High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words
by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis
Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people. You and I were born in slavery, so we know what it means to be a slave. We are not slaves. A slave does not ask questions. A slave bites his tongue, shuts his mouth, kneels before power and grovels before the power of authoritarianism. But the God of Israel is not an intractable, implacable authoritarian. He listens, hears and responds to the cries of conscience.
A Jew questions. There is a quip that when the rabbi was asked a question by a stranger, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” the rabbi replied, “Why not?” The question is a profound answer. What makes you think that an answer, no matter how dogmatically given with thunder and lightning, is not itself subject to question? Dogma is corrigible. Everything is subject to critique and correction.
So, no excuses. You and me! Clergy and congregants and disciples of all faiths — you cannot shrug your shoulders and say, “What can I do? It’s found in the Holy Scriptures. It is so written.” No. No. When the Koran or the New Testament or the Hebrew scriptures say something that debases humanity, that calls for tortured confession or genocide, your Jewish conscience must respond as did the Prophet and the rabbis — “This will not stand.”
So, preachers, whatever your denomination, cannot say “Do this because I am God’s spokesman and messenger.” You cannot stand idly by the imams’ fatwa to behead the infidel, or evangelical arrogance to consign to hell those who do not accept his orthodoxy, his revelation. You cannot hide behind scriptures. We are human beings and we see with human eyes. There is no infallible perception.
On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism speaks to the world. Do you want a world drenched in conformity that deifies authoritarianism and excuses holocausts, or do you believe that church, mosque and synagogue must develop a community of conscience?
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?
by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?
The answer, I believe, is that it isn’t simply permissible to be an optimist, it’s a mitzvah and it’s mandatory!
Which of the two is the Creator of the universe — an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!
Rabbi and author Benjamin Blech is serving as guest rabbi at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills for this year’s High Holy Days. This excerpt is from a Return
by Rabbi Zoë Klein
Is there a heaven and a hell?
When it comes to the subject of the existence of heaven and hell, most contemporary Jews – meaning Jews who have graduated college, who are essentially secular and who consider themselves progressive – know exactly where they stand: There is no heaven, and there is no hell.
Most Jews deem belief in heaven and hell highly unsophisticated, even primitive.
But like many other positions held by contemporary Jews, this one, too, demands an explanation.
On almost no level – the Jewish, the religious, the moral, the emotional, the intellectual – does denying heaven and hell make sense.
By heaven and hell, I mean reward and punishment in the afterlife. I am not referring to a hell of eternal fire or a heaven filled with harp-playing angels. Any attempt to describe either heaven or hell is likely to sound silly. I remember one of my yeshiva rabbis telling us students that heaven is eternal study of the Torah. Now this may well have sounded terrific to my rabbi, but all I recall is wondering what the alternative is like – and I actually liked studying the Torah.
This is surely one reason neither the Torah nor the rest of the Hebrew Bible describes heaven or hell. And the Talmud devotes much more time to details concerning temple sacrifices than it does to descriptions of heaven or hell.
The Torah, the biblical authors and the Talmudic rabbis wisely understood the dangers of describing heaven and hell. The widespread Islamic belief in a heaven where men are greeted by 72 virgins is a perfect example of a description that makes a mockery of the notion of reward in the afterlife.
For that is what heaven and hell are about. Heaven means there is reward after this life, and hell means there is punishment after this life.
One of my first columns for the Jewish Journal made the moral and intellectual case for an afterlife. So I will confine my comments here to ultimate reward and punishment.
It is impossible to affirm that there is a good God while denying that there is any ultimate reward and punishment. If there is a just God, there is ultimate justice. Conversely, if there is no ultimate justice, there is no just God – which is the same as saying there is no God (if anything, belief in an unjust god is even bleaker than belief in no god).
One can therefore understand why a confirmed atheist denies the existence of heaven and hell. But how does one explain Jews who believe there is a God and may even have some other traditional Jewish beliefs but deny the existence of heaven and hell?
I think there are two explanations for this.
One is that most Jews have been more influenced by secularism and the secular university than by Judaism. Heaven and hell are not only denied by the secular and intellectual worlds, they are mocked. And most people do not wish to hold beliefs that the sophisticated of their age mock.
The other is that Christianity strongly upholds belief in heaven and hell and is strongly identified with it. And most Jews find it anathema to uphold almost any belief that is identified with Christianity.
It is probably fair to say that in terms of beliefs, more Jews are interested in being not-Christian than in being Jewish. Take almost any issue identified with Christians and Christianity and most Jews hold the opposite. Prayer in school? Christians believe in that, not us Jews. Abortions not performed to save the life of the mother are a sin? Christians believe in that, not us Jews. Faith in God is morally necessary? Christians believe in that, not us Jews. People are born with sinful natures? Christians believe in that, not us Jews. Heaven and hell? Christians in believe in that, not us Jews.
In every case listed here, traditional Judaism and Christianity are in agreement. But as few Jews hold traditional Jewish beliefs or even know what they are, they reject many of those beliefs because they are identified with Christians and Christianity.
Divine reward and punishment are so basic to Judaism that they are one of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Judaism. Denying them provides a vivid example of how much more Jews have been influenced by secularism than by Judaism and how instinctual it is for most Jews to reject a normative Jewish belief because it is popularly associated with Christianity.
Take the examples of the Nazis and Raoul Wallenberg. The latter was the Swedish diplomat stationed in Budapest who devoted his life to saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being deported to Nazi death camps. If ever there was a saint, Raoul Wallenberg was one.
Yet, just as most Nazi murderers and torturers were never punished, Wallenberg was never rewarded. Indeed, he was undoubtedly murdered by the other twentieth monstrosity, Communism. The Soviets captured him when they captured Hungary and sent him to the Soviet Union where he died shortly after World War II.
For those who deny heaven and hell, Nazi and Communist mass murderers have the same fate as Raoul Wallenberg. Why would any Jew – or anyone who hates evil or loves goodness—want to believe that?
Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).
Requirements for peace — NATO troops, action on Palestine
“How can Israeli soldiers fight a 10-year-old boy who wants to die? Or a teenager at the wheel of an exploding truck, smiling because he knows that in 10 seconds he will be in Heaven?
Is This Marriage Made in Heaven?
The night I met my husband was a warm evening in April and the smell of orange blossoms permeated the air. The date was “arranged” by mutual friends but I had lots of doubts about meeting their old college friend, a nice Jewish doctor from Los Angeles.
“If he’s such a great guy, why is he 31 years old and not married?” I asked myself as I pulled into the parking lot, totally missing the irony of my own unmarried situation.
I knew, even before the chips and salsa arrived, that my children would have his eyes. Deep, calm, caring eyes that had me convinced in less than a minute that I had come home to the place I had been traveling 27 years to find.
I didn’t know what it was called at the time but according to Jewish tradition, I had found my beshert, my true soul mate.
What is a soul mate? Is it a New Age concept that defines true love? Is it a catchy phrase used by romance novelists and publishers to sell books? Or does it mean something deeper and more essential, a spiritual bond between two people that is essential to fulfilling our heart’s destiny?
The Bible gives us a glimpse of the origins of a soul mate in Genesis 2:18 when God said: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him.”
Loneliness is God’s first concern about us as human beings. There is a sense that we will not be happy alone; that we need to be connected to another human being to experience companionship, support and the struggles inherent in a relationship if we are to achieve personal fulfillment and reach our highest potential. Adam, the first man, may have been complete in his physical being but without someone to love, without a partner with whom to relate, he was spiritually and emotionally incomplete.
In the story of Isaac and Rebecca, we watch as Divine guidance directs the meeting of two people destined for one another when Abraham’s servant, Eleazar, prays to God for a sign. Eleazar barely finishes his entreaty when Rebecca appears and provides the exact sign that Eleazar had prayed for: She offers him and his camels water to drink. This is seen as more than a lucky coincidence; it is viewed as an act of Divine providence guiding Isaac to his true love.
The idea that heaven plays a part in the destiny of our hearts also appears in the Talmud, which describes a soul mate as someone who is chosen for us even before we are born. “Forty days before a child is born, a voice from heaven announces: ‘The daughter of this person is destined for so-and-so'”(Sotah 2a).
How does one find their soul mate? Jewish history provides us with several answers. Abraham’s servant, Eleazar, is our first example of a Jewish matchmaker, a man on a mission to find the right wife for Isaac. During the 12th century in Europe and Asia, it became customary to hire an intermediary, or shadchen, to find a suitable marriage partner. While this custom is no longer widely practiced, it is still followed in traditional Orthodox Jewish communities today.
Another answer has emerged from the world of technology. Jewish matchmaking in cyberspace is now a vibrant industry consisting of numerous Web sites offering successful matchmaking services for Jewish singles.
Not finding one’s soul mate does not mean that one will live a loveless life. There are many forms of love and many types of loving relationships that nourish the heart and elevate the soul. Although different from a soul mate, a soulful relationship is one born out of true knowledge, caring, respect and love for another person that imbues life with emotional and spiritual meaning and purpose. Soulful relationships can occur throughout our lives with friends, co-workers, respected teachers and family members, as well as in our efforts to know and love God. In all cases, it is through our search for love and the belief and faith that we will find it that we open ourselves up to finding soulful relationships, as well as our true beshert.
My husband and I will celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary this year. While some may view ours as a “marriage made in heaven,” we both know how hard we have struggled, worked, negotiated and compromised to make it a strong and loving relationship here on earth. When I look into his face and see the light reflected in the eyes that so closely resemble those of my children, I am reminded of a wonderful Jewish saying from the Chasidic rabbi, the Ba’al Shem Tov:
“From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.”
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ask Yourself God’s Questions
When we arrive in heaven, the Talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?
This is not really a question about heaven. It is about how we live and how we locate eternity within life. The philosopher Franz Rosensweig explained that on Yom Kippur we are offered a look at our lives through the eyes of eternity. From that perspective, what do we amount to? What’s real? What’s important? What matters?
God asks four questions:
Kavata itim L’Torah? Do you set aside time for learning Torah?
Torah is not only a book, a scroll in the ark. Torah is a process. Torah is the eternal conversation among generations of Jewish thinkers and dreamers — sharing their perceptions of life’s true purpose, of God’s presence, of life’s beauty. When we study Torah, we join the conversation.
In nature, biologist Lewis Thomas writes, there is no such thing as “an ant.” It is the same with Jews. Jews come with ancestors and descendants — a community spanning generations. What binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah. To learn Torah is to enter the eternal Jewish conversation. So God asks, Kavata itim L’Torah? Did you find time for Torah?
Asakta B’priya U’reviah? Do you devote yourself to family?
God is shrewd. God doesn’t ask: Did you learn Torah? God asks: Did you establish a time for study? Did you have control over your time, over your life? And if you didn’t, who did? Where did your time go?
God doesn’t ask: Did you love your family? Did you provide for your children? God asks: Asakta, from the Hebrew esek, business: Was family your preoccupation? Did you invest yourself in family?
In family there is immortality. Our children represent our reach into eternity. They carry our names, our values and dreams. But only if we invest our time in them, to teach them and share with them. Did you make time for family?
Nasata B’emunah? Do you do business with integrity?
This is the most surprising of the questions. We expect questions about Torah and family. We might also expect a question about charity, about ritual, about supporting the community. Where is immortality found? In the world of business. Because in my study, in my den, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, I’m a moral hero. It’s easy to be a moral hero — a tzadik — in theory. Deep in our hearts, every one of us thinks we’re a good, well-meaning person. The question is what happens in the real world, in the marketplace, in business, in a realm of tough competition, of conflict and its passions? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you a mensch where it counts? What does business do to us? How many human beings must earn their livelihood at the expense of their own humanity? How much of us must die in order to make a living? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you faithful to the best in you, even under the worst of circumstances?
Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you expect redemption? Do you have hope?
Victor Frankel was a Viennese psychiatrist when he was taken to Auschwitz in 1941. As he struggled to survive Nazi slavery, he carefully studied his fellow prisoners. He writes: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost … We had to learn that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.”
Hope isn’t given or found or revealed. We choose hope. We choose to grasp and hold the possibilities of tomorrow. Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you choose to live with hope?
Immortality is not found in heaven or beyond the grave. It is in our hearts, in the way we live, in the daily tasks of life. This holiday, go to synagogue or find a place that’s quiet, and ask yourself God’s questions. This year, may we find the eternity planted within.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.