Crypto-Judaism (Secret Jews)

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By Rabbi J.Bejarano-Gutierrez

The Religion of Spanish and Portuguese Crypto Jews

 The history of the Jews of Spain spans more than a thousand years. It ended tragically in 1492 with the edict of expulsion issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile and Aragon shortly after their conquest of the Kingdom of Granada. The Jews of Portugal encountered a similar fate in 1497 with King Manuel I’s expulsion order. The edicts occurred after a tumultuous century of radical changes in Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula. Beginning in 1391 and culminating with the expulsion decrees, large numbers of Jews converted to Christianity, many under physical coercion or duress. [1] Converted Jews were referred to by a number of terms including Conversos, New Christians, Hebrew Christians as well as derogatory terms such as Marranos, meaning swine.

 The term Crypto Jews in this context refers to Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Christianity, but continued to observe Jewish practices and maintain Jewish beliefs secretly. Such observances were labeled as Judaizing and subject to severe penalty including execution by Inquisitional authorities. The following article reviews beliefs and customs of Crypto Jews and their attempt to maintain Jewish identity in increasingly difficult and dangerous surroundings. The descendants of Crypto Jews exist to this day.

Defining Communal Identity

A community’s identity is comprised of a variety of components. Among these are a shared sense of common origins, a claim to a distinctive history, and a sense of unique cultural solidarity.[1] These elements are often placed under the rubric of ethnicity. However, while the former are certainly applicable to openly practicing Jewish communities as well as Crypto-Jewish communities, most important for the subject of Jewish identity are those religious and theological elements that are markedly Jewish in nature. On a daily basis, Jewish identity is expressed via two concepts derived from classical Jewish religious texts. The first is embodied in the Hebrew word halakhah; the second is the concept of minhag. A third component, that of belief is reflected in practical fashion in the observance of the two previous concepts.

The word halakhah (or halakhot in the plural) is often translated as “Jewish Law,” but a more appropriate rendering of this term might be “the way or manner that one walks in.” Halakhah refers to the practical implementation and observance of the commandments as enumerated and explicated in the Written and Oral Law. Examples of halakhot are the laws of kashrut (i.e. the dietary laws permitting and prohibiting certain types of food, the manner in which acceptable animals are slaughtered, etc.).

Minhag (or Minhagim in the plural) refers to those customs or observances which while generally tied to the commandments,  are often derived from the various ethnic, cultural, and even linguistic influences  found in the diverse communities  and regions in which Jews live or  have lived in.  As Abraham Chill notes:

“Jewish practice is an intricately woven texture of law and custom. While the law tends to be fixed in such way that local variations are minimal, patterns of custom are rich in their diversity.”[2]

For example the minhagim of Jews living in or originating in North Africa are different from those living in or originating in Eastern Europe. Many of these customs have become a binding part of Jewish practice.  In a broader sense, minhag is also used to indicate a community’s or an individual’s customary way of observance.  An example of a minhag common to all Jewish communities is the practice of covering one’s head with a kippah or a skullcap as a sign of piety. While minhag may seem secondary to halakhah, its importance cannot be underestimated as the Talmud notes: “”the minhag of our fathers is [equivalent to] Torah.”[3]  A distinction nevertheless, remains between the two spheres of Jewish practice.

Halakhah and Minhag in Crypto Jewish Communities

In the context of Crypto Jewish communities, both in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World, the knowledge of and distinction between halakhah and minhag persisted. But as contact with established Jewish communities, with rabbis, and with Jewish texts lessened, the overall knowledge of Jewish practice and beliefs diminished. This is not to say that many individuals and in fact some communities of Crypto Jews did not retain sophisticated levels of Jewish knowledge. But the fact that an open expression of Jewish spirituality was impossible meant that individuals and communities generally practiced less detailed levels of observance as compared to their counterparts living in openly practicing Jewish communities.  Those who were more observant and knowledgeable were often reinforced by contact with openly practicing Jews who were outside of their normal circles. This reflects the fact that a complete isolation on the part of Crypto Jews from the greater Jewish world did not exist as Seymour Leibman notes:

“The concept that the Jews in Spain were isolated from Jews in other nations is not true. The Spanish Jews and those in the New World were in contact with Jews all over Europe. Although there were no books to educate the crypto-Jews, ‘a seventeenth century Marrano…could, while reading non-Jewish books, and without danger to himself, glean much more Jewish information than might be suspected in a Spain devoid of open Jewish life since 1492.’”[4]

Nevertheless, while Leibman’s views might apply to certain individuals, for most Conversos the challenges involved in living a secret Jewish life were substantial and the inability to practice openly without concern certainly affected the process of transmitting Jewish identity to one another or from one generation to the next was difficult. As David Gitlitz notes most recorded “conversations” regarding Judaism among Crypto Jews were not very profound, though exceptions do exist.[5] Generations after the Expulsion, most Conversos were for all practical purposes incapable of viewing Judaism as a completely independent religious system, and most always referenced their Jewish understanding back to Christianity.[6]  The fact that some Crypto Jews were looking to anti-Jewish literature to inform them of Jewish practice, simply highlights the problem they faced in maintaining and transmitting their identity.

It is important to note that whatever practices or beliefs are enumerated whether in a “purely” Jewish fashion or as a synthesis of Jewish-Christian beliefs, the extent and scope of Crypto Jewish practices can only be understood collectively. That is to say that each Crypto Jew was individualistic in his or her personal observance of halakhot or minhagim and this was a product of their individual circumstances, their family background, childhood education, and exposure to other observant Conversos.[7]

A Third Category of Observances and Beliefs

Before reviewing actual observances, it is important to note that a synthesis between Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices occurred and hence in speaking of Crypto Jews we must also understand that a third set of practices and beliefs should be taken into account when describing their identity. The extent of the challenges faced by even those Conversos who had escaped into areas where they could openly practice Judaism is captured by Byron Sherwin in his work, Finding Faith in Meaning:

“Despite their sincere desire to return to the Jewish faith and the Jewish fold, [who had fled the Iberian Peninsula] had many obstacles to overcome. Though they had left Spain and Portugal behind, though many had divested themselves of Christianity, though many had exchanged their Spanish names for Hebrew names, and though some had accepted harsh penances as the price of “return,” most “new Jews” retained the culture and the language of Spain and Portugal. They not only remained influenced by Christian doctrines but also intended to understand the nature of Jewish identity and Judaism through the prism of Spanish-Catholic teachings. As one of them put it, ‘It is truly difficult to desert a religion which one has known from the cradle.’”[8]

Thinking about Judaism in Christian Categories

If this was the case for those who fled Spanish or Portuguese controlled areas, how much more was this the case for those living under the watchful eyes of the Inquisition? Highlighting their dilemma of maintaining Jewish observances under such circumstances, Conversos generally began to fuse Jewish practices and beliefs with Christian thought and practice. This fusion or synthesis often resulted in customs that lay outside the fold of either normative Catholic or Jewish experience. These folkways to borrow a term from Mordecai Kaplan were/are often as critical in identifying Crypto Jews as the observance of established halakhic practice or minhagim or through genealogical research. As David Gitlitz notes, “It is clear that within a generation after the Expulsion most Conversos had become more Christian than Jewish.”[9] Generally speaking, despite Seymour Leibman’s statement, most Crypto Jews did not have access to Jewish works, teachers to instruct their children Hebrew, or rabbis to explicate the nature of Jewish observance.

The Variation of Observance among Crypto Jews

The variation of observances among Crypto Jews is extensive and again reflects a variety of factors which include the locale of those in question and the time in which these individuals or communities lived. This can be understood by a brief review of the events leading to the rise of the first Converso communities. The pogroms of 1391 in Spain were been followed by additional coerced conversions throughout the 15th century finally culminating in the last great conversion in 1492.  Conversos living in Spain before the establishment of the Inquisition and even until the Expulsion lived rather complicated dual lives as did their colonial counterparts. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the case of Gonzalvo Ruiz. David Gitlitz, in his work Secrecy and Deceit notes the following:

“New Christians frequently contributed financially to the maintenance of Jewish institutions. The synagogue and the community of which was most important tangible symbol continued to be a significant magnet for Judaizing new Christians prior to the Expulsion. It was not unusual to find conversos like Gonzalvo Ruiz [Teruel 1487], who ‘had a bench in the synagogue and he defends it and allows his friends and relatives to sit on it and nobody else.”[10]

Crypto Jewish Practices and Beliefs in the New World

On the other side of the spectrum, Crypto Jewish identity would not be so easily divulged to most people, particularly for those who Conversos who had immigrated illegally to the New World. These Crypto Jews retained a number of beliefs and practices.  Some, such as circumcision or as the practice of endogamy were quite common, while others were reflected in certain individuals and communities.[11] Endogamy was a method for maintaining Jewish identity and remains a key characteristic of many descendants of Crypto Jews.[12]

In surveying the records of the Inquisition and the writings of the most famous Crypto Jew in the New World, Luis Carvajal El Mozo, Seymour Leibman provides a review of common observances of many Crypto Jews living in Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries. The observances and beliefs are simply too many to fully enumerate and the following is only a sketch of the types of rituals observed, many of which are attested to by those claiming Crypto Jewish ancestry. They include belief that the Law of Moses was the true law and was better than the “law of Jesus.”[13] Belief in the Law of Moses often included the idea that the Law was divinely revealed by God to Moses at Sinai.[14] The Ten Commandments prohibition against venerating images was considered very important, though the application of this was much more complicated as we will see.[15] Other practices include making beds neatly and bed coverings straight to prevent the souls of the dead from lying on them and tormenting the owner.[16] A piece of matzah (unleavened bread) was suspended from the neck to serve as a good-luck amulet.[17]   A piece of matzah was also placed atop the head to cure headaches.[18] Fingernails were to be cut in a certain order, placed in paper, and then burned.[19] To insure good luck, only fowl that were either all black or brown without any feathers would be eaten.[20] Other practices include the observance of modified ritual purity laws, forty days after the birth of a male, before returning to a “normalized” state.[21]

Dietary restrictions largely connected to abstaining from pork, fish without scales, draining the blood from fowl, and slaughtering the former by decapitating them. Larger kosher animals are reported to have been ritually slaughtered by men.[22] The meat was often soaked in warm water to draw out remaining blood.[23] Additional practices such as Passover Matzah being baked or the practice of ritually separating dough (challah) is also recorded.[24]

The Sabbath was observed from Friday evening until the appearance of three stars Saturday evening.[25] The Sabbath was often honored by special clothing as well as a prohibition of work which at times included not handling money or collecting debts.[26] Candle lighting on the Sabbath was observed in many homes. The detail of observance and understanding of halakhic minutia is impressive at times as in the case of Juana Enriquez who criticized another woman for brushing her teeth on the Sabbath because she considered this work.[27] This issue is particularly interesting since this is connected to the melacha (i.e. work) of a category called memachek, a Sabbath prohibition derived from the Talmud.[28] This shows a sophisticated level of familiarization with halakhic minutia for the Sabbath.[29]

The observances of minor Jewish holidays such as Purim (Festival of Lots), Tisha B’Av (commemorating the destruction of the both Jerusalem Temples), and Chanukah (the Feast of Dedication) as well as major holidays such as Shavuot (the Festival of Weeks), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Succot (the Festival of Booths) are also known.[30] Interestingly another other major holiday Rosh Hashanah (often referred to as the Jewish New Year) is largely unmentioned. Purim, the celebration recorded in the book of Esther involving the attempted extermination of the Jewish people by Haman, a courtier of King Ahaseuras, was particularly significant to many Crypto Jews as the Esther’s hidden Jewish identity resonated with the difficulty they found themselves in.[31]

Mourning practices also appear as another major point of identifying Crypto Jews. Mirrors were turned to the wall at someone’s passing.[32] Family members often observed a seven day period of mourning and sat on the floor or on low stools.[33] Hard boiled eggs were eaten without salt by immediate mourners and jars of water in the house of the deceased were removed out of concern for evil spirits.[34]

In terms of “synagogue protocol” or Jewish prayer, many Crypto Jews authored their own short versions, including references to the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, and to “lord” or “Ado-nai” as well as other Hebrew words. In some cases the extent of Jewish liturgy is rather impressive. Seymour Leibman notes two Crypto Jews, Jorge de Almeyda and Diego Diaz Nieto among others who knew the entire daily prayer referred to as the Amidah or the Shemoneh Esreh – a Hebrew prayer consisting of eighteen benedictions.[35]

Relationship with Christian Beliefs and Practices

A characteristic of many Crypto Jews was their tendency to define their Jewish identity negatively.[36] That is as a repudiation of Christian beliefs.[37] Christian beliefs including the sacrament were privately ridiculed at times.[38] Nevertheless Crypto Jewish beliefs often assimilated Christian theological constructs. The emphasis in Catholicism on Saints was often adopted by Crypto Jews with the substitution of Jewish Biblical figures for Christian personages.[39] Lighting candles to Christian saints was copied by lighting candles to Moses or the Apocryphal figure of Tobit, a Jewish figure found in the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and not in the Masoretic texts of the Hebrew Bible. The concept of personal salvation as opposed to communal salvation was adopted from Christianity. Belief that the Law of Moses would save one’s soul as opposed to belief in Jesus was also a common belief and reflects Byron Sherwin’s comments regarding the challenges faced by Conversos.[40]

An Example of Crypto Jewish Faith: The Writings of Luis Carvajal

The writings of Luis Carvajal, El Mozo – the most well known Mexican Crypto Jew and martyr of the 16th century provide us with an amazing portrait of additional beliefs that were maintained by Crypto Jews. In his last will and testament, Carvajal includes a list of religious truths he held to.  The list is interesting in that it not only expresses the principles of Jewish faith he maintained in a manner reminiscent of the Thirteen Principles of Faith penned by Moses Ben Maimon, but also highlights the constant references to and polemic against Christianity which were characteristic of Crypto Jewish belief.

Carvajal begins with an affirmation of his belief in the one and only God.[41] He ends his first declaration by stating that he rejected the “devil and his lies.” His second declaration is the Shema (Deuteronomy 4:4) and the uniqueness of God.[42] His third principle is belief in the Torah, which he describes as the “law that Christians called the dead Law of Moses.”[43] He continues by noting that Christian views that Jewish law was dead violated one of their own gospels. His fourth principle is the prohibition against idolatry.[44] His fifth statement affirms “the sacred sacrament” of circumcision as a binding commandment.[45] His sixth declaration affirms the future coming of the Messiah.[46] His seventh declaration focused on his apocalyptic view of Daniel and the rise of empires which would rule the earth.[47] His last declaration is the view that King Antiochus of the Book of Maccabees fame represented the Spanish monarchs who arose to persecute Jews as Antiochus had done in his days. Carvajal’s writings show an in depth familiarity with the Hebrew Scripture as well as Jewish apocryphal literature maintained only in the canon of the Catholic Bible. Most importantly Carvajal provides us with an example of the complex emotional and theological struggle that existed in the lives and minds of Crypto Jews living in a hostile Christian environment.

Conclusion: An Enduring Legacy

The continued existence of Crypto Jewish practice is well attested to in a variety of locations in Spain and Portugal, in the Southwestern portions of the United States as well as throughout Latin America. Other individuals and families retain knowledge of their past origins or maintain genealogical sources demonstrating their connections to Converso families. While the particulars vary and the individuals claiming such a heritage are often dependent upon oral family traditions, practices of the type previously enumerated are generally maintained in differing levels of depth and understanding.

As Stanley Hordes notes in his work, To the Ends of the Earth, there are essentially three types of descendants of Crypto Jews existent today:

“At one extreme are individuals who are biological descendants of the original fifteenth-century Conversos, but retain neither an awareness of their ancestral faith nor any vestigial Jewish customs. The other extreme, very few in number, encompasses those who profess retention of a consciousness of the family’s Judaism and continue to observe Jewish practices, either openly as Jews or in secret under the cover of Catholicism or Protestantism. The majority, however, fall in a middle category: those Catholics or Protestants whose families display observances suggestive of Judaism, but without any specific knowledge about why they do so.”[48]

The Crypto Jewish experience remains an enduring legacy and phenomenon well into the 21st century.



Michael Alpert, Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition, (London: Palgrave, 2001).

Frederik Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (Bergen: Universitets Forlaget, 1969)

Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

Stanley M. Hordes, To the Ends of the Earth: A History of Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009).

Kevin Ingram, Ed., The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond: Volume One Departures and Changes, (Boston: Brill, 2009).

Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982).

Seymour Leibman, The Enlightened: The Writings of Luis De Carvajal, El Mozo, (Miami, University of Miami Press, 1967).

Seymour Leibman, The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and The Inquisition, (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1970), 76.

Byron Sherwin, Finding Faith in Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Yechiel Michel Stern, The Book of Shabbos, (Jerusalem: Ezrat Torah, 1995).

[1]Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 66. See also Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 3, 7. See also Frederik Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (Bergen: Universitets Forlaget, 1969), 14.

[2] Abraham Chill, The Minhagim: The Customs and Ceremonies of Judaism, Their Origins and Rationale, (New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1979), vii.

[3] Tosafot to Menahot 20b

[4] Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 42.

[5] David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 99.

[6] Ibid., 99.

[7] Ibid., 123.

[8] Byron Sherwin, Finding Faith in Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 6.

[9] David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 99.

[10] David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society), 507.

[11] Michael Alpert, Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition, (London: Palgrave, 2001), 170. See also Seymour Leibman, The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and The Inquisition, (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1970), 76.

[12] Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 13, 15, 57.

[13] Ibid., 106.

[14] Ibid., 106.

[15] Ibid., 106.

[16] Seymour Leibman, The Enlightened: The Writings of Luis De Carvajal, El Mozo, (Miami, University of Miami Press, 1967), 44.

[17] Ibid., 44.

[18] Ibid., 44.

[19] Ibid., 44.

[20] Ibid., 44.

[21] Michael Alpert, Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition, (London: Palgrave, 2001), 195.

[22] Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 119.

[23] Ibid., 119.

[24] Ibid., 121.

[25] Ibid., 106.

[26] Ibid., 106-107.

[27] Ibid., 119.

[28] Mishnah Shabbat 73A.

[29] Yechiel Michel Stern, The Book of Shabbos, (Jerusalem: Ezrat Torah, 1995), 219.

[30] Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 106-107.

[31]  Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 121-122.

[32] David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 297.

[33] Ibid., 296.

[34] Seymour Leibman, New World Jewry 1493 -1825: Requiem for the Forgotten, (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1982), 124.

[35] Ibid., 111.

[36] David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 135.

[37] Kevin Ingram, Ed., The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond: Volume One Departures and Changes, (Boston: Brill, 2009), 162.

[38] David Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of Crypto-Jews, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 137, 138-139, 159.

[39] Ibid., 116-117.

[40] Kevin Ingram, Ed., The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond: Volume One Departures and Changes, (Boston: Brill, 2009), 183.

[41]  Seymour Leibman, The Enlightened: The Writings of Luis De Carvajal, El Mozo, (Miami, University of Miami Press, 1967), 126.

[42] Ibid., 126.

[43] Ibid., 126.

[44] Ibid., 127.

[45] Ibid., 127.

[46] Ibid., 128.

[47] Ibid., 128.

[48]  Stanley M. Hordes, To the Ends of the Earth: A History of Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), xvii.

As taken from,

Central America’s Bnei Anousim Get First Rabbi in 500 Years

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. Malachi 3:6 (The Israel Bible™)

Rabbi Elisha Salas is Shavei Israel’s new emissary to the crypto-Jews of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala

The Bnei Anousim – descendants of Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism more than 500 years ago – who live in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala will get a full-time rabbi to serve their spiritual and educational needs. The appointment was made possible due to the efforts of the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization.

Rabbi Elisha Salas, 61, who served as Shavei Israel’s emissary to Portugal for the past eight years, will shortly take up his new post as the organization’s envoy to Central America. Rabbi Salas will be based in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, where Shavei Israel has been working for many years. The city is home to a thriving community of approximately 300 Bnei Anousim – all of whom practice Orthodox Judaism – and will also work with crypto-Jews in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras.

“We are delighted to be sending Rabbi Elisha Salas to reach out to the Bnei Anousim of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “There are thousands of Bnei Anousim throughout those countries who are conscious of their historical connection to the Jewish people. We owe it to them and to their ancestors to reach out to them, embrace them and welcome them back home. Shavei Israel will continue to intensify its efforts to assist the Bnei Anousim wherever they may be.”

Salas will guide the communities and teach Torah, Jewish culture and tradition and will conduct a wide range of educational and social activities. He will also organise social events in addition to Sabbath and holiday prayers. Salas will give lectures on Jewish law and will teach both young and old to correctly read from the Torah and conduct prayers.

As taken from,

Don’t Get Bribed!

“I can’t understand it,” said the coach of the football team. “It was such an important game that I bribed the referee, and yet we still lost.” “Terrible, isn’t it,” the team captain agreed. “It’s getting so you can’t trust anyone any more…”

This week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, warns that “You shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the just.”

The Talmud relates the story of a person who brought Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha the “First Sheerings”, one of the gifts which are customarily given to the Kohanim (priests).

Rabbi Ishmael asked the man, “Where are you from?”

The person replied, “From such-and-such a place.”

Rabbi Ishmael continued, “Between there and here, you found no other Kohen to whom you could give it?”

“I had to come here for a matter of litigation. I said to myself, since I’m coming here anyway, why not give it to you.”

Rabbi Ishmael refused to accept the gift, and recused himself from the case. Instead, he appointed two other scholars to judge the case. When he passed by the courthouse and overheard the litigation taking place, Rabbi Ishmael found himself advocating for the person who had offered him the gift — “if he wanted, he could argue such-and-such” and present a better case.

When he realized what was happening, he exclaimed, “Cursed be those who accept bribes! I did not even accept anything from him, and even if I would have accepted it, it was something that is mine by rights. Even so, I am leaning toward his favor. Imagine someone who actually does accept a bribe!”

The Torah also tells us “you shall surely pursue justice.” It is hard to stay neutral, to be totally objective and not swayed by external or inappropriate factors. Yet this is the mark of true justice.

Wherever we are, at work, on a jury, as a judge, in our families, the Torah warns us about the ease with which we are susceptible to bribery, especially when we don’t realize it ourselves. It takes introspection and virtue to remain objective and untainted, yet this is what is demanded of us when we find ourselves in a judgmental position.

As taken from,

Liberal Jews Can Be Committed to Nationalism and Judaism

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that the choice between Jewish nationalism and Jewish liberalism is the crucial issue facing American Jewry today. He wondered how we can reconcile universal, humanist values with the nationalism of Jewish identity. He concluded with a question: If these two positions are so divergent, can this be “good for the Jews”? He added, “That’s a question this Gentile columnist leaves to the chosen people to debate.”

To me, as a practicing Jew — yet one who is intellectually and politically liberal — there is no question whatsoever that it is good for Jews to be committed to the Jewish people and Israel. At the same time, I believe in the importance of liberalism to counterbalance fanaticism. Indeed, Judaism has survived precisely because we (or at least some of us) chose to remain loyal to our people while also integrating other ideas.

We had this issue with the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, and the Muslims. What comes first? Jewish identity or the values of the outside world? It’s a no-brainer, as the Americans like to say. From the time of Shmuel in the Persian Empire, we always accepted “the Law of the Land” in civil matters. But at the same time, we retained our own Jewish value system.

One should not confuse citizenship with identity. After all, that was once the testing point in what I would call primitive, neanderthal nationalism. The sort I detest.

Today, many of us in the West live in a post-nationalist world, where a variety of people of different religions and cultures share equal citizenship. Nationalism, in most cases (not all of course), has become less rigid and dogmatic.

We all have different ideas, literature, and cultures. Within these different loyalties we will disagree as well — sometimes acrimoniously. A free society allows for people to disagree, argue, and even despise each other. But we can all still be part of a whole. The US does not have a state religion. That is one of the reasons why Jews of all shades have found it so comfortable. Britain does. The Queen is the Head of the Church and bishops sit in the House of Lords. France, though secular, recognizes a special relationship with Catholicism, Japan with Taoism, and China with Maoism. Egypt and all the other Islamic states with Islam. To object to Jews or Israelis doing the same makes no sense. But then, prejudice never did.

The blind hatred towards nationalism espoused by the academic world and the idealistic left (except, it seems, when it comes to Palestinians or left-wing dictators and murderers) throws the baby out with the bathwater. It makes no distinction between positive nationalism and negative.

The Torah is my priority, even if I also include other views and cultures in my decision-making process, which I think is crucial to being “good and just” — an oft-repeated theme in the Torah.

I made a decision early on to dedicate myself to Jewish survival. On the other hand, I detest compulsion. This freedom of choice and practice is one reason that I so strongly believe in the separation of state and religion. But here comes the crunch: I believe the laws of a country should serve the whole country civilly, but in terms of one’s own morality and loyalties, one should give priority to one’s own.

The obvious, inescapable fact is that the only way to guarantee cultural survival is by being committed to it. If someone tells me that most American Jews cannot identify with a Jewish religious life anymore, or with the right of Jews to have a homeland of their own, I am sad. But they are usually far removed from Jewish practice and therefore peripheral to Judaism’s survival. That’s their choice, and good luck to them.

Douthat is worried that Jews such as Michael Chabon or Ayelet Waldman are distancing themselves from Jewish practice because they say that they can no longer feel comfortable being associated with such narrow perspectives. Well, good for them. They won’t be the ones keeping Judaism alive. Jewish affiliation is indeed rapidly declining among those who eschew Jewish nationalism to the point of no return. Diaspora Jewry has always been divided between those who were Jews first and citizens second, and those who were citizens first of the Jewish persuasion. 

There is a current fear of asserting a religious, cultural, national identity in polite left-wing society. I regret this, but it is the reality. This is why I am in favor of states asserting a nation’s religious priorities, if that is the will of the majority. I have never been in favor of strong, right-wing nationalism. But a softer one of loyalty is another matter. It is more cultural than political. 

But it is Douthat’s parting shot that contains a hint of prejudice and explains why I feel the need to defend my cultural, nationalist integrity. To refer to us as the “chosen people” — almost tongue-in-cheek — imputes to the user of this phrase a certain disdain. How dare the Jews think they are better than anyone else? Of course, we don’t (or if some do, they are betraying our holy texts). It is the trope of the antisemite who likes to imply that we do. 

We only claim that we have been privileged, or burdened, to have inherited a profound religious way of life, which if adhered to correctly should make us good, God-fearing people. But the same source constantly reminds us that we ourselves, stiff-necked as we are, have deserved nothing. The opportunities we have taken advantage of have been the failures of others. And our failures have been the failures of the rest of the world too. The response should not be to abandon what makes us different, but to reinforce it.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

As taken from,

Detenerse Antes de Tiempo: la tragedia de la corredora Israelí

Detenerse demasiado pronto: la tragedia de la corredora Israelí

Un mensaje apropiado para el mes de Elul.

por Rav Benjamín Blech

La semana pasada, la carrera de 5000 metros de mujeres en el campeonato de atletismo europeo en Berlín terminó de forma catastrófica para la competidora israelí. Fue una carrera que se recordará por mucho tiempo, no por la forma en que la ganaron sino por cómo la perdieron. La pasmosa derrota de la campeona mundial israelí nacida en Kenia, Lonah Salpeter, es un poderoso recordatorio de una idea profunda y central en elul, el mes previo a Rosh Hashaná.

Salpeter, quien ya había ganado la medalla de oro en la carrera de 10.000 metros, parecía estar camino a lograr otra notable victoria. Ella iba casi a la par con la holandesa Sifan Hassan y cuando faltaba una vuelta parecía tener asegurada si no la medalla de oro, por lo menos la de plata. Hasta que ocurrió lo inexplicable. Salpeter se detuvo antes de que sonara la campana que anuncia la última vuelta, pensando que la carrera había terminado… Ella cruzó los andariveles para celebrar prematuramente su medalla.

Los espectadores se horrorizaron. Los comentaristas no podían creer lo que veían. Las otras corredoras se sorprendieron. Lonah comprendió su error demasiado tarde y desesperadamente trató de regresar a la carrera, pero ya era demasiado tarde. Llegó cuarta y, remarcablemente, de todos modos quebró el record israelí.

El incidente nos recuerda las inmortales palabras de Yogi Berra: “No terminó hasta que termina”.

Las lágrimas de desesperación, miseria y angustia no pueden cambiar para Lonah Salpeter la realidad de haberse detenido demasiado pronto. Por supuesto que no fue intencional, pero la consecuencia es la misma.

La vida está repleta de momentos que nos presentan desafíos similares.

Napoleón Hill en su inspirador libro: Piense y hágase rico, cuenta la historia del casi multimillonario a quién él llama: El hombre que abandonó demasiado pronto. Es la historia de un tío de R.U. Darby que atrapado por la fiebre del oro se fue al oeste a cavar y volverse rico. Él clavó una estaca y comenzó a trabajar con pico y pala. Después de varias semanas de esfuerzos, fue recompensado con el descubrimiento del brillante mineral. Necesitaba máquinas para poder sacar el oro a la superficie. Sin decir nada, cubrió la mina y regresó a su hogar en Williamsburg, Maryland, donde les contó a sus parientes y a unos pocos vecinos sobre su descubrimiento. Entre todos reunieron el dinero para las máquinas necesarias y lo enviaron a una fundición. Los resultados probaron que tenían una de las minas más ricas en Colorado. A medida que bajaba el taladro subían sus esperanzas.

Pero entonces pasó algo. ¡La veta de oro desapareció! Habían llegado al final del arcoíris y la olla con oro ya no estaba allí. Siguieron taladrando, tratando desesperados de volver a encontrar la veta, pero fue en vano. Finalmente decidieron dejar todo.

Le vendieron los equipos por unos pocos cientos de dólares a un chatarrero y subieron al tren para regresar a casa. El chatarrero llamó a un ingeniero en minas para analizar la mina y efectuar algunos cálculos. El ingeniero consideró que el proyecto había fracasado porque los propietarios desconocían las líneas de falla del terreno. ¡Sus cálculos mostraron que la veta se encontraba a menos de un metro de distancia del lugar donde la familia Darby había dejado de cavar!

No cometas el error de pensar que ya llegaste a donde necesitabas ir. Puedes ir más lejos.

Y exactamente allí la encontraron. El chatarrero se volvió increíblemente rico porque supo no abandonar demasiado pronto.

Este es un mensaje importante para el mes de elul, cuando nos preparamos para las Altas Fiestas. El último mes del calendario antes del año nuevo nos somete a grandes demandas: no cometas el error de pensar que ya llegaste a donde necesitabas ir. Puedes ir más lejos. No abandones la carrera antes de haber logrado todo lo que eres capaz de hacer.

Para muchos, la tragedia es detenerse demasiado pronto, como le ocurrió a Lonah Salpeter. Queda más tiempo en la carrera de nuestras vidas, tiempo para merecer los premios que Dios puede tener para nosotros como eventuales ganadores. Qué triste sería que ignoremos las profundas palabras de Thomas Edison: “Muchos de los fracasos de la vida se deben a que las personas no se dan cuenta qué cerca estaban del éxito cuando se dieron por vencidas”.

Según tomado de,

To Lead is to Serve

by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Our parsha talks about monarchy: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the surrounding nations,” set over you a king whom the Lord your God chooses.” (Deut. 17:14-15). So it should be relatively easy to answer the question: From a Jewish perspective, is having a king a good thing or a bad thing? It turns out, however, to be almost unanswerable.

On the one hand, the parsha does say, “set over you a king.” This is a positive command. Maimonides counts it among the 613. On the other hand, of no other command anywhere does it say that that it is to be acted on when the people say that they want to be “like all the surrounding nations.” The Torah doesn’t tell us to be like everyone else. The word kadosh, “holy”, means, roughly, to be set apart, singular, distinctive, unique. Jews are supposed to have the courage to be different, to be in but not entirely of the surrounding world.

Matters are made no clearer when we turn to the famous episode in which the Israelites did actually ask for a king, in the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 8). Samuel is upset. He thinks the people are rejecting him. Not so, says God, the people are rejecting Me (1 Sam. 8:7). Yet God does not command Samuel to resist the request. To the contrary, He says, in effect, tell them what monarchy will cost, what the people stand to lose. Then, if they still want a king, give them a king.

So the ambivalence remains. If having a king is a good thing, why does God say that it means that the people are rejecting Him? If it is a bad thing, why does God tell Samuel to give the people what they want even if it is not what God would wish them to want?

Nor does the historical record resolve the issue. There were many bad kings in Jewish history. Of many, perhaps most, Tanakh says “He did evil in the eyes of God.” But then there were also good kings: David who united the nation, Solomon who built the Temple, Hezekiah and Josiah who led religious revivals. It would be easy to say that, on the whole, monarchy was a bad thing because there were more bad kings than good ones. But one could equally argue that without David and Solomon, Jewish history would never have risen to the heights.

Even within individual lives, the picture is fraught with ambivalence. David was a military hero, a political genius and a religious poet without equal in history. But this is also the man who committed a grievous sin with another man’s wife. With Solomon the record is even more chequered. He was the man whose name was synonymous with wisdom, author of Song of Songs, Proverbs and Kohelet. At the same time he was the king who broke all three of the Torah’s caveats about monarchy, mentioned in this week’s parsha, namely he should not have too many wives, or too many horses, or too much money (Deut. 17:16-17). Solomon – as the Talmud says[1] – thought he could break all the rules and stay uncorrupted. Despite all his wisdom, he was wrong.

Even stepping back and seeing matters on the basis of abstract principle, we have as close as Judaism comes to a contradiction. On the one hand, “We have no king but You,” as we say in Avinu Malkeinu.[2] On the other hand, the closing sentence of the book of Judges (21:25) reads: “In those days, there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” In short: without monarchy, anarchy.

So, in answer to the question: Is having a king a good thing or a bad one, the answer is an unequivocal yes-and-no. And as we would expect, the great commentators run the entire spectrum of interpretation. For Maimonides, having a king was a good thing and a positive command. For Ibn Ezra it was a permission, not an obligation. For Abarbanel it was a concession to human weakness. For Rabbenu Bachya, it was its own punishment. Why then is the Torah so ambivalent about this central element of its political programme?

The simplest answer was given by the outsider who saw most clearly that the Hebrew Bible was the world’s first tutorial in freedom: Lord Acton. He is the man who wrote: “Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won … the principle that all political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man.”[3] But he is also the originator of the classic statement: “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Almost without exception, history has been about what Hobbes described as “a general inclination of all mankind: a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”[4] Power is dangerous. It corrupts. It also diminishes. If I have power over you, then I stand as a limit to your freedom. I can force you to do what you don’t want to do. Or as the Athenians said to the Melians: The strong do what they want, and the weak suffer what they must.

The Torah is a sustained exploration of the question: to what extent can a society be organised not on the basis of power? Individuals are different. Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Rembrandt needed no power to achieve creative genius. But can a society? We all have desires. Those desires conflict. Conflict eventually leads to violence. The result is the world before the flood, when God regretted that He had made man on earth. Hence there is a need for a central power to ensure the rule of law and the defence of the realm.

Judaism is not an argument for powerlessness. The briefest glance at two thousand years of Jewish history in the Diaspora tells us that there is nothing dignified in powerlessness, and after the Holocaust it is unthinkable. Daily we should thank God, and all His helpers down here on earth, for the existence of the State of Israel and the restoration to the Jewish people of the power of self-defence, itself a necessary condition of the collective right to life.

Instead, Judaism is an argument for the limitation, secularisation and transformation of power.

Limitation: Israel’s kings were the only rulers in the ancient world without the power to legislate.[5] For us, the laws that matter come from God, not from human beings. To be sure, in Jewish law, kings may issue temporary regulations for the better ordering of society, but so may rabbis, courts, or local councils (the shiva tuvei ha-ir).

Secularisation: in Judaism, kings were not high priests and high priests were not kings. Jews were the first people to create a “separation of powers,” a doctrine normally attributed to Montesquieu in the eighteenth century. When some of the Hasmonean rulers sought to combine the two offices, the Talmud records the objection of the sages: “Let the royal crown be sufficient for you; leave the priestly crown to the descendants of Aaron.”[6]

Transformation: fundamental to Judaism is the idea of servant leadership. There is a wonderful statement of it in our parsha. The king must have his own sefer Torah, “and he shall read from it all the days of his life … not considering himself superior to his kinsfolk, or straying from the commandments to the right or to the left” (Dt. 17:19-20). Humility is the essence of royalty, because to lead is to serve.

Failure to remember this caused what, in retrospect, can be seen as the single most disastrous political decision in Jewish history. After the death of Solomon, the people came to Rehoboam, his son, asking him to lighten the load that Solomon’s projects had imposed on the people. The king asked his father’s advisers what he should do. They told him to accede to their request: “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favourable answer, they will always be your servants’(1 Kings 12:7). Note the threefold appearance of the word “serve” in this verse. Rehoboam ignored their advice. The kingdom split and the nation never fully recovered.

The radical nature of this transformation can be seen by recalling the two great architectural symbols of the world’s first empires: the Mesoptamians built ziggurats, the Egyptians built pyramids. Both are monumental statements in stone of a hierarchical society, broad at the base, narrow at the top. The people are there to support the leader. The great Jewish symbol, the menorah, inverts the triangle. It is broad at the top, narrow at the base. The leader is there to support the people.

In contemporary terms, Jim Collins in his book From Good to Great[7] tells us on the basis of extensive research that the great organisations are those with what he calls ‘Level 5 leaders,’ people who are personally modest but fiercely ambitious for the team. They seek, not their own success, but the success of those they lead.

This is counterintuitive. We think of leaders as people hungry for power. Many are. But power corrupts. That is why most political careers end in failure. Even Solomon’s wisdom could not save him from temptation.

Hence the life-changing idea: To lead is to serve. The greater your success, the harder you have to work to remember that you are there to serve others; they are not there to serve you.


[1] Sanhedrin 21b.

[2] The source is Rabbi Akiva in Taanit 25b.

[3] Lord Acton, Essays on the History of Liberty, Indianapolis, LibertyClassics 1985, 8.

[4] Hobbes, The Leviathan, Book 1, Ch. 11.

[5] See, e.g., Michael Walzer, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Yale University Press, 2012.

[6] Kiddushin 66a.

[7] James Collins, From Good to Great, Harper Business, 2001.

As taken from,

Surround Yourself with Cleanliness

Image result for jonathan lopes cardozo

by Rabbi Jonathan Lopes Cardozo

כי תצור אל עיר ימים רבים להלחם עליה לתפשה לא תשחית את עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור

When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?

Devarim 20:19

“Cleanliness is not next to Godliness nowadays,
for cleanliness is made an essential,
and Godliness is regarded as an offence.”

– G.K.  Chesterton[1]

Throughout most of history, religious Jews’ hygiene standards were far more advanced than those of most other people. Indeed, Jewish law dating back thousands of years contains a far-reaching codex for personal and environmental cleanliness that would seem novel and forward-thinking to many twenty-first century lawyers, environmentalists, and public health-care workers.

Besides numerous laws that prohibit needless destruction of the natural environment and its resources, as well as pollution in its various forms, Jewish Law also seeks to preserve animal life and maintain clean and pleasant conditions both in the home and in the public domain.

The Torah of the Bathroom

In a fascinating narrative, the Talmud tells of the great Rabbi Huna who asked his son why he was not attending the lectures of Rabbi Chisda, a brilliant, younger colleague. Rabbi Huna’s son, in his innocence, answered that he wanted “to hear words of Torah and not about worldly matters.” Taken aback by this response, Rabbi Huna asked his son which “worldly matters” Rabbi Chisda actually discussed. The son responded that the sage lectured about cleanliness and appropriate behavior in the bathroom. After hearing this, Rabbi Huna exclaimed in wonderment, “Here are matters of health [and thus of Torah], and you call them worldly matters!?!”[2]

On another occasion, the Mishna[3] states that “it is not permitted to soak clay in the public highway…. During building operations, stones [and other building materials] must be deposited immediately on the building site [and not left on the road].” The Talmud also forbids other forms of litter, such leaving shards of glass in the public domain.[4] The purpose of these laws is to protect the public against injury, and also to ensure a minimum standard of cleanliness in society.

With their keen insight into human nature, the Jewish sages understood the direct impact of these laws on the society’s psychological well-being. The Talmud quotes a source that states that if a spring serves as the water supply for two towns, but does not provide sufficient water for both, the town closer to the source takes precedence.[5] The other town, in such a case, would need to find other ways to get sufficient water. However, when it is a choice between the farther town’s drinking water and the nearer town’s laundry water supply, the farther town’s drinking water should come first.[6]

The Cause of Depression

To our surprise, Rabbi Yossi objects to this ruling and states that the closer town’s laundry water will take priority over the farther town’s drinking water! The Talmud, explaining Rabbi Yossi’s reasoning, refers to a statement of the famous authority, Shmuel, who says that constantly wearing dirty clothes causes depression and mental instability![7]

In other words, clean garments are not a luxury. Jewish law considers cleanliness a necessity. The great Halachic authority, Rabbi Ahai Gaon (8th century), ruled that the law is decided according to Rabbi Yossi’s opinion.[8] A wealth of similar laws and observations are to be found throughout traditional Jewish literature.

Unfortunately, these laws do not seem to be of great concern within many orthodox communities today. Though litter does not pollute the streets of orthodox communities any more so than in some secular communities, one still wonders why rabbis and religious leaders who are so genuinely committed to the Torah and Tradition do not speak out on these issues to ensure that the relevant laws receive the attention they deserve. Indeed, given the spirit of Jewish Law, we would expect that the streets in orthodox neighborhoods would look remarkably cleaner than anywhere else.

By implementing the Torah’s laws in this realm – which should really not be too difficult, for after all, we’re only talking about throwing garbage in bins rather than in the streets – orthodox communities will take away much of the ammunition in their secular detractors’ arsenals, and in so doing, will make a tremendous kiddush Hashem, which is in fact the purpose of being a Jew.[9]


[1] G.K.  Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (New York: Dodd Mead, 1917), 67.

[2] Shabbat 82a.

[3] Bava Metzia 10:5.

[4] See Bava Kama 29b.

[5] Nedarim 80a.

[6] For full understanding of this statement see the commentaries on Nedarim 80b.

[7] Nedarim 80b.

[8] She’eltot, Re’eh, no. 147.

[9] For further reading on this subject, see the excellent essay by Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld and Dr. Avraham Wyler: “The Ultra Orthodox Community and Environmental Issues,” Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, no. 415, 21 Tishrei 5760, (October 1999): 1-7.

As taken from,

We have to rethink Elul

The Jewish New Year is a time of praying for all of humanity, not asking for divine pardon for one’s sins

Elul — The Common View

Elul is upon us. That means daily shofar blowing, special psalms and for Mizrahi Jews – waking up half an hour earlier to recite selichot. The name of the game is repentance and preparing ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A month-long period of repentance and preparation should allow us to get safely through the days of judgement and ensure ourselves another safe and healthy year.

This, I suspect, is how most observant Jews see the period.

On the eve of Elul I found myself in conversation with a Hasidic friend/teacher, telling him how little I relate to Elul. As described above, it doesn’t work for me. And I have serious doubts about the real efficacy of the practice even for those who engage in it sincerely. 40 days (Elul +the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Kippur) is a very long time to keep a focus on repentance. It is so long that it loses its efficacy. If one is sincere in one’s repentance, God forgives one on the spot (the point is made beautifully in Sefer Hatanya, Igeret Hateshuva, Chapter 11). Holding the same note, and repeating the very same prayers day after day for 30 days, in addition to an already too-long and too-verbose liturgy, is a recipe for not succeeding in cultivating genuine repentance.

We’ve Also Lost Rosh Hashanah

Actually, the problem with Elul is more fundamental. It goes to the core of our understanding of Rosh Hashanah. We need Elul to prepare for Rosh Hashanah because we consider Rosh Hashanah a day of judgement. Our fear of judgement leads us to advance the process of repentance and seeking Divine forgiveness by a month.  But this is a very mistaken, or at least partial, understanding of Rosh Hashanah. A look at the core liturgy, instituted by the Rabbis, for Rosh Hashanah teaches us that the theme of the day is completely different. It is a day of enthroning God, of proclaiming his Kingdom, of thinking of the entire world as subject to God’s kingdom. It is a day of praying for the world, not for our own safety in face of a terrible judgement. Later generations added another layer of meaning, based on later Talmudic statements representing Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgement (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 16b), and this meaning has eclipsed the fundamental meaning of the day. Concern for God’s kingdom has been replaced by concern for making it safely through divine judgement and this has, in turn, shaped our Elul. Can we imagine a different Elul, as preparation for the deeper and truer meaning of Rosh Hashanah?

Celebrating Elul — A Suggestion

If Rosh Hashanah is about praying for God’s kingdom and God’s will in the world, we can prepare for that very message during Elul. We can cultivate that perspective, decentering attention from ourselves, and thinking of God and the world, as we prepare our minds and hearts for Rosh Hashanah. Here is a suggestion. We spend much of our time thinking of Israel and the world. We consume news of the world, especially of politics, in huge doses, exceeding anything prior generations could have dreamt about. We have, in short, a global consciousness, yet the scope of our religious life is narrow and centered on our wellbeing and survival. Elul could be a time to change that. Imagine every day of Elul could be a day to pray for another world leader or state, asking that the given world leader be in alignment with God’s will, an instrument for fulfilling God’s kingdom. We need not decide anything about local or global politics. We need not align ourselves with any political camp. We simply need to translate the broad mandate of praying for humanity, as formulated in our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, into small prayer-size units, that could be applied on a daily basis to leaders and nations in turn. For all the time we spend talking of Putin, Trump, Merkel, Macron, Urban, Duterte etc., we could spend a few moments each day, praying for one of them, in turn,  asking for them to be guided by God and preparing our own hearts to raise the entire world to God during Rosh Hashanah. It seems to me that selfless prayer for others, in the framework of realizing God’s will for humanity, will go at least as far, probably farther, than repeating one more time the request for divine pardon for our sins. It will be selfless. It will open our hearts to think of others. It will focus our mind on God, and not on ourselves. And, perhaps more than anything, it will allow us a return to a mission we have lost sight of, repentance in the truest sense.

A Kingdom of Priests

Exodus 19:6 states, right before the giving of the Torah, that we are to become a kingdom of priests. This is a vision that we have mostly lost sight of. What does it mean for Israel to be a kingdom of priests? One important strand of interpretation considers that the priest has the duty to bless and to pray for others, and so Israel is the priest among the nations, caring for their welfare. The earliest witness to this view is Philo of Alexandria:

A priest has the same relation to a city that the nation of the Jews has to the entire inhabited world. For it serves as a priest…through the use of all purificatory offerings and the guidance both for body and soul of divine laws… For this reason it is astounding that some dare to charge the nation with an anti-social stance, a nation which has made such an extensive use of fellowship and goodwill toward all people everywhere that they offer up prayers and feasts and first fruits on behalf of the common race of human beings and serve the really self-existent God both on behalf of themselves and of others (on the special laws 163; 167)

If we think of return and repentance, we should consider return to our core vocation, one that is all too often eclipsed by our concern for survival. If our vocation includes caring for and praying for others, what better time to fulfill this than as preparation for the days when we affirm God’s sovereignty over the entire world? Surely, God will take great pleasure in our concern for His Kingdom and raising humanity to it. If we rise to being good instruments for His purpose, He will surely, I believe, also forgive our sins.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.

Israel, This Is Not Who We Are

Orthodoxy should be respected, but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.

By Ronald S. Lauder

Mr. Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress.

CreditRuth Gwily

For many Israelis, Jews and supporters of Israel, the last year has been a challenging one. In the summer of 2017, Israel’s government withdrew from an agreement that would have created an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall and proposed a strict conversion law that impinges on the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. This summer the Knesset passed a law that denies equal rights to same-sex couples. A day later came the nation-state law, which correctly reaffirms that Israel is a Jewish state, but also damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.

Last month, a Conservative rabbi was detained for the alleged crime of performing a non-Orthodox wedding ceremony in Israel. In several municipalities, attempts were made to disrupt secular life by closing convenience stores on the Sabbath.

These events are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested.

Israel is a miracle. The Jews of the diaspora look up to Israel, admire its astonishing achievements and view it as their second home. However, today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way.

For 4,000 years, the Jewish people were seen as the world’s moral compass.

The Zionist movement has been unwaveringly democratic from its very start. Writ large upon its flag were liberty, equality and human rights for all. It was also one of the very first national movements to guarantee full equality and voting rights for women. And when Israel was founded, it immediately became the first and only democracy in the Middle East. Its Declaration of Independence guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” as well as a guarantee of freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Zeev Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir always emphasized the need to combine Jewish nationalism with universal humanism. So now, when Israel’s government appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality, many supporters feel it is turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit.

The issue at hand is first and foremost a moral one, but the new nation-state legislation may also have severe national and international repercussions. In Israel, it will heighten the sense of polarization and discord. Abroad, Israel may find itself associated with a broken values system and questionable friends. As a result, future leaders of the West may become hostile or indifferent to the Jewish state.

Tragically, the new policies will not strengthen Israel but weaken it, and in the long run they may endanger Israel’s social cohesiveness, economic success and international standing.

But the greatest threat is to the future of the Jewish people. For over 200 years, modern Judaism has aligned itself with enlightenment. The Jews of the new era have fused our national pride and religious affiliation with a dedication to human progress, worldly culture and morality. Conservatives and liberals, we all believe in a just Zionism and a pluralistic Judaism that respects every human being. So when members of Israel’s current government unintentionally undermine the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment, they crush the core of contemporary Jewish existence.

As taken from,

The Human Tree

For man is a tree of the field

Deuteronomy 20:19

The tree’s primary components are: the roots, which anchor it to the ground and supply it with water and other nutrients; the trunk, branches and leaves which comprise its body; and the fruit which contain the seeds by which the tree reproduces itself.

The spiritual life of man also includes roots, a body, and fruit. The roots represent faith, our source of nurture and perseverance. The trunk, branches and leaves are the body of our spiritual lives — our intellectual, emotional and practical achievements. The fruit is our power of spiritual procreation — the power to influence others, to plant a seed in a fellow human being and see it sprout, grow and bear fruit.

Roots and Body

The roots are the least glamorous of the trees parts, and the most crucial. Buried underground, virtually invisible, they possess neither the majesty of the tree’s body, the colorfulness of its leaves nor the tastiness of its fruit. But without roots, a tree cannot survive.

Furthermore, the roots must keep pace with the body: if the trunk and leaves of a tree grow and spread without a proportional increase in its roots, the tree will collapse under its own weight. On the other hand, a profusion of roots makes for a healthier, stronger tree, even if it has a meager trunk and few branches, leaves and fruit. And if the roots are sound, the tree will rejuvenate itself if its body is damaged or its branches cut off.

Faith is the least glamorous of our spiritual faculties. Characterized by a simple conviction and commitment to one’s Source, it lacks the sophistication of the intellect, the vivid color of the emotions, or the sense of satisfaction that comes from deed. And faith is buried underground, its true extent concealed from others and even from ourselves.

Yet our faith, our supra-rational commitment to G‑d, is the foundation of our entire tree. From it stems the trunk of our understanding, from which branch out our feelings, motivations and deeds. And while the body of the tree also provides some of its spiritual nurture, the bulk of our spiritual sustenance derives from its roots, from our faith in and commitment to our Creator.

A soul might grow a majestic trunk, numerous and wide-spreading branches, beautiful leaves and lush fruit. But these must be equaled, indeed surpassed, by its roots. Above the surface, there might be much wisdom, profundity of feeling, abundant experience, copious achievement and many disciples; but if these are not grounded and vitalized by an even greater faith and commitment, it is a tree without foundation, a tree doomed to collapse under its own weight.

On the other hand, a life might be blessed with only sparse knowledge, meager feeling and experience, scant achievement and little fruit. But if its roots are extensive and deep, it is a healthy tree: a tree fully in possession of what it does have; a tree with the capacity to recover from the setbacks of life; a tree with the potential to eventually grow and develop into a loftier, more beautiful and fruitful tree.

Fruit and Seed

The tree desires to reproduce, to spread its seeds far and wide so that they take root in diverse and distant places. But the tree’s reach is limited to the extent of its own branches. It must therefore seek out other, more mobile couriers to transport its seeds.

So the tree produces fruit, in which its seeds are enveloped by tasty, colorful, sweet-smelling fibers and juices. The seeds themselves would not rouse the interest of animals and men; but with their attractive packaging, they have no shortage of customers who, after consuming the external fruit, deposit the seeds in those diverse and distant places where the tree wants to plant its seeds.

When we communicate with others, we employ many devices to make our message attractive. We buttress it with intellectual sophistication, steep it in emotional sauce, dress it in colorful words and images. But we should bear in mind that this is only the packaging — the fruit that contains the seed. The seed itself is essentially tasteless — the only way that we can truly impact others is by conveying our own simple faith in what we are telling them, our own simple commitment to what we are espousing.

If the seed is there, our message will take root in their minds and hearts, and our own vision will be grafted into theirs. But if there is no seed, there will be no progeny to our effort, however tasty our fruit might be.

As taken from,