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Ask the Rabbi

Here are some short opinion pieces written by Rabbi Shapiro in response to frequently asked questions:

Is the Torah a record of what God actually said to Moses and others?

I believe that the Torah is precious and unique and wise and challenging. I believe that the Torah is important because it developed over time as our ancestors slowly defined and redefined their understanding of God and their understanding of how to live a meaningful life. Does the Torah capture the word-for-word conversations between human beings and God? I do not believe it does. But I also do not believe that the Torah needs to do that. The Torah rather “needs” only be the record of a fabulous search for meaning in life. Somehow our ancestors who set out on this search did have encounters with the divine along the way. Their human record of these encounters is, for me, the core of my Jewish life. top

Do I Have to Pray the Standard Cycle of Prayers?

I’m a rabbi so you expect me to tell you that the “standard” or fixed regimen (keva) of prayers is what you must use when you pray.

Well, my friend, as we approach the season of renewal and honesty, I have to tell you that the “standard” outline of prayers doesn’t always speak to me either. I understand your yearning for prayers that are fresh and personal.

That is why I am so interested in liturgical creativity. I am constantly on the lookout for new poems and prose that can be used in prayer to capture the here and now. I believe too that using the vernacular is also a way for us to form prayers that move us where we are.

On the other hand, I still advocate the importance of congregational and classic Jewish prayer because it’s critical for Jews to be part of a larger Jewish community. As beautiful as prayers that speak to me personally every time might be, I also value being with other Jews when I pray.

It’s a tradeoff. For my personal self, I can find unique ways to express my spirit. For my sense of belonging, I compromise and join the community in a shared praying experience. top

Is Judaism spiritual?

I like biking. I like it because biking takes you outdoors where I often feel as if I can see a hundred miles away. The sky, the hills, and the greenery truly touch me. I believe you could say they all make my biking quite "spiritual".

I actually have one favorite spot in Somers where I stop to stretch and almost always recite a blessing. Not a motsi! Not a Kiddush! Not a blessing that I recite because some old rabbi (!) told me I had to say it. No, instead of that, I recite a blessing because it "frames" the moment so beautifully for me. It's a blessing that thanks God for the wonders of creation!

Why do I turn to "religion" with its pre-written blessings when I find myself in a "spiritual" frame of mind?

I do it because there isn't any contradiction between religion and spirituality.

On the contrary, Judaism (our religion) is the resource that fine tunes my spiritual sensibilities. When you get it right, Judaism is the way we Jews learn to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. If I ramble off my prayers, sometimes the prayers themselves are only routine. But if I approach my prayers and blessings with an open heart and soul, there's nothing better for cultivating spirituality.

Try it out. Take a deep breath. Open your eyes. Look at the world as though it's the very first time you've seen it. Then say a blessing. You'll know how religion and spirituality go hand in hand. top

Can Atheists Be Good Jews?

The answer to a hard question depends on where and how the question is asked. For example, it's one thing to answer a question about Judaism and atheism in the abstract. It's quite another thing, however, to sit down beside an atheist and discuss God personally and honestly.

In that setting I would never tell the flesh and blood person opposite me that he or she was a bad Jew for not believing in God. I would much rather have a two-way conversation with someone who can't believe in God. I would want to know what his or her questions are. I would like to listen to the person of uncertain faith and then humbly offer some of my own perspectives on God.

I'm reminded of the teaching from Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He noted that, according to some interpretations of the Haggadah, more space is devoted to the "wicked" child than to any of the other children of the Seder. Why might this be so? The Rebbe taught that all four children, but especially the "wicked" child, are included in the Haggadah to teach that the totality of the Jewish people depends on every single Jew.

Believer or not, theist or atheist, every Jew is part of our community. Some Jews aren't "bad" Jews while others are "good" Jews. We are one, and that's good enough for me. top

Do Jews believe in the afterlife?

You ask me what do Jews believe about the afterlife and my response is that Jews believe many things about life after death. Over the centuries Jews have believed in a very literal kind of heaven. In some eras Jews could imagine the details of where they might be as they sat at a table where God was the great Teacher on high. In other eras the imagery was less clear.

For many modern Jews, the question is more pointed. They wonder if anything at all happens after death. For me too, the question is a difficult one to answer. Although I personally can't imagine any place that could literally be "heaven," I do know that when my father (z"l) passed away I very quickly imagined that in death he might be reconnecting with his own father. I imagined that my father might be filling his father in on all that had happened since he had died so long ago. Was that happening in heaven? Is that what Jews must believe about the afterlife? In this case, the choice is individual. I know where my heart leads me, and I'm satisfied to believe that there is somehow, someway "life after death." top

When should a person convert?

My non-Jewish boyfriend and I want to get married.  He wants to convert to please me and my parents.  Should I tell him to do so or should we wait until after marriage?  How much is conversion a matter of personal choice or a matter of acceding to the wishes of others? Jewish tradition is clear on a part of your question: Your boyfriend should not convert in order to please either you or anyone else. The sources strongly urge that people who convert to Judaism should do it because they themselves want to be Jewish.So what should your boyfriend do? Although it’s true he has basically come to an interest in Judaism because of knowing you and your family, that doesn’t mean he should give up.Instead, I propose that he and you together explore what being Jewish means for both you as a born Jew and for him as a potential Jew by choice.  Speak to people who have already converted to Judaism. Learn more about Judaism yourselves. Experience Shabbat. Visit a synagogue. Speak to a rabbi.Don’t rush to marriage and don’t rush to conversion. Look at your boyfriend’s interest in Judaism as a chance to learn more about yourselves and your future. If you take some time, you’ll find an answer that is good for both of you. top

Should there be rules for children's behavior during synagogue services?

As some readers of the Ledger may know if they have attended services at Sinai Temple, I am fairly strict when it comes to decorum. That's not because I don't like children. It's rather a question of time and place. At services designed for families with children, the more we hear from the children the better the service runs. But at services designed for adults, I believe it's unfair to adults and crying babies or children if those in the sanctuary can't hear themselves thinking.

So let me cast one very large vote for decorum.

Then again, let me cast another vote for services that do breathe, live, and smile. As serious as I am about praying with the community, I also don't believe most services need to be somber. What Jews need is a joyful place to share their thoughts and dreams with each other and the Holy One. That's why I believe we pray best when we are relaxed, when we are with people we know, and when we feel safe.

I'm actually less worried about excluding a fidgety child than I am about including every single Jew who wants to be part of our people's historic search for meaning in life. Come pray with the community. Come make some Jewish "noise" in the near future. top

Can we change God's mind?

I have to be honest. I simply don't think in terms of this week's question. I'm reminded of the Mishnah's teaching that certain kinds of prayer do not "work." For example, the Mishnah teaches that if a person was coming home and heard cries from his neighborhood and "prayed" that his family not be in trouble, such a prayer would be in vain. It would be in vain because prayer is not magic. It's not a question of "changing God's mind." In this case, the Mishnah is saying that the laws of nature cannot be reversed. Praying that God should undo whatever is already happening has to be to no avail.

So why pray? I pray because it places me in a Jewish community that gives me emotional and spiritual support. I pray because it helps me focus on my strengths and weaknesses. I don't pray in order to get an advantage. Rather than getting God to be on my side, I pray so that I can hope to be on God's side. top

Is there a certain body of knowledge that a Jew should know?

This question about what a Jew should know is fascinating and dangerous as well! It's fascinating because it invites me to outline a vision of the educated Jew, but the question is also dangerous because, no matter how gently I put my words, some people will feel excluded or "judged" by what I've written.

So what's a rabbi to say?

First, let me say that I believe the door to Jewish living ought to be as open as we can make it. Every Jew has a place in the synagogue. If you have learned a lot, you are welcome. If you have learned very little, you are still welcome.

On the other hand, a serious adult Jew also ought to be trying to learn and grow all the time. If you haven't studied the Torah, you can start with a single verse today. If you don't know Hebrew, you can learn a letter tomorrow. If you can't figure out what you believe about God, you can share your questions with your rabbi any time.

What makes for an educated Jew? An educated Jew is someone who wants to learn and calls his/her rabbi to start the process as soon as possible. top

What message would you as a rabbi like to impart to this year's graduating High School class?

Dear Class of 2002:

You are graduating towards the beginning of the first decade of a new century. Unlike the final decades of the last century, your decade doesn't even have a name yet. It is perhaps not clear to any of us, including you, what the shape and/or meaning of this decade will be. My guess, however, would be that this decade and this year of your graduation may be remembered by Jews as a pivotal time in Jewish history. 2002 (as well as 2001 and probably 2003) will be remembered as years in which our people experienced a crisis in Israel. I suspect that just as 1967 became a year never-to-be-forgotten, this time in our decade will also have historic resonance. Our people is in pain; our people is faced with critical decisions for the future; our people needs all the strength it can garner from Jews around the world. My message to you, then, is to become involved. Learn more about this crisis. Take a stand. Speak out. History is being made before your very eyes. Don't let it pass you by! top

Can a modern person really "repent" during the beauty and busyness of September and late summer?

Here's a surprise! Perhaps the greatest obstacle to repentance is imagining that it only takes one month (Elul) or one set of days in the synagogue to complete the process. Of course, repentance is the singular focus for this time of year, but I like what the medieval teacher, Bachya ibn Pakuda proposed in his consideration of proper Jewish living. Bachya wrote that introspection and sincere concern for change and personal betterment were meant to be pursued every day of the year. Bachya taught that cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an account of your soul) was a daily responsibility. It was a responsibility for every Jew at every age.

In other words, you might say repentance is a lifelong challenge. We need to focus on our weaknesses every day. We need to turn away from negative behavior at all times.

Why did it take the Israelites 40 years (essentially the span of a life) to get from Egypt to the Promised Land? It took that long because changing and refining themselves was essentially the work of a lifetime! The upcoming High Holidays are one step along the journey we all need to take in building better lives over all the years we have to live. top

Should Jews celebrate Halloween?

Halloween was originally one of the special saint's days in the Christian Church. For that matter, January 1/New Year's Day was also connected to the Christian calendar when the Church identified it as the Feast of Circumcision, being the eighth day after the birth of Jesus.

What should a Jew do when it comes to both of these days that have roots in non-Jewish observances?

For me, the answer is simple. Focus on today. Remember that neither Halloween nor New Years have any religious overtones today. Let your children participate as much as you wish. (How much candy do they really need?)

And if you want to raise a question of Jewish substance, take one last look at this year's date for Halloween. October 31, 2002 takes place on a Thursday night. Rather than prevent children from participating in a harmless activity, why not use that Thursday night to prepare yourself for the next night? Make Friday night November 1 into Shabbat! When you buy the Halloween candy, make sure you've got Shabbat candles and challah in your shopping basket. Focus less on what you and your family won't do. Focus more on what you will do to make a Jewish home. Worry less about Halloween. Make Friday night into Shabbat. The sweetness of Shabbat tastes infinitely better than the candy of Halloween. top

What are the ingredients for a successful community?

Two rabbis debating were debating when a new day arrives officially. One said the new day becomes official when a person can discern the differences among the fringes at the corners of a tallis/prayer shawl. The other suggested another indicator. He said, “I think a new day can only begin when the sun has risen enough for a person to see the face of another fellow human being.”

When it comes to defining what makes for a “successful community,” I like the lesson of the “new day” story. For it seems to me that before almost anything else in a community can work there has to be a decent level of person-to-person fellowship. People have to get along.

When that is the case, a community can begin to grow. People will come to worship when they feel comfortable with one another.  They will come to learn Torah when they trust each other. They will do deeds of loving kindness when there is a bond among them.

Needless to say, synagogues can’t delay praying, learning, or other mitzvot until people feel good about each other, but, while we are working at the hard stuff of Jewish life, I never forget the simple necessity of caring for each other. That’s what makes for successful days of synagogue and community living. top

When it comes to our children, what parts of Judaism should I insist on?

The kids on my child’s soccer team organized an informal practice on Yom Kippur afternoon. The coach wasn’t involved in any way and the practice was not sanctioned by the school. Since school was cancelled on Yom Kippur, many Jewish kids attended the practice including my own. Although I am not observant, I think that actions like this lower the bar for all of us. When it comes to our children, what parts of Judaism should I insist on?

When Jewish kids (or Jewish adults, for that matter) publicly appear to dismiss Judaism, of course, we have a problem. Our whole community is diminished when something as public as a soccer practice on Yom Kippur takes place. It’s what our tradition calls “ma-a-rit ayin,” which means things that look bad to the outside world rob us all of some respect from the outside world.

But I’m also interested in your asking what parts of Judaism you should “insist on.” I think “insist” may be the wrong word. It suggests that you as an “adult” feel you have some sort of responsibility to “administer” Judaism to your child. I would suggest reframing your idea. You don’t raise a Jewish child by forcing certain doses of Jewish learning or living on him or her. You raise a Jewish child by having a Jewish home and Jewish family where you live at least some kind of Jewish life. Your level of observance may be high; it may be low. Most importantly, if you want to have a child who lives a proud Jewish life, I would suggest creating a Jewish environment in his home. Don’t force it on him or her; live it with him or her and you’ll both benefit! top

What wisdom or response does Judaism offer about the afterlife that is meaningful to you?

Judaism teaches me about the afterlife in an indirect way.

The teaching which inspires me comes in one of my favorite prayers.  It’s a prayer said early in the morning service…Elohai, neshama she-na-ta-ta bee…O, God, the soul that you have given me is a pure one.

That prayer moves me every time I say it because it reminds me that Judaism believes each one of us has a fundamentally pure core.  Every morning that prayer reaffirms this vision of purity and possibility.

When I then consider death and the afterlife, this same prayer inspires me to believe that the soul w

Imagine the soul as our source of energy for life.  I believe that energy may change forms when we die, but I also believe that somehow it doesn’t disappear. The neshama lives on.  How this happens or where it happens are matters I don’t understand.  I only believe that the soul is pure and has an enduring possibility.top

 

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