Friday, May 13, 2022

Against Death: The Story of a Sacred L'Chaim


Years ago, I was asked to officiate at a funeral for a Holocaust survivor. In meeting with his children, I learned that after moving to Canada he had intermarried; and even though they, the family, were not Jewish, it was important to them that their father have a Jewish funeral. Right before the service, the family asked if I could add a “friend” to the list of speakers; as it turned out, this “friend” was the family’s pastor. The pastor (along with the man’s son) gave speeches about how the deceased was in a better place, and we should be happy that now he was in heaven. During my own concluding remarks, I gently explained that in the Jewish tradition, we have a religious obligation to mourn, because Jews consider death to be a tragedy; we take very little comfort in otherworldly realities.
Jacob van RuisdaelThe Jewish Cemetery, 1654 - 1655
I reacted that way because I couldn’t stomach such a rosy depiction of death being offered at the funeral of a Holocaust survivor, a man who had struggled so valiantly to survive. And while I still stand by what I said then, my words were an oversimplification; the Jewish tradition includes much debate on this topic.
Death is the focus of the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. A Kohen is forbidden to come into contact with a dead body, which is impure. At the same time, the Kohen is obligated to bury those in his immediate family, a law which Maimonides considers to be the source of the obligation to mourn close relatives. But why do we consider a dead body to be impure? Why is there an obligation to mourn for a relative who dies?
In an article entitled “I Will Make the Unclean Spirit Vanish from the Land” (Hebrew), Rabbi Benayahu Broner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Tzefat, compares the views of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik on this subject. These three important thinkers take very different positions on the Jewish attitude towards death.
Rabbi Kook takes the view that death is an illusion; true life exists in another realm, in the next world. In his characteristically flowery prose, he explains that this is the reason kohanim are prohibited from coming into contact with dead bodies:
“Death is a false vision…. what humans call death is only the strengthening of life and its power. It is because of the endless absorption in pettiness... (that causes) one to depict this strengthening of life in a sad and dark way, which one calls "death.” The Kohanim are raised up in their holiness, (and held back) from hearing this falsehood… (and they can do so) only by averting their eyes from the spectacle which brings these deceptive impressions to the soul. (This is why the Torah says regarding the Kohen) “He shall not go in where there is any dead body,” and “He shall not defile himself for any [dead] person among his people.”
In other words, the Kohen is forbidden to come into contact with a corpse because death represents a false consciousness, one that distracts from the truth of eternal life. Elsewhere, Rabbi Kook endorses the view of Maimonides, stating that the primary purpose of the mourning rituals is catharsis, for the mourner to achieve calmness and closure. He explains Maimonides as saying that mourning is only accepted by the Torah as a concession to the weakness of human character, to help one overcome emotional pain; but a person who knows the truth would not grieve.
In short, Rabbi Kook sees death as the passage of an individual to a better place, the very same idea that disturbed me at that funeral.
Rabbi Hirsch focuses more on the psychological aspects of death and mourning. He neither romanticizes death nor bewails it; instead, he is primarily concerned whether grief will distract one from their divine mission. He explains that mourning needs to be carefully managed. Confronting a dead body weakens man's resolve; death is fundamentally a loss of control and freedom, and a person who comes into contact with a dead body might become passive and lose hope. (This is similar to the view of Rav Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari. Extreme grief can lead one to depression. He notes that the Hebrew word for mourning, evel, sounds similar to the Hebrew words for fool, evyl, and darkness, aphel. Mourning can bring gloom and cloud one's vision and cause the mourner to lose sight of their purpose. According to Rabbi Hirsch, our mourning rituals are designed to allow emotions to be expressed and lessons to be learned, without distracting from one's ultimate mission. Kohanim must avoid death completely because they are educators and have a responsibility to teach others how to proceed with their mission in the face of death. To Rabbi Hirsch, death and mourning are obstacles to personal growth which need to be dealt with thoughtfully.
In sharp contrast to the previous views, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik sees death as the opposite of holiness. Judaism, he declares, has “a negative attitude towards death”; the laws of impurity make it clear that death defiles anything sacred. In Jewish law, life is the paramount value, and one can violate the entire Torah to save a life. He attacks the view that death represents salvation from a broken world; if death were truly a “better place” for the deceased, he asks, “why mourn and grieve for the departed? Why rend our garments, sit on the floor, and say Barukh dayyan emet?” The laws of mourning make it clear that one must view death as an unalloyed evil, an affront to all mankind. We must battle fiercely against death; it is for this reason halakhah obligates us to heal the sick and extend life. To Rabbi Soloveitchik, death is not deliverance; on the contrary, it is the destroyer of life and the enemy of everything good.
I have always been drawn to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s views regarding death and mourning and remember giving my very first sermon on this topic. And I believe that there has been a shift among rabbis in the last century regarding death; unlike 100 years ago, very few would embrace Rabbi Kook’s views today. This is due in large part to the Holocaust. In the Warsaw Ghetto several rabbis, including the world-renowned scholar Rabbi Menachem Zemba, said that Jews would no longer aspire to be martyrs, to die al kiddush Hashem. Instead, they would now pursue Kiddush Ha’Chayim, “the sanctification of life.” Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, one of the prominent religious leaders in the Warsaw Ghetto said: “This is a time for sanctifying life…the enemy is demanding the Jew’s body, and the Jew is obligated to defend it, to protect his life.” After the Holocaust, everything changed; death was an unambiguous instrument of evil. It was now time to cherish life and sanctify it.
My late friend Jack, who was a Holocaust survivor, taught me how to cherish life. After the war, he toiled and struggled to rebuild his life, pouring himself into his family, his community, and his business. When we would be at a celebration together, Jack would go to the bar, with his friends, (many of whom were survivors as well), and have a drink. Jack would say L’chaim, to life, with a special twinkle in his eye; he had gone through so much, and here he was! Those L’chaims were filled with love, laughter, and joy, and made a profound impression on me. They were a sacred embrace of life, a small moment that made the world a better place. L’chaim!

Friday, May 06, 2022

Our Divisive Search for Holiness


It is both the cause of exceptional inspiration and nasty dispute. The commandment at the beginning of our parsha, kedoshim tehiyu - you shall be holy - touches the soul but confuses the intellect. Our potential for holiness is enthralling, but what exactly is holiness? The lack of clarity opens the door for multiple interpretations, and every commentary seems to have an alternate explanation of what you shall be holy means. Some see holiness as a radical, otherworldly pursuit. The Ramban connects holiness to asceticism, and says this commandment asks us to exercise personal restraint and diminish physical pleasure in general. Others argue that holiness begins in the heart and is based on one’s ambitions and attitudes. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says it exhorts us to “strive and endeavor to reach the highest degree of human moral perfection.” The Meshech Chochmah sees holiness as the act of devotion, for “the very definition of ‘holy’ is to give something over to a higher realm, and (in this case) it is that one devotes themself completely to the service of God.” The Rashbam has a simple, no-frills definition of holiness: Keep all the commandments listed in the coming parsha, and you will be holy. You simply need to follow the mitzvot carefully, and that is holy enough. No need for extra piety or practices.
IDF soldiers stand at attention in front of the graves of IDF soldiers buried at
Mt. Herzl, Israel's national military cemetery. (April 14, 2010)
While these interpretations sit together nicely on the same page of our chumashim, they have been the cause of much upheaval throughout history. Religious passion very often leads to religious battles, and the open-ended nature of the commandment you shall be holy invites dispute.
A prime example of this is the Musar controversy of the late 19th and early 20th century, which divided communities and destroyed friendships. One of the leading yeshivot in Lithuanian Jewry, the Slabodka Yeshiva, split during the controversy. Some of the episodes in this battle were particularly shocking. In 1904 and 1905, (which were years of revolution in Russia), an anti-Musar student pulled a gun on a rabbi of the Slabodka yeshiva, and another group of students gathered all the Yeshiva’s Musar books and tossed them into the sewage filled latrines.
At first glance, this controversy seems extremely strange. The Musar movement was dedicated to ethical and spiritual growth. How could something so innocuous start a battle that lasted over 30 years?
The Musar movement began with an intellectual giant, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who was concerned by what he saw as a lack of character in the Jewish community. Rabbi Yisroel would explain the importance of Musar by recounting an incident that occurred to him one Yom Kippur eve. In the synagogue that night, he saw a man reciting the Al Chet prayer. (Al Chet is a list of every possible sin, some quite remote, written to ensure that everyone's confession on Yom Kippur is thorough.) The man was praying with incredible intensity and had tears rolling down his cheeks. Rabbi Yisroel approached the man, hoping to join him in this moving prayer. But when Rabbi Yisroel came near, the man violently pushed him away! As Rabbi Yisroel would put it, the man was crying about sins he never committed, but had no idea what Yom Kippur was all about.
To fill this communal gap in moral and spiritual development, Rabbi Yisroel began to advocate for the study of Musar; books of Musar had been part of rabbinic literature for centuries but were often neglected. Rabbi Yisroel also felt that the study of Musar was not enough, because dry, intellectual study would not bring about change. So, he created immersive techniques. He instituted separate “Musar houses,” where everyone was devoted to Musar, and where there were intense, inspirational talks on the topic. People were encouraged to undertake a serious self-examination and engage in self-criticism. There were additional techniques that were unusual, such as discussing death, repeating specific phrases over and over, and intentionally becoming emotional during the study of Musar. Taken together, these techniques would engage a person on a deeper level and help them transform themselves. (Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg argues that many decades before Freud, Rabbi Yisroel understood the importance of the human unconscious, which does not readily respond to reason alone.)
The opposition to Musar had two primary themes. First, there was opposition to perceived extremism in the Musar movement. The most famous statement of Musar’s opponents was a public letter by 9 prominent Lithuanian rabbis, which was published on May 10, 1897. In it, the rabbis criticized Musar methods as phony and artificial; it was mere religious theater, which enabled otherwise ignorant students who excelled at Musar methods to be considered role models. They also criticized the method of repeating phrases, deriding the way it was done “with great and terrible cries, with a grief filled, bitter voice, in a sad melody, accompanied by weird and strange movements.”
In other letters, critics took aim at Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz, the founder of the Novardok Yeshiva. Rabbi Yosef Yozel was a well-known Musar personality, who had abandoned his home and business to study with Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. When Rabbi Yosef Yozel’s wife passed away, he left his children with relatives, and enclosed himself in a room. His meals were passed in through two windows, one for meat and the other for milk; he did not leave the room for nearly two years. The yeshiva Rabbi Yosef Yozel later established reflected his personality and included strange and extreme practices as well. Students at Novardok shared all belongings in common; they would intentionally act strangely, such as wearing clothing inside out, or making bizarre requests in stores, to invite the insults of others. Critics of Musar wrote dismissively of “the one with windows”; the strange behavior associated with Musar, and the Novardok Yeshiva in particular, was unacceptable to them.
The other concern with the Musar movement is that it considered Musar more important than Torah. For many in Lithuanian Jewry, the tradition of pure Torah study, Torah lishmah, was the very essence of Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that this concern motivated the opposition of his grandfather and great grandfather to Musar. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that “one must not waste time on spiritual self-appraisal, on probing introspections, and on the picking away at the ‘sense’ of sin. Such a psychic analysis brings man neither to fear nor to love of God, nor, most fundamental of all, to the knowledge and cognition of the Torah….Man's entire psychic being must be committed to the regime of the cognition of halakhah…” To Rabbi Soloveitchik, Musar was rejected because it replaced Torah at the center of Jewish practice.
These two camps, for and against Musar, were searching for the correct path to holiness. And this highlights how divisive the commandment of you shall be holy can be. Is holiness simply following the Torah, or does it require extreme and extraordinary behavior? Is holiness found in embracing halakhah, or changing one’s inner outlook? Both sides in the Musar controversy pursued holiness; but at the same time, their passion for holiness led to intense anger and debate.
As the Jewish world gets more diverse, there is a need for a different approach to holiness. We need to learn how to be connoisseurs of holiness, rather than critics. When confronting those with a different viewpoint than our own, we need to take a moment to appreciate their idealism and passion before criticizing them and stretch our souls to recognize goodness wherever it may be. Perhaps this is why the commandment you shall be holy is so vague; there will be 70 faces to holiness, and it is our obligation to cherish all of them.
This past week on Yom Hazikaron, I was thinking of an anecdote that reflects what authentic appreciation of holiness is. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva world in Israel for much of the 20th century. When a student asked his permission to take a short leave from the Yeshiva in Jerusalem to travel up north to pray at the “graves of the righteous,” Rabbi Auerbach told the student that he didn’t need to travel to visit holy graves; the student could cross the road and go to Mount Herzl, the military cemetery of the IDF, where there are the graves of holy soldiers who gave their lives to protect the people of Israel.
This insight is particularly powerful because even those of us in the religious-Zionist community would probably turn first to visit the graves of great rabbis to pray. Yet Rabbi Shlomo Zalman knew otherwise; he appreciated holiness wherever it may be. And it is certainly found at the graves of holy soldiers on Mount Herzl.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Is Life's Lottery in Our Hands?


Two brothers were major power brokers in Boston from the 1970s to the 1990s. William "Billy" Bulger was the President of the Massachusetts State Senate, and later the President of the University of Massachusetts system. His older brother, James “Whitey” Bulger, was the boss of the Irish mob, and the head of the feared Winter Hill Gang. One Bulger brother dominated the political world, the other the underworld. Their contrasting yet overlapping lives are a Shakespearean tale and the subject of multiple books and movies.
William Scott Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854
Our very fascination with their story betrays an inner uncertainty about free will. It surprises us that the Bulger brothers made such dramatically different choices, because we expect two children with the same home and the same parents to turn out pretty much the same. Most people tend to follow conventional paths and avoid the road less traveled by. For most of us, the Bulger saga is difficult to comprehend: How is it that two brothers could be such opposites?
A similar riddle stands at the center of the Yom Kippur service. Two identical goats are brought to the entrance of the sanctuary, to be dedicated as sacrifices. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, draws lots (two wooden plates, one inscribed with the words “to God,” and the other “to Azazel”), to determine the fate of the goats. The one which receives the lot with the words “to God” was sacrificed, and its blood brought into the inner Sanctuary, the Kodesh Kodashim. The one which receives the lot inscribed “to Azazel,” is sent into the barren wilderness and pushed off a stony cliff. The disparity between the fate of the goats is exceptional; one is brought into a place of profound holiness, the other to a place of desolation and godlessness. The goats stand together at the beginning, but end poles apart. For this reason, the Midrash says the two goats represent Jacob and Esau, twin brothers who pursue dramatically different destinies. But the riddle remains: Why do Jacob and Esau end up being so different?
Multiple commentaries explore why the goats are chosen for their tasks in such an unusual way. All other sacrifices are designated explicitly; why is the fortune of these two goats decided by lots? Two very different approaches are offered in response to this question. One view sees the lots as an allegory about the importance of free will; another sees them as a metaphor for the random nature of life.
Don Isaac Abravanel, and later, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, see the lots as a symbol of free will; which animal is chosen for which task is literally in the hands of the Kohen Gadol. (Abravanel insists that the Hebrew word for lot, goral, is actually a synonym for reward; the lot that is drawn is a reflection of the reward due.) Two identical animals are offered the same destiny at the very same time; what happens next depends on the choices that are made. As Hirsch puts it:
"These (two goats) are the symbols of the two paths between which we are to choose.... we are all faced with the decision between God and Azazel. We all stand at the Sanctuary entrance to choose… the choice is not predetermined for any of us…"
According to this perspective, the two lots represent good and evil; the direction we end up taking depends on our own choices. On Yom Kippur, the ceremony of the two goats places free will at the center, a critical reminder that every person can change their own destiny and repent.
One cannot underestimate the psychological and social value of believing in free will. Societies that are optimistic about the possibility of change are the ones in which change occurs. Students who think that they can change are the ones who learn the most. Psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about the educational impact of having a growth mindset, the belief that one’s skills can grow through effort and perseverance. Belief in free will is in itself transformative and a powerful motivator.
But there is another interpretation of the lots, one which, considering the importance of free will in Judaism, is rather unconventional. It was first offered by Rabbi Isaac Arama (a study partner of Abravanel's), as well as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. They interpret the drawing of lots as a metaphor for randomness. The Kohen Gadol would put his hands into a basket and blindly choose the lots for Azazel and for God. Where each goat ended up was merely a matter of luck. This interpretation argues that the same is true of life; who we are and what we become is often random. Rav Soloveitchik writes that this randomness is central to God's forgiveness on Yom Kippur. He says that “man is acquitted by his Maker because man is vulnerable…. He is easily persuaded, indeed brainwashed, and quickly defeated… Man sins because he is a weakling. Some are saints and righteous people because they were born into a home of saintliness and righteousness. Some are sinners because they were born into a house of atheism and agnosticism. Should the wicked be found guilty? Is he not wicked because he is vulnerable to external pressures?”
According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the central service of Yom Kippur is not about belief in free will, but rather our lack thereof. Who we are is very often determined by random factors, by events that are very much out of our control. Rabbi Soloveitchik articulates an idea which Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel would later call “moral luck.” As Nagel put it, “Someone who was an officer in a concentration camp might have led a quiet and harmless life if the Nazis had never come to power in Germany. And someone who led a quiet and harmless life in Argentina might have become an officer in a concentration camp if he had not left Germany for business reasons in 1930." Much of who we are and what we become is attributable to dumb luck.
This view emphasizes that Yom Kippur is not just a day of change, but also a day of forgiveness; and man is forgiven because much of what one does is determined by the luck of the draw.
Psychologically, this second interpretation is very significant as well. Very often failure is beyond our control; but even though we have no choice, we often feel profoundly guilty that we failed. To be able to forgive oneself for an unlucky lot, to recognize that one is forgiven by God when they failed to reach heroic standards, is critical to starting the new year with a fresh slate.
These two interpretations are polar opposites; one champions the role of free will, the other emphasizes the influence of luck. Reality stands somewhere between the two; many choices are made for us, but plenty of choices are made by us. Much of what we do, both good and bad, are the products of our environment and our circumstances; but as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler put it, there is always a point of choice, a small line in the moral battlefield, where we do exercise free will. Life is both random and intentional at the same time.
This duality may offer us another way to understand the Yom Kippur service. The goats stand as symbols of equal opportunity, while the lots signify chance, because free will and random luck stand side by side every day of our lives. Yom Kippur teaches us that as fragile, vulnerable beings we deserve forgiveness, but as remarkable, heroic beings we must earn it as well. Life is a dual reality of choice and coercion.
People who struggle with addictions recognize this dual reality. Making the right choice in the face of genetic predispositions and overwhelming cravings is difficult. And while correct choices are never easy, they are the only way out; and one isn’t always successful at first. One must choose the right path, but at the same time realize it may still be some distance away. The serenity prayer, which is used in many twelve-step groups, encapsulates this duality. It says:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Hopefully, we will be able to do the same on Yom Kippur.

Friday, April 01, 2022

Going Forward: A Story of Jewish Mothers


Ashager Araro was born on a roadside in Ethiopia. Her family was walking from their village to Addis Ababa, to meet the planes of Operation Solomon, which brought 14,325 people to Israel. After she was born, there was no time to wait, and her mother, inspired by her new baby, made the decision to keep going. Ashager means to “go forward” in Amharic; she explains that her parents chose that name because "I was born after the murder of my grandfather in Ethiopia, while my family was in journey to Israel. They saw my birth as a sign from God that I should live in Israel and have a safe Jewish life. That's why they named me Ashager - going forward from something bad to something good." Today Ashager is a pro-Israel activist and spokesperson, the founder of Bettae, the Ethiopian Israeli Heritage Center, and a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves.
Emil Osterman, Mother and Child, 1910
Ashager's birth was more dramatic than most; but every childbirth is about moving forward, and every childbirth involves hazard, worry, and hope. And the drama of childbirth is front and center at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, which offers a significant lesson about the importance of moving forward.
A new mother brings two sacrifices after childbirth: one is an “olah,” an “ascent offering,” and the second is a “chatat,” a “sin-offering”. The sin-offering is deeply puzzling. Of what sin could the new mother be guilty? How is childbirth a sin?
There are many answers offered for this baffling question; I would like to focus on three of them. The first two explanations relate to two opposing aspects of childbirth. Childbirth is a natural bodily function, instinctive and involuntary, something humans have in common with much of the animal kingdom. But on the other hand, reproduction for humans is very different; it is a matter of choice, not the compulsion of instinct. In the rabbinic tradition, having children is a mitzvah, a commandment, because the decision to have children is an expression of one’s values and aspirations. Childbirth is both absolutely physical and profoundly spiritual at the same time.
So why bring the sin-offering? Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno focuses on the physical aspects of childbirth. The mother’s preoccupation with injuries, pain, and bodily functions, distracts her from her ultimate responsibilities. The sin-offering is a spiritual turning point, when the mother moves on from a deeply physical phase of life. Seforno explains that "during the days after childbirth her thoughts were preoccupied with the workings of her reproductive organs, and because of this she is not in the right state of mind to enter the Temple and offer holy sacrifices…." Fixating on the physical, the new mother loses touch with the spiritual realm. This interpretation emphasizes how the mother is immersed in the mundane during and after childbirth.
A very different theory is offered by Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein, the Sochatchover Rebbe, in his Shem MiShmuel. He explains that childbirth is a moment of incredible holiness, when the mother experiences the divine gift of bringing life into the world. To return to ordinary life afterwards is a spiritual let down. The sin-offering atones for this subtle failure, that the mother returns to the everyday after experiencing the transcendent. (I would add that for similar reasons, the Nazir brings a sin offering after the conclusion of his vow.) This explanation is the exact opposite of the Seforno’s; instead of focusing on the travails of childbirth, the Shem MiShmuel sees giving birth to a child as a divine gift. According to the Seforno, the mother offers a sin-offering as a way of moving past a fixation on the physical; according to the Shem MiShmuel, she brings a sin-offering in regret that she has left behind a unique spiritual experience.  
Both the Seforno and the Shem MiShmuel relate the sin-offering to the past. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a fascinating interpretation which sees the sin-offering as looking forward to the future, where the mother, after enduring the difficulties of childbirth, vows she will continue onward with determination and courage. Hirsch sees the sin as metaphorical; humanity is supposed to choose their own destiny, but during a vulnerable, involuntary experience like childbirth, the woman is helpless. He explains that the new mother’s sin-offering expresses her renewed determination to continue with her mission, and that "the days of suffering that come with her life's calling will not break her moral strength. Rather she will undertake and endure the suffering out of a sense of duty and for the sake of her exalted task..." Childbirth is a moment of absolute vulnerability, a complete loss of control. Motherhood is a dream of hope, a courageous look into the future. With the sin-offering, the mother vows to no longer be helpless, and to never let obstacles get in the way of her destiny. The mother courageously declares “ashager” - I will go forward, and I will not allow pain and suffering to impede my mission.
This lesson about childbirth is not just for new mothers. What mothers do is critical for the entire nation; the Talmud tells us that the Jewish people survived in Egypt because of the righteous women, who continued to have children in the most difficult of conditions. But what the entire nation does is just as critical. The Talmud makes it clear that it is a communal obligation to care for, raise, and educate the next generation. The lessons of childbirth are a national lesson; we all have a responsibility to ensure a Jewish future.
That is why we all take pride in the children of our community. Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman was one of the most brilliant Talmudic scholars of the post-war period. A survivor of the Holocaust, he lost his young son during the war. After he settled in Israel, he established a Yeshiva, and was considered one of the leading rabbinic figures in the world. Every year, he and his wife would attend an annual parade (on Yom Yerushalayim) where children would march in the center of Jerusalem. A colleague who walked by them one year asked Rabbi Gustman why a man of his stature would waste his time with such a frivolous activity. Rabbi Gustman responded, "We who saw a generation of children die, will take pleasure in a generation of children who sing and dance in these streets." Every Jewish child is a miracle of hope, and we all must take pride in them.
When we read about the sacrifices brought by the new mother, we should think about the sacrifices made by countless Jewish mothers, and by the Jewish people as a whole. We should remember all who courageously said “ashager” - we must go forward. It is because of them that we are here today.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Jews, Romans, and Pigs: An Impossible History

When the vegan meat manufacturer Impossible Foods requested kosher certification for its new line of “Impossible Pork,” the OU balked. Although the actual product is made of kosher ingredients, the OU found that certifying Impossible Pork as kosher was….simply impossible. For years, there have been many “faux unkosher” products, such as imitation shrimp, dairy-free cheeseburgers, and even imitation bacon, but the OU felt that pork is different. Chanie Apfelbaum, a New York kosher food blogger and cookbook author, explained to the Wall Street Journal that she had no problem eating Impossible Cheeseburgers, but that she has “a hard time getting past the idea of eating something that’s called ‘pork’ and is meant to taste like pork.”
Suovetaurilia (sacrifice of a pig, a sheep and a bull) to the god Mars, relief from the panel of a sarcophagus. Marble, Roman artwork, first half of the 1st century CE.
This resistance to pork seems strange from a halakhic perspective. Other prohibited foods, such as chametz on Pesach or the fat of the hindquarters are more severe than pork. Yet despite this, the metaphor for something unquestionably non-kosher is “chazer treif,” as un-Kosher as pork. Clearly, Jews have a particular problem with pork.

Jews have had negative feelings about pigs for over 2,000 years, and in many ways, the antagonism was created by anti-Jewish polemics. The Greco-Roman world saw the Jewish refusal to eat pork as extremely strange; along with monotheism, circumcision, and Shabbat, it was a Jewish practice that perplexed outsiders. Pork was a staple of the Roman diet, and both Greeks and Romans used pigs for animal sacrifices. Outsiders mocked the Jewish refusal to eat pork. In the year 40, a violent battle raged between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria. Philo Judaeus, a leader of the Jewish community, led a delegation to Rome to meet with the Emperor Caligula. As both parties to the dispute stood before him, Caligula asked Philo: "Why is it that you abstain from eating pig's flesh?" The Greeks burst out in laughter, certain that Caligula meant this as an insult.

Many in the ancient world saw the Jewish refusal to eat pig meat as misanthropic, part of a larger Jewish refusal to engage with the rest of the world; the desire to remain “a nation that dwells alone” irritated many in the ancient world. It is for this reason, when persecuting the Jews, their tormentors forced them to eat pork. The Book of Maccabees, which relates the history behind the Chanukah story, tells of martyrs who refused to eat pork and gave up their lives instead. Included among them were a mother and her seven sons, all of whom refused to eat pork and were all killed. Diodorus, a 1st century BCE Greek historian, explains that Antiochus, the villain of the Chanukah story, sprinkled pig’s blood on the Temple’s altar, poured pig gravy on the Temple’s Torah scrolls, and forced the High Priest to eat pork. Diodorus explains that Antiochus assumed if he could break Jewish habits regarding pork, he could break Judaism.

In the Roman era, there was a change in rhetoric; the Jewish refusal to eat pig was not seen as an expression of hostility to pigs (and those who eat them), but rather an expression of affinity for pigs. Juvenal, the first century poet and satirist wrote that among the Jews, ‘‘a long- established clemency suffers pigs to attain old age." Another satirist commented regarding Herod, who killed several of his own children, that he would "rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” Petronius referred to the Jews as worshipers of a ‘‘pig-god." The Jews' refusal to eat pork was twisted into evidence of a Jewish fondness for pigs.

This theme continues into the medieval era. Irven M. Resnick writes: “The pleasure-loving pig, then, became a familiar image in medieval Christian anti-Jewish polemics. Moreover, the pig will be understood to have been forbidden to Jews precisely because the two share the same natural qualities or characteristics. That is, Jews will be viewed as "pig-like" while, conversely, pigs will be viewed as "Jew-like."” In other words, Christians can eat pork because they have a superior disposition; but Jews, who are ravenous gluttons, are prohibited from doing so, because it will reinforce their already pig-like disposition. Popular culture in medieval Europe was far more malevolent; the Judensau, “the Jews’ pig,” which depicts Jews in close contact with a pig, became popular in the 13th century. It was disseminated on woodcuts, paintings, and sculptures, and a frieze of the Judensau was found on multiple churches and cathedrals. (Images of the Judensau remain on nearly two dozen churches in Europe to this day.) Martin Luther reports approvingly about the Judensau at his local church:

“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary…”
This nauseating antisemitic image is the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish and antisemitic polemic, all focused on Jews and pigs. One simple kosher law became the focus of profound hatred, all because Jews wouldn’t eat pork.
In rabbinic literature, one sees a mirror image of these polemics; the laws regarding the pig are read as a reference to the Roman Empire. To the rabbis, the negative attributes of the pig symbolize the excesses of Rome, which like the pig, is destructive and self-centered. This polemic has a fascinating nuance. One well-known Midrash regarding the pig/Rome analogy focuses on how the pig is in a sense “half-kosher,” because the pig has one of two signs of the kosher animal; it has split hooves but does not chew its cud. But this isn’t seen as a reason for praise; instead, being “half-kosher” emphasizes the hypocrisy of the Romans. The Midrash says: “Why is he (Rome) compared to a pig? Just as the pig, when it lays down, it puts out its hooves and says, ‘‘I am kosher,’’ so too does the kingdom of Rome (Edom) arrogantly commit robbery and violence, while making believe they are smoothing out a tablecloth on the table (and acting very civilized and hospitable).” It then continues to tell a story about a Roman magistrate who was sentencing thieves, adulterers, and sorcerers to death, and afterwards remarked, “I did all three of these last night." The Roman Empire had achieved a great deal; it had abundant public works, and a fully functioning legal system. But the rabbis saw through the hypocrisy of a leadership class that satisfied their own rapacious desires without limits; they saw up close the inhumanity of a so-called “civilized” empire that used violence indiscriminately to achieve its goals.
Jews associated the pig with the Roman empire, and the pig was the food of the enemy. This is why pig is “chazer treif,” and pork is the most “anti-Jewish” of non-kosher foods, because pork carries with it a legacy of centuries of antisemitism and antagonism.

There is one final twist to the impossible history of Jews, Romans, and pigs. There is a tradition, attributed to the Midrash but first recorded in the 13th century, that in messianic times, the pig will return to the Jews and become kosher; this insight is based on the similarity between the Hebrew word for pig, “hachazir,” and the word for return, “l’hachzir.” This unusual tradition creates a lot of debate; some, like Rabbi Baruch Epstein, reject the Midrash as a forgery, while others reinterpret it. However, many accept this tradition; Rav Chaim ben Attar, the author of the Ohr HaChaim, says that when the Messiah arrives, pigs will begin to chew their cud and become kosher. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was an advocate of this Midrash, although he took the view that in messianic times, pigs would not chew their cud, but rather our perspective will shift, and will reveal the goodness within the half-kosher pig.

Undoubtedly, this change in the kosher status of pigs carries a larger lesson about the Roman Empire and its successors; when the Messiah comes, the descendants of Esau and Jacob will join hands together in peace. The good works of the Roman Empire will now be united with a higher morality and spiritual purpose. The age-old divisions of antisemitism and animosity will dissolve, and brothers will be brothers once again.

I have a particular affinity for this tradition because it is rooted in the unending optimism of the Jewish people. Even the pig, a symbol of Roman oppression and ages of antisemitism, is still able to become kosher and return to the Jewish people. There is always potential for change, always a possibility for rapprochement.
We are already part of the way there. Rabbi Herman Adler, the Chief Rabbi of England at the turn of the 20th century, once met a Catholic colleague, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, at a luncheon. The Cardinal asked him, “Now, Dr. Adler, when may I have the pleasure of helping you to some ham?” Without missing a beat, Adler responded: “At Your Eminence’s wedding.”

This comic exchange would have been impossible in the 3rd century, or the 13th century. But the good humor and camaraderie between the Chief Rabbi and the Cardinal in the 20th century offer a glimpse into a different world, where the impossible is possible, and Rome and the Jews can be reunited.


Thursday, March 17, 2022

A Letter from Poland: When Will Goodness Win Out?

In the past two weeks we have seen humanity at its worst. An invasion, purposeless and unprovoked, has left death and destruction in its path. Thousands have died, and millions have fled from their homes. A humanitarian disaster has devastated a country of 44 million people, and like most disasters, this one disproportionately affects the elderly, the young and the infirm. 

Witnessing the situation in person is profoundly upsetting. I have just returned from Poland, where I went as part of a UJA-Federation of New York Rabbinic Mission; there, we saw the refugees and heard their stories. They had made a long journey over a short distance, sometimes waiting as long as 48 hours to cross the border. One night, in the extreme cold, six people died waiting in line at one of the crossings. We visited the Medyka border crossing, where immigrants walk in on foot, and the Przemyśl train station, where they arrive in extremely overcrowded trains. To see their faces is to see the face of catastrophe; they carry with them a few light bags, and expressions of grief, sadness, and anxiety. Because Ukraine has a general conscription of all men between 18 and 60, virtually all of the refugees are women, children and the elderly. At the makeshift Jewish Agency center in the Warsaw Novotel, we met a young woman who had fled with her two children, ages four and nine, while leaving her husband behind; tears rolled down her face as she spoke about how she worries for his welfare. And speaker after speaker impressed upon us that Poland is merely the tip of the iceberg; what we saw, as disturbing as it was, is minor compared to what is happening inside Ukraine.  

A trip like this is profoundly unsettling, and leaves one with more questions than answers. You begin to wonder how it is possible that within the family of mankind there can be such violence. Why would someone do this, and inflict so much pain and suffering? But even as this question gnaws at the heart, the mind knows the reality: violence has been with us from the very beginning, when Cain murdered his brother Abel. But the fact that violence is part of life only makes reality more painful. Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet who survived the Holocaust, wrote a powerful poem that captures the anguish one feels in confronting endless inhumanity:

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

In the poem, Eve, the mother of all mankind, is pleading with her son Cain: Why are you doing this? But Eve is cut down before she can speak; violence silences her plea. Eve's shock at seeing violence arise in the world’s first family is one we share with her right now.

Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, at the beginning of Faith After the Holocaust, reminds the reader that “perhaps even more important than the question Where was God? is, Where was Man?” Berkovits discusses the role of man’s free will in understanding God’s relationship with the world, and focuses on man, who is given absolute free will to choose good and evil. Perhaps some will find the “free will defense” of God’s goodness meaningful; but in its wake, it creates a far deeper existential crisis. Since humanity is capable of such horrible evil, how can anyone ever trust in human goodness? To lose faith in mankind is no small thing, because without it, the world becomes a very dark and distressing place. Perhaps the unhappiest verse in the Tanakh is found in the eighth chapter of Genesis, which declares “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood”; man is born with a propensity to evil. This is a very distressing thought.

There are times, as we have seen in the past two weeks, when mankind’s potential for inhumanity seems limitless. But the story doesn’t end there. There is, on the other side, an army of helpers. In Poland, we saw volunteers who mobilized from around the world, and their goodness is truly unending. 

When our group arrived, we immediately went to visit the centers, shelters, kitchens and clinics serving the refugees. None of this infrastructure existed two weeks ago; it all came together spontaneously in a groundswell of volunteering. I was incredibly proud to see the exceptional job that the UJA - Federation has done on the ground in Poland; they are deeply involved in supporting and coordinating these new initiatives, and offering them financial and logistical support. The overall attitude is one of all hands on deck, with every spare space being used for refugees. Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, the historic Polish Yeshiva which in recent years has been a museum, has been turned into a shelter. Now, refugees coming to Lublin know to look for “the Yeshiva.” There, we met Agnes, a young member of the Jewish community, who'd been spending every free moment volunteering. When we asked her if working 16 hour days, 7 days a week was too difficult, she answered with a laugh that she hadn't had a chance to think about it. But Agnes came with a sense of purpose. She told us, "When I can give a child a toy and make them happy, I know I am doing work that matters."

Legions of volunteers are coming from around the world. It is astounding how many people have come to help, to do good. On the Polish side of the Medyka crossing is a long line of tents, which can only be described as an outdoor market of volunteer organizations. The booths offer the entering refugees food, groceries, clothing and baby goods. And there is more, so much more, that I saw in just 48 hours in Poland. We met with local Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the JCC Krakow, Rabbi Avi Baumol, the Rabbi of Krakow, and Tzvi Sperber, the director of JRoots, who have dropped everything else and are working day and night to serve the refugees. There are volunteers working 24/7, offering healthcare, childcare and emotional support. We heard about two people who are trucking supplies into Ukraine, and then on the return trip, bringing elderly people back to Poland. And some volunteers just hand out candy to the children. The devotion of all of them is exceptional. When the Book of Psalms exclaims "You have made man just a little less than the divine one, and adorned him with glory and majesty," it meant people like this.

The worst and the best of mankind have been on display the past two weeks. The stark contrast between the two defies easy analysis. What truly is man? Are human beings generally good, or generally bad?

This is an issue that has been debated by rabbis, theologians, and philosophers for centuries. The Talmud relates: "For two and a half years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. And those said: It is preferable for man to have been created than had he not been created..." The phrasing of this passage is a bit vague, but many commentaries read this text as a debate about the nature of human beings: are they good enough to be worthy of creation, or not? In other words, is mankind inherently good, or bad? In the end, the conclusion is that it would have been better for man to have not been created. The Talmud embraces pessimism, and sees humans as too flawed, fated to be bad.

This debate continues through the generations. There are Chasidic thinkers such as Rav Tzadok of Lublin who are optimists, and see the good in everything, including failure and sin; in his view every aspect of human potential is filled with greatness. The Mitnagdim, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, had a much more pessimistic view, seeing man’s spiritual potential as profoundly limited; only in death can man’s soul first begin to flourish. And this debate is not unique to Judaism, or to theologians. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, Hobbes is a pessimist, who sees human nature as fundamentally violent and destructive, while Rousseau is an optimist, who believes that man’s inherent good is instinctive. And the debate doesn’t end there. Ask nearly anyone, and they will offer their own philosophy of human nature, pessimistic or optimistic, often colored by life experience.

There is a third view, one which sees human nature as half and half, balanced between good and evil. Every person is in an ongoing struggle; there is a yetzer tov, a good inclination, and yetzer harah, an evil inclination, and the two clash constantly. But this struggle is not just an individual struggle. The Rambam, (paraphrasing a passage in the Talmud), says:

…Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at themselves as equally balanced between innocence and guilt, and the world as equally balanced between merit and guilt. If they perform one sin, it tips their balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings about destruction. However, if they perform one mitzvah, they tip their own balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit, and bring about deliverance and salvation….

This is a powerful paradigm. Mankind is not good or evil; it is up to each of us to change the world, and tip the scale in the favor of goodness. There is a constant battle for the soul of humanity, and even the smallest good deed we do can make a difference for the entire world. 

Many of us might feel a rush of cynicism while reading this passage in the Rambam. Perhaps on a divine level the world is saved; but down on earth, things are different. Good deeds are nice, but they don’t change much; handing out candy to children won’t stop a tank. This cynicism is warranted, but the Rambam deserves a careful hearing nonetheless. What he is articulating is a religious version of the “butterfly effect.” In nature, even small actions can make a big difference, and even a butterfly flapping its wings can have an outsized impact on the weather, and theoretically even cause a tornado. The same is true of spirituality; small actions can have a major impact. One must never overlook the value of a good deed, because its impact years later can be much larger than imagined.

Before I left for Poland, several people asked me if the trip was worth my while; after all, what could a rabbi do there? I found the answer to this question on Tuesday morning. At 6:00 AM, we went back to the Warsaw Novotel to see off a group of 40 Ukrainians on their way to Israel. I had the opportunity to address them through a translator, and told them that we, the Jewish community around the world, are their family, and would be with them every step of the way. I blessed them and told them our hearts are with them. Then our group handed out chocolates and Israeli flags, and while I was doing so, got many more smiles than I thought I would. 

It isn’t always worth traveling halfway around the world for a smile. But this time it was. I was no hero, not like Agnes and all of the tireless volunteers we met. Even so, I still could bring a bit of warmth to a few refugees, and let them know that they were not alone; and that alone was worth the entire trip. 

Sometimes, a small piece of chocolate can make a big difference.

Friday, March 11, 2022

What Will Happen if Women Don’t Come Back?


In a recent article in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought entitled "Where Are All the Women?," Dr. Erica Brown relates the following:

“When I was 18 and in seminary in Jerusalem, I went to morning minyan in a large local Israeli yeshiva. Having attended a co-ed Jewish day school with a daily minyan requirement, this seemed normative enough. The few men populating the cavernous women’s section in this yeshiva, however, huffed when I appeared. My presence was an obvious inconvenience to their communal prayer experience. After a few weeks, I was called into the Rosh Yeshiva’s office, where he asked me in Hebrew if I had my eye on a yeshiva bochur. “No,” I replied. “I come here to daven.”
Lazar Krestin, Portrait of a Jewish woman holding a prayer book, before 28 February 1938
The insensitivity of the men to Erica’s spiritual interests is upsetting; the Rosh Yeshiva’s condescension is disturbing. But at the same time, her presence at minyan was an anomaly. Women have no obligation to pray with a minyan, and in many synagogues, women generally don’t attend daily services.

But women everywhere do come to synagogue on Shabbat. And throughout history, there were many communities where groups of women came to daily services. They did so, despite being exempt from communal prayer. And the question is: Why did women choose to come to the synagogue?

The answer begins with a passage in the Talmud. Our Torah reading discusses the ritual of semikhah of laying one's hands on the sacrifice that is being offered. Semikhah is a meaningful ritual that conveys how this sacrifice stands as a proxy for the owner, who is symbolically offering themself to God. Women were exempted from doing semikhah on their sacrifices. The Talmud records a debate whether women can voluntarily choose to perform semikhah. Rav Yosi and Rav Shimon ruled that they may do so, and Rav Yosi recounts that "Abba Elazar related to me the following incident: On one occasion, we had a calf for a peace-offering, and we brought it to the Women’s Courtyard, and women placed their hands on it… in order to give contentment to the women.” This ruling goes beyond semikhah; it is stands as a precedent, one that authorizes women to take part in time-bound commandments such as Shofar, Sukkah, and Lulav, as well as other commandments from which they are exempt, such as Torah study and praying with a minyan.

Women embraced the opportunity to perform these mitzvot. Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan, or the Raavan, an early 12th century rabbi from Germany, writes that “one should not protest” when women perform commandments from which they are exempt and make a blessing. The implication of his words is clear: without even asking, women took the initiative to do these mitzvot on their own.

Women have always had a particular devotion to the synagogue. The Torah tells us that in the first sanctuary in the desert, the Mishkan, a large group of women would assemble daily at the entrance. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that they came to pray and study. The prayer of Chanah at the Mishkan in Shiloh is studied carefully by the Talmud and is the foundation of many of the rules of prayer.  In medieval Europe, women were very committed to synagogue life.  Avraham Grossman cites multiple references of women attending services. Yemima Hovav, in her analysis of the epitaphs on Jewish tombstones, found that women were praised for their regular synagogue attendance as often as men. In addition, there are multiple records of medieval women leaving money in their wills to the upkeep of the local synagogue.

All this involvement in synagogue life took place against the background of a medieval custom that women did not enter a synagogue while they were menstruating. Despite this obstacle, their passion for synagogue attendance remained undiminished. As Elisheva Baumgarten points out, “On the contrary, the imposition of physical distance may have elevated women's awareness of synagogue activities and their longing to return."
A moving example of women’s devotion is found in the eulogy offered by the Rokeach, Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, for his wife Dulcea, who, along with her two young daughters was murdered during a home invasion. In a eulogy of heartbroken poetry, based on the words of “Eshet Chayil,” the Rokeach says:

Her lamp will not go out in the night,
because she makes wicks for the miniature Temple (synagogue) and the house of study,
and she says Psalms,
She sings hymns and prayers, she recites petitions,
Daily (she says) the viduy confession …
She says pittum haktoret and the Ten Commandments,
In all the towns she taught women (so that they) can chant songs
She knows the order of the morning and evening prayers
And she comes early to synagogue and stays late,
She stands throughout Yom Kippur, and sings…
Dulcea was a woman of prayer.

Despite being exempt from praying with a minyan, women were dedicated to synagogue life. One passage in the Talmud sums it up best: “There was a widow in whose neighborhood there was a synagogue, yet every day went to pray in the study hall of Rabbi Yoḥanan. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her: My daughter, is there not a synagogue in your neighborhood? She said to him: My teacher, don’t I attain a reward for all the steps I take while walking to pray in the distant study hall?” This widow literally went the extra mile to find an inspiring synagogue. It is from her example that we learn the importance of sechar pesiyot, the value of making an extra effort to go to the synagogue. And this passage is a metaphor for women’s devotion to synagogue life; they have always been ready to go the extra mile, no matter what the obstacles were.

But recently, things have changed.

Dr. Brown begins her article with a recent conversation she had in synagogue.

“One recent Shabbat in shul, a friend ….whispered in my ear, “Where are all the women?” The men’s side was brimming with religious activity. The women’s side looked as if we were still practicing rigorous social distancing… even in our wonderful synagogue with a generally high female turnout.”
For some reason, in many modern Orthodox congregations, women have not returned since the coronavirus. Brown explains:
“Let’s be honest. Not every woman who is not going to shul on Shabbat is raising a young family or caring for someone elderly. Not every woman who has stopped attending minyan is struggling with feminism’s discomfort with Orthodox prayer space and gender disparity.” One could, and should, discuss issues related to feminism and Judaism. However, that isn’t the reason why women haven’t returned to synagogue since Covid.
At the conclusion of the article, she makes an impassioned case for women to return to synagogue, offering 10 different arguments. (The article it is available here)

But this is not just a women’s issue. Whether or not women return to the synagogue matters to the entire community; what’s at stake is a unique spiritual legacy. When reading about the history of women and prayer this past week, I was struck by how generations of women were absolutely determined to pray in synagogue no matter what the impediments were. In the women’s section, the knowledgeable women would teach the others the prayers and parsha; there would be books of tkhines, prayers in Yiddish, so that even those with limited educational backgrounds could find the words with which to approach God. In the corners of synagogues, women came to pray, to speak to God, and pour out their hearts. They had many reasons to stay home, many barriers to overcome. But they still went to the synagogue to pray.

Without a doubt, these women influenced their communities, their friends, their husbands, their children. Many rabbis learned the beauty of prayer on their mothers’ laps, and would say so to their students. Women’s prayer is the foundation of Jewish prayer.

What will happen if women don’t come back to synagogue?