Rabbi’s Message

Why does attending services decrease mortality?
In Temple times, people who came to the Temple were literally blessed by G-d through the priests (Numbers 6:23-27). Our Sages liken those 60 Hebrew letters of the Priestly Blessing to the 60 armed guards of King Solomon (Song of Songs 3:7-8). Certainly it’s tempting to speculate that G-d blesses those who attend religious services.
 
From a modern Jewish perspective, longevity may be related to socioeconomic status, health-conscious behaviors and higher education levels. Such findings are likely a combination of factors, which include bonding with a community of family and friends and developing positive emotional attitudes (faith, love, forgiveness, optimism, peace, etc.). While these behaviors are not present in all who attend religious services, the message in religious environments tends to prioritize positive behaviors and put painful experiences in proper perspective. Sending, receiving and being a blessing are, G-d willing, keys to a long life: physical, emotional and spiritual.
Are other religions heretical?

There are many valid paths to G-d, which include other religions. Our Sages never indicated that other people must become Jewish. However, there are general requirements for people who are not Jewish, called Noahide laws, which generally make for a cohesive society. According to our Sages, these laws were given to all mankind at the time of Noah. These rules include prohibiting idols, murder, theft, immorality, blasphemy, eating the flesh of an animal while it is still alive and a requirement to set up a just system of law. Most religions today would agree and do follow these. For those who follow these laws, they are not heretical.
 
Of course, there is much more that is required to follow a spiritual path and polish one’s soul during this lifetime. Ideally, each person should be dedicated to becoming a compassionate, ethical person who is mindful of G-d. Daily practice is essential.
Can human language describe G-d adequately?

Our Sages say that a name conveys a person’s essence. In Hebrew, G-d has many names. They include (translated to English): Lord, Lord of Hosts, Feminine Presence, The Name, G-d Almighty, Truth, Peace, Merciful One, Living G-d, Rock of Israel, The Place, The Holy One, Fountain of Blessing, Life of the Worlds and many more.

G-d responds to Moses’ question about G-d’s name, saying, “I AM that I AM” (Exodus 3:13-14). Indeed, G-d’s most intimate name which is not pronounced (Hebrew letters yod-kay-vav-kay) indicates a sense of timelessness. Yet there is the masculine plural name used during creation (Elohim), which appears feminine in the singular (Eloha). G-d can be thought of as an entity, a force (like compassion), a place, a verb or even a process. Jews often do not spell out the name G-O-D, but put a dash (or another symbol: G*d, G!d) which points to this awesome mystery.

What makes one morally virtuous?

Although Judaism values and teaches many moral and ethical virtues, G-d commands us to “be holy” because G-d is holy (Leviticus 19:2). We are to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with G-d” (Micah 6:8). We are to strive to be like G-d by following G-d’s attributes: being compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, being abundant in kindness and truth, and being forgiving (Exodus 34:6-7). Yet holiness is so much more. It is working through our shadow selves, prayerfully letting go of ego. We must honestly recognize our strengths and weaknesses and strive to do better. It’s being conscious every moment of G-d. It includes treating other people kindly no matter what, remembering to be kind to ourselves and being humble.
 
Each moment has within it the ability to transcend the ordinary. We have an opportunity to do what G-d expects. G-d expects nothing less than our very best.

Does religion make us happier?

The “benefits package” for observing a religious life includes happiness. We develop relationships with those who are interested in experiencing G-d through a Jewish path. Judaism is practiced in community. “There is no happiness in the world of material things; there is only happiness in spiritual concerns. The one who enjoys a rich spiritual life is happy. There is no other kind of happiness in existence” (Michtav meh-Eliyahu).

It’s not the “religion” per se that makes us happier; rather, it’s the spiritual work. In fact, it’s specifically related to growth. The Hebrew word “sameakh,” happy, is related to the word “tzomeakh,” growth (Hirsch). Rabbi Twerski says life without spiritual growth is life without joy. True happiness can come only from spiritual growth. That means that we cannot rest on where we’ve been, but must continue to polish our souls each day through experiences and spiritual study.

Is it ok to pick and choose between religious beliefs?

Mostly, Judaism is flexible about “beliefs.” However, religious life requires commitment to a religious life. Though the “pick-and-choose” method sounds like it lacks thoughtful consideration, Judaism has long recommended that one begin the spiritual path by choosing a meaningful mitzvah (commandment). For someone who is not currently religious or those who convert to Judaism, motivation to embark upon a path of religious observance begins with a yearning to be closer to G-d. Then, a person may choose to bring into daily practice any number of mitzvahs. Someone may choose daily Torah study or lighting Shabbat candles each Friday at sundown. Each simple act is considered a step on the path. Choose a mitzvah, make it part of your life and add more to it. Observance is a ladder. Our goal is to maintain a constant connection with G-d, prayerfully thanking G-d for every moment.

What significance does food have in Judaism?

What we eat and how we eat are central to Judaism. Since the Temple no longer exists, our dining table is our “altar” (Talmud). Our Sages suggest it should be a place for heightened awareness where great thought is put into our words, our food choices, and the way we eat. Jewish Law governs what is kosher (fit or appropriate). Traditionally, hands are ritually washed prior to thanking G-d for bread. Blessings said before and after eating signify that it’s an important time to communicate with G-d and remember to thank G-d for an abundance of healthy food.

From a cultural perspective, traditional recipes for Shabbat and Festivals are handed down through generations. Meals are time to be with family and friends. What we eat is part of our identity and ultimately becomes part of our physical body. The way in which we eat shows our respect and thanks to G-d.

Why does religious observance seem to be declining across America? 

G-d tests us to know what is in our heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). Our Sages agree that people are tested by hardships and by abundance. Difficult times are a test, but when times are good, it is an even greater test (Alshich). For example, Moses was concerned about how the people would react upon reaching the Promised Land where there would be plenty of food, good houses, and increased wealth. Moses warned that in good times, we tend to “become haughty and … forget G-d … saying ‘My strength and the might of my hand has made me all this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:14-18; see also King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4).

For some, it’s easy to forget G-d when material wealth is abundant. Americans currently face this. It may explain the alleged decline of religious attendance. Hopefully folks will find their spiritual path and be able to gratefully acknowledge that everything derives from G-d.

Should there be prayer in public school?

Yes, absolutely. Time for quiet reflection, prayer or meditation of the student’s religious choosing would be a valuable asset, even if it is only three minutes at their desk first thing each morning. A few minutes of minimally directed quiet time for contemplation has many benefits.

 
There are certainly strong reasons why we should allow time for prayer in school from a spiritual standpoint. Is there anything more important in one’s day than connecting with G-d? Such a practice is important to teach children.
 
From a psychological standpoint, a number of studies confirm that prayer or meditation can reduce anxiety, cultivate gratitude, increase optimism, and even improve athletic performance. Studies find that prayer helps us have better self-control and become “nicer.” A regular practice guards against depression. Prayer can help one forgive more readily. There are so many positive aspects to prayer. It’s surprising that it is not currently required.
Will newly formed spiritual communities change religion?
While innovative groups may be a way to experience interfaith connections, Jewish communities provide these options now, especially in larger cities. For example, many cities have Jewish Community Centers where classes are taught on a variety of topics, including spirituality, such as kabbalah, art and dance. They offer babysitting, exercise and sports. Additionally, groups such as Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous or grief counseling groups meet there. Essentially the JCC is a hub of activities with outreach to Jews, but are welcoming to all.
 
While synagogues tend to provide worship and service opportunities as well as ethical and spiritual education, some also couple education with a focus on healthy living or exercise. In the Reno/Tahoe area, we provide Torah and Ski, Torah and Hike and even Torah and Kayak. While each of these incorporates learning about G-d, spirituality, and ethics, there is also focus on laughter, love, family and community.

Should we follow our heart or rules?

Torah tells us to “not follow after your heart … by which you go astray” (Numbers 15:39). Our Sages explain the reason for this warning is that human intelligence is limited and not everyone can see the truth (RAMBAM). So, to polish up our souls, it’s important to learn a bit of Torah each day so we can make good choices.

“Torah” has many meanings. For some, following Torah means that it is a practical and ethical way to live. For some, it means abiding by specific Jewish laws. Overall, we follow traditions set forth by Torah and our Sages. At times, this may mean that we must choose between two options and discern the best one based upon our experience, knowledge and best practices. We may choose the compassionate option. However, even then, it is based upon teachings and traditions that are 3,000 years old, not the whim of our heart.

What is the Jewish perspective on organ donation?

In Judaism, saving a life (pikuakh nefesh) is of the highest priority. Thus, all denominations encourage organ donation. A living person is permitted to donate organs (i.e. kidneys) as long as it does not jeopardize their health.

In the case of organ donation following death, this is also permitted. Often such a gift helps families cope with tragic circumstances. Ideally, organ procurement must be done soon after cardiac death. This means that an organ donor is removed from life support briefly in order to obtain a declaration of death. The donor is then put back on life support, to ensure that the organs to be donated remain viable. Although there has been much discussion on this issue, the official position of most rabbis and the state of Israel is that this procedure is permitted in order to save lives.

Are we afraid of G-d?
“What does G-d, your G-d, ask of you? Only to fear G-d, follow G-d’s path, love G-d and to serve G-d with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12). Both fear and love are required. Fear is a natural response when pondering G-d’s infinite greatness. It’s a state of mind and religious attitude which includes awe and amazement. This respectful mindset is based upon deep knowledge. Indeed, the “fear of G-d is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10). Yet, it’s up to us to cultivate. “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven” (Talmud, Brachot 33b). We can be radically amazed and even overwhelmed by G-d. Such fear isn’t just fear of punishment. It’s fear of the spiritual consequences of being disconnected from G-d if we act contrary to our spiritual responsibilities. Fear can encourage spiritual growth. “Happy is the person who fears G-d” (Psalms 112:1).

Is weeping divine?

Weeping can be integral to prayer — connecting to the Holy One. According to our Sages, even when all of the other ways to communicate in prayer with G-d are blocked, the “gate of tears” is never locked. When we are overcome with emotion, G-d certainly hears those prayers. Heartfelt, authentic tears are a mechanism for emotional release as well as a means to connect to G-d.

One particular call of the shofar (horn) mimics crying. When it’s used on Rosh Hoshanah (New Year), it calls to awaken us from our half-conscious slumber through life. We hear the “crying” of the shofar as it calls. The Days of Awe, which include Rosh Hoshanah, are a time when many people shed tears. Tears sometimes help us peel away the layers of inauthentic living, sadness or regret. It is said that G-d collects our tears for they come from our soul (Psalms 56:8).

Is religion a barrier to gender equality?

Religion is less of a barrier than culture, which often dictates how religion is practiced. For millennia, a male-dominated culture affected our texts subduing a feminine perspective. Even so, Judaism considers G-d beyond gender. Some names of G-d in Hebrew indicate gender: masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral. Some names indicate G-d as a space or place, or energy (i.e. compassion). G-d’s most intimate name indicates space-time-process (i.e. verb).

From a Biblical perspective, there are examples of women leaders: matriarchs as well as women who were prophets and judges. Hannah is our model for prayer. In practice, Judaism sought to provide divorced women with property rights through a marriage contract. Thus, our core theology and perspectives do not demand male domination.

Cultures evolve slowly. In American culture, where there are considerations of gender equality, there are now women rabbis in all denominations. When world culture shifts towards greater gender sensitivity, likely religion will follow.

Would you ‘unfriend’ a person over religious views?

Most people can be friends even when they disagree, as long as each person can be respectful. Friends nurture, help and support each other. Sometimes they even call out our bad behavior. If people are controlling or actively support beliefs that are violent or unethical, friendship is unwise.


According to our Sages, part of the responsibility of being a good friend is helping the friend move forward on their spiritual path. Friends polish each other up. As a friend, sometimes it’s necessary to point out unethical, dishonest or unprofessional behavior. Generally, if people are emotionally healthy, they can accept constructive criticism without becoming overly defensive or passive aggressive. It’s important to have people who are willing to be truthful with us, even when the truth hurts. They compassionately show us what in our behavior needs fixing and where we have blind spots. Those rare folks are true and cherished friends.

Should we pray or meditate?

There are many ways to communicate with G-d. Tefillah (prayer) is the traditional notion of speaking with G-d from the prayer book or words from the heart. Many have a practice of praying several times a day. Mindfulness and a positive attitude are encouraged by saying blessings every day being grateful for life, food, and praising G-d for everything G-d does.

Our Sages speak about many types of meditation, including hitbonenut (contemplation) and hitbodedut (self-seclusion). Some focus on “emptiness.” Kabbalistic meditative mystical practice may focus on Divine names. Many suggest active meditation which fully engages the mind. Its goal is to prepare the heart and mind, moving the ego aside in order to connect with the Life of the Worlds. According to Rebbe Nachman, many holy people find the only way to achieve lofty spiritual insight is through meditation. Prayer or meditation may be truly heartfelt. Both are necessary.
How should we treat parents?

Honoring parents is the fifth of the Ten Commandments. Honoring means that one must respect them. The rationale for this is gratitude for the gift of life, not because the parent provided care for the child. Some sources say that one is to be reverent and even in awe of one’s parents. Thus, one should not speak disrespectfully, raise one’s voice nor contradict a parent. Hitting, cursing or disgracing them are serious transgressions.

One should care for one’s parents by supplying their physical and emotional needs, make every effort to be helpful and not cause them to worry. One is to pay for proper care for impoverished, aged parents, but never let them feel they are a burden. Interestingly, one is not required to “love” one’s parents because there may be overwhelming difficulties that can sometimes occur in relationships. However, one is always required to honor and respect one’s parents.

Does G-d punish?

Much like parents or teachers who would not allow a child to run amok, spiritual laws maintain order and justice. Middah keneged middah (measure for measure) is the system of rewards and punishments based upon G-d’s judgment and our knowledge, capabilities, and choices. The more one knows, the stricter the judgment. G-d is always watching because G-d is connected with our souls.

This heavenly accounting system is too readily used to explain bad situations. In truth, it’s beyond human ability to view the heavenly scales to see if our own actions, words and thoughts balance positively or negatively. Even more so, we cannot see our neighbor’s scales, nor answer why bad things happen to good people. We should never say that someone who is hurting has caused their own bad outcome. Sages say that reward or punishment may or may not occur during this lifetime. The bottom line is that justice exists and G-d is merciful.

Is acceptable to have a presidential candidate who is an atheist? 

The candidate who holds the same moral/ethical values as most Americans would likely be best.  One who cannot add “so help me G-d” to their Oath of Office lacks the necessary spirituality.  However, calculating which candidate would be a better based only upon their religiousness is not rational.  What is their position on the economy, health care, and education?  Is the candidate good for Israel, and for America?  The candidate’s position on the important issues facing our nation is key to making a choice, not their choice of religion.

Extreme religiousness could be just as much of a problem as a lack of morals and ethics.  For example, a candidate who only supports their religion and not others, or alternatively, one who would attempt to cut the country’s religious roots through Presidential policy.  Either religious extreme is a poor candidate.  Choose the best candidate to successfully lead our country; one who trusts G-d.

Is religious pluralism an opportunity or a problem?

Judaism agrees that there are many paths to G-d. Some argue that G-d designed many religions to meet humanity’s needs. The opportunity is to recognize others as intelligent and good, even if they hold differing opinions. Author Dennis Prager says that one of the most important days in the life of anyone who has a passionate religious or political view is when they meet someone who holds a different view and they recognize them as both intelligent and good. Sadly, many people call those who hold an opposing viewpoint “evil” or dismiss them as being unintelligent. Being able to recognize the value and inherent worth of each individual as created b’tselem Elohim (in G-d’s image) and being able to disagree with another person without “taking it personally” is an important step to spiritual maturity. As it says, “I am a friend of all of them that respect G-d.” (Psalm 119:63).

What does Judaism have to say about exorcism?

David’s harp-playing dispelled King Saul’s “evil spirit,” nearly 3,000 years ago (I Samuel 16:14-16). Since then, over the centuries, some rabbis performed exorcisms. Most people believe exorcisms are the fantasy created by horror shows, not reality. Yet, there was an exorcism attended by hundreds in 2010 at a school in Israel.Are the manifestations caused by mental illness or a malevolent force? Rabbi Gershon Winkler of New Mexico notes that the ritual’s modern version focuses on healing the possessing spirit, then sending it elsewhere, in addition to healing the one possessed. Exorcisms are done in consultation with mental health professionals. A possessing spirit is called a dybbuk, a deceased spirit, not typically identified as demonic. The choice of treatment is dependent upon the individual and mental health team’s perspective on how to achieve health and healing. Therapy or medication would be tried first. If those fail, some may undertake an exorcism.

Why are American youth less religious?

The millennial approach to religion is driven by consumerism, according to University of Virginia Associate Professor Matthew Hedstrom. One may choose from “religious products” such as meditation, prayer or even a belief system. Unlike 14th-century European peasants who could not easily change their situations, millennials can access information about any religion, meet practitioners via social media or even actually visit houses of worship to learn more. This consumer identity differs from previous American generations that primarily identified as producers.

Millennials are told from birth through advertising that their clothes, food and car will give them satisfaction. Yet millennials seek to “make a difference” in spite of economic recession, student loan debt and difficulty finding meaningful employment. In their quest, millennials want to work on social justice, help mankind and heal our planet. Despite flashy headlines used to sell magazines, millennials are doing OK, G-d willing, and working in their own way to improve themselves and their world.

Can mercy solve all of humanity’s problems?

Mercy and the overlapping ideals of kindness and compassion are indeed key. If we treated ourselves, others, animals, and our environment with those qualities, many of the world’s woes would be resolved. However, many more essential ethical traits are needed. Justice is necessary to treat people fairly. Decreasing our greed and overconsumption of material goods coupled with a more equitable system of wealth distribution would halt severe poverty and starvation among the world’s poorest. Education is needed to keep all people progressing forward.

To solve all of humanity’s problems, the best ethical qualities and soul traits of humanity must be embedded in our actions, speech and thoughts. We must become moral, ethical people working to better ourselves and the world. Seriously following a spiritual path to G-d makes us acutely aware of our lacking qualities. It also provides a path to achieve those qualities and polish up our soul.

Should the government stay neutral between religion and non-religion (atheism)?

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ensures that one religion is not favored over other religions. However, atheism is not a religion. By definition, atheism is a lack of religion or religious thought. Thus, there is no legal requirement to ensure that atheists are provided with protection under the First Amendment.

As a Supreme Court Justice who is a Catholic conservative, Justice Scalia rightfully notes that if this country wants a religion free government, our laws would have to be changed. Our laws favor religion, not atheism. This reflects our values of the majority of our country, which was founded upon the ideal of religious freedom. Our laws give little consideration to the wishes of atheists. Those who wish to pray or ask for G-d’s blessings during a speech are legally permitted to do so. Those who choose to ignore G-d, G-d forbid, do so at their own peril.

On the positive note for Jews, there are many ways to view G-d: as an entity, a force, or even a process. G-d is beyond our ability to describe, yet closer than the air we breathe. As R’ Abraham Joshua Heshel said: “The god you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” Why? Because G-d is so much more.

Does consumerism take us away from G-d?

Within each of us is a desire for “more.” The “more” that many seek is material wealth with the mistaken belief that it would satisfy their greed. Many are slaves to a materialistic addiction which takes its toll on the environment, our relationships and even on our own souls. Materialism is an empty path. As long as one has their necessities, then one is blessed. “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his portion.” (Talmud). The path to G-d is better than riches. (Psalms 119:72).

Enjoying G-d’s abundant gifts is delightful. However, if one has excessive wealth, don’t flaunt it nor waste it on unnecessary things. To do so, is a sin. (Orchot Tzadikim on Lev. 19:14). It arouses envy, may cause the less fortunate feel ashamed and it can make one arrogant. Act modestly and avoid boasting. Derive your self-esteem from who you are, not your material wealth.

How important is kindness in Judaism?

Chesed (kindness) is an essential middah (attribute) which our Sages say is integral to Judaism.  Chesed causes us to do what is right to help those in need.  However, chesed must be tempered with its opposite:  gevurah (strength, severity, justice).  Kindness is key.  However, too much chesed causes an imbalance.  Strive for a balance between these two opposites.  (Maimonides). 

We must stand up for our deeply held values.  Those in leadership positions must provide guidance.  Thus, there are times when we must be intolerant to defend tolerance or be unkind to defend kindness.  “Whoever is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind.” (Kohelet Rabba 7:16, see also King Saul’s misplaced kindness toward King Agag of Amalek, I Samuel 15).  Our actions may appear cruel as we work to stamp out hatred, intolerance or injustice.  Ultimately, this is not cruelty, but a great act of kindness. 

What is the essence of your faith?

Judaism’s central prayer is “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.” “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our G-d, Adonai is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This is the first prayer taught to children, said several times each day and the last prayer said by those who are dying. The passage in Deuteronomy continues, “You shall love Adonai, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources.”
 
The actual Hebrew word used for Adonai is not pronounced. It’s G-d’s most intimate, special name which indicates timelessness. The essence of G-d’s oneness is a mystery. There is much work to be done on the path towards G-d.  One essential element is to love our neighbor as ourself.  We follow a path set forth by our Sages and look to our traditions and teachings. For some, these traditions are renewed as they are reinterpreted by each generation. Recognizing G-d’s unique oneness is a beginning. Knowing it is the essential goal.

Does watching movies affect one’s faith?

What should we focus upon in our free time? Since most American families watch movies, it’s wise to choose ones that encourage family values such as a strong work ethic, truthfulness, being helpful and respectful. Movie ratings may help us select appropriate movies. For example, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is rated PG-13 due to “sci-fi action/violence.” In determining whether a PG-13 movie is appropriate for your family, parents should assess their child’s interest and maturity level and consider having a family discussion after the movie to help bring home ethical teachings or answer questions. On the other hand, R-rated movies typically expose viewers to sex, violence, drug use and inappropriate language. Such films are inappropriate for young children who may be susceptible to the examples of bad behavior displayed. It’s wise to choose movies with family values which portray positive role models. Whatever we focus upon, we become.

How should we approach death?

Some exceptionally righteous individuals approach death with joy because they know that whatever G-d decrees for each of us is for the best. Thus, they view their impending death as fulfilling G-d’s will. So, they are joyful. However, such an amazingly positive attitude is beyond the ability of most. For many, there is sadness of leaving loved ones. For some, there may be sadness at not having finished their life’s work or other regrets.

Concentrating on the unity of G-d and ensuring that we have completed any necessary teshuvah (returning and repentance) are overarching goals at the time of death. The Vidui (confession of sins) acknowledges our failures, asks G-d to heal them and often includes a prayer to watch over our loved ones. The last prayer at the time of death is one central to our faith: “Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our G-d, the Eternal is One.”

Should religion be taught in public schools?

Currently, religion may be taught in public school only from a historical, cultural or literary approach (i.e. in history, social studies or English courses). However, if a teacher teaches one religion as “the right or only true religion” it violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. This clause ensures that religious education does not favor one religion while marginalizing others within public school. Portraying one religious belief system as the only truth is not permitted. Public school teachers may not seek to convert students to their religion. However, private schools certainly can and do provide specific religious education.

Public school should provide education in basic ethics which are fundamental to all religious paths and will help students grow spiritually. Ethics are not the same thing as religion, yet there is overlap. For example, students should learn integrity, honesty, sharing, respect, and courage. Ethical essentials should be systematically taught within all classes.

Is religion needed to lead a moral life?

According to Midrash, seventy nations came from Noah. Each one has its own path. Yet there are universal laws required for all. G-d gave seven rules so the world would survive, called Noahide laws. They require establishing a justice system and prohibit worshipping idols, murder, theft, immorality, blasphemy, and eating the flesh of a live animal. Maimonides writes that if one follows these laws without acknowledging G-d, that person is not righteous (Laws of Kings 9:11). In his view, one must acknowledge G-d.

 The easiest path for learning appropriate behavior is a religious path designed to provide moral education. Without religion, it may still be possible to lead a moral life, so long as one acknowledges G-d. “Consider three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you – a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book” (Pirkei Avot 2:1).

Which is more important:  religious doctrine or faith?

Circumstances, perspectives and individuals make a difference in halacha (Jewish law). It’s sometimes important to consider the individual’s circumstance to make a correct rabbinic decision. Torah says, “Judge righteously” (Leviticus 19:15). Here’s an example: Many people may know that one commandment for Jews is to keep kosher. This means that animals must not be blemished prior to slaughter.
 
As one classic Chasidic story tells, a wealthy woman asks her local rabbi if the slightly imperfect chicken is kosher. The rabbi examines it and tells her that under halacha, the chicken is blemished and unacceptable for her family’s dinner. Later, a poor widow approaches the rabbi with the very same chicken and asks if it’s kosher. The rabbi examines the chicken, and looking into the woman’s eyes, says, “It’s kosher.” Did the law change? No. She could not afford another chicken and the rabbinic decision was based upon compassion for her situation.

Do faith and science conflict? 

Jews do not have only one way to view G-d, life, or science. We may hold multiple viewpoints finding truth to be multivalent and dependent upon perspective. We also can hold two “truths,” even if they result in a paradox. There may be spiritual, historical, cultural, scientific, or personal truth(s). Two Jews, three opinions.

From one perspective, faith is necessary with science. For example, scientists base experiments “believing” that the laws of gravity will be the same each day. While some may hold that G-d is the One who orchestrates the times, seasons and even laws of gravity, there is also a scientific belief that such “laws” will remain true. Models for how our solar system works change as we learn more. In fact, quantum physics and a multiverse are closer to a Jewish perspective than older models about atoms or the universe. We keep learning through religion and science.

What is the Jewish position on the Right to Die? 

Halacha (Jewish law) requires doctors to do everything to prolong life, but prohibits measures that prolong dying. The value of human life is infinite, beyond measure. This is true only if it’s an hour or a minute. Every human being is entitled to general supportive measures such as emotional support and pain relief.

Halacha would consider fluids and nutrition part of supportive care, no different than washing, turning or providing basic comfort care. However, this may be contrary to the best medical advice. As the body nears death, fluids may be more of a detriment than helpful. The body cannot process excess fluids and they may cause discomfort. Decisions about resuscitation, withholding or withdrawal of fluids, nutrition and oxygen are complex and often emotional.  Families may need to consult the health care team and their rabbi. In the case of an incurable, painful illness, the patient need not prolong suffering.

How does Judaism view wealth?

Judaism teaches that wealth should be used as tool and not be a goal in itself. Rabbi Yechiel Epstein says there are two trials: the test of wealth and the test of poverty. Both are difficult, but test of wealth is more difficult. Why? We have a tendency to forget G-d when we are wealthy. On the other hand, poverty is to be avoided because it leads to temptation (Proverbs 30:8-9). With adequate money it’s easier to reach spiritual goals.

When one has material wealth, it’s a blessing from G‑d. Money is transformed when used in a spiritual way. It can help create a special place for family and friends, let us devote time to sacred study and give charity. Rabbi Abraham Twersky writes, “The highest degree of holiness is achieved when the mundane and physical are elevated and transformed into the spiritual and sacred.” Use money wisely.

What is ‘hell’ according to Judaism?

Remember: two Jews, three opinions. In one view, the Jewish mystics describe a spiritual place often translated as “hell,” but a better translation would be “spiritual washing machine.” Each act we do in this lifetime leaves a spiritual imprint. Positive acts become part of our soul’s beautiful tapestry. Wrongdoings leave a stain that needs to be cleaned. If we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its resting place. We must go through a deep-cleaning cycle. Our soul is cleansed through an intense spiritual process to rid it of any negative residue and prepare it for heaven. This deep-clean cycle is normally limited to twelve months (Shabbat 33a). The whole process can be avoided if we truly regret the wrong and make amends with people we have hurt. It is possible to leave this world without spiritual schmutz.

What is most important: past, present or future?

Judaism teaches that each moment is valuable and precious, a link between a historical past, now and a future yet to be written. Time is our most precious possession. Humans are the only known creation endowed with the ability to experience time. We can re-experience the past through memory and anticipate and prepare for the future. The present is valued because in it we can affect change.

To live in time and attune ourselves to its rhythm, we flow from past memories, to now, to the promised reality of a future. There is connection between events that were and events that will be someday. We shift between reminiscing, being consciously focused on now, to anticipating the future. To ask which part of time is most important is to ask which part of a book is most important. The beginning, middle or end? All parts are necessary to make a whole.

How does Judaism look at money? 

The Sages of the Talmud ask, “Who is a rich man? One who rejoices with his lot.” Tamid 32a. When one has material wealth, it is a blessing from G‑d. Someone so blessed is G‑d’s “banker” entrusted to dispense resources to those in need. In Jewish tradition, one gives tzedakah, not “charity.” Charity implies that it is a contribution out of the generosity or benevolence of the giver. A Jew gives “tzedakah,” a Hebrew word meaning righteousness and justice. When one gives tzedakah, it is doing what is just, what is right and what is necessary. Everyone is required to give tzedakah, even the person who lives on tzedakah. The concept of tzedakah allows everyone the opportunity to act righteously doing a G-dly deed by providing for others. Thus, money is a useful tool. However, if you want to be truly rich, be happy with what you have been given.  

Is the Bible to be taken literally or can it be interpreted?

Bible exegesis has four layers, called PaRDeS. Each letter stands for one layer. Peshat (plain) is the traditional meaning. Remez (hint) is the symbolic meaning, beyond the literal. Derash (seek) is a moral/theological view. Sod (secret) is its mystical meaning. Often these overlap. There are many perspectives to any Bible verse. It’s said “there are 70 facets to Torah.”

Should we believe the stories? Rabbi Shimon says, “Woe to one who says Torah is just nice stories. All its words are sublime secrets! Stories are the garment. When some people see someone in a good-looking garment, they look no further. The essence of the garment is the body; the essence of the body is the soul! It’s the same with Torah. She has a body clothed in garments which are the stories of this world. Some look only at the garment, but fail to see that there’s so much more.”

Are you happy with the religious landscape of America? 

The religious landscape has brought change. It has been a catalyst to refresh our programming and outlook. We must be more innovative in outreach. We’re finding what inspires people and how they experience G-d in their life. We’re helping people on their spiritual journey.

There is a leveling of hierarchy. Rabbis, like doctors and lawyers, are no longer on a pedestal. Rabbis are, by nature, teachers and should not necessarily be on a pedestal. The trend toward teamwork is refreshing.

Lack of synagogue membership concerns many because it could cause a decline in resources. Some synagogues have not survived. Jews often want a rabbi at life transitions: birth, bar mitzvah, wedding and death. Those financially able to help must do so to provide for those in need. Synagogues which have survived are better able to tap into what inspires people. They are more attentive to congregants. They are creative and resourceful.

Can a human forgive the sins of another human?

Sins may be between people, or us and G-d. Sins between us and G-d include worshiping something besides G-d, harming ourselves by poor choices (drugs, alcohol, food or even failing to rest), or evil thoughts. For those sins, we ask G-d to forgive us.

For sins between people, granting forgiveness helps maintain a healthy outlook on life. With either sin, a person must acknowledge the wrong, apologize sincerely, compensate the injured (if possible) and agree to never do it again. Wrongs may be committed by both people. Be first to seek forgiveness. Stop thoughts of revenge and wishing bad things on the other. Next, let go of anger and resentment. If we cruelly fail to forgive (ourselves, others or G-d), we harm ourselves. Our Sages say we are judged by G-d the way we judge others. May we be able to grant, as well as to find forgiveness.

What should you do if you and your partner are not on the same page spiritually?

Marriage is, G-d willing, a lifetime commitment of two people willing to grow together. A happy marriage where both partners express their spirituality in a similar way is ideal. It’s helpful for couples to be on the same page spiritually, yet it’s natural for change to happen. Sometimes one spouse may become more Jewishly observant. The less-observant spouse may need time to grow. Cooperation is key. Telling the spouse to “do what they want” is a recipe for disaster. Both need to grow together.

The spouse who wants to change their observance level has the responsibility to bring along their spouse in a loving way. Love, faith, trust, and patience are important ingredients when one spouse seeks to change. It’s helpful to find a Jewish community where both spouses can be comfortable. Observance is a journey, not an end destination. There’s always room to improve, especially in being patient.

Can religion tackle all the world’s problems?Judaism has been a viable resource for tackling world problems for at least the last 3,000 years. It is a map designed exactly for this purpose. It teaches a path toward G-d, provides a blueprint for appropriate relationships with people and even teaches how to care for our environment. Today’s questions are merely extensions of age-old questions. Volumes of sacred literature, written over millennia, contain the essential ingredients to answer today’s biggest questions. After all, there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

While the map exists which provides competent solutions to today’s woes, it is up to us to engage in the study and embark on the path which leads to knowledge and understanding. We are to be ethical, honorable, and compassionate when possible. Following the map outlined by the Sages would lead toward greater ethical behavior. It could also move the world toward harmony.

What if a congregant becomes a non-believer?

My thought would be that a nonbelieving congregant, sadly, lacks G-d experience. Nonbelief tends to be a product of those who have never “been in a foxhole.” That’s likely why the Bible warns that we may “forget G-d” if life is too easy (Deut. 8:11-18).

G-d is an amazing current present at every moment in every space and time: “Supreme Entity,” a “Force” (i.e. love or Fountain of Blessing), a “Place” or perhaps even a “Process.” There are many ways to encounter and experience the “Great Mystery.” Specific belief about G-d is not mandated and some congregants don’t believe. However, to experience G-d and be in touch with one’s soul, one path might be to have the honor of watching someone die. Watching the difference between life (with a soul) and death (when the soul moves on) is often profound, deeply moving, awe-inspiring and can be an experience of G-d.

Is hypocrisy a grave sin?

Hypocrites say one thing and do another. At worst, we judge others as evildoers, ourselves as innocent. Then, thinking we’re right, we, G-d forbid, commit evil acts presuming G-d is on our side. It’s difficult to see ourselves as “wrong.” Sometimes we feel entitled to judge others be they politicians, Hollywood, people who are not like “us,” or even our family and friends.

Psychologists note that when we judge ourselves, we highlight achievements, ignore failures and justify our behaviors, rather than work to improve weaknesses. Our Sages suggest doing a “soul-accounting” each night. What did we do or fail to do? How did we treat others? How can we improve tomorrow? Do our words match our deeds? Are we honest, ethical and compassionate people? Certainly hypocrisy is a sin, especially when we judge others when it’s not our responsibility to do so. We are to judge other people with mercy.

Should we act on inner wisdom or rely on Scriptures?

Most people are gifted with an internal moral compass passed on by parents, teachers and friends. For some, sadly their moral compass broke due to misuse, abuse or neglect. For those interested in drawing closer to G-d, their inner moral compass may develop into inner wisdom through much spiritual work and the right intentions. Inner wisdom is cultivated through a life-long spiritual quest which, G-d willing, comes to fruition through human experience and as a result of prayer, meditation and a yearning for G-d.

Inner wisdom cannot conflict with the path constructed over millennia by our Sages. It must be consistent with the ethics, values and teachings of Scriptures. Any conflict must be resolved in favor of the tools provided by our Sages. These tools include many the Bible and many holy books written over thousands of years which are essentially designed to bring us closer to the Holy One.

What does faith mean? 
In Hebrew, faith is “emunah,” which is different than the modern definition. “Emunah” is not a “leap of faith,” rather it is to be fastened with security, an assurance, a certainty, along with concepts of loyalty and honesty. There is to be emunah between husband and wife. In a Jewish wedding ceremony, the bride is “betrothed in faithfulness” (Hosea 2:21). There is emunah between G-d and people. This means that we believe, trust in, and rely upon G-d to do what G-d says. G-d takes care of us and “as a man carries his son,” G-d is faithful to support us (Deuteronomy 1:31, Psalm 31:24). Abraham, the first Jew, had emunah (trust in) towards G-d and G-d considered that righteous (Genesis 15:6). It is in this sense that Hebrew uses the word faith. Faith does not mean that we leave our capability of reason behind.

How is Jesus understood in America?
Jesus was a learned Jewish rabbi (teacher) who taught Torah and observed Jewish law. He taught a great number of people with lessons drawn from the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. His miracles were similar to the prophet Elijah. The book “Kosher Jesus” by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (orthodox) indicates that Jesus was a servant of G-d and a social reformer, and he strongly advocated against the oppressive Roman occupation. As a committed political activist, he upset the local hierarchy and paid the ultimate price. The Council of Nicea (a group of Christian bishops convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine in fourth century) is said to have determined Jesus’ divinity.

In America, Jesus is often referred to as a role model for many people, even in secular settings. Many Jewish and Christian teachings overlap since Jesus was a rabbi. Living an ethical life dedicated to G-d is something to which we all can aspire.

Is there a dress code for rabbis?
In orthodox synagogues and some Conservative synagogues, rabbis wear a kittle (white robe) for some holidays and weddings, and then as a burial shroud. Robes may be worn by rabbis or cantors in Conservative or Reform synagogues for Shabbat or holidays. However, most clergy wear dignified culturally-appropriate clothing and a tallit (prayer shawl) with prescribed, ritual fringes. The tallit is worn during morning prayers, not only by clergy. It reminds us of G-d’s commandments that we are to follow. As Scripture says, “That you may see it and remember all the commandments of G-d and perform them; and not explore after your heart and after your eyes” (Numbers 15:39).

Whatever clergy wear, they should know that they are a role model. After all, rabbis are to be first and foremost servants of G-d and an example. Holiness is found in our thoughts and intentions, outwardly expressed by our prayer and conversation.

Will Jewish clergy perform same-sex marriages?
Within Judaism, there is a split of opinion. Orthodox and most Conservative rabbis will not perform kiddushin (which means to make a holy contract) between partners of the same sex. In Conservative circles, even for rabbis who do perform such “marriages,” there is a distinction. The conservative Rabbinical Assembly addressed this issue in 2006, saying such same-sex ceremonies are called shutafut (partnership) or brit (contract). One reason for the change is to avoid the impediments to getting a divorce (known as a “get” in Hebrew) if one was necessary.

On the other hand, Reform Judaism supports gay rights. However, many rabbis will require that both partners be Jewish and agree to raise their children in the Jewish tradition. Even though the streams of Judaism have varying opinions on this, it is up to the individual rabbis as to whether he or she will perform such marriages or not.

What do Scriptures say about immortality?  Should we seek it?
The soul has a number of integral components. There is even a soul aspect to the body, as well as an aspect of it identified with the emotions, intellect, human unconsciousness and a portion always connects to G-d. Over millennium, there has been evolution in thought about the process. Originally, there was the notion that the body would be resurrected to be with the soul at the End of Days. From a Biblical perspective, people were “gathered up,” which is what is often written on a Jewish headstone, “May (s)he be gather into the Bundle of Life.” Talmud indicates that all the righteous go to Olam HaBa (the next world). Mystical literature provides ample justification for reincarnation of some soul aspects. One should seek to “do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with one’s G-d,” rather than seek immortality. (Micah 6:8).  

What is the greatest evil?
G-d is the one who “creates evil,” (Isaiah 45:7) which occurs as a result of our desire for free will. Jews believe that G-d is one. Thus, there is no force other than G-d. There is nothing outside of G-d. The word “Satan,” as found in the Bible is written as “The Satan.” See the angel/obstacle before Balaam’s donkey (Bamidbar 22:32) and the testing of Iyov (Iyov 2:4-6). In these contexts the word is not a source of evil; rather it is the force that points out the evil inclinations of people. “The Satan” is a role assigned to test our faith and is often likened to a prosecuting attorney. The only power granted to “The Satan” is to talk about the evil that humans do. The greatest sin in the world is to lose hope. You have to tie joy to your mind (Baal Shem Tov).

Is Your Religion Perfect?

Religion is perfect when it fits the individual’s mindset and teaches about relationship with G-d. Prerequisites to a positive relationship with G-d include a heartfelt yearning for G-d’s nearness, willingness to take responsibility for our lives, understanding our strengths and as well as our weaknesses, doing our best in all situations and becoming compassionate, ethical people in thought and deed. How we treat each other in every circumstance is key.

The Ten Commandments are considered our covenant, like a marriage contract between G-d and us. The first five commandments concentrate on relationship with G-d and the next five concern relationship with people. Torah is our guiding light which has been illuminated by Sages over millennia. Our literature, music and poetry, including legends of tzadikim (righteous men and women), illuminate the path as one of life and love. When religion accomplishes its task, one joyfully experiences G-d as immanent and transcendent.

What is your understanding of death?

Rabbi Beth writes that death is a threshold. Judaism respects thresholds. Literally, we post a mezuzzah (a scroll within a box with verses from Torah) at the doorway of Jewish homes. These tiny pieces of parchment are placed) on the doorway to most rooms of Jewish homes. They are a threshold or transition from one space to another. Metaphorically, death is similar to walking across a threshold from one room to the next.

Another metaphor for it is found in the story of Passover which recalls when G-d led us out of slavery in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, led us through the desert and ultimately brought us to the Promised Land. Death is like miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. It’s a point of trust and transformation in to a place that G-d designs for us. Talmud says what lays beyond the horizon is like someone who is blind from birth being able to see color. 

Will religion matter in the 2016 Presidential election?

For some, the religion of the candidate is immensely important. A 2010 study found Jewish-American families give more than those of other faiths to charities, including political contributions, making this a significant issue in fundraising, which foreshadows the outcome. There are two Democratic candidates: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders is Jewish. He seeks to fight income inequality, raise taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations, and offer tuition-free education at public colleges and universities. Although Jews often vote for Democrats, Republican candidates, such as Senators Rubio, Cruz and Rand note their support of Israel to woo Jewish support. The question often asked is, “Is this (candidate) good for the Jews (and Israel)?” From the Jewish perspective, the answer depends more on the candidate’s values, priorities, and goals, not as much on their choice of religion. People should be guided by their heart seeing the great needs of our country.

What do Jews believe about death?  

It is a threshold. Judaism respects thresholds. Literally, we post a mezuzzah (a scroll within a box with verses from Torah) at the doorway of Jewish homes. These tiny pieces of parchment are placed ) on the doorway to most rooms of Jewish homes. They are a threshold or transition from one space to another. Metaphorically, death is similar to walking across a threshold from one room to the next.

Another metaphor for it is found in the story of Passover which recalls when G-d led us out of slavery in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, led us through the desert and ultimately brought us to the Promised Land. Death is like miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. It’s a point of trust and transformation in to a place that G-d designs for us. Talmud says what lays beyond the horizon is like someone who is blind from birth being able to see color.

Have you found your truth?  

Truth, in Hebrew, is Emet. It is spelled with the first, middle and end of the Hebrew alef-bet (alphabet). Since it encompasses the whole Hebrew alef-bet, the Sages say the “seal of G-d is truth.” (R’ Hanina, Shabbat 55a). It is also another name for G-d. Kabbalah notes that Emet is the power to realize one’s own deepest potential, which is in fact the ability of the soul to bring about the ultimate experience of G-d (see www.inner.org.)

From a Jewish perspective, this means following Torah which entails compassion, responsibility, ethics and most of all – humility. When one is committed to a spiritual path and recognizes that the goal is to be devoted to G-d, one will continue to grow and polish up the soul. Emet is a state of being to strive toward. May the Holy One grant us the wisdom and insight to follow the path of Truth.

According to reports, Pope Benedict XVI blessed Harley-Davidson motorcycle gas tanks. Can only some “special” people invoke such divine protection or can anyone transmit G-d’s blessings?

A voice can create blessing.  According to physics there is a natural frequency or set of frequencies to everything, including inanimate objects, at which they vibrate when struck, plucked, strummed or are somehow disturbed.  The actual frequency depends upon the properties of the material.  At the risk of sounding too “New-Agey,” there are those who would say blessing comes from the voice (which creates a particular frequency) which anyone can use.  So, bikes and gas tanks theoretically could receive a blessing as a result of the frequency of saying a blessing.  In Jewish tradition, we have specific blessings for many things, such as food, drink, fragrance, mitzvot (ethical commandments), even praise and gratitude.  The list goes on – eating seasonal fruits of a new season for the first time, a new garment, seeing a place where one experienced a miracle saving oneself from danger.   Blessing begins with heart-felt attention.

 Should vaccines be required by law?  Should there be a religious exemption?

Under Halacha (Jewish law), Jews are required to follow the law of the land in which they dwell (dina d’malchuta dina) unless the laws are morally unjust. Both sides of this argument contain strong emotional feelings as parents work to do the right thing for their children. Ultimately, we are “to do what is right and good in G-d’s eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:18). If we all didchesbon ha nefesh each night (an accounting of our soul, for our day’s activities,) then we could be closer to that goal. If we find that we did something incorrect, we make teshuvah (amends) asking G-d for the ability to correct us and help us to grow spiritually. Until a mandatory vaccination law exists, parents may choose to follow medically accepted protocol or another path. It is a parent’s responsibility to choose the wisest course of action for themselves and their children. Choose wisely.

Are we programmed to believe in G-d?

Judaism has long debated whether one’s faith results from free will or divine intervention. Dr. Dean Hamer, Ph.D., behavioral geneticist, and neurotheologians say spirituality comes from genes (nature) and religion from memes (values passed down by imitation from parents by nurture.) Several decades of study suggests that one of the G-d genes may be vesicular monoamine transporter 2 on chromosome 10 (a chemical pathway in brain which promotes higher consciousness.) This physiological pathway, present in 47 percent of people, produces sensations associated with mystical experiences, including experiencing G-d’s presence. “While this one gene might not make one a saint, a prophet or a seer, it was enough to tip the spiritual scales and predispose one towards spirituality,” says Hamer. Spirituality tends to make people more optimistic, which makes them healthier and likely to have children. In other words, those who are more spiritual are more predisposed to survive.

Is religion headed in the correct direction? According to a recent Pew Research Center Survey,  the world’s religious demographics are rapidly changing.  By 2050, with Muslims projected to increase by 73%, the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world possibly for the first time in history. India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia. In the U.S., Christians are projected to decline from 78% of the population in 2010 to 66% in 2050, while the unaffiliated are expected to rise from 16 to 26%.  How will this affect Jews? 

The forecast is good.  As Jews, we’ve lived in the midst of many cultures over centuries; some provided more favorable living conditions and some less favorable. Jews are 2 to 3% of North American and U.K. populations. As a minority, we have endured horrible intolerance and prejudice, as well as great success. In the past, Jews were often treated better in predominantly Muslim countries than within Christian ones.

Now there are many ways to practice Judaism, making it more adaptable. For millennia, there were few options: mainly a choice between being 0rthodox or heretic. Major transformation within Judaism has occurred during the last 200 years. Reform Judaism began in the early 1800s, Conservativism in 1850s, Reconstructionism in 1920s and Renewal in 1960s. Even with multiple denominations, the worldwide percentage of Jews is expected to remain stable through 2050. We’ve adapted to many cultures and conditions. Certainly in the future, this will continue to be true. We are resilient.

Is Climate Change a Moral Issue?

Some people believe scientific evidence about climate change; others consider it untrue political rhetoric. Regardless of one’s opinion, Jewish ethical principles rise above the controversy, requiring our active participation. They include: duty to not waste (baal tashchit); duty to be good stewards of our planet and a duty to not cause undue harm or pain to animals (tzaar balei chayim). Baal tashchit requires us to develop efficient energy methods which will not pollute. It also forbids wanton destruction of trees, even during war. (Deuteronomy 20:19.) Our Sages prohibit damage to the environment of the public domain (Bava Kamma.) This includes protecting the public from a safety issue or people from financial loss. Being good stewards requires us to find ways to preserve species in their normal habitat and not destroy the environment due to greed. We are to work in partnership with G-d doing our best to safeguard the planet.

How Should Marriage Be Defined?

Denominations define it in different ways.  For the past thousand years, marriage has been between a man and woman. Prior to that, men could marry more than one wife. The definition of marriage changed again within the past twenty years in some denominations. Currently, marriage is permitted only between a man and a woman (orthodox, some Conservative Jews) or may be between same-sex couples (some Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal).

The marital relationship is considered kiddushin (sanctified). Some rabbis distinguish between couples and may only perform a commitment ceremony for same-sex couples, rather than a kiddushin ceremony. A ketubah is a marriage contract stating the husband’s obligations to the wife during marriage and living expenses for the wife upon divorce. Modern ketubahs for same-sex couples are available. Marriage is thought of as finding one’s bashert (intended). However, if a marriage does not last, divorce and another marriage are permitted. Everyone should be able to find happiness.

Why Go To A Mikvah?

It’s a spiritual cleansing.  Ritual immersion is done in a mikvah (pool) which may be indoors (at least 200 gallons) or outside in a natural body of water. If indoors, the “living water” comes from rain water or snow. It’s a powerful symbol of transitioning from the past, signifying a distinct change and spiritual cleansing. Mikvah is likened to the womb after which one is born or the grave after which one enters the afterlife. Water symbolizes G-d who surrounds us and is within us.

Historically, at the time of the ancient Temple, it was required for one who wished to enter the Sanctuary. Today it may be used by men or women for a variety of reasons including: conversion to Judaism, prior to a wedding, family purity, following a divorce, after the birth of a child, completing chemotherapy, or for an extra measure of holiness prior to Shabbat or Yom Kippur.

Which Spouse Should Change their Last Name?

Names are viewed as integral to a person’s essence — particularly Hebrew names. Historically, people were known by their names and the names of their parents (i.e. Isaac son of Abraham and Sarah). Names changes signified important events like a new life chapter (G-d changes Avram’s and Sarai’s names, Genesis 17). Last names did not exist until 1100s. In the past, Jewish women became part of their husband’s family. So, the custom developed for women to use their husband’s name. In today’s society, a couple may choose the husband’s or wife’s last name, or a hyphenated name. Some women may prefer their maiden name for professional reasons. The choice should be left to the individuals after considering the advantages and challenges and the impact on their children. For me, I’m happy and proud to have my husband’s last name (because using a hyphenated name during our first year of marriage was ridiculously challenging).

With Divine protection, can we take more risks? 

Trusting G-d to protect us may make daily life easier. “For the one who trusts in G-d, kindness surrounds him.” Psalms 32:10. Rabbi Bachya Ben Asher (1300s) says one who trusts in G‑d is rewarded by being carried above trouble, even if he deserves trouble. While it’s true that G-d oversees everything, we are responsible to do our best and must not engage in risky behavior nor test G-d’s kindness.

Noah was told that he must build ark because there would be flood. Rabbi Bachya asks, “Why was Noah given dimensions of an ark that was too small to hold all animals?” Bachya answers it’s because Noah could only build an ark the size G-d requested. There was a limit to Noah’s ability.  It was then up to G-d to make a miracle occur for all the animals to fit. Thus, we can only rely upon divine protection after we put forth our best effort.

What does Judaism say about tattoos?

Our physical body is loaned to us by G-d. It’s clothing for the soul. Thus, we have a responsibility to take good care of it. Halacha (Jewish Law) says to avoid permanently marking or altering it. However, some tattoos are permitted, such as those for medical purposes (i.e., chemotherapy) or involuntary ones (i.e., tattoos done by Nazis). Though Leviticus 19:28 indicates “no tattoos” are allowed, some academics argue that several Biblical verses suggest that ancient Israelites had tattoos (i.e., Isaiah 44:5, Job 37:7.) Interestingly, Talmud argues as to whether it is forbidden to get any mark or only if it is G-d’s name, or the name of a pagan god is forbidden.

Today, many Jewish young people ignore the prohibition and actually use tattoos as a reflection of their Jewish identity. In the past, tattoos may have resulted in not being buried in a Jewish cemetery.  However, this is no longer true.

Is spanking okay? What do the scriptures, other religious books or scholars and traditions of your religion say about spanking?   

In Biblical times, a “rebellious son” was killed by stoning. (Deut. 21:21). Proverbs 13:24 says, “He who spares the rod hates his son.” Such strict discipline was replaced by a kinder, gentler approach in Talmudic times, about 2,000 years ago. The rebellious son category became very narrowly defined. (San. 71a). Teachers were to limit punishment and be mild (i.e. “punish with a shoestring”) rather than being harsh. (BB 21a). Discipline was to be balanced with kindness and should not be too severe. (Sot. 47a).

Though many American parents oppose spanking, most do so occasionally. Some researchers find that spanking encourages antisocial behavior and poor school performance, while some research finds occasional non-abusive spanking (“two open-handed swats to the buttocks leaving no bruise”) to be helpful along with time-outs and reasoning for two- to six-year-olds. Then, when a child turns seven, reasoning and time-outs are effective for most children.”

Did G-d create time? Is G-d affected by time? Is time driven by G-d or does it drive itself?  
Is G-d timeless? Is each moment sacred?  Does time have a beginning and end?
Rabbi Yehuda says, in Genesis “it is not written, ‘Let there be evening,’ but ‘And it was evening.’”  So, we conclude that G-d didn’t speak evening into creation because it simply says, “it was evening.”  Thus, time already existed.  (Midrash).  On the other hand, Rambam (Maimonides) finds that time requires motion of the spheres so time must have been created after creation.  Rambam says that time appears simultaneously with the universe’s birth.   
 
Yet another description is found in Chasidic wisdom which suggests two kinds of time:  1) a flowing, immeasurable, continuum of time; and 2) measurable, local time associated with our clocks.  G-d exists within flowing time.  We exist and are aware of measurable time.  Additionally, Chasidism says there is a cycling to the universe called ratzo-shuv (escape and return) where we move toward and away from G-d. G-d and people possess this oscillation or world-wide pulse, which determines the flow of absolute, universal time.
    

Why are Women More Religious than Men?  

Our Sages agree that women are more spiritually attuned and more receptive to faith. This is why G-d told Abraham, “Whatever Sarah your wife tells you, listen to her voice.” (Genesis 21:12). Her soul was more intuitive. Why is this true? Psychology says evolution caused women to take fewer risks to ensure survival of children, so religion is a way to decrease risk and an emotional comfort. Rabbi Ahron Solovetchik says the reason women are more spiritually adept is because women were created last. G-d’s creations were more superior over time (i.e. fish to mammals to man and then woman).

As a result of acknowledged differences, Jewish responsibilities are different for men and women. Men have many required mitzvot (commandments) to subdue their “innate aggression” (Maharal). Women have fewer required mitzvot because they are intrinsically connected to G-d.  It is more likely for women to pray. Regardless of gender, we all must work to be better connected to G-d.

Should Freedom of Expression be Absolute?  Can we joke about religion?

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the First Amendment, however, it is not absolute. The intent behind such a guarantee is to allow for freedom to criticize, and to encourage public debate, especially on difficult or sensitive issues and ensure that individuals may freely speak their mind. This includes protection of the media. Speech which presents a “clear and present danger,” is obscene, slanderous or libelous or hate speech which poses an imminent threat are exceptions to the rule. Although the Pope says that words of provocation can result in retaliation, any retaliation should be “in kind.” In other words, those opposed to mocking or rude characterizations should be provided a proper forum to express that. Freedom of expression does include the freedom to be irreverent occasionally.  Humor in and about religion is often helpful. Some Biblical stories are humorous. Even the Talmudic Sages often argue in an overly exaggerated, humorous style. Humor ensures that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

What was the top religion news story of 2014? 

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner and top religious news is about an amazing Pakistani Muslim girl, Malala Yousafzai.  She was shot three times by a gunman on her school bus because of her strong commitment to education for girls.  Her remarkable story of courage and commitment to improving education for all children despite death threats is an inspiring example for everyone.  At a UN speech, Malala said, “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born … I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child.”  Education is the fundamental way to make the future better.    

Do Our Lives Revolve Around Suffering?   
Sometimes things that happen appear to be terrible suffering. Yet, as a result of the experience, we grow. Sometimes it’s painful. Our souls come to Earth with a mission to accomplish. We are here to fix or mend something. While we are here, there may be many experiences which greatly test us. Sometimes things are a test of our faith. Will we trust G-d or not? Will the experience cause us to deepen our relationship with G-d? While we must do whatever work is necessary, sometimes the only choice we get is our attitude toward the experience. Do we blame someone else or take responsibility? From a Jewish perspective, everything that G-d does is good. Brachot 60B, Orach Chayim 230:5. Whatever happens is ultimately according to a Divine plan for the individual. G-d is involved in the details. Nevertheless, we may argue with G-d when suffering seems severe or unjust.
What is your spiritual New Year’s resolution?  Why did you choose it?  What is your plan to achieve it?  
A prerequisite to prayer (connecting to G-d) is to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Ariz”l). In order to speak with G-d, we must take care of our earthly obligations and make sure that our human relationships are positive. So, to love my neighbor as myself (Leviticus 19:18) is one of my goals. While it is not always easy to live this, my plan would be to work on speaking compassionately. Words that come from the heart, enter the heart. (Cf. Proverbs 27:19).
 
My inspiration comes from Joseph. He recognizes G-d as the one responsible for everything that happens. He is able to literally love his neighbors as himself – even those who wronged him. Joseph listens to his family and speaks to their heart. (Genesis 50:20-21). Being able to speak to someone this way requires one to be open-hearted, trustworthy and sincere. This resolution requires compassionate thought before heart-felt speaking.

Does Judaism have a problem with bureaucracy?  Within Judaism, denominations can be metaphorically viewed as a tree.  Though there are a number of denominations, only the three main denominations are noted here:    orthodox, Conservative and Reform.  The orthodox comprise the “roots and trunk.”  This group takes a long time before any change is made to tradition.  Conservative Jews are the “branches.”  Here, there is a blend of tradition and modern sensibilities.  Reform Jews, who have the largest population, are viewed as the “leaves.”  Change of tradition, rituals, liturgy and practices occurs more quickly in Reform.  Each group has its own purpose and is necessary to the overall health of the religion.

Rabbis may belong to one denomination, more than one or none.  No single hierarchy exists.  In Judaism, transdenominationalism is the trend.  It has the potential to encompass the best of each denomination; providing multi-faceted opportunities to help the seeker on their spiritual journey.     

What kind of worship services — mixed-gender or gender-segregated — are more effective and why?
Seating practices vary between Jewish denominations. Most denominations have mixed seating, including Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal. Orthodox services separate men and women. Talmud says that during the Water-Drawing ceremony there was so much frivolity separate seating was necessary. (Sukkah 51b) Separate seating was expanded to prayer services based, in part, on Zechariah 12:12.Prayer services are our opportunity to speak with G-d. From a Jewish perspective, it is helpful to pray with a group of at least 10 people. Hannah is our role model for prayer. (Brachot 31). She intently prayed the prayer of her heart and G-d answered her prayer. (1 Samuel 1:13). Prayer services are designed to create an atmosphere where people can achieve a meditative framework necessary for deep introspection and prayer. Services are best conducted where the individual senses comfort, safety and security. People choose the denomination where they feel comfortable and are seated accordingly.
Many religious traditions have often strongly condemned lending money at interest.  Banks basically lend and borrow, charging higher interest.  What do your Scriptures say about loaning money?    Jewish lenders may not charge Jews interest. Exodus 22:24; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:20-21, Ezekiel 18:8,13,17; 22:12; Psalms 15:5; and Proverbs 28:8, Yoreh Deah 159-177. To do so is equated with murder. However, in today’s Jewish world, a legal fiction (heter iska) is created so a Jewishly owned bank is theoretically “in partnership” with the Jewish debtor. An exception is found in interest-free loans available for educational purposes. While Jews and non-Jews may generally charge each other interest, usury (excessive interest) is prohibited by Jewish law as oppression.
Today’s banking systems are entities that operate without the public good in mind. Their goal is to make money, rather than be of service to their communities. While some banks have worked to change their corporate image and be helpful community participants, they are not charitable institutions. Most U.S. banks work to make a profit, operating without a strong moral compass.

Is G-d incomprehensible?  “G-d is farther than the farthest most star yet closer than the air we breathe.” (Prayerbook). Though G-d is incomprehensible, G-d is also comprehensible, close to each of us and intimately aware of our thoughts. Our ancestors provide a trail of bread crumbs to become mindful of G-d. We learn from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Moses, Miriam, David, Solomon, Hannah, Ezekiel, Elijah, Esther, Hillel, Akiva, Ari, Besht, and many more. While we cannot completely understand G-d, we endeavor to do so through prayer, meditation, singing or however we consciously connect with G-d. We can “log-on to G-d,” read holy texts, learn, or experience godliness doing G-d’s work: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, or even just by being nice to our family. Actively seek to experience the divine daily. It’s amazing that the infinite G-d responds to requests to know more. Trust G-d to respond to you.

Does G-d have role in our sexual orientation?  
G-d formed our innermost essence, weaving us together in our mother’s womb (Psalms 139:13), and knew us prior to that moment. (Jeremiah 1:5). When a child is formed, three partners are involved: father, mother and G-d. (Kiddushin 30b). Our very existence is due to G-d who is in the details of life.

The latest scientific evidence indicates that there is a combination of genetic, hormonal and social factors which contribute to our sexual orientation. We can accept, deny or even change how we appear to others. We can choose to act on our feelings or not. However, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed. If we try to fool ourselves and others, it comes at a significant psychological expense.  Regardless of our choices, G-d knows us intimately and loves each of us deeply, wanting the best for us.

 What is the role of “good and evil” in our eternal journeys?  

Evil may cause us to grow spiritually and emotionally. Through tragedies we deepen our relationship with G-d. Sometimes evil lacks human explanation.  Sometimes it’s just our inability to see it from G-d’s point of view. G-d always has a reason for whatever occurs and acts compassionately.

Rabbi Akiva said, “Everything G-d does is for the good.” Once he was traveling with a donkey, rooster, and candle. He wanted to stay at a lodge, but they turned him away. So he spent the night in a field outside town. A wind blew out his candle, a cat ate his rooster, and a lion ate his donkey, and again he said, “Everything G-d does is for the good.” Later that night a regiment came and took the town captive, while Rabbi Akiva, quietly sleeping in the field, was spared. (Brachot 60b).  Had he had a candle, rooster or donkey, he would have been found by the regiment.  Have faith that whatever G-d does is for the ultimate good.

Did Humans Invent G-d?  

No, just the opposite.  Humans were invented by G-d and made in G-d’s image.  Genesis 1:26.  Commentators debate what it means to be made in G-d’s image.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki d. 1105 CE, France), one of our primary commentators, says it means that humans were made with the power to understand and be intelligent.  If humanity is worthy, we will rule over other animals, but if not, we will sink lower than the animals. (Rashi).   

We tend to “create G-d in our image,” by imagining what G-d is like and how G-d acts.  Sometimes we attribute anger and vengeance to G-d based upon our own mindset.  However, G-d says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways…as high as the heavens over the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”  (Isaiah 55:8-9). G-d is beyond our mindsets, image-making and thoughts.  

Why does G-d let the rich-poor gap exist?  According to the Pew Research Center survey, one-fourth of Americans say the growing gap between rich and poor is our greatest threat to the world today. Europeans generally agree. 
 
The gap between rich and poor is often caused by personal choices, rather than G-d. Choices dictate our future. Difference in educational levels is one cause of the gap. Education improves our ability to make appropriate choices based upon our abilities, provide for necessities and make a living. Prayer, hard work, patience and persistence eventually are effective.
 
Another strategy is to change our expectations. “Who is rich? One who appreciates what he has.” (Pirkey Avot 4:1). We need to appreciate what we have by counting our blessings and live within our means. Notably, the poor in America tend to be better off than the poor in other countries. Those with wealth have a responsibility to help the poor. Those who do so will be blessed. (Deuteronomy 15:10; Proverbs 19:17). Those who oppress the poor will be rebuked. (Amos 5:11). As a community, we need to help each other.
According to the Barna research group, there are a growing number of young people who fail to attend any house of worship.  Is it that a problem?  Is it possible to connect with God without attending?
 
In our liberal society, pursuing religion is a choice. In the past, it was expected people would attend. Now, when people have difficulties in life, it’s considered acceptable to turn to a therapist. So, rather than looking for meaning within a relationship to the Holy One, people may spend time and money talking about their relationships, or lack of them with a therapist.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose and 25 percent do not know what makes their lives meaningful. 
While a therapist may provide ample space for a thorough discussion of feelings, a rabbi is more likely to tell an individual to take personal responsibility, be ethical and find meaning through a deep spiritual connection to G-d.  Chassidic thought says even if we do not actively attend synagogue or work on fulfilling commandments, we are still integrally connected with G-d.  

 Why are there so many religions?  Does G-d love and accept all the existing religions and denominations and those which might emerge in the future?

Each religion emphasizes a slightly different aspect of the path toward the Holy One. The Baal Shem Tov says everyone has their own spiritual journey and their own unique contribution to make in the world. One spiritual path does not fit all.

Today, it’s possible to choose the religion that’s nearest to your heart — the one that fits you. Judaism does not say it’s the only path to G-d. In fact, people are not encouraged to convert to Judaism. For someone interested in converting, he or she is often encouraged to remain in his or her religion and become better at that.

In acknowledging the value of many paths, our Sages note, “All the righteous have a share in the world to come.” (Talmud) People practice different religions, and G-d only knows why there are so many. Perhaps many religions exist because G-d is interested in having us learn from each other.

Does Ebola mean that G-d is angry with and punishing us? 

G-d’s presence is said to hover over us when we are ill. (Gen. 47:31 Rashi). Indeed, G-d has the ability to “heal all diseases” (Psalm 103:3) and “remove illness in our midst” (Exodus 23:25). G-d is the master of mercy, yet, a terrible and tragic Ebola epidemic exists. Talmud says, G-d makes the cure prior to an illness. Where is the cure? Why does G-d permit this? “The only answer we can give is ‘only G-d knows.’ ” (Rebbe, 1984).

As scientific research learns about bio-psycho-social-spiritual connections, we’ll likely find many causes of disease and how to prevent them. Perhaps a healthy immune system may be promoted through proper diet, meditation, prayer, positive thoughts and sacred music. Failing to maintain proper diet and exercise or exposing our bodies to tobacco or alcohol abuse often result in human-caused illnesses. In those cases, the illness is a consequence of poor habits, not divine retribution.

What Are the Essential Three Qualities Should We Instill In Our Children?
 
Talmud specifies the three things that parents must teach children. They are: 1.) Torah, 2.) how to make a living and 3.) how to swim. (Talmud, Kiddushin 29a). Children are taught Torah, which certainly includes many of the listed desired qualities: empathy, helping others, obedience (to parents, teachers and authority figures), religious faith, persistence (in learning), being well-mannered (respectful), being responsible and hard work (in earning a livelihood). One could make the argument that learning Torah includes all of these desired characteristics.Parents should teach children how to make a living so that they learn responsibility, become independent and remain honest. Without suitable work skills, a child could become a burden on society or lead a life of crime.Interestingly, the Sages suggest that teaching a child how to swim was important even though the ancient Talmudic societies were located in a desert. While potentially life-saving, it’s also a metaphor for good parenting. We hope they learn to swim on their own and avoid sinking.
How Should We Deal with Our Enemies?  
Enemies are spiritual opportunities for growth. In the case of an “enemy,” who is unkind or mean, rather than one who physically tries to harm us, we need to shift our perspective. If we meet hate with hate, react with anger, call for punishment, it will return to us. Avoid a “reactive” tongue; avoid a war of self-justification and avoid seeking revenge. Protect yourself and fight, only if necessary to avoid the enemy accruing a hefty “spiritual debt.” We are to help our enemies when they need it, to help us become better people. (Exodus 23:5, Bava Metza 32b, “You Are What You Hate: A Spiritually Productive Approach to Enemies” by Sarah Yehudit Schneider)Generally, a spiritual path is about ego-transcendence. Thus, our goal would be to try to understand how enemies see the world and why they view it and us the way they do. Each step dissolves another layer. Humility is a sign we successfully passed the test.
Does G-d have a preference for formal or more informal worship service?  A recent study, “Changing American Congregations” by Mark Chaves of Duke University and Shawna L. Anderson of University of Chicago, found increasingly informal worship styles among congregations.
G-d looks at our heart to determine our sincerity, not the particular style of our worship, which is based upon cultural norms. The essence of coming together in worship is to authentically experience the Holy One. Congregations also meet a variety of important needs, including community. Can we find a congregation whose style matches our heartfelt prayer? What style works for us? Informal or formal worship? Does our soul soar when a choir sings or is participatory music a better vehicle?
When a person sees a worship service, they sense if the style is majestic or down-to-earth, passionate and joyful or boring. “Man sees with his eyes but G-d looks into the heart.” I Samuel 16:7. The essential question remains: Are we able to be authentic during our worship service? If so, the style is just the outside trimming of our internal experience. G-d knows if we are sincere.
There’s a lot of negative media.  From a religious perspective, is humanity moving in the right direction or does its direction need change?
Each of us needs to make a difference to make the world a better place. “It is not your duty to complete the work [of fixing the world], but neither are you free to desist [run away from it].” (Pirkey Avot) “Fixing the world” is both an internal and external exercise. Internally, we strive to be more compassionate, humble, wise people.From a global perspective, we see the needs of so many people. We send prayers and money to provide food, shelter or medicine. We are “G-d’s hands” when we volunteer time to help those in need. Religion has been at the forefront of change, i.e. the civil rights movement and those who stand against tyranny, hatred and repressive regimes. People of faith continue to work every day toward the common good — even with those with whom we disagree. Overall, humanity is moving in a positive direction, making a difference.
A recent document by the Catholic Church gave a list of reasons given for difficulty accepting Church teaching including: pervasive and invasive new technologies; influence of mass media; hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; secularism; selfish liberalization of morals; desire for immediate gratification; a culture of waste and a “culture of the moment.” Does Judaism face similar challenges?
The current lack of spiritual sophistication in society is not new. Pleasure-seeking, selfishness and materialism have been issues for millennium. As King Solomon wrote, “All things toil to weariness…the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing…there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:8,9. When people fall away from Judaism and migrate into the country’s culture, that’s “assimilation.” Assimilation is common in affluent societies, like America, where even those raised in Jewish homes are not familiar with the religion and have diminished observance. Religions seek to overcome poor morals by valuing humility, compassion and helping others. Our Sages suggest the only way for us to overcome these challenges are to learn Torah and do ethical work. Judaism seeks to overcome these challenges through strong education programs aimed at teaching ethics and values, providing a tool kit for polishing up our souls and guiding our spiritual journey.
Why are there differing religious perspectives on the creation of the universe?
Legends teach communities one perspective about the way G-d and humans interact. Often, stories teach morals and sometimes the stories are true. To learn that there was one set of parents for all humans is to teach that we are all brothers and sisters. To teach that there is no beginning and no end may send a message that there are infinite cycles. When we think about an unknowable universe, we learn that human minds have a limit. G-d is bigger than we can imagine.From a Biblical perspective,   G-d creates for six days and then rests. Our sages say that we are to follow G-d’s example. We have a day of rest, the Sabbath, each week where we can refresh and renew our connections with G-d, community and ourselves and enjoy the holiness of the day. Think about a diamond: Each group shares a unique facet from their perspective.
Why are Americans “cold” towards atheists? 
Who are we to judge?  According to Midrash (our legends), Abraham, our patriarch known for his great hospitality, once begged an old man to come to his tent and enjoy a meal. Afterwards, Abraham said, “Praise G-d, who gives bread to all.” The man replied, “I don’t know your G-d. I only praise the god that my hands make.” Abraham kept pushing and pushing him to say prayers, to thank G-d for the food, or just to acknowledge G-d. The man said, “How dare you talk to me this way.” Angrily Abraham commanded him to leave at night. G-d said, “What have you done? I supplied this man with food and clothing for many years and endured his unbelief. You drove him out into the wilderness at night.” Abraham realized his error and asked forgiveness from G-d. Then, he ran after the old man, fell at his feet and wept, begging forgiveness. The man was moved and forgave Abraham. G-d said, “Because you have done what is righteous, I will remember this.”
Are we worshiping the same God?  Different religions approach God differently and even name God differently. Are we, as different religions, worshiping the same God or does each religion worship an altogether different God?
There are many religions in the world. Some worship a singular G-d and some worship many gods. Judaism says that G-d is a unique oneness unlike any other: beyond the farthest stars and closer than the air we breathe. Our Sages suggest that Judaism’s daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, worship the same G-d. Yet there are significant differences in viewpoints. Perhaps we worship the Holy One through a multi-vocal, human choir encompassing all religions. Judaism does not say it’s the only path to G-d. People practice different religions and our Sages tell us, “All of the righteous have a share in the World to Come.” The Baal Shem Tov says, everyone has their own spiritual journey and their own unique contribution to make. One shouldn’t compare one’s spiritual path to someone else’s. The bottom line is that we often lack the ability to judge the spiritual path of our neighbors.
Can religion resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Around 1250 BCE, the Biblical Land of Israel was established. Jewish presence has been continuous over the past 3000 years. “Palestineans” are mostly Arab migrant workers who came after the 1800’s being expelled by their own countries.
Hamas’ charter calls for destruction of Israel. Israel is a democracy.
Peace is a two-way street. Challenges are aptly described by former Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir. She said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” Peace could occur within a generation if both sides wanted and worked towards peace. There must be a strong educational initiative which teaches that peace comes with hard work and diligence, responsibility and justice. These core ethical elements must be adhered to by both sides.  
Should the religious people go vegetarian?
It’s a good choice, although there is no religious requirement to be vegetarian, some Sages encouraged a vegetarian diet. Jewish law is concerned with how animals are treated, including the method by which they are killed. Kosher butchering is designed be the least painless. Some Sages argue that the many stringent laws about that process were to discourage meat eating. (Rav Kook). Indeed, some observant Jews choose to eat kosher meat only at a holiday celebration, not daily.  Today, the rationale to be vegetarian is based partly upon the difficulty of finding humanely and ethically raised animals butchered in a kosher manner. The “Eco-kashrut” movement works to address ethical concerns about food. Another reason to avoid heavy meat consumption is health. Maintaining health with a healthy weight is a religious concern. Finally, avoiding overuse of meat is important to support a sustainable agricultural system for our planet which endeavors to feed a growing population.
Why is meditation key in your religion?
In Biblical times, Isaac meditated. (Genesis 24:63). Many Sages found it important. There are many Jewish meditation techniques and their purpose depends upon the technique.
The Talmud, codified over 1500 years ago, says “pious ones use to prepare (by meditating) for an hour before they started to pray.” (Brachot 32b). It was a means of clearing the mind for better concentration in prayer. One may meditate to gain insight into one’s self and develop ethical characteristics. Some meditate on “nothing,” or on a Hebrew letter or phrase. Frequently, the goal is to develop a closer relationship with G-d. However, Rebbe Nachman says that the goal is to reach the transformative realization that G-d is everything. (Likutey Moharan). Many Sages achieved this goal. Elijah is said to have never died, but instead was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot, because he reached such a high level through meditation. (Kochavey Or).
In Christianity, the seven deadly sins are listed as pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth.  In Judaism what are the “biggest” sins?
There are three cardinal sins: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. If one is told, commit one of those or be killed, generally, one is to forfeit one’s life. Many sins cause us to “miss the mark” and result in spiritual pain. Any sin may be serious. The seriousness depends upon our intention and our individual capability to avoid temptation. Daily, we are confronted with choices. G-d knows that each person has unique weaknesses. Some people may be strongly ethical in one area, but may not have similarly developed in all areas.
Sins may be against G-d (i.e. breaking a promise to G-d), against another person (i.e. stealing), or against one’s self (i.e. failing to work on personal health). Often, temptation challenges us to learn. We are given the ability to overcome sin and grow stronger from the difficult experience. May each of us be successful in our daily trials.”
The Supreme Court recently held that some companies do not have to provide all forms of health care, if it was against the owner’s religious beliefs.  Should companies be allowed to avoid paying for contraception?
Should we require closely-held corporations (not publicly traded companies), which may be small or single families, fund care that they religiously oppose? About 50 percent of Americans work for such companies. Is this case brought by Hobby Lobby about public image or religious belief? If Hobby Lobby is really “practicing religion,” then why doesn’t it make overall company-wide ethical and fair trade company policies? Women and their physicians should privately be allowed to make morally appropriate decisions, but who will pay for it? Will the government pick up the tab for companies who claim conscience? The far-reaching, disparate impact of this case to women indicates that they will not be provided with comprehensive health care. Pills and IUD’s may be medically necessary for health care reasons besides contraception. The biggest concern is where this decision may lead. What about companies that “do not believe in” hospice, vaccinations or blood transfusions? What next?
Can money, power and prestige bring true happiness?
Happiness is the art of taking pleasure in what you have. Unhappiness comes from focusing on what you don’t have. “Who is rich? One who appreciates what he has.” (Avot 4:1). Money is a tool. We need to recognize when we have “enough” and our responsibility to give to others. Chasing money is an unfulfilling path. “Who is honored (has power, prestige)? One who honors others, ‘For those who honor G-d, G-d will honor.'” (1 Samuel 2:30). In grasping for honor, we exaggerate ourselves and diminish those near us. By honoring G-d, we recognize the Source of Blessing and are grateful for life. Bring goodness into the world, work diligently, and love in a meaningful relationship. These are keys to happiness and honor. The best way to obtain happiness or honor is to give it away. The Source of Blessing often brings exactly what we need. Be thankful for everything.
Why are we, the humans, religious? Why is religion so widespread? Are humans into religion because of desire to know, indoctrination in childhood, tradition, fear, belief in some sort of afterlife, guilt, comfort, mortality?
We are wonderfully made.” Our physical bodies have the ability to sense and appreciate G-d. They are made “in an awesome, wondrous way.” (Ps. 139:14) We have innate “spiritual antennae” to sense and be grateful to G-d. Some scientists report that there is a part of the brain activated during religious experience.   There may even be a G-d gene which accounts for much of our religious nature. “Interestingly, the average human brain weighs about 1.5 kgs, has about 160 billion cells and about 100 billion neurons connecting the cells. The complexities of the brain are inconceivable. One can look at the brain and see the incredible complexities and the miracles of the Divine…or one can respond…that this has nothing to do with G-d. Some people will be inspired with belief in the Almighty; others will claim that somehow billions of cells and neurons working together can be created through random evolution.” Rabbi Dr. Goldstein.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew came together in an unprecedented prayer session at the Vatican gardens on June 8.  Will this strong and courageous spiritual gesture transform hearts, change the reality on the ground and help bring peace?  Should religious leaders engage political leaders in ending conflicts? Does prayer have political strength? 
Mixing religion and politics often results in a no-win situation. Everyone seems to believe that G-d is on “their” side. However, invoking G-d to change hearts and bring peace is wise because prayer can transform a situation. Certainly, in times of difficulty, religious leaders could assist political leaders in creating the space for spiritual change that leads toward physical change. By encouraging dialogue, the Pope sends a worldwide message about the importance of prayer. Holding Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers for peace and a symbolic planting of an olive tree by Peres and Abbas puts the Vatican in unchartered territory. The Pope can’t do it alone. Everyone needs to hold a vision of peace, regularly pray and work toward peace. We hope that the ripple effect from the meeting will foster understanding and bring lasting peace. After all, every journey begins with a small step.
According to an annual survey of the Harvard’s graduating senior class (generally believed to be upcoming movers and shakers of the nation), 38 % are atheist or agnostic.  What’s your reaction to it? 
 “Atheism,” contrary to the definition, doesn’t only mean someone who thinks there’s “no G-d.” Similarly, “agnostic” doesn’t only mean someone who isn’t sure about G-d. Each of us, even atheists and agnostics, believe in something. Belief is what you value, spend time doing and invest money to pursue. What’s your choice?The percentage at Harvard is similar to their peers, categorized as unaffiliated. They lack the wisdom to reach beyond their physical environment to sense what is beyond the superficial, and find what is deeper and more meaningful. It may take time for them to awaken. Hopefully, they will be moved to grow spiritual roots once they face life’s challenges or tragedies. King Nebuchadnezzar reminds us not to be too self-assured. He thought that he built everything himself, without G-d’s help. G-d ultimately humbles such a person. (Daniel 4:5) Realize that everything is a gift from G-d.
Will we ever be able to grasp G-d’s intent fully? Does it change from religion to religion? Do scriptures or texts give us enough information in this direction? What advice do you have for someone who wants to explore deeper into it?
Arguably, G-d intended that humans would be spiritual beings walking with G-d in the Garden of Eden. When that changed (see Genesis 3), and some argue that G-d wanted us to move past that phase of existence in Eden, G-d’s intent is for us to learn and grow, walking with G-d. Each religion outlines its own particular path to G-d. For Jews, Micha 6:8 says, “It has been told you, O human, what is good, and what G-d requires: only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” G-d is beyond religion. However, the Holy One intends for each of us to live to the best of our ability. Middah keneged middah (i.e. karma) teaches us that we need to move forward and do our best in each moment. G-d intends that we keep doing better as we grow through out this lifetime.  
Did we “exist” in some form before we were born or conceived in our mothers’ wombs?
Some Sages imply that it might be better to avoid speculation on unknowable things. However, G-d remarks, “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you.” (Jer. 1:5). Thus, stories abound to try to help us understand this. According to legend, souls were formed during the six days of Creation and they reside in a Treasury of Souls prior to becoming embodied. (Ḥagigah 12b, Is. 57:16). Male and female souls are paired, but then separate when they come to Earth. (Zohar 91b). Our Morning Prayer liturgy, based upon stories which are thousands of years old, says, “Thank you for mercifully returning my soul to me.” “My G-d, the soul which You placed in me is pure. You created it, formed it, and breathed it into me. You preserve it in me and will eventually take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.”
American Jewish scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), in his book “God in Search of Man,” wrote: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”  Is Rabbi Heschel right?
Rabbi Heschel, an eloquent writer and one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, believed that inspired worship was the path to experience G-d. For him, “worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of G-d.” His philosophy of “radical amazement,” meant that one is to be in awe of every aspect of the world and its Creator so that one is compelled to do their best. Religion must inspire, aspire and reach toward the Great Mystery. Religion that is dull or insipid completely misses the mark. Passion is the essence of a journey toward G-d. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. … Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal, everything is incredible and never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Is G-d Near or Far When We Struggle?  
When we struggle, that’s when G-d is closest. G-d is the one who “forms light and creates darkness … makes peace and creates evil.” (Isaiah 45:7) G-d hears our prayers, especially those with tears. Difficulties may be divine lessons that polish our soul. During challenges, we tend to whisper a prayer to connect with the Holy One. G-d is present with us in the depths. (Psalms 139:7-18) When things are difficult, we pray and read sacred texts, especially Psalms. At funerals we read, “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. … Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.” (Psalm 23). Realizing that G-d is with us, regardless of the crisis, is perhaps the greatest source of comfort. “From out of my distress I called to G-d … G-d answered me … G-d is with me, I have no fear.” (Psalms 118:6)
Do People Seek G-d When Facing Challenges?
People look toward G-d when facing any challenging difficulty. Many people choose to draw closer to G-d as a comfort, especially when experiencing pain. Challenging situations cause us to look deeply within, search for G-d and find meaning.  Do people choose earthly support when things are not going well with G-d? Maybe. However, G-d does not reject us when we sincerely pray. Some people may feel rejected by G-d when they perceive that life is difficult or that G-d is distant. According to our Sages, G-d is closer to us during tough times. G-d is a caring and concerned presence involved with the small details of our lives, in addition to the cosmic realm.   G-d is our soul-mate and we also need an earthly life partner. G-d is a spiritual partner who oversees our earthly relationships. Much spiritual work is done within the context of human relationships. Finding support and a positive relationship from our life partner and G-d is a wise choice.
May 2014 Update: Boker Tov (Good Morning), Some of the highlights of rabbinic work have been that we’re building community. In particular, we’re (Tom and I) are often skiing with Jewish folks in the community on Tuesday and Wednesdays…and we continue to build on the number of folks who attend Shabbat. We’ve had monthly Torah and Ski learning sessions at Rubicon Pizza at Northstar. We ski in the morning and then have lunch together. See picture. Now that downhill ski season is over, we’ll work on monthly opportunities. Things that have been suggested are: Torah and Hike and Torah and Kayak. Second Night Passover Seder at Granlibakken was wonderful. Religious School is going well. The Bnei Mitzvah students have had the opportunity to do monthly cooking including, Israeli food, challah, Passover foods, and matzah. Please consider attending the Kabbalah class on Tuesdays in July. Sisterhood has kindly offered to provide wine and cheese 6:00-6:30pm. Class runs 6:30-8:00pm. Child care will be provided. If there’s anything that you need, rabbinically speaking, please call me. Wishing you and your family all the best. Many blessings, Rabbi Beth
How important is to forgive? Are there limits to forgiveness?  Should we forgive ourselves?  What does Judaism say about forgiveness?
Forgiveness must be earned.  In forgiveness between people, acknowledge the wrong act, apologize sincerely, compensate the injured person if possible and agree to never do it again. Wrongs are sometimes committed by both parties. Be the first to ask for forgiveness. If we cruelly fail to forgive, we harm ourselves. Our sages say we are judged by G-d the way we judge others. Forgiveness is often a process. The first level stops thoughts of revenge and wishing bad things on the person who wronged us. The next level lets go of anger and resentment. The final level works toward restoring the relationship. The final level may not be reached. When someone asks for forgiveness and says they will never do the same wrong again, one is encouraged to at least get the first level. According to the sages, it’s never too late to ask for forgiveness, even after someone has died.
How does your tradition describe the meaning and nature of death?
Death is the time of transition to the next world. “The day of death is better than the day of birth.” Ecclesiastes 7:1. Our Sages teach that the day of death is the pinnacle of a person’s spiritual achievement in this world. At the closing moments of life, just before the soul is about to leave the body, one would say a prayer of repentance (to ensure their slate was clean) and their final words would be “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our G-d, Adonai is One.” Following death, the deceased is not left alone. Someone stays with the deceased from the time of death until the funeral and burial. Often a candle is lit. It is thought that the soul may take time to become accustomed to departing the body and moving on to Olam Haba (the world to come). Death is part of life and within G-d’s plan.
Are the technological advances and a consumerist society taking us away from our respective religious practices?  What is the “ideal route” to follow in the contemporary society full of distractions? (February third was Facebook’s 10th anniversary. According to an Associated Press story from Feb. 4, “More Americans check Facebook daily than read the Bible.” AP further points out that in the U.S. and Canada, more than 143 million people check Facebook daily, while about 40 million people read the Bible daily.)  
A cure for today’s modern hectic pace was designed several millennia ago and is written in the 10 commandments. Honor the Shabbat. Shabbat is the 25-hour period beginning just before sunset on Friday and lasting until nightfall on Saturday. It’s a remedy for the overly connected. Shabbat is about unplugging our devices and our minds from the regular workweek. This ancient ritual is a core ideal within Judaism. Looking for great ways to enjoy Shabbat or just trying to get your children to turn off their devices for a change of pace? Experience Shabbat. Take a break from the ordinary, focus on family, spiritual growth and engage with community. What’s involved? Light candles, drink wine or juice, connect with G-d, spend time with those you love, rest, study, avoid commerce, avoid technology and reconnect with people and ideas that matter.
What is God?  Some say God is a mystery, a puzzle. Some believe that there are many Gods. Some say that there is no God. Some point out that God is everything and some argue that everything is God. Many kids think that God is an old man with a long white beard who sits in the clouds. 
One reason for the “dash” between “G” and “d” is that much of G-d is a mystery who is beyond human comprehension and certainly beyond our ability to define in 150 words. We know about G-d by G-d’s actions, but not of G-d’s essence. G-d is described as the one who created the worlds. One of G-d’s names is Life of the Worlds. We know what G-d expects of us by reading Torah. We can communicate with G-d through prayer. However, G-d is not definable. G-d is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, holy and perfect. All of these attributes do not define G-d. They merely attempt to explain that which is beyond explanation. G-d created everything and everything is within G-d. G-d is the artist, the paint, the color, the inspiration and the artwork. Perhaps poets do better defining the heartbeat of the universe. G-d can be experienced but not defined.
What is the formula for happiness?  Is it a religious issue? If yes, how? Can we achieve real happiness on Earth or is it attainable only in heaven? Does happiness depend on external or internal factors or both? 
Social scientists say that we inherit nearly half of our capacity for happiness genetically, and an additional 40 percent of our happiness comes from recent past experiences. The remainder, which is more within our ability to fix, is related to faith, family, friendships and work.
Speaking to faith, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noted that the Hebrew word sameach (happy) is related to the word tzomeach (growth). Rabbi Twerski said life without spiritual growth is life without joy. True happiness can come only from spiritual growth. Growth often is accompanied by discomfort: “For with much wisdom comes suffering.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18) Sometimes, it takes difficult experiences to help us appreciate life. Practicing gratefulness for everything and taking difficulties in stride help us grow and develop resilience. If we only look for comfort, we may miss the opportunity to make real progress on our spiritual journey.
Do animal rights trump religion?  A Denmark executive order; dated Feb. 17, states that slaughter is OK as long as the animal is stunned first.This has provoked outrage among Jewish and Muslim communities, and they have condemned this so-called “kosher-halal ban” stating that this law is an infringement and threat to religious freedom, disenfranchises their religious traditions and interferes with their religious practices.
We are to avoid animal cruelty.  In regular meat processing, infected or injured animals are butchered and sold. Animals are stunned, but may be reshot or re-electrocuted if the stun was ineffective the first time. They are hoisted into processing, which may injure the animal. Further, use of the stunner in an infected animal causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy transmission to other parts of the animal, which may infect humans.
G-d is compassionate and forbids cruelty to animals. Shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) is humane because the animal is rendered unconscious by a quick slit of its major blood vessels and vagus nerve, rendering it unconscious, and causes a relatively painless death by bleeding out. Shechita avoids problems involved with stunning because there are no electrical parts to go wrong. Unlike regular processing, an animal must be healthy and uninjured prior to shechita. Thus, in this case, animal cruelty is avoided by upholding religious law.
What does Judaism say about the end of the world? Will it ever end or go on forever? 
Sages predict a Jewish messiah will lead people into an age of world peace. The Hebrew word for messiah means anointed, not divine. It would likely be a political figure. Some suggest G-d will create a new heaven and Earth about 1,300 years from now, in the Hebrew year 7000. Many agree that prior to the “end,” the Jewish people will live in Israel. Though some predicted a war, the Baal Shem Tov says it is averted due to the lengthy exile from the land.
Commentators say allusions are not to be taken literally. For example, a time where “the lion will lay down with the lamb” means peace, not a miraculous change in animal behavior.  Sages say that if one is on his or her way to plant a tree and hears that the messiah has arrived, plant the tree first. Why? One should take a practical approach to these matters.
Is lying immoral and a sin? Should all lying be condemned? Is lying ever acceptable or justified? 
There are a few exceptions to the rule that one must tell the truth. Our sages allow lies in order to save a life. For example, the midwives Shifrah and Puah were praised because they riskedtheir lives by lying to Pharaoh to save newborn Israelite babies born in Egypt. (Exodus 1:19-21)Generally, truth must be told, but there are a few additional exceptions for cases involving modesty, humility, protection or preventing humiliation. Though Torah said, “Distance yourself from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7), our sages say that one should be pleasant and keep the peace. However, they disagree about what to say if someone marries an ugly bride. Should she be praised as she is or told she is beautiful? (Ketubot 16b-17a)While there are a few reasons lying may be permitted, overall, our sages say, “Liars will not receive the divine presence” (Sotah 42a) and “G-d hates one who speaks one thing with his mouth and another in his heart.” (Pesachim 113b).”
What is “sacred” and what is “profane” in Jewish tradition?  
 G-d is holy, but people, places, items and days become sacred based upon our conduct through thoughts, words and actions. Sacredness and holiness of people, places and things are madeby humans based upon words of Torah. A person can change the profane to holy. When we acknowledge something is no longer holy, it ceases its holiness (i.e. Bibles or holy books that are no longer able to be used).For example, Shabbat occurs between Friday evening and Saturday evening. This “palace of time” becomes imbued with holiness through the way we approach it and because of what the Torah says about it. G-d blessed the seventh day and made it holy (Gen. 2:3) and made it the fourth of the 10 commandments that tells us to remember and guard Shabbat. During Shabbat, prayers recognize the day as holy.During our havdalah service which recognizes the end of Shabbat, we say, “Blessed are You, G-d, sovereign of the universe who separates between the holy and profane.”  We recognize that the holiness of the day is now changed into regular time where we can work and be creative.
Why do CA/NV rank so low on being “religious?”  A Gallup poll found only 34% of Californians were “very religious,” and in Nevada only 31% were “very religious,” ranking much lower than the national average of 41%.  
 
Rabbi Beth says, “From a Jewish standpoint, attending services is only a part of religious practice. Being Jewish entails a daily practice of ethics, prayer, meditation and learning that may or may not be part of a community. Certainly becoming connected to a synagogue would enhance the opportunity for people to grow in those aspects.  From another perspective, it appears that many people who choose to live here choose an active outdoor lifestyle because they are attracted to the amazing natural beauty. The inherent beauty of the mountains, lakes and even the desert fill our hearts with gratefulness. One congregant recently said, “There’s not a day I don’t say ‘thank you’ when I drive by the Lake.” The awe instilled by G-d’s works that abound around us cause our souls to soar and our hearts to be filled with gratitude. At some level, isn’t that “religion?”

What is the formula to be G-d’s favorite? Are there any conditions to be met before one is even considered?

Who are G-d’s favorites?   Those who yearn for G-d are special, but one should be careful of one’s wishes or yearnings. The path to G-d is not easy. More often, it is filled with suffering which is meant to help us along our path. Sages say G-d provides “yissurin shel ahavah” (sufferings of love) to those G-d cares about, for the purpose of benefiting the recipient. Brachot 5a. G-d polishes us up through challenges.

Rav Solovetchik says, “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises …sanctify man. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding… a powerful spiritual enthusiasm.” One’s spiritual stature is formed by the pain endured on the spiritual journey. As one may imagine, such “favoritism” may not be the source of pleasure, but just the contrary. Thus, the Sages state that an individual may choose to avoid the afflictions and their accompanying rewards.  

Is there a push against religion?  Are criticisms of religion warranted?  If you think that criticism of religion has some truth behind it, how do we work to “improve” religion?

Every institution has strengths and weaknesses, including religion. We should be grateful for our strengths and understand there is always room for improvement. Having the ability to listen and work toward fixing problems is a sign of strength, not weakness. Accepting constructive criticism polishes us up, keeps us humble and helps us become better.

All people, especially those who claim to follow a religious path, need to be conscious of how we treat others. Tony Blair was talking about those with extremist beliefs causing hate and intolerance. People must be treated fairly and equally regardless of their religion. Minorities and vulnerable populations often need protection. (Exodus 22:20) Sadly, many terrorist attacks and battles in various places today are based upon false claims of religion. Those who abuse people in the name of religion must be stopped. The path to G-d is best walked in compassion and love.

Lt. General Kalashnikov of Russia, who designed iconic AK-47 assault rifle and died on Dec. 23, reportedly wrote before his death to the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch asking if he was morally responsible for the people the rifle killed.  Was he morally accountable for those deaths as the gun designer? 

Moral responsibility follows the individual who makes a decision at the time of pulling the trigger. According to our Sages, Lamach, great-great-grandson of Adam, teaches his son, Tubal-cain, to craft copper and iron (Genesis 4:22) His wives protest, saying he is bringing death into the world because humans will know how to make swords. According to Ramban (1200s), Lamach retorted that murder existed before the sword and “for it is not the sword that causes the murder … and there is no sin for one who makes [swords].” In other words, making the weapon is not the issue whether it is a sword or a gun. Certainly, the issue is how a weapon is used. AK-47s could be used for defensive purposes, though the more likely use is in a military situation. This answer may be different if someone makes a weapon that would never be “defensive” in nature (i.e. nuclear weapons).

Are there any shortcuts to G-d?  I’d like G-d’s blessings but I have many other struggles and priorities to deal with.

You reap the rewards of whatever you put into spiritual practice. Through the work of delving into difficult struggles of life in a caring and compassionate way, we become better people. We polish up our souls. Judaism is plenty of work – 613 commandments, studying to be an ethical, compassionate person who cares about life, spouse, family, community and the world, commitment to “repairing the world,” and experiencing G-d.

It isn’t that G-d demands us to attend to G-d that’s time-consuming, it is dealing with whatever we have to deal with, that is our spiritual journey. The challenges at work – the boss, the co-workers, the lack of work or opportunity are all included in this endeavor. The commute, the grocery store, the children or lack of them, our abilities or blunders in social interaction. These are the stuff of spiritual work. It’s 24/7. Whatever you practice you get better at doing.

How does Judaism deal with end-of-life issues? Should the dying person be given the choice to refuse treatment? When, if at all, should we remove a person from artificial life support or medical treatments? 

Jewish bioethics is about duties to G-d, family and society, not patient’s rights. We are loaned our physical bodies by G-d and have a duty to be healthy. That alone is worthy of a long discussion.  Are we taking care of our physical, psychological and spiritual body?

We may not help another person die quicker through euthanasia, nor may we prolong the dying process.  In treatment decisions, the patient’s best interest must be the primary consideration. Traditional sources say when cure is not possible, we still may not hasten death based upon the story of King Saul.  II Samuel 1:8-17.  King Saul was mortally wounded in battle.  He asked a soldier to help him die.  That soldier was punished by death on the order of King David because he “killed” King Saul.

Artificial feeding is perhaps the most controversial are of end-of-life discussions.  It is the main thing that keeps patient’s alive after their bodies would normally wither away.  Artificial nutrition and hydration should be used when there is a reasonable opportunity for recovery. However, most Jewish groups agree that they are to be removed, like medicines, when they merely prolong the dying process. Adequate treatment of pain is also important. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:27.

What is the Jewish “belief” about G-d?   

Within Judaism one particular belief about G-d is not mandated. For some, G-d may be thought of as an attribute (such as compassion or loving kindness), a force (rather than an entity) or, more interestingly, as a process (i.e. G-d as a verb).  In the “process of G-d,” we can think about how we can approach becoming more like G-d, similar to the metaphor about how an acorn becomes a tree.  The Hebrew letters yud-hey-vav-hey seem to imply time.  Only in our most basic, child-like understanding do we say that G-d is “only” a G-d who sits on a throne.

As we grow and learn more about the Holy One, we discover that G-d is amazing and awesome – much more than we had ever envisioned or been taught. Why within Judaism do we often write G-d (G dash d)? G-d is much more than can be defined or quantified: The Mystery, The Beloved, Fountain of Blessing. Sometimes, we think about G-d as G*d…or, my favorite – G!d (as in YES G-d is awesome).

Why does it seem that many are moving away from religion?  Pew Research Center says that in America, one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.  The answer depends upon one’s viewpoint. Religion itself is transforming.  While many may identify with “no religion,” 68% believe in G-d, 58% feel a deep connection with the earth and 37% identify as “spiritual.” Over 20% pray daily. Most studies fail to account for growing interest in spiritual modalities (spiritual retreats, meditation, etc.), or virtual synagogues, including special interest in Kabbalah (bridge between human and divine).

Do you want to change your life? What would you like to learn on your life’s journey in 2014? What steps will you take to make that happen? If people were interested in finding answers to life’s challenges, many would search the well-trodden religious paths. Religion is transforming, as the culture around us transforms. While it won’t look like the weekly pew routine of an era gone by, it will be just as deep and meaningful for those who search.”

What Are The Most Important Issues That Religion Should Undertake? 

Religion is a path to G-d.  “Human faith is never final, never an arrival, but rather an endless pilgrimage, a being on the way” writes  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  It’s spiritual technology that bridges the gap between humanity and divinity, concentrating on morality, ethics, and even the laws governing human/divine partnership.  It helps us reach beyond ourselves by asking questions and answering with sacred narratives.  What is G-d like?  Where is G-d?  What must we do to merit divine attention and experience G-d?  What practices help us be more compassionate towards people and ourselves?   Within Judaism, several millennia of writings help us examine our openness to the presence of G-d and how to break through crusts of our outer layers to find the soul.  Judaism has spiritual technology to help us.  Make it your New Year’s resolution to learn more.  Our religion binds us together as a community of seekers, even when we disagree.  It provides joy and company for the journey – a trail of breadcrumbs on the path to the Holy One. 

Does revelation involve a supernatural entity or an “inner voice?”  Does revelation have to verbal? Does G-d communicate through revelation?  

Revelation is ongoing.  According to the Besht (the Baal Shem Tov, founding rabbi of chasidism who lived in the 1700s), G-d communicates through Hashgacha Pratit based upon Ps. 33:14, “From His dwelling place He oversees all the inhabitants of the earth.”  Hashgacha Pratit’s literal translation is divine providence, but that fails to explain this key concept.  Essentially everything that occurs, even a leaf blowing in the wind, is by G-d who wills it.  Thus, at some level, revelation is a continual process and particular to the individual experiencing it.

On the other hand, there is a notion that revelation occurred on Mount Sinai when millions heard and saw the voice of G-d and Torah was given and later prophets were gifted with prophetic revelation.  

Does it still occur?  Amos 3:7 says, “For the Lord God does nothing unless He has revealed His secret to His servants, the prophets” which is later interpreted to mean that G-d also communicates through dreams.  Zohar HaKadosh 183b.  It would seem that G-d constantly communicates – and it’s up to us to be still and listen. 

Is Commercialization of the Holidays OK? 

Holidays are meant to be shared by family, friends and community in a meaningful way. Mindlessly purchased presents do not provide the giver or the receiver with meaning. It simply promotes a materialistic culture. On the other hand, a thoughtful gift is appreciated and may be an appropriate way to celebrate.

While some may be concerned about extravagant gifts for religious festivals, rabbis share concern about excessive bar/bat mitzvahs where presents and party overshadow the essence of connecting to G-d and an important coming of age ritual, when young people learn to lead the congregation in prayer and read from Torah. So, rabbis often require a mitzvah project so students do charitable work and suggest that a percentage of the gifts be donated to charity. May G-d bless us with abundance and provide us with the wisdom to use it in a meaningful way.

Is My Religion The Only Legitimate Way To Relate to G-d? 

Judaism is the best path to G-d for Jews. However, there are many paths to G-d as the Talmud says, “All the righteous have a portion in the World to Come.” Judaism is a lot of work and conversion to become Jewish is not necessary. Isaiah 42:6 calls us to be a [spiritual] light to the world. To be that light, our Sages note that the Jewish path includes daily prayers, a recommended 100 blessings a day, which some would interpret as constant G-d awareness, 613 commandments, ethical behavior, maintaining positive thoughts, daily study and a variety of additional practices to attain “holiness.” It is said, “Es iz schver zu zein a Yid”—Yiddish for “It’s difficult to be a Jew.” However, for a Jew to not be a Jew is even more difficult. We all have a path engraved on our heart and it’s up to each of us to follow it.

Are we responsible for preserving “God’s creation” or should we leave it to G-d?  

All of us are responsible for repairing the world.  We share a partnership with G-d to improve the world and help others, which brings honor to      G-d.  Tikkun Olam (fixing the world) is the concept that humans are responsible for healing, repairing and transforming the world to be a better place. It has a variety of applications. For some tikkun olam means ethical conduct, direct service to those in need, social action and for some it means philanthropy. It can also mean creating a conection with G-d by concentrating our thoughts before acting.  This concept is particularly relevant in a time with global ecological concerns. Since we are stewards for the world, we are ethically responsible for each choice we make – where and how we live, what we eat, and what we buy. Small choices made by vast populations make our world what it is today and predict where it will lead. We are responsible for what occurs. Each of us needs to choose wisely.

Do angels exist?  If so, what are they?  Tradition teaches that angels are beings from one of the spiritual worlds. Some existed from the beginning of time and are within the fixed order of the universe. They are messengers of G-d existing in a spiritual way, but may take on “garments” of this world to become visible. As the Bible says, angels visited Abraham, saved Hagar and Ishmael, spoke in the burning bush to Moses and Jacob wrestled with one who changes Jacob’s name to “Israel.”  
 
Some people think of angels as bright beings with wings wearing halos and shining robes, however, some think of an angels as an “energy packet.”  Within our tradition angels can be “good” or not.  Angels may incite a person to do evil, doing G-d’s will to test a person. Even Satan is viewed as a prosecuting attorney/angel, doing G-d’s will.  Our liturgy speaks of angels in many places.   Interestingly, they can be “created” by us when someone connects holy intention with doing holy work. “Transformative holy work is the chief component that becomes an angel,” according to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his classic work on Kabbalah, “The Thirteen Petaled Rose.”
Does meditation help us in achieving our spiritual goals? How?   Jewish meditation is aimed at knowing G-d.  Many people think meditation means sitting cross-legged on the floor.  However, there are many Jewish techniques, including repeating a simple sacred phrase, concentrating on images, such as a Hebrew letter or word, reading a passage from sacred text and absorbing its message, meditating with a spiritual partner or group – similar to silent prayer, and even walking meditations.

Turning our thoughts to focus on the present and connecting with the Divine creates balance and dispels anxiety and stress.  Awareness of the Divine awakens wisdom and compassion, inspiring us to choose better choices each moment. It creates a state of mind less affected by the turbulence of the world and more in harmony with “Shalom” (peace, wholeness, perfection).  Rebbe Nachman says that coming to the realization that G-d is the essence of reality is a transformative moment and the goal of hitbodedut (meditation). On the Second Friday of the month, we have Family Services.  Who comes to that?  Of course families who have children in Religious School bring them to Family Services, but that’s not all.  It’s also designed for people who want to celebrate Shabbos with the community, people who want to learn more about the prayers or Bible stories, and for people who love pizza.  As Hillel said, “Do not say, ‘when I have time I will learn,’ for perhaps you will never have time.”  Avot 2:4. He also says, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”  Id.  So come, learn and be included in this week’s services with your community. 

Is there anything special needed to celebrate Shabbat?
Several key ingredients come to mind to celebrate Shabbat, our ‘appointment with G-d.’  They include:  Shabbat candles, challah, wine, flowers, music and good company.   We connect with the Holy One through our prayers, songs, stories and Shabbat table talk.  Also, there’s a concept called “hiddur hamitzvah,” which means to beautify a mitzvah.  So, for Shabbat, we don’t pick the least expensive choice – we do our best.  We choose our nicest tablecloth, or maybe a special one we use for Shabbos.  We select our finest food and most beautiful items because we want Shabbat to be special.  We choose our best and work to create a warm, haimish (Yiddish for comfortable, unpretentious) atmosphere.   May your Shabbos be beautiful.  Shabbat Shalom North Tahoe.
Does one have to belong to a religion to reach God?  Easier With A Guide: 
Is it possible to arrive at a place without a guide, map, compass or some way to check our navigation?  Maybe, but why not avail ourselves of the technology?  Often our spiritual awareness is not honed in to notice that we are automatically connected to G-d.  In as sense, we’re wirelessly, automatically logged-on to G-d.  Religion, which is spiritual technology, increases our awareness.  Even though G-d is accessible to everyone always, the path to G-d is sometimes a mystery to us.  Religion is designed to be the bridge, the trail of breadcrumbs or the way that one can access the Great Mystery.  Religion should challenge us to overcome the materialism, ego-centrism and emptiness. Religion should teach us compassionate, ethical-moral living, which is a prerequisite to experiencing G-d.  Being part of a religion provides us with companionship on our life journey toward the Infinite One.  There are many paths to G-d, but it’s better with company, traveling a path that has already been successful. 

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