Friday, May 30, 2008

"One must be careful about truth vs. misinformation"

Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked if a person can be critical of Israel and not be anti-Semitic, and if a person can be critical of Israel and still be considered a faithful Jew.

He replied:

The term “anti-Semitism” is itself a euphemism for "anti-Jewishness," and it is therefore easy to replace it with other words that may have a similar meaning.

In many places, to be “anti-Semitic” has become unacceptable and has thus been replaced with “anti-Zionism” or anti-Israel stances, which are easier to condone.

In my view, anyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, may criticize the State of Israel without being anti-Semitic, but it is walking a fine line.

One’s criticism of Israel should be of a certain nature.

The critique must be honest and without other agendas.

The first step in making such a critique, as in any other criticism, is to verify the facts.

Misinformation and negative propaganda are in abundance today, particularly in this day and age of the Internet.

Furthermore, anti-Semitism is not confined only to non-Jews; Jews can be - and sometimes actually become - quite anti-Semitic.

Therefore, Jewish, and even Israeli, sources may be as unreliable as Iranian or Syrian sources.

When criticizing Israel, one must be careful about truth vs. misinformation, reality vs. prejudice.

In addition to the issue of factuality, there are other, more subtle elements involved here.

Anti-Zionism and anti-Israel positions may be a covert expression of a desire to eradicate any concentrated Jewish existence.

This desire may not manifest itself in killing Jews physically, but merely as a wish that, somehow, the Jewish people should disappear. A critique of Israel with this intent is, by its very nature, an expression of anti-Semitism.

In a certain way, there is a widespread belief, even sometimes reluctant, in Jewish “superiority,” not only in mundane matters, but also in morality.

This results in an attitude that holds Jews, and by extension, the Jewish state, to standards that are not expected of any other nation.

One must be aware of this tendency when making a critique of Israel.

Within these limits, anyone – including a faithful Jew – has the right to criticize Israel, even if sometimes the criticism may not be completely right.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Thursday, May 29, 2008

"To limit the Torah to the framework of religion is to destroy it"

One week from this Sunday evening Shavuot will arrive.

I usually prepare myself for the arrival of Holy Days by reviewing what I’ve learned from Rabbi Steinsaltz.

The following teaching was offered as a syndicated column by Rabbi Steinsaltz on the occasion of Shavuot in 2003:

Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

Most Jews (and even many non-Jews) know about Pesach, the Festival of Freedom.

In fact, more Jews participate in a Pesach seder each year than in any other Jewish observance.

It is ironic, then, to note that Shavuot, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, which is the climax and completion of Pesach, is largely unknown and ignored.

Pesach arouses the hopes and yearnings of the Jewish people; Shavuot fulfills them.

The singular significance of the Torah is often obscured by inaccurate analogies. To view the Torah as a book of laws of a set religious system is a distortion of the Jewish worldview and a misunderstanding of the essence of Torah.

Defining the Torah as “Law” puts it in the same category as the “Law” of Gravity and the like, denying the most fundamental feature of the Torah:

It is unique and self-defined.

The term Torah may be used for one thing only: Torah.

Religion is an ideological and practical framework designed to regulate a certain part of life: that which pertains to God’s worship. Judaism, as expressed in the Torah, cannot and must not be restricted in this way.

The Torah views life as a unified system that embraces the entire lifestyle of Jews and of the Jewish people, down to its smallest details, within a distinctive format.

The Torah, therefore, contains not only laws that govern religious ritual (bein adam la’Makom – commandments between the individual and God) and social life (bein adam la’chavero – commandments between individuals), but also history and poetry, guidance and prophecy, assertions and wonderments.

In this sense, the Torah, like life itself, is not made up of separate compartments, each with its own features.

Human life is always a mixture of everything, of the entire world and all its parts.

Of course, we do create artificial partitions within our own being; we do define categories and set boundaries.

But in reality, every part of the human being is nourished to some degree by all the other parts of the human being. These components are not separate parts that are somehow joined together; they are one indivisible entity.

One can see this clearly in Leviticus 19–20, which many commentators see as a repetition of the Ten Commandments.

The text here moves effortlessly from the commandment to respect one’s parents to the laws of sacrifices, from commandments regarding gifts to the poor to the command to love your neighbor as yourself, from the prohibition of vengeance to the ban on wearing sha’atnez (a mixture of wool and linen).

This is precisely the reason why the Torah is, uniquely, the Torah: From the linguistic root that means “to teach”, “to point to”, or “to show the way,” it lays out and paves a way of life for a people.

The totality of life is found within the Torah and is directed by it.

Judaism, then, is the fusion of the Torah and the people who live it.

To limit the Torah to the framework of religion — whether it is done by those who believe in it or by those who deny it — is to destroy it.

To confine its purview is to eviscerate it.

What the Torah does demand is that a Jew be a Jew, building the entirety of his or her life according to a special approach whereby everything is Torah.

The Torah is given to the Jewish people so that they may channel their freedom into perfecting all aspects of themselves and their lives.

The Rebbe of Kotzk pointed out that Shavuot is the Festival of the Giving of Torah. Its complement — receiving the Torah — is of equal importance, both personally and nationally.

The process of receiving has no fixed time or place. It occurs continually, when the Torah truly becomes a Torah of living.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Humanity has a choice"

Here is the reply Rabbi Steinsaltz offered in response to the question, "Do you believe the world will come to an end, and if so, where, when and what will it look like?"

Scientifically speaking, we do suppose that there will be an end to our world.

There are even some estimates about when – somewhere in the order of many millions of years, so it should not be a cause for immediate concern.

But from a religious point of view, there is a common belief that the world will not remain forever and that we should consider its existence temporary, even though it may take a very long time.

This concept is referred to as the "End of Days" in the Hebrew Bible and became incorporated into Christianity and Islam as well.

The idea seems to be a universal one. People throughout the ages have believed in it and written about it, from ancient Sumerian texts to Norse mythology.

The “End of Days,” in essence, means the end of the physical existence of this world – either an infinite end, or the end of a stage, after which a new creation will begin.

But there is also another notion about the end of days, which is directly connected to a shift in human existence.

In a way, the “End of Days” is not a belief in the physical annihilation of the world, but rather the end of history.

This means that, at some point in the future, there will be an enormous change in humanity that will be the end of ancient and contemporary history. After that, the vision is of a quieter, happier life.

In happy times, as with happy people, there is not much to tell. Unhappiness, in different forms, is what literature and history books are made of.

A time of happiness is an uninteresting time that contains little material for history. In this vein, there was an ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."

Unlike the ancient pagan view of the world as sinking, gradually, from era to era, the Hebrew Bible introduces us to a novel concept – the notion of redemption.

Even when it is expressed in secular or atheistic terms, redemption basically refers to the world – and humanity – reaching a state of tranquility, a permanent equilibrium of the main forces in our world.

According to Jewish tradition, there are two possible – and opposite – ways that this stage can be reached.

One of them is dramatic, even apocalyptic, and entails a large-scale tragic ending to the existence of the world.

It is a vision of fire and blood that will cleanse the world in a revolutionary, rather abrupt way.

It prophesies a great destruction that will annihilate evil, but it also comes with tremendous sorrow and suffering.

The second scenario is a more gradual and less violent evolutionary change in which problems are rectified in a quieter, less painful way.

If we were to compare the redemption to some kind of a peak of human endeavor, the first scenario is like climbing a steep, craggy wall of rock, whereas the second is like getting to the same peak though a pleasant, gradual ascent.

The Jewish Sages have taught that humanity has a choice which scenario it will adopt. If evil and misery continue to rule, then the change will be abrupt and against the will of many.

On the other hand, if people constantly strive to make changes for the better, then the redemption will come about at a slower pace and in a happier way.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Have women been served well or poorly by religion?"

When Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked if women have fared well or badly in the world's religions down through the ages--and why--he replied:

The question of how women have fared in the world's religions can be understood in two ways.

First, have women fared well or badly in the religious establishment?

Although there may have been some exceptions in the remote past – and we may occasionally find such cases in the present day – the heads and leaders of all religions, looking at the broadest, world-wide picture, have been men.

Even in places or cases in which women had some formal religious position, it was basically secondary and auxiliary.

Second, have women been served well or poorly by religion?

For this aspect of the question, the answer is quite the opposite.

Even in faiths where only men carried out the religious ceremonies, there was still very strong participation among the women.

This point becomes very clear when looking at religious participation and connection in the West; it holds true as well in the East, though somewhat less so there. The feeling of being connected, the observance of the laws, and the inner devotion, were always – and continue to be – stronger among women than men.

Throughout history, women’s basic religious stance, which involves their acceptance of religion, the ability to be fulfilled by it, and – in many cases – their enhanced sensitivity, have made them the devotees and loyal members of every religion.

When it comes to the influence and power of faith, it seems that women, in the end, benefit more from religious involvement than do men.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Monday, May 26, 2008

"A question only the all-knowing Almighty can answer"

When Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked, "What is the relationship of apology to forgiveness?" he said:

Apologies are private or public announcements of regret. When one does or says something that he regrets, he must apologize.

Apologies may just be forms of polite behavior, as when one bumps into someone in the street, or they may be sincere expressions of repentance.

Even when apologies contain clear expressions of deep regret or repentance, they do not always express the truth.

Criminals in court may express regret, sometimes even asking for forgiveness from the victim. In some cases, these apologies are genuine; in others, they are just another attempt by a condemned criminal to lessen his sentence.

Apologies made by public figures are oftentimes political moves that are born of necessity or public pressure. The only thing that such an apology conveys is that a person (or a community) acknowledges the words or deeds of which they are accused.

A statement of confession is just a statement, and as such, of doubtful validity.

The heart of the matter is whether the apology contains a real sense of repentance, and that is a question that only the all-knowing Almighty can answer.

An apology is a nice first step, but in order for it to be taken seriously - and perhaps ultimately result in forgiveness - it must be accompanied by deeds that attempt to correct the wrongs of the past, or, at the very least, a counter-measure against sins that have been committed.

Sometimes it is easy to make such amends (e.g., giving back stolen money), but in other cases, it takes years of changed behavior to confirm true repentance.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Sometimes I am simply saying Hello."

When Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked, "What is prayer? Do you pray? If so, to whom and for what?" he replied:

The main point of prayer is, in essence, to express and establish some kind of connection with God.

This connection may take on many different forms, but when all the external facets are taken out, it is as if the one who comes before God to pray is saying, “Hello, I’m here.”

From that point, prayer may develop into many different formats: From asking for a favor, to begging for forgiveness, or thanking God because the sky is blue and somebody is smiling.

But the central idea of prayer is to express, in words or in thoughts, that I want to make contact with Him.

In that sense, prayer is a very fundamental point of faith, because it expresses just the essence of faith, in its basic form.

Prayer is always prayer to God, and for a Jew, it doesn’t pass any intermediaries, but rather goes directly to the Supreme Lord Himself.

We may, from time to time, also want – or expect – to get some kind of an answer to our greetings, but that is far more rare, and in any way, a moment of grace.

I do pray, and even though I start with the formal, written prayers that are in the Hebrew prayer book, which are extensive and multi-faceted enough, my prayer changes from day to day.

Sometimes I am asking or begging, sometimes thanking, and sometimes I am simply saying “Hello.”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Friday, May 23, 2008

"The only world in which Creation makes sense"

A few days ago I posted a excerpt from an interview with Rabbi Steinsaltz in which he said that the Jewish response to the question of whether ours was the best of all possible worlds or the worst of all possible worlds is that "We are living in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope."

Rabbi Steinsaltz was then asked:

“But has God placed us in this worst of all possible but hopeful worlds for a reason?”

Rabbi Steinsaltz replied:

"After everything has been said and told, we come upon certain mysteries that simply cannot be answered.

One of these is the question which asks about the purpose of Creation.

And the fact is, as one chasidic rebbe said with respect to this very question, there is language in the Midrash to the effect that the Almighty had a teiva, a desire, and if you have a desire you don't ask "why?"

The language of the Midrash is very suggestive at this point because a teiva is something we can't explain.

To answer a question about the "why" of Creation can, philosophically, be proven to be impossible.

You get to a point where you are asking questions that are unanswerable, not because we lack knowledge, but unanswerable by definition.

But perhaps we can say this much:

When you speak about the world from this point of view, it is, so to speak, a tour de force, an experiment in existence, an experiment of what I might call "conquering the utmost case."

So in a way, existence in any other world is not "proof."

Proof in the utmost case occurs only when you can do things under the worst of circumstances.

If I want to test a new car, the way that I test it is not on the smoothest of roads, under the best conditions.

To have a real road test to prove that a car really works, I have to put it under, and I would say this again, the worst conditions in which there is yet hope.

I cannot test it by driving it off a cliff, but I can test it on the roughest terrain where I must come to the edge of a cliff and have to stop.

How is a new plane tested?

They put it under nearly impossible conditions, which the plane must withstand.

Otherwise the whole experiment doesn't prove anything.

The same with Creation.

Creation would have been pointless unless it was a Creation under precisely these difficult circumstances.

So I am saying, theologically speaking, that the worst possible world in which there is yet hope is the only world in which Creation makes sense."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "The Mystic as Philosopher: An Interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz," in the Jewish Review conducted by Sanford L. Drob and Harris


Thursday, May 22, 2008

"The goal is always infinity"

My friend and colleague Hyman Gabai, author of the excellent book, Judaism, Mathematics and the Hebrew Calendar, subscribes to this blog. The other day he wrote me to say, “When you discuss a question posed to Rabbi Steinsaltz, I usually try to answer the question before I read the Rabbi's response.”

I enjoyed Hyman Gabai's comment; I try to do the same thing.

So, here’s another one.

Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked:

"Are you satisfied with where you are now in your life?"

Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:

On a personal level, I am not very satisfied with where I am in my life.

To some extent, it is my personality never to be satisfied with any situation or achievement; whatever I have achieved in the past, there are always new horizons to conquer.

To put it metaphorically: in mountain climbing, the higher up you are, the wider and more distant the horizons become. As such, my achievements simply mean that the horizon is broadening, and therefore the distance to get there grows ever farther.

The whole notion of being satisfied is, in essence, a non-religious, or perhaps even anti-religious, attitude.

Our main goal as human beings is not to reach a certain position or situation; the goal is always infinity.

Therefore, the more you know and the more you grow, the more you realize that you are always at a distance, and you can never be satisfied because the distance always remains infinite.

If one decides that he has achieved something worthwhile, something he can remain with, it is an indication of some kind of failure or weakness of character, because the drive to go further and reach higher should always be there.

The struggle should never subside.

Life is an unending attempt to reach more, to achieve more, to get more. Our efforts come to an end when we die, but as long as we are alive, we cannot be satisfied.

We cannot remain in the same situation.

At times we are simply too weak or too frail to do very much about it, but the fact that we cannot do things does not mean that we are satisfied.

It is an unpleasant situation which is not a matter of our choosing, but is rather thrust upon us.

To quote a well-known Jewish saying from Ecclesiastes Rabbah: "One who has 100 wants 200; one who has 200 wants 400.”

The more you have, the more your dreams and ideas grow. And the gap continues to grow with time and with anything and everything that you achieve.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Things that seem important in our eyes may be unimportant in God's eyes"

Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked, "Do you believe in heaven or hell? If not, why not? If so, who's going there and how do you know?"

Rabbi Steinsaltz said:

"As a Jew, I do believe in Heaven and in Hell.

Even though the Hebrew Bible rarely speaks about Heaven and Hell – and when it does, mostly enigmatically – the concept is a basic tenet of Judaism that is clearly expressed in post-Biblical times.

However, while this belief is an essential part of the Jewish faith, it is surely not stressed or discussed to the same extent as it is in many other religions.

This is because the focus in Judaism is on our duties and our work in this world, which are so much dependent on us; we don’t dwell heavily on the next world because it is not something that we can do very much about, except to have a general understanding that life after death is a consequence of life before death.

The other reason for there being so little discussion in Judaism of the next world is because it is so abstract.

The fantastic pictures of heaven and hell that come from other religions are not part of the Jewish belief system.

An abstract after-life existence is not the stuff of which children and simple people should be dreaming.

Heaven and hell are closely connected to the deeds and efforts of people in this world.

Those who experience extreme joy in heaven or extreme suffering in hell are deserving of their respective fates because of what they were in this world.

In Judaism, we have general definitions of good and evil, and they correspond with those who go to heaven and those who go to hell.

Luckily for us, the authorities in this world are not the ones to make the decisions.

To fully evaluate just one deed in this world can be extremely complex – how much more so the complete judgment of a human life.

In general, people are a mixture of good and bad traits – and good and evil deeds – that are not always clearly defined or separated.

Furthermore, we as humans cannot make judgments of the true value of many things in this world. We cannot know how any specific deed is evaluated in the eyes of the Eternal.

Things that seem to be important in our eyes may be unimportant in His eyes, and vice versa.

So, even when we have our guesses as to who is going in which direction, we are surely not the ones to make the decision – we leave that to a higher and more competent cause."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"After death the soul begins to forget its body"

Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked: Do you believe in life after death? Have you ever been visited by the spirit of a dead relative or friend? Do such visions or visitations have any theological meaning?

Here is Rabbi Steinsaltz's response:

I do believe in life after death, as it is one of the tenets of the Jewish religion.

However, my perception of life after death is perhaps almost purely spiritual. It does not contain the folklore of legends or superstitions that is so often associated with this concept.

I do not envision the souls of the departed as holding harps or walking in a garden.

I believe that once the soul departs from the body it begins a process of detachment from this world and its inhabitants.

The soul begins to forget its body, its life, and its connections to the world. It no longer has a real world – only a dreamlike memory of a world.

Many people subscribe to the myth that, after they die, they will meet their departed friends and relatives and re-experience the joy of their shared memories.

But, because of the nature of a spirit without a body, those meetings are destined to be very unsatisfying.

Therefore, if I have been visited by the spirit of the dead, I possibly did not recognize it as such.

Aside from the obvious influence of dreams and memories – which are very much part of this world – pure souls have a primarily unconscious relationship with us.

The perception of visions and visitations by the dead are, oftentimes, the result of the living mind rather than of the departed spirit.

Metaphors and legends about departed souls can be helpful and even illuminating, but they too belong to the world of the living.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”


Monday, May 19, 2008

"Good is not a matter of a specific behavior"

and jointly produce a fascinating website called “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn.” Meacham is a Newsweek editor; Quinn is with the Washington Post.

The website is:

Rabbi Steinsaltz occasionally participates by responding to provocative questions about religion.

One recent question was:

"In Christian theology, there are Seven Deadly Sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. Which of these do you think is worst? Which is most prevalent and harmful in our society today?"

Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:

"There is no list of “Deadly Sins” in Jewish theology, nor is there a list of worthy virtues.

We do not believe that good and evil are defined by particular qualities.

Good is not a matter of a specific way of behavior, but of the right behavior. This means that any quality of speech or action can be right or wrong, depending upon the framework in which it exists.

Even “the best” virtues can be ineffective – or even deadly – if applied incorrectly or at inappropriate times.

However, Jewish theology does speak about "good measures": ones that are applied in the right time, in the right place, and indeed, in the right measure to the situation.

For instance, anger may be justified, and sometimes useful, when directed toward things that are negative, and love can be misguided and deadly when directed toward unworthy objects or in an undue amount.

Some of the things considered to be deadly sins can be – in the right time and place – good measures, and lead a person upwards.

Similarly, behaviors considered to be virtuous in some situations can become deadly in other ones.

Therefore, in the list of those deadly sins there is no real way of evaluation about what is the worst.

The answer will lie in the way and in the measure they are applied to any real situation.

If the result of envy, for example, is the desire to take away from those who have, just in order to humiliate and equalize them, then the envy is a negative power.

But, if envy is felt when one sees something beautiful or good, and this emotion will breed the impulse to do things on the same level, then the envy becomes a positive force that leads people upwards.

This holds true for most of the other qualities, sins or virtues, as well."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Sunday, May 18, 2008

"Jewish optimism"

Rabbi Steinsaltz said:

There is a quotation from the kabbalistic work of Rabbi Chaim Vital, Sefer Etz Hayyim, that our world is one that in its majority is a world of evil.

Evil is the ruler of this world and there is very little good in it.

If I could express it in perhaps a paradoxical way, I would turn to the 18th century dispute between Leibnitz and Voltaire.

Leibnitz said we lived in the best of all possible worlds, and Voltaire, who wrote Candide, made fun of Leibnitz and came to the conclusion that we live in the worst of all possible worlds.

If we were to look at this question from a Jewish point of view, I would answer in the following way:

"We are living in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope."

There are, indeed, worlds below us in which there is no hope at all, and this is what we call "Hell."

But to speak of the entire structure of our own world: it really is a world on the very brink.

If it were to be slightly, just slightly, worse than it actually is, then its basic structure would become entirely hopeless; the balance would be irreversible and evil would be irrevocable.

As it is now, evil can be conquered, but we are not living in a Leibnitzian paradise, but in a world in which we have to accept a vast amount of evil.

What I am saying is not usually understood as a Jewish idea, but I think that it is really a statement of what I would call "Jewish optimism."

If a person sees the world as all pink and glowing, he is not an optimist, he's just a plain fool. An optimist, on the other hand, is one who in spite of seeing the terrible facts as they are, believes that there can be improvement.

If everything were all right, then you wouldn't have to be an optimist. So I do believe that we, as Jews, are optimists because we are a people with hope and we have a theology of hope.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From "The Mystic as Philosopher: An Interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz," in the Jewish Review conducted by Sanford L. Drob and Harris Tilevitz


Friday, May 16, 2008

"Moving but staying in the same place"

is a quarterly journal whose editorial staff often look for opportunities to interview Rabbi Steinsaltz or publish essays by him. Here is an excerpt from a recent issue:

Rabbi Steinsaltz said:

"I had a friend. He was older than me, but for a time I became his teacher.

He was on a long path to religion and it was for him a way of suffering.

At one point, I told him about 'procession caterpillars.' They go in a line, one after the other. You see a whole line of caterpillars, each touching the other, and they are going in a procession.

They are perhaps searching for food, or whatever. Biologists experimented with them and one experiment had almost political implications.

One caterpillar leads.

The others follow.

Why is the leader a leader?

What made him into being a leader?

And they found out that the leader is a leader because each has the instinctive feeling to follow the tail of another caterpillar.

Now, there was one caterpillar who didn’t find a tail, so he became the leader. By default.

So that’s the leader! The one that didn’t find a tail.

In order to prove it, they did something which is in a way unkind. They arranged them to form a circle, the first caterpillar touching the last.

They work by instinct, and so they walk in a circle. And they go like this until they die. Always in the same circle.

I said to my friend that sometimes people go in this kind of circle in their spiritual life and the only way to solve it is to cut it. You have to cut the caterpillar-like circle by will, and then you may go in any direction.

The circle means death, moving but staying in the same place. There are people who lead that sort of life for years, and I’m not speaking about material ways of life, but spiritual as well.

A person has all kinds of driving impulses, but no solution. You come to the same questions, the same answers, and so you move in a circle. You don’t move anywhere."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “Educating Desire”, Parabola, Summer 2006 issue, May 2006


Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Where are you?"

Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

It is told that once the Rabbi of Kotzk asked one of his pupils to tell him what he thinks of while praying.

The man began to tell the Rabbi about his thoughts during prayers — a very learned lecture about the unity of God in the higher world and in our world.

The Rabbi, who was a volcano of God-seeking and truth-seeking, and one of the greatest teachers on those subjects, could not suppress his anger any longer and cried: “And where is your stomach?” — meaning:

Where is your own prosaic self in all this high philosophy?

Where are you in this strange, cold, distant and impersonal exaltation?”

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “Human Holiness” in The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"We are no longer listening"

Rabbi Steinsaltz said:

"It is written that the voice on Sinai was a mighty voice that did not stop.

Many years later this is repeated in much of the Hasidic literature, that the voice giving the Law, the Ten Commandments, never stopped.

It is still giving the Law, for ever and ever, for eternity.

Put in another way, there is a very clear message that is always being transmitted.

The thing that has changed is that we are no longer listening."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from “The Command is to Hear: An Interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz” Parabola Magazine, March 1994


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Watching TV is like being fed intravenously"

Several years ago Rabbi Steinsaltz spoke at the Miami Book Fair. Here is a excerpt from his lecture that day:

What really happens when a person – most especially, children – watches TV?

From the point of view of human evolution, it is a step backwards, a degradation of the human capacity.

Before TV, the height of human capacity was reading.

The problem with TV is not that it is easier to watch it than to read a book. The problem is that on TV, we are shown everything, which causes people to lose their ability to abstract, to visualize.

Take an example: if you write the word “book,” each person will have a different image in mind: big, small, leather-bound, with or without pictures. Whatever my visualization may be, it is I who am doing it. But if you show me a book, you take away something from my independent power of creation.

Being shown everything exempts us from the need to make any effort, and turns us into totally passive watchers. True, one may say that readers are also, in some way, passive. But the major difference is that in reading, there always is some kind of an interaction with the written material.

If I don’t understand what I am reading, then I am not really reading it. Reading means that I am interacting with the material not only in the sense of getting ideas, but also on the level of transferring things from one level to another, of creating new worlds.

Becoming passive watchers will eventually make us lose the ability to create things within our mind.

As I said, I see this as a step backwards for everybody; but for children, it may even be dangerous, because it gradually atrophies that part of the mind that is in charge of creating.

After being put in a plaster cast for a few week’s a person’s arm or leg becomes thinner and does not function well. If you atrophy the brain, or at least a part of the brain – and not for one day or one week, but for a few years – you get a person with a shrunken, shriveled kind of brain, one who has lost the most advanced human capability.

I am not preaching about morality, just stating a biological fact. I am saying that in this medium, TV, lies more than a mere message: in it lies the power to destroy our humanness.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once defined human beings as two-legged, featherless creatures; and one of his opponents once brought a plucked chicken to the academy, saying: “Aristotle, here is your man.” It seems that watching TV turns us into two-legged, featherless creatures – with TV sets. This is becoming the new definition of a human being.

In Alice in Wonderland (which some of you may have read, and others – seen on TV), Alice sees a glass table on which there is a small bottle with an inscription: “Drink me!”

Alice, as many TV watchers would, could have just taken the bottle, looked at it, and put it back in its place. And then there would have been no story. For it is only when you actually take the bottle and drink it that things begin to happen to you.

Any kind of learning requires participation. Otherwise, it is like playing tennis with your hands folded: if you do not return the ball, you are not playing.

The word “Talmud” means “learning.” Any description of what the Talmud is would take a lot of time, and would not give any real understanding of it, because the main point about the Talmud is that it is totally impossible to read it without interacting with it - by asking questions, answering, finding out, reacting inwardly.

In a sense, the Talmud is a book that has an inscription on it: “Study me!” which means, “Work with me, live with me.” The process of learning, of interaction, that is what the Talmud is all about.

The cultural gap between the world of the Talmud and the world of TV culture, then, is not just the difference of contents or of language (English vs. Hebrew-Aramaic): it is a profound cultural difference.

In fact, rather than two different forms of culture, what we have here is one form of culture and one form of destroying culture.

The Talmud is a book that poses more questions than answers, and that brings up so many perplexing issues that one simply must delve into it further and further. Far beyond mere identification, the Talmud becomes a part of your existence, a part that is always alive, always asking, always questing.

For 2000 years and more, our people’s culture has been centered around a book, whose first and foremost demand was: Work! Do something with me!

The culture of TV, then, is the culture of passivity; not the passivity of sitting, but the passivity of allowing the mind to die.

In a sense, watching TV is like being fed intravenously. It may be far more efficient, but I doubt whether anyone would really prefer that over eating and drinking.

So I am speaking here in praise not only of the Talmud, but also of another peak of the development of humanity: the ability to go beyond reading and interact with the read material.

In fact, this was the very first temptation that was presented to Man: to share this Godlike, if not Godly, ability to create something out of almost nothing.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “On Reading, TV, and the Talmud” a speech given at the Miami Book Fair


Monday, May 12, 2008

"A shell that has no inner core"

I spoke on the phone with Rabbi William Berkowitz this past January, just a few weeks before he died (on February 3 at the age of 83).

I’d known Rabbi Berkowitz for about 30 years, first as a result of his inviting me to teach a course on Jewish genealogical research at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City where he served as senior rabbi between 1950 and 1984, and then more recently when I published a book of transcripts from his Dialogue series called Dialogues in Judaism: Jewish Dilemmas Defined, Debated, and Explored.

He was well-known in New York for creating the “Dialogue Forum,” an innovative series of public conversations with such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Isaac Bashevis Singer, Golda Meir, Elie Wiesel and many others.

Rabbi Steinsaltz was a participant in this series.

(Actually I was a guest for this series twice, once to talk about my book on Jewish genealogy, From Generatioon to Generation and just a few years ago to talk about and perform some of the magic tricks I do in my show, “Searching for God in a Magic Shop.”)

His dialogue with Rabbi Steinsaltz included this exchange:

Rabbi Berkowitz: In speaking of the current state of Judaism, you made a very interesting observation when you said: “I think it’s true to say that kosher-centered Judaism is a new phenomenon, but I don’t think that this type of Judaism can really exist for any length of time. It is a sign of something dying that has no chance of survival.” Rabbi Steinsaltz, what is kosher-centered Judaism? Why are you so pessimistic about it?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: Kosher-centered Judaism is a Judaism that tries to fashion two worlds – one of which is a small world in which you can feel Jewish through those things that are somehow obligations.

They have to be of a material nature – easy to see, easy to discuss, easy to solve – things that you can easily work at.

You can work at being kosher.

You can buy another pair of tefillin.

I think this is an unhealthy sign – being kosher is only a part of being Jewish, as anybody who has any interest in Judaism knows. It becomes some kind of routine, and people deal with this aspect because they are not interested in anything really important about Judaism.

Now, I don’t think that it can go on forever because, as you mentioned before, it is boring and after some time it becomes boring even for those who participate in this sport.

Second, it is just a shell, and the shell has no inner core.

Therefore, I don’t believe that it will survive.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

"The official theology of the Jewish people"

"One must be cautioned that, when speaking about Kabbalah, it does not refer to the numerous imitations being sold nowadays in the form of little booklets, red strings, and healing waters.

All of these approaches take the name of Kabbalah in vain, for the utmost secrets of the world and the promise of eternal life, protective angels, and supreme devotion cannot be purchased for five cents apiece.

This type of commercialized mysticism is surely more propagated today than authentic Kabbalah and has the dangerous ability to deceive the masses into believing that they have discovered the essence of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah is – or at least has been for the last 500 years – the official theology of the Jewish people.

It is the route to gaining a better understanding of the relationship between man and God."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from an article titled "Man of War", Kosher Spirit, March 2006


Friday, May 9, 2008

"Festivity is of the essence"

While the heart of Shabbat observance is refraining rather than doing, one cannot underestimate the positive dimension of the “culture” of Shabbat.

It is this dimension that makes it, in the words of the liturgy, “A day of joy and rest, quiet and security,” a day of holiness, a day when one acquires a neshamah yeteirah, an “extra soul.”

To a certain extent, the meaning of Shabbat (and this is what distinguishes it from imitations adopted by other peoples) lies in the fact that it is not a day of gloom, hedged in by strict prohibitions.

On the contrary, festivity is of the essence.

Even one who is newly bereaved or has a fresh memory of some other personal catastrophe must stop mourning when Shabbat arrives.

The neshamah yeteirah each Jew is said to acquire on Shabbat is really an augmented ability to rejoice in tranquility, to accept life with a feeling of wholeness and contentment.

Shabbat is a time to disengage oneself from workaday affairs—even reading, speaking, and thinking about them are forbidden.

Even when it comes to spiritual matters, vexation and anxious self-analysis should be avoided. The holiness of the day must be sought in a spirit of pleasure, relaxation, and ease.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from The Miracle of the Seventh Day: A Guide to the Spiritual Meaning, Significance, and Weekly Practice of the Jewish Sabbath by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, p.4


Thursday, May 8, 2008

"Jews in the Diaspora have only two choices"

Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

Jews in the Diaspora have only two choices.

Either they can give up, close shop, and say, “We are defeated,” or they can create a new way, a new hope.

If people want to go on, if they have a feeling that there is something in it, if the memory of the half-obliterated document still possesses some compelling power, then the Jewish life in this country (the United States) must be rebuilt.

Let me say something full of chutzpah: there is a need for, a use for, and even a possibility of making this place something like Galut Bavel, the ancient Jewish place of exile in Babylonia.

It is possible to create a second center, comparable to, possibly better than, the main center in Israel.

But to accomplish this, one has to do much more than survive.

If you cannot do it right, if you cannot create something that will be worthwhile spiritually and intellectually, it is not worth doing at all.

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “What Will Become of the Jewish People?” p.186-187, in We Jews by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"The potential for holiness persists for ever"

Anticipating tomorrow's celebration of Israel's 60th year, I went back to my favorite book, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, to review what Rabbi Steinsaltz teaches about the Holy Land.

Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

"The Holy of Holies is a point situated in our world and other worlds at the same time.

As such it is a place subject to the laws of all the worlds, and so outside the ordinary laws of time and place.

That is why the Holy of Holies was barred to all men, except for the brief entry of the high priest of Israel once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

As may be surmised, the holiness of this place is made manifest only when everything is as it should be, when the Temple stands at its appointed location, and when everything in the Temple is so perfectly ordered and arranged that it is pervaded by the Shekhinah (Divine presence).

Since, however, the site chosen (by prophetic revelation) is that one place in space where such a divine connection can be made at all times, the holiness of the site persists even when the Temple itself is no longer there.

So that even though this holiness may not be manifest now, the possibility of its manifestation is eternal.

From the Temple site the circles of holiness extend even farther into space, becoming fainter as they recede from the Holy of Holies to the Temple Court, from the Temple Court to the Holy City of Jerusalem, from the Holy City of Jerusalem to all of the Holy Land, and then, of course, beyond.

Each of these bounded spaces implies a wide range of obligations and privileges.

The holier a place is, the more strict is the general obligation—in addition to all the more specific obligations devolving upon those who live, or like priests, function in a sanctified area—to relate to it in a certain way.

Though the potential for holiness persists for ever, it is true that the holiness of the Land of Israel cannot be adequately manifested unless all the constituents of the circles of sanctity radiating from the center in Jerusalem are in their proper places.

Thus, when the Temple is not standing, all the aspects of holiness that grow out of it become vague and uncertain, some of them sinking into a state of only latent sanctity, indicating no more than a possibility and a starting point.

The holiness of the Holy Land has nothing to do with who the inhabitants are or what they do; it is a choice from on high, beyond human comprehension."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “Holiness,” The Thirteen Petalled Rose.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

"The Existence of that Inner Core"

In 1998, when Israel was celebrating its 50th year, Rabbi Steinsaltz gave a talk in which he said:

" Thirty years ago, I taught a class on the issue of who is a Jew.

We said then that a real Jew is one who would choose to sanctify God’s Name, even die for the choice, rather than worship idols.

Jewish history is replete with thousands of examples – not only of righteous people, but also of simple Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s Name.

In a sense, the Jewish people is just as proud of its thieves and prostitutes who died on the sanctification of God’s Name as it is of its rabbis and righteous ones.

It is the thieves and prostitutes who attest most to the existence of that inner core – independent of tradition or erudition – which is the very essence of being a Jew.

One of the people in the class then asked me: This was surely true in the past, but do you think it is still valid?

At that point, I did not know what to reply, and the question was left hanging.

The next day, I flew to a kibbutz near Eilat and spoke there. I do not remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that I managed to make my listeners furious.

At some point one man, who could no longer contain himself, got up and screamed: “I am a secular Jew, and so were my father and grandfather; but I am telling you: if someone would force me to worship idols, I would die rather than do it.”

This was almost like a voice from Heaven:

I received the answer some 24 hours after having been asked the question, and not from someone who heard it, but rather from someone who innocently, at a moment of rage, answered exactly the question that I had asked."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From “Israel at 50” --a speech delivered at the Aleph Society Dinner in Jerusalem, October 13, 1998


Monday, May 5, 2008

"Jerusalem is a Fault-line in the Stratification of the World Order"

"The Resonance of Jerusalem"

by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Everyone who lives in Jerusalem — especially those like me who were born here — is in love with the city, really in love.

For us, it is not just a place, not just a house; it is a home.

But it is even more than that: It is an object of love. Even visitors are in some way ensnared by Jerusalem. So many of their hearts are captured, but in different ways, for different reasons.

Why is it so?

Jerusalem is many things to many people, because it is — and always has been — a kind of enigma.

It is a place that is composed of many parts. They may seem to clash with one another, but somehow they achieve a kind of harmony that is felt by anyone who walks her streets or breathes her air or soaks up her sunshine.

Jerusalem is simple, but not naive.

Jerusalem is simple in a most sophisticated simplicity, because Jerusalem has passed sophistication.

It is a very old city. It is a city that has suffered much and has known so many things that it is now very simple, like some of those great masterpieces.

The simplicity hides so many things. You look at it, you dream about it, and you think, what really is it?

Jerusalem is also, in many ways, a combination of contradictions:

It is called, and its name itself implies, “City of Peace,” yet so many wars took place here. It is perhaps one of the most quarrelsome and troublesome places in the world, but it is still a city of peace.

There is a saying, especially in Jewish tradition, that it is “the house of God.” The gate to heaven is understood to refer to Jerusalem, but Jewish tradition also identifies the valley of Gehinom (hell) near the walls of the Old City.

This is Jerusalem.

This is what the Psalmist described as ir she’chubra lah yahdav, a city that was joined together.

It is not just joined together because there is old and new, or because it is home to religious and non-religious, Arabs and Jews and Christians. It is a place that combines differences and brings them, somehow, together in a kind of harmony of contradictions.

And there is another explanation, which seems very beautiful to me, that the name Jerusalem comes from yir’e shalem, which may be translated as “a complete view,” another form of harmony.

It is historically, and perhaps theologically, significant that Jerusalem is unlikely as the site of a capital. It is not on a road, or on a river, or near the sea. It is somewhere nowhere.

Even so, it is a center — the place the Bible tells us that God chose.

But why?

In life, as in geology, there are many strata: of substance, of meaning, and of energy. And in life, as in geology, there is physical causality, in which things move and are understood according to physical laws and reasoning.

This physical causality — which some might call “real life” — is one level of existence.

There is also another, higher and very different level of causality — a spiritual one — in which there are rewards and punishments for good and evil.

Usually, there are no connections between the physical and spiritual strata; they don’t mix. People may move from one level to the other, but they don’t mix.

But there are — in spirituality, as in geology — points at which the levels touch, where two strata of existence somehow come together in one point, like a corner formed by two walls. The corner has no substance of its own, but — like a lap — exists because of the relationship of two other planes.

This juncture is what Jacob called the ladder or gate to heaven, a place where influence, power, and insight can move either way, between the spiritual and material worlds.

Such a point is Jerusalem.

No one knows why it should be so, but Jerusalem is a fault-line in the stratification of the world order.

Just as water may spurt forth from a geological fault, so, too, Jerusalem is a gushing wellspring of existence, a source of goodness and benefit.

Because this point where the physical and spiritual worlds meet is the place where they can work together, things happen in Jerusalem that do not conform to ordinary rules.

Here, more than anywhere else, the smallest events take on a cosmic meaning and enigmatic complexity that are beyond our understanding.

An event that happens in Jerusalem reverberates all over the world, yet a similar incident elsewhere passes almost unnoticed. Only here does the causality of the material world become entangled with the entirely different causality of the spiritual world.

The energy of justice and the energy of power are pulled toward Jerusalem, as toward a lightning rod, and become entangled, sending shock waves around the globe.

Jerusalem is a place of power and resonance, waiting — perhaps hoping — for a voice that will be heard all over the world, a voice that will renew the message of peace and wholeness and holiness that has always issued from this holy city.

"The Resonance of Jerusalem" Syndicated column--July 21, 2005


Sunday, May 4, 2008

"I cannot mix in the company of such knowers"

Sixty years ago the the modern state of Israel declared its independence. This week, on Thursday, Jews throughout the world will be celebrating this extraordinary anniversary.

On this occasion, throughout the week, I'll be reviewing many of the things Rabbi Steinsaltz has written about Israel over the years, beginning with the following:

"People are worried about what is happening in the State of Israel, about what is going to happen to the Jews living East of the former Green Line.

Of course, everyone — rabbis, generals, politicians — knows the answers.

They are not the same answers, but everyone knows exactly what will happen in one, two, ten years from now.

I cannot mix in the company of such knowers.

And also, I am far more worried about what is happening on the Western side of the Green Line."

--Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

from a speech delivered at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Chol HaMoed PesachApril 7, 1996


Thursday, May 1, 2008

"There is an attempt by many to take out the spiritual part"

I once asked Rabbi Steinsaltz:

In my conversations with many Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis over the years, it is clear that many of them have an aversion to spirituality, even sometimes claiming that Judaism is not spiritual! What in the world is going on when rabbis represent spirituality as some fringe element in Judaism?

Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:

What is the problem? It is really a double or triple problem.

One of the big problems is historical. Most of the people you have encountered are relics. They really live in the past when anything about spirituality was some kind of a taboo.

In a strange way we are still living 19th century Judaism. And 19th century Judaism was in an age that was completely rationalistic. It was a whole rationalistic world in which the highest spiritual move was perhaps some kind of charitable feeling to others, and you didn't even overdo that.

So because of this historical burden, some people are, in a certain way, afraid of anything that has to do with spirituality.

In our times there is a growing and a widespread fake Jewish Spirituality that is perhaps as dangerous as anything that can happen.

You have things that seem to be spiritual but are somewhere between confidence games and magic tricks.

All of these things are making people, and some honest people, turn away from the experience of anything to do with spirituality.

That is the reason why when a seeker or searcher somehow finds his way to a Jewish prayer place, he or she usually finds it dry, boring, and unappealing, especially if the seeker has any kind of a spiritual tendency-- which in some way most people do have.

Now, the fact is that there is a very old and very rich Jewish spirituality, as ancient as anything else.

I am speaking about very clear-cut and very public forms that appeared not just in the last century, but have been a part of Jewish life for as long as we know about Jewish life.

It is not a matter of esoteric corners of Judaism.

There is an attempt by so many people to take out the spiritual part and to leave the sometimes-practical message and sometimes no message whatsoever in order to make it fit within some preconceived notion of what Judaism is.