Friday, August 12, 2022

Consolation, Not Closure


Der Neunte Ab. Maurycy TREBACZ (Warsaw 1861- 1941 Łódź Ghetto).
 “Closure” has become part of our everyday vocabulary. While the word has its origins in psychology, today it refers to the popular notion that there are rituals and practices that can rid one of grief. What exactly one must do to achieve closure is unclear, but closure is purported to banish the anguish of profound loss and allow one to start over again.
Certainly, there are times when we truly need to let go of the past. After ending a relationship or leaving a job, one needs a fresh start. Whatever helps with accomplishing that is certainly useful.
But closure is now considered to be the ultimate goal of mourners as well. Those who have lost beloved relatives are counseled to quickly get over their misery, whether they like it or not. That’s why I dislike the word “closure”; it is often applied in ways that are self-centered and superficial. Closure comforts the mourner by forgetting the one who is being mourned.
Closure's popularity has a lot to do with our therapeutic culture, which focuses more on comfort than meaning. Even Jewish mourning rituals are judged by their effectiveness in achieving closure (i.e., shiva is good because it helps with closure, but 12 months of abstaining from celebrations gets in the way of “moving on”).
Champions of closure view grief the same way a child looks at a rainy day: an obstacle to fun that is best removed as soon as possible. I’ve seen good-intentioned people advise grieving families right after the funeral that “they have to move on.” Those who are more psychologically adept will talk about the need to work through the five stages of grief to achieve closure, as if you need to get your psychic passport stamped five times before getting released from grief. 
The grief-stricken cannot help but remember; for them memory is a compulsion, the central thread in a recurring loop of bereavement. But as the tragedy ages, memory becomes a choice and forgetfulness a possibility. The Talmud remarks that one begins to forget the deceased after 12 months; the mind begins to erase the past to make room for the future. In many ways, closure happens on its own.
Yet there are many Jewish rituals that specifically counter closure. Kaddish, Yizkor, and Yahrzeit are customs meant to reawaken our memories of the deceased. It is not uncommon during Yizkor to see people weeping for parents who had passed away decades earlier. Rav Akiva Eiger suggests that the very purpose of placing a tombstone is to arrest the instinctive process of forgetfulness, which stands as a memorial to the deceased. We always remember, and never move on.

But it is through memory that consolation arrives. At the shiva, visitors sit with the mourners and share memories of the deceased; and when it all ends, they stand up and say, “May the Lord console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” How does consolation suddenly appear amidst the gloom of a shiva house? By allowing the mourner to continue their connection with the deceased. Mourning is not just an inconvenient emotion; it’s our way of continuing to love, even if the only way we can love is with a broken heart. That love is what offers us consolation.

Rav Zadok of Lublin and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch both note that the Hebrew word for consolation, “nechama,” can also mean regret. And they explain that the similarity between regret and consolation is that both involve reconsideration of what has occurred. For mourners, the realization that someone is gone, but not forgotten, is profoundly comforting. Even after death their legacy lives on. And at every shiva house, at every yartzeit, we reconnect to those we love, and we are consoled.

Seven months after my mother’s death, my niece gave birth to a baby girl; the baby was to be named on Shabbat morning. That Saturday night, we got a call informing us of the baby’s name. As expected, the baby was named after my mother. I sat down in a corner and cried, overwhelmed by the twin realizations that my mother was both gone, but not forgotten. I cried for my loss, yet at the same time, took enormous pride in the legacy my mother had left us.
It was a moment of grief and consolation. And I am not alone in this emotion; at baby namings and brises, look at the faces of the grandparents, who are crying. These are tears of joy and grief, the tears of true consolation.
This search for consolation is part of the Jewish calendar. We spent the three weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av reenacting the tragedy of the destruction, and then, for the following seven weeks, we read haftarot of consolation.

We spend more time emphasizing consolation than grief because consolation is a far more challenging task. It is easy to seek closure and leave the past behind. But to carry grief with you and simultaneously have hope and optimism is a far more difficult task.

Yet this is what the Jewish people have done for two millennia. We made sure never to forget; we continued to mourn the churban, the destruction, as if it just happened. We consoled ourselves with memories of Israel and Jerusalem, and dreams of a future redemption.

After 1900 years of exile, we did return home. Israel honors the legacy of two millennia of Jews who kept the memory of their homeland alive. And for the Jewish people, it gives us consolation that their dreams have finally been achieved.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells the following story about an acquaintance, Rav Schwartz, who was a Holocaust survivor who had lost his first wife and children during the war. After the war, he remarried and had two sons; and in 1964, the family made aliyah and moved to Israel. Tragically, the first son was killed in the Six Day War. And toward the end of the Yom Kippur War, their second son, their only remaining son, was killed in action as well. Rabbi Riskin was in Israel, and describes the shiva visit:
The Schwartzes lived at 8 Shimoni Street in a small apartment, and there must have been close to a hundred people who had come to try to console them. The Rav and Rebbetzin, who looked much, much older than I remembered them, were sitting on cushions on the floor. Everyone else was standing. The room was heavy with the press of the people and with an ominous and shrieking silence, a silence that seemed to scream out to the very heavens.
The Rav and his wife were sitting and not speaking, so no one was speaking. I stood in the back of the room for about twenty minutes. I didn’t even know if Rav Schwartz remembered me at all. … I began to leave, and, as I did so, I walked past Rav and Rebbetzin Schwartz, saying what one always says when one leaves a house of mourning: “HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch she’ar avelei Tziyon vee’rushalayim. May the Almighty console you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Rav Schwartz looked up at me. “Rav Riskin, yes?” “Yes,” I replied. “Rav Riskin,” he said, “why is the subject of the prayer that you express to a mourner, ‘HaMakom’? ‘HaMakom’ means place. Yes, in this context it’s a synonym for God because the whole world is God’s place. But wouldn’t it have made more sense for consolers to say ‘HaShem yenachem etchem, ‘May the God of compassion console you,’ or ‘May Elokim, the God of creation console you.’ Why use ‘HaMakom,’ the place?
“I’ll tell you why,” he continued, “I understand it now for the first time. When my family was destroyed in the Holocaust, there was no comforting me; it was so senseless, so absurd. But now that I have lost my only remaining sons and have no chance for other children, I am sad, sad beyond even the ability to speak, but I am comforted nevertheless. At least this time my sons died so that the Jewish people could live. They died in defense of Israel. They died in defense of Yerushalayim. They died in defense of the Jewish future. ‘HaMakom,’ the place: Jerusalem, Israel, the Jewish State. HaMakom menachem oti, the place comforts me among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Every time we walk in Israel, we don’t walk alone; there are myriad souls accompanying us: those who prayed for this land, those who dreamed of this land, those who fought for this land stand alongside us every step of the way. The great consolation of Jewish history is that the State of Israel is their eternal legacy. And it is this makom, this place, that truly honors their memories, and they continue to live on in the hearts of those who love Zion and Jerusalem.

Friday, August 05, 2022


On December 10th, 1978, Menachem Begin received the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Camp David Accords with Egypt. In his Nobel lecture, Begin made the point that peace is a foundation of Judaism:
The ancient Jewish people gave the world the vision of eternal peace, of universal disarmament, of abolishing the teaching and learning of war. Two Prophets, Yeshayahu Ben Amotz and Micha HaMorashti, having foreseen the spiritual unity of man under God – with His word coming forth from Jerusalem – gave the nations of the world the following vision expressed in identical terms:
“And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Begin's lesson has deep biblical roots. While the Jews in the desert made military preparations to enter the land of Israel, they were commanded to first offer negotiations: "When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace." It is a mitzvah to search for peace before going to war.
Ramban and Rambam explain that the obligation includes the initial war of conquest; they quote a passage in Talmud Yerushalmi that says Yehoshua sent letters offering peace to the inhabitants of Canaan before crossing the Jordan River. Rashi however disagrees and explains that the Biblical command to offer peace is limited to elective wars that would take place later in history.
At first glance, Rashi seems to limit the obligation to seek peace. But a look at all of Rashi’s writing on this subject offers a very different picture; Rashi is actually making a far more dramatic claim about peace. In our Torah reading, when the Jews approach the boundaries of Sichon the King of the Amorites, Moshe sends messengers with “words of peace," looking for a way to avoid war. This request is difficult to explain according to Rashi's view; the war against Amorites was a war of conquest, and there should have been no obligation to make an offer of peace. So why did Moshe send these messengers? Rashi explains that Moshe thought “Although the Omnipresent had not commanded me to proclaim peace unto Sihon, I learnt to do so from … when the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to give the Torah to Israel, he took it round to Esau and Ishmael, …and opened unto them with peace. Another explanation… Moses said to God, “I learned this from You, …You could have sent one flash of lightning to consume the Egyptians, but instead, with much patience, You sent me from the desert to Pharaoh saying, ‘Let my people go.’”  At Mount Sinai, God reaches out to all of humanity, not just Israel; and in Pharaoh’s court, God follows paths of pleasantness. Clearly, His ways are the ways of peace.
Without any divine command, Moshe decides on his own to pursue peace with Sichon. He does so because we don’t need to be commanded to pursue peace - we should understand the importance of peace on our own. Peace is not just another halakhic obligation; it is a moral foundation of Judaism. Even when we don’t “have” to make peace, we want to make peace. Rashi is offering an even more radical view, obligating one to pursue peace even without a command.
One could stop here. Peace is often the subject of edifying lectures and inspirational sermons. But in the real world, the pursuit of peace is far from simple. The willingness to extend goodwill to one’s enemies can lead to failure. Moral scruples, including the willingness to make peace, are often a strategic disadvantage. There is an asymmetry when the moral and immoral engage in battle because ethics on the battlefield can be exploited as a weakness.
The ruthless can misuse diplomacy and negotiations to buy time, and barbarians have no limits on how they conduct war. They see cruelty as a source of strength. Indeed, authoritarians and fanatics often mock those who desire peace. Ismail Haniyah, the former Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza would often proclaim: “We shall (be)….educating the future generation to love death… as much as our enemies love life.” This refrain has been repeated by many others. To love life and pursue peace is seen as unmanly and cowardly, a weakness born out of decadence.
This reality makes war far more complicated for those who pursue goodness and peace. One must be shrewd with the devious (II Samuel 22:27); it would be disastrous for the nice guys to always finish last. But how shrewd may one be? Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars, describes what he calls the "realist argument," that all is fair in war, because wars are fought to be won. Even in Western democracies there have always been those who dismiss or diminish the need to consider battleground ethics. They believe that the ends justify the means, and that the noble goal of defending democracy justifies the most ignoble of methods.
And there have always been moments of necessity when realism is the only reasonable option. In the last century, nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan to end what seemed to be an endless war, and to prevent even more lives from being lost. During the Cold War, the democracies of the world adopted the policy of mutually assured destruction. They vowed to retaliate fully against any Soviet nuclear attack, even if the response would be pointless, and too late to save their own countries. Mutually assured destruction, if employed, would be an act of vengeful retaliation; but in an era of nuclear brinkmanship, it was a critical deterrent. This policy was a matter of necessity, because without it, militant dictatorships like the Soviet Union could simply take over the world.
One might conclude that if war by its very nature requires realism, then dreams of peace and concerns of ethics can be ignored. But even on the battlefield one must still place ethical concerns first. The Talmud Yerushalmi says that when besieging an enemy city, there is a commandment to leave a path open for people to flee. The Ramban explains that the reason for this commandment is because we must “learn to always act with compassion, and even (show compassion) to our enemies during battle.” An army must act in a humane manner, even if it is inconvenient; going into battle is not a vacation from ethics. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein said, “The most important thing that a person going into battle must know is that he is not passing from a world with a hierarchy of values to a world with a different hierarchy of values. One person, one nation, cannot split into two. And in every situation, on top of the hierarchy of values must stand peace.” A religious tradition that takes ethics seriously will not abandon its values during wartime.
This idea is referred to as just war; but how to define an army’s ethical obligations during wartime is often difficult. Walzer quotes Thomas Nagel, who in an essay entitled “War and Massacre” describes an ongoing problem in assessing wartime ethics, one of “means and ends.” On one hand there is a utilitarian perspective, for which the path to the quickest victory is what is most important; this is an argument of the ends justifying the means. On the other hand, is the absolutist perspective, which focuses not on outcomes but on actions, and is concerned with avoiding any morally distasteful behavior. These two perspectives are frequently in conflict; and even those who care deeply about ethics recognize that there are no simple solutions to battlefield questions. As Waltzer puts it, "We know that there are some outcomes that must be avoided at all costs, and we know that there are some costs that can never rightly be paid." But in between those extremes, answers become far less certain.
Pursuing ethics in wartime is like trying to ride two horses at the same time, endeavoring to fulfill the duty to protect one’s country while never letting go of the obligation to treat all human beings with compassion. This is sometimes impossible; Walzer acknowledges that "decent men and women, hard pressed in war, must sometimes do terrible things, and then they themselves have to look for some way to reaffirm the values they have overthrown." Ethical standards, even when breached, must continue to be honored.
In the real world, it often seems futile to pursue peace, and naive to offer enemies compassion. But we must continue to do so because it is a fundamental value. A well-known Midrash lists multiple ways in which the Torah emphasizes the great importance of peace. The list is quite varied, and the examples of Torah ordained “peace” relate to very different conflicts: friends, relatives, warring countries, and even the angels above. In it, the personal and geopolitical are all thrown into the same pot; fighting with your spouse and waging war with an enemy are listed one after the other, as if somehow the situations are comparable. But I believe the point of the Midrash is precisely that; peace is always important, at home and abroad, in heaven and on earth. We never stop caring about peace, no matter how big or how small, because we see the world through peace-colored glasses.
The Jewish tradition’s reverence for peace is reflected in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. In it, Israel makes a remarkable offer to its neighbors: “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help…. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
In 1948, Israel’s call for peace seemed futile; immediately after declaring independence, Israel was invaded by seven neighboring Arab countries. But 74 years later, this declaration looks prophetic; Israel now has peace treaties with most of its neighbors. Maybe the dream of peace isn’t that naive. After all, Moshe’s call for peace was finally answered, 3,300 years later. 

Friday, July 29, 2022

Dvar Torah - A Rerun

I am on vacation - so there is no new dvar Torah this week. 

Last year's can be found in the Jewish Journal at this link.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Ultimate Question of Jewish History

It is a verse that directly challenges the contemporary Jew. At the outset of Bilaam's prophecy, he declares: "Behold, a people that dwells alone, and is not counted among the nations." To medieval commentaries, the verse was a roadmap; the Jews are meant to live separate lives, and because of this they will not assimilate. Even in the modern era, many turned to this verse for inspiration. In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Naftali Tzi Berlin, the Netziv, argues for the importance of Jews remaining apart from non-Jewish society, because separation diminishes anti-Semitism. He writes that: “It is a people that dwells alone; not like all other nations and cultures, that when they go into exile and mingle within their new countries, they win even more love and respect, because they are no longer separated (by national distinctions)… Israel is not like that; when they are alone and don't assimilate, they can dwell in tranquility and honor … but when they try to mix, they are not reckoned among the nations and are not even considered to be humans." In middle of the 19th century, the Netziv makes the assertion that assimilation provokes antisemitism; and this describes a developing trend in his own time, of ugly, antisemitic reactions to assimilated Jews entering the mainstream of society. 

Once the ghetto walls came down, Jewish separation became a matter of choice. The question arose whether Jews should still follow the directive to “not be counted among the nations”. Many felt continued separation would be a mistake, and instead embraced emancipation as an opportunity to transform the Jewish community. Dwelling alone was not meant to be the eternal reality of the Jewish people, and now Jews had an opportunity to pursue normalcy. They desired to be a people and a nation like any other and fit in everywhere. They would dress like everyone else, pray in the same language as everyone else, and go to school with everyone else; they would be a Jew at home, and a citizen in the street. The hope was that this verse would disappear, a relic of a past era of exclusion and discrimination.

Within the Orthodox community, many saw abandoning the mindset of “a people that dwells alone” as a mistake, and a roadmap for assimilation. One of the most prominent exponents of this view was Yaakov Herzog. The son of the second chief Rabbi of Israel, Yaakov Herzog was brilliant and eloquent, an accomplished rabbinic scholar as well as a distinguished intellectual and diplomat; among other accomplishments, he initiated Israel’s dialogue with Jordan’s King Hussein. In 1965, Herzog was offered the posts of Chief Rabbi of England and the director of the Prime Minister's office at around the same time. After he tragically passed away at age 50, a collection of his speeches was published under the title of "A People that Dwells Alone"; and it was this verse that Herzog returned to repeatedly, which he saw as central to understanding Jewish identity. In one speech from 1967, Herzog relates how he hosted in Israel 15 heads of theological graduate schools from the United States. He asked them to respond to this verse: “has this prophecy remained true to the present day? Has it been fulfilled in the realities of our history?" He explains that even these Christian clergymen admitted that “a people that dwells alone” was an eternal reality. In multiple lectures Herzog argued that Jews will never be able to fully integrate into the diaspora; and more importantly, Jews must follow their unique destiny, one which sets them apart from the rest of the world.

A very different response to this question was offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He tells of a Shavuot lunch in 2001 that he shared with Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament and a professor of international law at McGill University, along with a senior Israeli diplomat. Cotler with sounding the alarm on the upcoming United Nations conference in Durban, which he was concerned would become a platform for anti-Israel and antisemitic propaganda. (Unfortunately, Cotler's worst nightmares came true.) As the discussion was proceeding, the Israeli diplomat interrupted to explain that one shouldn’t be too shocked about antisemitism, because "It was ever thus", for the Torah says the Jews are a people that dwells alone. Rabbi Sacks responded sharply to the diplomat’s suggestion: "What makes you so sure that Baalam meant those words as a blessing? Might it have not been that he intended them as a curse?" Sacks explains that the Hebrew word used for alone, “baddad”, is often used to portray unhappy loneliness. He argues that the Jewish self-image of standing alone is actually what causes our alienation from others. Sacks concludes by saying "Jews have enemies… But we also have friends. And if we worked harder at it, we would have more."

At first glance, Herzog and Sacks have dramatically different viewpoints. But both recognize that the alternative to being a people that dwells alone is not unqualified universalism. Sacks lists several ways in which the dream of universalism failed the Jews. He writes that in the 19th century, after Jewish emancipation, too many assumed that the new political age represented the fulfillment of the Messianic redemption. He quotes a German newspaper, which in 1843 reported that the local Reform Jews believed “that the Messiah had come in the form of the German fatherland”. Similarly, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of American Reform Movement declared that the modern era represented "The approaching of the realization of Israel's great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, Justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community..." Then came the 20th century, and these dreams proved to be a mirage. Jews who were intoxicated with the delusions of universalism were unprepared for the disaster that would ensue.

Herzog quotes a similar story about Leon Trotsky. In 1917, after he was named the Bolshevik Minister of Defense, an old rabbi came to see Trotsky. He had once taught a young boy named Leibele Bronstein, and heard that now Leibele was a leader of the Communist movement, which was shuttering Jewish schools and synagogues. The Rabbi approached his former pupil, wondering how it was possible that his beloved Leibele was the one leading the charge to destroy Judaism. Trosky explained to his Rabbi that actually he was attempting to bring about the realization of the greatest hopes of the Jews: the coming of the Messiah. But instead of the Messiah only helping the Jews, through Communism one could support "a universal development that would flood the entire world… The time had come for Judaism to merge into this universal movement for the redemption of humanity." Ultimately, Trotsky's dream was a catastrophic failure, both for the Soviet Union and himself. Both Sacks and Herzog point out how universalism has failed the Jews in the past, and even Sacks agrees they cannot just be another nation among the nations.
It is often universalism that presents the greatest challenge to Jewish identity, especially on college campuses. In a speech from 1970, Herzog refers to young Jewish intellectuals on campuses who repudiate any idea such as ‘a people that dwells alone’ as being egocentric, a rejection of progress, an abnormality, a self-imposed ghetto; in short, something that 20th century civilization cannot tolerate. This hostility is even more present today. Instead of Israel being the 3,300 year old homeland of the Jews, it is viewed as colonialism's original sin, one that intersects every form of racism and chauvinism. Anti-Semitism, the world's oldest hatred, is belittled as an "eternal victim narrative", just another piece of Zionist propaganda. And the Holocaust? It is seen as ancient history, which primarily contributes to Jewish paranoia. The only way for a young Jew to redeem themselves from the curse of Judaism is to renounce the Zionist heresy, the ultimate crime against universalism. Yes, these critics do allow that a Jew should be proud of their Jewishness, provided that it is innocuous. It is permissible to enjoy Yiddish culture and the good bagel, provided a Jew is first and foremost a citizen of the world, an activist interested in every cause except their own. Ironically, the intense insistence on the importance of universalism actually distinguishes these Jews. As Cynthia Ozick put it in an oft quoted essay from 1974, "Only Jews carry on this way. Universalism is the ultimate Jewish parochialism." Perhaps being a people that dwells alone is a curse; but universalism has become a serious threat to Jewish identity.
On the other hand, it is important to recognize that universalism has been very much a part of Judaism from the very beginning. Abraham was told that his mission is to be a blessing for all the nations of the earth; and Isaiah calls the Jews a light unto the nations, meant to bring goodness to the entire world. But it is here that the struggle begins; how can a people that dwells alone also be a light unto the nations? In isolation there is no influence.
The outline of a resolution can be found in fascinating Jewish law. The very same mitzvah that emphasizes how Jews must dwell alone is also the foundation of Jewish universalism. The commandment of Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God's name, carries two very different obligations. The first is yehareg v'al yaavor, to give up one's life rather than violate the sin of idolatry. Jews through the ages accepted martyrdom rather than betray their religious beliefs; and in medieval Europe, Jews refused to become Christians, even when a sword was held to their neck. This aspect of Kiddush Hashem is the ultimate expression of a people that dwells alone; Jews would rather give up their lives than accept the religion of their neighbors.

Yet there is a second aspect to Kiddush Hashem: acting in a manner that brings honor to God and the Torah. The classic example of this is a passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi, which tells the story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who had bought a donkey from a non-Jew. Upon examination, he found a diamond attached to its saddle that its owner had forgotten and abandoned. Shimon Ben Shetach insisted on returning the diamond. When his students asked him why he was returning a valuable, abandoned object, he replied: "What do you think, that Shimon ben Shetach is a barbarian? Shimon ben Shetach would rather hear (the owner exclaim) 'blessed is the God of the Jews' than receive all of the rewards possible in this world." Maimonides sees this story as an example of true Kiddush Hashem; and one sanctifies God's name by acting according to the highest ethical standards and spreading the light of the Torah through the world.

These two definitions of Kiddush Hashem sit side by side with each other. Both fierce loyalty to Judaism and authentic devotion to all of humanity are demanded of every Jew. But this confrontation with competing obligations has proved difficult in practice. Some take comfort by retreating into a ghetto, forgetting 99.8% of humanity; and all too often, the response is to go in the other direction, transforming universalism into the only meaningful mitzvah of Judaism.

Neither alternative is acceptable. And this is the ultimate challenge for 21st century Jews: can we faithfully embrace Judaism and love humanity at the very same time? Yaakov Herzog put it this way: "three thousand years ago, Balaam the prophet described the children of Israel as a people that dwells alone… The problem is whether this concept denotes a privilege, (not an escape from society, but a unique role within it), or whether it is an anomaly which must be denied and discarded. This is the question of Jewish history."

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Politics and the Parah Adumah


Purification by the Red Heifer, A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England, January 1, 1970.
The Midrash states that the commandment of Parah Adumah is the ultimate religious mystery, and its reasons are unknowable. The commandment outlines a purification ritual for those who came in contact with a dead body. A red heifer, or Parah Adumah, is sacrificed on the Mount of Olives, and then burnt on a pyre. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on those who were impure.
The Parah Adumah ritual is confusing for several reasons. It is a sacrifice that is performed outside of the Temple, something which elsewhere the Torah explicitly forbids. And while the ashes of the Parah Adumah purify those who were impure, paradoxically, those who handle the ashes are themselves rendered impure. The Midrash says that even the wisest of all men, King Solomon, said about this commandment, “I thought I was wise enough, yet it was distant from my understanding.” Even Solomon couldn’t comprehend the purpose of the Parah Adumah. The term used by the Talmud for commandments without any reasons, a chok, is taken directly from our Torah reading.
Whether or not the commandments have reasons has been debated by Jewish thinkers for over 2,000 years. Christine Hayes, in her book What's Divine About Divine Law, explains that these debates arose when Jews first confronted Hellenistic culture. In the Greek world, the idea of natural law, a universal, rational understanding of what is right and what is wrong, was accepted; what would be considered divine morality could be understood by one’s intellect. This perspective challenged Jews to think about how to understand the Torah, most of whose commandments were offered as divine fiats without any stated reasons. Some, like Philo, sought to integrate the Greek understanding of divine law into the Torah, and find logical reasons for all the commandments; this project of searching for taamei hamitzvot, the reasons for the commandments, has continued to this day. The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash held multiple points of view on this question. Some rabbis take the same approach as Philo; but many passages in Talmud and Midrash reject the idea that commandments have reasons. Even ostensibly ethical commandments are seen as purely a reflection of God’s will; one passage in the Talmud says it is improper to consider the commandment to send the mother bird away before taking her eggs, as a reflection of divine mercy, because all of God’s commandments are exclusively divine decrees. Another passage in the Talmud, which was particularly influential in medieval philosophy, creates a division between two types of commandments: there are mishpatim, ethical laws that one would arrive at rationally on one’s own, much like natural law. And there are chukim, divine decrees without any explanation; the Talmud says that regarding chukim, God declares, "I decreed these statutes, and you have no right to question them."
In medieval philosophy, Saadia Gaon accepts this distinction between chukim and mishpatim, which he calls “revealed” and “rational” laws. The Rambam strongly disagrees and insists that every commandment is rational. God would only act in accordance with wisdom; he explains that our Sages generally do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever and serve no purpose, for this would lead us to assume that God's actions are purposeless. The Rambam devotes nearly a quarter of his Guide for the Perplexed to taamei hamitzvot, and he enumerates reasons for every commandment, even ones that seem strange and obscure.
But in the modern era, the Rambam's understanding of taamei hamitzvot was rejected by many Jewish thinkers. By offering philosophical, historical, and even medical reasons for the commandments, the Rambam opened a religious Pandora's box; if the reason was no longer relevant, perhaps the commandment could be ignored? For this reason, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch harshly criticizes the Rambam’s taamei hamitzvot, because they paved the way for the Reform movement. He writes: If, for instance, the sole purpose of the prohibition of labor on the Sabbath was to enable men to rest and recover from the toils of the week, if the Sabbath means only the cessation of corporeal activity in order that the mind may be active; and who could doubt it, since both Moses (i.e, Moses Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn) interpret it thus, and the Christian Sunday agrees with their conception, who must not consider it mere pettiness and pedantic absurdity to fill an entire folio with the investigation of the question, what particular actions are forbidden, and what permitted on the Sabbath day? How singular, to declare the writing of two letters, perhaps an intellectual occupation, a deadly sin, while judging leniently many acts involving great physical exertion, and freeing from penalty all purposeless destruction! Hirsch bemoans the fact that the Rambam’s philosophical interpretations of the mitzvot undermine the practice of halakhah; in actuality, the Shabbat is much more than a mere day of rest. By explaining the commandments, the Rambam ended up undermining them.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik takes this critique a step further. He too uses the Rambam’s reason for Shabbat as an example. He writes that if the purpose of Shabbat is merely “hedonic,” to rest, then the Sabbath idea is dispossessed of its breadth and warmth. And if the Sabbath is to be seen only against the background of mundane social justice and similar ideals, the intrinsic quality of the Sabbath is transformed into something alien. It serves merely as a means to the realization of a "higher" end. Soloveitchik explains that reasons for the commandments offered by the Rambam often explain a religious norm by an ethical precept, turning religion into the maidservant of ethics. Rabbi Soloveitchik's fundamental criticism is that the Rambam's taamei hamitzvot subordinate the Torah to other disciplines, putting Torah second.
Both Rabbis Hirsch and Soloveitchik emphasize the need for the Torah to be treated as an independent, transcendent discipline. This call is particularly significant, considering that it comes from two thinkers who were associated with movements of Torah Umadda and Torah im Derech Eretz, who saw engagement with general knowledge as a religious obligation; yet they remain steadfast in refusing to reduce Torah to a vehicle for external disciplines. 
And this is precisely the importance of chok: to remind us not to use divine revelation in the service of other ends. We must approach the commandments with humility, and not assume they are there to serve our own personal needs.
Sadly, in contemporary times, many treat the Torah as a textbook of non-Torah subjects; readers scour religious texts to find lessons of psychology, leadership, finance, and even medicine. My objection is not to specific insights. For example, one must consider the psychological aspects within the narratives of Bereishit; not to do so would overlook important insights. But when the psychological perspective becomes the primary mode of engaging a text, the spiritual power of the Torah is lost. A grand gesture of faith can be reduced to an unusual father-son dynamic, and the Torah then becomes a collection of interesting case studies. The Torah should not become "a spade with which to dig,” a way to obtain useful information that the reader finds gratifying.
The Torah is most often conscripted in the service of politics. Every hot button issue inspires articles about how the Torah supports one viewpoint or another. Written in the style of a lawyer's brief, these articles of political-Torah lack nuance and scholarly insight. Undoubtedly, the advocates of politicizing Torah have laudable goals: they want to ensure that the Torah is “relevant,” and that we “bring Torah values into the public square.” But in reality, the opposite occurs; the Torah ends up being the footnote to political passions, and all that matters is whether the Torah supports one’s favorite causes.
Bringing religion into politics will ultimately diminish faith. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best. When told by an aide that “God was on the side of the Union,” Lincoln supposedly responded: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side.” One must never confuse subjective interests with divine imperatives; but this inversion of values is what happens when religion becomes subordinate to politics. The lesson of the chukim is to avoid pulling God over to our side, and instead approach the Torah with humility and openness.

Friday, July 01, 2022

The Leadership Legacy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe


What was Moshe’s leadership philosophy? He responds in very different ways to two critical episodes in the middle of Sefer Bamidbar. When Korach and his supporters rebel against Moshe’s leadership, Moshe responds with fury; he maneuvers Korach’s camp into accepting a challenge that will ultimately cost them their lives. Moshe stands out as a strong minded leader who deftly eliminates the opposition.
Yet during the incident of Eldad and Medad, Moshe reacts very differently. At God’s command, Moshe had gathered a group of 70 to receive prophecy and assist him. Two men who were not invited to join the group of 70, Eldad and Medad, begin to prophesize, even though they had not been included among the 70 appointed assistants. Eldad and Medad’s actions are perceived as an act of rebellion; Moshe's disciple Yehoshua wants to imprison them. Rashi highlights their defiance by quoting a Midrash which says that Eldad and Medad had prophesied “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the Land.” Like Korach, Eldad and Medad are challenging Moshe’s leadership.
Yet what is Moshe's response to Eldad and Medad? He says: “May it be that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!”
It is apparent that the Torah intends us to read these two accounts side by side; their narratives and language mirror each other. In both, there is a gathering of elders. In both, there are calls for Moshe’s resignation; in the first instance, Moshe offers his resignation, in the Korach narrative, Korach calls on Moshe to resign. In both, there are declarations about the elevated status of the nation. Moshe exclaims that he wishes that the entire nation could be prophets; Korach declares that the entire nation is holy.

So, what accounts for why Moshe reacts so differently in the two narratives? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that there are two aspects of Moshe's role. He writes that: “There are two forms or dimensions of leadership. One is power, the other, influence. Often, we confuse the two…. In fact, however, the two are quite different, even opposites…. So deep is the difference that the Torah allocates them to two distinct leadership roles: king and prophet. Kings had power. They could levy taxes, conscript people to serve in the army, and decide when and against whom to wage war. Prophets, by contrast, had no power at all. They commanded no armies. They levied no taxes. They spoke God’s word but had no means of enforcing it. All they had was influence – but what influence!”
Sacks explains that in the story of Eldad and Medad, we are discussing prophetic inspiration, a form of non-coercive influence. Inspiration should be shared widely; therefore, Moshe embraces Eldad and Medad. On the other hand, Korach wants power, and wants to replace Moshe. That Moshe cannot accede to, because it is impossible for two kings to wear the same crown.
(The difficulty with Rabbi Sacks’ position is that the story of Eldad and Medad and the 70 elders takes place during a political crisis. The 70 elders he appoints are meant to be both political leaders and prophets; and the clear demarcation between political and prophetic leadership doesn’t begin until the time of King David.)
I would suggest a slightly different approach. Moshe is a transformative leader who sees the goal of leadership as serving others. This idea is reflected in a verb that is shared in both narratives, sa, or to “lift up.” However, it is used very differently, in its active and passive forms. In the narrative of Eldad and Medad, the verb sa is used to connote that leading the people is a burden. The analogy Moshe uses is that leadership is like carrying a child on your lap; and this burden is difficult to carry. Moshe remarks, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.” In the narrative of Korach, this verb is used by Korach in a very different way. He complains against Moshe saying, “Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” Korach sees the leader as being lifted by his followers; it is the leader who benefits most from the relationship of leadership.
I believe this is the key to Moshe's contrasting reactions. Eldad and Medad may be challenging Moshe, but they are not searching for personal glory; they simply want to help spread the word of God. This type of transformative leadership is welcomed even when there are other leaders around; uninterested in power for its own sake, Eldad and Medad pose no threat to Moshe. Korach, however, wants to be raised up by others. His thirst for leadership is egocentric. Leaders like Korach who are focused on their own glory can be very destructive, because for them political power is a zero-sum game. And for that reason, Moshe responds harshly to Korach, whose true goal is creating an autocracy of one.
Transformative leaders represent a very different vision of leadership. They not only come to serve the community, but they also recognize that the greatest service one can offer is to help create other transformative leaders. They use their influence to help others become the best version of themselves.
This week marks the 28th yartzeit, anniversary of the death, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory. Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of the Rebbe’s leadership is precisely this: he was determined to turn others into leaders.
Today, there are thousands of Chabad shluchim in every corner of the globe; they each lead synagogues, schools, communities, and organizations. The Rebbe has inspired many leaders within Lubavitch; but his influence goes well beyond Chabad. 
Joseph Telushkin, in his book Rebbe relates two examples of the impact the Rebbe’s transformative leadership had on rabbis outside of the Lubavitch community.
One anecdote he relates is about Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who later would become the executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union. At the time, Weinreb was 30, and working in Baltimore as a clinical psychologist and educator. He was at a crossroads in his life, unsure of which career path to take, and plagued with religious challenges. So Weinreb decided to call the Rebbe, whose farbrengens he had attended when he lived in Crown Heights. Telushkin relates that:
In February 1971, Weinreb called the Rebbe’s office to see if he could arrange an appointment. The call was answered by a secretary, whom Weinreb later deduced was Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov. Hodakov started asking him questions to ascertain the purpose of the call, when Weinreb heard a voice in the background – which he recognized from those earlier farbrengens – asking in Yiddish, “Who’s calling?”
At that point, Weinreb was anxious to maintain his anonymity – particularly if he did not end up meeting with the Rebbe. He replied,” A Jew from Maryland.” …..
But then, even before Weinreb could pin down a date for a meeting, he heard the Rebbe call out in the background, “Tell him that there is a Jew who lives in Maryland that he can speak to, Der Yid hayst Weinreb (His name is Weinreb).”
Hodakov said to him, “Did you hear what the Rebbe said?”
Weinreb had heard and was in shock.… he assumed that he had probably misheard the Rebbe. So, he told Hodakov no, he had not heard what the Rebbe said.
Rabbi Hodakov repeated the Rebbe’s words: “Tell him that there is a Jew who lives in Maryland that he can speak to. His name is Weinreb.”
Weinreb said, “But my name is Weinreb.”
Now it was Rabbi Hodakov’s turn to be shocked. But not the Rebbe. When Hodakov repeated aloud what Weinreb had said, the Rebbe simply responded, “Oih azoi. If that is the case, then he should know that sometimes a person needs to speak to himself.”
This advice seems to be the opposite of what a rebbe should offer. After all, the follower is coming to him, the leader for support. But that’s precisely the point. The Rebbe’s goal was to create leaders, not followers. And he was challenging Rabbi Weinreb, who was already an accomplished rabbi and psychologist, to recognize his own abilities and trust his own instincts and insights.
The Rebbe also challenged people to take responsibility for the situation around them; to stop looking inward, and instead recognize that the potential for change was in their hands.
The book has a second anecdote regarding a second-year student at Cambridge, Jonathan Sacks, who came to visit the Rebbe. This meeting would change Sacks’ life trajectory and start him on his career as a rabbi and Jewish leader. Telushkin writes:
At the meeting, what first struck Sacks was the Rebbe’s understated, nonaggressive manner. For a good while, the Rebbe listened and responded patiently to Sack’s philosophical queries and concerns, always acting “as if the most important person in the room was me.” But then, having taken his measure of the young man, the Rebbe suddenly turned the conversation around. The interviewee became the interviewer. “Things are going wrong,” the Rebbe had said to him. “Are you willing to be one of those who helps to put them right?”
The young man was taken aback. He had gone into the meeting to ask questions, not answer them. Furthermore, at that early, somewhat uncertain stage of his life, his intention was to become an economist, a lawyer, or an academic. He certainly did not see himself as a leader, though that was the role the Rebbe was now telling him to assume; at one point, the Rebbe even challenged him as to what he was doing to strengthen Jewish life at Cambridge.
The Rebbe’s insistent manner made a profound impact on Sacks: “I had been told that the Rebbe was a man with thousands of followers. After I met him, I understood that the opposite was the case. A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders. More than the Rebbe was a leader, he created leadership in others.”
This is the very foundation of transformative leadership: true leaders teach others how to be leaders. And the Rebbe did that, thousands of times over. May his memory continue to inspire us to be those people that when things are going wrong, helps to put them right.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Jewish Cowardice: A Reevaluation


In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud recounts a conversation with his father Jakob, when he was 10- or 12-years-old. Jakob said to his son: "While I was a young man, I was walking one Saturday on a street in the village where you were born; I was handsomely dressed and wore a new fur cap. Along comes a Christian, who knocks my cap into the mud with one blow and shouts: "Jew, get off the sidewalk." "And what did you do?" "I went into the street and picked up the cap," was the calm answer." This response upset Sigmund Freud; he wrote that "(it) did not seem heroic on the part of the big strong man, who was leading me, a little fellow, by the hand." Freud was embarrassed that his father was a coward; he was embarrassed that his father did so little to stand up to an antisemite.
Hannah Tessler | Shira Tessler
The allegation of Jewish cowardice has a long history, one which begins with the generation of the desert. The spies return from a reconnaissance mission to the promised land with a negative report; they had reviewed the strength of the Canaanites, and concluded that “we cannot attack those people, for they are stronger than we are.” That night, the entire nation cried, grumbled, and plotted a return to Egypt.
Without question, the spies lacked self-confidence. A revealing verse offers a window into their fears and worries; in it, the spies declare that in comparison with the Canaanites, "we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” The Midrash notes that the spies engage in mind-reading, and instantly assume that the Canaanites see them as weak and small as well; this negative assumption speaks volumes about the spies’ inferiority complex.
From the moment they left Egypt, the Jews were plagued with a lack of self-confidence. Every difficult moment brings fear and worry; so much so, that the Torah explains that God didn’t take the Jews on a direct path to Israel, because of a concern that the Jews would flee back to Egypt if they faced war immediately. Many of the commentaries to the Torah explain this lack of self-confidence as being a product of a slave mentality. Ibn Ezra offers the following observation regarding the panic the Jews had at the banks of the Red Sea, when being pursued by the Egyptian army:
One may wonder how such a large camp of six hundred thousand men would be afraid of those pursuing after them; and why did they not stand up and fight for their lives and for their children? The answer is that the Egyptians were the Israelites' masters. And the generation that left Egypt was trained from its youth to tolerate the yoke of Egypt and had a lowly soul… (and they were) weak and not trained in warfare. And God… brought it about that all the males of the people that went out of Egypt would die, as there was no strength in them to fight against the Canaanites; (the Jews would first enter the land) after a new generation…that did not see exile and had a confident spirit, arose...
Ibn Ezra says the Jews had a “slave mentality”; they were still held emotionally captive by the Egyptians, and unable to build an independent life. This theory is embraced by the Rambam and multiple other commentaries. The first generation of Jews in the desert are the original Jewish cowards, people who would rather remain slaves than fight for their own future. And Jews in exile often saw a reflection of themselves in the generation of the desert.
Ultimately, the image of the cowardly Jew becomes a staple of antisemitic propaganda; but sadly, Jews adopted this self-image as well. Some of the nastiest and harshest depictions of Jewish cowardice come from inside the Jewish community. Consider the following bitter Jewish joke about what is considered to be “celebration for the Jews.”
One year, in an East European town, a child was found dead on the night of Pesach. All the Jews knew well the rage, rioting, and killing that would soon befall them. They gathered in the synagogue and engaged in fervent prayer until one Jew rushed into the synagogue and joyously proclaimed: “Der mes is ah Yid – the dead child is Jewish!” Good news … we had nothing to worry about. There will be no pogrom! Der mes is ah Yid – a simcha bei Yidden - a celebration for the Jews.
This joke is so vicious, I thought for a long time before deciding to include it in this article. But it authentically represents a profound Jewish fury at their own community, a fury that they were too eager to accept discrimination and persecution. But by the late 19th century, many young Jews saw themselves as the opposites of their ancestors. Much like the second generation of Jews in the desert, they felt that they needed to make a complete break with the past. In a speech memorializing Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky called on young Jews to restart Jewish history. (Here too, the rhetoric is harsh; Jabotinsky used the antisemitic slur zhid in the text; it has been replaced with Yid.) He calls on the community to transform itself from the slavish old Jew of the past:
Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent. The Yid is despised by all and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to charm all. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command. The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: "I am a Hebrew!"
This idea was adopted by multiple Zionist thinkers, and called shlilat hagolah, “the negation of exile.” The dream was for a generation of new Jews to replace the fearful, cowardly old Jew. The Jews of the early 20th century could only leave the desert of exile if the new Jew unlearned the bad habits of their forebears.
After the Holocaust, some extended this rhetoric to attack the victims of the Holocaust; they were seen as weak and fearful, people who didn’t fight back, and went like sheep to the slaughter. Raul Hilberg, one of the first historians to research the Holocaust, reinforced the stereotype of Jewish cowardice, and he ignored all forms of Jewish resistance. But other historians recognized that this picture was distorted, and further research brought many instances of active resistance to light. But a large part of this reevaluation came from a new definition of resistance. To resist did not require the taking up of arms, which in most cases was both impossible and futile. Instead, there was a growing recognition of the importance of spiritual resistance; and for those under the crushing oppression of the Nazis, the determination to raise one’s spirit and to pursue life was nothing short of heroic. Hilberg mocked this theory that heroism included the "soup ladlers and all others in the ghettos who staved off starvation and despair." But today, there is broad recognition of the significance of spiritual resistance. In the hell of the concentration camps, the will to live on required profound strength and determination.
A similar reevaluation is needed for the Jews in the desert. The Torah highlights their flaws and their failures; but perhaps the evidence of a few negative episodes over 40 years is insufficient to render a final verdict on an entire generation. The generation of the desert did follow God for 40 years in the desert; and in the Book of Jeremiah, their devotion is highlighted, where Yirmiyahu says: “I remember the devotion of your youth…how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer argues against the prevailing view, and says that the generation of the desert were pious keepers of the Covenant. Yes, at times some of them grumbled, at times they were afraid. But they followed Moses for 40 years in the desert, and they raised a generation of children that would ultimately enter the land. Their case deserves a second look.
This reevaluation also explains a mystery: How is it that after 1900 years of exile, the cowardly Jew became the pioneer and soldier? How did this new Jew arise, as if out of nowhere? Perhaps the answer is that the new Jew and the galut jew are not all that different. Yes, they look different; the new Jew is the very portrait of a knight in shining armor, unafraid to do battle, while the galut Jew is a hunched man in rags, being heaped with abuse as he walks in the street. But one needs to look past the externals; what is more critical is the inner values. Both the new Jew and the galut Jew were guided by the goal of am Yisrael chai, ensuring that the Jewish people live on. Sometimes that goal can be pursued with pride; but sometimes survival on its own is good enough, even if it requires enduring humiliation. And when he finally got the chance, the galut Jew grabbed the opportunity to return home.
This reevaluation of the galut Jew is now widely accepted; in recent years, the hearts of the two generations have been brought closer to each other. On Yom Hashoah, many Israelis take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Jews who survived during the Holocaust. They are not seen as weaklings; instead, they are respected as heroes. And each year on Yom Hashoah, the IDF, the Israeli army, shares the stories of Holocaust survivors together with their grandchildren who are serving in the Israeli army. One of the stories featured Holocaust survivor Hanna Tessler, 96, and her granddaughter Shira, a parachuting instructor in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade. The caption included what Hanna said to Shira that day:
As a child, I hated soldiers in uniform. They scared me very much. I never thought there would be a time that I would love soldiers. As you hold my hand, while wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, paratrooper's wings pinned on your shirt, and a pair of paratrooper’s boots on your feet, I am overwhelmed with emotion that I can't keep inside. You're a paratrooper and I float in the air, pinching myself to make sure it's not a dream. My heart is filled with pride and such incredible love. I feel like a soldier myself – I fought for my life, I fought for my sanity, I fought to be a person again, and I really fought and dreamed to have a big family. So today, I stand up tall and salute you. 
This photo is of two generations side by side, holding each other in mutual admiration and love. The Jewish people wouldn’t be here without the determination of previous generations, and we wouldn’t have returned to Israel without the courage of a younger generation. And thanks to the sacrifices of Jews past and present, we can continue to say am Yisrael chai.