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GOD

How often do we really think, contemplate, consider what we mean when we refer to God? To many a knowledge of God -- from His Existence to His Being -- seems to be straightforward; to others it seems most bewildering. Within the realm of Jewish thought, it seems to be both. There are sources that point to the existence of God as an obvious given; there are sources that point to His overwhelming incomprehensibility. This has resulted in a strange God consciousness with the Jewish world -- we think about God and we do not think about God. What does this actually say about God? Who is God? How do we know Him?
For a further discussion of this issue, see:

Update 5755-1: G-d
Spark 5754-17
Insight 5762-1: IN THE NAME OF RELIGION

Other articles of interest:

Update 5755-2: The Faith of the Akeida
Update 5755-2: He Measured the Seas in the Hollow of His Hand
Insight 5757-18: Free Choice
Insight 5758-13: The Flow of Sinai

It's not a race

Ontario's highways use electronic signboards to inform drivers of traffic conditions ahead, but when the roads are clear, they display general messages about safe driving. One of these is "Mind your pace, it's not a race". This kind of reminder is probably needed, because human beings have the inclination to take functional activities and use them as venues for competitive ego gratification, sometimes with tragic consequences. Another example of this phenomenon is the hot-dog-eating contest, which takes our basic need for sustenance and turns it into a kind of freak show, simply by adding the element of competition.

Apparently, Torah is not immune to this yetzer. Chumras (stringencies) and kulahs (leniencies) have, in the past, been deeply personal and circumstantial matters, to be treated with tzniut, and adopted with the assistance of a rav. But Human nature, being what it is, has led many to inject a competitive spirit into how they treat these halachic entities. This behaviour has shifted chumras & kulahs off of their traditional halachic foundation, and has placed them ... somewhere else.

There is a danger of misusing stringency in Torah observance to indulge in hubris and judgmentalism. Halacha itself recognizes this danger in its concept of yehura. Indeed, its direction has frequently been for individuals not to adopt a specific chumra. Tragically, in the eyes of many, adopting a chumra has come to represent strength and emunah, and following a heter (a permissive ruling) is seen as weakness and virtual apostasy. Determining the proper way to act demands the consideration of a broader range of aspects of Torah life than what this one-dimensional yardstick can address.

Take, for example, the Torah value of hiddur mitzvah. Our artistic inclinations are to be used to beautify our mitzvah observance. Unfortunately, the outcome of competitive halacha is often the opposite of beauty; a disproportionate focus on chumras displays about as much grace as a hot-dog-eating contest. It can make Torah observance appear ugly and unseemly in the eyes of nonobservant Jews -- and quite unnecessarily so, because the problem doesn't lie within the chumras and kulahs themselves.

There are times when there is indeed value in placing a greater restriction on oneself, but this value does not reside within the actual stringency. Rather, any such value resides within the meaning and purpose behind the decision. The same is true for leniencies. In fact, the desire to be stringent for stringency’s sake or lenient for leniency’s sake is specifically attacked by the gemara itself in T.B. Eruvin 13a.

Further, a chumra is not supposed to be a badge of pride, and a kulah is not supposed to be a badge of shame. To avoid this, we must challenge our inclinations towards pride and competition when it comes to chumras -- and our desire for ease and liberty when it comes to kulahs. Of course, this kind of challenge does not mean accusing others of self-glorification because they are machmir on certain points, or of a lack of commitment because they are meikel on certain points. In fact, making such accusations is a terrible thing to do and has no place in halachic practice. Rather, the proper way to return these halachic entities of chumra and kulah to their traditional place in Torah observance is to focus our intentions on pursuing Torah for Torahs' sake.

In order to achieve this, we first have to determine what we mean by "Torah for Torah’s sake". To make that determination, we must consider: what is the purpose and objective of Torah? Have we made any careless assumptions or ignored the distorting effects of our yetzers in our pursuit of Torah? For example, is it a proper assumption that "more chumras invariably aid the cause of Hashem" or that "more chumras show truer commitment to Hashem"... or should these be challenged? Is it not the case that kulahs can also be adopted for the sake of Hashem? Once one clarifies for oneself what the goal of Torah is, it becomes plain that it's not the chumra or the kulah that matters, but how and why they are used, accounting for one's life-context and circumstances.

You may have heard people ask "why do you need a heter?". Putting the lack of tzniut of this question aside for a moment, would it not be equally valid to ask: "why do you need a chumra?". Chumras done for the sake of an inappropriate value frequently lead to behaviours that diminish other Torah values, such as hiddur mitzvah and even ahavas Yisroel. Therefore, we must focus on the overall Torah purpose; to do so, we must put in the effort to clarify for ourselves what this purpose is.

To return to the analogy of the highways of Ontario, we must remember that the purpose of a road is to take us somewhere, not to be a racetrack. We must determine where it is we are to go in our Torah observance and then figure out the way to get there. If we fail to do this, then the result will be our own freak show in which we sadly and incorrectly declare "he who has the most chumras when he dies, wins".


For a further discussion of this issue, see:

Update 5755-2: Is there a Distinctive Jewish Ethical Perspective?
Insight 5757-10: The Motivation for Giving
Insight 5757-14: Where Has All The Philosophy Gone?
Update 5754-1: Kiruv: A Paradox of Hashkafa
Update 5756-1: Defining a Chilul Hashem
Update Sep. 91: Empathy
Insight 5762-1: In the Name of Religion

Other articles of interest:
Update 5757-1: The Evil of Chesed

Simcha

The holidays are deemed to be times of simcha (usually translated as joy). We are specifically commanded to undertake actions, both during a holiday and in preparation of a holiday, that aid in the achievement of simcha on these days. In fact, serving God with simcha is deemed to be of importance on every day. But what exactly is simcha and why is it so significant a concept within Jewish thought?

For a further discussion of this issue, see
Insight 5762-07: Simcha.

Other articles of interest on this topic:
Insight 5758-19: Simcha and Rosh Hashana

Teshuva

Teshuva, Repentance, is one of the most important concepts in Judaism -- and, as such, it is not surprising that it occupies a powerful role in the practice of Torah. In the daily prayers, there are requests for forgiveness and expressions of teshuva. The essence of all fast days is ultimately teshuva. And most significantly at this time of year, beginning with the first of Elul and continuing to Yom Kippur and beyond, it is the dominant theme of all our Torah expression. Teshuva is more than just important, it is the lifeblood of Torah.
Teshuva is cardinal to the Torah lifestyle for it is the call and force of positive change, of growth -- and growth is what this world is all about. If we don't change, don't grow, what is the purpose of existence?
Yet, in spite of its key role in a Torah lifestyle, the tasks and challenges of Teshuvah are not widely understood. This is because Teshuvah is qualitatively different from many other Torah requirements, which are normally prescribed in broad strokes, intended for general consumption. By contrast, Teshuvah will be very different for every individual.
Torah literature on the subject is indeed helpful in understanding the task at hand, but in the end, each individual must navigate his or her own fears, temptations, confusions and other internal obstacles to reach the goal of Teshuvah, and this requires more than just general principles, but also specific awareness of one's own internal workings. There is no universal manual on how to achieve the transformation of self -- only general guides.
For these reasons, the activities of change and growth present specific and complex difficulties that will impede the success of one's attempts at Teshuvah -- and if not armed with the appropriate knowledge, wisdom, determination and self-awareness, one's Teshuvah may not be as permanent or as far-reaching as might otherwise be possible.

For further presentations on the complexity of teshuva, see:

Spark 5755-30

Insight 5759-15: Responsibility and Control

Insight 5762-2: The Process of Teshuva

Journal, Volume 9: Tshuvah

Other articles of interest:

Spark 5756-8: The Memory of Egypt

Insight 5757-27: The Demand of Effort

Insight 5761-2: The Renewal of Autumn

Sinat Chinum

The Talmud informs us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinum, literally free hatred. Many people wish to define the problem that led to the destruction of the Temple as hatred in general. But the Talmud specifically uses this term, declaring that it was this specific type of hatred that led to the destruction. It is sinat chinum in particular that is to be identified and resoundly defeated. What, however, does this term mean? Many further attempt to define the term as "hatred without cause". But is there such an entity as "hatred without cause"? Even if the reason may be foolish, inappropriate and even mired in one's own psychological morass, there is always a reason for why people hate. More significantly, the cases in the Talmud that describe sinat chinum, clearly indicate the cause. What, thus, is sinat chinum, "free hatred"?

For a further discussion of this issue, see:

Insight 5757-22: Defining Sinat Chinum (Part One)
Insight 5757-23: Defining Sinat Chinum (Part Two)

Other articles of interest:

INSIGHT 5761-38: A PATH OF PARADOX
INSIGHT 5762-40: THE PARAMETERS OF HATRED

Bracha

On Friday Nights, a father blesses his children - why? How does a blessing work? What can it actually achieve? If God knows all and, by definition, responds appropriately to all, how can a blessing from another affect God's response and interaction with the one being blessed?
To some, these questions may seem absurd but, in fact, these are questions that have bothered some the greatest thinkers within Jewish thought. The challenge is justice: Is the Absolutist principle of God's justice at risk if blessings from a human being can influence what ultimately happens? Justice demands that one be judged on merit. How does a blessing from another affect the evaluation of the merit of the one being blessed?

For a further discussion of this issue, see:

Insight 5762-33: Bracha
Insight 5762-43: Bracha and K'lalah

Other articles of interest:

Spark 5756-18: Identity
Update 5755-1: God
Update 5755-2: He Measured the Seas in the Hollow of His Hand

The Recipient of Torah

When we think of Revelation, we think of God. And this, in many ways, is understandable. But, by its very definition, Revelation demands two parties. There is obviously God, the One revealing Himself. Yet there is also the entity to whom God is revealing Himself. To fully comprehend Revelation, it is necessary for one to see and analyze the entire picture.
This recognition is even more important when one considers that the Revelation at Sinai was more than God revealing Himself. It is the foundation of a continuous relationship built upon the giving and receiving of the Torah. Sinai was a dynamic encounter between God, the Jewish nation -- and, we can add, Torah. It is impossible to understand one without the other. It is impossible to understand the whole without an investigation of the parts.
In analyzing Sinai and the covenant of Torah, individuals usually focus on attempting to comprehend God or the nature of Torah. What is often overlooked is the recipient of Torah. Yet it is vital that the recipient be considered as well. To understand the relationship created at Sinai, it is important to comprehend all the components of the relationship -- not just in themselves but also as they affect each other and the entire dynamic. To understand Sinai and Torah, it is necessary to study the recipient of Torah.

For a further discussion of this issue, see:

Insight 5757-27: The Demand of Effort
Insight 5758-13: The Flow of Sinai
Insight 5760-34: The Progression of Revelation
Insight 5761-31: A Collective Recipient.

Other articles of interest:
Update 5754-1: Kiruv: A Paradox of Hashkafa
Update 5755-2: The Faith of the Akeida
Insight 5761-29: Omer: Movement Towards Sinai

The Question

For many, memories of Hebrew school or even yeshiva, include moments of being chastised that Jews are not to ask questions, especially the question "why". I cannot help but wonder how people who assert that we do not question celebrate the Passover Seder.
The question "why" is integral to the Seder. And if we think of the Seder as marking -- and re-experiencing -- the birth of our nation, it would seem that asking the question "why" is actually fundamental to the process of understanding our national identity.
We challenge this assertion and counter that Jews are indeed to ask "why". But then we must probe another "why?"
That is, why is it important for the Jew to question, especially on the Seder night? Why is the question "why" actually fundamental to Jewishness and Torah?

For a further discussion of this issue, see:

Spark 5756-13: The Question and the Change
Insight 5757-13: Difference

Other articles of interest:

Spark 5756-12: From Purim to Pesach
Nishma Junior 5757-2

War

It is clear that no one wishes war. Unfortunately, the call to battle is sometimes unavoidable. The difficulty lies in identifying when it is unavoidable.
When is war justifiable and when is it not? Part of the reason why it is difficult to make this judgment in a clear-headed way is the fact that war is inherently so undesirable -- both morally and personally. To justify war, one must declare that without war a greater evil can and/or will surface. But how does one weigh such potential consequences? How does one determine possibilities? And is this weighing of peace and war nothing but a utilitarian risk-benefit analysis?
How does one make the decision to declare war?

For a futher discussion of this issue, see:

Insight 5761-11: Ethics of the Mind
Update 5755-1: Israel and the Peace Treaty: Framing the Halachic Question
Insight 5761-43: The Issue Is Not Land

Other Articles of Interest:

Insight 5757-4: The Battle of Chanukah
Update Mar./91: Something to Think About

A corollary issue of war is that it seems to create a shift in moral axioms. See further:

Insight 5762-6: War and the Innocent Bystander

Terrorism and Religion

The world is gripped by a fear of terrorism. We are disgusted by the terrorists' total disregard for human life. It is an affront to our most cherished values. That is why the declaration that these acts are done in the name of a religion -- especially a monotheistic religion -- is most troubling.
Might the offending attitudes have parallels within some Torah perspectives? Are there limitations on that which may be done in the name of religion? How do we define such limitations?

For a further discussion of this issue, see:
Insight 5762-1: In the Name of Religion.

This artilce also contains important reflections on the Tishrei time period in the Jewish calendar.

Other articles of interest on this topic:
Spark 5756-5: Lfi Aniyat Da'ati: According to the Poverty of My Thought
Insight 5761-11: Ethics of the Mind

Jewish Unity

To many, it is the number one issue in Jewish life today. How do we remain united, both in Israel and in the Diaspora? The answer of many is to simply declare themselves Jews - and to argue that if we simply see ourselves as Jews without any modifying adjectives, we will remain united.
In the same vein, there are people who state that they are post-denominational -- not Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Secular, but simply Jews -- and that this is the path to unity.
What if, however, rather than fostering unity, this viewpoint was actually the greatest force for disunity? And, have we ever investigated the value of unity itself?

To read more, see
Introspection 5761-2: Adjective and Non-adjective Jews.

Other articles of interest:

Insight 5757-14: Where Has All The Philosophy Gone?

The Irony of Chanukah

Chanukah represents not only a military victory over the Greeks but the victory of Torah over Hellenism. Building upon this theme, for many, Chanukah champions the cause of Jewish identity over outside forces and the pressures of the Diaspora. It is thus somewhat ironic that the Jewish holiday most affected by outside forces, the Jewish holiday most transfigured by the values and customs of contemporary society, is Chanukah.

To read more, see
Spark of the Week 5754-11.

Other articles of interest on this topic:
Insight 5761-13: The Torah of Chanukah

Freedom of Religion

For many, Chanukah represents a triumph for freedom of religion. But is this true? Were the Maccabees champions for freedom of religion or simply for their religious beliefs? There are clearly sources that show that the Maccabees were as intolerant of idolatry, if not more so, as the Greeks were of Torah. What in fact is the Torah's attitude toward freedom of religion? How do we, who value and benefit from freedom of religion, reconcile this value with Torah?

For a further discussion of this issue, see
Insight 5757-4: The Battle of Chanukah.

Other articles of interest on this topic:
Spark of the Week 5755-7

Amalek

For many, the commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek presents a most difficult challenge. While it is recognized that, at times, we must respond to evil with force, the idea that there is an actual prima facie mitzvah of violence begs explanation. A popular retort is that Amalek is "inherently evil" and so a pre-emptive strike is justified and even necessary -- but this only draws further questions: What exactly is it to be inherently evil? Does it affect having free choice?

Yet, this mitzvah cannot be ignored. And indeed as we face this mitzvah, we are called upon to explore the nature of evil and the response to evil that is demanded from us. Is there another way to understand the command to destroy Amalek?

For a further discussion of this issue, see:

Update Mar/92: Choice in Destruction

Other articles of interest:

Spark 5756-12: From Purim to Pesach
Update Mar./91: Something to Think About

Is Judaism Homophobic?

Nishma is presently in the process of assisting in the distribution of the pamphlet "Is Judaism Homophobic?" -- written by David Benkof, a former gay activist who has become Torah observant -- in regard to Orthodox Judaism's attitude to homosexuality. To view the pamphlet in pdf format, we invite you to click here. (Download is 1645 kB, approx. 10 minutes on a dial-up connection.)

Nishma's purpose in assisting in the distribution of this pamphlet is to promote discussion on this most important topic. In keeping with Nishma's recognition of the halachic spectrum, it should be stated that the views expressed within this pamphlet are those of Mr. Benkof and do not necessarily reflect the only possible opinion within Torah. Yet, Mr. Benkof sensitively raises significant issues that demand our attention, including the very nature of love, sex and marriage.
We invite you to look at the relevant articles in Nishma's Online Library in the Subject Matter Index under the heading "
Sexuality and Homosexuality."

For a further discussion of this issue, see:

Nishma Update June 1992:
Homosexuality: Is There a Unique Torah Perspective
Nishma Update June 1993:
The March for Israel Parade and Halachic Decision Making
Nishma Update December 1993:
Love and Sexuality: The Physical and The Spiritual.
as well as the series of
Commentaries on the film "Trembling Before G-d".

2005 NISHMA