The purpose of genuine religious life is to protest against this optical illusion and to teach us to refocus our spiritual spectacles. It is not that religion shows us something new. Rather, it shows us what we have seen all our lives but have never noticed, that there is dazzling goodness in this world. There is order instead of chaos; there is diversity, not just monotonous existence; and above all, there is the infinite grace of the human deed.
After a year in which we’ve personally felt a little bit of the Shi’abud Mitzraim—the bondage of Egypt—by way of the Pandemic—Pesach this year has an added meaning, bringing the Exodus a little closer to our own experience.
Judaism and the Jewish people are intertwined and interact in ways which nobody can fully grasp. Are we a religion, or a nation? If we are a religion, how can it be that somebody who does not believe in God or refuses to observe even one commandment still remains Jewish as long as he or she is born to a Jewish mother? And if we are a nation, how does religion come in, telling us who belongs to the nation and who does not? Any attempt to find a solution to this problem will always fail. This is one of the greatest mysteries of Jewish identity.
It is for this reason that our authorities have different views on the question of conversion. Is one converting mainly into a religion, or mostly joining a nation? They realize that there is no completely satisfactory answer and have therefore been wise enough to somehow leave the question open.
There are probably billions of people who are full-fledged “soul Jews” but don’t know it, and very likely never will. Perhaps it is these Jews whom God had in mind when He blessed Avraham and told him that he would be the father of all nations and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore.
Due to the long exile of the Jewish people, many Christian ideas have infiltrated Judaism through the back door. One such idea is the notion that saving the soul is more important than saving the body, and that the body is an obstacle to the soul. This idea is completely against the central tents of Judaism, and yet it has been adopted by certain parts of the Chareidi community.
Redemption does not happen overnight; it develops over a long period of intermediate hester panim, until the last stage in the drama of history is fulfilled. The story of Purim reminds us that such periods when God “hides” from us are temporary. It gives us a framework in which to understand our lives and remain optimistic, even in the midst of darkness.
Some of our greatest commentators have wrestled with the connection between the command to build the Mishkan (the Tent of Meeting or Tabernacle) and the sin of the Golden Calf. It can be argued that the Mishkan was a concession to human weakness, and the same is true of the institution of spoken prayer!
Most of the people in both the secular and the Chareidi communities are deeply committed to their fellow Jews and to the welfare of the State of Israel. And so I ask both communities, why can’t you get on with each other?
When Jews and non-Jews rediscover that to really live is an art which few people have conquered, but which is essential to our happiness, only then will the world be able to slowly heal itself.
What is the Talmud all about? The first thing that must be emphasized is that the Talmud displays deliberate chaos. It roams from one topic to another without any real inner logic, other than that one word gives rise to a whole new idea without warning us that it is coming. The outsider may have trouble making heads or tails of it all. And then suddenly one gets the hang of it and realizes that all this chaos flows together into an unbelievable picture, with hundreds of colors harmoniously coming together. That moment of comprehension is a great joy for the intellect and the human soul.
In returning the prophetic spirit to Judaism, the world of Aggadah is of crucial importance. Aggadah is the prophetic voice within Judaism, where prophecy not only speaks, but allows the reader to answer. It is the part of Judaism that deals with the sum total of human life. It prevents mechanical observance by freeing our inner spirit. Whereas Halacha is the consummation, Aggadah is its aspiration.
The prophets had a universal message, far beyond the Jewish people. Their calls to aid the poor, widows and orphans, and the promise of the coming of the Messianic age were meant for the whole world. The State of Israel is itself the greatest proof that prophecy is slowly coming alive again. Judaism has been handed an opportunity to restore its full capacity, including its redemptive message, to heal the world and end the amputation of the best part of itself.
In this week’s parashah, Yosef set’s up the ultimate test for his brothers. Will they let their little brother down and not sell him to the enemy or will they fight for him? The answer will show whether they have truly repented of their betrayal of him.
Halacha was meant to rely heavily rely on the prophetic voice to give it its spirit and motivation. Because of the absence of prophecy, this spiritual component is missing or overlooked in our day-to-day experience. It is the absence of this prophetic dimension that underlies the spiritual malaise in which we currently find ourselves.
Judaism suggests that at certain times God sends emanations to this world in order to awaken human beings to act. We see this in the story of Chanukah. God created a notion of revolt within the minds of the Maccabees, whose greatness was manifest in their correct reaction to this heavenly directive.
This week, the festival of Sinterklaas will take place in my birthplace of Holland. This festival made an indelible impression on my childhood, and there is much we can learn from the dilemmas it raised (and still raise) for Jewish educators.
COVID-19 has highlighted the weaknesses of our ideologies, both religious and secular, to provide meaning to our lives.
Is the failure of many parts of the Chareidi community to observe the coronavirus regulations a symptom of a deeper underlying problem? Is a spiritual malaise lurking behind their behavior? I believe we must approach this pandemic from a global perspective – far beyond the Jewish community itself.
With the demise of Rabbi Sacks, world Jewry as never before, has to ask itself how it can produce Rabbis on the level of Rabbi Sacks so that Judaism can continue to be a world player.
Music touches the otherwise untouchable and intangible within us. It soars toward the infinite. When I listen to music, I feel like my feet are lifted off the ground and my soul is extracted from my body and starts to live a life of its own. There is no way to “prove” this feeling of transcendence, just as love cannot be proven. It belongs to an entirely different realm.