Tag Archives: Saul Lieberman

to the yeshiva and back – part one

Beer Yaakov

A yeshiva bachur is a young man who studies in a traditional Talmudic academy; a Yeshiva.  It is said that you can take the bachur out of the yeshiva but you can’t take the yeshiva out of the bachur.  I define myself and my relationship with Judaism in many ways. I’m post-orthodox, traditional but not halachic, evolved and evolving, but one thing I will always be; is a yeshiva bachur. Guilty as charged.

If there is one concept or disposition that I cannot shake it is Bitul Torah. Literally the nullification of Torah, but more precisely the prohibition against wasting potential Torah study time. According to no less of a source than halachipedia: “It is imperative upon a person to use his free time for Torah study. If one wastes one’s free time on useless means, one is in violation of Bitul Torah.” The very concept of time is redefined in the Yeshiva world (and it is a world unto itself) where there are texts to be studied and concepts to be argued from morning to night and every second is literally… fleeting.  The Talmud has a powerful expression to emphasis the point.

אם תעזבני יום יומים אעזבך

“If you leave Me for one day, I will leave you for two days.” [i]

This is an early allusion to the economic concept of opportunity cost.  There is always Torah to learn and it does not wait for you, it keeps moving. You cannot return to where you left off, it has already left and gone. If you miss a day of learning you have lost both the day you could have had and the day you had.  This heightened sense of time, especially as relates to study, is for me the essence of the yeshiva and that sense has never left me.

Said Professor Saul Lieberman; when his learning was interrupted by someone asking for his time “money I have, time I don’t”.  A contribution he could make, an appearance, not so much.

In the yeshiva, learning has less to do with the knowledge gained than with the act itself.  A learned scholar who does not constantly add to his knowledge is of less worth that a less intellectually endowed student who sits and learns… day and night.  When shown a very learned businessman, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, the head of the yeshiva of my youth was unimpressed and quipped “If you know how to steal but don’t steal, does that make you a ganif (thief)? … If you know how to learn but don’t, does that make you a lamdin (learner)?” … not exactly.

The second most impactful characteristic of the bachur yeshiva is purity verging on naiveté.  A popular song, actually a chant, sung over and over again in a trance-like hora is from the Shabbat liturgy:

וְטַהֵר לִבֵּנוּ לְעָבְדְּךָ בֶאֱמֶת

Purify our heart to serve You in truth

see

Ironically this song was also taken by the Israeli secular pioneers (halutzim) to celebrate their pure and undivided and untarnished focus on the labor (avodah) necessary to build a new land.

Listen[ii]:

The pioneers translated this purity into the simple life of the kibbutz which eschewed makeup, jewelry and bourgeois accouterments. For the yeshiva bachur it was the simple life of the monk, lehvdil.

פת במלח תאכל ומים במשורה תשתה ועל הארץ תישן וחיי צער תחיה ובתורה אתה עמל

אם אתה עשה כן, אשריך וטוב לך, אשריך בעולם הזה וטוב לך לעולם הבא

Such is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall eat, water in small measure you shall drink, and upon the ground you shall sleep; live a life of deprivation and toil in Torah. If so you do, “fortunate are you, and good is to you” (Psalms 128:2): fortunate are you in this world, and it is good to you in the World To Come.[iii]

Which brings me to my return to the yeshiva, part one.

I was near Beer Yaakov on a recent visit to Israel so I decided to return… return to the yeshiva of my youth.

As a nineteen year old, I went to Yeshiva Beer Yaakov at the advice of my cousin Aviezer Wolfson, a businessman, scholar and composer. Aviezer had studied at the yeshiva and my grandfather, Charles Wolfson and his brothers had financed the buildings and sefer Torahs at the Yeshiva.  The main attraction was the Mashgiach Ruchni (spiritual guide), Harav Shlomo Wolbe who was considered when he passed away, the last of the great Mussarniks. Rav Wolbe was a card carrying Haredi who was raised in a secular home and graduated from the university of Berlin in 1933.  He ended up (it’s a long story) at the Meir Yeshiva as a student of Rav Yerucham Levovitz a student of the Alter of Kelm a disciple of Rav Yisroel Salanter the founder of the Mussar Movement. Learning under Rav Wolbe, especially in small, by invitation only, vaadim, was a unique privilege and opportunity to be directly connected through him to Rav Yisrael Salanter, this founder of a  lesser known but unique movement that coincided with the emergence of Hasidism and the haskalah. Rav Wolbe took one student every year to study Chumash with Rashi every morning.  In my second year at the yeshiva, I was that student.

Lieberman and Wolbe

Prof. Saul Lieberman and Rav Shlomo Wolbe

Lieberman Wolbe and Stern

don’t ask.. I don’t remember what we were discussing…

Liberman Wolbe and Sterns

Rav Wolbe, Geoffrey (Shlomo), Orna, Jane and Chaya

Wolbe and SternHere are previously unpublished photos of Rav Wolbe at my Sheva Barachot with Professor Saul Lieberman (who was mesader kiddushin at my wedding).

Wolbe speaking

 

 

 

 
It took me a while to find the Yeshiva.  In my day, it was isolated amongst orange groves and it’s students emerged from their isolation only once in every six shabbats to return to the civilized world.  Now it is pluck in the middle of the urban sprawl of a bustling city of Beer Yaakov, necessitating a privacy curtain (those Halutzim had built well…).

prviacy curtains

Even with all the privacy, I could already tell from the signage that the Yeshiva had fallen….  on hard times.  I couldn’t get over the fact that my isolated yeshiva was now in the middle of a city. There used to be orange groves there now it was a major thoroughfare.

panorama

Once I made my way past the privacy curtains I saw the students gathered around a printed notice on the door to the study hall.  I made my way in and read with disbelief that the yeshiva had been without electricity since the beginning of the month and the administration was pleased to announce that they had finally negotiaated a payment plan with the electric company.

According to matzav.com (The Jewish world at your fingertips)

no electricty

Here’s the notice posted the day of my visit on May 23rd:

notice

The notice thanks the students for their savlanut (patience and endurance) and thanks God for helping to craft a deal with the power authority.  That said, there are strict regulations, punishable with fines for misusing electricity for private air conditioning in the dorms.

Here’s a picture of the aforementioned generator, which in my day was used every Shabbat so that the yeshiva was not powered by electricity produced by Jews on the Sabbath.

generator

The yeshiva baring my Uncles name was in disrepair.

Isaac

 

But inside, I was just in time for the afternoon service.  When I pray now, I am usually one of the last to finish…  but here at my roots, I was amongst the first.  At Beer Yaakov, on a simple everyday afternoon mincha service no prayer is finished before its time… prayers are savored like a fine wine, not gobbled like fast-food. I guess that stayed with me.

beit medrash

My  visit to Beer Yaakov that day was spontaneous and I was not dressed in the uniform white shirt and black pants.  I had no jacket and only my LoBa Kippah, which I turned inside out (ונהפכו).  I felt very comfortable and no one either approached me to say Shalom Alechem nor did they stare at me…. I was just another guy coming in, probably to say kaddish. I started walking around the “campus” and a student approached.  “I studied here” I said… under “Rav Wolbe” I added.  Now there was interest.  Now I was a link.  Students gathered as I described how it was and asked to see and describe the dining room and dorm as I remembered them.  “Where is Rav Wolbe’s house” I asked.  To my shock, the home were we gathered late at night for a vaad was now condemned.

Rv Wolbe's house

It  was sad, but maybe fitting.  The master had passed and so had an era.  The student who showed me around had the purity and simplicity that I had remembered and the food in the dining room was as sparse as I remember it…. and the Torah was being studied with only bread and water and apparently no electricity.  For me and the students, Rav Wolbe’s wisdom still echoes in the hall.  It was time for me to go.

There is much written in the agadata (non legal texts of the Talmud) about a grove (pardes) and a destroyed edifice (chorvah).  On my return to the Yeshiva of my youth I found a pardes that is no more and a chorvah that contains much of my core.  I left the Yeshiva that day.  Needless to say, the yeshiva remains in me.

———————–

[i] Sifrei on Deut. 11:22, Yerushalmi Ber. 9:5, Midrash Shmuel 1 as quoted in Rashi Deuteronomy 11:13 Similar is [the meaning of]“And it will be, if you forget” (אִם שָׁכֹחַ תִּשְׁכַּח) (Deut. 8:19): If you have begun to forget [the Torah you have learned], eventually you will forget all of it, for so it is written in the Megillah 1: “If you leave Me for one day, I will leave you for two days.”

[ii]Vitaher Libeynu (And Purify Our Hearts). 5:58 – 7:25 here.

[iii] In the name of Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi Pirkei Avot 6:4

 

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Who’s the Apikoros now?

Parshat Terumah

If, as a yeshiva student, I was found thinking, reading or espousing a particularly heterodox view, there were a number of choice words of reproach I could expect:

Kofer or long form: kofer baikkur means one who rejects that which is essential [i.e., is guilty of heresy]. We all encounter this term once a year in the Passover Haggada regarding the Wicked Son. Compare to the Arabic kāfir.

Shegetz (feminine shiksa) is another popular term mostly reserved for non-Jews, but when a Jew calls another Jew a shegetz, it is in condemnation of behavior or a lifestyle not considered Jewish enough.  (For another blog post… how Jewish is Jewish enough?)

Apikoros, my favorite label for a Jewish heretic not only because it has a Greek-cosmopolitan ring to it, but because it suggests a thinking man’s heresy. Most scholars assume that Apikoros is derived from the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (around 307 BC).

Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility. Epicureanism includes a determinism which led to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention.

The Rabbis of the Talmud used this term as a target of their attacks on heretics, but Saul Lieberman, the greatest scholar on Greek in Jewish Palestine (and the Rabbi who married my wife and me) writes “There is no evidence that the Rabbis knew about the teaching of Epicurus more than the current general phrases.” Text and Studies by Saul Lieberman, Ktav Publishing House, 1974 p 223)

So, Apikoros has become a pejorative label pasted on Jewish heterodox thinkers accused of being corrupted by Greek and other alien thought.

I always found this amusing, because my “splitting of paths” with mainstream Jewish Orthodox thought and Jewish Mysticism was, in large part, because I believed that they had absorbed to the point of saturation,an alien.. and even contra-Jewish thought process, more typical of Christianity, which was antithetical to the most fundamental Jewish beliefs in Creation and Revelation. Let me explain…

Any liberal-arts student will remember from their freshman Great-Ideas course, a dialog from Plato’s Republic, where Socrates and Thrasymachus hash out a definition of Justice. Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) argues in Book I of the Republic as follows:

I will proceed by asking a question: Would you not say that a horse has some end?

I should.

And the end or use of a horse or of anything would be that which could not be accomplished, or not so well accomplished, by any other thing?

I do not understand, he said.

Let me explain: Can you see, except with the eye?

Certainly not.

Or hear, except with the ear?

No.

These then may be truly said to be the ends of these organs?

They may. …..


And that to which an end is appointed has also an excellence? Need I ask again whether the eye has an end?

It has.

And has not the eye an excellence?

Yes.

And the ear has an end and an excellence also?

True.

And the same is true of all other things; they have each of them an end and a special excellence? …..

Certainly, he replied.

I might say the same of the ears; when deprived of their own proper excellence they cannot fulfill their end?

True.

And the same observation will apply to all other things?

I agree.

Well; and has not the soul an end which nothing else can fulfill? for example, to superintend and command and deliberate and the like. Are not these functions proper to the soul, and can they rightly be assigned to any other?

To no other.

And is not life to be reckoned among the ends of the soul?

Assuredly, he said.

And has not the soul an excellence also?

Yes.

And can she or can she not fulfill her own ends when deprived of that excellence?

She cannot.

Then an evil soul must necessarily be an evil ruler and superintendent, and the good soul a good ruler?

Yes, necessarily.

And we have admitted that justice is the excellence of the soul, and injustice the defect of the soul?

That has been admitted.

Then the just soul and the just man will live well, and the unjust man will live ill?

That is what your argument proves.

And he who lives well is blessed and happy, and he who lives ill the reverse of happy?

Certainly.

Then the just is happy, and the unjust miserable?

So be it.

But happiness and not misery is profitable.

Of course.

Then, my blessed Thrasymachus, injustice can never be more profitable than justice.

Plato’s use of the word “end” and “excellence” could be taken to be just a concept. Meaning that in reality, there is nothing that actually exists which represents the “end” or “excellence” of something… but that the idea of such a thing serves as a benchmark.

But there is another, even more famous Platonic dialogue in The Republic called “The Allegory of the Cave” which takes this thought process one stop further:

Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not constitutive of reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

This gave rise to Plato’s Theory of Forms. Whether Plato ever ascribed real existence to these forms or Ideas is an open question. But his followers, especially Plotinus, the Platonists and latter Neoplatonists did. This gave birth to a popular understanding of a higher and parallel world of perfect Ideas which could actually interact with the imperfect physical world below. In the universe of the mystics .. one aspired to achieve unity between the two worlds. This Neoplatonism was the prevailing Greek thought that suffused the world inhabited by the Rabbinic Jews of Israel, Babylonia and Alexandria.

Which brings us to Parshat Terumah and Exodus 25:9 regarding the construction of the: the Tabernacle….

“According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it.”

A simple reading would take this verse to mean that although God was going to verbally describe the details of the construction of the Tabernacle, He was, like any good architect, also going to provide a pattern or blueprint. But the Rabbis… showing their Neo-Platonist colors.. took this pattern as a reference to God showing Moses the Ideal form of a transcendent Tabernacle. As Harry Austryn Wolfson writes in his seminal work on the Jewish philosopher Philo:

“According to this Jewish tradition there had been in existence an ideal tabernacle or, as it is usually called, sanctuary, prior to the building of the visible tabernacle in the wilderness; and it was that ideal tabernacle which God showed to Moses as a pattern for the visible tabernacle. This tradition is expressed in two ways, Sometimes it is said that the ideal sanctuary was created by God prior to the creation of the world (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 54a , Nedarim 39b
Tanhuma Numbers, Naso 19 ) … This ideal sanctuary is referred to as the “celestial sanctuary” (Genesis Rabbah 55:7 bet Ha-mikdash le-ma’alah..). Besides the sanctuary, there were also ideal models of all its vessels, and these, too, were shown to Moses when he was in heaven. This belief in the preëxistence of the tabernacle and its vessels is part of a more general belief in the preëxistence of certain objects or actions which were subsequently to play a part in scriptural history. … The preëxistence of some of these occurs also in the apocalyptic literature. Two of these preëxistent ten are also mentioned by Hellenistic Jewish writers. First, the preëxistence of the Law is affirmed by them in their identification of it with wisdom which in Scripture is said to have existed prior to the creation of the world. Second, the preëxistence of the tabernacle is stated in the following verse: “Thou gavest command to build a sanctuary in the holy mountain and an altar in the city of thy habitation, a copy of the holy tabernacle which Thou preparedst beforehand from the beginning.” Wisdom of Solomon 9:8 (Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Harry Austryn Wolfson, Harvard University Press (1947) p182-184)

Although Wolfson concludes that this concept of preëxistence was “an old Semitic belief”, he agrees that “For the Hellenistic Jews it was quite natural to blend such beliefs in the preëxistence of things with the Platonic theory of Ideas.”

The old Semitic belief, that Wolfson references, is Wisdom Literature such as assimilated into Judaism in the Book of Proverbs. Normally, Wisdom Literature was kept entirely distinct from the revealed Law of the Torah. But the attraction of the theory of Forms was so strong, that the Rabbis succumbed to its pull… most famously in the first verse of the Torah the Rabbis play on the similarity between a description of the preëxistent Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22 The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old: and Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning” .. or with “Reshit” … now Wisdom-Torah.

The Torah declares: ‘I was the working tool of the Holy One, blessed be He.’ In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED (1:1), BEGINNING referring to the Torah, as in the verse, “The Lord made me as the beginning of His way” (Prov. 8:22). (Genesis Rabah 1:1)

Similarly, the Rabbis introduced the absurd belief that the Patriarchs observed the Torah in so far as they kept the, as yet unrevealed laws of kashrut or even Passover… before the sojourn in Egypt. This perverse belief is commonly accepted in the Orthodox Jewish community today, which is surprising since the primary sources for this travesty of anachronism, is in the extra-biblical Book of Sirah (included in the Septuagent but not Hebrew Bible) and the Pseudepigrapha such as the Book of Jubilees whose relevant verses are paraphrased here:

The (Book of Jubilees) author’s … practice of founding essential legal practices in the time of the ancients of Genesis rather than in the age of Moses. For example, … Noah first celebrated the Festival of Weeks (see 6:17–22) and later Abraham, too, observed this holiday, which became the anniversary of the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants (6:17–22; 15:1–2). The Festivals of Tabernacles (16:20–23; 32:4–9, 27–29) and Unleavened Bread (18:18–19) and the Day of Atonement (34:17–19, which commemorates Jacob’s torment on learning of Joseph’s “death”) also were introduced in the age of the fathers. The author’s reason for antedating these practices can only be surmised, but it is clear that he wished to impress upon his audience that these essential acts of obedience to the covenant were not the innovations of a later age that were imposed upon the religion of the patriarchs. They had been in force since earliest times, were inscribed immutably and eternally on the heavenly tablets (of the numerous cases, see, for example, 3:10, 31; 6:17; 15:25; 16:28–29; etc.), and in some instances were practiced in heaven (Sabbath [2:30]; Festival of Weeks [6:18]; circumcision [15:27]). These provisions were to be observed scrupulously in the present if the ideal future was to be realized. (Anchor Bible Dictionary, Book of Jubilees see also (Two Views of the patriarchs: Noachide and pre-Sinai Israelites, Joseph P. Schultz in Texts and responses: Studies presented to Nahum N. Glatzer.. ed. Michael A. Fishbane, Brill Archive, 1975)

So what is my objections to the transformation of the Torah and its commandments into the Eternal Platonic Forms or the preëxistent Wisdom? Why is it to me the heresy of heresies? Because it contradicts the two most basic tenets and the crux of that which is revolutionary about Judaism… Creation and the Giving of the Law/Covenant…. (I don’t use the inaccurate translation of Matan Torah as “revelation” since it is tainted by preëxistence. Reveal-ation presupposes an already existent law that is now being revealed)

Creation… especially creation from nothing (ex nihlo – Yeysh meAyin) means that there is NOTHING inevitable about our world. Our world and our lives truly do not have to be. It means that the world as we know it is unthinkably different from the the Divine. The divine is eternal and perfect; our world is material, finite, imperfect, made up of disconnected moments and always changing.  All creatures, including man are similarly a radical contingency.. Man is ultimately made of dirt and is given a name; Adam, to prove it. The same is true of the radical nature of Matan Torah.. the giving of the Torah. It is radically contingent on the shared history of God and a particular people who He has chosen at a particular moment in time. The Passover holiday is radically contingent on the shared experience of the Exodus from Egypt and to imagine it celebrated centuries before the exodus shows a lack of wonder at the radically contingent world and Torah we have been given. A belief in an immutable and eternal world and Torah is an implicit rejections of the possibility of God’s presence in history, the covenantal experience, the evolution of our law and beliefs and ulimatley, a rejection of the responsibility our contengcy places on us; the protagonists.

The natural progression of this thought process, is of course that since the world of Ideas or Platonic Forms is superior to the messy world below (Beit hamikdash shel matah) then our focus should be towards this ideal world. The early Christians took this leap by emphasizing the New Jerusalem. This Jerusalem was no longer a contingent and particular Jewish Capital city, but a universal idea… a Form a Logos. Such thinking produced a new covenant (aka The New Testament – Brit Hadash) which, unlike the Old Covenant, was not based on a reciprocal relationship and shared history between God and a particular people, but was an immutable ideal. A new covenant, based not on shared history, practical deeds and commandments, but based on faith… on an Idea. No surprise that The Fourth Gospel of John comes directly from the previously referenced rabbinic interpretation of Genesis Rabah 1:1 “In the Beginning was the Idea (Logos)

It is clear to me why the Rabbis would have been receptive to a preëxistent Torah, since such a Torah is eternal and immutable it becomes unchangeable and the authority of its interpreters; the Rabbis, becomes unquestionable. The Rabbis, like Plato’s philosopher-king and all benign dictators up to the present day, are the only ones with the keys to the castle of Ideas. These dictators are also quick to accuse their detractors, of exactly the crime, they themselves are guilty. My wife’s favorite Israeli expression comes to mind: “The hat burns on the head of the thief.”

In the realm of political thought, Karl Popper in his The Open Society and it Enemies has shown how dangerous the idea of a Philospher- king can be for politics and the support of tyranny.. but the book (working title: An Open Judaism and its Enemies) still needs to be written.

So if the broad definition of an Apikoros is a Jew who has been corrupted by alien thought… in deep reflection I turn with a wink to the tribunal of Heaven (Bi-yeshivah shel ma’alah) and the tribunal of earth (Bi-yeshivah shel matah) and before I beat my own heart, I ask a simple question: Whose the Apikoros now?

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