driving had a dead past – a past that set up the future.

The person who became a driving instructor has a live past – a past that is defined by the future. This person’s past is defined by decisions of the present.


Ask Yourself:

  • What past sins can I use to make myself a better person?
  • What are some strategies I can use to avoid compounding sin by making sure I use past mistakes to create better future?
    • Talking it over with my spouse/friend / rabbi
    • Studying more about this idea of repentance (ask Rabbi Gelman for further reading)
    • Spend time after a sin to think about how to redirect it

Rosh Hashanah: A day of insight not atonement -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

September 21, 2011

What is the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?  We often refer to both as days of judgment, yet they seem as different as night and day.  Rosh Hashanah is a Yom Tov, a joyous holiday, on which we eat and drink and have simcha, joy.   In contrast, on Yom Kippur we are filled with awe and perhaps anxiety, asceticism, and standing for long periods of time, almost the opposite of the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah.


The Rambam, Maimonides, writes that the shofar (ram’s horn) is like an alarm that wakes us from the everydayness of the year, the wasting of time, the banal passage of day in and day out.   The sound of the shofar shocks us into evaluation, into reflection upon the rest of the year.


But if Rosh Hashanah is such a day of reckoning, why not say vidoy, confession, on Rosh Hashanah as we do on Yom Kippur?  Indeed according to the halacha, Jewish law, there can be no tishuvah, no repentance, without all of its steps, one of which is verbal confession before God.


Rosh Hashanah, according to the Talmud is the main Day of Judgment.  Yom Kippur is a kind of last resort for those not forgiven on Rosh Hashanah.  As the Talmud says, “On Rosh Hashanah all pass in judgment like sheep…the righteous are judged for life, the wicked for death and the judgments of others are suspended until Yom Kippur.” Then why is Rosh Hashanah a holiday filled with food and drink?   Why not have Yom Kippur on the first of Tishrey (the Hebrew date upon which Rosh Hashanah falls) and be done with the process of judgment?


Perhaps Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fundamentally different and necessary modes of doing tishuvah (repentance and return).  We see this I think from Maimonides.  According to Maimonides Rosh Hashanah with its shofar sound is not a day of achieving atonement, of the steps of repentance, but of waking up, of coming to terms with life.   Rosh Hashanah lacks the four steps of tishuvah, one of which is formalized confession, yet it is indeed a day of judgment.


There are two stages to tishuvah one which is achieved on Rosh Hashanah and one on Yom Kippur.   One is not complete without the other.   If  we had only Yom Kippur, we would go through the formalized steps of repentance, regretting our sin, stopping it, asking and receiving forgiveness, verbal confession, and becoming someone who will not do it again.   But this would be an incomplete tishuvah.   This would be a tishuvah, though real and transformative with regard to each sin itself, of formality.   The tzadik, the completely righteous person, who has no sins to speak of does not require Yom Kippur and is, according to the Talmud forgiven on Rosh Hashanah, but the righteous individual still does require Rosh Hashanah.   Why?


The tishuvah of Rosh Hashanah is not atonement for individual sins but an essential day of waking and reckoning, of evaluation and insight, which even the person who has not sinned must undergo.  As Maimonides points out, this day with the sound of the shofar, and not Yom Kippur with its atonement, conditions the rest of our year, makes us see the rest of our year as one in which every moment is significant, one in which every moment is a test of making choices, of being at a spiritual crossroads.


Before we can engage in the formalities of the tishivah process of Yom Kippur, we must experience the more global life changing insights of Rosh Hashanah.  To do tishuvah on all of our sins, to feel regret for each of them, ask forgiveness, confess them and not do them again is not enough.   The New Year must be a time of whole life insight and existential transformation.  Such is the call of the Shofar.


My blessings for a New Year of insight, light and transformation,

Rabbi Hyim Shafner