Principles of Torah Study

For the past couple of days, I’ve been adding and organizing a group of links to the blog, which appear below the search box in the sixth section down the right hand column of the page.  Currently, the links fall into two categories:

  1. Selected blogs from other rabbis who I think have interesting things to say; and
  2. Selected website that offer weekly divre Torah on the Parasha or Haftarah.

Right now, the links only feature material from the Conservative movement, but I expect to add material from other perspectives as well.  My only rule is that I have to find the D’var Torah or commentary interesting, intellectually challenging and honest, and spiritually meaningful.

I tend not to give credence to Torah commentaries that don’t distinguish between p’shat (literal, contextual, historical meaning) and d’rash (metaphorical, allegorical, or other attributed meaning).  I like midrash (an alternative form of the word d’rash), but in my Torah study I think it’s important to remember that the words of Torah had an original meaning that might be quite different from the accumulated layers of interpreted meaning.  It’s also important to realize that every commentary has an agenda.  I always ask myself, when reading an interpretation, ‘what’s motivating the commentator to read the story in this way?’

I believe that the Torah contains eternal truth, but I do not believe that every interpretation, even or especially those of the classical mefarshim (commentators) such as Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, is equally true or equally valid.  Their commentaries are often influenced by historical circumstances and may include assumptions that we no longer accept today.

I also do not believe that every commentary, even those authored by the classical mefarshim, needs to agree with every other commentary.  There is no such thing as “The” Midrash.  There are midrashim, and the corpus of midrash is not internally consistent.  Different historical strands and styles of commentary, such as Talmudic sources, mystical interpretations, and hasidic commentaries, do not necessary agree with each other.  Attempting to harmonize them is more often than not a waste of time and a misreading of the Tradition.

Bottom line — my purpose in engaging in Torah study is to better understand myself and the world in which I live; to develop a better relationship with my family, my community, and the broader world in which I live; to seek understanding of why I was created and what my role in the world ought to be; and to make my every decision and action bring the Divine spark within me closer to its source, the Blessed Holy One.

Ayeka Reflections – Bringing God Into My Clothes

The following article was written by my friend Aryeh Ben David, who has created an organization called “Ayeka.”

Ayeka’s Mission
Ayeka is bringing God back to the conversation.
Ayeka provides an agenda-free, safe space to personally explore the question: How can I best fulfill the challenge of living in the Image of God – in my daily life, my relationships, my work and community, with the Jewish people and all of humanity.
Ayeka Reflections
Bringing God into – My Clothes


By Aryeh Ben David

It took 100,000 people to get me dressed this morning.

My sneakers were made in China, my cotton shirt in Indonesia, my pants are from Vietnam and my Timberland vest was made in El Salvador. How many people were involved in the designing, the growing, the making, the marketing, the transportation, and the selling? At least 100,000.

I basically wear the same thing everyday. Dark pants and a blue shirt. Nine months of the year I wear the same sandals. I am pretty boring. As my kids lovingly say to me: “Abba – Imma is cool, you’re a nerd.” And they’re right.

Nevertheless, even when I am racing to get dressed in the morning, putting on my nerdy clothes, sometimes there is a moment of deep awareness.

Is God in that moment?

In Kabbalistic tradition it says that God originally dressed us in “clothes of light” in the Garden of Eden. Clothes that shed the person’s inner light on others and evoked a spiritual response.

Do my clothes do that today?
I doubt it. They probably don’t evoke much of a response at all.

I am awed by people who think about what they wear and whose clothes do convey a deeper or spiritual presence. Somehow their clothes actually reflect their inner selves. Somewhere in their wardrobe is this hidden light from the Garden of Eden.

For now, for me, finding God in my clothes is not so much about evoking responses from other people, as evoking a response from within me. Am I at least aware of what is happening at this moment? Who was involved in bringing this about? Can my clothes become a vehicle for greater appreciation, for a connection with a countless number of people who I will never see and whose names I will never know? This moment of appreciation connects me to what a diverse and interconnected world God created and how privileged I am to experience it.

100,000 people from China, Indonesia, Vietnam and El Salvador the United States and Israel helped me get dressed this morning.

Thank you. Thanks to each of you.

For Reflection:

  • What do you think about when you get dressed?
  • To what extent is your clothing expressing who you are internally, as opposed to just accentuating and decorating your external being?
  • What do you think someone looking at your wardrobe would think about you?
Ode to My Socks

Putting on socks can be one of the most mindless moments in a day. Here is something to think about while putting on your socks, especially the last paragraph.

Ode to My Socks by Pablo Neruda; Chilean Noble Prize winner for literature in 1971
(Translated by Robert Bly)

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin.
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.

They were so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts.
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
Beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

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Embodying Torah at the Ethical Crossroads

For Judaism to be a fully embodied religious behavior, we need to be aware moment by moment of the actions we are taking and the decisions we are making, and how Jewish wisdom might inform us.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in “The Halakhic Man,” [sic] poetically explains how everything we see, hear, and touch, all of our input, as it were, should pass through the filter of halakha.  For example — the sight of a leafy pear tree might engender thoughts of the appropriate berakha for fruit, the suitability of his branches to use for s’khakh to cover a sukkah, and the impermissibility of building the sukkah under the tree.

As I remember his book, Rabbi Soloveitchik was primarily thinking about traditional Jewish practices such as Shabbat, kashrut, celebration of holidays, prayer, etc.  However, his philosophy also applies to Jewish ethical behavior.  In the course of an average day, how many moments do we experience when we are faced with some kind of ethical decision?  I kept track of a number of those moments over the course of a weekend – questions that did prompt – or should have prompted – thought about the Torah’s response to my situation.

  • • Following services at Ahavas Israel, I was asked to help make another minyan – I declined.  Are we obligated by Jewish ethics to be the 10th person in a minyan?  Does it matter if the minyan is populated by people who would not reciprocate?  Might we ever ethically decline to help another Jew in need of a minyan?
  • • May one publish a possibly embarrassing incident online, if we change the name of the subject of the story?
  • • At what point does a parent helping a child with homework cross the line from teaching the child to doing the child’s work?
  • • Does using profane language violate Jewish ethics?

I’d like to devote occasional posts to Jewish ethics using real world dilemmas.  Would you share with me moments when you were at a crossroads and weren’t sure what to do?  Moments when you might not have turned to Jewish sources for an answer, but made a decision and after reflection you are now curious whether Jewish wisdom might have suggested a different answer?  You may post your moments on the blog in response to this post or you may email them to me at Rabbi@AhavasIsraelGR.org.  If you want them to remain private please indicate this, and I will change enough details so that you cannot be identified.  If I am not sure whether I have sufficiently disguised your identity or if you want to see what I’ve written before I publish it, I will email my response to you before publishing anything.

Remember — The purpose of this blog and the mission of the synagogue is to explore what it means to make our lives embody Torah.  How does our eating, our Shabbat practice, our prayer experience, embody Torah?  How do we internalize and embody our Torah study?  How do we embody Torah in our ethical decision making?  Please join me in this exploration — I welcome your comments and suggestions.

“Avatar” and Pantheism; “A Serious Man” and Job

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times critical of the religious message of Avatar, Ross Douthat writes that:

… “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

From Wikipedia:  Pantheism (Ancient Greekπᾶν (pan) “all” and θεός (theos) “god”; literally “belief that God is all”) is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing immanent God and that the Universe (Nature) and God are equivalent.

After seeing the movie (don’t worry, no spoilers here!), I came to a different conclusion.  Again from Wikipedia:

Panentheism: (from Greek πᾶν (pân) “all”; ἐν (en) “in”; and θεός (theós) “God”; “all-in-God”) is a belief system which posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well.

The difference is whether God IS nature (pantheism, not really a Jewish theology) or God is beyond nature (a theology found within Jewish mystical traditions).  In distinction to “A Serious Man” (not to worry, still no spoilers!), whose directors clearly knew the book of Job and wrestled with serious theological issues in making the movie, James Cameron was focused on telling a compelling story, not exploring or promoting theology.  I don’t think Cameron was sufficiently aware of the theology behind his movie to know the difference between the two theologies or to systematically argue for one or the other.

I thought both movies were terrific, entertaining, and thought provoking.  I suggest that before seeing “A Serious Man,” you should do a little homework.  Read the book of Job (or at least read the article about Job from the Encyclopedia Judaica or the Jewish Encyclopedia).  The parallels are brilliant, and the theology of the movie is a serious critique of the theology of the book.

For Avatar, you might want to read up on the Hasidic idea of leit atar panui mimenu, “there is no place or no thing in which God is absent.”  From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The Divine in all Things.

God in His endless and innumerable attributes manifests Himself in creation, which is onlyoneaspect of His activity, and which is therefore in reality a self-limitation. And just as God in His goodness limited Himself, and thus descended to the level of the world and man, so it is the duty of the latter to strive to unite with God. The removal of the outer shell of mundane things, or, as the cabalist terms it, “the ascension of the [divine] spark,” being a recognition of the presence of God in all terrestrial things, it is the duty of man, if he experience pleasure, to receive such emotion in all purity and sanctity as a divine manifestation, for He is the source of all pleasure.

Read more:  http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=103&letter=B&search=hasidism#336#ixzz0bc1r2dPr

As you watch Avatar, see if you think agree with Ross Douthat that the movie argues for pantheism, or with me, that it is equally plausible that the God present in the movie might be a panentheistic manifestation of a larger Divine presence.  In either case, enjoy the ride!