Kabbalah Kronicles 1 – What is a Jew?
Sunday, April 10, 2011 By stuv
by Uncle Zally/Zalman Velvel
Welcome to the maiden voyage of Kabbalah Kronicles. Each week I will be sending out a humorous article about what we learned in Kabbalah Klass with Rabbi Yitchok Minkowicz of Chabad, Fort Myers. If you want to get this article automatically each week, subscribe to the RSS feed in the upper right corner of my website www.ZalmanVelvel.com . If the RSS feed is not easy for you, then just opt-in by entering your name and email address in the opt-in box on my home page, and the article will be emailed to you. If all that is still too complicated, then just bookmark www.ZalmanVelvel.com/blog and that will take you right to it. Enjoy!
So I’m sitting in Kabbalah Klass on Shabbos morning, listening to my Rabbi explain how the soul has five parts. I’m wondering, “How does anybody really know what a soul is, let alone that it has five parts?”
I look around the room to see if anyone else is wondering the same thing, and I notice what an eclectic bunch of Jews we are, gathered together, studying Jewish mysticism. I’ll tell you more about the group in coming articles, but let me start by saying we have a professional comedian, a former minister who was a basketball star, and a widow who is on a personal basis with God. And those are the more normal ones.
All this leads me to start wondering, “What is a Jew, anyway?”
If you say, “A Jew follows the Torah,” then how do you account for all the Jews who don’t even know what’s in a Torah? And what about Jews like me, who know what’s in it, and still manage to mess things up. Most of us sitting here and listening to the Rabbi have driven to shul on Shabbos, even though we know it is wrong to drive on Shabbos.
You could also dispute that I even know what’s in the Torah, like our greatest living Talmudic sage, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz did when I met him for the first time ten years ago in Jerusalem, at the Chabad synagogue, the Tzemach Tzedek. I had the nerve to tell him I understood the Torah, and he said, and I quote: “You understand the Torah like someone flying over France in a jet plane understands the French people.”
He’s a funny guy, Rabbi Steinsaltz. I like catching up with him when I am in Jerusalem. The last time I did was on the shabbos before Yom Kippur, about a year and a half ago. He was on the bimah of the Tzemach Tzedek, giving a deep, mystical dvar torah, and right in front of him, about four feet away, was an old Jew, snoring.
I’m thinking, that has to be a humility check for our greatest living Torah sage, someone who was elected to be the head of the Sanhedrin, the great judges, should the Messiah come and the Third Temple is built. But no, Rabbi Steinsaltz kept right on going with his speech, talking over the snoring. If it was me up there speaking, I would have grabbed the shoulder of that old Jew and shook him awake, shabbos or no shabbos. It drives me crazy when people yawn while I am speaking. Someone snoring would really steam me.
Rabbi Steinsaltz comes up with some pretty heavy thoughts, thoughts that combine great learning with a great heart. In one of his books, he recognized the fact we Jews come in so many varieties, with so many opinions of what is right and wrong on how a Jew should act, that we behave more like family members than a religion.
We love each other, and fight with each other, just like family members. Only a Jew knows how to really get inside the kishkas of another Jew, like your mother or father or sister or brother. I have ten people working for me at one of my properties, only one of which is a Jew. Guess who is the trouble maker, the one who challenges me? And you know what gets me – sometimes he is right. We Jews can’t leave well enough alone, we just have to try to make things better – tikun olam.
Guess who is the trouble maker in our Kabbalah Klass? That’s right, yours truly. And when I get called out on it, I quote Rabbi Steinsaltz in my defense. The good Rabbi actually got up in front of a NYC yeshivah and had the nerve to tell the students, in front of their teachers and principal:
“Make the lives of your teachers miserable.”
He was not asking the students to be disrespectful, but telling them to challenge their teachers’ knowledge, making them dig deeper to teach, and thus learn themselves. Well, I would like to challenge Rabbi Steinsaltz on his definition of a Jew, also, since the good Rabbi is also my teacher, and now I have his permission to make his life miserable. He writes:
"To be a member of a family is a fact that a person can relate to emotionally in any manner he pleases, but he cannot alter the fact or cut the tie," Rabbi Steinsaltz writes. "He is genetically bound up with the family past, and thereby also bound to its present and future."
Explaining that being Jewish is more like a family than a religion answers a lot, and leaves a lot out. There are dysfunctional families, abusive families, and families that are downright crazy … like some of the people in my Kabbalah Klass. What kind of Jewish family is the right Jewish family to be? How should a Jewish family act toward each other?
Look at that. Isn’t that just like a Jew? I start with one question, and after I get an answer, I pile on two more questions.
Next week, the Rabbi is going to discuss how to access your soul through meditation, so you will be a good Jew all the time, and be happy. Then he is going to teach us how to know when God is speaking to us when we access our souls, or it’s just some brain noise … This I gotta see.
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