From the desk of Rabbi Caine

Welcome to my "corner" of our website!  Here I supplement my Podcasts by sharing some of my writings on topics I'm passionate about.  Enjoy! 

Below is a sample podcast.  For more, subscribe to the "ravnadav" channel on i-Tunes or Podbean, or just go to the Podcast homepage by clicking here!

The Interesting Origins of Captain America and Yom Ha-Shoah

In 2016, two events coincided: our Yom HaShoah commemoration and the blockbuster release of yet another superhero movie, this one a continuation of the Captain America saga.  I don't need to tell you which one Jews went to.  Nevertheless, the movie, and the holy coincidence, is an opportunity for conversation in our homes, especially with children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces.

I teach our oldest Sam S Bloom class, plus our 8th grade volunteers class, about the origins of many of our famous comic books.  Most people don't realize that many familiar superhero comics were actually the work of the adult children of Jewish immigrants, and the stories they wrote explored their Jewish identity in America.  Anyone who has seen the movie X-Men First Class can't miss (I hope) that the movie begins in Auschwitz and then explores whether the right response to the Holocaust is enthusiastic American Jewish patriotism (Jewish and Western being a liberal match made in heaven) or unapologetic Zionism (as Ben Gurion was quoted as saying, "It doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks of us.") 

Captain America is no exception.  In 1940, the evils of Nazism and their persecution of the Jews was well known, and yet American opposition toward getting involved in WW2 was well organized and well supported.   Three Jews decided this was unacceptable.  The comic writer Joe Simon (whose real name was Hymie Simon) was raised in his poor Jewish family's flat "which doubled as my (immigrant) father's tailor shop."  The comic illustrator Jack Kirby (whose real name was Jacob Kurtzberg) was raised on the Lower East Side also in a poor, immigrant (Austrian) Jewish garment-worker family.   The pulp fiction publisher Martin Goodman (really Moe Goodman) was the son of Jewish immigrants from Vilna (Lithuania) and grew up poor in New York and Brooklyn.  Joe pitched to Jack and Martin that they write and publish a superhero comic that demonstrated that to be a real American was to join the fight against Hitler so America would join the war.  "The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too."  They enthusiastically agreed:  they published Captain America at the end of 1940, a year into WW2 but a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  With Captain America punching Hitler, the comic sold a million copies.  It was instrumental in influencing not only public opinion about the war, but also in influencing American self-identity as wrapped up in defeating these evils rather than in the anti-Semitism of the 1920's.

If you are going to see Jewish children or teenagers this weekend, why not tell them this story?  If you have family or friends with small children elsewhere, why not forward this email to them so when they inevitably see Captain America, they know something of its origins in a deeply personal political and ethical Jewish self-consciousness.  May we be so committed to expressing our Jewish-ethical voice to the world.

Guide to the Saturday morning service

Yes, the Saturday service is about two hours there is a great deal of Hebrew, which can be difficult to follow, even for those who attend services every week.  But like with an opera or musical, getting to know the overall picture reveals a beauty, a progression, a personal renewal of mind and body.  I hope my Guide to the Saturday Morning Service enables you to appreciate this journey we take every Shabbat morning.

Faith: It's Not What You May Think It Is

Judaism's Definition of “Faith”:  It's Not Faith in the Truth of Statements, It's Faithfulness to Another in Covenant

On Shavuot (one of the three main festivals, along with Sukkot and Pesach), we celebrate the giving of the Torah.  What is the giving of the Torah?  Is it an historical event whereby Moses took dictation from God, writing down the written Torah and memorizing the future teachings of the Talmud (the “Oral Torah”) to boot?  Or is the giving of the Torah something else?

The key to understanding the giving of the Torah, say our Sages, is that the Torah is being given every moment.  This mirrors their view that the key to understanding Creation is to view it as an ongoing process happening every moment, rather than as an historical event.  (Our term “Nature” closely resembles the Rabbinic term “Creation.”)    In every moment, we are free to receive God's Instruction --the meaning of the Hebrew word “torah”-- or to neglect it.  On Shavuot we celebrate God's revealing God's will through the wisdom and practice of Jewish tradition:  we can spend our lives opening our hearts to it, or busy ourselves with other matters.

Viewing the gift of Torah as in every moment, as opposed to an historical event, has profound implications for what we mean by “having faith” in Judaism.  Many Jews falsely understand the religious significance of revelation because they unconsciously think of it through fundamentalist Christian eyes.  For many fundamentalist Christians, “faith” means the faith that God exists, that God created the universe instead of evolution, that Jesus was a virgin birth, that Jesus rose from the dead, that Jesus was the son of God, that Jesus died for their sins, and so on.  If the fact isn't true, the faith is false.  The Jewish concept of emunah –faith-- is, however, not a faith about facts, but is a faith in a relationship.  Faith is a relationship word in Judaism, not a belief word.  To have faith requires a relationship, not a fact.  One has faith in one's spouse, in one's children,  in one's leader, in the Jewish tradition.   It's not faith that something exists or that something happened, but a faith in something or someone.  This is why some wisely translate emunah as “faithfulness” or “trust” or “consider dependable” to better capture how much it's like a marriage or a friendship rather than a theological or historical belief.

To have faith in Judaism means to trust that the Jewish tradition always has something to teach you.  Like a spouse or friend or child you believe in, you never give up on them, even through the expected ups and downs.  It's being in relationship with the Jewish tradition, to be ready in any moment to receive the Torah that is being offered to you.

If the giving of Torah were just an historical event, faith would be a matter of believing that an event happened.  Our Rabbis knew better:  we are forever in relationship (covenant) to God, forever ready (at our best) to turn toward our tradition and receive its guidance.    We have faith in its power to teach us, enrich us, and guide our lives.  Faith “in” is more powerful, and more Jewish, than faith “that.”

Does God Love a Tesla?

Question: I noticed that you, rabbi, drive a Nissan Leaf.  I know it's a Shabbat violation to kindle fire on Shabbat, but is it a Shabbat violation to drive an all-electric car like a Tesla or Leaf which lacks a combustion engine?

Driving an all-electric car (all the more so when it is charged using solar panels) follows the laws of shemirat ha-teva  ("protecting the environment" --e.g. from greenhouse gas emissions and energy exploration) and al taschit ("not wasting natural resources" --e.g. fuel oil, which the Talmud mentions specifically regarding this mitzvah).  It has the added benefit of decreasing Shabbat violation,.  If one charges their electric car with solar power (as I do), then there are zero carbon emissions both in the production of the energy and in its use:  the car runs on sunlight.  Putting these two together, I believe it is a Divinely intended incentive for switching over to EV!    (And with government rebates and promotions, a Leaf often may be purchased for well under $20,000.) 

Electricity itself is not fire according to Jewish law. (Of course, one cannot use electricity as a means to do something that is otherwise prohibited, like cutting grass or cooking food.) Even some Orthodox rabbis (such as Rabbi Donin in his excellent To Be A Jew) place electricity in a category of "violating the spirit of Shabbat" and not the laws of Shabbat. Let's spell this out. Even in a clear case of a Shabbat violation like lighting a fire, a Jew is fully permitted to warm himself by a fire that non-Jews built for themselves. But if a non-Jew is watching TV on Shabbat, and a Jew stops and watches with him -so there is no issue of violation of a prohibition-- the Orthodox rabbi might prohibit this because TV watching "is not in the spirit of Shabbat." No laws have been broken: but it's "not in the right spirit."

Some Jews falsely presume that the problem with electricity on Shabbat is that it must be considered "like fire" in Jewish law. They believe that flipping a switch must directly cause the burning of fuel, even at a distance, and therefore cause fire, but they neglect the fact that a municipal power plant operates anyway on Shabbat -like a city bus burning its fuel-- and Jews are allowed to take city buses (that are operated anyway for the non-Jewish population) on Shabbat, as long as the Jew doesn't pay with money or make the bus stop just for them. (If a Jew were to operate their own generator to make electricity, then this would be a violation.)  Similarly, the municipal power plant is burning fuel anyway, and a Jew can draw benefit from that ongoing practice.  Focusing on a different prohibition, some Orthodox rabbis claim that electricity violates the prohibition on "building" on Shabbat, since pressing a switch "builds" a circuit. In reality, the circuit is pre-built, like plumbing in one's home. One does not build a plumbing circuit by turning the faucet to free the flow of water.

Even two of the more questionable objections to electricity do not apply to an electric car. If the electric car is plugged in to charge before Shabbat, then even the questionable objection that "(distant) fuel is ignited just for you on Shabbat" to charge the car does not apply, as the process was started before Shabbat, like lighting Shabbat candles. Another potential objection is that the chemical energy of the battery should be considered like the combustion energy of other fuels: one is "burning" the chemical energy of the battery. But this claim fails because the Leaf uses rechargeable batteries, not disposable batteries: there is no "fuel" that "is being used up." In halakhah, the definition of "burning" includes a requirement that there be a fuel that is actually used up and consumed, like wood or oil. Perhaps one could argue that a disposable battery satisfies this criterion, but a rechargeable battery does not. One is simply using the charge of an enduring chemical, not using up the chemicals.  In short, the electricity of a Tesla or Leaf is not a Shabbat violation.

But perhaps there are other Shabbat issues with a car?

Two other Shabbat prohibitions associated with any car are 1) carrying, and 2) traveling beyond the town boundary. Both of these prohibitions are null and void if one travels within an area that contains an eruv, a natural boundary (like a river) or artificial boundary (like a string or telephone wire) that sets out a shared communal area, since by definition, one would be remaining within the communal area and carrying is permitted within an eruv.  (There are cities with a natural eruv, like Manhattan, and with an artificial eruv, like hundreds across the U.S. and Israel.)

If one drives their electric car within an eruv-town, then there is no violation at all on either count.  If one drives within a non-eruv town, and one does not drive so far as to leave the town, then the only problem is carrying, since one might be said to be "carrying" their car seats, their seat belts, etc. As someone who wishes to be lenient about pushing strollers and such on Shabbat, I am willing to be lenient about what constitutes carrying the fixed parts of a car like the Leaf, as long as one does not transport items on purpose to move them from place to place on Shabbat.

So unless one wants to make the blanket catch-all judgment that all uses of electricity on Shabbat are simply not "in the spirit of Shabbat" though they conform to the letter, then I say that using an electric car to travel to and from synagogue within a town on Shabbat seems an excellent reason to purchase and drive an all electric car. And perhaps this is what God is inviting all of us to do: notice this permissible technology and by taking advantage of employing it, we alleviate the greenhouse gases that are bespoiling Creation and undermining our future generations.

Hanukkah and Assimilation

 

Most people think of Hanukkah as a story about a miracle involving olive oil. Since that later folk legend is not part of the Books of Maccabees, those with more sophistication know Hanukkah as a story of the successful fight, against overwhelming odds, for the freedom to practice one's own religion in the early second century BCE. Few take the time to go to a deeper level: the story of Hanukkah is a story of the fight against cultural assimilation.

 

As Greek culture swept across the Ancient Near East after the conquests of Alexander the Great, the local peoples embraced it as attractive and modern. When the Syrian leader Antiochus the Fourth took the unusual and brazen step of actually outlawing Jewish practice, our history records that most Jews were complaisant. Circumcision, Shabbat, Jewish worship: there was no public fight to keep these perceived vestiges of one's inherited culture! After all, why was the small band of Maccabees, who overcame great odds to defeat the Greek Syrians, such a small band in the first place? Where were the rest of the Jews? According to our history, the rest of the Jews wanted to assimilate and were either actively, or passively, the Maccabees' foe as well.

 

What was so attractive about Greek culture that it seemed so much better than Jewish culture?  Historians answer:  Sports, Arts and Style, Education, and Technology. Greek education was seen as academically superior, their sports good for the body and entertaining, too, their arts and fashion of better taste, and their technology helpful.

 

Are we any different today in prioritizing these aspects of American culture in our lives at the expense of Jewish culture?

 

What were the Jews of the 2nd Century BCE –who built a Greek sports gymnasium [for teaching and watching sports) in Jerusalem-- giving up to make the room in their lives for these four priorities? Only the moral and spiritual compass that comes from Jewish education, holidays, and culture.

 

In other words, I don't think the Jews from that time would have said, “I think Greek culture is better at developing personal honor and integrity, sanctifying the profound moments of our personal and familial lives with a spiritual consciousness of gratitude and growth, committing oneself to a covenant of values that transcends the generations, and becoming a better mother, father, brother, sister, friend, and grandparent.”  No.

 

It was not a determination that Greek culture was better than Jewish in those areas: likely the opposite. It was likely a matter of priorities and time. Before Antiochus’ edict, which forced the issue into the open, we may hear the voices of our ancestors saying simply, "I like shopping for the in-style clothes and jewelry; I like playing and watching sports; I like watching the latest drama; and of course, academics come first.” And after all those are taken care of, I can do the Jewish stuff. Which means, of course, that there is no time for Judaism.  Are we any different today? 

 

Assimilation is rarely the conscious choice of giving up one's culture and identity, or thinking it inferior.

It is often, Hanukkah is telling us, the result of prioritizing other things ahead of it.

 

For those who think people were different in Biblical times, we see again that things don't change much. Today we divide our kids' time between academics and extracurricular sports and dance. Our leisure time is committed to watching them play sports or dance, watching TV (which is mostly sports, drama, and fashion), and playing with our latest technological advance (the latest IPhone anyone?). History repeats itself.

 

The landmark Pew report on American Jewry confirmed what sociologists had been telling us for decades:  If the first generation of Jewish immigrants to this country saw Judaism as simply who they inevitably were, and the second generation as a partial identity more cultural (than religious) in its shaping by family, food, and humor, and the next as an even more fractional identity shaped by childhood at camp, Hebrew School, and a connection to Israel, we are now at a point where the upcoming generation sees “Jewish” as no more than a statement of ancestry. It carries with it no active identity whatsoever.

 

Is this because they think Judaism isn't as good as Buddhism, Christianity, yoga, or another method of sanctifying the moral and spiritual dimensions of our lives? I don't think so. Is this really because the Jewish community has done such a terrible job at making our tradition practical, meaningful, and affordable? While I am the first to admit such shortcomings, I still don't think so.  Hanukkah has the simplest answer:  We have such limited time on this earth, and yet unlimited 24/7 access to the same things Greek culture presented: sports, fashion, music, movies, technology, and, of course, the threat that any time not committed to the latest academic program will cost our children their futures. With all that, how much time could there be for developing character, integrity, relationships, growth, and a profound spiritual relationship to ourselves, the world, and each other?  Hanukkah's history reminds us:  our ancestors didn't put up a fight --not because they were embarrassed by their religion-- but because they were gathered at the sports stadium down the street from the Temple rather than at the Temple itself.       

Teshuvah (Turning toward God's Ways): Our Mission as Jews Through High Holidays

The Spiritual Work of the Month of Elul through the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur):

“I'm Sorry If I Offended You, but...” is Not an Apology in Jewish Tradition!  Learn the Holy Long-Cut:

            From the beginning of the month of Elul through to the High Holidays, we are making amends with others and preparing to make amends with God.  This process of teshuvah, which means “turning” (as in “turning back”) to the path we walk with God, also connotes “replying” or “answering” to God and others.  When we fall short in our behavior toward God or others, our connection to them becomes strained or severed.  Often it's easier just to let the relationship lag than to call:  taking the first step often really does mean picking up where the conversation left off, and “replying” to the other person, or to God.

Some of our Sages suggested a four step process to teshuvah:

1. Stopping the negative behaviorWe cannot resolve to stop abusing our bodies with an unhealthy diet while we are eating a root-beer float.  Rosh Hashanah is not about “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” it's about nurturing a seed we are planting now.  We cannot promise to be better at returning someone's messages while we delete one from the voicemail and move on to another task.  We cannot resolve to be more positive in our outlook while we just complained about something.  The first step is to stop the behavior we are resolving to change.

2. Regret.  We have to feel some remorse in our hearts, in our kishkas.  Without some emotional counterpart, an intellectual teshuvah is doomed to failure.  We must challenge ourselves to feel.

3. Apology. We have to verbalize our part in what we've done wrong.  For God, we do it during the “Confessional” prayers (Al Cheit, Vidui, and personal meditations) of the High Holidays.  For people, we do it when we tell them we are sorry:  we have to put into words what we are apologizing for.  Saying, “I'm sorry if I offended you” is a false apology in Judaism because it does not describe your behavior, and it likely lacks regret.

4. Changed Behavior For the Future.  What are you going to do differently? What new habit is going to replace the wrong habit?

            In services, I suggested that self-knowledge is key in the process.  If you know you are someone who cannot call your mother everyday, or resist sweets in the cupboard, or avoid gossip about others when you get together with a particular friend, then a resolution for #4 is empty without incorporating that knowledge.  #4 might be, “Mom, it's useless for me to promise to return your calls every day, because that won't work with my life, but what I can promise you is that I'll call you every Friday evening before dinner.”

            One of our thoughtful congregants asked me, “How can you avoid a personal explanation becoming an excuse (which thereby robs #2 and #3 of its required force)?”  If I say, “Mom, I'm just not the kind of person who will call every day...” doesn't that sound a lot like, “I'm sorry if I offended you, but I'm just not a phone person.”  If I say, “God, I'm sorry if I'm not taking care of the body you gave me, but I'm just too busy with other obligations (working, parenting, etc.) to exercise, eat right, and listen to my doctor.”  It doesn't matter if at the end you add, “I'm sorry and I'll try to do better,” because you really skipped the first three steps.

            The challenge is to make sure the explanation, the self-knowledge, is limited to step #4, and does not intrude earlier in the process.  Human beings (and the yetser ha-ra, the selfish inclination) love shortcuts:  God (and the yetser ha-tov, the egoless inclination) is the master of the holy long-cut!  The soul's rhythm is patience:  take each step fully before getting to the explanation.  I must be fully present in the hurt I've caused by failing to return a message, I must feel the remorse and then apologize with a full heart.  Once I have done that, I can then say, “For this coming year, God (or Mom, or Friend, or Spouse, or Child, etc.), I resolve to do something I'm more capable of achieving, knowing myself as I do.  I cannot promise to return all your calls, I cannot promise to never gossip, I cannot promise to diet and exercise like others, but I can promise that I will call on Erev Shabbat, I can promise to never talk about X when I'm with Y, I can promise to take the regular walk I used to do...”  The explanation belongs in our resolution, not in our apology.  That's the wisdom of the holy long-cut.

My perspectives on Kashrut

Kashrut is a favorite subject of mine, so I've devoted this entire webpage to it.  Enjoy.

You've Got Questions, I've Got Answers!

Below are a series of questions that frequently come up in regard to Judaism, ritual, the Conservative viewpoint, and tradition versus halakhah. The answers may not be what you are expecting.....

The Torah Scroll-to keep open or to close?

Q: Why is it the custom at Ner Tamid that the Torah scroll is left open while the Torah blessings are recited?

A:  You may have noticed that when some people recite the Torah aliyah blessings, they close the scroll and hold the handles while reciting the blessings.  This is based on a halakhic opinion that “The reciter should not mislead people into thinking the blessings are written in the Torah.”  While it is sufficient to look at the laminated blessings sheet, rather than at the Torah calligraphy, while reciting the blessings [notice how I do the blessings next time you're at shul], it became a custom in some communities to go the extra step of rolling the Torah scroll closed to make sure the principle is upheld.  Unfortunately, by actually rolling the scroll closed, you are violating another halakhic opinion, that by closing the scroll, one is disrespecting the congregation by causing unnecessary delays in the Torah reading (as the reader must recover their place, which is a complex task) and disrespecting the Torah itself due to the probable temptation to lay a placemarker (usually the Torah yad) directly on the parchment (which is prohibited) to keep the place when rolling the scroll closed, plus extra wear and tear on the scroll through all the rolling open and closed.  (The reason congregations have more than one Torah is precisely to follow the ruling that one Torah would be rolled back and forth too often, thus causing too much wear, and therefore disrespect.)

Given the weight of the two principles at work, the proper ruling (as the Conservative movement reaffirmed years ago) is to leave the scroll open and look away while reciting the blessings.  Nevertheless, the custom of rolling the scroll closed during each aliyah became prevalent in many Orthodox communities as a sign of the reciter's great personal piety. 

As in so many examples, Conservative practice is often looked down on as halakhically uninformed, while in many cases we are following Jewish law while others are following a cultural custom.  Let us celebrate a diversity of Jewish practice rooted in love of our tradition.

Standing for Kaddish?

Q: Why is it the Ner Tamid custom to stand for some, but not all, Kaddish recitations? In some congregations people stand for the Kaddish (Full, Half, and Mourner's), in others they sit, and in others some stand and some sit. What is the correct custom?

A:  The correct Jewish custom, now 1000 years strong, has been to argue whether to stand or sit for Kaddish!  Unlike the great debate in the Talmud over standing or sitting for the Shema, the Kaddish, a relatively late prayer, does not appear in the Talmud other than a few hints.  The earliest source we have is from the 9th century, when Rav N. Gaon stated that the prevalent custom was to stand for the Amidah Kedushah and then sit for the Kaddish.  Rabbi Judah Al-Barceloni (of Barcelona; 11th-12th centuries) gives us great insight into standing and sitting in services by telling us that the proper custom was to sit and say the Kaddish at the same time as the prayer leader is standing reciting the Barekhu! (Today we now stand for the Barekhu.)  Maimonides (1135-1204) codifies this by also telling us that the congregation sits for the entire service until the Amidah, while only the prayer leader stands for Barkhu and Kaddish.

Not stand for the Barekhu?  Since we all stand for the Barekhu today, we get a much clearer picture from these sources of all the standing “inflation” in our services.  Apparently, we used to sit for most of services except for the Amidah (which means “standing”) and the parading of the Torah scroll.  (The Aleinu prayer was added later as an import from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.)  Little by little over the centuries customs developed for standing for other prayers and these customs rarely, if ever, got reversed.  In other words, it's not usually Jewish law which dictates standing, it's human psychology:  once someone asks you to stand for a prayer, then not standing seems like an affront.  Can you imagine if I had everyone stand for the prayer for healing the sick and then after a year, stopped that practice?  People would complain, “What?  The rabbi doesn't care about our sick people?  They're not good enough to stand for?  It's a shanda!”  Once a custom develops to stand for something, like the Kaddish or Barekhu, it never gets reversed, despite Jewish Law or common sense. 

Rabbi Yehizkiya of Magdeburg (Germany, 13th century) cites a number of contemporary sources to the effect that it is yohara, arrogance, to stand for the Kaddish or Barekhu, since it is a way to flaunt one's personal piety in standing for what it is the custom to sit for, as if you're a better Jew.  The influential Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (ca. 1220-1293) also codified this position, though he added that if someone is standing, you don't yell at him to sit, since that would be unseemly, though it would be well to educate him privately. 

The first notion of standing for Kaddish seems to be the influential Kabbalist “the Ari” (16th century Safed), who used to remain standing only for the Full Kaddish following the Amidah.  This is the part of our service at Ner Tamid where we usually sing Oseh Shalom quietly as we wait for people to finish their silent prayers before I chant the “fast” Kaddish.  It would make sense that the Ari would have been standing because he was still deep in prayer while the prayer leader was continuing the service, and he would not stand for any of the many other recitations of Kaddish during the service.  Nevertheless, the legal codes suggest that since he stood for Kaddish, others thought you should stand for the Kaddish, and then the psychology of “standing inflation” took hold, and they never reversed the practice. 

The Reform Movement continued the trend by advocating that the entire congregation should always stand for the Mourner's Kaddish in order to show solidarity with those in mourning.  For me, I find this obscures who the mourners are:  clarity is necessary so we can follow up with them with comforting words after services.

I believe that we should, for the most part, eliminate excessive standing in the service.  The original halakhic service had an elegance to the motions:  You stood at the very beginning for Barukh She-Amar, then sat all the way until the Amidah.  On Saturday morning, you'd also stand for the Torah.  That's it, plus standing at the very end for Aleinu when that was added. To me, sitting for the rest of the service gives greater meaning to the primacy of the Amidah and to respect for the Torah, and it also preserves a consistency to our davening.   I agree with the wisdom of our Rabbis who detected the strong risk of yohara, of haughtiness, in those who judge others for not standing when it is optional.  If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing, so to speak, but yourself.

Today we recognize that we are all heirs to different customs when we enter the sanctuary.  If it is your custom to stand for the Kaddish, you are welcome to do so, at the same time I prefer the original Jewish service in which standing was special, and interruptions to sitting-davening were minimized.

Playing Music on Shabbat

Q:  At Ner Tamid, most services are a cappella, but at some there is guitar and music. Is playing a musical instrument forbidden on Shabbat?  And if so, why?

A:  Orthodox, and many Conservative, legal decisors forbid the playing of musical instruments on Shabbat.  Remarkably, there seems to be little basis in Jewish law for doing so.  Even more remarkable, the playing of musical instruments was a primary form of worship in the Temple on Shabbat.  The Shabbat Psalm (which many of us know as the songs “Mizmor Shir leYom Ha-Shabbat” and “Tsaddik Katamar”) declares, “It is good to acclaim Adonai... to the music of the lute and the melody of the harp.” 

The usual explanation for forbidding playing instruments on Shabbat is the principle of “don't use a utensil on Shabbat that you'd be tempted to fix should it break, since fixing is a forbidden activity on Shabbat.”  Of course, one can recognize immediately that such an answer is a “makeshift” answer, one that is meant to dismiss the question without really addressing it, considering that playing instruments on Shabbat occurred in the Temple, and that today we touch all kinds of things on Shabbat that might break, so the notion that we would forget it's Shabbat and fix a guitar, but not other things, seems rather absurd.  On top of that, there are all sorts of instruments (drums, pianos, flutes, etc.) that you could play that you wouldn't be able to fix yourself should they break.  So the prohibition of tikkun ha-kli, fixing something, isn't really the reason for not playing instruments, even though it is the one commonly cited.

The true legal basis of this proscription on music is actually a minor rabbinic opinion that once the Temple has been destroyed (in 70 C.E.), the Jewish people are in a permanent state of mourning, and playing music, particularly joyful music, is no longer appropriate.  Notice that this opinion does not limit itself to Shabbat, as one might expect. The ban is on playing joyful music ever, and the opinion explicitly emphasizes events like wedding receptions, which cannot occur on Shabbat.  (That is, one might expect the opinion to be that “Since they played music in the Temple on Shabbat, and we no longer have the Temple, we should refrain from doing so on Shabbat.”  But since the Levites played music on weekdays as well, it makes sense that the opinion covered all days.)

Apparently, some communities did follow this rabbinic opinion, but ultimately popular pressure to have music in our lives held sway and the opinion was no longer followed.  The cultural custom, however, of avoiding instrumental music in Jewish prayer continued as, just that, a cultural custom with little or no legal basis.  The “temptation to repair” makeshift became an attempt to create a legal basis in the absence of one.

In short, the decision whether to allow musical instruments on Shabbat is not really a halakhic decision, and therefore where it is allowed (say, at our Family Service) it is not a violation of halakhah, of Jewish Law.  It is a decision about custom, whether we've lost something of our cultural heritage -- like the beauty of participatory, a capella, communal prayer -- by introducing instruments.

This underscores how we understand ourselves as Conservative Jews.  What looks to others, especially the Orthodox, like a violation or emendation of Jewish Law actually is not a matter of Jewish Law, but a decision about culture and the kind of culture we decide fosters Judaism best.  This ought not make the decision any easier, since the importance is just as great, but we should understand the kind of decision we are making, and that our love and respect for Jewish Law is well intact.

 Shabbat and Electricity

“Conservative Judaism and Electricity on Shabbat: Orthodox Lite all over again?”

With the exception of the mechitzah separation barrier between men and women, turning on and off electricity on Shabbat is probably the most visual difference between Orthodox and Conservative halakhic practice. Why do Conservative Jews flip on the lights on Shabbat? Why don't they care?

Electricity is actually a complicated halakhic issue, and one on which many Conservative Jews differ. But I will try to present one way of understanding the Conservative Movement's position on this, which, as with the theme of this series, is to me a very properly grounded halakhic approach.

It is clear that one may not make fire on Shabbat: doing so is a capital offense in the Torah. So the question is: Is electricity fire? One way to approach this question is to search for a halakhic definition of “fire.” The Rabbis at one point discuss what constitutes the required fire-roasting of the paschal lamb on Passover. If you use a metal rack that gets red hot, would this be considered fire roasting? One rabbinic position is that glowing red hot metal simply isn't fire. For one thing, fire requires that an object is being consumed, but here the metal is not being consumed. A contrary position, taken up by Rambam later, is that if the metal is glowing and is hot, these two characteristics together constitute “fire.” Under the stringent position of the Rambam, then, we might consider forbidden the use of incandescent bulbs on Shabbat, since the filaments glow and get hot. (Or we could adopt the other position that the metal is not being consumed and so it doesn't count.) But flourescent lights, which do not get hot, would not constitute fire. In any case, electricity running through wires is itself neither hot nor glowing, and therefore the electricity itself is not fire.

Another possibility is that making sparks is forbidden on Shabbat, and so if one considers electricity in a wire to be a spark, then it is forbidden. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for saying that the visual sparks that are forbidden are not actually in electrical wires: there are no white sparks flowing through!

Or perhaps electricity violates the prohibition against building, or completing the building of a thing, on Shabbat. When one flips a switch, one completes a circuit. However, one is not actually building a circuit by flipping a switch, one is engaging the flow within a previously built circuit, as we do when we use a faucet on Shabbat, which is clearly allowed by Jewish law. You can turn a faucet valve to allow the water to flow through and then close it again.

Finally, one might say that one is consuming fuel at a distant location, that turning on a switch causes the burning of fuel elsewhere. There are two problems with this objection. First, a Jew is allowed to benefit from burning that the non-Jewish public is already doing: a Jew can ride a municipal bus or subway on Shabbat (as long as the bus doesn't make a special stop just for the Jew alone), and a Jew can accept an offering of cooked food from an open fire from a non-Jewish neighbor, as long as the food was not cooked for him alone. Surely municipal power plants are operating anyway. Second, Jewish law allows that unintended, prohibited consequences of an action might occur on Shabbat, as long as they don't do so every single time. For example, an Orthodox person opposed to electricity will still open their refrigerator door, even though they know that this will lower the temperature and eventually cause the compressor to activate. That's okay, because the compressor doesn't activate immediately every time they open the door. This is why they unscrew the lightbulb (which does come on every time) but don't unplug the compressor. Similarly, when I throw a switch, it does not cause some distant fuel to burn just for me.

In the end, even many Orthodox decisors give up trying to make electricity the equivalent of fire. They often conclude, as do most Conservative legal decisors, that the issue of electricity be considered in the realm of the oft-neglected prohibitions of Shabbat called “weekly things that take away from the distinctiveness of Shabbat.” A Jew should not do things on Shabbat that, while otherwise permissible, are really things that characterize the rest of the week. For this reason, Conservative Judaism discourages watching advertisements and commercials on Shabbat, or, if you watch the local news every day, you would avoid doing so on Shabbat. Television commercials and the news bring the everyday non-Shabbat world into Shabbat, thus making Shabbat like other days.

Thus the general Conservative position is that the use of electricity is alright in general, but should not be used to power appliances that typify our weekday life, like handheld electronic devices and computers, or to restrict the use of appliances to Shabbat-friendly activities.

What is important about this distinction? In my experience, Conservative Judaism's legal distinctions are often viewed from the outside as amounting to “We are Orthodox, which means observant of Jewish Law, until it clashes with modern life, and then we make accommodations for convenience.” The Orthodox are considered, by contrast, to accept the law as it stands. But those who claim that electricity is fire are, at best, fostering one way of using the Law. Many Orthodox are unaware that their own Rabbis forbid electricity for other reasons, namely the same distinction that Conservative rabbis use. It is the careful examination of how electricity should be understood by the Law that leads to our careful attempt to live the Law fully, not through simplistic thinking and easy slogans, but through careful extrapolation of the Law, just as our ancestors did. In this regard, I consider the Conservative Movement to be the most faithful to the Jewish legal tradition.

Environmentalism and Judaism

Q:  Rabbi, you talk repeatedly of the importance of environmentalism in Torah. Are Judaism and environmentalism really linked, or is that some kind of modern liberal invention?

A:  There are two major principles of Torah that are clearly environmental.  First, in the second chapter of Genesis, God commands humanity to serve the earth, i.e. to be caretakers of nature.  It's a fundamental criterion God uses to judge our humanity, our conscience, and our connection to God.  When we are out of touch with our “steward of the earth” role in preserving the ecological equilibrium, we are out of touch with God and mitzvah.  In fact, after we all chant the Shema and Ve-Ahavta, the second paragraph of the Shema clearly states that when we don't live a life of mitzvah, then the pattern of rains will change and the earth will no longer yield its produce.  The mitzvot are much more than just putting up mezuzot and blowing shofar, they include crucial mitzvot of crop rotation and the second major principle of Torah's environmentalism:  the Biblical commandment of al tashchit, "Thou shalt not waste [the resources of the land]."  The example given in Torah is not destroying fruit trees, even during wartime.  The Talmud gives us further examples, including the wasting of lamp oil, the tearing of clothing, the chopping up of furniture for firewood, or the killing of animals.

 The wasting of lamp oil is a specific example that has broad implications for us today.  There can be no talk of environmentalism without a careful examination of what energy sources a civilization depends on.  When we read the Torah, or pray the Psalms during services, we constantly read about olive oil.  We "anoint" ourselves with it (often instead of wasting water through excessive bathing) in the Shabbat Psalm.  It is the energy sources of all our lamps, including the Temple menorah, and hence is the crux of the Hanukkah miracle.  Olives are the special holy produce of the Holy Land continually celebrated in the Bible and Talmud, and which define the core of our ancient diet.  It's the stuff that goes in the Menorah, the symbol of our religion.   It's the stuff used in the Book of Exodus to consecrate the holy implements of the Mishkan.  Simply put, olive oil was our basic energy resource and our basic food source.  It was the fuel of our entire civilization!  And it was renewable.  Today, our energy and food sources deplete the environment and poison our earth.  Our oil and carbon resources create greenhouse gases and make toxic our water tables, leading to disruptive rain patterns that echo the Shema's warnings.  And our diet relies on refined grains and corn that deplete the ground's natural nutrients, and on meat, much of which comes from Latin America which cuts down rainforest to make way for cattle farms that last a short time before the soil erodes (again echoing the Shema's warnings that the land will not yield its produce).  Our society runs on non-renewable energy sources that violate both principles of Torah:  it depletes the earth and it wastes.   Israelite society ran primarily on olives, which grow on trees, are fully sustainable and renewable.  Our society runs on oil, gas, coal, corn, sugar, and flour.  Olive oil isn't just some quaint term in a Psalm or some cultural anachronism:  it was the fuel that ran Jewish lamps, cities, and bodies.  It was an Energy that sustained a civilization with an entirely different relation to the environment and to God through that relationship.  When I hear that Israel is at the forefront of renewable energy sources like algae, I feel the spirit of our special connection to God alive and well.

Talking About God: the Lesson Purim Teaches Us

Rabbi Caine:  A Purim Message:  People who talk too much about God

The most remarkable fact about the Megillah of Esther is that it does not mention God.  Esther does not save the Jewish people by praying to God:  in fact, she doesn't pray at all.  Mordecai doesn't speak with God.  God doesn't rise up to foil Haman's plans, a simple girl with everything to lose does.

Many of us don't even notice God's absence when celebrating Purim.  As Jews, we are used to our tradition's message that faithfulness to God is no replacement for self-reliance.  We don't pray to God to repair the world, we pray to God for the strength to do it ourselves. 

There is a Jewish mystical teaching, however, that goes even further.  It says that the Books of Esther and of Song of Songs, which seem to have God absent, are the most full of God!  And this teaching extends to our lives as well.  Often when people use the word “God” the most, God is absent, but when they don't even mention God, when God seems most hidden, God is actually most present in their lives.

As Jews, many of us get rightly uncomfortable when someone starts to throw the word “God” around:  when they get the team to take a knee to pray to God for their team's success; when a school administrator suggests that a minute of prayer in the public schools will decrease bullying or improve test scores; when a coworker talks about God healing their elderly parent; or when a politician talks of God loving America more than other countries or of God disapproving of a piece of legislation.  As a general rule, I think Judaism is on to something:  more often than not, when people have a need to bring talk of “God” into a situation, God is the most absent.

And we go through our daily lives with God hidden and yet most present.  When a teenager can't think of what to write their college application essay on, and then their grandmother calls, and they get the idea to write about her influence...  No mention of God.  Maybe no thought of God.  And God is there.  When you're done praying with a sick friend in the hospital room, and then you just have a good laugh over a totally inappropriate joke (“I hope God didn't hear you tell that!”) before leaving, God was more there during the joke.  When you're listening to a song and a tear comes to your eye, God is there.  When you have no right to expect your boss or a client to forgive your mistake, and yet they just shrug it off, God is there. 

But somehow God seems peculiarly absent when someone is talking on and on about God, or Jesus, or even Ha-Shem being involved in their personal life.  And maybe that's why our incredible Conversion Class students find a home in our tradition, as they turn to me and say, “I love that Jews are so grounded that they can connect with God without feeling a need to talk about God all the time.”  The Kabbalists were right. 

Question: Isn't it true that Israel is 15% religious and 85% secular?

 

Answer:  While this statement is repeated often by the press and even occasionally by your rabbi, the truth is that it's not only misleading, but is politically motivated.  The statement has served, and continues to serve, as a justification of the Orthodox, and now Ultra-Orthodox, stranglehold on certain civil institutions in Israel.  After all, if there is only Orthodox and secular, then why shouldn't the Orthodox control all decision-making power that involves religion, from entries in school textbooks to marriage certificates, from determining who qualifies for religious subsidies to administration of "holy" sites?

The truth is, however, that sociological surveys consistently find that Israel has some of the highest percentages of citizens who state that they believe in God and keep religious holidays.   Right now, most of those people are counted as "secular" and even are trained to self-describe that way.  That makes it very convenient for Orthodox political parties to control anything that "seems" religious. For example, the Kotel (Western Wall) is an historical ruin (which, by the way, the Talmud explicitly forbids praying in), essentially a public museum, not a synagogue, but since "religious" people go there, the Orthodox are allowed to control the site (and its restrictions on women, on non-Orthodox practice, etc.) and most Israelis accept this since "that's religion."  When the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that a particular woman Reform rabbi must be paid a salary by the state, as the Orthodox rabbis are, the government refused to pay her, and the "secular" populace is expected to acquiesce (which they have), since "the religious people say she isn't a rabbi."

If, however, we start to view many "secular" Israelis as just as religious as we are, as believing in God, as keeping holidays at home and attending services for High Holidays, as revering our tradition, as having Bnei Mitzvah, as being uplifted by the insights of Heschel, Buber, and Jewish Mysticism, as essentially Conservative and Reform Jews, then it would explode the monopoly.  Remember that despite the growth of Orthodox Judaism, Reform and Conservative Jews still outnumber Orthodox Jews -- and that's not counting the "secular" Israelis whom we should be counting as liberal Jews.  We are an authentic bearer of the tradition of Moses, Hillel, and Rabbi Akiva.   In fact, the Ultra-Orthodox "revolution" in the past decade that has erected new barriers to Conservative and Reform participation in Israeli Jewry -- and, in fact, new barriers even to non-Ultra Orthodox Judaism, for example, by denying the validity of even their conversion-- must be understood as their clear recognition of the threat to their monopoly should the the 85% get access to Conservative and Reform rabbis to, say, perform their marriages, or perform conversions.  If only those two areas changed --and not even other vital needs like Israeli Supreme Court mandated pay to non-Orthodox rabbis and educational institutions, both of which are not enforced-- there would be a sea change in Israel's Judaism.  Today, a so-called "secular" Israeli would never even come into contact with the teachings of Buber or Heschel, but only in contact with propaganda against our dual embrace of modernity and Jewish tradition.

Tuesday, May 23 2017 27 Iyyar 5777