Thursday, July 26, 2007


In the class of Tuesday, 24 July Adam Okienko (pictured, right) attended, and we welcomed Don Marks (pictured, left) for the first time.

Among other things, we discussed the concept of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, and the concept that Jewish descent is matrilinial only. These concepts are found in the verse: "When the L-rd your G-d brings you to the land that you will inherit, many nations will fall away before you; the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Prizites,the Hivites and the Jebusites ... And you shall not marry with them; do not give your daughters to his sons and do not take his daughters for your sons. For he will turn your son away from me and they will worship other gods ... " (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)

The Talmud (Kiddushin, 68b) points out that the verse only seems to be concerned that the son of the Jewish woman will be turned away, "for he (the non-Jew) will turn your son (from a Jewess) away." It does not seem to be concerned that "she (the non-Jew) will turn your son (from a non-Jewess) away." The implication is that the son of the Jewish woman and non-Jewish man is still considered "your son," the son of the Jewish grandfather. But in the case of a gentile woman married to a Jewish man, the child is not considered "your son," i.e., he is not recognised as Jewish, and thus we are not warned about the grandchild.

This demonstrates that intermarriage is spiritually detrimental for both Jews and non-Jews. But why will a non-Jewish father necessarily lead his Jewish son astray, if he is an otherwise decent person? This cannot be a condemnation of non-Jews, G-d forbid, for they are beloved by G-d (Ethics of Our Fathers, 3:14) as they were created in G-d's image (Genesis, 9:6) to serve Him.

Rather, this combination cannot work since G-d set up the universe such that the Jew and non-Jew are not supposed to mix in this way. This can be understood from chemistry, where we find that certain substances are harmless and even useful on their own, or when mixed with other substances, but are lethal when mixed with each other.

The same principle holds true in human relationships. A woman could well be a wonderful person, but if she is married to one man, she must not engage in relations with another, and if she does, she does terrible spiritual harm to them both. Similarly, the Torah is telling us that intermarriage is harmful not only for the Jew involved, but also for the non-Jew, for the explosive "chemistry" brings out the worst in them.

Indeed, this relationship is so contrary to the spiritual makeup of mankind that according to Jewish law, the very word intermarriage is a misnomer. There is no intermarriage because a Jew and a non-Jew simply cannot unite. Thus, no matter how committed they are to their relationship, it cannot be called a marriage, and no divorce is required for them to end it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

24/7 surveillance

In the class of Monday, 16 July, Brigitte, Peter, Jason, and Alexey (pictured above) attended. We discussed the concept that G-d is always watching us.

How can a person sin, if he knows that it is against G-d’s will? It is simple. He convinces himself, whether consciously or subconsciously, that he can “get away with it,” and that “no one will know.” As for G-d, he “tunes out” of G-d’s presence.

As the Talmud puts it, “Gaze upon three things and you will not come into the grip of sin. Know what is above you: a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book.” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1)

The Talmud is saying that morality depends upon the recognition that G-d is always observing all our actions, our words, and even our thoughts. It should be noted that it is insufficient to be aware of this concept intellectually; for this truth to have its full impact on the person, his entire consciousness must be permeated with it. Thus the Talmud speaks of gazing, i.e., meditating intently upon this concept. This is the concept of prayer (with G-d’s help, I will elaborate on this concept in future classes).

Conversely, the less we are aware of G-d, the easier it becomes to sin.

The Talmud mentions a Book. What is this Book? The rabbinic commentaries explain that all our deeds are recorded in the heavenly Book of Remembrance. G-d refers to this Book in deciding each person’s blessings for the entire coming year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is in fact the Day of Judgement for all mankind.

To explain this further, I will preface with a story. The Talmud (Berachos, 28b) relates how the disciples of the great sage, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, came to visit him as he lay on his deathbed. The disciples asked their teacher to bless them. He responded, “May it be the will of G-d that the fear of Heaven be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.” Astonished, they inquired, “Is that it?” In other words, should not their fear of G-d be greater than that of man? Rabbi Yochanan replied, “If only that were so! When a person commits a transgression [in private], he says [to himself] ‘let no one see me.’”

Thus, human nature—even that of the spiritually advanced students of Rabbi Yochanan, never mind ordinary people like us—is that embarrassment from man is more likely to deter from sinning publicly than embarrassment from G-d will deter from sinning in private.

This stems from the fact that once our souls became vested in bodies, the physical world became our immediate reality. Thus, although we can recognise intellectually that G-d must exist and that He is the true reality, until the Moshiach arrives this reality will always be abstract and distant from us, and will never be as real as the existence of other people. Thus, Rabbi Yochanan blessed his students that their fear of sin should equal their fear of man.

For this reason our spiritual health demands that we remind ourselves of G-d’s constant presence. Moreover, we should make a point of doing so regularly.

This can be compared to physical health: The body requires regular nourishment, and no normal person will say, “I ate yesterday, so I need not eat today.” Barring an emergency, one should not even skip a meal once.

Similarly, for our spiritual health we need a regular reminder that G-d is watching. This is accomplished through regular prayer. But this must be supplemented with regular Torah study, to keep us freshly updated on what G-d wants of us. Finally, to bring merit and blessing, one's spiritual dose should be completed with an act of charity.

Likewise, it is insufficient to engage in these activities several times a year, monthly, or even weekly. We must do so daily, and not "skip a meal" even once. Moreover, we should encourage others to do likewise.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How can evil exist?

In the class of Monday, July 10, 2007, Peter and Jason attended. We also welcomed Professor Arnold Loewy, my father-in-law, who is currently visiting from America, who sat in on the class.

We discussed the age-old question: how can evil emanate from an All-Good Creator?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Three Weeks

In the class of Monday, July 2, 2007, Alexey, Peter, Jason, and Adam attended.

We discussed the lessons of "The Three Weeks." This is a period of mourning starting from the Jewish date of the 17th of Tammuz.

On this day Moses descended from Mount Sinai and, upon seeing the Golden Calf, broke the first set of Tablets carrying the Ten Commandments. (Exodus, 32:19; Talmud, Ta'anis, 28b) The priests in the First Temple stopped offering the daily sacrifice (ibid.) due to the shortage of sheep during the siege by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian forces, and the walls of Jerusalem were breached after many months of siege in the following year 3184 (586 BCE). Titus of Rome also breached the walls of Jerusalem on this day in 3760 (70 CE). And the list goes on ...

This period continues until the 9th of Av, which is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, when the two Holy Temples were destroyed. Many other tragic events also occurred in this general time, most recently the mass expulsion of Jews from their land and homes in the Gaza Strip and North Samaria in 2005, and the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

Thus, this is a serious time designated for introspection and repentance.

In a broader sense, this highlights the general principle that the Torah lays a strong emphasis on the deeper significance of time. Each day seems the same as the previous one, but in fact, every day has its own unique spiritual character. This is reflected in the various holidays throughout the year. Each holiday has its own special moral, not found in the other holidays. Similarly, there are "lucky" times and "unlucky" times. The three weeks and the month of Av in general are regarded as an "unlucky" time. This is expressed in the Talmudic dictum, "Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, and bad things on an inauspicious day." (Talmud, Erchin, 11b)

The Holy Temple served as a beacon of spirituality and G-dliness for all mankind: The Holy Land is the source of spiritual life-force of the entire universe. Jerusalem is the source of the spiritual life-force of the Holy Land. The Temple Mount, and especially the site of the Holy of Holies, is the ultimate focal point of all.

Thus, by serving G-d in the Holy Temple, the Jewish people, in their role as "a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation," (Exodus 19:6) drew holiness and blessing down into the entire universe, and for all the gentile nations (who were also welcome to come and offer sacrifices to the One G-d in the Holy Temple, provided that the offerings were unblemished). Indeed, the Medrash states, "Were the nations of the world to know how beneficial the Holy Temple is for them, they would surround it with encampments of troops to protect it." (Numbers Rabba, 1:3)

Thus, the destruction of the Holy Temple, and the exile of the Jewish people, the priests of mankind from their G-d-given Land is a universal tragedy, and should be mourned by all. Of this it is written, "He who mourns for Jerusalem merits to see its rejoicing." (Talmud, Ta'anis, 30b) May it be speedily rebuilt by the Jewish Messiah (in Hebrew, the Moshiach) and may we all—Jew and non-Jew alike—merit to offer sacrifices in it again!