Disillusionment

Some cultural aspects of Orthodox Judaism require a lot of explanation, which makes them challenging to write about with accuracy and general appeal both. Also, I am no authority on this subject and am sure to miss some pertinent points in any explanation that I offer.

Nevertheless, I want to try, to the best of my ability, to describe some of the historic developments behind a particular facet of Orthodox Judaism: the tendency of the vast majority of today’s Orthodox rabbis to make religiously conservative rulings on matters of halakhah (Jewish law). These include:

I also want to touch upon a related subject that is very personal to me: the minority of modern day Orthodox halakhic authorities who tend to make religiously liberal rulings.

I will attempt to paint this composition in broad strokes, but even so I will have to cover much more canvas that I prefer.

* * *

Setting the stage:
The Mishnah & Talmud

Let’s set the stage somewhat for the Jewishly uninitiated.

Jewish Orthodoxy operates under a few fundamental premises. First and foremost, there exists a single omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. This God personally gave the Torah to the Jewish people some three thousand years ago, which is ostensibly the basis for all Jewish religious laws that developed throughout the subsequent centuries.

Secondly, according to mainstream doctrine, the Torah given by God was not limited to merely the Pentateuch, which is traditionally known as the ‘Written Torah’. God’s Torah also includes what is popularly called the ‘Oral Torah’, which was intended to never be written down – a tradition to be passed down orally from generation to generation. The ‘Oral Torah’ is considered to be as authoritative as the ‘Written Torah’.

As human history had it, the ‘Oral Torah’ ceased being oral when Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (Judea, ~135 to ~217 CE) compiled and redacted the six orders of the Mishnah some time around 200 CE. This was done to preserve the ‘Oral Torah’ in the face of persecution at Roman hands. The rabbis feared that the oral traditions from the 2nd Temple period would be lost, and so the Mishnah thus became the authoritative source for all developments in ‘Oral Torah’. Following this, the next major, authoritative written work of ‘Oral Torah’ became the Babylonian Talmud, written and compiled in exile at around 500 CE.

The Talmud, which expounded upon the Mishnah, became the primary religious text upon which further works of Halakhah (Jewish law) were anchored, and it remains so to this day. Certain Halakhic codes of the medieval period are widely held as particularly authoritative to this day, but these differ among different Orthodox Jewish communities (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yemenite).

It’s important to understand that while nobody denies that the Mishnah and the Talmud were written by humans, Orthodox doctrine maintains that these are part of an unbroken chain of transmission (from teacher to student) of the Divine ‘Oral Torah’, which is intended as an interpretive tradition. Accordingly, God’s Torah contains many levels of interpretation, and later generations of Torah scholars have been left to discover those that have not yet been revealed.

* * *

Fast forward to early modernity:
Jewish Emancipation in Europe

There exist real distinctions between the way most modern day Orthodox rabbis tend to make halakhic rulings versus how this was done for many centuries. Why?

It’s important to understand that before the Jewish Emancipation, during the Age of Enlightenment, the non-Orthodox movements (precursors to today’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, etc.) did not exist. Nor did Orthodox Judaism exist, as the precursors to both ultra-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy were also born during that era. These distinct approaches to Judaism all came about as modern religious responses to the European Jews’ historic abandonment of their ghettos and integration into 18th and 19th century gentile society.

The Emancipation and the resulting births of these Jewish religious denominations had at least two major ramifications upon rabbis’ religious approaches.

Firstly, Jews were no longer living in insular Jewish communities under local religious leaders. Following the Emancipation, rabbis could only exert religious authority over those who accepted it from them. Previous to that period, one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion. Afterwards, identifying as a Jew became a matter of choice, with assimilation offering the Jews great social and economic benefits. Rabbis had to become convincing or become irrelevant.

Secondly, the newly born heterodox and Orthodox denominations locked horns in endless religious and political battles for the future of Judaism’s soul, thereby shaping their respective positions and practices. Heterodox Jews deliberately wanted to be identified primarily as Europeans (‘not Orthodox’) in order to integrate into gentile Europe while maintaining elements of their Jewish identities.

Inversely, Orthodox communities were deliberate in rejecting “illegitimate” heterodox religious practices, which they considered outside the traditional framework of ‘Oral Torah’. Neither group wanted to validate the other, and therefore, at least in part, each came to be defined by its rejection of the other.

Both of these factors hold true today, but further, more recent historic changes transpired that also deeply influenced the dynamics behind modern rabbinic rulemaking, as well as the relationships between rabbis and the Jewish laity.

* * *

More recently…
The Holocaust

For the purposes of this particular post, I want to make one very particular point about the implications of the decimation of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis: that murder of six million Jews was no less than the complete destruction of the vast majority of Orthodox communities in Europe, along with their respective religious traditions.

Thus, for example, whereas the laity of Europe’s Litvishe (non-Hasidic Orthodox) Jewish communities once maintained their kosher kitchens without having to consult their rabbis over every little nuance, those ageless family traditions that had been passed down from mothers to their daughters through the many generations, were erased. Beyond this, the vast majority of religiously literate European Jews (who could navigate the Talmud and the Mishnah) were forever lost to us.

In short, after the Holocaust came to its gruesome end, Jews who wished to live according to Halakhah were almost entirely reliant upon rabbis for religious rulings pertaining to their daily lives, as their families’ traditions had been murdered, along with their parents, grandparents, and most of learned European Jewry.

* * *

Even more recently…
The Internet

Historically speaking, halakhic rulings were made locally. These included rulings on Jewish conversions (a particularly touchy political subject today), but they essentially covered all areas of Jewish communal, family and personal life.

For centuries, local rabbis issued religious rulings according to the realities and needs of their respective communities and of the individuals who came to them for religious guidance. Their rulings would account for the nuances of situations that went beyond the prescriptions of popularly accepted halakhic codes, sometimes even ruling against the codes’ instructions; but the local decisor’s’ wisdom, learning, and authority was accepted, respected, and implemented by his community.

Certainly, rabbis of different communities had disputes about their respective religious rulings and communities’ ways of practice; and many such disagreements were recorded and preserved in pieces of correspondence between scholars. Nevertheless, nobody would have thought to say that one rabbi’s rulings were illegitimate – every single rabbi was considered a link in the chain of Jewish interpretive oral tradition.

Then came the Jewish Emancipation, as mentioned, and that historic paradigm shift began to unfold. Given the newfound mobility of European Jewry, its members could select the rabbis and communities that most suited their personal preferences, and Orthodox rabbis found themselves judged, in part, by their stances towards non-Orthodox Judaism and gentile society.

Hardline religious stances in the Orthodox Jewish community came to carry an air of ‘authenticity’, which later gained further traction after the devastation of the Holocaust when those wishing to abide by Halakhah were left reliant upon religious leaders intent upon rebuilding a traditional, Torah-based Jewish society.

Broadly speaking, Orthodox rabbinic leaders gradually succeeded at refounding Orthodoxy following the Holocaust, and, in a lot of ways, it came to thrive as a counterculture in the increasingly permissive West. However, rabbis continued to be judged by the laity and by other rabbis on the basis of their ‘commitments’ to ‘authentic’ Torah (juxtaposed with modernity, secularism, and non-Orthodoxy), and much of the shell-shocked post-war Orthodox community was distrustful of non-Jewish cultural influences.

Then, some decades later, with the advent and eventual global adoption of the Internet, nearly limitless information became instantly available to everybody. This included news of rabbinical rulings, the majority of which had been becoming increasingly monolithic in the decades following the Holocaust. Most Orthodox rabbis that wanted to keep their jobs had to toe the majority’s line, else the global Orthodox community would learn of their ‘heresies’ (I invoke this word with irony), and they would face immediate backlash.

* * *

Too long; not long enough

This post is both too long and not long enough, but I did my best, given the medium, to fill in large sections of the picture. In truth, there are many more factors that I haven’t touched upon, such as:

  • The power dynamic at play between the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel and Orthodoxy in the diaspora…
  • The politics at play between rabbinical associations representing the various religious denominations…
  • The implications of traditional Jewish texts becoming available, often with accessible translations, via the Internet…

* * *

My eventual disillusionment with Torah and rabbis in general

I used to peripherally occupy and aspire to a particular Jewish space, which was that of modern-minded, intellectually honest Orthodoxy. My community was committed to religious observance, traditional Jewish text study, open channels of communications with those who held differing views, and the modern sensibilities of civil rights and human dignity.

Broadly speaking, we were, as a group, turned off to the kneejerk restrictive religious rulings representative of the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis. This became increasingly true as we poured through Halakhic texts together, learning that lenient positions existed within Jewish tradition, and realizing that many mainstream Orthodox religious rulings and social norms are not required by Jewish law.

Unfortunately for me, as I developed close relationships with some intellectual, religiously lenient rabbis, I found that a good number of them were also prone to issuing kneejerk religious rulings, which were flexible, rather than restrictive.

I came to understand that intellectual religious leaders could justify nearly any interpretation of Torah, meaning that they were ultimately playing with traditional Jewish texts to provide religious bases for their personal sensibilities. For these Orthodox rabbis who sincerely consider themselves links in the chain of interpretative Jewish oral tradition, their rulings are as legitimate as those of any other intellectual, knowledgeable Torah scholar… I am not doubting their intentions or commitments to God and the Jewish people, but I have come to profoundly doubt the Divine essence, root, and purpose of the system that all of these rabbis are committed to.

If Torah can be nearly anything, then what is Torah? And – if Torah reflects the restrictive majority’s views, then what is Torah to me?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 42

Eleven months of kaddish recitations end for me on May 28 (Iyyar 23); I have been at the grind for ten months (10 ÷ 11 ≈ 91%). The grief is unabating. I remain shattered and scattered.

Last summer, I couldn’t bring myself to pour my endless despair out upon anyone. Having returned home to Jerusalem in July from sitting shiva in America, I instinctively reached out to my rabbi, but…

“May I see you? I am back,” in mid-July I e-mailed Rabbi Landes.
“Sure, when?” he responded two minutes later.
Suddenly, the simplest of questions had no answer.
When?
All the time.
The following morning I wrote again:

I actually don’t quite know – I really want to see you, but I think I need a few more days to get back into my routine and begin to deal with work and parenthood again.
I’ve been going to minyan to say kaddish – that’s a big change for me. I’ll be in touch with you again – thank you for everything.

Three weeks went by.

I published my first blog post thirty days after burying Papa.

Unexpectedly, I felt something click other than my mouse button. Ten days later I published #2, drawn to the modest refuge I’d found before in the craggy crannies between words and letters.

* * *

This Pesach I had too much time with my thoughts, and darkness wormed in through the defenses of my flimsy redoubt. Actually, the walls had already started to crack at least one week earlier, during a Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (VMK) call, a project initiated by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie.

During our family’s holiday break last week, I was talking to my wife about the perpetual sense of isolation I experience among non-mourners and the unanticipated, visceral relief of that one VMK call. Our four-year-old daughter was trying to follow our conversation and inquired as to what we were talking about.

“Abba’chka is saying that he misses Dedushka Shurik very much.”
“Why?”
(she asks this about everything)
“Because he is my father and your grandfather; and I love him; but we’ll never see him again.”
“I know that;” she responded knowingly, “but he’ll always be in your heart.” (she’d absorbed this insight from her Mama’s font of wisdom)

* * *

VMK – context, concept

Renowned Israeli diplomat and holocaust survivor Naphtali Lau-Lavie (1926-2014) left behind two sons, both rabbis. Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961), the older son, is an Orthodox rabbi and community leader in Jerusalem. Upon completing his kaddish odyssey in honor of their father, Rav Lau wrote and recited an original prayer to mark the end of his journey (blog #20). A newly fashioned prayer in the religiously circumspect world of Orthodoxy is no small thing, yet his words continue to flow from mourners’ lips.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie (b. 1969), the younger brother, inhabits a Jewish society in the USA much different than that of his Israeli Orthodox family. Ordained as a Conservative rabbi, he had been a creative, non-Orthodox spiritual leader long before then; and he continues to operate beyond the bounds of denominationalism. Upon the death of their father, Rav Lau-Lavie initiated the weekly VMK conference call, and to this day, he or a staff person is on the phone every single week to support an intentional, international community of Jewish mourners.

My own kaddish journey led me first to Rav Benny’s original mourning prayer and eventually, perhaps inevitably, to Rav Amichai’s boundaryless VMK.

* * *

VMK – experience, expression

It wasn’t until February that I discovered the VMK by way of my endless kaddish excavations, and it wasn’t until mid-April that I was able to join the weekly conference call (every Thursday at 12:00 PM EST).

I dialed the phone number a couple of minutes before schedule and waited. Silence. Then the beeps began. A woman’s voice came on. “Hello, this is Shira from Lab/Shul. Welcome to the VMK call. Could each of you introduce yourself and say where you’re calling from?”

The names are rather a blur, but callers seemed to be phoning in from Canada and throughout the USA. “I’m from Jerusalem,” I said. “Wow,” she responded, “what’s the weather like?” Upon hearing my response, a gentleman in Toronto shared, “It’s snowing here;” and I laughed aloud at the contrast.

Pent up energy brought me to my feet, and I paced the hallway as I listened. Somebody else introduced himself and explained, “I’m not in mourning right now, but I’m calling to help make minyan for kaddish.” A lump rose to my throat and I noticed my mouth twisting in the nearby mirror. “Thank you,” said Shira, “I’m keeping count, and I’m sure more people will be joining us during the call.”

Shira softly shared some thoughts on the theme of Pesach and the symbolism of water in the festival. “With Passover so soon upon us, as our preparations for the holiday get underway, we often feel the absences of our loved ones all the more poignantly,” she observed. “Would anybody like to share something that is coming up for them this season? A memory or reflection?”

There were no interruptions during the call. Heartbeats elapsed as participants made time for one another to speak, punctuated only by occasional beeps as additional mourners joined our circle. Only four (or five) of us shared stories; the rest seemed content to listen quietly.

Finally the time came to end our call. “Thank you all so much,” said Shira. “We will now recite the kaddish together. Please feel free to share the names of your loved ones with us before the recitation.” Then, some of us more hesitantly than others, we spoke the names of those we’d lost. “Alexander ben Mosheh;” I felt my tongue render, “my Papa.”

Even at the end, during the recitation of mourner’s kaddish, only several of our voices were audible. Most had joined the call only to listen.

Only to listen

My energized pacing had continued ceaselessly throughout the call, driven by the springing of a densely coiled tension. I could feel my heart unclench, as the clasps of my reservations undid themselves.

In that impermanent VMK circle, the full weight of one’s mourning was expected and accepted; and grief found itself a more expansive canvas. Jointly, intentionally, we provided and received together – mutual human deliverance.

For all of my praying, my reading, my writing, I still have need of others to relate to me.

* * *

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, it is not for me to recount the heroism and accomplishments of Naphtali Lau-Lavie, for I have nothing to share but my naked amazement at this Israeli statesman who arose from the ashes of the Buchenwald concentration camp and succeeded at saving himself and his then eight-year-old brother who later became the Chief Rabbi of Israel. (see: Rav Benny’s beautiful tribute, which scrapes the surface of his father’s story.)

What I would, ever so humbly, like to share is that Naphtali Lau-Lavie left behind him a legacy in both of his sons that has touched my Jewish soul, and I am so so thankful for their combined inspiration and soulful creativity. Following is a snippet of Rav Benny’s tribute to his father, which moved me in particular:

The liberation from Buchenwald caught him at a crossroads. A young man, 19 years old, without parents, and tied to an 8 year-old boy…

For two weeks, my father… chose to suspend his relationship with the Master of the Universe. One morning, he received a note in Hebrew that said:

‘You must say Kaddish because your mother is no longer alive. She died in Ravensbrück.’

That is the moment when my father made the decision. No matter what may be going through your head, you do not abandon the tradition of your mother and father’s home.

That is how this great man found the strength of spirit to… reach a Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

* * *

In my mid-twenties I taught seventh grade Holocaust studies at the Hebrew school of my childhood while attending graduate school, and I absorbed and learned more about the Shoah in preparing for those classes than I’d ever assimilated as a teen. I also became more vulnerable in those years to the effects of my imagination upon my learning, not unlike the impact of my kaddish odyssey this year.

Sometimes I rise alone to recite kaddish, and sometimes I stand with many others, but always the voices of generations join with mine. On Yom HaShoah, during this, my year of mourning for my father, my mourner’s kaddish will be both personal and in honor of all the Jewish martyrs. I will recite in memory of and love for Papa, and I will recite for all who were lost to us at the hands of the Nazi genocide machine.

My ruminations recall a beautiful encapsulation of this kaddish dichotomy by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst from his book Kaddish: The Unanswered Cry (p. 7), and with this I leave you:

The Kaddish is a prayer whose utterance reflects the saga of the Jewish nation as a whole as well as the depths of emotion of the lonely Jew of faith. How powerful is the image of the Jews of the Kovno Ghetto reciting in one voice the Kaddish for their beloved, the 10,000 innocent martyrs killed by the Nazis only days before. No less moving is the image of the young orphan arising in the midst of a crowded synagogue, striving to maintain a link with his parents and the past through the Kaddish.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 27

I am better rested.

In my wife’s and daughter’s absence this week, I’ve permitted myself to sleep in. Instead of my regular 6:30 shacharit minyan, I’ve taken to attending the 8:30 minyan at a different shul. Two additional hours of daily sleep have been delicious.

I’ve also had more time to simply sit, think, and feel.

* * *

THE JOKE THAT MADE ME CRY

Several evenings ago, I was watching a performance (1.25 hrs) by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, whom I’d just discovered; and I was laughing boisterously. (Maniscalco occasionally punctuates his jokes with crass language, but his humor is safe for work.)

Half an hour into the set, Maniscalco made a joke about tattoos. He portrays an imaginary man’s emotional attachment to the tattoo of a snake head on his bicep. It represents the death of his father. The punchline went: “What the hell are you doing to yourself? What, did you forget he died?” And then I was sobbing.

Because sometimes I forget that my father died.

* * *

All is darker than before.

When we grieve, we face realities: Life is fragile, fate is unpredictable; horrors are everywhere. God will neither reward nor punish in this world. One must acknowledge this reality in order to become an adult who can pray as an adult.

– Rabbi Barbara Thiede, Kaddish, p. 168

Perhaps for the first time, I am praying as an adult. I harbor no illusions about the efficacy of prayer or the purposelessness of suffering. The supernatural remains impenetrable to us; but today’s rabbis somehow or other continue treating congregants with capsules of comfort coated in cloying compounds of credence and custom (complete crap).

The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake. I never liked this statement… since it finds a religious utility for faithlessness, and thereby steals the thunder from belief and unbelief.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 322

My unbelief is thunderous, drowning out the faithful; but I have adopted their restrained form, alive in the resulting tension. It’s the discomfort that sparks my thinking, you see, and lends meaning to my process. Tradition may compel for nontraditional reasons, but the rabbis are more invested in its inertia.

Present-day rabbis must be honest, though it may hurt. They cannot afford to alienate future generations by channeling Tevye the Dairyman: it will not do to insist on what is ritually expected simply because it is known.

– Rabbi Barbara Thiede, Kaddish, p. 167

True, I launched my kaddish odyssey because I’d long heard tales of this ancient route; but it would seem that my ship’s sails only billow with the winds of self-discovery. Certainly, I am taking the risk of being blown off of the time-tested course; but I have not yet missed a single day of kaddish. Most importantly, every day is an adventure.

* * *

If you know me only through my blog posts, you might conclude that I think about my father all the time; but I am writing, in part, to remind myself of him. After all, the recitation of kaddish does not, in and of itself, bring Papa to my mind. It is a practice, like so many others, with which he had no connection.

I catch myself thinking that kaddish may be more meaningful for my daughter and future children. It will retain its traditional force of inertia, but it may also remind them of me. It is something that I have chosen, something that I am investing with meaning.

Several people have recently suggested to me that I am leaving behind something special for future generations in this kaddish series. Somehow, I had not initially considered that. From the very beginning, this has been a very self-centered project; I am writing as a form of therapy. I am writing because I am good at it, because it clarifies my thoughts and shapes my experience of reality. Sometimes, the meaning behind my words is aspirational; my public process keeps me honest.

Still, I do like the idea of this as a family memoir. I would like my daughter to know that my father’s father (Moisey) was from Yanov, where his father served as the ‘crown rabbi.’ My father’s mother (Ida) was from Shpola; her parents and younger brother were murdered by the Nazis along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population while she was away, serving as a doctor in the Soviet army.

Some day, I would like my daughter to wonder and imagine, as I do, what it was that happened to my father in his mid-20’s in Soviet Moscow. He was a brilliant mind, a handsome and fit young man, a successful student, and a contented Soviet cosmopolitan with very close non-Jewish friends. Then, unexpectedly, in his mid-20’s, he ventured forth on a path of self-discovery and started studying Hebrew with local Soviet dissidents, leading him to reevaluate all that he’d once held as true about the Soviet Union. Ultimately, this led to his Aliyah and my birth in the State of Israel. Though he lived in America for more than half of his life (37 years), not a day went by that he didn’t ache for his Jewish homeland.

He was profoundly principled and kind, always driven by the purest of intentions. While very sophisticated, he also had a very crass sense of humor and many of his most common expressions were quite inappropriate. In fact, I recall him saying (on more than one occasion) that I should know how to curse in Russian. Papa was also an intellectual and read endless books on sundry subjects; and he published a massive educational mathematics website, which he developed and maintained for more than twenty years. When he passed away, countless students of mathematics from the world over expressed their devastation and condolences.

Papa used to say that he couldn’t cry anymore; that he hadn’t cried for more years than he could remember; that tears simply wouldn’t come. Me? I cry for my father – but only in the absence of my nearly four-year-old daughter.