Embodiment and the No-Thing Beyond Language: Rav Yair Dreifuss’s “Marriage of the Lost”

avudimatifa_master

Rav Yair Dreifuss’s 2011 book Marriage of the Lost (atunah Shel Avudim in Hebrew) is a fascinating and compelling book. Clocking in at just under 180 pages, it manages to cover a broad range of topics, from history and social hierarchies to marriage, happiness, and song. Perhaps most interesting is the book’s multifaceted exploration of what it means to live an embodied life.

250px-הרב_דרייפוס

The book is structured around Rebbe Naman of Bratslav’s “Story of Seven Beggars,” though the chapters often drift far afield from their corresponding beggars. The narrative (through an intricate frame-story) presents seven beggars each possessing a different physical disability.

If we think a little about the order in which Rebbe Naman presents the beggars, we can see a simple structure: There’s a blind beggar, a deaf beggar, a mute beggar, a bent-necked beggar, a hunchbacked beggar, a beggar with no hands, and a beggar with no legs. The order of the physical defects follows the structure of the body, from top to bottom. Eyes, ears, mouth, neck, shoulders, hands, legs. Rebbe Nahman essentially gives us a survey of the limbs of the body, but from the perspective of the physical defects. He investigates the structure of the body through its damaged side, through the deformed body.

I see this as challenging the image of the perfect, aesthetic, normal body to which we are accustomed. The move to the abnormal, the unusual, is not intended to leave it as such, but to change our conception of the body… The perfect, symmetrical body is what keeps us from seeing the true reality.

This is a parody of how we relate to and imagine the body. This depiction calls us to open up to a different way of thinking about the body, to think anew the way we apprehend our own bodies.

Rebbe Naman’s intensity can help us break down the classic ideas about the body that hold us so very captive, and help us see things from a different perspective. Through the images of the beggars… This is an attempt to see the world by way of the margins, to restore the experience of existing in an unusual body and see it as a higher option than the normal body. (68-69)

Rav Dreifuss frames the physical disabilities of the beggars not as distortions of a normal body, but as the true “normal.” Our culturally conditioned image of the perfect body is a phantasm that has little to do with the actual reality of embodied life. Instead of being alienated from our bodies by their “imperfections,” Rebbe Naman can teach us to accept our bodies as they are, which is the way they’re supposed to be.

Unfortunately, Rav Dreifuss does not pursue this line of inquiry much farther, through no fault of his own. Rebbe Naman’s story quickly shifts the focus from the beggars’ bodies to their unique abilities. In fact, it turns out that their disabilities are only apparent, and are actually manifestations of the beggar’s superior abilities. For example, the blind beggar is not really blind, and can in fact see better than anyone else in the entire world. The reason he seems to be blind is that he constantly directs his sight beyond this world into the messianic future, and thus does not see anything in the world in which we live (though Rav Dreifuss doesn’t mention him, the similarity to Rosenzweig’s explanation of the blind “Synagoga” is striking). The end result is that Rebbe Naman ends up giving a very unembodied depiction of the beggars.

Rav Dreifuss often caps his explanations of Rebbe Naman by saying that Rebbe Naman was teaching the Torah of the diaspora, and that in the land of Israel the Torah can be more connected to nature and life. However, he only once fleshes out how the Torah of the land of Israel would differ from Rebbe Naman: Instead of a blind utopianism, waiting for a sudden and apocalyptic messiah, the Torah of the Land of Israel embraces Rav Kook’s idea of progress and human-driven improvement (hishtalmut). Rather than waiting for the messiah, we can all be messianic.

If this was the extent of Rav Dreifuss’s discussion of embodiment, I would be somewhat disappointed; while interesting, it fails to really explore what it is like being an embodied being. However, there is another facet to the book, one that runs from the very first chapter through to the end, that captures an important aspect of this embodiment: the failure of words and rationality to capture every aspect of our existence.

The first chapter is entirely dedicated to this topic, giving a brief survey of different figures (Rebbe Naman, Rav Kook, etc.) and how they related to words, before explaining that Marriage of the Lost is going to attempt to use words to talk about aspects of life that surpass words. While this might seem like a fool’s errand, we have no other choice – words are all we have. This task highlights the nuance of Rav Dreifuss’s approach: he does not reject language or rationality wholesale, but he knows that they are not sufficient. To borrow a phrase from Judith Butler’s “Bodies that Matter,” Rav Dreifuss is “theorizing from the ruins of logos”; from within the ruins, without leaving them behind.

Another really good example of this comes from Rav Dreifuss discussion of happiness and optimism.

This inexplicable optimism is the covenantal moment, the hard point that is not an essence (atsmiut) because you cannot say anything about it. This is the position wherein you recognize the no-thing in the world, the experience of real existence wherein a person is no-thing (lo-klum) even while he still lives. As opposed to the new idolatry, the modern attempts to construct various forms of positive existence onto which we could grasp, this position sheds all handholds in favor of direct contact with the infinitude that underlies existence, with all the emptiness and no-thing contained therein. (43)

Optimism is not a function of logic, it’s about making a covenant with embodied existence, with the existence that precedes and outlasts any logic explanation thereof. It’s not an essence, because essence is a metaphysical idea always understood through words. We’re not optimistic, nor should we be, because of what we can logically determine about the world and our lives. We’re optimistic because our existence precedes any false hopes about how our lives should look. While the book could perhaps have explored embodiment more fully, to me this is a truly valuable contribution.

None of this is to say that the value of the book entirely depends on its explorations of embodiment. Quite the contrary, there’s much else to like about the book besides. The repeated discussion of marriage in the modern era, when marriage is between two individuals rather than between two members of hierarchical families and traditions, is particularly interesting.

rabbi-shagar

Additionally, readers who are interested in Rav Shagar will be interested to find many of the same ideas in Rav Dreifuss’s words. He explores the meaning of freedom, the necessity of realism as opposed to ideology, a constructivist view of language, and the idea that life is always lived within language (how this fits with the non-linguistic existence is a question worth exploring). He also rejects the idea of a personal, pre-existential essence, explores the problem of reflectivity, and encourages self-acceptance and personal oneness. Strikingly, all of these shared themes appear without the philosophical and psychoanalytic trappings with which Rav Shagar addresses them. For people who find these trappings uninteresting, problematic, or simply outdated, Rav Dreifuss’s words may be a breath of fresh air. For people who do appreciate Rav Shagar’s formulation, Rav Dreifuss’s version raises the question of why Rav Shagar needs those trappings at all. Is it just personal interest? Is there an affective dimension involved? Or does he think it’s necessary on a conceptual or communicative level?

All in all, Marriage of the Lost is a thoughtful and engaging little book, one to which I look forward to returning in the future.

Advertisements

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.”

rav-kook-375

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.

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).

matkoney_tfilla_09_sc_for_print_small1

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.

Rav Shagar Comes to America: “Faith Shattered and Restored”

Faith Shattered and Restored” is the first major English publication of writings of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known more colloquially as “Rav Shagar.” Rav Shagar (1950-2007) was a Religious Zionist thinker, teacher, and rosh yeshivah who was known for incorporation Hasidut and Postmodernism into his understanding of Judaism. This was part of his effort to shape a religious language for the Jews of our time, one that would resonate with our tradition and our daily lives (for more on that linguistic project, see my post on it and the conclusion to my longer essay on his understanding of “accepting the yoke of Heaven”). Such a language would feel like home to contemporary Jews, or at least the ones Shagar had in mind. Significantly, this suggests that if Rav Shagar’s unique combinations of tradition and philosophy do not speak to you, in translation or otherwise, then you are simply not his intended audience. That said, there is still much to be gained from how Rav Shagar tackles each individual topic (such as pluralism, providence, romance, or doubt), even if his overall project does not speak to you.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the most important thing to understand about this volume is that it was intended for an American Modern Orthodox audience, something that I think helps explain a few issues with the book. First is the selection/inclusion of the first essay in the book, “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akedah.” Based on my own experience, and backed up by numerous conversations with other readers, the essay is hard to follow, and at the end it’s not entirely clear what Rav Shagar wanted to convey to his audience. This is not a problem with the translation, however, as the reading experience of the original Hebrew is just the same, begging the question why it was selected for inclusion in the translation. While the essay deals with important ideas, the real answer, I think, lies in the fact that in this essay Rav Shagar explicitly puts himself in dialogue the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, exemplar of American Modern Orthodoxy. The essay thus enables readers to begin to locate Rav Shagar in relation to Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, with which they are likely more familiar.

A second issue this helps explain is Rav Shalom Carmy’s afterword. The afterword is striking in that it is clear that Rav Carmy bears no particular love for Rav Shagar, and is perhaps more interested in how Rav Shagar can be used to critique the progressive end of Orthodoxy. While neither of these aspects is necessarily problematic, one might have expected a more sympathetic afterword from the first major publication of Rav Shagar’s writings in English. What explains this afterword (the reader will have to decide for herself if this justifies it) is that Rav Carmy is one of the people best acquainted with both Rav Shagar’s writings and the state of American Modern Orthodoxy. Most of the afterword is dedicated to showing how Rav Shagar’s thought fits in (or doesn’t) with more familiar works and thinkers, an effort that the average reader will no doubt appreciate.

A final issue that needs to be understood in this light is a paragraph from the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age” which is troubling due to its absence from the original Hebrew version of the essay:

I should add that in discussing Modern Orthodoxy I refer not only to the American scene. For decades, Modern Orthodoxy in the United States and national religious Judaism in Israel constituted two distinct movements. However, with the rise in the standard of living in Israel, and as the country is swept by Western cultural influences, I predict that the differences between the two groups will erode, along with the differences between the challenges they both face. (Faith Shattered and Restored, p.43-44)

When I asked the translator about the appearance of this paragraph in the English essay, he said that it was a footnote the editors decided needed to be in the body of the essay itself, and it’s easy to see why. Rav Shagar did not speak, or even read, English, and he did not ever travel to America. Absent a specific statement to the contrary, it would be perfectly sensible to assume that his sociological statements were specific to Israeli Jewry, and that no extrapolations to American Jewry could or should be made. Since this book is intended for an American audience, it was worth the slight change to emphasize that Rav Shagar’s statements apply to both communities, and Rav Shagar’s citations of Rav Soloveitchik in this context would seem to bear this out. Notably, I have not yet been able to locate this footnote in the original Hebrew text (published as “Halakhah, Halikhah, ve-Emunah” in the collection of Hanukkah Sermons, “Le-Ha’ir Et ha-Petahim”), and if anyone locates it I would greatly appreciate the reference.

The fact that the book is aimed at an American Modern Orthodox audience does not just solve issues, it also raised a few of its own. By way of example, there were two translations that struck me as being very problematic (against the background of an otherwise excellent and readable translation throughout). The first essay translates the word “רציונליות,” in context of the practice of putting non-verbal experience into words, as “rationalism” when it should be “rationality.” What makes this worth pointing out is that “rationalism” has specific connotations in the American Modern Orthodox community where “rationalism” immediately recalls “rationalist judaism” and specific positions on issues of Torah and science. Whether “רציונליות” should be translated as “rationalism” or “rationality” might be debatable in the abstract, but for this audience it becomes obvious and important to translate it as “rationality.”

A second translation issue is the translation of the word freier (פראייר) as “gull.” The word freier, roughly referring to a person who lets themselves get taken advantage of, is so central in Israeli culture that it has its own Hebrew wikipedia page. The word “gull” (the noun form of “gullible”), on the other hand, peaked in popularity in 1922 and has been in steady decline since 1963, to the point where I had to look it up when I read it. While the best translation of the word could be debated (I like “loser”), translating a culturally important term with one that is culturally non-existent is incredibly problematic (it’s worth noting that this seems to have been a change made by a later editor rather than the original translator).

 

This handful of critiques should not overshadow how grateful I am that Maggid decided to publish this translation. I’ve spent the last few years deeply immersed in the writings of Rav Shagar, and I think they have a lot to offer the English speaking world of American Jewry. The selection of essays in Faith Shattered and Restored is broad, and touches on many of Rav Shagar’s most unique ideas, including his head-on tackling of relativism and his embrace of science-fiction literature as a new mythology that provides a mystical, almost messianic, reading experience. It includes his unique understanding of bitahon as a sense of security that in reality secures nothing (for more on this, see my translation of one of his Purim derashot), and a fascinating proposal regarding the role of the Jews in the global order of nations. It does not include his extensive discussions and critiques of Zionism and the modern state of Israel, but that is understandable for a book aimed at an American audience. Taken as a whole, the book is not perfect, but it is a good start, and I hope to see more translated volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings in the future.

Realpolitik in Jerusalem – Dov Zakheim’s “Nehemiah”

Dov Zakheim’s Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage, the latest in Maggid Books’ series of studies in Tanakh, presents the reader with a vivid and relatable picture of the life and times of one of Judaism’s forgotten leaders. Despite being the main character of a book of Tanakh, and the source of its name, the average Jew has little knowledge of who Nehemiah was or what he did. Unfortunately, this isn’t is a problem that can be fixed just by people reading the biblical book of Nehemiah. The biblical text gives only small, often cryptic, windows into Nehemiah’s life, with mysterious gaps throughout. It is into these gaps that Dov Zakheim steps, bringing with him not only knowledge of the biblical text and commentators, medieval and modern, but also his extensive familiarity with politics and statecraft. This is the real “value-add” of Zakheim’s Nehemiah. Having served as both Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense in the United States government, Zakheim has a comprehensive background in the practical aspects of governmental politics. He draws out and explicates the political background lying behind Nehemiah’s actions and interactions throughout the biblical text.

As the book of Nehemiah is often completely silent on these matters, much of Zakheim’s explanations are unavoidably speculative. However, this just emphasizes how necessary this process is, as without this speculation there would be so much missing from the story. Zakheim’s reasoned filling-in of the narrative creates a continuous and comprehensible story for his readers to follow. There are times, however, where it seems like he leans too hard on modern political realities in a way that leads to anachronism. Not every situation from Persian-ruled Judea will have an exact parallel in the history of contemporary Israel and the West. Zakheim’s readings of the biblical narrative sometimes therefore obscure as much as they illuminate. By and large, however, Zakheim’s readings seem to be faithful and helpful representations of the biblical Nehemiah.

An interesting feature of Zakheim’s Nehemiah is the consistent emphasis on tension between religion and statecraft. Early on, Zakheim quotes the rabbinic critique of Nehemiah for asking God to remember his good accomplishments. Then throughout the book he suggests additional reasons why Hazal may have disapproved of Nehemiah. He emphasizes how this may already be foreshadowed in the biblical text itself, in the relationship between Nehemiah and his more famous priestly contemporary, Ezra. The biblical text records very little in the way of interaction between these two figures, outside of mutual but separate participation in a few ceremonies. Zakheim argues that the reason Ezra does not seem to have been enlisted in Nehemiah’s state-building efforts is that Nehemiah saw Ezra as nothing but a religious leader, one who had failed to make any real impact on his community. Nehemiah felt that only someone fully involved in the practical life of the community would be successful. While this reading does not contradict the biblical text, it is also far from evident from the text itself. Minimally, it presents an interesting window into the worldview of the author, and perhaps also of the Modern Orthodox community writ-large.

While I overall enjoyed reading Nehemiah, there are two trends in the book that negatively affected my reading experience. The first is the random digressions that Zakheim sometimes makes. In the middle of talking about the political and practical aspects of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, it was weird to suddenly encounter an in-depth discussion of whether the Jerusalemites had been violating biblical or rabbinic commandments while Nehemiah was away. There are numerous occasions where there is a side-discussion like this, one that might have been appropriate for a footnote but certainly not for the main body of the text. Being so out of place, it makes the reader feel like they’ve stumbled out of Zakheim’s book on the biblical character and into one of the secondary commentators, traditional and critical, that he so extensively footnotes. Secondly, scattered throughout the book, perhaps only once or twice per chapter, there are words that belong to a much higher level of vocabulary than the rest of the book. This is not inherently problematic, and Zakheim is clearly smart enough that one doesn’t suspect him of artificially forcing fancy language into his writing in order to sound intelligent. But it is jarring. These words just feel like a rather obvious authorial and editorial oversight. While the words’ meanings are usually clear enough from context that I was able to get by without googling any definitions, these words distract from an otherwise enjoyable reading experience.

Despite these critiques, Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage is an informative and enjoyable read, recommended to anyone looking to know more about this oft-overlooked figure from the Jewish tradition, particularly where it comes to the practical and political realities of his day.

 

Teaching Texts: Alex Israel’s I Kings

Teaching Texts: Alex Israel’s I Kings

kings

Rabbi Alex Israel’s I Kings: Torn In Two is a book born out of teaching. In the introduction, Israel discusses the way the book developed over the course of years of his teaching the book of Kings in various settings. Consequently, I Kings is not a commentary on the biblical text so much as a companion to it. It does not go through each line of the text explaining difficulties and ambiguities. Instead, it follows each chapter and explains it simply and clearly. It gives a basic familiarity with the story, with what is happening in the biblical text, and with the characters that populate the narratives. Throughout the chapters it also develops and points out the various themes of the book of Kings, often through discussions of apparent textual problems. As such, I Kings is not just a great companion volume for the casual reader of Tanakh, but also for a teacher looking for insights for her classroom (notably, there’s a fantastic index of study questions for engaging students with the text).

The sense of pedagogy and education that permeates I Kings is perhaps most evident in its use of other texts outside the book of Kings. In many of the chapters Israel quotes passages from the book of Chronicles that parallel the narrative under discussion from the book of Kings. These texts are used to fill in perceived gaps in the narrative in Kings (a valid, but also debatable, approach), but also to point out contradictions between the two texts. Instead of trying to resolve such contradictions, Israel often uses such contradictions as a jumping off point for larger discussions about the purposes of both books. If they contradict each other, it is taken not to be a disagreement about objective fact but a manifestation of different pedagogical goals. If Kings says something different from Chronicles, then it is because it is trying to teach us something different. The teacher, and student, must then ask, “What is Kings trying to teach us?”

More even than it quotes from the biblical book of Chronicles, I Kings quotes heavily from rabbinic literature. Israel’s approach is self-conscious about having “one eye on Ḥazal” and trying to create “a dialogue between the text and the sages.” Israel reads rabbinic texts of all genres, from aggadot (rabbinic stories) to textual commentaries, as if they were commentaries on the text. He looks to find the basis for their statements, no matter how outlandish, within a careful reading of the biblical text. Moreover, he reads the rabbinic texts in light of the biblical text, which can paint them in a different light than how one might otherwise read them. Finally Israel’s I Kings asks what lies behind the rabbinic understandings of the biblical text, what were they trying to teach us, and, perhaps more poignantly, what did they see the biblical text as trying to teach us.

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Laus Jeremiah is not about the biblical book of Jeremiah so much as it is about the prophet Jeremiah himself. While in some sense a commentary on the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah is structured according to the chronology of Jeremiahs life. Thus, while the book goes through and explains each chapter, the order of the chapters has been drastically rearranged, due to erratic chronology of the book of Jeremiah. As each chapter is explained, Lau draws the readers attention to what the prophet must have been feeling and struggling with at each point in time. In this, Jeremiah emphasizes one of the unique facets of the biblical book of Jeremiah. More than any other biblical text, the book of Jeremiah details the inner life of its hero, describing his pain and frustration with the people, and with God, in great detail. Jeremiah is commanded to rebuke a nation that, from the very beginning, he knows will be unrepentant.

However, Jeremiahs focus on the prophet often comes at the detriment of understanding the book of Jeremiah. Lau readily chops up the book of Jeremiah in order to arrange it chronologically, but he in no place provides even a guess as to why the book might have been in its original, non-chronological, order to begin with. The closest to be found is an off-hand comment in the introduction.

The Book of Jeremiah is hard to follow. Some chapters seem coherent and complete, while others appear to be disjointed, as if the pages of the original manuscript had been scattered and haphazardly rearranged. Perhaps its time they should be. (pg. xxi)

The lack of any attention given to why the original Jeremiah is in a non-chronological order means that reading Jeremiah will make little difference in the ability of a reader to read and comprehend the biblical book. A discussion of the thematic breakdowns of the biblical Jeremiah and the way that affects the division and placement of the chapters would be much more helpful in enabling independent access to the biblical text.

Lau’s Jeremiah

One theme that Jeremiah does focus on heavily is Politics. Each section of the book starts with a discussion of the historical and political background of that time period. Lau discusses the rise and fall of the international empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia and the way these empires affected the small kingdom of Judah, often subsumed under one of the empires as a vassal state. To this end, Lau marshals historical records from all over, from Assyrian and Babylonian records to the writings of Josephus. This also allows for ample discussion on the foreign policies of the various kings of Judah and the political events behind them. Jeremiah also draws the reader’s attention to the domestic politics at play in Jeremiahs time — the tensions between the upper castes of society, both the religious and political leadership, and the lower classes.

While the common people of Judea were generally intractable, they did occasionally begin to listen to Jeremiahs rebukes. The leadership, however, was a very different story. It is the role of the prophet to challenge the status quo and the power structures behind it, and this launched Jeremiah into direct conflict with the Kingship and the Priesthood. Lau details how Jeremiahs relationship to the Kingship changed with each king. His relationship with Josiah was entirely positive, while his relationship with Jehoiakim was entirely negative, and his relationship with Zedekiah was more complex, changing as the king vacillated back and forth between following Gods word and fearfully following his advisors.

The discussion of the priesthood highlights Jeremiahs anti-establishment position. As Lau points out, though Jeremiah was himself from a priestly family, it had long fallen out of political favor and no longer performed the services in the Temple. Because of his lineage, Jeremiah represented a threat to the existing priestly power-structure, even before he began prophesying. After becoming a prophet, however, he was enough of a threat that he saw pushback, not just from the priests but from another, more sinister, group — the false prophets. Lau’s Jeremiah shows how the false prophets, like Jeremiah and the real prophets, represented a group that stood outside the establishment. Unlike the real prophets, however, the false prophets preached complacency in the face of the word of God, and maintaining the status quo no matter what its iniquities.

This emphasis on the political is more than just part of Laus method in understanding the book of Jeremiah. The whole goal of Jeremiah is to affect the political arena. The book is an attempt to build a bridge within Israeli society in particular, and the Jewish community in general, between modern cultureour world todayand the multilayered Jewish tradition over the generations(pg. xi). It was written to show how great and relevantthe Bible can be (pg. xiii). Lau hopes that his book will affect Israeli society (pg. xiii), bringing the words of the prophets into the heart of our political, social, and cultural discourse(pg. xiv). His aim is that Jeremiah will be part of the effort to rectify the ills of the Jewish stateto reduce socioeconomic disparity, to break down the walls that divide us, to bridge language gaps, to include rather than rejectto rebuild a Jewish identity, a Jewish culture that will shed light and goodness upon all that it touches(pg. 225).

This political orientation is not alien to Jeremiah. As Lau points out,

The prophet might be regarded as something of a public intellectual, a man of letters. An eternal critic, an outsider to the system, a gadfly who mustpersuade his audience of the truth of his wordsand of the mortal danger of ignoring them. (pg. xiv)

Prophecy is inherently political. Its purpose is to engender change in society. Prophets of God arise when the status quo is corrupt and needs to be shaken up. Jeremiah carries forward this prophetic role, by trying to show the messages Jeremiah was tasked to deliver to his society and to ours. The biblical book of Jeremiah served as a witness to the people of antiquity, regarding the very political life and lessons of the prophet. Lau’s Jeremiah does the same for a modern audience.