Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Judaism and the Art of Conversation

Torah u'madda!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Yona said...

I believe Rav Hirsch - Torah im Derech Eretz - gives the same explanation for the poles in the ark.

wdk said...

I thought I had heard that before, even though Levinas quotes it as if it were his own. But thanks for the attribution.