I often receive emails from different organizations offering that a rabbi will pray for me at this or that great rabbi’s grave. Does it really make a difference where one prays? Isn't praying to a dead rabbi for salvation practically idolatry?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
It’s a very important question. The notion of praying at the graves of the righteous is well-established. The Talmud tells us that Caleb, one of the spies sent to inspect the Holy Land, separated from the rest of the group to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs (ma’arat ha’machpailah) in Hebron. He prostrated himself before the cave and said to them “My fathers, plead for mercy for me that I be saved from the evil designs of the spies” (Sotah 34b).
Elsewhere the Talmud mentions a custom to visit a cemetery during times of calamity, such as a drought. The reason, according to one opinion in the Talmud, is so that the dead will ask for mercy for us in Heaven (Ta’anit 16a).
It has likewise been a Jewish custom all throughout the ages to consider the graves of the righteous (kivrei tzaddikim) places of pilgrimage, and to visit there and recite Psalms and prayers. Hassidim even leave notes (kvitlach) by their Rebbe’s grave.
As you point out, though, this must be understood correctly. Praying to a deceased person rather than God is idolatry. He cannot help you, no matter how great he was in his lifetime. What he might be able to do is intercede in heaven on your behalf. Thus, when a person prays at a grave, he should either have in mind that the righteous person (tzaddik) help bring his prayers to God, or even better, he should pray directly to God that He help him in the merit of the tzaddik buried here (Mishna Berurah 559:41, 581:27).
That being said, it may well be more effective to openly and sincerely pray to God for your needs yourself, rather than asking some great rabbi to do it for you. God gives us challenges and hardships in life so that we’ll turn to Him and improve ourselves – rather than that we find a great person to take them away for us.
I live in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, and I enjoy reading your Ask the Rabbi column.
In my local paper today, it was reported that a leading rabbi in Israel said that the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were reincarnated souls of great sinners. This confuses me on two points.
Is the belief in reincarnation a central Jewish belief? And if so, how can the victims of the Holocaust, so many of which have been documented to be loving and gracious people, be reincarnated souls of great sinners who are being punished?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Everyone agrees that when taken out of context, these statements sound awful. However, in context this rabbi was explaining the idea that souls enter this world in order to correct their mistakes from previous lives. This idea not only refers to those murdered in the Holocaust, but in every generation.
The great kabbalist, the Arizal, says that there is almost no one alive today who is not reincarnated from earlier generations. This includes a large portion of souls from previous times, from those who sinned with the Golden Calf and on through history.
Did they die for naught? No, these reincarnated souls accepted upon themselves all the punishments, hardships and the deaths of those who were murdered in the Holocaust.
By the way, this wouldn't be the first time that the newspapers have quoted something out of context to create a controversy which helps sell newspapers.
It was not merely the Holocaust connection, but rather the entire idea of reincarnation which disturbed the media. An editorial in Haaretz lambasted Judaism and religion in general:
"The transmigration of the souls of sinners" (reincarnation) is a concept that is difficult for an enlightened person, religious or secular, to relate to seriously."
Let's see: The majority of the world's religions, and not just Judaism, holds the belief of reincarnation. What if the Buddhist Dali Llama, who also believes in reincarnation, were to speak of it - would the media insult him, or praise him? Why then do they act with such contempt towards a fellow Jew, even more so a leading Torah Sage?
This all gives us much to think about.
I grew up in the era of feminism, and while I am thrilled at the vistas of opportunity it opened up for me and so many others, I have grown somewhat disenchanted after having seen so much negative fall-out: the rise in media exploitation of women, and the break-down of the American family. What does traditional Judaism say about this trade-off?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Tziporah Heller, a popular Torah teacher in Jerusalem, writes:
The feminist movement stemmed from women feeling disempowered. Men clearly controlled (and still control) the reins of power in the political, financial and judicial spheres, which determine most of the obvious facets of personal and societal existence. Thus, a primary goal of the women's movement has been to demand a share in this power through equal pay and equal employment opportunities.
Power, in essence, is the ability to effect change. If women have financial clout or high political or business positions, it is thought, then they too can determine the changes that will affect their lives and the lives of others.
But the feminist movement has failed to recognize another, more subtle form of power: internal power -- the ability to affect other people's ethics and values. While external power may procure a high corporate position, internal power will determine whether that corporate executive will be honest or embezzle.
Women's quest for external power has left a frightening vacuum in Western society in the area of moral training, where women formerly held sway. Rampant crime, child abuse, kidnapping, and the dramatic rise in violence against women are symptoms of a society gone amok, where many people have no concept of right and wrong, of honesty, fairness, compassion or self-control.
Today's internal decadence is eroding the quality of life in America as fast as external political and technological advances are improving it.
Clearly, the lot of women cannot be improved by political and financial progress if the inner dimension of society -- its morals and compassion -- is neglected by the very people who have traditionally been its custodians: women.
A typical male analysis of such societal problems customarily blames them on external factors, e.g., low income families in impoverished neighborhoods inevitably leads to a high rate of violent crime, substance abuse, etc.
If this were true, then Jerusalem's religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim, which has one of the highest poverty rates in Israel and where families typically number seven to ten children in a three-room flat, should be a hotbed of violent crime. Instead, Mea Shearim has virtually no violent crime and very little substance abuse, this despite the total absence of policemen on its streets.
A materialistic society, one which recognizes only that which can be counted and measured (income, titles, degrees, etc.), is bound to discount the imponderables such as compassion, courage, and selflessness, which ultimately determine the fiber of its citizens.
Ultimately, the people who have had the most significant effect on who you are today are not the President of the United States and the Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America, but your parents, teachers, and childhood role models -- the people who influenced your internal development. The wielding of internal power, while rarely accompanied by impressive titles or salaries, has a deeper, longer-lasting effect than the external power maneuvers of those who dominate the nightly news.
Women are the most proficient wielders of internal power because of their preponderance of insight, the intellectual vehicle of entering the very heart, mind, and soul of the other person. Insight accounts for mothers usually being able to understand the differences in their children more readily than fathers; for women historically being the pioneers in establishing orphanages, mental hospitals, and homes for the developmentally challenged; and for the no doubt accurate feminist claim that if women ran the world there would be fewer wars. The ability to view events in terms of their human cost rather than their political ramifications derives from insight.
The Bible is full of accounts of great women whose exercise of internal power had decisive effects on Jewish history.
Sarah understood the negative moral impact of Ishmael's example on Isaac. She insisted that he be sent out of the household, which Abraham could not bring himself to do until God emphatically told him, "In all that Sarah says to you, hearken unto her voice." Commentaries on this verse state that Sarah was a greater prophet than Abraham, for she could see the long-range moral corruption that could jeopardize future generations of the Jewish people through exposure to a violent and ruthless example at a formative stage.
The sages of the Talmud (that portion of Jewish law that was originally oral but is now written) credited the redemption from Egypt to the merit of the "righteous women," who, against the judgment of their husbands, saw that they must continue to procreate despite Pharaoh's death sentence on all Jewish male babies. In all these delicate situations, the women's ability to perceive the reality of a person or situation determined the course of Jewish history.
Thus, defined Judaically, the issue is not whether women should or should not have power, but rather on the kind of power on which they should concentrate, both for their individual development as well as for the good of the whole society.