Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

Is Listening to Non-Jewish Music OK? (A Non-Halakhic Discussion)

Joshe Homme, lead song writer and frontman for QOTSA, is one of my favorite musical artists. No one else I know likes his music.

Before we get back to biblical criticism (and I hope we’ll have some more guest posts before I get to  Rabbi Umberto Cassuto and some others), I want to talk about non-Jewish music for a moment. Why? Because Queens of the Stone Age are back, and I love their music. In my excitement, I’d like to point out a few theological issues with non-Jewish music. As I listen to non-Jewish music almost daily, you may conclude that I am either hypocritical on this matter, or that I think there is no problem. You’ll decide for yourself. As to the bottom line halakha le’ma’aseh (practical Jewish legal) aspect, I suggest you ask someone qualified to answer.

1) Avoiding Non-Jewish Music (A Mystical Perspective):

I’ll first outline why some mystical thinking would lead to the rejection of non-Jewish music. I won’t quote sources here, so please feel free to take me to task for this. Ask someone who is well versed in Kuzari, Tanya, Zohar, etc., regarding the points I’ll make here, and feel free to check out Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism as well as Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People, both by Menachem Kellner, regarding Rambam and these views.

If one assumes that the Jewish soul is inherently superior to the non-Jewish soul, and also that the soul’s positive or negative qualities become a part of anything created by a person, then we have reason to reject non-Jewish music. This is because of the assumption that a non-Jewish soul is impure (if only because non-Jews eat non-Kosher food), and that it can only create something similarly impure. Non-Jewish music being impure, it will affect our souls negatively if we listen to it. In this view, spiritual forces, good and bad, work in a way which we might consider analogous to physical cause and affect. A good spiritual thing causes purity, while a bad thing (such as evil speech) causes spiritual impurity1.

So, if you believe these things, I suggest you try and phase out non-Jewish music, as well as the traditional Hasidic songs which really come from non-Jewish authors. This is by far more common than we think. It happens to be that my favorite tune for a Shabbat Song is Dror Yikra when sung according to the tune of “Sloop John B.”, the song most famously sung by the Beach Boys. My second favorite happens to be Dror Yikra according to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. That’s a really fun one, so I suggest you try it this week.

A rationalist may reject all of the points we have made here, however. Such a person will not assume that one’s soul is inherently good or bad, or that a person’s soul automatically affects their creation.Generally speaking, rationalists do not think that there are spiritual forces akin to physical cause and affect in play when we eat Kosher food, thus improving our souls, or harming them when we eat non-Kosher (the same goes for other mitzvot, such as the performance of sending away the mother bird, say). Rather, as we have explained elsewhere, keeping the mitzvot improves our souls in an entirely different way, which we will not get into here. In sum, keeping the mitzvot leads to the betterment of society and the soul, in Rambam’s opinion, and this is a natural process. . Now then, other points must be dealt with.

2) The lyrics:

I do not listen to lyrics, but I am weird in this regard. Most people do, and this being the case, it is harmful to listen to music which praises bad qualities such as excessive partying, materialism, etc., or even worse. Some songs praise rape or other unspeakable things, and even if you don’t listen to lyrics, we shouldn’t support people who praise these crimes.

So classical music is obviously on the table. There’s nothing wrong with it, and we’ll talk about the positive qualities good music has later on. It should be noted that there are certain artists whose lyrics can’t be ignored. Bob Dylan is the best example, but check out the “Reload” album by Metallica for some really impressive writing (or so I thought when I was 14). However, when it comes to artistic poetry, most of us will recognize the immediate value in this, so we won’t get into that here. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein fans will tout this, I imagine, though I find it hard to picture R. Lichtenstein listening to contemporary music.

3) The Danger of Having the Wrong Role Models:

Even worse is the danger that we’ll look up to artists as role models. Even when they are fine, normal people, it’s not like they’re moral philosophers or anything. They’re just guys who are good at one amazing thing. So no one should confuse a good musician for a role model. And of course, this is in regards to the good ones.I love Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, but they are not role models for Halakhic Jews by any stretch of the imagination.

4) The Positive Aspects of Non-Jewish Music:

I’ll risk stating the obvious here: Music can be an amazing and positive thing. It can be expressive, therapeutic, inspiring, and all of these things mean that we’ll be able to serve God better. We should be emotionally healthy (v’chai bahem), use the world to praise God (like King David did with his harp), and appreciate the marvelous wisdom in the world (ma rabu ma’asekha HaShem). When we hear great music from Josh Homme, about whom I know next to nothing, we should appreciate the wisdom God has given to man. Now that we have seen that non-Jewish music can be a good thing, we should ask if there is a  Halakhic reason to avoid it. I’m not qualified, so I won’t get involved, but everyone should be aware of the possibility that going to concerts and non-mitzva related parties with live music is forbidden. I’ll get back to this at the end. Obviously, in weddings and other religious celebrations we should have music, and we enhance our celebrations with it. But what about Jewish Music?

5) Jewish Music:

“There are two types of Jewish music: The kind that is mekarev (brings one closer) to God, and the kind that is merachek (brings one away from) God.”- Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Sadly, most modern Jewish music is terrible. Listeners might get the feeling that writers aren’t even trying. Besides for the overwhelmingly simplistic nature of most modern Jewish music, the style of music and melodies are almost always taken from a non-Jewish source. I’m really not sure what completely original Jewish music would sound like anyway. Klezmer, Carlbach, Miami Boys Chior, etc., all belong to non-Jewish musical cultures. Perhaps that should be considered an issue for some. This being the case, Jewish music should really be judged by the same criteria as non-Jewish music, though of course when it comes to lyrics, people taking from Tehilim, etc., are obviously giving us music with lyrics that can help us along spiritually. So then, I think we’ve touched on most of the major issues. For a superb summary of Halakhic and Jewish theological perspectives on music, check out what Rabbi Howard (Chaim) Jachter wrote here. If you want to know about the prohibitions involved with listening to music today, and especially with going to concerts or a bar with live music, then I suggest you read his post before discussing the problem with someone who is qualified2. I’ll finish off my own post with the last lines of Rabbi Jachter’s article.

“What should emerge from this review of Jewish perspectives on music is that we must take care that the music we listen to is in harmony with our Torah lifestyle and goals. Music with lyrics such as “she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine” is very obviously incompatible with a Torah Hashkafa and lifestyle. The same can be said regarding all leisure activities. Care must be taken to ensure that one’s leisure activities enhance one’s relationship with God and Torah and do not, God forbid, detract from it.”

Before we actually get back to biblical criticism, I hope we can aslo discuss what the sin of Korach is. I have an idea, and I’d love some feedback.

Notes:

1-Are you thinking of Plato’s ideals here? Me too. Check out 9 and 1/2 Mystics by Herbert Weiner for some interesting points about this. I’m in the middle of it now. Also, Gerschom Scholem’s Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism is a must for interested laymen.

2- Also, don’t forget to read Rambam in the 5th chapter of his “Shmoneh Perakim” as well as his commentary on Avot, 1:16. Further recommended reading is Siach Nachum R. Nachum E. Rabinovitch, OH (alt. OC) 35. He says there that 1) Even before the Temple was destroyed, music which was lustful, led to inappropriate desires, or had inappropriate language was forbidden, and 2) After the Temple was destroyed, celebration with live music or purely vocal music sung over wine was forbidden as well. Number one likely covers a lot of music today. A much more limited point is made by R. Kagan in his MB on a note Rama makes. In OC 53:25, Rama writes that a Shaliach Zibbur who enjoys non-Jewish music should be removed if, after protest, he does not stop listening to it. MB says this is in regards to music used for Avoda Zara, and not just any music. He quotes Bach as saying it must be music which is designated for the purpose of  AZ.

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Revelation, Tradition, and Scholarship: A Response

By Ben Elton

Ben Elton’s guest post is the 6th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two talks and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available herehere, and here. The fourth part, a very short list of some Rabbinic sources that do not believe Moses is the sole author of the Torah, is available here, while our last post, a short look at Dr. Nahum Sarna’s approach to the matter, can be found here.

Yitzchak Sprung is in the middle of a series of posts on this blog exploring whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. We have seen perspectives from Menachem Leibtag, James Kugel, Nahum Sarna and a digest of Hazal and Rishonim who did not believe that the entire Torah was either given at Sinai or given to Moses. All of this discussion and analysis is interesting and much of it is valuable, but there are also problematic elements to his enterprise, which this post is designed to highlight.

We should always attempt to reveal the nuance and complexity of our tradition. Yitzchak has brought to our attention once more, sources in the Talmud which understand that the Torah (by which I mean the Pentateuch) was given not in one fell swoop but over the course of the wanderings in the desert, and that the last few pasukim were dictated not to Moses but to Joshua. We have been reminded that significant medieval scholars held that there may have been some amendments to the text even later than that. Abraham Ibn Ezra has long been known for holding that view; more recently we have learnt that Yehuda HeHassid held similar views. All this is to the good, and we should not be perturbed that the Rambam disagreed and his Principles of Faith reflect his different position. Rishonim do not always agree, indeed that is the foundation for much traditional learning.

However, we should not delude ourselves. There is a vast chasm between these traditional (if sometimes marginal) views and the contemporary approach. Although the academy is perhaps rowing back from the high point of biblical minimalism, the consensus of modern scholars does not accept there was an Egyptian slavery of the entire Hebrew nation, nor an Exodus, a Moses, the Revelation at Sinai, nor the conquest of the Land.1 We cannot reconcile modern scholarship and traditional faith by referring to the sources that Yitzchak discussed. Indeed, as Marc Shapiro has shown (for some reason the radicalism of Shapiro is often overstated), all authorities agree that these events took place and all regard the belief in a direct Divine Revelation as essential.2 This is true of figures as separated by time and culture as Joseph Albo and Moses Mendelssohn.3

So let us be clear. Accepting the findings of biblical scholarship would represent a complete departure from traditional Jewish thought. It means far more than viewing the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles as just one voice in a complex conversation; it means rejecting the attitude towards the Torah held by every Jew until Spinoza and every traditional Jew since. This point too has been acknowledged by scholars and thinkers on both sides of the question, from Joseph Hertz to Louis Jacobs.4 The Documentary Hypothesis shatters the traditional view. The idea that the Torah was written by many hands over many centuries and redacted in the Persian period or later is totally absent from traditional accounts. Even David Weiss Halivni cannot stomach this view, and argues for a Revelation at Sinai followed by a reconstruction of something approaching an original text, which would account for the features which academics ascribe to multiple authorship and editing.5

Further, this change in our view of the Torah would require the construction of an entirely new theology of halakhah, which brings me to my second point. Many have tried to create a new justification for the observance of mitzvot absent direct Divine Revelation. In America, Solomon Schechter took the first steps, followed by Louis Ginzberg and Louis Finklestein. In Britain the same was attempted by a group of figures I discussed in a recent article in Conservative Judaism, culminating in Louis Jacobs in a series of books, pamphlets and lectures.6 Most recently Joel Roth has restated much the same arguments.7 They all suggest that while the Torah may be the result of many years and many authors and editors it has nevertheless received Divine sanction through history, specifically its acceptance by the Jewish People and therefore can still be the basis for a binding halakhah.

There are three fatal problems with this approach. First, it breaks down even for its advocates at some point. Louis Jacobs repeatedly advanced the view that halakhah remained binding whatever our conclusions might be on the authorship of the Torah, but became queasy when it can to institutions such as mamzer, which he attributed to a human, as opposed to Divine element in the biblical text, and wanted to eliminate. The problem being, that in his view the Torah should be regarded as both entirely human and entirely Divine. Gordon Tucker took a similar approach to the prohibition of homosexuality and argued vigorously that he could not exclude his views on the Bible from his thinking about the position of gay Jews and his desire to enable them to find personal fulfilment with a partner, and his belief that God wanted that too.8

The second problem is that this view actually inhibits halakhic change. The traditional view that a Divinely revealed law was given into human hands, allows for reconsideration of its meaning in every generation in the light of its needs. The train of thought that comes from attempting to reconcile modern thought on the Bible with a commitment to halakhah, concludes with the idea that whatever has been accepted is binding. This logically precludes further development because the status quo always has the Divine imprimatur. Of course, this point has long since been put to one side in practice.

The third problem is sociological. The attempts by the early leaders of the Conservative Movement to justify a binding halakhah without direct Divine Revelation comprehensively failed. The Conservative laity has never been halakhic and now the Conservative rabbinate is not halakhic either. David Wiess Halivni and Alan Yuter made this point in the 1980s, Ismar Schorsch and Joel Roth more recently. It is an irrefutable fact that the abandonment of the doctrine of direct Divine Revelation leads inexorably to the collapse of traditional Jewish life, with all its meaning, beauty and power.

Where does this leave us? We have to stop pretending. We have to acknowledge that our traditional sources do not bring us closer in any real sense to modern biblical scholarship, although its observations may be useful in prompting our own thoughts, and that was certainly true of Mordecai Breuer (Menachem Leibtag’s teacher) who saw many perspectives in a unitary text.9 We can continue to delve into our own tradition, but in its own terms and not to try to find a way to reconcile with contemporary scholarship. If we want to continue as traditional Jews either in thought or deed then, in the words of Alexander Kohut, higher criticism of the Pentateuch is ‘noli me tangere – hands off!’10

Ben Elton is a second year semicha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

1 Israel Finkelstein, Amihay Mazar, Brian B. Schmidt, The Quest for the Historical Israel (Society of Biblical Literature 2007)

2 Marc S. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 2004), chapter 7

3 Joseph Albo, Ikkarim and Moses Mendelssohn Jerusalem. See Alexander Altmann’s discussion of the relationship between Albo and Mendelssohn’s dogmatic views in his Moses Mendelssohn: a Biographical Study (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 1998), 544

4 J.H. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorah’s (Second Edition, Soncino Press 1961), 402; Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 1999), 56

5 David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored (Westview Press 1998)

6 Benjamin J. Eton, ‘Conservative Judaism’s British Trailblazers’ (Conservative Judaism 63:4, Summer 2012); Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe (Vallentine Mitchell 1957); The Sanction of the Mitzwoth (Society for the Study of Jewish Theology 1963); Principles of the Jewish Faith (Vallentine Mitchell 1964) A Jewish Theology (Darton, Longman and Todd 1973)

7 Joel Roth, ‘Musings Towards a Personal Theory of Revelation’ (Conservative Judaism 64.1 Fall 2012)

8 Gordon Tucker, Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality (2006) available here: http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/jewish-law/committee-jewish-law-and-standards/even-haezer#interpersonal

9 See Meir Ekstein, ‘Rabbi Mordechai Breuer and Modern Orthodox Biblical Commentary’ (Tradition, 33:3, 1999)

10 Alexander Kohut, ‘Secular and Theological Studies The Menorah (July 13, 1892), 49. See BAva Batra 111b

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Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 5): Dr. Nahum Sarna

This is the 5th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two speeches and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available here, here, and here. The fourth part, a very short list of some Rabbinic sources that do not believe Moses is the sole author of the Torah, is available here. Additionally, since we are, after all, discussing traditional Jewish belief, it might be worth taking a look at our short summary of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith, and some of our other posts discussing Jewish belief such as Russ’ six part handbook to the Creation-Evolution Debate and Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?.

Since we’re taking a look at modern biblical scholarship and traditional faith, I thought it might be worthwhile to check out what Professor Nahum Sarna had to say on the matter. Dr. Sarna, who was a professor of Biblical Studies and Chairman of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandies University as well as an ordained rabbi from the Orthodox “Jew’s College“, kept Jewish law. While he is often not considered an Orthodox Jew, possibly due to his career as a biblical scholar and his association with the Conservative Jewish theological Seminary, I think many in the Orthodox community would want to hear from him if he were alive today.

In regards to his personal beliefs, I am given to understand that Dr. Sarna did not believe in labels at all. Rather, he tried to be a good Jew, and left it at that. As I understand, he sat on the Rabbinical Committee at an Orthodox synagogue and studied with several well known Orthodox rabbis, including Britain’s Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie. The latter was interested in grooming him as a successor, which is no small praise.

A person who is often (rightly or wrongly) characterized as not being Orthodox, but who does share our commitment to Halakha (Jewish law) raises questions regarding what exactly it means to be a Jew, and an Orthodox one in particular. From reading 3 of his books, as well as much of his excellent running commentary on Bereshit and Shemot, he seems to have been very traditional, though how traditional can a Bible scholar be?

As we said, James Kugel would tell you “very”. I think Sarna would as well, but both of these eminent scholars may be biased on the matter.

On the one hand, reading Dr. Sarna’s books, it is unsurprising to find that they seem very traditionally Jewish in their themes, messages, and values; after all, they are books about the Bible. On the other hand, all of that is aside from the criticism part (“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”).

I can get to those themes another time, but I was just wondering if Rabbi Leibtag’s advice to sometimes reconstruct parts of the metaphorical bridge of Jewish faith  would lead to something like Dr. Sarna’s work.

Anyway, for those of us who want to know Professor Sarna’s views on traditional faith and modern criticism, he has left us a very illuminating introduction to his classic Understanding Genesis. We’ll look at a few of the points he makes there.

1) There were many, many books written by the Jewish people thousands of years ago. More than twenty books which we no longer have are mentioned in the Bible, and it seems likely that there would have been many more. In fact, in Dr. Sarna’s opinion, there were other holy books, even, that we no longer have. These books likely disappeared  for many reasons, including the difficulty of distributing books at that time in history, the high rate of illiteracy, the then harsh labor involved in writing and copying books, the weather in the Land of Israel, and the many conquerors who tramped through Israel throughout history, leaving destruction in their wake.

The Bible, however, did not disappear. Why not?

“There is one simple explanation. The books of the Hebrew Bible survived because men firmly and fervently believed them to be the inspired word of God, sacred literature. We can no longer know the criteria of selectivity adopted by those who fixed the Cannon of Jewish Scriptures. Certainly, there must have been other books regarded by the people as being holy at one time or another, but why they did not enter the final Cannon cannot be determined. Yet it is beyond doubt that it was not the stamp of canonization that affirmed the holiness of a book; rather the reverse. Sanctity antedated and preconditioned the final act of canonization. The latter was in most cases a formality that accorded finality to a situation long existing….Ultimately, it was this conviction that preserved the Bible and gave it irresistable power.”

It seems to me that Sarna has described the traditional situation here. The Mishnah mentions the canonization of certain books, and it stands to reason that even those who opposed including the Song of Songs in the Bible thought it was divinely inspired, as Sarna says. Sadly, most of us no longer think the Bible is important at all, and the point seems moot.

2) According to Dr. Sarna, the intellectual movements which led to humanism and the rejection of religious authority naturally challenged faith and the theocentric (God centered, as opposed to man centered) nature of the Bible. The critical methods used in the 19th century when approaching the Bible of course posed their challenge as well, specifically in regards to the belief that the entire Torah was dictated word for word to Moses.

According to Sarna, the “fundamentalists” did not help this situation.

“They mistakenly regarded all critical biblical studies as a challenge to faith. There remained no room for the play of individual conscience; the validity of genuine intellectual doubt was refused recognition. By insisting dogmatically upon interpretations and doctrines that flagrantly contradicted the facts, the fundamentalist did not realize the self -exposure of an obvious insecurity that was more a reflection upon his own religions position than a judgement upon biblical scholarship. For it declared, in effect, that spiritual relevance can be maintained only at the expense of the intellect and the stifling of the conscience.”

This approach, Sarna tells us, led to many people considering Bible study childish, since they were not encouraged to study it in a serious and challenging way in school. Naturally, having been taught it in a simplistic way, they began to consider Bible study inferior to other areas of study.

The truth is, I have had a few teachers myself who indeed taught us that our conscience and thoughts were a disruption to the service of God, and not a part of it. These teachers weren’t fools, but were smart, charismatic  and effective communicators, some of whom I learned a lot from. Additionally, I have met many, many similarly intelligent and wonderful people who think that is is important for our religion that we find God inscrutable, and that we ought to ignore what may seem to us to be a clear fact.

This of course reminds us of Rambam’s statement:

“My endeavor, and that of the select keen-minded people, differs from the quest of the masses. They like nothing better, and, in their silliness, enjoy nothing more, than to set the Law and reason at opposite ends, and to move everything far from the explicable….But I try to reconcile the Law and reason, and wherever possible consider all things as of the natural order….” (Essay on Resurrection p. 223, available here.)

3) Finally, commenting directly on our problem, Dr. Sarna says the following:

“Of course, the fundamentalists frequently take refuge from modern scholarship by appealing to “tradition”, by which they mean medieval authority. The illegitimacy of this position as an argument of faith is, however, easily demonstrable. The medieval scholars made the most of all the limited tools at their disposal. But they did not have access, naturally, to the modern sciences of literary and textual criticism and to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and comparative religion. We simply do not know how they would have reacted had all this material been available to them.”

Dr. Sarna, then, assumes that some of the Medieval authorities (Rishonim) may have engaged in modern criticism themselves, if they were alive today. In light of what we have seen in our last post, this doesn’t seem impossible, but I don’t know.

Finally, Dr. Sarna says the following, which perhaps best summarizes his position on modern scholarship and traditional faith:

“Another misapprehension, shared alike by the followers of “pietism” and “scientism”, was that the recognition of the non-unitary origin of the Pentateuch must be destructive of faith and inimical to religion. But is it not to circumscribe the power of God in a most extraordinary manner to assume that the Divine can only work effectively through the medium of a single document, but not through four? Surely God can as well unfold His revelation in successive stages as in a single moment of time.”

Continuing on, Dr. Sarna notes the many shortcomings of modern criticism, including a “bias against the people of Israel” and “unsupported or insufficiently supported conjecture”. None the less, in his opinion, the Torah has come from more than one document, and “this is a fact that has to be reckoned with.”

With all of this in mind, we see that Dr. Sarna takes biblical criticism very seriously, but doesn’t see it as a real challenge to faith. Rather, it:

“provide(s) the means to a keener understanding…and may prove to be the key to a deeper appreciation of their religious message. Far from presenting a threat to faith, a challenge to the intellect may reinforce faith and purify it.”

I think, if we may compare Dr. Sarna’s opinions to Rabbi Leibtag’s and Dr. Kugel’s, that we may say in short that he seems to agree with Rabbi Leibtag that modern tools can be used to strengthen faith. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re in complete agreement on all important issues, but in the basic question of reading the Bible anew with modern tools, it seems they agree. Dr. Kugel, on the other hand, disagrees and emphasizes the need to read the Bible in the traditional way, while making use of the full breadth and depth our tradition. I have been told he does not think highly of Dr. Sarna’s approach, and since they so strongly disagree on this important question, we can see why.

At any rate, this provides another voice dedicated to keeping Jewish law to our discussion. I think next time we’ll check out Umberto Cassuto, who was a Chief Rabbi in his home town in Italy, before he fled to Israel to become a celebrated Bible professor.

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Is Judaism Too Dry?

There’s no deeper feeling than the awareness of a man that he has accepted upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and there is no joy like the joy of one who lovingly bears this yoke of Torah and the Commandments.” – Yeshayahu Leibowitz

It seems more and more people today charge that Halakha (Jewish Law) is too dry, that it doesn’t have enough “soul” to it, or that it is a shame to limit Judaism to pedantic legal discussions.

Rather, someone may ask, shouldn’t it be more about how we feel about God, or about the values behind the law? It just seems so small minded to spend all of our time on the specifics of endlessly detailed rituals that don’t even make the world a better place! Why is it so important when a steak is kosher, or when a Sukkah (Tabernacle) is tall enough, or when it’s OK to turn the TV on?

In the end, wouldn’t it be better if Judaism was more spiritual, and less legal?

 These are good questions in my opinion, and I think they each deserve careful thought and consideration. Furthermore, I think it would be foolish to claim that we can answer them all with the certainty of a mathematical equation, even though, as Halakha observing Jews, we may try. And I really do believe there are many answers to each “Why” we have raised.

However, I do not want to write about any of the answers to these questions. Rather, I want to offer my side of the coin, since you’re talking about me when you mention to someone how odd it all is, that people place such emphasis on a legal system. Maybe my experience could serve as a kind of explanation for why we do what we do, or at least why I attempt to do what I believe I should be doing.

To me, Halakha is not dry or soulless. That is not the way it feels. It does not feel small minded, and though it is highly concerned with the smallest legal points, this is part of why keeping it is a rich spiritual experience.

Why do I feel this way?

Well, how could I not? It’s how I serve God.

I can’t tell you that I’m always excited about it, because I’m not. Keeping Halakha is hard, and trying to improve how I keep the mitzvot (commandments) is always a struggle. But I am committed to doing my best, and in my best moments, I love it completely.

What could be greater than serving God? My words of praise and thanks could never be enough, so I use the words of the Sages. My life could never be enough, but I may fill it with actions and moments that are devoted to serving Him.

These tiny details and pedantic discussions are my concern because I want -in my best moments- to serve God is the best way that I can. Not haphazardly, but with a commitment that researches even the smallest questions, and asks how long a wall should be, or what the best shade of color for an etrog (citron) would be. Halakha forever asks: How can we best fulfill what is required of us? And our Sages seek to answer just this question.

It may or may not improve the world when I light a candle, or say a blessing, but for many of us, the service of God is a world value in it of itself.

I cannot ask you to feel this way with us. That will have to be your decision. But now you know -to some of us at least- keeping the smallest elements of Jewish law is nothing less than the richest of experiences, where we may each take part in the best man can accomplish.

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Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?

With all the talk about “Orthopraxy” lately, I thought I’d just add something interesting I found. For those of you who don’t know, ‘orthodoxy’ refers to believing as everyone else does, in our case the Orthodox Jewish beliefs, and ‘orthopraxy’ refers to acting as everyone else does, which in our case refers to keeping the mitzvot. Orthoprax people have their own reasons for keeping the mitzvot, but oftentimes they do not actually believe in what they are doing.

I found a letter in “I Wanted to Ask You Prof. Leibowitz: Letters to and from Yeshayahu Leibowitz” where he addresses this exact issue, so I thought I would post a translated version of the exchange. The translation will be my own, and I apologize for any errorsi. I also want to note that Leibowitz is not considered a mainstream Orthodox Jewish thinker, which may become obvious from this letter. None the less, I think the exchange is very interesting and worth looking at.

 

To the honorable Prof’ R’ Yeshayahu Leibowitz,

The revered and distinguished!                                                                                     9 Shvat 5750

For quite some time a question has raged in me in regards to matters of faith that I don’t have an answer to, and although I know that his honor is extraordinarily busy from many things that he deals with, and at his ageii, and that he’s also endlessly busy with people like me who turn to him for some guidance, I haven’t found anyone else who can answer me except for him and I ask forgiveness for the niusance.

My question- it’s a personal one. And I would be very happyiii to receive a personal answer. The environment I grew up and lived in my entire life, the Jezreel Valley, I see where its educational style has led to: the second and third generations of us are already completely cut off from anything that minimally has to do with Judaism- anyone who isn’t in this environment will have a hard time believing how much, it is my feeling, that only the ways of our grandfathers and their forebears will preserve the future of the Jewish peopleiv and not necessarily the Jewish state, etc. But it’s hard for me to believe in Reward and Punishment and (I don’t believe at all)v in the World to Come. For example, I’m convinced that a Mezuza must be on every door in a Jewish home, but I can’t believe in the charms that it brings with it, or God forbid, that terrible things happen in the case where there is not one.

I accept upon myself the obligation to keep the Mitzvot and the prohibitions for the sake of preserving Judaism…in the same way that I have to pay income tax, for example, but how can I convince others, some of whom claim “why all the seclusion and the troubles when there’s no reward for it in this world or the next?” and some of them don’t even know what’s been lost and where the future generations will end up?! And there are some who hold onto the smaller beliefs while they belittle Shabbat and Yom Kippur and every other holy thing, and they think what kind of way is this for a man to choose in our time and place (ie:to keep the mitzvot)? I’ll be boundlessly grateful if his honor would set aside some time for me, the small one, from his time and give me an answer or some guidance for my doubts or direct me to an answer written somewhere that I haven’t found yet.

With wishes for long days and years for his honor and with thanks,

S’

 

 

To S’ Shalom U’Brakha

16 Shvat 5750, 11.2.1990

I really valued your letter, which completely reflected the honesty with which you’re thinking about the matter of faith, and the way to faith and observing the commandments. I’m including for you a paper I wrote that deals with this great issue, and possibly you’ll find something of value in it.

I want to note a few things on the main points of your letter. The Torah- in which faith and mitzvot are fastened one to the other- is not a means for the preserving of (the nation of) Israel. For the faithful- one who accepts the yoke of the mitzvot- it is the goal itself and not an aid to something, and the goal the service of God: The acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. From the perspective of religious faith, we should not see religion as a helpful-means to human interests, nor to the national interests of the nation of Israel. Religion as fulfillment of needs and interests has no value at all.

The Mezuza is a commandment from the mitzvot of the Torah, and the Mezuza on the door of a house testifies that the people who live in it recognize the meaning of performing the mitzvot. One who sees the Mezuza as a means for defense of a house and on its inhabitents belittles religion and has been ensnared in idolatry, which is completely rejected from the perspective of faith in God and His Torah. Faith in God is not dependent on the belief in reward and punishment, and a truly faithful person recognizes that faith itself is the reward.

As to the World to Come- I refer you to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, which give expression to the highest form of religious consciousness, the consciousness that is highest on Musaf of Rosh HaShana and the Neila prayer on Yom Kippur- And Behold, there is no mention or hint of the World to Come! Yom Kippur does not deal with matters that pertain to after death, but instead proposes a question: Are you, the man who lives in Olam HaZe (this world), aware of your position before God in your life, and why this status obligates you in your life?

The acceptance of the yoke of heaven and the yoke of the Torah and Mitzvot is the great moral decision for man, and it cannot be rationalized by outside rationales. And know, that this is the rule for any decision in regards to values. If a man will ask: Why should I be fair and upstanding, when I can be despicable and benefit from it?- There is no answer for this other than the proposition that fairness is a value in it of itself. If a man will ask: Why should I cling to my people and its land, if by leaving Israel I can improve my situation?- There too, there is no other answer other than to propose that clinging to the nation and the land is a value, for which a price must be paid. And so there are those who see the yoke of heaven and the yoke of the Torah and the Mitzvot as the highest value, even if it is a yoke and not a promise of wellbeing.

With Sincere Wishes,

Yeshayahu Leibowitz

 

iThe letter to Dr. Leibowitz is very fluidly written in Hebrew, so translating it was very difficult. I added some punctuation to make it readable in English, and as you can see, I skipped a couple of points that I thought might prove distracting due to the particular style of the writer. I hope that doesn’t take anything away from it. The original can be found on page 119 of the book, which is published by Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1999

ii“Begilo”.I think this is the correct translation, but it doesn’t sit right with me.

iii“esmach”. I think the connotation is “very happy” but that is not literal.

ivAdat Yisrael

v“velo”. It was hard to translate this. Leibowitz undertands the writer to be saying what I presented, so that’ how I wrote it, but it could be interpreted that the author has trouble believing in reward and punishment but then not believing in the world to come.

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