Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Talmud for Christmas: Tractate Chopsticks

A lost Talmudic tractate has been discovered that answers age-old rabbinic questions about the appropriate way for Jews to fully accomplish the obligations associated with eating Chinese food on December 24th/25th.

By Rabbi Rick Brody & Rabbi Rachel Kobrin with inspiration from: Rabbi Jeremy Winaker, Rob Kutner, Carolyn Austin, Bill Seligman, Sam Rosenstein, and Rabbi Ben Newman.

MISHNAH 1: Our Rabbis ask: When does one begin the Festive Meal of Chopsticks? Beit Shamai omrim [The School of Shammai say]: on the 24th day of the month of December, because one should “larutz la'asot mitzvah” [run to perform a holy act]. Beit Hillel omrim [The School of Hillel say]:

Through the entirety of the night of the 24th and the day of the 25th is mutar [permitted]. But the mehadrin [those who wish to embellish their osbservance] wait until the final hours of the 25th, because we “ma’alin b’kodesh v’lo yordim” [ascend in holiness and do not descend]. V’yesh omrim [And there are those who say]: “To extend the simchah [joyous occasion].”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Was Heschel a Conservative Jew?

TODAY MARKS FORTY YEARS SINCE the passing of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. I decided to take a look at Heschel's life and legacy as well as Heschel's identity among other Jews.

In order to attain an adequate appreciation of the preciousness that the Jewish way of living is capable of bestowing upon us, we should initiate a thorough cleaning of the minds. Every one of us should be asked to make one major sacrifice: to sacrifice his prejudice against our heritage. We should strive to cultivate an atmosphere in which the values of Jewish faith and piety could be cherished, an atmosphere in which the Jewish form of living is heartily approved or at least respected pattern, in which sensitivity to kashruth is not regarded as treason against the American constitution and reverence for the Sabbath is not considered conspiracy against progress.

Without solidarity with our forebears, the solidarity with our brothers will remain feeble. The vertical unity of Israel is essential to the horizontal unity of כלל ישראל. Identification with what is undying in Israel, the appreciation of what was supremely significant throughout the ages, the endeavour to integrate the abiding teachings and aspirations of the past into our own thinking will enable us to be creative, to expand, not to imitate or to repeat. Survival of Israel means that we carry on our independent dialogue with the past. Our way of life must remain such as would be, to some degree, intelligible to Isaiah and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, to Maimonides and the Baal Shem.

A wide stream of human callousness separates us from the realm of holiness. Netiher an individual man nor a single generation can by its own power erect a bridge that would reach that realm. For ages our fathers have labored in building a sacred bridge. We who have not crossed the stream must beware lest we burn the bridge.

- excerpted from “Toward an Understanding of Halacha” by Abraham Joshua Heschel, pages 404-405; delivered at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Sixty Fourth Annual Convention (Estes, Colorado), 1953, Volume LXIII, edited by Bertram W. Korn.

40 years ago today marked the passing of a long-standing professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)–the founding bastion of Conservative Judaism. Conservative Jews have preserved the legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel by naming after him the honors society of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s youth movement: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Honors Society of United Synagogue Youth.

A profound scholar, who once taught (albeit briefly) at the American Reform rabbinical academy, Hebrew Union College, Heschel lived a life that sounds nearly larger than life. This Jewish leader, who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr., was not only a published scholar, but also a published poet. He not only poured out his heart onto a page when comparing Kierkegaard and the lesser-studied Kotzker Rebbe, but he also fought with his soul against the War in Vietnam.

To attempt a full biography of Heschel here would be foolish, but suffice it to say that Conservative Jews often have much pride in the multi-talented rabbi who was once a teacher at their own seminary.

Despite the attitude of Conservative Jews towards him, the question must be asked: Was Heschel actually a Conservative Jew? Despite Conservative Jews’ sense of pride in Heschel, was he truly one of their own?

During his lifetime, Heschel completed his doctoral studies at the University of Berlin and sank into rabbinic studies at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a denominationally unaffiliated German rabbinical seminary, where Judaism was studied through a critical academic lens. Prior to those forays into a more assimilated world, much of Heschel’s education took place within the walls of a traditional yeshivah (as it was also in the Orthodox world where he initially received his rabbinic ordination).

His religious fervor is evident in his writings–as is the immensity of his expertise in critical Jewish studies. Yet his scholarship did not appear to alter his religious practice. Despite his boldness in stating that the Torah itself is an interpretation (a midrash) of Divine revelation–the shape of his Jewish observance did not become somehow less Orthodox on account of his gutsy theology.

From my vantage point, it is tough to say that Heschel ever fully embodied Conservative Judaism. In fact, it would be say that Heschel was ever representative of a singular Judaism other than a well-read, globally minded, somewhat liberal Orthodox Judaism.

In his time, Heschel articulated beliefs that rarely matched up with those held by lay Conservative Jews and by Conservative Jewish leaders other than Heschel himself. His backgrounds in the Hasidic world and the critical scholarly world offered Heschel the combined advantages of textual knowledge and philosophical radicalism rarely found in the Conservative Jewish leaders (especially rabbis) of his time. Compared with Heschel and his upbringing, these contemporaries were raised in environments far less affected by Jewish knowledge, tradition, memory, and observance.

Yet Heschel was among the most charismatic voices in Conservative Judaism–not because what he preached most honestly matched with what Conservative Jews said, believed or ever came to believe, but because his primary audience happened to be those training to become Conservative Jews (not always leaders, and those training to become leaders did not always succeed).

If brains are not enough to impress someone, sometimes looks will make a person outstanding. Simply put, Heschel’s teachings may in ways be less preserved in the popular imagination than the way he looked. Heschel looked a lot more frum than many other leaders in the Conservative Jewish world. Conservative Judaism, often lacking strong leadership, found an inspiring–perhaps exotic–image in Heschel. While his appearance changed over the years, the visual that came to be associated with the greatness of Heschel has never been the rare clean-shaven photo of the scholar, but rather the wild hair and outstretched beard of a sage.

It is fortunate that Conservative–and non-Conservative–Jews today often embrace Heschel’s name and his writings (whereas, when Heschel was alive, JTS was apparently an atmosphere where his presence was often unwelcome and absent). But Heschel is frequently hailed by liberal Jewry as “one of their own” when, in fact, almost everything about his biography, practice and philosophy differed completely from the experience of approximately 99% of non-Orthodox Jews. Heschel–deeply spiritual and politically liberal–did not find his intellectual home in an American Hasidic community. By the sake token, Heschel–committed to traditional text study and stringent observance of mitzvot–did not necessarily find a home in the American liberal Jewish community. I wonder if Heschel actually never found a home.

My own estimation is that, as much as Conservative–or any other–Jews want to claim Heschel as their own, it is vital to recognize how he was rarely welcomed as one of anyone’s own in his lifetime. I suspect that today he still would be out of place at JTS–or any liberal or Orthodox institution.

When Heschel spoke of the Jews, he spoke fervently of K’lal Yisra’el, but he spoke on behalf of no one other than himself and a Judaism no one has ever known since. Let his memory not be a false idol. May his memory be a blessing.

Jonah Rank is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter at @JonahRank.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Compassion: From the Bible's Joseph to Bruce Springsteen

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S MOST RECENT hit single, “We Take Care of Our Own” has been played non-stop throughout this year, especially during President Obama’s re-election campaign, the democratic national convention and at his victory party in Chicago. When my father in law introduced me to the song a number of months ago, I felt conflicted by its message.

On the one hand, Springsteen correctly exhorts the American people to overcome our selfish habits and take care of our country and our people. Yet on the other hand, while we strive to be one big family in the USA, the truth is that we are much more than a family that takes care of our own. We take care of everyone. We view our role in the world as a country that will do its utmost to ensure peace and democracy and opportunity in every corner of the world. Sometimes we have to tread gently, like recent events have shown with the Arab Spring, and other times we can be more assertive. Is Springsteen’s message to take care of our own in contradiction to this value?

When Joseph understood from Pharaoh’s dreams that the famine would not only affect Egypt but would spread to other countries, he didn’t inform and advise them to begin saving and storing their produce. Did Joseph not care about the inhabitants of those lands? In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph gives Benjamin a larger portion of food and clothing than the rest of his other brothers. Did Joseph not care for them because of the way he was treated?

Bruce Springsteen Jewish

I think it’s fair to say that both Joseph and Springsteen care deeply about everyone, but recognize that priority must be given to their own. We can all agree that as much as Springsteen cares about his fellow Americans, he cares doubly as much for his family. Joseph too: as much as he cared about the other inhabitants of the world, he loved and respected his fellow Egyptians that much more. Moreover, as much as he loved his half-brothers, Benjamin was his full brother, so he naturally had a greater affinity for him.

We see a similar concept in Jewish law as it relates to giving Tzedakah. “Aniyay Ircha Kodem,” our greatest priority is to give Tzedakah to people in our city before anywhere else; even more than the needy of Israel (according to most opinions). Does that mean Jewish law places little to no value on giving charity to needy people outside of our community? No, it means that the rabbis adopt the Springsteen approach to take care of our own. Frankly, if everyone takes care of their own community, we would not need to care for someone who is from a different one!

In the spirit of “taking care of our own,” there are many issues that the Orthodox Jewish community needs to address, be it the recent sexual abuse scandals, the drug and alcohol abuse that plagues our communities, and the way in which we treat homosexuals.  But after the events on Friday in Newtown, Connecticut when a young man brutally murdered 20 kindergarteners and 6 adults, what’s most important right now is for all of us to “take care of our own” in a different way. Let’s hug our children tighter. Shower them with more love and affection than ever before. Help them to understand that God’s children are placed in this world to be forces for good and people filled with compassion and loving kindness.

We are tasked to be “Oheiv Et Habriyot,” lovers of all the inhabitants of the world. At the same time, we need to be “Springsteenian” and take care of our own; to shower our children with extra love, attention, and guidance so that they can grow up to be a true beacon of light unto the nations. May evil cease to exist and I pray that God wipe away all the tears from our faces. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is a co-founder of the PopJewish.com blog and a dynamic Orthodox rabbi. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Hanukkah Fun with Too $hort, Zooey, Jimmy Fallon and the Houston Rockets

Cross-posted to Blog.RabbiJason.com

A COUPLE YEARS AGO I wrote about non-Jews observing certain Jewish customs. I looked at such examples as Justin Bieber reciting the Shema in Hebrew before each concert as well as non-Jews maintaining kosher diets, hanging mezuzahs on their front doors, dancing the Hora at weddings and erecting sukkahs.

The new trend seems to be non-Jewish celebs adopting Hanukkah rituals. While conservative pundits in the media claim there is a war on Christmas, just the opposite seems to be true about Hanukkah. More menorahs are being displayed in the public square. Chabad Lubavitch has politicians and celebrities light super-sized menorahs. Even Gene Robinson, a gay Bishop, brought a Hanukkah gift of dreidels to Jon Stewart when he visited the Daily Show during the holiday. And a call for new Hanukkah songs has been answered by a rapper.

Heeb asks, "Has Hanukkah become the must-be-seen celebration for the hip and famous, regardless of semitic bona-fides?" What prompted that question was a simple tweeted photo from singer/actress Zooey Deschanel, who is Roman Catholic. Deschanel's tweet said "Happy Chanukah y’all!!!" and was linked with an Instagram photo of her lighting the Hanukkah menorah. That photo has received close to 100,000 likes on Instagram.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Win 2 Tickets to See Matisyahu

Win 2 tickets to see Matisyahu live in concert.

Just go to the PopJewish.com Facebook page and click "Like". Then leave a comment to the Matisyahu post with "Matisyahu concert tix" as the comment text. One Facebook user will be drawn to see who gets the tickets. Details of the concert below.