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December 4, 2016 / 4 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Berel Wein’

Airbrushing The Past Creates Problems In The Present

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

There is an old rabbinic anecdote about a rabbi who was called on to deliver a eulogy for someone who had no redeeming social value whatsoever. The rabbi was hard pressed to think of anything positive to say about this person. So when he spoke he solemnly pronounced: “No matter how evil the deceased truly was, he was still a far better person than was his brother!”

Halacha allows for exaggeration in delivering a eulogy. But when this is liberally and untruthfully applied to Jewish history it becomes a dangerous threat to normative Jewish life. One of the great problems that plague religious Jewish life in our times is that a fantasy world – a completely inaccurate picture of European Jewish life before World War II – has been propagated and hallowed.

Because of this distorted picture of the past, a distorted view of present Jewish society has taken hold. And it is this distorted view that is responsible for much of the current dysfunction in religious Jewish societies the world over.

There have been attempts to somehow correct our hindsight but, in the main, they have failed because of the determined opposition of zealots who perpetuate inaccuracies and constantly create new fantasy stories to buttress their ideologically driven view of past Jewish life.

I am not in favor of exposing all the flaws of European Jewry and I am also willing to accommodate the many exaggerations about the truly positive aspects of that pre-World War II society. But without a balanced and somewhat accurate portrayal of what that society really looked like, it will be difficult for our society to move forward in a positive and constructive fashion.

There was a time when people believed pictures never lied and that one picture was worth a thousand words.That unfortunately is no longer true. Computers, airbrushing and other modern means of altering photographs have made pictures from the past suspect.

There is a famous photograph of the Chofetz Chaim sitting outside of his house talking to his eldest son, Rabbi Aharon Leib Poupko. In the original photograph the wife and daughter of the Chofetz Chaim are standing directly behind him. This picture has been reproduced in a new and completely hagiographic biography of the Chofetz Chaim – except that the women in the picture have disappeared completely from the scene.

This premeditated inaccuracy was mandated by the desire to make the past somehow resemble the imagined world of the guardians of current political correctness in our religious world. Once, many years ago in Monsey, my congregation’s sisterhood sponsored the sale and distribution of a generic vegetarian cookbook of exotic recipes. The cookbook contained an illustration of a young boy who was bareheaded. The ladies spent the entire night covering the boy’s head with a magic marker yarmulke.

I am also reminded of pictures of famous Eastern European rabbis who were forced to take passport or other official photos in a bareheaded pose. Those photos were later retouched (not very artfully at that) to make them conform to present accepted piety. This probably falls between acceptable exaggeration and unacceptable inaccuracy but it is indicative of the spirit of our times.

The inaccuracies and fantasy portrayals of the Jewish past are but one of the many symptoms of what I feel to be the major underlying malaise in much of religious Jewish society. That underlying problem is the insecurity of religious Jewish society in facing the new Jewish world that now exists.

This world is one of modernity gone rampant, of communication that is instant and all-inclusive, of a Jewish state with all of the social, political, theological and religious challenges that such a state entails, and of a completely different economic and professional work environment than existed a century ago.

Frightened by these immense challenges, unaccustomed to being a distinct minority in the Jewish world itself, and having been forced on the defensive by the attacks of the secularists, the traditional Jewish world has been loath to engage these problems. It prefers to repaint and revisit the past instead of facing the present. It is frightened and regressive instead of being confident and optimistic.

This is truly ironic, for today’s Jewish society and its demographics have once again proven, seemingly against all odds, the resilience of Torah and tradition in all sections and climes of the Jewish world. As such our education should be geared toward self-pride and optimism, reality and how to cope in our current world. There should be less emphasis on denigrating others and fearing their ideas and less trepidation of technological advancements.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Parshas Vayikra: ‘The Call Of Humility’

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

In his classic work, Tending The Vineyard, my Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates the following vignette:

“At the time that my wife and I made aliyah, the Ministry of Interior required certification through the chief rabbinate that any new immigrants were Jews in order to qualify for citizenship and immigrant benefits. After an hour-long wait at the ministry to be interviewed, my wife and I sat before a hard-faced clerk. I did not have a letter from a rabbi certifying to my Jewishness, but I felt confident that since I was on the chief rabbinate’s list of approved rabbis whose letter would be accepted to verify the Jewishness of others, I would suffer no problem.

“Well, I was wrong. The clerk acknowledged that my name did appear on that august list of recognized rabbis but she sweetly said: ‘Simply because you are acceptable to say about others that they are Jewish does not necessarily mean that you are yourself Jewish.’

“This baffling piece of legal logic astounded me. I told my wife to continue sitting at this clerk’s booth and I hurried out and hailed a cab that delivered me to the house of a rabbinical friend of mine whose name was likewise on the approved list of rabbis. He wrote out a letter for me and I took the same cab back to the Interior Ministry. My poor wife was still sitting at the clerk’s booth as I breathlessly charged into the office and presented the letter to the clerk.

“The clerk smiled at us and said: ‘Now you’re Jewish!’ And so we were. Never underestimate the power of a letter written by a rabbi who is on the approved list of the Israeli chief rabbinate.”

Chumash Vayikra, also known as Toras Kohanim, is chiefly dedicated to the unique laws pertaining to the Kohanim and their daily Service in the Mishkan. It commences with a detailed account of the many laws endemic to the various offerings brought in the Mishkan.

Aside from animal offerings, there were also Mincha/flour offerings that could be offered. Although there were different types of Mincha offerings, flour and water were universal ingredients of every Mincha. Yet, the Torah warns that when the flour and water were mixed they could never be allowed to leaven or ferment. “Any meal-offering that you offer to G-d shall not be prepared leavened, for you shall not cause to go up in smoke from any leavening or any honey as a fire-offering to G-d” (Vayikra 2:11).

As we are all aware, there is another prohibition of chometz, during the days of Pesach. Throughout the rest of the year there is absolutely no prohibition to eat chometz, in fact bread plays a central role in many food-oriented mitzvos. But on Pesach the mere ownership of chometz becomes a serious transgression.

The austere prohibition against owning chometz on Pesach and offering chometz on the altar seems to be interconnected. What is the deeper idea behind that connection?

In order for bread to rise, leavening must take place, catalyzed by yeast or another leavening agent. As oxidation occurs, air pockets develop. Nothing is added to the dough, but it gets bigger, propelled upward by warm air. It is nothing more than the process of nature which causes dough to rise.

Our egos are compared to the yeast in dough. Our ego comprises our sense of self, which is vital to a healthy identity. It is our ego which propels us to accomplish and to grow. But at the same time our egos are always in danger of becoming inflated with “hot air.” This occurs when our sense of identity becomes befuddled, and we no longer appreciate our uniqueness. A false ego can persuade us that trivialities are hugely significant and we can easily be distracted from what truly matters. Just as a healthy ego helps us love, be compassionate, and sensitive to others, it also can cause us to become self-absorbed, envious, and hateful.

Matzah, which consists of nothing more than flour and water that has not been allowed to leaven, symbolizes self-negation before G-d. It is flat and contains nothing but the barest essentials, demonstrating that we are nothing without G-d.

Chometz, on the other hand, symbolizes our sense of identity and independent contribution. Ultimately G-d wanted us to exercise our free will to contribute to His world and bring His Presence into it. In that sense Chometz is not a negative force at all. In fact, it is the source of all accomplishment and positive action. However, when one becomes arrogant and forgets his place things can easily spiral out of control. He loses perspective of where his independence and achievements come from and he begins to take himself too seriously.

Rabbi Dani Staum

The Reason For The Silence

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

The terrible controversy regarding social issues that has been aroused in Israeli society by the despicable behavior of a fringe group of the haredi community is very sad. It seems that it is always the extremists that drive the agenda in all conflicts, both national and internal.

In my opinion there is absolutely no excuse, justification or religious principle that justifies such behavior. It demeans the Torah and its adherents and is absolutely counterproductive to Torah values and to the strengthening of a truly religious Jewish society.

The response to this wicked behavior by most of religious society in Israel, especially in the haredi world has varied from complete silence to tepid disavowal of the behavior of the group. Mostly, it results in a counterattack pointing out the obvious and far more serious deficiencies of secular Israeli society and then portrays all of haredi society as being systematically victimized by the media, the courts, the government and the majority Israeli society generally.

I am not here to defend any particular point of view or to cast aspersions at the sides in this current struggle. It is part of a 150-year long kulturkampf that unfortunately has not yet run its course. However, I feel there must be an understanding of the root causes of the continuing angst in the Jewish religious community in Israel and worldwide over all types of social and political issues.

The two seminal events of recent Jewish history are the Holocaust and the creation of of Israel. Both of these events, undeniable in their gravity and importance, have caused the religious Jewish world, individually and collectively, faith and theological problems.

To the non-believer for whom God never enters the equation, these two events are digested as being historical facts and little more. To the believing and observant Jew these events are very troubling. All attempts to “explain” the Holocaust have proven to be inadequate, logically or religiously. We are left only with faith in the God of Israel Whose Will is inscrutable. But that causes a certain amount of tension and frustration in our community of believers.

Because of the potential danger to faith that this issue poses, it is rarely discussed in our religious schools, its secular commemoration at the end of Nissan is shunned and it becomes the hidden elephant that is omnipresent in the room of our lives. The extremists in our midst even travel to Iran to support the current main Holocaust denier. And the general religious community, though abhorring such behavior, nevertheless again allows silence to be mainly its response since we are unable to explain, even to ourselves, why the Holocaust occurred.

What results is a subliminal rage within us that explodes periodically through the behavior of the extremists and the general community is silent because we are also consumed silently by that repressed rage.

How could a Jewish state come into existence and have staying powers if its leaders and fashioners were opposed to all Jewish traditional belief and Torah practice? This was one of the basic reasons for the opposition to practical Zionism by most of the Orthodox world prior to World War II. Even after the state came into being many great rabbis predicted it would not last.

One of the great leaders of the haredi world at that time told his followers that the state would only survive for fifteen years; perhaps fifty at the most. The haredi world has never felt Israel is its state. Mainly it feels that we religious Jews are still in exile, this time an exile imposed upon us by our fellow Jews.

What follows from that thinking is that the anti-state activities of the extremists, no matter how wrong, foolish and vicious, are greeted with either silence or muted criticism that soon turns into accusatory rhetoric against the representatives of the state.

The haredi community has bedecked itself with the comforting mantle of victimhood and is loath to remove that cloak from its shoulders. By not really being part of the state it avoids facing up to the fact that somehow, again, our inscrutable God has behaved not according to our logic and expectations and has somehow allowed our little state to exist and prosper well into its sixth decade.

It will take a major change of mindset in the religious world before we are able to face down the extremists and not merely be silent in the face of such desecration of the Torah and God’s holy name.

Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Our Mother’s Lessons

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

All societies survive through the retention of customs and traditions. If ritual law, halacha and Torah observance are the keystones of Jewish existence, the customs and traditions of Israel are the chain that has kept Israel bound to the Torah and its laws and values. The rabbis called the customs and traditions of Israel “the lessons of your mother” – in contrast and at the same time complementing “the teachings and disciplines of your father.”

Discipline and teachings are sometimes cold, harsh, demanding. Your mother’s lessons are warm, loving, comfortable and reassuring. Thus the relationship of the Jewish people to customs and traditions is a millennia-long romance. Infused with holy memories and meaningful vignettes and life’s wisdoms, customs and traditions have long been a dominant factor in Jewish life.

Customs evolve and many times are influenced by unknown and even non-Jewish sources. A people does not live in Spain for eight hundred years without becoming at least slightly Spanish in its customs and mores. The same is certainly true for central and eastern Europe (Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Hungary, Bohemia, Romania, Austria, etc.) Many customs that the Jews adopted in their long exile were not necessarily of Jewish origin. Yet over the ages, all customs that entered Jewish life, no matter what their original source may have been, were invested with authority and holiness – many times over the objections of the rabbis and sages of the time.

Customs had such a strong hold on Jewish behavior and lifestyle that Rabbi Yaakov Emden (eighteenth century) ruefully remarked that it was regrettable that the commandment not to steal was written in the Torah and was not a custom, for had it been a custom it would have wider acceptance and practice among the Jewish people. Thus the struggle between custom and halacha, between the sages of Israel and its masses, was and is a never-ending contest, and Jewish history attests that custom usually wins out.

The rabbis were willing to grant that custom takes precedence in monetary and commercial affairs, stating in essence that agreed-upon business custom is essentially halacha itself in that realm of human activity. However the main disputes concerned custom in ritual matters and prayer, Holiday and Shabbat laws, and the extent of rabbinic authority over the community and the masses.

An accepted principle that was adopted even in Talmudic times was that when there is considerable doubt and much dispute as to what the halacha actually is, the customs of the people in this matter will prevail. However, there were sages who stated that the customs that one should follow are only those that are stricter than the apparent halacha, but customs that introduce leniencies that the halacha did not countenance should be discarded.

However, both from the Talmud itself and from later works of the sages of Israel, it seems that customs that were essentially more lenient than the original halacha also had validity. Apparently this was in line with a Talmudic concept that there are times when the halacha itself is set as such and such, but nevertheless we do not teach it or follow it publicly. This flexibility relative to halacha and some of its decisions created the loophole through which custom marched and took hold in the Jewish world.

The upshot of all of this was that a certain consensus was reached regarding the relationship of custom and halacha. It may generally be stated that the consensus included the following rules: (1) When there was doubt as to what the actual original halacha is, then the custom will decide the matter; (2) when the matter does not really touch upon behavior that is forbidden or permitted, such as matters of blessings and prayer texts, then the custom even if not sanctioned by the prevailing rabbinic authorities is allowed to continue; (3) custom cannot prevail over established halacha in matters of Torah or Talmudic ritual law as to what is forbidden or permitted; and (4) when a major dispute exists among the halachic authorities as to what the halacha should be, the custom of the community or even the individual is valid.

In the later Middle Ages and early modern period, when the study of Zohar and Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world, many new kabbalistic customs entered Jewish life. Even those sages who opposed the widespread study of Kabbalah among the masses, nevertheless adopted kabbalistic customs in their communities. Naturally this was not without dissension and division within those communities. Even so, kabbalistic customs were widespread throughout Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.

Both Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulchan Aruch and Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his “tablecloth” (Mapa) glosses to the Shulchan Aruch included many customs, kabbalistic and non-kabbalistic, in their monumental and authoritative works. Thus custom itself was enshrined in the major halachic works that have ruled Jewish life ever since the sixteenth century. Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi, the seventeenth-century author of Nahalat Shiva, a well-known halachic work, attacked the concept of custom overruling halacha but apparently to little avail.

The rise of the eighteenth century chassidic movement, with its heavy emphasis on kabbalistic thought and mass practice, created many customs that were enshrined as obligatory behavior within the chassidic groups adopting these differing customs. Some customs such as the wearing of a ritual belt (gartel) during prayer services and other occasions became universal chassidic custom as did the change from strictly Ashkenazic ritual text of prayer to one that resembled Sephardic text.

Among Lithuanian Jews, many private customs of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, took public hold and were observed in synagogues and yeshivot. Some of those customs have become the accepted norm in today’s Jerusalem as well.

Even as late as the nineteenth century there were great rabbinic authorities who opposed the custom of kaparot – the slaughter of chickens before Yom Kippur – as being an expiation of one’s sins. Among Lithuanian Jews the superstitious custom was modified to giving coins to charity instead of slaughtering chickens. Nevertheless, the custom has persisted and even gained strength and followers especially in chassidic society, and the custom of kaparot with chickens is alive and well (though not for the chickens) in present-day Jerusalem even within “Lithuanian” society.

* * * * *
The line between custom and superstition is a very thin one and has often been crossed in Jewish history. In our day, the custom of wearing red strings to ward off the evil eye is quite prevalent. The origin of that custom is clearly not Jewish, it being part of Italian and Sicilian lore. Nevertheless it is certainly present in today’s Jewish society.

Perhaps the strongest and longest-lasting custom that has become a part of Ashkenazic Jewish life is that of the non-use of kitniyot on Pesach. This custom, which originated in the early Middle Ages, was apparently based upon the use of legumes to make a type of Pesach bread. The banning of the use of legumes stemmed from the confusion that might arise from people thinking that if bread made from rice, beans, peas, etc. was permissible, then bread made from oats, barley, rye, wheat and spelt was also somehow acceptable – these latter grains being pure chametz if not carefully and expeditiously turned into quick-baked matzah.

This custom is a very strong one and the rabbis over the ages have been very loath to relax its severity even in seemingly extraordinary circumstances. In fact the custom has expanded in our time to even include liquids derived from legumes and other such legume derivatives. The Sephardic world generally does not observe this custom of kitniyot, though there are some Sephardic communities that do not use rice on Pesach.

In our time, American corn, which was unknown to Europe and the Middle East until the eighteenth century, is also treated as being kitniyot. However, tea, coffee, sugar, garlic, cocoa, tobacco and other like ingredients are not considered to be kitniyot, though all of them were at one time or another discussed in rabbinic literature as perhaps being such. Among the masses, the custom to include garlic as being kitniyot was widespread even when rabbinic decision was almost unanimous that it not be considered so.


is one area where custom completely rules. The fact that the entire matter of kitniyot is absent from Sephardic Jewish communities only emphasizes the role of differing customs in different Jewish communities. Rabbinic wisdom decreed that instead of arguing over the efficacy of one custom over another differing one, each community should observe its customs and traditions. In cases of “mixed” marriages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, in the absence of agreement among the spouses as to which customs will prevail in the house, the usual practice is that the custom of the husband takes precedence.

Another contentious custom that exists in the Ashkenazic world regarding Pesach is that of the non-use of matzah-meal flour in conjunction with cooking and baking. This matter called “gebrokts” (literally, ground or broken matzah) was not widespread until the rise of chassidism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century eastern Europe. The non-chassidic Lithuanian Jewish world never adopted this custom and even the chassidic world allows gebrokts on the eighth day of Pesach in the Diaspora. This custom apparently arose from the chance the matzah would not be baked thoroughly enough and thus a kernel of grain would remain embedded in it. When the matzah was made wet in cooking, baking or dipping, that kernel would begin to ferment and could become chametz.

Since the prohibition against chametz on Pesach applies even to the minutest amount of grain, this custom took hold in the chassidic world and is observed by most Jews of eastern European background even today. Jews of Lithuanian descent do not observe the custom of gebrokts and this often leads to a certain disconnect within families where generations of eastern European Jews with these different customs have married each other and the question arises as to who eats or does not eat matzah balls and the like at the same meal.

There is nothing quite like being Jewish when matters of custom are involved. To the outsider the issues may appear to be slightly amusing. However, in my rabbinic experience I have witnessed that unfortunately these matters are deadly serious to those involved and can tear family bonds asunder. Therefore, even observance of custom requires good sense, tolerance and prioritizing values.

* * * * *
There is one area of Jewish law and life which is almost completely governed by custom and that is the subject of avelut – the procedures of grieving, mourning and consoling the bereaved. Since we are dealing with the dreaded unknown, death itself, it is understandable that custom should have a strong hold on the matter. Kabbalistic customs rule in these areas. For instance the covering of mirrors in the house of the mourner is a custom that has acquired almost universal acceptance, even in homes that sadly do not otherwise observe basic Jewish law and practice.

Death is spooky and when it comes to spooks even the most hardened rational intellect wavers. Visiting graves, placing stones on the monuments, reciting Kaddish in memory or in honor of the dead, the Yizkor service held four times in the year in the midst of Yom Tov prayer services, lighting yahrzeit lamps or candles to mark the anniversary of the death of a family member and other such death-related customs connected to grief and consolation are all fairly late arrivals in Jewish life, mostly unmentioned in records of biblical and Talmudic times.

Much has been written about the Jewish way of grieving and consolation, mostly based on the customs that now prevail. Most of these customs have become Jewish law and halacha itself and occupy great space and discussion in rabbinic writings and scholarly works. Jewish law discourages undue mourning over death. It is the way of God’s world. The customs of Israel in these matters are meant to ease the mourner back into normal life and routine and somehow begin to assuage the pain of the loss and death of a loved one.

In a broader sense one may see that tradition and customs have eased the terrible exile for Israel and helped us preserve our faith and family structure against overwhelmingly difficult odds.

This is also apparent in the ironclad “custom of our fathers that remains in our hands” to observe a second day of Yom Tov on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in the Diaspora. This observance was originally a matter of halacha, since there was real doubt as to which day was exactly the correct date of the holiday. However, with the establishment and acceptance of the calculations of the permanent Jewish calendar after the demise of the Sanhedrin in the fifth century, the doubts regarding the exact date of the holiday were seemingly removed. But the second day of the Diaspora holidays then morphed from absolute halacha into custom.

And the custom became as binding as the halacha itself had been. It was the “extra” day of the holidays that helped the Jewish people survive the long exile. Those movements that did away with the custom of the “second” day of the holiday soon found that their adherents had lost observance of the “first” day of the holidays as well.

* * * * *
The reformers and progressives among us have constantly underestimated the power of custom in the life of a society and a people, certainly in Jewish society and the people of Israel. The warmth and love of our mothers as represented by the customs and traditions of Israel are the mainstays of Jewish life even now in our land of Israel and its Jewish state and in a more favorable Diaspora atmosphere.
Jewish free thinkers and agnostics have mocked Jewish customs in every age and country of Jewish residence. Yet they have been unable to find any worthwhile substitute for the tradition and customs so much maligned by them, any other mechanism that would help ensure Jewish continuity and survival. Is it not perhaps that all of us have only one mother? And the one mother of Israel in this matter remains our sense of tradition and the customs developed over the ages to protect the Torah and enrich Jewish life.

Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997His latest book is “Patterns of Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Legends And Fantasies In Jewish Life

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Legends are necessary for nation building and community cohesiveness. Legends of holy and pious people and legends about villains and the wicked are often subject to fabrication and gross exaggeration, but they leave no doubt in the minds of later generations as to who was the holy and pious person and who was the villain.

Midrash is probably the main conveyor of legend to Jews as far as the biblical and Talmudic periods are concerned. However, there is a plethora of legends about great Jews throughout the centuries that exists in an oral and sometimes written fashion. The great rebbe of Kotzk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (Halperin), said the definitive word about all of these legends and stories: “He who believes all of these tales is a fool and yet he who states that they could not have occurred is a non-believer.”

Many times there are legends that contradict one another. This should not faze us, for again, each legend comes to emphasize a particular insight into an event or a personality trait of a great person and does not declare the statement it makes as fact.

Midrash is full of contradictory statements and opinions about the very same incident or person – but this in no way compromises the value of Midrash to us as a conduit of Jewish values and insights. It is only when Midrashand legends are taught as facts that these problems of contradictions and obvious exaggerations arise.

The Jewish people as a whole possess a strong collective memory. We remember leaving Egypt on a Thursday and standing at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah on Shabbat. We remember all of the glories of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem as we do the Babylonian exile and the story of Purim. Ezra and the Second Temple, the Hasmoneans and Herod as well are all stored in our genetic memory cells.

The events of the long exile and of our longing to return home to Zion and Jerusalem are a significant part of our memory bank. This memory bank has been fed by stories about great people, significant events and terrible tragedies that have occurred over the millennia of Jewish life. These legends, whether completely accurate or not, help us recall the core event about which they revolve and, in so doing, keep our memory of the past alive enabling us to deal so much better with our present situations and challenges. A people cannot survive for long having lost its memory.

Most of the secular Jewish world today suffers from this type of amnesia regarding its past. There was a Jewish people before 1897 and the Zionist movement, before the Holocaust and before 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel. Ignoring and ridiculing Jewish legend, even when one is seemingly historically or empirically correct in so doing, helps destroy accurate Jewish memory as well.

One must be careful to remove and differentiate legend from fact. But legend should nevertheless be retained, for it casts light and shadow, nuance and insight on the facts that we do know and have at hand. Facts are knowledge while legend often is pure inspiration. It is legend and Midrash that create sermons, dreams, goals and action in the Jewish world. It is legend that has contributed to the revival of Jewish life in individuals and communities over the past decades. Legend is to be treasured.

Nevertheless, the main problem with legend is that it is often translated into reality and fact and replaces the simple understanding of words and events that appear in the Torah. The Talmud was well aware of this tendency and therefore stated: “A verse in the Torah never loses its plain simple meaning.”

Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) in eleventh-century France, chided his grandfather for wandering too far away from this principle in his immortal commentary to Torah. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra struggled mightily to separate legend from fact in his Torah commentary. So did Don Yitzchak Abrabanel and Rabbi Ovadya Sforno.

Even in the Talmud there is strong criticism of “those who continually distort the plain meaning of the verse” and substitute legend for it. But as any pulpit rabbi having to deliver a sermon every Shabbat to his long-suffering congregation will tell you, it is the stuff of legend that piques the interest of an audience and captivates it.

So the quest for the perfect balance in this matter still continues in the pulpit, the classroom and in the works of commentary to Torah and Judaism. The Talmud has been eminently successful in achieving such a balance when discussing the past of Israel and its biblical heroes and leaders. It records everything, hides nothing and yet preserves legend as the essential understanding of the person and the situation.

* * * * *
There is an admonition in Judaism not to speak ill of the dead. There are also halachic restraints on what can be said about the living. Slander has a very broad definition in Judaism and thus even the “truth” is often prohibited from being said or printed in many circumstances.

All of this naturally creates somewhat of a vacuum regarding the true events and behavior patterns of the lives of famous people and then, inexorably, legend rushes in to fill that vacuum. Thus most biography in the religious world of Judaism is fanciful, hagiographic and laden with anecdotes and stories, some of which are too fantastic and incredible for even to the most na?ve to believe. Yet it is clear that the very existence of a legend can tell us something about the person. Two men once exchanged stories about a great sage for whom fantastic claims of spirituality and piety were being made. One asked, “Do you really believe that story?” The other replied, “No, I do not. But no one tells such stories about the two of us.”

Thus legend does in fact tend to be valuable in assessing the character and achievements of great figures of the Jewish past and present. Again, the caveat in all of this remains the ability to remember it is legend and not necessarily reality one is dealing with in such matters. And the Jewish penchant for legend is so strong that when books of true biography, warts and all, are written about great Jewish figures, these works usually face withering criticism if not outright bans in religious circles.

Many times legend becomes myth. Myth is a sense of human recognition that the story being told is not factual but it nevertheless changes legend from history or biography into literature and philosophy – sometimes sacred holy literature and philosophy.

For instance, there is an opinion in the Talmud that Job as a person never existed, and that the entire book of Job is an allegory introduced into the holy canon of the Bible to teach us the philosophy and worldview of Judaism on the subjects of reward and punishment, man’s travails on earth and the inscrutability of the divine will as reflected in our lives.

Myth is therefore much more philosophical than mere legend. It transcends this “real” world to discuss and teach values and insights that are eternal and almost never changing in the human existence. It provides the background lighting for our brief appearance on the stage of life.

Legend teaches us how to view others and events; myth is meant to teach us how to view ourselves. Legend is often only storytelling. Myth is a psychological counseling session. Great empires – Greece, Rome, China, Japan, Sweden, Germany, and Britain, among others – have been built upon the mythology of the founding tribe of that empire. This strong sense of the founding mythology has remained present, unfortunately often for evil purpose, throughout the centuries of these countries’ existence.

The Torah does not deal with myth per se. Yet the Flood and Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, the centrality of the land of Israel, factual as they all are in the biblical narrative, nevertheless were all combined to create a basis for the holy mythology of the Jewish people. In addition, the idea that the “events of the works and decisions of our founders, the fathers of Israel, are a sure guidepost for their descendants” helped strengthen a mythology that binds the Jewish generations together and gives us insights into the values of Judaism and historical events, past and present.

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There are many types of fantasies that exist in Jewish life. There is a natural tendency among all humans to be nostalgic about the past – “the good old days.” The truth of the matter is that “the good old days” may have been old but they rarely were good. Yet this fantasy is still today a major one in the Jewish world, especially in the religiously observant Jewish society.

The portrait of Jewish life that emerges from this oft repeated and taught fantasy is that Jewish life in eastern Europe, difficult as the physical conditions might have been, was spiritually wonderful and that Jews were somehow serene and happy in that time and place. Also part of the fantasy is that in Eastern Europe Torah study was rampant, the Torah scholar was honored and treasured by the community and that almost everyone was observant of Jewish law and halachic ritual.

This fantasy is not only false, it is terribly dangerous. It allows us to currently repeat the errors of the past that led to the secularization of the majority of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe and to the breakdown of rabbinic and Torah authority.

In the nineteenth century, Jews in Eastern Europe became assimilated. They became Marxists and revolutionaries, secular and agnostic if not even atheistic. By the 1930s, seventy percent of all Jewish children in Poland no longer attended Jewish schools of any kind. Urbanization took a tremendous toll on traditional Jewish lifestyle. Terrible working conditions and onerous work hours in the city’s factories destroyed the Sabbath for many. Child labor was common and unemployment in Jewish society reached astronomical figures. Poverty, disease and malnutrition were the lot of most of the Jewish masses. The educational system, the traditional cheder, the one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum and the students, all began to collapse of its own weight.

The breakdown of the traditional Jewish world in the twentieth century, of which the Holocaust was naturally a very strong and dominant contributing factor, nevertheless began in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. It was not a phenomenon caused by America or modern Israel, though that is where the results of this breakdown of Jewish life are currently playing out. And, therefore, portraying and perpetuating the fantasy of Eastern European Jewish life as idyllic is counterproductive to any attempts to build Torah Judaism today in America and Israel.

Other fantasies exist in the Jewish world. Superstitions abound. There are many charlatans who prey on innocent people. Selling fantasies is big business, and it is thriving. The fantasy that such pressing and dangerous problems as sexual deviancy, monetary cheating, criminal behavior, substance abuse, etc., cannot and do not exist in observant Jewish society is perpetuated, all real evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. People always prefer to whistle past the graveyard, and therefore this fantasy of perfection in our society persists.

There is a fantasy that alleged kabbalism-based healing exists and that therefore one should always pursue this type of alternative medicine. Prayer to God certainly helps and works but magical potions of holy water and other such fantasies are the stuff of the gullible and credulous, sold by the exploiters of other people’s troubles, usually for personal monetary gain.

Judaism is a very sophisticated faith. It does not lend itself to fantasies about things that are not real or beneficial. Yet superstitions exist because life itself is irrational and humans find it difficult to deal with. Therefore, fantasies are always with us and part of our psychological makeup. Some are very dangerous. Others are relatively benign. The rabbis of the Talmud always sought to dampen Jewish fantasies, even about the messianic era. But the pattern of recurring fantasies in Jewish life always reemerges in every generation and society. It is part of human nature – it may even be a necessary part – and Jews are no exception to the governing rules of human nature.

Then there exists in Jewish society outright falsifications about the past and the present. I mentioned earlier the falsification of the real situation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Eastern European Jewry. Stories and descriptions about people and events are made up of whole cloth. The ideas and philosophies of great people of the past are twisted to make them conform to modern political correctness in sections of Jewish society. Photographs are doctored, skullcaps are added or removed, unpleasant incidents are sanitized – all in the name of advancing the true faith as it is currently understood to be.

It is this tendency that makes falsification so dangerous for, by perverting history and biography, it robs us of the ability to truly learn valuable lessons from the past and from the great people who lived then. Truth has to win out eventually; it will always find its way, and the more falsifications piled on it only makes its eventual emergence more shocking and traumatic.

So again, separating the wheat from the chaff of Jewish history and biography has been an ongoing pattern throughout Jewish history. We find it in the Talmud and in all later works of Jewish scholarship. Just as the scholars of Israel throughout the ages have labored mightily to present us with a correct text of our holy books, free of emendations and copyist errors, so, too, there should continue to be an effort to present us with a record of Jewish history and biography free from purposeful or negligent falsifications.

We have a great deal to learn from the past. One of those lessons is that a false history is as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, no history at all.

Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997His latest book is “Patterns in Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/legends-and-fantasies-in-jewish-life/2011/07/07/

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