Friday, October 27, 2006

To Be or Not To Be

There are many ask-the-rabbi sites. I volunteer for one, and about half of the questions I receive come from non-Jews.

Of these, about half sound like they want to convert me (to Christianity or sometimes to Islam) and the others have genuine questions about Judaism. Some sound like kids looking for free homework help (they get a friendly no). Some, surprisingly to me, ask how they can convert to Judaism.

Now most people know that we Jews don’t look for converts. There is nothing in the Torah that says that the 613 mitzvas (which include the so-called 10 Commandments) have anything to do with Gentiles.

Few people know, however, what the Torah actually does say to Gentiles.

According to the Torah, there are specific guidelines for the nations to follow in order to be righteous. Ask at your table if anyone can guess how many rules there are for Gentiles.

The answer, like many things in the Torah, is seven. These seven universal laws apply to every non-Jewish person in every place in every time without exception. Intentional failure to uphold one of them is bad news.

Ask at your table: Can you guess which seven rules are the most important for all of humanity to follow?

Here they are:

1. Monotheism/idolatry – understand that there is a single source of all creation and no other power exists in the world should lead naturally to an aversion to idolatry; however, idolatry is seductive because its so tangible. This would include praying to an actual idol or the sun or moon or any object or force that does not have volition. Lucky rabbit’s foot? Relying on money or technology to save you?
2. Blasphemy - Sort of follows naturally from #1. This includes saying things like “G-ddamn” or even “Adios” which, when uttered casually are a secularization of the Holy. In any language.
3. Murder – People are created in “Divine image” - we’re not allowed to murder them. That would include indirectly killing such as throwing someone to the lions (as the Romans did) or starving someone to death.
4. Taboo relationships – When talking to kids, I say, “marrying someone you’re not allowed to marry, like your sister or brother”.
5. Stealing – this means even the smallest amount. Someone who uses someone else’s pencil without permission is guilty of stealing. Maimonides (Rambam) says this includes a farm laborer who eats from the produce when not in the middle of working. What are the implications for using the company phone, internet or even just your time for personal use? Better to get explicit permission.
6. Ever min ha-chai – eating a limb of an animal that is still alive. This is the one kosher rule for humanity. Basic decency and humanity requires that if you’re going to eat an animal, kill it first. There is some debate as to whether or not this rule applies to shellfish. Maimonides does not think this applies to birds.
7. Justice – a society must have a fair system of justice to be good.

Maimonides concludes that one who accepts upon him or herself these seven mitzvas and is careful to do them is a “Gentile Chasid” who is building a palace in Eternity. But like all mitzvas, these seven require intentionality (kavana), so that someone who does them out of habit or social conditioning does not have such a spiritual status.

Question: which of the seven do you think is hardest for people to do?

For further reading:

Seven-mitvah Gentiles have started to organize themselves into “seven-mitzvah” groups. Check out the Bnai Noah website. And here is one thoughtful Jewish take on the question.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Pair-Adam Shift

In trying to please all the people all the time, Table Talks are divided into two sections, the first is short and sweet, the second perhaps something to print and read Friday night when things slow down. Appropriately, this week there are two dedications. The first is by Robin Kavall to the memory of her father Chaim ben Moshe, whose 10th Yartzeit is remembered this week. Please see his remarkable story below. The second is by a friend in Baltimore who has an amazing home a few blocks from ours that went on the market yesterday. For more information, please call 410-578-0573. (Update on the child mentioned last week: he and his sister are thankfully improving slowly but still have a difficult way to go.)

Pair-Adam Shift I

One of the hardest things to do for a person who wants to study the Torah is to get beyond the way other non-Jewish groups have warped the story and the beliefs.

Here are ten questions to test your warp-level. Try them at the table.

1. The first word of the Torah is “Beraisheet” - what does it mean?
2. Who was Adam?
3. How was Chava (Eve) created?
4. What kind of fruit was the forbidden fruit?
5. What was their error that caused them to be kicked out of the Garden?
6. Adam and Eve’s first children were Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Abel). Why did Kayin kill Hevel?
7. How did Kayin kill Hevel?
8. Later Kayin gets married. Whom does he marry?
9. What does the word “Torah” mean?
10. Why, Jewishly-speaking, does the Torah include the Book of Genesis?

Ready for some answers? (Don’t peak until you’ve tried to answer the questions!)

1. It means “in the beginning of”. This causes a translation problem, because “of” should be followed by a noun. But the next words are “created God” (or “God created” because verb order in Hebrew is the opposite of English). Together that reads, “in the beginning of God created....” That doesn’t make any more sense in Hebrew than it does in English. So translations usually take one side or the other: “In the beginning God created” or “In the beginning of God’s creating....” Neither is precise. The Kabbala explains that both meanings are correct, along with 68 others. In fact, one major, multi-volume work of Kabbala, the Tikunei Zohar, consists of seventy different interpretations of the word “Bereishit”. The last is about as long as the first sixty-nine put together.

2. Adam in the Torah is “Ha-Adam” - best translated as “the human”. “He” represents both male and female together.

3. Chava was created by splitting the Adam into two halves, male and female. No ribs please!

4. The Talmud gives three opinions about the type of fruit: fig, grape (or wine) or wheat. No apples, thank you!

5. Their error was not owning up to their violation of the ban on the forbidden fruit. God gave them a chance to admit their mistake and apologize, instead they blamed someone else.

6. Kayin was born with two twin sisters and Hevel with three. Kayin, the materialistic one, was jealous of Hevel from a very young age.

7. They had a fight and Hevel out-wrestled Kayin, pinning him down. Kayin begged and pleaded for Hevel to let him go, feigning hurt. Hevel, feeling sorry for his brother, helped up to his feet, whereupon Kayin stabbed Hevel all over his body (he wasn’t sure where he needed to strike a fatal blow, after all TV hadn’t been invented yet).

8. One of his sisters.

9. It means “instructions” and is short for “Torat Chayim” - instructions for living.

10. So that when we get to the main meat of the Torah, the vision of how to build a utopian society in the Land of Israel, and other nations call us robbers for taking a piece of real estate that belonged to someone else, we will understand this real estate as a parcel within a world that is a work of art belonging to its artist, who is ultimately the only one who can decide who gets to live where, and when.

Pair-Adam Shift II

This week, after several months’ hiatus, there were more of the calls. In fact, there were three in a row. I felt like I was in a Twilight Zony thingamajig, as Homer Simpson would say.

What is happening, as far as I can tell, is this:

There is this businessman I know in a different city (don’t worry, it’s not you - he’s not on my mailing list). He is by American standards extremely successful. He has a multi-million dollar salary, several homes, a wife and children, good health. What more could a person hope for in this life? And he hasn’t even reached forty.

Now, even though he stopped responding to my emails years ago, he evidently – perhaps inadvertently – keeps my number stored in his phone. Because every once in awhile, and it happened again this week, his phone calls my phone.

On its own.

I’m not making this up.

I can hear him in the background having a conversation: sometimes it sounds like he’s in the car talking to his wife, other times I can’t make out the words. But every time it is clear that he doesn’t know the phone line is open. I try shouting his name into the phone, but get no response. Finally, I just hang up.

Is this an omen of something wonderful or ominous?

This week when his phone called mine, it was late at night. It was one of those cold, quiet nights. Really quiet. I couldn’t sleep, and at 2 am or so I went down to the kitchen for a drink of water. “Quiet night,” I thought.

Too quiet.

Suddenly, at that late hour, my cell phone rang. I looked at it long and hard across the room. That’s a very late call, and possibly an emergency. But when I saw in the caller ID who it was, I didn’t even bother calling his name. After saying “hello” a few times, I just hung up.

Then it called me back. I hung up again. When it called me a third time, I thought, “OK, so maybe I’m supposed to pay attention to this,” and I just listened for a few minutes.

What I heard sounded reminded me of an outdoor café. There were no café sounds, nor street sounds, but the voices were a bit over-stated, as you would talk if there were a bit of noise around you. The businessman, I’ll call him Adam (not his real name) was talking to someone but I couldn’t hear the other person. It was like listening to someone talk on the phone. It reminded me of Mark Twain’s comment about hearing one end of a phone conversation, "that queerest of all the queer things in this world."

They were having an intelligent conversation, discussing current events. Adam sounded well-informed and concerned, and he responded to the hidden voice in ways that made his interlocutor appear intelligent.

At the moment I tuned in, Adam’s voice was rising and accelerating:

“The problem is with religion itself. Religion breeds fanaticism. They are all the same. You can’t reason with them. They will stop at nothing until they’ve converted you or killed you.”

There was some static and I missed his next few sentences. Then I heard, “The problem is that they are more than religion, they are social movements. They gain followers by feeding people and meeting unmet needs” His friend agreed, but wondered what can be done about it. Adam suggested a secular counter-movement: “We’ve set up a non-profit organization that is creating training and jobs for homeless people in the city. You don’t need religion to do that. But you have to have an alternative to the ‘faith-based’ programs.”

Two things strike me about Adam’s argument.

First, he sounds so Jewish. I wonder if he realizes that. It’s refreshing to me, actually, to hear that 4,000 years of Jewish history that started with Abraham’s pursuit of kindness and moral excellence could arrive to 2006 undiminished and undiluted in the form of this guy Adam.

Second, it strikes me that the content of Adam's perfectly rational analysis has a flaw that plagues many sociological theories: false starting assumptions.

The questionable assumptions that I’m thinking of include: that “religion” is a false god, that there is something called “fanaticism” that is always bad and that all religions are basically the same in their irrationality.

By the way, this is the same businessman whom I mentioned some time ago who had said to me, “The problem, rabbi, is that I don’t believe in God”, to which I retorted (sincerely) “That’s all right, I don’t either.”

The punch line was: Whatever you mean by “God”, I’m sure I don’t believe in that either.

Our worldview is informed by many things, but the only way to get a “Jewish” view of God, creation, Adam and Eve, ethics, kindness, marriage, and so on is to pick up some Jewish books other than the Bible. Think about it. Until you do so – as an adult, I might add, because many people make the excuse, “Oh, I had plenty of Jewish education as a kid” - you don’t even know what you’re missing. Any single issue of life that you have not studied from a Jewish perspective you are almost guaranteed by our society to have a non-Jewish view of it, because the classical Jewish vision has become so distorted. The Torah does not say “thou shall not kill” nor does the Torah say “be a fanatic."

But it does say to be zealous in the pursuit of three things: wisdom, spiritual humility and acts of kindness. This is what it means to be an “Adam” or a “ben Adam”.

Figure out where you’re deficient, and start to compensate.

Shabbat Shalom

Chaim ben Moshe
My father Chaim was a man whose childhood was strongly affected by the death of his mother when he was just 6 six years old. His father Moshe, an observant Jew, chose single fatherhood for all but a very brief period of his remaining adult life. Together, Chaim and Moshe became exemplary models of how to compensate for missing feminine energy in the household. Moshe was both a talmid chachom (scholar) and an excellent parnassa (income) producer. Chaim became a fabulous cook and manager of the physical details of daily living. Chesed for both each other and the people in their community was the cornerstone of their lives.

Not surprisingly, Chaim earned his living as a waiter, which was a natural fit for a man who loved to serve people. His work schedule required many late evenings and weekends, but that did not stop him from making the time to model his most cherished value, Honor Thy Father. In the final years of his life, Moshe lived in a nursing home, and I have very fond memories of visiting him with my father. I learned by extraordinary example how truly important it is to keep the elderly in our lives and to attend to our responsibilities to them.

In my growing up years, Jewish learning and observance were not a part of our lives. My mother came from a very business oriented family, and my father was happy to change his lifestyle to marry the beautiful girl who shared his love of horses. Interestingly, they also shared the tragic childhood loss of their mothers. Amazingly, these two wonderful people who grew up without a model of married life built a 42 year marriage together, often working out male/female roles in very unconventional ways.

May my father’s memory be for a blessing for all of eternity, and may enlightenment come speedily in our time.

Robin Kavall

Friday, October 13, 2006

No News is Bad News

This Table Talk is dedicated to the speedy and complete recovery of Dovid ben Brocha, a seven-year-old boy in St. Louis and his siblings. Please have them in mind.

I have some bad news, good news, bad news, bad news, and good news.

The first bad news is last week’s news. Last week while I was sitting here composing the Table Talk it began to rain.

That was bad because I still needed to finish our sukkah, not to mention going into it. Going into the sukka is supposed to be the epitome of joy (simcha). But the Talmud says that if person goes into the sukka and it rains, it’s as if a servant brought the King a glass of wine and he threw it back in his face.


Needless to say, it was challenging to erect the sukka and try to decorate it during a storm, all the worse knowing what rain means during the holiday.....

Does that sound petty? Read on:

The good news is that for the past week and through this weekend, there is a special mitzvah of being happy. That’s true every day of the year, but it is especially important right now. So I’m giving you permission: go ahead and be happy. Go ahead...!

What’s the matter? Not so easy? Well, let me tell you the bad news, maybe that will make it easier.

The next bad news is personal. Rabbi Elazar Grunberger of St. Louis, one of the most tireless Jewish educators in America, was in a serious car accident with his children on Wednesday. Besides the numerous broken bones, seven-year-old Dovid lies in a coma. What can they do? A global network of rabbis are organizing the study of Mishnas in Dovid’s merit. That must seem like a strange reaction to someone on the outside.

What would you do?

The next bad news is not news to you: we humans are in so much trouble that there doesn’t seem much we can do about it.

They’re building nukes in North Korea and Iran and they want to hurt us.
The oceans are rising and about 1/3 of humanity live near the coasts.
Every single day, some 15,000 children under age 5 die from starvation and malnutrition. Try to wrap your mind around that. (Source: FAO). That was true on 9/11 and that is true today.

What are you doing about it?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that may make you feel uncomfortable: The fact that you may be well-informed about current events is not helping avert a worldwide catastrophe. (OK, it’s better than sticking your head completely in the sand, but not much.) There needs to be some major action, not soon, not next year, but now!

“Wait,” you object. “No fair! What more can I do? I didn’t vote for these guys running the country!”

Well, for starters, you could plant trees to offset some of the carbon that you’re responsible for dumping into the atmosphere every time you take a flight or long drive. Here’s a site that calculates the number of trees.

Tell your friends about it. Make a public campaign to encourage or shame people into going green. Don’t wait for someone else to do it, because they might not.

And I’ll even give you a site that will plant trees for you.
And if you want to help starving children, you might start here.

There, I’ve done the homework for you. What excuses do you have left?

Now, after you do those things, don’t feel smugly that you’re now pulling your weight. These are good bandaids, and I don’t see how any reasonable person cannot take them seriously, but they’re not going to help us much with the short-term crises such as the nukes and the hurricanes. If your grandchildren are being raised in an underground nuclear fallout shelter, they may ask you, “So how did you not foresee this happening? Was it such a surprise? Why did you guys mess up the world?” So you gave a little bit of money to some charities – and you thought you were doing enough?

Question (this is a good one for kids): What does it take to get all of us to start changing our patterns of behavior?

+ + + +

I promised some more good news, but in order for you to appreciate it, please consider this quote:

“When it happens, there will be a day that is neither bright nor dark; it will endure for a whole day, and then will finally be understood as light.
The enemy army, an international coalition, will experience their flesh rotting while they are standing, their eyes rotting in their sockets and their tongues in their mouths.....In great confusion, one soldier will grab his comrade’s hand and overpower his comrade’s hand. The ground will shake, cliffs will topple and a fire will spread around the world.”

What does that sound like to you? Something that could happen or science fiction?

The source of the quote are the Biblical prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel, respectively (abridged). They both foretold the above scenario as a possible outcome for humanity at the end of days. Zechariah for one stated that he didn’t fully understand his vision, but he was reporting what he saw.

Sounds real bad, right?

OK, now I’m really going to go out on a limb. If you have a tendency to think of rabbis as a little crazy, please don’t read on, because what follows will only reinforce that. If you think that a rabbi’s job is to ruffle a few feathers, then read on.

Let’s just imagine for a minute that Al Gore makes a comeback, and leads us to solving these three huge crises: global warming, nukes and Islamic terrorism. I’m just asking you to suspend disbelief and imagine that outcome that I think we all agree would be positive.

So here we are, in a peaceful world.

Now what?

Now we are free to pursue our consumptive pleasures to our heart’s delight, or is there something else in your vision?

Tradition maintains that you and I are spiritual beings who were put in this material universe for a reason, a spiritual mission, and that we are given exactly the right tools and challenges that we need in order to succeed.

Every challenge – without exception - is custom-made to help us on our mission. Here this well. This means that no news is bad news. Even bad news is ultimately good news (however, it may take a long time to perceive it that way).

Besides our bodies and our faculties, one of our primary tools life’s little instruction book. No, not the Bible. I mean the real Torah – the Oral Torah, which includes Mishna, Midrash and Kabbalah.

In the Bible you find lots of things that incur the death penalty. In the Oral Torah you find the statement that “a court that sentences someone to death is like a gang of terrorists”.

In the Bible you find, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and in the Oral Torah you find “it means you pay someone the value of the eye or the tooth.” In the Oral Torah we have the foundation of universal value of human life, of free public education, recycling useful materials and many of the social institutions that we take for granted today but were unheard of in the ancient world outside of Israel.

We also find there many principles that the world has yet to learn, such as the antidote to urban sprawl and how to rehabilitate non-violent criminals.

Even more important: how to create strong, blissful marriages; how to raise well-adjusted kids.

And most important: how to be holy. That’s the real key: to create a universal spiritual consciousness. A transcendent enlightenment (as opposed to a humanistic one).

Now you can understand why, once we’ve tried all medical, military, scientific or diplomatic solutions (ie, all material solutions) to a crisis, the Jewish next-step is to bring more light of Torah into the world. Maybe we can bring enough more to benefit seven-year-old Dovid. Maybe we can even bring enough to help turn the course of the entire world. If we choose not to, if we shirk our duty, then there may be consequences that are more and more painful until we wake up.

Here is an exercise to meditate on your own next step:

What’s your level of Jewish literacy compared to where you want to be or could be?
If you could influence the curriculum of every Hebrew School in America in one way, what would you add or change?
What are the three most burning questions you have about Judaism: Jewish history, theology, philosophy or culture?

The really good news is that it’s not too late. But I’m asking you to rise to the challenge. Find yourself a JEWISH GURU – a competent rabbi who can guide you on a path of spiritual growth. We all need one. I’m no exception. Don’t put it off even for a day.

+ + + +

I didn’t tell you what happened with our sukkah. Do you recall the point about what it means when it rains while you’re in the sukkah? Well last weekend it rained a lot, but every time that we were ready to go into the sukka to eat, it stopped raining.

Do you hear that? That’s as loud a message as I’ve ever heard, and a source of great simcha.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Simchat Torah.

(Table Talk is a product of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization, and is made possible thanks to generous support from readers like you. This is shareware - if you find it useful, please become an official member or dedicate one week’s TT.)

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Friday, October 06, 2006

The Jewish Dream

Dedicated in loving memory of Michael Roskin, who pursued the Jewish dream with zeal and a sense of humor.

Everyone dreams the American dream:

+ An awesome house
+ An awesome car
+ An awesome spouse
+ Lots of cash
+ To be in charge of something really big and important

Is there anything on this list that is not part of your American dream?

Is there anything missing?

Let’s focus on the house. You can ask this at your table:

Can you describe your dream home?


Try doing this before you read on.

How many people, especially children, focus on the physical appearance and comforts of the home?

How many would include people being nice to each other?

How many would include “a spirit of wisdom”?

What would you rather have:

A collection of mansions on several continents with well-paid support staffs, maximum security technology and total financial security, where family members are well-informed and deal with problems and disagreements by yelling at each other, slamming doors, and much worrying....


A single, modest home in an average American town where you’re a little cramped and you don’t subscribe to the New York Times, but everyone reacts to problems and disagreements with lovingkindness and a spirit of a shared pursuit of wisdom?

Good character is like the roots and trunk of a tree; knowledge is like the branches.
Someone who pursues the latter without the former can be blown down in the wind.
Someone who develops the former can’t be budged even by “all the winds in the world.” (Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Talmud)

+ + + +

A recent article in the Atlantic described a new industry to serve the needs of the wealthy (defined as someone with disposable assets of a mere $30 million or more; there are 30,000 in the USA). According to the interviewees, one of the primary concerns of the wealthy is the maintenance of one or more homesteads.

When I was reading that I thought, “that doesn’t sound much different from me!”

Worry is not a class-based emotion. George Foreman, worth hundreds of millions, said that he envies the longshoreman because even though he makes a lot less money, he has this satisfied look in his eye. “I have lots of money, you know what I mean? But I haven’t found confidence like that longshoreman I told you about. I will never feel secure again. I’ve got to earn, earn, earn, earn.”

The coming world crisis is going to pit two kinds of people against each other: those who put their stake and hope in the quality of roof over their heads and those who recognize that no material roof is any guarantee of anything, that true security comes from within rather than from without.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot (the anti-roof festival).

(Table Talk is a product of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization, and is made possible thanks to generous support from readers like you. This is shareware - if you find it useful, please consider becoming an official member or dedicating one week's TT.)