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Posts by Rabbi David Wolpe

A Typical Jew?


The sinew of paradox runs through Jewish history. Were Jews and gentiles separate in the Middle Ages? Well yes, but there are also rules about hiring a gentile wet nurse on the sabbath which suggests a degree of intimacy between the two that would shock casual assumptions. Were Jews pious? Well yes, except that from ancient times until today we find innumerable examples of assimilation and indifference and heresy. Jews are often thought of as powerless in their history, but in many cases they exerted great power, and spanned the range from unfathomable persecution to acceptance and security. To speak…

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Why I Love Mystery Novels


From the moment I read my first Agatha Christie and my mother gave me a John MacDonald, I’ve been hooked on mysteries. From Holmes to Bosch, I read classic, golden age mysteries, international mysteries, noir, psychological puzzles, police procedurals, spy novels. I’ve even contributed an essay or two to compendiums about mystery literature. There are established reasons of course: such books have a clear plot and strongly defined characters; they suggest there are solutions in the world and there is ultimate justice (at least, most of them do.) But lately I’ve come to believe there is another reason why I,…

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Breaking the Glass


Before the groom steps on a glass to conclude the wedding ceremony, there is a tradition of reciting part of the 137th Psalm, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem…” The most immediate explanation of this is that stepping on the glass commemorates the tragedies of Jewish history, particularly the destruction of the Temple. So as we mark the destruction and exile, we promise not to forget. On a more subtle level is the reality that to fall in love is not only to fall in love with the person, but to love things in the world together. Even as they…

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Reason and Passion


The Spanish existentialist philosopher Miguel De Unamuno once explained the difference between conventional philosophy and existentialism by reworking the classical syllogism. Students in logic are taught that Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal. But the existentialist says: I am a man; all men are mortal. Therefore, I will die. The first is a conclusion of logic. The second is of ultimate concern to me. Of course how we reason is not separate from how we feel. Yet the abstract analysis of problems does not always address the single, haunted cry of the individual in…

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Toothpaste and Travel


In my house growing up we only used used Crest toothpaste. That may seem a negligible datum, but in fact it shaped my childhood. I learned that no other toothpaste was used by smart, responsible people. When I visited another child’s house and saw Colgate, or one of the unserious toothpastes like Ultrabright (the very name suggests frivolity) I knew those parents were not as wise as my own. The day I realized that one could be as kind and as smart as my mother and use Pepsodent, my world changed. And that, my friends, is the point of travel….

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Laughter and Love


In years of interviewing Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, a few patterns have recurred. One of the questions I ask is — if your best friend were sitting here, what would she or he say about you? And by far the most common single answer, surprisingly, is, “I’m funny.” Now we have to assume that not every 13 year old is a budding Seinfeld. But the deeper implication of that answer is that laughter is often the glue that binds people together, and shows them they share a sensibility. It is a genuine indication of friendship when people laugh about…

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Unkind Thoughts


In decades of serving as a Rabbi, I cannot tell you for sure which phenomenon in the synagogue is most commonly helpful, but I can tell you which is the most commonly destructive – the assumption of ill-will. Disagreements are expected. Even arguments can be salutary. God knows the Jewish people have a decided tendency to argue. But the belief that the other person is advancing a position because they are driven by nefarious motives contributes to the deep divisions within communities. The issue can be about masks or about minyan; it can be about staffing or about schooling; it…

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Heart Shells


When my brother and I were kids, we would go into the front yard and play egg toss. The idea of the game was to move farther and farther from one another and toss the egg so that the other could catch it without allowing the shell to break. My mother did not approve of this game. The key to success was to move your hands with the egg as it arrived. If you caught it with your hands fixed the egg would almost certainly break. If you could move with it, however, you had a chance of keeping it…

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Why Jew Hatred is Different


In the history of most group hatred, there is a limit – geographical, economic or cultural. Some people may express hatred of Asians, but they do not wish to wipe China and Japan off the map. Some people may hate African Americans, but they don’t wish the world to be rid of all people of color, even if they wish their corner of the world to be so purged. Generally, hatred has the limit of one’s personal experience – if the hater need not be in contact with or have his life changed by a certain group, that is sufficient….

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The Failure of Success


People often speak about the lessons one can learn from failure. We know that failure can teach you humility, resilience and a certain acceptance of the inequities of life. There are also lessons to learn from early success, both good and bad. Dostoevsky had a gambling problem. The great novelist was often in debt and yet could not prevent himself from losing still more at the gambling tables. His compulsion has often been attributed to the fact that the first time he gambled, he succeeded spectacularly. That success in the end, proved a failure. The same happened with some nations…

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