Thursday, August 18, 2016

Book It- My decision to write a book

Back when I was a runner, I learned that the best way to make sure that something I wanted to achieve was going to happen was to make my commitment public. That is the reason why, despite my fear of doing this, that I’m sharing my decision to write a book.

I very much enjoy writing and I’ve been very gratified by the fact that a number of people have told me that they think I am a good writer. A few have even suggested that I write a book. I have to admit that I’ve thought about it before, but never acted on it for several reasons. I don’t want to write a book just for the sake of writing one. In fact, I try not to write unless I have something I want to say. It’s why there can be long stretches of time when I don’t blog. The one time I thought I was ready to write, a running injury put an end to what I hoped might be a good story. Additionally, I have no interest in writing something that people will not want to read. I do not want a few people to purchase a book out of pity or due to the loyalty of friendship. Finally, and that has only changed somewhat recently, I’ve been scared. What if I try and fail? What if nobody reads it? What if people don’t like it? Fear alone has been enough to keep me from trying.

Things changed while I was in Israel. While taking part in a seminar run by the Herzl Institute, I not only learned incredible things and met some wonderful people, but some new ideas coalesced with some old ones, and got me thinking. Although I’m not yet ready to share a lot of what I experienced, the seminar was, on many levels, transformative. As I was saying goodbye to someone, he said to me “You have a sefer in you”. I’m pretty sure that he did not mean that I had swallowed one, although he’d have been forgiven for thinking I swallowed a chassan’s shas. I was very flattered, and a little freaked out. Sefarim are not written by people like me. They are written by tamidei chahcamim, in Hebrew, and contain, or at least ought to contain, chiddushim. I thanked him, and shared his comment with nobody.

Last week, I met a Facebook friend in person for the first time, at the Yemei Iyun in Alon Shevut. Among other things, he told me that he likes the way I write. That was enough for me to share what I had been told the week before, and with a little prodding from my new friend, I began to consider the possibility that I might write a book. Getting past my fear, although without leaving it behind for good, I decided right then and there that I will indeed try to write a book. My intent is not to write a sefer. I still don’t think of myself as someone who is ready to write one. Maybe I will change my mind one day, but for now, I intend to write a book.

So what will I write about? My goal is try to write a book about tefillah. It will not be about hilchos tefillah, or even about the philosophy or theology behind tefillah, although those things will certainly inform what I write. My goal is to write a book that will be more about touching the heart, and less about intellectual ideas. I hope to write a book that deals with this essential activity in the real ways that we experience tefillah, and addresses the aspects of davening that make it so challenging. It will not be the book of an expert, but instead contain the thoughts and struggles of a fellow traveller. If it succeeds it will do so by making tefillah more real, by containing thoughts of how to make the act of pouring one’s heart out to God more honest and raw. I don’t know if I have that in me, but I am ready to find out.

I am giving myself up to two years to get it done. I’m hoping that my experience in learning Perek Tefillat HaShachar with my students this year will give me much to think about. I have a lot to read and think about before the real writing takes place. Still, I’m on the clock. I’m putting my goal out there. I’m ready to try and make it happen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Righting A Wrong- Thoughts on Rabbi Dr. Isaac Breuer on his 70th yahrtzeit

I write the following with two connected goals in mind. The first is to give thanks and acknowledge a debt to a thinker who has greatly contributed to my understanding of Judaism, philosophy, and theology. The second, and more important reason, is to right a wrong. To whatever degree possible I wish to bring a great thinker to the attention of many in the Jewish world who can gain so much from his writings. As the 70th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Dr. Isaac Breuer zt”l is today, the 13th of Av, it is time that he and his writings get the attention they deserve.

When I went through a major crisis of faith, I reached out to many people who I hoped could help me. One way in which they did so was by recommending books and articles for me to read. Among those whose writings were suggested were Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Kook, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It goes without saying that all of them were great thinkers and deserved to be on the list. It was only several years later, as my reading and search continue, that by chance I read a footnote which led me to the writings of Rabbi Breuer. How could it be, I wondered, that the thought of such a great thinker was not better known, and that nobody among those scholars and rabbis from whom I sought guidance thought to recommend any of his works for me to study.

Having read two of his biographies (this being the more important of the two) , as well as a number of his short essays, there seems to be certain reasons that kept from Rabbi Breuer from being better known. Although a good deal of his writings have been translated into Hebrew and English, much of what he wrote was in German. It was only later in his life, when he had already moved to Israel that he wrote several books in Hebrew. Additionally, as with many great thinkers, he was not so successful in the public arena. As one reads about his attempt to steer the Agudas Yisroel in a more moderate direction, one which, later in his life would have included joining up with the Mizrachi, it is hard not to wonder with some sadness about what might  have been had he been more politically astute. Indeed, as Shmuel Pappenheim writes a fascinating post today on Facebook, to the degree that Breuer is remembered it is done outside of the world of the very Agudah which he helped build. Furthermore, while he had a deep love for the land and people of Israel, his views on Zionism were complex and nuanced, and thus, not in line with any of the usual pro or anti-Zionist camps. Finally, in some ways, it seems to me, he disappeared in the shadow of his illustrious grandfather Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, especially as his grandfather’s legacy was steered away from the path of moderation which he and his grandson espoused. This is is particularly disappointing as Breuer was uniquely qualified to take what he learned from his grandfather and bring it to later generations with some important philosophical and theological developments.

It is said that Breuer had two photographs on the wall of his house. One was of his grandfather, and the second was of Immanuel Kant. Breuer was able to combine the thought of Rav Hirsch, Kant and other German philosophers, including Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well as a deep understanding of Kabbalah into a philosophical and theological approach which addressed many of the questions that plagued the younger generations of Hirsch’s Frankfurt community. Among them, are many issues which continue to challenge many observant Jews of today including issues of biblical criticism, morality and autonomy, and religious belief in a world which grows increasingly hostile to such faith.

Every Shabbos I dedicate some of my time to going through Rav Breuer’s masterful work Nachliel. I have heard it described as an update of his grandfather’s Chorev, itself an important work which explains the reasons for the mitzvot, both individually and as a whole. While this description is true enough as far as it goes, it does a disservice to Breuer. While Nachliel does build upon many of the ideas of his grandfather, it also includes a plethora of thought based on the varied philosophical and theological texts that Breuer studied. Additionally, whereas Rav Hirsch’s system was built on being part of a separate Jewish community in Germany, Rabbi Breuer wrote for those who had returned to Israel, and saw the potential for Israel to be the place of the true messianic redemption. To cite just one example, Rabbi Breuer develops the idea of Shabbos, in connection with the shemitah year, Yovel, and the messianic age, and talks of how God wishes for us to act politically, economically and socially.

As an educator who deals with both adolescents and adults who are looking for a deep, sophisticated and meaningful system of belief, I constantly find trenchant ideas in Nachliel, ideas which might not only be potentially beneficial to my students. I find ideas which help me in my continued attempt to develop as a thinking Jew. If this short essay can help bring this great thinker to those like myself who can benefit from his writings, I will be most gratified.