VIDEO: Rabbi David Wolpe — Lessons of the Chanukah Candles

There are lots of ‘drashim about Chanukah, the candles, the Menorah and the Maccabees.  Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe offers a new and fascinating look at the significance of the ceremonial candlelighting.


New haggadahs bring fresh approaches to celebration

On Passover, teachers become students and students take on the role of teachers; old and young teach each other.

“The learning is thoroughly democratic, as befits the experience of freedom,” Neil Gillman writes in “The Haggadah Is a Textbook,” an essay in “My People’s Passover Haggadah” (Jewish Lights)

This season, several new haggadahs raise new questions. New interpretations bring new approaches to the seder, enabling readers and participants to bring new layers of meaning to their own celebrations of the holiday.

A fine resource for preparing for the seder and for use at the table, “My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, Volumes 1 and 2,” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman and David Arnow, bring together a community of scholars and teachers to reflect anew on the haggadah.

The 12 contributors or commentators come from all denominations, including professor Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Daniel Landes, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem; Wendy Zierler, Hebrew-Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR); and Rabbi Arthur Green, Hebrew College.

The two volumes offer a new translation of the haggadah text and essays about the historical roots of the holiday and development of the haggadah. Commentary is presented in Talmud-style pages, with the different voices framing the text.

Co-editor Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at HUC-JIR, is editor of the “My People’s Prayer Book Series,” which recently received a National Jewish Book Award. Arnow, a psychologist and community leader, is author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders.”

Rabbi Yosef Adler was a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known as the Rav, and served as his personal assistant for two years. Adler attended the Rav’s weekly shiurim, or public lectures, for 13 years, with four sessions each year devoted to Passover. In “Haggadah for Passover With Commentary Based on the Shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik” (Urim Publishers), Adler presents the profound insights of the Rav, as they relate to the seder and observance of the holiday, along with his own commentary.

Adler is the spiritual leader of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, N.J., and heads the Torah Academy of Bergen County.

In the Maggid section, Adler explains the Rav’s interpretations of issues of time: “The seder itself is reliving the past. Without a historical experience, this type of time experience is lost. Memory is more than a storehouse; it is a reliving of what is remembered. In exploration; we move from reminiscing to anticipation…. The haggadah starts with hindsight and concludes with foresight.”

“Richard Codor’s Joyous Haggadah: The Illuminated Story of Passover,” as told by Richard and Liora Codor (Loose Line Productions), is a concise retelling of the story, with colorful, funny, attention-grabbing illustrations. The pages vary from graphic stories to Chad Gadya told as a pictogram (where pictures stand in for words in the text) to scenes chock full of witty details. Meant for all ages, this is an imaginative and joyous haggadah.

“The Kol Menachem Haggadah,” compiled and adapted by Rabbi Chaim Miller (Kol Menachem), is commentary and insights anthologized from more than 100 classic rabbinic texts and the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Enclosed in a hand-tooled binding, the well-designed pages include the Hebrew text and English translation, with commentary at the bottom.

As Miller points out, the Rebbe’s thinking integrates intellectual, detailed analysis with a more mystical approach, uncovering deeper themes and suggestions for life enhancement. The table of contents includes brief abstracts of each of the Rebbe’s insights as they relate to aspects of the seder. He also explains some particular Lubavitch traditions, like the custom of the Rebbe pouring the wine from Elijah’s cup back into the bottle.

“The Lovell Haggadah,” with illuminations, translation and commentary by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz (Nirtzah Editions), is a beautifully designed edition, with Hebrew text, an egalitarian translation, discussion guides, activities and 27 original color paintings. Berkowitz explains that he retains the text of the traditional haggadah, “with a questioning consciousness,” sometimes wrestling with the text.

He identifies an essential quality, like incompleteness, curiosity, awe and knowledge, associated with each of the 15 steps of the seder. Included are quotes from Ahad Ha’am, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Kotzker Rebbe, Talmud and Midrash and Isabel Allende introducing the Maggid section (the retelling), which he links with the theme of generosity (“You have only what you give. It’s by spending yourself that you become rich.”).

The artwork, or illuminations, incorporate letters and imagery with decorative borders in the style of manuscript painting. Berkowitz, who is formally trained in scribal arts, is the senior rabbinic fellow in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Kollot: Voices and Learning Program.

He also includes a powerful quote from Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, “Language is the very means by which the imprisoned heart gains freedom.”

“A Mystical Haggadah: Passover Meditations, Teaching, and Tales,” by Rabbi Eliahu Klein (North Atlantic Books), offers the possibility of bringing new readings and new understanding of the haggadah’s hidden symbolism to the seder table.

For Klein, the seder’s 15 rites are “15 steps toward illumination.” He includes mystical reflections and Chasidic stories, alternating between two worlds that are dear to him, “the passionate heart traditions of Chasidism and the possibility of achieving cosmic consciousness through Kabbalah meditation and visualization.”

Before Kiddush is recited, he notes a tradition of Jewish mystics of adding a drop of water to the vessel of wine “in order to symbolically dissolve the wrath of crimson with the kindness of the white water.” Klein has taught Kabbalah, Jewish meditation and Chasidism for more than 30 years in Israel, Great Britain and the United States. He now serves as Jewish chaplain for the California Department of Rehabilitation.

“The Eybeshitz Haggadah: Experiencing Redemption,” by Rabbi Shalom Hammer (Devora Publishing), introduces English-speaking readers to the work of Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz. A prolific author, Eybeshitz was an 18th-century scholar of the Talmud, Kabbalah and Jewish law, as well as science and philosophy.

He served the Jewish community in Prague and later in Hamburg, Germany. Hammer describes his subject’s unusual abilities to integrate different approaches, linking and juxtaposing various texts in creative ways.

Troublesome numbers

The most fascinating, intriguing and philosophically engaging book of the Tanakh (if we are allowed to indulge in ratings) is undoubtedly the first one — Bereshit, or Genesis. It tackles questions of creation and destiny, society and government, as well as the different facets of human behavior, sibling rivalry, envy and miscommunication.

Vast literature has been written on and around Genesis, and its narrative influenced many novels and poems. But as fascinating as it is, Bereshit cannot be read as a novel. As Erich Auerbach explains in his best-known book “Mimesis,” whereas Greek, and later on Western literature, sought to create the background for each scene, both physically and historically, by providing detailed description of the protagonists’ lives and surroundings, the Bible –and especially Genesis — is extremely laconic and taciturn, never revealing more than necessary.

This disparity led readers and commentators throughout the ages to try and fill in the gaps in the biblical narrative, which can be done in 70 different ways. In some cases, unfortunately, this interpretive endeavor yielded strange and even inedible fruits. Many readers, who cannot distinguish between the original, biblical text and the later interpretation, find themselves alienated from Torah study, a lamentable situation that requires remedy.

Case in point is Rivka’s age when she married.

A while ago I heard a speaker describing the generosity of Rivka by saying, “We know that she was only 3 years old, which made it much more difficult for her to give water to all the camels!”

We know? How? Most people will say: Rashi says so! Very good, but where did Rashi take it from?

The calculation setting Rivka’s age at 3 was done by the author of a Midrash called Seder Olam, or World’s Chronology, whose working assumption was that events juxtaposed in the Torah happened immediately one after the other. He assumed that if Sarah’s death at 127 years old is mentioned in the Torah immediately following the akedah (binding of Yizchak), then it happened right after the akedah; since Sarah was 90 when he was born, Yitzhak would therefore be 37 at the time of the akedah. Furthermore, since the news about Rivka’s birth is inserted between the akedah and Sarah’s death, and since Yitzhak married at 40, his wife was 3 years old.

This Midrash, quoted in Rashi, is taught without hesitation to kindergardeners through 12th-graders. Would we tell our children that story if it did not refer to biblical characters?

How would we feel cheering on a cute flower girl (or better yet, toddler) marching down the aisle at a wedding, only to find out that she is actually the bride? Can you imagine casually telling your kids that their 40-year-old cousin is marrying their 3-year-old next-door neighbor, with whom they don’t play because she’s too young and often breaks their toys?

Of course not, we would be disgusted and appalled. We would label the man a pedophile and a pervert. We would notify the authorities and warn our children to keep away from him.

Why then are we willing to accept that scenario when it comes to the patriarchs of our nation?

This question entails one of the greatest dilemmas of teaching and understanding Tanach, particularly Torah, and especially in Orthodox schools. To what extent are we obligated to accept the Midrash that has become so inextricably intertwined with the biblical text that even learned, well-versed scholars have a hard time telling them apart?

The answer to that question is that the rule has been long established by the early sages, mostly from the Sephardic school of thought, that rabbinical interpretation of the non-halachic parts of the Torah should be approached cautiously.

The first to voice this opinion was Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942), followed by Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon (950-1013) in his introduction to the Talmud. Later, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and Maimonides in their respective philosophical works, HaKuzari and Guide of the Perplexed, both explained that there are different types of midrash on the non-halachic parts of Torah and that they can be understood as allegories, metaphors or stories meant to convey a message.

There is no evidence to suggest that Rivka was 3 years old. To the contrary, her role as a shepherdess; the way she interacted with Abraham’s servant, with her family and with Yitzhak; and the statement at the end of the parsha — that Yitzhak’s love for her comforted him after his mother’s death — all point to a mature girl, whose youngest age was probably 17 or 18. Not only that, but Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) writes that Yitzhak’s age during the akedah was around 13, which given Yitzhak’s age of 40 at the time of their marriage would make Rivka a 27-year-old bride. At Yitzhak’s wedding, the bride might have been weeping, but it was definitely not over a lost pacifier.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at

Tikkun for which olam?

If you want to be popular in the Jewish world today, just say tikkun olam.Everywhere you go it seems that Jews of all stripes are jumping on this universal bandwagon.

It’s not just the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular, progressive and humanistic groups. Many Orthodox are also getting involved.

What’s going on? What is it about this notion of “repairing the world” that makes Jews go gaga? And who decided that we the Jews — with less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population — should become the Great Fixers of Humanity?

Recently, in one day, I got to experience three different views of tikkun olam. The last view was so politically incorrect, it was almost embarrassing.

Let’s start with the first one. It’s lunchtime at the Magic Carpet on Pico Boulevard, and I’m enjoying myself with two prominent progressive Jews of the community. It’s the kind of lunch where you get a big “l’chaim” just by blurting out words like social justice and universal health care. If you want a really big hug, just say “Palestinian rights.”

This is classic tikkun olam: There are problems and injustices in the world, and it is our duty to try to fix them. Economic injustice; reforming the criminal justice system; promoting interfaith dialogue; fighting hunger and homelessness; fighting global warming; helping the dying children of Darfur; and so on.

This approach has talmudic roots in the mishnaic term “mipnei tikkun ha-olam,” which can be translated as “in the interest of public policy.” As you can read on the Web site, the term refers to “social policy legislation providing extra protection to those potentially at a disadvantage — governing, for example, just conditions for the writing of divorce decrees and for the freeing of slaves.”

In modern-day America, classic tikkun olam has evolved into full-blown social activism that for many Jews is the primary expression of their Judaism.

I got my second view of tikkun olam several hours later when I attended “An Encounter With Jewish Spirituality” at the home of Rabbi Abner Weiss in Westwood. Rabbi Weiss is one of those renaissance Jews: an Orthodox scholar, author, trained psychologist, expert in kabbalah and leader of a congregation (Westwood Village Synagogue). He has just launched this new “Encounter” program to provide a “kosher” Jewish yoga and meditation experience for those who haven’t found spirituality in traditional Judaism.

In his introduction, the rabbi went back to the time of Abraham to talk about a world “not lit, but in flames” and how we partner with God to put out the flames. Abraham was the first hero of tikkun olam, not as a holy priest, but as an everyman who “chose God,” “loved without reason” and performed simple acts of loving kindness.

But in kabbalah, the rabbi went on, “Tikkun olam is a lot more than social activism.”

In this “spiritual” view, all mitzvot have the power to change the world. Because the mitzvah has a Divine origin, it also has a Divine effect. Thus, lighting the Shabbat candles, making a blessing before you eat or honoring your parents has the same cosmic power to “repair the world” as any demonstration in front of the federal building to raise the minimum wage.

While lauding the work of social activism, the rabbi impressed on us that in the mystical tradition, tikkun olam starts from the “inside out” — we repair ourselves through deep contemplation and by clinging to God and His commandments, like Abraham did, which, in turn, gives us the strength, humility and wisdom to make our world holy.

That same night, on an Internet reader forum, I stumbled on yet a third view of tikkun olam, one I can charitably describe as “tribal.”

It was a rambling, passionate rant that boiled down to this: “The Jews should take care of Jews, and let others worry about their own.” In other words: Tikkun, yes, but for our own olam.

This wasn’t just politically incorrect; it was downright offensive. How dare we focus on ourselves and forget the rest of the world?

But that response seemed too predictable, so I gave it some serious thought. That’s when it got embarrassing. You see, I confess that the tribal rant struck a deep tribal chord in me, and brought out stuff that had been brewing inside for a while.

I wondered: Have we gone a little too far with our passion for tikkun olam? Can this grand love affair with “repairing humanity” become a runaway train that will take Jews further and further away from the binding glue of Jewish peoplehood?

For every million we raise for children in Africa, certainly a worthy cause, how many hungry Jewish kids will we not feed or help send to a Jewish school?

I know the classic response: “It’s not either/or, we must do both.” Well, that may be ideal, but in the real world, where 90 percent of Jewish tzedakah goes to non-Jewish causes, too many Jews are not doing both.

Let’s face it: there’s something quite intoxicating about tikkun olam — this notion of a little tribe looking out for the whole planet. After you’ve tasted that global Kool-Aid, who feels like schlepping to La Brea Boulevard to pack food boxes for needy Jews?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about Muslim children dying in Darfur. But why can’t we hold accountable the billion Muslims around the world who haven’t lifted a finger to help their own brothers and sisters? If we encourage other groups and nations to take better care of their own, does that count as tikkun olam?

For Jews, what is the appropriate balance between “repair of the whole world” and “repair of the Jewish world”? Is it in balance now? Has our glorifying of tikkun olam contributed to the modest percentage of Jewish money that goes to Jewish causes — and the declining interest in Zionism among young American Jews?

If, for many Jews, social activism has become “the new Judaism,” will this overshadow foundational Jewish practices like Shabbat and Torah learning that may not seem as “sexy” and “relevant”?

And should we pay more attention to the spiritual approach to tikkun olam that teaches us that all of God’s mitzvot can help repair the world?

If you ask me, we’re due for an honest debate on the untouchable — and touchy — subject of tikkun olam.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Clay Feat

It may have been a silent film, but Paul Wegener made an international noise with "Der Golem." The 1920 German Expressionist classic — screening April 21 at the Skirball Cultural Center — remains a popular incarnation of the Golem. But it was not the first, nor the last, interpretation of the Jewish folk tale to permeate pop culture.

According to legend, Rabbi Yehuda Loew created the powerful automaton from clay to protect Jews from enemies such as Emperor Rudolf II in 16th-century Prague. The cautionary tale underscores how Loew’s attempt to play God backfires when he loses control of it and is killed by his own creation.

Wegener’s film surfaced after Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel "Der Golem." Born Gustav Meyer, Meyrink, the illegitimate son of a baron and a Jewish actress, wrote "Der Golem" out of a fascination with the occult that developed following a suicide attempt.

While the Golem appears only briefly and symbolically in Meyrink’s novel, the legend clearly informs Mary Shelley’s 1816 masterpiece "Frankenstein." Gershom Scholem explored the myth in his essay, "The Idea of the Golem," as did Isaac Bashevis Singer in his novel "Golem." More recently, the Prague Golem was a subplot of Michael Chabon’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Literature notwithstanding, the Golem’s water-fetching fiasco inspired the "Sorcerer’s Apprentice" sequence of Disney’s 1940 animated feature, "Fantasia." The Golem has been a catalyst for superheroes like the Hulk and marked a memorable "X-Files" episode, in which a librarian misinforms David Duchovny that the Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation) explains how to create a golem.

The Old-New Synagogue, the Golem’s long-rumored resting place, and Golem merchandise still generate tourist dollars in Prague. So what is the continuing fascination with this story?

"Mendy & The Golem" comics creator Tani Pinson believes that the secret of its enduring popularity lies with the character’s identity — as malleable as the clay that spawned it.

"He is so open to interpretation," Pinson said. "And people can seek the Golem within themselves."

The Skirball presents a newly restored print of "Der Golem," featuring a score by Israeli composer Betty Olivero and live accompaniment by the Armadillo Quartet, on April 21 at 8 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.