Torah of the Mind, Torah of the Heart

July 31, 2020

Michael A. Shmidman, Editor EmeritusTradition

Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky zt”l, was justly renowned for his brilliantly insightful, meticulously researched and felicitously formulated scholarly oeuvre, concentrating generally upon medieval Jewish intellectual history and with special attention to the Maimonidean corpus. But the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University also was the Talner Rebbe of Boston, as comfortable delivering divrei Torah at Shalosh Seudos in the Talner Beis Midrash as he was conducting doctoral seminars on medieval Jewish rabbinic literature in Room G of Widener Library in Harvard Yard.

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The Importance of the Community Rabbi – new review

July 29, 2020

Midwest Book Review ● The Judaic Studies Shelf

Synopsis: A rabbi is a spiritual leader or religious teacher in Judaism.[1] One becomes a rabbi by being ordained by another rabbi, following a course of study of Jewish texts such as the Talmud. The basic form of the rabbi developed in the Pharisaic and Talmudic era, when learned teachers assembled to codify Judaism’s written and oral laws.

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Aryeh Siegel on “Giving”

July 28, 2020

On Jewish Mindfulness, Corona and Life in General

July 21, 2020

Toby Klein Greenwald ● Jewish Action

There are no coincidences in life, and it was surely prescient that Jewish Action editor Nechama Carmel asked me on the cusp of the corona outbreak to review two books on Jewish mindfulness. I began writing this in March, a few days before Rosh Chodesh Nissan (my wedding anniversary), and finished it in late April. I don’t know what will have changed by the time Jewish Action goes to press.

The two books—Living in the Presence: A Jewish Mindfulness Guide for Everyday Life, by Dr. Benjamin Epstein, and Mindfulness: A Jewish Approach, by Dr. Jonathan Feiner—are helping me through the crisis. I hope they will help you too, no matter what is happening to you in life.

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May a woman be a leader in the Orthodox Jewish community?

July 19, 2020

Rivkah Lambert Adler The Jerusalem Post

“I fully believe that the Halacha [Jewish law] has to respond actively and positively to the burning challenges of the times, and, in our days, high on these priorities is the status of women.”

Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber is a champion of the emergence of highly-educated women taking on leadership roles in the Orthodox Jewish community today. In the acknowledgment section of his newest book, Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit, Rebbetzin, Sperber explains why he supports this change in Jewish life.

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

July 17, 2020

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 Narrow Halakhic Bridge – new review

July 15, 2020

Midwest Book Review ● The Judaic Studies Shelf

Synopsis: Halakhah is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah.

The role of halakhah is to serve as a bridge between our eternal Torah and the world’s changing realities. However, the dizzying pace of developments in postmodern society and the obsession with personal freedom are generating unprecedented gaps between Torah and reality, challenging our obedience to Halakhah, contributing to the erosion of rabbinic authority and causing a growing confusion within our community.

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Wash Your Hands! The Corona Commandment

July 13, 2020

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.


Deference to Doubt – new review

July 6, 2020

Midwest Book Review ● Carl Logan’s Bookshelf

Synopsis: “Deference to Doubt: A Young Man’s Quest for Religious Identity in First Century Judea” is the story of Amos, a young Judean living in the first century CE, who is searching for his identity. He debates with representatives of the main religious and ideological movements of his time, subjecting the resulting torrent of varying, often contradictory views to critical analysis.

The conclusion Amos reaches is that there is no obvious dogmatic endpoint to his quest. From the profusion of opinions, he will have to compile a fitting spiritual ”menu” that gives depth and meaning to his life, with dialectics and ongoing discourse as his guiding principle and doubt as the foundation for his religious life.

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Do We Know How to Ask?

April 16, 2020

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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