Wednesday, December 19, 2007

NOTES FROM A CONVERSATION

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Editor's note: I have a friend who, while Jewish, did not grow up in the bosom of the faith. Lately he has come to me with questions about the religion, and I hereby present excerpts from our on-line dialogue. Of course, he has consented to the publication of our correspondence, and as he has chosen to remain anonymous and unsung, his wishes are hereby granted.

Friend: In economics and in other fields, emphasis is often placed on the idea of "systems." In other words, above and beyond what individuals do or don't do, they often seem powerless in the face of these larger forces. So having said that, do you see any merit in Judaism's placing a large responsibility on individual morality?

Melman: In Judaism, the path to G*d, the halakha, comes to the door of every individual. Though cloaked in community, the individual alone faces his maker for his accounting. Judaism allows for no human mediators. Every individual is responsible for his moral behavior. There is no passing the buck. Judaism posits that man has free choice. It demands taking a moral stand. If we don't take moral stands - simply, what is right and what is wrong - on the "picayune" realm of the personal day to day, how then do we ingrain a moral bias for taking stands on the larger social issues? In fact, what are the larger social issues, if not the sum total of all the individual issues? As in chaos theory, the proverbial flapping wings of the butterfly has an effect on the weather on the other side of the world. In that sense, we are all butterflies. But besides the individual's call to morality, we also have the individual's obligation to celebrate. On all the Jewish holy days - from the High Holy Days to the pilgrimage festivals to every Sabbath and to every single day, the Jew is commanded to reflect on life, and to celebrate life.
And just as morality to be global must expand to include community, so too, the idea of the celebration of life should expand to include community in order to be truly joyous through sharing with others.

Friend: What do you think about in your quieter moments?

Melman: In many a quiet moment I've given pause to ponder and to observe. I've watched with detached fascination the impulsive freneticisms of atomized man. I have felt loss at the self neglect in many who waste their lives - both present and potential. They wander through life aimlessly. There is no point, they think, in an endeavor which to them is ultimately absurd. But let them imagine that it wasn't absurd, that life did have meaning. People could at long last raze their castles of apathy and loneliness. In a vision of a world uniting to mend itself, despair and cynicism could finally find a haven to rest in places other than in men's souls. Imagine people "checking in" at regular intervals to take stock at the state of many things: their private goals, their relationships, their work, the cosmos. And in juxtaposition to their human shortcomings, imagine that they could simultaneously believe in an idea of a reachable condition of perfection. Imagine the resultant earnestness and comradeship that would naturally flow from this process.

Friend: What is your gut feeling about utopian ideologies? I mean, be on the level, okay?

Melman: Okay, so you have this utopian image with which man can align himself, an image which holds out a potential for harmony and of bliss for mankind. Frankly, I'm a little tired of talking about "humanity." What appeal can these notions have if they don't address me, a single human being? Nothing bears out this self-deceit more than the sorry spectacle of those humanity lovers who have nothing of value to show in their own lives, in their own spheres of relating.

Friend: How do you come to terms with the existential problem of drudgery?

Melman: There is a side to people that begs to transcend day to day repetitious mundanity. The Sabbath Day, imbued with a dimension of Divine holiness, is to some, a mechanism of release. In this I find meaning. But I do not regard my every day existence as a drudgery. In fact, I believe that the accent of the Jewish religion is one that actually emphasizes the day to day. How we function in the here and now - in "realty," is the yardstick by which we measure true religious success.

Friend: Tell me, do you imbue the Sabbath with any specifically metaphorical meaning?

Melman: The Sabbath, to me, is an eternal metaphor for human interaction, presenting a paradigm of relating on realms both Divine and human. Let us briefly look at the beginnings of the relationship between Israel and G*d, according to traditional and personal intuitions. First, there was a discovery by Abraham of G*d. Then came a period of reciprocal learning and awareness. G*d came to know the heights of Abraham's devotion, in the near sacrifice of his cherished son, Isaac. In turn, Abraham came to know the limits, and the degrees, of G*d's decrees. Justice and compassion were weighed. Abraham challenged G*d to define and to be faithful to His own standards of morality. Witness the intercession, however fruitless in the end in terms of immediate results, on behalf of Sodom and Gemorrah. Thus having come to know each other as each "operated" in reality, G*d finally initiated the formal bonding of their relationship, through both him and his seed. The naturalness of the developing relationship was reconfirmed at Sinai. How much and for how long could they mutually endure without defining the terms of their fealty, and celebrating the worth of their bond? That event, in Judaism, is eternally contemporaneous to every Jew.

Friend: What is the enduring testimony to that bond?

Melman: What is the enduring testimony to that bond? Israel's observance of the Sabbath: the Sabbath of "yetzirah" - of formation - that harkens back to a prepolitical celebration of G*d's unfolding creation. One is reminded, through observance of the Sabbath, that in living, one is called upon to interelate on terms of mutual benefit and growth. We remind ourselves of the command to come out of ourselves, for in unity and community there is strength. But for what purpose is this strength? To what end? We must always hold a vision before us of the perfect ideal world, the vaunted messianic state. The Jewish tradition asks us to always compare this vision to current reality. In this sense man is considered to be a co-partner in creation, in that his task is to finish creation. The Sabbath reminds us of our bond to the covenant which demands of us this task, and it celebrates the creation even though it is still yet incomplete. The Exodus from Egypt is recalled in the idea of the Sabbath of "yetziah"- the "going out" - which is an enduring metaphor for the eternal imperative of liberation - both personal and global.

Friend: What about cosmic thoughts? Cosmology versus cosmogeny.

Melman: The individual, so to speak, confronts his cosmic beginnings, and beholds his transformation through concentric realms of being. On one plane of consciousness, he identifies with the polity of Israel contemporaneously standing before the ongoing revelation. On another plane, he transcends history and space, imbibing once more of the protological serenity of Eden, that prefiguration of the messianic world where once again all will be united under the Divine principle. Along these lines run certain mystical strains in the Jewish tradition. Concepts of logos and genus merely tend to obfuscate the obvious.

Friend: I see. And what about G*d, the so-called "deity?"

Melman: How can G*d be really relevant to you, you wonder? I believe that if one looked at the world with his or her eyes fully opened, he would glimpse the vast multitude of deities that many worship - even today. If they don't worship "large case" G*d, they worship some other "small case" god. Upon that to which he directs his desires, beyond all proportion or degree thought necessary or appropriate, that is his god. Many worship power, domination, submission to authority, their country or even themselves. They become locked into a vicious and alienating circle from which it is even harder to emerge. Man is measured by that which he values. So it's not a question of choosing to serve G*d, but of choosing which god to serve. All people expend energy serving their particular god. In prayer, a person likewise serves G*d. He arranges his values in order, in their appropriate context. One reasserts control over one's life, and reminds himself in prayer that his choice is ultimately worth his while. Reward in the next world, olam haba - after life? So it is taught. But just as important is the reward of satisfaction in the attainment of self-mastery, in reaping the spiritual benefits of this world inherently earned in the journey of self discovery. Without this struggle and the self-knowledge derived from this struggle, there would possibly be no point to ever being born.

Friend: You mention struggling. Where does suffering figure in all this talk of halacha?

Melman: Prayer and halacha - Jewish law, literally "the way," have an additional extrinsic worth, beyond the intrinsic. In embracing the symbolic structures of a particular religious system, which by definition imposes meaning on the problems of existence, man places suffering within a cosmic framework. He can thus define his emotions to suffering in a meaningful way. As a means for dealing with the evils of the world as opposed to facing a chaos, an awesome terror of the unknown, the halacha charts an ethos, marking boundaries so that one can function as anxiety free as possible within the world. Like struggling, suffering leads to growth. A mighty oak tree is only born in the pain of the acorn's disintegration.

Friend: This Judaism. It's so vast. I'm frankly a little intimidated by its scope, vastness and depth. Is it really worth the effort to master?

Melman: Standing in direct counterpoint to the modern dogma of false spontaneity, a kind of compulsive reactivity to sensory input, is the principle within Jewish observance of kavanah, or "intention." It posits that the value of an action is markedly enhanced when it is couched in an aura of ready anticipation. Thus an act takes on an organic nature all its own, drawing its first breath in the seed of one's prior intention. While halacha admittedly limits my physical freedom, it more than compensates by widening my scope of perception. Every action is imbued with a more profound and higher significance. My horizons become sensitized to ever deeper levels of concern, and ultimately - to action. It gives a rhythm and continuity to my life, providing a steady anchor in an unstable world. As the Torah teaches (Leviticus 19:18): "Love your neighbor as yourself." And as Rabbi Hillel added, so succinctly: "That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. All the rest is commentary." There you have it, phrased both in the positive and the negative. All bases covered.

Friend: So apart from me, does a person like you have many friends?

Melman: I grant you that my orientation and socialization within the world of Jewish observance was a natural one. What you most ably could identify with, would be my independent discovery and personal interpretation of the age-old system. In the main prayer, the amidah, we say elokeinu v'elokei avoteinu, "our G*d and the G*d of our fathers." We each have the task of not only learning from tradition, but of making personal sense of it all. I can receive what it meant for my fathers before me, but what does it mean to me? That only comes from study of the Torah and reflection. It says knei lecha Rav. "Acquire for yourself a rabbi." Push your comfort zone in order to grow. Little by little. That's the only way. Entering this age old system from an external vantage point, without guidance, would, I am sure, seem like a scary proposition. I might add, however, that with study, your fresh perspective would probably afford you a unique understanding. Should you wish to learn and be open to suggestion, I will share with you what I found to be the best way to enter the tradition: simply do it. Begin from where you are. Performing a mitzvah, a "G*d connector," teaches you more than any amount of study can. The experiential element is central to acquiring knowledge of "the way." I found that slow is best. I would slowly take one mitzvah at a time and make it "mine." Then I would take another, and so on. Coming back to it again would be like a reunion with an old friend. Right now, to answer your question, I have quite a few friends!

copyright 2007 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

This was dedicated to the memory of both my grandfathers, who both share the same yahrzeit, the ninth day of Tevet, but in separate years. One was my maternal grandfather, Burich ben Yonah, z"l, who was an iconoclast and whose first name I bear. The other was my paternal grandfather, Harav Yaaqov ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen, z"l, a deeply learned Rav and Baal Musar, musmach of the Mir yeshiva in Russia and rebbe of the Slobodka yeshiva in Russia, whose last name and Aaronide status I bear. A leader of the pre- WW2 NYC Jewish community, he had two daughters - my aunts. One helped found the first mikveh in Far Rockaway, Queens, as sisterhood president of the White Shul, and the other married the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Such was the unity and brotherhood of the Jewish community once upon a time. Would that it might yet return.

NEVER GIVE UP!

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When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.- Abraham Joshua Heschel
The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is to not be afraid.
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
"The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor." - Aish Kodesh
"As you want G*d to give you a chance, give everyone else a chance to also begin again." - Shlomo Carlebach

About Me

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United States
I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!