Friday, July 26, 2013


I am often asked whether or not Judaism believes in heaven and hell.  Usually the question is framed in the following manner.  “Rabbi, Judaism does not believe in heaven and hell, right?”  The answer comes as a surprise to most.  On the contrary, Judaism does believe in heaven, and even hell.  Of course with all things Jewish the answer does not end there.

First of all our terminology is different.  We call heaven, olam haba, the world to come and hell, gehinnom, or as it is sometimes rendered in common parlance, gehenna.  These ideas developed during the rabbinic period, alongside their development within early Christianity.  Our images for these otherworldly abodes, however, are different.  Judaism hesitated to codify a description of olam haba and gehinnom.  It left their details to rabbinic imaginations and preserved disagreements about its contours.  Nonetheless it resolutely affirmed these ideas.

Judaism believes that if God is all-powerful and just, then the only way that the inequities we observe in this world can be rectified is through the belief in the world to come. There the scales are re-balanced.  Olam haba can be an extraordinarily comforting idea.  It offers healing to believe that in heaven God cares for the souls of our beloved dead. 

Still I recognize that there are difficulties with these ideas.  Too often the reward of heaven, and the punishment of hell, is used to instill fear.  I would prefer that people do good for its own sake.  Even more troubling is the fact that too often heaven becomes the focus of people’s faith and action.  The more fervently they hold on to the other world the more they appear to let go of their engagement with this world.  The here and now becomes a mere gateway to a better, future place.  In extreme instances there even grows a desire to rush to get this other world.  Then our fragile world becomes victimized by this belief.  Focus on today rather than tomorrow!

This week’s Torah portion alludes to this question in raising the issue of reward and punishment.  The medieval commentator, Rashi, notices an unusual word in the opening of the portion.  “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant…He will favor you and bless you and multiply you…” (Deuteronomy 7-12-13)  The second word literally means, “On the heels of” meaning as a consequence of and thus Rashi writes: “If you will heed the minor commandments which one usually tramples with his heels, i.e. which a person treats as being of minor importance then God will keep His promise to you.”  Even the smallest of mitzvot can accumulate for good.

The 19th century chief rabbi of St. Petersburg and a leader of the Mussar ethical movement, Yitzhak Blazer, adds: “A person must realize that sometimes a negligible action on his part can decide his fate in this world and in the World to Come.  Imagine a man who comes to a train station and finds that he has only enough money to take the train to the station before the one where he wishes to go.  Because he is missing those few pennies, he will be forced to get off the train at the station before his, and will never reach his destination.  The same is true in heavenly matters: sometimes a person does not take a small action, and because of that he will lack sufficient good deeds to tip the scales in his favor.”

Whether or not one believes in heaven, or even hell, a reminder that even the smallest of actions has lasting impact is always required.  This can be enough to transform the here and now.

Friday, July 19, 2013


This week’s Torah portion contains one of our most well-known prayers, the Shema and V’Ahavta.  “Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

We recite this prayer every time we gather as a community, but have we ever paused to think about its meaning and ponder its words.  What does it mean to love God?  Moreover, how does one love God?  Love can sometimes be challenging and difficult.  This is why there are so many songs and poems about love, especially those about losing love. The ancient rabbis, in their wisdom, recognized this difficulty.   

The Sefat Emet, a great Hasidic master, teaches that everyone wants to love God, but distractions and obstacles often get in the way.  By performing mitzvot he taught, we remove these obstacles and distractions and let our souls fulfill their natural inclination of loving God.  In his worldview righteous acts are a balm, helping to fill our hearts with generosity, compassion and love.

The Midrash, on the other hand, notices that there are only three mitzvot that command love.  We are commanded to love the neighbor.  We are commanded to love the stranger.  These commandments are given in the Book of Leviticus.  We are commanded to love God later, in the Book of Deuteronomy.  The Midrash comments: this teaches that we learn to love God by practicing love of God’s creatures, by loving our fellow human beings.  We begin by loving those closest to us and thereby reach towards God.

Both of these commentaries recognize that although love might be cherished and sought after it is often a difficult to achieve.  Nonetheless as Rabbi John used to say, “All you need is love. All you need is love.  All you need is love, love.  Love is all you need.”  Amen.   Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh Av

Here is a video of Monday's prayer and protest with Women of the Wall.


Proclaim Liberty to the Wall

The Talmud reports that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews.  On Monday, on Rosh Hodesh Av, the day that begins the intense mourning period for the destruction of the Temple, I witnessed the Talmud’s words come to life.

I accompanied my wife and 300 other women and joined Women of the Wall for their monthly prayer group.  We were called Nazis and Amalekites, Israel’s ancient sworn enemy.  A few eggs were thrown.  My friend’s daughters were spit on.  We continued to pray.  We sang, “Ozi v’zimrat yah—my strength and songs to God will be my salvation.” (Psalm 118:14)

The morning began, ironically enough, at Liberty Bell Park where the police insisted we gather before traveling to the Wall.  There we boarded buses for the short drive to the Dung Gate.  We were accompanied by police cars and then escorted by officers through the entrance to the Western Wall plaza.  Haredi, ultra-Orthodox, leaders had bused Haredi girls to the Wall ahead of our arrival and filled the women’s section with 5,000 young girls.  The police determined that it would be impossible for Women of the Wall to pray at the Wall and so they only allowed the group into an area just inside the entrance.  We stood in a group, enclosed by police and their barricades, and surrounded by thousands of screaming Haredi men on one side and women on the other.  They shouted at our prayers.  They blew whistles to drown out our singing of Hatikvah.

I never imagined that in the sovereign Jewish state my wife and I would require police protection to pray as we have done all our lives....

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Although I am currently in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute, my thoughts turn to today’s holiday of July 4th.  I have been thinking about the soldiers who over the centuries fought to gain our independence and still, continue to fight to guarantee our freedom.  I have been thinking about the pain these battles and wars continue to take on our soldiers.

This past fall there was a powerful article in The New Yorker (Dexter Filkins, “Atonement”) about one soldier’s journey to gain forgiveness from the Iraqi family he harmed.  On April 8, 2003 he and his fellow Marines had mistakenly shot twenty innocent Iraqi civilians.  That day continues to haunt many of the soldiers of Fox Company, Second Battalion, Twenty-Third Marine Regiment. 

Years later, one of its soldiers Lu Lobello sought out one of the survivors.  Margaret Kachadoorian had made her way, along with her only surviving child, to Glendale California.  She agreed to meet with Lobello.  From that meeting and their tentative and emerging friendship, he gained a measure of forgiveness.  She gained a measure of healing.

Whether or not you agree with the war in Iraq we must stand with our fellow citizens who fight in our nation’s military.  This article was a reminder that we must recognize the cost and pain to their lives, as well as to the lives of their families.

This week we read about the Israelite’s war with the Midianites.  God commands the people: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites…”  It is a bloody campaign.  In this war, the Israelites killed all the Midianite men, took the women and children as captive and destroyed all their towns.  The Torah offers a ritual for those returning from battle.  “You shall then stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh days.” (Numbers 31:19)

The war with the Midianites is disturbing in its ruthlessness.  Nonetheless the ritual cleansing for Israel’s soldiers is an interesting, and perhaps almost forgotten, footnote.  Even in biblical times there was recognition of the struggle for soldiers to return from battle to home.  But we continue to focus on the horrors of the wars fought in our name.  Why would God command us to destroy the Midianites?  How could God desire vengeance?  We argue about the reasons our country went to war in Iraq.  We continue to debate whether or not it was a justified campaign.  We forget about our soldiers.

Our countries have fought many wars.  Here in Israel the reminders are inescapable.  As I wander Jerusalem’s streets, I walk among memorials: “Here fell…during the battle for Jerusalem during the Six Day War.”  The cost of America’s more recent wars is more distant and for far too many, remote.  We tend to forget about the pain that walks among our soldiers.  Our leaders offer familiar tropes about our soldiers’ sacrifices, and I am sure there will be mention of these today, but too little about their continued pain.  On this July 4th we would do well to remember their torment.

The Israeli poet, Eliaz Cohen, writes:
You hold back the stream of tears.  We go out for a breath of air on
            the porch
here I prepared a little corner to write the unfinished novel
now from the fig tree in the year the last leaf falls
everything is filled with symbols you say
you fall on my neck, weeping bitterly
my good, loyal soldier, now at long last it is permitted to cry.
On this July 4th, amidst the barbeques and celebrations, pause, if but for a moment, and remember and offer a tear for our soldiers’ pain.