Author Archives: Ben Greenberg

Ben Greenberg

About Ben Greenberg

Ben Greenberg received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York City. He has also completed graduate coursework in both Medieval Jewish History and Public Administration. Rabbi Greenberg has worked in the college campus and in synagogues from Boston to Denver. He is the author of two books and has written numerous articles on topics of Jewish thought, philosophy and contemporary issues. Rabbi Greenberg is married to Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg and together they have two sons.

Synagogues: Begin With Why

Thank you for visiting our website. We are a vibrant congregation with daily and Shabbat services. We offer young adult programming, empty nesters and seniors groups, adult Jewish learning opportunities and many other exciting programs. Please contact our membership director to schedule a time to visit our congregation.

This is a fictional welcome message on a synagogue website. However, messages like this can be found all over the Internet. They can be found in introductory pamphlets and can be found printed in weekly and quarterly newsletters. This fictional message expresses WHAT the synagogue does. It offers services and a lot of programming. Yet, it fails to express WHY the synagogue does what it does.

2013-think-differentIn the well regarded book Start with Why by Simon Sanek (watch a TED talk Simon delivered on the topic) the point is made that all too often our businesses and organizations sell themselves to the wider community with primarily what they do or what they produce. Apple makes excellent computers but that is not why they are the industry leader in personal electronic devices. They don’t market their iPhones as simply great phones or their Macbooks as simply great computers but rather they invite the consumer to “think differently” and to join them in fighting against the status quo. Their first and primary message is why they do what they do and only after conveying “the why” do they tell you “the what” it is they actually produce.

What would it looks like for our synagogues to put forth their why before their what. Why do you exist as a synagogue? What is it that you believe as an institution? Why do you have daily services and adult educational programming and Bnai Mitzvah lessons? Imagine a welcome message that looked something like this:

“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a congregation that believes in the vitality of the Jewish people. We believe in working towards a better world and cultivating personalities that are deep with spiritual intention and Jewish wisdom. We do that by offering daily services and adult educational opportunities. We offer empty nesters and seniors groups because we are committed to building the fabric of community that connects one person to another and breaks down the walls of loneliness and isolation. We would love for you to visit our community. Please stop by or send an email to our staff to schedule a time to come by for a conversation on how you can join us in impassioned Jewish living.”

Jewish communal life organized around the why can be a powerful vehicle for Jewish engagement and revitalization of our synagogue and institutional Jewish world.

Posted on December 5, 2014

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

Jewish Identity: Asking the Wrong Question

shutterstock_186371471I have been thinking a lot about Jewish identity recently. How do we define our own connection to Judaism? What unites us and what divides us? In what ways do the modes we use to define ourselves become off putting for someone exploring the Jewish community? These are tough questions and with no easy answer. Yet, there is one thing we could begin doing that would make a big impact.

All too often when we are meeting a new person in the context of a Jewish communal event (e.g. college Shabbat dinner, Jewish young adult group, etc.) our question is: What kind of Jew are you? Are you Reform? Are you Orthodox? Do you affiliate with a particular type of synagogue? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of attempting to determine how a person Jewishly identifies, we should want to know how they do Jewish. This point was made to me recently by a colleague. As a community we have become too focused on how a person is Jewish and not on what they do Jewish.

This focus on the how is strange considering we are traditionally a religious community defined by our actions more than our beliefs. We are commanded to perform mitzvot. In fact, there is a well known midrash, rabbinic homily, that has God declaring that in a choice between rejecting belief in Him and forsaking the Divine commandments, rather the people keep the commandments. What we do becomes more important than what we believe.

Creating more opportunities for meaningful Jewish engagement that focus on doing Jewish can become a catalyst for further involvement in the Jewish community. Avoiding the questions of Jewish identity can create safe spaces for people to be who they are while still embracing a full spectrum of Jewish actions. The time has come to stop asking how are you Jewish and begin to invite people to do Jewish.

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Posted on November 7, 2014

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Yom Kippur is Finished: Will Your Seat Be Empty Until Next Year?

The majesty and transcendence of the High Holidays are behind us. Rosh Hashanah with its coronation of God and Yom Kippur with the liturgical immersion into the Holy of Holies of the Holy Temple has passed. The machzorim, the special prayer books, have been put back into the storage rooms. The shofar has been put back on to the shelf and the grocery stores will stop ordering extra quantities of apples and honey until next year. That seat you spent so many hours in at synagogue (or the seat that you purchased but barely saw during these past two weeks) will also resume its normal life of being unoccupied. The cushion will resettle, the indentations will be erased and dust will begin to collect. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Stack Chair with Cushioned Box Seat with 100pct Olefin Fabric Upholstery_thumbProductWhat would happen if you didn’t let your seat at synagogue go unused this new year? What would happen if you came back and visited that seat when no ticket was needed to sit in it. The machzorim are put away but in their stead you will find the siddur, the year round prayer book. Do you believe your experience during the next round of High Holidays would be different if you were more than an annual visitor?

People sometimes compare the High Holidays to the Superbowl. No matter if you are a fan all year or even know the rules of the game there is something captivating about tuning into the game on the big day and knowing you are joining hundreds of millions of other people who are doing the same thing. The comparison has a point but it also falls short.

superbowl__large.gifRosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not built like the Superbowl. They are not built with an easy ability to tap into with no prior experience or knowledge. There are no multi-million dollar commercials in the midst of the service or professional athletes facing off against each other. Instead there is the sublime poetry and prose of the prayers. There are the melodies, some very old and some very new, that are meant to enter our heart and soul and move us in a religious experience. There is the introspection and reflection that finds its peak during the High Holidays. This is not the sort of thing that can be readily experienced at its fullest with no prior background. The ticket you purchased gains you entry into the building and a seat to sit on but if that is the only time you sit in that seat all year you very will might find yourself unable to access the moment you have paid for and craving to find some of its relevancy in your life.

So this year let us find time to fill that seat throughout the year. It’s alright to dip your toes in gently and build as time progresses. Build familiarity with the rhythm of Jewish ritual and prayer. Stretch those muscles of introspection and reflection. By doing so you may find that the next Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be an entirely different experience. Your seat will recognize you, the cushion will not be dusty, the prayer book will be an old friend and the melodies will penetrate your heart and lift you in soulful meaning.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is finished for the year but your seat will not be lonely for the next eleven months. Shanah Tovah, a good, sweet year of meaning making and spiritual growth to all.

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Posted on October 7, 2014

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 Destiny of the American Jewish Community: Assimilation or Isolation?

In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?

AssimilationWhen we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.

I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.

Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”

On one hand, we  encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.

jacob_wrestles_angel_rembrandt_harmensz1659The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.

The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.

Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.

When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.

AP120520062965-635x357The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.

These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.

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Posted on September 12, 2014

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

Jewish Learning Beyond New York: Jewish Learning Everywhere With @OpenSinai

When I was in my final year of rabbinical school I had a remarkable opportunity to spend a weekend in a very small Jewish community in the deep south. It was a beautiful experience with a warm and engaged community and yet I left understanding that there exists a profound inequality of resources and access to Jewish opportunities depending on geography, ability to travel and other factors. I had spent most of my formative Jewish educational life in New York City, one of the largest hubs for rich Jewish learning and growth. I was fortunate to have access to some of the top educators anywhere in the Jewish world. This is not the case for many Jews throughout the world.

An example of a class

An example of a class

What can we do to address this inequality gap? Thankfully with constantly improving technology and the emergence of an entire e-learning sector there now exists the opportunity to put forth a Jewish digital learning platform that is uniquely a Rabbis Without Borders experience. The learning experience will merge Jewish wisdom in all of its depth with openness and pluralism. The educators will be borderless, coming from all walks of life and life experiences. The technology will enable seamless integration of multimedia and real time conversation not just one-directional from the educator to the students but between the educator and the students and between the students themselves.

It is precisely because Rabbis Without Borders pushes its rabbinic participants to think in new ways and to conceive of new tools for bringing Jewish wisdom public that this project is beginning to bear fruit. I was so fortunate to be in the second cohort of the Rabbis Without Borders program when Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield urged us to consider the blending of technology with tradition and to reflect on the egalitarian access to learning that new media can provide.

It is therefore with great excitement that I am able to share the beginning of a new initiative: OpenSinai.com.

opensinai logo

OpenSinai.com is about offering Jewish learning everywhere. It is not about blog posts or articles but about facilitating real-time classes utilizing the best in digital learning technology that allows for meaningful conversations. No matter whether someone lives in the heart of New York City and is looking for a radically pluralistic borderless Jewish learning space or lives in a small community in the Midwest and is looking for Jewish enrichment, OpenSinai.com aims to provide those classes that fills that need.

We are in the beginning stages of the project and each week brings new developments. Visit the website, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and join our e-mail list to get the latest updates and find out when the first classes will be live. If you are an educator thinking about what it would mean to teach in this new space find out more on the website. If you are thinking about this project let us know what you think and get involved and help make it a reality. Let us continue to close the gap between big Jewish centers and Jewish communities throughout the world so that the small southern Jewish community I visited several years ago and all Jews everywhere can grow and deepen their spiritual, religious and intellectual lives.

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Posted on August 15, 2014

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What We Need This Tisha B’Av: Respectful Disagreement

The world is in chaos. An airplane with more than 300 people shot down over Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of people killed in Syria. A fundamentalist Islamist regime has swept through large swaths of Iraq and initiated mass torture, murder and exile of Christians and other non-Muslims. A war between Israel and the terrorist group, Hamas. The exodus of thousands of children from Central America to the United States and the humanitarian crisis along our southern border. The daily deaths of young people from gun violence in our urban centers.

couple-arguing-3All of these events and even more not mentioned have yielded endless discussions and debates. How to address each conflict? How to handle the humanitarian crisis of Central American children? Who is right? Who is wrong? One can see people vigorously discussing these matters during Shabbat lunches and online through social media. Oftentimes, these discussions become accusatory and disrespectful. We believe so strongly in our position that we become personally offended when one disagrees with us.

The time has come to recommit ourselves to respectful disagreement.

This coming week we will mark the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av. The day is the moment when the Jewish people mourn our losses as a people: The destruction of the Temple (both the first and the second); the exile from our land; the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust. We engage in a full day of intensive mourning rituals and powerful liturgy meant to evoke the indescribable horrors in our hearts and minds.

One of the most powerful pieces of liturgy is the Arzei HaLevanon, in which the deaths of some of the brightest, most profound Torah leaders of the Jewish people are recorded in agonizing detail. This is read twice in the Jewish calendar: Once on Yom Kippur and the second time on the 9th of Av. There are slight differences between the two readings. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l understands the disparities to indicate a difference between the purposes of the two readings. On Yom Kippur we recount their loss in order to inspire repentance while on the 9th of Av we recount their loss in order to simply mourn what we have lost.

What did we lose? Our tradition teaches us that “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” Maimonides understands this to mean that learning Torah brings more peace into the world than any other pursuit. How is that possible? When one opens up any page of Talmud one will discover it is full of disagreements and arguments!

Perhaps it is because it is not that we argue that is the problem. There will be differences of opinion. People will see things from different vantage points. It is how we argue that is the issue. The very best of the Torah sages, including and most notably the ones we mourn for on the 9th of Av and on Yom Kippur, reflected the very highest ideal of how to hold opinions and disagree with others. They modeled respectful disagreement. On the 9th of Av we cry over their loss. We cry over their horrible deaths and we cry over our failure to live up to the model they set forth.

We are in dark and difficult days. We are inundated with different viewpoints and perspectives thanks to social media and we cannot shy away from these conversations during our social gatherings. This 9th of Av let us reflect on not how to disagree less but how to better and more respectfully disagree.

Posted on August 1, 2014

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Should We Care About People Not Like Us?

tikkun-olamThe context was a class on the gun violence epidemic in Chicago. I had finished the presentation by mentioning some of the grim statistics of people injured and killed by gun violence throughout the city. After the class an individual approached me and said, “Rabbi, why should I care if people who aren’t Jewish are dying because other non-Jews are shooting them?” I was, of course, flabbergasted by his question. It occurred to me though that while this person had the audacity to ask the question, many more people probably quietly think along similar lines, even if not exactly in the same formulation. The question remains for many: Why should I care about people who are not part of my community? Is there a Jewish mandate to care about others?

This is an important question primarily because those of us who do believe there is a value to caring for people who are not like us need to spend time unpacking that priority. It is always worthwhile to explore our own value systems and be able to more clearly and cogently articulate why they are so. People can turn to many different sources for inspiration and guidance, as a rabbi I turn to Jewish texts and to Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate over the Land of Israel and the great 20th century Jewish philosopher and mystic, in his work Orot HaKodesh links the commandment to “love God” with love of the world. A person who truly loves God cannot help but love the world and God’s creations. God as Creator saw fit to create each and every human being and was therefore deserving of His love, thus how could we not love all humanity?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the eminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy, articulated a philosophy in his essay, Confrontation, of existing in two “confrontations:” the universal human struggle to overcome wickedness and the things that bring humanity down and an equally powerful connection to our own unique covenantal relationship with the Divine. Neither confrontation is abrogated by the other. Both are vital.

The early rabbinic text, the Tosefta, states that “we [Jews] eulogize and bury the dead of non-Jews because of the ways of peace, and we console the mourners of non-Jews because of the ways of peace. (Gittin 3:14)” Maimonides in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, extended it further and stated it was a commandment to visit non-Jewish sick and feed the non-Jewish poor because “God is good to all and His compassion is on all His creatures” and “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. (Laws of Kings 10:12)”

This is by far not an exhaustive examination of the subject. It also does not represent the entire spectrum of Jewish thought. There is a strand of thought that does diminish our obligation to care about those not like us. However, the objective here is not to present a complete exercise in the study of the subject from all angles but rather to make the case that believing there is an inherent value to caring about people who are not Jewish and devoting oneself to the betterment of all people is an integral part of Jewish tradition.

As our urban centers are plagued with gun violence (particularly in Chicago) and as people face numerous challenges related to poverty, access to quality education and discrimination we ought to be a part of the work towards a solution. We must be involved not just because it is the good thing to do but because it is very much the Jewish thing to do.

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Posted on July 18, 2014

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I Am Orthodox: Why Labels Matter

A few weeks ago Elad Nehorai of Pop Chassid posted a provocative piece entitled, “Jews, It’s Time To Abolish The Word ‘Orthodox’“. This article made its way through my Facebook newsfeed at the time of its posting with people agreeing with his idea and those disagreeing. This conversation: The utility of labels and the cost/benefit analysis of the term “Orthodox” is one that I have been party to on numerous occasions. The discussion is usually colored by the intra-denominational tensions within Orthodoxy and where the people who are conversing fall in those larger debates. This question is often used as a tool to either bolster or tear down another person’s identity claims in order to delegitimize or add legitimacy to their approach and philosophy.

Gratefully, Elad does not engage in that conversation but rather opens us up to thinking about whether it is time to abolish labels that are unnecessarily divisive. He wonders whether embracing a label implies spiritual and religious stagnation (i.e. “I’ve made it!”). These are important questions. Yet, I do not believe the problem is the label. As people we live in a world ordered by labels and categories. The entire pursuit of taxonomy in the scientific fields allows us to delve further into the biological world. Taxonomy, the pursuit of classifying in order to understand, is not an inherently negative notion. It is a necessary fact of life and the way we as human beings think.

identitySimilarly, an undeniable part of the transition from pure science to humanities is one will have a harder time of achieving absolutely consistent definitions. There will be at times inconsistencies. Sociologically, different groupings of people, even within a similar religious culture, will use the same title and mean slightly different things. Thus, when one sees different types of Orthodox Jews claiming the title Orthodox and yet they have differences in belief or practice that does not ipso facto mean the label is worthless. There are a myriad of ways of broadly being Jewish and yet we do not say the term “Jewish” or “Jew” is meaningless because there are differences amongst Jews.

My main contention with this article though is the non-personal nature of it. What do I mean by that? In claiming that the title ought to be abandoned Elad (and others who say the same thing in conversations) disregard the meaning the title holds for people who claim it as an identity construct. It may not be helpful, meaningful or useful for you but that is not the same thing as saying it is therefore not helpful, meaningful or useful for anyone else. In fact, to do so is to be dismissive of other people’s identity and the way they form themselves in the world.

I am Orthodox. The Orthodox title is useful for me in conceiving of how I go about in the world. It is helpful for me in framing my particular sub-community within the Jewish religious world. It is meaningful for me to describe not the journey that I have completed (contrary to Elad’s claim) but rather the journey I am still on. Furthermore, as a person with some ancestral connections to the German Jewish experience, I find inspiration, motivation and wisdom from the intellectual vibrancy, spiritual probing and engagement with the world offered by figures such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l and Rabbi Dovid Tsvi Hoffmann zt”l among others.

The term historically arose as a pejorative for the traditional in a post-ghettoized Europe but that does not mean there are many, including myself, who have come to embrace it. The label may be home to intense intra-fighting but that has always been the case since the dawn of the label (e.g. the German Neo-Orthodoxy in contrast to the Hungarian Ultra-Orthodoxy debates of the 19th century). I respect the decision of those who choose to no longer identify with the label or who no longer find it helpful or meaningful but I ask that those same people respect my decision to maintain it.

Posted on July 4, 2014

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How To Read The Hebrew Bible

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to staff a table at the Chicago Jewish Festival. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with a wide spectrum of people from the Chicagoland Jewish community. During the course of the day, a member of a missionary Christian organization came to my table to proselytize. Putting aside for this blog post the assumptions that motivate a person behind the act of proselytizing, I found fascinating his use of quotes from Tanakh to justify his theological position. It was not the first time I’ve encountered his approach but for whatever reason it struck me that day.

If there was one way to describe his approach I would call it flat. In the traditional Jewish approach to reading the Bible, the text becomes alive with generations and generations of commentary and layers of understanding. If one would map out a Jewish approach to reading Tanakh as a topographical map, it would contain mountains and hills, valleys and plains. In the contrary approach, as exemplified by that missionary, the text is read without context, without commentary and without depth. The words are understood simply through the bias and lens of the contemporary reader. In interacting with this missionary, and with others like him, it is as if we are operating with two different sets of language and do not share a common vocabulary and reference points to have a meaningful conversation.

However, are there times when it is called for to read the Tanakh absent commentary and rabbinic depth? Even as Jews who inhabit a Biblical world of mountains and hills, are there moments when we can gain from seeing the text as flat?

An example of the power of reading the text flattened: The Hebrew Bible mentions multiple times the need to uphold the rights of the immigrant in your midst (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 24:17, Ezekiel 47:21-23 as just a few examples). It is one of the most dominant themes throughout the entire text. Yet, we know that the rabbis understood this oft-repeated injunction to refer to the legally defined, ger toshav—resident alien, a much more limited category with many specifications and requirements than the broad category of immigrant. Does the flat reading of those many verses in the Tanakh still contain an ethic of how we treat the vulnerable in our society?

I believe they do. There is a power to the text even separated from the traditional Jewish exegetical approach to understanding it. When we conceive of the study of the Talmud we classically divide Talmudic literature into two broad categories: halakha (law) and aggada (homiletics or “everything else”). The aggada is no less valuable than the halakha even if one can not derive specific practical steps from it. The aggada frames the way we view the world and how we conduct our moral selves. Similarly, there are times when reading Tanakh flatly, without the richness of commentary, can inform our moral and ethical selves and help us frame the society we live in. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote in his work, The Nineteen Letters:

“… we must first acquaint ourselves with Judaism through the source which it, itself, offers, the only documentation and evidence about itself that it has salvaged from the wreck of all its other fortunes: the Torah. And through the Torah we must attain, also, an understanding of Israel’s destiny. For is not Judaism an historical phenomenon, and is not the Torah the only account of its origin, of its first appearance on the stage of history and of its existence for a considerable length of time thereafter? … Before we open it, however, let us consider how to read it. As a subject for philological or antiquarian research? … As Jews we will read this book, as a book tendered to us by God in order that we learn from it about ourselves, what we are and what we should be during our earthly existence. We will read it as Torah— literally, ‘instruction’ —directing and guiding us within God’s world and among humanity, making our inner self come alive.”

This I believe is the value of approaching the Hebrew Bible and reading it on its own terms. There are limits to that endeavor, as that missionary at the Chicago Jewish Festival demonstrated, but just because there are limits does not mean it is not a worthwhile practice.

Posted on June 20, 2014

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Don’t Pray, Communicate! A Book Review of Holistic Prayer

weiss_avi_webTo understand the newest book by Rabbi Avi Weiss one needs to tell a story that appears in the book, Holistic Prayer:

A rabbi was once informed that a crazed woman was in the beit midrash (the study hall, which is sometimes used as a small prayer room). “She is standing in front of the Ark, the Ark is open, and she is babbling and gesturing wildly,” he was told. “She seems to be mentally imbalanced. Perhaps you can go in and help her. The rabbi went in. As he sat quietly in the back, he could see that the woman was deeply immersed in tefilla. The rabbi overheard some of her words as she swayed and cried out: “Dear God, I know I was here just last week, but I am back because I need your help. My daughter is still not well. Please, please, in my hour of need, do not forsake me, do not leave me!” Understanding the privacy of her tefilla, the rabbi left the woman alone. Upon his return, he was asked, “So what did you do with the babbling crazy lady?” The rabbi responded, “This morning I got up, put on my prayer shawl, donned my tefillin and davened. But this woman wasn’t davening, she was talking to God. That’s a whole different world.” (Holistic Prayer, pg. 169)

The goal of Rabbi Weiss’ book is to take the reader on a journey. It is a journey that when finished will lead the reader to transition from a davening (praying) out of repetition to a conversation with God. The book is most appreciated by those who have a familiarity with the mechanics of daily Jewish prayer and have a comfort with the key terminology. It is to this audience that Rabbi Weiss challenges the reader to rethink what they think they know about prayer and to open up our hearts and minds to a reinvigorated and renewed understanding. For example, in discussing a key feature of traditional Jewish prayer, the set times allocated for it, Rabbi Weiss explains:

 “The idea that love is predicated on action is crucial to understanding tefilla and, more broadly, all of Jewish ritual. If tefilla is an expression of love, why should we be mandated to pray? Why not pray only when we feel like praying? In truth, however, we may not feel like praying for long periods of time. But if we’re obliged to pray, we make a decision to pray. By placing ourselves in the prayerful mode, feelings of prayer may surface… That is the basic idea of ritual. Ritual is an expression of our love for God. Its goal is by and large to do an action from which feelings may come. (pg. 77)”

holisticPrayer1In this journey of Holistic Prayer Rabbi Weiss weaves together a myriad of sources and references. His book is filled with ideas sourced from the Talmud, Halakha (Jewish law), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and other traditional places. Yet, it also brings in ideas from thinkers not accustumed to finding themselves referenced in a work of the philosophy of prayer by an Orthodox rabbi. Examples of these out of the box thinkers include: John Powell, the Jesuit priest and author of The Secret of Staying in Love; the humanist philosopher Erich Fromm and the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. In the bringing together the wisdom from classical Jewish tradition and the larger world, Rabbi Weiss exemplifies the very best of the Modern Orthodox approach, in the model set forth by his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l.

I had the unique privilege of being a student in the rabbinical school he founded, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, while he was conducting his research that would become this book. In our year-long class on prayer Rabbi Weiss would convey his ideas and philosophy with us that would later fill the pages of Holistic Prayer. In reading this book I can not help but bring that experience to bear in my understanding this work. I not only read the words but I can hear them and visualize his excitement, passion and genuineness in conveying them.

In the preface Rabbi Weiss shares that his wrote this book because “for a long time, I have lovingly struggled with prayer.” When I read those words I had a hard time relating to them because as a student of his, someone who has been blessed to know him for almost 10 years, I have never experienced the man who has “lovingly struggled with prayer,” rather, I know a man who has a face that lights up when he is in the midst of prayer and who sways with an extraordinary amount of devotion and commitment. I think that is because this book is as personal for him as it is intellectually rigorous and spiritually rich. It records his own journey through his adult life with prayer. As someone who has at times also struggled with prayer I can very much share in that experience and it only makes this work more important for me and others who experience ups and downs in their own personal prayer life.

I believe this book is a must read for anyone who has committed to taking part in the life of traditional Jewish prayer, or who has ever experienced it, with all of its rigors and demands. It will inject your prayer life with a breath of fresh air and reframe the whole endeavor to provide new possibilities for enrichment and connection to God.

In closing the book Rabbi Weiss offers the following prayer:

“May the tefilla of Rabbi Judah HaLevi — of God and the human being searching for each other — be forever ingrained in our hearts.

I have sought your nearness, With all my heart I have called You, And going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me. (pg. 260)”

May we take up the call of Rabbi Weiss and catalyze our prayer to be a moment of going out to meet the Divine and in so doing discover God coming out to meet us.

Posted on May 9, 2014

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