Dear Rabbi Zahavy
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Dear Rabbi Zahavy

Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and religious studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. Visit www.tzvee.com for links. He also worked for 20 years for major banks and hedge funds as an information technology expert. See www.zahavy.com for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I sit next to a person in synagogue who frequently engages me in conversation and tells me how evil Islam is. He seems preoccupied with this subject. He says Islam is a terrorist religion and he fears that all Muslims are potential terrorists. He says that sure, some members of that religion pretend to be friendly. But he claims if you turn your back on a Muslim, they will slit your throat.

I know we need to be vigilant to protect ourselves against our enemies. But I feel this person has gone off the deep end and makes me more uncomfortable each time he goes on another tirade. What should I do about this?

Tired of Terror Tirades in Teaneck

Dear Tired,

My first impulse is to smile and tell you to change your seat in synagogue. But I know that where we sit often is not easily shifted. If you move to another place, you will perhaps cause a cascading domino effect of seating shifts. And who wants to upset the equilibrium of worship?

If you decide to stay put, you might try to explain to the tirade-guy that you don’t want to be distracted by such matters during synagogue services. Knowing some blusterers of my own, that probably will not work. I guess you want to know what to say to the guy.

And I get it that you have a serious inquiry here. You are annoyed, perhaps troubled by this person’s insistent views and you want to know how to respond in substance to a person who is your neighbor, possibly your friend, someone with whom you share religious practices.

Well, I’ve taught college courses on religion and terrorism and have lectured on numerous occasions on the topic. Let me tell you in brief how I recently have approached in my presentations the question, “Does religion cause terrorism?” Perhaps that will give you some information that you can use to reply to your neighbor.

There is quite a rich literature of books and articles on the subject now. There are a few experts who argue that religion directly causes terrorism. And there are the majority of authorities who insist that religion is involved but cannot be blamed as a causative factor of terrorist violence. You can invoke that as an academic fact.

It is urgent that we recall that there are instances of violent terrorism associated with every religion in the world. Your friend, you say, has one specific religion in mind. Let him know that in fact, there have been more attacks — far more — by Christian terrorist groups on American soil in the last 15 years than by Muslim ones. You can mention that real news to him.

You might remind your buddy that we can point to Jewish, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Sunni and Shiite, Hindu and Sikh actors who commit acts of terrorism in the name of their religions. A sad but true fact.

Social scientists who study the global facts of terrorism have concluded that terrorists are motivated not by religion but by other purposes.

They say that what violent terrorists have in common is the sense that their territory or culture has been invaded by an alien power that cannot easily be overthrown. Suicide bombers are not religious loners. Instead, they usually are part of large militant organizations with well-honed strategies aimed at ousting foreign control from what they consider their own territory.

No doubt, religion often is the terrorists’ justification for violence. No doubt, terrorists use religious beliefs as their ideologies to justify their actions.

However, the leading experts conclude that religion is not the initial problem, but certainly it is problematic that religion is the medium through which the underlying causative issues are expressed.

My advice is that you read up and become well-versed in this complex subject for your own sake. And if you feel that you must, when appropriate, try politely to convey some of the complexities to the guy who sits next to you in shul.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I am a spiritual Jewish person and I practice meditation. I am perpetually disappointed by the inability of my religion to provide me with methods for me to express my meditative side. I am constantly looking for new guidance in this area. Do you have any suggestions?

Stifled Spirit in Synagogue

Dear Stifled,

Spirituality in our life is often thought of as a goal. I see it as a constant eternal quest. We each are finite creatures in a world beset by suffering and confusion. All of us spend our lifetimes in one way or another seeking solace and clarity.

In ancient Israel, many who sought this target called it a quest for wisdom, or hokhmah. Their hope was that they could find a kind of enlightenment, and a release from suffering. And beyond that, their objective was to achieve serenity and joy in life.

The priests and scribes of ancient Israel, and later the rabbis believed with complete faith that they had the best possible paths to these objectives. You could reach the promised happiness and wisdom via formal prayers, rituals, festivals, and sacred books. The pious Jew needed nothing more than Torah and mitzvot.

Yet there always were those who sought enlightenment outside of the rigorous framework of official religion. It’s an age-old universal tension.

In fact, as I read the biblical narrative of one of the earliest events it records, it appears that the sons of Adam and Eve acted out this tension, of meditation vs. formal worship, with tragic results. How so?

The Genesis narrative tells us that Cain was a farmer. Abel was a shepherd. The two of them offered sacrifices to God. God accepted only Abel’s.

A farmer is tied to his land. He’s engaged in constant work to produce his crops. A shepherd roams freely, grazing his flock where he finds pastures.

The shepherd has time to contemplate, to meditate, to breathe. And by the way, the name Abel is Hevel in Hebrew. The word means breath. Breathing is a common entryway to meditation. The farmer, on the other hand, is anchored to his solid earth, and doesn’t roam freely. And when he worships he follows a proscribed set of rules and traditions tied to the land.

God preferred the offering of Hevel. Cain could not abide that outcome. That competition and tension led to the first murder — a truly awful human tragedy.

Wouldn’t it have been better for Cain and Abel to get along? Of course. But that struggle between fixed institutional religion and unmoored spiritual seeking continues throughout our worldly existence on this planet. And sorry, but we cannot change basic human nature.

My advice is that you seek out all the elements of meditation within our tradition; there are many hiding in plain sight.

You can find a great meditation of compassion in our grace after eating — birkat hamazon. Take another look at the text and make it work for your purposes. Perhaps you can engage in mindful compassion for all sentient beings each time you say the grace reflections such as these:

May you continue to provide us with grace, kindness, compassion; relief, rescue, success; blessing, salvation, consolation; livelihood, sustenance, life and peace, and all goodness. May we never go in want of goodness.

May the Compassionate One reign over us forever and ever.

May the Compassionate One be extolled in heaven and on earth…

May the Compassionate One send abundant blessing to this house and to the table at which we have eaten.

You also can practice meditative mindfulness throughout your every day by reciting the berakhot, the blessings over foods and the natural world events of your life. Each blessing is a pause and a moment of mindful focus on your foods, your ritual actions, the world around you. You can savor a mindful life; through the traditional 100 daily berakhot you can be mindful of every good that comes your way.

Consider “Blessed art though Lord our God King of the universe who brought forth bread from the earth.” What could be more mindful than saying that blessing before biting into your bread?

Seeking a full enlightenment, a release from human suffering via Torah and mitzvot is not so easy to work out. I’m still working at understanding each prayer, each story, poem, narrative, and sacred book of our Jewish tradition in search of that goal.

And yes, I discover more means of finding enlightenment through meditation in our traditions nearly every week.

Let us pray we all can make progress in every way we know how. For truly there is too much suffering in our world, too little clarity, not enough joy.

My advice to you is to keep on trying from morning to night with every breath that you take to find all that you seek in every way that you can.

Tzvee Zahavy has has been a professor of world religions, Talmud, Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, Near Eastern and Jewish studies at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is a prolific author who has published many books and articles about Judaism and Jewish law. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.


The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic reasoning and wisdom. The author aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find the column here, usually on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email questions to zahavy@gmail.com

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