Denying G-d and Denying Humanity

Beshalach-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

 This weeks From the Waters of the Shiloah is dedicated in memory of Gitel Leah A.H. bas Menachem Mendel HY”D; Mrs. Lidia Schwartz, the authors mother, whose yuhrzeit is Thursday, 8 Shevat.
Please learn this dvar Torah l’ilui nishmasah.

HaShem will wage war for you [against Egypt] and you must remain silent. And HaShem said to Moshe, Why do you cry out in prayer to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.

-Shemos 14:14,15

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.” Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,”

-Rashi ibid

And so it was that as long as Moshe held his hands up Israel would be winning but when he let his hands down then the battle would turn in Amalek’s favor …  and his hands remained faithful; steady until sunset. 

-Shemos 17:11,12

All is foreseen, yet autonomy is granted

-Avos 3:14

And Rabi Chanina said “all is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven”

-B’rachos 33B

There are two conflicting approaches to confronting the enemy that appear in this week’s Sidra.  Towards the beginning of the Sidra, when the Jewish people literally had their backs against the wall with the pounding surf of the Sea of Reeds before them and the Egyptian cavalry giving chase from the rear, the Divine command for silence came.  Not only were the Jews not allowed to wage war against their enemies; they were not even permitted to pray for Divine intervention.

In sharp contrast to this, at the end of the Sidra, we find that prayer was the weapon of choice when the Jews were waging war against the Amalekites. Our sages teach us that during the Amalek war, when Moshe had his arms outstretched in prayer, the tide of the battle would turn in the Jews favor (Targum Yerushalmi ad locum).  When the hands would drop and the prayers stop, so would the military advances.  The Mei HaShiloach asks: why were there such a drastic difference in tactics and strategies for confronting these two mortal enemies?

His answer is based on the succinct epigram that encapsulates kivayachol -if you will, the “division of labor” between HaShem and human beings. “All is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven IE how one serves HaShem.” This means that absolutely everything in our lives; our health, our wealth, our popularity and the success of our relationships is up to HaShem.  The only area in which we enjoy a true autonomy is in exercising our human free-will to make moral and ethical choices.

Both halves of the axiom are equally true.  To claim that “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” is patently heretical.  This position advances a false theology that would limit HaShem’s Infinite Power.  But in Judaism it is not enough to have an accurate and true theology.  One must maintain an accurate and true “humanology” (for want of a better word) as well.  To deny the second half of the axiom by saying that there are no exceptions to the rule; that ALL is in the Hands of Heaven, period, including “the awe of Heaven” IE including how one serves HaShem, is no less heretical.

The Mei HaShiloach explains that, historically, the nations of the world that have opposed, antagonized and oppressed  Klal Yisrael-the Jewish people have been proponents of one of these two heresies.  Their cultures, their weltanschauungs, their very collective national beings, were predicated either on the proposition that not everything is in the Hands of Heaven or that, on the contrary, all is in the Hands of Heaven including human awe of Heaven IE that human free choice is an illusion and that all human behavior, even apparent moral and ethical choices, are entirely controlled by HaShem .

The Egyptians under the Pharaoh are archetypes of the first heresy.  Having positioned himself as a deity in his own right Pharaoh could hardly have conceded exclusive and absolute control of the cosmos to a “rival” deity.  On the contrary Pharaoh portrayed himself as the one in total control of all the transpired in Egypt as he declared; “The [Nile] river is mine, and I have made it.”(Yechezkel 29:9).  He was a living incarnation of “It was my own might and the personal power of my hand that has brought me all this prosperity”(Devarim 8:17)

The nation of Amalek is the quintessence of their progenitor, Esav. Esav is portrayed by our sages as a yisrael mumar-a Jew who has traded true faith for heresy (Kiddushin 18A). There are as many ways to become a heretic as there are heresies and the precise nature as of the Esavs heresy is unclear.  However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 60A,Berachos 10A-Hagahos HaBac”h footnote 2) use this term, yisrael mumar, to describe another Biblical character; Ravshakei.

He was the one who said to the emissaries of King Chizkiyahu “Did I now arise against this land to destroy it without HaShem? HaShem said unto me: go up against this land, and destroy it.” (Yechezkel 36:10). Ravshakei and the emperor he represented, Nebuchadnezzar, had exercised their free-will to arrive at the decision to destroy Chizkiyahu’s kingdom.  Yet he did not consider himself accountable.  He attributed his own choice to G-d.  In his soliloquy Ravshakei asks many rhetorical questions.  Expecting no answers, he was actually telling Chizkiyahu’s emissaries “don’t rely on your military alliance with Egypt.  But don’t rely on HaShem either, for it was He who sent me to destroy you.   I am no more than a knight in the hands of the Divine chess master.”

The Izhbitzer asserts that Ravshakei’s ostensible affirmation of emunah is, in fact, a denial of humanity, of the grandeur of human free-will and that this denial of humanity is the precise heresy of Esav and Amalek as well. Esav/ Amalek is a mumar because of believing that all is in the Hands of Heaven, there is no “except etc.” Amalek maintains that all of the evil that he does is, chalilah, the Will of G-d, that absent HaShem’s Will he would never have been able to have done it.  Superficially, it is almost as if Amalek accords greater honor to HaShem than K’lal Yisrael does.  The stance of Amalek-Esav is that HaShem’s control and authority is absolute.  They deny that humanity has any autonomy at all.

As one great 20th century thinker put it, when our sages taught that Amalek is “one who knows his master and intends to rebel against Him” they don’t mean that Amalek intends to rebel against HaShem in spite of knowing  that HaShem is their Master, but because of knowing  that HaShem is their Master; that their rebellion consists of knowing that HaShem’s mastery over them is absolute.  There is no wiggle room.  Not one small space, albeit a tiny one, for human independence, autonomy and free choice.

We can now resolve the apparent contradiction between the dissimilar tactics of war employed to battle the Egyptians and Amalek.  When the enemy rides under the banner of “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” then the Jewish response must be to emphasize HaShem’s control.  Against the Egyptians it would’ve been out of place for the Jews to highlight and emphasize human free-will.  Free-will, AKA “the awe of heaven”, human avodas HaShem, is best exemplified through prayer; the “service of the heart”(Ta’anis 2A). So they silenced their prayers, eliminating their part in the “division of labor” and HaShem took total control of the battle. All, absolutely everything, was in His Hands.

But when the enemy rides under the banner of “ALL is in the Hands of Heaven with no exceptions” and that human free-will is a sham, then the proper Jewish response is to exercise our free-will. Human free-will is best exemplified through our service of the heart , our avodas hatefilah.  And so, during milchemes Amalek when Moshe would raise his arms in prayer the Jewish warriors would advance.  When his prayers faltered IE when his arms grew weak so would the Jews military efforts. 

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Beshalach D”H HaShem yilachem

The Biggest Problem in Judaism

What’s the biggest problem in Judaism. A lot of things come to mind, the Yeshiva System, the Shidduch System, the Chinuch System, the Left, the Right, the Middle, the Open, the Closed, the Leadership, the lack of Leadership, etc.

However, I think the biggest problem in Judaism is clearly stated in the pasuk in Devarim:
And now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, that you
1) fear Him, 2) walk in His ways, 3) love Him, 4) serve Him with all your heart and all your soul and 5) observe all the mitzvos.

That’s what’s expected of us!

On top of that we have an animal soul that’s impulsive, loves physical pleasure, and detests exertion. We have a yetzer hara that makes us ego-centric leading to selfishness, anger, envy and honor seeking. And we live in a world loaded with intellectual, emotional and physical distractions like politics, business, sports, shopping, gadgets, social media, and entertainment.

And even when we are able to overcome the physical, emotional and intellectual deterrents and create some connection to Hashem through fear, middos development, love, wholehearted service, and meticulous mitzvos observance – the majority of the payoff will not even be received in this world, but in the world to come.

This challenge is a tall order and it’s not really emphasized to FFB/BT children or BT adults, because it would just discourage them. So Yeshivos focus on the information and thought development of Torah study, and Kiruv and non-Yeshivish environments offers Torah as the best of all possible lifestyles. So it should be no surprise that many people want to move to a town where they can sit back a little and enjoy the Torah lifestyle.

That is the Biggest Problem in Judaism – a lot is expected of us and it’s really hard given our nature and environment. However, this is a problem that Hashem created. And if He created this problem, we know that He created a solution. We’ll take a look at the solution in a week or so.

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Why are the demographic categories of the Jewish people divided into two distinct pesukim?
What is the underlying dynamic of the conversion process?

Today you are all standing before HaShem your Elokim — your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcement people, every man of Yisrael.  Your young children, your women, and the righteous converts in your camp  — even the lumberjacks and the water-carriers.

— Devarim 29:9,10

Yisrael-the Jewish People; and Oraysa-the Torah; are one.

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yavneh, they said,”The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said, “Behold, HaShem Elokim says ‘days are coming and I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of HaShem.’” (Ahmos 8:11).  And it is said, “And they will roam from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it.” (Ibid 12). … Rabi Shimon bar Yochai said: Heaven forefend that the Torah should ever be forgotten in Yisrael, for it is written, “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.” (Devarim 31:21) Then how do I interpret, “they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it”? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.

— Shabbos 138B-139A

There is a one nation scattered abroad and divided among the nations in all the provinces of your highness’ kingdom …  

— Esther 3:8

Rabi Yohsi of the Galilee said “ There is no ‘elder’ other than one who has acquired Torah wisdom”

— Kiddushin 32B

In both the written and oral Torah a rich and diverse metaphorical imagery exists to describe the relationship between K’lal Yisrael– the Jewish People; and Torah. Torah is alternatively described as our sister, our bride, our legacy, our primary topic of conversation, our obsession, our “tree-of-life” lifeline — and more. The relationship is layered and complex and every metaphor illustrates a different facet of K’lal Yisraels rapport with the Torah.

Yet there is one teaching of our sages that seems to go beyond describing a multifaceted relationship between two disparate entities and, instead, portrays the fusion of K’lal Yisrael and Torah into a single being. Torah is not something that we enjoy a relationship with, Torah is our alter-ego … our secret identity.  Accordingly there are direct corollaries between what happens in the life of K’lal Yisrael and in the texture of the Torah.

To use a somewhat coarse allegory to correspond to the subtle abstraction being allegorized; one could not stab Mr. Hyde in the heart and express surprise at the news of Dr. Kekyll’s death nor could one feed a starving Dr. Jekyll and be disappointed that Mr. Hyde had survived the famine. As they share an identity what happens to one must happen to the other.

The Maharal of Prague utilizes the truism of the shared identity of K’lal Yisrael and Torah to explain the Gemara in Shabbos 138-9: “how do I interpret, ‘they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it’? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.” On the one hand, just as Klal Yisrael, while battered and beaten in a seemingly interminable exile, is ultimately indestructible, so is the Torah.  A Torah forgotten is a Torah annihilated and destroyed.  But on the other hand, explains the Maharal, just as Klal Yisrael is a the one nation or, more precisely, the nation of oneness, scattered abroad and divided among the nations so too is the Torah , the truly integrated discipline, disorganized and scattered unlike any other field of study.  The Torah cannot remain intact and integrated as its alter-ego, Klal Yisrael, suffers dispersion and disintegration as a result of galus.

Another classic application of this truism is provided by the Izhbitzer at the beginning of our Sidra.

Read more Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Beyond the Heads and Tails of the Sabbatical Year

Is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the old year, meaning the outgoing year or, is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the year’s tail, meaning the end of the upcoming year?

At the end of every seven year cycle, at an appointed time of the Year of Letting-Go, on the festival of Sukkos. When all of Israel comes to appear before HaShem your Elokim in the place that he shall choose, you must read this Torah before all of Israel so that it is heard by their ears.  You must assemble the Nation; men, women, children and converts who dwell within your gates and let them hear it …

— Devarim 31:10-12

When they are a third grown by the end of the seventh year [then] produce and olives that ripen in the eighth year {i.e. the first year of the new seven-year cycle} have the halachic status of produce and olives of the Sabbatical “Year of Letting-Go ”] What is the source this rule? — Rabi Assi said in the name of Rabi Yochanan (some trace it back to the name of Rabi Yohsee the Galilean): The pasuk states: “At the end of every seven year cycle, at an appointed time of the year of Letting-Go, on the festival of Sukkos..” Why should the [seventh] year of Letting-Go to be mentioned here? When the festival of Sukkos is celebrated [coming as it does after Rosh Hashanah] it is already the eighth year? It is into teach us that if produce has grown one third in the seventh year before New Year, the rules of the seventh year are to be applied to it even in the eighth year.

— Rosh Hashanah 12B

The heavens are HaShem’s heavens; but He gave the earth to the children of Adam

— Tehillim 115:16

 Whatever HaShem wills He has done, in heaven and in earth, in the oceans and in all the depths.

— Tehillim 135:6

 A Pruning Song of David.  The earth and it’s fullness [belongs] to HaShem; the world, and its inhabitants.

— Tehillim 24:1/daily psalm of Sunday


Rabi Akiva would say … All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. 

— Pirkei Avos 3:15

Rosh Hashanah is often mistranslated as “the New Year” and while it is the moed-festival that comprises the first days of a new calendar year the more precise translation is “Year’s Head.” The difference may seem inconsequential and hair-splitting at first glance but takes on greater significance when considering the obverse. Is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the old year, meaning the outgoing year or, is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the year’s tail, meaning the end of the upcoming year?

While this quandary is of primarily semantical interest every year, it is of particular interest when contemplating the impending year, 5775, the seventh year of the seven year cycle endowed with sabbatical and debt absolving properties. Per the halachah the cessation of agricultural activities indicative of the shevi’is-sabbatical; nature of the year begins when the year does; whereas the absolution of debts, reflecting the shemitah-“Letting-Go”; nature of the year begins when the year ends (Rambam: Laws of Release and Jubilee years 4:9). The Izhbitzer adds an insight into the essence of this extraordinary year that expands the years parameters beyond its “tail” terminus and that should have us thinking about it differently beginning from its “head.”

Man perpetually oscillates between G-d-reliance and self-reliance. The reality is that Divine Providence and Omnipotence is absolute and all encompassing as Rabi Akiva taught “All is foreseen.” Nevertheless the mysterious, Divinely granted autonomy of human beings; “yet freedom of choice is granted” seems to carve out a space for human self-reliance and self-determination and echoes the formulation of David the king that “The heavens are HaShem’s heavens; but He gave the earth to the children of Adam” i.e. that man was granted limited autonomy in terms of making moral and ethical choices, selections and refining in serving G-d.

Read more Beyond the Heads and Tails of the Sabbatical Year

A New Jewish Classification Scale

The Jewish classification system of Reform, Conservative, Modern and Yeshivish/Charedi has shown some wear and tear in recent years, as it’s often hard for people to see where they belong, and everybody is forced into a single square. I’ve come up with a new classification system that can be thought of as more of a scale rather then discreet categories.

At the beginning of the scale is the group that finds Torah Not-Relevant. They don’t believe or study Torah or participate in any Jewish observances.

The next point are those that find Torah Relevant. They may not believe Torah was received through prophecy at Mt Sinai, but they do believe it is an important document with many relevant teachings and rituals.

The next point are Jews that think Torah is Important. They generally believe Torah was received through prophecy at Mt Sinai and keep the mitzvos> Living a Torah lifestyle is an important part of their lives.

Finally are Jews who find Torah to be the Primary force in their lives. They may be learning in Kollel or working full time, but Torah learning and observance is the primary thing that drives them.

So the scale looks like this:

A person may find themselves between two points of the scale as they move from say, Relevant to Important. In addition this classification is based more on internal factors, rather than external. Let me know if you think this is helpful.

Don’t Just Choose Good. Sift the Evil Away From the Good

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 “But of the Tree of the Knowledge Joining Together of Good and Evil, do not eat of it; for on the day that you eat of it you will definitely die.’

– Bereshis 2: 17

 “Avram came to her [Hagar], and she conceived; and when she realized that she was pregnant, she looked at her mistress with contempt. Sarai said unto Avram …Now that she sees herself pregnant she regards me with condescension.  Let Elokim judge between me and you.’”.

– Bereshis 16: 4, 5

Every other  בֶּינֶיך – between me and you, in Scripture is spelled lacking the second yud, but this one is spelled plene. As such it may also be read וּבֵינַיִךְ (second person feminine, as though Sarai is threatening Hagar rather than Avram), for Sarai cast an Ayin Hara-evil eye on Hagar’s pregnancy, and she miscarried her fetus. 

– Rashi Ibid

Many Mechabrim-Torah authors, in particular the Ramcha”l , explain that the very Raison d’être of Klal Yisrael- the Jewish People is to rectify the sin of the first man and to bring humanity back to the pre-sin state. This is why comprehending the workings of the original sin is a prerequisite to better understanding the family dynamics of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

In   Nefesh HaChaim the Magiha –author of the glosses, explains that prior to eating of the forbidden fruit Adams Yetzer HaRa-inclination to evil was clarified and external to his being (personified in the Nachash HaKadmoni-the primordial snake). The qualitative paradigm shift resulting from the first sin was that the Yetzer HaRa became internalized and integrated into mans very being. The word Da’as means joining together and becoming as one. He and Chava became what they ate, entities in which good and evil are joined together. This had a universal cataclysmic effect as the mish-mash of good and evil spread throughout the macrocosm as well. The catastrophic result of the original sin is that on both a human and a cosmic level there is no longer any unadulterated good, even in the soul of the most saintly, nor any unmitigated evil, even in the deeds of the wickedest.

The Pasuk (Koheles 7:14) “In the day of Good…in the day of Evil…; Elokim made one corresponding to the other,..” teaches that everything in Kedusha-holiness and good has its parallel in impurity and evil. After Adams original sin these parallel entities become linked and blended together.

Avraham Avinu was defined by his midah of Chesed– loving-kindness, the trait of giving to, and pouring out upon, others. The evil parallel midah of Chesed is Znus-debauchery which bears some superficial similarities to acts of “giving to and pouring out upon others” but which is informed at its core by selfishness and egotism rather than by selflessness and altruism.  As a patriarch of Klal Yisrael and a rectifier of Adam’s sin Avraham Avinu’s life’s-work was not merely to choose to actualize Chesed and avoid stinginess and callousness at every opportunity but to clarify and purify his Chesed, to thresh away its Znus dark underside.

Avraham Avinu’s progeny prior to Yitzchok were the incarnations of the dark underside of his midah. He needed to get them out of his system, as it were, before being able to reproduce a soul as free of evil admixtures as Yitzchaks.  Whereas Avraham Avinu was defined by his midah of Chesed his son Yishmael would be defined by his midah of Znus. When HaShem Kivayachol-so to speak, shopped the Torah to other nations of the world our sages recount the following exchange:  “‘He shined forth from mount Paran’ (Devarim 33:2) HaShem asked the Ishmaelites ‘Would you like my Torah?’ they replied ‘What is written within it?’ HaShem said ‘You shall not commit adultery ‘‘If so’ they responded ‘we do not want it’.”  In a similar vein the Talmud (Kidushin 49B) tells us that “ten measures of infidelity/licentiousness descended to the world. Arabia took nine measures and the remaining measure was divided among the balance of the nations”.

Progressing from these principles Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, offers insight into the apparent “domestic squabbles” in Avrahams home.

During Hagar’s first pregnancy the refinement process of Avrahams Midah began. The embryo then being formed embodied a blend of good and evil that was being filtered out. Yet in the mix that was being filtered out there was still a greater relative amount of Chesed vs. Znus. Feeling the gravity of the good growing within her Hagar “lightly esteemed” i.e. grew self-important and became condescending towards her mistress. By the second pregnancy unadulterated Znus was distilled from Avrahams Chesed in the person of Yishmael.

Just as Chava, Adams mate, was the one who induced him to internalize evil and to comingle evil with good it would be Sara, Avraham Avinus wife, who would prompt him to extract and externalize his evil. Just as Chava began her work of ruination-through-adulteration with her eyes “The woman (Chava) saw that the tree was good to eat, and that it was desirable to the eyes” (Bereshis 3:6), Sara would begin her work of repairing- through-sifting-out with her eyes, casting an Ayin Hara-evil eye. Just as Chavas work of ruination-through-adulteration would conclude with the conflicted, ambivalent  humans, whose goodness had been contaminated with evil, being driven out of Eden (Bereshis 3:23,24), Sara would complete her work of repairing- through-sifting-out by banishing the unambiguous human, whose soul completely extracted and distilled the evil midah of Znus, from the house of Avraham. (Bereshis 21:10-14),

 Adapted from Kometz HaMincha Inyan 38 (pages 3940)

and Nefesh HaChaim chapter 5 Hagaha D”H v’zeh, v’hainyan (pages 22-25)  



What is Torah Judaism (in 500 words or less) #6

Purposeful Creation

Judaism provides a foundation to understand the physical and spiritual world and to use that understanding to perfect ourselves and unite the entire world. The first axiom is that life has meaning and purpose because it was created by a purposeful, spiritual G-d. The word spiritual at its most basic level means anything that can not be physically sensed or measured.

Being absolutely perfect, G-d had no need to create the world, rather he created the world to bestow good upon man. Because G-d defines the essence of good, the ultimate goodness is experiencing and communing with G-d Himself. For anything to be appreciated, some degree of contrast is needed and therefore G-d created the physical world where spirituality can not be measured or accessed with our senses.

Free Will

Man was uniquely created with a physical body, a spiritual soul and free will. Free will empowers us to overcome our physical side and become G-d like givers as opposed to physically centered takers. By continually making proper choices we strengthen our soul and become more spiritual beings. Knowing our spiritual development is due to our own choices and not because of compulsion allows us to truly experience the pleasure of our accomplishments.

From the spiritual perspective, closeness is defined as the similarity of things. When we develop our spiritual side, we become G-d like and unite and partake of His goodness. The reward of spiritual development lasts for eternity since the soul exists after death.

Spiritual Mission of the Jews

In the first 20 generations, the world failed at its spiritual mission until Abraham’s kindness and spiritual awareness resulted in G-d choosing him as the world’s spiritual leader. Isaac and Jacob further developed this spiritual inheritance by excelling in self-discipline and mastering the balance between giving and discipline.

Jacob’s 12 sons and their families were exiled to Egypt for 210 years to remedy certain spiritual deficiencies. This ended with the Exodus and Moses reaching the highest level of spiritual development and prophetically receiving the instructions of the Torah at Sinai.

Developing Our Spirituality

The Torah provides us with instructions to make the free will choices that will maximize our spiritual development and unify body and soul. These mitzvos prevent us from damaging our spiritual selves and teach us the positive acts which further develop and strengthen us spirituality.

Mitzvos such as Shabbos, the Jewish Holidays and prayer enable us to become more aware and appreciative of G-d. Man to man mitzvos such as helping the poor and showing love and respect make us spiritual givers and unite humanity. Self-development mitzvos like eliminating arrogance, envy, and unbridled desire correct our self-centered negative traits.

By freely choosing to follow the mitzvos, a Jew develops his spirituality. When a significant number of Jews develop high levels of spirituality, a process will have begun which will culminate in the entire world uniting in spiritual harmony and experiencing G-d and the world at the highest possible level.

Note: A few friends thought this was a little too philosophical for the average non-observant Jew, so I am back to the drawing board.
Please send in a contribution to this series remembering the goal is to interest somebody to learn more about Judaism.

What is Torah Judaism (in 500 words or less) #5

By Rabbi David Aaron

(This was composed primarily from Rabbi Aaron’s book – Living a Joyous Life – The True Spirit to Jewish Practice, which we highly recommend. Check out Rabbi Aaron’s other books or visit his website.)

Judaism clarifies the essential beliefs that inspire and enable us to live a purposeful, passionate, pleasurable life soaring to the greatest heights of vitality, meaning and joy.

The goal of Judaism is to be who we are, godly beings.

When we live according to Torah, we’re connected with a higher perspective on life. We’re seeing the bigger picture and behaving in a manner that expresses and reflects what reality truly is, even if we do not completely perceive it.

When we live the mitzvot, we behave in a way that is harmonious with the way life truly is. And we are rewarded with living according to our true essence.

Torah articulates the universal principles of spiritual and ethical life and empowers us to be who you really are. It frees us to live in harmony with the universe and to be one with G-d.

Through our involvement with the text of Torah we meet G-d the author, and begin to see how, through His words, he speaks through us and reveals Himself to us.

Prayer makes us a vessel to receive G-d’s blessings. It builds our awareness of G-d. The more we acknowledge G-d and the more we invite Him into our world, the more we experience His divine presence in our daily lives.

When we don’t work on Shabbos, we remind ourselves that we’re really working for G-d. Judaism says we are souls, a part of the creator, and therefore we are also creators. But we don’t create for ourselves, we create for G-d. When we realize that, we draw much energy and blessings from G-d.

Judaism gives us powerful and practical ways to connect to God and each other, ways to express our love and to feel love. It provides down-to-earth spiritual strategies for living a more complete, joyful, meaningful, and enlightened life. But we have to put a little soul into it. And when we do, our lives fill with profound purpose and passion and abundant spiritual pleasure.

Money, career accomplishments, vacations and physical pleasures can bring happiness but without spiritual awareness, it is a low level. Judaism helps us struggle with issues like “Am I a good person?” “What more can I do to better the world?” “Is my life meaningful?” “How can I be more connected to G-d?”. Even though such questions might bring discontent and sadness into our lives, the end result makes us much greater people.

The Torah does not give any dispensations from the challenges of life. It does not promise an easy life but a meaningful life. It does not offer an instant solution to sadness but it does offer a soul-ution to sadness and the secret to happiness. Through its’ wisdom and guidance, Torah empowers us to be souls and enables us to make I-contact with the Ultimate I – God.

Judaism offers us the tools so that we can be truly living a joyous life.

What is Torah Judaism (in 500 Words or Less) #4

By Rabbi Micha Berger

1- It is the nature of good to have a recipient

2- We were created to receive good

3- The ultimate good is the Image of G-d

4- Therefore we can’t just receive, Hashem gave us an opportunity to finish the job, to imitate the Creator

5- Thus, we must perfect our relationship with Him, and our relationship with others — to both receive and to give

6- Which in turn requires perfecting ourselves, the sole part of the relationship we can change

7- Halakhah is a tool for doing so

8- Because of the above, halakhah is produced in partnership between G-d and man

9- History is a process from Adam to the messiah

10- Perfecting the world requires cooperation, and thus one can’t be a Jew without being part of the community

Originally posted in the comments in this post

What is Torah Judaism? (in 500 words or less) – Volume #3

The answer to the question “What Is Judaism?” would be different for a student of comparative religion, a Sephardic resident of an Israeli development town, or someone who grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in America, just to give a few disparate examples. I will address the last one of these, because of course I have the most familiarity with his mindset.

Ethics are of fundamental interest to anyone who cares about anything, but the idea that there are no ethics for the Jew other than those that emanate from the Torah distinguishes Judaism from all that came before and all that comes after.

Judaism is, of course, objectively identifiable as an essential source of guidelines for ethical living. Because of the richness of Judaism’s intellectual tradition, and because that richness has the quality of being both ancient and in constant scholarly and practical agitation, Judaism is probably the best developed system of ethics in the world in both its scope and its depth.

But while all that matters to every searching person, every person of conscience, it is not the heart of Judaism. It is necessary but not sufficient. Rather, the central concept is that while our ethics, as well as our laws regarding how people interact with each other even in non-ethical spheres, are completely open to intellectual probing, challenge and debate, they are absolute. They are based on the Torah given at Mt. Sinai, which we can only understand through the received tradition.

That is why between each chapter of Pirkei Avos we find the recitation, “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, etc.”: It reminds us that although we are talking about ethics, regarding which everyone feels qualified to opine, ultimately all our hypotheses, speculations and gut feelings bow to the revealed truth of Torah.

One fundamental corollary of this double-barreled premise – that Truth only comes via Torah, which only comes via Mesorah [“received tradition“] – is that the Truth may conflict with our personal sensibilities, which non-Jewish culture teaches should be supreme.

But our idea of what is right and true and good is necessarily flawed. We are imperfect because of our distance from God, which is axiomatic in being creatures of flesh and blood. We cannot know and understand all, and our capacities for reasoning, empathy, objectivity and foresight are only human. Even at our best, we are tainted by a lifetime of interaction with other imperfect creatures and their ideas, most of whom do not acknowledge the Truth of Torah at all.

The bombshell corollary of this core concept is that not only ethics, but actions – all actions – are governed by the Truth of Torah. This not only separates Judaism from most world religions and moral systems, but presents a fundamental challenge to every possible concept of what my posited non-religious American Jew can have thought about his life, why it matters, and what he does with it. This Truth defines our relationship and responsibility to the rest of Creation. Now sit and learn!

What is Torah Judaism (in 500 words or less) – #2?

Torah Judaism is actually an ideal that was never really fulfilled by the Jewish people themselves. Ever. But first, what is Torah? The word itself comes from hora’ah–teaching, and it means just that: a code of conduct which applies to every aspect of life. As the verse says, “in all your ways know Him (G-d).”

On a deeper level, Torah is a direct projection of the Divine Mind which makes the rectification of all reality, with Israel the bearers of the Messianic mantle, basically a done deal. What an awesome role, to be called upon to makes ourselves whole, to make the whole universe whole! To link our consciousness with the Divine Mind! Ultimately, the Torah is the means to remedy a cosmic exile, the self-exile of this world from its own real, optimal state. Thus, everything we do can either further this goal or temporarily obstruct it. The way we do everything we do can literally heal the world. It’s our choice, and the Torah is our manual.

So, perhaps the most basic thing that characterizes Torah living is a sense of mission, of grand purpose. There’s a Divine framework to the human condition, to the situation we’re in. There’s a Divine structure to history. We’re plugged in.

So, how does this manual work? The Torah is like a body, and the mitzvot are the limbs. Basically the Torah and its mitzvot are our personal and collective job, nothing less. But please, don’t be discouraged by “Torah living” as most people conceptualize it today. Can you imagine driving a car with half your body paralyzed? Well, no. You can’t. So instead you get a machine you can run. That’s Torah living as most people understand it. But real Torah living– step on board for the glorious ride and strap on your seat belts. It’s a work in progress.

–Micha Lindenberg

What is Torah Judaism (in 500 words or less) – #1?

I believe that the ultimate manifestation of Torah Judaism is Chesed, acts of loving-kindness. It’s not the number of times one davens in a day, or the type of kippah he wears, or if her hair is covered completely, not at all, partially, or only sometimes. It’s whether all that davening and all those halachic guidelines and all that learning yields a better person, a better Yid. Does the person smile more, give others the benefit of the doubt more frequently, look for ways to make peace with others (instead of always getting his/her way), help others in time of need (whether it’s a seat on the bus, or picking up a dropped object, or bringing a meal to a new mother/sick friend/random member of the community), encourage children to play with those who seem to have no friends?

If all of that learning and studying and rushing to classes and davening does not make one a better person, then it does not matter to me how many of the mitzvot that person observes, or how stringent; it means they are not taking the Torah’s lessons to heart.

Years ago, I was surrounded by loving, kind, and generous observant Jews, and that spurred me to grow in my own observance. I believed that the Torah guidelines make for a pretty good foundation for life, and I still believe that. We must always keep the big picture in mind.

This is the first in a series of defining Torah Judaism for our non observant co-religionists in 500 words or less.