Monday, December 31, 2007

A Haunting Mitzva

(Picture by Dixie Yid)

Standing at a bris recently, I recalled a halacha that has always troubled me since the first time I came across it. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 163:7 states,

"An infant who dies before circumcision is circumcised at the grave in order to remove the foreskin which is considered a disgrace to him, so he should not be buried with his foreskin which is considered a disgrace to him. No blessing is recited on this circumcision, but a name is given to him as a remembrance that mercy will be shown him from Heaven and he will be included in the resurrection of the dead, and that he then have sufficient understanding to recognize his father and mother."

When I imagine the mohel assigned to perform this task for the first time, I try to put myself in his place and think about the thoughts that must be going through his mind. Such an experience must undoubtedly leave a profound impression on the mohel and haunt him for days afterwards.

I then recalled a story about how the Baal Shem Tov once explained to a mother who lost her son before his bris that the reason why he had not survived was because he had already attained his soul correction; in less than eight days he had accomplished what sometimes takes others a lifetime to accomplish.

While I understand that ultimately the mohel is doing a chesed shel emes and also that there may be a "positive" story behind this seemingly negative event, I still can't help but think how haunting performing this mitzvah task must be.

22 Teves Links

(Picture courtesy of

Arutz-7: Intervention to Protect Rebbe Nachman's Tomb

Breslov World: Azamra

Rav David Bar-Hayim: Kosher cheeseburgers and the Temple

Life in Israel: No more Mi She'Beirach on Shabbos

Circus Tent: "Ich Bin Ein Kovler"

Jewish Ledger: Babe Ruth and the Holocaust

The Apter Rebbe's New Year

(Picture courtesy of

In the sefer Ohev Yisroel it is related on New Year's Day that the Apter Rebbe remarked that he knew it was going to be a good year for the Jewish people.

The Rebbe of Husiatyn explained that it is always possible that a kitrug (a Heavenly accusation) remains against the Jewish people following Rosh Hashana. However, when Hashem then witnesses the manner in which the rest of the world observes their new year, He concludes with certainty that the Jewish people are indeed worthy of a good year.

Even If

A book containing Hebrew writing is also considered a sacred object. This is true even if it is a secular book, or even a primer used to teach children the Hebrew alphabet. If such a book is lying before a person and he places his hand on it and makes an oath, the oath is binding. This is true even if he does not raise his hand.

(Me'am Lo'ez)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

An Interview With Yosef Karduner

(Click on the image above)

Black & White Picture Of The Week - Making Dinner

Friday, December 28, 2007

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Kosher Pigskin?

(Picture by Mark Hoffman)

I first really heard of professional football from my 6th grade Gemara rebbi (zichrono livrocha). If I remember correctly, we were learning perek Hashutfin (Bava Basra), and we were given hand-outs covering the various "kinyanim" (modes of taking possession), and which kinyanim are considered valid/invalid, etc. Next to each type of kinyan (or non-kinyan) there was a line or two describing it, with a picture (cut out of a sports magazine) of a football player in the process of that act and a short description. The top of the sheets said, "If you know your football rules, you know hilchos kinyanim." The class rebbi also promised a trip to a football game for the kids that would get an "A" on the major exam (sure enough, we got to go see the Miami Dolphins beat our local team). From then on, all through my school years, I always kept an eye on the football scores in the paper.

We had kids from many different backgrounds – many were not from religious homes – but they all liked his Gemara class. The rebbi would use sports references regularly and kept everyone involved – it was quite brilliant. Moreover, if the Dolphins (our rebbi's team of choice) would win on Sunday, we would get an extra 15 minutes tacked on to recess. It was an exciting year and (much to the chagrin of our rebbi) our local team actually ended up reaching the "Super bowl"… only to suffer humiliating defeat. I actually told a friend, "To love sports is to love G-d." But later, after moving to NY, I was to find out that this was not a commonly held view...

To most frum Jews professional sports is an anathema. Maybe they would agree that it's ok if it is used as a tool to involve more kids in learning, or to teach a class the types of kinyanim and their ramifications, but very few would maintain that outside of that specific use, there are any redeeming qualities. I don't know, maybe they're right…but I'm not sure.

One side argues: "Hakol, kol Yaakov; v'hayadaim, yedei Eisav." Sports is usually defined as midas Eisav, and improper for the Bnei Yaakov. In professional sports, they glorify people that are generally not refined and behavior that is perhaps violent, unspiritual, empty and not necessarily too virtuous. It can be an incredible waste of time and energy (and probably money as well), and runs counter to the values and goals we try to promote. Moreover, aside from the connection to the forbidden Greek arenas, the venues are generally filled with people reveling in coarse, extremely base, behavior – not to mention that it often overlaps into negative elements such as gambling, and is often considered a "gateway" to a decidedly unspiritual world…

Yet, the counter-argument runs along these lines: In many ways sports contains quite positive messages. Aside from the rule that there are no atheists at a ball game (just witness the amount of prayer that goes on when a football team is down 6 points with only time for one more play), we can find many metaphors for life: Loyalty, hard work, focus, goals, teamwork, overcoming great odds, pride in one's purpose, never giving up, unity, dedication, etc. From sports we can learn Hashgocha; we can see the value of the individual to the team and the team to the individual; we can see the value of doing things the right way; we can regularly see wondrous things – unbelievable displays of G-d given talent – not really any different than a masterpiece in a museum, a musical piece at a symphony, or an eagle soaring in the sky.

Moreover, sports – especially spectator sports – have helped create an environment that allows for more tolerance. I know that may sound bizarre, but in this country the fact that people invest great passion into their sports – a seemingly meaningless endeavor – means, in a way, that they don't invest those passions in some of the former great pastimes…persecuting others. A Giants fan may "hate" a Jets fan. A Yankee fan might "hate" a Red Sox fan; but how much blood is spilled? Does this really hurt anyone? Let's compare that to the good ol' days, when hatred was saved for use against those with other beliefs, other races or other groups of people. Just take this quote from sportswriter Rick Reilly: "Sports encourages good healthy hate. If I'm an Auburn fan, I can hate you, an Alabama fan, from the bottom of my hater, and it's all right. Who knows where all that hate would go without sports?"

Yes, I know, the question remains: What about us – what should be our view when it comes to spectator sports? Well, let's be clear: Bittul zman isn't a joke; we only have a little time on earth, so we must use it wisely. Also, it is obviously improper to act like animals, and we certainly don't want to emulate improper behavior. The life a Jew must be directed to G-dly pursuits. So, I don't encourage attending ball games, but I think they have their place. As long as it can be done in a "Jewish" way I don't see a problem with a father taking his son, or a rebbi taking his class, to a ball game. There should be thought about tznius concerns, language concerns, and even moshav leitzim concerns, but is it worse than many other forms of entertainment or pass-times? I don't think so.

Sports can be beneficial in many ways, and although there are objectionable matters that surround sports that should be avoided, I don't see anything inherently wrong with it. Nevertheless, there are far better things that we should be doing then, say, tuning in to the Super Bowl. Still, I thank G-d for sports. Sports helped me and my class through three years of Gemara back in elementary school. It was a uniting force in class, it gave us something harmless to talk about; it united the top of the class with the bottom, and it even gave us life lessons. And while I no longer lose sleep over who makes or misses the playoffs, I can't name many players, and I haven't been to a football game since 6th grade, I still glance at an occasional box score.

Ok, I know. I skipped the biggest objection, the one that I ran into in the Kosher cheeseburger issue: non-Jewish origins. With that issue in mind I would like to qualify my position: 1. I am an American kid from a small town and I was already exposed to things like this -- for those who have not been exposed, it is probably best to avoid it. 2. I don't want to impose interest in spectator sports on anyone, chas v'shalom. Really, more than anything else, I am milamed zchus for those who did, or do, have such interests.

"It Sounds Easier Than It Is"

(Picture courtesy of

Shovavim - Eating Suggestions

Used Properly...

(Picture courtesy of

There are, of course, responsible bloggers, in the Jewish realm as in others, writers who seek to share community news or ideas and observations with readers, and to post readers’ comments. Some explore concepts in Jewish thought and law, others focus on Jewish history and society.

Rabbi Avi Shafran: Blogistan

Saying Tehillim During Shovavim

וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַבָּאִים, מִצְרָיְמָה "And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt". From the sofei teivos of שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַבָּאִים, מִצְרָיְמָה one can find the word Tehillim. This alludes to the fact that the days of Shovavim are an especially auspicious time to say Tehillim.

(Divrei Yechezkel)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Question & Answer With Rabbi Dovid Sears - Tikkun HaKlali

A Simple Jew asks:

Hisbodedus provides a person with the opportunity to break out of the confines of a set liturgy and express himself in a unique and purely personal manner. Yet, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's prescription to say Tikkun HaKlali seems to do the opposite. I have found it incredibly difficult to recite Tikkun HaKlali on a regular basis and often just recite it at times of need or when I feel I have slipped.

Rabbi Dovid Sears answers:

Hisbodedus and things like Tikkun HaKlali (i.e., tikkunim in general) have very different purposes. Hisbodedus is a means of connection and dialogue with Hashem, as well as a way of spiritual transformation (see Likkutei Moharan I, 52 and II, 25 for the basics).

Tikkun HaKlali is a specific "remedy" for spiritual damage; expression of feelings is something one invests into the recitation of the words -- but despite the importance of the subjective element, it is only one aspect of the tikkun. These ten psalms are a remedy that was never revealed to the world previously. And the Rebbe warned us that it would be difficult to follow this simple piece of advice (Sichos HaRan 141). (I try to say it every day, in keeping with a common Breslover custom, but missed yesterday. And now you're asking me this question!)

Another point that is often overlooked: the "set liturgy" is not something that we are just "stuck with" according to Reb Nachman. He is not saying that he would like to drop davening from the siddur, but it is too late!

In fact, he devotes many lessons to the inyan of davening be-ko'ach, with powerful concentration and feeling, and with transcendence of ego (which he sometimes calls "be-mesirus nefesh., but that's what he means). These are all different ways of working through our inner darkness and entering the light.

A Simple Jew responds:

When saying the same 10 kapitlach of Tehillim each and every day, how are you able to bring a new vitality to your recitation of Tikkun HaKlali?

Rabbi Dovid Sears answers:

It is like davenning from the same Siddur each day. This is always a challenge. But if you go into the avodah with clear intention about what you are doing, this will imbue the words with life.

Another key is simple concentration: refusing to "bite the bait" of distracting thoughts and fantasies, and just doing what you are doing through and through. The truth is that past and future don't exist. Only the present exists (Sichos HaRan 409). When approached this way, saying Tehillim or davenning from a printed book is always new!

A Simple Jew responds:

As you noted above, Sichos HaRan 141 states that it may seem extremely easy to say just ten kapitlach of Tehillim but it is actually very difficult in practice. Do you think that what Rebbe Nachman was alluding to is the fact that while a person can certainly say all 10 kapitlach of Tehillim once or twice, he will find it very hard to keep a proper perspective of what he is accomplishing with each day's recitation and may easily slip to the point where he stops following this practice altogether?

Rabbi Dovid Sears answers:

I think we all have different maniyos, or obstacles, and as the Rebbe says, the greatest of them all is maniyos ha-mo'ach, mental obstacles. For one person, the problem may be you stated; for another, it might be just slowing down enough to find the time to say the words, even without so much presence of mind (which is still worthwhile, even if not the optimal way to say Tehillim). A person may have different obstacles to overcome at different times in his or her life. But the answer always goes back to being "A Simple Jew" and just doing what you have set out to do!

Shulchan Aruch HaRav

Continuing a conversation from earlier this year about the acceptance of Chayei Adam in the Chassidic world, I am curious to what degree non-Chabad Chassidim learn Shulchan Aruch HaRav today. Given the fact that it was the Maggid of Mezeritch who directed the Baal HaTanya to recodify the Shulchan Aruch, one would think that Shulchan Aruch HaRav would be the halacha sefer of choice for all Chassidim.

Guess Who? A Picture From The Family Album

Paris, 1948

Do you know who the man seated at the head of the table wearing the black beret is?

A Secondary Position

(Painting by Marek Yanai)

Being an avid reader with a philosophical bent, I searched for answers, but I couldn’t find ones that satisfied me, not from the modern writers who wrote in defense of the Torah, nor from the traditional commentators. My teachers didn’t have answers for me, nor did anyone else I asked. Eventually, I realized that no one around had the answers I was looking for. Then, out of sheer desperation I did something I thought was very daring.

Dixie Yid: Women from the Fall of Eve to the Full Redemption

18 Teves Links

(Picture by Shmuel Rosenberg)

Zchus Avos Yogen Aleinu: Bnei Yisaschor

Shturem: Nittel night at 770

Arutz-7: Shovavim

By Rote

Do not daven as if you were reading a letter.

(Talmud Yerushalmi - Berachos 4:4)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"My Advice Is This…"

The day after our three hour conversation, I called the Sudilkover Rebbe as directed to hear his specific advice for me.

The Rebbe prefaced his advice by saying that his advice was not his advice. It came directly from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's instruction to seek out one's good points in Likutey Moharan "Reish Peh Beis". The implementation plan that he prescribed to me, however, was his own. He told me that he wanted me to start this 40 day plan that very day and guaranteed that I would start seeing a real benefit from it within four to five days. He further stated that it was a wonderful way to develop my emuna and remarked, "I guarantee you will see miracles through doing this."

First, he told me to review Likutey Moharan #282 (Azamra) and to listen to the corresponding audio shiurim from Rabbi Nasan Maimon in order to obtain a fuller understanding of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's teaching (I also listened to Rabbi Lazer Brody's CD as well). The Rebbe then advised me to get a notebook and draw lines down the pages and divide them into three columns. In the first column, I was to record things that I did good that day; to include even small things like washing negel vasser in the morning upon arising. In the second column, I was to record the challenges and nisyonos that I experienced that day. This was to include things such as occurrences when I failed to maintain my composure and expressed my anger. Finally, in the third column I was to record examples of Hashem's chasadim (kindnesses) that I observed that day.

The Rebbe instructed to read what I had written down out loud before I said Krias Shema al HaMita each night. After doing this for forty days I would have a clearer picture of how I should proceed. He even mentioned that he too kept such a note book from time to time and said it might be something I may find that I will want to continue past the 40 day period.

Following my hour-long conversation with the Rebbe, I went right out and bought a notebook so I could begin that day.

My yetzer hara immediately started its barrage of arguments.

"How is writing down these things in a notebook really going to help you? And you will see results in four to five days??!!"

I knew better than to listen to my yetzer hara.

My mind then recalled that the Rebbe's advice also fit into another shtickel of Degel Machaneh Ephraim that we learned together. In the Likkutim section at the end of this sefer, the Degel wrote that one time his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, told him that if he would say the tefillos "Keil Rachum Shemecha" and "Aneinu" as he did, that he could quite literally be able to bring Moshiach.

The Sudilkover Rebbe explained that these prayers from Selichos are located at the end of the Selichos service and are very often rushed through in an attempt to finish. The Rebbe explained that the Baal Shem Tov was teaching his grandson that one should not treat these tefillos in such a haphazard manner but rather should understand that these tefillos represented the pinnacle of the Selichos davening; that the little things that we do have the potential to accomplishment unbelievable things if only we would believe in ourselves.

Little things like walking me to our meeting were not little in the Sudilkover Rebbe's eyes. When Chabakuk Elisha came to pick me up, the Rebbe thanked him. In his modesty, Chabakuk Elisha tried to brush it aside, but the Rebbe persisted to tell him what a great thing he had done and how much nachas he had brought him by escorting me. He stressed to Chabakuk Elisha that this was not just a little thing which lacked significance. Quite the contrary.

By identifying confidence/good points as the area where I needed improvement, the Rebbe had also zeroed in on advice that I received from co-workers in a recent 360-degree assessment. While noting that I was strongest in my ability to see other viewpoints and opinions, my co-workers noted that I was not forceful or confident enough. This was not news to me. For some people arrogance is something that they have to continually work on, however, it is definitely not so in my case. My father constantly ingrained the trait of humility into me from any early age with perhaps too much zeal and not enough confidence building. If anything, I now swing too far in the opposite direction and can be too self-effacing at times.

In order to return me to a proper equilibrium to follow the middle path, the Sudilkover Rebbe's plan was a pendulum swing in the opposite direction of self-effacement. It was exactly what I needed. Amazingly, as I followed the Rebbe's instructions, I started seeing results immediately. Each night my list of good points and the list of chasadim grew longer and longer and my list of challenges/nisyonos grew shorter and shorter. The process of having to be conscious each day to write something down made me stop and think at intervals throughout the day. What am I doing good today? What am I not doing good today? What are some examples of Hashem's kindness that I am aware of at this very minute?

Twenty days after I began keeping the notebook, I noticed that what I wrote in my good points column was three or four times longer than my entry from the first day. I began to become so aware of more and more good points each day that I needed to bring my notebook along with me to work so I would not be forced to remember them all at the end of the day when I got home.

Searching out Hashem's daily chasadim, I came to have an new awareness and renewed appreciation for numerous things such as my sight, hearing, smell, taste, and digestive system. I spoke to the Sudilkover Rebbe again about my observations, and he told me that as the days go on, that I would not just be able to note a few things, but I would be able to identify literally hundreds of acts of Hashem's kindness each day.

It was not long afterwards that I was able to see kindness in circumstances that others might have labeled as tzoros. Whether it was leaky pipes, a return of mice in my house, or my oldest daughter falling down and scaping and bruising her face, the first thing I did was thank Hashem for these things; knowing that it was tremendous act of kindness since each of these events could have all been much worse. Later, I even added these events to the "chasadim" column of my notebook.

Aside from these "negative" types of chasadim, I also became even more aware of the traditional "positive" types of chasadim and soon attained the ability to stop what I was doing at any given time and name a handful of them at that very moment.

My last insight into the whole 40 day process came during the final 10 days. The Sudilkover Rebbe's advice benefitted me greatly in the area of my davening. It was only then that I was able to really tie together the notebook advice, the concept of finding one's good points, and my davening.

In Likutey Moharan #282, Rebbe Nachman taught,

"The prayer leader is called the shaliach tzibbur, the messenger of the people, and he must be sent by the all the people. His job is to find and gather all the good points in each of the worshippers."

I asked myself, "If am not the shliach tzibbur today, how can I still gather up all my good points?" I then recalled another of Rebbe Nachman's directives, "You can crease and wrinkle my book any way you like when it comes to your own interpretations – as long as you don't violate a single paragraph of the Shulchan Aruch."

A little creasing, wrinkling, and hisbodedus provided me an answer.

Remembering the connection Rebbe Nachman made between davening and the hands, I decided to modify the bed time ritual that I wrote about here. Before davening each Shachris, Mincha, and Maariv, I used my right hand and counted out five new examples of Hashem's chasadim, and then counted out five new examples of my good points using my left hand.

Reb Noson wrote in Likutey Halachos, Hilchos Haskamas Haboker 1, "Discovering one's good points is the foundation of prayer." Indeed, I found that the more I discovered more of my good points and employed this new strategy, the easier it was to daven and to shake of any lethargy that sometimes tried to convince me otherwise.

Although the 40 day period came to an end on the 12th of Teves, I have continued this practice before davening and I continually seek to find more and more good points in myself and in others. As Reb Noson said,

"Each person's life is unique, but this teaching is universal; it applies at all times in life, in youth and old age. The lesson of Azamra can revive us. Happy are those who take it to heart."

In Fragmented Form

Peace is precious and vital, even when it is unattainable in its entirety. Therefore, one should strive to attain peace even partially, even in fragmented form. The main objective is to establish peace between people, between individuals and the community, and between nations.

(Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Question & Answer With "Believing Gentile" - The Chofetz Chaim In South East Asia

A Simple Jew asks:

As a Bas Noach living in South East Asia, how did you first learn about the Chofetz Chaim? Why do you feel so attached to his teachings?

"Believing Gentile" answers:

When the Internet came to where I live around the early 1990's, both my sons told me that now was the opportunity to seek teachings from the chosen people.

Years earlier, I had responded to my younger son saying that there was no way we would ever, ever be able to study from the Jewish people from here. I remember he told me then, "G-d only have them the Holy Scriptures so they are the only true teachers."

I forgot his words until the Internet came. What I had years earlier thought was impossible, Hashem made it possible.

I know its a miracle, a blessing from G-d, that I entered the Orthodox sites at my first search and entry.

I feel G-d brought me first to the Chofetz Chaim's teachings since controlling my speech is the area where I needed the most improvement. It is the most damaged part of myself that I needed to correct in order to draw nearer to G-d.

In my early years, I was taught that doing penance by saying "Hail Mary" and "Our Father" was enough to remove any sins, speech or otherwise. However, I have come to see that this belief is false. The words we speak don't just go away. They can sometimes cause untold harm.

I carry with me always a small portrait picture of the Chofetz Chaim, which my Torah tutor Reuven Ginat sent me by email, years ago, along with a picture of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. They are outstanding examples of our times and I seek protection for myself in their merits and strive to follow their teachings. Quoting from an article from Rabbi Dovid Sears on this site, "We may not be able to see with the eyes of the tzaddikim. But as we try to find our way through the confusions of this world, at least we should strive to heed their directions."

Keeping in mind the famous story of Reb Zusia of Anapol, I know that I am not expected to be at the Chofetz Chaim's level, but I know that I am answerable to the Seven Laws which G-d gave us believing Gentiles and which He gave us the capacity to fulfill.

May the merits of this great tzaddik, the Chofetz Chaim, protect my family and me from evil speech.


Three Times A Day

I heard the following parable from my master, the Baal Shem Tov:

A great king once announced that any request presented to him would be granted. Many people came with petitions, some asking for silver, some for gold, some for high positions.

But there was one wise man who made a very different request. He asked the king if he could have permission to speak to him three times a day.

The king was very pleased with this unusual request, seeing that this wise man valued conversation with the king even more than gold and riches. He therefore decreed that when this wise man would have access to the king, he would pass through and have access to all the king's treasuries, taking whatever he desired without restraint.

The parallel is obvious.

(Rebbe Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye)

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Photograph Surfaces

Among the things my aunt brought over this afternoon was this picture of my great-grandmother's brother. Instead of coming to the United States like his two sisters, he choose to leave Russia and go to Buenos Aires instead.

Cleaning out the closet of an older relative who just passed away in California, this picture was found along with some of his letters from the 1940's.

Guest Posting By A Spiritual Orphan - Without The Right Pedigree

(Picture courtesy of

I am a convert. For years my husband and I lived in an established Jewish community. Albeit not within walking distance for most folks. We lived about 3 or so miles from our shul. My husband would walk this on Shabbos and Yom Tov. We tried for a few years to move closer but could not afford the neighborhood. We did finally find one place, no heat, and no basement, wood of the structure sitting directly on the dirt, broken windows and us with two minimum wage jobs. We could only afford it if we took out one of those sub-prime loans we hear so much about now. After much soul searching we turned away from that house because the loan just seemed too ridiculous especially with a baby on the way and that house needing so much work. No, it was better to live in our apartment a little too far away.

When our first child was born we had her naming ceremony at our shul. When we inherited a house 240 miles away, we continued to make the long drive to go to shul on Yom Tovs and for special events. We would take extra days off of work to allow for the long drive up, get a hotel near shul, buy our food, stock up at the local grocer that had kosher food, etc. I drove the 240 miles each way, each month, for the mikvah.

Fast forward several years and we found out we were expecting a boy and hoped to have the Bris at “our shul”. We assumed our community of nearly a decade would not fail us. We drove up for the High Holidays as usual and my husband spoke to the Rabbi after Kol Nidre. He seemed visibly uncomfortable… why was he so uncomfortable?? Others who got a conversion with the same beis din as I, were accepted there (after time and careful observation)… Others from outside of town were accepted there…of course they always pledged big money, but still… My husband and I spent a very worried and sleepless night wondering what was going on. We had so many hopes and plans for our little boy. He did not deserve this.

Oh, Abba what have I done. I mean I can live with me not being ‘good enough’ or ‘Jewish enough’ or ‘pure enough’.. I am a big girl, and I am a convert. I am used to not being accepted. I am used to my ‘spiritual orphan baggage’, as I call it. But my children, please, oh please, accept my children. Being religious Jews is all they have known. As far as they know they are Jews through and through. Please don’t treat them this way. Don’t give them such a personal reason to leave Judaism behind one day.

The next day my husband spoke to our Rabbi again. This time all is good. ‘He has some ideas’ he said. “Call the shul after the holidays and I will give you some numbers.”

After the holidays we called and after a few days we got a call back with the name of a local mohel. ‘This is not the Mohel that they use. This is not the Mohel that we have seen at so many Bris there’ says my husband. “Why?? Why not give us his number? He has done a zillion of these, he is good.”

So we called the local Mohel. We were up front about my conversion. I still have my papers…I could fax them, I offer. No problem, no need, he would love to do it, he said. He would call our rabbi and work out all the details.

The next day we get a call from the same Mohel. He had spoken with our rabbi and now was not so sure things would work out. We should ‘call our Rabbi, he is a nice guy and has some options that we might be interested in.’

Options?? I thought we were all set??

So we call our Rabbi. In that phone call I am told how the Mohel was ‘not interested in doing the Bris.’ What?? He was fine with it… I am told that ‘perhaps he (the Rabbi) can find a mohel willing to do the bris for ‘the purposes of conversion’.’ I see…..

‘Tell me about your observance level’ I am asked by OUR Rabbi. You know the one who has known us for over 10 years. My husband is furious now.. He feels lied to, betrayed, humiliated. If he did not want to be a part of our sons Bris, he could just say so. Honesty we can respect, but this is not so much reeking of honesty.

As a convert I am kind of used to this kind of treatment. A convert is an orphan that is neither trusted by the Jewish world (because their pedigree is not right) nor trusted by the goyishe world (because they are different.) Fine I say, find us a mohel. Yes I can pay to have them flown in. We are talking about my little boy’s bris, here. Money is no object. Yes, I remember that I was laid off over the summer. Like I said, whatever the cost is fine.. This is important.

A week goes by, no call. Two weeks, no call. We check the email (maybe he lost our number.) We are getting mass emails from them asking for money, telling us about community happenings, but nothing else. We check the cell phone voice mails. Nothing. Three weeks go by and I am having the baby..still no call back. What do we do?? We have to make last minute arrangements. I am heart broken, completely and utterly heart broken. My sweet son did not deserve this. He deserved to have his bris with our community. My daughter deserves to still get to go to summer camp. I deserve to have a mikvah. My husband deserves to not be humiliated and lied to. But how can we show our face there now??

‘Oh you have a son’, I can imagine our community members saying, ‘when was the bris?” A loaded question to be sure…and how would we respond?

So now ‘our community’ is our ‘old community.’ I have no kosher mikvah to attend. We still look to move, but no longer look for a community of that denomination to move into.

So as I help my small children with their prayers, teach them to love our dear, sweet G-d as I do, remind them to say their brachas and grace after meals, home school them and cover my hair to go shopping, I am heartbroken, betrayed and furious. No wonder so many Jews who don’t have quite the right pedigree are lost… No wonder.

Iron Walls

When one davens at home, it is as if he is surrounded with walls of iron.

(Talmud Yerushalmi - Berachos 5:1)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Black & White Picture Of The Week - Morning Rain

Eizer L'Shabbos - Video From Chanuka Campaign

This movie is just a taste so you could see what your money does. Eizer L'Shabbos also distributes food packages every week before Shabbos.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Reclaiming More Minhagim

(Picture courtesy of

When I met Rabbi Lazer Brody for the first time in January 2005, he showed me the a common Ukrainian Chassidic finger winding minhag for the tefillin shel yad. This minhag was also shared by Breslov and involved winding the first circuit above the knuckle, the second circuit over the knuckle, and the third circuit over both the middle and ring finger. Up until this time, I had been using Chabad's finger winding minhag since I had learned it from a good friend who taught me how to put on tefillin when I was a teenager.

After my meeting with Rabbi Brody, I immediately started using this new finger winding and I also ordered a new pair of tefillin that Rabbi Brody personally wrote for me.

Later that year, Rabbi Dovid Sears posted a list of Breslov minhagim on his website which included some information about tefillin minhagim. Immediately, I noticed that it stated,

"The kesher shel rosh should be a double-dalet, which was the prevailing custom in the Ukraine. That is, the knot should look like a square, or a mem setuma with no space in the middle."

My new pair of tefillin, however, had a daled kesher since this is what Rabbi Brody, Rabbi Shalom Arush, and the Melitzer Rebbe use. I spoke with the Sudilkover Rebbe about this issue shortly afterwards on a few occasions and after Chanuka this year he told me that if I wanted to follow Sudilkov's minhag I should switch the knot of the tefillin shel rosh from a daled to a square. Once I got this green light, I immediately went out the next day and had the knot changed to a square knot.

The Sudilkover Rebbe also told me that the finger winding that I was using differed from Sudilkov's minhag. Because of his difficulty explaining Sudilkov's minhag over the phone in English, he suggested that I have Chabakuk Elisha call him so he could instruct him in Yiddish.

I am truly indebted to Chabakuk Elisha since not only did call, but he even went over to have the Rebbe show him first-hand exactly how to do it. Chabakuk Elisha then e-mailed me these instructions:

1) One circuit over the ma'abarta of the tefillin shel yad

2) One more circuit below the tefillin shel yad, but still above the elbow

3) Four circuits below the elbow (note: the first "half-wrap circuit" is considered and counted as a full circuit. Leaving a separation between the four and three coils conforms with the verse (Devarim 4:4):

וְאַתֶּם, הַדְּבֵקִים, בַּיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם--חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם, הַיּוֹם

4) After leaving a small space, three circuits and then diagonally across the wrist and hand

5) One circuit around the middle section of the middle finger

6) Two circuits around the lower section of the middle finger

7) One circuit around all three middle fingers (fingers 2, 3, and 4)

8) One circuit around the middle of the hand above the thumb

9) Make knot in the middle of the palm of the hand by tucking the remaining strap under bulk of the strap, pulling it over the top, and then pulling it back through and then inserting it sideways.

In order to ensure that I was following his instructions exactly, I had my wife take a picture of me performing each step. I then e-mailed these pictures to Chabakuk Elisha so he could verify that I was doing precisely what the Sudilkover Rebbe had instructed him.

After looking at the pictures that I sent him, Chabakuk Elisha told me that I was doing it 100% as he was instructed. Thanks to Chabakuk Elisha's kindness, I now put on tefillin according to the minhag of Sudilkov and hope to one day pass it along this minhag to my son.

An E-mail From My Mom

(Image courtesy of

Received via e-mail from my Mom:

The fellow that installed the new dishwasher broke a pipe. Water was at least contained to the kitchen. I had to call a plumber to fix it. Fortunately I found the shut off for the water outside the house. Had been shown before. The one installer said it couldn't be there because it said "electric" but they both were in the same place. That delayed things. The one installer was soaked because he was trying to hold back the water.

The two installers were Hispanic. Only one spoke to me directly. They both were accountable and said the money would come out of their pay checks. They were so nice and I felt bad for them. I checked with the plumber to see if it was just an old pipe, and he said, no, the installer broke it.

I talked with your dad and we decided not to ask for any money for the repair - especially being this time of year when they need money to buy presents for their families.

So everything is fine now and I had the plumber fix another pipe that was not totally secure.

I responded:

I am glad you got things under control and have to tell you how impressed I am and grateful that I have parents like the two of you. Your compassion for others is a model for others to emulate.

From Last December But Applicable Today

(Picture courtesy of


The Bedrock

Since emuna is the bedrock of the entire Torah, it follows that Shabbos holds the key to the Torah. For this reason, keeping Shabbos is equal to fulfilling all 613 mitzvos.

(Sefer HaChinuch #31)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Perennialism

(Picture by Elana Chaya)

Mystics from all sorts of times and places seem to describe similar things. Do you think there might be a universal mystical experience at the core of all religion?

I really have no idea. Some people who have had these experiences are convinced of this. I would like to know the answer with every fiber of my being -- but I’m still slogging my way through the reek!

As for the scholars who talk about this issue, I never studied comparative religion, and only picked up a little knowledge here and there, in the course of researching different topics and through dialogue with people of different backgrounds. But I know that the idea you mentioned is the basis of the view known as “mystical perennialism,” popularized by Alduos Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy” (which I read when I was still young and searching for a derekh). Nigel Wellings writes: “What characterizes Huxley's perennialism is the conviction that the single Truth of the perennial philosophy can be found at the heart of the mystical teachings of the world religious traditions”. The opposite view, called “constructionism,” contends that each religion and spiritual system is unique to its devotees in their specific culture and belief-system, and we can’t make facile equivalences. I once saw an essay that took this position by a brilliant academic named Steven Katz, who heads the Jewish studies department at Boston University.

First of all, for a frum person the study of other religions is a she’eiloh in halakhah. Because it can be a double-edged sword. For one person, it might be a way of finding the truth, while for another, it might be a way of becoming even more confused. (There may be heterim, though – ask your local Posek.)

In Rabbi Nachman’s story “The Master of Prayer,” he describes in mythic terms how the world became divided into different sects with divergent ideas about the meaning of life. One group chose happiness, another chose wealth, still another chose wisdom, etc. However, the Rebbe didn’t want to tell his followers any of the reasons behind the dogmas of these various groups, because they were so sophisticated that he knew that even his followers could be ensnared by them (see Likkutei Halakhos, Tefillah 4:2). Now, the Rebbe’s close talmidim were all great Torah scholars and ovdei Hashem, whose devotions were quite awesome. How much more so would this danger apply to people like ourselves!

The Rebbe states in Torah 64 that if a person’s emunah (faith) is strong enough, he can transcend the Chalal HaPanui, the “Vacated Space” that is the source of all erroneous ideas about reality. But it has to be very strong – emunah at the level of the Ohr Ein Sof, the Infinite Light. Then he is connected beyond the dualistic realm, then he can get through the spiritual Bermuda Triangle unscathed.

In another lesson, the last public teaching he delivered two and a half weeks before he passed away, the Rebbe described the stages by which the Final Redemption would unfold. Converts and baalei teshuvah begin to increase, then prophecy is restored, the Song of the Future World is sung / heard by all creatures, the holiness of Eretz Yisrael extends throughout the earth, etc. The last thing he mentions is the perfection of faith – because this is actually the highest level. Faith is not just where we begin, but where we end up. Until then, we can easily be misled. So we have to be careful.

The bottom line is the “mission statement” of A Simple Jew: “tamim tehiyeh, be simple!” All we have to do is follow the guidance of the awesome tzaddikim who paved the way for us: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the ARI zal, the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezeritch, Reb Pinchos Koretzer, the Kedushas Levi, the “ohr ha-oros” Reb Nachman, etc., They knew their way through these dark forests. If there is a universal core experience that we share with all religions and spiritual paths, G-d willing, in the zekhus and ko’ach of the tzaddikim, we’ll get there. And if not, we’ll still arrive wherever we truly belong.

Update From Uman

(Picture by Dimitriy Larin)

Received via e-mail from Rabbi Nasan Maimon:

It's been around a month since you wrote expressing your concern, sympathy and willingness to help resolve this latest flagrant miscarriage of justice being perpetrated against us in the Ukraine and we wanted to let you know what's been happening.

Since then we have been fortunate to have established a good relationship with a very influential Ukrainian businessman. This person was able to arrange a personal audience between us and the President of the Ukraine as his first stop during his recent visit to Israel. We were able to secure their word that they would do whatever is in their power (within the framework of the Ukrainian judicial system) to see that Rebbe Nachman's gravesite remains completely under our control. As of now the appeal that we submitted to reverse the court's latest decision has frozen all legal actions against us. But the case is still pending.

As of now besides our need for your continued good wishes and prayers, there is an urgent need for funds. The high legal costs are draining our already strained finances and many of our other vital services are suffering.

If you can offer any concrete assistance or know someone who can, please be in touch with me at: 972-(0)54-4862935 or via e-mail at

Donations can be sent to:

Breslov World Center
5 Meah She'arim Street
Jerusalem, ISRAEL

11 Teves Links

(Picture courtesy of צום עשרה בטבת

Treppenwitz: A line in the sand

Dixie Yid: Should a Talmid Chacham Hold a Grudge?

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz: Should We Keep Our At-Risk Child at Home?

Revach L'Neshama: Shema Yisroel in Modern Day Spain

Temunot: Yosef in the Pit

Included In Your Neighbor

How can we daven for someone to do teshuva? Are we not taught, "All is in the hand of heaven, except for the fear of heaven?" But Hashem includes all souls, and whatever is in the Whole is also in each part. Each soul therefore includes all other souls. When you yourself do teshuva, you can bring your neighbor to do teshuva. This is because you are included in your neighbor, and your neighbor is included in you.

(Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Non-Jewish Food?

(Picture courtesy of

It often amazes me the things that get people outraged… For example, look at the comments to this story about a restaurant that is now serving kosher cheeseburgers. From the comments decrying this item on the menu, you would think that this was a disaster of epic proportions. You would think they were talking about a serious issue in Klal Yisroel... I just don't get it. I guess it shouldn't be so surprising to me after all these years – maybe people are so afraid of the big issues out there that they focus on really silly stuff instead?

Now, let me state clearly that I am opposed to forcing anyone to eat this product. Under no conditions can I tolerate restaurants grabbing people off the street and stuffing cheeseburgers – kosher or otherwise – into their mouth. But, unless I missed something here, they don't make you eat it. So here's a free public service message to all the folks that don't like it:

"If you don't want it, don't buy it."

But here's the real question: Is there anything wrong with a kosher cheeseburger? And that's not the only question: Is there anything wrong with kosher sushi? Kosher (mock) bacon? Kosher (mock) shell-fish? How about kosher chinese food? Kosher Italian food? Kosher fast-food in general? Kosher Apple Pie? Kosher Ice Cream? Kosher anything other than kugel? Matza? What?

Throughout history Jews who kept kosher have eaten what was available in the countries that they lived. The key is simply that it must be kosher – and if it is, then it is. End of story. We eat, and have always eaten, many foods that come from non-Jewish origins – what's the problem here? Is the outrage limited to eating foods that "look" unkosher? Why? Frum Jews do countless things than can be said to look very similar to something "unkosher." Is Maaris Ayin the problem? I don't think a case can be made for Ma'aris Ayin in a clearly kosher restaurant. Is tayvos the problem? Well, if it is, I hate to break anyone's bubble, but the entire concept of eating out in a restaurant is really in the realm of tayvos – and folks that care about the curbing their tayvos, they try avoid even the most kosher looking food.

"Kadesh es atzmecha bemuttar lach (sanctify yourself by withdrawing from that which is permissible to you)" is a very important aspect and ideal for a religious Jew. I encourage everyone to work on it – but I never saw that we are supposed to impose a personal sensitivity on someone else. So, here's the deal: Instead of worrying about the ridiculous, why don't we worry about the problems that go on in regular – no fake cheese added – meat? Today, kosher shechita is full of bedieveds, and the tzaar baalei chaim issues are real halacha problems to be concerned with – maybe we can talk about that.

But seriously folks, kosher mock-cheeseburgers?

Our Middle Child

My wife recently read to me these words from the book she was reading. And just as they entered her heart, they entered mine as well. I then thought about our middle child - our three year-old son who also has a hard time staying in his room after we have put him to bed for the night; who is sandwiched between an older and a younger sister.

As a father who was an only child, perhaps I do not have the sensitivity to properly understand what it is like to be the middle child. Inevitably, I am stricter with him than I am with my two daughters. Maybe it is because he a boy, or maybe it is because of his size. Despite his age, he is physically the size of most four-year olds and I often mistakenly relate to him as such. My wife then reminds me that he is a big boy who just needs a lot of love.

I try to keep this in my mind at times when he refuses to clean up toys, when he plays with or refuses to eat his food, or when he runs laps around our house wildly. Lately, in davening I ask Hashem to give me an extra measure of patience when dealing with him and recall this teaching from Rebbetzin Yemima Mizrachi,

"If you are angry at someone, that is a sign that they urgently need your prayers. Our children make us angrier than anyone else can - because they are the people most in need of our prayers."

10 Teves Links

(Painting by Yefim Rudminsky)

Treppenwitz: An (almost) intimate breakfast for two מאות תלמידי תלמוד תורה 'ויזניץ'' נסעו להתפלל

Zchus Avos Yogen Aleinu: Pittsburgher Rebbe Reveals the Loftiest Kavana of the Mikva

Crawling to Uman: Wherever You Go, There You Are. מתפללים שעלו לקברו של יהושע בין נון

Zchus Avos Yogen Aleinu: Likutei Tefilos

Dixie Yid: "Gotta Bentch" or "Getta Bentch"?

Why Should One Honor His Father First Then His Mother?

Hashem knows that the average person will give more honor to his mother than his father. The mother spoils him and speaks to him gently, while the father corrects him, and if necessary punishes him. Therefore, when the Torah speaks of honor, it places the father first.

(Me'am Lo'ez)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Unknowingly Continued Down The Chain

(Picture courtesy of

Ever since I was young, I noticed that there was a certain unifying trait among relatives, both male and female, who were direct descendants from my great great-grandfather Yitzchok. This common trait was an uncanny propensity only to speak positively about other people and never speak negatively.

This is not to say that they were naive and were glossing over the hard reality of certain sometimes very difficult and trying times. They were keenly aware of what had happened yet chose not to dwell on the negative.

In the last days of her life, one of my great-aunts was informed of a horrible allegation about one of her sons. Despite the fact that this allegation was still uncorroborated, her other sons refused to speak to him. Yet, when I spoke to my great-aunt on the phone she never breathed a word of this to me during her lifetime. She would start off every phone conversation by telling me how wonderful each and every one of her children and grandchildren were. She spoke in such glowing terms that it is a wonder that Osama bin Laden never attempted to hire her as his press spokesperson. Interestingly, her characterizations of people often stood in stark contrast to those from another great aunt who had married into the family and would relate certain less than positive details when I asked her for genealogical information about our family.

My father is another perfect example of someone who never speaks negatively about others. Recently it came to light that his close friend of more 30 years had been living a secretive life. My father spoke with this person on a daily basis and had absolutely no clue that his friend was being less than honest with him. When this person finally cut ties with his wife, children, and his employer to go pursue his new life in another city my father was flabbergasted. Yet, when I spoke to my mother about it she said that my father never once bad mouthed his friend; only allowing himself to say that the situation was "unfortunate".

These two examples are perhaps extreme examples of this trait, yet a trait can only be proven to be solidly embedded if it holds up in extreme circumstances. Nevertheless, I can provide numerous other examples of where Yitzchok's descendants focused only on the good when others characterized them negatively.

I have often wondered why so many people in my family were so similar in this regard. Then it came to me instantly one morning two days after meeting the Sudilkover Rebbe. Yitzchok's descendants can trace their lineage back to the same shtetl as the Degel Machaneh Ephraim. And, as the Sudilkover Rebbe told me, the path of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim is to stay far away way from machlokes and to always concern oneself with promoting the ways of shalom in the world.

Somehow the Degel's teaching was unknowingly passed down to Yitzchok's descendants without them ever even having opened up his sefer.

9 Teves Links

(Picture by Wladyslaw Wojciechowski)

Zchus Avos Yogen Aleinu: Tenth of Teves - A Major Fast Day

A Waxing Wellspring: to rule is to be ruled

Breslov World: Reb Noson

Circus Tent: The Cheder Years (Part II)

Mitzvah Tantz - Bobov And Satmar

Not Like Any Other Dance

Taste Of Light

The Baal Shem Tov gave the following example:

A person comes into a store where they sell many types of delicacies and sweetmeats. The first thing that the storekeeper does is give him a sample of each kind, in order that the customer should have an idea what to buy. When he tastes it and sees how good it is, he wants to sample more. But the storekeeper says, "You have to pay for what you take. We do not give away anything for free."

The "free sample" is the Light that a person experiences when he begins to draw close to Hashem. Through this taste of light, he should subjugate all evil and bring it back to the good. This is the "free sample" that he is given, so that he will realize the taste of true davening. A taste of this remains after the light is withdrawn, so that he will know what to seek.

(Rebbe Yitzchok Isaac of Komarno)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Derech Eretz In The Cyber Age

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

If a person is where his thoughts are, in this cyber age have cellular phones and wireless communication devices prevented us from being where we are and living in the present?

Dixie Yid answers:

There are two ways that people can relate to one another. It can be "panim b'panim" or "achor b'achor," "face to face," or "back to back." As my rebbe explains, that means people can actually relate directly to each other (face to face) or they can be as far apart as two people standing back to back. When two people are standing back to back, they are further apart that they are from anybody else in the entire world. The entire circumference of the world separates them. Whereas when people are directly engaged with each other in a conversation, or the like, it is an actual connection between two people in a real way.

There's the famous vort on the pasuk where Hashem tells Moshe Rebbeinu in Shmos 24:12, "עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה--וֶהְיֵה-שָׁם." "Ascend Har Sinai and be there." Is it possible to be on Har Sinai but not be there? This implies, like A Simple Jew said, that one is where his thoughts are. If you are one place, and your mind is somewhere else, then you aren't really where your physical body is. The main thing is where your thoughts and attention are. (One can see this illustrated in this video).

So clearly, when one acts in a way that shows other people that he is not really present with them while he is talking with them, this is a major insult and an affront to their tzelem Elokim. When I'm talking to you, and I leave my bluetooth earpiece in my ear from my last conversation, it sends a message to you that basically says, "I may be talking to you now, but at any moment, I may get a phone call from someone else who I would rather talk to, so I have to stay ready with this phone in my ear." It also means that people don't always know when you are talking to them. You could begin talking to someone, but they don't pay any attention to you because they just assume you are on the phone with someone using your bluetooth.

If this is true with other people, then kal vachomer, how much the more so, it is true between us and Hashem. If you have your earpiece from your phone in your ear, while you're davening to Hashem, you're essentially telling the Master of the Universe, "Hope you don't mind, but I am expecting a very imporant phone call. Sorry!" Similarly, when people get on their Crackberries, I mean Blackberries, and check their e-mail, the latest sports scores, or do some Google search, it is telling the Ribbono Shel Olam, "I don't really want to be here right now, so I am thinking about and doing everything that I can besides davening."

A Simple Jew and I put together a few ideas for "Cyber-Derech Eretz" that you can find here. May Hashem help us truly be with the ones we are with, whether they are other people or Hashem Himself!

- If visiting another person's house, do not use your cellular phone or wireless communication device.

- Put your cellular phone or wireless communication device on vibrate.

- Don't wear a earpiece unless it is an absolute necessity. Remove earpiece at the end of the call.

- Don't use the cellular phone camera unless it is an absolute necessity

- Take of your sunglasses when speaking to another person.

- Do not leave your hands free device, still connected to the phone, hanging off of you, in plain sight.

- Take off your glove when shaking someone's hand.

- When you're talking to someone, and receive a call, even on vibrate, don't check the caller ID.

8 Teves Links

(Painting by Yefim Rudminsky)

Mystical Paths: Aliyah: You Have How Much Luggage??? Russian army gets 1st chief rabbi since 1917 revolution

סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב - Chassidus vs. Mussar

Excerpt from Vedibarta Bam:

One approach is "Sur mei'ra" - "Turn away from - i.e. abandon" - evil, and the other is "Asei tov" - "Do good." The philosophy of "Sur mei'ra" is to vehemently fight evil until it is eradicated. The policy of "Asei tov" is to accentuate and intensify the doing of good until the evil is overpowered and eventually dissipates by itself.

The study of Chassidut emphasizes the "Asei tov" approach, unlike Mussar - study of ethics - which follows the "Sur mei'ra" philosophy.

Without A Trace Flattery

When a person truly looks at the good side of others, he comes to love them deeply, without needing to rely on even a trace of flattery. For, concentrating on people's good aspects, which one always encounters, truly conceals all of the bad aspects.

(Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Black & White Picture Of The Week - Caught

Question & Answer With Andy McKee - Playing Guitar

A Simple Jew asks:

Watching videos of you playing guitar, I am absolutely mesmerized. Without any other musical accompaniment, you take an instrument and effortlessly unleash its song with such a passion. As a musician, to what degree do you feel like you are playing guitar and to what degree do you feel that it is playing you?

Andy McKee answers:

A good question! I find that the guitar is the easiest instrument for me to communicate with, so I am very grateful for having picked up the instrument when I was 13. I get a lot of my inspiration from using altered tunings on the guitar. Typically, I will tune it to an open chord voicing that I like and begin to from ideas from there. It keeps it very interesting. Imagine tuning a piano differently from it's standard! What if suddenly a C was an E. I like this sort of approach to composition and it helps me to try different things on the guitar.

So to answer your question, the guitar itself definitely helps me compose and be creative. If I had picked up a different instrument, I might be writing very different music.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Part III: Rabbi Nachman’s “HaNei’or BaLaylah / Awakening In The Night”

(Picture by Yaacov Kaszemacher)

Continued from Part II:

Basing his ideas on a Mishnah, Rabbi Nachman’s Likkutei Moharan I, 52 (“Awakening in the Night”), presents an overview of the main practice he taught his followers: hisbodedus -- literally, “seclusion,” but in this context a kind of improvisational prayer and self-examination, ideally conducted in the forests and fields or another natural setting at night.

First, the Mishnah: “Rabbi Chanina ben Chakhinai used to say: One who awakens in the night, and walks on an isolated path, and turns his heart to empty matters – behold, such a person forfeits his life” (Avos 3:4). The simple meaning is that if a person squanders his time and energy on vain pursuits instead of contributing to civilization, he loses his reason for existence.

While not disagreeing with this, Rabbi Nachman peremptorily turns Rabbi Chanina’s words inside-out and upside-down in order to teach us about the mystic’s quest. “One who awakens at night” is the intrepid Breslover Chassid who wants to practice hisbodedus / secluded meditation; “and walks on an isolated path” means that he heads for the countryside, away from human habitation, so that he won’t be affected by any of the thoughts and desires that still linger in the air; “and turns his heart to empty matters” means that he empties his heart of all negative traits; “such a person forfeits his life” means (by resorting to an elaborate word-play) that he becomes transformed from the state of a “Contingent Existent” to that of the “Necessary Existent” or “Essential Reality” -- which is Divinity.

Rabbi Nachman builds up to this point by asking how the materialist philosophers could come up with the idea of the eternity of matter – i.e., the mistaken assumption that the universe is a “Necessary Existent” – since even a false idea must begin with a grain of truth. In the course of explaining this mystery, he introduces the concept that by performing God’s will, the Jewish people become reabsorbed in the true “Necessary Existent,” which is God; and in so doing, restore all of the worlds and all elements of creation to the Divine Oneness, along with them. Thus far, the first half of the lesson.

“However,” Rabbi Nachman continues, “to attain this, to become reabsorbed in your Source – that is, to go back and become reintegrated within the Divine Oneness, which is the Necessary Existent – this can only be accomplished through bittul (nullification of ego). You must nullify the ego completely, until you become restored to the Divine Oneness. And it is impossible to come to a state of bittul except through hisbodedus…” Then he goes on to explain what hisbodedus is all about; how the spiritual seeker must get away from the world in order to commune with God, and in the course of hisbodedus work on each negative trait, one after the next, until he reaches the subtlest root of ego – and this, too, can be removed through hisbodedus. Upon achieving bittul, one immediately experiences the Essence of Reality, which is the Divine Unity.

Although their methods are different, Rabbi Nachman’s hisbodedus and Buddhist meditation share similar goals. Both intend to deconstruct illusory mental structures in order to reveal a transpersonal reality of an incomparably higher order of truth.

However, we must remember at which point in his lesson Rabbi Nachman turned off the “main road” to discuss the practice of hisbodedus: right after declaring the necessity of our performing God’s will. This remains our primary responsibility in this world. The attainment of self-nullification in the stillness of the fields through hisbodedus must be combined with performing the mitzvos – with bittul.

I once read that a contemporary Zen Roshi met a prominent figure in the Jewish Renewal movement, and asked what he should teach his Jewish students. The Jewish teacher replied, “Show them how to put on Tefillin in a Zen way.” This actually accords with Rabbi Nachman’s lesson -- if the “Zen way” corresponds to the bittul ha-yesh that is the goal of hisbodedus.

When it comes to self-nullification, there seems to be an overlap between the two paths. However, upon examining Rabbi Nachman’s lesson carefully, we also find two key differences:

1. The Mechuyav HaMetziyus / “Imperative Existent” of Judaism is not only the Buddhist “Ground of Being,” but the God of revelation Who, through the mystery of prophecy, gave Israel the Torah. God not only exists and creates, but commands and claims. Thus, much of Judaism is about service, instead of meditative absorption.

2. The primary task of Israel is to perform the commandments, which are God-given, and which in both a practical and mystical sense refine and transform creation.

It is true that Mahayana Buddhism in particular has a “this-worldly” side in its ethic of seeking the benefit of all beings (i.e., the Bodhisattva Vow). But this is not the same thing as the Jewish people’s performance of mitzvos, which are specific divine mandates, and not just “good deeds.” Some mitzvos called chukkim (“decrees”), like the ritual of the Red Heifer, completely surpass human understanding. The complex Jewish dietary laws also fall into this category, although the kabbalists reveal some of the reasons behind them. The task of studying the Torah and performing the 613 mitzvos uniquely rests on the Jew. On some level, as Jews, we all know this, and feel unfulfilled if we fail to accomplish our mission.

This is not meant to be a weighty burden. The holy ARI (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, sixteenth century) attributed the high spiritual levels he reached to “simchah shel mitzvah,” rejoicing in the performance of the commandments (see Mishnah Berurah 669:11; cf. Likkutei Moharan I, 24:2). Why did he feel this way? And why should we feel this way? For the simple reason that to a Jew who believes in God, the mitzvos connect the one who performs them with the One Who gave them.

The kabbalists describe the 620 mitzvos (613 Torah mitzvos plus seven rabbinic mitzvos) as “620 columns of light” (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Pardes Rimonim 8:3). (620 is the numerical value of Keser / Crown, the highest of the ten sefiros and locus of the Divine Will.) Chassidic master Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains this to mean that the mitzvos are actually spiritual channels by which we connect to the Divine Will at their root (Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, Letter 29). That is, we become instruments of the Divine Will and therefore bound to God in a manner that transcends the limitations of intellect. For one who takes this to heart, performing a mitzvah is a source of boundless joy.

Breslover Chassidism would say that we need both factors: bittul, which comes through hisbodedus, and the mitzvos, which connect us to the divine purpose in creation in the here and now – and which enable us to fulfill our unique mission as Jews. “Know Him in all your ways,” the Psalmist declares. This is the source of Chassidic joy.

The Mixed Blessing of Dualism: The metaphysical villain is dualism – estrangement from the Primordial Unity; yet dualism makes it possible for us to have a relationship with G-d and with each other. One of the meanings of the Torah’s story of how Eve was separated from Adam is that this alludes to how creation was “separated” from the Creator, all so that we might have a relationship. This is the positive meaning of creation. Dualism is not just an illusion or spiritual obstacle to overcome, but the necessary precondition for having a relationship. This, too, is the meaning of the Song of Songs, which is an allegory of the love between God and the Jewish people, who serve Him through the Torah and mitzvos.

Yet at the same time, dualism goes hand in hand with the ego, which blocks the road back to God and distorts our spiritual vision. How can we get out of this conundrum? Rabbi Nachman alludes to this problem and its solution in one of his thirteen mystical stories, “The Tale of the Seven Beggars.”

The Heart and the Spring: In this sub-plot of the tale, the third holy beggar materializes out of thin air at the wedding feast of two orphans, who are the story’s protagonists. He is the Beggar with the Speech Defect – whose apparent deficiency masks his greatest spiritual power. He claims that his parables and lyrics contain all wisdom – and the “proof” he offers is the testimony of the True Man of Kindness.

The Beggar with the Speech Defect goes around and gathers up all true kindness in the world and brings it to the True Man of Kindness, who presides over time. In the merit of the human acts of kindness he receives, the True Man of Kindness gives a new day to the Heart of the World, who gives it to the Spring, thereby sustaining the universe.

How so? On the top of a certain mountain, there is a stone, out of which flows a wondrous Spring. At the other end of the world, stands the Heart of the World, which longs and yearns and cries to go to the Spring. The Spring also yearns for the Heart. However, the Heart cannot go to the Spring – for if it came too close, it would no longer be able to see the peak from which it flows. And if it stopped looking at the Spring for even an instant, the Heart would perish; and with it, the entire world, which receives its life-force from the Heart. Therefore, the Heart stands facing the Spring, yearning and crying out.

The Spring transcends time. Therefore it only possesses the time that it receives from the Heart as a gift for one day.

When the end of the day draws near, they begin to part from one another with great love and wonderful poetry. Watching over all this, the True Man of Kindness waits until the last minute and then gives the Heart a gift of one more day. The Heart immediately gives the day to the Spring, and thus the world endures. Yet everything depends upon the Beggar with the Speech Defect, who collects all of the true kindness, in the merit of which time comes into existence. Therefore, all of the wondrous parables and lyrics are his, too.

This story, like all of Rabbi Nachman’s tales, has multiple levels of meaning, rooted in the mysteries of the kabbalah. On one level, the Heart and the Spring is an allegory about the primacy of our relationship with God, which is like a marriage. (This, too, is why Judaism is not a monastic tradition, but places so much emphasis on marriage. Indeed, the marriage relationship is called “kiddushin” or “sanctification” for two reasons: because each partner becomes “kadosh” or designated to the other; and because marriage is intrinsically holy. It is a spiritual relationship, which challenges us to get past our innate selfishness, to cease to be mere “takers” and become “givers.” The tale of the Heart and the Spring also indicates why the sculpted forms of the K’ruvim, male and female winged angels, hovered over the Ark of the Covenant in the inner sanctum of Holy Temple. Their embrace represents “unity in dualism.”)

We relate to God with the longing of the Heart for the Spring atop the faraway mountain. The “catch” is to realize that God is present on both sides of the relationship.

The vehicle for attaining this perception is hisbodedus. As third-generation Breslov scholar Rabbi Nachman Goldstein, the Rav of Tcherin, wrote:

“The perfection of hisbodedus is to attain deveykus – to cleave to God until you become utterly subsumed within the Divine Oneness. The word hisbodedus is a construct of badad, meaning either ‘seclusion’ or ‘oneness,’ as in the phrase ‘they shall be one with one [i.e., of equal weight]’ (Rashi on Exodus 30:34). That is, you must become ‘one with God’ to the extent that all sensory awareness ceases, and the only reality you perceive is Godliness. This is the mystical meaning of the verse, ‘Ein ode milvado . . . There is nothing but God alone’ (Deuteronomy 4:35). This, too, is why the Torah calls Israel ‘a people that dwells alone [badad]’ (Numbers 23:9). The destiny of each Jew is to attain complete unification with God, without any intermediary” (Zimras Ha’aretz, I, 52; translated in “The Tree That Stands Beyond Space,” p. 83).

In hisbodedus – if one succeeds in “breaking through” – one discovers that God stands on both sides of the relationship. In a sense, God davens (prays) to Himself.

If Zen master Hakuin, famous for his consciousness-altering koans (conundrums), were a Breslover Chassid, he might say that this is the “sound of one hand clapping.”

There will be a follow-up to this series about Rabbi Nachman’s teachings concerning silent meditation.

A Trip To Yemen

Oneg Shabbos

There are Jews who meticulously observe all the laws of Shabbos, but do not take delight in Shabbos and fail to sense the holiness of Shabbos. When such a Jew arrives in Gan Eden, he will be regarded as an outsider. He will not savor the sweetness of being close to Hashem.

(Rebbe Shlomo of Karlin)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Part II: Comparing Jewish Mysticism And Buddhism

Since this is not an in-depth treatment of this subject, we have made few distinctions between different schools of thought in each of the two religions. However, the reader should know that they exist. In particular, some of the Buddhist doctrines mentioned below are not mentioned (or barely mentioned) in Zen Buddhism, which is rigorously experiential. And different Chassidic schools disagree about such things as the nature and role of the rebbe, and the degree to which the average Chassid should be involved in esoteric studies and practices.

The most conspicuous difference between Judaism and Buddhism concerns belief in God. While Judaism is the foundation of monotheism, Buddhists do not espouse belief in God (or for that matter, belief in multiple gods in the same sense as the polytheists of ancient Rome, etc.). They also define their creed as “anatman” – rejecting the Hindu belief in atman, Sanskrit for the “soul.”

According to ancient tradition, when the historical Buddha (fifth century b.c.e.) was asked whether or not God exists, he remained silent. This silence was interpreted in two ways: either he intended to demonstrate that God is beyond words, transcending all limitation and definition; or he considered theism and atheism as not germane to his doctrine regarding the path of side-stepping existential suffering through dismantling the illusory sense of self. For this reason, some Buddhists reject the definition of their path as a religion. Some also reject the notion that it is a philosophy, since the main thing is practice – as informed by a profound understanding of the workings of the human mind.

However one interprets the Buddha’s silence, the argument of theism vs. non-theism (we can’t say atheism, because he didn’t overtly deny the existence of God) is not necessarily the insurmountable theological problem between the two religions that it appears to be at first glance. We, too, assert that the nature of God is essentially unknowable (Shomer Emunim HaKadmon, 2:1, sixth principle). Aside from Divine Names and permutations of Divine Names, the kabbalists use various terminologies for God in different contexts: Ayin (“Nothingness”); Yachid Kadmon (“Primordial One”); Ein Sof (“The Infinite”); Achdus HaPashut (“Simple Unity”); etc. Buddhist philosophers, too, use various terms for the ontological origin of the universe and for the unitary essence of existence underlying all phenomena. In English translation, these terms include “Ground of Being,” “Absolute Reality,” “Emptiness,” etc.

When I emailed a friend in the Breslov community who in a “previous lifetime” had immersed himself in Tibetan Buddhism and recently received semichah (rabbinic ordination), he wrote: “It seems possible to me that the Buddhist ‘emptiness’ and the Jewish ‘Ayin’ may turn out to be the same…” (I guess we’ll have to wait and see on this one.)

The central issue is what one does (or “undoes”) in relationship to the Ayin / Ein Sof / Achdus HaPashut. There is a reason why prayer is the core practice of Judaism, and meditation the core practice of Buddhism. But we’re jumping the gun.

Dissolution of the Ego: Another possibly common-point is what Jewish mystics call bittul ha-yesh -- in American Buddhist language (at least back in the 60s), “annihilation of ego.” This denotes seeing through the illusion of the historically-conditioned self as a fixed entity, as well as the sense of self-importance and the need for self-aggrandizement – “proving yourself.” Both paths assert that overcoming the ego is the main prerequisite to spiritual awakening.

However, there may be a subtle difference here, too. As we will see in Part III, transcendence of ego in Judaism is not an end in itself. The Jewish mystic will put the “old coat” of personality back on in order to continue to perform his spiritual work in the world through the Torah and mitzvos.

Transmuting Negative Tendencies: Buddhism speaks of negative traits, known as kleshas (defilements), which each of us must strive to nullify: sensual desire, anger, laziness, etc. The kabbalists propose something similar, based on the “Four Elements” of earth, water, wind, and fire (equivalent to the Pali “mahabhuta”). Indolence and depression correspond to earth; sensual desire and covetousness correspond to water; worthless or harmful speech corresponds to wind; anger and pursuit of power or honor correspond to fire (Mishnas Chassidim, Masekhes Asiyah Gufanis, chap. 1; cf. Likkutei Moharan I, 4:8). According to Rabbi Nachman the fifth element is ego / self-importance, which is the root of the other four (Likkutei Moharan I, 52).

Compassion: Buddhism understands compassion to be a corollary of perceiving the interconnectedness and underlying unity of life. This is something that is vividly experienced by the Buddhist practitioner. Although Judaism sees man as the central figure in creation, it nevertheless asserts the kinship of all beings and calls upon us to respect all creatures. For example, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, taught: “In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability, and man, too, is compared to a worm or maggot; as the verse states, ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7). If God had not given you a human intellect, you would only be able to serve him like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself and the worm and all creatures are friends in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given…” (Tzava’as HaRivash 12).

And from the non-Chassidic camp, Rabbi Menasheh of Ilya wrote: “What am I in comparison to the many forms of sentient life in the world? If the Creator were to confer upon me, as well as my family members, loved ones, and relatives, absolute goodness for all eternity, but some deficiency remained in the world – if any living thing still were left suffering, and all the more so, another human being – I would not want anything to do with it, much less to derive benefit from it. How could I be separated from all living creatures? These are the work of God’s hand, and these, too, are the work of God’s hand” (Author’s Introduction, Ha’amek She’eilah). It seems that a “Litvak” might qualify as a Boddisattva, too.

Impermanence: Preceding the historical Buddha by more than a century (if not two), King Solomon spoke of earthly desires as “hevel havalim, vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). This concept is repeated again and again in the Rosh Hashanah prayer service (“What is a man’s life but a fleeting dream, a passing shadow, a vaporous cloud, a gust of wind, and a swirl of dust?” etc.). These expressions bear a striking similarity to the Buddhist description of the transitory nature of the phenomenal world and impermanence.

However, in Buddhism, impermanence is an encompassing perception of the nature of all things. This perception has a somewhat different “spin” on it in Judaism – where it is a way of underscoring the urgency of returning to God and engaging in Avodah (divine service), rather than pursuing vain and materialistic goals.

A notable exception to this is Rabbi Nachman’s teaching about the dreidel, the four-sided top with which children play on Chanukah. He conceives this as a “revolving wheel” or “wheel of transformation” -- a metaphor for the impermanence of all creation, which comes forth from the undifferentiated Divine Wisdom / Nothingness (see Sichos HaRan 40).

Equanimity: According to the Buddhist approach, equanimity and detachment are concomitants of impermanence. Jewish mystics also strive for such virtues. Says the Baal Shem Tov (Tzava’as HaRivash 53): “One should make himself as if he did not exist -- as the Gemara states in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: ‘The words of Torah cannot be fulfilled except by one who makes himself as if he did not exist (ayin)” (Sota 21b). Thus, it is written, ‘And wisdom from where (ayin) does it come?’ (Job 28:12). [Or: ‘Wisdom comes from nothingness.’] This means that one should consider himself to not exist in this world at all; so what difference does it make if he is important in the eyes of others?”

At the same time, equanimity in the face of praise and blame and the ups and downs of life is no contradiction to serving God with love and awe (ahavah ve-yirah). Through this level of Divine service, we transmute our most powerful emotions to the spiritual plane.

Life After Life: Another common doctrine is that of reincarnation (which Buddhists prefer to call “rebirth”). In Jewish tradition, this is known as gilgul, which might be loosely translated as “recycling.” The Zoharic literature and writings of the ARI and Safed kabbalists are replete with discussions of reincarnation, even into non-human forms such as animals, plants, and clumps of dust (may God spare us). As in other spiritual systems, gilgul is understood as one of Heaven’s ways of enabling the soul to become cleansed of evil and to attain perfection. The Vilna Gaon wrote an entire commentary on the Book of Jonah as an allegory for reincarnation.

Karma / Cosmic Justice: The determining principle behind reincarnation actually applies to all of a person’s circumstances in every lifetime and indeed, in every day. Buddhists and Hindus call it “karma,” which means a kind of cosmic justice reflective of one’s merits and demerits. The Talmudic sages call it the principle of “middah keneged middah” – “measure for measure.” One example is the Mishnah that describes how Hillel observed a skull floating down a river. He said to it: “Because you drowned others, they have drowned you. And ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned” (Avos 2:6). This cosmic principle is democratic and non-sectarian; as the rabbis state: “ ‘Merit is given to the meritorious, and guilt to those who are guilty.’ This rule applies to all families of the earth” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah 16:1). (As a religious Jew, it is extremely difficult for me to understand how Buddhism can accept the principle of karma and remain non-theistic. If there is justice, there must be a judge. But maybe my thinking is too square to grasp the spontaneous “arisings” in Buddhist metaphysics.)

A related issue is that of what C.G. Jung called “synchronicity” – the “hidden miracles” of everyday life that bespeak another determinant of what goes on in the world beyond the causality of one-plus-one-makes-two. In Buddhism, these phenomena also fall under the rubric of karma, pointing to the transpersonal matrix that underlies the appearance of separateness. In Judaism they are understood as evidence of “hashgachah p’ratis,” vivid manifestations of divine providence that break though the seeming autonomy of nature like moonlight through the clouds.

Teacher-Student Relationship: Eastern religions, including Buddhism, put great emphasis on the relationship with one’s guru, or “teacher,” who may take on larger-than-life dimensions. Analogous to this, the Talmud states that one should seek instruction from a teacher who is “comparable to an angel of the God of Hosts” (Chagigah 15b). In the Chassidic conception, the “Rebbe” is a kind of guru, in that it is his mission to guide the Chassid on the path of spiritual growth.

Sometimes the master-disciple relationship takes on some strange forms. In certain schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the guru is a “spiritual friend” – whose compassion consists in driving you “crazy” (i.e., into new ways of perception). The Japanese Zen teacher also typically resorts to unusual behaviors to jolt the student into enlightenment. There were Chassidic masters who came up with similar strategies. One was the fiery Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, 19th century). In our generation, the late Reb Osher Freund of Jerusalem was famous for his often outrageous tactics to force his followers to let go of their spiritual props in order to find more authentic ways of being-in-the-world.

In Hinduism and other Far Eastern religions, the guru is variously perceived as an enlightened teacher, a channel for a divine emanation, or an incarnate god. There are even some divergent ideas about this in Buddhism. However, in Judaism the tzaddik (or in the Chassidic world, “rebbe,” meaning “master”) is never deified. God’s Oneness is absolute (e.g., see Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, Rav Pe’alim, Vol. I, Teshuvah 1, for a clear and concise kabbalistic explanation of unity and multiplicity). Having purged himself of all desire and evil traits, the tzaddik is a channel or vehicle for Godliness -- but not a divinity unto himself.

Practice: Buddhism advocates silent meditation as the arena for spiritual work and existential discovery. To some extent, the Lithuanian Mussar schools cover some of the same ground through self-examination and contemplation, especially the path of the Alter (“Elder”) of Novhardok. The Piacetzna Rebbe, a towering 20th century Chassidic leader who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto, taught classical silent meditation (see “Inyan Hashkata,” appendix to Derekh HaMelekh, and his treatise “Bnei Machshavah Tovah,” translated to English as “Conscious Community.”) He also discusses meditative visualization, which plays a role in earlier kabbalistic meditation systems. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov discusses hisbodedus – secluded, improvisational dialogue with God and prayer in one’s native tongue – in surprisingly similar terms (as we will see in the next posting).

Yet assumptions about the nature of reality and purpose of life that condition the practitioner’s meditative experience, or are implicit in the meditative methods used, differ between the two religions. For one thing, Buddhism stresses dismantling the illusory solidity of the personality during meditation, whereas Judaism focuses on reconnecting with God. Thus, 18th century Zen master Hakuin experienced shunyata (“emptiness”) in meditation, while his contemporary, Chassidic master Rabbi Dov Ber, the Great Maggid, experienced the “Divine Nothingness.”

Enlightenment: In Judaism, this is the Da’as (literally, “knowledge”) associated with the Future World – which tzaddikim are privy to in this world, as well. The Talmudic mentions that certain sages were accustomed to bless one another: “May you see your World [to Come] in your life [in this world]…” (Berakhos 17a). According to Rabbi Nachman, this perception may come about in a sudden flash, without any prefatory concepts (Likkutei Moharan I, 21; however, one must make extensive spiritual preparations to be worthy of the divine influx). This sounds remarkably like Buddhist descriptions of the enlightenment experience. (Not being enlightened according to any school of thought, I couldn’t say if this is a mere parallelism, or if they are truly the same.)

The attainment of enlightenment in Judaism is bound up with the mystery of prophecy, which lies at the core of our religion. The Torah is the story of God’s dialogue with man. And although the age of the prophets came to an end long ago, to be superseded by the divinely-inspired intellectualism of the Talmudic sages (“chokhom adif mi-navi”), we anticipate the return of prophecy during the Messianic age. The Piacetzna Rebbe explains that prophecy does not only mean the obtainment of a divine message for the world, but the mystical experience in general – and on some level, this available even today (see Mevo She’arim, beginning).

Eschatology / End of Days: Buddhism describes an “End of Days” scenario characterized by a gradual process of global spiritual degeneration, after which a new enlightened being named Maitreya will renew the teachings of Buddhism and teach the path leading to Nirvana (cessation of illusion / bliss / immortality). At present, Maitreya resides in a certain heaven, awaiting his final rebirth in the world.

In Jewish mysticism, the soul of Mashiach is somewhat similarly described as being stored away in the heavenly “Garden of Eden” until God mercifully decides to confer it upon a great and awesome tzaddik living in the world. This tzaddik will then usher in the Messianic Age (Rabbi Chaim Vital, Arba’ah Me’os Shekel Kesef, 68a). The Mashiach will bring wisdom and peace to the world, return the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, and rebuild the Holy Temple. These events will be followed by the Resurrection of the Dead, Divine Judgment, and eternal bliss for the righteous (see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s “Essay on Fundamentals,” included in Derekh Hashem / The Way of God, Feldheim, pp. 385-390; there is a dispute among the authorities as to whether the souls of righteous non-Jews will share in the Resurrection or will remain in the World of Souls). Buddhism and Hinduism espouse a cyclic view of history, according to which the universe will eventually be destroyed, and a new cycle of creation come into being. Some kabbalists take this position, too (see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe, Ktav, pp. 1-15).

In addition to the points we have listed, Judaism and Buddhism possess many parallel traditions about angels, demons, disembodied souls, and spirits. And both religions believe in heaven and hell as afterlife experiences conditioned by one’s deeds in this world.

Yet as we have already noted, some major differences exist between Jewish mysticism and Buddhism. There is a Chassidic discourse that illustrates both the similarities and differences vividly: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s “HaNei’or BaLaylah / Awakening in the Night” (Likkutei Moharan I, 52). We will take a look at this teaching and consider its implications in the next posting, God willing.

- A link for comments will be provided after the third posting in this series. -