Author Archives: Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Artson

About Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.

Role of the Shiva Minyan

Reprinted with permission from Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, edited by Jack Riemer (published by Schocken Books).

A few weeks ago, my community experienced an unusually high number of funerals within a short period of time. As a result, we endured the challenge and the trauma of providing several shiva minyanim [services with at least 10 Jews where the mourners may recite Kaddish, the memorial prayer] simultaneously. Fortunately, the congregation takes the mitzvah [commandment] of nichum aveilim [comforting mourners] seriously, so I didn’t have to worry about whether or not enough people would attend the Ma’ariv [Evening] services going on simultaneously in so many homes.


What I did have to ponder was my own embarrassment while forced to lead a prayer service praising God in a place where God’s love and power were so hidden, so missing. After all, each one of these homes sheltered families that had suffered the death of a beloved spouse, parent, or sibling. How could I expect these peo­ple to be willing to praise God’s greatness, to extol God’s power, or to express gratitude for God’s goodness. Still aching from the pain of death and separation, these mourners could no longer view God as either benefactor or friend.

Perhaps it was just such a moment of rage and sorrow that orig­inally generated the Yiddish expression "if God lived on earth, all God’s windows would get broken."

Yet it was precisely into those homes–homes filled with rage at God’s impotence, homes tormented by an overwhelming aban­donment and isolation–that Judaism compelled me to stand and to sing of God’s enduring love and incomparable power.

In a home that reeled from the loss of a wife and mother, one of its pillars of purpose, meaning, and identity–into that home I had to proclaim the continuing habitability of the universe, the benefi­cent purpose underlying God’s creation.

And in homes ripped from communal moorings, uncertain of the continuing relevance of friends, community, or Jewish fellow­ship–into precisely those homes poured friends and congregants, awkwardly reciting the phrases and melodies of our timeless tradi­tion. Did this strange practice make any more sense to them than it did to me?

Rebukes And Responses

The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

May I have a word with you? The opening words of the fifth book of the Torah begin simply enough, “These are the words that Moses spoke (diber) to all Israel.”   The Rabbis of the ancient Midrash Sifre Devarim note that every place the Bible uses the verb ‘daber‘ indicates harshness or rebuke, whereas the Hebrew word ‘amar‘ conveys a sense of praise.

Why, then, did Moses ‘diber’ to the Jews?  Why did he speak harshly to them on the border of the Promised Land? Because his final speech to them, the culmination of his long life of service to them and to God, consisted of chastisement–reminding them that they fell far short of the sacred standards embodied in the Torah and Jewish tradition.

And did the people resent Moses’ apparent harshness, as most of us would?  Did people say, “He never gives us a break,” or note that even at the end, he was still haranguing them, unable to focus, even for a moment, on their virtues and better natures? Apparently not.

The speech is, after all, dutifully recorded in the Torah and read every year in synagogues around the world.  And when Moses concluded his words and then went off to die, the Jewish people mourned his loss, even as we still keenly feel his absence today.

Can you imagine what it would be like if a Rabbi, at a dinner honoring 25 years of service with a particular synagogue, rather than dwelling on warm memories, started to list all of the congregants’ flaws over the past two-and-a-half decades?  Can you imagine how resentful and bitter most of us would feel?

Rabbi Tarfon, a great sage of the Mishnah, read this passage and sadly observed, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others.  For if one says to another, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ the reply invariably is, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.'”

No one in Rabbi Tarfon’s time was exempt from the very faults they would point out in others–hardly role models capable of rebuking their neighbors with disinterest.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.”  Rabbi Eleazar observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love.  Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.

Rabbi Gerson Cohen, past Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells of the time he was a child at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  As he and his friends were playing basketball, the game got a little rough–as sports often do.   Without warning, one of the scholars-in-residence, a Rabbi and professor of Talmud, intervened, scolding the boys that, “There is a Jewish way to play basketball.  And this is not the Jewish way.”

Rabbi Cohen remembers that they were stung by the remarks, and humbled.  Instead of grumbling about it, however, they stopped their game and started a discussion about how they would try to play in the future.   As the scholar was about to walk away, he said to the kids, “How wonderful, a group of boys able to receive rebuke.”

Rabbi Akiva, a contemporary of Rabbi Tarfon, added the third leg of lament to those of his colleagues. “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.”

Pointing out someone’s shortcoming or error should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority.  It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat.  Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge.

Without our friends, colleagues and families willing to point out our own errors of judgment or action, we all blind ourselves to our own faults and to those aspects of reality we don’t want to see.  Each of us depends on the caring of others, their courage to articulate disappointment in our action, as the indispensable prerequisite to self-improvement and refinement.

We cannot afford to wait for the perfect, loving hero to point out our flaws.  Instead, we rely on those around us, family and friends, to act as our early warning system, pointing out moral failure and ethical obtuseness before it is too late to improve.  But when they do, we must be able to really listen.

Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Over the last several millennia, humanity has developed a large and growing body of profound writings, words that encapsulate the hopes, aspirations and potential of the human soul. Across the globe, religious traditions rightly exult in the majesty and depth of their sacred writings: the Bagavad-Gita, the Rig-Veda, the Dammapada, the Tao Te Ching, the Iliad, these are the spiritual heritage of humanity, a crowning glory of literary art and religious passion.

Reading these books constitutes an exposure to greatness. Yet there is something lacking in them all that the Hebrew Bible possesses in unique measure: a passion for justice for the poor, the weak, and the despised. Unlike the Buddhist ideal of a ‘bodisatva’ (an enlightened being) who is so pure that he can step over a beggar without remorse, Moses and Jeremiah consider justice and compassion to be the sine qua non of any true religiosity. One cannot claim to love God and not be passionate about justice. That is the primary Jewish contribution to the human spirit.

Yet there is a subtle Jewish assimilation afoot: because other religious traditions define “religion” primarily in terms of faith, prayer and ritual alone, there are now a significant number of Jews who do so as well with Judaism. By focusing on the mitzvot bein adam la-Makom (commandments between a person and God) as the primary definition of piety, we distort Judaism to fit the foreign contour of Christianity and other non-Jewish faiths. We betray the broad heritage of Torah when we fail to recognize justice and righteousness as primary religious categories of Judaism.

This week’s Torah portion opens with the summons to “appoint judges and officials for your tribes . . . and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly” (Deuteronomy 16:18). With those words, and in countless other places, Moses insists that justice is an eternal religious obligation, at the very core of what it means to be a Jew. And that insistence is not restricted to biblical Judaism. The Rabbis of the Talmud and midrash were faithful proponents of the Sinai revelation here as well.

In Midrash Devarim Rabbah, they explain that God loves justice even more importantly than sacrifice. This bears out what Scripture says. “To do what is right and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice.” Scripture does not say, as much as sacrifice, but “more than sacrifice.” The midrash then goes on at length to explain the many ways in which justice is superior to sacrifice in the sight of God.

Whereas sacrifice could only function while the Temple stood in Jerusalem, justice and righteousness were essential during the biblical period and are no less mandated today.

Whereas sacrifices could only atone for unintentional, accidental sins, acts of righteousness and justice atone even for intentional sins.

Whereas sacrifices are offered only by humanity, even God is obligated to practice justice and righteousness.

Whereas sacrifices are significant only in this world, righteousness and justice will remain a cornerstone in the Coming World.

For all of these reasons, the midrash affirms the centrality of justice as a Jewish calling. We cannot consider ourselves pious Jews without a firm commitment to making the world a more just and righteous place.

How we treat the weakest in our midst (the “widow” and “orphan,” to use the Torah’s language) is still the irreplaceable core of our identity. None of this should imply that the other mitzvot are not important. All mitzvot, both ritual and ethical, reflect the commandments of God as understood by the Jewish people throughout history. All of them play an essential role in lifting us above our own self-centeredness and the despotism of time. All of the mitzvot act to refine character and to mold piety. All of the commandments express our passion for God and for our brit (covenant) with God.

That having been said, it remains to assert–as a matter of Jewish integrity and a rebuttal of those who would tailor Judaism to fit a Christian mold–that ethics and a passion for justice remain the engines driving the entire Jewish enterprise. Rituals are essential and beautiful, but they remain frosting. Goodness, justice and decency form the base. As the Torah insists, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

The Importance Of Intention

The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah addresses the issue of unintentional manslaughter. What is the appropriate penalty for someone who kills someone else unintentionally? Should there be any penalty at all?

Our parashah discusses the establishment of six Cities of Refuge (Ir Miklat). These six cities were set aside as a permanent asylum. Anyone who unintentionally killed another person was permitted to flee to these cities. Once within their walls, the manslayer was protected by law against any revenge or additional punishment.

In this way, the Torah balanced the need to insist that killing another person is objectively reprehensible, while also asserting a distinction between murder (which is deliberate) and manslaughter (which is not). Contemporary American law makes a similar distinction, mandating a different degree of severity to correspond to the different levels of responsibility due to intention and circumstance.

Three thousand years earlier, the Torah instituted those same legal distinctions based on different intentions. One way to understand the profundity of the Torah’s insight is to contrast the Biblical law with other ancient standards. Ancient Greece, Sumer, Phoenecia, and other cultures all articulated a notion of asylum. In those civilizations, a murderer could flee to a local shrine and gain protection at the altar of the local deity. Whether or not the death had been intended was irrelevant to the power of the shrine to protect the murderer. After all, the pagan idol was no less holy, no less powerful, just because the murderer intended to kill his victim.

Not so the Torah’s law. The Torah asserts emphatically that the six Cities of Refuge would only protect the unintentional manslayer. The willful murderer was to be evicted, tried, and punished. No matter how powerful the divinity whose altar provided shelter, the Torah mandates that religion cannot interpose itself between a murderer and justice. Religion is a way of life, not a shield to violence.

Also diverging from other ancient law codes, the Torah does not determine the severity of punishment based on the status of the victim. Murdering a free man, woman, child, slave, or foreigner all resulted in the same penalty. Since all human beings reflect God’s image, all people deserve equal protection and possess equal worth.

The notion of a City of Refuge is not unique to the Torah. Nor is the notion of making legal distinctions for the same action. Nonetheless, in the law of the Cities of Refuge the Torah presents something breathtakingly new and exciting. What was revolutionary was the assertion that inner intention determines the meaning of an action. All intentional murders are abhorrent, but they are different from an accidental homicide. One who kills unintentionally is still guilty, but of a lesser offense. In fact, the Talmud (in Tractate Makkot) expanded upon this insight to provide for the release without penalty of those involved in complete accidents. Intention matters.

Unique among ancient law codes, the Torah consistently maintains its emphasis on kavvanah (intention). Indeed, our Jewish traditions continue that distinction to this day. Human beings represent something precious–the only permissible representation of God in the world. And what is most godly about us in our knowledge of good and evil. That awareness, and our ability to act on our own moral impulse, represents both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge is to grow to reflect that Divine Image to the fullest extent we can. The opportunity is to create, through moral integrity and mitzvot (commandments), an environment in which God’s presence is readily apparent.

As this week’s reading says, "I, the Lord, dwell in the midst of the children of Israel." To which Rashi (11th century France) adds, "you shall not cause Me to abide in uncleanness." Our actions must reflect our intentions, as we strive to make our intentions correspond, ever more closely, to God’s.

To See With The Heart

The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

In a remarkable story, the Torah relates the courage and the integrity of five women, known collectively as the daughters of Zelophehad. What makes this story remarkable is not only that the heroes are women, itself a rarity in the biblical age.

What makes this tale truly astonishing is that it represents the earliest revision of biblical law. Here, within the Torah itself, God revises an earlier piece of divine legislation because of an overriding moral imperative.What a magnificent precedent to set for later generations in their dealings with halakhah (Jewish law) as well.

The tale is worth the telling: According to a law already established in the wanderings in the wilderness, men alone were permitted to inherit their parents’ property. At the time, no one had objected. Neither Moses nor any of the 70 Elders saw a problem with that procedure for transmitting parents’ holdings in the Land of Israel. After all, it was universal custom for men to own and inherit property, to handle finances, and to run the economy–both of household and of communities. Women lived in the generosity of powerful men. Alone among the children of Israel, the daughters of Zelophehad pointed out that they had no brothers. If the law were rigidly followed, their father’s family would be completely dispossessed!

Moses, responding to their complaint with characteristic modesty, promised that he would ask God what should be the law. And God acts in a very Godly way, taking the side of those who have been wronged, those who have been overlooked. Our God is passionate about human dignity, and, as a result, intervenes and changes the law. The daughters of Zelophehad do, indeed, inherit their father’s land. Why hadn’t Moses, or any of the other Elders, been able to point out this legal injustice on their own? What special trait allowed the daughters of Zelophehad to notice an injustice and to speak out?

The medieval Bible commentator Rashi (11th century France) explains that the story teaches us that "their eyes saw what the eyes of Moses did not see." In this regard, our own eyes generally resemble Moses’. Most of us go through the rounds of our lives without truly seeing. We are understandably wrapped up in prosaic issues of our own, so we fail to take the time to see other people as people. Instead, we wind up treating other people like objects–a butcher is a source of meat, a teacher provides our children with skills, and so on.

Remember, as a child, just how shocked you were to see a teacher or your rabbi in the supermarket? Suddenly it dawned on you that they had a life too, their existence served a larger purpose than simply their role in your life!

Or to take another example from the supermarket, I recall my shock the first time I saw a sticker from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) affixed to a flank steak in the frozen foods section. It said, "Meat stinks!" Since then I’ve seen others that point out that what is immaculately wrapped inside that cellophane is the carcass of a dead animal. But it is wrapped so beautifully that we don’t even think that our dinner is a dead cow, or lamb, or chicken. Our eyes simply don’t see.

People, scenery, and animals enter our worldview in terms of what function they can perform, rather than as human beings with feelings and problems and dreams, as living creatures, or as a magnificent natural treasure. Most of the time, we look but we don’t really see.

The daughters of Zelophehad teach us an essential lesson for being fully human. They teach us the imperative of truly seeing–not only with our eyes, but with our minds and our hearts as well. They teach us not to turn away from the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, or members of other minorities. Rather than looking at people as objects, the Torah shows us–by way of example–that the constant struggle to be fully human is really the struggle to see all people as people. This Shabbat, and in the future, let us take up the gift of the daughters of Zelophehad. Let us teach ourselves to see.

Love Is Not The Opposite Of Hate; Law Is

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Human beings never seem able to express all their hatred for each other. Men and women war against each other; blacks and whites, gay and straight, liberals and conservatives, city-folk and suburbanites–there is no end to stereotypes, hostility and mistrust. In response to this propensity to hate, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel organized an international conference on hate in Oslo, Norway. The glittering list of invited participants included four presidents, and 70 writers, scientists and academics.

The two questions which shaped their deliberations were, “Why do people hate?” and “Why do people band together to express hatred?” Although the speeches were beautiful and the resolutions were firm, the entire event was fairly predictable, except for their primary conclusion, which seems so at odds with common sense. Ask anyone what the opposite of hate is, and they will tell you it’s love. But the consensus of these most accomplished, powerful and thoughtful people was that, “Only the belief in and execution of the law can defeat hatred.”

In other words, the opposite of hate is law. The Prime Minister of Norway even bolstered that claim by quoting from the statesman/philosopher Edmund Burke (18th-century England) that, “When bad men combine, the good must associate, else they will fall one by one.” While this insight might be news to the largely-Christian West, it merely confirms the age-old conviction of Judaism that law is the indispensable expression of love and decency. A people abandons law at the peril of their own character, justice and survival.

The Need for Law

Our Torah portion understands that need for law, for mitzvot, insisting that, “The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.” Why is law essential to Judaism? Without clear standards of communal behavior and individual rectitude, each person is forced to fall back on their own sense of right and wrong. Without external guidelines, that sense can all too easily become simply a way to excuse one’s own predilections and to overlook one’s own weakness.

Halakhah (Jewish Law) provides a “second opinion,” integrating the claims of conscience with the will of God and the wisdom of the sages. In addition to establishing a context for moral decision, halakhah also allows for communal cohesion. Without a binding structure for maintaining consensus, Judaism rapidly dissolves into a combination of nostalgia, good intentions and contemporary politics. No longer able to hold together a people, each individual fashions their own faith out of the inherited remains of the past, and then everybody calls their own hodgepodge “Judaism.”

Halakhah cuts through that solipsism, forcing people to integrate the needs of their neighbors and coreligionists, an awareness of God and the sacred, and the highest ideals of human morality. In an age of lonely individuals coming together to try to foster a sense of meaning without impinging on autonomy, Jewish law forges us into a community, with a framework to channel and guide our individuality.

Finally, halakhah extends the realm of the sacred and the moral beyond a once-a-week (or once-a-year) peek into a prayerbook or a synagogue. Instead, Judaism becomes the prism through which we refract all the rays of light from every aspect of our lives, sanctifying and elevating every moment, every deed and every place.

In the words of Rabbi Pinhas in Midrash Devarim Rabbah, “Whatever you do, the mitzvot accompany you. If you build a house . . . if you make a door . . . if you buy new clothes . . . if you have your hair cut . . . if you plough your field . . . if you sow it . . . if you gather the harvest . . .. God said, “Even when you are not occupied with anything, but are just taking a walk, the mitzvot accompany you.”

Jewish law, then, is the powerhouse that has maintained Jewish unity, purpose and vigor throughout the ages. Through our halakhah, we reach beyond our drives to attain our aspirations, beyond our flaws to embody our ideals. As they have been for thousands of years, the laws of the Torah and the Talmud summon us to aim high, to become the earthly representatives of the sacred and the sublime.

In the words of Midrash Derekh Eretz Zuta, Jewish law allows us to let all our “doings be for the sake of God, revering and loving God, feeling awe and joy towards all the ‘mitzvot.'” Take a stand against hatred; do a ‘mitzvah.’

Let’s Get Physical!

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

The definition of what is "religious" shifts throughout the ages. In antiquity, being religious meant offering sacrifices (of children, women, prisoners taken in war) and making regular gifts to the gods. In biblical Israel, it meant being aware of God’s presence, by bringing animal sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem at the designated times.

By the Second Temple period, a new emphasis, one of ritual purity, ethical rigor, and obedience to a growing oral tradition became the defining feature of pharisaic religiosity, which the Rabbis of the Talmud extended into an emphasis on the performance of mitzvot (commandments) and study as religious acts.

In the medieval period, study and ritual purity remained important, but they were refocused through the lenses of kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Finally, in the early modern age, social justice (for some) and celebration through song and dance (for others) often competed with the earlier identifying features of religiosity.

Jews today have inherited this range of different ways of being religious–from offerings to social justice, from prayer and study to dance, from purity to the performance of mitzvot.

There are many paths of piety rooted in thousands of years of Jewish tradition. On the other hand, America today seems to offer two primary modes of religion: either literalist obedience to a sacred book or in new age exultation of feeling.

In many cases, what American spirituality avoids is the bodily reality of human existence. Too much of American spirituality assumes that "spirit," a concept originating in Greek thought and Pauline Christianity, is the opposite of "body." Spirit–we are told–is good, pure and eternal. Body is bad, corrupt and ephemeral.

Given that understanding of spirit, it is no wonder that the wide range of American spiritual movements tend to help free the person from the trap of their own bodies and drives. Cults from eastern religions and from the latest fad all unite in an effort to help us transcend our bodies. How surprising, then, to look back over the list of Jewish spiritual responses and see how solidly rooted in bodies they all are.

A Corporeal Religion

Judaism is a corporeal religion. We know that a spirituality that doesn’t redeem the body with it is merely an escape, and one doomed to failure in the end. That emphasis on the body emerges in today’s Torah portion in the unlikeliest place.

"If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake [after his having already been executed], you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but you must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God; you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess."

Why is an impaled body an offense against God? Wouldn’t the humiliated corpse serve a valuable preventative function, since all who saw it would resolve not to commit a similar offense? If so, it should be a good thing to leave the body hanging. Besides, the person isn’t the same as the body anyway! The body is relatively unimportant, like a used set of clothing that no longer fits. So who cares about how the body is treated!

Apparently, the Torah doesn’t accept that trivialization of the body. Rashi adds to the Torah that, "It is a slight to the King [God] because humanity is made in the likeness of God’s image and Israel are God’s children." This may be likened to two twin brothers who resembled each other; one became a king while the other was seized as a criminal and hanged. Whoever saw him exclaimed, ‘The king is hanged.’" This shocking comment implies that our resemblance to God is more than just spiritual, that even our bodies reflect the Divine Image, and therefore deserve reverence and respect.

In Midrash Va-Yikra Rabbah, the great sage, Hillel, compares keeping our bodies clean to maintaining a statue of a king. He comments that, "Bathing the body is an obligation, since we are created in the image of the Ruler of the world."

For that same reason, Jewish tradition prohibits cremation as undignified to the body of the deceased, and Talmudic tradition affirms a physical resurrection of the dead. One need not share every Talmudic belief about the afterlife to recognize great wisdom in preserving a sense of awe and gratitude for the human body.

In an age awash in self-destructive drugs, too busy to exercise or to eat carefully, respect for our bodies is dangerously low on our agenda. Teenagers and women smoke in growing numbers, and alcohol use, too, is on the rise. Biblical and Rabbinic tradition maintain that our bodies reflect God’s image and therefore command respectful maintenance. In addition, our bodies are not our property, but God’s. We use them, as the tenants and stewards of God’s possessions. But ultimately, our bodies must be returned, well-tended, to their original Owner.

Is there a connection between the trivialization of the body in American spirituality and the callous disregard for bodies in American life? Let’s get physical!

Love The Lord

The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

What is the proper emotional attitude to take toward God? In our day, as in the past, religious human beings divide into two general camps. Some argue that we must fear and venerate God, while others stress the need to love God.

The two modes of relationship, fear and love, have a long history within Judaism. Both yirat shamayim (fear of heaven) and ahavat ha-Shem (love of God) find ample attestation in traditional and modern writings. While most Jews retain elements of both, individuals and communities tend to stress one tendency over the other.

The natural consequence of a stress on fearing God is to expect human-divine relating to work in one direction. God commands and people obey. Halakhah (Jewish law) is treated as immutable because people, including community leaders, are overwhelmed by a sense of their own inadequacy and insignificance. The highest form of human response becomes complete, unquestioning acquiescence.

While fear of God may be important as a secondary value, preventing the diminution of God into a rubber-stamp of our latest preferences or our most egregious shortcomings, there is a long precedent that gives priority to relating to God in love.

Today’s Torah portion highlights the value of ahavat ha-Shem as a primary mode of Jewish piety. Standing before the assembled tribes of Israel, Moses recalls the stirring moment at Mount Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments. He then continues with the Shema, reminding us of God’s unity and pledging our loyalty to God’s exclusive service. Immediately following, Moses continues his instructions to the people by telling them, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might." For Moses, the most important component of serving God is to love God.

In his commentary to the Torah, Rashi (11th century France) affirms that judgment. He explains that Moses meant, "Perform God’s commandments out of love. One cannot compare a person who acts out of love to one who acts from fear, who serves a master out of fear. When the latter feels overburdened, he leaves and goes away." Rashi, keen student of the human heart, knows that fear can motivate behavior only so long as the power of compulsion remains. As soon as the source of fear loses its strength, service stops.

So, too, those who serve God primarily through fear do so only as long as it "works" for them. Once they no longer see their service as exempting them from the hazards and disappointments of life, their inducement for serving God also stops.

Perhaps it was for this reason that Maimonides (12th century Spain and Egypt) insisted that serving God out of fear is not "the standard set by the prophets and sages." At best, he claims, it is a useful educational measure "until their knowledge shall have increased when they will serve out of love."

What was true then is even more true now. Modernity, with its insistence on the worth of the individual, on the ability of humanity to progress, has moved us beyond the utility of fear as a functional training device. If Jews who wish to be modern also desire to draw close to God, they will do so out of love. What is crucial, then, is to become open to perceiving that love. Through the beauty of nature around us, we can experience God’s love as Creator.

Through profundity of our sacred Jewish heritage, we can integrate God’s love as the honen da’at, the One who bestows wisdom. Through the performance of mitzvot (commandments), we can takken olam be-malkhut Shaddai, repair the world under the sovereignty of God. And through the acts of compassion and caring from those we love and our community, we can experience God as the Gomel Hesed, the one who bestows lovingkindness.

To Serve With Distinction

The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

The rebellion of Korah against Moses and Aaron is painful to most Jews who read it, precisely because it is so complex and so timeless.  While we are trained to sympathize with Moses and his supporters by our upbringing and by Jewish tradition, it is difficult for anyone who is passionate about democracy not to become stirred by Korah’s powerful message.  Our Jewish loyalty seems pitted against our democratic commitments.  That conflict hurts.

Moses and Aaron have successfully led the Jewish tribes out of slavery in Egypt and through the dangers of the wilderness.  The life of the tribes is now relatively secure and comfortable.  God regularly speaks, through Moses, to the Jewish people, and the families live out their lives waiting to move into the Promised Land.

In the midst of this idyllic serenity, Korah rebels.  He resents having to follow Moses in all matters, and challenges him with the moving line: "All the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?"

Korah’s challenge strikes to the heart of the democratic values so cherished by both our Jewish and our American traditions: If all people are created equal, then why should any one person have any authority over another?  Why should one person ever have access to power, wealth or prestige in a way that another person does not?

Korah’s challenge echoes in the words of Samuel and Amos, Jefferson and Lincoln, Marx and Trotsky.  Great leaders in every age, these people fought for the assertion that each person has intrinsic worth, that all people have equal value.

Few in America would challenge that claim.  But, we can still ask whether or not equality has to mean uniformity?  All people are indeed equal (in comparison to the infinite God who created us), but we are not all the same.  Equal in worth is not the same as identical in skills.  Korah’s flaw was to confuse those two traits–equal worth and identical characteristics.

The fact is that people are not all the same.  The most rudimentary glance around a crowded room confirms various degrees of intelligence and strength, different personalities and health.  Great athletes are different than the rest of us, and Nobel laureates do, in the words of the Wizard of Oz, "think deep thoughts with no more brains than you have."  There is a difference.

Korah was threatened by diversity, by specialization, by distinction.  Yet Judaism is based precisely on the celebration of diversity, the importance of distinction.  One can be different and still be equal.  The Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah articulates that insight when it says, "God divided the light from the darkness in order that it might be of service to the world."  Korah’s position would be to try to blend the two, to say that light and darkness are basically the same.  Korah would be threatened by their remaining distinct, each contributing in different ways to the maintenance of the world.

But we need distinct periods of night and day.  Both must retain their unique integrity for life to continue. Similarly, the midrash continues, "just as God distinguished the light from the darkness in order that that it might be of service to the world, so God made Israel distinct from the other nations… and in the same manner distinguished Aaron (and Moses)." For Jews to be able to contribute to the world–by living the values and practices that make for a society of sacred learning, divine service, and deeds of love–we must remain distinct.

Not better.  Not isolated.  But distinct. Just as we needed Moses to function as a leader–a part of the people, yet distinct from them–so the world needs Jews and Judaism–as part of humanity, yet also distinct.

On This Day God Calls To You

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

Some look to religion to transmit a sense of the majesty of the past. Traditions, because they come to us from a purer time, embody fragile vessels carrying remnants of a lost insight.

Such a view of Judaism correctly perceives the treasures of our ancestors’ seeking and recording their relationship with God. But it errs in transforming the record of that search into a type of fossil, a brittle relic that can only be passed from hand to hand, without any direct contribution from the viewer.

Such an idolization of the past removes God from the theater of our own lives, and threatens to trivialize the worth of our own continuing journeys, to ignore the harvest of our own insight and response. The Torah itself rejects this excessive veneration of the past.

In clear terms, Moses tells the Jewish People, "You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God . . . to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day . . . that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God."

Three times, Moses stresses the phrase, "this day," emphasizing the contemporaneity of God’s outreach to the Jewish People. Rashi notices this repetition, and comments that the chorus of "this day" indicates that, "just as this day enlightens, so will God enlighten [the Jewish People] in the future."

God’s relationship to humanity is a permanent expression of love, an ongoing fact no less than gravity or sunrise. It undergirds the laws of nature, unifies human enterprise and the rhythms of nature. To center one’s faith in the past is to imprison God within a book or a set of books. Such a faith makes idolatrous even the most sacred of inheritances. To center one’s faith in the living Source of life, the God of creation and of Revelation, however, is to liberate one’s spirit to the continuous abundance of God’s ‘chesed‘ (love, grace).

Jewish tradition is sacred because it reflects our ancestors’ intimacy with God and because it cultivates in ourselves a responsiveness and an eagerness for that same intimacy; which means that, important as it may be, Jewish tradition is a means to a higher end–which is a love relationship with God.

For Jews, such a relationship may only be attainable through the practice of ritual acts and good deeds, through ongoing learning and through prayer. But the Torah’s emphasis of "this day" addressing "all of you" reminds us that, essential though they may be, the goal is not mitzvot (commandments). The goal is God.

Mitzvot are our special pathway leading to the splendor of the Holy One. As with our ancestors, the Sovereign of the Universe beckons to each one of us. Come, My beloved, come away. Today, this day, God calls to you, and to your neighbor, and to me. Today, even now, the Holy One of Israel awaits your response.

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