The Call of the Chatzotzros

כל הכלים שעשה משה כשרים לו וכשרים לדורות, חצוצרות ־ כשרות לו ופסולות לדורות.

All the vessels that Moshe made were valid for him and valid for future generations, [except for] the chatzotzros ([silver] trumpets) which were valid for him but invalid for future generations.

-Menachos 28b

While it is permissible to use a 100 year old shofar, or in the beis hamiqdash, an ancient menorah, mizbeiach or shulchan, each generation that has a beis hamiqdash in which to use it has to make its own chatzotzros. Why the difference?

Yahadus walks a tight balance between the permanence of its message, and its relevance to people in very different contexts who are living in different times. The call of the shofar is eternal, and thus a shofar is not invalidated by age. However, in contrast to the raw, natural, shofar, the silver chatzotzros are man-made. Their message changes as people do. The call of the chatzotzros is distinct for the generation.

This thought dovetails well with the one I played with in “My Life as a Pendulum“. Some excerpts:

Many science museums have a large Foucault Pendulum. This pendulum is typically strung from a point on the ceiling, and the weight barely touches the surface of a sand stable on the floor. Over time, a trail in the sand develops, showing you where the pendulum has been.

Obviously, the pattern is primarily repetitive, back and forth.

However, the line that swinging draws rotates over time. In reality, the pendulum doesn’t rotate. It is fixed, absolute, staying on the same plane. It is the world that is changing, rotating beneath it. …

His students asked Rabbi Zakai, “For what [were you granted] long life?” He said to them, “In all my days, I never urinated within a distance of four amos from where I prayed, I never gave another person a nickname, and I never failed to recite kiddush; I had an elderly mother, and once she sold her hat in order to obtain the means to bring me wine for kiddush.” …
His students asked Rabbi Elazar bar Shamua’, “For what [were you granted] long life?” He said to them, “In all my days, I never made a shortcut out of the beis medrash; I never tread on the heads of the sacred people; and I never lifted my hands [to bless the people as a kohein] without making the blessing first.”
His students asked Rabbi Pereidah…
His students asked Rabbi Nechunia ben haQanah….
Rabbi Aqiva asked Rabbi Nechunia haGadol…
Rebbe asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Qorchah … long life?” … He said to him, “In all my days, I never looked at the image of an evil person.”

Notice that all these rabbis gave multiple answers, and one one of them coincided. One theme does shine through, “miyamai — in all my days”. Consistency. What’s the key to long life? Finding one’s approach to serving Hashem, and sticking to it, day in day out.

The pendulum.

This is not simple repetitiveness; the consistency must adapt itself as the world we find ourselves in changes. It is sacred commitment to our mission, and thereby maintaining the connection to the Absolute Immobile Source.

רבי יוחנן מפקד מלבשוני (ביריריקא) [בורידיקא] לא חיוורין ולא אוכמין אין קמית ביני צדיקייא לא גבהת אין קימת ביני רשיעיא לא גבהת.  רבי יאישה מפקד אלבשוני חוורין חפיתין.  אמרין ליה ומה את טב מן רבך.  אמר לון ומה אנא בהית בעבדאי.

Rabbi Yochanan arranged [for his death]: Dress me not in blue [shrouds], not in white ones or in black ones. If I will arise among the righteous, I will not be uncomfortable [because I won't be in black]; and if I arise among the wicked, I won’t be uncomfortable [because I won't be in white].

Rabbi Yoshiyah arranged: dress me in  in nicely sown white shrouds.

They said to him: And what? Are you better than your rebbe [Rabbi Yochanan]?

He said to them: And what? Do you think I am afraid of my deeds?

– Yerushalmi Kelayim 9:2, 42a; Bereishis Rabba 100:3

(This is not the usual Rabbi Yoshiah, who was a second century tanna and thus couldn’t have been a student of Rabbi Yochanan over one hundred years later.)

How does Rabbi Yoshiyah answer their question? Why was he less afraid of his deeds than Rabbi Yochanan was?

Rav Shelomo Wolbe zt”l writes an essay in Alei Shur vol I titled “Hahevdel bein haDoros” about the need to speak to each generation in its own voice — and in particular, that Mussar is particularly sensitive to this phenomenon. Each generation has its own Mussar. The Mussar of dark rooms and fear of death of the early movement wasn’t that of Slabodka. And of our generation R’ Wolbe writes, “The beginning of the way of anyone who learns Mussar today needs to be: learn the elevatedness of a human. He must climb the ladder that leads to awareness of greatness.” One generation is motivated by one thing; people in a different milieu living within a different culture need a different presentation. Loyal to the same truth, but cognizant of the strengths and weaknesses of its people and of the lives they lead.

I would suggest that the difference between Rav Yochanan and Rav Yoshiah was not as much that one was uncertain of his merit, and the other wasn’t. Rather, Rav Yoshiah’s generation is one in which he must make them feel secure. “And what? Do you think I’m afraid of my deeds?” The means of motivating the masses changed in the generation between them.

Perhaps this is why some parts of our goal in life were not spelled out in the shofar‘s tones of halakhah and its process, but instead left as values that we, through Mussar, must determine for ourselves how to inculcate. The call of the chatzotzros.

Balancing Community and Authenticity

This post, like the one I blogged last week, reflects a conversation with R’ Rich Wolpoe and R’ Ben Hecht on NishmaBlog and email, on the topic of R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo’s “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity“. That issue appears to be closely tied to the role of communal pesaq, and why do we need some kind of unity in practice, anyway. Comments on that blog entry also revolve around the role of communal acceptance of a particular pesaq and how that creates authority.

How do we balance that communal nature of a halachic community, of being a Chosen People, with the individual’s personal perspective and unique nature? And how does that balance express itself how halachic rulings should be made and followed?

When speaking to people about getting started in Mussar, one of the more asked questions is how all this middah work differs from a self-help program. Through repetition, I have a pretty standardized answer.

Both Mussar and Self Help involve a definition of the ideal, becoming cognizant of the real, and finding a path from the real to the ideal. Where things differ is in who defines the ideal. In Self Help, the focus is on actualizing the person you wish to be. Thus there is a focus on personal choice, doing your own thing, and autonomy.

In Mussar, it’s to become the person Hashem created you to be. For that matter, the same could be said of the Yeshiva Movement, and the ideal Jew as described in Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh haChaim. The split within Lithuania was about the amount of conscious effort one must place in the task of refining oneself. Rav Yisrael Salanter taught that one must actively pursue middah work. The Yeshiva Movement as it evolved in Volozhin and its daughter schools taught that Torah in-and-of-itself will effect this change, and one need only set out to study Torah, with the traditional focus on talmud and halakhah to become the people Hashem created us to be.

To that contrast, let me add a third alternative (in addition to self-help and Mussar): In Chassidus, the ideal is to cleave to G-d. There is a definition of an ideal person, although not phrased in terms of personal refinement but rather in how he relates to the Almighty. And so we can say that in both in the Vilna Gaon’s legacy and in that of the Baal Shem Tov, Judaism is defined in terms of personal becoming — whether it a process of becoming ever more shaleim (whole) or davuq (attached [to the Creator]), respectively.

And for that matter, Rav Hirsch’s approach to the purpose of mitzvos is as symbols and actions that inculcate lessons — and therefore also phrased as a personal transformation.

Given this focus, where then does national membership belong? Shouldn’t we each just follow those halachic positions that best express our own, personal, religiosity? R’ Cardozo’s playing down the role of codification is all about using the fluidity that would enable to better find meaningful religious experience. And yet I objected entirely because I assigned an importance to conformity, and in particular to the extent that we’re taught that accepted precedent is binding and closes the door on practicing the alternative. Why?

If we were discussing self-help this question would be valid. If self refinement were to be the person I defined as ideal, then such limitations would have not place.

However, an ideal of sheleimus and deveiqus defines an ideal in which each individual’s meaning is found as part of the whole. In playing a role in a larger community. Someone who tries to live as a metaphoric island can not be whole.

In R’ JB Soloveitchik’s essay “Community”, the Rav defines a basic dialectic in how people relate to the community: On the one hand, the purpose of the collective is to work together for the good of its members. The whole social contract philosophy of government is based on that perspective. On the other hand, the individual’s higher calling is to aid the the community.

Kelal Yisrael is a corporate entity of which the Rambam in Seifer haMitzvos can discuss mitzvos that apply between two Jews in terms of “haqatzeh el haqatzeh”, what “one end” does to “another end”. But Israel is also a set of Jews, a number of individuals.

The Rav argued that beris Noach and beris avos were covenants made between G-d and individuals, Noach and the forefathers respectively. Whereas beris Sinai created a corporate entity — the Jewish People. And from this he draws distinctions between stories in Bereishis and how we observe Torah today.

Personally, I would have made the personal covenent vs. national covenent distinction later, between the two berisim Hashem makes with us in the desert — at Sinai, and “the words of the beris … aside from the beris which He made with them in Horeb” (Devarim 28:69) at the plains of Moav. It is in describing this latter covenent that was given shortly before crossing the Jordan into Israel in which Hashem relays most of the nation-building laws of the Torah.

Rabbi Hecht beautifully described the national character of Torah as:

… [W]hat we may term the model of the symphony which advocates for the a collective of individuals who are actualizing their individuality but in a collective manner so that the result is greater than the sum of the parts…

The Ramban (among numerous others) likens the Jews to organs in a body. It’s like the symphony model. Not uniformity in action, but unity though each playing a different part toward the same combined action.

Or, putting it in the covenental terms — the beris at the plains of Moav had to come after a generation of people raised in a mileu of the beris Sinai. However, beris Sinai couldn’t be complete without it. Until the details spelled out in Devarim, given at Arvos Moav, there was only an incomplete definition of the entity the individual is to try to be an effective part of. At Sinai we were given the tools to learn how to play music, if we chose to pick them up. But at Arvos Moav the musicians were given the score to which the orchestra will be playing.

Does this deny the idea we saw in common in all those schools of thought that place the centrality of halakhah in how it shapes the person following it? Not at all! The goal is to be the best musician you can, to choose the instrument best suited to your proclivities and abilities and master it.

By giving us free will, Hashem offers us autonomy in two ways — first, we could choose to violate the beris. We have bechirah whether or not to fulfill the terms of the covenant. But even within conforming, we can choose our intrument. And a point somewhere in between these two extremes, by choosing how much we invest in studying music we have some input into whether that role in the symphony is first violin, or part of the chorus. Between the skills with which we were blessed, how and if we choose to develop them, we have some autonomy in our choice of role to play in the orchestra.

Book Announcement: Every Day, Holy Day

Cover PictureNow available. Alan’s newest book!
(assisted by Rabbi Micha Berger)

“You shall be holy,” teaches the Torah, and the masters of Mussar have always taken that command very seriously. Mussar is a system of introspective practices that help you identify and break through the obstacles to your inherent holiness, using methods that integrate easily into daily life.

Every Day, Holy Day is a year long program of Mussar practice that focuses on a system of traits (middot)–such as strength, generosity, watchfulness, loving-kindness, and awe–each of which is worked with for a week at a time in order to develop and refine the quality in yourself. It’s remarkably simple and effective.

Click the book image to order your copy of Every Day, Holy Day, or to send someone a gift that will change their life.

Balancing Simplicity and Authenticity

This post is in response to R’ Nathan Lopez Cordozo’s “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity” on the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals web site.

First to quote some points with which I firmly agree:

I teach Jewish Philosophy. I am confronted daily with countless young Jews who search for an authentic Jewish religious way of life, but are unable to find spiritual satisfaction in the prevalent halakhic system as practiced today in most Ultra or Modern-Orthodox communities. For many of them, typical halakhic life is not synonymous with genuine religiosity. They feel that halakha has become too monotonous, too standardized and too external for them to experience the presence of God on a day-to-day basis. Beyond “observance”, they look for holiness and meaning. Many of them feel there is too much formalism in the halakhic system, and not enough internal meaning; too much obedience and not enough room for the individualistic soul, or for religious spontaneity.

A careful read of modern Jewish Orthodox literature reveals that many authors misunderstand the nature of Jewish law. Much of this literature is dedicated to extreme and obsessive codification, which goes hand in hand with a desire to “fix” halakha once and for all. The laws of muktzeh, tevilath kelim, tzeniut and many others are codified in much greater detail than ever before. These works have become the standard by which the young growing observant community lives its life. When studying them one wonders whether our forefathers were ever really observant, since such compendia were never available to them and they could never have known all the minutiae presented today to the observant Jew. Over the years we have embalmed Judaism while claiming it is alive because it continues to maintain its external shape.

The majority of halakhic literature today is streamlined, allowing little room for halakhic flexibility and for the spiritual need for novelty. For the most part, the reader is encouraged to follow the most stringent view without asking whether this will actually help her or him in their Avodath Ha-Borei (service of the Almighty) according to her or his distinct personality. The song of the halakha, its spirit and mission are entirely lost in this type of literature. When the student looks beyond these works seeking music, he is often confronted with a dogmatic approach to Judaism which entirely misses the mark. We are plagued by over-codification and dogmatization.

Another obsessive attempt which contrasts the very nature of Judaism is the attempt to codify Jewish beliefs. Jewish beliefs are constantly dogmatized and halakhicized by rabbinic authorities, and anyone who does not accept these rigid beliefs is no longer considered to be a real religious Jew. A spirit of finalization has taken over Judaism.

An easy example is a comparison of R’ Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” with a more recent guide for the aveil, such as ArtScroll’s “Mourning in Halachah”. The former weaves together halakhah, agadah, and the experience of the mourner in the current generation.

However, I feel that R’ Cardozo, in his battle against ossification, errs too far on the other side. I do not know if it’s his actual position, the article appears to say that he is intentionally being provocative in order to spark a dialog:

Surely there are many arguments which can be brought against the contents of this essay, some of which I can point to myself. However, the purpose of this essay is to get people thinking, not to claim the definitive truth of my observations and suggestions.

I am fully aware that the views expressed may not be palatable to most bona fide and respected poskim. My analysis and suggestions will probably not carry their approval. I hope only to act as a catalyst in the hope that some halakhic authorities and Jewish thinkers will take my suggestions seriously and be prepared to discuss them. They are nothing more than thoughts which came to mind when contemplating and discussing these issues with students.

That said, he ties the current spate of quickie guides for the sound-bite generation, “just give me the bottom line” to the objections against codification in the days of the rishonim.

Over the last five hundred years, famous rabbinic leaders have called to limit the overwhelming authority of Rabbi Josef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. They felt that these works do not reflect authentic Judaism and its halakhic tradition. The reason is obvious. Both these great codes of Jewish Law are very un-Jewish in spirit. They present halakha in ways which oppose the heart and soul of the Talmud, and therefore of Judaism itself. They deprived Judaism of its multifaceted halakhic tradition and its inherent music. It is not the works themselves which are the problem but the ideology which they represent: The ethos of codifying and finalizing Jewish Law.

Halakha is the practical upshot of un-finalized beliefs, a practical way of life while remaining in theological suspense. In matters of the spirit and the quest to find God, it is not possible to come to final conclusions. The quest for God must remain open-ended to enable the human spirit to find its way through trial and discovery. As such, Judaism has no catechism. It has an inherent aversion to dogma. Although it includes strong beliefs, they are not susceptible to formulation in any kind of authoritative system. It is up to the Talmudic scholar to choose between many opinions, for they are all authentic. They are part of God’s Torah, and even opposing opinions “are all from one Shepherd” (Hagiga 3b).

Three early authorities were deeply concerned about this development: Rabbi Shelomo Luria, known as Maharshal (1510-1573); Rabbi Yehudah Low ben Betzalel, known as the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609); and Rabbi Haim Ben Betzalel (1530-1588), brother of the Maharal. Each in his own way attacked the Mishneh Torah and the Shulhan Arukh, claiming they were anti-Talmudic and therefore anti-halakhic. Maharshal accused Maimonides of acting “as if (he) received it (the Mishneh Torah) directly from Moshe at Mount Sinai who received it directly from Heaven, offering no proof …” (Yam shel Shelomo, Introduction to Bava Kama). Directing his attack to Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Arukh in which the author follows the majority opinion of three authorities (Rif, Rosh and Maimonides), Maharshal asked how the author had the right to do so. Did Rabbi Joseph Karo receive such a tradition going back to the days of the sages? (ibid)

Maharshal goes on to state that the Shulhan Arukh’s entire enterprise is dangerous. Those who study it will come to believe that what Rabbi Joseph Karo wrote has finality…

R’ Cardozo, by going further than most of his audience would be (and I will argue below — should be) willing to, loses that audience with respect to the primary problem. The same flaw can be found in Rav Gidon Rothstein’s response to the article, “Halacha and Autonomous Religiosity: What’s the Problem?” on the RCA‘s blog, Text and Texture. In response to an article which suggests too much fluidity in halakhah, he posits a more rigid definition of halakhah than commonly accepted.

As to Talmudic times, the Tosefta in Sotah 14;9, cited in Sanhedrin 98b, blames the multiplicity of debates on students’ failure to study properly, hardly an encomium for diversity of opinion in the halachic world; turning to elu va-elu itself, while Kabbalists did, indeed, find an interpretation in which it meant that all those opinions were right, most rishonim (and R. Moshe Feinstein, in his introduction to Iggerot Moshe) understand the phrase as allowing us to tolerate a wrong opinion as long as it was reached through valid process.  Indeed, the general understanding of the mitzvah to follow majority rule—and the largely-ignored obligation of lo titgodedu, not to have Jewish communities be split by multiple forms of practice– seems to prefer avoiding precisely the kinds of splits R. Cardozo wants to uphold as an ideal.

And in a response to a comment on that blog entry, R’ Rothstein adds, “…it seems to me that Elu Va-Elu was taken in a completely different direction from about the 15th century on, a guess that ties in to my PhD dissertation and my feelings about detours of Jewish thought, but that’s not for here…”

However, as we saw in the past, the notion that halakhah contains “49 ways to declare [something] impure and 49 ways to declare [it] pure” is a more clear-cut source for plurality than the talmud about eilu va’eilu“. For sources in the gemara, Rashi, the Ran (who was a rationalist, not a Qabbalist), and numerous other pre-15th cent. CE baalei mesorah, please see my summary of articles on the subject by R’ Moshe Halbertal (“Controversy in Halacha“) and R’ Michael Rosensweig (“Elu Va-Elu Divre Elokim Hayyim: Halakhic Pluralism And Theories Of Controversy“).

I also find an interesting point of commonality between the two positions. R’ Marc Angel questions the binding nature of evolution to halakhah since the gemara. R’ Gidon Rothstein questions the significance of the evolution of aggadita since the rishonim. Both are therefore calling for some sort of roll back to what they believe to be an earlier state that was more to their liking. (And neither describe the past as I would.)

To present my own take on the subject…

I think there is a major failing in his essay in not clearly distinguishing between codification and the need for codification. When we say that Rebbe’s decision to codify the mishnah was an instance of overturning a specific law for the sake of the whole (“eis la’asos Lashem, heifeiru Sorasekha — it’s time to do for G-d, overturn Your Torah”), we’re clearly saying the situation was a step down. BUT, that doesn’t mean that codifying — whether the Medrashei Halakhah completed before Rebbe’s day, his completion of the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Talmuds, the Beha”g, the Rif, the Rambam, the Tur, the Shulchan Arukh, the Rama, the Levush, the Shulchan Arukh haRav, the Chayei Adam, the Qitzur, the Arukh haShulchan, the Mishnah Berurah, the Ben Ish Hai, etc, etc, etc.. were themselves a bad idea. It is sad when we reach an impasse that requires a new round of codification. But when we do need it, producing a code is the right response. It is not codification itself which is ill, and until we repair the cause for the need, the progressive codification is still necessary.

The formula the Rambam uses to describe the what gave the Talmud Bavli its binding nature is that it was accepted by “all of Israel”. Not in every one of its rulings, but as the point of origin for further study. And today, across the gamut, semichah studies center around the Shulchan Arukh (with the exception of Bal’adi Teimanim who center their pisqa on the Rambam). The same mechanism which gives the gemara the authority R’ Cardozo attributes to it gives the Shulchan Arukh its authority.
Someone who davens from R’ Saadia Gaon’s (much shorter) siddur, omitting things said by all our communities for centuries, or to take a real case, from Nusach Eretz Yisrael as found in the Cairo Geniza, isn’t following the halachic process. The plurality caused by having a distinctly oral and fluid tradition is part of a stream down time; by leaving that stream, that dialog down the generations, one abandoned the core of Judaism.

Orthodox Jews today are under the impression that the job of religion is to provide answers; and moreso, easy-to-understand answers that can resolve life’s dilemmas in one sitting — all tied up with a nice bow.

In reality, life’s problems are hard. Let me give a story from personal experience. Someone close to me is a baalas teshuvah. The only one in her family in a few generations to embrace observance. And she, like most baalei teshuvah, was presented a worldview in which, if you just believe enough, the only airplane one would miss is the one that was going to crash. (Many of you are familiar with this genre of story that I’m trying to portray.) But she, alone among all her siblings and cousins, went through the crashing pain of losing a daughter. So, where is the “better life” the kiruv professionals led her to expect? Life is not simple, and we do ourselves a disservice pretending it is.

Religion’s job isn’t to resolve life’s struggles, but to give us a meaningful way to grapple with them. Whether we’re talking about our perspective on life, or about pesaq halakhah.

Quick and cut-and-dry one-size-fits-all rulings isn’t how halakhah is supposed to work. While I’m arguing that a ruling that “all of Israel” accepts is binding, we have gone well beyond that with the current proliferation of English halachic guides. There is a feel to the give-and-take of halakhah, to its responses to the costs to the individual, to their personal talents and emotional proclivities, where they stand spiritually, the challenges and gifts Hashem placed in their path, and how they view life, that one really not only needs a human halachic decisor, but preferably one who knows the asker and can help them coordinate a spiritual journey through life.

There is enough room among decisions which have so far not reached universal consenus (“nishpasheit bekhol Yisrael“) nor canonized as the person’s inviolate minhag (eg: qitniyos) to address the contemporary Orthodox Jew’s need for a meaninful spiritual life through a synthesis of religion (aish) and rite (das).