Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Would You Buy This Book?

In essays as likely to turn to baseball, Denzel Washington, and the NASDAQ as to Macbeth, quantum physics and psychoanalysis, William Kolbrener provides powerful –and often surprising – insights into how open mindedness allows for authentic Jewish commitment in an age otherwise defined by fundamentalism and unbelief.

Open Minded Torah presents – on topics ranging from parenting a son with Down syndrome to Biblical criticism to Talmudic interpretation of dreams – a perspective on Torah which emphasizes skepticism, creativity and the need to embrace difference. Through a personal synthesis of Western and Jewish learning, popular culture and philosophy, Kolbrener offers a compelling new vision where being open minded allows for a non-dogmatic and committed Jewish life. Informed by Kolbrener’s considerable erudition, but always accessible, the essays of Open Minded Torah show that skepticism informs belief, commitment grounds creativity, and non-defensive receptivity makes individual autonomy possible.

For every person, it is said, there is a corresponding letter in the Torah: this innovative collection shows Kolbrener writing his letter, and providing the inspiration for others to write their own.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Summer Game: Baseball and the Jews

“What is it with you and baseball?” my wife asked recently after I emerged late for breakfast from my basement office. “It’s a Jewish sport,” I told her. Not because there may be a disproportionate number of baseball players in that classic volume, Jews in Sport. There is rather something about the sensibility of the game that makes for the connection between baseball and the Jews.

Bartlett Giamatti, the former Yale professor of comparative literature and Baseball Commissioner, had written of the Greek not Jewish nature of the game. The goal to “come home” places baseball in the epic traditions of the West, beginning with the heroic Odysseus whose desire to return home to his native Ithaka is at the primordial roots of the game. Perhaps, I considered, since Odysseus is really the Greek version of the Jewish b’aal tshuva—the one who returns—there is a hybrid Hebraic and Hellenic provenance to the Great American Game. But Giamatti’s meditations are too abstruse and allegorical, somehow missing the point. Baseball, rather, is a game of stories, complicated, intertwining, entangled—which is what makes baseball the Jewish sport.

There is not only the story told by the standings, the win and loss columns, or the rivalry between teams etched in baseball’s collective memory; there are the unfolding stories of individual players. Unlike the synchronized beauty of pro football’s violence, these stories can be watched as they develop in the luxuriating slowness of the 162 game season. After a few games, just a highlight can alert to the latest nuances of the story-lines; for the true initiates even a box score is redolent with cues to their progress (there were once, after all—hard to imagine for our image-centered generation—fans who followed the whole season through box scores).
It’s not only the narratives that evolve over the course of the season. The games of the “endless summer” provide, if watched carefully, cerebral stories of the moment. I remember the magical season of 1986 of the Mets’ World Series victory when I first tuned into the broadcaster, Tim McCarver, with his elaborate explanations of the permutations that make up the confrontation between pitcher and batter. And so the position players factor in dozens of variables, for every pitch, every batter, every developing scenario. There are those that compile baseball’s ever-growing number of statistics. But the numbers, of course, tell a story.

Before Odysseus even thought of leaving his hometown, Jews were telling stories. From the first Passover seder in the desert, the year after the Exodus from Egypt, we have been following the divine command to recount the formative moments of our creation as a people—connecting the present to the past through story-telling. How strange, if you think of it, a mitzva, a divine command, to narrate! But not only that, we are always already enmeshed in a life-long cycle of story telling: the weekly Torah and Haftorah portions that tell the stories of Jewish history. Or the sabbath itself—the prayers and meals of which implicate every Jew in the story of the longest duration which stretches back from the present to divine creation. Or the cycle of holidays in which we find ourselves part of the stories that have already been told, and are not only told but re-enacted, with words and through actions—with each reading of the megillah at Purim time, with each lighting of the candles on Chanuka, with each blintz on Shavuot.
From the very first seder in the desert, there were already variations and embellishments. As the Passover hagadda enjoins, the person who adds to the narrative of the Exodus is to be praised—enriching himself and others through the telling of tales. The stories that unravel over time are experienced and told differently in every home: that the famous four children of the seder each recquire a different approach becomes a lesson for parents for all generations to tell the stories so that that their own children can hear them best. And since, as the sages say, there are “seventy faces of the Torah,” there will be an endless multiplicity and variation, ever-unfolding opportunities for narration. Jews are probably not, as the old saying goes, people of the Book, but rather people of the telling—the telling and living of stories.

Monday, May 17, 2010

OMT Classic: Thoughts for Shavuos: Why I Gave Up Biblical Criticism and Just Started Loving...

My title is a bit misleading. For to tell the truth, I never was much for the Biblical criticism--that academic discipline founded in the nineteenth century, promising to tell the truth about Biblical authorship. There's been a lot of talk about Biblical criticism recently, with a new book claiming once and for all to provide a vision of the Bible "as it really was." The assumptions upon which Biblical criticism are based is that the methods of the sciences can be brought into the humanities, and that if we just occupy the right perspective, we can sift through all of the facts and evidence and have an objective picture of things. I'm a scholar, and I love evidence as much as the next guy, but I've never been compelled by the readings of Biblical scholars with their alphabet soup of authors--J, D, P--which in my view is just their way of not facing the complexities of a Biblical text with which they don't truly engage or understand. I certainly wouldn't want a Biblical scholar to help me read Milton's Paradise Lost; where Milton argues through paradox, they would just see contradiction and evidence for multiple authorship. Now is probably not the time to go into the way in which enlightenment beliefs in reason are also faith-based practices (Stanley Fish has written brilliantly on this as a columnist in the New York Times). Nor is it the time to cite those scholars in various academic fields (in both the humanities and sciences) who have called into question the whole conception of objective neutrality upon which the Biblical Criticism is founded.

When my wife and I began our paths to Torah, I remember someone (I think it was my father-in-law) saying that if G-d wanted to give a handbook to humanity, he would have given it in binary code. To him, this would have been a form of revelation that could be objectively understood, a crystal clear revelation requiring no interpretation at all. But the Torah in it's very first verse asserts itself not as an objective knowledge, but one that is based upon relationship--the relationship between G-d and His people, Israel. As Rashi explains the בראשית--"In the Beginning"--of the first verse is a contraction of ב-שביל ראשית b'shvil reshis, 'on behalf of the first.' And 'the first,' as Rashi shows from other passages in the Holy Writings refers to Torah and Israel. The world was created for the sake of the divine revelation through Torah and for Israel, the nation through which the divine revelation comes into the world. Torah and Israel are together the purpose of creation; without one, the other could not exist.

G-d did not choose Israel to be an objective observer, but he founded a relationship with Israel based upon love. "With an abundant love you have loved us"--so begins the second of the two blessings which precede the recitation of the Sh'mah in the morning. And in the evening blessings preceding the Sh'mah: "With an eternal love, you have loved us"--a love expressed through G-d's bestowing of "Torah--and mitzvot, decrees and law" to His people Israel. Torah and love are thus linked together. The morning blessing continues with an entreaty "to instill in our hearts to understand, to elucidate, to listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill all the words of Your Torah's teaching with love." That we ask that G-d grant understanding to our hearts (and not, for example, to our minds) emphasizes again that Torah founds a relationship based upon love. So the morning blessing concludes with the praise of G-d who brings Israel close to Him so that they can "praise his unity with love," and the benediction of "G-d who chooses Israel with love." A reciprocal relationship of love: the numerical value (or gematria) of the word אהבה is equivalent to that of אחד--love is based upon unifying. In this sense, the act of receiving the Torah is an act of union or love.

Our sages refer to the giving of the Torah as yom chasanatu, the day of our chuppah or marriage. The blessing from the marriage ceremony includes five קולות or sounds--the 'sound of joy and of gladness,' the 'sound of joyful wedding celebrations,' and the 'sound of youthful feasting and singing'--which correspond, the Talmud tell us, to the five 'sounds' that accompanied the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. That the sages compare the giving of the Torah to marriage is not merely a poetic embellishment; it expresses a deep philosophical truth. G-d chooses Israel with love, and we respond with acts of love. There is no external perspective, no possibility of disengagement, but rather learning Torah is an act of love. The Sh'mah begins: "And you shall love the Lord your G-d..." How, our sages ask, do we follow the injunction to love the G-d? For the answer, they turn to the continuation of the verse, "let these words which I command you today be your hearts." It is through 'these words'--learning Torah--that I express my love for G-d.

But even more than this, as Rav Yitzchok Hutner writes, the continuation of the verse in the Sh'mah further refines the definition of learning Torah: "Let these words...be upon your hearts, and you shall teach them to your children." The act of Torah study is only fully realized through teaching. Torah study then is an act of love which connects me to G-d, but is consummated in the teaching of children and students. There's a vertical relationship, a double connection, where with love I strive upwards to the divine, and complete that act of love through a corresponding downward movement--bringing Torah into the world through teaching the next generation. My love of G-d, realized through Torah study, reaches its perfection with the love expressed in "you shall teach your children." A double movement of connection and love.

In this dynamic, there is no external place of objectivity. As Jonathan Lear, the Chicago classicist and psychoanalyst, writes the position of objectivity and the so-called "neutral perspective" is just a myth, and attempting to occupy it leads to "developmental failure and pathology." We've all been there, even if not as Miltonists or Biblical critics--who forestall genuine engagement with texts through their flat and preachy readings. We've more likely occupied that perspective in bad moments as spouses, or equally bad moments as parents where we flee to a place of disengaged complacency and crabbiness (or self-righteousness) instead of engaging with those whom we love. So this Sunday night--z'man matan Toraseinu, the time of the giving of our Torah--we should give up that very contemporary and Western desire for objectivity and cool disengagement, and start loving a little--by renewing our efforts to connect, to make the Torah our own.