Personal Reflections on a Tragedy

I heard the news from a friend, who just the night before voiced his fears that the kidnapped teenagers were dead. I was in the middle of asking him for clarification on a particularly difficult Tosfos, when suddenly our discussion was disrupted by his sudden pronouncement of a word not usually spoken in such contexts. It goes without saying I cannot repeat it here. I thought that perhaps my understanding of Tosfos has been that bad. But he continued
“I might have been right about the Israeli kids who got kidnapped”
I quickly took a look at my facebook news feed. And the news hit me in torrents; “Baruch Dayan Emet” abounded, some repeated with no other addition, people relying on a standard formula to convey their grief. Others were more anguished, pained, even angry. Calls were made for peace, for repentance, for prayer, for good deeds, while others for war, for justice, for the killing of guilty parties, at the very least.
I found myself wanting to add to this collective mourning, to convey my own emotional response to this tragedy. I started typing, then backspacing, typing again, backspacing again, retyping and backspacing again and again. What could I possibly write? What could I possibly say? I had nothing to say, the blank canvas of the status box seeming to be the best depictor of the empty horror I felt. But to say nothing is entirely different from saying “nothing”. How do I say “nothing”?
I found myself thinking of Sefer Shmuel Bet, 12:22-23. After David’s sin with Batsheva, Natan tells him that the child of this union would die, and indeed, it was struck with an illness, and despite David’s fasting and prayer, the child died. David’s advisers don’t want to tell him though, but David infers on his own that yes, the child is dead. Whereupon he gets up, and he eats, as if nothing happened. And his advisers don’t understand. His child just died, and he’s acting like he doesn’t care? So they ask David, what are you doing? You fasted for this child, you prayed for this child, and now that he’s dead, you’re just going on about your business? David’s response:

  וַיֹּאמֶר–בְּעוֹד הַיֶּלֶד חַי, צַמְתִּי וָאֶבְכֶּה:  כִּי אָמַרְתִּי מִי יוֹדֵעַ, יחנני (וְחַנַּנִי) יְהוָה וְחַי הַיָּלֶד.וְעַתָּה מֵת, לָמָּה זֶּה אֲנִי צָם–הַאוּכַל לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, עוֹד:  אֲנִי הֹלֵךְ אֵלָיו, וְהוּא לֹא-יָשׁוּב אֵלָי

He gives what seems to be at first to be a heartless and callous, though accurate, statement. I cried and fasted for him when he was still alive, now that he’s dead, what am I supposed to do? This sentiment is accurate but it is also completely not understandable. Is there not any sort of sadness for this child? That’s why the end of David’s statement is so interesting: “I will go to him, but he will not go to me”. David is talking about his own mortality here, fatalistically so. He’s already accepted death, he’s just waiting for his train to arrive at the station. He has accepted his child’s fate because he’s accepted his own, and he’s unwilling to put any more effort in. This inaction and unwillingness to put in effort becomes a key theme in the continuation of the David story, as he watches helplessly as his children rape and kill each other, and eventually is forced out without so much of a fight by Avshalom.
So, at first, we may be forgiven for thinking like David, looking at all the mass tefillos and mitzvot and everything done for those teenagers, looking at their effect, and thinking “why did we even bother?”, and then wondering “why do we even bother?” What point is all of this effort, if tragedy strikes nonetheless? Why even pray, if God doesn’t seem to take notice, why even do good deeds, if this is Torah and this is its reward? Better to just accept it as how life works on this earth, don’t try to think about whether God is good or not, don’t try to make sense of this world, and just wait till death eventually overtakes you. We may throw up our hands and say, “we did what we could, but, now that its happened, there’s nothing to do anymore”
This approach, like David’s reaction, makes logical sense, but it is also  a wrong one. Being Jewish entails belief in an all-powerful God who is good, who desires good for all his creations, who demands that we perfect the world in accordance to his will, who works through and guides nature and historical processes. That belief is not just something you sign off on, it is something that has implications for your life and for your identity and for the way you see the world. And throwing up your hands and saying “it’s out of my hands now” is being too much of a coward to accept the implications of your religion. It is saying God does things for no reason, capriciously ending people’s lives tragically so that observers can look on and not make conclusions, which is why the Rambam calls such a belief “cruelty.” It is possibly even saying that God isn’t powerful enough to stop such things from happening. But most of all, it is assuming that your belief in God has no bearing on how you interpret events, and makes no demands on your worldview, that being Jewish is just the yarmulke you wear and the chulent you eat and the shacharis you attend. It is an approach that seeks to place responsibility anywhere but yourself. I reject that, and I reject that vehemently.

But, let’s note something about David’s response: It’s very frum! What God does, he does for the best! Who am I to argue with God’s plan? If he killed my own child, it must be because it was the best thing! Though such a response begins from a noble and pious place, it too, is insufficient. All it does is again, abdicate one’s responsibility towards alleviating suffering in this world by explaining such suffering as really a good thing. I thus also reject any approach that seeks to minimize the very real suffering that goes on in this world, as if a crying child must be silenced for the theological problem they pose. Rav Soloveitchik, in Kol Dodi Dofek, says my point more elqoquently than I can hope to accomplish:

“Judaism, with its realistic approach to man and his place in the world, understood that evil cannot be blurred or camouflaged and that any attempt to downplay the extent of the contradiction and fragmentation to be found in reality will neither endow man with tranquility nor enable him to grasp the essential mystery”
So, what then, is the proper response to tragedy? I would say, responsibility. God demands that we react to evil, to eradicate suffering, to improve ourselves and the world. Thus, we must react towards tragedy with responsibility, using it as an opportunity to strengthen our resolve to carry out God’s will. Misfortune and suffering are thus things that we should be very much aware of, because our goal is a world in which those two no longer exist. Any existence of suffering, misfortune, injustice or immorality thus calls upon us to correct it. Note that this is not the same as knowing for sure why God did x or y or whatever; anyone who claims they know for sure is probably lying to you. That, however is not the point. Our religion is not concerned with figuring out why things happened; it is concerned with what do we do now that they did. As Rav Soloveitchik continues:
We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty but, rather, about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes. We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose but rather about how it might be mended and elevated. How shall a person act in a time of trouble? What ought a man to do so that he not perish in his afflictions? The Halakhic answer to this question is very simple. Afflictions come to elevate a person, to purify and sanctify his spirit, to cleanse and purge it of the dross of superficiality and vulgarity, to refine his soul and to broaden his horizons. In a word, the function of suffering is to mend that which is flawed in an individual’s personality. The Halakha teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.
So, I can hear my “liberal base” already shouting at me. You’re one of the crazies! You’re one of those guys who would blame hurricanes on gays and women not being modest and people wearing crocs! You’re one of those irrational mystics! Well, partially. I suppose I am one of those irrational mystics who believes that when God does something, he does it for a reason. I am one of those irrational mystics who believes that when God does something, we ought to act upon it to improve ourselves and our community, and thus, I am one of those crazies who believes that it is valid to call for greater observance in some mitzvah as a response to tragedy. I do, however, differ with such people on a crucial point: It needs to be responsibility, not blame. It needs to something we do, not something they should do. There is a large difference between blaming a tragedy on others and blaming it on yourself. The latter leads to self-improvement. The former leads to nothing.
So, now that I’ve rejected the numerous different schools of theodicy that I disagree with, and outlined an approach that I agree with, one that prioritizes action and improvement of the world, have I come to terms with this death? Of course not. Because theodicy or no theodicy, action or no action, three innocent teenagers are now dead, and there is no bringing them back, and that is a terrible thing, and nothing makes that into a good thing, or even an okay thing. That needs to be the first step. Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak Shavuous 21) notes something very interesting about what we say when we hear tragic news: “Baruch Dayan Emet” If we really believed what we were saying, that we are blessing the true judge, then we would never say it! Every single tragic event wouldn’t really be a tragedy, it would be an action of the true judge! If evil and suffering did not really exist, we wouldn’t say a bracha on it! Rather, says Rav Hutner, in this unredeemed world, there is an impassable barrier between what we believe to be true and what we feel to be true. We know, we believe that God is one and all-powerful and that all is for the good, but we see evil and unfortunate things around us, and it is on that emotional reaction we are making the bracha. That emotion Rav Hutner speaks of, that unredeemed and unmitigated sense of horror and recoil at misfortune and evil, has validity enough to make a bracha on it, even if there is a acknowledgement on our parts that there is something we can do to redeem that evil. And that’s what brought me to Vayikra 10:3
 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.
Reacting to the news of the death of his two sons, to Moshe’s explanation of its cause, Aharon is silent. Not because he’s just accepted passively, not because he because he likes or doesn’t like Moshe’s explanation. Because right now, there is nothing to say. Later, there will be service to do, new laws to be learned out, action to be done. But right now, Aharon has nothing to say. Which is why I made that my facebook status. There is action to be done, sure. Death and suffering must be redeemed by man’s search for meaning. But right now, there is death, and there is suffering, and I have nothing.

A Religious Approach To Art and the Aesthetic

This weekend, I had the great honor of driving up with some friends to Detroit to visit my friend Boris, who had just had a son. It was pretty awesome, seeing him and his wife, seeing the new baby, etc etc. On the way back, I decided to do something I hadn’t done in a while, which is, listen to my mp3 player the whole time. Music used to be a much bigger part of my life than it is now, and for reasons I can’t entirely explain, my music taste kind of froze when I left my teenage years, and now music is just something I play when I’m doing something else, for the most part. I don’t know why or how this has happened, but it has. But the other day, for a moment, I was back in that mode of really appreciating good music, where I’m listening to a song and just end up repeating it for 5 times in a row because I’m just in awe of how great it is. And that day, that song was Voodoo Child (Slight Return) by Jimi Hendrix. It’s just Jimi Hendrix being awesome, his unbelievable technical skill paired with a real sense of soul behind it, taking a very basic blues song and pushing it farther than anyone had, will, or could possibly ever hope to push it. I found myself needing to play that song, over and over and over again, not because I hadn’t listened to and paid exclusive attention to every searing note played by that guitar, because I had. I listened to it over and over because, this may sound cheesy, there was something about that song that hit me right in my soul, not anything I could put into words necessarily, not something that expressed a particular emotion, like the guitar solo in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Scar Tissue that is the single most perfect expression of “loneliness” I’ve ever heard. No, it was something beyond that, it was a perfection that didn’t need to represent anything, didn’t need to be anything other than itself. What I was hearing was beauty, and that Hendrix song was, and is, friggin’ beautiful, and God put it here for it to be heard and admired by his creations, and that is pretty damn cool of him. And thus I found myself having A Religious Experience listening to Jimi Hendrix in some godforsaken corner of Ohio. 

So I’d like to write about where such an experience, one that finds divine beauty in the humanities and aesthetics, fits within a religious worldview. Classical Jewish sources actually tend to be mostly light on the subject, with a bunch of different kinds of art being halakhically problematic, music also frowned upon, and fiction not really existing so much. This is not to say its entirely negative, as we shall see, particularly with the advent of Chassidus, but there’s a very strong “misnaged” streak, as it were. But its important, to figure out how to make sense of art and the humanities as a religious person, especially considering the unprecedented importance they have in our culture, where people not only have incredible access to music, movies, books, art, and the like, but often use them as a crucial part of their identity, as fans of this band or this TV Show. Additionally, in terms of Modern Orthodox Judaism, much ink has been spilled about reconciling Judaism with Science and Knowledge, but your average Modern Orthodox person comes much more in contact with art and the humanities than the sciences. What often seems to define Modern Orthodoxy is not whether a person is a scientist, but whether they watch movies. So we need to formulate an approach that accounts for that reality, that can ascertain whether there is any validity or basis for appreciating the beauty of a Jimi Hendrix song or not. Is Jimi Hendrix even something I should be listening to instead of Yaakov Shwekey or the Yeshiva Boys Choir or whatever, even if I find both of those inferior and extraordinarily annoying? 

I’m going to start off with this picture my wife took of a picture in the art museum of Berlin:

This is a self-portrait by Rembrandt, of Rembrandt (obviously). 
Now, despite what you may be led to believe by this post, I’m not really an art person, especially an Art capital A person. I appreciate the things I appreciate, I like the music I like, I like the books I like, and I don’t really have much appreciation for the Great Art of Western Civilization or whatever. Perhaps this is to my detriment, I can accept that. So, browsing through an art gallery of the Great Art of Western Civilization was not the most exciting thing in the world for me. But when I saw that they had Rembrandt, well, now I was excited. Because it’s not every day you get to see The Divine Light of Creation in person.
What’s this about Divine Light of Creation? 
Rav Kook, when he was stranded in England during WWI, apparently visited art museums in England, and took quite a liking to Rembrandt. He remarked to one A. Melnikoff:

I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”

So, that’s an interesting statement you don’t hear every day, isn’t it? The divine light of creation, which lights up the world from one end to another, too strong for our imperfect reality, hidden away for the Messianic Era, for the righteous, and a 17th century Dutch guy who could paint pretty pictures. What does Rav Kook mean here? So let’s unpack Rav Kook’s statement a bit. What are the qualities of this light? It is strong, obviously, too strong for our imperfect reality, where the wicked might abuse it. It exists before our reality and after it, but only rarely during it, when great people can tap into it. With such a light, you can see from one end of the world to the other.

At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, “But as for thee, stand thou here by Me” (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written “the skin of his face shone,” etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29). [Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, “They prophesied, and did not prophesy again” (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were “the flame of the rotating sword.” 

-Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, Introduction

The Rambam writes about our world being like the thick darkness of night, occasionally illuminated by brief flashes of light, which makes things as clear as day. A select few have a continuously recurring light leading to clear vision, some of have frequent flashes of light, and some can get only the occasional glimpse of light. That light, to the Rambam, is the light of prophecy, which is attained by people to varying degrees. People have the ability to grasp divine knowledge that reaches beyond their time, beyond their place, beyond their specific context, to catch a glimpse of the world as it looks illuminated from one end to the other, from creation to the messianic era. What I’m saying is, Rav Kook knew that Rambam, and knew exactly what he was saying when he talked about the divine light of creation; he was referencing a kind of quasi prophecy (without checking the sources quoted here, admittedly, it seems to back me up). Art is a quasi prophecy in that it can tap into timelessness, things whose beauty and humanity transcends the context they emerge from. Prophecy is being able to see the big picture of God’s plan in its complete form. Art is being able to bring back a taste of it. I’ve always liked to say that I’ll admit to Rashi having ruach hakodesh as long as Shakespeare has it too, as both had the unique ability to create something that contained enough of this vision of the world “from end to end” that they struck a nerve in the human condition that endured. With Shakespeare, I like to illustrate this with one of his greatest speeches, Shylock’s speech in A Merchant of Venice. 

He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

This is one of the most stirring speeches ever committed to the page, a challenge in the face of persecution and discrimination, put in terms of the essential unity and shared experiences of all humanity. It is uttered by a bad guy who is a completely unsympathetic character except for this speech. It’s like Shakespeare almost couldn’t help endowing his characters, even his villains, with the kind of essentially human traits that endure long past the time he lived in. 

This brings us to a Pachad Yitzchak I like. Rav Hutner is especially relevant here, because he seems to have had a much deeper appreciation for the humanities and the aesthetic than other Jewish thinkers. He enjoyed going to the opera, wrote poetry in his notebooks (including the text for the popular song “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh”), would occasionally demand a chauffeur stop a drive through the catskills so that he could write a poem based on the views he was getting, who hired full bands for the Purim and Channukah celebrations in his yeshiva. With that, It seems to me that his thought is more appreciative of the creative than other thinkers. But what I really want to get into is his thoughts on song, which I have mentioned previously he observes is primarily sung at the downfall of the wicked. In Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, Maamar 15, he attempts to explain why song is the appropriate response to the downfall of evil. He developes an idea that the power of speech is the connection between the natural soul (nefesh t’vii), involved in the regular function of the body, and the spiritual soul (nefesh ruchani), involved in thought, spirituality, imagination, etc. Ie, it is a physical action that is impossible without intellect, and vice versa. This tie is referred to with the word “peleh”, which appears as a synonym for speech in a number of places. He then relates this to the topic of song:

And one who understands this matter will better understand the concept that song is said upon the downfall of the evil. The regular understanding is that we sing when evil is defeated because we are happy that evil is defeated. Certainly this is correct. But there is further depth to this concept. Because just as there is this concept of “peleh” within a human being, there is also this concept by the ways the universe is run. Also in the ways of the universe there is an idea of a tie between the natural and the spiritual. The way of this world, of evil succeeding, is the natural way of things occurring. The way of the world to come, of evil getting its just desserts, is a spiritual (moral) way of things occurring. So when events occur and we see the downfall of the wicked in this world, that is a connection between the natural order and a higher, more moral order….And now we see the connection between the downfall of the wicked and the singing over it. Because what is song if not speech except the full development and glorification of the power hidden within it? So when evil is defeated in the world, and that connection between the natural order of things and a higher, more moral world is revealed, man also evolves the same aspect within himself. And the power of life contained in speech….girds glory, and song bursts forth. And then it is found that song said by man and the downfall of the wicked go hand in hand”

To Rav Hutner, then, song, and perhaps, by extension, art, is a symbol of the physical world trying to break free of its temporality and grasp transcendence. Which is, when you think about it, quite similar to what religion attempts to do. 

So, back to my Jimi Hendrix Religious Experience, which I only now realize is quite a good pun on his band name. Anyway, what are we to make of it as religious individuals? I would say that what I was experiencing, an appreciation of the sublime beauty of Hendrix’s guitar, was a flash of divine light, by whose illumination one can catch a small glimpse into a harmonious world of the future, where good has defeated evil, where the world is full of the knowledge of God, where Jimi Hendrix is still alive and Justin Bieber isn’t. This is our starting point. Now, we can start discussing which music really does have that element to it, which music does not, and whether any of the Jewish music today can really said to provide such sublime beauty (No.). But, I’ve written enough, and while this is a bit more cluttered than I like, I think there may be an interesting point to be gleaned here. This isn’t a finished product.

More Thoughts on the Halakhic Process that may or may not be Clarifying, Feminism, and a Pretty Crazy Chiddush I Have that you Shouldn’t Necessarily Trust Me On: The Musical

So, a review on my thoughts on the halakhic process, as introduction to headier topics. I may be repeating myself. I may not be. I don’t know. But it’s still a necessary introduction.
Is Judaism entirely determined by communal norms?
No, that would mean incorrect practices would always become okay, as long as enough people are fooled. If everyone would eat pork, would it become kosher? I’d venture to say probably not.  It would also make change difficult, and make arguing with the community impossible, and in fact invalidate any discussion at all about what the community is doing.

So, what other factors exist besides communal norms? I see two: Texts and Authority.

Texts are the anchor of Jewish religion. The most important thing to know about text is that it doesn’t answer questions. It’s raw material. It can be interpreted in a variety, but finite amount, of convincing ways. This is especially true when you consider that the texts of the Jewish religion, in particular the Talmud, contain a multitude of different ideas, streams of thought, and opinions, all of whom stem from the same authoritative source.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, text anchors communal practice. The communal practice is predicated on textual authority. In other words, we do what we do because that is what is written in the Gemara, Rishonim, and Acharonim, and those who don’t do that are in violation.
Other times, it serves as an anchor for change and/or difference in communal practice. People will go back to the sources and discover the communal practice is wrong, either because it’s not consonant with the text or not applicable to the reality, and therefore argue that the textual sources demand a change in communal practice. I have found, from my own studies, that most successful religious movements in Jewish history see themselves as a return to the the original sources, even as they change things tremendously. Most of the time, due to the multivalent nature of those original sources, they aren’t even necessarily wrong, just picking one or two texts that provide leverage for a new approach to the entire corpus. For instance, in modern times, Hilchos Niddah underwent a change in its predominant conceptualization from laws related to health and hygiene to laws to preserve and enliven family life. But, this was not a matter of there being no sources for the latter approach and the sources only containing the former. Rather, the latter approach takes a statement by Rabbi Meir that the separation engenders endearment between the couple, and uses that source as the foundation of its approach, seeing all other sources in that light.
But, for such change to actually take hold, they need to be listened to by the community, which is a tautology of sorts, but worth saying because its corollary is indeed counterintuitive: Any reading of the sources’s validity is not decided by its actual consonance with the original intent of the sources but by the community’s acceptance of the reading of those sources.
Sometimes, the reading of the sources themselves is compelling enough to be convincing of the whole community. The community does not necessarily consist of illiterate idiots, and it is able to critically evaluate whether a source indeed fits with the text.
Other times, the authority of the interpreter of the text plays a larger role in the acceptance of the interpretation of the text. Authority, by definition, means that people are willing to listen to you. So an authoritative person’s interpretation of the text has greater leeway, because of the community’s willingness to accept his interpretation and put it into practice. That authority, though, is predicated on that person’s knowledge of the text, and their ability to interpret it, meaning if they give an interpretation that is extremely unlikely, the community has the right to reject it. Furthermore, his authority is also based on his standing in the community, and his interpretations are sometimes limited by the communal norms, while other times he has to justify the community’s standards.
To complicate things even further, when that authority decides to sit down and write a book, he adds the decisions he made, affected by communal norms and other texts, to the textual corpus of Judaism.

Halakha thus has 3 components, which constantly interact with each other to produce Jewish Law.
1. Text
2. Authorities
3. Communal Practice.

Communal practice is established by text, as interpreted by authorities recognized by the community for their textual proficiency and fitting in with the community, whose interpretations are affected both by the text and communal standards, whose decisions than become part of the text that establishes communal practice. I hope that wording isn’t too confusing.

There can be multiple authorities that are accepted by multiple different communities, thus accounting for halakhic differences.

Are all interpretations of the text thus correct? Not necessarily. I can think of two ways that an interpretation can be wrong.
1. An interpretation can be rejected by all, perhaps even most members of a community, for whatever reason, and without communal acceptance it becomes invalid.
2. An interpretation can be accepted by a community, but be so rejected by other communities it makes it impossible for them to accept the other community, making it not accepted by the larger community of Orthodoxy. This is very tricky, and I’m not sure I have a good theory to account for this. I’m working on it.

At any rate, this serves as an introduction of sorts to my thoughts on Feminism.

Feminism, which we are here defining for our purposes the idea that men and women are equal and should be afforded equal opportunities, is something Orthodoxy has to come to terms with, because it is not going away, and it is reality.

So let’s be clear what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about “Yeshivish straw man” feminism, that women and men should be the same in every way, the “Oh, they’re going to demand to pee standing up” stuff. We’re not talking about the angrier radical feminists, the Jezebel commenters and Tumblr accounts. What are we talking about?

We are talking about the fact that women, comprising 51% of our population, have limited opportunities within our community. We’re talking about the fact that a woman of a similar temperament to myself, a thoughtful person, who finds themselves fascinated by Judaism and Jewish sources, who attains a good base of knowledge in the subject, who knows how to learn, knows her stuff, cannot attain a position of religious authority within the religious community without a fair bit of debate, getting called a heretic, and public calls for her to be “modest”. To make things worse, all of these attacks are based in Jewish sources, sources that say she cannot learn Torah, that her brain can’t handle it, that its better if she stayed at home and took care of the kids, that her wisdom is the spinning wheel, and though she recognizes that those sources need to be respected as authoritative, practically, she knows more Torah than most of her male peers, and she knows that those sources weren’t written by women because women weren’t given the chance to. The closest she can get to an uncontroversial position of religious authority is by marrying a man who has it, which is quite possibly infuriating to an independent person rightly proud of their own achievements. And we’re not counting having a PhD in Talmud or whatever, those are secular achievements in Jewish sources, not a recognition by the religion of religious achievement. But, if she would use her intelligence and resourcefulness in the secular world, in academia, in medicine, in business, there would be much less barriers to her success. Some do leave for a secular world which will value their achievements, and that’s a problem, one that I have seen happen to friends of mine, and that alone should spur us to action, that we’re pushing intelligent and morally sensitive people out of Orthodoxy.

But let’s deal for a second with the ones who stay, who try to live with the cognitive dissonance of being an accomplished woman in a community that devalues their accomplishments. Occasionally, they will hear of a halakhic argument that allows them to live with a little bit less of cognitive dissonance. They can maybe wear tzitzis! They can maybe wear tefillin! Maybe they can get an aliya! Maybe being a rabbi isn’t so problematic! Maybe even if they’re not rabbis, they can decide halakhic shailos under the official supervision of a rabbi! And then they hear the reaction from the Orthodox community: We can’t do that, because it might lead to feminism, it might strengthen the notion that men and women are equal and deserve equal opportunities and the right to be judged based on their actual achievements and not gender, and we can’t have that, because denying women that right is, for some reason, an ikkar emunah, that it is an absolute rule of our community that your achievements and your person can never be recognized because of your gender.  I’m not saying anything about the halakhic validity of those arguments, and I think that at least some of them do not pass muster. But let’s be less offensive and a little bit more knowledgeable about what we’re actually saying, and little bit more sensitive about what the way we say it. This is not to say that halakha should necessarily be dictated by such concerns; that’s a different discussion. But those concerns should absolutely dictate the way we discuss it, especially as long as women’s opinions are not part of the discussion, because they don’t have semicha and thus lack the religious authority to take part in these halakhic discussions. Let’s stop using “feminism” as a scare term, let’s stop thinking that every woman who advances a halakhic argument is trying to destroy the Judaism from within, and let’s stop thinking that Judaism has to deny women opportunities.

As may or may not be clear from what I have written so far, to my mind, the main issue presented by feminism is the lack of religious authority afforded to women. This issue presents itself on two fronts. Number one, and most obvious, woman’s religious accomplishments do not give her the same opportunities as a man, which is problematic. Why should two people who know the same amount of Torah, have the same personal piety, and have the same qualifications for the job be afforded different opportunities? (To say nothing of the fact that there are numerous women who are actually more qualified than the rabbis currently employed) Number two, and less obvious but more important, how can halakha discussion deny any idea of participation of 51% of the people it is binding upon? How can we make halakhic decisions, especially those that exclusively obligate women, without their input, especially considering they are now often educated enough to take part in those discussions? To me, this is the key issue, and the one that needs to be addressed before anything else is. Women need a seat at the table. Once we get them a seat, then we can discuss everything else, and the reality of women becoming more educated and more liberated becomes the reality that reacts with the halakhic texts. So how do we get them that seat? More importantly, can we get them that seat? Arguments have been advanced in favor of women rabbis, working on the assumption that the halakhic considerations against women rabbis, especially those of serarah, are largely inoperable in today’s environment. These arguments, putting aside the question of how valid they are, have been largely not accepted by the Orthodox community, a significant fact in the system I’ve been outlining. Other solutions include Yoatzot Halacha, women authorized to decide Hilchos Niddah under the aegis of a rabbi, which is a solution gaining acceptance in the community, but still has holdouts against it.

I’d like to suggest my own solution, based on a chiddush I have in the sugya of women’s hair covering, but not actually pertaining to the question of whether women should or should not cover their hair. IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: It is probably insane. It likely has holes in it. Nobody is likely to listen to it, and I don’t mean to pasken anything for anyone. It is purely a theoretical exercise I found interesting. I’m not a rabbi, I’m just in semicha, and if you would not ask a guy in medical school to perform open heart surgery on you, you shouldn’t listen to me. Nevertheless, I present in the name of practice, getting feedback, public interest, and maybe getting people to think outside the box.

One of the main foundations of the idea that a woman needs to cover her hair is a Mishna in Ketubot (7:6):

[*] ואלו יוצאות שלא בכתובה העוברת על דת משה ויהודית ואיזו היא דת משה מאכילתו שאינו מעושר ומשמשתו נדה ולא קוצה לה חלה ונודרת ואינה מקיימת ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע וטווה בשוק ומדברת עם כל אדם אבא שאול אומר אף המקללת יולדיו בפניו רבי טרפון אומר אף הקולנית ואיזו היא קולנית לכשהיא מדברת בתוך ביתה ושכניה שומעין קולה


A woman can lose her ketubah for violating two different things: “Dat Moshe”, which, includes, according to the Mishnah, giving her husband food that is not tithed, having sex with her husband while a niddah, not setting aside Challah, and vowing but not fulfilling her vow; And “Dat Yehudit”, which includes, going outside with her hair uncovered, spinning in the street, and speaking to everyone, and then Abba Shaul says cursing her husband’s parents, and Rabbi Tarfon says a “screamer”, woman whose voice could be heard by the neighbors (though the gemara will go on to give differing opinions as to what “screamer” means)

So, what interests me here is what exactly is Dat Yehudit, and how exactly does it differ from Dat Moshe? There seems to be a prominent conception that Dat Moshe is Halachos D’Orayta, and Dat Yehudit is Hilchos D’Rabanan, perhaps ones exclusively related to tzniut. This approach appears to be based on the gemara’s wording in its interrogation of the mishnah, asking how hair covering is Dat Yehudit when it seems to be a D’Orayta:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף עב עמוד א

ואיזוהי דת יהודית? יוצאה וראשה פרוע. ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא! דכתיב: הופרע את ראש האשה, ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש!דאורייתא -קלתה שפיר דמי, דת יהודית – אפילו קלתה נמי אסור.

Despite this, I will contend that the difference between Dat Moshe and Dat Yehudit is not a difference between D’Orayta, mitzvos commanded from the torah, and D’Rabanan, which we’re defining, for our purposes as decrees made by Chazal whose authority stems from them and not the Torah. Furthermore, I maintain that at the very least, there is a large amount of rishonim who also did not think of the difference between the two categories as such. Instead, we are dealing with two entirely different realms of Jewish Law and Religion. Dat Moshe is our system of halacha encompassing both Hilchos D’Orayta and D’Rabanan. Dat Yehudit is a different system entirely, comprised mostly of communal norms about What Jewish Girls Do, specifically how they act and dress.

The basis of my claim is that the word that the rishonim seem to prefer to describe Dat Yehudit is not “gezeirah”, or “divrei chachamim” or any other term that would imply that these are halachot D’rabanan. Instead, they prefer to use the term “minhag,” which would seem to indicate that this a system of communal norms, not of decrees made by Chaza”l. First, Rashi:

רש”י מסכת כתובות דף עב עמוד א

דת יהודית – שנהגו בנות ישראל ואע”ג דלא כתיבא

The Shitta Mekubetzet brings down an earlier version of Rashi that further underlines this point.

מתני’ דת יהודית. דברים שאינם אסורין מן התורה אלא מנהג בנות ישראל הם לצניעותא בעלמא והיא עוברת על דת המנהג.

Again, he does not say they are gezeirot d’rabanan, rather, they are the customs of Tzniut of Jewish Girls, What Jewish Girls Do, even though they are not written. Someone who violates those laws violates “dat haminhag”, not the words of the chachamim or the like. Though it is true that the counterexample to the laws of Dat Yehudit are “assurin min hatorah”, the fact that they themselves are not given any kind of description that would seem to indicate they belong under the rubric of Issurei D’Rabanan is significant. It also is important that this holds true for most of the rishonim I have seen thus far, who use the term “minhag” rather than anything that would imply that these are hilchos d’rabanan. I have yet to find anyone who explicitly refers to Dat Yehudit as d’rabanan, and while I’m loathe to use arguments from unanimity, because there’s always one guy you haven’t found yet, the fact that this appears to hold true for a vast majority of rishonim is significant.

The Piskei Ri’az adds an important point:

פסקי ריא”ז מסכת כתובות פרק ז – המדיר

או העוברת על דת יהודית שהוא מנהג צניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל בעצמם

Like Rashi, the Piskei Ri’az views Dat Yehudit as primarily minhag-based, but makes a crucial, one-word addition. It is the minhag accepted by B’not Yisrael on themselves. It is not decreed by an external authority, it is simply the accustomed ways and standards of modesty of Jewish Girls, ie, What Jewish Girls Do.

The Meiri splits between Dat Yehudit and Dat Moshe in a way that may shed light on Rashi.

בית הבחירה למאירי מסכת כתובות דף עב עמוד א

אמר המאירי אלו יוצאות שלא בכתבה העוברת על דת משה ויהודית כלומר לא סוף דבר בזינתה תחת בעלה שאיבדה כתבתה אלא אף העוברת על דת משה ויהודית ודת משה נאמר על מצות הכתובות בתורה או הרמוזות בה ודת יהודית הוא נאמר על מנהגים הנהוגים באומה מצד צניעות להיות בנות ישראל יתירות במדת צניעות על כל שאר נשים

The Meiri’s split between Dat Moshe and Dat Yehudit has Dat Moshe comprising all that is written in the Torah and all that is hinted to in it, and Dat Yehudit comprising customs of modesty that the nation is accustomed to. It’s noteworthy that the Meiri sees Dat Moshe as comprising Torah SheBichtav plus, which indicates its not pure d’oraytas. It is possible that included within “hinted to in it” contains Hilchos D’Rabanan as well, and that may be what Rashi means by “assur from the torah”. I’m not entirely confident on this point, and if anyone can point me towards the Meiri’s thoughts on the matter of the relationship between the two, but it makes some kind of sense, especially within Rashi. At any rate, we see that the Meiri also does not call Dat Yehudit anything that would imply they are hilchos d’rabanan, and also prefers the term “minhagim” to describe it. Very interesting is his notion of what Dat Yehudit accomplishes, which is making sure that Jewish Girls are more modest than all the other women out there. This seems to convey that Dat Yehudit also has an element of a sociological marker, to serve as an identifier of Jews as opposed to non-Jews.

So far, we can say a few things about Dat Yehudit
1. It is a system of minhag, not issurei d’rabanan
2. It is the communal norms accepted upon themselves by Jewish Girls
3. It serves as a sociological marker of Jewish Identity.

I think all of these three things are present in the Rambam, (Hilchos Ishus 24:11-12)
First, his explanation of what comprises Dat Moshe:

ואלו הן הדברים שאם עשת אחד מהן עברה על דת משה: יוצאה בשוק ושער ראשה גלוי, או שנודרת או נשבעת ד ואינה מקיימת, או ששמשה מטתה והיא נדה, או שאינה קוצה להחלה, או שהאכילה את בעלה דברים אסורים ואין צריך לומר שקצים ורמשים ונבלות אלא דברים שאינן מעושרין. והיאך יודע דבר זה כגון שאמרה לו פירות אלו פלוני כהן תקנם ליועיסה זו פלוני הפריש לי חלתה ופלוני החכם טיהר לי את הכתם ואחר שאכל או בא עליה שאל אותו פלוני ואמר לא היו דברים מעולם, וכן אם הוחזקה נדה בשכנותיה ואמרה לבעלה טהורה אני ובא עליה.

A number of things to note:
The Rambam’s explanation of Dat Moshe seems to be adding in scenarios that specifically are hilchos d’rabanan. First of all, from the fact he makes a kal v’chomer with maaser as the kal indicates that it is in fact kal, which seems to point to him talking about maaser b’zman hazeh, which is d’rabanan. Secondly, in giving an example of how a wife would fool her husband about hilchos niddah, he uses the example of “x told me this ketem was tahor”, and ketamim are d’rabanan. The Rambam seems to go out of his way to express that Dat Moshe includes both D’Orayta and D’Rabanan halachos.
Additionally, he adds in “walking out with hair uncovered” to the list of laws in the category of Dat Moshe, in accordance with the conclusion of the gemara.
Now, his explanation of Dat Yehudit:

ואיזו היא דת יהודית, הוא מנהג הצניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל, ואלו הן הדברים שאם עשת אחד מהן עברה על דת יהודית: יוצאה לשוק או למבוי ה מפולש וראשה פרוע ואין עליה ורדיד ככל הנשים, אע”פ ששערה מכוסה במטפחת, או שהיתה טווה בשוק וורד וכיוצא בו כנגד פניה על פדחתה או על לחיה כדרך שעושות הגויות הפרוצות, או שטווה בשוק ומראה זרועותיה לבני אדם, או שהיתה משחקת עם הבחורים, או שהיתה תובעת התשמיש מבעלה בקול רם עד ששכנותיה שומעות אותה מדברת על עסקי תשמיש, או שהיתה מקללת אבי בעלה בפני בעלה.

Important Notes:
1. His explanation of the difference between the Dat Moshe law of walking out with your hair uncovered and the Dat Yehudit law of walking out without the right kind of hat is contained in the words ככל הנשים, ie, one is a matter of halakha, and one is a matter of communal standards of tzniut.
2. He stresses that the things forbidden by Dat Yehudit are the things that are  כדרך שעושות הגויות הפרוצות, lending credence to the notion these are partially markers of Jewish identity.
3. He refers to them as minhagim, and not as any of the terms the Rambam uses to describe halachos d’rabanan, which is very, very significant considering how carefully the Rambam uses such words.

Taking all this together, along with the fact that I have been largely unable to find any rishonim who refer to Dat Yehudit as hilchos d’rabanan (though, again, I am hesitant to offer arguments from unanimity, because there’s always one guy you overlook), I think we can reasonably state that Dat Yehudit, instead of being a term to describe Hilchos D’Rabanan, or even a certain section of hilchos d’rabanan, is a term to describe the general standards of the Jewish community when it comes to women’s actions, and particularly dress. These standards are not halachic, but they are binding. What we therefore have is a binding system of the Jewish religion, pertaining exclusively to women, which is based primarily on communal norms.

Now, taking my introduction about the different components of halakha into account, what Dat Yehudit is a system that is like halacha, minus, for the most part, texts and authorities. There are Things That Jewish Girls Do, and Ways That Jewish Girls Dress, that have no texts to be based on, and, consequently, no authorities to become experts in those texts and interpret those texts. But what we do have is a system within Jewish religion which is completely determined by women, and what the community of religious women accepts on themselves. And if we want to have female religious leaders within Judaism, one way to do that is to formalize this system, having some women be considered, by glint of their personal piety and wide respect, experts in What Jewish Girls Do, and have them write texts detailing the requirements, shaped by and shaping the communal norms of present-day Orthodoxy. As it is, I already think women should be writing and teaching tzniut to other women, as having a man get up in front of a class of women and say “here’s what people like me find sexually appealing, make sure you don’t do that” is bad on so many levels.

But allow me to be a little crazy.(WARNING: ENTERING HALAKHIC SCIENCE FICTION ZONE) Such women would have their own title to indicate their religious achievements in the area of Jewish religion uniquely their own. Perhaps their expertise in that area would give them authority in matters not formally covered by Dat Yehudit, and they’d find themselves gradually getting more questions on other areas of halakha they do actually have the expertise to pasken in. As for the texts themselves, the requirements recorded in the texts written by such women need not be predicated on worrying about male sexual impropriety, but could be predicated purely on Jewish identification, an idea which has pretty much happened with hair covering anyway. Even if they are, at any rate, time would pass, contexts would change, and the requirements recorded in these texts written by these women would gain unquestionable status, and the reasons given for why Jewish Girls wear say, three-quarter sleeves, I dunno, would shift by themselves, and the requirements would continually attain new meanings, growing further and further from their original intent and context. What would emerge is a legitimate system of Jewish law which is wholly determined by women, comprised of texts by women, and with women authorities.

I realize talking about such controversial things is dangerous, both because I could be called a heretic or a sexist, but, again, the purpose of this blog is to think out loud, and I am probably very wrong about many things. I’m trying. So, um, I hope I’m not a heretic. Or a sexist…..I was young and stupid!

This post is indebted to Joshua Skootsky, who helped me flesh out my thoughts and called me out on BS.

How to Relate to Someone Who Is No Longer Religious

So yesterday, my blog got posted by Rabbi Pesach Sommer, and I got a lot of comments on my last post, specifically my defense of mysticsm, and I do want to respond to that eventually, but right now, I’m more concerned with a more important issue. 

Bram Glazer, a person I worked with at Camp Stone but barely knew otherwise, committed suicide a couple of days ago. The news has hit the  YU and Modern Orthodox communities pretty hard, as the death of a young man should. Part of what has shook me about the news is an article Bram wrote a couple of years ago, describing how he stopped wearing a kippah and the flack he encountered within YU for his decision. I lack the arrogance to make any kind of causal relationship between the article and his death, but it couldn’t have helped, and he raised some very valid concerns about the way our community deals with people who are no longer religious. Here is what I wrote on the memorial page on facebook:

I barely knew Bram. We worked together in Camp Stone, I knew who he was, and I believe he actually may have rejected a facebook friend request. So I don’t know how much right I have to speak right now.

But I find myself reading and rereading and rereading again the article he wrote, linked to here before, about not wearing a kippah in YU, and the flack he got for it. I’m not going to judge the validity of his argument, nor do I have the arrogance to ascribe a young man’s death to any one factor. But I can’t help but see someone who described himself as a “malcontent” who did not feel welcome within the YU community, who felt he had no place here, whose criticisms of our community were treated with harshness and coldness. All this despite the very real things a person like Bram, a person who, I’m reading, was genuine and kind and funny and who I honestly regret not knowing that well. I have no idea what relationship that feeling had with his state of mind, and again, I don’t have the arrogance to make any such claims. But it couldn’t have helped matters, and it couldn’t hurt to actively endeavor to make a community that deals with our “malcontents” in a more sympathetic and compassionate way, or at the very least to have a space within YU that is non-judgmental and inclusive. I sense that Bram was cognizant of the need for such a space, looking at his involvement in AEPi, and I hope that AEPi continues to be such a haven in our community. But this is something the Modern Orthodox community as a whole really needs to improve on. Just because someone isn’t wearing a kippah, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve basic human dignity and respect, besides for the obvious fact that treating them in such a manner isn’t going to help at all. We need to, instead of yelling at “malcontents” like Bram, take the time to sit down and talk and understand and be a damn decent human being. It should not be so hard.

All that being said, my sympathies and prayers go out to the family and friends of Bram. I have no other words, except to pray for a day where suffering and death will be finally defeated. 
בִּלַּע הַמָּוֶת לָנֶצַח, וּמָחָה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה דִּמְעָה מֵעַל כָּל-פָּנִים; וְחֶרְפַּת עַמּוֹ, יָסִיר מֵעַל כָּל-הָאָרֶץ–כִּי יְהוָה, דִּבֵּר


But I want to, on this occasion, discuss something I planned to discuss anyway. How do we relate to a Jew who has left religion? This is an important question to consider in our current environment, and one that I will have to deal with as someone who plans to enter the world of kiruv. And there are multiple things to consider. On one hand, you want to bring people back to Orthodoxy, back to fulfilling God’s will, back to the beauty of a Jewish life. On the other hand, this is an individual who has a right to make their own decisions with what they do with their life. You want this person to be religious, but you also want this person to be happy, and to make informed, good decisions, because you care, or should care, about this person as an individual. Some people forget about that last part and consider all means justified towards the end of making a person more religious, considering it a holy endeavor to lie and manipulate someone towards being religious. On the other hand, if you’re a kiruv person who’s not actually trying to get people more religious, you’re not actually a kiruv person. 
So, I guess, here’s my approach, bearing in mind I am just 23 and have little experience in life. First of all, never underestimate the good you do by just being a religious person who’s a decent human being. The established narrative is that religious people are crazy, pushy, intolerant, and ignorant, and if you accept that narrative, of course you’d reject religion. Being a decent person who is religious has the effect of throwing a wrench in that narrative, showing that it is possible to be a religious person who is none of those stereotypes, and that, maybe, you could be one too. On the other hand, being a pushy and intolerant individual has the opposite effect of strengthening those stereotypes and making the idea of being a religious person even less palatable. So, on a practical level, the most effective kiruv is to be respectful and tolerant and an overall decent human being. 
Of course, we haven’t actually answered our original question, of how to balance the desire to bring someone closer to religion with your need to respect them as a human being. We’ve just said that it the best way to accomplish the former is through the latter. Which seems to mean that the only concern is bringing someone to religion, and if it was possible to bring someone to religion by lying to them and ruining their lives otherwise, you should probably go ahead and do it. I am strongly opposed to such a conclusion. The desire to save souls should not override the concern for people’s physical well-being, and a concern for a person’s olam haba does not negate their right to olam hazeh. As The Rav puts it in Halakhic Man:

See what many religions have done to this world on account of their yearning to break through the bounds of concrete reality and escape to the sphere of eternity….There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one’s attention from this world. 

(This idea is actually a theme in his thought worth exploring, he goes at particular length about it in some of his recorded lectures)
So, for the millionth time, how do we balance the two?
Let us return for a second to our paradigm of the Jewish Religion as a relationship between lovers. Normally, the relationship works okay, there are sacrifices to be made, but we get through them, and the relationship itself is worth it. When someone leaves religious observance, I see them as a friend who left a relationship with another friend of mine. It would be wrong of me to judge either of the parties involved. I don’t know what kind of things happened that caused them to leave the relationship. I can’t judge them for doing so, nor can I tell them that they should go back to it right away, and I definitely shouldn’t lie to them or manipulate them into returning to their former lover, because I don’t know what went on, how hard it was for this person to keep it going, how hard they tried, and what finally made them give up on it. But I do know The Person (capitalized so that you can better keep track of this convoluted metaphor) they left. And I know that Person does love them, and does want them back, and does want to make things better. I know that Person still has a place in their heart for their lost lover, and that, were they to change their mind, that Person would have them back immediately. And I believe that this Person is capable of being good, better than they have been before. And thus, I still believe, in my heart of hearts, that relationship can be salvaged, and I will do what is possible to lead to that reconciliation. But they have to be ready, and they have to be willing, and they have to be able to put the past painful experiences behind them, and I should not necessarily expect that they can, or even should, and not all reconciliations are possible or even a good idea. 
To bring that back into the nimshal, what we as a community don’t often realize is that when someone leaves the community, they do so for good reasons, because they were bothered by things they couldn’t explain, actions they couldn’t condone, and people they couldn’t tolerate. They left because their relationship with God was broken, and that’s not their fault. But, as a religious person, I believe that God loves everyone, and has a place for all types of people within the Jewish community, more, that he must love everyone, and, himdamnit, there must be a place for them in our community. Indeed, this is what I often think has kept me religious; the conviction that, unlike any other institution, there must be a place for me here, by definition and theological impossibility. And I believe that, with a little work, we can succeed at finding such places. But I would never demand that a person just return to Judaism without any consideration of their personality, without any consideration of how much they have suffered and how much they stand to suffer if they resume a broken relationship without any prior thought. It should go without saying that O, would never try to manipulate someone into doing so. In sum, my approach is to, best I can, fight to find a person a place within Judaism where they can have a healthy relationship with God, and not force them back into a bad one. 

As I mentioned in the post, it seems that Bram tried to carve out a space within YU for people who otherwise did not fit into the religious community, and that is a great thing, and I don’t mean to denigrate in any way. But using that as an example of the kind of community that can exist within YU, I wonder if YU would be served well if it had in-house kiruv of the sort I’ve described above, dedicated not merely to addressing symptoms of problem, like people not wearing kippahs, but the roots of those issues, the inability to find a place within our community where they could conceive of a healthy relationship with God. I know a lot of people who would stand to benefit from such an initiative, freshman self absolutely included, and maybe even current self sometimes. Sometimes I feel we’re at a disadvantage to students who go to secular college in that regard, who have a campus rabbi whose job it is to make people feel welcome and a smaller community to be a part of and find oneself in. I mean, officially, we have a mashgiach ruchani and mashpia, but I think we all can admit to ourselves that those positions and people are not appealing to the kind of crowd we’re talking about helping here. Same with most religious events, which cater to a crowd who wants their social opportunities gender-separated and formal dress, as opposed to the “Drink Beer, Have Chulent, and Have a Kumzitz” which is the norm on most college campuses. Obviously there are limits to what is realistically possible in this regard, but perhaps, I naively hope, there is more wiggle room than we have now. 

Further Thoughts and Clarifications on The Process of Change of Judaism, and A Defense of Mysticsm

So I didn’t post yesterday because I was absurdly tired, so today I will try to post on two topics to make up.

First, some further thoughts and clarifications on my last post about change in Judaism. It was mostly devoted to talking about the philosophical and theological basis for the idea of change in Judaism, but it only briefly and inadequately touched upon the process of said change (in my talking about the criteria for acceptable change.) But, how does this change happen? Is it, like was asked to me in the comments, a conscious decision by halakhic decisors to change things in Judaism? Or is it an unconscious process? How does it actually work?

I’m prone to think of these changes as a mostly unconscious process. I’ll begin first with the most practical reason for this: Change is dependent on the Jewish community accepting it, and the Jewish community is much more likely to accept a change if it doesn’t seem like one. One could cynically say this is because the unwashed masses of the Jewish community are stupid. I would like to avoid such cynicism if at all possible. Not that I am opposed to principle to cynicism; as anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m very unopposed to cynicism. But such cynicism stems from arrogance, that *real* religion is only accessible to an intellectual elite who need to keep the masses stupid. Any philosophy of Judaism should be equally accessible and understandable to everyone, and its important for me to keep my ideas grounded in a concern for the entire Jewish people, not just the intellectual. I like cynicism. I hate elitism.
Okay, but how do we uncynically and un-elitistically (can that be a word?) explain the fact that change must not seem apparent for the purpose of appealing to the Jewish community? I think we have to see the Jewish people, to reiterate an earlier point, as the filtering mechanism of God’s will on this earth, which we’ve previously defined as constituting the combination of revelation and reality. But God’s will itself doesn’t change, being eternal and timeless, and the Torah, to paraphrase a midrash, precedes creation. Judaism changes; God’s will does not. We can see the process of Judaism as the continuous attempt of to uncover that timeless truth, and the Jewish community as the mechanism of finding it. In such a search for timeless and eternal truth, the idea of change would defeat the purpose of the whole endeavor, because the Jewish community is committed to uncovering eternal truth, not truth subject to change. Rather, change In Judaism is the uncovering of lost or latent ideas from the original timeless and eternal truth of God’s will. Thus, Judaism ends up incorporating outside ideas into its tradition, but as timeless truth, not momentary adaptations. This may be the explanation of the idea that the whole Torah, even chiddushim of students in yeshiva, was given to Moshe at Sinai. Moshe was given the ability to understand God’s will in its perfect form, but each successive generation of Judaism comes closer and closer to that understanding.

So how does such change happen? I like a passage in Moshe Halbertal’s book “People of the Book” where he describes the concept of “charitable reading” of religious texts. To steal from my description of it in the comments of my previous post, generally speaking, religious communities assume sacred texts are truthful and good and represent the eternal and unchanging will of God. No chiddush there. However, when sacred texts are challenging to the reader, due to developments in the reality, be it morally, practically, truthfully, etc, benefit of the doubt is given, but in either of two ways. Either “I don’t understand how this text can be true or moral or practical, but it is a sacred text so I assume it knows better than me and I will thus accept it”, or “I don’t understand how this text can be true or moral or practical, and therefore, it can’t actually be saying that, it must be saying something else.” My idea is that change in Judaism occurs when the second approach is taken. This leads to change, but does not impinge on the eternality and timelessness of God’s will. On the contrary, its the eternality of God that actually prompts the change. The question that must be asked by religious people is not “How can we change Judaism to fit with our age?”. It is “What could God realistically demand from us in our relationship with him?”

With that, we can lead into the second thing I want to discuss, which is, A Defense of Mysticism.

Mysticism gets a bad rap in the community of the intellectually sophisticated Modern Orthodox. Maybe it’s the roots of Modern Orthodoxy in the Lithuanian Misnaged tradition, but defending Kabbalah will get you some funny looks, and most people tend to say “they’re not inclined towards mysticism.” Certainly there are some benefits to being wary of Kabbalah, especially in its use by unscrupulous organizations to fool the gullible into thinking there are shortcuts to personal and religious success. But such trends are not the same as ascribing some validity towards more mystical streams of thought.
I see the critiques of mysticsm in Modern Orthodoxy as the following:
1. It’s irrational, and inferior to more rational philosophies of Judaism. People are not “inclined” towards irrationality. Only gullible idiots believe in such hocus-pocus.
2. Related to #1, we risk turning people off to Judaism by teaching them silly things.
3. Kabbalah contains ideas borrowed from other religions and traditions, and Judaism should contain no outside elements.
4. It has no practical purpose.

So my critiques of these critiques:
First of all, for #1, Let’s stop pretending that any version of Orthodox Judaism is entirely rational. At a certain point at any point in Judaism, you have God, the eternal, the unknowable, the great and perfect and powerful, comes down from his heavenly throne and gives us a book. This is not a rational thing, especially in today’s environment in which religious skepticism is a norm. To say nothing of miracles and prophecy and prayer and all the various other things that don’t make sense. I mean, you can claim Judaism is rational all you want, but the reason you get up in the morning to recite hebrew prayers and wrap your arms in leather straps is not because it makes sense. Which leads me to skeptical of #2. Who are we trying to impress by purging Judaism of all irrational elements except the couple we actually kind of need? Do you think anyone who’s inclined towards secularism is gonna be impressed by the fact we made Judaism less irrational, when it still is somewhat irrational? I could argue the opposite, by making it clear that some religious doctrine is subject to critical appraisal and subsequent dismissal, you lower the barrier to questioning the fundamental irrationality. Rationalist Judaism, especially in its more radical adherents (think Faur and followers, not Slifkin, who is often saner than given credit for) seems to be an internal form of New Atheism, in that it takes pride in mocking everyone else as irrational idiots and upholding itself as the only possible truth. The New Atheists just have a little bit more guts. Though, in all seriousness, it may be a kind of good thing that there exists room within the Jewish community for the kind of smug arrogance that is the domain of the New Atheists, where a kid is reading and preaching Jose Faur instead of Sam Harris. Then again, should we be encouraging that sort of thing?

One more thing, the guillible idiots who believe Kabbalah happen to include a fairly large portion of Jews and Jewish authorities throughout history. I mean, read Jose Faur’s Anti-Maimonidean Demons to see how many huge rishonim and acharonim he just dismisses because of their mystical tendencies. The Rashba and Raabad, obviously, but the Rosh, too, and, most vociferously, the Ramban. These are big names who our current practice of Judaism is built off of. To call them gullible morons, or worse, in Faur’s case, is irresponsible. Not to mention the fact that Kabbalah was huge in the Jewish world through its history, and left no part of it untouched, save, maybe, a small corner of Yemen. Maybe. It’s highly irresponsible to call entire generations of Jews idiots, or worse, not really practicing Jews. This is especially true within the context of the system of halacha I’ve been expounding. If the Jewish community accepted Kabbalah, then it has validity that needs to be respected and dealt with, even if not necessarily blindly accepted.

This leads me to #3, the notion that there elements of kabbalah that come from other traditions, which necessitates kabbalah being placed outside the tradition. First of all, the hypocrisy of people who view the Rambam as their main authority and encourage the adoption of religion to modernity castigating mystics for appropriating ideals from other traditions is amusing, even if they insist, a historically, that Judaism was always like that. Second of all, it may not even be true. Certain mystical ideas are remarkably universal to humanity, and the origin of some of these mystic notions that are seen as problematic may stem from being a human being, not a heretic. For another, there is the possibility of a consistent tradition of Jewish mysticism that runs parallel to these other traditions. But all this is besides the point. There’s nothing really wrong with change, as long as its passes through the filtering mechanism of the Jewish community. And it should be mentioned that mysticism is remarkably better at implementing change in Judaism than rationalism, and has had way more endurance in the Jewish community than any “Rationalist” philosophy has ever had. We could discuss why this is, the use of religious language, the portrayal of new ideas as eternal truths latent in the original sources (which I relates to what I discussed above), the usual percieved piety/ascetism of its  main voices. Whatever it is, mysticism does a much better job of incorporating new ideas into Judaism in a way acceptable to the Jewish community.
Which leads me to #4, having no practical usage. Why learn about these complicated metaphysics, these sefirot and partzufim and tzimtzum and the like? Well first of all, this is stuff which affected Jewish History, and is important to a lot of philosophies, so you should know it, not be contemptuous of it. But my point, and again, I hope this isn’t heresy, is that us Modern Orthodox Jews, committed to a continuing healthy relationship with God, committed to coming to terms with the secular world in a way faithful to our tradition, have ignored a crucial tool in the toolbox of the innovative religious thinker, that of mysticsm and mystical language. We cling resolutely to a sort of half-rationalism that denies the validity of some irrationality but must uphold the value of others. We need to widen our horizons, to use all of the vocabulary and philosophies available to us in the Jewish sources to build a firmer foundation for a Judaism that finds itself on the quickly shifting sand of modernity. We need more Rav Kook, a thinker brave enough to use kabbalistic ideas to make sense of modernity, both in our curriculum and in our ranks, as a text and a personal example. We need to use mysticism in a sophisticated and nuanced way, like we would use any philosophy, and not just be scared off by its current abuse as a tool of charlatans. We need mysticism.

Change in Halakha/Haskhkafa

So, the other day I decided that my need for feedback outweighed my desire for my thoughts to remain private, and I posted a link to this blog to my facebook. I’m not yet sure it was a wise decision. Part of what keeps me from writing is the duty I feel toward the public to get everything right, so subjecting my thoughts to public scrutiny may stop me from writing, which would defeat the purpose. On the other hand, I want good feedback. It becomes even more difficult considering I plan on covering my thoughts on some controversial subjects (biblical criticism and feminism being two noteworthy ones), so I am afraid that I will misspeak and give people the wrong ideas, not to mention someone in the future digging up my writings and trying to defame me. So I don’t know. All I can say is, Dear People of the Future: I was young and stupid, and look at the title of the blog for godsakes. 

Anyway, I’ve kind of decided to continue my posts as part of a series using my new philosophical foundation of Judaism, and seeing how far I can go in creating a philosophical system. As a general rule, I don’t like philosophical systems; religion is more often manifested in the brief but brilliant flash of insight than in carefully built structures. Nonetheless, I think I’m onto something that is at the very least original. 

Anyway anyway, continuing with our series. I spoke last time about possibly rethinking Judaism as being not a system of commands from an authority figure, but as the content of a loving and committed relationship between two lovers, complete with attendant responsibilities and duties. With this different paradigm in hand, we can come to an understanding of how religion can change. 

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that it does change. Judaism has changed over the course of its history, and the content of the Judaism we practice is different from that practiced by generations before it, different from the rishonim, from that of the talmud, and certainly from that of the avot. Denying this is, in a word, stupid, considering the mountains of evidence supporting this notion. (If this was a longer article or paper, I would present such evidence, but its not, so lets go ahead) This is not to say that everything has changed, or all change was accepted or accepted, don’t get me wrong. But things have changed. 
This, fact presents a philosophical problem: If we listen to the Torah, to Halakha, because it represents the command of God, how can we possibly change it? How can one disobey the direct orders of God, or weasel their way out of one by redefining the order? What kind of army or state can be run where laws can be changed?

If, however, we redefine our idea about the relationship between God and the Jewish People from Authority and Subjects to Beloved and Lover, we can better understand how this could happen. Relationships undergo change, as the people involved undergo their own changes. To give a likely bad example, someone who fell in love with another person due chiefly to their great beauty, the inadvisability of superficiality notwithstanding, could grow to love their partner’s sharp wit as the beauty of youth fades. Sometimes, relationships actually need change. If a guy is a slob, leaving random detritus around the house, then when he moves in with his wife, that’s going to need to change. As opposed to in an Authority-Subject paradigm, where the request for this change is laughable at best and insubordinate at worst, in this situation the wife is not asking for a divorce; she’s just asking he pick up after himself sometimes. On the contrary, this is an attempt to improve and preserve the relationship. This is not to say all change is acceptable. If one of the parties in the relationship ends up becoming, say, a serial killer, this is a drastic change, and one that jeopardizes the relationship. In much the same vein, if a guy asks his wife to wear a blonde wig, speak in a texas twang, and start calling herself “Beatrice”, that’s gonna jeopardize their relationship, particularly if his wife’s best friend is a blonde texan named Beatrice. This despite the fact that he is committed to continuing their relationship, so committed in fact, that he is willing to sacrifice his clear desire for Beatrice to continue being with his wife. Nonetheless, it is a bad change, signalling clearly that he does not really want to be with his wife anymore. Some changes are bad changes, because they undermine the very relationship they are meant

To bring it back to Judaism, changes in Judaism happen in response to changing realities. New philosophies have to be countered, and new societal developments have to be dealt with, so Judaism adapts to those changes both in hashkafa and halacha. The point of those changes is to improve and preserve the relationship between God and the Jewish people, to allow that relationship to continue in changing circumstances. What changes cannot do is undermine that relationship, to merely put God in a wig, so to speak. 

This is all wonderful, but quite a bit theologically problematic. Can it really be that we demand God, the almighty and all-powerful, change his demands of us in the face of new realities? And that we make him change, like a scolding wife nagging her husband?

So here, we need to step outside our metaphor. God is not bowed in the face of changing realities, because he is behind those changing realities, the hand that animates the myriad different forces of history towards an eventual goal, the force larger than any individual, school, institution, state, or power. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not parroting a mere simplistic “God brought the hurricane because of the gays”. I am saying that history moves forward in ways that transcend any simplistic explanation, and at a certain point, we may posit that there is someone or something pulling the strings. Reality has significance as a manifestation of God’s will. It is of course, not the only manifestation of God’s will. Revelation, the will of god revealed not through what is, but what ought to be, as conveyed to prophets and recorded in sacred texts, is the other way God has spoken to us.

Thus, we hear God in two different voices, the voice of revelation, and the voice of reality. Each must limit and temper the other. On one hand we cannot shut ourselves off from reality, retreating to the what we hear spoken by revelation, because reality has divine significance as well, and God means for us to interpret revelation within the confines of reality. On the other hand, we cannot just abandon the revealed will of God and throw ourselves fully into the tempestuous waters of current trends, not knowing where they will take us. Each must limit and constrain the other, and from this tension the true will of God, the combination of revelation and reality emerges. 
An important corollary of this is that the deciding factor of the correctness of any halakhic is not its consonance with the original texts, because those texts are missing the element of the evaluation of current realities. What decides a halakhic’s opinion’s correctness is its ability to combine truth to the original sources with feasibility in its current atmosphere. The only way to judge that is by evaluating its acceptance within the Jewish community, which, as a whole balances the need to adhere to the original sources with the need to stay alive in reality. The Jewish community, in possession of revelation and possessed by reality, thus becomes the filter through which God’s will is revealed on this earth, a laboratory of sorts where current trends are tested against texts, and the creations that emerge represent God’s will. 
This, of course, is an outsider’s view of the system. Within the system, though, it remains purely the relationship between God and the Jewish people, a desire to abide by the the terms of the relationship but also maintain it. 
I don’t really have a great way to end this. I hope this isn’t heresy. Good shabbos!

Love of God and the way we talk about it

From here on out, especially considering my freer schedule, I’m going to try and do a blog post every day that it is feasible for me to do so. The quality may suffer, but at least I’ll be productive. 

Following up on my last blog post, I got to thinking about the various ways we think about our relationship to God. The most prominent approach seems to be one of an unquestionable authority, “our father, our king”. I’m not to diminish the importance of such paradigms, nor their place within Jewish tradition and liturgy. But I think its worth questioning whether it is the right approach to be most prominent in today’s age. I, like many my age, are relatively skeptical of authority, and the question that can be asked when God is portrayed as an authority figure is “why?”. On what basis does such authority lie? Why do we listen to God? Because we are afraid of punishment? Does God’s authority come from the same place that obedience to a tyrannical dictator does? God was certainly not democratically elected. 
I think that a much more effective way of thinking about God and religion is through the paradigm of the relationship of a lover to their beloved. It is an analogy our generation can understand; everyone falls in love eventually, and our culture is saturated entirely with stories of romance, as opposed to the total lack of an idea of absolute and unquestionable authority. 
The question one could ask is whether such a paradigm will leave in its wake a Judaism which ebbs with the uncertain tides of emotional connection. If one bases their religiosity on a positive feeling, when that positive feeling is not elicited, so does the religiosity. It leads to enthusiastic kabbalash shabboses, but sparsely attended shacharises. Say what you want about absolute authority, it does engender obedience in ways that love does not seem to be able to do. 
I would answer that religion is more than mere love of God, it is a relationship with God, built on a foundation of love but with loyalty and commitment. The above question assumes a “one-night stand” with God, as it were. But a relationship is quite obviously more than that. It entails monogamous commitment to one’s lover (hence no idol worship), the promotion of conspicuous symbols of one’s commitment to one’s lover such as wedding rings (a large amount of mitzvos), remembering of important dates and anniversaries (yamim tovim), and time set aside for the maintenance of the relationship (shabbos, davening). As you can see, such a paradigm would subsume a large portion of the Jewish religion. This would not get rid of the concept of “fear of God.” We need not define such fear purely in terms of the fear of punishment by an authority figure. Instead, let us talk about the fear of letting a loved one down, fear inspired by love, rather than vice versa.  

But, one could ask, can this really be called a relationship when it is so one-sided, the beloved being an entity that does not seem to talk back to us or otherwise communicate with us?
I would offer three different avenues for the bidirectionality of our relationship with God: Torah, Tefillah, and Maasim Tovim. 
As I’ve said before, a relationship demands unconditional love, but to a certain extent. Blind love to an beloved who abuses you is an unhealthy relationship, and our relationship with God must be a healthy one. Therefore God provides us with avenues to improve our relationship with him, by giving us input into its terms. In this way, Torah and its interpretation, understanding the demands of our relationship, explaining the reasons for them, and, in some cases, renegotiating them, represents the first way that God relates to us. In Tefillah, we cry out to God for help with our needs, explaining to God the strains on our relationship with him, and we hope that he answers, but the important thing is that he is listening to what we have to say. With Maasim Tovim, we actively help make the world a better place, improving the conditions of our relationship with God. 

Thus, I believe that the only way to ground a philosophy of Judaism in a love of God and relationship with God that is not essentially rational but must be negotiated within rational terms. This love of God must, like any other relationship, make demands of us, asking of us commitment, loyalty, and faith. God, as a non-abusive beloved, allows us to understand the terms of our relationship, speak our concerns with him, and take action to adjust it. 

This is a rougher essay than I necessarily like, but at least I wrote it, which is sort of the point.