Category Archives: Theology

You have no right. No one does. To anything.

The right to marry, the right to adopt, the right to choose one’s gender, the right to one’s body, the right to free speech, the right to bare arms and the list of rights goes on. These and many other rights are part of the “rights conversation” which has been increasingly dominating Western politics and social order in recent years.

symbols_humanrights

This phenomena has not passed over the Jewish and Orthodox worlds, with woman’s communal roles, LGBTQ’s in the community, marriage postponement, family planning and other similar questions becoming the delineating lines along which Jews have come to define their religious orientation. And, as is happening in general society, the individual rights argument is playing an increasingly dominant role in these discussions and slowly transforming institutions and conventions previously unchanged for generations.

Those trying to stand in the way of these changes find themselves, many times, defending Torah against the ‘rights conversation’. Some, attempt to reconcile the two by trying to prove how Torah’s ideals and guidelines are the true individual rights, while others try and explain how Torah defines these rights – or their parameters – differently. Until recently, I was a proponent of highlighting the rights of the community/Jewish Nation/Jewish People Throughout History, as opposed to the rights of the individual. Even so, I’ve always felt an uneasiness with these approaches, feeling they were more apologetics than anything else and lacked an independent, consistent, stance on the matters.

I recently realized why we seem to be losing the battle – within our own communities. This is because in the way in which we most often discuss these matters we unwittingly accept the premise of the arguments we are trying so desperately to reject; that people have unalienable, immutable rights. Then the question just becomes – how far do those rights extend? There is little surprise, then, that the rights conversation continues to expand and eat away at social conventions that just a few years ago were almost unthinkable.

Like many people, I simply knew something was “off” with the entire discussion but couldn’t put my finger on it. I think the reason for this is the degree to which we, in the Jewish and Orthodox world, are steeped in Western Civilization and therefore have difficulty drawing logical lines between “acceptable” rights and non “acceptable” ones. After searching for years for the elusive line between the rights which fit with Torah and those that do not and struggling with the troubling range left open for interpretation and personal biases, it finally came to me.

It is still a working theory but here it is – I’m pretty sure Torah doesn’t believe in the concept of rights. I can’t think of a single case or example in the Torah where someone has an inherent right. To anything. It seems that whenever God spoke to people in the Torah it was to let them know what they are expected to do – their obligation. You, as a parent, do not have the right to be respected by your children rather, your children have the obligation to respect you. The two are not the same thing. I don’t have the right to live as much as you have the prohibition not to kill me (or the obligation to not let me die). The Jewish People don’t have a right to the Land of Israel, rather, we have the obligation to live in it, conquer and settle it. Kohanim don’t have the right to serve in Beit Hamikdash as opposed to non-Kohanim, rather they have an obligation to do so.  The more I think about it the more it seems that in the Torah itself it is all about obligations and I think this is because of something even more fundamental that lay at the core of how Torah sees the world.

Simply put, we live in Hashem’s world. We did not create ourselves, we did not create the world we live in, we do not sustain ourselves, or it, every moment of every day. As such, Torah assumes our existence is for a purpose which transcends our individual, all too temporary, lives. Our entire existence serves someone and something else – be it God, Divine Justice, Jewish Destiny or any other divinely inspired ideal. Therefore, a person’s life ought to be driven by gratitude and servitude. Our entire lives are expected to be one, long, continuous “thank you”, translated into a “what am I supposed to do”. All of this is the antithesis to some of the most foundational concepts of Western Civilization, as they developed since the mid 17th Century through the enlightenment, all the way to today with the emphasis of natural rights and the autonomous man.

I do believe that these were important ideas and key developments within Western Civilization which have benefited the world greatly and even that some of them stem from Jewish and scriptural influences. But, just because these concepts helped free Western Civilizations from the tyranny of the church, of the Monarchy or the Feudal System, doesn’t make them theologically correct and definitely not necessarily for every era and community.

I do think that when we come to Chazal’s world – the oral law and the world of Halacha – we do begin to encounter something similar to rights but the fact that in Torah itself we do not, rather only encounter obligations, outlines the fundamental outlook of Torah as being diametrically opposed to what has become the theological and political paradigm within which we live.

I realize that saying that we do not believe in rights sounds troubling. I’m not saying that on a practical level no one has any rights, rather, that when we come to think of how these discussions and debates fit with Torah we need to realize that Torah has a completely different outlook on the human condition and is coming at these questions from an entirely different perspective. I have found this line of thinking and argumentation extremely powerful when considering the topic myself or discussing it with others. It doesn’t just ‘win by points’ by arguing against a specific point, rather, it offers a completely different moral – and theological – outlook at society and the human condition. And one need not necessarily accept the Torah’s outlook as I have outlined it to understand that attacking Torah based on the individual rights conversation doesn’t make much sense, considering the different world view. Whether a person chooses to prescribe to the ‘rights conversation’ or the ‘obligation conversation’ is entirely up to them but it is important to realize the significance of that choice and the different types of societies each of them envisions and aspires to.

I do think that, many times, Halacha can come to the same practical conclusions as those led by the individual rights conversation but I think they arrive there in a very different way, which makes all the difference. (I hope to share some examples of this in the near future).

I’d like to conclude this long train of thought with the famous opening of the Mesilat Yesharim (Path of The Just): “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service is for a man to clarify and come to realize as truth what is his obligation in the world and to what he needs to direct his gaze and his aspiration in all that he toils all the days of his life”.

 

 

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Religious Vegetarianism – is it time?

When I was 17, I happened upon a book I received for my Bar Mitzvah (!) by the name of “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, written by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. In it, he discusses vegetarianism as a religious ideal; its origins, merits, and dangers.

Here’s the (very!) short version:

  • Man was never intended to eat meat as it is immoral to derive pleasure from the suffering/death of other living creatures
  • Humanity failed to live up to the high moral standards set forth by God, leading to the flood
  • Man was permitted, temporarily, to eat meat for 4 reasons:
    1. Each “level” of creation needs to contribute its part to the gradual development and elevation of the world. In his current state, man depends – physically and emotionally – on eating meat for the world to develop.
    2. It is futile to try and maintain a moral standard of sensitivity towards animals while the world is filled with cruelty between humans. Humanity must first purge itself from far greater injustices before doing so towards animals.
    3. A prohibition to eat meat reinforces an equation between the species, legitimizing humans seeing themselves and acting no different than animals. Permission to eat meat instills the distinction between the species and therefore, an understanding that man is more than an animal, with greater expectations.
    4. Abstention from eating meat can create a false sense of morality which would – consciously or unconsciously – serve as an excuse for other immoralities. Eating meat serves as a “vent” for mans lower, animalistic, aggressions. Left without that “vent” people would find other, human, aggression vents, while still convinced they are moral due to their vegetarianism. (remember the stories of the vegetarian SS commanders walking their dogs through the camps?)
  • The Torah’s laws pertaining to animals incorporate both aspects – allowing man the use of meat while minimizing the cruelty involved in it while forcing him realize the moral compromise it involves. By following these “balance keeping” laws, man’s sensitivity towards animals can slowly develop, alongside humanity’s general moral development, towards the day when the full ideal of vegetarianism is natural and obvious.
  • In the meantime, vegetarianism should not be adopted by the masses but only by pious individuals who already lead lives of higher moral and religious standards. If the masses were to adopt it, he warns, it could lead – like during the generation of the flood – to the denigration and moral corruption of humanity.

Being the 17 year old idealist that I was, I knew for a fact that when Rav Kook spoke about the pious individuals who could take on vegetarianism, he was, obviously, talking about me… Six months later, after rereading the essay, I realized that – no, he wasn’t. I found myself looking down judgmentally at non vegetarians, excusing certain behaviors and avoiding guilt trips due to a new found sense of self righteousness. Thus ended my romance with vegetarianism.

Ever since, I have struggled with the topic and the degree to which I should or should not re-adopt it. Recently, inspired by the public display of vegetarianism by Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, the following thought has begun to haunt me:

How are we to understand the fact that animal cruelty today is the worst in history. Due to factory farming and the mass production of meat for human consumption and commercialization, animal cruelty is more severe and more systematized then could possible be previously imagined (I dare you to go on youtube and search “factory farming” or “animal cruelty“. Let’s see how long you can bare to watch)
Keeping in line with Rav Kook’s philosophy, the fact that, through industrialization, animachicksGroundDownl cruelty has become:
1. So severe
2. So well known and undeniable
One must say 1 of 2 things:
Either we are in greater danger than before of “blurring the species lines” (reason no.3) and in greater need of “non-human aggression vents” (reason no.4), or, these new scale cruelties are a divine “nudge”, forcing us to realize what was always there to a tolerable degree has now reached a horrible epoch, one that can no longer be rationalized by moral philosophy and that we have no choice but to move towards adopting vegetarianism on a larger scale.

Considering that Rav Kook also holds that the world – as a whole – is constantly moving towards greater moral refinement (something I believe with every fiber of my being, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel)
and that
The alternatives for a non-vegetarian diet are so easily accessible or even produced,
I wonder if we are ready to take on a greater moral standard and progress towards vegetarianism. Meaning, if in past generations there was a certain correlation between man’s lower moral standards and limited- “personal use”- animal cruelty, we now find ourselves with an opposite correlation – higher moral standards on the one side but increased animal cruelty on the other.
Personally, I feel less and less capable of rationalizing the support of and participation in the industrialization of animal cruelty, while aspiring to the loftiest moral and religious ideals.
What about you?

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Chanukah – I can’t believe it!

Over the years I have come to belittle the significance of the (super-natural) miracle of the oil in contrast to the (natural) miracle of the military victory.
The rationalization was, among other things:
1. The fact that the military victory is more prominent in the earlier primary sources such as על הניסים and Josephus’s writings
2. The oil miracle seems to rise to prominence only later, once – due to the exile – sovereignty and military victory were no longer relate-able (or possibly even understood)
3. As far as miracles go, the oil miracle doesn’t stand out as unique in our long history of miracles.
I’ve attributed this leaning of mine to my over rationalist approach to Jewish thought resulting in de-emphasizing the unnatural as well as my ultra Religious-Zionist background, preferring the “human-as-a-vessel-of-the-divine” approach, to the “divine-as-nullifying-human-action”, approach.
But a realization just hit me today that makes me wonder if my tendency to marginalize the miracle of the oil may not have gone far enough:
If one were standing in front of the Menorah, during the 8 original days of the Maccabees, would it actually appear as a “revealed miracle” (נס גלוי)? Probably not.
At no point would you be faced with the obvious breaking of the laws of nature, (which tends to be how we define a “revealed miracle”).
Only by looking at the broader context of 8 days and evaluating the appropriate ratio of oil per day could one deduce that they were witnessing a miracle.
Isn’t that the definition of a “concealed miracle” (נס נסתר) – context, probability and other such intellectualizations?
I’m proposing this – there was no “revealed miracle” on Chanukah! rather two important events, part of the same continuum and narrative which, like all things to do with the history of The Jewish People, reveals some deeper aspect of reality as well.

Even if what I’m saying is true – that the miracle of the oil was indeed not a revealed miracle at all – it doesn’t in any way take away from all of the Torah that has been said about the relationship between revealed and concealed miracles, which takes place revolving around many other areas of our traditions.
In my mind it just means this – Chanukah is all about the natural state of (miraculous) national Jewish life, with no need for the crutches of revealed miracles to make an otherwise obvious point.
It is the disease of Galut with its dissonance between what is and what should be, with its dichotomy between body and soul, with its existential sense of uncertainty and inherent doubt that gave birth to the prominence of a miracle that, to those who witnessed it, most probably was not miraculous at all.

A Chanukah Same’ach to all.


P.S. Since writing the above, some might say troubling, thoughts, I’ve had a chance to further contemplate these points. After realizing that the “oil miracle” may not have been a revealed miracle at all, I began to consider – is the miracle of the war really a hidden one? Let us think of the impact that the victory had on the situation in Israel at the time. Let us consider what it meant to the Jews who had returned from the exile of the First Temple, to finally gain independence after 200 years. What it meant to establish an independent soverign entity, one which will arm Jewish Eternity with the ethos of religious independence rooted in earthly national independence. Let us try to understand what it meant to overthrow the great Greak Empire and influence, etc… Considering the great impact and significance of the victory, could one really define it as a concealed miracle?

What I am suggesting is that we tend to have a simplistic understanding of what a miracle is. As one of my rabbis told me once: “not every super-natural event is a miracle and not every miracle is super-natural”. The Hebrew word for miracle is נס, which literally means “flag”, or “sign”. A miracle’s purpose is to make us notice something. All too often people think that all miracles are there to make us notice the exact same thing all the time – that God is “behind” the events. Regretfully, I find that all too simplistic, especially seeing how varied and specific different miracles seem to be. A deeper way of understanding it is as follows:

A miracle is a “tear” in the fabric of the normal events of life, a tear through which we observe the deeper currents and purposes of existence. These “tears” tend to occur especially when the normal events of history seem “stuck” and something which needs to happen, must happen, isn’t. A revealed miracle, then, would be an event through which these deeper currents and purposes are clearly revealed and obvious. Whereas a concealed miracle is an event through which these currents and purposes are not as clear.

Based on this, one could argue that the relationship between the Chanukah miracles is exactly the opposite than we usually think. The military miracle, an event which revealed in the clearest way – to The Jewish People and the entire world – the value of Jewish national and cultural independence, is the revealed miracle. The miracle of the oil, on the other hand, which was not seen by everyone and is harder to understand its necessity, significance and influence, is the concealed miracle.

And maybe, just maybe, the reversal of the miracles’ roles is itself part of the return from Galut to the Ge’ulah of Israel in our times!

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Vampires, Superman and Modern Day Paganism

Billboards have been announcing the new season of a show called True Blood. I don’t follow it (as it is described as extremely inappropriate) but I do follow the phenomena it is part of:
Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, Falling Skies, Green Lantern, Thor, The Avengers, Transformers, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and Byzantium are only a short list of programs and movies that have – or will shortly- come across our “cultural” dashboard. There have and will be many, many more.
All of these shows and movies depict characters who are stronger, faster and smarter than us. They come from above, below and beyond. They battle among themselves for dominance over us mortals and our world and we are powerless before them, at their complete mercy.
They are immortal, or close to it.
Think of how much time and resources we spend on them. Books, magazines, movies, reviews, shows, merchandise, costumes and debates (Remember the “Stand By Me” debate? “Who would win in a fight – Mighty Mouse, or, Superman?” with the answer – “Of course Superman! Mighty Mouse is a cartoon! he isn’t even real”!
Is this any different than ancient polytheistic Greece?
Do we not “serve” these fictitious super-humans with our money, time and creativity? do we not go visit them in their temple-theaters or at our home alter-screens? Do we not shower the priests who bring us their words- writers, actors and producers – with adoration, prestige and even gold statues? Are we not rewarded for our service with entertainment, inspiration and even hope?
One could argue – with some degree of truth – that Torah’s issue with polytheism was as much a moral one as a theological one. To them I’d say, are the stories of these modern made, false gods, not filled with violence, sexual misconduct and immorality? Does this not – on some level – legitimize these behaviors for us mortals, as well?
I can’t help but think that Western Civilization has not come as far as it thinks in abolishing idol worship and may have just substituted one form for another, more subtle, one.
Judaism’s call to attribute divinity, “other-worldliness” and – as a consequence – origin of morality, to any but God himself is as load and necessary as it ever was.
Pay close attention to what you – and your children – are watching.

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How institutionalized prayer can rob you of your connection to God

Synagogues, as an institution of prayer, aren’t an authentic part of Judaism. Before the Temple was destroyed, there was no institutionalized prayer; no set language, no time constraints, no need for a quorum. A person got up in the morning, saw the rising sun, felt the falling rain and burst into a spontaneous prayer of thanks, praise or request. Prayer was the most direct and personal way for a Jew to express his relationship with God. 
So how did we get to what someone defined for me as: “Why do I pray to a God I can’t see in a language I don’t understand for things I don’t need?”
When the 2nd temple was destroyed that included the cancellation of the “Tamid” (“always”) sacrifices; the twice brought daily sacrifice was an expression of devotion by the entire nation which, naturally, was performed by their representatives- the priests- in the communal place of devotion- the temple.
When it was destroyed, so was the peoples’ ability – as a community – to express and manifest their relationship with God.
This is when prayer- as we know it today- was instituted. That is why we do it as a community. That is why the heart of prayer – Amida, the silent prayer – is worded in the plural and the requests are for communal needs.
So, there are 2 distinct concepts of prayer in Judaism:
1. Personal expression of one’s relationship with Hashem 
2. Representing the communal needs of the Jewish people
Over time, people have completely substituted the first with the second and have lost the ability, and possibly the inclination, of having a relationship with God as individuals and not exclusively through their association with the congregation.
Of course institutionalized prayer is still very important, just don’t let it rob you of of speaking to God whenever, wherever and however you want. Think of it this way – instead of using “thank God” in conversation with other people – try it in a conversation with Him. You may be surprised with the results. (250+)

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