Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Today is the first day of the month of Elul. This summer has been too much and it is “too soon” to be able to write a paragraph which begins with the words “This summer has been…”. As another cease-fire is declared in and around Gaza (odds are this one will stick, both sides too bent out of shape to break it), Ferguson returns to an unhealthy simmer, and the other atrocities lose their media sex appeal, perhaps we can begin to take stock. After two months in which it’s been hard to string a comprehensible sentence together, all I can manage so far are snippets of realizations, paragraphs threads without clear conclusions. Yet I need the darkness of Av to make way for the early dawns of Elul.
In general, very little thinking should take place during August. It is too hot to think. Europeans have it right when they simply shut down the nation and drift off for their “vakanzie”. Things will make more sense in September.
The Jewish calendar agrees. The month of Av peaks as it enters the depth of destruction and mourning on the infamous Tisha b’Av (Ninth day of Av), coasting in the sweltering heat until a new moon appears. The new month of Elul will bring with it a touch of autumn, that first breeze which reminds us that the humidity is not here to stay, that existence can become merciful again. The pious among us awaken early to “seek out our ways, investigating and seeking a path back”. Preparations for a new year begin, a cleansing process: may a year and its curses end, may a year and its blessings begin.
Yet this year, after a harrowing two months, 50 days of war, how can we enter Elul if the grip of Av well not let up? How can I enter the internal work of change when war is all around? How do we turn Av into Elul?
In 2006 the second Lebanon war mostly passed me by. My friends donned uniforms and disappeared into Southern Lebanon. My wife – six months pregnant – was called for reserve duty at her Intelligence base (dealing another blow to my Israeli masculinity). I hunkered down in Jerusalem’s National Library, reducing the war to a “media issue”, not anything too real. Like a teenager with an eating disorder, I’d stuff my face with news, updates and op-eds at weird hours of the night, and then call for a “media fast”, declaring that “it’s all too disgusting to engage with”.
This summer I did not have that privilege. Perhaps it was the fact that I was responsible for the safety and well-being of 26 teenagers, perhaps it was my own 7 and 5 year old, aware and questioning about sirens and terrorists and soldiers and war. My first war as a parent. Perhaps it was my sister in Beer Sheva, sending whatsapp updates from their bomb shelter, or the fact that now it was not just friends serving on the front, but students. Perhaps it was the fact that the Gaza strip was my home for 18 months in the 90’s (a small military outpost alongside the Rafah crossing) or the fact that this is the first conflagration of the conflict since moving back to Jerusalem. And maybe, as so many Israelis said early on, it simply feels different this time. It’s real. The sirens are not “there”. They are here. And the despair of the people and misguidedness of our leaders feels so thick you can almost touch it.
A word of Torah for a bloody month of Av. Why do we suffer? Jewish tradition offers us two narratives, each powerful and pervasive. But – as Rabbi Larry Edwards pointed out to us this simmer – they are stuck in parallel, always in proximity but never overlapping. “מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו” vs. “בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו”. “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land” and “In every generation they stand up to destroy us”.
What caused the Second Temple to be destroyed? The Roman Empire, or our baseless hatred? A disinvited party guest with a funny name – Kamtza – or the inevitable might and corruption of Emperor Vespasian and his sons?
You can divide today’s political analysts (and ones relatives) into these two parties, and never the twain shall meet. “It’s because of our sins!” says the brow-beating-self-hating-Liberal. “No matter what we do, they will always hate us,” retorts the xenophobic-self-righteous-Conservative. Haaretz vs. the Jerusalem Post, Fox vs. NYTimes and the Forward, Maimonides vs. Yehuda haLevi. Rabbi Ishmael vs. Shimon Bar Yohai. One calls for an internal corrective, the other sees introspection as misguided self-hate. One sees a world out to get us, the other sees us as our own worst enemy. It feels nearly impossible to hold onto both of them at the same time. And it seems to be just as much about one’s own personality as about whether what’s trending on your smartphone is stories about ISIS or Yisrael Beiteinu. Which one is more optimistic? That depends on what kind of person you are.
Both worldviews in their extreme are unhinged. Two roller-coaster rides running side by side with similar experiences and yet inverted conclusions. One is a narrative of total disempowerment – we will always have enemies and that cannot be changed, all we can do hide from history/await divine salvation/mow the lawn. The second narrative believes in our total agency, as if everything that happens in Jewish (or Israeli) history is solely in our own hands. They are both wrong. And they have both never been more accurate.
I am a total “our own sins have brought us here” kind of guy. I believe it is the way our Prophets have taught us to look at the world – Amos, Isaiah, Meir Ariel. And even if it’s not the only explanation for the reality we’re facing, it is the one I can do something about. I prefer self-flagellation to victimization. For what is the meaning of the Jewish people – to fight anti-Semitism or to model an ideal society? Maimonides seems to agree: the only meaning that can be derived from suffering is self-improvement.
There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, to arouse [their] hearts and initiate [them in] the paths of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and do better in the future. (Mishne Torah, Laws of Fasts 5:1)
I used to think we don’t need the Ninth of Av now that we’ve rebuilt a Jewish state. Why mourn destruction now that we are rebuilding. I know today that there is no more important holiday today, in this era of our Third Sovereignty. The month of Av reminds us that we can have it all – and then lose it. And that it is our own mistakes that will make us lose it. If we don’t shape up it will happen again.
Thus the nights of Av make way for the dawns of Elul.
But then I raise my gaze from the comforts of Jewish guilt and look the enemy in the eye – and the hatred is real, and eerily repetitive. How can I indulge in introspection when I am under attack? Yes, I am flawed, but the attack is real. Like Job’s friends, those on the sidelines – rooting for me, yes – come and tell me that I am the source of the problem. I welcome such criticism, but right now it is doubly hard to hear. I want to believe my enemies (external and internal) are rational, enlightened, reasonable; and that “if only I would…” then surely “they would…”. But the medieval violence of this summer makes me question those assumptions. And so I can sit out Elul in my self-righteous bunker and claim it is everyone else’s fault but my own.
Betrayed by our leaders. Trapped under their rule. This is not a description of Gaza, it is a description of Israel. “If only someone else was the leader now and not that shmuck” “If only democratic elections meant that my ideology always wins”. It seems that the Israeli narrative of the first month of conflict was a renewed Israeli solidarity, a careful leadership and a homefront that discovered it had a spine. The narrative of the second month has been the waffling of the leadership and the abandonment of those towns and kibbutzim closest to the front. Either way, the people are something to be proud of, the leadership is not. And yet – as always – the people will pay the price while the politicans keep eachother propped up. I can only imagine what the internal narrative on the other side is.
Then why do I still expect “leaders” to solve this crisis – Israeli, Palestinian, American? There is no ilitary solution, but it seems there is no political solution either – at least not one to be generated by so-called “heads of state”. But what is the alternative, and am I really ready to embrace what such an alternative might means for my life? The conclusion seems to be that it is not enough to simply vote in the elections and post things to Facebook to make a difference. So now what?
Unable to change my leadership, and unwilling to take the mantle of political action myself, I can at least turn the reality of Av into a metaphor for Elul. Like the failed leadership of our states, my own life has been led by weak, indecisive leadership. Like them, I have opted to keep the status quo at all costs, preferring short term comfort over long term health. Like them I have gullibly believed in the power of a third-party to knock sense into me (John Kerry, personal trainer), or that an appeal to rationality will bring an “end of the conflict”. I mean, we all know when the right answer is in the end, why can’t we just get there now? In my own life, it is not so simple. Why doesn’t he just shake off the bad internal leadership and become the change he wants to see in the world? I don’t know, maybe because it’s easier to blame outside enemies (especially when they are real, like your kids taking up all your extra time).
Half a thought. Anyone who left this summer with the same opinions as they had entering it, is wrong. As the events unfolded in the Middle East this summer, on the streets of Gaza, the siren towers of Tel Aviv, the hills of Northern Iraq, the conference rooms of Washington and Cairo, did nothing make you change your mind? Did you not learn anything new that reshapes your understanding of the situation? In all those news items and op-eds and you tube videos, not to mention first-person experiences, was there nothing consciousness-altering? If you are holding fast to the same diagnoses and data that you had before all this happened, if you haven’t revisited your tightly held axioms, truly engaged a perspective 180 degrees different from your own, didn’t listen to voices that undermine what you believe to be true… well, then you’re probably like all the rest of us. But maybe we can use these next 30 days, outside the barrage of rockets and news flashes, to reach some fresh conclusions.
Agnon in his compendium “Days of Awe” describes the upcoming 40 days between now and Yom Kippur as “Days that don’t return, hours that will not reoccur”. Elul is all about opportunity. Will we take it? Will I?
Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of the verse (Proverbs 3:34):
“As for the scoffers, He scoffs at them / But to the humble He grants favor”?
A person who comes to defile - the doors are opened to him;
But one who comes to purify - is helped.
In the school of Rabbi Ishmael it was taught:
It can be likened to a shopkeeper selling [foul smelling] Kerosene Oil and [wonderfully fragrant] Persimmon Oil.
If a purchaser comes to measure Kerosene, the shopkeeper says to him: Measure it out for yourself;
But to one who came to measure out Persimmon Oil he says: Hang on, wait, until I can measure together with you, so that both you and I may become perfumed.
(Talmud Bavli Yoma 39a)
God, claims Rabbi Ishmael, likes to smoke it up with his customers. Those who purchase the good stuff, that is. He also keeps foul smelling, toxic and dangerous substances, and unfortunately allows for their purchase as well. A true believer in the free market, our Creator. She enables those who come to defile (and they are proud to say that they bought their wares in Her shop). But it is those who seek to purify that She invites into a relationship.
After a summer in which kerosene was spilled on our homes, our children, our futures, and left to burn – let’s hope the sales of Persimmon oil go through the roof. And as we come to purify – ourselves, our communities, our collective futures – let’s wait awhile, pause, perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to experience the storekeeper joining us in the pleasure of the moment.
May it be a good month,
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
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:
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|
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.
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
א בָּעֵת הַהִוא אָמַר יְהוָה אֵלַי, פְּסָל-לְךָ שְׁנֵי-לוּחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים, וַעֲלֵה אֵלַי, הָהָרָה; וְעָשִׂיתָ לְּךָ, אֲרוֹן עֵץ.
and place them in the ark.'
ב וְאֶכְתֹּב, עַל-הַלֻּחֹת, אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל-הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ; וְשַׂמְתָּם, בָּאָרוֹן.
ג וָאַעַשׂ אֲרוֹן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים, וָאֶפְסֹל שְׁנֵי-לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים; וָאַעַל הָהָרָה, וּשְׁנֵי הַלֻּחֹת בְּיָדִי.
ד וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל-הַלֻּחֹת כַּמִּכְתָּב הָרִאשׁוֹן, אֵת עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ, בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל; וַיִּתְּנֵם יְהוָה, אֵלָי.
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
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
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
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
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
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?