October 2009


Lech-Lecha opens the story of Abraham. I have argued before that Abraham represents a sort of proto-American character: iconoclastic, willing to break with the molds of the past, setting out for a new land and leaving behind family and tradition. At the same time, the life of Abraham, like his descendants, is about family–specifically brothers. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers–these brotherly narratives form the basis of most of the book of Genesis, emphasizing the illusory nature of brotherly love.

Abraham too deals with a brother, Nachor, whose story is continued in his son Lot in this week’s Torah reading. At a crucial point in the story, Lot is taken captive during the war of the kings (ch. 14). Abraham organizes a posse to rescue Lot, and in the process helps to win the war for the King of Sodom, which leads to a blessing from Malkitzedek and ultimately frames the Covenant of the Pieces in chapter 15.

Looking more closely at the story, we find that the way that Abraham hears of Lot’s capture: “And Abram heard that his brother was taken captive.” (14:14) While the term ach, or brother, is used to denote a more general sense of “kinsman” (see Lev. 25:39, for instance), here the Torah could just as easily have referred to Lot as simply “Lot,” or “Lot the son of his brother.” Instead, Abraham hears that his brother has been taken captive, and this leads him to immediately put together a rescue operation.

Vladimir Jankelevitch once referred to brotherhood as “the hatred of the almost-same.” Siblings share chromosomes, facial features, upbringings. They are united in a common bond. And yet they are also individuals, with their own aspirations and personalities, as the earlier narrative of Lot and Abraham’s division of the land reminds us. What distinguishes Abraham in this moment is that he hears–whether by choice or by habit–not that Lot, some distant person unconnected to him, was taken captive, but that Lot his brother–to whom he has an obligation–was taken captive.

We talk a lot today in the Jewish world about meeting people–particularly young adults–where they are, playing to their individual interests, customizing Jewish life to respond to their tastes and desires. And we do need to do this, because we need to engage people in Jewish life. But as I told a good friend who gives away millions of dollars for a Jewish philanthropic foundation, I view part of my charge as a rabbi in the world of Jewish communal institutions as making sure we never let go of words like responsibility, duty, and calling.

We cannot make Israel, or service, or Shabbat or Jewish holidays simply an expression of our “authentic selves.” These cornerstones of Jewish life need to be expressive, but they also need to remind us of our place in the world, of the smallness and finitude of our existence, of the ways we depend on one another. In hearing that his brother was taken captive, Abraham reminds us all that we feel responsibility towards those who are not ‘other,’ but to those in whom we see–by choice or by habit–kinship and sameness. Abraham had a generous view, he saw kinship with many, and he thus felt responsibility to many. That tradition of hesed is something we should never lose.

Shabbat shalom.

We’ve had a house guest with us the last few days, a fellow named Josh Stanton. Josh is a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College, and is the editor and founder of the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue. He and I are both attending the Interfaith Youth Core’s conference, which is being held this week at Northwestern.

Josh contacted me a couple of months ago about staying with us, and I immediately said yes. We didn’t know each other, but I feel a sense of openness and responsibility towards rabbinic students, so there was no question in my mind about hosting him.

IMG_0066This isn’t a post about Josh, though (he’s a very nice and intelligent guy doing important work to improve the world). It’s actually a post about my kids.

This morning, Jonah and Micah were having breakfast, when Josh came upstairs from the guest room into the kitchen. Josh and the kids hadn’t met yet, so immediately Josh introduced himself. And what was amazing was that the kids engaged him–not just in the momentary, “My name is Jonah, My name is Micah” part, but for ten or fifteen minutes (which enabled me to get upstairs and get myself ready to take them to school). They had a long conversation. By the time we were ready to go, Jonah asked me, “Abba, can Josh come to school with us?”

Josh commented to me that we have very engaging kids. “When I was four,” he said, “if a stranger said hello, I’d probably run away.” I replied that our kids have grown up with a very open sense of home. Every week they ask if we’re having company for Shabbat, because they expect it. We frequently have guests in our home. And they also have a second home at Hillel. All of this leads them to be very comfortable meeting new people and engaging them. I suppose I’ve taken a lot of this for granted, but this encounter with Josh reminded me of this very special aspect of the work that I do–which spills over into our personal lives in a very significant way.

I frequently write and teach about my favorite of the Big Questions that are so central to my philosophy, namely, “Where do you feel at home?” And I often teach a piece of Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference in relation to it:

What would faith be like? It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be like being fluent in English, yet thrilled by the rhythms and resonances of an Italian sonnet one only partially understands. It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to mankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need that confidence now. (p. 65)

I think this sums up the kind of people we’re trying to raise our kids–and our students–to be. I say this humbly, but if my kids are any indication, it looks like we’re doing something right.

This in from today’s eJewishPhilanthropy blog:

New research released this morning by researchers from The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University backs up what many of us have known for years – Birthright participants return home with positive perceptions of their experience, increased connection to Israel, greater sense of connectedness to the Jewish people and increased interest in creating Jewish families.

The study, which has had the science behind it heavily vetted, is both the first to identify the Birthright experience as playing a part in marriage choices and the first to look at long-term impacts of participation.

Selecting both alumni and applicants who did not participate, the study focused on individuals from Birthright’s earliest years, 2001-2004.

Key highlights include:

  • Among married respondents who were not raised Orthodox, participants were 57 percent more likely to be married to a Jew than non-participants. (Virtually all married respondents who were raised Orthodox were married to Jews.) Among unmarried respondents, participants were 46 percent more likely than non-participants to view marrying a Jewish person as “very important.”
  • Participants were 30 percent more likely to view raising children as Jews as “very important.”
  • Participants were 16 percent more likely than non-participants to report feeling “very much” connected to the worldwide Jewish community.
  • Participants were 23 percent more likely than non-participants to report feeling “very much” connected to Israel.

As impressive as the present findings are, the study raises a number of unanswered questions. One is whether systematic follow-up efforts are necessary to sustain or even enhance the impact of the Birthright program.

The present study does not directly assess follow-up programs, such as those currently provided by Birthright Israel NEXT. [NEXT did not exist when the alumni who were the focus of the present study returned from their trips].

In addition, most participants from these early cohorts are now beyond the ages targeted by such programs.

Finally, and in contrast to the present situation, early participants returned to campuses and communities that had fewer Birthright alumni. The present evidence suggests that a high quality peer experience in Israel, even in the absence of such programs, produces significant long-term effects. However, the needs of more recent program alumni who, on average, have lower levels of prior Jewish education, may be different.

A nice piece of news from my institution.

Danny Gordis is a gifted writer, and he frequently hits the nail on the head. In his recent debate with Jay Michaelson (see here and here), I’m with Danny. But in his column today, I think Danny shows his hand to be simply another suit of the fatalism of which he accuses Jay.

Danny closes his column thus:

In today’s individualistic America, the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish people creates no goose bumps and evokes no sense of duty or obligation. Add the issue of Palestinian suffering, and Israel seems worse than irrelevant – it’s actually a source of shame.

We’re not terribly alarmed, but we should be. These young American Jews, after all, will soon control the coffers of the federations, and will sit on the boards of synagogues. Their generation will either strengthen or abandon AIPAC, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). They will be the ones allocating funding to schools, setting curricula and communal priorities.

“Who is wise?” asks the Talmud. “He who can see what is about to happen.” Deep down, we know what’s about to happen. A gaping chasm threatens the American-Israeli relationship, and we’re basically doing nothing. Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help.

Can you name one? Neither can I.

Now this is in keeping with the general theme of Danny’s writing for over ten years, which essentially boils down to the message: Diaspora Judaism is doomed to failure. All Jews should make aliyah.

Wake me up at three in the morning, and I would probably agree. As my wife would tell you, I can be given to pessimism, and I read the same writing on the wall as Danny Gordis. Thick forms of cultural expression have a hard time surviving in America, and Morris Allen’s observation about the relative popularity of lifecycle rituals over calendar rituals  fits with my own.

And yet, Danny gives no credit to those of us who actually are laboring here in galut to help the next generation of Jews write the story of their lives in dialogue with the enduring story of the Jewish people. He collapses into a heap of fatalistic loathing at the end of his column–I would even call it anger. And in this he violates the same principle for which he takes Jay Michaelson to task: he loses hope, he becomes bitter. “Better that you should lose a lot of money on Hillel’s account,” stated the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, “than that Hillel should lose his temper.”

Danny, I can tell you there is an army of Jewish professionals in the diaspora–too small, underfunded, undersupported, underappreciated, but dedicated, creative, passionate, and hardworking–who have dedicated their lives to not only asking, but answering “how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help.” We do it in all variety of ways–in academic settings, on trips, in conversations. Most important, we do it through relationships–not by lobbing verbal bombs from Emek Refaim, but by opening our homes, sharing our lives, and giving them our hearts. And Danny, we send them to you in the form of students who study in Israel–not just Birthright, but before, during and after college. When we send them to you, we need you to inspire them to a love of Jewsh life–the way you used to do with your amazing rhetorical gifts. What we don’t need is for you to fill them with fear and bile, and turn them off to your message (as several of my students who have heard you recently have described).

Danny, your column today was over the line, and you would do well to apologize to all the people whose contributions you slighted. In the meantime, we’ll read Jonathan Sacks.

One of the lasting readings of the the Creation story in recent decades comes from the philosophical work Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (the Rav). In Lonely Man, the Rav distinguishes between the story as outlined in chapter 1 with that of chapter 2. Human beings in chapter 1 are created male and female, and given the charge of mastering the earth and ruling it. This version clearly puts humans at the apex of the creation narrative–the culmination of six days of labor, after which God can look on everything God has made and proclaim it “very good.”

In chapter 2, by contrast, human beings are created alongside the rest of the world, placed in a garden, with the simple charge of tending it. Adam is created alone, not male and female simultaneously, and God first seeks a fitting helper for him from among the other animals. Only when that option is exhausted does God take a rib from Adam to create Eve.

These two stories provide the basis for the Rav’s distinguishing between Adam I and Adam II: Adam I, the scientific man, stands over against nature, Adam II, the natural man, is part of it; the world of Adam I finds equality between men and wome,  the world of Adam II explains gender politics; etc.

This observation of the Rav’s is among his most well-known teachings, probably because it resonates so well with the modern experience, of being simultaneously part of the world and apart from it.

Yet there is an important second step, often overlooked, to the Rav’s insight. The Adam I/Adam II distinction can easily become an issue of identity–trying to describe the human condition, or what human beings are. Much of philosophy has been caught up in that discussion for decades or centuries. And yet, in a seminar this quarter on secularism and religion, I find myself growing tired of the conversation–we can never adequately explain what human beings are. It’s intersting alright, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us to improving anything. While the Rav certainly emphasized what human beings do as much as what they are, this part of his insight is too frequently forgotten.

In his books of the last decade or so, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has sought to move the conversation away from what human beings are to what human beings do. His 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, is a landmark in this regard. Sacks has been preoccupied for years with the questions that philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor have asked–how can we understand the place of religion and unique cultures within a globalized world? Sacks’s contribution is to think about societies as things that all of us contribute to, instead of something that all of us take from.

His model for this is the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was built with the contributions of “all whose heart moved” him or her. “A nation,” Sacks writes, “is created through the act of creation itself. Not all the miracles of the Exodus combined, not the plagues, the division of the sea, manna from heaven or water from a rock, not even the revelation at Sinai itself turned the Israelites into a nation. In commanding Moses to get the people to make the Tabernacle,” Sacks concludes, “God was in effect saying: To turn a group of people into a covenantal nation, they must build something together.”

We have just concluded the holiday of Sukkot, which concludes the holiday cycle begun with Passover and continuing through Shavuot. Those two holidays celebrate freedom from oppression and the establishment of law, the creation of the covenant. Sukkot is the final achievement: the creation of society through buliding, taking the contributions of the world itself to make something together. The Sukkah is our contemporary Mishkan.

At the same time, we experience this reality through the weekly cycle of work and rest, chol and Shabbat. The Rabbis of course understood that the work of building the Mishkan was the human counterpart to God’s creation of the world. The work we do not do on Shabbat is defined by the work done to create the Mishkan–and therefore this is precisely the holy work, the purposeful work, the melechet machshevet, we do during the week. The emphasis is on the doing, on the creating, on the acting–it is not simply on cogitating about being.

One of my former (and continuing) students, Jessica Fain, who is currently studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, wrote me a profound and wonderful line this morning in her pre-Shabbat reflection: “Rather than saying God is good, say good is Godly.  We should be looking for the Godliness in action.” Doing, creating, is how we walk in God’s ways.

Shabbat shalom.

As I think I’ve written before, one of the books I want to write is called “Letters to a Jewish Twenty-something.” A recent conversation with a former student now studying in Jerusalem for the year prompted me to write the next entry.

Dear Alex,

You asked me for guidance about your desire to write on Shabbat. While writing on Shabbat is formally prohibited as one of the 39 acts of labor forbidden by Jewish law, you brought up a few very important rationales for wanting to write:

1. You want to write in order to capture and reflect on some of the very meaningful, thought- and feeling-provoking experiences you have on Shabbat, particularly this year as you study in Jerusalem;
2. While you appreciate living a halakhic lifestyle as a way of engaging with the rich tradition of the Jewish people, you don’t believe that halakha is actually the word of God as expressed through the Rabbis;
3. Given both of the previous points, it would seem to make a lot of sense to allow yourself to write on Shabbat as a means of deepening your spiritual experience–or, in a formulation I would prefer, deepen your dialogue with the enduring story of the Jewish people.

I responded in our conversation that you are asking a very powerful question, one that goes to the heart of the predicament of Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy today: Do you follow the formal letter of the law, even at the expense of deeper spiritual fulfillment and self-actualization? Or do you massage the contours of the law, in order to enable a more profound spirituality? Do you see the law as absolutely binding, even when it comes at the expense of a higher good? (Philosophers would call this a deontological position.) Or is the law only good when it fulfills the higher purpose in which you understand it is rooted, in which case your behavior should follow the purpose, and not the law? (A consequentialist approach.)

As I told you, my own feeling is that, though I have a great deal of sympathy for the consequentialist impulse–that is, to adjust our practice according to the purposes we understand it should be aligned with–and while I have a big problem the idea of deontological ethics–that is, behavior dicated solely by duty, and not by conscience–I still wouldn’t write on Shabbat, even if it was for your noble purpose of a greater sense of communion with the Holy One and Am Yisrael.

I can identify two main reasons for this. First, as I told you, one of the great advantages of halakha is that you don’t have to constantly evaluate your practice against your own subjective impulses. Halakha gives you a strong frame in which to live your life, and in giving over some of the decision-making to halakha, I think you ultimately create space in your life to be a better oved Hashem, a servant of God. The minute you start to cross that line, however well-intentioned the crossing, the frame ceases to be solid. Granted, one can reasonably argue that in our world of choice, every time one acts according to halakha, one is making an active choice. But in my experience, that’s not the case within a shomer mitzvot community. Yes, people frequently negotiate their observance, but there still remains an identifiable communal norm of behavior. Jews who keep halakha simply don’t write on Shabbos. When you begin to write, you may well be a very good Jew, but you have entered a space where you assume all responsibility for your halakhic decision-making, and I think that will lead to greater anxiety and difficulty down the road.

Second, and related to the first point, I don’t think one has to believe that halakha as codified in the Shulchan Arukh is dvar Hashem in order to be a God-fearing Orthodox Jew. One can approach halakha as what political philsophers might call a weak ontology–in the words of Stephen White, “Strong beliefs, weakly held.” The idea here is that halakha can be something we feel quite committed to, while still having a modern’s awareness that it may well not be the word of God, that it is the work of human beings. The community of people who live their lives in deep dialogue with halakha–the community of shomrei mitzvot throughout time–evolves and grows as an organism. We can argue about the pace of that change and whether the organism is healthy (I think it generally is), but the key point is that our relationship with the organism is paramount, not whether we believe that halakha comes from the mouth of God. In this respect, my approach has resonance with the idea of second naivete found in writers like Paul Ricouer–that is, we can approach our lives with a modern, self-critical, modest point of view, and yet still have deep commitments and a deep relationship with the Creator, which comes about through the awe and wonder we experience as briot, creations in the world, and in Torah, the ritual and ethical discipline we practice that connects us with God and one another in past, present and future.

What I am describing is essentially the project of modern or open Orthodoxy today, in my view. It is the attempt to live a life fully in dialogue with the enduring story of the people of Israel–Torah in its fullest understanding–in a post-modern age. It is a big project, and one that I myself am not sure I’m up to. I do not always rise to the level of these aspirations. But I try.

So finally, in answer to your question about writing on Shabbat, I would say that I think–I know–that God wants you to be struck with awe and wonder and gratitude at the world, and your life in it. I know God wants you to express that. And I also know that not writing on Shabbat is a discipline with ancient roots, that there have been spiritual seekers in every generation who have wrestled with how best to elaborate the memories of a Shabbat afternoon. My strong guess is that there are some deep spritual souls in the Holy City who can help you to find ways of remembering, rearticulating, and recreating your spiritual journey, and that those methods will be even more lasting and significant than writing. Before you take on the yoke of making your own halakha, I think you should explore all of the wisdom within it.

B’vracha,

Josh

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