By JONATHAN GARB
Among the numerous fine points of Jewish law and ritual debated by the rabbis of antiquity was the question of public fasting. According to a text known as Megillat Ta’anit
, there were 35 joyous historical occasions upon whose dates authorities could not ordain a one-time fast, in such cases as drought or other public calamity. Such festive dates ranged from the eight days of Hanukkah, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, to the 7th of that same month, which marked the death of Herod
, master builder of the Second Temple but an insufferable despot nonetheless.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 18b), a tale is told of the residents of Lod who proclaimed a fast on Hanukkah, thus abrogating Megillat Ta’anit. Two prominent rabbis, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, promptly canceled the fast, and went so far as to order the fasters to fast on another day in order to atone for violating the festivity of Hanukkah! Whereupon Rabbi Kahana seeks to generalize from their intervention, and preserve the festive nature of all the designated dates commemorating events of salvation or relief, concluding that one cannot ordain a fast on any of these days. But Rabbi Yosef disagrees, arguing that "Hanukkah differs, because a commandment is involved."
Thus Hanukkah’s special status stems not from the historical event involved, but rather from the ceremony of lighting candles – the commemorative ritual itself. Even if Megillat Ta’anit were overruled in other cases, Hanukkah, in Rabbi Yosef’s view, should remain sacrosanct. At which point the Talmudic age Abbayeh retorts: "Let Hanukkah and its mitzvah be annulled!" – a rather stunning response, even hinting at irreverence toward rabbinic law. But Rabbi Yosef has the final word: "Hanukkah differs, because its miracles were made famous."
In the event, over the centuries, many of those 35 happy days of Megillat Ta’anit
were trumped by tragedy time and again, and public fasting was declared. Mere historical memory carried no legal weight, and yet Hanukkah, as Rabbi Yosef had insisted, was considered immune. In the Middle Ages, commenting on this intricate Talmudic debate, Rashi
spoke of the promulgation of the Hanukkah miracle by means of candle-lighting: "It is already known to all of Israel, by their observance of its mitzvot
as their custom, and they have upheld it like the festivals of the Torah, and it would not be correct to annul it." In other words, Hanukkah’s unique and lasting status stems from the historical and sociological fact of its uniform acceptance by the ritually observant Jewish community.
Such unity was normative in Rashi’s day – but what about our own time, when "all of Israel" are far too fragmented to concur on the observance of the laws of the Torah, let alone later ritual practices? Many Jews, of course, live according to the Shulhan Aruch,the famous code of law authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo, which achieved widespread acceptance in the Jewish world in the 16th century. Much as we may sympathize with this loyalty to the past, we must today also consider alternatives that accommodate the spiritual and practical reality of millions of Jews who do not live by any strict code of Jewish law.
Ecclesiastes teaches, "Do not say that the earlier days were better than these." And in the Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, our sages interpreted those wise words as follows:
"Let the generation coming be in your eyes as the generation that has passed, so that you should not say: ‘If Rabbi Akiva was alive then I would read before him, if Rabbi Z’eira and Rabbi Yohanan were alive I would study before them; but the generation of your time, and the sage of your time should be like that of the generation that has passed and the first sages that were before you."
Or as the Japanese Samurai classic of mental and spiritual training, the 17th century Hagakure puts it:
"It is said that what is called ‘the spirit of an age’ is something to which one cannot return . . . For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of 100 years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation. This is the mistake of people who are attached to past generations. They have no understanding of this point. On the other hand, people who only know the disposition of the present day and dislike the ways of the past are too lax."
Indeed this very need to move beyond nostalgia for the hallowed past, and to address the fragmented modern (and post-modern) situation, motivates the response offered by various present-oriented approaches, which seek to adapt Jewish ritual, and Jewish spirituality to the needs of the present. We should not, by the way, assume that this is much truer of the non-Orthodox movements than of the Orthodox world. All Jews, in today’s world, are facing this challenge with mixed success. Let us take a closer look.
Three flawed remedies
Contemporary Zionism, both "religious" and "secular," has sought to adapt Judaism into a nationalistic set of practices. Thus Israel Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzma’ut, is not only a civil holiday but a religious one, on which many traditional Jews recite the Hallel prayer during morning services. Some Jews, however, consider this approach to be overly ethnocentric and increasingly out of step with the more globalized environment of today’s cultural elites.
Whatever the undeniable achievements of Zionism in terms of the well-being and morale of the Jewish people, I for one am uncomfortable with the widespread view of Zionism as a source of spiritual renewal. Such a position, of course, was famously espoused by the religious philosophers Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook
, Chief Rabbi of Palestine during the British Mandate, and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik
, the dominant voice of American Modern Orthodoxy in the 20th century. And yet, these days, the spiritual and moral flaws of Zionism are becoming increasingly apparent.
The excessive emphasis on nationalistic and militaristic discourse at the expense of a more traditional Jewish ethos, which is far more globally and intellectually oriented, has exacted a heavy price within Israeli society. In the area of ritual, the negative approach on the part of the religious Zionist establishment toward the customs and practices of the communities of the Diaspora has impoverished Jewish practice, and undermined Jewish unity.
Another more recent development is the "New Age" phenomenon. In our communities, this is represented by the " Jewish Renewal
" movement, which attempts to adapt Jewish life to a globalized "spirituality," which blends Eastern, Western, traditional and contemporary sources in a spectacularly eclectic mixture. As several sociologists have noted, the underlying forces behind this ever-growing movement are late capitalism, and its close ally, post-Freudian psychology.
According to many social theorists, late modernity and post-modernity have created a "consuming subject," an individual who pursues personal satisfaction in an increasingly alienating and disenchanted world via the consumption of the very technology that, ironically, accelerates the rootlessness of his or her "empty self" by the destruction of nature and the erosion of social bonds and commitments. The popular techniques and fast cures offered by the "New Age" are usually variants on this consumption-oriented pursuit.
In the context of ritual, the lures of the "New Age" and its discourse of individual and eclectic "spirituality" make it difficult for its adherents to commit to any specific tradition, to any difficult path, or to any concrete ritual observance. Again, I do not wish to belittle the genuine spiritual yearning that motivates many "New Age" seekers, but we cannot ignore the cynical manipulation of their spiritual thirst by endless gurus, public-relations experts and flat-out charlatans. Furthermore, one should heed the cautions of many authentic mystical teachers, of the East and the West, who have warned against "the spiritual materialism" entailed in the search for fast, easy and common answers.
Finally, we have Jewish feminism, which seeks to adapt many details of ritual to the demands of the dominant egalitarian ideology. This is mainly a Western-Ashkenazi development, which fully participates in the ideology of individual self-fulfillment. As the Austrian social critic Ivan Illich
has shown, feminism, for all the benefits it has brought with it, is ultimately an expression of the era of the "homo economicus
," which interprets the concept of equality in terms of individual "advancement," primarily of an economic nature. Without entering into thorny theoretical issues, I think it may be safely said that this interpretation fairly characterizes the liberal feminist mainstream (or at least the way it is construed in the popular mind).
A more sympathetic reading is that feminism is an attempt to alleviate the profound dehumanization of women in the alienated capitalist world that was built on the ruins of traditional structures which, though often misogynistic and oppressive, did afford a modicum of social support and responsibility. As various feminists have noted, the desire to change the status of women cannot be divorced from wider social issues. In our own context, one can draw on this insight and say that one cannot revitalize ritual merely by changing the status of women. If there is a deep problem with the way in which contemporary Jews experience the structure of the synagogue ritual or the format of prayer, then allowing women to lead some marginal prayers is not going to make much headway.
The main problem with these three efforts to reinvent Judaism seems to lie in their fundamental motivation: the innovators first establish a goal, inspired by an extra-Judaic sensibility, whether romantic-nationalistic, "spiritual" or feminist. These ideologies of the present are often invested with belief, emotional adherence and intellectual curiosity, which at least equal any commitment to traditional Jewish lore. Their adherents then proceed to comb traditional Jewish sources for minority opinions and provocative interpretations of canonical texts to support these innovations. The very need to turn to these various ideologies reflects an anxiety that traditional Jewish life is not in itself deep or fulfilling enough. It may well be that the desire to change Judaism in a contemporary direction points to a dissatisfaction with Jewish life, a sentiment we may share without embracing these particular correctives. As one religious Zionist thinker lately quipped, Jewish feminism is more of an outcry than a solution.
Lest my critique appear excessively harsh, let us recognize that none of these three movements has truly led to an overall renewal of halakhic creativity, aggadic depth, poetic creativity, ethical self-improvement or mystical enlightenment. (To best appreciate this point, please consider that the great Israeli Bible scholars Nehama Leibowitz
and Aviva Zornberg
required no recourse to an explicit feminist agenda.) This is not to say that there have not been numerous meaningful questions raised regarding the return to the Land, the role of internal spirituality and the place of women in Jewish life. But the answers cannot be reached through a narrow ideological agenda.
Rejecting tyranny of individual
Does this suggest that present-oriented solutions are doomed to failure? The strong words of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter
, the great 19th century religious ethicist, may indeed be pertinent: "Although the Torah is given to humans to decide its matters by the goals of the human intellect, it is not given over to do as we will with here according to the movements of our will, this is . . .unacceptable." Salanter takes aim at the heart of the present. He rejects the tyranny of the individual will, and renews the call for submission to the will of the Divine, as it was manifested by generations of followers of the tradition.
And yet, the ancient rabbinic dictum that "Torah is not in heaven" remains potent and germane. The sages who developed this belief hardly envisaged that it would be invoked to justify a subordination of Jewish discourse and practices to innovations utterly extrinsic to the Torah-centered world of the Talmud. In my view, the idea of "not in heaven" validates creative human interpretation of the texts of the Torah and ethical sensibilities inspired by them, rather than labored reinterpretations stemming from adherence to belief systems alien to these texts.
Let me stress that the problem does not lie in the modern or post-modern goals and ideas themselves, some aspects of which may very well be praiseworthy and even essential for "yishuv ha-‘olam," or social well-being. Rather, it lies is in the fallacy that these goals and ideas constitute an authentic and viable interpretation of the Jewish tradition itself.
I believe that the famous saying of the Talmudic sages – "If someone tells you there is wisdom amongst the nations believe it . . . [but] that there is Torah, do not believe it" – can be read in this manner. There is nothing wrong with embracing notions from feminism, alternative healing, Zen meditation or socialism, so long as one does not mistakenly think that these are tantamount to Torah. Obviously, from a scholarly point of view, it is obvious that Judaism is multifaceted and, over time, adopted sundry alien accretions. Yet I sometimes wonder if the effort to prove this point to more narrowminded and parochial Jews has not led some of us to overlook the historical fact that there is indeed some basic core that can be described as "Torah," which defines the Jewish mainstream and ensures a sense of continuity.
Ultimately, the deep problem that I find in the present-oriented approaches is their uncritical sanctification of the present. Many citizens of ancient Rome were undoubtedly convinced of the high level of civilization of their brutal and corrupt empire. Likewise, many people today find inspiration in so-called "democratic" and "liberal" regimes that are systematically building and deploying vast military structures, undermining social rights, destroying nature and severely neglecting culture and learning, while ultimately serving corporate interests.
Yes, one possible corrective to the veneration of the present is conservative: the steadfast preservation of the qualities of the past. But for most Jews, this will not suffice, which is why the critique of the present must be oriented towards the horizon of the future. To put it another way: one meaning of the idea of faith is that the possibilities offered by the past and the present are not one’s sole frame of reference. Faith includes the exciting and liberating sense that only a small part of the possibilities latent in the richness of the Jewish world have yet been revealed.
Visions of the Future
Within the vast corpus of Jewish religious writings, there are several terms that look to the horizon of the future and imply a critique of the beliefs and practices of the present. These include geula (
redemption), and teshuva
(return). Here, however, I wish to focus on the current reawakening of the concept of nevua
(prophecy). The yearning for the return of prophecy, or at least the revitalization of prophetic discourse, was a central issue for important 20th century thinkers such as Avraham Isaac Kook
and Abraham Joshua Heschel
, to name but two. And today, at the dawn of the 21st century, we are witnessing such diverse manifestations of renewed interest as the "Bnei ha-Nevi’im
" (Sons of the Prophets) Yeshiva in Chicago, a lively debate in the widely circulated religious Zionist weekly Makor Rishon,
and a "Prophecy Workshop" at the Elul beit midrash in Jerusalem, where secular and religious Israelis study together.
The figure of the prophet brings together manifold associations and expectations. He or she is deemed to have attained a level of mystical perfection, or to embody an alternative form of political or moral authority. Two of the facets of the prophetic image are most relevant for the present discussion: Orientation toward the future (mythically described as the ability to predict the future), and a sharp critical stance toward the social practices and spiritual priorities of the present, including an incisive critique of conventional approaches to ritual.
Scholars and thinkers at the Shalom Hartman Institute and other innovative centers of Jewish learning have done much valuable work on the reinterpretation and revitalization of halakha in contemporary life. I would submit that the time has come for a similar treatment of the idea of nevuah. The role of prophecy in determining the future and nature of ritual is one important component of this discussion. But it is no less important to begin a serious examination of ritual paths to arousing prophetic consciousness, while avoiding – and this is the hard part – the pitfalls of "New Age" subjectivism, commercialism and eclecticism.
Religious practice as a means of arousing prophetic consciousness is hardly new. For example, the great 16th century kabbalist, Rabbi Hayyim Vital
, in his introduction to "The Gate of the Commandments," writes that joy in performance of the mitzvot
is a crucial means of obtaining the Holy Spirit. What I have in mind, however, are forms of practice that go beyond familiar ritual activity.
To this end, we ought to explore not only the philosophical and halakhic contributions of Maimonides, but also that of his son, Rabbi Avraham of Egypt
(1186-1237). Rabbi Avraham established a dynasty of Jewish spiritual leaders with mystical leanings, who were heavily influenced by their Sufi contemporaries. Like his father, he was keenly interested in the issue of prophecy, but for him it was more explicitly a practical goal. In his book HaMaspik LeOvdei HaShem
, a guide to religious perfection that was markedly influenced by Islamic mystical techniques, he declared that the Hebrew prophets and their students (or "sons of the prophets") all pursued meditative isolation, and actively distanced themselves from urban life.
This approach was heartily endorsed in the mid-20th century by a principal student of Rabbi Kook, Rabbi David Cohen (known as the “Nazir” or Nazirite) who wrote as follows:
The prophets and the sons of the prophets isolated themselves in the hills . . . they did not have many books with them… all this weight of books and papers, which stuff the soul with paper, which distract awareness from the exalted and uplifted, the purity of God’s skies – not through these shall be revealed and renewed the spirit of prophecy, but through Oral Torah, study in the mountains and hills, facing the holy fields.
In this vision, the revitalization of Jewish spirituality will not come from adoption of the mores of the industrialized world, but on the contrary, from a move away from urban settings and from an exclusive focus on scholastic study. In this move, which was shared by many of the Hasidim and the adherents of the ethical Mussar
movement of the 19th century, the individual is empowered by solitude, by removal from saturation in urban and literate culture. Yet it must be emphasized that the ultimate goal of this archaic, quasi-shamanic practice is not narcissistic self-contemplation, but rather a return to the community with a critique of the present and a message for the future.
As Steven Foster and Meredith Little, authors of the neo-shamanic " Book of the Vision Quest
" (1989), admirably put it: "You must leave everything behind. You must go to a natural place that is sacred and apart . . . here you must be tried . . . you must wait for wisdom, your guide . . . you must return with vision for your people."
Lest one be misled, the direction suggested here is exactly the opposite of "New Age" spirituality. Instead of immersion in media messages and marketing technologies, we have withdrawal from the entire urban milieu. Instead of the search for facile cures and weekend enlightenments, we have arduous confrontation with the natural environment. Instead of the pursuit of individual "happiness," we have a serious quest for the healing of the community. Furthermore, contrary to some contemporary neo-kabbalistic trends, there is no attempt here to declare any given individual to be a "prophet," akin to a "New Age" guru. Nor does this way of thinking promote any specific technique to be "patented" and marketed forthwith. It favors, rather, texts such as those of the “Nazir” or Foster and Little, which provide an impetus for going beyond textual study – without negating its importance – and a means of empowering individuals who choose this path to challenge the conventions of the present.
In closing, let me clarify what prophecy is not.
1. Prophecy should not be interpreted as a rupture with the Talmudic worldview, which allegedly declared prophecy to have ended. On the contrary, the Talmud explicitly says (Bava Batra 12b), that prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to the sages.
2. Although some thinkers, notably Rabbi Kook, lent an antinomian slant to the notion of the renewal of prophecy, and saw it as a mechanism for altering halakha, this should not be seen as a necessary component of prophetic discourse. Indeed the visionary imagination can enhance, extend and embellish existing practices just as much as it can abrogate or modify them. For example, building one’s sukkah – which according to the Talmud is designed to "move [you] out of your permanent dwelling" – in a natural setting would seem to be a far fresher performance of this commandment than buying a pre-fabricated sukkah to place on a balcony.
3. Similarly, the espousal of a prophetic religious sensibility should not be interpreted as the marginalizing of ritual action in favor of a more abstract or "internal" consciousness, "mystical" or otherwise. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s apt phrase "ecstasy of deeds," which captures the profound spiritual experience of performing the commandments, is very pertinent. One of the first kabbalists, Rabbi Avraham Ben David
(RABad) of Provence (1120-1197), wrote of the "Holy Spirit" which appeared in the beit midrash during discussions of halakhic and ritual issues. This is echoed in popular ethical treatises penned by later kabbalists, such as Hayyim Vital’s Sha’arei Kedushah
and Moshe Hayyim Luzzato’s Mesillat Yesharim
, both of which offer a spiritual path leading from meticulous observance of ritual to prophetic states.
4. Finally, there is no attempt here to point at a "correct path," which holds good for the entire Jewish people. Such a move would only exacerbate the present state of dissent and fragmentation. Prophecy is of universal nature, as in the Talmudic notion of "Neviei Umot Ha’Olam," the prophets of the nations. In contemporary terms, one can well include Geroge Orwell or Michel Foucault in this illustrious category. At the same time, any ritual suggestion holds good only for those of us who may be attracted to such possibilities. Even the strongest opinions offered here are obviously not intended as prophecies, but merely as a counterpoint to the tendency to be overly charmed by contemporary trends.
Our opening quandary, following Rashi’s interpretation of the Talmudic position on ritual in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, was the difficulty inherent in founding ritual on the consensus of the community in today’s fragmented world. The first step is to accept the obvious fact that there is no one "Jewish world." Yet this does not preclude the possibility of the wide revitalization of Jewish practice through a sense of fresh revelation. Should that happen, many Jews who are either distant from any communal ritual, or participate in it in a stale, unenthusiastic manner, might find new excitement in the observance of any number of the commandments – just as many Jews, in Israel and abroad, have found a sense of commitment and connection through new forms of textual study.
The approach suggested here, despite its citation – and celebration – of relevant texts, is not primarily text-centered. The notion of prophecy gives more room to individual religious intuition, while maintaining, indeed reinforcing, social awareness. But such future-oriented thinking prudently avoids the prediction of outcomes, or even concrete programs. A revolutionary who describes the post-revolutionary society in detail is simply projecting the present onto the future.
It is my hope that the critique and ideas raised here can move us, however slightly, beyond tired variations on modern and post-modern thought, and help to stimulate a more complex and vibrant discourse, one that is more in tune with the staggering social changes taking place before our eyes. Those who perceive themselves as innovative and radical are often just reworking the ideas of two or three decades ago. The best way to avoid this trap is twofold: Projecting oneself toward the future, yet at the same time connecting ever more deeply to the resources of the past – not least the open-ended wonders of the Talmudic world.
Adapted from an article in Havruta, a Journal of Jewish Conversation, Vol. 1, No. 1, published by Shalom Hartman Institute