About Rabbi Elie Mischel

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So far Rabbi Elie Mischel has created 64 entries.

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|

A Christian Writer’s Defense of Orthodox Halacha

At the height of World War II, the great Christian author, C.S. Lewis, published The Abolition of Man – a short but powerful argument for the continued relevance of traditional values in contemporary society.  In his spirited defense of traditional morality and natural law – which he refers to as the “Tao,” for convenience – Lewis rejects the moral relativism of modern thinkers who seek to undermine the legitimacy of traditional values. Over time, this concise book – more accurately described as a long essay – has achieved renown as one of the greatest works of non-fiction written in the 20th century.

Reading Lewis’ penetrating words from a traditional Jewish perspective, it struck me that his arguments in defense of tradition could also be read as a powerful defense of traditional Jewish law (Halacha).  Simply replacing the word “Tao” with “Halacha” yields a powerful defense of Orthodox Judaism against the arguments of modern reformers, who argue that traditional Halacha must be changed in order to remain “relevant” to the modern Jew.

The following are direct quotations from C.S. Lewis, with only one change: I have replaced the word “Tao” with “Halacha”:
 “A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were, from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy… A great poet, who has loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue, may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within…  It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: […]

By |January 8, 2015|

Rationalism: A Hard, Tasteless Piece of Meat

Tsemakh Atlas, the tortured protagonist of Chaim Grade’s classic novel, The Yeshiva, was besieged by religious doubt.  “He felt someone unknown pounding at his mind, as though beating fists on closed gates… ‘Do you even really believe in a Creator who gave the Torah?’ Trying desperately free himself of these doubts, Tsemakh began to burrow into medieval philosophical texts.  But the old Jewish philosophers, whose style and ideas were Aristotelian, asserted that it would be incomprehensible to conceive of the existence of the world without a Creator – and that sort of philosophy exhausted Tsemakh; it bored him and made his head ache with despair at finding nothing there to help him.  It also left him with a feeling of nausea, as if he were chewing a hard, tasteless piece of meat that did not stay his hunger but lodged in his cavities and between his teeth.”

We live in a world in which rationality and reason rule the roost.  Rationalists insist that our beliefs be based upon the pillars of knowledge and reason – upon hard facts, if we are fortunate to have them, and upon clear minded, logical thinking.  Clear thinking and “modern” people are happy to argue for or against the existence of God, but those “vague” emotions, those ineffable impressions and experiences of God – these feelings are deemed irrelevant, even unworthy of acknowledgement in the public square.  And so blockbuster movies that are based upon Biblical stories – like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings – bend over backwards to remove any experiences of the Divine from the story.  In today’s movies, God does not (or cannot?) speak to Noah directly, and Moshe is portrayed as a schizophrenic who hears […]

By |December 31, 2014|

Newspapers: Worth the Time?

The sweet pleasure of reading a printed newspaper, and the attendant joys of retrieving it from the bushes in front of the house, will no doubt be lost to future generations.  But the fascination with news, in whatever form it is imbibed, will no doubt continue.  Every day, millions of people tune into to news radio, watch it on television, and read (or, more likely, skim) articles upon articles of news online.

But is there any value in this mass obsession?  Henry David Thoreau, critical as usual, thought not: “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.  If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked… we need never read of another.  One is enough.  If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications?” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond)  Though the names and characters change, the underlying stories to be found in newspapers remain the same.  The masses turn to newspapers for novelty and excitement, but in reality, the “newness” of newspapers is superficial; there is nothing new under the sun.

C.S. Lewis agreed, and derided those educators who encourage in adolescents the bad habit of reading newspapers.  “I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers.  Nearly all that a boy reads in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost importance.  Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired […]

By |December 22, 2014|

Spires and Towers

In his spiritual memoir, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his first trip to Oxford University as a young man in 1916.  A scholarly boy, Lewis travelled to this fabled center of learning, known as the “city of dreaming spires,” with tremendous anticipation.  But upon leaving the train station, Lewis became more and more bewildered; could this succession of “mean shops” and unimpressive streets really be Oxford?  Lewis walked through the unimpressive town until he reached open country; only then did he turn around and look.  “There, behind me… never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers.  I had come out of the [train] station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley.  I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.”  The glories of Oxford, its spires and towers, were right behind Lewis, after all.  All he had to do was turn around.

The spiritual seekers of our community – and there are more than we realize! – are frustrated; they are yearning for “spires and towers,” but finding none.  Though we constantly fill our days with the rituals and obligations of Judaism – religious, communal and social – we are left with a gnawing feeling that somehow, we are missing the main course.  For the most part, Judaism is perceived and experienced as a set of ritual and ethical practices – practices that may make us better people, but which have little relevance to our deep, inner yearning for a relationship with the eternal.  We know that there must be something deeper, something far more extraordinary in Judaism – if only […]

By |December 16, 2014|