Sunday, June 27, 2010

Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love

Yes, that is the now official title - coming in the spring of 2011 to a book store near you.

And for an OMT interview, as well as chulent recipes and lots of other interesting stuff, check Ilana Davita here.

Friday, June 4, 2010


'And I will dwell upon you' - so God says to the people of Israel, and He dwells among them, first in the sanctuary in the desert and then in the center of Jewish worship the Temple in Jerusalem. The ninth day of the month of Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple, the day to which future Jewish tragedies are linked - exile, pogrom and holocaust. 'I will hide my face from them' - and so God - Jews know this too well - withdraws his presence when he turns his face from his people. Not only is the face of God absent, Primo Levi writes out of Aushwitz, but also the human face. 'I do not know who my neighbor is. I am not even sure that it is always the same person because I have never seen his face.' Auschwitz is the faceless world without the presence of God or man.

The first Temple, built in the merit of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was destroyed on the ninth of Av because of the sins of the people of Israel: illicit relationships, idolatry and murder. Abraham's hesed - the outward excess of generosity - turns into vulgar indulgence; Isaac's subjugation of his will to God - bound on the altar by his father - turns to idolatrous ritual; the peace established by Jacob - through the tribes of Israel - transforms into murder. When the attributes of the patriarchs that had distinguished the Jewish inheritance are overturned - and turned into their opposite - says the Maharal of Prague, the first Temple falls. The temple is rebuilt, not because of the merits of the patriarchs - the first and second Temples are different - but because of the people of the unity of the people of Israel. In the Purim story, Esther calls a day of fasting for the Jewish people: 'go and gather all the Jews of Shushan.' As a result of their heeding her call for unity - the story of Esther takes during the Babylonian exile - the second Temple is built. As the Maharal writes, the sustenance for the first Temple came from above - the relationship that God initiates with the patriarchs; while that of the second Temple came from below, from the people of Israel. But when the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple hundreds of years later, also on the ninth of Av, the sages say that the people of Israel were Temple service, studying Torah, and performing acts of kindness - what Simon the Just later calls the 'three pillars upon which the world stands.' So what went wrong? On the surface it seemed like great times of the people of Israel: there was scrupulous observance to the Torah, and even shows of care for others - acts of kindness - but beneath it all, baseless hatred. And so the second Temple fell.

'You shall not harbor hatred for your neighbor in your heart' - b'lavavcha. So God commands the people of Israel in Leviticus. There is another command which must be fulfilled with all 'your heart': when God commands me to love Him with all my heart - the doubling of the letter bet in the Hebrew word for heart means, the sages say that I must love God with both my good and bad inclinations, with the energies which I am happy to publicly own, and those about which I am less inclined to acknowledge. I need to love God even with the self which at times may seem a stranger to the self I proclaim to myself and others. One of the sixteenth century sages of Safed, the Alshich, applies the words of the sages about love of God to the command to refrain from hating one's neighbor. Just as I can love God with both good and bad inclinations, I also hate with good and bad inclinations. To hate with my bad inclination is, paradoxically, 'better' - for after my perception of having been wronged or injured, and turning towards another with hatred, I may, in a moment of calm, come to my senses and experience regret. 'It was a bad moment; I had a bad day: the part of me that hates is not the part of me that I embrace.' Out of regret comes repentance. But I can also hate with my yetzer tov - my good inclination, or rather with that part of my personality which I see as upright, and even moral. But from such hatred, repentance rarely follows. For as I'm hating the other, I tell myself that I am justified in my hatred - the hatred in fact is my duty, a sign of my moral rectitude. And if anyone questions me - I will do my best not to condescend to them as I explain to them - 'how could I do otherwise? how could anyone? don't you know that it's a mitzva to hate?' 'We are obligated to hate evil!' - and I may even show you a verse in the Torah, as I prove that hatred is my religious obligation. But devotion to hatred of this kind that, or the strident adherence to any position, Jonathan Lear writes, is one way I may keep myself 'in the dark about who I am.' My unconscious - the part of me that feels ambivalent about my own choices and actions, causing me to lash out at others - acts out not through my 'evil inclination,' but through my so-called 'good inclination.' This may explain why in our generation, we do not fulfill the mitzva of hating evil in our fellows. Not just because it's hard to distinguish good and evil - as Milton wrote, 'good and evil grow up together almost inseparably' - but also because our 'good inclination' is suspect. So one of the great sages of the twentieth century, the Chafetz Chaim says, if you are looking around for mitzvot to perform - hatred is not among them - you will have to find another. Not only is the hatred projected outwards likely doing psychic work for me about which I am not fully aware, but it is also a hatred from which I will never recover. I repent of what I acknowledge I did wrong. It is hard - if not impossible - to repent of something which I consider to be a mitzva.

Already at the time of the second Temple, the people of Israel were doing hesed, performing acts of kindness with the wrong kind of 'good inclination.' They put a good face on things - the Temple service was flourishing, the houses of study were full, and the hesed organizations - groups devoted to charity - were thriving. But through these acts of kindness - their 'good inclination' - they showed what they were really about. For their acts of hesed were selective: 'We are the the genuinely God-fearing' - each group boasted. And: 'the way they serve God is not to my liking.' 'I don't like the shul where he prays'; and 'I don't care for how she dresses.' 'They may look like Jews, but they are not' - so each group claimed of the other. Acts of kindness did not serve as a way to come together, but to divide. Kindness becomes a way of expressing exclusivity; hesed, paradoxically, the way to show hatred for others. The baseless hatred is not just an external cause for the destruction of the Temple; without the unity of the people of Israel, the Temple had, writes the Maharal, no further reason to exist. The Jews may have been doing mitzvot; but they did not make themselves present to others in doing those mitzvot. Just the opposite: the performance of the mitzvot - hesed as a form of hatred - allowed them to be absent to others, because absent to themselves.

The sages say: 'Any one who has da'at - knowledge - it as if the Temple is rebuilt in his days.' Man is like the Temple in the way that he brings together different worlds. Like Betzalel who constructed the sanctuary in the wilderness uses his da'at - his power to connect - to bring the Torah and the divine presence or shechina - down to earth. The sages bring together my knowledge or my sensibility - another word for 'da'at' - with my face. For I show my individuality in my face; it is the place where neshama and guf - soul and body - upper and lower worlds come together. The sage Shammai's injunction - 'always show a good countenance, panim yafot, or literally a beautiful face' is not just a call for good manners. The beautiful face, the face that glows or shines, is like the Temple - which is called hod or beauty - where the physical yields to the spiritual, where God's presence rests. The second Temple was built in the merit of the people of Israel, in their making themselves present one to another. A person who has da'at who is present to himself and present to others participates in the Temple's rebuilding; he joins higher and lower worlds in himself.

When God's face is absent on the ninth of Av, it is not just a seeming absence; on that day we experience it as such. On other days - holidays and fast days like the ninth of Av all provide different lenses on experience - we may speak about happy endings and redemption, but on the 9th of Av evil is palpably, irredeemably real. And in the face of destruction - and trauma - man's face is also absent: 'I could not see his face.' Absent in Auschwitz, absent in the traumas that make us unable to show ourselves or be seen. Though the Temple was rebuilt, it lacked, the sages of Babylonia say, the divine presence, the holy spirit, and ark of the covenant - all aspects of the divine connection to man. The sages of Palestine, however say that there was, in fact, a divine presence even in the second Temple. They acknowledge that the divine presence that comes from above was gone, but that the second Temple was built because of a different kind of divine presence, one with origins from below. Someone with da'at, who is able to join upper and lower worlds, who brings the Torah down to earth through his actions, is like one who builds the Temple. He is present to himself, and others. Though there is no compensating for the sufferings of destruction, exile and holocaust, there is the possibility of repair, through bringing the shechina down to earth, by letting it show itself in the human face.