Monthly Archives: January 2012

What happened to the Laughter, Entertainment, Art and natural existence

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

You probably haven’t received a question like this before or at least
formulated in this way, but this is something I see as a major problem
of a theological nature – What happened to the laughter,
Entertainment, Art and natural existence.

The problem is both intellectual and the same time emotional. I’ll
preface it simply with the statement I love movies.. I love art,
literature, satire, comedy, commentary on existence, philosophy. But
yet, in my understanding of Judaism, all these pleasures are
“forbidden”, “assur”, and quite frankly it makes me depressed.
Is there no place for a movie like Pulp Fiction, comedy like Curb your
Enthusiasm, Richard Pryor, or
Sacha Baron Cohen the philosophy of Satre, the great works of
roman/greak art in the Torah? Everything thing is forbidden either due
to its sexual nature, because of “bad” language or because the topic
is taboo.

But there is a double standard…. we are starting the book of
Genesis, where story after story is graphic, gory and x-rated

•       You have the rape of Eve by the serpent
•       The murder of Cain by Abel
•       The rape and castration of Noah by his son
•       The rape of Dinah and the subsequent revenge,
•       The near pack rape of Lot and his friends by an angry mob and the
subsequent offer of his daughters as a “peace offering”?

Why is there the double standard? Why is contemporary Judaism so
prudish, trying to create an artificially sanitised world disconnected
from the experiences of the rest of mankind? Why does it have to be
such absolutes, why is there no room for grey, subtlety, balance? Why
are television/movies and literature out of bounds, but yet the Torah
is free to delve and describe the full extent of existence?

Why does contemporary Judaism make life frigid and dull?

I look forward to your comments.


Some source material for your interest that inspired this letter


Dear Rael,

Firstly I must apologize for the very long delay in my writing to you. I read your letter with great attentiveness, and I also reviewed the article you sent about the absence of “fun” in Modern Orthodoxy.

Let me tell you how I see it. I will quote a parable the Lubavitcher Rebbe once shared with Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks (quoted in his book A Letter of the Scroll). The latter was afraid of going to study in yeshiva, where he might be forced to abandon his love for Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hegel, Kant, Emerson and Dickens. He shared this fear with the Lubavithcer Rebbe. Here was the Rebbe’s response:

Imagine two people whose job it is to carry stones. That’s what they do for a living, they carry stones. One of them carries big sacks of building material, the other one carries little pouches of diamonds.

Imagine now you give each of these people a bag of emeralds, how do they respond? The person who spent his whole life carrying heavy building materials looks at this sack of emeralds and thinks,

‘Another burden,’ whereas the person who carries diamonds knows the stones are precious, so when you give him emeralds, he says, ‘Well those aren’t diamonds, but they certainly are precious stones.’ They’re not like mine, but I have to value them and take care of them.

So it is with “fun,” sensuality and beauty. If you really learn to appreciate the Divine core of existence, the G-dly energy in every person, in every encounter and in every existence, then you will be far more sensitive to the music, the depth, the beauty, the majesty, the positivity inherent in sensuality and in aesthetics. The more you learn Torah, the more you develop a Torah perspective on life, the more you can appreciate culture, the arts and even sensual pleasures. Because if you are used to diamonds, you will notice the emeralds.

On the contrary, when one is entrenched only in “stones,” in the very brute layers of life, they night not even notice the glittering emeralds; their appreciation of the fun aspects of life will be far more superficial and empty.

Rael, it may be that many a Torah Jew do not appreciate this truth, but I think it is true: A deeper connection to Torah allows for even more “fun” and more appreciation of the emeralds in secular culture, literature and the arts. True, the Torah seeks to fine tune our depth, our sincerity, our sense of responsibility, our soulfulness, our spiritual and soulful yearnings; but when one does become in touch with this side of himself, he comes to appreciate more, not less, those aspects in secular culture and art which are truly life-enhancing, educational and inspiring.  As far as the “filth” often present in the arts, this the Torah indeed rejects, but I think for good reason as it does not contribute to the welfare of civilization and to individual people growing up saturated with this filth. We want even our fun to be refined, meaningful and life-affirming.

The fact that many religious Jews don’t understand this today, is sad, but it does not take away from the truth of what Torah is really all about.

Regarding the book of Genesis: Of course the Torah deals with all of the corruption and sagas of human affairs. The question is what are its conclusions. The Torah talks about all of this in its objective to teach of the basis of moral behavior and the responsibility to sometimes curb our instincts for the will of the soul which is one with G-d.

Warm regards,

Rabbi YY Jacobson


Rabbi, Bais Shmuel Congregation
30 Broad Street. 44th Flr | NY, NY 10004

347.625.1700       |


Divrei Yoel: Making G-d Personal

Making G-d personal.
This is a subject that requires much elucidation. It might seem obvious to the simple mind that maintains an enduring faith, lasting through storms and expressed in bright days. For him, G-d is an embracing experience that hugs you during the turbulence of life. A G-d who cries when you cry, who smiles when you smile, and is highly curious of your expectations, just as you are. However, it might seem perplexing to the intellectually oriented mind whom attempts to explain away existence in principles and absolute formulas. For him, G-d is an Absolute par excellence, who knows no boundaries, unbreakable, unchangeable, an unfathomable Perfection. To the former, G-d is near. To the latter, G-d is remotely distant.These two seemingly contradictory personalities that embrace life, I believe, can be reconciled. They might not be as distant from you as they may seem.

Moses Maimonides [Moshe ben Maimon], known famously as the Rambam (Rahm-Bahm), was a preeminent medieval Rabbi, Philosopher and Physician (born in 1135 in Cordova, Spain). Beyond any doubt, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers who has embraced planet earth. The Rambam catered to a Jewish community that was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Predominantly, Aristotelian philosophy. The Rambam confidently attempted to demonstrate the validity of Judaic principles and philosophy against the Greek mind. In his magnum opus, the Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam offers various proofs to demonstrate G-d’s existence, His in-corporeality, His omniscience, His omnipotence and Absolute Perfection. When attempting to explain G-d to the human mind, the Rambam states:

What, then, can be the result of our efforts, when we try to obtain knowledge of a Being that is free from substance, that is most simple, whose existence is absolute, and not due to any cause, to whose perfect essence nothing can be superadded, and whose perfection consists, as we have shown, in the absence of all defects. All we understand is the fact that He exists, that He is a Being to whom none of His creatures is similar, who has nothing in common with them, who does not include plurality, who is never too feeble to produce other beings, and whose relation to the universe is that of a steerman to a boat; and even this is not a real relation, a real simile, but serves only to convey to us the idea that G-d rules the universe; that is, the He gives it duration, and preserves its necessary arrangement…In the contemplation of His essence, our comprehension and knowledge prove insufficient; in the examination of His works, how they necessarily result from His will, our knowledge proves to be ignorance, and in the endeavor to extol Him in words, all our efforts in speech are mere weakness and failure!(Guide: Section I, Chapter LIX)

For the Rambam, G-d is distant, unreachable and forever superior. G-d is absolute perfection that is infinitely superior to His finite creature. The Rambam’s philosophical explanation of G-d seems to be in contradiction to what another prominent Rabbi and Philosopher advances in his commentary to the Torah (Hebrew Bible). This being Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch was a German rabbi, a supreme intellectual and a heroic figure who lived in the 1800’s. Rabbi Hirsch vigorously attempted to save thousands of Jews who were being swept away in the tide of assimilation in Enlightened Europe, abandoning their rich tradition. Rabbi Hirsch wrote volumes of work expressing the beauty and depth of Judaism to a generation of Jews who seemed to look elsewhere for intellectual, spiritual and emotional fulfillment. In his famous commentary on the Ten Commandments in the Book of Shemot (Exodus), Rabbi Hirsch offers a more personal, approachable and fathomable explanation of G-d:

The so-called “belief in the existence of G-d,” as ancient and modern theological philosophers like to express the idea of the “first commandment,” is miles away from what this fundamental verse of Jewish thought and Jewish existence demands from Jewish thought and Jewish life.Not the fact that there is a G-d, also not that there is only one G-d, but that this One, unique, true G-d is to be my G-d, that He created and formed me, placed me where I am, and goes on creating and forming me, keeps me, watches over me, leads me and guides me; not that my connection with Him should be through ten thousand intermediaries as a chance product of a universe which He brought into being aeons ago, but that every present breath I draw and every coming moment of my existence is to be a direct gift of His Almight and Love, and that I have to live every present and future second of my life solely in His service – in a word, not the knowledge of the existence of G-d, but the acknowledgment of G-d as my G-d, as the exclusive One in whose hands is the disposal of all my fate, and as the exclusive One guide of all my acts, it is only with this, only with acceptance of this Truth, that I can lay the foundation of a Jewish life. (Hirsch, Exodus)

The divergent point of views seem to be addressing two different personalities who carry two different relationships with G-d. However, I believe that this dual understanding of G-d is not meant for two different people with different trains of thought, rather, it is meant for one person with two distinct entities, the mind and the heart, the I and the Thou. For the human mind is bold and courageous. The mind is reason responsive. The mind is demanding of extrapolating the universe in a systemic process that caters to his/her understanding of reality. The mind is a powerful tool that can be used to promote, rationalize and justify darkness, hate and prioritize the self at the exclusion of others. Therefore, the human mind needs its limitations. Be bold, be courageous, explore the intellectual depth bestowed to you by G-d, but always remain cognizant of the fact that there is Something Greater, more powerful than yourself. When the situation arises where the intellect becomes your own personal enemy and the arch nemesis of society, it needs to know it can be defeated by a Greater, More Powerful, and Infinitely Superior Intellect, the Mind of G-d.

The human heart is the seat of emotions. The organ of life. The heart is highly affectionate, emotionally demanding and physically aggressive. It rages with instincts, it demands constant attention and it begs for the company of the other. The heart is ultimately one minded, dealing with extremes. It is not reason responsive. It is either broken or passionate, heavy as a stone or burning with illumination. Therefore, the heart needs to become cognizant of its exclusive relationship with G-d. That G-d is near, G-d cares, G-d can be felt, hugged and kissed. G-d is not different to your pains and existential loneliness. G-d cares and is forever close. The habitual heart has to become aware of the constant presence of G-d. This is achieved through repetitive engagement in religious practice. The repetitive notions makes a motionless heart join union with a Loving G-d. This dual relationship with G-d, the Transcendental and the Immanent, caters to the human condition, to your heart and mind. The same G-d that defeated you when your mind got the best of you is the same G-d who embraces you and helps put the pieces of your broken heart back together.

Chassidus 101

“All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Further responses to the Beit Shemesh incident

If you have any other references to articles, please leave them in a comment and I will add them to the post.