One of the most important and rewarding parts of my work as a Hillel rabbi is studying Torah with students. In addition to the talks and discussions I regularly lead, over the years I have maintained many individual havrutot, or study partners, with undergraduates. The topics under study have ranged from the Bible to Mishnah and Talmud to Jewish philosophy. And while it is a commonplace among Jewish educators to invoke the Talmudic saying, “I have learned from my students most of all,” there’s a reason it’s a commonplace—it’s true.

This year one of my student havrutot is a philosophy major, and we are learning the Mei Hashlioach of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the nineteenth century Hasidic master also known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe. Mei Hashiloach is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion. But it is not so much a commentary as, like other Hasidic works, a creative meditation on big, eternal questions, by means of the words of the written Torah.

While he is beautiful and provocative, the Ishbitzer is also incredibly challenging—particularly if you are a linear thinker looking for a scientific sort of analysis. One of his main theological premises is that human beings are ultimately vessels for God’s will. In one of his more famous formulations, he suggests that Zimri, the Israelite who was publicly fornicating with a Midianite woman and was killed by the priest Pinchas in an act of righteous zealotry (see Num. 25), was not actually sinning, because God had willed it. This line of thinking is where the Ishbitzer crosses a line into dangerous territory.

But in other places, he offers compelling challenges to the ways we traditionally approach Torah and the world. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Ishbitzer’s commentary on the revelation at Sinai is breathtaking in the way it meditates on the limits of language and history. His approach to the Mishkan helps us see the deeper questions in its symbolism: What does it mean to have a body? How does the symbolism of clothing and furniture help us experience the gap between our desires and our ethics?

Parshat Ki Tissa, recounting the incident of the Golden Calf, provides yet another twist on these questions. How can we, who have bodies, who think and speak in language, relate to a God who doesn’t have a body, who exists beyond time, space, and language? Going further, into the real heart of Ki Tissa—Moses’s incredible encounter with God, and God’s act of grace in forgiving the people of Israel—the Ishbitzer prompts us to ask, How do we understand God’s forgiveness? How do we understand our own capacity for righteousness and grace, which exists alongside our capacity for self-interest, exploitation and sin? Particularly for the Ishbitzer, who sees God as the force behind everything, how do we understand the gap between our potential and our reality?

His answers can be beguiling. God created Moses with the attributes (middot) to be able to accept the words of Torah, he says. And at the moment of Moses’s plea for the people, God recognized those attributes in Moses and showed him grace. It’s confusing: Why does God need to recognize those attributes in Moses, if God was the one who put them there? Doesn’t that suggest that God forgets God’s own actions? And isn’t that a problem if God is all-knowing?

My havruta and I circled around this question repeatedly during our hour reading the Mei Hashiloach. I tried to suggest that this linear approach—trying to understand the sequence of events—was not going to work, because it’s not following the questions of the Ishbitzer. He isn’t trying to explain what God is, he isn’t engaging in speculative metaphysics. He’s offering a meditation. It’s more poetry than prose.

Being a parent, I have an inarticulable intuition of the Ishbitzer’s gesture: I have had hopes and dreams and visions of the future for my children, which I may forget at various moments, but which are brought back into consciousness at other moments—moments which I would identify as hen, grace. How that works is a mystery, and that’s precisely what makes the idea of hen so powerful. This is the essence of God that God cannot show Moses, the mystery par excellence: “I will be show grace unto whom I will show grace, and will show mercy unto whom I shall show mercy.” (Ex. 33:19)

At this stage of my life, the question “What is the nature of the universe?” is less important to me than the question, “How does this approach help me live a better life?” Perhaps this betrays my philosophical affinity for pragmatism, a la William James or John Dewey. Perhaps it also represents a certain surrendering of control: in seeking to explain the universe, we often seek to control it. By easing off on the quest for explanation, and accepting the fact that I cannot really ever know the workings of world with certainty, I find I can actually get to a more fruitful place in being a servant of God.

Shabbat shalom.

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