Book Review: “Not in God’s Name”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ latest book, Not In God’s Name, deals with the literal and figurative meaning of the commandment, “Do not take the Lord’s name on vain.” Using easy to read prose, he takes us on a journey back to the creation of man, starting with Adam and Eve, and leads us through the millennia until we arrive at the stage of humankind as it exists today.

He highlights the fact that at the dawn of our history, the “blame game” — or not taking responsibility for one’s actions — is clearly demonstrated. The first man, Adam, blames Eve for giving him the apple against God’s command, and Eve quickly shifts the blame to the serpent. The serpent blames no one; only humans play the blame game.

The story about the first two people born of woman, Cain and Abel, introduced to the world the first occurrence of sibling rivalry, which tragically ended in fratricide. To this day evolution has not dampened the human predisposition of sibling rivalry, a topic dealt with throughout Rabbi Sacks’ book. He draws from a wealth of rabbinic and psychological sources to explain the motivations behind such famous rivalries. As examples, Sacks cites the biblical stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and finally Joseph and his brothers.

Rabbi Sacks cites biblical narrative as a springboard from which to plumb the depths of the human psyche. He brings to light seemingly intractable problems we wrestle with today, which were recognized and recorded thousands of years ago. For example, when dealing with a person or group that has wronged you, he teaches us that we can let go and move on with our lives. The past cannot be undone, but the future offers unlimited possibilities and opportunities to right a wrong. It is our legacy not to deny or forget the past. We can live with the past, but not to live in the past. In Genesis when Jacob wrestled with an angel it was not too unlike the struggle we all have with our own sense of right and wrong. As did Jacob, we too must struggle with our conscience and we too are capable of prevailing. Though it may take a toll on us, we emerge all the better for it.

Another important theme introduced by Rabbi Sacks is that of responsibility. He quotes from Pirke Avot 2:21, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” He offers the example of Moses, who took the Jews out of Egypt, led them for 40 years through the desert, and brought them to the banks of the Jordan River within view of the Promised Land. But Moses, the greatest of prophets, accepted the fact that he was to never enter that covenantal land. As Rabbi Sacks so eloquently and succinctly explains to his readers, each of us has our River Jordan that we will not be able to cross. But like Moses, we too have the ability to guide and inspire those who will follow us and complete the journey.

The final sections of his book deal with relinquishing power and choosing life over death. He calls for tolerance as an antidote to the propensity to scapegoat others for one’s own shortcomings. He defines martyrdom as dying in the name of your religion, not by murdering in its name. The title of the book, “Not In God’s Name,” conveys to the reader that everything we do reflects on the source in whose image we were created. Therefore we are bound by our common humanity to reject words and deeds laced with hatred, bigotry, and intolerance. The power of words should be used in dialogue and debate, not in denigrating and disparaging those with whom we disagree.

I highly recommend “Not In God’s Name.” It provides insights into human behaviors, both noble and ignoble. Rabbi Sacks offers fresh and unique interpretations of the age old dilemmas, struggles, and challenges that face mankind. He draws heavily upon sources whose wisdom is reflected in the teachings of prophetic sages and modern philosophical visionaries. Read his book; it is a primer on how to live and love in ways we are capable of, and in God’s name.

The above article was originally published as “Looking to the Past for Lessons on How to Live Today” in “The Algemeiner.” Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of England.

Book Review: “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over”


Passover table

Why is Rabbi David Fohrman’s new book, The Exodus You Almost Passed Over, different from all other books? The answer is that the Haggadah’s account you learned, first as a child and then repeated as an adult, is not the whole story.

Rabbi Fohrman concedes that the Exodus narrative in the Haggadah may hold one’s interest the first few times read but over time you probably would have preferred the CliffsNotes version so as to get to the food sooner.

However if you learned nothing else during the annual reading of the Haggadah, and the ensuing discussions, it should come as no surprise that there were two biblical Pharaohs, one good — and one not so good. Joseph’s Pharaoh was good. Moses’ Pharaoh was bad. But that’s not where the story ends; in fact, that is where the hidden Exodus story begins.

Fohrman an Orthodox scholar, takes us on a journey full of unexpected twists and turns driven by his respectful exegesis of biblical texts and commentaries. He explores the passages in the Torah that the Haggadah is based on. For example, did you know that Israelites went out from Egypt, with Pharaoh’s permission, hundreds of years before the Exodus? (Genesis 50) Really, how could we have missed that? He calls the first exodus the Phantom Exodus because it has heretofore been hidden from view, since it isn’t featured in the Haggadah. In it, the key players are not Moses, Aaron and the Pharaoh of Moses, but rather those who preceded them, namely Jacob, Joseph and Joseph’s Pharaoh. He draws out amazing parallels between the two events, which shed light on their deeper meaning, God’s plans for the Israelites and for us, their descendants. [Read more…]

Book Review: The Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

In his new book, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking facts, as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, popularly referred to as the “Rebbe” by his followers and admirers worldwide.

In a span of 92 years the Rebbe traveled from his birthplace, the city of Nikolayev, Ukraine, studied in the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and Paris, where he earned degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, and finally settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. It was there he reluctantly donned the mantel as the Seventh Lubavitcher Rabbi and humbly assumed the title of the Rebbe.

Prior to his “coronation” he had already attained the stature of a spiritual magnet who attracted into his sphere of influence a warren of world leaders, as well as ordinary people who sought his wise counsel and blessings. More than a biography, this book relates historic events bonded with personal insights and coupled with private moments, which bring the reader to yichudusim, private moments of consultation, with the Rebbe.

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My Visit to Amsterdam

Having just learned that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands has abdicated her throne to her son Willem-Alexander, my thoughts return to that special place where I spent a few days two weeks ago — Holland.

Where can you munch on a herring sandwich topped with chopped onions and pickles, then polish it off with a Corenwijn chaser, while watching seven million tulip bulbs laboriously pushing their way above ground to greet the springtime sun? Why, in Keukenhof Holland, of course. But where in Holland can you get a plate of gefilte fish garnished with chrane, other than in your bubbie’s kitchen?
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St Patrick’s Day – Israeli Style

Yes, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Israel and that’s no blarney! It’s the day when green beer flows, Irish shanties are sung, and tall tales are spun. I never imagined that in Israel there would be no less than 76 pubs offering Happy Hour Specials to those who wore a bit of green that day. Although I wouldn’t exactly call St. Paddy’s Day a national holiday, there were a surprising number of Israelis who became Irish, if only for a day. At home in Cherry Hill, I never celebrated St. Paddy’s Day, but being in Israel somehow made me feel that it was my duty, as an American, to at least don the green and go to an “Irish” pub.
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No Mention in US Media for Discrimination Against Israeli Athletes

CAMERA has reported The New York Times‘ penchant for covering racism in soccer, especially where Israelis are concerned. In a Jan. 31, 2013 article about protests by Beitar soccer fans against the recruitment of Muslim players, bearing the headline “Some Fear a Soccer Team’s Racist Fans Hold a Mirror Up to Israel,” the “newspaper of record” used the event as an opening to indict all of Israeli society as racist.

In fact, The Times printed a second article in the span of ten days with the same false narrative — that because there are some intolerant Israelis, there is “a broad phenomenon of racism in all of Israeli society.”

Of course, this is an example of how Israel is held to a separate and unequal standard because, as CAMERA noted:
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Are Shabbat and Kashrut Bad For Business?

As a founding member of the National Museum of American Jewish History I was troubled to learn of the museum’s decision regarding the discarding of time honored Shabbat observances. The museum’s administration has decided to sell tickets on Shabbat, keep the café open and rent space for Friday night events. Also the café will no longer be kosher and non-kosher catering will be allowed. As if all those changes were not enough, it was decided to change the annual marketing label “Being Jewish on Christmas” to “Being __ on Christmas”. They deleted the word ‘Jewish’ from their slogan but kept ‘Christmas’.
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Gun Toting Teachers

There has been a lot of talk since the Newton massacre about arming teachers in the classroom. The NRA and Second Amendment advocates are strongly in support of the idea. Unfortunately there has been a lot of misrepresentation by some in the media that in Israel the school children’s classrooms are filled with gun toting teachers. They are not.

I’ve been in Israel dozens of times and accompanied my grandchildren to their elementary schools and high schools and not once did I see a teacher packing heat. There may be rare exceptions as in the case of disputed territories, but that does not negate the rule that teachers do not carry guns in the classroom. However there is an armed security guard at the gate of every school.
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A Kippah Question

There’s something sad about seeing many of our American youth wearing a kippah while visiting Israel.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not against them wearing a kippah; I am gratified by it. The reason I think it is so sad is because the vast majority of those same kids will not wear one at home in America other than when sheltered from the outside world. For example, they have no problem wearing their Jewish identity openly when going to synagogue, attending religious school or participating in a Jewish event but wearing one in the general public, well that’s a different story.
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“Who Loves Ya Baby?”

You can be sure that over the ensuing weeks, months and years, leading up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the GOP political pundits and strategist will be agonizing over the root causes of what went so terribly wrong with their presidential campaign. I can save them a lot of time and effort by citing a tag line from a TV show from the early 1970’s.
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