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.