>The X-Files, Faith and Honi the Circle-drawer


Emily and I have been watching The X-Files together recently. Neither of us watched the show while it was originally being aired. Watching it now, this series strikes me as profoundly dated. by which I mean that it manages to beautifully encapsulate the spirit of the time in which it was created, which also happens to have been the time in which I was growing up. The central themes of the show certainly speak eloquently to anyone who grew up in the nineties: The desperate desire to believe in something bigger than yourself, set against the nagging doubt that the truth you’re looking for might turn out not to exist, or even worse, to represent merely another link in the chain of social control–the oppressive hand of history in another guise.

This simultaneous longing for and suspicion of the miraculous, of the transcendent exception that breaks through the cracks in the real, is not at all alien to the classical roots of the Jewish tradition. Indeed, this appreciation for the possibilities of the miraculous while at the same time holding it at arm’s length might be said to characterize the fundamental metaphysical attitude of rabbinic Judaism. Witness to the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans, the rabbis of the classical period must have felt themselves to be walking an exceedingly fine line. On the one hand, the Temple’s destruction must have stood before them always as an object lesson that history will exercise its harsh prerogatives even at the expense of what is most holy. And yet, to give up on the notion of G-d’s providential intervention in the historical world, to shut the door on the realm of the miraculous, would cut off the Jewish people from its own living roots, dooming Judaism to become a philosopher’s religion, filled perhaps with sound advice on matters of ethics but fundamentally closed to the the genuine, vital encounter with the divine that lies at the heart of religious experience and points the way to the possibility of future redemption. This is why the rabbis, though occasionally anxious to curb the wildest outpourings of mystical enthusiasm, were always careful never to repudiate it utterly.

An example of this tension in action can be found in the mishnaic tale of Honi the Circle Drawer. According to the story, a town was suffering from severe drought and appealed to Honi, well-regarded for his piety and scholarship, for help. Honi drew a circle in the dirt and stood in the middle of it, proclaiming to Heaven that he would not move from the circle until G-d saw fit to send rain. Surely enough, the rain was forthcoming. In an interesting coda to the episode, it says:

Simeon ben Shatah said to him, “If you were not Honi, I should decree a ban of excommunication against you. But what am I going to do to you? For you importune before the Omniscient, so He does what you want, like a son who importunes his father, so he does what he wants.”

As presented in the story, at no point is the efficacy of Honi’s unconventional methods questioned. He claims to be able to basically whine until the Almighty gives him what he wants, and for all intents and purposes this claim seems to be accurate. And yet, far from being welcomed, Honi is sharply criticized by his fellow rabbis for his unorthodox methods and the disrespect they seem to imply. In the end, it is only the level of prestige Honi commands in the rabbinic community that saves him from the fate of excommunication. Certainly one could argue that what we are dealing with here is the suspicion that Honi is perpetrating some kind of hoax, making use of some mundane or magical trick and passing it off as a genuine miracle. I think, however, that what is actually at issue here is the miracle itself, regarded as such.

To put it bluntly, the rabbis are not displeased with the miracle itself, but with its possible social consequences. The danger here is that the people will come away with the wrong message–that the Almighty’s favor can be had for the asking, and that the mark of this favor can be easily determined by the trail of wondrous occurrences that follow the self-proclaimed prophet. But the entire rabbinic enterprise is founded on a rejection of this overly-simplistic mystical worldview. The rabbis of the classical period were, after all, the intellectual descendants of extremely pragmatic men–men resolved, in the face of tragedy and disaster to take what they could get, cut their losses and above all to preserve what they could of the dedicated core of the Jewish tradition and keep it alive for the sake of future generations. This is to be expected and praised–in the world of the early Common Era, a Jewish people that waited calmly in the expectation of a miraculous solution to the problems of the day would have ceased ultimately to exist, massacred and scattered by the might of the Roman legions.

And yet, much as the rabbis firmly rejected an over-anxious reliance on miracles, neither did they ultimately reject the miraculous as such when it presented itself. To reject utterly the possibility of miraculous occurrences in the present day would be to undermine the spiritual basis of Judaism. A faith so firmly grounded in the memory of divine salvation from the hands of persecution and slavery could never close itself to the possibility of the miraculous–indeed, the flame of this abiding hope, kept alive by the memories of redemptions past, was ever one of the Jewish people’s greatest sources of strength.

What lesson can we draw from the curious tension to be found in the tale of Honi the Circle Drawer? For me at least it is that the perpetual tension between faith and skepticism, far from being a symptom of a terminally conflicted mind, can actually be the most intensely productive point of view in a spiritual sense. To hold on to our sense of the truth and the firm demand of a rational world view based on our own experience, while simultaneously keeping our minds open and alive to the realm of what Agent Mulder calls “extreme possibility,” can be intensely challenging. And yet it is precisely this synthesis of faith and skepticism that can drive us forward in a way that neither can hope to achieve alone.

Reward and Punishment

Okay, I’m posting this before it gets any longer. Feel free to comment.

I think it’s impossible to be a Jew in this day and age and not be uncomfortable with some aspect of the prayer service. The way the siddur is constructed–layer upon layer of songs, devotional literature, biblical and talmudic passages representing virtually every period of Jewish history and every school of Jewish thought–is such as to virtually guarantee this. Each of us probably has a passage that gives them pause, which they find themselves either hesitating before reading or discretely skipping over. For me, at least, it’s prayers having to do with restoration of the temple sacrifice. Which is a pity, actually, since on the whole I find the general idea of a universally redemptive messianic age compelling, and this is one of the primary forms these sentiments tend to take in our liturgy.

But that’s a subject for another post. Today I want to take a look at a passage from the second paragraph of the Shema:

I will give rain in your land in its season, the early and the late rain; and you shall gather in your grain, wine and oil. I will give grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. Be careful lest your heart be tempted and you go astray and worship other gods, bowing down to them. Then the LORD’s anger will flare against you and He will close the heavens and there will be no rain. The land will not yield its crops, and you will perish swiftly from the good land that the LORD is giving you. (translation from the Koren-Sachs Siddur, which is the one I tend to use at the moment)

The connection between obedience and reward, disobedience and punishment, in this passage is so clear-cut and unambiguous that it might make us uncomfortable. How do we reconcile this promised with the many, many examples of undeserved suffering we encounter every day, in the pages of history, in the news and in our own lives? One might be tempted to mentally classify it as the artifact of an earlier, more primitive understanding of G-d and His relationship and creation, holding little relevance for us today.

I think the best way to make sense of this is to examine the differences between this passage and the first paragraph that precedes it. This comparison is especially useful because these passages are so similar. They come from the same part of Deuteronomy, only a few chapters apart, and yet both in terms of content and of language used they are virtually identical. It’s easy to wonder why the framers of this section of liturgy found it necessary to incorporate both passages. The two significant differences between the two are that:

  1. The second paragraph incorporates the passage promising prosperity in return for obedience and threatening punishment for disobedience. The first does not.
  2. Grammatically, the first paragraph is written in the second person singular whereas the second is in the second person plural.

Point B doesn’t come across so well in translation since modern English lacks a 2nd person plural, but it’s important to my understanding of what is at work here. The first paragraph addresses itself to the individual, and in it I am commanded to love and serve G-d, to obey His commandments, to teach and remember them. Conspicuously absent is any mention of reward for such behavior. The second paragraph addresses not I, the individual, but the people as a collective body, but otherwise contains much the same set of injunctions, expressed in a virtually identical way. It is only here, however, that mention is made of any positive benefit associated with performance of the mitzvot. 

I think there’s a sort of brutal honesty to be found here: Individually, it seems to say, I may lead a moral life and suffer while others behave wickedly and prosper. This, while hard to come to terms with, is indisputably true and speaks to our experience of life and history. The more important point, however, is that collectively we can draw a link between morality and prosperity that does not hold true on the individual level. 

An overly simplistic reading of this text might lead us to believe that society has little vested interest in caring for the poor, the sick, or the outsiders because we can ultimately trust G-d to reward those who deserve His favor. But we already know that this cannot be the case, as it conflicts with the positive commandments to be found throughout the Torah to feed the stranger, the widow and the orphan, to take care of the sick. 

I think the actual message being communicated to us here is precisely the reverse: The Holy One, it is saying, does not guarantee that the good will be rewarded and the wicked suffer in this world. Why this is so we do not and cannot know, but sometimes we may be called on to carry on being moral despite circumstances that seem to actively punish such behavior. But because this is so, that makes it doubly important for us a society to take care of the less fortunate. 

In Pirke Avo there’s a passage that talks about four kinds of human beings. The first one mentioned is the one who says “What is mine is mine, what is yours is yours.” This kind of human, say the sages, is the normal kind of person, “though some say that this is the Sodom kind.” The message here is, I think, that a society conceived solely in terms of self interest will quickly devolve from the merely selfish to the truly hellish. By working to create a just society (conceived in Jewish terms as one that reflects the ethical vision embodied in the Torah), we are acting in partnership with G-d to fill the moral gaps we encounter in the world. And by doing so, we are actually helping ourselves more than any kind of narrowly-defined self-interest could hope to promise. 

>Morality must begin at home


Here’s a proposition I’m experimenting with: Morality must begin at home. At the moment, I’m not sure if this is a Jewish proposition or a philosophical proposition or both. I’m not even sure if it’s true or not but I’m going to explore it a little bit and see if it begins to grow on me.
The reason I’m going to explore this proposition is, first of all, that it makes me really uncomfortable. On the face of it, it would seem to be an argument in favor of a tribal ethic, one that assigns moral priority based on proximity. “This person is closer to me, and therefore more valuable,” it would seem to say. But at this point a whole host of buzzers and lights begin to go off in my mind. I’ve caught myself, red-handed. The crime? Consideration of a point of view that is insufficiently universal.
There’s something to be said for a universalistic ethics. Indeed, it has been said, quite a lot and in a lot of different ways. There’s a reason that nearly every ethical thinker in the history of Western philosophy has adopted a universalistic point of view–it’s a hell of  a lot easier to justify from an abstract standpoint. Consider: The two great branches of modern ethical thought, duty-based on one side, utilitarian on the other. Both, in their own way, argue for an ethics grounded in that great principle of liberal society, that all human beings are to be treated as equally. From the utilitarian’s point of view, this equality is thought of in terms of the individual as the subject of pleasure and pain. Duty ethics chooses to consider ethical subjects in their abstract universality as the bearers of rational subjectivity. In either case, the interchangeability of ethical subjects is taken, not for granted, but as an explicit axiom on which the whole edifice is based.
And yet… A universalistic ethics, as useful as it may be in thinking in negative terms about the justice and injustice, for example, of laws enacted by a State, doesn’t do me a whole lot of good in making sense of the positive ethical obligations I feel in my own life. It can help me decide what’s fair, but it doesn’t do me a lick of good in prioritizing in fundamentally unfair situations, where there’s a limited amount of good to be spread around and I have to decide how to parcel it out. And this kind of unfair situation isn’t a rare, extreme limit case. No, it in fact represents the status quo, the normal, inescapable predicament which every one of us is forced to deal with every day of our lives, because our time and moral attention are limited resources which we must ultimately decide how to allocate!
There’s a peculiar problem experienced only by those who’ve spent a large amount of time thinking in terms of “social justice,” one that can occasionally seem rather counterintuitive and even inhuman to people who don’t spend so much time worrying about global issues. This problem is the paralysis that grips you when you become so focused on the universal that you lose sight of the particular. How can it be moral, a person like this asks themself, to devote the majority of my care to those closest to me? Is this not a form of bias, a kind of tribalism? Shouldn’t I rather devote my time to fixing the world at large, to addressing the problems of people who are certainly suffering more than anyone close to me?
The problem with this point of view is that, seductive as it can be, it is ultimately destructive in its one-sidedness. Of course we’re all obligated to speak out against injustice in the world wherever we find it. And of course we should spend at least some of our time concerned with, and helping to fix, large-scale problems. We should always be sensitive to the plight of communities other than our own. And yet, in the same way that no-one can be as sensitive to the needs of a particular child as that child’s own parents, no one can be as sensitive to the needs of a particular community as a member of that community. This, as I see it, may be the most convincing argument for a certain kind of limited tribalism: When it comes to genuinely helping people, it is absolutely necessary to have an understanding of who they are and what they need. We very much require understanding in order to be make the jump from ineffectual worry to genuine care, and the only place to begin to understand others is with the others who are closest to us.
For this reason, I hesitantly advance the principle that morality must begin at home. A sensitivity to global issues, as well as to the suffering of people in communities outside our own, is absolutely necessary to living morally in the larger world. But when it comes to actually helping people, we need to be unafraid to look to those nearby.

>Authentic Judaism

>Just read an article by Jay Michaelson on the Jewish Daily Forward website titled “The Myth of Authenticity.” His basic point is that an “unstated assumption” runs through a lot of our discourse about the various groups staking their claims within contemporary Judaism, that “real Judaism” is characterized by fidelity to a certain image of Orthodox traditionalism and all other forms of Jewish identity must be judged by their relationship to this ostensibly “authentic” Judaism. As he puts it,

…there persists in the American Jewish imagination an anxiety of inauthenticity — that someone, somewhere, is the real Jew, but I’m not it.

When you’re a convert to a religion (I imagine it must be similar for those who’ve immigrated to and become citizens of a country not of their birth), the question of authenticity is one that tends to cause you to lose quite a bit of sleep. Lacking a sense of identity grounded in birth and upbringing, you are thrown back upon your own religious practice as the sole signifier of belongingness to the chosen group. In theory, this should not be much of an issue in Judaism, given the halachic principle that converts are to be regarded in all respects as having actually been born as Jews. What convert has not drawn comfort from the rabbinical pronouncement that all Jews, past, present and future, were equally present at the giving of the Law at Sinai? Nevertheless, in practical terms things are rarely ever that simple, and in light of heated debate both in the US and in Israel concerning the status of conversions performed by the various movements one can hardly be blamed for occasionally yearning for a bit of simple, incontrovertible “authenticity.”

What Michaelson’s article reminds us of is that this concern regarding the authenticity of one’s own Judaism is hardly a phenomenon unique to the convert. Indeed, it might be said that the central question of contemporary Judaism is that of who can “speak” for Judaism in its true, essential character. Michaelson takes the view that this concern with authenticity is ultimately mythical, “a false projection of particular historical quirks onto an imagined ideal of “realness” that artificially freezes culture, and thus spells its demise.” In his opinion, an authentic Judaism is quite simply one that resonates meaningfully to the individual. While I agree with him that progressive strains of Judaism must ultimately reject the attempt to portray them as a “watered-down,” “less authentic” or “more secular” version of neo-Orthodoxy, I wonder if his ultimate rejection of the very question of authenticity  doesn’t end up ignoring the root of the problem, rather than addressing it.

The question that concerns me in this regard is a simple one, but unfortunately lacking in any kind of simple answer: Are we approaching a point where maintaining even the polite fiction of the Jews as a unified people will become impossible? In response to the challenges and opportunities presented by modernity, a variety of new responses began to develop, from the strict traditionalism of Neo-Orthodoxy to the rather abstract ethical monotheism of classical Reform, from the Zionist understanding of Judaism as a national community united by language and custom to the renewed emphasis in some quarters on its fundamentally religious character. In light of the proliferation of conflicting definitions of what it means to be a Jew, it becomes all the more important for the different camps to cling fast to the bedrock of common courtesy of good faith which would recognize at least the legitimate place of the different points of view at the table.

>Cheshbon ha-Nefesh


I love opening the mailbox and being greeted by a media-mail envelope filled with books I’ve ordered. This is seriously one of the greatest pleasures in life that are polite to talk about in mixed company. Today I received my extremely tiny and cute copy of Cheshbon ha-Nefesh, a nifty tome by R. Mendel of Satanov (who is now right up there with Gregor Mendel on my list of Greatest Mendels of All Time–pea plants and moral psychology, FTW!).
I ordered it as part of this mussar kick I’m on. I had actually never heard about mussar until recently. I ran into the term in a brief bio of R. Ira Stone on the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College website, of all places. For those who, like, me, have been in the dark, mussar is a spiritual practice developed by R. Yisroel Salanter in the 1800’s. It starts from the idea that knowing what is good isn’t going to do you a lot of good if you’re so thoroughly mired in bad habits that you can’t manage to behave properly. Mussar therefore attempts to correct the nasty inclinations of the practitioner through a process of study, self-discipline and psychological self-inquiry–kind of like Freud for people who aren’t passionately anti-religious. It relies heavily on classic works of Jewish ethics such as Chovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart) by Bahya ibn Paquda and Tomer Devorah (The Palm tree of Devorah) by Moses Cordovero. And, of course, Cheshbon ha-Nefesh. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, the thread unifying these works is a sophisticated form of Virtue Ethics, which classifies ethical behavior according to a number of distinct virtues (occasionally regarded kabalistically as being grounded in corresponding attributes of God) and attempts to cultivate them within the self.
This is really exactly the kind of formalized spiritual discipline that appeals to me. As a practice of self-examination grounded in moral psychology and applied ethics, it seems like a perfect compliment to the study of the Torah: An examination of the spiritual message embedded in Torah, combined with an attempt to integrate the teachings contained therein into one’s everyday life. I’m looking forward to studying this fascinating branch of Jewish practice and hopefully incorporating a little of it into my daily life. I’ll keep you posted, dear readers, on my progress.