Spiritual Bliss Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47, Numbers 19:1-22

I have a Muslim friend and colleague, and given we are the only ones in the office not partaking of the frequent handouts of ham sandwiches and pepperoni pizzas, the discussion of “why not” is oft repeated. And whereas my colleague proudly states that he refuses to partake of unclean animals, I can’t help but sympathize with those who then proceed to pummel all over his argument.

I don’t believe non-kosher animals are unclean. Rather, I believe the non-kosher foods spoken of in this week’s parsha “do not cause physical harm; rather, they prevent the heart from achieving its spiritual goals” (Sefer HaChinuch).

One of the threads that binds the Jewish people is the notion that we’re all searching for something. Among my many quirks as a teen was becoming a vegetarian. In my early years of Shabbat observance, I sat at the table of a Chassidic butcher. I braced for his reaction.

No laughter, no derision. He told me he believed that by not consuming non-kosher meat, my soul was more spiritually aware, capable of bringing me closer to Judaism and God Himself. Some might find the term “spiritually aware” out of place or not something they’re used to associating with  Judaism. The question comes from those who believe “spiritual awareness” is not something that comes through diet, that we can only achieve such a lofty state through meditation and solemn contemplation.

But our holy Torah proudly proclaims in this parsha, after explaining at length many of our laws of kashrut, “You shall become holy, for I am holy” (Vayikra 11:45). Siduro shel Shabbat explains that “to  become holy, one must first sanctify himself through the ‘lowly’ things of this world, such as behavior and morality. Only this decent type of individual receives assistance from above.”

I am not opposed to meditation. However, a little time on this world has shown me that greatness in life is not achieved through meditation but rather through placing depth and meaning into everyday actions: taking the seemingly mundane and filling it to the brim with holiness.

On Purim we have two  obligations to give: one to those less fortunate than ourselves and the other to someone with whom we are close. And then there’s the feast. And therein lies the true magic  of the day: how we conduct ourselves while eating and drinking, whether or not we choose to let these actions pull us down or assist us in letting our souls shine forth, shine the brightest light on our true spiritual selves.

May our every action, great or small, overflow with spiritual bliss.

Yitzchak Jaffe is a former resident of Baltimore and teacher at Beth Tfiloh. He now lives in Kansas City, Kan.

Just Don’t Get It

I find it interesting that even after so many years of spurned attempts by Israel to exchange land for peace that there are still unwavering  “holdouts” who believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about Palestinian quests for land  acquisition.

In “Outside The Tent” (March 18), Fred L. Pincus bemoaned his discomfort while attending the Darrel D. Friedman Institute’s sessions on “Confronting the New Anti-Semitism.” As an admitted outsider to mainstream Jewish activity, Pincus believes that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement will serve to end the conflict in the disputed territories in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

I wonder if the Pincus’ feelings of alienation might be lessened by continued participation at lectures and classes given by the Jewish community. Perhaps then he would respond to upsetting news such as the thousand new Palestinian homes that have been constructed, without permits, in Israel Area C and funded by the European Union. If you love Israel, Jewish or not, this should agitate  remembering that about 25 years ago, the Oslo Accords  divided the West Bank into three areas, the first two of which (A&B) went to the Palestinians. According to EU papers, the unauthorized EU building is an attempt to give the Palestinians more control and to redraw the borders of Israel.

The Israeli Knesset has  expressed outrage (understandably so) at the EU’s meddling in a foreign dispute. To those who still don’t get it, it’s a tired argument to believe that the ongoing conflict is over land distribution.

Uplift Baltimore

I applaud you for the JT’s  recent coverage of the issues raised by the response to Freddie Gray’s death last April. In “All In for B’more” (March 18), you have made your readership aware of what we can and should do next. “Lifting Baltimore out of the morass … will require … support of the state and federal governments.”  I hope that the JT will report on what we do and don’t  accomplish in that regard in  Annapolis during the 90-day legislative session.

Lamenting Change

I write to echo Judy Chernak’s comments in “Your Say” of March 11. As I have counted the dwindling number of pages with each edition of the Jewish Times since the change in management and leadership, I wondered what else could be and would be done to diminish the quality and reputation of what was once an award-winning publication, and then you went and did it!

The change in paper is not so egregious. Longtime readers will recall that the JT was once printed on non-glossy paper (although perhaps not newsprint). However, the  addition of color on every page and the clear escalation in the number of advertisements is truly pitiable. These moves make the publication feel like the free circulars that one finds in a rack at the  entrance of a grocery store.

I suspect that many of us weep by the waters of Babylon.

Senator Support

I could not agree more with the Jewish Times’ endorsement of Chris Van Hollen to replace the retiring Barbara Mikulski as our next U.S. Senator. In her many years in the Senate, Mikulski had a very pro-Israel voting record. In contrast, Donna Edwards, who is running against Van Hollen, does not have a favorable voting record toward the State of Israel.  According to The Baltimore Sun, “Edwards’ record on  Israel represents a tangible  divergence from Congressman Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who has supported many pro-Israel resolutions while in Congress.”

Van Hollen has led on many important issues since being elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, and we should support him as our next senator from Maryland.

Shul Memories

As an avid reader of the Jewish Times and as someone who enjoys all references to those Jewish institutions that were so much a part of my youth in Baltimore and were so meaningful, I thoroughly enjoyed the “Past Presence” series (March 11 and March 18).

I was a bit disappointed that I saw no references to the Poppleton Street Shul, which was located near the B&O Railroad Museum. That was my bubbie and zeyde’s shul where we children would participate in the annual Simchas Torah march around the Shul. I  attended day camp at the YMHA on Monument Street, and most of my Hebrew education, athletics, summer camp employment and social life took place at Beth Tfiloh. I can recall walking the four blocks from my elementary school at Garrison and Maine to Hebrew School at Beth Tfiloh and walking with my friends on Saturday mornings to attend services held in the basement, or “Little Shul,” where Mr. Levi and Mr. Steinharter supervised the student leaders of the service — Larry Kaufman and Jay Karpa.

I was devastated when my father, of blessed memory, joined a group of men from Beth Tfiloh in 1947 to start Beth El so that they could sit with their wives during services. Beth El began in a room upstairs from a Read’s Pharmacy on Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak avenues and held about 40 people. High Holiday services were held in the Gwynn Movie Theatre next door until Beth El established its first sanctuary and Hebrew school at Hilton and Dorithan roads in Ashburton around 1954.

It’s interesting to see that many of the millennial generation are settling in Fells Point and Canton, where their great-grandparents were when they first came. Keep up the great historical references.

The Open Curtain Parshat Tzav; Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

One day we were to study page 55 in the tractate Zevachim. This tome deals with laws pertaining to the ritual sacrifices in the Holy Temple. The biblical basis of these laws is found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36). There, we learn about a variety of voluntary sacrifices that individuals can offer: the olah, a burnt  offering totally consumed by fire upon the altar; the mincha, a meal offering composed of flour and oil and frankincense; and the shelamim, in which some sections of the sacrificial animal are placed upon the altar but other portions are distributed to the priests and to the donors of the sacrifice to be eaten by them.

We were familiar with the many differences between the aforementioned sacrifices,  including the fascinating fact that the olah and mincha could be offered by non-Jews, whereas the shelamim could not. Many reasons are offered for this  distinction.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote: “The world’s many cultures cannot comprehend how matters of the flesh can be considered sacred. They struggle with the concept that physical tasks can be intrinsically spiritual.” Other cultures can readily accept that a sacrifice, which is totally consumed upon the altar, can be an act of worship. But that ordinary people, the donors of a particular sacrificial offering, can sit down to a festive meal and enjoy the food as an act of worship — that is totally alien and unacceptable to them. Only one who identifies with the teachings of the Jewish tradition can appreciate that partaking in a delicious meal in the company of one’s family and friends is sublimely spiritual.

Part of that day’s lecture dealt with the requirement that the magnificent doors separating the area of the altar from the central Temple chamber, or heichal, must be opened before the shelamim sacrifice can commence. While preparing for that day’s lecture,  I encountered an interesting  dispute between the two major commentators on the Talmudic page: Rashi and Tosafot. Rashi maintains that only for the shelamim must these doors remain open. They did not have to remain open for other sacrifices. Tosafot disagree and maintain that this requirement was true for all sacrifices.

I suggested to the class that the approach of Rashi  was consistent with Rabbi Kook’s thinking. The open doors of the heichal were symbolic of the connection that exists in Judaism, and arguably only in Judaism, between that most sacred inner chamber of the Temple in which the Divine Presence was centered and the outer world in which ordinary humans share sacrificial flesh. The open doors symbolize the absence of barriers between the sacred and the profane.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

Jewish Buildings? Really?

In reference to “Past Presence” (March 11), I find amusing the German Reform temples’ choice of “Americanized”  architecture due to the assimilationist values of these  congregations. It seems that yes, they were Jewish buildings, but you’d have to look hard to prove it.

The only building to display the Star of David so prominently was that of the Eutaw Place Oheb Shalom. Baltimore Hebrew’s facade displayed a tiny star above the doorway with the Ten Commandments as did Chizuk Amuno’s. As these congregations moved to the suburbs, Jewish symbols were practically devoid in place of modernistic geometric designs. Were these new buildings places of worship or spaceships?  The Star of David and tablets are much prominent on buildings of Conservative and Orthodox nature. Why is that?

Deborah Weiner of the Jewish Museum of Maryland mentioned that The Associated’s building was built downtown because it wasn’t known where Jews and blacks were migrating, and they wanted it to  locate in a neutral zone. I find this interesting because The Associated’s building was constructed during the 1930s, when Jews were the majority population in Forest Park and Park Heights. Blacks did not start moving to these areas until the late 1950s at the earliest, so The Associated could have located in either of these areas with no problem.

As a researcher and historian who has read virtually every issue of the Jewish Times from 1919 until now, it  becomes easy to see exactly when these changes took place within the former Jewish neighborhoods. All you have to do is read the ads.

Republican Jews: Beware of Trump

As Donald Trump continues to call for banning all Muslims and walling off Mexicans from entering our country (“Trump’s Reality Candidacy,” March 11), I am reminded of a memorial I saw at the Immigration Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was called the “Wheel of Conscience” by Daniel Libeskind and commemorated the refusal of a safe haven to the ship St. Louis, which was transporting 1,000 European Jews fleeing the Nazis. It had already been turned away by Cuba and the United States. Canada was its last hope, and it too said no.

The memorial is a large clockwork figure on which the main gear “hatred” turns the other gears labeled “racism,” “xenophobia,” and “anti-Semitism.” The Canadians commissioned this memorial to express their regret and shame for the decision they had made, which sent desperate people back to Europe, where 250 of them were killed in concentration camps.

There is no such expression of regret in the United States. Donald Trump and his fellow nominees, in varying degrees, are pandering to a large group of Americans who are akin to  European nativists who spawned Hitler and his regime. I fear  that a similar phenomenon is  happening here in the U.S.

Whether the eventual  Republican nominee is Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, the message is the same: Restrict immigration; stop refuges from entering the US; fear anyone who is not like I am, and call that person un-American.

Passover will soon be here. At Seders everywhere we will be saying some variation of “Remember the Stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This appears throughout our Torah; we are meant to take it seriously. It has been our history to wander through the world, seeking acceptance, shelter and support. How can we refuse that to others?

I urge all of those Jewish people who are Republicans to give deep thought before pulling the lever. Is the Republican platform of exclusion,  rejection and fear of the other congruent with your values?  I hope not.

Where Was BJC?

The Maryland Senate voted on March 17 to remove references to the Confederacy from Maryland’s official state song.  No thanks to the Baltimore Jewish Council (“It’s Not ‘My Maryland,’ Your Say, March 4).