Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Vayehi (Hasidism)

(This week, due to various pressures and exigencies, I had originally planned to forego writing Hitzei Yehonatan, but then I remembered an interesting Devar Torah on the portion which I am sharing with you belatedly, along with the train of thought it inspired. Parshat Shemot, which follows almost immediately, resumes our regular format for this year of presentation of Hasidic teachings. All, on the premise that better late than never.)

I heard the following piece of Torah from Rav Nathan Kaminetzky slightly over a quarter of a century ago, at a Kiddush held on Parshat Vayehi to mark the conversion to Judaism of Amos Wittenberg, at the time a fellow student at Yeshivat Shapell. The center piece of this parasha, the concluding one in the Book of Genesis, is the blessing by the patriarch Jacob of his offspring—first of his two grandsons by Joseph, then of his twelve sons. This blessing, like that of Moses before his death (Deut 33), delineates the individual qualities of each of the sons/tribes, alluding not only to their personal characteristics and various events in their lives, but also prophesying or foreshadowing the future role—geographical, historical, and political— of each of the tribes in the history of Israel.

Following the individual blessings, the Torah sums up: “All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them; each man according to his blessing did he bless them” (Gen 49:28). Rashi, in his comment on this verse, is puzzled both by the seeming redundancy of the words “spoke to them and blessed them,” as by the fact that some of these “blessings” were more in the way of censure, or even curses for their flawed behavior and character (e.g., Reuben, Shimon and Levi in vv. 3-4, 5-7). He thus infers from the double phrase, “and he blessed them” (vayevarekh otam; asher barekh otam) that Jacob ultimately blessed all of the tribes, both in their individuality and as a group.

Rav Kaminetsky saw in this the tension in Jewish existence between “tribehood” and “peoplehood.” And indeed (the following is my elaboration), in ancient times the nation of Israel was a federation, an amphictyony of tribes united by their common religious faith, symbolized by the central sanctuary in Jerusalem, but with centrifugal and centripetal forces working in almost equal measure. (One might see the federal system familiar to many of us from the United States as a kind of parallel to this; “e pluribus unum”—“out of many one,” would make a not unfitting motto for ancient Israel as well.) During the age of the judges, of Samuel, and even of the early kings, tribal identity was almost as strong as that of allegiance to the people as a whole; indeed, it was these forces that blew apart the kingdom, united under David and Solomon, following the latter’s death.

Later on, during the Exile, the Jewish people was divided into numerous Diasporas, each one of which developed its own identity, culture, and set of religious customs and liturgies. Poland, Germany, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, to name but a few, each forged their own unique style of Jewishness, becoming latter-day “tribes.” As recently as the 1930’s, when my parents married, their’s was considered an “inter-marriage” because the one was a “Litvak” and the other a “Galitzianer” (their respective parents were born in different corners of Poland, perhaps 200 miles apart). During the twentieth century, when historical cataclysms and mass migrations uprooted and reshuffled the historic Diaspora communities beyond recognition, ideology has increasingly taken the place of ethnicity as a focal point: Haredim, modern Orthodox, non-Orthodox religionists, secular Zionists, Diaspora survivalists, etc.—with all of their various stripes and sub-divisions. But, Rav Kaminetzky concluded, at the same time all these ”tribes” share a common overriding denominator of Jewishness—and it is with this that Jacob’s blessing concludes. And (regarding the original occasion), this idea of unhyphenated Jewishness is perhaps epitomized by a newly-converted ger tzedek, whose Jewishness is not filtered through any of these subsidiary identities, but is simply a Jew, belonging, as it were, equally to all tribes.

Interestingly, Mark Feffer, one of the faithful readers of this parsha sheet, recently asked me a question that bears upon this issue. Referring to the interpretation of the mitzvah of aravot—the willow branches used on Sukkot, and especially on Hoshana Rabbah—he wrote, in part:

Aravot have neither taste nor smell, Torah nor deeds. Yet they are requisite for a kosher, complete set of the Four Species on Succot, the [other] three-quarters of which represent Jews with either Torah, deeds, or both. So what is with the Aravot? Who needs a Jew who has neither Torah learning nor good deeds? How would a Hassidic Rebbe of old have explained this? According to the stories they reveled in honoring thieves and ignorant woodcutters. Would a Haredi Litvak think that the Aravot must go?… (Keep in mind that the Arava is the key for the [final] atonement of Hoshana Rabba)… Do we envision a society without Aravot? What do modern-day Haredim have to say about Aravot?… Should we envision a society to come in which all do teshuva and no Aravot are to be found in Israel?… Is the key to Jewish unity and survival the beauty of the Arava? Or do we aspire to a Messianic Four Species consisting of four Etrogs, as some Haredim seem to maintain/prefer?

[And in another letter, following my initial reply] The Aravot I mentioned… are our secular brethren who… have very little Jewish knowledge, although they are humanistic and often open with others and abounding with compassion. True children of Abraham? Yet they go out of their way to show that their Jewish behavior has nothing to do with “organized” Rabbinic tradition, [which they consider] medieval!

The Haredim would say, as you suggest, that they have gone too far and, as the Last Stand for Torat Moshe, they must not even tie a shoelace the wrong way lest the secularist-Hellinizers-Zionists succeed in transforming us into a nation of Jewish goyim. Mi Lashem Eilay! “He who is for God, follow me!” I see them as the Guardians of the Faith, the Western Wall, the last defense of pure holiness. So as you say, no wonder they are so exclusive. I wonder why I refuse, then, to wear a black hat and wear baseball caps instead?…

My response to this is on several levels. First of all, on the simplest, factual level, I would claim that the Haredim (Ultra-strict Orthodox) are not in fact the ideal embodiment of perfect kedusha. Without getting into a harangue about Haredim, two brief points:

First, the Haredim have constructed their society of full-time Torah learning and punctilious observance of mitzvot by, in a sense, relying upon others to do their dirty work. They depend upon the existence of other, in their eyes less authentic, more compromised, Jews to do such things as keeping the economy going, defending the country against its enemies, maintaining the medical, technological and communications services needed to provide the comforts and conveniences we all take for granted in a modern society, etc. There is something dishonest, what the French would call “bad faith” (mauvais foi), in such an approach. Moreover, to accomplish their own ends and get funding for their institutions, as well as to maintain draft exemptions for their own sons, they politically wheel and deal, creating what is objectively a situation of Hillul Hashem—that is, one which antagonizes many secular people against Yiddishkeit, which they identify with this group and its kind of political manipulation. (This is very clear in the present election campaign, in which Shas and Shinui function in a strange way as Doppelgangers, through a bizarre symbiosis in which side hopes to gain support through playing on loathing of the other.)

Second, on a deeper level: their left-hand payos are longer than their right. By that, I mean that the balance between serving God out of love and out of fear seems to be askew. There is too much fear, too much emphasis on compulsion and obsessive “out-fruming” others—as well as too much fear of social pressure and of their neighbor’s judgments—and not enough of what Shlomo Carlebach called “singing a new song.”

But there is a deeper question as well: Is “pure kedusha” the goal of Jewish existence? Ultimately, these questions return us to the basic questions of the nature of Judaism or Jewishness. As I have written on previous occasions, Judaism, or Jewishness, is really sui generis, eluding any single, simple definition or criteria of membership. I would insist upon a “bi-polar” understanding of Jewishness. It is both people and religion; either side by itself is inadequate, missing something essential. Is the goal to preserve a small, super-committed core, a kind of “nature preserve” of Jewish piety and learning—and damn the rest of Jewry, except insofar as they serve as a reservoir for future potential ba’alei teshuvah?Were Judaism only a religion, such an answer might make sense: after all, religious groups do periodically purify themselves of dross, purging themselves of dangerous heresies and schisms, to better propagate their pure, unsullied truth. Indeed, even as a religion, it is intended to be that of an entire people, not of a self-enclosed sect; as such, it must be open and all-inclusive. All the more so if understood as a culture and a civilization as well, as a people/nation that, while today having a nation-state in Israel, ultimately transcends its boundaries. Who has not met avowed atheists, who are nevertheless suffused to their very bones with Jewishness?

Perhaps the best model is that of a big, rather argumentative family; all these debates, no matter how sharp and even bitter, are ultimately among ourselves. Moreover, the modern situation is radically different from those encountered by the Jewish people in the past. Today there are huge numbers of Jews who are totally secular, and many even married to non-Jews, all of which makes for a “whole ‘nother ball game.” At one time, certain implicit assumptions about Jewish collective life were accepted by all: that the Torah was the central book, defining belief and practice; that the rabbis were the agreed religious authorities; that the halakha, however interpreted, was the agreed code of law. Today, all that no longer holds true. There is no longer the sense of simple, natural, un-self-conscious continuity. To a large extent, to be a Jew today means to invent oneself as a Jew—to choose to be a Jew, and to choose what kind of a Jew one shall be. From my own experience, I would state that even the majority of committed, involved Jews today—even within the heart of Orthodoxy—have in some sense “invented themselves” as Jews. Many, if not most, of the options for Jewish identity encountered today—“Sephardic Haredi”; Merkaz Harav settler-nationalist”; “urban Israeli knitted kippah wearer”; “bohemian Bratslaver”; “ba’al teshuvah”; “Nusah Shlomo”; “Messianic Lubavitcher”; even such an extreme-ultra-Orthodox school as the “Reb Arele’s (Toldos Aharon)” etc., etc.—are all inventions of the last half-century or so, if not much more recent.

Even seemingly way out options, such as Jewish Sufi or “Jew-Buhs”—Jewish- Buddhist syncretists—are part of a multi-colored mosaic of Jewish life, and I would be very cautious and reluctant about reading anyone out of the fold. A few weeks ago we had a lively discussion at my Shabbat table between a free-lance writer, a passionate advocate of Jewish continuity and survival, and a learned and profound Jewish Sufi. The survivalist asked, “With such rampant assimilation, doesn’t your approach threaten Jewish survival?” My Sufi friend answered by speaking of God as transcending culture and particularity (“God is goddish, not Jewish”), while at the same time living his own peculiar synthesis enabling him to practice Shabbat and kashrut, etc. I found myself empathizing davka with his view. I mused whether, certainly on the level of ideas, it is not possible for Jews to forge a new world-view, which may draw upon and incorporate ideas of Eastern provenance within a large Jewish word-view. Who is to say? Eight hundred years ago, many Jews found Rambam’s synthesis of Neo-Aristotelianism and Judaism untenable. Perhaps in ways that we cannot yet appreciate or assimilate to our thinking, certain elements of Eastern thought, as learned by these Sufi-Jews and Buddhist-Jews, may yet take shape as an authentic Jewish philosophy of the future. (At times, I wonder whether there may not be a certain parallel between our time and the numerically modest but spiritually incredibly vital and interesting revival of Jewish life in Weimar Germany—the circle of the Frankfort Freies Judisches Lehrhaus, Rosenzweig, Buber, et al). Of course, I do not advocate throwing caution entirely to the winds. There is certainly much that is disturbing about these tendencies as well—a certain shallowness and superficiality in their understanding—and there are things in that world that look suspiciously like New Age self-help pop psychology dressed up in a tallit or a Jewish star.

What are the maximal limits of Jewish pluralism and tolerance? Must Orthodoxy necessarily have to mean: “I’m right and everyone else is wrong”? The Kotzker vort—“If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you”—needs to be taken seriously in this context. There is something very comforting psychologically in a sense of smug, superior self-righteousness, but it is also alien to a truly religious attitude, which is marked by greater humility and modesty. David Hartman has written extensively on this issue, trying to find a theological basis for pluralism. But his work tends to place too much emphasis on the sociological, anthropological, and humanistic-ethical aspects of Jewish life, often reading more like a defining of the framework than a filling in of the desired contents. I think that there is need for a more strictly theological basis. How does one strike the proper balance between faith affirmations which are seen as ultimate truths, on the one hand, and love and respect and real acceptance of one’s fellow man, and specifically of one’s fellow Jew, on the other? Is the combination of passionate faith with genuine pluralism analogous to squaring the circle? I vividly recall a sermon delivered by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on the first night of Rosh Hashana at the yeshiva in Gush Etzion, whose central theme was the need to “press the affront to the father and the affront to the son.” That is, to be concerned at one and the same time for God’s Holy Name and for the this-worldly, existential reality and needs of every Jew as such. He had no simple answer to this question, but rather the insistence that one must somehow be committed to both sides of the coin—of both religious-halakhic norms and human-communal interests. Such an approach shapes my approach to the Reform and Conservative movements and their rabbis. It is fashionable in the Orthodox world to denigrate such people as “apokorsim” and even “mamrim.” When I read a Reform organ such as CCAR Journal discussing such central Jewish experiences as prayer and Shabbat, I feel as if they are almost written in a foreign language; yet at the same time, I cannot but deeply respect these people for the heroic work they are doing in trying to keep some flame of Jewishness burning in the most marginal sectors of our people. The Reform have made a (thoroughly realistic, in their milieu) tactical decision to accept intermarriage as a given fact of life, and to concentrate their efforts upon doing whatever possible to strengthen the Jewish partners in such marriages, to assure the Jewish education of the children, and, should the non-Jewish partner of his/her own initiative show interest in Judaism, to encourage him/her in gentle, non-missionizing ways. Is what they do legitimate? What would I do in their shoes? Could I even survive one day in such a position? The advice of Hazal, “do not judge your fellow until you have reached their place,” seems apt to me in such a situation.

Today’s world is so different from that of the past, that major halakhic issues such as the definition of mamrut and apikorsut (apostasy) need to be rethought and carefully studied. I would suggest that the modern situation, and the type of people who foster these new ideologies, did not exist in the way we understand today in earlier times, and hence requires new thinking.

One option, rarely entertained, is what might be called a kind of “religious agnosticism”—using the word “agnosticism” in its root meaning of a-gnosis, “not knowing.” One could well argue that in this sense agnosticism is of the very heart of all religion, certainly of all mystical experience. God is unknowable, beyond the ken of human understanding; all of our talk about Him is on the level of metaphor, of images for the Ein-Sof, for the great Ayin who dwells hidden in the recesses of infinity. Even the prophets only saw him through “a cloudy speculum,” while even Moshe Rabbenu in the cleft of the rock was only granted a glimpse of His rear, of “the knot of His tefillin.”

That such an approach has precedent in our tradition is illustrated, for example, in a paper by Rivka Schatz describing what she calls the “agnostic diary” of Reb Israel Dov of Stepan, grandson of R. Michel of Zloczow, who recorded his own approach and insights, insisting upon a very personal kind of revelation, the unknowability of the Divine, and of many if not most of the doctrinal truths of religion.

I would add here that the nature of the Torah as well—exactly how it was revealed, the nature of the processes called nevuah, ruah hakodesh, etc.—are also unknowable. Such an approach might enable us to resolve one of the most vexing problems in contemporary religious thought: namely, how to reconcile the approach of modern scholarship, which sees the development of culture and texts within history, with the Divine source of the Torah. Can one say that the Torah is real, that we are obligated to live by it, that the Halakha as we know it (however liberally interpreted) is the basic guideline for our lives as Jews, while accepting a historicist perspective? I hope to devote a lengthier discussion to these issues on another occasion.


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