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Posts by Rabbi David Wolpe

Self-Criticism


One of the lessons I have learned over decades in the rabbinate is how hard it is to criticize one’s own. People who will criticize other countries, or the other party, will not turn a disapproving eye on their own. On social media there is an unending parade of disparagement, but almost all of it disparages the side the author opposes anyway. Endless rhetorical bombs are lobbed over the fence, but few are exploded in one’s own camp. Why is it so wrenching to criticize one’s own? In part because you do not only challenge beliefs, you also lose allies…

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Don’t Trouble Yourself


There is a beautiful story told of the Brisker Rav, Reb Hayyim Halevy Soloveitchik. Once a man arrived late at night in Brisk. All the houses were dark save one so he knocked at the door. He was greeted warmly, and the host prepared a meal for him. Looking around the man saw that the house was filled with sefarim, sacred books, and surmised that the man was learned, a Rabbi or a perhaps a Dayyan, a judge. The man became uncomfortable disturbing a scholar and said to his host, “You needn’t trouble yourself.” His host didn’t answer but instead…

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Why Do Some People Hate Jews?


Hatred of Jews is the most intractable and sustained hatred in human history. Moreover, it is a hatred for which many reasons have been given by the haters, all of them demonstrably untrue. Jews have been hated when they were poor and when they were rich; when they were communists and when they were capitalists; when they were stateless and when they had a state; when they were religious and when they were secular; when they ‘invaded and took jobs’ and when they were rootless and barred from the marketplace; when they were phenomenal achievers in the world and when…

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The Great Innovation


The Roman historian Tacitus relates that when Pompey and his troops entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem in 63 BCE, they found it “untenanted.” It was a mystery to them to find nothing inside the sacred shrine of the Jews. They assumed there would be a statues, but as the Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “in the sanctuary stood nothing whatever.” Judaism declared even to an uncomprehending world that the greatest reality was intangible. Nothing produced by human hands could begin to adequately represent the Creator of the universe. God was literally no-thing, and any object was…

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The First Mitzvah and the Last


In Maimonides’ listing of the 613 commandments, the first is believing in God. The last is a king not amassing great personal wealth. In a certain way, those two commandments, one positive and one negative, are intimately related to one another. Believing in God entails believing that one has limits. Much of Judaism reinforces this idea. When reciting the Amidah according to Jewish law, the regular worshipper bows at the beginning and the end of the first and last blessing. A High Priest bows at the beginning and the end of each blessing. A King must bow throughout the entire…

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The Perils of Reentry


Mitzrayim in Hebrew means narrow. We think of narrowness as a purely negative trait. Yet there are times when tighter is better: when we are held for example. “Snug” is another word for narrow – because sometimes to be confined is to feel safe and to be released is to feel scared. The Israelites as they left the desert were scared. They were dizzy with freedom. Why did they build the golden calf? Because as slaves they were used to being told what to do and having an authoritative voice above them giving them direction. They craved narrowness. “Escape from…

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No — With the Rope Around Their Necks


In April of 1903 the first pogrom broke out in Kishinev, shocking the Jewish world and causing death and destruction. Increasingly it seemed to observers that Russian Jewry was in danger. As a second pogrom in 1905 was to prove, they were tragically correct. A few weeks after the first pogrom was the sixth Zionist Congress. There the ‘Uganda plan’ was proposed, the idea that Jews could be saved immediately by taking land in East Africa that was a British Protectorate and creating a Jewish state. Herzl among many other seriously entertained this plan since it would mean salvation from…

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A Friend I Never Knew


Let me tell you about a friend I never knew. He was born in Jerusalem in 1906 and died in 1972. His name was Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen. His father was a renowned kabbalist who led services at the Western Wall for some 50 years. Rabbi Mordecai Hacohen worked through the Maḥzike Hadas network of institutions in Jerusalem to represent Judaism to Israel’s secular population, especially in the kibbutzim. After his death, a research institute called Yad Ramah was established to bring his works to light. Rabbi M. Hacohen wrote many books and left a literary legacy. So why do I,…

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Stand On Your Feet


In our daily and sabbath prayers we do bow, but nonetheless stand up straight when saying God’s name. In reciting the Amidah, the central prayer of the service, the Shuchan Aruch instructs us not to lean on anything, but to stand before God (O.H. 94:8). Bowing is a posture of submission and Judaism certainly instructs human beings to submit to God’s will. But submission does not erase individuality or even an element of defiance. There is a long tradition of Jews arguing with God, questioning God, placing their fallible, mortal judgment next to God’s own decrees. It began with Abraham…

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Have You Read All These Books?


When people come into my office and see the room full of books, they will often ask, “Have you read all these books?” Well, absent the encyclopedias and dictionaries, the answer is most of them. But I am continually giving books away and ordering new ones, so every room of books I have (and I have too many) is filled with aspirational books – books I plan to read someday. And that is my answer when someone asks me what to read on Judaism. Read whatever book will lead you to more books. The great critic Randall Jarrell advised “read…

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