The Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu
Tentative Thoughts Towards a Jewish Religious Renaissance 1
I Ideology and Philosophy
In the last several years many upheavals have taken place in Israel that no one could ever have imagined. These upheavals also have far-reaching consequences for Diaspora Jewry and could entirely change the situation of the Jewish people throughout the world. It is unclear where Israel and theMiddle East are heading, and it will take some time before a more peaceful era will really emerge. Still, we must look beyond this. We must prepare Israeland its citizens for the time when it will become crucial to make decisions about their identity and their connection to Judaism. While that connection at this point in time is, to say the least, ambivalent, it will one day become a matter of such importance that the refusal to address it will no longer be an option. Not only will it be decisive as far as the spiritual condition of Israel is concerned, but it will actually determine whether the State of Israel will continue to exist. Much of the upheaval taking place at this hour is due to Israels lack of a Jewish spiritual direction and imagination. It will soon become evident that the physical survival of the State of Israel will one day become so dependent on Judaism that it will be necessary to bring the great teachings of this tradition to the Jewish people in a completely different light.
This, however, is not only true of the State of Israel but of the Diaspora as well. Major changes are needed there as well to guarantee that Judaism again becomes the central raison detre for Jews. If this does not come about, the Diaspora Jewish community will further disintegrate and, in the years to come, no longer be able to survive as an important force within world Jewry. This may ultimately lead to a change of American policy towards Israel with far-reaching consequences. We must be prepared for this hour. It is to meet these challenges that the David Cardozo Academy is primarily dedicated.
The Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu
There are two kinds of schools within Judaism, two types of Batei Midrash: The Beth Midrash of Moshe Rabbenu and the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu. Although both of them are integral parts of Judaism, the difference between them is critical.
Maimonides, in Hilchot Avodat Kochavim (1:1-3), states that Avraham Avinu started a movement of Emunah (religious faith). While Maimonides sees Avrahams discovery of God as the result of philosophical contemplation, other interpretations do not believe that this was a purely intellectual discovery, but rather the result of an existential encounter with God. What Avraham discovered is not so much that God exists but that God is of no importance, unless He is of supreme importance. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
This discovery touched Avrahams entire personality and transformed him into a different human being. It infused him with a great amount of wonder for all existence and deep concern for the wellbeing of mankind. This was not just a matter of the mind but of the heart. As such he became the driving force behind a movement which turned the world on its head. An irresistible movement in which Emunah (in this instance, deep religious faith), and Chesed(kindness), became the central pillars. Emunah filtered through his very personality and initiated him into an, until then, unknown world. The far-reaching effect of this transformation becomes clear when we remind ourselves of Rashis comment that Avraham was able to convert many of his contemporaries.2 Why was he so successful in doing so? Was it because of his great intellect? Surely this must have played a role, but there is little doubt that it was mainly due to the kind of personality he had become. Those who are touched by God do not just add another dimension to their personality but are completely transformed into different people, whilst maintaining their own individuality. Consequently such people are able to connect with others in ways that are not available to those who do not share the experience of God.
This may illustrate Avraham’s impact on his surroundings. Confronted by the kind of personality he was, the world around him stood re-created, trembling in a new light, radiating a new spectrum of colors.
Not Textbooks but Text People
Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed that we do not need more text books but rather more text people. The difference between a student and a disciple is that a student studies the text while a disciple studies the teacher. It is the middot tovot (the exalted characteristics), the integrity and sensitivity that are the central components of successfully teaching a religious tradition. This is the grundnorm, the foundation, on which the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu stands: To teach so as to transform and inspire an upheaval in the soul. It is here that we find the roots of Judaism in their most essential form. What we have to understand is that Judaism started as an existential movement in which all that man does, thinks, feels and says is touched by the spirit of God.
Incubation Time, Judaisms non-Halachic Start
Judaism did not start as a halachic tradition, as we know it today. It took hundreds of years before the Sinai revelation, with all its halachic implications, could take place and Halacha become possible. Much had to happen prior to such an exalted moment. Halacha had to grow out of the Abrahamic experience. It is only then that the Beth Midrash of Moshe Rabbenu became possible. This is the Beth Midrash of halachic discussion and halachic decision-making. But such a Beth Midrash must first of all be grounded in the existential Emunah orientation of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu.
It took hundreds of years before there was a possibility for the Sinai revelation to have any impact. There had to be an incubation time in which concepts ofEmunah took shape and in which the spiritual foundations of Judaism could grow. The grandeur of the Jewish traditional weltanschauung had to first mature and find its way through actual faith experiences before it could turn into a halachic way of living. The Sinai revelation can therefore only be seen as theresult of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu, which found its solidification in the halachic foundation of Sinai. It is here that the faith experiences of the generations before Sinai, starting with Avraham were transposed into a practical spiritual way of living.
We can call these moments root experiences (Emile Fackenheim) since they had to become epoch making events, making an inroad in the sub-consciousness of the Jewish people, laying the foundations for the Halacha to make use of when the time had come for it to be revealed. They would permit a glimpse of a sphere in which an unrestricted power, the root of Halacha, is at work. They somehow needed to destroy the security of all conventional knowledge and undo the normalcy of all that is ordinary. It is above all the abiding astonishments of these moments which are crucial. They must make every natural explanation deepen the wonder of the moment. No knowledge or cognition should weaken their astonishing quality.
Aggada and Halacha
What is crucial to comprehend is that halachic Judaism will not survive if it is not constantly reminded of and consciously connected to Avraham Avinus Beth Midrash and this matter has become a major problem into todays Jewish religious community. By way of explanation, we must take notice of the relationship between the Halacha and the world of Aggada, the non-halachic teachings of the Jewish tradition as found in the Talmud and Midrash. What is the difference between these components of the Jewish tradition?
Halacha can inform man how to act in any given situation, but it cannot provide insight into the quality of a given act, or a sense of spiritual change that is the result of the performance of the halachic act. Aggada is there to allow the unseen to enter the visible world, to go beyond the realms of the definable, perceivable and demonstrable. It allows us to begin to comprehend the infinite through the use of finite acts. It is a religious metaphor to enable us to form mental images of the indescribable.3 It unfreezes the frozen world of the Halacha and reveals the divine flow behind the Halacha.
It is here that we understand the crucial importance of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu. It is through this Beth Midrash that the whole Aggadic world was formed and from which it draws its spirit. While Halacha is explained as the system of codes and regulations that govern life, the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu enables man to formulate a weltanschauung, a worldview which gives man the ability to function on an existential, philosophical level, rather than solely on a concrete level. Although Halacha is quite flexible in its very nature, the world of Aggada deals with the sum total situation of man that transcends the inherent limitations of every legal system. The Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu, as represented by the world of Aggada insures that Judaism stays ever fresh. It is a far cry from theology or catechisms, as seen in other religions, in which the truth, through the introduction of dogma, has once and for all been finalized.
Aggada is the result of the existential struggles of the great men of faith, in which matters are tested, discussed, thought over and reformulated, with the knowledge that no final conclusions have ever been reached or could be reached. After all, the early sages of Israel realized that any attempt to do so would fail because creeds and dogmas can only be indications of poor attempts to convey what cannot adequately be expressed. To argue that there are definite fundamentals of faith is to undermine authentic religious faith in the same way that people would try to argue that musical notes are the fundamentals of music. They are not they are only directions for the musician to follow, showing the way, but never das ding an sich” (the thing unto itself). Dogmas can never become walls they can only function as windows into a world beyond definitions.
The Problem of Pan-Halacha
It is here that we encounter a major crisis in todays Judaism. Over the years, the distance between the Aggada and Halacha, the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu and the Beth Midrash of Moshe Rabbenu, has been growing, and by now we are encountering an independent halachic world that has turned its back on the world of Avraham Avinu and therefore shows signs of disintegration. This is evident by the fact that nearly everything has been turned into a halachic issue, a kind of pan-Halacha. Todays Judaism has become over-halachized, rejecting nearly any dimension in which the spirit of man requires more than just a practical response to his problems and challenges. It has finalized faith-positions.
For Halacha to stay healthy and authentic it must draw its spirit from of the world of faith, as represented by Aggada and beyond. Specifically, it is crucial that in the case of faith, matters should remain fluid and not become static. In matters of the spirit and the quest to find God, it is not possible to come to final conclusions. The quest for God needs to be open-ended so that the human spirit has the opportunity to find its way through trial and discovery. The very fact that today we encounter a serious attempt to see Halacha as the only expression of Judaism and the constant attempt by some halachic authorities to bring the spirit of Judaism back to finalized dogmas is a clear indication that even in matters of Hashkafah, Jewish religious philosophy, those very authorities try to Halachize matters of faith. By doing so they rob Judaism of its vital flowing spirit. What needs to be understood is that Halacha is the practical upshot of un-finalized beliefs, a practical way of living while staying in theological suspense. Only in that way does Judaism not turn into a religion that becomes paralyzed in awe of a rigid tradition or evaporates into a utopian reverie. This dynamism can only come about when Jewish beliefs consist of a fluid liquid that Halacha then transforms into a solid substance. Halacha needs to chill the heated steel of exalted ideas and turn them into pragmatic deeds without allowing the inner heat to be cooled off entirely. Jewish beliefs are like shafts, which dart hither and thither, wavering as though shot into the air from a slackened bowstring, while Halacha is straight and unswerving.
The fact that this matter is no longer recognized as crucial to the future of Judaism is more than worrisome. A plant may continue in apparent health for some time after its roots have been cut, but its days are numbered.
We do not suggest dismantling the Judaism of Halacha. Such a move would be suicidal, but we maintain that to allow Judaism to develop into a dry legal system in which the spirit takes a backseat will result in rigidity to such an extent that its very purpose will be completely undermined.
This issue is crucial to the future of Judaism and Jewish identity. Only when we rediscover its essential spirit and try to find the world of the spirit behind the Halacha are there good reasons to believe that many will re-engage Judaism. To do this we need to search for Judaism in its embryonic form, before it became solidified in the Sinai experience. We are convinced that through this Halacha can retrieve much of its spiritual power, making it more attractive and more in tune with the spirit of man. We should not, after all, forget that for several hundreds of years the de-Abrahamization of Judaism has been set in motion. This is the result of many factors beyond the parameters of this essay. All that we can say is that leaders such as Maimonides, Nachmanides, the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits in our own days, all luminaries of the Jewish spirit, realized this in their times days. While they made major contributions to overcome this problem, the overall situation of the Jewish people has, since their days, drastically changed and new initiatives are necessary. This is, first of all, due to the fact that the establishment of the State of Israel ushered the Jewish people into a completely new situation including Jewish self-determination. Secondly, the radical challenge to the religious faith of the Jew due to the Holocaust experience has been overwhelming and demands new original ways to respond to that challenge.
The Existential Meaning of the Talmud
To discover the spirit of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu, it will be necessary to approach the Talmud in that very spirit. Instead of viewing the Talmud in its conventional way, through the eyes of the great lomdim (Talmudic scholars) and halachic authorities, it will be necessary to take an existential approach to the text through which one can discover the different weltanschauungs that are at the root of the great Talmudic halachic disputes, such as those between Abbaye and Rava, or Beth Hillel and Beth Shammai. While the approaches of chakiroth (Talmudic investigations), pilpul (Talmudic casuistry) and plain pshat (meaning of text) are of great importance, we are convinced that as a religious text, the Talmud holds the religious foundations of Avrahams Beth Midrash as well. There can be little doubt that when we encounter the disputes of the Tannaimand Amorraim (early and later sages)we can see patterns of hashkafot (philosophies), to which each Tannah or Amorrah was dedicated. Therefore, it should be possible to trace these hashkafot throughout all their halachic positions. Their attitudes towards life, philosophy, good and evil are reflected in their halachic rulings. As such, they are manifestations of the multi-colored revelation at Sinai based on the Talmudic principle of eilu ve-eilu divrei Elohim chayim (these and those are the words of the living God)4.
God endowed each of the sages with a spark of the multifaceted dimensions of Torah, and it is those dimensions that are reflected in their halachic positions. Due to the fact that each of these positions have gone through an incubation time starting with the faith of Avraham and ultimately finding its way to Sinai, it is in the Oral Torah, of which the Talmud is the main representation, that we are able to retroactively discover the foundations of the Abrahamic faith. It is, after all, the Talmud that gives us insight into how halachic positions came into existence. The great debates are representations of the pre-thoughts of the great halachic minds, in which they reveal their thought processes in the incubation phase before they were finalized into halachic positions. It is here that minority opinions become of great importance, and it is for this reason that they are mentioned. As a kind of an archetypal mind set, these debates reveal the subconscious motivations of the multitude of thoughts and existential experiences of faith since the days of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu.
New Halachic Options
Although beyond the scope of his essay, we believe it important to mention that it will be necessary to take a much closer look at the many minority and deflective opinions in the Talmud. These halachic opinions, although not accepted as normative, may very well hold the key to the spiritual needs of tomorrows Jews. They may even function as alternative options for those who are not able to find much inspiration in the established Halacha of today. In an age in which personal autonomy has become crucial, it may be a wise move by the rabbis to allow people to choose between many Talmudic-halachic options. This may help to advance the healthy growth of many young people who are searching for new spiritual possibilities in which they will feel entirely at home.5 Since halachic positions are, as we mentioned earlier, often the outgrowth of the different faith positions of the earlier Sages, much broader and diverse faith options for our future generations may be possible in which many more people will find a satisfactory and inspirational halachic life style. This is especially of importance since human beings are made of such variant colorful psychological ingredients, such that it is really hard to see how all of them can actually live by one and the same religious code.6 In this way traditional Judaism could offer many authentic and diverse forms of Judaism without denying the divinity of the Torah and authenticity of the Oral and Rabbinic tradition.7
To Inherit Faith and the Need for Warfare
Most important is to become aware of the fact that one cannot inherit faith and that one cannot receive the Jewish tradition in conventional ways. One must earn and fight for it. To experience and to have faith, one needs bold initiative and not casual continuity. Religious practice must never be rote but should constitute a happening. Jewish commitment can only be genuine when we struggle and fight to constantly rediscover it.
Every generation must find its own way to God and henceforth to the Jewish tradition. Religiously speaking, would this not be the case, there would be little reason for that generation to exist. What, after all, is the meaning of human existence if not to reveal another dimension of His multi-colored world and Torah, and hence to understand itself better? To repeat what others have said and not to add to it, is to claim that all knowledge about Him and His Torah has been exhausted and to insist that we are merely replicas of our forefathers. Not only would that set a limit to His omnipotence and the Torah, but it would lead to the desecration of His name. To be God is to be a Being of infinite possibilities and a great amount of pluralism, which is reflected in all His creations.
We are obligated to discover Him in new ways, and we must find ways to advance that goal. This is the task that the David Cardozo Academy has set for itself discovering the new in the old. It is far from easy. Spinozas (with whom we have our differences!) last line is his Ethics: All noble things are as difficult as they are rare, is most relevant. Still, with much courage and hard work, we will be able to do so.
To be religious is to live in warfare. It requires constant novelty. The need to struggle with Judaisms foundations while knowing that one is touching on religious truth and the awareness that one will never fully acquire or comprehend its full meaning is the only way to a genuine religious recognition.
But how does one accomplish this goal?
Avraham Avinu as an Archetype
This goal, we believe, is only possible when we walk in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu and place ourselves in his position. We will never be able to do this in the full sense, but we can re-discover what he already found. Simultaneously, we should add our own personal self to this process so that we are not just re-discovering Avrahams earlier found faith but also giving it a highly personal dimension. Doing so, we must be careful not to obscure the real idea of growth, which is not to leave things behind us, but to leave things inside us. As such, it is the task of every Jew to discover the archetypal Avraham in himself or herself and add his or her own self.
Just as Avraham Avinu discovered the fundamental pre-halachic forms of the Jewish faith on his own, so must we. And just as he was open for the Divine to enter and to make contact with him while he was in the process of making his discovery, so must we place ourselves in similar conditions. What needs to be done is to retroactively re-discover what it was that set Avraham on his spiritual path. As mentioned before, Avraham was not so much the discoverer of Gods existence as he was trying to find the way to experience God in the here and now. We too are able to experience this by carefully implementing the categories through which the Torah sees the world.
But it is not only the Avraham within us which we need to discover but also all the other early biblical personalities. Yitzchak and Yaakov and afterwards the twelve tribes all contributed to the faith community and added new dimensions to this pre-halachic lifestyle. By studying their lives and trying to identify with them we must experience a pilgrimage through souls till we discover our own religious dimensions.
In Order to Refer
It is here that we recognize the uniqueness of the Biblical approach to life. As Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, while the Greeks learned in order to comprehend and modern man learns in order to use, the Jews learned in order to refer. Avraham was the first figure to experience the Biblical view of all life. He discovered Gods presence by recognizing the sublime and the wonder and realized that the meaning of things is greater than can ever be expressed, and that the existence of the sublime cannot be conveyed in adequate ways. It can be sensed in every drop of water or grain of sand, but the attempt to express this recognition in a purely rational way inevitably fails. It is only by means of radical astonishment that we realize that it is total mystery on all levels that surround us. Once this is spiritually recognized and has overtaken our very being, God can enter into a relationship with us in a way similar to how Avraham experienced his relationship with God.
But it is not the mystery itself that sets us on that road, but, as in the case of Avraham, it is by asking ourselves what to do with that mystery and by recognizing that something is demanded from us in relationship to that mystery. In that way two things are accomplished the experience of God and an understanding of the vital importance of Halacha. It is in this respect that the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu and the Beth Midrash of Moshe Rabbenu meet. The fact that man is capable of recognizing the mysterium of all existence, and that, on a practical level he is able to react, investigate and enjoy all that he has discovered, is fundamental to the appreciation of Halacha. Halacha is a practical response to the faculty of standing in wonder. The fact that one can only take account of this faculty but cannot account for it, confronts man with another inescapable question. Does he deserve this faculty? The crucial question is actually whether he can make a claim on this faculty. The shattering truth is that he does not deserve this faculty and that he could not possibly deserve it. Nobody ever earned the right to live, to love and to enjoy. They are gifts not rewards. This confronts man with an existential embarrassment. What is needed is to give man not just a possibility to discharge this debt towards God but to realize that he is in need of doing so, as this will be the only wayby which he will attain his dignity.
One needs to obey the One who gave. Only in that way is there some symmetry between the Giver and the receiver. The recognition that all mans faculties and that all existence are rooted in mystery obligates. This recognition becomes law in the life of the Jew. This is central to our Academy.
The Wonder of Judaism
But it is not just the wonder about this world or about the grain of sand; it is above all the wonder of Judaism that we need to re-discover. It is Judaisms phenomenal quality, its broadness, its ability to radically refresh the human spirit, its transforming strength and, perhaps above all, its healthy attitude towards life that must be recognized. Because Judaism is a religion that deals so much with the day-to-day minutiae, in which every small issue becomes a major one, the overall grand picture often gets lost. One must be able to see the forest through the trees. Jewish education must focus on the all-inclusive insights and values of Judaism and not just on its many details.
What is Authentic?
Still, it is not only in response to our world that Judaism provokes wonder. We also need to be engaged in wonder at Judaism’s struggles, its worries and its constant search for new ways to explain itself. To do this properly we will face some painful issues. How do we recognize what is authentic and what is not? We will be forced to question some components, which are now seen as essential parts of Judaism, but may, after all, not qualify as such. There is little doubt that certain concepts and values entered the Jewish tradition via the backdoor that do not really belong.
These concepts are mainly found in the elucidation of the Jewish tradition and not in its essential structure; although it may be argued that certain halachic decisions by (contemporary) rabbis also do not always reflect Judaisms basic values. This matter, however, is extremely complex because, as we have already mentioned, Judaism fails to have a catechism or even a universally accepted system of dogmas. Not even Rambams Thirteen Principles of Faith were ever officially accepted as binding. It will therefore be hard to state unequivocally what makes Judaism into Judaism. Here, a return to the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu may give us some direction. As mentioned before, it is in its incubation phase that we may find some clarity about the fundamentals of Judaism.
However, it may sometimes be necessary to question some so-called Jewish beliefs and even to suggest that they may need to be replaced by others. The need to break idols and to take down sacred cows is in itself a Jewish task that started with Avraham Avinu himself. We should therefore not be afraid to do so or at least to discuss the possible need for this. This may raise some eyebrows in certain religious circles and we will be accused by some of being controversial, which may well be true, depending on what one means by controversy. Great controversies are also great emancipations. They often clarify and enhance essential philosophies behind great traditions. It may be true that matters like these may never get finally settled, and this may very well be a great blessing, as it will prove Judaisms multifaceted nature and its unwillingness to be pinned down on every issue. Still, it is undeniable that there are some powerful beliefs within Judaism that cannot be circumvented and without which the very structure of Judaism would collapse. Matters like these must be very carefully considered.
For this reason, it is important to mention that within our Academy, opposing views will be expressed and that religious pluralism will no doubt be part of itsweltanschauung. We will not attempt on every occasion to reconcile all these views although it will be necessary to do so when it contributes to a more comprehensive picture. Pluralism is no doubt part of the Jewish tradition. Looking into the creation, it is clear that God Himself is a pluralist. Still, this does not mean that everything goes. There must be coherence in pluralism for it to have any value. Pluralism itself has its rules. As in a Rembrandt painting, many colors contradict each other but, together and within a certain order, they create not just coherence, but a painting of great unprecedented beauty.
II The Academy
There is no Greater Failure than not Trying
It is out of this notion that my philosophy and this Academy have slowly emerged. It is a slow process and it is far from solidified. What this means is that many of my thoughts are still in a flux and that I am still searching. It is for this reason that I consider my lectures far from ideal. They should be more creative, focused and challenging. It is for similar reasons that I am not yet satisfied with many aspects of our Academy. It has not yet found its full existential shape and in many ways it still lacks enough originality and has not yet fully incorporated the spirit of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu. I call on our teachers and students to join me in developing our Academy as a worthy representation of the world of the Abrahamic faith, searching for the authentic spirit of Judaism. We must in every way possible stay away from intellectual and spiritual dullness. That in our search we will sometimes make mistakes is certain, but we should never forget that by shutting the door to all error, truth will be shut out as well. There is no greater failure than not trying.
I am fully aware that such an approach and a need for exploration are not for everybody. For some people there is no need for all this because they are satisfied with the more established way in which Judaism is being presented today. I fully understand that. Perhaps we are in need of people who are great in their Emunah without requiring all these intellectual and spiritual pursuits. But, simultaneously, we cannot continue to believe that Judaism can spiritually and intellectually survive without the concept of chiddush (novelty). We also cannot ignore the need to elevate Judaism to new dimensions, provoked by a new world which, more and more, challenges us to ensure that our relationship with God remains our primary concern.
The Students and the Teachers, Hearing and Responding
To start a movement we need disciples and young people who are prepared to jump, like Nachshon ben Aminadav into the Reed Sea, into the sea of uncertainty but who also come with strong Emunah in the greatness of Judaism. To do so, we primarily need to create a new generation of rabbis and teachers, women and men who are thoroughly acquainted and imbued with the spirit of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu, who live witha flame in their souls. To reach that goal we need to rethink the purpose of education, its dimensions, its challenges and the relationship between teachers and students.
As such we must ask ourselves two serious questions: First, what does it mean to be a student? And second, what does it mean to be a teacher? To answer these questions is far from easy. On a superficial level the student needs to learn the art of listening, while the teachers should learn how to not merely speak, but above all how to respond. But both listening and responding are indeed an art, entailing many crucial layers, dimensions and challenges. Listening does not only mean to listen to what has been said but also to what is alluded to, to that which remains unspoken, and to that which cannot be expressed in words.
Judaism realized this fact long ago. It is for good reason that we sing when we learn Torah. There is the niggun (melody) to lernen (the Jewish way of learning), a tune that cannot be expressed with words. After all, words take on a completely new meaning when set to music. In singing we perceive what otherwise is beyond comprehension. It is the art of bringing heaven down to earth. It is reaching out to a realm that lies beyond the reach of verbal capacity. Words often become slogans, even idols. But music is the refutation of human finality. One needs to become smitten by music and never recover, and so it is with learning Torah. A sentence without a tone, without a musical quality, is like a body without a soul. The secret of a good sentence is the creation of a total quality that corresponds to the deeper meaning of words. A song is the expression of the souls nakedness. And that is what the student needs to learn to put the words of the teacher to a tune. The Hebrew word lishmoa means to hear the whole spiritual background of what is being said both with words and in their absence.
The task of the teacher is to set the tone, the intonation of what needs to be heard. He is like the chazzan, becoming a commentator to the words he sings. He must make sure that his community sings what he initiates.
But not just that – the teacher must also respond to the questions that the student does not ask, does not know how to ask, but needs to ask and is often scared to ask. Many people are unaware of the deep questions they have. Often they are repressed or hidden. One of the major reasons is that people fear asking questions when the possible answers may challenge their lifestyles or attitudes. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, Man is a questioner but he lost the questions. Perhaps we should add because he wants to lose the questions.
Indeed, the teachers task is to rediscover the question that hovers over the mind and heart of the student, but of which the student may not be consciously aware and may even fear.
The Struggle of the Teacher
What is just as important is that the teacher shows his student that he himself struggles with questions. In certain Jewish religious circles, especially in some outreach programs, we have created a cult, making the impression that the teacher has all the answers and is expected to have all the answers. Not only is this impossible, but it is also undesirable. Those who do not continue to search can never become authentic teachers because teaching can only take place in an atmosphere of constant questioning. The quest for certainty paralyzes the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition that impels man to unfold his intellectual capacity. A philosophy of intellectual finality has disastrous consequences for any spiritual and intellectual growth.
Often the impression is made that one merely needs to ask the teacher and everything will fall into place, and problems will cease to exist. Anybody who studied the Jewish tradition knows that this attitude is a complete misrepresentation of this very tradition. It is the ongoing search for the truth that stands out and that is at the core of Judaism. The task of the teacher is to show the direction in which the answer could be found but not to give a final answer. Even when the teacher feels that he has a comprehensive answer he must try to make the student discover it on his own, guided by the teachers suggestions. In such a way the class also turns into a think tank, an approach that is at the core of our Academy. The teacher should take the steering wheel but he should invite his co-travelers to travel with him and get involved in the steering. It is true that there is not always enough time in the classroom to do so, but at least there must be the possibility for the student to continue thinking and arguing about that which he is learning beyond the classroom.
While it is true that in the sciences there is often the possibility of definite answers, this is not true in religious studies, general philosophy or spirituality. This may not be to the liking of all students, as some would like to see religion as a hardcore discipline not much different from science, but to those who have a keen insight into matters of faith and philosophy, it is clear that the only way to stay spiritually honest is to understand that matters like faith cannot be empirically tested. Would such a test be possible, much of the value of faith would be undermined. This is indeed the risk.
There is no authentic life choice that is risk free. All such decisions entail dangers and uncertainties. To live a life of faith is to be prepared to live a committed religious life due to an inner belief of the heart and not because there is absolute empirical certainty. I find it altogether scary when students tell me after a lecture that everything has fallen into place. Instead, there is a constant need for questioning and rethinking ones beliefs, which is a crucial component of teaching. As I mentioned before, in many ways religion should be warfare. A fight against the indolence and callousness that stifles inquiry and that makes drifting with the current into the standard.
The Unheard Music
There are, however, other problems. A teacher can be misunderstood. This may be due to the lack of clarity or the lack of sufficient explanation. There may be too much emphasis on one dimension of a topic and too little on another. But there is also a kind of misunderstanding that is not the result of a mistake by the teacher or a lack of proper understanding by the student but rather the result of a complete misrepresentation on an altogether different level. This misunderstanding is due to the fact that there is an existential background to nearly all teaching. It is this kind of latent background music that is unheard but keenly felt. It has been created over many years through discussions, observations, spirituality and emotional content accumulated around a teacher, the composition of the teachers specific spiritual milieu. It is like a seashell to which you can apply your ear and hear the perpetual murmur of the distant waves that, while it cannot be fully identified, it encompasses your whole being.
It is necessary for the student to hear this music while listening to the teacher, as it creates the spiritual frame in which any lecture takes place. If one does not experience this, one is incapable of understanding what the teacher is trying to convey. As such, there is the unique and immediate music that belongs to a particular lecture and there is the sub-music, or underlying music, that runs through all lectures, whatever the topic. There is music on the surface and there is the music in the background. This is the task of a real school to create music that plays and is heard throughout all the lectures. A particular lecture may not even touch consciously on this kind of music and has no intention of doing so, but it will still be transformed through this music. It is the general philosophy of the school, which is felt throughout, and it may give a completely different meaning to every lecture. Suddenly, everything stands in a different light and overthrows conventional interpretations.
Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould
I am reminded of a famous controversy between two of the greatest musicians of our generation Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. It centered on Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and took place at Carnegie Hall in New York on April, 6, 1962. Uncharacteristically, Leonard Bernstein felt the need to speak to his audience before he conducted this concert in which Glenn Gould would be the pianist. His reason was that he totally disagreed with Glenn Goulds interpretation of the piano concerto. Bernstein then asked the rhetorical question why he did not have one of his students conduct the concert. He responded that he was utterly fascinated with Goulds interpretation and wanted to be part of it. It had become a completely new musical experience and as such most innovative and refreshing, although Brahms, according to Bernstein, never had such an interpretation in mind! This is what musicians call the sportive element in music. What Gould did was to set a completely new background to every part of the Brahms piano concerto. All parts were set to a new tone, although not a note was changed. The outcome was not just masterful but thoroughly novel.
It is this ingenuity that needs to take place in a classroom. The words of the teachers may be conventional and as such of little novelty, but in light of a new spiritual setting, every word takes on an utterly new dimension.
One may argue that matters such as these are not really crucial to human existence and that we can do without Goulds interpretation. However, for those who understand that life is not about surviving but rather about constant re-creation and the need for adventure and experimentation so as to discover new dimensions within life, nothing is of greater importance. Living beings constantly move and grow, whereas, organic matter that fails to grow, shift and move, decays and eventually dies. So it is with mans spiritual life. The role of religion and those who teach is to facilitate the blossoming of the human soul and prevent man from descending into spiritual stagnation. This is the deeper meaning of Spinozas observation that all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.
One must realize, however, that initially the student will not hear the music. His existential ear will have to become sensitive and slowly open up to this kind of music. The murmur, the spiritual undercurrent, must be activated and emerge from its shell before it can transform the student. This can only occur when the teacher himself, or herself, has been touched by this kind of spirit and has tapped into the music.
On Being Controversial
There is little doubt that some will see our Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu as controversial. Novelty has always been seen as a threat. The new always carries with it a sense of violation, a kind of sacrilege. Most people are more at home with that which is dead than with that which is different. This is most unfortunate. But to help Judaism move forward, it will sometimes be necessary to challenge well-established religious beliefs. We will do so when we consider them problematic in relationship to a broader understanding of Judaism. Simultaneously, we may propose new insights that we believe will benefit authentic Judaism. We sincerely believe that such insights are completely within the framework of Judaism and, as I expressed earlier, of the greatest importance to the future of Judaism and its living spirit.
At the same time, we are aware of the great dangers that accompany the introduction of novel concepts. We should not be overanxious to encourage innovation in cases of doubtful improvement, where a brand-new mediocrity may replace well-established excellence.
After all, one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore from where one begins ones journey. Conversely, we should neither forget that men of new insights were often initially regarded as foolish only to earn acknowledgement of how right they were at a later date.
What has been totally forgotten in many religious and rabbinic circles is that it is not simply the accumulation of facts that builds enduring knowledge. It is the complete identification with the implied meaning of that knowledge, its renovation and its continued development. We must be careful not to drown in our knowledge and because of that become fearful of introducing new insights. In that way, simple accumulation of knowledge can suffocate us and prevent us from breathing fresh air. Such possibilities are not only unfortunate, but they go to the core of Judaism. We must be careful not to embalm Judaism and claim that it is alive because it continues to maintain its external shape.
What is just as important, if not more so, is to state that one should not approach Judaism as an academic discipline and deal with its sources in a purely scholarly way. We are profoundly unhappy that so much Jewish scholarship focuses on questions of philology, archaeology, or comparative studies without trying to understand the message and religious depth of the ancient texts. Sometimes one gets an impression that scholars, while reading and dissecting a text, are overtaken by a desire to kill it and its meaning instead of reviving it. This is a great tragedy. The academic world must realize that the need for objectivity in reading religious texts is a hopeless undertaking. Religious texts are rooted in a completely different world and their value will not be appreciated through this kind of scholarly approach. It is somehow like people who are color-blind looking at colors and consequently claiming that colors do not exist.
We also humbly protest against scholars who pronounce verdicts on authentic Judaism while having insufficient Jewish knowledge to do so. It is most disturbing that while they would not dare do so in regards to other disciplines, they take the liberty of doing so when discussing Judaism because of some superficial familiarity with its sources. The fact that this specifically happens among Jewish intellectuals of great standing is all the more disturbing. Just as the State of Israel is often judged by double standards, so too is Judaism. This is most unfortunate.
This does not mean that we deny that there is an important place for academic studies in relationship to Judaism, but it requires the scholar to have great humility and a sincere openness to its unique religious meaning.
The Awe of Heaven
Let us return to perhaps the most important aspect of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu that is the issue of yirat shamayim, and middot tovot. One of the greatest tragedies in Jewish education is that we have separated the teaching of Judaism from encouraging our youth to feel the presence of God in their personal lives and the constant privilege to transform oneself into a more dignified and sensitive personality. While we give much attention to Jewish knowledge and the correct understanding of, for example, the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, we fail to teach our students the understanding that such knowledge only has genuine value when its leads to a greater awareness of God and a deeper appreciation for our fellow man.
Nobody can deny that Judaism finds itself today in a crisis that threatens to have devastating consequences. Instead of Judaism growing upwardly, it is becoming corpulent, growing in a horizontal way. The growth of adherence to Halacha in the last few decades has clearly not been accompanied by a true religious revival. Genuine religiosity has nothing to do with the Yiddish expression of frumkeit.
This mistake is partially a result of the fact that we are sometimes more concerned about Halacha than about God. At the same time, it is not uncommon that the mitzvot bein adam leMakom are considered to be far more important than the mitzvot related to our fellow man. While it is common practice to emphasize chumrot (stringencies) and to encourage a strict observance of Shabbat and kashrut, we rarely see a parallel intensity when dealing with matters of human relationships. We may decide that we will only partake of glatt (strictly) kosher food, but we have forgotten that it may be more important that we are glatt kosher when it comes to the commandments regulating our relationship with our neighbor. Rabbi Joseph Breuer of the Washington Heights Kehilla in New York used to say: Not just glatt kosher but also glatt-yosher, extremely honest.
As a Sefer Torah
When teaching these matters, we must make sure that we, as teachers and rabbis, reflect in our personal conduct what we propose and teach in the classroom, as there is truly no better education than by example. Thought and practice must illuminate each other. The mark of a sefer kodesh (holy book), says Rabbi Tzaddok of Lublin, is that its author and the content of his book are one and the same. A teacher must be a living Sefer Torah and imbue his or her students with the aspiration that one day they will be able to live the kind of life that their teacher represents.
True, even the best teachers among us may sometimes fail, but we must immediately try again. A Sefer Torah which is pasul, ritually invalid, is still a Sefer Torah even when it needs tikkun repair. A Sefer Torah must not be desecrated even when it cannot be used in the synagogue service. So it is with man. Even when man fails, he is still a Sefer Torah. The greatest tragedy is when we stop longing to become a living Sefer Torah. As long as the dream is alive, the changes necessary to reach that goal are within our reach.
This yearning has a direct relationship with Torah learning and with comprehending the Jewish tradition. One of the most remarkable teachings of Judaism is that it claims that one cannot think with clarity or properly understand a sugya (passage) in the Talmud when ones characteristics are not in tune with the honesty of the text. When one lives a bent life, ones thoughts are also skewed. All of us have the obligation to scrutinize ourselves and rebuild ourselves constantly. The need for self-discipline, humility, the pursuit of truth, the love for ones neighbor and the abhorrence of the hollow pursuit of honor, are not just theoretical ideals but values that, in accordance with Jewish tradition, must be implemented not only in the grand events of our lives but specifically in our most trivial moments.
Too few people realize that the way we close a door without properly looking to see if there is someone following us, whether we walk a guest to the door or not, whether we fold a towel after using it or leave it for another to pick it up, are the actions that reveal much about our inner self. Because all behavior takes place in the presence of God, nothing is insignificant and even our trivialities should aspire to holiness.
I am reminded of the illustrious Alter of Kelm, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Braude, one of the towering personalities in the Mussar movement in the nineteenth century, who, while walking in the street, asked: “How one can walk on a road that has been built at the expense of much suffering by others?” On another occasion, the rabbis of Kelm used to disembark from their carriages so as to make it easier on the horses to reach the top of the hill in accordance with the prohibition of tzaar baalei chayim (causing pain to animals). Refinement, adinut hanefesh (sensitivity to the soul and proper behavior), stood at the top of their spiritual agenda and everything was done in pursuit of this goal.
Trivialization and Zerizut Bemenucha
In our days the world experiences a trivialization of the human language. As religious Jews we must re-introduce refinement of language and the need for eloquent speech. A man is hid under his tongue, says the proverb.
We must also practice zerizut bemenucha (eagerness to do a mitzvah while remaining calm). Zerizut (eagerness), after all, is a matter of the heart and the head and not of the feet. All of this is related to the famous verse in which God states: I command you today. (Devarim 6:6) This, our commentators tell us, is not to say that we should see the mitzvot as given every day, but rather it must be understood as if each mitzvah was given today for the first time. One should never be content with previous understandings or experiences of a mitzvah. There is a need to constantly deepen a commandment, to make it new, and just like Franz Rosenzweig responded, when he was asked whether he used to lay tefillin, we must be able to answer: Not yet!
There is a need to produce great Torah leaders, who fully understand this great challenge and lead the Jewish tradition back to its former living spirit. Most Torah leaders of today are no longer aware of the tremendous spiritual challenges the Jewish people are encountering at this hour. They will only be able to do so when they are willing to look beyond the world of Halacha and search for its spiritual components, which are to be found in the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu. As indicated by several midrashim, Avrahams uniqueness was defined by his willingness to confront the enormous challenges of his generation and deal with them head on. He did not run away from them but instead studied them carefully and considered all the options of how to respond to them. He realized that he could only help his generation when he felt its pain as if it was his own. After all, one can only help ones fellowmen when one goes down to them and lifts them up. But we must be aware that just like a bird may think that it is an act of kindness to lift a fish in the air, so rabbinical leadership may be choking its followers thinking that they provide them with spiritual oxygen. The problem today is that most leaders are merely following out in front while failing to marshal the way we are going.
Simultaneously, leadership which does not show any doubt about its competence and which is incapable to voice its own religious reservations cannot be men of faith. They are but men of creed who cannot touch a soul in doubt. Avraham had little authority but a lot of authenticity. He was a great doubter and therefore authentic.8 While authority is always dangerous, selfish, and inexplicable, and strives on mysterious affairs in a dark privacy without explaining itself, authenticity takes place by daylight and is so genuine that one cant deny it when one finds oneself in its presence.
It is the task of the Yeshivot to introduce our future leaders to a different kind of curriculum than what they offer at this moment. They must make them realize that Jewish leaders need a much broader knowledge of Judaism than that which the best conventional yeshiva education can offer.
It would be wise to remind ourselves of an observation by the aforementioned Franz Rosenzweig: in being Jews, we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. This is a new sort of learning a learning for which in these days he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien.9 There is a need to reshape anything that is considered alien into a form that facilitates a better and deeper understanding of Judaism. This is a new kind of teshuva (repentance). Teshuva is not just a stage in life but a program for life. It is a process and not just an attempt to rectify something that has been out of order. It is a spiritual condition that belongs to the mechanism of Judaism itself.
For great Torah scholars to become leaders and gedolei hador, there is a need to understand that what made Rembrandt different from all other painters. What all of them take as subject of their canvases, Rembrandt uses as the raw material of his vision. Where the others see facts, he perceives hidden connections that link his preternatural sensibility to reality and transports all that he has religiously from the universal creation to the plane of a new creation. Without this sensibility there is no authentic art of the quality required. Rembrandt did not care what others had to say about his art and often violated the request of his clients. What he cared about was his inner liberty to go his own way. He realized that the purpose of art is to disturb and not to produce finished works but to stop in exhaustion in the middle and for others to continue. Art has to be an autobiography of a human being in progress. Without this knowledge, no great Talmudic scholar can ever become a leader. Only when he becomes an artist can he create Torah law or give advice.
It is for this reason that our Academy is also a kind of think tank. We hope to take our students on roads not yet (or not enough) travelled. We want them to be part of the endeavor discussed here and to participate in our search. This mission demands courage and yirat shamayim, and we will do our best to live up to both of these traits. Whenever possible, we will take Avraham Avinu as our example.
The Jewish people are standing at a crossroads that they have never experienced before. While Jews have often lived from crisis to crisis, they have never, since the destruction of the second Beth HaMikdash, experienced a situation in which they found their way back to their homeland and, having arrived there, become confused as to why they strove to go there in the first place.
Only when we drastically change direction and make sure that the educational approach of the teacher incorporates what I have brought to the readers attention, will it be possible that something of enduring importance will take place. We should not forget what Abraham Joshua Heschel said, and what I quoted earlier: We have too many text books and too little text people. Ultimately it is the integrity of the teacher that will be able to bring real change. We must prevent the study of Judaism from becoming solely an academic undertaking. We must make sure, by example, that it is an encounter with the world of religious experience which brings about a transformation in man. Only in that way can we make Judaism irresistible.
No doubt, this is far from easy. Indeed, all noble things are as difficult as they are rare. But just as Avraham understood that there is no success without hardship, so too, there is no Judaism without the realization that many may succeed by what they know, or do, but few by what they are. It is only in the art of authentic being that there is a real future for the religious man.
1The following essay is based on an inaugural lecture which was given in 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo at the opening of the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu as part of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem of which Rabbi Cardozo is the founder and dean.
6This is no doubt the reason why Judaism could never be entirely defined and why several religious lifestyles such as the different Kabbalistic, non Kabbalistic, Chassidic and anti Chassidic communities came into existence.