Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why Was the Land Lost? A Moral Quandary

The Rov זצ"ל used to remark that his students should cultivate Torah 'in the widest sense of the term.' It's a turn of phrase that has always given me pause. What does it include? More intriguingly, what did he mean to exclude? In my case, since the Rov knew that I was pursuing a degree in Jewish Studies (and considering his feelings about historicism), I"m sorry I didn't ask him. Over time, however, I have arrived at a partial answer to the question.

The Talmud in several places (Nedarim 81a and Baba Metzia 85b) preserves the following discussion:

For Rav Judah said in Rav's name: What is meant by, 'Who is the wise man, that he may understand this? And who is he to whom the mouth of God has spoken, that he may declare it? Wherefore has the land perished and been laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passeth through?'(Jer. 9, 11) ?

Now, this question was put to the Sages, Prophets, and Ministering Angels, but they could not answer it, until the Almighty Himself did so, as it is written (ibid.12), 'And the Lord said: Because they have forsaken my Law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein.' ...Rav Judah said in Rav's name: [It means] that they did not first recite a benediction over the Torah.

The commentators (led by RaN, Nedarim ad loc.) are puzzled by the non-sequitur. Obviously, the Jews were studying Torah. If so, as important as the blessing preceding study might be, why was the penalty for its lack of recital deemed to be so severe. The RaN suggests that the lack of blessing indicates a less than serious attitude to the Torah. That, however, is hardly abandoning God!

Or, maybe it is.

On many occasions, the Rov noted that the Torah itself demands the recitation of a blessing before study (ברכת התורה מדאורייתא) to serve as a declaration of surrender and submission to God prior to study. It means not judging the Torah, God forbid, but living with questions and giving the Torah (and He who gave it, the benefit of the doubt).Its point actually is to distinguish Torah study from all other intellectual pursuits, exalted and important as these must be. Reciting ברכת התורה means renewing a commitment to a religious, moral and upstanding life as a result of Torah Study. Without that context and commitment, Torah study itself can easily be seen as an abandonment of God.

I firmly believe that, in terms of Jewish Studies, the ability to recite a ברכת התורה over the subject matter is a litmus test of that which is included in 'Torah in the widest sense' and that which is not. Certainly, the mere fact that a person is a scholar of Jewish History or Jewish Studies does not per se make him or her a credible or legitimate representative of Judaism or a moral example (and I include here rabbis whose Torah doesn't penetrate their moral character).

"Wherefore is the land perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passeth through?" Because the moral values of the Torah are dust under the feet of those who do not recite the blessing first.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Eighteen Years in Israel: Light and Darkness and Light

In our family, today is a holiday. Eighteen years ago, we had the זכות to make Aliyah with our children (and to undo the expulsion of my great-grandparents by the Turks, exactly one hundred years ago). We made Aliyah in the days before Nefesh b'Nefesh. In fact, we were the only Olim on our flight. We were met by a nice AACI volunteer, who told us to meet with an Aliyah counselor, and that was it. We sort of winged it, בסעייתא דשמיא and advice from a lot of friends.

It has not been easy. ארץ ישראל נקנית ביסורים. Our's have been tangible, both easier and harder than those encountered by others. There have been moments of personal and national joy, as well as four wars and personal and national loss. One thing, however, has never changed. We may have had a more challenging harder life, but it is always, but always, a worthwhile life. Nowhere else have I felt more grounded, more purposeful, more at home than here in Israel. Every step you take contributes to the eternity of the Jewish People in the only place it can call home. I appreciate the yeoman's efforts undertaken by institutions and individuals around the world to preserve the Torah and rescue Jews from oblivion. The real action, though, is here. I know this not only from being personally, intensively, involved in dialogue and Modern Orthodox initiatives, teaching Torah (in the broadest sense of the term) in both academic and non-academic settings. I know it from the flow, and power, of daily life in the Land that God Himself gave to His People. I firmly believe, with every fiber of my being, that the future of Judaism and of Jewry will be secured here, and not abroad.

Being a Jew requires sacrifice. Sometimes, that sacrifice is one of time, or of money. Sometimes, God Forbid, we are asked to sacrifice our lives. That was brought home, tragically, with yesterday's attack on the road to Eilat. I'm not going to mar this post with a discussion of Islam, Al Qaeda and so on. The truth is that much of the Christian World, as well as the Dar al Islam, wishes that we would all disappear. They have been nursing that hope for thirty five hundred years, and will keep on nursing it.

I want to focus, instead, on what the Jews do (as Ben Gurion once put it). Last night, my wife and I decided to go out in honor of our Aliyah anniversary and (belatedly) to celebrate the acceptance of my book for publication. We chose to go to En Kerem, because it's beautiful, quiet and I'd never really seen it up close (mirabile dictu). It's a gem of Jerusalem. We explored galleries and dined at a novelty (a kosher restaurant in the vicinity). There were no tourists, only Israelis. We all knew what had happened. One gallery had the news on, and it was blaring from the makolet. Whoever heard, looked at one other in that deep look of silent understanding that expresses the rock bottom, steeled determination of Israelis to defend ourselves and build our country, with God's help.

We all went on living. It was dissonant, but real. That's how Jews live, and thrive. We acknowledge our pain, and our sacrifice and we go on living. As friend of my wife, a child of Holocaust survivors, used to observe: 'The best revenge is living well.' I would add, that the best revenge is living well here, in Eretz Yisrael.

And that is precisely what I'm going to say tonight as we have Shabbat dinner in our home in the Hevron Hills.

And it is precisely for that, that I will thank God tomorrow night אי"ה at the Kotel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Catching Up

A friend just commented to me that I've not posted here in two months. Two Months?!! I couldn't believe it. I used to post daily (or close to daily). Nevertheless, sure enough, I can see that the last time I posted was almost two months ago. Part of the reason, I'm sure, is that a significant amount of the cross-posting I used to do (e.g. calling attention to articles in the Press etc), I now do on Facebook. It's just easier with their 'Share' function. (And, I repeat my invitation to any of my readers to 'friend' me on FB so that they can participate in the very lively debates that go on on my page.)

Still, that's not the whole story. The whole story is that all of my energy has been devoted to finishing my book on the Qehillah Qedosha, and three additional articles that are now required for me to apply for promotion to Associate Professor at Bar Ilan. I'm happy to say that the book received its final acceptance for publication last month (DOP: Late Spring 2012) and I just submitted the third of the three articles for publication. So, while there are still tons of things on my plate (including packing up our house for the fabled renovations on our home: I'm soon to intensify my status as an 'obstacle to Peace') I feel liberated enough to start posting again on a more regular basis.

Bottom Line: Stay Tuned.