Love! The Golden Rule – new review of “Giving”

Aryeh Siegel ● The Times of Israel blog

“…and love your fellow as yourself…” [Lev. 19:18]
Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a great general principle of the Torah.”
[Midrash Raba, Genesis Ch. 24]

“…God asks of us to love. This may sound simple, but it turns out that it doesn’t come naturally; and it takes time and effort to learn to do it. To love others, we must uncover hidden forms of our self-interested concerns. Only then can we direct our thoughts, feelings, and actions toward giving to others. In addition, we need to recognize the aspect of divinity in each human being we encounter. When we see the greatness of others, this awakens within us our love for them. In particular, the greatness in their aspect of divinity connects our love of them to a love of God.”*

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The Talner Rebbe – interview with editor Rabbi David Shapiro

Elliot Resnick ● The Jewish Press

A professor at Harvard, a chassidishe Rebbe, and the son-in-law of a Litvish gadol. The combination is unusual, to say the least, but it accurately describes the late Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky.

Rabbi Twersky (1930-1997) was the Talner Rebbe of Boston, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, and married to the older daughter of Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University.

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The Importance of the Community Rabbi – new review

Rabbi Ari Enkin ● Torah Book Reviews

In “The Importance of the Community Rabbi” Rabbi Daniel Sperber, whose prominence and accomplishments need no introduction, argues vigorously for today’s rabbis to rule more leniently. He presents a fascinating and engaging treasury of hundreds of lenient halachic rulings throughout the ages. Rabbi Sperber argues that issues like sensitivity to people’s feelings, human dignity, “changing circumstances” and “ko’ach d’heteira” should be given more weight in halachic decision making. The precedents are there, clearly presented one after the other with seemingly no end.

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Perilous Escape – new review

Paul Vogel ● Midwest Book Review

Synopsis: “Perilous Escape: My Journey from Nazi Europe to Freedom” is the true and compelling account of Dr. Chaskel Wyszkowski and his courageous escape from Poland in the dark years of World War II.

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Wash Your Hands! The Corona Commandment

Aryeh Siegel ● The Times of Israel blog

“The priests must not become spiritually unclean by contact with a dead person” [Leviticus 21:1]

Wash your hands! That is the commandment of the Corona era.

In the Middle Ages a person could go half his or her life without ever washing hands. But Jews washed their hands each day after awakening and whenever they ate bread. The most fatal pandemic in recorded history was the Black Death in the 14th century. At that time, fewer Jews died than their Christian neighbors. This has been partly attributed to Jewish ritual hand-washing. (See https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-black-death.)

Of course, Jews in the Middle Ages washed their hands not because of sanitary reasons. They did so out of a commitment to halachic tradition. Was it “good luck” that this saved them from disease? Or is there some providential or mystical connection? I don’t know. But the Kabbalah does reveal a hidden meaning of ritual hand-washing. And our worldwide Corona condition could well benefit from the spiritual healing invoked by its esoteric intention.

The blessing for hand-washing is peculiar. We bless God for instructing us “on the lifting up of hands.” Why “lifting up”? The instruction is to wash our hands. What does it mean to “lift up hands”?

When do we lift up our hands? When we surrender. When we give a blessing. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb* explains that in the Kabbalah the hand is considered to be the archetypal vessel. Hands are used for taking and receiving. When we surrender, we promise not to take. When we place our hands on another’s head in blessing, we ask that he or she be the receiver.

So when we wash our hands, we “lift up” our desire to receive. We raise it spiritually. According to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam)*, this is the essential teaching of Judaism. All of the Torah and the mitzvot – every word and every detail – come to teach us to dedicate ourselves to giving. Our intention in receiving is only to pass it on somehow. With this intention, a Jew is instructed to start each day. And before we receive strength from eating bread, we bring to mind our intention to use that strength to give and not to take.

But wait. Doesn’t the ritual washing have something to do with tumah – spiritual uncleanliness? Yes, precisely. The Kabbalah views tumah as an expression of selfish desire to receive. This is the cause of all our pain. This is the spiritual state we want to avoid – both individually and societally.

Our pure soul is like a priest within us that wants only to serve God. It calls to us to imitate the divine character of giving selflessly. But this soul can be “dirtied” when we succumb to our selfish desire to receive. We must preserve its purity by refusing to make contact with selfishness. For selfishness is spiritual death. This is the inner meaning of the above verse from this week’s Torah portion: The priests must not become spiritually unclean by contact with a dead person.

So let’s wash our hands of hoarding and hate. Let’s wash our hands of divisiveness and cut-throat competition. The Corona commandment is to give a little more and take a lot less.

*Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam) is the greatest modern explicator of the Kabbalah. Some of his essays are translated to English in: “Giving – The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah”. This book also contains a new commentary by Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb, who is a disciple of the son of Baal Hasulam. His classes in Hebrew can be watched on the youtube channel ברכת שלום.

I Am For My Beloved: “Presenting once-taboo subjects to the religious community in a clear way”

Stephen G. Donshik ● Jerusalem Post

I Am for My Beloved, which focuses on married couples within the religiously observant community, is a book that is larger than itself. David Ribner and Talli Rosenbaum have found a way to discuss subjects that were once taboo and present them in a clear, direct and sensitive way to couples of all ages and religious orientations who want to enhance their intimate sexual relationships. 

The authors of I Am for My Beloved make a wonderful contribution to the literature on the meaning of the sexual relationship in marriage. They begin with a discussion of the meaning of intimacy and how it is understood within the marriage relationship. They also suggest ways to achieve intimacy in the context of a healthy sexual relationship.

Visit the Jerusalem Post website to read the rest of the article.

Do We Know How to Ask?

Aryeh Siegel ● Times of Israel Blog

Remember the fourth son at the Passover seder? He doesn’t know how to ask. The holy Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said, “That’s me.”

In the science fiction work “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the supercomputer Deep Thought is asked “the question of life, the universe and everything.” After 7½ billion years of computation, the answer that came up was disappointing: “42”. But there was a good deal of wisdom in Deep Thought’s explanation of the failure to get a good answer. He said: “Perhaps you don’t really know what the question is.”

Covid-19 has many physical ramifications, but it also has stirred a great many people to question “why”. Why has the entire world suddenly changed? What does it mean? What do we need to learn?

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Food for Thought

Haim A. Gottschalk, Olney, MD ● AJL News and Reviews

From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah is a collection of short essays on each individual Bible parashah (passage of scripture). Biblical scholar Diana Lipton assembled a diverse group of Jewish scholars, divided evenly between men and women. Each scholar wrote a short essay, one scholar per parashah (with one exception) about food, and Lipton follows up with a verse by verse commentary on issues that the essays did not cover. Lipton also explains in the introduction that the book does not address what the ancient Israelites ate, sacrifices being discussed, nor kashrut.

The work is not a cookbook. What the work does and does well is give a derash (interpretation) through the prism of food for each parashah (excluding double parashiyot and holidays). The scholars certainly give you plenty of food for thought.

This book is a welcome addition to any library, especially a synagogue library and recommended to those who are looking for something different to grace their Shabbat table.

Strangers and Natives – New Review

Israel Drazin

Ron Rubin’s “Strangers & Natives: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America 1734-1869,” contains very fascinating and very informative information about the daily life, problems, successes, and customs of Jews in America during the early years of the United States. It includes information about the Jewish involvement in many facets of the country’s life: politics, military, education, literature, journalism, and more.

While there are many history books that address these subjects, this is the first time where the documents, diaries, memoirs, and periodicals are published. Readers can see the originals of these materials which have been scanned and printed in this book. They will also be able to read Professor Rubin’s comments on each original document.


Much is revealed in these documents, such as Grant’s infamous expulsion of Jews from Tennessee, the work of Mordecai M. Noah, the involvement of Jews in the Civil War, the daily activities of Jews during this period, Benjamin Franklin’s philo-Semitism, the hatred of others against Jews, opinions expressed whether Christians should work to convert Jews, and much more.

Straight from the book – Was Yosef on the Spectrum

“Pharaoh realizes that, given Yosef’s self-absorption, his lack of social skills, and his inability to navigate social challenges, Yosef is vulnerable to the maneuverings of those who are more clever, cunning, and calculating. Pharaoh has maintained power through shrewd utilization of his formidable political savvy, but Yosef is particularly ill-suited to deal with the bare-knuckled world of politics and the sharks who will be looking for every opportunity to hurt him – and possibly, by extension, cause harm to Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh preempts these threats by giving Yosef a new and honorable name – and with it a new persona – as well as a wife, who can help protect him from the attacks and advances of others. Significantly, Pharaoh selects a woman who is from a distinguished family – possibly the family of Potiphar – who not only bestows further honor on Yosef by virtue of her pedigree, but who is presumably familiar with the intrigue and machinations of royal politics, and along with her family will be able to anticipate and help ward off challenges to Yosef.  With these in place, Yosef is finally safe to go out on his own, leaving the protective watch of Pharaoh and traveling throughout the Land of Egypt.  

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