Sunday, May 29, 2011

Maimonides, “Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte”

Thus says Moses, the son of Rabbi Maimon (Rambam), one of the exiles from Jerusalem, who lived in Spain:

I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte, may HaShem reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by HaShem the holy One of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.

You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our G-d” and “G-d of our fathers,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our fathers,” and more of this kind.

Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is, that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of G-d; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of HaShem forever, as it is written, “For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of HaShem, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Ever since then whoever adopts Torah Judaism and confesses the unity of HaShem, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him. These men are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness.

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Torah Judaism.

Therefore you shall pray, “Our G-d” and “G-d of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray, “You who have taken for his own our fathers,” for the land has been given to Abraham, as it is said, “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give to you” (Gen. 13:17). As to the words, “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt” or “You who have done miracles to our fathers” — these you may change, if you will, and say, “You who have brought Israel out of the land of Egypt ” and “You who have done miracles to Israel.” If, however, you do not change them, it is no transgression, because since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed HaShem, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is it said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to HaShem, speak, saying, ‘HaShem has utterly separated me from His people’” (Is. 56:3).

There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing, “Who has chosen us,” “Who has given us,” “Who have taken us for Your own” and “Who has separated us”: for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Torah. For the Torah has been given to us and to the proselytes, as it is said, “One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourns with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before HaShem” (Num. 15:15). Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, may He be blessed, sent Moses our Teacher, the master of all prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave to all of us one Torah.

Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: “One shall say, I am HaShem’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Is. 44:5).

Friday, May 27, 2011


The Torah defines how a Jew serves, and thereby cleaves to HaShem (Deut. 13:1-6). This goal is achieved through Torah learning and observing the commandments. If a Torah Jew unintentionally neglected these duties, a subjective sense of personal failure, disconnection, and displeasure from Heaven could result. Often one misinterpreted these “feelings” and any negative experiences that followed as “punishment” from Heaven. The nations usually responded to guilt and personal misfortune with fear, believing heaven was angry and exacting punishment, until the gods were appeased. However, the Torah paints a different picture for the Jew (Hosea 14:2-3; Ps.51:16-19; Prov. 21:3).

With most of the commandments of the Torah...if a Jew “unwittingly” or “unintentionally” violated what the Torah prescribes... no punishments were administered from Heaven - for any “unintentional” violation. Instead, the “unintentional” violator was obligated to feel deeply troubled by their “unintentional” error and respond by bringing the appropriate offering to the Temple during the final stages of the atonement process (Numbers 15:27-31). The reasoning behind this is that if the “careless unintentional” sinner had sincerely regarded certain specific commandments with the proper gravity, the violations would not have occurred. As experience teaches, people are careful about things that matter to them, but tend to be careless about trivialities (Leviticus 4:27-28).

So during the atonement process, HaShem used an animal’s life and later its death to achieve His Divine Will in the life of a Torah Jew. This was accomplished within the sacrificial process as the “inadvertent” violator became increasingly aware of HaShem’s loving-kindness through the Temple service.

So how is HaShem's loving-kindness found within the Temple service? Some of the details of this idea are brought out — when digging deeper into the concept of “vicarious atonement” within our Jewish tradition:

“Through the sacrifice one realized that HaShem allowed the life of an animal to be taken as a substitute for the sinner.”

It is vital to understand that the idea of “vicarious atonement” found in the statement above…does NOT center on the death on an animal. Instead, this idea is to be found within the heart and mind of the one offering the sacrifice. For the Torah Jew knows that HaShem does not take pleasure in the death on an animal (Jeremiah 7:22-23; Hosea 6:1-6; Psalm 51:18) nor is a sacrifice to be understood as a means of escaping punishment — or appeasing a “just” and angry G-d, as the nations believed (Deut. 12:29-31; Proverbs 15:81-9; Is. 43:22-28; Amos 5:21-27) . The sacrificial system should NEVER be understood this way.

Only an individual who has experienced and expressed heartfelt repentance… understands the REAL purpose within the concept of a “vicarious” sacrifice… and why HaShem would even allow it in the first place. You see…for the Torah Jew, heartfelt repentance created deep sorrow, and the truly repentant would gladly give up their own life for dishonoring HaShem. In other words, true repentance produces a desire to offer "myself" on the altar — upon realizing I misused the life HaShem gave me.

When a Torah Jew truly feels remorse in their process of returning to HaShem (repentance)...we feel undeserving of the gift of life...since we failed to use our life to serve HaShem...and instead - chose to serve ourselves...or other gods…even if done “unintentionally.”

When experiencing the deep sorrow ALL Torah Jews feel…when failing in our purpose, the Torah strongly prohibits intentionally causing physical injury to oneself in any way (Lev. 19:28; Deut. 14:1). Nor are we to even consider human sacrifice of any kind (Gen. 22; Lev. 18:21; Deut 12; Deut. 18:10). As a result, HaShem provided a way within the atonement process, in which a repentant sinner, could symbolically offer up their “inner most parts” on the altar (Genesis 22; Lev 17:11) without physically harming the pinnacle of creation— the human being (Micah 66-8; Ezekiel 18; Genesis 1:24-31; Genesis 2:7; Psalm 8). The idea that HaShem wants us to LIVE and NOT die… is a central theme in the Hebrew Bible.

Ezekiel 18:21-23
“But if a person who violates My Torah… turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all My decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the ones who violate my Torah declares HaShem? Am I not pleased when they turn from their sinful ways... and live?’

During the time of the Temple…within its service- HaShem provided a way by which we could “vicariously” offering up our animal “like” inclinations through symbolically offering ourselves- via the sacrifice of an animal. Thus HaShem allowed us to express - in a physical way, our total repentance and desire to move on from past mistakes…and improve (Psalm 51-18-21; Psalm 84:2-3.)

Through our offerings we thus learn - that even though we fail... and even though we may feel like we want to take our own life...because we momentarily lost sight of our true purpose. We must allow our deep sense of shame and guilt cause us to return to HaShem…through the service of the altar. Thus allowing it teach us - that we must comfort our souls by resting in HaShem's that we should LIVE- and NOT die.