Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Rupture and Reconstruction: The Canopy's Dissolution



Response: The Canopy’s Dissolution
by Jeffrey R. Woolf

It has been twenty-five years since the appearance of Prof. Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction,” which introduced the concept of “mimetic religion into Modern Orthodox discourse. The essay has been a perpetual touchstone of discussion whenever questions arise of the present state and future direction of Orthodoxy in the United States (and, in many ways, Israel as well).
As is now widely known, Soloveitchik described the collapse of the seamless, organic character of Jewish life, of the type  which was once vibrant in large parts of Eastern Europe (and throughout Mizrahi communities, though these don’t figure in his discussion). That mode of religious existence was largely non-self-reflective. Values and modes of religious conduct were internalized by participation in the life of the community, and by absorbing its identity and its heightened sense of historic continuity. Above all, the mimetic Jew was enveloped by a tangible awareness of the presence of God, which provided life with meaning and context, and religious observance with a heightened sense of His service. This all-encompassing, self-contained religious context, a “Sacred Canopy, in the sense advanced by the late Peter Berger, was the sine qua non of the mimetic culture that Soloveitchik described. It was a world in which, as he himself writes elsewhere, people did not hold beliefs, they were held by their beliefs. It is the demise of this all-inclusive world, wherein the Psalmist’s injunction to set God before us is a sufficient reminder to devote our lives to Him , which “Rupture and Reconstruction” describes and whose loss it bemoans (81-82 and 98ff.).
The central thrust of “Rupture and Reconstruction” is the transition from halakhic observance based on tradition (which is deemed to obligate, per se), to nearly exclusive reliance upon the formal codified literature of Jewish law. This development, he asserts, is largely responsible for the dramatic and unprecedented preference for legal stricture (humra) in the observance of the commandments and in jalakhic jurisprudence, generally. It is worth noting that the author’s own father, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, was outspoken in his insistence that people cling fast to the practices of their parents’ homes and not scour the Shulhan Arukh for either leniencies or strictures. There is no small irony in this, since the punctilious precision advanced by the so-called Brisker School of Talmudic analysis often contributes markedly to the phenomenon.
Almost all of the discussion that “Rupture and Reconstruction” engendered has centered upon this shift from an organically transmitted religious culture, to one that is based almost exclusively upon the study of sacred texts, with all of the educational, social, and behavioral implications thereof. This was to be expected. Therefore, it so no surprise that this is largely true of the consistently excellent and thought-provoking essays that make up a symposium on the original piece and its impact in the latest issue of TRADITION
Still, it has long been my contention that the more repercussive and fraught element of Soloveitchik’s argument is found toward the end of the article, where he discusses the decline in the profound, powerful awareness of God’s Presence that marked earlier Jewish communities (as well as non-Jewish ones). Truth to tell, the forces that helped to undermine enveloping faith (secularism, historicism, and materialist-atheist Scientism) were formidable. However, Orthodox educators and rabbis neglected the importance of the individual’s intimate and personal relationship, in favor of the admittedly important imparting of Torah knowledge. The tragic irony was that the triumph of Jewish religiosity based upon text study went hand-in-hand with the rise of the deeply flawed, and ultimately corrosive, phenomenon known as orthopraxis or “Social Orthodoxy.” 
I was, therefore, very gratified to see that Rabbi Daniel Korobkin focused his superb contribution to this symposium on precisely this issue. I fully agree with his observation that Judaism is not sustainable, in the long run, without deference and commitment to God. Yet, ironically again, the exclusively text-based curriculum, in which we take justified pride, may well be undermining that very same commitment it is designed to foster.
The danger lies in the widespread disappearance of Modern Orthodoxy’s “Sacred Canopy,” of which God-awareness is the central quality. However, it also includes the conviction that, as Rav Soloveitchik frequently emphasized, the act of Torah study is not merely a cognitive or intellectual gesture. It is an act of worship, carried out in an ambience of reverence and the desire to live in accordance with His Will (cf. Sefer HaMitzvot, pos. 5). Given its Divine origin, the student of Torah will exhibit tremendous caution in interpreting the words before him, lest vouchsafed legacy be distorted. He or she will, in the manner of those who live in a traditional society, adopt an attitude of reverence and deference toward the words of the prior generations. In the absence of this posture, however, the sacred texts are exposed to the built-in skepticism, judgmentalism, and relativism that have rushed in to take the place of the previous integrated religious worldview. This leads to a revolutionary reevaluation of the way in which the sacred corpus of Judaism is perceived. These will be evaluated not from a position of humility but judgmentally, in line with the degree in which contemporary values and ideals take the place of the previous communal worldview. (This is not to deny that Judaism in manifestation doesn’t change over time. However, the dynamic that leads to such changes is very nuanced. I touch on this here.)
Hence, the dissolution of the Orthodox “Sacred Canopy” has a decisively corrosive effect upon Torah and halakha. If they are no longer experienced as the Word of God, care in observance will disappear (as will the concepts of sin and personal responsibility in areas of ritual). The Torah, at this point, becomes a mere function of transient intellectual and cultural fashion, reduced to a mere Jewish decoration (as it were) upon the body of a different culture. Anything that was originally part of Judaism that does not align itself with current norms or modes of perception will inevitably be dispensed with. 
In other words, the rupture described by Prof. Soloveitchik does not only lead to stringency. It can equally lead not only to leniency, but also directly to anti-nomianism. To paraphrase the author, “having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the absence of His yoke.”
[I’ve expanded upon some the points raised in this essay, both here and here.]
Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey R. Woolf <<The author is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University >>

Friday, August 30, 2019

לפשר מנהג באמירת קידוש בליל שבת


כמו רבים מבני ליטא, מנהגי לבצע את אמירת הקידוש בליל שבת בשני שלבים. את פרשת ויכולו (החל מ'וירא א' את כל אשר עשה וגו') אני אומר בעמידה. את הברכות (בורא פה"ג ו'מקדש השבת') אני אומר בישיבה. שנים רבות חשבתי שהסיבה שנוהגים לעמוד היא בגלל ש'המתפלל בערב שבת ואומר ויכולו מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו נעשה שותף במעשה בראשית' (שכל טוב (בובר) שמות פרשת בשלח פרק טז). ז"א, אמירת ויכולו היא עדות על כך שהקב"ה ברא את העולם ועדות חייבים למסור בעמידה. מצד שני, את הברכות אומרים בישיבה בגלל שקידוש חייבים לומר במקום סעודה, ולסעודה יושבים ('קביעות סעודה' כדעת הרמ"א, שו"ע רעא, י).
בימים האחרונים, יצא לי להאזין לשיעור שהעביר כב' מו"ר רש"י הגרי"ד הלוי זצ"ל בשנת תשל"ח לזכר אביו, הגר"מ זצ"ל; שיעור שהתעסק בהגדרת קידוש. הרב חידש שיש שני מקורות לקדושת השבת. מחד, את השבת קידש בורא העולם דמדומי יום הששי הראשון והיא מתקדשת מעצמה כל שבוע. כשאנו אומרים פרשת ויכולו, אנו מוסרים עדות לעובדה זו ומודים לו ית' עליה. אולם, בניגוד למה שרבים סבורים, יש גם מצווה המוטלת על כל כנסת ישראל לקדש את השבת, להוסיף בה ממד נוסף של קדושה ממש כמו שמקדשים את ראש חודש ואת המועדים. בלי תוספת הקדושה הזאת, קדושת השבת לוקה בחסר (וכן, היתה דעתו של הרמב"ן).  
לפי זה, לענ"ד, יש להבין את מנהג ישראל לשבת לאמירת הברכות. קידוש החודש והמועדים הוא מעשה בית דין, ומעשה בית דין מתבצע בישיבה. אמנם, אין היושבים סביב השלחן מרכיבים בית דין. אולם, עצם הישיבה מבטאת את תפקיד ברכת הקידוש: הוספת קדושה לשבת מפאת היהודי האוהב וכמה לה.
היהודי, קבע הרב זצ"ל באין-ספור הזדמנויות, נמשך לקדושה, מהופנט ע"י הקדושה, ומתאווה תאווה גדולה להוסיף קדושה בעולם. הפרשה דוחקת בנו לבחור בחיים, חיי תורה וקדושה בכל אפשרות ובכל מקרה. יה"ר שבין עומדים ובין יושבים נזכה לכך בפרוס עלינו ימי הרחמים והסליחות.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

On Rav Herzog's Encyclopedic Knowledge, Cultural Influence and Jews as Parasites

 Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog

       This morning in shul, the person sitting next to me was deeply engrossed in a volume of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog's magnum opus, The Main Institutions of Jewish Law. Excitedly, he pointed out to me a few examples of the author's exquisite English style (and it is, indeed, exquisite). 

       After a few minutes, he called my attention to a passage where Rav Herzog expresses exasperation with another scholar. The latter had claimed that a certain law in the Mishnah was wholly derived from Roman Law. Rav Herzog reacted with, albeit polite, indignance. He asserted that he did not know whence this writer had the temerity to make such a claim. Indeed, he declared, no such law appears anywhere in Roman Legal Literature! The ruling in the Mishnah, then, was uniquely Jewish and bore no debt to the outside world. I smiled in appreciation.

         My friend, who know a thing or two about science, research and data bases was deeply impressed at Rav Herzog's ability to make such a declaration. Obviously, in an age before Data Bases and scanned books, search engines and keywords, Rav Herzog carefully, methodically and judiciously mastered the entire Roman Legal corpus. Otherwise, he would not have been able to make such an authoritative and definitive assertion. I responded that we have paid a very high price for relying overly on databases and search engines, instead of systematically engaging and studying various works. One misses nuance, not to mention a certain intuition that comes from immersing oneself in the works of other writers.

           Suddenly, I thought about Rav Herzog's rejection of the idea that some rule in the Mishnah was Roman in origin. Why, I wondered, was he so indignant? Why did he feel the need to triumphantly declare that there was no way the law in question emanated from outside of the Jewish orbit? And, more to the point, why was I warmed by his actions?

           The question of the impact of outside cultures on Judaism has always both fascinated and frustrated me. On the one hand, good Jewish patriot that I am, I would like to naively think that everything in our received heritage developed imminently from within. After all, we experience Torah as a totality, and naturally tend to weigh and interpret its various elements in light of the totality of its parts. On the other hand, such a sentiment is patently wrong, even absurd. Jewish civilization has interacted with countless other cultures over the millennia, and has been greatly enriched by that interaction. We are inevitably influenced by the material and cultural surroundings wherein we find ourselves. The real questions are how that influence occurs and in what it results?     

           Contrary to the prevailing trends in the contemporary academy, I am something of an essentialist (or, better, neo-Essentialist to use Andrew Sayer's phrase). I am convinced (independent of my religious belief) that Rabbinic Judaism has a basic integrity that remained consistent throughout the centuries. Hence, when it encountered multiple cultures it interacted with them. It did not mindlessly, uncritically and mechanically embrace outside ideas and practices (by perhaps tossing thereupon some Jewish decoration). Judaism interacted with the outside world. That which it chose it accept was accepted critically and adapted to the core values and spiritual vision that was uniquely Jewish. There was, I think, even discrimination as to what was adopted. 

            This position was best expressed by the distinguished scholar of Islam, H. A. R. Gibb, in his article, 'The Influence of Islamic Culture in Medieval Europe.' Two citations from that study will suffice to make the point at bar.


           I fully subscribe to both of these sentiments. I would add that even when reality forced itself upon Jewish culture (as, for example, certain aspects of Christian penitence that impacted upon German Pietism, aka Hassidut Ashkenaz), the forces that imposed themselves were still refracted through a Jewish prism (a point I made in a lecture that I offered some years ago at Yeshiva College.) 

          As a result, I confess that I bristle when I encounter the wholesale reductionist stance that characterizes the work of so many Jewish academicians. Whenever there is any parallel between a Jewish source and a non-Jewish source, the automatic reaction is: Aha! The Jews took it from there!!! The idea that Jews might have originated something out of their own religious or cultural nexus isn't taken seriously. Neither is the possibility that similar phenomena might emerge from similar circumstances. (Never mind the consideration that even if there was influence the significant questions are: What? How? To what Extent? and not just establishing that there was influence.) Indeed, sometimes, when I read or hear colleagues presenting this kind of argument, there's something triumphalist, celebratory in their words. But why? Sometimes I think it's an expression of a deep seated need to belong to the outside world. Other times, it seems that Jewish otherness bothers them, or that they are burdened by a serious cultural inferiority complex. 

          Whatever the motivation for this non-nuanced understanding of cultural interaction, one thing struck me as I was talking to my friend. The obverse of the compulsive search for outside influences upon Judaism and Jewish culture is that Jews are incapable of being original on their own terms. If so, they must be deemed cultural parasites. Hence, on some level there is a similarity between this operating assumption and the Antisemitic (and deeply Marxist) trope that Jews are not productive economically but merely parasites on the body politic of Europe. That image of the Jew, in turn, is rooted in the notorious blood libels of the Medieval and Modern Worlds.  

          When that insight hit me this morning, I fully understood Rav Herzog's indignation.

           And my delight in his reply.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

בעקבות פרשת יובל דיין

פרשת יובל דיין נגעה בי (כמו לרבים, כנראה) בעצב רגיש. אלה מתגוננים ואלה צוהלים. אלה מזדהים ואלה דואבים. מכיוון שאינני מכיר את דיין, לא ראוי שאתייחס לסאגה האישית שלו. ברצוני רק לשתף אתכם בהגיגיי האישיים והקצרים...אותם עצבים אישיים/רגישים שבהם הפוסט נגע.

הקשר ביני לבין קוני, אותו אני זוכר מאודי והרבה לפני שרשמית נהייתי שומר תורה ומצוות במובן המקובל של המילה, הוא יסוד הוויתי. הוא ממלא (כפי שפעם העיר הגרא"ל זצ"ל) את קודש הקדשים של נשמתי.
כתוצאה, אינני מחזיק אמונות-- אני מרגיש את עצמי מוחזק ע"י אמונתי.

התוצאה היא שקיום המצוות, ותלמוד תורה לפניו, הם זכוות הניתנת לי למלא את רצונו. ברור, שבמובנים רבים אני מרוויח הרבה מהם, מקריב הרבה בגינם, וחושש מתוצאות מעידותיי. אולם, העיקר נשאר אותו קשר.

כל זה איננו שולל את העובדה שבן תמותה אנכי, מוגבל בשכלי ובהבנתי. לכן, הספק (ליתר דיוק, הספקות) המקנן בי הוא חלק מובנה מההואי הדתי. יותר מזה, הספק (וההתמודדות עם הספק) הוא קטגוריה דתית לגמרי ליגיטימית. אפשר בהחלט לאשר ספק, וגם להמשיך להאמין; לשוחח ולשאול לבורא עולם שאלות נוקבות. מאידך, ההכרה המתמדת במגבלות תבונתי והשגתי (עיין רמב"ם, הל' יסודי התורה פ"ב ה"א-ה"ב) מחזקת אותי ומאפשרת את ההתמודדות עם הספק והתהייה.

משימה לא פשוטה הטיל הקב"ה על עם ישראל. לא פשוט בכלל לקיים מצוות ולשמור על מודעות רוחנית בריאה הממלאת את המצוות. קל מאד לזייף ולעוות, להשתמש בכתר בצורות לא נאותות. אני מבין את אלה שמאבדים את עולמם בגלל שרואים דברים קשים ביותר המבוצעים ע"י אלה שרוממות התורה בגרונם ומשפילים אותה במו ידיהם; אלה שמפטירים עליהם: 'ראית פלוני שלמד תורה כמה דבריו מקולקלין, ומתוך כך התורה מתחללת' (פסיקתא זוטרתא, רות פ"א).

אולם, אין בזה כל חדש. מאז משה רבינו ועבור לנביאים, מחז"ל ועד גדולי המוסר ניטש מאבק להשגת חיים מלאים בפנים ובחוץ, בבית ובציבור. מערכת העונשים של התורה עצמה מעידה על כך כמאה עדים. הדרך קשה מאד, אין ספק ושומה על כל יהודי להיאבק עם עצמו ועם הציבור לתיקון המעוות, להשרשת תודעת בורא העולם, להפצת, הנגשת והנעמת התורה.

דווקא בעבודה זאת יש תפקיד ייחודי לבעלי תשובה (כמו לגרים). אלה שבאו לחסות תחת כנפי השכינה ביצעו מעשה גבורה שלא ישוער. וככל שרב המרחק אותו צעדו, גדולה יותר גבורתם. הם בעלי פרספקטיבה המיועדת להעשיר את עולם התורה (וגם להתמודד מול אתגרי עולם החוץ). זה שאלה שזכו להיוולד בתוך חזה האמונה לא משכילים להפנים אמת פשוטה זו היא טרגדיה וגם טפשות אכזרית ומשוועת. מרבי עקיבא עד ריש לקיש, משלמה מולכו ועד אחרון החוזרים ותרים אחרי אור ד' בימינו, תורת ד' נהייתה עשירה פי מליון בגין קיומם.

בואו נהיה כנים, התעלמות מעובדה זו, ליקוי מוסרי זה, קיים לא רק בציבור החרדי. הוא מושרש עמוק עמוק בתוך העולם הדתי לאומי ומשם יש לשרשו.

מאידך, כפי שציין ידידי הרב אביה הכהן לגבי ממד אחר של הפרשה הנוכחית, למי שגידל אחרים יש אחריות הורית. יותר ממה שכואבות לי תהפוכות נפשו של יובל דיין, כואב לי סבלם של אלה שתלו בו את יהבם. אני מתפלל שד' ית' יאיר את דרכם להישאר באורו.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Fighting the Hydra: On the Return of Anti-Semitism

         On Shabbat, Bet Chabad in Poway California was attacked by a White Supremacist, leaving one dead and a number wounded. The attack came six months after an even deadlier assault in Pittsburgh. Yesterday, the New York Times, published a deeply anti-Semitic cartoon that invoked the medieval image of the Jewish dog, the Satanic Judas and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Jews, together with people of good will, are justifiably horrified and grieve the senseless deaths, the desecration of holy ground. They are outraged at the explicit dehumanization of the Jew in terms more fitting of Der Stürmer and Völkischer Beobachter, than of the ‘Paper of Record.’
           They should not, however, be surprised.
           Since the end of World War II, most of us have been under the illusion that Jew hatred has been in recession; relegated to the fringes of society, there to wither and die. That belief has proven to be wrong. Hatred of the Jew, whose roots reach back to Greece and Rome merely went underground. It did not wither. It lay dormant. Now, as a result of multiple forces, Anti-Semitism/Anti-Judaism has reemerged in Europe, in North America, and in Arabia..
           The trouble is that we have become used to a world wherein Jew hatred was absent. Hence, its return elicits turmoil and pain. Part of the turmoil is because, in contrast to our forebears, we have lost our ‘sea-legs.’ We don’t know what to make of Antisemitism. We are constantly shocked to encounter it. So, we struggle to understand. We blame Anti-Zionism. We blame White Supremacists. We viciously blame each other, in the somewhat naïve belief that if Jews would only behave properly (each from his own point of view), Jew hatred could be defeated.
           Yet, even if we grant that Jews are obligated to constantly improve their behavior, we will still miss the point. Anti-Semitism is an historical phenomenon that transcends all explanations. It defies reason and rejects logic (despite the best efforts of historians, philosophers and psychologists to explain it). How else can we understand that the Jew is dangerous because he is both Right and Left, Capitalist and Socialist? How else can we explain that Antisemitic images and prejudices pass easily from the Atheist Left to the White Supremacist Right to Jihadi Muslims? Antisemitism possesses one common denominator, the abiding hatred of the Jew and of Judaism.
           So, what are we to do?
           First, we must acknowledge that we are under attack from multiple directions. Making excuses for one side’s Jew-hatred encourages all. We must unhesitatingly acknowledge the fact that Jew hatred comes from different directions (even those with which we identify on other issues). Jews and all people of good will, uncompromisingly fight every manifestation of Antisemitism: Right or Left, Progressive or Conservative, Muslim or Christian.
           Second, in order to fight one needs that for which to fight. I learned how from a beloved teacher. His name was Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth. In the mid-1930’s he was rabbi of the German town of Kitzingen. He fondly recalled those years as a ‘Golden Age’ for German Jewry. Why? Because the Jews responded to their dire situation by deepening their Jewishness. They studied their heritage, and sought out each other in communal solidarity. In brief, they answered their adversaries and became meaningfully steadfast by becoming better Jews.
           In this old/new situation, if we do not come to understand that for which we exist as Jews, the consequences will be nothing if not fraught. Fatigue, despair, or even self-identification with our adversaries could result (as they have over the centuries). Engaging the hydra of Antisemitism together, based upon profound Jewish knowledge and identification (which, of course are best achieved in the Jewish Homeland), is a proven path to its subjugation (even if not its slaying).
Over my desk, hangs a cartoon. In it, a Professor tells his student: ‘Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.’ In these few lines, I have tried to share what I’ve learned from Jewish History. Let us learn its lessons, and not repeat them.