Wherefore ‘ben Alexander’?

Some basics of Jewish names

Most Jewish people have Jewish names, which they use in religious contexts, although they do not necessarily go by them in public. Some Jewish names like mine (David) are universal enough, but others do not roll off the gentile tongue so easily. Jewish names are typically of Jewish languages: primarily Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino.

Of course, as many Jews are secular; non-practicing; or unaffiliated with religious community, their Jewish names are not particularly relevant in their daily or weekly lives. It’s the Jews who somewhat regularly attend synagogue services who are most often called by their Jewish names.

Now, in the traditional religious context, one is not simply known by his/her Jewish first name. One is known as [first name] [son/daughter of] [parent’s name]. For prayers of healing, I would be called David [son of] [mother’s name]. When I am called to make a blessing upon the Torah scroll at the synagogue, I am traditionally called David [son of] [father’s name].

One notable thing regarding my personal Jewish identity is that neither of my parents were assigned specifically Jewish names at birth because they were both born into the militantly secular and institutionally antisemitic USSR; for the most part, Jews in the USSR were inclined to downplay their Jewish identities. My Mama is Svetlana. My Papa was Alexander.


‘ben Alexander’

As an adult, I became religious, and that’s when being called up to make blessings upon the Torah scroll at shul became relevant to me.

At the first, as I was learning the ropes, I was rather self-conscious about being called up as David [son of] Alexander. Nobody else in any of my Jewish communities had such a Jewish name, nor a father with such a Jewish name as Alexander. Being called David [son of] Svetlana would be even more uncommon, but I have never been sick enough to need or request prayers for health – so that situation has yet to arise.

Anyway, my proclivity for Jewish tradition and active involvement in religious Jewish community ultimately caused me to internalize Papa’s name as a significant part of my identity. His name was officially part of my name; and… perhaps you’ve already surmised that the Hebrew for [son of] is [‘ben’].

I am, therefore, the Jew known as David ben Alexander.


‘Alexander’

The Legend of the Gordian Knot

Papa the mathematician launched his educational mathematics website in 1996, shortly after the Internet had made its way into people’s homes around the world. But what to call it?

At the time, we were living on a street called Alexander Road, which amused Papa and somewhat excited his imagination; and he decided to call his website and company ‘Cut the Knot’ after the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. Papa’s vision was to present mathematics as only seemingly impossible to conquer. Much like the Gordian Knot, which Alexander the Great cleverly sliced apart, Papa believed that mathematics riddles all had comprehensible, straightforward solutions.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Eastern Europeans

I’ve come to learn that in Eastern Europe, some non-Jewish names are more common among Jews than others. To the trained ear, such names suggest that their owners could very well be Jewish. Boris, Mark, and Alexander are such names. (Other gentile names generally trigger the opposite assumption… for example: Fyodor, Nikolai, Vasily.)

I never thought to discuss Papa’s name with him, but he would certainly have been sensitive to this cultural nuance.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Jews

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I learned this, but it turns out that the name Alexander is, surprisingly, a Jewish name, even though it is of distinctly Greek origin; and – it entered Jewish culture because of Alexander the Great.

In the Talmud there is a popular Jewish story about an interaction between Alexander the Great and the Jewish High Priest Simeon the Just, in which Alexander bowed down to the Jew (Tractate Yoma 69a):

בעשרים וחמשה [בטבת] יום הר גרזים [הוא] דלא למספד יום שבקשו כותיים את בית אלהינו מאלכסנדרוס מוקדון להחריבו ונתנו להם באו והודיעו את שמעון הצדיק מה עשה לבש בגדי כהונה ונתעטף בבגדי כהונה ומיקירי ישראל עמו ואבוקות של אור בידיהן וכל הלילה הללו הולכים מצד זה והללו הולכים מצד זה עד שעלה עמוד השחר כיון שעלה עמוד השחר אמר להם מי הללו אמרו לו יהודים שמרדו בך כיון שהגיע לאנטיפטרס זרחה חמה ופגעו זה בזה כיון שראה לשמעון הצדיק ירד ממרכבתו והשתחוה לפניו אמרו לו מלך גדול כמותך ישתחוה ליהודי זה אמר להם דמות דיוקנו של זה מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי The twenty-fifth of Tebeth is the day of Mount Gerizim, on which no mourning is permitted. It is the day on which the Cutheans demanded the House of our God from Alexander the Macedonian so as to destroy it, and he had given them the permission, whereupon some people came and informed Simeon the Just. What did the latter do? He put on his priestly garments, robed himself in priestly garments, some of the noblemen of Israel went with him carrying fiery torches in their hands, they walked all the night, some walking on one side and others on the other side, until the dawn rose. When the dawn rose he [Alexander] said to them: Who are these [the Samaritans]? They answered: The Jews who rebelled against you. As he reached Antipatris, the sun having shone forth, they met. When he saw Simeon the Just, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him. They said to him: A great king like yourself should bow down before this Jew? He answered: His image it is which wins for me in all my battles.

In brief, Alexander the Great bowed to the Jewish High Priest because the image of the Priest’s face would appear before him before his battles, leading him to victory when he was on the battlefields. Ultimately, according to legend, Alexander the Great left the Holy Temple in Jerusalem be.

Further adds Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin:

… for memorializing the occasion, [Simeon the Just] suggested… [that] all male [Jewish priests] born that year would be named “Alexander.”

Alexander liked the idea, and the Jews, who were very thankful to Alexander for all that he did for them, including sparing the Holy Temple from destruction, gratefully named their children after him. Thus, the name Alexander forever became a Jewish name.

‘Why Is Alexander a Jewish Name?’ by Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin

I actually have no idea if Papa knew about this Talmudic story, but I get a real kick out of the fact that Papa’s name is, indeed, a Jewish one; and not only that – Papa’s name became a Jewish name because of the same great conqueror who inspired the culmination of Papa’s lifework: ‘Cut the Knot’.


Ben Alexander’ or ‘ben Alexander’

I haven’t made mention of this before, but I actually created this WordPress account in 2012, long before Papa died – long before I became ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’. Back then, my blog had a rather uninspired Jewish blog name; and – back then I was blogging anonymously.

I have always enjoyed writing, but it’s only been in the past several years that I’ve felt comfortable enough in my own voice to blog so very publicly about sensitive personal matters under my own name. Back in 2012, I deliberately called myself ‘Ben Alexander’ so that nobody would find me out. I deliberately chose it as my pen name, knowing that most people would parse ‘Ben’ as a common English name. That’s why I capitalized it back when.

Then – in April of 2020 when I was transferring the many posts I had written about reciting kaddish for Papa to this website, I made a seemingly slight change to my handle. I changed the first letter to lower case, rendering myself ‘ben Alexander’, and thereby deemphasizing the ‘Ben’.

Of course, people still continue to assume that my full name is actually ‘Ben Alexander’, but that is okay with me. For those who are curious enough to explore my website and get to know me, I have an ‘about’ page with my full name available therein. I am, as they say, hiding in plain sight.

This version of my name continues to feel so very right and comfortable… I am deeply proud to be known as:

David ben Alexander.

Ethical will: Loving-kindness

In composing my ethical will, I usually find myself resistant to including entries that should, according to my sensibilities, be self-evident. That’s not to say that I personally exemplify any of these self-evidently positive traits; rather, it is to say that I wish I did.

On the other hand, my ethical will is, by default, a Jewish document, and it strikes me that no such ethical will would be complete without the traditional basics. In the ancient Jewish text called ‘Pirkei Avot’, which is known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (but is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’), the following text is broadly known among Jewish scholars and laypeople alike (Ch. 1:2):

… עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: … The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the Service [to God], and on [deeds of] loving-kindness.

This is, of course, hardly the only ancient Jewish text to highlight loving-kindness, and today’s Jewish scholars and religious leaders have certainly not abandoned this most basic of religious tenets either. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l (1948-2020) wrote:

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

‘From Optimism to Hope p. 130

‘Loving-kindness’ as the cornerstone of successful marriage

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

I found a beautiful vort (Yiddish for ‘word’ of Torah) shared by Rabbi Schorsch (1935-), which highlights the degree to which Jewish tradition emphasizes ‘loving kindness’. It spoke to me in particular because it highlights the profound significance of ‘loving kindness’ in marriage, which is exactly what first came to my mind when I chose to include this Jewish value in my ethical will.

I encourage you to read the entire vort, but following are the salient sections:

We don’t pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?

This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate…

Eliezer… devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac… He will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master’s son.

The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. “Drink, my lord…. I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19).

The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition – first Eliezer’s own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah’s greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.

Maimonides (1138-1204) went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners…

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.

-Rabbi Ismar Schorsch (1935-)

My good luck

My wife

It would embarrass my wife to know that I’m writing the following, but here goes anyway:

That which most attracted me to my not-yet-wife at the start of our relationship was her kindness, which she glows with. In fact, in the years previous to meeting her, I had spent some time contemplating which character traits I would most like my potential spouse to have, and I came to the conclusion that kindness was the most important to me.

Papa & Mama

I would also like to add the following:

After Papa died in 2018, I thought a lot about what I had most appreciated about him, and I must say that it was certainly his kindness. I have listed many of Papa’s most positive traits, but – his loving-kindness remains the one that first comes to my mind. His kindness was of the most simple, natural kind – and it informed his general selflessness.

It is my belief that Mama, being incredibly kind herself, was drawn in large part to Papa’s gentle kindness – I have come to consider this one of the pillars of their marriage. (I haven’t asked Mama about this thought of mine, but it is my strong impression.)


Loving-kindness ≠ charity

In writing about kindness from a Jewish perspective, it’s important to draw a distinction between the Jewish understandings of ‘charity’ and ‘loving-kindness’. In fact, the word ‘charity’ is an inexact translation of the Jewish word ‘tzedakah’.

‘Tzedakah’ is a word derived from the Hebrew root dq (צדק), which means: ‘Justice’. In Jewish tradition, you see, ‘tzedakah’ is an obligatory 10% of one’s earnings, as a matter of social justice. Even the poorest Jew is religiously mandated to give away 10% of their earnings to others. ‘Charity’, on the other hand, is voluntary. Not so ‘tzedakah’.

The rabbis of the Talmud drew a sharp distinction between ‘tzedakah’ and ‘loving-kindness’ (‘gemilut ḥasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ת”ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut ḥasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut ḥasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut ḥasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut ḥasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

It’s important to understand this fundamental point if we’re going to expound upon ‘loving-kindness’ from a Jewish perspective: this is not an entry about ‘charity’.


My daughter

As I watch my six-year-old daughter grow up, I am moved by her constant acts of kindness. Even when she was younger and less articulate than she is now, she was constantly warming the hearts of others will her love and sweet affection.

When we used to visit my Babushka (mother’s mother), for example, my daughter would climb up unto the couch next to her and smother the old woman with hugs and kisses; and this was at a stage in Babushka’s life when she was blind, weak, and generally unable to entertain her youngest great grandchild. Once, when Babushka felt her way down the hall to the bathroom, our little girl took her by the hand so that she wouldn’t bump into the walls.

I suppose that it’s actually an odd thing for me to be waxing didactic about ‘loving-kindness’ in my ethical will, which is ostensibly for my very kind & loving child… Really, I should be learning about it from her.

Ethical will: Truth

Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.

Yes, we must listen to one another earnestly, but why don’t we?

Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?

We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.

Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.


Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.

The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.

What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?


According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):

מִדְּבַר-שֶׁקֶר, תִּרְחָק; וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל-תַּהֲרֹג, כִּי לֹא-אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked.

Taking a different tack, the Book of Proverbs (a later book of the Hebrew Bible) provides practical counsel on the matter, rather than commanding us (12:19):

שְׂפַת-אֱמֶת, תִּכּוֹן לָעַד; וְעַד-אַרְגִּיעָה, לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.

As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):

… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו… … and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…

I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:

People of decency
ought to strive for truth.


But – are there limits? There must be some, right?

The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged, arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):

תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.

Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):

יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן? 12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’
יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי? 13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?

Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):

וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי: R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.

It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.


My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.

In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.

Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.

I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?

Disillusionment

Some cultural aspects of Orthodox Judaism require a lot of explanation, which makes them challenging to write about with accuracy and general appeal both. Also, I am no authority on this subject and am sure to miss some pertinent points in any explanation that I offer.

Nevertheless, I want to try, to the best of my ability, to describe some of the historic developments behind a particular facet of Orthodox Judaism: the tendency of the vast majority of today’s Orthodox rabbis to make religiously conservative rulings on matters of halakhah (Jewish law). These include:

I also want to touch upon a related subject that is very personal to me: the minority of modern day Orthodox halakhic authorities who tend to make religiously liberal rulings.

I will attempt to paint this composition in broad strokes, but even so I will have to cover much more canvas that I prefer.

* * *

Setting the stage:
The Mishnah & Talmud

Let’s set the stage somewhat for the Jewishly uninitiated.

Jewish Orthodoxy operates under a few fundamental premises. First and foremost, there exists a single omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. This God personally gave the Torah to the Jewish people some three thousand years ago, which is ostensibly the basis for all Jewish religious laws that developed throughout the subsequent centuries.

Secondly, according to mainstream doctrine, the Torah given by God was not limited to merely the Pentateuch, which is traditionally known as the ‘Written Torah’. God’s Torah also includes what is popularly called the ‘Oral Torah’, which was intended to never be written down – a tradition to be passed down orally from generation to generation. The ‘Oral Torah’ is considered to be as authoritative as the ‘Written Torah’.

As human history had it, the ‘Oral Torah’ ceased being oral when Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (Judea, ~135 to ~217 CE) compiled and redacted the six orders of the Mishnah some time around 200 CE. This was done to preserve the ‘Oral Torah’ in the face of persecution at Roman hands. The rabbis feared that the oral traditions from the 2nd Temple period would be lost, and so the Mishnah thus became the authoritative source for all developments in ‘Oral Torah’. Following this, the next major, authoritative written work of ‘Oral Torah’ became the Babylonian Talmud, written and compiled in exile at around 500 CE.

The Talmud, which expounded upon the Mishnah, became the primary religious text upon which further works of Halakhah (Jewish law) were anchored, and it remains so to this day. Certain Halakhic codes of the medieval period are widely held as particularly authoritative to this day, but these differ among different Orthodox Jewish communities (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yemenite).

It’s important to understand that while nobody denies that the Mishnah and the Talmud were written by humans, Orthodox doctrine maintains that these are part of an unbroken chain of transmission (from teacher to student) of the Divine ‘Oral Torah’, which is intended as an interpretive tradition. Accordingly, God’s Torah contains many levels of interpretation, and later generations of Torah scholars have been left to discover those that have not yet been revealed.

* * *

Fast forward to early modernity:
Jewish Emancipation in Europe

There exist real distinctions between the way most modern day Orthodox rabbis tend to make halakhic rulings versus how this was done for many centuries. Why?

It’s important to understand that before the Jewish Emancipation, during the Age of Enlightenment, the non-Orthodox movements (precursors to today’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, etc.) did not exist. Nor did Orthodox Judaism exist, as the precursors to both ultra-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy were also born during that era. These distinct approaches to Judaism all came about as modern religious responses to the European Jews’ historic abandonment of their ghettos and integration into 18th and 19th century gentile society.

The Emancipation and the resulting births of these Jewish religious denominations had at least two major ramifications upon rabbis’ religious approaches.

Firstly, Jews were no longer living in insular Jewish communities under local religious leaders. Following the Emancipation, rabbis could only exert religious authority over those who accepted it from them. Previous to that period, one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion. Afterwards, identifying as a Jew became a matter of choice, with assimilation offering the Jews great social and economic benefits. Rabbis had to become convincing or become irrelevant.

Secondly, the newly born heterodox and Orthodox denominations locked horns in endless religious and political battles for the future of Judaism’s soul, thereby shaping their respective positions and practices. Heterodox Jews deliberately wanted to be identified primarily as Europeans (‘not Orthodox’) in order to integrate into gentile Europe while maintaining elements of their Jewish identities.

Inversely, Orthodox communities were deliberate in rejecting “illegitimate” heterodox religious practices, which they considered outside the traditional framework of ‘Oral Torah’. Neither group wanted to validate the other, and therefore, at least in part, each came to be defined by its rejection of the other.

Both of these factors hold true today, but further, more recent historic changes transpired that also deeply influenced the dynamics behind modern rabbinic rulemaking, as well as the relationships between rabbis and the Jewish laity.

* * *

More recently…
The Holocaust

For the purposes of this particular post, I want to make one very particular point about the implications of the decimation of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis: that murder of six million Jews was no less than the complete destruction of the vast majority of Orthodox communities in Europe, along with their respective religious traditions.

Thus, for example, whereas the laity of Europe’s Litvishe (non-Hasidic Orthodox) Jewish communities once maintained their kosher kitchens without having to consult their rabbis over every little nuance, those ageless family traditions that had been passed down from mothers to their daughters through the many generations, were erased. Beyond this, the vast majority of religiously literate European Jews (who could navigate the Talmud and the Mishnah) were forever lost to us.

In short, after the Holocaust came to its gruesome end, Jews who wished to live according to Halakhah were almost entirely reliant upon rabbis for religious rulings pertaining to their daily lives, as their families’ traditions had been murdered, along with their parents, grandparents, and most of learned European Jewry.

* * *

Even more recently…
The Internet

Historically speaking, halakhic rulings were made locally. These included rulings on Jewish conversions (a particularly touchy political subject today), but they essentially covered all areas of Jewish communal, family and personal life.

For centuries, local rabbis issued religious rulings according to the realities and needs of their respective communities and of the individuals who came to them for religious guidance. Their rulings would account for the nuances of situations that went beyond the prescriptions of popularly accepted halakhic codes, sometimes even ruling against the codes’ instructions; but the local decisor’s’ wisdom, learning, and authority was accepted, respected, and implemented by his community.

Certainly, rabbis of different communities had disputes about their respective religious rulings and communities’ ways of practice; and many such disagreements were recorded and preserved in pieces of correspondence between scholars. Nevertheless, nobody would have thought to say that one rabbi’s rulings were illegitimate – every single rabbi was considered a link in the chain of Jewish interpretive oral tradition.

Then came the Jewish Emancipation, as mentioned, and that historic paradigm shift began to unfold. Given the newfound mobility of European Jewry, its members could select the rabbis and communities that most suited their personal preferences, and Orthodox rabbis found themselves judged, in part, by their stances towards non-Orthodox Judaism and gentile society.

Hardline religious stances in the Orthodox Jewish community came to carry an air of ‘authenticity’, which later gained further traction after the devastation of the Holocaust when those wishing to abide by Halakhah were left reliant upon religious leaders intent upon rebuilding a traditional, Torah-based Jewish society.

Broadly speaking, Orthodox rabbinic leaders gradually succeeded at refounding Orthodoxy following the Holocaust, and, in a lot of ways, it came to thrive as a counterculture in the increasingly permissive West. However, rabbis continued to be judged by the laity and by other rabbis on the basis of their ‘commitments’ to ‘authentic’ Torah (juxtaposed with modernity, secularism, and non-Orthodoxy), and much of the shell-shocked post-war Orthodox community was distrustful of non-Jewish cultural influences.

Then, some decades later, with the advent and eventual global adoption of the Internet, nearly limitless information became instantly available to everybody. This included news of rabbinical rulings, the majority of which had been becoming increasingly monolithic in the decades following the Holocaust. Most Orthodox rabbis that wanted to keep their jobs had to toe the majority’s line, else the global Orthodox community would learn of their ‘heresies’ (I invoke this word with irony), and they would face immediate backlash.

* * *

Too long; not long enough

This post is both too long and not long enough, but I did my best, given the medium, to fill in large sections of the picture. In truth, there are many more factors that I haven’t touched upon, such as:

  • The power dynamic at play between the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel and Orthodoxy in the diaspora…
  • The politics at play between rabbinical associations representing the various religious denominations…
  • The implications of traditional Jewish texts becoming available, often with accessible translations, via the Internet…

* * *

My eventual disillusionment with Torah and rabbis in general

I used to peripherally occupy and aspire to a particular Jewish space, which was that of modern-minded, intellectually honest Orthodoxy. My community was committed to religious observance, traditional Jewish text study, open channels of communications with those who held differing views, and the modern sensibilities of civil rights and human dignity.

Broadly speaking, we were, as a group, turned off to the kneejerk restrictive religious rulings representative of the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis. This became increasingly true as we poured through Halakhic texts together, learning that lenient positions existed within Jewish tradition, and realizing that many mainstream Orthodox religious rulings and social norms are not required by Jewish law.

Unfortunately for me, as I developed close relationships with some intellectual, religiously lenient rabbis, I found that a good number of them were also prone to issuing kneejerk religious rulings, which were flexible, rather than restrictive.

I came to understand that intellectual religious leaders could justify nearly any interpretation of Torah, meaning that they were ultimately playing with traditional Jewish texts to provide religious bases for their personal sensibilities. For these Orthodox rabbis who sincerely consider themselves links in the chain of interpretative Jewish oral tradition, their rulings are as legitimate as those of any other intellectual, knowledgeable Torah scholar… I am not doubting their intentions or commitments to God and the Jewish people, but I have come to profoundly doubt the Divine essence, root, and purpose of the system that all of these rabbis are committed to.

If Torah can be nearly anything, then what is Torah? And – if Torah reflects the restrictive majority’s views, then what is Torah to me?

I wanted to be a rabbi

It was during college that I first considered the notion of studying to become a rabbi. I was an awful engineering student and apathetic about my studies. Clearly, my greatest passion in those years lay in community building and learning about Judaism. After four years, I graduated with an engineering degree, poor grades, and no ambition to find work as an engineer.

I could have pursued the rabbinate at that point, but I didn’t.

What if my eagerness was merely directionless floundering? What if I was only grasping at straws? What if mine was nothing more than a youthful fantasy born of desperation?

Four years later, I had earned a graduate degree in public policy and moved to Washington, DC as a contractor at the Department of Energy. During my interview for that position, I was asked to speak at length about my graduate research, leading me to believe that my work at the DOE would be equally stimulating. Unfortunately, several months later, enveloped on all sides by the inflamed bowel linings of the US government, I knew with certainty that it would be nothing of the sort.

Meanwhile, I had made my kitchen kosher as soon as I moved into my own apartment in DC and enthusiastically started hosting weekly Shabbat meals. I quickly became active in two different Jewish communities, and my dearest friends in Washington were among those who attended a lay-led, local Torah study program with me every week.

Through members of my extended Jewish community, I learned of an institute in Jerusalem that offered an intensive, yearlong text study program for Jews of all persuasions. My weekly, hour-long learning was meaningful and empowering, but more than anything else it whetted my appetite for deeper understanding of Torah, Talmud, and other classic Jewish sources. At nearly thirty, I was still sloshing about in tradition’s shallows.

After three years in Washington, DC, I decided to quit everything and move to Israel for a year of learning. I could still become a rabbi, I thought. It wasn’t too late for me.

During my first year of study in Jerusalem, I surfed waves of boundless enthusiasm over the sea1 of the Talmud. I knew that I would be staying for another year long before it came time to fill out the application form; and I preemptively met with representatives of a suitable rabbinical school in America. I was on track.

* * *

Then, during my second year in Israel I started dating my wife and decided to remain permanently in Israel. (a story for another time)

This decision derailed me.

Israel, you see, is where rabbis from around the world dream of retiring to. They serve their congregations, teach at their various schools and institutions, and perform life cycle events for the members of their communities. Then, ever so nostalgically and with due pride, they hand their reins to the younger generations of Jewish leadership and move to the Holy Land.

Due to the sheer number of rabbis in Israel, it is nearly impossible for the vast majority of religious leaders to sustain themselves here as Jewish professionals. Rabbinical students come here to learn, perhaps even to be ordained, and then they move away to build their careers. Those who move here before retirement knowingly give up their rabbinic careers and seek other prospects.

For several years following my decision, I continued studying, profoundly struggling to accept reality, but the truth was unbendable. I couldn’t have it all. I had given up my entire life in America to pursue the rabbinate, only to give up the rabbinate for Israel. I struggle to find words to describe my inner turmoil during that period of my life.

By coincidence, I was actually offered a plum job as a Jewish educator shortly after my daughter was born, which would have required me to travel regularly to Europe to work with young, Russian-speaking Jews. Painfully, I turned it down. Before Israel, before fatherhood, it would have been a dream for me, but I couldn’t be away from my family for nearly half of the year, including most Jewish holidays.

* * *

After reading my blog post ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, my brother asked me if I had any regrets about pursuing Jewish studies in my early thirties. “You at least learned a bunch.”

“No,” I responded, “I wish I had immediately started studying Judaism after college and become a rabbi at a young age.”

* * *

Footnote

Shir haShirim (The Song of Songs) contains the following verse, in which a lover is describing her beloved (5:14):

יָדָיו גְּלִילֵי זָהָב, מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ; מֵעָיו עֶשֶׁת שֵׁן, מְעֻלֶּפֶת סַפִּירִים. His hands are like rods of gold set with beryl; his body is like polished ivory overlaid with sapphires.

In Shir haShirim Rabbah, an aggadic midrash on Song of Songs, the author expounds upon this verse, offering an interpretation. He writes, in part:

מַה גַּלִּים הַלָּלוּ בֵּין גַּל גָּדוֹל לְגַל גָּדוֹל גַּלִּים קְטַנִּים, כָּךְ בֵּין כָּל דִּבּוּר וְדִבּוּר פָּרָשִׁיּוֹתֶיהָ וְדִקְדּוּקֶיהָ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה הָיוּ כְּתוּבִים. מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ, זֶה הַתַּלְמוּד, שֶׁהוּא כַּיָּם הַגָּדוֹל, הֲדָא דְאַתְּ אָמַר (יונה א, ג): תַּרְשִׁישָׁה, הֲדָא מַה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (קהלת א, ז): כָּל הַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים אֶל הַיָּם. What are these ‘waves’ (galim)? Between all the big waves, there are small waves, and so too between all the sayings, the sections and the nuances of the Torah were written. ‘מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ’ (‘m’mulayim ba’tarshish’) refers to the Talmud, for it is like a great sea; so you say (Jonah 1:3): ‘תַּרְשִׁישָׁה’ (‘Tarshishah’); so you say (Ecclesiastes 1:7): ‘All the rivers run into the sea’.

This is classic midrash, in that the author deliberately reinterprets several words from the verse in Song of Songs in order to make his case, which is that the Talmud is like the sea:

  • The ancient Hebrew word ‘galim’ in the Song of Songs is generally translated as ‘rods’ in that specific context, but this same word can mean ‘waves’.
  • The ancient Hebrew word ‘tarshish’ is generally understood to mean ‘beryl’, but it is also the name of the kingdom that God commanded the prophet Jonah to visit.
    • And – since Jonah traveled to ‘Tarshish’ first in a boat and then in the belly of a fish (i.e. through the sea), the author understands this to suggest that the verse in Song of Songs is referring to the ‘sea’, as described in Ecclesiastes.

So – in case you were wondering – the Talmud is often compared to the sea.

QED?

My lack of reverence

I used to have reverence for rabbis, but I barely remember it.

Last night I was at a wonderful rooftop get-together for a friend of mine (‘C5’) who just recently made Aliyah (repatriated to Israel as a Jew). It was lovely, particularly for me because I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter recently and needed some space. Chips, beer, and engaging conversation reenergized me.

This friend was a member of my Talmud class last year, as was another friend (‘A5’) who attended the celebration. Both of these friends plan to continue studying Talmud under the young rabbi this coming year, unlike me. They’re both very religious and religiously-oriented… and SO [damned] respectful.

My young rabbi friend (our Talmud teacher) joined us on the roof later in the evening, and suddenly my friends’ and another young woman’s tones changed.

Should I cover my shoulders? I didn’t know that you had invited a rabbi.
Is it okay that we’re drinking?
Oh no… do you think he’ll be offended that I’m wearing pants tonight? I left my skirt at home!

I was startled. Really? He’s our age – a really cool guy and a friend of ours. Don’t worry about it guys, seriously!

Then, seemingly somewhat inebriated, ‘C5’ asked the young rabbi some serious questions about sexuality vis-à-vis rabbinic sensibilities and proceeded to share a brief reflection of his regarding his appreciation for the depths of the young rabbi’s humanity, open-mindedness, and inspirational teachings. ‘A5’, who was sober, also shared some very personal thoughts and nodded in agreement to ‘C5’s words. It was sweet and unexpected.

* * *

There was a time, certainly less than ten years ago, when I would turn humbly to rabbis for direction – a time when I specifically desired to hear learned rabbinic perspectives – a time when the words of Torah scholars carried more weight than those of the laity – a time when I was apprehensive of their answers but yearned for their affirmations.

And now that is all gone. No reverence remains in me.

I barely believe in a God who cares about my actions. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that rabbis are any wiser about the nuances of human nature than other learned, experienced people. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that there is anything worth believing in that we cannot perceive in our daily, earthly lives. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe in anything.

And while there are many reasons that I’ve decided not to continue with the young rabbi’s Talmud class, one reason is that I am repelled by various faith statements that I heard in the shiur. It’s nice that other people believe, truly, but one may keep it to one’s self unless somebody engages them in a conversation about religious beliefs.

I believe that reciting the Book of Psalms does nothing at all for your mother-in-law’s health; sharing your dubious religious convictions alienates me. Further, I don’t want blessings on my behalf after we’ve eaten cookies. I don’t want traditional statements of intent on my behalf before we engage in Talmud study. It’s all sheer bunk, I maintain, and believing in it doesn’t imbue one with holiness, wisdom, righteousness, or truth; and- such nonsense only distracts me from serious Torah study.

I do respect the young rabbi greatly – as much as I would any other seriously committed and capable professional in any line of work. Also, I consider him a close friend, greatly enjoy spending time with him, and would go out of my way for him without a moment’s hesitancy. But. I don’t revere him. And. I don’t revere what he stands for.

Also, I must add that I have studied Talmud with a number of learned and amazing instructors… and no theological assertions were ever woven into any of my previous classes. They are, at minimum, not necessary.

* * *

Next year I will instead be taking a class on theology with Rabbi Daniel Landes. I rather enjoy discussions about God and the supernatural when I deliberately choose to engage in them – and when there is room for me to inject my doubts and reservations into our classroom discussions.

Ethical will

I finally began writing my ethical will last week.

Oof. This is hard for so many reasons, the first of which is that I have hardly lived up to my personal ideals by any stretch of the imagination. Secondly, most people who seriously engage in writing ethical wills for their descendants have children with children of their own, whereas I am only a father with one young child – clearly, no sagacious elder. In addition to flipping my humility switch, this endeavor leaves something of a morbid taste in my mouth. I’m not expecting to die any time soon, but life has schooled me: you never know.

* * *

During my year of reciting kaddish for Papa, I was introduced to the concept of an ethical will, and it spoke to me because much of what I continue to recall and appreciate about Papa was his character.

[Papa] was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.

– Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #45, May 30, 2019

He was brilliant, of course, and I remember that too, but I cannot capture his genius, nor convey it to those who never knew him. His website, I suppose, is the best remaining evidence of his mind, and his book of probability riddles will be coming out in the not too distant future – with a foreword written by his friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame.

* * *

Before I launched this website, I had been in the process of thinking through the idea of writing of a ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ book, and my vision for such included an ethical will, which would be informed by my memories of Papa.

More than that, I was hoping to derive my list of ‘ethics’ from the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ itself. In other words, I wanted my ethical will to parallel my year-long kaddish journey, thereby rendering the two a single, seamless product. Every post of my original ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ included some recollections of Papa, as well as my personal reflections upon tradition, theology, family, parenting, childhood, or memorialization, etc.

However, I hit two primary stumbling blocks. First, while every blog post did contain ethical content, there was a great deal of thematic overlap between my posts. Secondly, my process of writing the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ on a near-weekly basis had been organic in that I had blogged all year about whatever I was experiencing, thinking, reading, and remembering. However, forcing those existing blog posts in their chronological order upon my list of personal ethics left me very little room for creativity or spontaneity. In attempting to write my ethical will that way, I couldn’t find my voice.

* * *

Last year, I was taking a Talmud class, which focused upon the religious laws governing the Jewish Sabbath. In the tractate on Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud struggled to come up with a comprehensive list of 39 categories of work that are prohibited on the Sabbath.

Why 39, you ask?

Because that’s the number of categorical Sabbath prohibitions listed in the Mishnah, which is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the Oral Torah. It was redacted at the beginning of the 3rd century CE in Israel, whereas the Babylonian Talmud was completed later, by the end of the 5th century CE in exile.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived earlier than the rabbis of the Talmud, thus being in closer proximity to the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, so their teachings were held as authoritative by the rabbis of the Talmud. Hence, if the Mishnah asserted that there were exactly ‘forty minus one’ categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, the Talmud could do nothing but accept that count.

Suffice it to say that the rabbis of the Talmud performed all sorts of mental gymnastics to apply the Mishnah’s list of 39 prohibitions to the realities of their own times, hundreds of years later and no longer residing in the Land of Israel. In fact, while the Talmud ultimately managed to hew to the all-important ‘forty minus one’, their final list was slightly different than the Mishnah’s had been.

If the rabbis of the Talmud hadn’t been fettered to the Mishnah’s ’39’, who knows what their final list of categories would have looked like?

* * *

And… so…

I gave up on my concept. Perhaps a more talented or cleverer writer could extrapolate and articulate a list of values from my series of 51 kaddish blog posts, but I am not that person.

After writing several months’ worth of reflections in my blog and returning to poetry after a decades-long hiatus, I finally wrote a first entry in my ethical will. It wasn’t at all easy for me to do, but it feels very important…

We’ll have to see where it goes.