Monday, July 23 – Jen’s Birthday, Torah & Talmud, and Erev the 9th of Av

The day began with the singing of Happy Birthday. It is beautiful watching the children get excited about their mother’s birthday – pure joy to celebrate with her!

It was a great day at the Institute. The day began with Donniel Hartman leading us through a series of texts that at first glance appear to be aggadot, stories, of the Rabbis of the Talmud and how they created laws. Upon closer examination it became quite clear that these are radical texts that clearly show the legislative role the Rabbis of the Talmud played, and that the source for new legislation what not necessarily Holy Scripture, or God, or Rabbinic precedent, but was their own sense of right and wrong.

In today’s world, centuries post-Kant, that might not seem so radical, but here were the Rabbis of the Talmud creating Jewish law and the authority upon which they rest was a sense of what was right. It was a very powerful lesson, filled with texts that demand to be studied again!

After lunch, we had another session with Moshe Halbertal looking at Jewish utilitarianism – trying to figure out whether Jewish ethics were based on maximizing the good for the greatest number or a commitment to always following principle.

As is true of most things, our tradition contains both threads and it is fascinating to see where the differences and distinctions play themselves out. The cases that are most interesting are generally the cases in extremis, when life and death are in the balance. Therefore, studying the relevant texts and having the discussions/arguments that ensue are never quiet or uneventful. I wonder if in general these texts were as hotly contested before the Shoah?

Our last learning session was with Micah Goodman. After two outstanding sessions with brilliant, wise, seasoned teachers, Micah, a young scholar, unequivocally outshined them both on this day!

He compared and contrasted two texts that most people in the group had studied before, but had never read side-by-side. He looked at the opening chapter of the Written Torah, the creation of the world, with the opening pages of the Oral Torah, a discussion of when it is appropriate to recite the Shema in the evening and in the morning.

It was stunning! He argued, with a great deal of support from the text, that the Written Torah begins with a statement, in God’s voice that God orders the universe, and that the Oral Torah begins with a statement, in the Rabbis’ voices, that it is they who order the universe.

Powerful, thought provoking, and deep Torah! There are days during which it is awe- inspiring and truly humbling to study with great teachers.

After Micah we had a brief amount of Roundtable discussion, concluding our introductions to each other and talking about plans for the 9th of Av, beginning that evening.

The day ended early, and I was home by 5:30 PM, allowing me to have birthday dinner with Jennifer and the kids.

I was trying to decide what to do for the 9th of Av. There were amazing events all over the city: the opportunity to be in the Old City for Tisha B’Av, an amazing service South of the Old City overlooking it from the Tayelet, a service and Lamentations at Rabin’s grave, (on the total other side of the political spectrum) a service and rally with in solidarity with the closing of the settlements in the Gaza strip (as the 2nd anniversary of the withdrawal approaches). Clearly the 9th of Av, which is the religious memorialization of an historical event still panders to those who would like to see contemporary history as religiously significant.

Jennifer decided days earlier that she would stay home and not attend any of these programs, so we did not look for a babysitter, which probably would have been difficult anyway.

I also felt quite removed from the day. On a religious level, I felt very removed from the 9th of Av, I just don’t experience the world as a world filled with destruction (though there is plenty of tragedy in this world). I also don’t experience the Jewish people and the State of Israel as being in a mournful place of destruction. Just to be able to write “the State of Israel” already means that these past 59 years of the 9th of Av have been fundamentally and radically different than the 1,878 before them.

And being in Jerusalem just does not bring out mournful sadness from me, just the opposite, being here makes me wonder how it is that the 9th of Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. I can actually give a number of intellectual responses to this, but they sound hollow to me most years, and positively empty to me this year.

The 9th of Av has traditions that surround it, 3 weeks or 9 days of no shaving, 9 days of no meat – all in preparation. These are traditions that I do not generally observe – least of all this year.

David Hartman tells the wonderful story of delivering a lecture about the 9th of Av the year he made Aliyah. He argued that the birth of the State of Israel obviates the obligations of mourning associated with this day. In the audience was a Rabbi, who at the time was the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces, and later the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of the State of Israel. For him, this marked David as a radical reformer beyond the pale, an image of him this Rabbi kept forever.

I generally fast on the 9th of Av, it is part of our tradition. I value tradition even when the meaning has been diminished or even erased through history. I also think there are many, personal ways in which it is important that we engage and discuss issues of destruction. But the 9th of Av is not about personal destruction, the tradition views it as a day of destruction for the Jewish people, and it was very hard for me to experience Jewish destruction in Jerusalem on this day.

Don’t get me wrong, on the level of cultural events and really cool things to see, I would have loved to have attended one or some of the happenings around town.

But when I fell asleep putting Shayna and Nadiv to bed, and didn’t wake up until past 9:00 PM, it was clear that I wasn’t going anywhere.

I did read through the Book of Lamentations and reread my notes from my trip to Hebron (Cf Sunday, July 15).

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