9.1. Mitzvoth for all: The Laws of Noah, a Common Base for Jews and Gentiles.

There are seven commandments that the rabbinical tradition considers as the minimum moral obligation of all men. Jews must observe all of the 613 commandments of the Torah, but those Gentiles who accept these seven obligations, are considered “Children of the Covenant” that God made with Noah, and therefore are assured a place in “The World to Come” (Olam Habá). These rules, known as the “Laws of Noah,” extend the divine mandate to the non-Jewish domain.

These seven commandments are based on several verses from the Torah, such as Genesis 2: 16,17, where God prohibits man eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Genesis 9: 4, 6, which say: (4):” But meat with his life, which is his blood, you shall not eat. ”, (6): “ He who sheds man’s blood, by man his blood will be shed. ”, and Leviticus 24:15 that says:“ Whoever blasphemes against his God will bear his guilt.”

The oral tradition collected in the Talmud tells us how our sages interpreted and explained these Torah verses in various treatises, like Breishit Rabbah 34:8 which says: “R. Aivu said: Noah’s sons were commanded seven things: [No..] idolatry, incest, murder, curse of the Divine Name [blasphemy], civil law and a limb plucked from a living animal. Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel says: also, on the blood of a living animal. Rabbi Eleazar says: also, against the mixture of species. Rabbi Shime’on ben Yochai says: also, against witchcraft. Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka says: also, against emasculation. Rabbi Assi said: Noah’s sons were commanded with respect to everything that is said in the prayer: ‘No one will be found among you who passes his son or daughter through the fire.” (Deuteronomy 18:10)

The seven laws of Noah accepted by the majority of our sages are:

– Do not engage in idolatry.

– Do not use the name of God in vain. Do not blaspheme.

– Do not kill. Do not spill blood.

– Avoid forbidden sexual relations.

– Do not steal or rob.

– Do not eat meat from a live animal.

– Establish courts of law, that is, a legal system.

Maimonides regarded the righteous of nations, as those who will have a part in the world to come, even if they are not Jewish, on the condition that they keep these laws. He said that they are entitled to all the moral and material support of the Jewish community and to receive the highest honors. Modern thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn and Hermann Cohen underlined how Noah’s Laws marked a common ground between Gentile and Jewish thought.

By: Marcos Gojman.

Bibliography: Rabbi Yaakov Menken “The everything Torah Book”, Jeffrey Spitzer “The Noahide Laws” and other sources.

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8.1. Creation: The Place Where Religion and Science Meet.

It is written in the first verses of the book of Genesis: “1. In the beginning (Hebrew: “Breishit”) God created the heavens and the earth. 2. And the earth was not formed and empty, and the darkness was on the face of the abyss, and a wind of God moved on the face of the waters. 3. And God said: Let there be light; and there was light. 4. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. ”

Man has always wondered about the origin of the universe. Until the middle of the 20th century, scientific theory held fast to the idea that the universe was eternal, that it had no beginning and no end. The idea that the universe did have a beginning, as stated by the Torah in its first verses, was considered impossible. Science and religion seemed to be at odds with each other. For this reason, the rabbis chose to prohibit questioning the origin of the universe, with this Midrash that says: “Why was the world created with the letter B (” bet “in Hebrew)? Just as the shape of the letter “bet” is closed on three sides and open only on the front, so you do not have permission to investigate what is above (the heavens), what is below (the deep), what which was before (of the six days of creation). You only have permission to investigate from the moment the world was created.”

In 1946, George Gamow surprised the scientific community with a new theory that stated that the universe started at a precise moment, about 15 billion years ago and that it also came out of nowhere. Gamow did not try to explain the origin of that huge burst of energy and light, popularly known as the Big Bang. But he did explain that when something or Someone said, “Let there be light,” the tremendous energy that was created was the basis of all matter that exists in the universe. In 1960, it was technically possible to detect the electromagnetic radiation predicted by the Big Bang theory and thus validate its conclusions.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson presents us with a different stance: “Instead of thinking of creation as if nothing had previously existed and then, in an instant, everything suddenly existed, Thought in Process takes a more developmental point of view”. Verse 1: 2 of Genesis, says Artson, leads us to recognize that this “unformatted and empty” darkness, the “tohu va-vohu” in Hebrew, already existed when God “began to create” heaven and earth, using the terms with which the New Jewish Publication Society translates the concept of Breishit Bara. God begins to speak to organize and diversify the world more and more. That is why Artson says that creation is a continuous process that never ends.

Scientists like George Gamow and theologians like Rabbi Artson have taken concepts from each other to explain where it all came from. Neither has been able to answer the big question without leaning on the other. Creation continues to be the terrain where science and religion meet.

By Marcos Gojman

Bibliography: Benjamin Blech: “Understanding Judaism”, Bradley Shavit Artson: “Ba derej, en el camino, a presentation of Theology in Process”.

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7.1. Torah She Bealpe: The Wisdom that Evolves from Teacher to Student.

When the Bible, our Tanach, was completed, Judaism entered a new era. The Jews no longer had to depend on the prophets to know the word of God. Now they had the written Torah and the rabbis and scholars interpreted its meaning. These interpretations were called Torah she balpé, the oral Torah. Orthodox Judaism maintains that this oral Torah was given by God to Moses at the same time that he gave him the written Torah. The unorthodox branches of Judaism think differently, as they consider the oral Torah to be the constant work of interpreting by many generations of sages. All in all, the need to legitimize the new interpretations, whether or not they have divine origin, was reflected in the first verse of Pirkei Abot (1: 1) that says: “Moses received the Torah at Sinai, he transmitted it to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly. ”

The oral Torah represents those laws, statutes, and legal interpretations that were not recorded in the five books of Moses, the written Torah. According to tradition, the oral Torah was transmitted by word of mouth by an unbroken chain of generations of sages, until its contents were finally put into writing, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when Judaism faced an existential threat. In 200 AD, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi decided to edit all these interpretations of the rabbis in what we know as the Mishnah.

That first compilation of the rabbis’ interpretations did not end with the constant discussion among scholars. Our sages continued to question, for example: “What does it mean to keep Shabbat? What can and cannot be done?” Several centuries after the Mishnah had been edited, more interpretations were compiled, in what we know as the Gemara. Both Mishnah and Gemara will form the Talmud, the Oral Torah.

The oral Torah, explained from teacher to student, is the interpretation that our sages give to the commandments. God allowed his will to filter through the intellect of those who study his mitzvoth.  And those dialogues, those conversations, have not only recorded the divine commandments, but also the continuous response of men. The rabbis loved to argue with each other and specialized in the smallest and most minute details. Therefore, the work of continuing to interpret is not over. No wonder people admire these scholars more than the biblical prophets themselves. The prophets repeated what they had heard, scholars demonstrated the beauty of combining human wisdom with the words of God. A wisdom that constantly evolves, as it passes from teacher to student.

By Marcos Gojman.

Bibliography: “Understanding Judaism”, by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and other sources.

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6.1. 613 Commandments: The Real Prize After Being Released from Egypt.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky says: “The true essence of the Redemption, the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt, is not the passage from slavery to freedom, but rather the acquisition and promulgation of a body of laws that dignifies, sanctifies and elevates our thoughts and actions, both individually and nationally. Redemption, at its deepest root, is taking possession, and ultimately creating, a society based on a body of just laws, which embodies the way of God.”

Kanefsky continues: “Because it was not just simple commandments, the ritual Halacha, that we received by being redeemed. With the Torah, Moses was also giving us the law on how and when to include the foreigner who wishes to celebrate Passover with us and how we must establish a single law and a single Torah, both for the native born among us, as well as for the stranger. ”

The Torah is a manual of conduct, it is not a catechism of beliefs. It was at Sinai that Moses received the divine order to teach the people 613 commandments. The same God who brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt not only taught them the value of freedom, but now required them to be bound by the discipline of the divine commandments.

Does it sound like a contradiction? Not at all. God wanted the Hebrews to learn what Will Durant, the great historian, was saying, referring to the most important lesson that history teaches: “Man became truly free when he recognized that he had to submit to the law.”

Some say Judaism more than a noun, is rather a verb. Its laws accompany the Jew from the moment he opens his eyes in the morning, to how he should go to bed at night; how you should handle the affairs in your business, how you should treat your parents, your partner, your children and how to commemorate the events that mark your life. It is a manual of how to live.

For various reasons, many of the 613 commandments do not apply today. The main one, although not the only one that prevents us from- keeping many of the commandments, is the fact that we no longer have the Temple of Jerusalem. Rabbi Israel Meir Kegan, the Chafetz Chaim, (1838-1933), wrote the Sefer Hamitzvoth Hakatzar, a compendium of the mitzvoth that do remain valid today: 271 that apply to the entire Jewish world and 26 that apply only to those living in Israel.

Our sages have dedicated a lot of time and effort to studying, commenting on, understanding, teaching and applying them. Many of them are universal values. More than being freed from Egypt, the mitzvoth, the commandments, were the true gift of God.

By Marcos Gojman.

Bibliography: Benjamin Blech “Understanding Judaism”, the Jafetz Chaim “The concise book of Mitzvoth” and Yosef Kanefsky’s article in “Morethodox”.

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5.1. Pikuach Nefesh: To Fulfill this Commandment, it is Sometimes Necessary to Violate Another.

In Judaism, the preservation of human life takes priority over almost all the commandments. The Talmud emphasizes this principle by quoting the verse from Leviticus 18: 5 which says, “Therefore you will keep my statutes and my laws, by which man will live if he fulfills them; I am the Lord.” The rabbis explain this in the Yoma 85b treatise of the Talmud: “That he will live for them and not that he dies for them.” This principle is called “Pikuach Nefesh”, “Saving a life”.

In 1848, a cholera epidemic broke out in the city of Vilnius. The rabbi of the city was Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the great luminaries of his time. For Yom Kippur, the doctors had advised that everyone should eat and not only those who were sick, so that they would not weaken and thus be more susceptible to contracting the disease. Rabbi Salanter thought that it would not be enough to get an edict that everyone had to eat on Yom Kippur this year. He was afraid that some people would not listen to his proclamation. Instead, he went up to the podium in the synagogue, on the holiest day of the year, brought some wine and cake, recited the blessings, and then drank and ate in front of the entire congregation. He told them that what he was doing was not violating the laws of Yom Kippur, but complying with the laws that require preserving his own health.

The Pikuach Nefesh principle has its own rules. First, the life of one or more specific persons who have a first and last name must be saved, as was the case with Rabbi Salanter´s community and not in general, such as, for example: “if I do not take such an action, many could lose their lives”. Not only must the person be in danger of losing his life, but also of losing some part of his body or the function of an organ or suffering from a disease that shortens his life. A simple pain does not count. And if it cannot be determined whether life is in danger or not, in principle, the situation should be considered dangerous, until proven otherwise.

Not all commandments are relevant to this topic. In the Talmud, the rabbis give examples of commandments that are relevant but must be violated in the event of “Pikuach Nefesh”, such as the rules of Shabbat, festivities and kosher food, among others. But practicing idolatry, blasphemy, and having prohibited sex are commandments that cannot be broken to save a life. It is also not allowed to end or put another life in danger, including yours, to save someone else’s life.

Ovadia Yosef, who was the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, ruled that one can donate an organ to a person in critical need, as long as he does not put his own life at risk. Likewise, saving a life annuls the prohibition of desecrating a corpse, since its organs can be used to save someone. Finally, in the event that one must decide whether to save his own life or that of another person, Rabbi Akiva declares that you must save your life before that of the other. “And you will choose life, God said.” So, to fulfill the commandment of Pikuach Nefesh, you might have to violate another.

By: Marcos Gojman.

Bibliography: Understanding Judaism by Benjamin Blech and other sources.

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4.1. They Gave Us the Questions of the Final Exam Beforehand.

No one likes final exams. And even less if it is at the moment when we are ending our days on this world. The good news is that they gave us the questions in advance. God does not like to surprise us. This Talmudic passage marks the parameters under which our lives are to be judged at the entrance to eternity. “Raba said: After leaving this world, when a person is brought to trial for the life he lived in it, he is asked in the order of this verse:

Did you conduct yourself honestly in your business?

Did you designate time on a regular basis to study the Torah?

Were you involved in raising children?

Did you work to improve the world?”                    Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

The first thing we are asked highlights the fact that the questions were not: “Do you believe in God?” or,” Did you fast on Yom Kippur?” The question was: “Were you honest?” Many relate being a good Jew only with the observance of mitzvoth, especially those that are highly visible, for example, to keep the Shabbat, to eat kosher or to put on tefillin in the morning. For many, these mitzvoth are enough to consider someone as a good Jew or not. But being honest in business is something that cannot be seen by the naked eye. The main point of this passage from the Talmud is that it puts ethics at the center of Judaism. God’s first concern is not whether the person believes in Him or whether he scrupulously takes care not to eat chametz on Passover. He is more concerned with whether the person was “a mensch,” an honorable human being.

The second question deals with studying the Torah, specially the commandments, the mitzvoth, that define how a person must behave with his neighbor and that are the foundation of Jewish ethics. That is why it is so important to study Torah. The Torah teaches us how to be ethical and how to behave as a member of a social group, in particular the Jewish people. But studying the Torah is more than memorizing the mitzvoth, it is, ultimately, understanding human nature, especially understanding yourself. Not studying Torah means not developing your own self and not growing intellectually and spiritually, not doing it, is like having wasted your life.

The third question concerns our children. I.L.Peretz, the great Jewish writer, said: “Children constitute the eternity of man.” Raising children is the way to pass our values and our hopes for a better world to the next generations.

The fourth question is working to try to redeem our world. It is the vision that the Jewish people are an integral part of all humanity and that seeking “Tikun Olam”, repairing the world, to the extent of the potential of each person, is an obligation for all. Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obliged to complete the entire work, but you are also not free to give up on it.”

In brief, your answers to the four questions portray your actions towards your neighbor, yourself, your family and the world. We are given the questions in advance, so that we can answer them in the best possible way, before taking the exam.

By Marcos Gojman.

Bibliography: Joseph Telushkin “Jewish Wisdom”, Benjamin Blech “Understanding Judaism”.

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3.1 Hillel Taught Us While We Were Standing on One Foot, Al Reguel Ajat.

Chapter 31a. of the Shabbat treaty in the Talmud gives us several examples of how Hillel related to the Gentiles, his non-Jewish neighbors. A first story tells of two Gentiles who had bet 400 Zuz to see who could make Hillel angry. One of them came shouting into Hillel’s house and asked him: “Why are Babylonians’ heads oval- shaped?” He said this to him, seeking to insult him, since Hillel was Babylonian. “Great question”, Hillel replied. “The answer is that they don’t have good midwives who know how to shape the child’s head at birth.” The man returned an hour later and asked Hillel: ”Why do Tadmor residents have watery eyes?” Hillel said to him: “You have asked an important question. The reason is because they live among the sands and the sand gets into their eyes”. Again, the man left, waited an hour, came back and asked: “Why do Africans have wide feet?” Hillel said to him: “You have asked another important question. The reason is because they live in swamps and their feet widened to allow them to walk in those wet areas.” The angry man said to him: “Because of you, I lost 400 Zuz.” Hillel said: “Listen to your spirit and avoid these situations, you can bet another 400 Zuz and still Hillel will not be angry.”

But the best-known story is the one from which this weekly column takes its name. It is written: “There was another incident that involved a Gentile who appeared before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me under the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.”  Shammai, a builder by trade, pushed him away with the measuring ruler in his hand.

The same man came before Hillel, asking to be converted under the same condition. Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another; that’s the whole Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study”. Hillel simply followed what is written in Leviticus 19:34: “As the native among you, you will be to the stranger who dwells with you and will love him as you, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. ”

This precept of Judaism, the famous “golden rule”, is also found in verse 19:18 of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Why did Hillel choose this precept and not another? Judaism has two important verses and both claim to be fulfilled equally. One is in Deuteronomy 6: 5: “And you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Why did Hillel not mention to the Gentile the precept of loving God? Perhaps Hillel thought that, if he only had the chance to teach one of the two, God would be more interested in people getting along with each other than dedicating themselves to worshiping Him.

Hillel’s words have more than a single teaching. Openness to receive the other, ethics as the central value of the religious, interpretation as an antidote to the dogmatic and constant study as a way of life. Hillel taught us all of this while standing on one foot.

By Marcos Gojman

Bibliography: Rabbi Benjamin Blech: “Understanding Judaism” and the Talmud, Shabbat Treaty 31a.

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