A Rabbi Who Believes in God

Introduction to a Rabbi Who Believes in God


Howard Adelman

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yael Splansky spoke at Holy Blossom Temple. I was there. Because of the courtesy of the internet, you too can be partially there. You can hear her words, but you cannot and will not be able to experience the spirituality of the congregation as they rose to their feet at the end to applaud. I have never before heard applause during a religious service in a synagogue – or in any other sacred temple for that matter. But you can at least hear her.


Rabbis, like ministers and priests, like Imams and Sikh or Hindu clergy, offer sermons on the holy days of their faith. I have attended many, and from many religions. In my second year of university, every Sunday I went to a different church service of the many different branches and expressions of Christianity in order to try to understand various versions of that faith. In all my time in sacred services, I have never heard a sermon like the one I heard on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5776 at Holy Blossom Temple as delivered by Rabbi Splansky.

I was going to write about it the next day. But I did not. Not because I did not have time. Not because I did not know what to say. I often start writing without being very clear what I would be writing about. I do not know why. It was not because what Yael said was so upsetting. Though emotional, her talk was not disturbing at all in the ordinary sense. She did not rattle the congregation like the stereotype of a Torah or Old Testament prophet. But the address was certainly moving.

Yael Splansky did not deliver a fiery or even a terribly memorable oration (terrible in both opposite meanings of the word), where you walked away with a sentence that you could not get out of your head. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” For her talk was not really an oration. It was not even a lesson. It was just a talk. And it was not a talk based on a passage from the Torah or one theme discussed in the Torah. She weaved together many themes, contrary to the advice Rabbi Gunther Plaut once gave me as a critique of my lectures; he said they were too crowded with ideas. Splansky’s talk was crowded with a myriad of experiences and responses. For she gave a talk based, not on a biblical text, but on the text of her own life, particularly over the last year as she went through treatment for her cancer.

One quip I heard about the overwhelming positive response to her talk was: “Isn’t it strange and unusual that the only time Jewish congregants love their rabbi is when they are sick.” But the solidarity of the congregation on that day, the applause at the end, was not for her courage and strength in facing cancer, not for her suffering and pain that she endured, but for the spiritual, for the religious message she offered. It was not a message about the interpretation of text or about the source and meaning of a Talmudic law. It was not even about being a moral person in a specific way. It certainly was not about theology. But it was about faith.

After the service, I offered my own quip as I struggled with the overwhelming effect of her talk. [My wife knew it was overwhelming because, in my own trivial bow to its power, and the specific message that we have a duty to care for our bodies so that we can serve others, I started on a strict diet right after I came home.] I told my wife that was the first time I had heard a talk by a religious leader, by a rabbi, where I was absolutely convinced that the individual on the bima believed in God.

I think I did not write about my reaction right away because I could not yet sort out my thoughts. Further, it could have been a One Trick Pony. So I waited. On erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Splansky again delivered a talk. This time, her text was not on herself as Torah, nor on a specific passage of Torah – she cited many prayers based on various passages and many other thinkers. It was a talk on religion in general. No, not exactly. More on being religious in general. Once again it was a five star sermon, though not with the power to arouse a congregation to its feet and applaud. On Yom Kippur, that would have not just been surprising. It would have been shocking.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Splanky set aside the Yiddish proverb, “If God lived on this earth, we would shatter His windows,” and instead began with another:  “If things are not as you wish, wish them as they are.” Was she being a fatalist? Stoics were fatalists. Pythagoras had written: “Whatever sorrow the fate of the Gods may here send us, bear, whatever may strike you with patience unmurmuring. To relive it, so far as you can, is permitted, but reflect that not much misfortune has fate given to the good.”

This was not Splansky’s perspective. She is not a fatalist. For one, she did not depict her experience over the last year as simply accepting what happened with “patience unmurmuring.”  Instead, after she had experienced the exhilaration of carrying through the transition of the congregation to a new stage the previous year, an effort she had previously considered the hardest thing she had ever done, after she gave last year’s address in the afterglow of that experience, she learned she had cancer. Fighting that cancer became the hardest thing she had ever done. Instead of remaining unmurmuring about that experience, in spite of her being a very private person, she shared that experience with us.

It could have been a maudlin performance, full of sentiment, even if genuine. But it was not. Not at all! Further, she was not a fatalist because her message was not that we have to surrender quietly to the cards delivered to us. The issue was how you play with the cards God gives you. Not only was her talk not “unmurmuring,” but she never claimed that her condition even ranked high in the world of comparative suffering. She knew too many of her congregants whose life of hard knocks was far more arduous than her own. They had suffered much more and for a much longer time.

Nor had she suffered in patience. Shocked but not surprised at her diagnosis, she greeted the verdict, not as fated, but as both lucky for what she might and could learn from it, and unlucky for no one wants their body ravaged in that way. As a rabbi who had ministered to the unwell, she was prepared. But she was also unprepared for what she faced and had to go through. She felt both unlucky to have been stricken and lucky to have the prayers of her congregants to uplift her. She sustained her hope that all would go well, but felt extremely vulnerable. She hated the machines that examined her and the needles they stuck into her, but, in and through her hatred, she was totally grateful they were there. But most of all, she was not a patient stoic who greeted such a disaster with equanimity even if entirely alone. For though she ended each day fully aware that she alone inhabited her particular skin, nevertheless, she had a husband, her boys, and she was surrounded by her congregation. So when she felt crushed under the weight of her illness, she had a source of strength to reinforce her resolve to emerge triumphant.

Like a fatalist, she recognized that you do not get to choose what happens to you. But unlike a stoic, she could choose how to respond, whether with patience unmurmuring or with impatience that both shouted at the disease and heard the echo of her family and friends. Nor did she buy into the Stoic belief that, “not much misfortune has fate given to the good.” For misfortune struck both the good and the bad with NO sense of proportion to the behaviour. Instead, Rabbi Splansky focused on the importance of a sacred community, and this was the message she followed up with in her erev Yom Kippur talk about the nature and character of a sacred community. In its daily acts of goodness, that community becomes a holy order.

But most of all, the talk was about the power of prayer. In the end, she advised people that when they met someone who was suffering from an illness or a loss, do not ask how they are feeling let alone what they are thinking and experiencing. Simply say, “We are praying for you.” For Rabbi Splansky believes not only in prayers, but in the power of prayers. In my head, I responded: how could I ever say such a thing when I share no such conviction about the power of prayer?

Her message did not mean she is or ever was either a mystic or a Jewish version of a Holy Roller. Because faith for her was not about belief that was and is indubitable. Rather, faith occupies the no-man’s land between what is known and what is mysterious. For God is the knower of secrets. In this narrow piece of terra firma, Rabbi Splansky not only experienced God through her body, through its white cells and the tendrils of her nervous system. She not only experienced the wonder and mystery of God’s world. She conveyed that experience to us. She communicated that this had been an authentic and real experience. She – broken shard that she is, a piece of withering grass, a wilted flower – was attached at the hip nevertheless to God, determined to offer herself in a life of meaning and purpose.

As such, she was determined to do all she could to protect herself so she could continue to be of service to her family and community, determined to move on but also upward like a bird on a mission. For the first time, I had heard a rabbi who believed, and I believed that she believed, a rabbi full of trust in God’s spirit convinced that God’s love would never leave her, a God who gave strength to her body as well as her soul, but more than that, a rabbi who convinced me that she truly believed.

I write this, not because I share Yael’s experience or her conception of God. For I participate in worship full of criticism and scepticism. My God does not sustain me. I spend my time arguing with God. Not just arguing, but determined to set Him straight.  God follows us. God shadows us. Contrary to the very text I read in synagogue, I am convinced we do not live in God’s shadow.

This is not the time and place to write about the God of my experience, only to say that I was not convinced by Rabbi Splansky’s performance because she confirmed my experience of God. I sat in awe of Rabbi Splansky’s talk because it was nothing I had ever experienced in myself or in any other. I not only had never trusted a person of faith because they believed. I just never ceased to doubt whether they were really believers. This is not, of course, to say that they were not believers, men and women who expressed a life of faith. But I had never glimpsed that faith. In people like Sister Mary Jo Leddy, I was convinced that it was there. But I had never touched it, never really sensed that faith. It is probably my obtuseness, my stubborn conviction that God exists only to have a partner in one’s struggle and fight for meaning. But that meaning comes to me, not as a gift, but as a residue of the battle.

On Rosh Hashanah, I met a woman who not only had faith, but could communicate that faith to me even as I lacked it.

Tomorrow: Yom Kippur.


Terumah On Charity – Parashat Terumah Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 16.02.13

The blog is attached as well.

Terumah On Charity – Parashat Terumah Exodus 25:1 – 27:19 16.02.13

Haftorah I Kings 5:26 – 6:13

Commentary on Exodus 25:1-8


Howard Adelman

Yesterday I wrote about humiliation in which a person is not only exposed as unworthy of the status he or she holds, but experiences that he or she is unworthy of even aspiring for such a status. In this Shabat’s parashah, the name of the portion is Terumah. The word derives from the verb rum (root: resh.vav.mem) meaning to raise up and present. The noun form, terumah, is a gift offering. How can a gift or an offering raise someone or something up? By giving someone a boost in morale? The question becomes more difficult when the paradox is brought out more clearly.

Terumah literally means something that is uplifted or raised up to a higher level. The term also suggests giving something away and saving something. To take the latter first, the literal meaning of terumah also means ‘setting aside a portion’. Finally, it also means a ‘donation’ in the sense of a portion removed from one’s possession. So we can depict the three meanings of terumah as follows:

1. giving something away, that is, a portion is removed from one’s possession;

2. saving something in the sense of setting aside a portion;

3. lifting or raising something to a higher level.

How can you both give something away and save it at the same time while also raising it up? How is that possible?

In German, the verb aufheben also means three seemingly contradictory things: to eliminate or abolish; to save or put away; and to raise up through sublation. Aufhaben is central to understanding how Hegel’s dialectic of self-consciousness takes place. T’rumah also has three meanings:

1. giving something away;

2. saving something;

3. raising something up.

How are these three activities related and how does that connection fit in with God’s request that the mishkan, God’s portable tabernacle, be constructed? At the beginning of the Parashah, the Israelites are asked to contribute fourteen different materials for its construction: three metals (gold, silver and copper); dyed material made from three different colours of flax (sky-blue dye from one species of purpura snail), purple from the crimson worm that is a strong, bright, deep reddish purple, and crimson red (from another species of purpura snail); then one item that stands alone – fine natural or beige coloured linen; then three materials derived from other living species (goat’s hair, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins); three other materials brought forth from this earth, acacia wood, oil from olives and spices for the aromatic incense; and finally the other stand alone item, gemstones, including lapis lazuli, to decorate the official dress of the high priest, the ephod and the breast piece. (Exodus 25:3-7)

The gifts shall be accepted by Moses can be organized as follows:

The Mishkan The Contents

Structure Décor Priestly


Altar Altar Artefacts Decorations
Gold Blue Flax Goat’s Hair Acacia wood
Silver Purple Flax Linen Ram Skins Olive Oil Gems
Copper Red Flax Acacia Wood Spiced Incense

Note the following: while God commands that the portable arc of the covenant be built, He does not command the Israelites to donate the material and labour. He requests the donations. In contrast with the Haftorah portion (IKings 5:26-6:13) describing in detail the building of the first temple, the portable temple is built by the people on a voluntary basis. The permanent temple is built by King Solomon. Second, the material must be given freely from a full heart of one who is smitten with God. Third, whereas the structure of the permanent temple is built of hewn stones and cedar wood, the mishkan is built of metal, of very precious metal with respect to the first two items, gold and silver. At today’s prices, copper isn’t so cheap either.

In Hasidic lore, gold, silver and copper, the items requested to build the structure, are symbolic of the three pillars upon which the world stands, Torah, prayer and good deeds or tzedakah. (Aaron L. Raskin "Gold, Silver, Copper: Parsha Terumah) They are also connected with the three core meanings of Terumah as follows:

Pillar of the World Material Meaning

Torah Gold Allowing a portion to be removed from one’s possession

Prayer Silver Saving and preserving

Tzedakah (charity) Copper Raising someone up

Let me expand on each of the above.

When I study Torah, I begin by accepting God as mighty and powerful. God is Lord and our strength. I study by reading and interpreting a portion of the Torah. I then share that interpretation and the interpretation becomes the possession of anyone who reads it. It is no longer mine. Part of me, of my intellect, has first allowed myself to be inspired and informed by my learning and my muse. I am possessed. Then through sharing, I have been allowed to be possessed by others.

Prayer, tefilah, means to beg and beseech; it means to implore. Jews pray to God but for themselves — to preserve their lives, their health and their comfort and to allow their hearts to be open to the divine spirit, to make ourselves sacred and prepare ourselves for service and sacrifice. We pray for empowerment. We pray for courage. If Torah is other directed, prayer is self-directed. Through prayer, we gain a sense of humility and cannot be humiliated because, through prayer, we recognize that we have a very lowly status. If Torah is our gold standard, prayer is the silver foundation of our lives. If for Torah, God is the Lord and Master, in prayer, God is Mercy, though He never seemed to inhabit the road that led to Mercy Hospital, No Mercy Road, more formally known as Mains Avenue in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. That road was blocked and Blacks traditionally were not afforded the comfort of a room in Mercy or No Mercy Hospital. Through prayer, God cannot help you boost yourself by your own bootstraps with God’s help. For the point of prayer is not to obtain God’s help but to facilitate our own self-reliance. Prayer is not a bargaining session in which we trade off a promise of servitude in return for a loan. We pray even though God is broke and the bank is closed. Prayer is associated with our sacrifices, not rewards from God.

The Hebrew verb for prayer—tefilah is hitpalel (root: peh.lamed.lamed) in the reflexive mode. It means ‘to judge’. "The use of this shoresh in its simpler forms is generally associated with ‘judgement’. For instance, in Shemot 21:22 – the case is to be ruled *…v’natan biPh’LiLim* – ‘…paying as much as the judges determine.’ (BDB 813), however, suggest an earlier usage of the shoresh – which evolves into "judgement". They render *P*L*L as ‘intervene, interpose’. Since the arbitrators/judges intervene (on behalf of the wronged party), they are fulfilling an act of *P’LiLah*; thus, judges (or the court) are rendered *P’LiLim*." (Rambam, Hilkhot T’fillah 1:01, torah.org)

In this case, the one who prays (usually in silence) and the one prayed for are the same. To pray means judging oneself thereby allowing us to transform ourselves. Through the activity of prayer, and not because of the One prayed to, God makes possible self-transformation and renewal. Prayer allows us to acquire an attitude of self-reliance and is not intended as a path to influence God. The target is the one offering the prayer.

The third of the tryptich of Torah and Tefilah is Tzedakah.

Tzedakah is usually translated as charity but actuallymeans “doing justice, or what is right”, not “charity”, as in the Christian caritas. Tzedakah includes giving alms to the poor and donating funds for the old aged home and for refugees. Tzedakah is more than charity. Tzedakah is not just doing good deeds but making sure that charitable donations and one’s deeds actually serve to raise up the other. The other must not only feel raised up but must actually be on a higher level. Even though tzedakah is purportedly of the same value as all the other mitzvoth in the Torah put together, tzedakah is still only symbolized by copper. (See Miamonides’ “Eight Levels of Tzedakah”


So Terumah provides a structure of Torah, Tefilah and Tzedakah which we can decorate, wear pure but unadorned linen, cover the arc and dress our holy priests. When we build something physical, whether it is a home for God or for ourselves, we are building a home for a family and building a structure that will enlarge our spiritual lives. The portion began with God’s request that we donate to permit the building of the portable arc of the covenant and the building of the structure to carry the arc, so that we could sacrifice and give away that which can raise another up.

This virtue is not an abstraction. The demand greets us everyday, outside the subway station and outside the bank. On Wednesday I received the following email from one of my blog readers:

Hi Howard, I have a story to share and a request to make. Purim is just days away, and traditionally we celebrate the triumph over evil, share food treats and find ways to help the needy. I have spent most of my life doing just that. I was born in the Kensington Market to very poor immigrant parents who left Europe in time. My father was from Russia, my mother from Poland, One sister also came to Canada before the war but everyone else was murdered. I grew up knowing we had to help each other. When I was six years old, there was unusual jubilation in the Market, unlike the sadness and mourning and struggles that were my daily life. The State of Israel had been declared! I have been an ardent and active Zionist ever since. In 1963, having worked my way through University College, I had a BA, the first university graduate in my family. I was approached by the director of Jewish family and Child Services to work for them as an untrained social worker because I am fluent in Yiddish and French and they needed that to better serve the immigrants from post war Europe and the new wave from Morocco and Tangiers and other parts of North Africa. I went on to earn an MSW from U of T , graduating in 1969. and worked in many of the major hospitals as a psychiatric social worker. In the early 1990’s I was divorced, three great kids, elderly parents who needed help, a full time job and strong ties to Israel. A couple of hard to diagnose illnesses caused me to lose my job, and after a couple of months, lose my home and everything I had worked so hard for.. To say it was a difficult time is an understatement. I never thought this would have happened to me, however I am very strong and resilient. It took some years but I survived and moved on. I started thinking about people who were not as strong… who was helping them? From that time I reached out to vulnerable people and offered them my best. There have been many dramatic success stories. I have newspaper clippings and thank you letters and videos. Rabbis call me, and occasionally clergy from other communities as well. The shelters know who I am and what I do. Occasionally a wealthy family needs my help and they do pay generously. More often the person has no way to pay me but if I know things can be made better for that person I don’t refuse. At this time in my life, I need support. If you or anyone you know would be willing to make a donation it would help me a great deal at this point in my life. I have done a lot of work in the Russian Jewish community here in Toronto and one of their congregations will accept donations towards my work and can provide a legitimate receipt for 2013 tax purposes. I look forward to hearing from you, best regards, Lillian Please feel free to forward this email to anyone who might be interested. I am also available to speak to any groups, large or small about how we can more effectively help the most vulnerable here and in Israel.

Lillian Freedman lillianfreedman18

Sunday or Monday:

Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

[Tags Torah, prayer, charity,