Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Handling Opposition: Let the Earth Swallow or Rise to the Balcony


Offered in prayer for the well-being and return home of teenagers Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, and for the better handling of arguments in the world.

Once again, we live in a time of growing dispute and polarization. The political discourse is increasingly toxic, and instead of engaging in a deeper exchange, disagreeable ideas are tarred and fathered, labelled as outside the camp and intolerable. With one's back against the wall, it feels almost impossible to extend the other side the benefit of the doubt or find any sense in the arguments coming from across the aisle. It would be so much more convenient if the earth simply opened its mouth and swallowed up the opposition.
This is the fate of the opposition described in this week’s Torah portion, Korah. In the heat of the desert, banned from entering the land until an entire generation dies, the Israelites mount a rebellion against Moshe and Aaron’s leadership. Led by Moshe’s cousin Korah and 250 irked chieftains, the rebellion is quashed in a series of miraculous acts, the first of which occurs when the earth swallows the rebels, tents and all. Famously, Korah’s mutiny becomes the archetype of the illegitimate argument in Jewish thought:

An argument for the sake of Heaven will endure;
But an argument not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.
Which is an argument for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Hillel and Shammai.
Which is an argument not for the sake of Heaven? The argument of Korach and his company.
(Mishna Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 5:17)

Yet, how does one know when an argument is for the sake of Heaven? Almost any argument can be viewed through the cynical lens of self-promotion (as we too often reduce politics to) or aggrandized to be about philosophical ideals and altruistic motives. Hasn’t Korach’s argument itself endured, eternalized by becoming the archetype of arguments that aren’t for the sake of Heaven?
Rav Kook, 1888

Faced with this question, I reflect back on a letter written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to his brother Shmuel in 1910. It contains a sweet story of brotherly love: Arriving in Jaffa, Rav Kook finds himself serving as the Orthodox rabbi of the resoundingly secular Pioneers of the Land of Israel. His faith in their work and support of them pitted him against the old world Orthodox leadership of Jerusalem, who labeled him a traitor to Jewish Law and Tradition. The argument became toxic when Kook justified a lenient ruling allowing the farming of the Land of Israel during the Sabbatical (Shmitta) year. Kook sought to effectively allow the secular Jewish farmers to continue to till the Holy Land, despite the Biblical declaration that once every seven years all agricultural work must be stopped and the land must be allowed to rest. His arguments were laid out in a small pamphlet called Shabbat ha’Aretz , “The Land’s Sabbath”, which he proudly sent home to his supportive brother Shmuel back in Lithuania. In Jerusalem’s Old City the book was not received with the same excitement, to say the least. A vehement personal attack of Rav Kook was launched. Back in Lithuania Shmuel wrote to Kook to express his poor opinion the old guard attackers. Rav Kook’s response reveals a surprisingly measured and ever relevant perspective about such disputes:

Jaffa, 1910
Shmuel, my beloved brother,
While your words are true and said in the spirit of justice and pure faith, it nevertheless behooves us to constantly expand our horizons, and to give every person the benefit of the doubt (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Even to those on a distant and undecipherable path! We must never forget that in every battle waged in the war of ideas, once the initial agitation subsides –lights and shadows can be found on both sides of the argument.
Indeed by attunement to Divine will we know that all human action and ideas in the world - large and small - are set and arranged by the One who Reads All Generations, to improve the world and brings about progress, to increase light and stamp out darkness. And even as we battle in fervor for those issues that are closest to our heart, we must not give in to our emotions. Rather we must always keep in mind that even those sentiments opposite to ours – have a wide place in the world, and that “the God who gives breath to all flesh” (Numbers 27:16) “has made everything beautiful for its time” (Kohelet 3:11).
This perspective must never stop us from fighting for that which is sacred, true and dear to us. However it can help us from falling into the net of small mindedness, contempt and irascibility. And may we instead be full of courage, serenity and faith in the God who loves Truth, who will not forsake his followers.
I would be most pleased if you use any opportunity which comes your way to exert your influence, quiet the spirits and increase mutual respect in your circles, as is fitting for people of integrity and wisdom, who know their own virtue and objective as clearly as daylight.
(Letters of Rav Kook, I:314)

Rav Kook does not question the motivations of his opponents, seeking to distinguish between “arguments for the sake of Heaven” and those which are not. Rather, he claims that all arguments are for the “sake of Heaven”, inasmuch as they eventually play a role in “improving the world and bringing about progress,
A Letter by Rav Kook, from his Jerusalem years
increasing light and stamping out darkness”. He calls upon his brother to rise up to the balcony instead of falling into the net of “small mindedness, contempt and irascilibity”. To recall – even as fight for our own opinions – that in some larger scheme of things the opposite force is also playing out an important role in the world. Treat them as a Shammai, Kook might say, not as a Korach.
Kook’s position is rooted in a modernist and mystical faith in the ongoing progress of the world. Yet it can still be valuable to those of us more cynical of modernist progress, or doubtful of a detailed mystical plans. In an age of polarization on one hand and relativism on the other, instead of seeking to push our opponents down into the bowels of the earth, we must hold onto two truths at once: that we can fight for what we believe in without falling into relativism, that we can believe in our own justice even as we respect those on the other side. As Kook urges his kid brother Shmuel, that is the only fitting way for someone who seeks to live a life of both virtue and integrity.

Shabbat Shalom,
Mishael

p.s. an English edition of Shabbat HaAretz's Introduction, arguably the most important work of Jewish environmental spirituality is forthcoming from Hazon in honor of the upcoming Shmitta year of 2014-2015 and I'm looking forward to reading it. I'm also looking forward to reading the new biography of Rabbi Kook by Yehuda Mirsky sometime this summer...



Monday, June 2, 2014

Broken Tablets: A Study Guide for Shavuot

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Shavuot / Behaalotcha 2014

Symbols, metaphors and old texts lay strewn around the warehouses of culture, waiting to be picked up again, turned useful, regain value. For one night in the Jewish calendar, the warehouse becomes the focus: Tikkun Leil Shavuot. We stay up all night in the flea market treasure hunt which is Jewish text study. As for me, each year I find myself returning to the stall which houses texts about one metaphor: the Broken Tablets. A fitting image for our time, on many levels. For this Shavuot, I collected my favorite findings on this metaphor in the format of a study guide. I humbly offer it here, to adorn your Shavuot learning.
Since I couldn’t help myself, I added my own play-by-play commentary on these texts, and a few brief words about learning on Shavuot, which appear below.
Download the study guide in printable pdf format or read them online.

Broken Tablets, Play-by-play
Whatever happened to the Broken Tablets, those shards which Moshe resoundingly left strewn at the bottom of Mount Sinai? Reminders of the sweaty idolatrous sin which broke up God’s honeymoon with the Jewish people, perhaps they are best left to be covered by the sands of Sinai. Those First Tablets, which were “written by the finger of God” left unmentioned for two thousand years. Until one Talmudic Rabbi, Rav Yosef, picks them up and resets their place in Jewish tradition.
The Tablets AND the Broken Tablets are placed in the ark” innovates Rav Yosef (in Bava Batra 14b). Does he intend for us to carry the First Tablets as eternal signs of our guilt and adultery at the Golden Calf, as Augustine would have it? Or perhaps the shards of Holiness regain similar status to Whole Holiness. Or perhaps, that which was created by Human Hand (the second tablets), carries the same centrality as that created by Divine Hands. Or perhaps, that which was broken so long ago, we cannot let go of it. We must continue to carry it around with us, for better or for worse.
The Talmud in Menahot turns this teaching in a statement about human dignity, and the dignity of scholarship: “Rav Yosef taught that … The Tablets and the broken tablets are placed in the ark. From here we learn that a scholar who has forgotten his learning with time, we do not treat disrespectfully.” (Menahot 99a) The sign of sin becomes the lesson of dignity. We must treat the broken person, the Altzheimered scholar, the aging, broken or lost among us – with the same dignity and honor with which we treat those who are considered whole. Both have equal value in Holy Ark.
Eliyahu de Vidash comes out of Kabbalistic Tsfat with a new understanding. “The human heart is the Ark, thus a person’s heart must be full of Torah but simultaneously be a Broken Heart, a beaten heart. Only thus can it serve as a home for the Divine Presence. For She only dwells in broken vessels.” (Reshit Hokhma). The Ark becomes the Heart, and theology and history become psychology. More importantly, the Tablets aren’t broken, Divinity is. And is we are to becoming a dwelling place for Her, we too much be of the Broken Vessels. The post hoc becomes aspirational, and the imperfect – divine.
Samuel Beck, "Thou Shalt Not Kill", 1970;
Yad VaShem Collection of Post-Holocaust Art
And then Faith breaks. Modernity, Enlightenment, or simply life. For the Hasidic Reb Natan of Nemirov, the Broken Tablets are a necessary part of the process: “Through broken tablets, i.e. broken faith, by means of that brokenness itself the faith returns and amends itself, which is the second tablets.” The First Tablets are broken, so broken. But that is not the end of the story. They are a crucial part of the path towards the creation of Second Tablets, Second Naivete. There is no such thing as unbroken faith, just as there is no such thing as unbroken love. By grasping the brokenness the new tablets can be achieved. Tikkun requires some breakage.

Download the study guide in printable pdf format or read them online.

Brief words about learning on Shavuot
On this night we don’t just do any learning, says the Zohar, rather the learning must be that of “beading”,חריזה, which in the Zohar is usually described with a different Hebrew word – Tikkun (lit. preparing, fixing). The study companions become a group of bridesmaids, lovingly and joyfully preparing the adornments for the princess on the night before she is to enter to wed the King. Lovingly they bead together texts one to the other. From words of Torah to the Prophets, from the Prophets to the Talmud, from the Talmud to the realm of the Hidden – the skilled jeweler quickly assembles a radiant necklace. It is with such hidushim, innovations, and tikunim, prepared adornments, that the bride enters her Shavuot bridal canopy. And in this way the Torah is given anew each year, each day. As long as we reassemble these jewels and bead them together in myriad ways, as long as we do so in a way which aims to please the Bride and Groom, then we are playing our role in the mystical drama which is the Cosmos.

Broken Tablets: A Study Guide for Shavuot

A.       Deuteronomy 10:1-4
At that time the LORD said unto me: 'Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first, and come up unto Me into the mount; and make thee an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets which you smashed, and place them in the ark.'
So I made an ark of acacia-wood, and hewed two tables of stone like unto the first, and went up into the mount, having the two tables in my hand.
And He wrote on the tables according to the first writing, the ten words, which the LORD spoke unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly; and the LORD gave them unto me.
בָּעֵת הַהִוא אָמַר ה' אֵלַי, פְּסָל-לְךָ שְׁנֵי-לוּחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים, וַעֲלֵה אֵלַי, הָהָרָה; וְעָשִׂיתָ לְּךָ, אֲרוֹן עֵץ. וְאֶכְתֹּב, עַל-הַלֻּחֹת אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל-הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ וְשַׂמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן.
וָאַעַשׂ אֲרוֹן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים, וָאֶפְסֹל שְׁנֵי-לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים; וָאַעַל הָהָרָה, וּשְׁנֵי הַלֻּחֹת בְּיָדִי.
וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל-הַלֻּחֹת כַּמִּכְתָּב הָרִאשׁוֹן, אֵת עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ, בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל; וַיִּתְּנֵם ה' אֵלָי.
B.       Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 14b
Rav Yosef taught: “The tablets which you broke and place them in the ark” – this teaches that the Tablets and the broken tablets are placed in the ark.
תני רב יוסף: "אשר שברת ושמתם" - מלמד שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון [...]
תלמוד בבלי בבא בתרא יד ע"א-ע"ב

C.        Talmud Bavli Menahot 99a
Rav Yosef taught: “The tablets which you broke and place them in the ark” – this teaches that the Tablets and the broken tablets are placed in the ark.
From here we learn that a scholar who has forgotten his learning out of force, we do not treat him disrespectfully.
"אשר שברת ושמתם בארון" תני רב יוסף: מלמד שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון, מכאן לתלמיד חכם ששכח תלמודו מחמת אונסו שאין נוהגין בו מנהג בזיון. תלמוד בבלי מסכת מנחות דף צט/א

D.       Reshit Hokhma, R. Eliyahu deVidash, Gate of Holiness 7; 16th C Kabbalistic Moral tome
The Zohar teaches that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the Tablets and the Broken Tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah… and similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for the Shekhina. For the Shekhina [divine presence] only dwells in broken vessels, which are the poor, whose heart is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a haughty heart propels the Shekhina from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.

ועוד נלמוד מדברי הרשב"י שאמר שכיס הלב הוא הארון, ונודע הוא שבתוך הארון היו הלוחות ושברי לוחות, כן ראוי שיהיה לבו מלא תורה... וכנגד שברי לוחות צריך שיהיה לבו לב נשבר ונדכה שיהיה מכון לשכינה, שהשכינה מושבה הם מאנין תבירין דילה [=כלים שבורים שלה], והם העניים שלבם לב נשבר ונדכה, ומי שלבו מתגאה עליו דוחה השכינה מעליו שנאמר תועבת ה' כל גבה לב.
ספר ראשית חכמה - שער הקדושה - פרק שביעי


E.        R. Natan of Nemirov, Likkutei Halakhot, 19th Century Hassid, student of Reb Nachman of Breslov, Shabbat 6
And this is the meaning of the verse “Which you broke and place in the Ark”, about which our Sages said: “the Tablets and the Broken Tablets are placed in the Ark”. By means of the aspect of broken tablets, broken faith, by means of that brokenness itself the faith returns and amends itself, which is the second tablets.
Because thanks to the existence of a shard of the broken faith, by keeping that shard he is fulfilling the advice of the faith itself which was broken – and he can return and repair that faith which is the aspect of receiving second tablets.

וְזֶהוּ בְּחִינַת אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ וְשַֹמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן וְאָמְרוּ חֲכָמֵנוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה, לוּחוֹת וְשִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת מֻנָּחִים בָּאָרוֹן. הַיְנוּ עַל - יְדֵי בְּחִינַת שִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת בְּחִינַת אֱמוּנָה הַשְּׁבוּרָה, עַל - יְדֵי - זֶה בְּעַצְמָהּ חָזַר וְנִתְתַּקֵּן הָאֱמוּנָה מֵחָדָשׁ שֶׁהֵם בְּחִינַת הַלּוּחוֹת שְׁנִיּוֹת, בִּבְחִינַת שָׁקַל פִּסְקָא שָׁדָא לְהוּ וְכוּ', כִּי עַל - יְדֵי שֶׁנִּשְׁאַר בּוֹ אֵיזֶה נְקוּדָה מֵהָאֱמוּנָה הַשְּׁבוּרָה עַל - יְדֵי - זֶה מְקַיֵּם הָעֵצָה שֶׁל חֲכָמִים שֶׁנִּשְׁבְרָה אֱמוּנָתָם אֶצְלוֹ וְחוֹזֵר וּמְתַקֵּן הָאֱמוּנָה שֶׁהִיא בְּחִינַת קַבָּלַת לוּחוֹת שְׁנִיּוֹת. כִּי כָּל קַבָּלַת הַתּוֹרָה עוֹמֶדֶת עַל אֱמוּנָה, כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב, כָּל מִצְוֹתֶיךָ אֱמוּנָה, וּכְמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב, בָּא חֲבַקּוּק וְהֶעֱמִידָן עַל אֱמוּנָה וְכוּ' הַיְנוּ כַּנַּ"ל:
ספר ליקוטי הלכות - הלכות שבת הלכה ו


F.        R. Yitzhak Arama, Akeidat Yitzhak, 15th century Spain
Why didn’t God sculpt the second tablets, the way He sculpted the first ones? Because that which is totally Divine is not sustainable in the hands of humans. Therefor the first tablets, which were “made by God and written by God”, were not sustainable. Therefore God told Moses “sculpt [the second Tablets] for yourself” – you make them and I will shape them, thus retaining both the shape and image of the first ones, but these will be sustainable.

למה לא פסלם הקדוש ברוך הוא בעצמו – כראשונים? לפי שהדברים האלוהיים בהחלט אין להם קיום אצל בני אדם, לפיכך לא נתקיימו הלוחות הראשונים ש"הלוחות מעשה אלוהים המה והמכתב מכתב אלוהים הוא" (ל"ב ט"ז), לכן "פסל לך" ועשה אתה את גופן ואני אתן את צורתן. ועם זה יהיו מדמותן וצלמם ויתקיימו אצלם.
ר' יצחק עראמה, עקדת יצחק


Broken Tablets: A Study Guide for Shavuot

Compiled and translated by Rabbi Mishael Zion, Bronfman Fellowships, Shavuot 2014

A.       Deuteronomy 10:1-4
1 At that time the LORD said unto me: 'Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first, and come up unto Me into the mount; and make thee an ark of wood.
א  בָּעֵת הַהִוא אָמַר יְהוָה אֵלַי, פְּסָל-לְךָ שְׁנֵי-לוּחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים, וַעֲלֵה אֵלַי, הָהָרָה; וְעָשִׂיתָ לְּךָ, אֲרוֹן עֵץ.
2 And I will write on the tablets which you smashed,
and place them in the ark.'
ב  וְאֶכְתֹּב, עַל-הַלֻּחֹת, אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל-הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ; וְשַׂמְתָּם, בָּאָרוֹן.
3 So I made an ark of acacia-wood, and hewed two tables of stone like unto the first, and went up into the mount, having the two tables in my hand.
ג  וָאַעַשׂ אֲרוֹן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים, וָאֶפְסֹל שְׁנֵי-לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים; וָאַעַל הָהָרָה, וּשְׁנֵי הַלֻּחֹת בְּיָדִי.
4 And He wrote on the tables according to the first writing, the ten words, which the LORD spoke unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly; and the LORD gave them unto me.
ד  וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל-הַלֻּחֹת כַּמִּכְתָּב הָרִאשׁוֹן, אֵת עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ, בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל; וַיִּתְּנֵם יְהוָה, אֵלָי.


B.       Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 14b
Rav Yosef taught: “The tablets which you broke and place them in the ark” – this teaches that the Tablets and the broken tablets are placed in the ark.
תני רב יוסף: "אשר שברת ושמתם" - מלמד שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון [...]
תלמוד בבלי בבא בתרא יד ע"א-ע"ב


C.        Talmud Bavli Menahot 99a
Rav Yosef taught: “The tablets which you broke and place them in the ark” – this teaches that the Tablets and the broken tablets are placed in the ark.
From here we learn that a scholar who has forgotten his learning out of force, we do not treat him disrespectfully.
"אשר שברת ושמתם בארון" תני רב יוסף: מלמד שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון, מכאן לתלמיד חכם ששכח תלמודו מחמת אונסו שאין נוהגין בו מנהג בזיון. תלמוד בבלי מסכת מנחות דף צט/א


D.       Reshit Hokhma, R. Eliyahu deVidash, Gate of Holiness 7; 16th C Kabbalistic Moral tome
The Zohar teaches that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the Tablets and the Broken Tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah… and similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for the Shekhina. For the Shekhina [divine presence] only dwells in broken vessels, which are the poor, whose heart is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a haughty heart propels the Shekhina from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.

ועוד נלמוד מדברי הרשב"י שאמר שכיס הלב הוא הארון, ונודע הוא שבתוך הארון היו הלוחות ושברי לוחות, כן ראוי שיהיה לבו מלא תורה... וכנגד שברי לוחות צריך שיהיה לבו לב נשבר ונדכה שיהיה מכון לשכינה, שהשכינה מושבה הם מאנין תבירין דילה [=כלים שבורים שלה], והם העניים שלבם לב נשבר ונדכה, ומי שלבו מתגאה עליו דוחה השכינה מעליו שנאמר תועבת ה' כל גבה לב.
ספר ראשית חכמה - שער הקדושה - פרק שביעי


E.        R. Natan of Nemirov, Likkutei Halakhot, 19th Century Hassid, student of Reb Nachman of Breslov, Shabbat 6
And this is the meaning of the verse “Which you broke and place in the Ark”, about which our Sages said: “the Tablets and the Broken Tablets are placed in the Ark”. By means of the aspect of broken tablets, broken faith, by means of that brokenness itself the faith returns and amends itself, which is the second tablets.
Because thanks to the existence of a shard of the broken faith, by keeping that shard he is fulfilling the advice of the faith itself which was broken – and he can return and repair that faith which is the aspect of receiving second tablets.

וְזֶהוּ בְּחִינַת אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ וְשַֹמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן וְאָמְרוּ חֲכָמֵנוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה, לוּחוֹת וְשִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת מֻנָּחִים בָּאָרוֹן. הַיְנוּ עַל - יְדֵי בְּחִינַת שִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת בְּחִינַת אֱמוּנָה הַשְּׁבוּרָה, עַל - יְדֵי - זֶה בְּעַצְמָהּ חָזַר וְנִתְתַּקֵּן הָאֱמוּנָה מֵחָדָשׁ שֶׁהֵם בְּחִינַת הַלּוּחוֹת שְׁנִיּוֹת, בִּבְחִינַת שָׁקַל פִּסְקָא שָׁדָא לְהוּ וְכוּ', כִּי עַל - יְדֵי שֶׁנִּשְׁאַר בּוֹ אֵיזֶה נְקוּדָה מֵהָאֱמוּנָה הַשְּׁבוּרָה עַל - יְדֵי - זֶה מְקַיֵּם הָעֵצָה שֶׁל חֲכָמִים שֶׁנִּשְׁבְרָה אֱמוּנָתָם אֶצְלוֹ וְחוֹזֵר וּמְתַקֵּן הָאֱמוּנָה שֶׁהִיא בְּחִינַת קַבָּלַת לוּחוֹת שְׁנִיּוֹת. כִּי כָּל קַבָּלַת הַתּוֹרָה עוֹמֶדֶת עַל אֱמוּנָה, כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב, כָּל מִצְוֹתֶיךָ אֱמוּנָה, וּכְמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב, בָּא חֲבַקּוּק וְהֶעֱמִידָן עַל אֱמוּנָה וְכוּ' הַיְנוּ כַּנַּ"ל:
ספר ליקוטי הלכות - הלכות שבת הלכה ו


F.        R. Yitzhak Arama, Akeidat Yitzhak, 15th century Spain
Why didn’t God sculpt the second tablets, the way He sculpted the first ones? Because that which is totally Divine is not sustainable in the hands of humans. Therefor the first tablets, which were “made by God and written by God”, were not sustainable. Therefore God told Moses “sculpt [the second Tablets] for yourself” – you make them and I will shape them, thus retaining both the shape and image of the first ones, but these will be sustainable.

למה לא פסלם הקדוש ברוך הוא בעצמו – כראשונים? לפי שהדברים האלוהיים בהחלט אין להם קיום אצל בני אדם, לפיכך לא נתקיימו הלוחות הראשונים ש"הלוחות מעשה אלוהים המה והמכתב מכתב אלוהים הוא" (ל"ב ט"ז), לכן "פסל לך" ועשה אתה את גופן ואני אתן את צורתן. ועם זה יהיו מדמותן וצלמם ויתקיימו אצלם.
ר' יצחק עראמה, עקדת יצחק



Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Language of the Jewish Future: Israelish, Americanish, Yeshivish

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Shavuot 2014

What is the language of the Jewish Future? The world is increasingly speaking one thin language. Jews are increasingly speaking three distinct depth languages. What is the role of Judaism in a thin, flat world, and what kind of leadership will bring it to fruition?

When the people of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, they arrived “as one person, with one heart,” says the midrash. It was the quintessential moment of Jewish unity. And perhaps the only one. Since Sinai Jews have been in search of a unifying language, mostly in vain. In the modern world this has become even more challenging. Two hundred years ago one could still claim that the joint Jewish language was the language of Halakha, a supposedly unified Jewish practice and authority. One hundred years ago Modern Hebrew was revived in order to serve as a secular language for all Jews, replacing common practice with vocabulary. But today neither of those cast a wide enough net over the diversity of the Jewish people. As we prepare to stand again at Sinai this Shavuot, it is time to ask: What is the language of the Jewish future?
Well, first - what is the language of the global future? Futurists talk about a world where local depth languages are being forsaken in favor of a single language. Globish, a watered down, internetized and simplified version of English, is fast becoming the language of our flat world. Containing only 1,000 words, it is just enough to be able to say anything in the most basic vocabulary. Which explains its other name: Simplish. For every one person who speaks English – there are four who speak Simplish. Websites such as Simplish.com allow one to translate any text into this international language.
Some might see this as the perfect opportunity to define the Simplish of Judaism. Seeking a single and accessible Jewish language they would work to define the 1,000 words which allow fluency in “Jewish”.
Yet joining the trend of accessibility and thinness would be a grave mistake. Simplish was created for financial transactions, a world of consumers. It might be good enough to buy stuff with – but Simplish remains mute and insufficient when faced with the emotional and ethical complexities of life.
In a thin world restricted to 1,000 words, people seeking to live with depth – emotional and ethical – will seek a rich language that helps them make meaning of their lives and communities. This is where the future of Judaism – and other depth traditions – lies.
The need to find the depth languages of Judaism forces us to face the fact that the Jewish people are increasingly split between three distinct depth languages: Hebrew, English and Yiddish – or rather - Israelish, Americanish and Yeshivish. Each of these language presents a very different Jewish response to the modern world. At their best, they each present a rich challenge to the Jewish people: Yeshivish challenges us to be fluent in our tradition, in its wisdom and in its rituals. Americanish challenges us to translate Jewish concepts into the wider world. Israelish challenges us to take political responsibility for ourselves in our own ancestral land.
A Jewish people that speaks three distinct languages might sound terrible to some. But I’d argue that our different and diverse languages are the key to our success – as long as each one of them is spoken ethically, vibrantly and deeply. Independently and in tension with the other, these Jewish languages present a foundation to stand on, in a world of Globish.

The crisis occurs when these three languages stop being in tension with eachother, stop being challenged by the other. As we seek to stand at Sinai again, the question becomes: How do we keep the conversation going between these three distinct languages?
The Talmud offers us a useful leadership model. Split between Bavel and the land of Israel, the two Talmudic Jewish communities were rife with rivalry and alienation. Yet they kept the conversation between them going thanks to the leadership of intellectual connectors. Known as the “Nehotei”, those who “went down”, these cultural agents would bring ideas back and forth between the two centers. Open any page of Talmud and you’ll find that whenever Ulla, Rav Dimi or Rabin – or any of the other nehotei - show up, they always revolutionize the conversation.
A vibrant Jewish future that speaks three different languages requires such connectors, people fluent not only in their own language – but skilled at travelling back and forth between the other Jewish languages.
Such modern day “nehotei” require three characteristics: They must be travel ready, committed to going beyond themselves and engage Jewish othernesses. They must be idea driven, both recognizing a good idea for its value, without bias or prejudice, and using those new ideas as fermenting agents of change. And they must be translators, skilled at taking an idea from one context and make it meaningful in another context; transferring knowledge and practice across cultures and languages.
A vibrant Jewish future that speaks three different languages requires not superficial unity, but rather vibrant connectors, people fluent not only in their own language – but travelling back and forth between the various Jewish languages. As we stand at Sinai in the 21st century, these three depth languages and the connectors between them offer an increasingly thin world a deep alternative for modern life.

This talk was delivered as part of the Jewish Education Project’s Jewish Futures Conference 2014. Speakers were asked to respond to the question: What is your vision for the Jewish Future in 2040? 







Friday, May 16, 2014

Doubt, Pray, Love: If Only You'd Walk in My Paths

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | BeHukotai 2014

Camp Schneller, originally an Ottoman Orphanage
During my last year of military service in the IDF, I was posted to “Camp Shneller”, a base conveniently Shabbes, Shabbes, Goyim!” in protest. I couldn’t resist the temptation and would often prop out my window and respond with a hearty “Shabbat shalom gam lachem, to you too!”.
located in my home town of Jerusalem (after serving in the Gaza Strip as the second Intifada broke out, it was time for a break). “Shneller” towered over Me’a Shearim, the heart of Ultra Orthodox Jerusalem, a dot of army green in a sea of pious black. On Shabbat, wayward Haredi teenagers would come to the gate and yell “
One of the best parts of serving at Shneller was that I was allowed to pop out for prayer services, 3 times a day. Never since have I been as devout a “minyan”-goer as that year… Shabbat had me away from my post for hours on end, as prayer services often turned into a meal hosted by a Haredi family (unbeknownst to my officers…). Continuing a long tradition of Jewish beggars, I quickly learned which families served the best food and developed a strong preference to their synagogue. I’m forever indebted to the gracious hospitality of the families of Me’a Shearim…
Surat al-Fatiha
It was at one such meal that my host informed me: “Someone who follows Halakha is not afraid of anything!” I perked up, as I had always thought Haredim – which literally means “those who fear” – are defined by their fear. Whether they fear for God’s word, or fear Modernity and his henchmen - secular Jewish sovereignty and smartphones. He surprised me by reaching to a shelf and pulling out a Quran. He read the Surat Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran and the centerpieces of Muslim Prayer:
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds!

Merciful to all, Compassionate to each!
Lord of the Day of Judgment –
It is You we worship, and upon You we call for help.
Guide us to the straight path,
The path of those upon whom your grace abounds.
Not those upon whom anger falls,
Nor those who are lost.
(Quran, Opening / Fatiha)

He continued to tell me his life  story – a classic Israeli tale of becoming religious: growing up in a secular home, travelling to India after the army, encountering spirituality. Something drew him to Islam – and there this Sura found him. The metaphor of the paths stuck with him. Living a fully modern life, all paths are open to me, he felt. But they are not equal. Some paths might incur divine wrath. Most will simply get me lost. How to find the STRAIGHT path, and what guides will help stick to it. This question eventually led him to a life where there is not only a straight path, but a narrow one. All the better to stay on it…
To him Halakha – literally walking the path – means one never has to fear losing one’s way, for there are clear signposts along the path. There is never any doubt – Halakha defines the boundaries of the path, and thus provides certainty to those who walk on it. This week’s Torah portion, Behukotai, opens with a similar metaphor:
If  you walk in My laws,
and keep My commandments, and do them;
Then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit…
אִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי, תֵּלֵכוּ; וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם.
וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם, בְּעִתָּם; וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ, וְעֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה יִתֵּן פִּרְיוֹ.
At first glance this a simple conditional proposition. If we walk along the straight path – we will receive blessing. If we do not, we will find ourselves among “those upon whom anger falls” (read the rest of chapter 26 to see what happens to those unfortunate souls…).
Rabbi Mordechai Lainer of Izbica, in his radical Hassidic Mei haShiloach, flips the certainty of “walking the path of Halakha” on its head.

“If you follow in My laws” – “if” is a language of doubt. For who can know whether they are fulfilling the Torah to the depth of God’s intent…
And for this reason the verse here uses a language of doubt, “If you follow in my laws”. For even if a person fulfills all of the Shulkhan Aruch [the classic treatise of Jewish law]– he is still in doubt whether he arrived at the depth of Divine intent. For God’s intent is deep, too deep to find.
In addition, “if” is a language of prayer. For God – as it were – is praying: “If only you would walk in my laws and reach the depth of my intent…”
(Mei HaShiloach, II Behukotai)

Yes, there is Halakha. But there is also Divine will. And those two are not always aligned. Admitting the gap between the two is a radical move for Jewish tradition. If there is a hope for a liberal, progressive Halakha, it lives in the crevices between the two.
And amid those crevices, God prays. The Mei haSiloach touches here upon another deep anxiety: that people will understand not only what I said, but what I mean; what my intent is. Whether God or Human, there is a huge gap between what we say and what we mean. Between the initial instruction and actually walking the “straight and narrow”. Recognizing this doubt, whether in regard to Divine intent or human intent, is hard. But navigating the gap is the task of those who seek to truly walk the path, straightening the crookedness of the path with their heels. In the face of doubt, the honest response is not a façade of certainty, but a quiet prayer. I hope you understand what I mean.

Shabbat Shalom,
Mishael



Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Prophets and Priests: On Aspirations and their Demise


In the center of Jerusalem hangs a bell which has never tolled. It is a replica of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, crack and all. Both are inscribed with a verse from this week’s Torah portion:

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10)
וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל יֹשְׁבֶיהָ (ויקרא כה:י)

The inscription exposes the prophetic calling which lies at the center of both nations. Anything but normal, it prescribes the nation a redemptive role. Some consider the inscription the source of a dangerous and blinding national ego-trip, others as a wellspring of an exceptional and inspiring ethical vision. The crack is symbolic: Both countries struggle over the gap between their highest aspirations for themselves and the reality outside.  This tension between aspirational and possible, between de jure and de facto, is a drama which unfolds in our weekly portion.
Biblical Context is helpful here. Our verse appears in the most aspirational of commandments: the mitzvot of Sabbatical year (Shmitta) and Jubilee (Yovel). The darling commandments of financial interventionists the world over, this Biblical duo command that
 “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But on the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath unto God; you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard.”
After seven cycles of such Sabbaticals, seven times seven:
you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and you shall return every man unto his possession, and return every man unto his family.” (Leviticus 25: 1-10)
A quick refresher:  Every seven years Shmitta calls for a cessation of all agricultural work and a remittance of all slave ownership (and of all debts, throws in the book of Deuteronomy. This coming year will be a Shmitta, so you might want to think twice before acquiring a slave). Every fifty years a remittance of any real estate transactions ensues, alongside a second year of agricultural remittance. The Torah commands a “reset” of the economy requiring each person to “return to Go and collect $200”. If you are unfortunate enough to have acquired more than the amount of money given you at the beginning of the game – you must return all properties, houses and hotels to the bank (Monopoly, the Shmitta version, is bound to be a hit). Shmitta and Yovel are the touchstone of the Torah’s strategy to fight poverty in an “For the land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and settlers with Me” (ibid 25:23-24).
agrarian society – as much as it is about creating a theological awareness that human ownership is counter-redemptive.
Did we mention it’s an aspirational commandment?
So aspirational in fact, that later generations had to work overtime to tame it. Rabbinic legislators, concerned that Shmitta would undermine the healthy functioning of the economy – loans would be withheld, neighbors would refrain from business - pillaged the Sabbatical year of most of its content. To this day a community’s response to the sabbatical year is a litmus test of its Jewish engagement: in Israel it creates political uproar. In America it generates a swarm of new-age initiatives. Most people shrug their shoulders and move on with their lives… (Snarkiness aside, I’m an admirer and aspiring practitioner of modern re-interpretations of Shmitta, like this one from Hazon).
The Jubilee did not fair as well. Jews essentially lost count of when the Jubilee year is somewhere between the first and second temple. No one seemed to shed a tear.
The fate of Shmitta and Yovel, like the aspirations of Israel, America and many other well meaning  projects, fell prey to the social dynamic which one Jewish essayist labeled “Priest vs. Prophet”.
Ahad haAm (1856-1927, aka Asher Ginsberg, literally “One of the guys”…), Russian auto-didact, serial newspaper editor and founder of Cultural Zionism, dedicated his life to translating the concepts of Jewish religion to a secular age. In his essay, “Priest and Prophet”, Ahad haAm turns these two obsolete servants of the Lord into timeless leadership types:
In the early history of any epoch-making idea there have always been people who have devoted to that idea, and to it alone, all their powers, physical and spiritual. They make the new idea a primal force; and the social equilibrium, being a product of the struggle between all such social forces, is, therefore, bound to be affected by this new force. But just as no one force ever obtains a complete and absolute victory, so there is no original idea that can hold its own unless it is carefully guarded by its adherents.
There are thus two ways of doing service in the cause of an idea ; and the difference between them is that which in ancient days distinguished the Priest from the Prophet.

The Prophet is essentially a one-sided man. A certain moral idea fills his whole being, masters his every feeling and sensation, engrosses his whole attention. He can only see the world through the mirror of his idea… His whole life is spent in fighting for this ideal with all his strength ; for its sake he lays waste his powers, unsparing of himself, regardless of the conditions of life and the demands of the general harmony. He remains always a man apart, a narrow-minded extremist, zealous for his own ideal, and intolerant of every other…
It is otherwise with the Priest. He appears on the scene at a time when Prophecy has already succeeded in hewing out a path for its Idea. But the Priest has not the strength to fight continually against necessity and actuality; his tendency is rather to bow to the one and come to terms with the other. Instead of clinging to the narrowness of the Prophet, and demanding of reality what it cannot give, he broadens his outlook, and takes a wider view of the relation between his Idea and the facts of life. Not what ought to be, but what can be, is what he seeks. (Ahad haAm, Priest and Prophet, 1893)

It seems that Shmitta and Yovel, those grand ideas set into motion by the Prophets, was handed off to the Priests, who promptly forgot one and gutted the other… We could play out Ahad haAm’s analysis on a wide variety of social change movements today. Indeed the Priest is easily identifiable as our neighborhood politician, earnestly serving a grand idea, but constantly sacrificing the idea on the altar of reality. The Priest is a master of “the art of the possible”.
But who is the prophet in today’s terms? Where does tenacious inspiration, battle for a core idea, unflinching zealotry appear today? “Said Rabbi Yohanan: Since the destruction of the Temple, Prophecy has been taken away from prophets and given to babies and fools(Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 12b). Babies and fools? Perhaps religious extremists and a handful of vegans. Does Western society still have a shot at finding prophets?
Greil Marcus, cultural critic best known as the biographer of Dylan, Van Morrison and Elvis, points out that the American prophetic voice was always a key of American leadership. He highlights the self-critical assumption guiding such canonized notables as John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. They all believed that “the nation was made to judge itself in a court the country would have to convene over and over again” (Marcus, “The Shape of Things to Come:Prophecy and the American Voice”, pg. 14). But since then the prophetic voice has disappeared from the political and civic discourse. It re-appears today only in the works of artists, novelists and filmmakers (Marcus finds it in Phillip Roth, Allen Ginsburg, David Lynch and a handful of pop-culture icons I hadn’t encountered before…).
What such prophets have is the ability to judge the nation based on its aspirations for itself in a way that resonates and moves the people. They rang the bell of liberty, letting the inscription on the shell reverberate throughout the nation – and then challenged that nation to stand up to its promise. “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check” as King put it (pg. 30. In Israel, Meir Ariel rang that bell best of all, see last year's post).
At the end of the day, stuck between de facto and de jure, de facto will probably win. We need our priests – God knows I am more of priest than a prophet myself… And yet, as Shmitta rolls around next year, perhaps we can let it push us in the direction of de jure once again. As Ahad haAm puts it in his essay – the prophet knows he will not win, but he pulls nonetheless:

The fundamental idea of the Hebrew Prophets was the universal dominion of absolute justice. …Justice for them is beauty, it is goodness, wisdom, truth: without it all these are naught… The ideal of the Prophets is to pull practical life in the direction of absolute Justice — an ideal for which there can never be a complete victory. (Ahad haAm, ibid)