Monday, November 23, 2009

Fanatics in Israel

After a considerable hiatus, OMT weighs in on 'Who are Israel's ultraorthodox Jews?'

Imagine an extra-terrestrial – or someone from Oslo or maybe Kansas City – who googles ‘ultra-orthodox’ and happens upon Avirama Golan’s ‘Who are Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews?’ What would he find? Golan starts by expressing dismay – ‘woe unto us,’ she laments – at the differences of the skullcap-wearers who continue to ‘divide and subdivide.’ True, Golan admits, one can’t generalize – but in this taxonomy, the ultra-orthodox largely consist of lunatic preachers, arsonists, vandals, fanatic messianists and missionaries, murderers, and impoverished psychotics; the few lawyers and the staff at the Glatt Kosher restaurant in Petach Tikvah come as afterthoughts, negligible exceptions.

Golan may be convincing – to the outsider – as she dons the mask of rationality, speaking for the ‘distress’ of the ‘moderate’ Israeli majority. In the name of analyzing the secular-religious divide, she blames the now-defunct Shinui for dubbing the ultra-orthodox ‘parasites’; yet herself implies a comparison between the ‘ultra-orthodox’ and dividing, multiplying and mutating cells. Admitting that ‘it’s impossible to define the word “Haredi,”’ she goes on to provide the dizzying list of ultra-orthodox proclivities, and concludes by condemning the government for having ‘abandoned its citizens to extremist.’ That this kind of supposedly enlightened form of anti-semitism has many parallels and precedents – among Jews, as well as non-Jews (the Nazis were experts at taxonomies of Jewish ‘perversities’) – does not make it any less venomous and misleading. No, Norway, it is not like this! But typical as it may be, Golan’s portrait of the world she calls ultra-orthodox, may show her, with much in common with the extremists she condemns.

In Israel, extremist right and left exist in dangerous co-dependency: both sustain a divisive vision of the world which allows for the perpetuation of their parallel one-sided hatreds. Like the camera-man who visits Kiykar Shabbat in Jerusalem on the Independence Day and the thuggish delinquents who happily accommodate with vulgar displays of disrespect, Israel has turned into a predictable play of hatred – and it’s the rest of us who lose out. Most Israelis don’t identify with the fanatical displays of religious zealotry, nor with Golan’s thinly veiled anti-semitism and close-mindedness. Yet while the rest of us strive for a culture which accommodates our sense of complexity – and the richness and diversity of our shared tradition – it’s the divisive rhetoric of fanatics on left and right which prevails. But there is a growing sense among Israelis that the sociological categories and languages of enmity that sustain fanatics of every color have run their course, and that we need new ways of talking, thinking, and acting – reflecting the diversity of life and culture outside of newspaper headlines and billboards in Mea Shearim.

John Donne, the seventeenth-century poet and sometimes Hebraist, writes, ‘no man is an island.’ Donne does not merely assert that individuals are connected, but that his own individuality is dependent upon others: ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’ With Donne in mind, perhaps it is time to assert more strongly what many of us already know, but what left and right-wing extremists continue to deny – that we don’t fit into their categories; and are connected, depending upon each other for our various identities. To deny that connectedness, to disenfranchise through sociological dissection and divisiveness diminishes. As Donne writes: ‘And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kinnos Confessios: A Tisha B'Av story

Openminded meditations spurred on by a visit to Yad V'shem on the Ninth of Av.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

More Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem

This year we had three children changing schools - these periods of transition cause us alot of anxieity, as I imagine they do for any chozer b'tshuva, that is, any one who has come back to Judaism. It's a time when - you imagine - the world which you've entered is judging you. And you wonder whether you're living up to their standards and expectations.

One of my sons had a particularly rough time in his last school - a combination of bad circumstances and mismatched personalities. I spent three years playing defense - trying to maintain the status quo until the next stage. Given the unhappy - but ultimately stable marriage - we decided to find a new place on our own, a yeshiva a bit unconventional and off the beaten track (such is our family).

To my surprise, a few days later, I received a call from my son's Rosh Yeshiva. This was a different voice on the phone - not the bearer of bad news, of imminent catastrophe, of predictions of a dour future. But rather, he was now telling me that my son had chosen the wrong yeshiva (a place, as he described it, for hefker boys - boys on the street): my son, he explained was much 'too stark' - serious and disciplined - for a yeshiva like that.

'Hmmm,' I thought. For the past several years, the Rosh Yeshiva had been hard-pressed to find a single encouraging word to say about him, and now - all of a sudden - he was 'stark?' He went on to recommend three other places - all of which I knew about, and two of which a person who knows my family, my son, and the institutions in question said, 'they are absolutely lo matim' - not suitable.

So how to explain? Though King Solomon says that a child should be educated according to his own path - and that each path is necessarily different and individual, the Rosh Yeshiva - so it seems to me - was more interested in the reputation of his yeshiva than the educational well-being of my son. It's not that all of a sudden my son had transformed in his eyes, but rather, he did not want alumni of his yeshiva going to the unconventional place we had chosen (and which turns out, by the way, not to be as he had described it). But money is tight, choices multiply; pressures abound: the Rosh Yeshiva was simply playing defense.

So the needs of the individual - what the Torah so much emphasizes are sacrificed. Sound familiar?

No one needs to be told of the riots in Jerusalem - brought on by the arrest of a dysfunctional woman, taken into custody by Jerusalem authorities for child abuse, likely for starving her child. So while we always maintain our skepticism about the press and the State - though it seems to me some turn on their skepticism selectively - the fate of the child is ignored, as the right-wing forces in the charedi world use the opportunity to stoke the flames of the culture wars. The parking lot has not worked to get our children into the streets; but perhaps the story of the abused charedi woman (note, the child is not under discussion) will.

Garbage bins have been burned (why burn your own garbage cans?), municipal employees attacked, police wounded. And while all the fires burn, there is not a peep - I keep on waiting - a voice of condemnation from the rational charedi leaders. But nothing. To say that there are no such authorities - as I imagine I hear some of my readers - would be false. I studied with them! and the people with whom they studied! It's their silence which is inexplicable.

Or perhaps they are also - just playing defense. Faced with the culture wars that they have not so much lost but rather mishandled or misunderstood, their defensiveness renders them silent. Or worse. In the library, yesterday, I spoke to a few of the library charedim (such I think of them, and count myself among them), and even they complained that the 'mayor is an idiot,' that 'the press is to blame,' that the municipality was guilty of 'collective punishment.' And on and on... I thought of BBC reports over the past years about Serbia - in which the citizens of a country which has committed the most egregious crimes could only think of the injuries they had suffered: 'we are the victims!'

We are not Serbians (or Palestinians) who also always sing the mantra of 'collective punishment.' We have the book, A Guide for Non-Defensive Jewish Living - it's otherwise known as the Torah; perhaps we might try to start living by it. So this is not the time for recrimination (the flip-side of defensiveness), but rather an opportunity for acknowledgement: the leaders in the charedi world have to speak up. Not only privately - 'my son would never go to such a protest,' a friend related - but in public, so everyone knows. And not only for the sake of our reputation among the eyes of others (that too), but first and foremost for ourselves. Perhaps, if one child saw a poster on the streets of Jerusalem with the name of one of the rabbis whom he holds in esteem, condemning the destruction of property and injury of person, than one less policeman - or one less child! - might be injured.

The charedi stance of claiming to speak only to its own audience -' and you see, our children don't go!' - is not only disengenous, but false. Charedim are happy to use the means of mass communication when it suits them. The embrace of billboards, newspapers and other mass forms of dissemination not only makes the current silence now more thunderous, but, even worse, has had the effect in some parts of the community of undermining one of the mitzvos upon which the Torah is built. Aseh l'cha Rav - make for yourself a Rav - presupposes a personal relationship with a rabbi, or a teacher, or a righteous person. Not a billboard or a newspaper.

In the name of a perverted form of da'as Torah - the right and single and only Torah perspective - the processes of mesora, of creative inheritance, are are thrown by the way side. Here is the irony: modern forms of communication (though certainly, I admit, not the most up to date) are employed by the right-wing fringes in their all-or-nothing fight against modernity. And without a tempered - and public - voice of a Jewish world committed to Torah, the ideological distortion of Torah will prevail. So eliciting that part of us - we are all potential fundamentalists, Freud wrote - which craving only authority, renounces the and freedom upon which mesora is also based.

It's in the culture of billboards and newspapers - where single voices of Torah manufactured by the courtyards - chatzerot - of poster makers and newspaper editors - squelch out any voice of difference of multiplicity. It's in this environment, that charedi boys fill the streets on hot July afternoons - hurling rocks and bottles. And it's in this envirnoment, that school principals - also on the defensive - think more about institutional reputations than the children under their charge.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Steppin' Up

When the people of Israel need a new leader, G-d turns to Moses and says: 'Take Joshua bin Nun.' The word take or קח - kach - does not mean, as we might understand, a physical action. But, as Rashi explains 'a taking' with and through words. There is no forceful recruitment; Moses is to convince Joshua. This is a lesson for spouses, parents and teachers - when we want to effect change we do so not with force, but whatever 'taking' there is to be done is with language. Discourse, not force, but also a discourse - not 'you'd better!' - of rationality.

Sometimes a single world, like 'kach,' in the Torah clues us in on a dramatic situation. With Moses and Joshua, there must have been a conversation. It's easy to imagine that Joshua did not want the leadership thrust upon him - 'I'm sitting and learning well; leave me alone!' So Moses - all of this in the word קח - has to convince his reluctant charge to take on the mantle of leadership.

In the Haftorah from the book of Jeremiah, there is a similar conversation recorded - this time between G-d and the author of the work that bears his name: 'Before you were born, I sanctified you, and chose you to be a prophet to the nations.' To which the prophet-to-be responds: 'Nothing doing G-d; I'm "young," a child. Go find someone else.' And G-d responds in turn, 'don't tell me about your "youth"; it's time to step up.'

Pinchos provides the counter image to Joshua and Jeremiah: he is also youthful. But the generation of the desert has reached a crossroads. Though Bilam was not able to curse Israel, Balak, the leader of the Midianites, has one more strategy: entice them with the women of Midian (including his own daughter!). The way the chassidic Ishbitzer's Mei Ha'Shloach reads the story, Zimri, a prince, is a tzaddik, a righteous person. But he is overwhelmed by desire for the Midianite princess Cuzbi - and loses himself. Notwithstanding his righteousness and his scrupulous attempts to guard himself from temptation, he is overwhelmed and succumbs. Through a magnetic attraction which he mistakes for love, Zimri gives into a desire that overcomes his ability to see and choose. He has a legal status of someone in onus; he is under duress. Or in more contemporary terms - I wonder whether the Ishbitzer would agree - he is subject to psychic energies he cannot master. He thought she was his beschert, writes the Ishbitzer, but in actuality she is activating a lustful desire which he cannot withstand. He hears the soundtrack from Love Story - but there's a different kind of music playing.

In this scenario, as the sages recount it, even Moses is unable to act, as Zimri taunts him: 'you also were involved with a foreign woman; your Tzipporah is also a Midianite, a convert.' And the further barb: 'So spare me your hypocrisy!' When the people of Israel look to their leader for guidance, he is forgetful - he does not know the law! Whatever small pangs of guilt made Moses silent and forgetful with guilt (there must have been something to Zimri's attribution), the people of Israel are left abandoned to tears. Overwhelmed by emotions - a mixture of desire, guilt and fear - the people of Israel are vulnerable to the relentless temptations of the Midianite King.

At that moment, the whole generation is dysfunctional - yet Pinchos sees, and acts. Pinchos steps up.

Though we are not called by G-d, sometimes we have a sense of a mission that calls us - of the need to step up. But like the prophets, we find our reasons to avoid it. And they are always good reasons - or seem so. 'I'm not ready.' 'I'm too young!' Or there are other kinds of avoidance (of these there are is never a shortage): The poet John Milton felt washed up at twenty-three, verging on despair, and giving up. But feeling belated, as Milton did, or too young, are equivalent ways of cheering ourselves up - subconsciously justifying inactivity.

'There must be someone else!' - the youthful prophets protest. To Joshua and Jeremiah, G-d says: 'there are certainly ambitious men who will step into your shoes; but I want you!' We are not prophets, but sometimes the clarity of a vision - for change, for tikkun - may call us. We will likely not be called upon our nation, but maybe by our families, our schools, our workplaces. For we will be privy to a vision which no one else sees, or is dissuaded from seeing, or is simply afraid to see.

So when, those around us are under duress - because of fear or guilt or whatever - we should not give up to the weaker part of ourselves, or ambitious men. We have to step up.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Internet Filters - To Be or Not to Be?

Your child returns from school or yeshiva one night with a surprise: a new computer.

So that's what happened to me: my sixteen year old came back the other night with a new MSI netbook (had he consulted me he would have bought the Asus). Such computers are designed for internet access, but strangely this one didn't pick up the wireless connection from the several routers in my building. (If you think charedim don't use the internet, take a netbook in your car, and drive through a charedi neighborhood, and see how many signals you pick up!). Since sixteen year olds know everything, he didn't acknowledge that he didn't know how to fix it - so we speculated that it must broken. Since the settings were all in Hebrew, I didn't know either.

It suited my purposes - I bided my time. Planned, travelled to, and return from London - 'I'm busy; I'll get to it! I will!' To be sure, upon my return, he wanted it to work. So I finally did the legwork - went to my personal computer guru in the library who did the equivalent of flicking a switch - pressed the fn key together with f9 - and, what do you know?: it wasn't broken after all.

Now many of my charedi friends - I use the term even though I dislike the sociological designation - may be sitting with jaws dropped in disbelief: 'why did you fix it?', or perhaps even more incredulously: 'you didn't take it away from him?!' Other charedim - in different neighborhoods, and probably not my friends - might exclaim more forcefully, as once appeared on the billboards in Jerusalem and B'nei Brak: 'the internet is a cancer!; you let a cancer in the house?'

I didn't think in those terms - though it did pass through my mind that I had the equivalent of a loaded weapon in my hands, and there was my son calling, asking about his computer - 'I need it abba!' 'Now!' So what to do?

So I installed an internet flilter. In the process of doing so, in front of the Arnon Windows at the National library, some of my modern orthodox and secular friends - those horrible designations again - wondered: 'what are you doing?' The same incredulity, but from a different place: 'we live in the world, and your son has to learn how to make choices.' And: 'adulthood is about facing challenges, and yet restraining from those things we know to be wrong.' They might have easily as quoted Milton's Areopagitica:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
So if trial is by what is contrary - give him the computer and let him learn to choose: 'Reason,' as Milton says, 'is but choice.'

Part of me agreed. A therapist friend told me of a clinical situation where a client with an internet addiction advised - 'every time you have thoughts of the internet, have a container of hot sauce handy, and dip into it and stick some in your mouth.' Pavlov for humans!

In another case, the therapist advised the client to make out a check for one thousand shekels to a good, but not great cause - let's say 'save the whales' - and to leave it signed in the therapist's drawer. If the client were to go back to his addiction, the therapist explained, he would dutifully submit the check to the charity. But as it turned out, the client didn't play the game - he just didn't tell the truth: 'Ani lo freier, he is reported to have said; 'I'm not a sucker.' In the continuation of the story, the therapist now clearly playing the role as big brother - the authority figure - sent his expert to put the appropriate filters on the computer. But notwithstanding, the client's desire - on some level, after all he chose to see the therapist - to beat his addiction, he found an equally competent expert, on some other pretext or other, to have the filter removed.

This is certainly not a model of psychic wholeness - where an external authority is battled (and usually outsmarted) by the irrepressible and always resilient powers of desire. Reason is choice. Not the threat of external punishment, or the presence of external controls - which ultimately attest to a psyche at war. So back to Milton: we don't after all take filters into daily life - we have to rely upon our ability to choose.

So why did I go with the filter? Because, though I know my son wants to be on the internet for the right reasons (e-mailing his grandparents, googling the six day war and cars), he may - unwittingly - become immersed in the wrong things. Were that to happen then the ability to choose - something of underestimated difficulty - may never develop. As a fellow blogger put it: 'we are always trying to calibrate external restraints to our child's ability to choose.' So to be sure, the filter - the external restraint - can't be the endgame or goal. But it might create enough space - in the meantime - for a curious and developing young person to learn how to choose as he becomes an adult.

What would you do?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jerusalem Snapshot: The Unexpected

I had a late evening yesterday - so decided to take a taxi back home.

As the cab pulled to the curb, I felt two ten shekel pieces and one five in my pocket - 'twenty-five shekels?' The driver made a face: 'it's at least 35.' 'Let's do the meter,' I responded. Best way not to be a freier, loosely translated as sucker - go with the meter.

'Anyway,' the cab driver confided, 'I've been riding around for an hour for this fare.' Whatever ambivalence I felt about my failed attempt at a deal abated - 'good I thought, let him at least have a decent start to his day' (the fare, in the end, was 29 NIS).

I never went to a proper ulpan to learn Hebrew - so I have an abiding sense of gratitude to Jerusalem cabdrivers whom I credit with my Hebrew. I learned French - oddly enough - not from the French teacher in Avignon during the summer of 1982 who taught Sartre's Huis Clos, but from the 12 year old girl with Down's Syndrome, of the family with whom I was staying.

So after the initial snarling, the driver turned more cordial: my 'ma shlom'cha' - how are you? - broke the ice. Since I'm travelling to London in a couple of days - and early in the morning - I thought I might ask him to drive me to the airport. The cost is about 225 NIS which is a big fare in a bad economy. His car, a mercedes, was clean and safe - so I was considering it.

We waited on line for the light to turn into my neighborhood - Bayit Vegan. There's a separate traffic light for the straight-ahead traffic, and another for the left-turn lane. We were behind a motorcycle: when the straight-ahead light changed, the motorcyle started forward; though the left-turn signal was still red. Because of the construction for the long-awaited light-rail on Hertzl, it's a long wide turn. My driver turned to me and said with alarm - 'he's passing the light!' He even honked twice; but the motorcyclist did not hear, or did not heed his warning. The motorcycle proceeded slowly, but determinedly along the arc of the turn; I saw the oncoming traffic. The cars coming down from the other side of Hertzl were accelerating. We both looked, watching for the unfolding of the inevitable: the loud crunch of the impact sent the motorcyclist flying into the air - the motorcycle was shattered to pieces. I gasped.

'Ata roeh?' 'You see?,' said my driver. I'm sure he was equally horrified, but he gave the appearence of calm. 'She killed him' - he said of the driver of the Mazda that had smashed into him. A crowd gathered. Miraculously, the man was stirrng. That was my first thought - he's alive.

Then I saw the woman standing by the side of her car. 'We should stop,' I said - 'he ran the light; it; it wasn't her fault!' 'No, it wasn't,' he agreed.' So let's stop,' I said - 'we have to tell the police what we saw.'

I was imagining the horror of the woman who struck the man. She had done nothing wrong, and suddenly out of nowhere, this.

'I have seen dozens of accidents,' my driver said. 'If you call - leave it,' he advised - 'you'll be dragged in for hearing. It's a tircha - a tremendous pain.'

I arrived home, called the police to tell my story. It turns out - my daughters were returning from the Jerusalem forest from the pool about an hour later - and the police were still there. The motorcyclyist had - miraculously - survived the crash, but the consensus was that the woman had run the light - after all, 'look what she had done!'

I called the police again - 'are you writing this down? Will you please tell the women who was driving the car that I saw?' I thought of course of the injured man, but also the loneliness of the woman not knowing, perhaps thinking that it was her fault, the suffering of the burden imposed on her by circumstances she had never considered. And then imagined what her her husband might be saying to her - no matter the strength of her convictions.

I don't know what lesson to learn from this, but I decided - sometimes one has an unexpected insight into the soul of someone, even a stranger - to find a different driver to take me to the airport.

Friday, June 19, 2009

OMT and the New Technologies

Yesterday, a graduate student of mine committed the horrendous (and unforgivable) faux-pas of asking whether I had written my dissertation on a typewriter. I answered: 'yes, and I wrote my undergraduate thesis on papyrus; you can see it - with the Magna Carta - at the British Museum.' Truth be told, I wrote my thesis on a portable (so-called) Leading Edge which weighed-in at twenty pounds, and had a memory - someone correct me if I'm wrong - of 20mb.

So I thought this would be an appropriate time to once again announce OMT's presence on twitter, and the latest development, my own facebook page.

Discussions of the virtues of the new technologies are, I've already gathered, symptomatic, of ignorance of their potential.

So I'm all in - hope to see you there!

(I had hoped to have a couple of nice clean facebook and twitter 'buttons' available here; but... I haven't quite figured out how to do that yet.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Seeing is Believing? Think Again!

The twelve spies make their way to Eretz Canaan. G-d didn't say 'check out the land and see if you want it,' but when the people came to Him, He said, 'I'm not commanding you to survey the Land first, but if you want - go for it.'

So they did, twelve of them. Before they went on their mission, Moses who know something was awry, turned to his young charge, formerly Hoseah, and gives him a special blessing, as well as a new name, Joshua. G-d had an extra letter yud in his alphabetical storehouse - he had taken it from Sarah, formerly Sarai; so, through Moses, he gave it to Joshua. Joshua was then hooked up to the tradition - it became part of him. While Caleb, with no such protexia, makes a short side trip of his own, to Hebron. He went to the site of the tomb of the patriarchs - where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried. As our sages explain, Caleb did not simply have an extra day on his tour - he went to pray. But why at Hebron? and how did that save him from the bad council of the spies?

Hebron is described as seven years older than Egypt's capitol, Tzo'an. But our sages point out that the city that Ham built for his youngest son Canaan could not have been built before the city he built for his eldest, Mitzrayim or Egypt. So Hebron took precedence over Tzo'an not - as the simple meaning of the verse suggests - because it was older, but because it was more praiseworthy. It was not seven years older, but seven times better.

Obama lingered at the pyramids recently; he couldn' t get enough of Paris. It's unlikely - this is not a political statement - that he'd spend much time in Hebron. Our sages tell us there is no place in Israel more barren and rocky than Hebron - for that reason it was set aside as a cemetery. The ugliest terrain in the Land of Israel - why, again, did the tour bus stop here? Tzo'an, by contrast, is the choicest real estate in Egypt - not only the center of commerce and government, but like G-d's garden, a hybrid of Manhattan and East Hampton. And yet, Hebron was considered better.

So the two, Joshua blessed by Moses, and Caleb on his way from Hebron, join the rest of the spies. The latter bring a dire report. 'True, there are giant grape clusters, and true the land flows with milk and honey - but the cities are fortified, and the land occupied by giants!' Not only that, they related, 'the land consumes its inhabitants; the giants were busy burying their dead!' With all of this, the spies conclude: 'We are not able to go up against the nation, for they are more powerful than we are.'

Yet Caleb and Joshua have a different report - didn't they see the dangers that so rattled the spies?

While empiricists from Francis Bacon to Katie Courik tell us that seeing is believing, the story of the spies tells us that the reverse is true. The spies, our sages tell us, from the moment they went out on their mission had their plan in mind - and so everything that they see reinforces their already foregone conclusion - 'better to have died in Egypt; we are not going to the Promised Land.'

Yet Caleb and Joshua see differently - their sight is informed by their connection to their past. Joshua's connection is intrinsic - his name has changed. Caleb, without such benefit, goes to Hebron - which becomes his school for seeing. The place which is the most rocky and most barren - to the naked eye - is the richest. So Caleb learns a kind of vision, not tied to externals, but rather rooted in faith and the history of the patriarchs. Both Caleb and Joshua see things not with the eyes of the empiricist - 'seeing is believing,' but rather their belief allows what them to see. G-d promised the Land to the people of Israel. So Caleb and Joshua bring their own report to the people of Israel: 'The land is very very good.'

It comes down to vision - and how we see the world reflects on how we see ourselves. The spies see giants burying their dead as part of the movie, 'Canaan, Resident Evil'; Joshua and Caleb look at the same event as the continuation of the movie that began in Egypt: 'Chasdie Hashem, G-d's Beneficent Acts.' Yes, G-d had wrought plague on the giants, but not to show a land that ate its inhabitants, but to distract the giants from noticing the intrusive presence of the spies.

So it's not only Caleb and Joshua whose self-conception affects their vision. 'We were like grasshoppers in our eyes,' the spies say, and so 'we appeared in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Land.' Caleb and Joshua saw themselves as descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs - they felt they deserved the Land, not on the basis of their own merits, but on the basis of the traditions of their forefathers. 'Even if G-d tells us to build ladders to go up to the Heavens - we will succeed at whatever He says.' Such is the power of those who see themselves as fulfilling the will of G-d.

But the spies were more realistic, not only about the world, but about themselves. 'Come off it,' they thought to themselves - 'are we really that different from the seven nations who inhabit the Land? What gives us the right?' Their realism extended to themselves - 'we are a people like any other people. Can we claim to be morally superior? are we better than the nations?' And so the verse 'they were grasshoppers in their own eyes, and thus became grasshoppers in the eyes of the inhabitants' should be understood in terms of cause and effect: Because they were diminished in their own eyes, they were diminished in the eyes of the seven nations.

But more than that - how they saw themselves diminished G-d. When the spies say of the inhabitants of the Land - 'they are more powerful than we are!' (mimen'u in the original), they also express another thought, 'they are more powerful than Him' (mimen'o, spelled the same with just a change in the vowel). G-d's power - of course - is never be diminished, but because of their image of themselves, they diminished G-d's power in relation to them. 'If you want to conduct yourself according to the laws that govern the nations of the world, go ahead,' G-d challenges them. 'I will act accordingly.' And so the people of Israel become grasshoppers to the nations, and though Caleb had said with confidence, 'they are our bread,' it is the nations who feast on the people of Israel.

If only the people had listened to Caleb who had taken his degree in the Hebron school of seeing. Is it possible that without a similar education (for we can't hope for letters from the divine), we may also diminish G-d and His powers in relationship to us - because of our realistic, but all too diminished, sense of ourselves?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Grape Soda and Cheese Doodles: Israel, Boredom and the 'Desire for Desire'

Tolstoy describes the desire for desire as boredom.

The people of Israel - instigated by the mixed multitude who left Egypt with them - feel a 'desire for desire.' They want what they can't have - so they nostalgically long for the melons and onions and leeks which they had freely in Egypt.

But, as our sages say, the people of Israel had nothing free in Egypt. The Egyptians held back straw for their building; they certainly didn't dispense cucumbers and watermelons for nothing! Rather, such pleasures, as our sages say, were free - free of mitzvot. So the people of Israel thought: 'those were the days' - hence their nostalgic yearning for unadulterated pleasure, the pleasures without obligation, the pleasures of slavery. Tyrants, as John Milton wrote in one of his polemical works against King Charles I, gladly suffer license and luxury; it's free men they detest. So perhaps Pharoah willingly gave out fish and meat and other delicacies - to better keep the people of Israel in thrall. This is not unlike impoverished neighborhoods around the world - where there may be a shortage of money and work - but never a shortage of grape soda and cheese doodles.

This form of being in the world the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips likens to perversion - which he identifies as a certainty about what it takes to bring pleasure - such a person 'has no doubt about what will satisfy and fulfill him,' and he frantically searches for the pleasures he imagines. The desire for desire is thus rooted in the past and turns the present into its image, and, not surprisingly, projects a similar future. So that which promises the greatest excitement actually deadens us to the possibilities of the new. Masquerading as excitement, the 'desire for desire' provides the cover story for inaction and boredom - the pleasure of slavish repetition, rather than the genuine pleasures that make creative engagement possible. No accident that the 'desire for desire' leads to the craving of those fruits and vegetables - melons, onions and cucumbers - that are rooted to the ground. The manna that flowed forth from the heavens could be prepared in a multitude of ways, but the people preferred the rooted - and effortless - inertness of pursuing desires that led them back to their own physicality.

Mitzvot - which contains the word tzevet, to join - hold out the promise of something else, the possibility of joining with the divine. The excitement of desiring desire provides ersatz pleasures, but in its narcissism can never transform into love.

For love requires not only cultivating a feeling, but relationship - and back to Milton - service:

... freely we serve.
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall...
Service and love come together. Though neither are possible when boredom leads to pursuing a nostalgic desire for a desire we may have once had - when we were still slaves.

Our Ancestors were not Fools!

Would you buy a used car from this man?

Two of my old teachers are in the news - Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton.

Fish taught me Milton at Columbia - but he was and remains a pragmatist skeptic. Eagleton taught me literary theory at Oxford - a Marxist skeptic.

So surprise, when in Fish's review of Eagleton's new book, the two take aim at the intellectual pretensions of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - the apologists for the new atheism (they even had an ad campaign on London buses; that's Dawkins above).

So the Marxist and the Skeptic both argue that the triumph of modern thinking - liberalism and technology - still leaves a place for religion. 'Saying that the emergence of the telescope and the microscope outmodes religion is like saying,' Fish paraphrases Eagleton, that 'thanks to the toaster oven we can forget about Chekhov, or Milton, or Proust...' (you can fill in the blank).

Both Fish and Eagleton challenge the image of the religious thinker in the thought of Dawkins and Hitchens (or your favorite local atheist rabble rouser) - of someone who has acquiesced to a simple fundamentalism and, as friends used to say to me, has 'taken the easy way out.' Sure, there are those within religious communities who present such an image of self-righteous complacency - in my circles it's known as frumkeit. But more accurate is the the religious personality portrayed by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Though there were those - even in the forties - who saw religion as 'tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate, an enchanted stream for embittered souls,' R. Soloveithchik portrays a religious personality obsessed, and sometimes even tormented, by questions.

Questions that as Eagleton writes, in a 'society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire and consumerist economics' are not likely to be thought - let alone raised. Theology may not always answer our questions, but it allows - with a lifetime of thought - for their refinement.

I have to confess when I first returned to Jewish observance, I was embarrassed to tell my old teachers. But now with the Skeptic and the Marxist out of the closet - it makes it a whole lot easier. Maybe things are changing.

Finally, Eagleton has his own confession - he wrote his book, he writes, in defense of his own forbearers - 'against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.' My ancestors, Eagleton now acknowledges, were not fools.

Perhaps this is something - all the more so one would think - for Jews to consider as well?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Prequel

Just wanted to say thanks for all the supportive comments and advice on our adventures in education in Jerusalem with our son, Shmuel.

I'm also reposting here an article I wrote for the magazine of the Orthodox Union, Jewish Action a few years ago. I see that I've come along way myself - perhaps others in our community will follow!

Pulled Up Short by Shmuel

My son, Shmuel, was born four years ago on the tenth of Cheshvan. My wife woke me at 3 A.M.; we were at the hospital a bit after 3:30. Not her first delivery, the labor was quick: by 5:45, she gave birth. So efficient she was, I thought, that there would be time to make it to my regular 7 A.M. minyan in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem. Our newborn would fit into my schedule—everything according to expectations; everything as planned. I accompanied the baby to the post-delivery room. The doctor, flanked by two nurses, labored over the baby with unexpected focus and intensity. Finally, the doctor emerged: our newborn, he suspected (really, he knew), had Down’s syndrome.

A close friend of ours, a nurse at Shaarei Tzedek (where more babies with Down’s syndrome are born than any place in the world) whispered to my wife, moments after we received the news, that she would be happy to take the baby and foster him—even before my wife would be released from the hospital. The doctors and hospital staff, who, in the past, had been unswerving in their aversion to early discharge, happily acquiesced to my wife’s request to go home after only one day, relieved that we would, in fact, be taking the baby home. Friends visited: two of them conducted a dispute, in my presence, about whether a father of a child with Down’s syndrome should be wished a congratulatory mazal tov (the answer is yes). A rabbinical authority in my neighborhood averred upon hearing the news that the event could only be looked at as a manifestation of unadulterated din, Divine judgment; someone else recounted the story of a father of a similar child who had proclaimed at the Brit Milah of his son that the birth of such a child was a manifestation of pure rachamim, Divine mercy. A neighbor advised that we really should foster the child: raising such a child—though, of course, “a blessing!”—would be too large a burden, not to mention a source of embarrassment to our family. Amidst all of this, the languages of advice, explanation and consolation—and I had hardly noticed—there was an infant, nursing in my wife’s steadfast arms.

The irony, unappreciated then, and for many months, even years after, was that I had devoted much of my personal and professional energies to understanding conceptions of diversity and difference, first in relation to the works of the Western literary tradition, and then, on a different path, in relation to Torah and the teachings of Chazal. Throughout my career as a professor of English literature, I have been compelled by literary and theoretical meditations on difference; when I entered the realm of the beit midrash, I discovered the ways in which Chazal affirm a notion of Divine truth—emet—with a multiplicity of different faces. When I was confronted, however with a “child of difference,” not the difference espoused enthusiastically around large oak tables by my teachers in graduate school at Columbia, or even that discussed between the four walls of the beit midrash, I was unprepared. All of my adventures in the pursuit of understanding difference, diversity and pluralism in the arcane and academic languages of epistemology and literary hermeneutics, and even in the realm of limud, had insufficiently prepared me for Shmuel.

When the world, as Deborah Kerdeman writes, “departs from our expectations and desires,” and thus “refuses to be appropriated by us or subjected to our categories, we are “pulled up short.” That is, suddenly, we encounter a reality that our categories fail to fully assimilate: it is an experience associated with “loss” or failure—the inability of our cognitive equipment to provide a map adequate to “what happens.” I had been “pulled up short” by the birth of my son Shmuel, or, more accurately, pulled up short by the initially shattering experience of having an atypical child, a child with Down’s syndrome.

To be sure, the label “atypical,” or the exceptional, has useful diagnostic functions. But the question, I wondered, was in what sense, if any, is there a conception of typicality in the Torah? That is, does the Torah proscribe a notion of typicality, and how does it accommodate conceptions of difference? If the Biblical notion of tzelem Elokim (man created in the image of God) affirms a similarity between man and the Divine, with all men created in His image, Chazal in Sanhedrin (37a) come to qualify that assertion of similarity with an emphasis on difference: Though it is comforting at times to hear Shmuel referred to as a “tzaddik,” and that he is incapable of transgression, such labels deprive children of the very possibility of entering into the community of mitzvah observance.“When a man mints coins with one ‘stamp,’ all [of the coins] are similar to one other, but when the King of Kings mints each man from the ‘stamp’ of Adam Harishon, each one of them is different; therefore it is incumbent upon each person to say, ‘For me the world was created.’” Created from the stamp of the First Man, and traceable to that original source in his similarity, each man also evidences an ineluctable difference. It is this difference which affords him with the experience of both opportunity and responsibility: “For me the world was created.” For it is the image of God which guarantees that all manifestations of difference are linked back first to Adam Harishon, and then to the Divine. As Dr. Rahamim Melamed-Cohen observes in his remarkable book about the exceptional child in the Jewish tradition, there are blessings recited upon seeing difference or exceptionality in the Divine creation, but only the blessing over human exceptionality includes the shem Hashem, the Divine name. Only in those human differences, though sometimes confounding our expectations and “pulling us up short,” does the Divine image dwell.

Notwithstanding the pervasive attitude of a contemporary Western culture that aggressively advertises its commitment to multiplicity, diversity and pluralism, such a culture does not really encourage the encounter with genuine difference. As a recent New York Times article observed, more and more prospective parents in the United States choose to terminate pregnancies rather than face the prospect of nurturing a difference that has a human face. The faces of those who are born also sometimes remain invisible—not because their faces lack the ability to make an impression, but rather because the cognitive lenses available fail to afford the refinement of vision that allows such children to be seen. We view the world through a set of categories and expectations; and what doesn’t fall within those categories does not register on our cognitive screens. Vision may be a biological mechanism, but what we, in fact, see is also a function of our perceptual habits and prejudices.

In the days after Shmuel’s birth, after the genetic tests confirmed what the doctors all knew, I found myself consistently trying to place Shmuel within categories: knowing that he surely wasn’t typical, I found myself relying upon the categories supplied by my well-meaning friends: he was “special”; he was “atypical”; he was a manifestation of pure din, of pure rachamim. It took me several years to realize that he may be some aspects of all of these things, but first and foremost, he was Shmuel.

Immediately after the birth, we were especially susceptible to what I now see as the not-so-well conceived advice of others: my wife and I had decided to conceal Shmuel’s “condition” from our children. Within about an hour of our return home from the hospital, my oldest daughter, Elisheva, then thirteen, inquired quietly and matter of factly, “Does he have Down’s syndrome?” When we answered in the affirmative (we were both relieved that the charade had ended so quickly), Elisheva disappeared mysteriously from the house, only to return fifteen minutes later to pick up Shmuel and smother him in kisses. Our second oldest daughter, Avital, then eight, wanted to know: “What is Down’s syndrome anyway?” After explaining what I then understood about the syndrome (which was very little), looking only half satisfied, Avital asked with quiet innocence, “Do I have Down’s syndrome?” As parents we may try to model behavior for our children, but the innocence of seeing without judgment of the latter incident, and the effort to see against habitual categories of the first, provided me with a model for beginning to see Shmuel.

It was at about this time that I came upon a famous story recounted in the Talmud (Ta’anit 20b): the tanna, Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon, upon returning from his teacher’s house, was “rejoicing greatly” and feeling “proud,” since he had “learned much Torah.” As the story continues, Rabbi Elazar “chances upon a man,” described as “exceedingly ugly.” When greeted by the “ugly man,” Rabbi Elazar responds: “Empty One! Are all the people of your city perhaps as ugly as you?” To this, the man replies: “I do not know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is that vessel that you made!’” Having realized his transgression, Rabbi Elazar dismounts from his donkey, prostrates himself, and says, “I have spoken out of turn to you; forgive me!” Not until implored by the people of a nearby city does the man agree to forgive Rabbi Elazar—provided, the former stipulates, that “he does not make a habit of doing this.” Rabbi Elazar had been guilty of a visual transgression linked to habit—seeing the outer shell of the man, instead of his inner essence (thus the “ugly man” invokes the Craftsman that made him, implicitly arguing for his own connection, despite appearances, to tzelem Elokim). According to some, the ugly man is none other than Elijah the Prophet, who had come to make sure that Rabbi Elazar would not become “habituated to such behavior.” There are different kinds of bad habits, some of the visual variety: from the framing gesture of the aggadic story, it seems that Rabbi Elazar’s attitude, his contentedness and “pride” in his learning, had contributed to that perceptual error.

So Rabbi Elazar runs to the nearest house of study and expounds: “A person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar.” He goes on to elaborate the legal consequences of the homily: “For this reason, the reed merited to have quills drawn from it to write Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot.” A person should demonstrate the softness and flexibility of the reed; to be sure, the Torah provides the categories through which to understand the world, but those categories must themselves be applied with sensitivity, and not “arrogance.” When one is hard—or inflexible—like a cedar, the story implies, there is a possibility of perceptual transgression like that committed by Rabbi Elazar. Habitual ways of seeing—the wielding of inflexible categories—can lead to arrogance and insulate one from the genuine encounter with difference. The Torah, which can be written with a reed, contains the implicit injunction (this is the reason Rabbi Elazar runs to give a derash) that all of our categories, even those which come as the result of much study, must be applied with flexibility.

So I had realized with Shmuel: it was easy to go through life without seeing children who are different—through relegating them, with the simplifying glance of habit, to the categories of the atypical. When Shmuel was born, I didn’t see the child, but the diagnostic category, and Shmuel’s own inability (as it were) to fulfill my expectations.

Another, perhaps more insidious way of such perceptual avoidance, is through the very label “special.” Though it is comforting at times to hear Shmuel referred to as a “tzaddik,” and that he is incapable of transgression, such labels deprive children of the very possibility of entering into the community of mitzvah observance, and thus deny them the possibility of their particular chelek, portion, in Torah. This chelek may be circumscribed, though there may be the possibility that even children like our Shmuel will also be able to say: “The world was created for me.”

The phrase “children like Shmuel” may be a more expansive category than I had thought on the day of his birth. Since then, my family and I have been exposed to the exceptionality of difference, not just as a theoretical construct or as a literary notion, but as part of the texture of everyday life. But more than that, because our own Shmuel so clearly manifests his difference, we have been confided with many other stories of exceptionality from neighbors, friends and colleagues. It turns out that the children who wear the badge of typicality, who seem to fulfill everyone’s expectations, may have their own secret—not failings, but differences. The matmid who lives in the corner building may have dyslexia, the “Queen of the Class” may have a learning disability. That such revelations come hesitatingly may be a function of a general cultural denial of difference that has made inroads into our own communities. Yet if we are fearful of revealing our imperfections or are reluctant to acknowledge the differences of others, it is not out of fidelity to the demands of Torah.

Quite the contrary, there is a way of seeing that is part of our inheritance of our forefather Yaakov: Unlike his brother Esav who hurries off to Mount Seir to receive his full reward in his experience of the perfection of this world, Yaakov “leads on softly”—accommodating the pace and needs of his “nursing” cattle and “tender” children (Bereishit 33:13). Yaakov slows down to tend to the needs of others, acknowledging, unlike Esav, imperfection as part of the nature of this world. We are mistaken to believe that children with Down’s syndrome or other disabilities are the only ones who are “tender.” Viewing my children (not just Shmuel, but his brothers and sisters as well) through the unthinking application of fixed categories risks missing the distinctive manifestation of tzelem Elokim which each of them—not just the diagnostically “special”—represents. When Shmuel was born, I didn’t see the child, but the diagnostic category, and Shmuel’s own inability to fulfill my expectations.This is not to deny that there is a continuum of exceptionality, but Shmuel, like almost all children, confounds categories; indeed, the most typical of children, if we look closely, will show themselves to be atypical.

Calibrating our perceptual mechanisms so that we can see the “tender” among us is not, however, a one-time affair. Recently, after a shiur I gave, a distraught father of a newly born “special” child asked me: “How are you so at peace with your Shmuel?” In explaining my “transformation,” I may have mentioned the stories of Avital or Elisheva, or perhaps the image of Shmuel caressing his own younger brother in the hospital on the day of his birth, or perhaps the memory of Shmuel answering his first berachah with “Amen.” The very next Shabbat, however, walking through our neighborhood, my wife and I passed by a couple wheeling a large carriage, to which was attached a respirator—on which the father made painstaking adjustments. I turned to my wife and uttered, “How sad….” Her response was immediate, the rebuke barely camouflaged: “But don’t you see how much he loves his child?”

To the question, “But don’t you see?” very often, the answer is: “No.” Rabbi Elazar was chastened for a perceptual complacency born out of pride; in the face of the new father who had asked my advice, I had evidenced a similar self-contentment. To his question, I should have simply answered: There’s no magical transformation, no singular turning-point, no defining epiphany, but rather the ongoing challenge to be “soft like a reed”—to be flexible in vision.

Seeing the atypicality of Shmuel thus remains both a process and challenge—of acknowledging that difference is not just a theoretical ideal for the seminar room, nor just part of earnest discussions about epistemological pluralism or multiculturalism, or even a conception of limud confined to the walls of the beit midrash. But rather that difference has a face (like that of the man encountered by Rabbi Elazar), through which the image of the Divine “Craftsman,” if we would only learn how to look properly, can be seen.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

John Milton and the Salute to Israel Day Parade

Preparing for my Milton class tomorrow, I came across the story that today is the 'Salute to Israel Day Parade' in New York. Perhaps this made me focus on a passage in Milton's epic which I have often passed over.

As Milton's character Satan makes his way from the precincts of hell, he spies earth in the distance, and the opening of the 'Kingly Palace Gate' of heaven above:
Direct against which opn'd from beneath,
Just o're the blissful seat of Paradise,
A passage down to th' Earth, a passage wide,
Wider by farr then that of after-times
Over Mount Sion, and, though that were large,
Over the Promis'd Land to God so dear,
By which, to visit oft those happy Tribes,
On high behests his Angels to and fro
Pass'd frequent, and his eye with choice regard
From Paneas the fount of Jordans flood
To Beersaba, where the Holy Land
Borders on Ægypt and th' Arabian shoare;
So wide the op'ning seemd, where bounds were set
To darkness, such as bound the Ocean wave.

So Milton - three hundred years ago - provided his own salute to Israel. Though - to the best of my knowledge - he did not march today.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Twittered Torah?: Connecting on Shavuot

We've had soundbyte Judasim - now it's twitter Judaism. The Torah in 140 characters - or less.

But on Shavuos it's not the 10 tweeks which we commemorate, but the ten commandments. And the paradoxes implicit in matan torah certainly defy the best of twitterers, tweekers and bloggers.

Z'man Matan Tora-teinu - so we refer to Shavuos in our liturgy. Here is the beginning of the paradox. On Shavuos we celebrate the giving of the Torah - so let our prayerbooks refer simply to z'man matan torah! Instead we speak of the giving of our Torah. On Mount Sinai, G-d betows a gift which already belongs to us! This is another way of expressing the truth implicit in the sages' reading of the first word of our Torah - b'reishit. Not only literally, 'in the beginning,' but on a deeper level, as the sages learn בשביל - on behalf of - רשית - the 'first.' G-d created the world on behalf of the 'first' - referred to by our prophets as both 'Israel' and 'Torah.' Beyond the simple meaning of the verse lies the insight that there is no Giver without a recipient. There is no Torah without Israel - no giving of the Torah without those suitable to receive it.

So what is Torah - is it a divine absolute truth? or something that comes into the world through our reception of it? Is such a question the place where the wars over Torah begin? where, on the one side, Jewish fundamentalists claim to have the absolute truth, while, on the other, progressive Jews claim that Torah is a function of perception and interpretation?

The Rabbis were not philosophers, so when they address such questions, they do so not through philosophical precepts, but through stories:

Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Avitar were learning the Book of Judges, arguing about the meaning of a word in a verse. Their argument unresolved, Rabbi Avitar takes a break and finds Elijah the Prophet by the coffee machine. 'So what is G-d doing now?,' Rabbi Avitar asks. 'Funny you should ask,' Elijah replies: 'he's very busy now, learning Torah - actually the dispute between Rabbi Avitar and Rabbi Yochanan.' 'And,' he continues, 'if you put your ear up to the walls of the Divine Study Hall, said the prophet, you will hear G-d learning: "So says my son Yochanan, so says my son Avitar."'

Like the verse about which the two sages were arguing, there are (at least) two ways to understand the story. In a version of a contemporary interpreter, the study hall of Rabbi Avitar and Rabbi Yochanan serves a Mount Sinai in miniature: 'just as G-d placed the words of Torah in the mouth of Moses, so when the two stages where learning, they did not say their own words, but rather the Words of the Living G-d.'

In this understanding, the giving of Torah on Sinai is the model, and the experience of the two sages derives from it. Just as G-d revealed himself to Moses, so he reveals himself to the two sages in the beit ha'midrash. The Nefesh Ha'chaim, however, presents a different - and seemingly more modern and radical - point of view: 'Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Avitar were engaged in the study of Torah, and therefore G-d repeated their words.' In the first account, God as Giver of Torah takes precedence; in the second, the sages of Israel as recipients of Torah come first. One version emphasizes God and Sinai in the past, the other the house of study - the here and now - where Torah is learned and multiplied.

But does the argument about the interpretation of the story have to mark the beginning of the wars over Torah and Judaism - the difference between the belief in Torah as an ancient eternal truth and a contemporary Torah as a product of interpretation? Not if the dispute between the latter readers of the story is understood as a version of the kind of dispute in which Rabbi Avitar and Rabbi Yochanan were themselves involved. Of this dispute, the Heavenly Voice proclaims, 'these and these are the words of the living G-d.' Both perspectives are true, or rather partial truths - which the story itself conveys. The truth of the Torah is absolute, divine, and also a matter of interpretation. Don't tell such things to philosophers or academic literary critics - who instead of entertaining paradox, reject what - to their minds is - contradiction. The giving of Torah begins with relationship and connection - between the Divine Giver and the people of Israel, who in their receiving of the Torah bring the Torah into the world. There is no Torah without the people of Israel!

Torah study - toiling in Torah for its own sake - produces a kind of connection, which, whether in the time of Rabbi Avitar, or our own, links the Torah’s interpreters back to Sinai. So the Nefesh Hachaim explains, 'At every moment that a person is cleaving to the words of the Torah in the appropriate fashion, the words rejoice as if they were given from Sinai.' Rejoicing words - utterances of the here and now - share in the joy felt in the Revelation of Sinai. Z'man Matan Tora-teinu - the giving of the Torah to which we already have a claim, which is already ours. So, as in the liturgy, what the kabbalists call, the Nosain and M'kabel, the Giver and Recipient come together, as past and present do as well, when we sit in the house of study on Shavuos night and hear - if we are learning Torah for it's own sake - the voice of Sinai resound.

Can't twitter that.

You can now follow openmindedtorah on twitter.

Fear and Loathing II: Ambivalent Principals/Ambivalent Principles

Still shopping around for a cheder for our son, Shmuel.

Though I think our search may have ended - though not with success. We realized yesterday that our experience in the past - with the neighborhood school - was not just an isolated event, but endemic to a system in which there is simply no 'interest' to pursue mainstreaming as a value.

Yesterday, was the latest. Another principal, this time in a school outside our neighborhood. His argument was as follows: 'you are not from our community; we don't know you; you should go to the schools in your own neighborhood.'

As readers of OMT will know, we've already been to the schools in our neighborhood. So we told the principal - this time my wife was doing the talking - that we knew of his reputation for progressive education and openmindedness, so we were turning to him. 'It was an opportunity for his school.'

He could have turned us out of the room - he had provided his argument (reasonable, though not exactly courageous) - but he kept talking...and talking. And the more he talked, the more he became excited - gesticulating, standing over us, his voice getting progressively louder.

I could see it coming - first the tears in the corner of my wife's eye, and then - with that one more finger point in the face: the outburst of tears. No drama here; this was the real thing: 'Don't you know we've come to you because no other cheder will take our Shmuel?'

Exit stage left.

The principal - I thought (after trying to calm my wife) - had good principles; he just could not express them, at least not to us. As Hamlet says to his mother: 'The Lady doth protest too much, methinks.' All the principal's protesting - really uninstigated - was a defense against a voice within: the principal doth protest too much, methinks! His heart was telling him something his head did not want to hear - so he went on and on defending against his own inner voice. Too bad the outer voice was directed at us!

So there is ambivalence in our community - even among unprincipled principals.

Not much of a pragmatic consolation, but maybe the acknowledgment of such ambivalence - of our voices within - might mark the beginnings of change.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha'Sheker Excuse

Spring time in Jerusalem, so yet once more, my wife and I embark on the path of finding a place for our son Shmuel with Down syndrome, this time in a cheder, a pre-kindergarden class in our neighborhood.

So earlier this week, we set up a meeting with the principal of a school around the block from our house. Not only was he cordial, but he had the look of someone who was genuinely interested in helping us with the education of our son. There had not been a child in his school with Down's syndrome for a generation, but listening carefully to our description of our son, his cordiality turned into what seemed like understanding. He invited us back the following day to meet with a rebbe and an administrator to discuss logistics - and how to integrate Shmuel and his 'syat' or 'shadow' into the classrom. The teacher of the class which the principal had in mind for Shmuel put it simply - 'my business is to teach children; and I'd do my best to teach Shmuel as any other child.' 'Though I am not a professor,' he continued with a wink, 'I do have thirty years of experience.'

As we were leaving - s'yata d'shmaya my wife said - another one of the rebbes, seeing Shmuel, stopped us, and mentioned that he had been a classmate of the boy with Down's syndrome from years back. To the questions which reflected the principal's main concerns - 'will he be disruptive?'; 'will he be accepted by the other boys?'; 'will he want to participate in class? - the rebbe answered with reassurance. As Tolstoy might put it, no two children are alike, and no two children with Down's syndrome are alike, but the rebbe only affirmed what we had told the principal - his classmate had been full of joy, eager to participate and imitiate, not at all disruptive. Shmuel's affability and good cheer - traits which prompt my wife to wonder what I would be like with an extra chromosome - and his cognitive high-functioning, we explained eagerly to the principal, are what brought us to mainstreaming and his neighborhood school in the first place.

A few days passed. I left some messages at the school, but my calls were not returned. When I finally reached the principal, he suggested I speak to someone else in the school -now a fourth person - who I was told would make the 'final decision.' It didn't sound good; so I pressed the principal instead.

'It's a very difficult decision...' His voice trailed off. 'Don't take this the wrong way Rav Kolbrener, and please don't be insulted....'

Calling me rabbi, I thought to myself, was a bad sign.

'It's a matter,' he hesitated, 'of considering the mossad.' It was now not just an elementary school, but an institute.

'What about the mossad?', I asked.

'Its reputation.'

I was silent.

'We have to think of what other parents will say when they see a child like Shmuel in the class with their normal children. How will we be able to justify it to them? They also have to be respected. It simply will not be good for the reputation of the school.'

I wasn't insulted, in fact I had heard versions of this before.

There was an undoubtable hint of frustration in his voice - likely I thought that those from whom he had sought advice had a different view of the 'mossad,' and were forcing him to do something against his better judgment. So I responded: 'we both know that what you are now advocating - acquiescing to close-mindeded and sanctioning fear of difference - is against our hashgafa, indeed I continued, any Torah perspective.' 'It's a chilul hashem,' I continued, 'a desecration of G-d's name, to send us away to schools outside of our community - to other schools, and other communities - when you yourself acknowledged that Shmuel could find a place in one of your classrooms.'

'And as far as ordinary children,' I went on, filling the silence, 'we are not children of Esau who find perfection in this world, but the b'nei Yisrael, children of Israel, of Jacob, who acknowledge that this world is a place of lack and imperfection.' 'I am a pragmatist,' I continued: 'if Shmuel is disruptive or can't be integrated into the class room, then we will take him out immediately, but if the experience of our home is true, if that of our building is true, of his nursery school are true, then Shmuel's presence will be a blessing for him, and for all who have the chance to be around him.'

'Rav Kolbrener' - again the wrong title - 'what you say is all emes l'emiso' - the undeniable truth, 'k'dosh k'doshim,' the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, 'we live in 'olam ha sheker - a world of lies.

Here it was - the olam ha'sheker excuse! I had heard people exclaim 'olam ha'sheker' as an expression of frustration; this was the first time I heard it as an explicit excuse. Using the olam ha'sheker excuse, not as a form of self-consolation, but justification for doing the wrong thing, turns Torah into something theoretical - 'we can't actually live by the words of Torah!' So Torah ceases to be a manual for life - a handbook for tikkun olam - the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears. The principal couldn't help being honest: so he acknowledged that my words were true, even holy, but from the olam ha'sheker perspective, such truth and holiness don't have a place in the world. So Judaism transforms into a religion of ideals only. How often is such an excuse - even if not explicitly uttered - used as a means of justifying our laziness, self-interest or even corruption?

Traditions in the West in literature, philosophy and theology - from Homer to Plato to the apostle Paul - separate the ideal, take it out of the world. But Judaism - and this was one of the reasons that I started, years ago, to begin to split my time between the library and the beit midrash - transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world. Judaism offers the promise of a learning which is not simply theoretical - those earnest discussions I used to have in the seminar room in graduate school - but a learning leading to action and tikkun olam.

Or perhaps this is naive? too idealistic?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cheeseburger! - Of Torah, Swine and Desire

I am tempted by the smell of cheeseburgers.

There, I said it.

I also sometimes pine after the taste of a spicy pork sandwich that I ate at a cafe on the Greek island of Samos - before I became religiously observant - in the summer of 1988.

Say something like this at a shabbos table, and witness the metamorphoses of otherwise self-possessed seminary girls, like Odysseus's men on Circe's island, transformed by facial contortions, gagging noises and squealing sounds of disgust: 'Ichh!!!'

Rabbi Elezar ben Azariah says, 'from where do we know that a person should not say "I am repulsed by pulled pork bbq sandwiches," or "I do not want to wear that Armani cashmere suit with linen lining?, but rather a person should say, 'I really want these things, but what can I do?, my Father in Heaven decrees that I must not?' Rabbi Elezar continues, 'from the verse: "And I will separate you from the nations of the world to be Mine."' God does not separate the people of Israel from the nations through magical decree or genetic fiat - the Torah provides the means through which the Jewish people can separate and distinguish themselves. As Rabbi Elezar reads the verse, 'you, the people of Israel - through adhering to the Torah - will separate yourselves for My Glory.'

The command to Israel to separate itself from the nations of the world comes at the end of the weekly portion Kedoshim which, Rashi explains, was taught to all of the people of Israel - men, women and children - because upon its principles all of the Torah depends. In a portion which begins by exacting 'you shall be holy' - explained as distancing oneself from illicit relationships - Rabbi Elezar insists that when it comes to observing chukim, G-d's heavenly decrees, or 'ordinances' as King James renders, He wants the people of Israel to be honest about their desires. Being scrupulous about G-d's decrees does not mean pretending to be something we are not.

'Do not walk in the ordinances of the nations of the world,' G-d commands, 'but rather you shall keep My ordinances.' In Onkelos's Aramaic translation, the 'chukim' of the nations are n'musot, manners or social forms. It's not just the people of Israel that abide by unquestioned decrees: all cultures - true in ancient Athens as well in my hometown in Long Island - abide by social forms, not necessarily rational, which are accepted unquestionably and from which one does not divert. In the time of the sages, it was participating in the culture of 'stadiums' and 'theaters' - what every one does, because ... that's just what you do. They are engraved for the nations - chukim - in the sense that they are engraved, accepted and unquestioned, social conventions. The people of Israel have their own chukim - also not subject to rational explanation. But they are the decrees of the divine. Separating from the nations means avoiding their particular practices, but also abiding by our chukim in a way that is distinctive. If I simply strive to get in line with accepted norms of social behavior - 'I hate pork!' - then I am turning G-d's will into etiquette advice.

Our service is difference. So Rabbi Elazar tells us: 'You should separate yourself from transgression.' Separation comes through an action, and chukim - more than any of the other of the Torah's laws - show our separateness. So we acknowledge to ourselves that left to our own, we might do otherwise. We are not embarrassed by our desires, treating them like pictures in an old photograph album to be hidden away from the children; they are part of our service. To say that my desires are already in line with the will of G-d may appear righteous - what people in my community call 'frum' - but ask Rabbi Elazar: it is not what G-d wants. To the contrary, if I refrain from b-l-t's and the latest fashion because I claim it's natural to me, then I am following the ways of the nations. Through acknowledging my desires and refraining in any event, I distance myself from transgression, enacting my separateness.

True, some things - especially given current epidemiological realities - may seem truly disgusting.

But if we claim to find things repulsive which G-d knows we really want, then we are - because of our over-zealous attempts at frumkeit - becoming more like the nations, and less like the chosen servants of G-d. G-d wants our separateness, but to fulfill the command, 'you shall be holy,' to be truly separate, we can't pretend a robotic observance, but we need - another paradox - to recognize our humanity even as we perform G-d's will.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

'Swaying Towards Perfection' - Torah, Worldliness and Perversion

Perversion, the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, involves 'an anxious narrowing of the mind when it comes to pleasure.' From his clinical experience, Phillips observes that what characterizes sexual perversion is 'a determined sense of knowing' about what one wants. 'The person in a perverse state of mind,' Philips writes, 'has no conscious doubt what will excite and satisfy him.' Knowing what one wants, and fixating on the fulfillment of a specified set of expectations - this is the sensibility of the perverse mind.

Don't close your browsers just yet! I understand that even my most generous readers will be wondering what Phillips' notion of perversion might have to do with Torah - no matter how open-minded. Counting the days from Passover to Shavuos, we do know what we want and expect - and there is no perversion here - matan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. What could be wrong with the certainty of knowing what one wants?
Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rebbe Yehuda the Prince, says, 'the learning of Torah is pleasing when accompanied by derech eretz or worldliness - for toiling in both of them causes sin to be forgotten. The study of Torah which is unaccompanied by labor will come to naught and lead to sin.'
Man, the Maharal from Prague writes, is constituted by his body and his soul. Engaging with the physical world - worldliness and earning a livelihood - leads to the perfection of the body, while studying Torah leads to the perfection of the soul. For the temptations of the body for licentiousness and the temptations of the mind for idolatry, work and Torah provide the respective antidotes. But the former takes precedence. Not only - or even necessarily - working a 9 to 5 job, but engagement with the world is the necessary prerequisite for Torah. The character traits essential to derech eretz are not mentioned in the Torah, writes the Vilna Gaon, because it is assumed that without them, Torah is impossible!

Both kinds of engagmenent, the Maharal emphasizes, require toil or exertion - y'giah. Such toil holds out promise; it's opposite brings about stagnation. Every where the Torah mentions 'settling,' our sages tell us, there is eventually failure and disappointment. When the people of Israel settled in Shitim, they soon gave into licentiousness - 'and the people began to commit whoredom (nod to King James) with the daughters of Moab.' After Yaakov 'settled in the land of Canaan,' his favored son Joseph is sold into slavery. The people of Israel settle in Egypt, and soon after Jacob, here called Israel, 'approaches the end of his days.' For the sages, settling breeds stagnation which - in the prooftexts which they cite - leads to perversion, the selling off of the future, and eventually death.

Pursuing the perfection of body and soul through worldly engagement and Torah study protects one from chisaron and ha'eder - from the forces, to speak metaphorically, of privation and lack. The paradox is that when one rests, when one entertains the notion of having achieved perfection, then one becomes susceptible to the powers of negation and loss. But when one is 'm'tno'ai'a el ha'shlama' - moving towards, or more literally 'swaying towards perfection,' then one is immune to the sin that attends the belief that one has already arrived. Swaying towards a perfection never to be achieved in this world protects one from transgression. 'He who thinks we are to pitch our tent here,' the poet John Milton writes, 'that man shows himself to be very far short of the truth.'

Clinical perversion is the expectation of the fulfillment of vulgar expectations, of pitching my tent and hoping to never leave, knowing what I want - and hoping that my future will be just like my past. The perverse act, as Phillips writes, is one in which 'nothing must be discovered.' So while we know the direction in which when we're heading when we claim to have arrived, or to already be in the know, we are risking losing ourselves in the perversion that leads to loss of the future and death. It is the acknowledgment of lack - this is the paradox - that shows our perfection. The frantic certainty, by contrast, of a perspective achieved is a mark of our failure; it is the cover-story for our self-doubts about facing the demands of discovery.

The Torah provides a set of instructions for such discovery, an impetus and framework for our striving - the means through which immersing ourselves in the past we embrace the present and create a new future. The chiddush - the innovative interpretation - is an ideal not only in the learning of Torah, but in the way of life, in our worldliness as well. As Rabban Gamliel explains, one needs to toil - to be fully engaged - in both. But when as parents, teachers or members of a community we foreclose the possibility of that discovery with expectations that the future be merely a copy of the past - insisting that stereotypes are our models and cliches our ideals - then we are in danger of stagnating, perversely selling off the future, endangering ourselves with spiritual death.

This is not Torah, but its perversion.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Equestrian Pesach

courtesy of

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cosmic Consciousness: The Beatles, Passover and the Redemptive Power of Storytelling

What could bring the remaining Beatles - Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr - back together? Surprise: the David Lynch Foundation which advocates teaching Transcendental Meditation - 'every child,' the foundation website reads, 'should have one class period a day to dive within himself.' As part of the show at Radio City, after Ringo and Paul did a version of 'With a Little Help from My Friends,' the two performed a tune which Paul composed on a 1968 trip to an ashram in India - 'Cosmically Conscious.' So the two former Beatles sang - 'Come and be cosmically conscious, cosmically conscious with me.'

Passover is also a time of consciousnessness-raising, but when our thoughts turn to Pesach our thoughts are not wholly transcendental. In all of our festival commemorations, it is the exodus from Egypt which we remember - we don't remember G-d - this would be the transcendental version - who created heavens the earth, but rather G-d who took us out of Egypt. Our service avoids cosmic consciousness for a consciousness achieved through the collective experience of lived history. And we achieve that consciousness not through transcendental meditation, but through story-telling, the reading of the hagadda. 'And that you may tell in the ears of your children, and of your children's children, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Lord.' As the Sfat Emes tell us 'story telling' - and 'you shall tell your children' - 'leads to consciousness or da'as.' Da'as represents the capacity that Betzalel, the master craftsman, employed in building the sanctuary in the desert, joining heaven to earth.

Perhaps, out of habit, we fail to notice the novelty of seder night when the Torah turns story-telling into a mitzva. Try this for a thought experiment: you're going to create a religion, and part of that religion will be the injunction to tell a story. If there's a eucharistic moment in Judaism, it's seder night, but achieved through story-telling. It's the kind of a thing that a literary critic might make up! Even more strangely, we read in the hagadda that even if 'we are all wise, all understanding, all experienced,' we would still have the obligation to recount the events of the exodus. Our sages tell us also that even a wise person - who finds himself alone on the night of the seder - is obligated to engage in the act of story-telling. He stays up half the night -by himself - repeating a story which he has known since childhood!

The Talmud tells us: 'in every generation, it is incumbent upon each person to see himself - lirot atzmo - as if he were leaving Egypt.' Maimonides - either he had a different version of the talmudic text or he was innovating - writes that each person is obligated to show himself - l'harot atzmo - as if he were leaving Egypt. Both versions - but in that of Maimonides especially - emphasize performing the exodus from Egypt, for oneself and others. The hagadda is a set of stage directions for that performance: drinking the four cups of wine, maror, matza, leaning while we eat and drink, derech cherus, our sages tell us, in the manner of free men and women. So interested are the sages in the experience of the seder that they provide actual recipes for that performance. Rabbi Yochanan says that the charoset is a commemmoration of the mortar; Rabbi Yochanan says it is in rememberance of the apple trees under which Jewish woman led their husbands despite their protestations about Egyptian oppression ('we can't have kids!,' their husbands protested, 'not now!'). Abaye goes on to provide the recipe - food can be philosophical - for our dialectical consciousness, both slavery and redemption. 'Make sure that you pound it to make it thick' - commemorating our hardship - and 'add lots of wine and apples to make it sweet' - recalling our eventual triumph. No transcendental meditation here; pass the apple peeler.

The seder is full of props for out performance - it's always fun to add your own (red dye for blood, marshmallows for hail are among my favorites) - but the primary means is speech. Aristotle may say that man is the rational animal, but our tradtion tell us that man is distinguished by his speech. 'And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.' A living soul - nefesh chaya - as our tradition tell us, man is the creature who speaks. Man, says the Maharal of Prague, is not a purely spiritual creature - he represents a hybrid between the spiritual and physical, between the dust from which he was created and the divine breath which inspirited him. Descartes, having ruined everything for Europeans with a philosophy separating mind and body, tried to make amends by suggesting that the despite everything, the spirit does invest the physical in - get this for a philosophical joke - the pineal gland. The Maharal, however - no philosophical models for him thanks - is serious when he says that the mind and the body come together in the tongue.

Though a picture may be worth a thousand words - we know that even the most humble of the people of Israel experienced a prophetic vision which was more vivid and intense than that of the prophet Ezekiel - on seder night, we turn primarily to words. When the word for hearing - shmiya - is used in the Torah, Onkelos who provides the Aramaic 'Authorized Version' translates kabbala. Kabbala - don't think of Madonna here - means acceptance, or perhaps in more psychological terms, internalization. Though the people experienced the 'visuals' on their way out of Egypt, it wasn't long after that they were worshipping the golden calf. So much the more so in our generation, we need a way of taking our own cosmic consciousness and bringing it to life. For this, there is the speech and the redemptive power of story-telling - and a performance that leads to internalization.

In the hagadda, we read: 'one who expands on the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.' The Alter of Kelm explains that praiseworthy - m'shubach - comes from the word mashbiach - improved or refined. Through our storytelling - to ourselves and our children - we have the opportunity of refining and improving ourselves. Of taking that transcendental cosmic consciousness - internalizing it - and making it real.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Religion for Adults - Anyone?

On Friday night, I heard a story - about a businessman in Baltimore who returned to Judaism late in life. Though he did not have the skills in Torah study of many of his new found peers, he found other ways to express his commitment to Torah and Jewish life - through tzedakah, charity and good deeds. For him and his wife, tzedakah was personal - it became for them what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes as a 'worshipful performance' - an expression of their personalities in the service of G-d.

But then came Lehman and AIG, and the story that continues on the front page of every paper - that is, those papers not put out of business by the crisis. His portfolio declined forty-five percent; his profits diminished; his expenses, however, were on the rise. The couple hoped to continue giving as they had in previous years, though given their circumstances, they had already fulfilled their obligation for charity - even when defined by the most maximalist measure. So committed was his wife, however - even willing to give up her comfortable home for more modest quarters - that she encouraged her husband to consult a legal authority in Israel about their predicament. The rabbi answered quickly: of course the businessman - now down on his luck - had fulfilled his obligations. But, the rabbi added, if he and his wife were to find a cause which they found truly worthy, then further donations would be meritorious. Thinking through the advice of the sage, the couple determined to adjust their lifestyle - so they would be able to give close to the level they had in previous years.

An inspirational story - though it continues.

Only a few days later, the businessman received a phone call from a Swiss broker - who managed a large portion of his funds. It seems an error had been made - holdings had not been properly cataloged, account statements not properly calculated. The bottom line - the opposite of the Madoff story! - a surplus of funds in the range of several million dollars! Not only did this cover his previous losses, but the newly found income made the couple wealthier than ever before!

A triumphant look from the one telling the story; smiles all around, but when the warm fuzzy feeling dissipated, I thought of another story - that of Abraham, his uncle Haran, and the wicked tyrant Nimrod.

Our sages tell us that when Terach discovered his son's belief in one G-d, he turned him over to Nimrod, who threw him in a fiery furnace: 'if your G-d is so powerful,' Nimrod boasted to Abraham, 'let him rescue you!' Standing on the sidelines, Uncle Haran calculated - 'if Abraham gets torched, then I am with Nimrod; if he survives, I'm with Abraham.' When Abraham emerged triumphantly from the furnace, Nimrod asked Haran - 'whose side are you on?' True to his prepared script, Haran answered - 'For Abraham!' And then Nimrod threw Haran into the fire where he was burnt to a crisp.

Haran makes his calculations not on principle, but on cost-benefit. Not because of his faith in G-d, but because of hopes of reward. 'If Abraham turns out to be father of all the nations of the world, I will be his right-hand man... and if not - thinking like an Israeli politician - I'll find something to do in Nimrod's government.'

The message of this story is similar: do a good deed, and get properly compensated. It's as if I'm saying to G-d: 'Let's be business partners... I'll do my share, the mitzvos; you protect my family from hardship, and if you can throw in some earthly reward (BMW 320i in black please), that will also be fine. So whatever I give to you G-d, I will expect the dividends.' This is what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls the mentality of a religion for children - the pragmatic quid pro quo, the calculation and anticipated receipt of my just returns. But it's not only childish - it's dangerous. What happens when G-d isn't the business partner I expect? Do I break off the business arrangement? After all, childish expectations do yield to disappointment. The facile stories of simple reward - our sages tell us we don't know the nature of the reward for any given mitzvah - may lead to not just disappointment, but despair. 'This business arrangement,' I might think, 'is not working out the way I had anticipated. Not at all.' And then what?

The couple from Baltimore did the right thing - an inspiring thing. Even - or especially - without the results. With the coda of wealth and reward - thank G-d that it was, in this case, the outcome - it becomes part of the literature for a religion for children where there is always a happy ending. Though we may hope - and pray - for such endings, our 'end' in the moment in which we live is to transform ourselves through mitzvos that bring us close to the divine. So the story of the businessman from Baltimore, without the coda of the guaranteed happy ending, fits in a different and more demanding canon of stories - that of a religion which a fellow blogger calls 'complex,' or more simply a religion for adults.

The purveyors of the happy endings - and in our post-holocaust generation there is, strangely, a near cultural obsession with such stories - assume there are no longer any adults in the audience. I'm betting otherwise. Am I wrong?