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 Talner Rebbe – interview with editor Rabbi David Shapiro

July 16, 2020

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 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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The Importance of the Community Rabbi – new review

July 15, 2020

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

July 14, 2020

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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Was Yosef on the Spectrum – new review

July 14, 2020

David Greenberg ● Israel Journal of Psychiatry

Ever since the Bible was written there have been attempts to understand the characters and events of its narrative. Indeed, in The Ancient Commentary on the Bible (1993) Hananel Mack suggested that as long as there has been Bible, there has been commentary, whether Deuteronomy commenting on the preceding books of the Torah, or Psalms and Chronicles on earlier sections of the Bible. The Apocryphal books continued the tradition, as did Philo’s Bible commentary (first century Alexandria), Josephus, then the many forms of Midrash, and since Saadiah Gaon (10th century Babylon), a steady flow of authors, the most known among Jewish readers being Rashi (11th century France), Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) and Ramban (13th century Spain), and most recently Nehama Leibowitz, who have all published commentaries on the Bible text. While each commentator may ask some unique questions, many clearly duplicate each other. How is it that each commentator emerges with different answers, and that often they are distinctive to that author? The answer must lie not only in each new questioner emerging from a particular cultural background but also having different responses that are suitable for their readership: Rashi writing at the time of the Crusades and the destruction of Jewish communities, Ibn Ezra having travelled the world and seen many cultures, etc.

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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.


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

July 13, 2020

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.

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Giving – new review

July 7, 2020

Midwest Book Review ● The Judaic Studies Shelf

Synopsis: Rabbi Yehhuda Lev Ashlag’s underlying message in “Giving: The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah by ”Baal Hasulam” is that the purpose of our lives is to grow step by step toward a fundamental transformation. Instead of always seeking some form of self-gratification, we can learn to give to others with no self-interest at all.

This is the essential teaching of the Kabbalah portrayed in these essays by Baal Hasulam – the greatest modern explicator of Kabbalah. Rabbi Gottlieb provides an illuminating commentary as a living chassidic rebbe devoted to the practice and teaching of Baal Hasulam’s spiritual path.

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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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