Ethical will: Truth

Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.

Yes, we must listen to one another earnestly, but why don’t we?

Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?

We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.

Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.


Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.

The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.

What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?


According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):

מִדְּבַר-שֶׁקֶר, תִּרְחָק; וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל-תַּהֲרֹג, כִּי לֹא-אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked.

Taking a different tack, the Book of Proverbs (a later book of the Hebrew Bible) provides practical counsel on the matter, rather than commanding us (12:19):

שְׂפַת-אֱמֶת, תִּכּוֹן לָעַד; וְעַד-אַרְגִּיעָה, לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.

As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):

… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו… … and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…

I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:

People of decency
ought to strive for truth.


But – are there limits? There must be some, right?

The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged, arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):

תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.

Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):

יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן? 12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’
יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי? 13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?

Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):

וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי: R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.

It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.


My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.

In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.

Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.

I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?

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?

I wanted to be a rabbi

It was during college that I first considered the notion of studying to become a rabbi. I was an awful engineering student and apathetic about my studies. Clearly, my greatest passion in those years lay in community building and learning about Judaism. After four years, I graduated with an engineering degree, poor grades, and no ambition to find work as an engineer.

I could have pursued the rabbinate at that point, but I didn’t.

What if my eagerness was merely directionless floundering? What if I was only grasping at straws? What if mine was nothing more than a youthful fantasy born of desperation?

Four years later, I had earned a graduate degree in public policy and moved to Washington, DC as a contractor at the Department of Energy. During my interview for that position, I was asked to speak at length about my graduate research, leading me to believe that my work at the DOE would be equally stimulating. Unfortunately, several months later, enveloped on all sides by the inflamed bowel linings of the US government, I knew with certainty that it would be nothing of the sort.

Meanwhile, I had made my kitchen kosher as soon as I moved into my own apartment in DC and enthusiastically started hosting weekly Shabbat meals. I quickly became active in two different Jewish communities, and my dearest friends in Washington were among those who attended a lay-led, local Torah study program with me every week.

Through members of my extended Jewish community, I learned of an institute in Jerusalem that offered an intensive, yearlong text study program for Jews of all persuasions. My weekly, hour-long learning was meaningful and empowering, but more than anything else it whetted my appetite for deeper understanding of Torah, Talmud, and other classic Jewish sources. At nearly thirty, I was still sloshing about in tradition’s shallows.

After three years in Washington, DC, I decided to quit everything and move to Israel for a year of learning. I could still become a rabbi, I thought. It wasn’t too late for me.

During my first year of study in Jerusalem, I surfed waves of boundless enthusiasm over the sea1 of the Talmud. I knew that I would be staying for another year long before it came time to fill out the application form; and I preemptively met with representatives of a suitable rabbinical school in America. I was on track.

* * *

Then, during my second year in Israel I started dating my wife and decided to remain permanently in Israel. (a story for another time)

This decision derailed me.

Israel, you see, is where rabbis from around the world dream of retiring to. They serve their congregations, teach at their various schools and institutions, and perform life cycle events for the members of their communities. Then, ever so nostalgically and with due pride, they hand their reins to the younger generations of Jewish leadership and move to the Holy Land.

Due to the sheer number of rabbis in Israel, it is nearly impossible for the vast majority of religious leaders to sustain themselves here as Jewish professionals. Rabbinical students come here to learn, perhaps even to be ordained, and then they move away to build their careers. Those who move here before retirement knowingly give up their rabbinic careers and seek other prospects.

For several years following my decision, I continued studying, profoundly struggling to accept reality, but the truth was unbendable. I couldn’t have it all. I had given up my entire life in America to pursue the rabbinate, only to give up the rabbinate for Israel. I struggle to find words to describe my inner turmoil during that period of my life.

By coincidence, I was actually offered a plum job as a Jewish educator shortly after my daughter was born, which would have required me to travel regularly to Europe to work with young, Russian-speaking Jews. Painfully, I turned it down. Before Israel, before fatherhood, it would have been a dream for me, but I couldn’t be away from my family for nearly half of the year, including most Jewish holidays.

* * *

After reading my blog post ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, my brother asked me if I had any regrets about pursuing Jewish studies in my early thirties. “You at least learned a bunch.”

“No,” I responded, “I wish I had immediately started studying Judaism after college and become a rabbi at a young age.”

* * *

Footnote

Shir haShirim (The Song of Songs) contains the following verse, in which a lover is describing her beloved (5:14):

יָדָיו גְּלִילֵי זָהָב, מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ; מֵעָיו עֶשֶׁת שֵׁן, מְעֻלֶּפֶת סַפִּירִים. His hands are like rods of gold set with beryl; his body is like polished ivory overlaid with sapphires.

In Shir haShirim Rabbah, an aggadic midrash on Song of Songs, the author expounds upon this verse, offering an interpretation. He writes, in part:

מַה גַּלִּים הַלָּלוּ בֵּין גַּל גָּדוֹל לְגַל גָּדוֹל גַּלִּים קְטַנִּים, כָּךְ בֵּין כָּל דִּבּוּר וְדִבּוּר פָּרָשִׁיּוֹתֶיהָ וְדִקְדּוּקֶיהָ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה הָיוּ כְּתוּבִים. מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ, זֶה הַתַּלְמוּד, שֶׁהוּא כַּיָּם הַגָּדוֹל, הֲדָא דְאַתְּ אָמַר (יונה א, ג): תַּרְשִׁישָׁה, הֲדָא מַה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (קהלת א, ז): כָּל הַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים אֶל הַיָּם. What are these ‘waves’ (galim)? Between all the big waves, there are small waves, and so too between all the sayings, the sections and the nuances of the Torah were written. ‘מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ’ (‘m’mulayim ba’tarshish’) refers to the Talmud, for it is like a great sea; so you say (Jonah 1:3): ‘תַּרְשִׁישָׁה’ (‘Tarshishah’); so you say (Ecclesiastes 1:7): ‘All the rivers run into the sea’.

This is classic midrash, in that the author deliberately reinterprets several words from the verse in Song of Songs in order to make his case, which is that the Talmud is like the sea:

  • The ancient Hebrew word ‘galim’ in the Song of Songs is generally translated as ‘rods’ in that specific context, but this same word can mean ‘waves’.
  • The ancient Hebrew word ‘tarshish’ is generally understood to mean ‘beryl’, but it is also the name of the kingdom that God commanded the prophet Jonah to visit.
    • And – since Jonah traveled to ‘Tarshish’ first in a boat and then in the belly of a fish (i.e. through the sea), the author understands this to suggest that the verse in Song of Songs is referring to the ‘sea’, as described in Ecclesiastes.

So – in case you were wondering – the Talmud is often compared to the sea.

QED?

My lack of reverence

I used to have reverence for rabbis, but I barely remember it.

Last night I was at a wonderful rooftop get-together for a friend of mine (‘C5’) who just recently made Aliyah (repatriated to Israel as a Jew). It was lovely, particularly for me because I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter recently and needed some space. Chips, beer, and engaging conversation reenergized me.

This friend was a member of my Talmud class last year, as was another friend (‘A5’) who attended the celebration. Both of these friends plan to continue studying Talmud under the young rabbi this coming year, unlike me. They’re both very religious and religiously-oriented… and SO [damned] respectful.

My young rabbi friend (our Talmud teacher) joined us on the roof later in the evening, and suddenly my friends’ and another young woman’s tones changed.

Should I cover my shoulders? I didn’t know that you had invited a rabbi.
Is it okay that we’re drinking?
Oh no… do you think he’ll be offended that I’m wearing pants tonight? I left my skirt at home!

I was startled. Really? He’s our age – a really cool guy and a friend of ours. Don’t worry about it guys, seriously!

Then, seemingly somewhat inebriated, ‘C5’ asked the young rabbi some serious questions about sexuality vis-à-vis rabbinic sensibilities and proceeded to share a brief reflection of his regarding his appreciation for the depths of the young rabbi’s humanity, open-mindedness, and inspirational teachings. ‘A5’, who was sober, also shared some very personal thoughts and nodded in agreement to ‘C5’s words. It was sweet and unexpected.

* * *

There was a time, certainly less than ten years ago, when I would turn humbly to rabbis for direction – a time when I specifically desired to hear learned rabbinic perspectives – a time when the words of Torah scholars carried more weight than those of the laity – a time when I was apprehensive of their answers but yearned for their affirmations.

And now that is all gone. No reverence remains in me.

I barely believe in a God who cares about my actions. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that rabbis are any wiser about the nuances of human nature than other learned, experienced people. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe that there is anything worth believing in that we cannot perceive in our daily, earthly lives. Barely, barely, barely, if at all. I barely believe in anything.

And while there are many reasons that I’ve decided not to continue with the young rabbi’s Talmud class, one reason is that I am repelled by various faith statements that I heard in the shiur. It’s nice that other people believe, truly, but one may keep it to one’s self unless somebody engages them in a conversation about religious beliefs.

I believe that reciting the Book of Psalms does nothing at all for your mother-in-law’s health; sharing your dubious religious convictions alienates me. Further, I don’t want blessings on my behalf after we’ve eaten cookies. I don’t want traditional statements of intent on my behalf before we engage in Talmud study. It’s all sheer bunk, I maintain, and believing in it doesn’t imbue one with holiness, wisdom, righteousness, or truth; and- such nonsense only distracts me from serious Torah study.

I do respect the young rabbi greatly – as much as I would any other seriously committed and capable professional in any line of work. Also, I consider him a close friend, greatly enjoy spending time with him, and would go out of my way for him without a moment’s hesitancy. But. I don’t revere him. And. I don’t revere what he stands for.

Also, I must add that I have studied Talmud with a number of learned and amazing instructors… and no theological assertions were ever woven into any of my previous classes. They are, at minimum, not necessary.

* * *

Next year I will instead be taking a class on theology with Rabbi Daniel Landes. I rather enjoy discussions about God and the supernatural when I deliberately choose to engage in them – and when there is room for me to inject my doubts and reservations into our classroom discussions.

Ethical will

I finally began writing my ethical will last week.

Oof. This is hard for so many reasons, the first of which is that I have hardly lived up to my personal ideals by any stretch of the imagination. Secondly, most people who seriously engage in writing ethical wills for their descendants have children with children of their own, whereas I am only a father with one young child – clearly, no sagacious elder. In addition to flipping my humility switch, this endeavor leaves something of a morbid taste in my mouth. I’m not expecting to die any time soon, but life has schooled me: you never know.

* * *

During my year of reciting kaddish for Papa, I was introduced to the concept of an ethical will, and it spoke to me because much of what I continue to recall and appreciate about Papa was his character.

[Papa] was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.

– Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #45, May 30, 2019

He was brilliant, of course, and I remember that too, but I cannot capture his genius, nor convey it to those who never knew him. His website, I suppose, is the best remaining evidence of his mind, and his book of probability riddles will be coming out in the not too distant future – with a foreword written by his friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame.

* * *

Before I launched this website, I had been in the process of thinking through the idea of writing of a ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ book, and my vision for such included an ethical will, which would be informed by my memories of Papa.

More than that, I was hoping to derive my list of ‘ethics’ from the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ itself. In other words, I wanted my ethical will to parallel my year-long kaddish journey, thereby rendering the two a single, seamless product. Every post of my original ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ included some recollections of Papa, as well as my personal reflections upon tradition, theology, family, parenting, childhood, or memorialization, etc.

However, I hit two primary stumbling blocks. First, while every blog post did contain ethical content, there was a great deal of thematic overlap between my posts. Secondly, my process of writing the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ on a near-weekly basis had been organic in that I had blogged all year about whatever I was experiencing, thinking, reading, and remembering. However, forcing those existing blog posts in their chronological order upon my list of personal ethics left me very little room for creativity or spontaneity. In attempting to write my ethical will that way, I couldn’t find my voice.

* * *

Last year, I was taking a Talmud class, which focused upon the religious laws governing the Jewish Sabbath. In the tractate on Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud struggled to come up with a comprehensive list of 39 categories of work that are prohibited on the Sabbath.

Why 39, you ask?

Because that’s the number of categorical Sabbath prohibitions listed in the Mishnah, which is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the Oral Torah. It was redacted at the beginning of the 3rd century CE in Israel, whereas the Babylonian Talmud was completed later, by the end of the 5th century CE in exile.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived earlier than the rabbis of the Talmud, thus being in closer proximity to the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, so their teachings were held as authoritative by the rabbis of the Talmud. Hence, if the Mishnah asserted that there were exactly ‘forty minus one’ categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, the Talmud could do nothing but accept that count.

Suffice it to say that the rabbis of the Talmud performed all sorts of mental gymnastics to apply the Mishnah’s list of 39 prohibitions to the realities of their own times, hundreds of years later and no longer residing in the Land of Israel. In fact, while the Talmud ultimately managed to hew to the all-important ‘forty minus one’, their final list was slightly different than the Mishnah’s had been.

If the rabbis of the Talmud hadn’t been fettered to the Mishnah’s ’39’, who knows what their final list of categories would have looked like?

* * *

And… so…

I gave up on my concept. Perhaps a more talented or cleverer writer could extrapolate and articulate a list of values from my series of 51 kaddish blog posts, but I am not that person.

After writing several months’ worth of reflections in my blog and returning to poetry after a decades-long hiatus, I finally wrote a first entry in my ethical will. It wasn’t at all easy for me to do, but it feels very important…

We’ll have to see where it goes.

Because God

It is this, my blogging project, which truly makes daily shul attendance tolerable. It is the reading, the feeling, the thinking, the learning, the weaving…

Suddenly, I’ve realized: my study and reflection sustain my practice. What shall I do with myself when kaddish has ended? What shall I do with my Judaism?

‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ (#25), Jan. 12, 2019

Not long after completing my year of mourning, I joined a Talmud class taught by a friend of mine, a young rabbi.

At first, I felt reignited. Years had passed since I’d last studied Talmud, and my year-long kaddish writing project, which had been firmly grounded in Jewish learning, had whetted my yen.

Soon after, I was struggling.

After my year of self-directed reading and reflection, the group learning felt inhibiting.

I tend to pick apart the letters and roots of words, to compare them to other languages and time periods; I also delight in grammar and sentence structure. The words and their personal relationships are beautiful to me. Which of them are intimate lovers? Which are parent and child?

Beyond this, I’m not one to inherently accept the ancient sages’ interpretations of the text, and they are often wont to make their cases precisely by playing with words and language. (I still recall my disagreement with the great Rashi over his language-based interpretation of Psalm 119:113.)

It soon became apparent that our group’s goals conflicted with my learning style. The rabbi was aiming to cover particular Talmudic passages (known as sugyot) during class time, and my nitpicking was impeding us.

Now, there are those for whom the holiness they experience in the study of traditional texts is motivating. Given my close relationship with Rabbi Daniel Landes, for example, himself a teacher of Talmud for nearly half a century, I know that he experiences the (self-)revelation of and by God bursting forth from the Torah. This, he explains, is how he teaches his students.

If revelation is not bursting forth from the Torah, he asks, why bother?

Why indeed? I ask myself because the truth is that I do not experience God in Talmud study. Perhaps I do not experience God at all, and certainly not bursting forth from anywhere.

There were times in years past when I managed to convince myself that I was “experiencing” God, but those moments were very few and were primarily born of my desire to motivate myself to adhere to the strictures of a religious Jewish lifestyle. That’s really what it came down to.

Some people, at birth, are dealt external factors like religious upbringings and parental expectations, drawing them to religious observance. For others, like me, every step towards greater observance of halakha is inevitably another step away from even the most understanding of non-traditional families.

Nevertheless, I am motivated, to an extent, to observe Shabbat traditionally, to live in Israel, to engage with Jewish texts, etc. I regard world Jewry as my far-extended family; and preserving our heritage and sense of peoplehood is, therefore, of utmost importance. Given, there are many different strategies for instilling children with strong Jewish identities; but I am convinced that a family’s commitments to Shabbat observance and residing in Israel are the most effective.

The problem, of course, is that most strategies arising from such a motivation as mine are prone to falling apart because they don’t necessarily infuse religious practices with meaning. In other words, going through the motions only because they happen to belong to one’s own people rings hollow. Why, as Rabbi Landes would ask, bother?

Let’s consider Shabbat, for example. If I am only keeping the Sabbath to inculcate my daughter with the values of Jewish tradition, family time, and [invaluable] weekly respite from our daily commutes along the information superhighway, what’s to stop me from breaking the Sabbath when she isn’t looking? After all, my personal desecration of Shabbat could be subtle; it could go unnoticed, leaving my daughter’s experience of the ‘Day of Rest’ intact.

Text study is much worse.

Whereas most religious observances are performed in family or community, and a simple Jew may find or assign plausible personal meanings to such lifestyle choices in these contexts, traditional text study is only inherently appealing to the devout and the bookish.

Actually, this is untrue. Most students of Talmud sit in seas of other talmidim, awash in a self-reinforcing Torah culture, buttressed by the talmidim’s families and communities. They need not actually reflect upon what they believe in or be inclined towards study; it’s enough for most to “know” that they are playing out their heavenly assigned roles in perpetuating the culture of their ancestors.

So my quandary bears framing:

Given that neither my family, nor my community, encourage me to learn Torah, and given that I do not experience God bursting forth from the texts of my beloved heritage…

In fact, given that I don’t think God actually cares whether or not I am studying Torah, and given that I don’t think God is in any way invested in the banal details of the Jewish religious laws that I am studying under my friend’s kind and knowing guidance…

What
is
left
for
me?

I don’t wish that I believed in God’s investment in our lives for Truth’s sake (because this isn’t true), but it would certainly make my commitment to living a religious lifestyle so much easier for me. Alas.

“Because God” is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom,
but my heart rejects it,
and it’s not for lack of trying.

I’m 40 now. There are people in our learning group who are younger than I am and seem enthusiastic towards and energized by Talmud study. They remind me of myself when I was in my mid- to late twenties and early thirties… back when I was occasionally able to convince myself that I was experiencing God for a moment.

For me, the dry, technical details in the text are just that – dry and technical. All too rapidly, they dissolve upon the roof of my mouth like communion wafers. Now, that’s not to say that they have a bit of the devil in them,
but they don’t contain God either.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 40

In less than a month’s time I return to New Jersey for the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, 10 months after his death. I’ve been preparing myself. Gravesite visitations never used to draw me, but I feel compelled to stand before his grave to tell my Papa how much I love him; and embrace the part of me that will remain with him forever in America.

Some days before my father’s death last summer, I was in Vilnius with my mama’s cousin, his wife, and their son. They are all the family we have left in Lithuania and diligently maintain our forebears’ graves, namely those of my mother’s grandparents. Upon guiding me to the gravesite through the misty rain, my relatives immediately took to tidying up the tombstones. To be honest, that isn’t something that had ever occurred to me to do. The moment touched and changed me.

I’d never known my great-grandparents but am named after my mother’s father’s father; and I have heard much spoken of his kindness. My Dedushka had always wanted to name a child after his father Давид, but he was blessed with three daughters. In 1979, therefore, upon arriving more quickly than humanly possible from Beer Sheva to Jerusalem and hearing my given name for the very first time, Dedushka responded to Papa with classic nonchalant gruffness, “That’s a good name.”

Last summer was the first I’d ever visited Lithuania, and it may have been the last, but the thread of my own life’s journey glistened there in the morning mist before me, as I stood looking at that particular tombstone engraved with the name Давид, at a portion of myself that will forever and ever remain in Vilnius.

Gravesite visitations never used to draw me, but then neither did mortality and meaning so consume my everything.

* * *

Need anything be inherently meaningful? My expectations of the kaddish year were arguably high from the start, I suppose. Why not just go through the motions, regardless of my feelings? Or, better yet, why bother? And, ultimately, nihilistic though it may be to ponder, what does it matter that I’ve had some breakthroughs in my prayers and writings? The most basic questions have no answers.

Many, many Jews opt in to kaddish when their loved ones die. Some find it worthwhile, some do not, but meaning is not intrinsic to ritual.

In my ongoing search for kaddish bloggers (blog #29), I came across an essay by activist and author Jay Michaelson. It’s rather unlike most other kaddish essays in that Michaelson writes that he did not find kaddish helpful or healing [link]:

 I’ve resisted writing about my year of saying Kaddish for my mother… Often, such writing carries a sense of lyrical, self-indulgent profundity. But my process hasn’t been profound. It’s been mundane, and pontification seems ridiculous.

After 11 months, having taken on a practice of saying Kaddish regularly, I’m now relieved to let it go… 

I didn’t find the ritual particularly helpful. I think of my mom all the time; I didn’t need to be reminded of her by anapests of Aramaic. I know she would’ve wanted me to do it, so I did it and I’m glad I did. But it wasn’t healing…

I recall now that in the book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier also shares his struggles with the regular, rote kaddish recitations: “In shul and out of shul, dawn and dusk, day after day after day. Spirituality is declining into schedules” (p. 227); and “this morning there was not a single word of the prayers that held my attention. Not a single word” (p. 255). This discontent must surely have had something to do with his committed, year-long poring through the ancient kaddish literature.

Perhaps because I had long been in religious crisis, perhaps because I was already familiar with the basics of Jewish ritual life, perhaps… perhaps because I wanted more, I knew that I would never make it through eleven months of daily prayers and kaddish recitations without personalizing them. Initially, I only intended to write once a month, but fissures were propagating across my heart, pulsing with pressure and dripping with expression. My first blog post, plastered over the cracks, was saturated and leaking so I covered it with another… and then a third and a fourth…  and now a fortieth.

Lyrical and self-indulgently profound? Undoubtedly so, Mr. Michaelson, yet my sealant is holding.

* * *

Given my personal experience, I do quite agree with Michaelson’s sentiment. Traditional Jewish prayer is foremost a religious obligation, and my process has felt rather like a slog of late. I’ve been plodding to weekday services, plodding through prayers, and even plodding along through my study of Psalm 119, which continually fails to inspire me. Sometimes I can’t tell if my plodding is mental or physical; I’m spent regardless.

Still, the power of the orphan’s kaddish itself has been moving me recently. It feels right that my Papa’s death should be declared before the nation. It feels right to stand up and proclaim those ancient words that now flow so effortlessly from my lips. It even feels right to make an intellectual exercise of mundane Psalm verses representing his name: Alexander son of Mosheh. When the time comes, I shall stand tall to recite these stanzas at his gravesite.

My grief finds expression in my element.

* * *

This week’s stanza is ש (shin), which I’ve had my eye on for some time now because of verse 165, which is part of the Ein Keloheinu (אֵין כֵּאלהֵינוּ) prayer that is said every day in Israel at the end of the morning services. Also, something that I only just discovered is that verses 166, 162, and 165 are recited in that order by the mohel at a brit milah.

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ש (verses 161-168)

[CLICK for glossary]

קסא שָׂרִים, רְדָפוּנִי חִנָּם; ומדבריך (וּמִדְּבָרְךָ), פָּחַד לִבִּי 161 Princes have pursued me without a cause; but my heart is in awe of Thy dvar.
קסב שָׂשׂ אָנֹכִי, עַל-אִמְרָתֶךָ— כְּמוֹצֵא, שָׁלָל רָב 162 I rejoice at Thy imrah, as one that findeth great spoil.
קסג שֶׁקֶר שָׂנֵאתִי, וַאֲתַעֵבָה; תּוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 163 I hate and abhor falsehood; Thy Torah do I love.
קסד שֶׁבַע בַּיּוֹם, הִלַּלְתִּיךָ– עַל, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 164 Seven times a day do I praise Thee for Thy righteous mitshpatim.
קסה שָׁלוֹם רָב, לְאֹהֲבֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ; וְאֵין-לָמוֹ מִכְשׁוֹל 165 There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them.
קסו שִׂבַּרְתִּי לִישׁוּעָתְךָ יְהוָה; וּמִצְוֺתֶיךָ עָשִׂיתִי 166 I have hoped for Thy salvation, O Lord, and have done Thy mitzvot.
קסז שָׁמְרָה נַפְשִׁי, עֵדֹתֶיךָ; וָאֹהֲבֵם מְאֹד 167 My being hath observed Thy eidot; and I love them exceedingly.
קסח שָׁמַרְתִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ, וְעֵדֹתֶיךָ: כִּי כָל-דְּרָכַי נֶגְדֶּךָ 168 I have observed Thy pikudim and Thy eidot; for all my drakhim are before Thee.

The final section of the Ein Keloheinu prayer, which includes Psalm 119:165, is taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 64a (the final folio):

אמר רבי אלעזר אמר רבי חנינא תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם שנאמר (ישעיהו נד) וכל בניך למודי ה’ ורב שלום בניך אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך (תהילים קיט) שלום רב לאוהבי תורתך ואין למו מכשול (תהילים קכב) יהי שלום בחילך שלוה בארמנותיך (תהילים קכב) למען אחי ורעי אדברה נא שלום בך (תהילים קכב) למען בית ה’ אלהינו אבקשה טוב לך (תהילים כט) ה’ עוז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמו בשלום R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, ‘And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children’ (Isa. 54:13). Read not banayikh [thy children] but bonayikh [thy builders]. ‘There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them’ (Ps. 119:165). ‘Peace be within thy walls and serenity within thy palaces’ (Ps. 122:7). ‘For my brethren and companions’ sake I will now say, Peace be within thee’ (Ibid. 8). ‘For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good’ (Ibid. 9). ‘The Lord will give strength unto His people, the Lord will bless His people with peace‘ (Ps. 29:11).

For those who feel themselves at home at shul, these words are very familiar.

Regardless, their theme, at a glance, isn’t subtle.

* * *

In his commentary on the Book of Psalms, Radak (1160–1235) riffs on verse 119:165:

שלום רב. כי לעולם אוהבי התורה לא יכשלו כי דרכם דרך ישרה ולעולם יהיו בשלום כי הם מסתפקים במעט שישיגו מן העולם הזה ולא ידאגו לכל מקרה והנה להם שלום רב Great peace. For the lovers of the Torah will never falter, for their derekh is the straight derekh; and they will forever be at peace, as they are satisfied with the little that they’ve obtained from this world; and they will not worry in any case, and this, for them, is ‘Great Peace’.

Love of Torah leads one to live a moral and satisfied existence, says Radak. Inner peace is the ‘great’ peace. It’s that simple. It is the kind of peace that we turn to religion for. It’s the kind of peace that we can reasonably attain.

* * *

Peace is one of the most fundamental of human aspirations, and its continued absence in this world poses a challenge to faith of profound proportions. Our verse 165 was one of several biblical gleanings fashioned together in the Talmudic passage above (and then inserted into the Jewish liturgy), as if to say – look, the Bible is relating to your lived concerns and experiences – and the Almighty has responded!

Verse 165 inspired and affirmed the rabbis’ reflections on peace, as it is the only one of Psalm 119’s 176 verses to mention shalom at all. Hence it was assigned a prominent spot in Jewish prayer and study.

The orphan’s kaddish, on the other hand, comprised of six sections, dedicates the final two of these to the theme of peace. The penultimate section is in Aramaic:

יְהֵא שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא מִן שְׁמַיָּא וְחַיִּים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל. וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן May there be great peace from heaven and life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

Immediately, we see that this “great peace” for “all of Israel” is something entirely different than the personal “great peace” described by Radak. Also, this line of kaddish offers us no formula – how does one bring such peace about? The [predictable!] answer lies in the final line of kaddish, the famous ‘Oseh Shalom’ in Hebrew:

עושה שָׁלום בִּמְרומָיו הוּא יַעֲשה שָׁלום עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

With ‘Oseh Shalom’, the kaddish concretizes its strategy for achieving peace: God.

Just pray to God.

May He make peace for us. Amen.

What? No peace yet? Well, let’s keep on praying then.

* * *

Unexpectedly, after weeks of plodding analysis through the stanzas of Psalm 119 in honor of Papa, I have found a precious nugget buried in the crevices of its type. A relatable alternative to the lofty language of faith. Amen.

Personally, as a mourner, I am hurting and hungering for an inner peace this year, much more so than an elusive, universal peace for the Jewish people. If I were to write a prayer of my own (a kaddish perhaps?), I would be inclined to end it with the words of Psalm 119:165.

There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them.

My love of Torah has been bringing me some measure of peace these days. Amen.