Basic Jewish Belief

Question:  What are the covenants that God made with the Jewish people?  I know that the Abraham story is the first one.  How many are there and what are they?

Answer:  There is actually only one covenant between God and the Jewish people, but after the initial agreement, it is renewed several times with Abraham and his descendants, including Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt.

A covenant is a contract, binding two parties to each other in an agreement.  In this case, God agrees to make Abraham’s descendants into a great, numerous nation, and give them the land of Canaan; and Abraham and those who follow agree to worship God exclusively.

Question:  I am having a problem in defining who God is. I am trying to be very realistic having been widowed twice.  People cannot give me a rational answer.  He said so many things in the Torah yet he is not real.  How can I believe something that I can’t see or talk to?

Answer:  I find that the simplest definition of God is the “creator of heaven and earth.”  This, I believe, is a very rational definition.  Everything that exists was created from something else.  How did it all get started?  If you believe in a big bang, what existed before?  How did it happen that matter came together and exploded to create a universe?  God as a creator can “rationally” answer such questions as how the world contains such a wonderful (and sometimes terrible) order and beauty to it.

How can one believe in something one cannot see?  I believe in love, I believe that electrons, protons, and neutrons exists, I believe that the Torah represents God’s set of commands to the Jewish people.  Can I pick up and examine any of the above?  No.  I can only prove that they exist indirectly, through witnessing acts of loving behavior; through studying physics, chemistry, and doing experiments in nuclear physics; and through studying Torah and understanding how following it will make the world a better place.

At a certain level, when proofs, either direct or indirect, fail, one has to fall back upon on faith.  I define God (in addition to the simple definition above) as a being above and beyond human understanding.  I do not think there is a totally rational proof or definition of God.  In order to understand God fully, I would need godlike powers of understanding — in other words, I would need to be God.  Just as an ant does not have the capacity to understand the intricacies of being human, a human being does not have the capacity to understand God.  I choose to believe in something totally beyond my comprehension, knowing that there is no way I can ever confirm my belief.

All language about God is metaphorical.  God has no outstretched arms, God does not become angry or jealous, God does not love, sniff burning incense or speak with a voice.  However, we communicate through human language, so the only way we can describe a relationship with God is through the language of metaphor.  The only way we can begin to understand and describe God is by using language such as love, jealously, anger and joy.  When the Torah describes God as taking a certain action, feeling a certain feeling, or issuing a certain command, this is meant to allow human beings to have a sense of God — it is not meant to be a literally description of God.

I can only begin to scratch the surface of your questions.  I want to suggest that you get involved in a study group at your synagogue or do some reading about Jewish beliefs of God.

Question:  If God is omnipotent, and all knowing, he knows the outcome of everything that will happen to everyone who was ever born.  So, why did he give people rules and commandments if he knew what the outcome to every situation will be?  Even though there is free will for everyone, G-d still knows the outcome to everything.  So, what is the sense to it all?

Answer:  The question you have asked is an excellent one.  To put the question in the most pointed fashion, “If I have the choice to do actions ‘A’ or ‘B,’ but if God knows from the beginning that I am going to choose action ‘B,’ did I ever really have the option of choosing option ‘A?’

On the face of it, God created us with the ability to make choices.  This is a tremendous gift.  When human beings are described at the beginning of Genesis as being created “in the image of God,” I think that refers to our ability to make choices of our own free will.  We have the choice to do good or to do evil.  When we choose evil, we can do grave harm to others, such as what happened in the Holocaust.  When we choose to do good, we can do tremendous acts of Divine goodness, transforming the world.

If God were to prevent us from doing evil in order to protect ourselves and others in the world from our poor choices, then we would have no free will.  And if God were to reward all good behavior with immediate gratification, and punish all bad behavior with immediate retribution, we would no longer be acting good for the sake of goodness, but rather we would be acting good for the sake of avoiding punishment.

In one mystical view of creation, before creation the entire Universe was full of God’s essence and perfection; in order to make space for an imperfect world, God needed to withdraw (tzimtzum) from a space – and in that space, our world was created.

Similarly, in order to give us the chance to grow and develop into mature, moral adults, God has given us the ability to make choices, and must also withdraw to give us the space to make those choices.  So even though in some sense God knows the outcome, in the particular case of our lives, we have the ability to function as if God does not know.

The system of mitzvot is designed to give us the chance to build a relationship with God around God’s commandments.  Some of them are clearly aimed at tikkun olam, perfecting the world in which we live, and some of them help us to develop our relationship with God.  Some have an obvious purpose, and some have no apparent reason behind them.  But all mitzvot give us the opportunity to develop ourselves as human beings by following God’s commandments.

I hope this answer has helped; please feel free to get back to me with further questions.

Question:  If it says in the Shema that Hashem is our God and no one else’s, does this mean that the Christians who believe in Jesus really do not have a God?  Is this what we are supposed to believe? Does Hashem judge those of other religions?

Why can’t I believe in idols? I am capable of loving Hashem and another God equally. If I can have two children and love them equally, I must be able to love two gods equally?

Answer:  The Shema does not say that God belongs to us and to no other people.  That would be incredibly presumptuous!  The Shema says that the God whom we call Adonai is the only God, and that there is no other.

God has many names, both in Judaism and in other religions.  Allah, for example, is the Moslem name for God, not the name of a different God.  By definition, since there is only one God, all who worship God must be worshipping the same God.

There are no questions that you may have two children and love them equally.  You may also have 20 children, and love them all equally.  This is, however, irrelevant to the question of whether there is more than one God.

The most basic belief in Judaism is that is only one Source of creation, only one Source of Ethics and Morality, only one Source of Torah and truth, only one God.  It has nothing at all to do with the question of whether we would be capable of loving two or more divine beings.  Judaism began when Abraham came to a realization that there is only one God in the world, and that continues to be the most fundamental belief in Judaism.

What is wrong with a polytheistic belief?  Introducing more than one God into a system also creates a system of less than absolute ethics and morality.  When gods act against each other, disagree, get angry, and destroy parts of the world because that are fighting another god, where can a human being turn to make sense of the world?  If one god lives by one code of behavior, and another god lives be a different code of behavior, who is correct?  On what basis then, could we say that another human being’s action is morally incorrect – the murder of Jews in the Holocaust, for example – when in their defense they could point to their own god’s coherent system of behavior which would be founded on a different set of principles than our god’s.  The Nazis in fact asserted that Jews (and certain others) were less then human, in other words, not created in God’s image.  If we believe that there is more than one creator god, then we would have no basis on which to argue against them – they could in fact have been correct in their thinking, that they were the images of a more powerful god than the Jews, and that their god instructed them to kill the creations of a lesser god.

Since we believe in an ordered world created by one God, we cannot accept such a defense of the Nazis as true in any sense.  We cannot accept any system of ethics which is not absolute.  This does not mean that the answer to every conceivable situation is clear – but is does mean that a defense based on the idea of relative ethics, in which each one of is morally entitled to live by our own set of values regardless of how they impinge on others, has no merit within Judaism.

Question:  I am trying to understand idolatry:

1) As far as graven images of things on the earth, or in the sky:  Have Jews ever taken this to the full extreme of having no such graven images? What does God see as detestable images?

2) What does ‘worship’ mean in relationship to idolatry?

3) What constitutes idolatry today?

4)  When does an idol stop being an idol?  (If someone worships, say Winnie-The-Pooh or Angels, are these objects I’m to abhor?)

Answer:  The questions you ask are very complicated and do not lend themselves very easily to a brief email reply, but I will try to give you an answer.

The definition of idolatry, whether in Biblical times or today, is the belief that the worship of some object can give the worshipper the power to affect reality.

Historically, pagan people used physical representations of objects — gods — to help them in their worship.  The Torah decreed that these representations are abhorrent, and Jews should have nothing to do with them.  The predominant Jewish  tradition permitted artistic representations of the physical world, as long as they were not worshipped.  However, I am sure that there were some Jews and traditions in history which banned all physical representations as idolatrous images.

As far as modern examples of idolatry:  One who places the acquisition of money above all other values, or one whose life revolves around a certain sports or music figure to the exclusion of everything else, might be considered to have turned money, sports, or music, into idols.

Question:  Can you explain the dual Torah — the difference between oral and written?

Answer:  The written Torah are the words of the physical Torah scroll itself.  The oral Torah consists of centuries of Midrash, Talmud, and other commentaries.  Traditionally, Jews believe that the entire written Torah along with an oral explanation was given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Question:  What is the conservative interpretation of what happened at Mt. Sinai?  I know the Orthodox view, but I’m not clear on yours.

Answer:  The question you ask is very complicated, because the Torah itself does not actually say how it was written/delivered.  The section of Torah usually called the “10 commandment” (more accurately, the “10 statements”) does not claim that every word from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy was spoken by God at Mount Sinai.  It does claim that the revelation began from the mountain being spoken to the entire people Israel, but the voice of God was too powerful, and after hearing the first 10 statements, the people asked Moses to intercede, saying, “You speak with us and we will hearken, but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”  From that point on, the laws were spoken by God to Moses privately, and Moses transmitted the tradition.

Further, whenever the Torah uses the work “torah,” it means law or teaching.  It rarely refers to more than a few verses or sections of Torah; in Deuteronomy, it may refer to the book of Deuteronomy as a whole, but never does it refer to the book that we today call the Torah.

So what happened at Sinai, and how did the Torah take shape as the living, inspired word of God?

I believe that the Israelites did experience a revelation from God.  Each one of them, in those first moments of the “10 statements,” came in contact with the Divine presence.  They walked away from Sinai changed by the experience, carrying the memory of Torah and Mitzvah, obligations towards God and towards each other.  What they carried away from that encounter with God was not the literal words of Torah, but the sense of relationship with God and commandedness by God.

In the centuries that followed, the traditions of Sinai were set down in writing.  Not every version was exactly the same, because each person was trying to formulate an intensely personal moment with God in language that his or her fellow could understand.  The strands of tradition were collected and woven together to form more complete versions, and during the exile in Babylonia following the destruction of the first Temple, the major strands were woven together into one standardized version which is the book that we call Torah today.

This is not the only approach with has been labeled “Conservative.”  For a more complete explanation of the Conservative approach to revelation, I recommend chapter 1 of the book, Sacred Fragments, by Rabbi Neil Gillman, “What Really Happened,” pages 1-37.

Question: How could God have given Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai, at the same time that the 10 Commandments were given, when all of the events written in the Torah had not yet occurred?

Answer:  The traditional answer to your question is that Moses only received that part of the Torah which had happened, through the 10 commandments.  In the 40 days that followed, Moses received the law code in the chapters following, as well as the instructions for making the Tabernacle.  The rest of Torah was dictated to Moses as or after it happened.  The only remaining question regards the last few verses of the Torah, describing the death of Moses.  There are two traditional views on this:

One, that Moses himself was given the difficult honor and privilege of writing about his own death.

Two, that the last few verses were written after Moses’ death by his successor, Joshua.

Question: I am taking a Jewish Studies class at Purdue University, and am not quite understanding why the emphasis is more on instruction than truth.  Are there ANY doctrinal beliefs shared by all Jewish people?  I also am told that the Talmud contains a lot of Midrash, isn’t that personal interpretations of things that could be wrong?  How can the  Talmud be comprised of such information?

Answer:  Judaism is a religion of action more than belief.  As such, there are very few “required” doctrines that Jews must hold.  The most basic is a belief in one God; however, there is a Jewish teaching that God would rather have us behave properly and deny God, than believe in God and behave improperly.  So you see, the diversity of belief within Judaism has a solid basis.

Their is also great diversity of practice.  The word halakha, the term for Jewish law, literally means ‘a pathway,’ as in a pathway to God.  Judaism, even the extremely fundamentalist forms, does not believe that their is only one pathway to God.  Halakha contains many pathways, and Jewish tradition has either chosen one as the ‘normative’ pathway or affirmed that multiple pathways are equally valid.  The Talmud is an investigation into Jewish practice through legal and non-legal texts.  There is a teaching that the Torah has 70 faces — that there are 70 interpretations to every passage, each of which contains truth.

It seems to me that you are coming from a tradition that understands truth in a very narrow sense, and that is why you are having such a hard time understanding Judaism.  Keep working at it, and the beauty and openness of a system which see great complexity and mystery in God’s relationship with the world will begin to unfold for you.

Question: I’m a Chilean girl and I want to ask:  What do you believe about sin?

Answer:  I believe that a sin is an action that distances us from God; and that we can be cleansed from sin through sincere repentance and prayer.

Question:  Why did God choose the Jews to be the chosen people?

Answer:  According to Genesis, God made a covenant with Abraham.  That covenant was carried through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, whose family multiplied in Egypt to become the Israelite people, later known as Jews.

The Torah does not say why God chose Abraham.  The common assumption is that Abraham recognized the truth of monotheism long before other people of his day, and thus became God’s partner is spreading the worship of one God throughout the world.

We, Abraham’s descendants, have been entrusted with the special task to preserve and observe the Torah.  Being chosen does not mean we are any better or closer to God than any other people – we believe that non-Jews have a relationship with God, have had revelations from God, and actually have an easier path to heaven than Jews.  Being chosen means that we are responsible for observing all of the mitzvot in the Torah that are in our power to keep.

Question:  Why are Jews referred to as God’s chosen people?  I thought that God loves all people equally.

Answer:  The theological idea that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (known in Biblical times as Israelites, later known as Jews) are the chosen people comes from the book of Genesis, in which God chooses Abraham and his above-named descendants for a unique covenant.  That covenant involved certain obligations on the part of the people, and certain promised on the part of God.  Jews believe that this covenant is still in effect today; thus, that Jews are still a “chosen people.”

Jews do not believe that we are better then member of other religions, or have an inherently closer or more loving relation with God than others.  In fact, we do not believe that we are the only people with a special covenantal relationship with God.  On the contrary, a document published by the Conservative movement, called “Emet Ve’emunah,” asserts that members of other religions, such as Christianity or Islam, also have a unique covenant with God.

The chosenness concept implies that Jews have accepted certain obligations that are unique to Judaism, such as our observance of Kashrut or Shabbat.

Question: As a Christian I have learned that the Jews were once God’s chosen people and that HE dropped the nation due to it’s ongoing disobedience and replaced it with a “spiritual Israel”. What is this “spiritual Israel” according to your explanation? Taking current events and the last century into consideration does it never cross your mind that the literal Israel lost God’s favor a long time ago? I don’t want to be offensive, it just seems so obvious to me that so many people are wandering off into something that is becoming constantly worse and who believe at the same time that they do have the right religion. 1 of the 10 commandments says that you should not kill. Is there anyone in Israel who cares about that?

Answer:  The concept of “spiritual Israel” is purely Christian, and Jewish thought needs to have no response to it, because we do not believe that our covenant with God has been replaced.

I do take some offense at your suggestion that because Jews have suffered persecution, it should be obvious that we have lost our relationship with God.  Taking centuries of Christian suffering at various periods of history in mind, would it cross your mind that your covenant with God has been replaced?

Finally, an accurate translation of the 6th commandment is “do not murder,” not do not kill.  Unless you are a strict pacifist, who would rather die than fight a defensive war or who would rather let innocent people die by the hands of oppressive regimes than fight a war against the oppressors, you cannot say that killing is always wrong.

The Israeli people do care very much about murder – especially when suicide bombers blow themselves up in their favorite restaurants or on public buses.  Israelis also care very much about killing – no civilized country wants to send its young people to put their lives on the line in a war situation.  When it is necessary to protect the lives of its people, however, Israel will defend itself.

Let us pray daily for peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Question:  Is there biblical prophecy concerning when the Great Temple will be rebuilt, again?

Answer:  There is no specific Biblical prophecy concerning when the Temple will be rebuilt; just that someday, in the messianic era, it will be restored.

Question:  Who is the Messiah?  I have just lost my husband, after 54 years together.  Will the Messiah be a part in bringing him back to me, or is it  possible that he has seen him wherever he is?  Why are we waiting so long for the Messiah?

Answer:  First of all, Hamakom Menachem otach mitoch sha’ar av’lei tziyon virushaliyim, May God comfort you among the mourners in Zion and Jerusalem.  You were blessed with a marriage of 54 years, yet it must seem like it ended much too early.

The messiah, in Jewish tradition, is the person who will lead the world into an era of universal peace and justice.  Our world, unfortunately, is not ready for such an era.  There is too much hatred, injustice, poverty, and hunger – and it is our responsibility as human beings to engage in tikkun olam, repairing and healing the torn fabric of the world.

Along with the fundamental change in the world in the messianic era, Jewish tradition also believes in resurrection of the dead, that the living will be reunited with all of their ancestors.

In addition, Jews believe that upon death, we will be reunited with our loved ones in heaven.  It is possible that the messiah is up in heaven waiting to be born; and your husband has met the messiah and seen the vision of the perfect physical world-to-come.  In fact, your husband, existing now in the world-to-come called heaven, is still very much a part of you, and every one else whose life he has touched.  Someday, whether in the messianic era on earth, or in God’s kingdom in heaven, all of you will be reunited in love.

Question:  Thank you for answering my mother’s letter.  I would like to correspond with you and I have a few more questions I like to hear your feelings.  For a very long time when I heard of someone that passed away I always felt sad for the deceased and the for the people left behind.  Somehow I never thought it could happen to me and if it did happen it would be something I could deal with.  After all we always say everything that lives eventually will die.  But I see things differently after the death of my father.  I now realize that death can happen and in one minute you’re here then you’re gone.  Where do you go?  When the candle of life is blown out where do you go?  Is after life out there? Where? I know I can bring my father back with only a thought and I know he is always a thought away in my mind.  I dream about him and my thoughts are of him.  Is there life after death?  Because I think of him and therefore he lives on?  When I die then who will think about my father and his father, etc.  Who will say kaddish for him?  How can I keep him alive when I am dead?  I would like to arrange it so that when I die my father will be with me so I am not alone.  I hope I will see him again I hope I will know what he looks like.  I know you do not have all the answers to my questions.   But what you can answer, please share with me.

Answer:  I would like to share some thoughts with you, but I also would like to suggest that you make an appointment to meet with your own rabbi to discuss some of your questions – if you don’t have a relationship to a rabbi, and need a referral, let me know where you live and I can try to help.

Classical Judaism believes in a place called “olam haba,” “the world to come.”  After we die, our souls will live in “Gan Eden,” the garden of Eden.

The notions of what heaven will be like vary significantly from person to person.  Some believe that it will be a place of eternal Torah study, and some believe that it will be a complete union with the Divine presence.  According to the Talmud (Berakhot 57b), Shabbat, sexual intercourse, and a sunny day are all known as, “me’ein olam haba,” a taste of the world to come!

Today, many people maintain a traditional belief in heaven as a place we go after we die, where we are reunited with all of our ancestors, although some believe that there is no true place called heaven, but rather we live on in the memories of those who survive us.

I have always felt it significant that there is no universal Jewish belief in what will happen after we die.  It points to the fact that Judaism is a mitzvah oriented religion, which focuses on our behavior during our lifetimes.

Right now, your father is both in heaven above and down here in our world, in the minds and hearts of those whose lives he touched.  You can bring him back to you with a memory – that is a beautiful thing, and not something that everybody is able to do with a loved one who has died.  When you die, you will join him and the rest of your ancestors.  However, there will come a time when here on earth, most of us will be forgotten.  This can be a very frightening thought, however true.  After all, you certainly remember your father; probably your grandfather; and if you are lucky, you may remember your great-grandfather.  But those who live farther back in your family history have been forgotten.  But not completely, because there is one comforting thought I can offer.  God remembers.  God does not forget.  We are always remembered by God for the good and the love we have done in this world.

You have asked very difficult questions.  No one knows for sure what happens after we die, so we can only speculate.

May God comfort you among all mourners in Zion and Jerusalem.

Question:  I have heard many rumors about plans for a new temple; I know that this is a sensitive issue, but if it must happen before the Mashiah comes, so let it be. Is it possible to have peace and the holy temple rebuilt, anywhere, without the Mashiah? Furthermore, and most importantly, is it possible to see the Mashiah without the temple?  If peace comes with Mashiah, why do we prolong our suffering by fearing war?  Is there something to look for to tell us when the time is right? I think we should build… today; the Mashiah will sort it out, will he not?

Answer:  From a traditional perspective, the coming of the Messiah will usher in an era of world peace, in which all the nature of all animals (including humans!) will be altered to eliminate violence – vegetarianism will reign!.  Humanity, in particular, will be given a “new heart” with which we will be at perfect peace with each other and God.  Life will return to the perfect state of harmony which existed in the Garden of Eden.

The Messiah himself/herself will be a political/spiritual leader of the Davidic line who will restore Jewish sovereignty and lead all Jews back to Israel.

There are, however, many who do not believe in the messiah as a specific individual, but rather who believe that it is the job of each one of us as Jews to move the world towards a messianic era, a time when the messianic prophecies will become reality.

Today, we are living in a world with certain political realities, one of which is that we share Israel and Jerusalem with other peoples and religions, including Moslems.  While I believe that Jerusalem is and should remain the capitol of Israel, I do not believe that the political government of Israel has the right to destroy two Moslem holy sites, the Dome of the Rock and the El-Aqsa Mosque, to begin construction on a Third Temple.  Such an action will take us towards more terrible conflict with the Arab and Palestinian world, and will certainly not bring us towards a messianic world of peaceful coexistence.

How will this be resolved when the Messiah comes?  I have absolutely no idea!  If I did, I suppose I could apply for the Messiah position myself!

Question:  I’ve read a number of books on Kaballah  and can’t get a real hold on it.  I need help, but all the study groups are mumbo-jumbo and require a deep observance and commitment to an orthodox (in my opinion) way of life.  Further, I have heard you must be male, over 40 and married to be “allowed” to study Kaballah.  I’m interested in really studying and learning, but I’m neither male nor married (divorced).

Answer:  Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, is a very complicated form of midrash that requires mastery of a significant body of Jewish literature in order to understand it properly.  In addition, some forms mysticism encompass a kind of borderline magic, in which human beings can control certain aspects of the world around them if they achieve a proper understanding/relationship with God.

An immature student who is not properly prepared will likely fall into the trap of misunderstanding what kabbalah is all about.  A good example of this can be found in many of the followers of the Los Angeles based “Kabbalah Center.”  They sell copies of the Zohar, the classical mystical text of Judaism, to people who have no Hebrew/Aramaic background, and tell them that if they open the book and look at the words, God will listen to their prayers and desires and they will be protected.  This kind of “pop mysticism” or “pop spirituality” promotes a reliance on magic and superstition rather than on an authentic approach to God by means of a religious life.

The classic definition of a mature learner has been one who is over 40 and married.  The marriage piece has to do with two things:  stability and sexuality.  Unmarried people in their late teens and early 20’s tend to be less serious, and Kabbalah study demands serious attention.  Mysticism is also loaded with sexual imagery, and it was thought that one who was not married, and thus did not have a permitted outlet for sexual expression, could not handle Kabbalah.  If you are serious and stable, I would not worry about the marriage requirement, but while the age of 40 is not an absolute rule, Judaism urges that the study of Kabbalah be put off until one reaches a reasonable level of intellectual maturity and comfort with Jewish tradition.

Personally, I feel that a great deal of “popular” Kabbalah is exactly what you have described — mumbo-jumbo!  In my opinion, you’re on the right track to a perfect understanding of what it’s all about!  However, if you do want to delve into it further, check with one of your local Conservative synagogues, and see if the rabbi is willing to form a class/study group.  Also, one book I found helpful is called God and the Big Bang, by Daniel Matt.

It is entirely possible that the reason you haven’t been able to get a real hold on the material is that your general Judaic background is not quite broad enough.  Kabbalistic writings assume a great deal of knowledge of Jewish text and practice.  If you can’t find a Kabbalah group, try joining a Talmud, Midrash, or Bible study group, and keep doing the Kabbalah reading on your own.

Question:  My fiancee is a bus driver for Yeshiva but he is conservative.  The other day after saying something he knocked wood and spit 3 times.  One of the students said superstitions are against the Jewish religion.  Is that true?

Answer:  I agree that certain customs based on superstition may be against Judaism, but they are also widespread in nearly every Jewish community.  Jews can be a very superstitious people.  Superstition is any belief or attitude, based on fear or ignorance, that is inconsistent with what is generally considered by society as true or rational, especially a belief in charms, omens, and magic.  I try to distinguish between Jewish practices based on religion, and customs based on superstitious beliefs.  At times, however, there is a fine line between religion and superstition.  For example, a mezuzah is a religious symbol, and the parchment inside, consisting of two paragraphs from the Shema, is meant to remind us that our home should be a place where God and the teachings of Torah are ever-present.  However, I have heard it said by some groups of Jews, that if one has a very sick child, one should check the Mezuzot on one’s home.  I hear stories about how, in such cases, the Hebrew word for “child” on the parchment is smudged.  When the parents replace the non-kosher parchment with a kosher one, the child’s illness is cured.  This, in my opinion, crosses the line from religion to magic or superstition.  By using magic, we can in essence control God by manipulating certain objects in the physical world.  I do not believe that God strikes our children will illness because of a non-kosher mezuzah; therefore, I reject the idea that we can cause God to heal our children by fixing the mezuzah.

Spitting or saying ‘poo, poo, poo’ or k’eiyin hara (“against the evil eye,” kineina hora, as my grandmother pronounced it) after saying something potentially bad were widespread superstitions in the old European Jewish community, and remain widespread today.  The thought was that simply pronouncing something might tempt the evil eye or some evil spirit or angel to take that action.

There are many superstitions regarding pregnancy and the birth of children.  Jews do not say mazal tov for a pregnancy, because pregnancy is only a potential, rather than an actual, event.  Pregnancy is fraught with uncertainty, worry, and often danger.  For this reason, Jews say b’sha’ah tova ([May it happen] at a propitious moment) rather than mazal tov, and customarily do not hold baby showers before the birth. The original belief, based on superstition, was that treating pregnancy as a completed event might tempt the Angel of Death to take the child in utero.

Some people do not use the baby’s name until the formal baby naming, either at the Brit Milah or at a special ceremony or aliyah to the Torah for girls.  The original superstitious reason was to deceive the Angel of Death during the first days of a child’s life, when he or she is in greatest danger.

Jews from Yemen would put sweets under the bed of a new mother to occupy the evil spirits and keep them away from a new baby.

Garlic and red ribbons were placed in a baby boy’s crib to protect it from demons or the evil eye.  Lilith is a midrashic character, Adam’s first wife, who, unable to bear children of her own, is forever tying to steal new babies from their mothers.

The specific prohibition against engaging in magic which in my opinion would include superstitious acts which are based on magical beliefs comes from Deuteronomy 18:10-12:

“Let no one be found among you . . . who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.  For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to Adonai . . .“

I can also refer to you a book entitled Jewish Magic and Superstition:  A Study in Folk Religion, by Joshua Trachtenberg.

Question:  If God commanded that amulets are forbidden, on what basis did Rabbis sell amulets, even say that some are kosher, and discuss their usage in the Talmud?

Answer:  The only way I can answer your question is to say that God did not command that amulets are forbidden.  Idols are forbidden by the second commandment, but amulets are not.

Now you are going to ask, what is the difference?  You put me in a difficult spot, because I am of the opinion that most of the amulets that rabbis sell today fall into that category of idol.  An idol is a representation of a god or other divine being or power.  An amulet is a device containing words of God that have protective powers.  One does not pray to an amulet as one prays to an idol.

However, here is the slippery slope.  One prays to an idol in order to have power over the divine forces.  If one believes that an amulet has real power to protect, that implies that by wearing or holding it, one can have the power to control God.  That is to say, if an amulet would protect me against being killed in a traffic accident, then that would force God to divert the drunk driver headed for my car and send him harmlessly (to me, at least) into a ditch.  Therefore, the amulet does become a kind of idol, allowing me to control the divine forces.

To take this a step further:  If one believes that by reciting the proper words of prayer to God, one’s prayers for a bicycle, sunny weather, or other specific physical requests will be granted, then one has turned worship of God into idolatry.  God is not a Santa Clause figure, and prayer is not supposed to be a selfish act of giving God a laundry list of our needs.  Prayer should be an act of acknowledging the power and majesty of God, thanking God for the blessings around us, and this context making general petitions that would add more blessing to our lives.

What would I classify as a “kosher amulet?”  One whose purpose is to remind us of God’s power, but does not imply that by wearing it, we would be able to manipulate God.  A mezuzah is a good example.  A mezuzah reminds us of our obligations to live by God’s Torah and make our homes places of God.  It does not protect us in any real physical way; although there may be tangible physical benefits to  us for being observant Jews, there is no direct connection between the observance of any specific mitzvah and an obvious reward.

I am sure that I disagree with some of the Talmudic traditions on amulets and their use, but I follow the opinions of the great classical philosopher Maimonides and the modern theologian Yishayahu Leibowitz.

Question:  Thank you for your reply. Exodus, chapter 20, lines 3 and 4. “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in the heaven above , or that is in the earth beneath, or is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them or serve them..” The purpose of an amulet is to give good luck, ward off evil spirits, etc. One should pray to God for all those reasons. Any item that substitutes for God is forbidden. there is nothing disrespectful in shaming who advocate the use of amulets as violators of God’s direct commands.

Answer:  Again, I will emphasize that the third commandments is not a prohibition against amulets, but only idols.  I am loathe to classify every amulet as a violation of this prohibition; however, I am quick to point out when amulets or mezuzot are being used for idolatrous purposes.

Question:  Is astrology a useful tool of God?  After all what is the original meaning of Mazal Tov?

You are correct that the original meaning of “mazal tov” is related to the idea that our actions are influences by the constellations.  However, astrology is by and large nothing more than magic.  The Torah is very clear that we are to steer clear of magicians and practioners of “witchcraft.”  I’m not talking about the David Copperfield type of entertainment; I’m referring to those who believe that their predictions or tricks can have a real influence on the world, and by implication, can force God to give them what they want.  The idea that if only we could say the right words or take the right actions, God will give us anything we want is nearly idolatrous.  It turns God into nothing more than a tool for us to use when we want something, rather than the majestic creator of the world.  In short, I do not think that astrology is a useful tool for us to discern God’s will; Torah study is much better!

Question:  What is your view or the view of the Bible on the signs of our birthdays. Like I am Jewish and I am very into astrology and Psychic readings, is that OK to believe strongly in if you are Jewish?

Answer:  In my opinion, a serious reliance on or belief in astrological charts or psychic readings would violate the Biblical prohibition of Deuteronomy 18:10-12:

“Let no one be found among you . . . who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.  For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to Adonai . . .“

A belief that one’s actions or character are determined solely by the moment of ones birth goes against the Jewish belief that God created each one of us as unique human beings with free will.  In addition, although prophetic foretelling of the future is common in the Bible, the verses I quoted above clearly indicate that consulting a psychic (in Biblical language, an augur or diviner) to predict the future is abhorrent to God.  The difference is that a prophet was a person who had a close relationship to God, received prophecy from God, and whose predictions were proven accurate.  Psychics today have no such relationship to God, and their predictions are hit and miss, rather than 100% accurate.  They make a show of being able to foretell the future – in other words, divining the will of God  –  but a close examination of the veracity of their predictions shows them to be dangerous, manipulative, frauds.  I would caution you to stay away from psychics, and to place no reliance on astrology.

Question:  Everyone preaches about God but where is he when you need him the most, my girlfriend has avoided me and has been cruel, what should I do, please email me.

Answer:  I don’t mean to be facetious, but I really don’t think that God is persecuting you by directing the actions of your girlfriend.  If she is being cruel to you and avoiding you, then it is because that is what she has chosen to do, of her own free will.  It seems to me that if this is the case, then she is not the right person for you.  Drop her, and find someone better.  Maybe that’s what God is trying to tell you!  🙂

We have never met, and I may be way off base, but I wonder — where have you gone to seek God that you have not been able to find God?  Have you gotten involved in your local Jewish community?  Are you a member of a synagogue, where you might immerse yourself in study and prayer on a daily or weekly basis?

If you need some help connecting with the Jewish community, tell me more about yourself, including your name and where you live, and I will give you the name and phone number of a nearby rabbi.

Question:  I would like to know how Judaism views the theory of life on Mars.

Answer:  I do not think there is anything in Torah or Jewish tradition that excludes the possibility of life on Mars, or on any other planet in our vast universe.  Certainly it is within God’s power, as creator of our world, to create other worlds with different kinds of life.

In addition, I believe that God has multiple covenants with different peoples on earth:  for example, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Different religions are following alternative covenanted paths towards God, that God revealed to them in their own particular way.  We, as Jews, are obligated to follow our own path, rather than the paths of Christians or Muslims, but that does not mean that every other religious group is wandering blindly, incapable of having a relationship with God.  This put me, clearly, in a different camp than Christian groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, which denies that God hears the prayers of Jews.  What this means, getting back to your question, is that I believe that God can and does have a special relationship with life on other worlds; just as we have our Torah, life on Alpha Centuri (if there is any!) also has its Torah.

Question:  What is non-theism and what is the Conservative Jewish Movement’s response to non-theistic ideals?

Answer: How does Judaism address a system built around humanistic principles rather than divinely originating mitzvot?  Basically, Judaism cares more about one’s behavior than one’s beliefs.  So one could be a reasonably good Jew even if one did not believe in God.  However, in my opinion, this is not a viable system for the long term survival of Judaism, and in general I do not believe that humanist based religions are rooted in a solid moral foundation.

Ultimately, all systems based on human principles are subjective.  Imagine that a group of blond-haired blue-eyed human beings decide that they are superior to those who do not look like them, and based on this they decide to enslave, torture, and murder the inferiors.

As a humanist, my ethical system would come from my sense of what is best for me and my community.  I have no basis to argue that another system different than mine is less valid than mine, because that system is based on the same principle, of what is best for that community.  If someone else feels that enslaving those around them will benefit their community, on what basis do I argue with them as a humanist?

As a Jew who believes in God, I would argue that God created all human beings in God’s image — therefore the commandments of “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do not murder” are absolute.  Distinctions based on race have no justification if we all stem from the same original Adam (and Eve).

I may have digressed somewhat for your question.  To return:  a Jew who professes a public disbelief in God may be accepted as a full member of the Jewish community, and may even be counted in a minyan.  According to one opinion, an atheist may be given an aliyah to the Torah, but the official position of the Conservative movement is that an atheist may not lead services in the role of a shaliah tzibur or cantor.