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First off, sorry. Forgive me for my laziness these days (or should I rather write weeks), but studies, searching for work, being (attempting to be) a good husband, and so on just takes all my time and “creative” energy.
That aside, I need to write – at least once in a while – and today is yet another one of those time.
I will ask you, my dear readers, here in the beginning of the post, to imagine a Muslim woman bringing in a non-Muslim boyfriend/lover/very dear friend into the house of her parents or, let’s say, the local mosque. Now, we can probably all imagine how provocative that would be, at least if it was known that he was a non-Muslim, but let’s imagine that one of the Muslim worshipers present (or close family members of the house) would be so provoked that he would get up, take a knife (or maybe even a spear, any kind of weapon really) and in one cut kill both the Muslim girl and her boyfriend. How would we react? Well, obviously many of us probably would condemn the action and call it religious fanaticism. Yet, this was what one of the Israelites, called Pinhas, did in the Torah portion of last week (in Parashat Balaq), and – to make matters worse – he was praised for it, being the cause of the removal of the wrath of God, something he is being praised for also in this week’s Torah portion.
I’m not going to defend or explain it, only mention that the Torah itself mention that this was what saved the Israelites from God’s anger, after acting, well, rather wrong.
So why am I mentioning this? Well, I want to do a little commercial. Not for religious fanaticism, but rather for a web-page helping boys becoming Bar Mitzvah to prepare for their Bar Mitzvah. You see the connection? No, that comes here:
See, the coming Saturday, Shabbat, is my Hebrew birthday, kaf-gimmel b’Tammuz, and in Judaism your Bar Mitzvah falls on your 13 year birthday. Now, I am clearly being a little older than that, but when you become Bar Mitzvah you become responsible, and that is often shown publicly by reading either all the Torah portion or at least a part of it in front of the community. That can be rather terrifying, and some might wish that some religious nutnik would pierce either themselves or someone else with a spear, just not to have to do it. But alas, we are long past the days when religious zeal would be praised (at least in some parts of the world), and I would much prefer to listen to a nervous boy reciting the Torah with his puberty voice, than to see someone being pierced in the middle of the congregation, but maybe that’s just me.
Back on track. As you might have guessed – if not, then let me point it out – since my Hebrew birthday is in this week, this week’s Parashah – the Hebrew word for ‘portion’, relating to the Torah portion being read that week – is “my” Parashah. Parashat Pinhas. Yes, my Parashah begins with the appraise of a religious zealot, a group I have some problems with today, but which I nevertheless find some pride in having as my portion (if only I ever get the chance to PIERCE the Jew bringing a tjikse into the congregation! Maybe if I was in the States).
Anyway, keep on the track. When reciting the Torah a tune is normally used. Sometimes, for example when I am reciting the Torah, the tune sounds rather odd and not very melodious, but recited by a person with a good voice, and particularly a person trained in reciting, the recital can be very beautiful. There are various tunes, depending on the tradition, such as the Ashkenazi (the typical North-European/Western tradition), the Sfaradi (the more oriental), the Moroccan (gives itself), the Yerushalmi (also oriental and close to the Sfaradi), the Yemenite (guess who uses that one), and so on.
My favorite is the Moroccan, being the – in my ears – most melodious and various of them, and that is also the one I “trained” my recital in, though it certainly is hard to hear when I recite. This tune – from my own experiences – was most beautiful expressed in a synagogue in Tel Aviv, which I attended some years ago, lead by R. Zerbib, sh’litah, a very warm and intelligent rabbi, doing a great job bringing Torah to the “simple Jews” in what is considered the secular capital of Israel (party’s going on non-stop). I am normally not that much of a emotional person, but hearing this reciter (I never got his name) did bring tears in my eyes. It was simply beautiful. Anyway, should you ever get to Tel Aviv and want to attend at an open and welcoming synagogue, then I can recommend this one, Habayim Yesharesh, found on 10 Nathan HaHacham St., a side-street to Ben Yehudah. The community is mostly French and Moroccan Jews, but English is spoken, so don’t hesitate to give them a visit.
That was the first commercial I wanted to make. The second is for a Bar Mitzvah page, called – surprisingly – Bar Mitzvah, which offers help, advice and training for boys becoming Bar Mitzvah, as well as a lot of other things for the rest of us. Part of what can be found is a trainer in recital with the Ashkenazi, the Moroccan, and the Sfardi tune, found in the lower menu (you will see it when you enter the page) under “blessings and readings”. Check it out, also if you’re not practicing for Bar Mitzvah, it’s definitely a look worth.
The eyes opening and the first waken awareness sneaks into one’s mind, slowly becoming cautiousness realizing the crossing of the barrier between sleep and wake, understanding that yet another day has been given.
I am thankful to You…
Understanding that gratitude should be among the first expressions of the day, the affection a child has to his father, the devoted devotee.
Living and Existing King…
Recognizing one’s role as a subject to greater forces than one self, the dependency of something bigger, drawing one back to life, seeing the first lights one’s eyes catch and climbing up the latter of awareness.
Who have returned my soul to me in compassion…
Yet another day, another chance to do positive. There is time to correct one self, there is yet other possibilities to improve, to enjoy, to do live up to one’s role in live. Understanding that there still is something to do in life, for one self and for others, that one does not wake up for judgment but for a new chance.
Your Faithfulness is Great.
And one sits up, ready finish the crossing from the sixtieth death to fully alive, passing from the world of the death to the world of the living, this symbolic resurrection happening each day of our lives.
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ
The Modeh Ani, I am grateful, is the first prayer the Jew says in the morning, when waking up from what is considered a sixtieth of death, to a new day full of new chances to do what is right. It is a reflection of the resurrection which, according to Jewish tradition, will happen when Messiah comes, returning the souls to their bodies, and it is an expression of gratitude to the Eternal King, Who gives yet another chance, instead of waking one to stand in judgment.
I have long time been a fan of Shahram Nazeri, the great Kurdish-Iranian singer, by some called the Pavarotti of Iran, a comparison which is meant positive, but which I find flawed. Nazeri has a different style and should not be compared to other singer, how great they might be, who perform with a totally different style of singing.
But, as I wrote, Nazeri is indeed a great singer, having the ability to pierce through into hearts with his melancholic voice, as he depicts the poets of Rumi. And that he does as no one else can.
See his version of Andak Andak, where he sings about the love-drunk returning from the flowerfield, after having worshiped wine, now coming gentle returning from the world of being and non-being, the non-being leaving and only the being staying.
What we are dealing with is the Sama, the sufi-dhikr, where the Divine and the created is becoming one through the devotion to God, done through song and dancing, as we see the Dervishes still doing it today. The love-drunk have drank from the wine of the Wine-Maker, worshiped Him through the wine, and are now spiritually lifted and aroused by the love for the Divine non-Being.
Or is it actually the other way around? Are we following the group of worshipers coming to worship, slowly, gently coming, being like flowers, prepared to be seen? Are we following them as they are getting ready to leave this non-existent world, and only exist what what Is, at least for a short time? The love-drunk drinking the wine and being one with the Being. Alas, such a moment only last all to short a time, and suddenly the water bearer sober us, and we are again among the poor:
The wine is from that world, the vessels from this;
The vessels are seen, but the wine is hidden!
Hidden indeed from the sight of the carnal,
But open and manifest to the spiritual!
O God, our eyes are blinded!
O pardon us, our sins are a heavy burden! (Masnavi, Book VI)
Chapter 1, page 1b:
Mishnah (I struggled with the layout, so forgive me for the result, I simply couldn’t get it better):
מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין (?). משעה שהכהנים נכסים לאכול בתרומתן עד סוף האשמורה הראשונה דברי ר’ אליעזר. וחכמים אומרים עד חצות. רבן גמליאל אומר עד שיעלה עמוד השחר.
מעשה(:) ובאו בניו מבית המשתה),) אמרו לו (:) לא קרינו את שמע(,) אמר להם(:) אם לא עלה עמוד השחר חייבין אתם לקרות
ולא זו בלבד אמרו אלא כל מה שאמרו חכמים עד חצות מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר(,) הקטר חלבים ואברים מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר וכל הנאכלים ליום אחד מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר
א”כ למה אמרו חכמים עד חצות(?) כדי להרחיק אדם מן העבירה:
“From when do we recite the Shma’ in the evenings? From the time that the Kohanim enter in order to eat their T’rumah until the end of the first shift, words of R. Eliezer. And the Sages say until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says until the dawn rises.
And it happened: And his sons came from the drinking house, they said to him “We did not recite the Shma’,” he said to them “If the dawn still has not risen, you are obliged to recite.”
And not this alone did they (the Sages) say [until midnight] but in all that the Sages commanded until midnight are we commanded [to perform] until the dawn rises. The incenses, the fats, and the limbs. And (we) are commanded until the dawn rises in all the eating on one day.
If that is so, why did the Sages say until midnight? In order to keep man from the sin.”
“From when,” does the Talmud start, following the Mishnaic order. We are from the first word presented with a question which leads us directly into a practice still followed today, but nevertheless also involving rituals not possible to follow today, and not even at the time of Yehuda HaNasi, when the Mishnah was written down. “From when do we recite the Shma’?” The question relates to the daily recitation of the Qriyat Shma’, what is considered to be the Jewish declaration of faith per excellence. Here the question is about the recitation of the evening Shma’, asking from when we can begin to recite it. The answer has implications also for the modern Jew, but the answer is already outdated when it was written. “From the time that the Kohanim enter to eat their T’rumah.” The T’rumah is the sacrifice designated for the Kohanim, the Levite family in charge of taking care of the sacrificial rituals at the Temple. But when Yehudah HaNasi wrote the Mishnah, the Temple had been in ruins for around 130 years, leaving the contemporary Jew confused as of when the Kohanim did just that. It doesn’t seem to bother the author though, since he continues to focus on until when we can recite the Shma’, even without stating the question. What is of more importance is the ending times of the Mitzvot, forming the discussion in the rest of the introductory Sugya. We will see later on that this does bother the Amoraim, the Talmudic Sages, spending some time and energy on the question of “why in the evening first?”
But let us start with what is at hand. The mishnah is presenting one asked and one unasked question, one answer to the asked question, and three answers to the unasked: From when? From the Kohanim enter. And until the end of the first shift, until midnight and until the dawn rises.
The first of the three answers are credited to Rabbi Eliezer, but it isn’t clear whether he also states the first question and answers it, or it is only the answer on “until when,” which is credited to him. Nevertheless, the answer on “from when” is accepted as being “from the Kohanim enters,” but in the matter of “until when,” we have the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer (until the end of the first shift), the Sages (until midnight), and Rabban Gamliel (until the dawn rises). As we normally follow the majority opinion, the opinion of “The Sages,” that is understood to be the case here as well. But then we are presented for a story. Rabban Gamliel’s sons come home from the “drinking house.” It is after midnight and they still haven’t recited the Shma’, so they ask their father what to do, and since the dawn still hasn’t started to rise, they are still obligated to recite.
This story leaves me with a slightly different understanding of what Rabban Gamliel had in his thoughts. Maybe he did indeed agree with the Sages, that we should recite before midnight, but if something kept us from it, then we are still obligated until the dawn begin to rise. Clearly the sons have an understanding of the demand to recite the Shma before midnight, otherwise they would not feel the need to ask their dad about whether it is expected of them or not, so I would think that it isn’t too far stretched to believe that it was the practice at their place to recite the Shma’ before midnight. Based on that I believe that we can see Rabban Gamliel being part of the majority here, but that he adds an addition, following both the rationality of the Sages (as we will see be explain), as well as following the limits of the Biblical Commandments.
The mishnah continues. “And not only that, but every time the Sages said until midnight, we are commanded until the dawn starts to rise.” What is going on here? Apparently the Sages tend to restrict the time limit of the Biblical Commandments, which happens not only in this case, but in any case when the Sages say “until midnight.” And then it follows up by telling that we are commanded until the dawn begins to rise in various incidences, but why is that? Wouldn’t it be enough just to say that when the Sages say until midnight, then we are from the Torah commanded until the dawn begins to rise? The thought here seems to be, that the Mishnah wants to teach us something. We will return to this later.
The mishnah concludes by asking why the Sages stated until midnight, when the Torah commands until the dawn starts to rise. Should we not follow the Torah? The question is ‘yes,’ and that is what we can learn from the happening with Rabban Gamliel and his sons, that even if we pass the rabbinical commandment of reciting (or fulfilling any of the other commandments, which is until the dawn begins to rise, but which the Sages have said until midnight), then we are still obliged to fulfill them. The reason, the mishnah explains, is that the limit of midnight is established in order to keep man from sinning, that is, better that he does it early while he is still awake, than delaying himself and then risking falling asleep. The rabbinic commandment, which is called mitzwah d’Rabbanan (commandment from the Rabbis) is a “fence,” placed around the Torah, in order that we don’t do wrong by mistake (the Pirqei Avot talks about this fence in chapter 1:2). The commandment from the Torah, on the other hand, is called mitzwah d’Orayta (commandment from the Source).
This concludes the first mishnah in the Talmud Bavli, Seder Zera’im, Massechet B’rachot.
 My translation has been kept very strict to the text, unless where I had no choice but alter it in order to give meaning. I will give a more meaningful translation, as well as insert in the original text additions, which will render it easier to read for a modern reader. There will be made differences between the original text and my own additions.
 The Hebrew term is more correctly translated to “The Wise,” but I would believe that “The Sages” gives more sense. It isn’t a fixed group of people, but should be understood as the majority of the Sages, according to which opinions the Halachah (legal decision) normally is set, though there are examples on the opposite. But as a guiding rule, we should see the majority rule as being the Halachah.
 It is important to note that we are not necessarily talking about 12 o’clock, as the end/beginning of the 24 hour day, but about the Halachic midnight, being fixed according to the hours of sunlight, which moves the midnight according to the time of the year.
 This is the literal translation of “Beyt Mishteh,” but there are various thoughts stating that it should not be understood as a pub or the like. RaMBaM, Z”L, states that when the word is used, it is always understood as being a gathering where there has been focus on the wine (in his commentary to the Mishnah, same place). Likewise the Tosefot Yom Tov explains that whenever the term is used, it is in regards to a wedding.
And onwards to the fourth pillar. As we can see from Amani’s walkthrough of the Pillars of Islam, the fourth pillar is fasting, Sawm in Arabic, being a duty upon the Muslim during the month of Ramadan. The Muslim fast is, as is seen, a fast which last a whole month, or maybe rather 29 to 30 days, since the Muslim calendar is based on the moon rather than the sun. The difference is that the months are slightly shorter, also leaving the year shorter than the solar calendar, which is what the West is following. Instead of a year of 365 days, the year is only 356 days, making the Ramadan, and fast, move eleven days a year.
The Jewish calendar is also a lunar calendar, that is, it also follows the moon, but rather than just letting the month move through the solar year, the Jewish calendar once in every second or third year, add an extra month, so the Jewish months will more or less always lie in the same seasons of the year. The reason for the difference between the two calendars, the Muslim and the Jewish, is that Judaism has a great focus on agriculture, making it necessary to keep the various festivals within the seasons, which isn’t the case in Islam (and here we have a difference in Judaism and Islam, though this doesn’t mean that agriculture is without importance in Islam, it just doesn’t put the same great emphasis on agriculture as Judaism does).
Back to the fast. Before I continue I need to point out that fast in Islam is not a constant fast, that is, the fast of Ramadan is “only” from sunrise till sunset, which can be hard enough, especially when it is every day for a month. Furthermore, the things being prohibited are eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations. That said I would rather encourage you to check out Amani’s post, since she – as always – explains it much better and in much greater detail than I do.
There are two Hebrew terms for fast, the one being the most used today is “Tzum,” being related to the Arabic Sawm, while the other, which normally is translated as “afflict,” is ‘Unah, meaning “torture,” or ‘Inah, “to torture.” Both words are found in the Hebrew Bible, in overlapping meanings, though with ‘Inah being somewhat more grave in tone than Tzum. That is, where Tzum merely reflects fasting, ‘Inah reflects pain and torture, which also includes fasting. I don’t remember well, so I have to check it out, but as far as I remember the ‘Unah is the fasting lasting from sunset to sunset, while the Tzum is only lasting from sunrise to sunset, having the ‘Unah becoming a torture in the end, while the Tzum is “merely” a shorter time abstaining from pleasures.
As said, the Hebrew word normally used for fast is tzum and is typically observed in context of regretting or boding for sin done, either personal or communal, mourning or in order to receive an answer on troubling questions, such as a weird dream or just general direction, becoming enlightened. There are five fasts in Judaism, the most important and extensive one being the one of Yom Kippur, followed in importance by the fast of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the month of Av), and then the Fast of Gedalyah, ‘Asara B’Tevet, and Tzum Tammuz. There are other minor fasts, but they are not always followed by the same level of observance as the greater fasts.
Fasts in Judaism always only last one day, but then – in difference from Islam – are absolute. The big fasts, such as the one of Yom Kippur, is observed from before sunset the first day until after sunset the next, that is, at least 25 hours. And it is a “total” fast, which means that no eating or drinking is allowed, as well as smoking, sexual relations, showering, sleeping comfortable, and other things making the time of the fast pleasurable. Most fasts are only lasting from sunrise to sunset though, being as short as five hours, depending on where in the world and what time of year one is fasting. And of course fasts should always be observed with prayers, and – preferable – charity.
I will take the advantage of already having mentioned them to go through the mentioned days of fast, starting with Yom Kippur:
Yom Kippur is the most holy and important day in Judaism, a day that calls for and enjoys observance even from secular people, who normally don’t spend much time thinking about their religion. Synagogues are completely full this day a year, streets being emptied for any traffic normally filling them (at least at places where there is greater Jewish communities). Yom Kippur is mentioned in WaYiqra (Leviticus) 16 and 23:27-32, and especially 16:29-31 and 23:27-32 is important here, since that mention that the people has to “afflict” themselves. The word used here is ‘Initem, reflecting the graveness and seriousness of the day.
The fast of Yom Kippur does not stand alone. It is a day of serious contemplation on one’s sin and asking for forgiveness for them, but this doesn’t only goes for the day itself, the Jew needs to be prepared for this day, a preparation which in fact starts already in the beginning of the previous month, being a time asking friends and other people for forgiveness for all the wrongdoings one may have done. Also charity should be given easily in this period, showing trust in God, and a will to put one’s ego aside. That done and prepared to Yom Kippur itself, the Jew will experience a day not only of intense fasting and abstaining from any pleasure, but also a day of prayer. The day is begun the evening before, with prayers for acceptance of release of all one’s promises given to God, which one didn’t keep to perfection, as well as the normal, though much extended, evening prayer, Ma’ariv. The next day there four more prayers, lasting – depending on the prayer leader/s – all day. The first, as is always the case, Shaharit, the morning prayer, followed by the Mussaf, the additional prayer, then Minhah, the afternoon prayer, and finally the Neilah, which is the prayer for forgiveness and being inscribed in the book of life. Most places there is a break between the Mussaf and the Minhah, but many places either skipping them or making them very short. The day ends with the closing of the ark, the room storing the Torah-scrolls, and after that people are praying the evening prayer for the new day, as well as a Kiddush for the passing from a holy time to a secular time.
When the Temple was still standing there was an extensive sacrificial ceremony, which is being reflected in the prayers, the prayers taking the place of the sacrifices after the destruction (and most like already before in the Diaspora), where two goats were taken for the ritual, the one being sacrificed and its blood put on the other goat, which then was send out in the wilderness, symbolizing the sins of Israel being send away. Since that only could be performed in the Temple, there is today done no such ritual (maybe the Samarians have a like ritual, I’m not sure, but it could be interesting to find out).
The next fast I wanted to explain is the one of Tisha B’Av, but since I already wrote a post, some time ago, I’d rather direct you there.
So skipping the fast of Tisha B’Av I’m hurrying onwards to the Fast of Gedalyah, being observed the day after Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year, lasting from sunrise till after sunset. Gedalyah was the governor of Yehudah during the Babylonian reign. Though most Jews were taken captive and brought to Babylon, some still remained, and for these Gedalyah acted as a governor. The Ammonite king wasn’t very satisfied with Gedalyah being governor of Yehudah, so he convinced the Jew Yishma’el ben Netanyah, who was a descendant of King David, to bring some men and kill Gedalyah. Gedalyah, who was warned about Yishma’el ben Netanyah’s plans he refused to believe it, being overtaken and killed by Yishma’el and his men in the city of Mitzpa. The accounts can be read shortly in 2 Kings 25:25-26.
The fast is observed with some additional prayers as well as a Torah-reading.
The fourth fast is the fast of ‘Asarah b’Tevet, the tenth of Tevet, traditionally being related to the Babylonian king’s, Nebuchadnezer II, siege of Jerusalem, which eventually lead to the destruction of the first Temple, which is mentioned in 2 Kings 25:1-4. It is an easy fast, being observed from sunrise till after sunset, including additional prayers and Torah-reading.
The fifth and last is the fast of Shiv’ah ‘Asar b’Tammuz, the seventeenth of Tammuz, which introduces a period until Tisha B’Av, which is considered a period of mourning because of the Romans breaching the walls of Jerusalem, which eventually lead to the destruction of the second Temple. In the three weeks between the two days it is prohibited to shave, having the hair cut, listening to music, marrying and perform other acts of joys, in commemoration of the Roman slaughter of Jews in these three weeks.
It is also considered an easy fast, going from sunrise till after sunset, adding some additional prayers and Torah-reading. This one I also have written a post about, which you can read here.
I have only given few details, covering the most general, all of the fasts having quite many details, which I think is needed to study in order to get a good understanding of the fast in Judaism, but I wanted to keep it somewhat brief introduction to fast in Judaism. Fasts, it has to be said, don’t have to be observed communal, but can also be taken volunteering privately.
Michael Kay, at “Thinking through my fingers” (visit his blog, he is seriously an amazing writer and brilliant thinker), wrote a post where he reflected on the Jews as a “Chosen people.” I found it highly inspiring and felt the need to let it out on him, so I wrote the following as a response (which I also posted there):
And thank you for a wonderful and inspiring post:o)
I have some reflections to share, I hope it is okay with you. Unfortunately I’m not at home, so I can’t give precise sources every time I will be using them, but I will get back to it, bli neder.
I really do love R. Sacks and his attempts to connect our modern way of thinking and Judaism. In that sense I believe that he follows the tradition of many other historical Jewish thinkers, though whether he is on the same level always can be discussed (I don’t believe that he is on the level of a thinker like haRaMBaM, Z”L, nor do I expect him or any other today to be).
I believe though that the answer is found in each of the three categories, though mostly in the two latter ones. But we do find examples on the Jewish nation being something exemplar to the other nations in some Jewish traditions, one place is the Babylonian Talmud, tractate ‘Avodah Zarah, where God more or less makes a fool out of the nations, leveling Israel above them. That is one of the few examples on this though, the more dominant approach being the Biblical approach in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, quoted by you, expressing that Israel “were the fewest of all peoples.” If number or greatness of a people would be the deciding factor, then Ishma’el would be more likely, as we see that God will bless him “and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20). In this respect is it also interesting to consider the midrash on the giving of the Torah, how God had to hold the mountain over the Israelites, threatening them by destruction, since the sole reason for their existence is Torah (something also repeated in the Quran).
The Jews are chosen, not to be superior, at least not in might, that one seemed to go more to Ishma’el and ‘Esaw, but to be a light to the nations, and as a student of the Torah. You mention that “there is the problem of the Jew who abandons their responsibility and assimilates into the surrounding culture,” and that is – I believe – also reflected in the Torah, in the story of Dathan and Aviram, refusing to “go up” to Moses, and instead were swallowed by the earth. I read in this the consequence of assimilating, refusing to “go up to Moses,” that is, staying “loyal to the Torah.”
Our role as a “light unto the nations,” is not fulfilled by being perfect observant, but by spreading (Jewish) values to the world, not by hiding in a ghetto, but by taking part in the world, while still staying true to the Torah. By relating to our brit with God do we show God’s intentions for all of us, that is, not necessarily by not eating milk and meat together, nor by not mixing materials in our clothes, wearing tzitzit (that us more for our own sake) and so on, that is mostly in order that the world may realize that we are Jews, and by that seeing our – hopefully – examples as related to God. And then there are some of our commandments which carry in them a deep ethical understanding, where the sole fulfilling of the commandment is giving a light, such as the already mentioned not eating meat and milk together. Think on Rashbam’s commentary to the verses dealing with not cooking the kid in its mother’s milk, and how he points out that it is deeply unethical to kill something and then enjoying it with its life source. The giving of tzedaqah, as contrasted to charity, is showing that caring for those in worse situations than ours is a plight, a duty, not something we are doing to feel good about ourselves. And so on. And the more we interfere with the world and get out there, the stronger this will stand. It is obvious that by hiding in the ghetto we, first and foremost, won’t experience much challenge (just doing what everybody else is doing), and, secondly, we are actually being “lights for the world,” not merely “lights.”
And it certainly speaks miles about God, that He would want to choose the Jews as His people. History have shown again and again that we have failed. Even today we find it hard to show our gratitude to finally having a country of our own (as well as others also, we shouldn’t forget that), but yet He stayed loyal through it all, even when we – in general – did not. Sure, He punishes, but more than that does He forgive, care, and love.
I think that we should have a double understanding of the choseness, not only talking about a chosen people, but also of chosen individuals. Abraham, more than anyone, allowed him to act in pure trust, going against the ways of his people. Abraham, though bringing a household with him, acted as an individual, for that he was rewarded, but he also became the example for each and every one of us.
Finally, I think that much of the bad reactions we get from Christians and Muslims, when they react to us being “chosen,” is projections. Both Christianity and Islam work with an understanding of choseness themselves, such as only having Christians being saved, as well as the Islamic Ummah being the perfect Ummah. They transfer understandings of these concept to how they believe Jews view the idea of being “chosen.” And maybe, probably, many Jews actually are viewing the notion of being Jewish and “chosen” the same way. But all in all that is something that is far from the Jewish thought (and not the thoughts of Jews).
Again, thanks for an inspiring post:o)
All the best
I felt like sharing another of R. HaKohen Kook’s letters with you, this talking about the relation between one’s quest for God and his love for mankind.
It seems like there’s something about it. I feel that in the periods where I tend to draw closer to God, and meditate more on His Teachings, then I become more relaxed and patient. I tend to see people more positive, and not wanting to get into long intense discussions.
R. HaKohen Kook calls it the “Higher Holiness,” which would seem to be to be related to one’s nearness to God, being shown through the holiness radiating from God through the believer, being visible through his care and tolerance for others. Anyway, judge for yourself:
The Holiness That Abounds with Love for All
The higher holiness abounds with love, compassion and tolerance, as the mark of its most radiant perfection.
Hatred, sternness and irritability result from forgetting God, and the extinguishing of the light of holiness.
The more intense the quest for God is in a person’s heart, the more the love for all people will grow in him. He will also love the wicked and the heretics and desire to correct them, as he indeed corrects them by his great faith.
However, a person is unable openly to show love except to someone in whom he finds a good element. He will thus be able to direct his love to the dimension of the good. He will not be hurt by the evil side in those people to whom he will extend love in meeting his commitment to love people, which involves being good and extending good to the wicked as well as the good.
Orot HaQodesh, Vol. III, p. 317
I began thinking about converting around eight years ago, reading all material that I could put my hands on, but of the central scriptures I only read the TaNaCh with commentaries. At least in the beginning. The Talmud was read through books about it, more than studying it itself, something I only began when I took the decision to go through with my conversion. Nevertheless, the Talmud, or Talmuds, have been part of my focus since, and it is a very interesting piece of literature, whether you’re religious or not (or even Jewish or not). It demands attention, awareness, background knowledge, reflection, and – interestingly – disagreement.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that you should disagree with or go against what is written in the Talmud, but you shouldn’t be satisfied with what you think is the conclusion either. The Talmud is studied and understood in a dialogue with it, something that is the hole basis for its coming into existence. The Talmud is, in fact, one long discussion, sometimes staying in focus, but for the most not, dealing with all kinds of things, suddenly popping up in the middle of the discussion, for then to return to the subject when the digression has been solved, if at all, for then to find a solution to whatever problem has been found, and not always was that possible.
I find it amusing and challenging to deal with these discussions. But something that always challenged me, at least till I moved to Israel, was the discussions that involved the authors surroundings. For a person living in Denmark, far to the north (at least compared to the ME), it doesn’t make much sense when the Sages talked about the “round of the rising sun” or when the moon is opposite to the sun, in order to establish times for when the night ends and the day begins, or the other way around. But that is what was relevant for them, something I only realized and really notices after I moved here. From where I live I can look east towards Jordan, so when the sun rise in the morning, I can literally see a ball of light on the sky growing and become more light, until the sun rises over the horizon, and at that special time of month, where the moon and the sun will stand opposite of each other, just before the sun sets and the moon begins to rise, I can actually see what the Rabbis saw, and get that better understanding of what they talked about. For me moving here, means that what was theoretic knowledge became real knowledge, what was another person’s experience suddenly became my own.
The same goes for the Bible, it is amazing to sit in places described in the Bible when reading about them, knowing that this is not just some weird story in a book from far away, but that I’m sitting right where it happened. The story becomes alive.
I guess this is the case for many scriptures, the Qur’ân as well, reading them where they were created. I can imagine that for the Muslims reading the Qur’ân on the Arabic Peninsula it will give much more sense and meaning to read about themes connected to that area, than it does for a Muslim reading about the same themes in the States. I would even go so far as to say that the serious student should study texts in the area where they were written, in order to get a better understanding and appreciation of them. Of course, I know, not all are able to do that, unfortunately, but should you get the chance and opportunity then do it. For me, to study the Bible and the Talmud here does all the difference, being in their home.
One of the things I have been wondering a little about, since I began my new studies and met a lot of interesting new people, is what religion really means for us. One thing is how to define “religion,” which apparently isn’t such an easy thing to do. Some understand “religion” as they understand “faith” or “spirituality,” or somehow mixing the three, but it isn’t necessarily so. The understanding of the meaning of the term, has also changed through the times, seeing it as a ” state of life bound by monastic vows,” or “conduct indicating a belief in a divine power” from around 1200, which is derived from Cicero’s understanding of it being something “redone,” as seen in the “conduct,” which is repeated, showing “a belief in a divine power.” Later on it was interpreted as a “bond between humans and gods,” derived from the word “religare,” signifying “to bind fast,” and as such seeing religion as a kind of obligation between the human and the divinity, contrasting the redoing a certain behavior, showing a faith or belief in this divinity.
But what is it then? I have a feeling that that answer isn’t so clear, either switching between the two or even mixing them at times. For example, if one was to observe me in my daily routines, washing my hands in the morning, praying three times daily, never work on the seventh day, and so on, he would surely say that my religion is a set of routines, based on my belief in a divine power. And it would – I believe – also be true. I do these thing, because I believe that this is what G-D want from me, and had I – for example – been a Christian or a Muslim, then this might have been a fully covering description. But maybe not quite so for Judaism, which doesn’t hold that all should observe the Jewish Law and/or rituals. So – as the convert I am – why am I doing this? Why did I choose to do this? Well, here we would have to explain it as a “bond” I made between me and the Divinity in which I believe, “binding” myself to Him. But – one might interfere – why is that different from the Muslim and the Christian, who – if converted, or at least at a stage where they accepted the notion that there is a G-D, who governs all man – also bound themselves to Him (sort of speaking). The difference lays in the attitude between Judaism, on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam on the other. The two last religions are more totalitarian in their approach to converting people (which should not be understood negatively here, the same term can be used about Judaism in other regards), so it is not so much that they believe in a G-D, which they then decide to bind themselves to, though knowing that it isn’t necessarily demanded from them, still being viewed as “accepted,” should they choose not to do it, but more that they believe in a G-D, which is expecting them to act in a certain way, bond or not, acceptance or not. And of course, should we relate to other religions, such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, or whatever have we, the picture might even become more obscure.
That aside, what is the difference on religion and, say, spirituality or faith? Well, the religion is public, it demands – as we have seen, whether understood as the redoing of rituals or the bond between human and the divine – a public approach, something to be seen. People can observe my actions, and my religion – as with most religions, I believe – is even influencing the norms of how to interact with other people (in the Jewish example we can point on the showing of respect for the elder, which surely also exists in other religions), so religion does interfere with the general behavior in society. Not so with faith, which is existing on a personal level. I don’t expect all Jews, not even all religious or Orthodox Jews, to share the exact same faith as me. Of course, we do have commonalities, sharing the general belief in G-D as being One, which we also share with, e.g., Muslims, but also as seeing the Torah as the highest Divine revelation, Moshe Rabenu, A”S, as the biggest Prophet, the sanctity of the Shabbat, and so on. But for example, what about my faith in the ethical aspect of Judaism being more important than, say, the ritual aspect? Or what about my faith in the Mishnah as being part of the Torah, something that isn’t shared by the Karaitim or the Samarians? These difference might and might not mean so much in the general regulation of society, though it might mean a lot on the personal level, even regulating how we understand us selves in the society (religious or not).
So to sum up. Religion and the understanding of religion is a subject that probably need deeper understanding in relation to religious minorities’ role in and approaches to their wider societies, and our understanding of how the religions understand themselves and their status as being religions, is also of great interest, whether the religious minority exist within a religious or secular majority.
All the best
 Especially not in the Religious and Anthropological studies, where, e.g., Clifford Geertz describe religion as a “cultural system,” where as Talal Asad describes it as an “Anthropological Category.” The difference might not be so obvious, but whereas the former understand “religion” as being a “culture,” the latter understand it as part of a “culture.” See Geertz’ “Religion as a Cultural System,” and Asad’s “The Creation of Religion as an Anthropological Category.”
 As some people would know, and probably interfere, Judaism isn’t totally without lack here either, just think about the Seven Noahide Commandments. But a non-Jew would not be required to observe as detailed a level of Commandments as the Jew is, converted or born as a Jew.