Monday, June 27, 2011

Conversion to Judaism

 וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת-הַגֵּר: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

Normally, we post only the English translations of Biblical verses on our blog.  This blog is written as a place for the English speaking world to connect to our yeshiva in Northern Israel.

However, the verse above (from Deut. 10:19) is a bit tricky.  Specifically, the word GER (גר)

Let's remove the word in question, and translate the rest of the verse:

"You shall love the ____, because you were ____ in the land of Egypt." 

Most religious Jews would tell you on the spot that the phrase "v'ahavtem et ha ger" means, "you shall love the convert".

Yet, if we use the word ger to mean convert, the rest of the verse doesn't make sense.  Jews weren't converts in Egypt!  To the contrary; our tradition teaches us that the Israelites kept their own names, language, and clothing, throughout the 210 years of slavery.

In a way, all Israelites became converts when the nation accepted the laws of the Torah - but that wasn't "in the land of Egypt", it was on Mount Sinai.

So let's take a look again at this verse:

  "You shall love the ____, because you were ____ in the land of Egypt." 

If you've already looked up the verse for yourself in an English translation of the Bible, you probably found the word GER translated as "stranger".  G-d is telling us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt.  We were a minority, a slave class, no friends or family in high places to help us, no political power, nothing.

What does that have to do with a convert?  According to Jewish law, a person who has completed a valid conversion is a full-fledged Jew - just as Jewish as someone born to a Jewish mother.*

Conversion to Judaism is a process that takes years to complete.  It involves study, understanding, and practice of our holy directives.  Someone who is in the process of conversion will look, dress, and act like any other observant Jew.  Only when this Gentile fully integrates Torah into his/her life, and understands his/her obligations in Jewish law, will the local rabbi bring this person to a Rabbinical court to complete the process.

 So then, why do we use the same word to mean "convert" and "stranger"?

In fact, this double use of a single word teaches us a great lesson in how we must relate towards the converts in our own communities.

When a convert joins a Jewish community, he/she has no family, no connections, no mentors from childhood, no communal clout... ...just like our ancestors in Egypt!

It is distressing that conversion to Judaism has become such a political mess, especially here in Israel.  Many of us personally know of people who converted according to Jewish law outside of Israel, and subsequentially made aliyah (moved to Israel).  Unfortunately, their status as Jews can sometimes be challenged, if they want to get married, or serve in an official Israeli Rabbinic capacity.

 While it is important for the Israeli Rabbinate to verify that a convert became a Jew in the proper fashion, it is equally important that converts are treated with even more respect, care, and concern, than born Jews.

More importantly, we must work to unify all halachic** conversion procedures worldwide.  Some advancements have been made in the area already.  A convert in North America who goes to an RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) rabbinical court for the end of the conversion process will be recognized as a Jew by the Israeli Rabbinate.  It's a good start.

However, there are many sincere souls who seek to join our ranks.  Some of them have never heard of the RCA.  They obtain a conversion from another rabbinical court, and are blindsided when they want to be recognized as a Jew by the Israeli Rabbinate.

There are several ideas being considered in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), and in the Rabbinate, to unify the conversion system.

While it is beyond the scope of this blog to endorse any specific plan, we do hope and pray that unity will prevail.

On a personal level; remember that every time you go out of your way to help a convert, you simultaneously fulfill TWO positive commands!  "Love your neighbor" (Lev. 19:18) AND "Love the convert" (Deut. 10:19)

Thanks to our Twitter friend,  @mascety, for suggesting this topic.

*A kohen cannot marry a female convert, and a mamzer can marry a female convert, but in all other aspects of Jewish law, a convert has the same status as a born Jew

**"halachic" means "conforming to halacha - Jewish law" 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dealing with dissent

The Torah portion of Korach (Numbers 16:1 - 18:32) tells us about Korach and his challenge to Moses for the leadership of the Israelites in the Sinai desert.

Moses responds by challenging Korach and his supporters to a contest.  Actually, it's more like a Divine retribution version of Russian Roulette.

Only Aaron was authorized by G-d to perform the incense service.  Any non-authorized person trying to do the incense service was liable to the death penalty.

Korach's main argument with Moses (and Aaron) is that "we are all holy".  Korach thought that we shouldn't have Kohanim (Aaron's descendants) solely in charge of the Holy services and offerings of the Tabernacle (which later became the service of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem).

Although many of the classic commentators offer a range of ideas as to the motivations behind Korach's rebellion, the plain meaning of the verses suggests that he was accusing Moses of nepotism.  Moses led the prople, so his older brother got the cushy government job, with great benefits (eating the offerings, crop donations known as trumah, special blessings to give to the rest of the Israelites, first honors, etc.)

So Moses called on Korach to act according to his words.  Korach and his followers would offer the incense at the same time as Aaron.  If Moses has been telling the truth until now, Korach and his followers would die as punishment for their sins.  If Korach was right, they would be fine.

How many times have we asked for a sign from G-d?  A miracle of some sort?  Sometimes we ask for a sign, and get it, but others around us are more jaded, and explain it away as coincidence.

Moses understood this part of human nature, so he made the following request to G-d.

"If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then [the  masses will conclude that] the LORD has not sent Me.  But if the LORD make a new thing, and the ground open its mouth, and swallow them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then [everyone else] shall understand that these men have despised the LORD." (Num. 16:29-30)
That's exactly what happened.  The ground ripped apart, and Korach and his gang fell into the abyss.

Dealing with Korach's dissent from G-d's directive required a swift, unequivocal response.

Oy, how the mighty have fallen!  Today, most of us lack the sincere connection to our Creator to rely on that kind of miracle to combat the dissenters who challenge our knowledge of G-d, and our service of G-d.

Not only have the faithful fallen far away from spiritual greatness - the dissenters have as well!

Korach was a spiritual giant.  He had a greater and deeper understanding of G-d and Divine Law than anyone alive today could ever achieve.  In short - he knew better.  However, as great as a person is, so is his/her Evil Inclination.  Korach gave in to his own thrist for honor, leadership, and dominance.

Since we can recognize that the detractors of Torah today attack us from a place of ignorance, we can understand that strong verbal debate is not effective.  Rather, rabbis from across the Torah Observant world advise us to reach out to naysayers with love, warmth, and compassion.  Leading by example is the best way to engage the dissenter today.

However, part of the message from the Korach confrontation is still very much applicable today.

We must not confuse love and warmth for the dissenter with a soft stance on what we know to be True.

Always be ready to declare your spiritual knowledge with the utmost conviction and resolve.

A section of the Mishnah known as Pirke Avot (Chapter of the Fathers) sheds some light on the balance between open-mindedness and intellectual integrity.

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written (Psalm 119:99) 'I have gained understanding from all my teachers.' (Avot 4:1)

Learning from everyone does not mean automatically accepting what they say as accurate.  The same text also says:

Rabbi Elazar said: Be eager to study the Torah. Know what to respond to a heretic. Know before whom you toil and who is your employer who shall pay you the reward of
your labor. (Avot 2:19)

How do we determine what information goes under the heading "I have gained understanding from my teachers" and what we file under "Know what to respond to a heretic" ?

The answer to this is also found in Pirke Avot:

Joshua ben Perachyah said: Make for yourself a rabbi, and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit. (Avot 1:6)

This was Korach's major error.  His refusal to learn from a qualified teacher led to his untimely demise.

When we learn from someone who is part of the chain of Torah transmission, we are able to take in all sorts of religious / spiritual information, and discern the difference between Truth and falsehood.

From this position of great strength through knowledge and understanding, we can engage the dissenter in the proper way - warm, loving, but without compromise on what we know to be true.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why should I care about the destruction of Israel?

We asked our friends on Twitter to give us a Jewish-related topic that we could write about on the blog.

@casreeves, one of our Christian Zionist followers, sent in the following:

"What would be the loss to the world if Israel was destroyed?"

 Unfortunately, this question is honestly being asked by many young Jews around the world today.  According to one survey, (see here and here), nearly half of young American Jews responded that they would not consider it a personal tragedy if Israel were wiped off the map tomorrow.

 Now, some supporters of Israel will make a completely secular argument for the Jewish state.  Besides being necessary for the Jews to defend themselves, have their own land to prevent persecution, etc - hey, just look at how cool the country is!

According to FLAME (Facts and Logic About the Middle East - read whole list here), Israel is great because:

- the cell phone was invented here

- Mircrosoft and Intel do lots of Research and Development here (the hardware and software you're using right now to read this were likely developed here)

- We are the only liberal democracy in the Middle East

- We have the biggest economy and the highest standard of living in the Middle East

- We are the only country in the Middle East to give true religious freedom to all

These are all very nice things.  Still - they can all be replaced rather easily.  The next great cell phone or microchip could be designed somewhere else.  Who knows, with all of this Arab Spring stuff going on, maybe  another Middle Eastern country will rise up and become a great liberal democracy, with religious freedom, and liberty and justice for all.

All in all, we would have to admit that if the jihadists have their way, and succeed in the complete and total destruction of Israel, the world would find another way to get new technology, and possibly find another Middle Eastern country to support when it democratizes.

There is a greater, deeper lesson in the existence of the People of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the Land of Israel - and especially when the three unite.

What we consider to be "morality" today, is actually the direct result of Torah practice in the world.

The Jewish people are a "Light unto the Nations" (Isiah 42:6).  Everything that is considered "good" and "moral" has its roots in the Torah.

Christianity, and even non-jihadist Islam, take the moral teachings of the Torah and apply them to their own theological understandings.

The entire world has benefited, and continues to benefit, from the Jewish people, who live and teach the morality of the Torah to the other Nations of the world.

The Jewish people were able to return to their G-d given land, the land of Israel, and re-establish sovereignty in 1948.  Many wars erupted since then, and Israel has been able to stave off total annihilation.  In 1967, after only six days of fighting off a planed Jewish genocide by the combined forces of all Arab neighboring states, Israel reclaimed the entire city of Jerusalem, our holy capital, as well as the heartland of Israel, Judea and Samaria, where many biblical events (including the entire episode of Chanukah) took place.  In addition, the Golan Heights were liberated from Syrian occupation, the Syrians having used this historic Jewish plateau to constantly shoot rockets and terrorize the Israeli farmers below.

The entire Sinai peninsula and the tiny Gaza Strip, both occupied by Egypt, were also captured by Israel.  The Sinai peninsula was given to Egypt in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.  (If the new Egyptian government cancels peace with us, do we get the Sinai back?)

A serious error in judgment made Israel abandon Gaza in 2005, and the Israeli government callously evicted thousands of Jews who had built their lives there, at the behest of previous Israeli governments.  The good news is, the nation as a whole were so emotionally traumatized by the decision to take away the life and livelihood of so many innocent Israelis, that the people will likely never tolerate an eviction of any kind, from any part of Israel, ever again.

Despite the setbacks and missteps, the fact remains that the People of Israel were reunited with the Land of Israel, and an increasing percentage are following the Torah of Israel.

Unfortunately, secular humanism is growing like a cancer, at a rapid pace throughout the world today.

The best antidote to this moral rejectionism is a strong Jewish People, following the Torah, in Our Land.  We continue to be a Light unto the Nations, and our very existence in the world, and especially in Our Land, strengthens every human being who chooses to connect with the morals and values of the Torah (which have largely been adopted by Western Civilization and are now often called "Western morality").

So, " "What would be the loss to the world if Israel was destroyed?"

One less vibrant democracy?  One less technologically advanced country to produce new and innovate products?  One less country in the world where people can be free?

Yes.  And it would also be the first victory in the war against Western Civilization.  It would be the top domino, knocking over all other Western powers, one by one.  It would a modern-day Tower of Bavel triumph - a stinging salvo in the fight against our very Creator.

Anyone who cares about the continuation of life in the free world must necessarily support the continuation of the renewed State of Israel.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Shavuot - A promise is a promise.

It was the single greatest event in human history.

The One and Only Creator of Everything, the Infinite One, Almighty, Holy and Blessed be His name - gave the blueprint of Existence to human beings.

Which human beings did He choose to deliver this awesome Law?  He didn't choose the wealthiest group of people at the time, nor the most powerful, nor even the most refined of character.

G-d gave the Torah to a lowly group of Egyptian slaves.

Why?  Wouldn't it have made more sense to give this Holy Code to a people of greater stature?  Certainly, the ruling class of any given nation in existence at the time would have had greater means to publicize this open miracle, this Giving of the Torah.

G-d gave the Holy Torah to these Egyptian slaves, these Israelites, because He had already promised to do so.

"And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a G-d unto you and to your seed after you.   And I will give unto you, and to your seed after you, the land where you dwell, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their G-d."  (Gen. 17:7-8)

G-d promised Abraham that his descendants would receive both the Law to live by, and the Land in which to follow the Law.

We had fallen so low; the kabbalists explain that there are 50 levels of spiritual connection (טהרה) and disconnection (טומאה).  The Israelite slaves in Egypt had fallen to the 49th level of spiritual disconnection.  Any worse, and they would have been completely disconnected from G-d.

We have all heard about the miracle of the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, and of course the Giving of the Torah.  What makes all of these events even more miraculous was that G-d elevated an entire nation of people from the lowest of the low, to the highest of the highest spiritual connection - direct revelation.  Torah.

We can now see the deeper significance of counting 49 days from Passover (leaving Egypt, leaving slavery), and  the 50th day corresponding to the Giving of the Torah.

The slaves had jumped from -49 to 0 in a very short span of time.  Now, they needed to do the hard work of slowly climbing from 0 to 1, and then 2... all the way to 49, and then 50; complete spiritual connection.


This process mirrors our own spiritual struggles.  No matter how far a person has fallen away from G-d's law,  no matter how spiritually disconnected he or she is; they can instantly leap from any negative state, straight to zero.  Anyone who sincerely admits, regrets, and vows to correct his/her mistakes, has instantly removed all of the previous damage.

Getting out of negative territory is easy.  The harder step is building towards ever greater levels of connection with the Divine.

We achieve this ascent through the study of the Law, the performance of the 613 commandments given to us,  as well as personal character refinement.

One such trait is integrity.  G-d made a promise to Abraham, and fulfilled that promise, even though Abraham's descendants were not worthy of the great miracles bestowed upon them.

 May we all keep our promises, keep the Law which connects us to the Divine, and keep striving for the 50th level of spiritual connection.  


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jerusalem Day

A few weeks ago, the entire country of Israel celebrated Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzma'ut).  Everything was closed.  Kids were off from school, all offices were closed, no mail was delivered.  The entire country celebrated 63 years of independence.  The smell of meat grilling on the BBQ (called Mangal in Hebrew) permeated every large city and small town in our homeland.

Indeed, we had great reason to celebrate on that day.  The entire Arab world tried to destroy a tiny nascent Jewish force, and miraculously, the Jewish soldiers, and their brand new government, we still standing at the end.

That was an important day in Jewish history.

Now, back to today.  I am sitting here in the yeshiva office.  All of the schools are open, the offices are open, it looks and feels like a normal business day in Israel.

It's a bit strange.  We should be rejoicing and celebrating all day today.  In many ways, Jerusalem Day celebrates a greater and more important miracle than Independence day.

The conditions in June 1967 were certainly different than in May 1948.  The Israeli army was stronger.  So were the combined armies of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.  The Arab goal was the same - a full eradication of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

 The Independence war left many of our most important biblical sites under Jordanian control.  The Western Wall itself, along with the entire Temple Mount complex, were cut off from Jewish worshipers.  Hebron, Shechem, Jericho, Shilo, as well as a site very important to our Christian friends - Bethlehem - were completely cut off.

Barbed wire cut through the center of Jerusalem.  Judea and Samaria, aside from their historical importance, provide the high ground, looking over the central coastal plain; the most populated piece of Israel. (Think Tel-Aviv metro area).

In addition, the Israeli farmers in the North, along the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), were subject to rocket attacks from the Syrians directly above them in the Golan Heights.

In six short days, all of this changed.

Through bravery, fantastic intelligence, and the grace of G-d, ALL INVADING ARMIES WERE DEFEATED!

The Egyptian forces fell, and the entire Sinai Peninsula, as well as the Gaza Strip, became Israeli land.

Jordan was forced to retreat beyond the Jordan River, restoring Judea and Samaria to its rightful owners.

The Syrian army divisions threatened to demolish all of Northern Israel.  They were miraculously defeated, and the Golan Heights reverted to Jewish sovereignty for the first time in over a millennium.

However, today isn't called Judea-Samaria Day, or Six-Day War victory day.  It's called Jerusalem Day.

The most important piece of real estate redeemed from our enemies that week was not the Sinai  (which was later returned to Egypt in a peace deal), or Gaza (which has since been abandoned and become a Hamas terror base).  Judea, Samaria, and the Golan were more important, for strategic and historical reasons.  Yet even those great victories pale in comparison to the three little Hebrew words uttered over a crackling army radio:

HAR HABAYIT B'YADEINU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


The Holy Temple.  Three times a day, every day, for nearly two thousand years, faithful Jews have prayed to return to the Temple Mount and rebuild our Holy Temple.

On this day, 44 years ago, step one was complete.

 Our holy city, the city rebuilt with centuries of tears and heartfelt prayers, had finally been reunited.
"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [its skill].  Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you; if I do elevate Jerusalem above my greatest joy."  -Psalms 137:5-6