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A journey to authenticity

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Religion

As South African Jews, we appreciate what it means to be Jewish. We appreciate how Judaism enriches our homes and families, how it connects us to community, how it gives our lives direction, meaning, and purpose. We appreciate, also, how Judaism helps us to become better people – compassionate, giving, loving, moral people. And how it brings us close to our Creator, to those around us, and to our own inner self. Judaism roots us in a rich spiritual, ethical, and historical tradition, and connects us to Jews around the world and our beloved Israel.

Judaism enriches our lives in so many ways. But as Shavuot approaches, we are reminded that being Jewish is connected to certain foundational facts and truths of actual events that happened.

On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Jewish people – the story of who we are, where we come from, and most importantly, why we exist. This year, we mark exactly 3 333 years since G-d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Shavuot makes a factual claim about the origins of the Jewish people in the same way that Pesach does. At the Pesach seder, we trace the origins of our people from slavery to miraculous redemption through G-d Himself intervening in human history. And on Shavuot, we remind ourselves how three million Jews standing at the foot of a mountain heard G-d speak and begin the process of revealing His Torah to us and with it our purpose in life.

Take a moment to think about this. It’s a radical claim. To be a Jew isn’t just to be a member of a particular culture with a shared history. It’s to be part of an eternal covenant with G-d, to be the bearers of a Divine mission in the world. This is the essence of Jewish identity and Jewish destiny. This is who we are, where we come from, why we exist.

And so, everything depends on the historical claims we make on Pesach and Shavuot. This is a time to reflect not just on the meaning and the implications of the story of the origin of the Jewish people, but on its authenticity.

Earlier this week, I had a fascinating conversation with Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen. A graduate of the University of California Los Angeles and Harvard, he is a recognised expert on comparative religion. The conversation was about exactly this subject – the authenticity of the origin story of the Jewish people, and in particular of the Divine revelation at Sinai. Kelemen compared it to the origin story and historical claims of other religions and nations, and put forward a compelling, rational-scientific argument for the veracity of the Jewish story.

What moved me in our conversation was his personal life story. He grew up in a traditional family but challenged his parents on beliefs that they took for granted. He began his own journey to search for truth through his academic studies and other sources. In the end, he came to a deep realisation of the truths of Judaism, of G-d’s existence, and the authenticity of the Torah. He wrote books – Permission to Believe and Permission to Receive – to share his findings with others. In our conversation, he told me how he found faith and belief in Judaism through rational analysis of the facts. He reminded me that we are all on individual journeys of deepening our faith. This may be why the festival is called Shavuot, which literally means week, referring to the weeks leading up to Sinai, reminding us that getting to the mountain of truth is a process, an individual journey of faith and connection.

Let this year’s Shavuot be a catalysing moment for us individually and collectively as we embark on this journey of faith together.

I’d love to know about your journey. Reach out to me, and I’ll share source material that has been valuable to me on my journey. There is so much that has been written and spoken that can guide and illuminate our paths to the foundational truths of our people.

Chag sameach!

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Allan

    May 20, 2021 at 9:06 am

    Really a recognised expert on comparative religion? What articles has he published in peer review journals. He is also not a graduate of Harvard. See below
    https://malimaalah.wixsite.com/offthederechthoughts/post/the-keleman-theorem-and-the-dishonesty-of-kiruv-rabbis

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Religion

Moving from tumah to tahara

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This week’s parsha introduces us to the detrimental spiritual effects of tumat met, the impurity that comes from being in contact with the dead and the requisite process of purification through the mechanics of the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer – the para adumah.

Tumah (ritual impurity) is a prevalent topic in the Torah and in many instances, we are warned to distance ourselves from numerous sources of tumah.

But what is it anyway? The English translation does it no justice (as is the case with most English translations of Hebrew concepts).

I have heard rabbis and teachers try and compare tumah to a type of “spiritual radiation”, which can affect anyone who comes close to its source.

Another idea which I read a while ago describes tumah as deviation from an object’s designation, while tahara (the opposite of tumah) is the return or recalibration of an entity to its purpose and goal. For example, a dead animal is by definition tamei (impure) while an animal shechted in accordance with halacha, is tahor (pure), and can be eaten by the holiest and most pure Jew around – apologies to all the vegans out there. A human corpse carries the highest form of tumah, as he can no longer fulfil his purpose in this world, namely living and sanctifying Hashem’s name in the world.

But I think the best explanation is that tumah is the erroneous sensation that Hashem has abandoned us. Hashem is all of reality. (The ineffable name “havaya” talks to this concept.) The truth is that Hashem is always everywhere and intimately involved in our lives. When we perceive and appreciate this, we live on a lofty level of tahara and kedusha. However, when we don’t perceive Hashem’s presence because of a death or being in contact with certain spiritually tainted objects, we are labelled as being tamei.

It’s for this reason that a mourner, someone who by definition came into contact with a relative who passed away and mistakenly felt that Hashem had abandoned him, has to recite kaddish publicly in shul and re-infuse himself with kedusha – sanctity and the realisation that Hashem was always there and would never forsake him.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

Quarrels and Korach

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I remember once being peripherally involved in a community dispute (a rare occurrence in Jewish life to be sure) some years ago. Discontent had been bubbling for a while, but it all boiled over around this time – parshat Korach. As support was being mustered, one party approached me during the week and asked, “Are you with me, or are you with Korach?” About a day later, I was speaking to the other party, who raised the dispute and asked me, “Are you on my side, or that of the other party, who is clearly Korach?”

In the end I was able, more or less, to stay clear of it (thank G-d), but the nature of that interaction is indicative of the challenge of learning the lesson from our parsha generally. Is the lesson that we should be confident in our position, invoking the wrath of G-d to strike down those who are clearly in error since they disagree with us? Obviously not. Is the lesson that there’s no right and wrong, and it all just depends on your perspective? I don’t believe our Torah is compatible with such moral relativism. The parsha can teach us how to engage in such difficult situations through two-fold analysis of a situation, as we can see with the Korach dispute.

First, look at the merits of the arguments raised by each side. Korach is claiming that Moshe has claimed power for himself, without divine mandate, in order to rule over the Jewish people. Moshe is claiming that he has no personal desire for power, he’s simply doing what G-d instructed. We, the astute readers of the Torah, know that Moshe is correct, that in fact, he shunned leadership at the burning bush, and accepted the position only at Hashem’s insistence. Besides, all of the Jewish people have seen that Hashem entrusted Moshe to deliver the ten commandments, and that he succeeded in achieving atonement for us after the sin of the golden calf. Is it more logical that such a man would attempt a power grab, or that the troublesome former slaves needed a leader with a firm hand on the wheel?

Second, look at the approach of each side. Korach begins by wheeling and dealing – mustering support, putting spin on his position, and using soundbites to signal his virtue. Moshe appeals for de-escalation, reaches out to other disputants Datan and Aviram, and asks for trust based on his history of dedication to the people.

Our cognitive biases, particularly what’s known as the “halo effect”, nudge us to prejudge people and situations and to take sides based on who we like better. But, before deciding who is Moshe and who is Korach, we would be well served by applying these parsha lessons.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

How to avoid blindness

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Do you want to preserve your eyesight? Mishna Berura (24,7) quotes an ancient custom that will prevent blindness. Passing the tzitzit over our eyes when reciting the third paragraph of the shema will guarantee that we don’t lose the ability to see. How are we to understand this blessing?

The final passage of this week’s Torah reading teaches us the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes we are instructed to attach to the edges of four-cornered garments in order to remember all of Hashem’s commandments. After spelling out the details of the laws of tzitzit, the portion concludes with a seemingly unrelated reminder that Hashem took us out of Egypt.

Egypt is actually the embodiment of the polar opposite of remembering. This was the country that forgot all about Joseph and all the blessings he had brought upon the land, saving them from a certain famine. A generation later, his erstwhile VIP family, who had been invited to settle in Goshen as the king’s preferred subjects, were enslaved and committed to hard labour. This was a blatant display of ingratitude – a total lack of appreciation for Joseph’s contribution.

Instead, the Egyptians turned a blind eye to the plight of the Hebrews around them, never objecting to the injustices decreed upon them by Pharoah. This explains why one of the ten plagues was darkness, a physical manifestation of their ingrate sightlessness. The Hebrew word for this plague is choshech, which is written with the three letters chaf-shin-chet, letters which also spell the words shachach (forgot) and kichesh (denied).

The precept of tzitzit is about remembering – the antithesis of the Egyptians’ behaviour. Hashem took us out of that land, physically and spiritually, removing us from and from us the evil of ungratefulness. The tzitzit, on the contrary, are all about gratitude, a reminder of the 613 commandments given to us after the exodus. (The numerical value of the word tzitzit, 600, added to the number of strings, eight, and knots, five, that make up each of the four fringes, serves as a mnemonic of these obligations.)

Hence, the custom to pass these fringes over our eyes each time we call out the word tzitzit when reading the third paragraph of the shema every morning. This will ensure that we aren’t struck with the blindness of the Egyptians. And, please G-d, the merit of the mitzvah will also preserve our physical eyesight.

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