Friday, November 18, 2011

The Rav Soloveitchik Siddur: Some Conflicted Reflections

This week the OU and Koren Press launched the The Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur . I have yet to see the volume. However, if it is anything like it predecessors (the Yamim Noraim Mahzorim and the Kinnot), then I am sure it is a work of aesthetic beauty and spiritual power. It could hardly be otherwise, as it presents us with the inestimable interpretations and insights of מורי ורבי, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל on the liturgy. Prayer, the unmediated encounter with the Master of the Universe, was a central theme of the Rav's writings, and lies at the core of his understanding of the religious experience. This fact should not be under estimated. The Rav revolutionized our understanding and appreciation of prayer.

First, he restored prayer to the world of Yeshiva spirituality. Davening in Volozhin was notable for the brevity with which it was marked. There, the Study of Torah reigned supreme and the time allotted there to was maximized. The Rav, whose all encompassing involvement in Talmud Torah was no less intense than that of his forebears in Volozhin and Brisk, made extraordinary efforts to sensitize his disciples to the text of the siddur and the riches it contains. By so doing, he balanced out the perennial tension between Prayer and Talmud Torah as competing spiritual activities, a tension that marks Judaism from the beginning.

The Rav also made prayer both accessible and desirable for the intelligent modern whose daily life mires him in quotidian trifles, and renders him obtuse to Eternity, and to his Creator. He did this in his inimitable way by harnessing the totality of Torah and Western Culture to explicate both Halakhic discussions concerning the commandment to pray, and the text of the prayers themselves (and Worship of the Heart is but a foretaste of a much larger discussion).

So, the publication of this Siddur should be greeted with enthusiasm and gratitude to the many people involved in its production.


I am concerned that in all of the blessed publication of this material, תורת הרב הכלכך קרובה ללבי, a central part of his teachings will get lost: study.

The Rav did not write a commentary to the liturgy. He studied, very closely and creatively, the mahzor and the siddur, piyyut and tefillah. It was in the interaction between mind and heart, in the stretching of the mind and the invocation of interpretive creativity that the Rav was in his metier. He demanded not only results but process, from both himself and his students. I do not believe he was interested in a Soloveitchik canon for Divrei Torah and ווארטלטך, but rather to show the way to ever deeper understanding of the words of the liturgy, which will resound in the heart of the Jew as he/she undertakes the challenge of prayer.

So, in the end, whether this prayerbook (as with other collections of the Rav's interpretations) is truly Massoret ha-Rav (ie in the tradition of Rav Soloveitchik) will be determined not by its publication but by how it is used.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dabber Ivrit ve-Hivreta

This week's Makor Rishon had an article about an organization called ESRA, which helps Olim from English speaking countries to acclimatize in Israel (aka קליטה). The article highlighted an aspect of contemporary Aliyah from English-speaking countries, namely the tendency of Anglos to live in hermetically sealed English-speaking ghettoes, and to socialize solely with other Anglos. The result is that an ever growing Oleh population never becomes part of Israeli society.

Personally, I find the phenomenon both curious and painful. When we moved here in 1993, we worked very hard to become part of Israel. True, we spoke English at home and in no way severed our awareness of an involvement in American culture. Still, we have always had both Israeli and non-Israeli friends. We learned about Israeli culture and politics. My wife studied in Israeli schools and training programs. She volunteered for years in various connections and always worked in Hebrew speaking environments. As a university lecturer, I was immersed in the broader society from Day One (or actually, day 265 because I landed into the biggest academic strike in two decades). More than that, because I was too old to be drafted I spent ten years as a volunteer on the Jerusalem Police Force (מתמי"ד) both to make up for my not serving in the army and to taste something of the melting pot experience that army service provides. The children, despite being raised in an American environment, are integral, caring parts of the fabric of Israeli society. I take tremendous pride in that fact.

Indeed, I cannot imagine doing otherwise. My life is so much richer for being part of this tapestry. I have here a sense of Klal Yisrael, of belonging to the multi-variegated body politic of the Jewish People that cannot be fully expressed in words. The fact that we all speak the same language, understand the same codes, reference the same cultural and religious moments (even among many Secular Jews) is, for me, a profoundly spiritual experience. If you don't crack the language and the semiotic, you deny yourself of that moment of total lack of self-consciousness when something dramatic (good or bad) happens and your Israeli brother or sister says one word (or you do) and you implicitly, intuitively understand and share the experience. The Anglo Olim who, in their fear and/or their arrogance, keep to themselves, deny themselves of all of that.

They also harm the State of Israel. For Anglo-Saxon Jewry is one that grew up under real democratic rule. It is the Jewry that developed Modern Orthodoxy. It is commercially and academically successful and sagacious. In other words, it has its own riches to contribute to the miracle of Israel by adapting its heritage to the unique dynamic of this beautiful Jewish mosaic. It's not fair to keep all of that from the rest. Who knows, perhaps that's why they were privileged to come at this time.

One thing is certain, as with anything of lasting worth in Jewish tradition...If it's not in Hebrew, it will have no future.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

לא רעב ללחם ולא צמא למים

The Aramaic Targum on the Book of Ruth opens by saying that there will be ten serious famines prior to the coming of the Messiah. The last one will fulfill the vision of the prophet Amos (who lived not far from where I presently sit): הנה ימים באים נאם אדני יהוה והשלחתי רעב בארץ לא רעב ללחם ולא צמא למים כי אם לשמע את דברי ד or : 'Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God' (Amos 8, 11).

There are, I believe, two sides to this prophecy.

Amos, himself, may have been telling the Jews of his day to appreciate the fact that there is prophecy in their midst, for a time will come when it will cease to exist. The Targum, though, was writing more than half a millennium after prophecy ceased. He lived in a world in which God hid His Face (as it were), a tragic reality that was reinforced by the destruction of the Temple, the Hadrianic Persecutions and the brutal aftermath of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. He yearned for God's word to make sense of the cruel, unjust reality in which he lived. Perhaps, he hoped that he was living in the End of Days, as evidenced by his generation's desperate need for unmediated Divine guidance.

That need, that spiritual hunger, grew ever more intense as the centuries unfolded and the Jewish historical experience grew more painful and heroic. In the wake of the cataclysm's and conundra of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has over flowed. It is, however, solely up to God as to when He will break His silence.

There is another side of Amos' prophecy, which is both timely and which is within our power to address.

Hungering for God's Word is another way of describing an overwhelming desire for God's Presence, per se. For two thousand years, up till the Emancipation (at least), Jews sought God and found Him through Tefillah and Torah, through Mitzvot and Ma'asim Tovim. In Amos' terms, God's Word allowed the Jew to connect with his Creator and feel His Presence. That sense of propinquity is what made him feel truly alive (cf. הל' יסודי התורה פ"א ה"א) and truly happy (e.g. ושמחת לפני ד' א). In the age of secularism, aka the 'Age of Disbelief,' God has been banished from the public square, from educated discourse, and Jews can no longer connect with His Word. For a long time, it appeared that they didn't really want to connect, either.

As I've noted here on any number of occasions, the latter is no longer true, at least as far as the Jews of Eretz Yisrael are concerned. The spiritual upsurge, the Jewish Renaissance, that has marked the past decade and a half has been truly inspiring. Even the secular media has been marked by 'not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God.' The search for God and Torah are at the front and the center of contemporary cultural discourse and personal desire.

That desire, however, is all too often unrequited. The people might want God's Word, but God's Word is often inaccessible.

It is often inaccessible because large swaths of the Orthodox World are caught up in political considerations that make their own power and funding more important than spreading Torah and Sanctifying God's Name. Today's nefarious decision by the Religion Ministry to kill the Tzohar Marriage initiative is typical of this trend (as is the persistent delegitimization by the Rabbinical Courts of conversions and Divorces issued by Orthodox Battei Din both here and abroad). Couples wishing to marry כדת משה וישראל will now have to either contend with the unfeeling and gross bureaucracy that plague the established rabbinate (along with not infrequent graft), or will choose to marry in Cyprus or marry by proxy in Paraguay. These are couples who seek God's blessing on their marriages, but will have nowhere to find it.

God's Word is also inaccessible because, for the vast majority of Traditional and even Orthodox Jews, they can't understand it and there is no one to teach them. It is not of the lack of teachers or classes that I write. Rather, it is the inability of the overwhelming majority of rabbis and educators to convey the Torah in cultural terms that can command the respect and (hopefully) the assent of the inquirers after God's Word. There simply aren't enough representatives of Torah (men and women, from all types of professions) who can intelligently convey God's Word to those who hunger for it. The enormity of this tragic circumstance is difficult to convey. It is compounded by the fact that (with a few exceptions) the community prefers to ignore the severity of the situation. In the Rav's terms, the Lover is knocking on the Beloved's door (which is locked from the outside). The locksmith, however, refuses to awaken and allow her to enter.

I do not know if we are living in the end of days. Happily, I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I do know, however, that when the Day of God, the Day of Judgement arrives all of us who presume to be involved, observant Jews will be asked why we did not help the Jews of Israel (who, according to Maimonides, are the life blood of the Jewish People everywhere) to slake their thirst for God and His Word.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Children of Oslo 1993

In 1991, writer/playwrite Shmuel Haspari composed a song 'Horef '73' about children conceived in the wake of the Yom Kippur War who were then being called up for their service in the Israel Defense Forces. The song quietly, but effectively, expressed the bitter disappointment of those who lived through the 1973 war that its leaders had not done enough to 'turn an enemy into a lover' (מאויב לאוהב, a line ironically taken from SY Agnon). The underlying premise was cognitively dissonant idea that the absence of peace in Israel was all Israel's fault. If only we gave the Palestinians what they want, we would have peace. That type of thinking led to the Oslo debacle of 1993.

The original song is here.

Now LATMA (the people who brought you 'We Con the World') have produced an updated version that expresses the feelings of the parents whose sons and daughters reported this year for induction, in the wake of ther hallucinations of Peres and Beilin, Deri and Rabin that if we only give them what they want, they'll strike a deal and make Peace. Turns out that they won't get what they want until we (ie the Jews) are no longer here. (The Hebrew is far more powerful than the English)