Which Torah Will I Receive?

A very close friend lives north of Jerusalem in the mountains of the Galil. Like me, but for his own reasons and as product of his own experiences, he also rarely goes to shul nowadays. Rather, he usually takes a long meditation walk in place of Kabbalat Shabbat Friday nights. I always look forward to joining him whenever I’m there. Perhaps a little steep, it’s not too hard a walk, even for my challenged foot (see Praying From The Floor), to focus on breath and silent chant as my perceptions slowly change, opening to an expanded reality of Shabbat.

Part of the walk’s pleasure is watching the sun dip behind a ridge of mountain peaks featuring Mt. Meron and the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the first revealer of the Holy Zohar at, the center. As the light fades and we head home, I often start to tune into the flood of different minyanim, prayer groups, each on their own but each joining all the others with it’s own texture of interwoven prayer.

If I were in one of dozens or more Ashkenazi-based shuls, we’d finish by chanting, together, a short mishna specifying the rules of exactly what we can use as fuel in our Shabbat candles, and I, like many of the men there, will often start to space out, focusing ahead in time to dinner, family and friends.

I had an epiphany several months ago, at the peak of the walk. When the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the sky darkened, we entered a period halachically-known “Ben HaShmashot”, literally between the suns, that twilight period when it’s neither light nor dark. Talmudically, we begin an analysis of whether it’s already Shabbat or still “chol” (ordinary weekday) and when, exactly the transition occurs. This moves us into a mode where one set of rules, Shabbat halachot, takes over. This is a very frequent concern, processing when the rules that make Shabbat deal primarily with restrictions and prohibitions. In many ways, this is a “circle the wagons” moment of defensive attitude where we exclude the outside world and those who inhabit it from the intimate circle of Jewish family and friends.

As I just mentioned, I had an epiphany that evening. Rather than drawing these rules around me like a shield, as I  have done for many years, I was overwhelmed with the urge, instead, to let go, to experience the sensation of, with each departing bit of light, relaxing into a natural Shabbat mode of relaxing, of letting things be, of experiencing the shleimut (Shabbat Shalom), perfect completeness of Shabbat.

Many, if not most of the codified halachot for Shabbat prohibit us from imposing our changes on the reality of each given-by-God Shabbat-moment. Some go so far as to avoid using toothpaste because in doing so we would change the shape of the toothpaste tube and thus, alter reality. We employ this shield of halacha to protect Shabbat not just from the outside world, but from our own habitual compulsion to meddle. It seems the greatest challenge to just let be.

We’re taught that Shabbat is 1/60th of Olam HaBa, the World to Come, that Infinite reward of 100%, 24/7 intimacy with The Creator. We see that we approach this ideal by disengaging our ego-driven creative selves which only get in the way.

It seems there must be another side to the hard-shield/shell of Halacha, a side that rather than blocking, melts away the barriers first between ourselves and our close ones, eventually the barriers we’ve built and created which separate us from God.

Rav Kook frequently employs the imagery of a seed. Hard on the outside, more or less impenetrable in order to guard and protect the life, both material and energy within, it then requires the trust to melt this shield, freeing all the potential and allowing a new burst of life.

For the two thousand years between the Second Temple, the last time we, as a people, had the strength and trust to allow ourselves to completely merge with our Creator, and now, when we’re on the verge, living in our land with almost half the world’s Jews joining us here, of once again reaching this spiritual level, we were governed/governed ourselves with the Torah and Halacha of Surviving Exile and Alienation. And each year, this was the Torah we lovingly received each Shavuot.

Perhaps we’re still a year or a decade or a century from becoming fully Nigal, redeemed, but at some point in the pretty near future we will flip states and will definitely need this future Torah, teaching us how to let down our guard and to fully open our hearts to every manifestation of The Divine. As we sing the Aleinu several times daily when completing a davening (prayer) service, BaYom HaHu Yih’ye Hashem Echad U’Sh’mo Echad. And on the great and wonderful day, God and His Name will surely be One Echad, Singular Yachid, Exclusive (nothing that isn’t God will exist to be “not God”) and M’yuchad, Special, M’lo Kol Ha’aretz Kvodo, filling and defining all existence in perfect harmony.

I know which Torah I long to receive this year and every year in the future.

Moadim l’Simcha

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Thank you.

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Introducing Free Jazz To Judaism

[Note–I usually would proof read and revise this essay for several more iterations, but it’s taken me so long to write this, to capture the urgency and desire which might help us overcome the anxiety which, for literally millennia, have colored this interval, that I’m publishing it as is. I’ll probably revise and repost next week. Or, perhaps not, as more ideas and thoughts scrabble for urgency. Thank you for bearing with me–RabbiZ)

Perhaps it’s not so appropriate to combine a tribute to Cecil Taylor, one of the “founders” of free jazz, with a rabbinic meditation of Jewish Spirituality. Especially inappropriate, one might say, in these days of Sefira, counting, the ladder of days beginning with the second night of Pesach, leading to the joyous highlight of our history and our year, entering into the most intimate of relationships with The Creator which we designate as Shavuot, Z’man Matan Toroteynu, the festival of Shavuot, the moment our Torah is given.

You see, this seven-week period which should have the emotional tone of joy and anticipation, that after the enormous jumpstart of being released from Egyptian slavery, we monitor (and guide) each days progress to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to all mankind. However, it also coincides with an especially disastrous period during the Great Revolt, The Bar Kochba war against the oppression of the Roman occupation shortly after the Bet HaMikdash is destroyed. And during this ver period, each year, we face some restrictions on our music. But, perhaps by reframing our usual experience with music, our usual experience with mitzvot and tefillot, we can find a way, especially during this hyper-vulnerable time, to renew our expression and experience of Judaism.

Think about that moment in time. Give yourself a moment to really think about it, try to experience the panic, the loneliness, the alienation. Everything I know is gone. Literally everything we knew about being a people, let along an Am Kodesh, Holy Nation is gone. With no pat answers, no expectation of continuity, perhaps largely as a logical defense and survival technique, as is often the case when exposed to zero predictability, we responded by creating a new expression of religion which will now at least strive for 100% predictability.

But, of course, the downside of 100% predictability is boredom and rote performance. Even from the first moments (end of chapter 4 of IBra when developing the new, text-rather than action path, our early sages worry and warn about boredom. Prayer that lacks urgency soon becomes mere habit.

Which brings me back to the late Cecil Taylor, the “free jazz” movement and the excitement of witnessing this intense level of spontaneous creation, with no artifice to hide behind. Not to mention creating music in real time at this level…. Although I don’t usually do this in this forum, here are some links to this type of music. (Remember, if you enjoy or are intrigued by this music, to share links to other performances in the comment section.)

Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Coltrane, Interstellar Space, Nels Cline Interstellar Space.

Compare this music the the conformity we’re all familiar with in shul. Of course, we have times that we Jews, as well can build a tremendous amount of energy, but it usually looks like a circle of identically-dressed, black-clad men, stomping in a circle. Singing oy oy oy Ai Ai Ai. As individuals, we’re not encouraged to free our neshamot to soar. We don’t often let ourselves go “off-script” (or “off-score) and expose ourselves in our greatest creativity, greatest transparency, greatest unique inner fires.

Frightened and admonished by the story of Nadav and Avihu, we so strongly flee Aish Zar, a “strange” fire, that we never contemplate what a proper, familiar, legitimate fire could be. Just as most people have a difficult line to cross to expose their most authentic selves to even their closest friends, relatives and lovers, we’re terrified of revealing that authentic self to ourselves and to God.

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Prayer as Radical Acceptance

We Jews love to pray. It’s our most widespread religious practice which, in one form or another, transcends our denominational divides.  We pray formally at least three times each day, but almost constantly we keep up our dialogue with The Creator.

We pray not just to ask favors from God, or as I like to describe it, present our daily shopping list, but more frequently to praise and thank The Creator. Most mitzvot, commandments (religious mandates), which we perform throughout each day, begin with a prayer before and often have another prayer to bring it to a close. These blessings are known as brachot, and generally begin with the words Baruch Ata which roughly means Bless You. By far, the most frequent addressee of our brachot is God.

Just like most of our ritual behavior, there is a tremendous amount of literature written about prayers, tefillot, and blessings, barachot. The Shulchan Aruch, a systematic code of Jewish law written in the 1560s by Rabbi Yosef Karo, contains an interesting passage (Orach Chayim 222:3),  “One is obligated to bless (God) for the bad that befalls him, with full awareness and an accepting heart, exactly in the manner he blesses Him for the good.” (1)

Karo empahsizes the equivalence of our acceptance of the bad with the phrase b’daat shlema, with complete, perfect/understanding. That’s a pretty full prescription for us, but one of the strongest statements of faith we could possibly make. We’re not assuming here the arrogant chutzpah to say we know why God sends bad things our way (nor, for that matter, why He sends us the good). What we can, and are obligated to know is that both are, exactly equivalently, for our benefit and the ultimate benefit of all Creation. The “system” is far more complicated than reward for our good deeds and punishment for the bad.

Since we can’t even say that bad things that come our way is negative feedback for our own bad deeds, why are we supposed to be so happy to break out in spontaneous thanksgiving?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, better known just as Rav Kook (First Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine (1865 – 1935), provides what might be the best insight as he explains repeatedly through his vast work that created and provides us with all the elements necessary to complete Creation. Among those elements will necessarily be many which, at the surface, repel, rather than attract us. We experience them as bad, unpleasant, some even as evil.

When we’re engaged with these fragments of reality which we need to knit into the completed, redeemed, world. We need to remind ourselves that these experiences not only have utility, but that they’re absolutely necessary to complete our journey. Thus, we need to overcome our first impulse to reject them, but rather to embrace them as the raw material which only we will be able to transform into their most perfect state. In fact, integrating and incorporating them might be are single most valuable contribution.

(1) Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 222:3  סימנים רא-ש סימן רכב   ברכת הודאת הטוב והרע. ובו ד’ סעיפים:  א על שמועות שהן טובות לו לבדו מברך שהחיינו ואם הן טובות לו ולאחרים מברך הטוב והמטיב:  ב על שמועות רעות מברך בא”י אמ”ה דיין האמת:  ג חייב אדם לברך על הרעה בדעת שלמה ובנפש חפצה כדרך שמברך בשמחה על הטובה כי הרעה לעובדי השם היא שמחתם וטובתם כיון שמקבל מאהבה מה שגזר עליו השם נמצא שבקבלת רעה זו הוא עובד את השם שהיא שמחה לו

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A Symphony Of Voices

Anyone who knows me at all knows that much of my life has always revolved around music. I’ve played instruments since the age of five or six and am rarely more than a few feet from a guitar. Therefore it surprises many that, of all people, I’ve almost never walked around with a walkman/discman/ipod. Rather, I’ve always preferred the magnificence of the ambient sounds that always surround us. Be it made of instruments, voices in conversations, traffic noise, birds and dog-barks, construction sounds and, best of all, the wind and the rain, constantly changing as I walk through it, I feel that I’m always at the front row of a grand concert performed just for me!

I am fortunate, truly blessed, to live in a very heterogeneous neighborhood in Jerusalem. The main street, Emek Refaim, is filled with restaurants and cafes (admittedly a mixed blessing for someone who craves at least seeing other people at meals) that attract the full range of people who live in the area. At dinner just tonight, the crowd was largely Hebrew-speaking (including me as I try to not butcher the language too badly (how can I “butcher” anything in a dairy restaurant???) with a lot of English throw in (especially by the waitstaff responding to people like me trying to speak Hebrew in public…).

The table next to me was occupied by a threesome, a young couple (young to me being mid-thirties) and their friend, quietly speaking together in Arabic–something I wouldn’t have noticed had I not been seated so close. That they spoke Arabic wasn’t in itself notable, except as yet another addition to the soup of languages and conversations surrounding me. In fact the background music alternated between Hebrew, English and, occasionally French contemporary songs. As delicious a combination of sounds as there were of flavors on my plate!

Shir HaShirim Raba, a midrash on Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs, states (3:10), that “Everything God created He created only for his own Honor/Glory/Purpose”. Since the Creator’s purpose in creating our world with us in it is for us, all of us, all Am Yisrael and everyone else, to partner with him in perfecting this world purposely left undone to leave room for us, all humanity to share in being creators.

The common Jewish explanation for the multitude of languages spoken on this planet based on the episode of the “Tower of Babel” is usually presumed to be punishment for arrogance; lowly man once again aspiring to be God! The immediate result, was chaos which led to violence. People would throw each other off the tower out of frustration of not being understood. From here, each clan, each language group migrated to their own land, separate from all the others, and from this point on, rather than being able to collaborate, each, in enhanced isolation, will only look after their own interest. As will each individual within each clan. From an ideal of unity, even though misplaced, we become isolated, atomized and lost.

The traditional repair to this rip in ideal reality seems to imply that when, in the future, we’ve resolved the war-based model into one of cooperation, we’ll return to a uni-culture, singly focused to refine and enhance the connection between Man and God. We will, once again, all speak “one language, one speech” (Breishit 11:1)

There is, however, another possibility. In a state of full Geula, final Redemption (not just of the Jewish people, although we remain central in bringing this massive tikkun, change/repair to the world, all of the diversity, represented by the multiplicity of languages, reflecting an almost endless spectrum through which to see the world, will redefine itself. No longer referring to sinat chinam (endless hate and violence) but truly as a “Symphony of Voices”, the full expression of every neshama (soul) making up reality, joining and joined in ultimate perfection, each fragment, each individual, now vibrating with The All.

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Vayigash Alov Yehuda“, And Yehuda came very close, almost touching, him (Yosef).

How appropriate that we read this parsha this particular Shabbat, as we, Bnei Yisrael, the Jewish People, seem to be in the vortex of changing our relationship to the world and to all the other nations. Not knowing that the arbitrary official questioning and challenging him and his brothers these last years as they were forced to acknowledge their own capability to be completely independent and must, rather, come to Egypt to beg the opportunity to buy food was, in fact, his own brother, Yosef, Joseph, with an agenda far different than it appears on the surface, Yehuda steps right up, to answer the challenge with his own.

This is a Bnei Yisrael, a Jewish People, who had not yet undergone the shame of slavery, who had not yet spent millennia in exile both foreign and hostile. The Jewish people had yet to be chased from their own land and then cruelly chased from wherever else we tried to make, at least, a a temporary shelter.

And this is Yehuda, the essence of all of our future true leadership, the precursor and ancestor to David and all future kings of Israel for all time. No lick-spittle, he stands up to the most powerful secular ruler in the world. He comes out swinging for his family, his people, for our collective future.

May we not only be inspired, but fortified to act as our own best advocates in the world area, beginning now , just a few days after being reminded of just how few real friends and true allies we can rely on. Even a significant portion of our own people have, over the millennia, been overwhelmed with so much antisemitism that, as a people, we can be said to have contracted a deadly form of internalized anti-semitism, no longer nourished with the ability to resist joining our enemies.

Vayigash Alov, may Yehuda stand tall, may we unapologetically and unashamedly step up and take our rightful place among the nations, may we find strength to survive and then thrive, to be and to bring to humanity the light which is our responsibility and our privilege.

Shabbat Shalom

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Distilled With A Feather, Applied With A Sledge Hammer

To remark that this is merely “curious” or “ironic” blinds us to the perhaps most corrosive internal struggle Judaism faces today.

There is no more subtle and beautiful technique within the Torah tradition than discovering and generating Halacha as it is first derived in the Gemara, and then develops in our ever-changing world. No training, no exercise in intellect and compassion, has the capacity to transform a Torah student into a true Talmid Chacham, a wise sage, than the humbling process of slicing and analyzing and adapting the Halachic System, to stand in utter awe of it’s complexity even as it slowly reveals to us its utter unity and simplicity. The classics of Jewish Law, from the Rambam, to the Shulchan Aruch, the writings of the Ben Ish Chai, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef, treat us to these peaks of crystal purity while at the same time inconceivably complex and nuanced, applied to an ever-changing world, constantly tweaking under every conceivable situation, how each individual Jewish personality can increase and deepen his intimate connection with The Creator just as we do ourselves by our deep study of it. In traditional circles, there is and never has been any other path to becoming a rabbi.

Why then, in practice, is it all too often applied without distinction or discrimination? How can a myriad individual unique situations be reduced, in one broad, unsubtle, uneducated swath to what is inevitably the most difficult, often most expensive, certainly the most restrictive path?. It’s as if all the skill and all the spiritual epiphanies one experienced when learning Halacha instantly and tragically disappear the moment it’s applied. Indeed, where does the compulsion to dictate a universal, all-conforming answer to the huge complexity of the vast Jewish World derive? And with that target, is it any surprise that force-fitting a one-size-fits-all can only be done with all the subtlety and sensitivity of a sledgehammer?

It not only ignores the inner point and inspiring beauty of Halacha, this all-too-universal application denies and destroys its own very essence. Rather than bringing all involved to experience (at least) religious reality much higher and more connected, it makes a farce of the entire process and rather than bringing the ultimate unification of the Jewish People, and by proxy all of Creation, it shatters whatever Jewish Unity as might have already been achieved, repelling vast segments of Am Yisrael with its cruelty shortsightedness.

The great poskim (halachic decisors) of the past understood, practiced and modeled this understanding  throughout their careers, so it’s not beyond human capability to operate at this level. Perhaps no great Posek has yet to develop and emerge for our generation and the rabbinic leadership we have. I haven’t experienced or observed our rabbis as the heinous rabble that too often their words make them appear to be and I have no doubt that 99% of our rabbis and leaders are honest, well-meaning Israel-loving scholars. Where does this break come from? Perhaps it’s simply that not every generation, no matter how great the apparent need, merits true Gedolim (Torah Giants). Or, and maybe more to the point, the skill set of running and operating within a highly politicized bureaucracy rarely emphasizes the same middot (character traits) required to be a true Talmid Chacham.

I think it crucial to at least observe and try to understand the process to see where it gets derailed . Perhaps the closest secular analogy would be chemical titration where we add, oh so slowly, drop-by-drop, of a reagent and observe closely even the slightest changes to the substance. This is one of the very strongest tools we possess to analyze substances of all sorts. Just where is the “tipping point”?

In spite of the crisis effecting all of us, I don’t have a solution, ready-made and ribbon-wrapped to offer. Certainly no brilliant insight to force down the throats of the entire Jewish People, merely echoing and continuing the problem. I do, however, have a few suggestions of how to go about finding the answer.

With the help of The Creator, we need to examine just exactly when, and for what reasons, the focus of the problems our rabbis turn their attention to are no longer in the realm of analysis and analogy, the territory Torah study always leads us. When does the search for general principles with a manageable set of exceptions, usually the outcome of halacha-based Talmud study, shift to budgets and power struggles with competing denominations? How can we redirect and encourage these leaders to return to the awe and wonder which surely inspired them in the first place? How can we return Yitro’s innovations (Moshe’s father-in-law, in the eponymous Parsha) to a blessing, removing the administrative and bureaucratic obsession from the shoulders of those who are really prepared for a much higher calling? How can we gently remind and inspire these leaders to return to the focus of their training?

One cannot reach the position of Chief Rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva and similar without spending literally years focused on Gemara and Halacha, where he must learn and practice an almost infinitely more complex challenge with infinitely more significance–the essential refinement of each individual human (beginning with the Jewish People but moving from that center ever-outwards) which is necessary for the essential refinement and redemption (Geula) of the entire universe, true Tikkun Olam.

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Halacha, Like Every Created Thing, Is, Necessarily, Imperfect (Corrected 21/7/17)

It seems so obvious to me that it should go without saying, but experience both historical and contemporary requires me to emphasize and re-emphasize this. Exploiting Halacha and the halachic process in order to manipulate power, political, social, economic or any other is beyond obscene and should never occur. Unfortunately, all too often it does. It’s going on right now and deserves nothing but contempt.

The Maharal of Prague (16th Century) remarked in his Introduction to his own book which explores Pesach and our Redemption from Egypt, Gevurat HaShem, God’s Power, that since only God is perfect, God being unique in the universe, everything else is, of necessity, imperfect. That within the realm of the imperfect are Man and all of our creations which we take for granted. However, we seem to want to declare the Torah, so closely identified with The Creator as also perfect, which generates the hopeless expectation that Halacha is also “perfect”. But we need to keep in mind that holy, complex and multidimensional as halacha is, it’s not identical with God and is, there, also imperfect.

One definition of  “perfect” is invariable and never-changing, in other words,  literally performed by Yehuda in biblical days exactly as Levi is obligated today. That position instantly reveals itself as absurd.

For example, even something as straightforward as kashering a kitchen depends on so many factors including, of all things, the wealth of the person taking on these mitzvot. (There are a number of leniencies one can make in order to avoid devastating financial damage, but at the end of the day, whichever path, the strictest or the most lenient, the food produced in the kitchens is EXACTLY  as kosher as the other.

One can charitably see an idealistic, God-devoted motive to the recent drift (post Emancipation/Enlightenment, end of 19th Century), where the possibilities of action and association opened as no other time for Europe’s Jews, leading many to stray, leading many more to double down and adopt severe inflexibility, to build, from the inside, higher and higher ghetto walls, no longer merely to contain the Jews, but also to hold modern thought at bay.

The trouble is, however, neither of those objectives are the reasons for Halacha. Rather, and we must always keep this in mind, the only purpose of Halacha is to guide us to respond to the eternal question, “What does God want me to do at this moment?” Of all the choices facing each of us at every instant, what will create the greatest positive value, not necessarily in our human calculations, but in terms of Ratzon HaShem, the Divine Will.

Although the phrase Tikkun Olam has become very popular in recent years, the current definition looks very different that what we’ve always meant by the phrase. We’ve always worked on the principle that God, not we, can “pre-visualize” a perfect world, so our goal is to constantly search for how God’s Will is manifesting Itself in this ever-changing, imperfect, world, lurching from our collective attempt to refine and hone in closer to the ideal.

Since the very definition of imperfect is needing change, and our goal is reaching, or approaching sufficiently close, this ever-changing target, Halacha, like all life, is, at any one frozen point in time, imperfect. But the search is, by necessity, a dynamic one, requiring radical courage to evaluate our past efforts and if we see they fall short, then to reject them, or at least reject their utility in the future.

Somewhere, between our Jewish People and The Creator and His goals for us, is this imperfect but, hopefully, evolving Halacha, casting the weave that ties us ever more intimately with the only unchanging, perfection that exists, HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

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