Wednesday, April 27, 2016

O Ḥevruta O Mituta

A number of interesting scientific studies were reported on in the press this week.

It was just this week, for example, that Nicholas Bakalar wrote in the Times about a new study published in the journal Nutrients that proved definitively that overeating, and particularly the over-consumption of fats, leads to drowsiness. The study, undertaken at the University of Adelaide in Australia, considered 1,800 Australian men and took into account many different kinds of data (including the men’s eating patterns, their weight-gain and -loss statistics, their status as smokers or non-smokers, their predisposition to suffer from depression, their waist sizes, and their level of physical activity) to come to its riveting conclusion. The results were impressive by any yardstick, but they were particularly satisfying for me personally because, as it happens, I have been conducting a similar experiment over the last forty or so years and, although my test group was considerably smaller, my data—all of it, particularly when Joan wasn’t home, empirically gathered by myself—has led me to precisely the same conclusion as the one to which their study led them. I feel so validated! And I knew I wanted to share that with you as soon as I read about their study!  Vivat experimentiam scientia!
But the study that I wish to write to you about, published in the scientific journal Heart (the official journal of the British Cardiovascular Society) and also reported on in this week’s Times, is more surprising and far more provocative. This was a dramatically larger undertaking, one that analyzed data culled from the medical records of over 180,000 men and women. It did not, however, involve the testing or observation of actual patients, but was rather a kind of giant meta-study that drew from twenty-three different anterior studies of patients in an attempt to answer a question that I never thought even to wonder about: whether social isolation and/or a personal sense of loneliness could possibly be a meaningful predictor of future coronary disease or of a future stroke.

Social isolation and loneliness are not the same thing exactly. In terms of the study, the former term was used to denote adults who have few social relationships or friendships, while the latter was used to describe people who are basically unsatisfied and unhappy with the relationships they do have even if they are not few in number. There is something inherently quirky about a study like this because, there being no scientific way to test for either loneliness or a sense of being isolated, the patients under study were labelled with either or both those terms solely by virtue of their own self-definition: if patients qualified themselves as being among the lonely or the isolated, then they were considered to belong to that group for the purposes of the study. Their medical histories, on the other hand, were a matter of medical record: the researchers took no note of anecdotal evidence and depended instead solely on medical records or death certificates for the data regarding the subjects’ histories of heart attacks and strokes. So it was by its very nature a kind of a hybrid built on analyzable scientific data and patients’ own sense of their place in the world.

There was no divergence in the findings regarding men and women. That much was interesting without being particularly surprising, but the results were, at least to me personally, beyond arresting: self-defining as lonely or feeling socially isolated appears to increase the risk of having a heart attack, angina, or of eventually dying of heart disease, by 29%. The risk of stroke increases by 32%, almost a full third.  It is true, I should note, that the researchers attached a caveat to the effect that it was a review of observational studies and did not scientifically establish a medically-verifiable link between loneliness or isolation on the one hand, and heart disease or stroke on the other. But the data speaks for itself in a matter like this so clearly that it’s hard—at least for a non-scientist like myself—to imagine that it could be a mere coincidence that patients across the board—men and women, old and young, healthy and infirm—who described themselves as lonely or socially isolated were dramatically more likely to suffer from heart disease, and that this increased susceptibility seemed unrelated to any other obvious factors that might otherwise have put them in some different category regarding their likelihood for future heart problems or stroke.

The researchers themselves saw it the same way. In fact, the opening line of the introduction to the study sums up in a particularly stark way the way the scientists who conducted the study came eventually to understand their own data: “Adults who have few social contacts (i.e., who are socially isolated) or feel unhappy about their social relationship (i.e., who are lonely),” they wrote starkly, “are at increased risk of premature mortality.” And not only is that risk real, they went on to note formally, but it is statistically and scientifically comparable with other, far more widely accepted predictors of future heart disease, notably carrying too much weight and engaging in too little physical activity. So that sounds pretty definitive to me: feeling friendless or forlorn is not only a heavy burden to shoulder emotionally and psychologically, but has profound potential implications for an individual’s heart health and longevity. There’s a folk saying preserved and labelled as such in the tractate of the Talmud we’ve just finished learning at Shelter Rock that reads o chavruta o mituta, which means “either friendship or death.” Patrick Henry may have felt that living not-free was the social or moral equivalent of being a dead person, but our ancients had a more practical, apparently more medically correct notion: that living friend-free and without the support of a warm, sustaining community is not merely comparable to not being alive at all, it actually leads, or can lead, to an early demise.

And that thought brings me to take issue with one of the most famous passages in the Haggadah. As you know, I’m usually a great one for maintaining a sense of ongoing fidelity to the traditional text of our prayers. In Tzur Yisrael, we maintained almost all the most traditional phraseology, altering the received text here and there only to accommodate realities which seemed strange or even wrong to ignore. And I feel the same way about the Haggadah—attempts to “fix” this or that passage so as to make it conform more obviously to modern sensitivities always seem to fall flat when I consider them closely and the traditional text is almost always the one that speaks to me the most clearly.

But arguing for a traditionalist approach to liturgy doesn’t mean that I invariably agree with what I read. And I find myself at odds with one of our most famous passages this week: the story of the four sons who relate to their parents’ efforts to celebrate Passover so differently. I know most seder-attendees know the passage by heart, but let’s revisit it just for a moment. The wise lad is the one who asks all the right questions and he is appropriately rewarded for his curiosity with warm approval. No issue there! The simple lad is the one who takes note of the festival but can barely bring himself to formulate a coherent question. His mah zot (“what is all this?”) couldn’t be less eloquent, but he too is somehow rewarded for even his minor level of inquisitiveness with an answer simple enough for anyone at anyone to understand. No issue there either! Moving along, even the child who lacks the wherewithal to ask any sort of question is treated kindly…but the contrary son, the rasha, who excludes himself from the group is not to be treated kindly at all. Instead, he to be dealt with contemptuously and taunted with the possibility that, having taken himself out of the group in his own day, he would surely not have been taken from Egypt had he been a slave there in ancient times. And this, from a book that makes a special point of saying that all Jewish people are called upon to imagine that they themselves were slaves in the land of Egypt and would still be there had God not brought them forth with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. All…but apparently not him!

That seems harsh to me. The lad is, after all, present at his parents’ seder table. He observes what’s going on around him. His question, particularly in the Hebrew, isn’t that different from the wise son’s…only he hasn’t come to the point just yet at which he feels that he belongs to the group. He’s present yet absent, involved yet aloof, included yet excluded, in yet out. In other words, he’s standing on the wrong side of the threshold looking in, and tradition has chosen to focus on the spot he’s standing on rather than the direction he’s looking in. In a perfect world of my own making, such a young person would be spoken to gently rather than harshly, kindly rather than with the kind of acidulous contempt that will only make him feel even less a part of the group he is being mocked for not feeling part of…or not enough part of. To shove him even further away seems cruel or, at the very least, counterproductive…and now I see that my sentiments are mirrored by scientific research: the strength of community is not only satisfying spiritually, but the sense of belonging that comes along with membership in any traditional Jewish community is actually something that can lead to a long life. To turn a child away because he’s not there yet is thus, at least potentially, to shorten his life. To turn any people away merely because they feel disengaged is, to say the least, counterproductive: the correct response to people who feel disengaged is to engage them as though their very lives depend on it, which they apparently do. O chavruta, o mituta indeed!

People occasionally tell me that they’re not sure about retaining their affiliation with the synagogue after their children are done with the Religious School and they’ve made all the bar- and bat-mitzvahs they’re going to make. There are several different ways that this thought is couched when it’s put to me, but my response is always the same: what you get by belonging to a thick, rich, caring community of like-minded co-religionists is that you get to belong to a thick, rich, caring community of like-minded co-religionists. The twin specters of loneliness and isolation will never haunt those who belong because the traditional Jewish community is designed specifically to guarantee that no one ever needs to feel abandoned or deserted. And because, ultimately, friendship is at the core of community and serves as its defining feature: family is blood, but community is amity. And that, it turns out, is not just important because it leads to warm, fuzzy feelings about the universe. It’s important because finding your place in a community of caring friends is one of the things that staves of heart attacks, angina, and strokes. I might have said that from the bimah in the past as a kind of rhetorical flourish intended poetically to tout the advantages of affiliation. But who knew it was scientifically true as well?  It turns out my mother was right—you really do learn something each and every day!

At Shelter Rock, we foster communal friendship as best we can and that, more than any specific service, is what we offer our membership: the chance to belong to the kind of thick community in which people are allied by a sense of familiarity and emotional intimacy, and in which no one ever needs to feel bereft or forsaken. I suppose that truth visits us all in different ways at different times of the year, but I myself feel it particularly in the course of our holidays when we gather in the great sanctuary of the synagogue for Yizkor and as a community find the courage and strength to face our own mortality by staring down the past and the future as one extended, caring family of friends. Yizkor is about our lost loved ones, obviously. But it’s also about the living, the people who have come to remember and to mourn. The antidote for the kind of sadness associated with grievous loss is not gain of any sort, but the strength of community and the support engendered by the sustaining relationships community by its nature fosters. The discovery that being part of that rich circle of friends and neighbors also apparently staves off heart disease, thus extended our lives meaningfully, only makes me feel prouder of my membership in our little shtetl, our village in which none needs to feel lonely and in which despondency brought on by social isolation is the fate of no one at all who wishes it otherwise.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pesach 2016

One of the mysteries of life I have yet to unravel is how I can read the same passage over and over and over, year after year, and still see things that I’ve never noticed before or thought carefully about. I had just such an experience the other day as I was preparing myself to lead the seder meals at our home on Friday and Saturday nights and thought I would share it with you, and what I now understand the passage in question to be saying, as my pre-Pesach message for this year.
If there’s one piece of our Jewish liturgical heritage I know well, it’s the Haggadah. I’m not sure I could write it all out from memory, but I surely could manage big chunks of it more or less correctly…and with good reason: I’ve been leading seders at our home for thirty-five years and listening to my father lead the seder in my parents’ home for more than a quarter century before that. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t paying that much attention when I was three. But by the time I was seven or eight, I was totally captivated. Admittedly, I was an unusual child in that regard. (I heard that! But I was a normal child in other ways, or normalish.) But it somehow spoke to me, the Haggadah and the seder and the whole Jewish thing as the eight-year-old me perceived it. And although I surely didn’t set out to memorize it, I did internalize it…to the point at which its cadences and vocabulary have not only become part of how I speak but also of how I see and understand the world.

The passage I want to write about today is probably one of the best known, one of the ones everybody sort of knows by heart: the opening paragraph of the part of the Magid section of the Haggadah that leads directly into the children’s famous four questions. Ha laḥma anya di akhalu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim, we begin, lifting the plate of matzah aloft for all to say: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt.” And then we go on to sing out the twin declarations that lend Pesach its air of generosity and relational inclusivity. The first one, the easy one, translates simply as “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” That seems straightforward enough, but the second one is another story entirely. In the Haggadah we use, the red-and-yellow ones that linger on from my childhood (and which seem somehow to multiply in our Pesach cupboard from year to year), the second declaration is translated “All who are needy, let them come and celebrate the Passover with us.” But that’s not at all accurate, it suddenly strikes me. In fact, it’s not even close. And thereby hangs an interesting tale.

The second declaration, kol ditz’rikh yeitei v’yifsaḥ, harks back to ancient times and was an invitation to any who had somehow not made their own plans to join some other family in their home and to share in that family’s paschal sacrifice. In ancient times, the hallmark of Passover observance was the korban pesach, the pascal lamb which was the sole sacrifice in ancient times eaten entirely by its sponsors. Nor was that a mere perk of the festival: one of the very first commandments of the Torah is precisely that every Israelite must eat the meat of the paschal lamb (or, at least theoretically, the paschal kid) on the first night of Pesach. And the lead-up is part of the mitzvah as well: the twelfth chapter of Exodus (which readers who were in synagogue a week ago for Shabbat Hachodesh heard read aloud as the maftir reading) offers a sense of the whole procedure: once the new moon of Nisan is sighted, the Israelites must make sure they are ready to select an unblemished yearling lamb on the tenth of the month, forming groups large enough to guarantee the feasibility of consuming the entire animal on the evening of Passover. The lamb or kid must then be kept safe until the fourteenth day of the Nisan, Erev Pesach, at which time it is to be slaughtered. It must then be flame-roasted. Care must be taken to make sure none of the animal’s bones is broken in the slaughtering or cooking process. And its flesh must then be eaten as soon as night falls and the festival formally commences.

Some of the instructions given the ancients on the eve of their liberation from bondage in Egypt did not become rituals of subsequent Jewish life, but others did: in our day, we may not come to our seder tables with sandals on our feet and walking sticks in our hands, but the ancients did indeed eat their roast paschal lamb with matzah and maror, just as the Torah commands, and just as do we too…by making our Hillel sandwiches of matzah and horse radish and eating it just before the seder meal is served, the precise point in the evening when the korban pesach would have been served and eaten in Temple times.

But the whole scriptural insistence that people organize in advance into groups, called ḥavurot, was also part of the ritual in ancient times. More to the point, the law that the korban pesach may only be slaughtered specifically for those who have signed on as members of the ḥavurah sponsoring the sacrifice. And although a korban pesach that is sponsored by a sole individual (presumably one with a very robust appetite, a point Maimonides makes specifically in his code) is theoretically kosher, it is not the desired practice.

When seen in this light, the second declaration, kol ditz’rikh yeitei v’yifsaḥ, is an example of Jewish people deviating from the strict interpretation of the law to do the right thing by the lonely shlimazel who somehow didn’t sign on to any ḥavurah, who didn’t have a family to have Pesach with (why else would such a person have been wandering around in the street waiting to hear the declaration sung out from within someone else’s home?), who somehow failed utterly to prepare for one of the most important festival meals, perhaps even the most important, and who therefore is reduced to hoping against hope that someone will offer a last-minute invitation to join in their korban. It’s not allowed, obviously. The law on that point is entirely clear, and it’s more or less the simple meaning of Scripture anyway: to participate, you had to be part of the specific ḥavurah on whose behalf the lamb was slaughtered. The Torah returns to this idea several times, in fact, thereby promoting it as a key concept. And yet the liturgist chooses simply to ignore that part of things and instead to imagine a Jewish family seated around their table and, blithely ignoring the letter of the law, simply inviting anyone who has no other place to go to participate in their seder, to ingest the requisite olive’s bulk of meat from their own korban, to be part of their family group.

How can I never have seen that? And yet I never have, never even noticed that there was an issue. Now, of course, I can’t turn away, can’t not see it staring up at me and challenging me with its slightly disorienting message that generosity, hospitality, kindness, and compassion must always be allowed to divert our attention from legal details that risk leading us in the precise opposite direction. Nor should this sound like permission to demonstrate allegiance to the covenant by ignoring its terms: embedded in kol di-tz’rikh is the liturgist’s unspoken supposition that, because God is the moral ground of the world, the proper observance of God’s law may by definition never lead us to behave cruelly or uncharitably to the needy or to feeling justified, let alone virtuous, in excluding those in our midst who have no place to go unless we find a place for them at our table. So, by turning away from a detail, we may well end up embracing the deeper, more profound principle of which the rule in question was intended all along to function as a mere elaboration, thus somehow enabling us to reach for a more profound understanding of what, at the end of the day, it actually means to live lives bound in covenant with God. Clearly, this is a principle easily abused. But that only makes it even more incumbent upon us to focus all religious observance through the triple prism of morality, generosity of spirit, and kindness.

This concept rests behind many issues facing our world as we prepare for Pesach this year, but one comes the most readily to mind. There are a million reasons to close our doors to refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands. We don’t know who these people are, not really. There appears to be no ironclad way to vet them either, not one that we can be absolutely certain will weed out potential terrorists, radicals, or jihadists. These people have no experience as citizens of a democracy such as our own and may not naturally subscribe to the principles that undergird our republic. For all these reasons, it makes sense a hundred times over just to shut the gate and tell them to go home. Or anywhere they wish…as long as it’s not here. Nor is it at all fair or reasonable that we take more immigrants than the wealthy Gulf states like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or huge Islamic nations like Indonesia or Malaysia.

But I find myself unsure of myself.  Kol di-tz’rikh reminds me that I only exist at all because my grandparents and great-grandparents left Poland and came here decades before Polish Jewry was annihilated. In their day, there was no quota system. Instead, would-be immigrants simply set sail for Ellis Island, where they were cleared for entry once it was determined that they were in good (or good enough) health. And it reminds me, not of the mere 908 people on the St. Louis in 1939—or not just of them, but even more so of the countless hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who could have been saved if the nations that were prepared to go to war with Germany had been concomitantly ready to open their gates to those whom the Germans were attempting to exterminate. That goes for our nation, of course. But it applies to Canada as well, home of the famous “none is too many” policy regarding Jewish refugees. And it surely applies to the U.K, which nation, even when the dimensions of the disaster befalling the Jews of Europe were patently obvious to all, still kept the gates to British Palestine shut tight. I understand that we can’t go back to just letting in anyone who shows up and doesn’t seem too sick. But surely there must be some way to welcome people fleeing for their lives to these shores, to make them feel welcome, to teach them what it means to be an American, to embrace them as potential friends. These people are predisposed to be hostile to Israel, our most reliable ally in their own region of the world, because that venom has been pumped into them by their leaders for decades. But even that does not have to be the last word on the topic—if we, and I mean by “we” our American Jewish community—reach out warmly and genuinely, then we can save these people’s lives and make them into worthy citizens of our great land…and help them understand that the right of Israel to exist is no different than the right of any state to thrive in its own place and to provide the kind of safe haven for its own people that they themselves are seeking in the lands of their would-be dispersion. Nor is this a matter solely of political theory: five hundred would-be asylum-seekers drowned in the sea the other day on their way to anywhere at all that would take them in. A few months ago, eight hundred would-be refugees drowned off the coast of Libya. To nod to the tragedy and the look away because the deaths of terrified children at sea is technically not our problem to solve requires too radical a re-definition of the words “our problem” for me to countenance this close to hearing myself piously intone the kol di-tz’rikh on Friday and Saturday evenings.

There are other issues too to consider in this regard. I’ll write about them in future letters, both on the macro level and on the micro, communal level. But the bottom line is that devotion to the law becomes more fetishistic than productive when the details are allowed to trump the principles that undergird them and give them their stature as sacred law in the first place. At the end of the day, the kol di-tz’rikh isn’t there to prompt us to obsess about kitniyot, but to allow the story of our ancestors’ flight to freedom inspire us truly to be raḥmanim b’nei raḥmanim, individuals whose worldview is fully suffused with compassion and generosity, and whose Pesach observance celebrates freedom…not just from slavery, but also from harshness, cruelty, and apathy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about minor topics like politics, ethics, racism, and the unity of God, so I thought that the time really has come for me to address something of true moment: the burning question of whether Jews should or should not eat beans on Pesach. Nor am I alone in feeling this way about the matter: just last December, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly—the most authoritative body of halakhic decisors in our Conservative movement—found the time to approve not one but two different responsa regarding the subject, one by David Golinkin and the other co-authored by Amy Levin and Avram I. Reisner. I don’t know Amy Levin personally, but I’ve known Rabbis Golinkin and Reisner for far longer than I didn’t know them…and I know how seriously they both take even the most minute questions that arise in Jewish law. I imagine Rabbi Levin feels the same way. And so do I: knowing full well that God lives in the details and always eager to feel the presence of the living God in my personal ambit, it seems—to say the least—counterproductive to avoid the very place where God is to be found the most perceptibly: in the details, including the most minute ones, of observance, of custom, and of law. Furthermore, as we all know (but sometimes act as though we didn’t), it isn’t actually possible to obey “the” law without obeying specific laws any more than it would be possible to speak in “language” without speaking in some specific tongue…and doing that requires familiarity with the rules that govern even the most apparently banal aspects of our everyday Jewish lives. And with that thought in mind, let’s bring on the beans.

And the rice as well. My grandmother would probably not have known the Hebrew word kitniyot, used generically by some speakers of Jewish American English to reference legumes of the specific variety that Ashkenazic Jews traditionally shun on Pesach, but she certainly would have known that Jews don’t eat rice on Passover. Or, at the very least, that Ashkenazic Jews don’t. (I doubt my grandma was much tuned into the distinctions of observance between different groups within the people Israel—for her and the rest of my family, “Jews” of the generic variety were the Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazic sort in more than plentiful evidence in her day in Brownsville. That there were other groups out there with their own ways and customs would, I imagine, have been known to her only in theory.) Nor would she have questioned the concept of not eating beans or rice on Pesach or been particularly impressed by the argument that there is something profoundly illogical about avoiding foods on Pesach that lack the capability, no matter how they are processed, of turning into chametz, the forbidden kind of leavened product the avoidance of which is the hallmark of traditional Pesach observance. Why would she have? Jews have hardly ever found illogic in and of itself to constitute a particularly vexatious stumbling block on the road to Jerusalem: we are, after all, a people that finds the act of sitting quietly and sewing to violate our conception of Sabbath rest, but not taking a three-mile trek through an ice storm to arrive in shul on a wintery Shabbos morning. So it’s illogical to avoid kitniyot on Pesach! So what?

I read both t’shuvot, both responsa, with great interest. They are of unequal length—Rabbi Golinkin’s effort is three time the length of Rabbi Reisner and Rabbi Levin’s—but come more or less to the same conclusion. Let me write about their argumentation first, though, and then I’ll tell you about their common conclusion and what I plan personally to do about it.

First of all, everybody notes forcefully that, from a strictly legal standpoint, only five kinds of grain—wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye—are in play at all at Pesach. It is only from one of those five grains, for example, that kosher matzah can be made for use on the festival. And it is only those five grains that, if not kept totally dry and then baked within minutes of being wet down as part of the kneading process, can turn into chametz, the generic name for leavened foodstuffs forbidden to the Israelites and their descendants on Passover. The Yerushalmi (that is, the Palestinian Talmud created in the Land of Israel in the course of the first five or so centuries of the Common Era) imagines this notion to be rooted in science and explains that the rationale behind the ruling is thus one of simple fact: these are the only grains that possess the ability to become chametz and it is for that sole reason that the prohibition applies solely to them. Whether that is true or not hardly matters, but what does count is that this restriction of the prohibition to bread made of the above-mentioned five grains is not merely a feature of talmudic reasoning, faulty or not, but a basic tenet of Jewish law it applies to Passover that appears in every major law code, including Maimonides’ magisterial Mishneh Torah (from which I teach on Saturday afternoons at the meal we serve between Minchah and Maariv), the Arbaah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (whose Torah commentary usually inspires my remarks at Shelter Rock on Friday evenings), and the Shulḥan Arukh itself, the bridge work created by Joseph Caro from his earlier commentary on Jacob ben Asher’s code that serves as the connector between medieval and modern Jewish law. So the matter sounds done and decided. There is, at any rate, no actual opposition in any code with which I am familiar to the idea that those five grains only can become chametz.

But nothing is ever that simple. And already in medieval times, different authors wrote positively about the concept of prohibiting kitniyot as well as “real” chametz on Passover. All try to come up with logical reasons to support the prohibition. Some note that the point was simply utilitarian: it was customary in one author’s day to make porridge out of rice or beans and to mix in wheat flour as a thickening agent, and since there was no way to tell just from looking at the porridge if that was or wasn’t the case, the more secure plan seemed simply to avoid that kind of porridge entirely. Others point out that it was actually customary in some locales to make bread out of pea meal or ground beans or rice…and it simply felt unseemly to have bread on the table during Passover even if it wasn’t chametz in the strict sense of the word. 

There’s something to consider there too, I think: it’s true that the prohibition has to do with leavened grain and not with bread per se, but it’s also true that, in a world without cellophane and plastic wrap, and also without pre-printed ingredient labels and brand names, it sounds like a poor idea to permit breadstuffs that no one can distinguish easily from “real” bread of the forbidden variety. And even if it were possible to tell what kind of flour was used to make a loaf of bread merely by looking at it, there is still something unseemly, even perhaps vulgar, about placing loaves of bread on the table during Passover even if they technically aren’t of the prohibited variety.

And from there we can go on to other authorities who either do or don’t feel that the prohibition is well-grounded or useful, but who felt simply that as custom as well-established as the prohibition of kitniyot on Pesach cannot possibly be abrogated by one single rabbi but would have to be annulled, if it ever were to be, by the rabbinate of the day speaking as one. Since that never happened (nor, given the fractiousness and one-upmanship that characterizes rabbinic discourse in every setting and day, will it ever happen), we have no choice but to hold onto a widespread custom that has characterized Jewish life for centuries upon centuries.  That too sounds right to me.  Plus, we have a well-accepted and widely-invoked principle that minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu, that the customs of our ancestors have been entrusted to us for safekeeping, and may therefore not be abandoned merely because they seem to have outlived their usefulness.

In the other column, we have all the reasons adduced by the authors of the new CJLS responsa mentioned above for abandoning the prohibition anyway, none of which strikes me as particularly convincing. Yes, vegetarians eat a lot of beans and so the prohibition of kitniyot rests unevenly on the shoulders of observant Jewish people taken as an aggregate. And it is probably also true that permitting kitniyot would permit people—or at least people who like to cook and who are good at it—to avoid pre-packaged Passover foods often sold to the public in the weeks before the festival at unconscionably high prices. But do we really think that people who buy packages of pre-prepared Pesach lasagna are going to decide to forego the expense merely because they could make a fava bean casserole for themselves instead? What if they like lasagna?
Moving down the list of reasons to permit, I agree that it surely is a fact—and an incontrovertible one at that—that many who hold tightly onto this and many analogous prohibitions do so not out of principle or logic but merely out of a basic fear of innovation when matters are ritual are concerned. Surely, innovation is a good thing…and particularly when it is principled and based on unassailable logic. And yet…part of the whole Pesach experience is the sense of keeping faith with the past, of recreating the past in the present, of inviting the spirits of those long gone from this earth into our homes as we do as they did, as we recreate the world they knew from inside their homes without caring that the world outside the walls of those homes has changed almost unrecognizably in the intervening centuries.

And it’s that specific notion, that the outside changes endlessly, but the inside—the warm, nurturing, endlessly spiritually rich home life of the men and women of the House of Israel—remains inviolate and unchanging, that speaks the most clearly and compellingly to me. The bottom line, then, is that I find the arguments for abandoning the custom unconvincing and unpersuasive, and so I am not planning to eat beans or rice—or any kitniyot—this Pesach.

On the other hand, I am pleased to remind you it has never been our custom to avoid kitniyot derivatives like oil made from legumes nor to avoid eating on dishes on which kitniyot have been served. Nor would anyone at all conversant with the halakhah ever argue that people who eat kitniyot on Pesach are transgressing any sort of biblical or rabbinic commandment.  There is no question that kitniyot are irrationally prohibited by Ashkenazic custom. But I embrace my role as the descendant of my own ancestors and find myself strangely uninterested in breaking with their pattern of observance merely to suit my own convenience.

As noted, I will not be eating rice this Pesach. But neither will I pretend that this CJLS-approved responsum does not grant legitimacy to the arguments against retaining the prohibition. Many of my readers know that I tend to find the maintenance of traditional mores and habits to constitute its own reward. To have a home in which my own grandmother would not feel comfortable eating on Pesach does not suit me at all! And neither does the fact that all my ancestors, including my parent and grandparents, are long gone from this world seem that crucial a datum to consider in this regard. So they’re gone…that only makes it illogical to maintain their standard of observance, not foolish. And, as noted, I can live with a bit of illogic if that’s what it takes to keep faith with all those countless ancestors whose presence I feel weighing down on me at Yizkor and whom I really would like, were it only possible, to invite in for a meal…and particularly for a seder.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Tale of Two Jonathans

I wrote last week about the degree to which Donald Trump reminded me of Andrew Jackson when I heard him (Trump, not Jackson) speak at AIPAC a few weeks ago. Today, I’d like to further hone the skill of finding traces of the imagined future in the recollected past with respect to Jonathan Edwards, a far less well-known personality but in his own way just as pivotal a one. I hadn’t thought of him or read any of his work in a long time. And then something J.J. Goldberg, of all people, said at the rabbis’ luncheon at AIPAC rang a distant bell with me, one it took me a few days to identify correctly.

J. J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, is not someone who immediately brings eighteenth-century Congregationalist clerics to mind. Nor did his topic at the luncheon, at which he shared the podium with Bret Stephens, formerly the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post and now a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, have anything to do with theology per se, Jewish or Christian. Instead, this being an AIPAC forum, he chose to speak about the error he believes we all make in assuming that the relatively unimpressive level of support for Israel we see among today’s Jewish college students is a function of their displeasure with this or that one of Israel’s policies. (Goldberg was speaking about college students, but the problem is hardly a feature solely of campus life: the Jewish blogosphere has long been grappling with the same issue as it applies across the board more broadly to our American Jewish community in general, Elliot Abram’s essay, “If American Jews and Israel Are Drifting Apart, What’s the Reason?” published earlier this week in the online magazine Mosaic only being the latest in a long series of essays on the topic, albeit a particularly interesting and intelligent one. But there have been many others too, some insightful, some provocative, some too partisan to be useful to any who don’t already share their authors’ opinions. If you are reading this electronically, click here to see what Abram had to say.)

Goldberg, however, was talking about Jews on campus. And his sense is that the responsibility, or at least the lion’s share of it, for declining levels of support for Israel among our young people rests with the older generation, their parents, who somehow expected them magically to embrace Zionism but who failed to create the context in which that kind of bedrock-level, gut-based solidarity with Israel takes root and, if properly watered, flourishes naturally. In other words, we—and I speak here as a member of my own generation—we have forgotten that the soil in which Jewish identification—and a sense of solidarity with other Jewish people and particularly with the Land of Israel—the sole soil in which that kind of commitment to personal identity flourishes is Judaism itself. The annual AIPAC Policy Conference is the largest annual gathering of Jewish people outside of Israel. Eighteen thousand delegates attended this year, and more than ten thousand of them were there because they were part of synagogue delegations, which is to say that they were there because their sense of personal responsibility for securing the future of the Jewish State is related directly to their devotion to their faith and its rituals and its festivals. But when our children suddenly find themselves in the overtly hostile environments that prevail in so many of our college campuses, settings in which anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism flourish because the administrators of those schools are concerned with every conceivable kind of prejudice except the kind directed against Jews, they lack the basic orientation towards Judaism itself that leads directly, and almost inexorably, to a deeply felt sense of dedication and personal responsibility for Jews everywhere…but particularly in Israel, where the Jewish population is regularly threatened with annihilation by large, powerful enemies like Iran. (That dismal description of our nation’s college campuses, by the way, is hardly my own observation but comes directly from the pen of Lawrence H. Summers, the president emeritus of Harvard University, writing in a blog on the Washington Post website. Click here and prepare to be seriously depressed.)

Bret Stephens agreed with most of these points, but it was J.J. Goldberg that made the stronger impression, at least on me personally, but arguing the point that, if we have failed to create a generation of millennials who feel personally aggressed against when the State of Israel is attacked, it isn’t because of whom the Prime Minister is at the moment or his party affiliation or any of his policies, but rather because we’ve failed to raise up a generation of Jews committed, not to Zionism, but to Judaism itself. In other words, both speakers—both possessed of dynamic, insightful intellects—were in easy agreement that what we’ve failed to do is to make the whole issue personal, to make it clear to the up-and-coming generation that this is not about Israel but about them, that enemies of Israel are their personal enemies, that we fool ourselves when we embrace the fantasy that we can make common cause with our enemies and not eventually be their victims anyway, that our behavior when the historical link between the People Israel and the Land of Israel is questioned or mocked is not a matter of personal political orientation, but part of a cosmic drama that has been unfolding since Israel stood at Sinai and accepted the burden of an eternal covenantal relationship with God on its recently enslaved shoulders.

And that brings me to Jonathan Edwards. Perhaps you can remember learning about him in eleventh grade. Perhaps not. By today’s standard, he lived a short life—born in 1703 and ordained (like myself) at age 24, he was a working clergyman for most his life, then president of the school that would eventually be called Princeton University for about five weeks before he died in 1758—but his influence was so great in his day that the great religious revival of his day, called The First Great Awakening by scholars of religion, can reasonably be said to be a national response to his preaching and writing(Other central figures were George Whitefield and Samuel Davies. But Edwards is the one whose works are still read.)

His most famous sermon, published in his day as an independent pamphlet and later in many collections of his writings, was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” an elaborate midrash on the words le’eit tamut raglam (“their foot shall slip in due time”) taken from the Haazinu poem that appears in Deuteronomy almost at the very end of the Torah as Moses’s final effort to wax poetic before composing his final blessings and then climbing the mountain to his private death. It had been a while. I hadn’t really dipped into Edwards work since I read several of his sermons and his book the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue at Ramah Canada the summer I met Joan. But somehow it was the opening passage of that one sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that J.J. Goldberg’s remarks nevertheless awakened in me when I heard him speak at AIPAC.

Even though I doubt he could ever actually have met a Jewish person, Edwards begins by talking about the nature of the Jewish people. (The earliest mention of there being a Jew in Massachusetts, where Edwards lived for almost all of his adult life, dates back to 1649, but the first real Jewish communities in the Commonwealth were only established during the Revolutionary War decades after he died.) His understanding of Israel must therefore purely have been based on the Bible and on his intuitive sense of what it ever could mean to belong to God’s chosen people. On top of that, he obviously read his Scripture through the lens of Protestant Christianity. But he still got things pretty straight, particularly for someone of his time and place.

He begins by noting that the Jewish people, by virtue of the intimacy that inheres in its covenantal relationship with God, is always on the brink of destruction just “as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall.” (That is, after all, precisely what Scripture says in the verse Edwards chose as the title of his sermon.) Nor is this accidental or unearned: for Edwards, the natural situation of the Jewish people is precariousness itself. And then he moves forward with this idea that living on the edge of a sword is Israel’s natural condition, noting that Israel is “always exposed to sudden, unexpected destruction,” precisely because that kind of danger results from being the focus of God’s watchful gaze not unlike the way parents are always far more concerned with—and eager to respond to—their own children’s behavior than with other people’s. Nor will this precariousness always be the result of hostility on the part of others. Implied by the very nature of Jewishness is that the Jews “are liable to fall of themselves without being thrown down by the hand of another, just as he who walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down.”  In other words, Edwards understands Israel to stand or slip, to thrive or decline, to flourish or perish, not primarily because of the machinations of others, including even Israel’s most violent, angriest foes, but because of their own inability to hew to the core concepts of Israelite faith, to embrace the commandments, to live lives of unremitting fealty to the terms of the covenant that binds them to God.

It only follows, then, that to prepare our young people to feel as personally and emotionally committed to the security and well-being of the Jewish state as their parents will have to involve commitment not to the Prime Minister of Israel, whoever he or she might be at any given moment, or to some leftist or rightist philosophy of political Zionism, but to Jewishness itself…and particularly to Judaism. By missing that point—and by deluding ourselves into thinking that we can transmit Jewish values without anchoring them in religion—we do our children (and, by extension, their children and their children’s children) a huge disservice.

Edwards, preaching in church, clearly understood the ancient Israelites to the be spiritual forebears of his own co-religionists far more meaningfully than of the world’s actual Jewish people. That much he makes clear as he moves forward with his remarks and it is there that we part company: for me, nothing could possibly be more axiomatic than the notion that today’s Jews are the spiritual descendants of their own ancestors. But before we part company on that point, Edward’s lesson is compelling, even to the point of being chastening. The world’s nations will be judged based on the way they relate to Israel. Individual Israelites need to accept the precariousness that inheres in membership in the House of Israel as their normal situation, together with all that suggests about the “real” nature of anti-Semitism. It is not possible to go to war with Israel without concomitantly going to war with the God of Israel…and any who forget that do so at their own peril. And that the ultimate weapon Jewish people have to protect themselves and their interests is to embrace the faith of their ancestors with all possible exactitude.

J.J. Goldberg said something like that at AIPAC and it inspired me to hear him say it. That it somehow brought to mind the words of a Puritan minister who lived more than 250 years ago probably says more about me than about either of these Jonathans, Goldberg or Edwards. But the notion that the way to secure future support for the State of Israel among the college-age offspring of the men and women of the House of Israel is to strengthen their commitment to Judaism itself—that notion resonates strongly with me and reminds me why it is I chose this particular path in life that I pursue…and why, even after all these years, I continue to think of my life in the pulpit as the m’lekhet ha-kodesh—the holy work—to which I was and continue to feel called personally.