Judaism may seem abstract, but the things that keep it alive are very concrete. If you cannot pay for food and clothes, for the lights and the rooms, the desks and the books, the ideas have nowhere to take root. This deep truth is expressed in a powerful story about Rabbi Hiyya.
Jews venerate memory. So important is memory to Jews that one characterization of God in our prayers is “Zochair kol Hanishkachot” — the one who remembers everything forgotten. To be God is to have the gift of perfect memory.
Prayer is supposed to inspire us with the beauty of its language and the grandeur of its conception. In each morning service there is a passage called “The Thirteen Exegetical (or, hermeneutical) rules of Rabbi Ishmael.” If prayer is supposed to be uplifting, one can only wonder why such dry material would be included. Here is a sample of one of the rules: “The particular implied in the general and excepted from it for pedagogic purposes elucidates the general as well as the particular.” It hardly sets the spirit aflutter.
Mark Twain wrote of his experience in church: “I couldn’t wait for him to get through. I had $400 in my pocket. I wanted to give that and borrow more to give. You could see greenbacks in every eye. But he didn’t pass the plate, and it grew hotter and we grew sleepier. My enthusiasm went down, down, down — $100 at a time, till finally when the plate came round I stole 10 cents out of it.”
Martin Gilbert, who recently died, completed the official biography of Winston Churchill and wrote many other books on Jewish, general and British history. But he was also an extraordinary mensch. I experienced his kindness myself.
The Hebrew word “Pesach” denotes a holiday, and refers to the angel of death skipping over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. But the same word that means skipping also means “lame.” Hidden in that similarity is a deep lesson.
Perhaps no concept in Judaism has been more misunderstood than chosenness, Rabbi David Wolpe writes.
Rabbi David Wolpe
Special To The Jewish Week
Perhaps no concept in Judaism has been more misused and misunderstood than chosenness. It is not a doctrine of racial superiority, though some have interpreted it as such. The first statement in the Torah about human beings is that all are created in the image of God and all have a common ancestry. The choice is one of service, not of being served. And it does not preclude the notion that other nations too are chosen for other tasks.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer criticized Judaism for being an optimistic religion. One could make a case for Judaism’s pessimism based on a history of suffering, or even on certain verses from the Tanach, (e.g. Ecclesiastes 7:1: “The day of death is better than the day of birth”). Nonetheless, Schopenhauer was right. Judaism is, in the end, optimistic.