Friday, November 4, 2011

Kant Buy Me Freedom

Hello everyone,

I would like to apologize for the length of time between these posts. Unfortunately, college applications have had to take priority over blogging the past couple of weeks. (Although every time I sit down to do schoolwork instead of blog about Avot d’Rabbi Natan, I think of Rabbi Matya ben Charash’s admonition in the first perek: “Ein tov la’azov et divrei Elohim Chayim v’lishtof b’derech eretz; It isn’t good to leave the words of the Living God and engage in worldly matters!”) But, I have to remind myself, im ein kemach ein Torah, without flour (read: college applications), there is no Torah. Although I guess the obvious response to that would be im ein Torah ein kemach

Because Avital and I saw one another in person in between this post and the last one, a lot of learning has happened, and I will, regrettably, not be able to provide an adequate summary of all of it. Instead, I am going to focus on a couple of interesting pieces we have learned over the last couple of weeks.

“At that time Moshe went up to receive the Ten Commandments, that were written and put down at the time of Creation, as it is written (Shemot 32): “’V’ha’luchot ma’aseh Elohim hemah, v’ha’michtav michtav Elohim hu charut al ha’luchot’—al tikrei ‘charut’, eila ‘cheirut’, she’kol mi she’osek ba’Torah harei hu ben-chorin le’atzmo. And the Tablets are the work of God, and the writing is the writing of God that is engraved on the Tablets—do not read “engraved” (charut), rather read “freedom” (cheirut) because whoever engages in Torah is a free person.” I was immediately struck by this phrase. If I were to list all of my favorite things about Torah study (and there are many!), “freedom” would not be one of the words to first come to mind. In fact, my belief in the compatibility of freedom and Torah learning is sometimes a bit tenuous. At times, it feels like living my life within the context of Torah and Halachah gives me a sort of freedom to better be who I am. But, at other times, it feels like Torah study is meant to lead to a Halachic lifestyle that inhibits my freedom more than anything else. As we discussed this, Avital offered an incredibly insightful comment connecting the idea of “whoever engages in Torah is a free person” with Kantian philosophy. Kant describes freedom as the ability to think and understand for oneself. Avital recently wrote me an email as we continued to discuss the idea and explained: “Kant's definition of enlightenment is the ability to use reason for oneself instead of relying on other people's reasoning and taking what they say as a given. He says that a ruler should try to increase enlightenment, so the one thing he can't prohibit is public, academic use of reason. It's good if rulers mandate behavior because then everything will be orderly, but they shouldn't ever stop people from arguing. He describes his favorite monarchs as saying ‘Argue as much as you want, about whatever you want, but obey!’ Isn't that really Jewish? There are no belief requirements, and you're encouraged to question and argue as much as possible, but you have to follow the rules. God is an enlightened monarch!” I have often felt that “struggling with the issues” is a slightly dishonest way to describe contemplation of one’s Jewish life because, if one has committed to living a life guided by Halachah, we already know the general answers at which we are going to arrive before the struggling. (Of course, Halachah is not a machine that gives a single answer, and thought and time must go into making a true halachic decision. However, if I “struggle” with observance of Shabbat, I don’t intend to actually stop observing Shabbat. I wrestle with how to make my practice meaningful, but I have my end goal of shmirat Shabbat in mind through the struggling.) Kant’s description of freedom and questioning makes me feel like my way of struggling isn’t that dishonest after all. Perhaps, the text is telling us, there is a freedom greater than freedom of action.

Another interesting story immediately follows the Freedom/Torah discussion. The ministering angels, relates the text, strongly disapproved of Hashem giving the Ten Commandments to Moshe. Hashem ignores them and gives the tablets to Moshe anyways. When Moshe descends the Mount Sinai and sees the people worshipping the Golden Calf, he exclaims: “Heyach ani noten lahem et ha’luchot, mazkikani otan limtzot chamurot umchayvani otan mita la’shamayim. She’ken katuv ba’hen ‘lo yihiye lecha elohim acherim al panai. How can I give them these Tablets? I would be obligating them to major commandments and, thus, condemning them to death, as it says on them, “You shall have no other gods before Me”. This midrash explains that Moshe breaks the Tablets out of his concern for the Jewish people. If he had given the laws to them, they surely would have died, as they were already breaking one of the most important mitzvot! “Don’t give people more than they can handle,” seems to be the message here. Or, perhaps more accurately, “Don’t put someone in a situation in which there is no chance of a positive outcome.”

The last piece I would like to focus on is a short section in the text that describes the seyag (fence) the Prophets put around their words. The majority of the passage goes through different metaphors for God used throughout the Tanach and then adds the caveat that there is a difference between earthly and heavenly versions of that description. For example, it quotes a pasuk from Amos in which Hashem is described as a lion. But, Avot d’Rabbi Natan warns us, “lo ke’aryeh she’lemata, ela ke’arye she’le’maalah, not like an earthly lion but rather like a heavenly lion.” Metaphors, then, are a seyag around God. God is this awesome power that is really beyond human description, and so we use metaphors (a lion, a warrior, etc.) to begin to understand, so that we may attempt to approach. Rabbi Judah Goldin agrees, explaining that the Prophets’s seyag is that “they employed some metaphor in the description of God who, strictly speaking, is beyond description and comparison.” The section ends with a line that I think quite appropriately explains the use of metaphor: “Eila mareen et ha’ayin ma she’yechola lirot, u’mashmi’een et ha’ozen ma she’yechola lishmoah, But the eye is shown what it can see and the ear is permitted to hear what it can hear.”

One last thought… I am signing up for classes next semester at the university, and I am considering taking a Bible as Literature class. I, of course, do not intend to start viewing Torah as just another piece of literature, but the class sounds interesting, is with a really great professor, and is something that I have never studied before. BUT we learned this week towards the end of the second perek: “Don’t go out among the apikorsim (heretics, those who have left the tradition), and do not enter into their presence because you might stumble. You might say, ‘I am confident in myself, and even if I go out among them, I will not stumble. I will hear what they have to say and then return.” Avot d’Rabbi Natan responds to these people by quoting a pasuk from Proverbs: “Kol ba’eyah lo yeshuvun v’lo yashigu archot chayim, All that go unto her do not return and neither do they attain long life.” Does Chazal have an unnecessarily negative view of human nature? Is it ridiculous to claim that I may lose my entire identity just by listening to another point of view? Or is there some truth to this? Another line from Proverbs quoted here explains that: “Until an arrow strikes through his liver, like a bird hastens to the snare, he didn’t know that it was at the cost of his life.” I don’t want to be that bird! Any thoughts? Please feel free to voice opinions in the comments!

Shabbat shalom to all!

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