Monday, October 27, 2014

The Word

The word that is fit to be written, to persevere through time, is the nexus of communion--it is the speech which calls to be spoken over and over and constantly beckons to be heard, to be read, to be spoken once again.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

The Unlistened-to-Story

On Tisha b'Av I read Primo Levi's Survival in Aushwitz: the Nazi assault on humanity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996, Translated from the Italian by Guillio Einaudi in 1958). There is one passage that really stood out for me and reminded me of something Rav J. B. Soloveitchik said about a slave having no story and redemption being the process by which we become a story-telling people (see this post). Here is the quote: 
This is my sister here, with some unidentifiable friend and many other people. They are all listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling: the whistle of three notes, the hard bed, my neighbour whom I would like to move, but whom I am afraid to wake as he is stronger than me. I also speak diffusely of our hunger and of the live-control, and of the Kapo who hit me on the nose and then sent me to wash myself as I was bleeding. It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there. My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word.  
A desolating grief is now born in me, like certain barely remembered pains of one’s early infancy. It is pain in it pure state, not tempered by a sense of reality and by the intrusion of extraneous circumstances, a pain like that which makes children cry; and it is better for me to swim once again up to the surface, but his time I deliberately open my eyes to have a guarantee in front of me of being effectively awake.
My dream stands in front of me, still warm, and although awake I am still full of its anguish: and then I remember that it is not a haphazard dream, but that I have dreamed it not once but many times since I arrived here, with hardly any variations of environment or details. I am now quite awake and I remember that I have recounted it to Alberto and that he confided to me, to my amazement, that it is also his dream and the dream of many others, perhaps everyone. Why does it happen? Why is the pain of every day translated so constantly into our dreams, in the ever-repeated scene of the unlistened-to-story? (p. 60)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Derasha on Parashat Balak: The Modesty of our Ancestors

Though there is no public mourning on Shabbat, we are still reeling from the tragedy of this past week.  Three of our precious sons were taken from us in cold blood.  We feel lost and helpless, we don’t know where to turn.  I cannot help but think of the plaintive words of the love-sick fair-maiden, representing the congregation of Israel, in Shir haShirim (1:7-8):
הַגִּידָה לִּי, שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי, אֵיכָה תִרְעֶה, אֵיכָה תַּרְבִּיץ בַּצָּהֳרָיִם; שַׁלָּמָה אֶהְיֶה כְּעֹטְיָה, עַל עֶדְרֵי חֲבֵרֶיךָ אִם-לֹא תֵדְעִי לָךְ, הַיָּפָה בַּנָּשִׁים; צְאִי-לָךְ בְּעִקְבֵי הַצֹּאן, וּרְעִי אֶת-גְּדִיֹּתַיִךְ, עַל, מִשְׁכְּנוֹת הָרֹעִים.
“Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where do you shepherd? Where do you rest at mid-day? Why should I be like one who veils herself by the flocks of your companions?”  In response, the object of her affection, her beloved, representing G-d, responds, “If you do not know, O fairest of women, go your way in the footsteps of the flocks and pasture your kids beside the shepherds' dwellings.”
Rashi explains the allegory in the following way:
If you do not know, My assembly and My congregation, O fairest of women, [the fairest] of the nations, where you will pasture and be saved from the hand of those who oppress you, to be among them, and that your children should not perish, ponder the ways of your early ancestors, who received My Torah and kept My watch and My commandments, and go in their ways, and as a reward for this, you will pasture your kids beside the princes of the nations, and so did Jeremiah say (31:20): “…set up signposts…keep in mind the highway, the road that you traveled….”
In the face of tragedy, when we feel lost and filled with despair—when we don’t know how we will be saved from those who oppress us—we turn back to our early ancestors and seek inspiration and guidance from the example of their lives.  In this derasha I want to explore that virtue which characterized so many of our great leaders: צניעות—often translated as discreetness or modesty.  Hopefully, we can find some signposts, to use Jeremiah’s phrase, to guide our steps through this tragedy.  Though I always try to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative I will try to gain insight into this virtue by contrasting Moshe, most humble of men, with Bilam, the embodiment of the negative—what the Greeks might have called hubris and we might simply call being full of yourself.
This week’s parasha, Parashat Balak, is mystifying to say the least.  It stands as the sequel to the great military victories Bnei Yisrael won against the Trans-Jordanian kingdoms of Sichon and Og related at the end of last week’s parasha.  Having swiftly conquered a vast stretch of land on the eastern bank of the Jordan River from Mount Chermon in the north to Nachal Arnon, the Wadi of Arnon, in the south—the northern border of the Kingdom of Moav—Bnei Yisrael are now camped in the steppes of Moav.
Our parasha begins:
Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites.
What did Balak see?  Quite simply—an existential threat to his nation’s existence right at his front door.  Bnei Yisrael’s victory over the Emorite kings was startlingly rapid and absolute.  Balak feared that his nation was next on the list.  Perplexingly, instead of making military preparations, Moav sought counsel from the Elders of Midian.
Rashi comments:
Why did Moav take counsel with Midian (their ancient enemies)? Since they saw that Israel was supernaturally victorious [in their battles], they said, “The leader of these [people] was raised in Midian. Let us ask them what his character is.” They told them, “His strength is solely in his mouth.” They said, “We too will come against them with a man whose strength is in his mouth.”
This was none other than Bilam. 
While pondering this Rashi my mind kept taking me to a beautiful distinction developed by Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zecher tzadik l’vrakha, in the Lonely Man of Faith.  There, in his exploration of the religious personality, he distinguished between what he called numinous and kerygmatic man.  Though unfamiliar Latin and Greek terms, once fleshed out they are really quite powerful categories. (Just a note: though I use the word man these distinctions would of course apply equally to both men and women.)
Kerygmatic man is the man who possesses a kerygma, literally, a message.  He is a man of mastery and accomplishment.  He is respected for his talents and the contributions he makes to society.  He might be a scholar, a warrior, a physician, a lawyer, even a rabbi.
Numinous man, like his Maker resides in solitude.  His being is mysterious.  He is unknowable.  His inner life is rich and full of meaning.  But his inner world is wholly incommunicable. 
While the gaze of kerygmatic man is always to the next horizon, numinous man’s gaze is inward and upward to the source of all being.
Words come easily to kerygmatic man.  He can enthrall audiences and inspire masses to action.  Lofty mountains and vast oceans cannot stand in his way.
Words do not come naturally to numinous man.  Numinous man does not, of his own accord, have a message.  What message he has to bear is thrust upon him—against his will (אנוס על פי הדיבור).
Bilam was a talented speaker.  His power—as the Elders of Midian reported—was in his mouth. 
Moshe was כבד פה וכבד לשון—heavy of mouth and tongue—words alluded him, he could not make them flow, there was no grace in his words. 
But Bilam’s words served to conceal as much as they served to inspire.  Only by hiding true intentions and deeper meanings was he able to enact his rhetorical charm. 
Plato defined rhetoric as an art of leading the soul by means of speech.
Moshe, by this definition, had no rhetorical art.  He did not lead souls with his words—he was moved to words by the ultimate Word, the Word of G-d.  And, in turn that Word, the Word of the Eternal one was able to enter the numinous hearts of Bnei Yisrael and be, for them, a fountain of life.  Moshe was merely an instrument—through the man with no speech of his own the ultimate Power spoke.
Ultimately, the Torah wants us to know that Bilam was no more perceptive—in fact less so—than his donkey.  As Bilam set out on his fool’s errand to curse Israel at the behest of Balak his donkey saw the fate that was to ultimately overcome his rider.
And G-d’s wrath flared because [Bilam] was going with [Balak’s messengers], and the L-rd’s angel stationed himself in the road as an adversary to him, and he was riding his donkey, and his two lads were with him.  And the donkey saw the L-rd’s angel stationed in the road, his sword unsheathed in his hand, and the donkey swerved from the road and went into the field, and Bilam struck the donkey to steer her back to the road.  And the L-rd’s angel stood in the footpath through the vineyards, a fence on one side and a fence on the other.  And the donkey saw the L-rd’s angel and was pressed against the wall and pressed Bilam’s leg against the wall, and once more he struck her.
Rashi comments that the angel [by drawing its sword] was saying, “This wicked man abandoned the tools of his craft, for the weapon of the nations of the world is the sword, and [here] he is coming with his mouth, which is their craft.  So too, I shall take hold of that which is his and assail him with his own craft.”
Bilam used his words as one would more appropriately use a sword—to make others yield to his will.  He thought that through the sheer force of his kerygma, his message, he could manipulate G-d.  All he had to do was divine the right time and place, bring the right sacrifices and he would magically be able to alter the ancient destiny of a people beloved by G-d. As it say in this week’s haftorah from Sefer Micha:
5. My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab planned, and what Bilaam the son of Beor answered him. From Shittim to Gilgal, may you recognize the righteous deeds of the L-rd. 6. With what shall I come before the Lord, bow before the Most High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? 7. Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  8. He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the L-rd demands of you; עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ–do justice, do acts of loving-kindness, and walk discreetly with your G-d.
So what is the צניעות that G-d wants from us?  To let our numinous-self walk with G-d.  In other words, when coming before G-d forget what it says on your resume.  G-d doesn’t care.  There is nothing hidden before G-d. 
Micha reminds us that G-d sent us three prophets: Miriam, Aharon and Moshe.  Each stand as personalities that exemplify true צניעות.  When Micha tells us to walk discreetly with G-d perhaps he is telling us:
Be like Miriam in victory, who quietly stood off at a distance and orchestrated the rescue of her helpless baby brother.  She sought no applause or honors.
Be like Aharon in tragedy, who quietly accepted the fate of his two sons on what should have been the most joyous of days, the inauguration of the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary.  He knew when not to speak—when no words would suffice.  He knew how to accept even G-d’s harshest decrees.
And finally, be like Moshe, the loyal shepherd who gave up the comforts of Pharaoh’s palace and then the security of his home and family in Midian, not for honor or prestige, but as a messenger.  Only Moshe, the antithesis of Bilam, the man with no kerygma, no message, could be the messenger of our redemption and the righteous teacher of our Torah.

My prayer is that בזכות האבות, in the merit of our ancestors, we find a way to work through this collective trauma as Miriam, Aharon and Moshe would have: בצניעות.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Kerygma of Bilam

Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zecher tzadik l’vrakha, in the Lonely Man of Faith, distinguishes between what he called numinous and kerygmatic man.  Though unfamiliar Latin and Greek terms, once fleshed out they are really quite powerful categories.
Kerygmatic man is the man who possesses a kerygma, literally, a message.  He is a man of mastery and accomplishment.  He is respected for his talents and the contributions he makes to society.  He might be a scholar, a warrior, a physician, a lawyer, even a rabbi.
Numinous man, like his Maker resides in solitude.  His being is mysterious.  He is unknowable.  His inner life is rich and full of meaning.  But his inner world is wholly incommunicable. 
There is a beautiful midrash that compares Moshe and Bilam:
“There shall never rise up in Israel and prophet like Moshe”—in Israel, there shall never rise up, but in the nations of the world there shall: Bilam son of Be’or.  But there is a difference between the prophecy of Moshe and Bilam: Moshe never knew who was speaking to him—Bilam knew, as it says, “so says the hearer of the words of G-d”; Moshe never knew when G-d would speak to him—Bilam always knew, as it says, “the one who knows the mind of the Lofty One”; Moshe only spoke with G-d while standing, as it says, “you, here, stand with me”—Bilam would speak with him while fallen, as it says, “who sees the vision of Shadai, fallen with open eyes.”  To whom may he [Bilam] be compared: to the chef of the king who know how much the king spends on his meals. (Yalkut Shimoni, §966)
At first it sounds like Bilam is greater—he knew Who was speaking to him and he knew when He would speak to him.  On the other hand, G-d would speak to Moshe while he was awake and Bilam only when he was asleep (I assume that is what is meant by fallen).  Here is my interpretation, for what it’s worth.  Unlike Bilam, Moshe did not claim mastery over G-d—he did not know when or even Who was speaking to him.  Moshe prophesied during the day—prophecy was part of his very being.  Bilam, on the other hand, only while sleeping—only when he was removed from his kerygmatic self, in sleep, when room was made for his numinous self, could he experience the prophetic spirit.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Shavuot: An intimate connection...

I came across the following article:
Shavuot: the forgotten sister - Rabbis Round Table Israel News | Haaretz
Here are a few excerpts:
In more modern times, and in recognition of the contemporary lack of adherence to the festival that is found in America, many synagogues co-opted the borrowed concept of “confirmation,” that is a ritualistic acceptance of Jewish learning for teenagers, in order to fill the pews on Shavuot. But how can any of this compare to the imagery and ritual of Shavuot’s more popular sisters, Sukkot and Passover?
Herein lies the crux of the matter: when it comes to life, both religious and secular, ritual is king. Ritual reminds us, ritual concretizes us, ritual compels us; and in the absence of a truly captivating ritual, any celebration will eventually disappear.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Shavuot, and if you ask me – the way to save it is through ritual! We need more synagogues and schools who host all-night learning sessions. We need more homes where children learn to bake the perfect cheesecake alongside their parent or grandparent. We need more talk about the Book of Ruth and the powerful narratives of the Jews-by-choice who enrich our holy communities. We need more ritual!
Anything less and our beautiful, forgotten sister will be lonely forever.

Here is my response to this article:

I like your suggestion about embracing the traditions of Shavuot.  However, I would like to suggest that the "forgotten" character of Shavuot makes sense and is, in a sense, part of the very fabric of the day.  Consider the lack of mention of the connection between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah in the text of the Torah.  The Torah even obscures the date on which the Torah was given (see Mes. Shabbat 86a-88a).

What this brings to mind is the classic connection between the giving of the Torah and the joining together of the bride and groom.  The true union of the bride and groom is something private, special, intimate.  Shavuot draws in those who truly love her.  One can also point to the ambiguity in the description of the Receiving of the Torah in Deuteronomy, 5:18, "Kol gadol v'lo yasaf."  Onkelos says this means the voice of Sinai never ceased, others, Rashi points out, translate it to have the opposite meaning: it did not continue,  i.e. there was never such a public spectacle/voice again.  The way to strengthen people's commitment to Shavuot, in my humble opinion, is through a commitment to the living breathing Torah throughout the year.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Socrates and the Psychotherapist

I know this is not my normal fare but I thought I would share this dialogue I wrote between Socrates and a psychotherapist.
Socrates: I see you have found time to come to the Agora today!
Psychotherapist: Yes, one of my patients cancelled today and I thought I’d get some fresh air—perhaps hear you engaged in one of your amusing debates with one of the youth of our dear city.
S: I assure you I am not trying to amuse anyone.  I am, however, aware that some find my cross-examinations amusing.  Perhaps since it is early and no one else is around I could ask you to help me understand what it means to be a psychotherapist.
P: Socrates, don’t take me for one of your youths—you know perfectly well what I do.
S: I assure you I do not.  I know people come to you because they suffer in some way that a regular physician cannot cure.  I know you engage in some kind of talking cure, but I do not, I assure you, know what a psychotherapist is or does.
P: It is quite simple—you almost said it yourself.  While a physician heals the body, a psychotherapist heals the soul.
S: Do you mean that somehow through talk you heal your patient’s soul.
P: Yes, precisely.
S: How does this cure work?
P: We talk until we develop a relationship, until he feels safe to divulge his inner most thoughts and feelings.  We work together through dialogue so that he can come to a self-understanding so that he can take responsibility for his own being and feel free to choose the life he wants—ultimately, to be happy.
S: This is fascinating.  Perhaps there is something I can learn from you after all.  But you’re not going to get away that easily. 
P: Very well, I expected no less from the great Socrates.
S: I assure you I possess no greatness.  So, you say you heal the soul.
P: Yes.
S: And, of course, you would never bring harm.
P: Yes, of course, never.
S: Now, you claim understanding is necessary for healing.
P: Yes.
S: Who must understand? You or the patient?
P: Both of us, I suppose.  It is a cooperative process—we work through dialogue as I said before.  I try to understand the patient’s understanding and this helps him understand himself.
S: That sounds rather complex.  I am not sure I understand what you just said, but I will proceed with my questions nonetheless.
P: Proceed.
S: How do you understand your patient?
P: Well I must ask him questions.
S: But how do you ask him questions?
P: Now the tables have turned and I do not understand you.
S: How do you know what to ask?
P: I listen, I try to find some lead, some opening; I am open to him; I use my intuition; I pick up hints.  For example, if a patient tells me his heart hurts, he has gone to the doctor and no physical ailment has been found, I ask him to tell me more about his pain:  when it hurts; how it hurts; where it hurts; are there times when it doesn’t hurt.
S: Why?
P: I assume his pain is a kind of metaphor—that his figurative heart hurts because of some “heart-breaking” situation.  I want to know what that situation is.
S: Are you always right?  Are your questions always on the mark?
P: No, of course not.  It is hit or miss.  But the better I get to know the patient, the better my intuition gets.
S: So understanding, in a sense, begets greater understanding.
P: Yes, precisely.
S: But here lies the problem.
P: Now I am confused.  Just when I think we have arrived you claim the journey has just begun.
S: What is more helpful to the patient: more or less understanding?
P: Why more of course.
S: So any lesser understanding, any pre-understanding, any pre-judgment could in fact be harmful.
P: I don’t follow.
S: Anything less than the greatest cure must contain some amount of harm.  The very process of your talking cure is harmful even if it is so less and less.
P: Now I’m really mixed up.
S: Do you ever fully understand your patient?
P: No, that is impossible.  The patient is infinitely more than I can know.
S: So you must, by definition always harm your patient.
P: I would prefer to look at it as incrementally bringing the patient closer and closer to health.
S: But this healing—in its fullest and most radical sense—is and can never actually be accomplished.

P: No, I suppose not. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dry Bones

The following thoughts on this weeks haftorah were extracted from a much longer (and for that reason hard to digest) post I made last year.  

The haftorah for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach is Ezekiel’s famous vision of the dry bones. It begins with the following disturbing image:

1 The hand of the Lord came upon me. He took me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, "O mortal, can these bones live again?" I replied, "O Lord God, only You know." 

In the context of Ezekiel’s life it is not hard to see the symbolism of these dry bones.  The situation Ezekiel was confronted with was bleak, in no uncertain terms.  It had been more than thirty years since the Torah renaissance of Yoshiyahu—when that king, famous for his righteous reforms, had radically recommitted his kingdom to the service of God alone.  As we read in the haftorah of the second day of Pesach he purged every nook and cranny of the land from every trace of idolatry, he had renewed the covenant with Hashem and in the grandest of gestures he enjoined the people in an unparalleled celebration of Pesach.

And here was Ezekiel only a little more than thirty years later—a generation—in Exile, living on the banks of the Kebar River trying to inspire and give hope to a people, a thousand miles from their homeland, who had experienced the complete destruction of their national heritage, who had seen, many with their own eyes, the destruction of their Temple and their capitol, Yerushalayim. 

They had no more spirit in them, their life blood had been sapped dry—they were nothing more than a heap of dry bones.  God asks, “Can these bones live again?” and Ezekiel, in perhaps the most sarcastic line in the entire bible replies, “O Lord God, אַתָּ֥ה יָדָֽעְתָּ, You know.”

But Ezekiel’s disbelief, his lack of hope, is rebuffed:

4 And He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause spirit to enter you and you shall live again. 6 I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the Lord!"

Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy over the dry bones—to cause them to hear the word of the Lord!  What shall he prophesy?  What would he say? Ezekiel continues: 

7 I prophesied as I had been commanded. And while I was prophesying, suddenly there was a sound of rattling, and the bones came together, bone to matching bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had grown, and skin had formed over them; but there was no spirit in them. 

What had Ezekiel done wrong?  Now he had complete bodies, but, like Frankenstein’s monster, they still had no life.  His words had fallen short of the mark—they, somehow, lacked spirit, that vital force that moves us and inspires us.  We read on: 

9 Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, O mortal! Say to the spirit: Thus said the Lord God: Come, O spirit, from the four winds, and breathe into these slain, that they may live again." 10 I prophesied as He commanded me. The breath entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet, a vast multitude.

In his first attempt to revive the bones, Ezekiel says וְנִבֵּ֖אתִי—I prophesied.  This is what the grammarians call a transitive verb—his action was directed outwards, toward the bones. In his second, successful attempt Ezekiel says, וְהִנַּבֵּ֖אתִי--in English this would also be translated as: I prophesied.  But, in Hebrew this is a reflexive verb—in which the actor, the prophet, acts upon himself.  In his first attempt Ezekiel remained at a distance, removed from his charges.  Only when Ezekiel, the prophet, the visionary leader, became fully enmeshed in the plight of those he was calling could his prophecy give life—only at that point could “they come to life, stand up on their feet, as a vast multitude.”

We read in the concluding verses of the haftarah:

11 And He said to me, "O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, יָֽבְשׁ֧וּ עַצְמוֹתֵ֛ינוּ 'Our bones are dried up, וְאָֽבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ our hope is gone; נִגְזַ֥רְנוּ לָֽנוּ we are cut off.' 12 Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Lord God: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel. 13 You shall know, O My people, that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves. 14 I will put My spirit into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil. Then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken and have acted"—declares the Lord.

The plaintive and hopeful lament of Jeremiah: “אוּלַ֖י יֵ֥שׁ תִּקְוָֽה”—“perhaps there is hope!” had been supplanted with the resigned and utterly hopeless: “אָֽבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ”—“our hope is lost!” 
Ezekiel had to inspire the people—they needed to know that the wellsprings of life can always be renewed.  

There is hope.  The dry bones can be given new life—they can be inspired.  Just one thing is needed to give them hope: spirit.

However, one very important question still needs to be answered: What is this spirit

What vision can fill us with hope when we have been destroyed and completely severed from the wellsprings of life?  With this spirit we are told that we shall be returned to our soil—the exile will be over.  But, what is it?

The spirit is, of course, the Torah—but not a Torah of dogmatic decrees: a Torah of true spirit—of true life—of wisdom, righteousness and kindness.  This, I believe, is the same spirit Isaiah (chapter 11) spoke of so beautifully:

And a shoot shall spring forth from the stem of Yishai, and a twig shall sprout from his roots. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and heroism, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. And he shall be spirited by the fear of the Lord, and neither with the sight of his eyes shall he judge, nor with the hearing of his ears shall he chastise. And he shall judge the poor justly, and he shall chastise with equity the humble of the earth, and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the spirit of his lips he shall put the wicked to death. And righteousness shall be the belt around his loins, and faith the sash around his waist.

On Pesach we reflect on the redemption that once was and we are also confronted with the depressing reality of what is.  The redemption from Egypt is incomplete—we still await the ultimate redemption.  We feel a kind of helplessness and hopelessness when we look at the harsh facts.  It is hard to see how we can ever achieve the final fulfillment of our aspirations.  But yet there is hope.  On Pesach we are called to be inspired by the spirit—to be moved to act with wisdom, righteousness and kindness.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Does God Speak?

Starting in section 80 of the Kuzari the Chaveir offers the interesting thesis that God-given religions appear suddenly, like the event of creation itself.  This leads into a recounting of the startling tale of the exodus.  To this the Kuzari responds:

זֶהוּ הָעִנְיָן הָאֱלהִי בֶאֱמֶת, וּמַה שֶּׁנִּתְלָה בּו מִן הַמִּצְות רָאוּי לְקַבְּלו כִּי אֵין נִכְנָס בַּלֵּב מֵחֲמָתו סָפֵק לא מִכְּשָׁפִים וְלא מִתַּחְבּוּלָה וְלא מִדִּמְיון, וְאִלּוּ נִדְמָה לָהֶם הִבָּקַע הַיָּם וְעָבְרָם בְּתוכו, יְדֻמֶּה לָהֶם הַצָּלָתָם מִן הָעַבְדוּת וּמות מַעֲבִידֵיהֶם וְקַחְתָּם שְׁלָלָם וְהִשָּׁאֵר מָמונָם אֶצְלָם, וְזֶה עִקְּשׁוּת מֵאֶפִּיקוּרְסִים

This is, in truth, divine power, and the commandments connected with it must be accepted. No one could imagine for a moment that this was the result of necromancy, calculation, or phantasy. For had it been possible to procure belief in any imaginary dividing of the waters, and the crossing of the same, it would also have been possible to gain credence for a similar imposition concerning their delivery from bondage, the death of their tormentors, and the capture of their goods and chattels. This would be even worse than denying the existence of God. (trans. Hartwig Hirschfeld)

The Kuzari sees these events as being beyond doubt.  The Chaveir does not disagree.  However, he does believe that one very significant doubt would remain for Bnei Yisrael even after all the wonders and miracles of the exodus: does God truly speak with flesh and blood?  Here is the Chaveir’s formulation of the people’s doubt:

הָעָם, עִם מַה שֶּׁהֶאֱמִינוּ בְמַה שֶּׁבָּא בּו משֶׁה אַחַר הַמּופְתִים הָאֵלֶּה, נִשְׁאַר בְּנַפְשׁותָם סָפֵק, אֵיךְ יְדַבֵּר הָאֱלהִים עִם הָאָדָם. כְּדֵי שֶׁלּא תִהְיֶה הַתְחָלַת הַתּורָה מֵעֵצָה וּמַחֲשָׁבָה מִחֲמַת אָדָם וְאַחַר יְחַבְּרֵהוּ עֵזֶר וְאמֶץ מֵאֵת הָאֲלהִים, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיָה רָחוק הַדִּבּוּר בְּעֵינֵיהֶם מִזּוּלַת אָדָם, בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁהַדִּבּוּר גַּשְׁמִי. 

Although the people believed in the message of Moses, they retained, even after the performance of the miracles, some doubt as to whether God really spake to mortals, and whether the Law was not of human origin, and only later on supported by divine inspiration. They could not associate speech with a divine being, since it is something tangible. 

This formulation of the people’s doubt is highly intriguing.  Why would the people be ready to believe that Moshe received divine inspiration after thinking about the ideas himself?  Why couldn’t they believe after everything that they experienced that God spoke to Moshe?

I believe that Yehuda HaLevi is hitting on a fundamental issue.  People, especially after experiencing wondrous events, are ready to accept Divine intervention in the human sphere.  We are ready to admit that God can influence and even subvert the natural order.  We are ready to believe that God is like a silent conductor gently and from time-to-time quite forcefully guiding events.  However, as strange as it might seem, we have a harder time believing that God can do what we consider to be most uniquely human: produce speech or writing (Just conduct the following thought experiment. Is it easier to believe that God caused an earthquake or that God wrote a book?).  The basic implication of this is that, in our heart of hearts, we believe that the human capacity for speech is more wondrous than all of the plagues, more wondrous than the splitting of the sea, more wondrous than the falling of the manna, even more wondrous than the very act of creation.  It is easier for us to believe that Moshe was a brilliant sage and God, in His mysterious ways, gave him inspiration.  After all, inspiration is mysterious—it works like the wind, or a rushing stream, or the shining sun (all often cited—if we are to believe the poets—as sources of inspiration).

The revelation at Sinai was designed to breakthrough this distortion.  God created man, just like He created everything else.  Man’s capacity for speech is not beyond nature (which, as the Chaveir already explained in sections 70-77, is just a stand-in word for Goda term which enables man to obfuscate and deny God as the ultimate Cause of Being) and God is not merely a benevolent “natural” force.  God can manifest Himself as Speaker.  God can manifest Himself as Writer.  The word is not man’s alone.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Voice of Rav Soloveitchik: The Beauty of Arousing a Child's Curiosity

There is nothing quite like listening to a shiur of Rav Soloveitchik.  There is something quite extraordinary about the fact that we can still hear his words, in his own voice.  There's really no comparison between hearing him and reading him.  Thomas Edison did something quite remarkable for the Jewish community.  And yet, I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit in front of the Rav.

I am currently listening to his shiurim on Pesach.  I wanted to share one quote that I thought was just too beautiful to keep to myself.  I tried to transcribe his words as accurately as possible.  There were a few words in the second paragraph that I was not able to hear clearly. 

The first night of Pesach we try to stimulate the curiosity of the child--we try to make him inquisitive--because the story of Mitzrayim is the story of the long search on the part of many generations for God, who finally finds us and comes close to us.
And we want the child to join!  To join, this night, the mesorah community. And how can the child join if not by asking questions during the seder!?
To arouse the naive curiosity of a child is like making the child a God searcher.  What is more beautiful than that? (Yetzias Mitzrayim, Jewish Destiny, Boston,, starting at 53:00)

I would recommend listening to it in his own voice. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Return, My Precious

My translation:
Return, my precious, to your resting place,    
Eternally seek rest at the throne Divine
Thrones of earth as your repose—then you shall       
            Know that
Unto heights you shall ascend to take your
Render honor and might in prostration      
            To God  
Nigh, in the abode of the mighty ones,  
            Sing praise.
This is my attempt at translating some of Yehuda HaLevi's poetry.  My goal was to capture the meaning of the poem without forgetting that it is a poem. Of course, there is no way to maintain the original poetic form. In my translation each of the six lines has 12 syllables and forms an acrostic of "return."

This poem by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi is the first in the collection of Shirei Yehuda HaLevi [1].  It is a true gem.  It is beautiful in both form and content.  It is a petition to the yechida, the unique, or precious one—the soul—to return to its natural place: the Divine Throne.  Only the third line reveals why we need petition the soul at all: the temptation of earthly thrones—i.e., human majesty.  Human majesty obscures and blocks man from rapturous ascent to the Divine Throne where he or she can, in the company of angels, offer praises to the almighty. 

The third line of this poem gave me the most difficulty in translation.  Literally, it would read: “Reject earthen thrones, then you will know” leading into the next line (as an enjambment): “Unto the heights ascend to take your captive.”  Shadal interprets this as follows: “Do not seek earthly greatness, then you will know that as a result you will ascend to the heights and you will take your captive.  Then you will be on the level of angels…”[2] 

[1] HaLevi, Yehuda. Shirei Yehuda HaLevi. Ed. Bernstein, S. New York: Ogen Publishing House, 1944.

[2] Luzzato, S. D. Commentary. Beit HaBechira: Kol Shirei Rebbe Yehuda HaLevi. by Yehuda Halevi.  Ed. S. Philip. Lemberg: M. Wolf, 1888. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Trouble with Tanakh

The study of Tanakh is something that many people find intimidating.  I realized pretty early on in my studies that studying Tanakh was going to be crucial.  However, it took me a long time to actually begin that study and an even longer time to make any real headway or meaningful progress in that venture.
I believe I had the mistaken idea that I could master Tanakh.  That Tanakh was somehow an object that I could gain mastery over.  This led me to countless hours in preparation for reading: mapping out the structure of a text, looking for the thematic units, reading introductions to different books, searching for and buying texts to aid me in my study.  All this before actually reading.  Not until I had to actually teach a book of Tanakh did I really start to understand Tanakh—not in the sense of mastery, but in the sense that the act of reading became meaningful (cognitively and emotionally).  
This (and other things) have led me to a realization about learning.  Learning is not an activity that can be done alone.  In other words, texts fail to reveal their meaning to the reader who is isolated.  Only those readings that have been done in preparation for teaching, or in the process of teaching have been meaningful for me. Yes, I have read beautiful essays which offered beautiful readings/interpretations of texts in Tanakh which felt deeply profound and meaningful.  However, I suspect myself of only finding these essays meaningful because they offered me a new way to speak (i.e., to encounter another human being) about those texts.
So, I got over (at least some of) my fear of learning Tanakh by realizing that reading is an activity better done (or, perhaps only possible to be done) with, or for the sake of, communication/communion with another.
The question is not: what does this text mean?  But rather: what does this text let me say to you?  Or: what conversation does this text enable us to have?
This is the rather radical suggestion that we should not be treating the text as an object—i.e. there are no objective meanings.  Only, the meaningfulness produced in a subject in communion.  Or, simpler, the meaning of a text is inter-subjective.  The object of the text is the stage upon which communication can take place.
Maybe a simpler way of saying this is that when a text "speaks" to me it does so in so far as it enables me to speak.
My approach to interpretation has been strongly informed by Gadamer.  Jon A. Levisohn gives a very nice, succinct description of how Gadamer understands interpretation:
To interpret a text is to be in dialogue with a tradition; and by virtue of that dialogue, the tradition is not something we merely accept or reject but something to which we belong. (Levisohn, Jon A. (2001) 'Openness and Commitment: Hans-Georg Gadamer and the Teaching of Jewish Texts', Journal of Jewish Education, 67:1, 20 – 35)
I think this description of interpretation helps us understand the difficulty many people find when they try and study Tanakh.  We are cut off from a tradition of reading Tanakhit is not something to which we belong.  There is almost no societal form in which we read Tanakh beyond the weekly haftorot.  In contrast, Parashat HaShavua, is much less intimidating and much more accessible—the tradition is kept vibrant by the fact that it is institutionalized. 

The good news is that over the past fifty years or so there has been a renaissance in the study of Tanakh.  Yeshivat Har Etzion, as far as I know, seems to be the spiritual and intellectual center of this movement. Many articles from this school can be found on their website:

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Patches of Dignity

I was listening to NPR the other day and Robert Caro was discussing the 4th volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson.  I was deeply moved by a story he told to illustrate Lyndon Johnson’s hatred of poverty (this week marked the 50th anniversary of his War on Poverty).

This is the passage from the book relating this episode:
“Hate” is, in fact, a word that occurs frequently in descriptions of Lyndon Johnson’s feelings about poverty.  He “hated poverty and illiteracy,” Dr, Hurst would say.  “He hated it when a person who wanted to work could not get a job.”  Accompanying Johnson on a vice presidential trip to Iran, Hurst had seen his reaction when someone in the party said that a group of Iranian children they passed had “rags” for clothing.
“They did not,” Johnson said.  “Don’t say that.  I know rags when I see them.  They had patched clothes.  That is a lot different than rags.”  Hurst says that “I noted as the years passed that he reacted in the same way whenever he heard the word ‘rags.’  I realized that to him rags were the ultimate symbol of the poverty he detested.”  There had, after all, been patches on clothing worn by his brother and youngest sister, who had still been small when Sam Johnson went broke on the ranch, and that clothing certainly hadn’t been rags!
Caro, Robert A. The passage of power: The years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV. 2013, p. 543.
When you see a human being suffering from poverty what do you see?  When you look at their clothing what do you see?  
Humans do not wear rags.  Humans wear patched clothing.