Saturday, July 12, 2008

The first Jerusalem Sabbath.

.השבת הירושלמי הראשון

The past 28 hours have been really terrific, especially after overseeing the NFTY event has put me on the first step to feeling "at home" here (at least temporarily). What's really been significant is that I feel that I have taken up the student mantle once again, and I'm really getting a sense that this is going to be a magnificent year.

Now seems to be a time when a lot of Union of Reform Judaism officials converge on Jerusalem; I don't know whether it has anything at all to do with the beginning of our academic year. (I suspect that, if anything, it has to do with NFTY in Israel, though probably it's a combination of a lot of factors.) Regardless of the reason, there have been a number of influential people that I've met in the past day, and I'm sorry to say that I don't remember most of them.

The major area of intersection between my life and all of theirs (as well as some of the local HUC-related community) was a day of study housed at HUC yesterday. There were several classes offered, and my fellow students and I were encouraged to attend and to study alongside older members of the community and visitors. I was present for the entire day (partially thanks to my conveniently located apartment!) and was very fortunate to have kick started my academic studies here without even having to take notes!

The first class I took was a lesson about how Hebrew words are formed in Modern Hebrew and part of the controversy surrounding the initial decision to make words this way taught by Dr. Yossi Leshem. Aside from being linguistically interesting, the class was also given entirely in Hebrew. In many ways, the class reminded me of my regular Hebrew classes, though after 45 minutes of trying to pay attention to every word, I realized that it's going to take me a bit of time before I can comfortably sit through an hour plus of instruction in Hebrew. Nevertheless, my ability to follow along gives me optimism that, if my classes are, in fact, taught in Hebrew this year, I will probably be able to keep up.

Then, I attended a lesson entitled "The Death of Memory and the Memory of Death: Constructions of the Past in Contemporary Israeli Society," offered by Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University professor Dr. David Mendelsson. Dr. Mendelsson engaged us in a discussion about the evolution of Israeli identity, mostly focusing on the 1960s and earlier. He noted that many Israelis would have delineated their history something like this:

ANTIQUITY
.
.
.
Masada
.
Bar Kochba Revolt
.
EXILE
.
.
.
Tel Hai
.
REBIRTH OF ISRAELI NATION

Basically, this outline skips over 1800 years of development and growth and focuses on the notion that modern Israelis (or Hebrews as they referred to themselves prior to the creation of the State of Israel) are a direct continuation of those who held this land in Antiquity. This outlook associates with the "exile" period only sadness and pain and looks to the Holocaust as validation that nothing good could ever come from living among the other nations of the world. Naturally, this perspective has changed over time, but it was prevalent in many sectors of Israeli society for a number of years prior to the late 1960s.

There was one more class before lunch, but I'll save that for last. Over lunch, Rabbi Naamah Kelman (a good friend of one of my professors at UVA, Vanessa Ochs) shared her findings about modern secular Israeli weddings and how more and more modern secular Israelis are seeking to insert personal touches and liturgical updates into their ceremonies. This was definitely an interesting conversation, especially in light of the fact that I'm going to an Israeli wedding on Thursday!

Now, the most poignant class for me was offered by Rabbi Dr. David Levine, and it was called "Authority and Innovation in Talmudic Thought." The concept of "new tradition" being validated by the rabbinic legacy is very important to me, and I've been thinking for some years about the inherently Jewish nature of innovation. Dr. Levine helped me find further validation of my hypothesis and enriched my understanding of rabbinic methodology.

He began the lecture by reviewing the traditional rabbinic thought pattern. Today, we often generalize into abstractions, and the more universal we are, the more sophisticated we are regarded to be. The rabbis, on the other hand, taught though specific examples and anecdotes. That is, theirs was a vocabulary of specifics, and great ideas were represented through single foci.

My own contribution to this concept would be one of symbology. It seems to me that each of the characters in an anecdote is a symbol for his or her Character, which is established through other stories involving the similar or identical person. Likewise, a conclusion drawn about one law is symbolic for a general truth that can be extrapolated. This understanding is based on previous study I've done, mostly on Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith.

Having established that a single source can stand for an enormous idea, Dr. Levine moved to a Talmudic passage that I want to record here for anyone who is interested (and for my personal review later).

Yerushalmi Demai 2:1 22c (similar text in Bavli Hullin 6b-7a)

ר' זעירא ר' חייא בשם ר' יוחנן. ר' התיר בית-שאן מפי יהושוע בן חמיו שלר' מאיר שאמ'. אני ראיתי את ר' מאיר לוקח ירק מן הגינה בשביעיתץ והתיר את כולה. אמ' ר' זעירא. הדא אמרה. אסור לבר נש מיעבד מילה בציבורא. אני או'. אותה הגינה היתה מיוחדת את כולה. ר' התיר בית-שאן. ר' התיר קסריין. ר' התיר בית-גוברין. ר' התיר כפר-צמח. ר' התיר ליקח ירק במוצאי שביעית. והיו הכל מליזין עליו. אמ' להן. בורא ונדיין. כת' "וכתת נחש הנחושת." וכי לא עמד צדיק ממשה ועד חזקיהו להעבירו. אלא אותה עטרה הניח לו הקב'ה להתעטר בה. [ואנן העטרה הזאת הניח הקבה'ו לנו להתעטר בה.] ס

R. Zeira [and] R. Hiyya in the name of R. Yohanan [said], "Rabbi [Judah the Patriarch] permitted [produce purchased in] Bet Shean [to be eaten without first separating tithes], on the testimony of Joshua b. Zeruz, the son of R. Meir's father-in-law, who said, 'I saw R. Meir take vegetables from the garden during the seventh year,' and he [Rabbi] permitted all of it, [that is, produce grown in the entire territory of Bet Shean, on the strength of this precedent].'"

Said R. Zeira, "this teaches [us] that it is forbidden for a person to do anything in public [from which others might draw a mistaken inference as to the general permissibility of the action]. For I might have said, 'That garden was set aside by him [R. Meir], and [on that basis Rabbi] permitted all of it [the territory of Bet Shean]?!'"

[It has been taught (in a baraita):] Rabbi permitted [produce sold in] Bet Shean [to be eaten without separating tithes], Rabbi permitted Caesaria, Rabbi permitted Bet Guvrin, Rabbi permitted Kfar Tzemach, Rabbi permitted the purchase of vegetables immediately in the year following the seventh year [unconcerned that they might have taken root before the end of the seventh year], and everyone jeered at him [because of these innovations].

He said to them, "Come, let us reason [about this matter]. It is written, He [Hezekiah] broke into pieces the bronze serpent [that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan] (2 Kings 18:4). Now did no righteous man airse from [the time of] Moses to [the time of] Hezekiah to remove it? Rather, the Holy One, praised be He, reserved for him [Hezekiah] that crown with which to adorn himself. So, too, with respect to us--the Holy One, praised be He, reserved for us this particular crown with which to adorn ourselves."

So, what does all this mean? Some things to consider: First, "Rabbi" [Judah the Patriarch] is believed to be the chief editor of the Mishnah, which is a rabbinic text offering interpretations and adjudications of Jewish law and which is part of the Talmud. So, he's definitely highly regarded. Second, Judah was trying to liberalize the tradition in order to alleviate stress on the Jewish people. As taught by Dr. Levine, certain laws only need to be observed within the borders of the "Land of Israel," which is not legally bound by geography but rather by mentality of the Jewish people. Thus, Rabbi Judah was trying to alter the boundary by altering the mentality of the people in order to act righteously, as he saw it, by allowing certain farmers the ability to live where they were without fear of losing their livelihood once every seven years to the sabbatical requirements.

Judah bases his authority to change the tradition on the biblical account of Hezekiah's destruction of Moses' copper serpent, which had long been treated as an idol. Judah asks, "Why didn't any of the other righteous kings before Hezekiah destroy the idol?* Because God reserved that honor for Hezekiah." In other words, an unholy practice was allowed by God to continue until the right person came along to change it. And in Rabbi Judah's perspective, the same conditions applied to these sabbatical laws. They are unholy and need to be changed, and Rabbi Judah has both the authority and the imperative to change them.

* - In the similar text in the Babylonian Talmud, Judah adds, "Now, is it not at all likely that Asa did not destroy it? Or that Jehoshaphat did not destroy it? Surely Asa and Jehoshophat destroyed every form of idolatry in the world!"

In the Babylonian version, God is removed from the equation, and Judah concludes that Hezekiah's ancestors "left something undone," and so too did Judah's ancestors (the rabbis/lawmakers who came before him) leave "room for [him] to distinguish [him]self."

This whole passage, then, is a discussion about rabbinic authority and imperative to analyze the current state of affairs and react to them, to wisely and justly interpret God's Torah so that humanity can be affirmed and the sacred rights of humankind can be upheld. As soon as religion stops changing, so does conscience, and we cannot afford to allow our consciences to slumber when genocide, famine, and disease challenge us every day to meet them with determination and compassion.

Occasionally over the past week, I've felt the weight of Israel's orthodoxy hovering over me. As I walk to HUC past people dressed as traditionally observant Jews, I've felt that, in their eyes, I could never be as authoritative as their own rabbi. I've felt that, in some way, my ordination as a rabbi will be significantly different than theirs. And, of course, it will be significantly different, but I am reaffirming now that it will be parallel and not behind the ordination of more observant rabbis. I am just as much an inheritor of Jewish tradition as any "orthodox" Jew, and even though I haven't spent the last fifteen years in yeshiva, that doesn't mean I haven't been studying Judaism for the last fifteen years. The "worldly" (translated "secular") experiences I've had in Roanoke, at UVA, and in Washington, DC have in no way diminished my capacity to understand or teach Judaism. And just because I can't quote Talmud and don't (yet) know Aramaic doesn't make me less of a participant in the rabbinic authority and imperative affirmed by Judah the Patriarch. I love my tradition, and I take part in it every day, with or without a kippah on my head.

And it's this message that was impressed into me at the Jerusalem home of Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC. In his opening address to our class, he remarked about our leadership, our education, and our commitment. He said that we are going to be leaders of the Jewish community for one reason and one reason only: Our knowledge. There are going to be scientists, technicians, linguists, farmers, etc. in our congregations and our lives that are going to be smarter than us and more knowledgeable than us in a lot of ways. But what gives us credence, what makes us rabbis (and cantors and Jewish professional educators) is the knowledge we have of the Jewish tradition. The knowledge we will gain at HUC isn't watered down Judaism, it is a living affirmation of a long and ever-changing history, and those who would detract from our learning, according to Rabbi Ellenson, have little to contribute to the dialogue of modern religious society. This society must be focused on social improvement, on interfaith and intrafaith cooperation, and positive construction of the world we envision for ourselves and our tradition.

After spending a Shabbat (Friday night and now Saturday morning) surrounded by participants in and supporters of the Hebrew Union College, I now feel part of something real. My rabbinate isn't real (yet), and the actions that I hope to take someday have not yet been conceived. And, again from the perspective of Rabbi Ellenson, those actions cannot be born unless we receive the education we are about to engage in. A URJ representative jokingly told us that our grades don't matter as no congregation will care about our grades. An HUC representative jokingly told us that our congregants don't matter as no professor will care about how receptive we will one day be to them. Rabbi Ellenson seriously told us that there is no difference between what we learn here and the work we will someday accomplish. He encouraged us to be involved and in love with our study, to embrace the Jewish heritage that we have been blessed to inherit and to learn about it so that we can teach it to others after completing our program.

And I intend to do just that. I've been thinking a lot recently (over the past year or so) about what kind of rabbi I want to be. I think I need to lay those concerns aside and focus instead on what kind of rabbinical student I want to be, for without a successful career as a student, I cannot have a successful career as a teacher.

1 comment:

Elyse Crane said...

I was enthralled with your post today, Daniel. I am moved by your explanation of the absolute necessity of a continuing and guiding conscience to guide our behavior.

The concept of Judaism holding its antiquity and its future in the same gentle hands intrigues me. It is a grace to be able to insert light, hope and joy into the otherwise tragic history of our people. To deny our laughter would be as unrealistic as denying our tears.

Your new understanding of yourself as a "rabbical STUDENT' is such a bright new insight, and I celebrate the "nowness" of your exploration. The Rabbi you are meant to be will be a natural outgrowth of the phenomenal knowledge, insight and faith that you are gaining in Israel this year - and it serves to add to the rich background of lovingkindess and devotion to Judaism that has guided you for most of your life.

Thank you for sharing your amazing journey.

I wish you a sweet Shabbat, and look forward to learning with and from you in the future.