Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

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Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey” is a masterful contemporary rendition of the traditional genre of taamei hamitsvot literature, books that give reasons for the commandments. Each chapter is dedicated to a different commandment or halakhah, stretching from saying modeh ani upon waking to saying shema before bedtime, and even touching on interpersonal mitsvot, loving God, and more in between. It also sports a helpful introduction that gives the reader background on taamei hamitsvot throughout Jewish history.

The introduction focuses on the question of whether or not Jews should speculate about the reasons for the commandments. The topic has been hotly debated throughout Jewish history. On the one hand, God’s commands are presumably rooted in the infinite divine wisdom. They should therefore “represent the physical actualization of a divine set of values and ideal” (p. xxiv), rather than simply being commands that a person must obey. On the other hand, emphasizing the reason for a command can come at the expense of obedience to the command itself. If keeping kosher is about eating healthy (the opinion of the Sefer HaHinukh, quoted in chapter 19), then shouldn’t eating healthy take precedence over keeping kosher? If the two were to contradict, shouldn’t we side with healthy eating over its handmaiden, kashrut?

Silverstein indicates that despite the critical importance of the “spiritual messages” of the mitsvot, we cannot give the reasons for the commandments priority over the commandments themselves. In addition to preserving obedience to the commandments, this has the added value of keeping a person humble. Just because I do not know the value of a commandment, that does not mean there is no value. Trying to understand the commandments is therefore an important, if not always achievable, goal.

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A Materialist Model of the Commandments

Silverstein’s approach to the commandments is what I have elsewhere called a “materialist” model of the commandments. Though he says the commandments are intended to convey spiritual messages, he ultimately gives priority to the physical acts of the commandments, their material presence in the world and history, over the ideas attached to them. This manifests in the call for obedience in the face of incomprehensible mitsvot. If you have to obey the commandments regardless of the reason, then clearly the actions take priority over the ideas.

The materialist model also shows up in the number of reasons Silverstein gives for each commandment. Classically, books of taamei hamitsvot give one reason for each commandment. They attempt to determine what goal God wanted to achieve by commanding each action, what specific idea or value God wanted to convey. In contrast, “Jewish Law as a Journey” doesn’t talk about what the purpose of each commandment is, or what God’s intent was in commanding it. Instead, Silverstein goes through the historical journey of each mitsvah, looking at what it has meant in different texts throughout history. He starts with Tanakh and the rabbis, for laws that go back that far, and continues all the way to rabbis so contemporary that their ideas are referenced from webpages rather than books. In a materialist model, the reasons for the commandments are not what God meant by them, but what they have meant to Jews throughout history.

One of the advantages of a materialist model of the commandments is the way it lets us look back at the history of reasons for the commandments. With a model like this, we do not need to say that everyone who disagreed with our understanding of a commandment was wrong, nor do we have to pretend that no one ever disagreed. We can recognize the full diversity of the Jewish tradition when it comes to taamei hamitsvot. Silverstein can therefore quote a variety of interpretation by thinkers who may have been consciously disagreeing with each other, as he explores the various things a commandment means. It does raise the question of what God’s intent actually was for each commandment, but this can be solved in a variety of ways, such as suggesting that God wanted each Jew to understand each mitsvah in a way that made sense to her in her historical situation, or that God omnipotently foresaw all the meanings that Jews would attribute to the commandments.

“Jewish Law as a Journey” therefore provides the reader with short collections of ideas that have been attached to each commandment, helpfully summarized in the book’s conclusion in the form of short meditations. However, it also asks the reader an implicit question: If these ideas are what the commandment has meant throughout its historical journey, then what does it mean today?

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More Than Just “The Zionist Rabbi”: Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

More than just “The Zionist Rabbi”:
Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook”

If you ask most people about Rav Kook’s worldview, they likely won’t know anything about him. If they do, they will probably start talking to you about Zionism. They will tell you about how Herzl was a spark of Mashiach Ben Yosef, and about the critical roles that the nation, land, and state of Israel play in the ongoing process of redemption. For many of Rav Kook’s followers, and likely all of his detractors, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook can be adequately summed up as “the Zionist rabbi.”

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Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz’s new book of translations, collected from across the entire corpus of Rav Kook’s published writings, means to overturn this common misconception. While most translations of Rav Kook have focused on a specific book by him, “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook: The Writings of a Jewish Mystic” organizes hundreds of paragraphs from Rav Kook’s various writings into seventeen chapters, each dedicated to a specific topic. While there is a chapter on Zionism, and it is one of the longer chapters, it is still just one of seventeen. What is more, that chapter contains more pieces discussing the importance of universalism than the importance of the land! While Rav Kook was certainly a Zionist, he was also far more than that.

The other sixteen chapters are where “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” really shines. Some of the chapters are dedicated to classical topics, like “Prayer” and “Torah.” In these, Schwartz has managed to find and present passages highlighting Rav Kook’s unique ideas. We are forbidden to think that prayer changes God’s mind, says Rav Kook, and we must learn the Torah that inspires us as individuals. Other chapters focus on more surprising topics, like “The Spiritual Importance of Creativity” and “Listening to the Inner Child.” Here it is not just what Rav Kook says that is unique, it is that he is talking about these topics at all. Most rabbis simply don’t talk about the necessity of creative writing, or how important it is to maintain the idealism of our inner child. Before reading “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook,” I didn’t know Rav Kook had anything to say about the inner child at all, let alone a consistent, fleshed-out approach to the topic. Schwartz’s novel categorization means that the book should have something new even for people already familiar with Rav Kook.

Moving from the level of the chapter to the individual text, we find one of the most helpful and unique aspects of Schwartz’s translation. He has given each passage a title summing up its main idea. For some texts the title-summary felt unnecessary, but for others it was a godsend. Schwartz did mighty work turning Rav Kook’s effervescent poetry into lucid prose, but some of his longer passages can still be very difficult to follow. In such cases Schwartz didn’t just give a title to the piece as a whole, he also broke the piece down into smaller paragraphs and gave each of those paragraphs a title as well. The longest passages of the book, spanning three to four pages, thus become much more understandable.

Perhaps most usefully, the book ends with a short biography of Rav Kook, and with a “Spiritual Letter to the Reader,” where Schwartz summarizes each chapter of the book. Importantly, while the letter sums up the book, it does not just do that. The letter aims at inspiring the reader to act based on Rav Kook. Schwartz doesn’t want “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook” to be just another interesting book on the shelf; he wants it to inspire a spiritual revolution for each and every reader. Each chapter offers the reader an opportunity to revolutionize a part of their life, and the letter frames the ideas in exactly that light.

On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature
in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

(Some Preliminary Thoughts)

 

I want to look at some texts from the contemporary Dati Le’umi turn to Hasidic texts in order to examine the theme of prayer as a natural human action. Specifically, I will look at texts from Rav Menahem Froman, Rav Dov Singer, and Yishai Mevorach. However, I will first briefly examine a similar idea from the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, in order to highlight the difference between Soloveitchik’s idea and the Israeli texts.

 

Rav Soloveitchik

In various text, Soloveitchik argues that petitionary prayer is the purest, most authentically Jewish form of prayer. He argues that petition is the aspect of prayer that corresponds to a person’s essential creaturely neediness.[1]

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Prayer as a personal experience, as a creative gesture, is possible only if and when man discovers himself in crisis or in need. That is why the Jewish idea of prayer differs from the mystical idea, insofar as we have emphasized the centrality of the petition, while the mystics have stressed the relevance of the hymn. Since prayer flows from a personality which finds itself in need, despondent and hopeless, its main theme is not praise or adoration, but rather request, demand, supplication. True prayer comes to expression in the act of begging and interceding.[2]

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about […] In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer.[3]

Prayer, Soloveitchik says, fits with human nature. Moreover, it actually helps a person recognize her own nature. Petitioning God is both natural, and helps us be natural. However, it is not itself human nature. Additionally, he sees petition as just one part of prayer, if the primary one, and the rest of prayer is not as essentially linked to human nature. The texts from Israeli thinkers that we will see below will differ on these points, from him and each other.

 

Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

Contemporary Israel thinkers, specifically Dati Le’umi thinkers working off Hasidic texts, have also connected prayer to human nature, but they have done so very differently from Rav Soloveitchik. For example, Rabbi Dov Singer explores the nature of prayer in his book, Tikon Tefilati.

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Various thinkers have given different answers to the philosophical question, which is to a great degree an existential question for humanity, what is man. The most famous answer is that Latin term, “Homo sapiens,” which means “thinking man” or “cognitive man.” Perhaps I could give a different answer: Man is “Homo mitpalelos,” a praying creature, or more specifically, a prayerful creature. The unique ability of the human soul to express prayer from within itself differentiates man from animal even more sharply than his cognitive capabilities. [4]

Singer argues that prayer is the very essence of human nature. This is in contrast to Soloveitchik’s argument neediness and lack are essential to human nature, and that prayer is a natural next step from them. Neither of them embrace the model of man as an essentially cognitive being, though Soloveitchik does not frame that model as prayer’s antagonist. Singer, on the other hand, sees intellectual reflection as an obstacle to prayer, overriding man’s nature.

In defining man as a praying creature, I am trying to free us from the need to explain to ourselves what prayer is, who God is, whether or not prayer works. The primary obstacle to prayer is often the theological, intellectual obstacle, the attempt to delineate and understand exactly how things work. Prayer suggests putting those questions aside for a time, an instance of “We will do and [then] we will understand.” We let the naturalness of prayer act upon us, exactly the way that we breath, without understanding the mechanism of breath entirely.[5]

Singer’s argument is essentially that we need to stop asking question about prayer, stop analyzing it, and just begin to pray. We shouldn’t be looking for a reason for prayer, because it is just who we are. Moreover, analyzing prayer and trying to explain it actually disrupts prayer. The same way breathing consciously and intentionally requires effort and disrupts our natural breathing, trying to be too conscious about prayer can disrupt it. Instead, we have to take prayer as our starting point.

The significance of taking prayer as our starting point receives an added layer in a short paragraph from Rav Froman’s Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh. Froman formulates the idea aphoristically, so he lacks Singer’s systematic approach, but he makes up for it with emotional resonance.

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I sometimes think that all theology, all religions, all of the things we say about God are just how we explain that basic, instinctive, human thing we call “prayer.”

A person prays, and he must explain to himself to whom he is praying, why he is praying, and what he is doing, so he calls it “God” and constructs a whole religious understanding of the world around it.

But the very core of it all is prayer.[6]

Froman claims that not only do we not need to explain prayer, prayer can in fact explain all of religion! While man comes up with the rest of religion in order to explain religion, the actual causal order is the reverse. Prayer is “instinctive” and “human,” and thus cannot be explained other than by saying it is human nature. There’s no room for any more analysis than that, and trying to insert such analysis, trying to explain why we pray, would be putting the cart before the horse.

            Singer and Froman both frame prayer as part or all of human nature, and they both seem to see this as a good thing. However, that’s not the only form this idea has to take. Yishai Mevorach, in the process of shaping a Jewish theology heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, describes prayer as if it were a symptom from which a person suffers.

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Just as a troubling thought does not exist independent of its manifestation in the troubled person, so too prayer does not exist independent of its manifestation in the praying person. The troubled thought, and prayer like it, is an integral element in the troubled-praying person, even though it is a perversion. […] The fact that prayer is “natural” does not mean that it is correct or good or successful. Obsession, anxiety, and depression are all natural and primordial parts of a person, but this does not mean that they are correct or good for him. They’re just there.[7]

Mevorach compares prayer to psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. These conditions naturally occur within a person, Mevorach says, and so too prayer naturally occurs within a person. With all of these, the goal isn’t to analyze them to determine if they’re good or correct or if they serve some sort of purpose. We have to accept that they exist, and then figure out how to work with them, how the individual person can tolerate them. Much like Singer and Froman, Mevorach places prayer within the realm of human nature and before any reflective analysis, moving away from questions of its function and efficacy. Unlike them, however, he does not speak of prayer and human nature in grandiose terms, but in the clinical language of psychoanalysis. As part of this, he makes no essentialist claims about the nature of all human beings, only about himself and those for whom his description rings true (much of the chapter from which the above quote is taken is written in first person language). He therefore also does not say that prayer is the defining characteristic of human nature, only a part of it, taking him back in the direction of Soloveitchik’s ideas. This is as opposed to Singer, while Froman’s unsystematic statement is silent on the issue. The three thus all take prayer as its own starting point, not to be explained by other factors, and an essential part of human nature.

 

The Maggid of Mezritch and Rav Kook

Having established this common theme, I want to take an aside to look at two texts that I hope will help sharpen this theme. I will argue that the first, from the Maggid of Mezritch, is only superficially similar, while actually differing in important ways. Meanwhile the second piece, from Rav Kook, is significantly similar to our theme, despite the ways it differs.

            In a famous passage, the Maggid of Mezritch denigrates any prayer where the individual praying seeks her own benefit.

“Don’t make your prayers set,” meaning that you should not pray for your business endeavors, only mercy and supplication before the Lord (makom), meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, which is called “makom. So too the Zohar refers to brazen dogs who bark, “Woof! Woof!” etc., and this is the meaning of the verse, “I asked for one things,” which finishes “ I sought you,” meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, as discussed above.[8]

Much like the Israeli thinkers quotes above, the Maggid is not interested in questions about what prayer accomplishes, whether it works, etc. However, he is not pushing for non-reflective prayer, prayer as human nature, taking prayer as its own starting place, or any of the other formulations I used above. Instead, he is trying to shift us from a human-focused to a divine-focused understanding of prayer, with assumed divine-centric answers to those questions. Thus he differs significantly from the Israeli thinkers I discussed above.

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Rav Kook, on the other hand, is surprisingly similar to them. I say “surprisingly” because Kook was heavily involved in analyzing prayer, throughout his writings. However, in the very first passage in the introduction to Olat Re’iyah, the collection of his writings organized as a commentary on the siddur, he says that prayer is not something a person does, but a function of their soul.

The constant prayer of the soul constantly attempts to move from concealment to revelation, to extend to all the forces of life of all the spirit and the soul and all the life forces of the whole body. It also yearns to reveal its nature and the force of its action on everything around it, on the whole world and all of life. For this we need the accounting-of-the-world that we arrive at through Torah and wisdom. We therefore see that the entire work of the Torah and its wisdom is the constant revelation of the prayer hidden within the soul. “The soul of all life blesses your name, the Lord our God.”[9]

While none of the Israeli thinkers I discussed used this metaphysical framing, Rav Kook arrives at a similar idea by locating prayer within the soul.[10] He makes prayer into an essential aspect of human nature, so that all that remains for the individual is to stop fighting her nature and just pray.

For Rav Kook, this human nature is explained by its context within broader national, human, and cosmic selves, but prayer inheres on all those levels as well. The contemporary Dati Le’umi thinkers don’t make that turn, starting from and staying at the level of the individual human. Starting from prayer as an aspect of human nature keeps them from reflecting on the purpose and function of prayer (in a way that theo-centric prayer wouldn’t), though it didn’t need to do so. This doesn’t mean that Kook’s idea led them to this idea, but it’s worth considering the way their texts reflect him. Dati Le’umi thinkers, whether they affirm, reject, or ignore Rav Kook’s thought, write in a context built entirely on his thought, and their writing can reflect this. They may even reflect Rav Kook more than the Hasidic texts toward which they turn.

 

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Rav Shagar

Another important thinker to mention in this context is Rav Shagar, as all three of the Israeli thinkers I mentioned were either students or close friends of his, or both. Rav Shagar does not identify prayer with human nature in any text of which I am aware, but he does push for a non-reflective approach to prayer, something that Dr. Smadar Cherlow has described as the primary innovation of his “Postmodern” approach to Judaism.[11]

[1] In addition to the sources below, see Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 54.

[2] Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition (Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2003), 161.

[3] Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” in Tradition Magazine 17, no. 2 (Spring 1978), 65-66.

[4] Rabbi Dov Singer, Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014), 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh (Jerusalem: Hai Shalom, 2016) §179, p. 160.

[7] Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 157

[8] Rabbi Dov Ber of Metzritch, Ohr Torah, §502.

[9] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Olat Re’iyah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook), Introduction §1.

[10] Singer does use the term “soul” (nefesh), but he uses it in the way that contemporary Israelis use it, where it means something more like “the self,” and has connotations as much mental as metaphysical. He therefore may not mean “soul” in any strong sense. Regardless, he is certainly essentialist in his approach, and that is certainly similar to Rav Kook.

[11] See also the second chapter of her Mi Heziz Et HaYahadut Sheli?, pp. 71-88.

Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts: Fleischacker and Maimonides

Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts:

Fleischacker and Maimonides

 

I have recently been thinking a lot about a passage from Samuel Fleischacker’s excellent short work, The Good and the Good Book, which develops an argument for taking traditional texts to be good guides for living. In the first chapter he discusses a story of a wise man who tells a miser where he can find treasure. In going to that place, the miser finds people living in squalor, is moved to dedicate his money to improving their lives. This experience transforms him, and he realizes that the transformation was the promised “treasure.” He later returns the wise man, protesting about the misleading advice, and the wise man points out he originally would not have been motivated by the idea of such a “treasure.” Analyzing this story, Fleischaker notes:

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And finally, following an authority makes best sense if one is carrying out an extended course of action and can periodically reinterpret what the authority says as one goes along. If the point is precisely to transform oneself, radically to change one’s character or orientation in life, then that is likely to take a while, and to lead one to have a new, deeper understanding of what one’s authority says after the change than one did before. This last point is the reason why authorities may employ obscure or indirect ways of saying things: what they want to convey cannot be properly understood by their listeners until those listeners have been transformed. And in the course of transformation, the authority’s utterances may well shift from a literal to a metaphorical register, or acquire new literal meanings that we did not expect them to have when we first heard them.[1]

Any statement or text that tries to change a person, moving them from personality A to personality B, risks the possibility that only one of the two personalities will be able to comprehend it, not both. Alternatively, it has to be capable of meaning two different things to each personality.

This is basically the problem Maimonides is struggling with throughout the Guide for the Perplexed. The Torah and its laws are meant to improve the people, as individuals and as a society (I:2, III:28). That means that it has to make sense to them both before and after it has improved them. This is all the more urgent a problem as the Torah is meant to improve the people’s cognitive understanding and beliefs as well (ibid.). The Torah has to make sense to people who think God wants sacrifices, but also to people who know that God doesn’t want sacrifices, or possibly even prayer; instead people should ideally just meditate (III:32).

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Maimonides solves this on a legal level by allowing the legitimate authorities strong powers both in interpreting the Torah’s laws and in creating legal enactments (Hilkhot Mamrim; intro to MT). On the level of the Torah text and how we interpret it, this is a project that occupies much of the Guide. The words of the Torah, he says, can have more than one meaning (intro to Guide). He therefore must go through and explain to the reader which meaning is the proper one, in all places trying to move away from corporealizing and “primitive” understandings of God.

While the Torah can more obviously be meaningful for someone who shares those understandings, people who have already moved away from those understandings may have a harder time (ibid.). Moreover, encouraging such a person to take up those understandings would actually be harmful (III:34). Therefore the Torah cannot mean the same thing for them that it meant for people who had those understandings.

In a real sense, this problem underlies all interpretation, and gives rise to the need for an Oral Torah. If the Torah is to speak to different people in different historical realities, it must be subject to significant interpretation. What Maimonides work points out is that this problem is internal to the Torah and its goals. If the Israelites had never been exiled, if international politics essentially froze during the First Israelite Commonwealth, the Torah would still eventually require reinterpretation. As society and individuals conformed more to the Torah’s laws, they would become more like the ideal society and individuals. They would then read the Torah and see that it must mean something different than what it had meant to them previously.

[1] Samuel Fleischacker, The Good and the Good Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 23.

The Practice and Possibility of Prayer: Rabbi Dov Singer’s “Tikon Tefilati”

In an article entitled “Towards an Understanding of Halakhah,” later incorporated into his book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God, R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel sets up a dichotomy between prayer and philosophy.[1]

The duty to worship stood as a thought of ineffable meaning; doubt, the voice of disbelief, was ready to challenge it. But where should the engagement take place? In an act of reflection the duty to worship is a mere thought, timid, frail, a mere shadow of reality, while the voice of disbelief is a power, well-armed with the weight of inertia and the preference for abstention. In such an engagement prayer would be fought in abstentia, and the issue would be decided without actually joining the battle. It was fair, therefore, to give the weaker rival a chance: to pray first, to fight later.

I realized that just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing.[2]

Prayer, as Heschel argues extensively throughout the book, is not a primarily cognitive or reflective activity. The reflective stance of philosophy, he argues, actually obstructs prayer rather than aiding it. There is no degree of philosophizing, even about prayer, that will lead a person to prayer. You have to just start praying, and let that show you why you should pray.

Perhaps ironically, Heschel’s words are set within a broader work reflecting on the meaning and nature of prayer. Man’s Quest for God simultaneously tries to give the reader a broader understanding of prayer, and tells them to stop trying to understand prayer and just pray. To some degree, this calls into question the value not just of Heschel’s book on prayer, but of any book on prayer. Books would seem to be an inherently reflective medium, so how can a book be anything other than an obstacle to prayer?

Enter Rabbi Dov Singer’s Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2014. English title, May My Prayer Be Pleasing: Recipes for Prayer).

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Singer begins the book with a short introduction where he lays out the same problem that Heschel describes. Thinking about prayer, he says, is an obstacle to actually praying. Moreover, he adds, prayer is more essential to humanity than thinking is. Homo Sapiens (“thinking person”) would be better described as Homo Mitpalelos (“praying person”). We pray by our very natures, so all we need to do is get out of our own way and pray. Why, then, did he write a book on prayer? For the same reason that people write cookbooks. Cookbooks don’t explain to people why they should cook, or how cooking functions. They give practical instructions on how to cook for people who already want to cook, and so too with Tikon Tefilati and prayer.

Notably, the twin themes of non-reflective prayer and prayer as part of human nature can be found in two Singer’s three teachers that he mentions in his introduction, Rabbis Shagar, Froman, and Steinzaltz. While I am not familiar with the works of Rav Steinzaltz, Rav Shagar compares praying to the ability to enter into a story while reading it, rather than standing outside the story and reflecting upon it.[3] Rav Froman boldly suggests that all of religion, God included, may be humanity’s attempt to “explain that basic, instinctive, human thing called ‘prayer.’”[4] These two themes come together in Singer’s brief introduction, which then explains that, because of these two themes, the rest of the book will be very different.

After that short introduction, the form of the book changes drastically. Each section starts with powerful snippets on prayer from traditional Jewish texts (from the Mishnah to Rambam to Rebbe Naḥman) and from contemporary Israeli poetry. Then it briefly depicts forms of prayer, such as supplication, praise, dialogic encounter, or connecting with nature, and provides practical instructions, “recipes,” for practicing these forms. Some of the “recipes” are meant for individuals, some for pairs, and some for groups. The common thread is that they show the reader how to pray, without trying to explain why to pray or what that even means.

And that, perhaps, is the weakness of the book, and why Heschel’s encouragement of non-reflective prayer is somewhat ironically located in a very reflective book. Tikon Tefilati can tell you how to pray, but it can’t tell you why to pray, or what prayer is. While it serves as an excellent guide for someone who is already praying, it cannot explain to someone who does not pray why they should start. For someone who finds prayer impossible, practical advice on how to pray is useless at best. The book thus carves out a niche audience for itself – those who want to pray, but do not know how – much as as a cookbook serves only those who want to cook, but don’t know what to make.

I would end by noting that the book succeeds in being emotionally impactful on all levels. The quoted texts are powerful, and the graphic design is striking on each and every page. It will be pleasing to those who would pray.

[1] The original article was published in Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law, ed. Seymour Siegel, (New York, 1977).

[2] R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God (Santa Fe: Aurora Press, 1998), 99-100. Emphasis in original.

[3] Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2012), vol. 1, 77-8. An English translation of this text will appear in Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Essential Essays of Rav Shagar (Jerusalem: Urim Press, forthcoming), trans. Levi Morrow, ed. Alan Brill.

Dr. Smadar Cherlow has an excellent treatment of this source in the second chapter of her book on Postmodern Judaism in contemporary Israel. See Smadar Cherlow, Mi Haziz Et Hayahadut Sheli (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 71-88.

[4] Rav Menaḥem Froman, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh (Jerusalem: Tsur Ot, 2016), §179, p. 160.

Rabbi Josh Gerstein’s “A People, A Country, A Heritage”

While I normally try to give my book reviews pithy titles that sum up the main themes of the book in a single phrase, Rabbi Josh Gerstein’s “A People, A Country, A Heritage” is a little too broad for that. The book contains two short pieces on each of the weekly Torah portions from the biblical books of Bereshit and Shemot, each containing a relatively unique set of idea. So in lieu of attempting to sum up the book’s themes, I want to briefly discuss its format, which I think will give a better idea of the book overall.

a-people-a-country

As I mentioned above, the book follows the traditional structure of the weekly Torah portion, containing two self-contained essays on each week’s portion. For the most part, the essays start by proposing a textual difficulty and a possible resolution, and then using that as a springboard to a larger philosophical discussion. For example, the first essay on Parashat Tetzaveh begins by asking why the description of the structure on the Mishkan mentions the daily Tamid offerings, which would be more at home in Vayikra or Bemidbar. While the essays often solve the textual difficulty by quoting a medieval biblical commentator, this essay goes straight to a text by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who says that the daily offering was in intrinsic to the purpose of the Mishkan, so it made sense for the Torah to mention it in a discussion of the structure itself. The textual difficulty thus resolved, Gerstein moves into a discussion of the place of repeated, daily, might I say even monotonous, ritual within Judaism, bringing more quotes from the Rav Aharon Lichtenstein text.

While perhaps most of the essays take this form, many take the form of self-contained explorations of a given topic. They always have some sort of connection to Torah portion, but they are essentially independent. For example, Parashat Terumah discusses the donations given for the construction of the Mishkan, and “A People, A Country, A Heritage” features a corresponding essay focusing on different medieval and modern authorities’ opinions regarding a Jew’s responsibility for building the 3rd Temple, and ending with practical steps, such as education, that are viable according to all opinions.

This essay is in keeping with the one major theme throughout the book, appearing in the lion’s share of the essays: the land of Israel. As evident from the book’s title, Gerstein is interested in discussing the relationship of the land with the Jewish people and their heritage. While the book is not attempting to argue for any given position, it takes the important role of the land within Judaism as a given. However, it does not focus on the contemporary state or the Zionist movement, but on the land itself. While the land comes up in obvious locations, such as in an essay on Avraham buying the Cave of Makhpelah for Parashat Hayye Sarah, it also appears in more surprising essays, such as an essay for Parashat Terumah discussing the symbolic meaning of the Mishkan’s structure and vessels.

The essays in the book are on the shorter side, making them convenient for reading on a busy Shabbat, though I sometimes wished they went a little more in-depth. That said, they provided me a window into some contemporary thinkers, such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, whose works I have not had the chance to study myself, and for that I am grateful.

Shiur: Adar 2018 – Today, All Beginnings Start from Purim

Sources:

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a, Koren Translation

The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: The Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.

(שמות יט, יז) ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר א”ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב”ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם א”ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא אמר רבא אעפ”כ הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב (אסתר ט, כז) קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר.

Rebbe Nahman, Lekutei Moharan II:74, Sefaria Translation

After Purim we read the portion called Parah, as a preparation for Pesach. For we read Parah in order to be careful with regards to purification from the impurity of a corpse, in order to be pure for Pesach. And in the beginning, it has the aspect of Pur (“lot”), and Purim is also named after the Pur. Afterwards, it is read as Parah, since Purim is certainly on the way to Pesach.

This is like the verse, (Song of Songs 5:13) “His lips are lilies, dripping with myrrh.” Lips are like Pesach, which is [a homonym of] Peh Sach, a speaking mouth; Shoshana, meaning lilies, is Esther (according to the Zohar, and they have equivalent numerical values); “Dripping with myrrh” refers to Mordechai, who is [hinted at in the translation of the verse (Exodus 30:23) Mor Dror, from the language of freedom, like the freedom of Pesach. Therefore, the letters of Purim are hinted at in [the issues of] Pesach, in the verse (Exodus 23:15), “Seven days shall you eat matzah, as I have commanded, in its time in the month of Aviv, in which you left Egypt, and you shall not encounter Me empty-handed.” The initial letters [of the last five words] spell Purim. For Purim is on the way to Pesach, so that they could be careful with regards to chametz. [Here Rabbi Nachman stopped in the middle of the issue, and did not reveal more.]

For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitzvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now… [And he didn’t finish.]

אַחַר פּוּרִים קוֹרִין פָּרָשַׁת פָּרָה, שֶׁהִיא הֲכָנָה לְפֶסַח כִּי פָּרָשַׁת פָּרָה קוֹרִין, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ נִזְהָרִין לִטָּהֵר מִטֻּמְאַת מֵת כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ טְהוֹרִין לַעֲשׂוֹת הַפֶּסַח. ובתחילה הוא בחינת פּוּר, כִּי פּוּרִים עַל שֵׁם הַפֻּר (אֶסְתֵּר ט וְעַיֵּן בְּכַוָּנוֹת הָאַרִיזַ”ל בְּסוֹד הִפִּיל פּוּר וּבְסוֹד פָּרָה אַדֻמָּה), וְאַחַר כָּך נַעֲשֶׂה פָּרָ”ה כִּי גַּם פּוּרִים הוּא בְּוַדַּאי הִלּוּך וְדֶרֶך לְפֶסַח.

וזהו בחינת (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים ה) “שִׂפְתוֹתָיו שׁוֹשַׁנִּים נטְפוֹת מוֹר עבֵר”. שִׂפְתוֹתָיו זֶה בְּחִינַת הפֶּסַח – פֶּה סָח (כַּמּוּבָא). שׁוֹשַׁנָּה הִיא אֶסְתֵּר, (כַּמּוּבָא בַּזּהַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ וּבְכִתְבֵי הָאֲרִיזַ”ל) [שׁוֹשַׁנָּה גִּימַטְרִיָּא אֶסְתֵּר] נטְפוֹת מוֹר עבֵר זֶה בְּחִינַת מָרְדֳּכַי – מָר דְּרוֹר (חֻלִּין קלט:), לְשׁוֹן חֵרוּת, בְּחִינַת חֵרוּת שֶׁל פֶּסַח. וְעַל כֵּן צֵרוּף שֶׁל פּוּרִים מְרֻמָּז בְּפֶסַח, בַּפָּסוּק (שְׁמוֹת כ”ג): “שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תּאכַל מַצּוֹת כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִך לְמוֹעֵד חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, כִּי בוֹ יָצָאתָ מִמִּצְרָיִם וְלא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם” מִמִּצְרָיִם וְלא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם – רָאשֵׁי תֵבוֹת פּוּרִים, כִּי פּוּרִים הוּא דֶּרֶך לְפֶסַח, שֶׁיִּהְיוּ יְכוֹלִים לִהְיוֹת נִזְהָרִין מֵחָמֵץ. [וּפָסַק בְּאֶמְצַע הָעִנְיָן וְלא גִּלָּה יוֹתֵר]

כִּי בַּתְּחִלָּה הָיוּ כָּל הַהַתְחָלוֹת מִפֶּסַח וְעַל כֵּן כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת הֵם זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. ועכשו… [וְלא סִיֵּם]

Rav Menahem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh, pp. 33-34

Rebbe Nahman often stops in the middle of a topic. However, in one place, he actually stops right in the middle of a sentence. “For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitzvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now” (Lekutei Moharan II:74). His intent was that, in classical Judaism, all of the commandments memorialize the exodus from Egypt, but now we have reached a new era, an era of laughter and freedom (ḥofesh). Until now, all the commandments were very serious. Pesaḥ is about pathos. The Torah has lots of pathos, its very serious. Now, we have a new era, a new Torah, the Torah of the land of Israel, the Torah of the Messiah. All the commandments memorialize the laughter of Purim, not the pathos of Pesaḥ.

To be or not to be is a serious, weighty question. However, Shakespeare wrote in the very same play that the whole world is a stage, that everything is a game. Do you hear me asking the most important question there is in life, whether or not to live? This question is just a joke, it’s a game… it’s just a game…

There is something that takes priority over the question of whether or not to live. It even takes priority over saving a life, which is so important that it overrides Shabbat. What is this thing that takes priority over saving a life? Being before God. Before God. Being before God in this world and the world to come, being before God and knowing that everything we have done in our lives is a joke. Life, death, it’s all a joke before God.

(see parallel passage in #82, p. 74)

יש כמה מקומות שר׳ נחמן הפסיק משהו באמצע. אבל במקום אחד הוא הפסיק ממש באמצע המשפט: ״כי בתחלה הלך כל ההתחלות מפסח, ועל כך כל המצוות הם זכר ליציאת מצרים. ועכשו” (לקוטי מוהר”ן תנינא ע”ד). הכוונה כאן היא שביהדות הקלאסית כל המצוות הן זכר ליציאת מצרים, ועכשיו הגיע עידן חדש – עידן הצחוק והחופש. עד עכשיו כל המצוות היו עניין רציני. פסח זה פאתוס. התורה היא פאתטית, מלאת רצינות. ועכשיו יש לנו עידן חדש, תורה חדשה, תורת ארץ ישראל, תורתו של משיח. כל המצוות הן זכר לצחוק של פורים ולא לפאתוס של פסח.

להיות או לא להיות זו שאלה רצינית וכבדת משקל, אך באותו מחזה שייקספיר כותב גם שכל העולם במה, הכול משחק. אתם שומעים אותי אומר שהשאלה הכי חשובה בחיים היא לחיות או לא לחיות? כל השאלה הזאת היא צחוק, היא משחק… היא משחק…

יש דבר שהוא מעל השאלה אם לחיות או לא לחיות, ואפילו מעל פיקוח נפש שדוחה שבת. מהו הדבר שמעל פיקוח נפש? לפני ה׳, לפני ה׳, להיות לפני ה׳ בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא, להיות לפני ה׳ ולדעת שכל מה שעשינו עד עכשיו זה צחוק. בחיים, במוות, זה צחוק לפני ה׳.

Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Herut, p, 68

To understand this piece from Rebbe Naḥman, we have to distinguish between ḥofesh and ḥerut. Rebbe Naḥman teaches us that ḥofesh is an introductory step which creates the ḥerut of Pesaḥ, “Mor Dror, from the language of freedom (ḥerut), like the freedom (ḥerut) of Pesach.” Purim and Pesaḥ parallel ḥofesh and ḥerut. Purim, when we celebrate the lottery (pur) and man’s anarchic freedom (ḥofesh), is when we freely choose the freedom (ḥerut) of Pesaḥ, of personal essence and identity. This is an experience of Jewishness as a self-enclosed world, which finds its justification in itself. It is the experience of divine chosenness. For Rav Kook, the anarchic, “Purim-style” freedom (hofesh) lets us elevate our nature, our Pesach-style freedom (ḥerut). Rebbe Nahman here says otherwise. He says that anarchic freedom (ḥofesh) enables us to create ḥerut-freedom. We can create our very nature! This path of creation does not depend on the facts; it creates them. Freedom, as Sartre understood it, therefore exists even within holiness.

We are therefore faced with two paths. There is the path of “be who you are,” but there is also a more radical path: The ability to create your freedom (ḥerut), your “I.” Perhaps this was Rebbe Naḥman meant by the cryptic line that appears at the end of the teaching: “For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitsvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now…” Today, all the beginnings start from Purim.

ראשית, יש להבדיל בין החירות והחופש. ר׳ נחמן מלמדנו כי החופש הוא ההקדמה, כינון החירות של פסח ״מר דרור לשון חרות בחינת חרות של פסח״. פורים ופסח מקבילים כאן לחופש ולחירות. פורים, שהוא חג הפור והחופש האנרכי שבידי האדם, הוא הבחירה החופשית בחירות הפסח של העצמיות והזהות. זהו בעצם ציר של הקיום הישראלי כמעגל עולם, שמוצא את טעמו בעצמו – ה״אתה בחרתנו״. אצל הראי”ה ראינו כי החופש האנרכי, ה״פורימי״, מאפשר לרומם את החירות של הטבע, חירות הפסח: אך מדבריו של ר’ נחמן עולה גם כי החופש האנרכי הנו היכולת לכונן את החירות – ניתן לכונן את הטבע עצמו! זהו מסלול של יצירה שאיננה נשענת על העובדות, אלא מכוננת אותן. בכך מופנם אל תוך הקדושה גם החופש הסארטרי.

אם כן, ישנה הדרך של ׳להיות מה שאתה׳; וישנה דרך רדיקלית יותר: היכולת ליצור מחדש את החירות שלך, את ה״אני״ שלך. ואולי זו כוונתו של ר’ נחמן במשפט הסתום המופיע בסוף תורה זו: ״כי בתחילה היו כל ההתחלות מפסח, ועל כן כל המצוות הם זכר ליציאת מצרים. ועכשיו…״. היום ההתחלות הן מפורים.