Tuesday, December 27, 2005
In the age old argument whether the performance of a mitzvah requires "intent" (mitzvot tzrichot kavanah) I had always come down on the affirmative side. Siding with the more intellectual side of the argument that mere action without forethought was a lesser good than action on its own, seemed natural to me.
As life goes on though and I reflect on my own religious performance and observe how others perform mitzvot I have started to have doubts as to which argument is more "religious" in general and more Jewish-religious in particular. If , as some claim, one of the purposes of the more physical mitzvot is to train the body to do good, do we reach a higher level of training if, before each physical religious act we think successfully about not only why, but how we are performing the mitzvah than if we naturally "go through the motions"?
Now, "going though the motions" has negative connotations in our hyper-spiritual age where we are constantly (and often legitimately) looking for "deeper meaning" in our religious lives. One of the great revolutions in Torah (and specifically Talmud) study in the religious-Zionist yeshivot in
Following their teachers, Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, these religious-Zionist yeshivot have taken Torah learning to newer levels as they have integrated other disciplines into their learning. Without getting too much into this (roots are in the musar movement, in Brisk, in the universities, in the trailblazing thought of Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik themselves) the introduction of meta-Halakhah into the learning of the Halakhic portions of the Talmud has led not only to a more enriching intellectual experience but has also led to two changes in the practice of Halakhah: The introduction of new chumrot (restrictions or stringencies) into everyday practices and the increased awareness of the kavanah or intent involved in the "proper" performance of the Halakhic or religious act that is done on a regular basis. On the one hand this has led to a more "rewarding" religious experience in the mundane – on the other hand, it has turned a mitzvah into an experience.
This and another phenomenon, those penitent (chozer b'tshuva) movements that are geared not towards the performance of mitzvot in general but towards specific ways of performance (I have in mind here Habad, Aish HaTorah and others like it) have led, by my observations to a much more self-conscious practice of Judaism. Each religious act is preceded by a self-conscious attempt to do things in a specific way. You see it most interestingly in the everyday things that many of us "just do", like in the washing of hands before the eating of bread or the saying of the short blessings after eating a snack or going to the bathroom and even in the saying of kiddush on Shabbat. Where once these mitzvot were performed thoughtlessly as part of the natural rhythm of life, they are now performed self-consciously and more "thoughtfully" as fully religious experiences.
Some of this self-conscious behavior is the result of increased learning and some of it in the result of a desire to set oneself out from others in the orthodox community in order to prove a more "authentic" Judaism than the others.
So, regarding the question of whether the performance of a mitzvah requires intent I wonder if this in itself is a question regarding the very nature of religious practice. Ought we to reach a point in our religious lives where our very actions are done in such a natural way as to be totally un-self-conscious or must we think and linger self-consciously over every action?
Or is it "more religious" to sometimes just go through the motions?
Thursday, December 22, 2005
I do some of my better writing while sitting in a Kfar Saba café in the early or mid-morning hours observing new or expectant mothers devour Israeli breakfasts downed with sweet milky coffee (imagine how bad this blog would be written without the café). This is the first opportunity in about two weeks that I have had to sit on my own in those comfortable chairs and drink black coffee. Our youngest son's bar mitzvah was this past Shabbat – with the party/seuda on Monday night.
I sat down by my computer numerous times over the pat two weeks trying to think of something unsentimental to say as we ended the bar/bat mitzvah cycle of our children. All bar/bat-mitzvot are emotional for reasons I don't have to and won't go into.
This one was a bit different from our other three for two reasons: First, it was the last bar-mitzvah (not really of our youngest child since he is a minute or so older than his twin sister) and this was the bar mitzvah of the most passionate of our children. Our children not only have four different hair colors (or shades of one color with the two oldest) but have four distinct personality types. This makes our Shabbat table rather interesting as we alternate between heated discussions and arguments and cynical observations on the one hand and humor and very occasional song on the other.
The OOS bar mitzvah boy is not yet of an age where he can compete with his older brothers regarding the depth of their arguments but that doesn't stop him from clearly enunciating the depth of his convictions. (For those who think that his twin sister, the lone girl in the family, is drowned out by three opinionated, argumentative boys, just ask someone who was at the bar mitzvah – they will put your mind at ease.)
He speaks his mind with the self-confidence of his oldest brother and the modesty of his grandfather. It is a difficult feat, but he succeeds. On the other hand, he also doing what he is least cut out to do. For example, in baseball he loves pitching and playing shortstop (he has a classic pre-steroids shortstop's body) but is dying to play catcher. Only his stubborn coach/father and his finally his realization of his physical makeup keeps him from going behind the plate. His innocence is only equaled by his clear eyed view of the world.
And that is why I blessed him on his bar mitzvah with the poetic name that the paytan (liturgical poet) Yannai gave to our forefather Jacob – that he grow up to be (and I won't translate this, because it is not possible – by me at least) to be a "tam ha'bah shalem".
Monday, December 19, 2005
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Everyone is confused in the last novella, "The Oath" where Hasidim and mitnagdim, old and new, religious and not, clash in a series of relationships and love stories that start on the deathbed of Shlomo-Zalman Rappaport, wheat merchant and "Lithuanian Hasid". The oath of the title is taken by Reb Shlomo Zalman's son as the dying father demands of his son to leave his agronomy studies at the university and study Torah with the "divorced rabbi", Avraham-Abba Seligman – loner, ascetic, scholar and shopkeeper. As the son learns, against his own wishes, for the year of mourning, a relationship develops not between student and rabbi but between the widow, Batsheva and the divorced rabbi. It is not at all clear if the purpose of the oath is in fact not to make a talmudic scholar out of the son but to perform a modern version of "yibum" – levirate marriage – where the brother marries his brother's widow if there are no children.
There are children here of course and Rabbi Abraham-Abba is no brother to the deceased. Yet, both the sympathetic and business-like nature of the of Reb Shlomo-Zalman make him worry about his much younger wife and his good friend, the divorced rabbi.
Chaim Grade is a writer who sympathizes with his characters. He understands their problems and presents their flaws in context with their roles in the world – rabbi, rebbetzin, housepainter, storekeeper, town Magid, town Rav, porush, hasid, mitnaged.
Only an insider who is also an outsider can write with the critical eye and the sympathy required of the artist who presents and describes not only a people and an era, but individuals and the relationships no matter their community, place or time.
Reading Grade helps one to understand the dynamics of a community where tradition and the demands of the contemporary world clash. While that clash became more pronounced with the advent of modernism in the arts, modern philosophy, science and technology, the tension has always been there.
Grade is a gifted and moving writer and it is a shame that so many of his works are out of print. I am not quite sure why, since he writes so much better than his better known Yiddish writers who have been translated into English. Maybe its because he writes from the standpoint of the insider's outsider (or is it the outsider's insider?).
Maybe you have to understand what it means not to walk down the center aisle of a synagogue, to fully appreciate the writing of Chaim Grade.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Psychology and relationships abound in "Leibe-Layzer's Courtyard", the second novella in The Sacred and the Profane. In many of the characters Grade sympathetically paints a portrait of the friction and tension of a traditional society loosing its bearings as nearly everyone tries to fight, for its survival in some way or another. The rabbi in the courtyard has given up his pulpit, Jonah-like, because he couldn’t bear to say no anymore. Instead of being thrown overboard to the mercy
of a whale, the rabbis is thrown, unwillingly, into the problems of his courtyard neighbors until he sees how his desire to run away from responsibility has turned his wife into an egg and then chicken merchant – and a woman who is at the mercy of her customers. Embarrassed, the Rav, agrees to return to his town, as the townsfolk beg him to return since the modernists and traditionalists cannot agree on a new rabbi.
This rebbetzin took the burden of earning a living upon herself for the sake of her husband's scholarship. She resented the intrusion of her neighbors on her husband's Torah but at the end wanted nothing less than a return to the life she had as a rebbetzin.
The difference between this rabbinic couple and that of the first novella is the contrast between Jonah and Rebecca. Where Rebecca plans, cajoles and manipulates her son and her husband for the sake of the future of God's covenant with Abraham, Jonah is the reluctant prophet in which shame forces him to act for the good of the community.
So too, the rav in Laibe-Lazar's Courtyard doesn't realize that his running away brings comfort neither to him nor to his community. He doesn't realize until the end that with scholarship, with knowledge, with gifts, comes responsibility.
The Rebbetzin of Graispwo on the other hand understands, Rebecca-like, that the her husband's (and her) brains and talent requires them to be responsible and to take responsibility for those around them. She cannot directly effect the changes on her own because she is a woman, so she must, like the most cunning and daring of the matriarchs, plan, cajole and trick in order to succeed. And succeed she will. In the words of her resentful daughter: "My dear little mother will win out over everyone, Everyone!".
In the Courtyard, the Jonah-like rabbi realizes that he cannot win by escaping as he sees himself being dragged into a fascinating conflict between with a locksmith who cannot stand to see modern ways intrude on the life of his courtyard and community. The locksmith memorizes the Halakhic tomes and becomes ever more strict, basing his life on the written word – and only the written word. The locksmith's daughters resent him and the rabbi tries to intervene as an argument between the locksmith's philosophy of "the children leave the ways of their fathers because we are too lenient" and the rabbis thoughts that "when we forbid what is permitted, they will also do what is forbidden".
Towards the end of the story the narrator recounts a heart-wrenching story of the courtyard rabbi as a young, fanatical, budding scholar who won't leave the mincha service to see his mother who has traveled "with beggars" to see her son, "the saint". This was to be the last opportunity to see his mother and the confusion that he felt afterwards was to be the motivating factor behind his moderation and difficulties as a rabbi.
As in the first novella, here too, Grade brilliantly weaves together stories and relationships to explain the dynamics of the community from many perspectives. I could not but think back to the (too) many stories of the congregations and the communities in which I grew up. We always knew more than our (rabbi) father wanted us to know. We learned that skeletons existed in every closet often saw how the community managed to survive and sometimes even thrive in the midst of suicides, shootings, car accidents and affairs. Being able to see all angles of the story gave us a more realistic vision of the people our father was serving – sometimes leading to compassion, often to cynicism and resentment.
Monday, December 12, 2005
A short while ago we wrote briefly of re-reading The Agunah by the great Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. We also wrote briefly of the other of his works we had read in the past, notably, the novella "The Rebbetzin" which we read when it appeared in English translation in Commentary in October, 1982. We wrote in sympathy for the rebbetzin of the title and a commenter, identified as an 'MO rabbi' wrote that she was a "shrill, manipulative and power hungry person who essentially ruins her husbands life".
I struggled to remember if he was correct and if in fact that she was such an unsympathetic character. So I decided to re-read the three novellas found in what used to be titled "Rabbis & Wives" and is now called The Sacred and the Profane.
Grade writes about many things: Jewish life in eastern Europe, mitnagdim, musarists and Hasidim. Vilna and
Reading Grade I always come back to my own life and my own relationship to the Jewish believing community to which I belong. The title of this blog, for example was not chosen haphazardly. Being a pulpit rabbi's son I spent my youth and part of my adulthood as both an outsider and consummate insider in the broader orthodox-Jewish community. Although there are rabbi's sons (and now maybe daughters) who go into their father's "business", to most of us it is fair to say, it was never a consideration. Much of the credit (blame?) goes to our mothers – the rebbetzins- and their attitudes towards and treatment by their various communities. The rebbetzin too is both insider and outsider in a way that her husband the rabbi probably never realizes.
So too, with the children.
Our "outsiderness" is characterized by the great and well as the mundane. Each rabbi has his own rules and his own "mishugasim" for his families.
We (my brothers, sister and I) for example had to make sure that we were not "noticed" while in shul. That meant everything from non or minimal participation in various youth programs and junior congregation to the apparently strange rule that we were never allowed to walk down the middle aisle of the synagogue – only along the sides. To this day, I (and I think my brothers) cannot walk down the middle aisle of a shul.
In this odd sort of way, my perspective on Judaism in general and the Jewish community in all of its multifarious relationships in particular is unique to my (our) standing as "the rabbi's son".
When my wife joined this "rabbinic" family she then realized that no, the rabbi's wife didn't get all the furs and jewelry she wanted at the expense of the poor congregants and no, the rabbi's sons were not guaranteed lifetime employment at the firm, company or institution of their choice (what she didn't learn at the first Shabbat table she learned very well over the last 25 years).
The three novellas in Grade's "The Sacred and the Profane" describe the eastern European (mostly Lithuanian) Jewish communities in all their glory and ugliness, but concentrates more than anything on the relationships between the rabbis and their wives and their relationship as a unit and as separate individuals, with their communities.
The rebbezin in the title, is as has been described by our commenter "a shrill, manipulative and power hungry person". She is ambitious, intelligent, astute, shrewd – all those things that make for a great leader. As the daughter of the "Starapol gaon", she is well aware of how the great live and is resentful that she needs to live, as Grade says in another story "below her situation".
This ambitious woman has a major problem – she can only fulfill her ambitions and her destiny, so to speak, through her husband, the Graipawo Rav – intelligent, modest, moderate and sadly for her, un-ambitious. One can't but be reminded of the Biblical Rebecca who took charge of the family in one brilliant move after another to save Abraham's blind son from his own fears, humility and poor judge of character. Without Rebecca, Esau would have received the blessing that she knew was destined for Jacob and the Jewish people would have been stillborn. Rebecca was the protector of Abraham's covenant and was her husband's protector.
Similarly, the Graipewo rebbetzin understood that she was her husband's only ally. In a fascinating exchange after convincing her husband to give up the modest rabbinate in Graipewo for a life as a scholar near their children in the large city of Harodno where he could finish his Talmudic treatise and finally get the respect he (and she) deserved, Grade writes: "Reb Uri Zvi lifted his pleading eyes: 'Perele, I don't understand you … Tell me, why should we leave a place where we're earning a dignified livelihood and move somewhere where we'll have to rely on our children for support'. The Rebbezin smiled like one who patronizes someone spewing nonsense. 'And living in Graipewo at the whim of the congregation is more honorable than being supported by one's own children?"
This rebbetzin understood, as most rebbetzins and rabbi's children also do, the nature of the relationship between rabbi and congregation better than the rabbi did. She understood that the rabbi's "allies" would disappear faster than money left out in the street and that his dignity would vanish with it.
She proves her point by convincing him to ask for a raise. The response which was expected by her but a shock to the rabbi, was that the officers of the congregation were considering cutting back on his salary since his children have moved out of the house and he didn't need so much any more.
Grade's rebbetzin's insight into the nature of a rabbi's relationships with his congregants, his "balabatim" -each of whom is the rabbi's boss, is unknown to most rabbis and balabatim alike. Between the brilliant aloof scholar whose congregation loves him to as to massage their pride at having a great scholar as a rabbi and the rabbi who sees the synagogue as his family business, lies that vast majority of pulpit rabbis who trust their balabatim to do what is right and then sacrifice their own intellectual, material and religious interests – and that of their wives and children – for the sake of the spiritual lives of their congregations.
Grade's rebbetzin was well aware of the sacrifices her husband made, intellectually, spiritually and in his dignity by being the type of rabbi he was - really by being the only type of rabbi he could be. For the daughter of a great rabbinic family, the daughter of the "Staropol gaon" was once turned down by the illui (prodigy) of the generation because he saw that this young girl had the arrogance and the drive, not of a dignified scholar's wife, but of a scholar him (her?) self.
This stillborn shidduch forms the psychological background of the story which Grade tells with such brilliance as the Horadno Rav is none other than that same illui.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Thursday, December 08, 2005
So, the yeshiva world - or the part of it that I deal with – manages to get me going again. No surprise, really. We are celebrating our youngest son's bar mitzvah next Shabbat (thank you) and his yeshiva is having a "Shabbat yeshiva" this week. We wanted him home for various reasons, some of them having to do with visiting relatives. The yeshiva though didn't think it was a good idea. You see – having him for 65 hours a week doesn't quite cut it, education-wise so they need one Shabbat a month to get the brainwashing going full blast (luckily, my boys seem to take the brainwashing as a challenge – and handle it well). And anyway - what can a shabbat be like in a regular old household without "rammim" (Reish Metivta – the Israeli version of rosh yeshiva or 'rebbe').
I explained the situation and they are "letting" him stay home this Shabbat on the condition that he be in school the day before the seuda (Monday afterwards) – since we were planning on sending him to school that day anyway, we "agreed". In the good old days I would have fought it to the bitter end.
I guess I am just getting old.
Personally, I would rather just wear the Red Cross.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
French politics (of which I am no expert) is like no other.
From Ha'aretz: "The storm aroused by French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut refuses to subside. On Sunday, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy threw his full weight behind the beleaguered philosopher, who has been forced to remain cloistered at home following the sharp reactions to an interview he gave to Haaretz."
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Sarkozy said: 'Monsieur Finkielkraut is an intellectual who brings honor and pride to French wisdom ... If there is so much criticism of him, it might be because he says things that are correct' ".
The original interview can be read here. Finkielkraut said such controversial things such as: "…I'm `color blind.' Evil is evil, no matter what color it is. And this evil, for the Jew that I am, is completely intolerable."
I sometimes wonder, especially after reading about the convention of the Reform movement, where it seems that the major concerns of the Jewish people are centered on the politics of the Democratic party; where YU, Habad and their copycat Lakewood style kollels seem more about self-perpetuation than Judaism; where voices from the Conservative movement seem to think that gay marriage will be that item that returns the movement to the front and center of American-Jewish life … I sometimes wonder if American Jews are not the most parochial of all.
Monday, December 05, 2005
The cosmopolitan Israeli thinks that the phrase "to be smart and not right" (chacham v'lo tzodek) is the sophisticated thing to say and do: Because, they wrongly assume, noone else in the world really cares about what is right - as long as the desired material ends are met. There is nothing sadder than seeing an Israeli's face when his foreign guest is embarrased at his snide remarks about Judaism or Israel.
We seem to be losing it, brick by brick.
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Tasim - Shevet Netzach
Organized chaos - Kikar Ha'ir
Shevet Haroeh, 5766 - Kfar Saba
Friday, December 02, 2005
If you are a religious-Zionist and make aliya with school-age children the best way for all of you to jump into Israeli culture in all its gore and glory is to send your kids to Bnei Akiva for the month called "Chodesh Irgun" (literally 'Organization Month'). Chodesh Irgun, which comes to an end every year on Parshat Toldot, aka Shabbat Irgun, is a month of yelling, screaming ,paint stained clothes and hair, hoarse kids and happy kids.
They start out the month with each Shevet (age group) painting their room in the Bnei Akiva snif (building in which BA is housed). They first need to scrape off last year's paint so as to destroy any remnants of the shevet above them. Then they paint the rooms based on whatever theme has been decided. Some of the paint ends up on the walls.
The kids are out in the snif nearly every night for a month, coming and going without adult supervision – returning home at 10pm if their parents are western olim and whenever, if not. On the last night before Shabbat Irgun American parents even let their children stay out until and allow them to walk home without an embarrassing parental escort. Irresponsible? Well, you made aliya, didn't you?
There were to be pictures accompanying this post, but the OOSJ was banned from the sniff by his loyal children.
But not to fear. We will have pictures from motzaei Shabbat's (Saturday night) evening of entertainment which consists of the kids marching down Kfar Saba's main street to the town square (kikar ha'ir) where a ceremony takes place in which the ninth graders get their permanent shevet name (until then, each grade has a name that changes every year with your grade – once you get your permanent shevet name it becomes your RZ identity for life – even if you never ever went to Bnei Akiva). Ah yes …. the "tasim" – the intricate march/dance with Israeli flags that the girls of the new shevet put on – can't forget the tasim.
Then on to the real entertainment where each shevet puts on a loud, boisterous skit filled with inside jokes and which doesn't ever seem to end.
Advice to new olim: Israeli parents think these things are great so complaining to them is counterproductive to your "klita".
Thursday, December 01, 2005