Monthly Archives: April 2017

Essays by Raḥmiel Ezra Travitz

About the author: I love studying and the pursuit of knowledge. I have wide-ranging interests in many fields, including philosophy (especially epistemology and legal philosophy) and specifically Jewish philosophy; Jewish law, western law and comparative law, politics, general semantics and languages (including ancient languages and comparative language), psychology, economic theory, anthropology, and much more.

Rabbinical College of Australia, Talmud and Jewish Studies, Alumnus
Deakin University, Faculty of Arts and Education, Faculty of Business and Law, Undergraduate

Calligraphic Art by Rahmiel Ezra Travitz

 

The Original Source and Halakhic Status of the Custom of wearing Costumes on Purim

The Custom (Minhag) of Eating Dairy on Shavuot

Practical Guide to the Laws of Ḥanukka according to the Geonic/Maimonidean Tradition

Responsum on the Applicability of Decrees and Laws in Changing Circumstances in Jewish Law: the legal principles ‘Shema’ and ‘BeMiltha deLo Shekhe’ha Lo Gazru Rabbanan’ in Jewish Law

The Arabic Poem “I am the Iraqi, I am” by Emile Cohen, with a Historical and Explanatory Commentary

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Decree Against Drunkenness (Booklet titled “To Drink Like a Chossid”)

Pages of Talmud

 

How to learn about Judaism

We have had many people join, coming from non-Jewish backgrounds. As adults, it is hard to even understand Judaism, when everything one reads is first viewed through a lifetime of Christian theological assumptions. So the only way to learn about Judaism is to put Jesus aside, and study Jewish sources.

What do Jews believe about the Bible? Read “Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible” Joseph Telushkin.

What do Jews believe about God? Read “Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion” Abraham Joshua Heschel. A profound work that reflects on how man can apprehend God and have an encounter with the ineffable, and the radical amazement that man experiences when experiencing the presence of the Divine.

What is Jewish theology – what are the ways in which we believe? Check out “Great Jewish Thinkers: Their Lives and Work”, Naomi E. Pasachoff
This short (200 page) introduction to Jewish thinking. Presents the lives and work of classical Jewish philosophers such as Saadia Gaon, Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides (Rambam), Mystics such as Moses de Leon (author of the Zohar), Isaac Luria and Israel Ben Eliezer – The Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidic Judaism.) Modern Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Theodore Herzl (founder of modern Zionism), Ahad Haam, and also 20th century Jewish philosophers

How has halakhah developed over time? “A Tree of Life: Diversity, Creativity, and Flexibility in Jewish Law” Louis Jacobs. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

What does it mean for a Jew to believe in God? How can we use words to describe God? Is God “one”? The Unity of God

What is God?

What are the many different ways that religious Jews have traditionally understood God?

Major ways of understanding God

Revelation: Judaism affirms that the Bible is, in some way, the product of divine revelation. But what does that even mean? How can God “speak” to people? Here is an overview of several Jewish responses.

Revelation

What about Bible prophecies? Most non-Jews were raised in a culture where they were assured that the Bible made specific prophecies about the future, and they all came true. But outside of the most strictly Orthodox communities, most religious Jews have never read the Bible in this way: The Bible is a not a sci-fi manual already laying out the future.

Supposed Bible prophecies about the future

Why study Judaism’s oral law? Isn’t the Bible alone, enough? Not at all, and here is why:

Mishnah: the beginning of Judaism’s oral law

Judaism is NOT identical with the religion of the Bible. Judaism is based upon the way in which the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash interpreted the Bible, and for good reasons. Here is why and how Judaism differs from more fundamentalist faiths.

Tradition and change in rabbinic literature

These online introductory essays are unlike most other websites: They don’t push the view of one specific theology. Instead, they include a range of traditional Jewish views, and note differences in interpretation by those in the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform communities.

Gambling

A Statement on Gambling
Rabbi Henry A. Sosland, 1981

CJLS (Committee on Jewish Law and Standards) of the Rabbinical Assembly

The recent widespread experience of synagogues with the problem of gambling has led to a reappraisal of the subject by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Central to the present concern about games of chance are the long-range consequences for the sanctity and tenor of the synagogue, along with its negative “educational” effect on the membership of the congregation.

Rabbis Ben Zion Bokser, Sanford D. Shanblatt and David Novak wrote responsa on the subject in 1978.1 All of them pointed out the harm of regular gambling within the synagogue as undermining the role of the congregation as the “custodian of moral and spiritual values (with the) mission … to summon man to a higher level of life”(Bokser). All of them are unalterably opposed to such games of chance in the synagogue as a “form of hillul Hashem.” (Novak).

Shanblatt counters many of the rationalizations for bingo. He challenges the claim that the real motive for attendance is amusement rather than making money, noting that there are innumerable other pleasant activities which synagogues might “wisely sponsor,” and that when such games are held for fiscal reasons, “the time spent in soliciting volunteers could be better used in seeking other methods of fundraising.”

It is well to remember that the Committee overwhelmingly approved a teshuvah by Rabbi Phillip Sigal in 1957, which concluded that although no halakhic basis could be given to bar games of chance used for fundraising in the synagogue, “the spirit of the age and of our land may be such as to dictate an evolving halakhic position, or what we call ‘spiritual standards,’ which is part of the approach of this Committee.”2 Basing the prohibition on the need to establish such standards, the Committee clearly opposed any
“games of chance or skill involving stakes.”

While in 1967 the majority of the Committee concurred with Rabbi Fink’s responsum on games of chance that “it is incumbent upon the leadership of our movement to concern itself with the needs of less affluent congregations,”3 a minority sided with Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal’s demurral “that full permission to sponsor bingo can be disastrous to proper fiscal policies and to the moral integrity of the synagogue.”4

Rabbi Novak is quite helpful in his analysis of Jewish law on the subject. The rabbis of talmudic times were obviously men of unusual insight and ethical sensitivity. They went far beyond the simple legality of the problem of gambling. Rav Sheshet’s statement that gamblers are not engaged in socially useful activity (yishuvo shel olam) goes beyond the matter of whether the professional gambler is qualified to become a witness (Sanhedrin 24b). Novak draws attention to the implication “that the gambler makes a negative contribution to society” and that the “overall social consequences” are the real issue here.

The responsa submitted to the Committee in 1978 tended to focus on the view of Rav Sheshet as it specifically applies to what we might call the sphere of influence of the synagogue, as if the synagogue itself, and everything that is done there, or that is affected by what is done there, needs to be considered separately from the secular world. If we then deal with what we might call yishuvo shel alamo shel beit hakenesset, the problem becomes more circumscribed. When the hours spent by synagogue members in supeiVising or playing at regular gambling activities become the major pursuit of those congregants within the congregation, we must be very concerned at how socially useful such hours may be or may not be for the synagogue community and for those affected by-the presence of the synagogue in the area. The proceeds alone from these fundraising activities can hardly be used to justify the results of such long periods of time concentrated on games of chance (diverting so much potentially constructive energy)!

According to Rashi 5 and Maimonides, 6 it is the moral atmosphere that our rabbis must have had in mind when they included the results of gambling as some of the rabbinically prohibited forms of robbery (gezelah derabbanan and gezel medivreihem). Further, Maimonides defined undignified behavior in the synagogue (se}Jok vehitul) with the very same words he used to decry gambling, as Novak notes. 7

The “proliferating increase of gambling in our society” (Bokser) and in the synagogue makes it obvious today that bingo, for example, is not limited to urban areas or to synagogues with serious budgetary problems (which was the main thrust of Fink’s teshuvah). Suburban congregations have often come to adopt games of chance as a solution for their financial situations because they have wearied of exploring more imaginative programs. Further, bingo is no longer primarily of interest to senior citizens, or even to the members of our congregations. Depending on the community, gambling may bring in mostly outsiders of various ages, 124 whose contact with the synagogue may be limited to this one activity each week. That such forms of gambling may occur in other religious institutions is irrelevant. In our secular society, we Jews cannot afford any rationalization which would permit us to ignore the sanctity of the synagogue.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards urges all members of the Rabbinical Assembly to be alert to the evils of gambling in general, and to oppose not only the more obvious problems of involvement with individuals or groups making a profession of gambling within the synagogue, but even more so the subtle and decidedly unwholesome consequences of gambling as a mainstay of synagogue fiscal management.

NOTES

1. Ben Zion Bokser, “Regarding Gambling,” RALA III, pp. 663-665; Sanford D. Shanblatt, “Bingo: Degradation in Our Midst,” RALA #090678; David Novak, “Gambling in the Synagogue,” RALA III, pp. 651-662 (July 1978) (all unpublished responsa).
2. Phillip Sigal, “Games of Chance on Synagogue Premises,” RALA W, pp. 286-290 (and III, pp. 666-670), 1958, an unpublished responsum.
3. Leon B. Fink, “Games of Chance,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly XXXI (1967), pp. 209-218.
4. Aaron H. Blumenthal, “Bingo in Conservative Congregations,” Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly XXXI ( 1967), pp. 219-221.
5. See Shabbat 149b, s.v. “mishum”; Rosh Hashanah 22a, s.v. “bekubya”; Shevuot 47a, s.v. “mesahek”.
6. See Gezelah 6:10 andEdut 10:4.
7. Tefillah 11:6
Editor’s Note: While the portion of Rabbi Fink’s paper (See Note 3 above) which is cited above implies that he sanctions games of chance, the conclusion of his paper reads as follows: “… although bingo is halakhically permissible, we reaffirm that it is not an ideal or even desirable form of fundraising. However, for the above-stated reasons, we view with extreme disapproval the singling out of bingo as grounds for expulsion of a synagogue from the fellowship of our movement. The United Synagogue should now begin to develop a comprehensive set of synagogue standards which affect all congregations equally, regardless of their financial status.

Idolatry: The boundaries of Judaism

Like other faiths, Judaism has no one, precisely defined theology: rather, there are a diversity of views on the nature of God, how God interacts with the world, and what the essential principles of Jewish faith should be. There are many rationalist interpretations of Judaism, viewed through the lens of philosophy, and many mystical interpretations, viewed through the lens of kabbalah and mysticism.

However, there are also theological boundaries, beyond which a person’s belief would be deemed heresy.

What are the boundaries of Jewish theology?

Judaism forbids avodah zarah/עבודה זרה, idolatry.
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) has many statements against avodah zarah, written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Idolatry includes any of these:

the worship of idols/images
the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
the worship of animals or people
the use of idols even in the worship of God

The Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol or image could ever capture God’s essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form.

It is true the Bible uses anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God’s mighty hand, God’s finger, etc.) but these are poetic, not literal descriptions. This is reflected in Hosea 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”

The Bible records a struggle between the prophet’s attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: “According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah” (2:28).

The Bible has many terms for avodah zarah/idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible. Thus idols are stigmatized “non-God” (Deut. 32:17, 21 ; Jer. 2:11 ), “things of naught” (Lev. 19:4), “vanity” (Deut. 32), “iniquity” (1 Sam. 15:23 ), “wind and confusion” (Isa. 41:29 ), “the dead” (Ps. 106:28 ), “carcasses” (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), “a lie” (Isa. 44:20 et passim ), and similar epithets.

Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men’s hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit. (Ps. 135:15-18)

What was the idolatry/paganism described in the Bible?

A classic work is “The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile”, by Yechezkel Kaufmann. It’s Hebrew title is תולדות האמונה הישראלית, (Toledot HaEmunah HaYisraelit.) English readers know this book from its translation by Moshe Greenberg.

Clearly, the Bible condemns the external practices of idolatry – worship of figures/idols. But the Bible’s description of idolatry is overly literal – most pagans didn’t really believe that their idols were gods; historians have shown that pagans believed that their idols were just representations of their deities. So Kaufman asks, why doesn’t the Bible directly attack the theology of paganism itself? Page 20 of The Religion of Israel states

It seems incredible that Israel should have been totally unaware of the nature of pagan beliefs. For Israel was always in contact with its pagan neighbors, and moreover, had believing pagans in its midst. Certainly there were circles who knew about paganism more than is reflected in the Bible. What is shown by the fact that the Bible bases its whole polemic on the argument of fetishism is that the chief influence of foreign beliefs on Israelite religion did not involve mythological materials and that the age-long battle of the Bible with idolatry did not involve mythological polytheism.

This compels us to examine anew the conventional views regarding foreign influences on Israelite religion during biblical times. Moreover, we shall have to re-examine fundamentally the nature of Israelite “idolatry” during this period.

It is clear now that the question as to the origin of Israelite monotheism has been erroneously formulated. We cannot ask whether it was during the preprophetic or prophetic age that the religion of YHWH came to deny the reality of the foreign gods. The Bible nowhere denies the existence of the gods; it ignores them.

In contrast to the philosophic attack on Greek popular religion, and in contrast to the later Jewish and Christian polemics, biblical religion shows no trace of having undertaken deliberately to suppress and repudiate mythology. There is no evidence that the gods and their myths were ever a central issue in the religion of YHWH. And yet this religion is non-mythological. Fossil-remains of ancient myths cannot obscure the basic difference between Israelite religion and paganism. It is precisely this non-mythological aspect that makes it unique in world history; this was the source of its universal appeal.

The Bible’s ignorance of the meaning of paganism is at once the basic problem and the most important clue to the understanding of biblical religion. It underscores as nothing else can the gulf that separates biblical religion from paganism. A recognition of this gulf is crucial to the understanding of the faith of the Bible. Not only does it underlie the peculiar biblical misrepresentation of paganism, it is the essential fact of the history of the Israelite religion.

Kaufman concludes that little relationship existed between the ancient Canaanites and Israelites. In his view, the influence of ancient near-eastern pagan religions existed only prior to the time of Moses.  Monotheism was an original development of the Israelites themselves. After the Israelites became monotheistic, their theology no longer was related to the mythological pagan ideas around them -to the extent that the Scriptures do not even understand paganism.

“Israelite religion was an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world knew; its monotheistic world view has no antecedents in paganism.”

 

Examples of ancient idolatry

Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) attacks those who worship the pagan deities Baal and the Queen of Heaven; the pagans believed that these deities has sexual intercourse; their religious followers taught that humans here on Earth should have sex, even with pagan temple prostitutes, in order to stimulate the deities into heavenly sex.

Ironically, these ideas persisted through history through Gnostic texts, and somehow became embedded within the Zohar – a core text of Jewish mysticism.  On this, Yehudah Ilan writes

The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), [Hasidic Jewish] husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings.

Major Problems with the Kabbalah: Forthodoxy

Jewish view of Christianity

Some places in the Talmud view Christianity as a form of idolatry prohibited not only to Jews, but to gentiles as well. Rabbis with these views did not claim that it was idolatry in the same literal sense as pagan idolaters in Biblical times, but that it relied on idolatrous forms of worship (i.e. to a Trinity of gods and to statues and saints.) (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin, 13b)

Other rabbis held differently, and by the middle ages a new consensus was reached in which Christianity was generally not held to be idolatry.
– “Exclusiveness and Tolerance”, Jacob Katz, Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, Ch.10

Maimonides writes that Jesus was wrong to create Christianity and that Mohammed was wrong to create Islam; he laments the pains Jews had as a result of persecution from followers of these new faiths that attempted to supplant Judaism. However, Maimonides then goes on to say that both faiths help God redeem the world. In his Mishneh Torah, he writes:

Jesus was instrumental in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God. But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of our Creator, for our ways are not God’s ways, neither are our thoughts His. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth, and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who came after him, only served to clear the way for the King [[Messiah]] to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written ‘For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent.’ (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus the messianic hope, and the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among those even on far isles, and among many people, uncircumcised of flesh and heart.(“Mishneh Torah”, Maimonides, XI.4

This paragraph used to be censored from many printed versions of the Mishneh Torah because it contained verses critical of Jesus.

“Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People” Menachem Kellner, State Univ. of New York Press, 1991

Mikveh Can Solve Conversion Problem

Mikveh Can Solve Conversion Problem

Leading Conservative rabbi suggests novel idea in bid to broaden the definition of who is a Jew.

By Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, April 13, 2017

http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/mikveh-can-solve-conversion-problem/

Mikveh

Mayyim Hayyim, a beautiful new mikveh in Newton, MA.

Much has changed since our greatest generation was liberated from Egypt, but the challenges and opportunities that come with being an emancipated mixed multitude remain ours to address.

Ours is an age where the nature of Jewish identity and boundaries of communal definition are becoming more, not less, complicated. The numbers speak for themselves — some 70-plus percent of non-Orthodox marrying Jews being married to non-Jews. The age-old definition of defining Jewish identity by way of the mother was upended decades ago by the decision of the Reform movement to accept patrilineal descent. Whatever the conventions of Jewish definition may once have been, any study of Jewish demography makes clear that Jewish identity is shifting from an objective top-down religious or inherited definition to a subjective bottom-up matter of cultural, ethnic or other identification.

And in this new world of shifting terrain the one constant that remains is love. Love is a powerful thing, and time and again, young people find themselves, as the song from “Fiddler on the Roof” goes, wanting to build a home with a person not from the home they love. As a rabbi, this conversation is not a matter of theory, but of deep pastoral consequence. More than the statistics and sociology are the real-life stories that walk into my office all the time. What to do when a child of my congregation wants to marry a non-Jew or a patrilineal Jew? Am I to tell a woman descended from a former Soviet Union family that her Jewish journey is less authentic than another’s? When a child born to a non-Jewish mother seeks to enter my congregational school, wishing to celebrate her bat mitzvah, would I dare derail her emerging Jewish identity by suggesting that she isn’t really Jewish?

As a rabbi I have a commitment to uphold Jewish law and, as such, not officiate at interfaith weddings. As a rabbi, I also have an obligation to meet people where they are, and serve the Jewish future by helping build Jewish identity. So what exactly is a rabbi to do?

It is a question that I have been wrestling with for some years and that has becoming increasingly pressing in the Conservative movement and world Jewry as a whole. Given that not doing “anything” strikes me as lacking in a certain courage, I offer a proposal for consideration, for synagogue communities like my own, for the Conservative movement and perhaps other arms of Jewish life to consider.

By my read of the sources, from the Talmudic period onward, there is an established position permitting conversion to Judaism by way of mikveh immersion for a woman, and for a man, circumcision and immersion in a mikveh, coupled with a course of study.

Mikveh immersion is the Jewish act ritualizing a sacred transformation from one state of being to another. For the conversion of newborns or minors the course of study is waived, the act of being called up as a bar or bat mitzvah signaling a willed acceptance of an adolescent’s Jewish identity. The duration and content of the course of study is not specified in rabbinic sources, merely to teach the would-be Jew some of the strict and lenient commandments along with the obligations and misfortunes that can accompany being a Jew. Furthermore, on the question of the degree to which that would-be convert must be observant of the totality of Jewish law, there exist multiple opinions amongst respected authorities ranging from comprehensive observance to a sincere assent to the ideal of living an observant Jewish life.

It is because I am eyes wide open to the demography of American Jewry, it is because my read of the tradition is what it is and, most of all, because everything I do as a rabbi is done on behalf of the Jewish future, that I believe that the same body of Jewish law that mandates that I only officiate at weddings of one Jew to another may also be leveraged towards a maximally embracing approach as to who is or isn’t a Jew according to Jewish law.

The needs of the hour call on us to invoke the rabbinic principle of Kocha Deheteriah Adif — “The power of rendering a lenient ruling is preferable.” In our world where there are no guarantees regarding who our children will fall in love with, it is incumbent upon us to lower, not raise, the barriers to entry to being a Jew. If a non-Jew desires to build a Jewish home with a Jewish partner, a rabbi’s job is to nurture that desire, draw both partners close and make the onramp to Jewish life as inviting and doable as possible.

The length of the process should be up to the discretion of the sponsoring rabbi, not based on some magic number of classes.

As for the argument that only by being fully observant may one convert, we would do well to acknowledge that this is a self-validating criterion imposed by those who would limit the definition of what it means to be a Jew only to those who are fully observant — a definition that devalues the Jewish authenticity of the entire non-Orthodox world.

Jewish identity can be measured by observance, but it can also be measured by way of culture, ancestry, nationality, communal affiliation, philanthropy and otherwise. Like-minded communities must invest in outreach, education and programming towards creating as many pathways to Jewish life and living as possible, all with the aim to bring the maximum number of people into the definition of a Jew as defined by Jewish law. The Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion; that should be our mission. There is a need to be met and a market share to be had were we to have the courage and wherewithal to do so.

As to the question of the weddings of patrilineal Jews, Jews of uncertain descent and Jews of any other shades of Jewish identity, I would suggest the possibility that mikveh immersion become a requirement for rabbinic officiation. As it stands now, I require brides and grooms to get genetic testing, see a couples’ counselor and be a member or child of a member of my synagogue. Under this proposal, another requirement would be added: Regardless of whether one can trace their lineage back to Moses, every bride and groom immerses in the mikveh prior to the chuppah.

I did so before I got married. It was an incredibly transformative ritual that enabled me to reflect on my past and prepare for the exciting chapter to come. Such a requirement or stringency (which is really a leniency) would serve the purpose of leveling the playing field of Jewish identity — much in the same way, incidentally, that Israel should have done when hundreds of thousands of Jews of uncertain Jewish descent emigrated from the former Soviet Union. No vetting, no making someone feel “less than”— rather, the same rule applied to all. An affirmation to create a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, mikveh immersion — everyone equal in the eyes of Jewish law.

And so too, with our children. Due to the legal status of a minor in Jewish law, it is easier to address matters of Jewish identity prior to a child reaching maturity than after. What if we were to explore the possibility that every child who wants to celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah, matrilineal or patrilineal — my kid, or anyone else’s — takes a dip in the mikveh?

For those children whose identity is not in question — mikveh immersion will serve to announce that theirs is a Jewish identity derived not merely by way of an accident of birth, but as a willed choice to be a stakeholder in the Jewish destiny. For those whose Jewish past calls on them to affirm their commitment to the Jewish future — mikveh immersion further serves to dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s” of their identity for the remainder of their lives.

It is a policy, which, if adopted by world Jewry would, over time, obviate the question of who is and who isn’t a Jew by the time these b’nai mitzvah kids are ready to get married.

There is much more to say, thousands of details to work out and more questions than answers, but we have to begin somewhere. In broad brushstrokes, what I am suggesting is: A conversion process whose length is left to the discretion of the sponsoring rabbi; mikveh immersion becoming part of the pre-wedding preparation for all couples; and mikveh immersion becoming part of the b’nai mitzvah process.

Such a policy would not meet the needs of every interfaith relationship. But it would indicate we are doing everything we can — in spirit and in deed — to meet people where they are while remaining within the bounds of Jewish law.

I believe that if a large enough swath of the Jewish world, in the diaspora and in Israel, embraced such an inclusive approach to Jewish identity, it may in the long term bear the potential to shift the politics on the age-old question of “Who is a Jew?” and redound to the benefit of the Jewish people as a whole.

At the seder table, we just declared, “All who are hungry come find a seat and be satisfied.” This year, let our focus turn to include those possessed with a spiritual hunger to sit at the table of our people. Passover reminds us that every child has a seat reserved for them. Let us fulfill our obligation to bring as many as we can into the narrative and covenant of our people, and in so doing serve the Jewish past by building a very bright and inclusive Jewish future.

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

Separating a Person from their work: What do we do with Carlebach’s music?

A provocative and important article from WhoKnowsOneBlog

One of the more obscure ‘secrets’ of the Jewish community involves the legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Anyone who has been to a Friday night prayer service has almost certainly sung some of the many tunes composed by Carlebach. Many have heard stories of his unique ability to bring people closer to Judaism by focusing on the unique, spiritual potential of every individual. What is not as well-known about Carlebach, however, is that he allegedly committed an almost unfathomable number of sexual assaults.

….What do we do with his legacy — specifically his music which has become a staple in the Jewish community? Phrased a bit differently, I think that this is a good case-study of whether or not we can separate a morally deficient person or event from the “objective” work that they produce.

Separating a Person from their work: What do we do with Carlebach’s music?

Belief in a messiah

It is often said that both Jews and Christians believe that there will be a “messiah” – but their definitions of the word are so completely different that it may be misleading to use the same word. Many Jews thus use the Hebrew word – moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ, which means ‘anointed one.’ In ancient days a prophet would anoint a King with oil, and the Hebrew Bible sometimes refers to kings as moshiach.

How does the Christian definition of messiah differ from the Jewish definition of moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ?

In Christianity, the messiah is identified as a human, Jesus, who is:
(a) literally the son of God
(b) and simultaneously, God’s own self
and (c) a necessary intermediary between man and God

In Jewish theology, moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ is a mortal human being, not even having supernatural abilities, who has a specific task. Descriptions vary, but a general consensus is that moshiach will

1. Bring Jews back to observing Judaism

2. Will gather Jewish people back to the land of Israel.

3. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt.

4. Israel will live among the nations as an equal, and will be strong enough to defend herself.

5. Eventually most war, hatred and famine will end, and an era of peace and prosperity will come upon the Earth.

This is a completely non-supernatural belief. Here is the view of Maimonides – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – in his commentary to tractate Sanhedrin, of the Babylonian Talmud.

“The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him…. Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much….”

” it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase…war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation…. The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God. “

“Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true. The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted “The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations. All nations will return to the true religion [monotheism, although not necessarily Judaism] and will no longer steal or oppress.”

“Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical – Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us. Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles….the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom.”

Alternatives to the idea of a personal messiah

It is usually assumed that the only authentic Jewish belief concerning the messiah is the standard interpretation as explained by Maimonides. He explains that eventually the messiah – a descendant of King David – will will arrive and usher in a Messianic era in which the Davidic Kingship will be re-established. On the other hand, many religious Jews today do not believe in a personal messiah.

There is another theological strand in our tradition, which indicates that Judaism is not totally welded to the classic figure of the messiah. Gerald Blidstein, a board member for the Orthodox Jewish journal _Tradition_, writes:

We all know of of the prophet Samuel’s strong opposition to the appointment of a king, despite the ostensibly clear Deuteronomic command to do so….Actually, of course, that command is somewhat ambivalent, and this ambivalence probably led to the tannaitic discussion of whether the people Israel were in fact unambiguously commanded to have a king, a discussion which continues in later midrashim. Some Ge’onim, in fact, decided the question in the negative, as did R. Sa’adya and Ibn Ezra in their commentaries.  Maimonides, of course, decided with a thunderous positive.

Gerald J. Blidstein _Tradition_ Vol.32, No. 1, Fall 1997 “Halakha and democracy” p.6-39

A number of rabbis within the tradition questioned the assumption that we are obligated to set up a new Davidic monarchy.  Abarbanel is well known for his anti-monarchic posture.  [Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508)]

Others who concur are the Netsiv and Rabbi Yeruham Perlow.

Rabbi Hayyim David HaLevi goes so far as to write that Maimonide’s monarchism is not really representative.

– Netsiv: Ha’amek Davar to Deut. 17:14 and Meromei sade to Sanhedrin 20b, s.v. BaMishna.

– Gerald J. Blidstein “Ekronot Mediniyyim be Mishnat ha Rambam (Ramat-Gan, 1982).

A few Orthodox rabbis have downplayed the idea that there will be a personal Messiah in the form of a king, and instead propose the idea of a Messianic era, which is consistent with the beliefs of many Conservative Jews. One example is R. Shlomo Goren (Shana beShana, p.127-136, 1975.

On this topic, Gerald Blidstein writes “Perhaps it is wiser to leave the messianic monarchy of the end of days in the realm of the future whose structure and content is known only to God, all the while wondering whether the belief in redemption…ought to be so powerfully focused on the person or redeemer in any case. Indeed, there are some aggdic indications of the downplaying of the messianic element in that redemption in the interest of the kingship of God.”

For rabbinic reservation concerning the monarchic messiah, see E. E. Urbach “The Sages, I” (translated by I. Abrahams; Jerusalem 1975), p.690-692. (Glidstein, “Halakha and Demoncracy”, p.12)

Could there be 2 messiahs?

There is a minority opinion in the Talmud that there may be a second messianic figure: In this minority view, we first will encounter Moshiach Ben Yosef, who has a prepatory role, which then leads the way for Moshiach Ben David. We see this in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukka 52 a,b, but not much is mentioned.

R. Saadya Gaon (Emunot V’deot 8:6) seems to believe that his existence is only necessary if the Jews are not ready for the Messiah and need to do t’shuva to merit the redemption.

It is a common idea that the Messiah will come either if the Jews are meritorious, or if they are not, at a predetermined “deadline”. R’ Saadya is referring to if the Messiah must come at the “deadline”, and the Jews need preparation to be redeemed. In this case, the Mashiach ben Yosef will lead the Jews back to God’s good graces allowing them to be worthy of redemption, and later he will die in battle (of Gog and Magog), allowing for the succession of the “real” Messiah, Mashiach ben David.

Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, and the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser), in their commentaries to the Prophets, treat the existence of Mashiach ben Yosef as a “kabbala” (tradition) known to Chazal from the prophets themselves. (See Abarbanel to Ezekiel 32 and Malbim to Ezekiel 37:19.)

In their opinion, he will be (as indicated by his name) from the tribe of Yosef, or at least from one of the ten “lost tribes”, who were exiled by Sennacherib (King of Assyria, 700 BCE.)  He will be instrumental in uniting the ten tribes with the rest of the Jews in exile, as well as uniting the Jews in exile themselves, and leading them in the final war leading to the Redemption, thereupon dying in battle.

According to some sources, Mashiach ben Yosef will be resurrected immediately after the war in the “Techiat Ha’meitim” (Resurrection of the Dead). Others maintain that he will remain dead so as not to detract from the monarchy of the Mashiach ben David.

https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/13359/who-is-moshiach-ben-joseph-and-what-does-did-he-do

View of Conservative Judaism

Throughout the course of human history, Jews have differed as to what can be done by human beings to bring these dreams [of a Messianic era] into reality. Generally they have spoken in two voices: a radical or revolutionary voice, and a more gradualist or evolutionary voice. Revolutionary messianists are impatient. They despair about humanity’s ability to deal with its intrinsic problems in the normal course of affairs. They view themselves as responsible – even required – to take radical action to effect this transformation, to force God’s hand. They are less likely to satisfied with baby steps that their contemporaries are taking, with the small partial redemptions they witness. They thus become militant activists and resort to aggressive political activity and even, in the extreme, military action and violence to bring about their goals. They see the age to come as emerging out of a cosmic upheaval (which they will attempt to precipitate) that will destroy the familiar world of nature and history.

In contrast, messianic gradualists see the age to come as emerging slowly and imperceptibly out of the world as we know it today, restoring a pre-existing harmony. Theirs is a more patient and humanistic voice. With a basic confidence that human beings can and will work on the infinite details of their social, political and interpersonal lives, they are prepared to accept these practical redemptions as forecasts of the ultimate redemption yet to come. They see the eschatological scenario not as an immediate demand but as a vision which yields hope for the future and infuses all of their day-to-day activities with infinite import.

The dominant eschatological voice today is clearly revolutionary – In Islam, in American fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity, and among certain groups of Jews in Israel and throughout the world. We understand the concerns that impel communities to resort to such programs. We are also convinced of their dangers: exclusivism, triumphalism, radical political action and in the extreme, militarism and even terrorism.

We therefore affirm a gradualist or evolutionary eschatological approach. We are aware that it too has its inherent dangers: inertia, quietism and a generalized sense that since God will send the Messiah in His good time, what we human beings do has little significance. We strive, therefore, to remind ourselves of the classical Jewish teaching that God and humanity are partners, not only in creation and revelation, but in redemption as well.

We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of humankind from the evils of the world. Through the doctrine of a Messianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibility to bring about the messianic age. Beyond that, we echo the words of Maimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day.

  • Emet Ve-Emunah, p.30-32

The Messianic Era

In regards to the future of the individual, the nation of Israel and the nations of the world, the classical texts of Judaism provide a rich source of speculation, but do not provide us with one definitive framework. Since no one knows what will happen “in the days to come” each of us is free to fashion personal speculation. Some of us accept these speculations are literally true, while others understand them as elaborate metaphors, generated by deep seated human needs, and woven out of Judaism’s most intuitive values and commitments. Thus, if “the age to come” is an age of universal peace and justice, it is because our Torah commands that we strive to create that kind of social order in the here and now and because our Nevi’im (the Prophets) railed against our ancestors failure to do so in their own day.

For the world community we dream of an age when warfare will be abolished, when justice and compassion will be axioms of all, as it is said in Isaiah 11: “…the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

For our people, we dream of the ingathering of all Jews to Zion where we can again be masters of our own destiny and express our distinctive genius in every area of our national life. We affirm Isaiah’s prophecy (2:3) that “…Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.

  • Emet Ve-Emunah, p.28,29

 

Related articles

The Most Important and Dangerous Jewish Value: The Messianic Impulse

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

“We want Moshiach now!” Have you sung it? What did you mean?

The Torah teaches us about the 4 stages of redemption (Shemot 6). Through God’s miraculous interventions in the world (the 10 plagues), there was a mass exodus, perhaps the greatest story of liberation and redemption in human history. But we have to ask ourselves, is this the historical model for future redemption? Is this the way that we want it to occur? As a miracle of God?

In the middle of the plagues the Torah says, “Ain kamoni b’chol ha’aretz”—there is none like me in all of the land. It is not only distinguishing God from the belief in other gods. It is distinguishing what God can and should do versus what humans can and should do. In general, we follow halakhta b’drachav (imitatio dei) that we emulate the ways of God, but here there is a limitation. It may be that the text is saying: I (God) can redeem the world through a punishment of the other but do not think that you should emulate this in search of your own redemption. “Ain kamoni b’chol ha’aretz”—there is none like me—there is no one on earth that may act as I am acting here, for a higher reason than you can understand. Thus, the redemption from Egypt is different from the future model of redemption.

Jewish Messianism is everywhere in modernity, including Zionist, Chabad, and secular Jewish messianists (Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky and other Bolsheviks). It seems we cannot take the messianic impulse out of the Jew.

Today, the messianic impulse can have very dangerous expressions. More and more, we see messianism leading to extremism and also to the watering down of core Jewish values; the notion of the coming of Moshiach not only becomes disproportionately important in Jewish thought, but also a justification for lack of responsibility. The concept of Moshiach becomes a religious excuse, a crutch, a shortcut. When it is our collective version of the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus, we risk religiously remaining children, constantly expecting a supernatural intervention that will instantaneously change all of nature. We interpret a prophetic hyperbole too literally. But there is, of course, a very different model at the foundation of Jewish thought.

In the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a), Rav Yehoshua ben Levi wrestles with the question of when and how messianism works, and asks Eliyahu HaNavi when the Messiah will come. Eliyahu replies that he should go ask the Moshiach himself, who is sitting at the entrance to the city of Rome. Rav Yehoshua then asks Eliyahu HaNavi how he will recognize the Moshiach at the gates of Rome. Eliyahu replies profoundly that he will be sitting amidst the poor and sick, putting bandages on them one by one.

The Messiah exists on the periphery of society (gates of Rome) and is a healer! Rav Yehoshua runs and finds the Moshiach and asks him when he will come. The Moshiach replies, “Today!”

Rav Yehoshua, confused, goes back to Eliyahu questioning why the Moshiach said “today.” Eliyahu replies, quoting Psalms, that it is today “If you will hear His voice.”

The Gemara is teaching us that Moshiach is here already. Messianic possibility is always right in front of us in a very real way.

http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/the-most-important-and-dangerous-jewish-value-the-messianic-impulse/