Thursday 31 July 2014

032) The Fourth Dimension

When talking about Jewish practices to people who are not observant, they often ask whether the matter under discussion is a ‘custom’ or a ’law’. Is it ‘Divine’ or ‘man made’? This is quite intriguing because the distinction between Torah Law and Rabbinical Law is often only drawn at quite an advanced level of Torah study. The advanced observer may be looking to better understand the structure of the Law (to ascertain whether extenuating circumstances may or may not allow the Law to be flexible). The non-observer, however, may be looking for a possible justification not to do something (since it’s ‘only’ a Rabbinical Law). This is reminiscent of the Karaites of old, who totally disregarded Rabbinical Judaism.

The question is: How much should we allow this invisible dividing line, between both sets of Law, to influence our observance?

From a purely halachic point of view, there is no practical distinction between them. One does not have the discretion or liberty to choose one over the other. The distinction between them exists only on an academic and theoretical level.

Part of the reason why so much authority is given to classical Rabbinical Law, is because the Torah itself instructs us to adhere to the ‘priest who will be in your day’. Furthermore, as we all know, the Torah of Sinai was presented together with an Oral (read Rabbinical) Tradition to support and supplement it. This gives tremendous credibility to the Rabbinical Tradition, as its authority is rather more primary than secondary.

Then there is the third issue concerning the status of Custom or Minhag: Although the concept of ‘minhag shtus’ (a silly or nonsensical custom) does exist - for the most part, a well established custom is treated with as great a reverence as the other two abovementioned components of our law. The fullness of time seems to imbue the custom or practice with an earned sanctity of its own.

The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that in more recent times, a fourth component appears to have silently crept into our body of tradition. This fourth dimension, he aptly calls ‘Frumkeit.’ ‘Frumkeit’ is difficult to define, but you’ll know it when you see it. It doesn't have to be, but sometimes is, a very visible display of ‘in your face’ Judaism. It’s more of a social construct and peer driven than hallowed over time.

While we have no effective discretion when it comes to the first three components of the Law - Torah Law, Rabbinical Law and Custom - we may (at least according to the Kotzker) exercise some agility with ‘Frumkeit’.

Says the Kotzker Rebbe:
Frumkeit is not necessary for someone who is already ‘fixed’.However, it is sometimes valuable as a means to an end.
(Emet VeEmunah p99, par 6)

I believe it is with regard to this fourth component of ‘Frumkeit’ that our religious mettle gets subjected to the most crucial of tests. How we handle this, defines who we are. We humans are, after all, social beings and need to know and show where we fit into society. But when ‘Frumkeit’ becomes an end in itself, instead of a means, we may have just missed the mark. It may also be an indication that we are not yet ‘fixed’.

When the perceived security of any social construct, becomes an end, the Kotzker reminds us that perhaps we have not yet even begun.

Monday 28 July 2014

031) Who Gave Me the Right?

Recent media reports have focused much on the unfortunate actions of some so-called Chareidim in both Israel and abroad. Some of these people have used rock throwing and other forms of violence as a means of ethnically cleansing their areas of anyone who is not exactly like them. (See Kotzk Blog 30)

I believe these growing trends of violence are the first stirrings of a new and insidious type of 'reconstructionist' Judaism that is doing a good job of misrepresenting authentic and multifaceted Orthodoxy. They don't practice a Judaism I know.

Whatever happened to the concept of a Jew being supposed to set an example? Whatever happened to the concept of a Jew being supposed to practice a form of spirituality that is warm and inviting? When did ‘exclude’ become the battle-cry instead of ‘include’?

Let’s leave these extreme ‘reformers’ alone for a moment and look at something closer to home. I have occasion to interact with many young religious people in our community. The vast majority of them are wonderful caring and empathic young people, concerned about the world around them, and conscious of their obligation to contribute to society. They also understand the importance of creating a good impression upon those Jews who may have wandered away from Torah values.

But again, there is a small segment of this group, who having been raised religious, take their Judaism for granted. They just want to live like everyone else without the extra burden of having to set a good example. Some of these youngsters do just what other youngsters their age do, except they do it with yarmulkes on.   

I came across such a group, driving drunk around a parking lot with loud music blaring and behaving despicably. People were looking at them and I was embarrassed. I took the liberty of gracefully approaching them and asked them to please calm down. I suggested very politely that they put caps on their heads and tuck in their Tzitzit if they wanted to behave like this. They looked at me incredulously. They failed to see how they were harming anyone by their behavior. What right did I have to reproach them? In their eyes they were just a couple of kids having (dangerous and disruptive) fun. However in the eyes of others, they were representing every other Jew on this planet. Including you and I. This may not be fair but it’s the truth. That’s why I felt I had the right to approach them and not just ignore them.

If they are going to fly the flag by sticking out in a crowd, let them do so with dignity. If not, we reserve the right to censure them because they represent us. If they didn’t represent us, we would ignore them and let them be.

Being visible Torah Jews in public, means we have an obligation to preserve the integrity of the whole nation.
If even one person looks at us and hates Jews or Judaism because of us, we have misrepresented our people.

The Kotzker Rebbe teaches:
“Abraham sat at the doorway of his tent.” Rashi comments: “…To see if anyone was passing by, so that he could bring them into his home.” - In Hebrew the expression ‘passerby’ (over ve shav) can also mean a ‘sinner whom through your exemplary action, you cause to have a change of heart’. Such a person then becomes so inspired that he wants to come into your ‘tent’ and be like you.
(Kochav HaShachar p168, par1)

Being ‘frum’ is demanding. When a Torah person walks in the street, he cannot be neutral. He has to, by his actions, use his Torah as a means of changing even in some small way, the lives of others. They must want to come into his ‘tent’.

If some of our visible and vocal religious youth are offensively rowdy, how will they influence ‘sinners’ to have a change of heart?

And if some of our stone throwing so-called Chareidim chase people out of their areas, how will they ever be able, let alone want to, come into the tent of Abraham?

The irony is that those who were offended by the youngsters, and those attacked and excluded from the Chareidim, were perhaps the very people Abraham went in search of.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

030) Some Ultra-Orthodox Jews Are Revolting

The crazy events of the past few weeks and months in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, where small groups of Chareidim took to the streets – (and burned garbage and spat on young Modern Orthodox Jewish school girls who simply wanted a normal religious education) - have become most perturbing. Some of these Chareidim do not even want to ride in the same busses as women and are calling for segregation of the genders in some public spaces.

It is perturbing for a number of reasons: How can ostensibly religious people behave in this manner? This type of behavior is (not so) slowly becoming more and more acceptable to many segments of our very own community. Not enough people are speaking out against this deplorable trend. Does it not remind one of other communities in other parts of the world, who espouse similar sentiments?

The irony is that today, if an orthodox person does or says something just slightly left of center, he is very rapidly castigated by people with loud voices. If he speaks about, say, a possible theoretical reconciliation between Torah and evolution, he gets excommunicated. But if he stones, fights or spits, at best he is regarded as a misguided ‘defender of the faith’, and is free to fight another day.

It is no longer acceptable for those of us who are embarrassed and shocked by the barbaric behavior of some of these men in black coats, to glibly shrug it off by saying that this is just the work of an insignificant and tiny minority (as we have always done in the past). If one follows the news stories one quickly realizes that this trend is swiftly on the incline.

Unless our leadership (if it still exists) does something fast to stem the rising tide of religious extremism, both in Israel and abroad, I fear we may be staring down the barrel of a new phenomenon…a Jewish Taliban.

Sociologically, such rancid behavior can only be a result of a ‘group’ or ‘cult like’ mentality, taking over what once was the preserve of the strong, intellectual religious individual.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the Kotzker warned that Judaism was laying the foundations of its own destruction, by encouraging the emergence of religious mass movements, which were gaining popularity all over Eastern Europe.
Like minded people make a positive contribution to their society. Like clad people, however allow the preeminence of the individual human, (responsible for his actions, and aware of consequences), to be overshadowed by others (who because of allegiance have no concept of consequence). Weak people can now hide behind the coat tails of other weak people. And generally the group will deteriorate to the lowest common denominator.

He further warned that even someone hiding within the very walls and inner sanctum of the Beit HaMedrash, the Study House, may in truth be absolutely vile and despicable.
The Talmud says: ‘If the Menuval or despicable one comes to mislead you, drag it to the House of study’. This is generally understood as referring to the evil inclination, which gets subdued when brought under positive pressure and influence. However the actual term used is ‘Menuval zeh’, which seems to indicate a person rather than a concept. Therefore don’t be fooled into thinking that just because someone looks holy and spends time in a holy place, that he is actually holy. He may be in the House of study but he can still be despicable.
(Emet VeEmunah p20, par 2)

Let us be bold enough to acknowledge and recognize the existence of people who do despicable things in the name of Judaism. Let us speak out with sufficient force against these people, before instead of being a ‘light to the nations’, we simply become just like them.

Monday 21 July 2014

029) The Smokin' Hot NASCAR Prayer

I am always amazed to see with what authority people speak about G-d. I do, however, understand that people speak, sometimes with great authority about religion. And I also understand that ‘authentic’ religion is the will of G-d. But I nevertheless remain wary of anyone who claims to speak for G-d himself.

This being the case, can there ever be such a thing as a controversial prayer? Is there a spiritual censorship board that protects G-d from hearing things we pray for?

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was quite outspoken when it came to answering such questions. According to him there were no holds barred when it came to prayer. We were given carte blanche to ask (or even simply to talk to) G-d, for (and about) absolutely anything at all.

He writes: 
We should pray to Hashem for anything and everything. Even for something as mundane as a shirt that needs to be mended. We should get so used to communicating with G-d that we see no difference between asking for something worthy and significant, and something small and insignificant. This concept was so difficult for one of Rabbi Nachman’s students to comprehend that he said: "I am astounded. Do you really mean that I can pray for something absolutely physical and mundane?" To which Rabbi Nachman responded with a question: "Is it beneath you to ask G-d for small things?"
(Sichot HaRan 233)

This was written two hundred years ago. Let’s test this theology with something really modern and mundane.

NASCAR racing is quite far from the relatively slow pace of synagogue prayer. At a recent race, a clergyman was asked to lead the prayers just prior to the event. It was later widely billed as a terribly ‘controversial’ and ‘blasphemous’ prayer.

The following is a (slightly) abbreviated version of that prayer: 
Heavenly Father, we thank you for all your blessings…So we want to thank you tonight for these mighty machines you brought before us. Thank you for the Dodges and Toyotas. Thank you for the Fords. And most of all we thank you for Roush and Yates partnering to give us the power that we see before us tonight. Thank you for GM performance technology and RO7 engines. Thank you for Sunoco racing fuel and Goodyear tires that bring performance and power to the track...May they put on a performance worthy of this great track… 
This poor clergyman was castigated for daring to infer that G-d may also be the driving force behind things of an earthly nature. But I suspect Rabbi Nachman might have been smiling down on that event that night.

The Kotzker Rebbe too, encourages us to not think of G-d as being aloof and detached.
He interprets the verse; 
“Do not make for you a strange god” – Do not make G-d ‘strange’ to you. Be comfortable and relaxed in your relationship with him.
(Kochav HaShachar p30, par2)

Yes, maybe G-d is also the G-d of NASCAR.

Thursday 17 July 2014

028) Is it Bad to Sin?

Of course it is. It’s also bad to eat white bread and drink fizzy drinks. A deeper question would be; Is it evil to sin?

To a casual reader this may seem like a silly distinction. ‘Bad’ and ‘evil’ are only different in semantics. However the literature is full of fascinating debate as to the actual difference between these two concepts.

In classical Kabbalah, every time a person sins he causes a spiritual separation to take place between two G-dly ‘components’ (the Shechina and the Ein Sof). Only Teshuva (repentance or literally ‘return’) can bring them back together again.

In other writings, sin is equated to the very essence of impurity and evil. It is even said to have almost ‘demonic’ characteristics. (See Quest for Authenticity by R Michael Rosen)

However, in the teachings of the three generations of Peshischa, including the Rebbe of Kotzk, sin takes on none of these aforementioned nuances. Sin (while obviously not condoned) loses its esoteric status and becomes something far more human. In Kotzk there is nothing mystical or spiritual about sin. It is simply the natural consequence of human failing and frailty.

In Kotzk sin is not evil.

The Kotzker’s teacher, R Simcha Bunim writes:
Man [Adam], is still referred to as Man, even after his sin. As is Woman [Eve], still called Woman, even after being expelled from the garden.
(Ramatayim Tzofim 1,1)

In Torah literature, many people’s names and certainly statuses change as a direct result of their actions. Yet even with the fundamental and archetypical sin of the first man and woman, they remained essentially the same and unchanged, before and after.

It is interesting that in today’s world, we unknowingly continue to act out both sides of this debate: Some are quite accepting of people who may come from difficult and different backgrounds. They may not condone lifestyles antithetical to that of the Torah way of life but they move on and see what could be, not what was. They don’t dwell in the past. The Kotzker’s brother-in-law, the Chidushei HaRim says:
If you think about dirt you remain in the dirt.
(Chidushei HaRim 261)

Others, possibly from a sense of superiority or fear, can only look disapprovingly down, not ahead. At best their relationship with such people is coldly condescending and painfully patronizing. They seem to believe that there is something almost ‘demonic’ and ‘spiritually alien’ in these souls, and do not want to become contaminated.

These two attitudes are quite prevalent today. My personal belief is that practically there is only one choice that can save us from spiritual extinction. I’m with Kotzk on this one. You can only become contaminated if you believe that sin is evil. But if it’s only bad, perhaps you can ‘contaminate’ them with good.

Sunday 13 July 2014

027) Lovely but Meaningless Responses

Imagine your boss humiliating you in front of your colleagues. He asks you to prepare a report and you did not manage to have it ready on time. Now he is raging mad and everybody knows about it.

You leave the office for home with that sickly feeling in the pit of your stomach. You happen to bump in to eight good friends that evening and tell each one of them of your woes. Each has a different response which they are happy to share with you. In a situation like this, according to renowned psychologists Faber and Mazlish, there are eight common responses:
  1. “THE DOWNGRADER” - This friend tells you that it’s not as terrible as you are making it out to be. You are blowing the situation out of proportion and you are far too sensitive and emotional. You are overreacting.  
  2. “THE PHILOSOPHER” – The next friend explains to you that this is the nature of work. Deadlines are not met and bosses shout. He reminds you that life in general is like that. You get good days and bad days.
  3. “THE ADVISOR” – The third friend jumps in and immediately offers his valuable suggestions. Either apologize to your boss first thing in the morning, or dig your heels in and resign in protest to the unfair way in which you were treated.
  4. “THE INQUISITIVE” – This friend has nothing really to offer. All he wants to know is more details. How long have you worked in the company? Did he also shout at someone else? Is he Jewish?
  5. “DEFENDS THE OTHER” – This type of friend offers you no support whatsoever but instead jumps to the defense of the boss. Then he rubs salt into the wound by saying that if he were your boss, he would do the same thing.
  6. “PITIFUL” – This friend is so upset for you, he says that if he were you he would just go home and cry. He doesn't know how you could possibly face going back to work tomorrow.
  7. “THE PSYCHOLOGIST” – He explains to you that a boss is a ‘fatherly figure’ and that you are feeling bad now because it’s akin to having your father reject you.
  8. “EMPATHY” - This is the only friend out of the whole bunch who has a meaningful and useful response. He doesn't advise, nor psychoanalyze. He doesn’t take the side of the person who upset you. He doesn't ask questions nor offer you philosophical insights.
He may not even say a word. He may just touch your arm to show support, and leave you with your dignity restored. Now you know that you are still part of a social system that works and that you have not been entirely betrayed or targeted. This is the only friend who helps you in a meaningful way.

Let’s take these eight responses and play them out in a religious context. Assume you are having a religious crisis of sorts. Now you bump into eight of your religious friends and hear their responses: 
  1. “DOWNGRADER” – This friend tells you that Judaism is easy. You just have to realize it comes from Hashem and all you need to do is persist, and soon everything you do will be amazingly meaningful.
  2. “THE PHILOSOPHER” – The next friend explains that in this world we are only privy to half the picture. We build a puzzle with missing pieces which of course will become clearer only in the next world.
  3. “THE ADVISOR” – The third friend jumps in and immediately tries to help by advising you to say Tehillim and have your Mezuzos checked, or to Daven slower.
  4. “THE INQUISITIVE” - This friend has no real contribution to make. He is the same type of personality, who, after a shiur asks not; ‘what was said?’, but; ‘how many people were there?’
  5. “DEFENDS THE OTHER” – This type has no consideration for your inner feelings, but quotes chapter and verse about how you are going to be punished for your doubts and dilemmas. He may also throw in the precise number of prohibitions you have already transgressed by your thoughts and actions.
  6. “PITIFUL” – This friend (usually it’s an overbearing rebbetzin) is just so full of love and concern for you, they make you feel so weak and spiritually claustrophobic, and you are left (perhaps fuller but) no wiser.
  7. “THE PSYCHOLOGIST” - He explains to you that according to Jewish mysticism there are often ‘blockages’ of sorts in the life-giving channels that dominate the spiritual realms. You need to ‘unblock’ these obstructions by careful attention to other areas of your life, which he proceeds to also offer more guidance upon. 
Clearly, while some of the aforementioned responses may be pleasing on the ear to some, others may find them bereft of any depth and perhaps even insulting. A person in crisis needs one thing:
  1. “EMPATHY” – This is generally the best response. No advice, no complicated explanations, no pity, no hocus pocus and certainly no judging. You are completely accepted as you are, and shown genuine friendship. This friend has no agenda (hidden or otherwise).
The interesting thing about this approach is that a corrective reaction is very often elicited. Your crisis slowly finds (not magic), but an atmosphere in which the kernel and stirrings of resolution can take hold. 
The Kotzker Rebbe went to the yartzeit of his teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. There he bumped in to his best friend R Yitzchak of Vorka, also a former student. “I see you have come to pray at the gravesite of our holy master and former teacher”, said the Vorka Rebbe. “No”, retorted the Kotzker, “I am not a man who believes in graves. I only came here to be with you, my dear friend.”
(Emet Ve Emunah) 

Thursday 10 July 2014

026) Are Religious People Nicer?

I have spent some time over the last few days with my mechanic. We were trying to fix a recalcitrant engine. He taught me how to open up an engine and calculate and penny-shim for valve clearances. I have never done that before and found it fascinating. We underestimate the wisdom in an engine and the amount of wisdom and understanding it takes to fix one.

Many mechanics are quite rough looking people. Mine is no exception. He has long hair, tattoos and rides a motorbike painted with the American flag. He is not Jewish nor is he religious. Yet he knows more about his discipline than I’ll ever know about mine.

Also, this mechanic didn't curse, he doesn’t drink, and in all the time that I spent with him, he never spoke loshon hora. He has a gentle nature and wouldn't even let me dispose of dirty old black engine oil down the drain. Strange isn’t it, how I can spend time with people who do not have tattoos, who are Jewish and look religious, who do curse, drink and speak loshen hora (and know nothing about how to fix an engine)!

I’m not suggesting that you grow long hair and get tattoos. But I question the success rate of the popular Torah system to penetrate deeper than the surface and effect meaningful change in the soul or psyche of the adherent. Sometimes it does. Too often it doesn’t.

I have always been told that given time, Torah will change you for the better. Although I have not yet interviewed every Torah practicing person in the world, empirical observation seems to make me want to question that hypothesis.

I do, however believe that there is often a latent potential for a person to change a little. The Kotzker Rebbe says;
A person can change for the better – but only a little. To affect a real major turnabout in a person’s character is out of his hands, and rests solely in the domain of the Divine.
(Kochav HaShachar p113, par 2)

The notion that the sudden embrace of Torah will be dramatically beneficial on any level is commonplace but erroneous.

In his typically forthright and no-nonsense style, the Kotzker re-interprets an oft quoted teaching:
“Turn it [the Torah] over, turn it over, because everything is contained in it. Look deeply into it, grow old and grey over it. Do not stir from it. For there is no greater measure [midah tovah] than it."  (Pirkei Avot, 5, 21) - A person can spend his entire life involved in all the intricacies of Torah, he can study and practice it from every angle….and still not be able to extract even a single good feature (midah tovah)  from it.
(Kochav HaShachar p119, par 2)

A great rabbi I once knew and loved, who taught me how to think for myself, always used to say that the notion of nations is an illusion. There are only two nations in the world: good people and bad people. No more no less. 

Tuesday 8 July 2014

025) How Cheap is Your Ticket to Legitimacy?

The Kotzker Rebbe’s teacher, the Yid HaKadosh, was a student of the Chozeh of Lublin. One year, just before Rosh HaShanah, the Yid told the Chozeh that, based on his interpretation of what he had read in a book entitled Raziel HaMalach, he (the Yid) was destined to depart from this world soon after the festival. The Chozeh told him to stay with him, and that he would intervene on his student’s behalf, thus prolonging his life. Surprisingly the Yid declined and left his teacher saying that if he stayed his life would no longer be his own. He would be too beholden to his teacher and didn't want to live a life that wasn't entirely his own.

This was the beginning of the unsurpassed and unprecedented teachings of unrivalled independence that Kotzk became so famous for.

Kotzk was also famous for its opposition to mysticism, something quite unheard of in Chassidic circles.
General Chassidism had perfected the art of taking Kabbalah to the masses. The Kabbalah had become like a science, replete with concepts that could be depicted in diagrammatic representations, very similar to diagrams of modern electric circuitry. One could study how the Divine energy flowed from above to below and how to influence its course.

Kotzk attempted to replace religious and mystical Theology with religious Psychology. When faced with the vicissitudes and challenges of life, the school of Kotzk believed that man would be far better equipped to deal with real situations by facing them head on, than by resorting to mysticism. While vicariously deflecting real problems to an invisible entity may seem appealing to some, in Kotzk it was regarded as a weakness and an excuse for not dealing with problems. Thus mystical Theology was replaced with a type of practical Psychology, which emphasized strength and independence of the individual, and his innate ability to live a real life in a real world.

Key to this psychology was the developing of a healthy and assertive sense self-belief (Emunat Atzmo). Only when I know who I am, can I relate to you in a meaningful way. If my “I” is not healthy or clear, how can it understand “you” -  and, more importantly, how can it understand and relate to G-d? And how can you and G-d in turn relate to me, if my “me” is not clearly defined? 

In the schools of Kabbalah, the term “da'at” (knowledge), is usually explained as meaning ‘connection’. When man ‘connects’ with G-d, he ‘knows’ G-d. In Kotzk, “da’at” instead means ‘self-knowledge’ and ‘groundedness’. The more grounded the person, the more real his encounters with both other men and with G-d.   

The Kotzker Rebbe said that while some other Rebbes were preoccupied with ‘reviving the dead’, he was more concerned with ‘reviving the living’, which was much harder to do.  To teach the living how to be grounded to this real existence instead of trying to fly off to some other existence, is not what people want or expect to hear from a spiritual leader. But this is how, ironically, one becomes a healthy spiritual being. The ostensible spiritual path is, ironically again, often the easier path, and often just a way of opting out. Sometimes it may even be an illusion.

The Kotzker’s other teacher was R Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. He once said that if you are yourself (obviously within the framework of Halacha), and don't try pretend you are someone else who is more holy than you, you can never go to ‘hell’. How can you be punished for being the real person G-d created?

In Kotzk there are two beautiful and novel interpretations of two overused and clichéd religious concepts; ‘Arrogance’ and ‘Truth’:

‘Arrogance’ usually means haughtiness. Religious people are not supposed to be haughty. In Kotzk, however, it means pretending to be someone you are not. It means aiming too high relative to your current level. It means that you are no longer grounded. You can do all the mitzvot in the world but if you still haven't found your way and are merely copying some other prescribed way, you are considered ‘arrogant’.

‘Truth’ usually means not telling a lie. Religious people are not supposed to lie. In Kotzk, however, it means being true to yourself. It means finding a path that is appropriate to you. Not just following the trends of the mainstream.

There is that wonderful interpretation of the Baal Shem Tov on the famous expression: “Bishvili nivra HaOlam” (The world was created for me). The word “Bishvili”, doesn't only mean “for me”, it can also mean “for my pathway”. In other words, there is room in this great universe for me and my unique approach. And I would not be true to myself or to the universe if I didn’t make a concerted effort to discover it and live it.

In Kotzk one’s first allegiance was legitimacy to oneself.
“The issue is not whether one is legitimate in somebody else’s eyes, but whether one has integrity before G-d, and as one can never know that, more importantly, in one’s own eyes.”
(The Quest for Authenticity, by Michael Rosen)

To put it another way; One can never know if one is legitimate before G-d. One can seldom know if one is legitimate in the eyes of another. But one can always know if one is true and legitimate to oneself.

Allow me to share a short personal story with you.
I have to preface it with the following quotation from the Kotzker Rebbe:
“Do not think the Esau was a rough farmer wore checked undergarments, walked about barefoot, and raised pigs? Far from that. The evil Esau grew a full beard and had side locks.  He headed a religious community and used to say over Torah at the Third Meal on Shabbos.”
(Kochav HaShachar p 149, par 1)

I recently officiated at a wedding. One of the guests was an older rabbi whom I hadn't seen for many years. I respectfully went up to him and complimented him on how well he looked. I told him that the years hadn't touched him and that he still looked the same as he always did. He took me aside and suggested that if I wanted to be ‘more legitimate’ and have more of a ‘presence’, I should grow a full beard again. He remembered me having a full beard some twenty odd years ago. I needed, he said, to regain my ‘Tzelem Elokim’ (G-dly image).

I'm embarrassed to say that the Kotzk in me responded that I really didn't want to worship a G-d who could be so easily emulated by default . And I (mischievously) told him that I still had ‘full beard’ and that perhaps the years had affected him after all, because conceivably he couldn't see so clearly anymore. Perhaps he, like so many others, was only looking for the cheap ticket to legitimacy.

Friday 4 July 2014

024) Who is More Religious?

The question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ always sparks a great debate. Another great debate could be held over the question of ‘Who is a religious Jew?’ (The assumption being made that the reader is aware of the difference between religious and observant. Observance is easy to ascertain, while religious is subject to debate and definition.)

There are many varied and valid positions one could take, and the Kotzker Rebbe as usual, has some strong views on the issue: He says;
The silent and suppressed cry of someone needing to shout out but who doesn’t, is the loudest cry of them all.
(Kochav HaShachar p 62, par2)
I have always understood this teaching in the context of a non-observant person who has a need to express himself spiritually but either cannot or does not. His peers may consider him as being far from spiritual, but in essence his suppressed cry is acutely audible to those seeking more than the superficial. I believe this type of teaching was fundamental to the followers of the early schools of Chassidism. Everyone has a ‘spark’ of holiness, and often those with the greatest souls stem from the most unlikely (even unholy) of sources.

This idea is profoundly encapsulated in a saying of the Kotzker’s teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Peshischa; 
I cannot talk to those I pray with, and I cannot pray with those I talk to.
In other words there exists the dichotomy between those one ‘prays with’ (the observant sector within society) and those one ‘talks to’ (the non-observant sector). The Peshischa Rebbe was known to have had strong connections with the secular, non-religious and even anti-religious worlds. He was quite comfortable talking to these people, but because they did not pray in the formal sense, he obviously couldn't pray with them. However he associated with them because he sensed they too had something special to contribute.

Sometimes suppressed spirituality is deeper than expressed observance.

Over the years I have been amazed again and again by the suppressed spirituality I detected in people who professed not to be religious. I have come across deep commitment to deep ideals by people who openly espoused not to have them. I have learned not to underestimate the potential for innate goodness found in ordinary people. I have become frugal with my labeling of people into religious and non-religious camps.

Just when I thought I maturely arrived at a sane and balanced acceptance of the value of both observant and secular people, I discovered a rather dramatic interpretation, by the Kotzker, of a well known biblical passage;
“[The Torah] is not in Heaven (Devarim 30,12) - The Torah cannot be found among those Jews who think they have reached the heights of heaven.
(Kochav HaShachar p 140, par1)

Here Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk is clearly referring to those observant Jews who think they have exclusively discovered what he calls ‘Shemei-Shamayim’ or Heaven’s Heaven. Whatever lofty thing they believe they have found is, in his opinion, simply not Torah.

What a great irony! Our observant friends may not be as religious as they think they are. And our non-observant friends may be more religious than they want to be. 

Wednesday 2 July 2014

023) The Most Dangerous Game in Town

There is an old game in town. The stakes are high and it’s all or nothing. Most people play this game but cheat.

It’s called the G-d game.

If G-d is who we say he is, then he is my G-d and your G-d. We call him “Elokeinu”, “Our G-d”.  We visit him in my Shul and in your Shul.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, he is also the G-d of my enemy and your enemy. And what's more, he can be found outside of my Shul and outside of your Shul - in the streets, in the gutters and also in my foe’s home and even his place of worship.

The Kotzker Rebbe writes: 
Understand this principle very clearly – If you are not prepared to find G-d everywhere, you will not find Him anywhere!”
(Kochav HaShachar p 24, par2)

Here the Kotzker succinctly outlines for us the simple rules for playing the G-d game. Unless and until I accept unconditionally the absolute universalism of G-d, and his equidistance from everyone and everything, I cannot play the game fairly. This is where most people cheat. This is where many load the dice, and skew the G-d concept toward them and theirs.

I have called this game ‘dangerous’ because as soon as one steps out of the cozy world of theology and begins to walk in the harsh real world, we are required to draw the line as to how far we are prepared to extend this concept.

How deep into the enemy’s camp are we prepared to go with this.

It’s dangerous because sometime applying this principle prematurely may take ones right of self defense away at a time of conflict.

It’s also dangerous because conflict is dangerous – and conflict occurs when we don’t apply this principle.

I once heard that at about the same time as Rabbi Goren was sounding the shofar at the Western Wall during the Six Day War of 1967, another rabbi was running through the streets of the Old City looking for Arabs to embrace and to reassure them that we were coming in peace. Sadly, history got in the way and some time later that rabbi had a change of heart.

Bombs do funny things to theology.

In the end, that rabbi drew the line between what he knew to be true and what he saw to be true and unfortunately so do most of us. And most of them.

If only we didn't have to cheat at this game.