Thursday, October 29, 2009

Avram: Shaping Heroes in Our Own Image

There is no greater example of Eric Auerbach’s argument that the Torah text is ‘fraught with background’ (rather than detailed descriptions) than the story of Avram who – seemingly out of nowhere – gets a call from God to leave his land, home and birthplace.

The lack of detail allows the Rabbis to shape their hero in their own image. For one, he becomes the pure believer who, already at the age of three, comes to total belief in the Divine.

For another, Avram is the grand philosopher – a mix between Aristotle and Socrates – whose mind gives him no rest until he finally arrives at monotheism and bravely fights against the rest of society to promote the truth.

Israeli educator Ari Elon has a nice angle on this as well as the connection between ‘breaking idols’ and our relationship with God.

“The monotheists among us see in our Avram the inventor of monotheism.

The rebels among us see in him the father of all young rebels and iconoclasts.

The revolutionaries among us see in him the young man who first conceived the idea of building a new world.

The yeshiva boys among us see in him someone who left the vanities of this world for a life of learning in the legendary Bet Midrash of Shem and Ever.

And the halutzim (Zionist pioneers) among us see in him the first young Zionist who left his parents home, a promising career and a homeland and went to redeem the promised land. “
In addition, Elon, who left the religious fold during his youth, makes a beautiful reference to his favorite childhood story – Avraham’s breaking of the idols – and what it says about our relationship with God.

I break therefore I am a Jew. I leave my homeland and my parents’ home, therefore I am a rooted Jew. Today I am no longer young, but I don’t give up on my obligation to create from within the tradition, and my right to rebel against it from its depths. There is a rich creative life after the death of my childhood God. There is no more complete God than a broken God.

It is a great pleasure to ‘renew the days of old’ and to return to our bookshelves filled with the broken tablets and shattered idols. It is a great pleasure to make puzzles from all these pieces of ourselves, who have been created – thank God – in the broken image of God.”

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Marx, Spinoza, Freud and Avraham

I know I seem to be quoting the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks a lot, but this reading of Lech Lecha in which he contrasts the call for Avraham to undertake a spiritual journey with critiques of Marx, Spinoza and Freud on inherent human nature is simply fantastic.

“Marx said that man is a product of social forces, themselves shaped by the interests of the ruling class, the owners of property of which the most significant is land. Therefore G-d said to Abraham, Leave your land.

Spinoza said that man is made by innate instincts and biological drives (nowadays this is called genetic determinism) given by birth. Therefore G-d said to Abraham, Leave the circumstances of your birth.

Freud said that we are the way we are because of the traumas of childhood, the influence of our early years, our relationships and rivalries with our parents, especially our father. Therefore G-d said to Abraham, Leave your father’s house.

G-d commands Abraham: ‘Free yourself of the Marxian determinism of land, the Spinozistic determinism of genetic birthplace, and the Freudian determinism of parental home. All of these will have an influence, but human freedom emanating from our being children of a G-d of love will empower us to transcend these limitations and create a more perfect society.”

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Fall of Babel, the Rise of Europe

In a land of 2 Jews 3 opinions, one would have thought that Babel would bring nostalgia – the yearning to create a society of one language and the same words.

In a place divided between right and left, religious and secular, rich and poor, maybe we should be sympathetic to the tower generation – an equal society with no disagreement.

In his book on the
Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy raises a simple question. How did Europe – with its scattered and relatively unsophisticated peoples compared to other global empires like China, Russia and Japan – manage to become a commercial and military leader in world affairs?

The answer is surprising, and it may hold the key to why God felt the need to divide the people of Babel.

Kennedy explains that while other empires such as the Ottomans or Chinese suffered from centralization, Europe was politically fragmented, making unified control difficult and de-facto encouraging commercial development and the growth of industries.

While some nations such as Russia and Japan possessed a government monopoly, Europe didn’t, which ultimately created competition and the impetus for constant improvements

In short, rather than being its weakness, Europe’s political fragmentation was it strength.

It was the only geographical area possessing the freedom to inquire, dispute and experiment.

And when push comes to shove, it is these things – despite the hurt and discomfort they often cause – that lead to personal, communal and national growth

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Seeing is Believing? Where the Chief meets Gladwell

A while ago, UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gave a lecture in which he argued that while Greek culture is primarily based on site – statues, painting, architecture, sculpture and sport – Judaism is more a culture of the ear.

The Chief isn’t the first to make this distinction. He quotes Eric Auerbach’s essay “Odysseus’s Scar” which explains that while Homer is full of vivid descriptions, the Tanach is not.

No one knows what our heroes looked liked. Instead, we are left with a text “fraught with background” which demands our engagement to fill in the gaps from our own imagination.

To push the argument home, the Chief explained that the Hebrew word for ‘clothes’ (בגד) also means ‘betrayal’. Relying solely on sight can mislead (or blind) us. Instead we need to focus on listening, or hearing (שמע)

I was reminded of this distinction while (re)reading the epilogue of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink – the Power of Thinking without Thinking.

Gladwell describes a story that revolutionized classical music – more women being employed in orchestras.

The cause of this revolution? The simple act of auditions taking place behind a screen rather than in public.

It forced the judges to stop listening with their eyes (which were prejudiced against woman being able to play certain instruments as well as men), and instead listen with their ears and heart.

And the moment this happened, their ears and their heart told them something different about quality of music.

As Gladwell says, there is always a dissonance between what one sees and one hears.

Our job, it would seem, among all the images that flood our everyday existence, is to try and hear the קול דממה דקה among the fire and wind, the short still voice of the divine speaking from somewhere within the ‘noise’.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Succot, Theodicy and Finding Meaning in Tragedy

The question of evil and theodicy has filled books, and I only want this to be a short blog. But in addition to being one of the strangest things we Jews do (and we do a LOT of strange things) the circling of the Bimah for the Hoshanot during Succot reminds me of a discussion that touches on God’s power.

The Gemara in Shabbat 104a relates that “Every day in the festival of Succot they would encircle the altar and recite O Lord deliver us; O Lord let us prosper (אנה ה הושיעה נא אנה ה הצליחה נה). Rabbi Judah said they would recite ‘ אני והו הושיעה נה – I and you; may you deliver us both.”

Does God also need saving? And does a non-omnipotent but all-merciful deity al la Rabbi Akiva and Harold Kushner make it easier to find meaning in tragedy?

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