GOLF DAY, FILM NIGHT AND FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER WITH SPECIAL GUEST
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Question of the Week:
We had a baby boy and we are very excited. But we are still undecided about the Bris. I have issues with it. I am aware of the spiritual significance of the circumcision, but I have much more practical concerns:
1) Is it not barbaric to put my baby through the pain of a medically unnecessary operation?
2) He was born uncircumcised, why should I mess with his natural state?
3) My son has no say in this, and can never reverse it. Shouldn't I let him choose later on in life if he wants this done to him?
Do you have any rational answers?
Imagine the following scenario. Your baby is born, healthy and well. But there's something unusual. He has six fingers on each hand. An extra little growth protrudes right next to each pinkie.
What would you do about it? Have the extra fingers surgically removed? Or leave them? After all, he was born that way. And he can live with twelve fingers. Maybe the child should be allowed to choose whether or not he wants his extra fingers later in life. Can you think of anything more barbaric than chopping someone's fingers off?
And yet I suspect you would do what most parents have done in such circumstances. Better remove the extra fingers now, when it is relatively painless and quick to heal, than subject the child to feeling like an anomaly in his future life. He has no use for them anyway, and would later resent the fact that his parents didn't remove them for him.
And so, kind and loving parents will unflinchingly put their babies under the surgeon's knife. The short term pain is worth it to avoid any long term discomfort. All other concerns would quickly dissolve. What is called barbaric in one context is quite humane in another.
If this logic works for removing extra fingers, a purely cosmetic operation, how much more should it work in favour of the infinitely more meaningful act of circumcision. I am not suggesting that being uncircumcised is the same as being twelve-fingered. But for a Jewish child there are several similarities.
An uncircumcised Jew often feels like an outsider among his own people. He will always be a Jew, but may come to feel ambivalent about it, knowing that to actively embrace his Jewishness entails undergoing an operation - one that is minor at eight days old, but quite a bit more daunting in adulthood. I have attended adult circumcisions, and it is inspiring when someone makes that choice. The actual procedure is not such a big deal. But the decision to go through with it is.
So putting all spiritual considerations aside, from a purely practical perspective, here's the equation. Leave your son uncircumcised, and you leave him with a psychological barrier to exploring his own identity. Give your son a Bris, and he loses nothing more than a bit of skin. But he gains immediate entry into the four thousand year old covenant of Abraham. That is a gift you will never regret giving.
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Question of the Week:
I was born and raised Catholic but left it as a teenager, and since I married a Jewish man I have adopted many Jewish customs. My husband is from an observant family but no longer identifies with the Jewish community. I hope this gives you some background. Now for my question:
We purchased a new dog last week from our local breeder. I love Jewish biblical names and would like to name the dog "Israel". My husband strongly objects on the grounds that his great-grandfather was a rabbi, and his name was Israel. He has compared this to him wanting to name the dog John Paul after the last pope. I told him that it wouldn't bother me at all to name the dog after the pope, I just like the name Israel.
My point is that my husband is not religious and is estranged from his family. He has had nothing to do with Judaism for more than 30 years now so I can't see why he objects to the name so much.
I'm sure you get these questions all the time.
Do you have any advice for me?
Jewishness is a funny thing. It is very hard for others to understand a Jew's connection to their identity. A Jew may be estranged from his religion for many years, but never does he lose his Jewish spark. The harshest insult is to suggest to an unaffiliated Jew that he is no longer Jewish. It isn't true, and he knows it.
There may be all kinds of reasons why your husband left Judaism, but he will never leave his Jewishness. Below the layers of hurt, anger, resentment or doubt, there is a powerful Jewish heart beating. He may have experienced a bad family life, but his family will always be his family. In a similar way, the Jewish people will always be his people, an extended family. In some ways, our bond with the Jewish people is even deeper than a family bond. It is the essence of our being.
You have good intentions in wanting to give a Jewish name to your dog. But be aware that you are touching the feelings that lie at the deepest core of your husband's soul, a part of him you may never be able to understand. You feel that you are honouring Judaism by naming the dog "Israel"; he feels it is a disgrace to his Jewish heritage. For you, the issue is labeling a dog. For him, it is a far more pressing issue: it is labeling his own soul.
Your husband can't call the dog Israel, because that's his name. There is a tag around your husband's soul, that he will never remove, and it says, "Israel".
I visit my 92 year old mother every day in her old age home, and every day I look around at the seniors there and ask myself the same question, why does G-d leave these old people to die without dignity? Every one of them needs either a diaper change, someone to feed them, wash them, or do everything for them. I have faith, but this thing really makes me angry. Why can't they die with dignity?
It is so hard to see a loved one fade after living a vibrant and active life. How we approach this painful stage will depend on our perspective. And the Jewish perspective on the end of life differs greatly to modern secular thinking. To approach life and death with faith, we need to make sure we have that perspective very clear.
It often happens that foreign, secular ideas creep into the minds of even those who have faith. Usually, the way these concepts infiltrate is via catch phrases and clichés. First they enter our vocabulary, then they become a part of our mentality.
One example is "dying with dignity."
That phrase is poison. It originates in the movement promoting euthanasia. This is a phrase that deserves to die.
True dignity comes from the soul, from living a life of goodness and holiness and meaning. Our body is a vehicle for that mission to be achieved. But the body is not our real self, and not our source of dignity.
At the end of a good and purposeful life, the body may be frail and weak, but the soul is as bright as ever, having accomplished its mission. If people have to do some unpleasant jobs to bring comfort to that body in its final years, it should be seen as an honour. There is no greater dignity than to serve another.
I am not belittling the pain of seeing a loved one suffer. And I am not saying that the body's deterioration is easy to face. I am saying that a person's dignity comes from their soul and their moral achievements. That is living with dignity. Death is never dignified.
We end our life in the same way we started it, dependent on the love of others. Your mother is blessed to spend her final days in good care, surrounded by those who love her. That is a most dignified departure from this world to the next.
Nefesh will be hosting academic and activist Rabbi Shimon Cowen, son of former Australian Governor General Sir Zelman Cowen. Rabbi Cowen will speak at a Friday night dinner on February 21.
On Sunday February 23 we will show a documentary entitled Viktor and I on the life and work of the father of logotherapy and Holocaust survivor Dr Viktor Frankl. The film will be followed by a discussion led by Rabbi Cowen on the compatibility of Torah and logotherapy.
Bookings for both events will open next week and spaces are limited, so diarise it now!
NO KIDS PROGRAM this week and next, back on in three weeks
Question of the Week:
I feel that the Jewish life is too demanding. How are we expected to pray every day, study Torah every day, keep the Shabbos and festivals, and at the same time live a normal life? My week is packed with work, family commitments, fitness and a little socialising and time to relax. On top of that I should include religion? There are only so many hours in the day. G-d doesn't want me to burn out, does He?
There was once a rabbi teaching a classroom full of students. He started his lesson by saying, "My dear students, today is our last class together before you graduate. For this special occasion I am going to do something different. I am going to teach you the secret of a good cholent."
The students were aghast. Cholent, the traditional Shabbos stew, is a classic of Jewish cooking, but hardly a profound subject for a rabbi to teach his students for their final lesson.
The rabbi took out a crockpot and filled it to the brim with potatoes. He then turned to his students and asked, "Tell me, now that I have filled the pot with potatoes - is the pot full?"
"Yes," his students replied, confused by the simplicity of the question, for there was no way to fit in any more potatoes into the pot.
With a smile the rabbi took out a bag of beans and poured it into the pot, and the beans managed to slip between the spaces among the potatoes. "Ok," said the rabbi, "now is the pot full?" Looking into the pot the students agreed that it was indeed full.
Without missing a beat the rabbi took out a bag of barley and poured it into the pot. The small kernels meandered effortlessly between the cracks and crevices among the potatoes and beans.
"Now it's full," said the students.
"Really?" said the rabbi, taking out his collection of spices. He then began shaking generous amounts of salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder all over the pot. The students watched dumbfounded as the spices easily settled into what had seemed to be a completely full pot.
The rabbi, obviously enjoying himself, asked again, "Is it full yet?"
Without waiting for the answer, the rabbi produced a jug of water and proceeded to pour its contents into the pot. To the amazement of his students, he was able to empty the entire jug of water into the pot without a drop spilling over the sides.
"Alright, " said the rabbi, a look of satisfaction on his face. "Now it really is full, right?" The students all nodded in agreement. "Are you sure?" prodded the rabbi. "Are you absolutely certain that I can't fit anything more into this pot?" Suddenly unsure of themselves, the students looked at each other nervously and said, "Surely you can't put anything else into there!"
With drama and pathos, the rabbi raised a finger in the air, lowered it slowly and flicked a switch on the side of the pot, turning on the heating element lying beneath. "You see," said the rabbi triumphantly, "I just filled the pot with the most important ingredient of all - warmth. Without it, the pot may as well be empty."
The rabbi paused, and looked deeply into the eyes of his stunned students. "My children," he finally addressed them, "you are about to leave my class and go on to live busy lives. In the big world out there you will no longer have the luxury of studying holy texts all day. In time you will be consumed by the pressures of looking after a family and making a living. But always remember this: your material pursuits are just the potatoes and beans of life. Your spirituality, that is the warmth.
"Until the fire is turned on, the pot is full of disparate ingredients. It is warmth that unites them all into one single stew.
"If you don't maintain a spiritual connection, through praying every day, studying the holy books, and keeping focused on the true meaning of your lives, then you will end up as a cold cholent - very busy, very full, but completely empty. When you have lost touch with your soul, your family life will suffer, your career will be unfulfilling, you won't even be motivated to exercise.
"But if you keep the fire burning in your soul, if you stick to a daily schedule that nourishes the spirit, even if it is only for a few minutes a day, then those few minutes will bring warmth and inspiration to all your other activities. A spiritual connection imbues your entire life with meaning, keeps you anchored and directed, inspired and motivated. It permeates all you do with a sense of purpose, and makes you succeed."
"You may be wondering," continued the rabbi, "how will you have time for all this? How will you be able to juggle the demands of material life along with your spiritual development? You will find the answer by looking at the cholent. Though the pot seemed full of potatoes and beans, barley, spices and water, when I added the warmth it did not overflow. Never think that adding spirituality to your schedule will overburden you. On the contrary, it will bring everything else in your life together, because it will remind you why you do all these other things in the first place - you work in order to be able to live a life of meaning, you get married in order to bring out the best in yourself and your spouse, you have children in order to educate them in the ways of goodness, you keep fit in order to have the strength to fulfil your mission. Spirituality is the warmth that does not take up space, it creates more."
With a loving smile the rabbi concluded his farewell with words of wisdom that I think apply equally to you:
"You should never think that you are so busy that you can't afford to concentrate on your soul. The truth is, you can't afford not to. May G-d bless you, that each and every one of you should always be a warm pot of cholent."