I don’t blog on Shabbas (the Sabbath)

Worth watching: The Big Lebowski

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of movies online, which I haven’t seen for many years. It amazes me how little I remember of them; in many cases, it’s as though I’m watching these flicks for the first time all over again. Among them has been a popular cult classic, which I watched years ago (in 1998) when it was first released: ‘The Big Lebowski’.

This movie is full of hilarious moments and running gags.

One of these is that of supporting character Walter’s (John Goodman) commitment to his Jewish conversion, which he underwent back when he married his ex-wife. This character is a right-wing veteran of the Vietnam War with an explosive temper and propensity towards violence (he probably suffers from PTSD); and he is also, unexpectedly, as he puts it: shomer fucking Shabbas!

From a Jewish perspective (mine), one of the elements that makes this so hilarious is just how accurate Walter’s description of traditional Shabbas observance (I pronounce it ‘Shabbat’, btw, as it is pronounced in modern Israeli Hebrew) really is. Have a quick listen to this Jewish Supercut of the Big Lebowski below. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, the word ‘roll’ in this context refers to bowling, which is the main character’s recreational activity of choice.


Partial transcription:

Walter: I DON’T ROLL ON SHABBAS!

Donny: How come you don’t roll on Saturday, Walter?
Walter: I’m shomer Shabbas.
Donny: What’s that, Walter?
Walter: Saturday Donny, is Shabbas. The Jewish day of rest. That means I don’t work, I um, don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit DON’T FUCKING ROLL!
Donny: Sheesh
Walter: SHOMER SHABBAS!

Walter: Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Donny: Hey Walter, if you can’t ride in a car, how do you get around on Shabbas


Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Yes, really: We don’t flip light switches

Living in Jerusalem, as I do, it’s entirely normative to observe Shabbat. The weekend in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday (Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday), and most who do not observe Shabbat have at least a general concept of what it is.

In principle, I would describe Shabbat as a day during which those who observe it refrain from engaging in physically creative activities (although procreation is encouraged). We aim to avoid causing physical changes to the world and focus ourselves, instead, upon spirituality, family, and the intangible.

The specifics of the restrictions that apply to the traditional Jewish observance of Shabbat were developed by our sages throughout the course of many centuries, and they are based primarily upon those physical acts that were necessary for the construction of the portable Tabernacle, which God instructed the Israelites to build after they had left Egypt.

Without getting into much detail, the Sages determined that there were a total of 39 categories of physical labor that cover the many restrictions of the Sabbath. One of these 39 categories is: the lighting of a fire, and another one is: the extinguishing of a fire.

Now, modern technology, and electricity in particular, was a game changer for the rabbis. When electricity entered people’s homes, the rabbis had to decide whether or not to permit its use on Shabbat, and ultimately the accepted mainstream ruling in the Orthodox Jewish community became that a spark of electricity is like a spark of fire, meaning, for example, that it is forbidden to flip light switches on and off on Shabbat.

Of course, from a scientific perspective, this is nonsense. Electricity is not fire.

A popular idea is that creating an electric spark is like lighting a fire, which is halakhically prohibited on Shabbat. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis who asked him, “Is electricity fire?” The renowned physicist responded that electricity is not a chemical process, as fire is.

-Me, The Skeptic’s Kaddish # 12, Oct. 25, 2018

Regardless, this religious ruling took root and remains the norm today among the vast majority of Sabbath observant Jews. I do not flip light switches on Shabbat; I do not use my phone; I do not use my computer; etc.


I don’t blog on Shabbas

The lived experience

Growing up as a secular Jew, I knew nothing of these Shabbat-related norms, which is why it strikes me that some of you may find this intriguing. Actually, I first began thinking about writing this blog post after creating a Twitter account for myself in order to publish daily micropoems in 2021. After all, January 2nd was a Saturday:

To be honest, I am not interested in getting into the nitty gritty of Jewish religious law. Rather, I simply want to provide a sense of what our lived Shabbat is like. We have many religious restrictions, but the one which I think would be the most obvious to an outside observer is the limitation on using electricity.

From a technical perspective, it is very simple: instead of flipping light switches on Shabbat, we set timers for all of the electric devices and appliances that we need. Lamps and fans are set to timers, for example, as is our electric hot plate (‘platta’ in Hebrew) for heating up food for Sabbath meals. The food itself must be prepared before Shabbat but can be warmed up on the Day of Rest. Essentially, we cannot cause physical changes on Shabbat, but if we set timers before Shabbat, that’s kosher because the cause of the physical change occurred before Shabbat. Simple, right?

But providing you with this technical illustration is not my reason for writing this blog post. What I really want to do is describe, briefly, the impact of this lifestyle upon our family life.

The impact

Like many of you, my wife and I spend most of our days behind computer screens; also, our six-year-old loves watching Disney movies and other videos, having screen time with her extended family in Russia and the USA, writing prose and poetry on a computer, and playing the video games installed on her children’s camera (clever marketing idea, right?).

It’s not that we don’t do other things; it’s just that our telephones and computers occupy a tremendous amount of space in our lives. And – they serve to separate us from one another because we often end up interacting with our electronic devices instead of interacting with one another.

On Shabbat, on the other hand, we spend all day together (especially this last year of global pandemic when we haven’t gone to synagogue and haven’t been invited to friends’ Sabbath meals), and the quality family time is priceless, especially from a parenting perspective. We play card and board games, read books, horse around in the bedroom, etc., and I am certain that this unplugging is very healthy for us all. Of course, we do all get to missing our shows and news websites during those 25 hours every week, but I cannot think of many other facets of traditional Jewish life that have come to be so relevant in this modern era.

The sages who ruled against using electricity could not have foreseen this 21st century reality, and I still disagree with the logic they employed in issuing their religious rulings against it. However, truth be told, I don’t really care about that at all. Shabbat, as I have come to know it and live it, is one of the best parts of traditional Jewish life for me.

Blogging can wait for a day.

What we take with us when we die

Since my return to blogging in April 2020, following my year of mourning for Papa, I have searched for interesting and likeminded blogs with themes similar to my Skeptic’s Kaddish.

Just recently I was very gratified to come across a blog by Amanda Achtman called ‘Dying to Meet You’, in which she has taken to blogging daily in 2021 about death from an interfaith Christian-Jewish perspective.

The short video below is one that I found through Amanda’s blog. I was already familiar with this Jewish folktale, but I consider it a powerfully poignant and important lesson and often reflect upon it, for it applies to all of humankind. I’m very thankful to be able to share it with all of you here, on The Skeptic’s Kaddish:


Transcription

Edward Reichman was an Israeli billionaire and philanthropist who died a few years ago. When he passed away, he left a great fortune worth billions of dollars.

He left his family with two wills and instructions that one be opened immediately after his death and the other be opened 30 days after his death.

Among his requests in the first will was that he asked that he be buried with a specific pair of socks that he owned. However, despite the family’s best efforts, the burial organizers refused to let Mr. Reichman be buried with his socks on, as it was against Jewish law – one may not be buried with any item of clothing.

The family argued that Mr. Reichman was a very learned, religious person, and that he must have had a good reason for wanting to do this; however, as the rabbi explained to the family, “Although your father left that request when he was in this world, now that he is in the World of Truth, he surely understands that it is in his best interests to be buried without his socks.”

So – he was buried without his socks.

30 days later, the family opened the second will that allotted his wealth. In the letter, it read: “My dear children, by now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to understand that a man can have 1 billion dollars in this world, but in the end, he can’t even take with him his favorite pair of socks!”

What really matters in life is not how much money you have in your pocket, nor how successful you are, but rather the good you can bring to this world; that is all you can really take with you, and that is all that will really live on.

Lazy Friday morning, or: Before Shabbat

                         I sit and write about the
                         Playmobil toys scattered
on the floor; stuffed animals, pillows
on the sofa; markers, colored pencils
on the table; Disney princess dolls and
                         plastic ponies everywhere; 
                         a 3D Disney castle puzzle 
in front of me, fully constructed; fish
in little aquarium, swimming around
in all directions; bookshelf, full of
                         books, toys, tchotchkes;
                         colored balloons left over
from our daughter's sixth birthday; gifts
from parents, grandparents; traffic sounds
from the left; the street not quite visible
                         through the large rectangular
                         flower grilled window;
we sit quietly at our oval wooden table;
we just woke up Friday morning; already
we are, each of us, busy with projects;
                         paint by numbers, color
                         within the lines, compose

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Setting’ prompt.

The writing challenge: Bring us to a time and place in your poem. Give us the smells, sights and sounds of your setting. Note that settings can be real or fictional, or a combination of both real and fictional elements.


N.B. On Shabbat, which begins at sunset on Friday and ends upon sunset on Saturday, Jews traditionally do not write, paint, nor use electronic devices (among other restrictions). In essence, according to Jewish tradition, we are not to “create” on Shabbat. Therefore, Friday mornings are the perfect time to engage in our respective creative projects.

Deed, not Creed?

The rhyme that stuck

Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.

When I first heard this said to me some 2½ decades ago, I had no idea what my Hebrew high school teacher Rabbi Witty meant by it, but the rhyme stuck with me.


Hebrew high school?

I attended public school throughout my childhood, and, like many of my American Jewish contemporaries, I was also enrolled in an afterschool program that met three times weekly at the synagogue. This is known as Hebrew school.

Now, most of the children who attended Hebrew school did so for one simple reason: the shul’s (synagogue’s) policy was that only those who attended Hebrew school until the date of their bar/bat mitzvahs could mark these events within the community. That’s why many Hebrew school students dropped out in the 7th grade; that’s why less than half remained for the Hebrew high school program, which began the following year.

Even in Hebrew high school, there were plenty of students attending against their wills. Their parents pressured them to go – so they went. My Papa, on the other hand, thought it was a total waste of time. “What are you learning there?” he would ask me; and my answers were always lacking. Still, I remained one of the few students who loved going to Hebrew school, and I continued attending until I left for college.

To a large extent, Papa was correct. Compared to what I would eventually learn about Judaism as an adult (once I began proactively seeking my own Jewish way), most of my takeaways from Hebrew school, even after those many years, were not much more than fluff. Upon graduation, my Hebrew was poor, and I remained incapable of navigating any of the foundational Jewish texts, such as the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud.

Now, clearly, our Hebrew school teachers were well aware of this. They knew that the majority of their students came from fairly secular homes and were largely ignorant of Judaism. The sarcastic and dry Rabbi Witty (one of my favorite Hebrew high school teachers) understood his goal well: to plant the seeds of curiosity within his students. He knew that the substance of our Hebrew school studies left much to be desired; and he aimed, therefore, to plant germs of Jewish wisdom in our minds that would hopefully take root and sprout up at some point in the future.

“Remember, David,” said Rabbi Witty as he adjusted his belt buckle, “Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.”


Huh? Deed? Not creed?

Yep.

In fact, this saying actually encapsulates one of the major points of Christianity’s departure from Judaism, for Judaism, you see, has always been all about the Law.

[In Judaism] there are thus religious acts as well as religious knowledge. The religious acts… are disciplinary and educative. They train the soul to reverence. Religious knowledge tells us about the subject of that reverence, and inclines the mind to love. The sanctions of the law are thus for the purpose of spiritual education…

… St. Paul, too, believed that only with the coming of the Messiah will a change take place in human nature which will make the deterrent of the law superfluous, but since he believed that the Messiah has come already, that Jesus was the Messiah, the continuation of the practice of the law was regarded by him as a denial of Jesus’ messianity. It was either the law or Jesus.

Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7

In principle, you see, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, one is true to the Jewish faith if one practices Judaism. One must eat kosher food, pray thrice daily, observe the Sabbath, separate wool from linen, etc., etc., and these daily acts are the very building blocks of traditional Jewish life. In a certain sense, certainly from the perspective of Zvi Kolitz (above), traditional Judaism is designed for skeptics like me, for the law “trains the soul to reverence.”

Traditional Judaism does not assume that a human being inherently believes in God, let alone loves God. Rather, it assumes that one must be trained to do so. And – if one never comes to believe but continues adhering to the law, one remains, according to traditional Judaism, a member of the Jewish people in good standing.

Now, my own faith journey has been up, down, and all around. For some periods, I managed to convince myself that I believe in God, and at other times (like the last few years) I’ve had seemingly insurmountable difficulty believing in a supernatural force that is somehow involved in or even invested in the lives of human beings at all.

Still, in theory, if I were to somehow become convinced of a personal God’s existence again, that would be wonderful. I do remain open to that possibility, and therefore the traditional Jewish approach works well for me – I can continue practicing the law, regardless of what I happen to believe at any given moment.


The skeptic’s social problem

When it comes to my personal life, holding fast to the law, or at least holding it up as a standard to live by, works well. That’s not to say that I don’t break the law in multiple ways daily, but I am always keenly aware of it; I always think about it; I always ask myself if I couldn’t be more loyal to it. I always wish that I wanted to follow it more.

However, despite my earnest commitment to traditional Judaism, I have consistently found that expressing my religious skepticism regarding the possible existence of an involved, invested God in a communal setting in the Orthodox Jewish community inevitably results in awkwardness.

In private interpersonal interactions, it’s usually acceptable for me to express my beliefs honestly, in the sense that people don’t tend to take offense; but more often than not my fellow interlocutors will either attempt to convince me of their beliefs in God, or else they will suggest that I should continue along the traditional religious path and will eventually discover God for myself. In both such cases, I feel unheard and intellectually disrespected.

Online, I participate in several very respectful, intellectual, and active discussion forums for Jews who are skeptics; Jews who were once religious and left the fold; Jews who are religious both in outlook and in practice; and Jews who have come to believe in God over time. These forums are much more accepting and intellectually engaging than anything I have encountered in the real world. Through them, I have discovered some amazing Jewish bloggers who write about their struggles with faith, many of whom are anonymous for fear of being ostracized in their real lives.

For example, I came across an ultra-Orthodox blogger who calls himself ‘A Jew With Questions’ who continues to reside in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, but harbors theological doubts. He writes:

I am an American Charedi Jew living in Israel who is going through a crisis of faith. In short, I have a hard time believing in Orthodox Judaism due to the many questions that I have…

The purpose of this blog is to express these doubts and hopefully get some answers or at least conversation from commenters. One of the biggest problems that I have is that I have no one to talk to.  In many ways I am very lonely. My wife is a true believer in Hashem, and she constantly talks about emuna. My children go to Charedi schools and have been brainwashed by the Charedi educational system. My friends, chavrusas etc. are all true believers and would not listen or understand if I talked to them…

‘A Jew With Questions’, June 13, 2016

Now, I affiliate with the more religiously liberal and intellectually open end of the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, but despite the modern-mindedness of most such communities, I find serious, respectful discussions about my deep skepticism in God’s involvement not so easy to come by without uncomfortable looks and pregnant pauses.


The crux

A friend of mine has asked me on more than occasion why it matters to me what the members of my extended community believe. In part, it’s a matter of loneliness, just as it is for ‘A Jew With Questions’.

However, among other things, it’s also a matter of my deep disillusionment with traditional Judaism in lived experience. I’ve already written a blog post titled ‘Because God’, which I won’t rehash here, but it comes down to the following:

‘Because God’ is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom…

-Me, ‘Because God’, May 22, 2020

Upon reflection, I find the irony of humanity’s limitations in this context to be quite stinging.

Whereas I believe that Jewish law should be a means to “train the soul to reverence”, as Zvi Kolitz suggested (and therefore its practitioners should have no reason whatsoever to be threatened by a broad range of levels of belief within their communities), instead, most of its adherents seem to want/need to approach the system from exactly the opposite direction.

Namely: if those who follow the law cannot convince themselves that Hashem exists; that God is involved in their lives; that God wants them to observe the law… then it may turn out that they lack the motivation to follow Jewish law… and… well, frankly, I think they are afraid to face that possibility.

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.

Orphaned, or: Reborn

In the summer of 2018 I was unexpectedly reborn as an orphan. Shabbat ended with the setting of the Jerusalem sun on July 7th, and after a brief closing ceremony at home I turned on my computer to learn that my Papa was lying intubated at a hospital in America. Shortly afterwards, his heart stopped.

Jewish tradition holds that we are to recite a special doxology called the mourner’s kaddish upon a parent’s death every single day for the duration of one year on the Hebrew calendar. For other loved ones, we are to recite the mourner’s kaddish for only 30 days. Much ink has been spilled over why our parents receive the greatest honor.

Part of an answer can be found in the original Hebrew, as the term “mourner’s kaddish” is actually a mistranslation. The correct translation of “kaddish yatom” (קדיש יתום) is “orphan’s kaddish”. You see, this version of the doxology was originally intended to be recited in honor of either of one’s parents after they died. It was only a later development that mourners were also permitted to recite it for their spouses, siblings, and children, and even then only for a duration of 30 days. According to Jewish tradition, therefore, one takes the status of an orphan upon the death of either parent, even if the other is still alive.

Rainbow veiled by night
Arching across creation;
Painting soul anew

The above haibun is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Happy New Year!’ prompt. We were to write about some new beginning that we’ve experienced. Obviously, I took this in an unexpected direction, but, well… it’s real, and I was thinking about Papa because yesterday was his birthday.

We were directed to write a classic haibun, including a traditional haiku, which entails the following:

  • A haibun includes 1 to 3 prose paragraphs that must be a true accounting, not fiction,
    followed by a traditional haiku which MUST:
    • be nature based
    • be three lines (5 – 7 – 5 syllables OR short-long-short)
    • have a direct or subtle relationship to your prose paragraphs: enrich the prose without condensing or summarizing it
    • include a KIGO (word or phrase associated with a particular season).
    • although only 3 lines in length, it must have two parts including a shift, an added insight. Japanese poets include a KIREJI (cutting word).
      • BUT there’s no linguistic equivalent in the English language therefore punctuation creates the cut: we can use a dash, comma, an ellipsis, an exclamation point. Sometimes it’s simply felt in the pacing or reading.