The Great Book and the Empty Head

Empty, by Conor Lawless. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

This morning in the shower I was thinking about the book of aphorisms that I have been assembling over the past year. There are around a hundred or so, all original (I think,) and I began to wonder whether they sayings should be allowed to stand by themselves, or whether I should provide some short context or commentary on each.

Thinking this through, though, I considered my most recent addition. It its unedited form, it went:

“ ‘Don’t work hard, work smart’ is a false choice. It should be ‘work hard, but with intelligence and integrity.’ “

Accurate, I realized, but not particularly catchy. Clearly in need of word-smithing, and probably some commentary as well.

The word “commentary.” It got me thinking about how I might make my most recent aphorisms into a d’var Torah.

So I picked one, and tried.

And I couldn’t come up with a d’var.

So I picked another.

Still couldn’t come up with even a Torah reference.

Then I picked another. And another, And a third.

And hard as I tried, I failed.

It was not pretty. There wasn’t a single reference to anything in Tanach, much less Torah, that I could come up with after five tries. The problem, of course, was not with Torah, but with my ghastly low degree of Torah knowledge. I had never had my own inadequacy in that department hit me so hard.

I fought off the guilt, swapping it for resolve to establish and sustain an upward trajectory of Torah study.

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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?

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.

 

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.

Thirteen Petals in Autumn

Doing some reading before shul on the High Holy Days, I set aside the Torah a bit to start Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s seminal gateway to the Zohar, The Thirteen Petaled Rose. Let me qualify the following by saying that this was the first reading of any kind I had done on Kabbalah aside from some rather removed and clinical introductions.

Rabbi Dov Muchnik, schlicha of Chabad of Oxnard, spoke on Rosh Hashanah about R. Steinsaltz, and I renewed my resolve to delve into the works of that great master of Torah. The Thirteen Petaled Rose was my first stop.

I had always believed that for a person like myself – born into a barely observant Reform household and not even Halachically Jewish, Zohar would be like jumping into medical school without studying biology. And, to be truthful, I remain unconvinced that I’m wrong in this.

Rabbi Steinsaltz does a superior job at making the essence of Kabbalah clear to the tyro. But on every page, in every paragraph, even as I felt awed and uplifted by the profundity of the truths, I heard a patient but insistent voice inside my head calling me back to Torah and Talmud.

I reached page 10, unable to continue. I was overwhelmed not so much by an inability to comprehend, but of a sense of deep spiritual inadequacy.

“You have just restarted your journey of learning and teshuvah,” I audibly reminded myself. “Don’t make the same mistakes you made last time and place yourself on the path of ba’al teshuvah syndrome.”

The great work was returned to its honored place on the shelf, and, awe still with me, I picked up my Machzor, my tallis, and my kittel, and walked the rest of the way to shul, head, heart, and spirit swimming, but, B”H, not drowning.