Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Bar Ilan Kippa Controversy: Heat but No Light on Hanukkah

A colleague of mine, one of the most mild-mannered and likeable people I know, finds himself this morning in the midst of a raging controversy because he ejected a student from his Talmud class, because the latter stridently refused to cover his head. The reactions have been, more or less, as one might expect. The always loaded question of religion in the public square of the Jewish State explodes with vehemence, vitriol and viciousness. Secularist politicians are trying to cynically capitalize on, and exacerbate those tensions. In order to cover itself, the university (everybody's favorite religious punching bag), is waving its by-laws which everybody signs but nobody reads, to wit: students agree to wear kippot during their text courses in basic Jewish Studies. The bottom line is that today, on the fourth day of the Festival of Lights there's a huge amount of heat and very little light.
As a twenty year veteran of Bar Ilan's faculty, and one who is admittedly lax in enforcing the kippa rule, I'd like to try to inject some food for thought into the discussion.
1) There is something terribly disingenuous (and, perhaps, hypocritical) about the attacks on my colleague. The same people who scream 'Religious Coercion' would not hesitate to remove their hats if so requested, when entering a lecture hall at Gregorian University in Rome. If required by Oxford to wear an academic gown to speak from the podium, I suspect that they would jump at the opportunity to do something so exotic. If a woman were requested to dress conservatively in a foreign university setting (as they often are), no objection would be voiced. After all, one must respect the venue in which one finds oneself. However, when a professor requests a student to offer respect to Jewish sacred texts by donning a kippa (and its legal standing is quite irrelevant), all Hell breaks loose.
2) In the film of Ben Gurion's reading of the Declaration of Independence, there is a brief scene (which is usually omitted) in which the venerable Mizrachi leader, R. Judah Leib Fishman-Maimon, recites the blessing 'Sheheheyanu.' Surprisingly, many of our aggressively secular, founding fathers are seen covering their heads (with hats, hands etc) out of respect for the moment. The point is that while not personally observant, they retained the sensitivity to respond to a situation that still resonated with millennia of Jewish Tradition. The militant response of this student (and those who support him), not to mention the manipulative response of politicians, suggests that for some Israeli Jews (at least as far as Torah Study is concerned) this sensitivity is gone.
This circumstance is, in my opinion, nothing short of tragic. Reverence for tradition is an essential element for national identity and Jewish continuity (something with which our enemies seem to have no problem). The only way to secure this is through knowledge; clearly, respectfully and respectably imparted. And there is an ever expanding audience for that knowledge. My experience has taught me that such students are in the minority. As I have said many times (in print, on the radio, in public fora, and two days ago on this very site), and as has been borne out by the most recent studies, Israeli Jews are in the midst of a renaissance of Jewish identity and searching that is nothing short of wondrous. I have consistently found that my students in Basic Jewish Studies are overwhelmingly eager to obtain the type of sophisticated Jewish Cultural  and Religious Literacy that they were denied in Elementary and High School.*
3) What does this have to do with wearing a kippa? Both precious little and everything. Obviously, one can teach Judaism without a kippa. The question is one of ambiance and attitude. Even for those who do not define themselves as Orthodox or Traditional, covering one's head when studying Torah is the authentic Jewish way of showing reverence for the 'fountain from which your ancestors drew such incredible fortitude' (to quote Bialik's אם יש את נפשך לדעת). Wearing a kippa is a statement on the part of the student that this material is not the same as Dante's Divina Commedia (which, by the way, I constantly hound my students to read). It has more valence, more resonance, more warmth. Classroom ambiance is an integral part of the educational process. When the student leaves the classroom he may remove the head covering, just as he may do with that which he has learned as he wishes. The existential moment in the classroom, though, becomes part of his cultural literacy. He will understand what others intuit (and will have learned a lesson in co-existence with those of his fellow students who did cover their heads).
Let me make this clear, though. The university classroom is not a yeshiva or a seminary. The scientific method reigns. The student is encouraged to probe and question, challenge and debate (courteously). The teacher is duty bound not to preach, but to teach; not to dismiss but to respectfully engage the student's queries and challenges. Debate should lead where debate will lead.
4)  Academic integrity is not in the least impugned if a lecturer actively seeks to infect students with his/her enthusiasm and awe, love and pure enjoyment of the subject matter. Not unrelated to the present brouhaha, there is something unhealthy about a world of public discourse where a Professor of French can wax rhapsodic about La Belle France, but Jewish Studies Professors have to be as sterile and detached as clinical pathologists.
Of course, I fully understand that the question of Religion and State is one of the hot button issues of our day. Indeed, it may be more important for Israel's future than our on going war with the Muslim World. Yet, it is precisely for that reason that requiring a minor in Jewish Studies (the use of the word 'Basic' is unfortunate), and requesting acknowledgement of the fact that for Jews these studies have a reverential aura about them, is so critical. How else will we create a common cultural language, based on mutual understanding; mutual understanding not only of source material  but of its underlying emotional charge?
In the present cultural climate, the tools to achieve this common cultural-historical (and, for many, religious) language are primarily found in the academy. As an institution that is officially under religious auspices, that should be an essential part of Bar Ilan's raison d'etre. Objections that this is illegal for a public institution are silly, or disingenuous. Core Curricula characterize the best universities in the world. Implementing an educational-cultural vision is the privilege of every academic institution. Requiring a minor in Academic Jewish Studies and inculcating an appreciation for one's heritage is a legitimate educational goal. So long as one does not actively catechize, there is no problem. There should be no need for Bar Ilan to hide behind regulations. A principle is at stake and adopting a principled stance is indicated.
In fine, the (to use the colloquial term) aleihom on my colleague is not only out of place, it represents a fundamental lack of understanding of the issues at hand. Rather than abuse his teacher, the student would have been better served by meeting with him respectfully, and opening himself up to a different point of view. That, after all, is what higher education is about.
*For the record, graduates of the Religious School system have many lacunae in their education that we fill, as well. That, however, is the subject for another column.
[This column was first published on the Times of Israel site on December 11, 2012.]

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Law is in Accordance with Beit Hillel

They were two, very different, men. Each was an outstanding scholar of impeccable integrity and deep piety. One man's name was Shammai. The other scholar's name was Hillel. Both Shammai and Hillel founded schools, known as Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, that left a profound impression upon Jewish Law and Jewish History.

One point upon which they differed was the order of lighting the Chanukah candles. Beit Shammai was of the opinion that one starts with eight candles, and each night one lights one less candles. Beit Hillel averred that one starts with one candles and adds a new candle each of the ensuing nights of the festival. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) discusses different rationales for the two opinions. However, it seems to me that they are emblematic of the philosophies of Shammai and Hillel, founders of the two schools.

Shammai was profoundly sensitive to his role as the bearer, and transmitter, of the traditions of the Oral Law as he had received them from his teachers, and they from their teachers, all the way back to God's Revelation at Sinai. He was, therefore, zealous for the integrity and accuracy of Jewish Law, and (most appropriately) was conservative in its interpretation and application. It is, therefore, most appropriate that his disciples viewed Jewish religious history as a type of 'Decline of the Generations,' starting with a blaze of fire and trumpets at Sinai; with the fire growing ever dimmer and more vulnerable as ever greater distances separate us from that formative event.

Hillel was no less conscious of the sanctity, and fragility, of the Tradition that he had received from his teachers, Shemaiah and Abtalion, or of the fact that teaching Torah meant expounding God's Will, something that one undertakes only with a significant measure of trepidation. Hillel, however, differed with Shammai on one, very significant, methodological point. Where Shammai felt duty-bound to pass on Tradition in a more careful fashion; Hillel employed traditionally received rules of Biblical interpretation to expand the boundaries of Halakhic discourse and possibility, beyond those that he had received from his teachers. As a God-fearing Jew, he realized that interpretation also had its limits and that man should not have the temerity to force his own views on God's. However, he apparently believed that one must use rules of interpretation that were part and parcel of the Oral Tradition, in order to elicit its hitherto unrevealed dimensions of meaning and their practical implications. It was, therefore, apt that his disciples should advocate expanding and increasing the lights until they blaze forth in glory on the eight day.

In a world of unparalleled religious challenge, where Traditional Jewish Life and Values are besieged and attacked from without and within, it is no surprise that Shammai's philosophy has taken hold of much of the Orthodox World. After all, we are still speaking of God's Torah and the obligation of those who adhere thereto, to protect and preserve it. In its present manifestation, however, adhering to the path of Shammai has meant not only preserving the lore of millennia, but of drastically narrowing the same tradition that they claim to preserve. The result is that vast areas of Jewish Law and Lore that could, by every Orthodox criterion, be employed to address unprecedented challenges are written off and ignored in the name of caution (Agunot and Conversion come first to mind, but there are many others). Tragically, those who pay the greatest price of this policy are observant or traditional Jews (who make up the vast majority of Israeli Jews), a price that ir all too often paid in the persons of their alienated children.
In the course of the past year, a courageous group of Rabbis,  Yeshiva Heads, To'anot Rabbaniot, and Yo'atzot Halakhah have banded together to form an organization that they have appropriately named 'Beit Hillel.' Their goal is, officially, to develop rabbinic leadership that is attentive to the needs of the entire Jewish community in Israel. On a deeper level, however, their goal is precisely that of its eponymous forbear. It aims, responsibly and with Fear of Heaven, to widen the parameters of Torah and Halakhah, and to restore its capacity to function in a complex society. Its members, among whom I am proud to count myself, hope that by exposing the dazzling capacity of the Torah to encounter and engage the world, it will not only retain its adherents but will establish bonds with those who have yet to engage it.

As was true both of Hillel and his disciples, there will be clear limits to where it can go. Yes, Beit Hillel's published opinions appear lenient. That, however, is a function of the fact that regnant rabbinic opinion has pushed things to such a degree of stricture that stating the Law as it is appears lenient. Nevertheless, restoring the Torah in its plenitude can only advance the cause of Judaism and deepen Israel's identity as a qualitatively Jewish State (while giving it the tools to respectfully engage the democratic side of the Israeli equation).

The Talmud put an effective end to the decades long controversies between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel when it declared (in the name of a Heavenly Voice): Both speak the words of the Living God, but the Halakhah is in Accordance with Beit Hillel' (Eruvin 13b). In the absence of a Heavenly Voice, the contemporary Beit Hillel is asserting that, with all due respect to those Orthodox authorities whose religious sentiments and halakhic methods differ, the sensitivities and methods of Beit Hillel must today be advanced, for the greater glory of God and His Torah.

After all, הלכה כבית הלל.

[The above was first published at the Times of Israel on 12/10/12.]