Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Current

Parshat Hukat
27 Sivan, 5771
June 29th, 2011

            On the boat ride out to our dive site, the divemaster mentioned that the current around Cozumel (it’s an island) was stronger than usual, and that we should be prepared.
            I’m not much of a scuba diver, but the Mexican Carribean is considered to have some of the best diving in the world. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
I did not, however, grasp what the divemaster was telling me.
            As my guide and I descended, the current grabbed us and basically threw us along the ledge of the trench that lies between Cozumel and Cancun. When we surfaced forty minutes later, we had traveled so far our starting point could not be seen.
            Please know that I wasn’t in danger. I am not trying to convey the appearance of risk. It was the experience of being pushed along by the current that I want to share.
            It felt like nothing so much as flying. Sixty feet under the water, I was flying.
            Every once in a while, we are blessed with the experience that we are connected with something infinitely greater than us. This experience of the numinous gives extraordinary perspective on life; we understand in an instant the great forces that propel us forward, so large that we were unable to see them for their vastness. We realize that much of who we are and who we become is in hands much larger than our own.
            Some reject these great hands that push us and would rather the choices over our fate be left to individuals, but in them I have found a surprising freedom and beauty. I often pray that they sweep me up along their way. Without them I would not be able to fly. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Do The Heavens Sing?

Parshat Shlah
13 Sivan, 5771
June 15th, 2011

     A friend and I have been cracking our teeth over some Medieval Jewish philosophy. It’s a good metaphor, cracking teeth; we leave every session with our heads ringing.
     The book is An Essay on Teshuvah, and the author Rabbi Menahem Meiri - a brilliant student of Maimonides whose work on the Talmud was recovered after being lost for centuries.
     And here is the question he poses.
     Are the heavens (in the physical sense: stars, constellations, comets and such) beautiful simply because they exist, or are they beautiful because human beings recognize them as beautiful?*
     This question is part of a central philosophical disagreement between essentialism and nominalism: do things like beauty and love actually exist, independent of us? Would they be there even if we were gone? Or does beauty only exist because a human mind names something beautiful?
     To be honest, I have always preferred the purity of the first way of thinking. I would like to think that the Grand Canyon is just as grand without us having to call it so, and that the majesty of so much of God’s creation remains majestic whether or not we’re around to say such. I believe that the stars sing praise to God of their own accord.
     But I also have thought how lonely and quiet the universe would be without us to stick our minds in every nook and cranny of it, asking, judging, chattering, arguing. Whether or not beauty exists independent of humanity, beautiful things are best enjoyed in company. The world is a warmer place because we are here to love it.

* The literal phrasing of the question is more religiously elegant, but more philosophically abstruse : do the heavens sing praise to God simply by through their existing, or is it through our recognition of their movements that the song of praise is created. The first understanding he attributes to the Rambam, the second to Ibn Ezra. Proposition 2, Ch. 2

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Knowing Everything

Parshat Naso
29 Iyyar 5771
June 2nd, 2011
45th Day of the Omer

A story was once told to me about the famously brilliant founder of Agudath Israel in America, Rabbi Eliezer Silver. In the early 1900’s, Rabbi Silver came to America and found work as the rabbi of a congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One night the president of his shul walked by his house one evening and saw him learning Torah.
The president convened a meeting of the board, which promptly fired Rabbi Silver. The reason given was that Rabbi Silver was, apparently, still a student. A real rabbi would know everything.
Part of the inheritance of American intellectual history is, when it comes to learning, an impatience with the space between novicehood and mastery. This is certainly not unique to us, but as the first of the modern democratic nations, we have a heaping dose of it. The time between starting along the path of learning and reaching its apex is considered a waste of time. We would certainly shorten the road could we manage it successfully.
Our impatience with the discomfort of learning has particularly unfortunate side effects for contemporary Jews. A person can come to Shabbat, every Shabbat, for 30 or 40 years and feel no more knowledgeable about our tefillah than when she came in, nor feel that he really knows the content of Torah despite hearing it read every week. Something is amiss.
Patience, my friends, I urge patience. Rabbi Silver had it right – the process of learning is so fine a thing, even if prickly at first, to be worth stretching out over an entire lifetime. Our desire to learn quickly and be done with it has brought us to the place where we never have the time to learn anything. We deserve better than the freneticism of our culture.

“In those old days it was different. For then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks.” Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling