Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Were converts promised Israel? “Sand” is thrown in our eyes.

In Uncategorized on October 30, 2009 at 2:43 pm

No people that I know of questions its identity more than Jews.  This silliness allows us to question our own legitimacy, and more frighteningly allows others to delegitimate our identity as well.  Enter historian Shlomo Sand and his soon to be translated book, The Invention of the Jewish People. Sand tells us that our bloodlines are not pure, that we have descended from converts, and so, therefore, our claim to an eternal connection to Israel is bogus.

Echoing Arthur Koestler’s canard in his The Thirteenth Tribe, he eschews the Biblical connection of present day Jews because they are not the descendants of classical Israel.

Ovadyah the proselyte had the same problem over seven hundred years ago, when he wrote his famous letter to Maimonides wondering how he could say certain blessings that implied the bloodline that Sand sees as necessary.

Maimonides explains that Abraham and all that was promised to him was promised to those who claim him as his father.  The spiritual father determines the connection not only to the religion of Israel, but also to the Land of Israel.  For the Torah was promised to those descendants of Abraham who have demonstrated that they have joined with Israel.

Our national identity emanates from citizenship of the spirit. Processes are in place to formalize this citizenship–it’s called conversion.

For those who reject these principles, Sand provokes a challenge that must be discredited, but for believers, his speculations are irrelevant. The only question is whether the conversions were ‘kosher’. Sand presents a challenge to the secular alternative to peoplehood, but to the Jews for whom the Torah is the constitution, it evokes a huge yawn followed by a sigh of “so what!”



Had they followed the Torah, The Economic Meltdown Could not Have Occurred.

In Uncategorized on October 12, 2009 at 8:27 am

One of the unusual components of the Torah is that ethical principles are often stated as legal ones.  In other words, it’s not only the good and right thing to do, but it is, in fact, illegal not to do it. “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) is not a pithy aphorism, but a law forbidding one person to mislead another–whether it is giving wrong directions, or willfully selling faulty merchandise.  Professors Hershey and Linda Friedman  in an article that appears on the website Jlaw.com outlines the Talmudic principles that, if followed, would have averted the current crisis that has put millions out of work, and threatened a corrupt banking system where major players are perceived as “too big to fail.” The frightening thing about the meltdown is that most of what caused it, was legal. In Jewish law, before many homes would have been foreclosed, the companies would have been taken down and forced to renegotiate terms that were reasonable. The paper makes it case–

that of Jewish law, using six framing
principles: misleading with bad advice; deception and fraud; bribery, both outright and subtle;
honest weights and measures; conflicts of interest; and transparency. Each of these is used as a
lens through which to view the activities and behaviors that caused the current financial debacle
and, in the process, almost totaled the global economy. The paper concludes that Jewish law was
violated at every step of the way towards the current financial catastrophe. Had the bankers,
auditors, rating agencies, politicians, regulators, and mortgage brokers followed the principles of
business ethics described in Jewish law, the global financial crisis would not have occurred.

…using six framing principles: misleading with bad advice; deception and fraud; bribery, both outright and subtle; honest weights and measures; conflicts of interest; and transparency. Each of these is used as a lens through which to view the activities and behaviors that caused the current financial debacle and, in the process, almost totaled the global economy. The paper concludes that Jewish law was violated at every step of the way towards the current financial catastrophe. Had the bankers, auditors, rating agencies, politicians, regulators, and mortgage brokers followed the principles of business ethics described in Jewish law, the global financial crisis would not have occurred.

I would add that the capitalism vs. socialism is a false framework designed to avoid any serious framework for reforming the current system.  The Torah is concerned with personal accountability on both sides.  A person is accountable to make a genuine effort to make a living–if he is capable. A society is accountable for taking care of their most vulnerable who–through no fault of their own–are unable to care for themselves.  The Torah also makes it clear, unlike American law, that the burden of fairness falls squarely on the merchant’s shoulders.  The consumer is not accountable for ascertaining the legitimacy of the merchant–the merchant is presumed to be following the law.  Therein lies the rub.  As long as caveat emptor is the fundamental principle of buying and selling in America, business ethics is destined to be an oxymoron.

We Begin Again: And the Heavens and the earth were completed…

In Torah Study, Uncategorized on October 9, 2009 at 1:27 pm

…and all their hosts, and Elokim completed on the seventh day all the work that he had done, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.

And God Blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it for on it He ceased all work of creating that God had created and done.

A simple reading of the verse tells us that God was busy on the seventh day. It received a blessing and was also sanctified.

The fact that shabbat is blessed is not lost on the close readers of traditional Judaism. A look at the Friday night prayer “Magen Avot” which is said after the silent devotion declares that shabbat is the well-spring of blessing. God was busy making blessings possible and somehow that transcends worldly creation as we know it. We know it only because we can feel it and that somehow it is tied up with non-material doing.

Shabbat is a day of opening up to blessings, where we recharge our batteries for the week. Less distracted by the world that so distracts the spirit, our work dares us to see the material world and its trappings as illusory distractions from the Eternal. This is a day of Bracha, where we draw from the invigorating pool of the Perfect.

As the Kabbalist Joseph Ben Avraham Gikatilla says:

For the word BRaCHa (Blessing), is drawn from the word BRayCha (pool or reservoir) Sha’are Orah The First Gate

It is from these words, “And God Blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it for on it He ceased all work of creating that God had created and done” the last words of the first creation story that our world truly begins. These are the words that make our world bearable.

Haunted all week by Leonard Cohen and his “Alexandra Leaving”

In Uncategorized on October 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Anyone who hasn’t witnessed the celebration for the “House of Drawing of Water” has never witnessed a truly joyous occasion in his life.” (Mishnah Succah 5:3)

Leonard Cohen understands the misery of loss and memory, and his remedy is evoked in this poem and its haunting melody. The song is based on a poem written by Constantine P. Cavafy entitled The god Abandons Anthony. The original poem evokes the loss of Mark Anthony’s beloved Alexandria, while Cohen personifies the loss of someone deeply loved–who left.  Instead, however, of saying goodbye to the beloved, Cohen tells us to say goodbye to the painful moment of the leaving:

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,

Say goodbye to Alexandra lost

The temptation to say that the sublime moment was to begin with not real, but only imagined, because it is no longer, is a protection that Cohen warns against:

As someone long prepared for this to happen,

Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.

Exquisite music, Alexandra laughing.

Your first commitments tangible again.

This Mishnah that details the most unforgettable party in Jewish tradition creates an occasion to celebrate during these in between days of Succot. We know these present day celebrations have not the grandeur, the fervor, or the power of what we once had, but during those moments of memory and pale re-enactment, we celebrate while we remember.  We shake our branches all seven days while we remember, and we pound our willows, while we remember.  For once, we do not focus on the why of the destruction, but only appreciate the memory of a place where atonement was tangible, accessible.  Well, what happens when it all goes away? Leonard Cohen says we must resist the temptation to feel deceived.

Do not say the moment was imagined,

Do not stoop to strategies as this.

In Jewish tradition, pending on the season, we do both. We stoop to the strategies of cause and effect, but we also leave that dynamic for moments of actualizing memory as part of our present, when we “say goodbye to Alexandra leaving, and say goodbye to Alexandra lost.”

In romance, the enigmas of cause and effect may very well be beyond our understanding, and Cohen sees the falseness and cravenness in self loathing that halt the good memories and only accentuate the loss.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;

In full command of every plan you wrecked—

Do not choose a coward’s explanation

that hides behind the cause and the effect,

It is true that when it comes to ruining things, we have some control, but there is partnership in both success and failure.  Succot and its commandment to be joyful says goodbye, at least for the moment, to what Cohen calls the “coward’s explanation”.

Now, maybe, I can do something else.

Webyeshiva Offering over 40 Classes Starting October 18th

In Uncategorized on October 8, 2009 at 2:29 pm

I will be teaching three of them:

Maharal of Prague: Netiv Torah, Understanding the Siddur, Studies in Kashrut

All you need is a broadband connection and you can be part of a virtual classroom joining students from all over the world. Check out Webyeshiva.org for what is being taught when.  It really must be experienced to be believed.

A Public Service Announcement: “B’shalom” can mean “drop dead”!

In Uncategorized on October 6, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Allow me to explain.  Today, I received two emails one from a Jewish professional, and another from a young adult who is an active participant in Jewish life. Both of them signed off with “B’shalom” meaning, I assume, “with peace”. The problem is that they may be wishing for me to rest in peace.

Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 29a

ואמר רבי לוי בר חיתא: הנפטר מן המת לא יאמר לו לך לשלום אלא לך בשלום הנפטר מן החי לא יאמר לו לך בשלום, אלא לך לשלום. הנפטר מן המת לא יאמר לו לך לשלום אלא לך בשלום – שנאמר ואתה תבוא אל אבתיך בשלום. הנפטר מן החי לא יאמר לו לך בשלום אלא +שמות ד’+ לך לשלום, שהרי דוד שאמר לאבשלום +שמואל ב’ ט”ו+ לך בשלום – הלך ונתלה, יתרו שאמר למשה +שמות ד’+ לך לשלום – הלך והצליח

Said Rabbi Levy Bar Chita: Anyone who leaves the company of the dead should not say לך לשלום (Go L’shalom) but should say לך בשלום (Go B’shalom). One who leaves the company of the living should not say לך בשלום (Go B’shalom) but לך לשלום (Go L’shalom).  As it is written: And you should go to your ancestors B’shalom. One who leaves the company of the living should not say go B’shalom but go L’shalom. For David said to Avshalom Go B’shalom and he went and was hanged and executed later on. Jethro said to Moses Go L’shalom and he (Moses) went and prospered.

Go L’shalom means Go toward a life of peace while Go B’shalom means something similar to rest in peace. Even inadvertent curses can take on a life of their own.  Then again, the ultimate closer may in fact be Go B’shalom.

I think I’ll go with:

B’vracha (With blessing), it’s safer.

The Mitzvah of Butting In: The Mitzvah of Butting Out

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2009 at 5:15 pm

The tension between one’s privacy and one’s desire to be involved with others is one way to read this verse:

New Ideas to Prevent Texting while Driving

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2009 at 1:51 pm

An op-ed piece in the NYT argues that there are technological means to prevent people from texting while driving. One solution offered:

When a cellphone is used in a moving car, its signal must be handed off from one cell tower to the next along the route. This process tells the service provider that the phone is in motion. Cellphone towers could be engineered to not transmit while a phone is traveling. After a phone had stopped moving for a certain amount of time — three minutes, maybe — it would be able to transmit again.

Something needs to be done!

New File On Scribd

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2009 at 12:37 pm

For those new to the blog, I park my Jewish educational materials on Scribd.com. The latest of which is a more comprehensive missive on the Succot festival–including the origins of the custom of inviting a different Biblical ancestor to the Sukkah. For a surprising understanding of the mitzvah of Ushpizin along with a word copy of what was written below, check out the link!

Connecting to Succot

In Uncategorized on October 2, 2009 at 1:04 pm


There are aspects of Succot which are immediately attractive to most members of a Jewish community.  Who doesn’t enjoy building a structure and then celebrating that building by feasting for a week with song, with joy and celebration.  Intuitively, one can immediately imagine that this activity has something to do with the last harvest and certainly the fact that we adorn our succahs with seasonal fruit reinforces that impression.  Still, why is it the custom to move out of our homes and live as much as possible in this temporary dwelling.  Why, at a time, when we should bring the harvest home, are we obliged to leave that home, and feel what it is like to be “temporary”, “on the move”, or “homeless” on a festival that was supposed to be a family celebration.  Let’s take a look at the origins of the festival snd see if we can gain some insight into what the celebration of this joyous feast can teach the spirit.

In the Torah it is written:

LEVITICUS  23:42-43

42. You shall dwell in booths seven days; all who are Israelites born shall dwell in booths;

43. That your generations may know that I placed the people of Israel in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.


1.  Verse 42 tells us that this is a festival for all Israelites and that everyone has to do it.

2.  Verse 43 comes along and tells us why.  But wait, if you read the verse literally, it sounds like we were put in booths, and not that we built them.  The sages of the Talmud noticed this problem and wondered, “If we were placed in Succot, which Succot are they referring to?  The Torah never tells us that they built Succot  In fact, we’re never given any details about their housing conditions until this verse.  Were they like the ones we build nowadays?”  Or is it referring to another kind of shelter that was provided to them, miraculously, by the Holy One.


“That I placed the people of Israel in booths,”  These were the “clouds of glory (see Exodus 13:20-24 where it is explained that when the Hebrews traveled through the desert they were escorted by a “cloud” during the day and protected by a pillar of fire at night.  Rabbi Eliezer refers to this cloud as the “clouds of glory”.), so says Rabbi Eliezer.

Rabbi Akiba says, “This is referring to the actual succot they made for themselves.”


Rabbi Eliezer assumes that because the verse says that God placed the people of Israel in Succot, that the verse must be referring to something that God did.  Since the text never says that God built little huts for the people the verse must be considering another kind of shelter.


Rabbi Akiba seems to be taking the verse less literally.  He seems to be saying that the Exodus from Egypt created the situation in which the people had to reside in these booths for forty years.  So, what the text is saying is that “I placed you in a situation where you had to build these succot.


According to Rabbi Eliezer, a succah is supposed to make me feel appreciative that I have shelter, that I am nurtured and to remind me that there are forces out there that could leave me feeling helpless, impoverished and alone.  When we go out to the temporary dwelling we are acknowledging that the forces beyond our control have to be cooperative in order for us to have a life of plenty and meaning.  By going out to the succah we attempt to become intimate with those “clouds of glory”, acknowledging the limits of our power and the fragility of our lives.


Rabbi Akiba seems to say that the succah accentuates the role of human creativity.  Not that we passively acknowledge God’s role in providing, but that we are given situations in life that requires us to respond.  We honor the fact that we take whatever is thrown at us and that we as partners with the greater forces in history react with creativity and dignity.  We remember that we are able to improvise and be creative with flexibility in our wandering.  In life, we travel through time always capable of responding to new situations with appropriate solutions.  A stone house with solid foundations would not have made sense in the desert.  By recalling our response in the desert, we are emphasizing our role in making the most of our circumstances.


Between these two opinions lies great wisdom.  Sometimes at night when you look up to the succah’s roof you can get a feeling of being enveloped, embraced by a spirit of contentment as if the world has a plan for you but you may not know what it is.  So, in the spirit of Rabbi Eliezer,  you relate to the succah as a reminder of those clouds of glory which guided the people through the desert and the succah may become an opportunity for a prayerful moment.

But during the day we may see things the way Rabbi Akiba does.  When the weather may be just a little bit nippy, you may need to bring appropriate clothing, or have a thermos of hot soup handy in order to make your time in the succah pleasant.  The weather and the outdoors present challenges and in order to create opportunity, we have to respond.  One who lives outdoors, lives by their wits and that creative spirit is what makes our Jewish lives dynamic, creative and renewing.  We put ourselves in the succah as we choose how to reckon with the vagaries of the outdoors.

Either way, the festival gives us much to ponder and celebrate!