Friday, March 30, 2018

Seeing the Signs of the Times: A Thought for the Seder from Don Isaac Abravanel

Exactly 526 years ago tomorrow, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, their most Catholic majesties of Aragon and Castille, stood in the Al-Hambra Palace (once built for the Jewish Vizier of Granada, Samuel Ibn Negrela Ha-Nagid) and issued a decree expelling all professing Jews from their combined KIngdoms no later than July 31 (four months hence).

The Decree of Expulsion from Spain 

One of those who chose the staff of exile was the Royal Treasurer, Don Isaac Abravanel (whom our family is proud to call our ancestor). Over the years of wandering, he pondered the disaster that had befallen the Jews of Spain, whose glorious history ended in a combination of the Fires of the Inquisition, the Waters of the Baptismal font and the Bitter Waters of Exile. In his Hagaddah, which he finished some thirteen years after he left Spain, he expresses the despair that he and his generation felt.

              'What have we gained,' he asked, 'by leaving Egypt?' Perhaps we would 
              have been better off staying there than being exiled among the Christians 
              and the Muslims, free from the expulsions, the persecutions, the sword,
              captivity, and worst of all apostasy as a response to travail.

And yet, he adduced two lessons that he took away. 1) That there is no way to explain the Exodus except by Divine intervention.

2) In his commentary to Isaiah 49, Abravanel says that God inspired the Kings of Europe to expel their Jews (using the verb the Prophet uses to describe Cyrus), in order to being them ever closer to Eretz Yisrael. The message is, and Abravanel's generation actually failed here by either going West or stopping short, to read the signs of God's intervention in History and follow His lead.  

According to Hazal, 80% of the Israelites died during the three days of Darkness. I surmise that they didn't die physically. They died spiritually, and so remained in Egypt. They failed on both of Abravanels counts. They refused to believe that any power could defeat Pharaoh. They likely assumed that miracles weren't miracles, that everything is natural and that reasonable, sophisticated people wouldn't accept such things. In their uber-sophistication, they were blind to God's Hand in History. 

We've seen God's Hand in History, even when we don't understand it. Rav Yehudah Amital זצ"ל, himself a survivor who lost his entire family in the Shoah,  used to say that he saw God's Hand in the Shoah, when the Germans and their Henchmen ימ"ש harmed their own war effort to murder Jews. He just couldn't fathom what God was doing. Far be it from me to presume to say anything about the Holocaust. However, in our times we've seen God's Hand in History, when three years after Auschwitz, the State of Israel was born, against all political and military logic. We saw it when the great Soviet Empire came crashing down, and hundreds of thousands of Jews were freed from three generations of repression and persecution. In fact, for those who look closely, our continued existence, both of our country and our people, is due to one long series of miracles (whether hidden or revealed).

On Pesach, we thank הקב"ה for these never ending miracles, from the Exodus from Egypt until today and Please God, till the coming of משיח צדקנו בב"א

חג כשר ושמח!!!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Peter Berger and the Prospects for Judaism in Israel

Peter Berger, who passed away less than a year ago, was a world famous sociologist of religion. As with many others, his writings and insights had a profound impact on me, in both my professional and non-professional life. His book, The Sacred Canopy, played a critical role in my thinking about the way that value systems and mentalites envelop, sustain and guide religious societies (which is the central focus of The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz). 
 In the 1960's, Berger was deeply concerned by what he sensed was the decline (perhaps, the demise) of religion, in the face of the unrelenting onslaught of Secularism. He pushed back against the 'Death of God' Movement, and asserted the importance of belief in the Divine (in an acknowledged, Liberal Lutheran mode). Thirty years later, though, Berger was surprised (and pleased) to discover that despite his fears, Religion and Faith in a Supernatural God were thriving throughout the world (outside, perhaps, of Europe and the circles of the cognoscenti of Manhattan, Los Angeles and their acolytes. See here). In considering this development, Berger observed that there is an historical irony in the manner wherein religion can thrive in the contemporary world. Until relatively recently, religion was supported by the power of the State. In the Christian West, that is no longer the case, and religious affiliation is now a matter of personal conviction and purely voluntary. This changed circumstance, Berger averred, actually bode well for religion. Freed of  institutional constraints (and their dark side), Religion now must compete in the open market of ideas. Berger felt that this surprising resurgence of Religion was largely due precisely to the success of Religious Faith to effectively market itself to a spiritually hungry world (assisted, no doubt, by the intellectual and spiritual superficiality and flaccidity of secularism). 

There is, I am convinced, much in what Berger wrote that can be constructively and effectively (if judiciously and critically) applied to Jewish Life in the resurgent State of Israel.

First, it's important to note, that Berger (though, ironically, born a Jew) was writing in a Christian context. Since Christian religiosity begins (and often, ends) with one's own personal, internal faith commitment, its propagation can be left to intellectual 'market forces.' Such is not the case for Judaism. Judaism represents a unique blending of ethnicity (or, national identity) and religious, covenantal commitment. Jews are, as R. Saadiah Gaon noted, a nation by reason of our Torah, but Jews remain a part of that nation even when they fail to personally observe the overwhelming number of the latter's dictates (Cf. Sefer Ha-Emunot ve-ha-De'ot III s.v. וכיוון שהקדמתי and Resp. Rashi no. 171). Nevertheless, since the Torah regulates the life of the nation, and finds its fulfillment in the nation, a Jew's religious choices are not entirely his own. They impact directly upon the entire body politic of the Jewish people, to which he is obligated by Tradition. [Indeed, this point that lies at the center of the great divide between Orthodox and Traditionally committed Jews, and their Liberal brethren.] Hence, Traditional Judaism cannot function, cannot survive without some degree of institutionalization (Rabbinical Courts, Kashrut etc.). [This does not, however, mean monopolization. On the contrary, I think that regulated competition may be the best way of ensuring the maintenance of Jewish Law, but that is not for the present discussion.] 

However, despite the very real and very profound differences between Judaism and Christianity, Berger's basic insight is eminently appropriate. Legislation and coercion, force majeure and raised voices not only do not draw people to Torah,, they drive them away.

To begin with, Judaism never believed that belief or sincere affiliation could be commanded (see my discussion here). These can, and must, be cultivated. When Jews lived in traditional societies, this could be done implicitly, non-reflectively (part of what Prof. Haym Soloveitchik described as 'mimetically.') Today, the overwhelming majority of Jews (outside of Haredi enclaves, and even these are increasingly porous) live in the broader secular mainstream, just as Berger described. Factors that previously helped to preserve Jews' connection to Torah, are largely absent in Israeli society. Broad swaths of the Ashkenazi population lack the profound ethno-religio-cultural sentiment and traditional sensitivities that fueled the Zionist enterprise from the beginning; not to mention the fact that they also lack any scintilla of Jewish literacy (as borne out by the present frenzy among the cultural elites against 'religionization' [הדתה], which usually comes down to an agenda for abject Jewish ignorance.) Into the Jewish vacuum that has formed, flowed (without critical examination) the full flow of contemporary secularism, with its atheist-materialist dogmatic. Even Mizrahi Jews, who do retain a profound sense of religious belief and affinity for Tradition, have their dedication attenuated by an unchecked inundation of contemporary secularism.

This situation requires Judaism (and, for me, this means Orthodox Judaism, or at least a Traditional modality) to compete in the open market of ideas for the hearts and minds of the Nation that dwells in Zion. There is every reason to believe that Torah can, and will prevail in such a competition. This is not only because of my own personal conviction, and three millennia of Jewish survival. The renaissance of Judaism, the spiritual resurgence of the past twenty years, is proof enough of the thirst of the Jews of the Land of Israel for God and for Torah; of the fact that there is a population to which the Torah can be made accessible. 

However, There are two sides to this undertaking; and they must be done simultaneously. On the one hand, we need to teach Torah in a way that will demand people's assent, respect and (hopefully) consent. This requires judiciously adopting and adapting contemporary ideas, values and cultural modes to render Jewish ideals accessible. And, there are broad swaths of overlap between the Torah and ideals held dear by the contemporary West (the advancement of women, for one). Of course, this does not mean that the Torah should be coerced to conform to ideas and values alien to it. Judaism has always encountered other cultures in a mode of interaction. The encounter stimulates thinkers and scholars to see where and to what degree ideas it confronts resonate within the corpus of Jewish Tradition. The results enrich Judaism from within, by bringing to light dimensions of itself that were hitherto unseen, but on its own terms. The encounter also provides teachers of Torah with a language than can be appreciated by those outside its orbit. [Cf. Moreh Nevuhim III, 31, Rambam's discussion of the attitudes toward Agaddah in the Introduction to Pereq Heleq and my discussion here.]   

At the same time, competition in the market place of ideas means going on the offensive against those elements, especially the unstated assumptions, of secularism that are incompatible with Religious Faith and a Life of Torah and Mitzvot. The fallacies of the former, and the advantages of the latter need to be put forth in the language of secular society. [Chaim Navon has picked up this gauntlet, but there is much more to do.] To return to Berger, success in the market place requires proper packaging, demonstrating why the product is needed, why the alternative is harmful and all without sacrificing the integrity of the product.

The tragedy is that just when there is an upsurge in desire, a deepening in Jewish awareness, there are almost no men or women ready and willing, trained and dedicated who are available to enter into the lists. Training those men and women and developing the tools to fill this double mission are the most promising way of deepening the Jewish character of the State of Israel, ensuring not only its soul, but its body as well.

[To Be Continued]