Thursday, July 19 – Does God Command the Good and Where is the Babysitter?

The day began, coincidentally, by bumping into another Rabbi, his wife and toddler, at a breakfast nook not too far from our apartment. Adam is the Rabbi at a 1400 family Orthodox synagogue in Toronto, and a really nice guy. It was a lovely breakfast, in which we really got to know each other better than we had been able to do in the larger group. Also, Jen and Abby connected and spent the afternoon at the Jerusalem pool with the little ones. (Life is complicated, and so much of my ability to learn and absorb this summer has been predicated on Jennifer!)

A powerful day of learning. The two main textual learning pieces were led by David Hartman and Moshe Halbertal. I cannot say enough about the quality of the teaching and the quality of the learners. Every day is a gift.

The day really introduced the struggle of defining the “Good” or the ethical. Does God define the good, or is there such a thing as the “Good” and both we and God are obligated to strive for it?

David looked at a number of wonderful Talmudic sources struggling with this question, and ended with a comparative close-reading of the story of Sodom and Gomorroh (Genesis 18) and the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). How could Abraham who appeals to an external measure of morality in the Sodom story (“Should not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”) forget about this moral measuring stick and be so willing to sacrifice his son?

The texts, the details of the reading and the ensuing conversation captivated us for three hours in the morning, and justify us with this question about how we know what is right: because God commands it or because there is this thing called morality or justice or goodness.

Moshe Halbertal continued the conversation about Kant, looking especially at how Kant has influenced more than two centuries of Jewish thinkers. Probably the most influential author since Aristotle for Jews and non-Jews alike.

In his discussion of Kant’s categorical imperative, Moshe really remained focus on this question of whether or not Judaism is able to accept a belief that there is a morality, independent of God and God’s revelation, that is accessible to all people through the appropriate use of reason.

It was a wonderful discussion, though Kant was clearly read in let of Hermann Cohen and other later post-Kantian philosophers. That is to say, basically we read Kant and asked, “Is it good for the Jews?”

Kant’s greatest challenges to Judaism include:

There is a universal morality accessible to all peoples; All morality by definition must be universalizable to all humanity (a complication for Jewish/halakhic particularism); For an action to be considered moral intention is critical – the action must be performed because it is the Good, and not because it is commanded (sorry mitzvot) and not in order to receive a reward (like the World to Come).

A wonderful conversation, though I was surprised to see that so many of my very bright, very well educated colleagues had not struggled with Kant before.

In the afternoon, we had a technology session, discussing the 20 videoconferences in which we will be participating during the coming year. Each city cluster will be receiving a laptop and videoconferencing software and hardware, that is only to be used for the 3 hours each of the 20 Mondays. The Institute has discovered that it is easier to give people the systems and tell them not to use them for anything else than to try to work with everybody’s own equipment.

The resources of this place, and their intelligent utilization is impressive!

We also had the next in our series of Roundtable Discussions, getting to know each other and processing the program.

Today was a short day, we were done at 6:00 PM. So I made it home to help prepare the kids for bed, tuck them in, and wait for the babysitter . . .

We waited and waited and our babysitter never arrived. Frustrating at first, but it turned out to be really nice.

Jennifer and I had a quiet dinner together. I was able to try to catch up with the website and added a few pages. We even turned on our Israeli television and watched a couple of short-lived, mostly forgotten American television shows.

A short 10 hour day is a wonderful respite!

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