Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why It's Really Called the Wailing Wall

Conventional wisdom tells us that the Kotel (Western Wall) is also known as the "Wailing Wall" because that is the site where Jews cry out to God for help. I disagree. It's more likely because that is where God cries out for Jews to help each other. In a story recently covered in the Jerusalem Post, yet another manifestation of intra-Jewish conflict reared its ugly head. In one of many similar incidents, a group of young students - just before the age of mandatory Israeli military service - were singing and dancing as they approached the Kotel plaza, some visiting for the first time. Since the group included both boys and girls, a religious woman was outraged at what they were doing. And she let them have it.

While I understand where the religious woman was coming from, that kind of behavior speaks for itself. Even though she was trying to uphold what religious Jews consider to be the proper approach to ritual conduct at the Kotel (men and women separate, with an emphasis on prayer), her ethical conduct was appalling. She could have simply made her point by quietly taking the leader aside and explaining why what they were doing was not allowed, without creating a chilul Hashem or embarrassing them in front of other people. They were simply engaging in what more modern Jews consider to be a moving experience for impressionable young students at the country's most important national site. But while I also understand where the leader of the group of soon-to-be soldiers was coming from, I can only hope that despite what the woman did to them, there can be respect for the code of conduct during future trips, so that they can plan accordingly.

When it comes to which denominational authority should be in charge of the halachot/laws governing appropriate conduct at the holiest site on earth, there may not be a solution that will please everyone. Nevertheless, there is an important point to be made here. What would possibly compel a religious Jew to yell and rudely order other people around, particularly fellow Jews who are on a different level of observance? In my opinion, there is only one answer: she felt it was more important to focus on bein adam lamakom, the relationship between man and God, than to bother with bein adam lachaveiro, the relationship between man and other people. Unfortunately, she didn't remember something before speaking: why do we only have the remnant of a retaining wall, anyway? Because we were lax in how we treated one another. The irony of where this incident occurred can't be overstated. If there were ever a place to be especially careful of how we treat one another, it would be at the Kotel.

There is a dire need to develop more good religious Jews - to uphold the spiritual, as well as brave young men and women who serve their country - to uphold the physical. But there is an even greater need for more goodwill to be displayed between these types of people. It can be done. We just have to give it some effort. God-willing, the day will come when the "Wailing Wall" will simply be the outer part of the Beit HaMikdash. Until that time, however, we must do our part to cease engaging in the kind of behavior that led to its destruction in the first place.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What a Debate Should Look Like

Here are a couple of clips from a debate between two Jews who eloquently make the case for their side of an issue: Alan Dershowitz and Dennis Prager. The reason I'm posting this is because we all too often see shouting matches of hotly contested issues and get nothing out of them. This particular debate debunks theories of not being able to civilly engage in a productive discussion. While you are absolutely free to agree or disagree with either of these men, that's not the issue. It's about passionately standing up for what you believe in, while at the same time treating your ideological opponents with respect.

Some people would have you believe that liberal or secular Jews cannot possibly display any goodwill to conservative or observant Jews - and vice versa. As this particular debate shows, that's only the case if you want it to be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

For God's Sake, Be Yourself!

When Isaac blessed Jacob with the future mission of his descendants, he described them as being kehal amim, "a congregation of peoples" (Bereishit/Genesis 28:3). In other words, this group would comprise many distinct tribes (peoples), but all would be united as a necessary part of the same nation (congregation). This is letting us know that Jews are not a monolithic group. We are a unique blend of people with many different characteristics and missions. Despite these differences, or perhaps because of these differences, when all segments of our population are viewed before God, it comes together quite well. Unfortunately, we don't see things from God's vantage point. If we did, I highly doubt we would be as adamantly opposed to those whose views or practices differ from our own.

There is no need to be exactly alike; in fact, we were intended to each be individually unique. As long as we fail to acknowledge this point, a great deal of intra-religious tension will continue. Many of us tend to pride ourselves in our education, profession, or particular service of God and how we observe His commandments. At times, this can lead to looking down upon or not even allowing fellow Jews to use their God-given talents for good. This must stop because we are actually hurting ourselves in the process! We're too few in number to be anything other than ourselves. We simply must pursue our particular role/happiness and be ethical while doing so. When we are all engaged in our individual pursuit - and are good to one another along the way - we will transform into that fully functional "congregation of peoples" we were destined to become.

This brings to mind a lesson I heard from Rabbi Paysach Krohn many years ago. The way the Jewish people function best is when we emulate the symbolism of the Keruvim (Cherubim), which were mounted upon the Aron HaBrit, the Ark of the Covenant:
Firstly, each figure had its wings rising toward heaven - representing the way each one of us uniquely serves God. Secondly, the faces on each figure were looking at one another - representing the way we treat other people. The message is that while each one of us is engaged in our unique service of God and individual mission in life, we must never forget to act decently toward others while they do the same. If we follow the example given to us through the symbolism of the Keruvim, we will eventually merit seeing their return to the Holy Temple - the third and final Beit Hamikdash.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Gratitude - The Greatest Human Trait

When thinking about how we can improve our character, a variety of approaches may come to mind: guarding the way we talk about others, lending a helpful hand at a time of need, or perhaps even trying to be a more observant and religious person. While all of the above are quite laudable, what's frequently overlooked is a foundational trait that all people of good character share: gratitude, or hakarat hatov in Hebrew. You'd be surprised at how crucial gratitude is when it comes to producing a happier and more decent human being.

Just think about it for a moment. If you believe that you are so deserving, so entitled, so above others - how on earth is it possible to become a better person? On the other hand, if you are so grateful to God for being alive during these historic times, so humbled by all the good things you've been given, so appreciative for the opportunities to improve yourself - the type of person you become will be totally different. A better attitude goes a long way.

Even during these difficult times, find something in your own life for which to be thankful. The Hebrew term for Jew, Yehudi, comes from the word meaning "one who thanks." Gratitude is one of the pillars of Judaism and should be an essential part of all our lives. In fact, many of us celebrated the unique American holiday of Thanksgiving last week. Here's some further reading on Jews and Thanksgiving: An American Yom Tov (unfortunately, many of the comments on the article reaffirm the mission of this blog). I actually intended to post this entry last week, but I was busy tending to a family matter.

During the early hours of Thanksgiving day, my grandmother passed away. While I thought it would be challenging to exude gratitude after the death of a loved one, it actually wasn't all that difficult. Throughout the week of shiva, the traditional seven-day mourning period, there was a great deal for which to be thankful. Family and friends from all around the world shared stories of times with my grandmother. Others came to participate in the daily prayer services. And, of course, members from throughout the Jewish community brought meals for my father and aunt (what would a Jewish gathering be without food?).

Most importantly, however, this period of mourning brought members of my immediate and distant family together for the first time in a long time. Amazingly enough, everyone behaved themselves. As an eerie comparison, I couldn't help but think of all the tragedies to befall the Jewish people throughout our history and the subsequent outpouring of compassion and kindness from fellow Jews. We always talk about the lofty goal of unity, but we never seem to act on it until the circumstances absolutely call for us to do so. It should never take some terrible event to compel an improvement in how we treat others. If only it didn't take something as drastic as death to provide the impetus for that change, I would be even more grateful.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Do Not Stand Idly By

There is a tendency within human nature to protect those with whom we ideologically agree, even when those same people engage in questionable conduct. By the same token, when people with whom we strongly disagree are found to have done terrible things, we often jump at the opportunity to express our rage. Currently, there are cases coming to light of more rabbis physically and sexually abusing children. Just do a quick search on any major Jewish news site and you can discover for yourself. Whether you are a member of the perpetrator's denomination or not, this is beyond a case of questionable conduct - it is evil. And it has led to terribly tragic results, with at least one victim recently committing suicide.

There should be two primary areas of focus:

1) Apprehending and prosecuting the person who committed the act - so that the abuse stops

2) Providing comfort and therapy for the victims - so that the kids have a way to deal with the trauma

This isn't about proving that orthodox rabbis (or other people in positions of authority, for that matter) have a proclivity to engage in sexual abuse. It's about rooting out pedophiles, wherever they are and whoever they may be. And it means something for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews: Orthodox Jews must have the courage to report any abusers in their community to the police; non-Orthodox Jews must do the same and not feel vindicated that this has occurred in more religious circles. Bad apples exist in all religious groups and they must be dealt with accordingly.

Of course, we have to make sure that the allegations are true to the best of our knowledge. But if there is mounting evidence, it must be looked at seriously. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: "The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict." Do not stand idly by if you sense that this may be transpiring in your own community. Do you think God cares more about preventing the arrest of an "orthodox rabbi" or protecting children against an evil perpetrator? It's a rhetorical question.

We have to use common sense. We have to protect children. We have to fight evil.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Laughter Builds Character

The name that God commanded Abraham to give Isaac after his birth was Yitzchak, which comes from the Hebrew word meaning laughter. However, it would appear to be a contradiction to Isaac's primary character trait - gevurah, or strength of character - to be named after a word related to humor. Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr solves this apparent contradiction by commenting that in order to develop a high caliber of character and self-restraint, a person must be able to laugh at all the difficulties and obstacles they will encounter throughout their life.

To take this idea one step further, I believe that one of the greatest gifts God gave us was a sense of humor:

Aside from the anthropomorphizing of God (as I like to say: anyone who eats, sleeps and goes to the bathroom is not God), the moral of this comic is well-taken. If you're religious, it's very easy to get caught up in all the difficulties of leading an observant life and become overwhelmed. And for almost everyone, it's quite likely to be going through some serious financial or interpersonal problems right now. Yet there is a way to turn that difficult situation into one of character-building. Look for the absurdity in the situation. Find the levity. And laugh. While it may not solve the problem, it will make it a whole lot easier to get through it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Power of Unity

Chazal, our ancient Torah scholars, explain a rather troubling difference between the reigns of King David and King Ahab. While David is generally regarded as one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, Ahab is described in very harsh terms because of his rogue monarch. Yet, when these two kings ever had to go to war, David's army would consistently suffer significant casualties; Ahab's army was always victorious with very few casualties. What reason could possibly be given for such a distinction? Even though Ahab's reign was marred with condemnation, the people were still united and cooperative. And despite the fact that David's reign was largely praiseworthy, the people were nevertheless filled with hatred and division.

There is a great lesson to be drawn from this that is applicable today. No matter how educated and professionally successful certain Jews are, or how ritually observant and spiritual other Jews may be, as long as unity and cooperation are the exception rather than the rule, we are vulnerable. This is the case from both a practical and spiritual standpoint. On the practical level, a people cannot expect to thrive for very long without general cooperation and goodwill in national pursuits. On the spiritual level, God cannot bring the Final Redemption and subsequent peace on earth until the underlying flaw that brought exile in the first place, sinat chinam, is rectified. Whichever way you look at it, the lack of interpersonal decency is a national problem that must be corrected.

In order for unity to emerge, there is a very important prerequisite: tolerating other people's imperfections. Included in the understanding of the commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself" is that just as we all wish for people to overlook our shortcomings, so too should we be able to cut others a little bit of slack for not being perfect. While this obviously does not include overlooking objective evils (e.g. if someone is a murderer or rapist, there must be accountability and punishment), it does apply to all those petty, annoying things we encounter from people in our everyday lives. If we do our best to incorporate this principle into our overall character, it could reap very beneficial results. You, God, and everyone around you will see the difference.

Whether in ancient times or today, never underestimate the power of unity.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sinat Chinam - A Baseless Definition of Hatred

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains the reason for why God allowed the Second Beit Hamikdash, or Holy Temple, to be destroyed: sinat chinam. This phrase is often translated as "baseless hatred," but I have never found that definition to be instructive. After all, anyone can rationalize as to why their hatred is justified. However, there is another way to translate sinat chinam: "hatred of their chein." The reason I find this definition to be the most accurate is because it provides a basis from which any of us can combat this destructive force.

The word "chein" is yet another term that is difficult to accurately translate, but it is generally defined as grace, beauty or charm. In other words, it is referring to the particular quality that makes each one of us unique. Every person, no matter how religious or irreligious, has a unique divine spark, talent or ability. It is our job to make sure we use that gift for good. At the same time, we must allow others to pursue a path of goodness while using their own chein. Herein lies the reason for why sinat chinam is such a serious vice. When one hates a fellow Jew (instead of respectfully disagreeing with them), it's ultimately a lack of recognition of God and the particular grace He has bestowed upon that individual.

In our day and age we seem to be more polarized than ever before. When someone holds a certain view on ritual observance or religious thought, all too often those who hold opposing views begin personal attacks instead of simple disagreement. This is so obviously counterproductive that it should go without saying, but unfortunately it has to be articulated. So here it goes: no matter how strongly any of us disagree with a fellow Jew, the moment we begin unwarranted personal attacks, we have lost the argument and engaged in sinat chinam. The reason for this is because instead of focusing on the substance of the issue (and possibly learning something from the other person's approach), we have attacked their character and unique understanding of life. Both civility and the possibility of bringing them to our way of thinking is lost.

We each have to figure out a way to tolerate those who differ from us in terms of dress, ritual observance, ideology, political affiliation, and other major areas of life. However, there is an equally important point to make: sinat chinam does not include hating someone who violates basic ethical principles (i.e. those which hurt other people). For example, it does not mean tolerating a businessman who engages in a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme or a rabbi who assaults women and children. In such cases, we are not hating the person for who they are - a certain type of businessman or rabbi of a particular denomination - but rather for the pain they have inflicted upon innocent people. In fact, it would be a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God's name, to overlook such evils. While tolerance is generally a virtue, it cannot be taken to the point where we drop ethics.

We have been in exile for bordering on 2,000 years as a result of sinat chinam between Jews. This vile and ubiquitous form of hatred has literally destroyed us from within and has spiritually allowed our enemies to attack us from without. There is no greater way to defeat our enemies, and evil for that matter, than to focus on removing sinat chinam and uniting as one people despite all our differences. And it isn't even that difficult. Every individual Jew can go on with their life as usual. We simply have to make sure that when disagreements inevitably arise that we focus on substance, allow the other person their unique approach to the issue, and courteously offer our own perspective. If sinat chinam - hating another person's chein - had the power to destroy God's home on earth, then ahavat chinam - loving (i.e. tolerating) another person's chein - has the power to rebuild it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Two Great Evils

There are two great evils that all good people must combat at this time:

1) Human Evil

2) Our Evil Inclination

The first, human evil, is represented primarily by the despotic regimes of the world, such as Iran and North Korea, and various terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. Those involved in human evil go to great lengths to carry out murderous acts that benefit only themselves and their twisted ideologies of death and destruction.

While most of us don't have to directly confront these people on the battlefield, there are many who do. We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to every man and woman - particularly from the American military and Israeli Defense Forces - who is fighting today's human evil. Please remember to keep these courageous people in your thoughts and prayers. Their heroic efforts and sacrifice should never be taken for granted.

The second, our evil inclination, or yetzer hara, is something we all confront. It can manifest itself in various ways, but I would like to focus solely on the ethical/interpersonal since it affects every person with whom we interact. We have to fight our inclination that compels us to hate and be indecent toward those in our everyday lives.

While the former can be fought militarily, the latter can be overcome through strength of character. This is best possible when we prioritize our values. And the preeminent value of Judaism (as articulated by both Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, among others) is "Love your neighbor as yourself."

I am always impressed when I see someone who consistently treats people with dignity and respect. It's very easy to judge people based on appearance, level of religiosity, political affiliation and so on. It's more difficult to keep in mind how we would like to be treated, and then treat other people with that same level of decency. But when we do so, something amazing happens: we spread goodness.

With all the evil and evil people in the world today, the world needs more goodness and good people. This is generally referred to as tikkun olam, repairing the world. Anyone with a clear conscience can sense that the world is upside down but often feels powerless as to what they can do about it. So here's a God-based, time-tested suggestion: treat every individual you encounter in a manner that reflects the way you would want to be treated.

Friday, October 16, 2009


I started this blog because there is a need to address the lack of unity among the Jewish people. While this will not be a romantic, utopian vision of all Jews loving each other, it will be a feasible outlook toward improved interpersonal conduct. My understanding of unity is not where everyone is the same and therefore there is no divisiveness. Rather, it's where everyone is individually unique but form an effective whole through decent behavior. This is only possible when we focus on our common code of ethics - not our different political views or ritual observances.

Throughout my life, I have seen a tendency for fellow Jews - religious and secular alike - to force others into thinking and living the way they deem appropriate. While there is nothing wrong with influencing others to live their lives a certain way, forcing others to be just like you (and then treating them less decently if they decide otherwise) is terribly wrong. For some Jews, one's level of ritual observance is the ultimate issue. For others, political affiliation is the most important thing in life. In too many instances, our priorities are out of whack.

I contend that God cares about the way we treat one another more than anything else. If all of us subscribe to this simple belief - which does not entail leaving or joining any specific denomination of Judaism - unity is possible. In the posts to come, I hope to elaborate on this idea and provide some timely examples and commentary on this topic.