Monday, November 14, 2011

Vayera (Wanderings)

Dedicated by Mark Feffer, in loving memory of his parents, Harry and Clara Feffer (Hayyim Zvi ben Mordechai Hakohen ve-Esther) and Hayah bat Chaim ve-Dreiezel

The Binding of Isaac and the Beatles

The chapter of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, is no doubt the most problematic one in the entire Torah, raising thorny problems, theological, ethical and covenantal. How are we to understand the notion of a God who tests the faith of “Abraham His lover” by demanding that the latter sacrifice his own son, born after decades of barrenness, and who was meant to continue the covenant that his seed would be a “great nation,” “as numerous as the stars” and as “the sand by the sea,” and who would in due time “inherit the land of Canaan”? There is an unbearable contradiction between what we are taught about God elsewhere, as the very source of all that is good and just and righteous, and what He demands here—what the Danish theologian Kierkegaard called the “theological suspension of the ethical.” And even if, as we readers know in advance from our familiarity with the story, God intended all along to halt this cruel and barbaric human sacrifice at the crucial moment, what does it say about Abraham’s faith? Was he truly a “knight of faith,” or a fool who equated faith with blind obedience to the cruelest, unethical and self-contradictory commandment?

Rivers of ink have been spilled in attempting to understand this problem, and I would not suggest that I have any new solutions to this knotty dilemma that has taxed the best minds over the centuries. On another level: the Akedah is seen in our tradition as the model for Kiddush Hashem—for the willingness of Jews to die in order to sanctify God’s Name. Particularly at those junctures in which Jewish faith was placed to the test—during the First Crusades and at other periods of Muslim or Christian religious fanaticism and persecution, when Jews were confronted with the awful choice of either foregoing their faith or being put to death, Abraham at Mount Moriah was seen as a model of heroism for Jews who were called upon to emulate his single-minded devotion. Here in Israel, some speak of the Akedah—often ironically—in secular terms, as a model for parents who send their children to fight, never knowing whether they too may end up as “sacrifices” for the homeland.

Many years ago, John Lennon of the Beatles wrote a song called “Imagine”

Imagine there’s no heaven / Its easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people / Living for today / Oh-oh. Imagine there’s no countries… Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too/ Imagine all the people / Living life in peace…

This song may have been the closest thing to an ideological manifesto of the Beatles and the 1960’s youth culture for whom they served as spokesmen of a sort—if you will, a kind of anthem for the “hippie nation.” What they (or should I say we—I include my younger self in this movement) saw in the adult world was mostly racism, economic exploitation, war and bloodshed motivated by national or religious differences. Wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place if all these artificial differences between people were to miraculously disappear? If all the people were to live “for today.” Then the world would live in peace. As the song concludes:

You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one / I hope some day you’ll join us /And the world shall live as one.

One line in this song—“nothing to kill or die for”—seems diametrically opposed to the ethos implied by the Akedah, raising a crucial question: Is there anything worth dying for? Is life—meaning, in the end, the individual’s life—dear at all cost? Are there any absolute principles, ideas so central and cardinal, that one must die rather than violate them? Are there any actions so reprehensible, that one must avoid doing them even at the cost of one’s own life?

I think of the generation that preceded those of us who grew up in the ‘60s—the generation that fought against Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, which at times refers to itself as “the Great Generation” because of the qualities of heroism and self-sacrifice called for by that struggle. To the Beatles generation, the concept of the existence of forces so evil that one must do battle against them, was unknown—doubtless because of the dubious justification for the War in Vietnam, which dominated that era. The credo was that people are basically the same, that everyone want the same things from life, and that it’s only the leaders who, for their own diabolical, power-driven reasons, set one group against another.

The Jewish tradition has its own, rather definitive answers, to the question, “Is there anything worth dying for?” The Talmud in Sanhedrin lists three mitzvot for which “one should be killed rather than violate them” (יהרג ולא יעבר): namely, bloodshed, sexual license (i.e., incest, adultery, and the like), and idolatry. Interestingly, two of these three are social–ethical mitzvot, in the sense that they relate to the Other: i.e., taking another person’s life and violating another person’s sexual integrity. But the last of the three is at once the most cardinal and, doubtless, the most problematic in terms of the ethos underlying Imagine: denying, even for temporary expediency, even to external appearances, one’s loyalty to the God of Israel. This is, in a sense, the crux of the lesson of Akedat Yitzhak, and it is that which, in the end, distinguishes the ethos of the Akedah from that of the ‘60s.


Shlomo’s “Afterlife” - The Carlebach Minyanim

In memory of Rav Shlomo ben Ha-Rav Naftali Carlebach, who departed this world on 16 Heshvan 5755, 22 October 1994.

Needless to say that no one can say for certain what happens to the human soul after death, but what one can say of our teacher, Shlomo Carlebach, is that he enjoys a certain life after his death in the sense that he is more honored, appreciated, and better known in his death than during his lifetime. One important area in which this has happened is that of “synagogue music” (to use a formal, even solemn term Shlomo would have never used): since Shlomo’s death in October 1994, “Carlebach minyanim” have sprouted up like mushrooms throughout the Jewish world. In these groups, the community davens Kabbalat Shabbat using what has become known as the “Carlebach nusah”—a certain set of melodies written by Shlomo which are regularly used for various parts of this service. In some places there is a “Shlomo Shabbat” once a month, usually on Shabbat Mevarkhim, in others Shlomo’s nusah is used every week; in some places it is only used on Friday night, in others on Shabbat morning as well; at times people get up and dance to L’kha Dodi and other parts of the service, in others they are more restrained. In any event, the comment of David Hartman, that Shlomo Carlebach saved Jewish prayer from boredom, is very apropos: in all those places that have adopted “Nusah Shlomo,” participation in the service has gained a new lease on life. It thus seems in place to say a few words about Shlomo and prayer. I will begin, as Shlomo would, with a story:

The story is told of the Rebbe of Jaroslaw (pronounced “Yaroslav”), who spent several weeks each summer at a certain vacation spot in the Carpathian mountains favored by Jews. One summer a certain mitnaggid—an opponent of or sceptic about the Hasidim—went there as well. Somehow, a Hasidic friend persuaded him to daven with the Yaroslaver Rebbe on Shabbat morning, but he found the Rebbe’s behavior very strange: he arrived late in the shul and, rather than davening, walked about, chatted with people, laughed, joked, kibbitized, , and in general acted like anything but the holy man, famed for his piety and intense devotion to the “labor” of prayer, which he was reputed to be. Our mitnaggid went away more puzzled and sceptical then he came, and chastised his friend for sending him to what he called a moshav letzim—a congregation of irreverent jokers. After much arguing the hasid persuaded his friend to give the Rebbe another chance and to go to his tisch, his Shabbat table, the following week. Thus, the next Friday night found our mitnaggid at the Rebbe’s tisch as he had dutifully promised; but, while there some nice singing and special Hasidic melodies to the zemirot, a generally warm atmosphere, and the Rebbe said some words of Torah, he found nothing particularly special or memorable about the occasion. The tisch finished well after midnight—one must remember that many places in Eastern Europe are far further north than even the most northernmost points in the continental United States, so that in midsummer Shabbat did not begin until close to 10 o’clock—and our hero, who was alert and wakeful after an evening of energetic Hasidic singing, decided to go for a walk. His walk lasted well over an hour, so that by the time he returned the faint red glow of pre-dawn light was visible on the eastern horizon. As he passed the Beit Midrash where the Yaroslovar had held his tisch, he heard a soft, melancholy voice chanting in Hebrew. Through the window, he saw a figure wrapped in a tallit, pacing back and forth, chanting the beginning of the Shabbat Morning prayers in a voice filled with pathos and sincere devotion—the Yaroslaver Rebbe. Then our mitnaggid understood …

Unlike Shlomo, I will add a few words of commentary to this story, which to my mind illustrates three important things about Hasidism—and perhaps also about Shlomo. First, that the Rebbe in this story was not an ascetic recluse who p[ursued the course of the solitary mystic, but a khevreman—a “people person” who loved other people and enjoyed their company; for him, even ordinary conversation with others was one of the pleasures of Shabbat, and possibly also something with an inner kernel of holiness (an idea found in Hasidic writings). Secondly, this Rebbe, like various other Hasidic rebbes, deliberately concealed the intensity of his inner spiritual life by “playing the fool”—at times acting like a simple, ordinary, even superficial person (as did Shlomo, at times). Third, and most important: the central importance of prayer as a cornerstone of religious service—so much so that, unlike the norm in non-Hasidic Judaism, many Rebbes preferred to daven in solitude rather than with a minyan. There is a constant tension in Hasidism between public, communal prayer and the intense, inner prayer of the soul, which may require its own space. Thus, for example, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav spoke of the merits of praying at time alone, in the field. In Lubavitch, specifically, where Shlomo spent many years of his youth, there was great emphasis placed on slow, meditative prayr—tefillah be-arikhut—and more than a few hasidim would go to synagogue simply to participate in the responses of Kaddish, Kedushah and Barkhu and to hear the reading of the Torah—but would then go to recite the prayers by themselves, at their own pace. Thus, the image of the Yaraslover Rebbe performing his devotions in the wee hours of the morning, and later going to the synagogue more or less pro forma, is part of a long-standing tradition.

(I would like to mention here that a central Hasidic text on prayer has recently been translated into English, with notes and commentary by Menachem Kallus—a member of our circle here in Jerusalem. I refer to Amud ha-Tefillah, an extensive collection of the Baal Shem Tov’s traditions on prayer, and a major part of Sefer ha-Ba’al Shem Tov. The English book, entitled Pillar of Prayer: Guidance in Contemplative Prayer, Sacred Study, and the Spiritual Life from the Baal Shem Tov and His Circle (Fons Vitae Spiritual Affinities Series) is available through

What has all this to do with the Shlomo minyanim? The Carlebach minyanim imbue public prayer with a sense of joy and enthusiasm, of camaraderie and fellowship, at times even of ecstasy—not to mention the simple release of sheer animal energy and vitality. But all this is only one half of prayer—and quite possibly the less important half. There is no doubt that, as we quoted Hartman earlier, Jewish prayer in many places is marked by boredom. This boredom is manifested in the practice found, in too many synagogues, of rushing through the words of prayer as quickly as possible in order to “get it over with”—even on Shabbat. At times, in certain “Shlomo minyanim,” I get the feeling that people are rushing through the words—even those of such central and vital parts as Keri’at Shema and Amidah—in order to get to the next song. Ultimately, the solution to the problem of boredom lies, not in music, but in people learning how to daven—meaning, how to “get into” the depths of the words themselves. In the words of an old Hasidic vort (bon mot): God’s words to Noah, “Get you into the ark” are read, in a double-entendre, as “Go into the word” (teivah means both “ark” and “word”). Leaning to pray means learning how to concentrate, to focus, how to meditate. This is something that is always difficult, but far more so in contemporary culture, in which we are constantly inundated by “data” and noise of all sorts, every hour of the day and night—cell phones, SMS’s, transistor radios, ipods, the huge volumes of written material we receive daily in newspapers, emails, websites, etc. There is no simple or quick solution to the problem: the road to true prayer is a long and arduous one, requiring hard work and dedication and concentration over a period of time. Sometimes I think that certain elements of Eastern religion—the quieting of the soul through silent meditation—are useful to this end. Indeed, our own Sages said many centuries ago that a person should sit quietly for a certain period of time before beginning to pray. Or, to quote the title of “Jewish Buddhist” Sylvia Boorstein’s book: Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There.

Shlomo loved music, and he loved telling stories, but he used both, not only because he loved them and was good at them, but because both are universal languages, understood by all, and as such a useful tool for reaching out to others. But he was also a Hasid—among other things, a Habad Hasid—steeped in the tradition of devekut, of prayer as the ascent of the soul, and I believe that in an important part of his soul he strove to emulate Tzaddikim like the Yaraslover Rebbe who prayed at length and with great concentration. Indeed, it is told that in his youthful years as a “Tamim”—a student at the Lubavitcher’s Yeshivat Tomkhei Temimim—he was not only a matmid, a deeply devoted Talmud student, but also an oved—one who prayed at length, after hours of preparation though learning Hasidus and through meditation.

Two other aspects of Shlomo’s “life after death” are: (a) the dissemination of his music, both through a plethora of tapes and CDs of his music, as well as the emergence of a number of excellent musicians who specialize in playing and singing his songs; and (b) the publication of books, both in English and Hebrew, of his teachings. There is now a Carlebach Haggadah, as well as volumes of Shlomo’s teachings on Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Purim, etc. There is also a major project underway by the Shlomo Carlebach Foundation to preserve his legacy through systematic recording and cataloging of all of his teachings, including, if I am not mistaken, an attempt to reconstruct his teachings on the entire Humash—plus various other books and memoirs by his followers, and various attempts to write his biography.

In this context I would like to make special mention of a new book published this past year: an autobiographical account of the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco by one of the leaders of the House, including interesting vignettes of renewed encounters, thirty years later, with many of the people who were involved then, and the diverse direction their lives have taken. The book is Aryae Coopersmith’s Holy Beggar: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem (El Granada, California: One World Lights, 2011). It is available through the publisher, www.oneworllights,com, or via


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