January 2010


The highlight of the portion of Beshallach is the climax of the Exodus story, the crossing of the Red Sea. Immediately after the Israelites cross the sea, Moses leads them in song, a model of communal singing that we still practice today in the recitation of the Hallel psalms on holidays.

Just before they cross the sea, the Israelites are trapped between the Pharaoh’s army and the shore. At that moment, the Torah recounts that God speaks to Moses and says, “Why do you cry unto me?” and instructs Moses to lead the people through the soon-to-be-parted water. The verse is a bit strange, as while the people complain to Moses that “there were not enough graves in Egypt, so you led us to die here” (the first expression of Jewish guilt-tripping), Moses in fact tells them to watch what God is about to do. Why, then, does God say to Moses, “Why do you cry unto me?” As they Rabbis play with this verse in the midrash, they dwell on the idea that God hears prayer even before it is uttered. Moses didn’t even need to cry to God for God to anticipate that this is what would happen.

This leads the Midrash to explore the idea of prayer. In the process, the Rabbis several amazing comments:

It is written, “O Thou that hearest prayer, unto Thee doth all flesh come (Psalms 65:3).” What is the meaning of: ’O Thou that hearest prayer’?2 R. Phinehas in the name of R. Meir and R. Jeremiah in the name of R. Hiyya b. Abba said: When Israel pray, you do not find them all praying at the same time, but each assembly prays separately, first one and then another. When they have all finished, the angel appointed over prayers collects all the prayers that have been offered in all the Synagogues, weaves them into garlands and places them upon the head of God…

Another explanation of ’O Thou that hearest prayer’. You will find that a mortal man cannot grasp the conversation of two people speaking at the same time, but with God it is not so. All pray before Him, and He understands and receives all their prayers.

Another explanation of ’O Thou that hearest prayer’. R. Judah b. Shalom said in the name of R. Eleazar: If a poor man says anything, one pays little regard; but if a rich man speaks, immediately he is heard and listened to. Before God, however, all are equal, women, slaves, poor and rich. A proof? Because of Moses, the greatest of all prophets, the same is said as of a poor man. Of Moses it is written, A Prayer of Moses the man of God (Psalms 90:1), and of a poor man it says, A Prayer of the afflicted,4 when he fainteth, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord (Psalms 102:1). In both cases the word ’prayer’ is used to teach you that before God all are equal in prayer. (Shemot Rabbah 21:4)

The general theme of these midrashim is that the act of communal prayer is a miraculous one, in which each individual melds into community, and each community melds into the totality of Israel, all the while preserving the uniqueness of the individual and the community. Each prayer becomes a jewel in the crown that the angel places upon God. This is a testament both to God’s singularity and to the singularity of the prayer experience.

The midrash here is setting up one of two bookends. The other will come next week in Parshat Yitro during the revelation at Sinai. In that case, the midrash tells us that each individual heard God’s voice in the voice that was appropriate to him or her, essentially in his or her own voice. The miraculousness there is that everyone experienced the same thing while experiencing something unique.

Prayer and revelation then become two modes of this same radical experience, in which the uniqueness of our individual soul, language and life is bound up, carried, elaborated, and enriched by the uniqueness and the totality of the our fellow-travelers. Prayer opens us to the possibility of revelation, revelation opens us to the possibility of prayer. Tefillah and Torah are two expressions of the same mystery.

Shabbat shalom.

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I study with a number of students in a variety of settings: one-on-one, in small groups, formally and informally. Today I had my weekly meeting with one such student. We’ve been studying Mishnah together this year, and we’ve studied other texts before. But today’s meeting illustrated how you never know when and were a deep conversation might happen.

We were studying the second chapter of the Tractate Brachot, which deals with the laws and ethics of prayer. In the second Mishnah of the chapter, Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha teaches why the paragraphs of the Shema come in the order that they do. The first paragraph comes before the second so that you will accept the yoke of heaven before the yoke of the commandments. The second comes before the third because, while the second is said during both daytime and nighttime, the third is only said at night. This is because the third paragraph is about the tzitzit, the ritual fringes, which are meant to be seen, and which cannot naturally be seen at night. (Incidentally, this is not the law today: we say the third paragraph at both daytime and nighttime.)

We started to unpack this last phrase, going into the halakhic principle of tadir v’eino tadir tadir kodem: When one has a regular activity and a special one, one does the regular one first. Since we always say the second paragraph, but we only say the third paragraph at night, we do the second one first. Or, since we put on our tallit, our prayer shawl, every day, but we only put on our tefillin on weekdays, we put on the tallit first.

Innocuous enough. But then my student observed that in our general culture, the emphasis seems to be precisely the opposite: do the special thing first, leave the routine for second. I responded that one could map onto that dichotomy a philosophical-ethical framework: the Mishnah’s ethics reflect an Aristotelian ideal, that the individual achieves fulfillment through behaving according to the ethical dictates of the law; the modern Western ideal, by contrast, is Kantian, and states that the individual’s expression of his/her will is what is most authentic. For the Mishnah, and for traditional Judaism in general, individual fulfillment comes through surrender to the law, from doing the routines of the everyday precisely because the law commands them. For the Westerner, individual fulfillment comes through “finding your best self” and “living your best life,” which leads to an ethics of the unique and special, often at the expense of the mundane. (Caveat for the scholars: I don’t mean to imply that Aristotle and Kant are so widely apart, or that one is better than the other. One can certainly be a good person living according to both approaches. But the community-individual dichotomy is useful, and Aristotle and Kant are perhaps the two great protagonists in the story.)

From here the discussion opened up into a conversation about prayer, and the tension within Jewish prayer of spontenaity and liturgy. On Friday nights, my student said, he often feels nothing as he sits through the Shabbat prayers. He either wants it to be much longer or much shorter–longer and lingering on one or two prayers and doing them really well, or shorter and thereby getting to the good company and conversation of dinner. What happens now, he said, is the worst of both worlds: you get to discharge your obligations, and you feel nothing whatsoever. Let it be one or the other.

I responded by fast-forwarding two chapters in the Mishnah, to Rabbi Eliezer, who says that one who makes his prayer fixed and rote has failed to make his prayer a true outpouring of feeling, and to Rabbi Joshua, who states what one should pray if one is in a dangerous place or moment. I remarked that I thought the juxtaposition of these two remarks was instructive: taken together, they signal that prayer is supposed to be a bit dangerous, it should involve risk. The Mishnah following Rabbi Joshua further states that one who is unable to turn his body to face Jerusalem while praying should direct his heart towards the Holy of Holies. This would seem to be a further confirmation of the same idea: the Holy of Holies is the site of greatest ritual, precisely because it is the site of the greatest instability and power. Prayer is supposed to be an encounter between God, the individual and the community, all in that space.

Yet my student wasn’t quite satisfied. “How do you do both at once–the ritual and the spontaneous? How do you do the Kantian and the Aristotelian? How do you find individual fulfillment and surrender to the law?” I think there are at least three approaches, I said. One is to try to live in the middle, in the tension. This is generally an attractive idea to idealistic folks in their twenties. It was certainly attractive to me at that stage of my life. It was the same kind of third way impulse that a lot of us admired in the Obama campaign. But of course we’ve seen that it’s a lot easier to say that than to do it. The center cannot truly hold in the long run. You can’t build an institution out of the unstable middle. To do so is to live a life forever betwixt and between.

So you then have two other options. The first is to make your home inside traditional Judaism, and venture out into the world of secular life, but return home at the end of the day or the week. The second is to make your home in the secular world, and venture out into the world of traditional life, returning to your secular home when the day is done. Good, rich, ethical, and moral lives are possible according to both approaches. I don’t think it’s simply an issue of taste, though neither of the options is going to be right for everyone. It’s a real choice.

Home looks different in each case. And what my student described in this conversation was nothing so much as the struggle to figure out where home is, what home looks like, who is in home, who or what can be a guest, and where do our journeys outside of home take us. As I have come to see from so many conversations with Jews in their twenties in recent years, those are really the questions that tug at their hearts, that keep them up at night.

What I love most about my work is that I am privileged to have these conversations, to help these extraordinary people explore these questions, not just in reference to their own lives, but through the framework of Torah. This entire conversation happened because of a line about which paragraph of the Shema gets said first. How fantastic is that?

A quick shout-out to my college friend and fantastic Jewish educator Rabbi Josh Cahan, who has a new blog about independent prayer groups and other thoughtful stuff. Here’s a post on the effect of children in indie minyans: http://joshcahan.blogspot.com/2010/01/children-and-identity.html.

Happy reading.


I grew up as the youngest of three brothers. I remmeber when my oldest brother Dan and his wife Sara had their first child, Hadas. When I went to play with her, I wasn’t a natural–I didn’t have a lot of experience playing with children. And I remember my brother pointing this out to me: “Yeah, you’re a youngest kid.”

He was right. I wasn’t the kind of person who noticed baby carriages all that much, or thought about young children when I was becoming an adult. They were kind of an abstraction to me.

All that has changed now, of course, because I have my own kids. I like to think I’m good at playing with children, and I see babies and toddlers in the world much more than I did when I was younger.

I bring this up because one of the central themes of Parshat Bo, the Torah portion fort his week, is children. When Moses tells Pharaoh to let the people go, Pharaoh asks, “Who will go?” Moses replies, “With our young and our old we will go, with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we will go, for it is a holiday to the Lord.”  Pharaoh responds, “The Lord be with you if I let the children go,” or in other words, No way. (Ex. 10:9-10) God then brings the plague of locusts. When Pharaoh asks Moses to intercede and send the locusts away, he says, “Go and worship God, only leave the flocks and the herds–your children may also go with you.” (Ex. 10:24)

Of course, the plague of the firstborn is a plague affecting both children and adults, but even the adults are thought of in the context of their births–as children. And then we have the commandment of the seder, in which Moses emphasizes, “When your children say to you, What is this celebration to you? And you will say, This  is the Passover offering to God, who passed over the house if the Israelites in Egypt when he slew the Egyptians and saved our homes.” (Ex. 12:27) This passage will become central to the seder experience until today, which revolves around a multigenerational telling of the Exodus story.

We can ask some interesting questions about what it meant to be a child in the ancient world, and how the Torah understands children. An academic philosophical article entitled ‘What is a Child?’, by Tamar Shapiro (Ethics 109), analyzes what has happened to our idea of children in the modern period, particularly in Kant and Locke. We often get in our heads the idea that the trajectory from childhood to adulthood is a straight one, that we ‘lose our innocence,’ become physically mature, and enter the world of adulthood. But as Shapiro points out, and as current developmental theory maintains, it is not a straight line. It is not so easy to define who is a child and who is an adult, particularly given the reality of adults who do not have full mental or physical functioning–they are not children, and we therefore cannot define ‘child’ or ‘adult’ simply on the basis of physical or mental status. Or at least those definitions need to be understood as provisional.

I think the Torah was already onto this. While a contemporary thinker has dubbed the Jews the “Ever Dying People,” for always thinking that we’re about to peter out for one reason or another, I would argue that we are the Ever Young People. Our central ritual, the seder, is built around play–“In every generation one is obligated to see himself as though he personally left Egypt.” This is a playful imagining, an act of a child: “Let’s dress up and pretend!”

We put children front and center in the Seder evening, as the Four Children section of the Haggadah demonstrates, and which reminds us, We are all children–or we need to remember what it is to be children. That is, the world does not have to be as it is, it can be changed. A child’s freedom of imagination and play is a threat to the hard stability of Pharaoh. The world can be different–even if you’re a slave, you can be free.

Shabbat Shalom.

Three moments from this week:

1. A student who I have known peripherally for a while, who is a committed activist concerned about poverty and inequality, comes to me for advice. “I know all these activists who are deeply rooted in their faith,” he says. “It gives them strength. I’m Jewish, but I didn’t really grow up with much in the way of Jewish practice, and I want to find a way to tap into that same strength that my friends have.”

2. A friend and colleague writes to a listserv of Jewish communal leaders under the subject line “Haiti,” in a matter-of-fact sort of way, “Who’s going? I know civilian flights aren’t getting there, but maybe we can get on a military transport?”A discussion ensues on the listserv about the appropriate place for unskilled volunteers, about what is the best way to do good right now.

3. Reuters runs a news story with the following description: “In the frightening pitch black of quake-stricken Haiti’s night, religious songs rise from groups of people huddled in open spaces for safety and solidarity.”

It is impossible for us to read Parshat Vaera, which accounts for seven of the ten plagues in Egypt, without thinking of Haiti this week. Yet the ways in which we reflect on the catastrophe there through the prism of the parsha require careful thought (to be contrasted, for instance, with Pat Robertson’s remarks).

The Passover Haggadah builds a midrash on the verses of Deuteronomy 26,8: “And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, with signs and wonders.” On the words “awesome power,” the Haggadah states, “This is the revelation of the Divine Presence, as it is stated, ‘Has God done such things, to take one nation out from another… like all that which the Lord your God did before your eyes in Egypt? (Deut. 4:34)” As Rashi points out, the phrase “before your eyes” indicates that this was a visual experience, and that therefore the apprehension of the Divine Presence was a visual one: the Israelites saw God in this moment.

How are we to understand this? Is the Divine Presence in the destruction itself? A careful reading of the text reminds us that the answer is no. God is not interested in wanton destruction. Though the purpose of the plagues is to humble Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and to show that “there is none like Me in all the Earth,” the power displayed through the plagues is not God being capricious. On the contrary, the point of the plagues is precisely to show the mightiest nation on the earth that they are accountable to something greater, that they must remember that we are all members of the same Creation.

I would propose that the apprehension of the Shechina, the Divine Presence, is to be understood in this way. Seeing the Divine Presence means deeply experiencing the ultimate frailty of human life, and simultaneously affirming the meaning of our existence. It is a radical response to suffering.

The Midrash states that what the Israelites saw in Egypt was a unique occurrence in human history: “A handmaiden at the Red Sea saw more than the prophet Ezekiel” (Mechilta Beshalach Shira 23). But in our affirmation of the possibility of human life in the face of suffering on such a magnitude, we partake of the same spirit as the ancient Israelites. In our zeal to help–even if that zeal is not precisely what is most useful right now–we tap into the same Presence as they did. And in doing so, we remind ourselves that we are not alone, that generations before us and generations to come have dealt and will deal with suffering and horror and pain, and yet human life will continue and we will still make meaning of it.

I do not know what the Haitians are singing at night, but imagine the words of Psalm 23 may be on their lips: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for you are with me.” Granted, it is easy to say these things from far away. But as we enter this Shabbat and read the story of the plagues, we are called on to find the Divine Presence and bring it out for all to see.

Shabbat shalom.

My kids and I recently watched ‘The Prince of Egypt,’ Jeffrey Katzenberg’s animated take on the Exodus story. And while I liked the movie a lot, there was one major misconception that I found problematic: the movie made the Exodus story all about freedom.

Granted, freedom is a key piece of the story. We refer to Passover as “z’man heruteinu,” the time of our liberation. Self-determination is an important value. As the movie portrays it, the thing that is wrong is the notion that human beings are enslaved. In a moving episode, Moses asks Pharaoh (his erstwhile brother, in this telling anyway), What do you see when you look out on all your building projects? Pharaoh sees an empire; Moses sees it built on the backs of slaves. The insight is thus to see all human beings as created equally in God’s image, which leads to the notion that all human beings must be free to make their own choices.

But in its modern telling, of which ‘The Prince of Egypt’ is now a canonical instrument, the valence of the word ‘freedom’ has obscured a fundamental question: freedom for what? Katzenberg’s movie focuses on the plagues and the splitting of the sea, and gives about 30 seconds at the end to an image of Moses going to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, all the while keeping the focus on Moses. The story thus becomes, “Moses was a prince of Egypt who led his people, the Hebrews, out of slavery, and became a lawgiver,” as though the last part is a throwaway line.

But of course the law is equally as important as the freedom. Freedom from another’s rule by itself is not enough; freedom must directed towards a purpose. In the case of the Exodus story, this theme is clear from the outset. God tells Moses to bring the people to the mountain. Moses repeatedly tells Pharaoh in God’s name to “send forth my people” (a more literal translation of “let my people go”) “so that they may serve me.” The children of Israel go from avadim, servants, of Pharaoh to being avadim, servants, of God. The story isn’t about losing the status of eved, servant; the story is about changing the master to whom service is rendered. This is why we connect the holidays Passover and Shavuot–z’man heruteinu and z’man matan torateinu, the time of our liberation and the time of the giving of our Torah–with the counting of the Omer. You can’t have one without the other.

For at least the last 50 years, and perhaps longer, Americans have focused on the ‘freedom from’ of the Exodus story, but have forgotten the ‘freedom for’ aspect. Nowhere is this phenomenon as pronounced as in our institutions of higher education. We rightly emphasize critical thinking and a doubting approach to authority. But our academic culture has largely lost the second, crucial step: after asking “what is false?” we must also ask “what is true?” The service of Pharaoh is false, the service of God is true. What does it mean to serve God? That is the biggest question of them all. In the words of Hillel: Go and learn.

A couple of articles from the January 1 issue of the Forward, written by friends, caught my attention over Shabbat. The first is this piece by Ethan Tucker that uses the recent British court ruling on the definition of Jewish peoplehood to explore the dueling tensions within Jewish life of what it means to be Jewish: is it fundamentally what we might refer to as an ethnic identification, or is it more religious in nature? Ethan reminds us that the conquest of Alexander the Great, and the introduction of the possibility of an identity for Jews separate from a Jewish identity, had profound and lasting reverberations for the rest of Jewish history: “Hellenistic culture cleaved religion from ethnicity and allowed anyone born anywhere to enter into a Greek way of life. This shift plunged Jews into an identity crisis from which we have never fully recovered. Are we a people? A religion? Some combination of both?”

Closely paraphrasing my own views on the subject, Ethan argues that it has to be both, that we cannot let go of the lived rhythms of the people, nor the reflective ideas of the faith:

Judaism as a religion benefits from Jewish peoplehood and the sense of warmth, belonging and unconditional love and commitment that come with it. At the same time, simply distilling Jewishness down to a content-free ethnic categorization determined by one’s mother threatens to trivialize and marginalize any sense of Jewish purpose and mission. Only a concept of Judaism that sees a religious mission embedded within an ethnic group — albeit with the possibility of both entry and exit at the margins — can do justice to the richness of Jewish history.

Now that the British court case is decided, Jews, as an ancient people and faith, must even more urgently return to a basic question: Do we share a future as a result of our common ethnic past, or is our common past irrelevant if we don’t share a religious vision for the future?

Ethan captures a major tension within Jewish life today and insists, as I do, that we cannot exist without it. Jewish identity cannot be reduced to biology or genetics–in fact, these things are immaterial as far as Jewishness goes. But one also cannot be Jewish simply because one is compelled by the ideas of Jewish life. You have to make an existential commitment, you have to join the community. Unfortunately, in our world, we have few if any analogous terms, so this can be a difficult thing for people to grasp. Ethan does a good job of making it clear.

The other piece in the Forward is this one by Jay Michaelson, about the myth of authenticity in Jewish life. Jay argues that authenticity is an historically-constructed idea, something that never truly existed.

Authenticity isn’t about form, it’s about getting to what matters. “It’s not, of course, that we want to be the shtetl Jews of Anatevka,” he writes, “only that we continue to see them as the ‘real’ ones, and the rest of us, well, as a kind of hybridization, or adaptation. Thus there persists in the American Jewish imagination an anxiety of inauthenticity — that someone, somewhere, is the real Jew, but I’m not it.” Progressive Jews need to believe in themselves more, and Orthodoxy has to make sure it has a soul and isn’t simply rote performance. In sum:

“Meaningful authenticity isn’t about an old religious form or a Yiddish pun… It’s when a religious, literary or cultural form — old, new or alt-neu — speaks to the depths of what it is to be human.

“If a guitar-playing, meditating female rabbi resonates more with the souls of her followers than does a nigun-singing, Talmud-learning male one, she is the more authentic spiritual leader. If ecstatic prayer speaks to and from the spirit more than a supposedly consistent rationalism, then it, too, is more authentic, notwithstanding the howls of the secularist. Authenticity isn’t about form, it’s about getting to what matters.”

This is good stuff, and I certainly believe it. But here’s what I fear: Most people simply don’t approach life with this level of sophistication. Jay rightly insists that this is more than an issue of simple individual preference. It should involve real discernment and soul-searching to arrive at a point of “carefully considered internal coherence.” I totally agree. But I don’t think that we live now, or have ever lived, in a culture in which all the people reading a column like this are capable of this kind of intellectual-spiritual heavy lifting. Despite the fact that most Jews are college-educated (or, more likely, because they are college-educated), they aren’t going to do this work, either because they don’t know how or won’t make the time. It’s much easier living with an ossified authenticity.

That, to me, is the true challenge for thoughtful progressive Judaism today. Yes, there are havura communities that have successfully raised a generation of committed, thoughtful, liberal Jews. But they are far from the norm. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has grown and seems poised to continue to do so, the economic crisis notwithstanding.

At the end of the day, the biggest thing one loses in stepping out of the Orthodox community is the ability to speak in terms of hiyyuv, obligation. Even if many Orthodox Jews don’t follow through on their obligations, they nonetheless submit to the sense of obligation, and can sustain an entire discourse and worldview around it–one which is accessible by the amcha and the elite alike. Progressive Judaism, for my money anyway, hasn’t yet shown me what a large self-sustaining community of non-hiyyuv-oriented people looks like. Perhaps that’s what it needs to have the self-confidence that comes when you tell yourself you’re authentic.