Monday, January 24, 2011

Open Minded Torah 2.0

Blogspot was very good to me, but sometimes you have to move on...

Which is to announce the new Open Minded Torah site:

Look there for the latest on my new book, upcoming book tours, and my inaugural blog post: soon!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

OMT Talks About Inspiration

Find out the real story behind the writing of Open Minded Torah here: it turns out I'm not just an unsentimental rationalist.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Open Minded Torah: Unplugged

Soon to be in a theatre near you; in the meantime, click here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

'This is Israel!': Service Economy in the Jewish State

Not that the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem has ever been a pleasant experience (though better than the disco slum of Tel Aviv), but it is a place that I have managed over the years: security, more security, escalators, and then to that special part of the world which I call Waiting for the 400 bus - the frequent bus to the ultra-orthodox Bnai Brak that stops at Bar Ilan University where I work. Some people say that Atlantic City was created so that the large orthodox population in Lakewood would have available transportation; though perhaps I should not continue that thought, comparing Atlantic City with Bnai Brak (no boardwalk in the latter).

Anyway, as it turns out the bus that has been leaving from platform 22 - since the 'new' Central Bus Station opened about ten years ago - is now leaving from platform 4. And, oh wait: the times of the buses are not now on the hour, twenty-minutes-after, and twenty-minutes to, but on the half hour, ten-minutes-to, and ten-minute- after (write this down, fellow travelers). How did I know all of this? There was a sign - written in magic marker and pasted up with scotch-tape (apparently they did not have time to contact my ten year old daughter Channa to make a really nice one). It was, however, just the right size to be overlooked by one of my colleagues, who presented her ticket to the driver of the bus on platform 22, and was promptly yelled at for being on the wrong bus. Good thing he told her. She might have ended up in Afula. Or somewhere.

I was debating about sharing my complaints with the driver of the bus which I did finally find (which left a half hour late anyway), but after discussions with one of the other confused passengers, we found ourselves uttering, like I do too often: 'this is Israel!'

Right. This is Israel. So there's no point mentioning that in a city like London or New York ('achi, this is not London or New York; this is Israel'), there would have been signs of service shifts for the month prior, and maybe apologies for the inconvenience. Those cities also manage public transportation systems with transportation authorities watching out for the public interest. Egged takes care of 55% of the routes in the country - is that a monopoly? - but as far as I know there is no public body that monitors their service.

So put up a sign on the day, and then watch the frenetic dash of the passengers through the bus station; witness their confrontation with the sometimes surly (and certainly harassed) bus drivers; and then the resigned shrug of the shoulders when everyone shows up at work an hour late: 'This is Israel.'

But does it have to be this way?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Judaism and the Art of Conversation

Torah u'madda!

The phrase itself - a slogan for some and a signal-danger for others - has become a way of taking a stand, but in the process ending a conversation on what may be the most critical issue facing contemporary Jews. I can already see eyes rolling, and hear the accompanying 'he's an academic, he would say so!' But I'm not just talking about syllabi for high school students or whether a 15 year old should read Catcher in the Rye. But arguments about Torah u'madda where they do happen - and sometimes with a good deal of vehemence - are really about the question how do we relate to the culture in which we live. Since November, I have been a Fellow of the Atid Institute in Jerusalem, and I have been having conversations with Rabbi Jeffrey Saks on the importance of moving past the polemics and posturing that usually attaches to the issue. Torah u'madda as a both a term and a phenomena is probably a symptom of living with the conflicts of modernity - Maimonides did not do 'Torah u'madda,' he just read Aristotle - showing that we are conflicted, bifurcated. So that term, Saks suggests, may have to be pushed aside before new attitudes and approaches can be developed.

So I come back to David Hazony and his citation of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who studied 'constellations and calculations, the sayings of launderers and the saying of foxkeepers, the conversation of demons and the conversation of palm-trees, the conversation of the ministering angels, the great things and the little things.' Virgil in his eclogues was reluctant to compare great things with small, but Rabbi Yohanan is unapologetic about his course of study, and bringing the two together. He not only studies Torah, and science - constellations and calculations, but he is also alive to the mysteries of nature - the whispers among the palm trees - as well as those beyond nature, the conversation of ministering angels. There are all sorts of conversations going on in the universe, and Rabbi Yohanan wants to participate in them. We can imagine him even straining to
overhear the launderers at their washing pools, and paying attention to the foxkeepers as they work their trade. Rabbi Yohanan may be the inspiration for another sage, Ben Zoma, who to the question 'who is wise?' answers: 'the one who learns from all people.' We don't have to attribute a utilitarian agenda to Rabbi Yohanan - imagining him getting laundry tips or instructions for how to trap animals. He was fascinated by their conversations, their worlds, and wanted to listen and learn. Of Rabbi Yohanan, the Talmud says, 'he never engaged in frivolous conversations.' No matter what the subject, he was always engaged.

In a conversation with one of my most gifted graduate students, I learned of an essay by a Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who calls this 'listening' a religious act, part of an open-ended discussion that goes on through the generations. Before the trauma of the modern - when 'Torah u'madda' became a position paper, a defense mechanism in the battles about Jewish identity - it was just this listening that mattered. For the philosopher Levinas, God's Revelation to his people happens in History (with that big capital H), meaning not just the moment of the original revelation on Mount Sinai, but to each individual in her own historical time and place. Levinas does not mean that God speaks to individuals - that's the farthest thing from his mind - but that God speaks to individuals in the historical moment in which they live. In a wonderful phrasing, Levinas writes that a 'personal God' is not just a theological principle, but rather, it is the belief that God relates to persons, and such persons, Levinas affirms, must live in particular times and places. God does not only sustain me with a livelihood and bless me with the ability to learn His Torah, but he puts me in a specific time and place where I do such things. Levinas cites Exodus: 'The poles shall remain in the rings of the Ark; they shall not be taken from it.’ So, Levinas writes,' the Torah carried by the Ark is always ready to be moved. It is not attached to a point in space and time, but is continuously transportable and ready to be transported.'

Torah comes to me in history - where I am now, the place where I was born. My history is not some kind of blemish that I must cover, or an error that I have to correct. God, as John Milton writes, is the 'Author of all Things,' including the history in which I find myself. I develop myself - like Rabbi Yohanan - through entering conversation. 'Be part of the conversation!' - so one of my teachers used to tell us in graduate school. Rabbi Yohanan, however, says 'be part of the conversations' - in the plural. Listen, and learn to speak.

But Rabbi Yohanan does not provide a normative teaching: if we were the wrong kind of students, the students who instead of really wanting to learn wanted to become like someone who seems to know something, we'd enroll in fox-catching courses or hang around in laundromats. Rabbi Yohanan's message is more simple: be present to what's around you. The Torah was not given in a vacuum, the person who you are, your background, your education, are part of your kabbalat haTorah, your receiving of the Torah.

Of course, we can't participate in every conversation. Part of education means attuning to the conversations that matter, otherwise we might spend all day updating facebook statuses or checking twitter accounts. The attitude of discerning openness is not an easy thing, but maybe that's what we should talk about instead of using a slogan from the past laden with meanings that just makes everyone defensive. 'I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed,' writes Milton in Areopagitica. Judaism has always been an impetus to action, a knowledge leading to practice. So perhaps, like Milton, we should focus on the importance of education as engagement, listening and talking. Something difficult enough - especially in an era when many of us are no longer proficient in the fine art of conversation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ten Commandments: I did not know that!

Well, I didn't think I could learn anything new about the Ten Commandments, but have been reading David Hazony's new The Ten Commandments, and looks like I was wrong. What's interesting - so far - about Hazony's book is that it goes in so many unexpected directions. So a chapter on the sabbath turns into a meditation on self-realization; 'Honor thy Father and Mother' a discussion of the nature of wisdom; and 'Thou Shalt not Murder' a set of reflections on permissible physical pleasures (apparently there are a lot of them) and the 'meaning of life.' What makes Hazony's approach so interesting is that what may look at first like digressions from the matter at hand leads - somehow, and in different ways each time - to the essence of each commandment.

One of the ways to the redeeming of the self - I'm currently reading Hazony's take on the sabbath - is Torah study. Where there has been so much discussion about Torah u'madda in the past generation - analysis, defense, advocacy of the importance of the relationship between Torah and secular wisdom - I found Hazony's approach disarmingly refreshing. We find the 'deepest truths' of ourselves through study; that study, in Hazony's read, can be wide-ranging. For him, one of the models is Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai who spent his sabbath afternoons studying texts that included 'constellations and calculations, the sayings of launderers and the saying of foxkeepers, the conversation of demons and the conversation of palm-trees, the conversation of the ministering angels, the great things and the little things.'

Great things and little things! Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai does not have a special syllabus. But rather he is engaged in the world, making himself present to the people and the world in which he lives. You can, it seems, learn a lot from the conversations of launderers (sometimes I feel the same about conversations with Jerusalem taxi drivers). As Hazony puts it, we free our spirits on the sabbath 'reading literature, walking through the woods alone with our thoughts, studying philosophy, meditating, analyzing poetry with a friend, attending a moving and enlightening lecture, or spending time with people we consider wise.' This is all a very far cry from the defensive rejection or polemical advocacy of Torah u'madda. That is, this is not Torah u'madda as an agenda or a stance, but a life lived. Put another way, it entails nurturing a discerning openness to the world, as well as a commitment to cultivating ourselves in relationship to the wisdom - we find it in strange places sometimes admittedly - of others. I think Hazony is on to something here.

I am looking forward to reading more.