About Rabbi Elie Mischel

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Exodus and Light from Narrow Windows: In Commemoration of the 12th Yahrzeit of Leon Uris (21 Sivan)


Parshat Behaalotecha, 5775

The Book that Changed the World

In 1958, Leon Uris published a book that transformed the Jewish world and changed the course of Jewish history.  Exodus!  Exodus is an odd book – a blend of Jewish history, emotional Zionism and soap opera fiction.  But this book, this 600 page novel, spoke to the hearts of millions of Jews and non-Jews around the world; it eventually equaled the sales of Gone With the Wind, and was translated into 50 languages.

For the handful of secret underground Zionists in Soviet Russia – the founding members of the Refusenik movement – Exodus was pure sustenance.  People who could barely speak English spent countless hours, slowly translating the book into Russian, and then secretly distributed copies to their friends and relatives.  The book spread like wildfire – copies proliferated everywhere, even among the Jewish political prisoners in the Soviet prison camps.  Thousands of Russian Jews wept over Exodus, late at night, under the cover of darkness.  And for so many of these Jews, Exodus was their gateway not only to Zionism, but to Judaism as well.

In America, Exodus was a phenomenon. In the late 50s and early 60s, it was nearly as common to find a copy of Exodus in American-Jewish households as it was to find the Bible – and there were plenty of Jewish homes that only had Exodus.  For many American Jews, Exodus was the source of their Jewish pride, at a time when Jews were still very uncertain of their place in American life.

A few years ago, I saw a one man off-Broadway show called Circumcise Me, by Yisrael Campbell.  Campbell, as you might have guessed, is a convert.  And how did his journey to […]

By |June 7, 2015|

Living on Borrowed Time & the Hell of Social Obligation

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of America’s greatest founders and presidents, were, at different points in their lives, bitter rivals and the closest of friends.  Though they differed radically in personality and temperament, they were drawn together by a shared idealism, common interests, and perhaps most of all, extremely lengthy retirements.  Adams completed his only term as President in 1800, while Jefferson capped his presidency and active political life in 1809.  Fortunately – both for their own sake and for the sake of posterity – the two men enjoyed a long retirement and correspondence that lasted until July 4th, 1826, when both men passed away on the same day.
How did these extraordinary men spend their golden years of retirement?  In a fascinating letter to Adams, Jefferson laments that much of his day is occupied with responding to mail:  “From sunrise to one or two aclock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table. And all this to answer letters into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters; and often for persons whose names I have never before heard. Yet, writing civilly, it is hard to refuse them civil answers. This is the burden of my life, a very grievous one indeed, and one which I must get rid of.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, January 11, 1817)

Jefferson’s frustration is understandable; a thoughtful man advanced in years, he was well aware that his time on this earth was limited.  Why, then, did he take the time to answer letters that did not interest him, from people he did not know?  Jefferson’s explanation – “it is hard to refuse them civil answers” – boils down to two […]

By |April 23, 2015|

A Community of Believers – Perversion or Sanctification?

William James, in his classic work on the psychology of religion, drills down to the fundamental aspects of authentic religious experience.  For James, much of what we normally label as “religion” does not qualify as authentic religious experience:

“In critically judging the value of religious phenomena, it is very important to insist on the distinction between religion as an individual personal function, and religion as an institutional, corporate or tribal product… The word ‘religion,’ as ordinarily used, is equivocal.  A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathizers.  When these groups get strong enough to organize themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions with corporate ambitions of their own.  The spirit of politics and the lust of dogmatic rule are then apt to enter and contaminate the originally innocent thing; so that when we hear the word ‘religion’ nowadays, we think inevitably of some ‘church’ or other… [which] suggests so much hypocrisy and tyranny and meanness and tenacity of superstition.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature)

The history of communal religion, in James’ perspective, is essentially the same in all cases. What begins as an authentic religious encounter in the heart of the individual religious genius becomes ossified as inflexible dogma in the minds of his followers, who themselves experience religion only “second hand.”  Once a community forms, the politics and corruption that are endemic in institutions pervert the original religious experience even further.

Given this dark history of institutional religion, James defines true religion as that “which lives itself out within the private breast.” “Religion,” properly defined, refers only to the lonely experience of the individual believer. “Naked comes it into the world […]

By |April 15, 2015|

A Taste of the Next World – But No More

As the early Christians worked zealously and methodically to convert the peoples of the Roman Empire to their faith, they were animated by a powerful belief in the immortality of the soul.  Christian missionaries promised eternal happiness and everlasting life – on the condition of adopting the faith in their savior.  In our times, the belief in the existence of heaven and the eternal life of the soul is taken as a given by most religious believers.  But for pagans living through the long and slow decline of Rome, the prospect of immortality was both exhilarating and deeply comforting, and it prompted multitudes of peoples to convert to Christianity.

By contrast, the belief in heaven, or Olam Haba, plays a muted role in Jewish belief: “We might naturally expect that a principle so essential to religion would have been revealed in the clearest terms to the chosen people of Palestine… It is incumbent upon us to adore the mysterious dispensations of Providence, when we discover that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is omitted in the law of Moses; it is darkly insinuated by the prophets; and during the long period which elapsed between the Egyptian and the Babylonian servitudes, the hopes as well as fears of the Jews appear to have been confined within the narrow compass of the present life.”  (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XV)  C.S. Lewis, another Christian writer, makes a similar point: “[God] revealed Himself [to the Jews] centuries before there was a whisper of anything better (or worse) beyond the grave than shadowy and featureless Sheol.” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy)

Gibbon, in spite of his virulent anti-Semitism, is correct in his assessment; […]

By |March 12, 2015|

Personal Thoughts on the AIPAC Policy Conference

Participating in the annual AIPAC policy conference is always a powerful experience.  But the intensity of this year’s conference was especially palpable, taking place only a day before Netanyahu’s historic speech to Congress.  The crowds were both electric and unified; I felt connected to my fellow Jews at the conference – and to Am Yisrael as a whole – in a way that I rarely have the opportunity to feel.

On Monday morning, I waited on a security line, together with thousands of other Jews, in advance of the Prime Minister’s speech.  At one point, hundreds of us stood crushed together in a very tight space; it was like being on the subway during a particularly busy rush hour.  Uncomfortable as it was, I felt a profound sense of connection – as if I was immersing myself in a Mikvah of Jews!  Standing there, I thought of a teaching from Rav Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditchov (1763 – 1831), the founder of the Zidichov Chassidic dynasty.  The Ziditchover taught: “Mikvah Yisrael Hashem” (Jeremiah 17:13) means, simply, “The hope of Israel is God.”  But the Ziditchover translated this verse differently; “Mikvah Yisrael Hashem” can be read as “The people of Israel are God’s Mikvah (ritual bath)”!  And so every Friday afternoon, in preparation for Shabbos, the Ziditchover would gather a group of Jews and ask them to stand in a circle, while he would lie down on the ground in the middle of the circle – literally surrounded on all sides by the people of Israel.  And he would say: “I am immersing myself in the Mikvah of God!!”

Another unforgettable moment took place during National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s speech on Monday evening.  Only a few days before the […]

By |March 6, 2015|

Selma, Mordechai and Historical Truth

Should movies about history actually be about, you know, history? In other words, is it important for movies purporting to describe historical events to describe those events accurately?  Recent movies, such as Selma – which highlights Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement – have rekindled the debate.

Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, chose to portray President Lyndon B. Johnson as a condescending enemy of civil rights, who scolds Martin Luther King and orders J. Edgar Hoover to disparage and discredit the iconic civil rights leader.  The problem, however, is that none of this is true; LBJ was very proud of his administrations civil rights achievements, and viewed King as a helpful partner in his efforts.  Why, then, does DuVernay depict LBJ as a villain? She explained: “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.  Black people should tell their own stories from their own perspectives.”  In other words, as Edward Rothstein writes, “[DuVernay] wanted a history in which African-Americans determined their own fates instead of seeming like passive recipients of Johnson’s good will.” (Edward Rothstein, Who’s History is it, Anyway?, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2015)  The actual historical facts did not convey the message that DuVernay hoped to express in her film, so she simply altered the facts.  For DuVernay, and those in her camp, historical truth is a secondary value that may be trumped by other, more essential values.

Within the traditional Jewish community, the value placed upon historical truth has remained a simmering debate for decades.  “Rebbe Biographies,” which are actually hagiographies that significantly alter or ignore factual details of their subjects’ lives, have proliferated.  Rabbi Shimon Schwab justified this practice, with an argument similar to DuVernay’s: “What ethical purpose […]

By |February 26, 2015|

Ethical Muscle: Adulterers, Card Sharks and Moral Philosophy

Bertrand Russell, one of the brilliant minds of the 20th century, was notorious for his adulterous affairs.  While serving as a Professor of Ethics at Harvard, one of Russell’s affairs – with a student, no less – became public knowledge.  Though affairs of this nature are commonplace today, it caused quite a stir in early 20th century Harvard, eventually leading the university’s Board of Governors to censure Russell for his behavior.  Russell, however, maintained that his private affairs had nothing to do with his professorial duties. “But you are a Professor of Ethics!” one of the Board members protested.  To which Russell replied, “I was a Professor of Geometry at Cambridge, but the Board of Governors never asked me why I was not a triangle.”

The knowledge of ethical philosophy – of which Russell was a world-renowned expert – will apparently, on its own, have little impact upon a person’s behavior.  Even if Russell had tried to live in accordance with his ethical philosophy, there is little guarantee that he would find success.  As C.S. Lewis so aptly explains, “No justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that a ‘gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.” (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 24)

The gulf between ethical knowledge and ethical behavior – or in other words, between mind and body – is a significant problem in the field of ethics, and one that Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits grappled with over the […]

By |February 19, 2015|

Doubting our Way to a Higher Faith

David Hume and Samuel Johnson were two of the greatest exemplars of 18th Century Enlightenment.  Hume, the preeminent thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, altered the course of Western thought through his penetrating philosophical writings.  And Johnson, the subject of James Boswell’s legendary Life of Samuel Johnson, is often described as the “most distinguished man of letters in English history.”  Each man possessed a powerful and skeptical mind, regularly challenging the accepted wisdoms of their time.  And yet Johnson, far from considering Hume to be a kindred spirit, held a special loathing for the legendary philosopher:
“Hume, and other skeptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expense. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to error. Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.  If I could have allowed myself to gratify my vanity at the expense of truth, what fame might I have acquired. Everything which Hume has advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote.” (James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson)

Hume was a skeptic at heart; he considered no article of faith immune from his scrutiny.  He regularly leveled broadsides at religion, and reveled in the controversy – and notoriety – that followed.  Interestingly, Johnson struggled with many of the same religious doubts that preoccupied Hume.  But it was precisely the similarity of their religious struggles – and their radically different orientations towards that struggle – that created such enmity between these two men.  While Hume flaunted his disbelief, Johnson was tormented by doubt throughout his entire life.  “O! my friend, the approach of death […]

By |February 9, 2015|

Organized Religion: Bland Imitation, or a Recipe for Wonder?

William James, the great 20th century philosopher, is most famous for his classic analysis of the psychology of religion – The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.  As the title suggests, James’ interests lie specifically in “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude… standing in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”  For James, the essential part of religious life is the personal and experiential.  And so James is particularly uninterested in the organized religions, theologies and philosophies that may eventually grow out of such individual religious experiences; these “growths,” James makes clear, are highly secondary:

“Personal religion will prove itself more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism.  Churches, when once established, live at secondhand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owe their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine.”  From a psychological perspective, James considers the study of organized religion to be a waste of time: “I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian or Mohammedan.  His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

Martin Buber, following in James’ footsteps, distinguishes between ‘religion’ and ‘religiosity.’  For Buber, religiosity derives from “man’s sense of wonder and adoration,” while religion is merely “the sum total of the customs and teachings articulated and formulated by the religiosity of a certain epoch in a people’s life.” (Martin Buber, “Jewish Religiosity,” in On Judaism, 80)  For Buber, traditional religion is “rigidly determined,” consisting of “prescriptions and dogmas” that […]

By |February 2, 2015|

A Dent is a Dent

In Mark Helprin’s modern classic, A Soldier of the Great War, Alessandro and Rafi are best friends who take divergent paths in life.  Rafi joins a law firm, while Alessandro pursues the life of an artistic dreamer.  One conversation between the two friends is particularly telling:

“Alessandro, why ARE you going to Germany?” “To see Raphael’s painting of Bindo Altoviti.” “All the way to Germany just to see a painting?” Rafi asked.  “All the way to Antwerp?” Alessandro shot back, “to argue about a dent in a ship?” “We get paid for it.”  “That may be so,” Alessandro said, “but remember one thing.” “What?” “A dent is a dent.” (Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War, 223-4)

In moments of clarity, most of us would surely agree that God and religion are of eternal significance, and that our careers and businesses are merely a means to a greater end.  And yet, on a day to day basis, the choices we make and the ways we spend our precious time rarely correspond with our hierarchy of values.  We might believe that serving God is our raison d’etre, but if we find ourselves flying to a far off destination, we are more likely to be on a business trip than on a search for self-discovery and religious truth.  In allocating our limited time, only rarely does the eternal take precedence over the ephemeral.

Our confusion of priorities, argues C.S Lewis, is due to our propensity to confuse the truth of religion with the goodness of religion.  Too often, we perceive religion simply as being ‘good’ for us, and so it is possible to believe that “a certain amount of religion is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far.”  If […]

By |January 26, 2015|