I recently had the opportunity to visit the Samaritan community on Mount Gerizim with a fun group called “Holy Local Aliens.” It was really fascinating – I’ve been wanting to visit the Samaritans for some time, ever since I had the opportunity to meet their Kohen Gadol (high priest) over 20 years ago when I was a rabbinical student.
The Samaritans are a very small community, about 1,000 people. They believe they are the descendants of the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which formed when Solomon’s sons couldn’t get along. They never adapted their religion to the rulings of the rabbis, so they practice a form of Judaism that is much closer to what it was during the Second Temple period than what modern rabbinic Jews follow. I learned a lot, but have so many more questions.
Most of them live in a small community, Kiryat Luza, which is above Nablus (Shchem). They used to live in the Nablus, but their community grew and the Israeli government gave them permission to land on Mount Gerizim. They are the only people who have both Israeli and Palestinian ID cards. Almost everyone is bilingual, Hebrew and Arabic, although they mostly speak Arabic as their first language at home. They often have both Arabic and Jewish names. They also have a community in Holon, in central Israel, where they speak Hebrew as their first language, and serve in the IDF.
We visited one of their two synagogues where we were shown a Samaritan Torah. Very similar to the Jewish Torah, although our guide, Abood Cohen, told us there are 6,000 small differences and 30 major differences. Their Torah is written using the ancient Hebrew script, unlike our Torah which uses script imported from Assyria. The Talmud says that the prophet Ezra decreed the switch to Assyrian script. The Samaritans split off before Ezra, so they never made that switch.
They have some Torah scrolls written on parchment, as the Jewish ones are, but they also have some written on paper. They don’t have a rule that it has to be written on parchment. That also was a requirement instituted by the rabbis.
This year their Passover celebration was on April 14 while ours is on the 15th. They don’t follow some calendar adjustments that were added by the rabbis.
When we visited they were busy making matzah for the holiday. Their matza is soft, more like lafa, a soft flat bread often used for making felafel sandwiches. They make it similar to the way the Druze make bread that they sell on the side of the road in the Golan. Apparently they do have rules about avoiding letting it rise, not sure if they are as picky about the time as rabbinic Jews are.
Instead of doing a seder, they do what we talk about in our seder: offer a korban Pesach, a Passover sacrifice. They slaughter about 55 lambs so that each of the members of their community can have at least a little of the Passover offering. The pits in the picture are where they cook the lamb – they put them on top of hot coals.
The only sacrifice they offer is the Passover sacrifice. They believe it’s the only one they can offer without their Temple standing on Mt. Gerizim. I asked why they don’t rebuild their Temple, and was told they don’t know the exact correct location. Sometime in the future a prophet is supposed to come and tell them where to build it.
Mt. Gerizim is mentioned several times in the Torah.
Elsewhere we’re told which tribes are to stand on the top of which mountain, and what they are to say.
The Samaritan community is on Mount Gerizim. There’s a Jewish settlement nearby called, for obvious reasons, Har Bracha (Mountain of Blessings). The picture below is of Mt. Ebal, taken from Mt. Gerizim.
The Samaritans have a tahini factory, where they make Har Bracha tahini. We had a chance to taste it, and to purchase some as well, which I’ll be serving at my seder.
There is a small Samaritan Museum we also visited with some interesting exhibits.
Samaritan mezuzahs are also interesting. Their custom is to post biblical verses – of their choice – near the entrance to their homes. This is a “Samaritan mezuzah:”
All in all, it was a fascinating visit, and a glimpse into Judaism the way it might have been before the additions and changes of the rabbis. I plan to visit again, and hope to learn more.
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a “Mindfulness on the Mountain” skiing and meditation retreat in Andorra (a tiny country in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, about a three-hour drive from Barcelona). The retreat was led by monastics, both monks and nuns, from Plum Village, a network of centers and monasteries that was started by the late Thich Nhat Hanh (“Thay”).
It was an amazing five days. We started each day at 0630 with a half hour of sitting silent meditation, followed by a half hour dharma talk (one of the monks sharing Buddhist teachings). We’d then walk to breakfast in silence, practicing “mindful walking” or walking meditation. We’d at least start our meal in silence; sometimes the whole meal was in silence.
After breakfast we headed for the ski slopes, divided into groups of 8-10 people based on skiing ability (there were about 50 people in total at the retreat). My friend Charlie, who invited me on this epic adventure, was in a group that skied with the nuns. I was in the most advanced group, and got to ski with Ramon, one of the key organizers of the retreat, and former head of the Spanish Ski Federation as well as of the Buddhist Association of Spain.
Skiing with Ramon was amazing. In addition to sharing great tips about mindful skiing, he shared great tips about skiing. Even though I’ve been skiing for almost 60 years, there’s always more to learn.
We had lunch on the mountain, and after lunch we had free time, which most people used to do more skiing.
There was typically a program around 4:30 or 4:45, although I mostly skipped the program and spent the time in the outdoor hot tub and sauna.
Dinner at 6, with “mindful walking” to the restaurant which was a few hundred meters away. After dinner we had another half hour of sitting meditation and on three evenings had sessions of “dharma sharing,” where people shared how the experience was going for them; one night instead of dharma sharing there was a Q&A session with all the monastics.
It was great hearing people’s stories. We also heard about the journey to monk/nun from a few of the monastics. Really fascinating group of people. Everyone has a struggle. Everyone has had suffering. Compassion is so important.
Mindfulness is the antithesis of multi-tasking. Whatever you are doing, do it fully. Sometimes that’s just sitting and getting in touch with your breathing and your body. Walking. “Mindful discussions” where you really pay attention to what people are saying, as opposed to thinking about what you want to say next.
We also had teachings and worked on dealing with emotions. For some people, that meant coping with strong emotions. For others, like me, it was more about paying attention to emotions that I often ignore.
I had one incredibly powerful experience on a chairlift:
I was riding up a chairlift with three women from our group, and one of them started talking about how much she appreciated that her mother took her to the mountains when they were young, even though they lived in the Netherlands and not so close to mountains, and she started crying. Then I started thinking about how I get my love of the mountains from my Austrian mother (who died over ten years ago), and I started crying, and the other two women were being supportive of us, and they started crying too. We got off the chairlift with four of us having tears streaming down our faces. That’s never happened to me before!
Mindfulness is a state of mind I think all faith traditions aspire to. I found the retreat gave me tools – and refreshed my approach – so that my prayers are more mindful.
One challenge I had is there wasn’t really time in the schedule for me to practice my usual Jewish spiritual practice of prayer. I squeezed in some here and there, but it was tricky. Saturday morning I decided my way of praying was what I really needed – so instead of joining the silent sitting meditation, I sat in the back, wrapped in my tallis, and spent the time on Jewish prayers. Was slower, more mindful, and more connected than my prayers have been in a long time – a much more spiritual experience.
I was also reminded of how much better food tastes if you really pay attention to what you’re eating. Meals in silence, or at least one course in silence, helps create space for that to happen. All the food was vegetarian, which made life easy for me.
My only complaint about the retreat was the total lack of COVID protocols. There were only four of us who wore masks at all. I wore mine whenever the total group was meeting, but it’s not practical to wear them when you’re sleeping (I was in a room with four other guys) or eating. I tested positive for COVID on my arrival back in Israel. Fortunately, I had my second booster about a month ago – seems like I only had minor symptoms for less than 24 hours (started feeling something on the flight). But I’ll be in quarantine for at least five days.
I am truly grateful to the brothers and sisters for their teachings, to Ramon for the skiing and organization, and to everyone who participated for their open and compassionate presence.
I read Thay’s book “You are Here,” and was reminded again of how many similar teachings can be found between Buddhism and Judaism. Yes, there are a lot of differences too, but I like to focus on the common ground! Here are a few things I’ve observed, some from the retreat, some from the book:
We were all shocked by what happened in Colleyville, Texas, last Shabbat.
A rabbi and three other people who were celebrating Shabbat morning services were taken hostage by an anti-Semitic British Muslim who was hoping to secure the release of an accused terrorist sitting in an American jail. The initial stages of the situation were seen on the synagogue’s Zoom broadcast of the service.
The Jewish world is such a tight-knit community that we all felt, “that could have been me.”
For rabbis, that feeling was especially strong. It’s a pretty good bet that almost every non-Orthodox rabbi in America knows someone who knows Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. Several of my rabbi friends know him personally. That really ramps up the feeling of, “it could have been me.”
Thanks to the security training the rabbi went through, along with his patience and decisive action at the right moment, the hostages managed to escape, and the kidnapper was stopped by law enforcement.
As shocking as the attack itself was, the Jewish community was disheartened when the FBI Special Agent in charge of the Dallas office said,
In other words, he felt that since the attacker’s goal was securing the release of someone, and not focused on simply terrorizing Jews, it wasn’t an anti-Semitic attack.
Which of course, is absurd. Why would this man choose to attack a synagogue to accomplish his goal if it wasn’t for anti-Semitism? Why didn’t he take over a church and make the same demand?
One of the hostages, Jeffrey Cohen, explained how we know it was anti-Semitic:
He called the person he was trying free – Aafia Siddiqui – his sister. She was not his biological sister, she was his spiritual sister. Siddiqui was shooting at US Army troops as they arrested her. But she claimed the case against her was a “Jewish conspiracy,” and she dismissed her legal team because she said the lawyers were Jewish. She then tried demanding that jurors at her trial take DNA tests. She wanted to make sure none of the jurors were Israeli or Zionists, in order “to be fair.” For a woman who has a PhD in neuroscience – from Brandeis University, no less, a heavily Jewish institution – it’s pretty ignorant to think “Zionism” shows up in your DNA. Some of the most ardent Zionists are evangelical Christians.
After public outcry the FBI walked back their statement about the attack not being specifically related to the Jewish community. A later statement said, “This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.” The FBI also said it will “never lose sight of the threat extremists pose to the Jewish community and to other religious, racial, and ethnic groups.”
Anti-Semitism nowadays takes many different forms – there’s the anti-Semitism of the white nationalists, the anti-Semitism of Muslim extremists, the anti-Semitism masking itself as anti-Zionism on the left.
What these different forms of anti-Semitism all have in common is they are based on dislike of Jews because we’re different. We stubbornly cling to our beliefs and traditions, we don’t accept Jesus or Mohamed or campus cancel culture.
And it’s infuriating when some people use anti-Semitism as a cover to advance their own political agenda which is contrary to the views of most Jews. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri wrote a public letter where he said:
Reading that we’re left shaking our heads and going “huh?” The attacker didn’t come from Afghanistan – he came from the United Kingdom. He wasn’t a refugee. And Jews are some of the strongest supporters of refugees in America, because we know what it’s like to be fleeing for your life only to have trouble finding a country that would take you.
That spirit of being welcoming was present in Colleyville. The rabbi let the attacker in and made him a cup of tea.
Do we need to stop being so welcoming?
I think that would be a mistake, and I’ll explain why.
Scary attacks such as this one, or the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, are scary, but they are very rare.
There are an estimated 4,000 synagogues in the United States. Assuming each had services every Shabbat, that’s 208,000 Shabbat worship services in a year. That one experienced a hostage taking is terrible, but one out of 208,000 is a minuscule number. Your chances of being killed in a car accident any given year are far far higher – one out of 7,132 in 2020.
And I suggest that’s the way we need to look at synagogue security – similar to the way we view car accidents.
We do what we can to prevent them, and to minimize harm in case an accident happens. We maintain our cars, we wear our seatbelts, we make sure drivers are properly trained, but we accept that there is a level of risk we are comfortable with. We don’t quit driving and we don’t insist on driving only armored vehicles.
Similarly, we should take reasonable security precautions – as we do here at Temple Beth El. Rabbi Cytron-Walker reported how important the training he received was in their escape, so it would be a good idea for a few members of our community to have some training. If it makes you feel better knowing I’m around, I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and can throw a chair with the best of them, but I’d be happy to get additional training.
But it’s important that we remain true to who we are. The Torah charges us with being kind to the stranger, and we should not stop doing that.
In an interview after he was released, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said, “We have to be hospitable and we have to be secure. And we have to find ways to strike that balance.”
Even after what he went through, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said we cannot cease to welcome the stranger. He said,
Every rabbi has stories like that. Especially when I was serving a congregation in Birmingham, Alabama I had a lot of visitors who didn’t look like the stereotypical visitor to a Jewish house of worship, but my doors were open, and I listened, and helped who I could.
We should do what we can to be secure, but at the same time, we can’t make security the only thing that matters. We have to be true to our Jewish values and remain a house of prayer open to all, welcoming the stranger, just as our father Abraham welcomed strangers into his tent.
The post Colleyville, Anti-Semitism, and Being True to Who We Are appeared first on The Neshamah Center.
Those of us who grew up Jewish learn from an early age that Jews “don’t believe” in Jesus. Which means we don’t believe Jesus was the son of God from a virgin birth, and we don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
But I never learned just what it is that Jews THINK about Jesus. Was he a heretic? A prophet? A rabbi? Jewish or Christian?
There is no single definitive view on the subject. What follows are my thoughts on the subject after having done a fair amount of research.
In this talk I’ll go through some of the reasons for why I believe what I do, but in general I believe Jesus was at the liberal end of a group we can call the “proto-rabbis,” rabbis who lived prior to the establishment of rabbinic Judaism, which didn’t really start until forty years after Jesus’ death with the destruction of the Temple.
Jesus as Son of God
Jews don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, or that Mary gave birth to him as a virgin.
Interestingly, there is a very strange passage in the Torah just before the Noah story – one that rabbis usually skip over when looking for sermon subjects for that parsha – a passage that says b’nei Elohim, literally “sons of God,” sometimes translated as “divine beings” cohabitated with daughters of men and got them pregnant. The Torah says, “they were the heroes of old, the men of renown.”
Isn’t that kind of like what the Christians say about Jesus?
The classic rabbinic interpreters mostly rejected the idea that these were divine beings. They put different spins on it – sons of judges, sons of princes. Although Rashi says one possibility is they WERE divine beings, angels.
I think this passage is a holdover from pagan times – those offspring which are referred to “the heroes of old,” were indeed what in Greek mythology are known as demigods: the offspring of one of the gods and a mortal. Achilles, for example was the offspring of a water goddess, Thetis, and a mortal man, Peleus. Heracles was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. There’s a long list.
Judaism strongly rejected the idea of God, or any other divine being, either making mortal women pregnant or being impregnated by a mortal man.
Hyam Maccobi, in his book, “The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity” argues that aspects of Judaism that are seemingly totally alien to Judaism, such as the virgin birth, didn’t come from Jesus, but rather were introduced by Paul as he took his ministry to the pagans. Adding elements such as this to the story made the Jesus story sound more comfortable and familiar to pagans, easing their entry into Christianity.
Jesus as Messiah
Jews don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah for a very simple reason: the world is still a very broken place. The verses in Isaiah that talk about a time of peace and prosperity, the lion lying down with the lamb and all that, have not been fulfilled.
There have been many other “would be Messiahs.” At one time, as many as a fourth of the world’s Jews believed Shabtai Tzvi was the Messiah. Most Jews gave up on that belief after he converted to Islam at swordpoint, but some maintained he had simply gone into “deep cover.” A small group in Turkey continued to believe he was the Messiah into the early 20th century. Rabbi Akiva, one of more most revered rabbis from the 2nd century, believed that Bar Kochba was the Messiah. His followers though knew he wasn’t the Messiah when the rebellion was crushed and Bar Kochba was killed.
The Chabad branch of Hasidic Judaism is surprisingly similar to early Christianity. Many (if not most) Chabadniks believe the late R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson will come back from the dead as the Messiah. That’s more or less what the early Christians believed about Jesus. The early Christians were Jewish to all outward appearances, bringing sacrifices to the Temple, circumcising their sons, etc.
What the Jews are waiting for is what Christians call “the second coming.” Early Christians were convinced it was going to happen any moment. 2,000 years later Christians are still waiting.
Jesus as a Person
I think there’s little question that a person named Jesus who was believed by many to be the Messiah existed.
Not only is it unlikely that the Gospels, the earliest of which was written 30-40 years after Jesus’ death were entirely fiction, there are a number of sources outside the New Testament that mention Jesus, including the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus.
Jesus as a Rabbi
Jesus clearly was a skilled teacher and preacher. Many of the teachings reported in Jesus’ name are teachings that are very much in line with Jewish teachings of his day. Rabbis would probably quote Jesus all the time if the things he said were found in the Mishnah instead of in the New Testament.
As an example, I like to ask people, “which famous rabbi said “the two most important commandments are v’ahavta l’reiacha k’mocha, love your neighbor as yourself, and v’ahavta hashem elokecha, love the Lord your God, a line from the Shema. People will scratch their heads and say “Rabbi Akiva? Hillel?” It was Jesus.
Many things Jesus said are also found in the Mishnah or other Jewish sources, for example, in Matthew 23 Jesus says, ““For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Proverbs 29:23 reads, “A man’s pride will humiliate him, but a humble man will obtain honor.”
It seems that Jesus had a falling out with his teachers, mostly because he saw them focused on ritual stringencies and not being focused on the needs of people. In many places Jesus puts the needs of people over demands of strict adherence to ritual law. A few examples:
During his ministry Jesus clearly aligned himself with the common people, not the snobbish rabbis. We see this in Matthew 15, where the Pharisees tell Jesus, “Why do your disciples transgress the custom of our elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
Even though it’s now common for all religiously observant Jews to wash their hands before eating bread, in the days of Jesus only priests were required to do so. The Pharisees adopted the custom as well, as a show of piety. But ordinary people didn’t. This was one of the markers the rabbis used for who was a chaver, a fellow Pharisee, one of the “in crowd.” It wasn’t strictly required. Jesus responds by accusing the Pharisees of being hypocrites, failing to honor their parents.
When Jesus says “A man is not defiled by what enters his mouth, but by what comes out of it,” it doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep kosher. It means your words are even more important.
This is similar to what we read in the Haftorah on Yom Kippur morning – when we’re fasting, and we read Isaiah saying, “Is this the fast that I want, a day for man to afflict himself? Do I want him to bow his head and wear sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast and a day of favor for Hashem? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.”
Isaiah isn’t saying don’t fast: he’s saying, “don’t be a hypocrite.”
I think Jesus is saying the same thing. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus says, “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.”
Was Jesus a Pharisee?
Hyam Maccobi makes an interesting argument that Paul, who is portrayed as a former Pharisee, actually was not a Pharisee, but Jesus was. He bases this on a close reading of texts, showing Paul used a Talmudic argument, a kal v’chomer argument (ex fortiori) that was so flawed no self-respecting Pharisee would have advanced it. This led him to conclude Paul was a “Pharisee wanna be,” whereas Jesus actually was a Pharisee.
Was Jesus a Proto-Rabbi
In an interesting paper titled, “The Halakhah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew,” Rabbi Philip Sigal argues that Jesus was a “proto-rabbi.” Instead of seeing the Pharisees as the precursors to rabbinic Judaism, he sees the Pharisees as a small, especially stringent sect, similar to the Essenes, the pietistic perushim mentioned in tannaitic literature. According to this school of thought, which I agree with, Jesus was more aligned with other more liberal rabbis against the ritual strictness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Jesus likely studied with rabbis (as recorded in Luke 2:46-47), although we don’t know exactly which rabbis he studied with. He was generally aligned with more liberal positions, such as on the laws of Shabbat, but in some cases, such as the laws of divorce, he was in the stricter camp.
Early Christians, for the first four or five decades after Jesus’ death, really were “Jews for Jesus.” They did everything the other Jews did: kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, circumcised their sons. It was only after the destruction of the Temple, that the Christians and Jews truly separated.
If the separation had never happened, Jesus probably would have been remembered among the other teachers of the day, and he would be quoted in the Mishnah.
Review of Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi’s Soul Journey, by Rabbi Reverend Dr. Haviva Ner-David
Review by Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff
In this, her third memoir, Rabbi Reverend Haviva Ner-David models a new way to be a rabbi.
Rabbis are generally advocates for a particular spiritual path. I have felt that I can be a spiritual guide for people who feel my path makes sense for them, while I’ve always acknowledged there are other paths, and if a different path is what works for you, go find it, and presumably find the right teacher who can help you on that different path.
In her beautifully written and courageously honest and from the heart memoir, Rabbi Haviva chronicles her journey from Orthodox rabbi (she was the first woman to be publicly acknowledged as an ordained Orthodox rabbi) to interfaith, interspiritual minister, dream worker, and spiritual companion.
Even though she recently added “reverend” to her long list of titles and accomplishments with her ordination as an interspiritual minister, she’s clearly still a rabbi. Rabbi means teacher, and with her boundary-dropping path of spiritual growth she shows that a true rabbi can help people who are not only following a particular spiritual path, but who are on any spiritual path. This is how she describes it:
Rabbi Haviva’s path is inspiring, but it’s also clear that it’s very much her unique path – which is, in itself, an important message because the truth is everyone is on their own unique spiritual path even if they give an outward appearance of being on some particular tradition’s path. Rabbi Haviva’s unusually unique path helps to illustrate that point.
Being married to a memoirist means you’re likely to find yourself a significant part of the stories, and Rabbi Haviva’s husband Jacob is a strong presence in the book. Rabbi Haviva and Jacob show us how a loving couple can navigate the challenges that go with figuring out how to manage a long-term relationship when the spiritual paths of the two partners, which had been in sync, start to diverge. They show us that the way to adapt is to accept that one’s partner’s spiritual path may not be the same as yours, and that’s OK – neither tries to enforce their rules or approach on the other, and that seems to me the ideal way to handle such situations. Even though there are times when it’s painful to give your partner that space.
Many of the chapters are framed around dreams. Dreamwork has been a major part of the author’s spiritual journey. In the style of dreamwork she uses, the guide asks the dreamer to inhabit different elements of the dream, and let them speak. Dreams that can seem to be the typical random vignettes with stuff that makes no sense can be found to contain hints of issues the dreamer is trying to work through. In one dream a suitcase and three suits turn out to have a lot to say; in another a Bohemian Woman and a headless woman have unexpected significance.
Some of the deepest wisdom in the book comes in the postscript – having lived with a degenerative disease since she was 16, Rabbi Haviva had come to terms with her own mortality, but was totally unprepared when Jacob was stricken with a serious condition:
One of the things that makes this book special is that it’s not a story you’ve read before. There are plenty of memoirs about people who make a journey from totally secular, or even Christian to rabbi, and there are plenty of others about people who started out ultra-Orthodox and found their way out of religion, but this is definitely the only book out there about a female Orthodox rabbi who becomes an interspiritual minister.
Old-timers like me remember the Levy’s Real Jewish Rye Bread ads – “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate this rabbi’s story. In both this book, and in her novel, “Hope Valley,” Rabbi Haviva aims to break down walls. She wrote:
This book is an excellent contribution to the literature on breaking down walls.
For links to purchase, go to: https://rabbihaviva.com/dreaming-against-the-current/