Posts Tagged Jewish Identity
I can always count on my friend Daniel Jacobsen to pose simple questions with complicated answers. Whenever I see him coming at me with that look in his eye, I know my brain is in for some heavy lifting.
This time was no exception. “I’ve been wondering about the rainbow,” he began. Here we go, I thought. And I was right.
“Why did God choose something so beautiful as a symbol of destruction?”
Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow: even as the Almighty points the arrows of divine wrath away from us, it is only His promise to Noah that protects us from the natural consequences of our own moral corruption.
But what do the colors and the beauty of the rainbow signify? Here was another simple question that had never occurred to me. I told Daniel that I’d have to get back to him.
What is a rainbow but the refraction of white light into a multitude of colored bands? Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, we take white light for granted; by doing so, we fail to appreciate the very blessings that are most essential to our existence. Indeed, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato observes in the introduction to his ethical classic Mesillas Yesharim, those things that are most obvious to us are the things most easily forgotten.
Only when moisture in the air disperses photons into a spectrum of color do we stop and marvel at the beauty of light.
In the same way, the unity of the Almighty that we declare daily when we recite Hashem echad is far too abstract a concept to guide us as we seek to infuse Godliness into our lives. We therefore partition the Divine “white light” of the Creator through the prism of human comprehension into 13 individual descriptive qualities on which we can focus one at a time.
When we do so, the primordial beauty of God’s indivisibility manifests in a rainbow of separate middos, or characteristics. Individually, they represent our journey; collectively, they represent our goal.
Now let’s apply the same principle to the Jewish nation as a whole.
An old joke tells of the Jew who proclaims his love for the Jewish people but denounces Steinberg as a cheapskate, Lebowitz as a crook, and Schneiderman as a nogoodnick. The sad reality, however, is that too often it isn’t a joke.
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Earlier this month, National Public Radio aired a report on its afternoon program All Things Considered that began with this question:
When is a Jew not Jewish enough?
The story went on to describe the circumstances of one Jonathan Leavitt, a native Californian who recently arrived in Israel as a new immigrant to discover that, according to Jewish law, he cannot be considered a Jew because his mother’s conversion process had not been overseen by a Torah observant rabbinic authority.
Amidst numerous quotations from two victims of “domination” by the “ultra-Orthodox” and one indignant representative of the Reform movement, NPR honored its own version of editorial balance by including two sentences from an Orthodox rabbi who, although a distinguished authority, was clearly less than fluent in the English language.
Predictably, the article concluded by playing the “Holocaust card,” implying that Orthodox Judaism is somehow comparable to the Nazi party and blaming its rabbis for dividing the Jewish world.
For those genuinely interested in understanding the other side of the issue, I offer this letter, only slightly revised from the one I sent NPR:
I listened with interest to Lourdes Garcia-Navarro’s report about Jewish identity in Israel. Regrettably, your reporter did your audience a disservice by not clearly representing both sides of the issue.
For the first 3,100 years of Jewish history, there existed virtually no debate over the fundamental prerequisite for conversion to Judaism: namely, a demonstration of sincere commitment to upholding the precepts of Torah law. Consequently, the ultimate decision regarding acceptance of any prospective convert finds its basis in the collective scholarship and wisdom of judges who are themselves fully observant and grounded in the legal traditions of Torah law and practice.
Since the early 1800s, however, the Reform and Conservative movements have, by their own admission, discarded adherence to Torah law as an essential principle of their belief systems. Consequently, because individuals converted by representatives of these movements have been denied the information necessary to make any real commitment to Torah observance, their conversions cannot be considered authentic.
No one is questioning the sincerity of Jonathan Leavitt or any other intended convert whose Jewish identity is not accepted by the Israeli rabbinate. But just as an immigrant seeking United States citizenship must meet the requirements of this country before he can be considered a true citizen, so too must any hopeful proselyte meet the established standards of traditional Jewish law to be universally accepted as a member of the Jewish people. If not for this single standard, the Jewish nation would truly become a house divided against itself.
There is no issue of politics or elitism here. Neither is there, as your correspondent suggested from the first line of her report, a question of being “Jewish enough.” Unlike any other people in history, the Jews have survived countless generations of persecution and attempted genocide because we have remained firm in our commitment to our values and laws. Today traditional Judaism is under assault from a new adversary: the political correctness of contemporary culture, with media outlets like NPR grasping for every opportunity to discredit Torah Jews in the eyes of the world for daring to insist that the traditions of 33 centuries are sacred and inviolable.
Finally, and for the record, there is no such thing as an “ultra-orthodox” Jew. It is a media-created term, designed to imply irrational extremism, just as the name “orthodox” was imposed by the early Reform movement leaders two hundred years ago to imply anachronism and calcification. Such disingenuous labeling stifles meaningful discussion and is inconsistent with responsible journalism.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Emily at NPR replied to my email, informing me that my feedback is important to them, and that my thoughts have been noted.
It is comforting to know, as well, that “NPR is always delighted to hear from listeners.”
From the Rosh Hashonah issue of Binah Magazine.
Sorry, folks, I’ve been distracted by other projects and responsibilites, and my editor at JWR, Binyamin Jolkovsky, has been ill and not publishing.
Binyamin has done an extraordinary job, to the point that endless hours running a one-man show has left him very ill. If you haven’t visited his site, you should add it to your favorites. And if you’ve enjoyed the articles I’ve published there, please consider a donation, large or small, so that he can hire the assistants he will need to continue his fine work on behalf of Torah and the Jewish people.
Click on Jewish World Review and look for the link to make your tax deductable donation.
Please don’t lose touch. I hope to get back to publishing and posting before too long.
Warning: This post is quite long and somewhat technical, although it requires little prior knowledge. Adapted from a shiur by HaRav Nachman Bulman zt”l,1 it offers a context for understanding the four special Torah portions that began this past Shabbos.
Now we are slaves; next year we will be free. This is cheirus, freedom, the overarching theme of Pesach, the idea that defines the first of the three festivals.
But there is another theme, perhaps even more fundamental to appreciating the significance of the season: geirus – conversion. The exodus from Egypt marks not only our emancipation from slavery but also our inception as a people. Although the 600,000 who went out from Mitzrayim were all descendants of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, it was on that first Passover that we became an am haKodesh – a holy people.
But it is not enough to simply remember the exodus: In each generation, every person is obligated to see himself as if he personally went out from Egypt. It’s a tall order, to not only reenact but recreate the experience of yetzias Mitzrayim. Indeed, it is virtually impossible without preparation, and that preparation begins six weeks before Pesach with the Arba Parshios, the four special Torah portions that usher us into the season of redemption: Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, and Chodesh.
These four weeks are neither separate nor disconnected. Together they constitute a progression that, if observed correctly, enables us to derive the greatest possible benefit from the Festival of Freedom.
SHEKALIM – Facilitating Yaakov’s Fulfillment
It was HaShem’s original intention, explains the Ramchal, to create a universe in which the spiritual and the physical coexist without the slightest tension or disharmony. 2 According to this design, the flow of spirituality into the material world requires a physical vessel able to receive and hold the infusion of kedusha. Ostensibly, the altar of the mishkan or the mikdash served this function. Ideally, the Jew himself becomes the altar of HaShem.
An altar must be constructed and maintained physically before it can function spiritually. As the mishna says: Ain kemach, ain Torah; if there is no flour, there is no Torah. 3 The spiritual survival of the Jewish nation requires, most fundamentally, the provision and maintenance of material resources.
From the very beginning, the Jewish people understood this principle implicitly. Zevulun worked to support the Torah study of Yissachar, just as the whole nation donated the priestly tithes to support the spiritual service of the Kohanim and Leviim. 4 And even earlier, Yaakov and Eisav were to have had a similar relationship, with Eisav, the man of the field, supporting the spiritual pursuits of Yaakov, the one who dwells in the tents of Torah study. 5
But Eisav’s rejection of that partnership necessitated a change of plan. Yaakov would have to shoulder both burdens – the material support and the spiritual service. 6 That dual mission would pose such enormous challenges to the descendants of Yaakov that, by virtue of the natural limitations of the physical world, they could not possibly succeed. Only supernatural effort and merit could keep the Torah alive.
This is the significance of the battle between Yaakov and the malach, identified by the sages as the guardian angel of Eisav. 7 Although Yaakov ultimately prevailed over the malach, the contest left him wounded him in the hollow of his thigh. This injury of the lower extremities, the more physical part of the body adjacent to the organs of reproduction, alludes to a future conflict regarding the role that was originally intended for Eisav.
And so, the sages describe Yaakov’s injury with the expression nogah b’tamchin d’oraissa – a defect in the support of Torah. They foresaw that the day would come when those Jews possessing the material means of supporting Torah institutions would no longer recognize their responsibility to do so, when their respect for Torah scholars would diminish to such an extent that they no longer consider themselves partners in Torah survival. 8
In such a generation, Yaakov Avinu limps. And yet, although he limped away from his confrontation with Eisav’s malach, Yaakov returned sholeim – intact – from his encounter with Eisav himself. If so, what must we do to enable Yaakov’s recovery in our generation?
HARMONY OF THE MATERIAL AND THE SPIRITUAL
Rambam offers a solution. In the generations since the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the tribe of Levi has redefined its role from ministering as priests to becoming serving as scholars and teachers of the Jewish people. And it is not only those Jews born into the Levitical tribe who have donned this mantle, but all who devote themselves exclusively to Torah study that have the responsibility to teach their brethren through words and through example. 9
When a Torah scholar conducts himself lifnim mishuras hadin, by upholding the spirit as well as the letter of the law, when he speaks pleasantly with all people, when he shows concern for them and greets them cordially no matter what their station, when he offers no insult and conducts himself impeccably in business, when he performs his mitzvos meticulously and carries himself with dignity – then, promises Rambam, his fellow Jews cannot help but be drawn to him and to the Torah that is the guiding influence in every aspect of his life. 10
And if we find that those of our fellow Jews who are not immersed in Torah and mitzvos are not inspired to be partners in the support of Torah, then the community of scholars must accept much of the responsibility upon itself, and must rededicate itself to the task of kiddush HaShem.
Herein lies an understanding of the first step in rebuilding the altar of HaShem, the foundation of which is secured only through the contribution of material resources – shekalim. In contributing to the literal and figurative foundations of the mishkan, every Jew was equal to every other Jew. Only in this way, through the harmonious combination of the material and the spiritual, can the service and the sanctification of the Jewish people become complete.
We find this very ideal expressed in the yotzros, the liturgical poems added by many congregations to the service of Parshas Shekalim:
Who can surmise the numbers of those “counted ones,”
Who are not countable through any kind of lottery?
HaShem struck a covenant with them from then, from the time of that census,
That there should never be lacking from their number a basic blend…
Whether through war or plague or pogrom, HaShem has promised that there will never be fewer than the number of Jews who left Mitzrayim. Yet this number comprises not the total count of the Jewish population, but the number of “counted ones,” those marked by the commitment to Torah, the basic blend of Zevuluns and Yissachars who serve as partners to ensure the material and spiritual survival of the Jewish nation. Within the context of this partnership, money becomes as kadosh as Torah itself.
And if from those counted ones there will be left only a few
Their number would never fall below 600,000 marked ones.
And even in times of vulnerability to epidemic or violence from above
These counted ones can be redeemed through the atonement of silver.
For the achievement of true atonement, however, both Zevulun and Yissachar must be worthy. Who can count the millions wasted in the name of Jewish philanthropy to build so many balloon-like institutions? And who bears responsibility for the money donated for scholars who fail to conduct themselves as genuine Yissachars?
Both givers and receivers must accept responsibility. When money is given and received with purity of purpose as the foundation of authentic Torah institutions, it elevates the giver, the receiver, and the money itself to the highest level of kedusha, tilting the scales of divine judgment and hastening the completion of the third and final Beis HaMikdash.
Always positioned at the outset of Adar, the month in which we celebrate the holiday of Purim, Parshas Shekalim prepares the way for our proper appreciation of the national redemption we commemorate in that month. It is no coincidence, therefore, that our reenactment of the contribution of shekalim in the desert falls out in this season. Indeed, it was those very shekalim, donated by the Jews toward the construction of the mishkan, that generated the merit that saved the Jewish people from the silver offered by Haman to destroy them. 11
ZACHOR – The Battle for Moral Clarity
But material resources provide only the first step. Without Torah guidance, a Jew cannot differentiate between right and wrong, between good and evil. This is the battleground of Eisav’s grandson Amoleik, the nation that risked annihilation for sole purpose of sewing doubt among the nations of the world and in the minds of the Jewish people. As with modern day terrorists (who learned their tactics from Amoleik’s suicide attack upon the Jews in the desert), there can be no peace with any ideology that would rather die than bow before malchus Shomayim.
But today we don’t know how to identify Amoleik, since the Assyrian king Sancheriv scattered the nations and confused their ethnic origins. 12 How then to carry on the battle against Amoleik?
Our world today contains no shortage of nations eager to carry on Amoleik’s military campaign against the Jewish people. And just as there could be no compromise with those intent upon our annihilation then, similarly is compromise with those determined to annihilate us now an irrational dream. We must be prepared to fight for our survival, to take up arms to defend ourselves and our land, to recognize the enemies that threaten our existence and not be seduced by false promises of peace.
But it is the irrationality of the dream that poses the greater threat. It is the cultural attack from the more subtle descendants of Eisav who, instead of striving to bite us to death, feign brotherhood in hope that they may kiss us to death. 13 It is the cultural assault from the culture of secularism that seeps into every facet of society, from literature and music, from movies and what today passes for art. True, Chazal tell us there is wisdom among the nations. 14 But we must be ever watchful for the insidious messages of modern society that seek to infiltrate and confuse the clear thinking of the Torah mind. The self-hating Jews, the apologists, the moral equivocators, and the halachic revisionists are among those who, no matter how sincere, have been won over by the seductive cultural terrorism of Amoleik.
Zachor – remember Amoleik, for what they did and for what their philosophy of ambivalence continues to try to do. As zealous as we must be in our war against external enemies, we must devote even greater passion to the battle for moral clarity and integrity.
PARAH – Facing the Enemy Within
Even after recognizing the enemy without and preparing ourselves for the battle of ideas, we dare not consider ourselves secure. There is an enemy inside as well, one far more dangerous than the one outside. Against external enemies we can accept the reality of standoffs or partial victories, but against the influence of tumah, the forces of spiritual impurity, we can settle for nothing short of absolute triumph. There are no half measures in the milchamas haYeitzer, the war for spiritual purity; taharah must be 100% or it remains tumah. We must recognize and acknowledge our own shortcomings, then labor feverishly to correct them all.
But the battle seems pitched against us. With so much impurity in the world, how can we keep ourselves pure without withdrawing, like monastic monks, and hiding ourselves from the outside world?
This was the question of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Kavsvi when he contemplated the mitzvah of Para Adumah. 15 The Torah’s description of the process, whereby one who is tahor sprinkles the ashes of the red cow to purify one who is tomei, seems to imply a one-to-one equation: one tahor is necessary to purify one tomei. If that would be so, the impurity of the outside world would seem unconquerable.
So thought Rabbi Yehoshua until he discovered the ancient records of Yavneh, wherein he learned that even if all the members of the Jewish nation would render themselves defiled, a single tahor could come and purify them all.
Rav Meir Shapiro explains that Rabbi Yehoshua had originally believed that only when the power of the spiritual exceeds the power of the physical can it prevail. Yavneh, not only through its writings but through its very existence, disproved this assumption.
Faced by the inevitable destruction of Yerushalayim, Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai won the favor of the Emperor Vespasian, whom he asked to grant the yeshiva of Yavneh and its sages immunity from Roman interference. Imagine Vespasian’s astonishment when, after having offered Rabban Yochanon anything he desired, the rabbi asked for an insignificant academy in an obscure village. 16 How Vespasian must have laughed up his sleeve when he consented to Rabban Yochanon’s request.
Four centuries later, the Roman Empire had crumbled, while the Babylonian Talmud was on the brink of producing an explosion of Torah scholarship throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The little yeshiva of Yavneh had secured the future of Torah survival, and the immeasurable might of Rome had vanished.
Similarly, the internal purity of conduct and conviction of a single Jew will inexorably bring a hundred Jews closer to the Torah heritage of which they have been dispossessed.
CHODESH – The Gift of Renewal
Human beings are not static. We are constantly in flux, moving forward and slipping back.
Jews are no exception. Having laid the material foundations for spiritual growth, having identified and taken action against our external enemies, whether physical or philosophical, and having labored to refine and perfect our inner character, we dare not believe that we have finished the job. With each new victory, with each new achievement in spiritual growth, we face new challenges and new obstacles.
Reality is a cruel reminder. Rabbeinu Tam describes the human condition of the y’mei ahava and the y’mei sina, the natural human cycle of optimism and pessimism, of idealism and cynicism, of enthusiasm and emotional paralysis. 17 And when we fall into the dark side of the cycle, we forget that the wheel will turn and that we will eventually find our way back into the light.
Where the nations of the world are compared to the sun, shining brightly for their brief moment before disappearing forever, the Jewish people are compared to the moon, subtly changing, growing bright, diminishing, seeming to have disappeared completely before reappearing once again. 18 Every month, every chodesh, is a season of hischadshus, or renewal. The new moon reminds us not only that there is always more for us to accomplish, but that the darkness of the spirit will inevitably pass. 19
HaChodesh haZeh lochem – this month is for you, says the Torah. 20 It is not the Torah that needs renewal but we ourselves: a new heart, a new outlook, a new hope that we will overcome the difficulties of the future as we have overcome the difficulties of the past. With this sense of inner renewal, we are finally ready for Pesach; we are ready to accept the yoke of Torah and the challenges of freedom once again.
The Torah makes us a promise: if we make the effort, we can find such resources of internal power that when we face the obstacles of the soul, we will muster the strength to rebuild ourselves, to become fresh, to be fresh, to count ourselves among the counted ones of Yisroel, for whom HaShem redeemed His nation 33 centuries ago, and for whom He will redeem us again.
And so the piyut of the yotzros concludes:
How precious to me are those counted ones,
Those who are counted and who allow themselves to be counted.
Guard those who are counted, whether consciously or unconsciousl;
Keep watch over and mark those who would be marked and leave their mark,
That they should all bow to You.
Back to Festival Articles page.
- 25 Adar 1, 5746, Yeshivas Ohr Yaakov, Zichron Yaakov
- Derech HaShem 1:3:4
- Avos 3:21
- Rashi on Bereishis 49:13 from Tanchuma 11; BaMidbar 18:21-24
- Bereishis 25:27 (and Rashi ad loc); Sforno on Bereishis 27:29-28:4
- Sforno loc cit
- Rashi on 32:25 from Bereishis Rabbah 77:3
- See Zohar Bereishis 171a
- Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah V’yovel 13:13
- Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:11
- Megillah 13b
- Brochos 28a
- See Rashi on Bereishis 33:4
- Eicha Rabbah 2
- Yerushalmi Damai 15b
- Gittin 56
- HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l in Alei Shor, from Sefer HaYashar
- Sh’mos Rabbah 15
- Sfas Emes on Parshas Bo
- Sh’mos 12:1
Originally published in the Jewish Observer