Friday, November 24, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Being Chosen, Part 1

Di Toyre Sprakh
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

This is Part 1 of a two-part series; Part 2 is next week.

.בָּנִים אַתֶּם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ, וְלֹא-תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם--לָמֵת

“For thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be
His own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth.”

During Rosh Hashanah, a rabbi gave a vort, saying the following: “Do others influence you or do you influence others?” So much is said in one line; so much history is contained in a few words. For a long time, I was the recipient of outside influences, as I have written about in a previous post in this column. When you wander, you discover many new things, including that old things are valuable.

Even though this was more than a decade ago, I continue to write about the lure and power of new ideas to influences and shape your views and thought life, which is why I write about such matters—as a warning of sorts to my fellow Yidn. Our ways do not require such change as to greatly alter what hundreds of generations of rabbis have passed down to us, what generations of  Jewish teachers and thinkers have written about and codified.

There is beauty in tradition; there is stability in the realm and reality of traditions that have been handed down to us from generation to generation. This is common to all religions and to all peoples. In Judaism this is known on mesorah, which is denoted as “enduring and traditional practices that are based on solid halachic and/or hashkafic (ideological and attitudinal) considerations, when such considerations are not formally codified or patently evident.”

People often avoid tradition because it places demands upon them. Take, for example, when the Torah ( תּוֹרָה‎,; Hebrew for “instruction, teaching”) commands the Jews to be Ohr LaGoyim (“a light unto the nations;” Isaiah 42: 6). This is a prophetic command that reveals an essential mission of the Jews to the greater world. This is a command as old as Judaism itself, an idea so much part of Jewish thought, an idea that remains a central tenet of Judaism,

Yet, it has all but been ignored and hardly acknowledged by world Jewry as important, apart from a notable example: Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, under the leadership of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson [1902–1994], of righteous memory, started a campaign in 1983 to make known to the world the Seven Noahide Laws, a universal morality that applies to all humanity. The Rebbe’s speech is both powerful and inspiring; it was given on 19 Kislev 5744, or November 25, 1983. The date’s significance is not lost on the audience, it being less than a week before Khanike (or Hanukkah).

This speaks about responsibility to teach the world, to teach “the nations,” if you will, of the source of the love of doing good. That source, Judaism tells us, is God. The Jews have to believe this, as well, for this to be effective on a grand scale. It is hard to believe, no doubt, because it sets one people apart from all others. It sets one people as teachers or instructors to the world. There are historical reasons why Jews are called “People of the Book.”

“The Book” or Hebrew Bible says that related to the idea of “being a light” or bringing light is that of being the “Chosen People” (as noted in Deuteronomy 14:2), which is misunderstood by many who don’t apprehend the deeper meanings of the original Hebrew text, including some Jews who are uncomfortable with this idea as to the purpose of the Jews among the world’s peoples. Simply put, what makes the Jews stand apart from the rest of the world is the Torah and the 613 mitzvot; without these there really is no Judaism, there really is no Jewish People. Such is the importance of mesorah.

The central event in Judaism is matan Torah—the Giving of the Torah—in the wilderness at Sinai. This historic biblical event was done in front of all of the people, the full nation of Israel, and not hidden like some secret initiation ritual. Judaism is based solely on national revelation and not on any one man performing miracles. The Jews were chosen for a purpose, which includes revealing monotheism to humanity, to reveal the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is clearly written in the Torah. Jews stubbornly stick to the Torah, or at least some do.

Teaching your children Torah (chinuch), the Torah says, is a parental responsibility: “And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:7). People tend to do what they view as important or what they see as easy. To be sure, Jews have a great responsibility, which in the long run is better to accept for very good reasons. Those that don’t accept often find succeeding generations no longer self-identifying as Jews. Such is understandable as it is regrettable.

When Jews live in the West, and this is where most Jews reside, they live within its long-standing culture and traditions (read: Christianity). Yet, as much as it has shown more tolerance in recent times, it has nevertheless replaced the Torah with its own revelations and understandings, which are, historically, in word and deed anti-Torah and anti-Judaic. Some, perhaps much, is good and moral and beneficial to humanity, but it is based neither on Judaism and thousands of years of enduring Jewish traditions nor on Torah learning. In short, it is not mesorah.

No doubt, it is easy to get swallowed up in the larger culture and be influenced by it, instead of Jews influencing it for good.

Yet, this is precisely what the Torah says Jews are required to do. That, out of necessity, the Jews have turned inward and found other modes of ritual and expression of Torah—outside the Beit HaMikdash (Hebrew: בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ‎,or Holy Temple)—is a direct result of the history of anti-Judaism. That the Jews failed historically, until recently, to reveal to the world the important ideas contained within Judaism is a sure sign that the world did not want to hear what the Torah had to say. Such is a sign of how much animosity was directed at the Jews during most of the history of the last, 2,000 years or so.

Yet, throughout it all, Jews have clung tenaciously to the Torah, a quality that even, I would argue or suggest, the most assimilated Jew finds admirable, if not noble. Such are the ideas that the world is now ready to hear, initiated in modern times by Chabad-Lubavitch, but an idea that other Torah-educated Jews can also carry out. Such is what that eminent scientist, Waldemar M. Haffkine [1860–1930] wrote in A Plea for Orthodoxy (Menorah Journal; April 1916):
By dint of endless trials and failures, the Nations are coming to recognize in the Commandments handed down to them by the Jews the only possible foundation of a prosperous and orderly life. (p. 13)
Words to heed. Many educated and intelligent Jews are also finding this to be not only a laudable endeavor, but also a good one worthy of their efforts.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz ben Ephraim,
November 24, 2017
6 Kislev 5778

This week’s parsha is Vayeitzei (וַיֵּצֵא; Hebrew for “and he left”), found in Genesis 28:10–32:3. It contains the well-known passage of Jacob’s ladder of angels ascending and descending in a prophetic dream that Yaakov had on Mount Moriah; the stones that he had used for a pillow while dreaming were turned into a monument, which he named Beth-el, or a house of God.

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