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A guest post by Chava Safrin

I had a conversation with a friend this week. She told me that anyone who deliberately didn't keep Torah and mitzvos was guilty of avoda zara. Why? Well, keeping Torah/mitzvos is a testament to God's, His creation of the world, and His active involvement in the Universe. Denying that to do, instead, whatever one wishes is self serving. Self serving, of course, is putting the wants, needs, and desires of the self before the will of God. And that is avoda zara (according to my friend and, apparently, Paul in Romans in the New Testament).

That’s a great kiruv argument towards following the Torah, right?

Only it relies on the idea that everything we do on our own is from some base desire that's hedonistic and selfish - our desires are essentially controlling us. It is only by subjugating our will to the will of God do we experience real freedom.

Is that even true? Are we always selfish when we do things we want and always selfless when we serve God?

For that question, I looked at the concept of altruism - the selfless concern for the well-being of others. Is it really selfless? Sure, donating hours of your time serving food to homeless people at a soup kitchen is nice, but is it truly a negation and subjugation of the self?

I don't think it is. On some level, none of us ever really do things we don't want to do. We may not enjoy the experience we are in, but we may be looking for the long term gain, the health benefit, the later payout. Essentially, there is reward for the things we do even if the thing itself isn't immediately rewarding. That doesn't mean the person feeding the homeless is evil or selfish - his actions are still beneficial for others - but he does it because he wants to do it.

We always do things because we want to do them.

Including the choice to serve God.

For some people, it's easy. They enjoy Torah, they love all the mitzvos. They find meaning in every commandment and they are happy to do it. For others, it might be harder to follow all the mitzvos. But maybe they're trying to avoid punishment, or attempting to have a relationship with their Creator, or doing it because they don't want to get in trouble with their parents, or they really need to fit in with their community.

But its always a choice. And it's always something they want to do because they want to do it.

Is there a real difference, then, between the person who does what they want and the person living a Torah life? Is there something inherently more valuable about the choices made in either lifestyles? Can we really say that one is fully subjugating his will to do the will of God?

I don't think there's any difference. But maybe that's just my desires controlling me.


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It is hard to overstate just how terrible Alderstein’s latest post is. Once again, we have a supposed representative of the rabbinate and Torah Judaism, forgetting his history and falling to his knees in homage to Christians. At Cross Currents they have been doing this for more than 12 years and still the obsequious awfulness of it takes my breath away. Here’s the fisk I promised (sorry about theformatting)

**The Museum of the Bible (MOTB), the largest privately-funded museum in America, opened to the public on Saturday, November 18th. It was not a Jewish project; the people behind it are largely evangelical Christians. Yet, traditional Jews have a stake in this enterprise.**
While I see the potential appeal of this museum to those of us who have a secular interest in history what stake do traditional Jews have in an institution that offers exhibitions such as (1) the Stations of the Cross (2) Christmas Illuminated (3) The World of Jesus of Nazareth (4) New Testament Theatre and (5) The Art of the Gospels? While there is a bit about the Hebrew Bible, they are entirely overwhelmed by the Christian exhibitions.

**Its opening is welcome news. It is both a powerful voice that reminds Americans of the importance of belief in a Higher Authority, and a showcase for the interconnection of Jews, Judaism, and the Land of Israel.**

Not all higher authorities are created equal. The belief in a Higher Authority professed by the Christians who planned, funded, built and will visit this museum, is the belief in Jesus. Jesus’s teachings are not God’s teaching. The demands he makes of his followers are not the demands the God of the Jews makes on Us. Aldertsein muddles this important distinction at our peril

**America needs this museum, and traditional Jews need an America that is enriched by this project.**

Why does America need a museum that encourages people to put superstition ahead of science, and the parochialism and narrow-mindless of Christianity ahead of the tolerance of the First Amendment? From the Jewish perspective, what exactly will be enriching about any film likely to be shown at something called the New Testament Theater? For us, what is enriching about a museum wing dedicated to Jesus?

**Religious belief and practice in the United States – still one of the most religious countries in the Western world – is not what it used to be. Attendance at religious services is down. **


Meanwhile, traditional Jewish belief and practice in the United States is at all-time high. Orthodox synagogues are packed, and Orthodox communities are bursting at the seams. Isn't this welcome news, Rabbi Alderstein?

While it might be fallacious to link the decline of Christianity with the rise of Judaism, surely we can agree that it is irresponsible and short-sighted to bemoan the weakening of a faith and a culture that has, for thousands of years, been at best a poisonous thorn. More to the point, Orthodox Judaism is flourishing. Why should I worry about the Christians and their problems?

**The fastest-growing religious group, according to Pew, is the “nones,” those who respond to pollsters that they identify with no religious group at all. Christian retention rates (the percentage of those who remain in the religious group in which they were born) range from unacceptable at the upper end (65% for evangelicals) to abysmal (45% for mainline Protestants).**

Given that this group has always been friendly to the Jews, and far more likely to respect the promises of the Bill of the Rights, I fail to see any reason for concern. Liberals don’t try to turn Jews into Christians. They don’t force us to pray to false Gods. They don’t fill the public square with Jesus propaganda. They simply ask us to extend to others the same tolerance that the Constitution has historically guaranteed to our community.

**Even more significantly, the mood of America has shifted. A plethora of lawsuits that would restrict rights of religious people, especially when they run counter to new PC orthodoxies, threatens to shrink the area in which constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion operate. **

Without examples, I can’t respond directly to this complaint. But I will say that I entirely certain that when he talks about lawsuits that “restrict the rights of religious people” what he really means are “lawsuits that seek to prevent religious people from discriminating against gays, woman and non-Christians.”

**First Liberty Institutes’ Undeniable documents 1400 religious liberty incidents. **


As I suspected the first few mentioned in the “Cases” section of their website are exactly the sort of frivolous law suits I described. A teacher wants the right to religiously indoctrinate her public school students. A church wants to break federal law and deny insurance to its employees. A store wants the Jim Crow-era prerogative to deny service to customers the manager considers sub human. These aren’t cases of religious people being denied their rights, but of religious people being required to act like good Americans.

**Behind this is an attitudinal change that augurs for more serious moves away from religion in the future. More than half of all Americans now believe that one does not need to believe in G-d to be moral or have good values.**
Does Alderstein have a counter-argument? Because to me it seems blatantly self-evident that a belief in God does not correlate with good values and good behavior. Like all of you, I know far too many believers with horrible personal morality; meanwhile the few atheists I know tend to be humble, well-mannered and not likely to engage in Catholic-church style pedophilia or Hasidic Judaism style welfare fraud.

**The rapid about-face of Americans regarding gay marriage speaks of a large shift towards autonomy, and away from authority. This has fed a rise in atheism, and hostility to strongly-held religious values.**

Again, I must point out that not all authorities are created equal, and that resisting certain authorities is a moral imperative. Likewise, it can be a moral imperative to resist certain religious values, no matter how strongly they might be held. The fact that, eg, your odious idea about woman or minorities or some other vulnerable minority can be connected to your religion does not entitle it to special protections. If it’s a horrible idea, playing the God card must not be allowed to save it.

**The culture wars are over, claim some people. Religion has lost. There has been much hand-wringing in conservative Christian circles. This is nonsense. I like to call it the Binary Error – as if life can be reduced to decisions between two options, with winner-take-all consequences. The thinking runs something like this: The spiritual cargo that the Mayflower unloaded at Plymouth Rock continued to dominate America, until the US Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. That reversed things. Paganism scored a knockout; the champ was unseated and shamed; the godless now rule the West
This is crude and untenable reasoning. Belief/disbelief is not a toggle switch. No matter what some shapers of our culture preach, the fact remains that the hundreds of millions of Americans who professed belief in a Creator a few years ago did not vanish into thin air. It is true that they are not yet accustomed to function as part of a sometimes-detested minority, and that they face tough cultural and political challenges ahead. **


More than 70 percent of Americans say a belief in God is an important part of being American, while nine in 10 report that they believe in God. Those “hundreds of millions of Americans who professed belief in a Creator” are not in danger of becoming a minority – detested or otherwise – anytime soon. Alderstein needs to turn off the alarm. Beleivers don’t seem to have any immediate political worries either. The Congress and the Courts are both in the hands of bible thumpers and while the current president, unlike his predecessor, is an adulterer and a pagan with terrible personal morality he remains beloved by evangelicals.

** It is also true that one of the most difficult challenges is the undercurrent of so much of contemporary culture that mocks and derides as primitive anything seen as old. (“Old” generally refers to something that predates the latest version of the iPhone. It contrasts with words like “ancient” and “prehistoric,” which apply to things as old as the Beatles.)**
Lots of things that are old are also primitive. While I agree that designation shouldn’t be made automatically, I also must protest Alderstein’s atttempt to provide special protections to older ideas and practices. Something is not good merely because it’s been around for a while. If that were true, we’d still have slaves and chamber pots, and people dead of plague in the streets.

**No one knows with certainty where this will all lead – whether to a further descent into a swamp of moral decay,**

Further descent? Moral decay? Sorry, but this idea that we are less moral that out ancestors can’t survive even a second of scrutiny. Like most sloppy thinkers of the right, Alderstein chooses not to remember how far we’ve come. Moral atrocities of the past such as slavery, child labor, rampant prostitution, epidemics and sewage-filled rivers are forgotten. (This chart shows how ludicrous it is to suggest that our era is one of moral decay)



Instead of appreciating this progress, he dwells on the glorious Values our ancestors were said to possess -- never once stopping to wonder why those glorious Values did so little to prevent the wars, poverty and plagues that made life in the good old days such a screaming misery. Those miseries only began to vanish as Christianity began to weaken, and only a fool would wish to go backwards.

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Does Abishag the Shunammite belong on the tanach #metoo?

I put her on the list, and still think I was right, but elsewhere I have been getting some pushback.

Here's her story, in full:
1 Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he got no heat.
2 Therefore his servants said unto him, “Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin; and let her stand before the king, and let her comfort him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.”
3 So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the region of Israel, and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king.
4 And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king and ministered to him; but the king knew her not.
To me this sounds like someone used his power to compel a much younger woman to perform an intimate task.

Others are suggesting she consented, and may have been paid, and hey, no sex was involved so how terrible was it?
I am sticking to my guns, but would like to hear your thoughts.
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Elsewhere many are doing #metoo lists for the women in Tanach... Excluding midrashim this would include:
  •  Daughters of men in Genesis 6
  •  Sara who was taken by Pharo and Abimelech
  •  Hagar who was forced into a non consensual marriage 
  • Lot's daughters, who were offered to a mob and impregnated by their drunk father 
  • Dina who was raped by Shchem
  • Leah, Bilha and Zilpa who were forced into non consensual marriages (and Leah suffered emotional neglect and despite my no midrashim rule I feel I must mention one commentator says Jacob beat her) (And Bilha had to deal with Reuven pestering her after Leah died) 
  • Midianite virgins at the end of Numbers
  • Tamar, one was raped and the other was treated like a sexual commodity by her father in law, and ultimately she had to pose as a sex worker to get her due
  • Pilegesh Bgiva
  • Michal who was used by her father as a prize and forcibly separated from the man who loved her
  • Avigayil
  • Batsheva
  • The ten concubines of David that Avshalom cohabitated with on a rooftop
  • David's companion (the shunamite)
  • Any of Solomon's concubines 
  • Ruth, who had to use her body to get what she was owed (and was encouraged by her mother in law to do so)
  • Esther
I think the list of non #metoo women in Tanach would be shorter....
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Do we know how we, as a people, settled on the esrog as the proper fruit for fulfilling the command found in Leviticus 23:40?

The verse merely tells us to take the foliage of a goodly (or majestic, or gorgeous) tree. No particular tree is specified. And it might be argued that during the time of Nehemiah the people took olive boughs instead. [Nehemiah 8:15] So how did we agree on the esrog?

And if you think the answer is "The esrog was identified as the pri etz hadar in the Oral Torah received at Sinai" let me remind you that the Oral Torah is several different categories of things:

1) halachot le-Moshe mi-sinai
2) Dibre Ḳabbalah which are laws established by the prophets
3) Dibre Sofrim which are laws created by the scribes
4) midrash halacha
5) Takanot
6) gezayrot
7) hilchot Medina

Of this list only #1 and #4 are from Sinai (and rishonim argue about #4)

The decision to use an esrog as the pri etz hadar seems to be either #3 or #5 which means it's perfectly consistent to say that at first many fruits were used AND the choice of an esrog is Oral Law.



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Ordinary Yom Kippur here. We started at 8 and finished at three, but due to various lags in the service I think we could have been done about 45 minutes earlier. These lags included a pointless speech and an incompetent Torah reader who may have set a record for shleppy reading. The prayer leaders were solid but they didn't get much support from the very large, very lazy congregation. Had it consented to sing along the service would have been quite nice.

Final meal: Traditional fare, including roast chicken and a chicken soup with kreplach.

First meal: Bagels, eggs potato soup. I know the rabbis say the first meal should be a festive seuda but we're not in that habit.

Oddities: Many of the men didn't wear kittels. I've never seen that before.

Best moment: Another oddity but one so strange I feel it must be unique to this synagogue. For privacy reasons I can't mention it.

Thought on Hashem Hu Elokhim; We say it 7 times, but only because 7 is a magic number. How did that happen? Because the ancients recognized just 7 heavenly bodies: Sun, moon, and five planets.

So, put another way 7 is a magic number only because people didn't have telescopes. If Hashem Hu Elokaynu had been established now we would say it 9 times. And if it was established 20 years ago, before Pluto was dropped, we would say it 10 times.

How was it in your neck of the woods?

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[ANNUAL TRADITION] I think I started collecting Kol Nidrei experiences in 2007. Over the years many of you added your own. My first one follows, and you can see more by clicking the link... 

What's your place like on the holiest day of the year?

The Shul Where I Grew Up

Attendance: 90 percent of the shul is in their seats by the time the pregame starts. 20-50 percent are wearing white kippot. Most of the women are wearing something white, too.

Pre-game: Every Torah is taken out of the Aron, and the pillars of the community are honored with the privilege of carrying them. (This is one honor that isn't auctioned to the highest bidder.) The rabbi leads the procession to the shulchan, reciting Ohr Zeruah l'tzadik every few steps. We answer him. When the men reach the shulchan they crowd around the chazan who has been waiting there, pushing in as tightly as possible. All of this began within 30 seconds of the announced start time.

The show: Takes about 10 minutes. The chazan always uses the same tune, the traditional tune that can be heard on any number of cantorial tapes. His voices gets louder each of the three times he recites it. We hum along, and answer thunderously when the time comes to scream: solachti kidvorecha. After the chazan intones the shehechayanu the Torahs are silently returned to their place.

Post game: The children exit, and the Rabbi delivers words of encouragement or rebuke, and in some years, an appeal is also conducted for some worthy charity. (not the bedek habayis fund). Marriv begins afterwards, led by the chazan, who also selects the tunes for the slichos which are sung responsively.
Many more here >  http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2012/09/annual-tradition-kol-nidrei-project.html


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I understand the Rambam on prophecy as follows; All of us have capacity for imagination, which can at times seem to operate on its own. Examples are dreams or when we let our minds wander. A person who has removed himself from the world, and spent his time thinking about philosophy and God will have bursts of imagination and dreams that are about philosophy and God. Like all dreams and and bursts of imagination they need decoding via the intellect. This process - the burst of imagination, stemming from an uncorrupted mind and the interpretation by a refined intellect - is what the Rambam called prophecy for everyone but Moshe.

Any verses in which we are told that God speaks to man, are meant to be understood the same way we understand verses that tell us about God's hand or his nose: as figurative language.

How did Moshe's prophecy work? Rambam seems to have kept this a secret. While he insists in the Guide that Moshe's prophecy was categorically different, to the best of my knowledge he never tells us exactly how it was different or how it worked. Why would he have omitted to do this?

Possible explanations:

1) he didn't know.
2) he didn't want us to know.
3) he was trying to rework the tradition to fit with his preconceived philosophical doctrines (ie he was a scholastic) and Moses's prophecy is a dead end, because you can't reconcile the tradition's insistence that God directly spoke to Moshe with the philosophical doctrine that God never changes.

I wonder if the Muslim and Catholic scholastics had better luck with this problem...

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I've been away, but let's see if I make it back in the new year. If you've been around more than me recently, thanks.

So a few things went right this year. First, and foremost I attended a synagogue that offered a fat-free service. By this, I mean we were served none of the unnecessary lard that clogs things up and slows things down, things like: An auction, a speech and a kiddush.

Skipping them saved us more than an hour.

Next, I ate well. The work of the next week and a half is to shed some of the weight.

Finally, I solved a pressing theological problem. For months I've been struggling with this idea that tefilla changes us, causing God to react to us differently. (Long time readers will remember this excellent post on the subject). While I can concede the idea may work on an individual basis, its hard to understand how changing ourselves via prayer cures a sick person or ends a drought.

Appropriately the thunderbolt hit me during Unetaneh Tokef, when I realized the true meaning of the words ma'avirin et roah hagezayrah.

The correct translation - and cheers if you beat me to this - is "remove the evil from the decree," and not anything like "cancel the evil decree," which is what I'd previously thought. The difference is important.

Because, as I understand it now, the prayer isn't insisting that repentance, prayer and charity can change or negate a divine decree. We aren't asserting that our words and action will have some supernatural effect on someone else's illness or on the weather or the decisions other people make regarding us. We're only saying that the "evil can be taken out of the decree"

The decree itself goes forward - people die, remain impoverished and so on - but thanks to the effect repentance, prayer and charity have had on our thinking, we no longer experience these tragedies as something evil. When we use repentance, prayer and charity to re-calibrate your perspective in keeping with Jewish values, the terrible events that are the fate of all men, no longer appear evil.

Let me explain what I mean, with a few examples.

SICKNESS: Certainly, its unpleasant to suffer from an illness, but someone who has trained himself to think about the world in the true Jewish sense won't experience it as an evil. Instead, he'll frame it as an opportunity, or a punishment, or a brute act of a nature. However much he might suffer, he won't experience the suffering as something evil. Thanks to how repentance, prayer and charity have reorganized his thinking there is, to his mind, no evil in the decree.

BANKRUPTCY: The Koren machzor includes an anecdote about Abarbanel, in which the rabbi tells the Spanish king that all he really owns is what he has given to the poor and needy. The rest can be seized by the king in an instant. Someone who has adopted this view, a view that can be cultivated through acts of charity, sees no evil in the loss of his fortune. The money was never really his at all. While the privatization that come with poverty can be terrible, the person who has adjusted his thinking in the way I am attempting to describe does not see any evil in it. It's simply his lot.

UNTIMELY DEATH: I have no wish to minimize the pain of losing a loved one, just as I have tried not to minimize the pains of illness or poverty\, but the theory I am attempting to develop holds true in this case, as well. We can think of an untimely death of a great injustice, or we can think of it as something natural. We can see ourselves and our loved ones as immortal or we can view ourselves as human beings, prone to the sharp vicissitudes of fortune. The Unetaneh Tokef tells us this:
A man's origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream."
We aren't meant to last, the poem reminds us. We aren't meant to ride through life without ups and downs. Only the King, the Living and Enduring God, is eternal, unaffected, unchanged. He endures. We decline and disappear. Thorough repentance, prayer and charity we come to recognize our mortality, our vulnerability and our impermanence. And, having accepted these facts of our existence we can, I am proposing, serenely face all that life has to offer, seeing no evil in it.

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