Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Codes, The Maharal, and the End of Thinking!

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 at 9:46 am

As Stephen Stills once sang, “You who’ve been on the road, must have a code that you can live by…” I guess he internalized this message from the Rambam, and Rav Yosef Karo, the respective authors of the Yad Hachazaka and the Shulchan Aruch, both are books that break from the Talmudic dialectic by distilling and excising process in favor of writing only the halachic decision .I now understand why there was such opposition to this move, as necessary as it might have been at the time.

Both of these works diminish the value of the journey in favor of the destination.  It doesn’t matter how you got there, the important thing is you have arrived, and now you should do this! No doubt, there are many who for this very reason find these books attractive, the Maharal, however, was not a fan for what inevitably happened after these books became popular:

To decide halakhic questions from the codes without knowing the source of the ruling was not the intent of these authors. Had they known that their works would lead to the abandonment of Talmud, they would not have written them. It is better for one to decide on the basis of the Talmud even though he might err, for a scholar must depend solely on his understanding. As such, he is beloved of God, and preferable to the one who rules from a code but does not know the reason for the ruling; such a one walks like a blind person.

In other words, it is better to be part of a creative process and risk failure than it is to be an appendage to someone else’s thinking and blindly, literally blindly, follow the rules.  The supple dynamic and even protean nature of Torah study is suffocated by the code, but there is another unfortunate result of only relying on the codes for answers. By disemboweling the dialectic and favoring a singular opinion, not only have you codified actions, but values and thoughts as well.  Where the Talmud allowed for opposing opinions, sometimes of dramatic importance, the code enforces not only uniform behaviors, which allow us to pray and celebrate together, but uniform thought, that makes it much easier to denigrate and exclude those who don’t look and act the same way.

What the Maharal means to say is the Rambam and Rav Yosef Karo, had they known that the success of  their codes would begin creating  automatons disinterested in the origins of their rulings, they would have endured the chaotic practices that the Talmud, by its nature, seemed to allow. They wanted some order, but they never would have countenanced the ignorance that came with it.

Given the elitism of the Rambam, I’m not so sure that he wouldn’t be sanguine with how things have turned out, even though I am sure he would be resentful that another code came along and superseded his.

Recently, I have been working on curriculum for a project, and because of approaching deadlines, some of the themes for this curriculum had to be farmed out to others.  It was my job to edit their work so that it would conform to the established format.  Their classes were insightful and interesting, but incredibly dogmatic.  They had created a class on Judaism and the Environment, so, of course, it is a foregone conclusion of how these sources are going to support the most progressive environmental thinking. As I was working on what they did, I kept thinking that I could come up with sources that said the earth and her creatures are there for humans to exploit them anyway they see fit.  That voice was not in their piece, even though the argument of seeing both positions would make the class more interesting. One could see the students analyzing which interpretations seemed to be more valid. Instead, agenda transcended process, and we’re the poorer for it. There is no room for a “wrong” answer.

If all we do is bring sources that corroborate opinions that precede our investigation of them, we have nothing, and I mean nothing, to offer.

If all we have to say is, “We’re for recycling just as you are!” Nobody needs us.

Let the study of Torah not be the handmaiden of any outside agenda.


The “Hareidi” Distraction in Emanuel

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2010 at 8:36 am

Oy! Just what we need right now.  In the interest of bringing light and not heat to the latest spat between the “klai kodesh” and the Israeli supremes, a little historical context might be helpful.  The uneasy meeting of minds between the Chazon Ish and Ben Gurion back when the State was very young, produced a reality that became known as “the Status Quo”. This ill advised agreement basically created a way for the non-Zionist community to gain some advantages from the State without having any responsibility for it. Why did Ben Gurion agree to this?  Avi Ravitzky claims that BG thought the Hareidi community  would ultimately disappear and the problem would solve itself.  The defection to Zionism from the young of the old Yishuv gave credence to this perspective, but alas, it was not to be.

For years Aguda, unlike Neturei Karta, has been allowed to declare that the cow (the State) is treif, but the milk is kosher.  Now, sixty years later, an unsympathetic Supreme Court wants to treat this fifth column as if they have to adhere to criteria that have heretofore never been the interest of the State. The Hareidim have always had an independent educational system supported by the State.  The Supreme Court presumably could have saved everyone the trouble and could have chosen not to hear this complaint. The Sefardim were happy to have their own school, but instead, the Supremes decided that it was high time to address the inequity of the status quo only to create social upheaval for the State at a critical time (it always seems to be a critical time). It looks like the Supremes have lost and have only succeeded in confirming the worst suspicions of a profoundly ambivalent community.

The hyper-clannishness of Chasidic communities can certainly be seen as non-inclusive, and is often racially motivated by many of their members, but the clash of cultures and perceived threat to the Chasidic way of life is not necessarily racist even though it is exclusive.  Just as rejecting inter-marriage is exclusive but not necessarily motivated by bigotry.

The major public disaffection with the Hareidi community is their exemption from the army.  That should be the issue that is worthy of a supreme court battle–how they choose to educate and with whom should not be the interest of the State and this is one spat that could have been easily avoided.

Smugly Modern Orthodox and Proudly Talmudically Illiterate

In Uncategorized on June 17, 2010 at 1:50 pm

One of the great divides between Haredi and so-called Modern Orthodox Jews is a steady commitment to the study of Gemara.  In fact, put in a clothing neutral circumstance, one would find the “learners” living in a dramatically different world than their non-learning counterparts.  A good Pshat said by one donning a knit kippah would certainly bring a response of mutuality and respect from the learner wearing the latest Borsellino chapeau.  Part of the ‘modern’ sensibility is a growing disaffection with engaging in the arcane minutiae of Nashim, Nezikin, and Mo’ed.  Really, they say, what is the point?

This divide is most obvious when one looks at Modern Orthodox day schools as compared with yeshiva. The dual curriculum of one guarantees that Talmud will be more of an adjective than a noun, while the other impresses upon the student that Torah study is the most important subject to master, and that their best energies would be well placed in doing so. Secular studies suffer as a result, but there is a statement being made that “Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam“, is not a mere platitude, but a mission statement.

Instead of taking potshots at how mindlessly frum those anemic armadas seem to be, maybe, one should take hold of the real difference between the two communities.  One sees Torah study as even more important than making a living, while the other advocates learning in one’s spare time–after the MBA, the law degree, or the medical degree.  In yeshiva communities students struggle with going to college or kollel, but part of the definition of being modern is that there is no value in sacrificing professional goals in favor of Torah study. This more than anything else distinguishes the two communities.

The antidote of course was to study a year or two in Israel.  Much could be done, and two years at Gush, Shalavim, KBY, or Brovenders could certainly make up for lost time. Now, however, these undiluted yeshiva programs are competing with a diluted experience of which Torah learning is a minor component. The goal of training someone for the avocation of being a lifelong learner has been abandoned in favor of a variegated “meaningful Israel experience” where attachment to God, the land and people eclipse any real connection to Torah.

There will be little opportunity for those who are diffident, but intrigued  about day and night immersion into Torah study to risk doing something that seems so hard.  The more pareve option is certainly less threatening, and therefore, more attractive.  Why risk ones precious year for an experience so foreign? When there was only one option, the risk seemed worth taking. For most, they not only learned Torah, but they were often transformed into learners themselves or ones who saw the value of learning from the inside. These people wished to be connected to the enterprise of learning, and they knew that without that year, they never would have understood its importance. They established lifelong relationships with Rabbaim in ways that rarely would happen with a Madrich.

People should know that it is more important to lead a “market” than it is to pander to it.

Empowered Judaism, Future Tense, and Radical Judaism: A Brave New Weird Jewish World

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2010 at 11:53 am

I’ve been away for ages, not for want of things to say, but of time to say them. I have, however, been reading contemporary books of Jewish interest for the first time in thirty years.  This was not a conscious choice, but one borne out of necessity. I didn’t get to the library and ended up plundering my son’s Bar Mitzvah stash. I also availed myself of freebies offered at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s “Why Be Jewish” annual gathering.

Why have I eschewed reading new Jewish books? Well, quite frankly, I would rather be learning Torah and if not, I would rather my “bitul zman” be spent on something I would quite frankly enjoy more.  Two of these three books did not require a book length treatment to say what needed to be said, while the third one could have been a bit longer.  Each one advocates for different ways to “save the Jewish people”, or at least save people who resemble these authors.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, is a fine writer, and in Future Tense, he argues for a Judaism open to dialog with other religious traditions.  He analyzes Jewish stubbornness and her dyspeptic attitude toward rabbis like himself in a curious albeit eloquent fashion. He claims that we are naturally individualistic and hence not so cooperative.  A strange analysis to say the least.  Here is a tradition that prefers liturgically the “we” over the “I”, that prefers duty to others over individual “rights”, but somehow, is culturally alien to cooperative community.  The problem of Jewish crankiness is real enough, but the analysis is spectacularly wrong.  Rabbi Sacks command of the latest thinking in sociology, philosophy, and psychology is profoundly impressive.  In Torah, however, one cannot help but notice that the quotations are not as numerous, fluid or forthcoming.  He is a spokesman for a new nuance in traditional Judaism, “Assimilationist Orthodoxy”.  For those more comfortable with western discourse, but still have deep attachments to keeping the commandments, he is a commanding voice, but not one who will challenge his more traditional counterparts. For me, many of the conclusions were ones that worldly Jews from traditional and liberal backgrounds could easily embrace.  The arguments were, however, less compelling.

Empowered Judaism a relatively short book describes and promotes the phenomenon of independent minyanim that have emerged throughout the United States. The flagship minyan, although not the first, is Kehilat Hadar. A community founded by committed, competent and knowledgeable volunteers who shared a particular vision for a shule community, and sent out an email to see if that vision was shared by others. Scores of people responded and the minyan was on its way.  The most engaging part of the book was its emphasis on competence and efficiency regarding all  community programming.  Not much is left to chance, and although the actual experience feels authentic, it is the result of meticulous planning, and deliberate decision making.  These twenty and thirty somethings know that people’s time is precious and that the theater of the davening experience requires–if not rehearsals–at least careful consideration that doesn’t allow for spontaneous decisions. Torah readers, Shlichei Tzibbur, and Gabbaim, are selected well in advance of a particular service, and are then vetted before they are accepted as leaders. Kehilat Hadar is completely egalitarian, but committed to traditional nusach with little variation. For those of us in the Orthodox community who are pleased with our davening experience, one is struck by how fraught this process has to be in order to get it ‘right’. I mean, why isn’t enough for the Gabbai to scout the usual suspects and pick the suitable candidate during Mincha for Kabbalat Shabbat?  The answer is that this is a new way of creating culture. This is the culture of consultants and MBA’s. This is the culture of dual income families where time is at a premium.  It is also instructive that the independent minyanim are not taking over, but are fulfilling the needs of an urban demographic of transient people from their twenties to early thirties. They don’t always have the luxury of knowing who their usual suspects are. Beyond that, these newly empowered Jews have the mandate to contribute to or transform existing communities.

Kehilat Hadar spawned Machon Hadar that became the headquarters for start up independent minyanim, of which there are enough to declare it a movement of sorts.  The most interesting part of this vision is Yeshivat Hadar. An egalitarian yeshiva that follows the rigors of a classical yeshiva with Gemara being the centerpiece. Complete halachic observance is required and assumed.  I was struck by how critically important the founders felt that Torah learning, especially learnng Gemara, needs to be in the center of all other considerations.  After all, one does not need to talk about gender roles if you have already made a choice for equal participation.  The Yeshiva has a chance to be more organic than the Kehila does.  If the Yeshiva can be sustained, it will be an interesting challenge for the Orthodox community to have a group of shomer shabbos egalitarian Jews who know how to learn.  Empowered Jews is a grand title for what one might call instead, competent Jews. Hadar has tapped into a small community of young Jews who crave community, intimacy and “authenticity” in accordance with some egalitarian principles that are not in tandem with normative halachic practice.  The Yeshiva is where the primarily aesthetic decision of davening with like minded skilled people at Kehilat Hadar becomes transformed into an experience of commitment and devotion.  Where a person goes to the Kehilla because they like the davening, they go to the Yeshiva because they are open to adopting, or already have adopted, a radically different way of life.  It is the latter that will transform the egalitarian community and not the former. Rabbi Eli Kaunfer has much to crow about here, and he is not reticent to do so.

Art Green in his publication of the Yale Rosensweig lectures wrote a theological tour de force that is poeticlly written, thought provoking and somewhat reductionist.  He offers what he calls a neo-hasidic approach to theology, where God is the source of being that is within all living things, a unifying force that is more within than without.  Not a God who rewards and punishes, or one who judges, but one who requires harmony and life affirming action, much of which some hasidic masters have certainly embraced.  I believe that much of what he decries in the Talmud as primitive is over simplifed, and his knowledge of Hasidut and Kabbalah places his ignorance of Gemara in particular and Talmud in general, in sharp relief.  He never claimed to know or be interested in the Halachic process, so this is not a criticism, it is only when he reduces the God of a Talmud as espousing a more primitive theology that I find him overstepping his bounds.  The seeds of the Zohar were sown in Gemaras that were later showcased and emphasized.  Nevertheless, his love of learning and his grounding in Hasidut is obvious. In a way, much more obvious than Rabbi Sacks’s commitment to Torah learning.

This serendipitous entry into the latest shenanigans of the Jewish community is now over. I claim contemporary insanity, and now go back home to my Talmudic tomes and my Medieval mesmerizers.  I have enjoyed my time with them, but I’ve had my fill for now.