In Amsterdam of my youth there were many – Jews and non-Jews alike – who were in a similar situation to me: we did not perceive ourselves as belonging to any religion. Furthermore, we perceived those who were involved in religious practices as primitive and of inferior intellect. And yet, my family’s social and cultural settings had quite a Jewish (without Judaism) flavor.
COVID-19 has hit all of us – the entire world – quite hard, and is a certain cause for dismay. We are all waiting for the pandemic and everything it has brought with it to end so that we can return to our routines, get on with our lives and be happy once again. However, happiness is not necessarily what or where we perceive it to be. In fact, we can already choose to be happy from today – and on every day and in every situation we find ourselves!
Our lives are filled with multiple events that impact us deeply. Some of these events are negative and have the potential of crushing our hopes and extinguishing the inner flame burning within us that motivates and drives us. And among these events there are circumstances we can change, and others we cannot. The correct perspective regarding the circumstances of our lives is not only the key to surviving but even holds within it the potential for our own growth and touching the lives of others.
The tension between the Law and the near hopelessness of man to live by it, to survive it and simultaneously to obey it with great fervor, is at the very core of Judaism’s complexity.
The divine Word is deadly and causes paralysis. The Word, once descended to man, is unmanageable and causes havoc – it must be tamed and conditioned to allow the human to internalize it and live by it.
Dialogue and debate are essential parts of the sea of ideas that can enrich each and everyone of us. Unfortunately, serious debate on highly significant topics all too often moves from the topic at hand to unruly behavior (whether in an informal discussion between two parties, or in a public, formal setting). Guidelines for maintaining dignity are essential – both so that we are able to conduct the debate properly and so that we maintain our and our opponent’s dignity. If we are truly dedicated to the true and free exchange of ideas, then even when we vehemently disagree with our opponent we will remain civil and learn something about his arguments and even ours.
Traditions – and all their miniscule details – can be extremely important for a society, a city and a country. Traditions exist in all forms, many of these do not elevate man (and unfortunately there are those that denigrate him), while others have the power to transform one’s existence and raise one to a different plane. Judaism is a religion of ideas, but more so a religion that is involved in the practical, day-to-day activities of man. Indeed, “God is in the details” – our law and traditions, right down to their finest details – define us.
What defines us? Is it what we do, or rather, who we are? If a human being is nothing more than the tasks he performs on a daily basis, then a mere chimpanzee can take his place and possible perform these tasks as well and even better. However, if we understand that the tasks themselves do not define us, but rather can act as a means to an end, as the means that allows us to realize our dreams, then only we can perform the tasks successfully over time. The Sabbatical year, Shemita, that we mark during the current year teaches us this important lesson; all that is left for us to do is to open ourselves to the Torah’s teachings in this sphere.
Two weeks ago, a highly unfortunate incident happened at the Portuguese Spanish Synagogue in Amsterdam – based on the ban on the famous philosopher Baruch Spinoza, pronounced by the leadership of the synagogue in 1656, the synagogue’s Rabbi refused Professor Yitzchak Melamed, an Orthodox Jew, entrance to the synagogue complex, deeming Professor Melamed a “persona non grata.”
By public demand I am republishing the text of a lecture I delivered in Amsterdam in December 2015, a lecture wherein I called for the lifting of the ban on Spinoza.
One of the great problems any religious person should struggle with is whether it is actually possible to be religious. In fact, what is the essence of genuine religiosity? The concept at the root of all religions is the awareness that it is extremely difficult to live up to the awe of the moment. The famous dispute regarding the order of lighting the Chanukah lights illuminates a practical approach to this issue.
As an orthodox Rabbi who studied in the ultra-Orthodox Gateshead Yeshiva in England for many years and who has read all of Spinoza’s works, I am of the opinion that Spinoza sometimes deliberately misrepresents Judaism. I am also aware that Spinoza wrote remarkable, noble observations about human beings, nature and society which have helped all of us. I strongly object to deeming anyone who studies, researches and teaches Spinoza a “persona non grata.”
Only something placed in relation to the sum-total of the human being bears significance – for such an act indicates complete commitment: “Till death do us part.”
This may be the most crucial message for Jews today. Despite the pursuits and activities that occupy them, as long as Jews are not inspired to feel a total, personal commitment to authentic Jewishness, the right conditions for continuity and renewal will never be created.
Our Torah is wide enough and deep enough to cater for everyone. The Torah can speak to each and every person; however, sometimes one aspect will speak to a specific individual while not another. In this impromptu dialogue, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach expresses a number of very significant, critical thoughts about Judaism, God, the Torah, and our own relations with our fellow.
Loving one’s fellow as oneself is a central tenet and practical commandment of our religion. And yet, as simple as it sounds, its application is extremely difficult. Even those well-versed in the intricacies of the significance and laws governing this precept have difficulty incorporating it into their inner selves and actions. On occasion, it takes the insight and words of a bus driver to properly inculcate this love for one’s fellow.
When my oldest granddaughter became Bat Mitzva I wrote a book for her with advice and stories. Here is one such story.
Human beings are uniquely blessed with the faculty of imagination, and they possess nearly unlimited potential for constructive fantasy. Imagination is essential for advancement and progress throughout the world, which is also the case for Torah study. And yet, the sophistication invested in the production of toys for our children limits their processes of pretense, and thus the possibility for innovation and new insights in Torah learning.
There is a pasuk (verse), missing from the Torah, a verse that is the most important of all—without which the Torah is not complete! This missing verse should have been written before the first verse in the Torah: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” This verse should have told us why God “decided” to create heaven and earth, the millions of stars, black holes, animals, vegetation, and above all, human beings. The absence of this verse is deliberate—for there is no way to write it; it could only have been “written” in God’s personal “language” that is beyond the capability of humankind to understand. The implications of this missing verse have profound meaning for human existence.
While in pantheistic and other non-monotheistic philosophies, the Divine has no moral input, nothing could be further from the Jewish concept of God. For Judaism, God is the source par excellence of all moral criteria. And yet, on occasion He Himself seems to violate these very moral criteria — such as in the case when He causes a devastating flood in the days of Noah. God is a conscious Being Who created the world with a purpose. And this world is real and by no means a mirage. The human being’s deeds are of great value, far from an illusion; they are the very goal of creation. Judaism objects to the pantheistic view of the human being since it depersonalizes him, ultimately leading to his demoralization.
It is often thought that God’s first commandment to Adam was the prohibition regarding the Tree of Knowledge. This would mean that man’s first encounter with the will of God was a negative experience: a restriction. However, this isn’t actually true: This was not the first commandment! Careful analysis of the text shows that the first commandment to Adam and Chava was to eat from all the other trees and enjoy them.
What is the source of religious passion? It is the awareness that something cannot become exhausted. To appreciate Judaism and see it as a blessing is to understand that just as the ocean is unfathomable, so Judaism transcends all interpretations. Understanding Judaism cannot be attained in the comfort of observing its laws or studying its texts. It occupies infinite space, beyond the limitations of the human mind and heart.
In the last century during which our people narrowly escaped total extinction, the most remarkable thing in all of history happened. As in a dream, we, Jews, were privileged to return to our ancient homeland after nearly 2,000 years of exile. We now have our own army to defend us, and many of us live in great comfort and joy, with opportunities that we, as Jews, could never have envisioned. This is nothing less than an astounding blessing that God has granted us; an open miracle.
But here too lies our greatest challenge: living under these miraculous conditions, we are in great danger of falling prey to the curse of indifference – indifference to the miserable and impossible situation of our fellow humans who are threatened by suffering and death.