Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hineni- On tefillah as an offering

I was wrong.

In my attempt to get comfortable with the challenges of davening, I wrote something talking about viewing God as a friend or beloved, when one prays. Although a number of people, liked what I wrote, my friend Daniel Schwartz, who, not so coincidentally, is a chazzan, was having none of it. He suggested that my idea was counter to the idea of tefillah, where we beseech our Creator. Although I and some friends pushed back, both conceptually and textually, I now believe that Daniel was correct. If we are to daven, we have to be honest about what we are doing.

I recently finished Moshe Halbertal’s book “On Sacrifice”. In the first half of the book, Halbertal brilliantly explains the Jewish concept of korbanot, as well as the substitutes which arose after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Central to his approach is the idea of korbanos as offerings. Unlike relationships with equals where one has no reason to wonder whether their gift will be accepted, and, potentially, reciprocated, when it comes to our hierarchical relationship with God, we can have no such expectation. Halbertal uses the story of Kayin and Hevel to demonstrate that, on some basic level, we have no idea why our petitions to God may not be accepted. Inherent in our turning to God, is the recognition that, not only might our prayers not be effective, but that we have no way of knowing why.

So now what? For me at least, the challenge is to live within this discomfort, rather than ignoring it, or, worse, pushing it off with trite explanations. What mitigates it slightly for me, is something I saw from Rav Tzadok. After discussing Rambam’s famous explanation for why we have korbanos, he suggests that the challenge is to move away from the pagan idea of placating, or bribing the gods. Whether through sacrifice, or through prayer, we give God nothing. Rav Tzadok explains that the value of our tefillos is not what we give, nor is it what we get. It is what we put into it. In sincerely reaching out to God, we have the benefit of connecting to God. Amidah Linei HaMakom is its own reward.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Faith Restored - How Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l helped me regain my faith

Where were his answers? How could he not have dealt with such important and pressing questions? As the most profound thinker in the Orthodox world, how could Rav Aharon Lichtenstein not have written something that would answer the challenges presented by biblical criticism? I was floundering, and desperately trying to hold onto my faith, and I needed the answers to my questions.

Looking back at that early stage of my search, I realize that the premise on which my questions were asked was flawed. As I was to discover, there are no perfect answers to the questions of biblical criticism that, magically, make the questions go away. Still, for a long time I was dismayed by the fact that Rav Aharon zt”l had not thought to take the issue on. To be sure, I was to discover that to some degree, Rav Aharon had in fact dealt with some aspects of biblical criticism. Still, he had limited that to a particular area, one that did not address my questions.

What struck me as odd at the time, was how frum (in the negative sense of the term) Rav Aharon’s approach to avoiding these questions seemed to me. How could someone with such an intellect, and depth and breadth of knowledge, simply suggest that one remain faithful. Couldn’t he, at the very least, explain to us how he had done so, and why the questions did not bother him? Or, if in fact they did bother him, why not explain how he lived with those questions?

Eventually I discovered that he had in fact given me the tools to stay within the world of faith. In 1996, Rav Aharon wrote, what for me was one of the most profound essays on faith. In it, he wrote:

What I received from all my mentors, at home or in yeshiva, was the key to confronting life, particularly modern life, in all its complexity: the recognition that it was not so necessary to have all the answers as to learn to live with the questions. Regardless of what issues--moral, theological, textual or historical--vexed me, I was confident that they had been raised by masters far sharper and wiser than myself; and if they had remained impregnably steadfast in their commitment, so should and could I. I intuited that, his categorical formulations and imperial certitude notwithstanding, Rav Hutner had surely confronted whatever questions occurred to me. Later, I felt virtually certain the Rav had, so that the depth and intensity of their service of G-d was doubly reassuring. (Emphasis added)

It seems he had questions of his own, and yet, due to his own humility and trust in those who had taught him, Rav Aharon had managed to live with the questions. If a gadol like him could live with the questions, and not just live, but live with a deep and profound faith, I too could live with my questions.

It is here that I come to what might be the most profound lesson that Rav Aharon can teach those of us in the world of Modern Orthodoxy. Many times, we are blown away by intellect. We speak about Torah U’Mada, dialectic, and synthesis. Some trot out Rav Aharon’s PHD from Harvard, as if that somehow validates him. Too often, we assume that serious intellectual engagement and deep faith are incompatible. Rav Aharon showed otherwise. The same person who knew Shas, and, l’havdil, Milton, cold, could say “Yehei Shmei Rabbah” with all of his strength, and read the words “Dirshu HaShem B’himatzo” from the depths of his soul. While I’m not sure how much we can take away from his searing intellect, I know how much we have to learn from his deep and passionate faith.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

So Far Away- Thoughts from America on Yom HaAtzmaut

I suppose that the timing, this week, of finding out that I will not be back in Israel this summer, is rather fitting. Between the passing of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and the distance I feel from Israel on this Yom HaAtzmaut, I find myself feeling so much more than 6000 miles away from Israel, and wondering what might have been.

Almost 17 years ago, for reasons both good, and less good, we left Israel, after living there for two years. Since that time, I have often wondered “What if?”. What would our life, and, maybe even more importantly, our children’s lives, be like? Where might we live? Where would I be teaching?

Today. as I look at pictures, posted by friends in Israel, I think of what my children are missing. It is not just that my kids only get half of a falafel, instead of having a barbecue, and have a regular day of school, instead of having a family tiyul. I think about their education, and wonder where and what they would be learning. Dreaming, I wonder, might one of my children try and enter the Chidon HaTanach? Could one (or more!) of our sons learn Torah, and do hesder in the Gush?

Ah, the Gush! In many ways, it has become my favorite place to visit in Israel. I can almost smell the sweet smell of fruit trees, as I picture myself stepping foot on the beautiful campus. I think back to my first time there as an 18 year-old, oblivious to what I was seeing, hearing, and experiencing. How can I not think of my last time there, last summer, as I finally got the opportunity to attend a day of the Yom Iyun in Tanach? The opportunity to hear shiurim from some of my spiritual heroes, and to catch a glimpse, unbeknownst to me, for the very last time, of Rav Aharon.

So why am I writing this? More than anything, I write as Holden Caulfield, or perhaps the ghost of Yom-HaAtzmaut-future, trying to suggest, no, to urge, my children and students to learn from my mistakes. While there is probably nothing that can fully extinguish my dream that we will someday make it back to Israel, this time for good, the best time to go is when you are young. For some, that will mean shortly after high school. perhaps after a year of yeshiva or seminary. For others, it could be after finishing college, or newly married. Either way, GO! Sometimes, dreams deferred are left unfulfilled. Trust me, you don’t want to be looking back in 20-30 years wondering what might have been.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Torah MiTzion- On the educational vision of Gush

Although Rav Kook died more than 30 years before the founding of Yeshivat Har Etzion, commonly known as Gush, I’d like to think he would have greatly impressed by the yeshiva. Even before Rav Kook made aliyah from Eastern Europe, he wrote of the importance of teaching all Torah with an emphasis on ethics and morality. In Gush, he would have seen this vision implemented.

Rav Kook suggested that in teaching Torah without showing the ethical and moral underpinnings behind it, yeshivos were driving away the most ethically sensitive students of his generation. By being exposed to Gemara without being taught the ideas behind it, Rav Kook believed that the students left for other destinations, real or conceptual, where they hoped to discover the great ethical and moral ideas needed to help reform mankind.

Looking around today, it  seems like we need to implement Rav Kook’s ideas even more. The vast majority of yeshivos have become gemara factories, where no other Torah is taught. Seldomly is mussar studied and when it is, it is without the vitality that is needed to make it effective. In the rare cases where aggadeta is studied, it is approached with a level of superficiality that misses the mark. Students leave yeshiva having learned many blatt gemara, but without a sense of the ideas that serve as the underpinnings for the gemara they have learned.

I was not fortunate enough to study at Gush, although its Torah has had a profound effect on me. The first time I read Rav Amital’s writings, I was almost brought to tears, as his deep ethical sensitivity came through in each of his essays. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s writings are not only deep and profound, but also emphasize the morality and sensitivity that made him a true gadol. Through their talmidim, I have come to appreciate a yeshivah that teaches the nuance through which Torah must be learned. Although the talmidei hayeshivah have various approaches to many issues, and that is not by chance but by design, what I see in them, indeed what seems to me, as an outsider to be at heart of the yeshiva, is a sense that Torah is not Torah if it remains in the beis medrash. Indeed, in different, but complementary ways, both Roshei Yeshivah, taught through their actions, both great and small, that the Torah, and those who study it, must bring peace to the world.

With Rav Aharon’s recent passing bringing his Torah and gadlus to a broader audience, it is my hope that we will not only learn from his greatness in Torah, but also from his, as well as Rav Amital’s vision for how Torah should be taught and lived.