Saturday, September 19, 2015

Heroism vs. Leadership

The concept of leadership is very popular at the moment.

It's a buzzword. Nearly every program and every school seeks to teach leadership skills and students proudly boast on their resumes that they are leaders. This despite the fact that true leadership is learned over time, it is earned, and it comes from people who choose to regard you as leader, not simply because you were appointed to run an organization.

Moreover, not all people are fit to be leaders, nor should this be their main goal. Our society would have us think that it is ignoble to follow; I believe this thinking is flawed.

So what is it that people can strive to obtain if not leadership?


Every man can be a hero because one can act the hero in one's own life. Heroism is demonstrated when one's life is a testament to one's ideals. Heroism can be performed on large scale or small, and can be demonstrated by the six-year-old and the eighty-year-old. Heroism is to choose rightly, correctly, with personal integrity, at a time when the stakes are high and it is difficult to do so. Heroism can be performed at the individual level.

Pop culture is currently obsessed with superheroes. Why are they deemed heroes as opposed to leaders? Because they are typically vigilantes, usually working outside of a structure (The Avengers notwithstanding). The hero is the one who both flaunts and flouts the rules and does so for the good of overarching society. Yet it is rare that this society is able or willing to actually allow the superhero to lead. That falls to other men, men who can work within the structures and strictures of society.

Leadership and heroism are different. Leadership is sustained, constant, unending, exhausting. It requires the ability to work with people, manage people, placate, appease, command and cajole people. By its very nature, it involves others- and others who may not even want to be involved in the enterprise.

Heroism, in contrast, can be all those things but often isn't. It is perhaps more commonly found in uncharacteristic acts (driven by extraordinary situations) or alternatively, in the small, everyday decisions that one makes. The decision to stay home and watch the children so that your spouse can attend an event. The decision to say something kind to an ailing, if irritating, person. Heroism takes energy, but it's a different kind of energy. Heroism can exist on the individual level- one can be a hero in everyday life without being a leader of men.

The scene with Moses at the Burning Bush is often read as that of a man who is wary and unwilling to accept the mantle of leadership. And I think there's an element of truth to that. But I think there is often a misread in the way this is taught. Moses was a hero who was totally capable of heroic action on the individual level. His concern had to do with being made a leader- someone who would have to oversee people and quite literally lead them somewhere they did not want to be led. Managing people is hard. 

Moses proved his heroism on three separate occasions. First, he protected a slave from an Egyptian overseer. Second, he sought to break up a fight between two Hebrews. And third, he protected Midianite shepherdesses from the unwanted heckling and abuse of Midianite shepherds. Clearly, this was a man who had no problem intervening when the situation warranted it. However, in all of these situations, he was acting on an individual level, doing something that was right and correct and which he was fully capable of doing on his own. In these situations, perhaps he led by example, but he did not lead a people. He was not involved in the mess of politics, hurt feelings, indignation, fear of change and frustration with standards of excellence that leading a nation entails.

Indeed, after fleeing to Midian, Moses took on a life of solitude. He spent his time shepherding the flock, going where they would go, staring out into great desert vistas. He was familiar with nature. He brooded. He thought. Overall, he saw. The Burning Bush was a test. The first thing Moses says is that he will turn aside to "see this great sight, why this Bush is not burnt." Moses is no cynic, jaded and tired by life. He could be. He's a runaway, a refugee. He could say that no good deed goes unpunished and lament his life. He could look at a burning bush with dull eyes, determine it a mirage or something not worth investigating, and continue on his path. But he does not do these things. Because Moses, a man who communes with nature, an introspective, thoughtful man, sees. 

And upon seeing, he is tasked with a vast and impossible mission. You are no longer to act the hero alone, God says him. Now, you must lead. Moses is not afraid of decisive, important, heroic action on an individual level. But he is very afraid of leading a people. All of his arguments reflect this. He begins by saying, "Who am I?" - Who am I to be given this very public job? I don't have the right qualifications. I don't know how to lead. He continues by relating objections that the nation will raise, certain that they will inquire as to what God's name is, will not believe his fantastical claim, and will not be persuaded by him because he is כבד פה which at least some interpret as not a gifted orator.

If you pick apart Moses' arguments, what you notice is that his concern is with the communal, national implications of this job. You want me to go as a vigilante, picking off men one by one in heroic, one-strike efforts? That I can do. But this- taking a teeming mass of people and leading them out of Egypt to an uncertain future? I don't have the skills for it. You've got the wrong man. Send someone else.

If you view Moses' fear as the fear of any man who has been forced to transform from a productive employee at the individual level to someone tasked with management responsibilities, other decisions he makes become clearer. For example, his seeming impatience with the people likely stems from a lack of true understanding of them. He looks at them through the eyes of one for whom life is utterly clear, the eyes of a hero- this is correct, this is incorrect- how can you not see? How can you be so blind? When he is able, he takes advice from others more qualified than himself, such as Jethro. At other times, he wishes to give up, declaring that he cannot bear this heavy burden, that the nation has sucked him dry.

And of course, there is Moses' great flaw - the incident at the rock. At least one commentary reads that scene and informs us that hitting the rock was not the problem. The problem was that Moses cried, "Listen up, you rebels!" Since he persisted in calling the nation rebels- מורדים- he was not fit to continue to lead them to the next stage of their journey. He was looking at them with eyes that could not be sufficiently compassionate. And like ר שמעון בר יוחאי, who had to learn not to burn people with his eyes, Moses must learn that sometimes developing others is more important than the destination.

All people who begin their work roles as productive individuals struggle when they are given a group of other individuals to manage. They are used to impossibly high standards which they themselves set, standards to which they expect the group to adhere. They become frustrated and irritated- both with themselves and the group- when these standards are not met. Two options appear. The first is to develop the group and the talents of the individuals within the group, even though this may mean a slower pace. The second is to charge full-tilt to reach the end goal, often with the productive individual doing the bulk of the work. The ostensible goal of Moses leading the Israelites is to get them to the Promised Land. This task is certainly made easier (and quicker) without constant complaining and squabbling. However, in his concern to get the Israelites to Israel, Moses misunderstands the true goal. The people need to reach their full potential, to be developed as much as they can be in fear and love of God. Reaching the Promised Land is the secondary goal. If Moses sees the nation's shortcomings- their rebelliousness- and cannot discover and develop their potential, does not respond with love in that moment, he is not succeeding in his most important work. God sees this and punishes him with the natural consequence- you may not enter the Promised Land. You need to think instead about the work that I am giving you to accomplish here in the wilderness. Develop these people. Help them to become the people they can be. I am relying on you...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Being A Rabbi (And Role Model)

I've been struggling to make sense of the Rabbi Freundel affair and thus far, have been failing. The way I process is to attempt to make meaning when I am confronted by something difficult and foreign to me. I have been speaking to several people I respect in an attempt to make meaning from this situation, and the following are assorted thoughts I've come up with on the way.

The main difficulty I have with Rabbi Freundel's behavior is that it was meticulous and planned out. I absolutely understand the desire to behave in ways which might be considered deviant, especially when it comes to sexual pleasure. I even understand that such desires or acting on such desires might be considered falling prey to an addiction. But in my mind, I envision  (perhaps due to romanticizing?) a struggle with addiction. I imagine a mighty struggle where someone might give in one day but would attempt to shackle themselves in order to attempt to refrain the next day, much as Ulysses ensured that he was tied to the mast with ropes so that he would not be ensnared by the siren song of the Lorelei. I understand someone who is struggling but failing. I don't understand someone who does not struggle at all. To me, for someone to meticulously procure multiple instruments that clandestinely record others, then position them, record individuals, gather data and then store the data (again, labeled and recorded and filed away in an organized system) does not bespeak a struggle. Then again, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the fact that the man erred 152 times actually means he wanted to err 600 times. But this is my point of conflict. I do not see the struggle, and because I do not see it, I find it difficult to respect the man.

If you struggle and fall, I respect you. If you do not struggle, I don't understand you. I cannot imagine any individual who could simply accept in themselves an ability to hurt other people - unless they truly lack empathy, such as the clinical sociopath. The stories people tell about Rabbi Freundel do not suggest this; hence, I am stuck.

The only takeaway that I can find thus far has to do with the role of rabbi.

Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff records the following in his book The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume I, page 193:
5.07 The Role of the Rabbi 
Related by the Rav in his lecture entitled "Rashi on Aseret HaDibrot" at the RCA Annual Convention, June 30, 1970.  
Reb Meir Berlin [1880-1949; a relative of the Rav] once told me that he asked his grandfather Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein [1829-1908], the author of the Arukh ha-Shulkhan, what was the role of the rabbi. He answered, to decide questions of Jewish law [posek shealot]. Reb Meir Berlin asked the same question of my grandfather Reb Chaim. He said that for guidance in Jewish law, one may go to a dayyan [rabbinical judge]. However, the main role of the rabbi is to help the needy, protect the persecuted, defend the widows, and sustain orphans. In a word, it is acts of loving-kindness [gemilat hasadim]. 
The truth is that the acts of Reb Chaim in these areas were fantastic. Stories abound about the illegitimate children whom he adopted, provided for, and sent to heder. You all know how he helped the Bundist revolutionary on Yom Kippur. He saved his life. 
This was the most important attribute inscribed on his tombstone, namely, that he was a master of loving-kindness, a rav ha-hesed. 
Rabbi Freundel took disenfranchised individuals (converts) and betrayed their trust. He is thus the antithesis of a rabbi. We must look for rabbis who reach out in love towards every Jew; they are the ones who deserve the title. Individuals who are extremely erudite should be considered scholars- or perhaps a dayan- but not a rabbi.

This comes to mind during this Shavuot season as Boaz is the example of someone who did not take advantage of a woman who literally threw herself at him. She came and lay at his feet in a very sexually suggestive manner. He treats her properly and formally redeems her- even offering the closer redeemer the opportunity to marry her. He views her, not as an object or as his property or even as someone sexually exciting whose advances he ought to accept, but as a person. Yael Ziegler writes in her book Ruth about how Boaz acts in total contrast to other individuals during the time of the shoftim (judges) who do treat individuals as property (Yiftach, Pilegesh B'Givah, the way Binyamin subsequently finds wives for themselves). He is heroic precisely because of how he defies the trend.

To be a rabbi means to love fellow Jews. It means to feel for them when the halakha forces you to do things which the congregant finds difficult (the way Rabbi Soloveitchik was torn up about the kohen who couldn't marry the convert). It means to care. And if you care the way you should, you cannot deliberately harm.

One of the most ironic things which is said about Yirmiyahu appears in 38:4-
כִּי הָאִישׁ הַזֶּה, אֵינֶנּוּ דֹרֵשׁ לְשָׁלוֹם לָעָם הַזֶּה--כִּי אִם-לְרָעָה.

The man is expending his every breath to attempt to save his brethren from hunger, death and fire, but they are sure that he only wants evil for them. I can't even imagine how frustrated Yirmiyahu must have felt, how misunderstood.

That is an example of someone who is believed to be harming others when he truly wants their good. It eats him up inside.

But here we have a man who harmed others while giving the impression that he wanted good for them. And I just don't understand how he was able to rationalize it to himself. I don't understand what seems to be the lack of struggle. I wish he would speak publicly about his struggle- if there was one. At least then those of us who want to believe that humanity is innately good- flawed, sometimes terribly flawed- but good, would have a case to make.

But right now I can't even make the case.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Different Model of Jewish Education

"And why is it" asked Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, "that such a big deal is made of the Mishkan? There will never be a Mishkan again! There will be a Bais Hamikdash- but no Mishkan."

He looked around the audience of riveted teens and proceeded to reveal the answer.

"The Mishkan," he explained, "is like camp. It's a place to share experiences, to buoy one another up and to help each other out. It's a place where people encounter their fears, grow and come out changed."

So he didn't say it in exactly those words; I'm translating from teen-speak. In essence, though, that was what he was saying, and it made something click in my mind.

We've set up a false dichotomy in the Jewish world of experiential education vs. formal education. Formal education, we've admitted, must of necessity be boring. But NCSY, Bnei Akiva and camp will provide the experiential education to keep kids connected. These initiatives are so important that some parents will even choose providing their children with a Jewish camp experience over Jewish day school and grandparents will righteously argue that they should be able to use their money to send kids to camp even if those same kids are on scholarships at their respective day schools.

But I'd like to consider the first part of the assumption- namely, that formal education must be boring.

Why exactly is formal education boring?

Well, a lot of it has to do with how we're teaching. There are endless classes for young Jewish teens to sit through, Judaic and otherwise. In the morning, you've got Chumash (Bible), Navi (Prophets), Gemara (Talmud) and possibly a Jewish Philosophy or Fundamentals of Judaism class. And that's not including time for prayer and all the other classes (in secular subjects).

Some schools have adopted a block schedule, which means that students aren't experiencing these classes every day, or at the very least are not experiencing them in the exact same order. That's definitely a start- but I would argue it doesn't go far enough.

That brings us to 21st century skills. Using technology in the classroom is surely the answer. With technology, we can make our classes less boring, more interesting and use the very same devices children are already familiar with to get them to learn. This is a great idea and it definitely can work- but once again, I would argue it doesn't go far enough.

Think about it. When we were in the desert, our entire lives revolved around the Mishkan, our living model of Har Sinai. Experiences were the order of the day. Once in Israel, the same rules applied- our Jewish lives were meant to be a lived experience of holiness, the key word being experience. Bringing an animal to be slaughtered, making pilgrimage to the Temple, blowing (or hearing) Shofar, tithing, setting aside corners of the field for the poor and hungry- all of these were things you did. In creating a culture of textual supremacy, it is possible to lose sight of this religion which was meant to be lived and experienced in favor of learning another blatt Gemara or understanding another pasuk.

So what should we be doing?

The answer came to me as I read about Finland's decision to move towards phenomenon-based learning as opposed to subject-based learning. It was solidified as I read about the initiative at the Playmaker school where students created video games from scratch, an initiative which forced them to learn to code, manage or produce as members of a group, build a business and advertise. And of course there's maker culture and makerspaces cropping up all over the place.

The goal of education should be to meet students where they are and then build them up from there. Education should be relevant and should be able to demonstrate to students why what they are learning is valuable and will serve them well in today's world. It should be multidisciplinary. It should be creative. And it should involve play, because all learning is really exploration and play is exploration.

We should be redesigning our Jewish schools to feature project-based and phenomenon-based learning. Information should be taught topically and should have a clear goal. If students are learning about the laws of tallit, tefillin and tzitzit, the end result should be to actually make these objects, ideally from scratch. Students should learn how to construct and blow a shofar, safrut (the ability to write Hebrew properly in Torah and other holy scrolls). Exams should be practical i.e. students should have to construct a Shabbos meal and then, sitting at the table, demonstrate the melachot that are forbidden. Just learning how to run a kosher kitchen (and how to kasher various objects and items) could take a year. Send students out with Chabad teams to use blowtorches to assist in kashering people's kitchens, for instance!

Once information is studied topically, you no longer have the incredibly long school day that drains so many students. This is because there's no need for each subject to be a set number of minutes taking up its own period- rather, a chunk of time will end up covering a diverse array of Jewish subjects. Every unit begins with an overall question and the question should be framed like so: "I wonder how a sofer writes a kosher Torah scroll." Or "I wonder how to run a kosher kitchen." Or "I wonder which vessels conduct purity and impurity" (this would be a great excuse for woodshop and pottery in school, aside from which you could built shtenders, besamim holders, coffins and all sorts of other useful items and sell them). Then, students have to learn through relevant sources- possibly prepared by teachers or guided by teachers- beginning with the Chumash, then going to the Mishna, then the Talmud, then the Shulchan Aruch and beyond. Masters in the field should be brought in as consultants. Along the way, students can work on constructing whatever it is they hope to construct/ build in order to see what they do know as opposed to don't know- their teachers serving as experienced guides rather than frontal instructors and lecturers.

You may be concerned that not everything Judaism teaches fits neatly within a project framework. For example, it may be important to teach about Maimonides' 13 principles, and there isn't exactly a construction for that topic. But this is where phenomenon-based learning comes in. The 13 principles constitute a belief system, and this could be a great opportunity to link this lesson to beliefs in general (which would definitely integrate well with history and Jewish history). There are several different angles that one could take. One could be the exercise in determining at what point in Jewish history tenets and principles became important. Another would be to talk about the principles and values by which the student lives their life and have them go on a treasure hunt to determine where they get their principles from- a search for the source. Is it their parents? Their friends? And where do those individuals get their principles from? In what ways do these principles reflect or differ from overall society values? A third would be to talk about Maimonides as an individual and the ways in which he reflects other individuals who were unique during their time- Galileo, etc.

Much of Navi (Prophets) is political but students rarely learn it that way. If you link Prophets to the politics that occur when the prophet is prophesying, it can either work well in concert with a history curriculum, a media curriculum or it can become a discussion about ethics, values and how to live. If the latter, cue Randy Pausch's Last Lecture  and Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. In an ideal world, English Lit, History (and Jewish History), Navi and Chumash departments would all work together on creating an integrated curriculum.

I also think it would be instructive to take a hotly contested topic and consider the comparisons and analogies often made. For example, most students are taught to be Zionistic but are usually only taught one narrative. They are taught to dismiss allegations of apartheid, land grabbing and acting like Hitler as ludicrous and misguided. But often they are only taught to do this because other people who they trust have told them that these allegations are incorrect or misguided. I think it would be very interesting to lead an advanced class that would not only examine the Israeli/ Palestine narratives but would also examine the rhetoric used in the media when it comes to this subject. This class, for instance, should do a thorough study of South Africa and apartheid (the books read in this class would work for AP English!). It should consider various land grabs made across different countries and cultures. It should allow for fearless inquiry and open questions, even those that make instructors uncomfortable.

Many lament the culture of victimization that has led to ridiculous concessions at college campuses across America. Trigger warnings must appear on all sorts of material and teachers are afraid to teach. It seems to me that in order to create students who think rather than spout opinions based on their feelings, we have to teach students to consider a topic from all angles, including uncomfortable ones. Enter source-based, phenomenon-based learning. You don't just dismiss the comparison to apartheid because it bothers you; you actually learn about apartheid, compare it to what's happening in Israel and come to a conclusion. You don't subscribe to political beliefs or tenets simply because it's popular; you consider all sides of the matter (even- or especially- on hotly contested issues such as LGBTQ, where most seem to think with their hearts instead of their minds). It's tempting to cast everyone who disagrees with you as a dark villain, but it's probably not accurate. Let's teach the children to make room for multiple ideas and to check the sources before coming to conclusions.

What I'm describing would take time as it would be a radical remodeling of education today. Interdisciplinary learning that leads to either creation or discussion which considers a matter from all sides, including the ones which are unsettling, is a difficult enterprise. But the rewards could be breathtaking. Imagine a shorter school day, one in which students were invested because they knew that everything they were learning was something that could become part of their lived experience. The skills (reading, writing, learning how to think critically) would be taught via the inquiry-based, constructivist, phenomenon-based, creation-based model. Here's what a possible day would look like:

  • Tefillah
  • Breakfast
  • Woodshop/ Pottery where we build items and vessels and learn about how they can conduct impurity via sources from Chumash, Mishna and Talmud. We also try to construct items as they existed way back when, including making a working Tanur, where we will bake challot (and do hafrashat challah). (This hits upon Chumash, Mishna, Talmud and Home Ec).
  • Israel/ Media workshop. We are reading 'Age of Iron' by J.M. Coetzee and comparing this reflection on apartheid to historical sources and different impressions (by Palestinians vs. Israelis) on what is going on in Israel today. (This hits upon Media, History and English). 
  • Business Model workshop- Students create businesses (either real ones or set up a fake Shark Tank atmosphere where people have to create business models and bring it to moguls in the classroom) in which they must bring math and science skills to bear. You could assign the business moguls roles - for example, one of them could have made all their money in oil. As part of this, assign them to learn and teach the class about the issues with oil right now (fracking, pipelines). Another one is a doctor and you use them to be the conduit to teach biology. Obviously, the students creating the businesses have to bring statistics, salesmanship and advertising to bear, including informative graphs and visual presentations. (This hits upon Science, Math, Public Speaking etc) 
  • Clubs/ Electives
  • Sports/ Arts 

It is possible that in the younger grades we would still need basic foundational classes in reading, writing, Hebrew language, learning Rashi script/ Aramaic etc. But once foundations were achieved, the ideal would be to teach all these skills within broader relevant topics as opposed to on their own.

I'm still working on refining these ideas and I know I haven't hit on all the potential problems. A few that I see include:

  • How would we hire teachers to fit this model and what would the teacher's role look like? Is a teacher someone meant to know a lot about a variety of subjects, or would several different teachers work together to construct each unit or lesson?
  • How would this be financially possible/ can this be supported equitably across wealthy and less affluent communities?
  • How would we assess what and whether the student has learned the topic? 
  • How can we determine rigor in such classes? 
  • Is it possible that there are certain concepts that simply can't be taught according to this model, and if so, do we build in a period of time for straight-up lecturing? 
  • If the USA keeps a standardized test model such as the SATs or ACTs, would students be adequately prepared to succeed? 

I think with the right team, however, we would be able to expand upon this vision, work out the kinks, and create a school that interested students, taught them useful information and made Judaism the lived experience it ought to be.

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Review: Majesty and Humility by Rav Reuven Ziegler

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book.

It's taken me nearly three years to read a book.

I typically read five books a week, so this is pretty unusual. The book in question is special. It's like fine wine. One is meant to sip at it, consider the flavor, delicately swish it from side to side in one's mouth. It's not like soda, where you swig it back and chug it down. No, it's something that's meant to be considered, enjoyed, absorbed. 

The book is entitled Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and is written by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler.

Those of you who are used to the TAC/SOY Seforim Sale may be thinking: "Do we really  need another Rav book?" The subject of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is exhaustively covered from all angles within the Modern Orthodox world. We know about important moments in his life, have copies of his shiurim, written works published during his lifetime and afterwards, and even have insights provided by his shamashim. So what can this book provide that the others don't?

The answer is: a lot.

That's because Majesty and Humility is a different kind of Rav book. It's a book that aims to make sense of the Rav's overarching philosophy and to trace his thought and its development across all of his works. It seeks to either resolve contradictions or assert that the Rav's thinking changed over time when it seems like certain ideas may not mesh with one another. While those of us who read the Rav in school are generally familiar with Halakhic Man and The Lonely Man of Faith, unless one has put in a great deal of effort and research, one is probably not aware of the scope and breadth of all the Rav's works and the thought that binds them together. Unlike the layperson, Ziegler is eminently aware of the scope and breadth of the Rav's works. His extremely well-researched book is filled with footnotes and references to other works, and each segment ends with a helpful section called "For Further Reference" that elaborates upon ideas mentioned in that section.

I see a lot of possible uses for Majesty and Humility. Any teacher who is going to incorporate the Rav's writings into class ought to own a copy. Higher-level high school classes and college classes ought to use this as a companion to the Rav's written works. One can focus on creating a year-long (or longer) class utilizing the different chapters of this book or alternatively, simply take one section and create a semester to year-long offering.

Ziegler breaks up the book into the following segments:

  • An  overall introduction
  • The Rav's conception of thought, feeling and action (physical experiences in this world and mitzvot)
  • The Rav's view of religion in the modern world 
  • The Rav's understanding of ways in which man reaches out to God (roles of family, prayer, repentance, suffering) 
  • The Rav's understanding of Jewish history and destiny (the Holocaust, State of Israel, Jewish identity)
  • The Rav's viewpoint on the significance of and parameters of Halakha (halakhic man, subjectivity and objectivity in halakha, how man finds God and cleaves to Him via the halakha)
  • A review of the major points and themes brought out in earlier chapters
I found this format to be extremely clear and very valuable as a resource should I wish to go back and incorporate some of these topics within my classes. 

As an English major, I enjoyed this book for its usage of critical techniques. When reading Wuthering Heights, one strives to understand Emily Bronte within her historical context, as a proponent of the gothic, and to look at the ways that her writing advanced the genre and literature in general. One also seeks to compare Bronte to her contemporaries to better understand both her writing and her influence. Ziegler does this with Rabbi Soloveitchik. One of the sections I most enjoyed in the book compared Rav Kook's thought to Rabbi Soloveitchik's thought. Here's one of the takeaways:
Two Conceptions of Human Nature 
Rav Kook's and Rav Soloveitchik's understandings of repentance, with all their differences, are clearly predicated on divergent views of the nature of man. 
For Rav Kook, the categories of sin and repentance apply not to man in relation to God, but to man in relation to himself: one sins against one's "self" and returns to one's "self." 
This, in turn, is based on the idea of the God-man unity in the inner self, symbolized by the perpetual inner teshuvah of the soul. In Rav Kook's thought, everything begins and ends with God. Repentance means revealing the divine within man and ideally, uniting it with divinity in its fullness. 
Rav Kook's is thus an encouraging and uplifting approach. Man is essentially good and holy, and must merely remove the impediments in order to allow himself to join the soul of the world in its upward movement. 
Rav Soloveitchik believes that God is God and man is man, and there is a chasm between them; man must create himself if he wants to draw closer to God. Man begins as a formless mass and must either shape himself actively or be shaped passively by circumstances. He has great potential, but must work hard to actualize it. 
The difference between their approaches is nicely encapsulated in their differing approaches to the relationship between Torah study and teshuvah. Rav Kook writes that the clarity of one's Torah learning increases in accordance with the teshuvah that precedes it (14:28). Rav Soloveitchik says the reverse: Torah study brings about a purification of the personality! For Rav Kook, teshuvah reveals the divine within a person, which helps that person understand the Torah; for Rav Soloveitchik, teshuvah is a process of building oneself and Torah gives one guidelines and ideals to emulate. 
-pages 244-245

While I think this is interesting to your average reader, I also can conceive of it making a great project or assignment in a Contemporary Jewish Philosophy class. You can provide students with the relevant works on teshuvah by Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Kook and then assign them to do what Ziegler has done here- compare and contrast them and come to their own conclusions as to the differences between these two greats' worldviews. If they reach the same conclusion as Ziegler, great!- you can show them his summation within this book. If not, and they come up with something different, also great- you can applaud their creativity, assuming it makes sense with the texts.

I was also very interested to learn about the "stages of the religious odyssey depicted by Rav Soloveitchik" (354) which begin with a dialectic between Trust and Fear, then a dialectic between Love and Awe and finally dvekut or cleaving. Ziegler explains that this is the thrust of U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham (And From There You Shall Seek), a book which Soloveitchik concluded surpassed Halakhic Man "in both content and form" (344). Ziegler incisively breaks down the key ideas the Rav was building upon in the work so that people who might otherwise be confused or put off by its lofty prose can actually get a handle on it. Some people use SparkNotes or No Fear-Shakespeare to enable them to engage with difficult works; Ziegler has done that for the Rav.

Majesty and Humility could be considered a magnum opus in its own right. It is meticulously researched, easy to use, considers a wide range of materials and offers something new- the ability to understand key ideas in the Rav's worldview, and how, like themes in music, they recur through his disparate works. Just like music, sometimes the theme is accompanied by an entire orchestra while other times it is the reedy thread of a flute, but it is still there and the person who knows to look for it can find it. Your average reader would not know to look for it, so Ziegler's great achievement is drawing back the curtain to show that it is there, and then demonstrating the ways in which very different pieces of Soloveitchik's thought can be puzzled together to form a vast and compelling vision.

I consider myself an amateur enthusiast of the Rav and I learned a lot through reading this book. Whether you are someone who sees yourself as a true beginner, a knowledgeable layperson or even someone very familiar with the Rav and his philosophy, there will be a new perspective or approach for you to benefit from in this book. Go get a copy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Orthodox Religious Leaders & Sex Scandals

Yet another sexual scandal involving a religious figure has hit the media. I think it's important to consider how to respond when such events occur. What should we say to our children, our students and all others who feel bewildered and betrayed upon reading these allegations? 

I think we should begin by quoting from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's remarks in his lecture on "The Duties of the King," at the RCA Midwinter Conference, January 18, 1971. These remarks appear in Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff's book The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2. 
Who will win the battle in America between Orthodoxy and the dissident groups, such as the Conservative and the Reform? There is no prophet who can foresee the outcome. In my opinion, the battle will be won by the party who understands two things. 
Number one, it will be the one that excels not only in piety but in morality. The Orthodox rabbi will be accepted by the whole Jewish community only when he shows the entire community that he not only wears a yarmulka but is a moral person, head and shoulders above the Reform and Conservative rabbis. The Orthodox rabbi must show that he is not a publicity hound; that he is not a lover of money. I do not say that money is bad, but there is a difference between earning a dollar and loving a dollar. The Orthodox rabbi must show that he is more sincere, more committed, and more consistent with himself than the Conservative and Reform rabbis. That is what will decide the battle: higher morality, superior morality. 
And I want to tell you, the American Jew is very intelligent. He is intelligent, discriminating, and understanding. I have great faith in the American Jew. 
Number two, the outcome of the battle will be decided by the intellectual achievements of the rabbi. For instance, the Orthodox rabbi should be head and shoulders above the Conservative and Reform rabbis as far as knowledge is concerned. I mean knowledge in the widest sense of the word. The Orthodox rabbi should attain a profound understanding of Judaism. He should reach out for new horizons in his intellectual understanding of Judaism. Such achievements will make him the winner. 
Morality and intellectuality, Torah knowledge in the widest sense of the word, will ultimately decide the outcome of the battle. In reality, the battle has not yet been won; we do not know the outcome.  
-Pages 58-59
It is essential that our rabbis and leaders behave in a manner which demonstrates not only their intellectual breadth but their moral superiority. Two very different articles have come out in the past week about the same community. One is about a Conservative rabbi who has publicly confessed that he identifies as gay, and that as much as he loves his wife, he finds himself in a situation where he will be divorcing her in order to live authentically. This may not be a decision with which Orthodox individuals agree, but there is no question that one can respect the honesty involved in this statement. At the same time, an article has appeared alleging that an Orthodox rabbi installed a camera in the women's mikvah in order to watch women take showers prior to dipping in the ritual bath. While one may be able to empathize with and understand the thrill behind this sexual urge, it is a violation of the women's privacy and totally undermines the mitzva of mikvah. 

Of course, at the moment these are merely allegations and have not been proven. We do not know for sure that this rabbi is in fact the one responsible for installing this camera in the mikvah. We also do not know why it was installed (this may be far-fetched, but, for example, there could have been a complaint regarding some sort of sexual abuse or molestation where the camera was installed as a safety measure and the footage was not actually viewed). At the moment, all that we hear is what has been alleged, and it is important to keep an open mind rather than paint someone as a scoundrel when we do not know the facts.

But let us say the worst happens, and it turns out that the rabbi is indeed guilty. How are we to respond then?

I think at that point it is important to acknowledge two things, both of which appear in our Jewish tradition.

1) Sexual urges are incredibly intense. Incredible Jewish leaders have succumbed to them over and over again, whether it is King David with Batsheva or R' Meir and R' Akiva pursuing the Satan disguised as an extremely attractive woman (Kiddushin 81a). These people were not lightweights. These people were scholars, kings, leaders of their generation! And yet they fell prey to sexual urges. As the Gemara reiterates in Chulin 11b, Nidah 30b and Kesubos 13b, "There is no guardian against sexual sins." In the original language, this is written as " אין אפוטרופוס לעריות." 

2) There is an idea that the greater the capacity an individual has to do good, so too do they have a capacity to do evil. Many of us lead regular lives. We strive to be the best husbands, wives, mothers and fathers that we can be. We impact the people who are in our lives, which is certainly a noble endeavor- but that is all. We do not impact the entire community; we do not write books or give lectures which revolutionize Jewish thought or consolidate ideas within Jewish tradition. We do not dedicate all our time to trying to help converts in the process of conversion. We are not huge players in the scheme of things.

Those people who are huge players find that just as they have the power and capacity to do great good, so too can they commit great harm. This is an idea we have in our secular tradition as well. Consider individuals such as Darth Vader or Voldemort. Darth Vader was originally Anakin Skywalker, the chosen one who was to bring balance to the force. Yet he was the one who turned to the Dark Side and wreaked evil upon the people...because when someone with the capacity for great good chooses to use his capacity incorrectly, the harm he can cause is far greater. The same applies to Voldemort- a brilliant, precocious individual who had the ability to become a Dumbledore-like figure or to become the darkest wizard that ever was.

There is a story brought down in the Gemara in Sukkah 52a which epitomizes this point. (Translation is from the Soncino edition.)
Abaye explained, [The evil inclination is] Against scholars more than against anyone; as was the case when Abaye heard a certain man saying to a woman, ‘Let us arise betimes and go on our way’. ‘I will’, said Abaye, ‘follow them in order to keep them away from [sexual] transgression’ and he followed them for three parasangs across the meadows. When they parted company he heard them say, ‘Our company is pleasant, the way is long’. ‘If it were I’, said Abaye, ‘I could not have restrained myself’, and so went and leaned in deep anguish against a doorpost, when a certain old man came up to him and taught him: The greater the man, the greater his Evil Inclination.
A contemporary of mine noted that Dumbledore says something similar: "I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being- forgive me- rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger."

If the rabbi truly is guilty, then there are a host of appropriate responses. It is appropriate for our community to feel let down, betrayed, violated and saddened. It is appropriate for us to feel sorrow that the mitzva of mikvah may be impacted and undermined because women may feel like it has been impacted by sleaziness and prurience. It is appropriate for us to feel compassion and indignation on behalf of the victims. And it is appropriate for us to feel sympathy and heartbreak for the members of his family who are impacted by his actions.

At the same time, the rabbi has done many extraordinary things for the Orthodox Jewish community, and I am not sure it makes sense to pasul all of them simply because he may have fallen in one area. As R' Meir did for Elisha ben Avuyah, it may be appropriate to discard the peel and retain the fruit.

Most important of all, it is not for us to claim that we would have behaved better in his situation. We have no idea what we would do. We have very likely never been faced with his challenge, his evil inclination or been in a position where we wield that much authority. In Sanhedrin 102b, R' Ashi referred to King Menashe as his "friend." Menashe came to him in a dream and demonstrated that his knowledge of Torah was far superior to that of R' Ashi. "In that case," asked R' Ashi, "how could you have worshipped idols?" "If you had lived in my day," retorted King Menashe, "you would have lifted up the hem of your robe to run after idol worship!"

In our current lives and in our current situations, most of us do not engage in the form of sexual sin the rabbi is alleged to have committed. But that is exactly the point. We are who we are- and for most of us, that means we are simple members of the community, not towering figures or leaders. The temptations that come with being a towering figure or leader are not ones with which we are familiar and not ones we can adequately judge. This is in no way meant to excuse such behaviors- as Rabbi Soloveitchik clearly stated, Orthodoxy can only thrive when it demonstrates a higher morality than that of its contemporaneous denominations. But it does mean we should be careful in the way we speak about and judge individuals who are alleged to have behaved this way.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

What Does Orthodoxy Stand For?

You gotta stand for something or you'll fall for anything.
-"Fall for Anything" by The Script

The recent rash of articles detailing Rabbi Asher Lopatin's appointment, reactions to it, and much discussion of Rabbi Zev Farber led to my finally reading "Avraham Avinu is My Father: Thoughts on Torah, History and Judaism," as published on

The stated goal of is to "energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of academic biblical scholarship." I think this is a noble goal. And I think Rabbi Farber is a noble individual. I respect what he is trying to do. He wants to reach out to the minds of questioning individuals, serious thinkers who truly wish to engage with both our textual tradition and modern scholarship, and try to present them with a way to blend the two together. This way, these individuals may still stay observant and will be able to strengthen and give back to the Orthodox community. The unstated alternative seems to be that these individuals will become completely nonobservant and may even leave Judaism altogether.

Much ink has been spilled as to the question of whether or not Rabbi Farber is a heretic, and whether the thoughts he expresses are heretical. But I think the more important question is what makes Orthodoxy Orthodox. In short: what does Orthodoxy stand for? That is what the real disagreement here is about. And I even think, that framed in the right way, it could be and perhaps is, a machloket l'shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven.

On the one side, we have individuals who see Orthodoxy as something which is very much concerned with the "dox" part. Being Orthodox means not only worrying about what foods I put into my mouth, but also what thoughts I allow into my mind. Certain thoughts are not permissible. We must believe certain things (most commonly the Rambam's 13 Ikrei Emunah). Changing the official creed to which those who are Orthodox must subscribe by default devalues and waters down Orthodoxy, making it less than it is. In fact, it might not even make it Orthodoxy anymore. As 'The Script' says, we must stand for something or we will fall for anything. Orthodoxy means standing up for these 13 Ikrei Emunah at all costs. If one does not believe these, that individual might be orthoprax, but certainly not Orthodox.

On the other side, we see individuals who see Orthodoxy as something more to do with practice. To be Orthodox is to be shomer Torah u'mitzvot as it pertains to actions. If one keeps Shabbat, observes Kashrut, lights the Chanukah menorah and makes a Pesach Seder, among other laws, one is Orthodox. Issues of belief do not come into it, and neither do situations where we are unsure of one's practice (for instance, if I say I am gay, and you do not know whether or not I am having anal intercourse with my partner, I ought to be permitted into the synagogue and into the community). This approach will allow for more individuals to identify as Orthodox, more individuals to swell our synagogues, and will also keep those individuals who might be perceived as some of the most gifted (given their curiosity and questioning) within our ranks, as we will not exclude them based on belief system.

So we come down to a difference in goal. Is the goal of Orthodoxy to uphold certain tenets of belief and faith, or is the goal of Orthodoxy to be as inclusive as possible, except for situations in which individuals do not follow the majority of practices associated with observance? If it is the first goal, we will end up excluding many people. If it is the second goal, we will end up welcoming in many more people. One goal is more God focused- we must uphold the beliefs and creed that make us a nation that was chosen by God. The other goal is more Human focused- we must do everything in our power to allow access to all humans (women, LGBTQ+ etc) into our synagogues if they are not violating a certain number of our practices outright.

This is a clash that I feel personally, as I am constantly oscillating between the two sides of the argument. On the one hand, as a humanist, I would prefer for everyone to be welcome in our community and in our synagogues, no matter how they express themselves. On the other hand, I do believe that we need to stand for something, which means standing for God, and that there are certain matters of belief and principle which should not be crossed and are immutable.

Where it gets tricky is that sometimes even those who believe we ought to stand for certain principles need to redefine the principles. For instance, what does it mean to believe that the entire Torah that we now have was given to Moses? There are professors who teach Intro to Bible classes that include fascinating readings of Ibn Ezra which indicate that certain pesukim were added to the text later. Even Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg needed to modify what the Eighth Principle meant. And anyone who studies the Tanakh seriously is aware of the many passages that seem to contradict one another, or seem to have been added later. Certainly, some people (especially those who do not study Tanakh thoroughly) can simply ignore these. But others try to grapple with them, and certainly there have been Orthodox approaches attempting to make sense of the different accounts and contradictions. But sometimes these approaches are not satisfying to a particular student. What then?

It is the "what then" that Rabbi Farber is trying to address. It is all very well and good to tell a student they are not learned enough to make a decision of accepting what historical-biblical criticism has to say. That is not persuasive. It is well and good to tell a student that there are limits to what they can understand and sometimes they have to surrender to the Halakhah (or in this case, perhaps Hashkafah). But not every student will be willing to do that. At that point, there is perhaps a choice- either the student can decide they do not accept the tenets underwriting traditional Orthodoxy, and likely become orthoprax, Conservative, Reform or leave the tradition altogether, or they can try an approach like Rabbi Farber's, which seeks to redefine the meaning of Torah miSinai, and perhaps stay within Orthodoxy. Which choice is better for the student and for us as we see the Orthodox movement? Where do we draw our line?

Rabbi Farber wants us to include individuals who wish to accept historical-biblical criticism within Orthodoxy. The way he aims to do this is by advocating that we drop the binary divide between thinking that everything in the Tanakh must have literally happened in the way it is written. Instead, he wishes to advocate a world-view where "humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode," including a mode where they are "totally on his or her own" and one where a person "encounters the divine and channels it in some way." Therefore, when there are contradictions in the Torah, Farber sees these as reflecting the "respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way."

Farber sees the people as having been given insight "into God's plan for Israel/ the Jews" via divine encounter and suggests that over the years, these "revelations are synthesized and reframed." We need to seek out how "any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel" in order to see the ideas in "their relative purity and reapply them to our times." What is important is not the law itself, but the message or value beneath the law.

What is interesting is that nothing that Farber here suggests is new or unique to him. This is the interpretation of divine revelation proffered by the Conservative movement based on their understanding of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's saying that the Torah is a 'midrash' on revelation. Heschel wrote in God in Search of Man:
In speaking about revelation, the more descriptive the terms, the less adequate is the description. The words in which the prophets attempted to relate their experiences were not photographs but illustrations, not descriptions, but songs. A psychological reconstruction of the prophetic act is, therefore, no more possible than the attempt to paint a photographic likeness of a face on the basis of a song. The word "revelation" is like an exclamation; it is an indicative rather than a descriptive term. Like all terms that express the ultimate, it points to its meaning rather than fully rendering it. "It is very difficult to have a true conception of the events at Sinai, for there has never been before nor will there ever be again anything like it." "We believe," says Maimonides, "that the Torah has reached Moses from God in a manner which is described in Scripture figuratively by the term 'word,' and that nobody has ever known how that took place except Moses himself to whom that word reached. 
We must try not to read chapters in the Bible dealing with the event at Sinai as if they were texts in systematic theology. Its intention is to celebrate the mystery, to introduce us to it rather than to penetrate or to explain it. As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash. 
(page 185)
Neil Gillman in his work Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew interprets Heschel's position in this way:
The cardinal theological sin for Heschel, then, is literal-mindedness, the presumption that our theological concepts are literally true or objectively adequate. Thus Heschel’s striking claim about revelation: “As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash.” We understand midrash as a later interpretation of a biblical text. But according to Heschel, even the Bible itself is a human interpretation of some prior, or more primal revelatory content that is beyond human comprehension.  
 Heschel teaches that two events occurred at Sinai: God’s giving of the Torah and Israel’s receiving of the Torah. Both parties were active in the encounter, and what emerged is colored by both its divine origin and its human appropriation. To use another of Heschel’s formulations, Judaism reflects “a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” Accordingly, “the source of authority is not the word as given in the text but Israel’s understanding of the text.” Yet, as we shall see, Heschel takes the Jewish legal system that emerges out of this revelation very seriously indeed. …
Farber then goes on to speak about important characters in the Tanakh. He introduces the concept of mnemohistory vs. history, which he defines as a mixture of legends, myths, lore and "nuggets of cultural memory" all put together to explain the past. He suggests that we can make sense of the fact that current archeological findings do not support texts in the Tanakh (his examples include not only the account of Adam and Eve in the garden, but even the exodus from Egypt) by seeing them as the stories that a people or nation tells itself in order to explain itself and its values. Farber is not altogether alone in his view. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a recent debate with Dawkins, said (minute 18 on) "Well Adam and Eve is clearly a parable because there was no first human, and there may have been a mitochondrial Eve, but I mean, that was somewhere else and in another country, and besides [...] is dead, so no, I mean, Adam and Eve are really, I mean, if you trace it back 6000 years ago, obviously the Bible is telling us the story about the first dawn of civilization, I mean there was an [art?] 25,000 years ago." Dawkins continues and says, "So Adam and Eve is symbolic, but the passing of the Red Sea- I mean, how do you decide which bits are symbolic and-?" and Rabbi Sacks says, "Very simple. The rabbis in the 10th century laid down the following principle: If a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be read literally, and that was 8 centuries before the word 'scientist' was coined so they weren't just doing it to please Richard Dawkins. They were doing it for their own intellectual integrity." The moderator points out that many people do believe it literally and Rabbi Sacks says, "In Judaism, we take a strong view on this. We have now for [14,000?] years and we say reading the Bible literally is heresy. Why so? Because we believe in its a fundamental of rabbinic Judaism, that there is an Oral Tradition alive alongside the Written Tradition and simply to read the words as they're written is heretical in Judaism." However, Rabbi Sacks does say that he believes God's call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac literally happened and that that whole narrative was "critically misunderstood with disastrous consequences." (Rabbi Sacks continues his exploration of both of these passages in his work The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, on pages 174-181 in the hardcover version).

It's interesting that Rabbi Sacks sees the Adam and Eve story as a parable due to conflicts with science, but stops there, while Rabbi Farber sees other pieces as conflicting with archaeological records or historical records that we do or do not have, and therefore continues to the point where he denies that main figures within our tradition ever literally existed (such as the aforementioned Abraham). Or at least, like King Arthur, he suggests the figure is much embellished. Is it that Rabbi Sacks does not find a proof in the lack of a discovery (such as the lack of archaeological records)? What stops Rabbi Sacks from continuing down the road that Rabbi Farber is led on, given that they both seem to begin with the same principle? And would Rabbi Sacks be troubled by Rabbi Farber's conclusions? These are not questions I can answer, but I think they would make for a very interesting discussion with Rabbi Sacks himself.

Rabbi Farber determines that the "stories of the Torah have meaning and significance irrespective of their historicity. The Torah has holiness as the Israelite and Jewish encounter with God even after one realizes that the idea of God dictating it entirely and word-for-word to Moses on Mount Sinai is troubling." This merely restates the position of the Conservative movement that has already been articulated. Farber explains that the stories of the Tanakh teach us morals, lessons and values and they are simply couched in a way where humanity could understand them and find them palatable. The Torah is, at its essence, a great parable, and the meaning ought to be found in the nimshal rather than in the mashal. Farber's position reminds me of why I read fiction and fantasy, and of one of the greatest lines in The Things They Carried by Tim O' Brien; "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth" (page 80).

Farber's philosophy is noble. He wants to create meaning for those who want to accept historical and biblical criticism, and he believes he has done it. Read the Torah as an ahistorical document that exists to teach us about morals, values and ethics! is his rallying cry. Do not lose the meaning and the message simply because you see something that conflicts with it. Keep the meaning and the message, and remain a part of the Orthodox community rather than leaving religion altogether. Like many in the Conservative movement, Farber sees the Torah as a human-made document which is representative of the encounter between God and His people, a midrash on revelation. The characters do not need to have literally existed to teach us the morals, messages and values that they do.

However, this raises the following questions:

(a) Farber states that he believes that "halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah interpretation and not by excising or ignoring any part of the Torah or Chazal's interpretation." But earlier in the essay he says we need to find out "how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel," in order to see the ideas "in their relative purity and reapply them to our times." By making this point, he seems to suggest that a historical understanding of halahka and societal impact upon halakha would mean that certain halakhot can be changed or might no longer be valid (given that our goal would be to find the halakha in its "relative purity and reapply" it to our times). Per some, that is de facto against against Chazal, as it assumes Chazal were the creators of a tradition, influenced by their times and the countries in which they lived, rather than the vessels of a tradition. For those who believe that Chazal are the vessels of a tradition, historical circumstance should have no bearing, as the Rav argued in his essay in Light magazine. Therefore, claiming that we should not excise or ignore any part of the Torah or Chazal's interpretation while at the same time saying we need to find the underlying cause of halakhot may be contradictory or impossible for some.

(b) I do not see why Farber gives so much validity to Chazal and indeed thinks that their interpretations cannot be excised or ignored. He is perfectly fine ignoring the understanding of Chazal that the characters in Torah are absolutely true-to-life historical figures who lived and breathed. Why is it acceptable to him to ignore this underlying point of view, but it is still important to him to accept their opinion on halakha? This is especially curious in circumstances where they call upon historical events in Judaism to explain why we have halakhot. (For instance, if the Exodus is nothing but a fable that exists to teach us certain lessons, morals and values, I can understand the need to have a meal to discuss the fable and the values we learn from it. But does it really matter so much whether or not I talk about matzah, maror and the Korban Pesach, and why, if all of these are just metaphors?) This leads to a larger question: where does practice and ritual come into play if the entire document off of which we create these practices and rituals is simply a large parable or metaphor? What is the point of keeping these practices or rituals; why don't we just focus on the underlying ethics, values and morals of the document? It seems absurd to follow laws that were learned out of human-written lore and mnemohistory; as well follow laws that are learned out of Bernard Cornwall's King Arthur trilogy.

(c) What is the compelling reason to remain a Jew according to Farber's theology? Let us suppose that he is correct that our allegedly human-written texts are the result of some sort of revelation between God and man, specifically 'Jewish' man. If I can get these ethics, morals and values from a different religion (Christianity, Islam) that may couch them in different human-written texts, why ought I to stay Jewish rather than becoming a universally moral person with no official religion? And even if I do stay Jewish in the sense that I hold by the values, ethics and morals derived from my own lore and literature, why would I continue to practice or be observant? After all, my practices would all be based on figurative parables that never actually occurred; why should my life be restricted or inconvenienced by this fiction? Let me take the core messages and leave aside the wrapping in which they were encased, much as a person takes the gift and throws out the wrapping paper.

(d) Why should one believe in revelation? Farber starts from the premise that one wants to be a believing Jew, but is struggling to reconcile Torah and archeology/ historical evidence/ biblical criticism with Torah. He therefore posits that we should see Torah as the story and lore that encases our uniquely Jewish values and ethics. And he says we should believe the human authors of the Torah were responding to God (and were perhaps even prophets). But it would seem simpler and easier to say that the human authors of the Torah were simply creative individuals who came up with some very compelling parables about radical value systems and ethics. There is no proof against revelation- but there is no proof for it, either, and not even a claim that it happened, if the Sinai experience never occurred, is a parable, or did not occur in the format that was suggested, before hundreds of thousands of people.

(e) Why would one die for such a religion? People are willing to die for those they love, their family members, their community. (See the heroic story of Roi Klein). But Farber is saying that Jews should all be willing to die for an idea. You should not convert or change your religion because you hold fast to the ideas couched within human-written texts that the Torah represents. It's true that we do believe in the power of ideas. Many people who serve in the army do so because they want to defend this country's ideas and ideals of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech and so forth. But just as many do so because they want the benefits, the education, or need more discipline or structure in their lives. If we mandated that people needed to die for the USA because of the ideas the US stands for, some would, but many wouldn't. But people are willing to die for brotherhood, fellowship, love, community- in short, their family. I would posit that if you take away the historical significance of our religion, the episodes where our real-life relatives chose not to bow before the Nimrods, Pharoahs or Nebuchadnezzars of the past, you take away a fundamental connection with the past, and with the families that we are a part of, and you take away a large part of the reason that people commit to the religion and to live by it or die by it. If you say the Torah is an ahistorical collection of ideas,then if given the choice between converting or dying, it would make much more sense to slightly change one's idea rather than to die for it, or even to convert but secretly continue to believe in one's original idea. Many of the people who died for Judaism throughout history died because it was the religion of their forefathers in a literal sense, because our ancestors were willing to give up anything to keep this religion. People died because of the connection they shared with real-life heroes who would not bow, not because of a thought.

(f) If Farber's theology were adopted on a large scale, would it help or would it hinder Jews? I think that Farber's theology might be helpful for, as Maimonides might have put it, the 'elite' thinkers who would otherwise face a crisis of faith and would not continue to believe. These individuals can choose to see the Torah as a collection of ahistorical truths, values and ethics written by humans but caused by a revelation between God and man. But for the majority of people, or 'the masses,' as we might otherwise put it, this thought system would be utterly detrimental. Although he argues against this choice, Farber himself admits he has met people who would no longer practice if the events in the Torah were proved not to have occurred. Therefore, he agrees that if the events in the Torah never really happened, there are many people who would not feel a connection to it, practice its laws, or die for it. If, therefore, Farber's theology were adopted on a large scale, it is likely that it would simply lead to more disbelief and less observance, contrary to his goals.

(g) Why does Farber's theology go this far and no further? If we have already interpreted the entire Torah as an ahistorical compilation of truths, values and messages, why ought they to be seen as God's truths, values and messages rather than human truths, values and messages? Why ought we to still believe in prophecy, a phenomenon science has never seen or identified? Why ought we to still believe in revelation? Why pray an elaborate liturgy which makes reference to ahistorical figures all the time (praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as stand-ins for certain values)? Why follow chukim in the Torah where we don't understand the values or ethics underlying the law (for example, shatnez)? Farber suggests we can isolate history from practice. Just because something didn't happen, doesn't make it not true or valuable. We can practice religion and Judaism even if we don't think the narratives are true in a literal sense. But why would that not lead to further suspicion? Why the need for all these categories and designations- for rituals of tumah and taharah - are those also just stand-ins for certain ethics or values, and can we replace them in modern times? Why a need for halakha at all? Why are we bound, if there was no true covenant truly accepted between Abraham and God? Why are we bound if there was no literal Sinai?

I don't understand why Farber stops where he does, and goes no further, unless it is simply out of desperation. He wants to believe, and he also wants to be engaged in scholarly biblical and historical criticism. He has found a system that does not directly contradict the theory of revelation. Revelation can still have happened, but what was truly revealed were ethics, precepts and ideas, and these were couched in human terms and stories by human authors, perhaps even based on original characters that did exist (much like King Arthur). It's true that revelation could still have happened in that format. But wouldn't it be more sensible to believe that humans simply wrote this mnemohistory without revelation occurring? What is it that pushes one to believe in revelation in this case? Or is this simply where faith comes in- faith is believing in this form of revelation? If so, I do not think this is a faith that will stand the test of time- and I point you to the dwindling numbers in the Conservative movement as my evidence. Regular people find it very difficult to attach themselves to ideas rather than to events, history and family, especially when they have cause to be suspicious that the ideas may have been the outcome of human creativity rather than Godly creativity.

The question we must really address is this: What does Orthodox Judaism stand for?

Is it about practice?
Is it about belief?
Is it about retaining the greatest number of adherents to the system?
Is it about retaining true, faithful adherents to the system, even if the numbers are small?
What are its limits? Where do we draw lines between Orthodoxy and other denominations?
Ought there to be limits?

Farber believes that if there is a clash between the faith of individuals and the Torah, the Torah itself must change. Let us reinterpret the Torah as an ahistorical compilation of texts written by prophets who were teaching us values via parables. That way, people will still believe in the core precept of revelation. Many others believe that if there is a clash between the faith of individuals and the Torah, the individuals must change. They must surrender to the halakha, to the authority of the Torah, or to the fact that they do not or will not understand, and must, as Rilke says, "live the questions." These people say the core precepts are larger; we believe, not only in revelation, but in the historicity of the text. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived, loved, and died beloved by God. And of course, there is a spectrum of responses in between these two poles. Farber is guided by a love of the people, and others are guided by a love of God. We need to remember that at its core, the machloket here is a machloket l'shem shamayim. How is God best served? Is He best served by uprooting some precepts to save the main one (if, indeed, revelation is the main precept)? Or by taking a firm stand that all the precepts must hold, even if that places others outside the Orthodox camp?

Can we engage with Farber and see him as a noble individual with God-focused motivations, even if some are concerned that his ideas are misleading or dangerous? Or, precisely because the ideas might be misleading or dangerous, should we not engage with him at all, and place him and those marred by association with him outside of the established community, so that no one else may be negatively impacted by his words? Is there a middle ground, and what is it? Are certain people equipped to think about his ideas, while others ought to be protected from them? And who makes this determination?

What does it mean to call oneself an Orthodox Jew?

What does Orthodoxy stand for?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bernard Cornwell and Tanakh 2

There's a fantastic scene in The Winter King that sheds light on some texts in Tanakh. It appears on pages 386-387 in the hardcover version. Here's the scene.
Arthur clasped me again, then called for his servant Hygwydd to help him tug off the suit of heavy scale armour. It came off over his head, leaving his short-cut hair tousled. "Would you wear it?" he asked me. 
"Me?" I was astonished 
"When the enemy attack," he said, "they'll expect to find me here and if I'm not here they'll suspect a trap." He smiled. "I'd ask Sagramor, but his face is somewhat more distinctive than yours, Lord Derfel. You'll have to cut off some of that long hair, though." My fair hair showing beneath the helmet's rim would be a sure sign I was not Arthur, "and maybe trim the beard a little," he added. 
I took the armour from Hygwydd and was shocked by its weight. "I should be honoured," I said. 
"It is heavy," he warned me. "You'll get hot, and you can't see to your sides when you're wearing the helmet so you'll need two good men to flank you." He sensed my hesitation. "Should I ask someone else to wear it?" 
"No, no, Lord," I said. "I'll wear it." 
"It'll mean danger," he warned me. 
"I wasn't expecting a safe day, Lord," I answered.  
"I shall leave you the banners," he said. "When Gorfyddyd comes he must be convinced that all his enemies are in one place. It will be a hard fight, Derfel." 
"Galahad will bring help," I assured him. 
He took my breastplate and shield, gave me his own brighter shield and white cloak, then turned and grasped Llamrei's bridle. "That," he told me once he had been helped into the saddle, "was the easy part of the day."
When I first read this scene, it made me take a look at and question the famous scene in which Saul dresses David in his own armor to fight against Goliath. I got all excited and suggested to my husband that maybe Saul was insinuating to David that David should impersonate Saul and pretend that it is Saul himself who is fighting the giant. Then, when David refuses the armor, he is not only refusing the king's gift, but also refusing to impersonate Saul. 'I'll win on my own merit,' he seems to be saying, 'rather than pretend that I am you, and that you have won.'

However, I then reread the full scene in I Samuel 17. My potential reading doesn't work for several reasons: a) the king has publicly offered a reward for anyone who plans to fight Goliath, which suggests he does not intend to fight the giant himself b) although Saul dresses David in his armor, it is not clear that they are alone; this could be taking place in front of an audience and c) Saul wishes David to "Go with God" which suggests he is not angry with the youth for refusing to impersonate him. Also, the only other place that I remember offhand where a king has someone dressed in his clothing is Ahaseurus and Mordechai, and there the issue wasn't impersonation, but rather, honor. So it could be that Saul simply wished to honor David by dressing him in his armor rather than subtly trying to hint that David ought to impersonate him and allow him to take credit for the victory.

In support for my thesis, the questions remain: Why does Saul dress David in HIS OWN armor rather than simply asking David's brother or another person to give up their armor to the youth? Why does Saul HIMSELF dress the youth (remember, at this point the youth was simply a servant who played the lyre for him?) And after this battle, why does Saul take it so hard that the women sing that he has slain thousands, but David his tens of thousands (did he not himself assure David's reputation through allowing him to fight Goliath and then promoting him to his army?)

But if, from the very beginning, Saul had been trying to insinuate that David ought to let him have the glory, then of course it would fester that the youth had refused to permit him this, and had instead insisted on going out with his face clearly visible and recognizable to all...

The other text where this scene more aptly applies is the famous battle with King Ahab and King Jehosophat.
כט  וַיַּעַל מֶלֶךְ-יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוֹשָׁפָט מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה, רָמֹת גִּלְעָד.29 So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead.
ל  וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יְהוֹשָׁפָט, הִתְחַפֵּשׂ וָבֹא בַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתָּה, לְבַשׁ בְּגָדֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַפֵּשׂ מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיָּבוֹא בַּמִּלְחָמָה.30 And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat: 'I will disguise myself, and go into the battle; but put thou on thy royal robes.' And the king of Israel disguised himself, and went into the battle.
לא  וּמֶלֶךְ אֲרָם צִוָּה אֶת-שָׂרֵי הָרֶכֶב אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ שְׁלֹשִׁים וּשְׁנַיִם, לֵאמֹר, לֹא תִּלָּחֲמוּ, אֶת-קָטֹן וְאֶת-גָּדוֹל:  כִּי אִם-אֶת-מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְבַדּוֹ.31 Now the king of Aram had commanded the thirty and two captains of his chariots, saying: 'Fight neither with small nor great, save only with the king of Israel.'
לב  וַיְהִי כִּרְאוֹת שָׂרֵי הָרֶכֶב אֶת-יְהוֹשָׁפָט, וְהֵמָּה אָמְרוּ אַךְ מֶלֶךְ-יִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא, וַיָּסֻרוּ עָלָיו, לְהִלָּחֵם; וַיִּזְעַק, יְהוֹשָׁפָט.32 And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, that they said: 'Surely it is the king of Israel'; and they turned aside to fight against him; and Jehoshaphat cried out.
לג  וַיְהִי, כִּרְאוֹת שָׂרֵי הָרֶכֶב, כִּי-לֹא-מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, הוּא; וַיָּשׁוּבוּ, מֵאַחֲרָיו.33 And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, that they turned back from pursuing him.
לד  וְאִישׁ, מָשַׁךְ בַּקֶּשֶׁת לְתֻמּוֹ, וַיַּכֶּה אֶת-מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, בֵּין הַדְּבָקִים וּבֵין הַשִּׁרְיָן; וַיֹּאמֶר לְרַכָּבוֹ, הֲפֹךְ יָדְךָ וְהוֹצִיאֵנִי מִן-הַמַּחֲנֶה--כִּי הָחֳלֵיתִי.34 And a certain man drew his bow at a venture, and smote the king of Israel between the lower armour and the breastplate; wherefore he said unto the driver of his chariot: 'Turn thy hand, and carry me out of the host; for I am sore wounded.'

In this story, Ahab deflects attention from himself by having Jehosophat dress in royal robes. The enemy assumes Jehosophat is the King of Israel (when in reality he is the King of Judah). However, the scheme doesn't work because Ahab is killed by a random bowshot. It is, however, another example where disguise is used in battle to achieve a certain effect.

Bernard Cornwell & Tanakh

A friend recommended that I check out The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell, who she praised as a believable author of historical fiction. I did check him out, but since the library I subscribe to didn't have The Saxon Tales, I instead picked up his retelling of the legend of Arthur. I love his revision of the tales, not least because it sheds a lot of light on Tanakh (especially I Samuel- II Kings).

I wanted to type up some of the pieces that I felt were especially relevant. The first piece is excerpted from The Winter King, pages 242-243 in the hardcover version. I felt it did a great job of demonstrating the love that men at arms feel for one another, and support the traditional reading in I Samuel of Jonathan and David as brothers-in-arms.
The bards sing of love, they celebrate slaughter, they extol kings and flatter queens, but were I a poet I would write in praise of friendship.
I have been fortunate in friends. Arthur was one, but of all my friends there was never another like Galahad. There were times when we understood each other without speaking and others when words tumbled out for hours. We shared everything except women. I cannot count the number of times we stood shoulder to shoulder in the shield-wall or the number of times we divided our last morsel of food. Men took us for brothers and we thought of ourselves in the same way. 
And on that broken evening, as the city smouldered into fire beneath us, Galahad understood I could not be taken to the waiting boat. He knew I was in the hold of some imperative, some message from the Gods that made me climb desperately towards the serene palace crowning Yns Trebes. All around us horror flooded up the hill, but we stayed ahead of it, running desperately across a church roof, jumping down to an alley where we pushed through a crowd of fugitives who believed the church would give them sanctuary, then up a flight of stone steps and so to the main street that circled Yns Trebes. There were Franks running towards us, competing to be the first into Ban's palace, but we were ahead of them along with a pitiful handful of people who had escaped the slaughter in the lower town and were now seeking a hopeless refuge in the hilltop dwelling. 
The guards were gone from the courtyard. The palace doors lay open and inside, where women cowered and children cried, the beautiful furniture waited for the conquerors. The curtains stirred in the wind. 
I plunged into the elegant rooms, ran through the mirrored chamber and past Leanor's abandoned harp and so to the great room where Ban had first received me. The King was still there, still in his toga, and still at his table with a quill in his hand. "it's too late," he said, as I burst into the room with sword drawn. "Arthur failed me."
It's worth it to keep reading to understand the relationship between Galahad and Derfel...but it's just as well not to spoil the book.