Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reading Mevakshei Panecha - Part 4 - Final - the Holy of Holies of a Person - Emunah.

The last chapter of Mevakshei Panecha I found fascinating. It is entitled “The Holy of Holies of a Person” and it is a response to a Rav Sabato question to Rav Lichtenstein about faith. The first paragraph I believe is probably the most important one and really defines the idea of Emunah – faith – in a rational Jew.

“You want to talk about my Emunah in God? Is that what you want? That is the Holy of Holies of man! That is his Inner Sanctum! That is the most intimate of intimacies!”

We can talk about God, what we think He is, try to define him in words but ultimately we are just walking around a wall that can never be breached by an outsider. The paradox of Emunah is that we work and spend a lifetime searching for God in our surrounding but ultimately we find Him in the silence of the self. Rambam in MN 1:50 when he begins the chapters that discuss God’s attributes and how we can understand them without violating God’s unity (uniqueness) he introduces the subject with the following statement:

כאשר תפשוט מעליך את התאוות והמנהגים17 ותהיה בעל הבנה ותתבונן במה שאגיד בפרקים הבאים על שלילת התארים - תהיה לך בהכרח ודאות בעניין זה, אזי תהיה מאלה המציירים לעצמם18 את יִחוד השם ולא מאלה האומרים אותו בפיהם מבלי לציירו לעצמם19, שהללו בבחינת מי שנאמר עליהם: קרוב אתה בפיהם ורחוק מכִליותיהם (ירמיה י"ב, 2)19. אלא צריך אדם להיות בבחינת מי שמציירים להם את האמת ומשיגים אותה, אף אם אין הם מבטאים אותה, כמו שנצטוו אנשי המעלה ונאמר להם: אִמרו בלבבכם על משכבכם ודֹמו סלה (תהלים ד', 5)20.
Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, "Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins" (Jer. xii. 2). It is right that a man should belong to that class of men who have a conception of truth and understand it, though they do not speak of it. Thus the pious are advised and addressed, "Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah." (Ps. iv. 5.)

Clearly Rav Lichtenstein has internalized Rambam’s admonition. A singular and unique entity which cannot be sensed with human senses, cannot be conceived with human mind, can only be intuited through inductive and deductive reasoning, such an entity cannot be verbalized outside the self, and that is true Emunah. Contemplating this brings us to an understanding of Negative Knowledge which is the key of Rambam’s thought in this matter. See my article here  .

Rav Lichtenstein then proceeds to discuss the subject in a general without getting into specifics. First he addresses a well-known thought that I grew up with and always made me uncomfortable.

“Rav Elhanan Wasserman said that faith [in God] is simple and easy. However the Yetzer Hara interferes and keeps man from worshipping God. I do not accept these words. Firstly, to my mind, that is factually untrue. Secondly, this argument is somewhat insulting. It argues that were it not for bad urges, others too would aspire to faith. True that our natural senses may bring a person to believe, but to argue that it is easy and simple, were it not for our urges, I cannot agree with that. A certain effort is required for one to arrive at belief. The concept of faith is complex. Specifically, one cannot give one answer that one can say with certainty that it will convince every denier.”

Rav Lichtenstein makes two points that always bothered me about Rav Elhanan’s approach. He says that Emunah is self-evident. If it were so why does every thinking person struggle with it? He also accuses those who don’t accept it succumb to their bad urges. We know many ethical and moral people who have no Emunah.  

“When I teach a Sugya –subject - and offer two possibilities as potential explanations, I tell my students, don’t forget that there also is a third possibility; both explanations are correct. Not always must we accept one position and refute the other. In Halachik sugyot it is possible that the resolution depends on circumstances. At times we will rely on one principle and others on another. So too with Emunah one cannot say that it all depends on one argument only. There different perspectives; from a historical and national one I find myself turning to a certain aspect of my personality while for other perspectives I turn to others.”

Rav Lichtenstein then spells out some of what I would term conflicting perspectives. We have to accept that certain truths and arguments that were considered axiomatic during the Middle Ages are no longer applicable. On the other hand reliance on subjective experiences does not work for many and triggers many questions.

“The historical perspective has two sides to it. Some people are inspired by it and it strengthens their Emunah while to others the historical perspective itself is the source of doubt. To anything you tell them they find analogies elsewhere, in the Caribbean or Antarctica. Of course the strongest historical proof is the contemplation of Jewish history and the wondrous survival of the Jewish nation against all odds, one lamb amongst seventy wolves.  That strengthens one’s Emunah. The impetus for religious Emunah is multi-faceted; learning Torah, relying on the Tradition of generations, contemplation of the universe and its perfection, the Historical record and the personal instinct and experience. I hope that we don’t have to choose amongst these. I believe that they are all interdependent each supporting the other. In such a setup, some things are more central and important than others but altogether they lead us to experience Emunah without us having to choose one over the other.”  

Rav Lichtenstein is talking about Emunah very generally without specifying a particular question or particular subject of belief. During the Middle Ages, basing themselves on the science of the times, the Rishonim felt that certain issues of belief can be proven scientifically while others were based on what I refer to as “plausibility” when taking into account all aspects of an issue. Rambam in MN spends several chapters in the beginning of Part 2 differentiating between the different types of arguments for the existence of God and His unity which he bases on what he considered as scientifically objective arguments while will, creation from nothingness and prophecy are based on plausibility rather than irrefutable proofs.  Plausibility is based on a combination of various related propositions that support a certain point of view. This approach is used in matters that are beyond human comprehension, areas that humans cannot experience with their senses and is generally referred to as metaphysical questions. Considering the current state of scientific knowledge, Rav Lichtenstein seems to use the latter argument, the argument from plausibility as the basis for his understanding of Emunah. He also emphasizes that the process of searching, learning and contemplating these issues brings one closer to HKBH and ultimately Emunah becomes a combination of the rational and the experiential – the experiential being internalized and personal which does not lend itself to verbalization.  

I highly recommend for anyone that has the fortitude and facility with the Hebrew language, to work his way through this very interesting, challenging and enlightening book. We need to take advantage and appreciate the few great talmidei Chachamim and thinkers in our community – and unfortunately they are few and precious.

In Memory of My Mother A’H who’s Yahrzeit is today the 22nd of Tevet.   



Monday, January 09, 2012

Reading Mevakshei Panecha - Part 3 - Leadership For Our Community.

Continuing with the interview of Rav Lichtenstein in Mevakshei Panecha, Rav Sabato asks him about leadership as part of a general discussion about educating Talmidei Chachamim:

This question, whether a Talmid Chacham should grow exclusively in Torah or should he also be involved in leadership matters, is a difficult question in our generation. Look at Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ZL; there is no other in our generation like him. It will take a long time until we find another such great. One of the things that were outstanding about him was that although he expressed himself here and there about communal issues, he refused to be involved in leadership issues.  I had many conversations with him about a variety of issues and he used to tell me: I don’t want to deal with this. On the other hand there are other Gedolim in Torah who took upon themselves this responsibility because of how important it was to them. If Rav Shlomo Zalman is one kind of figure amongst Gedolim, Rav Elayashiv is completely a different kind.

It is clear that we need great people but there is a great distance between being a great man (Gadol) and a leader. In great measure in the Chareidi world, notwithstanding all the due respect and appreciation for what they accomplish in the field of learning, those who become the heads of the community, don’t know the world around them and that is no coincidence as they are trained not to.  They are taught that there is no point in dealing with anything that does not enter the world of the Beit Hamidrash and then they expect these same people who were taught not to notice their surroundings to become leaders? They should tell us how to behave [in the world outside]?  No wonder that in our era this road is strewn with failure!

If one devotes time, significant time, dealing with external matters one gets to know reality, and knowing reality does not mean knowing the gizzard of a chicken for the purpose of ruling Hilchot treifot. It means to know in depth the soul of the nation, the community. I believe that they say in the name of the Chazon Ish that in the area of psak there is a greater risk of improperly understanding the circumstances of the case than in misreading the Halacha. (Rav Sabato points to Iggrot Chazon Ish letter 31). For many there is not enough understanding of what it means to know reality. They look at technical areas, one learning about electricity another about medicine. Of course one cannot rule certain halachot in Hilchot Shabbat without knowing a little physics, medicine etc… but this is far from enough. To deal with issues of values, those things that are on the agenda of the community, those issues that engage the community, one has to arrive to a certain depth in understanding the psyche of the individual, the nation and that requires investment, significant investment. The truth is that it is hard to see on the horizon personalities that will become such people in the future. I do not see a Rav Shlomo Zalman sprouting here [in Eretz Israel]. While in the Lakewood Yeshiva, with all the investment that is there and with all its glory, it is hard for me to see a new Rav Aharon Kotler coming out of there.  They are around several decades and so far one has not emerged.

It is possible that it is our fate to get used to a different kind of leadership and preparation for leadership. This getting used to is difficult. Who does not want a leader like the Chafetz Chaim?

I do not see in our own group anyone like the Rav ZL. There are many Talmidei Chachamim who are Lamdanim with breadth and depth but a leader par excellence is missing….”

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein makes an interesting point about leadership in our community. He does not belittle the advantages of Torah leadership but it has to be someone prepared for the task by being deeply involved in real life outside the Beit Hamidrash.  He does not subscribe to the school that believes that a lifelong Torah scholar somehow miraculously gains insights into the workings of the community and world outside. The required external involvement may come at the cost of some Talmud Torah but it is necessary and only then can we rely on such a leader. It is interesting that he does not see this kind of leadership emerging in any of the groups that make up the community of observant Jews. He does not however address enough the underlying causes for the lack of this type of leadership. By including his own group, who are active in the world outside the Beit Hamidrash, amongst those lacking the necessary leadership traits, he leaves us with a sense of helplessness and even despair.  

Monday, January 02, 2012

Reading Mevakshei Panecha - Part 2 - How Should Religious Jews Relate To Secular Ones?

In another chapter of the book Mevakshei Panecha, Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Sabato discuss the attitude religious Jews should have towards secular Jews. This issue is very pertinent today, especially with the painful and disturbing occurrences we read and hear about in Bet Shemesh and earlier in Jerusalem. Rav Sabato introduces the subject, presenting the two dominant points of view, that of Rav Kook and the Chazon Ish that seem to be the most accepted opinions in the religious community. Rav Kook holds that considering that the secular Jews were the leaders of the Zionistic enterprise and the builders of the land, they apparently were suffused with a national spirit of love and dedication to their fellow Jews. Such a total dedication to the Jewish nation stems from a deep-rooted Jewishness that is implanted in their soul. These traits will eventually blossom as the process of return to Zion continues and eventually move towards Torah study and Mitzvot. The second position is that of the Chazon Ish (not necessarily contradictory) that the secular Jews are “Tinokot Shenishbu” prisoners of their circumstances, and therefore cannot be blamed for their misguided ways. Rav Lichtenstein disagrees with both approaches.

“In both narratives there is a certain judgment, a certain statement of fact, a general categorization of the public in question. I have no idea how one can think in such a way. We are talking about a large public. The spiritual content and the values of a part of that public include powerful ideas, important ones that contain meaningful values, not necessarily historical ones. At the same time, to our great sorrow, there is a part of that public that is empty and frivolous, who shook off not only Torah and Mitzvot, Mikvah or Kashrut, but also values that are important to us as Jews and others that are universal… Therefore, I don’t want to pass judgment on the whole lifestyle of that public, nor do I think that I can… If we want to judge a certain individual within a certain public, there are things that irritate us, but there are also certain things that definitely are attainments and values that I wish we were at their level… If we relate to them as Tinokot Shenishbu we do not give them any credit, we don’t find anything of value worth emulating, we assume that they have no meaningful spiritual or moral value, as the [famous] definition by the Chazon Ish [comparing them] to an empty wagon. To say that they are an “empty wagon” infers that they don’t have anything of value, nothing that is not better in our community. I believe that in actuality that is incorrect and I am not interested in going to that place.”

Rav Lichtenstein explains that the totally negative image that we have of the secular community is a result of our defending against being drawn in by them.

“I repeat: I don’t believe that is the reality. There are amongst them very charitable people, people who care deeply for the future, the path and the survival of the Jewish community – at the communal level not only the national. My vision is not theirs. But there are many things that they are building and doing, not only in the areas of state where they have a historical role which is the perspective of Rav Kook, they also have value systems that are meaningful. Saying that they are Tinokot Shenishbu is infantilizing this public. Saying they are Tinokot Shenishbu is saying that they have no value but it is “nebbish” not their fault.   I have no doubt that there are such people amongst them just as there are also amongst us… I also see an element of Tinokot Shenishbu in the Rav Kook approach not only in the Chazon Ish one. I am referring to his attitude to the secular group that says: you think that you are such and such, but we know that deep inside you there is another universe. That universe is your real internal self. One day that self will be uncovered, as you remove layer after layer of skin. They see this as layers of an onion. This attitude is arrogant. I would object if I was the subject of this attitude and I don’t believe one should relate to them in this way.”

Rav Lichtenstein very astutely puts his finger on one of the least attractive aspects of the religious view of the other. There is a sense of self satisfaction, a feeling that I am doing what is right while the other, who does not follow the Mitzvot, is missing out on this great good and the only reason they are doing so is because of ignorance. Of course, this attitude does not promote feelings of mutual respect and good will. Rav Lichtenstein blames or rather tries to mitigate the accusation of arrogance by blaming it on self-preservation. There is no question that it plays a role but ultimately it puts down anyone that is different. It also refuses to see much of the good and values of the other which at times is superior to those found in our community. I was watching a video a few days ago where one of the crazies in Beit Shemesh was yelling at the police and the journalists saying to them “you are going to teach us values? You?” Of course this guy was nuts and abhorrent but crazy people sometimes voice what others in his community think. Indeed, many of the reactions of the rabbinical organs e.g. Agudah, condemned the public behavior but not the underlying arrogance and dismissal of the other.

“The vision of Rav Kook I understand. At times I am even jealous of him. At times. The vision he expresses, I have problems with to a great extent, because I see in it – and I hope I don’t misread – a preference of the historical over the moral.  This vision praises the attainments and the mission that these people fulfill in the physical world; but what about [their accomplishments in] the intellectual realm?”

Rav Lichtenstein is critical of Rav Kook’s approach because he understands that he refuses to see the good values that the secular community brings to the table. Rav Kook sees them as tools in the hand of HKBH to serve the Klal but does not give them credit for what they really offer in terms of the intellectual and spiritual.

So what is Rav Lichtenstein’s own position?

 “It is very important that we do not under any circumstances arrive at the conclusion that we have no regard to select values that exist in segments of the secular public. There are people in the religious community, and not only in the religious one, that have an attitude of - either you are [totally] with us or against us. I believe that a Jewish moral perspective based on torah should recognize imperfect value systems too. If I am out to build an ideology, whether a personal one or for a community, I build it on a purely Holy basis. On the other hand, if I ask myself: let us say that this person, this group or that group, are anyway not keeping Shabbat, they don’t go to the Mikvah, is there no difference from our perspective - not from theirs - if a Jew hates Torah or loves it, or whether he has a warm spot for it, even if this is not enough to make him observe the Shulchan Aruch?  … Every one of us has had the experience that when a member of the family becomes non-observant, at times there are confrontations. What is the point of the confrontation?  People have family members who they know will not return to become Shabbos observant halachikally, it is however important to us that they should have a warm spot in their heart [for torah] not only so that should they become members of the Knesset they will vote favorably for women serving in Sherut Leumi [instead of the army – DG] but because we pray and wish that our whole community remain healthy both spiritually and physically and that includes regard for select values.”     

Rav Lichtenstein makes here a very important point. We all have a tendency to look at others from the perspective of our own values. Anybody that sees things differently is judged on that basis. We see our own values as ideal and look askance at values that we do not have. That prevents us from objectively evaluating and adapting some of these values, those that are meaningful and important. Our attitude further creates a rift between us and the secular public which prevents them from appreciating what we bring to the table. We have to look at ourselves as a whole, the religious and secular community as one, and respect the values found in both communities. The risk to this approach is that we see all values as relative rather than absolute.

However, I do not agree with some of my colleagues who say: “listen, not everybody is perfect. We are not mindful of this and they are not mindful of something else. They don’t keep Shabbat and we are lax in other things. I do not buy this approach. True, we all are not perfect, but what is missing, how much is missing and are the attempts to fix our shortcomings sincere? That is a much more meaningful [criteria].”

There are indeed Jewish values that are important to us. The external values are meaningful but are even more so if added to our own values rather than replacing them. In other words, Rav Lichtenstein does not want us to misunderstand that his appreciation for external values should allow for them to replace our own values. They are a welcome and necessary addition and they will only be available to us if we look at them objectively and with the due respect.

“This approach to a partial value system is not exclusive to our relationship with the secular community. It is also useful in our relationship with the Conservative and Reform movements everywhere. And I repeat over and over, I value very much the incomplete value system and hope and pray that I can advance with people towards the goal of their internalizing more and more of the world of our values”.

In other words Rav Lichtenstein sees great value in the cross-pollination of the different value systems in the Jewish community. To allow for that to happen both communities have to show respect for each other although in the eyes of each the value system of the other is incomplete and imperfect. An all or nothing approach is not constructive for both parties.