The Secret Well Greeted By Silence

Hidden away in this week’s reading is a single tiny verse with implications that should take our breath away. During Abraham’s day, we are told, “the Canaanites were thenin the land” (Genesis 12:6). But the Torah is said to have been composed by Moses, and when Moses died, they were still in the land. The verse must, therefore, have been composed by an author living after Moses died.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1091/2-1167), who gives us this insight, calls it a sod, a “secret” and cautions, “The wise will keep silent.”

Ibn Ezra’s caution is usually explained by assuming he was wary of openly questioning Moses’s authorship of Torah. But Ibn Ezra doesn’t sound afraid. He repeats his discovery regarding several other verses, including Deuteronomy 34:1, where he identifies the other author as Joshua, an opinion he got from the Talmud itself (Menachot 30a). To be sure, questioning the Genesis verse went one step farther, but why assume, gratuitously, that Ibn Ezra was afraid to go there? Maybe he was not just playing it safe when he said the wise would greet his sod with “silence.”

In the context of Torah,sodis no ordinary “secret.” It is an advanced, even esoteric, interpretation of the text. In time, it came to denote meanings that are specifically “mystical,” but in the 12thcentury, it more likely meant “profound” – the description of an insight so penetrating, that it takes the breath away. Fools who rush to judgement might indeed charge Ibn Ezra with heresy, but as to the wise, his bold interpretation would simply stop them in their tracks, inducing “silence” (as he says) to allow its full significance to sink in.

Ibn Ezra’s breakthrough would someday change the very way we think about God, revelation, and religious truth itself, because in retrospect, we can see that it anticipated the scientific study of the Bible: a method that revealed even Torah as a composite document repeatedly edited over the course of centuries. Its authors are legion.

Some people still worry that if the Torah was written by human beings over time, it cannot be sacred. But the exact opposite is the case. The miracle of Torah is not dependent on God’s speaking it into being once and for all time at Sinai. It is that the Jewish People, in covenant with God, has consistently been discerning divine purpose, generation after generation; that generations of such discernment were somehow edited into what we call “The Torah”; and that generations thereafter have been reading and interpreting that very same Torah ever since.

Rather than destroy religious sensibility, Ibn Ezra’s modest beginning only enhances it. God did not just speak at Sinai. God, we say, is melekh ha’olam, and olam means not just “universe” but “infinity,” making God not just “ruler of the universe” (our usual translation) but “ruler of time and space”!  God addresses us always and everywhere.

The very essence of rabbinic Judaism is the conviction that through Torah, God speaks to every generation anew. That is why we have columns such as this, why rabbis sermonize, why we study sacred texts not just for what the original author intended, but for what the Talmud later thought, what centuries of commentators intuited even after that, and what our own sages discover today.

The Rabbis also insisted that God is revealed in day-to-day encounters that set us wondering why we are here and what counts as a life well led. We find God similarly in mathematics and science, the ways through which the world works. Judaism provides blessings to greet the intricacies of nature, no less than for religious commandments.

Ibn Ezra was discussing more than a single verse here and there. He was unveiling the reality of a divine mind that cannot be limited to a one-off revelation at Sinai. To be fully human is to uncover one divine secret after another, and to have our breath taken away by the incredible mystery of it all.

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“Tradition? Tradition?”

The funniest Purim schpiel I ever witnessed came when one of my students at Hebrew Union College lampooned Reform Judaism by dressing up like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, and singing, “NoTradition, no tradition!” Indeed “traditional” Jews often represent my Reform forebears as unfairly dismissing tradition. And to some extent they are right.

By contrast, Reform Jews frequently represent “traditional” Jews as blindly advocating tradition just because it is tradition, and to some extent, they are right also.

Radical Reform Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860) dismissed much of rabbinic tradition because he thought he lived at a higher moment in evolved human consciousness — as if he had changed but tradition hadn’t. The Chatam Sofer, an equally ardent opponent of Reform, ruled, “Novelty is itself forbidden by Torah” — as if tradition never changes so we shouldn’t either. They were both wrong, because tradition is never stagnant; it is an ever-changing thing. Take our prayers, for example.

Most of them date to the second century, but exact wording varied from place to place and service to service, as prayer leaders constantly improvised, the way jazz musicians riff on themes. In the 9th and 10thcenturies, authorities fixed their favorite wording in prayer books, but we have more than one such book; they are not entirely the same; and much was yet to change.

The Passover Seder’s Dayyenu was new in the 10th century. No one said a Mourner’s Kaddish until the 11th or 12thcentury. Alenu did not close the service until the 14thcentury. Sixteenth-century kabbalists composed L’kha Dodi and most of the Kabbalat Shabbat from scratch. Kol Nidre was a popular innovation that the Rabbis despised, but it stuck somehow, and now we love it. Polish-Ashkenazi and German-Ashkenazi Jews differ on Avinu Malkenu. Sefardi tradition has its own alternatives, differing from place to place and time to time. Even our oldest synagogue music is relatively modern; the usual melody for Birkat Hamazon is largely based on Polish mazurkas.

So which version of “tradition” is “traditional”? Everything was an innovation once, and even old things get said or sung differently and become something new. So-called “tradition” is a negotiation between past and present.

Denominations differ on their criteria for that negotiation, but we all go about it in good faith. People wrongly cite “tradition” as a club for cudgeling others, as if one side has “the right amount” while others have too little or too much.

This meditation on tradition is prompted by Sukkot and its mandatory reading, Ecclesiastes, the biblical book that juxtaposes jaded cynicism (“Utter futility; all is futile”) and complete faith (“Revere God and keep God’s commandments”). Some early reader probably added the latter to balance the former. Even Ecclesiastes is not unchanged through time.

Struck by Ecclesiastes’ advice (Chap 5:1) to “make your words few,” Ibn Ezra (12th-century Spain) condemned the prolix prayerbook poetry of Eleazar Kalir, an undisputed poetic genius of an earlier century. Ibn Ezra dispensed with him for being a poor theologian and worse Hebraist. Is tradition the version that likes Kalirian poetry or the version that doesn’t?

Think of tradition as our basement storeroom. We live on higher floors, but descend, on occasion, to examine all those antiques that we have inherited. Lots of them are gorgeous, brilliant flashes of genius that somehow got lost and are well worth dusting off and bringing back upstairs. But some are products of superstition or reflections of unethical biases and embarrassing tastes. Basements also harbor creepy crawly things that we are better off without.

Besides, we will just be coming in from the sukkah, and the thing about the sukkah is that its necessary bareness teaches us to think twice about what we really need in order to live, a lesson applicable not just to conspicuous consumption but to our traditionalisms as well. Tradition is wonderful, in proper doses. Too little of tradition’s best stuff will starve you; but too much of the wrong stuff will kill you, just as easily.

High Holiday Worship Retooled? Or the Borscht Belt with all the Food That Can Kill Us?

I have a riddle: Why are High-Holiday Services like the long-gone borscht-belt hotels in the Catskills?

Answer is: The hotels served all you could eat of dreadfully unhealthy food, giving rise to the joke, “The food there is awful, but they make it up in volume.” High-Holiday worship, likewise, is judged by many as terrible, but we make it up in endlessness.

So why aren’t rabbis and cantors doing something about this (the High Holidays, that is, not the Catskills)?

Actually, they are, says Professor Jack Wertheimer, who has documented how synagogues are coming to terms with their reputation for being “crashingly dull.” He excoriates those large funders and federations who abandon synagogues to do their necessary work unaided by the very philanthropical agents most able to help them.

But, Wertheimer cautions, this liturgical innovation comes at a cost: the loss of liturgical competency. In their effort to respond to the momentary, synagogues sacrifice the momentous: they “absorb into Jewish life much that is inimical to it” thus “ratifying” the loss as an acceptable given. That, Wertheimer bemoans, is “the actual—and unaddressed—crisis of American Judaism today.”

Is Wertheimer correct?  “Yes, yes, and no,” I say, in my response to him (mosaicmagazine.com). Yes, the best of our synagogues have embarked on transformation of historic proportions; yes, only a handful of federations and independent big givers recognize it or seem even to care, one way or the other. But, no, the biggest problem is neither the “loss of cultural literacy,” nor synagogues that hasten the loss along.

I differ most when Wertheimer identifies “hospitality, diversity, spirituality, creativity, non-judgmentalism, tikkun olam, [and] personalized religion” as “faddish nostrums.” The word “tradition” comes from the Latin tradere, “to deliver or hand over” as a matter of actual ownership. No one will care to own anything of Jewish tradition if they do not feel hospitably welcomed by synagogues that offer it, and all the less so if the “it” being offered is a-spiritual, uncreative, judgmental, unconcerned with the shape of the world, and impersonal.”

Wertheimer romanticizes tradition. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and neither is the tradition for which we feel nostalgic. Tradition is the famous river of Heraclitus that changes each time we enter it. But he is not altogether wrong: if tradition is a river flowing through time, we need at least to stand in the river bed, not beat out a path of our own in the jungle growth that leads away from it. Jewish competence (a better word than literacy) does matter.

Jack Wertheimer is a fine scholar and observer of American Judaism. He and I are fellow travelers, passionate about a Judaism that is thick with substance and import. We are committed likewise to synagogues as what I like to call “communities of profundity,” the communal foci for our spiritual and moral Jewish future, the places where we “speak and act in a register that does justice to the human condition.”

For the discussion in its entirety see:

https://mosaicmagazine.com/response/2018/09/whats-wrong-with-nostalgia-for-judaisms-millennia-long-tradition/

The Grand Subpoena: To Attest and To Protest Too

“Attest” and “protest”: on these two stands of human conscience the civilized world depends. They are central to this week’s reading, Atem Nitzavim.., “You stand…,” a reference to the way we rise in a courtroom to offer testimony — to tell, as the saying goes, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” We “attest,” that is, to the truth; but in so doing, we also “protest” the trashing of those truths by people who find them inconvenient.

It is not just truths that are at stake, says Shimon ben Gamaliel (Avot 1:18), but justice and peace as well, for truth, justice and peace are the three things on which humanity stands or falls. At our best, Maimonides explains, we human beings naturally strive for intellectual and moral perfection (truth and peace), but these rely on the prior existence of justice.

Failed attestation gets its fair share of recognition, because the lies we tell, the rancor we cause, and the injustices we engender are seen and heard; they leave a trail to be investigated, reported, and disseminated for discussion.

Failed protestation, by contrast — the failure to protest the moral outrages that other people perpetrate — more easily goes unattended, because observers taking notes on the large but finite number of things that people actually did say or do can hardly know, much less include, the infinity of things they didn’t. A news report on some public statement by the president, say, is simply incapable of including everything that the entire cabinet or congress did not say in response.

But our moral accounting sheet has both columns: “attestation,” the active stands we take, by word or deed; and “protestation,“ the passive stands we failed to take, when other people were saying or doing what we knew to be wrong. The first, Yom Kippur will soon remind us, are sins of commission; the latter are sins of omission.

Commentators regularly observe that the word “you” (atem) in “You are standing” (atem nitzavim) is followed by “all of you” (kulkhem) — leaders and followers, household-heads and their entire families. The Torah, seemingly, cannot close without each and every Jew being subpoenaed to stand before God. This was, says Ramban, a renewal of the Sinai covenant, but with everyone on hand, not just Moses alone atop the mountain. Kli Yakar goes further: it was an altogether new covenant, he says, because the old one failed, in that the people who were not personally alongside Moses at the time felt no responsibility for it.

In particular, says Or Hachaim, their failure lay in the second column of moral responsibility: protestation. Hard as it may be to speak truth, act justly, and seek peace, it is infinitely harder to go public against those who don’t: we risk displeasing them; we may even benefit from their actions; and besides, no one will notice, much less report, if we simply choose to turn our backs, keep silent, and go about your business. The Talmud, however, warns expressly that those who fail to protest against the sins of their household, city, people, and nation are punished for those sins, as if they had done them themselves (Shabbat 54b).

Don’t we hold the average collaborators of the Shoah guilty of this very sin? Not that they all personally dispossessed, enslaved, and ultimately murdered their Jews, but that they failed to protest when others did so.

Rosh Hashanah falls just one day after Atem Nitzavim this year. However much we gobble up apples and honey while wishing each other sweetness, we should remember that on Yom Kippur, just ten days later, we will stand, “all of us,” to be held accountable for the balance sheet that measures how we did in humanity’s search for truth, justice and peace. The easy part is what, in word or deed, we wrongly attested to. The hard part, but no less important, is what we should have protested, but didn’t.

 

 

Social Justice and the Secular Bath

I follow synagogue mission statements the way normal people follow the stock market. A synagogue’s statement of purpose is its prospectus, the reason we should care that it exists. For many synagogues, this raison d’etre features tikkun olam, some form of social justice.

Tikkun olam, however, is not the simple thing that they imagine.

The concept is rabbinic, but it took on special importance in medieval kabbalah, which pictured fault lines creeping into the fabric of creation from the very beginning of time. These cosmic fractures, as it were, engender all that is bad about the universe. Tikkun olam — literally, “correcting the universe” – was redefined as the process of restoring creation to its intended state of wholeness.

The Kabbalists were a mystical elite, however, less interested in helping the poor than in helping some metaphysical cosmic unity to come into being. The kabbalistic tikkun olam consisted in performing mitzvot with esoteric meanings in mind. Saying the right prayer with the right intention, for example, would crank the world forward on its way to messianic perfection.

Hasidic masters popularized kabbalah by applying it to human psychology. The universe requiring correction was now said to be our very own souls – the human psyche, we might say. We bear our own internal fracture lines that impact the world’s goodness; we cannot be part of the solution until we admit we are part of the problem.

Take this week’s mandate to appoint “for yourself judges and officers in your gates.” On the face of it, the Torah is describing the institutions of a just society. But sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz read it differently.  The Hebrew “for yourself,” he said, is l’kha (singular) not lakhem (plural), so it must be addressing each of us as individuals, in which case, the “gates” denote the sensory openings to our inner selves: our eyes and ears which take in the world; our mouth with which we give back to it.

Yes, said Hasidic master Jacob Joseph of Polnoye.  We must see to our own fractured state of being first.  If we do not fix ourselves, we will never fix the universe.

Synagogues who advocate tikkun olam have largely forgotten these kabbalistic/Hasidic theologies. If they know them at all, they discount them as medieval superstition.Tikkun olam has been laundered free of any stains left by its original mystical context and become a benign catch-all term for good deeds, charity, and social action in general.

Other richly contoured metaphors of Jewish tradition have similarly been given a secular bath by modern-day Jews who get queasy about anything theological. God’s “graciousness” (for example) was originally “grace”:  not some ho-hum variety of pleasant benevolence, but the wow-inducing experience of knowing God loves us, even if everyone else lets us down and even if we don’t deserve it. God’s “grace” is closely associated with tikkun olam. When we are utterly broken, God actually fixes us, and then empowers us to fix others.

How is it that we Jews who do so much else with panache manage to lose our imaginative nerve when it comes to religion? We probably would have advised Marc Chagall to forego all those angels, donkey’s heads, and heavenly brides. Some pretty clouds and sunsets are enough, we would have said.

Deracinated views of tikkun olam as some mere and modern do-good impulse has failed us. Sociologists have studied congregations that say they stand for social justice. Their members, it turns out, like the idea that their synagogue does “good deeds,” but, on the whole, they themselves do no more “good-deed work” than other people. The synagogue’s way of speaking is so uninspired! It does not move them.

Synagogues are not just secular bodies that provide life-cycle ceremonies and hootenannies in Hebrew called services. Synagogues are to other not-for-profits what Chagall’s imaginative skyscapes are to ordinary clouds and sunsets. Without transcendently imaginative language to stir the soul, tikkun olam becomes banal; so does the synagogue; and so do we.

 

“Loving God”:The Meaning of the Sh’ma

What Jew doesn’t know the Sh’ma with its following V’ahavta, the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. We learn it as children and die with it on our lips. But do we all believe it?

What makes people believe in God to the point of offering God love?

Some people reason their way to God – like Maimonides (1138-1204). Seeing how everything in the universe is dependent on something else, he concluded that there had to be something ultimate and unchanging to support it all. By definition, that was God. Loving God, he thought, followed naturally from observing “the magnificence of all that is,” and “the incomparable and infinite wisdom” of the One who made it.

But reason can also lead away from God, so most God-believers depend on intuition; or, frequently, a “Eureka moment” when God’s reality just, somehow, becomes clear. After the fact, they may argue their case, but belief comes first; reason only justifies it.

Think of the Bible as the record of our ancestors’ Eureka moments. Jacob’s dream of a heavenly ladder convinces him that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” Moses encounters God personally and descends Mt. Sinai to tell his people what he now cannot doubt: Sh’ma yisra’el Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad, “Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai alone; v’ahavta…  “Love God with all your heart, soul and might.”

The Israelites take his word for it, as do we. But their faith lapses on occasion, as does ours. With no Eureka moment of our own, it can be hard to believe with certainty in a personal God.

Philosophers after Maimonides also apply reason – that’s what philosophers do – but they had prior Eureka moments, or at least, intuition. Take Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410), who, even in Spain, encountered Italian humanism and its reassertion of the emotions. The way to God, it followed, was not by Maimonidean logical detachment, but by love. For Maimonides, the command to love God was secondary to the argument for God’s singularity. Crescas reversed the order. Open yourself to God’s love by offering love back, and the Eureka-like certainty of God’s reality will hit home.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) too believed, “We know love only when we love and are loved.” He simply “knew” God’s love and could not help but return it.

All three thinkers began with something they experienced as indubitably real: reason (Maimonides) or love (Crescas and Rosenzweig).

We too value reason and love. But we have issues of our own: and with them, an opportunity to think anew about “loving God.”

We are the wealthiest, most accepted, most educated, and most powerful diasporan community in Jewish history. Yet contentment eludes us. We are successful, but is that all there is? We live longer, only to watch family and friends die off, and to know that we too are here today and gone tomorrow. Good health fails; relationships sour; families turn out differently than we imagined; life itself is tenuous. To love any of these above all else is to court eventual disaster. The Sh’ma insists on something beyond it all.

Our era is awash with people looking for that something — in eastern philosophies, Buddhist meditation, deeper yoga. Yet, Judaism already has it, if we take the Sh’ma seriously.

Jewish thought offers many ways to picture the God of the Sh’ma:  a person; a friendly presence; a force for good; and more. But these cannot do God justice, says Maimonides, because God is beyond our imaginative capacity.

The Sh’ma, therefore, refers to none of these pictures in particular. It insists only on something beyond the phenomena that fail: something that is eternal, trustworthy, and good: it names that “God.”

Loving God is a state of mind, a spiritual perspective, whereby we anchor ourselves in “the eternal, trustworthy, and good,” so that when all else fails (as eventually it will), we are not left empty and bereft.

Zealotry, Good and Bad

 

It’s easy to be a religious dilettante, harder to take religion seriously, if only because serious religion entails zealotry, a “bad word,” these days. Zealotry need not be evil, however. To be sure, “evil” zealotry feeds on hatred, grows fat on violence, and blights our very right to say that we are human. But “good” zealotry is what sustains our noblest ideals in the face of opposition. It took zealotry, for example, for abolitionists to build the underground railroad; or for righteous Gentiles to hide Jews during the Sho’ah.

We see them both, good and bad, in the two-part story of Pinchas.

In Part One, last week, the Israelites “whore” after Midianite women who inveigle them into idolatry. God’s anger explodes; Moses orders mass execution; God adds an accompanying plague to boot.

As part of this, an Israelite man introduces a Midianite woman to his friends, probably as his wife-to-be. Pinchas, a sanctuary guard, murders them both, thereby expiating the “crime” and ending the plague.

The Torah considers this “good” zealotry, as we see from Part Two, this week, where God rewards Pinchas with a special covenant and the priesthood.  The Mishnah concurs by codifying Pinchas’s zealotry as normative: “If a man cohabits with an Aramean woman, zealots may kill him.”

But the Talmud effectively reverses the Mishnah’s ruling by demanding conditions that cannot be met. The woman must be an idolater; the zealot must be acting for God; the couple must be seen engaging in actual intercourse, and there must be at least ten witnesses to it. Also, any would-be avenger who asks permission, is told that Jewish law prohibits it. For the Talmud, Pinchas is a zealot for evil.

These two faces of zealotry are reinforced in a Targum tradition that identifies Pinchas as none other than Elijah, another zealot – sometimes for evil, as in I Kings 18, where he defeats the prophets of Baal (so far so good), but then unduly and gratuitously slaughters them as well. He is also a zealot for good, however: he does, after all, defeat the Baalites; he is a healer, to the point of resurrecting the child of a poor widow (I Kings 17); and he will someday herald the coming of the messiah.

Medieval tradition conflated Elijah, the herald, with the messiah whom he heralds. Haggadah imagery, for example, pictures someone with a shofar (Elijah) and/or someone on a donkey (the messiah) collecting Jews on Seder eve to bring them to Jerusalem. But sometimes, it is hard to tell one from the other, and sometimes one image stands for both.

The messiah too, after all, is a zealot, good and bad. The “bad” comes through in traditions that picture the messiah as a warrior, bringing wanton destruction in his wake. Do we really want a messiah as God’s revenger, “pouring out wrath on the nations” – men, women and children, presumably, “who do not know You” (from the traditional Passover Haggadah, based on Ps. 79:6)? Sure, these traditions often reflect reactions to our own persecution, but still, do we really believe them? “Men, women and children” after all!

But again, we have the positive side, the Talmudic tradition that even as we await the messiah’s public appearance, that very same messiah sits outside the city’s gates bandaging the wounds of lepers.

By its very nature, religion is messianic – insofar as it demands a better time, an end to oppression and pain. By our very nature as serious religionists, we sense the obligation to do whatever we can to be messianic ourselves, lest we accept evil and suffering as just the way the world is. But which messiah do we strive to be? The healer or the warrior, the good or the bad?

In terms of Pinchas, the question is what Pinchas we have in mind: the zealot for good (as the Bible has it) or for evil (as the Talmud prefers). I take the Talmud as Judaism’s final word. Jewish law lines up against him.

Healing the world is not inherently harder than conquering it. I choose healing over hurting.