The Jewish Mindfulness Series: Part III

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Part Three: The Shema

In my last entry, we discussed the critical role prayer and blessings play in achieving mindfulness.  Whether it’s simply thanking God for being alive (by reciting the Modeh Ani prayer upon arising) or that our bodies are functioning properly (ie-the After-Bathroom blessing), Jewish prayer reminds us of our blessings while we have them. This enables us to become more grateful and take joy in what we have, instead of making our happiness depend on what we don’t have. 

Another fundamental Jewish practice which can bring about a deep sense of mindfulness, is the Shema. The Shema prayer enables one to contemplate and reflect upon the ultimate reality, God and His oneness. There is an interesting Jewish tradition for a Sofer, a Jewish scribe, when writing the words of the Shema in a Torah scroll, to enlarge two of the letters in the prayer: the Ayin, the last letter in the first word “Shema” (which means “hear”), and the Dalet, the last letter of the last word “Echad” (which means “One”).

The Jewish Sages offer a few explanations for the tradition to enlarge these two letters in the Shema. One explanation is that the letters ayin and dalet spell the Hebrew word ed or witness for by reciting the Shema we are testifying to the rest of humanity as to our faith in a one God. Another explanation is that the letter ayin is enlarged so it does not resemble or sound like Hebrew letter aleph which would spell shema meaning maybe or perhaps. That would make the Shema declaration sound something like: Perhaps God is one. The Hebrew letter dalit is enlarged so it does not look like its cousin letter, the reish which would spell the Hebrew word  acher or “another” (instead of echad, ie-one) implying another God. Ultimately, the ayin and dalet caution us to leave our doubts and hesitations for another time and place.

The Shema is our moment each day to totally envelope ourselves in a belief in something beyond the physical world, in God Himself.  As my teacher, the great contemporary scholar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote in his book on the Shema: “Our tradition makes room for the honest doubter, for without such doubt questions would never be asked, prejudices never challenged, and science would come to a halt. But when are we seriously engaged in prayer, endeavoring to experience the presence of God, it is not the time to entertain intellectual doubts. In prayer, taught R. Nahman of Bratzlav, we must cast aside all our “wisdom” and stand before our Maker as children; to be child-like in prayer is as appropriate as to be skeptical in thought. When seeking to wrest transcendent meaning out of existence and to pull ourselves out of the void, we should not cast ourselves into that very void. Rather, at that sacred moment, we can put our doubts aside and, in all integrity, proclaim the unity of God whole-heartedly.” (The Shema, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, page 17)

The Shema is that moment in our day when we fully commit ourselves to something greater than us; when we accept Hashem into our lives and the privilege of observing His commandments. That is what the Sages refer to as kabablat ol malchut shamayim  or receiving the yoke of God’s sovereignty. By saying the Shema we become mindful of God’s mastery over the world and of our responsibility to carry out the mitzvoth of the Torah.

The Shema, however, is also intended to reflect upon God’s oneness. What does that mean exactly and why is it so important to be mindful of God’s Oneness?

Life often seems random. One day we wake up and everything is going well – work is good, your social life is progressing and the next day something changes. You get fired from your job or your girlfriend dumps you.  Is it possible the same God, who allows for such goodness one day, can allows for so much to go wrong the next? And that’s just in my life. Multiply that sense of randomness throughout the world, millions of events which take place, both good and bad, that seem to have no rhyme or reason. 

Of course, this is how things look from our own limited human perspective.  Judaism teaches that in reality, every event which takes place, happens for a reason and is part of greater plan. Things may look random but in reality, everything is coming from one place and is happening for some greater good.  That is what we mean when we say God is one. We are not simply expressing our belief in a one God as opposed to multiple Gods, but that there is one source for all of reality and for everything we see in the world. 

One way of understanding God’s oneness is to imagine a light shining through a prism. Even though we see many colors of the spectrum, they all emanate from one light. This is why some suggest we cover our eyes when saying the Shema. For when we look out at the world, things appear fragmented and disconnected and so we cover our eyes to block out what appears as random, so we can remember and become mindful there is one source for all reality, one God behind everything which happens in our world and in our lives.

It was the Jewish people who brought the concept of monotheism, the belief in a one God to the rest of the world.  It remains our mission to demonstrate that everything we experience, in our world and in our lives, is not accidental or random but an expression of well thought out plan by the one true reality.  God willed us into existence for a reason and as such, the events which take place in this world are necessary parts of a greater plan.  Saying the Shema everyday keep us mindful of this and allows us to bear testimony to Judaism’s core belief: life has purpose and meaning.

The Jewish Mindfulness Series: Part II

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Part Two: The Power of Blessings

Read Part One: The Contemporary Craze & The Jewish Approach

The Jewish Mindfulness Series

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Part One: The Contemporary Craze & The Jewish Approach

Mindfulness and its positive impact on our lives is nothing new. Knowledge about meditation and its ability to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and reduce chronic pain, is centuries old. Becoming more aware and present as well as more appreciative of the simple blessings in our lives, can lead to a richer and more meaningful life. When we are mindful we don’t just gulp down our food, we savor the flavor. We don’t interrupt a friend while they’re speaking, we listen and internalize their underlying message. We don’t rush from place to place but attempt to appreciate our surroundings, aware of the sky above and the ground below. But again, none of this is new. Nevertheless the development of technology has made mindfulness not only attractive but an absolute necessity in our day to day lives.

While it has enabled us to accomplish much more in less time, technology has created new expectations and a pressured environment. This certainly applies to our lives at work, but even at play. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet one of my icons, Paul McCartney. While I should have simply enjoyed the few minutes I had with Sir Paul, I was consumed with how I would capture the moment for everyone else to see. Should it be a still picture or a video, Instagram or Facebook?  As I was trying to enjoy my few moments with Paul, those distracting thoughts took away some of the genuine joy, in real time, of that special encounter (Paul, by the way, could not have been nicer). The internet and social media devices to which we are glued, often prevent us from being in the moment, robbing us of some of the simple pleasures of life.

What is the first thing you do in the morning?  According to recent studies, 80% of people check their phones and the average person checks their phone 40-50 times a day, 2-3 times an hour (Study conducted by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania,). A Bank of America study found that many 18 to 34 year-olds admit to having a closer relationship with their smartphones than with the most important people in their life while another study discovered that teens average 1,000-1,500 texts a day. Timothy Wilson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, placed a group of people in a quiet room for 6-15 minutes without their smartphones, where they were asked to simply think and reflect. The only other distraction was an electronic button, which if pushed, would deliver a severe shock to the person pressing the button. They were all told that pushing the button would deliver a painful jolt. The study found that a majority of people, especially men, pushed the button. This means that some people would prefer to inflict pain upon themselves rather than “just be”. Our addiction to stimulation has made our generation exceptionally distracted, making it harder and harder for us to be ​in the moment.

To deal with all this, many have turned to the modern-day mindfulness movement with its Zen Buddhist roots.  The modern term “mindfulness” was popularized by Jon Kabat – Zinn, a scientist from MIT, whose goal was to promote a “Buddhist meditation without Buddhism.” In 1979, Zinn created something called ​Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction​ (MBSR for short) which combined Buddhism with Western medicine and which ultimately developed into a movement across America. Classical Judaism can also be described as a path to mindfulness, albeit with a different goal and methodology. The Near Eastern approach to mindfulness, which conjures up the image of a monk meditating on a mountain far away from civilization, is ultimately aimed at removing oneself from the physical world. There is, of course, a certain attraction to that approach, but the goal in Jewish mindfulness is not to remove oneself from the world, but rather to engage the physical through the mitzvot (all of which are physical activities), in order to achieve Judaism’s ultimate goal, which is not transcendentalism, but rather – holiness. Holiness in Judaism is attained, not by breaking free of the physical world, but rather by elevating the physical aspects of our existence. The physical activities, in which we are engaged on a regular basis, are not simply meant to be used to survive or gain pleasure from – their ultimate purpose is to keep us connected to our Divine source, and to achieve what the Kabbalists call dveikut or attachment with our Creator. We accomplish this by applying the mitzvot to virtually every human activity. The mindfulness and awareness the mitzvot help produce are therefore a means to something even greater, namely, closeness with Hashem.

In this series I will outline the uniquely Jewish practices which promote mindfulness including:
Kavanah: Achieving a certain emotional awareness through the performance of specific religious activities.

Prayer and Blessings: Reciting certain words and phrases, on a regular basisin order to become mindful of one’s life mission (necessary for living a purposeful life) and of basic gifts such as the ability to see or walk, necessary to becoming a grateful person.

The Shema: A mantra which if done properly enables one to become mindful of certain spiritual realities, the basis for a purposeful and spiritually driven life.

The Sabbath: Disconnecting from both technology and manipulating the physical world in order to connect with one’s spiritual source and with other people.

Jewish Dietary Laws and Sexual Intimacy:  Allows for the infusion of holiness into the most physical areas of life, ie-food and sex.

I will elaborate on each area in subsequent entries but let us begin with the practice of Kavanah, commonly understood as awareness or intention: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, the great 20th century thinker, distinguished between two types of mitzvot or commandments found in the Torah: mitzvot whose performance and fulfillment are one in the same as opposed to mitzvot whose performance and fulfillment are different. The taking and shaking of the Lulav on the holiday of Sukkot for example, defines the way this mitzvah is both performed and fulfilled. Sefirat HaOmer​, counting the days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, is another action which both performs and fulfill the mitzvah. This model characterizes most mitzvot. However, for some mitzvot, their performance is accomplished via certain actions or rituals, but their fulfillment is only achieved through attaining a certain spiritual awareness or mindfulness. For example, ​the mitzvah to be “happy on the holidays”, was performed​ in Temple times by bringing various sacrifices and today through drinking wine and eating meat, but unless one experiences a sense of joy, one may have performed​ the mitzvah, but one has not ​fulfilled ​it. To fulfill this commandment, some kind of joy or elation must be felt in the heart.

Another such example is the mitzvah to recite the Shema, performed by reciting certain words from the Torah. But the fulfillment of this mitzvah takes place through what is called: ​kabbalat ol malchut shamayim or accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven. This involves acknowledging the existence of God and committing oneself to living in accordance with His commandments and ethical teachings. Ultimately, it’s about achieving a state of mindfulness as to one’s very existence and purpose in this world.

The Jewish laws of ​Aveilut, ​of mourning the loss of a loved one, serves as another example. The mitzvah is performed by refraining from certain physical activities. A mourner, for example, does not wash, anoint with oils, wear leather shoes, and more. These actions help the mourner appreciate his or her loss, but as the Talmud says ​“there is only mourning in the heart” – some kind of feeling of loss must be experienced in the heart and so again, the activities are designed to bring about a mental state and emotional experience.

Finally, when it comes to prayer, we perform that mitzvah through the recitation of the Shmone Esrei, or the Eighteen Blessings written some 2,500 years ago by the Jewish sages.  However, in order to fulfill this mitzvah, something must be experienced in the heart, since prayer is defined in Jewish tradition as ​a “service of the heart”. Thus ones focus or intention, ie- “kavanah”, is indispensable for the fulfillment of this mitzvah.

Rabbi Shnier Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote that performing the actions associated with mitzvot only elevates the body and the animal soul, the part of ​the soul most connected with the body. Since praying involves the body (one’s throat, lips, palate, tongue and teeth), reciting prayers has the spiritual power to elevate the body and the lowest part of the soul. However, in order for the uppermost part of the soul to be impacted, ie-the neshama, one needs ​kavanah – mindful focus. ​To impact the upper realms and the world around us, a certain mental awareness is required. Aruch, Orach Chaim, 98:10).

I will come back to prayer later in this series, but the basic idea in all these religious practices, whether it’s moving one’s lips to recite prayers (as in the case of the Shema or Shmone Esrei), eating meat and drinking wine to rejoice in the holidays, or refraining from anointing oneself or wearing leather shoes in the case of the mourner, these physical activities are designed to bring about a certain sense of awareness and mindfulness of the ultimate reality. My next entry will focus on specific prayers and blessings Jewish tradition mandates we say in order to become more mindful of our purpose in life and of the many blessings we take for granted. We will then discuss how the Sabbath protects us from some of the damaging effects of technology, and how its restrictions on work teach us how to be present and learn how to simply ‘be”.  Finally, we will learn how the Jewish laws governing diet and sex infuse those important parts of our lives with spirituality and God consciousness.

Ultimately, the Jewish practices of mindfulness, if practiced regularly, enables us to channel every aspect of our physical lives towards achieving dveikut or closeness with our Creator. In doing so we can become holier people since having a greater God and soul awareness can, over time and with regular practice, change our nature. We are, after all, where our mind and are thoughts are. If most of the day our thoughts consist of food, sports and sex, then our nature will be more in the realm of the physical. If, however we engage in any of the above-mentioned activities designed to produce mindfulness, then, as our thoughts are directed upwards to the spiritual realms, our nature and disposition will follow suit. Over time, we will become more spiritually sensitive and ethically refined and ultimately holier people.

Read Jewish Mindfulness PART TWO: The Power of Blessings

Judaism’s Response to “Workism”

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Last week I met with one of my students for an early morning Torah study session. My student, let’s call him Michael, looked utterly exhausted. “You okay?”, I asked. “Late night at the office” was Michael’s reply. When I asked him how late he answered: “3AM.”

Over my twenty years of early morning Torah sessions, I have found these late hours to be quite common amongst my students. This phenomenon was confirmed by Derek Thompson in his recent article in The Atlantic which reported that “elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics, toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.”

What is Judaism’s take on this?

On the one hand, earning a livelihood, which for many urban dwelling millennials includes heavy rent and paying off massive student loans, requires long hours at the office. Depending of course on what you do, some jobs demand late nights at the office. I know this from my own experience back in the day when I practiced law. The large and prestigious New York law firms can afford the significant salaries they pay to their young attorneys only because of the massive billable hours those lawyers are required to put in. In addition, fine-tuning ones’ craft and truly becoming an expert in a field often requires staying late in the office.

On the other hand, the total focus on one’s career leaves little time for working on other vital parts of our lives. Building relationships and spiritual growth are just two areas that get sacrificed when most of our waking hours are spent at the office. Like anything else, becoming a better friend, child, parent and human being, requires time and focus. We don’t just become better people because we age. We get better when we spend time with the right people and when we have mentors in our lives from whom we can learn. We improve our character when we study texts and pursue a spiritual path that provides values and wisdom for living an ethical life. This is precisely why Judaism requires regular study of its ancient texts each day, having spiritual role models and living as part of a community.

The same Torah however demands we earn a living so we can create and support a family, in addition to trying to make the world a better place, another core Jewish value. Although it’s unfair and wrong, men, and particularly men in the Jewish community, are judged based on how much money they make, often the direct result of how much time one spends working.

The answer, as with virtually every other part of life, is balance. We need to pay the rent, pay off our debts and even manage to give some charity. But if we do this at the expense of relationship building, be it dating or spending quality time with one’s spouse or children, we may find ourselves excelling in our careers, but doing it all alone. Our passions for our career and for making money must be balanced with finding purpose and meaning in life, something most people’s jobs cannot alone accomplish. As Thompson wrote:

“…a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.”

Our jobs and careers may certainly be part of what provides us with meaning and satisfaction in life, but relationships, community and a spiritual path are also necessary.

This may help explain the great prominence Shabbat holds in Jewish life. Once a week, no matter what is happening at work, we leave the office and put down the phone so we can focus on our families, our friends and our spiritual path. We light the candles, sit down to a Shabbat meal and come to synagogue to connect with our Creator and with our community. Shabbat is oxygen for the soul and why the Jewish Sages called it the source of all blessing. It’s what has kept us as a people throughout the ages and we ignore it at our own peril. As the poet and author Achad Ha’am famously put it: More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.

When Silence is a Crime

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

Now featured on Time of Israel!

 

The Virtue and Crime of Silence

Silence can sometimes be a virtue. For example, when the Biblical figure Aaron lost his two sons in a tragic episode, Aaron’s silent acceptance of the Divine decree was seen as meritorious. Silent acceptance of a sad or challenging situation in one’s life, is seen by the Jewish Sages as a courageous act of faith, a virtue.

However, silence is not always the appropriate response to tragedy. Perhaps the greatest example of this kind of silence – where silence as a response to tragedy was not a virtue but a crime- was the Holocaust, which will be memorialized internationally this Sunday.

The world may never forget the six million Jews who perished in the concentration camps, but we must also never forget the hundreds of millions who watched and remained silent. The dozens of governments and heads of state who had the opportunity to intervene, but would not sacrifice military, political or even economic support to save innocent Jewish lives. The quota system in this country allowed only a handful of Jews into the United States and turned boatloads back to Europe where they were perished.

Ambassador Letters Sent to Blind Eyes

As part of an assignment I had when I was in graduate student in Columbia, I studied the letters sent by the U.S. Ambassador to Germany George Wilson to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Ambassador Wilson detailed the implementation of the various Nuremberg racial laws to the Jewish citizens of Germany, how Jews were made to give up their property and forced out of their businesses. He sent letter after letter only to be met with a response informing Wilson how to deal with American Jews who happened to be situated in Germany at the time, ignoring the plight of Germany Jewry.

The only thing more disturbing than the US government’s failure to act was the lack of reaction by members of our own Jewish community – Jews in position of authority and leadership who failed to act. Even one of President Roosevelt’s primary Jewish advisors stopped Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. from presenting to the President a plan to start a rescue policy for Europe’s Jews.

A Better Question Than “Where Was God?”

The New York Times once published a series of letters between two Jewish cousins corresponding during WWII – Julian Hess in the US and Max Schohl in Germany. Schohl reaches out to Hess, desperately seeking safe haven for himself and his family. Hess, sympathetic and motivated to his cousin’s cause, encountered one of the major hurdles that many Jews, and other immigrants, face today – a restrictive immigration quota system. In 1938, the same year as Kristalnacht, there were 220,000 applications for visas to the US at consulates throughout Germany. The annual quota for Germany that year was 27,370 – a little over 10% of the total requested. Of the annual quota, sadly, only 18,000 visas were ultimately issued.

After a failed attempt to nail down a teaching position in the US, Schohl was forced to try and emigrate his family to England instead – a feat requiring a substantial amount of money. With his business and assets frozen, he had nowhere to turn other than his cousins. Hess approached other family members and wealthier cousins, who to his surprise, were very reluctant to help out. Before the money could arrive safely, Britain declared war on Germany, making emigration to England now near impossible.

More failed attempts for Schohl followed, including efforts to emigrate to Chile. Schohl and his family wrote from Yugoslavia in 1941, but the next letter would not come for another four years. Schohl’s daughter penned the correspondence, due to her father’s murder two years prior by the German secret police.

Julian Hess and Ambassador George Wilson were incredible individuals who did everything they could to warn and save the Jewish people from the Holocaust. But by and large, they were just individuals in a world which watched in silence as Hitler continued to the next phase and proceeded to implement his final solution.

So as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, I’m sure many will ask “Where was God?” Personally, I’ll be asking “Where was man?”

(Photo is from US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Santa vs. Latkes: Fighting for a Deeper Judaism On Chanukah

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 

 

Rabbi Mark Wildes of Manhattan Jewish Experience on Hanukkah, Chanukah

 

Since Chanukah is such a joyous time I hate to get negative. However, as a student of Jewish history and a rabbi involved in outreach, I feel compelled to respond to some of the disturbing opinions Michael Lukas wrote in his New York Times opinion piece, The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.

The first is the depiction of the Maccabees who fought against the Greeks as “violent fundamentalists” and “religious zealots who lived in the hills of Judea and practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare.” Lukas must be unaware that the Greek Seleucid Empire, governing over ancient Judea, banned Jews from practicing their religion under the penalty of death. They forced Jews to offer pigs unto the Greek gods and converted the Jewish Temple into a house of idol worship and prostitution. What actions would he have had the Jewish community take? Back then, there were only two choices: Give up your Judaism or suffer martyrdom. The Maccabees defied all odds and created a third option: they rebelled and ultimately expelled the far superior Greek military force from ancient Israel. Defending your own faith from destruction does not make you a violent fundamentalist or a religious zealot. Our ancestors did the right thing in not allowing Judaism to be replaced by paganism. Had they acted differently Greek Hellenism and its pagan foundations would have replaced Judaism and the very cosmopolitan liberties and values Lukas holds so dear.

The second point is more contemporary and goes to the very heart of raising Jewish children in America today. Lukas writes how he needs to compete with Santa, “sparkly trees, ornaments and fruitcake” with Judaism’s “latkes, jelly doughnuts and eight nights of presents.” If Lucas could share something deeper about Judaism with his daughter he wouldn’t have to do so much selling and competing with Christmas. Judaism at its core offers timeless values and a heightened sense of living through its traditions, holidays and teachings. Take the Sabbath: When a child feels that because of the restrictions the Sabbath places on technology use, they now have their parents total focus and attention (at least once a week), Judaism becomes valuable in their eyes. When they encounter the pains of growing up, whether it be a struggle to fit in or spouts of bullying, they can rest assured that once each week they will have a Sabbath meal and real down time with their family and loved ones and not get sucked into the cyber world of Instagram, Facebook and the latest iteration of Candy Crush.

In my book “Beyond the Instant,” I outline other Jewish practices with endless benefits to both parents and their children, such as:

  • Praying offers time for meditation, mindfulness and awareness that yoga and other modern activities have tried to replicate.
  • The focus Judaism places on giving through acts of loving kindness and charity have been proven to lead to great happiness.
  • Reciting blessings before and after we eat develops an attitude of gratitude.
  • The Jewish High Holidays raise children with the idea that it’s never too late to change the direction of your life and improve ones character.

We will never have to compete with Santa or a Christmas tree if we raise our children to yearn for something deeper, real, and relevant. If we instill Jewish values in our children, values grounded in happiness, giving, mindfulness, and depth, we just might look into our arsenal and find a lot more than latkes and jelly doughnuts.

Type in ‘Jewish’ and ‘Money’: See What Comes Up

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 NOW PUBLISHED ON TIMES OF ISRAEL

 

 

Mark Wildes on Manhattan Jewish Experience

On November 9, Twitter user @voidmstr tweeted at Shutterstock, a leading American stock photography company, an image hosted on their site that depicts Jews as money hungry people, an age-old anti-Semitic stereotype. It took five days until the image and the related photo series were taken down. However, with a simple search of keywords “Jewish “ and “money,” the photos can still be viewed on competitor site depositphotos.com.

I cannot comment on what the intentions behind the pictures were, but we need to get answers to some fundamental questions: Are image hosting and stock photography sites remaining vigilant in keeping racist and stereotypical images off their sites and how does this play into the larger national landscape of how tech companies are manipulated by extremists to promote their hate speech?

In this specific scenario, the market of this anti-Semitic photo involves three players: the photographers that pose and sell stock photography, the websites that host their photos, and the people buying the photos. Should we place the blame on the photographers who may be responding to image requests, either by websites or by consumers? There’s no way to know the full motives behind any of the players, although one can ironically guess…money.

This question is not a first amendment issue and whether we should allow the creation of these images. The larger issue is: why are these images still popping up and mischaracterizing the Jewish people on such a popular website like Shutterstock? These kind of images draw out bigots from the woodwork, validating the racist thoughts they harbor. Just as garbage attracts flies, we must first dispose the garbage before swatting the flies.

How we tackle this issue will have real-world implications. America is facing a surge of anti-Semitic acts over the past couple of years. From Charlottesville’s white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” in 2016, the desecration of Jewish tombstones in St. Louis in 2017, to the fatal shooting of 11 Jewish people in Pittsburgh just two weeks ago. The Anti-Defamation League reported a rise of 60% of anti-Semitic acts in 2017.

In at least two of these major incidents, social media and online relationships played a serious role. The people who marched in Charlottesville and the Pittsburgh shooter were reported to have used social media and lesser-known, second-tier websites to spread their hate, since their speech was considered too extreme for Twitter and Facebook. One of the ways racists communicate their hate speech is through memes and doctored images. An image that may seem innocuous, such as the picture in question, is ammunition in the hands of anti-Semites who can then share on their preferred sites. The Pittsburgh shooter, for example, used a social media site called Gab to blast his anti-Semitic rhetoric with others who held similar views about Jewish people and even posted on Gab right before the shooting. The site was taken down after the shooting and has recently been put online again.

Given the known stereotypical conflation of Jews and money, no reasonable person viewing these photos would consider them appropriate. If these images can’t be used for corny or fun advertising, then exactly who are these photos for? We must hold the sites, photographers and purchasers responsible for profiting from these images. Remaining vigilant against the barrage of anti-Semitism, in all of its forms, is the only way to confront the bigotry to which the Jewish people have been subject for centuries.

Some People Take Revenge. Jews Do Something Else

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 

 

 

Rabbi Mark Wildes of Manhattan Jewish Experience on Pittsburgh Victims and Jewish Revenge

The Jewish Sages teach, based on the life of the matriarch Sarah, that a righteous person never stops growing. A pious person never becomes complacent where they are, no matter what their age. That’s why one of the most striking things about the terrible attack in Pittsburgh was the age of the people killed. Their ages ranged from 55 to 97.

But they weren’t just older people – they were older people who came to shul early.

Why Come To Shul Early?

Our Jewish brothers and sisters in Squirrel Hill taken from us attended shul early because of their devotion to prayer and community – because they wanted to continue to learn and develop themselves. To honor their memory, synagogues around the world very appropriately made a push for more people to come to synagogue and, what I think is even more appropriate in subsequent weeks, is to try to come earlier.

In a letter to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue, I informed the rabbi that our community will strive to have eleven people at MJE Shabbat services on time, each and every week going forward. I told the rabbi this is not an easy task given the young age of our community and the fact that growing up, most MJE participants never went to shul on Saturdays. But I said we would do this as a way of elevating those eleven souls and our way of telling the world: we may have lost eleven holy Jews but another eleven will rise up in their place.

There’s an even deeper reason behind this campaign for more Jews to come to shul on Shabbat. It’s not just to tell our enemies: we won’t back down, we won’t be intimidated or prevented from practicing our faith. We’re saying something much deeper: by more of us coming to synagogue on Shabbat, we show how Jews deal with tragedy.

How We Deal With Tragedy

How does the Torah teach us to confront a tragedy? The Torah teaches to deal with it, even to learn and grow from the unfortunate experience, but then to move on. We confront the problem, which here is clearly anti-Semitism. We figure out the best way to deal with it but then we move on – not to forget it – but to ensure it doesn’t stop us from our mission.

In Jewish tradition mourning only lasts 30 days. The only exception is mourning for the loss of a parent, which goes for an entire year because of the mitzvah of honoring parents, but that’s the exception. For everyone else, mourning ends with shloshim (30 days) because tragedy, sadness and loss can never be allowed to prevent us from carrying on with our purpose and mission to live a life of Torah. And with regard to this tragedy, and with any act of anti-Semitism, that is precisely what our enemies want – to stop us from living as Jews.

The Jewish “Revenge”

We have a tradition of not excessively dwelling on tragedy, on mourning, or in this case on the hate and anti-Semitism. We have to talk about what happened so we can figure out the best way to keep our synagogues safe, but we don’t allow that conversation to distract us from the mission: from coming to shul and praying, from building our community and from being a light unto the world. The natural feeling after such an attack is to focus on the hate or even to try somehow to get back at our enemies. But we Jews have our own unique form of revenge.

I was speaking with my friend Charlie Harari, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. Years ago, when Charlie had his first child, he brought his son to meet his grandparents. When he walked into the room his grandparents pointed at the baby and said: “that’s our revenge against Hitler”.

That’s the Jewish concept of revenge: others may spend their lives hunting their enemies, exacting violent revenge.

But Jews?

  • We have children.
  • We build hospitals.
  • We create cures.
  • We make the world a better place.
  • We move on and we build further.

An amazing documentary on the Chasidic community in Williamsburg recorded a reporter asking a random Chasid on the street how many children he had. The Chasid looked at the reporter and without any emotion answered:

  • “Twelve”
  • “Twelve children?!” the reporter exclaimed, “are you planning on having more?”
  • “Yes, of course,” he answered
  • “More than twelve, how many kids do you plan on having?”
  • “6 million” he answered.

That’s how we come back from tragedy. We don’t get consumed with hate, we defend ourselves with vigor, but we spend our energies getting back to our mission of being a light, of keeping the mitzvoth, of studying Torah and making the world a better and more spiritual place.

How Jews Operate

Dr. Jonathan Cohen, a member of the Tree of Life synagogue, also happens to be the President of Allegheny General, the hospital where Robert Bowers was brought for treatment. After Dr. Cohen walked into Bowers’ room to check on him, an FBI agent on guard said to the doctor: “I’d never be able to do that.”

Most people would not be able to do that, but that’s the way we are ideally supposed to operate. We don’t allow these situations to destroy our values and bring us down to the level of our enemies. We don’t operate in their world, we operate in ours. The murderer’s nurse in the ER was also Jewish. She treated him too because we’re above acting like our enemies.

Building on their Legacy

As explained, the Jewish approach to tragedy is to deal with the pain but then to move on, but we don’t just move on. Tragedy changes us. Losing a loved one creates a void and the people who are no longer with us not only deserve to be remembered, ultimately, they leave a legacy from which we build. The Sages of the Midrash teach that after the matriarch Sarah died, the special miracles that existed in her home disappeared: the Shabbat candles which remained lit continuously, the special blessing in her dough and God’s cloud of glory which hovered over her tent. These miracles disappeared when Sarah died but when Rebecca came into Sarah’s tent, they suddenly reappeared. This teaches that Rebecca did not simply replace Sarah as the new Matriarch, but rather she built upon her legacy. Rebecca took the foundation that Sarah established, moved back into the tent Sarah lived in, and from there continued to build the Jewish people, not as something new, but as a continuation of the past. We too are not just carrying on from those whose lives were taken in Pittsburgh; we are building on their legacy.

Rebecca took Sara’s place but Sarah and her teachings were never forgotten. We live her values every day of our lives and we will carry on the legacy of those souls from Pittsburgh by continuing to come to synagogue and by living the full Jewish lives of which they were so proud. Our eleven will be their eleven. Through us, they will never be forgotten.

Rabbi Mark Wildes Featured in The Forward – “How One Rabbi Keeps Singles Safe”

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 

 

NEW OP-ED NOW FEATURED ON THE FORWARD! Click below to view.

Rabbi Mark Wildes featured on The Forward

 

Kavanaugh & Ford: Two Jewish Principles at Stake

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 

 

 

Rabbi Mark Wildes on Kavanaugh and Ford

Watching Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford during the confirmation hearings was upsetting, shocking, and anything but bipartisan. However, if we remove all the politics involved, the situation raises two ethical issues: sexual morality and speech.

Both are fundamental Jewish principles and go to the very heart of what it means to be a human being. Parshat Bereishit famously tells us: “God created man in His image” (Bereishit 1:27).

So what does it mean to be created in God’s image? There are a wide range of views of what “His image” means.

The Impact of Speech

Maimonides said that it refers to man’s cognitive abilities – that only human beings can reason/think in a certain way. Only humans can freely choose their path in life and rise above the instinctual part of who they are – something an animal cannot do.

There is another fascinating interpretation by the great scholar Onkelos. Onkelos says that what separates man from animal is man’s capacity for speech. Rashi also says this, namely, man was given something extra – “deah v’dibbur”- he writes, intellect and speech. The human capacity to speak is reflects on us as intellectual beings that are able to communicate complex thoughts.

Thus when we misuse speech, “lashon hara,” we are tainting an inherent, “Godly,” trait that makes us fundamentally human, undermining mankind’s holiness. By misusing speech, we risk losing our very humanity. We must always stay vigilant and careful about what we say to each other and the impact of our speech on others.

Sexual Morality

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick, in his comments on the Chanukah story, points out Maimonides’ very specific language in his description of what the Greeks were trying to do to the Jews:

“The Greek oppressors laid their hands on our property and on our daughters.”

That kind of attack on the daughters of Israel (during the attack, the Greeks made Jewish women submit to their officers)  went to the heart of who we are because, as Rabbi Soloveitchick wrote, sexual morality is a fundamental principle in Judaism:

“No other moral norm is as central and as important in Judaism as that of sexual modesty. Judaism held the view that human dignity and majesty can be achieved only through protecting sexual morality. If the latter is abolished, then man, no matter how agreeable and creative, forfeits the extra existential dimension that the Almighty granted him.”

The Rav refers to our sexual identity as an “extra existential dimension” – a gift that goes to the essence of who we are as human beings. Therefore, acting in a way which violates another’s sexual integrity can cause that individual to feel less than human because, like speech, it’s a fundamental aspect of who we are.      

Not Out of Our Control

We can’t control what happens on Capitol Hill, but we can try to make sure that in our own lives and in our own community we treat these two areas – speech and sexual propriety, the holiness, respect and utmost of seriousness they deserve.

The Jewish community is not immune to what we see happening all over the country, including inappropriate sexual advances and badmouthing that can ruin a person’s reputation. In the last few months, I’ve had to bar two individuals from coming to MJE: one who I became convinced was inappropriately touching women (who very bravely came forward) and another who spread unfounded/unsubstantiated claims about someone else. Both refused to acknowledge or apologize so both are no longer a part of our community.

Jewish law is very clear: we must never say anything untrue about another person. Even something which is true, but negative, we must learn to keep to ourselves UNLESS it is necessary to protect ourselves or to protect another from harmful or wrongful behavior. Then it becomes a mitzvah to say something. Speaking out in that kind of circumstance should be seen as an act of heroism, because – in all probability – you won’t only be saving yourself, but also the next victim.

If we can learn to get this right, we will fill our lives and our community with the kind of holiness our world so desperately needs and ensure we remain true to the divine image in which each and every one of us was created.