What’s a Mitzvah?

August 27, 2014

“What’s a mitzvah?” a reader recently asked.

If you look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, it will tell you that a mitzvah is a commandment.

“Commandment” in English implies that it comes from outside, and it isn’t my choice. And yet each mitzvah IS a choice: I can keep it, or I can neglect it. It’s up to me. These duties are rooted in Torah, but they are acted out in my life, and in the lives of my fellow Jews.

I prefer to think of mitzvot (that’s the plural) as my sacred duties. Whether they are as lofty as saying my prayers, or as mundane as paying workers on time, they increase the holiness in the world, and they are choices I make every moment of every day. I do not get a gold star for doing them. They are just what I do as a Jew.

This month I’m asking myself: which of my sacred duties have I neglected? Which have I done poorly, done for ego, done only when someone is looking? Which have I treated as truly sacred?

How can I do better?

This post is inspired by #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, also known as @imabima.

 


Ask the Rabbi: Is Jewish Law Based on the Bible?

August 25, 2014

Ask the RabbiVM asked: “Does the Rabbinical Courts based their decisions predominantly from the Torah/Tanach? Especially when it comes to Sin & Judgment?!”

This isn’t a simple question, although it might seem like one.  It’s especially pertinent at this season of the year, as we begin a six-week period of self-examination and teshuvah [repentance.]

The Nature of Scripture

Let’s look at the nature of scripture for a moment. Any sacred scripture, be it Tanakh, or the New Testament, or the Koran, is a body of work that is interpreted by the people who use it. An outsider reading it may have any number of impressions about it, but she is unlikely to automatically stumble upon its meaning as understood by insiders. Try this experiment:

Go to the Internet Sacred Text Archive. Choose a text completely unfamiliar to you. If you are not Hindu, you might choose the Rig-Veda. Read the First Hymn, Agni and see what you make of it.

My point is that scripture doesn’t make sense without interpretation, precisely because it is scripture. It is sacred text and that means that is not like the newspaper. For an insider to Hinduism, Agni is meaningful. It rests within a body of understanding and a body of interpretation that render it meaningful. Outside of those contexts, not so much.

Torah

The same is true for Torah. In fact, this is easier to see with Torah and Tanakh [the Jewish Bible, including Torah, Prophets, and Writings] because in fact many different faiths use them as scripture and read them quite differently. Rabbinic Judaism has its ways of looking at them. Roman Catholicism has its ways of looking at them. The Southern Baptist Convention has its ways of looking at them, and so on. Islam recognizes it as a significant text and also looks at Tanakh in its own ways. I’ve written about this in regard to the prophets in “Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy.

Yet the words are all the same, with a few small variations, depending on whether you’re working from the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the King James Bible… you see, it gets complicated quickly when we include translations. Christians tend to work with their scriptures via translation, which is why I included the Vulgate and KJV. Scholars might work primarily on Torah texts in Hebrew, but they’ll also consider the Leningrad Codex and other similar sources.

Rabbinic Judaism works primarily from the Masoretic Text. We’re aware of and refer to the Septuagint and the Targum Onkelos (1st c. Aramaic translation), etc, but we learn and work in the Hebrew handed down to us by the Masoretes.

Interpretation of Commandments

But then we get into the matter of interpretation. For instance:

 :זָכוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ

Remember the Day of the Sabbath, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:7)

The verse offers us a verb in command form, “remember” – OK, it’s a commandment, a mitzvah. It even offers us a goal, “to keep it holy.”

But what behavior is actually commanded here? How shall we “remember” and how do we know if our remembering is working to “keep it holy?” And that is where Rabbinic Judaism goes many different places at once. The Talmud records discussions on this and the myriad of other discussions about mitzvot, as do other bodies of work we call “Oral Torah.” Those discussions continue today in the form of responsa literature and informal discussions, not only among rabbis but in every Jewish household. There are orthodox interpretations of what it means to keep Shabbat, and there are many other legitimate Jewish interpretations of it. The phrase “Jewish Law,” in English refers to halakhah, a traditional orthodox set of choices about interpretation with roots in the medieval codes. Most Jews in the United States today are not halakhic in their approach to lived Judaism: they see those codes as important sources of tradition but not binding upon them.

Picking and Choosing?

Some will see this as “picking and choosing,” and in fact that is exactly what it is. I am choosing to read the text in a certain way. We always do that with sacred texts: we make choices as we read them. We live in a conversation with the text, whether we choose to abide by the choices of a particular group with whom we have affiliated, or whether we make our own individual choices as well.

Final point in answering your question: I’m a little curious as to whom you refer when you say “Rabbinical Courts.” As I pointed out in Is There a Jewish Vatican? there is no central office in Judaism. There are batei din, rabbinical courts, but they generally form for an occasion like a conversion – there isn’t much call for them in most of the Diaspora, where we are bound to follow the law of the land unless it creates a big oy vey situation calling for civil disobedience, etc. In Israel, there are rabbinical courts that run by orthodox, these days mostly haredi, understandings of the texts. Those are text-based, but filtered through the traditional understandings of Talmud and codes, with a considerable mis-use of those texts, if you ask me. (As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.”)

Short Answer, at last

So my answer to you is: Yes, in that everything goes back to Torah. And No, in that everything is also considered within the web of understanding and interpretation of the texts.

And here’s another question for you: Why do you ask?


My Friend is Depressed: Now What?

August 13, 2014
Van Gogh "Sorrowing Old Man" 1890

Van Gogh “Sorrowing Old Man” 1890

What can Jewish tradition teach us about helping people who are depressed?

REACH OUT – Make contact, either by phone or in person. There is a beautiful story in tractate Berakhot 5a-b of the Talmud about three rabbis. The first rabbi, Chiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him, and asked him if he welcomed his suffering. Rabbi Chiyya said no. Then Rabbi Yochanan reached out his hand, took the sick rabbi’s hand, and raised him up.

Rabbi Yochanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina, his teacher, went to see him. He asked the same question, and got the same answer. Then he took Rabbi Yochanan’s hand and raised him up. The text itself asks then, why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan heal himself? It answers itself, saying, “The prisoner cannot free himself.”

Finally, Rabbi Eleazar fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him. He finds the rabbi lying in a dark room and crying. Rabbi Yochanan asks some questions about Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness. When Rabbi Eleazar says, “i am weeping because you are going to die someday.” Rabbi Yochanan says, “Yes, that’s very sad” and then they both cry for a while. Then Rabbi Yochanan says, “Do you welcome your suffering?” and Rabbi Eleazar says no, and Rabbi Yochanan takes his hand and helps Rabbi Eleazar up.

What can we learn from this? First of all, it is good to visit people who are sick, whether they are physically or mentally ill. We don’t know exactly what was wrong with Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba, but Rabbi Yochanan visited him, expressed his care, and helped him get better.

Second, we learn that people can’t heal themselves. Never tell a person with depression to “snap out of it.” Instead, ask how they are feeling, listen, and if you can “give them a hand,” literally or metaphorically, do so. Few of us can heal miraculously like Rabbis Yochanan and Hanina, but friendly contact can help.

The case of Rabbi Eleazar is particularly interesting. In his case, it’s clear that the illness is depression. So one thing we learn is that the ancient rabbis saw overwhelming sadness and “lying in a dark room” as a genuine illness. Secondly, Rabbi Yochanan treated Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness with respect. He didn’t say, “That’s silly, everyone dies sometime!” He agreed that it was sad, empathized with his student, and then helped him up.

OFFER COMFORT – In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah hears that Queen Jezebel wants to kill him. Initially, he runs for his life, but after a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sinks down to the ground under a tree and says, “I just want to die.” Then he falls asleep. After he sleeps for a while, an angel comes to him and sets down food and water, saying only, “Get up and eat.” Elijah does so, then lies back down to sleep some more. The angel comes again, bringing more food and water, and says, “Get up and eat; the journey has been too much for you.” Elijah eats and drinks and feels stronger – he is able to travel ahead to Mt. Horeb, where he has an encounter with God.

The angel brings food and water to Elijah. He offers sympathy (“the journey has been too much for you”) but no advice or analysis. He doesn’t scold or tell Elijah to snap out of it. And he is not impatient when Elijah says nothing, just eats the food and goes back to sleep.

The angel is an example of one way to help a depressed friend. Don’t ask “what can I do?” because that requires thought and decision making. Simply bringing by a bit of comfort food, and delivering it without demanding much social interaction can be very helpful. A brief bit of human (or angel!) connection can be helpful. If you decide to bring food, bring it in a disposable dish. That isn’t very “green,” I know, but washing dishes takes energy. It also doesn’t have to be a whole meal. It can be a slice of cake or a bowl of soup to heat in the microwave.

The same is true for some small errand or chore. Don’t do housework (that may feel like criticism) but visit briefly and bring in the newspaper or the mail that has collected on the doorstep. All of these things say, “I care about you.”

The important thing is to keep it simple.

Finally, we have an example of the wrong thing to do for a depressed person:

DO NOT GIVE ADVICE - The Book of Job offers some powerful examples of “how not to help.” Job suffers one misfortune after another, and when his friends come to see him, they focus on their belief that he must have done something to bring his misfortune upon himself. He needs to repent his sins and get right with God! (Job 4-27)

When our friends are distressed, we are distressed. The desire to fix things can be almost unbearable, especially if we think we know a remedy. We want to point out the obvious and give advice. We ache to tell our friend to get some exercise, to eat right, to see a better therapist, to snap out of it!

Just as it was for Job’s “comforters,” this impulse is worse than useless. Many depressed individuals are already mired in a swamp of “shoulds” and “oughts,” and the depression has paralyzed them. Giving even the most well-meaning advice can make them feel worse. If they want help finding a therapist or getting some exercise, that’s different – but pushing unwanted “solutions” will be unproductive.

GET HELP: If someone in your community is depressed, tell your rabbi! He or she wants to know and will know how to contact the person.

Finally – this is very important! - If a person talks about suicide, take it seriously. Call a suicide hotline or their doctor. Never assume that talk about suicide is “kidding” or attention seeking. If there was anything at all to the talk, it’s important that they get help immediately. Even if later they say they didn’t mean it, you can’t take that chance. The principle of pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life – demands that we take such talk at face value and react.

Being a good friend to a person with depression is a mitzvah. It is tempting to stay away from people who are in pain – pain is unpleasant, after all. But reaching out, checking in, offering food or simple help – those things can make a huge difference. Be a mensch!


The Mitzvah of Rebuke

August 2, 2014

"Hatred" by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

“Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

If someone is misbehaving, it is a mitzvah (a commandment) to rebuke them. We get this from the Holiness Code in Leviticus:

.לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, and you will surely rebuke him, and you will not bear a sin because of him.  (Leviticus 19:17)

There are three parts to the commandment: (1) don’t hate other people (2) definitely tell them if they are doing wrong and (3) don’t bring sin upon yourself in the process.

We Jews excel at part (2) of that commandment. We love to tell other people when we think they are in error. However, lately we in the Diaspora been doing a lousy job of (1) and (3).

For the past three weeks on various social media, Diaspora Jews have melted down into a frenzy of rebuke. Pro-Israel, anti-Israel, anti-Israel but anti-Hamas, pro-Palestinian but anti-Hamas, seeking one state, seeking two states, words flying like shrapnel. The name-calling is out of hand, with Jews hurling words like “Nazi” and “traitor” at one another. In some cases, these are educated Jews, too: people who should know how to conduct an argument for the sake of heaven. Our tone has too often grown hateful. If we do not yet actually hate other Jews, we are paving the way there with these words that dehumanize the other. 

And then there is the matter of “don’t bear a sin because of him.” Rebuking another person in public, causing them shame (or hoping to shame them) is a sin. In Bava Metzia 58b, the rabbis liken public shaming to murder. Immediately after that passage, they tell the story of Akhnai’s Oven, in which the rabbis cause Rabbi Eliezer shame, with tragic results.

Talking about others is lashon haraevil speech, another sin. It is not simply gossip (rechilut) or spreading lies, but also speech that damages another’s reputation. Saying about another person, “She is a traitor to the Jewish people” or “He is a bloodthirsty murderer” when your talk about it does not have an important purpose (to save a life, for instance) is lashon hara. One may say, “well, that’s my opinion” but the point is, we are forbidden to spread around opinions like that. If you have a problem with a person, talk to him directly and privately.

With the backdrop of the dreadful situation in Israel and Gaza, emotions run high. However, we can and must control our tongues and our keyboards. Hateful speech does not help Israel, and it does not help the innocent victims of violence. Statement of the facts, pointing to sources, giving tzedakah: those things can help. Organizing peaceful demonstrations can help. Letters, emails and phone calls to powerful people can help. And yes, some situations may call for proper rebuke: rebuke that happens quietly, without name-calling, that asks for specific changes in behavior.

This week, when we observe Tisha B’Av and remember the great disasters in our history, our teachers will remind us that the Temple was lost because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred.  

My brothers and sisters, we in the Diaspora cannot afford to scream at one another on Twitter and facebook. We cannot afford to hurl hateful speech at one another. We have seen in the past what comes of this behavior. 

Our Israeli cousins are running for shelters, IDF soldiers are dying and wounded, and civilians are dying in Gaza (never mind for a moment whose fault, people are dying.) Around the world, we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism that smells sickeningly like the 1930’s in Europe. Mobs are marching in Europe, chanting “Death to the Jews.” Jews were beaten in the street in Canada. Canada! 

Now is a time for purposeful action and purposeful speech. There is indeed much that must be done. It can be done without name-calling and without public screaming matches. No matter what your opinion, those are wastes of valuable time and energy, and they carry the seeds of tragedy.

Ribbono shel olam, You who know our inmost hearts, help us to act and to speak with holy purpose. 


Abraham’s Mitzvah: Hospitality

July 30, 2014
Invite someone for coffee!

Invite someone for coffee!

Jewish Hospitality

is an important and often neglected mitzvah.

BIBLICAL ORIGIN – There are many examples in Torah of the patriarchs observing the mitzvah of hospitality. Possibly the most famous is in Genesis 18, when Abraham ran to meet his guests at Mamre, and hurried to feed them, even though he was still recovering from his circumcision.

LIFE AND DEATH – Hospitality in the Bible was not just being friendly, or inviting people over. If travelers could not find a safe place to rest, they could die. It was part of the social contract of the wilderness to welcome strangers. It was also part of that contract for strangers to behave themselves as guests. In much of Jewish history, Jews were not safe except in the homes and settlements of other Jews, and so it has remained a sacred duty to care for visitors, and to cherish hosts.

WHAT ABOUT TODAY? – Today hachasat orchim (literally, “bringing guests in”) remains a mitzvah. You might say, well, rabbi, we have hotels and restaurants for that! We have Jewish institutions for that! But today many of us are aching for personal connection. We are not nomads like Abraham, but often our families of origin and our old friends live far away.  We human beings are social creatures, and we crave connection to others.  There are few ways to better get to know someone than to visit them in their home, or to welcome them into yours. And yet many of us only see other Jews in synagogue, or maybe at events.

THE HOST - A Jewish host is responsible for making her guests welcome, and to see to it that they are not embarrassed in any way.  It’s good to offer food or something to drink if that is possible. The host also watches out for the emotional comfort of guests.

THE GUEST – A Jewish guest should do his best not to be a burden to his host. (This is not accomplished by prefacing demands with “I don’t want to be any trouble, but…”) Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Do not embarrass the host by asking rude questions or criticizing. After being a guest, send a thank you note, or at least an email. For more about being a guest, see 5 Ways to be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest.

THE MAIN THING – Rabbi Nachman of Braslav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.” It is easy to get stuck thinking that I don’t want to have anyone over because my apartment isn’t nice enough, or my cooking isn’t fancy, or because I fear some other judgment that a guest may bring. To conquer these fears, invite someone you are sure will be kind, or someone you think probably never gets invitations. If they say “no” don’t take it personally – people say “no” for a lot of reasons – but invite someone else. If you really can’t see opening your home, invite them to meet you for coffee! Don’t stand trembling at the edge of the narrow bridge: pick up the phone or the keyboard, and invite someone to do something with you.

If you have a big success, come post in the comments. If it’s a disaster, yell at me in the comments!

 


Why Mitzvot? Why bother?

July 15, 2014

I woke up this morning feeling that something was missing from my last post. I realized that while last night I answered the question about the 613 mitzvot, I forgot to include something important: why keep mitzvot? Why bother with a long list of “do’s” and “don’t’s,” many of which don’t even apply in our century?

The answer to that question is imbedded in the words of blessing that we say before doing many mitzvot:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot

We keep mitzvot [observe the commandments] to make us holy, to continue the process of sanctifying our lives.

In the 21st century western world, there are no kosher cops to swoop down and arrest you for working on Shavuot. There are no mitzvah minders to report you to the Jewish Central Control if you choose not to say the bedtime Shema. Individual Jewish communities may employ peer pressure, or even (God forbid) violence to attempt to enforce their particular understanding of a mitzvah but even in the Jewish state of Israel, if you eat a bacon cheeseburger while wearing a bikini in public on Yom Kippur, it’s basically your own business.

There are some mitzvot, called Mishpatim [Laws,] that are self-evident rules for an orderly society. We may argue about the interpretation of “Do not commit murder” and “Do not steal” but most civil societies have incorporated them into their laws. If you rob banks and get caught at it, the kosher cops won’t get you but the regular city police will!

Other mitzvot, called Edot, [Testimonies], call to mind the Jewish worldview and story. We do them to remember narratives and to continue learning from those narratives. That’s the reason we eat matzah on Passover: we remember the Exodus from Egypt, and in doing so, continue to apply the lessons learned in our present day world.

The last group of mitzvot, Chukim [Decrees] appear to have no reason at all other than that it says in Torah that God commanded them. For instance, we can talk about possible reasons “why” the laws of kashrut, but really, that is speculation. God said, “Don’t eat pigs.” (Leviticus 11:7) Again, there are no mitzvah moderators to come get you if you chow down on pork BBQ. But Jews can argue (for hours!) about how exactly to interpret the mitzvot. (OK, the rule about pigs is pretty clear cut.  But what if it comes into conflict with respect for a parent who insists on serving bacon and who feels hurt if you don’t eat it? There’s always room for a discussion.)

So why bother? Again, it’s for the pursuit of holiness, and the mitzvot are a framework within which we seek holiness. If you ask a Jew why he keeps a particular one of the chukim, he might say, “It’s the tradition” or “In solidarity with other Jews” or “it’s how I was raised” or “it’s a spiritual discipline.” Or she may say, “To heal the broken world.”

Keeping all the available mitzvot all the time is a huge, life-consuming task. Ask anyone who is shlepping children (“be fruitful and multiply”) to Hebrew school (“teach your children Torah”) while reading labels carefully to keep kosher (“Don’t eat stuff on this list”) and getting ready for Passover (Oy Vey!). Because not only must she (or he!) do all that, he (or she!) must do it while being honest it all dealings, kind to animals, respectful to parents, without embarrassing anyone, not giving scandal to outsiders… on and on. If you look at the whole list, it’s like juggling 613 (or even just 245) plates in the air.

That’s the tricky bit about a life of mitzvot: observant Jews are always on the brink of failure, if not sitting on our behinds in the middle of the broken plates. Perfection is not the point. The point is the pursuit of a better Jew, and a better world – holiness.

You will meet Jews who have completely given up on most of it. You will meet Jews who say, “I will keep this mitzvah, but I can’t possibly do that one at this time.” You will meet Jews who say, “I am only going to try to keep these mitzvot, and the rest of them just seem like overkill.” You will meet Jews who say, “I disagree with the traditional interpretation of that mitzvah, so I am going to follow a different interpretation.” You may be one of those Jews – actually, in a long Jewish life it would be very surprising if you weren’t one of them sometimes.

Don’t judge any of them. Nor take it to heart if someone says to you that you are a “bad Jew” if you don’t juggle all the plates, their way, all the time. But you may find, as you add one mitzvah after another to your life, slowly and carefully, that you like the changes you see, in yourself, in your home, and in the world.

Start with one. Change the world.


Ask the Rabbi: 613 Mitzvot? Where?

July 15, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asks: “I know we’re supposed to ‘do mitzvot’, but what are they? Where is the list?”

We often hear that there are 613 mitzvot [commandments, sacred duties] in the Torah. For many of us this inevitably brings up the question: can I see the list? Behind this question is the worry, “How am I doing?” or another worry, “Have I missed something?” After all, 613 is a LOT.

The first mention of “613 mitzvot” is in the Gemara, Makkot 23b, where it quickly becomes clear that like many numbers in Torah, 613 is as much or more a symbol than an enumeration. (If you are curious about the discussion, click the link.) 365 is the number of days in a solar year, and it also happens to be the number of negative (“Thou shalt not”) commandments. The rabbis believe 248 to be the number of parts of the human body. Add them together, (think: time + humanity) and voilá: 613 mitzvot. 

Having come up with a great number that both tells us that the mitzvot have to do with all human concerns, and that also says “a LOT,” various rabbis through history have provided us with lists of “The 613 Mitzvot.” Our clue that the number came before the lists is that the lists differ.

That said, it can be satisfying and comforting to see an actual list. Probably the most famous is that of Maimonides, in the Sefer HaMitzvot [The Book of the Mitzvot.] If you click the link and study the list, you will discover (likely to your relief) that the number of mitzvot that actually apply to you, a 21st century Jew, is much less than 613. 

One Orthodox scholar, the Chofetz Chaim, has written that there are 194 negative and 77 positive commandments that are available to us to observe without a functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and that of those commandments, 26 apply only if one is living in the Land of Israel. By that reckoning, a 21st century Diaspora Jewish male of the priestly line (Kohen) need worry only about 245 mitzvot. Within Orthodoxy, even fewer of those mitzvot apply to non-Kohanim and even fewer to women.

How can a liberal Jew make sense of Maimonides’ list? One way is to use it as a template for growth. Take each mitzvah, and look it over a bit. Ask:

1. Do I understand this mitzvah? (if not, study; if so, continue)

2. Is this a mitzvah I currently observe? 

3. If I do observe it, how’s that going? How does it mesh with my other observances? How could I improve, either with my observance or the choices I make about this mitzvah? Do I want to learn more?

4. If I don’t observe it, how’s that going? Why don’t I observe it? Do I feel guilty about not observing it? Have I ever tried observing it, or do I assume I’d feel persecuted/silly/deprived if I observed it? What do I really know about this mitzvah from a reliable source? Do I want to learn more?

5. In either case, how does my observance/non-observance affect my relationship with my Jewish community? Does it separate me from my community, or bring me more into tune with it?

6. Is this a mitzvah I might want to observe someday, but not yet? 

7. Do I want or need to talk to someone about this?

After looking over those questions, if you feel satisfied for now relative to that mitzvah, move on to another mitzvah on the list. (Nowhere is it written that you have to follow a particular order.)

Now, if you are reading this and feeling panicky, let me suggest something from the original passage in Mattot: “Isaiah [came] and reduced them [the commandments] to two, as it is said, “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Maintain justice and do what is right.'” (Is 56:1)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved


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