Sunday, September 05, 2010

Rosh Hashana, Teshuva and the Akeida: The one about the professor, anthropologist, Hasidic Rebbe and several Jewish philosophers

For several years now, I’ve felt uncomfortable with the reading of the Akeida story on Rosh Hashana.

Its not that I haven’t heard the traditional explanations – that Avraham’s pure commitment towards God then, should serve as merit for us now.

It’s not that I don’t see the importance of making ultimate sacrifices for values I believe in. I do (at least in theory).

It’s just that as I sit in Shul, trying to reflect on the world, religion and where I fit in, the story disturbs me…in a very deep way.

And I’m often unsure how to nurture that feeling, how to turn it into something constructive.

At Reut, we’re heavily influenced by the writing of Harvard Kennedy School Professor Ron Heifetz and his thoughts on leadership. His major work, Leadership without Easy Answers describes two types of challenges, one technical, one adaptive. Technical challenges are those problems in which knowledge of a solution already exists, and the responsibility for ‘fixing’ it lies with a figure of authority – like someone’s car breaking down and them going to a mechanic.

An adaptive challenge meanwhile requires what Heifetz calls ‘adaptive work’, a change in basic priorities, values and behaviour by the relevant individual, community or society, rather than by the authority figure. Examples include having to make fundamental changes in one’s life in light of moving country or falling ill.

Another book in the Reut ‘Canon,’ Collapse, is written by anthropologist Jared Diamond and brings historical examples to demonstrate the main sources for the collapse of societies. From studying the Maya in Mexico to the Norse in Greenland and many others in between, Diamond argues that the primary reason for societal extinction is their inability to adapt to a changing reality.

Yet Diamond’s real innovation is perhaps his most worrying; that it’s often those very values that historically maintained and strengthened a society that – when reality changes and the behaviour doesn’t – ends up bringing its demise.

For the Norse struggling against freezing temperatures in Greenland, their ‘value’ was their Christian culture which initially strengthened them against difficulties, but ultimately – when it caused them to isolate themselves from the Innuit and their hunting methods – ended in mass starvation and disaster.

Those more politically inclined may wish to consider whether the settlement movement is currently playing the same role for Zionism…

Yet as we approach Rosh Hashana, the interesting aspect of Messrs. Heifetz and Diamond is that the required process they describe is exactly what the Rabbis call Teshuva.

Because what is Teshuva if not Heifetz’s adaptive work – working out which priorities, values or behaviour’s we should maintain in the coming year, and which we should change?

What is Teshuva if not identifying which of cultural DNA to conserve and which to discard?

However, what makes this behavioural DNA sorting even harder is the fact we can’t rely on the choices we made last year to guide us today. As Diamond shows, sometimes it’s those very values that proved so useful in the past that are now the very problem which need to be changed.

We’re left with a blank canvas, with few anchors to guide us.

And surprisingly, it’s the story of the Akeida which provides an outline to this canvas.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the story’s relevance. Amongst other things, it stands at the center of a theological disagreement as to the best way of worshipping God. Some modern thinkers, like Soloveitchik and Leibowitz promote the story and Avraham’s apparent submission to God’s unknowable majestic will as the ultimate paradigm of religious service.

Others like David Hartman suggest that a better religious paradigm is reflected in the tale of Sdom, in which Avraham brings his ‘intuitive sense of justice’ into discussion with God. For Hartman and those like him, moral autonomy isn’t an expression of hubris, but is integral to religious consciousness.

In short, some argue that worshipping God entails subsuming our morality and rationality.

Others claim it requires emphasizing it.

But despite their differences, Soloveitchik, Leibowitz and Hartman are united on one thing – our ability to create paradigms that can model how we should behave vis-à-vis God.

But what if instead of representing a paradigm, the Akeida comes to break paradigmatic thinking altogether?

One of the most interesting commentaries on the story comes from a Hasidic Rebbe known as the Izbicer. The Izbicer understands Avraham’s test as having to deal with his uncertainty as to whether he is being commanded to kill Yitzchak, or to simply symbolically place him on the altar.

His struggle is therefore how to act without clarity, in the face of ambiguity.

Yet the concept that really puts the Hasidic cat among the Halachic pigeons is what the Izbicer calls ‘Sinning at God’s Behest’ – the idea that sometimes, when God enlightens a person directly, he is permitted to act even against the rules of the Torah.

This isn’t something we should all try at home. But the concept itself should open us to the possibility of sometimes having to act differently – even contrary – to what we’ve previously been taught; that we need to be prepared to depart from what we ourselves once thought was sacred truth.

Avraham at the Akeida goes through this exact same process.

He receives a command and then has the command changed.

He has a sacrifice, and then suddenly has no sacrifice, then just as suddenly has a different sacrifice again in the form of the ram that he releases from the thicket in which it was entangled.

In other words – the question emanating from the land of Moriah (and which should continue in synagogues today) revolves around whether we are able to conceive of ourselves as having been mistaken, of having misunderstood or having failed to comprehend all aspects of the context in which we live and act.

Do we cling desperately to our values, beliefs and traditions come what may? Or are we open to hearing the small, still, Divine voice from within ourselves?

That, for me, is the ultimate question.

And its one worth emphasizing on Rosh Hashanah, when we should all be involved in the painful process of sorting out which values further our life goals and which ones need to be left behind.

Shana Tova

Previous Rosh Hashanah Posts

Rosh Hashanah 5770: The Duality of Being Human
Rosh Hashanah 5769:
Values in a Changing World
Rosh Hashanah 5768:
A Message against Despair
Rosh Hashanah 5767:
Wanna Live like Common People


Avram said...

Very interesting take ...

"Those more politically inclined may wish to consider whether the settlement movement is currently playing the same role for Zionism…"

I would also hope that you'd ask if the 'New Age' (or 'Westernized' or 'me first') values of the boa'ah (or the 'secular movement) are playing the same role for Zionism ...

Calev said...


thanks for reading and commenting.

it wasnt a critique of the settlement movement 'stam'

the point is that there are certain values that once kept a community alive that if remain unchanged, often become those same ones that can destroy it

building settlements pre 48 helped build the state and helped it survive. we wouldnt have a state if it wasnt for that value. (in fact, what many settlers argue today is that what they are doing is exactly the same as what the pioneers did).

now it is arguable whether they still serve that purpose. in fact, i believe they serve the opposite one (they weaken the state)

THAT is what i was trying to put across. Value x (in this context building settlements) helped save us (1948) but the very same thing may now be undermining us (2010)

where the 'me first' value comes into the zionist project is an important discussion, but in my opinion, its not so relevant here...

Avram said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Avram said...

Here goes even though I never really liked calculus ...

x = settlement building

Those doing x back then were mostly secular Jews ... those Jews today are doing ___ (pick a letter) and have warped the value system drastically (as per my original comment). If they continue that way (westernized values to the extreme, or losing touch with the faith completely – as Arik said ‘forgetting their Jewishness’, or looking at the army as the 'kirya'), Israel has no chance.

But those doing x now are the same doing x within Israel proper (beni dekalim is the latest), and those who at times display the value system of those who did x back then (i.e. devotion to land of Israel, willing to defend it - i.e. army, volunteering etc). I do agree that various issues with the settlement movement are causing issues however, but as I said in the FB e-mail - every 'group' is doing its 'part' in causing our country harm and we need to look ourselves in the mirror and see how we can best turn it around for the better of our future.

"where the 'me first' value comes into the zionist project is an important discussion, but in my opinion, its not so relevant here..."

As per you, value x saved Israel in 1948 - and I would put it that it ONLY succeeded because of the amazing sacrifice, commitment and devotion of those who pushed x (i.e. they would not see the fruit of the labor and still did all that work). Now if we have to 'adapt' to not end up like your example with the Norse in Greenland (never knew this, so thanks for bringing it up!) , how can ___ (insert letter here for 'new' activity of 'secular' Israel, or most Israelis in general) sustain itself if the values driving it have changed so radically in under half a century?

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman said...

fresh commentary from Rabbi David Hartman on the Akeida on the Hartman Institute website - - The Akeida: A Window Into God’s Humanity And Our Own - (31/08/2010) By DAVID HARTMAN

Calev said...

Hey Avram

i read it, and then read it again, and i think all the x's confused me :)

i think there are two issues, both as important as eachother, although my blog only touched on one

one of those issues is the question of whether the current values promoted by a wide variety of people (you touched on the me first people, and i would agree with you that its a problem) are able to protect us in the future. its something i've touched on in the past

the current post is looking at something slightly different - not a situation in which values have changed, but one in which they have stayed the same, but the situation has changed, and how that can be dangerous. the settlement issue is what comes to mind first, but the post is not a dig at the settlements.

its about how its important for us to do cheshbon nefesh. and within that cheshbon nefesh, we cant always rely on things that served us well in the past

Shana Tova

Avram said...

shanna tova Mr. Ben Dor.

Anonymous said...

God bless Israel and the jewish people

Anonymous said...

nice idea.. thanks for sharing.