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.