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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin


Naomi Ragen


Jan Enkin

 
Jane Enkin : Both Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Naomi Ragen Deliver Fascinating Talks at Rady JCC's Tarbut Festival 2014

by Jane Enkin, November 2014

 

 

Both of the featured authors at Rady JCC's Tarbut Festival gave fascinating, entertaining talks on traditional Jews in our time, with a focus on ethics in challenging situations.

 

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

 

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of many best-selling books on aspects of Jewish tradition, is a compelling, delightful speaker. He spoke to a sold out house with a good range of ages. His talk was packed with anecdotes. His ease with an audience is a delight – he treated us like a class of students, asking listeners to tell their own versions of well-known stories and to call out answers and opinions.

 

Rabbi Telushkin began with a call to include ethics in our definition of what makes someone a religious Jew. Too often, he said, when two Jews are talking about a third, (a not uncommon occurrence, he tossed off) they use the term “religious” only to mean ritually observant. Too often ethics is seen as “extracurricular activity.”

 

He detoured into a beautiful exposition of the importance of ritual in his own Judaism, showing how rituals provide poetry, continuity, and teachings. However he lamented that over the last century or so ethics has become more and more separate from ritual, more in the secular realm.

 

Here Rabbi Telushkin asked audience members to retell the famous Talmud story of the man who asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Audience members joined in enthusiastically, and then the Rabbi pointed out some significant aspects of the original story. The Golden Rule was already well known by the time Hillel was asked to explain the Torah, and phrasing it in the negative, “Do not do unto others that which you hate done unto yourself,” made it fresh. Hillel did not focus on feelings -- “Love your neighbour,” is so challenging; “Think before you act,” is more accessible. Still, this approach to action can train us in empathy and mindfulness. Hillel's teaching continues, “– that is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary, go and study it.” Ethics is central to Judaism, says Rabbi Telushkin, and study and ritual support it.

 

For the rest of his talk, Rabbi Telushkin focused on the ethical lessons that can be learned from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe as a model. He outlined several teachings, many based on his own observations and the interviews he carried out writing his book “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson.”

 

From the Chabad movement's approach to outreach, shaped by their leader, comes the larger teaching that any act a human being carries out matters. Some observant Jews questioned outreach – why does it matter if one otherwise non-observant person lights Shabbat candles or waves the lulav? The answer is this trust in the value of each person and each positive action in their lives.

 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, said Telushkin, placed great emphasis on love. While his emphasis on love did not prevent him from engaging in conflict, he found it important to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Self love, too, was valued. In a sweet story, a Rabbi in Maryland called to get advice from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The response, transmitted by an assistant, came, “Tell him to consult Rabbi Weinrib.” “But I am Rabbi Weinrib,” the man answered. After a moment, the assistant passed on the important message, “Consult yourself.” Turn to yourself with optimism and with gentleness.

 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe valued the power of words. For example, Rabbi Telushkin has replaced the word “deadline” with “due date,” with its affirming connotation of birth.

 

Rabbi Telushkin asked us to complete the catchphrase “Anything worth doing, is worth doing...” For the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the final word was “...now.” During the time of apartheid in South Africa, the Lubavitcher asked whether Jewish prisoners were allowed to light the menorah -- in the darkness of prison it was especially important to bring light. He was promised that Jewish officials would work to get permission for the following year – not good enough for the Lubavitcher. So the promise was changed – a call would be made the next day. Not good enough – the call had to be “now.” “But,” said the official, “It's 3 am in South Africa!” “All the better,” came the reply, “They'll know this is something important.” The policy was changed immediately, in time for Chanukah of that year.

 

With many more stories, from his own family and from the experiences of the people he interviewed, Rabbi Telushkin showed the ways he draws wisdom accessible to everyone from the deep well of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's lived example.

 

Naomi Ragen

 

Naomi Ragen is an American-born novelist who lives in Israel. She writes best-selling fiction rooted in her own Modern-Orthodox community and also the Ultra-Orthodox world. In her talk, she reviewed her career and talked about events in the news and among her friends that became the seeds for her fiction. “I don't choose my topics, my topics choose me,” she said. She described a news story about a woman, a rabbi's wife, who took her young child and jumped off a building. While some dismissed her as “crazy,” Ragen imagined with empathy the woman's life with an abusive husband, unable to see a way out.

 

Along with an unflinching look at the impact restrictions and social expectations have on women, she describes the strengths of Orthodox communities, their values and warmth. She strives for a complex look at women's lives. Her most recent novel, “The Sisters Weiss,” explores directly the contrast between women in observant and non-observant families. One sister chooses to remain Orthodox, the other leaves; Ragen said she tried to show that neither choice was objectively better.

 

After some disturbing books, Ragen was ready for comedy, and she asked readers to send in true stories to contribute to her satirical novel “The Saturday Wife.” “I wrote a book that made me laugh.”

 

It was wonderful to hear about Ragen's activism. She took part in the successful effort to end gender segregation on Israel's transit system. In a longer struggle, she has worked to deal with domestic abuse. The first step was to overcome denial, getting past the claim that there is no abuse in Jewish communities. Now there are more shelters and more support for abused women, but much remains to be done.

 

I asked whether there was any progress on “agunot” -- abandoned women. In Jewish law, a woman is only divorced if her husband grants her a bill of di

 
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