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I am committed to a life provoking the invasion of The Coming Kingdom through: human service, ecstatic prayer, halakhic observation, community building, nurturing hope, and drawing down abiding faith...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Nisan-Halakah of the month (Part 1)

Chodesh Tov everyone!

I want to start by just offering my translation of a Mishnah. This will be the text basis for our halakha of the month. I'll do an initial post of comments later, but feel free to chime in on it from the get-go!

M Pesachim 1.1-2

[From the] advent of the fourteenth [of Nissan we] examine for chametz by the light of a candle. All places where [there is] no storage of chametz there is no need to search. And why do we say [to search] two rows of vessels in the cellar? This is a place where chametz is stored. Beit Shammai say, “two rows of vessels in all of the cellar.” Beit Hillel say, “[only] two outer rows of vessels that are in the highest places.” They don’t worry [if] perhaps a weasel drags [chametz] from house to house and from place to place, because if so [they would worry about the weasel dragging] from yard to yard and city to city; [there would be] no end to the matter.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

II Adar-Halakha of the Month Part 3

Hello all! I hope the second installment of this week's discussion of "Barukh Hu Uverukh Sh'mo" and "Amen" was good food for thought and practice. As we are nearing the end of this month, with Rosh Chodesh Nisan coming next week, I wanted to share just a little more on this halakha in the hopes of continued discussion before we move on.

"Barukh Hu Uverukh Sh'mo" and "Amen", as we have discussed below, are verbal expressions of praise. They are also expressions of agreement.

Agreement has incredible value. In fact, b. B'rakhot 53b teaches us that one who responds, "Amen" is greater than the one who recited the blessing! Why would this be so? I would suggest that the agreement that occurs when one blesses, and another responds, is a greater expression of God's will in the world. One person reciting a blessing creates vertical agreement. In other words, the one saying the b'rakha is in agreement with God's will. When there is a another person responding to the blessing then the agreement does not remain only vertical, it becomes horizontal also. When more and more people agree with God's will, then there is a greater manifestation of olam haba in olam hazah. Humanity's agreement with God's will allows blessing to flow in great abundance.

"Barukh Hu Uverukh Sh'mo" and "Amen" are declarations that reflect agreement with God and a fellow human being. This realization transforms these responses from being mere performative excercises to verbal expressions of the Kingdom to which we are responsible.

Any thoughts on this, or other layers of meaning in the halakhot of "Barukh Hu Uverukh Sh'mo" and "Amen"?

Monday, March 14, 2011

II Adar Halakha of the Month-Part 2

We've had interesting discussion so far. I wanted to shift the discussion specifically to the topic of participation and response. Unfortunately, in many mainstream synagogues one can find the pattern of the shliach tzibbur (cantor) davening for the community, as opposed to leading the community in davening! It should be the latter. The moments where one actually does a mitzvah on behalf of others are rare:

Shofar: The tokiah (shofar blower) blows the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah and the sh'liach tzibbur recites the blessing on behalf of the congregation

Megillat Esther: Unless one has a scroll of Esther in hand, other than the reader for Purim, the people listen to the blessings and respond: Amen. The Megillah is being leined so they can hear.

Communal Kiddush: In a big communal gathering where wine is not available for everyone, the one leading kiddush does it on behalf of the people there. This is not ideal, and many will actually do their own kiddush at home, but this is will within the bounds of custom.

There may be some others I'm not remembering, but these are the main circumstances. The first two are the main ones. This is because the mitzvah is connected with listening. In most prayer, the mitzvah is connected with doing/speaking. Now, one would assume the Torah blessings would be included. After all, it's a mitzvah to hear the Torah! The difference is that the b'rakha recited is a part of the b'rakhot recited over learning Torah in Birkhot HaShachar. This means that, presumably, one has already recited this blessing earlier in the day and is therefore listening to the one making the aaliyah One might ask, wouldn't this also be true of the one making the aaliyah...Wouldn't that person's recitation also be considered a repitition? The answer is: No. When it is over leining form a scroll, it counts as a different blessing....Wait...didn't he just say it's the same...aaagghh!

This can cause one's head to spin because it isn't so logical on the surface. It's rather inconsistant. The real reason is that there is a fundamental difference between Torah learning and other mitzvot. Megillah is a mitzvah once a year. Shofar is a mitzvah once a year. Torah is a daily mitzvah, with specific requirements on certain days to have it publicly read. This is why on the one hand Torah must be listened to, and on the other hand must be learned and recited. I would love to hear your thoughts on why Torah leining/aaliyot would be unique.

Moving on: It is unfortunate that much of American Judaism has developed a vicarious religious practice. I think there are a great many factors that have contributed to this, but I want to address one factor that is unique for the Messianic Jewish community. The Yeshua narrative many have adopted is the belief that he died for us so that we might have life. This is a true, BUT incomplete, notion. This leads to an incomplete spirituality. What's wrong with it? It totally removes responsibility from the "believer." What seems to be more accurate to say (see Romans Chapter 6) is that Yeshua died and rose again so that we, in him, could also die to sin and live in him. Rav Shaul speaks of this in terms of Immersion in Yeshua (this is also spoken of in terms of martyrdom and trials because of Yeshua faith). I believe we ought to see the same going on in our communal prayer life. Yes, Yeshua laid the road for us; we do not have to lay the road. Nevertheless, he paved it so we could travel it! The shliach tzibbur sets the pace for the davening and, at times, elicits responses from the community (Bar'khu, Kaddish, Kedushah, etc.). The shliach tzibbur is not meant to be davening instead of anyone. The shliach tzibbur is not a performer and professional davener.

This is another layer of meaning surrounding the halakhot of "Barukh Hu Uverukh Sh'mo" and "Amen." These halakhot teach us when it is appropriate to take on the responsibility and privilege to bless and pray and when to humbly accept our role in listening and responding to another. I would like to suggest that the halakhic clarification of the role of the shliach tzibbur can teach us something about the role of Yeshua in our community as well. He does not pray to HaShem for us-He teaches us how. He doesn't live Torah for us-he enables us to do so. He doesn't live sinless for us-he guides us on a journey to live in him, free of sin.

I look forward to our continued discussion!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

II Adar-Halakha of the Month

"Upon hearing any berachah made by someone, when you hear the words: Baruch Attah Hashem, [Blessed are you Hashem] you should say: Baruch Hu Uvaruch Shemo [Blessed is He and Blessed in His Name] and when he completes the berachah you should Amein. Amein means it is true...If you are reciting prayers when an interuption is forbidden, you should not say Baruch Hu Uvaruch Shemo. Similarly if you hear a berachah which you must hear to fulfill your obligation...for instance the berachah over the Shofar...you should not say Baruch Hu Uvaruch Shemo because this constitutes an interuption in the middle of the berachah...You must not answer Amein to your own berachah (except...after the berachah to rebuild Jerusalem [in Grace after Meals]."

-Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, selections from Chapter 6, sections 8, 9, and 11 (pgs. 31-32)

B'rakhot (blessings) are not treated lightly in Judaism. Each blessing's phrasing is specific and designed to enable the speaker to fulfill a mitzvah. The b'rakha creates a partnership between divine decree and physical action and merges the will of God and that of the one making the blessing. With all of this going on (in what is often just a few words) concentration is of the utmost importance. At the same time, there is value in listening to a blessing. One fortunate enough to listen to another’s blessing is often invited to join in blessing God without fulfilling the specific mitzvah of the b’rakha being recited. For example, if I waved the lulav and etrog on Sukkot and then later in the day heard my friend recite the b’rakha over lulav and etrog I wouldn’t join her word for word (I already recited that blessing). I would say, “Blessed is He and Blessed in His Name,” though (and respond, “amen”). Now, if someone is reciting a blessing on my behalf (i.e. the chazzan reciting the blessings over shofar) I must concentrate as if I were reciting it myself. Therefore, I would say “amen” at the end, but I wouldn’t interrupt the blessing with an extra praise of God (i.e. Baruch Hu Uvaruch Shemo).

The main point behind all these details is to stress that people not treat mitzvot or blessings lightly. These b’rakhot are not mere words, they are responses to unique moments or actions in time that may not be repeated again until tomorrow, another month, or another year. The focus on proper concentration and decorum for both the speaker and listener reflects value of the moment…of the Torah…of the Holy One.

Lets discuss and ruminate on this for a few days and then we’ll get into some more of the specifics around “Amein” and “Baruch Hu Uvaruch Shemo.”

Introduction to "Halakha of the month"

My goal is to offer a halakha for discussion at the beginning of each new Jewish month. I will not approach this uniformly each time. Some months I will offer a halakha from a law code, and we'll discuss meaning and applications. Other months I will share a halakhic discussion in the Gemara and we will enter that discussion together. Some months I will offer a progression of how a halakha has developed from its initial descriptions in Torah through centuries of application. Other months we'll discuss how B'rit Chadasha impacts halakhic application.

Sometimes the halakhot will have practical applications, and other times will deal with institutions foreign to our experience. Sometimes the discussions will deal with existential issues while others will deal with nitty-gritty practicalities.

All of this variety will hopefully serve to allow us to enter deeply into the various levels of halakhic thinking/living.

Let the learning commence and continue!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Halakhic Learning/Living

I have had the privilege of contributing to the Riverton Mussar program (see links list on the right) for quite some time now. As I was preparing for this coming week's piece a small portion of what I wrote felt like it needed to be unpacked a little more, in a different context. I felt that context would be here. Here is the paragraph I am referring to: "Halakha, in general, removes the veil between the spiritual and physical and reminds us that creation is good and that we are empowered to make it holy. Our daily lives do not become holy by us making them more “spiritual.” They become holy when we acknowledge God as Lord over them, in all their physicality and messiness. In this light we can see that the more we are diligent to bless/thank God (or the world around us) the more likely we are to engage the task at hand. May we all grow in our capacity to use every opportunity to bring holiness and goodness into the world." About a month ago I finished reading a translation of Rabbi Soloveitchik's, Halachic Man. I was challenged by it, but there were a few key points that struck me so very strongly. I will share just two of them here. 1. Soloveitchik suggests that "halachic man" sees a responsibility to experience (and respond to) God within the context of the details of life. Eternal life is found beginning with this life! There is no desire for some disembodied soul state. The goal lies in the Jew's capacity and responsibility to sanctification of the world he/she lives in. 2. The goal of halakha is the prophetic state! Soloveitchik defines this state (in part) as the awareness of the heavenly throne above you at all times. Through deep engagement with halakha in learning and practice, "halachic man" is able to move toward the perception of God and his holiness in a way akin to that of the prophets. I do not mean to oversimplify incredibly complex concepts. Soloveitchik presents a lot of crucial background and caveats so as to avoid confusion in what he is saying. One cannot fully understand these points unless one reads his book. Nevertheless, I feel comfortable asserting that these two points are congruent with values we see in the ketuvim sh'lichim (Apostolic Writings). The Kingdom is at hand, and we have a responsibility to draw it out in the here and now. Make no mistake about it: The mechanisms of halakhic thought/living contrast the pursuit of healing the sick and raising the dead. The real chidush (new idea) here is that in spite of the contrast, they have the same goal and root. Therefore deep halakhic engagement and pursuit of seeing the "Yeshua-natural" (I prefer this to "supernatural") are complimentary and should be equal pursuits of any Messianic Jewish community. So, where do we begin? I have to confess that, by and large, the Messianic Jewish community is lacking in its pursuit of halakhic thinking/living (I am including myself in this critique...I have a long way to go). Even among those Jewish Yeshua followers that engage Jewish life in the context of our people's developed tradition, it normally stops shy of transforming our largely non-halakhic culture. So, I suggest we begin where this way of thinking began, where our sages began: Learning. We need to develop learning cultures that transform the way we think and live. there is much more to do than this, but I want to do my part in promoting this. So... I am going to offer one small way for at least some of us to get started. Every new Jewish month, within the first week, I want to offer a halakha of the month. I will provide some background in the particular halakha and then we can all have a discussion about what it means, how to grow towards it, etc. Any takers?