Thursday, December 31, 2020

Rav Soloveitchik, Margaret Mead, and the Jewish Generation Gap

In March 1969, Margaret Mead gave a series of lectures at the American Museum of Natural History which focused on a problem she called “the generation gap.” She noted that since the end of World War II, the younger generation had been rebelling against governmental and educational systems. Mead argued that this was occurring because nowhere in the world are there elders who know what children know... In the past there were always some elders who knew more than any children in terms of their experience of having grown up with a cultural system. Today there are none. Contemporary culture is constantly evolving, and it is the younger generation that now knows best. The longstanding paradigm of wisdom being the province of the elders has now evaporated, and instead, the older and younger generations struggle for dominance, each certain of their own rectitude. For Mead, generation gaps are inevitable, and part of an ever-quickening process of cultural evolution. Her view is that the only end to this conflict is if the older generation abdicates their vision and ceases to be trapped in the past; instead, they should seek to pursue the future alongside the younger generation.

At a Pidyon Haben in 1974, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offered a dramatically different understanding of the generation gap; namely, that with a timeless tradition, there is none. The baby boy at the Pidyon Haben was both the child and grandchild of the Rav’s students, and the topic of his speech was “The First Jewish Grandfather.” The Rav explained that contemporary man is so proud of his technological achievements that he has contempt for the past. His pride in progress makes him reject introspection. Scientific progress is mistaken for human progress, and the average person loses his appreciation for age-old insights into the human soul. A generation gap arises due to a lack of respect for the past. But, in the house of Jacob, Rav Soloveitchik explains, there is no generation gap. We see in this week’s Torah reading, Yaakov connects directly to his grandchildren, and leaps over the gulf of generations. This is because all who study Torah -  old and young -  are part of the same fraternity - the Mesorah community. The first Jewish grandfather teaches us how revelation and tradition erase the bounds of time. Rav Soloveitchik then dramatically describes his own classroom, where he, a teacher in his 70s, sits with students a half a century younger than himself. But as they study together, they bring the text to life; and Rabbis from centuries ago, Rashi, Rambam, Rabbi Akiva and others, join them in the classroom. The tradition unites young and old into one timeless generation.


Rav Soloveitchik’s lecture teaches us how the tradition ought to function. But that is not how it actually does. The irony is that today, the idea of “generation gap” is no longer relevant; in 21st century America, younger and older generations seem to work extremely well together. But the Jewish community is different. The 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews reported runaway rates of assimilation. The younger generation of Jews, who are less embracing of Judaism, Jewish identity and Israel, don’t see eye to eye with their elders. There still is a Jewish generation gap.


Yaakov’s interaction with Ephraim and Menasheh actually tells us a different story. It is not the timelessness of the tradition that bonds old and young together; rather, it is the love of family that bridges the generation gap. When Yoseph brings Ephraim and Menasheh to his father, Yaakov asks: “Who are these?” This might be explained by Yaakov’s dimmed vision, or perhaps because he didn’t get to know his grandchildren well. But metaphorically, as the Midrash points out, this is a statement that expresses spiritual distance. Even Yoseph’s response, They are my sons, whom God has given me here expresses distance: Yoseph is explaining that these are the grandchildren born far away from the family home, in Egypt. Yaakov is confronting grandchildren who are foreign both in birth and in manner.


Yet Yaakov uses this moment to connect with love; he offers kisses, hugs and blessings.  And then he blesses Ephraim and Menasheh, and declares, In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac.  Yes, Yaakov is saying, these children were born far from home and have lived at a distance from our family. But they, too, will carry our legacy; even these children raised in the court of Pharaoh will be part of the Jewish future.


The key to understanding this section is the word “name.” It reminds us that Menasheh and Ephraim have names that celebrate breaking away from Yaakov’s home. Yoseph named them when he was disconnected from his family, and their names mean “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” and “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”  Their names represent a breaking away, an attempt to let go of the past and begin a new future. In offering Menasheh and Ephraim his own name, Yaakov brings them back home; they are forgotten children no more.  In one embrace, a painful separation is healed.


There are two methods for overcoming the generation gap. One way is to bond together in a timeless tradition, where young and old live simultaneously in the past, present and future. But that is not always a possibility. Not everyone connects to the tradition of Moshe on Sinai. But there is another way. They can respond to the embrace of Aharon, which will bridge differences and bring the Jewish family back together again.


When faced for the first time with a Jewish generation gap, Yaakov hugs, kisses, and blesses. And in uncertain times for Jewish identity, we might want to consider doing the same.

Monday, December 28, 2020

When Hugs Really Matter: Yaakov's Lesson for the End of Covid

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Yoseph vs. Romulus: A Lesson About Jewish Leadership

Romulus and Remus are the foundational figures of Roman mythology. The descendants of Kings and Gods, these twin brothers live legendary lives, fleeing jealous rulers and becoming courageous military leaders as young men. The brothers resolve to build a city together, but they cannot agree on which hill to do so. Romulus begins to build a city on his own, which will eventually become the great city of Rome. But then, as the dispute with his brother intensifies, Romulus murders Remus. The first century Roman historian Livy recounts the tale:

...Remus, in derision of his brother, leaped over the newly-erected walls, and was thereupon slain by Romulus in a fit of passion, who, mocking him, added words to this effect: ‘So perish every one hereafter, who shall leap over my walls.’ Thus Romulus obtained possession of supreme power for himself alone. The city, when built, was called after the name of its founder.

Rome is built on top of Remus’ blood; its origin story gives an account of states and statesmanship which sees true virtue as a political failure and ambition as a political good. Leo Strauss, commenting on Machiavelli’s commentaries to Livy, writes: According to Machiavelli, the founder of the most renowned commonwealth of the world was a fratricide: the foundation of political greatness is necessarily laid in crime. To achieve greatness, one must be a severe and ruthless leader, ready to do whatever necessary in order to maintain power.

Our Torah reading offers a very different origin story, with a very different account of leadership. Yoseph and his brothers have two confrontations that nearly devolve into violence. First, the brothers nearly murder Yoseph for having ambitions of leadership. Then, after becoming the viceroy of Egypt, Yoseph torments his brothers in revenge, framing, imprisoning and enslaving them. In both instances, this story almost ended in fratricide.

Yet this catastrophic end is prevented because of Yoseph’s transformation, and a new vision of what leadership should be.

Yoseph begins his career with a profound sense of ambition. He is his father’s favorite, a primping, preening gossip with regal ambitions. He has grandiose dreams of ruling his brothers that can easily be dismissed as the products of an egocentric mind.

Those dreams cause him a great deal of heartache. But after enduring thirteen years of slavery, Yoseph achieves great power in a great empire. And then, nine years after becoming the viceroy of Egypt, Yoseph confronts his brothers again. As Don Isaac Abravanel explains, Yoseph is in emotional turmoil and uncertain about what he wants to do.  Revenge suggests itself as a possibility; his hostile accusations certainly bring great anguish to his brothers.

The Torah tells us that when he first sees his brothers after a twenty-two year hiatus, Yoseph remembers his childhood dreams. This is the key to his ultimate transformation. Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, the Ketav Sofer, offers a fascinating insight. The words of the verse say chalam lahem, which literally means Yoseph dreamed for them, for his brothers. The Ketav Sofer explains that at this moment Yoseph understood that his dreams of leadership were actually meant to benefit his brothers. Yoseph now recognizes that his dreams are not to fulfill his own ambitions, because the leader's job is to serve everyone else. In hindsight, Yoseph recognizes that his journey was meant to transform him; the years of servitude were meant to break his ego and awaken his humility and compassion.

A Jewish leader must know how to put others first.  Yoseph began training for true leadership the moment he was sold into slavery. And now that he is reunited with his brothers, it gradually dawns upon him that he must step up and serve. After Yoseph reveals his identity, he makes an extraordinary statement to his brothers:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you...But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.

Yoseph now sees his odyssey as part of a Divine mission to help his brothers; his leadership role is one of devotion to his brothers, because a Jewish leader is meant to be a servant leader.

The term "servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay,  "The Servant as Leader." After having served an entire career in management training at AT&T, Greenleaf was left disenchanted by what he saw as the authoritarian model of leadership that most corporations had. In that essay, Greenleaf writes:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first….That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.

Yoseph begins his young life with visions of being the absolute leader, someone whose own parents bow to him. Luckily, he transforms himself into a servant leader just as his family needs it most. Instead of seizing his brothers as slaves or sending them home to starve, he takes it upon himself to support them and to reunite the family. In becoming a servant leader, Yoseph ensures the survival of the Jewish people.

Twenty-first century America is a deeply individualistic society, where the pursuit of leadership is one and the same as the pursuit of personal ambition. Yoseph teaches us a very different model of leadership, and his example inspires many others over the years; and it is these servant leaders who have sustained the Jewish community for generations. As we read this parsha, we must offer our gratitude for those humble leaders who have put their followers first.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Winter, Christmas, and Chanukah


Winter brings a shiver to the soul. It is the season of hibernation and stagnation. The nights are longer, the air is frigid, and there are moments when the world feels unforgiving, dark and dreary. Winter can very easily become a season of discontent.

Both Judaism and Christianity have holidays right around the winter solstice, and both holidays have thematic connections to the season. In a remarkable passage in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a), we are told about the origins of Saturnalia, the pagan predecessor to Christmas.  Adam, the first man, sinned and was thrown out of the Garden of Eden. It was fall, and he noticed that each day became progressively shorter and colder. Adam began to worry that "perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark, and will return to chaos and disorder." He fasted and prayed to be spared; and then the solstice arrived, and the days got longer. Adam, overjoyed with the realization that winter is not the end of the world, established a holiday to thank God. However, this initially well-meant holiday was eventually appropriated by pagans for idol worship. The Talmud teaches us that passing the winter solstice has a spiritual message: light will return, and man, despite his flaws, will be delivered from his distress. Winter is not endless, nor is it the end.

This message is transformative, because belief in a better future makes us more resilient. In a famous 1957 study, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, Curt Richter, tested the resilience of wild rats. Richter placed the rats in a bucket of water to see how long they would swim before giving up. Most would drown within 15 minutes. However, if the rats were “saved” by being taken out of the water before they would drown, they would swim for increasingly longer periods of time, and could continue swimming up to 60 hours. The possibility of being saved made the rats more resilient.

Hope is more than a warm fuzzy feeling; it provides all living beings with greater strength and determination. And each winter, as we pass the solstice, we learn to hope again.

But it is here where Chanukah's message is different. It tells of another type of hope, one that doesn’t depend on the memory of deliverance. Chanukah teaches us that the greatest miracles are products of the soul, which is strong enough to persevere even in the darkest moments. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov notes that Chanukah arrives just before the solstice, on the darkest, most hopeless night of the year. This is because the triumph of the Maccabees is a triumph of inner hope, of finding inspiration when none is apparent. The Maccabees should have given up before they started. How could a small group of men take on a powerful empire? What kept the Maccabees going was their own inner light, a refusal to despair despite the overwhelming odds against them.

The spirit of Chanukah can bend reality. Natan Sharansky tells of one Chanukah in the gulag when the guards confiscated his improvised Menorah. Sharansky declared a hunger strike; in an attempt to avoid bad publicity, the commanding officer in the camp, Major Osin, allowed Sharansky to light Chanukah candles in his office. As Osin stood by, Sharansky improvised this Hebrew blessing: "Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Chanukah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to light these candles. May you allow me to light the Chanukah candles many times in your city, Jerusalem, with my wife, Avital, and my family and friends.” Then, Sharansky added, "And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say 'Amen.'" Osin, hearing the end of the blessing, politely added in "Amen." While it would take many years before Sharansky made it to Jerusalem, this too was a Chanukah miracle: one courageous man so determined to hold on to his Judaism, that he managed to enlist a KGB Major to pray for his emigration.

Chronologically, Chanukah is the final holiday in the Jewish calendar - the last one established before the destruction of the Second Temple. It arrives at a moment when miracles are few and the Divine Presence is hidden; and it teaches a lesson for an age when deliverance is improbable. For much of the last 2,000 years, Jewish history has been an endless winter, a hopeless, barren terrain of exile. Yet, during this time, there has been an ongoing miracle of faith, the spirit of a remarkable people who never lost hope. And on the darkest night of the year, Chanukah reminds us of a hope that requires no promises, just the miracle of perseverance.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

We Need Chanukah More Than Ever This Year

It is easy to dismiss Chanukah as relatively unimportant. In America, what has made Chanukah prominent actually diminishes its value; it is an also-ran holiday that only achieved importance as the Jewish counterpart to Christmas. But Chanukah has a universal message, one that is more meaningful than ever. Eight months into a pandemic, our morale is already wearing thin; and now we face a challenging winter, where we are forced indoors just as a new spike of cases arrive. Chanukah reminds us to never let hold of hope, no matter what.

“What is Chanukah?” It is surprising to see this question posed by the rabbis of the Talmud, as if the origins of the holiday were unknown to them. By the time the Talmud was written almost 2,000 years ago, the holiday was well known, and the story had been recorded in the  Book of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha. There had been a war of independence fought by Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, against the Seleucid Empire, and afterward the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated. The celebration of this event was called “Chanukah,” the Hebrew word for dedication.

Yet if this were the rationale for Chanukah, the holiday should have disappeared once the Temple was destroyed. It would have been irrelevant. Why celebrate the rededication of a Temple that no longer existed? This is what the Talmud is wondering when it asks, “What is Chanukah?”

The Talmud offers an alternate reason for Chanukah. It tells of a miracle involving the menorah, the Temple’s candelabra. During the rededication, the Maccabees found just one jar of the High Priest's olive oil, enough for one night; but miraculously, the menorah remained lit for eight nights. With this explanation, Chanukah no longer depends on the rededication of the Temple. Yet this explanation prompts a question of its own: Why institute a holiday for a miraculous jar of oil?

The Talmud is actually reinventing Chanukah. For Jews in exile, this holiday celebrating a former triumph was transformed into a festival of hope, and the relatively unimportant miracle of the menorah now took center stage. One small jar of oil lasting for eight nights became a metaphor for a small community overcoming the odds against them. Jews in exile could take heart in the fact their Maccabees ancestors were able to overcome all odds; they were inspired to think that they could too. 

Hope is a puzzle; many observers are unclear as to what  value it has. To some, like  the Roman Philosopher Seneca, hope is a denial of reality, which prevents us from “adapting ourselves to the present”. Others see a value in hope as a useful myth, one that prods people to feel more confident, and to aspire to build a better future. This certainly is enough of a reason to be hopeful. But a Jewish theology of hope goes much further, and sees hope as part of the divine blueprint. Hope is based on the belief that the world is always taking another step in the direction of redemption. And even one small Menorah miracle can serve as a reminder of that blueprint.

For nearly two millennia, the ritual of lighting candles on the longest, darkest and coldest nights of the year gave an embattled people hope. And it is the very smallness of the ritual that makes it so powerful. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement said: “A little light pushes away a great deal of darkness.” The same is true of hope. Even a bit of hope gives us the strength to continue onward and pursue redemption.

Last December, paramedics were called to the home of an elderly couple in Lakewood, N.J. As they were taking the wife to the ambulance, they noticed that alongside the Chanukah menorah there was a burning wick embedded inside a half of a potato. When the paramedics asked what the potato was for, the husband explained that during the Holocaust, he was on the run from the Nazis, hiding in different locations. He had very little, but for Chanukah he was able to improvise a menorah from a potato, some oil and a wick. After his liberation, the man explained, he continued to light a potato Menorah, to remember the miracle of his survival.

This December, hope is on the horizon, with the first deliveries of covid vaccines. But there will be much worry and suffering to come before the end of this pandemic. Right now, the lesson of the Lakewood man’s Chanukah potato is especially useful: A little hope can go a long way, and a little light pushes away a great deal of darkness.