Tag Archives: Jewish

Sometimes a Curse Is a Blessing

In Radiant Lights, Haunted Nights, a collection of Jewish folktales edited by Joachim Neugroschel, a folktale chronicled by Y.L. Kahan titled “Sometimes a Curse Is a Blessing” tickled my fancy. I hope you all enjoy it as well!

There was once a couple who lived in a village, and they had no children. One day a rabbi came and he wanted to spend the Sabbath there. The master of the house and the lady of the house showed him a great deal of respect, and they served him good food and drink. Then, on a Sunday morning, the host gave the rabbi a generous donation. The rabbi blessed them, wishing them disturbed nights and disturbed meals. And then he set out again.

When he was gone, the hostess dashed after him. “Rabbi, were you dissatisfied with the alms? Is that why you cursed us?”

The rabbi laughed: “I gave you a blessing so that God would give you children. In a house with children, there are disturbed nights and disturbed meals. Sometimes a child cries at night, and his parents are disturbed. And sometimes a child throws down a glass, and so a meal is disturbed. And these are purely blessings when you have children.”

I hope I can remember this sage advice when the baby arrives. And for you existing parents out there, count your blessings!

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The Burning Palace

Tashrak, a pseudonym for Yisroel-Yoysef Zevin (1872-1926), adapted Buddhist tales into a Yiddish tradition. In one of the collections, “Five Stories about Buddha, the Indian Prophet”, he tells a story called “The Burning Palace.”

A rich man lived in a palace. The palace was very large but also very old. The walls and the columns were rotted and the roof was very dry. One day, while sitting there, the rich man smelled smoke. He dashed outdoors and saw that the entire building was ablaze. The man then remembered that his children were playing inside the palace, and he shuddered.

The terrified father stood there, not knowing what to do. He heard the children running about indoors and jumping and shouting merrily and cheerfully. He knew that if he told them the palace was on fire, they wouldn’t believe him. They’d think he wanted them to play outdoors. And if he dashed into the building and grabbed just one child at a time, he’d be unable to save the others, who’d scoot away from him and be lost in the flames.

Suddenly the father had a wonderful idea. “My children love toys,” he mused. “If I promise them some beautiful playthings, they’ll obey me.”

He now yelled: “C’mon children! Look at the lovely presents your father has brought you! Why, you’ve never seen such wonderful toys in all your lives! Come out as fast as you can!

And lo and behold! Children came running from all parts of the burning palace. They were mesmerized by the word “toys,” and their good father had brought them some marvelous playthings. But the children then ignored their presents, they gaped at the fire and they realized what great danger they had been in. They thanked their intelligent and loving father, who had saved them from certain death.

The prophet is well acquainted with human children, and he tells them that if they are good, they will receive good things, and that is how he saves them from evil.

And there are times when the children see the great danger that the prophet has saved them from, and they praise his name.

I am not a parent yet, and so I wanted to ask parents out there — is this good advice at all? On the one hand, I can see how this form of — well, for lack of better word — bribery could help, but in the end, it could also backfire, right? What do you parents think out there?

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Judaism for Everyone – Book Review

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Judaism for Everyone.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Judaism for Everyone.

I recently finished Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith by Shmuley Boteach. The back of the book consisted of quotes from the book on various topics, and the following quote on suffering caught my eye:

Too many religions emasculate mankind, asking us to bow our heads and accept God’s justice in the face of suffering. But the word Israel means ‘he who wrestles with God.’ We have a right to shake the heavens and spar with God whenever the innocent suffer.

What an interesting statement! So I checked it out and began to read earnestly. I left the reading experience feeling conflicted and slightly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good book and if you’re interested in theology, especially Jewish philosophy, this book does a fantastic job getting into the mind and thinking process of an Orthodox Jew. But I had dived in, hoping for a treatise on philosophy and theology, when in reality Judaism for Everyone is less a handbook on how you can incorporate Jewish concepts into your life and more an apologetic text for Judaism.

On the one hand, it’s a book full of sweeping over-generalizations and platitudes, but it wouldn’t be apologetic, religious, devotional literature without them, right? But for every claim that made me raise an eyebrow, Boteach still walks down some interesting roads. he admits that religion is a crutch for many, but then moves onto how “real religion begins where human limitations end” (p. 42). He talks about Judaism’s purpose of bringing heaven down to earth, rather than forsaking earth to climb to heaven. The chapters on suffering, prayer, and the kosher laws especially bring out very different insights for my thoroughly Christianized mind. The book is a great apologetic text for orthodox Judaism, and along the way you can glean some pretty fascinating concepts:

In Judaism, however, suffering is anything but redemptive. It leads to a tortured spirit and a pessimistic outlook on life. It scars our psyches and brings about a cynical consciousness, devoid of hope. Suffering causes us to dig out the insincerity in the hearts of our fellows and to be envious of other people’s happiness. If individuals do become better people as a result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered, not because of it. Ennoblement of characters comes through triumph over suffering, rather than its endurance (p. 197).

Or this gem on reciting prayers:

Many have complained that the rigidity of a set prayer book is stultifying and impedes individual concentration. They object to having to pray in a foreign language rather than their mother tongue, and they protest at having a fixed text composed of words that were consecrated and written thousands of years ago. My student tells me that they would rather take a banjo out into the fields and “sing a new song to the Lord” that is both personal and spontaneous. They feel stultified and uninspired in having to pray from a prepared text.

Their objects miss a crucial point. The great secret of Jewish prayer is that it is not about talking, but listening; not about beseeching, but imbibing. We awaken in the morning and pray to God, not so much to praise Him as to listen to the beautiful words that remind us of His omnipresence and that it is to Him that all terms of endearment should be offered (p. 131).

And another interesting quote of him defending the famous Mormon motto “modest is hottest”:

Modest dress is a good example. A woman who dresses modestly elicits great passion from her husband simply by undressing. The rule is simple: If a man does not wish to undress a woman in his mind first, he will not wish to undress her with his hands. Modest dress, a form of concealment, inspires lust and desire, in short, eroticism. Erotic obstacles are essential to the maintenance of seduction and passion.

Despite how much Mormons love to compare themselves to Judaism, much of his book is devoted to the philosophical differences between Christianity and Judaism and how those philosophies translate into cultural practice. Some of Boteach’s criticisms of Christianity will no doubt trouble many a Christian, even Mormons, and some of his writings, especially on suffering, will severely challenge the basic assumptions of Christian faith. Though you can tell he’s trying to be impartial, sometimes Boteach’s disdain for some of Christianity’s concepts show through the words. However, his criticisms against Christian culture hold merit, and a reader with an open mind can extract pertinent lessons from his sometimes scathing remarks, such as:

Judaism is best described as a celebration of life, no aspect of which is intrinsically un-Godly. And though Judaism condemns animalistic indulgence, the Talmud declares that in the world-to-come God will hold man accountable for refusing to partake of any pleasures that God has permitted, thinking that he would be more Godly as a result. Asceticism has a place only in a religion that imagines Satan behind every dollar bill and every sexual urge. But a religion that sees a spark of divine light hidden in every heart and hidden behind every tree teaches its adherents to bring this light to the fore. God wishes to be discovered within His world, and man is charged with this task (p. 49-50).

In the end, if you’re up for a whole new experience that will challenge some of the basic underpinnings of Western Christian thought and philosophy, read this book. As far as apologetics go, this book does a fine job introducing some of the major differences between Jewish and Christian thought.

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Trying to be a little less goyim

This year, the wife and I have decided to celebrate all of the Jewish holidays (we’re also gonna try to celebrate each Sabbath and follow the kosher laws, but more on that later), starting with Rosh Hashanah, the new year. As is for all Jewish holidays, the more merrier, and we have an open invitation standing on them. If you are in the Greater Seattle Area at any of these times and want to join in on the festivities, let me know! Or, if you’d like us to email you before each celebration, just email me at tylee85 at gmail dot com.  The schedule  for the year is as follows:

2010 Schedule

September 3rd, sundown – Shabbat:

We will be celebrating our first Sabbath evening, as the one before Rosh Hashanah is special. Because we plan on celebrating each and every Shabbat this year, as much as possible, this will also be our practice trial run. There will be food and candles and prayers and chanting.

September 8th, sundown – September 10th, sundown – Rosh Hashanah:

The new year! We will have a big dinner on the 8th, and hopefully we will be able to get our hands on a ram’s horn to blow. Also, apple slices and honey!

September 17th, sundown – Yom Kippur:

It’s a somber time, so we’ll again have dinner, but much more subdued. We will be lighting candles for those special to us who have passed on, and this is the last meal before the fasting for Yom Kippur, so there will still be lots of great food. After sundown on September 18th, we will drive in the first nail for Sukkot (not exactly sure what this will entail, but still, if you want to watch us drive a nail into something, then you can come). We will also be breaking the fast, so you are welcome to come over for that, as well.

September 22nd, sundown – September 29th – Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles:

We will be turning our little apartment deck into a sukkah! We will basically have all of our meals out on the sukkah, as well as spend lots of time out on it. It’s very small, but it connects directly to the kitchen, which is a blessing! The first day of Sukkot we will have a nice little blessing for the sukkah.

September 30th, sundown – Shimini Atzeret:

We’ll have a blessing for rain (seeing how we live in Seattle, this will most surely come true), and dinner.

December 1st, sundown – December 9th, sundown – Chanukah:

Latkes, dereidel spinning, candle lighting, and on the last day, gift exchanging. It’s gonna be fun.

2011 Schedule

January 19th, sundown – Tu Bishvat, “The New Year of Trees”:

We will definitely be doing something foliage-related. And eating (we like eating).

March 19th, sundown – March 21st, sundown – Purim:

Along with a reading of the book of Esther (maybe in play form?!) there will be food (of course). This should be a lot of fun, and the festival is supposed to all about ridiculous pageantry, so if you like ridiculous pageantry, this is the festival for you!

April 18th, sundown – April 25th, sundown – Passover:

We will try to have as traditional a seder as possible, and hopefully I will be able to conduct it in Hebrew (with translations, of course). No lambs’ blood, though. The wife is strictly against it.

April 30th, sundown – Holocaust Remembrance Day:

When I was a kid in school, whenever we learned about the Holocaust, it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears in the middle of class. Elie Wiesel’s Night traumatized me. For some reason, this is a very sensitive topic for me, and I debated long with myself on whether I should celebrate this or not. I decided I will, but I’m not quite sure what we’ll be doing yet. It will be serious, and it will be somber. But there will probably still be food.

May 21st, sundown – Lag Baomer:

I’m not really sure what this festival is about, but it involves bonfires and who doesn’t love bonfires?!

June 7th, sundown – Shavuot, or Pentacost:

Basically, Torah Day. I’m not sure if we’ll be doing the Counting of the Omer (we probably will), but we will definitely for sure commence the all night Torah study! Come over in your pajamas, bring some food, and we are gonna study the Torah all night, baby!

Actually, this holiday is on a Tuesday. So all night Torah studying is not required (unless you want to; I am).

August 8th, sundown – Tisha B’av:

A day of mourning and fasting to remember the destruction of the Jewish temple. We won’t really be holding any celebrations, but if you want to remember this day with us, you’re welcome to.

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Kosher laws and the Word of Wisdom

My last post detailed a theory of mine that maybe commandments like the Word of Wisdom can create a healthy effect on our very strict, orderly religious society by scandalizing substances that are, for the most part, inherently harmless, in order to diffuse very strong feelings of rebellion and revenge towards an institution. This had me thinking, of course, why I follow the Word of Wisdom personally. I fully admit that I don’t usually subscribe to the same program used by the orthodox establishment, but I feel my story has some merit nonetheless and so I share it with you.

I couldn’t tell you where I picked up this story, but I remember hearing about a rabbi asked why God forbade the eating of pigs and prawns when they don’t really pose that much of a threat to your health. The rabbi responded that kosher laws (or any of the commandments for that matter) did not really have much a practical, worldly value.  The purpose of kosher laws, he taught, was that it forced us to think of God in everything we do.

Dang it, even the Jews get to have more fun than us?! I'd gladly give up bacon for wine and coffee.

Dang it, even the Jews get to have more fun than us?! I'd gladly give up bacon for wine and coffee.

Kosher laws are erroneously thought of as just prohibitions on what to eat. However, kosher laws deal with everything from how to prepare food to how it is grown/raised. In other words, from the time you plant your wheat to harvesting it to using it for food is laced with commandments to help us remember God. In this way, every action in your life helps you remember who it is that provides everything we have.

I like that interpretation. Some Mormons I know try to make the Word of Wisdom into a super-huge prophesy given by Joseph Smith to prove he was indeed a prophet. They say that during his time people drank alcohol like crazy and smoked like chimneys. They drank coffee and tea by the gallon, and because of this, health in those days sucked. However, we know this isn’t necessarily true – people then knew about (and belonged to) temperance movements long before Joseph Smith’s utterance of the Word of Wisdom. People also knew that tobacco wasn’t exactly the best thing for you. Joseph Smith even drank wine before his martyrdom while Joseph Smith Sr. had developed several beer brewing recipes (this, I think, we need to re-discover and capitalize). And as time has marched on, science has shown that coffee and tea, when consumed in moderate, reasonable amounts, can actually help improve health.

Like I mentioned in the comments on my previous thread, I don’t like basing my testimony on physical evidence anyhow, because it can so easily be yanked out from underneath you as new information comes along. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord. So the Word of Wisdom bothered me for a long time – what was it really? A cultural practice enforced to create a sense of community? Misinterpreted scripture? A wresting of the original intent of Joseph Smith’s suggestion?

Nowadays, it’s turned into a full-blown important commandment (admitting to drinking a cup of Earl Grey every morning, for example, can keep you out of the temple). And so, I think I’m going to follow the Jewish interpretation of our own kosher laws. Perhaps the Word of Wisdom is more for us to remember God in a world where it’s so easy to forget Him. Every time we take pause to eat, we think of Him. When we plan our meals and walk through the supermarket, we think of Him.  And when we live our entire lives following the Word of Wisdom but still get afflicted by some kind of health problem while our friend who smokes a pack a day and drinks like an unemployed Russian mafia hitman can outrun us on the racetrack, well, then we don’t feel so bad anyway because it really never was about that, right? After all, our health (like everything else in life) comes from the Lord, and the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

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