Category Archives: Beliefs

Online classes with MyJewishLearning

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Holidays, Life on by .

This Holiday season MyJewishLearning is offering two live, interactive, online classes designed to help you prepare for Thanksgiving.

Global Day of Jewish Learning
Is There A Recipe for Prayer: A Lesson in Picking the Perfect Words

Taught by Devorah Levine Katz

Some prayers are read from the book; others are spontaneous cries from the heart. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these approaches?

In our class, we will explore both standard and spontaneous prayers and take part in an ancient discussion on the values of both. Using sources from the traditional Siddur (prayer book), Mishna and Talmud we will journey into the world of prayer searching for the perfect recipe for the perfect prayer.

Sunday November 18th 8:30-9:30PM Eastern Time, Free! (Registration Required)

Register now

Preparing for Thanksgiving
What’s the Jewish Way to Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Taught by Rabbi Peretz Rodman

The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday go back to 1623, but the values of gratitude and offering thanks have been a part of Jewish life for thousands of years. Judaism’s classical texts, from the words of the Psalmist to stories of modern masters of Musar (Jewish ethical piety), offer insights into Jewish approaches to what Jews call hakarat ha-tov, “recognition of the good”?good deeds done for us and good things given to us.

Together we will study some of these texts, and discuss the overlapping American and Jewish values of gratitude, joy, and relief that we experience during this Thanksgiving season.

Monday November 19th 8:30-9:30PM Eastern Time, Free! (Registration Required)

Register Now

After registering, you will receive an email with a link to the class page.

We look forward to learning with you!

Posted on November 9, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Shabbat: A Cure for Busyness

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Holidays on by .

As I write this, I am simultaneously:

1. Compulsively checking my email, Twitter, and Facebook.
2. Waiting for an “important” text message to determine my weekend plans
3. IMing with several co-workers
4. Flipping through Internet radio to find the perfect balance of “listenable, without requiring too much thought” music

birthright shabbatI have, it seems, a fantasy of reaching some sort of technological nirvana – by hitting “refresh”one more time I’ll suddenly become “one with the universe” (or at least the Twitterverse.)  I may consciously know that Facebook would be fine and hum along without me, but – what if I miss a funny picture of a cat??   I’m a classic case of being desperately in need of an opportunity to disconnect.

Shabbat is a great opportunity to hit the technology “off” switch (in my case, more of a dimmer switch).   NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation has partnered with Reboot for NEXT Shabbat 360, as part of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging to help slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world.   They must have had me in mind.

For 24 hours beginning the evening of Friday, March 23rd , thousands of people around the country will “unplug.”  NEXT Shabbat will help cover the cost of 360 Shabbat meals that weekend.  For those of you who have been on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, Shabbat 360 is a great way to unplug –  electronically, mentally, physically, whatever! – by bringing together friends for a Shabbat meal, your way.  From chicken in Chatanooga to jachnun in Jackson Hole, there’s no wrong way to celebrate Shabbat – especially when you’re celebrating alongside 359 other NEXT Shabbat meals that same weekend.

So?  Sign up here! Celebrate!  Unplug!   A one-day detox from my TV, phone, iPad and “teh interwebz” is exactly what I need.

Now, if you’ll excuse me – I have to post this on Twitter.

Posted on March 21, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Pharaoh Was A Nazi

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Culture, History on by .

You know how Godwin’s law says that every internet argument eventually breaks down into someone calling someone else Hitler or a Nazi? This is one of my greatest pet peeves in life, because it’s not just online arguments that devolve into Holocaust finger-pointing…you can find this stuff all over our culture. Want to paint someone as evil? Just connect them to the Holocaust in some way (see The Kite Runner and Girl With a Dragon Tattoo to name just two) and your work is over.

I’m fine with saying that Hitler and his Nazis were evil (though it seems likely that there was some level of nuance within the huge organization of the SS, and some were probably much worse than others) but it just seems lazy to use them as shorthand for evil when they were neither the first or last to prove that evil does exist in our world.

This Slate.com article answers the fascinating question of who people equated with pure evil before Hitler:

Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?

The Pharoah. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators. Orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote: “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever.” In the run-up to the Civil War, abolitionists regularly referred to slaveholders as modern-day Pharaohs. Even after VE Day, Pharaoh continued to pop up in the speeches of social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s so interesting to think that when people want to talk about real evil, they go to someone who picked specifically on the Jews. This reminds me of a fascinating book I read called The Dream of Scipio. The book takes place in three different time periods, and at first there doesn’t seem to be any real connection between the three narratives. As the story progresses you see more and more threads between them, but mostly what you see is that the use of Jews as scapegoats is the beginning of the end for any society. (It’s an outstanding book that I highly recommend.)

Part of me wants to recommend that we go back to using Pharaoh as the prototype for evil, but I have to admit, Hitler does sound like he was better at being evil than Pharaoh. Hitler killed more people, and had a very efficient system for getting rid of people. Plus, we know for certain that Hitler did exist. Pharaoh is more of a mythic figure, and thus carries less weight. Perhaps in another thirty years when we’re more removed from WWII we’ll revert to Pharaoh, or rely less heavily on Hitler. In the meantime, it’s still helpful to have some historical perspective.

Posted on November 4, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Does Place Matter?

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Yesterday, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice. Her most recent book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community, is now available.

I started Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community with a question: Does place matter?

In today’s globalized world, it’s easy to say that place doesn’t matter at all. With a few clicks of a mouse, I can skype with friends and relatives all over the world. If I choose tomorrow to move to Fiji, I can do so. If I wanted, I could hire a secretary in India, outsource data entry to Cambodia, and telecommute from a cruise ship on the Atlantic. We no longer live in a world in which we grow up, go to school, work, and die in the same city or even often the same country.

And yet, I had a deep conviction that place does matter. Personally, I have prioritized doing justice work in the place where I live (New York City/the United States) and in Israel, where I have deep roots and much experience. At the same time, I cannot ignore the dire poverty in parts of the world far from where I live, and where I may never visit.

Place plays a fundamental role in Jewish tradition. We tell our people’s story in geographic terms—Abraham left the land of his ancestors and settled in Canaan;Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt; the Israelite people came out of Egypt, journey through the wilderness, and found their place in the land of Israel. Our history includes sojourns in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Arab World. We continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple—once our central place—and the subsequent expulsions from many of the places we have lived. There is even a divine aspect to place—the rabbis call God “HaMakom”—“The Place.”

At the same time, we are a people whose history transcends place. We maintain our traditions even as we move around the world (though these traditions have shifted according to the places where we live). We speak of Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—as a unit not bounded by geography.

So does place matter or not?

I ended up devoting much of the second chapter of the book to a particularly intriguing text that considers how to prioritize our own needs with those of the people of another place. In this text, the people of one town have a well from which they take water to drink, to feed their animals, and to do laundry. People of another town, in which there is no well, stop by to ask for water. The ensuing several centuries of discussion considers which of our own needs take priority, when to share the water, and what responsibility to place on the residents of any individual place to care for their own needs.

The conclusion: Place isn’t everything, but it still matters.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There
Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition
. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.

 

Posted on October 12, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Let There Be Light

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This year, I’ve been obsessing about Psalm 27, the one that starts out “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” which traditional Jews recite every morning of the month of Elul. No coincidence that it’s been popping up a lot — check out this great spoken-word version of the psalm from Danny Raphael, and read Mary J. Blige’s piece on spiritual light for Jewels of Elul.

Today’s Jewel of Elul is about light, too. It’s a much different take on the topic — as you’ll see.

Jewels of Elul Web Banner - 160 x 600 pixelsThere is a great Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days. The time is supposed to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery. Each day, Jewels of Elul brings you a different thought.

It was dawn. My mother and I watched silently as the sun rose on a new day, the seventh day of my brother’s shiva. My brother, Nadav Elad, had been an IDF soldier in one of the elite units of the paratroopers.

We should have hated the sun, lighting up a world that seemed so broken to us now. Yet my mother gently laid her eyes on the view unfolding through the light, and with deep gratitude gave thanks for its existence. Light, she said, had witnessed Nadav’s presence in this world, as we have. And so now we are partners, holding his memory together and testifying that he had lived under the sun.

Read the rest on JewelsOfElul.com >>

Posted on September 16, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Shabbat, the Remix

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Holidays on by .

You know the Sabbath Manifesto — the project that seeks to introduce people to relax, rest, and get back to basics, and to “tune out” for one day? It’s basically what us Hebrews refer to as “Shabbat” — but a sort of modernized, remixed Shabbat for the 21st century.

Shlomo Carlebach once pointed out that Orthodox Jews pray for Jerusalem every day, but the people who actually founded the modern State of Israel. And this new video — which is a cool, strange hybrid of a public-service commercial and a bunch of right-wing yeshivish Orthodox Jews in an insurance commercial — is moving and curiously spot-on.

I mean, my first instinct is to say, what in the name of G-d is going on? My second instinct is to say, ALL OF THOSE PEOPLE LOOK EXACTLY ALIKE. (Bearing in mind that, with very minor cosmetic distinctions, I pretty much look exactly like all of them.) But the more I think about it, the more I realize that (a) it’s a targeted ad campaign, (b) those people are exactly the target, and (c) it’s really freakin’ effective.

We all need to spend less time on our computers and our various gadgets. Or, forget that — we need to spend less time in our own self-involved pursuits, stet. Yesterday I got distracted from playing with my kids while doing some weed-whacking. I had a moment where I realized, Oh, crap, garden shears are the prehistoric equivalent of a BlackBerry. So our yard isn’t quite as hazardous as it used to be, which is good for my kids (and anyone else who comes over). But it’s still no replacement for quality time with the folks.

(hat tip to my mother-in-law for sending this)

Posted on September 12, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Light Within

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There is a great Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days. The time is supposed to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery. Each day, Jewels of Elul brings you a different thought.

Jewels of Elul Web Banner - 160 x 600 pixelsThis past winter, I paid a visit to my elderly aunt -– my late father’s younger sister –- with whom I am very close. I have learned some of my greatest life lessons from her. Shirley lives in a stately home on a tree-lined street in Brookline, Massachusetts, where the phone never stops ringing. She is a mother of four, grandmother of sixteen, great-grandmother of forty-five and counting. Recently widowed, she had just put her home on the market when, during a visit to a daughter in Chicago, a pipe burst, flooding several floors full of antiques and artwork. A significant part of that elegant home had been —turned, in her words, into “a barn.” So she had just begun the process, arduous for anyone much less an octogenarian, of filing insurance claims and rebuilding her home.

“Come in, darling!” She swept me into what had once been her living room. “It’s a mess, isn’t it? But look how lucky we were. None of Uncle Moe’s books were damaged.”

I looked at her. Lucky? This wouldn’t have been my definition of lucky.

Read the rest >

Posted on September 1, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What We Believe

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On Monday, Darin Strauss wrote about wrestling with faith.

I’ve done an informal poll — I admit, it’s very informal — among Jews I know: What do we believe? A pretty fundamental question, right? And yet there is no consensus of belief, even regarding the most bedrock principles of faith.

What’s more, this belief discrepancy doesn’t exist just between our religion’s big three wings (between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox); it exists within them, too. Ask a few observant Jews what happens to us after we die.

Some will say: “We sit at the hand of G-d — and the closer we are to Him, the more kindly we had been on Earth.”

Some will say: “We live on, in the memories of our friends.”

Some will say—and these are people who believe, as Madonna does, in the Kabbalah — that there are seven actual heavens.

This sort divergence existed among us even in olden times, well before we’d split into our three current camps. In the Second Temple Era, the Pharisees believed in bodily resurrection for the dead, while the Essenes believed that the soul itself is immortal. And the Sadducees — an old sect I had never before heard of — believed, apparently, in neither: Not in an immortal soul, nor in any afterlife. (Maybe that’s why they had “sad” in their name.)

Another point of eternal Jewish dispute is the Messiah. Maimonides wrote a commentary that argued for a non-mystical messiah:

Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living…

Don’t you love the modern sound of that? You can hear the blustery uncle at a 21st-century seder table in that last bit, the “very easy for people to make a living” part. (Maybe, like my uncle, Maimonides had a Garment Center guy who could get him a nice suit for a good price.)

I don’t write this to be disrespectful. I think it’s a wonderful fact about Judaism — at least about the approach to Judaism I most relate to: there are no universal answers, we don’t have it all figured out, G-d is unknowable.

I wonder: Is this uncertainty, this lack of knowledge we have about the thing that is so central to so many other faiths? Is it because so many of us spent so many of the last 2,000 years forgetting Hebrew? Praying in a language a lot of us could phonetically sound out but not fully understand?

That is probably too simplistic; certainly the most devout among us — certainly a Maimonides — spoke and understood Hebrew fluently. But how many American Jews, say, actually speak Hebrew with real understanding — how many understand all the words to all the prayers?

Moreover, how many subscribers to such “hip Jew” publications as Heeb and Jewcy have a real textual understanding of the religion with which they so identify? These are unanswerable questions. But compare all this Jewish uncertainty with the inflexible sureness of evangelical Christians (not to mention fundamentalist Muslims.) This is, paradoxically, why I know I feel a kinship with Judaism that goes beyond the cultural and familial bonds I have with the faith: the not-knowing.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

Posted on August 24, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Darin Strauss on Faith

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Darin Strauss’s most recent book, Half a Life: A Memoir, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Faith is a private issue. At least, I consider it to be one. (Try telling that to Tea Party evangelicals, though…) I consider myself a Jewish writer—even if my characters frequently are not Jewish—in the same way, I guess, that I consider myself a Jewish man, even though I don’t often attend shul.

In another post I’ll talk about my books (particularly Chang & Eng, a novel about the famous and Asian conjoined twins, and Half a Life, my non-fiction book about me). Here, today, I want to discuss faith.

I felt sheepish this week when I admitted to someone that I pray each night. My prayer is improvised—though like some standard jazz performance, the improv happens within pretty strict parameters—and asks for nothing. It wasn’t always this way.

prayed every night for as long as I can remember—at least since my Israel bar mitzvah some 27 years ago. But until recently I would ask G-d for favors. Nothing extravagant, nor even of a material nature. But my prayer was a homemade mix of thanks and request. I didn’t use a standard, Jewish prayer-book prayer because 1) I don’t speak Hebrew, and 2) it seems to me that if one doesn’t know the meaning of what one is saying, that ignorance is an impenetrable barrier between oneself and G-d. Now, I could’ve learned Hebrew, sure. But it seemed (and I’ll admit this may have been my laziness) that talking to G-d directly was a better way of expressing my own personal feelings of belief and appeal and doubt and gratitude.

But recently, as my own comprehension of my faith increased, I realized there was much I didn’t believe. Or, not that I didn’t believe, exactly, but that I had serious doubts about a few things. For example, it struck me as unlikely that G-d involves Himself with the daily minutiae of every single life on the planet. That an omnipotent creator of life would find himself shackled with that duty seemed improbable—it struck me as beneath Him. Also, how to explain the conflicting nature of some prayers? E.g., What to do when a million people pray for one thing, and another million its opposite? And what about not only the Holocaust, but every year’s untold tsunami and earthquake victims? Hadn’t they prayed? And sick children—etc.

All the same, I believe in G-d, and also that Judaism is closest to what my conception of G-d is—not to mention I have a steep cultural attachment to this religion and her people. And so I decided to keep on praying, but just not to ask G-d for anything. The thing is, I truly am profoundly thankful to G-d for all the blessings I have received in my life, beginning with the gift of Life itself. Now, whether my not asking for good things to happen to me is subconsciously intended to win me brownie points with G-d is something I can’t answer. But I do feel the need to give thanks, and also not to feel hypocritical by asking for things when I have doubts that G-d would answer me.

That is not to say I haven’t broken my little rule; that I haven’t taken up the mantle of hypocrisy now and again. But I do so for my three-year-old son. (He has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and I have prayed, and will continue to pray, for his health and comfort.) It seems to me a little hypocrisy in the service of fatherhood may get a bit of a divine pass.  But who knows.

This homemade ritual feels right for me; I’m not saying anyone else should embrace it.  I hope others would give me the same wide faith devotional birth.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy. He will be blogging here all week.

Posted on August 22, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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