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November 23, 2014 / 1 Kislev, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Naphtali Hoff’

Slow, Steady Growth

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

After three-plus years of economic challenge and uncertainty, we remain anxious for positive news, the kind that will finally let us believe the worst is fully behind us. Unfortunately, the outlook for the 2012 global economy remains uninspiring: recession in Europe, anemic growth in the U.S. and a sharp slowdown in China and other emerging-market economies all weigh on economist forecasts. Middle East turmoil means oil prices will likely remain high and continue to constrain global growth.

Even the news that the U.S. economy picked up speed at the end of 2011 – GDP grew at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the last quarter as businesses substantially built up their inventories and consumers increased their spending – could not lift investor spirits much. The news seems to fit neatly with the Federal Reserve’s lower outlook for the economy; it announced last week that it plans to keep the federal funds rate near zero until late 2014 because the recovery remains too slow to warrant higher interest rates.

While the recovery has taken much longer than originally hoped, most economists remain confident the worst is behind us. We remain in a slow pattern of growth, particularly in the U.S., and will need to continue to learn lessons from past errors as we seek to pull ourselves out of this fiscal morass.

Perhaps we can glean some additional insight into this process of decline and restoration from Tu B’Shevat, the traditional New Year for trees.

Tu B’Shevat draws our collective attention to nature’s inherent cycles of deterioration and growth. The botanical realm follows a steady, predictable pattern of budding and development, and, eventually, stagnation and decay, only to be followed again by a new period of advance and vitality.

History has shown that this cycle also applies to the human condition. On both a personal and national level, life is full of highs and lows, gains and losses, successes and failures. The Torah itself alludes to this symmetry between man and botany when it compares us to trees (Devarim 20:19).

While this cyclical aspect of nature is apparent throughout the year, it is most perceptible when one observes the extreme disparity between the seasons of winter and spring. Winter represents stagnation and unrealized potential, when all signs of growth lie hidden from sight. There are no external signs of development, no expressions of vitality.

Spring, on the other hand, symbolizes burgeoning vigor. Everything is new and exciting. Trees that have remained dormant for months start to show new signs of life. Buds begin to sprout, flowers start to open. Nature once again reveals its true beauty.

For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing bird has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. [Shir Hashirim 2:11-12]

This same contrast applies to human life. Circumstances sometimes force us into our own personal or collective “winter,” when struggles and challenges strip us of our innate vitality. There are other times in which we seemingly experience only joy and excitement in our lives. Everything points toward growth and accomplishment. We must realize, however, that there are two distinct ways for a person to approach the winter-like situations in his own life. The aforementioned contrast between winter and spring is only true if one views winter as the death-knell of summer. The beauty of the seasonal cycle, however, is that one can alternatively view winter as ushering in the upcoming spring. No matter what challenges a person faces, there are always better days awaiting him. Such a person knows no limitations, no dormancy. Life is a continuous cycle pointed in the direction of growth.

This is the message of Tu B’Shevat. In the middle of the winter, when everything around us seems so cold and bleak, think of spring. Eat fruit. Sing joyous tunes. Plant new trees. Always look for the good.

But the message goes one step further. Not only are we charged to maintain a continuously upbeat attitude regardless of our personal circumstances, we must also realize that those very circumstances are the ones that form the basis of our eventual success. The basis for our success, namely the trials and challenges we have had to overcome, is already in place. The only difference is that this foundation still lives in the realm of potential, hidden from the outside world. It takes the warmth of spring, literally and in our own lives, to allow that potential to blossom into its eventual reality (see Ramban’s commentary to Bereishis 22:1).

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for winter itself, choref, illustrates this exact point. Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that choref is related to the word charfi, which means dormant vigor. “As I was in the days of my winter [i.e. dormant vigor]” (Iyov 29:4). Winter here alludes to the days of a person’s youth, a time when his vast talents are waiting to emerge. It is a person’s “spring” that helps to bring those latent talents to the forefront.

The Meaning of Today’s 10th of Tevet Fast

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Asara B’Teves, the 10th of Teves, commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar that ultimately culminated with the First Temple’s destruction on the 9th of Av the following year.

Of course, Jewish residents of our holiest city have been no strangers to military sieges. One of the most famous was led by the Assyrian monarch Sancheirev against the Judean king Chizkiyahu and his small nation (recorded in II Chronicles 32), over a century before Nebuchadnezzar rose to power. This siege ended miraculously when Hashem orchestrated the sudden deaths of nearly the entire Assyrian army.

Other well-known sieges of Jerusalem include the Roman encirclement that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the one led by the emperor Hadrian and his leading general Julius Severus in 135 CE in response to the revolt of Bar Kochba.

Yet one of the saddest and most painful sieges in Jerusalem’s history was imposed not by a force of gentile invaders but rather by one group of Jews against another. The siege marked a climax in an internal struggle that had been raging for centuries within the Jewish nation, and would ultimately result in the destruction of our Holy Temple.

After the death of Yehuda Aristobulus (103 BCE), Alexander Yannai became king. Yannai was the son of Yochanan Hyrcanus, grandson of Shimon and great grandson of Matityahu. He would rule for twenty-seven years, until 76 BCE.

Following Aristobulus’s death, Yannai married his brother’s widow Shlomtzion through the process known as yibum, or levirate marriage. At the beginning of their marriage, Shlomtzion prevailed on her new husband to deal kindly with the Pharisees, who represented the majority of the Jewish people and were the guardians of the Torah-true tradition dating back to Sinai. Her brother, Shimon ben Shetach, was the leading sage of the time and Yannai conferred with him on both political and religious matters.

But this peaceful arrangement would not last for long, largely because of Pharisee disproval of Yannai’s territorial ambitions.

Over time, a sizable rift developed between Yannai and his people, one that would lead to violence, bloodshed, and civil war. Many sages were tortured and killed. Others were forced to seek refuge, either by fleeing the country or by going into hiding.

Taking advantage of this situation were the Sadducees. Using their close relationship with Yannai, they secured practically every significant political position for their party. Even the Sanhedrin came under their control, the result of which was numerous errors in judgment and practice. (The Sadducees lacked sufficient knowledge in Jewish law. Their insistence on a literal interpretation of the Torah further guaranteed these errors.)

The strain between the two sides remained palpable yet subdued. In 90 BCE, however, all of that would change. Yannai set out on another military campaign into Transjordan. After experiencing initial successes, Yannai was repelled in a battle against the Nabateans. Caught in an ambush, Yannai “was thrown down into a deep valley… and hardly escaped with his life” (Josephus, Antiquities).

Yannai and his forces fled back to Jerusalem. The news of Yannai’s setback resonated with the Pharisees. Sensing an opportunity to rid themselves of their oppressive ruler, they rose up in open rebellion against him.

* * * * *

The civil war that followed would last six painful and torturous years. All told, in excess of fifty thousand Jews died. As the war progressed, Yannai and his supporters seized the upper hand. In desperation, certain Pharisees struck a deal with Demetrius III of Syria, inviting him to invade Judah. Many Jews joined the Syrian forces. The year was 88 BCE.

Demetrius, whose army was nearly double in size compared to that of Yannai, soundly defeated his adversary in a battle near Shechem. Yannai and his remaining forces fled. Out of pity and concern for their fellow Jews, six thousand Jewish fighters who had been serving under Demetrius now switched sides, forcing the Syrians to leave the battlefield and return home.

The Pharisees hoped Yannai would reciprocate this display of good will with a new attitude of his own. If their rebellion had not impressed upon him the need to rule over them with justness and kindness, perhaps this gesture would. Sadly, Yannai refused to come to terms with his people.

Shlomtzion and Yannai had two sons together. Neither of them, however, was viewed as a suitable candidate to succeed Yannai.

The elder son, Hyrcanus II, was a quiet and private man. He lacked the natural leadership skills and personal drive to serve as leader. Temporarily, he assumed the office of high priest and was regarded as the eventual heir to the throne.

His younger brother, Aristobulus II, was of a vastly different temperament. He was bold, ambitious, and a fearless warrior. For those reasons, he, too, was deemed an inappropriate fit to succeed Yannai, and would be limited to a secondary role in governmental affairs.

Disputing, For God’s Sake

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

The twelve-member bipartisan congressional “super committee” on spending cuts formally conceded defeat late last month, after failing to reach common ground on the issues of tax increases and spending cuts.

 

Republicans vehemently opposed tax increases, particularly on the wealthiest Americans. Democrats refused to cut into federal retirement and health care benefits without such tax increases. Republicans want to permanently extend the Bush tax cuts that lowered individual rates and are due to run out at the end of 2012. Democrats want the tax cuts for the rich to expire.

 

Naturally, while each committee member had sworn solemnly to work together for the nation’s long-term economic wellbeing, it once again became clear that finger pointing and partisan territorialism would rule the day.

 

Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), told CBS: “It’s been enormously frustrating for me and for many of my colleagues. As I said, we’ve got 12 good people that worked hard on this. But on the other side, there was an insistence that we have a trillion-dollar tax increase. There was an unwillingness to cut any kind of spending at all unless there was a huge tax increase.”

 

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) told NBC that Republicans were not telling the truth about the talks. “I say to my Republican colleagues: we are here all day. We are ready to do $1.2 trillion, not less than it. That’s what we were told to do. That’s the law.”

 

Of course, this self-serving political jockeying raised the ire of the American people. “The failure of the super committee is not just a failure of 12 members of Congress, who I believe genuinely tried to cut a deal but were rebuffed by their party leaders. It is a failure of political leadership on both sides of the partisan aisle,” said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller.

“Both parties chose their own electoral livelihoods over the good of the country, and it is outright shameful…. This might be the most self-serving, mediocre and uncaring set of legislators in Congress in the last 50 years.”

 

According to Frank Newport, Gallup Poll editor-in-chief, the American people largely agree with Schiller’s view. “We gave Americans a choice: ‘Do you blame the Republicans more, Democrats more – or both equally?’ And 55 percent of Americans said: ‘We blame both equally.’ ”

 

He added: “[Most Americans] think the [super] committee should have compromised more…. Americans, by almost a two-to-one margin, said they should’ve compromised more to reach an agreement – even if they had to move in on their principles.”

 

The country, he said, is “very down on anything relating to Congress. Its overall approval in our Gallup update in November is 13 percent, which is tied for the lowest in our history here at Gallup. And almost any measure we put in front of people asking them about competence or trust in Congress and the legislative branch is at historic lows.”

 

What bothers so many Americans about the present congressional entanglement is not simply the fact that each side fundamentally opposes the other with regards to addressing our ailing economy and reducing the national deficit. Rather, it is the way they demonstrate their position, with a mocking contempt for the other side of the political aisle and an absolute unwillingness to engage in an open minded dialogue that might result in some form of breakthrough. It is as if their political agendas are more important than the nation they have been elected to serve.

 

Certainly the Jewish people are no strangers to this form of machlokes. We are familiar with the self-serving variety, and have observed how disagreements between sides result in chasms that far exceed the scope of the original feud. We have experienced machlokes on every level: ritualistic, ideological, philosophical, etc. and like the debates that have embroiled members of the super committee, many of these disagreements have remained unresolved, in some instances for decades, centuries and even longer.

 

However, there is another form of machlokes, one that is couched with the utmost respect and reverence, in which the common goal of the disagreeing parties is to clarify God’s word so that we can serve Him the way that He wants to be served. Such a machlokes is the kind we learn about in our Torah texts, and which fuels our own passion toward understanding and fulfilling our roles as Jews.

 

It should be noted that this latter form of machlokes, the kind that has become permanently entrenched in our holy texts as halachic or philosophical areas of dispute, was not always existent in Klal Yisrael. For many centuries following the giving of the Torah at Sinai, any potential machlokes was brought before a body of judicial scholars for a timely and final decision.

 

Previously, dissention was rare in Israel…. When a man needed to inquire about a particular matter he made his inquiry of the local court (of twenty-three judges)…. If its members knew the proper practice, they told him. If not, he, together with the most proficient judge of that court went to the court situated at the entrance to the Temple Mount. If its members had a relevant tradition, they stated it. If not, they together with the most expert judge of that higher court went to the court situated at the entrance to the Temple Court…. If the members of that highest court had a tradition on the matter, they stated it. If not, the three men proceeded to the Great Sanhedrin (of seventy-one judges) in the Chamber of Hewn Stone…. The inquiry was then put before them. If they knew the ruling, they stated it. If not, they decided the matter by vote…. From there the ruling spread throughout Israel. [Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b]

We Mourn And They Mourn

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

They rise early and we rise early. We rise early [to study] words of Torah, they rise early for wasteful things. We toil and they toil. We toil and receive reward, they toil and do not receive reward. We run and they run. We run to a life in the World to Come, they run to a pit of destruction. – Berachos 28b

The morning of November 8 (11 Cheshvan) was an unusual one for me. I had awakened early in preparation for a flight out of town to deliver a presentation at a teacher in-service program in the New York area. I scrolled through my inbox only to learn that Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Mir Jerusalem, had passed away hours before.

I was devastated by the news, as were so many others. An estimated 100,000 mourners attended the funeral. Many thousands more mourned – individually and collectively – throughout the world.

My relationship with the rosh yeshiva was not particularly close, at least by conventional measures. By the time I arrived at Mir in October 1993, the yeshiva boasted an enrollment of over three thousand students (a number that would double in the subsequent two decades). I had been studying in a smaller “American” yeshiva elsewhere in Jerusalem for the previous three years and was a bit overwhelmed to be making the transition to this citadel of Torah study.

I had decided that in order to make a place for myself in the yeshiva, I would do what I could to be in the main beis medrash as much as possible (at that time, securing a seat there for either of the two primary sedarim was nearly impossible). One commitment I made was to daven each morning with the yeshiva in the beis medrash, and to sit in the front.

Naturally, the front row was where the rosh yeshiva sat. But accessing his corner seat adjacent to the aron kodesh was not as simple as one would think. Each night, the cleaning crew serviced the beis medrash, which held many hundreds of wooden shtenders (lecterns). In order to clean the floors, the crew placed the shtenders on top of the benches and left them there overnight.

As you can imagine, the task of clearing this corner of the shtenders was not insignificant, particularly for an older gentleman who had suffered for years from a severe case of Parkinson’s disease. I took it upon myself to arrive early each morning to arrange the space so that the rosh yeshiva could sit comfortably.

I was humbled to have this opportunity to help the rosh yeshiva begin his day with a bit more comfort and ease. The rosh yeshiva expressed his appreciation each morning as I walked past him on my way out of the beis medrash. He even agreed to learn with me a few times b’chavrusa during Elul zman. It was an honor and a privilege I will never forget.

Rabbi Finkel was known for his unique combination of Talmudic erudition and gentility. Despite the ever-growing size of the yeshiva, his physical frailty and a challenging learning and travel schedule, the rosh yeshiva never made anyone feel as if he were an imposition. He warmly encouraged each student to approach him in conversation and to seek his counsel.

These were the thoughts that crossed my mind as I read the news of the rosh yeshiva’s passing.

But there was another thought that ran through my mind that day as I made my way to and from the conference. The night before, the world had lost an individual who had gained international fame in the late 1960s and 1970s: Joe Frazier, who went toe to toe in three epic battles against Muhammad Ali.

I had to do a lot of driving that day, to and from both airports. In the many hours I spent in the car, conversation on the radio centered on Frazier. And while he was widely extolled as a great person in addition to being a great fighter, I could not help but contrast their mourning to ours.

Even in his heyday, “Smokin’ Joe” impacted the world from a ringed-in space of no larger than 20 feet squared, and for no more than a few hours at a time. He was a man who had sacrificed his body, and perhaps his mind, to the art of beating another man into submission. For this contribution, he was being mourned throughout the world.

By sharp contrast, the Jewish people had just lost a Torah giant, a man who had also sacrificed his body for his craft. But the rosh yeshiva was a very different kind of champion, a champion of spirit who demonstrated, day after day, year after year, what true mesiras nefesh looks like and what Hashem truly demands from us. If he, racked with pain and convulsing routinely, could immerse himself fully in the study of Torah, how could we do any less?

From Half To Full

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

A recent article in The Jewish Week brought to light something that has been afflicting the Orthodox community for some time now: teenage texting on Shabbos. The practice is becoming increasingly prevalent, especially but in no way exclusively, among Modern Orthodox teens.

The article quoted Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, who maintains that teenage Shabbos texters are an open secret in their schools and social circles, operating just beyond the scope of most adults.

In fact, the practice has become so widespread that it has developed its own classification – “half Shabbos,” a term designed to reaffirm a person’s basic commitment to Shabbos observance other than texting.

Certainly there is no single factor responsible for this unfortunate phenomenon.

Peer acceptance and widespread participation play a definite role, as does the general enthusiasm teens have for texting. (According to Nielsen, the average U.S. teen now sends or receives an average of 2,899 text-messages per month).

For some, texting represents but one area in which their Shabbos observance is lacking.

Sadly, far too many teens no longer even see the need to keep such activity discreet. According to Miriam Shaviv, a columnist for the London Jewish Chronicle, Orthodox teens “openly discuss whether they keep ‘half-Shabbos’ or ‘full Shabbos.’ There is apparently no shame attached to this violation.”

Naturally, the primary discussion among parents and educators regarding teen texting on Shabbos has focused on how best to respond to such unchartered technological challenges that confront 21st century Orthodoxy.

Many correctly advocate inculcating in our young people a stronger appreciation for the beauty of Shabbos and a deeper appreciation of what it really is all about.

Others have chosen to focus their thoughts on addressing the addictive nature of texting, and helping their charges live a meaningful social existence without being so heavily cell-phone dependent.

Without doubt these are important strategies, and will hopefully go a long way toward addressing this basic Shabbos texting problem confronting our youth.

But perhaps it is not just our youth who struggle with the concept of half Shabbos, even if texting on our holiest day is not a significant issue for the adult population. I believe we would all benefit from a closer examination of the term our children have embraced.

Certain colloquialisms have become incorporated within the communal lexicon despite the fact that they fail to capture the true essence of the subject at hand. “Ba’al teshuvah” is one such example, by virtue of the fact that the subjects of that designation generally were not doing “teshuvah” per se when they embraced observance.

“Half Shabbos,” I believe, is another.

We all know there is no such thing as keeping “half” of Shabbos. Shabbos observance demands complete adherence to the many laws of the day; if one deliberately violates even one aspect, he is viewed as someone who desecrates Shabbos, plain and simple.

While I recognize that shemiras Shabbos can often be the result of a process that is achieved in stages (particularly for those who are new to mitzvah observance), it is not something one can partially “keep” for an indefinite period of time.

Nor should we be using terminology that implies Shabbos observance is something that can be practiced according to personal whim or fancy, as if the areas we fail to properly fulfill are somehow non-essential or extra credit.

“Half Shabbos” is a term that is better suited to describe the emphasis we typically place on the shamor (restrictive) aspects of Shabbos at the expense of the zachor. For too many of us, Shabbos is all about the don’ts – specifically, what to avoid and how to acceptably circumvent certain halachic roadblocks in order to enjoy ourselves as much as possible.

In contrast, too little emphasis is focused on the positive aspects of Shabbos – the serenity, the beauty, the reconnection with our Maker. In our frenetic world, where realities change and information pours in by the nanosecond, it is easy to understand why so many of our children view Shabbos as a boring and lonely experience rather than an invigorating and affirming one – and why they seek each other’s virtual company to keep themselves connected and engaged.

If we are to make “half Shabbos” become a truly “full” Shabbos for all of us, we need to understand the true goals of our day of rest. We need to appreciate the purpose of the restrictions so that we can transcend our base realities and acquire an aspect of the Divine that eludes us throughout the weekly rat race.

In Defense Of Traditional Matrimony

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Marriage is under assault again in this country, as fewer adults choose to tie the matrimonial knot while the Left continues to lend civil and economic credence to unions of same-sex partners.

According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of married adults in the U.S. has dropped steadily over the past few decades, from 72 percent in 1970 to around 54 percent last year. Part of that decline can be attributed to the delay in getting married, as people spend more time pursuing higher education and establishing themselves in their careers.

Additionally, a large component of this decline stems from the fact that many choose not to marry at all. And those who do are far less likely to remain wedded for the balance of their lives than in past decades.

In a recent CBS News poll, seven in ten Americans said the institution of marriage is weaker now than it was 20 years ago, despite the fact that research shows married people tend to live longer and are generally healthier, wealthier, and happier.

The reasons for this shift are many, including the sense that many of the traditional benefits” of marriage – companionship, financial security, the ability to have and raise children – can be achieved in today’s society without the so-called burdens of a longstanding relationship.

Of course, the question is not merely whether to wed or not to wed. In recent years, the question has increasingly centered on the fundamental definition of marriage as the civil union of a man and a woman.

To date, five states and the District of Columbia have approved gay marriage, while others permit civil unions of same-sex partners. Under pressure from the White House, the military recently repealed its longstanding policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

President Obama advanced the cause even further when he crossed into the judicial realm by announcing the Executive Branch would no longer oppose court challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, a 15-year-old law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages for purposes of taxes, social security and other programs. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, the law’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman is “unconstitutional.”

Naturally, the administration’s position, not to mention its timing, came under fierce attack. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, called the Justice Department’s decision to stop defending the law “the real politicization of the Justice Department,” lamenting that “the personal views of the president (can be made to) override the government’s duty to defend the law of the land.”

While politicians attacked the law largely for political considerations, organizations like the Agudah took exception to Obama’s decision on religious and moral grounds, calling it, among other things, “a provocative step toward undermining our nation’s traditional values and moral fiber.”

While one can certainly appreciate and unequivocally support the aforementioned position regarding same-sex marriage, one wonders why this issue regularly garners so much of our time and energy.

After all, in what sense does such legislation change the current reality? Certainly the absence of such legal backing has not served as much of a deterrent until now.

Further we live in a society that routinely flaunts norms and values wildly inconsistent with our Torah lifestyle. Why have our leaders seen fit to speak out publicly and repeatedly against this particular issue?

I believe the reason has nothing to do with attempting to impose any meaningful change on the status quo. Rather, it is because we maintain that recognizing and affirming same-sex marriage pose a fundamental threat to the very fabric of human society.

According to our tradition, non-Jews as well as Jews have found such anti-family conduct to be on a level of complete abhorrence, comparable to cannibalism.

Ulla said, [there] are thirty commandments [comprised in the seven Noachide precepts] which the sons of Noach took upon themselves, but they [only] observe three of them . They do not draw up a kesubah document for males, they do not weigh flesh of the dead in the market, and they respect the Torah.

[Chulin 92a-b] Obviously, this in no respect implies the nations of the world have historically abstained from homosexual practices. To the contrary, it was a central element of many ancient civilizations. Still, they stopped short of legitimizing their desires in the form of marriage.

Fighting Amalek From Within

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Hashem said to Moshe, “Write this for a memorial in a book, and recite it in the ears of Yehoshua; for I will completely erase the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Shemos 17:14).

For most of our history, the struggle between the Jewish people and Amalek was seen as an external one, pitting the world’s first (and for many centuries, only) monotheistic nation against one that vehemently and spitefully rejected our core values and beliefs.

Recent history, however, has told a different story. Over the past few centuries, our struggle with Amalek has become increasingly internalized within the psyche of our people, manifesting itself in the form of secularism and antipathy toward religion.

Jewish secularism has taken on a variety of forms. Some Jews have chosen to embrace only the cultural aspects of their heritage, expressing an identity based on shared values and historical experiences, while preserving their strong desire for an unfettered, humanistic lifestyle.

Secular Humanistic Jews understand Judaism as the human-centered history, culture, civilization, ethical values, and shared experience of the Jewish people. For us, the message of Jewish history is that we have the power and the responsibility to take control of our own lives. [Mission statement of the International Federation of Secularist Humanistic Jews]

Others, however, have acted more forcefully in their fight against God and their religious tradition. In his biographical study of Sigmund Freud, Yale historian Peter Gay explained that “it was as a particular kind of atheist, a Jewish atheist [italics mine], that Freud was enabled to make his momentous discoveries” (A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis, Yale University Press, 1989).

Gay’s identification of Freud as a uniquely “Jewish” atheist deserves attention. In what sense might a person’s Jewish heritage impact on his decision to choose a course of non-belief? Further, in what sense does “Jewish” atheism differ from traditional atheism, to the point where it can be credited with somehow impacting Freud in his professional work?

I believe the answer to these questions lies in the fact that no other atheist has more cause to experience such immense inner tension over renouncing his heritage as does one with Jewish lineage. For the Jew, belief in God is normal and expected, the basis of our identity and our unique place in history. To challenge God’s existence is to be at odds with one’s deeper sense of self and our national odyssey.

Freud was not simply a non-believer. He was an aggressive atheist, with, in his own words, an “absolutely negative attitude toward religion, in every form and dilution.” Freud branded religion “an illusion” and made repeated reference to his own lack of faith, as evidenced by his rhetorical question to the Swiss psychoanalyst and pastor Oskar Pfister, “Why did none of the devout create psychoanalysis? Why did one have to wait for a completely Godless Jew?”

Freud posited that it was psychological motives (particularly the feeling of helplessness regarding one’s surroundings) rather than firm spiritual convictions that formed the basis of religious impulses. He saw his mission to “awaken the world from the enchantment in which the magicians and priests had held it imprisoned since pagan antiquity.”

Freud’s anti-Jewish antagonism was so great that in his final work, Moses and Monotheism, published in 1939 on the eve of his death, he suggested that Moshe was not in fact a Jew but an Egyptian prince who rescued the Jews from Egypt and whom they subsequently killed. To Freud, the work was by no means a literary afterthought, an ancillary addendum to his great career. To the contrary – he was thoroughly obsessed with its publication. “Moses will not let go of my imagination. [He] torments me like an unlaid ghost.” (Dual Allegiance: Freud As a Modern Jew, Moshe Gresser, SUNY Press, 1984.)

The fact that Freud grappled with such a topic, and espoused such a twisted theory with no factual basis, is perplexing. Why publish an offensive book that flies in the face of everything sacred to the Jewish people at a time when Nazi militarism had engulfed Germany and Austria and threatened the safety of his Jewish brethren, as well as the peace of the entire European continent? In his final days, Freud was still trying to quell his irrepressible Jewish spirit that yearned to break free and find religious expression. Nobody talks so constantly about God as a person who insists He does not exist. It was an unending struggle, one Freud could never overcome no matter how hard he tried.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/fighting-amalek-from-within/2011/01/12/

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