July 2012


It has been a slow summer for my blogging. That’s because most of my writing energy has been going into my qualifying exams and now my dissertation prospectus. So my apologies if you’ve missed getting something from me every week. But this is probably how it’s gonna be for a while.

My dissertation is taking shape, and it surrounds Yitz Greenberg (who I know is a reader of the blog; not many doctoral candidates can say that!). In 1993, the Jewish intellectual historian Steven Katz wrote that Yitz was the most influential thinker in American Jewish life over the past two decades. Katz argued that Yitz’s work through CLAL and his various other pluralistic educational endeavors changed the way Federation and communal leaders thought of themselves and related to Jewish learning and tradition. Yitz helped to create a new kind of discourse in American Jewish life, where today it is not unusual for Federation meetings to include a dvar Torah or for communal leaders to study Jewish texts. Yitz’s influence can be felt every time someone deploys the idea of “tzelem elokim,” humans created in God’s image, or talks about Covenant as an organizing concept in Jewish thought. Yitz did not invent these terms, but he made them into powerful teachings that spoke to a wide audience across denominations. I share Katz’s assessment: there aren’t many figures who have been as influential across so many communities.

Within the Orthodox community, of course, ‘Yitz Greenberg’ means something very different. For nearly fifty years, Yitz has become a marker in the Modern Orthodox zeitgeist, denoting an alternative might-have-been to what mainstream Orthodoxy became. To both his supporters and his foes, Yitz represented something powerful–to his supporters, powerfully inspiring; to his foes, powerfully threatening.

One of the distinguishing features of Yitz’s biography and thought is that he is an historian. This is significant for a number of reasons. As Alan Brill has observed, most of the major figures of Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s and 60s worked in philosophy: Most notably, of course, Rav Soloveitchik, but also figures like Samuel Belkin, Eliezer Berkovitz, Norman Lamm, Walter Wurzburger, and Sol Roth. Emanuel Rackman was a lawyer and wrote his PhD at Columbia on law, and his approach to Modern Orthodoxy–which was, in its day, an even more powerful challenge than Yitz’s–was through law and halakha.

Unlike these other figures, Yitz’s PhD was in American history (on Teddy Roosevelt and the American labor movement), and his teaching appointment at YU in 1959 was to teach just that. Within a few years, and particularly after his sabbatical in Israel in 1960-61, he taught modern Jewish history as well, and was among the first people to teach about the history of the Holocaust. Yitz was a very popular professor, and not only because of his charisma. There was something striking in his approach to history. He didn’t teach the past as dead. He taught it as living. Similar to what I wrote a blog post last year about Daniel Sperber, this represents a different approach to history than we often think of as the norm, one which doesn’t see nearly as firm a split between ‘history’ and ‘memory’ as Yosef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor might argue. For Yitz, history represented something we learn from for the sake of our own lives. This enabled him to talk about even Biblical criticism, one of the most challenging areas not only for Orthodoxy, but even Conservative Judaism in the 1950s. The problem of academic Biblical critics, he taught, was not that they excavated the Bible, but that they ruled out the possibility that humans could have a relationship with God. Biblical criticism could show how humans in their time and place responded to God, and that could then inform us today about how we should do the same.

This approach to history thus had two compelling features: It made the past come alive, and it made the present a continuous flow from that past. Listen to what Yitz’s students at YU or Yavneh in the 1960s said about him, and this is what comes through. It led to Yitz’s calls for major halakhic adaptation and innovation, not only in internal Jewish areas like conversion or egalitarianism, but strikingly in the realm of American politics (social welfare legislation, civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, etc.). Yitz’s work as an historian made him unique within Orthodoxy, and beyond Orthodoxy as well. He is not an historian who lets the past simply live in the past.

I would argue that for many Orthodox Jews it is this challenge that is so difficult. Orthodoxy (a term which demands a great deal of excavation itself) has successfully encountered modern science, modern philosophy, and modern culture, and proved able. There are great examples of Orthodox scientists, philosophers, thinkers, writers, and performers. But the realm of modernity in which it has had the most difficult challenge is history, particularly Biblical history, but also history that challenges the saintliness of great figures of the past. That is why Yitz was, and remains, simultaneously inspiring and threatening–he was willing to embrace such histories without reducing the past to a purely man-made affair. As Yerushalmi argues, modern historiography is built on the idea that there is a radical break from the past, one that enables us to stand and gaze objectively at it. Yitz agrees with this, but then makes the dialectical move of saying, There is no break: we are the inheritors of that past, and the past demands our action in the present.For Orthodoxy, this is a significant challenge.

But why? As we approach Tisha b’Av, I think we see an answer. Tisha b’Av was a holiday that Rav Soloveitchik took very seriously. All day he would recite Kinnot and teach about them (a tradition which Rabbi J.J. Schacter now admirably continues). For the Rav, the halakha generated a requirement to feel the magnitude of the hurban (destruction), to feel God’s absence. And for Jews, as so many Jewish philosophers have told us, God’s presence or absence is felt primarily in history. Our narrative as a people is built on the idea of God intervening in history. Yet Tisha b’Av marks the first–sadly not the last–cataclysmic moment when God seemingly wasn’t there, when God hid Godself and allowed the destruction to happen. Though the challenge of God’s presence or absence is one we encounter every day through our prayers and performance of mitzvot, on many days we can go through the motions, or we can focus on the celebratory aspects in which we enjoy feeling the presence of God (a bris, a wedding, Shabbos dinner, holidays). Tisha b’Av, however, is the day of God’s absence, a day when the problem of Jewish history and its meaning for our individual and collective relationship with God is most forcefully expressed. The observances of Tisha b’Av are made meaningful not through joy, but through feeling the absence of God, longing for God’s return, and committing ourselves to bringing it about.

But then we come out of Tisha b’Av, and we don’t really have to deal with God in history any more–or so we tell ourselves. We can focus on our performance of mitzvot, we can feel God’s presence in other ways. Tisha b’Av can exist on its own, and we can be happy on any day when we don’t have to say Tachanun. We can engage ‘modernity’ through science and philosophy and culture, and we can avoid the challenge of confronting the question of God’s role in history. (I save the question of Israel and history for another time; this blog post is already long enough, and my focus is on American Judaism.)

Yitz Greenberg’s challenge to Orthodoxy, and to American Jewry, was not to put our heads in the sand. The elephant in the room is God’s place in history. Modern historiography had already made this a challenge; the Holocaust made it inescapable. And yet, 40 years after Yitz left Yeshiva University, the challenge is one with which we have yet to fully come to terms.

Shabbat shalom.

In honor of tonight’s Major League All-Star Game (hashtag #ASG), Jonah, Micah and I are proud to present the second-annual Biblical All-Star team (#BAS). Remember, BAS team members have to have a strong rationale for their place in the field and in the lineup. Here goes:

1. Jacob (CF). Yaakov Avinu makes this year’s team once again in the leadoff position, owing mostly to his ability to get on base and steal (Gen. 27). Jacob is also a solid center fielder, with a strong arm that can roll boulders off of wells (Gen. 29:10).

2. Abraham (3B). Avraham gets the nod in the second slot this year because of his uncanny ability to make the sacrifice bunt (Gen. 22). The third baseman needs particularly quick feet in order to handle the hot shots down the line, and Abraham has proven running ability (Gen. 18:2).

3. Aaron (SS). The power of the lineup for this year’s team begins with Aharon, who hit Egypt with his staff (i.e. bat). Aaron starts at short due to his outstanding ability to cover the gap (Num. 17:13).

4. Samson (LF). Cleanup goes to the strongest man in the Bible, whose arm will also serve him well in left. Shimshon is particularly excited to be playing the Philistine All-Stars this year.

5. Moses (2B). Moshe’s strong bat is legendary of course, and hitting behind Samson will keep the Philistines from pitching around him. Why is he at second? He is part of the dynamic duo that made so many dramatic double-plays on the Egyptians in their rookie season (Ex. 6:26-27).

6. David (P). David gets the nod to start for this year’s BAS team, because of his low ERA and outstanding pitch location, as demonstrated against the former Philistine All-Star, Goliath (1 Sam. 17:49).

7. Nachshon (C). Most famous for his bravery in the World Series game at the Red Sea against the Egyptians, Nachshon gets the start at catcher in tonight’s game. He is also a strong leader for the rest of the team (Num. 7:12), and will work well with his great-great-great grandson on the mound (Ruth 4:20).

8. Saul (1B). A tall first-baseman is a big plus, since he can catch balls thrown over his head. Saul fills this position nicely (1 Sam. 9:2).

9. Sara (RF). Sara brings vast experience to her position, based on her 127 years in the Biblical league (and we wanted the team to be co-ed).

Relief pitchers: Aaron and Hur, who were so important in the Biblical team’s victory over the Amalekites (Ex. 17:12).

Closing pitcher: Joshua.

Manager: Judah (Gen. 49:10: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.”)

Base coach: Rebecca, who is outstanding at stealing the other team’s signals (Gen. 27:5).

 

Good luck in tonight’s game to all the Major League All-Stars!

 

 

 

Leadership theorists Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have introduced the phrase “looking from the balcony” into a lot of conversations among people I work with. (They have been the go-to leadership thinkers for the Wexner Foundation for many years.) When we step on the balcony and look at our situation, we get a different perspective. We stop the tape and examine what’s going on with a wider view.

One of the marvelous things about Parshat Balak is the way it transports us as readers outside the story of the children of Israel and onto the balcony. “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites,” begins the parasha (Num. 22:2). Immediately we are struck by the fact that it is not Moses or God speaking, it is not an event in the life of the people. The whole story is literally told from the balcony—from the high places overlooking the Israelite encampment. And what Balaam sees is ultimately a beautiful thing: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

Yet aside from the recent military victories they have been achieving in the preceding chapters, the narrative of the people has not been exemplary. Immediately after the story of Balak and Balaam, the narrative returns to yet another example of the people sinning, with the story of Zimri, Kozbi, and Pinchas. The parasha seems designed to highlight the gap between the way Balaam sees the people and the way the people see themselves. Balaam sees a people capable of greatness, a blessed people with a noble calling based on God’s taking them out of Egypt. But the people themselves are blind to this, and repeatedly see only what is right in front of them: a lack of food or water, the sexual temptations of Midian. In the case of the spies, they saw themselves as grasshoppers about to take on giants. The gap between what Balaam sees and what the people see is striking.

According to the plain text, Balaam is not the nefarious character that later Rabbinic interpretation will make him out to be. Balaam’s repeated insistence that he can only do the word of God seems intended to remind later readers, the descendents of the Israelites, that they too must seek to discern and live God’s word. The haftarah for Parshat Balak makes this point, drawing a parallel between the words of Balaam’s donkey and the words of God to the Jewish people: “My people, what wrong have I done you?” (Micah 6:3)  parallels the donkey’s plaintive cry, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Num. 22:28). Balaam cannot see, just as the Israelites cannot see.

On Sunday we observe the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, ushering in a period of intensifying mourning that concludes with Tisha b’Av in three weeks. This is meant to be a period of introspection, of standing on the balcony and looking at ourselves as individuals and as a people, seeing that which is right in front of us from a larger perspective. As the concluding lines of the haftarah remind us: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you; To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Such words are  not meant to exempt us from performing mitzvot; rather they are meant to help us remember that the details of our lives answers to larger questions. Balaam, along with Micah, helps us remember what those larger questions are.

Shabbat shalom.