Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hard time.

I've been having a hard time so I tell myself, to make myself feel better, "I have it so good compared to some", and that fact really brings no comfort. In fact, it always makes me feel worse.


—Not Helping

Dear Not Helping,

Forcing yourself to say, “I have it good” is a way of denying the pain you feel. It's spiritual-religious masochism.

Let me explain it this way... If you are in pain and I tell you that you aren’t in pain, that wouldn’t help.

So, if you are having a hard time, why would you tell yourself that you have to change your attitude?

If it brings you any comfort at all, you are in very good company. Many people do this.

With love,


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Heaven on my mind

My non-Jewish sister-in-law asked me about Jews' notion of Heaven and Hell... I realize that's a big question, but if you have a "short answer", I'd be grateful.

— Heaven-on-my-mind.

Dear Heaven-on-my-mind,

Here's a story:
Before a sermon that I gave at a Los Angeles congregation, I asked those in attendance, "By a show of hands, how many of you believe in life-after death?" and about 1/3 of the people raised their hands. I continued, "By a show of hands, how many of you don't believe in life-after death?" and about 1/3 of the people raised their hands. And then I said, "By a show of hands, how many of you aren't certain?" and about 1/3 of the people raised their hands.

"This," I exclaimed, "is exactly why it's impossible for me to answer simple questions like, what do Jews believe about life-after death!"
The same goes for your question.

There is no singular Jewish notion of heaven and hell.

Here is a link to a Jewish web-site that unequivocally states that that Jews do believe in Heaven and Hell. And, one can find web-sites that state otherwise.

The Hebrew Bible doesn't say much about life after death and that which it does say isn't very clear. On the other hand, the writings of Immanuel, the son of Solomon of Rome (c.1261–c.1328), like the writings of Dante, give a pretty impressive tour of hell.

Since the enlightenment, many Jews have tried to expunge archaic non-rational "superstitions" from their philosophy and theology... accordingly, the word on the street is that Jews don't believe in heaven and hell.

So much for the short answer.
(Or, giving you any answer at all.)

With love,


Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Dear R.Abbi,

I did something terrible. I kept a secret from someone for so long, and I lied to cover it up, and yesterday guilt over came me and I told my secret and now I think I lost one of the most important people in my life. And I don't know what to do. And I don't know if they'll ever forgive me and I don't know how I can live if they can't.

What do I do?

This is taking every ounce of energy out of me, I feel trapped inside of myself. It's hard for me to function. I'm scared, too, because of threats, because of harsh decisions, because of not knowing. It's not like I've committed an unforgivable sin, and I believe in karma, but I'm not sure if what I did was nearly as bad as what I'm getting for it.

Help me!


Dear Guilty,

The steps to forgiveness are acknowledging the wrong you have done, making an honest amends. You can’t control if your friend will forgive you. You just can’t.

You can acknowledge what you did wrong and promise not to do it again. Then all you can do is listen to hear them and then respect their wishes. If they tell you not to contact you, don’t. If they tell you that they want you to do X, you must think about doing that (or negotiate with them to do something that feels appropriate for you to do).

How you can live with the guilt?

That’s something that only time will tell.

What you can do is to start by living with the guilt.

Live with the gut-wrenching pain in your stomach and don’t do anything to try to make it go away. Live the guilt.


If it is something that will not go away, you ought to learn what it feels like.

Like when you lost a tooth as a child. You had to re-learn what the contours of your mouth felt like.

Re-learn what you feel like with the guilt.

Be uncomfortable in it.

It’s really the only thing you can do.

With regard to karma... you think you understand how karma works just because you believe in it?


No one understand how karma works . . . Anyone who says they do is lying. Saying you understanding how karma works is like saying you know God’s true name.

With love,


Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Dear R.Abbi,

I see that some people write G-d instead of God. Why?


Dear Hoosgawdennewhey -

As far as I know, this tradition is rooted in the ancient Hebrew Torah scrolls where in lieu of writing out God's name, placeholder letters were used instead. The same is done in English.

Let's look at two possible explanations given for why this was done in ancient days:

1) Were someone to "know" God's true name, they would have dominion over God. So, a placeholder was used instead.

2) It was considered disrespectful to destroy anything with God's name written on it. So again, a placeholder was used instead.

Personally, I think that worrying about how we write God's name is goofy — it's like debating the exact grit of the sand on the beach and missing the splendor of the sunset.

What we call God doesn't matter. How we write the letters we use as the placeholder for God's name doesn't matter.

What matters is that we are in a real relationship with God.

With love,


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What does the word "Torah" mean?

Dear R.Abbi,

Would you please tell me what people mean when they use the word "Torah"? I've heard it explained differently by different people.

-- Curious about Torah

Dear Curious about Torah,

You've got reason to be a bit confused — Torah can means a lot of different things . . . and not just because every Jew has a different opinion on the subject.

I'm going to give a full answer.

Torah is kind of like earth. You know how “earth” refers to the planet we are on as well as the stuff that the whole planet is made of? Well, similarly, Torah refers to a whole and the many parts of that whole.

Let's start small and get bigger.

There's the scroll with the five books of Moses, that's the Torah. (And, whether Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are in one book or in their easily recognizable scroll formats, these books in this order is still referred to as the Torah.)

Where it gets tricky is when the Torah-scroll Torah is contained in the larger work. All the stuff in the Bible — the first five books just mentioned and all the rest of the books of the Hebrew Bible — comprise what is sometimes referred to as 'the written Torah.'

And then, there is what is referred to as the 'oral Torah' which contains all the canonical Jewish texts written down after 'the written Torah' was recorded. (So, why is it called "oral" if it was written down? Because — and go with me on this one — it is taught that Moses received this stuff too, but it was not written down until later. God told all of it — written Torah and oral Torah — to Moses, Moses told it to Joshua and it got relayed to the elders from generation to generation. The written Torah was written down and the oral Torah was just told from elder to elder until people were afraid that this "oral" Torah would be lost or corrupted, so they wrote it down too.) The "Oral Torah" contains the Talmud, which was recorded between 200 and 500 CE.

But the Oral Torah contains more that that, too! Oral Torah also includes the law codes of the 1100's, the 1400's, and today's laws (like whether or not it's kosher to have an internet server work on the Sabbath).

And finally, let's widen the lens one more time: Torah means learning.

So, whether you believe that the entirety of the Torah was given to Moses, whether there was a Moses, whether there was a God, whether there is a God, whether your head is spinning with how much there is to know, whether or not you know anything . . . TORAH is about learning.

Keep on learning,


Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Dear R. Abbi,

I saw you on Between the Lines with Barry Kibrick and found you very interesting.

I want to do something for the greater good, can you help me find my way?

To be honest, I'm not even sure what that means — but I do know that I want to be able to help others in a meaningful way.

I'm an artist and although some people like my work and are sometimes moved, I'm not sure that qualifies as a worthwhile legacy for my life here on earth.

Where do I begin?



Dear Searching,

Thank you for your e-mail.

To quote Maria from The Sound of Music, “Let’s start from the very beginning. That’s a very good place to start.”

I think you should begin right where you are.

But it’s an uncomfortable place to be, isn’t it?

Would that you had a lofty goal . . . how much easier that would be!

For example, if you knew that by 2010 you wanted to have your art in five prominent galleries with proceeds from the sales raising $500,000 for AIDS awareness . . . well, then you would have a compass bearing, an orientation, and a specific goal to work toward.

However, you don’t have your direction yet and that’s what is uncomfortable.

So, another way answer to your question is that you should start by being uncomfortable.

I wish I could be the guy to give you all the answers. But, as you may have guessed, you are the only one who has the answers. Rest assured, it’s completely appropriate that you don’t know them yet.

After all, you’re just beginning to form the questions!

The following is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
I suggest the following prescriptive exercise, if you’d like to work on it. Try writing out the words of the above poem once in the morning and once in the evening every day for the next week. (And if you want, check back in and tell me how it goes.)

Of course, should you find a path that works better for you — like making a sculptural interpretation, dancing it out, or painting it — that works too . . .

Be the artist that you are called to be.

With love,

R. Abbi.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Death & Suffering.

Dear R. Abbi,

In my work with hospice, I often wonder why people have to endure pain and suffering on their deathbed. Coming from an Irish Catholic background, I still today get the message that suffering and pain is the only way to absolve oneself of the "original sin" bestowed upon us. Despite much work on my part to dispel this myth, when I am present for a particularly diffcult death, I go right back to that premise. I really need to break this pattern. Any suggestions?

- Euthanatos

Dear Euthanatos -

Augustine of Hippo is widely attributed with coining the notion of “original sin.” My read on the genesis story (and I would say that of most modern scholars) does not concur with the horrific theology that stems from this line of thinking — that God is cruel and un-just.

I would ask you to instead of wondering what St. Augustine might think, to consider instead, “What Would Jesus Do?”

And, I know the answer to that.

It’s one you know too: have compassion for the person who is dying and lovingly witness to them their pain. And, equally importantly, have compassion and love for yourself.

You are doing holy work.

With love,