ChabadNewOrleans Blog

Judaism is NOT a Religion

A few weeks ago, I was invited to sit on a panel at an event for wedding coordinators, caterers, and event planners. They were looking to get insights into various cultural traditions that they should be aware of when planning an event. One of the questions posed to the members of the panel (consisting of representatives of religious faiths and members of the industry), was about the involvement of the clergyperson in the wedding beyond the ceremony.

They were surprised to learn that a Torah observant Rabbi would have input into additional facets of the wedding beyond the ceremony. This led to a lengthy discussion about Kosher catering, and a shorter, but eye-opening (for them) discussion about modesty and how it impacts the dancing and other elements of the wedding.

The truth is that this is part of a broad idea that Judaism is not a religion, but rather a way of life. Religion (as per the dictionary) is a “system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” It is entirely conceivable that one’s religion has little say on many aspects of a person’s daily life. Indeed, this is the case for a large number of religious adherents around the world.

Judaism was originally conceived as a way of life. Our doctrine, the Torah, informs every single aspect of a person’s day, from the moment we awaken to the way we go to sleep. There is a Torah way to experience every single element of life, from birth (and even conception) to death and beyond. It addresses what we wear and how we wear it. It addresses what we eat and how we eat it. It addresses what we do for a living and how we do it. It addresses what our family life looks like and how we live that way. And so much more.

In fact, so little of Judaism takes place in the Synagogue, that it could hardly be regarded as the center of Jewish life. At the most, a person might spend a few hours a day at Shul (assuming they attend all three daily services and have a study session or two). So, what is the center of Jewish life? I would argue that the center of Jewish life is wherever one is at any given time. Because at every moment of life, one is engaged in Jewish living. If it had to be pinned down to a location, it would have to be the home, the place one spends a plurality of one’s time.

Stop being religious and embrace Judaism, the treasured way of life with which G-d gifted us at Mount Sinai over three thousand years ago.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

PS: It was brought my attention that last week’s blogpost ( may be perceived as insensitive to people with medical dietary restrictions. It was definitely not my intent to alienate anyone and I apologize that my words came across as so. In fact, I considered this possibility, though apparently not for long enough. I myself have medically related dietary limitations, and close relatives with diabetes and celiac disease. Clearly, I should have been more thoughtful in choosing the phrasing for this message. (Mock shrimp anyone?)

Gluten Free Judaism

What happens when many of the ingredients for a good dish are off the table for whatever reason? Usually, the improvised replacements don’t live up to the billing and the dish is hardly worth eating. C’mon, if it is gluten free, sugar free, and free of whatever else, is it not then going to be taste free?

In this week’s Torah portion, we find Moshe beseeching G-d to appoint a successor so that the Jews are not left as “flock without a shepherd.” Immediately following this, G-d commands Moshe to instruct the Jewish people regarding the daily, Sabbath, and holiday offerings. Here is how it is phrased, “Command the children of Israel and say to them: My offering, My bread for My fire offerings, a spirit of satisfaction for Me, you shall take care to offer to Me at its appointed time.”

Rashi offers an interpretation from the Sifri Midrash of the juxtaposition of these two narratives by employing an analogy. A princess was on her deathbed. She begged her (commoner) husband to take care of the kids when she is gone. He replies, I want you to instruct the kids to take care of me and not disgrace me. Moshe (the princess) begs G-d (the husband) to take care of the kids (the Jewish people) by ensuring that they have a caregiver. To which G-d replies by asking Moshe to instruct the Jewish people to “take care of Him” by bringing the offerings.

The Rebbe points out that by employing the analogy of a commoner husband for G-d, the Sifri is emphasizing the idea of how much G-d “wants/needs” the relationship with us. Calling the offerings “My bread” implies that G-d “wants/needs” His relationship with us, like a human being needs food to survive. The offerings represent the human devotion to the will of G-d, causing G-d to declare, “A spirit of satisfaction for Me, that I spoke, and my will was fulfilled.”

What happens when the ingredients are off the table? We no longer have a temple and the offering have been discontinued for two millennia. Our sages state, that the set time for prayer has taken the place of the offerings. Isn’t that as tasty gluten free, sugar free, dairy free blintzes?

To which Hashem replies, “Absolutely not!!” Our humble prayers of 2022 are as desirous and fulfilling to Hashem as the offerings of the Temple era. Whether it is a simple Mincha on a Wednesday afternoon or the Neilah prayer on Yom Kippur day, Hashem looks with eager anticipation as we take the opportunity to engage in our relationship with Him. So if we are ever feeling inadequate or dispensable, we should remember how much Hashem values our simple prayers as we connect with Him.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Are You Exhausted or Unmotivated?

Does this happen to you as it happens to me? At times I will consider making a commitment to learn something or do something Jewish that requires significant effort. It may be something that means getting up real early or staying up later than usual. Perhaps it is something that pushes me to the limit of my intellectual capacity, or out of my comfort zone in some other way. As I consider it, I will often conclude that I am too exhausted to undertake this commitment. I don’t have the head or the emotional capacity to take the plunge. Am I exhausted or unmotivated?

However, I notice that when the same effort is required for something else in life, be it recreational, professional, or the like, those same considerations don’t seem to be as disturbing. All of a sudden, the exhaustion is a non-factor.

The Torah highlights two figures who “rose early in the morning” and saddled their own donkey to take an important journey. What moves an important personage to push himself beyond his normal limits, even engaging in a task that is beneath his station? Avraham displays commitment and enthusiasm to fulfill the will of G-d (at the Akeidah). The sages comment that love for Hashem motivated him go above and beyond reasonable expectation. Bilaam displays commitment and enthusiasm to engage in his favorite pastimes, hating Jews and amassing wealth. The sages comment that his hatred of Jews and love of money motivated him to go above and beyond reasonable expectation.  

Now let’s bring this back to my opening scenario. What would I need to be more like Avraham and less like Bilaam? I would need to change my value system so that my love of Hashem and enthusiasm for Judaism is as strong as my desire for material gain and pleasure.

As we strengthen our values, we will find ourselves with more motivation for the things that are truly important.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Torah is Neither Blue Nor Red

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was asked which of the two politico-economic systems that were prevalent in his time were aligned with the Torahs view. His profound response should be very instructive in our current situation. Neither system is aligned with Torah. Each system has positive elements, whose truths can be traced to the Torah. Each system also has elements that are not in consonance with Torah and, as such, are not positive.

Our country is raging with debate over political issues. Folks are very passionate about their views. As Jews, we sometimes attempt to invoke Judaism or Jewish values as we defend our views. But we must remember that by and large (nearly across the board) no political view is completely aligned with Torah, even on a single issue, how much more so in the full picture.

I have little patience for the rush to quote a nuanced passage in the Talmud or Jewish law about a topic, while roundly demonstrating indifference or even disdain, for much of what Torah represents. This is true on all sides of the political spectrum.

The Rebbe often points out that Torah is described in three ways. Torat Chaim – the Torah of life, Torat Emet – the Torah of truth, and Torah Ohr – the Torah of light. As we sift through the multitude of opinions and views on the many issues being debated in our society, it is vital that as Jews we recognize that our allegiance is not to a political party or philosophy. Rather our devotion is the truth, light and life that emanates from Divine Wisdom.

The Torah is our tree of life, our pillar of truth, and the illumination of our path. Everything else is like a radio with a lot of static. Once in while you hear something useful, but otherwise it is just background noise.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

What is Jewish Leadership?

This Shabbat we mark 28 years since the Rebbe’s physical presence was taken from us on the 3rd of Tammuz. There are several Hebrew terms that are used to depict a Jewish spiritual leader. One of them is Nassi. That same term is used in modern Hebrew for president. It was also used to describe the tribal leaders during biblical times. However, the most prominent application of the term was when it was used to describe the chief of the Sanhedrin and final arbiter of Jewish law. Of the more famous examples of this is Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, the redactor of the Mishna.

The etymological root of the term Nassi, is related to the Hebrew word for elevate or uplift (nasso). In that sense, the role of the Nassi is to elevate and uplift each and every member of his people. One of the mystics points out, that the letters of the words Nassi are an acronym for the phrase, “Nitzotzo Shel Yaakov Avinu” – a spark of (the soul of) our forefather Jacob. It this context, the Nassi is the successor to Yaakov as the leader of the Jewish people. Why Jacob and not Isaac or Abraham? The Rebbe explains, that both Isaac and Abraham had sons that did not end up following their example. Jacob, on the other hand, had a full compliment of children that followed his path in life. This, the Rebbe points out, is the mark of a true Nassi. One whose influence elevates and uplifts Jews from across the entire spectrum of our people.

The Rebbe embodied this throughout his decades of leadership. The last 28 years have demonstrated that the Rebbe’s influence on the Jewish people and humanity as a whole, continues to increase in strength and in scope.

May we soon merit the realization of the Rebbe’s vision for the time of goodness and G-dliness for all people in the Era of Redemption through the coming of Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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