Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Olam Ha’Sheker Excuse

By William Kolbrenner
Open Minded Torah

Spring time in Jerusalem, so yet once more, my wife and I embark on the path of finding a place for our son Shmuel with Down syndrome, this time in a cheder, a pre-kindergarden class in our neighborhood.

So earlier this week, we set up a meeting with the principal of a school around the block from our house. Not only was he cordial, but he had the look of someone who was genuinely interested in helping us with the education of our son. There had not been a child in his school with Down’s syndrome for a generation, but listening carefully to our description of our son, his cordiality turned into what seemed like understanding. He invited us back the following day to meet with a rebbe and an administrator to discuss logistics – and how to integrate Shmuel and his ‘syat’ or ‘shadow’ into the classroom. The teacher of the class which the principal had in mind for Shmuel put it simply – ‘my business is to teach children; and I’d do my best to teach Shmuel as any other child.’ ‘Though I am not a professor,’ he continued with a wink, ‘I do have thirty years of experience.’

As we were leaving – s’yata d’shmaya my wife said – another one of the rebbes, seeing Shmuel, stopped us, and mentioned that he had been a classmate of the boy with Down’s syndrome from years back. To the questions which reflected the principal’s main concerns – ‘will he be disruptive?’; ‘will he be accepted by the other boys?’; ‘will he want to participate in class? – the rebbe answered with reassurance. As Tolstoy might put it, no two children are alike, and no two children with Down’s syndrome are alike, but the rebbe only affirmed what we had told the principal – his classmate had been full of joy, eager to participate and imitiate, not at all disruptive. Shmuel’s affability and good cheer – traits which prompt my wife to wonder what I would be like with an extra chromosome – and his cognitive high-functioning, we explained eagerly to the principal, are what brought us to mainstreaming and his neighborhood school in the first place.

A few days passed. I left some messages at the school, but my calls were not returned. When I finally reached the principal, he suggested I speak to someone else in the school -now a fourth person – who I was told would make the ‘final decision.’ It didn’t sound good; so I pressed the principal instead.

‘It’s a very difficult decision…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way Rav Kolbrener, and please don’t be insulted….’

Calling me rabbi, I thought to myself, was a bad sign.

‘It’s a matter,’ he hesitated, ‘of considering the mossad.’ It was now not just an elementary school, but an institute.

‘What about the mossad?’, I asked.

‘Its reputation.’

I was silent.

‘We have to think of what other parents will say when they see a child like Shmuel in the class with their normal children. How will we be able to justify it to them? They also have to be respected. It simply will not be good for the reputation of the school.’

I wasn’t insulted, in fact I had heard versions of this before.

There was an undoubtable hint of frustration in his voice – likely I thought that those from whom he had sought advice had a different view of the ‘mossad,’ and were forcing him to do something against his better judgment. So I responded: ‘we both know that what you are now advocating – acquiescing to close-mindeded and sanctioning fear of difference – is against our hashgafa, indeed I continued, any Torah perspective.’ ‘It’s a chilul hashem,’ I continued, ‘a desecration of G-d’s name, to send us away to schools outside of our community – to other schools, and other communities – when you yourself acknowledged that Shmuel could find a place in one of your classrooms.’

‘And as far as ordinary children,’ I went on, filling the silence, ‘we are not children of Esau who find perfection in this world, but the b’nei Yisrael, children of Israel, of Jacob, who acknowledge that this world is a place of lack and imperfection.’ ‘I am a pragmatist,’ I continued: ‘if Shmuel is disruptive or can’t be integrated into the class room, then we will take him out immediately, but if the experience of our home is true, if that of our building is true, of his nursery school are true, then Shmuel’s presence will be a blessing for him, and for all who have the chance to be around him.’

‘Rav Kolbrener’ – again the wrong title – ‘what you say is all emes l’emiso’ – the undeniable truth, ‘k’dosh k’doshim,’ the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, ‘we live in ‘olam ha sheker – a world of lies.

Here it was – the olam ha’sheker excuse! I had heard people exclaim ‘olam ha’sheker’ as an expression of frustration; this was the first time I heard it as an explicit excuse. Using the olam ha’sheker excuse, not as a form of self-consolation, but justification for doing the wrong thing, turns Torah into something theoretical – ‘we can’t actually live by the words of Torah!’ So Torah ceases to be a manual for life – a handbook for tikkun olam – the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears. The principal couldn’t help being honest: so he acknowledged that my words were true, even holy, but from the olam ha’sheker perspective, such truth and holiness don’t have a place in the world. So Judaism transforms into a religion of ideals only. How often is such an excuse – even if not explicitly uttered – used as a means of justifying our laziness, self-interest or even corruption?

Traditions in the West in literature, philosophy and theology – from Homer to Plato to the apostle Paul – separate the ideal, take it out of the world. But Judaism – and this was one of the reasons that I started, years ago, to begin to split my time between the library and the beit midrash – transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world. Judaism offers the promise of a learning which is not simply theoretical – those earnest discussions I used to have in the seminar room in graduate school – but a learning leading to action and tikkun olam.

Or perhaps this is naive? too idealistic?

First published here

Poetry of Repentance

Only when I began to study Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic re-writing of Genesis, did it to occur to me that being religious was not a sign of neurosis or flaky otherworldliness. In graduate school at Oxford and later at Columbia, for me and many of my fellow Jewish students, Milton was a safe way, without the risk of embarrassment, of experiencing the poetry of a religious sensibility. In earnest discussions of Christian redemptive history, the relationship between free will and divine providence, I lived, through Milton, the possibility of religious engagement.

I may have been able to suspend my disbelief about Christian theology, but when it came to the Jewish High Holidays, I preferred going to the West End Bar on Broadway to returning to my parents’ Long Island Temple. If I were lucky, the assistant rabbi would give a sermon resonating with my graduate school politics. But the public spectacle of repentance, the responsive reading, the instructions – ‘please rise,’ ‘be seated,’ ‘turn to page 374’ – was distant from the inner voice I had been cultivating through reading Shakespeare, Donne and Keats. Turning worship into political activism may have satisfied my social conscience, but it made repentance into something external, a way to avoid myself.

For us, today, the question of repentance, of teshuva or literally ‘return’ to a more authentic self, unblemished by past habits and misdeeds, may be even more vexed. Our knowledge of the complexities of psychic history – of transgressions, dysfunction caused by trauma, and obstinate devotion to self-destructive behavior – may make repentance seem an unrealizable fantasy. Further, an enlightened conception of the self as creative, not merely passive, makes us skeptical about miraculous atonement activated through divine intervention.

Yet the Talmudic sage, Reish Lakish, says:

Great is teshuva, for deliberate transgressions are accounted meritorious deeds; as the Prophet Ezekiel says, ‘when the wicked man shall turn from his wickedness and do that which is lawful and right – through them he shall live.’

Through them – transgressions – ‘he shall live’? To understand the paradoxical words of the sage – for me, it was a matter of granting him as much credit as I did Milton – requires a different suspension of disbelief, starting with a notion of time.

For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there is only the ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’ of successive moments leading the ‘way to dusty death.’ Macbeth’s time is now popularized on t-shirts, in paraphrase, ‘stuff happens.’ Teshuva, however, is based upon a different sense of time, and the High Holidays, starting with the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, challenge us to see our histories – as a people and as individuals – in the shape of coherent stories. In the cosmic history described in the Rosh Hashanah service, the sounding of the shofar marks the beginning and ending of Jewish history, as well as the significant middle. Heard through the Rosh Hashanah prayers, the shofar-blasts resonate with the first breath inspirited by God into man at the Creation, the sounds of the shofar on Mount Sinai, and the shofar-blast that marks the end of time. Through this story, the present is no longer merely part of a chain of unrelated moments – ‘tomorrow and tomorrow’ – but infused with the knowledge of the future when the shofar announces the redemption of humanity.

This consciousness of time makes repentance on Yom Kippur possible. Not only does the nation have a sense of an ideal future, so too does every person – in which time-future connects back with time-present as well as time-past. Through the retrospective glance of repentance, past history – now not just neurotic obsessions weighing down the self – can be redeemed. But teshuva is not a divine fiat, nor a human one. For repentance is creative, an active process of integration, bringing together the diverse parts of the self.

So important is repentance, the Talmudic sages say, that God created teshuva before Creation, allowing for the unconventional story-telling that undoes normal cause and effect. Past actions do not bring about future events, but the ideal of an unrealized future re-creates the past so that a different outcome is possible. But though I may regret past deeds, indeed, in some cases must, I also acknowledge that I am who I am now because of who I once was. My imagined future was generated by my desires and, this is the sage’s insight, even my transgressions.

Atonement may be a divine gift, but one requiring the courage to acknowledge that the past, no matter how seemingly recalcitrant – no matter how ‘damaged’ I may feel – is mine to transform. The repentance that is transformative is an ‘act of love’ for only by accepting the self, however daunting a prospect that may be, are transgressions turned into a source of life. When repentance comes out of fear of punishment, and the past is merely renounced, transgressions are made null, but the self remains unchanged. But repentance based upon love works because intentions and actions, never simple, are open to reframing. The story I tell now reveals that the past about which I feel regret, perhaps even shame, is not only consistent with, but propels me towards a future I had not yet imagined.

‘No one,’ the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, ‘can be better at living your life than you.’ But we find excuses in the personae we adopt – sometimes our public political and even religious commitments – to avoid who we are, and who we want to be. Repentance neither means neurotic fixation on past failure nor avoidance of aspects of ourselves we prefer to ignore. Nor does it mean believing in external rituals that guarantee purification.

Teshuva does mean a commitment to living our lives, and a faith that the stories we tell can give both past and present a new voice. Not a vicarious engagement, teshuva permits cultivating the poetry of a personal religious sensibility – starting with our own rewriting of beginnings (finding signs of life in transgression, trauma and loss), continuing in the reinvention of the present, and opening, finally, to the possibility of a different future.

Originally posted on Aish.Com

Hating Difference, Hating the Torah

‘Why is difference always linked with hatred?’ – asks the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The sages of the Talmud say, ‘man was created in his singularity.’ Man was created as a unique being. But the Hebrew term for singularity – y’hedi – has two distinct meanings.

For one, Man is a species – and the first man, Adam, contains the possibilities that express themselves in every future generation. Each person, in this reading, is linked back to the first man – and each is a part of a whole that expresses that whole. Man is singular, or one; the species of man is unified.

But there is another way of understanding the Talmudic phrase, not emphasizing the unity of the species of man, but his individuality. Adam was created as singular – an individual. And the traits of the first man – his individuality – are passed on to his descendants. ‘When a man mints coins with one stamp, all of the coins are similar to one other,’ the sages say, ‘but when the King of Kings mints each man from the “stamp” of Adam, the first man, each one of them is different.’ The US mint makes coins that are identical, but in the Talmudic rendering of the divine mint, each individual, created from the stamp of the first man, and traceable to that original source, is different. Man is linked back to God through the divine image – to the first man, Adam: but one only fully realizes this divine image through becoming an individual. To realize a connection with the divine – to assert mans godly connection, his similarity to God, one has to be different.

The sages’ term singularity means both unity and individuality – at the same time. Man is the creature who expresses the whole, and man is the creature who expresses his difference. Just the former, man is a herd-like animal, with no responsibility, nothing that distinguishes him. To truly be part of the whole – and this may seem like a paradox – one has to be different, and to accept difference.

On Shavuot, we remember the Torah is accepted by the Jewish people in unity – a nation united with ‘one heart.’ The receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai – and in every generation – requires this unity. But unity does not mean uniformity. The poet John Milton writes derisively of those who wish for an ‘obedient unanimity,’ dismissing both them and the ‘fine conformity’ they advocate. Yet there are those, in our generation, who continue to praise the unanimity that Milton disdains as a virtue. But the perception of individuality as a particularly modern or inauthentic development, a threat to an authentic Torah, is really just a political agenda inflected by fear and anxiety.

The sages say that there are many different faces of Torah. ‘The people of Israel,’ the sages say, ‘are distinguished by their faces’ – no two are the same. For the Torah to be revealed in its many faces, it needs the many faces of the people of Israel. So the many faces of Torah only are revealed in the different faces of Israel. Shavuot is a time that emphasizes the unity of the Jewish people: but it is a unity of disparate individuals, not just a conglomeration of clones.

Hating difference in our fellow Jews means hating the Torah – for only in their faces, as well as our own, is the Torah revealed.

Originally published on Bill’s Open Minded Torah.

Click on the link to purchase Bill’s recent book Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love.

William Kolbrener Talks About Open Minded Torah

As you may know, Beyond BT contributor William Kolbrener earned an MA from Oxford and PhD from Columbia University and is currently a professor in the Department of English at Bar Ilan University in Israel. William is an internationally renowned authority on Renaissance poetry and philosophy, with books on John Milton and the proto-feminist Mary Astell. He has recently written a book Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love.

In a recent interview with Jeffery Goldberg (JG) of the Atlantic, William (WK) discusses his approach to becoming observant.

JG: Here’s a kind of rude question: Do you know what you’re missing? And the natural follow-up — do you think I know what I’m missing, by not embracing the lifestyle that you have embraced?

WK: When I was a graduate student in the English Department at Columbia, after not showing up one Friday at the West End Bar, and soon after being seen in the corridors of Philosophy Hall with a kippa, I heard whispers, suggestions that somehow overnight, I had turned into a fundamentalist or fanatic. Not just that, I was taking on unimaginable and unnecessary restraints, avoiding the more urgent demands of the creative, autonomous and independent self. Friends who wondered at my sudden absence from Friday night rounds and subsequent refusals of invitations for sushi (back in the eighties kosher sushi was scarce) might have quoted Freud: ‘Religion is the obsessional neurosis of humanity.’ The Jews, for Freud, who in this regard were worst of all, act out their own dramas of self-deprivation through ever more ‘strict observance,’ and avoidance of pleasure. My friends certainly thought – as many others after him – that I was ‘missing out,’ and not only on sushi or beers on Friday night.

But while some contemporary Jews look at the strictures of Jewish tradition as limiting, Open Minded Torah is about finding pleasure in relationships, and different, authentic and creative voices in the framework of both age-old traditions and contemporary communities. In the Western philosophical traditions that I teach, starting with Plato, objectivity and distance are often celebrated. In the Jewish tradition, it’s not disengaged neutrality (vulgarized distilled today in a culture of ‘whatever’), but relationship which is central. A teacher in the Talmud is not one who stands outside, like a contemporary academic in an Ivory Tower, but one who literally connects, not only people to God, but communities, people to people. So what from one perspective may look like constraint or restriction, from another is engaged connectedness, with the risks and opportunities it affords. The Jewish tradition says that for every Jew there is a corresponding letter in the Torah. Open Minded Torah shows how connecting to one’s letter and what a psychologist calls the ‘True Self’ are – even for us in the twenty-first century – related, both of them acts of love, offering different kinds of pleasure.

JG: And the follow-up — do you think I know what I’m missing?

WK: My book is not about advocating a lifestyle, but cultivating a voice (my own), and in the process perhaps helping others to cultivate their own. Judaism, like psychoanalysis, emphasizes the primacy of the psyche, self, or soul. I cannot — no one honestly can — speculate on what others are ‘missing’: to dwell on that question is a sign of avoiding the one more urgent to me: what am I missing? Those who do not ask that question – whether they are wearing red bandannas or large black skull-caps – and frantically asserting that they have already reached their goals, provide, with their ‘certainty,’ a cover story for self-doubts about facing the demands of an unknown future.

When an old high school friend heard of my new Jewish observance, he commented that I was taking the easy way out, relying upon the ‘crutch’ of religion. But for me the Jewish tradition does not provide answers, but unexpected resources to help refine the questions I ask. The sages of the Talmud assert, the premature proclamation of having arrived at a truth is a form of stagnation or death. Only acknowledging lack and imperfection – again what I am missing – permits the possibility of further discovery. In my book, the Jewish tradition provides a framework for such discovery, an impetus for striving, the means through which deepening connections to the past possibilities for new futures emerge.

Making Exceptions

Getting from the house to cheder — or rather the two separate chedarim that my sons attend — always takes time. Shmuel is like a seven-year old Wordsworth — constantly stopping to marvel at the wonders of nature (and the neighborhood); while Pinchos, five, comports himself like a young Newton, always pausing to ask how things work. Today, a garbage pick-up fired both of their imaginations. Yes, getting to cheder takes a long time.

Between the flights of sublimity and the mechanical inquiries, I pursue another topic — ‘How to Cross the Street.’ First, an under-undergraduate course in semiotics: ‘What do the thick white lines on the pavement mean? What does the blue and white illuminated image of the pedestrian connote? Yes, this is the place to cross the street!’

So we stand and dutifully wait. One car zooms by; and another. Then a young father, with ear phones – he seems deep in thought — his five year old daughter in tow, crosses down the block, away from the pedestrian crossing. I see Pinchos wondering: ‘what exactly is abba trying to pass off on us?’ ‘You don’t have to cross here,’ he finally says, another car whizzing by: ‘look at them,’ he points to the father and daughter still in sight and already at the makholet across the street, presumably poised to buy lachmania and choco for the day ahead.

‘No you can’t have lachmania and choco; mommy packed you a lunch.’ And: ‘just because other people do the wrong thing does not mean that it’s right.’ Finally, a car stops, the driver waiving us across benevolently. I nod in gratitude: ‘thank you for abiding by the law.’

Pinchos is first today. Shmuel, shy, is reluctant to accompany us, so he waits outside the cheder gates. Some boys lean out towards the street through the metal bars – starting to tease him, even as I’m standing by. ‘Yesh l’chem baya?’ — I ask — mimicking what boys typically say when taunting Shmuel who has Down’s Syndrome: ‘you guys have a problem?’ When I come back, Shmuel is still standing there – he looks confused, a departure from his wondrous happy friendly self: one of the boys is standing with his tongue hanging out with a mocking stare.

When I returned my wife asked: ‘what do you expect?’ Pinchos is in one of the schools that would not take Shmuel — why should we expect more from children than their teachers?

Back on our morning trek, now walking in the direction of Shmuel’s cheder, we encounter the bouncy-gait of the nine year old Yehuda: ‘Good morning Shmuel!’; and shortly after, a smiling boy in Shmuel’s class, ‘Shalom Shmuel!’ ‘He’s my friend,’ Shmuel boasts loudly to me. And then the gawky eleven year-old from down the block, who keeps a rooster in our building courtyard, volunteers, ‘Can I walk with Shmuel to cheder? I’ll take him!’ These are boys from a chassidic cheder in our neighborhood: while other principals told us, ‘Shmuel will give the school a bad name‘; their rebbe says: ‘it’s a mitzvah gedola; it’s a big mitzvah!’ So the children look at Shmuel as an opportunity. Or maybe they just like him?

So what kind of exceptions do we make — for ourselves? for our children? One thing is sure: when we start making exceptions, they become natural, even second-nature. Like crossing the street in the wrong place, or, making a new friend, even though he may be a bit different.


Our Fixation on Happy Endings

On Friday night, I heard a story – about a businessman in Baltimore who returned to Judaism late in life. Though he did not have the skills in Torah study of many of his new found peers, he found other ways to express his commitment to Torah and Jewish life – through tzedakah, charity and good deeds. For him and his wife, tzedakah was personal – it became for them what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes as a ‘worshipful performance’ – an expression of their personalities in the service of G-d.

But then came Lehman and AIG, and the story that continues on the front page of every paper – that is, those papers not put out of business by the crisis. His portfolio declined forty-five percent; his profits diminished; his expenses, however, were on the rise. The couple hoped to continue giving as they had in previous years, though given their circumstances, they had already fulfilled their obligation for charity – even when defined by the most maximalist measure. So committed was his wife, however – even willing to give up her comfortable home for more modest quarters – that she encouraged her husband to consult a legal authority in Israel about their predicament. The rabbi answered quickly: of course the businessman – now down on his luck – had fulfilled his obligations. But, the rabbi added, if he and his wife were to find a cause which they found truly worthy, then further donations would be meritorious. Thinking through the advice of the sage, the couple determined to adjust their lifestyle – so they would be able to give close to the level they had in previous years.

An inspirational story – though it continues.

Only a few days later, the businessman received a phone call from a Swiss broker – who managed a large portion of his funds. It seems an error had been made – holdings had not been properly cataloged, account statements not properly calculated. The bottom line – the opposite of the Madoff story! – a surplus of funds in the range of several million dollars! Not only did this cover his previous losses, but the newly found income made the couple wealthier than ever before!

A triumphant look from the one telling the story; smiles all around, but when the warm fuzzy feeling dissipated, I thought of another story – that of Abraham, his uncle Haran, and the wicked tyrant Nimrod.

Our sages tell us that when Terach discovered his son’s belief in one G-d, he turned him over to Nimrod, who threw him in a fiery furnace: ‘if your G-d is so powerful,’ Nimrod boasted to Abraham, ‘let him rescue you!’ Standing on the sidelines, Uncle Haran calculated – ‘if Abraham gets torched, then I am with Nimrod; if he survives, I’m with Abraham.’ When Abraham emerged triumphantly from the furnace, Nimrod asked Haran – ‘whose side are you on?’ True to his prepared script, Haran answered – ‘For Abraham!’ And then Nimrod threw Haran into the fire where he was burnt to a crisp.

Haran makes his calculations not on principle, but on cost-benefit. Not because of his faith in G-d, but because of hopes of reward. ‘If Abraham turns out to be father of all the nations of the world, I will be his right-hand man… and if not – thinking like an Israeli politician – I’ll find something to do in Nimrod’s government.’

The message of this story is similar: do a good deed, and get properly compensated. It’s as if I’m saying to G-d: ‘Let’s be business partners… I’ll do my share, the mitzvos; you protect my family from hardship, and if you can throw in some earthly reward (BMW 320i in black please), that will also be fine. So whatever I give to you G-d, I will expect the dividends.’

This is what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls the mentality of a religion for children – the pragmatic quid pro quo, the calculation and anticipated receipt of my just returns. But it’s not only childish – it’s dangerous. What happens when G-d isn’t the business partner I expect? Do I break off the business arrangement? After all, childish expectations do yield to disappointment. The facile stories of simple reward – our sages tell us we don’t know the nature of the reward for any given mitzvah – may lead to not just disappointment, but despair. ‘This business arrangement,’ I might think, ‘is not working out the way I had anticipated. Not at all.’ And then what?

The couple from Baltimore did the right thing – an inspiring thing. Even – or especially – without the results. With the coda of wealth and reward – thank G-d that it was, in this case, the outcome – it becomes part of the literature for a religion for children where there is always a happy ending. Though we may hope – and pray – for such endings, our ‘end’ in the moment in which we live is to transform ourselves through mitzvos that bring us close to the divine. So the story of the businessman from Baltimore, without the coda of the guaranteed happy ending, fits in a different and more demanding canon of stories – that of a religion which a fellow blogger calls ‘complex,’ or more simply a religion for adults.

The purveyors of the happy endings – and in our post-holocaust generation there is, strangely, a near cultural obsession with such stories – assume there are no longer any adults in the audience. I’m betting otherwise. Am I wrong?

Under the Black Hat: A Bar Mitzva Celebration

There was a bar mitzva in shul a few weeks ago. As is the custom, upon hearing the bar mitzva boy’s blessing over the Torah, the girls in shul, leaning over the mechitza, rifled – more like uzi-machine-gunned – toffees towards the bima. ‘Ouch’! – a little sister’s revenge – a strawberry toffee right in the bar mitzva boy’s face! Meanwhile, the rugby-scrum scramble for candy: there was such an excess of it – the frenzied stuffing of booty into plastic bags – that more than one of the older boys offered toffees to their dejected younger brothers. As order was restored, and the congregation prepared for the musaf prayer, I watched one of the older boys – also already bar mitzva, you could tell from his hat – working through a private dilemma: his bag of toffees was overflowing – too big for his pocket and too unwieldy to balance on the shtender in front of him. With the chazan intoning the kaddish directly preceding musaf, I watched the boy’s ‘eureka’ moment: he lifted his hat and plunked the bag of toffees on his head. By the time the congregation answered ‘amen,’ the boy’s hat was back in place, and he was shuckling away.

When a boy reaches bar mitzva, he becomes a bar da’as – a person of sound mind, responsible for his actions. Our sages tell us, ‘just as their faces are not alike, so their da’as is not alike.’ Da’as loosely translates as knowledge, but also means opinion, intelligence or even way of thinking. But what is this way of thinking – as distinctive as a person’s face – that makes a person responsible for his actions?

Da’as is one of those words – Freud writes about them in his essay on the ‘Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words’ – that has different, sometimes even opposing, connotations. On the one side, da’as is an ability to make distinctions – that is, to see differences; on the other, da’as is the means to make connections. והאדם ידע את חוה – ‘And Adam knew Chava’: through knowledge one achieves the closest kind of connection. But to know another person, there first has to be recognition of the separateness of that person. In the earliest stages of child-development, there is no real recognition of the other – just the expansive self, fulfilling his needs in relationship to a world whose independence he cannot yet fully recognize. Many of us know someone who seems still to inhabit (or at least wants to inhabit!) such a world; being an adult, however, means recognizing that the world is not just an extension of the self.

The power of da’as to join together is not, however, only shown in relationship to the outside world: a bar da’as distinguishes, orders and connects with different parts of his internal world as well. A bar da’as first distinguishes: there are some demands of the internal world which he will not heed. Metaphors abound to describe the agent producing desires to which a bar da’as must say ‘no’: our sages call it the yetzer hara – or evil inclination; Freud calls it the id. But da’as contains its opposite as well: it is a means to distinguish, but is also a כח החיבור – a capacity to connect. A bar mitzva boy wears tefillin on his head and arm to show the connection between the realms of thought and action. Though we may know a precociously intelligent eleven year old, he is not a bar da’as – because he has not yet developed that capacity – da’as – to link thought to action [for those who like to note invidious gender distinctions: da’as is reached by a boy at 13, a girl at 12]. The prophet says, ‘on that day you shall know – וידעת היום – and rest it on your heart that G-d is One in the heavens above and the earth below.’ G-d’s unity is affirmed in the heavens, and then on earth: through da’as, the abstract ideal rests on the heart: da’as – knowledge of the heart – is an act of internalization, bringing the knowledge of Torah down to earth.

‘You shall love Hashem, your G-d with all of your heart’ – בכל לבבך. Hashem is the name of G-d as unknowable, ein sof – a G-d beyond comprehension. He becomes ‘your G-d’ – a personal and beloved God through love – the worship of the heart. Through the doubling of the letter bes – ב – in the word for ‘your heart’ לבבך, the Torah tells us that we should serve G-d with both our good and evil inclinations. It is not, therefore, a one-way street: da’as not only connects the upper to the lower world, but the lower to the upper world as well. Only on the sixth day of the creation does G-d behold His handiwork and call it ‘very good’ – טוב מאד. Not just good, as in the other days of creation, but very good, because on it, our sages tell us, the evil inclination was created – without which a man would not marry, establish a household or engage in creative activity. A person develops, opens himself up to unknown future possibilities, through harnessing all of the resources of his personality – both of his inclinations, all of his heart. One who is insensitive to the demands of his inner world risks becoming an external shell – ‘a frozen ego.’

The greatest form of individuality does not come through intellect alone, but though unifying upper and lower worlds, integrating parts of the soul. The tzadik – our sages tell us – brings together heavens and earth; he does so through the powers of da’as. This is what makes a person an individual: ‘just like their faces are different, so is their da’as.’ The face is where the soul shows itself in the body; da’as is that internal link between body and soul. My da’as is as distinctive as my face, the point where my energies and desires engage with the ideal image of who I want to be – my way of bringing the Torah down to earth. It’s the work of a lifetime, starting with bar mitzva – for one thirteen year old, standing in prayer before G-d, a bag of toffees tucked safely under his hat.

Bill Kolbrenner blogs at http://openmindedtorah.blogspot.com

A ‘Special Conversation’: Freud, the Maharal of Prague and Shabbos

Birthright was in Bayit Vegan a number of weeks ago. We were lucky to have two guests for lunch who–like most of the participants–had never been to Israel.

As we were finishing our meal, Steve (one of the guests) asked ‘so what are you guys going to do for the rest of the day?’ I realized that it wasn’t a question about our shabbos itinerary, but rather: ‘are you guys really going to sit at home and do nothing all day?’ In the end, I gave a list of coming attractions: more food (which he found hard to believe), chavrusas (learning partners), a walk around the neighborhood, maybe a visit to family friends. But the unstated question got me thinking back to our first days of shabbos observance. My wife and I lived on 119th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and though there was a Jewish community life–which centered around the Old Broadway Synagogue on 125th Street–we didn’t then have the network of family and friends we do now. The first year we were shabbos observant, the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, fell on Thursday and Friday–which, followed by shabbos, turned into a three-day holiday. Ernie Banks, the old Chicago Cubs shortstop used to say, out of his love for baseball, ‘let’s play two!’ That year, it was as if G-d were saying to us, ‘let’s play three!’; and we just weren’t ready. Refraining from work seemed merely a pointless non-activity, as Steve’s question implied: ‘just sitting around and doing nothing.’

After shabbos, while mulling over Steve’s question, I was reading Jonathan Lear’s great book on Freud. Searching for a metaphor to describe what he does as an analyst, Lear turns to shabbos: the psychoanalytical encounter, he writes, is like ‘an existential Sabbath.’ This wasn’t so much an Oprah ‘aha!’ moment, but more like a Freudian ‘uncanny’ moment–the experience of the unexpected connectedness between things. Lear turns to shabbos to describe the development of the psyche; but, I thought about going in the other direction: looking to psychoanalysis as a mashal–a metaphor–for shabbos. In a metaphor, Aristotle writes, the ‘unknown or half-known is described and clarified through recourse to what is better known.’ With Tony Soprano in therapy, psychoanalysis, I thought, may help to understand shabbos.

Neurotics (everybody has a friend or relative in this chategory, no?) have a tendency to repeat their behavior. Freud once overheard his father saying of him: ‘the boy will never amount to anything!’; the master of the pscyhe repeated this in psycho-dramas played out through the rest of his life. In Freud’s repetitious behavior, he broke off relationships with colleagues, collaborators, patients and friends, as if to say to them: ‘it’s not me, but you that has not amounted to anything.’ But we don’t need to turn to Freud for examples: we’ve all had the feeling–at least once–that a friend or relative isn’t reacting to what we’ve said or done, but instead relating to us through the lens of another relationship. To which we may respond, ‘hey, I’m not your mother!’ Without being aware of the unresolved tensions that motivate him, the neurotic lives in a world of fantasy, endlessly playing out the same drama.

The ‘sabbath’ of the psychoanalytic session, Lear writes, ‘allows a person to take an hour’s rest from normal life’ in order ‘to experience an interpretive breakdown’–thus allowing for a ‘special conversation.’ Here it seems that any comparisons between shabbos and psychoanalysis should have been put aside. Imagine me saying: ‘you see Steve, the reason we keep shabbos is so that we can have an interpretive breakdown.’ I’m sure that would have done the trick!

But in its way, shabbos does involve its own form of ‘interpretive breakdown’–where refraining from day to day activities, and the habits of mind which accompany them, opens up a space for a ‘new conversation.’ Shabbos cultivates an awareness that the mindset that governs our week, especially our certainty that we are in absolute control over our destinies, is in fact just a fantasy.

The Torah recounts the giving of the ten commandments twice–once in Exodus, and then in Deuteronomy. One of the differences in these separate accounts appears in the fourth commandment: the Exodus version reads: ‘Remember the Sabbath Day’; while the version in Deuteronomy reads ‘Keep the Sabbath day.’ The discrepancy does not cause the Sages to start an Institute for Biblical Criticism, but instead, they explain that the divine utterance included both remember–זכור–and keep–שמור: though there was one utterance, both were expressed. The Maharal explains that though remembering shabbos (zachor) comes first, ‘keeping’ (shamor) is of greater importance. Shamor means refraining from weekday activities; zachor is an active rememberance through, as the Maharal emphasizes, a verbal proclamation (בפה). But without shamor, refraining from labor, the zachor has no effect. It simply get drowned out. You can’t, the Maharal explains, get in the car, drive to the beach, stop off for gas, go to the MacDonald’s at the rest stop, and then take out your kiddush cup to proclaim the holiness of the day. For the rememberance of shabbos to be heard, one has to refrain from weekday activities. [Editors note: there was no beach in Prague; it’s just a metaphor].

The more one repeats, Freud writes, the less one remembers. In his psychological milieu, Freud meant that the more one repeats the same psychodramas, the less one remembers oneself. So with shabbos: one refrains from the endless repetitions of weekday activities to remember that on the seventh day of Creation, G-d rested from his activities. But in remembering G-d, I’m also remembering my origins, and thus remembering what Freud called the psyche, or what we call the neshama, my true self. Once I remember myself, not the self running endlessly between urgent appointments, repeating the same habitual actions with the accompanying habitual thoughts, but the self at rest, then there’s the possibility of that ‘special conversation.’

Shabbos, the kabbalists tell us, is not only a day of rest, but a day of דיבור or speech. Because we rest, and remember ourselves outside of the endless dramas of the weekday world in which we knowingly (or not) are too involved, we have the capacity for a new kind of speech. The proclamation of the holiness of the sabbath day, made possible by refraining and resting, is part of that new and special conversation–with G-d, our families, and ourselves.

Originally posted here at Open Minded Torah.

Living with Failure

A few weeks after moving to the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, a neighbor invited me to his home, and showing me his recently re-furbished dining room with its the long oak wood table, declared ‘the shabbos table is the center-piece of family education.’ Funny, I remember thinking to myself, our shabbos table is often the center-piece of family food-fighting. So if I’ve given an overly idealized impression of my family, I’m coming clean. Though I think it’s important to weave rich and positive stories for and about the family, it’s obviously not the whole picture.

In the Torah portion of from last week, those who had been excluded from the experience of Pesach come to Moses and ask: ‘why should we be diminished? we may have been ritually impure, but why shouldn’t we also get the chance to participate in the Passover ritual?’ They felt ‘diminished’ for not having had the opportunity to do a mitzvah–an amazing notion! So they ask Moses for a second chance. Though Moses is the greatest of all prophets, these laws were concealed to him. But upon relaying the question to G-d, the laws of Pesach Sheni–the ‘second Pesach’ for those who missed it the first time around–are revealed. The laws had been withheld from Moses so that, in the divine plan, those whom Rashi describes as ‘meritorious’ ask the question leading to further divine revelation. A question, as R. Yerucham from the Mir Yeshiva explains, already shows chachma or wisdom, because through it, one cultivates the possibility of a response. A good question–any teacher or parents knows this–allows for the bringing to light of something which otherwise would have remained unsaid. This sort of question is to be distinguished from those questions which are just dressed up answers; refusals to engage seriously; or ways of ending conversations before they start. But an engaged question is the means through which the concealed becomes revealed: the whole Torah, says R. Yerucham, is actually a response to Moses’s questions!

I thought this would be a great entry point to a discussion at our shabbos table. Notwithstanding a recent NY Times piece advocating the contrary, my wife and I divide our labors (confession: I don’t know how to use the washing machine!). At the shabbos table, even though my wife studies regularly, and arranges a weekly lecture (often in our house), I’m the one who usually initiates the words of Torah. With the same theatricality that I display when tasting the challos which my wife bakes, she introduces my divrei Torah. True, there was a time when both my divrei Torah and her challos (she started, years ago, with home ground organic wheat flour–which was like making motzie on compressed hockey pucks) needed work, but we’ve both become more proficient in our respective roles. I thought the ‘Questions’ topic would make a great discussion for the kids: ‘Have any of you had any questions this week?’ My son returned that a question occured to him, but he didn’t ask because his rebbe wouldn’t have known the answer (unlikely); one of my daughters said הכל מובן לי–or ‘I already understand everything!’ (extremely unlikely). One of my other daughters was already on the couch reading a book; and my youngest was still at the shabbos table, but singing a song (though not even a shabbos song). I paused, surveyed the situation, sighed, and gave up: ‘will someone pass the cholent please?’

After lunch, I was hoping my wife might offer some consolation. She reminded me that R. Yitzchock Hutner wrote in a letter to a distressed student that the verse in Psalms–‘A tzaddik falls seven times’–doesn’t mean that even though he falls many times, the true tzaddik will eventually emerge. Rather when a true tzaddik finally does come into being, it’s because he’s fallen. Acknowledging personal failure and integrating those failures allows–in the end–for a person to reveal the tzaddik within. We become great because of our challenges, not in spite of them. It’s almost as if, in the endless interplay between concealment and revelation, challenges are the questions which help us to reveal who we are. R. Hutner refers to internal battles, but sometimes, as my wife pointed out, the world doesn’t accomodate the idealism of our plans, and one has to learn to live with those kinds of failures as well. Things sometimes don’t go the way you want.

This article was originally posted here.