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.

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Why are we so childish when it comes to Yom Kippur?

September 25, 2009

Yom Kippur will arrive this week and thousands of Jews will attend synagogues.  Why is it that so many attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, but not the rest of the year?  What is it about Yom Kippur that draws us?  No doubt because it is a holy day, we want to be present.  But many of us are just hedging our bets.  If we have a bad year we don’t want to have to kick ourselves for not participating in Yom Kippur as we should have.  If we go on Yom Kippur and pray with sincerity at least we will not have ourselves to blame for whatever bad happens.   We will have done what we could.

For many of us even quite religious Jews who go to synagogue every day or every Sabbath, this kind of thinking is still part and parcel of our Yom Kippur.  Some of the liturgy in fact serves to reinforce it, such as the Unisaneh Tokef –which hinges on,“Who live and who will die?”  But such an approach is a very selfish take on the holiest day of the year.  If I am going to pray on Yom Kippur just so that I can have a good year it’s really just about me and my physical welfare, its really just selfishness.

As Morethodox Jews I think we need to turn to the Chassidic commentaries to reclaim the true nature of Yom Kippur.   Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger in his book the Sefat Eemet says that the phrase, which we repeat many times in this season, “Remember us for life God who wants life, and write us in the book of life for your sake, living God” means that we are asking not for lengthened physical life, but rather for the life of the spirit.

Rabbi Levy Yizchak of Bardichev, in his book the Kedushat Levi, asks why we beseech God to write us in the book of life and to remember us, is God is a person who remembers and writes?  God is God, and furthermore no evil can come from God, only goodness.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak answers by way of a mashal, a metaphor.  He says it is akin to putting a piece of cloth in the sun.  If it is a white cloth it will reflect the light, if it is a black cloth it will absorb the light, if it is a red cloth it will reflect the red color of the light, if blue the blue waves of the light.  The sunlight does not change, only the cloths are different.

So too there is a flow coming from the Eternal One all the time.  It is a flow of goodness and it is our job on Yom Kippur to become people who can absorb the light for goodness.  We are not trying to change God’s mind, God is infinite.  We are not pulling the wool over God’s eyes trying to convince him that we are more religious than we are by coming to shul on yom Kippur, or hoping that somehow that our prayer will magically help us to have a good year.  No, Yom Kippur is the process of changing ourselves, changing our own colors so that we can receive the Divine light that is always flowing for goodness.  God does not change.  Only we change.  May we all change for the better this Yom Kippur.


Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A More Meaningful Rosh Hashana Prayer – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 15, 2009

For the benefit of morethodoxy readers I am publishing a Kavvanah guide that I will use in my shul this Rosh Hashana. So many are drustrated when the High Holiday prayers are not inspiring. This Kavvanah guide is meant ot help people find inspiration in the High Holiday prayers.

I pray that it is helpful to you.

Shannah Tova,

Barry Gelman

Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A More Meaningful Rosh Hashana Prayer

 The Rosh Hashana davening is challenging in that it is very busy and full of choreography. Some find it difficult to focus and create moments of quiet introspection.

Do not feel rushed to keep up. It is more important to internalize the prayers. One should stop and listen to the shofar when the time comes.

Each section of the Mussaf Amidah focuses on one or two major themes. One of the keys to a meaningful prayer is to spend time focusing on those themes and how they impact our life.

Use this guide during the silent Mussaf Amidah or the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah to help you focus on the prayer themes.  Each section of Mussaf will be briefly described followed by some questions to help us focus on each theme. Each section will end with a quote related to the main theme of that section.

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

Malchiyot – Kingship

This section of the Mussaf service focus on God’s sovereignty of all of humanity. During the recitation of Aleynu it is customary to bow and partially prostrate ourselves as a sign of humility and submission to God.

 Ask Yourself

  • What are some of the barriers to humility and how can I overcome them?
  •  How do I relate to the notion of God as King and submitting to the will of the King?
  •  Aleynu represents humanity’s voluntary acceptance of God’s sovereignty and ability to carry out His will. What does this Divine confidence say about humanity and how can it impact your relationship with God?

 “When my eyes focus on my forebears as they stooped in total submissiveness when they confessed their sins before the Almighty, then my absurd pride is shattered…In a moment I return to the dawn of my existence and find myself standing next to my father in the midst of a congregation of Habad Hasidim engrossed in their prayers on the first night of Rosh Hashana. I can feel the unique atmosphere which enveloped these Hasidim as they recited the prayers by which they proclaimed Him their King. Te older Hasidim termed this night the “Coronation Night” as they crowned Him as their King. These poor and downtrodden Jews, who suffered so much durnig their daily existence, were able to experience the enthroning of the Almighty and the true meaning of Kingship prayers of the Rosh Hashana liturgy. (Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetichik as recorded in: The Rav: the world of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2 By Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkof, pg. 171) Read the rest of this entry »


The Highest and the Lowest –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

September 4, 2009

The Rambam writes in the Laws of Tishuvah (return) about this season before the holidays that, “All people should see themselves as half guilty and half meritorious, if they do one sin now they tip themselves and the entire world with them to the side of guilt and cause destruction, if they do one mitzvah they will tip themselves and the whole world with them to the side of merit and will cause for themselves and the world return and saving…Because of this the Jewish people are accustomed during this time of year to give much charity, and increase their kind deeds and mitzvoth. (3:4)” I have always felt that this expressed a beautiful tension within Judaism.  On one side this notion puts a great deal of pressure on each individual, on the other hand each individual is infinitely significant.

In contrast around this time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we may be inclined to see ourselves as sinful and lowly, as nothing.  As we say on Yom Kippur in the viduy (confession), “Dirt am I while alive, certainly in death…”   My favorite High Holiday piut (liturgical poem), which is said on Yom Kippur at the musaf service speaks I think to this dilemma and conflict.

Vi’avitah Tihilah” -“You Desire Praise”

“Your awe is upon the angels, who are mighty and exalted, who dwell in beautiful heights.

And You desire praise from those stained with sin, passing shadows who dwell below — and that is Your praise.”

The human is both, a combination of Godly spirit and dirt (Genesis 2:7); the highest and the lowest.   In infinite irony, what God-the-Highest truly desires is the praise of the lowest — humans; and not from our Divine image identity but from our sinful, fleeting, creaturely selves.  Precisely on Yom Kippur, the day on which we are most prone to feeling like sullied failures, do we have the most potential, precisely from our lowness, to meaningfully praise the Highest.


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.