Tag Archives: Judaism

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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The Decline and Fall of the Lee Library

A couple of weeks ago I had blogged heavily about the books that I planned on bringing with me to Seattle. Because of space limitations and the last minute nature of the move, I couldn’t bring that many books and so I suddenly had to make the choice of which select titles I could carry with me out of the hundreds of books my wife and I managed to collect over the years. This caused no small measure of pain and consternation for me, but, eventually, I felt I had compiled a list that would satisfy me.

But literally the day before the move, I stared at what I would soon pack up and what I had set aside, and I completely changed my list. Aside from my scriptures, Bodies, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore and Jewish Dharma (you can probably detect a pattern by now), nothing else made the cut to come with me. I quickly shuffled the books around and ended up with a drastically new list.

Two insights on the list – all of them require some form of proactive learning. My greatest strength and curse is my inability to stay focused on one subject for too long. Because of this, I’ve developed a great breadth of knowledge which my wife both loves and rolls her eyes at. I always enjoy learning, and this leads me to my second insight. None of them could be classified as fiction. None of them. Well, one of them, depending on your political persuasion. Fiction rarely captivates me (blasphemy to my friends and wife); because of my personality, I love the world I live in with all of its quirks and inconsistencies, and why explore made up worlds when the world we live in already exudes such fantastic qualities?

Without further ado:

The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class edited by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

This book exemplifies my core personality. A devotional to strengthen your intellectualism rather than your collection of religious platitudes, the book divides each day into a category of study: History, Literature, Visual Arts, Science, Music, Philosophy, and Religion (it’s not completely godless). Each day reviews a basic subject from that area, ranging from “Personality of Self” to “The Spread of Islam” to “Sound Waves.”

When I first saw this book at the bookstore, I immediately turned to my wife and emphatically told her that this gift would make a perfect birthday gift. I’m pleased to say that she remembered. And while the consistency of both my scripture study and my study from this devotional book varies with the seasons, I have never regretted this book.

Excerpt:

The real numbers are the numbers that you are likely to encounter in day-to-day life. The set of real numbers consists of all the numbers that can be represented on the number line. It encompasses natural numbers, whole numbers, integers, rational numbers, and irrational numbers.

Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living by Graham Hill and Meaghan O’Neill

This book is the only one I brought that could qualify as fiction, considering your political persuasion when it comes to environmentalism. Moving to Seattle, I figured I should reacquaint myself with the environmental movement, but I also believe passionately in environmental conservation and prudent, simple living. This book works as a great primer, introducing each week with a new area of life that could use a little greenifying. After explaining the basics behind the theory, they then introduce a number of ideas which they categorize according to how time consuming and expensive they are. They also interview authors who’ve written on interesting subjects, such as up-cycling. Plus, the book is printed with recycled paper. Can’t go wrong there.

Excerpt:

There are more than eighty thousand chemical compounds approved for use by the EPA in the United States. Of these, only about a fraction have publicly available reports of evaluations for human safety. Only about 20 percent of the eighty thousand are in commercial use at any time, and federal regulations and liability issues mean that almost all new chemicals have some degree of testing or structural analysis for impacts on human health and the environment. However, these reports are interpreted by companies with financial interests in selling the chemicals and are not required for review by independent bodies. Still fewer tests have been done on how combinations of chemicals affect us, which is how we are typically exposed.

Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant with Howard Cooper

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated with the Jewish religion and culture. Many days I wish that I was born Jewish. There’s something about the combination of ritual, scripture, and custom that unites a people together. And with age comes wisdom; Judaism is one of the oldest religions still practiced today. My wife and I have always wanted to live an entire year following the Jewish customs. When someone recommended this book, we bought it and now wait eagerly for the next Yom Kippur to start our Jewish year. This book focuses more on a liberal Jewish interpretation, which at first disappointed me. But after thinking about it, I don’t know if I could last a year as a Hassidic Jew. This fact makes me sad and relieved.

Excerpt:

For liberal Jews, not all mitzvot have the same weight because not all mitzvot provoke the sense of feeling commanded. As one rabbi has written, ‘There will be mitzvot through which my forebears found themselves capable of responding to the commanding God which are no longer adequate or possible for me, just as there will be new mitzvot through which I or my generation will be able to respond which my ancestors never thought of.’ Indeed, for liberal Jews, the increasingly complex modern world may suggest new and binding mitzvot regarding everything from the proper application of medical technology for the terminally ill to the ecological imperative to recycle.

Latin Made Simple by Doug Julius

While looking at requirements to apply for masters programs in theology, I noticed that many of them required the knowledge of either French or German, and Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. Because of this, I purchased this Latin book – I figured I could learn Latin and then knock French out in the process. I still want to learn German, Greek, and Hebrew, but all in good time.

I’m still working on the 1st declension, but I’m almost done and ready to start on the 2nd declension. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Excerpt:

Practice reading this passage aloud, following the English sound guide, until you can read it clearly and without hesitation. Remember that in Latin every consonant and vowel is pronounced.

Pater noster qui es in caelis sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie. Et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et nos ne induas in tentationem sed libera nos a malo. Amen.



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