The Yiddishe Interface

Judaism needs people within the faith who are capable of and disposed to interacting with ha goyim. We as a people cannot, either practically or (in the context of our assigned role on Earth) morally withdraw from the world around us.

We can certainly have groups or kehillim who can and should do so. Our strength, I believe, lies in our diversity, and such communities are part of our mantle; there will always be among us souls of profound tenderness who can only thrive in places of refuge from the conflicts within the world.

But to survive as a people, as an am, we will need men and women of great faith who can still serve as our interface to the other nations of the world on at least partially common ground. Others need not believe what we believe, but they must know the truth about our beliefs and why we hold to them, not the lies that others might manufacture in our absence.

Torah on Shabbat

One of the questions about Jewish practice that has always vexed me is the issue of Torah study on Shabbat.

On the one hand, Shabbat is a day of total rest of mind and body.

On the other hand, Torah study is a joy in itself.

Can we not, then, study Torah on Shabbat?

A Parent’s Prayer

As graduation nears and so many of us will be witnessing our children undergo a rite of academic passage, and as Shavuot nears, it is a great time to say the Parent’s Prayer, Tefillas HaShelah.

The wonderful people at ArtScroll offer a downloadable, printable version here for your reference.

Free Download: A Parent’s Prayer {Tefillas HaShelah)

Enjoy, and may your children ever be a source of joy and nachas!

More Tips on the Crisis

Three short thoughts about dealing with crises of faith.

  • Not all study is equally helpful. Kabbalah and Talmud are uplifting and clarifying, but they are of little help in addressing crises of faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jewish custom postpones study of these texts until long after the bokher has addressed the core questions in his study. The esoterica of Zohar and the niggling of gemara sometimes form silent arguments on behalf of the Accuser. Crises demand the aid of sages and works more accustomed to fundamental challenges of faith.
  • Guilt sucks. The yetzer hara thrives on guilt, and will use it every time as an opening into the soul. The way to address transgression, I’m finding, is determined teshuvah, driven by repentance and stripped of guilt.
  • Don’t ignore the writings of Reform and Conservative scholars and apologists. If nothing else, the Haskalah at its best created a respectable corpus of thinking and texts designed to address crises of faith. This does not come as a surprise: arguably, it is the Jews in these communitiesThis makes sense, given that the Jews in these communities were least insulated from them.

 

Where Gandhi Went Wrong

Since his assassination in 1948, Mohandas K. Gandhi has become something of a secular saint, recognized almost universally as a “great soul” who not only did much to liberate his own people, but who also changed the dialogue around violence and repression.

Gandhi lived by high principles that served him and the peoples of Greater India in the effort to cast off British rule. But Gandhi’s belief that his principles could withstand application to peoples and/or situations far different than those in which he lived was in many cases and unsupported conceit, and in other cases produced some convoluted thinking.

He believed that non-violence would have served India in the face of a Japanese occupation. He believed that the proper response of the Jews of Europe to Hitler’s Final Solution was to throw themselves upon the butcher knives of the SS death squads. And he believed that a State of Israel must wait until the Jews were invited back to their homeland.

Against the latter, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber penned an eloquent criticism. There is a complete text here, along with a broader overview of Gandhi’s relationship with Jews. At best, Gandhi was playing to the home crowd. At worst, he spoke from a willful lack of understanding of the true facts on the ground. Whatever the reason, little does more to tarnish the verity of Gandhi’s ethos than his offhanded treatment of questions around the Jews.

Probing Gandhi’s words on the subject, and contemplating the context in which he wrote them, it is little wonder that India has failed to sustain a Jewish community of any size. It also underscores that the time has come for a critical re-examination of his core beliefs, their roots, and their logical extensions.

Getting through the Crisis

What was most memorable to me about my most recent crisis of faith was that when presented with the fullness of a world without Hashem, wherein faith was mere fairy-tale, I did not recoil in fear, or revulsion, or dislike, or anger. The only emotional response was one of relief.

What turned me away from going further down that path was the realization that there was something fundamentally counter-intelligent (dare I say irrational) in a worldview that boils the universe and renders only that which we can perceive. It is like suggesting that water disappears when we boil it away because we can no longer see, taste small, feel, or hear it.

It was a quietly satisfying moment, for many reasons. Passing calmly through a crisis of faith is a step that suggests that I am more secure in my faith than I was when I was younger.

The crisis also reminded me that I need to resume my Torah study, and vindicated my conviction that I must also return to my studies of Jewish philosophy. ibn Pakudah’s thinking has always been helpful, for example, which suggests to me that some time with Sa’adya Gaon, Maimonides, and even the anti-Kababalists may be in order.

For how can we truly judge our ethos against a world of contending belief systems without understanding it, and without hearing the argument of the apologists with the same ears that hear the case of the rational secularists?

I guess this is all a long, rambling way of coming to a simple point: the most important lesson I learned was that the best response to a crisis in faith – whatever your faith may be – is study.

The A.I. Problem

Reading an excellent article about artificial intelligence last week, I began to wonder which force was the greatest danger to Yiddishkeit: radical secularism or artificial intelligence?

But thinking about it on the plane to China the other day, I realized that they are actually two parts of the same problem.

At its worst, radical secularism is mankind’s Oedipus Complex. Kill the Father to supplant Him, to become Him. If we “kill” G-d, we take upon ourselves the power to create sentience without any obligation to pause and question whether we should do it in the first place.

Fear for any individual – or species – who places the power to do something before the wisdom to ask whether it is the right thing to do.

Facing the Crisis

Last week, on my way to pick up my son at the school bus stop, and just as we were approaching sundown on Friday night, I was again reproaching myself for not being shomer Shabbos. As I mulled that – or even began to – I heard a voice: “what if all of this is a lie?

“What if we, for whatever reasons, have simply been brainwashed,” it continued. “What if this – all religion – is just a big illusion that we have created for ourselves, a super-Disneyesque consensual fantasy that we have just willed into being?”

How seductive, nay, beguiling, a thought it was. I was washed over with the sense that a great burden of guilt, reproach, and angst was being lifted from me.

Then I heard another voice inside as I passed the little school on Pierpoint. “That, surely, is the Yetzer Hara whispering lies again. A crafty one he is.”

Then the first voice spoke again. “What a clever ploy, this while the idea of a ‘yetzer hara.’ With a single idea, we have automatically disqualified any rational challenge to G-d’s existence.

I quieted then. And came the second voice. “But if rationality is a human construct, is it the only framework with which to apprehend the world? Is it even the best? And have there not been a long line of thinkers reaching into antiquity who have addressed that question?”

It was but one brick yanked out of a large wall of doubt, but it was enough to deconstruct – or begin the slow collapse – of the wall. At that moment, my crisis of faith began to pass, just in time for my son to climb into the car, and for us to head home for salmon and Shabbos.

Parting the Blue Pool

As we’re counting the Omeer, one last thought about Passover (till next March, anyway.)

I enjoyed TBS’ spots with the bearded buy parting his swimming pool.

Yes, it was a little irreverent.

But I also thought it was a subtle “Happy Passover” that was consistent with the Channel’s personality, and, frankly, in keeping with the self-deprecating introspection that Pesach invites.

Good Shabbos!

kA Treasury of Hasidic Stories

The importance of Hasidism to modern Judaism is difficult to overstate. The effect upon the entire Ashkenazi community of a movement designed at its heart to popularize observance and study was profound, even as the guardians of the traditional Torah communities responded with dismay.

One part of the great value of Hasidism has been the rich vein of stories and legends. Martin Buber did much bring those to a wider community, and now, thanks to the internet, we have these stories at our fingertips. The Hasidic Stories website offers a rich vein for any Jew, and especially for those of us who look for material to use in teaching.

Have a look, and have fun!

Woody’s Midnight

More so than any other film by Woody Allen in a very long time, I really enjoyed Midnight in Paris. I am a sucker for any movie that delves into the joys and frustrations of writing, and the way Allen explores inspiration, nostalgia, and the way many of us feel like anachronisms all touched a deep chord.

Yet something saddened me about Allen’s selection of Owen Wilson to play the “Woody” role. Wilson himself was not the issue. On the contrary, Owen is likable, sympathetic, and totally believable in the role. It was a bravura performance.

What disturbed me was that Wilson’s role represents the apotheosis of a gradual, film-by-film whitewashing that Allen has conducted on himself since the 1970s. Having his character played by an blonde-maned WASP hints at something disturbing: the possibility that Woody no longer sees himself as Jewish.

If that is the case, it would be sad for two reasons. First, it is always upsetting to see a Jew leave the enfolding wings of the Tribe of his or her own volition. But in Woody’s case specifically, he was in many way a model for an entire generation of Jews who identified themselves as “culturally Jewish.” If he is still that icon, is he aught but a beacon for others into the rocky shore of assimilation?

The sages teach us that it is never too late to begin the path of return. I pray for the day to come when Woody turns about to see what the Rebbe called the “pintela Yid” inside himself, and follows that light.