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Posts Tagged ‘rabbi’

Understanding God through Self-Exploration

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

One of the most timeless and thought provoking questions regarding religion is whether spirituality and religious study is primarily about self-knowledge or other-knowledge?

An old Chassidic teaching demonstrates the position that religion is, generally, first and foremost a search for the self:

A chassid came to visit his rebbi.

The rebbi asked the chassid: “Why have you come here?”

The chassid replied: “I have come to find God.”

The rebbi, with a twinkle in his eye, responded: “For that you didn’t have to come here, since God, Whose glory fills the entire earth, can be found everywhere in the world!”

Surprised by the rebbi’s reaction to his statement, the chassid asked: “Then why indeed do people come here to the rebbi?”

To which the rebbi answered quietly: “People come here to find themselves.”

As the Chasidic teaching illustrates, we often seek the guidance of religious leaders and texts to find ourselves. There is, of course, nothing wrong with gaining self-knowledge and growth, in fact this is beautiful, but we cannot lose sight of another important goal of religion: Other knowledge. What can we learn about the world? About God? About humanity?

Society (religion of course included) has markedly turned toward individualism. Many of the effects of this have been positive as it has increased a sense of autonomy, empowerment, and responsibility. However, a significant, and often overlooked, cost has been the loss of engagement with the Other.

One Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:9) demonstrates the extent to which we should be engaged with God and ideally focused:

R. Levi b. R. Hanina said: ‘For every single breath that a human being takes, he should offer praise to the Creator.’ What is the reason? Scripture says, “Let every soul (neshamah) praise God’ (Psalm 150:6)—let every breath (neshimah) praise God.

Of course many of us fall far short of this ideal. We are often too caught up in the mundane tasks and stresses of everyday life, and find it hard, if not impractical, to stop and thank God for every breath we take. However, let us now stop, for just a second, and give thanks to God, as this Midrash commands, for the gift of life and the blessings we have been given. Let us renew our search for God and begin anew our engagement and focus.

A beautiful idea in Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Maharan Essay 282) is that of judging others, finding the good in our brothers and sisters, and understanding the implications of our actions toward others:

Know! A person must judge everyone favorably. Even in the case of a complete sinner, one must search until one finds some point of good within that person. For the verse says: “With a little bit [of good], and the wicked will be no more” (Psalms 37:10). This verse refers to finding and exclusively focusing on the “little bit” of good which is found within everyone, including a complete sinner. By judging even a complete sinner favorably, one fulfills the end of this verse: “And the wicked will be no more.” Once you judge a sinner favorably you actually elevate the sinner to the side of holiness. This can help this person return to God. How is it possible that this sinner never once fulfilled a mitzvah or did something good throughout his entire life? Once a person does even one good deed, he becomes part of and attached to God, the source of all good.

Every person can sense how another person feels toward him. A person’s feelings toward another are broadcast loud and clear through verbal and non-verbal communication, intimations, body language, and gestures. Therefore, if one projects and transmits positive feelings toward another, the warmth and good attitude that one projects can be felt and can literally uplift the other person. Once a person feels uplifted and is imbued with a sense of self-worth and joy, this happy attitude could motivate a person to seek out God and return to Him. If one, however, projects negative feelings toward another, this could literally kill the other person and cause him to fall completely….

Imagine if we viewed others and interacted with others in such a fashion and how that would affect our own souls and the souls of those around us!

Pushing the Boundaries of Outreach

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

One of the most difficult challenges of the 21st century was made very clear by the recent Pew study on American Jews. The fact is that except for Orthodoxy – Jewry is shrinking. I need not go into the statistics. They have been discussed ad infinitum by just about everyone. The shrinkage is due to a combination of factors mostly having to do with the lack of any significant meaning attributed to Judaism by those devoid of a religious education. Young Jews even with the highest of ethical values see no value in the religion of their forefathers. They see themselves as ethical human beings – same as anyone else with ethical values. They see all religious ritual adding nothing to their sense of ethics.

The question arises – what do we do about that? As Orthodox Jews who understand the value of the Torah and the importance of following Halacha – how can we change this new secular Jewish paradigm?

There are those who would answer: Nothing! There is nothing we can do to significantly change the attrition away from Judaism the masses are undergoing… that there has been attrition one way or another in every generation. Although they might wish things were different, they say it is virtually impossible to influence the minds of the vast majority of Jews whose secular – even ethical values were formed by a society devoid of Torah.

They will therefore say that we Orthodox should instead turn inward and work on ourselves and that the future of Judaism rests with us. While I understand that mentality and would certainly agree that we all need to work on our ourselves – I strongly disagree that we ought to ignore the rest of Jewry. We are not talking about a few Jewish souls here. We are talking about the vast majority of them. Fully 90% of all American Jewry is not Orthodox. Are we simply to just write them off? I don’t think so.

Thankfully neither do all the outreach organizations. They have had much success in reaching out to our secular brethren. But it is still a drop in the bucket. We Orthodox remain only 10% of the total. We may be growing, but a lot of that is internal because of our higher birth rate. The amount of successful outreach is still relatively small.

One way to reach more people is by interdenominational interaction. The problem with that is that some of the greatest religious leaders of the 20th century – including Rav Soloveitchik – have forbidden doing that. They forbade religious interaction of any kind because it would grant them tacit recognition. We cannot be seen to recognize movements that legitimize heretical thought. I understand and appreciate that.

Which is why the actions of the well intentioned Yeshiva Chovevei Torah are so problematic. Outreach is what motivated them to host leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism at a round table discussion during the installation of their new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. That certainly does seem to legitimize them. Both in the eyes of the leaders themselves and in the eyes of those who attended the session. While I support YCT’s intentions, I believe they have crossed a line here. As much as I would love to see cooperation between the denominations towards the goal of outreach that we all share – it cannot be at the expense of undermining our theology.

I know that YCT argues that such interactions do not validate heterodox movements. But it is impossible for those who attend to not see it that way – watching them all discuss their religious views as equals at the same table.So even though I agree with their motives, I disagree with what they did. That leaves the problem unsolved.

But there are other ways that we can participate with them and at the same time not be seen to recognize them. One way was when Yosef Reinman, a right wing Orthodox Rabbi from Lakewood, co-wrote a book with Amiel Hirsch, a Reform rabbi he had befriended… and then went on a book tour with him.

He was immediately – roundly criticized by the Agudah Moetzes for violating the ban on interacting with heterodox rabbis. They asked him to stop the tour and withdraw his book. He acceded to their requests but lamented the fact that he was now impeded from making the inroads he had started making with Reform Jews he would have otherwise never met.

Sefer Torah Represents a First for Canadian City

Friday, October 4th, 2013

At first glance, it looked like any other community day in the park. Kids dabbled on arts-and-crafts projects while the adults mingled, enjoying refreshments on a nearby table as a band played in the background.

But a few details hinted that this Sept. 10 festival was unlike any other the city of Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada had ever seen—namely, the tent just off to the side, where a bearded gentleman sat with a quill in hand and a large Torah scroll open on a table before him.

The pomp and circumstance went hand in hand to mark the completion and dedication of a brand-new Torah scroll for the two-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch of the Okanagan, co-directed by Rabbi Shmuly and Fraidy Hecht.

“People were just flabbergasted, and so excited to have a Sefer Torah,” said Rabbi Hecht. “People in the community came over to me in tears telling me how happy they are living in this small town, and who would have ever thought we’d get to write our own Sefer Torah?”

Hecht noted that the date was chosen to recognize the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the passing of Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, mother of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Community member Stephen Cipes acknowledged the “great deal of support, merriment and gaiety” at the celebration. “It was very meaningful.”

Of some 117,000 residents in Kelowna, Hecht estimates that maybe 1,000 are Jewish. And while Kelowna is the largest city in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, how did this relatively quiet area—a full 4½-hour drive northeast of Vancouver—end up with its own Torah?

‘A Nice Coincidence’

According to Hecht, the story goes back several months ago to the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

For that holiday—held this year in mid-May and which commemorates G‑d’s giving of the Torah at Sinai—Hecht needed to borrow a Torah scroll from a synagogue in Vancouver, since Chabad Kelowna didn’t have one of its own. Having secured one, he then sent out invitations to the community to attend a lively holiday service.

Cipes, originally from New York, and his adult sons were among those who took the rabbi up on the invite. “It was a wonderful time we had,” recalled Cipes, adding that two of his sons were even honored with an aliyah, being called up to the Torah as it was read aloud.

After services, Cipes and his son Ezra went to talk to the rabbi. That’s when Stephen Cipes announced that he wanted to buy a Torah.

“I was just inspired, and I stood up and made the gesture spontaneously,” said Cipes. “I really didn’t even know we didn’t have a Torah,” he said, because one was present during the service. As for the timing—making a pledge to buy a scroll on the day Jews celebrate G‑d’s giving of the Torah—Cipes noted that it was a “nice coincidence.”

Hecht recalled telling Cipes after his announcement “how amazing it was that on the day of Shavuot when the Jewish people received the first Torah, how honored we are that on that day we received our first Torah.”

Given that it can cost between $20,000 and $60,000 to purchase a new Torah scroll, it is often not something most Chabad houses can do when they are first getting off the ground. (The cost is due to the meticulous work and significant time it takes for the sofer, the scribe, to compose the scroll.)

During the next few months, Hecht located a Torah scroll being written in Israel and arranged for Cipes to purchase it with a planned completion marked for the High Holidays.

The Torah they got, said Cipes, “is a piece of art. It is one of the most beautiful Torahs anyone’s ever seen … .”

And in that beautiful scroll, Cipes and other community members had a hand in physically helping to complete the final letters on that early September day in the park.

“Everyone got to do a letter from their Hebrew name, which was exciting,” said Hecht, noting that this Torah is believed to be the first ever written for Jews living in the Okanagan Valley.

Among those who wrote in the scroll was Chabad supporter Lesley Spiegel, who stood in for her husband, Timothy, who was on a plane at the time. Reflecting on that moment, Spiegel said, “Honestly, it happened so quickly that I had difficulty collecting my thoughts and trying to understand the scribe at the same time. When I thought about the whole experience later, I was very emotional. I have never seen a Torah up close!”

Kotel Rabbi Gives Up and Tells Haredi Girls: Ignore Women’s Minyan

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz has requested that Haredi girls not fill the women’s section of the Kotel plaza the next time the Women of the Wall arrive to pray, perhaps on Friday.

“When Jews fight with each other at the Western Wall, there is no greater desecration of God’s name,” a statement from his office read.

A fragile compromise on multidenominational prayer has been taking shape through a committee convened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and headed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

“Therefore we should await the decision of the committee, so that we can create order that will return calm and brotherhood to the Western Wall,” according to the rabbi’s statement.

The WoW may arrive to the area on Friday, the first of the two days marking the new Hebrew month of Cheshvan, although they have been granted their own prayer area at Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall but less popular among tourists and visitors than the section at the plaza.

WoW spokeswoman Shira Pruce told The Jewish Press Wednesday that the agreement to allow women to reads the Torch and pray at a minyan at a more remote area is a solution that smacks of “separate and unequal.” She said that the women are adopting a “wait and see” policy on whether to accept the compromise since the government has not yet built the promised facilities for the women.

Regardless of where they pray on Friday, they will be without a Torah scroll, which is read during the morning prayers on the new month, because their scroll has been damaged by mold. The Jewish Press reported here on Wednesday that the Women of the Wall blame the government for the damage because there are inadequate storage facilities at Robinson’s Arch.

Haredi girls have swarmed the women’s section of the Western Wall Plaza in recent months to make it almost impossible for the smaller WoW group to organize, let alone sing out loud.

Following raucous protests from the men’s section, whistles, catcalls and even chair-throwing, Rabbi Rabinowitz has concluded, although very belatedly, that a “provocation” could upset the “sensitive security situation at the Temple Mount, which is now at its zenith.”

The JTA contributed to this report.

Women of the Wall Blame Gov’t for Their Damaged Torah Scroll

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Women of the Wall now are blaming the government for inadequate storage for their Torah scroll that the group said sustained damaged due to dampness, making it unfit for reading.

Women will gather at the Robinson’s Arch at the Western Wall on Friday, the first of two days that mark the beginning of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, but they will pray without a Torah scroll.

After years of being banned by the police and the Western Wall rabbi from changing the status quo that preserves Orthodox Jewish tradition at the Western Wall (Kotel), authorities earlier this year finally arranged a compromise whereby the women can pray in their minyan and with a Torah scroll, but only at the Kotel’s southern section, known as Robinson’s Arch.

The women’s own Torah scroll is stored there, along with other scrolls that belong to the Conservative movement of Judaism, but it was lent out for use during the recent Jewish holidays and was found to be unfit to use because of mold.

“The Torah is being carefully cleaned and fixed by the leading authorities in Torah scroll repair and maintenance,” according to Women of the Wall spokeswoman Shira Pruce.

She placed the blame for the damage squarely on the government and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz. His “discrimination against women’s prayers and the lack of an appropriate immediate government response in the matter has cause damage to a Torah scroll, an escalation from the previous blatant disrespect, shown by Rabinowitz and Haredi protesters, of Jewish ritual items, including siddurim, prayer shawls and tefillin,” she said.

After being told about the damage to their scroll, The Women of the Wakkl notififed the Conservartive Movement to schek their scrolls to see if they aslo has been damaged, Pruce told The Jewish Press Wednesday.

Pruce unintentionally made a comment that raises an interesting question about whose ox is being gored.

In her argument that women should be allowed to pray in the women’s section of the main Western Wall Plaza, on the women’s side of a separation barrier, Pruce noted that men are not allowed in the Women of the Wall minyan. One primary reason is that there are many Orthodox Jewish women in the movement and they abide by the tradition that the sexes should not mingle during prayer.

Isn’t that discrimination against men? How can the Women of the Wall rightfully complain that Haredim are discriminating against them by barring them from the  more popular part of the Western Wall, while they discriminate against men who might want to join their minyan?

Pruce  answers that there is a difference. She argues that the main plaza is a public place and not a “synagogue” and that it must be open to everyone, regardless of sex.

Granted that there really is no reason to forbid the women form praying as they wish at the main part of Western Wall, except for their being a nuisance to other women who object to the whole concept of a women’s minyan and Torah reading.

Granted that Rabbi Rabinowitz should have kept quiet and let the women who object to WoW chase them our out, or simply let the Wow pray and as they wish and be done with it.

But if it is a public place open to all, and the Women of the Wall can keep men out of their minyan at Robinson’s Arch, what happens if a group of Muslims decide they want to pray to Allah at the Wall?

Or perhaps a bunch of Christians want to pray to “you know who” at the Kotel?

Or maybe some  “cultural Jewish cult” wants to express their faith in God by a belly dance?

Is it kosher to keep men out of a women-only minyan but not kosher for the authority over the Kotel to keep out women who do not respect  a centuries-old tradition?

Torah & Norman Solomon

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Having just celebrated Simchat Torah, the festival of the Torah, the question of its source and authority remains at the very center of our current religious debate. But it’s a minefield, quicksand that can consume and even destroy the best of minds. In all the years I have worked in the rabbinate I have come across many devoted, hardworking men, but very few of them have been innovative thinkers of any note. Whatever gifts they may have had as speakers or writers, they have almost all avoided tackling fundamental theological issues. Some out of fear for their jobs, others out of fear of their peers, and of course others simply had neither the inclination nor the training to question and challenge core beliefs. It may be that the demands of the rabbinate are so overwhelming that they afford insufficient time. The fact is that almost all the intellectually creative rabbis I have come across throughout the Jewish world have left the full time rabbinate, mainly for academia.

Indeed it is in academia nowadays that all the creative Orthodox Jewish thinking is taking place. One can now find Charedi academics working in Israeli universities on what hitherto were always regarded as heretical approaches to Torah. Synagogues and communities, on the other hand, are centers of conformity and socialization. They do of course fulfill a very important need. Most people come to synagogues precisely to reinforce their social identity and needs and not to be forced into the painful process of grappling with ideas of faith.

I have just read Norman Solomon’s Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. It is an important book for anyone grappling with traditional Judaism. And it calls to mind the great Louis Jacobs controversy that rocked and soured Anglo-Jewry for so long.

Louis Jacobs was a product of traditional Yeshivot and Kollels, a Jew who adhered strictly to halacha throughout his life, a gifted teacher, a caring pastoral rabbi and, his biggest fault if you could call it a fault, a painfully honest man. He was a man of such impeccable stature and religious integrity that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to give testimony at a court hearing in New York over the Rebbe’s library. In a small work, We Have Reason to Believe, he brought traditional sources to show how the idea that all of the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, was a complex idea, with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed could be, in modern philosophical terms. He was a senior lecturer at Jews College, a pulpit rabbi and a candidate to succeed Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi.

But appointing Chief Rabbis has always been a fraught, Machiavellian political process, as recent maneuverings perfectly illustrate. Louis Jacobs was blocked by an unholy alliance of envious, narrow-minded, and politically ambitious rabbis whose background was both anti-intellectual and fundamentalist. They needed an excuse to hound him out of contention for leadership of Anglo-Jewry, and they succeeded. The result was that he was treated immorally by the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry to his dying day, even being denied an aliyah at his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah under a much lauded Chief Rabbi who ought to have known better. One can think of no better example of the moral bankruptcy of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I myself was banned at one stage from contributing to an establishment publication called Leylah because I had written a sympathetic article about him.

Norman Solomon was a distinguished rabbi in the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox United Synagogue with whom I have had intermittent contact over the years and whom I admire and respect. We share a Cardiff connection, as well as Cambridge and philosophy. Intellectually rigorous, sensitive, and modest, he served major communities with distinction before retiring to academia. First he helped establish the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, which put him in the forefront of interfaith activity, and then he became fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a member of Wolfson College. Now, in the late stages of his career, he has tackled in public the very same issue that Louis Jacobs tried to deal with fifty years ago, but in greater depth and width.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of intellectual dishonesty and censorship in the Orthodox world that fundamentalism rules in the rabbinate. Only in academia can we find men like Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner, to name the best known, who are willing, from a position of committed Orthodoxy, to stand up and refuse to be deterred from examining honestly received ideas and showing how they are not simplistic clichés of belief but important, complex concepts that need more than superficial assent. Torah from Heaven stands with Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology as a seminal work that delves into the richness of our heritage to show that there is more than one way of looking at core religious ideas.

Catholicism reacted to the challenge of science in the nineteenth century by retreating behind the walls of certainty and dogma, insisting on papal infallibility. Orthodox Judaism has now adopted this mode. But I believe the easy access that modern technology and the internet gives us to the variety of texts and opinions that have existed in Judaism over thousands of years is taking the seals off the archives. The light shed will inevitably open minds and produce new approaches. The current battle over conscription in Israel gives the impression that the Charedi world in its entirety is set against secular education. But in reality, the interesting fact is that more and more Charedim are getting PhDs in Judaica nowadays, which means that new ideas are simmering within the fortress of Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology. I get really offended when zealots try to suggest that unless you believe a specific formulation of whatever, then you are “beyond the pale”. The Torah does not use the formulation, “You must believe,” which is a very Greek idea. Instead it posits certain fundamental assertions and leaves it up to us as to how we understand them. If God did not insist on a rigidly defined credo, why should we? If we want to retain critical, thinking, and open minds, we must offer intellectual rigor, not just religiously correct slogans. This book gives us a history of the issues and how different thinkers over the centuries have dealt with the challenges of the Torah. It is a major contribution. Thank you, Norman.

The Almighty’s Supreme Call to Man

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

It is the most famous, majestic and influential opening of any book in literature: “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” What is surpassingly strange is the way Rashi – most beloved of all Jewish commentators – begins his commentary:

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah should have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:1), “This month shall be to you the first of the months,” which was the first commandment given to Israel.

Can we really take this at face value? Did Rabbi Isaac, or for that matter Rashi, seriously suggest that the Book of books might have begun in the middle – a third of the way into Exodus? That it might have passed by in silence the creation of the universe – which is, after all, one of the fundamentals of Jewish faith?

Could we understand the history of Israel without its prehistory, the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their children? Could we have understood those narratives without knowing what preceded them: G-d’s repeated disappointment with Adam and Eve, Cain, the generation of the Flood, and the builders of the Tower of Babel?

The 50 chapters of Genesis, together with the opening of Exodus, are the source book of biblical faith. They are as near as we get to an exposition of the philosophy of Judaism. What then did Rabbi Isaac mean?

He meant something profound, which we often forget. To understand a book, we need to know to what genre it belongs. Is it history or legend, chronicle or myth? To what question is it an answer? A history book answers the question: what happened? A book of cosmology – be it science or myth – answers the question: how did it happen?

What Rabbi Isaac is telling us is that if we seek to understand the Torah, we must read it as Torah, which is to say: law, instruction, teaching, and guidance. Torah is an answer to the question: how shall we live? That is why he raises the question as to why it does not begin with the first command given to Israel.

Torah is not a book of history, even though it includes history. It is not a book of science, even though the first chapter of Genesis – as the 19th-century sociologist Max Weber pointed out – is the necessary prelude to science, because it represents the first time people saw the universe as the product of a single creative will – and therefore as intelligible rather than capricious and mysterious. It is, first and last, a book about how to live. Everything it contains – not only commandments but also narratives, including the narrative of creation itself – is there solely for the sake of ethical and spiritual instruction.

Jewish ethics is not confined to law. It includes virtues of character, general principles and role models. It is conveyed not only by commandments but also by narratives, telling us how particular individuals responded to specific situations.

It moves from the minutest details to the most majestic visions of the universe and our place within it. But it never deviates from its intense focus on these questions: What shall I do? How shall I live? What kind of person should I strive to become? It begins, in Genesis 1, with the most fundamental question of all. As the Psalm (8:4) puts it: “What is man that You are mindful of him?”

Pico della Mirandola’s 15th century Oration on the Dignity of Man was one of the turning points of Western civilization, the “manifesto” of the Italian Renaissance. In it he attributed the following declaration to G-d, addressing the first man:

 

We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

 

Homo sapiens, that unique synthesis of “dust of the earth” and breath of G-d, is unique among created beings in having no fixed essence – in being free to be what he or she chooses. Mirandola’s Oration was a break with the two dominant traditions of the Middle Ages: the Christian doctrine that human beings are irretrievably corrupt, tainted by original sin, and the Platonic idea that humanity is bounded by fixed forms.

It is also a strikingly Jewish account – almost identical with the one given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man: “The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world.” It is therefore with a frisson of recognition that we discover that Mirandola had a Jewish teacher, Rabbi Elijah ben Moses Delmedigo (1460-1497).

Born in Crete, Delmedigo was a Talmudic prodigy, appointed at a young age to be head of the yeshiva in Padua. At the same time he studied philosophy, in particular the work of Aristotle, Maimonides and Averroes. At 23, he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Padua. It was through this that he came to know Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who became both his student and his patron. Eventually, however, Delmedigo’s philosophical writings – especially his work Bechinat ha-Dat – became controversial. Other rabbis accused him of heresy. He had to leave Italy and return to Crete. He was much admired by Jews and Christians alike and, when he died young, many Christians as well as Jews attended his funeral.

This emphasis on choice, freedom and responsibility is one of the most distinctive features of Jewish thought. It is proclaimed in the first chapter of Genesis in the most subtle way. We are all familiar with its statement that G-d created man “in His image, after His likeness.” Seldom do we pause to reflect on the paradox. If there is one thing emphasized time and again in the Torah, it is that G-d has no image. “I will be what I will be,” He says to Moses when he asks Him His name.

Since G-d transcends nature – the fundamental point of Genesis 1 – then He is free, unbounded by nature’s laws. By creating human beings in His image, He gave us a similar freedom, thus creating the one being capable itself of being creative. The unprecedented account of G-d in the Torah’s opening chapter leads to an equally unprecedented view of the human person and our capacity for self-transformation.

The Renaissance, one of the high points of European civilization, eventually collapsed. A series of corrupt rulers and popes led to the Reformation, and to the quite different views of Luther and Calvin. It is fascinating to speculate what might have happened had it continued along the lines signalled by Mirandola. His late 15th century humanism was not secular but deeply religious.

As it is, the great truth of Genesis 1 remains. As the rabbis put it (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1; Sanhedrin 38a): “Why was man created last? In order to say, if he is worthy, all creation was made for you; but if he is unworthy, he is told, even a gnat preceded you.” The Torah remains G-d’s supreme call to humankind to freedom and creativity on the one hand and, on the other, to responsibility and restraint – becoming G-d’s partner in the work of creation.

Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/the-almightys-supreme-call-to-man/2013/09/25/

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