February 2009

Parshat Termah begins a sequence of four Torah portions dedicated to the design and construction of the Mishkan, the movable temple used by the Israelites in the desert. In the middle of these four Torah portions we read an additional portion, Ki Tissa, which relates the story of the Golden Calf and Moses’s successful intervention with God to save the Jewish people. In the first two portions, Terumah and Tetzaveh, God tells Moses about the design for the objects of the Mishkan and the clothing and actions of the priests, respectively. The two portions that follow the Golden Calf incident, Vayakhel and Pikudei, parallel Terumah and Tetzaveh thematically, but focus on the Israelites’ completion of God’s design.

Terumah, like its counterpart Vayakhel, focuses on the items inside the Mishkan–the Ark, Menorah, Table, the tent itself. A key element of all these accoutrements is gold, which is mentioned again and again in this parashah as an important element of all these items. (The same gold will, of course, be used to construct the Golden Calf.) My friend Will Friedman asks a good question about this: Why all this gold for items that will be seen only by a very select few–the priests who tend to them, and, in the case of the Ark, the High Priest who will go in to see it only on Yom Kippur?

Will’s question brings to mind a talk that the late writer Kurt Vonnegut gave while I was an undergraduate in college. The most memorable thing that Vonnegut said was that every writer should, once a day, write something and then throw it away. Why? Because as a writer, by definition, you are writing something that is waiting to be read. You are writing with a reader in mind. And yet the act of writing itself can and must be an intimate affair. So, Vonnegut prescribes, write something once a day that no one else will ever see. Create a private act of writing.

The design of the Mishkan–God’s home in the world–reminds us that not everything needs to be for public consumption. Not everything can or should be something we express to others. Just as we speak and behave differently with those with whom we are most emotionally intimate, reserving for them a beauty we don’t show the rest of the world, the Mishkan itself is built to be a place of intimate connection between God and the Jewish people, and not everything about that connection can or should be a loud public display.

To conclude, I would refer you to this article by an NU student who in the last few weeks has stopped using Facebook. Why?

Ultimately, my own self-prescribed hiatus from Facebook was fueled by three factors. One was to rid my life of unnecessary distraction, mostly in an attempt to finish my homework. The second was the hope of re-learning how to socialize in ways that don’t involve typing public messages to profile avatars that serve as pixeled representations of real people. Thirdly, it was the desire to regain the sense of personal privacy that I surrendered three years ago when I first created my account –- a move that I am retrospectively thankful for, given the controversy surrounding the site’s privacy policies (or lack thereof).

That sense of privacy, of intimacy and centeredness, is the sense that the Mishkan symbolizes, and one that we would do well to remember and enact in our own lives.

Shabbat shalom.

aleqm5ggyrzz83ocna897xd-w5snazuo8qPerhaps you saw this image this morning, of Vice President Joe Biden. When I saw it on the news, my first thought was, “What happened to his forehead? Maybe he had a fall after Obama’s speech to Congress last night?” After a moment, of course, it dawned on me that today was Ash Wednesday, and that Biden is a Roman Catholic.

It’s a remarkable image. Never before in the United States have we had a public official of Biden’s position who has engaged in such a public display of this kind of religiosity. (Biden is the first Catholic Vice President. While many of the mainline churches from which previous presidents and vice presidents have been drawn do officially observe Ash Wednesday with the ash-spreading practice, I can’t find any record of a previous Pres or VP who wore them to work.) In some important ways it’s as worth remarking as Obama’s skin color.

As one who every day wears my religion on my head, the image of Biden holding an official meeting while wearing such a symbol was validating. But as an observer of public religion, it was fascinating, and opened up lots of questions: What are the limits of acceptable public displays of religiosity? Would Joe Lieberman ever consider wearing a kippah had he been the Vice President? Would a Sikh wear his turban? Would a Muslim woman wear a veil?

Obviously the examples I raise are daily, not occasional, observances like the ashes of Ash Wednesday. So is it more acceptable to engage in occasional ‘exotic’ religious behavior? Probably. Could we ever imagine the day when a religious practitioner can occupy high office and not have to pass as something else?

The Torah portion of Mishpatim represents a striking change from everything we have read in the Torah up until this point. With few exceptions, the Torah up until now has focused exclusively on telling a story. But beginning with Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah will begin to focus on law. In fact, there are no less than 55 different laws related in this Torah portion, with entire sections of the Talmud based on the verses we read this week.

This focus on law is one of the key distinguishing features of Judaism. (Parenthetically, it is one of the things that makes Judaism more akin to Islam than to Christianity, as both Judaism and Islam create widely-deployed legal systems–halakha and sharia, respectively–through textual exegesis.) Even among those movements within Judaism that reject a strict approach to halakha, the emphasis on legal thinking remains important.

Why law?

The short answer is that Judaism holds that details matter. It’s not enough to have good intentions. Rather, according to the Torah, our actions are ultimately more important. While good intentions can help to mitigate the severity of bad actions, in the end it’s the deed, and not the thought, that counts.

But more than this, law is the mechanism by which we make our beliefs real. Just last week we read about the Revelation at Sinai. The encounter with God is perhaps the show-stopping scene in the entire Torah. And yet we don’t stop the show there. We keep reading, because it’s not enough for us simply to have had an experience of the divine. The Torah mandates that we take the energy and power of that moment and repair and redeem the world. That’s work. It means being meticulous and thorough in all aspects of our lives, something brought about through a legal system.

We don’t always measure up, of course. For me this week, like any week, has involved apologies for ways in which I failed to perfect the details. Yet the Torah’s point in this effusion of law just after the theophany at Sinai is to inspire us to keep going, to always seek improvement in the minutia of our daily actions. Through that thoroughness we can bring about a repaired and redeemed world.

Shabbat shalom.

The highlight of the Torah reading of Yitro is the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Chapters 19 and 20 of Exodus, which narrate the story of the revelation, are some of the most mysterious and difficult of the entire Torah. What makes these chapters particularly challenging are the paradoxical motions of their words: it becomes unclear who is speaking when and what precisely is happening.

One good example of this is Exodus 20:14, which begins with the words, “And all the people saw the sounds.” Rashi comments that at the moment of revelation, the normal laws of nature itself were suspended, and one could see sound, and hear visions.

The Talmud glosses Ex. 19:19, “Moses would speak, and God answered him in a voice,” by asking, “What voice did God use to answer Moses? Moses’s own voice.” Similarly, the midrash relates that all the people heard the same thing, but heard it in the voice that was appropriate to them: Old people heard the voice of old people, babies heard the voice of babies, and so on.

On more than one occasion I have heard people criticize these chapters, arguing that they are good evidence of why the Torah needed a better editor. Yet, as Prof. Benjamin Sommer of the Jewish Theological Seminar (formerly of Northwestern) has described, the contradictory and paradoxical motions of the Torah’s narration are intentional. Paradox is the point. (Or, as a teacher of mine used to say, ‘It’s religion, it’s supposed to be spooky.’)

The moment of revelation is one that of necessity defies the ability of language, and even the human capacity of understanding. That doesn’t mean we can’t catch glimpses of it. The beauty of being human is our ability to occasionally ascend the heights, and sense what lies beyond the plain facts of the material world.

These are the moments of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Radical Amazement. They may come to us when we experience a profound moment of artistic genius, a poem that resounds in our souls, or beholding the miracles of God’s creation. These moments are a shadow of the moment at Sinai, the moments when life is made meaningful and we engage our deepest capacities as spiritual beings. They are moments beyond language, moments of paradox and beauty.

Shabbat shalom.

This is a wordle–a word cloud that describes what we do. It’s taken from a year-end summary we sent to the University last year. Pretty nifty.

Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University -- 2008 Summary

So Norman Finkelstein spoke at Northwestern last night. I went for the beginning. And I don’t want to get into a debate with him or his supporters. It doesn’t bother me that he espouses an alternative view of history (though calling the Holocaust “a schmatte” is offensive). That’s really not the issue.

Here was the issue for me: The student who introduced him on behalf of Students for Justice in Palestine talked about the group’s goals, to bring justice and self-determination to the Palestinian people. At that point I thought, “Wow, I should join the group. I legitimately share their goals. I want the same thing.” But then she concluded with “and so we hope to form a community of resistance here at Northwestern.”

At this point she sort of lost me, and Finkelstein only complicated matters. Fine, call the Israeli operation a massacre if you want. And make provocative statements like “killing Arabs always scores political points in Israel,” as Finkelstein did. But beyond “lift the blockade,” I didn’t hear anything about solutions. How do you propose to bring peace and justice to Palestine? How do you propose to create a thriving, vibrant, democratic state that can live peacefully with its neighbor, Israel?

I’m not a right-winger, but I just found myself asking, “Israel has made its offers–in 1947, in 2000. What’s your counteroffer?” I wish someone would tell me.

Finally, the original title of the talk last night was “Lessons From Ghandi,” until it was changed to “Behind the Gaza Massacre.” As I have told numerous students, I have been waiting my entire life to see the emergence of a massive non-violent Palestinian protest movement. A Palestinian Ghandi. A Palestinian King. A Palestinian Mandela. “Creating a culture of resistance” is problematic because it leaves out the word “nonviolent.” Imagine the scene: a human chain of Palestinians marching towards the Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint peacefully singing “We Shall Overcome.” Not “Death to Israel,” not “Death to Jews,” but a song about nonviolent resistance.

I’m still waiting and praying for it. And I’ll do my part to help make it happen, if someone will just step forward.

The high point of the Torah portion of Beshallach comes in the famous scene of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. In a sign of their faith, the Jews escape the approaching chariots of Pharaoah by marching between the columns of water to safety on the other side. Once there, they sing Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, which has become part of the traditional daily liturgy.

The singing is a moment worth pausing over. Why do the Israelites sing? And what does their singing teach us?

The great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) wrote frequently about song. In one of his most beautiful passages, he writes of the “four-fold song” of the world, which is comprised of the song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, and the song of the world. In certain times, writes Rav Kook, these songs all come together. He describes the moment:

Together, they sing their songs with beauty, each one lends vitality and life to the other. They are sounds of joy and gladness, sounds of jubilation and celebration, sounds of ecstasy and holiness.

In his commentary on Beshallach, the commentator Ramban (1194-1270) notes that as they cried out to God before the sea parted, the Israelites were fractured–some prayed, some wept, some shouted. Yet on the other side, as the Torah would have it, they sang as one.

If we take the two ideas–of Rav Kook and Ramban–we perhaps can see the story a little differently. The song of the Israelites after they crossed the sea was not necessarily a monolithic song, without harmony or counterpoint. Perhaps, instead, they were just as multivocal as they had been before their crossing. Yet through their shared experience of survival and salvation, they emerged in song–a song united and yet diverse, elegant in its simplicity and powerful in its variety.

This isn’t a foreign notion to us. Though our society has sadly lost much of the tradition of group singing, whenever we do sing together–when we sing together well–we go through this kind of experience. When we sing as part of a group, our voice goes out and melds with the voices of others, and the totality of those voices comes back to us and resonates within us. We experience our individuality and our communality simultaneously. That is the power of song.

Jewish tradition bases the singing of Hallel, the special Psalms sung on holidays, on the Israelites’ experience at the Sea. Why sing Hallel on our holidays? Perhaps because on those days we are meant to experience the fulness and joyousness of our membership in the Jewish people, something we can only do together and which we most powerfully feel through song.

We don’t have to wait for holidays, however. Singing is a part of Shabbat, both in synagogue services and the zemirot sung at home. And singing can happen whenever we feel a moment of transcendence. As Rav Kook writes, our soul is always singing. On Shabbat, during holidays, and at moments we discover for ourselves, we simply amplify the song that’s already in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.

In a very smart column in this morning’s Daily Northwestern, Jake Wertz calls into question the phenomenon of “Engagement” at Northwestern and other college campuses. In recent years, the word engagement has been used to underpin everything from study abroad to community service to Hillel. In a sense it has become a placeholder and shorthand mission statement for the extra-curriculum. Thus Jake’s argument:

I have no beef with community. But the Northwestern community is in no need of redefinition. We have for more than 150 years been a community united solely in a common pursuit of knowledge. We are not, as oNe Northwestern has it, a community united in reminiscing about the stir fry in Hinman or kvetching about Henry Bienen not showing up to your improv show. Nor are we, as NUEC has it, a community defined by our service to others. Community service is certainly honorable, but the purpose of college it is not.

Before I comment on Jake’s point, I first want to emphasize how thrilling it is to see the words “the purpose of college” printed on the pages of the campus paper. It’s something we don’t talk about nearly enough, and so first and foremost I’m thankful that Jake, a thoughtful student and excellent writer, has raised the issue.

I agree with Jake, but I also agree with the “engagement people” (and many on this campus would probably count me as one of them). And I don’t think these are mutually exclusive views. In The Emergence of the American University, an outstanding piece of intellectual scholarship, Lawrence Veysey contends that the post-Civil War era saw three major models of universities promulgated in the United States. One was the “traditional” liberal arts college (i.e. Yale); one was the research university (Johns Hopkins); and one was a college to train public servants (Cornell). Each of these models had some overlap, but in the late nineteenth century they were able to maintain relatively distinct identities. Within a generation, of course, the models often collapsed on each other–thus Yale maintained (and maintains) both an undergraduate liberal arts college, and the apparatus of a major research university. Johns Hopkins, which had been focused on graduate students and “pure research”, opened an undergraduate program. Columbia, which had once been on the bucolic outskirts of the island of Manhattan, gradually became an urban university, enabling the kind of “engagement” or “public service” mentality that Jake takes to task to blossom in what was once–and in many senses still is–a liberal arts college.

Northwestern, like all of these examples, contains all three elements: a huge research piece, a liberal arts college, and a public service orientation. There are convergences and divergences, and the tensions between the various missions are what make life at the university both interesting and frustrating.

That’s all well and good, and Jake would likely say, “Very useful, RJ. But my point still stands.” Indeed, Jake is asking an important question: What place should each of these various agendas hold at the university? Is one of them primary? Does everyone need to be engaged in community work, and have a research experience, and study all the classics of the Western tradition? And if not, are there particular elements of these various agendas we would insist are minimally required? Should there be a community service requirement? A research project requirement? A core curriculum?

I don’t yet want to advocate a particular agenda, because I think this conversation is so rich. So I’ll give it a few days, maybe a week, and see what responses come along. But in the meantime, many thanks to Jake for starting an essential conversation.