Hearing the Divine –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 14, 2009

This week’s Torah portion Re’eh-“See” begins “See I place before you today blessing and curse, the blessing that you will listen to the Mitzvot….”  The Midrah on these verses quotes the two additional verses to bring to bear on our portion, “The mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light” and “The human soul is the candle of God.”   The human’s candle is the Mitzvah and God’s candle is the human soul.   What is this reciprocity?

The Sefat Emet, Rabi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger writes on this Midrash that in everything physical there is a Divine life force from the Source of Life.  (Indeed as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes in the Sha’ar Ha’yichud V’haemunah, without this Divine life force nothing would exist.  The state of non-existence is the status quo, therefor it takes a life force from the Divine to give all things, even inanimate objects, a “soul” which gives them existence.)

Rabbi Yehudah Leib continues to explain that our job is to raise up these Divine sparks of Divine life force that are hidden in all physicality, which we do through Mitzvot.  God’s candle is the human soul means that God’s light is dependent upon us to liberate it from its hiding place within the physical, in this way God and God’s light is “dependant” upon us.

He writes that the blessing and curse the Torah speaks of at the beginning of our parsha is not a reciprocal reward and punishment, rather the inner point of Divine light in all things is itself the blessing that the Torah refers to that we will “hear” and “see” when we “listen to the mitzvoth.”

Similarly regarding Shabbat the Torah writes, and God “blessed” the Shabbat.  This notion of blessing regarding Shabbat is said in the same vain as what we have explained.  The Shabbat is (the most) conducive time in which to become aware of the inner Divine in all things.   On Shabbat just eating, just having pleasure is holy and can reveal the Divine life force in what we enjoy.  Not to separate ourselves from the world but to utilize it so we can hear the divine in all things, this is our mission on earth.  Shabbat Shalom.


Torah Alone does not a Mench Make –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 7, 2009

A congregant of mine was confounded by the reports of Rabbis who were arrested for illegally trafficking in human organs. One person in the group said that some might justify their acts claiming the money would be used for yeshivahs and other important Jewish organizations. They turned to me and demanded to know if there really is a way to justify such things through the Torah?

I answered that Judaism, whether the Torah or the Talmud, contains many diverse ideas, not just one opinion and not just one way of thinking about God or the world.  For instance, regarding the question of how we should view non-Jews and how we should act toward them we could look at Abraham. Abraham left a conversation with God, the Torah tells us, in order to run out into the desert and welcome three nomads who were not Jews. Abraham was the first Jew and these nomads, as far as Abraham knew, were idol worshipers. This would be one way to answer the question of what our attitude could be toward non-Jews. On the other hand, one might look at the book of Deuteronomy in which Moshe commands the Jewish people to destroy those who are idol worshipers.  (No doubt the two cases can be seen in different lights and many lomdishe hairs be split, never the less it is the divergence in general attitude expressed by both sides that I am calling attention to.)

Another example of the variety of theological stances within Judaism is with regard to the question of asceticism. A statement in the Talmud tells us one will have to give an account for every pleasure they did not take advantage of in this world (Tal. Jer. 4:12). Additionally there is an opinion that the Nazir (Nazerite) brings a sin offering at the end of his Nazarism to atone for the sin of forbidding upon himself that which the Torah permits.  On the other hand there is a second opinion in the Talmud that the sin offering of the Nazir is due to his leaving behind a higher ascetic state.  The rabbis tell us, “Sanctify (separate) yourself even from that which is permitted.”  In Jewish history there were of course whose central practice was extreme asceticism such as Chasidey Ashkenaz in the 12th century.  Which direction should we take?

Direction can not come only from reading the Torah or even the oral tradition, these are varied and can be used to rationalize anything, including selling human organs for gain.  In the end Torah, written or oral, (at least in their written forms), are not enough to guarantee that we will live a life that is right and good in the eyes of God or others, -our own moral worldview and personal theology must be brought to bear upon Torah as a meta guide.  And this too must be part of the Torah and mesorah (oral tradition).  What we quote from the Torah will be filtered based on who we are and what our world vision is, so we must thoughtfully cultivate a correct worldview.   In Judaism today there are many world views: Zionist/non-Zionist, Torah u’Madah/Torah Im Derech Eretz, Open Orthodoxy/Insular Orthodoxy, etc., etc.

Morethodoxy does not claim to change anything in Torah (God forbid), rather to help present a set of glasses through which to see the Torah, a guide for balancing the varied approaches which are within the Torah.  It is a path accentuating an attitude of rachum v’chanun, first and foremost merciful and loving.  When faced with two approaches within Judaism it is a guide and path for choosing the approach that is, (within halacha), more inclusive not less.  It is not, God forbid, a path of molding the Torah to our selfish desires or to the vagaries of modern life and low brow chapters of western culture, but of opening our eyes and souls to the Torah in ways that Torah alone may not allow us to see.

The Ramba”n said it long ago (v’etchanan and k’doshim) . It is not enough to keep the Torah. If one only keeps the law one may still be a disgusting person.  Jewish law demands that we go beyond the law to do what is right good at the eyes of God and people.  Ours is a religion that is quite legally based yet if one were to just keep the law that would not be enough in our relationship with others or in our relationship with God. V’asita Ha’yashar V’hatov –“Do what is right and good”- go beyond the letter of the law with regard to how you treat others and Kidoshim Tihiyu, -“You shall be holy”-sanctify yourself beyond the letter of the law in your relationship to God.

The Torah alone does not a Mench make. It requires also spectacles through which to see the Torah, ones ground from the glass of things like moral training, philosophy and musar, learning the great ideas of other religions and moral and philosophical systems, chassidut and kabbalah, reading the great secular books, seeing the great works of art, appreciating the natural world God has made and its aesthetic and scientific beauty, exploring the important human ideas and insights -within humans in general and within ourselves in particular (usually through psychotherapy)- so that we can move beyond their own needs and see those of others more clearly.

In the end if our glasses through which to see the Torah and the world are placed correctly and our filters though which to sift the torah and our experiences are honed well we will achieve the goal of being Jews, to be merciful and gracious in imitation of the Divine One and to be a “light unto the nations”; we will not be selling illegal goods to further spiritual life.


The Voice of Women-The Importance of Leniency and the Leniencies that come from being Strict -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 31, 2009

Yesterday someone asked me why women on the women’s side in my Shul sing-along with the congregation whereas at the previous synagogue the person had attended the women had not been permitted to sing.  I explained that even though the Talmud says the voice of the woman is considered sexual, within Jewish law there are opinions that in holy places and in holy instances it is permitted.  For instance Rabbi Ovadiyah Yosef and and others who at times permit the voice of a woman in a religious context, do this based on the gemara that states that women can read the torah in the synagogue and receive aliyot and the gemarah does not see this as a violation of the halacha (the Jewish law) of hearing the voice of a woman singing (Talmud Bavli Megilah 23a).  Thus I explained that to take the strict approach would actually produce a leniency.  To be strict about not letting the women sing would be to be lenient about women’s involvement in prayer and their full participation in the congregation’s service of the heart, which according to the Mishna women are equally obligated in just as men.

This reminds me of the famous story of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk.  One Yom Kippur, there was a cholera epidemic in the city of Brisk.  After Kol Nidre Rabbi Chaim made kiddush and ate and made everyone else in the Shul eat.  Afterwards people asked him, wasn’t he being more lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur than the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) allows?  The Shulchan Aruch writes that one may only eat on Yom Kippur if their life is endangered, but no one yet had contracted cholera?  Rabbi Chaim answered, “I am not being lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur, but on the contrary I am being strict about the laws of guarding one’s life.

It is important for us to realize that the power of leniency, as the Gemara says, is very strong.  In fact, in almost every argument between Bais Shami and Bais Hillel, Hillel is more lenient and the law is like him.  Wouldn’t it be better, “more religious,” to be strict about Jewish law?   Yet we follow the more lenient opinion of Bais Hillel and in the several situations in which Shami is more lenient we follow Shami.  Perhaps the power of leniency is greater than the power of strictness.

There are times when we should be strict in hlacha.  But to think that we should always be strict, that this is better and more religious, is a mistake that many in our community make, I imagine out of ignorance.  They also do not realize that the other side of the coin of every strictness is another leniency, a leniency which might be inappropriate, a leniency that might distance us from God and Torah.  According to the Talmud Hillel knew more than Shami, Hillel knew his opinion and that of his opponent.  The same is often true today, those that are able to be lenient may in fact know more about halacha than those who are always strict, as the Gemara says, “kocha d’hetera adifa” the power of leniency is greater.


Orthodoxy and Diversity: How Open Should Our Communities Be?

June 12, 2009

Orthodoxy, in that it is a term coined and way of being formed in response to the European enlightenment’s openness to new ideas, is by definition something that has walls and limits, protecting those inside from potential, and perceived potential evils without.  But what happens when those walls keep out important Jewish values such as Jewish unity, loving the Jewish people and one’s neighbors, and engaging all the Jewish people in Jewish life?  To ask the question the opposite way, many Jewish communities claim that being welcoming is of importance, but what happens when welcoming comes up against other values such as fears of the slippery slope of approval of things we may not want to approve of, or feel Judaism should not condone?

For instance, if an intermarried family wanted to be part of our shul would we let them?   Where would we draw the line?  Could they have a family membership?  An aliyah?  Could the non-Jewish spouse if it was a man have peticha (opening the ark) or gelilah (rolling up the torah), honors  that do not technically require one to be Jewish but might, for many Jews, feel like giving tacit approval to someone, all of whose actions the torah may not approve of?   What about fears of legitimating what others are doing and unwittingly putting our approbation on things we do not think are in consonance with Torah, such as driving on Shabbat, gay Jews and their partners, Jews who do not keep kosher or pay their taxes?  Should we welcome all of them?

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