Thursday, June 26, 2008

Modernity is Hell: Korach and Hobbes

I have plans to go to London in a couple of weeks for the International Milton Symposium. When people ask me about my upcoming academic trip, and I tell them I'll be speaking about 'Milton and Hobbes,' they gently correct me: 'you mean, "Calvin and Hobbes"'? No, it's not early senility, and not a slip of the tongue, and not a Bill Watterson spin-off, and not a tiger and a boy, but the poet, John Milton, and the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. So, given my current scholarly interests and the time of year, I've been thinking a lot about Hobbes, and his predecessor in the desert, Korach. I'm picturing some of my graduate students now giving a collective eye-roll, and saying to themselves: 'there you go again Kolbrener, yoking the most heterogenous ideas by violence together!' Korach and Hobbes: p-lease...! And yet...

I sometimes wonder about interesting historical figures to have at my shabbos table (a strange thought, i know); I think Hobbes would be a great candidate--though he would probably scare the children. He scares me! Hobbes, the first philosopher of modernity, saw a world--or maybe he helped invent it--of only bodies, just an interacting 'motion of limbs.' Though Hobbes devotes half of his book to discussions of religion, he allows no place for spirituality among those limbs: there's just the physical world, nothing divine. Out of Hobbes's universe of only physical bodies and their conflicting desires comes the need for the Leviathan--who through his 'rule by the sword' provides the only barrier to endless war, and the life of man which he describes (so very cheerfully!) as "nasty, brutish and short." In a world without spirit or common rationality, there are only competing political interests: she may dress up her interests in certain value systems and beliefs; and he in others, but everything always boils down to politics and interest. The sensible person (ie Hobbes) will say: in such a world of warring passions and interests, the best thing to do is to give into the authoritative and authoritarian Leviathan, and just let him keep the peace. In a world without anything else holding people together, raw authority holds sway. It's all power.

Enter Korach, the Leviathan of the desert. Korach questions Moses's authority, Moses--the most humble of all men, G-d's true prophet. And how does he challenge Moses? He says: 'You are a politician! you've set up your brother Aharon in a cushy position as High Priest; your nephew as next in line; and you take the leadership position for yourself! You're running a corrupt government based upon protexia (for non-Israelis, nepotism); and you benefit the most!' As a way of winning favor, Korach then morphs into Spinoza and says, 'we are all holy, Moses; not just you; spread some of the power around.' (I admit I'm being overly academic here, but for those not in the know, Spinoza was the seventeenth century philosopher--an honest to goodness heretic--who made possible the scene, centuries later, of Shirley MacLaine on an East Hampton Beach, shouting, "I am God!"). Korach doesn't believe in Torah min Ha'shmayim--Torah from Heaven: Korach 'deconstructs' Moses's actions, and finds their true meaning: 'It's your doing Moses!; your Torah keeps you in control!; your Torah reflects your preferences; you don't like cheeseburger's Moses; you are of the levitical class and like the day of rest; that's why you gave us this Torah of yours!' All Korach sees is his own desire for power, so he can't see anything else (everyone, I think, knows someone like this). So even in Moses, the spiritual man par excellence, he only sees politics and power.

Our sages tell us that there are two kinds of dispute, one for the sake of Heaven, represented in the dispute of Hillel and Shammai; the other of Korach and his followers. The dispute of Hillel and Shammai is beloved by G-d, because each are engaged and committed to bringing to light aspects of the Torah. And though they disagree--and sometimes say opposite things--they are united through their love and learning of the Torah. Here, we return to the mystical power of the number three. For two are transformed into one through the point that brings them together. In this way, as the Maharal puts it, three is at once less and greater than two. Jewish algebra: three unites into the number numerically less than two (one); but one is superior to two for representing unity. Hillel and Shammai are united in their disagreement (having a meaningful disagreement is hard to do!)--through the Torah.

Korach however is forever stuck in the world of two. He is not paired with Moses, but with his fellow politicians, the company of two hundred and fifty men who follow him to their death. Korach pursues not the unity which comes from dispute in the name of heaven, but the dispute of politics and division. The dispute which Korach pursues was created on the second day of creation, the day the waters above and below were separated (a cosmic division)--the only one of the six days of creation which G-d does not call 'good.' It is also the day, our sages tell us, when gehinom--hell--was created. Hell is the day of division without the hope of coming together, of separation and absence, a vacuum filled up only with the warring desires of men whose lives are 'nasty, brutish and short.' And so Korach projects a world based upon his own selfish desires and political machinations. But as Korach and his followers sink into the abyss of the fiery earth that swallows them, the rest of the people of Israel cry out, 'Moshe Emes, v'Toraso Emes,' 'Moses is True and his Torah is True!' The Torah of Moses makes possible a world where the division of two turns into the unity of three!

Hobbes describes a modern world in which many of us still live, a world without anything to unify but power, a world of politics and faction, self-interest and endless division. Korach's dispute provides a legacy for Hobbes which he gives to the modern world: Hell.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Living with Failure

A few weeks after moving to the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, a neighbor invited me to his home, and showing me his recently re-furbished dining room with its the long oak wood table, declared 'the shabbos table is the center-piece of family education.' Funny, I remember thinking to myself, our shabbos table is often the center-piece of family food-fighting. So if I've given an overly idealized impression of my family, I'm coming clean. Though I think it's important to weave rich and positive stories for and about the family, it's obviously not the whole picture.

In the Torah portion from last week, those who had been excluded from the experience of Pesach come to Moses and ask: 'why should we be diminished? we may have been ritually impure, but why shouldn't we also get the chance to participate in the Passover ritual?' They felt 'diminished' for not having had the opportunity to do a mitzvah--an amazing notion! So they ask Moses for a second chance. Though Moses is the greatest of all prophets, these laws were concealed to him. But upon relaying the question to G-d, the laws of Pesach Sheni--the 'second Pesach' for those who missed it the first time around--are revealed. The laws had been withheld from Moses so that, in the divine plan, those whom Rashi describes as 'meritorious' ask the question leading to further divine revelation. A question, as R. Yerucham from the Mir Yeshiva explains, already shows chachma or wisdom, because through it, one cultivates the possibility of a response. A good question--any teacher or parents knows this--allows for the bringing to light of something which otherwise would have remained unsaid. This sort of question is to be distinguished from those questions which are just dressed up answers; refusals to engage seriously; or ways of ending conversations before they start. But an engaged question is the means through which the concealed becomes revealed: the whole Torah, says R. Yerucham, is actually a response to Moses's questions!

I thought this would be a great entry point to a discussion at our shabbos table. Notwithstanding a recent NY Times piece advocating the contrary, my wife and I divide our labors (confession: I don't know how to use the washing machine!). At the shabbos table, even though my wife studies regularly, and arranges a weekly lecture (often in our house), I'm the one who usually initiates the words of Torah. With the same theatricality that I display when tasting the challos which my wife bakes, she introduces my divrei Torah. True, there was a time when both my divrei Torah and her challos (she started, years ago, with home ground organic wheat flour--which was like making motzie on compressed hockey pucks) needed work, but we've both become more proficient in our respective roles. I thought the 'Questions' topic would make a great discussion for the kids: 'Have any of you had any questions this week?' My son returned that a question occured to him, but he didn't ask because his rebbe wouldn't have known the answer (unlikely); one of my daughters said הכל מובן לי--or 'I already understand everything!' (extremely unlikely). One of my other daughters was already on the couch reading a book; and my youngest was still at the shabbos table, but singing a song (though not even a shabbos song). I paused, surveyed the situation, sighed, and gave up: 'will someone pass the cholent please?'

After lunch, I was hoping my wife might offer some consolation. She reminded me that R. Yitzchock Hutner wrote in a letter to a distressed student that the verse in Psalms--'A tzaddik falls seven times'--doesn't mean that even though he falls many times, the true tzaddik will eventually emerge. Rather when a true tzaddik finally does come into being, it's because he's fallen. Acknowledging personal failure and integrating those failures allows--in the end--for a person to reveal the tzaddik within. We become great because of our challenges, not in spite of them. It's almost as if, in the endless interplay between concealment and revelation, challenges are the questions which help us to reveal who we are. R. Hutner refers to internal battles, but sometimes, as my wife pointed out, the world doesn't accomodate the idealism of our plans, and one has to learn to live with those kinds of failures as well. Things sometimes don't go the way you want.

'Why don't you put that in your blog?'--she concluded.

So I am...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Special: Running Away Redux, A Woman's Perspective

Guest Contributor, Leslie Kolbrener
[the following is excerpted from a longer piece; and no, this is not a different perspective on an old story; he ran away again--WDK]

Shmuel ran out of the house, dressed, and disappeared. Night was approaching and there were a lot of cars in the streets and everybody I could find standing or sitting still seemed just to have arrived in that position and so couldn't have had the leisure to sight a little boy with Down Syndrome running away from home. Freidy started crying after a time, our searches all coming up empty. I told her to have faith and keep on looking. She did and she found him, she out of all of us, enlisted friends and all the other children. He had crossed the busy street in front of our house--unless an angel had carried him across. Perfectly natural, I keep telling myself to want to leave the house alone, in the heat of the summer I feel it every night, the desire for it. He was newly created when he came home that night, one hand firmly in Freidy's, a stange new joy permeating his exuberant knowing little face, Freidy happy beyond expression, as if the hand she held were that of her newly wedded husband, instead of just the hand of her wayward younger brother.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Moon Mamas, Tradition, Innovation and Bliss

David, an old high school friend, sent me a link to a web posting by the Moon Mamas Rosh Chodesh Group in the Bay Area and their innovative "transition ritual" (though the subject heading in David's e-mail was a succint 'oy vey!'). Here's part of the ritual:

Begin by having friends and family line a path for the individual marking the transition to walk through. Each individual holds a jar/cup filled with water. The transitioning individual begins at the start of the path holding an empty jar/bowl and states the following:

The transition I am about to honor is ___________

She/He continues stating each of the following:

I am leaving behind _________

I fear _____________________

I need ____________________

I hope for _________________

I welcome _________________

As she/he makes each statement, the family and friends repeat:

You are_________________

She/He continues walking as each statement is made. As the individual marking the transition makes her/his way through the path, each person she/he passes pours water from their jar into hers/his (representing support and giving). At the end of the path the individual marking the transition bows or pauses. The last person in the path then takes the jar/bowl from the transitioning individual and pours the water over the hands of the individual marking the transition.

The ritual testifies to a lot of things: to the powers of community, the continued need for ritual in an ostensibly secular world, and the persistence of, for lack of a better word, the 'spiritual.' But the ritual that grows out of the Moon Mamas group seem to assume that tradition and creativity are opposites--that to be authentic one has to throw off the rituals of the past, and supply new ones. True, the Moon Mamas acknowledge--with the very turn towards ritual--that spirituality needs some kind of vessel, but instead of embracing those traditions and practices sanctified by time and practice of generations of Jews, they create their own.

But does adhering to ritual and tradition necessarily mean the abandonment of creativity? Does being 'orthodox,' as so many people have told me since graduate school, really mean giving up one's authentic creative self? If you want to be yourself, Joseph Campbell-style (remember him? he was that anthropologist from that PBS special years back), you have to "follow your bliss." Is the only recipe for finding such bliss the kind pursued by the "Moon Mamas"?

It's common to think that being traditional means blind submission to the past or mimicry of the practices of others, and that creativity its opposite. So in the Jewish world, there are those who believe that authentic Judaism means either giving up subjectivity entirely (with everyone in the same mold), or, at the other extreme, the pursuit of individual 'bliss' independent of traditions (and the creation of new rituals and liturgy). But there is another route: I take the traditions, customs and laws, and I make them my own. Not through uprooting them, but through investing them with myself, they become new and distinctly mine.

In my travels giving lectures, I am the beneficiary of lots of hospitality; as a result, I get to see many Jewish families in action. A few months ago, I was at the house of the Kohls of New Hempstead in Monsey--master parents and educators. It's a custom to say over words of Torah at the shabbos table; the Kohl family had a particular way of making this custom their own. Right before dessert, the kids took out a huge box of candy, and from the different shapes, sizes, colors and brands available (tons of different kinds of kosher candy in America!), they spelled out in acrostic from--though often in cleverly complicated fashion--different verses from the weekly Torah portion. I couldn't guess them at first (I wasn't, for example, able to follow the manifold connotations of different sorts of laffy taffy), but their parents did, and the kids were exhilerated by the activity.

I thought to myself, I have to try this at home! But it wasn't long before I lost my resolve: in my house, it would never work. Forget about the fact that the local candy store doesn't boast the same variety of candy, but my wife would never countenance candy during the meal (for good reason: our kids would probably eat the whole box). But then there was that moment, when the resignation yielded and I realized I could make it my own. My kids love to put on shows, so I transformed the candy acrostic into what I coined 'Parsha Pantomine'--mini skits acting out Torah verses. At the outset, I was the director: in the first scene, two of the girls took their seats on the imaginary 39 bus, initially not noticing me walking down the aisle of our fantasy bus, but then, in the end, yielding their seats ('on behalf of an old person, you should stand'). That was an easy one. When they got the hang of it, they directed another 'play': one of the little ones was blindfolded; an older sibling placed a footstool in her path; and another of the kids--just at the crucial moment--came to the rescue, pushing the obstacle away: 'do not put a stumbling block before the blind.' All this, with the rest of the family guessing, and thinking of possible skits for the next verse.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the great sages of the eighteenth century, writes: "At every moment that a person is working and cleaving to the words of the Torah, the words rejoice as if they were given from Sinai." Revelation is not limited to a particular time or place: but when we are truly engaged in Torah study, the process of revelation repeats itself. When someone produces a genuine new insight into Torah, the words themselves rejoice as if they were given at Sinai. Simcha, joy, is the linked by our sages with the experience of renewal: the words of the Torah themselves feel simcha--joy--because Sinai is renewed in a new and contemporary context. So it is true in our practices: at the moment that we fill the vessel of ancient rituals with our creative energies, we show a side of Torah which--now revealed for the first time in our homes, with our children--has its origin in the revelation of Sinai. This is not Campbell's bliss, but the simcha that unites past and present, the ancient and the modern--the new joy of a creativity which links back to Mount Sinai.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Writing an Inspirational Story

I re-connected with an old friend last week. We had been in high school together (though not in the same class), and when a mutual friend let me know that Justin (not his real name) was going to be in town, the two of us set up a meeting. Justin recognized my name ('I knew a Billy Kolbrener when I was in high school!'; yes, that is how I was known back then), but when we met, he couldn't link my name to my face. Over cafe hafouch at David's Citadel in Jerusalem, we shared the pleasure of discovering similar paths taken. Though many of our fellow-classmate in Roslyn High School all strongly identified as Jewish (though it didn't stop many of them from intermarrying), only Justin and I (with just a handful of others of whom I know) overcame the suburban prejudices against orthodoxy to discover what Justin described as the "treasures" of Judaism. And he was not talking about the tunnel tour in the Old City or the laser show on the City's Walls...

In the process of catching up, Justin asked if among my books and articles, I had anything that I might want to pass on--mentioning that he had an interest in stories providing inspiration, of people who had overcome challenges as they maintained and strengthened their faith. I've admittedly never written in that mode, and I wondered if I could come up with anything. Certainly, there are no shortage of such stories. In Jerusalem, you hear about them all the time. A friend of mine had just the previous day recounted a hesped (or eulogy) from a funeral service he had attended. In this case the eulogy was simple, a sparse recounting of the facts of a life: from a birth in Austro-Hungary, to a loss of parents in Auschwitz, to the beginnings of a life in France, to an eventual re-settlement in the US and then Israel--the story of a woman's life (or what seemed to be different lives) interspersed with the challenges and tragedies that someone from my background (and Justin's) can hardly even begin to imagine. My mind turned also to the pair of men who sit in front of me in shul--'regulars' (always precisely on time; "early is also not on time," one of them often tells me). Over sixty years ago, they had been among the children of the kinder transport--German Jewish children who were sent away from their homes by their parents who sensed the horrors to come. Brought on one of the special trains from Germany which carried children during the period that began shortly after kristelnacht and ended with the blitzkrieg), they were 're-located' with British families--many of them not even Jewish. The two bonded as young refugees in England while the war spread and the fate of their parents was sealed. At war's end, they were separated (one remained in England, the other to the US) until they were reunited in a little synagogue in Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem, my neighborhood shul. In Bayit Vegan alone, there must be hundreds of such stories, of enormous spiritual resilience in the face of adversity.

These are stories which can't fail to make an impression, but I was struck, by the end of our meeting by another story--Justin's. By any possible measure, Justin was wildly successful, having risen to the top of his field, with access to all of the accoutrements of luxury, wealth and privilege which his position afforded. But here he was in Jerusalem. Although I did not hear all of the details, I know that the path which brought him to the Holy City was also not without sacrifice--not the sacrifice of the previous generations, but sacrifice nonetheless. For Justin (to the mixed admiration and disbelief of friends and relatives) had made his own sacrifices, given up many of the benefits and entitlements that the fast track has to offer--moving his family to a community with a shul, placing his children in Jewish day school, and committing himself to a life of connection and service to G-d and others.

Our tradition teaches us that there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah--one for each of the six hundred thousand who gathered on the foot of Mount Sinai at the time of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. So every Jew has his or her corresponding letter in the Torah, and it's the task of a lifetime to discover that letter. No letter is the same; there is no 'objective' Torah template of how Torah observance should look. Achitophel, our sages tell us, wore all of the outward trappings of a frummer yid, a religious Jew, but G-d rejected his service, because the service was not his own. G-d wants the whole person--that is, he wants our subjectivity to express itself in and through our service. Achitophel did not search for and write his own letter, he merely imitated the service of others. Again, G-d wants our letter, not someone else's. As we write that letter--carving it's shape, adorning it with embellishments, deepening it's hues--we may gain strength and inspiration from the letters of others, but we should also own up to both the challenges and pleasures of writing ourselves. Making too much out of ourselves leads to egotistic self-satisfaction and stagnation; but making too much out of the stories of others may lead us to a resigned humility preventing us from finding and writing our own letters. (A friend relates to me that his Rebbe tells his students to avoid reading too many stories of great contemporary figures, lest they fail to develop their own distinctive avodas Hashem, service of God).

In Jewish practice, the absence of only one single letter from a Torah renders it invalid: for the Torah to show itself fully in this world, each Jew needs to find his or her own letter. Once found, we spend a lifetime crafting that letter, writing our letters for all to see. Sometimes, it's true, it takes someone else to see the beauty of the letters we have already begun to craft, to feel the inspiration of the stories we have begun to write.

On our way out, as Justin and I walked through the revolving doors of David's Citadel, he turned to me with a sudden realization and said, "you are the Billy Kolbrener I once knew; when you smiled, I recognize you; it is you!" So surely, people like Justin and I find inspiration in the stories of gedolim and tzaddikim--great and righteous people. Though sometimes we may also find evidence of letters in unanticipated places, and in recognizing them, discover how those letters are shaping us and others in ways we did not expect.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Current Events: Sociology, Tommy Lapid and the 'Ultra-Orthodox' Response.

Just trying to distinguish--with my title--this more timely (and thus more conventionally blog like) post. I saw the following link on "Life in Israel" blog--which I thought I would share:
The youtube link records Haredi (or ultra-orthodox; that word again!)reactions to the death of Tommy Lapid--who was best known for his activity in the Shinui Party, a party which according to the left of center newspaper Haaretz, "sought to curb the growing political power of ultra-Orthodox parties" (this is a generous assessment of Lapid's sometimes inflammatory and provocative political behavior). The Israeli YNET reporter went to religious neighborhoods in attempt to elicit reactions after Lapid's death. Even those who don't understand Hebrew can tell from the tone of the questions, and the tone and body language of those interviewed, that YNET was not able to elicit the reactions (that is, extremist) which it sought.

This goes to demonstrate what sometimes seems like a conspiracy between right-wing kanai'im (fanatics) and the left wing media which both want to portray the 'ultra-orthodox' sector as fanatically extreme. But beyond the stereotypes and sociological distinctions (which as I've said before put a wedge between people rather than unite them), there is something like normalcy, and maybe even room for common ground.

I've always felt, by the way, that Lapid's persistent attack on the orthodox was a sign of his own internal connection to Torah--to use a mystical register, the sparks of kedushah or holiness, that were trying to come out. I know others may think differently, though apparently many in the orthodox world against which Lapid fought so vigorously (and sometimes bitterly) felt a connection to him, and genuine sadness at his passing.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

More Thoughts on Dentistry and Chesed (and the Middle Way)

For those keeping up with the saga of my son Shmuel and his encounter with modern dentistry, last Sunday and Mondary mornings, it was back to the dentist--this time the Pediatric Emergency Dental Clinic at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. The care was excellent, though we were told that Shmuel may need general anesthetic for further treatment. And we were also told--in a nice Kafka-esque (read Israeli) twist--that Shmuel requires the treatment in the next few months or so, but that the waiting list for that treatment is eight months. In any event, it's an eventuality we want to avoid; so we are considering our options. As I said in a comment in a previous posting: gulp...

Which goes back to my daughter Avital, and her show of chesed (mercy or loving kindness) for her brother, particularly her pleas to the dentist that he refrain from pulling Shmuel's tooth. In hindsight, while admirable in an abstract sense, Avital's cries on behalf of her brother may not have been the mature or pragmatic response (and sometimes, for better or for worse, the two coincide). Though we cultivate the mida (or trait) of chesed, it often needs to be tempered with it's opposite: pure chesed and pure din (adherence to strict legal judgment) may not fit the complexities that the world puts in our path.

The necessity to temper the tendency to show unqualified chesed (as siblings, parents or spouses) is a principle enacted in the lives of the patriarchs. Abraham represents pure chesed. Yet while we know of his acts of generosity and hospitality, we also know that he prayed for the transgressors of Sodom. Can chesed go too far? In Abraham's offspring can be seen the consequences of a chesed which has no bounds: while Isaac continued in the tradition of his father, Ishmael represented chesed without limits--which, as our sages tell us, showed itself in his lascivious behavior. Chesed, which was manifested in Avraham's openness and generosity to the world, transforms in Ishmael to a generosity without limits, a full giving of himself leading to sexual impropriety (so yes, and this is a message often lost in our generation: there is too much of a good thing). That the Torah in Leviticus uses the very word chesed to refer to sexually forbidden behavior reveals how a chesed without boundaries transforms from a virtue into a transgression. (On how words sometimes have double--and opposite--meanings, see Freud's essay, "The Antithetical Meanings of Primal Words.")

While Abraham brought the characteristic of mercy into the world, Isaac, the inheritor of the legacy of his father, brought the polar opposite, din or judgment. Isaac's life is one of heroic restraint and withholding (as evidenced foremost in his experiences during the akeidah, the sacrificial binding which he withstood). Our tradition tell us that Isaac did not want to give blessings to either one of his sons, Esau or Jacob (though he does of course in the end to both); for such a blessing would upset the order of judgment upon which for Isaac the world needed to operate. This characteristic, like that of his father, was primary and powerful in the make-up of Isaac, but also resulted in an offspring--in this case, Esau, the hunter--unsuitable to continue the tradition begun by Abraham. Ishmael's licentiousness represents the excess of chesed; Esau's murderousness, represents an excess of din. Making oneself too available, giving too much of oneself turns into an openness which leads to license; while too much of an insistence upon judgment can lead to a desire for strictness which transforms in the end into rapacious violence and murder.

The history of the patriarchs shows the coming into the world of the ideals for which we as a people are known (generosity and justice), as well as their progressive refinement. While Abraham represents the ideal of chesed, and Isaac that of din, it is Jacob--all of whose children continue in the tradition of Abraham and Isaac--who represents emet or truth. Of all of the patriarchs, only one merits the affirmation of ongoing life: "Jacob our Father is not dead"; the Torat Emet of Yaakov, the true Torah of Jacob, contains both chesed and din. Jacob takes the middle path, avoids the extremes of din and chesed by themselves, and is associated with tiferet, splendor or glory--what Maimonides describes as simply the path of the straight or middle way. Derech Hayashar, the path of b'nai Yisroel requires negotating between the extremes. When our sages tell us that there are "only three whom we call patriarchs," they are not engaging in a simple counting game. They are rather revealing the deep secret that the Jewish people have their beginnings, as well as their destiny, in the number three. Between chesed and din, which reached their perfection in Abraham and Isaac, is the middle and third way of Jacob, the way of rachomim: a more refined mercy, one informed by judgment.

Does this all mean that we will not continue to celebrate Avital's love for her brother? Certainly not. Though the refinement of chesed into rachamim, a maturity that balances between extremes, will hopefully also come in time.

Open Minded Torah Redux

A recent post from Open Minded Torah was cross-posted on Cross Currents (, a great resource for diverse Jewish perspectives within the orthodox (i hate that word!) framework. Sarah Shapiro, noted author (and friend), expressed a reservation about the title of this blog (which she had actually already shared with me privately). Since her comments appear on Cross-Currents, I thought I'd re-post them here with my response--which addresses, though indirectly, some of the comments posted on this blog. Her post came as a specific response to my "Loving the Stranger (within)"

Here are Sarah's comments:

The idea of understanding “love the stranger” as a command to “love the stranger within” is for me a new, fascinating interpretion, one that’s rich with multi-faceted meanings.

Yet the phrase itself — “Openminded Torah” — still grates, somehow, and strikes me as a misnomer. Even though it’s clear from the above essay that this is not at all Dr. Kolbrener’s intent, my inner ear still hears those words as if they were apologetically acquiescing to those who view the Torah-observant as “narrow-minded.”

Here's my response:

Sarah correctly intuits my intention (notwithstanding her diyuk--inference--from my blog title). I don’t want to give the sense that Torah observant Jews are narrow-minded, but I do think that there are representations of Torah (appearing extremely authoritative to some) which give the impression that somehow being ‘open minded’ goes against the spirit of authentic Torah. I’m not writing from a sociological perspective, but hoping to write something that may be enabling to those who–-in the service of their Judaism-–want to be more open-minded to themselves.