Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Comfort, warmth, and a sense of fulfillment in the law

"…the religious person is given not only a duty to follow the halakha (law) but also a value and vision. The person performing the duty seeks to realize this ideal or vision. Kant felt that the duty of consciousness expresses only a "must" without a value. He demanded a routine form of compliance, an "ought" without aiming at a value. As a soldier carries out his duty to the commanding officer, one may appreciate his service or just obey through discipline and orders. Kant's ethics are a "formal ethics", the goal is not important.   For us it would be impossible to behave this way. An intelligent person must find comfort, warmth, and a sense of fulfillment in the law. We deal with ethical values, not ethical formalisms. A sense of pleasure must be gained by fulfilling a norm. The ethical act must have an end and purpose. We must become holy." 

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Mesorat HaRav Siddur, p. 112-3

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Judaism comprises the whole of man

"The more, indeed, Judaism comprises the whole of man and extends its declared mission to the salvation of the whole of mankind, the less it is possible to confine its outlook to the four cubits of a synagogue and the four walls of a study. The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will his views and aspirations be, the less aloof will he be from anything that is noble and good, true and upright, in art or science, in culture or education; the more joyfully will he applaud whenever he sees truth and justice and peace and the ennoblement of man prevail and become dominant in human society: the more joyfully will he seize every opportunity to give proof of his mission as a Jew, the task of his Judaism, on new and untrodden ground; the more joyfully will he devote himself to all true progress in civilisation and culture--provided, that is, that he will not only not have to sacrifice his Judaism but will also be able to bring it to more perfect fulfilment. He will ever desire progress, but only in alliance with religion. He will not want to accomplish anything that he cannot accomplish as a Jew. Any step which takes him away from Judaism is not for him a step forward, is not progress. He exercises this self-control without a pang, for he does not wish to accomplish his own will on earth but labours in the service of God. He knows that wherever the Ark of his God does not march ahead of him he is not accompanied by the pillar of the fire of His light or the pillar of the cloud of His grace." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Religion Allied to Progress

Judaism is not an appurtenance to life

"Judaism is not an appurtenance to life, and to be a Jew is not part of the mission of life. Judaism encompasses life in its entirety. To be a Jew is a sum of our life's mission-in synagogue and in kitchen; in field and in counting-house; in the office and on the speaker's platform; like father, like mother, like son, like daughter; like servant, like master; as man, as citizen, in thought and in feeling, in word and in deed, in times of pleasure, in hours of abstinence; with needle as with chisel or with pen. To be a Jew--in a life which in its totality is borne on the word of the Lord and is perfected in harmony with the will of God-this is the scope and goal of Judaism. Since Judaism encompasses the whole of man and in keeping with its explicit mission, proclaims the happiness of the whole of mankind, it is improper to confine its teachings within the "four ells" of the house of study or of the home of the Jew. Insofar as the Jew is a Jew, his views and objectives become universal. He will not be a stranger to anything which is good, true and beautiful in art and in science, in civilization and in learning. He will greet with blessing and joy everything of truth, justice, peace, and the ennobling of man, wherever it be revealed He will hold firmly to this breadth of view in order to fulfill his mission as a Jew and to live up to the function of his Judaism in areas never imagined by his father. He shall dedicate himself with joy to every true advance in civilization and enlightenment. But all this on condition that he be never obliged to sacrifice his Judaism at any new level but rather fulfill it with even greater perfection."

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1854
Quoted in Guardians of Our Heritage, p. 290

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rabbinical Tyranny and Freedom of Thought

Rabbinical Tyranny and Freedom of Thought

by Nathan Lopez Cardozo
(posted with permission)

The primary concern of Judaism is the art of living. To accomplish this, it is committed to a strong sense of tradition and a determination to realize certain optimal goals. It is this that has made Judaism unique, standing out among the community of religions. This direct path--from a historical past to a messianic future, from the mysterious revelation at Mount Sinai to the categorical demand for justice for the orphan, widow and stranger--has saved Judaism from death by fire and ice, from freezing in awe of a rigid tradition, and from evaporating into a utopian reverie.

What we Jews have always looked for in the Torah is not just a way of living, nor is it the discovery of truth alone, but rather everything. And this is scarcely an exaggeration. Our love for the Torah was not just molded by particular teachings, but by our conviction that really everything can be found within its pages. God is no doubt central to Judaism, but because we never lost our intimate awareness of the multifarious colors of the Torah and its tradition, no dogma could ever gain authority. Even after Maimonides attempted, under the influence of Islamic theology, to lay down definite formulations of Jewish belief, Judaism refused to accept them as sacrosanct and did not allow such attempts to come between it and the inexhaustible Torah text. It is for this reason that tension between religion and the quest for truth is almost unknown in Judaism. No sacrifice of the intellect is demanded.

One look into the Talmud proves this point beyond doubt. The flow of thoughts and opposing ideas are abundant, as are the formulation and rejection of opinions and insights. The interaction between legality, prose, narrative, illusion and hard reality is astonishing and earns the Talmud its reputation as the richest ever literary creation. Not even Greek philosophy was able to produce such a symphony of ideas in which the waves of the human intellect interweave with those of divinity, moving forward and backward. There is an absolute lack of systematization and it is clear that any such attempt was nipped in the bud. From a modern point of view, one might argue that the search for truth in the Torah was not directed toward proportional truth because such a notion was lacking by definition. The most persistent intellectual energy and analytic efforts were devoted to the continual contrivance of beautiful and profound interpretation to discover the totality of life.

Since the Torah was considered God-given, it might have been logical that fundamentalism would ultimately triumph and lead to conflict with science and other disciplines. But this inference is founded on a major misconception. Precisely because the text is seen as the word of God, its essential ambiguity was granted implicitly, and every verse by definition has many levels of interpretation, both poetic and legal. There is even the compatibility of playfulness with seriousness, since the former is a most important component of human existence as created by God.

The attempt to streamline and straightjacket the Jewish Tradition and create a final Jewish theology--which took place long after the Talmud was completed, and in our days has nearly become an article of faith--is a major mistake and a complete misreading of its very character. While for practical reasons there is a need to put halachic living into pragmatic context, which requires conformity in action, this should never be the goal when focusing on Judaism's beliefs. It is the task of the rabbis to do everything in their power to rescue Judaism from dogmatism. While it can't be denied that Judaism incorporates certain definite beliefs, they were always kept to a minimum and were constantly a source of fierce debate. Most important, one must remember that such dogmas never led to conclusions of reductio ad absurdum. Freedom in doctrine and conformity in action was the overall policy to which the Talmudic rabbis were committed, even when convinced of certain fundamental truths. This is evident when one studies the relationship between the biblical text and the Oral Torah: minimum words and maximum interpretation.

It is detrimental to Jewish Tradition to transform words into fixed clusters of thought and store up definite theories. The idea is not to become the owner of masses of information entrusted firmly to one's memory and carefully transmitted into notes. Once one does so, one becomes scared and disturbed by new ideas, since the new puts into question the fixed information that one has stored in one's mind. As such, ideas that cannot easily be pinned down are frightening, like everything else that grows and is flexible.

Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, the ideal is to hear and, most important, to receive and respond in an active, productive way. It should stimulate a thinking process, which ultimately leads to the transformation of the student.

To halacha-ize and legalize Jewish thought is to miss the whole message of the Talmudic way of thinking. Doing so will undermine the Halacha since it will kill its underlying spirit. There is little doubt that due to the pan-halachic attitudes that we now experience in certain rabbinical circles, we see negative symptoms in the form of Halacha becoming suffocated and often rejected by intelligent, broad-minded people. A plant may continue to stay alive, even in apparent health, after its roots have been cut, but its days are numbered.

If the rabbinical censorship that we have lately encountered concerning certain books and ideas on Orthodox Judaism were to be applied to the Talmudic text, it would mean that the best part of this great compendium on Jewish thought and law would be censored and burned.

Freedom of thought must be guaranteed if we want the Jewish Tradition to have a future. This applies in particular to teaching and writing. A man or woman who holds a teaching post should not be forced to repress his or her opinions for the sake of upholding popular, simplistic notions or even more sophisticated ones. As long as his or her opinions are rooted in the authentic Jewish Tradition and expressed with the awe of Heaven, they must be encouraged, no matter how much they are disliked by some rabbinic authorities.

Uniformity in the opinions expressed by teachers should not be sought, and if possible, should even be avoided since diversity of opinion among preceptors is essential to any sound education. No religious Jewish student can pass as educated if he has heard only one side of the debates that divided the earlier and later sages. One of the most important skills to teach is the power of weighing arguments, and this is the foundation of all Talmudic debate. To prevent the teacher from doing so or to deny him the opportunity to bring this to the attention of his students is misplaced rabbinic tyranny, which has no place in the Jewish Tradition. It is the Christianization of Judaism by rabbis.

As soon as censorship is imposed on the opinions voiced by teachers, Jewish education ceases to serve its purpose and, instead of producing a nation of men, runs the risk of creating a herd of fanatical bigots.

Today's Talmudists must realize that they can easily become imprisoned by their own knowledge and drowned by it. They may have tremendous Talmudic expertise, but they have perhaps forgotten that one needs to know more than just all the intricacies of text. One needs to hear the distinctiveness of its content, the spirit it breathes, and the many often opposing ideological foundations on which it stands. To know the Talmud is to know more than its sum total.

Techniques for dealing with people whose opinions are disliked have been well perfected, especially when the condemners are men of power. In the case of those more experienced, public hostility is stirred by means of misrepresentation and character assassination. Since most teachers do not care to expose themselves to these risks, they will avoid giving public expression to their less-mainstream-Orthodox opinions. This is a most dangerous state of affairs and must be stopped. These methods are used to quash genuine and important knowledge and to deny people insight. But above all, it allows obscurantism to triumph. Everything must be done to allow and encourage these teachers, who are in love with Judaism as few people are, and who are creative thinkers, to say what they have on their minds without fear, and to build a great future for Judaism. It is the obligation of the religious community to create an environment where these thinkers can flourish without unpleasant repercussions.

Certain religious leaders, including rabbis, may believe that these tactics of repression and character assassination work. They should know, however, that they may be able to burn books, but the ideas expressed in them will not die. In fact, the more they condemn these books the more they will be read by intelligent students. No man or force can put thoughts in a concentration camp. Trying to do so is similar to somebody who is so afraid of being murdered, that he decides to commit suicide.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

What Does Matzah Symbolize?

You have no doubt eaten matzah. Maybe you cared for its taste and maybe not. But what about its meaning. Does it mean anything? The following article is based on the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, an early 20th century scholar from Latvia. I post it with the author's permission.

The article discusses three mitzvos (translation: commandments) that you might have encountered at a Passover Seder. The first is the eating of matzah, the second is the bitter herb (maror), and the third is the sandwich composed of the two, the Hillel sandwich. All of these have important meaning. They are not just foods to eat. How could they be just foods. They don't exactly qualify as fine dining. They obviously are simple foods. Why do we eat them. Is it just as Tevya in the Fiddler on the Roof would say "Tradition"? Let us see.

by Rabbi Chanan Morrison as based on the writings of Rabbi Kook

(Posted with author's permission)

Together or separate? The Sages disagreed on how one should eat the matzah and maror (bitter herbs) at the Passover Seder.

The Talmud in Berachot 49a admonishes us not to perform mitzvot 'bundled together' ("chavilot chavilot"). We do not want to give the impression that mitzvot are an unwanted burden, an obligation that we wish to discharge as quickly as possible. For this reason, the majority opinion is that the two mitzvot of eating matzah and maror should be performed separately.

But Hillel's custom was to place the pesach offering and the maror inside the matzah and eat them together like a sandwich. Why did Hillel combine these mitzvot together?

Matzah and Freedom

To understand Hillel's opinion we must first examine the significance of matzah and maror. Matzah is a symbol of freedom. But what is freedom? Freedom does not mean sitting idle and unoccupied. True freedom means the opportunity to grow and develop according to one's inner nature and natural gifts, without interference or coercion from outside influences. This freedom is symbolized by matzah, a simple food consisting solely of flour and water, unaffected by other ingredients and chemical processes.

In order to form the Jewish people as a holy nation, their national character needed to be independent of all foreign influences. They left Egypt free from the spiritual baggage of Egyptian culture. [Blogger's note: Egypt was a cruel and decadent society.] Thus we find that in preparation of bringing the Passover offering, they were commanded to "draw out and take for yourselves sheep" (Ex. 12:21). What does it mean to 'draw out'? The Midrash explains that they needed to remove from within themselves any affinity to Egyptian idolatry (Mechilta ad loc). [Blogger's note: the Midrash is a several thousand year old literary commentary on the Bible.]

With a clean slate, lacking any national character of their own, a holy character could then be imprinted on Israel's national soul. This is part of the metaphor of matzah: it lacks any shape and taste of its own, so that the desired form and flavor may be properly imposed upon it.

The Message of Maror

Maror is the opposite of matzah; its bitterness is a symbol of servitude. But even servitude may have a positive value. An individual whose life's ambition is to become a doctor must spend many years in medical school to achieve this goal. The long years of concentrated effort require great dedication and discipline. These years are a form of servitude - but a servitude that advances one's final goal, and thus is ultimately a true expression of freedom.

This idea may also be applied to the Jewish people. Our souls are ingrained with a Divine nature, but we suffer from character imperfections that prevent us from realizing our inner nature. For this reason we need to accept upon ourselves a pleasant form of servitude, the service of God. We acquired this ability in Egypt. This is slavery's positive contribution - it teaches one to accept the deferment of immediate desires and short-term goals.

This is the central message of maror: acceptance of life's bitter aspects, with the knowledge that this forbearance and resolve will allow us to attain higher objectives. For this reason, we eat the maror only after eating the matzah - only after we have clarified our ultimate goals.

Discipline and Freedom

Now we may better understand the disagreement between Hillel and the other sages. Freedom, as symbolized by the matzah, reveals the inherent holiness of Israel and our natural love for God and Torah. This innate character enables us to overcome desires that do not concur with our elevated goals. It is through our persistence and dedication to the overall goal that we reveal our inner resources of freedom.

Both of these traits, freedom and servitude, need to be free to act without interference from one another. When a spirit of freedom and independence is appropriate, it should not be constrained by a servile attitude; and when discipline and a sense of duty are needed, they should not be disrupted by a desire for freedom. Thus, according to the majority opinion, we should eat the matzah and maror separately, indicating that each trait should be expressed to its fullest.

The ultimate goal, however, is attained only when we recognize that these two forces do not contradict one another. Joined together, they present the highest freedom, whose nobility and power is fully revealed when it wears the crown of lofty servitude - the service of the Holy King, a service that is freedom in its purest state.

Thus Hillel would eat the matzah and maror together. He sought to emphasize that freedom and slavery are not contradictory concepts. Generally speaking, the quality of servitude belongs more to the preparatory stage; but in the overall picture, the two forces are interrelated, complementing one another to attain the final goal.

(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Olat Re'iyah vol. II, pp. 287-289)


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Quest for God

"This quest for G-d; although native in all humans, tends to become coarsened and stultified as one grows older. Because of constant contact with material things and with the ways of the nations ..., men become busy and satisfied with substitutes: money, pleasure, and glory, and thus go lost in the darkness. But those whose urge toward God has not been stifled, "the generation of those that seek Him" (Psalms 24:6), are here told what to do. To find G-d, they must trace their footsteps to discover from whence they came. What does this mean?

It means that we must study the lives and the deeds of those from whom we are derived. We must go back to the ways of the great who went before us, as related in the Scriptures and in the Talmud and in our traditions. The wealth of details that are related about our Tsaddikim (the righteous) is recorded for the purpose that we study them and learn how to come close to Hashem (God)."

Rabbi Avigdor Miller, Awake my Glory, p. 240.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Man's Misunderstanding of Himself

"Man is surely aware of many needs, but the needs he is aware of are not always his own. At the very root of this failure to recognize one's truly worthwhile needs lies man's ability to misunderstand and misidentify himself, i.e., to lose himself. Quite often man loses himself by identifying himself with the wrong image. Because of this misidentification, man adopts the wrong table of needs which he feels he must gratify. Man responds quickly to the pressure of certain needs, not knowing whose needs he is out to gratify. At this juncture, sin is born. What is the cause of sin, if not the diabolical habit of man to be mistaken about his own self?" 

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah"