4/29/15

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Column for May 2015: Love of God, Lights on Shabbat and Appreciating Rav Lichtenstein

Dear Rabbi
Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve recited the Shema all my life, since I was a child, in synagogue and at home. I know it is made up of biblical passages and that it is at the core of our prayers. Recently, though, I started to wonder about the verse: “And you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” The two terms “love” and “God” are difficult for me to understand. I find it remarkable that the Torah instructs or commands us to have an emotion for a religious idea, to love God. Can you help me understand this?

Perplexed in Paramus


Dear Perplexed,

Love is perhaps the most complex of all human emotions. And God is perhaps the most awesome of religious concepts. Each of those is a great mystery to all beings. To love God. How can the Torah command us to engage in such an enigmatic action? You seem perhaps to feel that for you loving God may be an unreachable ideal.

What makes love so complex? For starters, there are many kinds of love. There’s at least romantic love, filial love, parental love, platonic love, unrequited love, undying love, and more. And on the concept of God, there is no end to what theology has to say.

I’ve studied much theology, but let me be honest, I’m no expert in love. Just because I am in love with someone special, because I know the intense fulfillment and the happiness of redemptive love, because I have read books and poetry and studies in psychology and science that explore love, all of that put together still does not make me an expert.

So I hesitate to give advice on this inexplicable subject. I’ll just say that I have noticed a few things about love that may help you find an answer to your question.

I have found that it is true that the object of our romantic love may be a real person, a woman whom we find beautiful and charming and energetic, or a man whom we find handsome and funny and reliable. And we may declare that we direct our love to that other actual person.

But I have concluded that is not exactly the case. I discovered over the years that actually I direct my wonderful inner emotion called love to an ideal image of my beloved that I created interior to my being. My assumption and hope is that the inner persona that I shaped closely represents the real person out there. I hope that I have not put my lover on too high a pedestal or imagined that she is more wonderful than she can be in “real life”.

I feel strongly that I love the real object of my affection through that imagined figure that I crafted in my mind.

And so with this premise, let me come back to your inquiry about loving God. We ought not expect to love a tangible deity directly. When we love God, that love is filtered through our ideas, notions that come to us through our traditions.

When we read in the verse of the Shema, “And you shall love…” it instructs us to direct our fundamental human emotions toward the ideas of a deity that we have formulated. In the Shema, the ideas of God describe a personality who cares for us individually, who keeps track of every action that we perform, who rewards and punishes us. Elsewhere in Tanach we learn about God’s heroic acts on behalf of our ancestors, his reliable promises to protect and redeem us as a people, his handsome mystical majesty, and much more.

How remarkable. Twice daily we are reminded in our prayers to direct our emotion of love toward an abstract entity that we will never see in real time. And we do that by pointing our love toward our inner ideal pictures of an awesome and loving God.

In addition to that direct action itself, there’s a wonderful added benefit to practicing the love of God. I have thought from time to time how being actively mindful every day of loving my inner image of God helps me keep strong my ability to love the images I have fashioned of the other significant entities in my life. Through the mechanisms of all of my inner representations, I seek to connect my real and vivid emotions to those special real people whom I dearly love.

Dear Rabbi,

I read about a new invention: a rabbi-approved light switch that allows Orthodox Jews to turn lights on and off on Shabbat. The convenience of having such a switch on Shabbat could be a significant gain for Orthodox Jews. At first I thought it was a great idea, and I understood that rabbis approved it. Then I heard that some rabbis oppose the innovation. I don’t understand why anyone would oppose it. What’s your ruling on this subject?

Turned on in Teaneck


Dear Turned on,

Your question is grounded in the common sense of our Western culture, which values convenience. You assume a more expedient option for living will be adopted quickly, and you ask me to give you a ruling that accommodates that assumption.

I’m not going to do that. I’ve said here in the past that I don’t aim to render decisions on Jewish law in this column. For that you will have to seek out a halachic columnist — an engineer of the Jewish tradition — who will provide you with a decision of law. Here I’ll offer you talmudic insights — some of the science on which our practices are based — and I’ll leave the application of that to others.

The Talmud offers many principles for defining work on Shabbat. Most of them are technical. Some are ethical. The Shabbat switch inventors claim to have created a device that avoids all the technical taboos and therefore allows the use of electricity on Shabbat. The inventors claim that by using their switch, a Jew will not perform forbidden labor on Shabbat.

So what then makes rabbis object to this easing of the taboos? Apparently some rabbis don’t accept the engineering claims. They believe that Shabbat work restrictions are violated when using the switch. Other authorities don’t find fault with the engineering of the switch. They object to changing the “sacred character” of the Shabbat and to easing the quasi-wilderness experience that the Shabbat rules help create.

Many people of all faiths enjoy recreation, when they can voluntarily go out camping and forgo the conveniences of modern life. Rabbis believe that a similar diminution of modernity defines a special nature of the holy day of rest. It harkens back and binds us to the time of yore, when the Israelites and ancient Jews had no electricity or other appurtenances and conveniences of innovation.

I like to go camping and I do value convenience. And I’m sorry but I won’t decide for you what to do in this case. Ask a rabbi who does the applied engineering of Jewish laws what they prefer that you do. And then I advise you to act according to your ethical imperatives.

Dear Rabbi,

This is not actually an advice question. I was wondering who you think was the greatest rabbi of our times?

Rating our Rabbis in Rockleigh


Dear Rating,

I’m glad you asked this. There are no objective criteria to determine who is the greatest, no elections, contests, playoffs, Super Bowls, or World Series of rabbis. It’s a highly subjective question and one that is based mostly on opinion.

I have several personal favorites among those rabbis who lived in recent years. I’ll tell you about one rabbi who just passed away, someone who made a great difference in my life.

I had the privilege of studying in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s Talmud shiur (class) at Yeshiva College for two years, beginning when I was 16 years old.

He was one of the finest teachers that I studied with in college — a genius as an educator and a sincere and compassionate human being. He is the person whom I chose to personify the quintessential scribe personality of prayer in my book “God’s Favorite Prayers.”

Rav Aharon was a special teacher who imbued me with indelible lessons that I have taken with me throughout my life.

Rav Aharon taught me that you could be both a humanist and a talmudic scholar, a lamdan. He clearly loved English literature, which he had studied at Harvard. He often and freely quoted poets John Milton and Edmund Spenser. He happily contrasted the ideas of the enlightenment with those of the Torah. But all the time it was clear to me that literature was his avocation and that learning Torah was his true vocation.

Rav Aharon also taught me that you could critically study and deeply love the lifestyle instructions — called the hashkafah — of the Torah. Each week, we read and discussed a chapter in Rabbi Elimelech Bar Shaul’s inspirational Hebrew treatise, Mitzvah Valev (Tel Aviv, 1956), which means the commandments and the heart. Through that work, Rav Aharon taught us that the cognitive understanding of a commandment had to be joined to the emotional commitment of one’s heart. His lessons had a profoundly powerful and positive impact on my faith.

Rav Aharon taught me that you could be a vitally creative pedagogue even in the most traditional subjects of learning. The college administration told him that he had to give us exams in Talmud, the main subject that he taught us. He used that as an opportunity to teach us more. He gave us thought-questions. Based on something we learned previously, he would ask us to resolve a new scenario. Or he would give us text-questions. He would have us examine a brand new text, related to some passage we had learned before, and then he asked us to parse it and to comment on it. We had to decide what commentary he had plucked the text from, tell him what the text meant, and then explain why we came to our conclusions. That was hard.

That is how Rav Aharon taught me that an exam could do more than ask a student to regurgitate what he had learned. The rabbi tested my knowledge and my thinking powers at the same time, and he was the only teacher I ever had who truly knew details of my personal styles of learning and of my own intellectual strengths and weaknesses. I happily confess that I used elements of Rav Aharon’s methodology of thought-questions and text-questions in many of the Talmud and Jewish studies courses that I taught over the years at the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and elsewhere.

After I went on to become a professor, I would take extended leaves to work on my research in Jerusalem. My family owns a Katamon-neighborhood apartment that we inherited from my grandparents, who moved to Israel from New York City in the 1950s. That is where I lived while in Jerusalem. In the mornings, I frequently would go to the Shacharit morning services at the shtiblach nearby.

The shtiblach was a veritable prayer mall, a busy set of connected, one-room prayer-halls in a modest neighborhood building. I would often see the saintly Rav Aharon at one of the services there. I would sit near him and thereby join him de facto at prayer. That would lift my spirits for the day.

Because Rav Aharon embodied the ideals of a primary archetype of praying, I considered him to be a remarkable model of prayer, of study, of teaching, and of Jewish living. For me, Rav Lichtenstein was the greatest rabbi of our times. He died on April 20.

Zecher zaddik levrachah.

Tzvee Zahavy received his PhD from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author many books, including these Kindle Edition books available at Amazon.com:  "The  Book of Jewish Prayers in English," "Rashi: The Greatest Exegete," "God's Favorite Prayers" and "Dear Rabbi" – which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

4/27/15

The Theological Cosmology of Rabbi Dr. Zev Zahavy

I published my dad's book for Kindle, "Whence and Wherefore" a major work of theological cosmology by Rabbi Dr. Zev Zahavy, of blessed memory.

Here is the final chapter of the book:

THE PLIGHT OF THE PARTICULAR

A very sagacious cocoon for emergent life was spun on Planet Earth by Mother Nature. However, her main concern seems to be the fostering of species, and ensuring their perpetuation. Nature patently ignores the trials and tribulations of the particular. Nature is clement toward her family, but obdurate toward its individual members. Small wonder, then, that an analysis of the human situation reveals wholesale anguish and anxiety as the forerunners of despair and hopelessness.
Such forlorn attitudes are quite prevalent in contemporary society. The atheist-existentialist, for example, moans about the vacuity of human existence. There is no logical explanation for the inanity of man’s being. In fact, it appears that nature played a cruel hoax on its supreme product, man. It endowed man with an intellect, with which he was enabled to perceive the utter futility of his own essence.
It is not easy to suffer the awareness of a meaningless existence. No organic specimen, other than man, has been inflicted with such a prepotent imposition. It hardly inspires a zest for life when one observes nature smiling broadly upon the species as an entity, and favoring the biologically superior product, while brusquely turning her back upon the tortured human psyche. Why was man chastised by being granted a brain that may apprehend all this?
Has man’s superior mental apparatus brought him greater security or happiness? An ego-awareness faculty, such as man possesses, becomes a hollow mockery in face of the emotional torment it causes him to endure. His intellect weighs upon him like a burdensome albatross. It would have been a far better thing for man to have been deprived of such a keen, discerning thinking-equipage, because as a simple biological creature, he would never have comprehended the sordid plight of mortal existence. If man were nothing more than a menial biped, he would have been spared the voluminous psychological stress and emotional sorrow to which he is presently subject.

Are Buses Kosher on the Sabbath in Israel?

Amazing as it may seem, under the right circumstances, the operation of buses in Israel may be Kosher on the Sabbath.

The Times has a report from its Jerusalem Bureau on Israelis who are lobbying for the easing of the restriction on public buses running on Shabbat in Israel.

There are many Israelis who oppose Shabbat bus service, including non-Orthodox Israelis who appreciate the special nature of one day a week without bus congestion on their streets.

Orthodox Israelis on the whole approve of the ban on buses. But some Orthodox have started to realize that limited public bus service, where non-Jews drive on fixed routes, could be a great asset to them and could cut down on the non-religious Jews' driving, considered by the Orthodox to be violations of the Sabbath.

Changes ordinarily don't happen fast in Israeli public services. But I suspect that in this case, the winds have shifted after 67 years of rigorous bans. Pressure groups have been organized. Kosher or not, Shabbos buses may be on their way in.


4/20/15

Is the Kosher Light Switch Really Kosher?

Is the Kosher Light Switch Really Kosher?

Rabbis are fighting over the new device called the Kosher Switch.
VIN news reports at length on the controversy.
New York - A new light switch that has been under development for several years and claims to be approved for Shabbos use is one step closer to being available to the public, but whether or not the device is actually halachically acceptable has become the subject of debate over the last several days.

A crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo  raised $50,000 for production of the UL certified switches, which developers say skirts any issues of chilul Shabbos by randomizing electrical impulses generated by the switch, within four days.  A video explaining the purpose and workings of the device garnered more than 90,000 views on YouTube over the same time period...
Note: I have had problems with one Indiegogo invention that I supported - a smart watch that never delivered on its promises. This suggests to me that Indiegogo has low or no standards to verify the claims of the developers who use the site. Accordingly, from the standpoint of technology and Jewish law, beware of putting your money into a non-existent and non-verified device.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, great Torah Sage and the Quintessential Scribe, has died.

My teacher and rebbe Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has passed away.

He was awarded the Israel Prize 2014 in Jewish religious literature.

He was one of the finest teachers that I studied with in college - a genius as an educator and a sincere and compassionate human being. He is the person that I chose to personify the quintessential scribe personality of prayer in my book "God's Favorite Prayers (p. 71 ff)."

The Scribe’s Prayers


I had the privilege of studying in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s Talmud shiur (class) for two years, 1966-1968. Each December, he invited us talmidim (disciples) to his house for latkes (potato pancakes) on Hanukkah. There, in his apartment, we sat with his little kids and his wife Tovah, daughter of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The latkes were good and the Lichtensteins appeared to be a regular family. For some reason, that surprised me.

Once, during the years that I was in his shiur, while I was out with some of the guys playing basketball on the courts between the Yeshiva College dorms, Rav Aharon, a lanky, thin and tall man, came walking by. One of us had the chutzpah to ask him to join the ball game. He said okay and he played aggressively—and just like a regular guy. For some reason, that blew my mind.

And, one year, in our student play, the Yeshiva College Purim shpiel, a satiric revue for the holiday, I played the role of Rav Aharon. In my performance, I hemmed and hawed and exaggerated my rebbe’s mannerisms much more than I should have. And there in the audience sat my rebbe, laughing heartily along with us. For some reason, that really blew my mind.

4/3/15

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Column for April 2015: Self hating Jews and Media bias against Israel

Dear Rabbi
Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

At a family dinner, after I criticized Israeli policies and Bibi Netanyahu's politics, my uncle accused me of being a self-hating Jew. I am a proud Jew, with my own opinions. But I was caught off guard by his caustic remark to me. I had no come-back. What should I have said to him?

Loving My Jewish Self in Lodi

Dear Loving,

From novelist Philip Roth in the sixties to TV personality Jon Stewart today, numerous Jewish writers and commentators who are critical of particular Jews or who depict negative Jewish stereotypes have been accused of self-hatred. After publishing his early fiction with controversial and comical Jewish characters, Roth often was accused of self-hatred. Back then, people apparently mistook Roth's fiction as philosophy, and his theatrical characters as theology, and called him by a nasty name, "self-hating Jew". And lately people mischaracterize Stewart's comedy as political dogma and go on to label him the same way.

It would be accurate to depict writers like Roth and Stewart as comical Jews, self-berating Jews, self-critical Jews, self-analytical Jews, or even simply as self-conscious Jews.

But I cannot accept the "hating" side of the term. It's rude and pretentious to pretend to know another person's emotional state, to say someone is "hating". And in fact, few people can maintain the emotion of hatred for more than a little while. To characterize a person as a "hater" is rarely true and not at all helpful.

Besides that, our sacred Jewish literature, the Tanakh, Talmud and Midrash, are full of negative stories about Jews behaving badly and of Jews scathingly criticizing other Jews. The editors of those works who gathered and published such narratives and accounts about those Jews of the past are highly venerated and respected in our tradition. I cannot remember hearing anyone use the term "self-hating midrash."

It seems that your uncle is ignorant of the dynamics of Jews criticizing Jews in both the classical prophetic tradition, so prominent in the Tanakh, and in the entire body of Talmudic argumentation and criticism. It appears that he misuses the notion of chosenness (see the next question in this column) to create for himself a sense of entitlement that first of all makes him immune to complaints from other people and then, beyond that, empowers him to pejoratively classify those complaining folks in a bad way.

And so "self-hating Jew" is not valid as a descriptive category. It is after all nothing more than a lazy epithet, a political name-calling that is meant to attack and dismiss criticism or negative stereotypes, rather than to respond to them.

Calling someone a "self-hating Jew" is not much different from calling someone a "son of a bitch" or a "bastard." It was a form of name-calling, more prevalent in the 50s and 60s, directed mainly against secular Jews like Roth, who publically said or published critical things about Jewish characters (real or fictional), or about real Jews in general.

If your uncle calls you any rude childish name, my advice to you is that either you not answer him at all, or you reply with a disarming, "Thank you," or try simply, "No I am not," or, if all else fails, try a childish retort, "Hey uncle, it takes a self-hating Jew to know one."

Dear Rabbi,

Why is the world media so unfair to Israel? When I read about Israel in the newspapers, especially the New York Times, I often find myself getting angry about how one-sided and biased the media is towards the Jewish state. The NY paper criticizes Israel for many things, especially what they perceive is the mistreatment of Arabs. Sometimes I am so annoyed at the media, I can hardly control myself. The enemies of Israel do all kinds of violent evil things to Israelis and to their own people. Yet that barely gets covered by the papers and on TV. But if an Israeli harms a fly, that gets blown up in dramatic fashion and roundly criticized. What gives? How can I come to terms with this?

Agitated in Alpine

Dear Agitated,

You are right. Israel is covered by the media with more scrutiny than other countries. The Israelis are held to higher standards. Not only Israel. Jews in general get more ink and more scrutiny than people of other religions. And you know what? It's our own fault. Here's why.

We make no secret of our belief that we are God's chosen people. Thus, if all the world is a stage (as Shakespeare said) and all the nations are players on the stage (as I suggest), then Israel and the Jewish people are the self-declared stars of the show. And you do understand that in the reviews of dramatic public performances, the stars always get more attention and more criticism.

When the Torah tells us the stories of God's promises to Abraham and our forefathers, its narratives proclaim that the Jewish people are the chosen ones. And the promise of special selection of Israel is renewed in the Sinai stories and by the bulk of the historical materials in the Tanakh and the preaching of the prophets. Later Jewish philosophers reiterate the theme that Jews and Israel are the select, the chosen, the special folk, in other words, the stars of the show of world history and destiny.

The notion of chosenness does not make one immune to scrutiny. It invites intense interest and the accompanying criticism.

Rightfully, the stars get the focus and attention in the reviews and notices. When they do good, they get recognized. But when they stumble, miss one line or fail to impress, they get roundly criticized. That's how it works in the world of punditry and in the realm of media writing. Those high-profile subjects and people with notoriety, get put into the spotlight.

Accordingly, it's not right to question the fair or unfair treatment of one player versus another player.  It's right that the stars of the show will get the more thorough reviews – the greater praise when they shine, and the harsher criticisms when they slip up.

My advice to you: it shouldn't make you angry or upset when the Times runs a long appraisal and detailed evaluation and assessment of the actions of the Jewish state, the Israel Defense Forces or the citizens of Israel. We expect to be in the center of the stage. We proudly say of ourselves that we are special people. We invite attention and the spotlight. So when we get it, we really should not be surprised, and certainly should not be displeased.

You cannot rewrite the Jewish theology, ideology and religious history that says with loud and clear voices, "Look at us, we are the greatest." I advise you to come to terms with us Jews and with Israel being stars on the global scene.

And rightfully, when we celebrities go out on the public platform with some defect, with our makeup smudged, or when we suffer a wardrobe malfunction, expect that to appear prominently in all the media reviews.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his PhD from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author many books, including these Kindle Edition books available at Amazon.com:  "The  Book of Jewish Prayers in English," "Rashi: The Greatest Exegete," "God's Favorite Prayers" and "Dear Rabbi" – which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.