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.
The Third Session of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank.
November 18, 2013
Minutes and write-up: Anne Gordon
DEFINING AUTHENTICITY AND PONDERING ITS PLACE WITHIN JUDAISM
One of the main subjects of the previous session was “authenticity” and its place within Jewish values and in the observance of halacha. While members acknowledged the importance of questions about authenticity and Judaism, they were above all troubled by the term’s lack of clear definition. Everyone seemed to relate to it differently.
The current session therefore opened with a discussion about how to define authenticity. Though different members had different ways of relating to the idea of authenticity, the discussion highlighted a surprising congruence among members on some ideas. One of these ideas was the notion that there are two types of authenticity: authenticity vis-à-vis oneself and authenticity vis-à-vis external or “objective” realities. Many members felt the need to acknowledge being authentic about what we are — in the sense of both facing up to the reality of ourselves as well as in behaving according to our natural sense of right and wrong. At the same time, members felt the need to include being authentic in our relation toward external things like the text of the Torah or a definition of truth.
The group especially appreciated the idea of authenticity as an encounter between a self-honest, subjective self with the self-honest and pure-intentioned (as much as is possible) interpretation of reality outside the self — in this context specifically the Torah.
The idea that there is another authenticity in addition to one’s authenticity about and within oneself opens a Pandora’s box. How can one know that one has achieved this authenticity relative to “objective reality”? Does such an authenticity obligate me to subvert my subjective authenticity? If I repress my subjective authenticity, am I still really being authentic? Or perhaps, does being authentic actually demand some denial of my subjective self?
During the discussion, members touched on another intriguing aspect of authenticity — its time-frame. One member shared that her definition of authenticity demands constant vigilance so as to enable us to be continually aware of what is authentic for us in a given moment. Another member suggested that true authenticity is only available to us in rare moments of our lives. Yet another view suggested that true authenticity should not be related to what one experiences in a particular moment, but to a larger picture-perspective of what I know is the correct way to act.
Importantly, some members also pointed out that the way we relate to authenticity is very modern and westernized, and perhaps for some Jews, authenticity does not mean authenticity within the self, but authenticity to the Jewish system and integrity in our values and practice.
Some of the questions we were left with:
- Is authenticity as we tend to define it today actually a Jewish value?
- Does authenticity have a unique definition within Judaism?
- What would “authentic Judaism” look like?
Rabbi Cardozo suggested that authenticity does not have a firm, clear meaning, but seems to be fluid. Given that, can we still delineate the boundaries of what constitutes authenticity and what does not?
Most people intuitively reject the latter inasmuch as we feel that we are supposed to be authentic – whatever that means – in our encounter with G-d. However, the priority of authenticity within Judaism may not be as high as it is in modern society. One member suggested that inasmuch as authenticity is “connection to the original,” and given that we lack the original, authenticity is the claim of the original so long as there is reasonable basis for that claim.
The second half of the meeting was devoted to a presentation that touched on the question of how we deal with situations in which one’s sense of right/wrong or truth/false seems to contradict something within our liturgy, halacha or belief system. We specifically looked at the example of how a person can react when he or she feels that something within the tefillah is wrong or untrue.
The member presenting brought an example of text from Elie Wiesel, describing the inner conflict that a man witnessing the Holocaust feels when he recites prayers such as “Ahava rabah,” “amcha ahavta,” etc. Wiesel claims that a man saying these prayers as he witnesses something like the Holocaust must be lying in his prayer.
The member asked: What possible approaches can a person take when he or she feels that a part of prayer is not true for him or her? Examples include a description of G-d as merciful in the midst of witnessing horrific tragedy, or a request that G-d destroy our enemies, which many people feel is cruel and unethical.
Some of the key responses that came up were:
- Change the prayer
- Say it without thinking
- Reinterpret it in such a way that it is true for you
An interesting facet that the group touched on during the discussion was that there are sources that suggest that some words in our liturgy are not supposed to be regarded as already true, but are actually requests that they become true. That is to say, sometimes a description of G-d as merciful is not meant to be taken as praise of G-d for being merciful, but as a request that G-d act mercifully. The formulation of some prayers even suggests this meaning outright, as in the Shmoneh Esreh when we ask for healing and follow with “ki el melech rofeh ne’eman ve’rachaman atah” (For You are G-d, King, the faithful and merciful healer). The formulation suggests that the description of G-d as a great healer is not saying that He always heals, but is asking, given His power to heal, that He step into that role.
Many individuals in the group were particularly troubled by prayers requesting the destruction of our enemies. One member suggested dealing with these prayers by viewing them as a way of placing the burden of punishing our enemies upon G-d, so that we do not have to do it. In a different vein, asking G-d to take vengeance is basically the only form of revenge we have ever taken on our enemies and may be psychologically necessary for letting out our feelings of being repressed and attacked. Finally, on a more simple level, perhaps it is justifiable for us to desire revenge – after all, many of our people suffered at the hands of our enemies and in a way we honor their memory by requesting that their pursuers be repaid.
Finally, one member shared the idea that different prayers are more or less pertinent during different times. While we need to say all the prayers, given our context (both historical and personal perhaps?) it becomes appropriate to place more kavanah on particular prayers over others, because those contain the messages more necessary for us in a given moment. Note that this resembles and resonates with the idea shared in the last session that different generations express a different middah of G-d. So we don’t negate the other prayers here – we just acknowledge that they are not where our focus currently lies.
We then read through a gemara in Yoma essentially about different ways of relating to the same ideas in prayer. [Could we just link to the text?] Yirmiyahu and Daniel stopped using the words norah and gibor (respectively) to describe G-d, despite their being part of Moshe’s description of G-d, because they witnessed the desecration of the Temple and the degradation of the Jewish people. Where was G-d’s awesomeness and glory when these evils were taking place? The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (Men of the Great Assembly) were praised for “restoring the divine crown to its ancient glory” when they restored these terms to the liturgy by reinterpreting G-d’s awesomeness and glory as His patience toward evildoers and His loyalty to the Jews despite their exile. The end of the piece questioned how Daniel and Yirmiyahu could have stopped using these words in this case? “Rabbi Elazar said: Since they knew that God is truthful, they would not lie to Him.”
Many people noted that the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah were writing for a community whereas the prophets did not pray according to normalized standards and could tweak their prayer according to individual preference. Perhaps this suggests that while an individual may take the liberty of being brutally honest according to a particular moment in his or her prayer, the community cannot adopt an approach of constant change.
The group also noted that the prophets prayed during a time of galut and churban, whereas the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah composed the prayers at a time of geulah. Different people interpreted the significance of this historical setting in different ways. One member suggested that returning “gibor” and “norah” to the text in a time of geulah allowed it to be authentic – whereas had it been added to the prayers during a time of galut, it would have been affected and false. Another member suggested that returning the words during the time of geulah validated leaving them out prior to the geulah, but also created a refreshed attitude in retrospect: the community couldn’t say the words at the time, but in hindsight, they realized that the words were true. Another member suggested that the restoration and reinterpretation of the nusach represented a shift in theological perspective. The period of relating to G-d in the way the prophets did simply could not stand in a time of a concealment and galut. The demands that G-d’s glory be manifest in very concrete ways would simply never be met. So the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (in keeping with their innovative approach in general) reinterpreted the liturgy so that it could retain its meaning, thus introducing a whole new perspective on viewing G-d’s greatness in the world.
Rabbi Cardozo suggested that this gemara is dealing with the question of atheism and how people can “keep G-d great” despite G-d’s not living up to the ideals we ascribe to Him. The opinion of David Hartman was that prayer actually accomplishes nothing, but we keep G-d great for our sakes because we can’t afford for G-d not to exist. (Rabbi Hartman’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of think tank members.) Perhaps there is a total dichotomy between “emes la’amito” and our personal spiritual needs.
Rabbi Cardozo’s questioned the ability of a generation to pass on a practice based on something it doesn’t truly believe. It’s very hard to motivate the next generation. Another member pointed out that perhaps this is a false dichotomy and while we may never comprehend G-d, we may apprehend G-d and follow a godly life for that reason. The question of whether G-d exists or whether we can intellectually grasp or prove G-d’s existence in this view is irrelevant. The presenter posed this question poignantly – as we encounter things that chip away at some of the core beliefs that we held as children, what are we left with? What do we follow? Do we follow a purely rational approach or do we follow something deeper in us which intuitively draws us to continue the life of a believing Jew?
The final question that we pondered as a group was the question of who were the heroes in this gemara? And who did the people writing this story regard as heroes?
Where does the line lie between apologetics and legitimate interpretation?