Friday, August 26, 2011

Judaism 101

"So what does the Jewish religion think about..."
I get asked this quite a bit. I guess walking around with my beard & skullcap makes me fair game.

Here's a few thoughts on this rather deep subject. Judaism is not really a religion, but more a way of life. First, of course, it goes back all the way to the times of Abraham, more than 3,000 years ago. Abraham lived in a time when people worshipped all sorts of idols. Some prayed to the stars. Others to stone images. Some, the sun & moon. But Abraham taught the notion of one true God, and how this spiritual force permeated & gave life to everything. Furthermore, Abraham taught that absolutely everything in creation is somehow united in a grand & mysterious way.

In my later teenage years, I became interested in Eastern religions. Later, I was mighty surprised to find out that basic Jewish beliefs include such concepts as the soul, reincarnation, revival of the dead, reward & punishment (depending on each individual's conduct throughout his or her life), heaven (Gan Eden), Moshiach (the Messianic Era) etc. I didn't have to look in someone else's backyard for spirituality. Each of these doozy concepts are discussed in amazing detail throughout a variety of Torah sources, such as the Talmud - which is also the basis for practical Jewish law, and Kabbalistic books. In addition, Hassidic philosophy, particularly Chabad, expounds upon these notions. Thus, Judaism is a mixture of the very practical & the very profound.

A very central belief in Judaism is the sanctity of life and how every single person on the planet is unique, special, and part of the "master plan." Like the expression goes, God don't make no junk. According to the Torah, the backbone of Judaism, every person has a special mission to fulfill. All of mankind was given seven special mitzvos, or instructions, through Noah. In effect, by keeping these seven, we can transform planet earth into a worldly heaven. These seven biggees are:

*To know, understand, and honor, to the best of our abilities, the one true God.
*To not commit murder. Life is sacred. We must do our best to honor & maintain life. Obviously, there is a difference between self-defense and murder.
*Not to worship idols. This may include our "modern" idols such as money, power, greed...
*Stealing... a no-no. This includes things like "small" cheating in business, deceiving others...
*To not commit acts of sexual immorality, such as incest. Hey, consult your local rabbinic authority for more details on this one.
*To be kind to animals & other living creatures. This includes not cutting (& eating) a part from a creature while it's still alive, which unfortunately is actually done in some cultures.
*To establish courts of justice. These laws are very intricate, and pertain to specific laws for witnesses, judges, etc. Basically, justice means being fair & honest, not being blinded by bribes, and getting to the real bottom of the matters at hand.

Here's what the US Congress had to say about these seven basic principles of justice & peace. "Without these ethical values & principles, the edifice of civilization stands in peril of returning to chaos."

That was a Joint Resolution of the US Congress on March 20, 1991

These seven principles form the basis of a positive oriented society, one that is committed to justice, kindness & pursuing peace. Imagine what the world would be like if all nations on the planet kept these seven principles! You could ride any subway, live anywhere on the planet without fear, and sleep with your doors open. Remember, these seven are mere guidelines... foundations. The ramifications of each one is endless. According to the Torah, any individual who keeps these seven leads a productive life, fulfilling his or her mission on planet earth, and is, in fact, rewarded with both Olam HaBah & Techiyat HaMatim - Gan Eden & return of the departed. There is also the notion that whatever good deeds are done down here on this world, also benefits and gives great pleasure to the neshama (soul) of a departed family member or friend. For the soul is eternal and death is but a temporary separation of the soul and body. By keeping these special 7, we live a life of meaning, connected to the essence... to our essence.

Chabad philosophy, based on the Kabbalah, teaches that there is spiritual force within everything in creation, including all four "kingdoms:" the inanimate realm, such as rocks & the earth; vegetation kingdom; animals & insects & all "living" things; and the human species, known in Kabbalah as "m'daber" - the "verbalizers." Further, the Torah teaches that our job here is "l'avdah U'l'shamrah," to work with the planet & to protect it! This is a clear directive to protect all species on Mother Earth, for we truly are all connected. Removing one part, no matter how "insignificant" some may perceive it to be, has an effect on the entire web of life. We are to take an active role in life, including this special mitzvah of caring for the world environment.

The concept of Moshiach, a Messianic Era, is also fundamental in the Jewish faith. The era of Moshiach, or what we used to refer to as the "age of Aquarius" back in the 60's, will mark a unique period in the history of humanity. It will be a time when "swords will be beaten into plowshares & men will learn war no more." In other words, peace & mutual respect will prevail. There will be no more wars, no jealousy... the hositlities of this species known as homo-sapian will cease at last. It will also be a time when the miraculous will seem common-place. The Torah tells us that there will be no sickness or suffering. It will usher in a time of tremendous joy and goodness.

The Rambam (Maimonidies) writes that each of us should see the world as if it's balanced on a scale. One good deed, no matter how small it might seem, could tip the entire scale in favor of the good and bring Moshiach. I say, let's get the party on! Your next act of kindness could do the trick.

The land of Israel is mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible, commonly known as the Five Books of Moses. For more than 3,000 years, the Jewish people have lived (& loved) this land. Three times each and every day, we pray towards Israel, specifically towards the holy temple in Jerusalem. These prayers were instituted more than 2,000 years ago by the "people of the great assembly" during the times of the Sanhedrin - the famous Jewish court of law where Solomon's temple stood. But this same prayer formula is used by Jews throughout the world even today. This land is often referred to as the "promised land," or "holy land." It is both, of course, given by God Almighty to the children of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob... forever.

Throughout this long, crazy, and often troubled history of mankind, various nations have tried to control this land. Nearly all of these civilizations, such as Babylon, the Roman Empire, Persia, etc., have come and gone. Often they forced many of the Jews out of the land. But we always returned. Some have even tried to deny the connection between the Jewish people and this land, going as far as destroying important, historical artifacts - as if trying to rewrite history to serve their own political agendas. Today, more than ever, we need to help & support this tiny (yet amazing) country in any way possible. Though surrounded by more than 20 Muslim countries, many hundreds of times larger (and many openly hostile to both Israel and the "west")... Israel is the only real democracy in the entire Middle East! Remember, in Israel, Arabs can live where they want, go where they want, worship where and how they want, and be elected to seats in the Knesset. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Jews living in Muslim countries. In fact, when Jordan controlled Jerusalem from 1948 - 1967, Jews weren't even allowed into the Old City to pray! It's high time to help out this incredible country, y'all. Don't let the terrorists scare ya away... visit & see it with your own eyes. Furthermore, in my opinion, most of the Arab world is held hostage by a small, loud minority that threatens and coerces them, robbing them of their own freedoms. It's time to back the United States efforts in its vital war against terrorism. We simply cannot allow a few lunatics to hold the world hostage, and send us back to the Middle Ages.

Another fundamental concept in Judaism is the notion of "tikkun Olam," of refining and "fixing" the world. While Godliness & spirituality is found within everything in this physical world, it is often a tough job to find it... to bring it out. The Torah teaches us that by doing good deeds & acts of kindness, we help to perfect the world & help it realize its full awesome potential. Those who engage in the opposite, such as destroying things & acts of murder - even if they are done (according to their misguided religious principles) "killing in the name of," are going against this basic precept of the gift of life. This terrorist behavior, often condoned & encouraged by various groups, is in direct opposition to God's intention and our important mission on planet earth. For these senseless acts of hatred and violence are by their very nature are denial of the Oneness of the Universe. One of the most basic prayers in Judaism is the "Shema." It has been said by the Jewish people for thousands of years - twice each day, at morning and again in the evening. It is an affirmation of this amazing, great mysterious Oneness that prevades all of the universe. Perhaps it is time for more folks to begin saying & meditating this special prayer.

There is another difficult yet quite profound (and beautiful) notion found in the Jewish faith. In a nutshell, it's personal growth & development. Not the kind that gets you advanced degrees & a bonus in your paycheck (though all that is nice indeed), but involves a sort of inner struggle and advancement. In order to truly refine the "outside world," we also have to work on the "inside world"-- ourselves. My rabbi once told me that "keeping kosher is important, but it's just as important to watch what comes out of the mouth as what goes in!" This inner, lifelong effort means refining our own character traits... becoming less self-centered, more tuned into others, more socially conscious, and thus, capable of loving and seeing the spirit (& potential) of every individual. A good time to take stock, is right before hitting the sack. Take a few moments... examine how we were today. How we acted... spoke. What we thought about. What we were involved with. Was it all positive? And how can we improve tomorrow? How can we make our days truly shine? Hassidic philosophy compares life to climbing a mountain. We just gotta keep putting one foot in front of the other. But remember, since we're carrying a sack full of diamonds on our backs (all those good deeds!)... we're hiking uphill with tremendous joy. Like the saying goes...

Life's a holy adventure - enjoy the ride.

As mentioned before, Judaism contains many profound spiritual concepts. But, in truth, they are more than ideas or notions - they are reality. It is only that our limited, physical senses don't usually perceive these phenomenon. Soemtimes we have incredible dreams or experiences that seem to take us out of the ordinary. In light of the recent event in our family, I feel somewhat compelled to "clear the air." People truly mean well when they say things like; "Oh, don't worry, she's at rest now." Or the often heard expression, "may she rest in peace." But the Talmud has a much different outlook at what occurs after death, which is but a temporary seperation between the body and one's essence - the soul. The Talmud tells us that "(even) Torah scholars have no rest, not in this physcial world or in the next world!" It's an amazing statement and, I think, one that shows us to have a much more positive attitude about what occurs during this time.

The soul of every single person is unique, of course, for this is what makes us all individuals - our inner makeup. There is a notion of reward & punishment (temporary) and this depends on what the person's actions were like while he or she roamed planet earth. But it doesn't stop here - like the Romans used to say; eat, drink & be merry for tomorrow you may die. For death is not the end, but, perhaps, a door to a much higher reality. In any case, the person is not laying down up there, stretched out on a lounge chair soaking in the rays. Rather, the soul continues to learn, experience and grow, on a daily basis, although in a much more profound way than what was going on down here. One more dandy of a point. Yes, have fun & enjoy life, of course. But remember, ya can't take the golf clubs with ya. Our sages tell us that the only thing that accompanies the soul into the "Olam HaBah," or the next, higher (& true) reality, are the good deeds that the person accomplished in this world. The Hebrew word for the world is "olam." It comes from the word "helem," which means concealed. The Talmud teaches that this depicts the very nature of this world, where spirituality (& goodness) is concealed and often quite difficult to see & experience. We have to rise above this, my brothers & sisters... work hard to bring out the goodness contained within. The only way to accomplish this is by increasing in acts of kindness. Well, sorry this one was rather long-winded, but I hope it gives you food for thought and more importantly, encourages you to do your part and, like Oprah says, live your best life!

ITP - Increase The Peace, y'all.

Practice Random Acts of Kindness.

Dr. Laz

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