by Rabbi David Zaslow
Spring, 2002

In the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) there are three kinds of mitzvot (commandments from God). The first are called mishpatim or “judgments.” These are the logical, universal, moral commandments discovered by all peoples in all spiritual traditions. Honor your mother and father, do not murder, do not steal, love your neighbor as yourself – all fall into this category of logical, ethical commandments. These commandments can also be thought of as what Thomas Jefferson thought of as “natural law,” or the Torah which is universally discovered by observing the most efficient systems within nature and human society.

Over time all cultures, and religions come to the same conclusion that murder and stealing are negative, counter-productive, and therefore prohibited behaviors. In Judaism gossip can be deemed to be a metaphorical form of murder if the words “kill” someone’s reputation. Good people of all faiths, I am sure, would agree that murder and stealing in their common or metaphorical forms are against their will of the Divine.

The second category of mitzvot are eidot, or “memorial rituals.” For example, in the Torah God commands the Jewish people to make a seder (festive meal) in the springtime to commemorate the exodus from Egypt. The Festival of Passover is a family oriented retelling of the exodus story. During the holiday of Purim the Jewish people retell the story of Queen Esther. During the holiday of Hanukkah the story of the miracle of the light is retold. In other words, these not universal commandments, but strictly tribal reenactments to help those who are Jewish remember their history.

Certainly there are moral and ethical elements to these memorial rituals. For example, on Passover week learn about the importance of physical freedom; on Hanukkah we learn about the necessity of religious freedom. But these ethical teachings are a result of performing the memorial rituals. Every culture, religion, and society creates its own unique memorial rituals based upon local and cultural history.

The third category, under which britt milah (the covenant of circumcision) falls, is the most mysterious. This category is called hukkim which we translate as “statutes.” These include kosher dietary laws and circumcision. What are they for? There is no clear answer. Why do we do them? There is no clear answer. The best we can do is rationalize. We do these mitzvot to show our love for God. We call it the practice of bittul hanefesh, (lit. “negation of the soul”) to put the rational mind aside so that the heart and soul might open.

There are be clear and precise reasons for this kind of mitzvah (commandment). They can be studied, debated, and rationalized but no one can claim to be able to explain it them logically as one can explain the mishpatim (judgments) and eidot (memorial rituals).

Britt Milah

The ancient rite begins with God’s desire to make a covenant with it the patriarch Abraham. The token, or sign, of this pact is the willingness of Abraham to make a sacrifice. In the words of the Torah, Genesis 17:10-11, “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.”

A modern person might ask, “Why do we take this commandment literally? Why not invent a ceremony that would satisfy our modern sensibilities?” Interestingly, the Torah written 3,300 years ago seems to anticipate our need for reason, or at least an answer to the question, what is the inner meaning of circumcision? In Deuteronomy 30:6 the Torah says, “And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul…”

It almost seems as if God is trying to explain the profound impact of the ritual as means of increasing compassion and empathy. In other words, the intent of the ritual is much more profound than just the technical procedure of removing the foreskin. In abstaining from non-kosher foods we may not need a clear reason, but must we cause needless pain to our sons with such a ancient ritual?

Jewish tradition says, “Yes.” When administered sensitively the britt ceremony is the most incredible father/son bonding experience. It is not a means, as some critics have suggested, of reproducing patriarchy, male privilege and entitlement. On the contrary, it seems to be a means of reproducing male love and compassion. Our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters experience the awesome spiritual bonding power of blood every month. Men have this opportunity only during circumcision.

There is nothing moral or immoral about the choices we make about circumcision. This is not a moral mitzvah! It is a spiritual practice that is purposely not based on logic. The ritual is not necessarily about aesthetics, good medicine, or even the power of tradition.

Father/Son Bonding

The britt can be a once in a lifetime chance for the souls of father and son to bond in the deepest way imaginable. As a rabbi, this is the intention that I bring into the rite. I suggest to the fathers that they consider holding the hands of their sons during the circumcision, and to ask God to bless their sons with love, peace, health, and joy. I tell the fathers not to deny that there will be some pain, and to see themselves carrying that pain for their sons.

I sometimes teach the fathers the story of Abraham binding his son on the alter and ask them to practice the kind of trust in God that Abraham had in that awesome moment. I suggest that they imagine the britt milah ceremony as a reenactment of that event. I encourage the dads to make contact with their own emotions and to let the tears come on behalf of their sons, and for all the pain their sons will experience in their lives. I encourage the dads to cry and to let those tears be a kind of prayer or offering for all children. This is the essence, I believe, of making a covenant, a spiritual pact with the Holy One.

A Personal Story

In 1984 our son Ari had a beautiful, natural, home birth. Our daughter Rachel was born in the same bed and into the same loving environment three years earlier. My wife Devorah and I were resolute about our decision not to circumcise our son. We felt like pioneers braving the obstacles of both family and Jewish tradition. We reasoned that if we made such an effort to create a loving welcome into the world, how could we inflict unnecessary pain upon this beautiful soul just because of what seemed to be an archaic tradition?

How we all change! In 1988 I had a spiritual awakening. I was forty-years-old when I “heard the call,” and soon I was on the path to becoming a rabbi. At first my personal spiritual practices and study were not a contradiction to having an uncircumcised son. Afterall, my original reasoning against the ritual still seemed true.

But little by little something inside me was changing. Not a sense of returning to tradition. Not a sense of tribal loyalty. Not even a sense that our decision not to circumcise was a mistake. But a sense that there is a difference between a circumcision and a britt. A britt is a covenant or partnership with the Divine. I was experiencing this covenant myself firsthand. I no longer saw Jewish rituals as symbolic. They were, when conducted properly, not symbols but part of a spiritual technology for covenenting with God.

Shabbat candlelighting was no longer a quaint representation of an ancient fire ritual. The wine was not a symbol but an actuality. Candles and wine were signals to G-d that our family was ready for Sabbath. And when we sang the Friday evening song to welcome angels into our home it wasn’t because it was symbolic. We sang it because we were actually welcoming real angels. We blessed our children because we were connecting the souls of our children to Shechinah (the feminine name for the Divine Presence of God).

We arranged for Ari’s belated circumcision when he was six-years old. My change of mind was strictly spiritual. I believed that G-d’s covenant was a real energy pact. I believed that Elijah was an animate energy force, and that his chair at a circumcision was not just symbolic. And if there was a psychological benefit for Ari to have his penis look like mine, then that would be an added benefit.

The next morning, while lying on the living room floor together I told my son, my only son, that had I done this when he was eight days old there would have hardly been any pain. I told him that I didn’t do it then because I didn’t want to cause him any pain. I asked his forgiveness for causing him so much pain now.

His answer still gives me shivers, “Of course I forgive you Daddy. But why didn’t you do it then? I wanted you to do it when I was eight days old!” My mind went numb. I thought, “What did he mean by ‘I wanted you to do it then?’ Dare I ask?” With tears streaming down both our cheeks we sat together in silence. Six years late, but the father/son bonding experience was extraordinary.

Selected in the anthology “Best Jewish Writing of 2002.” Originally published in Tikkun Magazine, Spring 2002.

Dec 31 1999

Darkness and Light

by Rabbi David Zaslow
December, 1999
In Isaiah 45:7 the prophet utters the words he hears from Hashem, “I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, Hashem, make these….” Isaiah then continues with his own words, “Woe unto him that strives with his Maker….Shall the clay say to him that fashions it, “What are you making?”

These passages are speaking to the riddle of good and evil. How can God who desires good permit evil to exist? The answer is resolved (sort of resolved) in our tradition with the idea that the riddle is really a paradox; something we simply have to live with, struggle with, and ultimately permit to be an unresolved mystery. Unsatisfying, isn’t it? When we see good people suffer and evil people thrive, something arises in me that just wants to “strive with my Maker.” But “woe unto me” when I do. I get myself deeper into despair over all the unnecessary suffering in the world.

Yet, here’s another paradox: Every time I tempt the “woe unto me” by “striving with my Maker” I use the very force of evil that Isaiah warns us about, and I seem to come out a level higher. It’s as if God is tempting me NOT to take these words too literally, but to strive like Abraham does on behalf of Sodom, or as Moses does on behalf of Israel.

In fact, our tradition applauds using the forces of rebellion, the forces of seeming independence from God, in order to trump God’s hand. And every time this is done in the name of goodness and humanity, God folds the cards and declares we’ve won. Freud contended with God against the lack of compassion for the mentally ill. Jonas Salk contended with God against polio. The Jewish people contended with God after the Holocaust and forced Great Britain’s hand for an independent Israel. And Einstein contended with God against the mysteries of the universe itself.

Martin Buber taught that evil is simply the lowest rung of goodness. He taught that out of evil itself can come great good. He invited us to take a look at our own lives. Does goodness come by itself? No, it comes in contrast to our mistakes, our sins. When we err and see it for what it is, the good that comes out of it is even greater than the good that exists where there was no prior sin. Does this justify the sin? Buber says no. But we will make mistakes. And what matters is what we do with them. Sin, transformed, creates an extraordinary light. How the world deals with our relationship to the earth; how nations at war deal with their enemies; how we deal with each other – striving in these areas may catapult humanity into the greatest renaissance of peace ever known.

A millennium of peace, the messianic age– a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. God continues to tell Isaiah what will someday happen: “Drop down you heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth open and let them bring forth salvation. And let righteousness spring up together.”

During the Hanukkah season we light candles, not curse the darkness. During the darkest time of the year we tell not only stories of good triumphing over evil, but stories of evil itself transforming. Our tradition teaches us that the darkest time of the year is not a time to make confessions and resolutions for a new year. That work is done during equinox, not solstice. The darkest days are days for going deeply inside ourselves and being thankful for all the transformations that have occurred; celebrating how our past negative traits have been used for good in our lives when we were willing to face the shadow, own it, repair the damage, and then move on.

May the new year, and the new millennium, bring God’s promise of blessing and joy to each of us. May we each have the courage to light the menorah next week with the knowledge that only because of the darkness can we even appreciate the light. Only because of our suffering can we appreciate our joys. Only because of our mistakes can we appreciate our transformations.

As we enter a new era, the mystery remains. Good people are still suffering. Nations are still at war with each other over things as trite as land, power, and material wealth. And I’m going to spend Hanukkah striving with my Maker. How? By loving my neighbor as myself just a little bit more. By loving my incredible wife and children even more. By lighting the candles each night and meditating on their meaning.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

How many of us are saddened that in our childhoods we learned the words to our Jewish prayers, but we rarely knew what we were saying? And today how many of us feel left out of services because we simply can’t read the Hebrew words quickly enough, or at all? Early in our Jewish educations we learn to pronounce the Divine Name as Adonai. In these times, when talking about the Lord many Jews prefer to use gender neutral names like Hashem (which literally means “The Name”), the Eternal, or the Holy One. The ineffable Name of God is called the Tetragrammaton (the Four Letter Name) and contains both masculine and feminine attributes of the Holy One. It is sometimes mistransliterated as “Jehovah” and translated in the masculine as “Lord.” The Holy Name is spelled with the Hebrew letters yod, hey, vav, and hey. Yet very few of us have ever been taught the inner meaning of this Name in relation to the structure of our services. Further, what does it mean when we repeatedly read in the siddur about God’s Name alone being exalted and praised?

The kabbalists of the sixteenth-century who lived in Safed used the image of Jacob’s ladder to describe the order of prayers in the siddur. Further, they helped us identify the psycho-spiritual reasons for this order, and it is a joyous endeavor to learn about it. They taught that each of the four letters of God’s ineffable Name represent the four rungs of life: body, emotion, intellect, and spirit. In turn, the order of prayers in the siddur follow these organic levels, and the petitioner is like one who climbs a ladder from earth to heaven. All siddurim follow a very similar pattern and order of prayers. Siddurim also include the innovations of these same kabbalists who created the Kaballat Shabbat and the Havdallah services, and who are responsible for some of the most beautiful liturgy in the siddur.

In the weekday morning service, for example, we wake up and begin with the rung of prayers concerning the body known as the B’rachot HaShachar, thanking the Holy One for permitting us to awaken, and for the proper functioning of our various body parts, including breath. This represents the lower hey of the Name representing the bodily level of life. Next, we move from acknowledgment to emotion-filled praise. This second rung in the service is known as the P’sukei D’Zimra, and many of the psalms are located there. This section represents the vav in Hashem’s Name and represents the emotional level of life. The third rung of the service is the Kriat Shema, which begins with the Barachu and continues with the blessings surrounding the Shema. On this level we move from praise to declaration. When the Shema is recited we declare that Adonai, whose Name mirrors the four levels of our lives, is an indivisible unity. This third section stands for the upper hey representing the intellect.

The fourth rung in the service is called by several names: the Amidah, Shemonah Esray, T’fillah, or just simply the Prayer. Our rabbis teach that if we climb the first three rungs of the ladder with concentration and joy we now can enter the gates where we can truly pray (i.e. ask the Creator to attend to our personal needs as sentient beings). This fourth rung corresponds to the yod of the Divine Name and represents soul level of life.

Through an inspired series of 18 benedictions we can actually feel what has been described as oneness or cleaving (d’vaykut) to the Holy One. A careful study of each level of the service reveals an exquisite internal four-rung ladder within each individual rung. In fact, each major prayer within each rung contains its own mini four-rung ladder. The effect of this knowledge during prayer can be kaleidoscopic, and is an emotionally thrilling experience. Prayer then becomes like a journey inside of a crystal, only this crystal is the essence of God’s own Being in whose image we are continually being created.

The image of Jacob’s ladder is not the only metaphor that has been used to describe the deep infrastructure of the prayerbook. In his Meta Siddur, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank writes, “The dynamic metaphor of climbing a ladder conveys that the davvenen is intended to facilitate a symphony of prayer states. Another possible metaphor (considered by Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and that I heard from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) is that of entering the Temple, visiting the Holy of Holies, and exiting the Temple. One may, nowadays, consider the recapitulation of the stages of evolution. I like to imagine blending all three metaphors: as one ascends the rungs of the ladder and enters ever deeper into the Temple, one finds oneself changing into a more and more evolved, complicated being.”

The relationship between the petitioner and the Holy One is traditionally compared to that of a parent and child, or between King and servant. Our sages ask us to think of the prayer service in the same way we think of a child needing something from his or her parent. The clever child doesn’t just ask for what he or she needs. First the child acknowledges how good it is to be alive, and to be in such a wonderfully designed body (Birkat HaShachar). Next, the child lavishes praises upon the father or mother (P’sukei D’Zimra). The loving parent now suspects that the child wants something, but is deeply flattered since the child is so sincere. Secretly, the parent wants the child to have what he or she needs, but also realizes how important it is for the child’s inner development to go through this process.

The child then makes the ultimate declaration that his or her parent is the only father or mother he will ever have (K’riat Shema). The father or mother joyously and humorously asks, “Okay, so what do you want? How much is it going to cost?” This, of course, invites the child to be direct in his or her petition. The child feels so at one with the parent, and the parent feels so at one with the child, that the asking and the receiving becomes the natural expression of their deep love for one another. So, it is with us as petitioners before the Living God. When we finally reach the point of asking (in the Amidah) our sages suggest that we should sincerely feel that we are as deeply connected to our Heavenly Father as we are our earthly parents.

Today, even as less masculine or hierarchical comparisons are being explored, the four-level infrastructure of the prayer service itself remains unchallenged. As a ladder for entry into the Heavenly realm each rung, and the rungs within each rung, have organic function. The rote recitation of prayers with congregants standing and sitting like actors taking cues is not what the sages of the Talmud ever expected from us as we talk to the Creator of the Universe. Prayer, they all taught, must have intention, or kavannah. The words must be said slowly enough to be both understood and felt, and may even be said in the vernacular if that makes comprehension easier.

From the introduction to “Ivdu et Hashem b’Simcha” a prayerbook for Renewal edited by Rabbi David Zaslow (shalomrav@aol.com)

Coming soon– Reimagining Exodus: A Story of Freedom

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