November 2009

One of the favorite philosophical moves of modern traditionalists like myself is well-captured in the approach of thinkers like Martin Buber and Hans Georg Gadamer, which says that a text does not become complete until it is read. That is, in the act of interpretation, the reader in essence makes a world, one which unites author and reader through the text. When the act of interepretation takes place among a community of readers, they too become part of the world when the reader interprets the text.

The reason modern traditionalists like this approach (at least speaking for myself) is that it both honors the integrity and agency of the reader while simultaneously honoring the integrity of the text. A text doesn’t stand alone–it is there to be read and interpreted, made and remade anew with each reading. Its meaning is never fixed, it is only established by a community of readers with each reading. But the reader also must submit him/herself to the text, and engage it unabusively and in good faith. An interpretation completely at odds with, or oblivious to, the interpretations of the community of readers, has a hard time becoming part of the tradition of interpretation. It can do so, but it must show itself to be made with respect for the text.

The Jacob story, and the commentaries on it, are extremely rich in this regard. Most of the significant events in Jacob’s life take place in darkness, beginning with his deception of his father in last week’s Torah reading, and continuing this week with his dream (at night) and Laban’s nighttime subterfuge in exchanging Leah for Rachel. Next week we will find another sleepless night as Jacob divides his camp and wrestles with a mysterious man. The darkness theme is picked up by modern thinkers like Aviva Zornberg, who emphasize the psychological nature of the narrative. Jacob, Zornberg has taught, is capable of being in multiple places at once, the consummate ability of a modern adult psyche. See Rashi’s comment on 28:17, for instance, when he explains that the stone on which Jacob sleeps is both Bethel and Jerusalem, because “Mount Moriah [in Jerusalem] was torn away and came to this place [Bethel].” Zornberg reads this statement of Rashi as signifying Jacob’s ability to inhabit multiple places at once, just as we might be physically present at home but imagine or fantasize about being somewhere else at the same time.

In this interpretation, the text–including Rashi’s commentary on it–is interpreted to reveal a meaning well beyond the its simple meaning. The question is, does it hold water? And what criteria do we use to determine whether such an interpretation is good? One could say, “That works for you Dr. Zornberg, but I don’t see it.” The same could be said of Rashi. (Admittedly I find Zornberg’s reading of Rashi more persuasive than Rashi taken literally.) So when confronted with the murkiness of interpretive possibilities, how do we decide if a particular interpretation is adequate, or if it is to be rejected?

Jacob himself may help us determine an answer, though it may not be entirely satisfying if you’re looking for certainty. Jacob’s life is an exercise in trust. Trust in Jacob’s life is often violated: by Laban, by Joseph’s brothers, by Jacob himself vis-a-vis his father. And it is frequently subject to question: regarding Esau, with whom it is never clear whether there is real rapproachment; regarding his wives and his children–see especially Simeon and Levi after the rape of Dinah. These are all important lessons, realistic teachings in the uses, abuses, and workings of trust.

Jacob’s ultimate relationship, with God, is also marked by questions and a tested faith. The best example of this comes at the beginning of his journey, in this week’s Torah reading, when he vows, “If God will be with me and guard me on my way, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and return me to my father’s house in peace, the Lord will be my God.” (28:20-21) This begs the question: Would God not be Jacob’s God if God didn’t live up to Jacob’s terms? To bring us back full circle, does Jacob’s acceptance of God in fact bring about the world in which God exists? If God is the author of texts–the text of Creation and the text of Torah–then, as readers of those texts, do we in fact complete their creation when we interpret them?

This is the difficult and exhilirating kind of question that this kind of interpretive approach enables. Jacob–Israel–is the ancestor about whom we know the most, and about whom we are invited to ask and imagine the most. In many ways, he is the one whose life is most instructive for our own. The uncertainty of Jacob’s life is the condition in which we live. And the wrestling with both God and man, for which he was dubbed Israel and became the father of our own nation, is the mission of our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to eat a foot-long Subway sandwich for lunch just now. But there I was at the shiny new kosher Subway restaurant in Skokie, along with what seemed like the rest of the kosher-keeping community of Chicagoland. I’m told the line before we arrived was around a 2-hour wait; I only waited about 30 minutes. Still, who ever heard of waiting 30 minutes for a Subway sub?

Jews, it would seem. I think of the way people drool about the idea of kosher KFC or McDonald’s when they describe their trips to the Holy Land. When we went to Israel in April, my kids only wanted to eat at kosher Burger King. We went three times in two weeks. I remember when kosher Krispy Kreme opened in New York, or the when the kosher Dunkin Donuts in Skokie lost its kosher status a few years ago. (The secretary at the Chicago Rabbinical Council said I was about the 1000th caller to inquire about it when I phoned that afternoon.)

What is it about kosher chain restaurants that inspires such excitement? It represents a phenomenal inversion: that which is available to everyone is suddenly available to traditional Jews. Not all the food, mind you–there are no dairy items on the menu at kosher Subway, just as there are no cheeseburgers at kosher Burger King. It’s really not the food; it’s the packaging, the ambiance, the feeling that we’re able to have our cake (or our sub) and eat it too. The sentiment seems to be something like, “Look at me, I can keep kosher, wear a kippah, even chap a mincha minyan (pray the afternoon prayer service with 10 men) in a restaurant with the same logo and menu and napkins as all of you out there.” The taste doesn’t really matter; it’s the havaya, the experience, the sense of belonging to the larger culture.

As a kid I remember the many birthday parties I went to where I couldn’t eat the Oreo cookies. This became a major maker of my identity: I was that kosher-keeping kid who couldn’t eat Oreos. And then, when I was in college, they became kosher. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. On the one hand I wanted to eat the Oreos, to reciprocate the embrace of the culture at large. But I also wanted to resist it. What would happen if everything suddenly became kosher, if we no longer had these markers of our identity?

These questions are deeply present, though muted perhaps, at Thanksgiving time. Thanksgiving (unlike Halloween, which I wrote about a few weeks ago) has achieved the status of a true civic religious holiday in America. Everyone has access to it, everyone can make dinner for family and celebrate reasons to be thankful. Jews have had differences of opinion over the years about whether or not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but it’s fair to say that most everyone from the Modern Orthodox to the left observes the holiday. Thanksgiving, like kosher Subway, offers us the opportunity to participate in the culture at large while conforming to our own laws and observances.

The question raised around many Jewish tables at Thanksgiving is, Do we sing Shir Hamaalot (Psalm 126) before the grace after meals? We recite this optimistic psalm on holidays in place of the more lamenting Psalm 137, which is normally recited. Thanksgiving may be a holiday, but is it a Jewish holiday? That is the question behind the question. Most Orthodox Jews would not go so far. Their ritual lives are willing to incorporate that which can be incorporated without changing the legalities of observance.

We all want to be included, to have the same freedom and options that everyone else has. At the same time, as the upcoming holiday of Hannukah will remind us, sometimes identity needs to be defined in opposition to a dominant culture.

Oreos, anyone?

Hooray that the Senate voted to start debate on the health care bill. But can someone please explain to me why it is a healthy thing in a democracy that we require a 60 percent supermajority for a procedural vote? The Constitution already provides for a bicameral legislature, for checks and balances and division of powers. And in allocating an equal number of senators to every state, the Constitution reduces the representation of those of us in populous states, such that a resident of Wyoming (pop. 532,668) have over 24 times more representation than I do as a resident of Illinois (pop. 12,901,563). Isn’t that enough? Why add on the need for 60 votes in the Senate?

For the record, I made this argument back when the Republicans controlled the Senate and wanted to “go nuclear” and approve judges with a simple majority. I was of the opinion then, as I am now, that if you want to influence the political process, you need to win elections. The Democrats won the last election. They are doing the work they were sent to do. Why the will of the people should be thwarted, by the invocation of supposed safeguards beyond what the Constitution already provides, is incomprehensible to me. Unless, of course, you want to say we don’t live in a democracy. Which we evidently don’t.

The story of Jacob begins literally in his mother’s womb, as we read in Parshat Toldot. Rebecca has twins growing inside her, and the Torah deploys the colorful word vayitrotzatzu to describe their embrionic activity–a word that connotes running, racing, struggling, the work of governing competing emotions and desires.

It has always struck me as significant that Jacob and Esau are twins. The way in which the Torah sets them up as a complementary (or diametrically opposed) pair, almost has a Fight Club – quality to it. These brothers could be, and in some mystical ways are, the same person.

This image receives its greatest treatment in two places. The latter is Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, which we will read in two weeks during parshat Vayishlach. The first is from this week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dons the garb of his twin brother to fool his father into giving him his blessing. “Hakol kol Yaakov, v’hayadaim yedei Esav,” “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Gen. 27:22) In the text itself, we sense the conflict within Jacob as he undertakes this mission. In verse 12 he openly asks his mother, What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him, and bring a curse upon myself rather than a blessing. His mother reassures him, and he does her bidding. But the midrash adds on v. 14 that when he went to fetch the food and the skins to perform his deception, he did so with tears in his eyes.

Jacob is deeply conflicted about what he is doing. In this he is the best example of an emerging adult in the Torah–without question the most fleshed out character we have going through this stage of his life. This is the difficult and unavoidable work of determining his calling, of defining who he will be. I have written elsewhere about how the Torah helps us reflect on this stage of life, of the search for authenticity, and the sometimes violent nature such a struggle can take. Again I invoke the work of Lionel Trilling, who points out “the violent meanings which are explicity in the Greek ancestry of the word ‘authentic.’ Authenteo: To have full power over; also, to commit a murder. Authentes: not only a master and a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self-murderer, a suicide.”

Jacob is fully aware of the manipulation–the abuse?–inherent within his actions. That is why he cries. That is why he hesitates. The Torah certainly does not want us to overlook these aspects of his behavior; if anything, it amplifies them for us to hear and learn from. The questions this episode raises are ones that are timeless, that continue to reverberate in our individual and communal lives: What does it mean to be who we come to know we are meant to be? What is the price of that life? Are we willing to pay it? These will be the haunting questions of Jacob, of Israel, during these weeks when we read his life and for the millennia that follow.

Shabbat shalom.

I spent the past two days at a conference of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.

A short history of the IRF (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you know this already): Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel started this group a couple of years ago. Among other things, Rabbi Weiss was driven by the absence of a professional organization for musmachim (ordainees) of his rabbinic school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Rabbi Angel had become fed up with the politics governing the mainstream orthodox rabbinate’s approaches to handling conversions. Both of them wanted to create a forum where orthodox rabbis could genuinely express themselves, learn together, and support one another. Over 120 rabbis are now members of the IRF.

This meeting marked a watershed on a few levels. First, Rabbis Weiss and Angel formally stepped back. A new board of directors and slate of officers were elected, with a new generation of rabbis represented.

Second, the members present reached a pretty clear consensus that this organization will include women who have done the advanced learning in Jewish law requisite of rabbis, and who are functioning in clerical roles like rabbis. Without taking a stand on whether women can or should be ordained as rabbis per se, there was general agreement among those assembled that women who are doing what orthodox rabbis do should be welcome as full members of this organization. A membership committee will work out the specific details of a membership policy by next summer.

Third, the IRF adopted a policy on conversions. The main points of the policy are that the autonomy of the local rabbi is to be respected, that conversions performed by a halakhic beit din (rabbinic court) may not be retroactively annulled, and that IRF members will perform conversions in an open and generous spirit. A special committee for conversion matters (va’ad l’inyanei giyur) consisting of both scholars and practicing rabbis has been established to give guidance to IRF members and to ensure the integrity of the conversions they perform.

All of this was the business of the meeting, and all of it is historically significant in and of itself. I went to this conference partly because I wanted to be able to say I was there when these things happened.

But equally as significant, in my mind, was the tone and character of the gathering. As Rabbi Weiss pointed out, it is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where these difficult questions could be discussed with such openness. (It goes without saying it is impossible to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where women were present and in which they will soon be eligible for membership.) It is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where ideas like ecology and sustainability would be themes and values. And it is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where fifty rabbis would be dancing to a musical Hallel led by a guitar-strumming colleague.

It’s not perfect, it has work to do. But as I said to my colleague Rachel Kohl-Feingold when Reb Avi led us in singing and dancing after approval of the new board of directors, this was why a lot of us went to the yeshiva we did. This is why a lot of us became rabbis, to be able to bring about a more compassionate, open, and spiritual orthodoxy. We made some history in the past couple of days, and it makes me proud.


Hayei Sarah tells two stories. The first is Abraham’s purchase of the Machpela Cave to bury Sarah. The second is the mission of his servant to find a wife for Isaac. There are comparisons we could make between them, such as the role that money plays in formalizing commitments, or the idea of promises and continuity at the heart of both stories.

But what I find most striking is a small detail the story of Abraham’s servant (traditionally referred to as Eliezer of Damascus):

And [food] was set before him to eat, but he said, “I will not eat until I have spoken my words.” And he said, “Speak.” (Gen. 24:33)

Eliezer proceeds to recount the story which was told by the narrator up until this point: his charge from Abraham, his prayer to God, the appearance of Rebecca. At the conclusion of his story, the Torah states:

And the servant took out silver articles and golden articles and garments, and he gave [them] to Rebecca, and he gave delicacies to her brother and to her mother. (24:53).

On this verse, Rashi comments:

“and… delicacies: Heb. וּמִגְדָּנוֹת. An expression of sweet fruits (מְגָדִים), for he had brought with him various kinds of fruits of the Land of Israel.”

After this, “they ate and drank, he and the men who were with him.” (v. 54)

Eliezer is held up as a model of virtue, someone who Abraham trusts completely with one of the things about which he cares most in the world. And in this tiny detail–waiting to eat until he fulfills his mission–he reminds us that virtuous behavior begins with the basics. How and when we eat is reflective of our character. It is not simply about being polite; it is about demonstrating the most elemental aspect of humanity, our ability to fulfill commitments even when our animal instincts would tell us to do something else.

One of the things we must reclaim as we awaken from the slumbers of modernity is a relationship with our food–not only in what we eat and how it comes to us, but in the very act of eating itself. In a culture of abundance, eating has become a casual thing. Yet Eliezer reminds us that the act of limitation in eating is basic to our humanity and our religiosity, and it is part of his overall makeup–a person conscious about their food is a person who takes life seriously, someone who can be trusted, someone who will deliver on their word. We need more of his ethic in the world.

Shabbat shalom.

The 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall got a lot of press yesterday, and deservedly so. Yet I hardly saw a whimper about the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, which took place on November 9-10.

The coincidence of these anniversaries is striking. Both were instances of violence. Both were instances of breaking. Yet one was a destructive event that hastened the othering, subjugation, and elimination of a group of people for the sake of German identity; the other was a destructive event that was constructive at heart, and that brought about unification, reconciliation, and formation of a new German identity.

In the 51 years between Kristallnacht and the fall of the wall, the very idea of personhood, of nationhood, shifted dramatically. In 1938, the logic of nations was still rooted in a concept of ethno-racial identity. By 1989, human rights trumped all, and its simple and inexorable power broke through the wall and brought down the Soviet Union. In the ensuing decades, neoliberalism–vaguely defined as a non-dogmatic commitment to democratic and capitalist ideals worldwide–became the  norm, leaving little room for ethno-racial-religious notions of identity. Economics would unite everyone, and walls would continue to come down. At least that was the idea.

Of course, these narratives form the backdrop to the wall that gets the most attention in the world these days, the wall that separates much of Israel and the West Bank. And the questions of these two moments–of November 9, 1938 and November 9, 1989–linger. As Sergio Della Pergola, the noted Israeli demographer, said in a talk yesterday here at NU Hillel, the state of Israel has to choose between three values, of which it can only actually have two: Jewishness, democracy, and geography. It can be Jewish and on the land, but it cannot be democratic; it can be democratic on the land, but not be Jewish; it can be Jewish and democratic, but not on the land.

By the logic of human rights, we have to pay attention to the demographic reality that within a matter of months, 50% of the population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will be Arabs. By the logic of ethno-religious identity, the Jewish State and the Arab state (as they were termed in UN Resolution 181) need to, deserve to, and pragmatically should exist. What walls need to be broken, and what walls need to be erected and protected, to bring about peace? That, to me anyway, is the true question of November 9.

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