Peter Berger's 'Heretical Imperative'

OK, I’ve finished Peter Berger’s Heretical Imperative, and though he makes some great points, it was generally unsatisfying. Probably because he reduces ‘religion’ to ‘belief’ and sees conflicting or untenable beliefs as the crux of modern religious ‘heresy’. This shouldn’t be too shocking from a person writing out of a Protestant milieu, but it’s a bit of a disappointment nonetheless.
     I was also disappointed in his description of the three ways for modern religion to engage modernity – what he calls the deductive, reductive, and inductive approaches. Respectively, and in a nutshell, the possibilities are reaffirming authority of tradition in defiance of challenges to it, secularizing tradition, and retrieving the experienced embodied in the tradition. I think there’s a fourth and even a fifth approach, and that there are crucial divisions within the approaches he outlines.
     He looks to 20th Century Protestantism as the original religious confrontation with modernity. He missed out on some great 19th century religious thinkers and responders to modernity, both Jewish and Catholic.
     Finally, I was kind of disturbed by his likening of the Protestant faith to the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isaiah 53 for its willingness to be the first to confront religious dilemmas. Speaking as a Jew, I find it insulting that he suggests that the Protestants who were sitting in their seminaries in Germany working out responses to modern religious crises while Jews were being slaughtered by the millions are somehow ‘Suffering Servants’. Those poor theologians.
     In any event, any ‘overview’ book will be oversimplified, and he certainly provides some context for evaluating modern religious thought. For example, in his chapter on the deductive possibility, he describes the religious attitude of Karl Barth at length. I had never been exposed to Barth, so I couldn’t have known the degree to which R’ Y. B. Soloveitchik employs Barth’s religious categories.
     There are a number of great observations and ideas that Berger suggests, and some great one-liners, too. Here goes:
  • On his venture from sociology to theology (xiii): What the “professional theologians” have done of late is not so inspiring that we unaccredited types must feel constrained to stand watching in awed silence.

  • On man’s ability to transcend his situation(8): There are a thousand dull conformists for every Socrates…Of course modern man tends to think of himself and of his thoughts as the climax of evolution to date. In this he is no different from just about any preceding variety of the species.

  • Plurality of alternatives is the core of the modern experience. If there are no option, then what is can be interpreted as what must be; in the modern condition, there’s less and less of what must be. Fate becomes choice. Destiny becomes decision.

  • Religion begins as religious experience, which is not equally distributed. Therefore, the experience must become embodied by traditions, and by doing so brings the experience which braches ordinary life into ordinary life, which tends to distort. His predicament is that of the poet amongst bureaucrats.

  • A fundamental distinction must be made between religious experience itself, and later reflection upon and attempts to understand that religious experience.

  • On the danger of overcontextualizing and psychologizing religious experience (p.123): The final point is not that Marco Polo was an Italian – and, who knows, an Italian with all sorts of class resentments and with an unresolved Oedipus complex – but that he visited China.

Ultra Orthodox vs. Ultra Sound

After reading this article, I was reminded of a conversation that I had with a fairly well known and respected poseik, originally American, now in Jerusalem. He is of the opinion that it is forbidden for women to undergo ultrasounds while they are pregnant. His rationale is based on anecdotal evidence of stress caused by misdiagnosis, and some examples of cases where misdiagnosis resulted in unnecessary operations, from which the infant died. He felt that the potential costs far outweighed the potential benefits that may result from such a procedure.

Mind you, I am far from neutral on this issue. My oldest child was born with a very serious condition that was diagnosed in utero, and which allowed us to make all of the necessary preparations for the birth, which included prearranging a specific time for a Caesarean delivery so there would be no surprises, researching the condition, finding the right doctors, etc. Not knowing about it beforehand would have meant that my child wouldn’t have made it; babies with this condition didn’t make it until very recently, like the last 30 years or so. I was basically confronting this poseik with the fact that, according to him, my child should have died, and he did not deny that point.

Of course, he and I are both marshalling anecdotal evidence; it just so happens that my anecdote is sleeping peacefully in the room next door, so it hits a bit closer to home. Nevertheless, I think that his entire analysis is junk, and here’s why:

  1. Ultrasound technology, genetic testing (amniocentesis), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are all constantly improving, medicine learns from its mistakes, and the threat of lawsuits, at least in the U.S. is a strong deterrent against cavalier diagnoses.

  2. There are techies, and there are pros. There are second opinions. There is common sense. From my (now extensive) experience with the medical establishment, I know the value of doing the research and asking good questions. Whenever we learned about something new, we researched it on the web, and came back armed with all kinds of questions and ideas.

[Side story on this point: once, my oldest had a pneumonia – related to the birth condition – and wound up in the PICU. After the condition stabilized, my oldest’s lips were bluish. I asked the doctor about it, and he responded “Oh, that’s labial cyanosis”. I responded, “Labial cyanosis is Latin for ‘blue lips’; calling it a funny name isn’t going to satisfy me; what is going on?”. His next response was much more substantive and detailed. I’m glad I asked]

  1. Did I mention the common sense thing? Whatever. I can’t emphasize it enough.

I don’t know the people who were victims of ultrasonic misdiagnosis; whomever they are, my heart truly goes out to them. But it’s essential to realize that they were not the victims of technology, rather, the victims of human error and human failure. If anything, it’s reason to turn the brain back on and try to make things more foolproof (though the quality of fools seems to be improving as well), minimize the potential for human error, and for God’s sake (really!) corroborate the initial findings with some other evidence!

Needless to say, that particular poseik didn’t get any more queries from me.
I would also add that his position doesn’t reflect the mainstream halakhic position, haredi or otherwise.


Lying in the Liturgy

There are parts of davenning which are simply untrue; maybe they once were, but they are no longer. Maybe they are rue for others, but they aren't for me.

Sometimes we can relate to them as prayers - not something we are, but something we aspire to be. But sometimes that simply doesn't work, either.

3 examples:
1) In tachanun, Nusach Adshkenaz says, from Tehillim, "With my tears I will soak my bed". I don't cry over my sins, and it seems ludicrous to beg forgiveness for those sins based on my
crying over them.
2) On Tisha B'av, we say a version of Nacheim which describes Jerusalem as being 'desolate from lack of inhabitants'. That's not Jerusalem's problem anymore. Most of the lament is relevant, but that part isn't.
3) At the end of bentching we say 'I was young, and I aged, and I never saw a righteous man abandoned or his children begging for food'. What if I have seen an abandoned tzaddik, or his children going hungry? Doesn't it happen?

So what's the conclusion? Skip? Change? Ignore?
As usual, the best solution seems to be the most common one - simply daven without kavvanah.

Leave it to the Jewish people, eh? Heirs of the prophets!


Monkey Suits

Yesterday’s Daf noted the curious fact that in Babylonia, the Rabbis were ‘metzuyanim’ – distinguished, i.e., by their clothing. There are two reasons given for this fact: one by R’ Assi, which is apparently rejected in favor of R’ Yochanan’s opinion.

R’ Assi believes that it’s because Babylonian Rabbis aren’t b’nei Torah. Thus, they must distinguish themselves by their clothing to compensate for their lack of other distinctions.

R’ Yochanan corrects him, stating that Babylonian Rabbis are no less distinguished, but since they are not in their ‘place’, they cannot rely on reputation alone to exhibit their distinction, thus they must dress in a distinguished manner.

Since I perceive myself as a ‘Eretz Yisrael’ style – Rabbi in ‘Babylonia’, this Gemara really resonated. I long to be where there’s no need for a rabbi to be self-conscious about his appearance, or to distinguish himself by anything but knowledge and understanding of Torah.

For what it’s worth, though I can think of all kinds of people to whom R’ Assi’s judgment applies, it may simply be a side-effect of the phenomenon that R’ Yochanan points out; there may indeed be distinguished Rabbis in Babylonia, but their distinction would remain unrecognized if they didn’t mark their distinction with their clothing.


Morality and Polygamy

Hirhurim has a post wich debates certain aspects of polygamy, and discusses whether we hold like the Taz, who suggests that if the Torah permits something explicitly, we have no right to forbid it.

I posted a while back on this issue, and thought that I demonstrated pretty conclusively that the Torah is anti-polygamy, and suggested reasons why it was permitted then.

What would the Taz say about someone who took an Eishes Yefas To'ar? What would we say to an Israeli soldier in a defensive war who committed rape and then took her home with him?


My Zaydie, the Swiss-Army Jew

My grandfather was a Rabbi, but of a different mold. He’s more of what I call a ‘Swiss-Army Jew’, or a ‘Utility Jew’, or a ‘One-Band Jewish Band’, or a ‘Jew-of-all-Trades’. He was a shochet, a mohel (though I hope he never got the two confused), a chazzan, a ba’al korei, a shammas, and a gabbai. I don’t know if there was any system or ideology or method to his Yiddishkeit, and I don’t think he had any formal schooling in anything, but had this incredible, visceral Jewish ‘gut’, a strong vindictive streak, and a fantastic Jewish sense of humor (which could be terribly bitter and biting) that served as the vehicle to teach some very valuable lessons. His entire context was Jewish, and he succeeded in translating it, and appreciation and love for it, in some way, to those around him. Had he wound up in Brooklyn like his contemporaries, I doubt his contribution would have compared to what he accomplished ‘out-of-town’.

He decided to open a shul in America. He went out to the suburbs, found a Jewish neighborhood with no shuls, and opened his ‘shtiebl’ which was also his home. I still remember his old balabatim with their taleisim like scarves jingling the change in their pockets on Shabbos morning.

At the same time, he was a closed book. I never had much of a relationship with him. I remember that he once showed me a Satmar responsum on yarmulke size to show me that the small ‘sroogie’ that I was wearing was inadequate. Of course, he didn’t show me the first siman in Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim, which the Satmar teshuvah was ridiculing, which takes a completely different view of the ‘shiur’ of a yarmulke. He was generally hard of hearing, and often chose to be even more so. In general, our conversations went like this:

Me: Hi, Zaydie, how are you?
Zaydie: Four O’clock.

His own father died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic that decimated Europe in the late 1910s, when Zaydie was 7 years old and the oldest of 4 with one on the way. He never knew a normal family situation, never learned to show affection, and then emigrated with a young family to a different continent, language, and culture. These barriers were too much to overcome, especially since in my youth and teenage years I was too immature or too ‘cool’ to appreciate him. He passed away during my first year in Yeshiva after high-school.

There’s one story that happened with me which, for me, characterizes much of who he was and what his attitudes were. When I was in 3rd Grade, my father went away on a business trip (yes, the Rabbinate sometimes skips generations, sorta) and instructed me to call Zaydie every night to review the psukim that I had learned in Chumash that day. My class was learning the Parsha of Miketz, specifically 42:21, where Joseph’s brothers confront their own guilt for not having listened to Joseph ‘be-hitchanenno eileinu’. When reviewing w/ Zaydie, I translated this latter phrase as ‘when he found favor with us’. Zaydie corrected me, stating that it means ‘when he begged use’. I suggested that the root is from the word ‘cheyn’. He insisted that it was similar to ‘tachanun’, a concept that I wasn’t yet familiar with.

When my father returned home, he asked for a report on my Chumash-reading skills (and you still wonder how I became a Rabbi?). Zaydie informed him that I ‘don’t know teitch (translation)’. My father informed him that if that’s how I translated it, then that’s how I learned it.

That Shabbos morning, Zaydie (who had retired and moved, and attended a different shul) saw my Rebbi at Shacharis. He approached him after davvening and said, ‘You’re my grandson’s Rebbi?’. After an affirmative answer, Zaydie went to the bookcase, took out a Chumash, opened it to the verses that we had studied a few days earlier, and said to my Rebbi, “Sit down.” He pointed to the passuk and commanded, “Read”. I can just picture the scene - Zaydie simply overpowering this poor Rebbi (who undoubtedly deserved it) by sheer force of personality, in a way that no act of physical violence could.

Sure enough, my Rebbi mistranslated the psukim as I had. After correcting the Rebbi, Zaydie suggested that since the expertise in matters Jewish required from him constituted the ability to read and translate perhaps a half-dozen parshiyos and one Mesechta of Mishnayos, he really ought to make sure that he knows it.

Zaydie didn’t make us laugh (we didn’t get his jokes).
He didn’t make us sing (certainly not after the hearing started to go; he was utterly tone-deaf). He did make a Seder on Pesach night, though, but it was unspectacular.
I can’t really say that I loved him. I barely knew him.

But man did he leave an impression.


An Ashkenazi Ambiguity

Thrice daily, in Alyenu, those of us who speak with the Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew say, ‘le-sakein olam be-malchus Shakai’.

[what follows is a cute ‘Chassidishe’-style vort, which is clearly wrong as a plausible explanation of the text, but nonetheless expresses some truth]

This vocalization can be understood in 2 ways, depending on the two ways to spell ‘le-sakein’ Hebrew. It can mean either

to repair the world into the Kingdom of the Lord

to endanger the world with the Kingdom of the Lord

Motivation to establish God’s dominion on Earth is quite the double-edged sword…


Inadequate Denominations

I’ve been arguing for a while, on-blog and in real life, that denominations are political conveniences and not ideologies. I think that Dov Bear’s question about the razor-thin line between Orthodoxy and Conservatism, as well as his observation (which is only impressive to someone who lives in a community like Woodmere; for us ‘out-of-towners’ it’s obvious) regarding the difficulty in drawing clear boundaries, fundamentally misunderstands the nature and function of denominating in the first place. It’s politically convenient for a synagogue in Boise, Idaho to align itself with a national organization that can help provide it with material and human resources. Thus, it will choose one of the ‘Big Three’ national organizations: OU, US, or UAHC. Of course, a UAHC Temple in Boise might look nothing like the one in, say, Tallahassee, religiously or socially, they are both, officially, ‘Reform’. The same applies to any of the other three. Of course, there are evolving standards. A Mechitza wasn’t always a sine qua non for membership in the OU, but it is now.

[There are a few ‘traditional’ congregations left, where there’s no mechitza, very few members are observant, but they insist on things like an Orthodox Rabbi whose job it is to make ‘ha-motzi’ at sisterhood functions. The only elements of tradition that it adheres to are those which keep the people unempowered. Let’s call it ‘Misogydoxy’ or ‘Ignoramodoxy’].

The main point is, that having denominations are a political necessity, which provide a great boon to those who want to slide comfortably into religious roles. “I don’t do that; I’m Reform”, or “I’m not Shomer Negi’ah, I’m Modern Orthodox”, etc. Once I label myself, I can basically continue to act out of habit, but the habit now has a name and, ostensibly, and ideology that someone, somewhere has articulated.

It can become pretty unsettling when those comfortable labels continue to evolve. I’ll repeat that in case you missed it: the labels evolve. What one meant by ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Conservative’ 50 years ago isn’t what one means by their use today. The social group that calls itself ‘Orthodox’ has evolved, and the connotation of the term has evolved accordingly.

Of course, there are members of any group who cease to evolve. These are the people who scream about ‘YU moving to the right’. To the right of what? Are they making up new halakhot? Are today's Roshei Yeshiva articulating a philosophy that’s radically different from or to the right of the philosophy of, say, R’ Dovid Lifschitz or R’ Yerucham Gorelick?

No. The Modern Orthodox community has evolved. Some of its members haven’t. They respond by trying to invent time-warps where we can all go back to the 50s or by creating brand-new categories like ‘Open Orthodoxy’ so that they can continue to feel comfortable within a label.

Ultimately, though, denominations aren’t religious categories. It’s not that there aren’t religious differences between the denominations, rather, that identification with one or the other particular denomination isn’t a religious choice, rather, a political choice. When discussing the religious possibilities, there are many more than 3 or 4 alternatives. There are thousands, perhaps even 600,000, alternatives. We’d do well not to confuse political and social differences with genuine religious differences.

I’ll end with a line from Zalman Shazar’s memoirs, quoted by Levinas on p. 149 of In Time of Nations, discussing the categories of ‘assimilationism’ versus ‘nationalism’, a conflict which was plaguing the contemporaries of his youth:

“I remember a private conversation in which the baron [David Gunzberg] tried to convince be that the concepts “nationalism” and “assimilation”, which I used in speaking to my comrades, were “inadequate”…he produced the absolute, irrefutable argument: Maimonides! How could I define Maimonides, using the concepts I thought so solid? Would I say that Maimonides was a national thinker? But didn’t he live on the summits of world thinking in his time, his mind full of Greek wisdom, the friend of the princes of thought not from our land, writing his books in Arabic,…persecuted thereafter by the “faithful keepers of the walls” among our people? But…who summarized and organized the Halakhah for his and all future generations? Who formulated the principles of the Jewish credo…?

“It must therefore be recognized that the notions “national” and “assimilated”, so familiar to myself and my generation, do not express the complexity of the real, and are not suitable to their object.”

This should be required reading to anyone who would try to label RYBS as ‘Modern’ or “Ultra” Orthodox, RSL or RDW-H as ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Conservative’, or to cut F. Rosenzweig, Heschel, or Levinas himself down to size.


‘Yehei Shmei Rabbah with all your…’

This rather well-known Gemara came up in the Daf earlier this week. It’s actually the earliest mention of any part of Kaddish.

I remember growing up and sitting in shul near people who literally screamed ‘yehei shmei Rabbah’. This practice was apparently encouraged at the ‘siyum shas’ last year (see my posts on ‘Jewish Evangelism’).

The problem is that it’s not the prevalent understanding of the Gemara. The language of the Gemara is ‘be-kol kocho’ which means ‘with all his strength’. Rashi and Tosafot both understand this to mean ‘with all his focus’. Rambam clearly differentiates ‘kol kocho’ from qol ram’. Tosafot also quote a Psikta which indicates that a loud voice is preferable, but it’s not clear if the Psikta argues with the Bavli or explains it, but it’s not how at least the Rishonim that I’ve seen understand it.

So for the sake of those of us who like davenning without the howling, let’s be someich on Rashi, Tosafos and Rambam.

Thou Shalt Not Erect Monoliths

I’ve written about the Rambam’s take on the Mitzvah of ‘Tamim Tihiyeh’, in this weeks parsha, a while ago. There’s another mitzvah in the parsha that I find to be very fertile for an admonition of many elements of the contemporary scene. As the title reflects, there’s aBiblical prohibition, at the beginning of the parsha, against setting up ‘matzeivot’. As Rashi points out, and as is clear from the usage in Bereishis, a matzeivah is a monolith, a single stone that is erected to become the focus of the worship of a particular deity. A mizbei’ach was made of many stones, and was a locus of animal sacrifice.
The strange part, and many commentators ask this, is that if the Torah was offended, as Rashi claims, by monoliths because they were used in pagan worship, then why aren’t mizbeichot guilty by the same association?
The main approach to resolving this question within the commentators is to describe a monolith as something intrinsically bad, or endemic to paganism, as opposed to a mizbei’ach which is described as being a tool for worship in general.
Of course, all answers are constrained by the fact that the Patriarchs erected monoliths. It’s not acceptable to most commentators, nor to myself, to say that reports of the Patriarchs’ erection of monoliths are from the Elohist whereas the prohibition is from the Deuteronomist. Similarly, it’s not acceptable to most commentators (but I’m personally OK with it) to suggest that the theology of the Partiarchs was underdeveloped and monolatrous’ or ‘henotheistic’.
There’s an approach that I’ve heard as attributed to the Maharal, that basically understands the problem with monoliths as being, well, monolithic. One idea, or theory, or path, or way of thinking becomes so gigantic to as to preclude anything else from intruding. In the dictionary.com definition: “characterized by massiveness and rigidity and total uniformity”, like Stalinism or Chabad.
The Maharal can understand that the Patriarchs would be monolithic; when one introduces a new idea, a new way, there’s no way for that founder to conceive of his project from several angles, in several models, with the contribution and production of many disparate elements. When something progresses from being an individual issue to being a communal issue, monoliths become dangerous in that they overwhelm dissent and diversity.
It seems that God doesn’t want to be worshipped monolithically.

An Apt Metaphor for Daf Yomi

I’ve gone from being a Daf Yomi weekend warrior to 4 days a week (giving the shiur), which obviously also means that I’ve got to keep pace so I know what’s going on (though I’m dismayed to see how easy it is to simply skip a daf).

Yesterday, I was heading to the daf when I saw a sign posting for a ‘Speed Dating’ event. Speed dating is when you get a bunch of people in a room (preferably with gender balance), two people sit at a table, shmooz for a few minutes to barely get to know the other person, and then the whistle blows and it’s time to change partners).

As I continued on to the Beis Medrash where the shiur is held, I realized that Daf Yomi is just like Speed Dating. You get to spend enough time to get a sense that there’s something there that might be worth exploring or developing, the curiosity is piqued, and then it’s time to go on to the next one.