Mesorah Project II


Thanks Rachel for contributing to the Mesorah Project in your unique way.

If I had read about this project this time last year, I would probably have thought that I had nothing to offer. There I was, at almost the very beginning of my conversion journey, knowing very little about what I was about to do, other than that I was totally driven towards the day when I would become a Jew and then be able to continue on my journey of constant learning and developing.

Indeed, I still describe myself as a sponge – constantly soaking up all things Jewish. But now, I can see that I am beginning to help others on their journey, whether they are Jewish from birth, or just embarking on their own conversion process. I have a historical knowledge that I have garnered from being a high school student. Studying as I did, modern world history, I have learned things that others have not had access to, for whatever reason. This knowledge, and the ability to absorb large amounts of detailed information (a skill I constantly hone through my work), has enabled me to put my theological learning into context and pass it on where I can.

To me, Judaism isn’t just about the rites and practices – what happens in the synagogue, the prayers we say, the blessings, the Torah, the Siddur – although of course they are absolutely fundamental. Judaism is also about the history of a people. How we have survived through the centuries, despite having to globetrot in order to save our lives. It is also about how we live on a day to day basis, in the world at large and outside our communities. People have noticed a change in me – how I treat others, my approach to charitable giving, the time I spend doing things not for me, but for others. I consider this ‘doing Judaism’ in a most positive way since if asked ‘why?’ it is the perfect opportunity to tell them what drives me to be different.

Perhaps this interpretation of mesorah isn’t the traditional approach – I must admit I am looking at it in a more secular way than some might. This is probably due to the fact that my Torah knowledge is relatively limited compared to many others and my skills at interpreting all the nuances therein are going to take a lot of brushing up, that’s for sure! But I am looking forward to a lifetime of learning, in that department.

So, I guess my viewpoint now is that most people have something to offer. You don’t need to be extremely learned, you don’t need to be born Jewish. You just need to embrace Judaism, enjoy its wonders and pass on your love for your faith and your tradition to the best of your ability. Even if what you know doesn’t fit with someone else’s understanding or theological viewpoint, you can at least enjoy the very Jewish discussions that will follow…

By Rachel of Contributions are still welcome; just send them to me (

16 thoughts on “Mesorah Project II

  1. This is beautiful, Rachel. “People have noticed a change in me – how I treat others, my approach to charitable giving, the time I spend doing things not for me, but for others.” Wish some of us that were born into the Jewish world could be more inspired by people like yourself.

  2. Ilana: Thank you for posting this illuminating content.

    Rachel: This is lovely. And, I am one of those people who have noticed a change in you…

    I agree with what Leora said regarding “some of us that were born into the Jewish world….”

    Your journey so far, has been quite inspiring to me. I enjoy reading your blog.

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  4. I only realised that you had posted this after visiting Jew Wishes’ blog a few moments ago – thank you so much Ilana Davita!

    Also, thank you to Lorri and Leora for your lovely comments. I truly never realised how much of a change would be wrought in me, on all levels. My own miniature revelation, if you will.


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  8. Rachel,

    You say, “People have noticed a change in me – how I treat others, my approach to charitable giving, the time I spend doing things not for me, but for others.” As others have indicated, this is quite inspiring, so hazak and yasher koah!

    Your historical sense assisting you, reminds me of an experience I had reading Rabbi Marc Angel’s Foundations of Sephardic Spirituality: The Inner Life of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. Rabbi Angel was discussing some of the economic problems facing the Jewish community in Turkey during the 17th-19th centuries, when the European powers circumnavigated South Africa and were able to bypass the Ottoman Empire in India trade. Rabbi Angel then began to discuss Ottoman attempts at modernization, and I immediately realized, “Oooh, the Tanzimat Reforms!”.

    But then, I ran around my yeshiva trying to remember the more successful Japanese equivalent. I kept saying to people, “You know when Commodore Perry opened up Japan, and the Japanese began a process of modernization, bringing in European professors and military officials? What was that process called? I think it starts with an ‘M’.” I couldn’t remember for the life of me, until suddenly, I remembered, and I ran around my yeshiva yelling, “Meiji Restoration! It’s the Meiji Restoration!”.

    But seriously, Rachel, while using such a historical sense while not be ordinary, it is untraditional only in the sense that for most of history, we have no had access to rigorous historical sources. That is, most Jewish scholars did not have access to Josephus and Aristotle in the original, for example.

    But I believe it obvious that historical knowledge is quite the imperative – notwithstanding that all secular knowledge is a desideratum – for being well-rounded Jew. According to Trumath Tzvi (abridged Hirsch Humash), p. xvii:
    “How, asked Samson Raphael Hirsch, can we understand the sublime word pictures of world history painted by the prophets without an adequate knowledge of contemporary secular history? The Jewish youth who knows from his historical studies [the contempt for human life shown by the ancient Egyptians,] the social oppression and moral degeneration in Rome of old, the oppression and licentiousness of [ancient Greek society], understands and appreciates a thousand times better the sublime and divine character of the Sinaitic law. And as to the study of nature which is so necessary for the understanding of Jewish religious thought and practical religious life, the Talmud reproaches those who fail to undertake it with the words of Isaiah (5:12): “And the doing of God they do not contemplate and the work of His hands they do not see” (Shabbath 75a). (Footnote: “I. Grunfeld, Three Generations: The Influence of Samson Raphael Hirsch on Jewish Life and Thought (London: 1958), pp. 15-16.”)

  9. And I may as well post here something I once had occasion to write. Hopefully, no one will be offended that once again, am I writing comments that are longer than the original post; please don’t get me convicted of highjacking! 😉

    So, I once had occasion to write, in an essay of mine, inter alia:

    Mr. Putterman takes issue with comparing the Tanakh to Near Eastern literature. He says it is difficult to say that the Tanakh relies on outside sources, and that this would impugn its timelessness. I am puzzled. Was the Tanakh given in a vacuum? Did its recipients have empty minds? Indeed, the Kuzari in 1:97, in explaining the sin of the Golden Calf, says,[56]

    אמר החבר: כי האמות כלם בזם ההוא היו עובדים צורות, ואלו הוי הפילוסופים מביאים מופת על היחוד ועל האלקות לא היו עומדים מבלי צורה שמכונים אליה ואומרים להמונם כי הצורה הזאת ידבק בה ענין אלקי, וכי היא מוחדת בדבר מפלא נכרי
    The Rabbi said: “In those days, every people worshiped images. Even if philosophers had been able to prove to everyone the existence of the one omnipotent God, they still would not have relinquished their images. This is because they would focus their attentions up on the image, and would profess to the masses that Divinity attaches itself to the image, and that it is unique in some supernatural way.[57]
    (End quote)

    Evidently, the Kuzari is not perturbed by the possibility (nay, probability if not surety!) that the Biblical Jews were influenced by the zeitgeist. And so, could it be that the Torah would not reply to that zeitgeit?! Could the Torah allow the zeitgeist – which held sway among the Jews of the time – to go unchallenged, without polemic by the Torah?! It is utterly irrelevant that that ancient notions are no longer regnant today; it hardly appears that the Torah would have allowed ancient beliefs to go unchallenged merely because someday in the future they’d pass away. In fact, perhaps they have become deceased only because the Torah replied to them in polemic; had the Torah not replied to those once-regnant-yet-today-outdated notions, they’d perhaps still be current and authoritative today! Could the Torah allow this to pass merely to bolster the Torah’s appearance of timelessness, an appearance which is strengthened by lack of time-bound polemic, but which, all the same, is not actually in truth impaired by the presence of time-conditioned polemic? Obviously, this is unconscionable to suggest. Moreover, as our Sages teach, prophecy is given in accordance with the abilities of its recipients. None other than Rav Kook has already answered Mr. Putterman’s objections: In Rav Kook’s letters, Igrot 478, we find:[58]

    And if we find in the Torah certain things which other people think were based on the widely accepted notions of the distant past, but which are incompatible with the scientific knowledge of today, indeed, we do not know at all if today’s research is absolute truth, and even if it is true, certainly there is also some important and sacred objective for which certain matters [in the Torah] needed to be presented in the commonly accepted description and not the exact one, as is plain in the spiritual concepts and in certain foundations of practice, for “the Torah provided for man’s evil passions”[59] or “to make [its words] intelligible”[60] and upon all of them appears the living endearing divine wisdom.
    (End quote)

    See also Rav Kook’s Eder Hayakar, pp. 42-43:61

    As to the similarities in teaching [between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi], it was already made clear in the days of Maimonides, and before him in the teachings of the Talmudic sages, that prophecy reckons with man’s nature, for it is its mission to raise his nature and his disposition by divine guidance, as is implied in the statement that “the commandments were only given so as to refine the nature of people” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1). Hence, whatever educational elements there were in before the giving of the Torah, which gained a following among the [Jewish] people and the world, if they only had a basis in morality and it was possible to raise them up to a high moral level – the Torah retained them.
    (End quote)

    This entire approach underlies Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz’s ubiquitous humash, and much more could be written, but we do not have the space here to elaborate. But we see that Rav Kook was not troubled in the least by the possibility that the Torah alludes to or downright relies on, the ancient Near Eastern literature. And indeed, the basis to presume that the Tanakh relied on its immediate social and historical context is weighty.

    [56] Hebrew according to the standard ibn Tibbon translation, and English according to the translation of Rabbi N. Daniel

    Korobkin (The Kuzari: In Defence of the Despised Faith, New York/Jerusalem, Feldheim: 2009, pp.11f).

    [57] The Kuzari notes that people believed “that Divinity attaches itself to the image”. Though I am no scholar in these matters, I have seen in Rav Hirsch’s commentary to Psalm 115:4-7 (Feldheim, 1997, pp. 302f) that the idolaters so believed. Similarly, Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur’s “The Biblical Idea of Idolatry” (JQR 69:1 , July 1978), adduces Psalms 115:5 and 135:16 (“They have eyes but see not, ears but hear not, etc.”) as being literally intended; the Psalmist is polemicizing against a belief that was actually held as literally true. As Faur says, “Its purpose was to shatter the common notion that the idols were capable of sensory perception, movement, and other activities peculiar to living beings.” As Rav Hirsch says (op. cit.), “…[P]aganism had a dual conception of its idols. The common people worshiped the images made by human hands, because they believed that a deity actually dwelt within these images. The statements here [in Psalms] and in the above-quoted passage from the Book of Deuteronomy apply to them quite in the literal sense. … Heathen folly endows the statues with that represent its idols with a mouth, eyes, and ears, thus indicating the belief that these idols actually command and posses the faculty of intellectual perception. But this is deception, either deliberate or unwitting.” In fact, Rabbi Faur brings a Biblical exemplification of this belief, precisely in connection with the Golden Calf! He notes,
    From the above, it is clear that the Biblical designation Elohim, “god,” for idols, reflects the identification of the god with the idol which resulted from the rite of consecration. [i.e., the god actually has part of its essence connected with the idol, in the fetishist and totemic manner indicated by Faur and Hirsch, quoted above.] It is pertinent to note here the view of the distinguished scholar [Rabbi] Elie [Eliyahu] Benamozegh concerning the Hebrew term massekhah that appears in reference to idolatry. Usually this term is translated “molten image,” that is, an image overlaid with molten gold or other metal. This explanation involves a serious difficulty: how is the fact that the image was overlaid with metal pertinent to the actual prohibition of idolatry, so that the Bible needed to emphasize it? In the opinion of Benamozegh, massekhah is connected with sikhah, “anointment,” and refers to the anointing of the statue during the act of consecration. [Note 60 there: See his Em la-Miqra, II, (Leghorn, 1862), 89a-b.] It may also be connected with nesekh, “libation,” in reference to the libations made during the ritual of consecration. Thus the expression egel massekha [the famous “golden calf”] (Exod. 32:4, 8; Deut. 9:12, 16, etc.) means the image of a calf that was consecrated (through anointment or libation). The same is true of expressions such as elohe massekhah (Exod. 34:17; Lev. 19:14), or massekhah (Deut. 9:12; Hos. 13:2, etc.), meaning, respectively, “gods (i.e., consecrated images) that were activated by libation” and “consecrated” objects. The connection between the rite of libation and massekhah as a means to induce the spirit of the god is explicit in Isah. 30:1.
    (End quote)
    In other words: the Golden Calf was not “molten”, but rather it was “anointed”, “consecrated”, “libated” , meaning that it was consecrated, in order that the deity’s (Deity’s?) essence dwell within, in the totemic and fetishist manner which we have explained. Rabbi Faur goes on to explain that all this goes far in explaining why Hazal rule that an idol is not truly an idol (i.e. applicable to the prohibitions of avodah zara) until it is consecrated in the customary manner; before then, it is simply not truly an idol at all! All this is tangential to our subject, but I found these matters fascinating, and I saw fit to bring them here for the reader’s interest, and to pique his curiosity in this cited article of Rabbi Faur’s, which the author found, frankly, to be profoundly fascinating.

    [58] Translation from Tzvi Feldman, Rav A. Y. Kook – Selected Letters. Ma’aliot Publications of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe; Ma’aleh Adumim, Israel, 1986. pp. 17f.

    [59] I.e., the Torah made certain laws as concessions to man’s nature

    [60] i.e. by using human idioms and language usage

    [61] Translation from Ben Zion Bokser, The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook (Amity House: Amity, New York, 1988.), p. 48, “Assyriology and the Bible”.

    • Goodness me, Michael – I didn’t think my contribution would inspire such commentary! I think it’s going to take me a little while to absorb everything there… but thank you for sharing it all.

  10. This was a wonderful contribution to Ilana-Davita’s project, Rachel. I often think of the niche that Judaism has carved out in the world, but I like how you focus in on the niche it has carved out in you as an individual, too. That was a nice change of focus.

    I found the photo an interesting contrast to Rachel’s essay. Where Rachel writes of the renewal and progress Judaism has wrought in her, the sign shows how Judaism is phasing out in the Diaspora; whereas the Hebrew sign is for the Beit Midrash HaGadol, the Great Study House, in English, the sign is for a Jewish museum. In a Beit Midrash, one learns Judaism; in a museum, one learns ABOUT Judaism.

    • Thank you! There’s plenty more where that came from, I can assure you!

      Your observation on the photo was interesting – I truly hadn’t noticed that…

  11. Pingback: Mesorah Project Round Up « Ilana-Davita

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