Freedom

For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue.

Andrew Sullivan

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Be A Great Painter, Asher Lev

““Be a great painter, Asher Lev.” He was still looking out the window at the sun and the sky. “That will be the only justification for all the pain your art will cause.”

Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev

I often think about this quote.

As a Jewish man living in what appears to be the end-times of this particular iteration of Western Civilization, the call back to Torah, tradition, and communalism grows daily. Yet do I spend my life studying Talmud, living according to Halacha, or building synagogues or academies? Only to the tiniest degree: most of my waking hours are spent worrying about my family’s well-being, my clients, my colleagues, and my business.

I am sure that will not surprise you. What you may be interested to learn, though, is that this fact is the cause of a great deal of pain in my life, and probably pain in others.

I rationalize it by telling myself that, like Asher Lev, my urges and my G-d-given abilities have led me to succeed in this direction, so this must be a part of His greater plan, and I should not fight it.

And then listen to my soul. And I look at the world around me. And a voice out of the darkest depths of my genetic past calls me back to seferim, Yiddishkeit, and the people of my community.

And in hearing that voice I know a pain that Potok never placed in Asher Lev, but one that I know he must have felt: that the more blessings G-d gives you the greater your soul struggles.

Free Will Me

The Master of the Universe, praised be He, blessed us with the gift of free will. Along with speech, this is perhaps the one thing that truly raises us above the animals.

But in His wisdom, He did not stop by just giving us the intellectual wherewithal to make choices. He then gave us His Torah as a guide to making those choices.

He then gave us the choice of whether to follow Torah or to allow our whims and our petty concerns drive our actions.

And He gave us the intellectual capacity, through the faculty of reason, to think through our actions, so that we could justify any course of action so as to ensure we would be able to live with our own choices, no matter how foolish or ill-advised. Or, if we made the choice to follow Torah, to use that capacity to apply its laws with wisdom, with justice, and with mercy.

Because we reason through our choices, our choices become the rungs in the ladders of our character. The internal struggle that precedes each choice we make is the hammer of a blacksmith on the metal of our soul, with each struggle between our instincts and “the better angels of our nature,” either weakening or breaking us when we come out with poor choices, or tempering and strengthening us when we make the choices that uplift us and make the world a better place.

So free will is more than about whether to eat a pepperoni pizza or go t0 synagogue. It is a forge for our character.

Have a wonderful week!

Should Jews Live Apart Again?

Hebrew Union College Campus

One question that growth of Christian communities that are taking the Benedict Option poses to Jewish communities is whether more of us should be following them – and our Orthodox brothers and sisters – into lives of greater Jewish communalism in the face of changes underway in wider society?

(And to clarify – the Benedict Option is not an alternative to living within society at large, and does not contemplate disengagement or withdrawal, but calls for communal living within the broader context of society.)

We Are Used to Being Apart

Naturally, living apart – voluntarily or otherwise – is nothing new to Jews. At times, greater communalism has served us well, strengthening the bonds that unite us as a community, serving as a barrier to assimilation. and enabling us to better address and withstand persecution from outside.

Yet at other times, communalism became insularity, leaving us out of touch with the outsider world, and simultaneously making us easier to isolate, attack, and even (as in the Holocaust) exterminate.

There is an argument to be made that despite the dangers implicit in spreading ourselves among the goyim in the Diaspora (intermarriage, assimilation), there is the virtue of keeping us engaged, keeping us from being easily targeted.

But when being close to the goyim stops serving our purposes – when being a physical part of a wider, interfaith community leaves us cut off from the rest of our people and subject to harassment or worse, the attractions of communalism begin to eclipse the risks.

This is Urgent in Europe

We are probably not yet at the point in America where we are better off in our own communities. Many countries in Europe, however are in a different place. When we look across the Atlantic to our tribesmen and women in Europe, the trend in France, Germany, and other European nations appears to be to institute restrictions and condone public behavior that combine to make living among non-Jews increasingly challenging.

The choice is becoming stark: draw away from the wider population and form communities that combine physical proximity with strong support institutions; or emigrate. European Jews need to engage in country-by-country discussions about how they can continue living in a post-modern Europe, before weariness of persecution or outright fear drive them to Israel or America.

What about the U.S.?

In the United States, at the very least we need to avoid being boiled frogs. American Jews, particularly those of us who do not presently live frum lives, should begin discussing at what point it makes sense for us to start basing our decisions about where to live on the proximity to strong Jewish communities, and when it would make sense to reinforce and extend the our communal institutions to better support us in a changing world.

We do not have to surrender our practices in order to cleave closer to the observant community, and to broaden the role of our community institutions. Nor am I asking the Charedim to invite Reform Jews to live among them. I am simply suggesting that we will survive against the coming storms only if we are one people, a community of communities, a “Kehillat Godol.”

And we do have to start responding as a community to movements in wider society that threaten our ability to practice our faith in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Vegetarian Jews must recognize a commonality of interest with their omnivorous tribesmen on questions of shechita. Public education advocates among us should also support measures that make Jewish education accessible to those who choose it. We should all take a stand against efforts to criminalize practices that lie at the core of our faith, including circumcision.

And it behooves us to watch out for other potential challenges to our faith, whether in the form of institutional anti-Semitism, the toleration of exclusionary practices or persecution, or efforts by outsiders to make Jewish practice illegal.

At the very least, we should consider whether we have allowed certain practices and institutions in our communities to whither, and whether it is time to return to a policy of more actively supporting them.

History has proven that as we live in nations aside from our own, the strongest guarantee of our continued safety and prosperity lies in the construction of strong communities and institutions. We don’t need to adopt the “Benedict Option:” we created it. We simply need to return to the time-honored practices that have served to shield our communities, our faith, our families, and ourselves from the vagaries of a non-Jewish world.

A Question on Aristotle

Aristotle apparently didn’t believe in either creation or evolution.

Does that make all of his work worthless?

The Rambam would certainly not have suggested as much.

If that is the case, what standard should we, as faithful Jews, use to delineate those ideas and thinkers who stand outside the pale?

Alternately, should we place no limits on such study, provided that the student is first fortified with a deep knowledge of Jewish thought?

I lean toward the latter, but I am painfully aware that there are some lines of thinking that lead only into dark swamps, not enlightenment of any sort.

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.