Category Archives: Jewish terminology

The idea of Mashiach never sits right with me

I have never been able to figure out the whole idea of Mashiach (Messiah). It just doesn’t sit well with me at all. Who is this redeemer dude that we’re all waiting for? What is supposed to be so great about the time of Mashiach? I have always felt guilty to admit out loud that I do not hope for the time of the third beit hamikdash (temple). It just sounds stressful and, the worst part, it sounds like we lose our freedom.

People always talk about it like it’s a time when we all feel close to God, want to serve him, serve him with a whole heart, etc. etc. I’m claustrophobic just thinking about it.

How do you understand the whole Mashiach idea?

Am I Jewish if I don't believe in God? What does it mean to believe?

I co-wrote an article with Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu of the Kollel in Vancouver. It’s part of an “Ask the Rabbi” column in the Jewish Independent in B.C. Canada.

I heard it’s considered “brilliant” so I hope you’ll give it a try!

Use the soul to discover faith

Sin’at chinam – baseless hatred

This morning I was so riled up by the events in Jerusalem. Very Charedi woman arrested for allegedly abusing her son. Major, extremely intense protests by her community (and beyond?) against her arrest. Threats. Burning garbage. Throwing stones. Really quite horrifying!

I cannot say that it’s easy for me to be understanding about their behavior. But there are a few things I am thinking about that at least put the whole thing a bit more in perspective:

  1. The media is not 100% trust-worthy. It is totally possible that we are not getting the whole story. More so, I read the letter that “the family” of the woman wrote and I don’t see why we should assume they are a bunch of liars. As someone only getting information from newspapers, I can’t know that.
  2. Neither the media’s nor the family’s story seems totally true. We must remember to take everything with a grain of salt. What doesn’t sit right with me? For example, in the media’s story, she’s been starving him for years but he’s also been in the hospital for a long time. How did she get away with this abuse if he was in the hospital, even if it was just on and off? In the family’s story, she’s made out to be the perfect, loving, committed mother. What about the footage (which I haven’t seen)? I’d be shocked (in the event that we ever find out the full truth about this) if that turns out to be true. You can read the family’s article here (in Hebrew).
  3. Human nature tends to push things aside if that helps prove the point we want to prove. So many people seem  quite excited to show how terrible the Charedim are that they/we might be blinding ourselves to inconsistencies or just things that aren’t very logical. (I believe that this is what happened with Madoff. I totally believe that things seemed sketchy to a lot of the investors but they swept the feelings under the rug because things were just too good to ruin.)
  4. The hate. Granted, the Charedim are putting the rest of us in an extremely difficult position. We are watching a large group of them act in a manner that is not at all respectful, let alone to Torah! And when they do things that are outright immoral like burning things, causing such destruction and disruption, and even stoning people, it’s the hardest thing in the world to give them the benefit of the doubt. But, and please bear with me, I know it’s infuriating, can we fully judge them? We know that we can only fully judge someone when we are in their shoes. I used to continue that by saying that, the way I see it, since we can never be in someone else’s shoes, we can never judge others. I don’t fully agree with that anymore. It’s important to pass some sort of judgement, I think. But we need to ask ourselves: Do we know what it’s like to be a Charedi person in a Chiloni (secular) country? Do we know for sure they’re wrong (not in their protesting behavior but in their beliefs regarding life, Israel and how they are treated)? We lack many details. Maybe we should keep that in mind in order to try, as hard as it is, to judge them at least a little more favourably.
  5. I have at least one person who I’m very close with, who is Charedi. Last time we spoke, she was convinced the mother is innocent and the Charedim are being treated really badly. How can I assume that this person who I respect very much is totally wrong? It’s definitely possible but I can’t know, at least not at this point. Also, I can tell you that, spending time with this person, I am almost certain that she gets different treatment when we’re out and about in Israel because of how she dresses. I have been appalled by it, especially since she is such a sweet person. How can people treat her like that just because she is wearing a scarf wrapped around her head? Yes, Charedim are treated differently. That is a painful way to live, especially if, like this person, you are a sweet, innocent person just living your life how you believe is best for yourself, your family and the world.

The Three Weeks

Finally, there is something that has really stuck out for me and even scared me. Right now it is a very important time in the Jewish calendar. It’s the “three weeks.” These weeks start with a fast and end with another fast. The ending fast, Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) is one of the two most important fasts in the Jewish calendar, along with Yom Kippur. It is considered the saddest day in our calendar, commemorating the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. Tradition says that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam. Baseless hatred. It was destroyed because Jews hated Jews.

Tisha B’Av has been the day on which many calamities have befallen the Jews. It is actually scary. The three weeks and the nine days (which are the last nine days of the three weeks) are considered more dangerous times. Growing up in an Orthodox home, we didn’t swim during this period. We wouldn’t necessarily travel. It was best to stay away from danger. And in order to mourn, we wouldn’t listen to music, eat meat, go to movies, get our hair cut and probably other things too.

I look at what is happening in Jerusalem and I am frightened for the Jewish people. Call me superstitious but I do think that there is something extremely meaningful, in a very scary way, that this is happening specifically during the three weeks (just like the Jews were kicked out of Gush Katif in Gaza the day after Tisha B’Av). We need to think about that and remember that our unity is probably one of the most important things for us to work on. As Jews, each of us (I’m talking about the different groups) is so sure we hold the truth, we hold the key. The Charedim hold the truth, as far as they’re concerned. The Chilonim feel the same way about themselves. And many other groups act also as if they are the ones who know the real way to be a Jew or an Israeli.

At the same time, we’re terrified someone else, with their supposed truth, is going to force us to act in one way or another that doesn’t fit our beliefs.

I know all this because I feel the same way. But I also know that at the same time, many/most of us also question ourselves incessantly. We are often 100% sure and 100% not sure at the same time. And that is probably where the friction comes in. We cannot take the different opinions.

I believe it’s time for us all to get off our high horses (or make sure we’re all on high horses, if necessary, as long as we all realize we’re “begova einayim” (eye level) to each other) and realize that each of us “groups” obviously does not have all the answers. Each of us obviously does have something to contribute. And, most of all, we better get our act together and figure out a way not to feel such animosity towards each other because, I hate to say it, but I am scared that we will do ourselves in if we don’t work on this now.

Praying without God

Ever wonder if you could pray even if you aren’t sure who you’re praying to? I brought up that idea a while ago and my friend sent me the most amazing quote from the book, “Seeing God” by Rabbi David Aaron. I am not sure if it’s legal for me to post the quote here… I wish I could because it is so touching but I’ll just summarize it instead.

An athiest Jew, Ron, went to the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He decided, what the hell, I’m here already, I may as well do something appropriate. He turned to the Orthodox man next to him and asked him what one does at the Kotel. The man gave Ron a tehilim (psalms) and said he could recite a chapter from the tehilim. Ron started and quickly hit the word “God.” He felt uncomfortable with that but decided to continue. Again he came across the word. Then it says (OK, fine, I’m putting in part of the quote here):

“Since Ron is a computer engineer, he decided to relate to his predicament as if it were a computer problem. When there is computer data that he can’t use, he creates a buffer zone and puts it there. Ron decided, I’ll put the “God” word in a mental buffer zone and simply disregard it so I can continue reading the psalms without getting aggravated. And that’s what he did. Ron then continued reading and suddenly felt overwhelmed by a flood of inspiration released by the moving poetic words of King David. He told me that he was struck by a profound spiritual experience, which he had never felt before. It was as if he were surrounded by light. This was the beginning of Ron’s belief in Hashem. Ony when he got rid of “God” was he able to see Hashem…”

God, I love this story. :) I have God issues and often feel a pang of discomfort whenever I give the word some thought. I pray (aka talk to Someone out there) but am never sure who I’m praying to nor if I believe 100% that this God-thing exists. What a cool idea, that he put it aside. It makes so much sense!

Trying to explain "shiv'im panim" (70 faces) to a Mormon

Ah yes, the things I get myself into online. :) I ended up having an email conversation with this very nice Mormon guy. I mentioned the Jewish idea that there are 70 ways to interpret the Torah and he wrote back asking for clarification. I am sharing my reply here. I always feel so ill-equipped to have these conversations but did my best. Please let me know if you agree/disagree and if I missed anything vitally important! Bekitzur, let me know what you think about this.

Thanks.

Respectful Mormon, (no, I didn’t really start it this way)

Thanks so much for writing me about this. I apologize it’s taken me so long to answer. I always feel so incapable of having these conversations since I’m far less knowledgeable than so many other Jews I know. And yet I’m out in the world talking to people so I guess I need to converse the best way I can.

Please consider that I will write things like “in Judaism we believe” but of course there might be others who believe otherwise. Two Jews, three opinions. That’s what we always say.

See, but that is the point. That we try to celebrate the fact that there are many opinions. Yes, you are right that there are certain things that, if someone said that they believed it, hopefully they’d be excommunicated. Of course adultery is wrong, for example. But there are religious Jews who believe homosexuality is OK. I don’t know if this would be considered one of the 70 faces or not.

But DEFINITELY I do believe gays should be treated well, whether it’s right what they’re doing or not. One of the rabbis here is totally Orthodox but is very open with gays as far as having them in the synagogue and talking with them openly about their lifestyle. I very much respect this and think it’s important and good. Even if the rabbi believes that what they are doing is wrong, we are all doing things that are wrong and still need to be part of the community. (At the same time, the guy who was hitting on girls and acting slimy, was kicked out, btw.)

I recently finished reading The Year of Living Biblically and if there is one thing to get from the book (and it is one of the main things he got from his year) it’s that absolutely no one takes the Bible 100% literally. It just doesn’t work. Below is a a link to an article I wrote about a Jewish event this year in Vancouver about youth and homosexuality. I especially found it interesting what the rabbi (a different rabbi than the one mentioned above) said about it. You cannot say that she doesn’t have a point when she says that one of the ways to understand the line in the Torah about a man not sleeping with a man the way he sleeps with a woman is to, well, ignore it! I’m not saying I agree but I know that we obviously don’t take “an eye for an eye” literally. That is only one example. Maybe the quote about homosexuality should also not be taken literally. It’s a good point.

My article

You said that the 70 faces idea cannot work when it involves defining sin. It actually can, and does, to a certain extent. For example, one must dress with a certain level of modesty. Different communities and individuals understand the laws differently, some taking on more stringencies than others. So, my friend who tries to wear full length sleeves all the time, would be doing something wrong if she wore shorter sleeves. Someone else would not be doing anything wrong if they showed their elbow.

I’m purposely using an un-charged example. Once you get into laws that affect fellow humans, like adultery, it’s just wrong.

Anyway, it is SUCH a big topic! I think I’ll end here, even though I don’t feel like I’ve gotten much of a coherent thought across. But at least I tried.

Just one more thing. I find it so interesting that you mentioned salvation in your email. This word is not part of Judaism and it actually has negative connotations for me. It is a Christian term. We believe we need to make the world a better place. “Fix” it. We believe there is some type of reward in the next world but we don’t know how that works. We believe that everyone is capable of getting reward, whether they’re Jewish or not. No need to convert, only to follow the 7 Noahide laws.

Regarding Jews, we also believe that each individual is on their own journey. No one is keeping all the laws and that is fine. That is human and expected. So, someone might question God’s existence and that is fine. It’s great, actually. It helps people discuss and learn and grow. In Judaism we are pushed to ask questions even about (or maybe especially about) the biggest, most “basic” topics.

The person questioning these things will not miss their salvation opportunity.

70 faces…

Deena :)

Rebbecca, the Jehovah’s witness and me, the “chosen people”

I suddenly was hit with an epiphany.

I think that a lot of us more “modern,” “progressive” Jews cringe at least a little when we think about the idea of us being the chosen people. It doesn’t seem very fair and it does seem a little haughty. I’ve always had a little bit of an issue with this but this morning I was able to see it differently.

Yesterday I got back from two days away to find a hand-written letter from a Jehovah’s witness. They have a church nearby and took the liberty of sending letters to everyone in this block, so it seems. By block I mean the block between the main streets. So, hundreds of people (unless they were targeting Jews, which makes it only 10s, but that is doubtful since she didn’t even know my name).

Of course I find it a little annoying that they’re trying to sell me their religion. As usual I compared it to Judaism. One of the main things I’m proud of in Judaism is the fact that we specifically do not search out converts. How fast we should accept someone into conversion if they are interested, is a debate, but basically we absolutely do not missionize. We’re not trying to make everyone like us and it is not in our belief system that people need to be like us!

Probably most of the murder triggered by religion has been rooted in a religious group believing that everyone has to take on their religion and beliefs. And suddenly I realized. The beauty of Judaism is specifically in the fact that yes, we are the chosen people, and so we are just supposed to do what we were commanded to do. This is not a matter of being better or high and mighty. It is a matter of focusing on ourselves.

Why has no one ever pointed this out to me? The chosen people is the exact opposite of believing everyone has to follow one religion! The chosen people is the opposite of missionizing.

These are my thoughts. I’m wondering how you feel about the term “the chosen people,” and about conversion, missionizing and, of course, of my logic here.

Tonight is Shavuot, when we became the chosen people and received the Torah. I think it’s very appropriate that my epiphany came this morning. Thanks, Rebbecca, Jehovah’s witness, for the letter! Well, thanks but no thanks!

Chag sameach!

A very cool matza idea

Wow, it’s always excited to hear an idea that I’ve never heard before.

This very cool idea (which I read in the Washington Post – On Faith) points out that matza is called lechem oni לחם עוני which means the bread of poverty but the word oni has the same letters as the word o’ne עונה which means, to answer. Pessach is a holiday of asking questions so the matza helps us on that conquest of also getting answers.

What an amazing connection, which I never noticed!

And I wanna be free

Pessach, the holiday of freedom. FREEDOM! What a dream.

When you imagine yourself absolutely free, what are you picturing? I doubt you’re at work with your boss looking over your shoulder. I also doubt you’re bathing your children as they splash water all over the bathroom that you just cleaned. I’d be surprised if you’re lifting weights in a gym.

Lying in the Bahamas? Dancing like crazy at a party? Selling everything and travelling around the world. These are the things that seem freeing. “Not a care in the world,” is what would seem to be a freeing experience.

What songs talk about being free? Here are a couple:
I want to break free (warning: this is a weird video)
Free falling

What is freedom all about? What is true freedom?

More thoughts on this to come. Please share your thoughts.

Asking the right questions

by Payam Refaeilzadeh

Is G-d good?  My answer would be “of course!”  If I was aked to justify my answer, I would have to say: “… because he created me.”  Simplistic? yes.  But it works for me – it always has.

We are taught that G-d is one, eternal, all-powerful, non-corporeal creative entity, the full comprehension of which is beyond our faculties.  If G-d is all powerful, he could have easily created a world free from evil, but he didn’t.  Why?  Because G-d is not the all-powerful creator?  If so the question we began with is mute, if not then we are his creations and as such do we even have a place to question the way he created us?

Ponder: we would not even EXIST without him.  Is that to say we should just be grateful and not ask too many questions?  Not at all.  This is not about the right to question the creator but rather about the legitimacy of such a question – if that makes any sense.  I tried very hard to think of a real-world analogy for this, but gave up as I think it does not exist and perhaps that is the problem.

Let us set that aside for a moment, namely let us say G-d is the all-powerful creator who created the world with evil in it and there is legitimacy to question: Why?  Because G-d is not good?  What is goodness and would it have the same meaning in absence of all evil?  So what?  G-d is just putting evil into the world to teach us a lesson?  To make us appreciate the good he created?  What we call evil serves no other purpose than to be the contrast for the good right?  It has no place in the grand scheme of creation.  hmmm that is an awfully arrogant statement coming from an insignificant creation who started with the notion that his creator is all-powerful.  Don’t you think?

I come back to my original answer: he is good because he created me.  True, I would not experience all the evil and pain without him but nor would I experience the good.  Completely illogical and non-intuitive right?  Well it isn’t to me and maybe it will not be to some others either.

Representin' the People

Kiddush Hashem? The advantages of not growing up Jewish is that I never encountered the Jewish version of this. However, my father made it very clear that there was a family version of this.

One day I came home from grade school with my books. When I entered the house I dropped the books on the table and ran to do nature’s calling. My father was home and saw the books on the table. Each book was covered with a shopping bag cover. And on each cover were a series of grade school doodles. When I returned I found my father holding my books. At this point I was reprimanded for the impression this gave other people about our family. The condition of our books represented the image of our family. I was baffled but this must have been important since my father rarely critiqued such things.

Now I have my own version. Two and half years ago I started wearing a Kippah. I wear it realizing it changes how people look at me. I am no longer just the white guy approaching someone. I am the Jewish guy.

I am still very aware of wearing my Kippah. I am also more aware of people identifying me as a Jew. And I am more aware of my actions. I realize that for many people, I am a Jew first, especially if I do something inappropriate.

So yes I am representin’. I hope I am doing alright in G-d’s eyes otherwise I do my best to be a good person and hope this reflects well.

mTp

With Intention