Posts in Ask the Rabbi

What kind of role models are these!

February 21st, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 30 comments

My wife and I love listening to your podcast.

I have a question that no Rabbi has been able to answer to my satisfaction. (It could be that they have answered the question accurately but it never resonated with me.)

It’s about Jacob and his children. Jacob is revered by us and his children were given the privilege of having tribes named after them. What bothers me is that these were not nice children. Judah had a terrible mean streak and was known to hang out with women of ill repute. His brothers sold a brother into slavery. They lied to their parents, they wiped out entire cities for revenge. (If I was Jacob’s neighbor my kids would have been under strict instructions to avoid them at all cost!)

Where does the reverence for Jacob’s children come from and why do rabbis insist on calling them righteous?

Cliff

Dear Cliff,

We’re not sure we can answer this question to your satisfaction, but we are going to try and contribute perspective which we hope you will appreciate.

Recently, a book about a complicated woman, Dr. Anne Spoerry was published.  (In Full Flight by John Heminway)  She fought the Nazis while part of the French Resistance. She was betrayed and sent to a concentration camp where she collaborated with the Nazis in monstrous crimes against other captives.  To escape war crime prosecution, she fled to Kenya and spent the rest of her life saving the lives of thousands of Africans.

To the Africans whose lives she improved and saved while working devotedly on that continent she is a heroine. The concentration camp internees who saw her as a sadistic torturer viewed her very differently. A snapshot of her work for the Resistance before she was sent to a concentration camp would reveal another aspect of her personality. We haven’t read the book yet, but we surmise that Dr. Spoerry was an incredibly powerful and complex woman. We may never know the truth about her feelings, motivations and even her actions but her life does serve as a reminder that God created humans as amazingly complicated beings.

What does this have to do with Jacob’s sons? The Torah consistently presents complex pictures of human beings. It is not a history book, but a guide to life. If the people in it were one-dimensional saints or sinners it would not be useful to us because that is not how any of us really are. The Torah teaches that the greater a person is, the greater is his capacity both for good and for evil. In fact, ancient Jewish wisdom, based on the following verse, teaches that anyone who is great enough to accomplish exceptional things will, by definition, do some wrong things as well.   “There is no righteous man on earth who does only good and never sins at all.”  (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Jacob’s sons were establishing a movement that, to our day, exerts tremendous influence. They were powerful people given a powerful heritage. We disagree that Judah wasn’t a nice person. He failed to live up to his own standards and picked himself up and tried again. He candidly acknowledged his errors and demonstrated remarkable courage with Joseph in Egypt. In doing so he made it easier for the rest of us to follow suit.

It’s also worth remembering that Jacob and his family didn’t live in a small and wholesome LDS town in Utah or in a church-centric community in Oklahoma.  They lived in a world yet unimpacted by Judeo-Christian values.  Their neighbors behaved barbarically and inflicted cruelty upon one another.  There was no civilized alternative to Jacob’s sons wiping out the men of Shechem.  It wasn’t simply revenge for rape. It was a process of civilizing the world.

None of the other actions you mention such as the brothers selling Joseph or Judah’s visiting a woman he thought to be a prostitute can be fully explained in this response. They’d need more space and time.  Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to treat the narrative like a modern fiction story. There were elements of good and bad in all the actions. Often, the right thing to do inevitably has aspects that are damaging and those who do wrong often have good inside them as well.  Like us, the brothers had to deal with circumstances that are multi-faceted and complicated.

Through their successes and failures they maintained their allegiance to the God of their fathers and to His greater picture. They strove to improve and pass on to their children a call to become greater. They were men of a caliber that we can’t begin to comprehend but the emanations from them still lend strength to us.   These are some of the reasons their descendants were called ‘the Children of Israel” and why the word Jew is proudly derived directly from the name of the fourth son, Judah.

We hope that at least some of what we tell you here resonates. 

Cordially,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Should my children read Harry Potter?

February 13th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 28 comments

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

I’m an orthodox Jewish homeschool mom of five and I love your show! Our homeschool curriculum focuses heavily on reading good literature and my kids have just reached the age where Edward Eager’s tales of magic, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as many others in the fantasy genre are on many recommended reading lists.

I’m unsure of how to approach the element of magic in children’s stories. The Torah forbids witchcraft, so should stories that feature magic be anathema to my Torah-observant kids?

Thanks for the great materials you produce. I consider them part of my continuing education. 🙂

Jessie W.

Dear Jessie,

We’re delighted that you watch our show and that you are homeschooling. As you may know, we homeschooled for many years and a number of our grandchildren are now being homeschooled as well.

Some of our children were the intended audience age when the first Harry Potter book came out.  This book became a major topic of discussion among both the Jewish and Christian homeschoolers we knew. More than any other topic we can think of, the families we knew (and respected) were all over the map on this one.

Approaches ranged from an absolute ban on reading any sort of fantasy to those who couldn’t see any problem whatsoever with the genre. Our view was somewhere in the middle. We made a judgment call and will share some of our considerations, but we would like to emphasize that each child and his surroundings need to be taken into account. Unlike certain questions, such as whether a child should call a parent by his first name where the answer is clear cut (absolutely not!), this question has a lot of room for knowing an individual child, the specific book, subjectivity and praying for Godly wisdom.

When they were young, our children, like many others, delighted in books featuring talking animals who dressed and behaved like people. As parents we saw these books as imaginative, not sinister. Part of the developing toddler sense of humor was understanding that a moose would not go into a store to buy candy and a duck would not toss a salad for a dinner party.

We saw Edward Eager’s books like Half-Magic  or The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit as more sophisticated versions of the same idea. They are incredibly clever stories of things that can never happen; imaginative rather than sinister.

As children grow, it is important for them to understand what the Bible is warning about and forbidding one to dabble in. There are spiritual forces in the world that we cannot easily understand and that nonetheless can do great harm. For example, the focused wishing of evil on someone, for example via a voodoo doll, can have an effect. It is forbidden. In the same way, some people are capable of communing with the dead. This is possible – and forbidden. Statues coming to life under a full moon or finding a coin that allows you to move backwards in history are not real options, so we didn’t see reading about them as problematic.

Is Harry Potter, a brilliant book and not surprisingly a best-seller, different in a real way to the above books or even to the TV show Bewitched?  We don’t know. Many times cultural influences are incredibly subtle.Our second-hand understanding is that the Harry Potter books became darker as the series went along. (Our children were older at that point and I think their interest waned, but anyway they were then at an age to make their own decisions.) We know parents who explained to their children that while they allowed the early books into their homes, they would not let in the later ones.

Realistically, each family needs to decide where certain lines are drawn as well as knowing the point at which forbidding something makes it intensely desirable. There are only so many issues where one can take a stand unless one moves to a community with only like-minded people and shuts out the outside world. 

What we would strongly recommend is forging a relationship with your children that has them respecting and caring what you think. That means explaining your views and listening to theirs. It also means taking the time to read and watch the things to which they are being exposed and doing so with a keen eye. You and they need to develop the ability to see the message behind the message and hone an awareness of what is shaping morals and ideas. Dinnertime conversations are priceless.

We are sure you are already aware of this, but cultural messages are constantly being sent by all sorts of literature. You are raising only one area of concern but parent-child interactions, male-female relationships, views of America and attitudes to money are only four areas where values can be easily absorbed through reading.  For example, we rejected Berenstain Bear books for our children because the father was often portrayed as a genial buffoon whose wife and children were clearly smarter and more accomplished than he was. 

You need to be clear on what your family values are. While we appreciated C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and most of our Christian friends loved the books, we personally chose not to share those with our children. Narnia is a Christian parable and as such, no matter how lovely a story, it wasn’t meant for our Jewish family. One of our friends, whose children grew up to be just as committed Jews as our children, made the decision to let her children read the Narnia series. Each parent should take the responsibility to make those decisions herself.

Our homeschooling was very literature based and we have wonderful memories of read-aloud sessions with teenagers perfectly capable of reading to themselves. We hope you create many wonderful memories of your own.

Enjoy these years,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Dating during divorce process

February 7th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 26 comments

I am a 29 year old woman and I am currently going through a divorce. I did not initiate the divorce and I did my best to be a faithful and good wife to my husband despite his unfaithfulness, lack of financial provision and other issues. 

The one thing I want most out of life is to be a wife and mother. My question is: is it ok to date while the divorce is still pending? I was living in the US with my husband but since the divorce I have moved back to my home country (the United Kingdom). 

I am a Christian but would be interested to hear your point of view on this.

Hannah

Dear Hannah,

It sounds like you have been through a number of very difficult and disappointing years. We pray that the future holds much happiness and fulfillment for you as a wife and mother.  If you handle things correctly from here on and God blesses you, there is every chance of the good life awaiting you up ahead.

For people of faith, marriage is entered into by engaging in two separate processes.  One is obtaining a civil marriage, according to the laws of one’s country. The other is spiritual; more of a covenant that includes God in the new relationship.  We usually think of it as the religious ceremony  in contrast to the civil contract.

Now how about the termination of a marriage?  Not surprisingly, two processes are helpful here as well.  One needs a legal divorce that conforms to the civil laws of the land in which you live.  But there also needs to be a severing of the spiritual bond  A marriage contract is between only two parties but a marriage covenant is between husband, wife, and God. We see this when Ezra tells the Jews simply  to separate themselves from the foreign wives they had taken.  (Ezra 10:10-11)  No spiritual ceremony of divorce was needed because no spiritual bond was formed in the first place between the Hebrew men and the pagan women.

When both husband and wife have a relationship with God, the marriage sadly still might need to end.  And when this happens, God weeps.  (Malachi chapter 2) And when this happens, the marriage should best be ended by both a civil, legal divorce which is what you are now going through, as well as a spiritual conclusion to the marriage.

If your former husband will be willing to cooperate (which is not always the case in an acrimonious divorce), the best thing (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)  would be for him to write a short note in front of two members of his faith community saying, “I, ______ do hereby divorce my wife ____________ as of this date at this location___________ in the presence of two witnesses whose names appear below,” and for him to convey that note to you.  Once you receive it, you will write upon it that you hereby retain no further connection to this man in the eyes of God and are entirely free to marry anew.  You sign and date it also and put the document away with your other important papers.

If involving your husband is not possible, we would recommend that you sign a slightly reworded document in the presence of two people who share your faith. Doing this acknowledges that the marriage was not only a state matter, but also a religious one. We would encourage you not to date  until the divorce is final in both these ways.

The spiritual side might require more creativity on your part. Perhaps the assistance of wise friends or a pastor can be enlisted.  We are certain that once both these processes are complete, you will truly feel that you have broken the emotional bonds of your marriage.You will then feel able to wholeheartedly give of yourself to another man.

We hope you have had some counseling to examine what led you to choose your (soon-to-be-ex) spouse and what patterns of your own behavior you should be aware of before remarrying. We sympathize with your strong desire to be a mother and recognize the realities of biology, but we urge you to enter into a new relationship with skills and awareness so that it may be one that flourishes and nurtures a life-long commitment.

Looking forward to hearing good news soon,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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The Lasting Love Set

A combination of practical advice for dating, selecting a spouse and for understanding the deeper messages in Genesis where God reveals His wisdom on men and women.

 

How can I make it to the top?

January 31st, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 12 comments

I would like to know  how I can get God’s help in being successful in reaching top position in the area of finance when the competition is so high and there are people who are smarter than me and I have been encountering so many defeats  and humiliation while I am working towards my goal.

Kurian K.J.

Dear Kurian,

Based on your letter, we are assuming that English isn’t your native tongue, but we hope we understand your question correctly.

Sometimes, when addressing live audiences,  I (Rabbi Daniel Lapin) ask them if they think God wants us to be rich.  Some say ‘yes’ and some answer, ‘no’.  I then explain that God hasn’t shared His desire on this with me. However, I do know that a good and loving God, in the grand scheme of things, set up a system that rewards those of His children who devote their lives to helping His other children. In general, the more people you help and the more unique that help is, the better you will do financially.

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What do you think of bitcoin?

January 23rd, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 25 comments

What is your opinion of bitcoin? It would seem that it does not exist in the true sense and does not serve other human beings. Investments only have value when other people place a value on them.

Jeff N.

Dear Jeff,

We’re getting a strong urge to start this answer by saying that nothing in our Ask the Rabbi column should be taken as investment advice and that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can answer your question.

The point we would like to make is that bitcoin’s value, as you say, is based on people’s willingness to honor it. That is true for many things we call money. For example, United States savings bonds are “backed by the full faith and credit of the US Government.” If the government falls or become dishonorable, the bonds quickly become worthless. The service any form of monetary exchange provides is allowing people to function economically in a more sophisticated manner than basic bartering. But any government behaving immorally by inflating its currency in order to surreptitiously tax its citizens will quickly find its currency valueless.

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What do I tell my teens about masturbation?

January 17th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 33 comments

Question: This is a serious question.  I have teenagers now.  What does the bible have to say about masturbation?  And is there a difference in teaching between boys and girls?  I would really appreciate an honest, biblical answer.  Thank you.

Joanne

Dear Joanne,

Of course this is a serious question but we understand why you felt it necessary to forewarn us.  And a serious, honest, Biblical answer is exactly what we would have done our best to provide, even had you not explicitly requested it.  We also empathize with you and admire how seriously you are accepting the responsibility of raising children.  In today’s cultural climate, it is enormously challenging to raise wholesome teenagers.  However, we feel certain that doing so with Biblical help is far easier than without.  For this reason, our answer involves you sitting down with each of your children in front of a Bible and studying some Scripture together. 

Sex in general can feel awkward to discuss, particularly out of context.  Its intensity is irrational and its power mysterious.  When sexual relationships form, the process involves ambiguity and risk of rejection.  Solo stimulation bypasses all of that for a small, sad, mimicking of sensation.  Yet all attempts to rationalize sex, demystify and reduce it to no more than a mutual spasm in the spinal column, as taught in most sex ed. classes at what we call GICs (public schools=government indoctrination camps)  have failed to improve male-female relations in America.  So, it is with some trepidation that we try to tackle this topic here. 

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Surely you can’t take this verse seriously

January 10th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 12 comments

You teach the importance of taking the laws as a whole.  But verses  like Deuteronomy 22:21pronounce you must stone a woman to death in the door of her father’s house. 

If you cannot pick and choose what to follow, and you cannot say that it isn’t to be taken literally, what must I say about this contradiction?

This is perhaps why people pick and choose…

Meta

Dear Meta,

We have a feeling you are asking a question that many share. We certainly do think the Bible becomes meaningless if we only follow verses with which we agree or understand. You are mistaken, however, in believing that we, or other Bible-believing Jews, follow the Bible’s English translation literally.

In 2007, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was published. While it was a clever marketing idea, the author did things that no observant Jew, from Abraham until today, ever did such as throwing pebbles at an adulterer. He also neglected to do things that are and have always been part of Judaism such as praying while wearing phylacteries every morning.  Unlike his year-long adventure foolishly wearing a white robe and sandals, we follow the vast body of ancient Jewish wisdom that explains the details, unpacks the mysteries, and makes sense of the written one.

While certain minor details vary among serious Jews according to their various traditions, there are many more that are shared. In our age of international communication we can see that Jews in Yemen and Poland, for example, separated for centuries and surrounded by completely different cultures, all followed the same general outline for kosher food. That outline is not detailed in the written Bible but is part of the oral transmission. It’s similar  for all our observances. One group might light oil lamps to welcome in the Sabbath while another might use candles, but both will mark the entrance of the Sabbath with natural flames.

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When is messy too messy?

January 2nd, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 18 comments

Dear Rabbi and Susan Lapin,

I am wondering if ancient Jewish wisdom applies to de-cluttering a house. I’m a mom of three with a fourth on the way, and I have never erred on the side of neatness (to put it lightly.) But I also dream of a mostly orderly house where all the spaces function so that we can have the family life we want.

I’ve concluded that personal character flaws in myself are part of the problem, but the harder I work on it, the more kids I have, and the more I am surrounded by chaos and laundry. I also think the values I learned growing up were depression-era, frugality-focused, never-waste-anything values, whereas our reality is middle-class America where things flow into our house on a daily basis, but not back out.

Plus I have a highly creative, productive little five-year-old artist for whom all her works are precious, and even with judiciously displaying art for a week or so and then either stowing it in her art box or discreetly filing it in the circular file folder, the art piles up. I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I think she has the heart of the problem by the tail, but not everything she recommends seems congruent with a growing family, or for multiple opinions within that family over what items “bring us joy.”

In the meantime, if I let up for three hours, the house starts to fall into chaos. (The other two children are twin girls, nearly two years old.) I can’t help but feel that if we had fewer things, and if everything had a place (preferably a place that could be secured against marauding toddlers) our home would be much more livable.

So to sum up: 1) Do you have a Bible-based philosophy, or advice, for the management of physical items that come into our homes and for finding a balance of livability and order? 2) How do you handle children and their desires to never throw anything away, being respectful of their feelings and also training them to help their family now and manage their own homes later? 3) How about spouses (ah-hem) who maybe still feel anxiety about throwing things away that “we might use someday”? What do we do with the never-waste-anything mentality that can be laudable, but also paralyzing?

Thank you for your time and thoughts!

Heather M. 

Dear Heather,

Your question resonated with me (Susan) partially because of what you see in the accompanying picture. 

I am in the process of culling through games discarding those that get little attention. We have no little ones left at home, but we do still have a house full of toys, games and books thanks to the blessing of grandchildren. Until a few years ago we had a house large enough to store piles of things, so most of the games you see stayed on the shelves and are now in second-generation use. In other words, we feel your pain.

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How can you and Dave Ramsey be friends?

December 27th, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 57 comments

I know we Jews are taught tolerance, etc., but I’m curious about something. As you’ve probably heard, your friend Dave Ramsey signs off his radio show with “…there’s ultimately only one way to financial peace, and that’s to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus.”

If I’m interpreting Dave correctly, he seems to be saying that the right way to live—in fact the only way—is as an Evangelical Christian. I’d be very interested in hearing about how you were able to forge a friendship with him, despite his position.

I know we can like someone without liking everything he does or says, but given your differences in religion and how fundamental faith is to each of you, hearing how you deal with this might help me in my own life.

Thanks very much!

Sincerely,

A. N.

Dear A.N.,

You are asking a very important question whose answer is fundamental to how people of all religions live peacefully together in the United States.  Interestingly enough, it is in today’s non-religious and even aggressively secular environment of the universities and schools of academia that free speech and ideological latitude are sternly repressed.  By contrast, religiously committed Jews and Christians find themselves increasingly allied in facing common concerns.  This peaceful co-existence among people of different beliefs has been fundamental to America’s success and is today increasingly under assault by hard left groups as well as by many Moslems and others under the camouflage of “political correctness” . 

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Learning from all Cultures

December 20th, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 15 comments

As a Bible believer, is it best for us to follow only Biblical guidelines rather than learning the positive values from other cultures, such as Japanese or Chinese cultural values? I thought this would enrich our lives as well as our Biblical learning, but may not be what the Bible guidelines suggest us to do.

Thank you as always, Rabbi Lapin.

Dear Filemon,

You do ask interesting questions. This question is particularly apt because we are answering your question today, which is the eighth and final day of Chanukah. Despite popular attempts to make the historical battle of Chanukah sound politically correct by portraying it just as a long-ago fight for religious freedom, the holiday actually represents, for all time, the internal battle between those faithful to their faith and those who want to resculpt their faith to fit into the popular culture.

The dominant culture of that time was (Syrian-Greek) Hellenism and many Jews became Hellenists.  As a matter of fact, the ancient historian Josephus records how the most popular cosmetic surgery back then, twenty-one hundred years ago, was Hellenized Jews undergoing foreskin restoration procedures. 

However, the Syrian-Greeks did not, like other cultures, want to exterminate Jews.  They didn’t even demand an abandonment of Judaism. They demanded that Judaism become subservient. If a conflict existed between their values and Judaism, Torah, the constitution of Judaism, took second place. (I’m sure you see the parallels to today.)  For instance, as we hinted at earlier, Hellenists saw the body as perfect and the gymnasium as a temple, thus they forbade circumcision.  Loyal and faithful Hebrews continued to maintain that ritual.  The Maccabees , those who fought the battle, insisted that in every way, Torah values are always paramount. 

However, we don’t reject every idea of Hellenism outright. In Genesis 9:27, God blesses the father of the Greek nation with a gift for beauty. However, and this is vital, He praises it when it “dwells in the tents of Shem.”  In other words, ancient Jewish wisdom recognizes that there are legitimate values to be found in the nations, meaning nations other than those who follow the Torah. The primary condition for accessing that wisdom is that it must always be viewed through the prism of Torah; the Torah mustn’t be judged through its prism.

Today, for instance, in several cultures gender is viewed as fluid and subject to an individual’s choice.  Measured against Scripture’s, “Male and female He created them,” we have to reject the popular view as false.  It’s as if we have a foolproof nonsense detector which we can use to measure the value and authenticity of all ideas.

Not only is there no need to reject learning from many cultures; it would be foolish to do so. However, to explore the values of other cultures one has to feel secure in judging all aspects of those cultures against the Truth and rejecting any ideas that conflict with God’s vision, no matter how tempting, rational or popular they may sound.

Enjoy your studies,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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