The DCA Think/Feel Tank, a group of 15 people of various backgrounds, ages and outlooks, meets every few weeks to discuss issues related to modern halachic Jewish living. In particular, we focus on the interconnected subjects of Halacha, values, individuality, authenticity, commitment and surrender – topics that, together, are being developed for the general public to experience in a stimulating study framework in the future. Below are some of the subjects, questions and ideas that came up in our recent session.
Think Tank Meeting, ב’ כסליו תשע”ד, November 4, 2013
Minutes and write-up: Anne Gordon
The second session of the year 5774 at the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank began with the question, “What is one halakhah that you have never doubted or questioned or struggled with for a moment?”
The responses – unsurprisingly – were varied, including some that were piquant and others that were jovial:
- Kashrut – without feeling “warm and fuzzy” about it, I never questioned it, or didn’t keep kosher, or resented keeping kosher.
- Ve-ahavta le-reikha kamoka – as an ethical imperative (details may have been more difficult).
- Shabbat – it shades all of life.
- Eating matzah on Pesach – not eating chametz was harder, but eating matzah was never a struggle.
- Making berakhot over food – even if neglectful on occasion, it was never because doing so was upsetting in some way.
- Kli shlishi (transferring hot liquid on Shabbat to a vessel 2-removed from the original pot) – it makes no sense, and that’s exactly why there was no struggle.
- Wearing tefillin during davening.
- Not leaving a dead body hanging over night.
- Netilat yadayim (for all the occasions that it is required).
- Kilayim (akin to shaatnez above, but it was taken).
- Birkat HaChamah – recognizing the natural phenomena with halakhah/mitzvah.
- Brit milah – from a mother with a son, who found the experience to be very beautiful.
- Singing on Shabbat, in tefillah – not exactly a halakhah, but never struggled with it.
- Yom Kippur – a day where you stop and try to minimize your needs and focus on your relationship with God and turning yourself into the person you want yourself to be.
The session then turned to discussion of the encounter between traditional Judaism and the modern world, specifically where they clash, and how we handle that.
Rabbi Cardozo raised two serious issues confronting the intellectual world of Modern Orthodoxy. The first is biblical criticism – in the attempt to make sense of both the academic investigations of the biblical text and a religious view of that same text. The second is the way that the Ultra-Orthodox world is dealing with the Modern Orthodox world – given the drama surrounding Rabbi Avi Weiss and the rejection of his authority by the Rabbanut.
Another concrete example of the clash between Orthodoxy and the world of modernity has been the reactions of certain elements of the religious establishment to the Limmud Conference – or more precisely, the question of whether to attend the Limmud Conference. A political dividing line separated those who are willing to attend Limmud and those who are not. R. Cardozo’s argument – whittled down a great deal – is that when the Orthodox world absents itself from the stage of the rest of world Jewry, it relinquishes its right to make a claim to authentic Judaism (as is often done), for example – largely because nobody will be listening. Rather, if Orthodox Jews mingle well with Jews from other denominations, then there is an opportunity to show them how beautiful Orthodoxy is.
The values of autonomy and – more so – authenticity therefore made an appearance, as principles that are often at odds with surrender to the dictates of Halakhah (when the two conflict). For many, the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, as they have accepted it upon themselves – or possibly a sense of loyalty to Halakhah – may well be at odds with their own sense of authenticity.
The investigation then turned to discussion of sources gathered under the theme of “the challenge of the age.” The main idea was that every era has its challenges, such that the collectivist ideology (Marxism, communism, even Zionism) may have characterized the philosophical milieu one hundred years ago, as compared to the predominance of a focus on individualism today. One key question was whether the issues of a given era cause a given cycle of thinking and challenge, or are instead perhaps an outgrowth of the cycling through of issues from one era to the next (as suggested by the Vilna Gaon). If the latter, then the relationship between the modern era and the changes within Judaism are integral, to the extent that when we take a step back to look at society, we find that the very lens of perception has changed.
R. Cardozo explained that since the French Revolution, and the Emancipation that accompanied it, the certainty of religious belief has been under attack. Where philosophers were once dedicated to explaining and justifying the tenets of religion, they now remove themselves from the sphere of religious thought and undermine it. When religion is taken away, people are left primarily with a reality of doubt – and indeed, they will be autonomous in that realm, as they now feel they can rely only on themselves. The counter-element of this phenomenon is the return to religion, as people seek the ability to live with certainty. It is a more comfortable existential existence, certainly.
He suggests that over the two-thousand years of Jewish exile, the Jewish people has layered the core of Judaism with all manner of things that hide that core, and at this point, many are trying to rediscover it. Perhaps the core includes an understanding of God in which He is the deeper source of the struggles between autonomy and individualism on the one hand and committing oneself to the impositions of Halakhah, for example, on the other. One of the challenges of this era is developing the old religious beliefs to expand to suit the new understandings of the world. Statements from Rav Kook were brought to highlight the process of the religious progression of the world, even and especially in unusual places – where, for example, the heretical is made holy for what we learn from it.
R. Cardozo questioned the premise of R. Kook’s apparent claim that all the wrinkles we encounter – even unto idolatry – are good, valuable, and with something of benefit. He asks: does the thing itself – without the later benefit – have no meaning? Is there no ultimate purpose, not even in religion? Or, alternatively, it was suggested, is there an aspect of perfection among what we perceive as the mess of today’s society, and if so, then that is what we must contend with, to make it healthy? Practically speaking, where do the people who have no connection to God or religion fit in, philosophically and religiously speaking?
Sometimes, the darkness that clouds our understanding is inherently meaningful – and it can motivate. R. Hutner, for example, explained that questioning can render one’s understanding more profound, in part because the very experience that is troubling is given meaning by the very sense that an answer indeed exists. Even when the conclusion is that a true understanding is completely unattainable (for example, the Holocaust), that sense of puzzlement and seeking explanation can enhance one’s experience. After all, as one Think Tank participant pointed out, Kohelet did make it into the canon of Tanakh – some measure of seeking and heresy and frustration is accepted as part of the religious experience.
To bring the discussion back to the question of participation in Limmud – it was noted that being exposed to new ideas, or even officially heretical ideas, is not inherently problematic, but reacting to those ideas with fear is. The community’s leadership should never be reacting out of fear – indeed, the very involvement with Torah (learning Torah, specifically) is what grounds the process of questioning. Nobody was advocating becoming a hermit on a mountaintop who cogitates on heretical ideas; rather, that cogitating is to be done within the great context of talmud Torah.
The point of departure of this discussion is a matter of faith. Once one believes in Torah, then all the pieces have the chance of falling into place. But ultimately, the very matter of faith is itself a mystery – what do we accept? why do we accept? – and its foundations run the risk of being shaken. Thus are the challenges of our age both points of confrontation with our Torah understanding and also grounded in it, as we continue to learn.
The next part of the Think Tank session was devoted to another round of Spiritual Chavruta (see the description from the last session for details on the premise behind it and how it works), and it is from that session that we have questions for further thought:
Questions to Ponder:
- How does one incorporate one’s striving for authenticity, which may be the result of Western values, with one’s avodat Hashem? Is there a contradiction? If so, how does one grapple with it?
- How does one make one’s ideology manifest in one’s identity? What are the ramifications of doing so, especially in light of a search for authenticity?
- Does Halakhah enhance one’s life by complicating it? If so, how so? If not, what does Halakhah do?
- How does one determine when this kind of investigation – pondering the role of faith and doubt, as well as the points of faith and doubt themselves – is fruitful and productive, and when it risks being “over-thinking” (if ever)?