How a Litvak attacking me on the train showed me the power of a united frum jewish nation

A litvak attacked me on the train this past week!

Here’s what happened:


With much humility, fragility and awe at the possibility of you creating lasting change in your life,

Berry Schwartz

Posted in Uncategorized

How owning your greatness – not shying away from it – can create a natural graceful humility in your life

Reading Time:  8 minutes, 5 seconds. Contains 1617 words (calculated by

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My intention in this article is: to provide a pathway for you to both, own your greatness and not shy away from it AND not have that be a barrier between you and people or have you feeling better than other people; quite the contrary in fact!



If you’re kinda amazing (and I’m very very clear you are), then how can you be humble?

Let’s use me as an example for this.

Berry Schwartz is a talented individual (gosh gosh blush blush that’s me!) and he knows it.

I do.

I’m extremely gifted at being with people and their raw, messy emotions. I’m slowly becoming talented at speaking and presenting. I’m a quick learner and pick up new ideas and talents quite fast. I’m developing myself to the point where my word is law for me. If I say I will do X, or I will be there by Y, it will be done. And if it isn’t I will clean up the mess and make it right. Let me tell you, that type of work with yourself is brutal, but it’s moving. Like… it’s really becoming that way for me gradually. I’m a pretty good writer (I don’t think I am but people tell me so), have a big brain and intelligence, can consume information rapidly, and, to some extent I know what I don’t know about life. I have a powerful work ethic and focus I can draw on. I’m getting competent (but nowhere near mastery yet) at having people around me see radical results on what’s important to them.

I’ve also worked part-time in law school as a copywriter while still being in the top 15% of my class, created a website/blog and begun a conversation in our community, created a monthly gathering group in my home, begun organizing a monthly solidarity run between black men and jewish men in crown heights, AND been an amazing husband and father (so my wife tells me).

Now, most people, especially in chabad communities, I think, would shy away from that. When they start noticing how great they are, they   start to kind of bend themselves and their brain away from that awareness. And in so doing, they would be losing so much freedom and power to just be with who they are.

I know I’m amazing.

I also know that I know it.

I also know that I don’t feel superior to anybody else AT ALL.

How is that possible?

Well, let’s take a look.

But first, let’s look at what humility is most definitely not (at least in my world).

Humility for most people seems to be a very rational and calculated thought process. It goes something like this.

- they start realizing they’re excelling at something

- they naturally begin to feel good about themselves or just aware of the contrast to other people’s capabilities in this area

- they perceive this as an issue

- they engage in a rational give and take to reduce the perceived contrast

For mussarniks, that might be something along the lines of focusing on sins, focusing on areas of failure, contrasting yourself to those yet greater than you in your area of excellence and so on.

For chabadniks, that goes something along the lines of:

“I think I’m so smart, but my intelligence is not really my own. I really didn’t do anything to deserve it. I’m not better than anyone else because of it. The truth is I’m really just fortunate that G-d gave it to me, and I need to be more grateful for it. I mean, it is true that I’ve developed it somewhat, but so what? Anything else would have been a waste; it’s not like I’m so great because of that. Besides, even what I did achieve wasn’t on my own. Without everything my parents and my teachers did for me, I never could have come this far. Plus, maybe if those guys I make fun of were given this gift, they would’ve done even more with it. So why am I trying to feel important just because I’m smart? That’s not what makes me important. If there’s anything that really does, it is that G-d created me and gave me a purpose. I have a relationship with Him and a truly important responsibility in this world. Nothing can ever take those away from me, and if I have that intrinsic importance, then I don’t have to make myself important. I am already important to G-d. I can just calm down and focus on what needs to be done”

[Taken from the winning essay of the MLC contest. Full disclosure, I submitted an article so make of that what you will :) ]

Notice the individual shying away from taking ownership of their greatness. The attribution keeps being moved from the individual to others, parents, teachers, environment and so on.

Nothing wrong with that. But it’s a very calculated process (almost convoluted).

Personally, this kind of rationalization doesn’t work for me.

For a couple reasons but mostly because I believe in taking ownership of your work.

Yes, I do have a big brain I was blessed with but so were others, and they didn’t achieve the same excellence I did. I am the one who put in the effort and the time and the commitment.

If someone else was me, i.e. had my brain and predispositions etc…they might have achieved what I’ve achieved? Not likely. We all have free choice. Hakol bidei shamayim chutz miyiras shamayim. The fact that I’m working on myself to the point where someone can be upset with me and instead of getting upset too, I can deal with what they’re committed to, what their real communication is (which is almost never just the emotion) is amazing.

And I’m doing it. No one else.

Engaging in this very cerebral dance just seems krum and crooked to me.

Besides which, the very rationalization and cognitive back and forth about this excellence you have is itself the lack of humility!

If humility is forgetting about yourself for a bit, then how can you focus on that?

See, by focusing on that you’re again focused on yourself and what you need to do/become and before you know it … you’re back at square one: YOURSELF AND THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF.

It’s like the joke about the bochur was was a genius but full of himself so they sent him off to a great Rav to learn some humility and when he came back he said…before I was pretty great but now I’m REALLY great because I’m also humble!

I actually was this bochur in the joke!

I remember so vividly in 8th grade in my Litvish school being one of maybe three kids out of hundreds who stayed inside the beis midrash every recess to learn Torah.

Hahaha. We KNEW how special we were, and God did we have chips on our shoulders. And our teachers encouraged that!

We really wore our status of “future talmidei chachamim” on our shoulders and  felt superior to everyone else who was too “weak” to come learn during recess.

So how was I humble then? I wasn’t, but I sure forced myself into thinking I was. I had these really complicated calculations about each kid that , if he was me, he would be doing even more than I was.

So does being humble require being ignorant or lacking awareness of how amazing I am?


Is it thinking about your sins or failures?

Is it me sitting down to reflect on all the areas of my life where I’m anything but great?

The fact that I let my brain take me down some days, down the rabbit hole of anxiety and worrying about the future? The fact that I don’t keep all the mitzvos all the time? The fact that I sometimes am not there for my family in the way I know I could be? The fact that I get angry at God, myself and family sometimes? My lack of clarity about the future? My occasional unwillingness to see the beauty in my life and instead just seeing what I don’t have? The jealousy I feel towards those I perceive as more successful than me? The fact that it’s hard for me to take criticism without getting caught up in looking and defending myself.

Sure I could go there and think about that and maybe fit my heart into the box of feeling small and less than others.

But my God for what? That is so odd for me. It’s so forced and effortful, it’s, dare I say it, snaglike (I kid, I kid).

Then what is humility?

It’s not a brain thing. You can’t get it by pushing for it. You can’t really get it by having these calculations.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself it’s thinking of yourself less. [Read that again]

And not by thinking about how much you need to be thinking less of yourself. It’s a natural graceful thing. It happens when you’re not looking to it and for it.

And it happens when you start to really see people and be struck by how frikin beautiful they are. How incredible they are.


Last week, I’m sitting on the four train, and I’m literally crying looking at all the human beings in that train and just seeing so much beauty and wonder.


You think there’s any chance I can feel superior to others when I see the beauty and wonder that human beings are?

Not likely.

Because when you’re engaged in seeing people, looking past the surface, what you see, what you find, makes it impossible to feel haughty no matter how much excellence or achievements you’ve collected.

So maybe you don’t need to look away from your areas of excellence or how amazing of a human being and Jew you are.

Maybe you can double down, take ownership of your greatness and be complete with who you are.

And maybe when you do that, you start to REALLY feel humbled at the beauty of the people around you.


Hell, what do I know.


Thank you to Jacky Stern, Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe and Rabbi Pesach Sommer for reading a draft of this article and providing insightful feedback.

P.S. Here’s what I’m NOT SAYING:

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to engage in a calculated thought-conversation to make yourself feel smaller by focusing on areas where you don’t seem to be great.

I’m not saying it’s all or nothing…perhaps a blend of the two could work for YOU.

I’m not saying that it’s ALWAYS good to own your greatness (though I may believe that).


P.P.S. If you found this article in any way helpful, empowering or insightful, OR if you disagreed with it and yet it had you come alive and start thinking about what really matters to you AND you want to give something back to me, I have a request of you!

Share it with two people you suspect might like it, resonate with it, or even strongly disagree with it.

Find me on facebook or twitter or shoot me an email berryschwartz[at]gmail[.com] to let me know how my content is working (or not) for you.

With much humility, fragility and awe at the possibility of you creating lasting change in your life,

Berry Schwartz

Posted in Stam

I’m Frum And I’m Proud – That’s Right, I Said It!


Reading Time:  4 minutes, 53 seconds. Contains 977 words (calculated by

Skim Time: 2 minutes


My intention in this article is: to clear up the confusion I see arise around the word frum and in the process to have you take a look at what the level of your commitment to halacha is.

Here’s a one paragraph summary of the article: frum = giving your word and committing to what God wants, i.e. halacha (if you believe that) as a whole system. It does not correlate neccesarily to behavior or how much you do but rather whether you’re comfortable being known as someone who is committed to halacha.



So many observant jews I know detest the term ‘frum’. I do too at times. It just seems that no label could exist that would do justice to the complexity of people’s relationships to Judaism, God and Halacha.

As one of my readers wrote to me in response to my last post:

“As I told a Rabbi a few months ago, I’d rather be browsing the internet on a Saturday as opposed to sitting around a Shabbos table where gossip is being consumed along with Kiddush. Nuff said.”

Is someone who breaks Shabbas but is absolutely given over to not gossiping and engaging in lashon hara as a direct result of their commitment to halacha, are they “frum”?

Maybe they’re even better than someone who keeps shabbas but gossips at the shabbas table! After all, the Gemara says that lashon hara is like murder, adultery and idol worship?!

But after all is said and done, I think there is value in the term frum. And I think there is a definition of that term that would capture that value.

Frum = someone who is committed to halacha as an actual commitment. Meaning, someone who has given their word, literally given their word to God to respect and honor the boundaries that halacha sets up.

Now, this doesn’t mean that a frum person doesn’t have lapses, even serious lapses in their performance and observance of halacha. But their lapses are seen within the context of a breakdown in performance and adherence to halacha and are recognized as issues to be worked on.

Take me for example. Most people would consider me a frum person right?

Certainly I look it with the beard!

And yet, I have serious lapses and failures in performance. There are days I don’t wear tzitzis…there are days I don’t daven…days I come close to trimming my beard…days I speak lashon hara… Mondays and Thursdays I don’t hear kriyas hatorah (notice the jarringness of the earlier examples and the relative casualness to my “confessing” I speak lashon hara occasionally – how interesting)…BUT all these lapses are seen as issues and real problems, and when they occur, I engage with them from a place of how-can-I-ensure-this-won’t-happen-next-time type of thing.

I.e. frumkeit is a place to come from, a position you take, a platform of commitment. It does not correlate necessarily to behavioral actions or to how much, i.e. the quantity of things being observed. Instead it is a contextual thing. It is a notice of where the person is coming from. AND it is an ease with being known as a halachic jew, one who is committed to being there for God, a comfortability with what you are. Have you ever heard a black southern baptist preacher talk or met one? Let me tell you, they’re at ease with who they are and being known as someone committed to their church.

IT’S CRAZY that frum people don’t have that! And I think it’s because we think in terms of behavior.

“How can I say to this stranger, yes I’m frum when I missed maariv last night.”

Instead of, “Heck yes, I’m frum and proud and I’m committed to God and halacha. Yes I have lapses. So what? WHO I AM is built on what I’m committed to, not on my weak moments, my failures, my foibles!?”

Just think about a husband who clearly tells his wife, “Every Tuesday, consider us unmarried. I will not be there for you and any commitments I gave you, are not commitments for me on Tuesdays.”

Or a husband who says, “When it comes to finances, you’re on your own and I will contribute nothing to you.”

We would say there is something fundamentally lacking in his “marriedness” in his commitment.

And yet, a husband who doesn’t say that but instead, often (maybe even more than once a week like in the above example) is not there for his wife, is not fundamentally lacking in his marriedness.

To be sure, there is a serious issue with his performance but the wholesomeness and integrity of his commitment is solid. He is coming from the place that he should be there for his wife every day, in every issue.

Yes, he often isn’t. But those lapses are seen as failures of performance and will be addressed to the extent he is able to in the current moment (depending on his character and what he is currently dealing with in life).

That is like me not wearing tzitzis or not davening. It doesn’t alter my commitment to God, it doesn’t alter my belief in how important, even vital, these mitzvos are.

This also works within various groups of Jewry. A modern orthodox woman who keeps everything her posek says, even when its not convenient or uncomfortable may be frum, even with her wearing pants and not covering her hair, while the litvak who gossips and doesn’t even see it as an issue, or the chassid wearing two pairs of tefillin but who talks during kriyas hatorah as a matter of course without even being committed to changing that, indeed doesn’t even relate to it as an issue, are both not actually frum.

Their failures are not lapses in performance and are not even seen as such. Rather, they’re committed to parts of halacha but not to all of halacha.

I think this is an important distinction because it has value in clarifying where someone stands.

You know, I rarely wear a kappote, and yet, in my mind I am totally a kappote-wearing chabadnik, I have a commitment in the matter (though I have serious lapses here). Yet, someone else might in actuality wear a kappote much more often than me, and yet, declares that he is not a kappote-wearing chabadnik, he has no commitment to it and thus is not a kappote-wearing chabadnik even though he wears it more than I do!



Thank you to Shternie Kagan and Tzvi Bleich for reading a draft of this article and providing valuable feedback.

P.S. Here’s what I’m NOT SAYING:

I’m not saying what you hold valuable in your heart is more important than what you do (though I might believe that).

I’m not saying that it’s a free for all and that as long as you have a system of halacha that you commit to, you’re frum. I.e. there are poskim beyond the pale (an obvious example would be reform, reconstructionist etc…)


P.P.S. If you found this article in any way helpful, empowering or insightful, OR if you disagreed with it and yet it had you come alive and start thinking about what really matters to you AND you want to give something back to me, I have a request of you!

Share it with two people you suspect might like it, resonate with it, or even strongly disagree with it.

Find me on facebook or twitter or shoot me an email berryschwartz[at]gmail[.com] to let me know how my content is working (or not) for you.


With much humility, fragility and awe at the possibility of you creating lasting change in your life,

Berry Schwartz

Posted in Foundational

My Commitment To Non-Frum Jews

Reading Time:  6 minutes 31 seconds (calculated by

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My intention in this article: is to have you take a raw look at how you relate to other jews, particularly within the context of judaism, and particularly with jews who are not receptive to your message.  I do this by giving you a window into my own struggle and journey on this. First it was about mitzvos, then it was about jewish souls, then it was about God. And now it’s about jews, wherever they are currently consciously holding. 



This past Yom Kippur, something astonishing happened that gave me real clarity on on a dilemma I had been wrestling with for a while.

I was outside a shul in Manhattan, when I get a tap on the shoulder.

It’s an older looking guy, probably in his fifties, bald, with the type of eyes that tell you he’s been through a couple rough patches in his life, and the type of forehead that tells you, his big brain only made it worse.

“Can I speak to you?” he says.

“Sure thing” I respond.

He gives me another once-over with those rough eyes. “I’m 53 years old and I’ve never broken my Yom Kippur fast…but I think I will tomorrow morning.”

Ok, now I’m interested.

I won’t go into all the details of his life (BT then into Breslav, then Chabad, then Litvish, then Carlebach then a PHD in Kabbalah then separated from wife and living with Jamaican girl) but I got something out of that experience that produced a clarity for me.

This man was clearly (he said as much) breaking Yom Kippur because he felt hurt and rejected from his community and because his teacher and rav had stabbed him in the back. And, no matter how long we spoke, he couldn’t shake the power of that story and narrative he had spun. That he simply HAD to break his word to God because someone else broke their word to him (?!).

And that night, I got clear on what my motivation and intention is in dealing with non-frum jews with respect to Judaism (and sometimes this holds true even for frum jews).

You see, I’ve been conflicted about this for some time and had quite the evolution on this.

As a Lubavitcher, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to do mivtzoyim.

Mivtzoyim, of course, is where Lubavitchers take to the streets and stores to invite jews to learn Torah, put on tefillin, light shabbas candles and a great many other things besides.

And the truth is, I’ve struggled with mivtzoyim over the last couple years.

The motivation for me has not been clear for a long time.

It used to be, for me, about getting jews to do mitzvot, with the emphasis on the mitzvah.

I used to go down Melrose Avenue in L.A. every Friday feeling like a polar bear emerging from his winter den clumsily shaking off the icicles all over his neck. As a child, I used to imagine that my dad turned into a polar bear when he put on his tallis and for a long time, I thought of myself as a kind polar bear.

You know, I sometimes really forgot there was a world out there, so intensely focused as I was on yeshiva and learning.

And then, the World would smack me upside the head every friday, insisting that, no, no, it was still here and how!

And I would focus on getting out there, and getting the mitzvah.

But as I learned more chassidus and shed my litvish upbringing, I realized that God actually cares about jews first and foremost, not mitzvot.

So then it became about being there for jews, not necessarily mitzvot. You know, giving jews the opportunity to get in touch who I believed they really were: their godly soul.

But then, that became hazy for me as well, at some point.

Although it’s a longer conversation, the short of it was that it just seemed that the lawyers and florists and doctors and janitors and travel agents were more humoring me (or even humoring Judaism) then actually getting anything out of it.

To be sure, there were many exceptions and many jews who genuinely appreciated and thoroughly gained from the weekly visit but they were not in the majority, at least for me.

Now, I believed that their soul was being nourished from the weekly visit and yet it didn’t seem enough. I wanted to have an actual impact on them. I wanted to be able to relate to them where they are now, with who they hold themselves out to be right now! And standing in where they are right now, to have an impact THERE. In this world, and not “just” on a soul level.

And one day, frustrated with the lack of tangible impact, I declared that, really, I was doing this for God. Because HE cares about jews and deeply desires a relating to them and them to him, so, ok, I’m taking a stand for God.

I was a God hustler.

And that was so simple and cool.

But then, like a year or two ago, that stopped working for me.

There are many many jews who truly await the spunky penguin-like chabad boys who boisterously and joyously descend upon them every friday. They really appreciate the opportunity and convenience of doing the mitzvah, hearing some Torah, getting some shabbas candles and so on.

But what about those who don’t? How was I to relate to them? Ignore where they are holding in life and who they hold themselves out to be because I believe their soul and God will both be delighted in their begrudging mitzvah?

Don’t get me wrong. I actually believe in that theological and metaphysical truth.

I just couldn’t do it when the person in front of me was so not holding there.

But this Yom Kippur episode resolved it all for me!

My commitment is to facilitate you dealing with your Judaism and your relationship to God from a place of clarity and power not from a place of hurt, confusion or reaction.

In other words, I’m not committed to specific results such as a non-frum person becoming frum.

My beliefs are that every jew has a godly soul that, when given some nourishment will rear its gorgeous head and make itself known and expressed.

But when I’m speaking to you, relating to you, and getting down and dirty with you, I’m focused on YOU. Not on any other person or factor – not even God and not even on your soul.

I’m committed that people don’t break Yom Kippur from a reaction to a lot of hurt and shame and story that a person might be suffering from.

I’m committed that people don’t let the parts about Judaism or God they DON’T like stop them from getting real juicy with the parts they do like IF THAT’S WHAT THEY ACTUALLY WANT. And sometimes it takes a while of conversing until they get in touch with that that is what they want and that’s ok. Sometimes it takes a while for people to realize that they DO want their bf/gf/job/family etc… back in their life. God is no exception, Torah is no exception and Judaism is no exception.

I’m committed that they get access to dealing powerfully with the parts they don’t like and growing.

But my commitment is to them, to their clarity, to their journey, to where they’re holding and who they hold themselves out to be right now.

I happen to believe that when the static is gone and the person’s misconceptions about life, God and Self are cleared up, they almost can’t help but embrace Judaism… and I’ve seen this time and time again.

It’s certainly not true for everyone and this doesn’t mean that everyone who leaves Judaism has life issues. (I’m not even talking about “issues” in the normal sense, in the sense that most people think when hear the word issue.)

Is that right?

Likely not.

Fact is…I’m wrong more than I’m right.

Thank you to Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Dr. Susskind, Shternie Kagan, and Tzvi Bleich for reading a draft of this article and providing insightful feedback.

P.S. Here’s what I’m NOT SAYING:

I’m not saying this is the only right way to approach your commitment to other jews’ judaism.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to relate to someone’s soul instead of where they are currently consciously holding.

I’m not saying it’s either/or.

I’m also not just trying to dress up my commitment to other jews’ judaism in a more palatable or “progressive” vibe.

P.P.S. If you found this article in any way helpful, empowering or insightful, OR if you disagreed with it and yet it had you come alive and start thinking about what really matters to you AND you want to give something back to me, I have a request of you!

Share it with two people you suspect might like it, resonate with it, or even strongly disagree with it.

Find me on facebook or twitter or shoot me an email berryschwartz[at]gmail[.com] to let me know how my content is working (or not) for you.


With much humility, fragility and awe at the possibility of you creating lasting change in your life,

Berry Schwartz

Posted in Foundational

I’m small, petty and jealous – and that’s awesome!


Reading Time:  5 minutes, 56 seconds (calculated by

Skim Time: 3 minutes


My intention in this article is: to give you some freedom from feeling bad from petty and small thoughts that most human beings have…or even simply to stop having them have a say about who you are to yourself or others.

Here’s a one paragraph summary of the article: I’ve been frustrated lately and jealous of others in the public sphere. I no longer am because I no longer confuse who I am with the ramblings of my brain!


I’ve been so frustrated lately.

You see, I want to be making a difference for people in real time in real life..

And yet, I keep coming back to this prison of myself.

I keep being distracted by: “How will I make enough money? How will I be a great parent? How will I be more committed and more present with my wife and family? What’s going to be with my career? What’s going to be with my avodas hashem? How will I arrange this project that I committed to?”

And on and on.

Those would not be so bad by themselves. They’re pressing concerns but not embarrassing concerns.

Then come the petty shameful concerns…the concerns that make me feel small and ugly.

“Why is person X getting to write about issues that I deeply care about and taking a stand for something while I’m not? I want to take a stand on creating change in the community, I want to be heard, I want to share my vision and my thoughts and connect with others around these issues. I want, to have a voice making a difference on this and I want, WHOAAA DARE I SAY IT, I want that voice to be MINE!”

I even start comparing stats, how many people liked my posts, how many people replied on my email subscriber list when I sent out that last article, how many shares did I get. Ha!

Jolts of jealousy shock me and my stomach mutates into a petting zoo of jellyfish.

Am I really so small and petty? Do I really think the world is a zero-sum feeding frenzy of people jostling for the limited change possible? Is this me?!

And here, my friend is where it gets messy and murky.

I become sad and upset and angry at myself. I call myself names. I envision how horrible people would think of me IF ONLY they knew how small and ugly I really am inside!

(The jellyfish have now had babies.)

And then, two weeks ago, I got something that transformed this for me, it gave me some space around this issue.

What I realized is that acting small is not so bad at the end of the day. It’s the shame, confusion and upsetness that rides that train which is so disgruntling, self-defining and corrosive.

Chassidim, being the deliciously witty and awesome human beings that they were, knew this well. They used to say, its not the sin the yetzer hara is after, its what comes after the sin.


How many times had I heard that at farbrengens and yet I never truly EXPERIENCED it!

You see, here’s the thing. We give wayyyyyy too much credence and significance to thoughts.

Ever felt jealous of someone else’s success in a field you desperately want to create change in?

Ever been attracted to a woman not your wife?

Ever felt bad for hoarding a limited resource out of fear of scarcity?

Ever stereotyped a minority and felt bad?

Ever judged someone crassly without any reason and felt small afterwards?

Sometimes we don’t even THINK these things! Like, we’re not even thinking them, we’re just thoughting them!

It’s just the chatter of a brain that doesn’t have an off button, that shares many traits with animals (in fact in many ways has traits no animal has, such as a capacity for pleasure in someone else’s pain), that simply has you on survival mode for most of the time, that simply spouts forth some jumble of sensations and thoughts and feelings.

And then, WE GET UPSET OVER IT!! What a frikin joke. LOL.

Are you your brain? Are you your thoughts? Are you your feelings? Do you EVEN control your thoughts and feelings?

My goodness, it’s comical that we get upset over these things.

And just like that, I had so much freedom from the jealousy, from the pettiness, from the smallness.

Because what was happening was that I was taking ownership of something that is not ME.

I was allowing my ME to be defined by something that is, most decidedly, NOT ME.

Instead, I let go of needing to be the “type” of person who doesn’t think those things. I let go of trying to figure out who I am based on those thoughts! I stopped looking at my life and inner world like a forensic analyst sweeping a crime scene, trying to piece together who I am.

“Oh, did I have those thoughts of jealousy and ego? Ah. I must be a small person. Damn. I wish I wasn’t. That sux. Let me go feel bad about myself now.”

Instead, I experienced a sense that I don’t need to do that. I get to say who I am, no one else. Not my thoughts, not my chatter, not the twinges of my heart and body but ME. The part of me that is beyond my thoughts and feelings. What we might call the Self or the Soul.

[And the coolest part? As often happens, whenever I experience something truly remarkable, something that gives me real freedom in life as it happens in real time (and not as some concept about freedom), I realized, MY GOODNESS IT'S ALL IN CHASSIDUS (to wit, chapter 28 of Tanya...).]

I think that freedom comes to us when we let go of having to take ownership for the smallness of our brain and create a sense of self that is larger than our thoughts and feelings. An I or ME that is defined by our values, our commitments and our beliefs instead of our moods, our thoughts and our feelings.

And the sense of freedom that comes from not having to hide those common thoughts is TREMENDOUS.

A friend of mine recently met me and my brain was having all these thoughts about how this friend is an obnoxious good for nothing because he didn’t pick up my calls for a week. So instead of hiding that thought and having it essentially run the conversation because I would be positioning everything I say to not let that upsetness show itself, I instead got real straight with him. I said, “Look Mendy, I’m so sorry but you didn’t pick up my calls and now all these thoughts are coming up for me and placing a big ole fat obstacle between us and I want to apologize for that and say that I know you are a good friend of mine and that those thoughts are nonsense.”

Besides creating more intimacy and connectivity between us than we had felt in a long time, it was so freeing.

I’ll wrap with an incredible story.

One of my best friends and mentors is a man called Robert. Robert taught me this in a powerful way, though I didn’t fully get it until recently.

Robert and I were at a conference sitting next to each other. Two more different men, perhaps, could not have been sitting next to each other. Robert is a strapping 6 feet and built like a juggernaut. He’s bald and is a black man. I am, well… me (redhead, white white skin, 5 feet 8 inches, and let’s just say NOT built like a juggernaut).

After sitting next to each other for three hours, I got up to go when I feel a strong tap on my shoulder. It’s Robert. He wants to talk. He looks…nervous but excited.

“It’s Berry right?”

“Yes” I say.

“I want to tell you…[long pause]…I’ve been with you for some time now, and the whole time, the only thing I kept thinking was…Jew…money…Jew…money… and I want to ask your forgiveness for that and own up to that.”

“Robert. I LOVE that. Thank you so much for telling me that! I get high off people being raw and real!” I exclaimed.

Long story short, we stayed riveted to the spot for the next 4 hours talking and meet at least once a month ever since.

Robert could have felt bad or ashamed or small for having those thoughts. He could have felt bad about it or justified it or denied it or hid from it or minimized it

Instaed, he said, screw my thoughts, they’re just thoughts my brain bubbles over with and mean nothing. Let me go forge a bond with this man that is based on who I really am, what I really think, not some thought or feeling.

Amazing things happen when you give up being your brain.

Thank you to Jackie Stern, Dr. Yisroel Susskind, Shternie Kagan and Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe for reading drafts of this article and providing helpful feedback.


P.S. Here’s what I’m NOT SAYING:

I’m not saying you should never take ownership of your thoughts and feelings (though I might believe that).


P.P.S. If you found this article in any way helpful, empowering or insightful, OR if you disagreed with it and yet it had you come alive and start thinking about what really matters to you AND you want to give something back to me, I have a request of you!

Share it with two people you suspect might like it, resonate with it, or even strongly disagree with it.

Find me on facebook or twitter or shoot me an email berryschwartz[at]gmail[.com].

Posted in Youarenotyourbrainthoughtsfeelignsorsensations

I’m moving from “what’s wrong” to “what’s possible”.

Reading time: 6 minutes


For the past year, I’ve been so struck by what’s not working for the frum community that that has become the focus of my writing. Without meaning to, I slowly drifted into writing exclusively about what’s wrong and what’s simply not working.

But that’s not what I want to be about!

You think the world needs another do-gooder with a blog who loves pointing out what’s not working?! Certainly, the frum community doesn’t need that.

So no more! From now on, this space is about what is possible for frum men and the community at large.

Some call conventional shlichus outreach. I suppose those people would call this inreach.

My intention is to be someone that explores how frum men can access being with life, as life is lived in day-to-day living, in a very powerful way. And sharing that journey and process with you.

More specifically, the intention of this space spreads into two dimensions.

Self and Soul

On the level of Self, i.e. as a Human Being, this space will be dedicated to looking into how human beings live life and what are accessible powerful mindsets and ways of being, that allow human beings to flourish, whatever flourish would look like for you IN REAL TIME.

This includes real-world, offline events, some of which have already begun (such as  monthly gathering of men in Crown Heights and a gathering in Lakewood).

On-line, the major focus on the level of Self will be tools and mindsets that work in real time, and give you access to being with life as it is and dealing with it very powerfully (see later for expectations you can have of this space and which, if unmet, are good grounds for telling me to go fly a kite).

You see, human beings deal with tremendous amounts of struggle. Have you ever seriously struggled with a relationship or a life situation?

Ahhh you have?


So you’re human. And the one thing we can be sure of is that many more struggles are headed your way. The only certainty in life is uncertainty. The only guarantee life makes is death. (And that’s awesome if you think long and hard about it.)

But the struggle, the suffering often comes from what chassidus calls the animal soul and what I call the brain.

The circumstance never generates the struggle by itself. Whatever circumstance you’re in, let me assure you there are other people in those circumstances as well and some of those people are not suffering.  Which means it’s a choice.

Frum men deal with a lot of extremely difficult and heavy responsibilities:

They deal with the normal stuff human beings struggle with.

Then, on the level of Self, they deal with large families and the mental, emotional and financial challenges that presents.

Money – nuff said.

Wife – how to have a happy, fulfilling relationship, dealing with attraction to other women, for many, dealing with pornography,

How to stay connected to purpose and meaning on a human level.

Then on top of all that, dealing with everything on the level of Soul:

How to keep Judaism alive and enlivening.

How to remain grateful and appreciative of God even when rent for next month seems impossible and you’re like my God, gimme a break!

How to give over Judaism to your kids

And on and on.

Here’s the deal though. If you will get anything out of this space, you will have to play with and take on the life-changing idea that the suffering, the limitations we place on ourselves, the loss of friends and family and connection and love and presence, all those things are on us.

They’re choices we make.

Every time we’re angry or sad, we chose that anger or sadness. It sure  as hell does not feel that way but there it is all the same. So if we’re the ones who took that on, we’re the ones who can actually get access to mastering that struggle and pain.

Ready for a slogan?

If you have 50% of the responsibility, you have 50% of the power. Once you take on that you’re fully responsible (not as a burden but as an opportunity) you gain tremendous power in your life.

On the level of Soul, i.e. as a Jewish Being, this space will be dedicated to giving you access to transforming the quality of your relationship with God and Judaism. Major themes I will focus on in this area is accountability, both for you and God (more on that in upcoming posts), and starting to experience Judaism as not just a system of rules but as an opportunity to have enlivening and truly profound relationship with the Unlimited One, based on what He has communicated works for him.

In upcoming posts, I will spell out with more detail the major themes I will be exploring on the level of Self and Soul.

But here are the expectations you can expect from this space.

This space will be exploring how to master the Self and start to use our heart and brain instead of having our brain and heart use us.

Nothing I write about or advocate is something that I have not used in my own life and validated experientially as a powerful and enlivening way of living. Much, maybe most of it, is influenced by my investment in chabad chassidus as well as various life experiences I’ve had that were transformational for me (i.e. produced lasting shifts and change, not temporary highs).

Let’s talk about the type of results you can expect to get out of engagement with this space:

You can expect to start waking up at times, actually, like in reality, as you naturally are upon awakening – excited to be alive.

You can expect to experience, like an actual EXPERIENCE, like simply the way life seems to you (not as some concept you are struggling to fit yourself into), to experience a sense of lightness and freedom in your life with whatever you are struggling with. Many of us live life like we’re in front of a firing squad, cringing and just waiting to hear that gunshot, see the world shrouded by a dark quickly creeping curtain of darkness.

Imagine having some space, my goodness, SPACE, to just be with whatever God is throwing at you.

You can expect to begin feeling like you’re an actual partner in your relationship with God, like you have an actual say, as if it were an actual relationship between you and the big Guy upstairs (without compromising halacha).

You can expect to feel like things that never seemed possible are suddenly appearing as doable, reachable and possible.

You can expect to begin seeing yourself, not as what you’re feeling emotionally or thinking in your brain, or even feeling in your body, but as Something beyond all that, something capable of not living life based on how you feel or think or desire. To begin to know yourself as a Self capable of generating almost anything possible.

If after sticking with me for a while, you’re not getting access to things like that, then please, please tell me and give me a good riddance!

Who am I to be making claims like that? I’m a nobody.


I’m not wise, I’m not old and saturated with life-experience, and I’m certainly not holy.

I’m simple a facilitator, someone who will hold you accountable and someone you can hold accountable as well (more on that in upcoming posts).

But here’s the REAL secret (might as well spill the beans now):


I have nothing, no power, no magic, no holiness (beyond, you know, the Godly Soul inside me).

I will simply be giving you some space to have some room from all the stuff that life throws at you, and when human beings have space, they get the power to shift whatever it is they need to shift to begin dealing with their “stuff” in a natural and intuitive way.

That reminds me, if you ever find me giving someone advice about a specific situation, please, please call me out publicly.

How comical. As if I could know more about what that person is dealing with than what they know themselves?!

No no no don’t make me laugh.

The only thing that I could possibly do for you is give you the context and space to deal with whatever you’re dealing with from a place of openness, aliveness and courage.

And even that, is not me, it’s you creating the change through playing with the tools laid out in this space.

Oh, by the way, nothing I write is true.

It’s all made up. Every. last. word.

The minute you think that I think or am proposing that what I’m saying is true you’ll do what human beings do in that situation.

You’ll begin checking with yourself, do I really think this is true? But what about that person and this person? What about factor X and Y? And doesn’t Science/Torah say that ….”

No, no friend, none of that please.

What I’m offering you is made up.

So stop checking if you agree with it.

Just take on to play with it in real-time in life and see what happens.

Posted in Foundational


Posted in Uncategorized

Freedom Isn’t Free


Posted in Uncategorized

The Problem With Jewish Academia


With the recent avalanche of biographies on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, claims of hagiography are not too far off.

Hagiography means that chassidim or adherents of any religion or leader cannot be trusted in what they write since they are, of course, “biased”.

While there may be some histories, studies and vignettes that fall into this, the vast majority of these claims are, in my opinion, overblown.

To understand this, lets focus on academics for a minute.

[Please take careful note that although this article will sound polemical in parts, my goal is not to bash Jewish academia. I think Jewish academia can be fascinatingly illuminating, and incredibly fruitful and productive. Scholars such as Haym Soloveichik, Menachem Elon, Jacob Katz and others come to mind. But Jewish academia only suffers, both in quality of scholarship and in reputation (see the case studies below) when it allows itself liberties and biases that render it dogmatic and committed to rationality to the point of irrationality. ]

 Are not academics biased, just as much if not more (as well will explore) than chassidim?

True, academics tend to not be card carrying members of any one religion or leader, but they are indeed card carrying members of Jewish academia, and this camp has its own set of ingrained assumptions that cannot be challenged and that lead its adherents (professors) to be biased in their writings.

How is Jewish academia biased? Let’s look at several factors and then some case studies to see how this plays out in real life.

1.  Groupthink is the idea that when many people come together and share similar backgrounds, philosophical leanings and other traits, the result is a single minded paradigm that often goes unchallenged, at the expense of creativity, daring, and open-mindedness. The “Ladder Problem” is a problem within academia (all forms), in which basic assumptions that have been repeated for decades come to be accepted and go virtually unchallenged, escaping critical rigorous scrutiny and analysis. These two problems go hand in hand and influence each other.

While orthodox and religious institutions are highly de-centralized, academics tend to flock in groups, and often at a conference or other forums of thought, such as journals, there is an underlying assumption of what are acceptable parameters of exploration.

We can see this certain basic assumptions, such as “when religious people claim a leader or Rebbe has performed miracles, this testimony is unreliable and simply fanciful exaggerated devotion.”

A neutral observer would be open to the possibility that someone who many people claim can do miracles and have seen him do such miracles, can indeed perform miracles.

Of course, many Jewish academics have preconceived notions of their own faith and fellow Jews and this is where this ingrained rigidity comes from.

Additionally, many of the people who give testimony to miracles are people who ordinarily would be beyond reproach. People who suffered in Russian prison camps for years, even decades, people who considered every word they uttered before speaking it.

I’m particularly thinking of Reb Mendel Futerfas, a famous chabad chossid, who was in Siberia for 8 years because he refused to leave Russia until every other chossid made it out, a man of incredible moral fiber and integrity. He told over a miracle story that happened to him in Siberia where the Lubavitcher Rebbe somehow knew what he was thinking  while in NY.

Do we believe him? Again, the starting point, to be scientific, rational, and academic must be neutral, one of observation not of opinion. And yet, rarely will this be the case. Instead this testimony will be rejected out of hand as hagiography.

Or what if I told you that the I myself experienced a miracle with the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the tender age of 10 months, when the Rebbe removed my need for surgery a day before the operation?

Are we to discount this? Sure its possible that when the Rebbe adamantly told my mother to not ahead with the operation even though that very morning, the doctors confirmed the problem was there, he was being …?

Here we come to a great irony of so called rationalist Judaism, in which the true rational would accept this story as being faithfully conveyed, especially after speaking to me, my mother, and other people who were standing there; in fact there is videotape!

The true rational is open to any evidence laid out before him, but when rationality itself becomes a banner for opposing any supernatural or mystical phenomena without being open to conflicting accounts, it ceases being rationality and becomes irrational.

This is the stance of many Jewish academics. Basic assumption assumed, since it strikes them somehow as more scientific or rational, and then dogmatic rejection of conflicting evidence.

Another prime example of this is biblical briticism.

Much of biblical criticism is circular reasoning.

Assumption #1 – The bible was not written by God.

Premise #1 – Therefore it is subject to historical literary analysis.

Premise #2 – There are many contradictions and textual indicators that there were multiple authors.

Conclusion – The bible was written by many people over different time periods.

The neat rigidity here is faulty not just because the contradictions can be (and were by the Sages) read as codes embedded in the text for the purpose of rabbinic legal deduction, but more importantly because the literary analysis and historical placing of text only makes sense if humans wrote the bible. If God actually wrote the bible, than any contradictions or indications that various parts are too different to have been written by one author, are, not just illogical but incoherent.

God does not write as humans do and never gave His word to write as we do.

 A simple point, but of course, the starting point for Jewish academia is a fundamental rejection of this. My point is simply that this is just as dogmatic and irrational as any rabid religious fanatics’ assumptions.

The claim of lack of bias made by academia is laid bare as false when we understand that a total rejection of the possibility that the bible was written by God is the greatest bias one can possibly have within this field of study!

2. Another issue with Jewish academia and academia in general, is that one is forced to accept the conclusions of experts in a different field. So for example, many a bible critic accepts without question conclusions about the Talmud and Tannaim from other Jewish academics (even the secular leaning ax-to-grind school of Wissenshaft des Judentums) without thinking critically about the data. Thus we have the phenomenon of Talmudic professors leaning on bible studies professors and vice versa, leading to an unhealthy balance of findings on data that was not critically assessed by the professor.

3. Yet another issue with using the banner of ‘hagiography’ to invalidate writings by the religious is that very often a religious researcher is more qualified and expert in the field than the academic. Consider that hundreds upon hundreds of men study for decades the Talmud in an environment that does not countenance lazy thought, and spend all day immersed in this field.

The academic by contrast often has only spent 1-3 years of research on his study, and usually has many other responsibilities, which only allow him to spend maybe 3-4 hours a day on research.

 Of course, the advantage of the academic is that he has a methodological sophistication at his disposal that, the lifelong kolel student, does not.

But, we must be careful when academic thinking challenges tradition thought if only because traditional thinkers are often much more qualified and immersed in the field.

By way of example, imagine an enclave of Shakespeare fanatic fans in England, who bring their children up exclusively on Shakespeare texts, who study Shakespeare all their life. The way they study is by reading the text over and over, and they write commentaries, analysis and other findings that are the result of lifelong, all day, all consuming study of Shakespeare.

Now imagine a professor of literature comes up with a finding that contradicts a basic assumption of this enclave.  A neutral observer would be very hesitant to accept this study of the professor who simply cannot match the enclave in zeal, focus, time spent, and devotion to the text.

4. The publish-or-perish phenomenon is well known. The problem is that, especially in Jewish studies with its staggering amount of text and thought, a need for edgy innovative research (and done fast since a study that takes too long will end with the professor perishing) often results in shoddy scholarship or at the very least incomplete research.

See the case studies for examples of this.

5. Yet another issue is that when there is evidence that an idea or practice existed in Greek culture and Jewish culture, academics start off with the assumption that ancient Israel always was influenced by surrounding cultures instead of positing that ancient Israel influenced other cultures. Common examples of this are:

a. The similarities between Noah’s Flood Narrative in the Torah and the flood story in the Gilgamesh Epic automatically indicated that the Torah’s account was borrowing from and was designed in response to the Gilgamesh Epic.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s searing critique (Volume V of his Collected Writings) of Heinrich Graetz’s works of historical fiction passed off as academic biographies of Chazal is a great resource on this.

6. Something academics tend to not understand is that  to make statements and definitive conclusions about scholars and periods of Jewry is no a light matter for people who live their life based on these scholars and cultures.

 Jewish academics lose credibility when their research and conclusions are made flippantly on the basis of one or two variant sources at odds with normative traditional understanding (See case studies for more on this). This is bad for Jewish academia but its also bad for the Jewish people as a whole.



Michael Rosen in his “The Quest for Authenticity” on Reb Simcha Bunim (Urim, 2008) makes the point quite clearly (pp. 305 and on).

Rosen begins with an overview:

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Rosen brings a fantastic paper from Dynner pushing back against the axiomatic assumption amongst academics that Hasidism arose from a state of Jewish crisis:

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Dynner shows that some of the cities and people in which Hasidism most flourished were quite well off and well to do.

Another prime example (but easy target) is Mr. Thou himself, Buber.

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[See where Buber subtly tweaks a chasidic story to add a more liberal and antinomian character to it. ]

Moshe Idel also points out the faulty assumptions of other academics:

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This is actually astonishingly common in studies of Talmudics, Rabbinics and Hasidism. Namely:

Phenomenon A occurred.

We know Event B also occurred.

Finding: They are correlated (many Jewish studies professors will also make claims of causation!).

With respect to the crisis-leading-to-hasidism, Rosen says:

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And lastly:

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In the recent Hakira, there was a couple succinct lines from Daniel Klein about a pet peeve of mine: the Jewish academic notion that the 13 middot, rules for interpreting scripture were taken from the Greco-Roman culture.

Here is Klein:

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Even the great Saul Lieberman descends into a “most probably” that the Jews took legal principles from the Greeks. Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with the Tannaim taking methods of textual analysis from the Greeks, the Indians or the Chinese. But I do have a problem with this type of lazy almost inferior-like thinking.



Talya Fishman wrote a book on the Tosafists that won awards and was considered a serious book in Jewish Studies. It turns out she could not read Tosafot! Haym Soloveichik was so upset he wrote a thorough and brutal (yet respectful I thought) critique showcasing the utter lack of any expertise or even competency she has in this field of rabbinics and talmud. I literally felt embarrassed for her after reading Soloveitchik’s essay [].

“Let me not be misunderstood. There is splendid work going on in many Talmud

departments in American universities, and they can boast of eminent scholars. Need I mention the path‐breaking work of Yaakov Elman and his colleagues in the comparative use of Pahlavi (i.e., Middle Persian) texts in Talmudic studies? However, alongside these notable

accomplishments lies the well‐known‐‐though not publicly discussed‐‐fact that in no area of

Jewish academic studies is there so much unabashed illiteracy as in the field of Talmud.1

How did this come to pass? It could never have happened in Jewish history, philosophy or literature, for example. Jewish history is simply an area in the discipline of history. A good historian will sense shoddy historical writing even in a field in which he knows little. Three professors of American history can make as good an assessment of a work on Jewish history as they can of one on Latin America. The same holds true for almost all other areas of Jewish studies. There is, however, no discipline comparable to talmudics in the Western canon. Here, universities are flying blind.

They must rely upon the judgment of outsiders, in this case competent talmudists. Should a

truly unqualified person (and by that I do not mean simply a poor scholar) obtain, for whatever

reason, a post at a prestigious university, he takes on graduate students‐‐and if he is active and vigorous, many such students—who know no more than he does, and he systematically proceeds to shape them in his image. They in turn get posts, especially if the teacher works hard to place them. They write reviews of each other’s books and recommend each other’s pupils for positions. As unqualified people will scarcely hire people better qualified than themselves, the talented and competent soon encounter increasing difficulty in obtaining appointments. (Academic Talmud, after all, is not a large field.)


All of this happens beneath the radar of the quality‐control system of academia. The only control possible had to be provided by qualified Talmudists; they had to speak up and speak up early. For whatever reason, they didn’t do so in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Once the situation becomes entrenched, the mah yomru ha‐goyyim (‘what will the Gentiles say’) syndrome sets in. That is to say, do not expose a fundamental problem in Jewish studies for fear that this only‐recently‐recognized field will be academically delegitimized. The result is the current situation in academic Talmud, which is without parallel in other university disciplines.


However, when that community is wholly in the dark as to what is transpiring, those rules must be breached. Look at what happened in Talmud. A few reviews were, in fact, written in the 1960s and ‘70s pointing out the errors of the author and hinting at his ignorance. The criticisms were shrugged off, because people thought, ‘Oh well, everyone makes mistakes.’ They didn’t know that the errors were ones that a schoolboy would never have made. This couldn’t be stated openly because it was against the rules of the game. Look at the situation now. If these rules aren’t finally broken and the whistle blown, there will be little left in a decade.”


Posted in Uncategorized

The Rebbe’s Theory on Rashi Studies





Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak, known as Rashi is considered to be one of the greatest biblical commentators and scholars. Besides running his own yeshiva[1], he penned two commentaries that have both become semi-canonical in Jewish texts; one on the bible of the Written Torah[2], the other on the seminal text of the Oral Torah, the Talmud. He is extremely ubiquitous[3], is considered an essential part of a chumash, and has been printed alongside the chumash since medieval times.


Rashi’s commentary can be seen as an important part of the burgeoning peshat movement, which flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries.


Yet, Rashi’s agenda, his methodology, is clouded in confusion. Although Rashi himself claims that lo basi ele lefaresh pshuot shel mikra[4] (I only come to explain the simple meaning of scripture), a quick perusal of the first verse of the Torah reveals that, quite contrary to his claim, Rashi is quoting midrashim and gemarot that engage in drush-like analysis and ?


In the first Rashi al ha-Torah, Rashi quotes at length an elaborate Talmudic discussion on where the Torah could have begun, and why it indeed begins with the narrative of creation. From a peshat perspective, there is no need for this.


In the second Rashi al ha-Torah, a midrash rabbah is quoted at length. Indeed, Rashi, after quoting the midrash rabbah says, im basa lefaresho kipeshuto, kach parsheu (if you want to interpret it in its simple explanation, this is how you should explain it)! If Rashi’s methodology is exclusively peshat, surely that is what he should have said and no more!


In the third Rashi al ha-Torah, Rashi explains the difference between elokim (representing divine judgment) and havaya (representing divine mercy), something that is seemingly superfluous and unnecessary from a peshat perspective.


If Rashi truly stuck to his claim (lo basi ele lefaresh peshuto shel mikra) we would expect to see Rashi’s comments on the first verse of the Torah looking something like this:

Bereishis bara elokim et hashamayim vi’et ha’aretz

Rashi: Bereishis – in the beginning of creation, the heavens and earth were created by God.”


In general, an analysis of Rashi raises the following questions:


1. Why does Rashi often choose one midrash over another?


2. Why does Rashi choose a midrash over a Gemara or vice versa?


3. Why does he explain a verse in ways that conflict with halakha[5]?


4. Why does Rashi sometimes comment ketargumo and cite to the Targum when it adds no further clarification?

For example, in Shemot 34:5, the verse says that vayikra bishem hashem. Rashi comments, metargaminan ukra bishma dah. Why? What does this add to resolving a tension in peshuto shel mikra[6]?


5. Does Rashi’s words align with his explanation in other places in his pirush, or does Rashi only focus on peshuto shel mikra for the verse in question without seeking an overarching harmonization of his commentary?


6. Does Rashi’s commentary fit with his commentary on Shas? Is it meant to?


7. Why does Rashi sometimes explain a verse in multiple ways?


8. Why does Rashi wait a full three chapters in Bereishis before telling us he is a parshan?


This is a problem that has struck many a commentator and scholar[7]. As a result, a spectrum of opinions has developed over the centuries.


Some[8] have taken the extreme position that Rashi in fact prefers midrash and drush over peshat! According to this position, the statements by Rashi attesting to his loyalty to peshat are only meant to apply exclusively to the verses he is commenting on. But in general, his methodology is to apply a derush-like lens to the verse.


Others[9] hold that Rashi only abandons the world of peshat when he has no choice[10].


Still others[11] prefer a middle approach: Rashi abandons peshat when he can, i.e. when there is a verse ripe for derush. Apparently this means when a verse is ambiguous, even though Rashi can stay entrenched within the borders of peshat, he moves into derush.



The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Theory


Beginning in 1965 (after his mother’s passing), the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, began a new style of sermons, what would come to be called Rashi sichot (Rashi talks). In these talks he articulated a radical understanding of Rashi. Based on his theory, he would eventually dissect over 800 comments of Rashi[12] in his public gatherings.


Put simply, the Rebbe fully subscribed to Rashi’s claim of lo basi lifaresh ele peshuto shel mikra[13]. Unlike others[14] who suggested that Rashi lived in a time where the distinction between peshat and derash had not been fully developed, and unlike others who…??


One of the points the Rebbe stressed in buttressing his theory for a complete subscription of Rashi’s claim is that we find instances where Rashi writes, “I do not know the explanation[15]“. And yet, on these very verses we find numerous midrashim that resolve the biblical tension[16]!


In fact, we find instances where Rashi explains something in his commentary on Shas and yet in his commentary al haTorah, says about that very issue,”I do not know”[17]!


Clearly then, Rashi’s claim is to be taken seriously, discrepancies and inconsistencies notwithstanding. The reason Rashi says “I don’t know” is because, if Rashi cannot explain a verse within the boundaries of peshat, Rashi prefers to tell the ben chamesh that there is a problem with the verse that he doesn’t know the answer to, rather than abandon his methodology and offer an explanation based on derush[18].



What defines peshat?


Before turning towards the endless places Rashi seems to deviate from strict peshat, and seeing how we might resolve these obvious contradictions to Rashi’s claim of being a strict parshan, it is worth defining what precisely the difference between peshat and derush is.


Chazal have made clear that ein mikra yotze midei peshuto[19] and yet, as the Ramban[20] points out, it does not say ein mikra ele peshuoto!


Some scholars have tended to define peshat as the ‘study of scripture in its literary and historical context’[21].


Saadia Gaon proposes that peshat cannot be opposed by rabbinic tradition[22].


The Rebbe proposed a simple definition of peshat, based on the mishna, ben chamesh lemikra (“when a child turns five we begin teaching him Torah”) and presumably also based on the notion that Torah is meant to be comprehensible to the tools of common sense logic and regular human parlance (dibra torah bilashon binei adam[23]).


If a five year old is the student introduced to the Torah for the first time, then Rashi’s comments must be addressed to the level of peshat that a five year old comprehends. This means that Rashi cannot raise a problem with the verse that a five year old would not understand (due to an undeveloped brain) or would not raise (due to a total lack of other Torah sources such as Gemara, Halacha, or other later verses). Conversely, Rashi expects his student, the proverbial five year old, to have difficulty with a verse that is contradicted, even by implication, from a prior verse in a prior section.


This means that when the Torah speaks about the ocean, for example, the ben chamesh has no problems with this word or concept being used since he is familiar with the notion of a large body of water (either through experience or as received via stories, folklore, and interaction with other humans).


Yet, when the Torah says, tohu vavohu, because a five year old has no experience or familiarity with what this is, and neither do his parents, he will have difficulty with these words and thus Rashi, the guardian of the world of peshat, must address himself to this five year old if he is to keep to his self-proclaimed purpose[24].


A ben chamesh will also not raise an issue based on anything beyond the verses he has learnt so far. For example, Rashi commenting on the Torah’s statement that Yitzchak’s fields’ yielded produce one hundredfold[25], says that the hundred was based on Yitzchak’s initial appraisal of how much the field could produce naturally. Rashi then adds: veraboseinu amru omed ze le’maasrot haya.


What peshat inspired tension could have moved Rashi to add this derush-like statement from the midrash rabba[26]?


The Maharal, Sifsei Chachamim, and Mizrachi[27] all posit that the tension is based on the midrash rabba’s question (Rashi only cited the answer). Namely, the principle of ein habracha shoreh bidavar hamishkal[28]. Yet such an analysis is rejected out of hand by the Rebbe for the simple reason that the ben chamesh never learnt midrash rabba, does not know of the principle ein habracha shoreh bidavar hamishkal and thus, would not be troubled by Yitzchak’s measuring of his fields’ yield capacity[29].





Anytime Rashi is silent, even in places where there is an obvious problem with the text (to the extent that all the commentators discuss it), this means that Rashi either thinks the problem can be resolved by the simple logic of the ben chamesh or via a previous verse or Rashi that the ben chamesh already learnt[30].



Non-alignment with Shas and Halacha


Because Rashi has so rigidly defined his purpose and has one specific agenda, Rashi cannot be expected to fit his commentary of peshat addressed to the ben chamesh, with his commentary elsewhere in Tanach or in Shas.


Neither does Rashi feel the need to explain the peshat in a way that conforms to the halacha[31]. Every possible consideration falls before Rashi’s all encompassing drive to present the verse in an understandable and simple way to the ben chamesh.


In his quest for pure peshat, Rashi becomes almost Karaite-like[32] in his rejection of midrash as the authoritative interpretation of the bible. Of course, in all else, Rashi stands in start contrast to the Karaites as Rashi often uses derush and rabbinic teachings to interpret the text. But, Rashi’s usage of midrash is solely on peshat’s terms[33].



Rashi’s usage of Midrashim


If Rashi indeed only has peshat on his mind why does he so often quote from rabbinic sources that seem beyond the pale of peshat, particularly midrashim?


The Rebbe contends that each and every midrash brought by Rashi is used purely to service a problem with the peshat[34].


Indeed, even when Rashi admits that the verse seems beyond the world of peshat[35] he still struggles to integrate the extra-peshat rabbinic sources with a simple reading of the verse[36].



Interaction with other commentators


The Rebbe often dealt with Rashi’s other commentators, the most common ones being:  Bartenura, Mizrachi Sefer Zikaron, Gur Aryeh, Levush Ha’orah, Divrei David, Dikdukei Rashi, Maskil le-David, Devek Tov, Bier Mayim Chayim, Tzeidah la-Derech, Sifsei Chachamim, Bier Yitzchak, and Nimukei Shmuel.


Many principles the Rebbe relied on in analyzing Rashi were taken from these commentators.



Rigorousness and Precision


The Rebbe demanded precision to any difficulty in analyzing Rashi and was not satisfied by good answers that contained slight discrepancies[37]. For example, on the verse, veshinantam levaneicha[38] Rashi comments that the son being referenced here is in fact a student: levaneicha-elu hatalmidim. Matzinu bekol makom she’hatalmidim keruyim banim.


What could possibly be wrong with baneicha from a peshat perspective that Rashi has to reinterpret it as referring to students?


The Rebbe[39] cites the Sifsei Chachamim who answers that, being that the Torah already spoke about teaching one’s sons five verses earlier (6:2), it must be that baneicha here refers to students.


This answer he Rebbe rejects out of hand for the simple reason that the prior verse is speaking about the son’s obligation while our verse is speaking about the father’s obligation to teach Torah. Another difference is that the earlier verse speaks about keeping the mitzvot (as the end of the verse states: lishmor…) whereas our verse speaks of the obligation for Torah study.


The Rebbe then suggests that perhaps there is a textual error and the printer inserted the wrong prior verse the Sifsei Chachamim was referring to.


Instead of Devarim 6:2, it should be Devarim 4:9, rak hishamer lecha…vehodatem levaneicha ulivnei vaneicha. This too is discarded because Rashi interprets (in 4:10) that verse’s mandate as being about the thunderous voice (kolot velapidim) at har sinai, and not learning Torah. Therefore there is no repetition as Rashi should have accepted baneicha as being simply sons.


To be thorough, the Rebbe is quick to add that, although the Chachamim accepted this mandate for the entire Torah[40] (and thus there would be repitition later in our original verse of 6:7), the peshat of the verse is referencing har sinai.


Total and utter precision is demanded in the analysis of Rashi; a few stray hairs out of place and the entire structure is abandoned. In articulating this vision, the Rebbe seems to have placed omnisignificance[41] in the text of Rashi; what midrashim purportedly do to the bible itself[42].


even deducing Rashi’s intent from extra letters


from the koteret


from naming the man deamar




Ambiguous words


Rashi, the Rebbe claimed, only explains words when they are not understood simply from the context. An example that will serve our purposes is the word pilegesh, which Rashi does not comment on the first time it appears in vayera[43], apparently feeling that the word is understood simply. Yet, upon its second showing in chayei sara[44], Rashi here feels the need to explain what a pilegesh is, saying nashim bekesuvah, pilagshim belo kesuvah?!


Rather, Rashi in vayera relies on the fact that pilegesh commonly means a second class wife, i.e. a maidservant who is wed to her master. Therefore no explanation is called for. However, in chayei sara, the word pilegesh is referring to hagar, whom the ben chamesh knows is no longer a maidservant since Rashi told him so five verses earlier[45]. Therefore the previous association to pilegesh no longer works and thus Rashi needs to explain that pilgesh does not just mean a maidservant, but can also mean a marriage without a kesuva[46].


Another example[47] is in shimini, where the Torah lists the kosher and non-kosher birds. Among Rashi’s commentary are birds where he is silent, offering no explanation what type of bird this is as he does for the others. Rashi’s silence, the Rebbe proposed[48], is to be construed as a sign that these birds are commonly known to the ben chamesh[49] [50] [51].





If Rashi only comments in places where the peshat is not understood, why do we find instances where Rashi says, kemashmao (as it sounds, i.e. the literal basic meaning of the word)?


The Rebbe’s resolution of this[52] was that in these places, the ben chamesh would not have interpreted the word simply due to other factors such as tone and context of the previous verses that would have pushed him to understand the word aliterally. Therefore Rashi says, kemashmao, gently guiding the ben chamesh back to a simple understanding of the verse, contextual factors notwithstanding.



Usage of Targum


The only other commentary on the Torah that has achieved the level of ubiquity as Rashi has been the Targum Onkelos[53] [54].



Variant Manuscripts


No autograph manuscripts exist of Rashi’s commentary[55] but



Rashi’s French Additions


To be sure[56],



Rashi Anniversary Volume, Amercian Academy for Jewish Research Texts and Studies I, ed. Harold Louis Ginsberg (NY : Amer. Acad. for Jewish Research).


Sarah Kamin, “Rashi’s Exegetical Categorization with Respect to the Distinction between Peshat and Derash”, Immaneul 11 (1980) 16-32.


Avraham Grossman, “Ms Leipzig 1 and Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah”, Tarbitz 61 (1991-92), 305-15.


See J.M. Weiser, “Translation as Interpretation: Rashi’s Use of French in his Commentary to the Torah”, Tradition 29 (1995), 30-42 (31).


Robert Harris, “Jewish Biblical Exegesis From Its Beginnings To The Twelfth Century”, The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter eds., 596-615.


See J.L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible. A Guide to the Bible as it Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 14-19. Kugel first used this term in The Idea of Biblical Poetry. Parrallelism and its History (New Haven, CT, and London:Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 103-4.


See M. Polliack, Karaite Judaism. A Guide to its History and Literary Sources (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2003)


D. Frank, Search Scripture Well. Karaite Exegetes and the Origins of the Jewish Bible Commentart in the Islamic East (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2004).


Saadya’s Commentary on Genesis, ed. M. Zucker (New York: JTS, 1984), pp. 5, 167-78.


[1] Claims that he was a part-time scholar don’t hold up to scrutiny. See Mayer I. Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 18-19.

[2] Indeed the first book ever printed in Hebrew, in Rome circa 1470-1472, was Rashi’s commentary (without the biblical text). See Jonathan Kearney, As Its Targum Has It: On Some of Rashi’s Uses of the Targumim in His Commentary on the Torah, …

[3] Even attaining a popular sentiment amongst laymen not commonly found with other rishonim. See, e.g., Elie Wiesel, Rashi: A Potrait, Jewish Encounters (New York: Nextbook/Schocken, 2009), x: “I think of Rashi and I feel overwhelmed by a strange nostalgia: my reaction appears to be both intellectual and emotional…Ever since childhood, he has accompanied me with his insights and charm. Ever since my first Bible lessons in the heder, I have turned to Rashi in order to grasp the meaning of a verse or word that seemed obscure… He is my first destination. My first aid…a veiled reference from him, like a smile, and everything lights up and becomes clearer…his passion for delving into a text in order to find a hidden meaning passed on by generation can move, interest an enrich all those whose life is governed by learning.”

[4] Rashi to Bereishit 3:8, 3:24; 4:8; 6:3, et al.


[6] See Torat Menachem, Hisvaaduyot, Volume Two, page 1487.

[7] A search for “darko shel rashi” on Otzar Hachochma returns hundreds of results, most of them asking ‘halo darkso shel rashi lefaresh peshuto shel mikra, ve’lama….”

[8] See Sefer Zikaron (by Rabbi Yosef Kimchi, father of the Radak) to Shmot 13:17.

[9] See Maskil le-David’s introduction to his commentary.

[10] Perhaps Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam falls into this school. Rashbam testifies that his grandfather, nasan lev lefaresh peshuto shel mikra.

[11] See Mizrachi (quoted in Maskil le-David’s introduction).

[12] Roughly 16 Rashi’s on each parasha.

[13] Bring from chelek 5 page 1 fn 2.

[14] See Sarah Kamin, “Rashi’s Exegetical Categorization with Respect to the Distinction between Peshat and Derash”, Immaneul 11 (1980) 16-32.

[15] Rashi states this 11 times: Bereishit 35:13; Shmot 25:29; 26:24; 27:10; Vayikra 8:11; 10:15; 13:4; Bamidbar 21:11; 26:13; 26:16; Devarim 33:24. Rashi states a similar proposition lo yadati pirusho but then proposes a theory a further 9 times:

Bereishit 30:11; 32:15; 43:11; Shemot 24:13; 25:21; 27:19; 28:4; Vayikra 14:14; Devarim 18:2.

[16] For an argument that many of these midrashim themselves are rooted in literal, contextual, or philological exegesis (thus mitigating internally the extra-peshat nature of Rashi’s usage of them), see Isaac Gottlieb, “Midrash as Biblical Philology, JQR n.s. 75 (1984) 134-61.

[17] See Shemot 22:28 compared to Rashi in Temura 4a s.v. zu.

[18] See L.S. 5:1.

[19] See Shabbas 63a and Yevamot 11b.

[20] See his comments on Rambam’s shorashim, shorash two.

[21] See Robert Harris, “Jewish Biblical Exegesis From Its Beginnings To The Twelfth Century”, The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter eds., 596.

[22] See Saadya’s Commentary on Genesis, ed. M. Zucker (New York: JTS, 1984), pp. 5, 167-78.

[23] Brachot 31b.

[24] See Rashi to Bereishit 1:2.

[25] Rashi to Bereishit 26:12

[26] Toldot 4:6

[27] Ad. loc.

[28] See Taanit 8b

[29] See L.S. 5:121 and on for a resolution of this al pi peshat.

[30] Any proposal that Rashi relies on a different commentator must be discarded because when Rashi relies on other commentators he says so explicitly: ketargumo pirusho. See Rashi to Bereishit 4:7 and L.S. 5:107 fn. 17.

[31] See Rashi to: Shemot 20:18 and the Ramban and Mizrachi ad. loc.; Shemot 24:8 and Ramban and Mizrachi ad. loc.; Bamidbar 9:10 and Ramban and Mizrachi ad. loc.; Bamidbar 12:9 and Mizrachi ad. loc.

[32] See M. Polliack, Karaite Judaism. A Guide to its History and Literary Sources (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2003) and D. Frank, Search Scripture Well. Karaite Exegetes and the Origins of the Jewish Bible Commentart in the Islamic East (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2004).

[34] Insert rebbe’s foonote 2 to L.S. 5:1.

[35] Ein hamikra omer ele dirshuni

[36] See L.S. 5:1 fn. 1

[37] This was part of the Rebbe’s overall derech halimmud. See my upcoming book, “Unification and Precision – An overview of the Rebbe’s scholarship”.

[38] Devarim 6:7

[39] L.S. 9:33 footnote 2.

[40] See Shulchan Aruch Harav, Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:4.

[41] See J.L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible. A Guide to the Bible as it Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 14-19. Kugel first used this term in The Idea of Biblical Poetry. Parrallelism and its History (New Haven, CT, and London:Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 103-4.

[42] See Elman’s article on this.

[43] Bereishit 22:24

[44] Bereishit 25:6

[45] Rashi to Bereishit 25:1

[46] This, explains the Rebbe, is also the reason that a single woman is referred to in the plural, pilagshim, since there were two stages of Hagar’s marraige to Avraham. See L.S. 5:231-232 fn. 26,27,32.

[47] For more examples of the Rebbe’s theory at work in this setting see L.S. 17:117 and 157.

[48] See L.S. 7:58 fn 17,18.

[49] Alternatively, some of these birds are not found in society (see Chullin 63a), thus explaining what type of bird they are will not help the ben chamesh.

[50] Who by vayikra, we might safely presume is a ban shesh, or ben sheva.

[51] See L.S. ibid. p. 59 for an explanation al pi peshat why Rashi alternately switches between giving the french translation of the bird and describing the birds’ traits.

[52] See L.S. 23:114

[53] Today, one cannot find a chumash without either Rashi or the Targum.

[54] A halachic equivalence exists as well: one who replaces the Targum with Rashi fulfills the obligation of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum.

[55]  See Jonathan Kearney, Rashi’s Use of the Targumim, …

[56] See J.M. Weiser, “Translation as Interpretation: Rashi’s Use of French in his Commentary to the Torah”, Tradition 29 (1995), 30-42 (31).

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