Letters III - March 2007
Reader: B’SD -- Dear Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, I feel specifically happy about your courage to knock down certain ideas vastly spread in Jewry nowadays, specially backed by many mainstream orthodox groups and their well-intentioned but not so well-prepared rabbis, mostly guided in chassidus (no meant offense, G-d forbid, pls!) but lacking similar knowledge of Judaism backed on tradition. A major issue has been left out of the debate, i.e., the consequences of this Jewish-soul idea in the attitude of many orthodox Jews and many regular Jews in general towards converts and gentiles.
I have myself converted some 14 years ago (orthodox conversion, of course) and brought my family (2 children then) together and then moved to a smaller town with only one orthodox shul of mainstream orthodox chassidic group.
Mine and my wife’s conversions were done by a lovely Hungarian Rabbi that felt surprised that goyim could wish earnestly to become Jewish but was a mensch, believing enough to conclude it could cause such an impact to people from any culture.
On moving to this new town, I experienced for years the horrible condition of being treated as a 2nd class Jew and hearing outrageous things such as, “a convert has to fulfill more than a natural Jew”, “a Jew, no matter what he does, even the worst crime, still he has his Jewish soul and is essentially holy”, “ a gentile originates from the flawed part of Adam and is not nor will ever be in the same level of a natural Jew ”. “Gentiles exist to serve Jews”. Thus, I, a convert, no matter how much kashrus I kept, how shomer chagim/Shabbat…I would be still and never “good enough”! Then, when I rebelled against this, my punishment was to be held as Jew only twice a year: Yom Kippur & Simchat Torah! No matter what I did, still not good enough due to my origins. How I dare…comparing a mere “spark” of a Jewish soul in a convert, to a whole part of a “natural Jew”?
It is a long story and I could fill pages with all that happened for the 12 years I stayed in this town. Jews prohibited employees to sell kosher meat to me, irrespective of the fact half of it had been donated by me… I even recall a man saying in our first meeting, “ I do not like converts so much. I had too many problems with them in the past…” Heard them tell stories of apostate Jews whom funny enough bore the same Jewish name I had…
Some 2 years ago, I moved to another town and again the only orthodox shul was also of this same mainstream orthodox group. Nonetheless, this time, this man in spite of being young, heard me, treated me nicely and helped thru a, let us call it, “a clarification process”. After all, in his own words, “a Jew is a Jew irrespective of his actions” – after 11 years, I could not believe my years. That was so, because this older Rabbi had the guts to call this other Rabbi to prevent him about the “danger I represented”. Nonetheless, this caused me more humiliations of being counted out for the minyan in my first Rosh Hashanah in the new town.
My papers were okay then and this new Rabbi welcomed me, holding as 100% Jew. Finally, after nearly 12 years with raising my kids as Jews (now I had a 3rd one – a daughter), instilling in them fear of heaven - they would see me take planes to the main big Jewish community (Sao Paulo, Brasil) to bring kosher meat every 2 months plus prior Pesach, celebrate Shabbos every week, chagim, teaching them out of breaking Shabbos (none of his natural born Jewish friends did so), etc. I could go to any shul whenever I wanted and lay my prayers to the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov without fearing the terror of not being counted for a minyan.
For nearly 12 years, I was submitted to weekly, monthly, yearly humiliations (whenever the occasion) just because I was not good enough – I saw my other Jewish friends eat pork on a fasting day…and be given honor in the next Shabbos! As for me, no and never at all…never called to the Torah! I was not born from a Jewish womb and would be always a 2nd class Jew! Entitled to be myself and my kids and my wife mistreated, disdained, treated with little respect, as it pleased this Rabbi…just because HAKODOSH BARUCH HU had decided to grant to a select group of people such an alienable right that no matter how bad they might act, still they would be superior to any gentile or convert that had taken the hard decision to leave their past behind, abandon the faith of their ancestors to embrace the faith of Avraham Avinu and of the fortune of his offspring!
I had been nearly a Baptist Pastor and left it all for a difficult-to-describe sense of attraction to Judaism. Spent a lot of money to keep kashrus, convince my kids to eat kosher with no Rabbi’s support but still…Poor guy, not a natural Jew! And my kids…they bore in them the same flaw…thus, deserving harsh words and public mistreatments…
Well, Baruch HASHEM that this rabbi did not succeed. My 2 older boys and girl study and Israel (orthodox school) and the 3rd one is 11 and near her bat-mitzvah and the rebbetzin’s point is she does not have to go thru a course since she knows it all (more than natural born Jews, that is to say). She feels happy to study in a Jewish school where the kitchen is Kosher, etc.
Now, what does my entire story have to do with this Jewish-soul thing? Three things:
a) This first Rabbi’s belief and resulting attitude caused me immense suffering, financial losses, etc., influencing others to behave likewise,
b) This new Rabbi, despite being very kind, here and then utters corrupted ideas, “we can do everything about a goy, even lashon harah – I thought not to do it was a principle to follow. But then now I see it is recourse with limited application… My mother’s parents and brothers are goyim. Am I expected to mistreat them likewise?
c) This idea ultimately transforms HASHEM into a servant to Jews. No need for repentance nor of observance! No matter what: you are still a Jew and this is all that matters. I am not here contradicting the fact they are still Jews but rather that observance and repentance are necessary even they being Jews. As if they feel, G-d has to abide with His mistake and cannot complain! After all, He had no others to choose only the Jews.
Obviously, I am a lot more experienced and can handle these situations more easily now but your last weeks’ issues gave me the courage to stand out to say this: Jews that believe this ignoble idea of Jewish-soul-superiority should bear in mind the ugly consequences this might bring about in all of us, and, to my point of view, are giving to those who hate the Jewish People a fantastic leverage.
Be well and strong and never dismay at proclaiming the Torah’s teachings.
Reader: I submit a Torah thought that I knew you would enjoy. In addition to your journal, I also read works of other individuals rather religiously. One of them is Rabbi Sacks’ Covenant and Conversation. Here is an excerpt from last year’s article on this past week’s Parsha (http://www.chiefrabbi.org/tt-index.html)
“Consider the following ruling of the sages (see Gittin 45b; Mishneh Torah, Yesodei ha-Torah 6: 8; Tefillin 1: 13): A Torah scroll, or tefillin, or a mezuzah, written by a heretic, is to be burned. Normally, to destroy a document containing G-d’s name is absolutely forbidden. However, in this case, as Maimonides explains: “Since the person who wrote it does not believe in the sanctity of the name of G-d, and therefore did not write it with the requisite intent but merely as any other [secular] text, the [document containing] G-d’s name is not sanctified [and may be destroyed]. Indeed it is a mitzvah to burn it so as to leave no record of heretics and their works.”
Imagine two Torah scrolls, one written with the requisite intention and sanctity, the other written by an atheist. Physically, they may be indistinguishable. One cannot imagine any scientific test that - by examining the scrolls themselves - would establish which was holy and which not. Yet one is to be held in the highest possible sanctity, and the other to be burned. Holiness is not a property of objects. It is a property of human acts and intentions.
It is this idea that lies behind the very precise formula we use when we recite a blessing over the performance of a command: “Blessed are You . . . who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to . . .” It is the commandments that make us holy: nothing else. When G-d said to the Israelites, before the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19: 6), He meant that the Israelites would become holy through their performance of the commands he was about to reveal to them, not that there was anything intrinsically holy about them, prior to and independent of the commands. As Issi ben Judah said (Mekhilta, Massechta de-Kaspa, 20): “When G-d enjoins a new mitzvah on Israel, He endows them with new holiness.”
The great commentator and halakhist R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926, often known by the name of one of his commentaries, Ohr Sameakh) was tireless and forceful in stressing the point. Mount Sinai was - as the site of the greatest ever revelation of G-d - momentarily the holiest place on earth, yet as soon as the revelation was over, even animals were permitted to graze on it (Meshekh Chokhmah to Ex. 19: 13). The first tablets Moses brought down the mountain were supremely sacred. They had been hewn and written by G-d himself. Yet Moses broke them to show the Israelites that nothing is holy except in the context of fulfilling G-d’s will (Meshekh Chokhmah to Ex. 32: 19). We endow objects and places with holiness, through our intentions, our words and our deeds. There is no such thing as ontological holiness, intrinsic sanctity.”
Jessie: Upon Jacob’s flight from Esav who sought his death, he lodged that night. The verse says he took from the rocks of that place, implying a “few” rocks were taken to lie upon. Upon his rising the next morning, the Torah says it was “one” rock. What does Rashi mean that the “rocks quarreled with one another saying, ‘on me the righteous [Jacob] should lay his head’, and immediately God made them into one rock”? (Gen. 28:11) Rocks cannot talk!
Mesora: This metaphor indicates that the tzaddik - more than anyone else - makes best use of the physical world...implied by the metaphor of brute creation (rocks) “fighting to be used” by Yaakov. The second part of this metaphor where “God makes them into one rock” indicates that God intervenes when natural law might not work out for the righteous person. King David also said this, “Many evils befall the righteous, but from all of them, God saves him.” (Psalms 34:20) Why can’t God simply halt the mishap from commencing? The answer is that God created both; nature and free will, for a reason. At times, free will of the sinner disturbed by the righteous person’s life, or natural law, have the potential of harming the good individual. Additionally, even a wise, righteous person cannot forecast what can go bad…or when. In “all” these cases, King David teaches that God will save the righteous from literally every mishap. For a mishap cannot visit someone undeserving. God is totally righteous, and metes out exact justice. However, He will not alter natural law, which is His desire.
I also feel Yaakov - as opposed to others - experienced the phenomenon of the physical “seeking to support him”, since at this precise juncture, he was in need of the material, having given all his possessions to Eliphaz. Jacob’s request of food and clothing make it clear that this was Jacob’s precise need.