Note: Names and other identifying details have been changed in order to protect the privacy of the people involved.

-- 1 --

From: Dr. Mario Grinberg
To: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
Date: June 21, 2006

Dear Rabbi,

I am an Ashkenazi Jew from Cordoba, Argentina, and I am writing to you regarding some doubts I have about some religious matters.

My parents did not respect Shabbat and did not fast on Yom Kippur. The only thing they did was go to synagogue on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. They ate bread on Passover. Nevertheless, in spite of it all, it never occurred to me to marry a non Jewish woman.

I am 55 years old, I have a son who is 28 and married to a non Jewish woman, another son who is engaged to a non Jewish woman and a daughter who frequents Chabad in Buenos Aires, keeps Shabbat, eats kosher, etc.

I am an active member of the Jewish community and I have held several positions on different community boards. I am currently a member of the local Federation.

I understand that the continuity of the Jewish people depends basically on maintaining the traditions. But, I ask you, is it necessary not to turn on the lights on Shabbat? Isn't electricity an amazing improvement in the lives of people? Or is it more important to preserve the medieval lifestyle in order to assure my Jewish condition?

As far as women are concerned, is covering the hair or not wearing pants so important for Judaism? The Taliban do the same. Just look at the clothing their women wear. They also base their criteria on the same idea, namely, to avoid seduction.

Why have we always been persecuted, if, indeed, there exists a supernatural being? Why the Inquisition? Why the Holocaust? Why so much suffering?

Anyway, I turn to you because perhaps your words can clear up these doubts.

Thank you in advance, and I apologize for taking up your time.

Shalom,

Dr. Mario Grinberg


-- 2 --

From: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
To: Dr. Mario Grinberg
Date: June 24, 2006

Dear Dr. Grinberg,

Thank you for your email.

In your letter you ask:

"I understand that the continuity of the Jewish people depends basically on maintaining the traditions. But, I ask you, is it necessary not to turn on the lights on Shabbat? Isn't electricity an amazing improvement in the lives of people? Or is it more important to preserve the medieval lifestyle in order to assure my Jewish condition?"

Before going on to explain why we do not turn on electric lights on Shabbat, I would like to point out that it has nothing to do with "preserving the medieval lifestyle." Were that to be the case, the use of electricity during the rest of the week would be prohibited as well, like the Amish of Pennsylvania who resist the use of modern technology in principle.

I would also like to point out that Rabbis never were nor are masochists who choose to deprive us of everything that modern life has to offer. This very communication (via internet rather than carrier pigeons) proves this point.

Now, with regard to your question about Shabbat:

What is the reason that we rest on Shabbat?

We proclaim the reason for keeping Shabbat when we recite the Kiddush every week: "Because G‑d created the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh day He rested and sanctified it."

The question arises: How do we understand G‑d's need for "rest"? And, besides, how does G‑d rest? The Torah tells us that G‑d created the world by pronouncing some words. When He wanted to create light, He simply said, "Let there be light"—and there was light. And the same goes for the rest of Creation. What, then, did He have to rest from?

It is obvious that we are not dealing here with resting from effort and strain (inconceivable when talking about G‑d who is infinite and just said a few words), but something else, entirely. We are dealing here with resting from creating. G‑d abstained from creating on Shabbat and consecrated Shabbat as such a day for the Jewish people for all of posterity. On Shabbat it is prohibited to create in order to reaffirm the fact that the world is a Divine creation, whose Creator stopped creating at the end of six days.

Creation is not necessarily synonymous with effort. When you walk 10 miles, for instance, you have exerted much effort but have created nothing. When you turn on the light, you have not exerted much effort but it is an act of creation.

What does an "act of creation" imply?

Our sages have identified 39 types of acts of creation, or permanent transformation, that are the prototypes of activities prohibited on Shabbat. Lighting fire is one of them. Turning on a light bulb is a form of creating fire and is therefore prohibited on Shabbat.

I anxiously await your reply regarding my comments in order to continue our exchange and to answer your other questions.

Sincerely,

Eliezer Shemtov

P.S. Please use these links to find some material that I published about the subject of intermarriage:

On Intermarriage
Alejandra and the Rabbi
A Dialogue on Intermarriage

I welcome your comments.



-- 3 --

From: Dr. Mario Grinberg
To: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
Date: June 25, 2006

Dear Eliezer,

First of all, thank you for the time you dedicate to answer my emails.

I understand everything that you explained regarding Shabbat.

I am afraid that my questions are a result of the basis that you build upon, namely the belief in a Supernatural Being.

I mentioned to you that I have a daughter who goes to Chabad and, of course, tries to observe everything. She lives in Buenos Aires and when she comes to visit us we make Kiddush and I try to join her in the observances in any way that I can. Unfortunately, though, I do not feel it within me.

Neither do I understand the requirements regarding the clothing.

My position regarding the Torah is one of doubt. I think that if a supreme being were to exist, there should be no injustices. If the unjust situation is a result of the original sin, or the worshipping of the Golden Calf, it should have an end. Did we not suffer enough already?

I had a friend who was pure and noble, an exceptional person, always ready to help anyone in any way she could. She passed away from cancer, after suffering terribly. How can this be explained if Divine justice does, indeed, exist?

I apologize, I do not mean to offend you, but I want to be as sincere as possible. Besides, I would love to be able to believe, because I would be happy, having a support upon which to lean, knowing that a supreme being exists.

I thank you for the material that you referred me to. It is very instructive, and I enjoyed its contents.

Bye for now. I hope that my emails do not bother you.

Sincerely,

Mario


-- 4 --

From: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
To: Dr. Mario Grinberg
Date: June 25, 2006

Dear Dr. Grinberg,

I want you to rest assured that your emails do not bother me. I enjoy being able to share my knowledge and experience and to have them challenged…

Of course, it is pretty much futile to try and explain the significance of details of precepts given by a G‑d to someone who does not believe in His existence…

It reminds me of the fellow that did not want his children to believe in G‑d. He took them out of the Jewish day school and registered them in the prestigious private school in his neighborhood.

After a few weeks his son comes home and starts talking about the Trinity…

The man, totally horrified, sits down to talk to his son. "Listen here, my son. We Jews do not believe in any of that. For us there is only one G‑d, in whom we do not believe…"

: )

I think that one must distinguish between not believing in G‑d and being angry at Him. It should not be surprising that there are things in life and in the universe that we do not understand… There are many things that happen that may appear to be unjust.

Must one simply accept that it is the Divine will?

It depends. The only suffering that one has the right to justify is one's own; one must never justify someone else's suffering. We have the most illustrious examples in our history, Abraham and Moses, who, according to the biblical narrative, argued with G‑d and questioned the justice of His acts.

We can ask why it is that someone died. We can ask, but what can we answer? What we should ask is "Why and for what purpose do I live?" The answer to that question is in the hands of each one of us.

Are we mere accidents of nature? Are we the result of a big bang? Does that explanation satisfy you more? Is there even such a thing as justice or injustice in a world that appeared by spontaneous combustion?

Yes, many times we get angry when things do not function like we think they should, but does that mean that we should attribute everything that does function perfectly to mere chance?

Belief in G‑d is not necessarily a matter of convenience… oftentimes it is in spite of the inconvenience that it implies.

There is much to be said about the issue and I am aware of the fact that there are issues that you raised that I still did not address. I am not ignoring them; it's just that I prefer to proceed slowly and will leave you for now with these thoughts, awaiting your reply.

Sincerely,

Eliezer



-- 5 --

From: Dr. Mario Grinberg
To: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
Date: July 26, 2006

Dear Eliezer,

I read your emails with great interest. Thank you, once again. The truth is that I never had (or perhaps looked for) the opportunity to talk about these matters that affect me to a certain degree.

You write:

"I think that one must distinguish between not believing in G‑d and being angry at Him. It should not be surprising that there are things in life and in the universe that we do not understand… There are many things that happen that may appear to be unjust."

If I were to be angry at Him, I think that would be better, because that would imply that I accept His existence, because if I didn't, how could I be angry at something that I consider to be inexistent?

Evidently, you are right regarding the infinitude of things that are beyond my understanding, and that seem to be unjust.

You write:

"The only suffering that one has the right to justify is one's own; one must never justify someone else's suffering."

I understand that in the case of my friend, there might have been circumstances that I am unaware of that would justify her death and specially the way in which it happened. But, the question would still remain regarding the Holocaust: did the Jews exterminated there deserve so much pain?

The truth is that I would like to have faith, I would like to believe. But, how does one obtain faith? One way is through the transmission from parents to children, something that I did not have, nor did my daughter—and nevertheless she believes. Perhaps it is also a result of needing something to lean on when suffering becomes unbearable. Can it, however, be achieved by conviction? Perhaps, although I am under the impression that faith has more to do with the heart than with the mind.

My grandchild is not Jewish, since he was born to a non Jewish mother. I had him circumcised, even though I know that it doesn't change the situation much, which obviously bothers me, since I would have preferred that he be Jewish, obviously not for religious reasons.

In any case, I think that with these questions I have initiated a search in which you are helping me a lot. Thank you, again.

Shalom

Mario


-- 6 --

From: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
To: Dr. Mario Grinberg
Date: July 27, 2006

Dear Dr. Grinberg,

In your last email you addressed three points:

  1. Anger or indifference one has regarding G‑d;
  2. How does one cultivate faith;
  3. Your non Jewish grandchildren.

Regarding the first point, I had mentioned the issue of anger because I sensed in your first email that you were angry or disillusioned with G‑d, because if that were not the case, why mention injustices with regard to your lack of faith in G‑d. If there would be no suffering or holocaust, would you then believe in G‑d?

I was under the impression that you do not want to or cannot believe in a G‑d that does things that you understand to be unjust.

Regarding the cultivation of faith in G‑d, there are two steps:

1) Removing the obstacles to faith;

2) Cultivating faith.

When I say obstacles, I refer to the questions that do not allow one to accept that G‑d exists: for example the questions that you raised regarding how G‑d can allow suffering to take place.

But, even were I to answer you, removing thereby the obstacle, it would still not be enough, because explaining the issue of human suffering, even though helpful in allowing faith to flourish is not enough to engender a positive relationship with G‑d.

Let's proceed:

As far as the obstacle of suffering is concerned, it seems to me that it suffices to say that it is not surprising when G‑d does things that we cannot understand. G‑d is infinite. We are finite. Is it surprising when something finite does not grasp the infinite?

We can either trust that things are being done as they should in a just way and that we simply do not comprehend how or why it is so, or we can say that there is chaos, injustice and that no one is in charge of this world…

A simple look around you should be more than enough to convince you that it was all created by a superior intelligence. You do not have to look much further than your own fingers on the keyboard in front of you... Isn't it amazing how they function? Is it really logical to say that this universe appeared by itself as a result of a spontaneous Big Bang?

I think that it is quite clear that the world has a Creator and it is logical to say that He created it in order to fulfill a certain objective. (Actually, it is not just that He created it in the past, but actually continues to create the world constantly, but that is a different subject…)

Okay. Once we accept the aforementioned premises, we can proceed with the process of cultivating faith.

It generally goes like this: First one must have the necessary information. Then one understands. Then one feels. Then one is motivated to do something.

There is also an "express" way and that is when one gets inspired directly. One may also begin with action and then proceed from there towards comprehension.

Inspiration does not necessarily lend itself to rational explanation, nor can it be proven empirically. It is something that comes from within, but if you are missing the information, you will not know how to channel and give expression to the said inspiration.

If I understood you correctly, you would like to have such a relationship with G‑d but do not know how to achieve it.

If you agree with what I have written until now, we will continue with the "how"…

Regarding your comments about your non Jewish grandchild, I ask: If it is not due to the religious factor, why would you have preferred that he be Jewish?

It is getting late here, so I will sign off for today.

Best regards,

Eliezer



-- 7 --

From: Dr. Mario Grinberg
To: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
Date: July 28, 2006

Dear Eliezer:

I would like to know your age, not for any special reason, just in order to be able to have some kind of idea as to what you might look like.

I hope that you will spend the upcoming Shabbat happily and healthily together with your family.

Your emails make me think, especially the famous Jewish custom of answering questions with new questions.

You write:

"As far as the obstacle of suffering is concerned, it seems to me that it suffices to say that it is not surprising when G‑d does things that we cannot understand. G‑d is infinite. We are finite. Is it surprising when something finite does not understand something infinite?"

Evidently it is not surprising. I think that regarding this point, at least, we are equal. I imagine that there must be things that you do not comprehend due to the fact that you are as finite as I am. I say this with all due respect. I find it somewhat difficult to express myself, because I do not want to risk offending you unintentionally.

This reminds me of something that I experienced in my youth. I was studying at the home of a non Jewish classmate, when two strangers rang the doorbell. They were from some church. They were evidently intent on attracting new followers and explained to us the precepts of their religion. We asked them all sorts of questions and when they couldn't answer they simply said: "It's a matter of dogma or faith." I think that that situation is the point where faith passes through the heart.

You write:

"Inspiration does not necessarily lend itself to rational explanation, nor can it be proven empirically. It is something that comes from within, but if you are missing the information, you will not know how to channel and give expression to the said inspiration."

I agree totally. In fact these conversations are part of the information that I lack, need and will definitely expand through material that you can recommend that I read.

You write:

"Regarding your comments about your non Jewish grandchild, I ask: If not for the religious factor, why would you have preferred that he be Jewish?"

I consider myself to be viscerally or profoundly Jewish. I would have preferred that my sons marry Jewish women just as I did. Although my parents were not religious, they were Jews because of history, tradition and culture and it is because of that that I would have liked that my grandson be Jewish.

He is three years old and goes to a Jewish kindergarten. My children all went to the Jewish school. Perhaps the fact that he is not Jewish is my responsibility, I don't know. My daughter is religious and they were all educated the same way...

Anyway, Eliezer, be well and once again, Shabat Sameach!

Mario


-- 8 --

From: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
To: Dr. Mario Grinberg

Dear Eliezer:

I would like to know your age, not for any special reason, just in order to be able to have some kind of idea as to what you might look like.

-- 44.

I hope that you will spend the upcoming Shabbat happily and healthily together with your family.

-- Thank you. The same to you.

Your emails make me think, especially the famous Jewish custom of answering questions with new questions.

You write:

"As far as the obstacle of suffering is concerned, it seems to me that it suffices to say that it is not surprising when G‑d does things that we cannot understand. G‑d is infinite. We are finite. Is it surprising when something finite does not understand something infinite?"

Evidently it is not surprising. I think that regarding this point, at least, we are equal. I imagine that there must be some things that you do not comprehend due to the fact that you are as finite as I am.

-- There are not some. There are many… ;)

I say this with all due respect. I find it somewhat difficult to express myself, because I do not want to risk offending you unintentionally.

This reminds me of something that I experienced in my youth. I was studying at the home of a non Jewish classmate, when two strangers rang the doorbell. They were from some church. They were evidently intent on attracting new followers and explained to us the precepts of their religion. We asked them all sorts of questions and when they couldn't answer they simply said: "It's a matter of dogma or faith." I think that that situation is the point where faith passes through the heart.

-- Saying, "I don't know why I do this or that ritual," is not the same thing as saying, "I do not know why G‑d does things the way He chooses to and why He asks me to do this or that particular commandment…" One who does not know why he chooses to do what he doesn't fully understand is being irresponsible. Saying, for example, "I do not know why the doctor prescribed this particular medication that I am taking" is not the same thing as saying "I do not know why I listen to this particular doctor".One who claims not to know why G‑d does what He does is just being honest and aware of his own limitations.

You write:

"Inspiration does not necessarily lend itself to rational explanation, nor can it be proven empirically. It is something that comes from within, but if you are missing the information, you will not know how to channel and give expression to the said inspiration."

I agree totally. In fact these conversations are part of the information that I lack, need and will definitely expand through material that you can recommend that I read.

-- Maybe a good place to start is with the book "Towards a Meaningful Life." You can get a Spanish copy at Chabad or www.kehot.com.ar.

You write:

"Regarding your comments about your non Jewish grandchild, I ask: If not for the religious factor, why would you have preferred that he be Jewish?"

I consider myself to be viscerally or profoundly Jewish. I would have preferred that my sons marry Jewish women just as I did. Although my parents were not religious, they were Jews because of history, tradition and culture and it is because of that that I would have liked that my grandson be Jewish.

He is three years old and goes to a Jewish kindergarten. My children all went to the Jewish school. Perhaps the fact that he is not Jewish is my responsibility, I don't know. My daughter is religious and they were all educated the same way. ..

-- I don't get it. If you understand being Jewish as simply being a matter of "history, tradition and culture," why would you care about the fact that the mothers of your grandchildren are not Jewish? Even though they aren't, wouldn't your grandchildren be able to learn Jewish "history, tradition and culture"?

I think that we must explore a little more what you refer to as "visceral." Chassidic teachings call it "essence." "Pintele Yid." "Neshamah." It refers to the Jewish soul that remains intact independently of external and circumstantial changes. I think that we now have an excellent starting point for further discussion, namely, how does one explain this visceral attitude? What may it be attributed to?

Anyway, Eliezer, be well and once again, Shabat Sameach!

-- Ditto.

Mario

Eliezer


-- 9 --

From: Dr. Mario Grinberg
To: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
Date: July 28, 2006

Dear Eliezer,

Shavua tov!

As a result of your mentioning the neshamah, or Jewish soul, I reread your article on intermarriage that you had sent me. It really shook me up as a result of my family situation.

I believe that in addition to tradition, culture and history, there must be a way of life and values that we attribute to different circumstances.

Thanks to this contact with you, I spent the weekend reading Towards a Meaningful Life, as you recommended. I asked my daughter, who is in Buenos Aires, about it and she told me that we have a copy at home.

I started at Chapter 25, Faith and Reason. It starts by saying that "people are naturally believers. They may have doubts, but to question G‑d is the first indication that one believes in something." I remember that we discussed something to that effect.

It also mentions that we might fear faith; I imagine that it is due to how complicated it is to believe because then you must fulfill certain obligations and ignore certain pleasures and easier options. "Se shver tze zain a Yid"—if you understand Yiddish, "It's difficult to be a Jew."

I thought about what you said regarding creation. It is true that neither the Big Bang nor Darwin's theory explain many things. But even were we to accept that G‑d exists, I cannot understand why everything is so bad, the wars, and above all the constant suffering of the Jewish people, the Chosen People. I know that it has to do with "free choice," but couldn't He "help us out" a little bit more? Haven't we cleansed ourselves of our sins yet? Do we still need to wait for the Messiah? What for?

Rabbi, as you can see, I am going through an internal revolution. I hope that you understand me.

Regards,

Mario


-- 10 --

From: Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov
To: Dr. Mario Grinberg
Date: July 30, 2006

Dear Dr. Grinberg:

Thank you for your email.

There are several subjects that you touch upon in your last email:

1) The definition of the Jewish condition;

2) Intermarriage and how to prevent it;

3) If G‑d exists, why doesn't He give us a hand…

4) The cleansing of sins and waiting for the Messiah.

Here are my answers:

1) You say that the difference between Jew and non Jew can be circumstantial (attributable to difference of customs) and not necessarily essential. But if one were to observe the great variety of Jews and Jewish customs and that nevertheless there is a common denominator, logic would indicate that there is something much deeper that unites us all… I am sure that if your daughter-in-law's family were to be a Jewish family of Moroccan origin, for example, there would be much in common in spite of the apparent differences…

Of course, it is possible to say that birds fly and fish swim not as a result of essential conditions, but because they are accustomed to such behavior…. But that is not the truth.

I understand that in the case of Jew/non Jew it is not that easily provable, but according to talmudic, kabbalistic and chassidic sources, our differences are not merely results of conditioning, but are programmed into our souls and embedded in our essence.

2) The subject of intermarriage is a complex one, as it entails many factors which are ideological, emotional, and psychological in nature, and become even more complicated as a result of social pressure and family situations. I can recommend a book that was published recently in Spanish, "Why Marry Jewish" by Doron Kornbluth. It is an excellent book that deals with the subject from a sociological and statistical perspective.

3) If G‑d exists, why doesn't He give us a hand?

I am not G‑d's accountant nor am I His lawyer. : )

Only G‑d knows why He subjects us to the trials and challenges that we are faced with.

I am sure that had He not been "giving us a hand," we would not have made it this far.

In any case, I, in my own mind, process it the following way:

What is the only thing in the world that is indestructible?

The Truth.

You cannot destroy Truth, because if you can destroy it, that in itself proves that it is not the truth.

How can you know if something is true or not? By trying to destroy it.

The Jewish nation is the purveyor of the Divine truth that G‑d gave us at Sinai. It is indestructible. All throughout history, many have attempted to destroy us. They are long gone. We are still here. Sometimes we limp, but we continue to march on, contrary to any logic.

Many times we face a choice between suffering as a result of defending the truth, or abandoning it for the sake of being comfortable …

4) The purpose of the exile in which we find ourselves is not (merely) to cleanse us of our sins. We are dispersed throughout the world in order to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah, through studying and teaching the Torah and fulfilling its precepts. It has been thousands of years already since we stopped waiting for the Messiah… He is waiting for us…

I know that the answers are brief, but I hope that they will suffice in order to continue thinking and sharing ideas.

Sincerely,

Eliezer

to be continued...