METHOD

Pressure to say something interesting

What happens when you have nothing to say in Torah? When another great parsha flies by and you have nothing of note to offer? 

There are several versions of a story in which a king issues a sort of request for proposals from local artists, and the winner will decorate the palace. They will display their wares by decorating a small wing of the palace, and if the king likes their work, they’ll get the contract. In the end, one of the artists provides elaborate tapestries, murals, and the like, and the other offers a mirror that simply reflects the first artist’s work. Surprisingly, the king respects the second “artist’s” work. Not sure if he “wins”, but he is certainly not executed.

Maybe the moral of the story is that sometimes you’ve got something to say, and sometimes you’ve got nothing original to say, but you’ve found someone who does, and you provide a great service by calling attention to it. 

This is not dissimilar to someone who searches the racks of thrift stores to find clothes and things that can be sold in their boutique. It takes a huge amount of skill to find the right things, things that simply need to be presented in the right context, or framed properly. or translated. And sometimes a Torah source needs to simply be found, dusted off, and presented in a modern idiom for us to realize just how useful, inspiring, and impacting it can be.

It is not essential to have something clever to say, to have some new spin to offer. It is also incredibly useful to say, “I found this piece from Rav Kook that is rocking my world” or “this Seforno has completely changed my view on the gender dynamics of 16th-century Italy” or “I thought I understood the nature of reality until I got wind of this Midrash.” 

It can be even more useful (and a lot more vulnerable) to add “and this is how I’m reacting to it” or “this is what I want to do” or “now I am seeing things through the following lens” or the like. 

Maybe throw in some “what are your thoughts on this?” or “does this align with your view of gender dynamics in 16th-century Italy?” or the like.

My point is that there are so many great texts out there. So many great things have been said, and amplifying those things is a great service to offer. One should feel proud that one has found something relevant to share with others, rather than feel embarrassed for not having found something “original” to say.

The Rav and Rebbe Nachman on Tefillah

I have always wondered what it was like to pray with Rav Soloveitchik - primarily, and with some degree of confusion - because I have davened in many Modern Orthodox institutions in which the service felt somewhat distant from the cutting edge of encounter that I believe was articulated in Rav Soloveitchik’s writings and persona. 

So I found this article about the differences between the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur and the Rav’s own nusach/practice/hashkafa to be quite interesting. 

Let me say here that I am in no way qualified - nor do I at all intend - to address Yaakov Jaffe’s claims about how the Rav prayed, and whether this Siddur is a useful window into what the Rav would want us to know about prayer. Rather, I am accepting the claims of this article wholesale and focusing my attention on what may have been a minor point to the author but is very alive for me as an issue. Jaffe writes: 

R. Soloveitchik helped convey the feeling of surrender towards God and Halakhah precisely through a series of differences between his liturgy and the conventional one, with the differences all pointing in the direction of withdrawal and recoil. The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers. It is an approach to prayer that carries intense caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid. And so, as much as we think about the prayers we do say, we are also constantly reminded of all the prayers we cannot utter. Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy. Or, in the words of the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur (120):

Mortal man, puny and insignificant, must first ask permission before engaging in a dialogue with the Infinite. Man needs a license, a matir…. An acknowledgment of His grandeur—an introduction with serves as the matir, the humble request for license which allows us to proceed to the gates of prayer.

Thus:

Some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s customs are grounded in a lack of “license” or “right” to pray, unless certain preconditions and introductory prayers have been invoked first.

Some prayers are omitted because they were created in the modern period, and carry the hubris of creativity, unbecoming of the humble, defeated penitent.

Other prayers are omitted because they are too anthropomorphic in nature, or describe the Creator on the same level as human beings and not as significantly greater and beyond.

At other times, prayers must be removed from the Siddur because we cannot offer a prayer at the wrong time in the service, or the wrong day of the week, so we recognize withdrawal by confessing that we cannot offer this particular prayer at this particular time.

We accept defeat by not repeating verses in the service, and not reciting mystical prayers or catechisms. We humbly pray what we can bring ourselves to say, but nothing more. 

What I find particularly intriguing here is, for lack of a better word, the monolithic nature of prayer that is being attributed to the Rav. The way that Jaffe lays it out, the Rav’s approach to prayer was singular and absolute: prayer is a function of surrender, withdrawal, recoil, defeat. “Prayer is rendered with caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid.” “The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers.” “Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy."

Again I write what I am about to write with the caveat that I am not wading into the debate of whether or not this is an accurate appraisal of the Rav’s take on prayer. And I have no doubt that the Rav’s approach is based upon seamless and accurate readings of countless texts, with the Rav’s incredible genius for assembling those texts into a cohesive view. But when I read this article, I think of something Rebbe Nachman wrote:

כִּי יֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַעְלָה וְיֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַטָּה, דְּהַיְנוּ עוֹלָם הָעֶלְיוֹן וְעוֹלָם הַתַּחְתּוֹן, בְּחִינַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַעְלָה, שֶׁאֵינָם יוֹדְעִים כְּלָל בִּידִיעָתוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ, שֶׁזֶּה בְּחִינַת הַשָֹֹּגָה שֶׁל מָה, בְּחִינַת: 'מֶה חָמִית מַה פִּשְׁפַּשְׁתְּ', בְּחִינַת: אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ וּלְהֶפֶךְ: צָרִיךְ לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַטָּה, שֶׁאַדְּרַבָּא, מְלֹא כָּל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ (יְשַׁעְיָה ו). כִּי יֵשׁ שׁוֹכְנֵי עָפָר, שֶׁהֵם בְּנֵי - אָדָם הַמּוּנָחִים בַּמַּדְרֵגָה הַתַּחְתּוֹנָה, וְנִדְמֶה לָהֶם שֶׁהֵם רְחוֹקִים מְאֹד מִמֶּנּוּ יִתְבָּרַךְ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְעוֹרְרָם וְלַהֲקִיצָם, בִּבְחִינַת (שָׁם כ"ו): "הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר". וּלְגַלּוֹת לָהֶם שֶׁה' עִמָּם, וְהֵם סְמוּכִים - אֵלָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ". וּלְחַזְּקָם וּלְעוֹרְרָם, שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיוּ מְיָאֲשִׁין עַצְמָן, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, כִּי עֲדַיִן הֵם אֵצֶל הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וּקְרוֹבִים - אֵלָיו, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ”
“For there are those who dwell below, and those who dwell above (darei malah) - meaning, the upper world and the lower world, an aspect of heaven and earth. And the righteous one must show those who dwell above that they know nothing of the knowledge of God, and this is the aspect of ‘what?’, from the concept (in the Tikunei Zohar), ‘What have you actually seen? What have you searched out?’, a function of ‘Where is the place of His Glory?’ And, the opposite: the righteous one needs to show those who dwell below that, the opposite! The world is full of His Glory. For there are those who dwell below, who are people who are situated at the lowest level, and it seems to them that they are very far from Him, may He be blessed, and the righteous one must awaken them and rouse them, in the sense of ‘wake up and shout, you who dwell in the dust,’ and to reveal to them that Hashem is with them, and they are in proximity to Him, because ’the world is full of His Glory,’ and to encourage them and to rouse them, such that they not despair, God forbid, for they are still near God and close to Him, for ‘the world is full of His Glory.’

I do not know if it is fair or reasonable or accurate to map the Rav into Rebbe Nachman’s configuration, but assuming it is OK to do so, the Rav is davening like Rebbe Nachman’s darei malah - one who dwells above. On this map, the one who dwells above moves and grows through realizing that, really, he knows nothing at all. He is, as it were, grasping in the dark for some foothold, some place where he can stand in relation to the Divine.

But for Rebbe Nachman, in this particular framework, there is another position from which to pray - those who feel so far from God that they are in danger of giving up on relationship with Him must be shown that, in fact, they are very close to God. I believe this means that there is no barrier to prayer, no need (or place) for the kind of clamoring in the dark that the Rav describes. 

In this sense, the Rav’s view of prayer addresses only one particular kind of pray-er, and in that sense, as Jaffe correctly, points out, the Koren siddur is really not a Soloveitchik siddur. But what I find useful for my own purposes is the acknowledgment that there are different kinds of pray-ers (and therefore different kinds of siddurim). 

And a question I have - and I surrender, withdraw, and admit defeat when bringing this question to bear on the Rav himself, who seemed to be eternally darei malah on this point - is around how we are different kinds of pray-ers at different times. Sometimes we are darei malah - we are so close that we need to remember how far we are. And sometimes (I imagine this is pretty common for most of us) we are darei mata - dwelling below, lost, out of contact, wondering what it is we are even doing by opening a prayer book because it feels futile, it feels like no one is listening (and, possibly, no one is even praying). At such points, the Rav’s warnings about the true status of “Mortal man, puny and insignificant” are only counterproductive. Rather than engender awe, they engender despair. And, in Rebbe Nachman’s telling, it is actually inaccurate in that it only articulates one approach to prayer. At such times, a different sort of prayer is needed. Maybe the Koren Siddur, if it does not articulate the Rav’s own view, could theoretically be useful at those moments. 

On the point of having access to a varied tool box containing different modes of prayer, I offer this passage from Gemarra Berachot:

מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מאריך יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו רבינו כמה ארכן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מאריך יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב ביה את ארבעים היום ואת ארבעים הלילה וגו' שוב מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מקצר יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו כמה קצרן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מקצר יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב אל נא רפא נא לה
“There is a an occurrence when a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayers) before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed at excessive length. Rabbi Eliezer’s students said to him, “Rebbe! What a lengthy pray-er this one is!” He answered them “He is not praying any longer than Moshe our teacher, about whom it is written, ‘For those 40 days and nights…’ Later, there was an occurrence of a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayer before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed very succinctly. His students said to him “What a short pray-er this one is!” He said to them, “No shorter than Moshe our teacher, about whom we are told (that he prayed) ‘Please, God, heal her, please.’”

Innovation - why you may be doing it wrong

Originally published on EJewishPhilanthropy.com 2/26/17 

Innovation is a buzz word of late in our community. I keep hearing the argument that innovation is a “prerequisite” for Jewish programming, especially when the end users are the elusive post-college/pre-marriage crowd. But I suspect that the voices clamoring for innovative programs don’t fully understand the nature of this powerful tool, and when to apply it.

A new program or initiative doesn’t need to be edgy – unless it does. And if it does, then a surefire process must be in place whereby the right person is found, the right conversations are convened, the right backing is in place and the right message conveyed. And that’s where innovation comes in. Innovation in how we build and populate our programs is the key to success – how we operate, not just what we offer.

When we bring our demand for innovation to bear on how the essential conversations before, during, and after a specific program take place rather than only or primarily on the program itself, we have already succeeded. Just these kinds of conversations took place in December at the Katz Innovation Summit at Hillel International’s General Assembly.

The talented professionals at Hillel’s Office of Innovation and Penn Hillel used their best thinking to create an environment in which creative thinkers could put their heads together in an innovative way and have the kinds of conversations that bring success.

Just about every minute of the summit was curated, and this alone is innovative. We’ve all sat through so many meetings in which the task was to march through the printed agenda. How much attention is spent creating an environment in which people’s best thinking will emerge? How much focus is there on ensuring that everyone is relaxed and up-to-date enough to truly contribute? These are functions of curation, not agenda. It takes awareness, courage, versatility, good will, patience, creativity and so much more to curate an encounter rather than simply plan a meeting.

Let me provide an example. As soon as the first session began and we were broken up into groups, our first activity was to make a list of everything that holds us back from implementing our best ideas in the workplace – without knowing why we were doing it. Even within the five allotted minutes of that conversation, one could sense a shift from external factors – phones, interruptions, other staff members – to internal ones – fear of failure, limited creativity, exhaustion.

And then, once we had made the list, we were told to set aside everything on that list for the next activity: imagining the Hillel of the future.

Permission to imagine without fear is not always granted in the nonprofit space. And when we are having important conversations, we need to be able to do so without anxiety.

Temporarily free of our obstacles, we did the work of starting to imagine the Hillel of the future. And much of our vision was, in fact, “externally innovative” – funding structures, mobile classrooms, specialized and well-trained professionals, specialized personalized modular programming. But we also realized that we wanted an old sage sitting in one of our rooms, because people in every generation, regardless of how hip they are, want a cup of hot cocoa and someone wise to talk to now and then, and that will never change.

When I hear a program or approach described as “innovative,” I assume that word is shorthand for an event that will inevitably be and feel contrived. But the most innovative programs do not need to be described as innovative, because they simply work. All the innovation happened behind closed doors to get the right people in the field, in the right framework, with the right backing.

Shemot - Sometimes, text describes reality

Learning Torah can be dangerous to our well-being. It can cause serious damage to our self-esteem. That would happen particularly when we read something that, in a certain way, inspires us, but ultimately leaves us feeling bad about ourselves because we are not on that level.

The truth is that there are a multitude of such gaps in Jewish liturgy, literature, mysticism, etc. When a “technology” (to use R’ Zalman’s word) is presented and no attention is given to explain how that technology is to be used (and the expectations that should go along with it) it can run amok and leave people feeling hurt, empty, and disillusioned.

Prayer is a common locus for such misunderstanding and pain. One might believe that, once he or she has prayed, then results will follow. (The talmud does deal with that by communicating that iyun tefillin - literally, looking deeply into prayer, figuratively “depending upon one’s prayer, that it will be heard” (Rashi) - evokes a reminder of a person’s sin; “heard” here seems to mean “heard, accepted”.) 

The language of prayer can lead one to big questions: If God “heals the sick”, then why isn’t She healing Aunt Gertrude? Did I do something wrong? Did she? If God opens the eyes of the blind, why are there so many blind people? Is God paying attention? 

This can lead down a rabbi-hole of complex questions, and can lead to serious crises of faith. I understand (not well enough, but at least in name) that prayer is not necessarily determinative of reality, and that, just because we pray for something, doesn’t mean it will automatically happen, and there are many factors, etc. etc. But my point is that we are forced into certain apologetics about prayer because the language of the liturgy lends itself to expectations that therefore require disabusing. And those apologetics are sometimes exist on a slippery slope of reasoning that will require further damage control down the line.

For example, one way (and this is not Rebbe Nachman’s way, BTW) is that we say prayer doesn’t really change the world - it changes us. Now, aside from the very obvious critique that this sounds an awful lot like Reconstructionist Judaism (a point I will BH come back to), one of the big questions on this point is, well, if this is supposed to change me, why should I be using words that I either don’t understand or don’t identify with? If these prayers don’t capture my actual concerns, why should I prayer them? And if understanding is not essential in order to transform me, does that mean they are magical?

All that to say, when a text comes along and tells it like it is, it is such a relief. Suddenly, you feel you’re back in the saddle, like the Torah does in fact reflect and describe (and therefore is allowed to proscribe) your relationship to reality. I found such a passage on this week’s parsha in the Torah Sheleimah (I know I’ve already harped on what an essential text this is. But I mean it). The Torah says, “And it was, over those many days, the King of Egypt died, and the children of Israel groaned from their toil, and they cried out, and their crying-out rose up to God because of their toil. And God heard their wailing….” The Midrash (Tanhuma Ha’azinu 4) says, on this verse:

“…to teach you that the Holy One, Blessed is He, Blessed is His Name, - sometimes He is seen, and sometimes He is not seen; sometimes He hears, and sometimes He does not wish to hear; sometimes He answers, and sometimes He does not answer; sometimes He is sought-after (meaning, allows Himself to be found, after searching? ed.), sometimes He is not sought-after; sometimes He is found, sometimes He is not found; sometimes He is close, and sometimes He is not close.”

Thank you! Thank you for stating the clearly! Even if the reasons why God “chooses” to not hear, or not be found, or not be close would remain a complete mystery, I find this infinitely more satisfying than telling me God is always near (Hashem is here! Hashem is there! Hashem is truly everywhere! Up! Up!) and then leaving me to wonder what exactly I am doing wrong such that I cannot find a connection where I am, which, if I had a partner-in-dialogue with whom to figure that out, I’d love to have that conversation! But if it is just me bouncing my questions off of my neuroses, that’s not going to get far enough to be definitive...

(Also, there is some work that has to be done to figure out whether and how this reconciles with Rebbe Nachman LM I:6:3. Another time.)

Vayechi - Royal Dainties!?

My primary concern, as is evidenced by my publishing record to date, is about how people move through experience, continue to grow, and figure out their place, position, options and possibilities in relationship to God, Torah, ideas, themselves, each other, modernity and culture. 

At the same time, I am unaccustomed to actually putting my thoughts to paper in a more serial fashio, with the intend that my 'idea' will be perceived noth through my ability ot articulate it in one fell swoop but rather my ability to express pieces of it over time. So, this is new for me. 

But I suspect it is important - at least for me - to document my forrays into parsha, holidays, and other sundries that catch my eye, and I will begin now, after this brief caveat: as is well-known, one cannot set out to alternadox. As such, I am deeply committed to not distorting my thoughts and wriitngs with the intention of it being alternadox. I'm just gonna do my thing, and what will be will be.

So, Vayechi. I am particularly interested in the blessings that Ya'akov gives to his sons - specifically, the fact that some sons get a long, descriptive blessing, and other sons get, like 5 words. To wit (translations from Sefaria.org, which is a kick-ass website that is only gretting better and better. And it is even more kick-ass since they got access to the entire freaking Steinsaltz Talmud in translation):

Yehudah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him and the homage of peoples be his. He tethers his ass to a vine, His ass’s foal to a choice vine; He washes his garment in wine, His robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine; His teeth are whiter than milk.

Asher’s bread shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties.

Royal dainties!!? Yehudah is a lion, king of beasts, who dare rouse him. He's got a sceptor and a ruler's staff. He washes his robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine. And Asher makes cookies. What are we supposed to do with that?

And yet, as Rav M.M. Kasher brings in Torah Sheleimah (which is an incredible resource that alerts us to just how varied, deep, and sometimes totally bizarre midrashim can be) Genesis Chapter 49 note 394 from the Tanhuma, "Perhaps you want to infer that one of the brothers was greater than the other [like, maybe you think the one who is compared to a lion is more important than the baker - ed.] we see that it says "He blessed them" - that they were all equal." 

It is tempting not to see them as equal, the lion and the baker. I would think that most people would prefer being a lion to being a baker, but it's just not true. In my decidedly anachronistic view, isn't it quite possible that Asher was going to get some out-sized blessing, like "Asher is the elephant who stomped around a lot and made a lot of noise and was really big," and was in fact quite relieved to get the exact blessing that fit his insides: He was a provider of food and nourishment. He was more than comfortable behind the scenes, cooking. 

The concept is enhanced by another Midrash - this one form Bereishit Rabbah Chapter 97: "Since Ya'akov split the land up for them, and gave Yehudah land that yields barley and gave Naftali a land that yields wheat, still yet they were all included in the blessings, such that they would eat from each other's yield, which is what the Torah means when it says, "Each according to his blessing he blessed them." And in another version of the Midrash, Rebbe Elazar adds, "We learn that they suckled/were nourished from one another."

Lions have to eat, no? And bakers need lions, right? Maybe to protect them, and eat their stuff, and maybe even give them purpose sometimes.

Inasmuch (inasmuch as the word inasmuch is a word worth using forthwith) as this section of the Torah is applicable to you and I and today, I hear this very personally. I may have spent too much of my life thus far trying to be a lion (and failing) while there are some royal dainties that need baking. It is ta'avah, a lust, to want to be big, a leader. Leadership is not accomplished by people trying to be leaders. It is accomplished by people doing their thing, with integrity. I think what's-his-name said something like "did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?" Do we need lead roles? Maybe we just need to try to find our thing and do it up and let the larger picture emerge as holding both of us. And thankfully Ya'akov had that larger vision. Ostensibly, each son-tribe had a place in that vision, and if they each did their thing, as well as provided access to each other to be nourished by that thing, then they could move forward together. Or, they could resent each other, clamor for leadership roles, ignore their own talents and gifts, etc.

In respectful dialogue with Mordecai Kaplan

I find Kaplan's approach, concerns, questions, demands, empowerments of and respect for the Jewish people to be nothing short of inspiring. In fact, I think that Reconstructionism should be the starting point for non-Orthodox Jews (and some Orthodox one's, too) in their search for an authentic and compelling Jewish life. Here I engage with some of his ideas (mine are the indented bullet points).

These are from an essay entitled “Mordecai Kaplan: His Interpretation of Judaism" by Emanuel S. Goldsmith:

    •    Religion could not exist apart from the total life and culture of a people and that economics, politics, an other environmental influences are crucial in the development and maintenance of a religion

    ◦    I think Kaplan would agree that there is something consistent and unchanging about the religion that manifests in different eras, and that therefore the different manifestations of that religion are cohesive with one another

    •    The challenges of America and the “adventure of freedom” it offered its diverse peoples presented a particularly exciting challenge to Mordecai Kaplan in the development of his interpretation of the Jewish heritage

    ◦    I agree that the American experience has offered a unique opportunity for the development of modern Jewishness. I wonder whether Kaplan would rejoice in the choice many have made to strongly de-prioritize Jewish choices in the face of other choices - not all of them about universal human morality

    •    “The point of departure in religious life is the contemporary scene and present day religious experience rather than the dictates of authority and the religious experience of past generations”

    ◦    This is certainly the lived reality, and therefore the starting point, though there is room to wish it were otherwise. We could have hoped that people would have started with a conception of Eternal Israel and made decisions from that place while also being very alert to and responsive to the “contemporary scene and present day religious experience.” While Kaplan’s thinking here very much applies in the realpolitik sense, we may also mourn the many missteps taken by institutional Judaism over the last 100 years and try to avoid them in future. 

    •    “Religious modernists are eclectic, selecting out of the garnered treasures of their forebears only those which they see as relevant and significant for their community’s life today. Only those aspects of tradition which can be reconciled with what they regard as true and valid in their general world view and approach to life will be incorporated into their religious conceptions. For them, it is modernity, despite its flaws and failings, that it is the judge and test of tradition, rather than the reverse.”

    ◦    Again, this is of course true a postiori. But we shouldn’t simply accept that some of those treasures have been and will be abandoned, simply because they have been poorly explained, demonstrated, and/or exemplified. There is still effort to be made to show how other aspects of tradition “can be reconciled with what they regard as true and valid in their general world view and approach to life will be incorporated into their religious conceptions.” 

    ◦    I understand that, in the lived reality of today, modernity is the judge of tradition and not the reverse. But this is not something we ought to take sitting down. There is great value in the effort to reclaim those discarded treasures and re-present them a modern idiom and context for further evaluation. 

    •    “Judaism is more than a specific philosophy of life; it is the ongoing life of a people intent upon keeping alive for the highest conceivable purpose, despite changes in a general climate of opinion.”

    ◦    Who can argue with that? 

    •    The main function of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization is “to involve the individual in the social and spiritual heritage of a historic society and to commit him to the transmission of that heritage… It expects its adherents to identify themselves with all the generations of their forebears who created the tradition and lived by it. Self-involvement in the social and spiritual heritage , and commitment to transmit it, are bound to transform the vicarious experience of the reality of God into a personal experience.”

    ◦    Kaplan’s demand that individuals participate in the transmission of heritage is both obvious and harrowing. Clearly people need to be invested and committed in order to transmit anything of substance. But how much space is there for the individual to interpret and personalize Judaism to the point where they feel good about transmitting it? Where is the push-back that tells the person they may well be wrong? This is a dialogue, right? 

    •    “For us Jews, there can be no higher purpose than that of exemplifying the art of so living individually and collectively as to contribute to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress of mankind. The type of religion which we Jews as a people, and which mankind as a whole, urgently needs as a means to survival has to consist, or take the form of, moral responsibility in action. 

    •    The purpose of Jewish existence, for Kaplan, was not that Jews survive as a relic of the past but that they take the old biblical idea of humanity’s being created in the likeness of God and pull it to human life, that they try to make themselves, in A.D. Gordon’s brilliant expansion of a biblical; phrase, “A people in the image of God.” Kaplan always stressed that individuals with a sense of moral responsibility were not enough. If humanity is to survive, the total group must order its life in accord with responsibility.”

    ◦    Yes! And this is such a far cry away from how many Jewish groups are functioning today. i think the idea that what we’re doing here is essentially working for our own, individual “place in the world to come” alleviates us from responsibility as a group to  have and reach collective goals. Individual piety is not irreconcilable with collective insensitivity, and even collective cruelty.

    •    “God is the Power, Force, Process, Dimension, or Energy by means of which people are motivated to exercise their rights, pursue their responsibilities, and strive to be at peace with themselves, with nature, and with other people. 

    ◦    Never say “God is.” What follows is inevitably a diminution. Obviously, if you don’t believe in a God, then go for it. But in my understanding God “is” also the Commander, the Creator, the Challenger, the Consoler, the Other, etc. etc. etc. 

    •    “For a religious tradition to become part of a our personal experience nowadays, it has to possess the authenticity we associate with scientific fact. It has to convey the kind of literal meaning which we can integrate into our normal experience.”

    ◦    I think we have done this far too little, but it is also not the entire story. Yes, we want it to be so real, so obvious, so essential that people immediately identify with and act according to its dictates. But there is another dimension of religious tradition that involves myths and dreaming, stories and messages from another world that surprise us, stir us, and force us to reconfigure ourselves even as we respond. 

    •    “Judaism [is[ not merely a system of religious beliefs and practices, but [is] the sum of all those manifestations of the Jewish people’s will to live creatively.”

    ◦    Is there a limit to this?

    •    “To choose to remain a Jew is a three-dimensional affair. It involves choosing to belong to the Jewish people, to believe in Jewish religion, and to practice the Jewish way of life.”

    ◦    I’d love to know what the distinction is, for Kaplan, between religion and way of life. But, yes. 

    •    “Judaism will henceforth have to be compatible with the inevitable variety of human minds.”

    ◦    Sure, but human minds can change too, no? Isn’t there also a charge that humans open their minds and listen to the ideas of past and present manifestations of Judaism, and evolve accordingly? I fear that Kaplan has too high an esteem for people - he seems to assume that we have all arrived at our current positions on things because we’ve thought them through and are clear, whereas I see that people are often simply lazy, bigoted, small-minded, fearful of not fitting in, etc. And I include myself in that, and I mean it in the nicest way. How are these reconciled? 

Best Practices

Best Practices: I’ve been loving the ‘best practices’ section that is now included in the RCA’s emails. For example, an anonymous (?) member of the RCA posted as follows:

“When I prepare a derasha or a shiur, I often think of four target audience members. remembering that not all of my congregants are married with children, or are male, I think of how my comments and examples will resonate with each of them. For example, I may consider a middle-aged married father, a widow/er, a divorced single-parent mother, and twenty-something single. This helps to sensitize me to how my presentation is being received and helps to diversify my examples and applications.”

 

What I love about these is that they are almost always in response to something that happened. I imagine that, for the above anonymously submitted best practice, that person got burned because they gave a teaching that assumed everyone was married, or Torah-educated, or gender-binary, or could afford food, or the like. Hopefully someone pushed back, and this teacher realized just how diverse our communities are - and how we create painful in-group out-group dynamics by giving divrei Torah for specific groups of people, who then get to chat loudly about them at kiddush, while people who were excluded are not afforded such a pleasure.

I would assume that many of us have developed our own Best Practices and are not even aware of them. We have simply hacked the situations we are in to the best of our abilities because we have had to, and now here we are. Someone observing might be mystified by what we have set in place, while we are simply satisfied that we are able to continue to accomplish whatever goal it was we set out to accomplish, despite the limitations presented by the world we actually live in, or because of the “bugs” (read: features) of our own personalities. 

So I am sure I have developed my own best practices, but I would be hard-pressed to name them until they come up. If I notice them and I think they are worthwhile, I will be presenting them here. 

Ah! Got one! It’s called “who cares?” It looks something like this: Whenever you read or are exposed to something in Torah or Jewish literature, it is wise to conclude your reading or exposure with the simple phrase, “Who cares?” Meaning, why does this matter? How does this change anything?

I simply do not think that most of us can afford to subject ourselves and others to divrei Torah that are not relevant. Each time an inapplicable homily is delivered, somewhere in the listener/reader’s mind a synapse is created that says, “The Torah is abstract. It is not about real life. It doesn’t address my problems or teach me how to live.” When that synapse is reinforced enough times, that person will come to assume that Torah is something you do for giggles, as an exercise, when you have nothing better to do, but if you need to be exposed to something that will actually change your life, you look elsewhere. 

Pema Chodron is an example that comes up often in our family as someone whose writing is always directly applicable, as opposed to many Torah books we may read, which require one or more additional steps to get to relevance. My wife often asks why Torah books don’t go directly to the question that matters. It seems like we always have to start with a mahloket between Rashi and the Ramban about some minutia in the parsha and maybe at the last stage is something applicable. 

Granted, one of the completely legitimate responses to “who cares?” is “I am glad that the Torah remains cohesive. One could think that there are so many different voices in Torah that at some point it becomes a long series of distinct religious paths, so I am glad to see that many of them dovetail together and represent different options of action or interpretation within a common pool.” I just wouldn’t assume, in light of the anonymous “best practice” I brought above, that everyone also has the same taste for “Torah as Resolution of Itself” as opposed to “Torah as actionable in the life I live.”

So, now that I’ve said all that, who cares??!?? I’d answer that as follows: I want people to always come away from my writings with the perspective that Torah matters, and that it should matter, and if it doesn’t matter, something is wrong. It is a Tree of Life, not a Tree of Knowledge. 

**

I have to admit I once asked this out loud when I was at someone’s Shabbes table, when someone gave a devar Torah that was somewhat erudite but, it seemed to me, inapplicable to a real-life situation. I remember the giver of the devar Torah being somewhat put off by the question (making him the first and last person I have ever offended). And I also remember that, once we all calmed down and re-holstered our pistols, we had a very interesting conversation about this very topic of Torah mattering, and also that the giver was able to express why that particular devar Torah mattered to him. 

The moral of the story is, don’t be nice all the time. Ask - tactfully - “So, how does this apply to my life?” and see where it goes.

One man gathers what another man spills

I am in the habit of reading one letter from the book “Alim L’terufah” everyday. A short preamble about that:

My friend Rabbi Ariel Burger (who also generously provided these drawings and paintings) introduced me to the practice of ‘mini-sedarim’ - that is, reading some non-zero amount from a particular array of books every day. I wasn’t really paying attention to my friend Rabbi Ariel Burger’s mini-sedarim practice until he started finishing books. And I thought to myself, “I would like to have read some whole books!But I don’t think I have the sitzfleisch to hunker down and read large swaths of such books. Perhaps mini-sedarim is the way for me!!” So I am in the process of carefully choosing which books I’d like to read a bit of every day so that, down the line, I will have read those books. 

 

I strongly recommend this practice. It could be anything - Tanankh, Psalms, classic texts like Kuzari and Maharal. Chassidic texts like Tanya and Likutei Moharan. Modern English texts like the works of David Hartman, or Heschel, or Mordecai Kaplan. Future texts. 

I have, thus far, chosen three texts: the daily portion of the weekly parsha, Rav Kook’s letters, and Rebbe Natan of Breslov’s letters, as collected in the aforementioned book, “Alim L’terufah.” 

Why letters? At the risk of harping on a point, I see letters as one of the most useful forms for articulating real Torah. Here is a moment in which someone is asked not only what the Torah says, but how it applies in this exact situation. The respondent is pressed to respond to a real person in real time. What emerges is a useful guide for how Jewish ideas are lived in the real world. 

 

Why Rebbe Natan’s letters? Rebbe Natan stands as a bridge (not the only bridge, but an essential one) between us out here in the grind and the Torah of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. As my friend Rabbi Josh Bolton said, “I sometimes feel like Rebbe Nachman’s Torah is fire and too hot to approach.” It is therefore priceless that his primary student, Rebbe Natan, would convey how this fire-Torah applies to real life, particularly to the life of his son, Rebbe Yitzhak. That said:

 

**

Often, in Rebbe Natan’s letters, he claims that he really has nothing to say. For example, in letter 96:

My precious, beloved son. I have no words right now to write anything to you. Also, my mind is not clear. Just the same, I have done as you asked to write, at the very least, a letter of greeting. And I have already written to you, and what can I add, my son?

So, this is going to be a disappointing letter, right? He continues:

May Hashem illuminate your eyes to find true guidance, according to the day and the hour, through which to be encouraged. And the main thing is to make one’s self happy all the time about the greatness of Hashem’s salvation and His astounding wonders, such that we have merited to not be in opposition to such holy books (as Rebbe Nachman’s), which are beyond valuing… and let these matters not ever become old in your eyes. And the truth is, anyone with a Jewish heart and who is looking toward the truth will see that they are in fact new every time, because every day they are made completely new.

Rebbe Natan then goes on to explain the line from the liturgy, “And in His benevolence, He renews every day the works of creation (ma’asei bereishit),” by means of the approach in the Tikkunei Zohar of playing with the different combinations of the letters of bereishit, including “rosh bayit” - literally, head of the house, a reference to the zadik of the generation. Thus, says Rebbe Natan, the work of the rosh bayit is also renewed every day! 

Less interesting to me than this fascinating idea of a work of literature being renewed or reinvigorated (though that is pretty damned interesting) is the reality that Rebbe Natan really thought he had nothing left to say, and then he comes out with this gem.

I wonder, were he to look back on this letter, if he would think that he hadn’t really said much, or if he would think that, at the end of the day, he did offer something new to the conversation. I’d like to assume the former - that he was actually disappointed that he couldn’t offer something worthwhile in this letter.

My interest is how what one person knows so deeply that it is no longer new, or even noticeable, to them, can be entirely mind-blowing and essential to other people. So much of what would be useful Torah is never articulated because the person who holds it isn’t even necessarily aware of it as Torah, so they never bother to say it. It has simply become a part of their “system”. 

I can only speak for myself, but so many of the questions I have revolve around method, approach, system. I am far less interested in a vort - a sort of one-off homily about something or other  - than I am in the articulation of a practice, alongside direct guidance for how that practice works in real time. 

And as such, it becomes a lot more necessary to speak about how we do what we do. An essential example would be to talk about formal prayer - tefillah. I’ll leave that for another time. In the meantime, though, might I suggest that we all be more open to those conversations around how we do what we do, and open up the possibility of speaking about things that seem obvious to us but might be useful guidance for others?