Category Archives: Judaism

Is Interfaith Dialogue Good for Religious Jews?

Dear Josep,

You may recall that last year, when By Light of Hidden Candles was released, I mentioned a certain reviewer of the observant Jewish persuasion who felt uncomfortable with the relatively positive portrayal of Christianity in the book.

Well, I also mentioned this in my TOI blog post on interfaith dialogue, and the reviewer in question happened to read it. She reached out to me, we respectfully debated the matter, and she decided to post our correspondence on her blog.

It was not the sort of thing I wanted to post here, partly because we got deep into Jewish sources and jargon and concepts that I felt were too involved and would require too much explaining, and partly because I felt that the debate was rather circular and extremely long-winded; but I gave her my permission to post it on her blog because I thought it would be good to have my position out there somewhere for people to find if I ever become famous enough for anybody to care. 😛

However, I recently discovered that she has deleted the post (no idea why). And since I’d still like my position to be out there, I decided to write my own post about it based on some of the answers I gave her.

But before I go on I feel I should clarify something. Though this blog has served as a platform for “interfaith discussion” in the context of the guest letters, sometimes I feel it’s a bit disingenuous to present our friendship as being one “between a Jew and a Christian”, because… well… let’s face it, you don’t really count as a Christian. 😛 I mean, when you start commenting here that you’re less “into Christianity” then my mother, I think it’s a biiiiit of a stretch to call you a Christian! You’re more of a… how do I put this… secular humanist theist whose beliefs are vaguely structured on Christian concepts with a suspicious bias toward their Jewish sources? Does that work? 😉 (Unfortunately it doesn’t fit very neatly into the blog’s subtitle.)

Then again, if people are gonna assume stuff about you, I’d rather it be “Christian” than “imaginary” 😛

ANYWAY. Where were we? Right–the scandalized reviewer. Below are some of the points she raised, rephrased in my own words, and my responses to them.

It makes sense to respect Christians as human beings, but why should we respect Christianity–a belief system that we believe is false?

For starters, I want to make clear what I mean when I say that I have “respect” for Christianity.

Respect doesn’t mean “agree with”. It doesn’t mean “condone”. It doesn’t mean “support”. It means “appreciate”–in the sense of hakarat hatov, gratitude, or ayin tova, generosity/seeing the good in something. I don’t think you have to agree with something to appreciate the good things about it.

I think it is possible to respect a religion (and not just the people who believe in it) without agreeing with it or supporting every part of it. Obviously, I completely reject the foundations of Christianity and the beliefs on which it was built. I have a post here in which I am very clear-cut about this (“What Do Jews REALLY Think About Jesus?“). That doesn’t mean I have to completely hate and be repulsed by everything about the religion.

In fact, I think it is important for us as Jews to acknowledge that Christianity has had an indispensable role in helping us fulfill our mission in the world–spreading knowledge and awareness of God (though their understanding of Him may, according to my beliefs, be flawed), and the adoption of the Divinely inspired principles that now stand at the center of the Western world’s concepts of morality and justice. This isn’t just my opinion. The Rambam (Maimonides) himself wrote: “All these words of the Christian Yeshua and the Ishmaeli (Muhammad) who came after him, were there to straighten our path to the Messiah, to repair the entire world and to serve God together… How? The world has already been filled with the words of the Messiah and the words of the Torah and the words of the commandments, and these things have been spread to far-away islands and many remote nations…” (Maimonides, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, Chapter 11)

Why would friendly contact between religious Jews and religious Christians be a positive thing?

After that op-ed I mentioned was published, I got a message from Lee Weissman, one of the founders of the wonderful Facebook group for discussion between Jews and Muslims, Abraham’s Tent. Lee is a religious Jew with long payot (sidecurls) and a beard and he wears a streimel on Shabbat. He is also very involved in interfaith activism, particularly with Muslims. Lee thanked me sincerely for my post and said that it saddens him that so few Jews with rich religious lives are involved in interfaith activities. “When deeply religious folks talk to one another, there is a whole different dynamic,” he said.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who (if you haven’t noticed yet) I greatly admire, is also a Jewish leader deeply committed to Torah who actively works with religious leaders of other faiths. (I wrote a thorough review of his book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, here.) I particularly love this line from his whiteboard animation video Why I Am a Jew: “I admire other civilizations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world… aval zeh shelanu, ‘but this is ours.'”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (second from the left) with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, and CEO of Sojourners, a progressive grassroots Christian movement, at a press conference in 2009. Copyright by World Economic Forum; Photo by Andy Mettler

I think most interfaith discussion and activity we encounter tends to be wishy-washy, with each side coming from a very watered-down version of whatever their faith is, and that’s a shame. Like Lee, I think that discussions between people are actually very committed to their different belief systems can be much more powerful and meaningful and should not necessarily feel threatening to either side. I would go so far as to say it’s a sign of maturity and security in your own beliefs when you are able to open up and listen to people who think differently than you.

What value can a religious Jew get out of such discussions, if not to influence the other person to come closer to an authentic relationship with God as we believe in Him?

First of all, I see these conversations as being of value to me, not necessarily to the other person–though of course I hope the feeling will be mutual. It’s not about them or what they believe. It never was. Judaism does not condone or support proselytizing, and I don’t think there’s any point in trying to convince other people to believe what you do.

I find that discussing Judaism with people of other faiths–explaining what I do and what I believe–strengthens my own commitment to Judaism. My goal is not to get them to change their beliefs, but just to help them understand who I am and where I’m coming from (which is the basic premise of this blog). Discussing our differences helps me delve more deeply into my own beliefs and clarify why I believe them and what they mean to me. These interactions inspire me and make me feel closer to God and to Judaism.

There is additional value in creating relationships among people who can help each other make the world a better place. I recently saw an interview with Rabbi Sacks where he says that he believes in “interfaith activism” as opposed to “interfaith dialogue”–that is, not sitting around discussing belief systems, but getting off our respective butts and working together toward our common goals–like feeding the hungry, treating the sick, etc. etc. etc. As religious Jews, we believe in ultimate redemption, and we also believe that we must do our part to bring it about. I believe that working with other peoples to prepare the world to receive God’s goodness is an essential part of those efforts. Tikkun olam, if you will.1

On a more personal level, I have noticed that there is a fundamental difference between my ability to connect with believing Christians over matters of faith and my ability to connect with almost anyone else–including many religious Jews, secular Jews, and even religious Muslims (with whom I generally have more in common than religious Christians).

There is something about the way many Christians talk about God that really resonates with me.

There’s a simplicity, an innocence, a sort of humility and wholehearted trust in God, that makes me feel comfortable talking about my relationship with God in superlatives and with child-like wonder, even with someone I hardly know. I can have this experience with other Jews of a certain flavor, but I think with Jews, everything tends to be more complicated, partly because Judaism is so complex, and partly because we already have so much in common. With Christians, talking about our relationship with God is our one common language when it comes to faith. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to cut right down to the deep stuff. Or maybe it’s something about the way Christians are educated. I don’t know, but it’s a definite pattern I’ve noticed.

There’s one point in By Light of Hidden Candles (page 271) where Alma expresses the thought: “How ironic was it that the person I seemed to connect with most deeply on matters of faith was a Christian?”

Her author doesn’t find it ironic at all.

But isn’t there a potential danger of certain boundaries being crossed?

Yes, there is.

And I think By Light of Hidden Candles is, among other things, a sort of meditation on that question.

We need to maintain proper boundaries; that much is clear. But what does that mean exactly? The characters of By Light of Hidden Candles consciously struggle with this question. Alma argues with her grandmother about it. Manuel consults his priest about it. Míriam hesitates–even while her life is in danger–because of it. But was their awareness of it as an issue enough? Did they draw the lines where they should have, and if they had drawn them differently, would there have been a different outcome? (Readers of By Light of Hidden Candles–I’d love to hear your thoughts, but please, no spoilers in the comments! Feel free to contact me if you’d like to share a thought that includes spoilers.)

I think my position on this should be clear from A) the fact that I wrote that book and B) the fact that I write this blog. I do think it’s possible to define and maintain appropriate boundaries, but it’s not something to be taken lightly; and though I struggle with it myself sometimes, I think there are enough benefits to justify the dangers–for me, personally. I think it’s a very individual question and I wouldn’t necessarily encourage everyone to make the choices I’ve made.

So in response to the question posed in the title of this post–is interfaith dialogue good for religious Jews?–I think it can be. And also not. It depends on the person, the circumstances, the goals of the individuals involved, and many other factors.

But doesn’t Jewish law consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry?

Now here is the real can of worms.

Time to get that can opener out again!

Yes, the majority of rabbinic authorities does consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry.

However.

While the majority opinion among sages–including the Rambam–is that Christianity counts as idol worship, there is also a respectable faction of rabbinic authorities who reject this idea–such as the Meiri (Menachem ben Solomon Meiri, 13th-century Catalan Talmudist), Rabbenu Tam (Jacob ben Meir, grandson of Rashi, 12th century France), the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 16th century Poland), and our friend the Ramban (a.k.a. the Badass Rabbi of Catalonia). It’s important to note that the Rambam was born in Muslim Cordoba and spent most of his life in Muslim Cairo, so he probably didn’t have much contact with Christians. The Meiri, Rabbenu Tam, the Rema, and Ramban, by contrast, all lived among Christians.

Furthermore, when one analyzes the writings of the Rambam in which he describes Christianity as idol worship, it is not obvious that this definition applies categorically to all types of Christianity.

There are a few reasons to consider Christianity a form of idol worship. The most important one is that the entire concept of the Trinity, which divides God into three “aspects” or “persons”; and we believe that “dividing” Him into three parts is still a form of idolatry even if you believe they are all parts of the same God. Same goes for the belief that God would manifest Himself in a human in any way (the divinity of Jesus as a son of God). Another problem is the use of icons, especially among Catholics. We understand that when a Christian kneels before a cross or a statue of Jesus or Mary, they are not really praying to the statue, but using the statue as a physical representation of the invisible God they are praying to. Still… I’m sure you can understand how we’d find that problematic. It’s right there in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness… You shall not prostrate yourself before them” (Exodus 20:4-5).

However, not all forms of Christianity accept the concept of the Trinity or take it literally. The Rambam lived in the 12th century, so to him, Christianity was Catholicism. Modern scholars argue that other streams do not count as idol worship even under the Rambam’s definition–including the Orthodox church, other eastern non-Orthodox streams, many Protestants, Unitarians, etc. (Basically, only Catholics are irredeemable according to this liberal interpretation of the Rambam. Sorry. 😛 )

If you look at the nafka minnas–the practical applications of these opinions–you’ll see that the Jewish attitude toward Christianity is not at all clear-cut. For example, most authorities forbid a Jew to set foot in a church, but they permit it if there is a case of need, such as, oh I don’t know, a tour guide who needs to take some Christians into a church while leading a tour. 😉 Idol worship is one of the big three commandments we’re supposed to give our lives over rather than transgress, so if Christianity were really considered equivalent to idol worship, a financial need would certainly not be grounds for lenience.

Also, there are a number of commandments pertaining to idol worship which we categorically do not apply to Christians. We are commanded to destroy idols and their accessories (Deuteronomy 12:2)–no one is advocating destroying churches and Catholic icons. We are commanded never to make a covenant with idolaters or show favor to them (Deuteronomy 7:2); no one is saying we shouldn’t have political or economic treaties with Christian nations or give them favorable treatment.

In Summary

It’s… complicated.

Isn’t everything?! 😉

Love,

Daniella


1. “Tikkun olam” is a kabbalistic concept that literally means “repairing the world”. It’s been popularized as meaning anything from environmentalism to social justice, but the source of the phrase is the kabbalistic metaphor that when God tried to bestow His goodness on the world, the “vessels shattered” and sparks of His goodness were hidden throughout the world, and it is our job to locate these sparks and “gather them back together”.

Guest Letter from Jill: Thank You, Christianity

Hey Josep! Been a while since we’ve had a guest letter, eh? This one is from a long-time reader, and someone I’ve known… since the womb, actually.

This was entirely her initiative! Don’t look at me!!! 😉

But while I’m here, I shall take the opportunity to brag about her shamelessly. You said once that I’m one of the most empowered women you know, and if you want to know why, it’s because this woman is my mother.

My mom, Jill Baker Shames, was raised in a secular Jewish family in New York and became religious in college, as she will describe below. But she’s always insisted on doing everything her own way! When she was pregnant with me, she woke up one day with a sudden urge to study a martial art. My dad thought it was one of her crazy pregnant lady things and that it would pass. Well, it’s been 31 years and it still hasn’t passed! 😉 She is currently a fifth-degree black belt in Shorin-Ryu Matsubayashi karate; one of the most experienced and celebrated empowerment self-defense instructors in the country; and a martial arts therapist (and licensed social worker) who works with kids with terminal illnesses and their families, teaching them to use tools from the martial arts to help them cope with pain and stress. She serves as coordinator for Kids Kicking Cancer Israel, an organization that trains and employs martial arts therapists to work in Israeli hospitals. And because clearly she has so much free time on her hands (…) she also volunteers for her local Psychotrauma & Crisis Response Unit, whose personnel arrive at the scene of a traumatic situation (sudden death, car accident, etc.) and work with the witnesses and bystanders at the scene to help them process what they saw and prevent them from developing PTSD.  Did I mention also that she co-founded the Israeli national women’s martial arts organization, which she and I left last year for reasons I won’t elaborate on here, and helped establish a chapter of the Guardian Angels–an organization of volunteer citizen patrols for tough neighborhoods–in Israel? Oh and yes, this is the same mother who donated her kidney to a distant cousin two years ago. (And yeah, she’s a writer too–that link is from her Times of Israel blog!)

In summary, I may have followed in her footsteps in some ways–learning karate and self-defense from her and becoming an instructor under her tutelage–but I will never be as awesome as she is and we all know it 😛

I vaguely recall that you and her may have corresponded at some point many years ago, probably on something to do with Casa Shalom. In any case, she decided to write you a guest letter from her characteristically out-of-the-box perspective. 😉 Without further ado:


Dear Josep,

Your online Jewish Education has given me a great deal of hope and satisfaction. After all, what dedicated Jewish woman would miss the opportunity to be a Yiddishe fly-on-the-wall kvelling1 about all the things the world–particularly the Christian world–owes to its Jewish roots?

However, I am going to do something that is at once incredibly Jewish and… incredibly not. And that is to express my gratitude to Christianity for what it taught me about being Jewish.

Expressing gratitude is quintessentially Jewish.2 HaKarat HaTov, literally “acknowledging the good,” is an axiom of Jewish life. On the other hand, given the amount of suffering that Jews have endured in the name of Christianity over the millennia, having anything nice to say about That Religion is an anomaly at best.

But I never claimed to be normal.3

I was raised in a family with a powerful ethnic Jewish identity but received an extremely limited Jewish education. As a child, what I knew about being Jewish was pretty much limited to a handful of holidays (Chanukah and Pesach being the biggies), not going to school on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Bar Mitzvah parties, a few Yiddish phrases (not for polite company), chicken soup, bagels, and lox [smoked salmon–DL]. My family gave me a strong sense of loyalty and belonging to the Tribe intellectually, ethically, and ethnically, but spiritually? If Judaism had a spiritual side, I knew little or nothing about it.

Yet, even as a young child, I had a strong connection to Gd. My parents tell me that at the age of 3, I used to stand in the middle of the living room speaking aloud to Gd. I decided to fast on Yom Kippur at a young age. I fasted even when no one else in my family fasted. I wanted to go to synagogue even when no one else wanted to go. As I grew older, I felt my family members saw me as a strange bird in the flock. I was alternately praised and teased for my interest in things Jewish. I did not feel comfortable talking about my spiritual longings. I developed my own rituals and prayer practices. And I started going to church.

Mostly it was something I did on sleepovers. I was at my Catholic or Lutheran or Methodist or Episcopalian friends’ houses over the weekend, so why not join the family in church? I loved the mammoth stone buildings echoing songs and prayers. I loved the light pouring through the stained glass windows, the pageantry of the services, and the fellowship of the participants. I watched and rewatched classic movies like Ben-Hur, The Robe and all those films in which kindly priests stepped in to help young toughs move toward healthy adulthood.

Looking back, I wonder that my parents were able to see going to church as some kind of cultural experiment without worrying that I would be lured away by “the love of Jesus”, the material splendor of Christmas or the ease of assimilating into the majority culture. And they were right. Even when I joined the Methodist youth group, the token Jew arguing with Christian Youth Leaders about the prophecies of the End of Days, even when I watched Christian TV or listened to Christian music radio or sang Latin Mass in school choir, I was never tempted to stray. Rather, I was comforted by finding others in the world longing for Gd. I was filled with awe by the beauty, the faith and the compassion I found in Christianity in all its many forms. I found a fellowship of the spirit and a love and clinging to Gd that I could not find at home. I experienced awe that I had never experienced in the rituals of my own faith. After all, it was easier to get lost in the forest of Judaism’s rules and rituals than to delve into its deep and complex spiritual roots.

It was only when I went to college and could finally access Jewish living and learning by myself that I was able to take all the devotion that Christian institutions had kept warm and flowing for me for 18 years, and plug them into my spiritual path.

So, while it is true that the history of the Jews as a People in Christian lands is a sordid one, my personal history with Christianity remains one of fellowship and gratitude.

So, thank you, Christianity, for giving me the spiritual oxygen I desperately needed until I could learn to “breathe” on my own. In the Jewish Bible, Gd calls us Jews “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; it entrusts us with helping all the nations of the world find and follow their spiritual paths. Under your spiritual wings, you helped me remember that as long as I had faith in Gd, I was not alone.

In these days of skepticism and anti-theism, I consider it my sacred trust and honor to return the favor.

Jill Baker Shames, MSW
Spiritual Jedi4
[DANIELLA’S AMAZING MOTHER.–DL]
www.paths2power.com


1. A Yiddish verb that means to take great pride in something or someone, usually quite vocally. Related closely to schepping naches, as defined in 10 Essential Words in Judeo-English.

2. The name Judah, from which the word “Judaism” is derived, literally means “giving thanks/expression of gratitude”.

3. Everything makes so much sense now, eh Josep?! 😉

4. In case you haven’t seen any of the Star Wars movies–and since you haven’t read Harry Potter, I wouldn’t be surprised at such grievous cultural delinquency on your part–the Jedi Knights are sort of mystical warriors who fight against forces of evil in the Star Wars universe. In her work with the Guardian Angels, there was a protocol not to use real names in radio transmissions, so all Guardian Angels had to choose a nickname. She chose “Jedi” because, aside from the obvious, it’s a word that has the same meaning in all relevant languages–English, Hebrew, Amharic, and Arabic. Not a lot of words like that!


Would you like to share about your own experiences with religion–another or your own? Write us a guest letter!

Rabbi Sacks on Friendship and Faith

Dear Josep,

Just a quick note because I came across something that made me think of you and this blog. It’s today’s installment in a series called Covenant & Conversation: Life Changing Ideas in the Parsha [Weekly Torah Portion] with Rabbi Sacks (author of Not in God’s Name, which I reviewed in depth here). You can read the full article, Faith and Friendship (Beha’alotcha 5778), here; but here is the relevant excerpt:

It is part of the intellectual history of the West and the fact that from quite early on, Christianity became more Hellenistic than Hebraic, that people came to think that the main purpose of religion is to convey information (about the origin of the universe, miracles, life after death, and so on). Hence the conflict between religion and science, revelation and reason, faith and demonstration. These are false dichotomies.

Judaism has foundational beliefs, to be sure, but it is fundamentally about something else altogether. For us, faith is the redemption of solitude. It is about relationships – between us and God, us and our family, us and our neighbours, us and our people, us and humankind. Judaism is not about the lonely soul. It is about the bonds that bind us to one another and to the Author of all. It is, in the highest sense, about friendship.

This idea pinpoints something I wasn’t quite able to articulate in a discussion I had recently with one of our readers about the differences between traditional Orthodox Judaism, Karaite Judaism, and Samaritanism. He’s been writing to me for a while asking questions about Judaism and the Torah, and trying to figure out where he fits into all this. (Which reminds me, there was one exchange of ours I thought of posting here, and never did! Hopefully soon!) “In the end though,” he asked, “does all this Karaites v Orthodox v Reform v Masorti v Samaritans v Reconstructionist stuff matter ? I know I need to be a better human being. Does it matter which form of Judaism I choose or Righteous Gentilism?”

This question gave me pause. Sometimes we can get so lost in the details and little quabbles about who is right and what information is correct. How much does all that really matter?

Rabbi Sacks reminds us: the main purpose of Judaism is not to convey information, but to build and nurture our relationships–with ourselves, with our fellow humans, and with God. The Talmud tells us a story about a non-Jew who challenged Hillel the Elder to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” He said “go and learn” because the commentary is important, the details do matter–but they are not the heart of the Torah. Our relationships are.

Shabbat shalom, my friend!

Much love,

Daniella

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, pt. 6!

Ahh yes, greetings, my friends, and happy holidays to all! It is time for another Search Term Q & A session! Aren’t you excited?!

For those of you just tuning in: every once in a while I write a post responding to questions and phrases that people have typed into search engines, which led them to this blog. Hilarity often ensues! You can find links to previous Search Term Q & A’s at the bottom of this post.

Let the madness begin:


“is it fun tk be a jew”

BEST. QUESTION. EVER.

The answer is… yes and no.

The fun things about being a Jew include our gazillion holidays (especially Purim and Simhat Torah!), our lively lifecycle celebrations, Shabbat (hello, it’s a 25-hour party EVERY WEEK), our singing and dancing, our sense of humor, and the general intensity with which we engage with the world and with learning.

The less fun things include… well… our gazillion holidays (see especially: Passover cleaning), antisemitism, the Three Weeks, antisemitism, keeping kosher anywhere except Israel, antisemitism… did I mention antisemitism?

But seriously–I have three kids, and looking a Jewish child in the eye and trying to explain what the Holocaust was, or the Crusades, or the Cossacks, or blood libels, or pogroms–or, more pressing, why we are huddling in the corner taking cover from Hamas rockets?… Not what I’d call “fun.”

But one thing’s for sure: fun or not, being a Jew is meaningful. It gives me a sense of purpose and mission, that I’m here for a reason and that I’m representing something greater than myself.

“orthodoe jews weird”

Orthodoe? Is that like a female deer, but Torah-observant? If so, yes, that is certainly weird.

“what is the most ridiculous jewish rule”

Hmmmmm.

The problem here is the word “ridiculous”. Bizarre or random, I have plenty of contestants for. (How about the one where we’re not allowed to wear a blend of wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11)? That one’s pretty random.) We have rules that feel ridiculously complex, or ridiculously specific (like the endless disputes about exactly what time one day ends and the next begins). But just plain old ridiculous? That’s judgy, man. Judgy.

“ridiculous jewish beliefs”

Okay that last one was borderline, but this one is downright rude.

“what are some silly rules in talmud”

Really, Internet? Really?!

“why are jews weird looking”

beg your pardon?!

We look perfectly normal!

Except when my sister and I are in the same room. Then all bets are off.
Um. Same goes for me and my Bubbie.

“josep.com”

Alas, I have not yet convinced Josep to fully embrace his celebrity status and open his own website where his adoring fans can properly venerate him. However, he actually let me post a picture of him wearing his IDF T-shirt on my op-ed about our misadventures with the Spanish postal service on TOI, with a caption reading: “And while we’re here, ladies, did I mention that he’s single?” so we’re getting somewhere 😛 (I think he didn’t actually believe I’d do it when he dared me to add that caption. Clearly he underestimates how much I love to embarrass him…. and that’s… fairly remarkable, considering what I’ve already done to him on this blog.)

“mikveh womb of the world”

…Yes, that’s the general idea. More about that here.

“+asaret hebrew root”

Hmmm. Well, if you mean the word aseret (עשרת), the root would be, of course, a.s.r. (ע.ש.ר) meaning “ten”, which is pretty boring since the word aseret just means “ten” of something (in semikhut form).

“interesting facts about jewish culture and history”

Aha! You have arrived in the right place, my friend! Jewish culture and history are some of the major themes of this blog. You can explore the tags/categories of “Jewish culture” and “Jewish history” for a list of relevant posts.

“what jewish do with their thing”

*cough* Well. That would depend which “thing” you’re referring to.

Perhaps this post on circumcision is what you’re looking for? I should warn you, what we do with that thing is rather disturbing.

“do orthodox jews bury plates”

NO. WE DO NOT. That is a particularly annoying and persistent myth, and I’m glad you found the post in which I refuted it.

“sex through a sheet jewish”

NO. THAT IS ALSO NOT A THING.

“jews can’t do”

YES WE CAN.

(Sorry, some of the previous questions have me in a rather combative mood.)

“เค้กวันเกิดสวยๆ”

Wow. Um.

*muttering to self* What… language is this even… *tiptoes over to Google Translate* THAI! Thai. I knew that. The alphabet that looks like a bunch of dancing snakes. Right. And according to Google Translate this phrase means “beautiful birthday cake.” Aha! Hi person from Thailand! You must have found one of Josep’s birthday posts with pictures of cake.

I do bake cakes now and then, but I don’t know if they would really fall under the category of “beautiful”. You know what, though, an amazing cake decorator is just about to join my family. Meet my future sister-in-law, Bar Malca! She made this:

barcelona fcb soccer birthday cake

It’s the most beautiful birthday cake Josep has ever seen, right Josep?

You can check out more of her magnificent (and delicious) creations on her Facebook page! (Pretty sure she doesn’t ship to Thailand though. Oh well. But if you want to pay her airfare I’m sure she’d be more than happy to come bake you a beautiful birthday cake in the comfort of your home!)

“write a lettre invite your friend to visit morocoo a aid adha”

Dear Josep,

I have been asked by a Random Stranger on the Internet to invite you to visit Morocco, presumably during Eid al-Adha. Of course, “invite” is a kind of strange word to use, since I’ve never been to Morocco in my life, whereas there is a fair chance that you have. (Have you? I feel like you must have been to Morocco.)

Why do all these Muslims keep asking me to write letters to my/their friends? Must be because of those guest letters from Saadia and Yasmina

Love,

Daniella


ANY OTHER QUESTIONS? Feel free to contact me! If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy the previous Search Term Q&A’s:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

When God Speaks: Prophecy in Jewish Thought & Theology

Dear Josep,

One of the most interesting responses I got to my post about the Jewish view of Jesus was from a devout Protestant I know. She said most of it didn’t surprise her, but that she was “shocked… like, can’t stop thinking about it shocked… that Jews believe that prophecy stopped.” Do we believe, she wanted to know, that the voice of God has manifested in other ways since then? Or that He stopped speaking altogether?

I gave her a brief answer on FB, but I’m going to use today’s post to answer her in full.

The question stems from of one of those misunderstandings between Judaism and Christianity, where a certain word means one thing to one religion, and another thing entirely to the other.

What Is Prophecy?

In Judaism, prophecy is a direct dream or vision in which God Himself appears to the prophet and speaks to him (or her. Several prophetesses are mentioned in the Bible). We believe that Moses was the only one who spoke with God really directly–like, he would just be hanging out, and God’s voice would speak in his ear, he would answer, and God would answer back conversationally. All the other prophets, we believe, experienced prophecy through a vision, dream, or the presence of an angel.

Now that I mention it–angels are another one of those words that we understand entirely differently from Christians. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, מלאך, means “messenger.” We don’t believe that angels are the souls of deceased humans, nor do we believe that they have a will of their own. Only humans have free will according to Judaism. We believe that angels are sort of “channels” through which God carries out His will in the world. They’re sort of extensions of Him in a sense.

It’s all very mystical and strange and many of us don’t understand it.

But the most common way we encounter angels in the Bible is when a prophet has a vision about them, and in that case they usually appear in the form of a person–but not always. Ezekiel describes them as these very odd-looking creatures with multiple wings and “wheels” and stuff. (See Ezekiel 1.)

From what I understand, the definition of prophecy in Christianity (at least Protestantism) is much broader than this definition.

So How Do We Identify True Prophecy?

If prophecy is a dream or vision in which God appears–how do we know whether a dream we had that predicted the future, or even a dream in which God or an angel appears to us, is just a dream and not a prophecy?

What about mentally ill people who claim to see God in visions or that they are the Messiah?

It’s a very perplexing issue!

Well thank God for Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.

In the Guide and other writings, Maimonides explains that a person can only be granted prophecy if he has attained a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual perfection. And he must prove his prophetic abilities, not by performing miracles (since these can be done through illusion), but by making accurate and detailed predictions of the future. Every single detail the potential prophet says must be true in order for us to believe that person to be a prophet. If even a small detail is wrong, he is a false prophet.

Also, Maimonides adds, if the person tells us to add or remove any of the commandments, we can know immediately that the person is a false prophet.

What Was the Purpose of Prophecy–and Why Did It Stop?

Prophecy was a kind of “direct intervention.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were prophets because God needed to guide them in a world that was still completely pagan. Moses was a prophet because his job was to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and teach them the entire Torah. We believe that much of the Oral Law comes from clarifications that God gave to Moses regarding what’s written in the Torah.

Many of our sages liken the history of the Jewish people to the life of a child. When a baby is born, he is completely dependent on his mother to keep him warm, fed, and safe. As he grows up, he gradually needs his parents less and less, gaining more and more independence from them.

So it was with us. Initially, all our leaders were prophets. After Moses came Joshua, and then the Judges. We needed a very direct connection to God to know what to do. Eventually we shifted over to a non-prophet leader: a king. The kings of Israel and Judah were guided by prophets and sometimes experienced prophecy themselves, but their primary role was political, not spiritual.

Towards the end of the First Temple period, the role of the prophets shifted from a more gentle guidance to rebuke and warning. The Israelites were not following the commandments and were worshiping idols, and God sent prophets like Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah to warn them to turn back to the path of righteousness or they would be severely punished. It was during this period that we received the prophecies about the future and the Messiah who would eventually come after the destruction.

But those were the last direct words God delivered to us. Once we entered the exile, God stopped speaking to us through prophecy.

We don’t really know why. But we believe that God set it up this way on purpose–for us to take a more and more active role in our ultimate mission of “fixing” humanity.

In other words, God shifted the responsibility from Himself (with the prophets representing Him directly) to us.

“It Is Not in Heaven”

There is a very strange story in the Talmud that, I think, sheds light on this shift of responsibility.

Goes like this: There’s a debate going on in the Sanhedrin (what else is new) about the spiritual/ritual purity status of an oven owned by a guy called Akhnai. So most of the rabbis in the Sanhedrin argue that the oven is impure, but one guy, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, insists that it’s pure. Now, the way the Sanhedrin worked is that they ruled by majority. So no matter how senior or wise Rabbi Eliezer was, if he didn’t manage to convince his colleagues that he was correct, he be overruled.

When he failed to convince the other rabbis that he was correct, he performed a series of small miracles to try and prove his point: making a carob tree uproot itself, making a stream of water flow backwards, and the walls of the building begin to collapse on the Sanhedrin. When his colleagues remained unmoved, he shouted: “If the law is as I say–the Heavens will prove my claim!”

In response, a voice sounded from Heaven and said: “Why do you not listen to Rabbi Eliezer, as the law is as he says?!”

Rabbi Joshua then jumped to his feet and shouted: “It is not in Heaven!

The Talmud then goes on to explain: “What does ‘It is not in Heaven’ [a quote from Deuteronomy 30] mean? Rabbi Jeremiah says: Since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, we no longer follow a voice from Heaven, since the Torah itself says [in Exodus 23]: ‘The majority rules.'”

And then the Talmud says that Elijah the Prophet was asked what God said in response to the incident. Elijah answered: “He smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!'”

When I first learned about this story I thought it was ridiculous. GOD HIMSELF is supporting Rabbi Eliezer’s position!!! Isn’t the entire point of the Torah to fulfill God’s will?! If GOD HIMSELF supports a certain ruling, how can you oppose it?!

But that’s the thing.

God’s will is that we follow the precedents and rules He originally set up. Since the destruction of the First Temple, it is no longer up to God to determine how Jewish law will be upheld. He made it our responsibility.

Even if we’re objectively wrong.

Because this isn’t about objective truth. It’s about the spirit of the law. More than faith, more than inspiration, more than anything else, Judaism is about tradition. (Cue Fiddler on the Roof. 😛 ) That link with our past, that responsibility to our ancestors and our descendants, is more important than the objective details.

It’s kind of a difficult concept to swallow. Still, over the years I have come to appreciate the wisdom of this story.

But Does God Still Speak?

Of course He does.

Just not quite that directly.

We believe that God speaks to us through history; through the events in the world and in our lives, from the establishment of the State of Israel to your favorite flower blooming on the side of the road.

We believe He speaks all the time. It is us who must learn how to listen and interpret the messages for ourselves–but with humility. We are skeptical of anyone who is 100% sure that “God spoke to them” and that know with certainty what He said.

I think this is a function of our “maturity” as a people. Apparently, we no longer need this kind of direct guidance. Instead, we have spiritual leaders–the rabbis and sages who interpret the Law. This system was set in place back in the days of Moses, apparently in anticipation that we would eventually reach this point. It reached its maturity in the early Talmudic period, when the Sages consolidated the system for interpreting the Law and applying it to new situations that arise.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook wrote an essay called “A Sage Is Preferable to a Prophet,” where he puts forth the argument that in our day, it is better for us to have a sage, who guides us to gently reach our own conclusions, than to have a prophet.

It’s kind of the difference between a counselor and a policeman.

Will Prophecy Be Restored?

Jews do believe that prophecy will be restored with the coming of the Messiah, who will, himself, be a prophet.

Until then, we continue to rely on the self-admittedly flawed system of rabbinic rulings, and try to figure out, to the best of our ability, how to do what God wants from us.

With love,

Daniella

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

What Do Jews REALLY Think About Jesus?!

Dear Josep,

With Holy Week beginning today and Passover beginning tomorrow night, this is a time of year that brings up not only joy and festivity, but also some complexity with regard to Jewish-Christian relations. In the past, Easter was a deadly time to be Jewish. All the focus on Jesus’s death stirred up a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment, because until very recently, Christians believed we were responsible for his death. Many of the worst anti-Jewish riots occurred around Easter time.

Eitan and I have both had the experience of meeting a Christian who has never met a Jew before. (I’m sure this is news to you. 😛 ) Especially if that Christian is a Protestant who grew up in a very traditional community, the first question we get, almost always, is:

So what do you think about Jesus?

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

We stifle a sigh and try to figure out how to answer that question as tactfully as possible.

Look–I get it. To most Christians, Jesus is God, except he’s the “personal connection” part that feels like your buddy and friend and father and confidante. For many of the people who ask me this question, their lives and the lives of their entire community revolve around Jesus. It’s very difficult for them to fathom how somebody could possibly live a deeply religious life with no Jesus.

Well… here is my complete and honest answer.

Truth Is–We Don’t Think Much About Him at All.

If a practicing Muslim walked up to a religious Christian and asked: “What do you think about Mohammed?”, many Christians would probably answer something along the lines of, “Uh… you mean that guy people got shot in France for drawing cartoons of?”

Mohammed is not even in their frame of religious reference. He’s not a figure involved in their practice, prayers, or religious contemplation.

That’s how it is for Jews vis-a-vis Jesus. He’s just not relevant to us.

We Think He Was Just a Guy

So there are a few things Christians believe about Jesus that Jews completely reject.

The first is that he was the Messiah and a prophet.

Both of these things are believed, to some extent, by Muslims as well as Christians. So give each other a high five. We Jews are gonna just… stay out of that party.

The reason we don’t believe he was the Messiah is pretty straightforward: he didn’t fill a single one of our traditional criteria. Our readings of the messianic prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc. are very different from the Christian interpretations. See here for the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

We don’t believe he was a prophet for two reasons: one, we believe prophecy officially ended after the First Exile and that there have been no real prophets since; two, Jeremiah explicitly warns that anyone who tells us to defy the teachings of the Torah is a false prophet, and… well. (It may be arguable that Jesus never did tell anyone to defy the Torah, and that it was only Paul who did. Paul is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

If this was the only difference, however, Christianity would still be a messianic subgroup of Judaism, as it was at first. It was only when the theological stuff started to get weird (*cough*Paul*cough*) that Christianity split off and became its own religion.

So the second thing we reject is the concept of the Trinity, and of Jesus being the son of God.

This theological concept is totally beyond the pale of Jewish belief. We believe in one invisible, omniscient, omnipresent God. Not in one God who is divided into three “parts” and certainly not a God who ever manifested Himself in a human being. That’s just… no.

Thanks, but We’ll Atone for Our Own Sins

The third thing Jews reject about the Christian idea of Jesus is this idea that he was the “sacrificial lamb” who died to atone for the Original Sin and all subsequent sins of humanity, replacing the need for animal sacrifices for atonement.

First of all–we have a very different concept of what the Original Sin was and what it means for humanity. You can read more about that here. In short: we don’t believe anyone is born “tainted” with it and we don’t believe atonement for it is necessary. We believe people are judged by God according to the choices they make during their lives, not according to an ill-advised bite of fruit taken by an ancestor thousands of years ago.

Second of all–we already have a way to atone for our sins. It’s called teshuva, and it is a deeply personal process that only the sinner can do for himself. You can read more teshuva about here.

Third of all–atonement sacrifices were only one kind of animal sacrifice, and as far as we’re concerned, those are still “on.” Most of us (Orthodox Jews) believe that when the Temple is restored we’re going to go right ahead and do those again. Replacing them with a dude who was actually God and sacrificed himself was definitely never on the agenda.

So If He Was Just a Guy–What Kind of a Guy Was He?

Right. So here’s where things can get a little hairy.

Jewish opinions on this range from the most generous: “He was a kind teacher who was misguided in his teachings, but they brought the world to an awareness of One God, more or less, and for that we can be grateful” to “He was a horrible person who defied his rabbis and tricked hundreds of people.”

The latter opinion I read in an essay in a collection of Jewish responses to missionaries, and I found it rather harsh. I tend to lean towards the liberal side, but… again, I don’t really spend a lot of time and effort thinking about this. I don’t actually care what kind of a guy he was. He’s not relevant to my life.

Why Jews Get Prickly When Christians Ask Us This Question

I really believe that most people who ask this question are genuinely curious and have the best of intentions. I’m even willing to forgive the gentle missionizing I’ve gotten here or there–“You really should read the New Testament, I think it will be very meaningful for you” type things. I know this comes from a genuine concern for my soul, as according to traditional Christian theology, I’m going to end up in Hell for all eternity after I die for believing all the things stated above. They don’t want that to happen to me. I really do appreciate the concern.

But.

Let’s be frank: it was not so very long ago that Christians were burning us at the stake “out of concern for our souls.” Like, yes, I do believe many of them were genuinely concerned and acting out of what they thought was kindness, but… my appreciation has limits, mmkay?

In medieval Europe Jews were forced to sit in our own synagogues and listen to preachers lecturing about Jesus and salvation as part of a general strategy to get Jews to convert. Those days are over. If anyone, however well-meaning, starts aggressively proselytizing me, I am going to walk away. Because it’s the 21st century and I can do that now without getting my throat slit.

Therefore, if I just met someone, and they ask me what I think about Jesus, I will be on edge. I never know what their next question or statement is going to be. It’s not at all unlikely that it will contain some subtle or not-so-subtle attempt at soul-saving. And that’s gonna be awkward for everybody.

Speaking of which, a note to our readers: any comments to that effect will be deleted. You’re not going to change my mind about Jesus. Ever. Don’t waste your time.

“Jews for Jesus”

There is an unfortunate movement you may have heard of that calls itself “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Judaism.”

I prefer to call them, “Christians Posing as Jews.”

This group claims to be Jews who merely accept Jesus as the Messiah. They use Jewish lingo, Jewish symbolism, and Jewish rituals. But in practice, these people are not Jews, they are Christians. Many of them are not ethnically or halakhically Jewish and have no religious Jewish background. They claim outwardly to believe only that Jesus was the Messiah, but their beliefs about him are actually consistent with Christianity. They are aggressive missionizers and prey on lonely Jews with little knowledge. I know a few people who got involved with them and had a very difficult time getting out.

It may surprise you to hear me speak so harshly about a religious group. While I may have my disagreements with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, et al, I don’t have a problem with people who practice their faiths in earnest.

But you know me; if there’s one thing I have zero tolerance for, it’s dishonesty.

These people claim to be a stream of Judaism. They are not. They are, at best, a group of people who think they are following Judaism but are actually Christians. At worst, they are a deceitful stream of Christianity that is trying to save Jewish souls by pretending that Christianity and Judaism are not mutually exclusive.

I am not cool with that.

What I am cool with, is Christians celebrating their own faith and traditions. So on that note, a blessed Holy Week to you and all who celebrate, and Chag Sameach to all our Jewish readers!

Love,

Daniella

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, Pt. 3!

Yes, ladies and gents, it’s time for yet another Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet!

Every so often I like to collect some interesting, funny, or strange search terms that led people to my blog and respond to them in a post. In case you missed them, here is Part I, and here’s Part II. Enjoy!

“what are the jewish people with the furry circle hats called”

Those would be the Hassidim. The furry hats are called “streimels,” and are usually only worn on Shabbat and holidays. More about Hassidism here, and more about stuff Jews put on their heads here.

“why is jerusalem most treasured”

Well, I see you found my post called Why Jerusalem Matters, which answers that question pretty well–at least, why Jerusalem is so treasured by the Jewish people. The short answer is that it was home to our Holy Temple, which was the focal point of our religion in Biblical times.

Jerusalem bears significance for Christians in the context of Jesus’s life, death, and (according to their beliefs) resurrection. It is important to Muslims because of the Dome of the Rock, where, they believe, Mohammed ascended to Heaven.

“facts about zionism odd practises” / “weird zionist jewish traditions”

Well, Zionism doesn’t really have “practices” or “traditions” because it’s not a religion or culture, it’s a form of nationalism. These days it is often used by antisemites when what they really mean is Judaism. Because apparently these days it is frowned upon to hate someone for their religion, but it is totally A-okay to hate someone for their politics. (…???)

So let me make this clear: Zionism is nothing more than the belief that the Jewish people has a right to self-determination in its ancestral homeland. You can be Jewish without being a Zionist, and you can be Zionist without being Jewish.

There are some Israeli national traditions, but I don’t think any of them are particularly weird. I mean, there’s the fact that they like to have ceremonies for everything, and the thing about reading bad poetry at every event, but that’s for another time.

“what do you say in hebrew against haman and hitler”

Oh I know I know! Jews often add “yimach shmo,” which literally means “may his name be obliterated,” after saying the name of an evil person. As a kid I thought you weren’t even allowed to mention Hitler’s name without adding yimach shmo.

“can religious people be good at sex”

*cough*

Yes.

Better than secular people, according to research.

Next!

“jewish sexuality sheet”

OH DON’T GET ME STARTED.

Okay, you got me started.

As I explain here, there is a prevalent myth that Jewish couples have sex through a hole in the sheet, and it is absolutely, 100% false.

Jewish tradition views sex as a powerful force that can be either incredibly positive and sacred or incredibly destructive, depending on how it is used. The positive aspect isn’t just about childbearing, either. In the proper context, sex creates intimacy and enhances the sacred bond between a man and his wife. It’s not that different from the way we enjoy delicious feasts during the Sabbath and the holidays. We believe that the pleasures of this world, channeled for holiness, themselves become holy.

“things jews like”

Piña coladas and getting caught in the rain?

Okay, seriously though: Jews are people (contrary to what certain headlines on CNN may imply) and as such we have as wide-ranging tastes as any other group of people.

Still, if one must generalize, we do appear to have these loves in common:

  • Arguing
  • Eating
  • Complaining
  • Trying to save the world
  • Dark humor

“jewish custom open book random”

So there is a kabbalistic thing about opening the Tanakh to a random page to help make decisions or determine things. It’s called “Goral HaGra,” the “Lot of the Gaon of Vilna.” The method involves opening the Tanakh to a random page and following the last verse on the page; or, if it doesn’t answer the question, taking the last letter of the verse, and looking for another verse that begins with that letter on the same page.

The story goes that Rabbi Aryeh Levine used this method to identify the remains of 12 soldiers who were killed during the War of Independence. They were 12 of the 35 soldiers who were sent to reinforce Gush Etzion, and were astronomically outnumbered and massacred by the Arab army. They were buried hurriedly because of the conditions of the war, and later, when they were exhumed and moved to a more respectable gravesite, some of them were impossible to identify. (This was before the days of DNA identification!) The families asked the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, what to do, and he recommended Goral HaGra. Rabbi Ariyeh Levine, a well-known and beloved rabbi in Jerusalem, was assigned the task.

I wouldn’t exactly rely on it when deciding, like, what stocks to invest in, or something. But all things being equal, I guess it beats asking an 8 ball?

There is also the following Chabad custom: to “ask the Rebbe a question” by writing him a letter, folding it up, giving to charity, and sticking the letter randomly into a book of his letters. They then open the book and read the letter on the page where their letter landed.

“most weird ritual in jews”

I have to choose one?

Hmmm.

I mean… this is a very subjective question. I was raised with all these rituals, so there are things that seem totally normal to me that are really weird for other people. I guess if I had to choose one, I’d point to taking the Four Species during Succot. That one is pretty weird.

“how to wrap a pashmina on head jewish”

Well, all right.

(Here’s the post I tried and failed to link to in the video: A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear)

“hourly miracles that are keeping israel safe”

I don’t know about revealed ones, but hundreds of hidden miracles are keeping Israel safe every minute of every day! Nothing else explains why we’re still here!

“i love shmita”

Oh. That’s cool. Honestly I have mixed feelings about shmita. Like, there are aspects to it that are awesome and all, but some that are a pain in the butt or downright scary.

“im not ok letter”

Oy. I hope you’re okay now.

“how to indotruce topic o holocaust to children”

I do indeed have a post that answers this question! Here it is. I hope you found it useful.

“blessings from hair judaism”

Blessings… from… hair.

…Nope. I got nothin’. Sorry.

“basically anyone israel doesn’t like is an amalekite”

Mmmmmno. There are people who toss around the word “Amalek” the way people toss around the word “Nazi” to describe anyone they don’t like, and I think this is a very dangerous and destructive overuse of both terms.
Amalek, as a nation, is extinct. But we believe that the spiritual heirs of Amalek live on. These are not just anyone we don’t like; they are people who subscribe to the worldview that is the antithesis of everything Judaism stands for: equality, justice, and compassion. I go into more detail in this post.

“rrurh pitorri de morais”

What language is that even?

When I Googled “Rrurh” I found an entry from a Google book that had mistakenly digitized the word “truth” as “rrurh.” There’s a river in Germany called Ruhr?

Perhaps it’s supposed to be a Spanish name? The “de Morais” part sounds right, “Pitorri” sounds a bit Italian maybe?

Maybe Rrurh is the German child of an Italian immigrant who married a Spanish woman?

I’m gonna write a whole novel about this.

“israeli soldiers get book of psalms”

Actually they get a whole Tanakh (which includes the book of Psalms).

When Jewish soldiers are sworn in to the IDF, they receive a Tanakh as a gift from the state. Non-Jewish soldiers receive a holy book of their choosing (usually a Qur’an for Muslims and a Christian Bible for Christians; Druze soldiers receive a medallion, because their holy book is secret!).

At least when I was a sixth-grader, we received a Tanakh as a gift from the state for graduating elementary school. I guess they expect us to lose it in the six years between?

Any other questions?! Do feel free to ask!

How to Deal with Offensive Rabbinic Texts–and Not Be a Jerk About It

Dear Josep,

The other day my friend Yehoshua sent me a question that he thought might be a good discussion for the blog. He says [my explanations in brackets]:

“A friend of mine shared a video of some women mocking a charedi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbi who was giving a daf yomi shiur [Talmud class]. The sugya [topic of discussion] was in Ketubot 75a, and was discussing physical deformities, which if not disclosed prior to marriage would be grounds for divorce without a ketuba [meaning the husband wouldn’t need to hold to the marriage contract and pay the wife the money he committed to paying her in the event of divorce]. At some point, the Gemara starts discussing women’s breasts: how much of a gap between them would be considered a physical deformity, and then continues to discuss if a woman’s breasts are significantly different in size from other women’s. In this video photos of naked women with clearly Photoshopped breasts were displayed next to the rabbi’s head while he was discussing the passage. I found this to be extremely offensive, while at the same time I understood why whoever created the video was offended by the rabbi and chazal [the Sages]. How do you explain the Gemara to a non-believer who encounters these types of passages? How do you respond when someone creates an offensive video that mocks a passage in your holy texts, which on the surface is actually offensive? I’d appreciate your input on this.”

So there are two issues here, and I will address them separately.

#1: How to Criticize Someone’s Religion Without Being a Jerk

The first issue is that someone made this video with the sole purpose of offending and shaming, and not with the purpose of starting a conversation.

Look, whoever made this video: I understand that you found this class ridiculous and offensive. But mocking and offending people who think differently from you is not a mature or productive way of critiquing their ideas. Only cowards use shaming and ridicule to prove a point. All you are doing is making yourself look like a jerk.

If you want anyone to actually take you seriously and respect you and your opinions, you’re going to have to be willing to engage in a respectful conversation. That means:

  1. Not automatically assuming that you are superior to the person you are criticizing. Because you aren’t. And even if you were, being condescending only reflects badly on you and makes everyone less likely to respect you.
  2. Being genuinely open to hearing the other side. Start from the assumption that they have something valuable to say. Be curious. You might learn something.
  3. Criticizing the idea, not the person or people who stand behind it.
  4. Not discounting the value of an entire religion, religious text, or system of ideas because of one aspect of it you don’t like. It’s called, “not seeing the world in black and white,” also known as “thinking like a mature adult.”
  5. Not using wording or imagery that is offensive to the person with whom you are engaging. The message that conveys is that it’s not okay for their religious texts to offend you, but it’s okay for you to offend them. I believe we call that, “being a hypocrite.”

Now. Let’s pretend what happened here was that someone wrote my friend Yehoshua an e-mail that read:

Dear Yehoshua,

I came across a video of a rabbi teaching a class about a passage in the Talmud that discusses women’s bodies in a way I found very offensive. It disturbs me very much to think that the religion you practice is based on texts that discuss women’s bodies this way. Assuming, based on what I know of you, that you are a person who respects women, I wonder how you can reconcile your respect for women with the ideas discussed in this text.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Thanks,

Skeptical Secular Person

#2: Dealing with Offensive Passages in Rabbinic Texts

I discussed my thoughts on Torah passages that I find hard to swallow in my post, “Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can.” The thing is, there I was discussing texts that we believe come straight from God. When we’re talking about rabbinic teachings, the belief that “God knew what He was doing, even if I don’t understand, and maybe part of the purpose was to make me question and struggle with this” doesn’t apply that well. One can argue that God gave the authority to the Sages to make rulings (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) and therefore whatever they say is basically the same as what He said, but the distinction between Torah law (d’orayta in Aramaic) and rabbinic law (d’rabbanan) is one that is recognized in halakha. While we do see following mitzvot d’rabbanan in general as being a mitzvah d’orayta, there is more wiggle room within their application. One of the important principles of halakha is “safek d’orayta l’ḥumra, safek d’rabbanan l’kula“–when there is a question or uncertainty in halakha, if the matter concerns a Torah law, the tendency is to take the more stringent view, whereas our tendency in the case of a rabbinic law is to be more lenient.

Anyway. There are a few things I think it’s important to take into account when approaching problematic passages like the one mentioned in the video.

1) Historical Context

These passages were written hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Respect for women was not at its pinnacle in that day. You have to understand that up until extremely recently, marriage was primarily a financial transaction. The Jewish institution of marriage was progressive for its time in that it acknowledged women as being more than just property, granting them certain rights. But it wasn’t what we think of as the ideal, egalitarian marriages today. In most cases, the bride and groom were not friends or acquaintances before they were betrothed. In many cases they only saw each other briefly before the wedding. For their purposes, this passage in the Talmud discusses a financial transaction under false pretenses. Being physically healthy/not deformed was important information in that context, and hiding a deformity was considered dishonest conduct. The discussion here is to draw the perimeters around what qualifies as a deformity so that a man wouldn’t just randomly decide that he doesn’t like how his wife looks and claim that she is deformed so he could divorce her without giving her compensation.

This doesn’t make it okay. It doesn’t mean the passage isn’t sexist and objectifying. It is. It just means that you can start from the assumption that they were doing the best they could with what they had at the time. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is rife with antisemitic tropes. Shakespeare had most likely never met a Jew in his life; he was reflecting an idea within his society of what Jews were. He even made the character of Shylock somewhat complex with his “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” That doesn’t make it okay and it doesn’t make the play less antisemitic. But it makes me more understanding and forgiving of Shakespeare for doing the best he could with what he had.

2) The Nature of Talmudic Discourse

Remember how I mentioned that the word “Talmudic” has two definitions in the English dictionary–one being “of or relating to the Talmud” and the other being “characterized by or making extremely fine distinctions; overly detailed or subtle; hairsplitting”?

Not to mention, "prone to causing fistfights between old bearded men." Detail from a painting by Austrian painter Carl Schleicher (1825-1903) {PD}
Not to mention, “prone to causing fistfights between old bearded men.”
Detail from “A Controversy Whatsoever in the Talmud” by Carl Schleicher (1825-1903) {PD}

If the Sages are arguing over exactly how many degrees  below the horizon (and from which vantage point, and from what elevation!) the sun must be to count as “sunset” … why shouldn’t they be arguing over what might be considered a deformity at the same level of detail? No topic is off-limits for discussion in halakha. The major issue we have with this passage is that it’s an intimate discussion of a woman’s body in a way that is objectifying. But the Talmud is full of dispassionate discussions of various parts and functions of human anatomy and physiology–male and female–because halakha permeates absolutely every aspect of life and every detail is important.

Moreover, sometimes the Talmud brings ridiculous and extreme examples that no one in their right minds would actually believe could happen. Sometimes this is a rhetorical device by which the Sages sort of “frame the perimeters” of a halakha. Sometimes it’s there to make a different point altogether, or address another kind of situation in a roundabout way. I highly doubt that anyone ever in the history of Judaism walked up to a rabbinic judge and held a ruler up to his wife’s chest to get out of paying her for a divorce, and I doubt that the rabbis who sat around debating this actually thought they’d ever see such a thing happen.

3) The Talmud Is Not the Final Word

Jewish law did not start with the Talmud, and it doesn’t end with the Talmud either. In fact, the compilation of the Talmud itself was a capitulation. There was originally a prohibition to write down the Oral Torah, precisely because the Oral Law was supposed to be a continuous discussion between teacher and student–not doctrine set in stone. (If you have no idea what I mean by Oral Torah, click here.) The way the modern application of halakha works is that it filters down from the Torah, through the Talmud, then through the rabbinical authorities of each age, right down to the rabbis making halakhic decisions right this very second. The final word in halakha ideally belongs to a living person.

Inevitably, there were ideas that came up in the past 2,000 years that didn’t pass the test of time, but are still preserved in our ancient writings. The Talmud also says that a women burning her husband’s food can be grounds for divorce. Obviously, that is not applied today. It is only one of many ideas in the Talmud that are not applicable in modern halakha (according to mainstream Orthodox Judaism).

One might ask what value there is in preserving these problematic passages, and why we don’t discard them. Or even if we don’t discard them–why are we still discussing and teaching them, if they are rejected by most halakhic authorities today? It’s a good question, and I think the answer is that we don’t like to get rid of things. 😛 Especially not rabbinic writings, because we see them as having inherent value, even if we find elements of them problematic or offensive today. This passage in general is a discussion about a financial transaction under false pretenses, and there is a lot of important information and ideas in it even if some of them make our stomachs turn. As to whether we should be teaching them, that’s a judgement call on the part of the particular school or teacher.

The bottom line is, these kinds of passages make most modern Orthodox Jews uncomfortable too. Some respond to them with apologetics; some just ignore them; and some, like myself, face them, struggle with them, and ultimately accept them as part of an imperfect system that we believe is the best we’ve got. Some, unfortunately, use them as a basis for their own backwards, sexist, racist etc. worldviews. Like anything, it depends a lot more on the person reading than on the text itself.

Yeah, I know that makes this issue about as clear as mud. Welcome to Judaism. 😛

Love,

Daniella


Do you have any questions or thoughts you’d like me to address in a letter to Josep? Feel free to ask in the comments, use the contact form, or just shoot me an e-mail at letterstojosep[at]gmail[dot]com.

The Battleground of Good and Evil: Human Nature in Judaism and Christianity

Prefer to listen? I read this letter for the Jewish Geography podcast:


 

Dear Josep,

One of the major philosophical differences I have noted between Christianity and Judaism is our concept of the nature of man, what he is capable of, and what he needs in order to elevate himself above the darker aspects of his nature.

When I first encountered this difference I was skeptical. I was educated from a strong Jewish perspective, so I was aware that anything anybody said about Christianity was sure to cast it in a negative light. Therefore, I thought that maybe those who had taught me about this aspect of Christianity had been exaggerating it. But the more I learned about the fundamental principles of Christianity, the more I realized that this difference does exist; and that maybe the fact that I see it as a negative aspect attests to how deeply ingrained the opposite idea is in my belief system.

The root of the disagreement is in how we interpret the results of what Christians call the Original Sin, the sin of Adam and Eve.

It was definitely not an apple. According to Jewish tradition, God did not reveal what type of tree it was so it would not be shunned on earth, but rumor among the Sages has it that it was a fig tree.
A 15th-century depiction. For the record, Jews do not believe it was an apple tree. According to Jewish tradition, God did not reveal what type of tree it was so it would not be shunned on earth, and there are (of course…) a variety of opinions as to what type of tree it was. Some say grapevine; some say fig; some say a stalk of wheat; and some say citron (yes, that fruit we use during Succot).

Both Christians and Jews agree that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it fundamentally changed the nature of man, his purpose and goals, and the nature of the world in which he lived. We also both believe that the sin caused some kind of intermingling, or “tainting,” of humankind with evil. But what Christians believe this means is that man can never redeem himself from his inherent evil; that it is part of his essence, from which he can never escape on his own. The only way to redeem oneself from it, Christianity says, is “salvation through Christ.” That is, that God manifested Himself in His son–Jesus–who then suffered and died on the cross to atone for that original sin. All you have to do to redeem yourself from evil, then, is to accept Jesus. (Obviously, different streams of Christianity have different ideas about exactly how to do that and what it means, but that’s the basic idea.) That way, God will grant you salvation and grace.

It took me years and a lot of reading to fully wrap my head around that concept, because it is just so foreign to me.

So here’s what Jews believe about the sin of Adam and Eve.

The Tree of Knowledge is actually not exactly an accurate translation of what the tree is called in Genesis. In the text, it is called “עץ הדעת טוב ורע,” “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” But the word for “knowledge,” “דעת,” does not simply mean “knowledge” as in wisdom, awareness, understanding, or the retention of information. “דעת” implies a deep intermingling, synthesis, and connection. When the Torah says a man “knew” his wife and then she became pregnant, it’s not just a euphemism; “knowledge” in that context is describing a deep connection. A more accurate translation of the name of the tree, then, would be “the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.”

So the effect of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil was not simply to give man “knowledge,” but to cause an intertwining of good and evil within man. Before eating from the fruit of the Tree, evil did not exist within man. It was embodied in the snake, which was an external source of doubt and rebellion against God.

In Judaism we have a concept of the “good inclination” and the “evil inclination”–yetzer tov and yetzer ra respectively. This is what we call these opposite forces that exist within us, the yetzer tov pulling us to strive for Godliness, and the yetzer ra pulling us towards our base desires. We believe that man lives with a constant conflict between these inclinations. The real essence of our soul, our higher self, is really the yetzer tov; that is how God originally created us. The yetzer ra was the result of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree. It was no longer externalized as the snake. It became an integral part of the nature of Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit.

Our goal, our purpose, in life and in the world, is to overcome the yetzer ra–first within ourselves, and then outside ourselves, in the world at large. We believe that man is capable of this–that indeed, this is the mission God endowed us as people and especially as Jews. We do not need God’s salvation to overcome the evil within us, Judaism says. It is a constant struggle, but we believe that our job is to do it ourselves.

That said, God does help us out in a number of ways. The most important way, according to Judaism, was the giving of the Torah. The Torah is essentially a guidebook on overcoming the yetzer ra on a personal and societal level, and that is really the purpose of the mitzvot–to help us attain that goal. That is why the Torah is represented in the Garden of Eden, and later symbolically referred to, as the Tree of Life. The “fruits” of the Torah–the mitzvot–are the antidote to the fruits of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.

"For a tree of life is she to those who cling to her, and those who hold on to her will be happy" (Proverbs 3:18)
“For a tree of life is she to those who cling to her, and those who hold on to her shall be happy” (Proverbs 3:18)

Jews and Christians agree that there were additional punishments God gave Adam and Eve because of their sin. He banished them from the Garden of Eden; he made them mortal; he cursed both Adam and Eve with the difficulty of labor–Adam, laboring for bread, and Eve, laboring for children. My interpretation of the significance of these punishments is that they were direct consequences of the synthesis of good and evil within man. God created the world in order to bestow His goodness upon it. But now, because good and evil were hopelessly intertwined, man would have to work hard to overcome the evil and attain the Godliness that he was created to receive. He could no longer sit in paradise and bask in God’s light. He needed to search for it and work for it, in a world where it was no longer obvious and tangible.

While this sounds like quite a bummer, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points something out in his work, “A World of Love,” that reveals the unique power of a world in which good and evil can mingle. In the spiritual world, he says, proximity is determined by similarity. That is, if we wish to become close to God spiritually, we must become more like Him. The less we are like Him, the farther away from Him we are. By that understanding, in the spiritual world, nothing could possibly be farther away from good than evil. They are completely opposite and therefore can never engage with one another.

But spiritual matter can be anchored to physical matter–such as a soul to a body. And in the physical world, things that are evil can exist in very close proximity to things that are good. In that sense, then, this world, in which good and evil intermingle, is the only place where good can overcome evil. Our world is sort of a battleground between these two opposite forces, and we, human beings, are the soldiers on either side; it is up to us to choose which side. This battle wages within our hearts, but as you can clearly see, it also wages fiercely outside us, between different groups of humans who are making different choices about how to relate to the good and evil within themselves.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas more deeply, I highly recommend giving “A World of Love” a slow and careful read. It can be read online in its entirety here, or you can buy a copy of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “If You Were God,” which includes this essay along with “If You Were God” (which I have referenced before and is also mind-blowing) and “Immortality of the Soul.”

But for now, back to human nature according to Judaism and Christianity.

The reason I was inspired to write about this was a little post on Brain Pickings about Dr. Viktor Frankl. Now, if you have never heard of this man or his iconic work, “Man’s Search for Meaning“… well then I don’t even know what to do with you because if anyone on earth should have read that book it’s you! Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles Dr. Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camp with a focus on his observations regarding the effect of the inmates’ attitudes on their survival, and goes on to describe the psychotherapeutic method he developed as a result of his observations, which he called “logotherapy.” His overarching idea is that more than anything else, man strives for a sense of purpose and meaning to his life, and that when he feels that his life has meaning, he can withstand even the most horrific conditions. And no one is more qualified than a survivor of Auschwitz to attest to that.

…Seriously. If you haven’t read it, get on that, pronto. It’s pretty short.

Anyway, the post on Brain Pickings brought a five-minute video excerpted from a lecture of Dr. Frankl’s, in which he says, “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him… we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way–because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.”

No wonder the Nazis tried to get rid of him. What a quintessentially Jewish idea.

Humans are not static; we are constantly evolving. You can’t give a precise measurement of a person’s goodness or potential, because these things are in constant flux. And when we believe in each other and in ourselves, believe that we are all capable of being better than we currently are, we create a supportive reality for ourselves to actually attain that potential. In essence, he is saying that the higher our expectations and hopes for ourselves, the higher we can reach.

That is why I find the Christian concept of the Original Sin and the inherent sinfulness of man so discouraging. Because in a sense, Christianity is telling us that we cannot make ourselves more than we are; only God can do that. And I much prefer to believe that I have the ability to overcome my darker nature and become a better person. But I can see something comforting in the Christian idea, too. When you don’t have the capacity to redeem yourself of sin, you don’t have that responsibility, either. You can (and indeed, must) hand it over to the priest, or to Jesus, or to God. We Jews don’t have that option. We have to take full responsibility for ourselves and our natures. A rabbi can only council us, he can’t absolve us of sin. God will only cleanse us of sin if we are willing to change ourselves, as I explained in my letter on teshuva. We must constantly struggle, believing that we have the capacity to overcome. This (among many other things!) makes Judaism a much more challenging and demanding approach to life. And obviously I am totally biased, but in my view–it’s well worth it. The reward of achieving something you have worked for is sweeter than any gift someone could give you.

Much love,

Daniella


ETA: Josep wishes to register his indignation at the very suggestion made in this post that he may not have read Man’s Search for Meaning. 😉 It was assigned as required reading when he was in middle school, around the time they took him to see Schindler’s List, and he remembers it as an extremely emotionally harrowing read.

Happily Ever After: The Jewish Messiah

Dear Josep,

So as we rise from the floor this afternoon and begin to ease ourselves out of deep mourning for the Temple, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look to the future, and write about what it is that we are praying for and hoping for when we talk about rebuilding it.

Let’s start from the beginning: what does “messiah” mean? It comes from the Hebrew word משיח, meshiaḥ, which means “anointed.” Back in the days of the Bible, you didn’t “crown” a king, you “anointed” him with oil. King Saul, the first King of Israel, was anointed this way, as was King David. So the Messiah will be a king–a human king–from the line of King David, who will reestablish the Kingdom of Israel in the Holy Land.

The same prophets who predicted the destruction of the Temple (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah were the big three, but there were more) also foretold the coming of the Messiah. They described him as an individual with great wisdom and sensitivity, who will bring universal peace and justice. They described him rebuilding the Temple–one that will stand forever, and not be destroyed like the previous two. They described the Messiah ushering in a new era, where all of humankind will know God and be aware of Him, and recognize the Jews as His chosen people. The Messiah will facilitate an “ingathering of the exiles”; Jews from all over the world will return to our homeland to establish the renewed Kingdom of Israel. We will stop being a hated and persecuted minority we still are today, and will reestablish our role as a nation of priests, who will be teachers and spiritual leaders for the rest of humanity. And people from all over the world will come to see the Temple–“a house of prayer for all nations”–and serve God there. Some scholars believe that the redemption will come about through miraculous means; others, including Maimonides, believe that it will happen in accordance with the laws of nature. Humanity will be at a completely different spiritual level, and the near tangible presence of God will again be felt at the Temple, where the human and the Divine will embrace. Prophecy–which, according to Jewish belief, stopped existing after the destruction of the first Temple–will return, with the Messiah being the first new prophet. And the world will be a place of harmony, peace, and love.

Cue doves, rainbows, and Handel's "Hallelujah."
Cue doves, rainbows, and laughing children.

Now, reading this description, it’s fairly clear why Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Simple: none of this happened. Not in his lifetime, and not in the 2,000 years since. He did not fulfill any of these prophesies. Now, Christian scholars would obviously disagree with me; they would interpret the same texts differently, and say that all this will come true when Jesus returns in a “second coming.” But none of the prophets mentioned anything about the Messiah dying and then disappearing for a few millennia before coming back and fulfilling the prophesies. And then y’all started with the Trinity business…. and the thing about him dying for our sins… and that stuff is totally off the map of Jewish beliefs, so… yeah. The Jewish Messiah is not supposed to be Divine. He’s supposed to be a human king and a prophet, just like David and Saul. And there is no connection between him and atonement. That all goes down on Yom Kippur. But we’ll be talking about repentance and atonement next month. 😉

Anyway. I think it is also fairly obvious from the above description why religious Zionists (such as myself) believe that the establishment of the State of Israel is a step along the way to the fulfillment of those prophesies. We have seen an “ingathering of the exiles”; we have seen the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for the first time in 2,000 years; we have seen the miraculous reunification of the city of Jerusalem; we have seen the land turn from a desolate wasteland into a thriving, fertile land flowing with milk and honey. We have even seen the Hebrew language, once a stagnant, archaic language reserved mostly for Jewish scholarship (not unlike today’s Latin), turn into a living, breathing vernacular. These phenomena are baffling to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s impossible. And yet, it happened.

Still, going from the return of the Jews to their ancestral land–a phenomenon described as “spooky” by Nobel Prize laureate and physicist Leon Lederman–to a vision of all humanity living in peace and harmony and uniting around a single idea and belief in God is… quite a stretch.

Personally, I think of the Messianic Era as the culmination of everything we as humans are striving for… and towards which have already been advancing at breakneck pace, even though it may not feel like it. Because of how “plugged in” we are and how fast news spreads, violence, bloodshed and turmoil seem worse than ever before, but the fact is that they aren’t. There is actually much less violence in the world today than there was a hundred, certainly two hundred years ago. Though the Middle East is falling to pieces and some crazy stuff is going down, it’s a mere blip in the general trend, which is of a sharp decline in violence and oppression. We are so horrified by beheading and drowning videos, not because that type of cruelty is unprecedented, but because it has become so uncommon that we are not used to it. Think about it. Executions–beheadings, hangings, etc.–were a popular form of public entertainment less than two hundred years ago. And that’s without getting into the kinds of horrific things people used to do to each other in the Middle Ages and in the Roman Empire.

So, while we are very, very far from the “beating our swords into plowshares” thing, I don’t think it’s completely crazy to believe that sometime in the future, humanity will refine and improve itself to a point where the Messianic visions will no longer be visions, but reality. I believe that that’s why we are here. That God wants us to bring the world to that point through free choice and free will. And I believe that it is possible… and that we are on our way there.

"Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - “Slichot” Prayer (2)" by http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05 - http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/8005892765/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Flickr – Government Press Office (GPO) – “Slichot” Prayer (2)” by http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/8005892765/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I know it’s a pretty starry-eyed thing to be saying these days, especially from over here under the shadow of Daesh and a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. You know me… to my sorrow, I’m not the world’s most positive person, and sometimes (often) I despair, too. But if a nation could emerge from under the shadow of the Holocaust and turn this hunk of desert into a vibrant oasis of democracy and innovation after dreaming of Jerusalem for 2,000 years… who knows, Josep, who knows.

Love,

Daniella