Protecting Lives Parshat Acharei Mot, Levitcus 16-18:30

“You shall keep My laws and My rules; and live by them; I am God” (Leviticus 18:5).

I am delving into this line because Jewish clergy are being asked this week to speak out on the issue of domestic abuse in our communities.

“Domestic abuse occurs in the Jewish community at the same rate as the general population,” according to the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse’s clergy training manual. There is often denial that anything like this can happen in our communities.

But the Torah does not shy away from difficult topics. When we deny that domestic abuse happens in our communities, do not believe congregants when they tell us about abusive situations, downplay the significance of this issue or suggest that someone remain in an abusive situation for the sake of shalom bayit (a peaceful home), we can endanger the life of a member of our community.

When the rabbis taught that “you shall keep My laws and My rules and live by them,” at minimum you should not die for them. It is from this conclusion that they derive the idea that we may violate the Shabbat and other commandments in order to save a life. This is the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh. It is part of our responsibility as a community to protect the lives of our members by doing all that we can to address issues of domestic abuse and to assist those who are suffering any kind of domestic abuse.

At a recent training for clergy sponsored by the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, we learned that every time one of us speaks out about this issue, the phones begin to ring at the organization. Here is JCADA’s number for those who may need it: 301-315-8041.

If you are reading this article and your spouse is abusing power over you in spiritual, emotional, financial, sexual or physical ways, I want you to know that God wants you to live and that there are people ready and eager to assist you. You are not alone, this is not your fault, and there is help available.

I also want you to know that the Holy One of Blessing does not support this abuse in any way. I pray for you to have strength and courage to reach out.

For people who might notice something that does not seem right with folks in your community, please know it is OK to gently inquire about how things are going and then listen. Expressing care and concern and breaking down the isolation and shame that often accompany domestic abuse is part of becoming a holy community that provides ways for humans to live.

Rabbi Rain Zohav is spiritual adviser for the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, D.C.; education director of the Shirat HaNefesh Shabbat School; and co-director of Educating for Spirituality.

Changing the World While Counting the Omer

This Shabbat is the last day of Passover (Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 and Numbers 28:25), and we can put aside (or throw out) any remaining matzoh and  return to our everyday lives. But can we really? Is the holiday truly finished? Yes, Passover is finished here in the diaspora after eight days, but it actually isn’t finished because Passover is inextricably linked to our next big holiday, Shavuot, through the counting of the Omer.

We began counting the Omer (originally sheaves of wheat from the beginning of the harvest, see Lev. 23:15) on the second night of Passover. We continue counting for a total of 49 days, until we reach Shavuot, the 50th day. The Omer is a period of semi-mourning, but it is also when we celebrate the founding of the State of Israel.

On Passover, we are enjoined to relive the story of our slavery as if we ourselves had been slaves and are now free.


A pilgrimage to offer the first fruits to God in the Temple in Jerusalem distinguishes all three of the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot). These holidays highlight Judaism’s big three — Torah, God and Israel.  We  remember that if it were not for God we would still be slaves in Egypt; if it were not for God we would not have the holy words of Torah as an  exemplar of life; and if it were not for God we would not have the land of Israel as  our spiritual and physical homeland.

On Passover, we are enjoined to relive the story of our slavery as if we ourselves had been slaves and are now free.

Then comes the Omer on the second night. What are we counting? We are counting up to the intellectual, spiritual and ultimately action-oriented places within ourselves to be the people who are continually receiving the Torah and then take its teachings to better ourselves and the world through our actions. Fifty days to count, 50 days to contemplate, 50 days to formulate how we will actualize the godliness within ourselves to repair the world.

As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan noted, we live in multiple civilizations. This teaches me that we cannot afford to stop at the pshat, the surface level of our holidays, observances and teaching.  We must take our particularist perspective and broaden it to the universal. We were strangers, we were slaves and now others are strangers, others are slaves. It’s our responsibility as both Jews and people of the world to make sure that no one lives in  slavery, that everyone is free.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the spiritual leader of the Olney, Md., Kehila.

The First Jewish Doctors Parschat Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59

In 1990, Dr. Gail Wilensky asked me to make an invocation at her installation as director of Medicare and Medicaid. I included Birkat Ha-kohanim, the priestly blessing, since the Torah speaks about the role of the Kohen in diagnosing illness and disease. It also makes the kohanim responsible for public health, although not necessarily as doctors.

Among Parashat Tazria’s concerns are as follows: ritual purity following childbirth for a woman; skin diseases and their diagnoses; designating the Kohen as the diagnostician in determining the type of skin eruption and method of treatment; the laws of leprosy; categories of pure and impure; isolation, confinement and  return to the community.

The commandments presented here provide ways to deal with public health issues without doctors. Yet, Torah  Judaism differed from other societies where magic and medicine men dealt with illness. Judaism rejects magic as a way of responding to illness, and it rejects magic as a way of dealing with the after effects of birth.

In fact, about 213 of the 613 commandments deal with medical issues, quarantine, public welfare and return to the community. While disease may be frightening, one can make the point that studying Tazria and the following portion, Metzorah, may set a young person on a course to one of the medical professions. Rabbi Gunther Plaut said that the Kohen is not a physician and he does not attempt to cure tzarat (traditionally translated as leprosy). Nevertheless, other commentators say that the kohen’s role was more than ritual.

No one is surprised by the idea of rabbis as spiritual counselors, assisting in healing an individual. Our Misheberach prayer for healing reinforces the notion of spiritual healing. And studies have validated the importance of faith, prayer and caring as important, and even essential, components in the well-being of a person.

An entire section of the Mishnah is devoted to Nega’im, afflictions. One passage states the Kohen may not examine the affliction on a cloudy day. Rather, it must be on a clear day, so he can come to a clear conclusion.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland has opened a new exhibition: “Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America.” Deputy director Deborah Cardin points out that Jewish identity has been shaped by our association with medicine. This is a reminder of how the Torah continues to shape our worldview, how the Torah has emphasized the  importance of medical practice and how excelling in this area has propelled us through the ages to the recognition of Judaism’s contribution to the well-being of mankind.

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the spiritual leader of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland, Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf, Md. He is a member of the Educational Directors Council.

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.

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.

Reviving a Jewish Court

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiDuring the centuries of its existence, the Sanhedrin — the great Jewish court of the First and Second Commonwealths, comprised of 71 elders and sages — ruled on every aspect of life and brought unity to the land in decisions binding on the entire nation.

Its members had to be recipients of the classic Jewish ordination that traces itself back to Moses himself and even to the Almighty. But this ordination ended in the third century. On the surface, reviving the Sanhedrin seems impossible, but could it be revived?

A verse in this week’s portion, Vayikkra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26,creates alternative possibilities. In his commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides writes, “If all the Jewish Sages and their disciples would agree on the choice of one person among those who dwell in Israel as their head [but this must be done in the land of Israel], and (that head) establishes a house of learning, he would be considered as having received the original ordination and he could then ordain anyone he desires.”

In an alternate source, however, Maimonides extends the privilege of voting to all adult residents of Israel. This idea reappears in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, where he concludes with the phrase, “this matter requires decision.”

A 1563 effort by a sage of Safed ended with the chief rabbi of Egypt siding with opponents, a group of Jerusalem rabbis, in part because “this matter requires decision” left open the possibility that Maimonides may have changed his mind, leaving the issue unadjudicated.

Three centuries later, the first minister of religion in the new government of the Jewish state, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, renewed this controversy when he tried to convince the political and religious establishments that along with creation of the state should come creation of a Sanhedrin.

In his work “The Renewal of the Sanhedrin in Our Renewed State,” Maimon cites the existence of a copy of Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishnah published along with later additions written by Maimonides, in which he specifically writes that ordination and the Sanhedrin will be renewed before the coming of the messiah.

What is the basis for his most democratic suggestion? I believe it stems from a verse in Vayikkra:

“If the entire congregation of Israel commits an inadvertent violation as a result of (a mistaken legal decision of the highest court) … and they thereby violate one of the prohibitory commandments of God, they shall incur guilt” (Lev. 4:13).

Commentators ask how an “entire congregation” can sin. Rashi identifies the “congregation of Israel” with the Sanhedrin. In other words, when it says, “If the entire congregation of Israel errs” it really means that “if the Sanhedrin errs.”

The institution that protects and defines the law is at the heart of the nation’s existence. How the Jewish people behave, what they do, can become the law.

It should not come as a surprise that Maimonides wanted to revive the ordination, and found a method utterly democratic in its design. The “people” equals the Sanhedrin, the “people” can choose one leading Jew who will then have the right to pass on his ordination to others, to re-create the Sanhedrin. For Maimonides, it is the population of Israel that represents the historical congregation of Israel.

Maimonides is saying that before the next stage of Jewish history unfolds, the nation must decide who shall be given the authority to re-create ordination and who will be the commander-in-chief of the rabbis. Will it happen in our lifetime?

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the founding chief rabbi of Efrat.

Synagogue Equals Community Parshat Pekudei

This shabbat we read Parshat Pekudei, and the Haftarah is from the Book of Kings. The connection between the Torah and Haftarah portion is the building of the tabernacle and the first temple. The tabernacle was built in the desert by Bezalel, and the first Temple was built in Jerusalem by King Solomon. We may ask, “Why do we need a special place to pray to God? Why do people believe that God’s presence can be contained in a physical structure? Is the worship center a place for us or for God?”

I think the answer is that we needed a place to pray, and God wanted a place for us to come together and develop a community. From its earliest time, the synagogue has been a center of Jewish life. For over 2,000 years, the synagogue has served as a place of study for young and old, as a yeshiva, as a place to house the poor, needy and homeless. Perhaps the most important aspects of “synagogue” are the sense of community that exists when we come together as a people for prayer, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings and mourning and to celebrate a birth. We understand that the synagogue is part of celebrating our life-cycle events. Synagogue has also taken on additional purposes, where members have helped to create projects for our people and for others in our community.

A community lives by certain ideas and values. Communities help and protect each other. For example, for my bat mitzvah project, I have chosen to collect clothing, toiletries and letters to send to the IDF soldiers in Israel. I am doing this through an organization called A Package from Home. This organization will pick up the packages in Israel and deliver them to the soldiers. They also use donations to buy other necessities for the soldiers. They buy the goods in Israel to support the Israeli economy. We support the IDF, and the IDF protects the Jewish communities in Israel and at large.

Today, the synagogue serves as a center of community, where we come together for three things: al shlosha devarim haolam omed, al HaTorah, al Haavoda, v’al gemilut hasadim, as it says in Pirkei Avot  In this case, our Baltimore community is working together to help a other community in our homeland, in Israel. Together, we have continued to build sanctuary and community as discussed in this week’s Torah and Haftarah portions.

Time to Plug Out Parshat Vayakhel

EFRAT, Israel — Why can’t I go on Facebook on Shabbat or text my friend? I understand that it is forbidden for me to get involved in a physical action such as bricklaying or even working an eight-hour day in the office, but what kind of work is involved in a simple text to a friend? Is not such human communication the very purpose of Shabbat rest? There certainly is not even a hint of “kindling a fire,” nor even the creation of a spark or the turning on of a light, in sending a text, so why is it forbidden? These are the questions I am receiving from more and more of the youngsters who are part of our age of the Internet.

What is the proper response? A careful study of these opening verses to this week’s portion of Vayakhel clearly teaches that Shabbat is more than a respite from the physical activities in which we are engaged during the rest of the week, is more than a welcome day of physical rest from a six-day work week of physical exertion. But if that were to be the whole point of Shabbat, then one could spend it
comfortably relaxing in bed without any activity whatsoever. And that is not what the biblical text is teaching when it states, “The seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbath of Sabbaths [Shabbaton, a special day of more than physical rest] for the Lord [of love],” a sacred day dedicated to God on High and not only to the comfort of your aching body!

If you study the second Mishna in the seventh chapter of Tractate Shabbat, you will see that the very order of the listed 39 forbidden creative activities go from the production of bread to the production of garments to the production of leather to the acts of building structures.

In effect, the Mishna is teaching that although it is legitimate to provide for the basic necessities of human existence — food, clothing and shelter — during the six workdays of the week, Shabbat must remind us of the essence and purpose of human life: to communicate with our family members and with our community members, to make sensitive and sentient contact with the glories of nature surrounding us (the God without) and with the “soul of life inspirited within us” (the God within). Shabbat is a day put aside
for reflecting upon and for
expressing the very purpose of our being, the “why” for which I am living, rather than the how to continue to exist as comfortably as possible.

Indeed, our generation has more human communication but less real communication than ever before. We constantly text message but before we can read what came a minute ago, two more new messages have already arrived. Shabbat provides the opportunity to “plug out” for one day a week in order to more successfully “plug-in” the other six days; without that Shabbat respite, you just may become “plugged up.”

The Lowly High Priest Parshat Tetzaveh

I’ve always been amazed at the complexity of the Hebrew language. One of the most profound examples is the word ga’avah, which can be translated as pride — something we all wish to possess, something we’re taught is an important sought-after trait; but ga’avah can just as easily be translated as arrogance, a repugnant trait, one from which we’re all taught to steer clear.

What’s the message of a word so easily confused? Why not have two completely distinctive words for contrary concepts?

The message is profound in its simplicity: They really are the same trait, just exercised differently. And in the blink of an eye, an admirable pride can easily become an off-putting arrogance. People are naturally attracted to self-pride. We love knowing someone cares about himself and recognizes his talent and ability. We love when someone projects a powerful confidence, an awareness that they have something special to contribute to the world. And just like that, with a few simple words or the slight change in a smile, that pride converts into an arrogance we can’t help but loathe.

These two concepts — pride and arrogance — are forever intertwined, and we must struggle daily to have tremendous amounts of pride in ourselves and our accomplishments without inadvertently veering across the line into the distasteful realm of arrogance.

I think this message finds itself hidden within the many details of Parshat Tetzaveh. In this parshah we learn all about the clothing worn by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest of the Jewish people, one of the most important leadership roles and arguably the most central religious figure of his generation. The Kohein Gadol, fitting so auspicious a position, wears an elaborate outfit, distinct from the one worn by the many other individuals who work alongside him in the Temple.

We might expect that such an admired role would be filled with even more pomp and circumstance on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But that day yields no special outfit. In fact, quite the opposite. Not only does he spend large portions of the day wearing the clothing normally worn by the other priests, he has to be inconvenienced by switching back and forth between the two outfits several times throughout the day.

Furthermore, despite that he holds so lofty a position and fasts alongside the rest of the Jewish people, his day is inundated with labor from start to finish, while the rest of us look on as mere inactive spectators. I can’t help but be reminded of one my most inspiring and incredible neighbors, who despite being a generous and influential doctor in the community (and not a young man at all), spends Tzom Gedalya, a minor fast day shortly after Rosh Hashanah, driving all over town helping community members build their sukkot. What a message to the young and healthy among us who would prefer to sleep a fast away! We are left with no excuse to be lazy, whether fasting or otherwise.

I’m also reminded of every quality employer I’ve ever had. The best among them universally shared a trait: They were always willing to get their hands dirty. How different this is than our typical mental picture of the CEO of the corporation who sits with his feet on his desk in an air-conditioned office, hands behind his head, contemplating his next vacation, sponsored by the rigorous and lengthy labor of the little guy.

The great people of this world work hard, and consistently, even when it would least be expected of them.

Perhaps it’s all inherent in the system: The Kohein Gadol is assisted in resisting the temptation to cross the line from pride to arrogance. You have a man of incredible worth, having risen to the top through a coveted blend of inheritance and worthiness, on a day like no other, with all eyes upon him. How easy it would be to feel on top of the world and better than those not receiving such tremendous honors. But the day is Yom Kippur. To be certain, it is a day replete with splendor, but also a day in which we cannot risk the possibility of the Kohein Gadol not being his ideal self. The entire nation is dependent upon him, and we cannot risk one of the basest of personality flaws tainting him at such a critical moment.

Yitzchak Jaffe is a former resident of Baltimore and teacher at Beth Tfiloh. He lives in Kansas City, Kan., works as a quality assurance analyst and is the father of four children.

My House, and His House Parshat Terumah

There is a well-known joke that is told about the Jews that I find particularly sad. The joke tells of a group of explorers who find a Jew who has been stranded on a desert island for years. As he takes them around the island and shows them how he survived, they find that he built two synagogues for himself. When asked why he needs two since he is all alone, he says that one is the one he prays in, and the other is the one he would never walk into.

This joke, if you can call it that, makes a discouraging comment about some of our people. Some of us to seem to have a favorite house in which to worship and another house that we stubbornly shun.

It is true that every Jew needs at least two houses of worship. But he must enter both of them. One is his synagogue, and the other is his home.

Jewish worship takes place in the home to an even greater extent than in the synagogue. It is in the home that we recite grace after meals, prayers upon awakening and before bedtime, special prayers before Shabbat candle lighting, and countless informal prayers and benedictions.

The synagogue, on the other hand, is the place for formal prayer and for communal worship.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, we learn of the very first house of worship: the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. We also learn about some of the furnishings that were essential to the construction of this house.

I want to suggest that these furnishings are not merely of historical import but are necessary in both the public synagogue and the private home.

The first three components mentioned in this week’s Torah portion are the Ark, in which the tablets with the Ten Commandments, and according to some, the entire Torah, are contained; the holy Table upon which 12 breads were placed every Sabbath; and the golden Menorah, exquisitely decorated.

These three vessels are also prominent features of both synagogue and home and indeed should be so.

Like the Tabernacle of old, every synagogue today has an ark in which the Torah scrolls, often along with scrolls of the Prophets and of the Megilot, are contained.

In our faith, traditional holy texts are at the core of our worship. The original holy texts were housed in the Tabernacle’s Ark, and later in the Ark of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. So too, in the contemporary synagogue, the holy texts are central to our worship experience, and every occupant of the synagogue faces those texts as he or she prays.

Where, you might ask, is the analog of the Ark in one’s private home? I maintain that the bookcase is the Ark of one’s personal dwelling. Ideally, that bookcase contains the entire Jewish Bible, along with essential commentaries and classic Jewish texts.

So the Ark, which was situated prominently in the Tabernacle, is a feature of both of our “houses of worship”; our synagogue and our home.

So too, with the table. A wooden table covered over with a layer of gold occupied a place of honor in the Tabernacle. The food kept there, the “shew bread” was distributed to the priests on duty every Sabbath. This table symbolized the divine blessings of sustenance.

Every synagogue has a bima that is analogous in many ways to the table in the Tabernacle. The synagogue’s table is the place from which the Torah is read and from which God’s spiritual nourishment is shared.

In traditional synagogues, this table is not placed up front, on stage as it were, for spectators to behold. Rather, it is placed in the middle of the synagogue sanctuary, among the people. The message is clear: The table symbolizes God’s spiritual providence and bounty and as such is something of which every member of the congregation should partake.

The table in the home, equally sacred, is the place for physical nourishment. A beautiful Talmudic expression has it that “the table is like an altar.” Whereas the Jew of old expressed his ultimate sense of worship by offering a sacrifice upon the altar, the contemporary Jew worships God by sharing the food on his table with other individuals.

Again, like the Ark, the table that glorified the ancient tabernacle persists as a central feature of both of our modern houses of worship, our synagogues and our homes.

Finally, the golden Menorah that beautified the historic tabernacle and the later Beit Hamikdash. Just about every synagogue I ever attended features a menorah in a very conspicuous place. And Chanukah menorot occupy a place of honor in the Judaic art collections of even the humblest Jewish home.

There is a symbolism to the Menorah that is even more apt when applied to the two houses of worship we have been discussing. The Menorah symbolizes light; the light of wisdom, the light of the intellect. A central feature of Judaism is that it is not a mystical religion based upon blind faith or irrational emotions. Quite the contrary. Our faith is largely based upon reason and is respectful of the power of the intellect and the gift of true wisdom. Thus, many commentators see a connection between the seven branches of the Menorah and the seven classical sciences, or categories of knowledge. The Torah is pre-eminently sacred, but other sources of wisdom are important and have their place.

So too, in our two houses of worship. Our synagogues must allow for the expression of knowledge from all human sources. As Maimonides put it, “We must accept the truth from wherever it comes.” For him, that meant even from the ancient Greek philosophers.

Our private homes must be open to the truths of science, of literature, and of other cultures. The intellectual life should not be seen as threatening to our religious belief. A life of Torah is made more sublime when it is appropriately enriched by the wisdom of the world.

When some people read this weekís portion, they are frequently put off by the details of an ancient religious structure that seems to have little relevance for their lives. But by looking a little more deeply, and with a dose of creative contemplation, there is much to be learned from even the most technical and seemingly outdated passages of our Torah.