Book Review: Healing Of Soul, Healing Of Body

Healing Of Soul, Healing Of Body: Spiritual Leaders Unfold the Strength & Solace in Psalms

Author: Edited By Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, CSW A Project of the Jewish Healing Center

Publisher: Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing

115 pages, ISBN 1-879045-31-1, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In the “How To Use This Book” section, the purpose of this little volume is stated: “This book is intended to help you—struggling with illness or helping someone who is—derive spiritual healing from Psalms” (p. 11). Accordingly, the focus then is on what the late 18th century, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov referred to as the ten “healing psalms,” they are: Psalms 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150. Readers will find helpful, practical suggestions on how to use these psalms.

In the “Introduction” chapter, Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub provides an overview of who Rabbi Nachman was, and the ten different kinds of songs found in these ten “healing psalms.” Each song has a corresponding Sefirot… “of the Kabbalah, the mystical attributes through which the Creator brought the universe into being. These Ten Sefirot are called “Direct Light,” shining from the Creator to the world” (p. 19). For example, one type of song is called a Niggun, “Melody,” and its corresponding Sefir is Hessed, “Lovingkindness.” In “Notes To Introduction,” there is a list of all ten Songs and corresponding Sefir.

Ten rabbis from four denominations—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstruction—each write one of the chapters; providing a wide range of insights and approaches to these psalms.

The structure of each chapter is as follows: A Hebrew and English translation of the psalm, along with a commentary on it.

For this reader, the most helpful chapter was by Rabbi Maurice Lamm, commenting on Psalm 105. Rabbi Lamm offers several insights regarding the importance of songs and singing to facilitate communion with God and healing if not of the body, then of the mind and soul. For example: “The word shir, meaning song, also derives from shur, meaning insight. When we sing we raise our souls to God, and we gain insight into Him” (p. 83). I think this emphasis on singing songs regardless of our situation is most timely in our day and age, since very few people seem to sing anymore—one wonders if they are the poorer in health as a consequence.

In addition to this volume’s chapters, there is information about each of the contributors, suggested resources for further reading, helpful organizations, information about the Jewish Healing Center, and Jewish Light Publishing and several of their publications.

 

 

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Rabbi Sacks’s commentary on Leonard Cohen’s song

One of my favourite contemporary Jewish scholars and rabbis is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In this brilliant commentary on Leonard Cohen’s recent song, shortly before he died, “You Want It Darker,” Rabbi Sacks points out several references in the song to the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition. The moment I heard Leonard Cohen’s song, I was astounded by it’s sobering tragedy and beauty. Although Cohen dabbled in other faiths, I think he died a faithful Jew. He was a contemporary Job, having lots of unanswered  questions of God, and facing suffering, and moved by the suffering and evil in the world to continue writing songs and singing them, and in the darkness and hatred of the world, letting light shine and love reaching out to make a difference in the lives of others. In his lover’s quarrel with God, he could still die singing Hallelujah.

Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph’s address at Augustana Campus, U of A

On Tuesday of this week, I attended a talk by Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph, titled, “Dancing on our Enemy’s Grave?: Coming to Terms With Victory and Peace,” in the chapel of Augustana Campus, the University of Alberta. The talk was organized by the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life.

Rabbi Y. Lindsey bat Joseph is director of the Sol Mark Centre for Jewish Excellence, in Vancouver, B.C. She has been teaching for over 25 years, primarily in adult and post-secondary settings, and is currently a faculty member at Alexander College in downtown Vancouver. She has also acted as a moderator for Simon Fraser University’s Philosophers’ Café. She was ordained as a Reform Rabbi under the auspices of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi bat Joseph served as Rabbi-Educator at Temple Beth Ora of Edmonton for 11 years. She is committed to a Judaism that is inclusive, egalitarian, and creative in its approach to meeting the needs of contemporary Jews. Since moving to the West Coast, she has been involved with small Jewish communities on the B.C. Mainland and on Vancouver Island as well as teaching and studying in the Greater Vancouver Region. She holds a Bachelors Degrees in Education and in Religious Studies and Applied Ethics, a Masters Degree in Jewish Letters from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform seminary), and a Masters degree with a major in Moral Philosophy. In 2005, she was awarded the Alberta Centennial Medal for community service. She was a contributing writer to the Jewish Lights Press Women’s Haftarah Commentary and had an article published in the Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal in August 2013.

The following are my notes from Rabbi bat Joseph’s talk, with apologies for any and all errors, omissions, etc.

Rabbi bat Joseph began by saying that one of the main impetuses for this talk was the death and aftermath of Osama bin Laden.

When terrorists are successful in killing their victims, they are portrayed by the media as rejoicing over their enemies. However, when terrorists are defeated, reactions are mixed and more ambiguous. According Rabbi bat Joseph, the reaction of governments were muted, they were not triumphant when the enemy, bin Laden was killed.

In our world today, civilians are increasingly on the front lines, as they are kidnapped by terrorists. Rabbi bat Joseph said that Israel has dealt with this since 1948.

Countries and governments don’t want to negotiate with terrorists, but what about a government’s responsibility to its citizens?

According to Rabbi bat Joseph, there are two seemingly contradictory passages concerning ethical-moral approaches to the enemy in the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs 24:17, and 11:10. Proverbs 24:17 states: “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” Whereas Proverbs 11:10 states: “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.” (Note: I am quoting from the NRSV Bible).

Rabbi bat Joseph pointed out that there is a Midrash on Jewish festivals which places limits on rejoicing in light of the suffering of one’s enemy. One example she cited was pouring wine cups only partially full in the Passover Seder, reminding the Jewish participants that the enemy Egyptians suffered from the deaths of their loved ones from the plagues and in pursuit of the Hebrew slaves during the exodus from Egypt.

In Jewish exegesis of the Proverbs eleven passage, the text is in the context of judgment and justice. Rabbi bat Joseph employed the phrase “carefully restrained joy” when justice prevails.

When Osama bin Laden was killed by the U.S. military in 2011, many in cities across the U.S.A. celebrated his death, even with fireworks. However, governments around the world, including the U.S. government had a more muted response.

In 2004, Sheik Ahmed Yassin was killed by an Israeli missile. Even though he was a well-known terrorist, his death was not celebrated with rejoicing in Israel. Jewish tradition values human life.

The Jewish principle of redeeming the captive is more difficult in today’s world. For example, today we know—and Israel has experienced this—if terrorists are released they go home to plan more attacks.

Rabbi bat Joseph, making reference to the value of a captive, cited Mishnah Gittin 4:6: “Captives may not be ransomed for more than their value, for the sake of social order.”

When a person is taken captive, it is prominent in the media. Sometimes prisoners have been exchanged in Israel for dead bodies. Israel as a country is divided on these exchanges—do they or do they not encourage more kidnapping? What is the price for doing something and for doing nothing? What is a reasonable price to pay for ransom? There are no easy answers according to Rabbi bat Joseph.

When ISIL is defeated, Jewish tradition says that we will not dance on the enemy’s grave.

Following Rabbi bat Joseph’s talk, there were several questions.

On the matter of a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians, Rabbi bat Joseph said she thinks the two-state solution is the right one and will eventually bring peace. She also stated that Israel is most likely going to end up abandoning some of the settlements, since they will be part of the Palestinian state.

When peace finally comes, Rabbi bat Joseph believes that economically both Israel and Palestine will rely on each other in a similar way that Canada and the United States do now. She also noted that a similar thing happened between Germany and Israel. Today both countries are on reasonably good terms with one another economically and politically.

Book Review: “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes”

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“We Are Going to Pick Potatoes” Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story

Author: Irene Levin Berman

Publisher: Hamilton Books A member of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2010

185 pages, ISBN 978-0-7618-5011-3, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The author, Irene Levin Berman was born in Norway to Jewish parents, and her grandparents on both sides of the family immigrated to Norway from Eastern Europe—mainly Poland and Lithuania.

   The book has its beginnings in the author’s quest for her identity and realization that she too was a Holocaust survivor.

   Each of the chapter titles orient readers to the themes addressed and the sense of the work’s flow and continuity. The titles are as follows: Acknowledgments—5 pages in length; Introduction: Why Norway Wasn’t Too Small (i.e. as a country with only about 1,500 to 2,000 Jews, and about 771 perished in the Nazi death camps. Some mistakenly thought the Nazis would not be interested in rounding up, arresting and deporting them to the concentration camps. The author also emphatically makes the case that even though 771 Norwegian Jews died in the Holocaust their lives were equally as valuable and important as the millions of others who also perished during World War II—one should not employ numbers to try and minimize what was done by the perpetrators, and the long-term repercussions for their surviving loved ones); 1 The Escape; 2 Refugees in Exile; 3 Those Who Came First – The Levin Family; 4 Those Who Came First – The Selikowitz Family; 5 The Family That ‘Disappeared’; 6 War and Holocaust; 7 The Silence; 8 Return from Exile; 9 Learning How To Be a Norwegian Jew; 10 Marrying a Jew; 11 Life in America; 12 The Myth about the Danish King (according to the author, he did not wear the Star of David armband in public); 13 Identity; 14 The Journey into the Past. In addition to the text, it includes several photographs—mainly of family members; as well as the Selikowitz and Levin family trees.

   For this reader, the chapter addressing the author family’s escape into Sweden, thanks to the assistance of the Norwegian underground resistance is very dramatic. The family escaped in the nick of time on November 25, 1942; the day before the Gestapo began to make mass arrests on November 26. Those Jews who were not able to leave prior to that day were all eventually deported to the concentration camps.

   In Norway, unlike Denmark who did not resist the Nazis; according to Levin Berman the nation’s police assisted the Nazis in arresting the Jews. Of course the Norwegian Jews felt betrayed by their own police for such horrendous action having tragic consequences. Levin Berman states that she was aware of only one police officer who refused to obey the Nazi order and he was subsequently shot for his defiance. The author also suggests that the situation was somewhat different in Denmark than in Norway—since in the former nation the Danes had information more in advance on the Nazi’s intentions concerning the Jews and therefore they had more time to assist them in fleeing to Sweden than did the Norwegians.

   Much of this volume is focussed on the author’s coming to terms with her family history and identity. She sees herself as having three identities inside one person. She is proud of being born in Norway and appreciates many of the cultural traditions and values of the Norwegian people—including the celebration of Constitution Day on the 17 of May, and the reading, study, translating and attending the plays of Henrik Ibsen. She is also very proud of her Jewish heritage and ancestors who were hard working and devout people; most of them ran well-respected businesses and also contributed to community organisations—including the synagogue in Oslo. Levin Berman chose to marry a Jew and to raise their children in the Jewish faith. However, she married an American Jew and by now has lived most of her adult life in America—therefore she has adjusted to the customs of American life, including the celebration of the 4 of July and Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, she made many trips back to Norway for lengthy periods of time to both vacation and provide care and support for her family there.

   In this volume, Levin Berman also provides bits and pieces of the history of the Jews in Norway. For example, Jews immigrated to Norway later than in Sweden and Denmark. It was only in 1851 that they were able to immigrate to Norway; after the “Jewish clause” in Article 2 of the Constitution was repealed. Norwegian poet, Henrik Wergeland was one of the most influential advocates campaigning to have the “Jewish clause” repealed.

   Most of the Jews in Norway settled in Oslo and Trondheim; with a few scattered in other Norwegian communities. The author’s paternal grandparents, Leib and Henriette Levin, settled in Rjukan, a small town in the middle of Norway, in Telemark county. Here grandfather was given the honour of delivering the keynote speech on the Norwegian Constitution Day of 17 May, 1914. One of his pivotal sentences in that speech reflects how Leib Levin understood his identity: “Om vi ere jøder i religion hindrer de oss ikke av vaere nordmaend i nation” (If we are Jews by religion, this does not prevent us from being Norwegian by nation). (p. 29)

   The process of this volume coming to birth in its English version is interesting. In 2008, the book was published in Norwegian, in Norway as “Vi skal plukke poteter,” Flukten fra Holocaust. (“We are going to pick potatoes,” the Escape from the Holocaust). However, the author, being gifted and trained in linguistics; and wanting to tell the story in America; undertook the task of translating her work into English.

   The phrase, “We are going to pick potatoes,” was a euphemism to tell others they were fleeing from the Nazis into neutral Sweden to live in exile until after the war. One of the conditions of being accepted in Sweden was that the Norwegian immigrants were required to find work in Sweden as soon as possible. Levin Berman’s Far (father) was able to do some very significant social work in settling the Norwegian Jewish refugees.

   Ultimately, I think it is Irene Levin Berman’s passion to tell this untold story of Norway’s Jews and the Holocaust that will surely prove beneficial to those living in the present age and for generations to come—for to honour those who perished in the Holocaust is to remember them.

   I encourage readers to visit the following website for more information concerning the book and the author here.

Book Review – A Heart Of Many Rooms

A Heart Of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism

Author: David Hartman Publisher: Jewish Light Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont

296 pages, + Preface, Introduction and Index

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Rabbi and Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem—Dr. Hartman is a renowned philosopher, theologian, rabbi and social activist. His A Heart Of Many Rooms is a worthwhile read for both Jewish and Christian scholars.

The intention of this volume is to build “educational bridges between different sectors of the population in Israel and throughout the Jewish world.” (p. xiv) So the audience addressed by Dr. Hartman is the entire Jewish world in all of its diversity; as well as non-Jews interested in a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith. He therefore is an advocate of the rabbinic teaching, “Beloved are all human beings created in the image of God.” (p. xvi)

Dr. Hartman divided the volume into for parts: Part I “Family And Mitzvah Within An Interpretive Tradition,” Part II “Educating Toward Inclusiveness,” Part III “Celebrating Religious Diversity,” and Part IV “Religious Perspectives On The Future Of Israel.” Each part contains two or more essays/chapters.

In every essay/chapter, the author demonstrates his vast knowledge and insights into Jewish history and tradition. A Maimonides scholar, following his teacher’s method; he endeavours to communicate to both the Jewish and non-Jewish world the subject matter in as clear, intelligent manner as possible. Dr. Hartman is indeed a gifted teacher and writer—descending to the intellectual depths of his subject matter and ascending to the inspirational heights while captivated by the divine truths of the Torah. As a creative thinker, he has the gift of sharing discoveries that others may very well overlook.

For example, in response to the old, stereotypical Christian critique that Judaism is “pharisaic legalism,” obsessed with a merciless keeping of the letter of the law; Dr. Hartman writes: “In receiving mitzvot, we experience joy in knowing that God accepts human beings in their limitations and believes in their capacities to shoulder responsibility. In fulfilling mitzvot, we experience joy in performing mitzvot for their own sake (li-shma). Just as there is joy in our acceptance by God, there is joy in our acceptance of God and of the mitzvot for their own sakes. Divine acceptance empowers human acceptance in the form of our serving God with joy.” (p. 46)

As an educator, the author paddled against the stream by inverting the rabbinic premise that study is greater than practice because study leads to and informs practice. Hartman cites an example of students losing things at school. From that experience educators were able to teach about what the Torah (Deut 22:1-3) had to say about the importance of returning what is lost. As an educator, Hartman contends: “In contrast to Heschel, my position is that you don’t begin with “my God” but with “the God of my father.” The crucial issue in Jewish education is not whether you can sense the living presence of God but whether you feel a personal, existential identification with the tradition. The challenge of the Jewish educator is to create a living reality where students feel connected to what they study.” (p. 126)

Dr. Hartman’s scholarship shines in his chapter on comparing the different attitudes concerning Christianity of three Jewish thinkers: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz. The latter two were opposed to Jewish-Christian dialogue; both believing that the two faiths had little in common. Heschel, on the other hand, favoured and promoted Jewish-Christian dialogue; seeing enough common ground for it in both traditions. Heschel credited Christianity with giving Jews access to the works of Philo, Ibn Gabirol, Josephus, and others. “Heschel understood that Christianity had created a religious universe in which Judaism could flourish.” (p. 186)

When reflecting on contemporary Israel, Dr. Hartman asks: “Should Auschwitz or Sinai be the orienting category that shapes our understanding of the rebirth of the State of Israel?” (p. 260) His answer is likely to stir some controversy and perhaps even be offensive to some Jews: “I believe it is destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish identity. It is pointless and often vulgar to argue that the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history.” (p. 261) Moreover, the author critiques those political leaders who operate with the principle that no one can judge the Jewish people after what they have gone through in the Holocaust. “In so doing, they—i.e. political leaders who hold to this principle—violate a basic Talmudic principle: you may not judge others if you refuse to be judged yourself.” (p. 261)

According to Dr. Hartman, it is the Sinai covenant that defines Israel as a State—both morally and politically. “The rebirth of Israel can be viewed as a potential return to the fullness of the Sinai covenant—to Judaism as a way of life. We must therefore define who we are by what we do, not by any obsession with the long and noble history of Jewish suffering.” (p. 263)

Reading Dr. Hartman’s work was, for this reviewer, like being present in the same room and participating in a dialogue with the author and several other eminent Jewish scholars. What a privilege! Thank you Dr. Hartman.

Happy Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah

I’ve always been curious about the many different ways in which Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, faith, and hope is spelled. If there are any Jewish readers who know the answer to the many spelling variations, could you please fill us in on that history? My guess is that the variations may reflect the diverse Jewish communities around the globe as well as the differing branches of Judaism. At any rate, Bonnie K. Goodman has a very informative post on her blog, profiling current news about Hanukkah 2009 as well as the history of the festival. You can read about it here. Happy Hanukkah (or is it Chanukah? Et al) to all of my Jewish readers!

Elie Wiesel on forgiveness

Elie Wiesel on Forgiveness, just before his 80th birthday at a Jewish Values Network Fundraiser on 10/05/2008 at the Steinhardt Estate in NY.

Elie Wiesel is one of the 3 most important people in the world today, along with Nelson Mandela, and Dalai Lama, according to Rabbi Shumuley Boteach.

I always appreciate the message of Elie Wiesel; he is a person of exceptional depth and authenticity. Here are a few brief notes I jotted down while watching this video.

We ask God to forgive us. But God needs some of us to forgive him. I believe in questions more than answers. As a child he was never asked by his mother: “Did you have a good answer in school today?” Rather, she asked me, “Did you have a good question today in school?” In our tradition, what we try to show is a question, and questing. A philosopher once said: “Always seek truth, but beware of the one who found it.” Death is the question of everything—why did God create everything so it will die? Why create us humans because we shall die? Even though we die, we have to live, and therefore we need to do something with our lives.

Charity saves you from dying while you are alive. Charity is compassion for those who need you—they have no basic necessities, of even no hope. Our purpose is to give them these things; otherwise we’re not fully human.

Importance of asking for forgiveness from the person that one has hurt/sinned against. How long do we go back? Should we Jews have to forgive the Egyptians for the pyramids we built? Children of assassins and not assassins of children—problem of collective guilt, Wiesel does not believe in collective guilt. Each person must forgive the person who sinned against them directly; no one else can do that.

Jewish values, concepts, philosophies: Mine is the more Jewish is a Jew, the more universal one is. I cannot believe the Jewish person, or Jewish religion is superior to any other person or religion. I don’t like fanatics who tell me I don’t have the right to believe what I believe.

The Dalai Lama asked Wiesel to teach him the art of survival because the former said his people will need to learn it as it will likely be some time before they gain any kind of independence or autonomy for their homeland of Tibet and the exiles shall be safe to return. We can teach the non-Jew, the Muslim, Christian, and others if we live authentic Jewish lives.

Question time: I believe in memory. I don’t believe in hatred, anger yes. Memory, learn from it, say: “I don’t want my past to become someone else’s future.”

Question: Is Wiesel optimistic about the Jewish future? Yes, he said. Memory transcends future. Never before now have there been so many courses, books, etc., on the Holocaust. So I am optimistic about our people, that we shall survive.

Question of Jewish view of forgiveness, when do you forgive? Jewish law requires an individual to forgive their perpetrator, only if the latter asks for it. Wiesel told the story of a German government leader—I think it was Chancellor Kohl—who, after listening to Wiesel’s view on forgiveness, travelled to Israel and publicly in the Knesset asked for forgiveness from the Jewish people.

May God continue to grant health and blessings to his faithful servant, Elie Wiesel.