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.

 

 

 

 

Rabbinical School Classes: Year ‘Round Sunshine!

Hebrew Seminary’s summer semester begins June 26th and continues for nine weeks until August 25th.  If you have felt the calling, now would be a great time to visit a class and bask in the rays of Judaism’s ancient wisdom. 

Contact Alison Brown to schedule the likely answer to your calling!

847/ 679-4113

Tuesday             Psychology / Human Life Cycle

Shulchan Aruch

Midrash

Wednesday       Biblical Hebrew I

Chanting

Chumash and Rashi

Biblical Hebrew II

Thursday          Talmud I

Hebrew Grammar IV

Comforting the Bereaved/ Nachum Aveilim

 

 

Be Mindful of Miracles – They Are Accessible in Every Time and Every Place and by Every Person!

By Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

The great Hassidic rabbi Simcha Bunim suggests that the miracles that happen in the Torah did not happen only once in time and space. He states that Hashem’s miracles are accessible to be experienced in every time and every place and by every person.

I believe we need just to be open and aware that a Biblical miracle is not unique to the Bible in time and space, but it can happen with the same power today as it happened in Biblical times. All we need to do is to be mindful of where we are and what we see, and how we respond.

There is a wonderful meditative practice that is connected to mindfulness. This is called “Gazing.”  Gazing teaches that all things are inseparably connected, and we are never alone.  We are never separate from God.  When we think and feel this way, we enjoy an extraordinary spiritual experience known as Presence.  In physics, the idea of Presence is expressed in the theology of Energy. This means the entire universe is composed of the presence of Energy in various forms. Each cell in our body is a function of Energy. Every breath, every step, every movement, every relationship is an expression of Energy. We can’t separate ourselves from the source of Energy.

Imagine if we had miracle eyeglasses, that when worn, only allowed Energy to be seen. What we normally see as the specific miracle in the Bible could now, with these eyeglasses be seen as raw Energy.  And instead of seeing the Biblical miracle, we would put on these unique eyeglasses, and through a unique form of Gazing, we could be mindful of the Oneness of it all, and recognize that the fundaments element of the universe is love.

Imagine that a person who looks through the glasses recognizes that the glasses themselves are the same as what is being seen. It is all Energy. This is not too farfetched. Remember what Aristotle taught – God Is Thought Thinking Itself. And so, in our Torah, when we see a miracle, through mindful practice called Gazing, we can also recognize that we are all one.  Our Torah and its many miracles can be seen as appearing in a different form of Energy. Perhaps Rabbi Simcha Bunim is teaching there are miracles all around us, and they never clash because our Torah is not a historical narrative of our people, but a textbook of Spiritual Physics.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.

 

Hebrew Seminary Student Highlight!

JUF NEWS June 2016
NEWS: LOCAL

Nationally ‘inspiring’ Rabbi Menachem Cohen reaches out to at-risk youth

Rabbi Menachem Cohen

Chicago Rabbi Menachem Cohen was named to the Forward’s list of most inspiring rabbis in 2016.

Years before he started working for the Night Ministry, Rabbi Menachem Cohen spotted its bus on the street one night and made a silent promise.

“In the back of my mind, I said, ‘I’m going to bring some yiddishkeit to that one day,'” said Cohen. He was referring to one of Chicago’s oldest social service organizations, whose well-known outreach bus offers those in need everything from coffee to medical care.

Cohen kept his promise; when looking for a job in 2003, he contacted the Night Ministry. Since then, he has been a vital part of their youth outreach team, where he finds and engages young people at risk of experiencing homelessness.

He’s also the founder of Mitziut , an independent, non-denominational Jewish spiritual community based in East Rogers Park.

Now, Cohen’s dedication and unique contribution to Jewish life and beyond is being officially recognized. The Forward has chosen him as one of America’s most inspiring rabbis in 2016.

“I’m honored, humbled, and excited about what this can mean for the programs I’m part of,” said Cohen about his recognition. He is one of only 32 rabbis from across the country chosen for this honor, out of more than 100 nominees.

Cohen grew up in the Chicago area, the son of a social worker and a teacher. He has always worked in social services, but with the Night Ministry he feels he’s found his perfect match.

“The philosophy of the team is relationship-based,” said Cohen. “We call it the ‘ministry of presence.’ We don’t have an agenda. We are there to be with them, to remember their names, and to let them know what services we have. We’re not trying to sign them up for a program. In this way, they get to know us and then they will come to us. It’s more authentic that way, and then they work on what they want.”

The work is deeply satisfying, he said. “It is so wonderful to build these relationships with young people. I know when they give me nicknames that I’m connected,” he said. And with his signature kilt and long hair, Cohen said he is often on the receiving end of many affectionate nicknames.

But his connection to youth at risk goes much deeper than a few nicknames. After a series of deep conversations, one young man decided to make some very profound and positive changes in his life. And he credited Cohen with being his “touch person.”

“I didn’t help him fill out any [job or college] applications, but what I did was have conversations where I heard him and listened to him as a person, and that is really what stuck with him. That approach gives me such satisfaction because it’s a soul-to-soul approach. It is a longer road but in the end it makes a bigger difference,” said Cohen.

As for the “rabbi” side of Cohen, he was ordained by the Hebrew Seminary — a Rabbinical School for Deaf and Hearing, because of his deep connection to Congregation Bene Shalom in Skokie and its Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer.

“Everyone told me about the deaf congregation that was founded by deaf families, and I fell in love with the place,” he said.

After becoming a rabbi, Cohen founded Mitziut in 2003 as an answer to the disconnected Jew who longed for more spirituality and meaning. Meeting on Shabbat and holidays for a spirited, musical service followed by a potluck meal, the community gathers everywhere from people’s homes to the beach.

If that isn’t enough, Cohen is also a partner at AlleyCat comics in Andersonville. And, as a life-long game player, he is working on a prototype for a game that will teach empathy for those experiencing homelessness.

Married to an art therapist, Cohen and his wife are parents to a 9-year-old child.

Throughout it all, Cohen is energized about his life and his work. “I love that I’m doing good work in the world and am helping people improve their lives,” he said.

Abigail Pickus is a Chicago-based writer and editor. 

 

Service of the Heart

I am writing my Rabbinic thesis on the idea that our thoughts ascend to God. Right now I am researching the practical application of that and reading a lot on consciousness. In some theories the role of images is a salient, albeit subconscious aspect of consciousness. The Zohar is a treasure trove of Jewish mystical images and symbols. I recently asked Hebrew Seminary Professor of Kabbalah Rav Rahmiel Hayyim Drizin, “Would you share with us a Zohar image that is meaningful for you especially as it might enhance our spiritual consciousness?”

Here’s an all-encompassing principle: What is above is below, and what is below is above. We know that the human is a microcosm of the universe, while the universe is a macrocosm of the human. And heaven and earth are mere reflections of each other.

What we do down here affects above, as the verse in Psalms says “Ascribe strength to G-d!” Our thoughts, ideally expressed through words and realized in deeds, rise to high levels, as the Talmud Berachot 6b notes that “prayer stands at the heights of the world.” But prayer first starts out here in our hearts, “the service of the heart,” and then it finds its way to the ear of G-d.

This brings to mind (thank you Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer) the great Sufi mystic and poet Ibn al Arabi’s teaching that, “He who knows himself, knows his God.”

Yes, we always talk about ascending. We have this picture in our mind that we are going up there to a higher, elevated world but in Kabbalah we yordei haMerkavah, we descend into the chariot. That means we go inward. Everything we need to know about is inside of us. Torah says, “Build me a mishkan and I will dwell within them.” We are not the Shechina, but the Shechina dwells in our heart. Those who know their heart for all of its beauty and passions, they know where God dwells within them and they can find their way more easily.  We have the power to figure it out. Learning Zohar and Torah is helpful for this. It’s all about consciousness. We need to let the light inside.

Rav Rahmiel Hayyim Drizin is Professor of Kabbalah at Hebrew Seminary. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and moved to Chicago to go to Northwestern Law School. Reb Rahmiel is a devoted student of many of the leading teachers of Kabbalah in Israel and the USA. He is a criminal defense lawyer who lives in Oak Park with his family. Much of Reb Rahmiel’s work is available on line at www.kabbalahonline.org.

Lag B’Omer — the Torah Gates Are Open!

Lag B’Omer begins Wednesday evening May 25th. To learn more about this little known but fascinating Jewish observance, we meet this month with Hebrew Seminary faculty member Rav Rahmiel Hayyim Drizin.

On Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of Counting the Omer (what you refer to as Cosmic Organic Time) the inner gates to the depths of the Torah are opened. What does this mean to you Rav and what might it mean to our readers?
When I was growing up, Lag B’Omer was a free day at Temple Sholom. We were sent out of the Sunday school classroom to play baseball most of the day!

Lag B’Omer is a day of joy. We clear our mind, open our eyes, and we seek to make progress on our life issues, which are Torah issues.

Lag B’Omer is also the Hillula Rabbah, the celebration of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s (Rashb”i) transition from this world to the next. Rashb”i is the titular author of the Holy Zohar, the mystical interpretation of the Torah. With his ascension on high, marked on his yahrtzeit on Lag B’Omer, we too can share in his elevation, with the opportunity to gain special insights on our deepest spiritual questions.

Lag from Lag B’Omer spelled in reverse is Gal, which means “Open” and hinting to the verse:
Gal Einei v’Abita Niflaot MiToratecha
“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Your Torah!”
This is the special opening on this Holy day.

Lag B’Omer is a time for singing and dancing and opening oneself to having a mystical soul-connected affinity with R. Shimon. The energy of R. Shimon is said to bring light into the dark areas of our lives. Can you share a meditation with us to help make that connection and shed light onto a difficulty or issue we might be dealing with?

Rabbi Shimon ascended to Heaven in the year 3,881 [121 CE]. On Lag B’Omer, many people have the custom to travel to the city of Meron in the north of Eretz Yisrael to celebrate this day at the gravesite of Rashb”i. This is an age-old custom that dates back many centuries, already in the times of the Tanaim.

One who is unable to physically travel to the gravesite of Rashb”i can still take part in this custom by learning passages in the Zohar or other teachings of Rashb”i.

So, in order to connect with the soul of R. Shimon, we need to learn some of his teachings, either in Pirke Avot, the Talmud, and especially the Zohar. So first, we should learn some of the Zohar in his name. Next, perhaps sing the famous song Bar Yochai or listen to it on YouTube.  Then contemplate a spiritual question you may have, an issue you are having trouble finding clarity.

Light a candle in a dark room and let that candle capture your entire intention. Say the verse in Hebrew
, מִתּוֹרָתֶךָ נִפְלָאוֹת וְאַבִּיטָה עֵינַי גַּל
Gal Einei v’Abita Niflaot MiToratecha
“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Your Torah!”
Say it over and over and over until you feel that you have internalized the meaning.

Then stop, and be silent, and gaze into the candle.

The answer, in the merit of Bar Yochai, should be opened up for you.

Be Brave and Balanced

 

From the Pen of Hebrew Seminary Executive Director Alison C. Brown

20 May, 9 Iyar marks 28 days of Counting the Omer. Tonight we reflect upon ourselves through the lens of Malchut sheb’Netzach. Malchut is the Sefirah that corresponds to our completeness in the physical realm and the Shechinah, the divine within, our source of spiritual strength. With the holographic augmentation of Netzach we reflect tonight upon our “capacity to stand up for what is right and just,” writes Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

Our election cycle offers examples of how to stand up for what is right and just. A female Senator bravely tweeted this week, “Your policies are dangerous. Your words are reckless.” While we count the Omer, we look honestly within about our policies, our attitude, our work, and our words. When we look at our thoughts and our choices honestly and with integrity it makes it possible to also critically follow the election news.

Don’t believe me.

Don’t believe everything you hear and read.

Bring clear eyes and a full heart to your day, your reflections and the election cycle.

We seek balance during these 49 days of the Omer. On Passover, we left Egypt inexperienced with freedom. We have 49 days to get accustomed to this freedom and learn to use it wisely. On the 50th day we once again receive the Torah. As we count the Omer each year and look within for our true selves, we clarify and refine our Sefirot, our transformers of God’s energy.

My husband and I have been easing our twin seniors into more freedoms this year; even so, they will be unaccustomed to the freedoms of college. I recently discovered that one of my favorite writers, George Saunders gave a commencement speech a couple of years ago. He half-jested that we are born with built-in confusions, such as the belief that our personal story is the only story and that we’re separate from the universe. “There’s us and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing sets and the state of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people.” We intellectually know better than to really believe these things, Saunders writes, but we live by them. We prioritize our own needs first.

In America we are free. We are free to meet our needs. Some are louder about this than others; some have no voice at all. Many of us are somewhere in the middle stages of our life of freedom. We manage to meet our needs and we have enough comforts that we can factor the needs of others into our priorities. Some of us are brave, both within and without our means, because we know that inner balance is found through kindness and love.

Go ahead, be ambitious Saunders told the graduates, “but as you do, 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.”

Take stock of yourself in these days of freedom. The Source of all is nudging you to be balanced and brave.

 

Parts I through IV of this Omer series are posted on the HS Facebook Page.

 

 

 

 

Forward’s Inspiring Rabbis 2016 Includes Hebrew Seminary Graduate!

Menachem Cohen

 

Menachem Cohen joined the Youth Outreach Team in 2006 and has brought his ability to build relationships and find creative strategies to engage young people we serve to the homeless youth he encountered in a safe, nonjudgmental way. Inclusive, kind and relatable are words often used to describe him. Helping to restore hope in the lives of young people who’ve felt cast aside and invisible has been his passion since day one. It is Menachem’s ability to connect with youth and adults on the street and provide leadership, training and awareness to community stakeholders that has allowed him to establish a strong presence within the homeless provider community and be seen as a trusted adult youth can depend on. His kilt and beard make him unmistakable and impossible to miss. Homeless youth have a friend in him. They can get basic needs met through him. He works to provide comfort and safety when there is none. He embodies the faith and the work of rabbi and is an inspiration to all.

— Allison McCann-Stevenson

Read more: http://forward.com/series/rabbis/2016/menachem-cohen/#ixzz48r3VdHIL

Kedoshim – Love Thy Fellow As You Love Yourself Because We Are All One

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, is the single Torah portion that not only inspired me to be a rabbi, but recognizes the amazing teaching of Judaism.

When the world was overwhelmed by war, from Mesopotamia to Europe, when communities were pitted one against the other, the Scriptural author of Judaism, rather than enter into the fray of competition, wrote in our magnificent Torah, “Thou shalt love thy fellow as you love yourself.”

That statement itself is most inspiring, but when the rabbis were asked to comment on this Biblical verse, they added, “because your fellow is yourself.” We are all One.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

President,  Hebrew Seminary

Navigating Life Via the Torah Teachings of Justice and Compassion

Sefer Assiyah, Hebrew Seminary’s e-newsletter recently included an interview with faculty member Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis.  We asked:

What Torah teaching can you share with us that might help us navigate life in America today?

Recently, when I was asked to speak at the 15,000 strong convention of Muslims in American, the question that was posed was: “what is it within your tradition that compels you to do interfaith work?” My speech included the following:

“As a professor at a rabbinical seminary, I teach that Judaism was not formed in isolation from other religions and cultures. For centuries, Judaism’s most influential scholars were Arab Jews. Most famously, nine hundred years ago, Moussa Ibn Maimoun, known as Moses Maimonides, the greatest rabbi since Moses our Teacher, studied Greek philosophy – Aristotle and Plato  – in their Arabic translation. Ibn Maimoun wrote his pre-eminent philosophical and religious works in Arabic.

“As far back as the Bible and throughout 3,000 years of Judaism, Jews have lived alongside other faiths and peoples. Judaism teaches how to be in the world that we share with so many other faiths.

“My Mother was born in Vienna, Austria not long before the Nazis came to power.  Quakers working with Jews brought her to England, thus escaping the Holocaust. Some 9,000 other young Jews and more were saved in this manner.  I would not be here today if not for this blessed collaboration between Christians and Jews. That is interfaith in action.”

“For much of our history, Jews were a “minority”. A minority in numbers of course, but more importantly a minority with regard to our legal rights.  The Bible teaches us: “remember that you were once slaves.”  Therefore, we must seek justice for other and treat others with compassion. We are called to stand in solidarity with others.”

About Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis

Michael Davis was born in England, received his Judaic training in yeshivot Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, trained with Hazzan Naftali Herstick of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem and received his cantorial ordination from Hebrew Union College.  Michael joined the Hebrew Seminary faculty in 2009.