Shabbat Around the World

I’ve experienced Shabbat in some very interesting places. One of the most memorable Shabbat lunches I can recall was in the home of a Chabad rabbi and his family in Kharkov, Ukraine. This was in August 2005 when I led a small Hillel/JDC mission of University of Michigan students to the Former Soviet Union.The food at that lunch was delicious and the new plates of food seemed to continuously appear throughout the afternoon. As dessert was being served we sang Shabbat zemirot (festive songs) together. The students recognized the traditional songs and began harmonizing. The rabbi asked me to say a few words of Torah and I spoke about the pintele yid – that spark of Judaism that can be found throughout the globe. While the food might be different and some of the customs are unique to that community, the spark is there. How wonderful it is, I explained, for us Americans to travel to the Former Soviet Union in the 21st century and enjoy a warm, spiritual Shabbat, singing the Hebrew songs that are so familiar to us. 

In Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:3), the Torah says, לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת “Do not light a fire in all your dwellings on Shabbat”. Why is it necessary for the Torah to state settlements in the plural? Shouldn’t it be enough to say that we are forbidden from kindling fire on Shabbat? Why is it necessary to have the designation “throughout your settlements?” After all, the Torah doesn’t add words or letters unnecessarily.

The medieval commentator Abravanel interprets this to mean that the intent of the clause is to apply the prohibition universally; meaning wherever Jews reside. The idea is to demonstrate that the same rule applies regardless of where in the world we’re spending Shabbat. This biblical prohibition stated in this way should remind us that our world is much smaller than we sometimes think. We can observe and celebrate in any community throughout the world and it will feel like Shabbat to us.

We might observe new customs and culinary dishes, but Shabbat is Shabbat. It is a unifying force in Judaism. Shabbat is a standard. We light the Shabbat candles, we recite the kiddush and the motzi, we enjoy delicious meals together, and we conclude with havdallah.

Last month I returned to Ukraine seven-and-a-half years since that first visit. Seated across from me at my table at a kosher restaurant in Kiev was an Israeli man who told me I looked familiar. I laughed and referenced a song I learned as a child, “Wherever You Go There’s Always Someone Jewish.” He laughed and told me that he was serious; he was positive he had met me before. Sure enough, Amir Ben Zvi and his wife Sharon had also been guests at that Chabad rabbi’s home for Shabbat lunch back in 2005. Amir was about to begin his new job for the JDC in Ukraine and was also invited to the Chabad rabbi’s home for lunch. Amir and I reminisced about how enjoyable that experience was and shared an immediate friendship. No matter where we find ourselves in the world, Shabbat is Shabbat.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

A Rick Perry Hanukkah

Governor Rick Perry made it clear in his “Strong” campaign commercial that he believes kids can’t celebrate Christmas in our country. Apparently, however, governors can celebrate Hanukkah each year in the Capitol building with members of the local Chabad Lubavitch.

Here’s a video I uploaded to YouTube showing Rick Perry’s dismay that kids can’t celebrate Christmas followed by his Hanukkah dancing and menorah lighting:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Shlomo the Offensive Lineman

Today, there are several Jewish football players in the National Football League. Of course, my favorite is Josh Miller, the New England Patriots kicker. But that’s only because he shares his name with my son Josh. There’s also Jay Fielder (New York Jets), Lennie Friedman (Washington Redskins), Sage Rosenfels (Miami Dolphins), Mike Rosenthal (Minnesota Vikings), and Mike Seidman (Carolina Panthers). There is also Igor Olshansky of the San Diego Chargers, who attended San Francisco Chabad’s Hebrew Academy. Like other Jewish pro athletes these guys are all over the map in terms of their level of commitment and observance to Judaism.

Alan VeingradThere is one Jewish pro football player who’s Jewish identity is very strong. Former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Alan Veingrad was a religiously indifferent Jew when he was an active player, but today he is ultra-Orthodox and goes by the name “Shlomo.” Several articles have been written about Shlomo Veingrad’s transformation, but the most comprehensive is the recent Dallas Morning News article, “Ex-Cowboy finds faith after football.”

Veingrad, who won a Super Bowl championship with the Cowboys in 1993, has his own website that focuses on his life in football and today as a frum Jew. He explains, “As a Dallas Cowboy and member of the Super Bowl championship team of 1992, I got to play for coach Jimmy Johnson and protect the now legendary quarterback Troy Aikman. Being Jewish left me open to a fair amount of good-natured ribbing and kidding, more the by-product of insensitivity than of malice. In the rough and tumble environment of an NFL team, a Jew is an outsider. But now, as I continue to discover even more the rich traditions of Yiddishkeit, I’m happy to be on the inside of Hashem’s army.”

You can also listen to a radio interview of Alan “Shlomo” Veingrad on “JM in the AM” from 2006.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Matisyahu’s Super Famous but is it Halakhically Permissable?

I just read an interesting article about whether Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae superstar, is violating Jewish law according to his Chabad Lubavitch community by performing in clubs and bars where activities occur that run contra to the code of morality held firmly by the ultra-Orthodox establishment.

Here’s a clip of the article:

Matisyahu: Rabbi or Rebel?
By Levi Brackman

Matisyahu is now an international phenomenon; he is a reggae singer with a difference. Instead of dreadlocks he sports a trilby. His beard is predicated on the Kabbalists’ theosophy instead of Rastafarian tradition and his clothing places him in an Ultra Orthodox Jewish enclave rather than a black ghetto. This week he released his latest CD entitled YOUTH and it seems that Matisyahu’s tremendous success so far is about to reach unprecedented heights. Predictably, this man’s singing antics are deeply controversial.

Many have asked the following questions. Is it correct for a Chassidic Jew to be singing in clubs and bars? Is Matisyahu using his talent to bring Godliness to the profoundly unGodly and thus sanctifying God’s name or is he achieving the opposite?

Whereas this article is not meant to give a definitive answer to these questions it does, however, endeavor to explain what motivates a Chassidic Jew like Matisyahu to perform in a bar and club.

There is a fundamental difference between the Kabbalistic and the non-Kabbalistic views of Judaism. Up until the French Revolution in 1789, society was divided into three groups: the church, the aristocracy and the peasants. In the terminology of the post-modern French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the landowners and the church were the centre and the peasants were the periphery. The two did not mix. Education, money and power were restricted to the elite; the peasants enjoyed no such privileges. After the French Revolution, the periphery was also given some of the privileges that were previously the exclusive right of the centre. With this came the emancipation of the Jews. Although the landowners and the educated were still regarded as the centre, the difference now was that peasants had the possibility of entering this exclusive domain.

The post-modern era, according to Derrida, was a time of “deconstruction.” All things were seen in pairs, one superior to the other: rich and poor, educated and ignorant, powerful and powerless, etc. The deconstructivist view is that rich is not necessarily superior to poor, in fact, being poor can be more advantageous. Seen from this perspective, poor is the new centre and rich is the periphery. Derrida goes one step further and says that hierarchy should not exist at all; rather, all boundaries between centre and periphery should be deconstructed.

Western society is a deconstructed civilization in many ways. Whereas in the past women were seen as inferior, today they are often regarded as superior to men. Similarly, modern human rights laws have ensured that the views of vulnerable minorities are respected and listened to.

Non-Kabbalistic Judaism, in general, does not deconstruct boundaries. According to this school of thought, the centre should be distinct from the periphery. Here we have the concept of ‘enclave Judaism,’ which clearly marks out the boundaries between the holy and the profane. The fact that this type of Judaism disagrees with Matisyahu’s style of music and choice of audience is no surprise, for it regards the mixing of the centre with the periphery as an obvious desecration of God’s name. [more]

By his own admission, Matisyahu is being guided by the Chabad School of Kabbalistic thought. Thus, as long as he adheres to Jewish law and does not get carried away with stardom and the narcissistic celebrity culture of modern-day America, his music may be considered, in my opinion, a sanctification of God’s name.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller