The Authors of Ourselves: The Liberation at the Heart of Rabbinic Judaismby Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
News flash from the world of sports: One more team has released Tim Tebow, who seems to be more famous for his openness about his faith than for any actual talent on the field. And yet there is something here that I find troubling. I am not really enamored of this public pride in Christian identity… but I wonder if maybe we Jews could use just a little bit more of it!
Is it just me, or have you noticed this too—that talented and public Jewish figures too often run away from their identity, rather than embracing it. I heard yet another NPR story the other day, in which an accomplished, sophisticated subject of an interview, another artist, another intellectual referred to herself with the words: “as an atheist and a Jew…”
Look, it’s not as if I have anything against atheists. Many people wh0 pray here religiously—some come every Shabbat—are really atheists! Agnostics at least, but, yes, in fact, some are actually atheist by any usual definition of the term. And Judaism is famously allergic to theological litmus tests; we classify who is in and who is out on the basis of putting the knife in the wrong drawer, which seems petty, perhaps, but we are hard-put to exclude anyone, God forbid, based on what someone thinks! Basically, by and large behavior, not belief, has been the defining characteristic of Jewish life.
And, in fact, my own personal views of God are rather far from the classical conception of an overarching Deity who knows when you’ve been good, and knows when you’ve been bad, who causes this person to get cancer and that one to win the lottery, who controls every quirk and every quark, every part of and particle in the universe. I just don’t believe that, at least most of the time.
But why does it seem so many public Jews feel like they have to give a caveat and a qualification to their identity, an excuse that they don’t really mean it, as if to gain full acceptance they can admit they have Jewish roots, but, hey, don’t worry, they’re not really, or they are not too Jewish, or maybe they are Jewish, but don’t worry, they don’t actually practice Judaism! So many disclaimers from our public intellectuals and most visible faces, as if the ticket through the door and past the gatekeepers of high culture comes more easily, the more a Jew denies being religious.
I have wondered about this for a long time now. Some secular friends have noticed this trend too—and attribute it to a higher level of education among Jews. Great, so now anyone who takes spirituality seriously is just stupid! And all of our ancestors were too dumb to be taken on their own terms!
How did we get here? What is going on? I think, after being bothered by this too-common reflexive dismissal for a long time, I think I have a theory.
You know, we come from a tremendous, vibrant intellectual heritage. It is not just a matter of how many Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes we have piled up in the last century; for centuries before that matters of the mind were the central core of and harnessed in the service and articulation of a spiritual heritage. We have a religious literature that represents the most complex thinking, demands the highest level of study and erudition, and venerates learning more than any other such tradition in the world.
The problem is, I think, that this literature, this probing, provocative and profoundly deep material… is in Aramaic. Complicated, abbreviated, internally self-referenced Aramaic. The language and the concepts are so complex that not even the best translation can quite make the material accessible. Whether the legal foundations expressed in the Talmud or the mystical metaphysics of the Zohar, the very best of our written record, the most sophisticated heart of our heritage… is out of reach for most Jews. No wonder… no wonder so many of our best and brightest seem to find the fulfillment of the mind… only outside. The best of our doors, are dark and dusty, closed and shut away.
Many aspects of Jewish life—almost all of it, almost all… can work in many settings. Important ideas can be conveyed in any language. And yet, no Jewish community has ever attempted to do what ours is doing—to live a full Jewish life almost exclusively in translation. I am aware that this is a controversial claim to make, but we should face the possibility that perhaps some of our brightest gems lose some of their luster when removed… from their original setting.
I am not saying this to point fingers at all. In fact, every culture and every country in which we have lived has contributed something special to the tapestry that is Jewish life—and every individual studying Torah has something to add, in whatever language they may do so. I am just wondering whether some of the disdain for religious Judaism comes from a sense of distance, from how far people feel, or a sense of not having the right keys with which to approach our classical texts.
But I also believe that with the right teachers, in the right settings… we can catch glimpses of the sparkle, get hints of the frame, snippets of meaning that somehow, finally, make sense. And with the right framework we may actually see that the authors of what we call Judaism, our rabbinic ancestors are more similar to us—and have more to offer—than we ever might have realized before.
This past summer I heard one lesson on the Talmud that opened my eyes to it in a new way. I found the experience liberating and, indeed, the underlying message… if this is right… is about liberation. So many modern Jews express their alienation from Judaism because they cannot makes sense of serving a higher power they cannot see or feel or prove, because, in fact, we wish to be not enslaved by a hidden hand but empowered to live as the authors of ourselves. But for those of us who are put off by religion or bothered by the Bible, well, then… take another look at the radical thinkers who came before us. For the rabbis of the Talmud, it seems, turned the Torah upside down, and inside out, and left themselves—and us—fully, firmly, in control of our own lives.
We begin, today, at the beginning. The opening of a work is, after all, the first impression… the lens through which, somehow, you will always view the material. And if we look at the very opening lines of the Torah, and compare it to the opening discussion of the Talmud, we can catch a glimpse of what the rabbinic revolution was all about.
Now, it’s a bit hard, of course, at this point, for any of us to recall our first impression… of the chapter we read this morning, the very beginning of the Bible. But as Micha Goodman, my teacher who made this comparison between the Torah and the Talmud said, it is worth trying to do so.
And if we can, if we are actually able to look at Genesis 1 with fresh eyes, we will discover that, well, it is not quite as we remember. What, for example, is the first sentence of the Torah? For years and based on King James, everyone would have said it was “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” But look at that first sentence as a title and not an independent act, and very different picture emerges. It is not that God made everything from nothing; rather the world was a watery mess, a primordial soup, a gigantic, dark ocean, which precedes any divine act. The first intervention was the bringing of light—not the sun, interestingly, not yet—and with that light was made a day. The first imposition of order upon chaos was… the creation of time.
And then. And then God takes the water, the formless, the void… and tears it in half. In between water there is now, something. After the creation of time, in the ancient mindset, we witness the creation of space. And from there, into a realm of chronology and geography, there, now, creation can commence.
What a dramatic opening! The first impression: the beginning of the book is the beginning of everything. And it all starts… with an omnipotent, an all powerful God. This Torah, this Bible, is a profoundly theocentric text!
And now… now the Talmud. Masechet Berachot, the Tractate called Blessings, page 1b. How does the Talmud begin? What is its initial concern?
“Mei’amitai korin et haShema b’aravin? From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?” And immediately there is an argument. Until what time? Until the end of the first shift, that is, the time when individuals typically go to sleep. That is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. But the Talmud goes on with an alternative answer, and cites this as a consensus opinion rather than a minority view: ”Vehachachamim omrim, ad chatzot. And the sages say: until midnight.”
Huh? This is the beginning? The opening of the great intellectual achievement of the ages? What’s with that?
The Torah tells a compelling tale. It informs. The written Torah begins with a declaration, the oral Torah—the Talmud—begins with a question, and an obscure one, at that! The Talmud depends on assumptions: that you know what the Shema is, that you know that it is supposed to be said at certain times, that you, well, that you care!
But let’s go a little deeper. After nine plus pages of detailed discussion about the nature of evening in the Gemarah, the detailed elaboration of the Mishna, the Mishna finally goes on. The topic turns to the morning, but not “until when,” but “from what point”—not the last moment you can recite the group of prayers called the Sh’ma, but when is the earliest you can begin to do so. The first answer: you can recite the morning version of these prayers from the moment a person can distinguish between t’chelet and lavan, between light blue and white. Here, too, Rabbi Eliezer differs: he says it is from the time when you can distinguish between sky-blue and leek-green… a harder distinction to make, and one which would therefore require more light…and a later hour.
And how long do we have? By when must we finish? Eliezer asserts: by the time the sun passes the horizon. But Rabbi Yehoshua says we have a bit longer: “One may recite the morning Sh’ma until three hours of the day”—generally meaning a quarter of the lit part of the day—“because it is the habit of kings to get up late,” and that, therefore, still fulfills criterion we are familiar with from V’ahavta, to recite these words “be’shochbecha, uv’kumecha…when you lie down, and when you rise up.”
What is going on here? You know, I had studied this passage for years and never seen what was right before my eyes. What is the difference between the two answers? For Eliezer, Micha Goodman says, nature defines time. It is a completely objective criterion. Yehoshua, however, takes a different approach. Some people, it seems, don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn for a job. For them, when they wake up, well, then it is morning. This is a subjective standard, one which depends not on nature, but on human behavior.
And then came two more things. The first is this. On the morning of Yom Kippur, in Reform synagogues, we are going to reach a passage from Deuteronomy which states “Lo Vashamayim Hi, It is not in the heavens.” I have no idea what the Torah meant by this, but this verse becomes the basis of the most famous argument in the entire Talmud, regarding whether there is objective truth in the standards of law, or whether it is in our hands to determine, to distinguish, and thereby, I believe, to actually shape the reality around us. What I had never noticed is that this was an argument, the objective versus the subjective, between… a Rabbi Eliezer, and a Rabbi Yehoshua. The same two protagonists.
And what happens here? Eliezer, who insists on objective truth… Eliezer, who rejects the discussion and the authority of the judges, simply by majority rule, to define the law… Eliezer, who says, long before the X-Files, that “the truth is out there,” Eliezer is excommunicated. The story ends sadly.
The second thing. It’s just right there, but too subtle for its own good. Genesis started with the creation of light. The Talmud also starts with light. It also deals with the division between light and dark.
The Torah and the Talmud are both about defining time. But they have the exact opposite theology. For in the theocentric Torah it is God who defines, and determines. In the Talmud, it is human beings who make this distinction.
But it is even more radical than that. Because in Yehoshua’s version we do more than observe. To Yehoshua, we define… we create the line between day and night! We are, indeed, the authors of ourselves.
Ultimately, this is how Judaism itself moves…away from the Bible. It is a reversal, a revolution.
And the irony is, the tragedy is that so few are aware of this, these alienated artists and independent thinkers, turned off by religion and proud of taking matters into their own hands, all these anti-religious Jews. Why is it so sad? Because the rabbinic revolution is exactly and precisely the liberation of the human mind and spirit, the notion that Jewish life is in our hands, and not God’s. Their science may be out of date, their understanding of astronomy and anatomy alike totally off-base, their culture primitive, their attitudes towards women unacceptable, but they were right on, these rabbis… right on… about the fact that a tradition only survives… in a deliberate act of affirmation and renewal in each subsequent generation.
This act of reading in, this assessment that everything is about words and language and that meaning is fluid and in our hands… how could it be that such primitive minds so many centuries ago came up with the very same view. of the performative power of words, and the creative control of the human mind… as did the most contemporary post-modern scholars of language and literature and philosophy, even the cutting edge neurobiologists asking how the human brain itself works?
The more we study, the more we dive into the depths of these texts, the intricacies of the arguments, the playfulness of the Midrash, the metaphysics of the Zohar… the more we see how sophisticated, how radical, how creative and assertive these Jews were.
Indeed, if we are able to see it this way, we and our ancestors, then and them and here and now… we are dealing with the same issues, playing the same game, on the same field. And there was an awful lot of real talent, in the players who came before us.
You want a six-word summary? Judaism: don’t quit the team too soon.