Bob Schwartz

Category: Judaism

Year Time (Yahrzeit)

Kaddish After Finishing a Tranctate of Talmud – David Wolk

Year Time (Yahrzeit)

The folder tabbed Dad
Reduces that day
That week
Those years
To an inventory of moments.
A poem for the dying
“It is never too late,
And it is always.”
An obituary draft
“He was a great man
Who showed us how to be great people.”
A speech
“His heart never failed anyone.”
I light a candle today
That I’ve missed before
I recite Kaddish
That I’ve chanted a thousand times
As reader and sometimes mourner.
The yahrzeit calculator
Tells me the Hebrew date
For year times to come
A list to 2038.
I wonder which of them
I will have to miss
If there is a folder
A poem a speech
For me.

©

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Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am an optimist against my better judgment.”

If you have the time—and you should make the time—please watch this half-hour interview of Abraham Joshua Heschel from 1972, shortly before he died.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God, the Bible or religion. That such a person might grace the world and our lives is testament to the human possibility. Few of us will reach that height, but just knowing that there is such light among us should inspire us dimmer bulbs.

“I am an optimist against my better judgment,” he says. On our better days, so should we all try to be.

Shabbat and International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Shabbat. Today is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Sabbath is a celebration, compared to a wedding day. The Holocaust is not. A paradox, perhaps.

From The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The Sabbath is a bride, and its celebration is like a wedding.

“We learn in the Midrash that the Sabbath is like unto a bride. Just as a bride when she comes to her groom is lovely, bedecked and perfumed, so the Sabbath comes to Israel lovely and perfumed, as it is written: And on the Seventh Day He ceased from work and He rested (Exodus 31:17), and immediately afterwards we read: And He gave unto Moses kekalloto [the word kekalloto means when he finished, but it may also mean] as his bride, to teach us that just as a bride is lovely and bedecked, so is the Sabbath lovely and bedecked; just as a groom is dressed in his finest garments, so is a man on the Sabbath day dressed in his finest garments; just as a man rejoices all the days of the wedding feast, so does man rejoice on the Sabbath; just as the groom does no work on his wedding day, so does a man abstain from work on the Sabbath day; and therefore the Sages and ancient Saints called the Sabbath a bride.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.

Nowhere in all of our obligations are we asked to make sense of things. Celebrate? Yes. Remember? Yes. Make sense of things? That would be a miracle.

And speaking of miracles, from Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach:

A Kvitl on the Frankfurter’s Grave

RABBI ISRAEL PERLOW (1869–1922), KNOWN AS THE BABE OF KARLIN-Stolin, was one of the most famous Hasidic rabbis of Lithuanian Hasidism. He became a Hasidic leader at the age of four when his father, Rabbi Ascher of Karlin, passed away. Rabbi Israel was a scholar, a fine composer, and had a commanding knowledge of the sciences. He died in Frankfurt an Main during one of his many travels and was buried there. After his death he was sometimes referred to as the Frankfurter. Despite the desecration of many Jewish cemeteries in Nazi Germany, the rabbi’s grave was never vandalized.

After liberation, Germany became the center for displaced persons. Most of them were people who had been liberated from the concentration camps; the others were those who came to seek possible survivors of their families and ways to emigrate to Palestine and America. Among the many refugees were a handful of Hasidim from Karlin-Stolin. For them, the Frankfurter’s grave was a source of strength and solace.

One day a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who, along with his son, had been fortunate enough to survive the horrors of the war, came to pray at the rabbi’s grave. He placed a pebble on the gravestone as is customary, and said a few chapters of Psalms. Then he poured out his heart before the holy grave, begging the Frankfurter that his holiness would intercede with the Almighty so that his son would find a proper mate, befitting a pious young man. As is also customary, he wrote his son’s name and his request on a piece of paper, folded the kvitl neatly, and placed it in one of the crevices of the tombstone. The Hasid left the Frankfurter’s grave in high spirits, sure that his prayers and request would be answered.

A few days later another Hasidic Jew, also a Karlin-Stolin Hasid, made his way to Frankfurt to the Babe of Stolin’s grave. Like the thousands before him, he told his bitter tale and asked the rabbi’s blessing. He too was fortunate, more than many others. Though he had lost almost his entire family, one daughter of marriageable age survived. He prayed now on his daughter’s behalf, that she should meet a Jewish boy who would find favor in the eyes of God and men, and if possible, also be a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin. As he was about to write his request, he realized that he did not have anything to write on. Just then a gentle wind blew and a piece of paper fluttered to his feet. He picked up the paper and wrote his request in the customary manner. As he was about to fold the kvitl, he noticed that the other side also had writing on it. It was the kvitl of none other than the first Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who had appeared earlier.

A few days later, a wedding took place in a D.P. camp in Germany. The two young people whose fathers had prayed on the zaddik’s grave were united in matrimony. And so you see that the miracles of the Frankfurter Rebbe do not cease unto this very day.

“Dozens of U.S. Jewish Activists Stage Sit-in on Capitol Hill in Protest of Trump’s Threat to Deport Dreamers”

It was starting to appear that many faith communities might not be taking their place in standing up and resisting the daily assault on the deepest American, Judeo-Christian and human values. In fact, it appeared that some of those communities were not only silent but hypocritically complicit.

This morning’s protest at the Capitol is one of the latest rays of light. From Haaretz:

Dozens of U.S. Jewish Activists Stage Sit-in on Capitol Hill in Protest of Trump’s Threat to Deport Dreamers

‘Let my people go,’ chant a group of Dreamers alongside coalition of Jewish groups and members of Congress

WASHINGTON – Dozens of Jewish American activists demonstrated on Capitol Hill Wednesday calling on Congress to pass legislation in protection of “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who arrived to the United States as children.

A coalition of Jewish groups organized the demonstration, including the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, Bend the Arc, the Anti-Defamation League and others.

A group of Dreamers also joined the demonstration, chanting “Let my people stay.” Members of Congress Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), who are both Jewish, also arrived at the scene to express their support as activists were arrested….

After handing a petition signed by over 5,000 people thus far to members of Congress, the protesters sat on the floor of the Russel Senate Office Building and chanted “we will not be moved.”

“As Jews, we recognize the dangers of President Trump’s inhumane policies and scapegoating of immigrants,” the petition states. “We’ve seen this before. We stand with our immigrant neighbors on the side of justice, not oppression, of liberation, not deportation.”

A number of protesters, including Reform rabbis, were arrested by Capitol Hill Police officers.

Barbara Weinstein of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center told Haaretz that dozens of the protesters were arrested, but that most of them are being released. “It’s long past time for Congress to pass legislation for the Dreamers,” she stated. “We need this bill immediately. We had a lot of members of Congress, from the House and Senate side, who told us they were determined to solve the crisis. It’s important to Democrats and Republicans alike.”

Weinstein added that “welcoming the stranger is an important part of our identity. We are all descendants of immigrants. It’s on all of us to support these Dreamers. They grew up here, this is the only country they’ve ever known, many of them serve in the military, this is their home. We’re going to remain focused on this issue until we see a bill reach the president’s desk and signed by him. This is not over today.”

 

“Roy Moores wife reveals their ‘Jewish attorney’ and he’s a Christian”

Here are excerpts of a report from AL.com in Alabama:

The wife of former U.S. Senate Republican nominee Roy Moore has revealed the identity of the Moores’ “Jewish attorney” she mentioned in a Dec. 11 speech….

“We read where we were against Jews – even calling us Nazis,” she wrote in an email to AL.com. “We have a Jewish lawyer working for us in our firm – Martin Wishnatsky. Judge hired him while Chief Justice, then I hired him at the Foundation.”

Wishnatsky, in an interview with AL.com, said he graduated from the law school at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in 2012, was admitted to the Virginia Bar Association in October and interviewed with Moore after he was re-elected as chief justice in November 2012. Moore hired Wishnatsky and two other Liberty University School of Law graduates as full-time clerks in 2012, the first State Supreme Court clerks in the school’s history, according to a Liberty University press release.

Wishnatsky worked as a staff attorney at the Alabama Supreme Court from January 2013 until Moore was removed from office in 2016. Then he went to work as a staff attorney for the Foundation for Moral Law, which was founded by Roy Moore and where Kayla Moore works as president.

“I just moved down the street,” Wishnatsky said.

Wishnatsky, 73, said that he was born July 13, 1944, grew up in Asbury Park, N.J., attended Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue and went through a bar mitzvah, but he considered his family secular, ethnic Jews, who were not very religious.

“My background is 100 percent Jewish,” he said. “My grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe, and came through Ellis Island. My parents were born in Brooklyn during World War I. There were no manifestations of faith; we were Jewish, that’s why we went to synagogue and not a church. It was just an ethnic characteristic.”

 But Wishnatsky said he accepted Christ in his thirties. “I had an experience of the reality of God at 33,” Wishnatsky said. “I knew God was real but I wasn’t sure who he was.”

He became a Mormon first, then later became an evangelical Protestant Christian.

“I’m a Messianic Jew,” Wishnatsky said. “That’s the term they use for a Jewish person who has accepted Christ.”…

As for questions about whether an ethnic Jew who converts to Christianity is a Jew or a Christian, Wishnatsky replies:

“You’re both,” he said. “You’re a Jewish person that’s accepted Christ. Jesus was a Jew. Most Jews are not religious. That’s how I grew up. There are the Orthodox who are very serious about Judaism. It’s about whether you think God is real, and whether you’re accountable to him. It’s whether you take God seriously. It took me quite a few years to take God seriously.”

Wishnatsky appears to be intelligent, well-educated and sincerely faithful. He is also wrong in his conclusion that he is a Jew.

A tenet of classical Judaism is that a messiah will come. In modern times, many Jews have relinquished a belief in the coming of the messiah, while others believe that he will still be coming.

Some of the most dramatic moments in Jewish history are claims by individuals to be the promised messiah—Sabbatai Zvi in the 17th century, Jacob Frank in the 18th century, for example. All such claims were ultimately rejected by Judaism.

In one extraordinary case, a handful of Jews came to believe that a man named Jesus was the messiah. This handful was joined by a handful of non-Jews, and together that handful became billions.

Even with that Jesus phenomenon, however, Judaism never acknowledged that the messiah had yet come. The belief that Jesus is that messiah is antithetical to Judaism. Saying that you are a Jew does not make you a Jew, no matter how much in your heart you believe it. (There are also theological arguments to be made, particularly for Christians with certain trinitarian beliefs that do not fit Jewish monotheism, but that is another discussion for another day.)

I have had a fair amount of experience with messianic Jews, including a number in and around Alabama. Anyone who has read my writing knows of my respect for faith and the faithful. But respect for faith and the faith of others is not blind or mindless. Respectfully, Martin Wishnatsky may be a lot of things, but he is not a Jew. His saying so, and Mrs. Roy Moore vouching for him, won’t change that.

Today’s Torah: Slavery Might Be Right Around the Corner

A section of this week’s Torah portion (Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27) is described even by sympathetic commentators as “unusual”, “troubling”, and “brutal”, though one commentator admits it is “ironic or poetic justice.”

Joseph is the sharp CEO of Egypt. (Sharp dealing runs in the family; recall that his father Jacob cheated his uncle Esau out of the family birthright.) He has now brought not only his family but all the Jews down to Egypt.

The new arrivals enjoy a relatively good life, while the native Egyptians are suffering through a disastrous famine, the famine foretold by Joseph himself. To solve the dire situation, Joseph has the desperate Egyptians turn over all money and land to Egypt and the Pharaoh, and then gives them seed and assigns them land to farm so they don’t starve. The Egyptians, we are told, were grateful. This is most kindly characterized as serfdom, but is most commonly described as slavery. The poetic justice is that the Jews themselves were later trapped in the slavery plan that Joseph devised.

Are there any interesting lessons here?

If you are a regular reader of the Torah, you recognize that some of the most iconic figures are not depicted as paragons. Incidents of cheating and lying are found among the patriarchs. Then there’s Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians. Some commentators face this head on, while others are apologists, contextualizing the miscreant behavior as all part of a bigger, better plan. But cheating, lying and cruelty are still just that, no matter the actor.

Another lesson? In hard times for the common people, it’s good to be the Pharaoh, or the Pharaoh’s right hand man, or the family and friends of the Pharaoh or the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Otherwise, slavery might be right around the corner.

A Hanukkah Gift from Isaac Bashevis Singer

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet—whom Plato banned from his Republic—may rise up to save us all.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize Lecture (1978)

Among his many incomparable stories, Isaac Bashevis Singer left a number that take place at Hanukkah. I had planned to excerpt one of those as a Hanukkah gift—his gift to us.

But then I came across the lecture he gave when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. I’ve included an excerpt below. It is a bit long, but with eight days of Hanukkah, you could just read one paragraph each night.

If you are someone who writes, as a profession or a passion, you naturally wonder whether you are wasting your time, or worse, wasting the time of your readers. Singer suggests maybe not.

Happy Hanukkah!


The Nobel Prize in Literature 1978
Isaac Bashevis Singer – Nobel Lecture
8 December 1978

The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation. All the dismal prophecies of Oswald Spengler have become realities since the Second World War. No technological achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his loneliness, his feeling of inferiority, and his fear of war, revolution and terror. Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him.

In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against hope that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all.

As the son of a people who received the worst blows that human madness can inflict, I must brood about the forthcoming dangers. I have many times resigned myself to never finding a true way out. But a new hope always emerges telling me that it is not yet too late for all of us to take stock and make a decision. I was brought up to believe in free will. Although I came to doubt all revelation, I can never accept the idea that the Universe is a physical or chemical accident, a result of blind evolution. Even though I learned to recognize the lies, the clichés and the idolatries of the human mind, I still cling to some truths which I think all of us might accept some day. There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God – a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.

I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to those who fantasize that literature is capable of bringing new horizons and new perspectives – philosophical, religious, aesthetical and even social. In the history of old Jewish literature there was never any basic difference between the poet and the prophet. Our ancient poetry often became law and a way of life.

Some of my cronies in the cafeteria near the Jewish Daily Forward in New York call me a pessimist and a decadent, but there is always a background of faith behind resignation. I found comfort in such pessimists and decadents as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe, and Strindberg. My interest in psychic research made me find solace in such mystics as your Swedenborg and in our own Rabbi Nachman Bratzlaver, as well as in a great poet of my time, my friend Aaron Zeitlin who died a few years ago and left a literary inheritance of high quality, most of it in Yiddish.

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet – whom Plato banned from his Republic – may rise up to save us all.

The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language – a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews. The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than the study of man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Mussar, Cabala. The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for a persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline and in humanism. As such it still exists and refuses to give up in spite of all the brutality that surrounds it. I was brought up among those people. My father’s home on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw was a study house, a court of justice, a house of prayer, of storytelling, as well as a place for weddings and Chassidic banquets. As a child I had heard from my older brother and master, I. J. Singer, who later wrote The Brothers Ashkenazi, all the arguments that the rationalists from Spinoza to Max Nordau brought out against religion. I have heard from my father and mother all the answers that faith in God could offer to those who doubt and search for the truth. In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation. To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical. One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.

There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value. It is a fact that the classics of Yiddish literature are also the classics of the modern Hebrew literature. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.

https://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1517

Be an American Maccabee

This Hanukkah in America we are all called to be Maccabees. Not only Jews, but everyone.

Our highest values are under siege, from powerful outside forces and from our own choices. We aren’t necessarily certain of our own values. We are busy and distracted. We don’t know how to respond. It is inconvenient and risky. What if we make things worse for ourselves? What if we lose? Even when the temple is desecrated, we may stand by and feel helpless.

Jews among all people know this situation. Instead of standing by we stand up. The history is mixed and messy, the results not always ideal. But since days of old we do it because we are called.

This Hanukkah in America the lights are still burning, if dimming. We can’t depend on others, or even God, to make sure the lights don’t go out. That is up to us, the Maccabees.

Hillel on Buddhism

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers 1:14

Hillel didn’t know the Buddha and probably didn’t know those who followed the Buddha’s philosophy. Jesus didn’t know Hillel, but knew people who knew Hillel or who followed Hillel’s philosophy.

This is one of the most famous of all Hillel’s wise sayings, and contains the essence of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and all religions aimed at assisting human evolution.

One of the seeming divisions in Buddhist thought—a division in the thought of most religions—is whether the primary mission is individualistic or communitarian. Should I be enlightened first so that I can help others be enlightened? Should I be saved first and go the heaven first so that I can help others get there? Or should I work on the community first, and then I might achieve that aspirational state and status.

Or both at the same time? Yes, both at the same time.

Hillel could not be more Buddhist if he was in India, China or Japan rather than Palestine.

It’s not just a matter of one making the other possible. These are not just dependent conditions. Your enlightenment does not exist without the enlightenment of others. Your well-being does not exist without the well-being of others. Simultaneously.

We see those who proudly parade their faith around yet, aside from aggressive proselytizing, leave others to fend for themselves. It is as if they stopped at the first Hillel question and felt justified making it all about themselves. When they skip the second question—“If I am only for myself, who am I?”—the possibility of their enlightenment, salvation, heaven, or whatever prize they seek is a delusion, as distant as the diameter of the universe.

Random Torah: The Continuing Conjunction in Leviticus 9

Today’s Random Torah chapter (Leviticus 9) is helpful for bible students, students of translation, all writers and all lovers of language. All you need to look at is the very first verse.

In Hebrew the first verse is:

וַֽיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א משֶׁ֔ה לְאַֽהֲרֹ֖ן

(Vayehi bayom hash’mini kara moshe l’aharon)

Two reputable translations render it this way:

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons (New Jewish Publication Society)

On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons (New Revised Standard Version)

But Robert Alter and a number of traditional translations (including the King James) show that something is lost in translation:

And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron (King James)

Or as Alter has it:

And it happened, on the eighth day, that Moses called to Aaron (Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

Alter notes:

And it happened. This formula (wayehi) is characteristically used to mark the beginning of a unit of narrative.

It is hard to know why so many translations leave this out and jump right into the story (“On the eighth day”). But this omission is more significant than it seems.

Beginning writers are often taught never to start a sentence with a conjunction. Like many rigid rules of writing, it can rob creativity and meaning.

“And” in this verse is what might be called a continuing conjunction. If you are a fan of TV series, you get this. Episodes begin with a “previously on” prologue, followed by the implicit “and now this.” Everything that happened before is still present, and now this is happening.

It’s true that as a writer I have a tendency (sometimes edited out when excessive) to start sentences with conjunctions. And I do recognize the habit. But if it’s good enough for Leviticus, it should be good enough for you or me.