Monday, September 30, 2013

Wuthering Heights

During Yom Tov, I had the opportunity to read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. I had never read any of the works of the Bronte sisters, leading me to feel culturally deficient, so I finally bit the bullet and read this one.

At first, I couldn’t stand the book. Every character – save the twin narrators, Mr. Lockwood and Nelly Dean – is a villain, some through malevolence and some through weakness of spirit and some through caprice. Not only that; these villains are far over the top, painted in such forceful colours as to be fairly unbelievable.

But the book has grown on me since I finished reading it. I tend to agree with Rabbi Shalom Carmy's thought, expressed in a Tradition article last year last year (45:2, As We are Now is Not the Only Way to Be: On the Place of the Humanities in Contemporary Religious Culture): Our religious identities can be greatly enriched by exposure to the humanities. This book has given me much to think about along those lines.

In particular, Wuthering Heights offers a vivid portrayal of the effects of scorn on human beings.

  • Experiencing even mild scorn and contempt drives certain characters to radical selfishness, to abuse of others, and to malevolence that endures across years and generations. (Think of Heathcliff's response to Hindley Earnshaw, and Isabella's son Linton's response to Heathcliff.)
  • Other characters respond to scorn with equanimity, even if they are troubled. (Think of Heathcliff's responses to Nelly Dean.) 
  • This is a book of villains, and so it is hard to find someone driven by scorn to deeds of greatness – but on some level this may be seen, I think, in Nelly Dean, and perhaps in Catherine Earnshaw as well.
  • And then there is Joseph and his contrarian response to scorn, I suppose, but I'm not sure how to read him; he is really presented as more of a caricature.

The characters' responses vary as broadly as do the natures of the characters, and their situations in life.

At the other end of the relationship spectrum, affection at times drives a character away (Heathcliff and Isabella), and at other times has a humanizing effect (Hareton and Cathy). There is more to be said here, but in the interest of space I'll leave this be.

So how might this influence my religious identity? I'd rather leave this as a general comment, because the ideas are bigger and more abstract than any application I would give them, and applications will necessarily shrink them – but think about the various ways people response to biblical criticism [as in, criticism that leveled by the bible, not criticism of the bible...], or to harsh disapproval and mussar, particularly by parents.

Wuthering Heights is, on some level, a cautionary tale about the hazards and potential benefits of scorn; neither can promise a positive response, neither is entirely negative, and the intensity of the response to each will not necessarily be commensurate with the intensity with which they are applied. It has much more to do with the natures of the characters themselves, and their personal situations, and sensitivity to both is warranted when deciding how to instruct.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

The greatest issues in chinuch today?

Good moed!

I've been invited to speak at a program after Succos, on the greatest issues in chinuch [Jewish education] of our children today.

I am going to skip the perennial items of (1) Good teaching and (2) The tuition crisis, because they are obvious and because I don't have much to add on those. But here are five items I have thought of; I'd welcome additions or comments:

1. Taking advantage of our advantages
We possess many potential advantages for modern education, including advanced research in educational methodology, greater educational technology and social connectedness, a social break (relatively) from anti-Semitism (in North America), parents who are yeshiva-educated, and access to the State of Israel.
The results of making proper use of these developments could be fantastic - but if were to attempt it without real thought and research, we would lose precious time and money on unworthy, wasteful, education-damaging projects.

2. Time
This has been a perennial issue, due to our dual curriculum, the constant push for extra-curriculars, and the need for both parents to work full-time jobs, but it is worse today.
Today, our social connectedness means we all know of great programs running in other communities, and we feel pressured to imitate them, especially as that same connectedness means that the creators of those programs come market them to us.
Today, our children have resume pressure to take on outside activities.
Today, parents are aware of research that suggests kids need down time from their programmed lives.
The result is that children have gaps in basic areas of their Jewish education - halachah, tefillah, Jewish thought, Jewish history, gemara... and they form weaker relationships with their parents and mentors.
My own feeling is that we need a longer school day, and educational extra-curriculars for kids who would benefit.

3. Independent children
Our kids have lines of communication (email, IM, Facebook, cell phones, texting) that are not subject to parental permission. Those same lines of communication give them the ability to purchase whatever they want, without parental control.
The result can be poor relationships with parents and mentors, and undisciplined approaches to learning and life. To me, there is a need for parents and mentors to combat this not by trying to impose control [although I really believe that high school students don't need cell phones], but by building relationships with kids.

4. Sophisticated ignorance
Children generally migrate toward shallow and superficial presentations of information, because those are easier to grasp and they tend to sound good. Today, those presentations are all over - blog posts (like this one?), Wikipedia articles, chat room diatribes, and so on. It's everywhere, and reading it is often encouraged through school as teachers assign kids to read Wikipedia and similarly shallow resources, rather than wrestle with more complex material.
The result is that children become cynical, and they closed to real explanation and analysis. When it comes to Judaism, they read and absorb superficial on-line atheism, thinking that they have now learned it all.
To me, parents need to spend time with kids talking through the issues they learn about on-line, and helping them learn to think and analyze on a more serious level.

5. Lack of spirituality
Our culture prizes intellect over emotion (particularly in males). Add in the fathers who are yeshiva-educated and likely to pull out a sefer during davening, and the time pressure that causes people to give short shrift to tefillah, and kids don't see a whole lot of emotion in the religion of their role models. Combine this with the academic cynicism our children will encounter in their teenage years, and religion is in trouble.
My thought would be to help remedy this by having parents work on their own spirituality, and make it visible to their children.

That's my current list. What would you add/delete? What would you change?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sapere Aude? Existimare Aude! (Derashah, Rosh HaShanah 5774)

About two weeks ago, I received a long email from a yeshiva-educated man from a Modern Orthodox community. In the last ten years, he wrote, a friend had worked to undermine his belief in Judaism – and had succeeded.

The man described how he had sought answers to his friend's challenges, studying Jewish sources as well as secular science, history and philosophy. He sincerely wished he could believe, find meaning in Judaism, and re-join the world of observance and its lifestyle. His problem, which he eloquently articulated in the most vivid terms, is that he no longer finds Judaism, its claims regarding the authenticity and transmission of Torah, the age of the earth, and so on, intellectually credible. [I would quote his email here rather than rely on this shallow summary, but I would not want to endanger his privacy.]

This young man read a blog post I published a few years ago on the challenges of faith, and it brought him to email me, looking for advice. I won't go into my response here – as I write this derashah, our dialogue is on-going – but I think his situation has a lot to teach us about the purpose of the shofar.

2100 years ago, the Roman poet Horace coined the Latin phrase, sapere aude. It means "Dare to be wise", or "Dare to know". For centuries leading up to his day, there was a movement to know for one's self, to cease trusting received wisdom and instead dare to figure things out.[1] Like Avraham rebelling against the idolatrous received wisdom of his day, להבדיל אלף הבדלות, along came Anaximander, Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, with their own explorations. These were the famous Greek philosophers, and they lived by the belief that the human mind, working hard enough, will be able to solve every mystery and uncover every truth. Don't trust – dare to know.

Fast-forward to 17th, 18th century Europe - skipping important history in the interest of time - and we find the Age of Enlightenment, founded on that same slogan of sapere aude. Spinoza. Voltaire. Kant. These men of letters taught that human beings needed to grow up and stop believing things simply because others had said them. Dare to figure it out for yourself! And they gave us modern science, modern philosophy, modern politics, modern university, the modern mind itself.

Our sages' response to each of these two groups was identical: Stay away from them. By and large, the earlier generation banned the study of Greek philosophy, and the later generation banned attendance at enlightened universities. Not because the Sages ignored the mishnah of דע מה שתשיב, that one must know how to respond to heresy. Not because they could formulate no responses to particular claims made by Greek and Enlightenment philosophers. Rather, it was because they saw a threat in accepting the premise that underlay the concepts those philosophers proposed: The idea that the human mind can fathom everything.

In truth, our sages were not the only ones to reject the Enlightenment-era primacy of the brain; it's not the 18th century anymore, folks. The Enlightenment ended as philosophers came to embrace other isms, and as history proved the bankruptcy of ideologies that emphasize the dominance of the "civilized" mind.

But to return to Judaism, and the reaction of our sages:
Even though Judaism survives on the intellectualism of Torah study,
Even though the Rambam contended that intellectual growth is the true barometer of a Jew's closeness to Gd,
Even though we have the ability and obligation to deduce and comprehend great intellectual truths,
Nonetheless, our sages saw great danger in the confident assertion that we can all "dare to know" everything. [2]

Our sages believed that emphasizing supremacy of the mind would lead to a hegemony of intellectualism, and when intellectualism would come up with ideas that denied religion, Jewish intellectuals would leave Judaism in droves, without cause. Seeing dinosaur fossils and textual anomalies in the Torah does lead to certain conclusions, but those conclusions may not be correct. As anyone who has ever worked with someone smarter than him can attest, our answers, however well-researched and thought-out, are not always right.

The legitimacy of intellectualism is limited by the intellect itself.

What, then, does Judaism propose in place of "dare to know"? Existimare aude, dare to feel. Dare to use your heart – because in moments of great feeling, our more Vulcan side is dampened, and we can hear what our soul is saying. At times of our hearts' sincere emotion and passion, with patient contemplation, as Rav Klonymus Kalman Schapira wrote a century ago in his בני מחשבה טובה,[3] the drumbeat of the dominant intellect is drowned out by the heart, and we are awakened to the messages of our souls.

Our souls declare that we were created by Gd and placed here with a Divine mission. That we are immortal and pure. That the world does not begin and end with that which the intellect can grasp; there is a greater depth and dimension than the mind can fathom.

We can achieve this sensitivity with experiences that inflame the heart with authentic emotion. A waterfall cascading from a mountainside after a long hike. A baby's laugh. A beautiful poem, a concerto, a rock anthem, a subtle painting. An athletic performance. A meaningful book.

So it is that Judaism is structured with an emphasis not only on the intellect, but also, as a complement, on experience.
  • We recite Maggid, but we also lean and drink wine and play-act at the Seder.
  • We read the megillah, but we also have a feast and give out celebratory gifts.
  • We say shemoneh esreih, but we also stand at attention and speak in a whisper.
  • We say על חטא and think of our sins, but we also strike our heart.

These moments of the heart do  not prove anything about Gd or Torah. None of these moments have anything to say, intellectually, at all. But at these times, our radical, splendid faith shines forth. The brain is exposed for the pallid gray calculator it is, while the soul reigns triumphant.

I should be careful to make this clear: We do not seek to flee from the world of the mind, but to balance it; Intellect must work in tandem with Heart.[4] For all of our Jewish emphasis on the intellect and its calculation, our faith is known only in the soul, and comprehending it happens when we arouse the heart.

Which brings me to shofar, because it wasn't until I received this email that I truly understood the role of shofar in our musaf amidah. For decades I have been troubled: Our musaf features a berachah called Malchiyos which talks about the grandeur of Gd and accepts Him as our King. It then features a berachah called Zichronos which talks about Gd remembering our merits in His judgment. Both of those have simple, clear themes. But then we arrive at Shofaros, and that's just a list of disjoint verses about shofar blasts! Where is the message?

Even the machzor itself seems confused – For malchiyos we have two whole introductory paragraphs spelling out the theme of Divine monarchy, for zichronos we have three paragraphs on Divine judgment, and then for shofaros we get just 3.5 sentences saying that there was a shofar at Sinai and people trembled. Doesn't the machzor have a message for shofaros?

The answer, perhaps, is that shofaros offers a different kind of message, which isn't conveyed by verbal exposition. It's not an intellectual message about a relationship with Gd or a day of judgment. Rather, shofaros is an experience. The point of shofaros is that there was a shofar and people trembled. גם כל העולם כלו חל מפניך! The whole world shook! The point of shofar is the moment when we are taken aback by a mighty blast, when our hearts stir even if we know the sound is coming, when our hearts are caught up and we suddenly feel.

Look at the pesukim of shofaros: ויחרד כל העם אשר במחנה, the entire nation in the camp trembled! ויהי קול השופר הולך וחזק מאד, the shofar's voice was very mighty! וירא העם וינעו, the nation saw and shuddered! And it continues with the shofar of song and celebration and redemption and war! The shofar is the answer to my email correspondent, the shofar dares to challenge the modern hegemony of sapere aude with its own cry of existimare aude! Don't devote yourself entirely to intellectual debate and proofs and rebuttals; there is a deeper truth to be found, but you need to awaken yourself to an entirely different type of knowledge.

Intellect is very important for us, as Jews and human beings. We are meant to use our minds, and to explore. Nonetheless, I believe that if the Jewish community is to survive in a world of universities and scientific achievement, a world which declares that all exists in the province of the mind, then the Jewish community must do one of two things: Either it must completely shut out the world of science and philosophy and take its chances on self-sustenance, or it must teach its children to listen to the shofar, to stir their hearts with experiences of passion and beauty, and to listen to their souls in those moments of emotion and hear what they have to say.

We are about to blow the shofar. In a few moments, I will make the announcements that I make every year, about not interrupting with speech because of our halachic obligation to hear the shofar. This year, though, I would like to change that announcement. Don't interrupt – but not only because of the technical issue of hefsek. Rather, don't interrupt because this is a time to listen with our hearts and to dare to be moved.

This is our chance. I pray that my email correspondent is having the same chance today. This is our opportunity to transcend sapere aude, and to choose existimare aude, and so to come to credere aude – to transcend "dare to know", to choose "dare to feel", and so to come to dare to believe.

[1] This isn't necessarily what Horace had in mind with that line, in context, but his words were adopted as a slogan for the Enlightenment movement
[2] Cf. Ben Sira – במופלא ממך אל תדרוש, cited approvingly in the second perek of Chagigah
[3] בני מחשבה טובה, סדר אמצעי ויסוד החברה יא
[4] Cf Wendell Berry, Getting Along with Nature, and the balance of nature and human artifice