Interpreting the Transmission of Kabbalah

By Joshua Van De Riet

The purpose of this posting is not to attack the philosophy of individuals who assert that the kabbalistic tradition takes its historical root in the theophony, it is simply to point out that this opinion is by no means uniform.

In order to prove this point, a contrast should be made between two stances, which embody a distinct split in the way we can interpret the transmission of the kabbalistic tradition. Aryeh Kaplan, a well known American Rabbi and translator of Jewish texts, asserts, “Moses was to invest Joshua with his own spirit of prophecy. According to an ancient Midrash, this included the necessary methods and disciplines for acquiring prophecy. Moses thus transmitted the keys for entering the prophetic state to Joshua. These keys constituted the Kabbala tradition.”1 This quote openly asserts that the Kabbalistic tradition has its roots as far back as Moses on Har Sinai. Some even assert that kabbilistic knowledge was accessed by before Sinai.2

On the other hand, some Jewish philosophers deny the kabbalah has such ancient origins. Meir Ben Simeon Ha-Me’ili, a 13th century Jewish philosopher, openly rejects the authenticity of Sefer Bahir, an early Kabbalistic text.3 In his classic text Milhemet Mitzvah, which was written between 1230 and 1240, Meir stands in opposition to kabbalists, whom he believes are heretics.4Specifically, he denies the authenticity of claims that Sefer Bahir was authored by ancient an Talmudist.5 It should be noted that the first publication of Sefer Bahir was during the 12th century.

This evidence does not alone call into question the significance of Sefer Bahir and other Kabbalistic texts. However, it should at the very least inspire critical thought in the minds of those who propose the ancient origin of Kabbalistic texts; where individuals living during the time period in which some Kabbalistic texts were published call into question their validity.

3See “Meir Ben Simean Ha-Meili.” Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

4 Id.

5 Id.

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Childcare During the High Holidays

By Karolyn Benger

The high holidays are upon us and we are charged to take this time to reflect on our actions and evaluate the choices we have made.  It is a special time for self discovery, introspection, and tshuvah…unless you are the mother of a small child.  If, like me, you have a child too young for the children’s activities at synagogues then you may find yourself standing around outside of the schull, loitering in front of the kiddush hall, or even just staying at home.

Unfortunately, too many synagogues do not provide children’s activities that would  allow their mothers a chance to daven.  All too often women are forced to invent their own solutions: round robin babysitting with another mother or hiring a non-Jew to babysit.  But is this right?  I cannot help but wonder, if the synagogue has not provided a small amount of  childcare, do they not care about the tefillot of women?

I know the answer and excuses I will get for posing this question. The apologetics will say women are doing the most important thing by tending to their children.  Well, yes we are, however this assumes that a woman’s only role in relation to the Jewish people and with Hashem is that of a childcare provider.  Based on the Torah’s discussion of Sarah, Rivkah, Miriam, Devora and many others I find this doubtful.

The practical ones will cite the obvious budget constraints.  Yet no one said childcare needs to be free.  I am sure many women would willing pay for coverage on these days– Yom Kippur in particular.

The more Haredi will note that since women cannot make up a minyan they can and should daven elsewhere while caring for their kids.  I would first like to ask anyone who raises this point if they have ever tried to daven– or do anything for that matter– while caring for small children.  More important, this approach actively excludes women from the community.  Simply because women do not make up a minyan does not mean that they must daven on their own. While it seemingly allows for female prayer- given the constraints of each child’s schedule and needs– it is still lacking in providing a solution for women.  By not providing childcare women, whether they choose it or not, are forced to daven on their own.  Doing this not only puts tremendous difficulty on women to find the time to pray while caring for her children but what’s more, it does not allow her the opportunity for honest reflection and tshuvah.  Her prayers and efforts to fulfill the mitzvot become an after thought.  And she becomes a lone person rather than a member of a vibrant and rich kehillah.

If we, the Jewish people, are judged as a people then we cannot ignore the prayers of our young mothers.  More synagogues should provide childcare for multiple ages and more men and women should demand it.

 

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Parashat Ki Tavo – Why are we the chosen people?

By Rabbi Michael Beyo

In Parashat Ki Tavo we find the terminology of Chosen People. Moshe speaking to the Children of Israel says to them (26:18) “And the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as He spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments.”

It must be noted that this is not the first time that the Torah refers to the Jews as the Chosen People, at Mount Sinai, in Shemot 19:5, God says to us, “And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.”  Additionally, it says in Parashat Vaetchanan 7:6, “For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God: the Lord your God has chosen you to be His treasured people, out of all the peoples upon the face of the earth.”

Different approaches have been given to the meaning of Chosen People and too often, unfortunately, this has been understood and taught to mean that we Jews are inherently better than non-Jews. It has become part of the mantra for most of the Orthodox world that we Jews are better, that we have a better soul, that we are closer to Hashem, and that we are in a way superior to non-Jews.

A close reading of the Torah reveals that nothing could be further from the truth. In all three instances, the Torah imposes upon us an obligation to become a holy and chosen people – nowhere the Torah says that we are already. Furthermore, in our parasha the Torah describes the relationship between us to Hashem and not between Hashem and the Jews.

So what makes us the Chosen People – my understanding is that we have an obligation to strive to be Holy and when we realize that we are not actually and inherently  holy, but by behaving in a certain way we can turn our existence into a higher – holy - existence. That is the essence of Chosen People.

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Parashat Shelach – What is the purpose of the Mitzvot?

By Rabbi Michael Beyo

Sorry to all of you for the recent absence in posting. We are relocating and its been a stressful time. On top of this my partner in crime – Josh – got married so a big Mazal Tov!

The Rambam in More Nevuchim discusses one of the verses of this week’s Parasha. The pasuk that he is interested in explicating is the statement in 15:15, that God has given us one law / rule / commandment (depending on which translation you prefer). The Rambam uses this passage to teach us a very important lesson that unfortunately is either not taught enough, or simply not taught at all, because it has theological ramifications that many of us in what I call ‘contemporary Orthodoxy’ do not like.

The Rambam starts with a clear statement that all the Mitzvot of the Torah have one goal to impart on us either proper thoughts (ideas – not to be confused with what often is called Ashkafa), or to expel from us wrong ideas, or to teach us just laws to remove and stop injustice in the world (what many might call Tikun Olam) or to impart in us to proper character traits (Midot).

I find this clear statement of the Ramabam fascinating and very deep, in a sense even very spiritual! Spiritual maybe not in the sense that we commonly refer to spirituality, which often is nothing more than our emotions. The Rambam here is teaching us that the real and ultimate goal of the Mitzvot is NOT to achieve some metaphisical reward in a futuristic ‘world to come’ or Olam Aba or any other terminology that we might feel most connected with. The ultimate goals of the Mitzvot and the reason that we should all follow the Torah is because the Torah teaches us how to be good – probably the best – HUMAN BEING that we can strive to be.

That is the purpose of the Mitzvot – nothing more, nothing less. If so then why be bound by a set of rules that were determined thousand of years ago. Maybe today we should change the practical Mitzvot for the spirit of the Mitzvot? I ask this rhetorically since I do not believe that option to be the correct one but I pose the question. Why keep the Mitzvot and not just the spirit of the Mitzvot?

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Behar-Bechukotai – The journey of life

By Rabbi Michael Beyo

I have had a tough week so my apologizes for a short posting this week. Hope you will all enjoy it.

Parashat Bechukotai starts with the words:”Im bechukotai telechu” – the verb “telechu” means to walk – so, in this case, the translation is – “if you will walk in my commandments.” Why does the Torah describe following the precepts of God as “walking?” On this point, many classical commentators have poured their ink and one of the conclusions that all of them reach is that the walking in the laws refers to the actual doing and performing of the Mitzvot and this in itself represents the uniqueness of the man.

The performance of a Mitzva is never a static action but is a continuous journey.  People are not static but are a continuous and never ending actualization of a the journey they constantly choose to embark upon through their thoughts and actions. In this sense a person is never constant but always evolving on a continuous journey. All of this is fundamentally different than what we find in nature.

The main difference between man and nature is that the laws of nature are a constant. The same can also be said of the celestial angels, they are not evolving, they are static and thus they are represented in the Torah as standing.

The peculiar and special nature of people – different than anything else in nature – is that we are always evolving, always walking, changing, deciding and acting. Ultimately, we are on a journey of life that the religious person wants to embed with Mitzvot.

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Emor – Does God have a calendar?

By Rabbi Michael Beyo

The second part of this week’s Parasha deals with the sanctification of specific times and days in the calendar – what we call Holidays. When we pay attention to what the Torah says, we find in it one of the most important and cardinal principles of Judaism, or to be more precise of Rabbinic Judaism (I use this term both in its historical sense and also to strike a point that all the current forms of Judaism are in their essence a form of Rabbinic Judaism).

In this Parasha there is Pasuk that is recurrent three times: (23:2) “Moadei Hashem asher tikreu otam” – Artscroll translates as “Hashem’s [God's] appointed festivals that you are designated as holy convocations;” “(23:4) “Ele moadei Hashem mikraei kodesh asher tikreu otam bemoadam” - Artscroll translates as “These are the appointed festivals of Hashem, the holy convocations, which you shall designate in their appropiate time;” and (23:37) “Ele moadei Hashem asher tikreu otam mikraei kodesh - Artscroll translates as “These are the appointed festivals of Hashem that you shall proclaim as holy convocations.”

What is interesting is the fact that in all the three verses, the word “otam” is written in Ktiv Hazer - אתם- instead of אותם, and since the Torah is not written with vowels, that word can be also read as “atem” – reflective! Put another way, when the word is read “otam,” it references the festivals; however, when read “atem,” the people themselves, who appoint the holidays are being referenced. In this sense the above three Pesukim could be translated in the following way: (23:2) “Hashem’s festivals that you will designate as holy convocations;” (23:4) “These are the appointed festivals of Hashem, the holy convocations, which you shall designate in your appropriate time;” and (23:37) “These are the appointed festivals of Hashem that will be proclaimed by you as holy convocations.” In other words these specific dates are holy because we Jews have sanctified them and not necessarily because God looked into his calendar and decided to have a holiday on that specific date.

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Acharei-Kedoshim – Holier than Thou? The danger of Holiness

By Rabbi Michael Beyo

This weeks Torah portion is made of two separate Parashiot; Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Parashat Kedoshim is an extremely important Torah section since so many of our Mitzvot are derived from this Parasha. Out of the 613 commandments that our tradition attributes being from the Torah we can learn 51 from this Parasha alone and one of the most important aspect of any law – Divine Law – is the aspect of Holiness. What is the essence of Holiness? Who is Holy and why? Are we Jews holier than Thou?

The concept of holiness is one of the essential elements of any religion, of service to God, and of the understanding of the position that man needs to have in relation to God. Parashat Kedoshim starts with a very strong statement: Hashem spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your God (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2). A similar verse is also found in a previous Torah portion : [...] you shall sanctify yourselves and you will be holy, for I am holy [...] (Vayikra/Leviticus 11:44). In these verses the concept of Kedusha – Holiness – is presented to us in all of its intensity being a specific element of faith. I say this because there can be no concept and understanding of holiness outside of the realm of religion. It is an impending responsibility of the person of faith to discover what holiness means and avoid the pitfalls – devastating at times – that a wrong understanding of this concept can lead to.

The Netziv of Voloshin - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naftali_Zvi_Yehuda_Berlin - writes that often the Torah says “speak to the assembly of the Children of Israel” but in the verse that we quoted the Torah adds the words entire and thus the verse reads “speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel.” According to the Netziv - entire/El Kol – means to each one and one individually and not to the entire collective nation. His interpretation is definitely not a simple interpretation of the text but it is interesting to understand the meaning of the Netziv. The meaning of this commentary is that the each individual conceives differently of the status of holiness since each person is different from the other by our nature and nurture, but the reality of the commandments, the reality of a code of law embodied in the Halacha is equal to all – the big, the small, the intelligent, the stupid, the young, the old, the scholar and the ignorant. For the important concept of holiness we may not make a generalization and each person has to strive to holiness according to their own individual capacity and aptitudes. 

Chaim ibn Attar - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_ibn_Attar - in his commentary says that: ‘You shall be holy’ is a commandment for the future. In fact the grammatical form of the words indicates that this holiness will happen in the future. And so he adds that this Mitzva will never end. Chain ibn Attar understood better than others the danger of Holiness and the terrifying consequences that can escalate when we attribute holiness to what surrounds us – a person, an object, a land. Moreover the intrinsic danger when we declare that a certain nation is holy or holier than another. The Mitzva of ‘You shall be holy’ is a never ending journey that we have to strive for. It is not an ontological quality inherent in us, it is a goal that we have to strive for and we will probably never achieve since only God is Holy. The Or Achaim continues and says that for any gate of holiness that a person might achieve there are higher level of holiness that he has to strive for and for ever the person has the commandment to become holy but he also needs to know that he will never be holy because only God is holy, as the verse says: “for I [God] am holy.”

The gates of holiness alluded here are the Mitzvot – the commandments - that through them a person can strive to holiness since in our human existence there is no inherent holiness but only the potential for man to strive to holiness – to strive towards God.

Are you Holier than Thou?

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