Archive for the 'Judaism' Category


Elul Before the Storm

So, it’s Elul again.
I’m not ready for this. I’ll have more to say soon, I’m sure, and hopefully the time to say it.
In the meantime, my post from last year still resonates with me, even if it’s still a one-step-forward-giant-leap-back situation.

Why early mornings are good mornings

In the tradition of indexed, I thought I’d use a visual to explain why, in the morning, I prefer to daven at my local minyan, which is earlier, rather than catching a later one at one of the places that has minyanim every 15 minutes:

Oh, and chulent. Right.

Rabbi Sacks:1, Atheist Proselytizers: 0

Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, does it again.
In this week’s edition of the London Jewish Chronicle, he wrote an amazingly eloquent response to the various recent proponents of atheism / critics of religion, managing to neither deliver an ad hominem attack nor retreat under apologetics. In his typical fashion, he simply stands up and says the truth about Judaism, speaking simply but not simplistically about complex issues. I have nothing at all to add, as he said everything I would’ve said on the topic, and then some, and said it better. Here are a few choice excerpts, but please, read the whole thing:

…Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great is an angry and, at times, eloquent polemic on the evil men and women do in the name of God. It has only one drawback. It does not prove that God is not great. What it shows is that those who claim to be acting for the sake of God are not always great. But then, we knew that already.

Nor is it religion alone that is subverted by violence. So, too, is every institution through which human beings have regulated their conduct with one another. People have done evil in the name of politics. That does not mean that we should, or could, abolish politics. They have committed injustices in the pursuit of wealth. That does not mean we should eliminate property. They have committed crimes in the name of love. That does not mean we should ban love.

But Hitchens is not a prophet, and that is not merely because he does not believe in God. He does not believe in humanity either.

Human beings are complex, their interactions even more so. Yet we long for simplicity. Hence the perennial tendency to say, “if only”. If only we could abolish property, or class, or codes of self-restraint. If only, say the crusaders, people believed in God. If only, say the counter-crusaders, people stopped believing in God.

That is the eternal appeal of “final solutions”. They begin, every one of them, in a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell-on-earth. That is why the Jewish answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” is always, “Not yet”. The mainstream of our tradition has always rejected the attempt to bring the end of history in the middle of history. If only people stopped saying “if only”.

The virtue of books like God Is Not Great is that they force us back to first principles — in this case to a truth about Judaism that has been far too little written about. It is, we know, a code of action and a set of beliefs. But it is also — and this gives Judaism its extraordinary internal complexity — a field of tensions: between particularism and universalism, exile and homecoming, acceptance and protest, halachah and aggadah, revelation and reason, mysticism and philosophy, sages and saints. Even religious leadership in the Torah is dual: the prophet and the priest. Judaism is not so much a creed as a conversation. It is complex because the human condition is complex. We are, says Genesis, a handful of dust, but within us is the breath of God.


Somehow, somewhere, people are going to have to step back from the simple-mindedness that has seized religions and secularisms alike, and re-engage in civil conversation about how best to secure a world safe for our grandchildren to live in. In the words of the Unetnah tokef prayer we say at this time: the great shofar of warning has sounded. Will we hear the ‘still, small voice’ – the voice you can only hear by listening? On that, the human future will depend.

[read it all]

(hat tip: Cross-Currents)


Note: This piece is a bit odd, kind of a stream-of-consciousness thing. Take it as such. Take it as you will.

Prayer is a problem
Repentance is a problem

Here we go again. Elul, the month where we’re supposed to…well, what are we supposed to do? I mean, I know: We’re supposed to repent or something. But in practical terms, we don’t really talk about what to do. We act as if you just sort of decide to repent, and whammo! You’re a better person. Ok, to be fair, lots of books talk about the long and arduous path of repentance. But that kind of assumes we know where the path is, only that it’s difficult. We, right here, right now (or, me, at least) have a deeper problem. We don’t know where the path is. Like I said, we don’t know what to do. I woke up this morning, and said “ok, repentance!” but then…I was stuck.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” – Marianne Williamson

Maybe I should back up here. We don’t even know what repentance is. We’ve stopped discussing the big things. We think we’ve learned about them before, so now we know, but we don’t know. Repentance is big. Really big. So we just discuss the results of it, not the thing itself. Repentance is…well, let’s try the Hebrew. The word teshuva isn’t just “repentance.” It’s “return.” We’re returning – to somewhere where we were before, somewhere familiar. That’s important. That’s crucial. I think this occurs on two levels which are, as always, somewhat intertwined.

The first level is personal. We want to be what we were. Well, sort of. No one can go back to what they were, not ever. But there is a sort of returning, a returning of mindset, a renewal of spirit. They say that everything you ever need to know you learned in kindergarten. Sorry, but that’s not true. There are many important lessons that we learn after kindergarten, but I think we often ignore those earlier lessons in favor of the newer ones. This is a tragedy. There’s a constant refrain in our heads, “it’s not that simple, it’s not that simple, it’s not that simple”, like a contrarian cuckoo clock. Sometimes, it is that simple, and that bears noting. We still have to be nice, to share, to care about others. We still thank God for all we have. We still have to respect those deserving of respect. Fine, we should take the lessons we learned after kindgarten, but we shouldn’t for a minute forget the first ones.

The return to self is not a new concept. It doesn’t have its origins in modern psychology or philosophy. Way back in the Bible, it says “vehayah ki yavo’u alekha kol hadevarim ha’eileh, haberakha vehakellala asher natati lifanekha, vahasheyvotah el levavekha bikhol hagoyim asher hidichakha Hashem Elohekha.” – “And it shall be, when all of these things, the blessing and curse which I have given before you, come to pass, then you will return to your hearts among all the nations in which Hashem your God banished you.” (Devarim 30:1) Though the bolded phrase is often translated as something like “you will take it to heart”, or “you will reflect”, the fact remains that the literal translation is not just about consideration or even contrition, but return. Note that there is a narrative here, but it’s also an imperative. We must (must!) reach back in our memories. Remember what we were, once.

“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

And now the scary part comes. Bearing in mind what we were, we must look at ourselves. Have you ever done that? I mean, really looked? Scary as heck, that is. I was in Arizona for 5 months recently. It wasn’t part of my plan, really, but there I was, living in Arizona, alone and on my own. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by people. I wasn’t with anyone. And when you’re like that, you’re forced to look at yourself, to see the real core of the ‘you’, when everything else is stripped away. Like I said, it’s terrifying. Or it was for me, anyway. Try it.

Stop. Close your eyes.

Breathe in.

Breathe out, and with it, release your environment. Let go of what your friends think of you, how much your relatives love you, all of the influences imposed upon you from outside yourself. If you can look at that person and allow yourself complete honesty and be satisfied, then count yourself among a tiny minority. But if not, and like I was, you’re confronted by something grotesque or perhaps just unsettling, seize upon that. You’re seeing a gulf between what you know you can be and what you are. Or seen differently, it’s a dissonance between who you believe yourself to be inside and who you are. It gets your blood pumping and your pulse racing. It wakes you up. This is crucial. The only way you can return to yourself is to realize both who you were, once, and what you are now.

And here, we get to the second stage, which arguably, is an organic part of the first, or even it itself, viewed from the other side. The next verse after the one quoted above states, “vishavta ad Hashem Elohekha vishamata bikolo kikhol asher anokhi metzavikha hayom, ata uvanekha, bikhol levavikha uvikhol nafshekha.” – “And you will return to Hashem your God and hearken to His Voice in everything that I command you today – you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.” (Devarim 30:2). I think we also exhibit a deficiency here. How often do we think about – I mean really think about God as a lover, as someone who we want to make happy with every breath we take? The sources are replete with this idea, but do we truly think about it, or just dismiss it as fanciful language or the domain of only lofty souls? Because if we really truly believed, on some visceral level, that we had the potential for a love-relationship with God, wouldn’t we be acting differently, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively? After all, when viewed through that lens, Judaism is no longer a mere framework in which we fit our lives. It is life. And if, due to long-standing indifference, we don’t even feel the need for that love-relationship (let alone the love itself), then the heartbroken acknowledgement of that fact can still be utilized to propel us forward. Wanting to want to love God is already something positive. Maybe we have a full month of lead-in to the Yamim Nora’im (High Holy Days) to try and get from “wanting to want” to “wanting.”

“He who is satisfied has never truly craved, and he who craves for the light of God neglects his ease for ardor, his life for love, knowing that contentment is the shadow not the light. The great yearning that sweeps eternity is a yearning to praise, a yearning to serve. And when the waves of that yearning swell in our souls all the barriers are pushed aside: the crust of callousness, the hysteria of vanity, the orgies of arrogance.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

So that’s how I understand teshuva, Jewish repentance. It’s about remembering what you stand for, reaching back to the “good old days,” whether real or imagined, and pulling that from the past back to the present. It’s about remembering the fundamental simplicity of the love-relationship we ought to have with God. Because we believe that for every person that is distant from him, God is standing, as it were, a lover scorned, looking hopefully for signs of our return. And hopefully, the momentum created when rising to the occasion and seeking His embrace can propel us even further than ever.

Postscript: I borrowed many ideas from various places here, though I would say that the main sources were the book Mussar for Moderns by R’ Elyakim Krumbein, and a short lecture given by R’ Reuven Taragin at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 2001.


I wasn’t planning on posting. I didn’t have anything to post on that I could think of. But then I happened across this post about Sukkot found on the Lansey Brothers’ Blog. I just had to leave a comment to that post. Hilarity ensued. Or rather will ensue, I hope. Or maybe despair will ensue. I just want some ensuing to happen, ok?

As I recall (and I am not making this up), according to the halachot of sukkah, you can use a person as part of a wall of a sukkah, provided that 1) the person doesn’t move and 2) the person is unaware that he/she is part of a sukkah. So just invite some friends over:

Eli: Hey, guys, come over my house for dinner!

Guys: Great!

Later that evening…

Guys: Can we come inside?

Eli: No, we’re eating out here, because it’s Sukkot.

Guys: Oh, right. But where’s the sukkah?

Eli: Um…I don’t…know. Can you guys stand in lines forming a rectangle? Here, let me arrange you. Now don’t move, ok?

Guys: What’s going on? Why can’t we move?

Eli: It’s, it’s a game! the, um, the “don’t move till we’re done dinner game!”

Guys: Dinner? So we can eat now?

Eli: No, not so much.

Guys: Why not?

Eli: Because you’re not in a sukkah.

The Guys spontaneously combust due to the volatile combination of frustration and absurdity.

The Rabbinic Sages roll in their graves. Some may even weep.

So there you have it – a simple solution, all laid out. All you have to figure out now is what to do about schach. (Eli: Ok, now wear these branches as hats…)

By the way, women are not excluded from this. Even though the mitzvah of being part of a sukkah is a time-bound positive mitzvah, a woman can be a sukkah wall as much as a man can. However, it may be wise to adopt the custom of not having a sukkah made of both men and women, as it may lead to mixed dancing.

On Mourning

Days until departure: 12
At times, when I’m thinking about some topic, especially when I intend to write something on it, I take notes on my thoughts. Last Tisha B’av, I wrote a bunch of notes on the ideas behind the initial part of the day, before noon. Here’s a brief set of thoughts emerging from those notes, before I have to go back to synagogue to finish up the prayers of the day.

According to the Rav, Tisha B’Av is one of the rare times that we express grief to such a degree, that we actually accuse God of creating our tragedy. It’s generally an unthinkable concept, more brazen than we usually are. Indeed, the first set of kinot (the “wailing” prayers we say on this day) often juxtapose what God did with what it seems he ought to have done. How dare we? The Rav points out that in the beginning of Tisha B’Av, we are like recently bereaved mourners – not even up to the shiva period that starts after burial, but onenim. An onen is one who has recently lost someone, before the deceased is buried. “His deceased is suspended before him,” the saying goes. When it’s that recent, that intense, that visceral, well then the normal rules don’t apply. An onen is exempt from many of the positive commandments, and also it is acceptable for such a person to be downright angry with God. Healing of the mourner’s heart, and of his relationship to an often inscrutable God may take place later, but for now, we let him off the hook.
So in trying to create a feeling of mourning, our sages patterned our customs and liturgy such that we would be like onenim for part of the day. We move on later in the day, but the specter of intense grief haunts us through the rest of the day.

An interesting thought occurred to me a while back. I was reading a book by the renowned psychologist Paul Ekman, called Emotions Revealed. In it, he talks about the concept of an “emotional refractory period.” I don’t have the book handy to quote from, but if my memory serves, the refractory period is when you experience an emotion so intensely that you are temporarily blinded to any information that would contradict that emotion. It is usually a very brief period, varying with intensity of emotion, but it’s qualitatively different from your normal mode of being. Your mind shuts down all access to anything that would lessen the feeling, though I believe it’s usually too brief to have any practical ramifications. It’s a scary thought, but Ekman really knows his stuff. In any case, I can’t help but wonder whether the onen’s permit to indict God comes from an acknowledgement that an onen is in the refractory period of his grief, and therefore cannot be held as entirely responsible for his actions. Thus, he is even permitted an action which would otherwise be blasphemy.

Yet Another Chicken Post

Today, boys and girls, we’re going to learn about Jews and their wacky Oral Tradition. In a disussion of Hilchot Shabbat (the Laws of the Sabbath), the gemara (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 75a) brings up an interesting case.

Let’s say you own a chicken. You know, the tasty fowl with an IQ lower than its shoe size1,2. Well, your son wants to play with the chicken. Or more accurately, he wants to play with the chicken’s head. Why? I don’t know. Maybe Toys ‘R’ Us was out of Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls. Maybe he drank some of Daddy’s “special juice.” In any case, he’s crying for the chicken’s head, and as luck would have it, the chicken’s head is (get this!) attached to the chicken, and the chicken is quite fond of its head and unlikely to enjoy your son playing with it. (“Come here little chicken, I just want to- OUCH! My eye!”) So you intend to remove the head to better facilitate its use as a plaything, but it’s the Sabbath, and it’s forbidden on the Sabbath to kill an animal.

“Well, that’s ok,” you say to yourself, “I don’t want to kill it. I just want to neatly remove the bird’s head so I can shut up my kid. Though he’ll probably lose interest in a matter of hours, like he did with the dog3 and the nuclear reactor4 I got for his birthday. The ungrateful little brat.”

Enter the Rabbis.

They say, “hold on, big fella. First of all, stop talking to yourself. People are staring. And also, can’t you tell that this is the classic case of pesik raisha?”


“Pesik raisha. Can’t you understand ancient Aramaic? Sheesh. The full phrase is ‘pesik raisha v’lo yamut,’ meaning ‘can you cut off the head and it won’t die,’ a rhetorical question. You see, were you to cut off the chicken’s head, it would become what is technically known as a Decapitated Chicken. As you may know, Decapitated Chickens5and in fact, decapitated fowl of all varieties, are wont to die, a condition which greatly impedes being alive. Thus, although your action wasn’t meant to kill the chicken, and you may even want the chicken to survive, it will definitely end up dead anyway, so killing it is forbidden. So go tell your brat to shut up because you can’t give him the chicken’s head until after the Sabbath. Though if you ask us, after the Sabbath you should take him to a therapist, because, frankly, this whole ‘playing with a chicken’s head’ thing is pretty darn messed up right here.”

“Oh boy! Thank you, Rabbis!” you exult. “Now can you please explain this whole ‘kosher’ thing to me? Why do we need to wait for hours between eating meat and milk? Why do we have to use separate dishes for milk and meat?”

“Beats us. You modern Jews are just plain crazy. Back in our day, we could eat Chicken Parmesan.”


“Golly indeed. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got some threshing and winnowing to do.”

And like that (poof), they’re gone.6

  1. Yeah, I know. Chickens don’t wear shoes. Not yet, anyhow.
  2. Chickens are royally stupid. I’m not making this one up. Sometimes, when it rains, chickens will tip back their heads and try to drink, and in the process, they will drown themselves. Did you catch that? They are the only animal on God’s green earth that I know of that drown themselves while on solid ground. Even my cousin Melvin who will likely have “That boy just ain’t right” carved on his headstone, and who has eaten enough Play-Doh to support Slovakia for a year, generally keeps water out of his trachea.
  3. “Come here, little doggy, I just want to light you on fi- OUCH! My leg!”
  4. “Come here, little atom, I just want to pet- OUCH! I’m glowing!”
  5. Another great band name.
  6. Bonus points if you can correctly name the movie that that last line was referencing.