Thursday, August 29, 2013

The King is in the Building (potential derashah for Vayelech, 5774)

[This is my Toronto Torah article for this week; you can download the entire issue here.]

The mother of all Jewish conventions, the septennial hakhel gathering features an assembly of Jews of all ages. As Devarim 31:12 records Moshe's instruction, "Gather the nation: men, women, children, and the stranger at your gates." After every shemitah year, on the second night of Succot, all who call themselves by the name Israel must assemble and hear sections of the book of Devarim read aloud. Historically, this reading was done by the king, in an area of the Beit haMikdash.

The Torah's demand that children participate in the celebration is unique among our mitzvot; in no other communal mitzvah does the Torah explicitly require their participation. The Talmud (Chagigah 3a) is sensitive to this quirk, and it suggests that the reason to bring the children is "to provide reward for those who bring them." This seems circular, though; does the Talmud mean to say that G-d created a mitzvah solely for the sake of rewarding those who fulfill it?

One might explain the Talmud to mean that those who bring their children will be rewarded by the very act of bringing them. For example: Sefer haChinuch (612) contends that hakhel increases our love of Torah, through the glory of this gathering. Perhaps, then, having our children at hakhel rewards the bringers, by inculcating love of Torah into those children.

Alternatively, Ibn Ezra (Devarim 31:12) sees the benefit of hakhel as educational; those who attend will be inspired to ask questions, and thereby to learn more throughout the year. Having our curious children at hakhel will inspire them to inquire and learn.

However, a third benefit of bringing children may be linked to the practice of having the king conduct the public reading. Rambam does not list hakhel as a king's mitzvah, and indeed the Torah does not identify the reader explicitly. However, our sages (Sotah 41a) took for granted that this should be the king. [See also Yereim 233 and 266, Tosafot Yom Tov to Sotah 7:8, and Minchat Chinuch 612:2.] Certainly, there is added splendour an gravitas when the king leads a ritual, but why this ritual, in particular?

Every seven years, during the period of shemitah, the normal rules of society cease to function: the fences surrounding fields are broken, the tithes that support the kohanim and leviyim are neglected, the heirarchical relationship between employer and employee is severed, hardworking farmers become men of leisure, and loans are forgiven and forgotten. This can constitute a healthy break for society, and a community's rules can be strengthened by this sort of periodic vacation. [See Jeffrey Rubenstein, Purim, Liminality and Communitas.] However, with such a haitus we risk the possibility that the community falls in love with its lawless vacation, and forgets to return.

This may be part of the role of hakhel: To remind the Jewish nation that its existence is still governed by the rules and institutions of the Torah. Thus the nation reads key biblical passages: the fundamentals of our faith; the tithes given to the kohanim, the leviyim and the needy; the monarchy; and the national covenant into which we enter at the end of the book of Devarim. (Mishnah Sotah 7:8; Tosefta Sotah 7:17) We re-commit ourselves to these obligations, and to our national structure.

Within this context, having the king perform the reading is entirely logical; the king is the heart of the command structure we reiterate with hakhel. And bringing our children is its own reward, for even children who are too young to comprehend the reading will realize that the entire community has assembled as one to hear the instructions of its king, and this will create a lasting appreciation for the honour of our government and society's institutions.

In less than one week, we will perform a version of hakhel as we gather to mark Rosh haShanah. Among the central themes of this day is the coronation of G-d as King, and this, too, is a necessary reminder. From Yom Kippur to Rosh haShanah there is very little in our lives that declares to us, "HaShem hu ha'Elokim!" We can go through much of our year, even while observing mitzvot, without devoting significant thought to the meaning and implications of the Divine Throne. So it is that once each year we set aside time to gather with the explicit aim of coronating our King. May we be personally and communally impacted by this grand celebration – and may we ensure that our children participate in the moment, so that they will be impacted as well.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What rocked your world this year?

Sorry for not posting for a while. I must admit that it's not only about time; I don't feel like I have much that is both fresh and blogworthy to say these days. My thoughts are on Elul, on what it was like to be a shul rabbi in Elul vs. what it's like to be running a kollel in Elul, on teshuvah, on stress – all things I've written about copiously before. I don't need to regurgitate here; it's all in the archives.

However, I have come up with a new aspect of cheshbon hanefesh ("accounting of the soul") for myself this year, in advance of Rosh HaShanah. In addition to the standard questions and reviews, I've been asking myself: What rocked my world this year?

I don't mean highlights or lowlights, but events that truly, lastingly, changed the way I 'do business'. What changed me this year?

Some of the answers don't belong on a blog, but here are several that I can mention, in no particular order: 
  • The passing of my grandmother, now almost a year ago;
  • The passing of two good friends - a wonderful man (recorded here in Death of a Go'el) and a truly remarkable young woman;
  • Being invited by a shul to become their Rabbi, and dithering far too long about it before declining;
  • Events bringing me face-to-face with the questions that come with raising a newly adolescent son and daughter;
  • Taking said son and daughter on two brief road trips;
  • Agreeing to give classes  which compelled me to devote more time to learning Choshen Mishpat (business halachah);
  • Being asked to write an article (Yom ha'Atzmaut YU To Go) on the Zionism of Rav Soloveitchik;
  • Deciding to drive 7.5 hours each way to the RCA Convention during the Three Weeks, which resulted in me listening to two series of audiotapes, on the Enlightenment and on the early Greek philosophy;
  • Receiving an email from someone who said that my role at her humanist Chanukah party for students at a university more than ten years ago was a positive influence along her path to traditional Judaism;
  • Receiving a letter from someone who told me that he had been tormented for years by animosity between us back in high school. [I must admit that I have absolutely no recollection of this. This was a gamechanger for me.]
There's more, naturally, but that will do to convey the idea, and I hope the benefit, of reviewing the year this way.

Perhaps noteworthy: There is nothing on my list involving world events or politics. It has been a year of some change, but I can't think of anything about it that changed me. I can't say I'm surprised.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Species of hatred

I'm having a hard time making time to write original material for this blog - not for lack of topics, but for lack of time. On the other hand, I translate texts all the time, so here is one of those translations I did this week. Writing about hatred feels very negative, but I like a few of the reminders found in Orchos Tzaddikim in his section on hatred, so here it is (original Hebrew at the end):

There are several kinds of hatred: Some hate others for harming them financially, or striking them, or embarrassing them, or giving them a bad reputation. For all of these and similar cases, one should not hate his peer in silence, as the wicked are said to have done (Shemuel II 13:22), "Avshalom did not speak with Amnon, bad or good, for Avshalom hated Amnon." Rather, he is obligated to inform him, saying, "Why did you do this to me?" As Vayikra 19:17 says, "Instruct your peer." If he then requests forgiveness, one must forgive. The forgiver may not be cruel… And even should he not request forgiveness, one may not hate him, but only deal with him with love. In the end, he will come to correct that which he had corrupted.

There is an evil which is pointless hatred; this destroyed the Second Temple. 

Hatred resulting from jealousy is even worse; one should take pains to distance himself from these. 

Some hate a person for not acting generously toward him, or not giving him a desired gift, or not lending when he was in need; it would be appropriate to distance one's self from all of these, and all similar states. One should lovingly accept that which the Creator decrees, and not rely on others…

Also, a craftsman who hates his competitors – this is all futile and a great evil, for he should think that no one can profit more than the Creator decrees for him.

And the worst and harshest type of hatred is that of people who hate those who instruct them and rebuke them, to show them the straight path, as Amos 5:10 says, "They hate the instructor at the gate."

And there is an even worse hatred: People who hate those who perform good deeds and pursue righteousness, as Psalms 38:21 says, "They hate me, in return for my pursuit of goodness."…

A wise man [Mivchar Peninim 40] said: If you wish your peer to hate you, criticize him continually. If you wish him to love you, criticize him only on rare occasion. Thus Proverbs 25:17 says, "Make your foot rare from your friend's home, lest he be sated with you and hate you." And you must know that when one hates others, they will also hate him, and one who elevates hatred in his heart will bring evil upon himself.

יש כמה מיני שנאה: יש שונא את חבירו עבור שהזיק לו בממונו, או שהכהו, או עבור שביישהו, או שהוציא עליו שם רע. על כל אלו וכיוצא בהן לא ישנא את חבירו וישתוק, כמו שנאמר ברשעים (שמואל ב יג כב): "ולא דבר אבשלום עם אמנון למרע ועד טוב כי שנא אבשלום את אמנון" - אלא מצוה עליו להודיעו ולומר לו: למה עשית לי כך וכך? שנאמר (ויקרא יט יז): "הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך". ואם חזר ובקש ממנו למחול לו, צריך למחול לו, ולא יהיה המוחל אכזרי... ואף אם לא יבקש ממנו למחול לו, לא ישנאהו, אלא יתנהג עמו באהבה, ולבסוף יבוא לידי כך שיתקן לו מה שעיוות.

יש רעה, והיא שנאת חנם, והיא החריבה בית שני. ושנאה מחמת קנאה היא רעה ממנה. וראוי לאדם לייסר את נפשו להתרחק מהן. ויש שונא את חבירו עבור שאינו גומל לו חסד, או שאינו נותן לו מתנה כפי חפצו, או שאינו מלוה לו בשעת דחקו. ראוי לאדם להתרחק מכל זה ומכיוצא בו. אך יקבל מאהבה כל מה שיגזור לו הבורא, ברוך הוא, ולא יבטח באדם...

וגם אומן שונא בני אומנותו - הכל הבל ורעה רבה, כי יחשוב ששום אדם לא יוכל להרויח יותר ממה שגזר לו הבורא. והרעה שבמיני השנאה והקשה שבהן - כגון בני אדם השונאים מוכיחיהם והמייסרים אותם להורותם הדרך הישרה, כענין שנאמר (עמוס ה י): "שנאו בשער מוכיח". ויש שנאה רעה ממנה - כגון בני אדם השונאים עושי טובה ורודפי צדק, כענין שנאמר (תהלים לח כא): "ישטנוני תחת רדפי טוב"...

אמר החכם: אם תרצה שישנאך חברך - בקרהו תמיד, ואם תרצה שיאהבך - בקרהו לעתים רחוקות, ועל זה נאמר (משלי כה יז): "הוקר רגלך מבית רעך פן ישבעך ושנאך". וצריך שתדע, כי מי שישנא בני אדם - גם הם ישנאוהו, והמגביר השנאה בלבו - הוא מביא על עצמו רעה.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Stokes Game

This is an absolutely stunning article, on "The Stokes Game", on the Grantland website. I highly recommend it, and particularly for Elul. Chesed, chesed, chesed - the beginning, middle and end of our mission here in this universe.

I have nothing to add to that, but I'll throw in Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin's recollection of the rebuke of his father, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, since I haven't post it in a while:

והיה רגיל להוכיח אותי על שראה שאינני משתתף בצערא דאחרינא. וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם. לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות.
He regularly rebuked me, because he saw that I did not participate in the pain of others. And these were his constant words to me: This is the entire person. One is not created for himself, but to benefit others with the full extent of his powers.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why Orthodox Judaism cannot refute Biblical Criticism

R' Zev Farber's articles on sparked considerable hostility at the beginning of this summer, and calls for Orthodox refutation of biblical criticism. At that time I was doing some reading on Enlightenment ideas in ancient Greece and in 18th century Europe, and that research led me to some conclusions I've been reflecting on these past few weeks.

Two of my conclusions are:
1. Disproving biblical criticism is impossible, and
2. Modern Orthodoxy, as opposed to more traditional forms of Orthodoxy, is particularly drawn to biblical criticism.

First: Disproving biblical criticism is impossible
Biblical criticism both ancient and modern, as I understand it – and I've read quite a bit of it – is not about debunking religion. Rather, it's about identifying problems in biblical text and offering reason-rooted explanations. It's based on the assumption that the human mind is powerful enough to be able to solve any problem, an approach which was found in ancient Greek philosophers, in the Karaite-related heresies of the early Middle Ages, and in Enlightenment Europe.

Because biblical criticism is about a search for answers via human reason, it examines and rejects answers which are illogical or which run counter to evidence. The answers which survive that examination are logically convincing.

This is why Orthodox Judaism cannot reasonably disprove biblical criticism: you simply cannot use critical reason to disprove the entire product of critical reason.

This doesn't mean that the school of reason is correct, or consistent with faith and revelation - only that reason won't disprove reason.

We might show particular hearos of the critics to be flawed, but one cannot disprove every finding of logical analysis. It would be like refuting the study of biology – one might debunk a particular scientific finding due to a weakness in its reasoning, but how likely are you to be able to refute the reasoning behind every finding of a field of research?

Our Sages understood this. This is why they banned the study of Greek philosophy [which was founded on the idea that the human mind could comprehend everything on its own] and why they prohibited reading sefarim hachitzonim. Despite the mishnaic imperative, "Know how to reply to an apikoros," the sages did not publish challenges to each of the ideas expressed by the Greek schools (other than a few scattered debates recorded in the Talmud). Rather, they rejected the entire approach, and simply banned it. Ditto, in a more modern age, the opposition to university education.

So there can be no disproof of the set of findings of biblical criticism, only a faith-based rejection of its method.

Second: Modern Orthodoxy is particularly drawn to biblical criticism
Judaism is bound to revelatory tradition, but it also endorses the use of human reason, even within the development of Jewish law. We have hermeneutical methods which operate only based on received tradition, but we also have the kal vachomer which is applied by human reason, within certain limits (אין עונשין מן הדין). There is a balanced relationship, in which Revelation is primary and Reason is secondary.

Classically, Orthodoxy honored the primacy of revelatory tradition, and opposed empowering the investigations of human reason. Hence the aforementioned bans on Greek philosophy and university attendance, and hence the fervent opposition to Rambam's publication of Greek philosophical ideas as part of Judaism.

Modern Orthodoxy, to my mind, is an embrace of the Enlightenment ideology that touts the power of the human mind to comprehend and assess all phenomena. The various isms of Modern Orthodoxy – women's education, Zionism, universalism, personal autonomy – are only applications of the fundamental idea that I, with the cells inside my cranium, am able to draw my own conclusions about the world.

To that point of view, biblical criticism, rooted in personal critical thinking, is very appealing. How can we send our children to university and train them in critical thought and the idea that the mind can comprehend the universe, and then expect that the application of critical thinking to Torah will not draw them?

My question, then, is this: If our Modern Orthodox community is being drawn to this approach, which opts for logical evisceration of the meaning of "Torah miSinai", and if we cannot disprove that which people are embracing, then what do we do? Is it a matter of reinforcing the primacy of faith? Or re-examining our approach to university education? Or simply accepting the problem?

Monday, August 12, 2013

An inspirational slogan?

I expect to resume blogging this week, after my brief hiatus. I've been thinking through a few large topics I would like to get down on 'paper', but I'm still not sure how to say what I'm thinking. Probably because I'm not entirely sure what I'm thinking yet.

Just a quick note for now: Last week, I went with a couple of my children on a road trip to see three of the five Great Lakes. We live near Lake Ontario, so we've already seen that one, and Lake Superior is too far away and too minyan-less, so we made this a trip for Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.

At some point while driving near the Indiana/Michigan border, we saw a billboard for Ferris State University. I'm sorry I didn't pull over for a picture, but I thought I could find one on-line, and now it seems I cannot. But the billboard offered this slogan: "You're ahead of the person behind you... Stay there."

That just seemed so absurdly wrong, in so many ways. To count off a few:
* Is that really a goal in life - to stay ahead of the guy behind us?
* Should this be the reason we learn, and attend an institution of higher learning?
* Is attending your university the best way for me to accomplish that goal?
* What do you do on campus to inculcate that goal into your students?
* How will you help me accomplish that goal?

I wonder if that billboard was the inspiration behind this April Fools prank by Ferris State students...