The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 17 november 2017

The final part of a 7-part essay

Sponsored Le-ilui Nishmata shel HaZekena Miriam Robles Lopes Cardozo,
eshet HaRav Ha’Abir Neim Zemirot Yisrael Abraham Lopes Cardozo,
by her daughters Judith Cardozo-Tenenbaum and Debbie Smith.

As a Sefer Torah

When teaching, our rabbis' and teachers' personal conduct must be a reflection of what they impart in the classroom, as there is truly no better education than by example. Thought and practice must illuminate each other. The mark of a sefer kodesh (holy book), says Rabbi Tzaddok of Lublin, is that its content and its author's mode of living are one and the same. An educator must be a living Sefer Torah, imbuing students with the aspiration that one day they will be able to live the kind of life that the teacher represents.

True, even the best teachers among us may sometimes fail, but we must immediately try again. A Sefer Torah that is pasul (ritually invalid) is still a Sefer Torah, even when it needs tikkun (repair). It may not be desecrated despite the fact that it cannot be used in the synagogue service. So it is with human beings. Even when we fail, we are still likened to a Torah scroll. The greatest tragedy, however, is when we stop aspiring to be a living Sefer Torah. As long as the dream is alive, the changes necessary to reach that goal are within our reach.

This yearning has a direct relationship to Torah learning and to comprehending the Jewish tradition. One of the most remarkable teachings of Judaism is the claim that one cannot think with clarity or properly understand a sugya (passage) in the Talmud if one’s characteristics are not in tune with the honesty of the text. When a person lives a crooked life, their thoughts are skewed as well. All of us have the obligation to constantly scrutinize and rebuild ourselves. The need for self-discipline, humility, pursuit of truth, love for one’s neighbor, and abhorrence of the hollow pursuit of honor, are not just theoretical ideals but values that, in accordance with Jewish tradition, must be implemented – not only in the grand events of our lives, but specifically in our most trivial moments.

Too few people realize that closing a door without checking to see if there is someone behind it, deciding whether or not we accompany a guest as they leave our home, or whether to pick up a towel and fold it rather than leave it on the floor for someone else to deal with, or even whether to leave the toilet spotlessly clean in a hotel room, are all examples of actions that reveal much about our inner selves. Because all behavior takes place in the presence of God, nothing is insignificant, and even our trivialities should reflect holiness.

Jewish Sensitivity

I am reminded of the illustrious “Alter of Kelm”, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broide (1824-1898), one of the towering personalities in the nineteenth-century Mussar movement who, while walking along the main road in Kelm, which had been paved by the king's prisoners sentenced to slave labor, asked: "How can anyone walk casually on a road that has been built at the expense of so much suffering by others?" On another occasion, the rabbis of Kelm disembarked from their carriages in order to make it easier on the horses to reach the top of a hill, in accordance with the prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei Chayim (causing pain to animals). Refinement, adinut hanefesh (sensitivity of the soul), and proper behavior were uppermost on their spiritual agenda, and everything was done in pursuit of this goal.

Trivialization and Zerizut B'menucha

In this day and age, the world experiences a trivialization of the human language. As religious Jews, we must re-introduce refinement of language and the need for eloquent speech. As the saying goes, “A man is hid under his tongue.”

We must also practice zerizut b'menucha (eagerness to do a mitzvah, while remaining calm). Zerizut (eagerness), after all, is a matter of the heart and head, not of the feet. This is referred to in the famous verse in which God states: “And these words, which I command you today…” (1) This, our commentators tell us, is not to say that we should see the mitzvot as given every day, but that every day we should see each mitzvah as if it was given today for the first time. One should never be content with the previous understanding of a mitzvah.

There is a need to constantly deepen the experience of a commandment, to make it new. Just as Franz Rosenzweig responded "not yet," when he was still on his journey to becoming a real Jew and was once asked whether he puts on tefillin, we too must be able to answer “not yet!” We all have room for growth, and we should all want to aspire higher.

Torah Leaders

It is of vital importance to produce great Torah leaders, who fully understand this enormous challenge and will lead the Jewish tradition back to its former living spirit. Some of today's Torah leaders are no longer aware of the tremendous spiritual challenges that the Jewish people are currently facing. They will only be able to recognize this when they are prepared to look beyond the world of Halacha and search for its components, which are found in the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu. As indicated in several midrashim, Avraham's uniqueness was defined by his willingness to confront the enormous challenges of his generation and deal with them head on. He did not run away from these issues but actually studied them carefully and considered all possible options before responding. He realized that he could only help his fellow human beings if he felt their pain as his own – going down to their level and raising them up.

Nevertheless, we must be aware that just as a bird may think it is an act of kindness to lift a fish up in the air, allowing it to breathe, so the rabbinical leadership may believe it is providing spiritual oxygen for its followers, while it is actually choking them. The problem today is that many religious leaders do not lead, but instead try to please their followers.

Furthermore, leaders who are incapable of voicing their own religious reservations cannot be men of faith. They are but men of creed, who cannot reach a soul in doubt. Avraham had little authority but a large dose of authenticity. He was a great doubter and that rendered him absolutely honest (2). While power is always dangerous and selfish, and thrives on the darkness of mysterious affairs, offering no explanations, authenticity shines as daylight and is so genuine that it cannot be denied when one is in its presence.

It is the task of the yeshivot (institutions of Talmudic study), including even the best conventional ones, to realize that our future Jewish leaders need a much broader knowledge of Judaism and to therefore introduce a curriculum radically different from what is currently offered.

It would be wise to remind ourselves of an observation made by the aforementioned Franz Rosenzweig: “…in being Jews, we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism….This is a new sort of learning. A learning for which—in these days—he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien” (3).

There is a need to reshape anything that is considered alien into a form that facilitates a better and deeper understanding of Judaism. This is a new kind of teshuva (repentance). Teshuva is not just a stage in life, but a program for life. It is a process, and not merely an attempt to rectify something that has been out of order. It is a spiritual condition that belongs to the mechanism of Judaism itself.

For great Torah scholars to become leaders and gedolei hador (Torah giants of the generation), they need to understand what made Rembrandt different from all other painters. The substance that others utilized as the subject of their canvases was used by Rembrandt as the raw material of his vision. Where other painters saw facts, he perceived hidden connections that linked his preternatural sensibility to reality and transported all that he had religiously absorbed from the universal creation to the plane of a new creation.

Without this sensibility, there is no authentic art of the quality required. Rembrandt did not care what others had to say about his art and often violated the requests of his clients. What he cared about was his inner liberty to go his own way. He realized that the purpose of art is to disturb, not to produce finished works; to let exhaustion cause you to discontinue and allow others to take over. Art has to be an autobiography of a human being in progress. Without this understanding no great Talmudic scholar can ever become a leader. Only when they become artists, and do not merely follow the halachic codes, can they decide on Torah law or give advice.

It is for this reason that I write and teach. I hope to take my students on roads not yet (or not enough) traveled. I want them to be part of the endeavor discussed here, and to participate in the search. This mission demands courage and yirat shamayim (fear of heaven), which is far from easy but I do my best to live up to both of these traits. Whenever possible, I will take Avraham Avinu as my example.

The Jewish people stand at a crossroads, one they have never experienced before. While Jews have often lived from crisis to crisis, never, since the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, have they experienced a situation in which they found their way back to their homeland and, having arrived there, became confused as to why they strove to go there in the first place.

Only if we drastically change direction and ensure that the educational approach of the teacher incorporates what I have brought to the reader’s attention will it be possible for something of enduring importance to take place. We should not forget Abraham Joshua Heschel's words: "What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people" (4). Ultimately, only the teacher’s integrity can effect real change. We must prevent the study of Judaism from becoming solely an academic undertaking. We must ensure, by example, that it is an encounter with the world of religious experience, which brings about a transformation in people. Only in that way will Judaism become irresistible.

No doubt, this is far from easy. But, indeed, as Spinoza declared, "All noble things are as difficult as they are rare." Just as Avraham understood that there is no success without hardship, so must we understand that there is no Judaism without the realization that many may succeed by what they know, or do, but few by what they are. It is only in the art of authentic being that there is a real future for the religious person.

(1) Devarim 6:6.

(2) See, for example, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, Mei HaShiloach (Jerusalem: Mishor Publishers, 1990) vol. 1, p 29, and vol. 2, p 19.

(3) Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning, Ed. N.N. Glatzer (WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1955) pp 98-99.

(4) A. J. Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology (NY: Crossroad, 1983) p 63.

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