The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 10 november 2017

Part 6 of a 7-part essay

Teaching, the Unheard Music and Being Controversial

Teachers are often misunderstood. This could be due to the lack of clarity or to insufficient explanation. There may be too much emphasis on one dimension of a topic and too little on another. There is also a type of misunderstanding that is not the result of a teacher's mistake or of a student's misinterpretation, but rather due to a complete misrepresentation on an altogether different level. Generally, the reason for this is the presence of an existential 'backdrop' to almost all teaching that is an unheard but keenly felt, latent background music. This has been created over the course of many years through discussions and observations of spiritual and emotional content relating to the teacher, as well as the teacher’s specific spiritual milieu. It is like a seashell in which you hear the perpetual murmur of the distant waves that, while not fully identified, encompass your whole being.

It is necessary for the student to hear this melody while listening to the teacher, as it creates the spiritual framework in which any discourse can take place. If students don't experience this, they are incapable of understanding what the teacher is trying to convey. As such, there is the unique and recognizable music that flows from a particular lecture, and then there is the underlying music, both on the surface and in the background, regardless of the topic discussed. This is the real task of a school – to create a melody that would be heard throughout and that could, unintentionally or even sub-consciously, totally transform a specific discourse. In this way, the general philosophy of the academic institute will be seen as giving unique meaning to every discourse and overthrowing conventional interpretations.

Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould

There is a famous controversy between two of the greatest musicians of our generation – Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. It centered on Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and took place at Carnegie Hall in New York on April, 6, 1962. Uncharacteristically, Leonard Bernstein felt the need to speak to his audience before he conducted this concert in which Glenn Gould would be the pianist. His reason was that he totally disagreed with Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the piano concerto. Bernstein then asked the obvious question: Why is he conducting it? Could he not have one of his students conduct the concert? Bernstein responded by saying that he was utterly fascinated with Gould’s interpretation and wanted to be part of it. It had become a completely new musical experience and, as such, most innovative and refreshing, although Brahms, according to Bernstein, never had Gould's interpretation in mind! This is what musicians call 'the sportive element' in music. What Gould did was to compose a completely new background to every section of the Brahms piano concerto. All sections were set to a new tone, although not a note was changed. The outcome was not just masterful but thoroughly novel.

This same ingenuity should take place in a classroom. The teachers' words may be conventional and lacking novelty but, in light of a new spiritual setting, every word takes on an utterly new dimension.

One may argue that such matters are not crucial to human existence and that we can do without Gould’s interpretation. However, for those who understand that life is not just about surviving, but involves constant re-creation and the need for adventure and experimentation to discover new dimensions, nothing is of greater importance. Living beings constantly move and grow, whereas organic matter, which fails to grow, shifts, decays, and eventually dies. So, too, it is with humans' spiritual life. The role of religion and those who teach is to facilitate the blossoming of the human soul and prevent a person from descending into spiritual stagnation. This is the deeper meaning of Spinoza’s observation: all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.

One must realize, however, that initially the students will not hear the music. Their existential ear will have to become sensitive and slowly open up to this kind of music. The murmur, the spiritual undercurrent, must be activated and emerge from its shell before it can transform the students. This can only occur when the teachers themselves have been touched by this spirit and have tapped into the music.

On Being Controversial

There is little doubt that some will view my thoughts as controversial. Novelty is always considered a threat. The new carries with it a sense of violation, a type of sacrilege. Most people are more at home with that which is dead than with that which is different. This is most unfortunate. To help Judaism move forward, it will sometimes be necessary to challenge well-established religious beliefs. I will do so when we consider them to be problematic in relationship to a broader understanding of Judaism. Simultaneously, I may propose new insights that I believe will benefit authentic Judaism. I sincerely feel that such insights are completely within the framework of Judaism and are of the greatest importance to the future of Judaism and its living spirit.

At the same time, I am aware of the great dangers that accompany the introduction of novel concepts. We should not be overly zealous to encourage innovation in cases of doubtful improvement, where a brand-new mediocrity may replace well-established excellence.

After all, one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore from where the journey began. Conversely, we should not forget that people with new insights were often initially regarded as foolish, only to earn acknowledgement of how right they were at a later time.

Religious Knowledge

What is totally overlooked in many religious and rabbinic circles is that it is not simply the accumulation of facts that builds enduring knowledge. It is the complete identification with the implied meaning of that knowledge, with its renovation and its continued development. We must be careful not to drown in our knowledge and, as a result, become fearful of introducing new insights. Simple accumulation of knowledge can suffocate and prevent us from breathing fresh air. Such scenarios are not only unfortunate, but they go to the core of Judaism. We must not embalm Judaism and claim that it is alive just because it continues to maintain its external shape.

Misguided Scholarship

What is just as important, if not more so, is to not approach Judaism as an academic discipline and deal with its sources only in a purely scholarly way. We are profoundly unhappy that so much Jewish scholarship focuses on questions of philology, archaeology, or comparative studies, without trying to understand the message and religious depth of the ancient texts. Sometimes it appears that scholars, while reading and dissecting a text, are overtaken by a desire to kill it and its meaning instead of reviving it. This is a great tragedy. The academic world must realize that ensuring 'objectivity' in reading religious texts is a hopeless undertaking. Religious texts are rooted in a completely different world and their value cannot be appreciated through this kind of scholarly approach; just as people who are color-blind and look at colors consequently claim that colors do not exist.

We also humbly protest against scholars who pronounce verdicts on authentic Judaism while having insufficient Jewish knowledge. It is most disturbing that, while they would not dare assert their opinions in the case of other disciplines, they take the liberty of challenging Judaism because of some superficial familiarity with its sources. The fact that this specifically happens among Jewish intellectuals of great standing is even more disturbing. Just as the State of Israel is often judged by double standards, so too is Judaism. This is very unfortunate.

We do not deny that there is an important place for academic studies as it relates to Judaism, but that requires the scholar to have great humility and a sincere openness to Judaism's unique religious meaning.

The Awe of Heaven

Let us return to perhaps the most important aspects of Judaism – the issues of yirat shamayim (awe of heaven) and middot tovot (good traits and character development). One of the greatest tragedies in Jewish education is that we have separated the teaching of Judaism from encouraging our youth to feel the presence of God in their personal lives and the constant privilege to transform themselves into more dignified and sensitive personalities. While we give much attention to Jewish knowledge and the correct understanding of, for example, the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, we fail to teach our students that such knowledge only has genuine value if it leads to a greater awareness of God and a deeper appreciation for our fellow humans.

Nobody can deny that Judaism today finds itself in a crisis that threatens to have devastating consequences. Instead of Judaism growing upward, vertically, it is becoming corpulent, growing horizontally. The growth of adherence to Halacha in the last few decades has clearly not been accompanied by a true religious revival. Genuine religiosity has nothing to do with the Yiddish expression of frumkeit, an untranslatable expression of routine religious observance.

This mistake is partially a result of the fact that we are sometimes more concerned about Halacha than about God. At the same time, it is not uncommon for the mitzvot bein adam la-Makom (laws related to our relationship with God) to be considered far more important than the mitzvot ben adam la-chaveiro (laws related to our relationship with others in society). While it is common practice to emphasize chumrot (stringencies) and to encourage a strict observance of Shabbat and kashrut, we rarely see a parallel intensity when dealing with matters of human relationships. We may decide that we will only eat glatt (strictly kosher) food, but we have forgotten that it may be more important to be glatt kosher when it comes to the commandments regulating our relationship with our neighbor. Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, of the Washington Heights Kehilla (community) in New York, used to say: 'Not just glatt kosher but also glatt yosher (extremely honest)'!

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