I have a study partner of many years, a psychologist and therapist, and a good friend. We learn Tosefta, which sends us to parallel selections of the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and sometimes post-Talmudic authorities Accessing the Torah in this way is fascinating and illuminating. We’re accessing a primary rung of halacha, engaged in a way which feels like our learning has real substance. Not just tracing strands we know the ends of, a kind of reverse archaeology in which the conclusions are assumed. It is truly an often exhilarating voyage of discovery. As far as navigating the sources I am the teacher, but then the sources act as a springboard to launch us into discussions of meta-issues which span history, psychology, the evolution of Judaism and Jewish spirituality. To bring one example, we might be comparing traditions of blessings said over food in the Tosefta and Mishna, which takes us to the Talmudim, which takes us to comparing traditions of the Land of Israel as opposed to Bavel, which take us to broader questions about just how fixed and limited is our personal jurisdiction in this area, exactly how circumscribed is it? And that brings us to another discussion about internal and external poles or modes of spirituality. Which brings us to talking about how the course of mainstream halachic history has favored the latter to a degree that has lead, perhaps, to a worrisome degree of stultification. And then we ask how the system might be re-calibrated for a more dynamic, flourishing, connective spirituality.
There is one problem:
We sometimes feel like we have to keep our voices down.
There is something which bothers me deeply about this: here is a very bright person, a creative, independent thinker. Dedicated to God and His Torah. And he has never developed the learning tools. And those who have, some of whom are around us– well, sometimes their ears perk up, and they strain to listen, rapt, fascinated. This is not the usual script! But we explore where they would not dare to tread, outside the well worn paths, the constraining boxes which have, from my years of learning, often been crafted in this way unnecessarily and artificially.
I have asked: where are the visionaries in the “frum” world? Those who think big, who gaze beyond the veil of the horizon?
The answer is: they have been stifled under the weight of a top-heavy, stultified Orthodoxy; those with the gifts have not been given the soil to strike their roots deep and grow; those who might develop them, in which these gifts reside in nuclear, brittle form, and do acquire the proficiency to navigate the Torah sources, are taught they must not use them, so they shrivel and die.
Over the years I have studied with many such creative, intelligent, independent-minded people dedicated to Torah and Mitsvot. People who are willing to ask hard questions and are not satisfied with the trite, low-resolution answers engineered for the ideology-saturated collective. And down the line, these people have not developed the learning skills in the traditional sources, or they have not been trained to think rigorously, rendering their thought strands erratic and somewhat chaotic.
Conversely, there are the independent-thinking types who go through the mainstream Yeshiva systems. By and large they get dumbed down, for they are indoctrinated into a paradigm in which they are only entitled to think in a tightly prescribed arena, a canvas of artificially narrow walls. They are given a sheet of pre-churned-out positions, and told they must sign on the dotted line. At best, they trace the strands of how we get to what we already know is the correct position. Perhaps b, c, and d are also valid possibilities within a Torah-loyal approach? It doesn’t get off the the ground.
There is a story I heard a while back that has stuck with me, about a very bright and talented young man who was deliberating whether to become a mathematician or go into the Rabbinate. He consulted his father, who replied: I know you are intelligent and talented, and can think for yourself. If you go into mathematics and prove Einstein wrong, you’ll get the Nobel Prize (or the Field’s Medal). If you become a rabbi and prove the Rambam wrong, you will be called a heretic. Go into mathematics.
This is a tragedy.
Those with the learning become clerks, or theocrats, and those with the vision or the potential to cultivate it do not gain the proficiency in Torah, or choose not to devote their primary energies to Torah- even if they have the opportunity.
These two need to come together.
It is crucial.
Because we were in galut, in exile, for a long time, and the Jewish paradigm which carried us was eminently suited for the galut reality. It had the tools to deal with that reality, for those tools were tailor made for it, like an organism that adapts to a particular environment. This affected halacha and also super-halachic issues. For example, what is learning Torah for “its own sake”? I once thought: for the sake of learning itself, a closed circuit looping upon itself. I have long since realized that the true import is something else: learning Torah for the sake of implementing the Torah. In the real world, focused on the endeavors of a real people, in a real place. Not a disembodied, spiritualized, cloistered society, Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. And not just in areas that were operative in the galut, but all areas of the Torah. As opposed to “lo lishma”, for egoistic motives such as power, influence, or wealth. Of course, in the galut, learning for its own sake, as it came to be understood, was a protective bulwark, a mechanism of Jewish survival. The Torah did curl in upon itself to a large degree, by virtue of the exilic reality itself, and this is understandable.
But now we are longer in galut, as much as some wish to insist we are. Which makes some sense, because then we can continue with the operating system we are familiar with. We don’t have to worry about upgrading it. We don’t have to look further, integrate it into something greater. But that we must, for that toolbox is not enough for our current situation. We have transplanted the Judaism of fractured communities living in Warsaw or Fez or Sana’a to the Land of Israel, to those scattered communities reconstituting themselves as a people, as a nation. And it doesn’t work. It’s like trying to maintain an airplane for the tools meant for a car.
In broader “hashkafic” issues, which nevertheless inevitably intersect with halacha, this is also true. The Messianic expectation can be see as a pulsating inner strand coursing through Jewish spirituality throughout our history. But there is something that very view have faced head on: today, we are living in an age in which many of the things which we had imagined could only happen through the agency of the Messiah happened as historical processes. There is a Midrash Agada on the verse “awaken, North [wind], and come southwards”: the Messiah will bring back the exiles. Today, we see that a great ingathering of exiles was possible without the Messiah. We see that a reconstitution of our national life in our homeland, as imperfect as it is, has been possible without the Messiah. Projecting forwards: will the Messiah build the Temple? Will it fall from Heaven ready-made, as if it’s God’s Mitzvah, not ours? Or will it be a national project that might just one day be possible? The Talmud Yerushalmi in Tractate Ma’aser Sheni for one posits that the Temple will be build before the advent of the Messiah. So how are we to understand all this in light of a Messiah that instigates all the elements of geula, redemption? There are two options open to us: we can pretend that nothing has changed, closing our eyes to the dissonance between the vision which became predominant in the galut, which, again, may not be the only option, and the reality we know to be true if we are honest, or we can challenge ourselves to upgrade or reconfigure our Messianic vision.
That galut Jewish system does not have the resources from within itself to create anything but its own self-perpetuation. And we need more. So we need those courageous visionaries. We need them badly.