Divrei Hillel (Words of Hillel)

            In less than three weeks, we will celebrate the New Year on the Hebrew calendar with the holiday of Rosh Hashana, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

            This month leading up to Rosh Hashana is called Elul.  There are no holidays during Elul; but the entire month has been connected by the tradition to those ten days that begin the new year.

            One of the names for the ten day period that begin with Rosh Hashana and end with Yom Kippur is Aseret Yamei HaT’shuva, the Ten Days of Repentance.  It is an annual exercise in self-improvement, looking back on the year that has just ended, and recognizing where we have ‘missed the mark’ in trying to live up to the potentials with which we have been endowed.

            In preparation for that exercise, during the month of Elul we are called upon to engage in a cheshbon nefesh, literally an accounting of the soul:  have we lived up to our obligation to do our best, in exchange for all that we have been given?

            Ideally, we should be engaging in such thoughts every day.  Some try to do so as part of their bedtime ritual, looking back on the day and judging how well they did.  The great advantage of such a practice is, of course, that the day’s events are still fresh in our minds.

            But let’s face it:  remembering to do that every night is difficult, and I would guess that few people remember to do so.  The Torah, therefore, sets aside one day a year for all of us to come together and support each other as we try to account for an entire year.

            By calling on us to begin our cheshbon nefesh, our accounting of the soul, during the entire month leading up to the Ten Days, the tradition gives us a total of forty days to prepare.

            The liturgy of Yom Kippur tells us that God forgives any sins we have committed only against God, just because we ask to be forgiven.  But the liturgy also teaches that, if a sin we have committed resulted in hurting or harming another person, God will not forgive that sin until we go to the person we have harmed and ask for their forgiveness. 

            This is probably the second most difficult task of our soul accounting.  I often think that the most difficult is when someone else has hurt us, and that person comes to us and asks us to forgive them.  Sometimes it is difficult to give up the feeling of being wronged, of blaming the other person and thinking of ourselves as victims, or as better than the person who sinned against us.         

            But one of the central ideas of our Jewish tradition is that we should try very hard to emulate God; and, as noted above, if God forgives when someone asks, we should be willing to do so as well.  It is an act of chesed, of mercy, to do so; and we will feel a whole lot better when we let go of our hurt and anger.  This will allow both the person who sinned, and the person who was sinned against, to experience spiritual growth, and to enter the new year with a clean slate, ready to more closely live up to the potential God has given us to be partners with God in tikkun olam, in fixing this seriously broken world in which we must live.

            It is Elul, time to begin our accounting of the soul, to seek and grant forgiveness, and to prepare for the new year that is about to begin. 

            I have often said that Judaism has something to say about everything.  From time to time, I will use this blog to set out my understanding of what Judaism has to say about an issue that is before us as Americans, as Jews, or just as human beings.  Although I certainly have my own opinions about these issues, I will do my best to present both sides of the issue from the Jewish tradition.

            The death penalty has been much in the news in recent weeks, from the Boston Marathan bombing case, to last week’s decision in the Holmes case in Aurora.

            So what does Judaism have to say about capital punishment?  Does/should a state have the right, or even duty, to put someone to death for a crime that person has committed?

            Some religious opponents of capital punishment begin by pointing to the Ten Commandments, which, in many English translations include:  “Do not kill.”  These opponents say that this should apply to the state as well as to individuals.  The problem with that argument is that the common English translation is wrong.  The original Hebrew is: Lo tirtzach, which clearly means “Do not murder.”  If it said “do not kill,” the Hebrew would have been:  Lo taharog.

            The difference between killing and murder is not just one of semantics.  Killing is a fact:  a life – in our discussion, a human life – is ended.  Murder is a legal conclusion that some killings are unlawful.  Some killings, such as in self-defense, are considered lawful.

            In fact, the Torah prescribes a death penalty thirty-six times, for violation of certain commandments, including murder, kidnapping, adultery, blasphemy, even working on Shabbat, or striking or cursing your father or mother.  The Torah even specifies different methods of execution for different crimes.  So, at least in principle, the Torah would appear to approve of the use of capital punishment.

            But as I learned many years ago in law school, making laws is an exercise in drawing lines.  Two hundred years ago in England, you could be executed by hanging for stealing a loaf of bread.  Today, the line on capital punishment has moved so far that, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 19 states and many other countries (including the UK) have banned the death penalty completely; and other jurisdictions severely limit it to what are often called “special circumstances,” such as the killing of a police officer (seen as an attack on society as a whole).

            One of the reasons for this change is the fear of putting an innocent person to death.  Again according to the DPIC, more than 150 people, previously sentenced to death, have been exonerated of their crimes and freed from prison since 1973.

            This fear of putting an innocent person to death was a serious concern of the rabbis of our tradition.   They were so concerned, that they built up major procedural roadblocks against it.  They reminded themselves,  and us, a number  of times that even an accused or convicted criminal is created in the Divine Image, and we human beings must be absolutely certain of guilt before executing someone.

            The Torah itself, in Deuteronomy, requires that the death penalty be imposed only on the testimony of at least two eye-witnesses.  And in order to be certain that those eye-witnesses take their testimony very seriously, the Torah commands that they be the ones to carry out the execution, if the defendant is convicted on their testimony.  For obvious reasons, close relatives of both the victim and the accused could not be among the witnesses.

            The Talmud takes it even further:  in a capital case, again as a safety check, the testimony of the witnesses must fully corroborate each other.  And it isn’t even enough that the testimonies about the act itself match; the witnesses must also establish that the defendant was warned before the act that committing the crime could result in the death penalty, and the defendant must calmly indicate that he is aware of that, but chooses to commit the act anyway! 

            The court would also appoint special investigating judges, some to look for evidence of guilt, and others to look for evidence of innocence.  These investigators would then report their findings to the rest of the court.

            Perhaps the most unusual court rule was that, if the judges all voted unanimously to convict, then the defendant was not executed; there was a concern that, on a court of at least 23 judges, if not even one judge voted for acquittal, then perhaps there hadn’t been enough of an effort to find exculpatory evidence.

            And on days when the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court in Jerusalem, would vote on capital cases, all of its members were required to fast, to emphasize the seriousness of what they were doing.

            Some rabbis of the Talmud so disliked capital punishment that they said that a Sanhedrin that condemned someone to death once in seven years would be considered a bloodthirsty court; others said a court that condemned someone to death even once in seventy years was a bloodthirsty court!  This was not a unanimous opinion: the Talmud does quote one rabbi as saying that such an attitude would have increased the number of murderers in Israel!  But this last rabbi was clearly in the minority.

            What effect has all this had in modern American Judaism?  The Reform Movement has been on record since 1959 as opposed to capital punishment; the Conservative Movement issued an opinion in 1960 saying “we regard all forms of capital punishment as barbaric and obsolete.”

            Orthodox opinions follow the above-cited procedural blocks against imposition of capital punishment from the Torah and Talmud.  They generally state that, since the Torah provides for capital punishment in so many cases, is isn’t immoral in and of itself; but the cases in which it could be safely and properly imposed are so rare as to be, for all intents and purposes, non-existent.

            In this and in other issues that I will be presenting in this blog, we don’t necessarily have to agree.  But I suggest that if we are taking our covenantal obligations seriously, we should at least be aware of what our sources and our traditions have to say, as we make up our own minds.  Some very wise people have struggled with these issues over the last four thousand years; there is no need for us to reinvent the wheel as we struggle with them today.

            This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, is full of discussions about mitzvot (commandments), chukim (laws), and mishpatim (rules).  Many of the 613 commandments of the Jewish tradition are set forth here, and we are also urged to “do what is right in the eyes of God” if we don’t happen to remember the commandment that applies in a particular circumstance.

            The whole idea of being commanded is a problematic one for Reform Jews, and may be the issue that makes a Jew philosophically Reform.  Indeed, the first statement of principles of the American Reform Movement, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, specifically threw out the commandments having to do with “diet, priestly purity, and dress [which] originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

            The 1885 Platform, however, reaffirmed the commitment of Reform Judaism to “moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.”

            Reform Judaism has come a long way since then. Its most recent statement of principles, issued in 1999, has no division of categories of traditional mitzvot, or a blanket rejection of some of those categories, as did its 1885 ancestor.  In fact, the 1999 Platform states:  “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot (my emphasis),” but make a commitment to fulfill, not that whole array, but only “those that address us as individuals and as a community.”   It is still up to the individual Reform Jew to decide what mitzvot s/he will commit to; or to the community as to what mitzvot the community will follow.

            The current statement still avoids translating the Hebrew word mitzvah as ‘commandment,’ which is its literal translation.  One current translation, “sacred obligations,” comes close to that.  But I think another translation of mitzvot in the 1999 Platform, says it better: “the means by which we make our lives holy.”

            This tracks something that I have been doing for some years now, in translating the beginning of a brakha, a blessing, that ubiquitous short form of prayer that we are encouraged by the tradition to say whenever we want to recognize the specialness of a moment.

            Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu….  That is the formulaic beginning of all blessings having to do with mitzvot.  The common translation of the first six Hebrew words is fine:  “Blessed (or praised) are You, Adonai, Our God, Sovereign of the universe…”  But the literal translation of the next four Hebrew words is problematic for some:  “Who has sanctified us by the commandments, and commanded us to…”

            To avoid that problem, I have been using the following paraphrase:  “…Who has given us opportunities for holiness in our lives, by calling on us to…”

            Reform Judaism, even in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, was willing to accept a sense of being commanded by the ethical mitzvot, but rejected what it deemed ritual  mitzvot.  Modern Reform Judaism invites each one of us to study all the mitzvot in the Torah, and to take into our daily lives those “sacred obligations” that we find “make our lives holy.”

            The key here is to study the traditions, in order to figure out which of them address us sufficiently to add a sense of sacredness, holiness, to our lives.  This is the essence of Judaism generally, and of the Reform Judaism  to which we as a congregation subscribe.

            As a new year on the Jewish calendar approaches, we will be announcing many opportunities for such study, for every age group in our community.  Jewish learning is a life-long commitment, as the principles of Reform Judaism affirm.



            This past Saturday, July 25, coincided with the ninth day of the month of Av on the Hebrew calendar.  That date, known in Hebrew as Tisha B’Av, is traditionally a day of mourning, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the First by the Babylonians in the year 586 b.c.e; the Second by the Romans in the year 70 c.e.  (Because the tradition does not permit mourning on Shabbat, this year’s observance was held on Sunday.)

            The two foci of the traditional observance of this day are one of the two 24-hour fasts in our ritual year (no points for naming the other one, we should all know it!); and the reading of the biblical Book of Lamentations.  That book is a litany of truly awful images of suffering and loss, a one-day immersion in the horrors of Jewish history. 

            Along with the destruction of the two Temples, the rabbis of our tradition have managed to fold into this day of mourning a number of other tragedies in our past, including the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.  The only such event that has been given its own day on our liturgical calendar is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day; according to some religious authorities, the Holocaust is still too fresh in our memory to not have its own day.

            There are many in Israel, and elsewhere, who have proposed that, since the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in 1948, there is no more reason to observe this day of anguish.  Others believe that we must continue to remember what we have endured, because those experiences have made us who we are as a people.

            I agree with that last position.  But there is another reason as well:  the Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at ḥinam, gratuitous hatred (Tractate Yoma p. 9b).  This has been explained as the various Jewish factions in Jerusalem during the last Roman siege of the city and Temple being so intent on fighting with other Jewish factions over who was the better Jew, that they were not able to unite against the Romans.  There is good reason to believe that, even if they had been able to unite in defense of Jerusalem and the Temple, they would have lost to the Legions anyway.  But the teaching is nevertheless valid:  we waste so much time and energy on arguing who is a ‘better’ or a ‘real’ Jew that we could end up destroying ourselves in the end.

            And we seem to have not learned a thing as a people in the 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple!

            Ya’ir Lapid is a centrist politician in Israel and a former journalist.  He put this lesson very well in a piece he wrote for an Israeli publication in honor of Tisha B’Av:

            The sad truth of the human race is that we love to hate. It gives us a feeling of power, it brings us closer to our peers, it saves us from the need to rethink our stances every day because who can be bothered.

            Instead, we look at the other side and say to ourselves that if they are so horribly disgusting then we must be right.

            This is why our ancestors, who were wiser than we are, gave us Tisha B'Av. They wanted to remind us that, if the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, then once a year, on this day, we need to check all our hatreds anew. Are they justified? Are they not blinding us? Do we know how to look past them and see our brothers and sisters as fellow human beings?

            Hatred is free. Love is not.

            Love is bound up in courage, in leaving our comfort zone, in the ability to truly see the other.

            Hatred comes easily. Love with great difficulty. Why? Because it forces us to think again about those who are on the other side, who are different than we are, who we put in a box so we wouldn't have to think about them.

            To hate someone else, we have to push them away.

            To love them, we have to bring ourselves closer.

            I didn’t have time to organize an observance of Tisha B’Av this year while getting settled here in Fort Collins; next year I hope to do so. 

            Although many in the Reform Movement see little importance in observing this day, I think it is worth getting together and learning from.  We can’t know who we are, and where we are going, unless we know where we came from.  

Welcome to my new blog Divrei Hillel (“Words of Hillel”)!

My thought in starting this blog is to have a forum for an exchange of ideas between me as the rabbi of Congregation Or Hadash, and you, members and friends of Or Hadash.  I emphasize that I would like this to be an exchange of ideas, because I very much hope that you will share your views and questions, with me and with each other.  

If I can keep up with the schedule, my hope is to post to this blog twice a week:  every Thursday, I will try to post some thoughts about the week’s Torah portion; and early in the week, on Sunday or Monday, I want to share with you my views as a rabbi, a ‘recovering’ attorney, a citizen of the United States and of Israel, and a caring human being, about events and issues going on in the world.  I may post more often, as the spirit moves me; and I may occasionally have to miss a regular posting, because, as we all know, life happens.  When that occurs, I will try to post a sentence or two letting you know that I didn’t just forget, and when you might expect the next posting.

I know that all our email in-boxes are bursting at the seams, so I don’t want to add to the glut by sending this blog to you as an email.  Whenever I post to the blog, a link to it will appear on the Or Hadash website, Facebook page, and weekly calendar email sent out by Lenny Abels, enabling you to go to the blog if you choose.  If you want an email letting you know of each new blog posting, there will also be a way to subscribe to the blog.

I hope you will read these postings, and, when the spirit moves you, comment on what I have written, or what other readers have posted in their comments.  Likewise, if there is a particular topic or question you would like me to address, you can post it as a comment to the blog, or, if you prefer, send it to me in an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Let’s get a conversation going about the things that matter to us as Jews, as Coloradoans, as Americans, and as caring human beings!

On August 30, in the first of my monthly Sunday Chats, I plan to address the idea of God in Jewish tradition, prayer and thought.  I know this is an area that is a difficult for many of us, which is why I want to open the discussion before the High Holy Days, which are so filled with God language.

In order to give you time to prepare for that discussion, I would like to recommend some books that might help you understand that there is a very wide range of beliefs about God that are all acceptable in our Jewish tradition:

The God I Believe In:  Conversations on Religion with 14 Leading Jewish Intellectuals, by Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman

Finding God:  Ten Jewish Responses, by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme

A third book, not specifically Jewish but it may as well be, is worth looking at.  It is a very small book, but written with much humor and wisdom:

Stupid Ways, Smart Ways, To Think About God, by Michael Shevack and Jack Bemporad

There are many other books out there about Jewish views of God, and I promise to provide you with a list of a few of them.  But either one (or even both!) of these two books will, I believe, be a good place to start.

I hope to see you at the Sunday Chat on August 30, when we begin our conversation about God.  And I hope you will read, and comment on, what appears on this blog.

Rabbi Hillel