Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Passion for Jewish Reading Part 3

A Passion for Jewish Reading Part 3

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, 8/30/05

In the past two essays I have written about the capacity for deep reading. This is the term I learned from my friend and colleague Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Last year Noam taught a class in which he shared a marvelous selection from Sven Birkets, a scholar of popular culture, who wrote a book called The Gutenberg Elegies. I will share with you selections from this book with my own commentary on the nature of reading.

"What is most consicuous as we survey the general trajectory of reading across the centuries is what I think of as the gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal-the sacrifice of depth to lateral range, in Darnton's (a scholar in European history) terms above, ashift from intensive to extensive reading. When books are rare, hard to obtain, and expensive, the reader must compen sate through intensified focus, most like Menocchio read the same passages over andover, memorizing, inscribing the words deeply on the slate of the attention, subjecting them to an interpretive pressure not unlike what students of scripture practice upon their texts (italics mine). This is a ferocious reading-prison or 'desert island' reading-and where it does not assume depth, it creates it. "

This is what reading the Torah was and should be. The Jews are ferocious readers of the Torah. In fact, I would argue that Jews are the bearers of a culture of ferocious reading. More than anything you can say about the Jews, a characteristic of almost all Jewish cultures is a passion, near obsession about reading. One only has to review the biblical and talmudic commentary library to appreciate the bookishness of the Jews.

One way to grasp this is to reflect on why Jewish tradition insists that when we read from the Torah we must read from a Torah scroll, a revered object in every synagogue and study hall. When you think about it, why don't we just read from a bound Humash (Pentateuch) in which the Hebrew is punctuated, vocalized, and numbered. Why must we read from a scroll which very inconveniently must be rolled to different passages which are not in consecutive order? Why must public readers partially memorize passages when reading from the scroll? The laws around the preparation, writing, and public reading of the Torah scroll seek to preserve a commitment to a deep reading which Birkets speaks of. The Jewish traditions of reading from the sacred scroll survived the introduction of the printing press and all subsequent technologies because the Jews understood that the old way of reading should not die.

"Inscribing the words deeply on the slate of attention"

This striking phrase is very characteristic of Jewish reading, particularly of the Torah. The word for the Bible in Hebrew is Mikra from the word infinitive, Likro- to read. It is the Mikra-Scripture, Bible that is the object of a vertical reading. Jews assembled books of their greatest commentators and included them in the library for Jews to reflect on their own reading of Torah and Scripture. The remarkable range of commentaries on Torah enable Jews to choose different reading trajectories of the holy texts-philosophical, mystical, imaginative, analytical, psychological. But all these very different approaches to reading the same text enabled Jews to remained a unified community.

Jews brought their books to every place they wandered. Only rare instances were the Jews prevented from bringing their books with them. In a remarkable documentary called the Last Marannos, the documentarians Stan Neuman and Frederic Brenner focus on a surviving Marrano community in Portugal. The Jews valiantly held onto their traditions in secret, but they were not able to preserve their books. Outwardly Catholic they were part of a culture of enforced illiteracy where only the priests knew and taught scripture. Desperately attempting to hold onto their traditions they attempted over generations to preserve the Jewish narratives through oral memory. With chilling insight the interviewers ask the marrano residents to recount the stories they tell around their rituals. The Passover account is confusing and convoluted, yet filled with distant echoes of Jewish lore. The lingering feeling from watching the documentary is the disastrous results for Jews when they lose access to the Torah and the sources of reading.

A few years ago I was invited to give a lecture on Judaism at a prestigious private high school in Seattle. The teacher and my Jewish student who invited me to speak to the 10th grade students warned me to not assume any familiarity with the Bible despite the fact that most of the students came from very well educated families. I asked if the kids would recognize Abraham or Moses and I was told, no. The teacher commented that our kids no longer share a common text whose stories and teachings are known to all and are the subject of study and reflection.

The students of this high school are like most of us, horizontal or lateral readers. They live in a culture which offers infinite choice, but very little in a common legacy. To be Jewish is more than anything a commitment to a common reading. But beyond that to plumb the vast treasures of Judaism we must return to the ferocious reading which marked Jewish culture and religious life throughout the generations. In a generation that seeks meaning, reading in this way not only uncovers depth of meaning, the very act of reading this way, as Birkets insightfully points out, creates it.

In part 4 of this series I will continue sharing from Birkets' outstanding essay.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Passion for Jewish Reading, Part 2

A Passion for Jewish Reading Part 2

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
August 25, 2005/20 Menachem Av 5765

In the past year I spent many hours reflecting on my experience as a pulpit rabbi in a Conservative congregation. One realization kept on recurring as I reflected on years of being part of a strong prayer community that had emerged in my former congregation. One thing I observed during the reading of the Torah was how few people followed the Humash-the text and commentary of the Torah that was publicly read in the synagogue. I also discovered in teaching families for Bar Mitzvah that many did not have Humashim at home and if they did they rarely opened them. The primary sense of public Judaism in the congregation was liturgical, a community that gathers for prayers. The young going through Bar or Bat Mitzvah were being acculturated to a community of prayer. I was more struck by what was missing. With a few exceptions most of the children and their parents had no concept of what it meant to engage in the study of texts or the joy of learning Jewishly with others.

The Torah service in the synagogue was primarily a ritual, not a serious engagement with reading. This is because the educational institutions of the synagogue and the day school struggle to convey a love of learning and engagement with Torah. Aware of this deep flaw in our community I became convinced that there needed to be a liberal Jewish initiative to celebrate and disseminate the Jewish love for reading, study, and engagement with texts. That is how Shivim Panim Latorah was born.

70 Faces of Torah is a Torah service with a Torah scroll. The core prayers of that service are retained, sung with melody, with a procession from the ark and the beloved traditions that accompany a public reading of the Torah in a quorum of 10 Jews (our service is egalitarian). But after the customary rituals we open up the scroll and engage in a deep reading of the Torah. Between eight to ten Humashim (Torah texts divided into weekly portions) with commentaries are distributed to participants who are asked to follow their commentaries on a passage of between 3-10 verses from the weekly portion. The value of multiple commentaries is that it enables everyone to get an appreciation of the multiple voices and approaches to the sacred text in Jewish tradition.

With these different perspectives we launch into a collective and deep reading of the text. I guide people first with questions of how to read the verses, refering to the differences in translation in the English commentaries and the implications of translating a biblical verse one way of another. Then I help make sense of the commentaries and the insights that they offer and the biases they represent. Lastly I bring selected sources from the rabbinic tradition as well as medieval and modern commentators who expand the conversation around the passage. In this way we begin to appreciate the loving attention and deep reading of the passage by previous generations. Lastly and most important, I ask people to close the book and reflect on how this newly mined passage informs our lives or gives insight for our times. This same approach is used for timelessly meaningful passages in the Torah as well as deeply problematic sections.

This form of reading is wonderful for many reasons. First, it slows down the process of reading allowing for reflection and imagination. Second, it conveys that sacred texts can have many readings and are not to be read one way. I think this is a very powerful antidote to the pervasive fundamentalism overwhelming all religions in our time. Third, we read together with others in an act of collective reading. All these sessions are interactive, carefully facilitated to encourage input from participants while I or other skilled teachers navigate the commentaries. Fourth, people see the profundity of the text and how it can be a spiritual resource in their lives. Lastly, it engenders in people a love for learning which leads them to the fullfilment of the mitzvah of Torah study as a part of their day or week.

In part three I want to share a wonderful essay by Sven Birkets from his book the Gutenberg Elegies about the experience of 'vertical reading'. His striking description of traditional reading captures exactly what I am trying to do in 70 Faces of Torah.

Monday, August 22, 2005

A Passion for Jewish Reading, Part 1

My Personal Rabbinic Passion: The Recovery of Authentic Jewish Reading

Part 1 August 22, 2005

The Rabbis of the Talmud distinguished between prayer and study. Prayer they considered to be an activity of Hayei Shaah- the life of the hour. In this view prayer is likened to eating and sleeping-a necessary activity for daily survival and living a life. The study of Torah, however, they considered to be an activity of Hayei Olam Haba- the life of eternity. They considered the act of learning, of reading the sacred text to be of transcendent value. There was something about study that takes us beyond the daily exigencies of life. Authentic learning transportes us to a place unconcerned with mere survival and sustenance. Thus the well known expression in rabbinic literature: "Talmud Torah Kneged Kulam" The Study of Torah is equal to all of the mitzvot-commandments-in the Torah.

Torah study, however, is a mystifying for many. Most American Jews, with a religious school education or less have learned 'about' Judaism, but have not learned how to read (study) Torah. Even college courses in Jewish studies often only provide an academic reading of Jewish tradition. They fail to convey the wonder of authentic Jewish learning.

I come out of the religious school and college Jewish studies experience and can attest that I did not really learn to love Jewish learning until much later. I received a paltry Jewish religious school education, spitballs and all. In college I had great teachers in Jewish studies, but did not emerge from undergraduate school with a passion for the texts of Jewish lore. During those years I experienced the orthodox yeshivah which introduced me to traditional reading. However I found that the very orthodox Yeshivah world, while filled with passion, failed to deal satisfactorily with the hard questions and honest questions that I was seeking as a young reader of Judaism.

It was in rabbinical school that I really discovered the love of Jewish learning. Most people think of rabbinical school as a form of professional education, training young men and women to serve congregations. But I did not go to rabbinical school to become a congregational rabbi. I went in search of authentic and transforming Jewish learning and a fascination with the the infinite world of meaning of Jewish texts that I had tasted in tiny morsels my college years. In this respect I was grateful that I chose to go the Jewish Theological Seminary (even though I had not grown up in the Conservative Movement which this institution represented), because of all the movement seminaries it was the most serious institution about teaching students how to become a serious, engaged and open minded Jewish readers .

This love of reading and study of Torah has animated my life, both personally and as a rabbi throughout the years to this day. I always told myself during those years that even if I left the professional rabbinate, I was so lucky to be given a profound Jewish education which would be a source of inspiration throughout my life. It turned out that I went into the professional rabbinate , but I did so with a dedication to learning and teaching that has always stamped my public rabbinate.

One of the reasons I formed Panim Hadashot was to create a context where Jewish reading could be rediscoverd and practiced and that the rabbi would be prized first and foremost as a teacher and mentor in the wisdom of the texts as applied to life. Could there be a place in the Jewish community which was focused and dedicated to the restoration of the place of "Jewish wisdom through reading"? This is a tall order in a fast food, fast information, fast gratification culture.

In the piece that follows I will share a description of reading which I am trying to restore to a central place in our lives as human beings and as Jews.

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Sunday, August 21, 2005

More Musings on the Disengagement

Today I worked on texts concerning Teshuvah-repentance-in preparation for the Days of Awe. In a conversation with a colleague I had a flash that the disengagement was a sort of national teshuvah. Of course, the politicians would not articulate the disengagement in this way. But this astonishing act of withdrawal intentionally reversed a longstanding and misguided policy (in my opinion) and did so in as decent a way as possible. It can also be analogized to a dispute between two people, neither of whom can take the iniative to change the poisonous dynamic between them. To make teshuvah it takes at least one person to take different and unexpected action, to be a change agent. There is no guarantee that the other side will change, but the only way to change is when at least one takes action. Israel's action can be seen in this way. It was done at great political cost and has restored pragmatic Zionism to its proper place in Israeli statecraft.

To me the most touching picture was in the NY Times which showed soldiers cleaning up the synagogue in Neveh Dekalim. There were some soldiers kissing the ark. Others were putting away siddurim. One was sitting on the steps of the Bimah, either weeping or exhausted. It reminded me of cleaning up the shul after the holidays. I was deeply impressed by the restraint of the soldiers and policemen in the face of taunts and abuse. May this be a model to other nations on how to respond to dissidents.

The question that emerges for me after the disengagement is how do we cultivate a Jewish religious commitment and sensibility free from the temptation of messianism but not without passion for the deepest of Jewish religious ideals. There is a new organization in Israel called Maagelei Tzedek which is trying to turn the religious community back towards social justice and away from the idolization of the land. Israel has the biggest gap between rich and poor of any developed nation. This growing gap must be addressed as Israel overcomes its addiction to the settlements. The next few years will be very telling to the future of the 3rd Jewish commonwealth. Will it be able to continue to make the compromises and tenacity needed for the possibility of a peace with the Palestinians and will it address long neglected declines in social justice and education that truly endanger the viability of its future.

It is important for us not to waiver in our support of Israel, a support that is grounded on advancing a pragmatic agenda engaged in the best of Jewish values and ideals.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Musings on the Disengagment

Yesterday, I couldn't stop looking at the footage of the evacuation from Gaza. Everyone I talked to yesterday expressed intensely mixed feelings, a combination of disgust at the settlers behavior with deep discomfort of images of Jews being removed from synagogues. As I read the accounts of the settler's well planned psychological warfare applied to the soldiers and the policemen I grasped how they were resorting to Jewish guilt to undermine their evacuators. Most striking was the staged photo of settler children with their hands up wearing orange stars, harking back to the haunting photo of Nazi era Jewish children doing the same, unposed. These manipulative allusions to the holocaust aroused disgust in me as I am sure it provoked anger amongst most Israelis. Yet the images work since a part of us remains very uncomrtable with the image of Jews confronting other Jews.

During the day I thought about bizarre halachic dilemmas that must have arose in the confrontations at the synagogues. In one account I read that a group of protesters invited the soldiers to daven shahrit (the morning service) with them before they began the evacuation. Can an Jewish evacuator be counted in a minyan? It was Thursday so the Torah was read. Do you offer him an aliyah (being called to the Torah)? As I davened yesterday I thought about all the points in the morning service that must have emotionally tugged at the worshippers in those synagogues: Shomer Yisrael-Guardian of Israel-a prayer in the supplication section. Or the passage before the Shema, "Lo Nevosh Lolam Va'ed"-Let us never be humiliated for all time." When you pray in distress, every word seems to speak to you, even if it can distort reality. Loving the prayers as I do, I could relate to how these people were feeling even if I have no sympathy for their cause.

I mused also about how young the protesters were. As an educator I now wonder how to get teenagers into shul. Well now I know. Educate them into messianism and get into a big spat with the state. One of the very significant cultural crises that emerge from the disengagement is the greenhouse education system in Israel. There is a religious tract and a secular tract in Israel for educating the young. These systems seem to exacerbate, if not create the deep cultural divisions in Israel over religion and citizenship. This is one of the challenges that Israel will have to face in the coming years if it is to foster a common sense of citizenship and a respect for democracy, law, and compromise.

As ugly as the scenes were yesterday in one sense I thought this was Israel's finest hour. The guilt inducing use of the expression "A Jew does not expell a Jew." was intended to provoke and shame the soldiers. Yes, Jews have been expelled many time in our long history. But not by fellow Jews serving as agents of a democratic Jewish state. The restraint of the evacuators was admirable. Their calm in the face of derision and manipulation was impressive. The empathy of many soldiers for the authentic grief of the settlers was touching. The behavior of the soldiers and the policemen reveal a greater maturity about the use of state power in Israel, of being firm while not descending into cruelty. As Jews we know about cruel expulsions, about heartless dispossesions. But what we witnessed yesterday was not just the government, but the democratic majority enforcing a new boundary with dignity a national self restraint.

Sharon's speech to the nation included words of empathy for the Palestinians and their plight. It was little noticed but very significant coming from this old warrior. There is so much hatred in this land. The settlers so passionate about their loss, show no empathy for the Palestinians, no recognition of any legitimate claims they might have. Immersed in a messianic vision and a seething hatred many of the settlers became blind to the reality they presented to the Palestinian population that surrounded them. Sharon's political tzimtzum (a kabbalistic term meaning contraction) opens up a space for them to make something good. I have no illusions about Palestinian hatred of Jews, yet for there to be progress, the Jewish state and its people have to be prepared to contract with strength. Peace will not be won with love, it will be won with self-restraint. It will be achieved with an awareness that the land must be apportioned to let the other side begin to recover its dignity.