Archive | Rabbi Yogi

Unexamined religious practices as dangerous as ignoring unhealthy living

Posted on 10 August 2017 by admin

“I know rabbis that are quite obese, and I just don’t get it. I mean, doesn’t the Torah command us to be healthy?”
I’ve heard and have been asked versions of this question many times over the years — and the answer is not simple!
First and foremost, it is improper to judge any individual case of obesity as self-inflicted, as one never knows another’s health particulars. As a doctor recently shared with me, you can, in fact, be naturally obese. From congenital leptin deficiency (leptin being the “satiety hormone” that helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger) to disorders like Prader-Willi syndrome and the insatiable hunger and chronic overeating (hyperphagia) that follows in its wake, to genetic predispositions to obesity and other environmental factors, obesity occurs in the general populace for a variety of different reasons other than lack of personal discipline and will.
In the end, it is the obese individuals alone who can honestly answer if they are actively doing everything in their power to get their weight under control. We, then, do not stand in a position to judge.
That being said, there is a perfectly fair question that lies at the heart of the aforementioned query. How are we to reconcile the fact that there are individuals, whether overweight or thin, who are scrupulous in the minutiae of Jewish law, and yet seem not to care about their health?
I have no study data to back up my thoughts on the matter, but I do believe I have a pretty strong theory: Humans do better adhering to carefully detailed laws (like those codified in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s definitive and extensive code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch) than ethereal religious ideals (all those sacred constructs left out of the Shulchan Aruch).
And while guarding oneself from potentially life-threatening situations may be of Biblical origin (derived from the verse “and you shall carefully guard your souls,” Devarim 4:15) and finds itself codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 427:8), the general admonition to maintain a healthy lifestyle is conspicuously absent from the Shulchan Aruch, seemingly consigned to the sea of Jewish values.
Maimonides, plainly omitting any Biblical or rabbinic citations when describing personal health, seems to similarly concur that keeping healthy, while of supreme Jewish value, is not technically law. Here are his words upon the matter: “Since having a healthy and whole body is integral to Divine service — as it is impossible to understand or know anything about the Creator when one is sick — one must stay far from things which destroy the body and accustom himself to things which preserve one’s health” (Mishneh Torah – Hilchot Deot 4:1).
For better and worse, the detailed observance of Jewish law often evolves into daily habit. The bright side: We are creatures of habit, and halachic habit forming is crucial to creating Judeo-centered lives. The dark side: If we’re not careful, our practice of halacha, the beating heart at the center of our Jewish practice, can descend into mitzvat anashim m’lumdah, the ritualistically unconscious routine that the prophet Isaiah decried many moons ago (29:13).
Unlike the well-practiced observance of halacha, the infusion of Jewish ideals and values into our lives requires a kind of proactive, zeal-like consciousness and a sacred determination.
It’s about looking beyond our technical, limited duties and into the world of spiritual possibility. It is to care to become the kind of person the Torah wants us to be, something much more than the sum total of a lifetime of halachic works.
For those to whom the practice of Jewish law is more culture than mission, more habit than calling, it is the spirit of the law and our hallowed Jewish ideals, both areas that are not and cannot be codified in law, that are most likely to become the first casualties of unconscious Jewish practice. Sadly, this is a Judaism full of body but bereft of soul.
It may surprise you that the practice of unconscious Judaism endangers the fulfillment of certain laws as well, many of which comprise the heart and soul of the religion. You see, laws like loving and fearing God revolve around emotions and matters of the heart and spirit, areas in which no corporeal actions or religious habits suffice. Similarly, laws like “you shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2) and “you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (Devarim 6:18), both of which command us to go beyond the letter of the law in both our divine and interpersonal relationships, cannot sprout in a mind that perceives law as the end-all.
Don’t get me wrong: A strong commitment to a halachic lifestyle is the backbone upon which all else rests. But if we cease imbuing it with kavana, conscious intention, we may find ourselves in the predicament of Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, a man deeply convinced of the importance of passing on the faith, but unable to meaningfully explain to the next generation why it meant anything more than mere tradition.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the director of outreach at DATA of Plano. Rabbi Yogi lives in Plano with his wife Shifra and their five children.

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Today’s rabbi spends time with people, books

Posted on 27 July 2017 by admin

Our world has changed so drastically in the last 100 years and the state of the rabbinate, an institution better known for its constancy than its elasticity, has followed suit. The community rav, that learned individual principally appointed to answer the community’s questions on issues of kashrus and business disputes, has been replaced by the modern jack-of-all-trades rabbi, whose list of expected duties extends to domains previously reserved for others.
The rabbi of the 21st century is both marriage counselor and child-rearing educator, personal adviser and Talmud teacher, and yes, he’ll need to answer the occasional halachic query as well!
I have learned that which others before me already knew — the rabbi of today’s day and age spends more time with people than with his holy books.
As such, engaging in the holy work that is the modern rabbinate has given me an intimate, firsthand look into the lives of those around me, acquainting me with their concerns and their hopes as well as their personal worldviews and outlooks. And it is with these many personal encounters in mind that I have come to believe that it is the hugely significant, yet often overlooked, art of perspective that most centrally gives rise to a life of happiness and satisfaction. This singular capacity to see the bigger picture, and the forest for the trees, informs our daily dealings with co-workers, children and spouses, and gives us the strength to persevere, even thrive, in the face of formidable life challenges. How sad it is that even the most blessed of lives are reduced, sometimes destroyed, by the inability of a family member to more richly interpret the life and events around them.
Caleb (name changed to protect identity) is such a tragic individual. A single man in his early 30s, he plays the perpetual victim to life’s circumstances. The words, “I don’t deserve for this to be happening to me,” are common refrains on his lips, the product of his general perception that the problems in his life are the result of others’ misdeeds, never his own. It’s no surprise, then, that his past is fraught with burnt bridges and severed relationships. He wants a better life for himself but cannot reckon with the reality that he is the biggest impediment to his own happiness and well-being.
Caleb recently asked to meet with me, this time to discuss a grievance he had with a longtime friend of his. I came to learn that this friend, having gifted Caleb a number of homegoods to help furnish his new apartment, had requested one of the items back. His friend had forgotten that he had already promised one particular item to someone else and asked Caleb to please return the item.
Caleb was incensed with his friend, calling him an “Indian giver” and wanted to know whether he was halachically bound to return the item he felt was rightfully his — ramifications to his friendship be damned.
I was shocked by the entire exchange. There was no attempt to judge his friend favorably, to view the entire incident as an honest mistake (something I anyway considered the most likely reality considering the fact that this was the same friend who had generously gifted him all the items in the first place). Caleb could not see past his friend’s “deplorable” request to return a gift — something he was told by his mother never to do.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the halacha has to say in this situation,” I told Caleb. “Whether or not you are obligated to return this item or not, giving it back is the right thing to do!”
Caleb couldn’t believe his ears. This was clearly not the response he was expecting from me.
“But what about the fact that he did something wrong by asking for it back!?” Caleb retorted.
“Whether it was right or wrong doesn’t matter at this point,” I said to him, looking him dead in the eyes. “Right now you have to do what’s right at this moment and that means returning the item!”
Nothing I said was getting through to him, so I decided to take a different approach.
“Caleb, what’s the most important thing to you?” I asked.
He thought about it for a few moments and answered, “Keeping the peace.”
Silence.
Even Caleb had to admit the irony in his words as well as the obvious ramifications it had on what he needed to do with the item in question and the friendship which was currently up in the air.
Like Caleb, we often find ourselves so blinded by the enormity of the moment, and the short-lived emotions that lie in that moment’s wake, that we lose something much more valuable in the process — our perspective (and with it, our ability to right our own ship).
It’s not only the Calebs of the world who suffer from lapses in proper perspective. Even the greatest of our sages are not, and were not immune to such miscalculations of the mind. It is during this period of the Three Weeks, leading up to Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning over the destroyed Temples, that we are reminded of such an episode.
We are told that Rabbi Akiva and his sagely friends walked up to Jerusalem, ultimately reaching the Temple Mount and the Temple ruins. Upon seeing a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies the others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.
Akiva’s friends, bewildered as to the source of his seemingly irreverent laughter, demanded an explanation. Rabbi Akiva didn’t let them down. “Now that I see that Uriah’s prophecy (predicting the destruction of the Second Temple) has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zachariah’s prophecy (predicting the building of a future Temple) will be fulfilled!”
From the response of Rabbi Akiva’s friends it is clear that this fresh perspective tempered their anguish and instilled hope where there was only hopelessness. As the Talmud records, “With these words they replied to him: ‘Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!’” (Talmud Makkot 24b)
In that spirit, I pray that we too be soon consoled. May the Almighty fill this world once again with His Holy presence, drawing the redemption near, and with it the elevation of all of our perspectives!
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Private, public actions should match

Posted on 13 July 2017 by admin

Throughout my years in Jewish outreach I have heard the phrase “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews” utilized numerous times in response to bad behavior exhibited by religious Jews.
I have even employed the expression myself once in a while.
The problem? The words have always rung somewhat hollow in my ears. For as much as there lies philosophical truth in this expression (after all, it is not necessarily the fault of a religious system when its adherents make sinful free-will choices), the dynamics of human cognition perceive it quite differently. Jews, and non-Jews for that matter, judge Judaism by the actions of Jews!
Maurice Glazer, a savvy, active 77-year-old man I met earlier this year, shared with me his story of adolescent Jewish disenchantment, a story that is unfortunately not uncommon, and a disillusionment that finds its roots, not surprisingly, in the actions of Jews, not Judaism.
Maurice, or Morey, as he is known to his friends, loved his Yiddishkeit as a young boy. He diligently studied his Jewish studies, even tutoring others as he got older, and imagined that rabbinic or cantorial school might be in his future. Like most other boys nearing bar mitzvah age, Morey began preparing his readings many months before his date with Jewish manhood, and had his Torah portion ready on the early side.
Unfortunately, the family’s synagogue informed the Glazers that there was a last-minute hiccup with their reserved bar mitzvah date. A wealthy family had recently moved to town and they wanted Morey’s bar mitzvah date for their twins, even offering the synagogue a hefty donation of many thousands of dollars for the privilege.
The family was asked if they would share the date and split the portion in three to accommodate all three youngsters. When it became evident that Morey wasn’t open to giving up on the leining (Torah recitation) that he had already prepared, it was made clear to the family that the synagogue wasn’t really asking. The shul needed the money and that was that. Morey ended up finding another synagogue for his bar mitzvah, but the message from his childhood synagogue rang clear to him — Judaism wasn’t about lofty ethical ideals, or rapturous prayer. It was, as Morey would emotionally share with me some 55 years after the fact, “all about the money.”
The rest of Morey’s life reads like many future Jewish American family assimilation narratives. He had three biological children, only one of whom received a bar/bat mitzvah, and none of whom married Jewish, and three stepchildren, only one of whom married Jewish.
Morey sees the bar mitzvah debacle as the beginning of the end of his Jewish love affair, and the distant source of his children’s lack of investment in their familial religion. As Morey puts it, “I tended not to be strong enough to force them back into the circle of Judaism.”
These days, Morey involves himself with all sorts of Jewish philanthropic causes, regarding these good deeds as a way of “making up for his past” (he also asked that I use his real name for this article to warn others of the dangers of not educating one’s children in their heritage at a younger age).
Morey, like most others, wouldn’t or couldn’t distinguish between Judaism and Jews. If Jewish representatives could put money over principle, then the system they represented wasn’t worth his time or his commitment.
I have also found that the opposite is true. Whereas I had quietly hoped that most ba’alei teshuva (newly observant Jews) found themselves primarily aroused by the search for truth and a recognition of the Torah’s Godly nature (call it the search for empirical truth), the reality, as I would quickly discover, is that the positive experiences that they encounter with observant Jews and their Jewish practice are of central influence (call it experiential truth).
Delicious cholent at a Shabbos table holds greater sway than lengthy late-night conversations on the historicity of the Sinai revelation. (It’s worth noting that this is all the more understandable in light of recent discoveries in neuroscience that find the hugely significant part played by emotion in decision-making.)
I believe that it is for this reason that the Torah is so concerned with our public behavior. The sanctification of God’s name, “And I shall be sanctified amongst the Jewish people” (Vayikra 22:32), is certainly in contention for foremost positive commandment in the Torah, and the desecration of God’s name, “And you shall not profane my holy name” (ibid.), is considered by Rabbi Akiva as a sin for which no repentance is available.
You see, even as we regard the Torah as the faithful transmission of the divine will from Sinai, and inasmuch as we consider ourselves on solid intellectual ground in this belief, it is not like an algebraic equation, mathematically impervious to all lines of questioning and skepticism. The Torah does require an element of faith, however small that may be.
And it is precisely because of this “faith gap” that the experiences we have with observant Jews make all the difference in the world. A positive experience with a religious individual or community closes the “faith gap” and ignites that long-dormant, yet ever-present spark of emuna (faith) found in every Jew, and a negative Jewish experience widens the gap and makes it all that much more difficult to find the way home.
The voice of the Almighty is described by the prophet Eliyahu not as a loud “boom,” but as a “still small voice” (Melachim 1 19:12). It’s a voice that gets easily drowned out by the the many noises of life, all vying for our attention. It’s a voice all that much more challenging to hear when you’re not aware of its existence.
It’s a voice that many of our fellow Jews need help detecting. It behooves us to be the kind of people that lead the kinds of lives, both privately and publicly, that amplify God’s voice, helping newcomers hear its sweet sound and make the “leap of faith.”
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Outreach powerful force within our faith

Posted on 29 June 2017 by admin

It was one of the more uplifting articles I had read this year. The TJP/Jewish News Service story (The ultimate Jewish wedding gift: a kidney and a life, May 25, 2017) reported on the inspiring story of Rabbi Ari Sytner, who had donated a kidney to a stranger living in Israel back in 2012 when he was still a pulpit rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina. The recipient of the rabbi’s healthy organ was a secular woman named Ronit Havivi from Petah Tikva, who had been suffering from polycystic kidney disease, which had sapped her strength and increasingly tied her to dialysis machines.
The article chronicled both the process Rabbi Sytner went through in researching and ultimately deciding to donate a kidney as well as the beautiful relationship that these two very different individuals had developed with each other following the surgery. Reading of Havivi’s new lease on life as well as the wedding of her daughter in 2017 that she might not have lived to see if not for the life-saving donation was only sweetened when I read that Rabbi Sytner was right there by her side for this important family occasion. As Rabbi Sytner records, “I told her, ‘I’m a man and you’re a woman. I’m American and you’re Israeli. I identify as Orthodox and you don’t. I’m Ashkenazi and you’re Sephardic. But none of that matters. We’re family.’ ”
Had the column culminated there, I would have remembered the piece strictly for its inspirational content. There was, however, one quotation in this otherwise chicken-soup-for-the-soul-like story that left me with a bittersweet feeling in my gut. Gabriel Kovac, Havivi’s boyfriend, was interviewed for the JNS article as well and he praised Rabbi Sytner with words which rang in my ears long after I had finished the article: “We had dinner with Ari last night and the guy just radiates goodness. I was raised religious and after talking with him a while, it crossed my mind that, had he been a rabbi when I was younger, I would probably still be religious.”
I don’t know Gabriel Kovac personally, but his story is not a unique one. Another child raised in a faithful Jewish home who either had a negative experience in his Jewish upbringing that lead him to leave his old life behind; or perhaps Gabriel, like so many others, simply lacked exposure to the beauty of what a committed Jewish life could offer him on his journey into adulthood. To put it simply, he didn’t have a Rabbi Sytner in his life when it would have mattered the most!
Jewish life is many wonderful things, but it is also expensive, brimming with obligations and responsibilities and often counter-culture. If the religious among us are at risk of leaving their heritage behind, how much more so are the more secular among us at risk of being lost from our people forever!
Much talk has been made recently about what to do to curb this growing rise in assimilation and intermarriage, ultimately leading some modern Jewish thinkers to suggest that we lower the barriers between Judaism and the outside world to make Judaism more accessible and accepting. But, as Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue most eloquently addressed in his most recent column:
Aside from representing gross distortions of halacha, mesorah (“tradition”) and the will of the Almighty, these suggestions don’t actually address the core issues. They simply attempt to put a Band-Aid over a deeply infected wound that is gushing blood.
So, what is the answer to this greatest threat facing modern Jewry? Rabbi Goldberg suggests the following, with which I wholeheartedly agree:
A difference will only be made when every Torah shul, institution and individual sees as part of their core identity and personal mission to not only hold on to the sturdy tree of Torah (eitz chaim hi la’machazikim bah) to prevent being swept down the river, but to reach out and extend a hand to those floating by.
In other words, we need more Rabbi Sytners, Rebbetzin Sytners, Mr. Sytners and Mrs. Sytners to reach out to the Gabriels of the world. If only the younger generation might know of the soul-refining, life-enhancing dynamism of Judaism at first, perhaps they might not choose to abandon it down the road.
Unfortunately, even those who extol Jewish outreach tend to believe that as long as they financially support the Chabads and DATAs of the world, this great assimilation war will be won. Unfortunately that is hardly the case. Outreach organizations don’t have near the manpower needed to make a significant enough dent in the great assimilation machine (of course, that doesn’t stop them from doing all they can do).
The time has come for all who care deeply in their hearts about Jewish continuity as well as their fellow Jews to take upon themselves the mantle of kiruv rechokim (outreach to the assimilated) and kiruv kerovim (outreach to those within our ranks). You need not be a rabbi or rebbetzin to do the job. You need not know the answers to every question you imagine will be thrown your way. A caring heart and a willing disposition is truly all it takes!
I hope, then, that you feel like I do, that we can all have a Rabbi Sytner-like impact on our Jewish brethren. If so, there may still be time for the younger Gabriels of the world.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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What our love for superheroes can tell us about ourselves

Posted on 15 June 2017 by admin

It’s turning into another summer of superhero domination, with Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman strongly leading the fearless pack out of the gates. With superheroes on the brain, I find myself returning to a question I have long pondered: Why do superhero movies outperform almost all other film genres, and on a consistent basis too? The answer, I’ve come to believe, is rooted in one of mankind’s most elemental desires.
“I’ve been feeling this underlying sense of anxiety for a couple of weeks now,” I shared with my wife, Shifra, one recent evening. “And, I think I just realized what it is.”
“I’ve realized that… I can’t change the world.”
As a person who entered into the rabbinate, and specifically the world of Jewish outreach, with the express purpose and hope of changing the world for the better, this newfound but long-brewing recognition of my limitations was incredibly painful and left me with an uneasy sense of hopelessness and underlying feelings of disquiet.
You should know that I am at my core a hopeful and optimistic person. I often find myself drawing inspiration from those individuals in human history, both Jewish and Gentile, who impacted the world in positive ways, forced society to reckon with its demons and, if so blessed, even changed the moral trajectory of the world.
That being said, I don’t know of anyone who fundamentally changed the world.
Here’s what I mean:
When I think of what a changed world might look like, the closest thing I can compare it to is the Messianic Age, that future time in which the messiah will reign and bring universal peace and brotherhood, without crime, war and poverty. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. And here’s the kicker — it remains that way forever.
Although I enthusiastically believe that we can all make this world a better place, each in our own way, I also reckon with the reality that even when our hopes are realized they are almost always a muted version of our dreams — smaller in their impactful scope, limited to specific geographic areas or demographic groups, and, most painful of all, confined to a singular window in time.
Even the president of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the world, often finds his signature legislative achievements rolled back or modified by the next man who fills his seat.
At our core, we wrestle with the painful realities that we are limited, we are mortal and, yes, we are human.
This, I believe, is where our deeper fascination with superheroes comes from. With their superhuman powers, superheroes do what we all wish we could do in real life — actually change the world! In the world of Batman, Superman and the Incredible Hulk the good guys always win in the end and the world is always safe from harm. Their impact is globally felt and because they do not age or are virtually impossible to kill, they ensure that the winds of time will not roll back what they have put in place. In other words, we live vicariously through them.
So, what are we non-superheroes to do with our very real inclinations to change the world?
After a week of mulling over this question, an answer came to me as I prayed the afternoon Mincha service of Shabbat. My thoughts were of a Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin (4:5) that details the scare tactics of the Jewish court in capital cases. Warning the witnesses of the disastrous impact of false testimony, the court proclaims these words (among others):
“It was for this reason that man was first created as one person (Adam), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”
Up until this point in time I had never considered the significant ramifications of this mishna’s teaching outside of the extreme and rarely encountered scenarios mentioned within it: Destroy a life, destroy the world. Save a life, save the world. The underlying message, however, is much more expansive in its instruction. Every person is an olam katan, a “small world”; therefore, every impact felt upon an individual is an impact made upon an entire world!
It is worth noting that our Mishna takes it one crucial step further:
“Therefore, every person must say, “For my sake ‘the world was created.’ ”
We cannot forget that we too are micro-worlds that need fixing and fine-tuning. Our personal development is no less valuable than the impact we may make on others. In fact, it is often through the process of self-betterment that we become the kinds of people who can impact others around us.
I came to realize that in reality there is no “world” that needs changing. It’s the numerous individuals, each one a single unit, who make up our planet and need our help and guidance.
And it is specifically through this enterprise of caring for the individual that we find expression for our let’s-go-save-the-world superhero yearnings.
Perhaps this is the lesson we are meant to learn from the life of Moses, the closest thing to a superhero this world has ever seen. If even he couldn’t bring the Jews into the promised land and herald in what would have been a Messianic Age, we too should worry less about the construction of a new world order and instead focus our gaze on the needs of the people around us.
We can change their worlds. We can be their superheroes, too!
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Are you sensitive to Judaism’s moral notes?

Posted on 02 June 2017 by admin

I find Shabbos dinner to be the perfect setting for those deep philosophical conversations that happen so rarely these days. We’re all so busy with work, family, technology and never-ending errands that finding the time or space to have meaningful conversations is becoming more and more difficult.
For all of our modern distractions, Shabbos has the answer with its spirit of calm and quiet. The candle-lit, technology-free Shabbos dinner provides the perfect setting for people to come together and discuss issues of the day as well as matters of the spirit.
It was one such Friday night and the conversation at our Shabbos table turned toward the benefits of halacha, Jewish law.
“The Shabbos, with its many rejuvenating benefits to self, family and community might possibly be my favorite mitzvah of the Torah,” I shared with my guests.
“That being said, and this might come as a surprise to you, but If not for the fact that halacha obligates me to keep the Shabbos, I don’t know that I would chose to keep it each and every week.”
“There are times when I’m exhausted by the end of the week and, if given the choice, might take the weekend off instead of prepping and readying for Shabbos.”
“There are Shabbosim when my favorite sports team is playing in a pivotal playoff game and all I want to do is follow the action.”
“Essentially, it is the binding nature of halacha that compels me to always put the observance of Shabbos above everything else, and ultimately reap its rewards.”
My guests looked stunned.
Most were stunned by my admission that my personal will might not always echo halachic jurisprudence.
(It’s worth noting that the convergence of human and divine wills is considered a high spiritual plane that we should all aspire to. See Pirkei Avos 2:4: “Make His will your will.)
But one particular guest looked less stunned than genuinely confused.
“How can you say that you are not “choosing” to keep Shabbat?” my bewildered guest inquired with more than a hint of disbelief in his voice. “No one is compelling you to keep it! You are choosing to keep it even as we sit here at this very moment!”
His question was so simple on the one hand and yet so complex on the other that I found myself at a sudden loss for words (something we rabbis aren’t used to!). You see, inasmuch as he’s technically right that I choose to observe the Shabbos, this choice didn’t and doesn’t feel like other life choices.
Schnitzel or hamburger from the lunch menu certainly feels like a personal choice, as does electing to go with Cupcake Blue as the paint color for the living room. Embracing Shabbos observance, on the other hand, seems more like opting into a value system than anything else, and therefore functions as a choice of a wholly different sort.
To the halachicaly observant Jew, Shabbos observance is understood as part of G-d’s moral code. Do I choose, then, to observe the Shabbos, or do I more affirm its moral character and therefore feel myself compelled to its observance?  It seems to me to be the latter, and the word “choose,” then, just seems out of place.
I found myself contemplating my guest’s question throughout the following week and troubled with why I had found it so difficult to piece together a cogent response at the Shabbos table.
Enter professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his revelatory The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt had discovered in his time in university that the modern Western student perceived morality almost entirely through the limited prisms of two principles, one relating to harming others and another relating to fairness. The outgrowth of this kind of thinking: if something is fair and does no harm it is morally permissible.
Haidt points out that there are at least three other dimensions of the moral life as understood in non-Western cultures. One is loyalty and its opposite, betrayal. Another is respect for authority and its opposite, subversion. The third is the need to establish protective walls around certain nonnegotiable values. These are things we call sacred.
This, I came to understand, is why I had such difficulty explaining my thoughts to my guest. We truly come from two very different moral universes and speak two very different moral languages.
Through my friend’s Western eyes, Shabbos observance was a choice because it had nothing to do with fairness or harm. No one would be harmed if I took the Shabbos off, nor would it negatively tilt the scales of fairness. It therefore had nothing to do with morality per se. It was, rather, a choice, perhaps a good one at that, to practice Jewish ritual.
But in my moral universe, the Torah as my guide, the observance of the Shabbos was most certainly a moral commitment, rooted in my sense of loyalty and submission to God, and in the belief that I ought not profane that which is hallowed.
If I wanted to ever explain my point of view to my Shabbos guest, I would have to do much more than speak words. I would have to introduce my friend to a whole new way of thinking about morality.
I write all the above not to denigrate those who don’t observe the Shabbos fastidiously, nor to raise those who keep the Shabbos on high. We are all, hopefully, on our own paths up the holy mountain.
Rather, I feel it’s time, as we re-accept the Torah on Shavuot, that we re-examine our moral palates and make sure we’re sensitive to all of Judaism’s moral notes. We need those notes of fairness and harm, so esteemed in our times, and we need to take a second look at loyalty, respect for authority and the world of the sacred so revered in our time-honored tradition. If we do so we will surely be worthy of receiving the Torah once again.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Made in image of God, how can men kill?

Posted on 18 May 2017 by admin

This wasn’t the first time I had been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I went many years earlier as a day school student on a school trip to our nation’s capital and keenly remember the powerful effect that exposure to the museum’s many exhibits had upon me.
The pictures lining the walls were difficult to take in. Black-and-white photographs of human skeletons, barely alive, peering with hollow eyes at the Allied soldiers who had come to free them from the hellish camps. Stacks of naked corpses piled high like firewood. A painful burning sensation filled my insides just thinking about the tortured, the murdered and the maimed. My young heart was broken over lives forever separated from loved ones and the great masses permanently scarred by ordeals human beings should never endure.
I couldn’t help but contrast the feelings I experienced then to the feelings I was experiencing now as I returned to those very same exhibit halls, this time as a grown man. It was to be expected that the shock factor would not be the same. After all, since that time I had read books on the Holocaust and seen Schindler’s List and movies like it. I knew, so to speak, how the story ended.
What came as an utter surprise, though, was the nagging sense that I wasn’t contemplating the same Holocaust narrative that I had exposure to as a schoolboy. If my first visit was a personal call to sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, my second visit was more a philosophical inquiry into the minds of the evil Nazi perpetrators.
It was one particularly disturbing placard on the wall that caught my attention and sent my mind racing. The picture was of a Nazi soldier aiming his gun at the back of a Jewish man’s head. The victim’s eyes were blank, his knees bent on the earth, perched at the edge of a freshly dug pit quickly filling with the newly butchered. The blurb on the bottom of the placard noted that one-quarter of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were shot by mobile killing squads.
Besides the sheer eeriness of a photo that kept frozen in time the last moment of a person’s life, it was the frightening statistic about the killing squads that most stood out to me.
As heinous as the gas chambers were, there is something about the way they were operated, the fact that the murderer and the victim were not face-to-face, that helped me comprehend how a human being could compel himself to the gas chamber’s usage.
But shooting someone face-to-face? Seeing the raw human emotions of a mother grasping onto her child, the tears rolling down her cheeks, and still mustering the wherewithal to shoot? Incomprehensible! And to think that this was not a small percentage of the murders of the Holocaust, but a full fourth! My mind was spinning, searching for answers.
Dehumanization may be the most powerful tool in the war against a people, and this was most certainly not lost on the Nazi propagandists during the lead-up to the Final Solution. The Jews were proclaimed a scourge upon Germany, as the lowliest of all nations and as a Poisonous Mushroom, as the title of the German children’s book about the Jews implied.
This was the real secret behind the success of the Nazis in implementing their evil plans. If the Jews were a plague upon Germany, the killing squads were merely taking out the trash.
It is with all of this in mind that in the midst of the Holocaust Memorial Museum I found myself returning to one of the most important teachings of the Torah, one with profound, everlasting moral implications: “For in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).
It is this singular, most powerful belief in the divinely inspired nature of man that beckons us to treat each other, all people, with love, respect and dignity. It is also this belief that spurred our Founding Fathers to write those most cherished of words — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
For when you see the divinity in one another, you cannot dehumanize. When you come to recognize that God is a Father to us all, you cannot pick out or pick on any of His children.
The Holocaust museum reminded me that “Never Again” and “for in the image of God He created man” are inextricably linked. They were connected back then, and they will be connected forever.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Peril found in ‘us-and-them’ thinking

Posted on 04 May 2017 by admin

It was the most disturbing experience I had during my almost two years studying in yeshiva in Israel. My friend who studied in a small yeshiva on the outskirts of one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem had invited me to spend Shabbos with him.
I looked forward to every Shabbos spent in Jerusalem, but this neighborhood, in particular, held a special place in my heart. I regularly made memorable trips to this shtetl-like neighborhood on Friday afternoons, taking in the smells of simmering overnight cholent and potato kugel from the local homestyle eateries and perusing the Jewish bookstores.
Walking through the labyrinth-like alleyways, I would find my way to the basement of a local yeshiva for an afternoon class on ethics and piety that still inspires me to this day. My trips to this area of town always left me spiritually invigorated and yearning for a return visit.
The entire Shabbos spent with my friend was beautiful and magical, just as I had expected, but a short incident late Saturday afternoon would forever mar the memory of this otherwise idyllic Shabbos.
A Filipino woman was walking down the sidewalk and into the neighborhood. Two boys from the area, maybe 10 or 11 years old, dressed in Shabbos garb, yelled out toward her, “Shiksa! Shiksa! Get out of here!” Although no Yiddish scholar myself, I knew what a “shiksa” was and I was incensed that they would fling these hurtful words at a woman simply trying to make her way down the block.
In my broken Hebrew I yelled at the boys. “What a chillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name)! You are violating halachah (Jewish law)! How can you speak like that?”
If I expected my words to hit their mark, I was sadly mistaken.
“Then you are a goy, too!” one of them yelled back at me. Just like that, I had become an outsider too.
Although this experience was the only negative one I had witnessed in my many visits there, and as much I’m tempted to chalk this incident up to a few impetuous and unruly unsupervised boys, I must consider the possibility that this behavior, anecdotal as it may be, is indicative of a larger issue that plagues groups in general and religious groups in particular.
The findings in the study of psychology of religion are noteworthy. Religious practitioners exhibit stronger than average care and concern for coreligionists than you would find amongst fellow citizens in the general public. This “love your neighbor as yourself” sensibility is termed “in-group favoritism” by academics, and demonstrates religion’s ability to widen the family circle of care to others who would otherwise be perceived as complete strangers if not for their shared religion. All who ascribe to the same faith become part of “us.”
There is, however, a danger that lurks in the otherwise virtuous waters of this kind of thinking. Anytime there is an “us” there is always a “them.” And as natural as it may be to go the extra mile for one of “us” it is just as natural to consciously or unconsciously develop an empathetic blind spot toward one of “them.”
This is what scholars in the field call “out-group derogation,” in which religious individuals show disfavor toward out-group members. The fact that positive relationships between religiousness and increased prejudiced attitudes toward others have been documented and supported in numerous studies (Hall, Matz, & Wood, 2010) should alert the religious individual to carefully examine the biases they have formed toward others.
Aware of this potential moral pitfall, the Torah warns us of this dangerous kind of groupthink. And in an unexpected place, the laws of kashrut.
In a long list of forbidden fowl lies the stork, the chasidah, whose translated name means “the righteous one.” Rashi, commenting on this noteworthy name, quotes the Talmud’s explanation that the stork displays kindness (chesed) toward others of its species by sharing food with them.
If, as our tradition suggests, the Torah forbids the consumption of animals who exhibit distinct negative character traits, why should the stork be forbidden? The Rizhiner Rebbe, a Hasidic rabbi in 19th-century Ukraine and Austria, smartly responded that the stork is forbidden because it directs its kindness exclusively toward its fellows, but will not help other species. This, he said, is not kosher behavior!
It is understandable to develop a fondness for, and a unique relationship with, other members of one’s religious group. After all, you enjoy shared moral perspectives and religious commitments. The stork teaches us that we must nevertheless remain vigilant to never lose sight of the empathy and care we must have for “others.” Anything less than that is indeed treif.
I hope the boys I came across that day in Jerusalem end up studying this lesson of the stork one day and find a way to exhibit what we know must be true — a strong “us” does not need to lead to a demonized “them.”
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Shabbat’s importance easily forgotten among ‘moral commandments’

Posted on 20 April 2017 by admin

The man sitting across from me at the pizza shop was a religiously liberal individual for sure, but also very much a person who wore his Judaism on his sleeve and whose life was dedicated to promoting Jewish values as he understood them. We were meeting to get to know each other and to share our personal stories and communal goals with each other.
In between bites of pizza he shared with me his philosophy on Jewish practice, one he knew I stood in strong opposition to. “I follow the moral commandments of the Torah,” was the way he put it. It was code for, “only part of the Torah remains relevant in this day and age.” “Thou shalt not kill” and “love your neighbor as yourself” still led the moral way, but the dietary laws of kashrut or the command to don tefillin daily had long ago lost their spiritual value and resonance in daily Jewish practice.
“What about Shabbat?” I asked him. “Do you consider Shabbat a moral commandment?”
I knew he did not keep the laws of Shabbat and was curious as to what he would say about the place of this most central of commandments.
“Hmm… I can’t say I’ve thought about that one,” he replied, “but, I don’t think that I would categorize Shabbat as a moral commandment.”
It was hard for me to fathom, but in but one short statement, uttered after a short moment of consideration, Shabbat, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, had been wiped clean from my friend’s Jewish hard drive, and so, he believed, should it be discarded from the rest of the Jewish people’s national consciousness.
I couldn’t help but wonder if my pizza-mate recognized the ramification of his philosophy. He was surely aware of what the great Hebrew essayist Achad Ha’am (1856-1927) had to say on the subject: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” And as Judith Shulevitz writes so beautifully in The Forward (“Remember the Sabbath,” 2010), “What he (Achad Ha’am) meant goes well beyond Jewish survivalism. He meant that the regulation of time through the laws of the Sabbath gave the Jews the chance to regroup in communities at the end of every week, and that regrouping sustained their Jewish identity.”
Even if Shabbat were to be categorized as a ritual commandment alone, does the Shabbat not act, then, as a sort of Jewish preservative, ensuring that the totality of the Jewish world-vision remain intact?
What did he think would become of a Jewish people for whom the Shabbat had become nothing more than a piece of national nostalgia, something a modern Jew could read about in history books or glimpse in old broadcasts of Fiddler on the Roof?
More than that, it felt important at that moment to illustrate the fruitlessness of an endeavor to categorize the Torah’s commands into those that had moral bearing and those that did not. For as much as the Torah itself groups certain commandments as “chukim” (commandments whose rationale is hidden) and certain commandments as “mishpatim” (commandments whose rationale is obvious), the Torah never suggests that any of its commandments are free of moral constitution.
It would be the mitzvah of the Shabbat, then, that would serve as the example for my lunch date that robust moral DNA lies in every one of the Torah’s commandments, both the “chukim” and the “mishpatim.”
“Imagine the newly freed slave-nation that was the early Israelites,” I implored my lunch-mate to consider.
“They had been long been indoctrinated by their Egyptian taskmasters that their sole worth lied in their economic contributions to society. A man who worked long hard hours building storehouses for the Pharaoh had worth, but a sick or elderly individual confined to their bed was not worthy of the sustenance it took to keep them alive.
“The command to rest on the seventh day of the week, was not only an invitation to dedicate a day of the week to the more important things in life, like faith, family and self, it was a national re-education of sorts. The Sabbath was God’s way of letting His people know that their worth was not tied to their workload or any other metric of personal productivity. The fact that they were endowed with a divine soul, created in the image of the Almighty Himself, was reason enough for every person to be treated with respect and worthy of honor.”
“If that’s not a mitzvah laced with great moral instruction for mankind,” I said, “I don’t know what is.”
My friend shrugged. “I had never thought of it that way,” he said.
I don’t know if the lesson I shared that day changed my friend’s mind or perspective on Judaism’s place in the modern world, but it’s a point that needed to be said and must continue to be shared in a world increasingly adrift from the commandments.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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We need little less ‘freedom,’ lot more Seder

Posted on 06 April 2017 by admin

It’s that special time of the year again when supermarkets in heavily Jewish neighborhoods advertise their Passover wares, all conveniently stocked under one roof. And inevitably, some clichéd tagline along the lines of, “helping you celebrate freedom!” will grace those holiday ads.
The advertising executives, with their catchy phrases, harken us back to the times when God redeemed His people from the bonds of Egypt that we may lighten our pockets at our local grocery stores.
It may sound unusual, but every year when I encounter these advertising slogans it brings about a particularly painful and prolonged visceral reaction inside of me. It bothers me. Do these chain stores think they understand the freedom that I am celebrating?  And for that matter, I’m not sure my fellow Jews understand either.
I imagine families around their Seder tables, struggling in their attempt to connect to a story of slavery and redemption thousands of years old. More recent examples of slavery and freedom from bondage will become topics of conversation. The slavery and liberation of Black slaves in the south will surely be referenced, and perhaps a somber contemplation of the current plight of Yazidi women in the hands of ISIS. The value of freedom will be extolled and most likely an acknowledgment of the blessings of life in America, “the land of the free.”
The modern conception of freedom, however, lies far in its connotation from the Biblical freedom that we commemorate in the yearly Seder. After all, for all of the blessings that modern freedom affords us, it has been nothing if not a mixed blessing for the Jews. For inasmuch as there has never been a time in our history with as much religious freedom, economic opportunity or physical security as we have now in America, there has also never been a time such as this of such great internal defection, with nearly 6 in 10 Jews intermarrying, 1 in 5 Jews describing themselves as having no religion, just 19 percent of Jewish adults who feel that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish and just 26 percent of U.S. Jews who describe their religion as being very important in their lives (A Portrait of Jewish Americans — Pew Research Center, 2013).
It’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah has overtaken Passover as the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. Tim Newcomb, in an article in Time (“Why Hanukkah Is the Most Celebrated Jewish Holiday In America,” 2011), notes, “The lack of strict rules makes the holiday easy — and fun — to celebrate, which may be why research now shows Hanukkah is more celebrated — whether through the lighting of candles, gift giving, attending a party or a full celebration of the festival in Jewish practice — than even Passover.” In other words, Hanukkah, unlike Passover with its myriad rituals and requirements, is the quintessential holiday for the modern, “free” American Jew — fewer rules and more fun.
What, then, is this freedom that the Torah asks us to commemorate for all generations?  If you read the Biblical text carefully you will notice that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is not so much a freedom from bondage but a transfer of ownership from one slave master to another. As Moses stresses over and over in the Biblical narrative, it is only for the purpose of serving the one and only God at the Holy Mountain that the Hebrews were to leave the confines of Egypt.
“And afterwards, Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, ‘So said the Lord God of Israel, “Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.” ’ ” (Exodus 5:1)
The Jews were to leave the tyrannical rule of a human despot for the loving service of their Maker on high.
The sages of the Talmud hint to the Torah’s unique vision of freedom by stating that the same letters that make up the word cheirut, “freedom,” also comprise the word charut, “engraved,” a reference to the engraved lettering of the Ten Commandments of stone. The lesson is that true freedom is only to be found in adherence to divine law.
Here lies the paradox of the Passover celebration. The night of the celebration of our national freedom is commemorated in highly legalized pageantry. The name of the night’s proceedings, the Seder, meaning “order,” is taken from the detailed laws that dominate the night.
The freedom that we commemorate on Passover is a liberty laced with great personal and national responsibility. If we exercise our freedom to fulfill our obligations and spiritual calling, then freedom becomes a vehicle for good; but if we approach freedom as carte blanche to do and act as we please, then freedom takes more away from us than it offers in return.
The great freedoms of our country have given a broken people reeling from the horrors of Nazi Europe a fresh chance at life and they have also, unmistakably, taken a toll on our people’s spiritual core. As we celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage together with our freedoms of today, let us remember the costs of freedom and ensure that we are celebrating and utilizing the honorable brand of freedom and not the indulgent variety that has become popular of late.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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