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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Be true to yourself - Ask Zusya's question

     I always thought I was true to myself, but lately, I have been questioning what it really means in my life as a rabbi. Being the anthropologist that I am, I am in love with the spirituality of other cultures, but being the Jew that I am, I find myself adoring elements that are considered Idolatry in Judaism. If I meditate the Zazen style, I am told it is “Not Jewish”. When I adorn myself with a necklace made out of beads by the Massai, I am told I use idolatrous items.

      So, it was not surprising that I was deeply touched by the off-Broadway play “My Name Is Asher Lev” (Playwright Aaron Posner, adapting the novel written by Chayim Potok). I fully identified with Asher Lev, who as a religious man, posses a passionate artistic spirit. Even though his paintings are against all Jewish standards he cannot help himself but paint. His dilemma is how to please the two worlds he lives in; his faith, his parents and his community on the one hand, and himself on the other.

      Jacob Kahn, his art teacher labels Asher Lev “a whore” because he is now hiding his payos and is painting without expressing his true feelings. Asher rethinks what his teacher told him and becomes convinced that there is a difference between naked women and a nude. His father calls this “moral blindness.”

      The Talmud recognized our obligation to be honest when dealing with others and live with integrity, but perhaps, not emphasizing enough the need to live authentically with ourselves and with what we really are in order to feel whole. Tractate Shabbat 31a teaches —

           Raba said; When man is led in for Judgment [called to account before God] he is asked; “Did you deal faithfully [with integrity], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you hope for salvation, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you understand one thing from another.”

 What about being true to oneself? The Chasidic masters probably asked the same question, and came up with the following story about Rabbi Zusya of Hanapoli [you can find this story and more in the books "Tales of the Hasidim" by Professor Martin Buber];

      Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:

"Zusya, what's the matter? 

And he told them about his vision; "I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life."

The followers were puzzled. "Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?"

Zusya replied; "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?' and that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?"'
Zusya sighed; "They will say to me, 'Zusya, why weren't you Zusya?'"

This story brings up the question whether we choose to stay with our tendency to hide beneath a mask of pretense, or go a step further to explore our authenticity and express ourselves to its fullest. Surely, we need to avoid false relationship between ourselves and others. More than that, Carl Jung was right too:

      "In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted."

Asher Lev knows in his heart that he needs to be himself and here is a very strong quote from the book;

      “But it would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work. I would not be the whore to my own existence. Can you understand that? I would not be the whore to my own existence.”

What about you? Are you inspired by Asher Lev and Zusya?
Where are you not being true to yourself?
What makes you feel whole and complete?
What makes you feel proud of yourself?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Jewish Rain Dance - Ta'anit 23a

      What is there to do when we face a natural disaster such as droughts? Just this summer of 2012 we suffered one of the most severe droughts, including last year’s drought in the South Central states and an extreme five-year drought in the American West a decade ago.

     In April of 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke: “Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.” But after the rain had not arrived, he said in a speech in May, explaining how some of the nation’s most serious problems could be solved: “I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this”. In Jul 18, 2012, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was praying for rain to bring relief from the drought; “I get on my knees every day,” Vilsack told reporters at the White House today. “And I’m saying an extra prayer now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.”

      What were these politicians thinking? Did they honestly believe that prayers for rain will affect the cosmos? Did they really believe that prayer and fasting for rain will stop a drought? According to anthropologists, prayers help people cope and feel that they are not helpless and can exercise a degree of control during unpredictable and uncontrollable events. This is the power of rituals, prayers, sacrifice and magic, which extract meaning, unity and peace of mind by doing something that make the connection with the divine stronger. Thus, the Native American tribes, for example (mainly in the Southwest) perform a ritual dance to ensure rain. This is their yearly summer Rain dance (known as the Snake Dance), when rain is needed for crops and droughts most often occur. Before the dance itself, the priests retreat to an underground religious structure (kiva) for 12 days, where they fast and pray.

      In the Mishnah and the Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit), there are many sections that are specifically dedicated to instructions of what to do during droughts. The rabbis instituted communal fasts, public prayers and sounding the horn when a drought was happening. They also included many prayers for rain in the winter times, and for dew in the summer time, standardizing them in the liturgy.

      A fascinating story about control and act of compelling the divine during a drought is in the Gemara - Ta’anit 23a. During a severe drought in Israel and after communal fasting and prayers rain did not come. The people approached their community sage, Honi, known as the “Miracle Maker”. He was able to directly communicate with God. He even had the liberty to engage in a chutzpadic dialogue with god;

             Once it happened that the greater part of the month of Adar had passed  and yet no  rain had fallen. The people sent a message to Honi the Circle Drawer: “Pray that rain may fall”. He prayed and no rain fell.

           He drew a circle and stood within it in the same way as the prophet Habakuk (2:1) had done, as it is said: ‘I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower etc.’ He exclaimed [before God]: “Master of the Universe, Thy children have turned to me because [they believe] me to be a member of Thy house. I swear by Thy great name that I will not move from here until Thou hast mercy Upon Thy children”!
         Rain began to drip and his disciples said to him: “We look to you to save us from death; we believe that this rain came down merely to release you from your oath”. Thereupon he exclaimed [to God]: “It is not for this that I have prayed, but for rain [to fill] cisterns, ditches and caves”. The rain then began to come down with great force, every drop being as big as the opening of a barrel and the Sages estimated that no one drop was less than a log.
      His disciples then said to him: “Master, we look to you to save us from death; we believe that the rain came down to destroy the world”. Thereupon he exclaimed before [God]: “It is not for this that l have prayed, but for rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty”. Then rain fell normally until the Israelites [in Jerusalem] were compelled to go up [for shelter] to the Temple Mount because of the rain. [His disciples] then said to him”: “Master, in the same way as you have prayed for the rain to fall pray for the rain to cease”.
      He replied: “I have it as a tradition that we may not pray on account of an excess of good. Despite this bring unto me a bullock for a thanks-giving-offering.”

So, as rain was still not satisfactory, Honi continued with his demands;

      They brought unto him a bullock for a thanks-giving-offering and he laid his two hands upon it and said: “Master of the Universe, Thy people Israel whom Thou hast brought out from Egypt cannot endure an excess of good nor an excess of punishment; when Thou wast angry with them, they could not endure it; when Thou didst shower upon them an excess of good they could not endure it; may it be Thy will that the rain may cease and that there be relief for the world”. Immediately the wind began to blow and the clouds were dispersed and the sun shone and the people went out into the fields and gathered for themselves mushrooms and truffles.

     It is clear that the Talmud does not really approve of magic or miracles and is ambivalent about them. However, there still is a Honi, who works like a shaman in a community. The head of the Sanhedrin was about to excommunicate Honi because of his practice to compel God, but Shimon ben Shetach excused Honi of his merit to have this special relationship with God.

      What can we learn from the story of Honi and what does it teach us about the power of prayer?

     So, how different is this story from what the Native American do when they dance to bring rain?

     In the age of weather predictability technology – do we still need to pray for rain, or is prayer alone a tool to help us deal with horrible situations?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Who needs criticism? TB Arachin 16b

Who likes criticism? Who enjoys hearing judgmental comments and faulty finger-pointing?

     One thing is for sure; I resent criticism, especially if it is harsh. I hate it when people put a mirror in my face and say: “Look at yourself… and see how wrong you are”. To be honest, it is often painful and difficult to take, even constructive criticism and correction.

     The act of criticism from a Jewish perspective, when offered among Jews in order to correct wrong behavior, is a Mitzvah, called tochecha in Hebrew or rebuke. Its origins are found in the Bible; “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely reprove your fellow; and not bear sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17) But we need to be aware of the fact that there are situations in which offering criticism does not help but only shames the person. So, how and when should we offer criticism? What kinds of risks are we taking?

     Based on this Biblical verse, the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b explore the notion of rebuke. There is a similar principle in BT Shabbat 55a;

1. To rebuke is to fulfill a social obligation even if one refuses to accept the rebuke;

      From the repetition of the word 'rebuke' in the verse “rebuking you shall rebuke” or “you shall surely rebuke” we learn that there is an obligation to repeat the reproof, even though it was not accepted when administered first. Thus, rebuke is a social obligation.

         Our Rabbis taught: …Whence do we know that if a man sees something unseemly in   his neighbor, he is obliged to reprove him? Because it is said: ‘You shall surely rebuke’.
If he rebuked him and he did not accept it, how do we know that he must rebuke him again? The text states: ‘surely rebuke‘ anyway. One might assume [this to be obligatory] even though his face blanched, therefore the text states: ‘You shall not bear sin because of him’.

     When the rabbis discuss how and when to rebuke another person they acknowledge the fact that there are people and contexts in which offering rebuke does not help. Here, we find a number of principles;

2. Human beings have a hard time taking criticism;

     R. Tarfon said, “I wonder whether there is anyone in this generation who can accept reproof, for if one says to him, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ he would reply, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes!’ ”

     Rabbi Tarfon observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.

3. It is an art to know how to criticize in the right way;

      R. Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke!”

     Rabbi Eleazer ben Azaria begs us to think about the right way to criticize another person. Even if we do not mean to insult or hurt, we do offer words that push buttons. What words should we use or avoid?

One who wants to improve oneself will want to hear criticism because he/she knows that it will make him/her better, and will consequently love the one who criticism him/her.

      R. Yochanan ben Nuri said, “I call heaven and earth to witness for myself that Akiba was often rebuked by me, for I used to complain against him before Rabban Gamliel, and he showered love upon me all the more, fulfilling what has been said, Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; reprove a wise person and he will love you (Proverbs 9:8).”

     However, contrary to Arachin 16b, the Talmud commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1105), emphasizes a different principle; that one should not offer criticism if it will not be heard or obeyed, and no rebuke should be addressed to one who is sure to ignore it, as the Babylonian Talmud in Yevamot 65b puts it; 

     R. Ile'a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: As one is commanded to say that which will be obeyed so is one commanded not to say that which will not be obeyed. R. Abba stated: It is a duty; for it is said in Scripture (Proverbs 9:8); Do not reprove a fool, as he will hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you. 

     Now, let’s face it. It is so much nicer to be praised, so why would anyone accept rebuke? But since criticism is a social control - mechanism and a fact of reality, perhaps the question is not why people should accept rebuke, rather I suggest the question – in what way we should offer rebuke. A rebuke properly offered, without anger or attitude, for example, could become an act of affirmation and love, not resentment. It shows that we care enough about this person and want to help correcting wrong doing. In addition, my colleague Hune Margulies from the "Martin Buber Institute Dialogical-Ecology" offered another important question:

"Who can consider himself qualified enough to offer truly useful rebuke? or morally worthy? are we rebuking someone for sinning differently than we do? we cannot learn how to fly because we are not meant to, and likewise it so hard to learn how to rebuke because maybe we shouldn't".
Friends, colleagues and family who are willing to point out our errors offer us a gift. How else will it be possible to correct wrong doing? By looking at the mirror that they place in front of us we can understand that the way we act depends on how others perceive our actions, and we need to respect that as well.

     Yes. There is a lot we can learn from criticism even though it may appear negative. If we wish to improve and develop we should invite constructive criticism and appreciate their suggestions.

© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The angels among us

              Often, when I minister pastoral care for patients before their upcoming surgery I offer them a small section from the bedtime Sh’ma prayer;

In the name of Adonai
the God of Israel:
May the angel Michael be at my right,
and the angel Gabriel
'strength of God'. be at my left;
and in front of me the angel Uriel,
and behind me the angel Raphael
'healer of God'
and above my head
the Sh'khinah.

          Patients tell me that they feel comforted by this prayer and share that it gives them the opportunity to visualize a connection with the divine. The skeptics may ask; “where are these four angels? I really cannot see them.”

·       When Abraham was sitting outside of his tent after his circumcision and the three visitors came to his tent, he did not know they were angels. The Gemara in Baba Matzia 86b asks; “Who were the three men”?
The Gemara answers; “Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Michael came to bring the tidings to Sarah [of Isaac's birth]; Raphael, to heal Abraham and Gabriel, to overturn Sodom”.

 The Gemara continues; “But is it not written “And there came the two angels to Sodom at evening” (Gen. 19:1)? The answer; Michael accompanied him [Gabriel] to rescue Lot”.

          Although Lot calls them angels, the people who wanted to hurt the angels referred to them as People; “And they called out to Lot; where are these people who came to you at the night”? (GEN. 19:5)

·       When Jacob was wrestling until dawn with an unknown man, Jacob did not know he was dealing with an angel. The Gemara in Chulin 91b describes the scene:

  “... and the man said to Jacob: ‘let me go since the dawn has broken’ (Genesis 32:27). But Jacob said: ‘Are you are thief or a kidnapper that you are afraid of the dawn’? The man said: ‘I am an angel. And from the day I was created my time did not come to sing [to God in the morning service] until now’.

And the Gemara continues; “This supports the teaching of R. Hananel in the name of Rav; three assemblies of ministering angels sing praise each day. One sings “Holy”. Another sings “Holy” and another sings “Holy is the Lord of Hosts”.

          From here, the Gemara explains the Divine mission of this angel is. This, in fact, reflects our liturgy today. In our daily prayers we refer to the songs of praise which the angels sing before God.

          So, we really do not need to look for winged entities in order to be convinced they exist. The Gemara in Yoma 37a tells us that we, as humans, can emulate angels;

“….. And we have learned in a Baraita (an eternal source for the Talmud), that when three [students] walk [with their Master], the Master ought to be in the middle, the greater of two on his right, and the other on his left. And so we find that of the three angels that came to Abraham, Michael was in the middle, Gabriel on his right, and Raphael on his left.

R. Samuel b. Papa explained before R. Adda, that it is meant, he should walk on his right, but a little behind, and not side by side. Did we not learn in a Baraita that he who precedes the Master is rude, and he who walks behind his Master is too ostentatiously humble? He should fall a little back--not precede, and not follow.

          The important item that Rashi adds is that by this composition of walking, the students, walking alongside to their Master protect him, just like the angels as described in the bedtime Sh’ma.

          I think that one way to ‘see’ angels is to look around and watch how people act. Midrash Tanchuma reassures us that there are angels among us. These are created through the deeds of man. When one does a good deed, God gives this person one angel. If one fulfills two good deeds God gives this person two angels, and so on. Many of us are performing good deeds and thus are granted angels. All we need to do is recognize who they are. At difficult times look in people’s eyes and you will find the angel who carries God’s essence. Could your doctors and nurses at the bed side be the angels at time of a health crisis? Could a child who helped your elderly mother be an angel? Or, perhaps, could it be you who carries out a divine mission to help others? 

            Each one of us carries the divine and is an angelic being, but it is not obviously recognized that our own body is a container of angelic energy. It is not easy to realize a world that is beyond the material. It was called by the Baal Shem Tov “seeing the Divine Presence in everything”. This time, we are asked not only to become aware of who is in our community, but also to recognize the spiritual essence that lies behind the external form of people. Perhaps God’s intervention is manifested by each one of us for each one of us through the angelic metaphorical essence. May we be guided by angels that God implanted among us. Let us affirm; “Here, God is sending me an angel and God’s Name is within him or her” and remember that we do not journey alone.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Modesty? What is this all about?

In light of what happened in Beth Shemesh, when Ultra-Orthodox men made an innocent 8 years old girl an outcast, I have been very upset. Why is it the woman who is blamed for the uncontrolled sexual desires of men. Why does a little girl become a sex object in the eyes of men who are constantly trying their best to demoralize Jewish women and dis-empower women?

A timely Op-Ed in the NY Times a few days ago makes some good points. While Orthodox men today claim that controlled sexuality in men is women's solely responsibility, the Talmud teaches the opposite. The men should be responsible for their own actions and how they interact with women.

Read this article below:
Op-Ed Contributor

Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud

By DOV LINZER  January 19, 2012

IS it possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women’s bodies? From recent events in Israel, it would certainly seem that it is not.
Jennifer Uman
Last month, an innocent, modestly dressed 8-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, living in Beit Shemesh, described being spat on and vilified by religious extremists — all men — who believed that she did not dress modestly enough while walking past them to the religious school she attends. And more and more, public buses in Israel are enforcing gender segregation imposed by ultra-Orthodox riders in and near their neighborhoods. Woe to the girl or woman who refuses to move to the back of the bus.
This is part of a larger battle being waged in Israel between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society over women’s place in society, over their very right to have a visible presence and to participate in the public sphere.

What is behind these deeply disturbing events? We are told that they arise from a religious concern about modesty, that women must be covered and sequestered so that men do not have improper sexual thoughts. It seems, then, that a religious tenet that begins with men’s sexual thoughts ends with men controlling women’s bodies.
This is not a problem unique to Judaism. But the Talmud, the basis for Jewish law, offers a perhaps surprising answer: It places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.

Put more plainly, the Talmud says: It’s your problem, sir; not hers.
The ultra-Orthodox men in Israel who are exerting control over women claim that they are honoring women. In effect they are saying: We do not treat women as sex objects as you in Western society do. Our women are about more than their bodies, and that is why their bodies must be fully covered.

In fact, though, their actions objectify and hyper-sexualize women. Think about it: By saying that all women must hide their bodies, they are saying that every woman is an object who can stir a man’s sexual thoughts. Thus, every woman who passes their field of vision is sized up on the basis of how much of her body is covered. She is not seen as a complete person, only as a potential inducement to sin.

Of course, once you judge a female human being only through a man’s sexualized imagination, you can turn even a modest 8-year-old girl into a seductress and a prostitute.

At heart, we are talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the responsibility of managing a man’s sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the mentality behind the claim, “She was asking for it.”
So the responsibility is now on the women. To protect men from their sexual thoughts, women must remove their femininity from their public presence, ridding themselves of even the smallest evidence of their own sexuality.

All of this is done in the name of the Torah and Jewish law.
But it’s actually a complete perversion. The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men.

It is forbidden for a man to gaze sexually at a woman, whether beautiful or ugly, married or unmarried, says the Talmud. Later Talmudic rabbis extended this ban even to “her smallest finger” and “her brightly colored clothing — even if they are drying on the wall.”

To make these the woman’s responsibility is to demand that Jewish women cover their hands, and that they not dry their clothes in public. No one has ever said this. At least not yet.

The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze — the way men look at women — that needs to be desexualized, not women in public. The power to make sure men don’t see women as objects of sexual gratification lies within men’s — and only men’s — control.

Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call for modesty: learning “to walk humbly with your God.”

Eight-year-old Naama could teach her attackers a thing or two about modesty.

Dov Linzer, an Orthodox rabbi, is the dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
 A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 20, 2012, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Lechery, Immodesty And the Talmud.