Shmuly Yanklowitz

Guest Blogger: Religious Maturation & Publicly Refining our Theological Positions

A talented student graduating this week from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Daniel Goodman, asked me to share a blog post he has written on my blog.

He reflects on how his more radical and controversial ideas have evolved and matured during his years in rabbinical school. This humble post is a reminder to us all to continue to be intellectually expressive when we feel we must but also to continue to refine, correct, and nuance those ideas so that they are true to us and true to our tradition, and to be public about those corrections and nuances.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

Sof Davar

Guest Post by: Daniel R. Goodman

The author Gary Shteyngart once said in an interview that his favorite literary characters are the ones who “can’t shut up to save their lives. Cue Portnoy.” The fictional Portnoy, his real-life creator Philip Roth, and scores of Jewish writers from ancient times and up to our present day simply cannot shut up, even when their continuing to speak is to their detriment. Ever since God gave the floor to Abraham by asking him what he thought about His decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, we’ve started to speak our minds, and we haven’t shut up ever since. Something about us Jews—and al achat kamah v’kamah (all the more so) with us Jewish writers—is that “not shutting up” is in our blood.

Not until King Solomon, though, did we have our first writer who couldn’t shut up to save his life. He wrote a book of morals (Mishlei [Proverbs]), law articles (my guess is that he or his clerk must have recorded his legal opinions and judicial decisions, but unfortunately, they were not preserved), and he even wrote an erotically charged romance (Shir HaShirim [Song of Songs]). But he couldn’t let up. Of course he couldn’t. He was a writer. He should’ve known when to stop. But writers never know when to stop. And Jewish writers never know when to shut up, because we’re congenitally incapable of shutting up.

So Solomon kept going. He wrote a radical, subversive (in parts) book called Kohelet [Ecclesiastes]. His advisors and confidants told him to bury it, burn it, to make sure it never sees the light of day. ‘Aren’t all the publications you have enough for you, Your Majesty? You really need one more? And not just any one more, but this one more? This is completely inappropriate for our audience…or for any Jews. This is not befitting of you, and neither is it fitting to be read by any Jew. We strongly advise you against the publication of this manuscript.’ So, of course, what did Solomon do? He published it. Of course he published it. He was a writer. And he was Jewish.

Perhaps Solomon would have been better off if he had never written Kohelet — only the most subversive, radical, counter-traditional text in our canon. That it is in our canon at all is all the more remarkable.

My completely unscientific theory is that Kohelet was written by Solomon, but published under a nom de plume because he was still too hesitant about airing his theological doubts, existential concerns, and ethical questions in a public forum under his own name. He wasn’t even worried about publishing Shir HaShirim under his own name (though perhaps it would’ve benefited by a parental guidance warning on the inside flap). But Kohelet? This, he knew, could not be published under his own name. But publish it he most certainly did. (Is my theory true? I have no clue, but my good friend Daniel Epstein likes my theory, and that’s good enough for me.)

Far more problematic than the “this-is-for-mature-audiences-only” Shir HaShirim is the (at-times) proto-Nietzschean Kohelet. The rabbis recognized this issue and noted that, similar to the Book of Ezekiel, a debate raged about whether Kohelet would be accepted into the Jewish Bible at all. Eventually, of course, we know that it was, but not without some agonizing concerns and sleepless nights of scholarly and rabbinic debate.

If Solomon knew that Kohelet would be problematic enough to necessitate publishing it under a pseudonym, then why write it and publish at all? Well, the answer is as obvious as the never-changing midday sun: Solomon was Jewish. And he was a writer.

In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s great film The Red Shoes (1948), a ballerina (Moira Shearer) is given a magical pair of red slippers which allow her to dance in an astounding, incredible, exhilarating fashion, but there’s one catch—as long as she leaves the slippers on her feet, the slippers do not allow her to stop dancing. When the dancing—beautiful and glorious as it is—starts to cause her physical pain, she persists in wearing the red slippers. But wouldn’t the solution be so simple? Once dancing begins to cause her physical pain, shouldn’t she simply take off the red slippers? But she doesn’t. Of course she doesn’t. Why? Because she’s a dancer.

Why do you want to dance?” asks the choreographer (Anton Walbrook).

“Why do you want to live?” responds the ballerina.

“I don’t know exactly why…but I must.”

“That’s my answer too.”

Dancers must dance, painters must paint, scholars must study, and writers must write.

And oh how we must write, oh yes we must, must we Jewish writers. We write because we live — or is it the other way around?

Would Solomon have been better off to have never written something as anti-traditional as “tov lalekhet el beit-eivel milekhet el beit-mishteh (better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting)” — or, even more explicitly problematic, “v’saneiti et hachayim (I hated life)”, an apothegm which contradicts the very vitalistic, life-affirming heart and animating core principle of Judaism, “uvacharta bachayim (choose life)”? Perhaps. Would he have been better off, and would he have spared his readers and congregants much religious and existential angst, were he to not have written things like “yesh tzadik oved b’tzid’ko, v’yesh rasha ma’arich b’raato”; “al t’hi tzadik harbeh (don’t be too righteous)”; and “ein zichron lechacham im hak’sil l’olam, b’shek’var hayamim habayim, hakol nishkach (for the wise man and for the fool, there is no remembrance forever, seeing that in the days to come all will be forgotten),” which subverts the basic ethico-theological position of our faith — that God remembers all the deeds of every individual, and that there is a ‘din v’cheshbon’ (final judgment), a heavenly accounting and divine judgment, for every action great and small? Probably. But Solomon was religious. And a thinking person. And even worse — he was Jewish. And a writer.

So instead of not recording his doubts at all, he wrote them up, but he did so in an experimental fashion. Kohelet is his anonymous — or pseudonymous — attempt to work out his theological, ethical, and religious mental peregrinations. He says some extremely troubling and, frankly, subversive things, in the early chapters. But after this agonizing literary journey that reaches into the very depths of his soul, where does he end up? What he wrote in Chapter 2, and even Chapter 7, was not what he concluded in Chapter 12. What is his conclusion? “Sof Davar, hakol nishma: et haElokim yera, v’et mitzvotav sh’mor, ki zeh kol ha’adam:” “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man.”

A number of years ago, I wrote two articles — one which touched on the topic of Torah miSinai (Sinaitic revelation of the Torah), and one which dealt with ethics and halakhot (laws) relating to LGBTQs. Would I have been better off to not voice my musings about Torah MiSinai and to not write about my ethical concerns relating to how our halakhic (legal) system deals with sexual orientation? Most likely. Would I have been better off to have never written these things at all? Most probably.

So why did I write them at all? Well, I come from a long line of Jews…and I also am a writer. It is the blessing of my life, and it is also the curse of my life. I don’t even like to write. In fact, I hate writing. I hate it. I’d rather not write at all. But I have to write. I have the freedom to write or not write, but I have to write. I have no choice.  When I feel that I have something to write, if I do not write it, I feel physical pain.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s akin to “navi hakoveish nevu’ato” (a prophet who suppresses his prophecy), but writers do feel something akin to this; we feel that some force will hold us existentially liable if we do not put the words with which we have been endowed onto paper. Writing causes me intellectual pain, and often physical suffering as well. When I have something to write, I cannot eat until it is written. And I cannot drink. Or sleep. Writing causes me physical, bodily harm. As I write this very line, I am hungry. It’s dinner-time, and I only ate a handful of soychips for lunch. I’m hungry. (And Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is playing on my local classical music station — as performed by the London Symphony, conducted by Leopold Ludwig — not that this matters, but I just thought that this was interesting. And because beautiful music makes everything better.) I haven’t eaten for seven and a half hours (and it’s not a fast-day). But I have to write this. And I had turned my oven on and was ready to roast some broccoli in it, but this paragraph came to me just now, and I must right it now. Even though the oven is on at 450 degrees Fahrenheit and even though I am wasting my own money by leaving the oven on for too long and running up my energy bill, I must write this. Now. Writing causes me to lose sleep, to lose weight, and to lose money — and I can’t afford to lose any of these things. But I still write. I have to do it. We have to do it. Writers write. We have to write. It’s in our blood. Our veins pulsate with words, our arteries swim with sentences. We have to write. For better or worse.

But where do I end up? What is my maskana (conclusion)? It is the same as that of an author who chose to go by the Robert Galbraithian name of Kohelet: my maskana is “sof davar (the end of the matter).” I believe that as far as there is room for change within halakhah, that change can only be enacted within the accepted guidance of established, learned poskim. We cannot dictate what the halakhah is simply based on our conceptions of ethics; we are guided by the principles of established, Shulkan Arukh-based halakhah, not by our ethical sentiments alone. I believe that the Torah was written by one Author — God — given at Sinai, and transcribed by Moses our Teacher. Sof Davar — period. And I keep its commandments, for this is the heart of my being, this is the ‘naa’seh v’nishma (we shall do and hear) choice I made at age twelve — I was not raised observant, but chose by my own free will to become shomer (observant of) Torah and the Mitzvot (commandments), and I keep making this choice, every year, and every day of my life — this is who I am: ‘ki zeh kol haadam.’ This is who I was when, at age 14, I chose to leave my father’s house, my birthplace of Massachusetts, and the upper-middle class comforts of suburbia for the dormitory of Yeshiva University High School in New York City. This is the boy I was then, and this is still the man that I am today. Ki zeh kol ha’adam.

This does not mean, though, that there are no winding paths along the way to the Sof (End). For indeed there are, verily there are — if we were constantly stable, solid, and never-changing, we would not be human beings, we would be statues. If we were perfect, we would be angels, who are called “omdin” (standing), while we humans are called “holchim” (walking) — us humans, unlike the perfect, stable, “standing” angels, are moving beings: we walk, develop, and grow. Development is a process, and growth can be painful — at the very least, our later movements are played out in different tempos than our earlier movements. We may start with an allegro ma non troppo, move into a scherzo, transition toward an adagio, and conclude once again where we started: with an allegro ma non troppo. Though we may conclude with the same tempo with which we started, the final movement is enhanced, not harmed, by the development and elaboration of the central theme with which we were engaging in the prior movements.

Indeed, though the conclusion is definitive, and though we can easily recognize a creative person’s finished product, a creator’s early work can at times be so startlingly different from the work of this person’s mature period so as to render the person’s early work unrecognizable. Some of Picasso’s early classical paintings are so different from the later Cubist Picasso we know and love that all but modern art specialists and Picasso students would never recognize such works as “Picassos.” Kandinsky’s early naturalistic and impressionistic work was virtually completely different from his eventual mature, abstract expressionism.
kandinsky 2

Wassily Kandinsky, 1908, Murnau Dorfstrasse (Street in Murnau, A Village Street), oil on cardboard, later mounted on wood panel, 48 x 69.5 cm, The Merzbacher collection, Switzerland.

The Kandinsky painting, completed early in his career before he reached the abstract expressionist stage through which his mature form would be expressed, is more redolent of Cézanne than it is of the Kandinsky of the Improvisations:

The earlier views I have expressed in certain articles represent my juvenilia, written before my religious mind had sufficiently ripened. Some of my articles were written in an experimental nature, contemplating the theoretical possibility of certain interpretations. I did not intend nor wish to advance any radical changes in actual practice. Change must be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School has been a place that has allowed me to experiment, intellectually and theologically, until I reached my mature style. It is a yeshivah that has granted me the liberty to walk along a winding intellectual path — the very path that led me to eventually reach the sof (end), the sof of Sof Davar.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.