Friday, May 27, 2022

After the Curses

How to read the Torah section of the tochacha, the curses, in the synagogue, has always been a delicate matter. The Torah discusses the consequences of God's covenant with the Jews twice; there are blessings for fulfilling the covenant, and curses for violating it. The Mishnah rules that the tochacha is meant to be read as a single unit, during one aliyah; the reason for this is a matter of debate. Rav Asi's opinion is that dividing the tochacha would show a lack of respect. He bases his view on the verse in Mishlei, "Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son, and do not abhor His rebuke." The curses offer a rebuke and a lesson of personal change, and we read this section uninterrupted in respect for its important message.

Rabbi YY Halberstam, The Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, Founder of the Laniado Hospital.
A very different view of the Mishnah's rule is offered by Reish Lakish. He says we don't divide the tochacha into two aliyot because it would be inappropriate to make a blessing on the Torah in middle of the curses. He explains, "One doesn't make a blessing on calamities." We don't welcome curses and bless their arrival; curses are meant to be avoided like the plagues they enumerate.
This view became particularly influential in the medieval period, and the tochacha aliyah is actually treated as being cursed; so much so, that some communities skipped the Torah reading for this parsha! In most communities, the custom is to read this section quickly, and in a low voice; this is based on a passage in the Talmud that talks about "mumbling" while reading the tochacha.
There are many other customs regarding this Aliyah. In some places they called an ignorant, undistinguished person for the curses, because their Torah blessing was less likely to influence the divine realm, while in other places they specifically called the rabbi, who would be unafraid to read this section. But in many locales, this section was avoided by the entire community. Rabbi Moshe Isserles records that the custom of Ashkenazi communities was to call out in synagogue before the tochacha aliya “Anyone who wants can read." This created a problem, because no one wanted to take the aliyah; and in responsa literature, there are reports of communities waiting for hours for someone to approach for the aliyah.
Some enterprising communities dealt with this problem by hiring a poor person to take this aliyah. (The 14th century Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin so disliked this custom, he once remarked angrily to a poor man who took this aliyah, "Why do you need more pain?") Some individuals became "specialists" who would be paid to take the tochacha aliyah in several synagogues. There is a joke about the time when the man employed to take the tochacha aliyah came exceptionally late. Annoyed with the delay, the head of the synagogue asked him why he didn't come on time; the man explained he was late because he had taken the tochacha aliya at several other synagogues as well, because "you can't make a living from just one set of curses.”
For hundreds of years, Jewish communities have embraced Reish Lakish's view; we do not want to listen to these curses or be entangled in them. Perhaps the fire and brimstone of the tochacha might motivate people to improve themselves; but even so, we would prefer to accept neither its honey nor its sting and avoid it entirely.
On a Shabbat morning in 1952, one Rabbi went a step further, and completely ignored the tochacha. The Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, was a Holocaust survivor, whose wife and 11 children had been murdered by the Nazis; after the war, he had relocated to Brooklyn. On that Shabbat morning, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who was at that time 12-year-old, had come to visit the Rebbe's synagogue; and this is how Rabbi Riskin describes that remarkable Torah reading:
"In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the tochacha in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the Yiddish word hecher (louder) came from the direction of the lectern upon which the rebbe was leaning at the eastern wall of the shul.
The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Bibles in questioning silence. Could they have heard their rebbe correctly? Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the tochacha out loud? The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And then the rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation, and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face, and fire blazing in his eyes: “I said louder! Read these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear. We’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us and let Him know that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!”
The Klausenberger Rebbe was a man who had seen all these curses, and worse, up close; and that Shabbat morning he was demanding from God that there be no more curses. In doing so, the Rebbe redefined what these curses mean; but at the same time, he also redefined what blessings are as well. At the end of services, the Rebbe rose to speak. Rabbi Riskin writes: "His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love, leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul. “My beloved brothers and sisters,” he said, “pack up your belongings. We must make one more move. God promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come. They will come – but not from America. The blessings will only come from Israel. It is time for us to go home.”
The Rebbe's words are profoundly inspiring. But they are a great deal more than that; they represent a dramatic shift in the Rebbe's philosophy. Before the war, he was an anti-Zionist. He felt that a Jewish State could only be created by the Messiah, and a state built by secular Zionists would fall very short of the authentic Messianic utopia. But after the war, he became far more pragmatic. He explained his change of heart by referencing a debate between two Hasidic Rabbis during the Napoleonic wars, as the invasion of Russia had aroused speculation that the Messiah might be coming. The Klausenberger Rebbe wrote:
"The Rabbi (Menachem Mendel) of Rimanov declared that he would agree to them proceeding from Lviv to Rawa, ankle-deep in Jewish blood, so long as the Messiah would come, while the Rabbi of Ropshitz insisted that "we will not hear of a third or a quarter" – i.e., if even a third or a quarter of a Jew would be missing, we do not want to hear of redemption." When I was a child, I asked my revered father and teacher, may his memory protect us: Was Rabbi Menachem Mendel not correct?"
When the Klausenberger Rebbe got older, he came to the opinion that protecting people from suffering was more important than building a messianic utopia. When you have seen the worst the world has to offer, what matters are small blessings, not grand visions. And the Klausenberger Rebbe saw Israel as a blessing one must grab hold of. After that Shabbat morning, he began building a neighborhood in Netanya, and in December 1959, moved to Israel with 51 of his followers.
The Klausenberger Rebbe consistently searched for a way to improve the lives of his fellow Jews. In response to his own wartime experiences of suffering, he built the Laniado Hospital in Netanya, a rather unusual undertaking for a Hasidic Rebbe. And he appreciated the State of Israel for the safety and protection that it brought to so many Jews. The Klausenberger Rebbe met with, and maintained a regular correspondence with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, and was vilified by many of his colleagues for doing so. For him, this represented a profound shift, not just away from anti-Zionism; it was a change of perspective, recognizing that even if it isn't a utopia, the State of Israel was a blessing that made the lives of Jews better.
When they met, Ben Gurion asked the Klausenberger Rebbe for his expectations for a Jewish state. The rabbi answered he has maximum and minimum expectations. "What are they?" “The minimum is that I will be able to go out on a Shabbos morning wearing my shtreimel and bekeshe and no one will bother me,” he said. And the maximum? “You, (Ben Gurion), will wear a shtreimel as well.”
The Rebbe still savored the utopian vision of a State of Torah; but he now embraced the "minimum expectation" as an incredible blessing as well.
I am currently in Israel with nearly 500 Ramaz students and teachers; it is truly inspiring to be a part of this mission, and to tour Israel with the students. Israel is not a utopia; but at a minimum, it is a miracle the likes of which previous generations could only dream. And at a time when too many American Jews mumble their support for Israel, it means a great deal that our school and our community is ready to offer its support for Israel, louder and louder.

Friday, May 20, 2022

The Shmita Debate: A Clash of Utopias


The proper observance of shmita has been a topic of perennial debate in Israel's Orthodox community for the last 130 years. The rules of the sabbatical year, shmita, require farmers to desist from working their fields, and to open up their fields and all the produce within them to anyone. But the Jewish agricultural communities established in the late 1800s were worried that shmita could undermine their viability, and that they simply could not afford to shut down for the entire year. At the time, the idea of a heter mechira was first proposed by several religious Zionist rabbis, and endorsed by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, the leading halakhic authority of the time. The heter mechira means “permission through a sale.” It employs a mechanism where the fields are sold to non-Jews for the shmita year, and the Jewish farmer continues to work the very same field; after the conclusion of the shmita year, the Jewish farmer buys the field back. Even within the religious Zionist community there have been harsh opponents of the heter mechira. The religious Zionist pioneer Rabbi Yechiel Michel Pines, wrote the following about the observance of shmita in 1889:
Certificate of kosher sale permit for the Shmita year displayed in a supermarket on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem; October, 12 2021
“The commandment of shmita has been an essential limb of our religion, one without which we cannot live. And now comes the first shmita in our settlements, and suddenly there appears the merciful ones, the sons of merciful ones, who have compassion on the colonists without even asking their opinions and make a great tumult searching the world for a way to offer a halakhic permission (to work the fields on) shmita and cut a limb off the Jewish people."
These passionate words underline how important shmita is to Judaism. But why is shmita so significant? There are four theories in the commentaries regarding the purpose of shmita: to recognize God's sovereignty, to support the poor, to offer the farmer a sabbatical year of contemplation, and to honor and protect the land. What is most fascinating is that there is a strong biblical basis for all four theories.
In this week’s Parsha, the Torah describes the shmita year as a Shabbat; shmita is also the seventh year, a "seven" just like Shabbat. This suggests that like Shabbat, the purpose of shmita is to recognize God's sovereignty over the world He created. The Talmud emphasizes this point when it says: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: plant for six years, and withhold during the seventh year, so that you will know that the land is Mine.”
Shmita centers on the importance of caring for the poor as well. In Exodus (23:11), the Torah says that the shmita is a time when the farmers open their fields to everyone, and "Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat." (Another rule of the shmita year also concerns the poor; the forgiveness of unpaid loans enables the bankrupt to get out of debt.) Charity is one of the chief purposes of shmita
The Torah also associates the shmita year with study and contemplation. The mitzvah of Hakhel follows the shmita year; at Hakhel, the entire nation gathers at the Temple to hear the King read the entire Torah. Hakhel’s connection to shmita has to do with the importance of learning. Ibn Ezra offers the fascinating theory that Hakhel occurs at the beginning of the shmita year, to inaugurate a year of communal learning; and like Shabbat, shmita is meant to be dedicated to learning. (In contrast to Ibn Ezra, the Talmud says Hakhel takes place right after the end of the shmita year. Even so, the connection between shmita and learning is clear.)
Finally, the Torah describes the land of Israel as “desiring” the shmita (Lev. 26:34), and the land “observing” the shmita. Abravanel sees this as highlighting the unique holiness of the Land of Israel; as a holy land, it too must be distinguished by a holy year of shmita. The holiness of the land of Israel requires the land itself to have its own sabbath, and to rest in a sabbatical year. A very different land-centered explanation is offered by the Rambam; he explains that the rest has a very practical purpose, because the land “improves when it remains fallow for some time.” To the Rambam, shmita is simply good agronomy.
Why does the Torah give so many different purposes for shmita? Perhaps because together, these four ideas represent a vision of returning to utopia. The farming life is bone-crushing and competitive and alienates the farmer socially and spiritually. In the shmita year, farmers can reclaim their true self; in this year, they connect more deeply to God, their fellow man, and even the very land they farm each day. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook described the utopian beauty of shmita this way: "What Shabbat does for the individual, shmita does for the nation as a whole. … Our mundane lives, with their toil, anxiety, anger, and competition cannot entirely extinguish (our) creative force. On the shmita, our pure, inner spirit may be revealed as it truly is..." 
Yet despite having such a profound appreciation of the beauty of shmita, Rabbi Kook and many others supported the heter mechira, because of the practical issues involved. In the earliest years of the agricultural settlements, there was a real concern that shutting the farms for a year might cause those settlements to fail. There is some debate today whether those concerns are still relevant in 2022, in a country that has a well-developed agricultural sector. But there is a strong case to be made that they remain a serious issue. Currently, a small percentage of the population, and an even smaller percentage of the farmers, observe shmita. If shmita were a reality for the entire country, it would wreak havoc on the economy. Consider the supply chain implications of shutting down all of Israel’s farms for an entire year and finding completely new sources for all agricultural products. Those who are stringent on shmita actually have to give thanks to those who are not; otherwise, there would be runaway inflation and persistent shortages every shmita
While practical concerns motivated the rabbis who proposed the heter mechira, their ruling stood on solid halakhic ground. The status of shmita in contemporary times is not completely clear. The majority of medieval authorities consider it to be only rabbinic in nature after the destruction of the Temple, and some even see it as simply a custom. In addition, after years of exile, it became unclear which year is actually the shmita year, and there is more than one way of reckoning the count of seven years; because of this, each shmita year carries the status of doubt. Because of these factors, the supporters of the heter mechira felt it was acceptable to circumvent shmita by selling farmland to a non-Jew. But this ruling attracted controversy from the very beginning, and that debate continues to rage until this very day.
The heter mechira debate is intertwined with multiple other debates within the Orthodox community. Should practical concerns shape how one relates to important religious goals? How significant is Jewish nationalism and a secular Jewish state in halakhah? How do we relate to farmers who are secular, and are not willing to follow halakhah? And all these debates stand on the foundation of prior medieval debates regarding body vs. soul: “If there is no flour there is no Torah, and if there is no Torah there is no flour.” But I would argue that the heter mechira debate is also something else. It is a clash between two utopias: the utopia of the Tanakh, and the utopia of the simple Jew. The biblical utopia is the shmita, where humanity returns to the Garden of Eden, and achieves the original ideals of creation. This is an inspiring goal, but one that remains out of our grasp. Today, shmita is only practiced by a tiny group of farmers, who are supported by charity; the sad irony is that instead of wealthy farmers supporting the poor during shmita, it is now the farmers who need the support of others during shmita.
But there is another utopia, that of the simple Jew. For 2,000 years, he dreamed of returning from exile and having his own home in his own homeland. But this practical nationalist vision is actually a profoundly religious one, one which represents a messianic vision of v’shavu banim l’gvulam, “the children shall return home”. To walk in the streets of Israel, and see a thriving, living, Jewish State was only a dream in the 1800s; and for the simple Jew, Israel is truly a utopia. And after a journey of two millennia, the simple Jew embraces Israel as a slice of heaven, where every fruit tastes sweeter, every day is more beautiful than the next, and every child is exceptional. The heter mechira is there to support and strengthen the State of Israel, the utopia of the simple Jew.
For those of us who do rely on the heter mechira, it is critical that we don’t allow pragmatism to douse our idealism. Even if the utopia of shmita eludes us, we must embrace a utopia we all too often take for granted: the State of Israel.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Against Death: The Story of a Sacred L'Chaim


Years ago, I was asked to officiate at a funeral for a Holocaust survivor. In meeting with his children, I learned that after moving to Canada he had intermarried; and even though they, the family, were not Jewish, it was important to them that their father have a Jewish funeral. Right before the service, the family asked if I could add a “friend” to the list of speakers; as it turned out, this “friend” was the family’s pastor. The pastor (along with the man’s son) gave speeches about how the deceased was in a better place, and we should be happy that now he was in heaven. During my own concluding remarks, I gently explained that in the Jewish tradition, we have a religious obligation to mourn, because Jews consider death to be a tragedy; we take very little comfort in otherworldly realities.
Jacob van RuisdaelThe Jewish Cemetery, 1654 - 1655
I reacted that way because I couldn’t stomach such a rosy depiction of death being offered at the funeral of a Holocaust survivor, a man who had struggled so valiantly to survive. And while I still stand by what I said then, my words were an oversimplification; the Jewish tradition includes much debate on this topic.
Death is the focus of the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. A Kohen is forbidden to come into contact with a dead body, which is impure. At the same time, the Kohen is obligated to bury those in his immediate family, a law which Maimonides considers to be the source of the obligation to mourn close relatives. But why do we consider a dead body to be impure? Why is there an obligation to mourn for a relative who dies?
In an article entitled “I Will Make the Unclean Spirit Vanish from the Land” (Hebrew), Rabbi Benayahu Broner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Tzefat, compares the views of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik on this subject. These three important thinkers take very different positions on the Jewish attitude towards death.
Rabbi Kook takes the view that death is an illusion; true life exists in another realm, in the next world. In his characteristically flowery prose, he explains that this is the reason kohanim are prohibited from coming into contact with dead bodies:
“Death is a false vision…. what humans call death is only the strengthening of life and its power. It is because of the endless absorption in pettiness... (that causes) one to depict this strengthening of life in a sad and dark way, which one calls "death.” The Kohanim are raised up in their holiness, (and held back) from hearing this falsehood… (and they can do so) only by averting their eyes from the spectacle which brings these deceptive impressions to the soul. (This is why the Torah says regarding the Kohen) “He shall not go in where there is any dead body,” and “He shall not defile himself for any [dead] person among his people.”
In other words, the Kohen is forbidden to come into contact with a corpse because death represents a false consciousness, one that distracts from the truth of eternal life. Elsewhere, Rabbi Kook endorses the view of Maimonides, stating that the primary purpose of the mourning rituals is catharsis, for the mourner to achieve calmness and closure. He explains Maimonides as saying that mourning is only accepted by the Torah as a concession to the weakness of human character, to help one overcome emotional pain; but a person who knows the truth would not grieve.
In short, Rabbi Kook sees death as the passage of an individual to a better place, the very same idea that disturbed me at that funeral.
Rabbi Hirsch focuses more on the psychological aspects of death and mourning. He neither romanticizes death nor bewails it; instead, he is primarily concerned whether grief will distract one from their divine mission. He explains that mourning needs to be carefully managed. Confronting a dead body weakens man's resolve; death is fundamentally a loss of control and freedom, and a person who comes into contact with a dead body might become passive and lose hope. (This is similar to the view of Rav Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari. Extreme grief can lead one to depression. He notes that the Hebrew word for mourning, evel, sounds similar to the Hebrew words for fool, evyl, and darkness, aphel. Mourning can bring gloom and cloud one's vision and cause the mourner to lose sight of their purpose. According to Rabbi Hirsch, our mourning rituals are designed to allow emotions to be expressed and lessons to be learned, without distracting from one's ultimate mission. Kohanim must avoid death completely because they are educators and have a responsibility to teach others how to proceed with their mission in the face of death. To Rabbi Hirsch, death and mourning are obstacles to personal growth which need to be dealt with thoughtfully.
In sharp contrast to the previous views, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik sees death as the opposite of holiness. Judaism, he declares, has “a negative attitude towards death”; the laws of impurity make it clear that death defiles anything sacred. In Jewish law, life is the paramount value, and one can violate the entire Torah to save a life. He attacks the view that death represents salvation from a broken world; if death were truly a “better place” for the deceased, he asks, “why mourn and grieve for the departed? Why rend our garments, sit on the floor, and say Barukh dayyan emet?” The laws of mourning make it clear that one must view death as an unalloyed evil, an affront to all mankind. We must battle fiercely against death; it is for this reason halakhah obligates us to heal the sick and extend life. To Rabbi Soloveitchik, death is not deliverance; on the contrary, it is the destroyer of life and the enemy of everything good.
I have always been drawn to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s views regarding death and mourning and remember giving my very first sermon on this topic. And I believe that there has been a shift among rabbis in the last century regarding death; unlike 100 years ago, very few would embrace Rabbi Kook’s views today. This is due in large part to the Holocaust. In the Warsaw Ghetto several rabbis, including the world-renowned scholar Rabbi Menachem Zemba, said that Jews would no longer aspire to be martyrs, to die al kiddush Hashem. Instead, they would now pursue Kiddush Ha’Chayim, “the sanctification of life.” Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, one of the prominent religious leaders in the Warsaw Ghetto said: “This is a time for sanctifying life…the enemy is demanding the Jew’s body, and the Jew is obligated to defend it, to protect his life.” After the Holocaust, everything changed; death was an unambiguous instrument of evil. It was now time to cherish life and sanctify it.
My late friend Jack, who was a Holocaust survivor, taught me how to cherish life. After the war, he toiled and struggled to rebuild his life, pouring himself into his family, his community, and his business. When we would be at a celebration together, Jack would go to the bar, with his friends, (many of whom were survivors as well), and have a drink. Jack would say L’chaim, to life, with a special twinkle in his eye; he had gone through so much, and here he was! Those L’chaims were filled with love, laughter, and joy, and made a profound impression on me. They were a sacred embrace of life, a small moment that made the world a better place. L’chaim!

Friday, May 06, 2022

Our Divisive Search for Holiness


It is both the cause of exceptional inspiration and nasty dispute. The commandment at the beginning of our parsha, kedoshim tehiyu - you shall be holy - touches the soul but confuses the intellect. Our potential for holiness is enthralling, but what exactly is holiness? The lack of clarity opens the door for multiple interpretations, and every commentary seems to have an alternate explanation of what you shall be holy means. Some see holiness as a radical, otherworldly pursuit. The Ramban connects holiness to asceticism, and says this commandment asks us to exercise personal restraint and diminish physical pleasure in general. Others argue that holiness begins in the heart and is based on one’s ambitions and attitudes. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says it exhorts us to “strive and endeavor to reach the highest degree of human moral perfection.” The Meshech Chochmah sees holiness as the act of devotion, for “the very definition of ‘holy’ is to give something over to a higher realm, and (in this case) it is that one devotes themself completely to the service of God.” The Rashbam has a simple, no-frills definition of holiness: Keep all the commandments listed in the coming parsha, and you will be holy. You simply need to follow the mitzvot carefully, and that is holy enough. No need for extra piety or practices.
IDF soldiers stand at attention in front of the graves of IDF soldiers buried at
Mt. Herzl, Israel's national military cemetery. (April 14, 2010)
While these interpretations sit together nicely on the same page of our chumashim, they have been the cause of much upheaval throughout history. Religious passion very often leads to religious battles, and the open-ended nature of the commandment you shall be holy invites dispute.
A prime example of this is the Musar controversy of the late 19th and early 20th century, which divided communities and destroyed friendships. One of the leading yeshivot in Lithuanian Jewry, the Slabodka Yeshiva, split during the controversy. Some of the episodes in this battle were particularly shocking. In 1904 and 1905, (which were years of revolution in Russia), an anti-Musar student pulled a gun on a rabbi of the Slabodka yeshiva, and another group of students gathered all the Yeshiva’s Musar books and tossed them into the sewage filled latrines.
At first glance, this controversy seems extremely strange. The Musar movement was dedicated to ethical and spiritual growth. How could something so innocuous start a battle that lasted over 30 years?
The Musar movement began with an intellectual giant, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who was concerned by what he saw as a lack of character in the Jewish community. Rabbi Yisroel would explain the importance of Musar by recounting an incident that occurred to him one Yom Kippur eve. In the synagogue that night, he saw a man reciting the Al Chet prayer. (Al Chet is a list of every possible sin, some quite remote, written to ensure that everyone's confession on Yom Kippur is thorough.) The man was praying with incredible intensity and had tears rolling down his cheeks. Rabbi Yisroel approached the man, hoping to join him in this moving prayer. But when Rabbi Yisroel came near, the man violently pushed him away! As Rabbi Yisroel would put it, the man was crying about sins he never committed, but had no idea what Yom Kippur was all about.
To fill this communal gap in moral and spiritual development, Rabbi Yisroel began to advocate for the study of Musar; books of Musar had been part of rabbinic literature for centuries but were often neglected. Rabbi Yisroel also felt that the study of Musar was not enough, because dry, intellectual study would not bring about change. So, he created immersive techniques. He instituted separate “Musar houses,” where everyone was devoted to Musar, and where there were intense, inspirational talks on the topic. People were encouraged to undertake a serious self-examination and engage in self-criticism. There were additional techniques that were unusual, such as discussing death, repeating specific phrases over and over, and intentionally becoming emotional during the study of Musar. Taken together, these techniques would engage a person on a deeper level and help them transform themselves. (Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg argues that many decades before Freud, Rabbi Yisroel understood the importance of the human unconscious, which does not readily respond to reason alone.)
The opposition to Musar had two primary themes. First, there was opposition to perceived extremism in the Musar movement. The most famous statement of Musar’s opponents was a public letter by 9 prominent Lithuanian rabbis, which was published on May 10, 1897. In it, the rabbis criticized Musar methods as phony and artificial; it was mere religious theater, which enabled otherwise ignorant students who excelled at Musar methods to be considered role models. They also criticized the method of repeating phrases, deriding the way it was done “with great and terrible cries, with a grief filled, bitter voice, in a sad melody, accompanied by weird and strange movements.”
In other letters, critics took aim at Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz, the founder of the Novardok Yeshiva. Rabbi Yosef Yozel was a well-known Musar personality, who had abandoned his home and business to study with Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. When Rabbi Yosef Yozel’s wife passed away, he left his children with relatives, and enclosed himself in a room. His meals were passed in through two windows, one for meat and the other for milk; he did not leave the room for nearly two years. The yeshiva Rabbi Yosef Yozel later established reflected his personality and included strange and extreme practices as well. Students at Novardok shared all belongings in common; they would intentionally act strangely, such as wearing clothing inside out, or making bizarre requests in stores, to invite the insults of others. Critics of Musar wrote dismissively of “the one with windows”; the strange behavior associated with Musar, and the Novardok Yeshiva in particular, was unacceptable to them.
The other concern with the Musar movement is that it considered Musar more important than Torah. For many in Lithuanian Jewry, the tradition of pure Torah study, Torah lishmah, was the very essence of Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that this concern motivated the opposition of his grandfather and great grandfather to Musar. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that “one must not waste time on spiritual self-appraisal, on probing introspections, and on the picking away at the ‘sense’ of sin. Such a psychic analysis brings man neither to fear nor to love of God, nor, most fundamental of all, to the knowledge and cognition of the Torah….Man's entire psychic being must be committed to the regime of the cognition of halakhah…” To Rabbi Soloveitchik, Musar was rejected because it replaced Torah at the center of Jewish practice.
These two camps, for and against Musar, were searching for the correct path to holiness. And this highlights how divisive the commandment of you shall be holy can be. Is holiness simply following the Torah, or does it require extreme and extraordinary behavior? Is holiness found in embracing halakhah, or changing one’s inner outlook? Both sides in the Musar controversy pursued holiness; but at the same time, their passion for holiness led to intense anger and debate.
As the Jewish world gets more diverse, there is a need for a different approach to holiness. We need to learn how to be connoisseurs of holiness, rather than critics. When confronting those with a different viewpoint than our own, we need to take a moment to appreciate their idealism and passion before criticizing them and stretch our souls to recognize goodness wherever it may be. Perhaps this is why the commandment you shall be holy is so vague; there will be 70 faces to holiness, and it is our obligation to cherish all of them.
This past week on Yom Hazikaron, I was thinking of an anecdote that reflects what authentic appreciation of holiness is. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva world in Israel for much of the 20th century. When a student asked his permission to take a short leave from the Yeshiva in Jerusalem to travel up north to pray at the “graves of the righteous,” Rabbi Auerbach told the student that he didn’t need to travel to visit holy graves; the student could cross the road and go to Mount Herzl, the military cemetery of the IDF, where there are the graves of holy soldiers who gave their lives to protect the people of Israel.
This insight is particularly powerful because even those of us in the religious-Zionist community would probably turn first to visit the graves of great rabbis to pray. Yet Rabbi Shlomo Zalman knew otherwise; he appreciated holiness wherever it may be. And it is certainly found at the graves of holy soldiers on Mount Herzl.