Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Between Heaven and Earth: My Dialogues with Rabbi David Hartman


                                                       Rabbi Dr. David Hartman                                                                                                                       (1931- 2013)

         As surprising as it may be to some, I had a long, admiring and fascinating relationship with Rabbi David Hartman ז"ל. It started, as so many good things do, with my wife who was (and is) a very close friend of his wife Bobbi. The latter suggested that David (aka Duvy) and I meet. We met, clicked, became friends and on several occasions he invited me to be a fellow of the Hartman Institute. More importantly, over the years we had the occasion to just sit and talk in his office and Living Room about, well, anything and everything.

        One subject that always came up was Rabbi Soloveitchik זצ"ל. The Rav had had a formidable impact on both of us, so it was totally unremarkable that we should talk about him. 

        Duvy had a very complicated, stormy relationship with Rabbi Soloveitchik (one aspect of which I addressed here), which deserves closer treatment by those who are more conversant with his oeuvre than I. However, one of the dominant characteristics of these specific conversations was that I often felt that we were discussing two different people. That perception was partly due to the oft-noted transformation that the Rav underwent in 1967, in the wake of his year of 'triple mourning,' when he lost his mother, brother, and (most importantly and devastatingly) his wife. In a relatively short period of time, he mellowed marked, going from a demanding Father-Teacher to a more gentle, Grandfather-Teacher. Duvy, who studied and interacted with the Rav in the 1950's and 1960's (and was the study-partner of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל), experienced the former. I, who came to study with the Rav in 1973, only encountered the latter (though, he remained sufficiently awe inspiring and scary).

        Yet the different ways in which we perceived our shared mentor were not not only due to differences of style, but of substance. On a number of occasions, Duvy emphasized and decried Rabbi Soloveitchik's objectification of Judaism to Halakhic principles (including the emotional, moral and axiological elements therein). In addressing this point, he often got tremendously agitated: "Halakhah! Halakhah! Halakhah!" he exclaimed, "It can't all be just Halakhah!"

        I recall replying that, with all due respect I thought he was misreading the Rav (at least partially). The Rav, from 1944 on (at least), dedicated an enormous portion of his thinking to the cultivation of the individual, subjection spiritual experience that should inform the observance of Halakhah. This theme, it is true, found less explicit expression in his formal published writings (prior to the establishment of the Toras HaRav Foundation), and more in his recorded lectures and shiurim. Nevertheless, that does not diminish their importance or their centrality. When he would make an assertion that 'The Halakhah is that one needs to concentrate in prayer,' he was not objectifying the individual experience. On the contrary, he was actively affirming that the experiential moment was a built in requirement of objective observance, without which it would be woefully deficient (and in the case of prayer and other internally performed commandments (קיום שבלב) deeply compromised). If anything, and here lies the great irony that Rabbi Soloveitchik was exquisitely aware of the dangers of robotic ritual performance that inhered to precisely the type of Pan-Halakhism with which he was so often identified.     

      In retrospect, though, there was clearly an additional (and more formative ) dimension to Duvy's pained cry: "Halakhah! Halakhah! Halakhah!" he exclaimed, "It can't all be just Halakhah!" He was obviously deeply troubled by circumstances wherein Halakhah seemed to violate moral norms, to do harm and incur pain rather than good. That is how I understood the enthusiasm with which fellows at the Hartman Institute (during my tenure, at least) embraced Halakhists and Traditional thinkers who seemed to endorse the subordination of Jewish legal processes and decisions to larger moral and spiritual considerations. Hence, the writings of R. Haim Hirschenson were a perennial favorite (indeed, it was the Hartman Institute that made him famous), alongside R. Eliezer Berkowitz and R. Shimon Shkop's introduction to his book Sha'are Yosher

      I certainly understood, and understand, Duvy's position, pain and even his outrage. In principle, the idea that the Law should be totally aligned with what appear to be moral and axiological principles and sensibilities should be a corollary of its Divine origin and mandate. For Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, philosopher extraordinaire, this was self-evidently the way things were meant to be and must be.

      I disagree and, if my memory serves me, I told him so. I disagree for two reasons. First, because I am fully persuaded of the cogency of Rav Soloveitchik's position that Halakhah is fully autonomous, it possesses its own integrity, it functions according to its own rules and largely constitutes a closed universe of discourse. As it happens, the Rav's postulate (in a somewhat softer form) is borne out by the leading historians of Halakhah, starring with the founder of the field, Professor Jacob Katz z'l. In this model, axiological and moral considerations certainly have a built in, mandatory role to fill in guided the Halakhic decisor, moving him in certain directions and even in discerning interpretions of the normative sources of Halakhah that might not, at first glance, have been obvious. However, the plain upshot of the sources demands that other considerations give way thereto (See BT Hullin 49b s.v.
רב, ואיסורא דאורייתא, ואת אמרת התורה חסה על ממונן של ישראל? ). [I, of course, fully acknowledge shifts and changes in the way the Torah is understood and the Law is applied. How that works, though, requires a separate discussion. I addressed it partly here.]

      So, simply as an historian of Halakhah, I cannot agree with the total subordination of the Jewish Law to axiological or apparently ethical considerations (even as the Posek will do his utmost to avoid such a head on clash, because 'its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace'). That's not how it's always been done. The philosopher will, I suspect, retort that this way is the way it should be done. 

     My second objection derives from the first, and is equally rooted in the historical record. The essential dynamic of Rabbinic Judaism was beautifully characterized by Professor Twersky in his essay, 'Religion and Law':

      The model that Prof. Twersky presents, and to whose mapping across the millennia he devoted his career, has a direct impact upon the question at bar. Law and Spirituality are antipodes, wherein neither has dominion over the other. While Twersky's emphasis in this passage is upon the built-in need for sensitized observance of the mitzvot (also in line with what I had noted about the Rav's approach earlier), its obverse is that subjective considerations never determine the outcome of Halakhah. Were that to be the case, then the integrity of God's Law would be impugned and it would become subjugated to religious subjectivism. There is no way to control the sources and content of that subjective morality and those personal values. The end result is antinomianism. Changing mores and ethics become the arbiter of what is legitimately Jewish, altering the content and character of Halakhah along the way. The Torah, which is halakhocentric in its essence and demands submission to its dictates, changes its form (without brakes) and becomes nothing more than a quaint ethno-cultural decoration for ideological beliefs (held, admittedly, sincerely). Historically, this has played itself out over and over in early Christianity, radical Sabbatianism, and (ultimately) contemporary non-Orthodox denominations. 
       Ultimately, then, my discussions with Rabbi Hartman (which I will always cherish, as I do both our friendship and the assistance he gave me on many occasions) concerning the nature of Orthodoxy come down to the very different outlooks of the Philosopher and the Historian. Both are correct, in their way. The challenge is in finding a modus vivendi between the two.

Monday, November 09, 2020

To Touch the Past


                                                             Prof. Nahum N. Glatzer                                                                                                                          (1903-1990)

        The other day, I had an experience that brought to mind a memorable, actually formative, conversation I had with the late Prof. Nahum N. Glatzer. I've written quite a bit about some of the giants with whom I was privileged to study, like Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל, Rav Gedaliah Felder זצ"ל, Prof. Isadore Twersky זצ"ל and (mutatis mutandis) Professors Haym Soloveitchik, David Berger, and Reuven Bonfil. However, there were others like Prof. Yosef Haim Yerushalmi ז"ל , Prof. Alexander Altmann זצ"ל, the late Prof. David Herlihy and mutatis mutandis Profs. David Berger and Giles Constable.

         Among these latter, Prof. Glatzer ז"ל holds a special place in my heart. When I graduated High School, I was accepted to Brandeis. I so very much wanted to go there, both because of the Jewish environment, and because I wanted to study with the two luminaries who were the stars of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Professors Alexander Altmann and Nahum Norbert Glatzer. My ambition remained, however, unfulfilled because the tuition at Brandeis was way out of our reach (especially since my father ז"ל had passed away not long before, and our family's financial situation was precarious). So, I ended up going to Boston University, which had offered me full tuition remission. However, strange are the ways of the Creator, and in my Sophomore year BU announced that Professor Glatzer would be coming to the university as a University Professor (having been retired from Brandeis the previous year).

        I jumped at the opportunity. Not only did I enroll in his class on the Book of Job, at the end of my junior year I asked him to co-direct my Senior Thesis on the Disputations of Paris, Barcelona and Tortosa (together with Prof. Reinhold Schumann). He graciously agreed (and he was ALWAYS gracious). Thus began a year of bi-weekly meetings in which we discussed my project, and innumerable subjects that came up along the way. I treasure the memory of every one of these, but one in particular proved to be formative.

        Mid-way through my senior year, I found myself in the dark wood of a personal crisis. Despite the fact that I had long assumed that I would enter academia (at least, for part of my life, the rabbinate being my perpetual antipode), I was having second thoughts about the value and importance of academic Jewish Studies. In seeking to resolve my I turned, inter alia, to Prof. Glatzer.

        We met in his study in his home in Waltham, which was lined from floor to ceiling with books. It felt as if we were sitting in a timeless space. I described my dilemma and, somewhat impertinently, asked what value is there in doing what we do?

        Professor Glatzer sat quietly for a moment. He then said that, yes, most people don't understand the attraction or value of studying Jewish History and that our path is, indeed, very lonely. What make it worthwhile are those moments when you study that which the past has left us. You then leave the present and connect with the past, which then becomes alive again. As he said these words, his face glowed. It was clear that he experienced researching our people's past as a spiritual, transcendent moment. His words resonated deeply with me, and I left his home resolved to continue upon the path that I had chosen.  

       Last week, I had an experience that reminded me of that conversation, and of the force, conviction and veracity of Prof. Glatzer's words.

       I am in the process of (finally) turning my doctorate on Maharik (R. Joseph Colon Trabotto; 1420-1480) into a book. Maharik was one of the two leading Ashkenazic Halakhic decisors in the Fifteenth Century, and had a massive impact on the nascent Rabbinic culture of Poland. Among the things that I am naturally doing is checking the manuscript record for material that was unavailable to when I was originally writing during the eighties. This effort is today rendered so much easier by the ongoing Ketiv project for the digitation of Hebrew manuscripts (which has, happily, reached the collections that are most important to my research).

    Last week, while looking for something else (of course), I saw that the catalogue listed an autograph letter by Maharik to his student David da Modena (in the Braginsky Collection). I was stunned. While there are many manuscripts of Maharik's responsa and commentaries, I was unaware of an actual autograph (it now emerges that there are two). I went to the website, and there it was!       

                        A Journey through Jewish Worlds: Highlights from the Braginsky                                                                     Collection (Amsterdam, 2009), pp. 52-53

     I was transfixed. Before me, albeit virtually, was a letter written by a person, a Torah giant, to the study of whose writings I had devoted ten years of my life (and not a few years subsequent). 

     I immediately thought of Prof. Glatzer. I could see the look on his face; a soft look of radiance and spirit. I beheld a piece of the past with which I had an intimate connection, and was transported to Quattrocento Italy, which became alive again.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Feeling Defiled

In my book, The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz, I highlight the fact that Ashkenazic Jews experienced their spiritual states physically. Things that were pure were experienced as physically attractive, while those things that were prohibited were experienced as physically repulsive. Hence, there developed among them a custom that when a pot absorbed something non-kosher, not only did they purge (i.e. kasher) it, they would bring it to a ritualarium (mikveh) to purify it. 
Similarly, spiritual states were experienced both emotionally and physically. Based upon that reality, Jews traditionally immersed themselves in a Mikveh as part of their process of repentance (an echo of which is found in the practice to go to Mikveh before Yom Kippur---a custom that really should be observed by both men and women, irrespective of whether the woman is a Niddah, or not). 
This sensitivity, physically experienced, has not passed from the world. 
It is famously told that Rav Herzog זצ"ל, as part of his indefatigable attempts to retrieve Jewish babies who had been in monasteries and convents during the War, met with Pope Pius XII on March 10, 1946. Rav Herzog asked him to publicly call on priests across Europe to disclose the location of the Jewish orphans. The pope asked for additional information but was essentially evasive. [Fifteen years ago, it emerged that a number of months later the Pope issued a letter forbidding priests from returning the children.] 
Rav Herzog was, aside from being a towering Talmid Hakham, a very sensitive and insightful person. He realized he was being played by the Pope, and was so shaken by his encounter that upon emerging from the Vatican he told his the person accompanying him: 'Quick! Get me to a Mikveh!'
However, one need not invoke an episode of such dramatic import to understand the physical expression of spiritual or psychological moments. The Rabbis, for example, maintained that the malady of Tzara'at , was imposed as a punishment for tale-bearing and gossip. Whatever the condition was clinically, it was obviously repulsive. It mandated the quarantining of the afflicted person, and contact with him or her engendered an obligation to purify oneself in a Mikveh. When I was younger, I didn't fully appreciate the power of this idea; that is until about thirty years ago. I was walking with my wife one Shabbat afternoon, when we encountered a person, who I later learned was a notorious gossip. We greeted the person, who then launched into an unbelievable torrent of gossip about people in the neighborhood. We tried to get away, but the person kept following us, spewing forth a flood of 'Lashon Ha-Ra' (lit. 'Evil Tongue'). Finally, we succeeded in escaping their clutches. At that point, my wife and I looked at each other, and both of us expressed a need to take a shower as a result of the experience.
I'm writing this today, not because it relates to the Torah Portion of the week. This week is not Parshat Tazria or Parshat Metzora which deal with the laws of Tzara'at, it is Parshat VaYera (a challenging Parsha in its own right, to put it mildly). 
I'm writing this because I am literally physically and emotionally shaken by an encounter I had yesterday with people who are ('were'?) part of my Modern Orthodox community, one to which I devoted twenty years of my life before coming on Aliyah, and to which I am periodically asked to contribute. I had the temerity to point out that a Biden presidency doesn't bide well for Israeli concerns about Iran. I simply noted that the salvation that American Jews see in a Biden victory, is perceived by an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews as potentially threatening because of his declared intent to re-engage Tehran, remove sanctions and restore its international window to nuclear weapons. Note, I was not referring to differences of opinion over this candidate or that. I was referring to the tragic fact that Jews in different countries can have different interests, even different existential needs and threats.
What I got was a tsunami of abuse because by my observation, ipso facto, it must be that support Donald Trump. Therefore I embody all of the sins of Orthodoxy, represent the apartheid government of Israel, am devoid of Humanity and that I am an educated moron to boot. The type of raw hatred, abuse and pure poison that I saw yesterday (and, frankly, over the past few years) among ostensibly committed Jews leaves me trembling. Among the charges hurled at me are (inter alia): Furious negation of any part of Torah that doesn't align with a specific political narrative; Virulent excoriation of Jewish National Identity and Destiny; the 'cancellation' of any person's Orthodoxy by anyone who does not thereto subscribe (though here I understand from Andrew Silow-Carol's Column today that in the US it cuts both ways) ; Angry De-legitimization of the State of Israel and supercilious dismissal of the threats to its Survival; Deep and Abiding Loathing (nothing less) for all Americans who've cast their lot in with their brethren in the Land of Israel. The list goes on and on. 
I feel defiled.
I am confident that my interlocutors of yesterday (alongside those paragons of Free Speech and Respectful discourse who've blocked me on Social Media) will (with some justification)  point out all of the sins of the Torah, the Racist Character of Jewish Identity and National Aspirations, the manifold errors of the State of Israel, the moral deficiencies of all other Orthodox Jews, and the intolerable arrogance of American Olim. They will victoriously dismiss everything I've written here. 
The point is, though, that 'whataboutism' is beside the point. For I am not here addressing specific issues and flaws, of which there are many on both sides (except for the Torah, which, as the Word of God is, for me as an Orthodox Jew, Perfect). I feel defiled by the Hatred, the Anger, the Loathing, the obtuseness and the Arrogance the spewed forth in my encounter yesterday. Hared, Anger, Loathing, Arrogance...these are not only the path to the dark side. They are, Hazal Teach us, a form of Avodah Zarah.
Avodah Zarah defiles.
I need a Mikveh.