NEW POST: Rav Mike-What is the Basis for Trust?

Where to Place My Trust

History tells me, don’t trust the system. The world we’ve built is unsustainable, right down to the sewers on which it rests. We have flushed the wealth of nations down our toilet for over 200 years, and what have we got for it?[1] A culture of bloated waist and an appetite bred to insatiability. Don’t put your trust in the serpent that eats its tail, especially if its waste is toxic.

The Land calls on me to trust the promise, and the process. Each step must unfold in its own time in order that the seed can grow and in order that redemption can come. Our built environment[2] allows us to ignore the base which sustains us, but the return to a more grounded state is inevitable – in the end, we all rot. Am Yisrael lives this cycle of redemption on personal and national scales. Our long-suffering trust that we are on the way home is more real than the grave, and is the hope which feeds our rebirth. The seed decays in the ground before it can flower. I know that our decomposition is nearly complete, I feel the quickening of new life. I trust that the promise will be fulfilled for us and all humanity and “He will destroy death forever.”[3]

What about the Torah? Gd’s blueprint for creation is surely a faithful guide. But there is no text without context, and no Torah without Am Yisrael. Whose voice we can trust?[4] Once it was primarily practice that defined a trustworthy yid, unless he stood up and shouted heresy from the rooftops. Ideological purity has replaced experiential truth as we retreat in fear from  a complex world. Trust the Torah. Don’t ask if I believe -in Gd, Sinai, Eretz Yisrael – and exclude me if I don’t. Teach the mitzvoth, dig deep into the Torah, and help me experience their reality.

And love? I trust you all get that connection. There is no love without trust, and in the reality of a broken world, no trust without love to cover our failings. Ultimately it is love – for Gd, for Am Yisrael, for creation – which binds us. Only if we trust this commitment can take the risks needed for building a new world together.




[1]In our learning in nezikin next year we will see a widespread assumption that trash (zevel) is a thing of a value. What does it say about our society that trash is at best useless and at worst lethal?

Check out what Victor Hugo had to say about the matter in the mid-19th century. ” Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake. (Les Miserables; Jean Valjean, Book II, ch 1)

“the history of men is reflected in the history of sewage…The sewer is the conscience of the city. All things converge into it and are confronted with one another…Everything has its real form, or at least its definitive form. (Les Miserables; Jean Valjean, Book II, ch 2)


[2] Look around you right now – does anything you see not reflect human endeavor? Send us your stories of finding Gd in nature, or why you think we received the Torah in the wilderness

[3] Isaiah 25:8

[4] Where is the fearless nobility of the Sages, who were driven by questions to which they did not know the answers instead of being afraid of them?!

NEW POST: Rav Mike Feuer on Property Rights

Property Is Theft?

Why is my house mine? If it’s because I bought it then it really belongs to the bank.[1] Because I live there? Go ahead and squat in this country and see where it gets you. Because it is my inheritance from Gd? Even those willing to consider the logic of Yovel are afraid to apply it to the world we live in.

What then is property, and from whence my rights? The Torah takes a clear stand on acquisition – from Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpela to a man’s union with his wife, it is an entrance into relationship negotiated by a shared system of value. The halachic structure of kinyan (acquisition) could appear as an endorsement of unfettered capitalism – buy and sell to your heart’s delight, as long as you play by the rules. But when the value in question rises above the scale of the individual,[2] the nature of ownership becomes far from clear. Not to mention when we move outside of an assumed structure of common value.[3]

The Land can teach us much about property. There is a game of musical chairs which underlies the reality of territorial sovereignty. We conquered the seven nations and were conquered in turn[4]. We returned on the authority of empire and the promise of redemption. The latter may not yet have borne fruit, but the former has proven remarkably persistant. Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Persia again. Muslims, Crusaders, Arabs, Turks, British and Zionists. Persia again? As long as the drums of war don’t stop, might makes right and sovereignty is subject to the sword. But at some point international legalism[5] overtook artillery as the preferred method of conquest, and whoever was left holding our patrimony could suddenly sell it to the highest bidder.

Despite the national buyback attempted by the JNF[6] and others, the Zionist return was driven by a deeper relationship to property than purchase. “The Land shall not be sold forever: for the Land is Mine, or you are strangers and sojourners with me.”[7] When the Land belongs to Gd, then man can be only steward or thief.

Our history offers a similar lesson. Two thousand years in Esau’s system of self-definition through possession has left us with much[8]. But it will take a return to right relationship before we can have all[9].  Exile is an aberration and must pass[10], and along with it the system the nations have used to divvy up the planet. Our redemption will be bound up with a system of value that the whole world can share.

So, just to end with love. Right relationship rests on a foundation of shared values. Or at least a moral clarity that allows for communication. We carry a sacred birthright, paid for by the blood of our ancestors. This precious legacy is not for sale, and we do not own it. It is the inheritance of Am Yisrael, and a gift to all the world. To name it property would indeed be a tragic theft.







[1] There is an amusing and somewhat inappropriate film called Thank you For Smoking. In it, the main character describes the average person’s indifference to the structural violence of the economic system as the “yuppie Nuremberg defense,”  that being – “what can I do, I have a mortgage to pay…”

[2] i.e. shmitta and yovel, which introduce the non-absolute obligation of paying one’s debt and the concept of usufruct as opposed to ownership

[3] The whole question of גזל הגוי seems to me founded on the question of how possession can have meaning outside of a common structure of value

[4] The first Rashi on the Chumash tackles this head on. It is noteworthy to examine his answer and to contemplate whom he was speaking to, certainly only those he felt shared his structure of value

[5] The challenge of how to find a shared structure of value within which different cultures can negotiate their differences is a primary driver for the development of law backed by force. Contract law plays a cutting edge role in this process for various reasons the reader can contemplate

[6] The power of the JNF blue box! It is doubtful what percentage of their capital came from here (as opposed to from Baron Rothschild), never the less what success in raising a national consciousness of having a portion in the Land

[7] Vayikra 25:23 I am grateful to Matityahu Mausner for pointing out to me the global implications of the Jubilee logic which underlies the return of Am Yisrael to its home

[8] See Bereshit 33:9

[9] See Bereshit 33:11

[10] See the first 3 chapters of the Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael on this topic

A Letter from Rebbetzin Feld to her Community in Berkely, Beit Midrash Ohr HaChaim

Lag B’Omer Night
Hod SheBaHod
To my dear and precious Beit Midrash community, wherever you happen to be:
….I just came back from the sweetest LaG B’Omer gathering in Gan Sakher in Jerusalem. It was a joint effort between my women’s seminary, Shirat Devorah, and it’s brother men’s yeshiva, Sulam Yaakov.  I cannot even begin to tell you the thrill to be here during this time…during all times. Gan Sakher, for that matter all of Jerusalem, all of Israel, is all aglow with bonfires everywhere, every few feet.
Our particular gathering was not about eating and drinking anything, it was about learning, singing, and meditating together.  The bonfire looked professionally made, just the right teepee shape, and it burned so amazingly well for hours (of course the guys were totally continually feeding the fire with just the right amounts of wood that had been so carefully stockpiled for a week or so). There were a few guitars, a few drums.
There was a very small gathering at first (beginning at 10 pm), and then more and more and more people came.  There was some gentle tentative singing at first, and then more and more spirited. Rav Aaron spoke about “hod” (Rebbe Shimons yartzeit is hod shebahod) and fire and humility.  I told a favorite story of mine from The Heavenly City, a true story from a hundred years ago about a young boy whose blindness is cured when he goes to the kever of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai.  But we were just the warm-up act for the main speaker, Rav Daniel Cohen, Rav of the yishuv Bat Ayin, and maggid shiur for Sulam Yaakov, who spoke and played clarinet.
There is no one quite like Rav Daniel. Gentle and soft spoken, he gives over the feeling that he is having an intimate conversation just with you, rather than addressing a large gathering with a microphne. And there is no mind quite like Rav Daniel’s. His thinking is quite evolved, his knowledge both very deep and broad, his “chidushim” constant.  He spoke of mayaan (spring) and chruv (carob ), the two things that sustained Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Reb Elazar while they hid in the cave for 13 years. He spoke of each of us needing to enter our own caves to grow and develop, especially without worrying what anyone else is thinking about us, to find our own spring, our own chruv. I am not doing it justice of course, just trying to give a feeling.
The spring of course is light and life, inspiration (though what he really termed it I am not remembering), but the chruv is desolation, the root of desolation. He spoke of the need for both, there no rising or depth without the desolation and of course there is no hope to move on from the desolation without the spring. Either one by itself will take you to a very incomplete place. Ultimately, it is about turning the chruv into chaver, like the chevraya of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai. Ultimately it is about sharing yourself with another, yourself, not your words, or the vehicle of your words. The you that comes having been in the cave and from your maayan and your chruv.
He spoke of the individuality of hair… and how Rabbi Akiva who understood mounds and mounds of halacha from each individual ‘hair’ on top of the letters (the crowns), understood about the individuality of each hair, and each hair having its own source. He played his haunting clarinet music for us to meditate and contemplate by, and he chanted from the Tikkunei Zohar and translated as if in conversation.  Then he played and played and the guitars and drums joined in and there was such sweet dancing of men around the bonfire, a holy chevraya. You wouldn’t believe how sweet and light their movements, and all highlighted by this bonfire whose embers were dancing and moving and rising. It was such a special scene, maybe you can imagine it in your mind’s eye.
Yet what also really made it special was that we were just one blip on the landscape. Every few foot was another group, and another group, and another group (of course we were the coolest), all celebrating Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s Hillula. And the sky lit up with fireworks several times, so many and most amazing, and always amazingly timed in the speech. When Rav Aaron was speaking of the crowns on the Torah letters all of a sudden the fireworks display began, like crowns in the sky. And when Rav Daniel was speaking of how each of us is a star, a point of light that spreads outward, the fireworks began anew.
(I can’t imagine what the fire department in America would do with all these fires, and fire works right in the middle of a green and wooded park. It would of course never be allowed.   And yet not a single tree caught fire, not a single casualty nor spread of fire. I don’t even know how that is possible, but somehow it is.  As if this is not a land that could burn on LaG B’Omer. How they do play with fire here! )….
I want to tell you how special it is to be here at this time of one national holiday after the other. Never mind I am not so sure about how I feel about many of them. But they come at you one after the other, Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut, Pesach Sheni, Lag B’Omer, Yom Yerushalayim, and all culminating of course with Shavuot. Shirat Devorah and Sulam Yaakov have created events this year around these holidays, branded with the thoughtful, creative, open thinking/questioning/ genuinely exploring style of these institutions  to give anglos a way to tap into these days and this culture. It has been an amazing process….  In general, it is just so special and heartening to draw together as a Jewish nation…over anything.
I am just in love at the moment with being a Jew in a Jewish land. I am in love with Jewish minds that run every sphere of life (and crazed by it too!).  The Jewish mind, the Jewish soul, is such an amazing thing….and to be surrounded by it all the time is a “wow” experience for me…..
…there is a special feeling to be in a place where your culture is everybody’s culture, where your calendar is everybody’s calendar. Now after two years here, I begin to feel the expansiveness of filling up the space– the whole space, not some little corner that is allowed me as a Jew whether consciously or unconsciously. The old image comes to mind of being planted finally in soil that has all the nutrients that your particular kind of plant needs to grow in the best way possible. Sure you could make do elsewhere, or you can even work very, very hard and “mach du eretz yisrael” as the Lubovitcher Rebbe (ztz”l) said, ‘Make where you are Eretz Yisrael.’ Yet there really is something about just breathing the air here. It is Jewish air.  It makes you wise. You feel it.
It is true, everyone has their special job to do, their “tafkid,” their “yay-ud” so to speak, and their special place where it is needed. Yet I can’t help but say to you: My friends, if I were you, I would pack up my belongings, and head on over here. Or I would think about how to make that possible. What would it take. There is no better place for a Jew. As crazy and harsh and bureaucratically ridiculous as  Israel can be, there is no better place for a Jew.  Judaism is alive here. In every way. A Jewish life has the potential to be so full here.  And while maybe money doesn’t grow on trees here either, it is almost as if Torah learning does. The air of Jerusalem is suffused with it. All over. In the open, and not in the open. When you know it and when you don’t. When you can see and hear it and when you can’t. It doesn’t matter, you can taste it.
And money doesn’t rule here (just witness the lack of customer service). Something else much more real does.
Of course there are problems here too. Big ones. But your know how can actually be used to solve them.  The country is only 64 years old. Nothing is etched in stone.  It is waiting for your mind, and your belief system, and your emunah to come and fix it. To come and build it.
As the song goes (Country Yossie is it?) “G-d is alive and well in Jerusalem.” In Israel. Everywhere in the world of course too. But it is different here. It really is.  And it is really possible to feel the light of Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai. Today. On LaG B’Omer. Here.  And I am not even in Meron!
So to all my friends in Berkeley and in America I send you a hearty “Lag” sameach and “Hod” esh tov (my little attempt at pun humor).
I love and miss you all and can’t wait to see you here!
Yehudit/Jody Feld

NEW POST: Rabbi Mike Feuer- Formulating the Question

For the sake of our learning in the coming year, I want to explore some of the structures which have carried Am Yisrael in the past, and which hold us in the present. In order to expose new horizons for growth, this is best done in the critical light of the four categories I spoke out in my first post – history, the Land, Torah and love. Without order of priority, here are my questions.

I question the nation state. Is it an embodiment of belief, political economy maximized or just the current phase of structural violence.[1]The secular nation state was born from Europe’s exhaustion with wars of religion,[2] not out of a considered step toward a higher form of collective actualization.  Weber defined it as a sovereign entity which monopolizes the exercise of violence to maintain order.[3] This may be preferable to exile, but it doesn’t strike me as the fulfillment of two thousand years of prayer.

History tells me that political consciousness is an evolutionary process. Social structures are founded on necessity and belief, shaped by learning and iterated through a history punctuated by chaotic breakdown and reordering.[4] Our present means of survival is fit to what was, not necessarily what is or will be. There must be a constant reexamination of our political system in light of our values and the needs of the day in order to avoid going the way of the dodo.[5] This in turn demands courage and clarity.

I feel the tension between the Land and the State. In the gun toting youth of the wild West Bank, in the ideological enclaves which live in the Land but not in the State (lucky for them garbage collection is non-consensual!) In the confused mix of conquest and appeasement that passes for national vision today. Visions of the Land perfume my dreams, and the State is the ground I stand on. Where is the anarchic utopian vision of each under his own vine and his own fig tree?

The Torah knew no state, and offers little guidance on political structures. “You shall surely place upon yourself a king…”[6] sounds definitive, but it appears as a response to a desire to be like other nations. This, together with the fatal arc of the monarchy itself, is enough to sow deep questions in the mind of the Oral tradition down to our day. Malchut (kingship) is an existential reality, but partial unless realized on all scales.

What does love say about the state? As a consensual social contract, it can be a space for individuals to join in actualizing their potential. But the state as blank slate, filled by the dreams of free members, is a fragile myth. Perhaps if we loved each other first, and our images of the truth second, love could redeem this vessel as well.




[1] One of the more pressing questions I have is about our willful ignorance of the systematic violence which facilitates socio-economic structure, global and local. And don’t forget what Rav Daniel has taught us about the Esuavian project of self-definition through acquisition and conquest

[2] The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) may have heralded a shift in primary identity from religion to nationality, but it brought no fundamental change to human nature. European nationalism was a new and potent justification for slaughter

[3] Politics as a Vocation.  ”A relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence” – Max Weber: Politik als Beruf, 1919

[4] In a history characterized by punctuated equilibrium exploitation the niches catastrophe makes available in human society happens through a strange mix of ideology and gross self-interest. In some way, this facilitates building ‘the City on the Hill’ while ignoring those crushed under its foundation stone

[5] Extinction, that is

[6] Devarim 17:15. See Devarim chapters 16 and 17 for the Torah’s articulation of various models of leadership

NEW POST: Rabbi Mike Feuer, “What Vessel is fit to Hold Am Yisrael?”

Face of the Nation

Walking the streets of Yerushalayim, I see a vision of Am Yisrael unimagined a hundred years ago. There is no race, class, creed or religion (!) unseen in the face of my people. It is a wonder sometimes that the center holds. And I often wonder what holds it.

History is a certainly a grounding force. Our system-track through the phase space of time, geography, culture and consciousness has given us momentum to spare. And a surfeit of shared experience on which to build identity. But history will never be the essential axis for Am Yisrael. We are too much the children of prophets to believe that what was can dictate what will be.

There is the Land. Without it, this vision could never be. In our time, we have seen Eretz Yisrael embrace her name – ארץ הצבי.[1] She expands and contracts to fit the body of the nation, and gives her fruit with a generous eye.[2] She is the foundation, but we must build the right house in order to live together.

We cannot forget the Holy Torah. In truth, it is the only thing big enough to hold Am Yisrael. This mighty people have been a catalyst for human cultural evolution since their birth.[3]  We could only function on a substrate like the Torah, which underlies all creation. But the Torah, like the soul, needs a body to serve.

Certainly a great love for Gd, each other and creation holds us together. As we consider vessels past, present and future over the coming weeks, let this then be our guide. And I pray that we merit to shape our hearts to the fittest vessel, able to hold Gd, Am Yisrael and the world.


[1] See Daniel 11:41, gem. Ketubot 112a

[2] See Yechezkiel 36, gem. Sanhedrin 98a, rashi there

[3] Remember Lamark and the theory of acquired characteristics? Giraffes stretch to reach the upper branches and their children have long necks? He may have been laughed out of the natural sciences, but he found his home in human cultural evolution. We have been sticking our necks out in half the world’s cultures for 2500 years. What we have acquired along the way is a story the whole world can tell.

NEW AUDIO: Rabbi Mike Feuer on Preparing for Pesach, “The Language of Redemption”


Check out 4 recent huddles that Rav Mike gave to the chabura in the beit midrash, looking carefully at the words around the ideas of Pesach.

Chag Kasher v’Sameach!




Language of Redemption 1

Language of Redemption 2

Language of Redemption 3

Language of Redemption 4

NEW POST: Rabbi Mike Feuer-A Message From Beyond

A Message from Beyond

Just this morning before barchu I looked down at my siddur. The Ari z”l had left me a note. Some thoughtful editor had ensured that I couldn’t miss his words (at least today) by placing them in the appropriate margin. Your neshama, he said, is returning now, at this moment.

Troubled, I looked up from the page. This cast serious doubt on everything I had done (or who had done it!) since I woke. I looked around for further explanation, but evidently marginal constraints did not allow for articulation. I would have frozen in shock, but the half-minute to read his note was all I had.  No time now for wonder.

I bowed and blessed, and off we raced. I was still vibrating from p’sukei dzimra. The joys and fears of serving Gd in the world make up most of my day, and to me these verses are their perfect expression. Today they had me shaking with joy as I crossed together with the people through the Red Sea.[1] I felt ready for anything, soulless though I was.

Moving from psukei d’zimra to kriyat shema is a shift from emotional resonance to mental clarity. My heart is open, now it’s time to lay the foundation for prayer. I gather myself to accept the unity of Gd, grateful that my neshama is with me. We are in the world of briah[2] now, the realm of cognition. It’s not about what I feel, but what I know; or rather, how I know it.

Suddenly, the message becomes clear. This is not a time to believe that Gd is One, it is a chance to be at One with Gd. My neshma comes to teach, not to learn. Whatever pieces of me that were awake up[3] to now, building toward this moment of union, are suddenly stitched together by the piece of me which comes directly from Gd.[4]

Awestruck by the Ari z”l’s wisdom, I open to the song of my soul. The idea of unity blossoms into the state of union. I connect upward, and creation flows out from within. The horizon of my mind recedes into the realm of boundless possibility. I am ready to pray.

[1] See Mishna Berurah  51:17

[2] I am grateful to Rav Daniel Kohn for revealing to me the progression through the 4 worlds which underlies the structure of morning prayer. Check out his audio shiurim on this and other tefillah topics appearing on our website soon!

[3] In addition to the four worlds, there is a process of waking the soul from nefesh in the berachot and korbanot, to ruach in psukei to neshama in kriyat shema on to chaya/yechida in amidah and tachanun

[4] Iyov 31:2


NEW ARTICLE: Rav Aaron Leibowitz in Haaretz-Are We Jews Having Fun Yet?

Check out Rav Aaron’s latest piece in Haaretz, where he explores the real and meaningful side of happiness and joy: Hope.

Rav Aaron is in currently in NY through Tuesday, New Orleans Wednesday-Thursday, and Boca Raton for Shabbat. He can be reached at: 646-558-2072 or


Painting by Joshua Benson

NEW POST: Rabbi Mike Feuer- When Words Get in the Way

Words Get in the Way

When I first met the siddur it was truly sacred. I knew the letters, but the words were closed to me. Nevertheless the music of the prayers resonated in my deepest places. To sway with the reader’s repetition was to touch mystery.

As I grew life filled with language; a stream of consciousness rising over my head. Through the grace of wise teachers, I took hold of sentences. I became an information processing machine, words were my code. The sound of prayer receded, and with it practice.

Later, I stood up on the paragraphs and began to see. As I rose upright, the siddur slipped from my hand. Its ancient words could not hold me. Mystery dissipated in the light of reason and I was unbound. The words flowed from inside my heart, not off the page.

Later still, the ambiguity of life reasserted itself. It is a short step from complexity to confusion. Now I wallowed in words, denying their truth; bound by their reality. The siddur sat closed on my shelf, and I blushed on the darkness of my bed. There could be no retreat into infancy, no opiate for the fevered imagination. And yet, they were only words.

Tentatively I turned the pages, the smell of sunshine on the grass filling my mind. Narrowness became focus, anachronism the texture of historical experience. My eyes brimmed as I start to sway. A thousand lifetimes of longing lumped in my throat, the words could not get out. The tears washed away any passing meaning, and the shapes of the letters reappeared.

Language still fills my life. Not sentences and paragraphs but song and verse. Learning brings the words into focus, but if they freeze in static emptiness my tears can set them free. The mystery moves me, and I sway to the sound of my own prayer.




NEW AUDIO: 5 Short Pieces on Purim from Rav Aaron

You are invited to enjoy a window into our beit midrash and some of the Purim torah that Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aaron Leibowitz has been teaching!

Purim Sameach!




Prepare for Purim

Purim: Al Tedami Benafshech

Purim and Moshe

Purim: Binyamin and Yosef

Purim 5


Copyright © 2011 Sulam Yaakov