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We are a community of Hebrew Seminary faculty, staff, rabbinical students, lifelong learners, Kabbalists, scholars, spiritual seekers and kind supporters.

The mission of Hebrew Seminary is to train women and men as rabbis and Jewish educators to serve all Jewish communities, including the deaf community. Hebrew Seminary has been an inclusive and egalitarian community for the study and practice of Judaism since our founding in 1993.

We hope that within this blog you will discover moments of insight and inspiration, practical and spiritual guidance, as well as a path to further study.

Along the way, let us know your thoughts!

Yes, Jews Do Believe in Reincarnation!

Judaism maintains that there are five levels to the human soul.  As a result, a person’s actions not only have a direct impact on his soul, deciding how, when and where he will reincarnate – but a person’s actions also have a direct impact on the corresponding spiritual worlds which exist in our physical universe.

When a person performs good acts, it unifies the levels of his soul to the extent that, when he passes, he will either reincarnate in another person, or as an angel of God.  The study of reincarnation, or in Hebrew gilgul, is an extremely fascinating disciple and practice in Judaism.   Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer, master Kabbalist, says, “I am more excited about sharing my Aramaic and Hebrew research of the soul in Judaism than any other discipline I have ever taught.”

Get your soul in shape!  Call 847/679- 4113 to register.  Ask about our other fall courses!

Hebrew Seminary’s Reincarnation Class
begins October 30, 2016
12 noon – 1:30pm for 10 classes
non-credit tuition $150

The 21st Century Rabbi

I recently asked Hebrew Seminary faculty member Rabbi Laurence Edwards, Ph.D, what areas of Jewish studies do you view as most important to the 21st century Rabbi?

In some ways it might seem that Jewish study for rabbinic students today would be pastoral care, psychology, crisis counseling, and such.  Yes, it is important to know these subjects, but in my view it is most important that a rabbi be a teacher and student.  One must never stop studying and delving deeper into Jewish studies.  That is the only thing that gives the title of rabbi any credibility.  Rabbis need to know the history, the texts, and the literature.  We need to be competent in both text and tradition.  If we don’t have that, then the authenticity is gone.  I don’t feel that I totally live up to this standard, but I aspire to it.

 

Hebrew Seminary invites those considering the rabbinate to sit in on a class during the upcoming fall semester.  Or, better yet, audit a class and experience the learning, capture the connection!  847/679-4113

Fall Semester 2016 – 2017

September 18, 2016 – February 3, 2017

(Breaks: Oct. 2–18; Oct. 24-25; Nov. 24-27; Dec. 25 – Jan. 7)

Kabbalah: Reincarnation – Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Zohar – Rahmiel Hayyim Drizin

Biblical Hebrew – Rabbi Shari Chen & Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis

Talmud – Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis & Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub

Practical Rabbinics: Liturgy for Life Cycle Events – Rabbi Rob Jury

Practical Rabbinics: Weddings & Funerals – Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis

Psychology: Interviewing Skills for Rabbis – Dr. Stephanie Kutzen

 

“Why did God create man?” “Because he wanted to hear a good story!”

We met with Hebrew Seminary alumni and faculty member Rabbi Shari Chen to share her passion for the stories of the Bible, as so beautifully manifest in her 2005 thesis for rabbinic ordination on the Midrashim of Our Mothers.  This is the second half of that interview.

You conclude each of your thesis chapters on the different women in Genesis with your own midrash exemplifying their faith.  How did you go about this and is the retelling of midrashim part of our Jewish tradition?

Our Talmud teaches that, Torah m’daberet b’lashon adam – Torah speaks in the language of man. There is no greater way to relate to the Torah than through midrashim.  It is asked, “Why did God create man?”  “Because he wanted to hear a good story!”  God wants us to create new midrashim to share his words with new generations in a contemporary language that they can relate to.  It was my hope in creating these new midrashim that I would be able to inspire young women to want to learn Torah and to learn more about the women we came from.  My midrashim of Eve Naamah (Noah’s wife), Eidit and our matriarchs, all based on Judaic sources, not only brings them to life but illustrates the often unsung goodness within each of them.

This summer we read the Torah portion Chukat in which Miriam dies.  Rabbi Shefa Gold, renown for her teaching of sacred, Hebrew chants, writes, “Miriam had a way with water.  She could touch the depths with her song and call forth spiritual nourishment.  No matter how difficult the journey, Miriam’s dance would bring ease and beauty to the process itself.  She carried with her the feminine wisdom that could not be written down.  Upon her death we are given a spiritual challenge: to reclaim the source of her wisdom, to discover the song in our voice and the dance in our step.”  Is there an ancient or modern midrash that can help us with this spiritual challenge?

Midrash tells us that after pharaoh’s decree that every Hebrew newborn son be cast into the Nile, it is said that Yochevet and Amram, Moses’ parents, separated so that they wouldn’t conceive any more children.  Miriam goes to her father and convinces him that he shouldn’t do what pharaoh wants, stop bearing Hebrew children.   Because of Miriam’s wisdom, Yochevet and Amram reunite and Moses is born.

Miriam’s great spiritual wisdom is also clearly illustrated in a midrash relating to the crossing of the Red Sea.  It is said that when the waters first split, the men began to argue about which tribe should have the honor of going first into the sea.  While the men are arguing, Miriam instructs the women to all take hands and enter the sea together and the sea splits into twelve distinct paths.  This is an example of how not one of us is any better than any other and that God wants us to join together to celebrate as one people, equal in the eyes of God.

When you counsel congregants, how do you use Torah text and in what ways have you found the texts to be helpful?

I often use midrashic text and stories to help congregants.  There’s a beautiful midrashic story about seeking the perfect object that will bring the wealthiest, most content person to tears, and yet brings gladness to the ones who are suffering the most.  The object, which is found after much effort, is a ring with four simple words engraved within it, “this too shall pass”.  I feel that all of us need to remember this truth at some point in our life.  When we are going through hard times there are many different midrashim that can offer us hope.  For thousands of years we have sought answers to the greatest question: why?  Why must we suffer?  Why is life sometimes so difficult?  Our inspiring and cherished midrashim help us to understand that we are not alone and that we, like our ancestors, will not only survive but we will endure guided by love and by faith.

What Midrashim collections can you recommend for us?

Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary

Chaim and Rabinitsky Bialik, Sefer Ha’agadah: The Legends that are in the Talmud and Midrash (HEBREW)

Gerald Friedlander, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories

Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of Jews

Jill Hammer, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women

The Midrashim of Our Mothers

I recently met with faculty member Rabbi Shari Chen to share her passion for the stories of the Bible.

In 2005, you completed your thesis for rabbinic ordination on the Midrashim of Our Mothers.  What is midrash and what did you learn in your research that might inspire us to read midrashim?

The word midrash comes from the Hebrew root drash, which means to seek, study, and inquire.  Our midrashic literature seeks to help us understand the reasons behind the actions of our ancestors and in so doing brings them more fully to life for us.

I learned in my research that there are so many midrashim that can enrich our Jewish life, as well as help us relate to and connect with our heritage.  For example, many of the woman of Genesis are unnamed.  They are only referred to as eishet or “wife of”, but these women do have names and significant roles to play in our history.  Women, in a basic reading of the Torah, are often portrayed in a negative light.  The midrashim redeems them by examining the circumstances of their lives and why they did what they did.  A perfect example of this is Lot’s wife, whose name according to midrash is Eidit, meaning witness.  Eidit in the bible is portrayed as a woman whose curiosity leads to her ultimate demise because she did not obey, but instead turned back to see the destruction of the city.  This story is seen as a warning to women to do what they are told.  But through midrash we learn that the reason she looked back, was not out of curiosity, but out of motherly love.  She was searching for her two older daughters who remained in the city.

As you studied the women of the midrashim you were seeking ways to better understand and portray Genesis’ female characters to young readers.  What did you discover as you did your own translations of the Hebrew texts?

I discovered that these women were to be admired; that Eve, in particular, got bad press!  Through the midrash you realize that she was not entirely to blame for her actions in the garden.  One of my favorite midrashim regarding this says that God did not create Eve until Adam asked him to, because God knew that the first time something went wrong, Adam would blame him for creating the woman.  Which is exactly what Adam did, saying, “The woman you gave me….”

Another midrash portrays Adam as having no faith in Eve.  He told her not to touch the tree, but God never said that.  Adam thought saying that would keep her away from it, but ultimately that embellishment becomes a convincing lie for the snake, who used it to demonstrate for Eve that just as there is no dying from touching the tree, there is no dying from eating from it.  To illustrate his point, the snake pushed Eve into the tree.

If you look at the Hebrew in Genesis 3:6, when it talks about Eve giving Adam the fruit of the tree, it uses the word “she gave it to the man with her.”  Ayinmemhey with a dagesh in it.  The original Hebrew says that Adam was with Eve while the snake was deceiving her and thus Adam tacitly approved of her eating the fruit, as he did not stop her.  Most translations, by excluding the word “with her”, make it appear as though Adam came upon Eve eating the fruit and then he ate of it unknowingly, but Adam was with her the whole time.  According to most translations, Eve was responsible for the transgression, not the two of them together.

 

Jewish Wedding Traditions

This is the second of a series of postings from an interview with Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer about Jewish wedding traditions.

I want to talk about several of the Jewish wedding ceremony traditions and their symbolism, but first let’s explore the core Jewish beliefs surrounding marriage.   Pope Francis recently released an “apostolic exhortation” called “The Joy of Love” welcoming into the faith single parents, gay people and unmarried straight couples who are living together.  This is an important milestone for Catholics but the door is still closed on same-sex marriages.  The Jewish Reform movement has been advocating for change in civil laws pertaining to same-gender relations since the 1970s.  In 1996, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s governing organization, passed a resolution that they “support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage.”  When you are asked to officiate a wedding wherein the couple is of different faiths or of the same sex how do you decide your involvement?

When I am asked to officiate at a wedding when the couple are of different faiths or the same sex there is a thinking process that I embrace that doesn’t necessarily involve the same thinking process when the couples are of the same faith or of different sex.  When I first came to Chicago and established a congregation of deaf people (our congregation has since that time transformed into a community of hearing and deaf people) and most of my parishioners were deaf, I was faced with the Jewish law that two deaf people could not get married to one another unless they showed a strong sense of mental competency.  The Talmud taught that people who are deaf are not necessarily on the same mental playing field as we are.  When the ancient rabbis saw that the deaf person could understand her situation in life by processing an excellent knowledge of sign language, the ancient rabbis were glad to officiate at a wedding of two deaf people.  (A deaf person in Talmud is called a heresh which means she who cannot speak, cannot hear and is born this way.)  If two people of the same sex today visit me and ask me to marry them, I apply the same principle that the ancient rabbis apply if two deaf people are entering a marriage agreement.  They need first and foremost to show me that they love one another deeply and secondly they need to illustrate that they fully understand the ramifications that might ensue when they marry as two men or two women.  The Talmud uses the expression “ben deah.”  This means complete mental acumen or awareness.  If the gay couple has a strong sense of ben deah, a love for Judaism and a love for one another I welcome them under the Chuppah.

When two people of different faiths ask me to officiate at their marriage, I ask if the non-Jewish partner wishes to convert to Judaism.   If she doesn’t, we enter into a period of study where the three of us regularly meet to learn Torah and see how it differs from the Christian scriptures and Christian holidays.  When the wedding day arrives, both participants to the wedding ceremony have a firm understanding of Torah academically and spiritually.  I have hopes that they will use their new found knowledge to create a healthy marriage.  My aim throughout this study period with the two participants is to teach that, even though we come from different religions, each one of us will use that which is the same and that which is different to make for a healthy marriage.  In essence, I don’t want to build walls separating us, I want to tear down walls so that we can become one family under one God.

Moses and Miriam’s Friendship of Trust

Our sidra this week is Chukat which includes the mysterious telling of Moses emotionally striking the rock in the wilderness of Zin to bring forth much needed water for the people of Israel (Num. 20:10-11). For this, Moses was not allowed to enter the land of Canaan.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes this is the first trial that Moses had to face as a leader without his sister Miriam who had recently passed away. Rabbi Sacks explains that the early life of Moses suggests that Miriam was Moses’ trusted friend and confidante. “Maimonides calls it the ‘friendship of trust’ (chaver habitachon) and describes it as having someone in whom ‘you have absolute trust and with whom you are completely open and unguarded.’” Even Moses needed a human friend that he could trust.

My fellow student Tirtzah says this is also what we need to help heal our world today. My heart has been aching since the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas policemen Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. I asked Tirtzah what can we do? She told me of her Englewood neighbors and their ‘network of trust’. These eight households began neighbor-by-neighbor to be open, unguarded and authentic with each other. Leaders such as Moses and neighbors such as you and I need friends and family we can trust.

This is one thing we can do. Give those we meet reason to trust us. Be a kind listener. Be a trusted problem-solver. Talk openly about your fears and sanctify the gift of each day by being kind.

Here is another thing we can do. Jewish law influenced Roman law, English law, and our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Men of the Great Assembly said, “”Be deliberate in judgement,’ because there is no greater act of loving-kindness than saving the oppressed (from those who would wrong them) by rendering fair judgement.” (Kehati on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 2.)

In the words of contemporary author George Saunders, “… to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespear’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

 

 

 

Become A Channel of God’s Healing Energy Using the Name of God Yah

Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer’s teacher, Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Dresher taught:

“Your lungs expand and contract, responding to the universe.  Imagine the universe as a vast Being that is alive, and that you are a cell in this body.  And you, the cell, are kept alive by the Ru’ach of the universe.  In Ezekiel 36:26, we read, ‘I will place a holy Ru’ach within you.’”  This Ru’ach is the Spirit of God that every living being inhales, this Ru’ach is our breath; and it is through breathing that we focus on the present and not the past or future.  When we are in the NOW, we are alive, filled with the Breath of God.”

Become A Channel of God’s Healing Energy Using the Name of God Yah
as taught by Rabbi Goldhamer:

  1. Go to your mi’at meekdash and sit in a comfortable chair with your back in the upright position, and your feet planted firmly on the floor. Wear comfortable clothing and loosen up your tie or belt.
  2. Breathe in deeply and gently through your nostrils and count silently 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10: this is the numerical equivalent [Jewish Gematria/numerology] of Yod. As you breathe in, don’t try to visualize God’s breath coming in through your nostrils; instead, visualize with your ko’ach dimyon, imagination, that God’s breath or energy is filling your head area.
  3. Without holding your breath between inhaling and exhaling, exhale through your nostrils silently, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5: this is the numerical equivalent of Hey. The exhaling should take half as long as the inhaling.  As you breath out, don’t try to visualize God’s breath leaving your nostrils; instead visualize God’s breath or energy flowing from your head into your heart and through your heart into the world.
  4. Repeat this cycle four times, for a total of five times for the entire meditation. When you inhale or exhale, maintain the internal dynamic that you are breathing in the Life Force of God, and that your breath and His breath are becoming One.  Recognize within the depths of your soul that you are becoming one with the Holy Spirit, Ru’ach HaKodesh.  When we breathe in God’s Ru’ach with kavvanah, we create Ru’ach HaKodesh; that is, we become One with the Holy Spirit.

Practicing Kindness

Chesed
By Sandra Charak

Kindness is so much more than charity.  Acts of kindness, Chesed, come from the heart.  They are spontaneous gestures of goodwill to strangers as well as friends.

Acts of kindness are done without expectation of anything in return and begins with being aware of your surroundings.  Small gestures of kindness are as simple as a smile while saying please and thank you to a shop clerk or to wait staff.   Everyone wants to be acknowledged and appreciated.  Let someone know when she/he drops something.  Use a smile to cheer someone up.  Offer a positive outlook.  Give someone a heartfelt compliment; it could make their day.

Rabbi Hillel, the renowned teacher living in Palestine in the first century BCE, is credited as the original source of the Golden Rule. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 31:1.   According to the Midrash, a non-Jewish man said to Hillel, “He would convert if Hillel could explain Judaism while he stands on one foot.” The man probably asked Hillel this question not expecting a meaningful answer, but Hillel responded with this insightful response, according to the Talmud.

Treating everyone with kindness in a loving way may not always be easy.   One needs to acknowledge everyone’s points of view and have compassion even when exhausted, angry or feeling low.  That compassion may lift your own spirits and influence others to mirror your actions.

In the Book of Ruth, read in many synagogues on Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the 10 commandments.  Rabbi Zei’ra states in the Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13 “This scroll [of Ruth] tells nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, neither of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written?  To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness” (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13).  Ruth, childless and widowed gave all of herself, going from princess to humble Jewish woman, to honor and serve her Mother-in-Law.

Everyone can act with Chesed or Kindness.  We need only to offer small daily acts of kindness to make a change in our home, our neighborhood and our community.  Kindness can become contagious.

I believe that the antonym of Chesed or Loving Kindness is fear. When a person is afraid they are unable to open themselves up to exploration and meet new people.  Fear leads to division, meanness and hatred.

In our current environment the mainstream media espouses and promotes fear and mistrust.  When practicing Chesed you may find the majority of people want the same thing you do, love and kindness.

 

 

Practicing Kindness

We asked our students for their thoughts on practicing kindness.  We are pleased to share some of their essays.

Stop the madness!!!  —   I want to get off!!!
by Tirtzah Israel

Where’s our compassion for one another?  What happened to kindness?  Why are we so afraid to acknowledge its need and purpose in everyday life?  The power of kindness is here in our world waiting to be accessed as a collective resource, even as a preventive measure to counteract violence.

We are all sickened by the latest wake of mass killings and gun-violence due to bigotry and hatred.  Right now the earth seems to be filled with strife and malcontent.  I am reminded of the pre-flood portion to the Noach story where in his time the earth was filled with so much corruption that God decided to destroy the earth.  In our own time, we live in a society where both politician and gunman present themselves as demigods with the  “ultimate” solution for the world that appeals only to the lowest denominator of human existence.  They “fan the fires” for violence, divisiveness, power and influence both physically and psychological as a rationale for problem-solving.  These people, in my opinion, act out of ignorance, mis-information, mis-education, fear or/and are mentally deranged.

In real-time, the news outlets inundate viewers and readers with the gruesome details of human carnage that both sensationalize and desensitized the suffering of others so much so that we are rendered helpless in our grief.  We re-live these traumatic events and are shakened to the very core of our existence, yet too frightened to act as a collective body for the sake humanity.

Sure, there’s a collective, world-wide outpouring of kindness in response to these tragedies.  Yes, we are energized in those moments to support one another during the horrific initial emotional realization of raw cruelty.  However, no amount of kindness can offset the impact of the trauma perpetrated upon humanity when the outpouring of kindness occurs only in response to specific tragedies.  Without these horrific events, we too easily slip back into our self-serving and self protecting mode wishing for  safety as we desperately hold-on to our preferred lifestyle.  The test for all of us is for us to realize that we are all one people, intimately connected as one race; the human-race.  We all belong to one another and we are all responsible for one another as a collective human society.   Basically, we all want the same things out of life.  We all want to have the reasonable opportunity to be able to reach our potential, to be successful and prosperous, to be safe, happy, healthy, and no one wants to be made to feel “left-out.”  We naturally strive towards sharing — and when that doesn’t happen an eruption occurs.

Collectively, we have access to some of the most powerful tools in the world; more powerful than bullets and bombs in the form of love, compassion and kindness.   Yes, people we are designed to be kind because we all naturally gravitate towards it.  We seek kindness in one another.  Yet, it appears at least on the outside, as if we have forgotten or maybe we are ashamed of accessing that which is inherently fulfilling, intimately close and intrinsically healing  — Kindness/compassion.    These attributes are divinely bestowed upon us by The Creator.  They are part of our Universe.  In particular, kindness/compassion allows us to fulfill our highest purpose at being a shared and common humanity.  Kindness can be stress relieving.  Kindness is benevolent; Kindness fulfills our desire to do good and charitable deeds that benefits others.  And it begins with each and everyone of us, individually, to activate the kindness within ourselves; to love ourselves and to experience compassion for ourselves that can be shared by others.

If we could imagine our world without strife, without hatred and bigotry then we can actualize it.  It’s not impossible.  Together, we have the ability and power within us to make this dream a reality.  However, we  must decide to do this together.  We can simply begin by forming prayer networks that pray for the activation of kindness and compassion.  We can pray to activate healing the world; and to pray for a shared compassion that ends suffering.  It can become a contagious movement, neigborhood by neigborhood, community by community.  But, it begins with just one person — visualizing; imagining; and engaging their power to heighten kindness; compassion and love.  For the pessimist among us, I say to them I’m not suggesting we all hold hands and sing “kum-bi-ya” around the campfire (although, that’s not a bad thought).  No, I referring to a clear sense of responsibilty, and active-state of mindful kindness that honors life.

If we could just stop being so damagingly competitive, stop trying to be “the winner” and “king of the hill” for just a moment, it could create an intutive-moment that allows us to find that balance towards wholeness.  We can actually heal the world.  It’s within our power to do so because we are all connected to one another whether we like it or not.  When you are not healed, I’m not healed.  When I’m not healed, you are not healed.  But colllectively, we have the ability to end violence in our world and to achieve the wealth of balance by actively participating.     We each have the responsibilty.  We each have the power.  We each can help to turn our world around.

Please don’t be that one person who may be holding out from the rest of us impending us from achieving our goal for harmony.  It’s not too late.  The world is waiting for the power of your kind prayers with compassion.  I thank you for praying with me.

 

 

 

 

Practice Kindness

We asked our students for their thoughts on practicing kindness.  We are pleased to share some of their essays.

Kindness in the Grey Zone
by Matthew Katz

One of our tradition’s most esteemed scholars was Rabbi Hillel, who is perhaps most renowned for his gratifying a potential convert’s challenge to teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg, by responding, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; this, in a few words, is the entire Torah; — all the rest is but an elaboration of this one, central point.  Now, go and learn it.”  This seemingly simple admonition, enshrined in our Babylonian Talmud at Shabbos 31a, is, however, arguably, the greatest puzzle in the history of humanity because we have not yet learned how to apply this “golden” rule.

There are easier ways to apply this rule, such as not throwing a knife at a your friend’s face, or not stealing another’s car.  We hear about violent incidents and crimes like these on the news each night and feel proud that we’re not like “those people” who don’t know how to follow the golden rule like we do because we opt to not engage in those horrid acts.  But there are many harder tests of our character that we get wrong every day, such as speaking negatively about others or not cautioning others for doing so, or failing to act to prevent state violence or economic animosity against others.

Yale ethicist Thomas Pogge is author of the widely acclaimed 2002 work, World Poverty and Human Rights, which indicts our institutionalized complicity in the very nature of our being first world consumers: some 270 million preventable poverty related deaths have occurred since the end of the Cold War up to the book’s publication, alone.  How many more have died since or have died today but for access to what you and I spent on one beverage?  I studied Pogge as part of an ethics course last fall titled “Rights and Justice” wherein we tackled the deep questions like what are our obligations to the 800 million people who regularly go an entire day with nothing to eat.

Forever living in what Primo Levi dubbed the “Grey Zone” we can’t but continue our quest for answers to the great questions of how to apply the golden rule—of how to embody kindness in our actions toward our friends, our enemies, those we don’t know or will likely never meet, and in where to draw the line between caring for and protecting against.  It is into this void where the teachings of Hillel and his progeny offer profound instruction regarding where to orient our behavior and how to refine our character in search of an ethical world, a world where kindness would be easy to discern and apply without artificial and arbitrarily imposed borders not of our making.

Last semester Rabbi Dr. Goldhammer introduced us to Aryeh Kaplan, who in his Meditation and Kabbalah actually discerns the five stages of character development that will establish us on the road to prophecy, imaginably the highest level of righteousness we can attain:

  1. Devekut—attachment to God in all of one’s thoughts, as in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s instruction to forever act in compassion for God’s frustration for the state of the world;
  2. Hishtavut—meaning stoicism, or as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov instructed, having no preference in ego matters, i.e., “all things should be equal to you.” This, according to Rabbi Kaplan, was the test determinative of a prospective student’s readiness for Kabbalah study, who would be asked by the would be instructors, “Do you prefer one who speaks well of you to one who speaks badly of you?”  If the answer was yes, the rabbis said keep trying and come back when you’re there;
  3. Hitbodedut—meditation in isolation to reach higher states of consciousness;
  4. Ruach HaKodesh—reception of the holy spirit and enlightenment;
  5. Prophecy.

Finally, as hard as we try, as disciplined and as studious as we might be, we probably won’t reach the level of prophecy.  That said, if consistently more of us, more diligently and more committedly, continue to work on new solutions to these millennia old problems of how to be able to be kind, to not be hateful to our fellow, in Hillel’s words, we just might see progress toward that kind of world.  It would presumably be a world in which we are not complicit in a system of depravity and injustice to billions every time we turn on the tap water or buy a cup of coffee.  It would perchance be a world where all of God’s creation would be treated as sacred, and thereby worthy of God’s presence.  I look forward to learning from you as we search together.