Selections: What's on the Rabbi's Mind

It's a Good World

I was asked by a Jewish publication to respond in 200 words or less to the following question: "If you had to pass on just one nugget of Jewish wisdom to your children what would it be?"

Here is what I replied:

It would be the notion that our world is inherently a good world, and that G-dliness resides within every place and every thing. This is the concept which is expressed in the Zohar “Leit Atar Panui Minay”, meaning, “there is no place devoid of Him”. Because, after all, G-d is the One who animates and sustains all of existence. Why is this so important? Because this overarching Jewish idea, if I were to successfully impart it to my children, would undoubtedly have a profound application in their daily lives, in whatever challenging circumstances they might find themselves. 


I want to empower my children with the understanding that the challenges and obstacles which they will inevitably encounter throughout their spiritual travels --  and which might initially appear to them to be most formidable and daunting – should really not be intimidating to them, so long as they remember that those challenges are themselves, in their deeper inner core, also G-d’s creations. Difficult as those challenges may appear to be, their inner purpose and being, their raison d’etre, is entirely a G-dly one. We are made to face those situations in order that they evoke from within us our innermost strength and dedication, and for us to summon forth and manifest an even greater and more powerful measure of commitment to goodness and righteousness.  

Judaism teaches us that the world is firmly and inalterably a world of goodness, of G-dliness and of holiness. Any evidence to the contrary is merely on the surface. Sometimes the G-dly reality that pervades our world is obvious to us, and at other times it is hidden. The hidden moments challenge us to dig deeply and to summon forth our innermost strengths and our deepest faith. But at no time can anything in G-d’s world be irredeemably absent of goodness, because, after all, the entire world is His creation, and He is all good.  

An encouraging and uplifting thought, and one well worth remembering.


A Letter to St. Louis Jewry

Dear Friends:

Today, July 1, the third of Tammuz, marks the 20th yartzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Throughout the Jewish world and beyond much attention is being focused on the Rebbe’s transformative teachings and the enormous influence he had on Jewish life in the 20th century.

In recent weeks two significant biographical works about the Rebbe have been released. The first, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi of Modern Times, by Joseph Telushkin, made the New York Times’ bestseller list within days of its appearance. The second, My Rebbe, by the renowned scholar, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, is already in its second printing. Closer to home, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, proclaimed July 1, the anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, as a “Day of Good Deeds” in the State of Missouri, and called on Missourians “to increase in their acts of goodness and kindness towards one another”.

It is noteworthy how some characteristics of the Rebbe’s leadership come to the fore again and again. The Rebbe saw every individual as being of paramount importance. Every single Jew, indeed every human being, whatever their worldview or their station in life, the Rebbe saw them as indispensable -- untapped reservoirs of goodness and holiness. Moreover, the same holds true of our every moment and our every act. Each of those is endowed with G-dly significance and each possesses transformative cosmic potential. Consequently, the Rebbe taught that every association between people, every moment in which we interact with G-d’s world, was deserving of our undivided attention and our wholehearted effort. Each was an opportunity for transformation and redemption, and each was to be approached positively and experienced joyfully. What a meaningful way to engage G-d’s world!

On this occasion I would like to encourage you to take time to learn more about the Rebbe and to reflect on his teachings. The Rebbe is every Jew’s treasure; one needn’t be a card-carrying Chabadnik to drink from the refreshing waters of his wellsprings. Whether it is through reading these new biographical works, or exploring the Rebbe’s teachings on, or attending more in-depth classes on the Rebbe’s enormous scholarly output, you are bound to find your Judaism enriched and enhanced.


Rabbi Yosef Landa

P.S. We stand together with our brethren in Israel at this time of profound grief, and extend our prayerful wishes that henceforth only good and joyous tidings emanate from our Holy Land.

Getting Comfortable with G-d

G-d is not the cause of our young people's disaffection from Judaism, and dumping Him is most certainly not the solution. I would argue that our young people are not opting out of Judaism because we're talking to them about G-d too much, but because we're not doing it nearly enough.

Too often, our best and brightest are so painfully uninformed of the most rudimentary teachings and beliefs of Judaism that, not surprisingly, it holds little meaning or relevance for them. The universal man-made morals and ethics which are often repackaged as ‘Jewish values' are apparently leaving them disinterested. Might they perhaps be hinting to us that they're hungry for the real deal - G-d and all?

Parenthetically, we should point out that one of the most intriguing Jewish ideas - and one which we would do well to highlight - is that unlike other religions, Judaism places the greatest import on our practical behavior over and above our religious beliefs. Judaism is, of course, fundamentally rooted in monotheism, which is its sine qua non. Our forefather Abraham, the first Jew, propagated the belief in one G-d. But it is noteworthy that Judaism does not expect that a Jew hold or profess a commitment to its Principles of Faith as a prerequisite to claiming one's Jewish identity or for one's mitzvot to be religiously valuable.

The appropriate response to G-d's reputed decline in popularity among young Jews is clearly not to reinvent Judaism as a G-dless religion (G-d forbid!), as has been astoundingly suggested by some, but quite to the contrary. The sensible imperative is to actively seek ways to reintroduce G-d into our Jewish discourse and into our communal consciousness. What we need to do as Jews, is to think and talk more about G-d, not less.

Faith in an omniscient G-d - "the eye that sees and the ear that hears" - is a crucial underpinning of a wholesome, moral upbringing. It needs to be instilled and nurtured from an early age. As parents we need to be proactive about this. We would never consider being neutral about such values as honesty, integrity, respect for others, etc. - expecting our children to somehow discover them on their own one bright sunny day. We invest a lot of sweat and tears (and money!) to impress these foundational values upon our offspring, and then we hope and pray that their appreciation for them will grow as they mature into independent thinking adults. Belief in G-d should be no different.

To be sure, they will have their struggles with issues of faith, just as they will undoubtedly deal with moral and ethical challenges during life. What else is new? Hopefully -- and with our encouragement -- they will come to understand that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive, but that they can coexist simultaneously. To offer a rather simple example: We have faith that the airplane will transport us safely to our destination, but are we without doubt? Belief in G-d, like any conviction, is often a matter of degree. Our religious belief may have their ups and downs, not unlike our emotions, our mental acuity or physical ability. So having doubt about G-d does not make us into non-believers. We can believe even as we have questions.

There are many ways for us to increase the presence of G-d in our lives. I humbly suggest a few possibilities: How about starting our day with modeh ani, the one-line prayer in which we thank G-d for giving us a new day, or ending the day at bedtime with saying the shma, as we declare His oneness? Or reading stories to our children and grandchildren about the patriarchs, prophets and sages of the Jewish people and their interactions with G-d? You may be pleasantly surprised, even inspired, by the eagerness and purity with which they will embrace these practices.

Our community leaders, both rabbinic and lay, would do well to invoke G-d more often and more clearly when speaking publicly. It is confusing for young people when we ‘beat around the bush' when discussing G-d. Let's also get into the habit of saying "thank G-d", "with G-d's help" and so on. Those seemingly small things make a difference. Needless to say, teachers in Jewish schools should themselves be comfortable with their faith, and should be open and encouraging when talking about G-d with their students.

We all need to get more comfortable with the notion of G-d as a meaningful part of our Jewishness. After all, Judaism is a religion, isn't it?


Say Goodbye To Denominational Labels

The recently released Pew Research Center survey has given American Jewish leaders a whole lot of sobering statistics to reflect upon and to analyze. True to form, in bagel shops and bridge parlors, mavens all over are wringing their hands over skyrocketing assimilation and plummeting synagogue memberships.

But there is some unmistakably good news in all of this, and that is the marked decline in denominational self-identification. Less and less Jews are attaching denominational labels to their Jewish identities. They view themselves simply as ‘Jewish’. And that is very good news.

We should break out the schnapps, wish each other l’chaim and celebrate the beginning of the end of Jewish denominationalism, because this may be a large piece of the solution to the disengagement and disaffection of American Jews which has plagued us for the longest time.

Our habit of defining ourselves by denominational labels such as “Orthodox,” “Reform,” “Conservative” or anything else, is most unfortunate and lamentable -- as heretical as this may sound to some. It builds artificial walls between us and our fellow Jews. It erects barriers between us and the richness that we can discover in Judaism if we would only allow ourselves to freely explore it. We need to stop thinking denominations and start thinking Jewish.

This is not a new idea. And it isn’t my own. I had the privilege of listening to the Rebbe, of righteous memory, for hundreds of hours as he delivered his public talks and discourses. I cannot recall a single instance when the Rebbe -- who Menachem Begin called “the great lover of the House of Israel” --  appended a modifier to the word “Jew.” To him, the hyphenated terms Reform-Jew, Orthodox-Jew, Conservative-Jew etc. were altogether non-existent and terribly unhelpful. There are only Jews -- and we are all children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. This is a cornerstone of Chabad’s embracing philosophy.

To be clear, I am not downplaying the fact that real differences exist between the various denominations. Those are very serious, even fundamental, disagreements about core Jewish principles about G-d, Torah, Mitzvot and so forth, and they are largely irreconcilable. I would also agree that denominational labels serve a purpose, not unlike alphabetical abbreviations, in that they allow us to use fewer words when describing our Jewish lives. But at what cost?

Denominational labels stifle meaningful and substantive discourse within the Jewish community. They divide the Jewish people, they taint our conversations with partisanship, and they contribute to the unfortunate dumbing down, Jewishly speaking, of generations of young Jews.

Let’s imagine a world in which our Jewish lexicon is free of denominational labels. We would self-describe simply as Jews and do the same for our fellow Jews.  Instead of highlighting our differences, we would be emphasizing our innate kinship, our common heritage, our inextricable oneness.

Of course, we won’t be able to resist arguing with each other about all sorts of stuff, and that is okay. Discourse is healthy and necessary. But we would be arguing as brothers and sisters, not as strangers alienated by artificially foisted partisanship.

Freed of the artificial security and restrictive borders of denominational labels, we’ll be empowered to grow in our knowledge. We’ll be open to more Jewish observance. We might seek out adult education offerings in our communities. Perhaps (gasp!) our rabbis will be challenged to deliver more in their sermons because their congregants will be clamoring for substance rather than partisan pep talks.

Dumping the denominational lingo will also raise the level of our Jewish learning. We will ask more insightful questions and probe for more meaningful answers. Our conversations about Judaism with our families and our co-religionists will be of a deeper, broader, and more open quality.

Wouldn’t that be a blessing for the Jewish people?

So how do we do away with these divisive labels? Simple. We stop using them. Let’s stop referring to our fellow Jews with contrived denominational misnomers. Regardless of how diverse we may be when it comes to “doing Jewish” or “thinking Jewish”, we are one and the same in our “being Jewish.”  We are all Jews. And that is what we ought to call ourselves.

With that in mind, I would like to propose that we take the following pledge, and that we encourage others to do the same:

“I PLEDGE to endeavor to identify myself and my co-religionists simply as “Jews”, without appending any denominational modifiers to that noble title. I do soin recognition of our being one people united by a common heritage and mission .

I realize that old habits will likely die hard. Taking this pledge, if it accomplishes nothing else, gives expression to the oneness of the Jewish people and to our abiding belief that regardless of all that separates us, the underlying Jewishness of each of us is the same. And that is a very big deal.

If you agree with these sentiments, then I urge you to take the pledge and help spread the word to others. Do it for the sake of Jewish unity and continuity. Do it for a more informed, engaged and inspired Jewish community.

You can take the pledge online by visiting: .

May the day come soon when we will bid  ‘goodbye and good riddance’ to divisive denominationalism. For once and for all, and for the good of the Jewish people. Amen.

See the full and original Jewish Light article here.  


Is Judaism Good for Women?

I was recently asked to write a response for Moment Magazine’s “Ask the Rabbis” column. The question posed was: “Is Judaism Good for Women?” Responses are typically limited to 200 words. The topic is of course deserving of much greater elaboration. Any thoughts?

Indeed it is.
The Torah is called Torat Chaim, which means “instruction for life.” Unlike other faith systems, Judaism is a “way of life” rather than a “religion” as that term is conventionally used. It is a manual for sanctifying every moment, every activity—including the seemingly mundane—and permeating it with G-dliness. In this framework, the layperson is no less engaged in the service of G-d than the full-time rabbi. The arenas of family and home are as religiously significant as the synagogue, if not more so. Judaism wants every corner of our life to be made divinely purposeful.
When viewed from this perspective, the woman’s influence on Jewish life is indeed primary; her role is central and indispensable. There can be no Judaism without her. She creates and inspires in those critical places where Judaism is most integral—in real, daily life. Of course she studies Torah and prays to G-d—indeed, our prayers are modeled after those of a Jewish woman—but more importantly, the Jewish woman is the acknowledged leader and role model to her family and to her community, often more than her male counterparts. Can we even speak of educating future generations of Jews without the Jewish woman? Can there really be a Jewish home without her? Can we possibly celebrate Jewish holidays as a family without her leading presence?
Religion takes place in special buildings; Judaism is practiced everywhere, especially in the home. Religion is observed on special days; Judaism is lived every day, all the time. Religion is officiated by members of the clergy; Judaism is practiced equally by every Jew. When we understand this about Judaism, many questions about traditional gender roles disappear.

See the original and full article, here;


Thanks, Mayor Koch, from a Thousand Miles Away


I was listening to the radio the day Ed Koch passed away when I heard a recording of the former New York City Mayor as he answered a reporter’s question about how he would like his epitaph to read. In his inimitable style Koch responded without missing a beat. “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith and he fiercely loved the City of New York”, he said.  I was totally impressed. Here was a wonderful manifestation of the “pintele yid”, that inexhaustible Jewish essence which is at the core of every Jew. It was noteworthy, I thought, how Koch had mentioned his pride in his Jewish identity first, ahead even of his love for New York.  


I recalled how over thirty years ago while serving as Mayor, Koch helped some of my fellow Jews in St. Louis – may G-d bless them and keep them –  to learn an important lesson. Koch probably never knew what he accomplished that day, and I never had the opportunity to thank him for it. So I’ll share the story here as my belated expression of gratitude to “Hizzoner” the Mayor.


Young, idealistic and inexperienced my wife, Shiffy, and I had just moved to St. Louis a few months earlier to establish Chabad in this mid-size Midwestern Jewish community of about 50,000. One of our earliest community-wide projects was to erect a fifteen-foot Chanukah Menorah on the plaza of the St. Louis County Government Center. The County Executive happily approved the Menorah display and even joined us for the beautiful lighting ceremony. The TV and news reporters were present and provided ample media coverage. We received many wonderfully supportive comments from the public, Jews and non-Jews alike, telling us how the Menorah was a tasteful and fitting expression of Jewish celebration and pride, and of the religious diversity which is this country’s blessed hallmark.


Much to our surprise and dismay, the Menorah display also attracted fierce opposition, which emanated largely from the professional leadership – well meaning, I am sure -- of an array of local Jewish establishment organizations. Their argument was ostensibly that they considered the placement of the Menorah on public property to be in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. It was evident, however, that there also was an underlying unease with the forthright, unabashed public display of Jewishness which the Menorah represented, and which many Jews in this conservative city, in the middle of America, were unaccustomed to at the time.


These were well-intentioned people who were firmly attached to what they perceived to be the Jewish community’s sacred opposition to such displays. Some saw us as foreigners, “imports from Brooklyn” (that’s how one writer referred to us in an op-ed), who had come to town to overturn long-standing, hallowed community norms. The entire community was abuzz over this controversy. The local Anglo-Jewish newspaper made it front-page news and editorialized against us, and word of the discord within the Jewish community even reached the general media. It was not a pleasant situation, to say the least.


A lot has changed since then. We have become good friends with many of the people who initially opposed us, and Chabad now enjoys deep and fruitful relationships with individuals and organizations from throughout the community. The public Menorah has become a commonplace and accepted feature in many cities across the country. Moreover, in a couple of landmark rulings the U. S. Supreme Court gave its nod to this sort of “holiday display” on public property. Eventually American Jewish organizations came around to recognize that there exists a constitutional argument in support of such displays as well, namely the protection of our religious freedom and of free speech. But our story happened well before that.


It was the last day of Chanukah that year, and the iconic, big city Mayor Ed Koch happened to be in St. Louis to address the annual meeting of the local Jewish Federation which was held over a Sunday brunch at an upscale St. Louis hotel. Several hundred supporters were in attendance, including many of the professional and lay leaders who were heading the opposition to the Menorah. Koch gave his speech, which of course had nothing to do with the Menorah, and then proceeded to take questions from the audience.  That’s when one questioner took to the floor and asked Koch to explain how, as a Jewish Mayor, he dealt with the issue of religious symbols on public property and, specifically, would the Mayor be kind enough to share his own view about the placement of Menorahs on public property.


An audible gasp went up from the audience. Someone had dared to bring up the embarrassing, unmentionable topic of the Menorah display in the presence of this important guest. Then there was utter silence as the straight-shooting Koch responded in his typical direct and outspoken manner. “I have no problem whatsoever with having a privately-funded Menorah on public property”, he said. “I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I’m proud to say that we have one in New York City at Fifth Avenue and Central Park” he continued”.  As if he hadn’t said enough on the subject, the Mayor continued further. “Let me tell you what else we do in New York”, he said. “The Menorah is in Manhattan. The people who light the Menorah are the Lubavitchers. They live in Brooklyn. So when they light the Menorah in Manhattan late on Friday afternoon when it’s getting close to Shabbos, we provide them with a helicopter and we fly them back to Brooklyn, so they can get home in time for Shabbos!”


Nothing more needed to be said. That was the end of the problem. While I’m sure most people in the audience didn’t change their minds about the First Amendment just because of what Koch had said, he succeeded to make everyone understand that good and decent people within the Jewish community can hold differing views on such matters. While doing so, he not only quieted a controversy regarding church-state separation, but more importantly, he let my fellow Jews in St. Louis see a wonderful first-hand example of real, unapologetic Jewish pride. I am grateful for that.


Thank you, Mayor Koch.

A Kosher Murderer?

A line of reasoning about religious sincerity by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals piqued my interest. The ruling brings up a host of really ‘good questions’ about Jews and Judaism. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Following is an excerpted report by the JTA:

A Texas prison inmate should be served free kosher meals, a U.S. appeals court ruled in overturning a lower court decision.

Max Moussazadeh, 35, who is serving a 75-year sentence for a 1993 murder, has a sincere desire to keep kosher and his religious rights were infringed upon, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled earlier this month. The 2-1 ruling by the appeals court panel rejected a decision by a U.S. District Court. 

The prison system argued that his commitment to a kosher diet was insincere because Moussazadeh had gone through the general food line at the commissary on occasion and had purchased food without kosher supervision.  

"A finding of sincerity does not require perfect adherence to beliefs expressed by the inmate, and even the most sincere practitioner may stray from time to time," Judge Jerry Smith wrote for the majority, according to Courthouse News. "[A] sincere religious believer doesn't forfeit his religious rights merely because he is not scrupulous in his observance; for where would religion be without its backsliders, penitents, and prodigal sons?" 

Here are some questions for starters:

1)    Does a Jewish murderer need to keep kosher? If he does, of what value is his Kosher observance? What would you say? What would your Rabbi say?

2)    Question: For religious beliefs to be ‘sincere’, must they be consistent? If I transgressed this morning, can my Mitzvot of this afternoon be genuine?

3)    When speaking of Judaism, what is the meaning of a “sincerely held religious belief”? Can a Jew ever be insincere about his Jewish practice? If indeed he is insincere, should he still continue to practice?

4)    If I don’t believe in G-d, should I still do Mitzvot? When is doing a Mitzvah hypocritical?

Let’s discuss!

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