The David Cardozo Academy Think/Feel Tank had an interesting and productive year in 5773, continuing to develop the Personalised Halacha Process, a workshop in which participants explore questions around halachic living, individuality and psak. Topics that arose included; personal and scholarly definitions of halacha, to the historical development of halacha and codification, Shulhan Aruch and Ruach Hakodesh, and competing values (Berlin, R. Berkowitz and a psak by R. Soloveitchik). We also discussed contemporary issues, such as the Women of the Wall phenomenon and army draft for yeshivah students, and had tributes on the passing of Rabbis David Hartman and Menachem Froman.
At our Shabbaton, we experimented with incorporating slightly different elements into the tefilla, such as a brief focusing meditation before Amidah and a more personal shiur given before Musaf.
5774 To Date
In the first half of 5774, things were indeed bubbling inside the Think Tank, with commitment, energy and stimulation throughout the sessions. This year until Pesach, we did such diverse things as to:
- Discuss the ramifications of various current events, including:
- The passing of Rav Ovadia Yosef, his contribution, who he was as a posek and the void he left behind.
- The Limmud conference, the merit of attending, and who should be included and who not.
- Answer thought-provoking icebreakers, such as:
- What is a simile for your relationship to halacha? i.e. fill in the blank: My relationship to halacha is like ——
- What is one halakhah that you have never doubted or questioned or struggled with for a moment?
- Fill-in-the-blank: “I think God is happy when ——”
- What do you find attractive about halacha?
- Debate and critique Rabbi Cardozo’s ideas, particularly following his talk “Rescuing Judaism” that attracted over 300 participants in December 2013 (in which he discussed modern sensibilities and halacha, the “Bereshit” ethic, questions of saving non Jews on Shabbat, and much more).
We also came up with questions for Rabbi Cardozo to answer in his upcoming autobiography, Lonely, But Not Alone.
- Continue to develop our Personalised Halacha Process work, testing out materials on the subjects of competing values, the challenges of our age, the definition of authenticity, the role of truth when we pray (i.e. can we stand behind every word in the prayer book), authenticity and dissonance between belief and action.
In this framework we had a few “spiritual chavrutah” sessions on relevant topics, getting into pairs and answering such questions as:
- Is there a discrepancy between who you know yourself to be/what you do in private, and your public self?
- Do you believe Judaism (as you understand it) to advocate consistency between the public and private self or not?
- Dedicate time to individual members to explain their own religious journey and viewpoints, while the group practiced active listening.
Inner and Outer Realities
The Think Tank continued to probe the question of authenticity – what is it, and how does it pertain to us as 21st century committed Jews.
We opened by returning to an email discussion held last year, in which we raised the topic of individuals who hold views different from those broadcast by the way they dress – for example, dressing conservatively in order to get away with saying radical things. In the email exchange, Rabbi Cardozo expressed his opposition to such a practice, and suggested that we can adopt certain religious habits “shelo lishma,” not for their own sake, as long as there is a desire to move towards them being “lishma,” for their own sake (i.e. authentic?). A Think Tank member wrote back, however, to argue that some things we do are done with the intention to support and strengthen our community and tradition, even if they do not serve us in particular as individuals; and indeed, much of our Jewish life is made up of actions not entirely consistent with our inner worlds. Thus, Hillel’s statement, “We tell the bride she is beautiful and pious,” holds even if we do not think this is fully true.
A TT member queried whether it is legitimate to hold such consistency on a general philosophical level yet at particular times contradicting one’s inner truth for a particular reason – such as in speaking to a bride.
We then studied some talmudic texts to shed more light on the matter. Brachot 27b-28a contains the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, whose hair turned white, making him appear 70 years old instead of his true age, 18; and also a description of the day on which Rabban Gamliel’s policy, to only permit entry to the Bet Midrash (study hall) to people whose insides are consistent with their outsides, was overturned – at which point hundreds more chairs were added, implying that many people do not achieve that level of consistency.
Think Tank members raised points here. First it was asked: what is authenticity and how do we go about checking it, with what tools, since it seems shallow to simply go with how we feel at the moment. The suggestion, derived from the Talmud we just read, was that maybe learning is part of the answer. Those with mismatched interiors and exteriors were invited in to learn, to bridge the gap.
But does Torah learning truly lead to authenticity? Some or many yeshivas are defined by the rosh yeshiva, who sets the tone, with the “gatekeeper” needing to check that the students are exactly like the roshei yeshiva. Nonetheless, Torah learning when done correctly, brings the soul forth, and pushes back the evil inclination. Indeed, the definition of authenticity should be whatever brings us closest to our soul.
Rabbi Cardozo noted that Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, the great mussar rabbi, chose to act and dress exactly like his rebbe. Is this authentic? Perhaps, if this was what he felt would bring him closest to his inner self.
Many other points came up, including concern that when authenticity is defined as something other than being true to oneself, this is an opening for fascism and Orwellian doublespeak; that Judaism does not always encourage us to listen to our own inner truth and intuitions; that Rabban Gamliel’s position was perhaps less about authenticity and more about elitism (though it was his authentic position!); and that the inner compass of morality (Avraham arguing at Sodom) is different than trying to maintain a personal/individual truth.
Rabbi Cardozo quoted Professor Yehuda Gellman as saying that in the Passover Haggadah, the only one of the four children asking a real question, the question that comes from a genuine searching place, is the wicked one, the rasha – he is the only one to whom a proper answer is given. Rabbi Cardozo also noted that putting on a uniform changes who we are – for example, we feel more powerful or aggressive in a military uniform – in which case, who and where is our “real” self?
We were left with questions about the word authenticity, as an umbrella term used to mean different things.
Questions to Ponder:
- How aligned is your inner world with your outside/external?
- Do you believe these two should be aligned, or that there are also very important reasons for having actions differ from beliefs?
- Do you believe that every technical halachic detail ultimately points towards a deep religious expression?
- Do you connect to the analogy between religion and art? Or, is it rather a science?
In the next part of the session, our guest speaker, Rabbi Yitzhak Lifshitz, a scholar and posek, laid out his thoughts on our subject. Although his specialty is medieval Jewish history, Rabbi Lifshitz’s interest in philosophy focuses on contemporary schools, in how they can help us to engage life challenges.
He discussed Kierkegaard and existentialist philosophy. Living authentically and existentially means being connected to your real self. The early Hassidim were existentialists in that they placed humans in the center. Having God in mind and feeling eager towards God all the time drives our thoughts into channels different from the usual. The idea that there is an entity beyond us forces us to think in a dialectic way. It brings us to think about ourselves, but in relation to something that is way beyond. So religiosity helps us to be more intelligent in this regard.
What is Kavana, intention, if not connection and authenticity? The prophet Habakkuk reduced all 613 commandments into one mitzvah: tzaddik be’emunato yichyeh – the righteous person shall live by his/her faith. This does not refer to action; rather, it is what we feel towards God. Some of us worship mitzvot instead of God – sometimes the mitzvot are a way to escape God. But every Jew who uses the mitzvot as a vehicle to move towards God is moving towards the same authenticity as Kierkegaard does. “When you only focus on self, you lose it. You need to put man within existence. You need mitzvot….” However, though for some people there is a special joy in following the rules, this is not the authenticity that Rabbi Lifshitz ultimately seeks. He seeks for all his actions to do what prayer does: allow him to express himself and get closer to God. This is true of eating kosher, not wearing shatnez and doing many other things that contain myriad minutiae but are not derivable rationally. “The more you know art, the more you know how every line and every stroke expresses the artist. That is what I’m looking for. Authenticity of expression.” Indeed, Rabbi Lifshitz’s first book was on the subject of Shabbat, and his goal was to demonstrate how every technical detail of Shabbat is ultimately geared towards this type of religious expression.
For Rabbi Lifshitz, the Chofetz Chaim is the best example of worship through authenticity. He was not very complex. Rabbi Lifshitz’s father, the last student of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (the Sridei Aish) recalled that the mere mention of the name of the Chofetz Chaim caused Rabbi Weinberg to cry, due to the Chofetz Chaim’s being such an ish emet (person of truth). Rabbi Lifshitz explained that when you listen to a true performer of music, the performance is not judged by how technically accomplished the performer is, but how every note has a life of its own. There is no second in which the person is not completely immersed in what he does. Things done automatically are no longer art. People involved with something that demands expression – such as religion and art – cannot be but authentic. With religion, no one else can test us, we have to test ourselves.
Maybe some people are religiously deaf, as one can be musically deaf. Those who, by contrast, are religiously alive might not always agree with the Torah conclusions of those around them. Rabbi Lifshitz, echoing what was said in the earlier part of the session, suggested a solution to the question of what happens when one’s inner voice does not match outer religious norms and laws. “I think what needs to be done is to study it with that person. I’d rather have people like that (religiously feeling and exploring) than people with no religious feelings.”
The need is to study with great empathy. “I cannot prove that they are wrong, the only thing I can do is sit with them and show them – existentially. Rambam said he has proof. We have lost that because science does not lead to God.” Mussar, usually thought of as morality, is real Torah i.e. it represents the process of searching for understanding among religious people. Bitul Torah (wasting Torah) is to ignore things, not to work hard enough to understand and grasp meaning.
Halacha can and should be a vehicle carrying these emphases. Rabbi Lifshitz feels fortunate to have grown up in a halachic environment that taught this message. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was his mother’s cousin. Halacha is also an expression; it is not merely technical. The art is to know how to live by the rules, what’s true and what’s not. There are some people who hear this notion and use it to be very loose with halacha and make decisions very poorly. Thinking halachically requires not only tremendous learning but also a trained intuition, something sometimes lacking today. Rules can be broken under special circumstances, but only by those whose halachic intuitions have been developed through time, experience and dedicated learning. He concluded: “It’s not a loose authenticity: it has to be that I feel that I am doing the right thing and that what I am doing leads me toward Him.”
Judaism as an Intricate Web of Value Concepts
At our last session before Pesach break, Yael Shahar presented on the ideas of Max Kadushin, who had influenced her tremendously, but was unfamiliar to most of the other members. Kadushin was a mid-twentieth-century Conservative Rabbi influenced by the thought of Wittgenstein and Whitehead, whose ideas span the fields of philosophy and organizational dynamics. Kadushin mapped out the societal mind of the times from the Mishnah through the tannaitic period, creating a mind map of concepts. He actually anticipated the science of memetics, concerning “memes”, mind-units—ideas, symbols etc—that migrate from person to person, and culture to culture.
Kadushin believed that philosophers are unable to create a coherent philosophy of Judaism. Each Jewish concept is a crucial part of the system, yet none can be derived from any other, nor are they hierarchical. Instead, he speaks of “value-concepts”: stand-alone thoughts with ideational and emotional components that are concretized in action. As in a hyperlink, when you “click” on the action, a world of specific emotions and ideas open up. For Kadushin, Judaism is an intricate web of value concepts. These concepts evolved along with the Jewish people; and there is a self-similarity between the ideas and the people itself. The people are an organism made up of ideas that are non-derivable, indefinable, and non-hierarchal.
Any idea that is crucial for the network can be concretized in an act. So when one makes a blessing before eating, one is concretizing a number of value-concepts—(ol) malchut shamayim, gratitude, mitzvah etc. The more ideas go into a single act, the more emotive it becomes. Moreover, at least in aggadic issues, there is no set truth value; rather, the truth value occurs in the eye of the beholder after hearing and applying it; it’s not inherently in the act/story. (This applies less in halachah as here we have to have definitions, for example who qualifies for charity, for receiving a loan etc.). This creates flexibility: truth value is subjective for each person; each person maps out his or her own Judaism. But at the same time, the value concepts are shared by Am Yisrael to create a coherent community.
Then an icebreaker was shared: Which concepts would you say are crucial to Judaism? Members came up with many different answers: Ol Malchut Shamayaim; ethical monotheism; imitatio dei; we were slaves in the land of Egypt; unity of G-d; anchoring halacha in text through authorities; remembering our history; reward and punishment; land of Israel; justice, equality and acceptance/tolerance; Shabbat; kedoshim tihiyu (“you shall be holy”); love thy neighbour; compassionate righteousness; choosing life. “I did want to say Jewish guilt,” added one member, not exactly joking!
As it turns out, Kadushin considered many of the above, but decided on four as his measure, to seek out in mishnaic literature and explore how they have been transmitted: Torah, the people of Israel, midat hadin (attribute of Justice), and midat harachamim (attribute of Mercy).
A discussion then ensued on whether Jewish tradition indeed evolves in the hands of the people, and the difference between Kadushin’s approach and Solomon Schechter’s concept of “Catholic Israel” (that the people decide what Judaism is), which can be a very dangerous thing, ultimately leading to diluted Judaism, as Rabbi Cardozo noted. The answer given by Shahar was: Kadushin is describing, Schechter was prescribing. Also it was suggested that the system has built-in antibodies to reject foreign substances. Kadushin suggested that ordinary people at the time thought in the same associative, value-concept fashion that characterizes the Talmud (at least the Bavli); and not in the Greek linear style that influences us to this day.
Rabbi Cardozo commented that Alain De Botton, author of the book called Religion for Atheists, also states there are certain value-concepts within religion; with the problem of secular philosophy and atheism being that they lack value systems and therefore need to borrow from various religions, in order to create meaningful life.
A number of other points came up, amongst them, question of passion, simple faith and saying tehillim.
Further Activities in 5774
We had a Bonus Monday, which is a more informal get-together at someone’s home, in which members can present on subjects of interest to them. This particular Bonus Monday was devoted to discussing the recent developments within Modern Orthodoxy and what is called “Open Orthodoxy,” and its ramifications.
As a social activity with content, we also went together to see “Division Avenue,” an award-winning play about a disgruntled young Hassid who is gradually divesting himself of his hassidic identity, amidst tensions between the Satmar community and local non-Jews. Afterwards, we went out for coffee and discussed the play with the director and producer.
The Think Tank also “came out of the closet” this year, in terms of greater exposure to the general public:
I – Two sessions were run at Limmud UK by Think Tank coordinators Yael Unterman and Yael Valier, on the subjects of halacha, competing values and individualism. Of the thousands of sessio ns presented at Limmud, no one was doing quite this kind of work, and it was much appreciated by participants. Our new Think Tank T-shirt bore the logo: Denomination? Underconstructionist!
II- Summaries of the Think Tank sessions were sent out this year to the Cardozo Academy mailing list. From the positive responses received, we understood that there is a desire amongst the wider public to consider the kinds of topics we tend to discuss.
III-Hence, we came up with the following idea:
Open Think Tank Session – March 19, 2014
We held an Open Think Tank session, which took place on Wednesday, March 19th, inviting twenty participants from the public to join us, in our particular method of discussion. The subject chosen was “The Jewish attitude towards non Jews,” presented by member Yael Valier, with responses by Rabbi Cardozo, group discussion, icebreaker and spiritual chavrutah. People raised many interesting points and responded enthusiastically to our work.
The plan is for the Think Tank to have a significant presence on the new David Cardozo Academy website, including blog posts with interactive capabilities so that talkbacks from readers can create fruitful discussions on topics of interest.