Who will hear my Shma?

Who will hear my Shma?

When I was 12, I was taught at the history class at my primary school that some Polish surnames ending with 'ski’ are associated with a noble heritage. Excited, I came back home to ask my parents whether we also came from a noble family. My dad sighed and asked me to sit down in our living room. Subsequently, he told me and my twin brother that our real family name was not Krasniewski but Kirschenbaum, and that my grandparents changed their name to a Polish-sounding one due to anti-Semitism prevalent in post-war Poland. Moreover, my dad told me not to share the information about my Jewish heritage too openly with my classmates as he was afraid that I – just like him – might experience prejudice and exclusion. Unsurprisingly, after such an admonishment, I kept quiet about my Jewish roots at school. I was also hesitant to take part in the local Jewish community as its Orthodox character and dearth of youth activities did not seem particularly appealing. For that reason, I never got to celebrate my bar mitzvah in my early teens. It happened only much later, when the Polish Jewish community became more welcoming to young people and more open to pluralism. It was not an easy journey. It began with young people from my generation discovering their Jewish heritage and feeling, like me, drawn to Judaism but alienated by the community. Impatient, we started meeting privately to have Friday night dinners. With time, as our knowledge of Judaism and our spiritual needs grew, we also added Kabbalat Shabbat prayers to our Shabbat gatherings.  Afterwards, due to the support of  American benefactors, we were able to get our own premises where communal meals and prayers could be held. Finally, our fledgling community was able to employ a non-Orthodox rabbi, who was trained at HUC but had Polish ancestry. In this new, vibrant, egalitarian milieu I finally found the kind of Judaism that I could truly call my spiritual home. Having found it, in my early twenties, I finally got called up to the Torah for the first time. I was so inspired by this experience that I got involved in as many Jewish activities and projects as possible. By the end of my college years, I worked as a Jewish educator and, encouraged by the first rabbi who showed me the beauty of egalitarian, modern non-Orthodox Judaism, I applied to rabbinical school.

You might think now: Mati has just told us an interesting personal story, but how does it connect to this week’s parasha, Vayetchanan?

Well, the answer to this question is that Vayetchanan would have been my bar mitzvah portion, had I celebrated this ceremony just after my 13th birthday. Therefore, whenever I read it, I feel particularly committed to perpetuate the heritage of my ancestors, Polish Jews, to add the next link to this chain of tradition. It sometimes feels like a daunting task, as much of this heritage was forgotten or suppressed, just like Judaism in my family. When I am overwhelmed by this task, I make sure I find time to reread this week’s sidra. I usually look for Moses’ assurance given to the Israelites that the return from exile is possible, found in Devarim 4:29-30, where it is written,


But from there (from exile) you will seek the Eternal your God; and you shall find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul. In your distress, when all these things come upon you, in the end of days, you will return to the Lord your God, and listen to His voice; for the Eternal your God is a merciful God; He will not fail you, neither destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore unto them.

These words bring me comfort, as their chief promise is that an individual return to God and the rebirth of a community after its near destruction are possible, if one is fully invested in pursuing them actively.

But how does one return to God? How does one affirm their Jewish faith?

Our parasha provides us with a text which became a standard liturgical affirmation of the Jewish faith – the Shma: hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one.

Saying this verse aloud, we communicate to everyone who can hear our commitment to Judaism. Moreover, these words are addressed to the people of Israel, reminding us that one can only be Jewish in a community. However, they are also strongly related to family life. One is supposed to teach them to one’s offspring; many parents say them with their children just before going to bed.

As someone who has reclaimed my family’s Jewish heritage and as one of only a few rabbinical students from Poland, I am used to public affirmations of my Judaism, as many Jews outside of Poland do not expect to meet young Polish Jews. However, for a long time I did not feel emotionally connected to the domestic, intergenerational character of the Shma. I can see two reasons for it. Firstly, I did not learn it from my parents and grandparents, so for me it is not  associated  with fond childhood memories. Secondly, I don’t have any children yet, so I have not  experienced teaching the Shma to the next generation.

My attitude to the intergenerational aspect of the Shma changed last year when I studied different midrashim on the book of Deuteronomy. One of them associates the words of the Shma with the last meeting of Jacob with his sons. According to this Midrash, Jacob was afraid that his sons will go astray once he passes away. Thus, in order to reassure him that they are committed to his God, they addressed Jacob by his adopted name, Israel, saying the Shma: hear, o Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one.

This midrash taught me a very important lesson. It taught me that the Shma is not only about teaching Judaism to your children or affirming your belief in the present. On top of that, seen through the prism of this midrash, the Shma is also a way to connect with our ancestors from all generations, to tell them that in our life, which may be very different from their existence, Judaism is still present and important. In a way, saying the Shma is like a bar or bat mitzvah speech – it gives us an opportunity to acknowledge our family in all its complexity and to thank them for the heritage that they bestowed on us.

This new understanding of the Shma as a prayer that connects me to the past of my family, affirms my present faith and behooves me to ensure a Jewish future changed my relationship to parashat Vayetchanan. I used to read it with a tinge of sadness that I missed the opportunity to honour my family’s history at 13. Now, I know that, like the sons of Jacob in the Midrash, I am able to thank my ancestors and our common ancestor Jacob-Israel himself for my Judaism anytime I say the Shma. This Shabbat and next week, when you say the Shma, I encourage you all to think about those family members who taught you how to be Jewish: granddads who taught you a few words in Yiddish, grandmas who cooked the best Jewish food in town and left you the recipe, uncles who told you Jewish jokes, parents who made sure you went to your bar

or bat mitzvah class. I truly believe that, in a way that we can not fully understand, they will be there with you, saying the Shma together with you and all of Israel, from generations past, present, and future.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

The role of women in traditional Judaism. Reflection on parashat Pinchas.

The role of women in traditional Judaism. Reflection on parashat Pinchas.

The Torah portion for this week, apart from laws and other stories, contains also the one about daughters of Tzelafchad petition Moses that they be granted the portion of the land belonging to their father, who died without sons. God accepts their claim and incorporates it into the Torah’s laws of inheritance. (Num 27:1-11)

This story, as well as many other in the Hebrew Bible (for example, the story of Gen. 21:9-13, in which God tells Abraham to listen to his wife Sarah and act according to her will), proves that the role of women in traditional Judaism has been grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. The position of women in traditional Judaism is not nearly as lowly as many modern people think; in fact, the position of women in halachah that dates back to the biblical period is in many ways better than the position of women under US civil law as recently as a century ago.  Many of the important feminist leaders of the 20th century (Gloria Steinem, for example) were Jewish women, and some commentators have suggested that this is no coincidence: the respect accorded to women in Jewish tradition was a part of their ethnic culture.

Of course, in traditional Judaism, women’s obligations and responsibilities are different from men’s, but no less important. There is no question that the primary role of a woman is as wife and mother, keeper of the household.  However, Judaism has great respect for the importance of that role. The Talmud says that when a pious man marries a wicked woman, the man becomes wicked, but when a wicked man marries a pious woman, the man becomes pious.  Women are exempted from all positive commandments („You shall…” as opposed to „You shall not…”) that are time-related (that is, commandments that must be performed at a specific time of the day or year), because the woman’s duties as wife and mother are so important that they cannot be postponed to fulfill a commandment.  After all, a woman cannot be expected to just drop a crying baby when the time comes to perform a commandment.

It is this exemption from certain commandments that has led to the greatest misunderstanding of the role of women in Judaism.  First, many people (including rabbis) make the mistake of thinking that this exemption is a prohibition. On the contrary, although women are not obligated to perform time-based positive commandments, they are generally permitted to observe these commandments if they choose. Second, because this exemption diminishes the role of women in the synagogue, many people perceive that women have no role in Jewish religious life.  This misconception derives from the mistaken assumption that Jewish religious life revolves around the synagogue only.  It does not; it revolves around the home, where the woman’s role is every bit as important as the man’s.

The equality of men and women begins at the highest possible level: God. In Judaism, unlike Christianity, God has never been viewed as exclusively male or masculine. Judaism has always maintained that God has both masculine and feminine qualities (which we often encounter in kabbalistic literature).  God has, of course, no body; therefore, the very idea that God is male or female is patently absurd in the ‘traditional gender context’.  We refer to God using masculine terms simply for convenience’s sake, because Hebrew has no neutral gender; God is no more male than a table or chair (both „masculine” nouns in Hebrew).

Both man and woman were created in the image of God.  According to many commentators, „man” was created „male and female” (Gen 1:27) with dual gender, and was later separated into male and female.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Talmud also has many negative things to say about women.  Various rabbis at various times describe women as lazy, jealous, vain and gluttonous, prone to gossip and particularly prone to the occult and witchcraft.  Men are repeatedly advised against associating with women, although that is as much because of man’s lust as it is because of any shortcoming in women. Women were discouraged from pursuing higher education or religious pursuits, but this seems to be primarily because women who engage in such pursuits might neglect their duties as wives and mothers. Stereotypes and recommendations of that kind originated from ancient living conditions, completely different from those in which we live today. They have no theological grounding and represent the „spirit of Judaism” only in the aspect in which Rabbinic Judaism was created as a living tradition responding to the problems of a given epoch.

The rabbis are not concerned that women are not spiritual enough, but rather are concerned that women might become too spiritually devoted, which can be, from a purely practical perspective, problematic for both women and men. The Midrash says:

When the daughters of Tzelafchad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said: God’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of man. Mankind favors men over women. God is not like that; His compassion extends to men and women alike. (Yalkut Shimoni)


Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar

Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar

“Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die” (Num 4:18-20.)

This week’s Torah portion once again discusses the theme of death as a result of coming into too close (or inappropriate) contact with God. The previous chapter from the Book of Numbers (Num 3:3-4) describes the death of the two sons of Aharon, Nadab and Abihu, who died because they brought an unholy fire to the Eternal. A simple understanding of these verses (pshat) suggests that we are dealing with a mysterious or even magical occurrence. However, such an interpretation is rather difficult to accept for a religious mind who at the same time wishes to be enlightened – also by means of its religion. The above mentioned verses are problematic, especially when it comes to mysticism. In fact, Judaism offers us many different theological models, including the possibility to perceive God as mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery which simultaneously attracts and evokes dread); however, should being close to God, from which we derive so many blessings, be actually traumatic and evoke fears of annihilation?

In my view it shouldn’t, and this isn’t a good model of religiousness. On the contrary, being close to God should let us heal from our traumas and anxieties. This being said, how are we to understand the above mentioned verses today? Before we answer this question, let us search for suggestions within the Torah itself:

“He said, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence!’ […] He said, ‘you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live’” (Ex 33:18, 20.)

Here we find a very similar, yet slightly different idea, which in this place is being expressed in a more abstract way. A contemporary Rabbi, Sarah Bassin, in one of her drashot discusses the matter of our close relationship with God and in relation to the above mentioned verses from the Book of Exodus she asks:

“How could it be that after all Moses has experienced of God, he still feels as though he does not understand the Divine? Moses’ strange crisis of faith taps into a larger, more universal truth for all of us.”

Actually the answer to the question, “how could it be possible?” is not that difficult after all. It was provided by the 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said: The limits of my language are the limits of my world. In other words – the limits of language are the limits of human cognition. Later a variation of this concept was proposed by a linguistically oriented branch of philosophy, which claimed that people are able to describe and understand new experiences only in terms of their previous experiences. Therefore, even if Moses experienced Divinity in an unusual and unique way for a man, he lacked the appropriate type of language and the conceptual framework to express that experience or to pass it on to others. God’s reply to Moses had tamed his “desire for Divinity”, thus saving him from dying.

The same factor, i.e. the limits of knowledge, but at a different – not so much linguistic as cultural level contributed to the building of the golden calf. The only way the Israelites were able to understand the new Divinity which had been just revealed to them was within the framework of their previous experiences. And if such a mode of cognition is an inevitable, inherent feature of how humans learn about their world, then in fact God did not have a choice but to forgive the Israelites for their actions, since even if He had destroyed them in His anger, sooner or later the next people chosen by Him would have acted in the same way, even if they originated “from the womb of Moses”.

However, even though God did not kill off the Israelites, the “golden calf incident” has affected the entire Jewish history. What kind of conclusions can we derive from these insights? Here are my suggestions: grasping the essence of Divinity entails attempting to go beyond the limits of our understanding and experience, and hence of our own world – and as such it is not possible without crossing over “to the other side”, which means, in short, death. In addition, if our “desire for Divinity” leads to excessive zealotry and impatience as we serve God, it will result in mistakes, especially if such feelings are not accompanied by appropriate preparation and understanding. Such errors can have catastrophic consequences for us if in our longing to be close to God we lose track of our own intellect and common sense.

Therefore, it is always good to have more experienced guides when it comes to such matters.

Shabbat Shalom!
Have a joyous Shavuot!


Menachem Mirski photo

Menachem Mirski


Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Pesach: Matzah, Spring and Freedom

There are three different names associated with Pesach (or Passover). The first one is Chag HaMatzot, the Festival of Matzah, which refers to the unleavened bread we eat during this time to commemorate the haste in which the Israelites left Egypt. The second name is Chag HaAviv, the Festival of Spring, which reminds us of where Passover falls within the Jewish calendar: in non-leap years the beginning of this festival falls on the night of the first spring-time full moon. Thus Passover symbolizes the revival of nature after winter. The third name for Passover is Zman Cheruteynu, “the Time of our Freedom,” which reminds us that we must perceive the Exodus as a universal Jewish experience, as if we personally had been Pharaoh’s slaves who’ve later been liberated.

When I was a child, Passover for me was definitely the Festival of Matzah – matzah brought home by my grandfather and my dad. I remember how they would admonish me and my brother to always use a plate while eating it so that we wouldn’t drop crumbs everywhere. I must admit that I did not always follow their instructions. For this reason despite the pre-Passover spring cleaning our house was full of crumbs, which reminded us of the Israelites’ hurried Exodus from Egypt (and how they also ate their matzah in haste, without a plate!)

For me Passover was also the Festival of Spring, since in my hometown of Wrocław nature would usually wake up to life at this time. However, as a teenager I could not understand why on the first day of Passover we stop praying for rain and start praying for dew instead. Only many years later, during a springtime visit in Israel, I realized that at the time of Passover the Middle Eastern vegetation is in a state of full bloom – it no longer needs life-sustaining rain, but it does require dew to save it from withering due to the impact of light and heat which those of us living in Poland associate mainly with early summer rather than with the arrival of spring.

I understood very well the connection between Passover and matzah – the symbol of the Israelite’s liberation from Egypt, and also the link between Passover and springtime – the season of the year in which we celebrate this festival. However, as a teenager I had a hard time accepting Passover as the ”Time of Our Freedom”. I rebelled against this notion, since in my mind freedom meant not being forced to do any compulsory actions as well as the right to make sovereign decisions regarding one’s own life. I thought such a definition of freedom was impossible to reconcile with a festival during which we are obliged to feel liberated. However, over the course of years I understood that freedom can be defined in many different ways. Nowadays the classification of different types of freedoms which I find the most convincing is the one proposed by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who distinguished between “freedom from something” and “freedom to do something.” “Freedom from” is a negative freedom, understood as a lack of external coercion, such as freedom from persecution, freedom from fear, freedom from hunger etc. On the other hand, “freedom to…” is a positive state, wherein free individuals are able to make autonomous choices. I believe that “freedom from” must have been exactly what the teenage Galician Jew Naftali Herz Imber was dreaming of as he experienced anti-Semitism in his hometown of Złoczów. It was actually the longing for such freedom that could have inspired the words of his poem Hatikvah, which today is Israel’s national anthem:

Then our hope –
the two-thousand-year-old hope –
will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

I’m sure that the participants of the First Zionist Congress in Basel were longing not only for a “freedom from”, but also for a “freedom to…”, a freedom to decide about their own lives, to make autonomous choices and for self-determination. This dream came true in 1948 and soon we will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence. An independent State of Israel established after centuries of Jewish dispersion in the Diaspora is such an extraordinary development that one of my Israeli friends claimed that it is actually Yom HaAtzmaut – the Israeli Independence Day – and not Passover that deserves to be called “the Time of our Freedom.”

While I truly respect my friend’s views and I already look forward to this year’s Israel’s Independence Day, nonetheless I cannot agree with his assumption that this groundbreaking moment in the history of our People (and the establishment of the State of Israel was undoubtedly a crucial event) should be viewed as the beginning of a permanent “Time of Our Freedom.” In my view this is not how the Hegelian notion of “freedom to…” should be understood. I believe this type of freedom entails a constant decision making process and also the need to constantly take responsibility for the country and the society we live in. It is not an easy process and therefore it’s a good thing that we have days in our calendar which force us to reflect on the role which freedom plays in our lives. And in our tradition Passover is indeed the festival which plays such a role. Therefore I encourage all of you to take the time during this year’s Seder to ask yourself 4 questions regarding freedom which correspond to the 4 questions concerning the distinctive features of the Seder night.

The questions are as follows:
1. What does freedom mean to me?
2. What is currently enslaving me?
3. What changes made in the past have given me greater freedom?
4. What actions could help me enjoy greater freedom in the future?

I believe that the answers to these questions will be helpful in the process of leaving your own personal Egypts. Have a joyful and kosher Passover – Pesach Kasher veSameach!

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka


Mati Kirschenbaum

Vayakhel and Pekudei – Candles, Blessing, Shabbat!

This week we read two Parashot, Vayakhel and Pekudei. The reason for this is the lunar-solar nature of the Jewish calendar, wherein in non-leap years (such as the year 5778) there aren’t enough weeks to read each Torah portion separately. Thus – whether we like it or not – the Moon and the Sun determine the rhythm of Jewish life. Of course this influence was much stronger in Biblical times, when most people living in the ancient Middle East would go to sleep right after sunset. In this regard Jews differed from their neighbors, since they would eat a meal after sunset by the light of Shabbat candles. This meal by candlelight – and in those times candles were quite pricey items – was equated with delighting in Shabbat (Oneg Shabbat), a practice encouraged by the prophet Isaiah:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, From pursuing your affairs on My holy day; If you call the sabbath “delight,” The [Eternal’s] holy day “honored”… Then you can seek the favor of the [Eternal] (Isaiah 58:13-14.)

Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as the Vilna Gaon, claimed that the light of Shabbat candles is supposed to help us delight in the arrival of Shabbat; he believed that preparing to light the candles helps us realize the importance of Shabbat even before it actually begins. A crucial part of Shabbat preparations is to light the candles before sunset, so that we won’t violate one of the prohibitions stated at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion:

You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day (Exodus 35:3.)

Since the light of Shabbat candles is identified with the spirit of Shabbat and also due to the prohibition against lighting the candles after Shabbat starts, the latest possible time for lighting the candles (which is 18 minutes before sunset according to Rabbinical tradition) is viewed as the time when Shabbat actually starts and therefore no work can be done after it, regardless of whether the candles have already been lit or not.

In addition, our tradition links the lighting of Shabbat candles with Torah study. In tractate Shabbat 23b of the Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Huna claims that families in which Shabbat candles are lit shall be rewarded by having sons who are Torah scholars. This belief was shared by Rashi, one of the most eminent medieval Torah commentators, who claimed that the following verse from the Book of Proverbs:

For the commandment [the mitzvah] is a lamp, and [the Torah] is a light.

refers to the commandment to light Shabbat candles, the fulfillment of which shall be rewarded by having enlightened offspring. In the case of Rashi this prediction turned out to be true; since he had no sons, he raised his daughters to become Torah scholars.

Today Shabbat candles serve many different purposes: they bring us joy, they remind us of the arrival of Shabbat and they inspire us to broaden our knowledge about Judaism on the one day of the week which is not burdened with mundane worries. As we focus on the contemporary symbolic meanings of Shabbat candles, it is easy to forget that their original purpose was to lighten up the darkness, which was a terrifying time for our ancestors. The light of Shabbat candles gave them hope that the Eternal would not forsake the people of Israel even in their history’s darkest moments. The light of Shabbat candles was – and still is – a part of our tradition which enables us to get a sense of what the presence of the Eternal in the Holy Tabernacle could have been like, as described in the final verse of this week’s double Torah portion, which also happens to be the last verse of the entire Book of Exodus:

For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the [Eternal] rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys (Exodus 40:38.)

The Eternal’s presence among the people of Israel offered them reassurance and instilled faith in a brighter future. During the nearest Shabbat candle lighting I encourage you to reflect on what kind of darkness hidden deep inside of you and your society you could help overcome. I hope this moment is not too far away!

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka