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.