Sunday, February 1, 2015

8 The More You Know The Less You Know #70days70years

I am learning to remember there once lived a person named Gezela Lorinz nee Noilander. She was born in Oradea Mare, Romania, 1885 and died in Auschwitz, 1944, aged 59. May her memory be for a blessing.

by Rabbi Malcolm Hermon

You can read the essay by clicking on the title above. Here are my thoughts.

One summer when I was a student I went for a month to a summer camp in America. It was a camp for Jewish students to instill in them a measure of religious identity which they may have, until then, not achieved. What started out as a last chance to catch assimilated youth before they went out into the world, became the focus of Jewish education for many less-affiliated families. They saw this camp for one month one time, as all the Jewish education their children needed.

I, on the other hand, had been sent to Hebrew classes for six hours a week from the age of 6 until 12. I hated it, as most of us did. We got a basic Jewish knowledge and learned to read Hebrew but that was it. It was largely based on Bible stories which were told as stories suitable for 6 year olds and never evolved into something meaningful for young adults. No wonder so many of us rejected it.

In my teens, however, I enjoyed the social life of groups who were far more religiously dedicated than I or my family. By the time I left school I was mixing with students who had been in full time secondary education in religious schools and were heading for full time study in yeshiva for up to three years before going to university. I knew nothing compared to these friends.

I stayed with this crowd though, because it was a good and enjoyable way of life. I liked the lifestyle but I didn't get it how all these families could live totally committed to a life based on the fairy stories I had been taught.

I came to the American summer camp from the opposite direction from most of the other students. I wanted to hear the philosophy taught to intelligent college students who were not already brainwashed into the whole family and community package. I wanted to hear it fresh, without all the superstitious add-ons and without the guilt factor of dropping out. I wanted the bottom line.

The application process included a questionnaire in which you had to rate yourself on a scale of 1 (least) to 5 (most). When I came to the question about my Jewish knowledge I obviously circled the modest 2. I knew more than those who had chosen a completely secular lifestyle but in my religious community I was largely faking it.

When Dr Bruce Powell met me at LAX airport to drive me to the camp we talked about the questionnaire and he told me that this one question was the the most telling of all. In this one question he could almost guarantee that students who circle the 4 know way less than students who circle the 2. It's obvious really. If you grow up with little Jewish background in a home that doesn't practice religion except maybe a bit on Pesach (Passover) and Yom Kippur and you know how to read Hebrew a bit, that you're not supposed to work or drive on Shabbat, and that meat from pigs is forbidden, then you pretty much know everything right?

In today's reading Rabbi Herman describes the depths of Jewish learning. How the main tracts, starting with the Torah, came into being. Each book building on the studies that came before and fitting together to form the vast volumes that are still studied today.

I don't study these books. I hear bits of knowledge and wisdom retold around the dinner table when dining with those who do. I live in Jerusalem, my life is half in Hebrew, I am a traditional Jew who celebrates all the Jewish festivals and holy days, I have an M.A. in linguistics and language learning. On a scale of 1 to 5 my Jewish knowledge is a 2.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

7 No Surprises #70days70years

I am learning to remember there once lived a person named Gezela Lorinz nee Noilander. She was born in Oradea Mare, Romania, 1885 and died in Auschwitz, 1944, aged 59. May her memory be for a blessing.

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

To read the essay click on the title above. Here are my thoughts.

Rabbi Kahn tells the moving story of Rabbi Yisroel Zeev Gustman, a survivor of The Shoah and a living link to the lost Jewish world destroyed by the Nazis, and Professor Robert J (Yisrael) Aumann, Nobel Prize winner for economics.

Rabbi Gustman lost his baby son Meir in The Shoah. Professor Aumann's son Shlomo fell defending his country. Rabbi Kahn tells us how Rabbi Gustman lingered at the shiva of Shlomo Aumann, saying that he had not had the chance to sit shiva for his own son, Meir. He said that while Meir is in the congregation of the Holy Departed because he died for being a Jew, Shlomo is a leader of that congregation as he died defending other Jews.

There's more but skipping to the postscript, Rabbi Kahn tells us how he met Rabbi Gustman in the street one day and asked him to bless his young son who was sitting in his buggy. The surprising blessing was, "may he be a boy like all the other boys." In other words, may there be no big differences between him and all the other boys.

Many years ago when I was a single 20-something going to work every day and dreaming of exciting things in the future, I said to my friend Judy Ta'ir, "sometimes I get scared that this is it. Nothing is going to change and this is my life for the next 40 years."

Judy worked as a psychologist in Alyn Hospital - a world leader in pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation. She was at that time also the mother of a small child. Her reply to me was, "Rachel, I pray that nothing changes and that this is my life for the next 40 years."

I didn't understand her at the time. As I got older and wiser I understood it more. When I became a mother, I too started to pray for an ordinary life in which there are few changes. And I still do.

Friday, January 30, 2015

6 A Week Is A Week, Or Is It? #70day70years

I am learning to remember there once lived a person named Gezela Lorinz nee Noilander. She was born in Oradea Mare, Romania, 1885 and died in Auschwitz, 1944, aged 59. May her memory be for a blessing.

by Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein

You can read the essay by clicking on the title above. Here are my thoughts. 

I found the opening paragraph of this essay the most fascinating. The fact that the Western World still has seven-day weeks and celebrates the end of each one with a holiday. Rabbi Goldstein points out that every other cycle of time is measured according to the physics of the natural world. One year is the time it takes the earth to orbit the sun. A month is the cycle of the moon in relation to the position of the earth. And a day is one rotation of the earth on its own axis. Only a week is based on an ancient text that is not even followed by most of the people or cultures of our world.

In the past different lengths of week have been implemented in different countries and cultures. Indeed some Asian and African cultures still have a traditional calendar with different lengths of week, anything from 3 days to 10 days. 

As late as 1929 the USSR changed from a 7 day week to a 5 day week with different days off to maximize production. When this wasn't satisfactory as families could never enjoy the same day off together, they changed again, in 1931, to a 6 day week. This time they all had the same holiday whilst still getting rid of the undesirable religious Sunday. In 1940 the whole experiment was abandoned and they went back to 7 day weeks. It turned out that 5 working days was just not as efficient as 6 working days. 

From 1793 to 1802 and again for only 18 days in 1871, France experimented with the decimal week. It makes sense when you consider that all other measurements and numbers are based on the decimal system. But no sense when you still have 365 1/4 days in a year and between 28 and 31 days in a month with no decimal connection whatsoever. The experiment failed when workers complained that one day off in 10 was untenable, despite having every 5th day as a half holiday. It was also awkward for Christians who observed their sabbath on Sundays.  

The funniest weekly system, however, is the blocking timetable tried in some schools in the 1990s which led to chaos and confusion. As a solution to not enough periods in the week and lessons that are too short, a system of longer lessons with a 6 or 8 day cycle was introduced. This meant that, for example, any Monday was different from other Mondays depending on which day of the cycle fell on that Monday. You know that it's Monday but is it day 3 or day 7? And different year groups could be running on different cycles. So on Monday you might be teaching Year 1 on day 3 followed by Year 5 on day 4. 

It seems that 7 days is optimum. Bible or no Bible it seems 6 days of work, even if one of those days is working at home on the garden or your hobby, followed by a day of rest is what best suits human nature. 

Personally, I'm not interested in how you choose to celebrate your day of rest. There are rules and regulations for Jews but, seriously, it's the essence of the day that appeals to me. One day to step back and focus on your friends and family, with no rushing between appointments and obligations. One day in every 7 to unwind, relax, and regroup. Perfect. 


Thursday, January 29, 2015

5 The Sacrifice Of Sarah #70days70years

I am learning to remember there once lived a person named Gezela Lorinz nee Noilander. She was born in Oradea Mare, Romania, 1885 and died in Auschwitz, 1944, aged 59. May her memory be for a blessing.

Essay 5 #70days70years

by Rabbi Dov Lipman

You can read the essay bu clicking on the title above. Here are my thoughts. 

Abraham is held up as the pinnacle of everything that is good. He searched for and found the truth about the one God of creation and ruler of the universe. He rejected idol worship which he believed to be wrong. He was generous and hospitable to strangers. He followed God's words with blind faith and devotion. As our founding Father he ticks all the boxes. 

However, Abraham is eventually asked by God to sacrifice his son as a test of his obedience. And he is willing to do so. Growing up on Bible stories, I too thought this was the absolute most you could do to prove your love for the Almighty. Then, many years ago, I heard Rabbi Donniel Hartman lecture on the subject. Rabbi Hartman said, "what was he thinking of? As a father of young children myself (at that time) I would have refused. Sorry God, but that's one test too far for me."

This was a lightbulb moment for me. Either not everything we read in the Bible is right, or we are reading it the wrong way. 

As children we are taught that the loving God had no intention of making Abraham actually go through with the sacrifice so that's all right then. Except that when they returned home they found that Sarah had died of a broken heart. Yes, it might have been her time to go anyway. She was a very old woman after all. However, you can die contented or you can die in despair that your husband is about to kill your only child. 

Rabbi Lipman writes that the good and wise Abraham understood many things way before his time but he never got to grips with how God dealt with him. He went along with it anyway because he had faith. Rabbi Lipman suggests that the lesson here is physical human beings can never fully comprehend the ways of God but we should not waver from our spiritual journey just as Abraham accepted that he didn't know everything. 

But between them God and Abraham killed Sarah who died a sad and lonely death for no good reason. Maybe we should read this story as an example of what not to do? It's not so blasphemous to suggest that our forefathers made mistakes, it's human nature. If we are to regard the Bible as a manual on how to live our lives as well as a (loosely) historical document, we need to be able to recognise the mistakes as mistakes. We also need to give weight and validity to the experiences of the women. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

4 The Nazis #70days70years

I am learning to remember there once was a person named Gezela Lorinz nee Noilander. She was born in Oradea Mare, Romania, 1885 and died in Auschwitz, 1944, aged 59. May her memory be for a blessing.

Essay 4 #70day70years
by Professor Laurence Rees

You can read the essay by clicking on the title above. Here are my thoughts.

Professor Rees asks the question, how could a cultured society in the middle of the 20th century, participate in the biggest genocide of all time? How could ordinary people with ordinary jobs and families go along with the notion that murdering their neighbours, colleagues, and friends, and their children, was the right thing to do?

Interviewing Nazi war criminals years after they had retired from their jobs and had nothing to lose by telling the truth, Professor Rees was shocked to find that, unlike the men who served under Stalin for example, these men did not hide behind the excuse of following orders. They did not say they were brainwashed or they had to comply in order to save their own lives. They really believed that eliminating the Jews was the key to a peaceful and prosperous Germany in the future. They believed they were killing the root of all evil. They still believed it was the right thing to do. And they were not sorry.

In his book The Pity of It All, Amos Elon, "shows how a persecuted clan of cattle dealers and wandering peddlers was transformed into a stunningly successful community of writers, philosophers, scientists, tycoons, and activists." He goes on to trace, "how a small minority came to be perceived as a deadly threat to German national integrity." The pity of it all was that despite rising to the top echelons of everything and feeling as German as was possible to feel, these emancipated Jews were never more than tolerated.

A group of outsiders who loved German culture almost more than the Germans themselves, were an easy scapegoat for all of society's ills. This had been going on since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1848 so it was there for Hitler to use to his advantage. How much more immediate and effective it is to fight the enemy on your doorstep than against some mythical threat from across the seas. With brilliant propaganda engineered by Josef Goebbels, the Jews were blamed for the crushing defeat of WW1, the devastating Depression of the 1930s, and portrayed as the biggest obstacle to a brave, new, magnificent, Aryan future.

How many of us have reacted to something online with disgust and commented and shared without checking the facts? I've done it many times although I am learning to be more discerning. Just because it's in print it doesn't mean it's true. But how easy it is to contribute to a snowball effect of hatred based on misinformation. I hope we would stop short of murder but even adding our small flake of incitement could lead to something way beyond our powers of control. I shall think of what mindless believing and following led to in Nazi Germany next time I'm tempted to jump on a bandwagon of protest without checking out the facts for myself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

3 A Naughty Girl #70day70years

I am learning to remember there once lived a person named Gezela Lorinz nee Noilander. She was born in Oradea Mare, Romania, 1885 and died in Auschwitz, 1944, aged 59. May her memory be for a blessing.

by Sara Yoheved Rigler 

To read the essay, click on the title above. Here are my thoughts. 

If you believe in original sin or even if you don't but think you are essentially a bad person for some other reason or no reason at all, then it is impossible to repent. You can't change who you are so the most you could hope for would be faking good behaviour.

Sara Rigler writes that people who refuse to own their mistakes, their crimes, their sins, and instead give excuses why it wasn't their fault, are people who believe deep down that they are bad and worthless. Taking responsibility for their misdemeanors would be facing up to the [erroneous] fact that they are somehow rotten inside. 

In order to repent you need to believe that you are essentially a good person who has made mistakes, made bad decisions, and taken the wrong path. Why would God make bad people? You need to believe that you can atone for your crime and that you will come through the process in a position to try again and do better. Certainly you will not commit the same offense again if you have seriously repented. However, you also need to believe that you are able to go forward and do good in the world, be good in the world, otherwise what is the point of repentance?

How important it is, therefore, that children should grow up believing they are good. That when they are naughty, as all children are sometimes, it isn't because they are essentially bad but rather it was a bad choice of action. What incentive is there to behave well if you are actually a bad person? Not much.

It's not helpful to label a child as a naughty boy/girl. Even if you only mean it to be a reflection on one recent event and not an absolute truth, that may not be how the child takes it. How much more so a child with attention problems such as ADD, who desperately wants to be good but keeps being told that he/she is a naughty boy/girl. Eventually they will believe it and give up trying. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

2 Sprituality #70days70years

I am learning to remember there once lived a person called Gezela Lorinz nee Noilander. She was born in Oradea Mare, Romania, 1885 and died in Auschwitz, 1944, aged 59. May her memory be for a blessing.

by Rabbi Dr Abraham Twersky

You can read the essay by clicking on the title above. Here are my thoughts. 

If God made man in his own image then what was given uniquely to mankind and sets her apart from other animals is the spirit of mankind. Therefore it follows that if you put these unique gifts to good use you are being spiritual. As Rabbi Twerski points out, the biggest compliment Jews give each other is to say that someone is a mentsch. Literally a man, a human being, but used in the sense of being a gentleman. 

According to Rabbi Twerski, the unique features of our spirit are:
1. The capacity to think about our existence.
2. The capacity to volitionally improve ourselves.
3. The capacity to delay gratification. 
And 4. The capacity to reflect upon the consequences of our actions, how something will affect us and others in the future.

We read that if you do these four things over and above the call of duty, this is spirituality. However, Rabbi Twerski begins his essay by pointing out that in Judaism spirituality is not withdrawing from the real world, we are not encouraged to embrace asceticism, be hermits or live as monks. And yet, even in the real world with jobs, families, and a glass of wine, these features of the spirit seem somewhat self-centred. 

I remember learning in college that what sets man apart from other animals is communication. Before you start on about your expressive pet dog or horse, in the words of Bertrand Russell, "No matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor, but honest."

In our most prominent prayer, the Shema (translated below), we are instructed that God is unique and blessed, and you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. We are then given a set of instructions about what to do with these words. We should teach them to our children, speak of them at all times, and write them in prominent places where they can be read easily and frequently. In other words we should communicate. 

We are not commanded to reflect upon our existence or delay gratification. We are commanded to teach and communicate. I'm not just saying this because I'm a teacher. I believe that we are all teachers (an idea I learned from Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin back in 1988). To teach selflessly is to carry out the spirit and the word of God. To pass on your knowledge and skills, is the greatest gift you can give to the world. To do this with love and patience is, for me, spirituality.  

The Shema
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Blessed be His name for His glorious kingdom is forever and ever. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
What does spirituality mean to you?