Living Judaism

The Living Judaism section focuses on Jewish Spirituality, Meaning and Activism with invited columns written by Jewish clergy and others across the full spectrum of Jewish life and learning. Please contact Living Judaism editors Rabbi Goldie Milgram and Rabbi David Levin at judaism@pjvoice.org if you would like contribute your thoughts.

Reflections on New York Terror Attack, Israel Bike Ride and Beyond

The comments below were expressed in a letter by Nigel Savage, president and CEO of Hazon, an organization dedicated to building a more sustainable world within the Jewish community and beyond.

I rode into work, as I do many days of the year, on a beautiful bike path on a beautiful day. My organization, Hazon, worked quite hard for several years to increase the number of protected bike lanes in New York City. We’re proud of that work, and I sometimes say to people, “and the statistics show that protected bike lanes reduce fatalities and injuries, both for bike riders and pedestrians ….”

But of course those statistics didn’t allow for a day like Tuesday. A few hours after I rode in, a crazy guy — but not randomly crazy, a guy with ideological method to his murderousness — mowed down a bunch of people who happened to be on the bike path at that moment. As we know, eight of them never got up. I rode home an hour later, past the police and the barricades and the camera crews. And past two little kids — wee high, 3 feet tall if that — in cute white Star Wars stormtrooper outfits. “May the force be with all of us,” I thought. [Read more…]

The Book of Jonah in Today’s Politics

Demonstrators sitting-in outside PA State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s office. Photo courtesy of March on Harrisburg.

By Rabbi Michael Pollack

In the Biblical worldview, our world has a moral compass, and our history is intimately linked to our actions. Our collective crimes and injustices result in our pain and suffering, and our ancestors called this divine judgment and divine wrath. In the words of the enlightenment philosopher Hegel, “World history is world judgement.” The Bible is a series of historical atrocities interpreted by our ancestors as divine judgement for our collective moral and ethical failures. Our ancestors’ crimes usually included materialist idolatry, injustice, corruption, violence, and  war — all performed in an atmosphere of mistrust and spite. And our weakened society too often turned against itself in civil war, or was unable to fend off invaders like the Assyrians or the Babylonians.

[Read more…]

The Spiritual Meaning of an Eclipse

Solar Eclipse. Photo: NASA.

Solar Eclipse. Photo: NASA.

Like most things, meaning is often something we ascribe rather than something intrinsic. An eclipse is a fact of the physical world based on orbiting bodies and the shadows they cast when sun, moon and Earth interact. They are knowable and predictable.

Our tradition has suggested that an eclipse portends an unfavorable time for the world. A lunar eclipse was a bad omen for the Jewish people in particular, perhaps because of our connection to the lunar cycles in our calendar. I particularly like the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s z”l understanding of eclipses, described by Chabad as “opportunities to increase in prayer and introspection.”

I do not know whether an eclipse would prompt certain bad behaviors to come out. This idea seems to lapse into the realm of the bubbe meise or superstition. But anything that makes us pause and consider things a bit more deeply about our circumstances is worthwhile. We have portents and signs all around us, if only we would recognize them. Often we do not, and even more rarely do we use them as a call to action.

I recall my first solar eclipse. It happened when I was a child living in the “holy city” of Monsey, New York. My father fashioned a special viewer so I could watch the progression. It was essentially little more than a cardboard box with a peephole. I was transfixed as the partial eclipse took place. The silhouette of the sun showed it being obscured and the sky turned a strange hue. I vividly recall being cautioned by my dad not to look at the sun because I would go blind. I could not resist at least a quick glance skyward to see this extraordinary event firsthand. And thankfully my sight was preserved, although at the time I was concerned.

What we do with this amazing event is — like so many other things — up to us. I suggest that for those who can see the upcoming solar eclipse, watch it with a sense of wonderment and awe for the extraordinary world in which we live, contemplate your place in the world, and act.

 
On August 21, the path of a total solar eclipse will cover the swath of the United States indicated on the map below.

2017 solar eclipse path across the U.S. Map: Wolfgang Strickling.

2017 solar eclipse path across the U.S. Map: Wolfgang Strickling.


 

Tisha B’Av and Tips for an Easy Fast

Cartoon of two men discussing Tisha Be'Av. Credit: Drybones.

Courtesy of Yaakov Kirschen.

Tonight is Erev Tisha B’Av, the eve of the 9th Day of Av, one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av is the anniversary of numerous tragedies in Jewish history. For example,

  • The report of the 12 spies.
  • The destruction of King Solomon’s Holy Temple by the Babylonians (422 BCE).
  • The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (68 CE).
  • The defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt (132 CE).
  • The declaration by Pope Urban II of the First Crusade (1095 CE).
  • The expulsion of English Jews (1290 CE).
  • The expulsion of Spanish Jews (1492 CE),
  • The start of World War I (1914 CE).
  • The beginning of mass deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto (1942 CE), and
  • The bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires (1994 CE).

To commemorate these events, Jews fast for 25 hours and refrain from bathing, wearing leather shoes and engaging in marital relations. This fast is probably the most difficult of the year: The sun sets so late making the fast seem longer. The summer heat can dehydrate you. But most of all, unlike Yom Kippur, when you are surrounded by fellow Jews who are also fasting and busy with the liturgy, most Jews continue their daily routines on Tisha B’Av and are confronted with reminders of food.

According to Ira Milner:

While some people fast with little difficulty, most of us expect to feel more or less bedraggled after only a few hours. If fasting means headaches and assorted misery for you, it might be the fault of what you eat or drink beforehand. A few simple precautions in planning your pre-taanit menu could make all the difference.

Here is a summary of Ira Milner’s recommendations:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. 8-10 glasses of water (or other non-caffeinated beverage).
  • Small portions of animal proteins.
  • Increase starch and carbohydrates: Whole grain-bread, cereals, pasta, potatoes, legumes, unsalted popcorn.
  • Increase fiber: Vegetables and fruits with edible skins or seeds.
  • Decrease salt.
  • Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas)
  • Avoid fried or spicy foods.

Smartphone Addiction Inspires New Maccabeats’ Shabbat Video

“I wish there was a thing like Shabbat … a worldwide day where we’re not on our phones … an actual day of real rest.” This quote comes from a rather unexpected source: Katy Perry, in an interview with Cosmopolitan. The quote also appears in the opening shot of a new music video — not a video by Katy Perry, but one by the Jewish a cappella group the Maccabeats.

This video was produced by the organization Jew in the City. According to its website, the group’s mission is to “break down stereotypes about religious Jews and offer a humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism,” which the group describes as being “just as relevant today as it ever was.” The Maccabeats’ video demonstrates this point by juxtaposing the quiet isolation a of a cell-phone-obsessed society with the robust joy and interconnectedness of Shabbat.

In the video, our technologically imposed solitude is aptly played out against the backdrop of the Maccabeats’ rendition of the 1960’s Simon & Garfunkel classic The Sound of Silence. Some of the lyrics are so spot-on that it is shocking to think they were composed over 50 years ago. For example, “People talking without speaking” is a perfect description of texting or communicating via social media. And, “the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made” conveys our dependence on our devices.

In contrast, the joy of Shabbat is depicted in the video during the singing of Lecha Dodi — “Come, My Beloved,” which is the traditional song for welcoming Shabbat. During this part of the video, every sound is audible, from birds chirping to children laughing to glasses clinking. Alluding to the mitzvah of intimacy on Shabbat, the song ends with a tender moment between husband and wife and the tagline “Turn off the Sound of Silence. Turn on the Sound of Shabbat.”

This video was shared by Rabbi David Levin, the Radmal, on his Jewish Relationships Initiative blog. The video is covered by the Standard YouTube License.

“To Bigotry no Sanctions, to Persecution no Assistance”

George Washington. Painting: Gilbert Stuart

George Washington. Painting: Gilbert Stuart

I love the Fourth of July, my second favorite American holiday after Thanksgiving.  My family invites our friends and neighbors to watch the neighborhood parade that passes in front of our home with us, but how else to celebrate?  One year I went to the special exhibit on “To Bigotry No Sanction,” that was at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

The most thrilling part of the exhibit was seeing that the famous phrase, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” was first coined by a Jew — Moses Seixas, in a letter on behalf of the Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, also known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island.  (The Hebrew name sounds like a contemporary merge.) [Read more…]

Happy Independence Day

We celebrate Independence Day because we are blessed to live in a land where liberty and equality are the founding principles. As a Jew, I am profoundly grateful to be a citizen of a country where I am free and safe from the hatred that has sadly been a part of Jewish history. As Americans, we need to remain vigilant, protecting and expanding the rights of all citizens. We need to understand that our greatness comes from all of our people and from our core beliefs. [Read more…]

Cuban Jews: Help Our People Thrive!

Photo by NatalieMaynor https://www.flickr.com/photos/nataliemaynor/

Photo: Natalie Maynor

Cuba has never been on my list of countries to visit. With the uncertainty regarding individual travel, I have always been concerned that I might be entering a country that I may not be able to exit. In 2014, president Barrack Obama eased restrictions on travel to Cuba for United States citizens. Since his election, president Donald Trump has proposed to reinstate many of these limits. Last week I took advantage of this current window of opportunity and participated in an organized trip to Jewish Cuba. During my time there, I discovered a community that was effectively forbidden to practice communal Judaism for thirty years, much like the community in the former Soviet Union. Now, Judaism is blossoming again in Cuba, and many young Cuban Jews are choosing to make aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel.

[Read more…]